Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Happy Chistmas to all my fellow bloggers

Time has a strange ability to crawl and then suddenly rush past. This is particularly true during November where time crawls by as the days get colder and darker, when suddenly seemingly hours after the first of December it is Christmas. So here it is again almost upon us and everything is all of a rush again. I may not be doing much blogging in the next two weeks but I hope everyone who reads this has a happy Christmas. I will be back in the New Year .

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Christmas presents

Hidden away with care and love, the lovingly wrapped presents remain secret and in delightful anticipation waiting until Christmas day when they can be revealed. The anticipation of the joy and delight you experience when your child receives their gift has been denied to so many and instead become unendurable pain. They will never see their excitement, their happy faces, or hear their laughter ever again. Those presents chosen with such care will remain unopened by their children. Instead parents and partners, uncle and aunts, grandparents and cousins will be grieving for the twenty six they have just lost. My heart goes out to those poor people in Connecticut who have lost something so precious at such a time of year and as a result, Christmas will never be a time of cheer for them ever again.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Been there, seen it, got the T shirt.

The old rockers have been at it again. This time it was Jeff Wayne’s ‘New Generation’ War of the Worlds. The show is currently on at Wembley in the auditorium next door to the stadium and we decided to get there by coach. The coach service has a pickup quite close to our house and so we did not even need to get into town to start our trip. Our pickup point turned out to be the first one for this service and so after having a guided tour of our local town, visiting each of the several pickups, which took the best part of an hour, we headed off along the motorway to the next town, where a few more passengers were picked up. It was interesting to see that most of the other passengers were of a similar age to us. Those of you who may not know, the musical is based on the novel written by H G Wells around 1896, which was the very first invasion by aliens story to have reached a wide audience and has been very popular and continuously in print ever since, with at least two movies made, one quite good and the other more recent one worthy of the golden turkey award for truly terrible movies. Jeff Wayne’s original version of The War of the Worlds was released as a double LP in 1978 and was widely acclaimed and became a regular seller with a couple of spin off hit singles, ‘The Eve of the War’ and ‘Forever Autumn’ both getting high in the charts worldwide and both the LP and the singles were, and are still are, played regularly on air.
By the time we approached the M25, it was gone 6pm and the London rush plateau was in full swing. London has not had an easily identifiable rush hour, as such, for many decades, the congestion lasts most of the day rising around the start and falling off at the end of the working day. Arriving at the M25 junction, we were presented with the usual glare of massed red brake lights as the traffic slowed to a crawl whilst drivers joined and left the M4 for the M25 and vice versa. Nowadays, you have to pay congestion charges if you wish to enter central London and if you are driving a vehicle over a certain size, you either have to comply to the stated emission standards or pay an emissions charge of up to £200 a day.


Congestion charges are a lot cheaper and are applied to a much smaller area of central London. It is interesting that foreign embassy staff are not obliged to pay, owing to diplomatic immunity. However, whilst most embassies do pay the charges for their staff, Germany, Japan, Russia and the USA have never agreed and would now be due for a combined bill of tens of millions of GBP if they paid like everyone else.


The M4 motorway has signs telling you to where to exit, if you are not prepared to pay, before you enter each zone. We passed into the emissions zone and continued on to the North Circular road, which is well outside the congestion zone. We were now in an area of Greater London that was familiar ground to me, having lived and worked in this part of the world for several years and I had also lived not too far away as a child. My father had owned and run a small garage in a village in what many people would call a part of London, but which the residents thought of as quite separate. It was in Hertfordshire when I lived there and was quite rural, being in the green belt, which surrounds London and is now being looked upon with greedy eyes as ultra-prime development land in land-starved Greater London. That part of Hertfordshire has since been annexed by Greater London so now it is part of that urban area, however, to my mind and many of the residents of those parts of the world now incorporated into Greater London, London is still the bit in the middle where the East End and the West End are huddled around the City of London.
Whilst I was a small child, my father would often have to go out to buy specialist spares for his customers' cars when they had broken down. The kind of efficent mail service and big suppliers was not around then and since most of his customers' cars were of pre-war vintage, spares needed searching out and he travelled around the whole of that part of the world searching out the suppliers that still stocked the bits he needed. When not at school I would often accompany him so long before I worked in that area I was familiar with a large part of what is now North and West Greater London.

Wembley is outside London to my, and many other peoples', way of thinking and is also outside the congestion charge zone. Presumably our coach complied with the emissions standards and we slowly crawled into the solid traffic on Hanger Lane and progressed on to Western Avenue towards Wembley. At Hanger Lane (the district not the road, although we were still driving along the road of the same name.) there was a sign to Greenford, which caused a bit of nostalgia, since that was the district I last worked in before I moved to my present home town. I moved from there the same year that Jeff Wayne first released his War of the Worlds album, so there was a connection.

The show was brilliantly done, although apart from having a different cast, not a great deal was added by the new generation. Most of the instrumental bits were supported by a wide screen video above the stage and there was a big cast of actors and actresses who acted out the parts of the invaded Victorians on film, whilst the live singers were inset into the video. A rock ensemble and a full orchestra were on either side of the stage and the volume was wound way way up. Considering how many wrinklies like myself were in the audience, I felt this was unnecessary since our deaf aids work well and we did not need to be shouted at. In fact both myself and The Better Half (TBH) bring ear defenders to such events, which slip discreetly into the ears and make the sound levels bearable. Ironically if you want to buy this kind of industrial ear defender, you can get them at all good music shops that sell modern musical instruments. Roadies and other peripheral staff all use them at live concerts.

During the height of the battle for Earth, a Martian fighting machine arrived on stage
and fired its heat ray into the audience, with the help of some spotlights
 Like the double LP, the show broke off at the point where HG Wells’ Martians had conquered England (for some reason, they did not seem to have landed anywhere else, something that always puzzled me when I first read the story). In the interval, the queues for the loo (‘rest room’ in foreign English) were legendary and we decided it was not that urgent. After the interval the show resumed with the desolation of conquered landscapes using a lot of CGI of red weeds spreading across the land, followed by the scene with the Parson Nathaniel, played by Jason Donovan, wrestling with his inability to save his flock.

Jason Donovan as Nathaniel

The journalist who narrates the story was Liam Neeson and in my opinion not quite up to the original narrator Richard Burton. One of the side effects of having the sound levels so high was that the audience could be barely heard whenever they applauded the end of a scene and I am sure that the performers could not properly hear the response to their performance, which, unless they have some other way of telling how they were received, must have left them feeling a bit flat. The show ended in the same format as the original LP and we filed out quickly to find our coach in the pouring rain. The traffic had reduced a lot by then and only some roadworks held us up getting back round the North Circular and onto the Motorway. Having been the first to board the bus, we were now the last to be returned to our pickup point, having repeated the grand tour of our town in reverse order and it was gone one thirty by the time we got back home. All in all an enjoyable evening and we are now sitting quietly recovering from our lack of sleep and stiff backs resulting from the inevitable uncomfortable seating of a typical rock venue.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Two seasonal pictures and a picture quiz

 Here are some pictures I took recently.

This is the last stages of autumn in our garden

This is frost and sunlight on a Twisted hazel

This one you may guess, it is not moving and is a solid surface.  I am sure most will realise what it is, you usually get my pictures really easily.



Monday, 26 November 2012

The world according to Snafu - Forty and one

It has possibly come to everyone’s attention that Britain has been suffering from some unusual weather recently and since 2007, rainfall has become extremely variable, ranging from intense and unprecedented downpours to some months of drought. Since the spring of this year when a couple of dry winters had left the water suppliers in panic because they were beginning to run out, we have had intensely wet months of rain, leading to flooding all over different parts of the country. Houses, shops and businesses have been washed out and left wet and covered in stinking mud. I know from personal experience how long that smell remains after you have dried out the rest of the house. What interests me are the two figures that have come out of this, forty and one. When I was flooded out, forty years ago, the older residents all expressed huge surprise and declared to each other and the press that they had never seen the like in forty years.
Each time someone is interviewed in the recent floods, quite often, a similar declaration of surprise has been accompanied with the phrase ‘I have not seen the like in forty years!’ Obviously floods come at forty year intervals, I was flooded out forty years ago and so it seems have many others. Is this a coincidence I wonder, or real? If so, once this latest disaster has run its course, we should start thinking of a long term plan to cope with the one due in forty years from now.

The second number; ‘one’, is the reported severity of the rain. Each major flood is reported to have occurred because one month’s worth of rain has fallen in one day. Since the figure, ‘one month’s rain’ must be based on averages, and we have now heard that figure several times in the last few months, it means that the average rainfall in any given month, even if only for one day in the month when this figure is quoted, the rainfall for that month must have at least doubled. Because this phrase recently has occurred several times in one month, then the average monthly rainfall for this year must have tripled at least and maybe even quadrupled. This means that when reporters and weathermen tell us a month’s rain is about to fall, we should take to the hills or build an ark, or something, because that latest average figure must by now imply an absolutely Biblical amount of rain.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

The world according to Snafu - Larry Hagman

I was saddened to hear that the actor Larry Hagman has just died. My commiserations to his family. I remember him mostly from a TV series I watched on and off called ‘I Dream of Jeannie’, an entertaining light domestic fantasy about a man married to a female genie with magical abilities. All set in, as was then, (1960s) modern America. I understand from the constant media attention over the last thirty years, that he also starred in a soap called Dallas. The old adage about any industry is encapsulated in the old conundrum, ‘What does the Ford Motor Company make?’ Although everyone would usually answer cars, the real answer is money. It exists for no other reason and so to put this into perspective, you must never forget that the real purpose of soaps is to make money for the TV companies and they do a good job of getting lots of people to pay for many TV channels continued existence. Whilst I have nothing against soaps as such, I have never understood their appeal. Although I never watched the series, it was impossible to miss all the media interest that Dallas received but I feel somehow that soaps are a form of voyeurism, an artificial peep hole where the audience can follow these pretend people’s small doings in painful detail. If anyone followed their neighbour’s lives in such a manner from their rear window with binoculars, it really would be voyeurism. Like many media experiences, you can do things which would be unacceptable in real life via certain TV programmes and even more so in a computer game where you can steal and pillage at will in a way that would place you in jail for life in the real world. With soaps you can follow other people’s lives as if you were a fly on the wall but the big problem is when people become so fixated they find it hard to distinguish the fantasy lives from reality and start sending hate mail and proposals of marriage and even money to various characters in their favourite TV series. The one good thing that came out of the TV series ‘Dallas’, was that for residents of the city of Dallas, it took attention away from the assassination of JFK. Whereas previously, to the shame of the residents, visitors had always wanted to be taken to see the assassination site, after the success of the TV show, they wanted to visit the filming locations where the soap of the same name had been produced. This changed the public perception of Dallas from a city where a USA president had been killed, to a much more glamorous place. An interesting insight into the mind of the general population and the power of the news media.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Winter at the seaside.

Some time ago one of of the posts I follow mentioned living at the seaside in the winter in the UK, so having lived at a seaside resort many years ago, I offer you this.


All along the beach, following the winter storms a scattering of men scour the sands, heads down, intent and determined. There is treasure to be had in the sand, treasure left there by the summer hordes that occupied the beach in their tiny enclaves, territories marked out with their towels, deck chairs, blankets and wind breaks, territories to be defended against all comers. Striped canvas fortifications hammered into the soft sand with splintery wooden mallets that only saw use once a year. Those summer visitors who once came in their hordes, before foreign holidays became a sunny alternative to the vagaries of the British summer weather. They left their coins and watches, wallets and valuables behind them buried in the soft sand.

They also left behind boarded up hotels and closed amusement arcades, cleaner streets and less employment.
Those temporary residents who stayed for a day, week or maybe two at Mrs Furbelow’s Boarding House, had never seen the wild winter storms with waves that sent the pebbles off the beach through the windows of the hotels on the sea front and filled their neat front gardens with sand and plant destroying salt water, or had driven along the cliff top and had waves break over their car and run green over the windscreen.

They had never seen the strange silhouettes of the town’s plants in their winter coats. Nor were they there when the sea froze and small icebergs covered the beach, or when the victims of a capsizing washed ashore and blue and white ribbons surround parts of the beach, keeping the curious away from the grim work of recovering the sad remains. But we residents stayed on and we loved the empty beaches and the freedom of quiet streets and lonely dog walks in the winter rain as we waited for the next, oh so short, season to start again, so that we could earn enough money to see us through the next winter. And so as the days lengthened and the putrefying dead seal is finally washed off the beach, the town fills with shivering pensioners as the pre-season O A P’s fortnight begins.


The cash strapped hotels are doing their bit to cull the aging population through hyperthermia, with their cut price week at the seaside, when the heating is turned off without fail on the last day of May. And so the town slowly begins to stir ready for the hordes to come again and feed their pennies into the slot machines and pay for their half board, ‘please take your sandy shoes off at the door.’ holidays.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Summer is long gone but just a reminder…



My post ‘August’ was about some of our days out last summer and this much delayed post is a continuation of that.

For the next day out, we went into London and took The Granddaughter to the Science Museum.
I had not been there since my two boys were children and there have been a number of changes, but it was still mostly as I recall. There are still a lot of interactive displays some of which, as one has come to expect, do not work, but a lot more were a bit more child proof and so did work OK.   One of the newest changes is the Weblab.  Here a number of interactive machines are physically present that you can use, but which can also be accessed through the Internet. 

You need a Weblab tag to get access to the system and it stores your results for future reference.  Once you get home you can show your Weblab tag to a web cam and sign on again, then you can carry on where you left off, or interact with other of the various machines in the Weblab.
You can get machines to draw faces, play music, watch various live sites through 180 degree web cams and so on, or participate in worldwide experiments with this facility.

This machine takes a picture of your face and draws it in sand

A sand picture  from a photo
 I was able to carry out a few of these interactive experiences, but in the end spent most of the time chatting with one of the staff.  This produced a certain kind of conversation that I have often experienced before.
For many people who have a fairly deep understanding in a technical or specialist field, conversations with other specialists starts off with the assumption that the other may not know as much as you.  This is not egotism but common sense.  For instance very few people understand brain surgery, so a brain surgeon talking to someone he does not know, is not going to launch into in depth clinical talk about brain cells unless he is an pretentious idiot, in which case he is unlikely to be a brain surgeon in the first place.
For those of us who have a reasonable depth of knowledge in a particular field, when conversing with someone that you do not know, the conversation starts off with ‘specialist to customer’ level of talk and slowly goes deeper and deeper as each party starts to recognise what the other really knows.  In my conversation as we chatted we each recognised a fellow geek and got deeper and deeper into pure geek until people nearby were seen to scurry away holding their ears.
We were both happy talking about computer systems and the Internet whilst the family were interacting with the Weblab.  During the course of the conversation, I was gratified to find that he had come to the same conclusion that I had come to a few years ago.   Students and computer specialists, even undergraduates, do not understand software as well as people did about twenty years ago.
This may seem at odds to what is happening in our rapidly developing world, because things are becoming smarter and smarter, but we both agreed that as technology improves and becomes easier to use, so ignorance about what is going on under the hood, so to speak, is also growing.
We had both experienced the drop in comprehension of the basics of computer programming in new recruits to the industry over the last few years and we agreed it was almost certainly because no one had home computers any more.  People now have PCs, Macs, or iPads.  You do not learn programming from these because they come ready loaded with easy to use software and so you simply learn which buttons to press.
When people had the old Sinclair Spectrums, Commodores, BBC computers and other brands of home computer available throughout the 1980s and 1990s, they had to learn how to program them before they could do anything with them.  They mostly ran a program called BASIC, a kind of programming language that was actually developed to train programmers.  Very little software was off the shelf and enthusiast magazines printed program listings which you had to type in by hand. Because of this many kids were motivated to write their own programs and many of them, including my own, laboriously taught themselves how to write games software and other programs.  As a result, school kids and young adults had learned the fundamental principles of programming long before they attended college.
Now most kids know how to play Angry Birds, socialise on line and fire off email, but writing any kind of  program, let alone a games program is the preserve of the very few.   We are obviously not alone in thinking this, because recently a new device has been released onto the market, the Raspberry Pi.  A small home computer which is intended to be programmed by the user and does not come with pre-loaded programmes, other than the utilities which allow it to be connected up and run.  It is aimed at schools and is hoped to help instil some of the kind of knowledge the previous generation had gained from their old home computers. 

After the Web lab, the family went into a demonstration and then moved on to more interactive displays.  I was not too interested in them, so I wandered into the flight section and gawped at all the ancient aircraft collected there.  I have always been interested in flying and I spent a lot of my formative years building flying models from balsa wood.  I have taken lessons on occasions so have actually flown myself in a small way, but never got around to acquiring a licence because to keep it up you have to clock up a minimum number of flight hours or it lapses.  In the years we were raising a family, I could barely afford to run a car let alone fly an aircraft, so I never got my licence.  
When I was at the peak of my model building days, I built some scale models of some of the very early designs to see how they flew.  Not all of them did fly I am sad to say, probably my fault, but vintage stuff took my interest for some time.  So anything connected with flight, particularly early flight grabs my interest and there they were, all of the ones I had made, large as life before my very eyes. 

Eventually after a long look at all the exhibits I was able to drag myself away and re-joined the family, who had all been interacting all this time and once back together we returned to the Underground to start our journey home. 
One of the features of the London Underground is that in order to get between stations and other places, you do an awful lot of walking and this tunnel connecting the Underground station and the museum is a fairly good example of this.

A couple of days later we went on a completely different trip, this time to the stately home of Tyntesfield in Somerset, just south of Bristol.

This is not an ancient building but it is quite imposing, with its own chapel standing alongside. Once owned by the Gibbs family, who made their fortune from guano, originally a Regency house stood on the site, but William Gibbs rebuilt it in the 1860s in the rather extravagant Gothic Revival style.  Bought by the National Trust in 2002, it is now open to the public. 
Tyntesfield House
The chapel
The grounds are quite extensive and the Trust provides a bus service to take people around the site.  Since one of our family cannot walk any distance, this service proved very useful. 

One of the busses on its rounds


We had one of the very few nice days of summer and were able to explore the grounds and visit the interior.   It has a lot of flower gardens which were literally buzzing with all kinds of bees busy making sure their hives had enough honey for the coming winter.



It was much hotter that day than the weather forecast had predicted and the little ice cream booth ran out of stock around three in the afternoon and we were lucky to get a much needed ice cream, finishing off the entire stock.  The lady selling ices, although apologetic to her disappointed customers, was quite pleased, she told me, because her family had said it would be a waste of time going at all that day and had recommended she took even less stock than she had.
After ices, we wended our way back to the car park and so returned back home.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

First Frost of the Autumn


This was the view from our bedroom window first thing today.  It is the roof of my car, which had been left outside overnight.  Jack frost has been busy painting his patterns.
Soon be winter.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

August


August seems such a long time ago now and the weather here is becoming autumnal with a vengeance.
Carrying on from my Ironbridge post, once home from Ironbridge, we all stayed at our house and planned what places we would like to visit, using our house as a base, during the rest of the fortnight’s holiday.   There are a number of interesting places around here which are close enough to make them an easy afternoon trip.
Our first trip we decided upon was to Lacock one of the more frequently filmed places in the south west.  It has been used for many BBC period dramas, including Cranfield, Pride and Prejudice and even three of the Harry Potter movies used locations here.  Slughorn’s cottage is on the outskirts of the town, the pub, the Sign of the Angel is part of the backdrop in certain scenes and various interiors and the cloisters in Lacock Abbey were used for Hogwarts school.   Several other movies and TV series have used the place because it is still very olde worlde. 
Thes street was used in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
Lacock with cars
Two of our party were intent on going fishing, so after lunch, The Son-in-Law (TSL) and The Granddaughter (TG) went down to the nearby river Avon and spent some time catching the occasional fish, The Better Half (TBH), myself and The Daughter (TD) wandered around the town and then visited the Abbey.  
Another view of Lacock
Although the houses are ancient varying in date from Tudor to Edwardian, the town is not quite as olde worlde as one is led to expect, since the streets are full of parked cars but with a bit of imagination you can see what it would look like without them and so see why filmmakers would want to use it for period dramas. 
In a side street, we cama cross this odd looking car.  Looks as if it should belong to Boris Johnson judging by the number plate
Lacock Abbey was founded as a monastery around 800 years ago but was dissolved by Henry the eighth and sold to a private owner around 1539.  Later it became the home of the Talbot family.  It was donated to the National Trust by the Talbot family in 1944 and contains the Fox-Talbot museum.   Fox Talbot was one of the early pioneers of photography in this country and the earliest known surviving photographic negative is held in the museum.  For people like me who are gadget freaks, the museum has a really fine collection of cameras and early scientific devices that Fox Talbot used in his wide ranging research.  I would much rather view a fine old camera or 200 year old static generator than a set of genuine Queen Anne chairs and a library full of books no one is allowed to touch.

Entrance to the Abbey grounds
 The building has the usual kind of Stately Home interiors, filled with various kinds of antique furniture and with paintings of the family members around the interior.  As you pass through, you see each room decorated in the various styles that the family had put in over the years.
Outside view of the building
On re-joining the fisher folk, we were told with great pride that TG had managed to catch her first fish all by herself.  Not being a fan of the sport I may have been less enthusiastic about this news than her parents.
Much of this stone angel was buiried in brickwork until recently

One of a set of recovered gargoyles

A nice warm patch for an afternoon snooze
Anyway, we had all had a good day out each in our own way and the weather had been kind, staying sunny and warm. We had, for the first time this summer, been able to eat al fresco at the local café, actually avoiding the hot sun since it was strong enough to need to seek shade.


Warm enough to eat al fresco in the local cafe grounds



 Slimbridge


The following day we met up with TD’s aunt M who still lives in Gloucestershire where TBH’s family grew up and so our next trip out was to The WWT.  Not World War Three, but The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge (follow the link to see a live webcam).  Slimbridge WWT was  founded by the well known conservationist and TV presenter Peter Scott and is quite close to where TBH and TD lived when TD was a child. 

Slimbridge headquarters and viewing tower

I'm only a bird in a guilded cage

Ready!

Going...

Going...

Gone!

Tame enough to feed by hand
The birds here are not all captive as in a zoo, but many arrive seasonally to nest and breed according to their species all throughout the year.  The area is maintained as a natural habitat for many kinds of waterfowl and the conditions are carefully maintained to encourage as many different species as possible.  For bird watchers it is a haven with sightings of rare birds happening often enough to attract enthusiasts from all over.
For ordinary folk, there are walkways and foot paths which wind through the various compounds where non-native birds are kept.
In one part of the grounds we encountered some White Faced Whistling ducks.  One of those names that is so obvious you wonder why everything is not named so simply, although if you want to get technical its scientific name is  Dendrocygna viduata.  These birds make the most piercing whistle instead of the more common quack one usually associates with ducks.   There were plenty of other kinds of ducks that went quack, but later we encountered some Brown Faced Whistling Ducks too. A relative of the white faced ones and just to make a change, there is a black bellied variety, which we did not encounter, possibly because we were looking at their faces and not their bellies. 

Whistling fit to bust
I recorded some of the sounds they made but have not included them, you can find whistling ducks on You Tube if you are really interested.
One of the attractions there is a colony of otters which are fed twice daily by their keepers and the public are invited to watch.  They are not native British otters but a larger variety of North American river otters which had been rescued when their habitat was destroyed and brought to Slimbridge for preservation purposes.
They know what time it is and are ready for their food


I bet you can't guess what she has just seen. Correct, a bucket of fish arriving
Around the main area of the Trust are paths that lead off to distant viewing hides where the true bird spotters can glimpse rare species, if they are prepared to slog through some less well paved areas.  Because one of our party requires a wheelchair if we are walking for long periods, we stuck to the paved paths and there is a lot of the site you can explore this way.

Once more, the day was hot enough to seek shade and after spending the afternoon wandering around this part of the Trust, we went for a meal.  Nearby is the Tudor Arms, which has a restaurant that is highly recommended and so we ate there.  It has some really interesting sweet courses on the menu, which soon after our main courses somehow materialised on our table.    

Just one of the sweets on offer
The Tudor Arms is close to the canal and the water was so still the nearby buildings produced some great reflections.
 
Boats on the canal

Time to go home.       
 The River Severn in the distance with the hills of Wales behind.