Farewell then, Tony the bus

10 March 2011

Cuts hit hardest in rural areas. It’s not just the services that we’ll miss. It’s the people too.

Yesterday was one of my now infrequent journeys back on the village bus. The bus timetable is fine for college kids, but not for the 37-hour week so my journeys are increasing irregular.

I boarded and greeted Tony, our long serving driver. Come rain, shine, school holiday, Tony drives the bus. (He does get time off, but you get the picture.)

Everyone knows Tony. All the old dears, who rely on the bus for shopping trips to Morrisons in Bideford or an excursion to Barnstaple, know Tony. The college kids get to know Tony. They even have his mobile phone number so they can check if the bus will be running when the snows or ice come.

I know Tony. He knew who I was within days of me using the bus even though I never introduced myself.

Tony and his ilk keep rural Britain running, brightening up someone’s day or not if you’re a driver trying to sneak pass him on a narrow country lane.

Yesterday, Tony told me that it was his last day driving the bus: “you’ll need to break in a new driver tomorrow.”

As previously reported here, our bus faces a drastic pruning. In true cuts fashion, the original stark scenario has been altered. But, still the cuts come and will likely get worse later in the year when the route comes up for tender.

We’re losing the peak time service in school holidays and possibly both daily services over the summer.

The altered hours make Tony’s position untenable. He’s moving to a different route, one less vulnerable than ours.

He’ll no longer get goodie bags from dear Audrey – pasties and bread pudding. No more village gossip. No more sneaky detours on a Friday afternoon. No more free rides when he can’t be bothered to reboot his fare machine.

So long, Tony.


Allotment: year 4 start

1 March 2011


Apropos of nothing, whilst pottering about this morning I noticed that Starlings had covered virtually every spot of telegraph wire visible.

birds on telephone lines

Teh Birds

I carried on in the knowledge that I was not in an Alfred Hitchcock film.

Year 4 start

(When did we move from describing days, weeks, years etc as cardinal instead of ordinal?)

March: planting season is nearly upon us. I’ve got seeds in the fridge and today was the start of preparation work.

The potato bed at the far end of the plot is currently under carpet, in a forlorn attempt to control weeds. Brambles, nettles and grass have a good hold down there.

First task (or task one), was to clear the brambles. I completed that successfully without getting any thorns embedded in my already ravaged hands. Sorry to say that the (organic) bramble killer needs to be brought out tomorrow to get at the roots. Otherwise, it will be a prickly potato bed.

I’m still undecided about the top end of the plot. Again, I’ve got weed control in force. At this stage, it’s a toss up between broccoli, sprouts or summer flowers. All will depend on how much soil preparation I can finish over the next six weeks or so. And that, dear reader, depends as much on the weather and how my aching limbs recover.

Aches or not, it was good day of fresh air and hard work. Great to feel the endorphins kick in.

Today’s hand injury

28 February 2011
hand injury

Hand injury

Suffering from “trigger finger” in my right middle finger, I have to have a steroid injection every 6 months or so.

It’s either that or have my hand opened up for surgery to the tendon sheath.


Latest injection today and it is the largest needle you have ever seen.

But, I like and trust my doctor. And, we had a conversation about the future of the NHS. Let’s say, he’s pessimistic on that; but, optimistic about my finger.

If we can land a man on the moon…

27 February 2011

…we should be able to invent a plaster (Band-Aid) that fits neatly over the end of a finger.

Let’s face it: you’re most likely going to need a plaster when you cut the tip of your finger. In my case, I was a little careless sharpening a kitchen knife.


Wound technology: #fail

Just look at that pathetic little plaster. It’s not covering the cut very well. Though I am a great believer in getting air to a wound. When you’re making curry on a Sunday night, you don’t really want spices getting into an open wound.

Nope. Plasters are useless for one of the most common cuts. Get those NASA boffins on to the job. Heck, if they can invent Tang, they can invent a decent plaster.

Shiny – part 2

24 February 2011

A short personal history and view of technology: slide rules to scientific calculators

charade #36 answer

Slide rule - the tool that conquered space

If you’re old enough to remember the 1966 World Cup, then you would probably have been taught how to use a slide rule.

Before the advent of affordable electronic calculators, students were expected to use slide rules for so-called scientific functions – geometric and trigonometric calculations. There were also printed tables available for these functions – sine, cosine, tangents etc. But, slide rules were considered an essential tool.

There is a brilliant scene in the film Apollo 13 when the NASA scientists and engineers are told that the stricken spacecraft is heading back to earth at the wrong angle. They have to calculate the thruster burns required to adjust the craft’s trajectory, making sure that it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere at the correct angle so it didn’t bounce off into outer space or hit it to face on and burn up. Having heard the problem, they all pull out their slide rules and start calculating: matching numbers on one of the scales on the stationery rule, lining that up to a number on one of the scales on the sliding rule that fitted into grooves between the non-moveable rule, then using the plastic slider to read the answer on another scale. Or something like that…

That was the reality in 1970.

My brother, four years ahead at school, was a dab hand with the slide rule and used it all the way into university. I followed suit, but by my late teens calculators with higher functions were coming on the market.

At the time, Texas Instruments was the world leader in calculators producing neat hand held devices with black, grey and yellow buttons. TI may not have been the first to incorporate scientific functions – I think Hewlett Packard may have been – but TI quickly became recognised as the best. And, I seem to recall you paid a lot of money for one of their higher end machines – $400 or more. They also began to produce calculators that performed logic and statistical functions.


Hewlett Packard HP-35 - one of the early scientific calculators: miles better than mine

Of course, when it came time for my dad to shell out for a calculator to help me at university, he opted to buy a cheaper, inferior model – Sharp, I think. It had nowhere near half the functions of a TI, even though I probably wouldn’t even understand how to use the TI now. It came in a vile brown vinyl case. Where TI equalled modernity, my Sharp looked like a Ford Edsel, outdated before it hit the market. Good old dad, trying to meet my craving by choosing what he thought was best and falling a bit short.

A few years earlier in 1975, I had spent $150 of money hard earned gardening for a neighbour in 95 degrees and 95% humidity on a Commodore desktop calculator. It was probably about the size on an iPad. Not only could it do addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, but it had a memory function too!

It was a ridiculous purchase for a 17 year old. I should have spent it at Korvettes or Sam Goody on a dozen or so LPs.

So be it. Now I had the tool to calculate baseball batting averages to my heart’s content. I could even spell out “ShELLOIL”.

Not for the last time, I had overpaid for technology.

Photos from Flickr: charade #36 answer by Andrew Fogg; HP-35 by Daniel Sancho, both used under Creative Commons licences.

Shiny – part 1

23 February 2011

A short personal history and view of technology: the analogue years

Adding machine

Adding machine

Disposable technology: it’s taken for granted. An ad for an iPhone4 last night prompted my wife to say, “wasn’t it all iPhone3’s recently?”

Most of us, I guess, will buy at least one gadget this year, probably two or three. And, we’ll probably dispose of a couple too.

That’s wrong, on so many levels.

I am not, let’s be clear, a Luddite. I embrace technology. I’ve always craved gadgets and marvelled at the progress that’s been made in electronics in my lifetime.

In 1975, I bought a state-of-the-art Commodore desk calculator (pocket calculators were still just around the corner) for $150 (about £100 at the time). My crappy Nokia second generation phone probably has more processing power than the Apollo 11 command module and lander put together.

The advances are mind-blowing. But, equally, the consumerisation of technology has its downsides.

I’ll save the polemic for another post. For now, here’s a short personal history of my gadgets and cravings. I’m sticking to what could loosely be called input-output devices. That ignores TVs, but includes audio recording/playback machines.

Growing up in the 60s, my life pre-dates the digital era. It was all analogue as I ran around in short trousers, grazing my knees, worshipping Jimmy Greaves and Peter Parfitt.

One of my many fascinations was sports statistics and records. Until a clearout in a recent downsizing, I had a large collection of old sports annuals which I used to pour over with a passion. Numbers: 200,000 spectators at the 1950 World Cup “final”; Dixie Dean’s 60 goal season; Bradman’s 99.94 test average.

I loved the numbers and as soon as I could do multiplication and long division I was hooked on calculating cricket averages. This extended to baseball stats when, aged 8, my family across the pond.

But before that great move, we spent a week in Cornwall tagging on to one of my dad’s business trips. His company built electronic measuring instruments. The trip to Cornwall was in part to test the devices underground in disused tin mines.

One of his advisers was a mathematics professor from Imperial College, London. The professor brought with him a mechanical calculator, something which, obviously, none of us had ever seen as these beasts were usually confined to banks, insurance companies or universities. It was about the size of a typewriter and – boyhood exaggeration – weighed a tonne.

To be honest, I can’t remember exactly how it worked. I think you pushed keys like you would on a cash register – selecting digits, tens, hundreds, thousands etc from different columns. There were also buttons to press for the different mathematical functions. It probably looked a bit like this.

Anyway, I do remember that, at the tender age of 6, I was in love with this machine though I had no idea what it was used for. Nevertheless, I was allowed a couple of goes by the kind professor. Whilst operating it unsupervised, I also successfully jammed the machine. That put an end to my association with the mechanical calculator.

Magic - Brain Calculator (as opposed to your normal brain calculator)

Magic - Brain calculator c. 1969: hours of fun

A few years later and several thousand miles away, I obtained a “Magic Brain” calculator from our local 5-and10 cent store. This was an ingenuous and cheap device that made addition and subtraction a snip.

Using the metal stylus you selected the numbers, pulling down the plastic notched strips: again tens, hundreds etc separately. Repeating the operation for each additional number gave you the sum in the display at the top.

Carrying over involved a little extra work. Adding five to six, the stylus would be prevented from reaching the bottom of the column. So, instead pulled the strip up, then rotated the stylus over to add one to the next column.

It worked in the opposite for subtraction. Multiplication required adding the same number a certain number of times, so time consuming. You could achieve division in the opposite manner, but it couldn’t handle leftovers.

This little machine gave me hours of enjoyment, but it was useless to help calculate Ron Swoboda‘s batting average. I would have to wait for circuit boards and LEDs to achieve that, or get better with long division in my head.

Mathematical prowess aside, I was also developing into a literary genius thanks to my John Bull printing set.

The three of us kids had great fun producing our own family newspapers with the hard Indian rubber letters which you typeset into plastic holders. The ink pad – a cheap bit of sponge – always went dry and most of the ink wound up on my fingers anyway.

Printed programmes always made those big Subbeteo matches special.

My sister was the first to get a proper grown up typewriter. Not fair! I craved one even more than I’d craved the John Bull set.

I had to wait until I was in university before I got my hands on a typewriter though I don’t remember typing many assignments on it. It got used almost exclusively typing job application letters and CVs. Yes, I typed every single CV individually by hand. Any mistake and the CV went in the bin.

We found that typewriter in my parent’s loft during the clear out when we had to sell their house about 6 or 7 years ago. It still worked a treat and I’m sure it found a good home through a charity shop.

For my first few years of working in the civil service, manual typewriters ruled. A lot of my internal correspondence was still hand written though as strictly speaking we weren’t allowed a typewriter in our office. Everything had to go to a large typing pool. Towards the end of the manual era, much of our typing work was done by redundant coal miners in Durham.

By then, the late 80s, most secretaries (not yet called PAs) had electronic typewriters. Soon we’d have the first word processors. But, that’s a different post.

Photos from Flickr: adding machine by bcostin; Magic Brain calculator by get directly down. Both use under Creative Commons licenses.

Labelled: Mogwai, Bristol, 19 January 2011 review

21 February 2011

Mogwai - "Killing All the Flies"

Arbitrary labels rarely do justice to music or artists. Take Mogwai, who I saw in Bristol Saturday night.

Going for nearly 15 years, seven studio albums and a sheaf of singles, EPs and movie scores, Mogwai’s mostly instrumental music usually gets shoved in the “post rock” pigeon hole.

What on earth is post rock? At first, the term, believed to have been coined by music journalist Simon Reynolds, described rock music that didn’t conform to normal song structures, used non-standard instrumental ensembles and eschewed lyrics.

Whilst that could apply to Mogwai’s offerings, post rock hardly describes a musical style or movement.

As much as anything, the post rock term came to represent a musical ghetto, insult even. As far back as 1999 I recall Tortoise, the quintessential post rock super group, being derided as bringing back prog rock.

Mogwai themselves were usually associated with the phrase soft-loud formula to describe their songs.

Mogwai - "Helicon 1"

Mogwai - "Helicon 1"

Whilst true that the group focussed heavily on noise, especially in their earlier work, on being very quiet and very noisy in the same song (see “Helicon 1”, “Mogwai Fear Satan”, “Xmas Steps”), this was more than a formula.

Mogwai have always been interested in the dynamics of sound, but there’s more to it than that. Through those seven albums they’ve explored song structures, instrumentation, arrangements, vocals (in Welsh and with vocoders!), beats, lyricism and, in those quiet sections, subtlety you’ll rarely hear from a rock/pop band. (See, for example, the excellent “Punk Rock”, a gentle ballad set against a monologue from Iggy “Swiftcover” Pop.)

Far from a collection of soft-loud sonic bombs, their latest album “Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will” is a mixed collection, including straight up proper rock tunes.

Mogwai have endured and outlasted the post rock era, if ever there was one. Their music has inspired a small number of bands ploughing the instrumental rock avenue though I’d like to think they’ve also inspired indie bands (another terrible label) that sing, such as the Twilight Sad, Saturday’s support act.

Mogwai have been part of a very productive Scottish scene since the mid-90s and as owners of a record label and general cheerleaders have helped others get the hearing they’ve deserved.

I like to think of Mogwai’s influences (admitted or otherwise):

  • heavy metal without the motorcycle leathers, bad hair, misogyny, occult references
  • punk without the self-destruction
  • prog rock without noodling, solos, bad hair, new age nonsense, impenetrable lyrics
  • a healthy disregard for Brit pop, except its tunefulness
  • the humour (where it exists) and self-regard of rap

Add to that, they have a dry, sometime sideways Glaswegian humour as reflected in song and album titles – “George Square Thatcher Death Party” from the latest album and first studio effort “Mogwai Young Team”, named after ubiquitous Glaswegian gang inspired graffiti: that is, [insert gang name] Young Team.

So what about Saturday? This was, I think, my seventh Mogwai gig, the first since the superb 2006 Royal Albert Hall concert. My first was back at the old Black Cat club in Washington DC in 1999.

The one great thing about live music is that you get a different dynamic every night. This was not one of the best nights for that. I’m not sure exactly why, but a very drunk and loud audience didn’t help.

Mogwai have never had huge stage presence. There’s no big egos on show. Guitarist Stuart Braithwaite is the undoubted leader, but I always get the impression that this is a bunch of friends who have common musical interests and more or less get on very well.

The music will usually do the talking and on some numbers – the opening “White Noise” for example – that worked, but sometimes that lack of stage presence detracts. And, that was the case on Saturday.

I enjoy the new album. There’s plenty of quality songs, even if it’s not classic post rock. ;-)