Thursday, 31 March 2011

Nightmare Alley (2)

And indeed I woke up the next morning with a vivid memory of another dream I'd just dreamt. (If you missed the previous "episodes" scroll down to the previous post):

I'm in a mine beneath the streets of London. There are others with me. In a recess in the floor there is a stop-cock of some kind. We try different spanners and various other tools but we are unable to turn it one way or the other. We give up and decide to leave. We agree to make our way North, to a location about half a mile away. Some time later I realize I'm alone and walking in the wrong direction. To make up lost time I decide to hail a cab. At first I think the cabman has seen me and is going to stop for me: but he doesn't. He's already carrying a fare. Fortunately, he stops to drop his fare off not far away and I run to catch him. He agrees to take me to my destination but produces a long form that needs to be filled in before he can do so...

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Nightmare Alley

John Henry Fuseli: The Nightmare
I've been having strange nightmares the last couple of nights. I've no idea why: if it's something I've eaten, I've no idea what it could be. I've not been particularly worried about anything, either. On both nights I woke up in a state of fascinated terror. It's not very often that I remember a dream and these are so strange and dreadful I couldn't resist writing them down and sharing them. Well, I say dreadful, but in dreams sometimes things seem to happen to the dreamer with an emotional intensity not usually associated with the events he or she is dreaming about. They certainly had a Gothic feel to them.

This is the dream I dreamt the night before last:

I was walking across a field towards a low, modern building. I was worried: worried that if I went in I might meet the Cardinal. When I arrived at the building, I opened the door and went in. The Cardinal was indeed there. I wanted to make my way across the room to the door in the opposite wall, only the Cardinal, in the nicest possible way, was blocking my way. He was a tall, thin man: seven feet tall, they said. I was surprised to see that his cape was not red but a creamy white. My eyes could not help but be drawn to its sickening colour, which filled me with dread. In the nicest possible way, I moved to one side, to walk past him. He moved in front of me again. I knew what he wanted. Under his cape he wore a many-facetted precious stone, on a chain. He wanted to draw back his cape and show me the stone. I knew that if I looked upon it I would fall under his spell. It had happened before and I was determined that it should not happen again. I made for the door. Again, he blocked my way...

And last night:

I was living in a city. It was a dark, winter evening. I set out to visit a friend who lived not far away. The friend was a publican. He lived and worked in a large, drab, brick-built public house. When I arrived, he greeted me and showed me upstairs to his private room. A little later I left to go home. I had not gone far when I was set upon by an Alsatian dog. It attempted to bite me: I felt its teeth on my hand. There was a man with the dog, standing a short distance off. I couldn't see him clearly. I turned and ran back to the pub, pursued by the dog and and its owner. When I entered the bar my friend, seeing what a state I was in, immediately stood back and let me through. As I ran up the stairs I could hear a commotion below: the dog was barking and the man was remonstrating with the publican.

Oh well, I wonder what's in store tonight? If there's a third exciting episode to this surreal soap I'll blog it.

Monday, 21 March 2011

A Visit to Lichfield

Photo: Roger Robinson. Released under GNU Free Documentation License
Went to Leicester on Saturday, to see my son, Daniel. We went off together to Lichfield for the afternoon: he'd never been there, but I'd spent most of my childhood there and I thought it would be good to go see where my parents used to live and where I used to go to school. If your family always live in one place you take this kind of knowledge for granted: if you are a fisherman and your father was a fisherman and you sailed from the same quay that your grandfather used to sail from you know -and probably take for granted- a lot about who you are and where you come from. If you live in a typical modern family where people have moved about a lot, all you know about your parents (and their parents) is what you see, then and there, as you grow up.

I went to the Cathedral School in Lichfield: a prep school attached to the Cathedral and which supplied the choir to the Cathedral, although I was never a member of it. It was a very musical school, though, and it was there I started to learn the double bass. Lichfield and its Cathedral left a deep impression on me. It's difficult to be accurate, because the mind plays all sorts of tricks, but I think it's fair to say Lichfield played a major part in shaping me into the person I am.

We parked round the corner from the Cathedral, at the end of the grandly named Prince Rupert's Way, a short street in a housing estate. The name alludes the major role played by Lichfield in the Civil War. We walked from there to the Cathedral Close, much of the way following the route I used to take walking to and from school. Apart from the personal associations, I was really keen to show Daniel the Cathedral. Whatever view one takes of religion, one has to accept that buildings like this are massively important parts of our cultural history.  For example, when you walk up to the West Door (that is, the "front door") you are immediately struck by the massive West face of the building - if I'm describing it like a mountain, then that is not wholly inappropriate. To stand at the foot of it is like standing at the foot of a cliff. (It occurred to me, as Daniel and I stood there, that part of my later love of mountains and rock climbing may well have its roots in the years I spent under the shadow of this massive, man-made rock-wall). Looking up at it, you're left in no doubt about the political role of the Church during the last milennium. The wall is covered in statues. All along the foot of the wall, standing on pedestals, are statues of the Apostles. A little higher, over the doors, kings of England sit on thrones. Above them stand row upon row of Old Testament prophets. Above them, at the apex of the wall, stands Christ. I spotted one woman in the wall - The Virgin Mary, over the main door (thinking about it, she may have appeared more than once). The effect is that, more or less, of a stone flow chart of the order of things as one was expected to accept it. Just round the corner stands a statue of Charles II, who contributed much to repairing the damage done to the place during the Civil War. During that war, since Lichfield lacked fortifications, the Royalists defended the Cathedral and its walled Close. The Parliamentarians  laid siege, and it was from the spire of the Cathedral that a Royalist sniper, "Dumb Dyott", shot the leading Parliamentarian, Lord Brooke. Life can be symbolic.

Anyway, we had a good look round, both inside and outside. As I don't have a video camera (and even if I had one I'd rather walk around looking than walk around filming) I had a look around Youtube later, too, to see if there was any good amateur footage of the place. I came across this amateur film: I was impressed by the choices the film-maker had made when it came to what to show us. If I'd had a video, I would have shot more or less the same things, although I would have included the tea shop opposite the South Door!



Having spent some time at the Cathedral, we went off into Lichfield itself. I lived there for years, but I don't ever remember going into Samuel Johnson's birthplace: it's now a museum devoted to Johnson. I also realised I'd never read anything he'd written, an omission I've since put right. Born in 1709, he wrote in an era few book-readers rave about. He's most famous -and known to all Blackadder fans- for writing his Dictionary of the English Language:



The most fascinating exhibit to anyone new to Johnson is found in the attic: a first edition of the dictionary itself. There is also a more modern edition you can browse through. Daniel -a QI fan- told me that Johnson had come up with 26 definitions of the word "set", and there they all were, pages of them. You can read it for yourself online, here. This site will even read the book to you if you ask it, in a Stephen Hawking-like electronic voice. However, no-one told it that in those days people printed "f" instead of "s", fo it ftrugglef with the old profe and I muft fay it  foundf a bit filly.

One of the great things about poetry is that most poems take less time to read than most works of prose so, if like me you're unfamiliar with what Samuel Johnson wrote, here's a quick one:

A Short Song of Congratulation

by Samuel Johnson

Long-expected one and twenty
Ling'ring year at last has flown,
Pomp and pleasure, pride and plenty
Great Sir John, are all your own.

Loosen'd from the minor's tether,
Free to mortgage or to sell,
Wild as wind, and light as feather
Bid the slaves of thrift farewell.

Call the Bettys, Kates, and Jenneys
Ev'ry name that laughs at care,
Lavish of your Grandsire's guineas,
Show the spirit of an heir.

All that prey on vice and folly
Joy to see their quarry fly,
Here the gamester light and jolly
There the lender grave and sly.

Wealth, Sir John, was made to wander,
Let it wander as it will;
See the jocky, see the pander,
Bid them come, and take their fill.

When the bonny blade carouses,
Pockets full, and spirits high,
What are acres? What are houses?
Only dirt, or wet or dry.

If the Guardian or the Mother
Tell the woes of willful waste,
Scorn their counsel and their pother,
You can hang or drown at last.

If you watched the video of the Cathedral, you'll have seen the pool: Stowe Pool. We walked back past it, back up to the Cathedral, and spent a happy half hour sat in the above-mentioned tea shop. They have a small wood-and-glass conservatory which extends into the back garden and we were lucky enough to find a table there. It felt like the sunniest day of the year so far and we could have sat there for a very long time. If it didn't close at 4, we'd probably still be drowsily propped up there.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

What did they have to say in Svalbard?

Following a comment on the previous post by Jessica Maybury, I decided a bit of background information on it was in order. I had probably talked about Amateur Radio while assuming that everyone knew roughly what it was about. Those who know me well, I suspect, know not to ask me about it at all, even if they don't, unless they want their ears bent.

Amateur Radio is a hobby pursued by millions of people around the world. To become a radio amateur involves passing an exam in very basic electronics, radio communication and the causes of and ways to prevent interference. Once you've passed you're considered competent to venture out on the airwaves with a radio transmitter. Of course, you could just buy a CB licence or even buy a mobile phone - but there are differences. A licensed radio amateur, if they want to, is permitted to build their own radio transmitter - with a CB licence you're not even permitted to tamper with the set you've bought. CB is restricted to one band: amateurs have a whole range of bands to use. Amateur radio is a lot more than talking into a microphone: amateurs transmit and receive Morse code, radio teletype, TV and a range of data modes (encoding signals for transmission and decoding signals with the help of a computer). Licensed amateur hold call signs which identify them and the countries they come from: the "prefix" of the callsign identifies the country. (Sorry, but this map is not the most up-to-date: UK callsigns begin with M these days, not G. Mine is M0KXD) (click to view):




Like "jazz", the term "amateur radio" covers a whole range of activities. Some become amateurs simply to communicate with other amateurs. Some are more interested in building radio equipment. Some use amateur radio satellites or even bounce their signals off the moon. A lot of astronauts are radio hams - it's even possible, as an amateur, to communicate with the International Space Station. There is an ongoing competition, Summits on the Air (SOTA), for hill-walking radio hams who enjoy transmitting from hilltops.

Most amateur radio goes on on the shortwave bands. Using these bands is an interesting challenge. Conditions change: sometimes it's possible to transmit right around the world, sometimes it isn't. The atmosphere bends shortwave radio waves so a signal that's inaudible a hundred miles away can be heard a thousand miles away.

What do amateurs talk about? First, it's not a bit like Tony Hancock. Seriously, I think Hancock gave amateurs a bad press, but here he is:



In real life, amateurs are restricted: you can't discuss politics, or say anything offensive. In a brief contact they'll generally restrict themselves to reporting their names, locations, and the strength of their signals. However, sometimes you can get into a longer chat. The hobby has a language of its own. Basic English is used a lot, but a whole lot of abbreviated terms that are used too which enable people from different countries to understand each other. These started life in Morse code, where commonly understood abbreviations are vital. For example, when I transmit, I usually use a digital mode known as PSK-31 (roughly, this is a bit like a modern, computerised version of the old "Grandstand" teleprinter they used for the football results). Messages are sent and appear as text - we don't talk to each other directly. First I'll transmit, on a frequency commonly used for digital modes:

CQ CQ CQ DE M0KXD K

In other words, this is a general invitation to communicate (CQ) from (de) me (m0kxd). "K" is an invitation to anyone to respond. When I responded to a CQ call by JY5HX (Dr Munzer Qraini) in Jordan the other day I sent this. Important information is repeated, as interference and fading can disrupt signals:

JY5HX DE M0KXD
Thanks for the contact Munzer!
RST is 599 599 599
Name: Dom Dom Dom
QTH: Bellerby Bellerby Bellerby
So hw? BTU JY5HX DE M0KXD KN

RST is an estimate of signal strength and quality, a bit like the Beaufort Wind Scale.

QTH is a term from the "Q code", used to mean location.

HW? is an old Morse abbreviation for "how?" - i.e., "how do you copy"?

KN is a bit like "K", but means only Munzer is invited to respond.

This over was followed by another in which we offered to exchange QSL cards and said goodbye. Of course, we could have gone on for longer if we'd wanted to.

I could go on, but, out of consideration for patient readers I'll resist the temptation.  If you want to know more, have a google. The internet is awash with stuff to do with Amateur Radio.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Long Live Heath Robinson!

Have you ever written a post that, on rereading it, leaves you thinking it might make you look a bit of a nerd? I just have. So what. I'm going to post it anyway..

It all began with the clock. We were drinking coffee in the village hall (once a month the village holds a coffee morning - more about that here), when I spotted it. Stood beside a bric-a-brac stall was a large, wooden art deco clock. I went over to have a look. It didn't work, but the owner only wanted a fiver for it. I was tempted. If I wanted to get it going, she said, I should talk to Joe, who was into renovating old clocks. I didn't say so, but I thought of having a go myself.

In the end, I didn't buy it. It would end up, I felt sure,on my list of things to do that never get done, and that's long enough as it is. I did meet Joe on the way home though. He'd been heading the other way, but when I told him about the clock he promptly turned round and made straight for the village hall. If it had been an old radio, I said to K, I would have done the same. Come to think of it, I'd been meaning to build myself a decent radio mast in the garden (like you do - well you do if you're into amateur radio). All I needed was some lengths of "two by two". It wouldn't take that long...
Old Radios... Racal RA17 Receiver - first came out in 1954

An hour later I was back from the builder's merchant with the said lengths of wood tied to the car. An hour later I had them both painted with wood preserver. Up until now, my mast has been a fishing pole with a wire tied to the end stood on it's end in an old bit of pipe. This has enabled me to make two-way amateur radio contacts with just about anywhere in Europe and occasionally, places further afield: Chicago, Rio de Janiero, Svalbard spring to mind. I've always wanted to extend my reach and, without getting too technical, that means lifting that wire a bit higher. If I bolted two lengths of two by two, I reasoned, I should be able to raise it up at least five metres - possibly more.

Have prepared the lengths, I started to dig a hole to stand them in. Here I hit the first technical hitch. It's hard enough to dig a deep hole eight inches wide even when you don't hit solid rock two feet down. Oh well, I thought, I'd press on. I'd find other ways of supporting it later.

After a lot of huffing, puffing and struggling I managed to stand up the new mast and stick it in the hole. It looked quite precarious. I realised -surely I knew this already?- that sticking a heavy piece of wood in the air and getting it to stay there was a major engineering problem. Up to three or four metres was not so difficult but after that you -literally- pass a tipping-point. It's all about leverage. I tried screwing some wooden buttresses to it, but it still looked more than a bit dodgy. I went indoors and googled masts. I though it might need a few but it soon became clear that it needed lots of guy lines -six- and pretty heavy duty ones at that. (No wonder I went into music and not engineering).

I've compressed quite a lot of activity into a couple of paragraphs. In fact, at this point I realised it would soon be getting dark. With an anxious eye on the roofs of our two cars which were parked a lot less than five metres from this distinctly wobbly erection, I lashed the thing to a nearby tree (before anyone suggests it, not tall enough to serve as a mast) with all the rope I could find. I'd sleep on it. At least if it fell over in the night it would fall in the least bad direction.

Next morning I got up early, determined to sort out the whole problem before civilised Sunday getting-up time. I looked out of the window and was relieved to see it was still standing. I decided to combine the old and the new: reduce the height of the mast and stick the fishing pole on top. The pole could be removed when not in use, so the whole structure would be safer and less obtrusive.  (Incidentally, fishing poles are often used as masts in amateur radio - long live Heath Robinson!).While I was at it, I renewed a lot of the electrical connections - the wire bits are all held together with electrician's "choc block" connectors. The result was  far more successful. Sticking a lightweight carbon-fibre pole in the air is a lot less serious an undertaking that sticking up a piece of two by two. No guy ropes, and it goes up higher than the wobbly wooden Plan A. Why didn't I think of it in the first place? Fools rush in.

Does it work better than the original? The first two-way contact I made with it was with an amateur station in Berdichev in Ukraine, UT5XR. The second was with one in Amman, in Jordan: Munzer, call sign JY5HX. That evening I could receive Cuba, South America and the US, but they couldn't receive me: that's probably just the way conditions were at the time. My hunch is that, in the long run, the new mast will turn out to work a lot better than the old pipe. However, it's not a patch on that of the the aforementioned JY5HX. He's put out a photo of his aerial in Amman - and it's slightly more upmarket than mine! The thought that someone sat here in the Dales, and Munzer there in Amman can communicate like this via shortwave radio just for the fun of it is one of the things that, to my mind, makes amateur radio worth doing.

Aerial at JY5HX, Amman, Jordan