Saturday, December 30, 2006

Wilderness in St Albans 

I forgot. I was supposed to order some ink cartridges before Christmas. Well, it was a rather busy time... Nothing for it now but to go out in the rain and buy some, from a shop, and pay handsomely for the privilege - each one £2 above the internet price.

In the rain, did I say? In the deluge, more like. Depressing all round, you might think - unwanted trip, pointless extra expense, dismal weather - yet, strangely, that didn’t turn out to be the case. Quite the opposite, in fact - all in all, in cheered me up no end.

It’s four o-clock in the afternoon, the clouds are so thick it’s already fully dark, yet the streets are bright, even cheerful. It’s so wet that the light - from shop windows, headlights reflected off the road, Christmas lights strung across the main street - seems to reverberate, illuminating everything three times over.

Water, water, everywhere... glistening on PVC canopies of the market stalls, cascading out of overflowing gutters, flooding in sheets across the pavements, a floodlit curtain of sparkling drops hanging in from a tree; it’s the kind of rain you cannot ignore; no matter how waterproof your coat and your shoes, no matter how wide your umbrella, it dominates outdoor existence.

And that, I think, is what does the trick. I often bemoan the fact that I live in a largely suburban environment, a long, long way from contact with wild places and raw nature. But weather like this brings the wilderness into town; it stands there in front of me, a giant with arms folded, grinning slightly - so now you see me, it seems to say. I was here all along, if you did but know it.

I breath deeply and fill my lungs with air from above the Atlantic Ocean; feel the splash of rain that for all I know in its younger days was coursing down the Amazon. Wilderness comes to town.


In the light of thing #3, this kinda fits...

Your results:
You are Robin

Green Lantern
The Flash
Wonder Woman
Iron Man
Young and acrobatic.
You don't mind stepping aside
to give someone else glory.

Click here to take the "Which Superhero am I?" quiz...

Hmmm... closer to both Supergirl and Wonderwoman than to Batman...?

Thanks to Frank for the link

Friday, December 29, 2006

Memories of summer... 

Thing #3 

I didn’t mean to drag this meme out for quite this long, but it’s been hard lately getting any words out. So here is drip #3 in my drip-feeding of those 5 things you might not know about me. Largely factual; I can just about manage that at the moment.

You’ve seen a representation of me from the neck up - both the rather inscrutable picture over there in the sidebar, and a reflection in words of what goes on inside that head, but what of the rest of me? Am I a superman look-alike? A lithe champion athlete? Or maybe I can’t even see my feet past a huge beer gut?

I’m not about to go posting any self-portraits; because I know which side of a camera I prefer to be, I make good and sure that photos of me are kept to an absolute minimum - like the one in the sidebar, which originated as my passport photo. But on a scale of typical male weights, I’m probably almost as far to the left as you can get without being underweight. In other words, as my best friend at school used to say, I’m a skinny little runt, tipping the scales at a mere 9 stone 6 lbs, give or take a couple of pounds either way. That’s 132lb or 60Kg, to save you doing the conversions. At 5 foot 7.5 inches tall, that give me a Body Mass Index of 20.4. Apparently I only need to drop 3lbs or so (which I sometimes do) to be classed as underweight, whatever that means.

It’s a build that’s well suited to the sporting activities I’ve chosen over the years. I was never much good at sports which require muscle, aggression, or limbs like spiderman, but I surprised those who’d written me off as a non-sporting type by being good enough to represent the school at middle and long distance running events. I fancied a go at gymnastics, and joined the university gym club, but I hadn’t the upper-body strength needed. Later on though, I found an outlet for that desire in trampolining although I never progressed past the basic somersaults.

I did a little rock climbing when I was a teenager, but didn’t take it up seriously until about 10 years ago, and of course having relatively few pounds to lug up a rockface is a distinct advantage. As indeed would be arms about 3 inches longer... But it’s now over 2 years since I did any climbing and I’m beginning to wonder if all the gear stored in my garage will ever see the light of day again. I need to find a new climbing partner now that the kids have grown up.

I guess I’m lucky in that I have in-built regulation systems that keep my weight pretty much constant - I’ve never been more than 136lb or less than 125lb. Believe it or not, over-eating, for me, is positively unpleasant - strange, but true...

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Hanging on... 

...or just plain obstinate?

Friday, December 22, 2006

Techies corner 

For anyone interested, this is the 144MHz amateur band SSB transceiver I mentioned in yesterday's post, which I designed and part built about 25 years ago. Apologies for the techie-speak, but all of this is probably only of any interest if you already understand the jargon.

The uppermost PCB is the frequency counter/display driver - the display tubes were salvaged from an old cash register, the chip is a standard device and the PCB, as with all of them, I laid out and etched myself. Next down, on the left, is the IF strip complete with crystal filter, and on the right is the audio board. Below sits the receiver down-converter.

The underside view. At the top is the PCB on which the front panel controls are mounted. In the middle is the phase-locked VCO, underneath which is the battery pack which powers the whole unit; to the right of that is the 2 - 4 MHz VFO to which the VHF VCO is locked, and just below is a switched-mode power convertor which provides supplies at 2V, 5V and 16V from a single 8V battery. The big space to the left is where the transmitter up-convertor and power amplifier would have gone - the only major module I never made.

Detail of the VHF VCO. This produced a VHF signal phase-locked to a very stable low frequency oscillator.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Five things #2 

For the first half of my working life, I called myself an engineer. The second thing you may not know about me relates to where it all began.

Once upon a time, I was a Radio Ham - or an Amateur Radio Enthusiast as most of my fellow enthusiasts preferred to be called. The term 'Ha' was felt by many to be pejorative, although I was never unduly worried by it. To me it was just a convenient label; people can get over-precious about such things. G8GXG was my call-sign, heard over the airwaves of the 2 meter (144MHz) band around 30 years ago.

I’d been interested in things technical for as long as I can remember; always dismantling things to see how they worked, and usually succeeding in putting them back together again. Somewhere along the line, that interest started to focus on electronics, although I took as much pleasure in the aesthetics as in the functioning, building a succession of crystal sets, amplifiers, intercoms and the like, in enclosures fabricated from old tobacco tins, biscuit tins, offcuts of plywood, all elaborately hand painted, with controls labelled in Letraset.

I used to scour the jumble sales for old radio sets to strip down and use for parts - bringing them home tied onto my soap-box cart since we didn’t have a car - and that was where I found my first short-wave radio and thus began to listen to broadcasts from around the world on the short-wave bands. Before long I had a long-wire aerial strung from the chimney of the house to a pole erected at the end of the garden, and used to stay up far into the night - when long-distance reception was best - trying to pick out English words from far-off countries as the sounds faded up and down through the hiss and crackle. Many’s the time I’d fall asleep with the headphones clamped over my ears, only to wake in the early hours to the sound of static and have to drag myself wearily off to bed.

These were the days of the cold war; the short waves were an essential propaganda tool, and the highest power transmitters belonged to the superpowers and their allies. Easy reception, but very monotonous listening. I did however manage to get a copy of Mao’s "little red book" by writing to Peking Radio.

Amateur radio seemed like a logical next step, not least because five other Radio Hams - whose ages spanned at least four decades - lived within a couple of hundred yards, earning our road the nickname Kilowatt Alley. I passed the exam at 16 - not a bad achievement - and started out using mostly gear borrowed from one of those locals.

We had a large garden shed, divided in two - half for my father’s DIY workshop, half as my radio shack. I used to practically live in that shed. Dad and I built it, I wired it out for power and fitted it out with a custom-built workbench and 3-tier shelving for all the gear. Virtually all of it I built myself - the only item of commercial gear was the short-wave receiver, an ex-admiralty B40. Goodness only knows how many hundreds of hours I must have spent in that shed; sweltering in summer, shivering in the winter.

Doubtless some of my practical skills were honed there, but overall the hobby never went anywhere; I never completed my home-built transmitting rig. After I got married, my gear stayed in the shed for a while, but eventually my father wanted the space so I sorted the gear into two piles - useful stuff worth hanging on to, on the off-chance that I might get to use it one day, and the rest which was largely junk and was destined to go back whence it might once have come, to a local Scout jumble sale. Unfortunately the messages got muddled somewhere along the way, and the scouts took - and sold - the lot. There wasn’t a lot I could about it - there was no way to recover the gear - so I gave up at that point and didn’t look back. No use crying over spilt milk. I just hoped whoever bought it was careful if they ever they switched it on - the transmitter power supply had a transformer giving 600 volts AC across bare terminals!

To be honest, I’d never been all that interested in actually talking to other radio hams. The conditions of the license expressly prohibited potentially inflammatory subjects like politics and religion, so most of the ‘conversation’ was around their equipment (no, not that kind of equipment - that would definitely have been banned!), the weather (yawn), who they’d spoken to that day, the exciting news that their XYL (wife) had just brought in a cup of tea and a home-made cream cake. Riveting stuff. For a hobby all abut communication, remarkably little real communicating seemed to be going on. I got bored.

You might have thought I’d learned my lesson - hour upon unproductive hour without fulfilment - but no. A few years later I decided to resurrect the hobby, albeit for a tangential kind of reason. At that time, my stammer was still quite bad, and having to talk slowly and clearly without the hassle of interruption to break the flow was an excellent form of speech therapy. So once again, I embarked on the long design-and-build process of new kit. This was to be a portable, self-contained 2 metre SSB transceiver. Why didn’t I just buy a commercial rig? I did seriously consider it, but the cost - £300 25 years ago, which in terms of its effective value would be getting on for ten times that at today’s rates - was just too much to be able to be able to justify. And besides, I relished the challenge and the prospect of future pride in my creation.

Many more hours were spent designing and building, made slightly easier this time because by then I was employed in electronic engineering and had access to some seriously sophisticated test equipment, plus some experts to help with the design. But once again, I never finished it. I do still have the result, as far as it got. I’ll post some photos later if I get a chance to take some. It wasn’t all that far from completion; the hardest part of the circuitry (the phase-locked VFO, for any techies out there) worked a treat. Just as in those early years, the aesthetics and the physical design - how all the circuits boards and modules fitted together in a compact, robust case - were as important to me as the function.

Writing this, I realise just how much it illustrates some common themes running through my life. A powerful urge to create, purely for the sake of creation; delight in designs that combine fine aesthetic form with effective function; a need to achieve, to produce something of which I - and others - could be proud; a willingness to put in tremendous effort and man-hours to achieve a goal, sometimes verging on doggedness - yet ultimately failure to follow through to completion. This latter trait has more recently shown up amongst other ways in my abandonment of both receiving and giving counselling, and in developing writing skills here.

I feel I ought to be able to pull this essay to some meaningful conclusion, but once again I’ll just stop, run out of steam, almost-but-not-quite there.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Michelin man 

Ah, those far-off days of summer! Time was when motorcycle journeys were fully in accord with the traditional image of freedom: leathers over a light shirt, gloves that fitted… er,… like a glove; warmth, sunshine, grippy tarmac.

Now I feel like the archetypal Michelin Man, tightly bundled in multiple layers against the sub-zero temperatures*, cocooned from the outside world. Gone too is the easy-going, flowing style of riding. Today I was steering gingerly round bends, wary of losing traction on icy surfaces. I haven’t been so conscious of the weight of the bike since the day I rode it home for the first time.

All in all, that’s not a bad metaphor for the seasonal cycles I go through with this blog. Time was when thoughts and ideas and feelings flowed freely from head and heart, through fingers and onto page and screen. Extending the seasonal metaphor – and in keeping with the original name of this blog, now only remembered in the URL – this was a place of germination and growth and maybe even occasional flowering.

But now, here in this blog, it’s mostly winter. I’m bundled up within layers of issues and concerns and things-to-do. Wearing them all everywhere, all the time, I feel slow and clumsy, just like that Michelin Man; every metaphorical movement becomes an effort; it’s so much easier just to submit and be constrained.

Maybe spring is just around the corner, or maybe it’ll be a while yet. But it will come.

* deg C that is.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Five things: #1 

It was Christy's idea. She tagged me for the "5 things you may not know about me" meme going around at the moment. I surprised myself; it turned out to be easier than I thought to come up with five things. I got so taken with the idea I decided to dedicate a whole post to each one. Perhaps this was as much for my own benefit as for any other reason - it's a pleasant change to tease my attention away from the pressures of the present. And if I'm honest, it's nice too to have a bone-fide excuse for talking about myself. Thanks, Christy.

We were a car-less family when I was growing up. My father had never learned to drive, and in any case we couldn’t have afforded a car. But you don't miss what you never had, so I never felt hard done by - quite the reverse, in a way: a ride in a car, something quite ordinary for most of my friends, was a special treat for me. Up to a point, that is. Not being used to motor transport, I easily became travel sick. I suspect that were I now to smell again that distinctive combination of petrol, oil, exhaust fumes, hot vinyl and stale air that would wash over you as the door opened and you entered the car, the associations of that olfactory memory would be enough to bring on instant nausea.

It goes without saying that we went everywhere by public transport. I grew up with a curious one-dimensional understanding of local geography. Buses and trains always showed their routes as straight lines, or as a simple list. In my mind, all the places I knew were strung out in a straight line. To get to C from A necessitated travelling via B. It was a feature of my world; we only ever got to C by going through B first. So it came as a revelation to discover a kind of hyperspace bypass, otherwise known as a road, which by some magical, Euclidean-geometry-defying, curved-space means, permitted direct transportation from A to C. But only cars could perform this mystical feat. Buses and trains were constrained to travel in the one-dimensional universe.

Annual seaside holidays became an expedition, worthy of a Giles family cartoon. How we ever managed to travel the length of the country encumbered by so much baggage is beyond me. The suitcase each was only the start of it - and needless to say, this was long before the days of cases with built-in wheels. There’d be a shopping bag with packed lunch in it, an armful of coats (with no car to fall back on as emergency shelter, my mother never went anywhere without some form of protection against the weather, "just in case"), plus the inevitable bag for last-minute extras - we daren’t open the suitcases to squeeze anything else in for fear of not getting them closed again, an exercise which required sitting on each corner in turn and forcing the catches shut. And finally there was an essential piece of holiday gear - a long brown canvas holdall with leather-bound edges, which may have begun life as a cricketers sports bag but as well as the beach cricket gear - bat, stumps, bails and all and a collection of old tennis balls (for some reason all the balls were old and nearly hairless - I don’t think I ever saw a new furry tennis ball until my teens) there’s be blow-up beach balls, quoits, kites, and of the course the ubiquitous buckets and spades. This was before the days of plastic everything - these were metal-bladed spades with which you could do some serious digging - and deliver a serious injury to toes if, in your enthusiasm upon seeing the beach for the first time since last summer, you were careless about when you thrust the spade.

So we set off with all our encumbrances, dressed in our best clothes - or at any rate, tolerably smart ones, because that was the way one travelled, wasn’t it? Something about creating a "good impression", although I never did figure out for whom that impression was being created. Taxi; one, two, three trains, up and down stairs and ramps, in and out of narrow railway carriage doors. We needed that holiday just to recover from the rigours of the journey.

That’s like a bygone age; it’s all so different nowadays. Just throw everything in the car and go. I think in some ways the struggle to get there made us appreciate the holiday all the more.

I have the headings for #2 to #5, and since I have so little else to write about at the moment I’d quite like to expand them to a full post each. That may take a while though, by which time the meme may have run its course and evaporated. So I wont wait until the end before passing on the baton; here are the five who I’m sure must have some interesting tales to tell which haven’t yet seen the light of day: Winston, Brian, May, Miguel and Beth. A line or a page - however much or little you want to share will be equally welcome.

Monday, December 11, 2006


More and more these days, it feels as though I’m living in a tunnel. Not a dark and shadowy tunnel, nor one of those where the light you see at the end is the express train rushing towards you. Nonetheless, it’s a tunnel with that archetypal defining feature of tunnel-ness – it constrains, it channels movement in one direction only, it keeps its occupants apart from everything outside its narrow confines. No broad, spreading pastures yet awhile; no freedom to roam, just a relentless onwards, onwards, onwards where the tracks lead. I hesitate to try and write anything much, since whatever I write will be similarly constrained. One-dimensional, monochromatic, blinkered; dull.

This tunnel exists in many dimensions.

One is almost physical – the stretches of road which link the places where I spend nearly all my time - my house, the office where I work, Tesco’s where I buy groceries, church and other venues where I play bass. Weeks go by when I travel no roads other than these.

Then there are tunnels of activities – the wheels within wheels of daily and weekly routines.

I’m not necessarily complaining at this stage, just making an observation. This is how it is, how I’ve chosen it to be, by dint of not actively choosing anything else.

But there’s another tunnel too, one that is more worrying, more disturbing. One over which I ought to have more control than these other more materially based tunnels, but one from which I have least idea of how to escape.

This is a tunnel of being, of emotion, of identity. I know its walls are imaginary, existing only in my own mind, yet they constrain as much as any construction of concrete and iron.

I was going to keep quiet, wait until I’d reached the end of at least one of these tunnels; wait until in one dimension at least I’d rediscovered some freedom to roam, to explore; whether that exploration be of physical places, other activities, or extended ways of being.

But that might be some way off yet. No lights visible at the end of any of these tunnels. Not a complaint, just an observation.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


First time for over 6 months in central London; first time on the train and not the motorbike hence it was possible to take my camera with me. I'd almost forgotten how inspiring London can be. Only a few minutes to spare before the training course began; mostly the sun hadn't yet penetrated the shadowy chasms between buildings - even the relatively low-rise ones found at this end of town - but a few facades were catching the morning sun.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


I sometimes wonder if I may not be in the final stages of a metamorphosis into some grotesque Kafka-esque insect, a mutation far removed from the form and function for which I was intended. (A statement which begs the question, “Intended by whom?...)

For some months now I’ve been making a deliberate effort to become more engaged at work. Yes, I know, I’ve bitched and whined many times in the past about how work was “killing my soul” or some such, but I figured it was as much my attitude that was causing me grief as anything else – my complaint was in fact a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since realistically there was little chance of an immediate job change whilst I was feeling so demoralised, it seemed like a good plan to recover some self esteem by being more active and engaged at work; going the extra mile, getting some successes notched up, being noticed.

I may have been too successful in that intent.

A couple of years ago, as part of training I was doing in careers counselling (now abandoned) I did a simple exercise – take a sheet of flip-chart paper, a stack of marker pens, and draw a representation of “My world as I see it now”. At the time, without deliberately planning it that way, what I did at work was not represented in any form, and my picture was a fairly well-ordered collection of other activities which mattered to me. Writing, blogging, corresponding with blogging friends were key components. But I suspect were I to repeat the exercise now I’d find a much more complex situation – an incoherent jumble of overlapping, incomplete images jostling for pride of place, with the things that used to matter most being pushed aside and work taking centre stage.

The image of Kafka’s insect is a powerful and repellent one. It serves as a warning to remember that this new-found devotion to work is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Saturday, December 02, 2006


It's been a long, long time since I posted anything for Photo Friday. But when I saw that this week's theme is 'stillness', one shot sprang instantly to mind. It's from 2002 and I've posted it here before, but it remains a favourite of mine, mostly because of the memories it awakes of a tranquil early morning camped among trees just a few yards from the shore of the lake; a half hour before breakfast, when the campsite was still sleeping, spent with camera in hand just pottering at the water's edge and enjoying the invigorating feel of cool fresh air in my lungs, the gentlest lapping of the water on the pebbly shore, a comforting presence behind me of tree and moss, rock and hill, and above all, peace of heart and soul.


Friday, December 01, 2006

Trojan wanted 

It’s bizarre; it’s not lack of time that prevents me posting here – it’s simply that my head is too full, so tightly packed with stuff (what a wonderful all-purpose one-size-fit-all word that is!) that any extraneous ideas that happen by find no way to elbow their way in. The matters of the moment maintain a powerful hold; like riot police, they link arms and form an impregnable barrier. Inside their cordon, the workforce of my conscious mind has nothing to distract it from the tasks at hand. I know the distractions are out there somewhere, but they’re remote and have no real influence, nor the strength to break through the barrier.

Or it’s as though there’s a firewall, protecting my CPU from wayward bits of code that might divert it from the appointed master-programme. I could do with a trojan; a benign one that penetrates the firewall and disrupts its functioning from inside, knocking a doorway through and allowing those disruptive influences in.