+++*

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A homage to loading screens.

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Summer astronomy news (this year's edition)

The calendar comes around to the Perseids again

Just as it was this time last year, it’s Astronomy News time because we’re coming into the season of the best and biggest meteor shower of the year, the Perseids, which reach their peak next weekend. This year the peak coincides roughly with the full moon, which is in the early hours of Friday morning, but hopefully the brightest meteors will still stand out—or you can always wait a few days into the following week, because the like most meteor showers you can still see plenty of meteors in the few days either side of the Perseids’ peak. Get a chair you can lean back in, sit outside on a clear night, and watch the sky until you see them flash across it.

Incidentally, Saturn is also the largest it gets in the sky at the moment, as we’re the closest that we will be to it this year. I might be tempted, if there’s a clear sky, to get the telescope out and have a look, to see how well I can spot its rings. Of course, annoyingly, it will also be close in the sky to the full moon next weekend just because that’s how the geometry of the solar system works. The moon is full when it’s directly opposite the sun from us. The outer planets are closest to us when we’re directly between them and the sun—which is the same thing. At least the moon moves relatively quickly in the sky, day to day, so even one day after the full moon it should be far enough away from Saturn to not be too much of a problem. I’ll just have to hope the skies are clear.

Flatlander

Or, a trip to the Crowle Peatlands Railway

There are so many preserved and heritage railways in the UK—there must be something around a hundred at the moment, depending on your definition—that it’s very difficult to know all of them intimately, or even to visit them all. It doesn’t help that still, around 55 years after the “great contraction” of the railway network in a quixotic attempt to make it return to profitability, new heritage railways occasionally appear, like mushrooms out of the ground after rain.

Which is why, a few weeks ago, I decided to pop over to Another Part Of The Forest and visit one of the very newest: the Crowle Peatland Railway. It’s still only about three and a half years since the CPR first started laying track; only about ten years since the railway’s founders first conceived of the idea, and less than a year since passengers have been able to ride on it.

The CPR was built to preserve the memory of a very specific, industrial type of narrow-gauge railway, one that is associated more with Ireland than with Britain. The Crowle Peatlands are part of one of the largest lowland bogs in England, the Thorne Moors, on the boundary between North Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire. Drained from natural wetland by the engineer Cornelis Vermuyden in the late 1620s, from the mid-19th century the area started to be mined for peat, with a network of railways bringing the peat from the moors to factories at their edges for processing and transshipment. For many decades these railways used horse haulage, but from around 1950 the peat company switched to petrol and diesel locomotives.

Part of Thorne Moors in the early 1950s

This map shows the Moors at around the time the railways started using locomotive power: you can see the lines of railways across the moors, following the drainage canals, making sharp, almost-hairpin corners. Even in the 1980s there were still between 15 and 20 miles of narrow gauge railway across Thorne Moors, remaining in use until peat mining ended around 2000; the newest locomotive on the railway was bought new as late as 1991.

The preserved railway is in the area shown on that map as “Ribbon Row”, west of Crowle, reached along a narrow, dead-straight lane across the flat landscape of the Moors. As soon as you are outside the town, it feels disconnected, remote, outside the normal world entirely. As I drove, in my mirrors, I saw a young deer crossing the road behind me.

To date, the railway has a café with very nice home-made cake. a maintenance shed, and a straight line of track stretching out across the moor. The shed is full of the sort of small diesel locomotives that worked on the moors from the 1950s onwards—and also, a Portuguese tram.

Inside the maintenance shed

I think the loco on the left is Schöma 5130 of 1990; the diamond-shaped plate is the builder’s plate of Alan Keef of Ross-on-Wye, to mark the loco being rebuilt in the late 1990s with a more powerful engine, which you can see here.

Under the bonnet

The newest loco to run on the peat railways was named after a retired member of staff in the early 1990s, shortly after it was built.

The Thomas Buck

The railway’s other locomotive is a Motor-Rail Simplex built in 1967 and abandoned around 1996 due to worn bearings.

The Simplex loco Little Peat

It’s a nice little engine, much less powerful than the newer ones, but I’m not sure what I think of lime green as a locomotive colour.

On a map—if it had made it onto any maps yet—the railway would no doubt appear as a dead straight ine; but on the ground it follows gentle curves and undulations. At 3ft gauge the track feels wide for a narrow-gauge line, especially given the small size of the powered trolley that takes you out onto the moor. On my run I was the only passenger, with a driver and guard to look after me, as we pottered out along the track, surrounded by wildflowers pressing close up to the track, fat bumblebees buzzing close to the car as we went.

The driver looks out at the road ahead

No stations; no platforms; no sidings. No signals other than a fixed distant sign warning that the track will run out soon. Just a single line of track, which stops. Back we go; with me and the guard having the best view this time, although I tried to make myself thinner and not block the driver’s line of sight.

Heading back towards the shed

That photo shows practically the whole railway, with the shed visible in the distance. We trundled back in, feeling far faster than the handful of miles per hour we were actually doing. Retracing our steps, back to the yard.

Coming in to the shed

The Crowle Peatland Railway isn’t somewhere I’ll be going back to again that soon, because for now, I’ve seen all there is to see. But it is a nice little place to visit, a reminder that everyone starts somewhere, and that sometimes a railway is just a stretch of line running out into a field. It’s open and running trains about one weekend a month at the moment, and it’s worth visiting for the cakes. Or, indeed, if you just want to be out in a landscape where the horizon is straight as a ruler, and there are few noises beyond the wind blowing the grass.

Being on the fringes

Or, some reflections on Edinburgh

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe has been in the news lately, as many performers were upset that it’s not having an app this year, which led to news stories that some comedians are giving up on it altogether. Which made me feel a little bit on the old side, because when I lived in Edinburgh smartphones weren’t even a thing, an app was unheard of, and you navigated the Fringe using the official programme, ThreeWeeks magazine, and the hundreds and hundreds of flyers constantly thrust at you in the street. ThreeWeeks was the new, modern innovation at that point: I recall, when I first moved there, one of my flatmates proudly telling me about the new Festival reviews newspaper some friends of his—from the EUSA weekly freesheet Midweek—had started putting out when Midweek was closed for the summer.

This isn’t, though, meant to be a “ooh, now, back when I was a wee girl…” post, because generally I try to avoid that sort of thing as much as I can. I was struck by the idea that something like an app, that’s a relatively new part of a 75-year-old event, can now be seen as fundamental to it, and fundamental to the business models of the participants.

The idea that the Edinburgh Fringe has been too focused on big, headline names at the expense of the smaller performers is hardly a new idea: that, certainly, was around back then already. As indeed, was the worry that the Fringe had grown to the point it was all people think of when you mention the Edinburgh Festivals. Never mind the Edinburgh International Festival—the original “Festival” itself—or the Book Festival, or the Film Festival, when people hear “Edinburgh Festival” they think of the Fringe. Moreover, they tend to think of the Fringe purely as a comedy festival, ignoring the drama, dance, poetry and everything else that goes on in the thinner sections of the programme.

I agree entirely with the feeling in one of the articles I linked above, that the “spirit of the Fringe” is all about discovering something new, something exciting, something you’d never even heard of before: because when I lived in Edinburgh there was no way I could ever afford tickets to the big name stars in any case. The things I could afford to do were always those that I would never have dreamed of going to, such as when my friend W found a play at the International Festival that was offering tickets for only a pound or two if you booked them that day and agreed to sit on a beanbag on the stage behind the actors.* Because I couldn’t afford to attend shows I wrote a series of blogposts reviewing the quality of the flyers I’d been handed in the street instead, which attracted aggrieved comments from the performers of one show, I think assuming I was making fun of them being in Edinburgh. I do recall going to one show, a mid-afternoon spoken-word monologue just off the Grassmarket, purely because the performer was stood outside a few minutes beforehand trying to drag people in as he had no ticket sales at all for that particular day. The main thing I remember, though, is spending very late nights in the pub, as they had their licence extended to 3am for the duration. I probably was not doing my best work on Monday mornings. The spirit of the Festival, to me, is just being in the city that is for a few weeks full of an artistic energy, full of performers handing out flyers, some of them brilliant, some of them terrible, all of them offering something new and different and potentially exciting.

This is the thing with the Festival though: it has barely anything to do with the lives of normal everyday Edinburgh people, save for the place being more crowded than usual. I’m fairly sure most Edinburgh residents don’t really go to many Festival events at all, to be honest, and—at least going by my memories of the Edinburgh of twenty years ago—it has virtually no impact on the city outside of August. It comes, it goes, and the city moves on unchanged by it. The city in August has a completely different atmosphere to the city in June or the city in September, as if a cloud has briefly passed over the sun and drifted away.

* Almost all the dialogue was pre-recorded and lipsynced by the actors, with one character “played” by a mannequin, aside from at one climactic moment when the lead actor screamed aloud.

Provincial civics

Or, the Guardians of Knowledge

Back in March, I wrote about the architecture of Grimsby Central Library and all its surviving 1960s detail touches—the building opened in 1968 and many original details and interior fittings still survive. I briefly mentioned in passing the five gaunt, slightly macabre figures sculpted in relief on the south side of the building. Well, the other day I happened to be passing, it was a bright and sunny day, so I pointed my camera lens at them.

The Guardians Of Knowledge

These are The Guardians Of Knowledge, sculpted in the 1960s by Peter Todd, head of Grimsby School of Art, and moulded from fibreglass but made to look like bronze.

I’m disappointed, slightly, that as far as I know there aren’t any local myths of the statues occasionally coming to life and roaming the town in a ghoulish way. Maybe, on the right day of the year, if you are in the library late into the evening, the staff will give you a haunted look, with fear in their eyes. “Why stranger,” they say, “it’s a bad night to be lost in this town after dark. You had better find yourself a sanctuary.” For who really wants to be given knowledge by these fearsome, cadavarous figures, knowing the knowledge they receive may be a blessing but is more likely a curse?

On the road

A summer ghost story

This post is subtitled A summer ghost story, but it’s not a story, in that it’s true, it’s something that happened to me a few days ago.

I was driving, late at night, from Cymru to Aberhwmbr. I was getting towards the end of the journey, on the winding, twisting stretch of road between Lincoln and Faldingworth, and it was about 10.45 at night. Being the start of July, it was still twilight. The fields and hedgerows were dark, but the sky was a deep blue shading to pale orange in the north-west, and occasional clouds were either dark or light against the sky. In the distance, the red-dotted spike of the Belmont television mast stood upright on the horizon. This is the old kingdom of Lindsey: I was not far from Lissingleys, the historic central meeting-place of Lindsey, where its three Ridings came together.

The road was, for that time of night, relatively busy. This was partly because someone a few cars in front of me was taking a fairly cautious pace, so a line of traffic had bunched up behind them. I was third in the row; there were at least two other vehicles I’d noticed behind me, possibly more. There was nothing, that I recall, coming the other way.

Around Snarford Bridge, I glanced at my mirror, and saw a single headlamp on the offside of the van behind me. A biker, I thought. I saw the light pulling forward, pulling alongside the van. It seemed very yellow in colour, more yellow like a modern headlamp, like a filament builb on a low voltage. Circular, it was, and quite large for a headlamp. A biker on a vintage bike, maybe: it had been good biking weather earlier in the day, so it wasn’t surprising a few would have been out enjoying the evening.

I flicked my eyes back to the tail-lights of the car in front of me. Not a place I’d have chosen to overtake, quite a twisty stretch of road, but I could understand a biker in the middle of a string of traffic starting to get frustrated and pulling out—and as I say, there had been nothing at all coming the other way. I waited to hear the roar of the engine as the bike pulled past me, too.

Nothing; nothing loud enough to be heard over my stereo at any rate.

Still nothing.

They should have reached me now. I glanced to the right expecting to see a quiet bike coming the window, and saw nothing. I looked in my mirror, expecting to see they had pulled in behind me approaching the upcoming bend.

Nothing there. Only the van that had been there all along. The single headlamp that had pulled forward to overtake it? No, no sign.

There are no turns off that road, other than a few driveways and one small crossroads. As we ran through the next curves, I tried to get a look at the other vehicles behind to see if any of them had similar headlamps, to see if anything at all matched what I’d seen.

All modern cars, all modern outlines, nothing at all that colour or shape. It had gone. With no turnings and nowhere to go, it had gone. I shivered, involuntarily, as I started to think there was no way, really, to explain it without saying what I didn’t really want to admit. Maybe it was genuinely a ghost?

It’s hard to say, now I’m home, now it’s a few days later, if I really did see what I thought I did. For the rest of my journey, though, I kept looking behind me, convinced I’d glanced something supernatural. It was, after all, at exactly the sort of spot where a biker may well have made a bad overtaking decision at some point in the past, had thought they could overtake before the bend and had found someone coming fast the other way. To be honest the whole road is notoriously dangerous, to the extent there have been documentaries about it, so you could be forgiven for expecting there might be ghosts on every sharp corner. I’ll keep a lookout, for any other records of ghosts near Snarford, just in case there have been similar sightings in the past. For now though, as far as I know, it’s just my own private ghost sighting.

In the countryside (part one)

Scenes from a rural idyll, or possibly not

It’s something of a cliché—it’s been something of a cliché for centuries, almost—that the English countryside is a haven of natural beauty, a green and pleasant land (to use Blake’s phrase) which is somehow a reservoir of timeless, genuine Englishness.

It’s not true, of course. It’s far from being a green desert, but it’s a strange, deserted place, peaceful due to absence, peaceful because strangers are forever unwelcome. Or am I just seeing it through the lens of folk horror? Nevertheless, whenever I go out for a long country walk, I try to avoid paths that will take me through farmyards and golf courses, because I’m always aware that I’m intruding, there, that I’m a stranger who just doesn’t fit in.

I do, though, still go out for long country walks when the weather is right. I can set out first thing on a Sunday morning and barely see another person other than relatively amiable middle-class hikers and dog-walkers who have driven out to their favourite rural circular walks to get their weekly exercise. All the people who can afford to live in the big houses are still in bed; all the farm workers are sleeping off their Saturday binge hangovers, and the countryside is mine and mine alone, has space for me to intrude in it. I watch swifts and swallows spiralling above catching insects; hares running away up the lane ahead of me; and dozens and hundreds of hedgerow butterflies. I haven’t seen deer yet; I suspect I would have to be up a lot earlier.*

A butterfly, apparently with another insect riding on it

I said the English countryside is a strange, deserted place. It’s a place for the wealthy and the very poor. The process of denudation, of removing the population, has been going on a long time; and Lincolnshire is full of the scars and landforms left behind by deserted villages, the inhabitants evicted centuries ago to turn the landscape into a series of sheep-ranches, the fleeces for export to Brugge.

The remains of Beesby

These lumps and bumps are the remains of the village of Beesby, a village which seems to have just gently faded away in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. At the edges of the village are its fields.

Old cultivation marks

The stripes are the result of six or seven hundred years of digging and planting the fields in the same pattern, each villager having rights to a few widely-scattered strips in the large open field, to give each villager land with a variety of soils and situations. After another four or five hundred years as pasture, the ridges they form are still clearly seen, as the sheep and cattle which have grazed here ever since never let anything grow to a height of more than a few inches. This is no hay-meadow full of flowers.

One reason sheep have been so popular on this land for such a long time, why mile after mile of it was turned over to sheep-ranching, is that the soil here is actually pretty poor, thin stuff. The chalk bedrock is only a foot or so below the surface in most places, and when you do find a ploughed field, its surface will be dappled white with lumps of chalk that have come up for air. If you take an archaeologist on your walk with you, be prepared for it to take a while, because each square foot will have a few flints that are probably natural but, you never know, might not be. Of course you might want to keep your eyes out for other things too; because we know there were Roman villages and villas in the area even if we don’t know exactly where all of them were. The land is dotted with pits, too, little quarries maybe a few hundred yards wide, maybe only tens of yards wide, most of them abandoned, some still worked. The larger ones feel as if you may have strayed onto a horror set.

Abandoned chalk pit

One thing that will grow, though, is Brassica napus, rapeseed, almost six feet tall and eye-wateringly yellow. For me, it’s been a sign of the early summer as far back as I can remember, so it’s strange to think that to people only a few years older than me it was a strange, alien plant when it first became popular with farmers here—British rapeseed production increased by a factor of 20 between 1975 and 1995. Where it almost swamps the path, it can be rough going.

Through a field of rapeseed

So much for the timeless nature of the countryside. And this, you see, this is the nice parts. I haven’t got on to the pristine, hygienic farmyards, deathly silent on a Sunday. Or the quiet churchyards hiding who knows whatever Jamesian horrors. Or the pile of wood twice my height, waiting for the sacrificial torch. This post is already getting long; think of this as the gentle, friendly, bucolic introduction, with the next act of the film containing all the scares.

* I have seen deer only just outside town, just after dawn, when I’ve been to the beach for a sunrise walk in autumn. In June, sunrise beach walks are just that bit too early for me.

Going through things one by one

Or, a coding exercise

One of my flaws is that as soon as I’m familiar with something, I assume it must be common knowledge. I love tutoring and mentoring people, but I’m bad at pitching exactly where their level might be, and in working out what they might not have come across before. Particularly, in my career, software development is one of those skills where beyond a certain base level nearly all your knowledge is picked up through osmosis and experience, rather than through formal training. Sometimes, when I’m reviewing my team’s code I come across things that surprise me a little. That’s where this post comes from, really: a few months back I spotted something in a review and realised it wouldn’t work.

This post is about C#, so apologies to anyone with no interest in coding in general or C# in particular; I’ll try to explain this at a straightforward level, so that even if you don’t know the language you can work out what’s going on. First, though, I have to explain a few basics. That’s because there’s one particular thing in C# (in .NET, in fact) that you can’t do, that people learn very on that you can’t do, and you have to find workarounds for. This post is about a very similar situation, which doesn’t work for the same reason, but that isn’t necessarily immediately obvious even to an experienced coder. In order for you to understand that, I’m going to explain the well-known case first.

Since its first version over twenty years ago, C# has had the concept of “enumerables” and “enumerators”. An enumerable is essentially something that consists of a set of items, all of the same type, that you can process or handle one-by-one. An enumerator is a thing that lets you do this. In other words, you can go to an enumerable and say “can I have an enumerator, please”, and you should get an enumerator that’s linked to your enumerable. You can then keep saying to the enumerator: “can I have the next thing from the enumerable?” until the enumerator tells you there’s none left.

This is all expressed in the methods IEnumerable<T>.GetEnumerator()* and IEnumerator<T>.MoveNext(), not to mention the IEnumerator<T>.Current property, which nobody ever actually uses. In fact, the documentation explicity recommends you don’t use them, because they have easier wrappers. For example, the foreach statement.

List<string> someWords = new List<string>() { "one", "two", "three" };
foreach (string word in someWords)
{
    Process(word);
}

Under the hood, this is equivalent** to:

List<string> someWords = new List<string>() { "one", "two", "three" };
IEnumerator<string> wordEnumerator = someWords.GetEnumerator();
while (wordEnumerator.MoveNext())
{
    string word = wordEnumerator.Current;
    Process(word);
}

The foreach statement is essentially using a hidden enumerator that the programmer doesn’t need to worry about.

The thing that developers generally learn very early on is that you can’t modify the contents of an enumerable whilst it’s being enumerated. Well, you can, but your enumerator will be rendered unusable. On your next call to the enumerator, it will throw an exception.

// This code won't work
List<string> someWords = new List<string>() { "one", "two", "three" };
foreach (string word in someWords)
{
    if (word.Contains('e'));
    {
        someWords.Remove(word);
    }
}

This makes sense, if you think about it: it’s reasonable for an enumerator to be able to expect that it’s working on solid ground, so to speak. If you try to jiggle the carpet underneath it, it falls over, because it might not know where to step next. If you want to do this using a foreach, you will need to do it some other way, such as by making a copy of the list.

List<string> someWords = new List<string>() { "one", "two", "three" };
List<string> copy = someWords.ToList();
foreach (string word in copy)
{
    if (word.Contains('e'));
    {
        someWords.Remove(word);
    }
}

So, one of my colleagues was in this situation, and came up with what seemed like a nice, clean way to handle this. They were going to use the LINQ API to both make the copy and do the filtering, in one go. LINQ is a very helpful API that gives you filtering, projection and aggregate methods on enumerables. It’s a “fluent API”, which means it’s designed for you to be able to chain calls together. In their code, they used the Where() method, which takes an enumerable and returns an enumerable containing the items from the first enumerable which matched a given condition.

// Can you see where the bug is?
List<string> someWords = new List<string>() { "one", "two", "three" };
IEnumerable<string> filteredWords = someWords.Where(w => w.Contains('e'));
foreach (string word in filteredWords)
{
    someWords.Remove(word);
}

This should work, right? We’re not iterating over the enumerable we’re modifying, we’re iterating over the new, filtered enumerable. So why does this crash with the same exception as the previous example?

The answer is that LINQ methods—strictly speaking, here, we’re using “LINQ-To-Objects”—don’t return the same type of thing as their parameter. They return an IEnunerable<T>, but they don’t guarantee exactly what implementation of IEnumerable<T> they might return. Moreover, in general, LINQ prefers “lazy evaluation”. This means that Where() doesn’t actually do the filtering when it’s called—that would be a very inefficient strategy on a large dataset, because you’d potentially be creating a second copy of the dataset in memory. Instead, it returns a wrapper object, which doesn’t actually evaulate its filter until something tries to enumerate it.

In other words, when the foreach loop iterates over filteredWords, filteredWords isn’t a list of words itself. It’s an object that, at that point, goes to its source data and thinks: “does that match? OK, pass it through.” And the next time: “does that match? No, next. Does that match? Yes, pass it through.” So the foreach loop is still, ultimately, triggering one or more enumerations of someWords each time we go around the loop, even though it doesn’t immediately appear to be used.

What’s the best way to fix this? Well, in this toy example, you really could just do this:

someWords = someWords.Where(w => !w.Contains('e')).ToList();

which gets rid of the loop completely. If you can’t do that for some reason—and I can’t remember why we couldn’t do that in the real-world code this is loosely based on—you can add a ToList() call onto the line creating filteredWords, forcing evaluation of the filter at that point. Or, you could avoid a foreach loop a different way by converting it to a for loop, which are a bit more flexible than a foreach and in this case would save memory slightly; the downside is a bit more typing and that your code becomes prone to subtle off-by-one errors if you don’t think it through thoroughly. There’s nearly always more than one way to do something like this, and they all have their own upsides and downsides.

I said at the start, I spotted the issue here straightaway just by reading the code, not by trying to run it. If I hadn’t spotted it inside somebody else’s code, I wouldn’t even have thought to write a blog post on something like this. There are always going to be people, though, who didn’t realise that the code would behave like this because they hadn’t really thought about how LINQ works; just as there are always developers who go the other way and slap a ToList() on the end of the LINQ chain because they don’t understand how LINQ works but have come across this problem before and know that ToList() fixed it. Hopefully, some of the people who read this post will now have learned something they didn’t know before; and if you didn’t, I hope at least you found it interesting.

* Note. for clarity I’m only going to use the generic interface in this post. There is also a non-generic interface, but as only the very first versions of C# didn’t support generics, we really don’t need to worry about that. If you write your own enumerable you’re still required to support the non-generic interface, but you can usually do so with one line of boilerplate: public IEnumerator IEnumerable.GetEnumerator() => GetEnumerator();

** In recent versions of C#, at any rate. In earlier versions, the equivalence was slightly different. The change was a subtle but potentially breaking one, causing a change of behaviour in cases where the loop variable was captured by a lambda expression.

The Paper Archives (part three)

The title of this series is maybe not quite as suitable as it was

The previous post in this series is here.

Sometimes, sorting through the accumulated junk that fills my mother’s house, I come across things that I remember from my childhood. For example: alongside the stack of modern radio transceivers that my dad used to speak to random strangers over the airwaves, is the radio I remember being my Nanna’s kitchen radio, sitting on top of the fridge.

The old kitchen radio

It’s a big, clunky thing for a portable, its frame made of leather-covered plywood. I know it has valves (or tubes) inside, not transistors, because I remember my dad having to source spare valves for it and plug them in back when my Nanna still used it daily—he was the only person in the family who knew how to work out which of the valves had popped when it stopped working.

With only a vague idea how old it might be, I looked at the tuning dial to see if it would give me any clues.

The tuning dial

Clearly from before the Big BBC Renaming of the late 1960s. I’m not sure how much it can be trusted for dating, though, as Radio Athlone officially changed to Radio Éireann in the 1930s, but I was fairly sure the radio probably wasn’t quite that old. Of course, I should really have beeen looking at the bottom.

The makers' plate

And of course the internet can tell you exactly when a Murphy BU183M was first sold: 1956, a revision of the 1952 BU183, which had the same case. The rather more stylish B283 model came out the following year, so I suspect not that many of the BU183M were made.

I’m intrigued by the wide range of voltages it can run off: nowadays that sort of input voltage range is handled simply and automatically by power electronics, but in the 1950s you had to open your radio up and make sure the transformer was set correctly before you tried to plug it in, just in case you were about to blow yourself up otherwise. I suppose this is what radio shops were for, to do that for you, and potentially to hire out the large, chunky high-voltage batteries you might need if you didn’t have mains electricity. This radio is from the last years of the valve radio: low-voltage transistor sets were about to enter the marketplace and completely change how we listened to music. This beast—or the B283, which at least looks like an early transistor radio—needed a 90-volt battery to heat up the valves if you wanted to run them without mains power, not the sort of battery you can easily carry around in your handbag. The world has changed a lot in seventy years.

The shortest night

Some reflections on the solstice

There were sundogs, yesterday, as the sun was getting low on the horizon. After sunset, there were high, wispy, noctilucent clouds to be seen, and a red glow in the north-west sky which did not fade until getting on for midnight. This is, after all, the North, where midsummer sunset is dead on the North-West compass point.*

All the coverage of the Summer Solstice, at least in Britain, focus on this being the longest day of the year, with seventeen or so hours of sunlight depending on where you are.** The biggest focus of all is on this morning’s sunrise, especially at sacred spots like Stonehenge. Few discuss, though, how the longest day is also the shortest night; and after all, you can’t have the one without the other.

This has been a big year for me so far, and I’m sure it’s only going to get bigger. I’ve always been more of a dark, cold-loving person though than a hot, summer-loving person, so I’m all in favour of the winter coming back. The world turns, and we turn with it. The shortest nights are past us, and now they are growing again.

* This is true in southern England and the southernmost parts of Wales, and is a key part of the solar alignments at Stonehenge: midsummer sunrise is directly opposite midwinter sunset, and midsummer sunset and midwinter sunrise are at right-angles to them. In the English Midlands, northern England and Scotland, midsummer sunset moves further and further north around the compass.

** This wasn’t meant to be an astronomy post, but fun facts keep creeping in. This varies hugely from one end of the UK to the other, by over 90 minutes! On the south coast of England you get less than 16½ hours of day; in South Wales it’s more like 16 hours 40 minutes, in Lincolnshire or Yorkshire it’s around 17 hours and once you’re up to Inverness or further north it’s over 18 hours.

Hooked on a pattern (part two)

The crochet continues

The previous post in this series is here.

The crochet project I mentioned a couple of weeks ago has been coming along, if sometimes in fits and starts. Practicing my crochet stitches, my test piece came along quite a way, even if I did decide to pull it all down and start again because I was making my stitches far too tight, with the result that I then couldn’t stitch into them very easily on the following row, not without splitting the double-knit yarn. Before long, I had quite a substantial…um…rectangle.

A test piece

It must, I thought, be time to start on the thing itself. The first round was a little bit fiddly, but I perservered.

The first false start, and my legs

I just wasn’t happy. The shape didn’t seem right. The shape didn’t seem to match the pictures in the pattern, and I’d clearly messed up the start and stitched the second round, but only the second round, into the wrong side of the previous, so one tiny bit of the thing looked like it was inside out. So, pull it all down and start again. The second time, I got somewhat further…

That shape still isn't quite right

…and I still wasn’t happy. Because I seemed to have misread the pattern. Due, I assume, to my misunderstanding of crochet patterns. The pattern gives instructions for stitching each round, ending with “join with slip stitch”, and then a stitch count. The stitch count for each round matches up with the number of stitches produced in the main instructions for each round, minus the slip stitch at the end. Because of this, I was stitching the slip stitch into the first stitch of the round, then starting the next round by stitching into the second stitch. As a result, the whole thing was developing a twist, and as I started to do more asymmetrical increases and decreases the twist was becoming obvious. I begun again, and moreover, did the first round a number of times until I was quite happy with it. I begun again, treating the slip stitch as an extra stitch in addition to the stitch count for the round, and the shape started to make a little more sense.

Finally everything is lined up

All in all, then, it’s going quite well. I’m now thirty-something rounds into the main body of the thing, stuffing it as I go to help it take up the right sort of shape. It’s a bit lumpy compared to the pattern; it’s a bit larger too, because I’ve used slightly chunkier yarn and a slightly larger hook than the pattern suggested. But so far, I’m pleased.

Actually getting quite big

Whether I’m still going to be pleased when I’m making fiddly little decorative bits that then have to be stitched onto the main body, we’ll have to wait and see.