+++*

Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts from February 2021

Photo post of the week

More bits of countryside

The ongoing February, which feels as if it is the longest month of the past 12, is sapping my writing energy. Hopefully the oncoming spring will sort that out: today I saw my first queen bumblebee of the year flying purposefully around the neighbourhood looking for a spot to start her nest. This post is something of an appendix to the previous, with a few more photos. I’ve been repeating previous walks, but this time with the good camera.

Countryside

Countryside

Railway

I’ve been repeating previous walks, but this time with the good camera, which is why regular readers might spot some similarities. At some point I will tell you much, much more about the history of this particular railway, but not today.

Railway

It was built in the 1820s, as a plateway; I suspect that low wall on the right was put there in the 1890s when it was widened from single to double track.

Church

River

Hopefully as the weather warms and the seasons change, my writing energy will come back too.

A random passer-by

Or, on rural etiquette

I’m still taking some time to get used to the idea that we live on the edge of the countryside now. Yes, the village we live in is something of an unfocused suburban affair with no real centre, Victorian terraces and post-war cul-de-sacs* with churches and chapels and grocery stores scattered through it in a random, unplanned and unfocused way like cherries in a fruit cake. Nevertheless, we live on the edge of it. A few minutes away, after going up one dead-end and taking a short-cut between two others, you are out among fields. Oak trees and pine plantations look down on you; and further up the valley, you can see the beginnings of mountains. If you climb the ridge, and look back, our village and the neighbouring ones are spread out below you; and in the distance the Severn Sea is a silver gleam on the horizon in front of a blue and misty Somerset.

This would look much better taken with a proper camera

Hilltop oaks

As the countryside goes it’s fairly busy with people, especially at the moment when exercise has to be within walking distance. At any time of day, even a weekday, there are dog-walkers, joggers, pony-exercisers and people like me just off out for a wander down all of the lanes and up many of the paths. And this is what I’m not used to: all of these people, or almost all, will greet you with a cheery “Hello!” as they pass.

Coming from an inner-city neighbourhood where that sort of behaviour would have people assuming you were trying to rob them, I’m really not used to having to respond to it. I still can’t work out the timing. As someone approaches, I start to think: “are they a greeter? Or a not-greeter? They don’t look like a gre…” and then a sudden “Hello!” startles me and my greeting in response turns into a strange, half-strangled squeaky grunt somewhere between brain and voice.

A dark and mysterious pine plantation

The best answer I have is to fix them with eye contact before they speak and give a firm, silent nod. The sort of firm, silent nod that says: we are passing by on equal terms, as people who Appreciate the Landscape and do not need to spoil it with Unnecessary Noise. Even if they say something, the Firm Silent Nod is a good approach to take, removing any risk that my vocal cords will malfunction and produce something unintelligble at a key and crucial moment. Stoic fellow-travellers, we can be, briefly united in the siblinghood of tramping the land. There’s no need to spoil the illusion, now, is there.

This might not work in a few weeks time, when I’ve spotted the same people more than once. For now, that hasn’t happened; as yet I don’t even recognise people who live on the same street as me. If people start to see me frequently and it starts to become awkward, maybe I’ll have to come up with a different strategy. We’ll have to wait and see.

* or, if you prefer, culs-de-sac

Life on Mars

Well, maybe

Astronomy fans probably already all know about the Nasa rover Perseverance, which landed successfully on Mars yesterday evening. The Child Who Likes Animals Space was greatly disappointed that the landing wasn’t going to happen until well past bedtime. “You wouldn’t find it very interesting anyway,” I told him. “All you’ll see is a bunch of people in a control room cheering. You won’t get the good pictures until later.” Indeed, although there was one slightly low-contrast black and white photo through within a few minutes to prove the lander had touched down the right way up, at the time of writing the good exciting stuff is due to be revealed shortly.

As the sun went down, though, the sky outside was crystal-clear and Mars was clearly visible a few degrees above the Moon. “Shall we get the telescope out and look at Mars ourselves instead?” I suggested, and of course The Children jumped at the idea.

I’m getting a bit bored of starting posts on here with “Since we moved house…”, but this is the natural point where I have to say “Since we moved house…”. Specifically, since we moved house, The Child Who Likes Space’s telescope has sat in its box in a cupboard; after all, it is February in Wales and we have hardly had a clear night since we moved in. So last night was the first time in this house that I took the telescope out of its box, set it up in the garden on the camping table, and looked to see what we could see.

To be honest, I wasn’t very hopeful. The new garden has a bright-white LED streetlamp shining straight into it. Moreover, as soon as I went outside, on came an automatic outside light. Could I find an off-switch for it anywhere? No, I could not. I was rather d, given these problems, to see that the sky was a wonderful bright blanket of visible stars, much clearer than anything we could ever see in Bristol.

Mars was easy to find, but still is barely more than a dot with the magnification we have available. After looking at Mars, we saw Orion was bright to the south, so zoomed in on Betelgeuse and then the Orion Nebula, or Messier 42 to its friends. In Bristol, the Orion Nebula only ever appeared in the eyepiece as a pale fuzziness which barely stood out from the background sky. Here, it was startlingly clear by comparison, a cold blue cloud against the background sky. Compared to our previous attempts to observe it, it was an entirely different experience.

By now clouds were starting to roll in from the north, so we packed everything up and went inside. As one last thing to try, I pointed the telescope at the moon and tried holding my phone to the eyepiece. Previously when trying this, I produced possibly the worst astrophotography ever. Last night’s attempt, therefore, can take the second-worst spot.

The moon

Maybe at some point I’ll actually get a proper adapter to strap my phone into and produce something slightly better.

At some point, when we can travel more widely, we’ll have to try putting the telescope in the car and heading up to one of the dark sky sites in the Brecon Beacons, to see just what we can see when we are out of town altogether with no streetlamps and no lights in neighbouring windows. For now, we’ll just have to wait for the next clear night, and see exactly how dark it is when we’re just in our own garden. Fingers crossed.

The haunted house

If you believe in that sort of thing

It being a couple of weeks now since the house move, I feel surprisingly settled-in already, and a big proportion of stuff has now been unpacked and sorted out. At some stage I will write a fuller account of what happened on move day itself, and all the stresses that had to be overcome, but today is not that day.

This post, though, is partly about how different it is living here. Not about the neighbourhood or the landscape, different though they are, but how different it is to move from an old, fragile, Victorian brick-built terrace to a modern house on a modern housing estate. Not just about how physically different the spaces are, but how I have moved away from an old building with an old building’s atmosphere to somewhere that, spiritually speaking, is much more fresh and bare.

That paragraph is really just a long-winded way of saying: the new house, I’m pretty sure, is not haunted. The old house, I can’t say that about.

Regular readers will have seen my post the other day about Surviving Death, the recent TV series about, well, evidence there is an afterlife. In that, I naturally concentrated on the bits of the documentary it was easy to be sceptical about: frankly, it’s more fun to write and I assume more fun to read. That isn’t to say, though, that I’m prepared to rule out the possibility that something can survive after death, or that ghosts exist, or anything else along those lines. All I’m sure about is that, if anything of that kind does exist, it will be completely different in every way from anything you, me or anybody else has ever been able to imagine. So I’m approaching this from a sceptical angle, but an open-minded sceptical angle. All I will say is that when I went from spending most of my time out of the house, to most of my time sitting in my bedroom working, I became less and less willing to say that the house, for definite, was not haunted.

Surviving Death didn’t really touch very much on ghosts. Maybe they’re considered a bit passé in a world where a medium promises to rustle up the spirit of a lost loved one almost on-demand. The sort of haunting I’m talking about is also one very light on evidence, with nothing other than strange feelings, curious hunches, and the like.

Last March, back when the death rate started to climb and everyone was told to stay at home, I made sure I had a suitable working space. Previously when I worked from home I’d done it at the kitchen table, which was almost tolerable but not really. For one thing, the dining chairs were fine to sit on for a couple of hours but were rather painful after a whole day. The kitchen was hot in summer, cold in winter, and the wi-fi dropped out whenever the microwave was on.* The bedroom, on the other hand, was large, directly above the wi-fi base station, and kept me nicely out of the way. I bought a cheap little desk—more of a table really—that just fitted into the bedroom’s window bay, found a slightly more comfortable chair than a dining chair, and settled down to a life of working in the window bay, tapping away at my laptop and watching the neighbours walking up and down the street, not to mention the local magpies, squirrels and occasionally foxes.

I quickly became used, though, to something else. Somebody would come and stand over me. I don’t mean I heard anything, but that I could see somebody out of the corner of my eye, who wasn’t there when I looked at them directly. They weren’t always there, but they would come and watch over me, maybe two or three times per day, when I was busy and when nobody else was around. I never saw them directly, but I knew they were there just as I knew when a living flesh-and-blood person had walked up behind me. They always approached from the same side, from my left, the direction of the doorway, never my right.

Was I just seeing my own hair moving out of the corner of my eye? Or noticing the curtains moving? But if so why only ever on the one side of me? My eyesight is rather asymmetrical, it’s true: my left eye’s sight is much worse than the right. I will, of course, never know the answer. But it’s easy to think that a 130-year old house will have had people die inside it, particularly in the large bedroom; or will have emotions and spirits become attached to it in a way that a three-year-old house will not have.

You can never trust what children, small children, say. But I remember that when they were much younger than they are now, or were a year ago even, The Child Who Likes Fairies said a man would come to play with her. An old man, she said, would come into her bedroom and talk to her. What he said was never specified, but apparently he seemed friendly. As you will have guessed, nobody of the sort had ever been in her room. Nowadays, she has no recollection at all of any of this.

Was the old house haunted? It’s not a question I can honestly give a yes to: there are too many unknowns and too little evidence. But equally, I feel I can’t say for certain that the old house wasn’t haunted. It’s not a question we can ever get an answer to, and I very much doubt a medium could help, or diving in kitted up with night-vision cameras and temperature sensors. For that matter I never had any feeling there was anybody watching when I was in bed, even though I have in the past, when living in other places, had the classic “old hag” night terror. Only when I was working, concentrating on my screen, would the figure come into the room to wonder what I was doing.

Now we have moved on and are unlikely ever to know what is happening to that place, and how it is changing from when we lived there. If it was haunted, I hope the ghost who lives there is happy with whoever is there now. I hope he finds them as intriguing as I apparently was. Since moving, I’ve been sitting at the same desk, working away on the same computer, staring out of a different window, and never feel there is anybody watching me, or that anybody I can’t see has walked into the room. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, there is some distinct qualitative difference in what I feel I am perceiving. Whether that is something paranormal, or something else about the nature of the building, I would never be able to even begin to work out. Subjectively, though, whether there was a ghost or not, is there really any difference that matters?

* This is a very normal problem, so if you find your wi-fi often has problems at around the same time each day, check to see if it corresponds with cooking activities.

A Miscellany

Or, photo post of the week by another name

I was asked the other day to provide a photo of The Children for a family project. Nothing difficult, nothing complicated, just a photo of the two of them, together, both looking at the camera, such as you might want to put on your wall. So I spent a while one evening going through all the photos I’ve taken since the start of 2020, and did I find a single photo that matches that description? Just one with both of them in it, looking at the camera, not pulling a daft face? Not one. Zero. Nil.

Oh well, I suppose that means that over the weekend I’ll have to try to actually get them to appear alongside each other in a reasonably-sensible-looking conventional portrait photo at some point. It did make me think, though, that actually over the past year I did take a few photos that were not too bad but are buried away in my archive. So here is a very random miscellany, from the last year or so.

Wayland's Smithy

Woods near Abergavenny

Exploring a riverbank

By Glastonbury Tor

Field of sheep, Stonehenge

Yet another crafting project (part three)

Or, cross-stitching progresses

The post-house-move unpacking has reached the point now that most of the day-to-day things are all unpacked and sorted out. That doesn’t include all of the various bits of hobby equipment, but it does include the cross-stitch project that I’ve posted about a couple of times previously. Indeed, this weekend I reached the point that all of the cross-stitching itself was done.

Cross-stitching done

Hopefully you can tell what is it now: a group of Norman soldiers in the style of the Bayeaux Tapestry. If the pattern still looks a bit sketchy and incomplete in parts, that’s because this kit also includes a rather large amount of backstitch, particularly backstitched chain mail. We could be here some time. Still, I’ve made a start at least.

Some backstitched detail

So far it looks a bit neater than I was worried it might.

Photo post of the week

Ger y camlas

One aspect of moving house, especially if you move to a completely different neighbourhood or another town altogether, is the joy you can have in exploring the new area, finding all the interesting corners and places to go. In the current hospitals-overflowing stay-at-home situation, this is a bit limited; but at least there is exploration that can still be done on foot. In Bristol I was getting rather jaded of all the places I could visit on foot, even when it led to interesting local history blog posts. Now, there’s a whole new set of avenues of local history to explore.

One of the spots I can reach on foot is a quiet, sleepy canal backwater. You can’t even use it as a canal any more; most of the road bridges have been demolished or flattened out (or are roads that didn’t even exist when the canal was in use), so you can’t get any sort of boat under them. It’s essentially a long pond, busy with ducks and moorhens, and with its towpath busy with walkers.

Along the canal

Along the canalbank there are a few surviving hints of its industrial archaeology. Here, for example, is a mid-19th-century boundary post.

Canal boundary

This post must be from some decades after the canal was built, because “MR&CC” is the Monmouthshire Railway & Canal Company; and the canal company only added “Railway” into its name in the 1850s. The canal—the Crumlin arm of the Monmouthshire Canal—was built in the 1790s, but within 10 years of its opening some of its main users were looking to replace it with a railway. Not wanting to lose revenue, the canal company agreed to split the railway* midway: the lower half was built by the canal company and the upper by the owners of the Tredegar ironworks, with the dividing line at the nine-mile mark eventually becoming the village of Nine Mile Point. At opening in around 1805, the combined system was the longest railway network in the world, and quite a few stretches of the route are still in use now.

Later on, the split at Nine Mile Point was preserved. The upper section, the Sirhowy Railway, was bought by the London & North Western Railway. The canal company, though, was bought by the Great Western Railway, and some of their signage survives along the canal bank too.

GWR sign

This is a standard design of weight restriction sign—there are other GWR examples along other GWR-owned canals, and the North Yorkshire Moors Railway has a North Eastern Railway one.

No doubt I will have a lot more to say about local history in the future. As yet I’m not even sure what questions I want to ask, let alone have started to investigate the answers. At least when I do, though, I’ll be able to enjoy the scenery as I go. Even when I can only explore places I can reach on foot, there is still an awful lot to sit down and look at.

Bench

Mynydd Machen

* A quick terminology note: I’ve used the word “railway” in something of a blanket way here. The railways I’m talking about were built as what are now called “plateways”, with flanged track and unflanged wheels. At the time, in South Wales, they were generally (but not always) called “tramways” or “tramroads”.

See you later, alligator (part two)

In which something, for once, is completed

The bad thing about Lego is that if you’re just going to build the kit out of the box, it costs quite a lot of money compared to the time it takes to build the thing. The good thing about Lego, though, is that you can actually complete a project in a reasonable amount of time. Regular readers of this blog will be aware just how many half-finished craft projects I post about on here, and just how few completely finished ones there are (um, none). The Lego I posted about last week, by comparison, is already done! After three sessions, the kit is complete. I’m still not entirely sure why it merited an “18+” age guidance on the box, but it certainly did include lots of fiddly bits.

Pantograph parts

The ends of the pantograph collectors, incidentally are the same Lego element used for the claws of various dinosaur and other animal kits, but in silver.

Whenever I do Lego, I like to take lots of step-by-step photos, so it’s always very tempting to start posing the minifigs in positions to suit. I’m not sure they knew how to fit a connecting rod, although Lego rods do make wheel quartering extremely straightforward.

Putting the rods on

By now the Lego aficionados will have realised that this is the “Swiss Crocodile Locomotive” set slowly coming together. I don’t have any Lego track easily accessible right now, so I didn’t see any point getting the motor to go along with it; but I would imagine it is always going to be more of a display piece than a usable locomotive. Two flangeless pairs of wheels always seem to ride slightly off the rails, making its wheel arrangement a 1-1-B-1-1 or thereabouts. Still, I think it’s going to be quite a nice display piece for the office, when I have all the furniture in the office sorted out.

At some point I'll do a proper photo without random junk in the background

Even if I don’t have anywhere to put it properly yet, and even if it is only for display, the minifigs wanted to climb aboard as soon as it was complete.

Climbing aboard

In the cab

The hardest thing about building this model? Probably the design of the instruction book. A kit with a lot of brown or dark brown parts, with instructions printed on a black background, is not the easiest read. Still, I didn’t really go too far astray at any point in the build.

Will this lead to more craft projects suddenly being finished? Will there suddenly be a flood of completed work? Well, stranger things have happened. I certainly shouldn’t start any more until there are fewer in progress, certainly.

The afterlife

Or, a TV review

Recently, I’ve been watching the Netflix documentary series Surviving Death, covering various pieces of evidence for the existence of an afterlife, across various themes. It was…an interesting watch, which tries to stay even-handed; but its thematic approach meant a huge degree of difference between how each topic was presented and how plausible each one seemed to be.

Personally, I’ve always been intrigued by anything paranormal—blame those classic 1980s Usborne books—and I wouldn’t say I’m a sceptic. More, I’m one of those people who almost wishes they could believe in the paranormal were it not that the evidence for it is almost universally thin and quick to shatter at the slightest glance. The biggest issue I have with Surviving Death is that its attempt to be even-handed comes across uniformly in favour of the paranormal, because of the complete lack of any sort of critique at all. If anything, this does the more plausible phenomena a disservice, as they are lumped in with others that do have straightforward alternative explanations.

The largest topic covered across the whole series was “Mediums”, with two episodes; and it also came across as the area given the most credulous treatment. This is largely because it included no critical comment at all, of any sort. On the other hand, though, it would be difficult to include any critical comment on mediumship without it quickly becoming clear that there are no aspects of mediumship, none at all, that cannot be reproduced by different magicianship skills. Indeed, Harry Houdini’s work in discrediting various mediums in the first half of the twentieth century was explained as being unreliable, because as a showman, Houdini would have exaggerated his own skills and therefore he couldn’t be trusted. I suppose it’s better than Conan Doyle’s explanation of why Houdini’s work should be trusted, but it’s not much better.*

There were occasional threads dangling, which I would like to have pulled on. A major part of the “Mediums” episodes were given over to a physical medium—one who can manifest “ectoplasm” and other artefacts. Her physical seances only took place in pitch-black rooms with no cameras inside, so the manifestations had to be taken on trust. A sitting with a mental medium was filmed; but the session did not seem to go at all in the direction the medium had wanted. The message the sitter had been hoping for certainly didn’t come through, but the filmmakers seemed uninterested in exploring what might have happened, or why it had failed. In short, the episodes on mediums were extremely unconvincing, but seemed happy to turn a blind eye at the least convincing moments.

Across the whole series, though, not everything was quite so clear-cut or shallow. The final episode, on reincarnation, was in parts both touching and uncomfortable to watch, as the programme covered a man who, as a child, had apparently had memories of a former life. Those described in the film were traceable to a real, identifiable person, and there seemed no way that the boy could have known the things he had talked about, or why he would have said them. The man he had grown up to be, though, clearly wished he could forget all the things he had said as a child; and on meeting the family of the man he might have been the reincarnation of, he seemed deeply sorry for not fulfilling all their dreams.

Overall, Surviving Death was a bit of a mixed bag. There were a lot of interesting ideas, and a lot of interesting people, some of them very damaged people. It triggered the scientist in me, though. I wanted to go poking, go investigating, answer some of the questions. I wanted to test out the haunted Polaroid camera that featured in one episode, to find out whether it would be haunted if you used it in a different house.** The programmes were so busy trying to be open-minded, though, to present everything without judgement or criticism, that any sort of questioning or investigation was completely off the menu. It’s a shame. Now, I want to go back and pull at all the threads.

* Conan Doyle apparently convinced himself that although Houdini claimed to be a stage magician, he actually had secret paranormal powers, which is how he could reproduce the tricks that mediums carried out.

** And, indeed, find out whether it was that specific camera that was haunted, and exactly what was unusual about that camera’s type of film pack.

See you later, alligator

Or, a treat for myself

It’s strange, having a birthday that falls not long after Christmas. For a while now I’ve been past the age of receiving very many birthday presents, so a while ago I deliberately went out and bought myself a present, and put it away, waiting for my birthday. This year, too, my birthday was relatively close to moving house, the strange period in which everything frivolous, everything not house-move-related, has to go into stasis until the move is over. My present to myself was a Lego kit, and last night I was finally able to start to build it.

Last time I built some Lego I turned it into a GIF. This time, I was tempted to go the whole hog, set up camera and tripod and lighting, program the camera into time lapse mode, and create a video of the whole thing. It seemed like an awful lot of effort, though, for something that was supposed to be a treat for myself. Maybe after I’ve finished the model once, I’ll take it all apart, set up a time lapse, and build it again. Still, I did take a few photos. This is the end of Step 1.

Not much to show yet

It’s a bit hard to tell what it’s going to be after just one step, I suppose. I didn’t get the whole thing finished in one night, but I suspect this is going to be completed much faster than most of my craft-type projects.

Look, cogs

A bit clearer what it is

I do rather like the level of interior detail in this thing, even though a lot of it is likely to be hardly visible in the finished model. At present, it will just turn into something to sit on a shelf as an ornament in my office, but you never know, I might buy a motor to go with it at some point.

It's got controls and everything

The second part of this Lego build is here