Thursday, June 30, 2011

Aquamain and the pipe that's really a sieve

Yesterday I was at Frenchay Hospital in Bristol for most of the day with my mother, who had an accident at home over the weekend. Thankfully no further treatment was required.

Just a small query: why don't they have WiFi in the waiting rooms?

This morning Aquamain came round to fix the leak in our water supply pipe just outside the house. They located the leak by injecting a mix of Nitrogen and Hydrogen into the pipe and detecting where it surfaced. After digging a big hole next to the path, they triumphantly cut out and exhibited the damaged segment. It looked like something you see from a diseased heart: all corrosion and a small hole like it had been pierced by a nail.

As soon as the water was switched back on three fountains erupted from an adjacent length of pipe: the whole length has succumbed to old-age from its fifty years of lying in the clay. So now we will have to have the whole lot yanked out and replaced by plastic. I doubt we'll have much, if any, change from a thousand pounds.

I wonder what news Friday will bring?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tattoos in Taunton

Foregoing the habits and intentions of a lifetime, Clare is now a tattooed woman. This is necessary for the alignment of the X-Ray machine: her five weeks of radiotherapy start in a fortnight.

We shopped in Taunton's M&S afterwards. The streetside parking meter swallowed 50p and refused to disgorge a 30 minute ticket. Clare wrote a plaintive note to any putative traffic warden and put it on the dashboard (this was at 2.30 pm). My shopping experience in the Food Hall was ruined (ruined!) by the thoughts of some bulldog warden, not a believing bone in her body, duly ticketing the car. I had visions of us in the county court, Clare in tears, as we vainly protested we had paid but had not received a ticket. The stern and utterly cynical judge sentences the two of us to years of hard labour (we stick to our cause - it's a matter of principle!).

We were back, clutching our laden shopping bags, at ten to three. Not a traffic warden or ticket in sight.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Time in the block universe

In March 1955, Einstein wrote to the widow of his oldest friend, Michele Besso: “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

Continue reading at

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Sheep Races at Priddy

After a morning spent collecting three for two offers at Tescos (the pantry now boasts 17 boxes of cereal products) we took a walk this afternoon along the puddled and muddy paths of the Priddy Mineries to take the air. In desperate need of refreshment we then repaired to Priddy itself, where the sheep races were about to begin. Putting my beer to the ground, I managed to get these action snaps of the runners and riders.

Here's Clare at the races. As an inveterate gambler on the gee-gees, it was only with great effort that Adrian and myself could prevent her from betting £40 on what would have been a classic losing sheep.

Is that a sheepish smile?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Tourism in Clifton, Bristol

Today we pretended to be tourists in my native city, Bristol and decided to visit Clifton.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge
We started in Clifton Village, home to boutique shops, fancy restaurants and pubs, and walked the few hundred yards to Royal York Crescent, a Georgian terrace of 46 houses reminiscent of the Royal Crescent in Bath. It's one of the most expensive streets in Bristol.

Royal York Crescent in Clifton
Clare taking a rest in the Crescent
We then strolled up to the Suspension Bridge and examined the anti-suicide wiring at the edge of the pedestrian walkway. The bridge noticeably rocks as cars go by and I, at least, was feeling twinges of vertigo as we exited towards the Roman Catholic Cathedral.

Clare in Clifton RC Cathedral
On the way we passed the traditionally-spired evangelical Christ Church (1841) which was locked - the Cathedral was, as you can see, open.

A Bullfinch in our front garden
As the Portway was blocked by an earlier incident, we drove back across the Suspension Bridge and this new route seemed just as quick.

And here's a bonus picture of the author.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

More Water

Just an update on the supply pipe leak outside our house (yawn! for everybody else, a real hassle for me).

We got our second quote today and I decided to go with Aquamain. We'll see how it goes next week, assuming our house hasn't slid down the hill and onto the Cathedral Green in the meantime.
I'm reading about Bayesian inference at the moment. It's a page-turning book which is big on the academic infighting, the personalities and the issues while telling you next to nothing about the actual mathematics. It can be turned into a piece for over the next few days, though.

Monday, June 20, 2011


In Iain M. Banks’ Culture books, the Culture Minds are AIs possessing an intelligence far surpassing our own. Many people have speculated that we might one day meet ultra-intelligent aliens, or that our own descendants might be genetically-engineered to have very high IQs. So what would it be like to be an ultra-intelligent entity and is ultra-intelligence really going to happen?

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Review: "Who is Mr Satoshi" by Jonathan Lee

Posted at (Amazon Vine).

Forty-one year old Rob Fossick has fallen into deep depression following the death of his pregnant wife in a tragic accident. Formerly a successful society photographer, he now shuns company and pops pills, while occasionally visiting his semi-coherent mother in her care home. The story opens with her tragic death following a fall on the patio. Her last wish was to have a mysterious parcel delivered to a ‘Mr Satoshi’ in Japan.

His mother’s best (female) friend, Freddie, is also a resident, and after the funeral she confirms to Rob that Mr Satoshi is actually English, a Reggie something, who was a post-war boyfriend of his mother who had travelled to Japan to work with the Occupation forces. Somehow they had lost touch.

Fossick’s publisher is coincidentally also keen for him to go to Japan, hoping this will re-ignite his appetite for photography and turn the revenue taps back on. So despite Fossick’s self-absorbed apathy, he nevertheless finds himself in Tokyo on the hunt for Mr Satoshi. Eventually he will locate him and in the last pages the mystery will be revealed.

Author Jonathan Lee took a first in English Literature at Bristol University, and later as a solicitor worked in Tokyo: naturally enough, the settings in the novel are Bristol and Tokyo. In the course of his studies, Mr Lee absorbed the rules of literary writing, the need for inventive description and vivid metaphor. I imagine him diligently working on his draft text, clause by clause, trying to turn matter-of-fact descriptive prose into something more ornate. Occasionally this results in infelicities such as: “I felt my heart beating hard in my head.” (p. 5).

Lee’s other main character is the twenty-something English-speaking student, Chiyoko Kobayashi, daughter of a prostitute and part-time receptionist at a Love Hotel. Slightly inexplicably she takes a shine to Fossick and ends up doing all the leg-work in the hunt, as Fossick speaks no Japanese. The subsequent plot unfolds at a somewhat leisurely pace and the revelations, when they eventually come, are unsurprising.

In Fay Weldon’s taxonomy, this is a ‘bad-good’ book. Mr Lee clearly has promise as a writer but this underpowered first novel must count as his apprentice piece. The plot is slow-moving and ultimately rather unengaging; Lee spends time and effort trying to establish and paint his characters but they end up rather stock and shallow; finally, his descriptive writing, while often inventive, can overwhelm his narrative.

I found the most exciting and authentic writing was where Lee lets his characters off the leash a little, giving them sardonic, wisecracking lines: humour can be so much more refreshing than earnestness. I would encourage Mr Lee to persevere, to find his own voice and to let raw technique retire to the servant-role where it belongs.

Breaking Up

Having gone to all the effort to acquire BT Vision and the Sky Sports channels for the cricket, it has been a disappointment that the picture so often breaks up. For days we blamed the weather, but today I succumbed to an outbreak of rationality and called Dave from Wookey Aerials, a TV man of ten years experience.

I liked Dave. He was a stoutly-built forty-something with the odd tattoo - maybe ex-military - but he knew his transmitters and his multiplexes. The problem apparently is that on the digital auto-scan both the TV and the Vision box search from low to high frequencies. This means they pick up the Plymouth transmitter first (which is miles away) and then ignore the higher frequency Mendip transmitter which is on our doorstep.

However, we are so low in the sight-line of the Mendip transmitter that ever close proximity isn't giving us much signal strength for the low-power Freeview multiplexes, which include Dave (19) and Sky Sports (41, 42). As a consequence, Dave suggested I buy a Tesco signal booster (£9.97).

Then he showed me his trick. He set each device in turn on auto-tune, but with the aerial coax pulled out of the wall. He waited until the scan passed 50% (and was safely past the Plymouth frequency band) and then plugged it back in. Voila! The TV/Vision box acquired just the Mendip transmitter channels. It works better already.

As a bonus, he explained that both our SONY TV and our Vision box were HD-ready. All we needed to do was to buy an HDMI cable to replace the SCART one we're currently using and then we'd be able to watch the Freeview HD channels!

Sounds perfect. When I got back from Tescos this afternoon, the first thing I did was to plug in the signal booster pre-amp to improve Clare's already good Sky coverage of the England v. Sri Lankan test.

It made the picture worse.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Water flowing underground

It was the Talking Heads, wasn't it?

On Thursday we had to go to Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton for Clare to meet with the radiotherapy doctor and plan her schedule: I have been to more upbeat meetings.

Yesterday, Clare went out for a walk. I, meanwhile, was waiting for the inspector from Bristol Water to come round as we had discovered, from our water meter in the road outside, that we have a leak somewhere in the garden.

Just before lunch Clare returns and is in quite a lot of abdominal pain. At half past one I've called the doctor out. She duly arrives about an hour later at which point there are odd "Doctor Who"-like bleeps and squeaking noises coming from just outside the house (the doctor gives me an odd glance as she leaves). The water man is tracing the pipes with a metal detector.

Clare has an infection acquired, the doctor believes, at the hospital. Meanwhile, the inspector has located the leak somewhere beneath the concrete path running alongside the house. 'Maybe two or three feet down, at the junction with the internal pipework. Plumbers used to be notorious for getting that connection wrong leading to corrosion.'

I didn't have time to get Clare's prescription: too busy calling home insurance and various contractors to get quotes. The water man rubbed his chin judiciously and estimated that in excess of £1,000 a year was escaping under our garden. I believe we will get it back.

The BBC news last night was in a full flood of moral indignation over a Conservative MP who had proposed that the laws of supply and demand might apply to people with mental deficiencies when it came to getting a job. (He thought they should price themselves at below the minimum wage to give themselves a comparative advantage when applying for the simple jobs which they were capable of doing).

It's not so much that there aren't arguments (albeit not especially good ones) against his position: it's the intolerable smugness and self-righteousness of the 'do-gooders' which irritates. Patronising smiles, economic illiteracy and the spending of other people's money: an inseparable trinity.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Terry Pratchett

I thought Mr Pratchett looked increasingly shaky in his recent TV programme and subsequent interviews, lobbying for the legal right to choose the manner of his own death. At the moment, he probably believes that that fateful sunny morning when he'll drink his hemlock lies in a misty, indeterminate future: it always will.

He will, sadly, become too confused to make his big decision, and so will slide into dreaded, vegetative oblivion. This seems the unique fate of Alzheimer sufferers - to go from too soon to too late with no mid-place to call an end.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The other garden centre at Almondsbury

Clare and my mother visiting the one we usually don't go to. It's a lot smaller and less diversified, but perhaps more charming for that. The two gardeners wandered around while I had a rest, and then Clare and myself had toasted teacakes while my mother consumed a pot of strawberry icecream in the sun.

The LHC as a weapon system

The Large Hadron Collider would make an excellent weapon system if it wasn't inconveniently buried 500 feet beneath the French-Swiss border. Read more here.

We saw the film "The Way" yesterday afternoon at the Wells Film Centre. This is a charming, slightly sentimental film about the great pilgrimage route, El Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) in northern Spain. I seem to be the only one who had never heard of it.

Here is the plot synopsis from Wikipedia. The main protagonist, Tom, is played by Martin Sheen and his son, Daniel, is played by Martin's real-life son, Emilio Estevez who wrote, produced and directed.

Tom is an American doctor who goes to France following the death of his adult son, killed in the Pyrenees during a storm while walking the Camino de Santiago, a Christian pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, also known as The Way of St. James. Tom's purpose is initially to retrieve his son's body. However, in a combination of grief and homage to his son, Tom decides to walk the same ancient spiritual trail where his son died in order to understand his son better. While walking The Camino, Tom meets others from around the world (three in particular), all broken and looking for greater meaning in their lives.

During his travels, Tom discovers the meaning of one of the last things his son said (in a flashback) to his father: that there is a difference between "the life we live and the life we choose."

I was up early this morning as Adrian has started temporary work in a local cheese factory, deep in the countryside north of Castle Cary, about 12 miles from here. It was a 7.15 a.m. start for Adrian but he'll be driving himself tomorrow when his car insurance commences ...

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Tor Hill

Clare and Adrian at the top of Tor Hill this morning, before the clouds rolled in with more rain. [Click on image for a larger view].

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Book Review: 'Fuzzy Nation' by John Scalzi

Posted here at

Sky Sports success

While we were visiting my mother in Bristol yesterday, the backroom folk at BT Vision were toiling away trying to get Sky Sports 1 &2 and ESPN to work on our new BT Vision system. I got a call on my new smartphone around midday - Craig said that they had downloaded some new systems software to the BT Vision box and as a result the smart-card enabled channels were now working. I didn't really believe him.

At 4.30 pm we were back home and of course my pessimism was unfounded: in glorious video we were able to watch the last hour of the England vs. Sri Lanka second test (it was a draw). So thanks, Craig! And thanks for calling back at 6.30 pm to check it was all working.

We are using all the functions of the BT Vision box:

1. I recorded The Archers in advance and Clare heard it later.
2. We were going to be late for Springwatch so I set it to record from 8 pm and then Clare started watching the recording at 8.10 (yes, you can record and watch a programme at the same time).
3. We watched a Video-on-Demand programme from The Discovery Channel on the Meredith Kercher murder trial this morning.
4. We used the Pause/Resume button on a programme we were looking at yesterday. Bonus - you can fast-forward through the adverts.

Two criticisms. Firstly, the design of the set-top box is bulky and old-fashioned; does it really need to be so large? Secondly, I find the menu structure cluttered and confusing. Apart from that the service brings a tranche of new functionality we're finding really useful.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Magical Thinking about the Big Bang

The editor at sent me a link to a video a little while back, suggesting it might be worth an article. I had no idea what was in store, but then this.

BT Vision

BT Vision arrived today in shrink-wrapped boxes. First I junked my old and trusty NetGear router and replaced it with the new BT Hub. So much junk on their installation CD - they are STILL trying to force you into their ghastly BT-Yahoo mail and various rubbish toolbars. Surely they must now be rueing that ill-fated tie-up.

After having my hard driver cluttered with God-knows-how-many Megabytes of unwanted "extra features", I was eventually released from screen-thrall to discover how to configure the hub itself (not easy to find, BT!) and thus set the password to what I wanted.

The Powerline devices were easy. This is how BT trucks the Video-on-Demand from the HomeHub to the TV set - through the mains cabling. The two Powerline devices simply plug into the wall and connect via Ethernet cabling to their clients (HomeHub and Vision box respectively).

The Vision Box itself was relatively easy to wire up, but erratic to make work. Too many minutes staring at blank screens wondering if anything was actually happening. Sometimes I thought it was on, but it was on standby ... purple and blue look rather similar, BT. That wasted half an hour.

The Sky viewing card failed to work. After an hour I called technical support in India, and they confirmed a fault and have escalated to 'back office'. I await developments.

So far though, the basic Vision functionality looks good. I did a quick 'catch-up TV' experiment and the programme - streamed over the Internet - looked just fine. We were late with dinner and as Clare nursed a burned hand (retrieving something way too hot from the oven) we daudled and were late for the cricket on Channel 5. No problem! I just paused it, and then resumed it at 7.30 pm when Clare and Adrian were ready to watch.

And someone has to do the washing up ...

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Another hurdle jumped over!

This post crafted on the new smartphone itself. The soft keyboard is easier to use than the slide-out one. Ironic in that I made great efforts to go for the "real" keyboard. The soft version has really smart typo correction.

Anyway, the TV is talking about Cheryl Cole back on the US X-Factor so I must leave you now ...

Saturday, June 04, 2011

New smartphone (continued)

Clare has suggested that my new HTC Desire Z is the biggest threat to our marriage yet. She has caught me looking at it surreptiously in the pub, checking to see whether its WiFi function has logged on to the free WiFi there.

It is an amazing device. The manual is well over 200 pages and I have so far discovered that it can leverage its 3G data connection to serve as a local WiFi hotspot. The GPS works and has us down to the right street number. I have now installed Skype, LinkedIn and DropBox as apps - I'm checking The Economist app for android right now.

Through the HTC website, the phone can be found if lost or stolen, the device can be locked or in a worst-case scenario all of its contents can be erased from the laptop.

The phone really leverages Google's approach to cloud computing which makes Microsoft's worldview essentially obsolete. I know we all know this, but using a smartphone makes that abstract knowledge very real. The future of computing is no doubt to be more like smartphones, which means more app-centric (reminding me of the object-oriented paradigm).

Nokia, such a dumb move to seek your salvation through an alliance with Microsoft!

Thursday, June 02, 2011

HTC Desire Z mobile phone

My new phone arrived this morning, and the Sony-Ericsson K750i has been hand-me-downed to Adrian. I am in the familiar positionn of vaguely knowing how it works but of not being able to do anything of importance. For example:

* Making my home page Google rather than the annoying htc default they've configured in their under-powered browser.

* Importing my browser favourites.

* Installing Skype and Dropbox.

Still, the GPS impressed me, placing me exactly where I know I am in Wells!

Tomorrow is a day with the manual.
Clare update: she's continuing to improve but the phone call from the Taunton hospital pathology lab today merely announced that they had not completed tests and that we are to wait perhaps another week. The preliminary results are consistent with previous indications, however. The prospects of follow-up radiotherapy seem stronger, though.