Archive for November, 2012

An Electron User

November 20, 2012

Nearly thirty years ago I was a computer programmer and general writer of reviews and the like. I had an Acorn Electron computer and wrote for Electron User magazine. Some of my bits and pieces can still be found on line. This is a review that I wrote of a game, from those long ago days when games came on cassette tapes and took ages to load. The stuff now comes from http://www.acornelectron.co.uk/ . Now those folks running a site about a defunct computer – they are real nerds and I hope they, like me, are happy.

It is good to see more firms getting involved in budget priced software and Alternative Software have now joined this growth industry with a pin-table simulation. 

The cassette case for the game

Just as on a real pin-table, the controls are simple. The spacebar is used for the plunger which pushes the ball onto the table. The speed of the ball can be varied by adjusting the time you hold down the spacebar. Once in play, the ball bounces off the various obstacles. 

These obstructions not only decide your score, but make rapid changes to the speed and direction of the ball. When it falls to the bottom of the table, you can push it back using Z and ? keys that control the left and right flippers. 

With subtle use of the flippers, you can aim the ball to the bonus channel at the left of the screen. Success will cause mayhem to break out as numbers and colours flash everywhere and a bonanza of sound occurs. You should also aim to get the ball to pass through each of the channels at the top of the table so that the letters B, O, N, U and S all change colour and give your score a healthy boost. 

Inevitably, the ball will either fall down one of the drains at the side – you can do nothing about this – or you’ll miss a ball with your flippers. In either case you can now move on to your next ball. 

Altogether you get five balls, and the game is for up to four players. Each competitor uses one ball in turn and all aim to reach the high score table. 

The nature of a pin-table does not make for exciting animated graphics. VIDEO PINBALL has a tidy screen and the simplicity of the action makes for smooth but rapid movement. You can slow the game if you wish by selecting the BBC Micro option. 

The choice of colour – white ball on a yellow background – is poor, both in colour and black and white. Sound effects are rather good. The bleeps and buzzes have an authentic flavour, but there should be an option to turn them off. No method exists within this software, although *FX210,1 before loading will kill all sound. 

I have one criticism of the pin-table – it is not possible to catch a ball on the flippers to get real control over direction. That apart, VIDEO PINBALL is a good simulation and quite addictive. The style of the software is somewhat dated, but at £1.99 represents good value for money.

Gatwick Airport

November 19, 2012

I was raised in a village called Ifield which became a part of Crawley New Town. During my childhood, the new Gatwick Airport was built. Our house ended up about a mile and a quarter from one end of the runway.

The new airport opened in 1958. During construction, our quiet, child friendly village street had become a thoroughfare for an endless stream of lorries carrying spoil from the new site. What a shame not to have recorded that stream of 1950s lorries.

Then came the excitement of aircraft spotting. The severed end of Bonnetts Lane was close enough to the runway to be able to collect aircraft registrations. Sadly, I gave my books away so I have no record written down of the planes I saw in a brief career as a plane spotter.

Actually, it really wasn’t too exciting because aircraft movements were few and far between. What there were would have been classed as tiny by today’s standards. Dakotas formed the backbone of any operations but we also saw De Havilland Doves and Herons. My favourite was the Vickers Viscount and I still have my ‘Dinky; from that era.

I was disappointed at the time that the Viscount was not made in BEA livery, for that was what I saw. This was Air France livery and I never saw anything that exotic.

The Viscount has the proper legends on its wings.

I recall one occasion when a Viscount came in to land and we could see one engine wasn’t working. Suddenly, the landing was aborted and the plane climbed, unsteadily and veered away from the runway towards we spotters at the end of Bonnetts Lane. This was scary for we didn’t have a clue what was happening. About 5 minutes later the same plane made another runway approach and did precisely the same thing. We learned, somehow, that this was crew training. There were so few flights in and out of Gatwick that the facilities could be used for such purposes.

Standing at the end of the lane and seeing no aircraft movements began to wane as a field of fun. I gave up the hobby of spotting, but still kept myself aware of the aircraft scene. In 1969 I had a chance to visit the British United Airways facilities at Gatwick and was delighted to find a Dakota – by then a local rarity – taxiing around.

But despite interest, to this day my only flying experience has been in a glider.

Dungeness – a nerd’s delight

November 18, 2012

If you are after out-and-out rugged, mountainous grandeur, then Dungeness is a place to miss out on your tourist itinerary. If you are after the trees and fields of England’s green and pleasant land, then Dungeness needs a wide berth. If you like the wide and wild open space, with a good mix of the natural and the man-made landscape about it, then Dungeness is very much a pick of the pops location.

Now this blog isn’t meant to sound like a tourist brochure but Dungeness, in the south-west corner of Kent, is a very special place. Or at least, this writer thinks so.

But then this writer likes places with old fishing debris – and Dungeness has that.

All photos were taken in May 2010.

Dungeness is good for those specialist plants that eke existence out of deep shingle.

There truly is something endearing about a plant that can thrive and prosper in such a harsh environment.

And why does man chose a place that looks so inhospitable to drag his boats ashore. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder. To me there is beauty in that scene.

Dungeness has a backdrop of nuclear power stations. These are rather fear-inducing in their awesome magnificence.

On the left, there’s the old lighthouse on this ever-growing headland.

Aha. Dungeness has a steam railway. This was the 1920s brainchild of Captain Howey. The track may be a mere 15 inches in gauge, but this runs as a proper railway. It may, originally, have been the captain’s plaything, but it is no mere toy. Here’s number 6 which, I think, is Samson by name, but I note my booklet on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway is a relic itself – published in 1946.

Most of this line is double track, but at Dungeness the trains go round a single track loop. It saves all shunting or the need for a turntable. The curvature is quite sharp so you can see the back of the train to the right of the loco.

There’s Samson ready to depart from Dungeness. The new lighthouse is beyond the loco. What I call new is some 50 years old now.

With the train gone there’s scope to find more jolly fishing junk!

The Brighton Belle

November 17, 2012

I grew up in Sussex so electric trains were part of life. Amongst the hoped for things to happen, if waiting for a train at Three Bridges, was to see the Brighton Belle racing through. There was a chance to glimpse the names on the Pullman cars that made up this train; a chance to admire the Pullman livery of brown and cream; a chance to see the chintzy interior, with the elegant little table lamps; perhaps a glimpse of a white waistcoated waiter serving at a table.

One thing I was certain of was that I would never travel on this train to enjoy the luxury first hand. The train ran, non-stop, from London to Brighton. And there was no reason why I should ever make that journey.

But I did. I had no idea, as a child, just what a good life a student could have. I became a student in London. I ran the Transport Society (there’s a surprise). We could take subsidised trips. One of them was on The Brighton Belle.

So all those items glimpsed from a platform did become personal experience. I made the journey, being served a meal by the white waistcoated waiter. I enjoyed the sumptuous interior and loved those table lamps. One thing had changed and that was the livery. By the time I made the trip in 1969, the train had gone into BR corporate Pullman livery. I didn’t think it suited the train as well as the old colour scheme, but it was still a memorable experience.

I snapped a photo of the train, that day, in Brighton.

I have already written about a 1966 Pul/Pan Farewell tour. In a sense, this trip was my farewell to the old electrics. The Brighton Belle train was closely modelled on the more prosaic units which ran the normal services.

Another Modern French Bridge

November 16, 2012

Another Modern French Bridge

This bridge is famous for being the tallest bridge from valley floor to top of pillars anywhere.  As Rolf Harris said when painting (almost), ‘do you know where it is yet?’ Yes, it’s the Millau Viaduct which opened to traffic in December 2004 and was about 15 months old when we were there.

In 2006 we were heading to the south of France and phoned a potential B and B stop. The owner kept referring to a viaduct which we would see. We should have known what it was, but we were taken by surprise by the sheer scale of the thing.

The word we used to describe the ability to plan and make such a structure was ‘audacious’. That still seems the right words for this elegant, wonderful structure.

Even from a distance, you can’t get all of it framed in a camera.

It is altogether a hugely tall bridge. Those are the tall pillars and you could all but fit the Eifel Tower underneath the roadway and up to the top of the suspension towers makes it higher than the famous Paris landmark.

For those with a need to know, 343 metres is about 1125 feet or nearly three times the height of the cliffs at Beachy Head.

High above a huge lorry and trailer can be seen on the Millau Viaduct.

It really is an amazingly elegant structure.

It looks good by night as well.

Early memories

November 15, 2012

I have reached that age where my earliest memories are now from more than 60 years ago. Which is quite a scary thought. My earliest memories date from 1952. My family went camping – it was obviously a kind of holiday. This was in part due to the local scouts for we were certainly a part of their camp. Maybe my parents did a bit of helping which gave us use of tents. I’m afraid my memories don’t extend to these whys and wherefores. In fact I have virtually no memories from this camp. I know it was at Lancing, in Sussex, because I’ve been told. Of the journey, the tents, the food or other people, I can tell you nothing.

I have two specific memories. One was of personal trauma when the bottom fell out of my world – just about literally fell out as far as I was concerned.

I was walking along a raised dyke – some kind of flood defence it would have been. I can remember being happy for I was, in effect, King of the Castle with other family members on a lower path. I didn’t notice that the dyke ended and suddenly, as I trotted cheerfully along, I was falling. I ended in a ditch. Do you know, I don’t remember hurting myself nor even getting wet. But my confidence in the certainty of the world was shaken. I howled and howled and howled. I’m sure it did me no lasting harm;

The other memory clearly shows my early promise as a nerd. Within view of the camp there was the Lancing cement works. I’m sure that was interesting in itself, but it was their shunting loco that I remember. It was a little yellow diesel shunter. I was clearly only a novice nerd for I was told later that the cement works was using steam powered lorries. I never noticed them. But I contededly watched the yellow shunter at work, organising its trucks across the other side of the River Adur.

Diesel shunter at the Lancing Cement Works

My dad had a photo which included that yellow shunter – at the left of the photo.

Nerdism started there!

A Beautiful Bridge

November 14, 2012

Bridges come in all shapes, sizes, styles and ages. Here’s a modern one which I think is utterly elegant. Nerds can admire the modern just as much as the old. This picture was taken in August 2000 when my wife and I were on our way to the Alps.

If you associate elegance with France, you’d be right in this case. This bridge is at the Lac du Der-Chantecoq,  in Marne, France. The function of the lake is something to do with preventing flooding in Paris. It was constructed in 1974 and is about 180 kilometres from the centre of the French capital.

In terms of the photo, the colours generated by the setting sun help to make it, but for me it is the simplicity of the structure that makes it a magical structure. It is just a footbridge – the lake has many small islands.

In fact, the lake, the biggest  man-made lake in Western Europe has a good mix of habitats and is a veritable haven for wild life.

But spare a thought for the people of the village of Chantecoq which lies, submerged, at the bottom of the lake.

I Spy the Wheel

November 13, 2012

Back in the 1950s, I-Spy books were very popular. They were produced by the News Chronicle and a book purchased for 6d (that meant 40 of them for a pound) could provide weeks of entertainment. Wheel spotting must have been about as nerdy as it got.

Guess what? I still have a copy.

These books offered information

They encouraged us to be interested in almost everything, big and small.

I-Spy was a club. You could pay to join it and if you did (which I never did) you could get Order of Merit certificates if you scored lots of points. You might notice that the windmill fantail scored 40 points whereas the sewing machine, much more common, got 10.

What a great way to learn to be a top class nerd.

Eclipse – August 11th 1999

November 12, 2012

This is another page from my original website. Well, a nerd just had to see a total eclipse of the sun. What an experience that was.

The eclipse date had been in my knowledge for years. I had planned, with my brother, where we would go to see the eclipse but he died as long ago as 1980 so that idea – of being in Cornwall, went by the board.

However, there was still my dad and he was very keen to be involved with a total eclipse. I believe he had plans to hire a plane so that he might be above any cloud cover, but those plans went by the by, too, for he died in 1996.

However, these losses in the family were not going to stop me from seeing the eclipse but, like many another Englishman, I listened to the tourist advisors get in a total muddle over the places to watch the eclipse in Cornwall and the way to watch it. I, along with my own family, plumped for France.

So it was that on the morning of August 11th we were driving on the motorway near Nancy and finding truly awful traffic – the worst I have ever known in France. Not only was the traffic awful, so was the weather too. Visibility was very restricted from the point of view of a driver. For an eclipse watcher it was dreadful. There was 100% cloud cover and it looked like the thick, nasty cloud that had no chance of clearing. It was just a bit depressing.

We decided that, perhaps, the French might be a bit like the English – mapless – so we turned off the motorway, secure in the knowledge that we were in the total eclipse zone. At times, it seemed as though it might be just as crowded off the motorway, but in fact, we made quite good progress and well before ‘obscurity’ we were sited on our hill top, just outside the little village of Mars la Tour near Metz. Somehow, a place called Mars seemed appropriate, for it seemed that we would be saying, ‘We went to Mars but didn’t see an eclipse’. At least the Mars would call for an explanation.

Once we were settled on our drizzly hill, we got out the ‘safe glasses’. Now in England, people had been told they weren’t really safe. In France they were assured they were. People had been told they must get to the total zone. One pundit, on telly, the night before, had said, ‘To witness an eclipse is like kissing your fiancée, but to see a total eclipse is like a night of love’. No wonder the French were determined to witness totality.

We had to make do with the fun of the glasses.

That’s my daughter and she’ll have been seeing precisely nothing through those glasses. Behind her you can see either thick cloud or very thick cloud.

Then the miracle happened. Gaps started to appear in the clouds.

Through these gaps we got seductive little glimpses of the crescent sun. The world had gone very silent, but from groups of people around our hilltop we could hear the occasional yelp of joy and we knew ‘the gap was with them’

I was really very surprised at how light it was. The cloud was thick and it was a dismal day but it seemed to me that it was just that. It didn’t seem extra dark because there was virtually no sun. But then, with an amazing swiftness darkness descended. There was no sun to be seen through the clouds, it was just that our dull and dismal day became darkness. There was no dusk and no time for adjustment to the new situation. It caused quite an emotional response in me – not least because I was thinking of absent family members who were not with me to witness the moment.

With no sun to see through the cloud, I had time to snap a flash shot of my son. He’ll hate me for putting this one on the web!

That blackness amazed me. It was truly black, except that away beyond Metz there was a glow on the horizon – areas yet to reach totality.

Our miracles lasted for just before the end of the total period the clouds parted and there was a black disc with a corona round it and then, almost immediately a diamond ring effect, accompanied by great cheers from some of our party. The total eclipse was over and I had no photo of it.

Later, though, as the sun’s crescent enlarged and the clouds cleared, albeit partially, I was able to try my trick of taking a photo through my binoculars. I am pleased with the effect.

I rate that eclipse as one of the most magic moments of my life.

Dai Woodham’s

November 11, 2012

Watching grown men cry!

If Dai Woodham’s means nothing to you, then either skip this blog which, perhaps, gets to the heart of nerdism – or read on and learn that in the end the heritage tourist business owes a huge debt to Dai Woodham, scrap merchant of Barry Island in South Wales.

In the mid-1960s steam locomotives were being swept out of railway service at an incredibly fast rate. The railway works could not dispose of these big hunks of metal fast enough so many were sold to private scrap metal merchants – amongst them Dai Woodham.

For some reason, Dai dealt with the locos very slowly. The argument seemed to be that other items could be cut down for scrap more quickly. A huge number of locos just stood, slowly rusting, on the Woodham sidings at Barry.

As early as 1968, preservationists realised that Dai had a wonderful collection – and that if money could be raised to buy them, his locos had potential. The Keighley and Worth Valley Railway were able to purchase a loco and this was the start of a slow exodus from Barry.

My opportunity to visit Barry came in the spring of 1982 by which time no less than 139 locos had been bought, mostly for preservation but some to provide spare parts. The yard did not seem empty.

I was still using colour slide film at the time with my trusty Canon demi camera which took 72 half sized slides on a 36 exposure film. When I first made copies, I could only get small images like this one.

Enough to make grown men weep – the seemingly wasted hulk of a big steam loco.

Yes, I joined the grown men wandering these sad sidings. Many men were actually crying. This was easily recognisable as a Battle of Britain Class of the Southern Railway. She became the 158th engine to leave Barry, in November 1984. By 1987 she was back in service on preserved railways.

More recently I’ve been able to get bigger copies, but of course, my original slides are just 24mm by 18. (And blogs limit the size anyway).

Dai Woodham’s sidings in 1982. How sad it looked but how happy the outcome.

The engine on the right – a big GWR 2-8-0 tank left Barry in 1987, the 190th engine to leave. Over on the left there’s a Bullied pacific and a Stanier black 5.

I really can’t over emphasise the mournful attitude of the middle-aged men roaming Dai’s sidings that day. Yet really, it should have been smiles. These engines were all saved.