2008 — 2 April: Wednesday — will the sun shine?

That wicked Dave Langford is at it again in the latest Ansible. Made me laugh immoderately:

Elderly Lady at Waterstone's: 'I'm looking for something for my grandson; he's 16 and not really into reading, though he likes Pratchett. What might you recommend?'
Waterstone's Person: 'Has he tried Rankin?'
Elderly Lady at Waterstone's: 'Yes, I suppose that would keep him quiet, but I was really wanting to get him a book.'

Bent's Notes, The Bookseller quoted in Ansible #249

As I've just explained to distant Brack (who chided me for not instantly "getting" one of his allusions concerning the divine Amanda Peet): I've spent the evening so far with all PCs powered off to force me to sort out some of the enormous amount of stuff in what was Christa's study. Now I've put one PC back online via the new KVM switch and one of those stupid, curved, ergonomic keyboards that means I now have to watch my fingers again. Progress, pah! Time (00:41) for bed methinks. But first:

Christa in Old Windsor, 1978

This one dates (if Christa's own caption on the newly-rediscovered print can be trusted) to 1978, and is in the back garden at the house in Old Windsor. At this point, can you believe, she's married to a 27 year old ICL manager. But still smiling. No sign of Junior of course. I seem to recall I had just creosoted the fence, too. (Can't do that these days.) Notice her fondness for bright, vibrant colours — notice, too, the fact that she still hadn't (permanently) lost her wedding ring at this point!

Christa and her wedding ring

Some six years earlier or thereabouts, when my parents had moved from Meldreth down to a place called Penn near High Wycombe, they encouraged me (by then just a weekend visitor) to get chummy with a neighbour's son — I think in hopes that his father, a BBC engineer, could then be persuaded to do something about the lousy reception caused by the fact that their new house was in a deep dip. Anyway, part of said chumminess consisted of me being told to lend him one of my books (Mama and Papa were amazingly generous with their disposition of my possessions, come to think of it) so, having just bought (and devoured) Alexei Panshin's "Heinlein in dimension" as an Advent trade paperback (not cheap) from Dark they were and golden-eyed down in London, I duly handed it over. Of course, I never saw it again (I think the cad went off to university and took it with him) ... until today!

My, I can bear a grudge for quite a long time... I can also stay up a lot longer than I said, struggling (in the end, successfully) to rewire Christa's PC and my other PC and get everything working with a lot less cable tangle and three spare power bricks. But it's now 02:20 and I really am starting to droop.

Ultimate fate... dept.

My word! This curved keyboard is a bit bizarre. Anyway, this morning's heading to consider as I swig the first cuppa at a slothful 10:11 or so. Julian Barnes has a brother who is a philosopher, and who contends "the dead are dead and God is just a soppy consolation". Not so, our Julian, who's now written a memoir "Nothing to be frightened of" that features in the TLS. According to the reviewer "[Barnes] nurses certain fantasies regarding his own place in posterity, but knows that in the long run there is really no such thing":

First, you fall out of print, consigned to the recesses of the second-hand bookshop and dealer's website. Then a brief revival, if you're lucky, with a title or two reprinted; then another fall, and a period when a few graduate students, pushed for a thesis topic, will wearily turn your pages and wonder why you wrote so much...

Brian Dillon in The last reader of Julian Barnes

Not with a bang but a whimper, heh?

My first book

My first book (which has surely sunk completely without trace by now) was launched upon the world in the summer of 1975 at a Press Conference (no, really!) at ICL's Putney HQ. It wasn't really a book, more of an audio/visual self-teaching package — the 1900 Series PLAN Independent Study Course ("PISC" for short). In its 28 modules1 I encapsulated what had been a three-week classroom course covering the basics of low-level coding of what one of my later colleagues2 memorably dismissed as a "6-bit calculating engine":

ICL 1904 in Old Windsor, 1971

This ICL 1904 was the very one3 I programmed when I joined ICL at the Beaumont (Old Windsor) Education and Training HQ in February 1974. The photo appeared in a book called "Computers in Context" by RA Cuninghame-Green that my parents gave me for my 22nd birthday in October 1973 once they realised I was completely serious about jacking in my (unfinished) five-year aeronautical engineering apprenticeship with Hawker Siddeley in Hatfield to move into this weird (and then relatively new) world of computers.

My invitation to the launch of my book came very much at the last minute, of course. And there were only 50 copies, priced at £750 each (with a rather crappy portable cassette tape player thrown in). Mind you, in order to get a decent deal on these players we'd actually become an official Hitachi dealer, which was how I shortly afterwards got hold, at trade price, of a decent cassette tape deck to which I added my first external Dolby B noise reduction unit — in what, it now becomes obvious in retrospect, was to be a pretty well life-long quest for better signal-to-noise ratios. A quest that Christa tolerated remarkably well over many years.

DAB hands to the pumps

On that theme, Brian's just sent me a Register link that confirms what I've long felt about DAB radio in the UK. They promised noise-free reception and many more channels. They delivered the latter at the cost of the former.

Personally, I've opted for the Freeview digital terrestrial TV service that bungs in an entirely sufficient number (29 currently) of radio channels and delivers them all sounding remarkably uncompressed, at a sampling frequency of 48KHz,4 and at a quality level indistinguishable (to my ears) from a decent FM tuner fed by a decent roof-mounted antenna aimed direct at Rowridge on the Island. That tuner, by the way, (and the antenna) was bought in 1981 as soon as I moved into this house. The (Technics) tuner was quite remarkable at the time because it contained a one farad capacitor to hold station settings in its memory. "When I were a lad" I remember being told the farad was an unfeasibly large unit of capacitance, hence everything seemed to be in the micro-farad range. Indeed, the self capacitance of the entire planet5 is "only" about 710 micro-farads.

Lighter evenings

It's just gone 18:00 and the day is still pleasantly sunny. I've been feeding my friend Gill with sweetened tea and listening to her describe an ancient mother who sounds, to all intents and purposes, like a clone of mine. I had no idea we were related! Thanks for the company, Gill, and the animated chat.6 It certainly helped raise my endorphin levels. She's now heading off into the evening rush of traffic on the A34 and I'm vaguely contemplating the idea of something to eat. I know it's all my own fault, but staying up to the wee small hours can seriously change your perception of the correct next meal time.

Next task is to feed myself: accomplished. And final (as it were) daylight task is now to go out to pick up Brian, whisk him over to Winchester to pick up some silvery platters carrying analogue video, some with digital sound, (thus clearing the clutter off an overloaded dining room table) and then get him (and them) safely back before Mrs Brian returns from her current Brownie-drowning lessons duties. Should be a piece of cake. I've left it just a bit too late to pick up some more milk, however. I guess nobody's 'prefect'.

Mission accomplished. It's now 21:24 and time for yet another cuppa.



1  The 17 that contained audio cassettes were painstakingly assembled and glued on a Heath Robinson production line by weekend labourers.
2  The "always up for an argument" but entertaining Peter Hillier-Brook. I believe the root cause for his disdain of the 1900 Series stemmed from his background in one of the other (I'd been going to say "halves" but that wouldn't do justice to the splendid mess that was ICL's heritage, forged, as it had been, out of the "white heat" of Harold Wilson's technological revolution) portions of the company — the bit that had produced one of the successful clones of IBM's S/360. Namely the System 4
3  The CPU is barely visible right at the far end of this shot. From memory, I think it had a stonking great memory of 16 Kwords (but it may, by the time I got my hands on it, have been a 32 K system). One word was 24 bits or, in data format, four 6-bit characters.
4  Suggesting, says my friend Nyquist, an upper audio frequency half an octave or so beyond the capability of FM, and a little in excess of a CD.
5  "Researching" that factoid (I'd had in mind a figure nearer one farad) led me, among other places, to this delightful page featuring the Wizard of New Zealand — one Ian Brackenbury Channell. Coincidence? I think not!
Of course I knew it was, really. The "real" Ian tells me: "The Wizard of Christchurch is a colourful character, but no relation; we bumped into each other once in Auckland many years ago. While I was programming in NZ Dept. Statistics he was 'famous' for a while for spending a night out beyond the territorial waters of NZ in a rowing boat to avoid being part of the census; he did that for several censuses." I assume this wasn't a 200-mile limit!
6  In the course of which, Gill described me as a "geek." I strongly protest this but, as I read back through today's jotting, I do find myself wondering... I actually put myself in more or less the same camp as my friend and ex-ICL colleague Ian from those so-distant Beaumont days. He had this to say in one of our email exchanges: "I have not been through what you have with your Best Girl and her passing but, despite being a technologist of the sort the exclusively-literary imagine have no imagination, I have a vivid enough imagination to imagine a little of it. All too easily tears come to the eyes just thinking..." I added the emphasis, of course. He's dead right.