15 November, 2017

Quite a long week...

Driving in the rain
So, I've just completed quite a long week - Last Tuesday Flyingpops finally went into Gatwick Spire to have a bit of corrective work done on her breathing tubes. The surgery itself took roughly the length of time it took me to watch one episode of Star Trek Discovery (about 50 minutes), everything went extremely smoothly, but it left her feeling dizzy and understandably a bit battered and bruised - none the less, we were discharged a couple of hours later and I carefully drove her home and popped her into bed - where she (pretty much) stayed for the rest of the week.

Having had prior warning that this would probably be the case, I had taken those few days off as holiday and thus suddenly plunged into the world of never-ending school runs, playgroups, shopping and swimming lessons. Yes...a nice, relaxing "holiday", the only respite was the couple of hours in the morning between dropping Annabelle at pre-school (and Thomas and Poppy at big school) and picking Annabelle up again at lunchtime - and even that promptly evaporated when Annabelle wasn't actually at pre-school, but had other activities planned.

This was not the worst of it though, when my holiday ran out we still had a few days to cope with where Flyingpops was still not allowed to drive and I had to put in my hours at work. Even though favours had been called in and arranged weeks in advance, as soon as Flyingpops knew the actual date of the surgery - everyone that had promised to help with the school runs ended up letting us down, just what we didn't need in the circumstances.   More (last minute) favours were hurriedly arranged and I ended up taking the car to work - seemed the only sensible solution at the time. 

However, the simple fact of the matter is - driving between Earlswood and Dorking in the morning and evening during the week has become a living hell.  It is a car park the *whole* way. I must have done something in the region of 60 hill starts on my way into the office yesterday, on the way back I decided to try skipping the main roads and the back roads are just as bad, the only section of road that actually moves at any speed at all is the tiny section through Buckland - all of Reigate, all of Redhill and certainly all of Dorking are just gridlocked. Ironically my train going through Betchworth (closing the level crossing) causes massive tailbacks there too.  Since I last did the commute this way it has become a super stressful way to start and end the day - so it was actually with quite a sense of relief that I picked up my ticket at Earlswood railway station this morning and sat down to watch a movie on my telephone, waiting for the train to take the strain...

06 November, 2017

...aaaand - it's winter!

Icy Morning in Earlswood
Absolutely flipping *freezing* this morning...

01 November, 2017

A gentle introduction to RPGs...

Warlock of Firetop Mountain
So Thomas and I have started out on role playing games (in a very small way).  I decided that the best place to start was probably at exactly the same spot where I began,  which was with "The Warlock of Firetop Mountain" which I picked up in 1982 at one of the excellent school book sales at Bishop Gilpen Primary School in Wimbledon, probably while wearing a pair of grey shorts...somehow or other (and this astonishes me) that original book is still in one piece, and is still in my possession 35 years later (despite the hundreds of times I read through it) - so some thanks is due to Penguin for their excellent publishing.

We've only done a few pages so far, but Thomas has taken great delight in writing up his character sheet and drawing out the map (as far as we have got) and I have to say, his style is bold (practically fearless in fact), I will have to take this into account when we progress, the next steps will be Lone Wolf, then into AD&D...although a brief session of Call of Cthulhu would put an end to that behaviour almost immediately... ;)

Amazing skies this morning...

Foggy Morning in Earlswood
Foggy Morning in Earlswood
Towards the Asylum
...reminds me that this is why I love walking to the station early in the morning...it's like being on another world at times... ;)

31 October, 2017

Happy Halloween!

New Porch and Halloween decorations
...and just a glimpse at our new porch, which is confusing the cat no end when it tries to escape through the old front door... ;)

Interesting sights of Dorking #7 - Horse Drawn Charabanc

Horse and carriage in Dorking
Horse and carriage in Dorking
...just trotting down the high street!

30 October, 2017

Redhill Station Platform Zero - Roof almost complete

Redhill Platform One
Thank you to the change of clocks for having some light to take the picture with...still no actual track for the trains to go along though...

Oh and in the underpass they have definitely been knocking things down, so there is very probably going to be a flight up steps up from there after all...

26 October, 2017

Mittens the explorer

Mittens in the garden
So Mittens has had her first few adventures exploring around the garden - outside she is a different cat - exhibiting a 50:50 ratio of behaviour between ALPHA PREDATOR and episodes of terrified skittish flight. So we have to make sure the back door is clear in case she decides she suddenly needs to flee some terrifying invisible foe.

A good, if painful, example was last Sunday, Annabelle had been put on the naughty step for stealing Poppy's pens and screwing up her drawings (poor Poppy) Mittens got panicked about something and flew towards the stairs - got within two feet of a stropping Annabelle, thought *A LOT* better of it and started back-pedalling (but was going so fast she simply couldn't change direction in time) and collided with the Kallax Bookcase by the door.

We found her later, hiding in the litter box looking cross.

25 October, 2017

Thomas - spreading his wings

8 years ago
So it already seems to be starting to happen (and is, of course, inevitable). On holiday in Cornwall I counted at least ten occasions when Thomas basically vanished - sometimes for over an hour - he'd made a new friend (or two) and was off happily surfing with them, or he had just taken himself for a wander on his own to poke around the rock pools (mostly fine) we had a few "Hrm, Thomas has been a while...oh there he is" moments, but largely okay...Once or twice he integrated himself with a little group of 5 kids and they just hung out in the games room in the Club house trying (one at a time) to borrow pound coins from the various parents to be able to play (just one more) game of air hockey or whack-a-mole.

At home, over the last month or so, on four(?) separate occasions - a little friend of his that he used to go to school with has appeared at our front door (so clearly already being given a much longer leash by his family) and asked if Thomas can go out and play. Finally, last Sunday we said yes. So off he went, completely on his own, having to cross one road without any adult supervision.  Flyingpops issued him with her old iphone so he wasn't completely out of touch (he rang once to check a certain movie was okay to watch - which it was) and an hour later (when pinged to come home) he reappeared promptly at the front door.  Because he had been good - we allowed him to return for another half an hour, but drew the line at letting him come back on his own once the sun had set, so I walked over to pick him up (it's only a couple of minutes away).  According to the parents he had behaved himself and they would be pleased to have him again.
Playing in Priory Park
This seems to have happened incredibly fast although, judging by the photo I took of him in Priory Park trying out his first pair of proper shoes, he never did seem to suffer much in the way of separation anxiety.

Saturday night, Thomas and I chilled out in the master bedroom, just the boys. We played Mario Kart and we laughed at people eating increasingly hot chilli peppers on YouTube then we watched the underrated Disney movie "Atlantis" (which is great). We shall have to try and do a bit more of that.

Sunday morning, he crept into our bed for a cuddle, something he hasn't done in a great deal of time.

24 October, 2017

Mittens' operation

Annabelle with pet carrier
So Mittens is growing up fast. Already at least double the size she was when she first came home. Last week she had her operation to prevent lots of baby Mittens from arriving and has since been feeling a bit sorry for herself - Unusual amounts of time curled up asleep on Thomas' bed/hardly performing any vanishing acts, not always appearing precisely where you are about to tread, causing dizzying pirouettes to avoid kitten death.

When she first came home, we had one hell of a time trying to get the little collar on her to stop her licking her stitches. She fought us tooth and claw and yowled like we were murdering her, it was a bit like trying to muzzle a face-hugger.  It didn't help when Thomas pulled it far too tight in an effort to keep it on. Flyingpops ended up stuffing a glowering (and positively bristling) kitten back into the pet carrier, and speeding back to the vets (while I mopped up everyone's blood) - who, of course, popped it neatly on and gave Mittens a pat.

Unfortunately, it appears that a side effect of a cat that cannot groom itself is that it evolves (fairly rapidly) into a smelly, scruffy ball of uneven fur that is quite unpleasant to be around. So, having learned (eventually) to carefully secure the collar ourselves we have only been forcing her to wear it at night - thankfully we are almost at the end of her recuperation and can soon throw the item to the back of the cat cupboard and forget the wretched thing ever existed.

23 October, 2017

Annabelle and the My Little Pony knife incident

Rockpooling - Cornwall - 2017
So this happened while we were staying in Widemouth Bay Holiday Village over the summer largely speaking a very positive holiday - once we had all got used to being confined to the rather small (for 5 people) accommodation.  Everyone calmed down a lot when we could spread out a bit so we spent quite a bit of time on the beach, as you can imagine)...

Anyway, on one of the occasions upon which we were tripping over each other in the apartment we hit an Annabelle flash-point.  Basically, Flyingpops had bought some craft to keep the girls busy, these lovely "colour your own" backpacks - not these exact ones, but this sort of thing -
Colour your own bag kit
-so anyway, the girls are sitting on the carpet, colouring away happily, and I have to warn Annabelle a few times to be careful with the pens - as we were in rented accommodation and I didn't want her colouring in the apartment.  After a few such admonishments (as she got too close to the wall or furniture) I thought I would just check what the back of the box said.

They were permanent marker pens (of bright primary colours) - by this time, Annabelle was proudly swinging her bag about running unpredictably around the white-walled apartment building and touching the walls with her (now) brightly coloured fingers.  I did one last check for danger - and yes, if I touched the coloured-in rucksack the bright colours came straight off onto my fingers - particularly the bright green one.

At home, what would have been merely annoying, in our holiday home, was grounds for paying for the place to be redecorated.

When I put the bag up high (just to give the ink a chance to dry a bit) - MELT DOWN.  Full on tantrum, kicking the floor and furniture, hitting her sister, screaming at the top of her voice - but the cherry on the top - Flyingpops had long since locked herself in the bedroom claiming she had a headache - was coming back from the bathroom to find Annabelle has (in a state of barely controlled fury) pulled a little bench over,  opened up the cutlery drawer, taken out the biggest knife she could find  (a very large bread knife) and was wobbling around and jumping up, still screaming at the top of her voice, trying to use the knife to hook the bag from the worktop!

What on Earth are you supposed to do in that situation!?  Not sure how I wrestled the knife out of her hand and got her off the stool without serious injury to either she or I, but somehow I did.

I think next time we need to read the box first.

17 October, 2017

Machine Learning, Big Data and Artificial Intelligence

Listened to a really good episode of the TED Radio hour podcast on my way into the office the other day. Clued me in to a TED talk by Sam Harris (he's written a number of books that were New York Times best-sellers and is also a credited as a neuroscientist and "armchair philosopher") - basically the talk is about the (as he sees things) inevitability of a super AI evolving (computers are already routinely teaching themselves to learn to do new tasks without human assistance and doing better than their original human programmers), however it tends to be just one thing at a time. When they do learn things they tend to learn to do them very well - play "Go" or chess for example - computers are unquestionably better than humans now at playing these games.

Cars are rapidly learning to drive themselves - people have been involved, but largely the computers are using trial and error in simulations like Grand Theft Auto (where they can't kill anyone real) to learn to drive around complex 3D environments without having a crash. Eventually (and soon) most computer scientists agree computer AI's are going to be doing a lot of the work humans do, are going to be able to perform research unimaginable a few years ago (once the internet of things really happens - already my 'fridge at home is connected to internet) - computers are going to start solving problems humans didn't even know to look for. Looking through millions of variables and tie together say (I pick a few random things here) - the number of times I'm opening the 'fridge making the temperature fluctuate, the fact I have eggs in there from a certain farm, data from an automatic stool/urine sample taken when I visited the bathroom, data on how aggressively I apply the break in the car when driving (if I'm still allowed) and find a pattern of behaviour/things that reliably predicts (for example) I'm in the early stages of developing a brain tumour. Imagine what an AI is going to be able to do once it has all the data on the planet and just starts rapidly looking for patterns -

Things unpredictable and previously non-testable can all come together once we have this huge matrix. Anyway, I digress into the (equally fascinating) subject of big data, the talk is really about making sure we don't do a couple of things (and why) -

  • Get into an uncontrollable arms race between competing AIs (President Putin and Elon Musk agree - I'm sure scientists over Russia are working away on the problem as I type and Google are open about their developments) 
  • Allow ourselves to unwittingly settle into the position of the ant, if the AI is put in the positional equivalent of a team of construction workers - normally not a lot happens, construction workers don't tend to hunt down ants they just live alongside them, but if we have even a slightly differing priority at any point the AI just runs all over humanity without a second thought like a busy guy with a job to do sat in a big JCB 
  • Ignore what we are getting ourselves into - effectively - compared to the sum of current human ability - we are busy setting about building ourselves a god - and to use Sam Harris' words "the train has already left the station" - it's coming and it will be real within the next 50 years.

Very interesting stuff, you can watch the video here - What happens with humans develop super intelligent AI - or listen below -

Redhill platform 0 update

Redhill platform 0
So a bit more in the way of progress, you can now see the extent of what will presumably be the covered area of the platform (spoiler alert - it's pretty much the same as platform 1 and 2), still no evidence of stairs up from the tunnel though, I wonder if it will be a new foot bridge above instead?  That may explain the large metal column you can see on the left of the picture above (click to zoom in if you want a better look)...

16 October, 2017

Red Sky in Dorking, commuters warning...

Red Sun in Dorking
...plus it was getting a bit windy earlier on...looks like I have commuted to red Mars....

Not that I'm short of things to write...

...nice ideas bubble up all the time, but about 2 weeks ago I came up with a notably brilliant idea - I can clearly remember thinking "Oh that's hilarious, what a great blog post that is going to make! Note to self to work that into something when inspiration is low" and then something distracted me and I promptly completely forgot quite what it was - leaving me only with the massively frustrating perfect nagging knowledge that I have let a wonderful idea slip away into blackness...

ARSE.  *Every* time now that my mind wanders off for inspiration I go back to this blank space first, I wonder if this is what writers block feels like?

Dene Street Gardens

Dene Street Gardens
My next door neighbours when I lived in Dene Street Gardens were more of an occasional irritant than a nightmare. In fact I'm probably more of the nightmare neighbour in this particular instance, but on this one occasion (it was the Sunday night of a bank holiday weekend) by about 3am, I had completely had enough of not being able to sleep due to the loud music.

I lost it.

Got myself dressed, pulled on my Doctor Martins, stormed out the front door walking down one side of the alley, stomped back up the other side and executed (what my tired mind had fully intended to be) a loud rap on the window.

Removing my hand from the broken glass (the large hole through which I was now peering) revealing two white-faced occupants frozen - holding an LP near a stacking stereo system in the living room. After a moment's refection I found my prepared speech to be probably inappropriate, switching instead to a hastily prepared profound apology for damage of property and a sincere assurance that I would get a glazier to attend the very next day and then hastily bid my neighbours a pleasant evening before vanishing back to my house and bedroom.

The one blessing was that, even though I didn't actually ask, they did seem to think it appropriate to turn the music down after my surprisingly noisy introduction to their living room. The price of silence was somewhere in the region of £115 (thanks to it being a bank holiday) to get their kitchen door fixed on the Monday, and the next weekend I was still muttering admonishments to myself as I headed down to the kitchen to cook breakfast (I had totally avoided all contact with the neighbours after that).

Outside my kitchen door, as I retrieved my newspaper, milk and orange juice from the window sill, two chaps in casual dress (hoodies etc.) were wandering up my garden path - I greeted them with cautious suspicion. They flashed ID badges and announced themselves to be police detectives, asking if I had noticed anything unusual the night before (I hadn't) then they told me my neighbour had been found dead (suddenly I'm seeing myself in a police line up, the putty being still wet around the newly fixed window about 8 feet away on the opposite house) from the altercation of the week before.

It turned out he died of a heroin overdose sometime during the week and they weren't looking for anyone in connection to the death.

Felt thoroughly rotten and deflated after that, our little incident meant I was probably one of the last people to ever see him alive.

12 October, 2017


It's funny when you find yourself as (pretty much) the sole guardian of a part of history.  It doesn't happen very often now as Google is so great at getting (most) information and keeping it safe, but as my life predates home computers (by a good number of years), let alone the internet as we now know it, I find there to be things that I remember that no-one else has documented online (at all) and increasingly any other minds with similar engrams will stop firing and be placed reverently underground or reduced to ashes (before we learn to CRISPR them into immortality or digitise them).

This isn't any attempt at profundity.  It's just that there are things that are unexpectedly in danger of being completely forgotten to humanity (and I don't like that sort of thing very much).  Now - and this isn't even in the same universe, let alone ball park, but wondering how the pyramids were built is irritatingly futile, and this was a society that did write things down - a lot - (albeit on bits of stone) - we've moved firmly on now, but oh boy is there a consciousness gap.

Anyway, power up your Wayback machines (apologies if they are feeling a bit worn out) - set them for when I started working at Friends Provident - things were (just about) in technicolor, but there was no email yet (even internal "email" was yet to arrive in the form of MEMO), people still had ashtrays on their desks, a few people were still filling out and carefully stacking punch-cards, all the documents for each insurance policy/case were on paper and stored in a big warehouse in Milford (near Salisbury)...there was a computer, just the one.  A big old IBM mainframe (3090?) that mostly just ran a system called GLADIS (General Life Assurance Database Information System - (I think) it was something very close to that anyway) via an insane spaghetti of coax cables out to thousands of dumb terminals - and a few other specialised systems like CA ROSCOE (Urm...Remote OS Conversational Operating Environment?) which was a sort of scripting environment in a clunky text editor, you could write little executables if you could put up with it, some people even wrote little games, there was a Rogue-a-like and a version of the old Star Trek game, ROSCOE was the playground which you also used to do big database queries or fire off millions of mail-merged letters through the car sized line/page printers.  If you had a good enough terminal (i.e. better than 3270) you could run TPX and have everything in teeny weeny fonts (that was 7337)...before we knew it was.

Anyway, just as the first laptops became available (sewing machine sized) Friends Provident did something so revolutionary that they ended up getting a slot on the BBC TV Show "Tomorrows World".
For the time it was staggeringly forward thinking.  Basically, the IFA (Independent Financial Advisor) or a branch sales guy would lug the "laptop" or a similar terminal system (ahem) and a huge great accoustic coupler-
Accoutic coupler
-round to people's houses, presumably unplug everything in the potential clients living room - connect their old-school BT Buzby telephone handset up to the accoustic coupler and use a 300 baud (read very slow) modem to dial up to this system called "FRENTEL" (so I guess in most cases the sales process took place on the floor by the front door where point zero tended to be).  It looked a bit like teletext when it was working, but it interfaced direct with good old GLADIS and allowed the sales guys to produce quotes (and print them off on old daisy wheel printers if they could be bothered to lug them into the hall as well) right there and then in the policy holder's home.


Now...as far as I can see, there is only one document regarding the whole incredible thing on the entire internet about it...this single PDF.

So I guess my point isn't really that FRENTEL existed, it's that now (after having spoken about it a little bit) there are two bits of evidence that it ever did so in the first place.

I hope there aren't too many things I am now responsible for remembering for humanity - FRENTEL is over to you now Google.

Ears are strange...

...not only does the skin inside the ear canal grow constantly out from the inside in a spiral (a bit like a crazy conveyor belt) to keep the canal free of ear wax and other debris, but as you move your eyes to focus on things, the ear drum flexes in the same direction (a bit like a cat/dog ear but not quite as good) to point more specifically at things that could be making interesting sounds.

Try it, you can (kind-of) feel it happening.

11 October, 2017

Atari ST PD - Graven Image

This feels like several lifetimes ago...set your wayback machine to when I can be found living at my parent's house in South Park, not quite sure what I wanted to do for a living, so I filled my time writing the odd game.  This was back in the days when computers lent themselves to creativity rather than just being glorified consoles.  I started writing quite a lot of games, but I finished only three.  They were graphical text adventure games, think Zork,  crafted using a tool called "STAC" (the funky big brother of GAC that I also used to write a bunch of games on the Speccy - but there was no PD scene for the Sinclair crowd so they just existed for my pleasure)...

My releases got reviewed in ST Format (the serious ST users go-to monthly mag) with generally favourable marks (7-8/10), as it had a PD review section (and Mr X. used to regularly forward my releases for review from his Prophecy PD label).  Thank you Mr X. :)

My contributions to the PD scene were as follows, although I also did some sample sequencer demos (basic ones) of various thrash metal songs, but those are definitely infringing someone's copyrights, so I won't mention them, anyway, these are the games, I didn't make these Youtube videos, some kind soul has documented my games for me (albeit briefly)  -

The Elven Crystals
Elven Crystals 1
Youtube video, Download

The Elven Crystals 2
Elven Crystals 2
Youtube video, Download

Youtube video, Download

I hand (mouse) drew all the graphics in Degas Elite (the best drawing tool of the day).  Gradually getting better as I went along.  There were even hidden adventures within the adventures, can't remember the passwords to get in now though...as I said, this was several lifetimes ago.

Very pleasingly you can still get hold of my work (and if you have a floppy drive, a dusty ST in a cupboard and a CRT TV you can re-write the flops as the ST drive was fully IBM compatible), or you can just play them on an emulator.  I'm sure they have aged terribly, like the author, but it was greatly satisfying to contribute to the scene...  ;)

Shout out to the Replicants, the Pompey Pirates, the Medway Boys, Prophecy PD, the Overlanders and TEX.  Make sure you fill up that boot sector and always buy branded disks ...

Wow...I'm old.