Memories of a Sunday afternoon

Since I turned 50, I’ve occasionally found my thoughts turning back towards my childhood and adolescence. I’ve no idea why – my parents are both dead, I’m estranged from my biological family and have no childhood friends around to make me think of those times.  Maybe I’m being a good Jungian and ‘looking inward’, or maybe I’m just finding out what nostalgia is all about.  Who knows.

One thing that has kept popping back in to my mind over the last few years – and I have no idea why – was 4-30pm, Sunday afternoons. After dinner (we ate at about 3pm on Sundays) my mum would be tidying around and my dad would go for a lie down. I would be playing / experimenting / reading in my hobby-room (I grabbed the small box room) and once my dad was ensconced in his bedroom he’d turn on his radio (the Ekco set I mentioned ages ago in this post) and out would come the sound of the opening music for the Radio 2 program ‘Sing Something Simple’.  30 minutes of vocal harmonies with piano and accordion accompaniment.  Rather than try and explain it, I point you to this site where the show is described.

I didn’t like it much then – it was a staple of my childhood and teenage years, and for me the saving grace was that after it the chart show was broadcast – and I have seen the show described as ‘audio chloroform’. But, my father would hum along, and even now I can remember the songs and so it must have insinuated itself in to my head.

Sunday afternoon was an odd time for me – I guess an odd time for any schoolchild – it’s the last bit of freedom before you go back to school on Monday.  ‘Sing Something Simple’ was sort of the start of Sunday evening – after that program would come the chart show, which I’d listen to whilst doing whatever tinkering I was doing, but I have to say that I don’t recollect the chart programmes as much as the Cliff Adams Singers these days!

Somewhere during the chart show would appear Sunday Tea – usually sandwiches, cake, etc. spread out on the living room table.  You’d get what you wanted and sit in the living room eating up.

After the chart show – around 7pm – would be Sunday Evening Bath time. Again, odd memories.  Sometime in my childhood / teens I started reading in the bath, but the main thing I remember from my baths as a child was the long handled scrubbing brush (backs for the use of) which was in the form of a pale green, plastic, long tailed fish.  And there was a ‘thing’ that contained the soap, flannel, scrubbing brush, whatever that rested on the edges of the bath tub across the bath itself.  I think it also ended up containing toy boats when I was REALLY small.

And after bath it was get dry in front of the fire….and funnily enough, I don’t remember much after that.

The human memory is a funnily selective thing. Folks assure me that ‘it’s all in there somewhere’ but I really would like to fill in some of the gaps!

Small fires in jam jars

By the time I got interested in radio and electronics – when I was about 10 years old, in the early 1970s, most new radios and TVs weren’t using valves anymore; you’d still find old stuff in junk stores (or in the homes of older relatives) that were stuffed with valves, and TV sets still had them, but except in specialist applications valves were becoming increasingly rare in domestic electronics.

I remember reading an article in  a magazine that referred to valves as ‘small fires in jam-jars’ – and to be honest, if you took a look at a powered up and working valve radio you would see the warm orange or yellow glow from some of the valves – indeed suggesting that in the bottom of the glass tube was a small fire.  The amount of heat generate also gave that impression as well!

Of course, this wasn’t the case – the orange glow came not from a small fire but from a heated wire – but the phrase stuck with me,  and still makes me smile whenever I recollect it.

So, what bought about this trip down memory lane? The other day I purchased a small electronic amplifier module for a project off of eBay – the sort of thing that I could easily build myself but when I could buy it ready made for a couple of quid it seemed churlish not to. As for the project, it’s a ‘watch this space’ thing!  When I powered it up to test it I hooked the output up to a loudspeaker that I had screwed to a piece of plywood, and that’s when the trip down memory lane kicked in.

Like many people I’m very responsive to smells, and the smell of the electronics and the plywood took me back over 40 years to the garden shed where my dad had allowed me to set up some miscellaneous electronic bits and pieces, including a massive 12″ loudspeaker mounted in a plywood cabinet that was almost as tall as me.

The particular memory invoked was one of the earliest I have around electronics, and is actually a very strong memory. I was building a small amplifier to allow me to use the big loudspeaker to hear the output from a crystal set I’d built, and the design I was using for the amplifier was from an electronics kit I’d been bought at Christmas. A peculiarity of the design (caused by the number of components in the kit being limited) was that a particular electrical resistance in the amplifier was provided by a small electric light bulb.  I remember wiring things up, connecting the loudspeaker, then the battery, and being greeted by a hum in the loudspeaker. I was doing this on a late autumn evening – I think it was a Sunday – and in the twilight in the shed I was delighted to see the filament of the light-bulb glowing – my own ‘small fire in a jam jar’!

What was interesting was that once I managed to tune in a radio station on the crystal set, and wound up the volume on the amplifier as far as it would go, the brightness of the bulb filament would vary in sympathy with the music or voice coming form the loudspeaker.

I remember staying in the darkening shed, the last sunlight of the day coming in through the window, until my mother called me in.  There was the smell of the plywood, the slight frying smell of electronic components being pushed to the limit (and usually with my enthusiasm exceeding my design ability somewhat beyond), and that tiny flickering glow from the bulb.

I have other memories of building kit – some very vivid as well – but this one was an almost a religious experience in terms of the way it’s stuck with me.

Valve gear seems to be coming back in to vogue – you can buy kits for radios that use valves, and I’m sorely tempted to try one out.  I doubt that it will have the impact of that first experience with my non-valve ‘fire in a jam jar’ but I think it might be fun.




There’s one thing we got to get, Heyes….

…and that’s out of this business!”

One of the TV highlights of the week for me in the early 1970s was the TV series ‘Alias Smith and Jones‘, following the adventures of two outlaws on probation, Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry, as they attempted to stay ahead of the law and out of trouble. At the start of every episode, we’d see the two being pursued on horseback, with Curry shouting the above lines to Heyes.

This week I finally decided that I need to get ‘out of the business’ of freelance web development.  I have a nice part time day job, involvement with a startup, and currently enough freelance work to keep things ticking over.  But teh freelance web work will never, ever, make me a good income again, and if I’m going to do anything with my freelancing time, I need to find something else.

What triggered this?  I quoted for a WordPress related job – install, configure, tweak the theme and apply a few small mods to the installation. Admittedly not one of the world’s great technical tasks, but a nice job.  I quoted at my ‘lowest rate’ – £20.00 / hr – this was a UK based customer, and I expected to take about 10 hours to do the job.  I replied a mail later in the day telling me that I’d not been successful as another UK based freelancer had come in at a lower rate.  Of £5.00 per hour.

A fiver an hour.  Less than I’d get sweeping floors in McDonalds. Rates like that are pretty common from suppliers of services based in the Far east, but from a UK based develoeper, it’s scary.  Because it means that the market for some types of development work has become commoditised, price driven and almost at the level of ‘will work for food’.

So…time to get out.  It’s no longer worth it.  Fortunately I have a few ‘specialist’ areas of software development I can fall back on, but am wondering now whether it’s time to take a while different approach.  With a flexible permanent job available to me, maybe it’s time to look at other things to do and leave software development work to the sweatshops of the far east and the UK?

I’ve been thinking of things that are not ‘commodity’ – maybe get my old woodworking skills back?  Or try something new? Art? Something to do with my interest in vintage radio? Who knows.  Perhaps focusisng on the permanent job and doing bits of freelance work or something new for ‘beer money’ is the way forward these days.

Very, very sad.  How long before other parts of our technology and ‘creative’ industries become sub-minimum wage sweatshops?

The end of 6 Music

So, the BBC are going to close down 6 Music – which will be a great shame as it’s one of the few stations around that play a good mix of contemporary and past music, AND also has presenters that are knowledgeable about music and that have a love and passion for it.  Which is rare in this day and age of pre-packaged poppets of either sex whose main claim to fame is that they’re currently ‘in the public eye’ because of who they’re seen with or where they’re seen.

The cuts announced by Mark Thompson to the Corporation’s 3.5 billion budget may be politically motivated or commercially motivated, depending upon who you listen to.  They may be a ‘stalking horse’ to try and coax the Government to give the BBC more money, and won’t be pushed through.  They may be designed to soften up  the public to make them willing to take higher license fees to keep services.  there are any number of possible reasons floating around the blogosphere right now, as well as the stated reason of focusing the BBC’s resources on what are called ‘core functions’.

I’m not going to get in to the other aspects of the restructuring; I’m just going to focus on 6 Music and try and bring it’s cost in to perspective.  It costs about £9 million a year to keep it running, and there are some useful comparisons of ‘cost per listener’ of the BBC’s digital stations here.  In terms of pure cost per listener, Radio 1 Xtra and the Asian Network cost considerably more.

£9 million is a little over half the cost of the original (ending in July 2010) deal with Jonathan Ross for his services to the BBC – £17 millions over 3 years.  Graham Norton has just signed a 2 year deal with the BBC for a total of £4 millions. Thompson’s salary £800,000 a year.  Take the opportunity to read around about the expenses culture at the BBC – again, you’ll find that an awful lot of license fee seems to be spent on things a long way away from the provision of programmes.

The cost of  6 Music is small fry for the BBC – it’s a bout 0.0002% of the total budget of 3 odd billion.  It’s almost a rounding error in the BBC’s scheme of things.  To cut the services will do the BBC no good at all.  It’s such a fundamental misjudgement that I am starting to wonder whether the ‘conspiracy theorists’ are right and we may soon be told by Thompson that it was all a mistake and that 6 radio will not be scrapped after all.  A lot of the listenership of 6 Music is vociferous and media-savvy; there are many alternative media sources available for people today.  The BBC’s repeated treatment of licence payers as a cash cow that need not be listened to can only go on for so long before a backlash starts, and this round of changes might just be the thing to do it.

Springing forward as we fall back – why I like GMT!

Alarm Clock Face

It’s that day!  The last Sunday in October when ‘the clocks go back’.  For many, the official start of winter rather than the end of British Summer Time (or Daylight Saving Time for non-Brits).  We’ve had the ‘time discussion’ here at Pritchard Towers; that’s when my wife says ‘What time is it’ and I explain that it’s 7am GMT, 8am BST, if it was yesterday it would be 8am right now….

At least the computers sort themselves out these days; I’m old enough to remember when it was necessary to manually change the clock on computers as well as on the range of mechanical and electronic clocks we have.  Actually, today and the Sunday in the spring when the clocks go forward are two of the few days in the calendar that all the clocks in the house stand a chance of being at roughly the same time.  Throughout the rest of the year slippage and stoppage take their toll!

and I’ve maybe come across a new definition of a computer – something smart enough to adjust it’s own time.  I was quite surprised this morning when my Crackberry had adjusted itself….that’s one phone less to change, I guess!

I know that there’s a great deal of pressure these days to standardise on Daylight Saving Time / BST.  I guess that there’s a lot to be said for that – I’m not, however, going to spend any time this morning debating that contentious issue.  Lots of people much more capable than I have, and with greater knowledge of the issues involved, have taxed their little grey cells to no avail.  No, this blog is purely an explanation of why I’m personally rather attached to Greenwich Mean Time.

It all goes back to my childhood – when I was about 9 years old I started getting interested in listening to the radio late at night to hear foreign stations.  I had a rather nice little book – I think it was called the Wireless World Guide To Broadcasting Stations – that listed radio stations on short wave, medium wave and longwave radio.  The ‘far away’ stuff tended to be on short wave, and at that stage I didn’t have a short wave radio.  However, it was possible to hear stations from North America on Medium wave, which was covered by my father’s ‘Ecko’ transistor radio.  It had a little aerial socket and plugging a wire in to it allowed me to hear many more medium wave stations than I would normally…but the laws of physics firmly stated ‘all the far away stuff comes in late at night’.  And so we start getting on to the business with GMT and the lost hour.

As a kid I was a morning person; typically by 1030pm (even on non-school nights) I was falling asleep and ready for bed.   In the summer, 1030pm was 9-30pm GMT, and the generally accepted rules of physics stated that the earliest I could expect to hear a station in North America would be, if I was lucky – 11-30 or midnight GMT.   Now, at a push, by taking a nap I could manage to keep my eyes open until about midnight BST, but it just wasn’t late enough.  I had worked out that the best combination of geography and frequency that would allow me to hear North America as early as possible was a station called CJYQ at Saint John’s,  Newfoundland, and so my Holy Grail of medium wave listening was discovered.

radiodialSo I started eagerly looking forward to the magic day in October when the clocks went back.  The day when 11-30 at night really was 2330 hrs GMT.   The project to hear North America was on!  The radio I was using was a nice enough receiver but the frequency markings were pretty inaccurate.  This was in the days before digital readouts – as you turned the tuning control a rather clever contraption of pulleys, springs and string moved a pointer across a long glass ‘dial’ with wavelength markings on it, which I then converted to frequency.  In order to ‘home in’ on CJYQ it was necessary to find a couple of easily identifiable European stations just above and just below the frequency for CJYQ, as there was no way I could tune the receive to it’s operating frequency directly. 

Once I’d got this done, then it was simply a case of slowly tuning between these two stations until I heard a Candaian accent.  Unfortunately, the emphasis was on slowly tuning, and repeatedly….the signals from North America tended to fade up and down very slowly  and so it was a case of being on frequency when the signal was loud. 

After a couple of weekends of propping my eyes open between 2300 and midnight..and a couple of times until 1am – I have no idea how I managed the latter, as at that time 10 year olds in my house didn’t drink coffee – I managed to get the station.  I was able to listen to it (ear squashed against the loudspeaker as I didn’t have any headphones) for a couple of minutes before it faded off in to the darkness again.  Just to be sure, I listened in again around the half hour and on the hour, hoping for a station identification announcement, and was rewarded by one!

The pleasure from the fleeting reception of that station was repeated on numerous occasions after that first time, with stations from all over the East Coast of North America working their way in to my ‘listening log’ through my adolescence.  And yes, I think all of them were heard in the winter – more a feature, I now know, of radio wave propagation than anything else – but I kept a superstitious belief that it was all due to the clocks going back to GMT.  On many occasions sleep got the better of me; I’d wake up with a loudspeaker-grille pattern on my cheek where I’d dozed off….

And what’s really weird is that even now, when the clocks go back, I start hankering to sit down on a dark night, cup of tea, radio frequency guide and headphones, and listen again for those tiny transatlantic signals.