Suck, squeeze, bang, blow…

Crankshaft (red), pistons (gray) in their cyli...

Crankshaft (red), pistons (gray) in their cylinders (blue), and flywheel (black) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If an alien landed on planet Earth today, I imagine that there are a number of things that we think of as being completely normal which would absolutely bamboozle them.

This was a concept that Cadbury’s used to sell their instant smash where they pictured a group of martians laughing at the ridiculous process of cooking mashed potato. Somehow, I think their laughing would have ground to a halt if they tried a taste test between traditional and instant.

One of the fields I think the aliens would struggle to get their heads around is that of the vehicles on our roads. They would obviously seize onto the importance that we place on the mobility that they give us and would want to know more. They would want to know exactly how they work.

We think nothing of filling our cars with petrol or diesel, jumping in, turning the key and speeding off. But petrol is one of the world’s most flammable substances. It has an extremely low flashpoint which means that it will spontaneously burst into flames if it gets a little bit warm.

It is also highly explosive when mixed with air which is a very scary thought because air is all around us. If your fuel tank is half full of petrol, it is also half full of air which means you are driving round with an awful lot of potential energy sat behind your rear seats. Those no-smoking signs in your local petrol station are there for a reason.

Our visiting aliens would probably have already raised their eyebrows (assuming their physiology actually has eyebrows). They would probably then ask how this flammable explosive fuel turns into motive power.

We would then explain that we pump it to the front of the car where we mix it with air, compress it so that the pressure and temperature rises and then ignite the mixture with a spark. They would probably ask where the spark comes from so we would have a little detour for an hour where we explain all about batteries.

So we have now explained that we get power from the petrol by exploding it in a confined space which pushes a piston up and down. How does that get changed into circular motion at the wheels? So we would then need to explain the how the funnily shaped crankshaft coupled with driveshafts do that. We would also need to explain about gearboxes, because the engine’s oomph all happens in a limited power band.

When we demonstrate the car’s controls, that will probably be the moment the aliens descend into cadbury’s smash style hysterics. The complex ballet of hand and foot movements required to operate the machine which we find so difficult when we are learning to drive, but are second nature to us now, would be the final straw.

The design of the automobile, although somewhat refined over the years, remains fundamentally unchanged after almost a hundred years. Morgans and Reliants aside, cars are predominately four wheeled. Apart from the odd deviation (like square steering wheels in Allegros and digital instruments in Lagondas) the controls and instrumentation have remained broadly the same.

Up until very recently, almost all cars have been powered by internal combustion engines. More recently, car manufacturers have been experimenting with powertrains of differing natures.

Firstly, we have seen hybrids, where we get batteries and an electric motor in addition to an engine. The idea being that at low speeds, you can rely on the supposedly green electric power. Only at speed, do the nasty polluting petrol engines take over. To me, the hybrid is a compromise of the worst sort. They are heavier, more expensive, harder to recycle and arguably have a higher carbon footprint than a normal car.

We have also seen cars powered solely by electric batteries. These ask too much of the driver. I don’t know about you, but I hate filling my car with fuel and I just know that I would also hate having to plug my car in to feed it with electricity. I want my automobile to offer me freedom and I don’t really want a constant reminder that if I will be stranded if i don’t give in to my attention seeking steed.

There is research going on into hydrogen powered cars, but these will require regular feeding too and you will still be driving round in a man made explosive device. There needs to be a fundamental paradigm shift in automobile design. Manufacturers, let me give you my requirements for a perfect car;

Firstly – I don’t want to hear any nonsense about ranges in the hundreds of miles. I want to hear that I don’t need to refuel – or if I do, I would like the refuelling to be done during the annual service by someone in a boiler suit. Secondly, I want the controls to be dodgem simple. There should be virtually no learning curve. Lastly – it must have bulbs that last forever or that repair themselves – I hate changing bulbs on cars.

We have to get this right – aliens are laughing at us.

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Let the sparks fly!

Electricity

Electricity (Photo credit: elycefeliz)

If there is one thing that’s bound to bring out my patriotic and jingoistic side, it’s the design of the good old British electrical plug. There is something deeply satisfying about the solidity of the design. It slides home into a socket with a hefty thunk and all the nasty dangerous bits are nicely hidden away. To make things doubly safe, there is normally a switch and to make things safer still, there is a fuse and most devices have an earth cable.

As far as I can see, there are only two flaws with the design. Firstly, if you really wanted to be picky, they are a bit big. Probably more importantly, they can inflict serious damage on any poor soul who accidentally steps on an upturned plug. But compared to the overseas competition, the good old British plug is a masterpiece.

There is always a fear at the back of my mind that I am going to be electrocuted every time I plug in an electrical device into a foreign socket. They never seem to quite fit properly and tend to hang apologetically from the socket. More often than not, there will be some crackling, fizzing, the smell of ozone all accompanied by a small flash of light.

But the trouble with plugs is the sheer multiplicity of devices that need them. I’m sitting in my lounge typing this on my trusty macbook. The TV is on, fed by the Sky box. Beneath the TV set, there is an Apple TV box, a Nintendo Wii and a home theatre system. If you add to that the charger for my phone. That’s seven devices. I hope there are no burglars reading. On the other side of the room, you have the cable modem, a time machine, a phone and another laptop – four more devices.

The way that electricity is generated and supplied to the devices that need them is all a bit nineteenth century. Starting with generation – in order to produce electricity, we have a few windmills and the odd oxymoronic controlled nuclear explosion, but for the most part – we burn stuff.

In order to produce power, we burn various different forms of carbon based fuel to heat water. The water turns to steam which turns a turbine. The turbine generates electricity which we then pump into the national grid (which contains a vast plethora of devices that convert electricity from one form to another). Eventually after passing over loads of ugly pylons and through a substation to your house, it arrives at plugs. Unless your house has been rewired in the last five years, you won’t have enough of them and they will be in the wrong place.

If it sounds inefficient and archaic – it is. There simply has to be a better way. There is some promising research going on. Firstly, by using induction – you can eliminate plugs by placing specially adapted devices onto inductive plates to charge. There are even some commercial devices available. The other field that is showing promise is the transmission of power through microwaves.

I’m not sure I fancy being an early adopter for any of this stuff. The thought of my cat disappearing in a puff of fur because she happened to stand in the wrong place sounds a bit scary to me. But I am glad the research is going on. I also welcome any kind of initiative which removes our dependence on fossil fuels, but that is a really long journey.

And if you ever need to plug in a device in some far away land, hold it firmly, give a good solid shove and think of England.

My favourite book

Books

There is something really special about a good book. Somehow, I find them so much more satisfying and immersive than a film or game. I must have read hundreds, maybe thousands of books in my lifetime, but I am cursed with a memory that allows me to remember relatively few. I suppose the ones I do remember are the ones I enjoyed most.

There are some I remember from an early age. One of them, an illustrated dictionary, I still have. The other, regretfully has long since passed from my possession. It was a Ladybird Book. One of a series of small hardback books that we were all weaned on. I forget the title, it was something like “On the train with Uncle Jack” and it was all about rail travel.

I don’t know if it was because I came from Swindon, but I had an unhealthy obsession with trains so I read this book so much that it was practically falling to pieces. Mum and Dad had managed to apply copious amounts of sellotape in an effort to hold it together and it was just as well, because I probably read that book more than any other since.

Like most children, I lapped up Enid Blyton books. The famous five and the secret seven had my imagination working overtime. I also remember other books about a child called McGurk who was a child detective. Unlike most children, I also became obsessed with Sherlock Holmes and read the complete works from cover to cover umpteen times.

It was only later in life that I developed an interest in fantasy fiction. A colleague recommended the Dragonlance trilogy to me, which I loved at the time but it left me hungry for more. A friend recommended Magician by Raymond Feist which has to rank as one of the best fantasy novels of all time.

I enjoyed the hobbit and because of the seminal nature of Lord of the Rings, I tried to read that too, but I found it interminably slow. Other books I’ve read since have had the same pedestrian pace (such as the Dragonbone Chair trilogy) but for some reason,  I found them much less turgid.

Robin Hobb‘s assassin series was absolutely brilliant (until the ending which had me physically throwing the book across the room) and anyone who enjoys humour in a fantasy setting really owes it to themselves to read the Gentlemen Bastards series by Scott Lynch.

Combining a really good book with an environment that reflects the book’s content can make it seem much more real and relevant. Reading Pirates by Celia Rees whilst on a Caribbean cruse and The Terror by Dan Simmons whilst on a transatlantic voyage really transports you in a way that reading them at home in a comfortable armchair never would have done.

So – what am I reading now? I am struggling with Steve Job’s biography. Maybe it’s because this is the first biography I have ever read, but to be honest I am really struggling. Nothing I have read so far endears me to the man. I can’t take away from his commercial legacy, but I find little in his character that appeals to me.

Time for something lighter I feel…

A Victorian Letter

Dearest

My Dearest Rachel,

It seems like so very long ago that I penned my first letter to you as we steamed out of the port of Falmouth and I must confess, there have been times when I have felt that this interminable sea voyage might never end. And yet, here we lie at anchor in Zanzibar. Although we have seen some strange places along the way, I feel that this must rank as quite the rummest place I have ever set my gaze upon.

The natives seem to come from everywhere and swarm all over the dockside, spewing forth in tiny vessels into the harbour. In noisy and very loud foreign voices, they hawk their wares. They seem to be selling everything from bananas and ivory through to humanity itself. Their skin takes on the hue of varnished mahogany and their hair is curled so tight that it looks almost bound to their scalps.

The ladies seem to have little or no modesty, for they walk around wearing next to nothing. Their large breasts hang pendulous in front of them and yet they seem completely oblivious. Perhaps it is the heat, for it has become progressively warmer the further the ship has ventured. Lady Alice fainted yesterday, and it took Captain Jacobs’ smelling salts and a small dose of Father Edwards’ “holy water” to bring her back into the land of the living.

Captain Edwards is full of tales about what lies beyond the port as if he has spent several lifetimes here. I have to confess to private thoughts that I think he would speak this way of places he has yet to visit. He does say, however, that the temperature gets even more severe the further one ventures inland. As I look around my small cabin at the trunks full of evening and daywear, I feel I may have to improvise in terms of what to bring with me. Captain Edwards says that the bearers will only be able to take one trunk.

He speaks of big game with a glint in his eye as he polishes his impressive looking rifle. Apparently, some of the creatures which dwell on the island could swallow a man whole. The whole thing makes me feel quite queasy. I do look forward to seeing some of the stranger flora and fauna, but I hope we don’t come across to many snakes and spiders – they sound quite monstrous.

Father Edwards says that he is here to bring God to the savages. From what I have witnessed, I’m not sure the savages are really that interested, but he remains resolute. He says that he will found a small church, and teach the savages how to speak English and sing in God’s own tongue. I do hope he also teaches them how to dress with a modicum of decorum.

Although I have found my cabin quite uncomfortable, when we say goodbye to the ship and strike inland, we shall be staying in tents made from canvas. They assembled one on the deck yesterday, and not only did it take an age to assemble, but it really did seem like the flimsiest of structures and certainly not capable of keeping out some of the wilder creatures described by Captain Edwards.

The other thing that will take some getting used to is the constant swarm of insects tha burden every poor soul who ventures above decks. I am assured that they are much worse in the port than they are inland. I do hope so, because I find them quite the most tiresome beasts imaginable. Father Edwards has fashioned a net which hangs from my bonnet, and yet they still find their way through to my skin.

My dearest sister, I set out in search of adventure, and every day does seem to be very different to the days in London, but I do wonder why adventures seem to happen so slowly and uncomfortably. There are times when I wish I was taking tea in the parlour with you, but then I look around at the beauty that surrounds me, and I admonish myself.

Until we meet again (lest I be eaten by spiders or beguiled by snakes), I remain your most gracious sister, Emily.

To infinity and beyond…

Apollo insignia. Italiano: Stemma del programm...

Apollo insignia. Italiano: Stemma del programma Apollo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a child, I had such a thirst for knowledge, I used to enjoy reading encyclopaedias from cover to cover. I found them absolutely fascinating. Every page I turned over, I read about something completely new which I knew nothing about. One of the areas that particularly piqued my interest was space travel.

The thing about space is that it is so vast and so full of the unknown that the possibilities seem endless. If anything, the literature I was exposed to and the TV and films I tuned into during my youth only reinforced my obsession with all things cosmic.

I was born in the seventies (just) and things looked so very promising. Man had just walked on the moon and the Apollo missions were in full swing. All the textbooks were quite confidently predicting that there would be a 2001 style space station in orbit and we would have established bases on the moon and Mars. I used to look up at the sky and think that one day, I would walk on another world.

Films like Star Wars and TV programs like Star Trek and Space 1999 only reinforced this notion and I used to revel in fiction like the Stainless Steel Rat. The first time I saw Alien, I thought it was so realistic even though the prospects of long range space travel and discovery of aliens have yet to be realised decades later.

So here we are and we have seen all the significant dates like 1984, 1999, 2000 and 2001 fly past. I have to confess to being bitterly disappointed with mankind’s progress into the universe. In every other endeavour, we have made leaps and bounds but truth be known, we would struggle to repeat what we did in 1969 – put a man on the moon.

There have been glimmers of hope, like the space shuttle, skylab and the International Space Station, but by and large progress has been glacial. As the old cold war superpowers have lost interest, other emerging nations have stepped up to the plate, but to date, no-one has really set their sights much higher than that amazing mission in 1969.

More recently, I have been encouraged by some green shoots. Governments seem to have largely given up, so it is left to entrepreneurs like Richard Branson with his Virgin Galactic programme to commercialise space travel. Today, I spotted a news story on Twitter about Peter Diamandis who is widely expected to launch a startup company to mine asteroids for diamonds. How cool is that?

So do I still harbour ambitions to walk on another world? Well, no, probably not. But I’m sure by the time we get there – they will have jet powered disabled scooters – with twin lasers mounted front and rear…

May the force be with you – engage and make it so!

When you think about it…

A 12" record, a 7″ record, and a CD-ROM.

It struck me the other day that I have been working for over 25 years and in my lifetime so far, I have seen an incredible amount of technological change. When you think about all the changes in communications, entertainment, transport & media, it makes your head spin.

As kids we used to listen to vinyl records. Occasionally, we might transfer the songs on those vinyl records to cassette tape so that we could make compilations of songs we liked or so that we could listen to them in the car. I would venture to suggest that there is a sizeable number of people alive today who wouldn’t recognise either of these two modes of listening to music. Vinyl records gave way to compact discs, but when was the last time you bought a compact disc ? I certainly can’t remember the last one I bought.

The TV we watched at home used to be black and white. It used to take an absolute age to warm up so for a long time, you only heard the audio. When you turned it off, the picture slowly disappeared down to a central white spot as bright as a pulsar before finally winking out leaving the screen slate grey. The screen was far from flat, it bulged out into the front room like Big Brother’s eyeball and the TV was so deep, it was roughly the same kind of proportions as the fridge.

The buttons were of the mechanical push the new one in and the old one pops out kind of touch. You had mysterious settings like vertical hold and horizontal hold and you had to tune the thing in which involved a screwdriver. When we moved once, our new house had six channels – that was twice as many as we had in the previous house. I suspect that if you exposed children to that kind of environment today, they would be on the phone to childline before you had retuned the TV.

My Uncle Nobby once showed me an Irish phone box during one of our trips to Ireland. It had a handle that you used to wind and wait for the operator to answer. You then told the operator which number you wanted and they would put you through. I thought that the whole thing was terribly antiquated because at home, you could ring anyone in the world.

Number by number, you would stick your finger in the dial and drag it round to the stop and patiently wait for the dial to slowly return to rest. The whole process would take about a minute to a minute and a half for a long number. I used to remember phone numbers – I still remember nan and grandad’s (01793 724159) mainly because I remember the way nan used to sing the number out whenever anyone called the house. How many numbers can you remember today?

When I was given a pager by my company, I thought I was the bee’s knees. I could be contacted anywhere in the UK. Whenever you had a message, the thing would beep and buzz and you found a landline and called a special number to speak to someone who read out your message. Typically the message would be to phone someone else, so you would have to write the number down before ringing off so that you could make another call. My next pager had an LCD display where the actual message was displayed. Whoever was leaving the message still had to phone up and speak to an operator, but at least it was progress.

Cars in those days routinely had no power steering, no power assisted brakes and no electric windows. They routinely only had four gears (or three if the car was an automatic). Many cars had plastic seats. Unless you drove  a Volvo or maybe a Saab, they were pretty much death traps. Crash testing was in its infancy, so there wasn’t much effort put into crumple zones unless you owned an old British Leyland car which would probably spontaneously crumple all on its own.

I remember when I was given my first camera. It was a Kodak brownie which like all cameras of the era took film that you had to load into the back. Mine could take up to 24 pictures which you then had to get developed which meant putting the film into an envelope and posting them off. When they came back a week or two later, it would be your first look at the photos you had taken.

When you are living through it, technological change seems to pass agonisingly slowly. It is only when you look back at how things were not so very long ago, you realise how quickly things evolve. It is this pace of change which makes me so excited about what will happen over the coming decades.

I am incredibly excited by the smart goggles under development by Google. Pretty soon, I won’t be handing over the cost of an iPad to my optician ever couple of years. I will have some electronic glasses that will automatically adjust to my degrading vsion. Not only that – but I will see the whole world in augmented reality. If as they suggest that they will be able to make these available as contact lenses – I think the whole world will start to wear them regardless of their state of vision.

I am also incredibly excited about the low barriers to entry that we see everywhere. Want to publish a book – no problem go right ahead. Want to make a film – as Iron Sky has shown, you can crowd source your investment and away you go. There has never been a better time to start a business. In a matter of hours, you could have your own website with umpteen different ways to pay and you could get your wares in front of potentially anyone.

I think the pace of change can only accelerate.

Mr Finch, you swine sir, I salute you!

Telex machine Svenska: Telexmaskin

They say that you should love what you do, so my introduction to employment was a dream come true. I was a despatch assistant, which is code for an internal postman. I worked for BP Oil and my job involved listening to the radio with colleagues around a table, drinking tea and reading the paper. Oh yes – and occasionally, we had to get up and sort and deliver mail. But there was a lot of waiting around. The only thing to disturb the peace and harmony was the telex alarm. That meant that someone had to run up to the telex room, grab the telex and run to the addressee and hand deliver it. If you were really lucky (or unlucky depending on your point of view) the telex was a price change, which meant dashing to each one of the 14 floors to deliver the news.

The post room was full of temps and junior employees (like me). It was your introduction to the company, and you were expected to only be there for a short period before you were promoted to the upper floors in a “proper” job. So it was little surprise that 6 months later, I found myself on the 8th floor, newly promoted to Accounts Assistant. At first, it was a culture shock. They expected you to work all the time! No sitting there listening to the radio and no reading the paper, but I soon got used to it.

A very nice lady called Maggie showed me the ropes. She explained that the job was very important. Lots of high-up people relied on the role I was taking on. Of course, it was all new – so I listened intently. At the time, I thought I was the most important person in the world. The job consisted of heading to the print room early in the morning with a trolley and picking up a 2 foot tall stack of A4 paper. The pile of paper was always nice and warm and had a vaguely mechanical smell to it. I was to waste no time and get this stack of paper back to my desk.

On my desk, there was an A4 binder covered in sellotape. On the binder, there was a label with the word “BIBLE” written with a thick marker. Inside were a number of sheets which described in excruciating detail how to split the 2 foot pile of paper into various different reports for various different bigwigs. It seems faintly ridiculous now in these days of PCs on every desk and email, but this is what kept the wheels of industry turning in the 80s.

There was more to my job. There was the maintenance of customer records (which is shorthand for taking a load of printouts from one system and manually typing them into another). The only vaguely interesting part of the job was dealing with customer queries. This involved fathoming out how our interminably complicated system had priced some quantity of oil for a customer and why it was wrong. Where it was wrong, we had to do what we called a “Retro”, a retroactive adjustment.

These had to be handwritten on a special form, batched up and taken down to the typing pool. A trip to the typing pool could strike terror into the heart of a fragile 17 year old. Any woman who has ever walked past a building site to the sound of wolf whistles and cat calls would know exactly what I mean. I think they deliberately placed the in tray at the end of the room so that they could enjoy your embarrassment as you ran the gauntlet past all the lascivious ladies. Looking back on it, I should have lapped it up, but at the time I used to dread it.

I soon became bored with the sheer routine. Every day was the same cycle. There were little or no surprises and there were very few opportunities for development. Because I was bored and because I was the youngest in the office by far, I regularly found myself on the wrong side of Mr Finch. He was the department head and had an office in the corner. It seemed like every other week, I was in Mr Finch’s office for some transgression or another.

Things started to improve when out of sheer tedium, I read the HR manual – no mean feet seeing as it’s 6 inches thick! In there I found a section on study and was overjoyed to read that BP would sponsor employees in further and higher education. I grabbed this with both hands and happily undertook what was to become six years at college.

As if things could not get any better, I learnt of an initiative to automate the “Retro” system, and I was asked to work on it. This meant talking to the systems people from the 9th floor. It was fantastic – a complete break from the humdrum routine explaining to the analysts exactly how the retro system worked. Unfortunately, I enjoyed it so much that I neglected the humdrum routine and my work piled up. Cue another visit to Mr Finch’s office.

I enjoyed the project so much that I found myself spending a lot of time with the systems guys understanding what they did and how they constructed the system. It was fascinating, and again my work suffered and yet again I found myself in front of Mr Finch. Worse was yet to come, because what I didn’t realise was that the systems guys were all filling in their timesheets against Mr Finch’s project code so Mr Finch got a very large bill. He really gave me the hairdryer treatment over that!

You might think that I bear Mr Finch some ill will, but no. This story does have a happy ending. Whether he did it to save his budget or whether he did it to help me out we will never know, but he was the one who got me into the Information Systems Division.

Mr Finch, you are a gentleman sir, and I salute you (you bastard).

Should have seen it coming

Sinclair 48K ZX Spectrum computer (1982) Türkç...

I can’t remember exactly how old I was. Probably 12 or 13. Mum had dragged me round to her friend’s house. I hated going to her friend’s house. For one thing, it was the most interminably boring thing in the world sitting there whilst they drank tea and talked about what were, to me, the most mundane subjects in the universe. Not only that, but I wasn’t keen on her friend either. She was nice to us when mum was around, but unpleasant when we were alone. So, as you can imagine, it brought out the worst in me.

On this particular visit though, I learned that they had just bought a computer. I was intrigued. I’d never seen one. I’d heard about them on John Craven’s Newsround – sure, but never had I seen one in the silicone. I asked if I could have a go, and I was left to it in front of a pristine Sinclair ZX Spectrum. It was plugged into an old portable TV and there was a tape machine to one side. I took the only tape they had, “Horizons”, read the insert and followed the instructions. I was completely enthralled. I went through every program on both sides of the tape and played with that machine for hours. For once, it was Mum who wanted to go home and it was me that wanted to stay.

I didn’t think too much more about it and before I knew it, Christmas had arrived. Bleary eyed, myself and my brother headed downstairs at some ungodly early hour to open all our presents. I remember dad had taken up position with a camera to capture our expressions as we came through the front room door. We groaned as he captured us in our unkempt, half awake state and descended upon our presents. I was initially disappointed – was my pile smaller than usual this year? The first present I opened turned out to be a tape machine, which I thought was a great present and I spent a few moments thinking about what I could do with it before moving on the next present.

It wasn’t long before I could make out the box inside the wrapping paper and my heart sang! It was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum – fantastic. I couldn’t wait to get it open, plug it into the TV and explore the possibilities. Again, I spent hours in front of that machine, being physically pulled away for Christmas Dinner.

After the Christmas break, back at school, the playground talk was all around what we had been given for Christmas. Amazingly, my small circle of friends had all been given Spectrums! We were told off more than once on that first day for talking incessantly about computers.

I remember a BBC TV program called “Me and My Micro” where they explored the possibilities of these new microcomputers that were spreading like wildfire. I remember watching the presenters program the computers, showing you the BASIC language and what you could do with it. I decided that I wanted to learn how to do that and fished out the orange book that came with my Spectrum and read it cover to cover whilst trying things out on the machine.

A little later that year, mum was pregnant with my sister. I know they talk about women “blooming” during pregnancy, but that’s not exactly how I would describe mum’s experience. I used to arrive home from school, walk in the door and ask dad how mum was. Invariably, he would say “the same as yesterday”. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, I would lock myself away in my room programming my ZX Spectrum. I don’t think the time was wasted – I wrote a number of games, at least one of which was published.

So – it’s no surprise that I ended up in a career in software development. I guess I should have seen it coming.

What’s in a name?

Boat shoes boat shoes boat shoes.

So why “BlueDeckShoe.com”?

Anyone who sets up a personal blog under a domain name wants something that is relevant and obviously available to buy. Availability of good domain names has diminished as the web has grown, so it’s always a struggle to fine something that you like. I have always had a fascination for all things nautical, and this is reflected in the clothes I choose to wear. It is rare to see me out of a blazer and a pair of blue deck shoes, so I was delighted when I found the domain available.

I don’t know what it is about boats, but my fascination began at an early age. As children, we were ferried across to Ireland at least once a year in order to see the family. I found the whole journey totally absorbing. There is nothing quite like the feeling of standing on deck watching the dock workers untether the various mooring lines and see the ship ease away from the dock.

I remember the crossings were always very rough. My mum would start to be sick the second the ship passed the harbour wall at Holyhead, and she wouldn’t stop until the ship passed the harbour wall at the other end. She wasn’t alone. One thing you learnt on these crossings was to make sure that you used the toilets early in the voyage, because at the end, you would be paddling in the unmentionable.

I used to like standing on deck during the rough weather. I loved to watch the big waves as they crashed over the ship. The sheer power on the sea was awesome as massive peaks and crests appeared in the sea. The way you needed to lean as you stood in order to remain upright made me smile every time.

I carried this love on into my adult life. My wife and I have been lucky enough to have travelled on a number of cruises all over the world. We even owned a small boat on the Thames for about 4 years. At one point in my life, I very nearly joined the Navy. What a different life it might have been!

So when you look down at my feet and you see a pair of blue deck shoes – that’s the reason why!

Nearly home…

The stench was almost unbearable. To add insult to injury, the carriage was packed to the rafters, which was probably the main reason that Radcliffe found his nose uncomfortably close to an armpit. An unseasonably warm spell above ground had turned tube trains into mobile, underground ovens. It had been a long week, but at least it was Friday night, and this was the last time he would have to make this journey, at least until after the weekend.

He started to let his thoughts drift to how he would spend the upcoming days with his family. Maybe if the weather held, they could go to the zoo. Or maybe a picnic in Hyde Park. A walk by the Thames perhaps. The pleasant daydreams helped him to keep his mind off his current discomfort.

The train gradually slowed and lurched to a halt and the seething mass of people inside the train swayed like a field of metronomes – first in one direction and then another as they adjusted to the lack of motion. Radcliffe craned his head around to look out of the window. There wasn’t much to see other than the inky blackness of the tunnel beyond. He tutted and rolled his eyes at no-one in particular.

Seconds stretched to minutes, and a wave of impatience began to sweep the carriage. Some started to complain in hushed tones to their nearest neighbour. Some would repeatedly check their watches. Some would start to fidget, adjusting to being uncomfortable in a subtly different position. Others stared into space in borderline catatonia.

“Just two more stops” thought Radcliffe, trying to cheer himself up. Not too long now. Still, the train refused to move. Any moment now, the tannoy would crackle into life only for an overloud, disembodied voice to give them a useless excuse for why the train was stuck there.

The lights flickered once before they died out completely to a sea of collective groans from around the carriage. One by one, mobile phones came to life as people sought their own source of illumination. The  small screens served to light up people’s faces in an almost lunar, shadowy hue. Still no announcement from the driver.

Impatience matured into new emotions inside the carriage. Some grew angry, remonstrating with whoever might listen. Others became frustrated, swearing blind that this was the last time they would use the tube. For some, it was fear that spread its icy tendrils through their worried minds as the heat and the claustrophobia started to take over.

Radcliffe looked out through the window once more. Now it was dark in the carriage, a more detailed picture emerged of what lay outside the train. It was a double tunnel with two tracks and it occurred to him that no trains had passed since the train came to a halt.

Suddenly the train lurched and a weary cheer went up from inside the carriage, but it was premature, for the movement seemed not from the traction of the motors, because it was not sustained. The train rolled maybe a yard or so and then came to a halt once more.

The carriage became silent as everyone contemplated what this sudden motion might mean. People searched for answers in their fellow passengers’ faces, but no-one seemed to have any idea what was happening. Moments later, the train lurched again, more violently this time, causing some to lose their footing. Radcliffe could hear the sound of distant screams from the rear of the train.

Once again, the train lurched, even stronger and Radcliffe lost his balance this time, reaching out for something to slow his fall. Thankfully, he landed on something soft. Disoriented, he pulled himself to his feet. He could hear several people crying and some groaning in pain. “What on Earth is going on?”  he thought.

Again – he could dimly make out the sound of screaming from the rear of the train. Could it be a collision with another train? As this thought passed through his head, the train lurched twice in quick succession. The lights flickered for a millisecond and the train was plunged into darkness. In that brief flash of light, Radcliffe saw the faces of his fellow passengers frozen in expressions of terror.

He started to think seriously about leaving the train. As he tried to work out where the doors were, he was desperately trying to recall the details from the safety poster beside the door. It was a poster he had read a thousand times as a bored traveller, but somehow, the details eluded him now. If he did could get out, which way would he walk anyway?

Just as he reached the door, he started to feel vibrations through the floor of the carriage. He thought it might be an earthquake, although Radcliffe had never experienced  any kind of seismic activity in his life. The screams from the rear of the train were getting closer. Somewhere in the carriage, a window shattered.

People were starting to move forward through the train, away from the source of the screams. The vibrations through the floor grew stronger, making it more and more difficult to stay standing. The screams had now reached Radcliffe’s carriage and he could tell from their tone that there was something unwelcome moving amongst them.

Radcliffe froze as something grabbed hold of his arm in a vice like grip. He struggled to free himself and let out a scream when his other arm was grappled. He felt himself pinned back against a seat and he began thrashing his limbs, trying everything he could think of to get free.

He could hear a voice. It was muffled, coming from his assailant. The words were difficult to make out. Slowly, the creature began to take form as he focussed his gaze. The words gradually became clearer…

“Wake up sir, wake up. This is the end of the line. All change here, all change. You can’t sleep here.”

Dammit. He’d fallen asleep again. He should have known not to go for a drink with Parker after work.