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Sunday 26 November 2023

Musical Snobbery

Our folk band played a programme of 16th and 17th Century music in the marble-floored hall of one of our nearby great country houses. Actually, it grieves me I wasn’t in it; the side-effects of the pills I have to take make it too difficult at the moment, but there is no point in moaning. Mrs. D. played. 

We mentioned it to a woman from one of those Old-English music groups that are so up themselves in pious authenticity you wonder what pleasure they get out of actually playing the music, if any. She looked interested.

We explained that it was not all 16th and 17th Century music, that there were some modern novelty items like Barnacle Bill.    

Also, that we would not be wearing authentic costumes, only what we had been able to cobble together and make ourselves to create an impression of the time.

And while we do play composers like Playford and Susato, we do not have original instruments, just our usual ones. We even have banjos, piano accordian and an electric bass.

“Oh!” she said in a long drawn-out “Ohhh!”, wrinkling her nose as if something didn’t smell right.

She didn’t buy a ticket.

Tuesday 21 November 2023

Full Circle?

The way we save our computer files seems to have come full-circle, as if we are back to forty or fifty years ago.

Clearing out more of my life’s debris reminded me of this. I had accumulated a collection of disks and tapes that are now little more than museum pieces. You once had to be so methodical in looking after your documents and images. But, before that, it was all done for you. An so it is now.

At first, with mainframe computers, systems managers made sure everything was safely backed-up. I learnt to program in a room full of teletypewriter terminals - the noise was deafening - that were connected to a computer centre somewhere else on the university campus. Once you had typed in your program and asked for it to be save, you could be reasonably sure it would be there ready the next time you logged in.

However, if you wanted to move programs or documents elsewhere, or if you had one of those new-fangled micro-computers (i.e. a PC), you had to transfer it on to magnetic takes or disks. The first PCs had no internal disks, nothing was saved automatically by an ‘app’, and there was no OneDrive or Google. The internet did not get going until around 1995.

I learnt the hard way using Tandy TRS80 computers. Everything had to be saved on C60 audio-cassettes, which were notoriously slow and unreliable. I lost hours of work more than once. It was a godsend when floppy disks came along.

Here are some of the storage media I used, now destined for the tip.  

8-inch floppy disks containing my Masters project, which was written in Pascal on an LSI-11 machine. UMIST insisted they had to be protected by special folders. 

The 8-inch disks look enormous next to the later 5¼ -inch and 3½-inch ‘hard’ floppy disks you may remember. 

This is a 6-inch cartridge take from a nineteen-eighties PDP11 Unix system, containing some of the work I did as a university research assistant.

Later, I used zip-disks which were a bit like thick floppy disks, but had greater capacity. Only a few home computers had them. 


Then, we all moved on to CD ROMS and DVD, and USB memory sticks and SD cards. I used a pair of memory sticks to transfer files from work-to-home and home-to-work. My first memory stick had a magnificent 256MB of space (that’s Megabytes not Gigabytes). 

How things have changed! Nowadays, some home computers have internet access only, and no disk drive or USB ports. Some have minimal internal storage. That is also the case if we work only on phones. It feels as if we are being pushed towards keeping everything on the ‘cloud’, like returning to the mainframe days.

Microsoft is removing the Windows video editor from our PCs (through Windows Updates) because they want us to use the online ‘ClipChamp’ editor. Google circulated an email saying they are deleting accounts inactive for more than two years. That could well include blogs. Andrew in Australia lost years of blog posts because of something unspecified he supposedly said. Next, they’ll be trying to charge us to store our stuff.

I don’t trust the b------s at all. I now have enormous amounts of material: family history research, my parents digitised photograph albums, our own photographs and colour slides, our own digital photographs, digitised videos from cine films, our own digital videos, ... and archived blog posts.

In all, it fills over 100 Gigabytes. I’ve backed it all up in duplicate on a pair of hard drives. I’m glad I learnt the discipline.

Tuesday 14 November 2023

Exon 14

To paraphrase "GPs Behind Closed Doors", this post contains challenging medical issues.

Exon 14 sounds like a science fiction film. As little as ten years ago, it could well have been, but actually it is real.

I have something called the MET Exon 14 skipping mutation. It alters a specific gene, the MET gene (mesenchymal-epithelial transition) so that affected cells produce an abnormal protein which makes them grow uncontrollably.

The mutation causes lung tumours. It affects mainly smokers, but I put mine down to dirty Leeds in the nineteen-seventies when large numbers smoked, and offices, buses, cinemas, pubs and the shared houses I lived in reeked of a blue haze that stuck to your hair and clothes so much that you failed to notice. Leeds was also full of traffic fumes and pollution from coal fires and industries, and my accountancy job involved hours walking round warehouses, mills and factories where there were all kinds of dust and chemical vapours. The cause on my health record is "significant passive smoking". 

I was entirely symptomless until I had a seizure. Perhaps a routine chest X-ray might have detected it sooner and saved me a lot of trouble, but it was as good as impossible to get one during the covid lockdown, even if I had thought to request one.

Diagnosis begins with a CT-directed lung biopsy. You lie face-down in a CT scanner while a surgeon positions a thing metal tube into your back, through which they can then cut out and remove a small piece of tumour tissue for analysis and gene-sequencing. It is not a comfortable procedure. I wondered what was the cold liquid running into the back of my throat, which I had to spit out on to the scanner table. It was blood. We don't normally realise how cold the insides of our lungs get.

Gene sequencing is only the first part of the science fiction. There is a targeted therapy. The Merck drug company have licenced a chemical called Tepotinib (trade mane Tepmetko) in the form of a daily pill that blocks the abnormal protein, and slows down or stops the tumours from growing. It is a high cost treatment; I have heard a figure of £7,000 per month mentioned, but thanks to the NHS I do not have to pay.

Surprisingly, it is a relatively simple chemical - a hydrochloride hydrate of C29H28N6O2. I imagine that in some parts of the world they ignore the patent and make it themselves for a few pence per pill.

I have had other treatments too: chemotherapy which was awful, lung radiotherapy which was little trouble in my case, gamma knife radiotherapy which pinpoints and zaps small brain metastases, a brain op to drain the cyst that gamma knife left behind, which was scary. All over a year ago.

The side effects of Tepotinib are difficult, especially oedema (fluid retention). If you get cold it takes ages to get warm again because it is the equivalent of having 20 pounds (9 kg) of cold water bags strapped around your limbs and body, and, believe me, you would not want to have scrotal oedema (or vulval oedema I imagine, but don't know because I don't have that).

I am OK. It is but a scratch. I've had worse. None shall pass. I am still here.  

So, not only have we mapped the human genome to identify the 25,000 or so genes of our 23 chromosomes, we can gene-sequence malfunctioning cells to pick out a defective gene, understand its mechanisms, and construct a chemical to block its actions. To those of my generation, even the technologically literate, that really does sound like science fiction.

New things like this are coming along all the time. It should give hope to those who might become ill in the future.

Thursday 9 November 2023

Dirty Old Town

Every year, around this time, the asphalt surface of the school playground would be buried under a huge pile of coke. It was like lumps of gray cindery coal, but without much weight. Gradually, it disappeared into the school boiler room.

The coke was a by-product of the corporation gasworks, which manufactured coal gas supplied to our houses through a network of pipes. We had gas cookers, and gas taps beside the fireplace to which you could connect a free-standing gas fire through a rubber tube. I ran the Bunsen burner for my home chemistry set in the same way. Outside, there were gas lamps along the street, and a man with a long pole came to turn them on and off each evening and morning. My dad could remember the pre-electric days when houses had gas mantles for internal lighting.

Gas was produced by heating coal in the absence of air, with coke, tar, and chemicals as by-products. Coke burned hotter and cleaner than coal and could be used as fuel in specialized boilers. It was also used in industrial processes, but was no good for the home fireplace.

Dad’s Arthur Mee Encyclopedia (1927) has a series of pictures and diagrams showing how coal gas was made and the amount of plant and machinery needed. Here are the first three. 

The corporation gasworks were near the docks where they were supplied by canal with coal from the Yorkshire coal fields. In other towns, coal trains ran through the streets to the gasworks. The infrastructure was extensive: heavy engineering, railway lines, underground pipes. You could live in Gas Works Street, work at the gasworks, drink and be entertained at the Gas Club, and go on gasworks outings. Some of the structures are still around. 

That, for me, describes 1950s Britain (and earlier): asphalt playgrounds, school boiler rooms, gas lights, gas works, coal trains pulled by steam engines, and coke before it had any other meanings. I have no idea why it came to me in the middle of the night. 

It became obsolete when we changed over to North Sea Gas in the early 1970s. Millions of household appliances had to be converted to burn natural rather than coal gas. The gas storage tanks at the gas works continued in use for many years, until condemned as unnecessary. Many have since been dismantled. We have hardly any gas storage in Britain now; just a few days’ supply, as compared with a few months’ supply in Germany.

I found my love by the gasworks croft
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
Kissed my girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town, dirty old town

I heard a siren from the docks
Saw a train set the night on fire
Smelled the spring on the smoky wind
Dirty old town, dirty old town

Clouds are floating across the sky
Cats are prowling upon their beat
s a girl in the streets at night
Dirty old town, dirty old town

I’m going to make a good sharp axe
Shining steel tempered in the fire
We'll chop you down like an old dead tree
Dirty old town, dirty old town

Sunday 5 November 2023

Don't Tell 'Em

All the talk of babies on blogs made me think back to when our daughter was born.

We arranged for our son to stay overnight with friend Barbara if needed. She was needed. When the hospital said to make our way in, I took him to her house and she tucked him up in bed top-to-tail with her two-year-old.

We drove to the hospital, but things seemed to come to a stop and there was some discussion as to whether we should return home. A lavender bath got things moving again, and our daughter was born at half-past-one in the morning.

I returned home to get some sleep. I phoned Barbara in the morning and asked to speak to our son as it seemed only right he should be the first to know. She gave him the phone, and I told him he had a baby sister.

"Oh! Right! I'm going to finish my breakfast now." That was all he said. He hung up.

I returned to the hospital and brought wife and daughter home. In the meantime, Barbara had taken our son to nursery school from where our child minder picked him up later in the day.

I went to collect him. The child minder was still very much in the dark. She was desperate to know what had happened. What did we have?

"He won't tell us," she said. "He hasn't said a word all day. He wouldn't tell Barbara, either. He has refused to say anything at all."

I gave her our good news.

Son would now claim he was practising the levels of discretion and confidentiality required in the professional capacity in which he now works. He was four at the time.

A chip off the old block. When we got married, I didn't tell anyone at the computer company where I worked. They thought I was just going on holiday. They only found out when the company received notification that my tax code had changed to reflect my new marital status. The payroll administrator did not  practice the levels of discretion and confidentiality required.

Wednesday 1 November 2023

A Visit From The Police

... who told my parents I went in pubs

New Month Old Post: first posted 19th April, 2019.

The Green Bottle, Knottingley (c) Betty Longbottom, Creative Commons

My generation was not as open with our parents as our children are with us, at least not in my part of the North of England, or maybe it was just me. I never told my parents I went in pubs. Not even when old enough. The police told them. It was Easter Sunday, 11th April, 1971.

It was the day after I had been with three friends to The Green Bottle in the curiously named Spawd Bone Lane, Knottingley. The pub was packed with noisy, holiday-weekend drinkers, and we took little notice of a short-haired man in a suit sitting alone at a table in the middle of the room until he asked us one by one to go over to have a few words with him. He was a detective investigating a vicious attack on an elderly lady the previous afternoon*, although we did not know that until later. 

I can still remember some of what he asked – name, age, address, where I been between 4.30 and 6.30 the previous afternoon, and where I worked. I told him I was an accountants’ clerk with Goodwill and Ledger in Leeds, to which he said, “Oh! Do you know Mr. Black?” I said no, there was no Mr. Black where I worked, to which he replied that he worked at the Huddersfield office. It so happened that we did have an office in Huddersfield, and being na├»ve and trusting, thinking it a genuine question, I said I wasn’t sure but thought I might have seen that name on the letterheads, and that Mr. Black might be a partner at the Huddersfield office. It seemed to arouse the detective’s interest. I had never been grilled by the police before, and found it unsettling, although I tried hard not to show it.

The detective moved on to my friends, one of whom was in the middle of a Fine Art degree, with a contrary “art student” attitude, full of the deep and mysterious philosophies to which such beings are prone. He was going through a phase of answering questions with enigmatic answers, that’s if he could be bothered to answer at all. When approached on a train in the Midlands by a woman carrying out a travel survey, he told her he was on his way to Johannesburg. No matter who was asking, or how serious the situation, he took the same line. It was also the case, coincidentally, that he had the same surname as me, which drew the obvious follow-up from the detective.

“Oh! Are you related?”

“I suppose we must be.” 

“What does that mean?”

“Are we not all related in some way?”

The detective was suspicious. Did he think I had given him a false name, that of my art student friend? We had a bit of a laugh about it afterwards.

When you consider the gravity of the situation, it was not really funny at all, but we were still at that stage of youthful innocence which takes little seriously. Without really being part of it, we liked to imagine we followed the trendy, counterculture of underground bands and magazines such as Oz which was about to face an obscenity trial. You don’t realise now when you see old clips of bands such as Black Sabbath, just how excitingly anti-establishment they seemed, even in name. The police were joked about: you would see “Screw the Pigs” scrawled in four-foot letters on garage doors. This pushing of the limits, I would now say, was only possible because England, on the whole, was a much safer and law-abiding place than it is today, which makes the attack on the old lady all the more shocking.  And of course, we did not yet know the awful details of the incident. 

The following day, being Easter Sunday, I was at home, going through the pointless motions of revising for my accountancy exams. Dad called me down to the front room where two more short-haired men in suits wanted to see me. 

“These two gentlemen are police officers, and would like to ask you some questions.”

Being the sort of person who feels guilty even if not (you know, when the teacher asks who made that silly noise and you go red, terrified she thinks it was you, even though it was someone else), it really scared me. I had to explain about the pub in Knottingley and about being questioned, and the two detectives went off satisfied, but it felt very awkward.

And that’s how my parents found out I went in pubs, although, they probably knew already.

There is now no sign The Green Bottle ever existed. It closed for good and was boarded up by 2009, burnt out in 2010, demolished, and is now the site of a care home. 

*From newspaper archives, I can see that the elderly lady was 88 year-old Mrs. Dorothy Leeman. She had been beaten around the head, bound, gagged and robbed of £80 on Good Friday in her roadside shop at Hilltop, Knottingley, Yorkshire. She never properly recovered and died less than six months later. It was an appalling attack and I don’t believe anyone was ever caught.

Attack on Mrs Dorothy Leeman, 1971