30 June 2012

England: Picture Catchup!

Here we go! Captions will hopefully explain and refer to posts...

Pictures from Bletchley Park...
The Bletchley Mansion. In and of itself, it's a mystery!

The Bombe machine. It cut the time needed to decode
Enigma messages by hours!

Collosus, the first computer, used to
decrypt German messages even more

A captured German Enigma machine.

Pictures from the trip from Cambridge to Long Buckby...
The trains are modern, comfortable, FAST - all electric.

They are also PUNCTUAL, at least in my experience!

The marina at Crick, filled with narrowboats.

The Red Lion

The room at Murcott Mill Farm B&B...the good: it's comfortable, the
food is excellent, the toilet and shower work as they should...
the bed: the Wi-Fi is iffy at best, and comes and goes...as does the TV;
I'm not sure what's doing what, but the TV will suddenly say "No Signal" and
you have to turn off the TV and box at the outlet, then turn it all back on again.

29 June 2012

England, Part the Seventh, Travel

Today (Thursday) was a travel day. I had a bit of a lie in, only stirring from the bed at 9:30AM. After a shower and shave, I had cereal and a banana for breakfast and set about packing for the journey. The Panther Cab I'd reserved the night before showed up right on time, and within a few minutes I was delivered to the bus stop where I would catch the 12:00PM bus on the X5 line to Milton Keynes. The coaches in England are pretty darn roomy, and very comfortable. I had two seats to myself except for a short bit in the middle. After arriving at Milton Keynes Central Rail Station, I obtained my ticket to Long Buckby. The total cost of all this travel was in the £26 range. Not bad for a hundred or so miles. The train was on time, and another 30 minutes later I was in Long Buckby. I checked into the Murcott Mill Farm Bed & Breakfast, and then we headed to the boat.

Dinner was at the Red Lion. A really scrumptious sirloin and a couple of pints later, and it was back to the B&B for some much needed shut eye.

Again, there will be a huge picture post as soon as I get reliable Internet access again.

England (Day 6): Code-breaking!

Today has been intellectually stimulating. Martin picked me up this morning at 8:30 and  we traveled to Bletchley Park, the National Code Center. In WWII, this was where Britain's code-breaking teams were based, working on the decryption of German and Japanese messages. Alan Turing, the famous mathematician and "father of the computer", worked here during the War, contributing majorly to the effort to break the German Enigma code. Here is where the Bombe machine, an early one-task computer was built, followed by the Collosus, the father of the modern computers, using 2500 valves to help crack the codes at a much faster rate than the Bombe could. After the War, Churchill ordered the destruction of these machines as we moved into the Cold War, though it is said that at least one or two of each were preserved under tight security. Teams using declassified materials have built working replicas of both machines, which are on display here at Bletchley.

This is really an amazing trip. I've been to so many new places, done so many new things, and learned so much about history in just 5 days. Tomorrow is a travel day from Cambridge to Rugby, the to the B&B at Long Buckby. Friday I'll be headed out to go narrowboating! I can't wait to get to the river so I can just put my aching feet up and relax (and drink a few ales)!

My Internet access is for sh!t. I'll upload pictures as soon as I can.

27 June 2012

England: Money, sorted.

I've had a couple of messages asking about the money over here. It's not really that much different than the States other than the denominations and the shapes and sizes of the coins.

Like the US, it's all Base 10:
100 Pence = 1 Pound
Easy, right?

Coins start at 1 penny, then 2 pence, then 5. It starts over at 10 pence (p), 20p, and 50p. Finally there are 1 pound and 2 pound coins (no 1 or 2 pound notes). The first note is 5 pounds, followed by 10s and 20s. There may be larger denominations, but also like the US, are not in normal circulation.

The language of money is interesting, too. A typical way of stating a price might be "that's 2 pounds 50" meaning 2 pounds, 50 pence, written £2.50, just like the US. Things that are less than a pound are usually just something like "60p". Another word for the pound is "quid", as in "that'll be 30 quid". You also hear things like "just give me a fiver", meaning a five pound note, or a "tenner", a ten pound note.

The thing you have to watch out for is the exchange rate. Prices can be deceiving in that a meal may be £10.50. When you realize the exchange rate is something like £1.00 = $1.57, things can add up quickly! A £20 souvenir will cost you $31.21 plus whatever extra the bank charges for making the (fully electronic) currency exchange.

(l-r, top to bottom) 1 penny, 2 pence, 5p
10p, 20p, 50p
1 pound, 2 pound
So that's British money all sorted.

England, Part the Fourth: Amateur Radio Operations on Day 5

Yesterday (Tuesday, 26 June) was pretty special. I was granted access by the Cambridge University Wireless Society to their club radio shack. Martin, G3QAY, was my host for the day. Woot Woot 3 (the name of the shack, not sure exactly what  happened to Woot Woot and Woot Woot 2) is well equipped with two positions with Yaesu FT-1000's. The main position feeds a Yaesu VL-1000 amplifier, and also has a Kenwood and (uh-oh, forgot the other radio's models!). There is a computer with Wi-Fi for spotting and logging, and for some setups, rig control. So for a few hours, I was M/N4PAT, operating from G6UW.

Martin set up the FT-1000 for me, it feeds a STEPPIR at about 45 feet (after cranking on the tower for 35 turns or so to make sure it clears the trees). I immediately got down to business calling CQ on 20 meters. It wasn't particularly open to the US, though the first contact was a KB2, and later on I managed a 51 QSO with Mike, N4LSP. I also worked my first JA's (Japan) and a Malaysian station. A fair number of the 63 QSOs were Eastern European. I'm not sure yet, but I think I grabbed another new country or two in that mix, too.

Starting at 2000UTC was a 6M contest. There is a contest on every Tuesday night with the band rotating each week. If there is a 5th Tuesday, they contest on 4M. Martin captured 70-odd QSOs, I operated for a bit, but I fear that I was so out of practice that I scared everyone away! The band sure was quiet though I made a few more QSOs for the log. Tom, a student at Cambridge and a member of the CUWS, took over, and Martin and I went up on "the hill". It's about the only hill in Cambridge, and at 340 feet in elevation, commands a nice view over the city. Some other club members had a van with a 60 foot telescoping mast installed in it, with a 6M beam on top. They were in the 100's of QSOs when we arrived. Several of this group were broadcasters so it was fun swapping stories.

All too soon, it was time to head back to town. My hearty thanks to G6UW, and Martin, G3ZAY for a wonderful day of operating outside of my home country, in a very well appointed shack! Fun, fun, fun!


25 June 2012

England, Day 4: Cambridge

I spent all day today touring Cambridge with Mark. I'm pretty much exhausted to this will be a quick overview of the day.

We walked from his house to city center (about a mile or so). It is always interesting to be at street level in a foreign country. Everything is so different than in the States. Cambridge is a huge mixture of old and new...things dating from the dawn of time, to construction cranes erecting new buildings as we watched.

We wandered down to the Cam River. It's a really beautiful waterway, and Cambridge takes advantage of it. We eventually arrived at a spot where you can rent a punt. A punt is a flat-bottomed boat that is poled up and down the river, originally as work boats, now as tourist transports. We rented one, Mark poled. I watched the other punts and the college buildings and grounds that line both sides of the river.

Afterwards, we walked up the only hill in Cambridge, to the top of the old castle mound. Cambridge Castle was first built by William the Conqueror in 1068, and the site has served as the center of government ever since, the Council building adjacent to it is built with stone from the last iteration of the castle and gaol.

Lunch was at the appropriately named Castle Inn (it is located in the shadow of the mound). Then we headed over to Cambridge University and toured several of the colleges there. The buildings are beautiful. The mixture of old and new(er) can be quite subtle at times, and quite jarring at others. We made our way back to Mark's house, relaxed a bit, then had dinner at The Cambridge Blue pub again. Now the sun is finally going down at about 9:45PM, though there will be light in the sky until as late as 11:00PM!

Here are some pictures from today:
Public artwork...this was a LONG
mural along a pedestrian walkway
under a major roundabout.

A swan in the river. They have Canada geese, too.
The Cambridge Castle Mound
Me on top of the mound. There's a panoramic video below.
Punting on the river.
Moving right along!
You just gotta love Rising Bollards!
See, I told you there were warnings like this!
The Tomb of Dr. Hugh Ashton, died 1522, and buried here
in St. John's College Chapel
Big Brother is watching! These things are


 This is the panorama from the top of the Castle Mound.
This is the St. John's College Choir rehearsing.

24 June 2012

England: Part the Second...The Rest of Woking, and Riding the Rails

The Woking (or Metro) Hotel
As noted, the ride to Woking was pretty nice. The Woking Hotel would not let Mark and I check in until 2:00PM, so we went across the street to Wetherspoons. This is a chain pub, much like an Applebee's but more bar-like. Ordering in England is very different than in the US. First, you find a table. Then you peruse the menu until you find what you want. Next, find the table number on your table (or at least figure out an apt description of same) and proceed to the bar to order and pay for your food. Pints tend to run from between £2.50 (Two pounds, fifty pence*) to £3.60 for the premium stuff. That's about $3.90 to $5.65 a piece, but to me, it's worth it - this is the real stuff, typically brewed nearby, and stored in casks, not kegs, served at about 50 to 55 degrees rather than the usual 40 to 45 in the US. It tastes GOOD! Presumably, you've already purchased the first round of beer, so by this time, you're likely to want the second whilst you wait for your food. If there is no number, you'll be given something that identifies your table. Your food is delivered, and that's it. There is no real "service" like in American restaurants, nor is there much tipping (a publican might be tipped for extra good service, but this seems to be completely voluntary and unnecessary most of the time).

The selection of beers runs like this: Coors Light, Budweiser, Corona (I am NOT making this up), etc. But also there are huge selections of ales and lagers, hand-pumped straight from the cask, with no artificial carbonation. The funny thing is, all of the labels on the taps also list the ABV (Alcohol By Volume). The publicans will warn you if it's a high ABV you've selected. They also tend to know about the selections, so if you want something hoppy or malty or a bitter or stout, they can usually recommend something you'll like.

We finally checked into the hotel after a few rounds across the street. The room was adequate. See the pictures below. Then we went back to Wetherspoons to meet another blogworld friend. We drank for a bit at Wetherspoons, then moved to The Sovereign for more beer and dinner. This visit lasted until nearly 9PM, when bloggerfriend had to return to his quarters to rest up for a long weekend of working. So Mark and I ventured back to the hotel. I was now on about 38 hours of minimal sleep (the 2 or 3 hours on the plane), and right at the edge of coherent functioning. I managed to fall asleep with the pulsing, pounding bass line of a band playing in an event hall next door. ARGH! The Bose noise-cancelling headset worked to quell the riot going on in the walls of this room.

Pretty basic room
The view from my window was of the nightclub
next door
Lunch on Saturday
was an Irish Beef Burger
Bacon and Cheese,
with a side of chips.
Saturday dawned as another typical British day, cloudy with a chance of showers. I actually got a bit of a lie-in when I noticed the text from another friend, J, who had left Wales at 5:47AM to come up and spend the day with us in his hometown. We'd expected him about 9, but it seems his shift ended late (early?) and he was on a later train. But we met for the first time in real life right about 10AM, and spent a wonderful day visiting around his hometown of Woking. It's a pretty city, only about 5000 people, but the main downtown is vibrant and bustling. H. G. Well's novel, "The War of the Worlds" was based nearby, and Woking takes advantage of it with a display of a Tripod and one of the jets that fought them. Even Wetherspoons has a fantastic sculpture of the man in the window. I forgot to get a picture of it :-(. The town is very big on public art, and if anyone can tell me what these three polar bears are doing (picture, below), I'd appreciate it; there is no explanation anywhere near the piece itself! We went to the mall, then over to the Lighthouse, the town's art museum. They had a really cool exhibit about the history of Woking, and even J enjoyed it, not having seen it since he was about 11 (he's 19 now). We then wandered back towards the center of the city, sticking our head into the Victorian era (but much modernised) Christ Church, then looking for a decent place for lunch. We settled on O'Neill's, an Irish pub. I had a very good Irish Beef Burger with bacon and cheese, and a side of chips. Note that here French fried are called chips.

The Tripod
There's amazing detail in this sculpture!

Three bears on the right, one on the left...
...what the bloody heck are they DOING?!

Christ Church, ca. 1887 (but I'll bet they sat on straight-
backed pews back then!)
After lunch, we wandered back and sat outside Wetherspoons for a while longer, until J could hardly hold his head up (he'd now been up almost as long as I had been the day before). So he called his mum who came to pick him up for a home-cooked meal (as J put it, "that's called take-away"). Mark and I had a late dinner after taking a short rest from the day, then it was time for bed, and that damned night-club thingie was throbbing again. Fortunately, it was a bit softer last night, so I managed to fall asleep without help from Mr. Bose.

I got a later start (deliberately) today, as it was mostly a travel day. That bloody club started the bass line again about 9:00AM. I wanted to go cut the electrics mains. Instead I rolled out of bed, ate breakfast, showered and packed up to leave. M and I checked out about 10AM, walked the block and a half to the Woking train station, and purchased through tickets to Cambridge (£28.60).

All of the above are of Waterloo Station, a huge
rail terminal in London.
 The rail system in England puts ours to shame. All electric (at 750 volts on the third rail), extremely quiet, and pretty darn easy to navigate. We had a couple of connections, one at Kings Cross station. Remember Platform 9¾ from a certain wizarding novel? This is the station where it's located. Unfortunately, the station is greatly modernised from the settings in the Harry Potter movies. Platform 9¾ is now a brick wall just before you get to the platforms (rather than a brick pillar alongside the tracks) and has a cut-away luggage cart unlike anything I've seen in a HP movie glued to the wall. Very disappointed. I didn't waste any pixels taking a picture of it, though there were dozens of others standing around who did.

The trains are very clean, very fast (around 80mph), and it's a smooth ride on relatively new continuously welded rail. A toddler who was just starting to walk was moving up and down the aisle quite easily! We arrived in Cambridge in early afternoon, walked to the house, then to the market. I found the exact USB cable I needed for £3.99. We bought a bit of food and some necessities, then it's been a nice slow afternoon of blogging. And now that I have the correct password to M's Wi-Fi, I can post this!

*Money will be sorted in a future post, as soon as I get a 50p coin!

23 June 2012

England 2012, Part the First: Getting There

Philly International wasn't very busy!
Richmond International was quiet as a church mouse. As usual. I now know my TSA belt (a belt designed to be acceptable to wear through security) works, as the only thing that set off any alarms seemed to be my sweaty right armpit, resulting in a pat down of that particular portion of my anatomy. You have to wonder how well those machines  really work if that's what they detect! Explosive sweat. Who woulda thought? Anyway, the Dash 300 took off on time and landed in Philly in good order.

Once again, things couldn't have gone any smoother. A shuttle ran me from Terminal F to Terminal A, and the gate wasn't far from the drop off point. Best part: I never left the secure area, so I didn't have to take my shoes off again.
Airbus 330, just awaiting for us!

I grabbed a bottle of water and some Cheez-Its to tide me over, finished a novel (The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrimur Helgason) and read a bit of England: An Illustrated History by Henry Weisser whilst waiting on the 9:50PM flight. Once again, a completely full plane, but we took off on time, and after an OK dinner of pasta primavera I watched a bit of television. It was easily the bumpiest plane ride I've ever been on; not dramatic turbulence, just constant for the entire trip. Jeez, Mr. Pilot Captain Sir, why the heck don't you either climb or descend a couple of thousand feet to get out of this crap. Oh wait, the 3 miniatures of Jack Daniels is kicking in. No problem. I drifted off to sleep.

 No idea how long I slept, probably not more than 3 hours, and it was  time for breakfast...well, at least a "flat muffin" and coffee. It took the growl out of my stomach, but just barely. We were about an hour away when the captain informed us that we were in initial approach to Heathrow; thirty minutes later he told us we were in a 20 minutes holding queue. Drat. I used the time to re-engineer my mobile into a GSM capable handset. This required all of 5 minutes. The lady beside me watched as though I was performing open heart surgery, and finally asked what I was doing. I told her, then she looked as if I'd just told her she'd given birth to quintuplets! Apparently, not everyone understands 1) how easy it is to install a SIM card in your mobile, and 2) how nice it is to be able to make cheap calls in the country you are visiting!

Heathrow is easily the LONGEST airport I've ever walked through. Despite several moving walkways, I'll bet I walked nearly half a mile to the Border Agency desks. The queue was 7 layers deep (think amusement park queueing, back and forth), and taking a hint from the US, they had only six agents working. It took at least 45 minutes to get to a desk where my passport was perfunctorily stamped and I was allowed past the blue line on the wall that said "UK Border". Now to Baggage Reclaim.

This was another walk from hell, but HELLO, could it be?! YES! My bag is directly in front of me just as I reach the conveyor belt. I grab it and exit through the "Nothing to Declare" doors into the area where you are met by your driver (in the event you are able to have a driver meeting you), where I am greeted by a friend from the blogworld, and he leads me off towards the transportation we will be using to get to Woking. Another few miles of walking, and we reach the Central Bus Terminal. You may be able to catch a bus at this level, but everything else is UP THERE!

The ride to Woking was uneventful, except that everyone was driving on the wrong side of the road! I wanted to hop out and direct traffic!
We found the hotel in short order, and were told at 1:40PM that we could not check in until 2:00PM. Wetherspoons it was (right across the street) for my first pint of true English ale, pumped from the cask (no CO2 tanks in these pubs), in five years. Oh my, SOOOO good.

The hotel was adequate at best. If I hadn't been more or less awake for 39 hours, and hadn't consumed more than a few pints of ale, I'd have fussed until they moved me to another room, as I was right beside a night club with a pounding night club band playing. Over-tiredness and near-inebriation saved the say, and I slept right through until Saturday morning. That's it for tonight, time to tally up the money spent today, and get some sleep. In the morning, we're headed to Cambridge.

Tomorrow: More pictures, once I find the correct cable for my camera (FAIL!). And, Friday afternoon and evening, and all day Saturday with some incredible friends!

10 June 2012

Well, it's been a while

Two years. I can't decide what to do with this blog.

I want it to continue. But I have no followers at all.

Decisions, decisions.

We'll see.