Friday 25 November 2011

It's a Library, Jim, but Not As We Know It.

Royal Ordnance Factory Number 9 was built at Thorp Arch, near Wetherby, in Yorkshire, opening in 1940. Its purpose was as a place where all manner of bombs, shells, cartridge casings, mines, (anything the war effort needed to go bang) were filled with various kinds of explosives. As you can see from the picture above, it was situated on flat farmland, with its own railway links.. From 1940 to the late fifties, it was a closed and secret site. It did not appear on maps. When it closed, a local businessman bought most of the site, which became home to a myriad of businesses. It's still a pretty strange place. Railway lines disappear into blast revetements, many of the buildings are still earth-bunded, or buried. Back in wartime, of course, this would have been a very high-risk zone. Earth-bunded stores were there to contain and limit the damage that an explosion would cause. An explosion in a store not surrounded by thick earth banks would spread horizontally, killing all around, and setting off neighbouring stores in a chain-reaction. The idea of the earth was that the horizontal shockwave would be strongly attennuated, sending the main force of the blast mostly skywards. 

One part of the site, however, the part that held the site's main offices and administration was retained by the government, and became a national scientific library.
It was the National Lending Library for Science and Technology, the largest such establishment in europe.
It was said that the Russian section was the largest russian language library outside Russia, and the Chinese section....ditto.
Way back, in the early seventies, I worked there, in a year between school and college, and in my student years, I returned there during college vacations, in order to earn money to sustain my student beer book habit.
I wrote this in an earlier post, promising I'd one day write more. Not that anybody requested me to, or even wanted me to, but....
"Years ago, after I left school, before university, I took a year out.
The main reason was that I had been severely ill in the period leading to my final exams, missing a lot of school, revising time, in hospital for six weeks, hooked up to oxygen, and coming close to death a few times.
So when I was released to take those vital exams, I was definitely not at my best, and confidently expected to fail them, and go back to school to retake my final year.
So I didn't apply to further education, I was too busy just staying alive. In fact I passed them all, comfortably, including an extra one thrown in by my headmaster, for which I had not studied at all. That's a story in itself.
So then I had a year to fill, before further education. And not for me, the resources so often taken for granted now, to go travelling around the world, no gap year for me, a work year was predicated.
I did a short stint in the social security office, posting envelopes deliberately late to miss the post.
My boss required this.
There was a legal ruling that social security claimants be notified of an inspector's visit, so cards had to be sent out...
However, my boss required those cards miss the last post collection, and thus arrive after the inspector.
If say, you were a single woman, and the inspector saw a man's shirt in your home, your claim for rent payment would be disallowed, as it would be deemed evidence you were cohabiting with a man, and therefore he could pay your rent.
The whole aethos of the Department of Health and Social Security (or Stealth and Total Obscurity as we called it) was confrontational, its mission was to withhold , pay nobody, and generally obstruct claimants. I obstructed the department by altering the case notes of my school mates, ticking boxes and passing claims.... and warning them of intended visits. I hated being a part of that machine, so i asked around for other jobs. A friend said he'd heard that the library was hiring.
The Library-
The National Lending Library For Science and Technology. A vast unlibrary-like place, situated in a wartime munitions factory, full of clanking conveyors, shelves of secrets, not open to the public, although there was a reading room.
I applied...
Signed the Official Secrets Act, became an Assistant Scientific Officer (un
established), and gained entry to a treasure chest."

I was (haha!) designated "Assistant Scientific Officer (unestablished)". My grade was pretty lowly, but the department I worked in was of a flexible and nebulous nature, Officially we handled donations to the library. (Crates of, truckloads of books, university theses, magazines, scientific journals), but we also were used as a pool of persons to fill gaps in other departments, and to do jobs for which there was no prior protocol.
Much of the place was in the old single storey wartime buildings, some was in a modern (in the early seventies) multi-storey concrete building. Throughout all this site, an overhead conveyor ran, carrying trays everywhere. If a request was made for an item, a worker would retrieve the item from the relevant address, then place it on a conveyor tray, pulling a series of pegs on the suspension arm, to code the destination. Off the tray would go, when the coded pegs met the corresponding key station, the tray would be tipped onto a roller conveyor to  the person who would handle the request.

In the years since, it became the northern site of the British Library. It supplies documents to libraries and universities, and researchers around the world. Visitors may go to a reading room on site, and request books and documents, which are brought to them. Unlike in a conventional library, you can't, as a reader, browse through the stacks. You don't see any of it. Just the reading room.

Fairly recently, I had a chance meeting with somebody who works there now, and he emailed me details of an Open Day  planned for the fiftieth anniversary of the founding.
And I applied for and recieved an invitation to it.
Little of it is as at was back then. New buildings have arrived, and new tasks. Digitisation rather than photocopying. Emailing files where we crated books. Imagine.
We sent, as I recall, fifteen tons of crated books and scientific periodicals to the University of Ulan bator in Outer Mongolia.

Good to see new tasks emerging. One is an internet archive, attempting to record web pages, blogs, all manner of ephemera which otherwise would be lost without trace.

The most interesting part of the trip, to me was seeing the new document store, opened this summer. The rest of the place is a library, but not as we know it, but this new bit?
Well. imagine a controlled environment, where the aisles are too high and narrow for humans, the atmosphere is controlled at oxygen levels which will not sustain fire, or microbes....  This obviously isn't too good for humans, and thus the librarians are robots. They work in darkness. No human knows where to find a book. The computer remembers each book's position, the robot cranes zip along, up and down, back and forth, in darkness, when a book is called for, the robot retrieves the plastic crate holding the relevant volume, and delivers it to a conveyor, which, shades of a bygone era, takes it to the waiting human, out in the light, with oxygen.
When the book returns, it will not go to the place from which it was plucked. Robots don't need our familiar ordered dewey decimal, or alphabetic library shelf tags. Gradually, the robots will re-sort their charges, and the oft called-for tomes will be stacked nearer the front, rarely used ones will go to the  back. The library will constantly learn and reshuffle itself in its quest for efficiency.

 Not my pic: During the building phase.

As you see, not very library-looking!

 So, here's a little bit of conventional library. Wide aisles, lights, human-height shelving.

A scanning station. This frighteningly expensive machine, which will be dated and then obsolete in the blink of an eye, turns pages automatically and scans pretty much as fast as it can turn a page. humans are still needed to check it's doing it right.

Just some of the stuff the document centre handles.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Courier, May 7th 1892

A letter, from Samuel Cooper, of Boston, to Benjamin Franklin, dated 17th septembere1773, the day after the Bosto Tea Party, which it describes.

Second world war era buildings repurposed.


Overall, an interesting afternoon for me. We weren't allowed tp wander indiscriminately, alas, but chaperoned around the site in groups of ten or so. I didn't meet anyone I knew.

 On leaving the site, I turned into the Thorp Arch Trading Estate, and had a look at the old bunkers. Some are still in use as explosives stores, others are underground retail stores. The photos aren't good. It was rapidly getting dark, and brrr! it was cold.

The end.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Donkey Thought Bubble

"Like wow, man, I'm buzzin'!
She just gave us mushroom-cookies, and now look at him, making like star-trek, man.. 
Hey Wow! the colours! Wow, my eyes! Wow! Oh look! The planets! Fuck! This is weird!"

Oops:Apology for error, I posted this via Picasa, and  Picasa displayed an error message but the post seemed to be all present in the drafts folder.... But not quite. The pic I was seeing was not uploaded, the html still pointed to 'localhost'

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Whimpering in Inner Space.

I'm swallowing antibiotics in capsules big enough to travel in. I think I'll fit one with a seat and an intergalactic propulsion system.
Over the last week, my left ear has been gradually  tuning in  to the cosmos,  registering strange popping sounds, clicks buzzes, gurgles, and general white noise. The tuning was really crummy, I never got to hear a full sentence or identifiable sound, but on sunday it started to be painful, not just annoying. On monday I went to work and was extremely wobbly, my balance was definitely odd and touching in front, behind or under my ear really hurt. Oh. And I was working twelve feet up, on a scaffolding tower. Or I was trying to. By 9 a.m., it was obvious that anything requiring balance or concentration or bending down, or turning around, was a bad idea. I decided to do the sensible thing, and call my doctor. Unbelievably, the receptionist said "Can you get here for ten-thirty?", instead of the "Earliest appointment I can give you is next thursday", which I'd been expecting.
So I wobbled into the office, told the boss I'd be gone for a while, and went to see the doc, who peered in my ear and said "You're fine, no sign of..... Ooh?" meanwhile I was gripping the chair with white knuckles and attempting not to squeal.
"Oh" she said. "Nasty. I'll give you some antibiotics, you might  need some over-the-counter pain relief."
What! Might? AAAAAAOOOOOOOW! She prodded my ear, which made me levitate with screwed shut eyes and thought I might... MIGHT need pain relief?
Anyway, I went to the pharmacy with the prescription, picked up a carton of space-capsules, and some ibuprofen, and went back to work. Whimpering (more like a whipped mouse than a man).
By yesterday evening I was seeing purple sparks and wondering if I could mix ibuprofen with vodka and pour it into the ear. Or clove oil. Or burning jet fuel, anything, anything.
I ended up just going to bed and trying not to move my head at all. I did eventually  fall asleep, and dreamed all sorts of horrible dreams. The mad doctor had my head clamped in a vise and was trying to drill into my brain through my ear, in order to implant a controller and turn me into a human robot.

This morning, the pain was subsiding a bit, and strange noises had resumed. The capsules make me nauseous, but it's preferable to the alternative.

This has been a shamelessly self pitying post, and unabashed trolling for sympathy. I know you're thinking "Stand up, man,  don't be a spineless, snivelling wimp!"
But today, that's me. Spineless as a jellyfish.

Saturday 19 November 2011

Occupy? The City?

Sup up your beer and collect your fags,
There’s a row going on down near slough,
Get out your mat and pray to the west,
I’ll get out mine and pray for myself.

Thought you were smart when you took them on,
But you didn’t take a peep in their artillery room,
All that rugby puts hairs on your chest,
What chance have you got against a tie and a crest.

Hello-hurrah - what a nice day - for the eton rifles,
Hello-hurrah - I hope rain stops play - with the eton rifles.

Thought you were clever when you lit the fuse,
Tore down the house of commons in your brand new shoes,
Compose a revolutionary symphony,
Then went to bed with a charming young thing.

Hello-hurrah - cheers then mate - it’s the eton rifles,
Hello-hurrah - an extremist scrape - with the eton rifles.

What a catalyst you turned out to be,
Loaded the guns then you run off home for your tea,
Left me standing - like a guilty (naughty) schoolboy.

We came out of it naturally the worst,
Beaten and bloody and I was sick down my shirt,
We were no match for their untamed wit,
Though some of the lads said they’ll be back next week.

Hello-hurrah - there’s a price to pay - to the eton rifles,
Hello-hurrah - I’d prefer the plague - to the eton rifles.

Hello-hurrah - there’s a price to pay - to the eton rifles,
Hello-hurrah - I’d prefer the plague - to the eton rifles.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

A Poem.

Tongue and Groove, by Dave Smith.

Tongue and Groove
Forms a lock. But how does it begin in this world? The twig
falls, snaring another, and another, a storm’s blackness
gathers and sends its will scudding down and over the quiet
niches of the forest, where a nest of barky remnants
holds, waiting it seems, and is then lifted, swirled away.

Like the afterlife. We never see where they land or in what shape.
We mimic what we can. We remember. We say this way.
The shadow man’s fingers feel the groove. Fits to it
a piece of firm, now barkless wood, slender and pliant,
then into it, then deeper, snugly, and carries it with him a while.
When the wall stands, ugly and crude, needing its wind-cover,
the hand, after the night with love, fashions plank and rib,
wets for entry, slides, sees this cannot be easily parted.
Long years hold up the rich color, the vein-mapping.
Some like to sand hard, thinking to get back the early patina.
My wife from the first wanted to paint it brilliant cloud white.
Such an old look, such dour faces. At last I gave in.
The paper, medium rough, slid like a small hill of gravel
loosing the smell of pine sap. I could see the shadow
felling the tree, making the rib, the lock, nailing up forever
what would soon be lost in the sailing white, layered like mist
you cannot see through. The little nail holes puttied-in,
like eyes, slab after slab shoulder to shoulder, knots where
limbs grew, room like a snow-crypt. We live here.
Still, I know stains will rise some day, the lock split apart.

Save the Sugar-Plum Fairy!

St Charles, Missouri is the town which  fired the Sugar-Plum Fairy. 
The Sugar-Plum Fairy,  like all fairies, is a naturally upbeat and ebullient character. Or she was. Now she's a tearful little fairy, stripped of her wings.
Why? because, the employers of all upbeat and ebullient fairies, who seem to mostly be mean and grumbly trolls and ogres, are extremely suspicious of effervescence and enthusiasm, given that a grumbly troll or ogre can rarely attain even a faint upturn of the lips, let alone a smile.
So suspicious, that they make their fairies pee into a cup, and hand their fizzy yellow fluids to Ogrelab, for drug testing.

Laura Coppinger has played the fairy for the last six years,  as part of a group of characters who add fun and magic to the city's centre during the run-up to christmas. As such, for a few weeks of each year, she's a city employee. And city employee applicants, have, it seems, to be drug-screened.
By submitting a urine sample with the grinch listening to her tinkle.
And this year, she filled her cup, and, as we all do when we've peed in the porcelain bowl, she flushed.
Oh dear. Flushing is forbidden. (This is because the sample provider might just use some flush water to dilute the sample). Therefore her sample was rejected.

Laura was told she'd have to stay until she could provide another cupful of warm pee, ("Note: The collector should also tell the employee that the temperature of the specimen is a critical factor and that the employee should bring the specimen to the collector as soon as possible after urination. The collector should inform the employee that if it is longer than 4 minutes from the time the employee urinates into the container and the collector takes the specimen temperature, the potential exists that the specimen may be out of range and an observed collection may be required.")
An observed collection!!!!
She had another job interview to go to that afternoon. So, frustrated at the delay, she muttered a naughty word.
And the fairy code that the city council uses says “Christmas characters don’t know naughty words".
Surely, the fairy code applies only when on duty, interacting with townsfolk and shoppers, whilst in character?
(Doesn't Snow White, for instance, ever get a break, where she dares fart?)
Laura said a bad word. In the ladies room with only one other person present, that person being a town employee charged with conducting urine collection on city employees, that person told her she need not bother waiting, because swearing precludes fairyhood. Snip. Off with your wings, disgraced mortal.

Three separate campaign pages have been created on Facebook: Save the Sugar Plum Fairy, Bring Back the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Save the Sugar Plum Fairy on Main Street. More than a thousand people have added their support to the effort.

Many of the businesses have spoken out in her favour, asking that the fairy be reinstated, but the mayor says the decision stands.
I, for one, shall be boycotting St Charles Missouri this christmas, and I promise not to vote for the current Mayor in any upcoming election.

Footnote: Because I was wondering why flushing is taboo, I googled  drug test procedure, and found out far more than I ever needed to know. Did you know there are companies which sell 'synthetic urine' and strap-on bladders in which to conceal it?
Oh yes. they do... And I found the (no doubt apocryphal) story of the guy who was told that drugtests were being held the day after he'd smoked a heap of weed, so he asked his girlfriend to help him out with a ziplock baggie of clean pee that he could hide in his pants. "good news", the drugtester quips, "You're clean of drugs, and congratulations... You're pregnant!"

The Handbook on Pee-Testing, as used by the United States Department of Transportation.

Via Arbroath.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Post From a Zombie Laptop

As I said, a few  days ago, I experienced an unscheduled outage in my computer time.
Put simply, Windows Vista fell over and died. The laptop was thus brain-dead. But no worries, because Vista's got built-in repair tools, and, failing that, if all the hammering and sawing and welding are to no avail, then I can use the built in "Restore to last known good configuration"
Nope. "Can not restore...." Then we go to "Select an earlier restore point"
Then we use the fancy drive image backup my brother in law advised me to get.
"File corrupted".

So, dammit. I went to my original rescue discs and restored the thing to the state it was in three years ago. I've lost little or no data, all my documents and pics and so on get backed up elsewhere. Just not the operating system, the bookmarks and links and so on.

In the meantime I've been decluttering my clutterer home, and I dredged up the ancient laptop and its power supply. "I wonder?", I mused. Plugged it in, and  accessed the interweb via firefox 3. A retro experience indeed. All the old bookmarks... I try them, and most of the places they pointed to are long gone.
If I unplug the power lead, it's like I've squeezed off the oxygen, the laptop staggers, coughs... I plug it back in, hey, it's a zombie. It's the undead, the undying.
Of course, plugging it into the interweb is the wrong thing to do. All the old programs, unused for years, start groaning "Braaaaains!, Braaains", and are trying to suck in as many updates as they can get their hungry gums around. I'm killing processes as I go, printer drivers for long dead printers... Eventually we hit an impasse. I'm trying to write a blog post and the error messages start.
Poor little thing, its brain's full. Can you believe, a laptop with a six gigabyte hard drive?
My phone's got more storage than that. I'll bet the toaster does too.

So I gave up, took the shiny laptop to the computer gurus who rent space from us at work. They ran diagnostics prior to the planned windows 7 install, and lo and behold, they found it wasn't windows' fault, but rather a failing memory chip. Cybernetic Spongiform Encephalitis.
So a quick lobotomy, followed by a prosthetic memory, a new  shiny operating system, and a brave new world.
I'm back!

Wednesday 9 November 2011

"Digital Versus Analogue?"

I'll bet there are no comments on this one....


The Blue Screen of Death.
Luckily, I tend to regularly dump the contents of my laptop onto a hard drive. A couple of days ago, Windows Vista, which I've been using for a couple of years, since the big box thing died, had a little difficulty starting. Kind of like a stroke, actually. Obviously it would be churlish of me to grumble, because it's never done so before, despite the stories about Microsoft's 'Blue Screen of Death'. actually, despite all the stories, I've not seen the BSOD for years, not on my computers. XP used to die in many pathetic or dramatic ways, then claw itself out of the abyss toward the light, but never used to give me that stupid blue screen. Ah well, I thought, rebooting, Vista's got all these clever self-repair tools built in so I'll let it repair the start-up sectors all on its own. Well, it tried, and fell over repeatedly. Then it asked me if I'd like to start with the last known good configuration? Oh yes, I said, whatever it takes... It worked for 24 hours. Next day we tried the same old game again. What caused the fail. As far as I can see, the fail occurred after several abortive windows ".net family" update attempts. At first it said update failed, unknown error. Then it tried again and fell apart totally, bsod. And why, I ask, does it do that. It flashes a blue screen full of text up for about seventeen milliseconds. I'm a phenomenally fast reader, but there was no way I could imprint more than a couple of lines on my retina before blackness and the void. A couple of hours later, we'd tried all the saved restore points. At this point, of course, I could have inserted a ghost image of a good configuration.... Um. If the computer didn't tell me that there was a corrupted file on the disc. I sniffed it, it didn't smell corrupted. I mean, I've eaten smellier things. Maybe it meant the disc had been taking bribes? Snorting coke? Heaven forfend! Which meant a major rummage, to turn up the rescue discs I made when I first got the laptop, using the manufacturer's software. Now it has a 'repair' option, but after a couple more hours of abortive tries, I had to go for the full restore, pithed frog option, in which you wash out any old remaining brain cells with bleach, and write onto a blank and vacant cortex. Poor computer. Lobotomy. By now it's nearly 2 a.m. But I had it running, so I left it downloading 122 windows vital updates. If I had enough money, I'd abandon all my dignity and buy a No No No No.... I can't say it...... a... m...a M... M..... M... No. I can't say it. I just can't give in and buy a sealed box which has been blessed by the celestial fruit-monger. Yes, I mean a M.... Oh damn. If I try say that word that refers to ineffably smug computers which cost ridiculously disproportionate sums, then I just know I'll have a nosebleed.
I have, however, decided to upgrade to Windows Seven. Meanwhile current fresh install of Vista is running amazingly quickly, because I haven't reinstalled all the crap that just sits there in the background, parasitically wasting processor cycles and memory, on the offchance that I'd like to scan something or print or view photos or movies. My browser though. Sigh. I've lost all my bookmarks. A library of resources gone. Oh .....buck-it! I suppose I'll remember some of them, bit by bit. And pictures. Downloaded stuff. Any more and I'll start weeping. And yes. The first person to say "Why didn't you back it up continuously, seeing as you had software to do it?" gets a poke in the eye.

Sunday 6 November 2011

Mules Working in a Coal Mine, Whoop...

Goin' Down, Down, Working in a Coal-Mine, Whoop..

The Avalanches: Since I Left You.


For R.D.G., A Picture and a Poem

 A picture by Krystzof Browko.

The Rolling English Road, by G.K.Chesterton.
Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head. 

I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands. 

His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run
Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?
The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.
God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear
The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier. 

My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.

(Soubriquet Footnote: The last line, "by way of Kensal Green" refers to a huge necropolis with very grand monuments, in West London.)

Tuesday 1 November 2011

"Oh No, Young Lady", He said...

She'd been tiptoeing down the stairs, in her halloween costume. Yes, it was a bit... revealing, but hey, the other girls would be showing some skin too. And besides, with the body paint......
It would be a bit chilly perhaps, but she couldn't wait to see the reactions from the boys.... "Oh yeah", she thought, "tonight they're gonna notice me, tonight I won't be the nerdy girl... tonight...."
But as she stepped into the hallway. "Oh no, young lady, you go back upstairs and get properly dressed!"
"But Dad!"
"Don't you but me!", he gruffed, "My lord, you're near as dammit nekkid, and you think you're going out like that?   Who with?  Boys gonna be there?"
"It's my costume, all of us, my friends, we're going as.."
"Get upstairs and get properly dressed, right now!"
"But Dad! we have to have costumes! Everybody will have a costume".

That was it. She desperately wished she'd not seen that little spark come to his eye...

 "I'll make you a costume",  he said.

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