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Above the Snow Line

There was more snow forecast yesterday, though Scotland and the north east were expected to get hit far more heavily than the midlands. Nevertheless, when I saw the snow starting to fall mid afternoon yesterday, I hurriedly packed up my laptop and left work to get home promptly. I absolutely hate driving through snow; it reminds me far too much of trying to get Christopher home from hospital when he was seriously ill in the middle of a blizzard. I left just in the nick of time, because just after I got home it started snowing really heavily – big fat flakes which looked alarmingly like they might stick.

It was forecast to snow on and off all night, though the temperature was meant to be hovering just above zero, so I was hopeful that it wouldn’t get too deep. When I got up this morning, there was a worryingly white glow coming through the bathroom window. That generally means that there’s a layer of snow on the timber revetments holding up the slope. But because the window is frosted, it’s not possible to assess the depth of the snow. Opening the bedroom curtains initially didn’t give much more of a clue – the grass was clearly white not green, but I didn’t have my glasses on so I couldn’t see how bad it was.

Fortunately, it turned out to be little more than a light smattering of a centimetre or so. All the same, it took well over five minutes to get the car driveable – the driver’s door had frozen shut again, so the only way in was by clambering in from the passenger side. But the roads were clear and I had no trouble driving in. In fact, most of Malvern was completely free of snow; as I drove down the hill there was a pretty clear line below which there was no snow on the ground at all. It was just the tops of the hills which were above the snow line. My car was the only one in the car park at work with a layer of snow on the bonnet – not for the first time…..

New Year, New Tradesmen

On Christmas Day, the kitchen sink decided it was a good time to get completely blocked. Obviously, there was no way that I was going to be able to get an emergency plumber away from his Christmas Dinner for anything as relatively trivial as a blocked sink, so self help was clearly required.

I tried to clear it first with the plunger. Admittedly, it’s a pretty elderly plunger – I think we bought it soon after we moved in here. It turned out that the rubber was perished, and over-enthusiastic plunging just caused it to part company with the handle! So that was no good. Next I tried pouring drain-unblocking fat-busting chemicals down the sink. That partially worked, to the extent that the sink drained slowly and noisily, but was at least usable over the Christmas period.

On the day after Boxing Day, I tried getting hold of one of those 24/7 plumber/drain clearer companies to do the job properly. I was initially offered a same-day appointment, albeit for a significant amount of money. I agreed, through gritted teeth, but they phoned me back an hour later and said they wouldn’t be able to get to me until the Friday. So much for 24/7 emergency call-outs! I was not impressed, and anyway was due to be visiting my parents on the Friday, so I cancelled.

My parents recommended an old-fashioned hardware store close to where they live, that happened to be open between Christmas and New Year, so I was able to replace the broken plunger with a new, heavy duty one. Enthusiastic and regular plunging with that has at least kept the kitchen sink draining well enough to be usable for the last week or so.

However, there was clearly an ongoing problem. There was a heavy frost overnight earlier this week, and I noticed that there was a frozen puddle outside the kitchen window, even though it hadn’t rained. It looked like the problem might not be so much with the sink itself, but with the drain. And that is way outside my limited DIY capabilities. I needed professional help for that.

So I have taken today off work to wait in for Dynorod to turn up and fix it. They’re not cheap, but they’re not the company that let me down after Christmas, and actually I’ve been moderately impressed with their professionalism. They were in regular phone contact this morning, telling me that I was on the job schedule, and giving updated times when the service engineer would get to me. And when he got here, he quickly diagnosed and fixed the problem with a cheery “Just leave it to me, luv”.

It turned out to be a blockage in the external U-bend outside the kitchen, where the outlet from the sink joins the main drain. It needed rodding to get rid of a significant blockage of congealed grease. The chap said it was like these “fatbergs” that have been in the press lately, but on a much smaller domestic scale – he called it a “fat snowball”! I felt entirely justified in calling in the professionals, as clearing it required specialist tools that I don’t have, as well as being an unpleasant and somewhat messy job!

I do hope this isn’t an omen for the rest of the year……

New Year’s Day Gluttony

For the past few years, in fact since Christopher died, it’s become a bit of a tradition that my neighbours over the road invite me round for lunch on New Year’s Day – a very enjoyable way of getting the year off to a good start. Last year, we varied the routine, as my neighbours also wanted to invite the young couple who had recently moved in to the cottage up the road. Since I’ve got the largest dining room and the most chairs, it made sense for me to host the event, with each household contributing a course so that no one person had to cook the whole meal.

That worked really well, and everyone seemed to really enjoy themselves, so we decided to do the same thing again this year. I looked out my best crockery, cutlery, glasses and tablecloth (all wedding presents as it happens – it’s nice to get a chance to use them), and the neighbours all appeared bearing dishes of food. We had a thoroughly gluttonous lunch of vegetable soup, then nut roast, roasted ham, baked potatoes and mixed veg, all followed by lemon soufflé. I’m feeling absolutely stuffed now!

It was a very enjoyable mealtime, and I do feel lucky to have such good neighbours – we’re only a little hamlet up here on top of the hills, but we all get along very well. We were jokingly talking about augmenting the now-annual neighbourly get-together with a summer garden party. Though I’m not sure that any of us has a garden that’s flat enough to host it, what with being on the side of an extremely steep hill!

Walking around Ancient Rome


No sooner had I finished the on-line course on the “Hobbit”, when I got an email from FutureLearn saying in effect “If you liked that, how about this?”, and pointing me towards a free short course run by the University of Reading on Ancient Rome.

The USP of this particular course is that it’s based on a 3D model of the city, as it might have looked in its heyday. The lecturer has used architectural CAD software to build models of individual houses, temples, baths, forums , aqueducts etc, then assembled them all into one huge digital model which you can navigate through.

The basic software he’s used is called SketchUp; it’s available as freeware for PCs, and in fact I’ve used it in the past myself. When Christopher and I were considering getting the extension built, we used SketchUp to build a 3D model of it from the architect’s drawings, so that we could visualise what it might look like. It was easy to get started with SketchUp, but pretty tricky to build an accurate scale model of even a single building from plans and drawings. So I’m in awe of the amount of work it must have taken to build a representation of an entire city of a million inhabitants.

Part of the course involves downloading sections of his model and then  “walking” an avatar around it. That’s a bit hit and miss on my iPad, as my so-called broadband is not really up to the job of downloading a complex CAD model. But on the occasions I can get it to work, it’s quite fun. Yesterday I found myself walking around the Pantheon, with nobody else there!

I’ve been to Rome a number of times, most recently on a specialist archaeological trip looking specifically at how the ancient city has left its mark in the present day. So I’m pretty familiar with the background and content of this course, but it has still been really interesting to  visualise how the city might have looked two thousand years ago. It’s not entirely accurate of course – not only has the lecturer had to use lots of educated guess-work where the archaeological evidence is missing, but it all looks clean and pristine, with none of the dirt, mess and chaos that there must have been. Nevertheless, provided you accept the limitations of the model, it’s a very good way of “bringing alive” how Ancient Rome might have looked and worked.

Snow-ly returning to normal

Between Saturday evening and Monday morning, we had a total of 11″/28cm of snow up here on the hills. It took several more hours of shovelling on Monday morning to uncover the car, and to re-clear the bits of the drive that had already been shovelled clear once on the Sunday. Fortunately, it didn’t matter too much that I was well and truly snowed in – the maintenance staff hadn’t been able to clear the car park at work, so the site was only open to people who could walk in. Everyone else was asked to work from home if possible.

On Tuesday though, I was keen to make it in if possible. It was the day of our team Christmas Dinner, and the colleague organising it had picked a rather nice gastro-pub that I’ve not been to for years. First though I had to get the car de-iced – the driver’s door was frozen solid so that the only way in was via the passenger door and climbing over the handbrake! But it started ok, though the journey in was a bit hairy with lots of partially cleared roads and pedestrians walking in the middle of the road because the pavements were impassable.

I made it in to work ok, but really couldn’t face the drive out to the pub in Hanley Swan on poorly cleared B-roads. Fortunately, a colleague with a 4×4 was offering lifts, and I was really happy to cadge a ride off her. The Christmas lunch was excellent- really tasty, good portions and well presented. I’ll have to put it on the list of places to go to when I’ve got friends and family staying.

The thaw seems to have started in earnest today. The roads were mostly ok this morning, and I’ve gritted my drive so that’s remained ice-free. But I still have at least a 6″ blanket of snow over the house and garden. At least I suppose that shows that the house is well insulated so I’m not losing much heat through the roof!

Snowed In!

Snowed in!

It started snowing overnight, and hasn’t stopped all day. This was the view at lunchtime today. Since then, there’s been at least another inch, making 10″/25cm in all so far, with more forecast for overnight. I think it’s safe to say that I’m snowed in!  The main road is passable with care – there have been gritters and snowploughs going up and down the hill all day, but the real challenge is the steep slope getting onto and off my drive. It took three hours to semi-clear the drive this afternoon, but I’m expecting to have to repeat the exercise again in the morning. I’m going to be so stiff from the unaccustomed exercise – a shovel full of snow is remarkably heavy, and I’ve shifted many cubic metres of the stuff!

IT meltdown

I’ve been having a very frustrating week with my IT. My iPad started it off – I was using it on Saturday evening, when suddenly the touch screen stopped working. I tried doing several hard reboots, but no joy. I then tried restoring it from iTunes on my laptop, but that required me to verify that I trusted the computer by responding to a prompt on my iPad. Which since the screen wouldn’t respond was very frustrating! I was completely stuck.

On Monday I took the iPad along to my local non-Apple-authorised mobile repair shop. (The closest Apple Store is in Birmingham, and I wasn’t about to take a day off work to go there.) They said they’d have a go at resetting it to factory settings, in case it was a software glitch, but that there would be no guarantee that it would fix things. And indeed it didn’t – it looks like the touch screen is well and truly broken, and annoyingly it’s just outside the warranty period. Worse, Apple touch screens for that particular model of iPad are extremely expensive – I could get a whole new device for not much more. And I use my iPad all the time – I really missed it when I didn’t have it.

So I’ve reluctantly invested in a brand new iPad. John Lewis do free delivery to local Waitrose stores, so I picked it up yesterday. I then spent a nerve-wracking evening trying to get it to work. Fortunately I had a fairly recent backup on iTunes so I could do a nearly full restore. But I still needed to try to set up passwords for various accounts – it wasn’t as straightforward as it had been last time I upgraded.

Then it was a case of making sure that everything was still working. Unfortunately the WordPress app that I sometimes use for blogging is one that isn’t – it seems to require Christopher’s password which I don’t know. But worse still, my entire blog was down! I just got a message saying that there was an error connecting to the database. I got the same error message on my laptop too, so it was clearly a problem at the far end, not something I was doing wrong on my iPad.

That meant a transatlantic phone call to the help desk of the company that Christopher picked to host the blog. I’ve found before that I get good results from them by playing the “widow card” – i.e. “My husband set it up, I don’t understand it as he never explained what he was doing, and now it’s broken but I can’t ask him as he’s dead!”. It turned out that they had “helpfully” moved the blog overnight onto another server, but the config file was still pointing in the wrong place. Fortunately the tech support guy took pity on me when I said that I didn’t have a clue about how it was set up, and he fixed it for me. And he also said that Christopher clearly had a logical mind as the config file was very clearly set out!

If you can read this, then it should all be ok. For now at least.  But he also gave me a talking to about updating the version of WordPress I’m running, and said he’d update the database at his end to enable that. I’ll grit my teeth and try that over the weekend, and hope that doesn’t break anything. I said that I really didn’t want to be forced into the arms of Facebook just to update my friends and family about how I’m getting on!

I’m also going to spend the weekend backing up absolutely everything…

Studying The Hobbit

I’ve been spending my evenings for the last few weeks doing another online course on the FutureLearn MOOC platform. This one is from the University of Wollongong (no, me neither) and is studying The Hobbit. Not, in this case, Tolkien’s book of the same name. I was forced to read that by an over-enthusiastic English teacher in my second year at secondary school, and absolutely hated it. We had to read it all together as a class, with each of us taking it in turns to read aloud a paragraph at a time. In a mixed-ability comprehensive, with some students in the class who could barely read, that was extremely painful. My teacher managed not only to put me off all of Tolkien, but she butchered Charles Dickens the same way too, which is a real shame as I expect that I’d probably have quite enjoyed both authors if I’d discovered them in my own time and at my own speed. As it is, I actively avoid both of them.

This course that I’m doing is on the archaeology and paleo-anthropology of the hominid Homo Floresiensis. The academics leading the course were instrumental in digging up the fossilised skeleton of an extinct human species colloquially known as “the Hobbit” because it was only just over a metre tall, with a tiny head and proportionately over-big feet. I remember reading about it when the fossils were first discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores several years ago – there was a lot of controversy over the dating and whether it was, as the discoverers claimed, a completely new species of human, or just an anatomically modern person with microcephally or a congenital growth disorder. The course is doing a good job of explaining the new dating evidence, and pointing out the features which make it clear that this really was an archaic human species that most probably underwent a process of “island dwarfism” and shrunk in stature when in was isolated on an island with limited natural resources. It is probably only distantly related to us, but interestingly it was probably still living on Flores when anatomically-modern humans came through Indonesia on their way to colonising Australia.

I’m finding the course very interesting and I’m learning a lot about the human evolutionary tree. It’s a bit of a canter through years of painstaking multi-disciplinary research, but it’s well worth the investment of a couple of evenings a week.

A Lightbulb Moment

It’s been a dull and rainy day today, and this is a dark house at the best of times. So this morning I walked into the living room and turned on the lights. There was a flash of light, a shower of red sparks and a very loud bang. All the lights at this end of the house tripped out, so I was plunged into darkness, and to cap it all, the blown lightbulb flew horizontally out of the wall fitting at great speed and hit me on the head! I’ve never had that happen to me before, and I have to admit it gave me quite a fright! 

It wasn’t easy to fix, either. The bulb had exploded at the point where the glass joins the screw fitting. The bulb had been ejected violently from the socket, leaving behind the screw cap still stuck in the housing. It needed a pair of pliers to prise the broken screw-end out, and of course it all had to be done up a ladder and by torchlight, as there was hardly any daylight, and all the lights were out as I’m not going anywhere near a potentially live electrical fitting with a set of metal pliers!

I know that in the grand scheme of things, it’s very much a first world problem. But I’ve got a bump on my head from a high-velocity light bulb, and I’m definitely not happy!

More messages from beyond the grave

It’s that time of year again when I get a stream of emails from Christopher, or rather from a Google Calendar that he set up before he died, giving me loads of reminders of things to do around the house. So far, he’s given me a ghostly nudge to:

  • Get the central heating serviced
  • Shop around for car and house insurance
  • Get the septic tank emptied
  • Put the car through its annual service and MOT.

I did the last one today, though unfortunately the car failed its MOT on the first time of asking. It just scraped through on a “re-sit” after some work, but will need some more work on the brakes to get it properly fit for the winter. Annoying, but given that it’s 14 years old I suppose it’s inevitable that it will need some effort to keep it roadworthy. And given that I live at the top of a very steep hill, I really do need to have fully operational brakes!

In a way it’s quite nice that Christopher is still helping out around the house, but I do wish I knew his google password so that I could be more selective about which reminders I get. Oh well.