January 2012


I’m glad I dragged the telescope out tonight. Stars everywhere were quickly ignored for the moons of Jupiter. Another planet, another planets moons. After a while I changed the eyepiece to pick out the bands; its storms. Orion grabbed me next, with her nebulae of baby stars. At this stage it was inevitable that I had to have a try at andromeda. It was just a smudge, I always expect it to be more. Eventually it begins to sink in, it can never fully sink in, that it is the furthest that can be seen with the naked eye. That little smudge is a collection of billions of stars, a number too big to comprehend at a distance too far to grasp.

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Over five thousand written comments, over thirty thousand pieces of numerical data, and over six hundred merge fields.  Over the coming days all these strings must mesh together seamlessly to create the school reports. There will be seams, there will probably be tears (rips), and maybe even tears (me crying).  The sever that handles all this magic coughed and spluttered today.  I had been working for over half an hour on getting all the merge fields working properly on one particular report when a colleague burst into the office dramatically, “The sever is down!”  Straight away I saved my work.  No error messages popped up.  It seems that it was still working away but not taking any new incoming connections.  I think I know how it feels.  I turned it off and on again, but it still remained stubborn.  Our ICT technician stepped in and tried his technical wizardry.  He turned it off and on again, but it still did not work.  With all our sophisticated options exhausted, we rang the IT gods that govern the system.  I am not joking; they turned it off and then on again and it worked.  I left the server up time/down time, and the merge fields and data.  I went back to teaching until the end of the day when I ran out into the rain to get the climbers all filled into taxis and on their way to the wall.

A long drive through the rain and puddles found me home and data-less.  There is nothing better to shake off the merge fields and spreadsheets than chopping wood for the fire. There is the slow gentle search through the wood for easily split blocks for kindling, then there is the chopping that moves the arms and shifts the knots from a day spent in front of a computer.  The chickens and cats were then fed and watered.  The chickens are still stoically laying their one egg each ever day.  No one has pointed to them that it is not always normal to carry on through the heart of the winter darkness.  I can’t say it was totally relaxing, but it was strangely comforting to sit with the little man before he went to bed.  Ben Howard was blasting away over the crackling of the growing fire.  The little man sat beside me with his head nearly inside a box of blocks.  Periodically he held up a block to me with a look that said, “Look, look at that! That’s a block, wow!”  I agreed and carried on with a set of papers and a red pen ticking and scribbling away.  There are still about twenty four empty spaces in that database.

The point is that we’re all sleepwalkers…..Powerful forces construct social reality – parenting, schooling, television, advertising, dress code, corporate ethos, military drill. They’re all…variations on hypnosis. Mostly we walk around in a semi-trance. We want what we’re conditioned to want. We’re like the hypnotised subject who happily eats an onion thinking it to be an apple. We only believe the onion’s an apple… because we’ve built a mutually enforcing sense of reality with one another. This is known as consensual reality, or consensus trance reality. It’s what makes a football result seem important, what drives fashion, and causes the day to be spoiled by make-believe tragedy in a soap opera. The implication is that we’re all living a dream, a myth, and that if we don’t persist and insist on what C. G. Jung called ‘individuation’ – if we don’t start living our own dream and being authentic to our own deepest calling – then life itself will be sucked away by the energy vampires of consciousness.

From Soil and Soul by Alastair McIntosh.  I’m only half way through the book but it has already got my head filled and pondering.  It is about people, religion, poetry and our place in this world.  Quite a good read so far.

What do you see my little man?
Is your mind filled with Iggle Piggle and Macca Pacca?
What captures your eye and lifts your soul?
What earthly things are filling up your heart and head?

I see your mother has you captivated.
You crawl and clamber over her in the evening by the stove,
Your own personal guardian and womb.
You’re anchored to her in this sea of life.

What I do sometimes grabs your attention,
A little hawk over my shoulder as I light the fire.
Or, with your neck stretched, you are nearly inside the clock,
As I oil the old brass cogs and pins.

The television is the demon in the house.
I worry that it tears you away from the real world.
It is enchanting enough to cast its spell,
And calm the hunger as we cook and tidy around you.

Last night your mother carried you out of the car.
Opening the front door I beckoned you both in from the winter night.
Your eyes clawed for our attention as you pointed to a bright star and curiously cooed.
If these are the things that pull at you, I think you will be alright.

It’s nearly a full moon and it’s very late when a friend from work and I arrive at the cottage.  The steep walk into the hills warms us as we chat.  I suggest that we can switch off our head-torches as the moon is bright enough. Then, as if scripted, my foot slips on a rock and I stumble to recover my footing.

The fire is lit as a matter of priority as the old stone walls are icy cold and ready to suck the heat into themselves.  After the fire has picked itself up, we have settled ourselves down for an evening of sipping wine and talking nonsense.  When he is back in the civilised world of electricity and DVDs, my friend is working his way through box sets of Supernatural.  It has not escaped us both that our situation, remote and on the edge of nowhere, is the perfect setting for such horror stories.  I tell him the story of the big cats that were spotted in the neighbouring valley.  How they might have been caught on camera and how they were constantly being rumoured about among the farmers until the day two separate sightings were reported by hikers.  These sightings prompted the police to have a look about the area, but the monster cats could not be found. The chance of a puma attack is unlikely and irrational, with this in mind the glow of the full moon on the moor outside still sends our minds thinking of things such monsters and of werewolves.  We laugh, but of course, such laughter and over confidence is exactly the setting for the attacks in horror stories.  Eventually the witching hour passes, then another hour or two, before we load the final shovel of coal on the fire and let it warm us as we drift off to sleep.

annalong valley in winter sunlight

Amongst days of rain, wind and storms, we wake to find a rare clear blue sky.  Our route for the day takes us in a large circle around a big valley in the Mourne Mountains.  The highlight, half way through the route, is a scramble up a gully called the Devil’s Coachroad.  It is a scramble over scree until it takes us to the dizzy summit.  The sky stayed clear and the air stayed still and cool for the whole walk.  It was a refreshing first walk in the hills for the New Year; which has forced me to include extra resolutions to my list:

  • To spend more time looking at the world around me; try to let my soul soak it up.
  • To make more opportunities to find myself scrambling to the tops of mountains: out of breath with hands full of crumbling granite and sweat.
  • To spend more time with friends by the fireside; talking about anything and everything deep into the night.

 the devil’s coachroad – the gully through the middle of Slieve Beg

in the devil’s coachroad

the annalong valley as the sun hangs low

Binnian, Lamagan, Cove and Beg

a slow stream as the sun sets

the cottage behind us during the descent

We did not bump into old Nic on his road.  We did not get attacked by big cats or the werewolves of the Mournes.  When we eventually found ourselves heading down the hill with the cottage to our backs, the full moon (January’s Wolf Moon in the Medieval Calender) made another visit to us as it began to rise with a warming deep orange colour.  It was difficult, but we resisted the temptation to begin to howl.

wolf moon rising

I hate crossword puzzles, I really hate them passionately. I think my awfull speling could be partley to blame. This does not mean I do not like puzzles.

This morning I spotted an astronomy/navigation puzzle that got me thinking. The puzzle is from Tristan Gooley, who wrote an excellent book that has loaded me up with intresting observations to take with me when out with groups on the hills. I had an idea when I first read it but had to save it to later when I could spend more time on it. So now, here it is; a lovely nerdy puzzle.

The picture is a star trail picture that can be used to find out

1 – Which hemisphere was the picture taken in?

2 – At what latitude was the location?

3 – How long was the exposure (I threw this question in myself as I was curious)?

4 – In which direction was the picture taken?

The first challenge was relatively straight forward as each line on the picture represents a star and looking at them for a while I recognised none of the constellations that we see spinning around the pole star, which points to North here in the Northern Hemisphere.

I don’t recognise any of these star patterns.

So, I assumed the image was taken in the Southern Hemisphere, with the stars spinning around the south pole.

The latitude, I confess, I did not try and figure out as it said it in further down in the puzzles webpage and unfortunately I read it and spoilt that part of the conundrum.

The exposure length was a wee bit trickier and required measuring the length from the south pole (below the horizon) and the length of the star trail. Along with some GCSE maths this gave me the angle the stars had moved through during the length of time over which the picture was taken. The answer was four degrees.

If we assume that it takes 24 hours for the stars to turn around 360° (actually it is us that is turning) then that works out to be four minute per degree, or sixteen minutes for four degrees. I would not be surprised if I was a degree or so out and I think the camera exposure could be between twelve and twenty minutes.

The exact direction that the camera was pointing took a little longer to figure out (and Stellarium).

Marking the stars….

….then removing the image…

top half from the picture/bottom half Stellarium

…left me with an image I could use with Stellarium to try and match up some patterns.

top half from the picture/bottom half Stellarium

These are not constellations I recognise, but making up some random lines between them helps to see that they are a match.

top half from the picture/bottom half Stellarium

This means the picture was taken pointing at 160°.

Nice! Far nicer that a crossword puzzle.

I drove home as the sun set in a beautiful azure sky.  I got changed straight away to cycle into the village and return some books.  The beauty had turned into a beast; a dark grim sky with freezing rain.  I headed on anyway with the books well sealed up in the panniers. With frozen hands I eventually got to the library to find it shut, even though I had checked the times before I left the house.  The sign in the window said it was closed due to short staff.  I would have thought they could have done something with stools or step ladders.  *sigh*

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