A Posthumous Birthday

My Father and Me, 1960

My Father and Me, 1960

Today—6th March—would have been my father’s 110th birthday. The photo above is the earliest of the two of us together that has survived. I was about 6 months old at the time, so it shouldn’t be difficult to guess which of us is which! It was taken in my father’s beloved rose garden, at the back of our house. Unfortunately, it is somewhat over-exposed, but it has survived because most of our photos in those days were taken by my father, so he appears in very few of them.

Of course, my father is not alive today to celebrate this occasion; he died shortly after his 70th birthday, in 1979.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, my father suffered his first stroke when I was about 2 years old. Given that he was the family’s sole breadwinner, that was obviously a catastrophic event, although I was much too young to appreciate what was happening at the time.

He never recovered fully from the effects of the first stroke, although he was able to continue working as a teacher until the early 1970s. As I described elsewhere, our family then operated a guest house to generate income for a few years, until my brother and I grew up.

The family group photo below was taken in about 1966, also in our back garden, but this time with the camera on a tripod, and using the auto-timer, so that my father could run around and include himself in the image. In the front row are my younger brother, my mother and me. My mother is sitting on a well-used push-around stuffed dog, called “Woofy”.

The Family with Woofy, 1966

The Family with Woofy, 1966

You can see that my father’s smile here is somewhat lopsided, which was one of the noticeable effects of his stroke.

I mentioned in an earlier post that my father was quite a talented amateur artist, and it has always puzzled me that he never seemed to have made any attempt to earn a living using those skills. That seemed to be an unfortunate theme in our family in those days; enviable talent that largely went ignored.

I think that he suffered many frustrations in his life. His own father (my grandfather) owned a woolen factory in Leeds, and refused to pay for my father to go to university and get a degree, on the grounds that he was going to inherit the business. There were no student grants or loans in those days, so, if his parents would not finance his studies, my father could not go to college.

Unfortunately, by the time that my father became an adult, my grandfather had so mismanaged the business that it was bankrupt, leaving my father not only with no degree, but also with no business to inherit. He then established an electrical contracting business, which was successful for several years, until World War II intervened.

The last photo of my father is below, taken in October 1977, at May Beck on the North Yorkshire Moors. He was exploring the moors with our West Highland terrier, Meg.

At May Beck with Meg, 1977

At May Beck with Meg, 1977

The gift that I gave my father on what turned out to be his last birthday, in March 1979, was a book—Colour Photography: the First Hundred Years—which contains some fascinating examples of early color film technologies. Given the color photos of him that are left to me, that seems appropriate. I hope he enjoyed reading that book during the short time that he had left.

My Father and Me, 1960

My Father and Me, 1960

Happy Valentine’s Day for 2019

Mary herding Cats in Wabasha

Mary herding Cats in Wabasha

Some of you may already know that my wife, Mary, is a volunteer at the Humane Society of Sonoma County, where she spends many hours looking after cats that are brought into the shelter. She specializes in helping feral cats, including those infected with ringworm (which have to be quarantined until they have been cured). She does wonderful work for the society, and has nursed many cats back to health, and then helped to find great homes for them.

However, the photo above does not show Mary at the Humane Society. I took it many years ago when we were both staying at the Anderson House Hotel in Wabasha, Minnesota. In those days, the Anderson House was famous for keeping a large number of cats, which could be “loaned out” to guests to sleep in their rooms! In the photo, I think Mary was in the process of deciding which cat we’d like to “borrow” for our stay, which was a difficult decision!

Unfortunately, although you can still stay at the Anderson House Hotel, the cats are no longer available there.

Celebrate the Day

Today is, of course, Valentine’s Day, so it seems appropriate to talk a little more about the “love of my life”. Mary has been helping cats (and other animals) for many years.

When we lived in San Mateo during the 1990s, we were members of an organization called the Homeless Cat Network. As members, we fostered many cats and kittens, eventually finding new homes for them. The photo below shows one of our success stories; an extremely shy kitten named Natasha, for whom (along with her sister Nicole) we found a great new home with a loving couple in San Francisco.

Mary with Foster Kitten Natasha

Mary with Foster Kitten Natasha

In my post for Valentine’s Day last year, I described how Mary and I met. We’ve now been together for nearly 30 years, and I’m really glad to be able to celebrate another Valentine’s Day with her!

I love you, Mary!

Mary herding Cats in Wabasha

Mary herding Cats in Wabasha

Packing Without Panicking

Mary with the Luggage, Luzern Bahnhof

Mary with the Luggage, Luzern Bahnhof

The photo above was taken many years ago in the main railway station in Lucerne, Switzerland, just after Mary and I had arrived from Chiasso. Mary looks as though she is waiting for me to help her with our luggage! During my travels, I have rarely taken photos that included luggage, but since the topic of packing that luggage is the subject of this post, it seems appropriate here.

As I’ve mentioned before, my parents were anything but “seasoned travelers”, so I grew up with very little experience of packing suitcases. I really didn’t pack a suitcase myself until I went away to university for the first time. As I recounted in an earlier post, I quickly learned some hard lessons about what or what not to pack!

However, those lessons didn’t really solve the problem of how to remember to pack everything that I would actually need, and how to avoid forgetting some vital item.

Whatever You Do, Don’t Forget That!

To be honest, I didn’t usually “panic” about packing, but there was a low-level anxiety. Whenever I had to pack a suitcase, even for an overnight stay, there was always a nagging worry that I was forgetting something important.

Usually, my fears turned out to be unfounded, but on one occasion I did forget something vital.

During 1986, I had to fly from London to Munich, just on a one-day trip, to attend a job interview. As I was parking my car at Heathrow Airport, I suddenly realized to my horror that I had left my passport at home! There wasn’t time to drive back home to get it, so I decided that I had no choice but to go to the checkin terminal, and ask about my options.

My flight was with British Airways, and unfortunately this was to be my first experience of misleading information provided by that airline (but not the last). The checkin agent was adamant that there was no way I’d be allowed into West Germany without my passport, and that the immigration authorities there would simply send me straight back to Britain. Taking the flight would simply be a waste of time, she claimed.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t cancel my ticket at that point, so it seemed that I had nothing further to lose by taking the flight to Munich. When I arrived in Munich, it turned out that what I had been told by the British Airways representative had been completely false! When I explained my predicament, the German immigration officer laughed, and assured me that this situation occurred every day. He told me that they could simply issue me with a temporary Reisepass, which would allow me into the country just for the day, and which I would surrender on leaving.

That was what I did, and, apart from a few additional delays answering extra questions, it was really no problem at all. There wasn’t even a fee to pay!

Inspiration: Make a List

Despite the unexpectedly happy resolution of that situation, I continued to wonder whether there might be some way for me to guarantee that I would not forget some vital item when packing. As I grew older and traveled more frequently, the significance of the problem increased.

Eventually, I was inspired to find a solution by the activities of my friend Adam Wilt, who is shown below (on the left), with me and Mary, at an SMPTE video broadcast some time during the 1990s.

Broadcasting an SMPTE Meeting

Broadcasting an SMPTE Meeting

Adam provided videography services at many events, and he always brought all his own equipment with him. That included a wide variety of small-but-critical items, such as cables and adapters. Obviously it was important for him to avoid leaving some item behind at the end of every shoot. I couldn’t help noticing that, when packing his kit, he created a handwritten list, ticking off every item as he packed it, and then ticking off every item again as he repacked after the event.

It immediately dawned on me that here was the solution to my packing worries! If I just made a list of everything that I needed to pack, then I wouldn’t have to worry about forgetting anything. It seemed like a great idea, but then, of course, how would I ensure that the list itself was complete?

I realized that if I created my list on a computer, as a word processor file, then not only would I avoid having to rewrite it for every journey, but I’d also be able to improve the list after each trip, adding or removing items as travel conditions changed. (For example, years ago my list included phone cables and adapters for dial-up internet connections in hotels, but none of that is necessary now!)

I created my list more than 20 years ago, and I’ve used edited versions of it for every trip since then. I sub-divided the list to make packing even easier, splitting off, for example, items needed only for international travel, and (after 9/11) items that could or could not be carried onto aircraft.

Mary traveling in style!

Mary traveling in style!

The photo above illustrates the pleasures of care-free travel. Mary was relaxing in an airbed seat, on a flight back to the US from London, having carefully included her crafting items in her carry-on baggage, so she could work on her projects during the flight. For my part, I could enjoy the flight, without having to worry about having forgotten some vital item.

Many thanks to Adam Wilt for the inspiration that permanently solved my problem!

Mary with the Luggage, Luzern Bahnhof

Mary with the Luggage, Luzern Bahnhof

The Super Blood Wolf Moon Appears


Eclipse Ending

Eclipse Ending

The photo above shows last Sunday’s Super Blood Wolf Moon, as unexpectedly seen from our house. I realize that, by now, everyone is probably sick of hearing about that event, but the fact that I was able to photograph it at all came as something of a surprise. The US media certainly loved the name, which sounds like the title of a really bad horror film!

In an attempt to provide a little variety, I chose this photo as my header, because it depicts the latter phase of the eclipse, when Earth’s shadow was in the process of moving off the face of the moon. You can also see some thin high cloud drifting around, which provides an interesting effect.

We had heavy rain here for most of Sunday, so we really didn’t anticipate being able to see the eclipse at all. However, just as the moon was beginning to darken, the sky cleared temporarily, so I rushed out with my camera to capture whatever I could.

Unfortunately, although the “Moon Mode” on the camera works well for handheld shots when the moon is at full brightness, the dimmed moon really requires the camera to be on a tripod, which I didn’t have available, hence the jitteriness of some of these shots.

The photo below shows a zoomed-out view of the moon from in front of our house. In addition to the orange moon itself, you may just be able to make out the stars Castor and Pollux (in the constellation Gemini), above and to the left of the moon.

Blood Moon with Castor and Pollux

Blood Moon with Castor and Pollux

Here’s an enlarged version of the center of that photograph, which hopefully will make the stars easier to spot.

Detail of the Moon and Stars

Detail of the Moon and Stars

The photo below shows a closer view of the eclipsed moon itself, although rather unsteady because of the lack of a tripod.

An Orange Moon

An Orange Moon

While it’s true that I saw just the same event that millions of others saw that night, I really wasn’t expecting to see anything, so the opportunity came as a pleasant surprise.

The next similar event won’t occur until May 2021, so of course it won’t be a “Wolf Moon” on that occasion.

Eclipse Ending

Eclipse Ending

Are You Being Served?

Bloomsbury Square, London, in Snow, 1981

Bloomsbury Square, London, in Snow, 1981

The photo above, which I took in 1981, shows Bloomsbury Square, London, following a seasonal snowfall. At the time that I took the photo, I was working part-time at Selfridges, a well-known department store on nearby Oxford Street.

In previous posts, I’ve described how I moved to London in October 1981, to begin my studies for an Electronic Engineering degree at Imperial College.

In Britain, each undergraduate academic year is divided into three terms: Autumn, Spring and Summer. There’s a short Christmas break between the Autumn and Spring terms, and another Easter break between the Spring and Summer terms. Typically, during the short breaks, young students return home to their parents, and take the time off.

My family situation, however, was somewhat different. My father had died in 1979, and my mother was struggling to support herself, so I did not feel that I could just go back and expect her to support me as well. Instead, I decided that I would try to stay in London and obtain temporary work during the short breaks. I found that it was possible to stay in my student accommodations during the breaks if I paid additional rent.

Finding suitable work turned out to be relatively easy, but, in retrospect, I have come to doubt that the job choices I made were for the best.

The Scarborough Pattern

During my schooldays, I had become accustomed to seeking work in menial jobs during the school holidays. In a seaside resort like Scarborough, that usually meant working as a waiter in a hotel or café, or perhaps as a shop assistant. Even if I had had the skills to do more sophisticated work at that age, such work was probably not available in that town anyway.

Thus, when I found myself becoming a student again, this time in London, I fell into the mindset of seeking out types of temporary work that were similar to those that I’d done in Scarborough.

That was a mistake; I should have searched for jobs that would have made better use of my special skills, and would probably have paid better. I was in the very unusual situation of having just worked fulltime in accounting for 2 years prior to starting my studies. Surely, in a world financial center such as London, I could have obtained some temporary work in that field!

The only good aspect of these menial jobs was that the experiences have left me with a cache of anecdotes about the events that occurred.

Mister Selfridge

Prior to the Christmas break for my first academic year in London, I applied to Selfridges Department Store for a sales assistant position, and was accepted.

As a teenager growing up during the 1970s, I was very familiar with the popular (but low-brow) situation comedy series Are You Being Served?, which actually ran on the BBC from 1972 through 1985. The show was set in a fictitious London store called Grace Brothers, but, as I was to discover, the staff uniform of Grace Brothers was strangely similar to that of Selfridges.

More recently, Selfridges has gained worldwide fame as a result of the television series Mister Selfridge, which portrays the early history of the business. Although the TV series used specially-built sets to depict the store, many of these seemed very accurate, and reminded me of the rooms and corridors within the huge building.

The illustration below is an advertisement that Selfridges ran in a 1964 book about London boroughs.

Advertisement for Selfridges, 1964

Advertisement for Selfridges, 1964

There are many stories to tell of surprising and amusing incidents that I experienced while working at Selfridges (and also at Harrods, during one break), or in some cases heard about from other employees, but there isn’t room to tell all of them in this article. Between Christmas 1981 and Spring 1983, I worked in several different Selfridges departments, including luggage, gifts, and finally electronics.

The Electronics Department

In this article, I’ll jump ahead to what turned out to be my final stint as a part-time employee at Selfridges. During the Spring of 1983, I worked Saturdays-only in the Electronics Department in the Oxford Street store.

Now, surely, this department was ideal for me. After all, I was an undergraduate EE student, so now I would be able to bring that knowledge directly to bear in helping Selfridges’ customers. While that turned out to be true, I discovered later that my special skills were not received in a similar light by the department’s regular staff. Although the store hired many students as part-time workers, there was also a substantial staff of full-time employees, whose entire career was wrapped up in their work there.

One Saturday, I was standing at the counter in the Electronics Department when I was approached by an apparently exasperated customer. He explained to me that he wanted to power an item of equipment from a 12V car battery. He knew the maximum current that the battery could supply, but didn’t know whether the battery could supply sufficient power for the equipment.

I explained to him the simple equation relating electrical power to voltage and current (W = VI) that I’d learned during my O-level Physics classes at school. We were able to determine that his battery would be able to supply more than sufficient power for the equipment.

After we’d finished performing the calculation, the customer had a question for me:

“How come I’ve asked this question of every assistant in this department, and you’re the only one who could tell me?”

I responded, truthfully, that it was probably because I was the only undergraduate electrical engineering student working in the department.

I thought nothing more of the incident, which seemed at the time to be just another of the usual daily problems that arose, and which I had successfully handled. My Saturdays-only employment terminated by mutual consent, and as far as I was aware, there was nothing but goodwill between myself and my employer.

The Assistant Who Knew Too Much

When I subsequently applied for re-employment during Christmas 1983, I received the following surprising and mystifying response:



I can only believe that, unbeknown to me until then, my unusual expertise in electronics had ruffled some feathers somewhere among the store’s fulltime staff. The content of the letter is strangely brusque and unhelpful; it’s obviously a form letter, personalized with my name and address, but not the date!

Unfortunately, there are no photos of me working at Selfridges (or at any of the other London locations where I did temporary work). However, the photo below was taken at about the same time that I was doing those Saturday stints at Selfridges, and just after I had produced a video interview with Sir Cliff Richard at the Imperial College TV Studio.

Me (left) following a video interview with Sir Cliff Richard

Me (left) following a video interview with Sir Cliff Richard, 1983

Don’t Sell Yourself Short

In retrospect, then, I have come to believe that working in those menial jobs was a mistake, and I recommend others in a similar situation to think very seriously before committing to such work.

The issue isn’t simply that you’ll be wasting your time and skills, and perhaps accepting lower compensation than necessary in return. There’s also the problem that your superior skills are likely to cause resentment among others, who in some cases may go to considerable lengths to combat what they see as your “unfair advantage”.

Bloomsbury Square, London, in Snow, 1981

Bloomsbury Square, London, in Snow, 1981

Winter Solstice, the Full Cold Moon, & A Happy New Year

The Moon and Orion over our House

The Moon and Orion over our House

Last week’s Winter Solstice almost exactly coincided with the Full Moon, so I went outside after dark to see whether I could obtain any worthwhile photographs. One of the photos I came back with is shown above, a remarkable view that includes our house (all lit up!), with the moon partially shown at the top, and the constellation Orion clearly visible in between. It’s all the more remarkable because I didn’t use a tripod; this is just a handheld shot. You can even see wisps of high cloud drifting across the night sky.

Moon Mode

I have no pretensions to being a professional photographer (because it’s too competitive; see * below), so I don’t invest in “professional grade” equipment. In the past, my attempts at shots of the moon have been thoroughly disappointing, usually resulting in nothing but a blurry white blob.

My new Nikon B700 camera, however, has a “Moon Mode”. I must admit that I was skeptical about this; many digital cameras have these faddish “modes” that often seem to be useless in real-life situations. However, I had tried the “Fireworks Mode” back in July (as shown in this previous post), with good results, so I thought I’d give “Moon Mode” a try.

* About 30 years ago, I attended a class on “glamour photography” at the Learning Annex in San Francisco. The class tutor, who was himself a professional photographer, explained to us how to succeed in that field. He told us, “I’m often asked my secret of my success, which is very simple; you just need to have a spouse who can support both of you”!

The Full Cold Moon

The results of using Moon Mode, as you can see here, were truly amazing. The photo below is a closeup of the almost-full moon taken at the same time as the shot above, showing spectacular detail. It’s not pin-sharp, but bear in mind that this is not taken through a telescope, nor even with a tripod; it’s just a handheld shot with a standard digital camera!

Almost-Full Moon at the Solstice

Almost-Full Moon at the Solstice

The actual full moon occurred about 24 hours after the Solstice, but I’m glad I didn’t wait, because, the following night, there was high hazy cloud here, so I could not have taken any usable photos.

Apparently, some Native Americans call the December full moon the “Full Cold Moon”, for obvious reasons. The coincidence of the Winter Solstice with a Full Moon is a relatively rare event, which won’t happen again until 2094, by which time I strongly doubt that I’ll be around to notice it! Thus, this was my last chance to record the event.

Moon Mode HDR

I had actually tested Moon Mode earlier on, at Thanksgiving, when we had some interesting views of an almost-full moon through clouds. While experimenting, I took the photo below from our front garden. Amazingly, there is an HDR effect whereby you can still see the moon through the clouds in the distance, and at the same time the lighting on our street.

A Cloud-Covered Moon at Thanksgiving

A Cloud-Covered Moon at Thanksgiving

The view above would certainly never have been possible with a film camera, at least without extensive compositing of multiple exposures.

The photo below shows the Thanksgiving almost-full moon, again without the use of a tripod.

Harvest Moon

Harvest Moon

I don’t know why the moon looks more orange in this photo than in the more recent example. It’s probably just a color-balance issue in the camera. Nonetheless, the crater shadow detail on the portion of the moon that is experiencing sunrise (top right) is truly astonishing.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year to all of you for 2019!

The Moon and Orion over our House

The Moon and Orion over our House

Do We Need A White Christmas?

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63

The photo above was taken by my father during the severe winter of 1962-63, and shows me using our coal shovel to “help” clear snow from our front garden in Scarborough. Today marks the Winter Solstice here, so it seems like a good moment to reflect on something that many people seem to hope for at this time of year.

As the photo above demonstrates, some of my earliest memories of this time of year were associated with snow. This was largely because the winter depicted in the image was the coldest in Britain since 1895, a record which has still not been broken in the part of the country in which I was living.

As a result of that experience, as I grew up, I tended to assume that Christmases should be snowy, and I was most disappointed in later years when there was not only no snow on Christmas Day, but it was actually even sunny!

As I grew more mature, of course, I realized that my expectation was not particularly reasonable, and that it had in fact been instilled by episodes of weather that were anomalous, coupled with myths about what Christmas was supposed to be like.

Last weekend, I attended a “Holiday Soundtracks” concert by Michael Berkowitz at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa where we heard, once again and as we do every year, melodies proclaiming the desirability of a “White Christmas”. The photo below shows a view of the concert.


Holiday Soundtracks, Santa Rosa

In a pre-show discussion, Berkowitz himself pointed out the irony of a “Christmas” show being presented by a Jewish conductor, and indeed several of the writers of those famous songs were also Jewish.

The origin of my own childhood views about snowy holidays are obvious to me, but the concert led me once again to consider why so many other people should also want this end-of-year festival to be “white”, that is, to have snow on the ground.

A Northern European Tradition

Presumably the source of the association of the Yuletide festival with snow was that most of its traditions originated in Northern Europe, where there was usually snow at this time of year.

Later, in North America, many of the regions that were settled earliest by European peoples also experienced snowy winters, so those traditions continued.

In the Southern Hemisphere, of course, it’s Summer at this time of year, so the idea of a “White Christmas” makes little sense in many places. However, even in Australia, there are high-altitude ski resorts where you can experience snow in mid-summer if you really want to, as described in this article.

Maintaining the Myths

Many blame the media for propagating the myth of the desirability of a snowy holiday, as in this Boston Globe article. There is also the ever-popular Santa Claus myth, which includes the idea of his living at the North Pole.

When I discovered the truth about “Father Christmas”, after my mother admitted it to me when I was about 8 years old, I was actually quite angry that she had conspired with my father to deceive me for so long!

Snow in London

After leaving my home town, I attended university in London, and lived there for several years. The climate in London is only slightly milder than that in Northern England, so of course it also snows in London during the winter.

I took the photo below, of the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, during my first winter as a London student.


Albert Memorial, London, in Snow, 1981

There’s no question that it’s a pretty scene, but getting around in the city after a snowstorm wasn’t necessarily any fun. The snow quickly turned to dirty slush, which would often then refreeze overnight, creating black ice the following morning. Travel became unusually difficult and dangerous.

As I’ve said so many times since then, it’s great to be able to look at a snowy landscape, as long as you don’t have to go anywhere in it!

Snow in California

If anyone had asked me before I came here whether it snows in California, I may well have replied “No”, but I’d have been very wrong. At the higher elevations in the state, such as the Sierra Nevada, it snows every winter. In the lowland elevations where I live, however, it almost never snows. For example, I lived on the San Francisco Peninsula for about 20 years, and during that time it only snowed once at our house (and only very lightly), although we could sometimes see snow on the surrounding peaks.

The elevation of land in California ranges from sea level to about 14,000 feet above sea level, so the state has a corresponding variety of climates. Contrast that with the highest elevation in Britain, at about 4,400 feet, which is the peak of a mountain (Ben Nevis), while the whole of Lake Tahoe in California lies at 6,225 feet.

Thus, if I were to decide now that I would like a “White Christmas”, all I have to do is to get in my car and drive up to the Sierras. It’s nice to feel that, although I don’t need snow for the holiday, I have the option of it if I choose!

The photo below shows a typical local California view, taken near Cotati, on the occasion of the Winter Solstice in 2014. There’s mist over the hills, but no snow anywhere nearby.

Winter Solstice, Cotati, California

Winter Solstice, Cotati, California

Let It Go

If you happen to live somewhere that does not have snow at this time of year, then perhaps it will help to realize that its desirability is actually just a myth, and that there are actually definite benefits to a holiday without such weather!

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63