Book Review : The Hot Zone

Coincidentally, my bedtime reading this last couple of weeks has been The Hot Zone by Richard Preston.  I say coincidentally, because of the recent reports of a new Ebola outbreak in west Africa.  The book, written in 1994, is a true account of the time that Ebola infected a monkey house within a few miles of the White House in the United States.


Preston takes the reader deep into western Kenya to Mount Elgon around 1979 with Charles Monet, to explore Kitum Cave, a favoured destination for mammals, reptiles, bats and insects over many millennia.  Seven days after his visit, Monet feels unwell and we are treated to a vivid description of what dying from Ebola is like.  To make sure we understand the horrors of death by a filovirus, Preston continues to present cases and uses these as a vehicle to describe the science behind Ebola.  He makes a good job of this, and never was I left feeling as though I needed a PhD in infectious diseases to understand what he was saying.

1983 sees the USAMRIID make an entrance, the US institute responsible for safeguarding against biological weapons and disease.  They are involved in carrying out experiments to create protection against diseases such as the Ebola virus.

Preston moves back and forth between the institute and the African rain forests describing more terrifying cases as he goes.  You would think by now the book would have become repetitive, but it didn’t seem like that to me.  I just felt as though something bad was building.

Suddenly, we are taken to a monkey house in Reston, Virginia, and the ‘something bad’ became apparent.  A new consignment of monkeys is flown into JFK International Airport from south-east Asia.  We are still not halfway into Preston’s work, but we know enough to work out that these monkeys are going to get sick.   This is where the book became a page-turner for me, the reason behind a few very late nights.

I guess the ending is predictable, although strangely the final part of the book, which takes us back to Kitum Cave, appears to take on a different genre.  We are treated to sensory descriptions, mental imagery and artistic metaphor.  Sufficient to give me goose-bumps, anyway.

After reading this book, you will be in no doubt that should Ebola wriggle its way into city populations that we will all be in trouble  Deep trouble.

The Hot Zone?  A chiller, for sure.

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Filed under Book reviews, Creative Writing

Three months on…

I knew this would happen once I started the final OU module, U316 The Environmental Web back in February.  It’s taken over my life.

It was February that I made my last post here, and at the time was making great headway with the Pye Black Box project.  Progress?  None.

The novel I started to write back last November, 50,000 words during November when I took part in NaNoWriMo and which I was enthusiastically adding to.  Progress?  None.

The guitar playing video clips I was making to upload to YouTube showing my musical prowess.  Progress?  None.  (Probably just as well!).

Getting back into online trading after the Big Boys killed off my little book-selling business.  Progress?  None.

Researching the old manor and ghostly monastic goings-on in our local woods.  Progress?  None.

That photography project, where I take a snap of each letter of the alphabet represented by an everyday object.  Progress?  None.

Editing the short book of poetry and prose I have written on and off over the past few years, with a view to self-publishing it.  Progress?  None.

If this all sounds a bit depressing, that couldn’t be further from the truth.  The OU module is almost halfway through and is turning out to be one of the most interesting I’ve taken.  There’s still been time for drinking coffee with old friends, walking the labradors, trips around the local towns and villages, smartening up the garden and plenty of time to ‘stand and stare’.  Oh, you haven’t read William Davies’ poem, ‘Leisure’?  Here it is, just in case…

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs

And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,

Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,

Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,

And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can

Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare


Of course, my list of ‘things to do’ is also sitting there ready for when I’ve finished counting dragonflies, watching local wildlife, calculating statistics and generally saving the world from environmental disaster!

Expect some progress soon!


Filed under Creative Writing, Electronics, NaNoWriMo, Open University

Pye Black Box – Good Progress!

A couple of weeks on, there has been plenty going on with the Black Box record player project.

I decided that it wouldn’t be practical to find enough original parts to fill my empty box, so have taken the route where I just use whatever I can get hold of (so long as it doesn’t change the character too much).

Speakers – Originally, there was a 6.5 inch and 4 inch tweeter each side of the box, and I have gone for a dual cone 17cm each side, omitting the tweeter.  With modern speakers, this should be a reasonable solution.  I used a pair of Pioneer TS-G1721i speakers.

IMG_20140202_142834 IMG_20140202_154658 IMG_20140207_152747

Turntable – This would have been a Monarch or Garrard autochanger deck originally, but I found an old BSR one (DD3918/411, S51 SL7) for £15 on eBay and bought that.  It isn’t an auto-changer, but is in fair condition and looks quite ‘vintagey’.  The mechanism was gunged up, but a few squirts of WD40 sorted that out, and it seems to work fine.  The rubber turntable mat is a bit warped, but I can probably find a replacement for that.


Amplifier – I discounted using a valve amplifier, because modern ones are very expensive to buy, and old stereo ones hard to get hold of.  I toyed with the idea of finding a couple of 60’s record players and stripping out the amplifiers, one for each channel, but that would have been a shame.

The main observation here, is that the amplifier needs to support a crystal cartridge input, and most modern ones don’t because they have no connection to a record deck.  I didn’t really want to mess around with a preamp.  But, Bingo!  Someone had listed a 1970’s Bush Arena A220 amplifier on eBay, brand new but not working, for £20.  OK, only 10 watts RMS each side, but that is plenty for my box!  It arrived yesterday, I fired it up this morning, and it actually works perfectly!


Even better, now I’ve taken the amplifier out of its case, I can see it will easily fit in the bottom of the box with very little modification.


So, that’s all the bits I need apart from a couple of vintage knobs.  I still have to make the plinth for the deck, and modify the amplifier so I can move the volume on/off and tone controls to the side of the box.  This will mean a bit of fiddling about, because currently there are separate bass and treble controls.  Not a major problem, though.

Just before writing this, I tacked together wires across my bench between the turntable, the amplifier and the speakers, and put on an old Dr Hook album (it had be an oldie, didn’t it!).  It sounded great, so that’s the green light for me to carry on with the project.

All together now – graphics-music-notes-171838

Sylvia’s mother says Sylvia’s busy, too busy to come to the phone….






(Thanks to for the musical image)


Filed under Electronics

Technika TV Repair

My brother-in-law turned up the other evening with a black bag under his arm, and fished out their 19 inch LCD television, a Technika LCD19-919.

‘Don’t worry if you can’t fix it, just drop it off at the tip,’ he said as we tucked into haggis, tatties, neeps and much of my very best Scotch whisky later in the evening.

The problem was that its blue led came on when it was plugged in, duly went out when the TV was turned on, but then lit up again a few seconds later to indicate it was still in standby.

Now, I’m not a television engineer, but I like to dabble a bit, so out came all the screws in the back of the set the following day.  Could I get the back off?  Could I diddly.

‘Doesn’t matter if you crack it,’ said the brother-in-law when I phoned him, ‘probably a lost cause anyway.’

Not sure whether he was referring to me or the set, I had another go, this time with more gusto.  I knew I was making progress when the speakers fell out, dangling sorrowfully on the end of their respective cables.  At last, with a crackling snap, the back suddenly separated from the rest of the set.


I took an educated guess that the problem was something to do with the power supply, since it was that which seemed to be misbehaving.  It was pretty clear which board this was on; all I had to do was follow the mains lead!  Trouble was, I didn’t have a circuit diagram, and even if I had I would have been hard pushed to find the fault with the limited tools in my man-cave (mostly saws and chisels).

But, do you know what?  A quick Google found the power supply board (part number 17IPS16-3) on sale online from a number of sources, so I took a punt and ordered one from the cheapest supplier (£13.99 plus reasonable postage) here.  It arrived this morning, which was very, very good service, I swopped it within half an hour, replaced the reluctant back, turned the set on and Eureka! it worked.

That’s got to deserve a packet of dark chocolate Hobnobs next time I see the brother-in-law!

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Filed under Electronics

Black Box – arrived !

The empty Black Box arrived at the end of last week, together with a good few copies of the Fenland Gazette scrunched up around it for protection.


Although there are some scratches, which isn’t surprising as it could be getting on for half a century old, the case is in remarkably good condition.  I shall need to decide whether to try to repair the damage myself or call our friendly furniture restorer.


But that isn’t the only decision to be made, of course!

The main turning point at the moment, is whether to look for original parts and reconstruct the Black Box as it would have been, or to find modern day alternatives.  With the second option, it would still look like the real thing from the outside, but audio quality might be improved and there might be less chance of damage to the record collection from an elderly deck.  Or maybe a mix of the two – some old parts, and some new!

My heart is saying go for original, but there’s a good chance that even if there are some examples of the old valve amplifier available, they would cost a fortune and would need to be refurbished.  For example any electrolytic capacitors would need to be checked and replaced as they tend to get leaky over long periods, and the controls would need a good clean and maybe replacing.  Oh, and the valves, which I had boxes and boxes of in the sixties, seem to cost an arm and a leg nowadays.

Apart from the amplifier, there’s also the speakers (the original had two 6.5 inch and two 4 inch tweeters), a turntable (originally a Monarch auto-changer), I’ll need a power supply and of course the knobs (which will have to be original as they can be seen on the side of the case).

Plenty here to keep me busy, but if anyone has some advice to offer, I’d very much appreciate some comments!

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Filed under Electronics, Music Technology

Black Box

It isn’t very often that I buy something on a whim, but a few moments ago I did just that!

Although the old vinyl record collection has dwindled over the years – at one point there were over a thousand albums – the ones still here hold some special memories.

The trouble is, after a number of clear-outs, there’s nothing left to play them on!

I have one of those vinyl – mp3 turntable thingies, and have transferred what is left of my old sixties folk albums to CD, but it’s not the same as playing the vinyl on a proper deck, is it?

Trawling a well-known auction site for inspiration, I stumbled across a few examples of vintage Pye Black Box units.  One of my old school mates had one of these in his bedroom, and from when I used to stay over in the early sixties I remember it being the dog’s doodahs in reproduction quality at the time.

One problem though.  I was looking at around £250 to buy one, without being sure whether or not it actually still worked.  Not a great idea, then.

So what was this item I bought on a whim?

An empty Black Box.  Actually, it isn’t black.  Don’t ask me, I don’t know!

This is the picture from the auction site (thank you seller 78768allan0135).

black box

Nothing in it.

No deck, no amplifier, no speaker, no knobs.

Just the box.

For £20.

It’s going to be fun hunting down the missing bits (everything, that is), and I’ll share how I get on here over the next few weeks and months.

Postscript:  Just spotted that the well-known auction site has a complete one up for sale, sitting at £60 with 6 days to go.  Bet it won’t be that price for long, though!

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Filed under Electronics, Music Technology

2014 and all that…

You know that thing when old people say they are happy just to wake up every morning?  Well, I felt a teensy bit that way on New Year’s Day.

As the years tick past, it’s difficult not to wonder how many more times you’ll spot Santa skidding across the night sky, wolf down haggis and neeps with a tot or two of Aberlour, open up the Summer House and wipe down the barbecue, swop the winter wheels on the car, fire off a few sky rockets and wrap up Christmas presents.

But, let’s not bother with all that tosh!

I’ve been taking a hard look at the ‘novel’ writing done last November in NaNoWriMo.  It looks like this, by the way…

30 days 1

(Actually, this is just the first few pages, but since you can’t read it anyway…)

It’s taken a good few days, but I think I’ve filled most of the plot holes, made some connecting pieces for the dead ends, and generally made things hang together (you can’t pay much attention to these things when you’re writing 50,000 words in a month!)  I downloaded Evernote Sticky Notes, and now have a sticky for each chapter with a summary on it, coloured either white (ditch it), blue (re-write it), yellow (make major changes or write a new chapter) and green (fine as it is).  For some reason, there are no green stickies.

Sticky Notes is a great piece of free software, but if you decide to try it out, be warned that you need to be on your toes not to be inundated by other stuff they try to install at the same time.

The book will have to take a back seat though in February, when I launch into the final final OU module (regular readers will know I’ve already had one final module but I’m still striving to move my 2.1 to a First!).  It’s U316, an environmental science module.  I’m very sceptical about claims surrounding man-made climate change, but hoping that maybe I’ll get some insight into the arguments.  Should make for some good essays!

Then in April, there’s the old age pension to look forward to!  That’ll be Bucks Fizz, and scrambled egg with smoked salmon every day for brekkies, then.  Not!  But it will seem odd being ‘properly’ retired after doing it early over seven years ago in 2006.

So, there will be some interesting challenges to come this year and I hope to have the time to share the highs and the lows on here.

A Happy New Year to everyone following my blog, and to casual passersby too!

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Filed under NaNoWriMo, Open University, Uncategorized