More adventures with online ringing

I'm still helping Graham John with his tests of Handbell Stadium. On Sunday we tried to ring a quarter of Cambridge Royal, but we lost it twice, first for technical reasons (one of my bells got stuck) and then with a good old-fashioned fire-up. We were having problems with network delays, despite the new delay-balancing system, so we agreed to try again yesterday morning in the hope of a more responsive internet. However, we suffered from different technical problems which were stopping some of the bells sounding consistently in response to the motion controllers. Graham has done some more development work, and we are meeting again this evening.

Meanwhile, yesterday evening we had a Ringing Room session with Jonathan, Angela and Peter. We had planned to try Lincolnshire Royal, which was next on our list before the lockdown started, so that's what we did. And we managed to ring a whole course, twice. That was a good achievement. There were periods when the bells seemed quite laggy, and we had to count our way through determinedly, but overall it was quite good. Tina commented that online ringing is going to be very good for our resilience. Also I am resisting the temptation to start making conducting comments as soon as I hear something that sounds like a method mistake, because very likely it's just network delay. Usually the ringing sorts itself out.

Our next plan is for some eight-bell ringing next Wednesday, because Angela's quite busy in the evenings next week.

The hidden bonuses of virtual ringing

Last Saturday Simon and I took part in the Illinois Online Bell Bash, where we were invited by Tom Farthing to give a talk about handbell ringing and our new book.  Usually this is an event that ringers travel to and ring together, but Tom and his crew managed to convert it into a online event instead, using invited speakers, Zoom and Ringing Room.

It was an excellent day out (day in?).  The other presenters were Jonathan Agg, who demonstrated Muster (and there was an attempt an international rounds); Graham John, who talked about Handbell Stadium; and Leland Kusmer and Bryn Reinstadler to talk about how they came to create Ringing Room.  Those were tough acts to follow.

Throughout the day, Tom organised groups for sessions in Ringing Room, and it was my first experience at what a mass meeting could look like in a virtual environment.  The 'administration' (assigning rooms, assigning bells, getting everyone's bell to ring, etc) took more time than pointing to people and ropes.  But I got to participate in someone's first go at Stedman with other ringers, someone first blows of Cambridge Major and someone's first effort at Cambridge Major two in hand. 

That last was the same touch, because this is the North American Guild, where you can find handbell groups in the Towers list.  All my Ringing Room events had a mix of people ringing one bell (as if in the tower) and two bells (what would be an adjacent handbell pair).  The ringing started Up-Down-and-off.  Everyone treated this as perfectly normal. 

Simon and I talked about how our experiences ringing handbells informed our book, and we enjoyed a lively and interesting Q&A session afterwards.  Some very good questions were asked, about recruiting, and how to organise a mixed handbell practice. I've been giving them some thought.

Chicago is very near where I learned to ring in Kalamazoo, and Tom and his wife Chris rang in my first peal (Kent, and I'm pretty sure they talked me through the places every course).  Ordinarily, we'd never be able to get away in May to travel from Glasgow to Chicago to participate in this (much as I might like to).  A virtual event made it possible for me to greet and ring with some very old friends, and meet some new ones too.  I wasn't the only one to take advantage of that either. 

We are making plans to connect again and do some more 'bells over the water', across the pond, Mid-Atlantic Guild ringing, and we are looking forward to it. 

A big step forward for Handbell Stadium

On Thursday I helped Graham John test a new version of Handbell Stadium, again with Lesley Boyle and Gareth Davies, and Simon Humphrey too. The new version has a feature that Graham calls "ping balancing", which compensates for the differing network transmission delays to different ringers. (In the online gaming world, the transmission time for a signal is known as the "ping"). The idea is to calculate a rolling average of the delay to each client, and make all the clients except for the slowest one insert a compensatory delay between detecting the handbell swing and making it strike. For example, usually Graham's delay is 0 (because he is directly plugged into his server) and mine is around 24ms. So the balancing system means that Graham's bells sound 24ms after he swings his controllers. Usually Gareth and Lesley's delays were about 13ms, so their compensatory extra delay is 11ms. Similarly for Simon.

This works really well, and removes almost all of the irregularity in rhythm that we were experiencing before. It feels very nearly like normal ringing, just a little slow. We rang some Kent Royal and then some Cambridge Royal, at a peal speed of about 3h05, which was a big improvement on the 3h35 (for major) that we were getting in our quarter peal attempt last Sunday. And there were no episodes of having to fight against delays and struggle to maintain a rhythm. I must say that my internet speed seemed much more consistent than before, which might also have helped. Tomorrow we're going to try a quarter of Cambridge Royal. It should be much easier than the quarter of major that we've lost twice.

Yesterday I joined Graham's open Handbell Stadium practice. We started at 8.30, and Graham put people into separate groups with an instruction to all get together again at 9.00. I was in a group that rang some Plain Bob Major and some Kent Major. We were still using the old version of Handbell Stadium, without the ping balancing, because Graham thought it would be disruptive to release the new version just before the practice. So the ringing wasn't as smooth, but my internet was still behaving reasonably well (although again with the longest delay in the group) and the ringing was manageable.

At 9.00 the groups were rearranged, and I was in a slightly different group that decided to ring Double Norwich. Now, I don't ring Double Norwich very often, and sometimes I decide that the best approach is to ring it by place notation. So I got the place notation into my mind (as I thought), we started ringing, and it didn't work at all. Clearly I was doing something very wrong, but what? After a little thought (and I confess that by that point in the evening I had drunk a couple of glasses of wine, which never improves my handbell ringing) I realised that I was actually trying to ring Superlative! Another double method constructed from the place notations 14, 58 and 36, but in a completely different order...surely an easy mistake to make. A bit more thought (and a "hang on a moment" while the others were trying to restart) and I got the correct place notation loaded up. We managed to ring a plain course, and then a plain course of Yorkshire, which also went well.

I enjoyed the practice, and I think stopping after an hour was about the right length. There was less setup delay at the beginning than in the previous week's practice, and everyone knows what they are doing with their computers by now. I think there's a future for online handbell ringing even when we are able to resume ringing in person - it will be a real boon for people who want to learn but don't have nearby bands to ring with.

In comparison with Ringing Room, Handbell Stadium only allows ringing with motion controllers - there is no option for pressing keys. This is a deliberate decision by Graham, to keep Handbell Stadium as a realistic ringing experience (and it satisfies the Central Council "norms" for performances, which basically means that quarters and peals on Handbell Stadium should be viewed in the same way as live ringing performances). But it does mean that everyone who is ringing needs to have suitable motion controllers. I will write more about that in another article.

Handbell Stadium and Ringing Room

On Sunday evening we had another unsuccessful attempt at the quarter in Handbell Stadium. In the first attempt, one of my bells got stuck when the computer stopped recognising the motion sensor. In the second attempt, which lasted well over half way, we were hit by a big increase in internet delays (at my end again, I think) and we didn't survive the disruption to the rhythm. Maybe my internet is worse than other people's. Handbell Stadium constantly displays the measured delay to each participant, and mine seemed to be not only higher, but also much more variable, sometimes becoming ten times higher than the others.

Yesterday evening the Glasgow handbell band tried Ringing Room. We started with rounds on 10, which was very encouraging because we hardly noticed any delay. Then we tried three leads of Kent Royal, in which we started to notice delays. At the second attempt we got it round. It takes some determination to get through the patches where the delays build up, but we survived a couple of incidents. After that we rang half a course of Cambridge Royal, again at the second attempt, which was pretty good considering that we haven't rung anything on handbells for two months.

Recently a band including some of our friends from Oxford rang a quarter of Bristol Royal on Ringing Room. Now that we've tried surprise royal ourselves, their quarter seems even more impressive.

I still have mixed feelings about the online ringing I have tried. It's much less enjoyable than real ringing, because of having to fight against the delays and lag. However, it has reassured us that we have not completely forgotten how to ring, and I think we will be able to use it for some useful practice. We've arranged to ring again next week, and try some Lincolnshire Royal, which is what we were going to ring when our last real session was cancelled because of the onset of the lockdown.

The other aspect of it that I like is getting together with my ringing friends to actually do an activity, rather than just chat. We've had some Zoom quizzes with the tower bell band, which are good too, but ringing is even better. On balance I think it's worth persevering with Ringing Room (we can't use Handbell Stadium as a band because not everyone has motion controllers).

A nice review of "Change-Ringing on Handbells"

This week's Ringing World contained a review of the handbell book, written by Bill Croft. He likes it! The review gives a good summary of what's in the book, and comments favourably on the style and presentation.

The headline summary of the review is worth quoting:

Like a thoroughly experienced conductor, perfectly at home with the method and the composition, the authors of this volume guide the reader from the very basics of handbell ringing through to method ringing on eight bells. At every stage the reader is guided, sign-posted and encouraged, reaching a final ‘Congratulations!’ in the concluding chapter.

We've put a small colour advert into the next Ringing World, to remind people, and then we'll do a few more black-and-white adverts at monthly intervals.

Also this week, the two previous Central Council publications about handbell ringing have been made available as free downloads. These are "The Beginner's Guide to Change Ringing on Handbells" by Bill Butler, and "Change Ringing on Handbells" by Chris Woolley.  I have heard that they have been downloaded at least 100 times already. I downloaded them myself to have a look, although I'm pretty sure we have printed copies somewhere. I must say that I think our book is a great improvement, better for complete beginners and with many more (and more beautiful) diagrams. Anyway, readers can decide for themselves.

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