Low hums and pre-fade listens

There was an interesting moment the other evening when Hull band Low Hummer were on BBC 6 music doing a live session and their second song started off sounding really weird. They’re a pretty exciting indie band, but this sounded more esoteric than the band’s usual style I’d heard previously.

It sounded like there were two drummers, and the song utilised off-kilter rhythms, sounding incredibly complex. The duelling drummers fought for syncopation and the vocals soon settled over one rhythm, with the other continuing underneath. It took a moment to get into, but actually sounded really cool. After a while it settled into one beat, and as I listened I presumed that the other beat would re-emerge and the song would whirl wildly between the two.

But as it turned out, that’s not what was happening at all.

As the DJ Marc Riley explained, they’d messed up a bit, and while the band played their track live to air, another song had been playing out underneath. Oops.

This brought back memories of doing live radio with John. Not the mistake! Just the nature of producing live radio itself. I was always terrified of running the desk, though I often get tactile flashbacks which make me kind of just want my own little desk of faders and knobs to play with while playing some music.

On the desk we were using – and I presume this is a standard – the usual practice was to only have one fader up at a time. You might speak over a ‘bed’, or you could have a track playing and announce over it, so you might fade your mic up and down over the track (and conversely the music down a little to make room). But for standard intro-track-chat-intro-track-repeat radio, you normally only want one source playing out live.

Anyway, because 6 music – and a certain subset of its shows and listeners – are rather nerdy, it was felt necessary to explain exactly what had gone wrong, and to give Low Hummer another chance to play their song again without interruption.

Marc Riley explained that, when they have bands in playing live session tracks, the producers line up a ‘blank’ cart with the metadata for that song, so that the track name etc appears on all the playout software – from the BBC’s internal systems right down to the displays on digital radios.

(I recall doing something similar where I’d play an album on iTunes, muted, whilst listening to it on vinyl or MiniDisc, so that the metadata would be scrobbled to my last.fm account.)

Unfortunately, in this case, the ‘blank’ metadata cart wasn’t blank – and so the audio on that cart played out at the same time as the live session. I enjoyed the explanation and I could totally see how easily it could happen.

I have one memory of this happening to John and I – briefly playing one track ‘underneath’ another by accident. I think what happened for us was accidental misuse of the PFL or pre-fade listen function.

From memory, PFL allows the DJ to preview a track over the studio monitors without interrupting the live output – the song plays with the fader down, because moving the fader anywhere off the bottom makes that track live, playing it out on the main feed.

I vaguely remember that what must have happened is that the fader for that track was just a hair above the bottom, so was basically silent, but actually live. Despite this, we didn’t actually make that many technical mistakes live on air – though I think this was as much the limited scope for making any mistakes as a good deal of luck. But then I wasn’t the one driving the board most of the time!

Anyway, that 6 music show is available to listen back to here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0018xq4 – and Low Hummer sounded great. I’d heard a single or two of theirs recently, and was pleased to catch this session.

Of gull chicks and moons and tides

Over the past week or so, all the seagull chicks have hatched.

One such nest is on our roof, in the snug valley between the roof and the chimney, and we occasionally see two grey balls of fluff padding about on the forty five degree slope, sometimes tentatively extending their stubby wings while a proud and protective parent watches on.

There is now and then a changing of the guard as one parent swoops back, and it is nice to imagine that they soar high enough above our roof to glimpse the sea and head out to collect fresh fish for their young, but the reality is probably somewhat more prosaic, likely involving the humble worm, or a rummage in nearby bins.

A short stroll from our house on the same day we discovered the new tenants revealed another nest in a similar situation, and then another, and then another. Soon it became unusual to see a house with that kind of roof/chimney construction without a nest or new chicks waddling about.

I believe all of our ‘seagulls’ are herring gulls, but ten minutes spent with a bird book only served to confuse me even further.

When I had occasionally seen these seagulls collecting sticks and other detritus for nesting material, I had (again, romantically) assumed that they were collecting convenient material in the suburbs but building nests in more natural rocky outcrops beyond my sight. Nope: they were nesting much closer to home than I had realised, and we now sleep knowing that a growing family of gulls also dozes a few metres above our own bed.

The parade of new birds is everywhere: sparrows (newly re-christened spuggies thanks to a recent Country Diary column), robins, blue tits and even crows have been spotted nearby with youngsters in tow.

I’ve observed various species in more advanced states of their growth, usually a while after fledging, and with the confidence to fly around investigating the feeding zones deemed worthy of their parents, but still in that sweet spot of frantically fluttering their wings and crying to be fed despite being very capable of doing so themselves.

As I had hoped, my awareness of the moon and the tides grows more solid as time rolls on – we just passed the six month mark in our new house and location.

A new moon and a full moon are nice in and of themselves, but the knowledge that their presence has such an impact on the tides – the strongest pull is at these ends of the cycle – has made me look forward to those days when the sine wave representation on our poster of the local tidal range is at its sharpest.

It is still something of a novelty to me that the highest high tides coincide with the lowest lows. There cannot be one without the other as the large saucer of water that is the English Channel rocks back and forth over a six hour period.

When exploring the vast stretches of beach which reveal themselves only at the lowest tides, it is never not amazing to me that only a few hours before or after, the waves will be some six metres above this point.

It feels as though these extreme highs and lows should happen at opposite ends of a number of days or weeks, not mere hours.

A fan of these extremes, I find myself more compelled to explore the coast at those times of high tide and low; seeing a much more shallow set of tides represented on the tidal chart means I am less excited to go down and see it. But the moons at these times of neap tides are, in turn, gorgeous – from thin slivers to good chunky moon-shaped crescents.

And so it is that I’ve come to enjoy both sections of these cycles of the moon and the tide.

Mucking about with eleventy (again)

If I haven’t updated my blog recently, I’m afraid the reason is something of a cliche: I’ve been mucking about with some website software in an effort to build a new blog. Silly.

Ironically, that began alongside me writing little updates about the process called letters, while I tried to quickly style up the posts themselves to look like little letters.

I did actually achieve this – but as a standalone page. That should have been enough, but what I really wanted was a way to produce these letters like blog posts, and in a way that meant I could easily adjust the design across multiple pages all at once, and repeat certain elements like headers, footers and navigation elements.

What this meant, of course, was trying to learn to use a static site generator again. So this time I really chucked myself in with eleventy/11ty (no idea which is the correct form), and it also meant setting up a kind of developer environment on my Chromebook.

The Chromebook is a decent little developer machine – at least for my needs:

It’s small and portable, and has a really long battery life. This has meant I’ve been carrying it with me on my twice-weekly commutes, giving me some time on the train in the morning and evening to dick around with code. It also has reasonably good sleep/wake which means I can with reasonable confidence just leave my ‘dev environment’ running and then pick up where I left off.

It also runs some kind of Linux container, which is where I’ve been doing a lot of this stuff. I’ve been using a mixture of three discrete types of apps: a web browser; a code editor; and a terminal:

    • The web browser is Chrome. On a Chromebook, unsurprisingly, Chrome is the only viable web browser. You can install and run others as Linux apps, but it’s a pain, and they don’t run well. It’s not quite like Android where you can install any browser and run it natively. But Chrome is perfect for my needs on this Chromebook, both as a web dev browser, and just as my daily driver.
    • The code editor is Caret, which is a native Chrome OS app. This means it is pretty fast and lightweight, and it does most of the things I want it to, like opening a folder/directory tree in the lefthand panel, and the ability to open multiple files in a tabbed interface. It also has syntax highlighting. It does a few other code editor-y type things I haven’t learned how to use yet.
      • I have also been trying Visual Studio Code as a Linux app. Running graphical Linux apps on this Chromebook works reasonably well, but there are definite bottlenecks in performance, and it’s a bit finicky. I can see the appeal of VS Code – I was able to set up an environment like Caret above, but also with a terminal built into the same window. But it has often felt clunky, even just scrolling up and down long lists. This is to do with my extremely low-powered Chromebook’s resources rather than the app itself. I’d probably just use that if I had a different machine.
    • And finally the terminal. Most of the setup for 11ty has been done via the command line. This is inevitably quite a learning curve, particularly when I’m not overly familiar with command line stuff in general. But the tutorials I’ve been following online have been useful. And it’s one of those things where you only really need to learn a handful of commands to achieve what you want to do. So I’ve been cding and lsing and mkdiring and npm starting and toping and clearing and I’ve been able to make 11ty do what I want it to do.

The beauty of running 11ty this way is that you can start a session where 11ty will ‘watch’ a given directory for any new changes to saved files, and then immediately run in the background, then refresh the browser automatically, which will show your new changes if they’re on that page.

It’s an automated version of the type of web design I grew up with: make a change in notepad.exe, ctrl+s to save, switch to the web browser, ctrl+r to refresh. So it’s a nice feature.

11ty’s debugging is also mostly helpful: whenever I’ve b0rked something, the debug output will generally pinpoint what I did and I’ll know how to fix it – or at least Google what I’ve done to figure out why it hasn’t worked.

The final feature of Chrome OS (and others) that I’ve really started to use again is desks or spaces or whatever they might be called: alternate desktop views with sets of windows that you can easily switch between. On Chrome OS you can switch between them with search+] or search+[ (‘search’ here is the key where Caps Lock is on any normal keyboard; you get used to it). Or you can four-finger-swipe on the trackpad, but I don’t really use that.

For my ‘web dev’ purposes, I like having four spaces or virtual desktops running:

  1. a web browser just for general web use – either to take a break and browse the web, or to Google some help docs or tutorials
  2. the terminal, generally with 11ty’s server thing running, and maybe a second tabbed terminal for other things (I only recently learned that you can run more than one terminal at a time and this was mindblowing. I am an idiot.)
  3. my code editor
  4. another web browser pointing at the localhost so I can quickly switch over to see the changes I just made – the automatic browser refresh is usually so quick that by the time the desktop has switched over, the page has refreshed, or is in the process of refreshing. It’s lovely.

I’ve also taken to using these virtual desktops or spaces on other machines. It’s handy to have a ‘work’ space for my remote session to my office PC in addition to my ‘home’ session. I might also have one open running some stuff to do with the Flightradar I have running on my Raspberry Pi. And I occasionally have other spaces running dedicated to a given project (such as proofing articles for a local community newspaper) where it’s helpful to have a browser open as well as a file manager and a document editor.

This is all to say, I guess, that I feel as though I’ve been productive. In the sense of learning to use a set of tools, at least. I did also produce a few ‘letters’ in that time, but I don’t know what to do with those yet.

The most interesting thing for me has been seeing how the initial idea – a series of blog posts that look like letters – has changed over time. It started as a single page with a stack of letters one above the other. I was drawn to the simplicity of a single page with an index at the top to anchors for each letter. But this was tricky to scale, and it makes more sense to have standalone pages… I think.

So I went to each letter having its own page, which really unlocked the potential of 11ty for me – being able to build pages based on set layouts, metadata, and repeated page elements meant that I could treat the content of each letter as one blob, and then construct the pages around them. It also meant I could easily build an index to them as 11ty has some simple tag-based collection tools for listing all items in one collection. The ability to create a set of pages or posts with a pre-determined style and then an index to them is, essentially a simple blog engine. I could also leverage the same metadata – scraping each post’s title, URL and any tags or snippets – to build an RSS feed if I wanted to. That’s definitely something I want to explore.

To that end, I did also try and import my WordPress blog posts into 11ty. I found a neat tool for this which scrapes the contents of an exported set of posts and quickly converts them into markdown, which 11ty seems to like the taste of.

This worked reasonably well but, as with any time I’ve tried to move posts to or from WordPress, the problem was the images. Oh god, the images.

For years now I’ve used a combination of simple img tags as well as proprietary gallery tools whether in WordPress, Tumblr or wherever else, and the former are fine but good god the latter just… break. Sometimes they even break within the same platform when that platform just decides to change how its own gallery tags work. It’s a nightmare.

So I gave up on that.

What I think I’ve settled on is keeping (for now) my WordPress blog as a main blog/website for these purposes, and I may use my letters project as a sort of meta blog in which I can give updates or whatever, rather than blog posts in and of themselves.

This will enable me to tinker with 11ty while not completely rebuilding my WordPress-based blog from scratch. Again – yet. I’d love to get away from the clunky server-side nature of WordPress and have a fully static website, and I feel like I’m significantly closer to that than I was a month ago. But Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that.

So for now I have a sort of offline letters project which I’ll tinker with some more until In can find a simple way to ‘push’ the changes online. This is a whole other topic; 11ty spits out a nice, simple directory of basic HTML files which it’s then up to you to put online somewhere. It’s up to you to figure out how you want to do this, whether github, netlify, or just dumping the files on a web server.

For me, the idea of producing nice clean HTML in a nice neat offline dev environment and then having to use one or possibly even two third-party services just to put the files online seems… backwards. I’d far rather just have a way to rsync (or whatever) the updated files onto the server, replacing the old versions in place. But so far any of the graphical-based methods I’ve tried have not allowed me to move an entire folder structure across without creating each folder individually etc. So I need to work out the simplest method for this which works for me.

I’d ideally like to stick the letters project online as a subdomain of this blog, but that feels like a fiddly integration at the moment. For now, I’ve stuck it on Neocities fairly anonymously, as that seems like a handy place to tinker with things.

So that’s where I am. Some tools learned or re-learned, a new ‘dev environment’ which mostly works for me, and a project that is basically working, but which I hope to improve and tweak to my heart’s content.

The usual cast of characters

It’s a grey morning, although we keep getting glimpses of the summer to come. As the seasons unfold in our new house, with its new garden, in our new location, there is much to observe, learn, and anticipate. It is very exciting.

I’ve been remiss in capturing these events and feelings in writing both public and private. I have at least tried to keep up a decent pace in photographic form – again both public and private. But it’s impossible, this relentless tide. You can only stare at the waves for so long before you have to grab something and wedge it into the ground to try and demark things somehow, disrupting the flow – at least briefly.

Or, more realistically, awkwardly disturbing the natural flow of things before getting overwhelmed and retreating and quietly observing once more.

Despite my lack of writing about things, I of course continue to read and capture stray signals of a wide-ranging cast of characters who inspire, tickle, and infuriate me with their seemingly effortless greatness. But deep down I know how much effort goes into it. I raise a glass to each one of them.

As usual, Mr Reeves has come up with the goods – providing me just what I needed to read and hear at just the right moment – and Mr Rukavina has yet again surprised me with unexpected flattery and kindness. Perhaps I should stop being surprised by now.

I can see dunnocks entering and leaving the hedge outside the window of my home office. It’s extremely satisfying to think they are nesting in there, though it is not without a small background radiation of anxiety. I shouldn’t worry. The birds have been doing this for a long time. Much longer than the time I’ve become aware of it.

The sparrows in the back garden continue to rampage through as many mealworms as I can give them. We recently spotted a terrace of birdboxes under the eaves of a nearby house, which was especially nice after reading this recentĀ Country Diary on the nesting of sparrows (or spuggies!).

Meanwhile, Lev Parikian’s recent entry for that column, in which the lyrical writer simply loses his shit at the prospect of nesting blue tits, perfectly captures sentiments shared by myself and M.

Spring festivals – both human-curated and entirely natural – continue to explode around us with an energy I try to feed upon.

It’s nearly the middle of the year, and I am nearly another year older. Projects and priorities simultaneously come into focus and then blur or shapeshift when I try and catch sight of them again. Crafty devils.

Hastings Rock 87.7FM

The other morning I was doing a bandscan on one of my radios – I do this surprisingly often, even when I don’t expect to find anything new, but it sometimes produces results. It did this week: at the bottom of the FM band I found a signal on 87.7fm playing music, and of a genre that I don’t expect to find at the end of the dial more usually associated with BBC Radios 2, 3 and 4.

I listened for a little longer and as the currently playing track ended, the song faded to silence. A few seconds later another track started playing. Different artist, similar genre. The gap felt like music playing from a CD or some other music library, and I immediately assumed I’d found someone’s micro FM transmitter they were using in their car. Sure enough, that track finished, followed by a short gap of silence, and then yet another song in the same genre began playing, just as though someone was listening on shuffle.

It was just before 9am and our road regularly fills with cars belonging to parents dropping their kids off at a nearby primary school. I left my radio tuned in, as much to see what songs they played next as to test my theory and see if the signal suddenly disappeared as a car drove away.

Well, that never happened.

At about 9am, suddenly there was a voice, and it was actually a radio station I’d found. They’d been having issues with their playout software and had resorted to CDs, and their internet stream was down but their FM signal was okay. I briefly considered that it might be a pirate, but it turned out not to be.

It was, they announced, Hastings Rock, which had got itself a restricted service licence (RSL) to broadcast locally on 87.7MHz for the month of May.

(The station still has the vibes of a pirate – but with a licence to broadcast. Just the mix of enthusiastic spirit and government regulation I seem to find comfort in!)

They’ve been on the air since 30 April. Since then, they’ve sorted out the gremlins: the web stream is apparently working, and the FM broadcast has been rock solid – if you’ll pardon the pun.

In the meantime I’ve seen plenty of advertising around town as well, so hopefully a fair few people have tuned in.

The shows I’ve listened to so far have been slick, with charming and enthusiastic DJs playing songs they seem to love, all based in the genre of rock music. It’s been a mix of eras and sub-divisions of that vast genre – stalwarts like Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Status Quo and Metallica, but also Blur and Wolf Alice and Papa Roach and Frank Zappa.

It is enjoyable, unpretentious stuff, and the mix is varied but reliable enough to leave the station on in the background occasionally hearing old favourites, while at other times something prick up your ears enough to warrant looking up what’s playing. (I’d initially been doing this using the usually-reliable Google search widget, but the station’s website seems to be consistently displaying the Now Playing track).

From my brief reading of it, Hastings Rock seems to have a long pedigree going back thirty years or so. I’m not sure if they’ve held an RSL every year in recent times or if this year’s is a return to the airwaves after a period away. I’m not even sure yet if the internet-only stream runs outside of the month of May.

Either way, the hosts sound delighted to be playing the music they love, and the jingles and ads are charmingly local, quaint, yet well-produced: “Witcombe Building Surveyors – we’ll tell you if the building you want to buy is as solid as a rawwwwk!!“. And those ads for a local seaside ice cream and snack food shop – they sell Hastings Rock t-shirts, as well as sticks of Hastings rock, of course! – are getting through to me already. I must pay them a visit this weekend.

The opportunity to bathe in the output of a genre-based station is something I love to do from time to time. And the joy of hyper-local radio is a rare thrill in these days of more centralised ‘local’ stations and synchronised output. It’s great to hear local voices talking about local events. And the music has been almost universally my cup of tea.

I’ll be listening as often as I can for the rest of this month.