2021 week eleven

A more upbeat week than the last. Where in that week I was beset by a mental fug that I found hard to shift, this week I was running on the positive vibes from good weekend chats and a determinedly more positive mental attitude towards work. It helped a lot.

What has also helped my mood this week is setting up an old Android phone as a wildlife camera pointed at the bird feeder frequented by our local robin. It’s fun taking proper photos of the robin, but it’s been especially gratifying being able to see motion-detected candid snapshots of the robin without disturbing him* while he eats.

* I say him both unknowingly (apparently it is nigh-on impossible to sex a robin**) as well as knowingly (as I am pretty sure there are babies nearby being tended to by mother while father brings in food

** stop sniggering at the back

It’s satisfying enough being able to use an old Android phone for this new purpose – it’s the Moto G4 that I have already previously used as a handlebar-mounted bike GPS – but the quality of some of the shots I can get is really amazing. The sharpness reveals some amazing details in the feathers, and in one shot I’m pretty sure I can see a bug he’s caught – nice to know he’s getting live food as well as the ‘buggy nibbles’ I put out for him.

Even cheap Android handsets, several years old at this stage, can have half-decent cameras – in good light – and can be surprisingly good at close-up details.

Other mood-improvers this week involved a couple of old favourites: food and music. I can recommend this garlic and mushroom pasta, as well as this zaatar cheese toastie (loosely inspired by Elliott‘s quiet coffee (b)log).

I need to remember that music really helps my mood in so many different ways – from just listening to something which is very much in the background to take the edge off an abyss-like silence, right the way up to obsessing the shit out of every second of an album I’ve just discovered for the first time.

This week’s biggest musical discovery was… Talk Talk. I woke with a crunchy 80s industrial beat in my head, and I tried later to narrow down what it was from. No lyrics were flowing, but the beat was so distinctive and I knew it was a big enough hit that it’s the sort of thing I’d occasionally hear on the radio still. A session skipping through Depeche Mode’s greatest hits came up blank, and in desperation at one point I ‘sang’ the beat into Google in hopes it would guess it. It did not.

My next line of investigation was the Ministry of Sound Electronic 80s compilation which I dip into now and then. I skipped through the songs I am less familiar with, and before too long I found the source of my earworm: Talk Talk’s Life’s What You Make It. Thank goodness. And what a tune. To reward perseverance, and to pay my respects to Talk Talk, I stuck on a greatest hits compilation of theirs – I’m familiar with two or three of their biggest singles, but I wanted to see if anything else hit me like LWYMI does.

And boy was I glad I did.

The last two tracks of the compilation came from an album called Spirit of Eden and, unlike the punchy synth pop of the earlier singles, these were elongated, slow meditations which sucked me right in. And that’s how I discovered Talk Talk’s final two albums, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, both examples of a band at the top of their game, given oodles of cash and trust from their label, tucking themselves away for a year making thousands of hours of recordings and then splicing together something remarkable. They then stepped back from touring (citing the not unreasonable suggestion that it would be impossible to ‘re-perform’ the songs from the album live), then one member left, and then they broke up shortly afterwards – it all sounds a bit like the 80s version of the Beatles, to be honest.

Anyway, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock have been on high repeat in my headphones this week and I am so grateful for their exquisite combinations of pristine production and thoughtfully placed silences. There is so much space in those recordings.

I also listened to the Nine Inch Nails soundtrack to Quake for the first time. I’d never listened before – I think I’d sort of dismissed it, thinking it would be compressed game audio and not much fun to listen to, but of course it was one of those games with the sound effects etc compressed, but the music itself was pure CD audio streamed off the disc. So it sounded a lot better than I’d expected, and was a delightful mix of heavily distorted guitars, foreshadowing of the kind of electronic noise Trent would continue to make, and of course 1990s gloomy shooter ambience.

I never really played Quake back in the day – I was a Doom and Duke Nukem 3D guy. I still remember a friend describing Quake to me back when it was a ‘new Doom’ type of game – presumably in mid to late 1996 – and I remember mishearing them and thinking, repeatedly, they were calling it ‘Quaint’, which to this day makes me smile as a weird name for a videogame. Anyway, this all makes me think I’d like to play Quake some time soon. So maybe I will.

To tie this Talk Talk / Nine Inch Nails chat together, one song from the Talk Talk comp called Give It Up was also really great, and I quickly wondered whether NIN might have covered it – alas it doesn’t look like it, but I’d love to hear their take on it. The chorus has a very Trent Reznor vibe imho.


The weekend was very sport-filled – Italian one-day bike races on Saturday and Sunday, three rugby matches on Saturday – that Wales match was just astonishing – and then (thank goodness) some periods of me actually getting off my arse to do some activities of my own.

On Sunday, somewhat inspired by Shawn Granton and his recent twenty-miler to Powell Butte, I managed to head out for a twenty…kilometre ride…! But a very enjoyable one all the same. I went for a longish run on Saturday, and although my hips were a bit tired, I knew I had the legs for a lazy Sunday pootle around town, so that’s what I managed.

I stumbled on St George’s Gardens, a peaceful park which used to be a church burial yard – it is quite park-like now, but still has headstones and other memorial monuments dotted around. I sat for a pleasant spell with a bottle of ‘table beer’, some salted peanuts, and listened to robins singing as bees hummed around the new blossom. It was a very pleasant moment.

It actually reminded me of sitting in a park in Germany two years ago this month, having picked up an interesting beer and just enjoying the comings and goings around me. Clearly March is the (first) month for sitting outside with a beer – until it gets a bit chilly and you have to get a wriggle on.

Also filled in the Census on Sunday. No drama there, but every little box I was able to tick or fill in without too much deliberation or ambiguity just illustrated to me that it’s not quite so simple for a lot of other people, and that’s always worth being reminded of.

Have a good week, you.

Scrabble editions

Last night while playing Scrabble, I started to think that what Scrabble needs is some branded editions, like other board games have. The new editions would have branded boards and – crucially – a new word list that players can draw from in addition to the standard Scrabble-legal sets of words.

Of course, once we finished the game, a quick Google told me that this already exists. The primary example seems to be Harry Potter Scrabble.

Well, of course it exists. However, it seems to be a bit hit and miss.

First, the game introduces some new bonus rounds when you land on squares that the traditional game calls ‘triple letter score’ etc. Sounds complicated, and gets in the way of raw Scrabble gameplay.

Secondly, while Harry Potter Scrabble does introduce new words you’re allowed to use, the list seems… Pretty rubbish. Borrowing this image from an Amazon reviewer, the list of words (I’m not even sure if this is the whole list?) has a number of issues:

First of all, it’s not a very long list, is it? There are surely a good few hundred words from the Harry Potter universe that could end up on a list like this. Surely Harry Potter Scrabble should allow words like Harry, Potter, or Hermione? (Perhaps these are allowed, but shown elsewhere in the pack.) I get that Scrabble doesn’t normally allow proper nouns, but it also doesn’t normally allow Gryffindor, so why stop there?

Secondly, there are a number of… phrases in the list above. Multi-word words. Knight Bus. Petrificus Totalus. Are both words legal? Must they be played together? Are there enough Scrabble letters in one hand to play such long words?

Thirdly, you’ll see that a number of the special Harry Potter words on this list are… actual words. Words which would normally be legal in Scrabble anyway. Most of the ‘G’ section is just standard English words which you could play in Scrabble. I can’t believe they’re clawing around for HP-related words to the extent that they need to add GHOUL, GRIM or GNOME as a special word.

Fourth: “Hallows, The Deathly”. What? No. Just, no. Just, how would this even be playable? And when? Stop it.

And finally, look at the last word in the list. “Poyjuice”. Surely Polyjuice? But no. “Poyjuice”. Good grief.

I love this succinct review from another Amazon buyer:

Cool, however some words are spelt wrong in the hp word guide. Harry Potter fans are insane and pick up on the slightest mistake from 500ft. Try harder

Well, quite.


For the brief period while I was blissfully unaware of the existence of Harry Potter Scrabble, the version in my head was simpler, but better executed. Obviously. The main part of it would be an ornately designed booklet of extra words which can be played in addition to normal words. The booklet would be glossy, maybe A5 in size, and quite chunky, and it would act as more of a Scrabble dictionary than just a glossary or word list.

The booklet would be illustrated, either with shots from the film, or illustrations related to the books, and definitions would be well-written and strictly adhere to the canon.

It could even be a kind of spell book design!

Imagine what could be done with a lot more care and attention. I don’t even really care about Harry Potter, but I can just imagine this kind of product done well, and the kind of fans who would adore it. And the price the manufacturers could charge for it…

The poyjuice thing just makes me think of that Simpsons gag about Bart’s blind faith in the Krusty Brand Seal of Approval:

 


Before I got round to actually seeing if my idea already existed, I quickly realised how many of these the makers of Scrabble could produce.

Disney Scrabble (which does seem to exist but is no longer available)?

Nintendo Scrabble?

These could feature lists of huge numbers of words from across a vast array of products. And the booklets could be so well designed.

Or, following Monopoly’s lead, how about London Scrabble, or Great Britain Scrabble? Place names are legal. Think of the international market, Scrabble makers, there are LOADS of places you could localise this to! Maybe Tube or TfL Scrabble – all tube stops are legal.

The possibilities are endless.

I realise you can just play by these rules if you want – that’s the beauty of Scrabble’s simplicity: arguing about whether a word is legal with your opponent is half the fun.

But I can just see a beautiful array of well-branded, well-designed Scrabble Editions which would appeal to fans of franchises which are lucky enough to have proper fandoms who would pony up a not insignificant amount of dough to own a Nintendo or Pokemon or Disney edition of Scrabble.

Anyway. What was it I was supposed to be doing?

2021 week ten

A delay in writing this one up because, really, the bulk of the week was spent under a gauze-like fug which only cleared at the weekend. We also had roadworks directly outside our window all week, so the constant noise was a distraction.

It was work by G.Network who have spent the last year or two digging up streets all over London laying new fibre for broadband. It amazes me on the one hand how they’ve managed to do such a progressive roll-out, but on the other that this is even necessary. I get that the cables laid by previous companies eventually reach capacity or end-of-life, but it still seems amazing that the literal roads need to be dug up every ten years or so(?) to relay new infrastructure.

That being said, the roads around here are also constantly being dug up by Thames Water to address a series of constant leaks. An unenviable task, and at least the theory is that their pipes last more like a century than a decade (though in the seven years I’ve lived on the Finchley Road corridor, the number of repeated water leaks in roughly the same locations does not inspire confidence).

The gauze-clearing was spurred on by talking through some of the stuff that had been behind it, as well as getting out and going for a long bike ride to the city. We also had waffles for breakfast on Saturday.

It is a giant cliche but there was a specific moment as we cycled south along Regent’s Park where the speed and smoothness of my ride made me feel incredible. Just so glad to be out, on my bike, heading to the city. A real cobweb-blower-awayer as they (do not) say.

Toot. Let’s all go and have another week.

 

Trap street or typo?

Let’s play… Trap street or typo!

13 APRIL 2021 UPDATE – SEE BELOW

On one of my recent extended runs into the City of London and back, I went along the Strand. I spotted a few things that bore closer inspection via maps, Street View and Wikipedia when I got home. In the process of looking around one particular area, I noticed a tiny alleyway running roughly NW/SE between Maiden Lane and the Strand called Lumley Court. Or possibly… Lupley Court.

 

For whatever reason, I was using a combination of Google Maps and Bing Maps to do my post-run nerdery. And I quickly realised that Google calls this alley Lumley Court, while Bing Maps calls it Lupley Court. As I didn’t know either way who was correct – only that one must be wrong! – I used Google’s Street View to have a closer look and…

Sure enough, the (slightly obscured) sign says Lumley (at both ends, too), so Lumley must be right. (Incidentally, I did also check OpenStreetMap, which also calls it Lumley Court, so that helped as well.)

Looks like it’s one of those narrow alleys that people go and wedge themselves into for a photo:

Ironically, Bing Maps also offers some form of Street View of their own, but for this particular location the quality is… basically unusable – certainly for this purpose:

You can… kind of tell there’s a street there?

Fans of Google Maps are probably aware that it is relatively straightforward to suggest edits to their Maps data. This can take the form of opening hours of businesses, incorrect locations, or changes to names, and other text-related information.

Once you start submitting these corrections with any regularity, you build up a bit of karma with Google Maps, and your edits go from being a) accepted at all, to b) being reflected on the map within days, to c) the edit being made… instantly.

And boy, the first time you make an edit to Google Maps and it appears instantly? Whew, that’s a power trip, I can tell you.

I never quite got into editing OpenStreetMap, and although ethically I guess giving free labour to Google is a bit iffy, it just feels like a helpful thing to do given how many people rely on it.

So, knowing that I have no such karma with Bing Maps, but also knowing their map data is incorrect, I submitted an edit via their feedback option. I know nothing about how they handle this feedback, and I didn’t expect much to happen as a newcomer to their service. But I wanted to try, and see what the process might be like compared to Google, so I submitted the feedback.

That was almost a month ago. After a fortnight I submitted it again, and set myself a reminder to check a week later. Seeing no change, I submitted it again, and then checked another week later. To date, the edit hasn’t been made. 

This tells me one or two things. First, perhaps Bing Maps simply doesn’t have the staff to deal with such relatively minor edits in a timely fashion. And perhaps the situation is worse during these times. And, in fairness, I don’t know how long an edit might take when made by someone new to Google Maps, if it gets made at all.

Or… Maybe it’s a trap street*? Maybe? It seems unlikely. But it’s a fun thought. And it’s such a tiny little minor difference to tuck into a very busy area that it feels like it could be…

I’ll try and update this page if the change ever gets made.

* In short, a so-called trap street is a deliberate typo or extra bit of data shown on a map so that the publisher can tell if someone else has copied their maps. If the fake object turns up on someone else’s map, they must have copied it. It’s kind of like a watermark.


One final point: those Street View images of the Strand, taken in July 2019, and showing so many bodies all smooshed up against each other give my post-pandemic brain the heebie jeebies. Yikes.

But, taking the edge off that anxiety is the realisation that these are no ordinary car-shot Street View images. These were shot by a backpack-mounted Street View camera. And, of course, with all those lovely shiny shop windows to utilise, I couldn’t help but try and find our photographer:

Hi, Street View photographer!


13 APRIL 2021 UPDATE

They fixed it! Some time in the past fortnight or since I last checked, they’ve fixed it.

I guess that settles it, then: not trap street, but typo. Case closed.

2021 week nine

This week’s headlines: 

  • new lens
    • For a while now I’ve been wanting a wide angle lens, mostly for pictures of buildings, churches and just the-whole-scene. I think they might be good for night sky photography, too. Wide lenses do have some flaws in the inherent optical distortion they introduce, but you can get around that to some degree in editing, and they’re always going to look a bit odd if your brain stops for a second to unwrap the fact that an entire church fits into the frame.
    • I picked up a Sigma 10-20mm f/3.5 EX DC HSM on a good deal from MPB. It’s the second great experience I’ve had purchasing second hand lenses from MPB and I’d recommend them to anyone looking to buy second hand photographic equipment. I got a good deal because this lens was listed as faulty, but the detailed description went on to say that the only actual fault is that manual focus doesn’t work. All other features are working and the lens is in great condition otherwise. This ‘faulty’ status made it about half the price it could have been – MPB themselves state that these ‘faulty’ sales can offer potentially great value. I would agree, on the strength of this purchase.
    • My first run-through was  photographing St Jude’s in Hampstead Garden Suburb (above), and I’ve been blown away by how much the lens fits in at very close quarters. It’s a whole new lens to ‘learn’ (as a photographer I find after enough practice I can reasonably accurately envisage a scene through a given lens before actually framing the shot, but it takes time). I can practically stand at the base of one of the walls and get the top of the spire in the same shot – but things start to look very wonky at such close quarters.
    • I now have a series of lenses which roughly covers the range from 10mm to 200mm, which is pretty decent.
  • new HDD
    • I installed the new 2TB drive into my PC successfully. It’s given me a lot more breathing room, data-wise. It was slightly more fiddly than I had anticipated, due to the aforementioned small form factor PC case, but Lenovo provide useful instructions on the dismantling process, and it wasn’t too tricky. A nice surprise was seeing the Crystal Disk Mark results indicating a speed boost over the previous drive. Same RPM speed, so something else means this newer drive is a bit faster. Nice.
  • James Acaster
    • Having grumbled for some time about not getting to see James Acaster’s show Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999 and then grumbling about it not being available to stream or buy and THEN grumbling about missing out on a one-night-only streaming event back in December, the show is FINALLY available to stream via Vimeo and we watched it this weekend. It was so good. He’s got a particular delivery and style which I can see would put some people off, but he has me in stitches, and overall his honesty and openness is just delicious to see. He deftly deals with difficult subjects in a funny-but-not-dismissive way. 
  • bike racing
    • Nice to see more bike racing this weekend, with the Strade Bianche, which I had never watched before – what a final stretch, made both the men’s and women’s races just great to see – and the start of the Paris-Nice stage race (another bike race I’ve never watched before). 
  • Refika’s bitta
    • Having been introduced to Refika’s Youtube channel of Turkish cooking recently by Peter, we followed another of her recipes this weekend, for a “Cypriot sister of focaccia”, bitta. It’s like a lovely bready mass of olives, olive oil, halloumi, sesame seeds and yogurt. We did the dough in the bread machine (which hilariously takes 5h15m instead of the 3h5m it takes to bake an actual loaf), and then followed her recipe for folding in the various toppings/ingredients. It took longer to cook than we anticipated* but the results were delicious.
      • * our oven, we learned this weekend, can only be a fan oven. As in, it is a fan oven. But it cannot be a fan oven with the fan turned off. The options are: fan oven, grill, defrost(?), light only(??) and that’s it. So when Refika’s recipe demands not to use a fan oven, this may be where it took longer and cooked differently. YMMV.
  • Good piece on journaling
    • On a recent wander through scores of new personal websites I found biko’s website, and a series of articles they’d written, including this one on the subject of journaling. I absolutely hoovered it up as they made some really great points about something they consider themselves new to, and which I consider myself very… old? to. It shone light on areas of the whys and wherefores of journaling that I had either not considered or, I guess, had forgotten. It has inspired a few trains of thought on the subject of diaries and journaling and I want to expand on that some time soon, if only as a thought exercise to help me re-understand my own stance on it.
  • Under the Canopy
    • My friend Jessica recently worked on a new BBC World Service series of three programmes about woodland for the Compass strand. It’s a lovely 90 minutes of audio, with her very soothing and curious voice heading things up, speaking to various people with a connection to trees, all the while soundtracked by birdsong and ambient music. I spent a lovely time on Friday walking to and from work listening to the three shows, and I couldn’t decide what made me feel luckier: that I’ve had multiple opportunities to walk with Jessica through woodland she knows like the back of her hand, listening to her describing things in minute, fascinating detail, or that despite having not been able to see her for so long, I now have a BBC radio series in which she does just that, and I can share it with friends. Either way it is a wonderful thing. Here’s episode one.