2018 Weeknote 3

Another windy week, with weather turning decidedly wintry as the days went by. We had strong winds – a repeat of the other week – and the Suburb actually had more trees brought down this time than last time. Curious, as I hadn’t noticed the wind at home. But the Suburb is often said to have its own micro-climate. And it does sit on the top of a hill.

Other than continuing office-based admin, I had a few meetings on-site, and some photos to take for a couple of upcoming meetings. I think I strike a good balance between being in the office and getting out and about. But I’m also mindful that there are whole bits of the area I’m less familiar with. I should set up some kind of patrol cycle.

Fortunately the weather behaved itself on Friday night as M and I headed out to see the Lumiere festival of light. We went last time and loved it. This time there seems to be more to see, and although there were a few repeats – with installations on this scale, one can hardly blame them – we saw a number of great displays.

My favourite ‘genre’ is absolutely the intricate projections of light onto buildings, where the very edges and details of the architecture are ingeniously built in to the projected images. With music pulsing out of decent sound systems, the whole thing unfolds on a grand scale.

_mg_0029-1_mg_0053-1The other vast improvement on last time was the closure of a number of big roads, like Regent Street and Piccadilly.

It’s heartening to know that art – and art which is largely uncommercial, beyond just getting people out onto the streets on a winter’s evening – can be given such a priority. That said, my biggest disappointment was that the – admittedly impressive – new screens at Piccadilly Circus were left on, with the neighbouring Lumiere installation inevitably paling into insignificance next to it.

I glimpsed at the new tabloid Guardian, but this kind of evolution feels less important than it did in 2006, with the launch of the Berliner format, when I very much remember buying my first Guardian and arguably beginning an allegiance that exists in some ways to this day.

This time, the new format partly feels cheapened, and on initial sight recalls the design of the Evening Standard. I think it’s the double-row title. But I haven’t sat and read a newspaper in many months and am not in the position to start again. So the main outcome for me is a website/app redesign, and that feels like just another lick of paint, and rather less interesting.

This week in radio*, I found out that the Raspberry Pi can output an FM signal natively. I had been looking for projects to do with the Pi Zero I was kindly given by Troels when I visited him in Copenhagen, and hoped there’d be a radio-related one. So it was with some surprise that I realised I wouldn’t even need a transmitter module. So for the first time, this week I finally booted up the Pi and started tinkering with it. Oh god, it’s my first time playing with Linux in a very long while.

* this is definitely becoming a reasonable alternative title for these posts

Much to my good fortune, a friend was holding a sort of low-key hack day at his workplace on Saturday, with the intention for people to gather and just crack on with a personal project. I saw this as the ideal opportunity to mix with like-minded people and make some progress on a few things, including the Pi.

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It was a really positive day, with a good mix of folks I knew and some that I didn’t. All were friendly and helpful and laid-back. Everyone was working on A Thing, and there was some coding, some website design, some electronics and some admin and emailing going on.

I was kindly lent a keyboard and monitor which enabled me to make great progress on loading up the PiFM software. By the end of the session I had:

  • finished my FM receiver advent calendar kit – which has been incredibly fiddly but not unrewarding;
  • done another hour or so on the website I’m currently working on – it’s most of the way there, now;
  • set up the Pi Zero so that upon booting – with just power attached, and therefore a very small unit – it begins broadcasting a low power FM signal on a set frequency, playing a given folder of MP3 files at random.

Very satisfying.

On Sunday, met with slushy, not-quite-snowy weather, Megan and I went to the Tate Modern first thing so that she could do a recce ahead of leading a school trip. It was naturally a whistle-stop tour, but my first visit in many years.

The pendulum in the Turbine Hall was as delightful as I’d hoped, and it was good to see the new extension at close quarters. The view from the top was great, even/particularly on as misty and grizzly a day as today.

We whizzed round, trying to find prints and woodcuts etc, and trying to orchestrate routes with as few nudes as possible (provoking a philosophical debate over whether it was necessary to steer primary school school children’s eyes or not).

Even despite this, I saw a couple of real highlights, the most impressive of which was Babel by Cildo Meireles – a floor to ceiling tower of radios, all lit up and playing audio.

Having not read the piece’s information panel, it took hearing the Archers theme song – bang on 11:15, it turned out – for me to realise that the whole point of the thing was that these were all real radios, all tuned to something real. How utterly fantastic. And what a cacophony. I loved it.

I was also heartened by the detail on an information panel for a video installation with words to the effect that the artist had first conceived the piece in 1965, with the version in front of me finally brought to fruition in 2002.

Encouraging words to reflect upon, if I ever feel like a project I’ve started will never get finished.

Sunday night we closed the week off with a visit from a dear friend of Megan’s, with the three of us scoffing a giant macaroni cheese in front of Aladdin.

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Using my old Android phone purely for FM radio

Samsung will be the next major phone manufacturer to enable the dormant FM chips in its devices. The FM chips will be switched on in Samsung’s “upcoming smartphone models,” which will allow users to listen to local radio stations.

via Samsung is the latest OEM to unlock FM chips in new phones | Ars Technica


This recent update is interesting to me at least because my current phone is a Samsung. Of course it means my current model won’t have its FM receiver unlocked (and, in fact, I’m not even sure the UK model has FM functionality, enabled or not).

When I first read a few years ago that most phones’ WiFi/Bluetooth chips also enabled FM reception, but that most manufacturers disable it in software, I was baffled. But I’d lived under this cloud of ignorance for many years and never questioned it.

Before my current Samsung, I had one, and then another newer, Motorola Moto G – cheap and cheerful – which both had FM radio apps built in. And great apps, too! Good reception (as always with smartphones, using the earphone cable as an antenna), and the software is simple yet robust. It covers the basics, like auto-scanning, presets, sleep timer, and even RDS display.

But it also has a really nicely-done record function which not only directly makes an MP3 of the station you’re tuned into (rather than, say, recording the speaker via the mic or something hideous), but also automatically inserts the frequency into the filename when it saves.

 

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The Motorola FM radio app makes for a great companion to pirate radio bandscans in a built-up area.

The presets/memory enables me to check for new stations I’ve not picked up yet, or to check on ones I’ve saved previously. Having a list of saved frequencies is great, and saving some as favourites makes it really easy to navigate a sea of potentially anonymous numbers.

The RDS enables me to get relatively quick station IDs with a decent enough signal (waiting for a twenty minute drum’n’bass mix to finish just on the off-chance the DJ actually name-checks the station is a bit beyond my levels of patience). And it turns out that pirate stations seem to love RDS – it’s rare I’ll find a station that doesn’t at least display the station ID. Some even post the show/DJ info, or a contact number/URL. There’s no easy way to export this data (not even copy and paste), but a quick screengrab will do in a pinch.

And, of course, the record function is fantastic for grabbing clear sample clips really easily. It lets me either record for 30-60 seconds to grab a reference clip, or I can even tune in, hit record, and leave it going with the screen off and audio on mute if I need a longer clip to grab a station ID.

It’s a bit of shame the recording function doesn’t have a buffer – quite often I’ll have heard a vital station ID or something else interesting and wasn’t recording. It’d be amazing to have a 5-second buffer for moments like that. Either way, the files are then saved on the device (or SD card, optionally), labelled and dated, and ready to be listened to on the device or exported to a computer/the web at a later date.

Anyway, now that I use my Samsung as my main phone, I held on to the old Motorola – and I’m glad I did. After a factory reset, and stripping off any unnecessary software (Moto phones run virtually stock Android, thankfully), the phone is a pretty decent pocket FM radio.

Running no other apps and living in airplane mode, the phone has a standby time measured in weeks rather than hours. And that’s if I choose to leave it on between sessions, which I do out of convenience, but could make it last month between charges if I needed to.

Of course it’s an overpowered/over-featured FM radio. But it’s one that lets me do some cool stuff, as well as make recordings, take screengrabs of RDS data, and make notes on the fly.

One next step would be to do some field tests – to compare the phone’s sensitivity with that of a ‘good’ FM receiver. Anecdotally, it certainly feels like the phone picks up a decent number of signals, locks onto them well, and performs pretty well. But until I’ve done some side-by-side tests, I can’t be sure. (Ironically, my ‘good’ FM receiver lacks both RDS and any recording function.)

Beyond that, I can also try again with the DVB-T dongle I’ve got for scanning other frequencies. But that necessitates some fiddly dongle/power/adapter compromises, as well as needed a more robust antenna. Simply using the phone as an FM radio with some cheap earphones and built in software is working brilliantly.

2018 Weeknote 2

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A quieter week than last week – weather-wise, certainly. Mostly quite grey, with a few sunny spells.

Work settled down, and the second week of the new year was a more normal one. To be expected. It wasn’t without its highlights; there were a number of small problems or queries that I felt armed adequately to tackle. And it reminded me yet again that that’s the job satisfaction I seek most – to find problems and to solve them. It’s reassuring that this can be sought in many arenas.

This week has been dominated by listening to, thinking about, and rambling about radio. More so than usual! I haven’t been doing much shortwave listening lately. But I have been re-familiarising myself with DAB and FM.

DAB occupies a weird part of my mind in terms of it having slowly – very slowly – become mainstream. Is it even mainstream yet? It is its own thing. Despite all this, I find enough elements about it to fascinate me. The variety of receivers. The number of available stations. The different stations that are available locally and nationally, and the weird way these are transmitted. I read with interest a Government consultation attempting to get smaller local/community stations on DAB – partly because, due to the nature of how DAB stations are transmitted, they can’t fully mimic local FM stations in terms of reach and coverage.

And FM is a constant source of interest, particularly a built-up area like north west London. Reception of big stations is rock-solid almost anywhere. Local stations are diverse and numerous. And pirate stations are as ubiquitous as legitimate ones. At home, I’m as confident in the strength of Divine 97.9 (drum’n’bass; occasional shout-outs to listeners) as I am Radio 4 when testing a new radio. If Divine goes down, I’m arming the warheads.

This surge in interest in radio was helped along by Megan and I staying in a rather gorgeous Airbnb before the new year which had a decent radio in the kitchen and a good hifi system in the lounge. It was also the kind of house one wishes to simply be in, so the radio was on a lot.

We wake daily to Radio 4, but we don’t really have the radio on at other times. It was the Airbnb that reminded us we both love to do this. So since then we’d been using my little portable radio as background noise, with an eye on a new DAB receiver with a good speaker. And this week we picked up a great Pure radio which was on a sporadic reduction at the supermarket. So radio now fills the flat while we’re cooking, pottering, tidying, etc. It’s been great.

My first set-up listen meant I caught a recent Peter Broderick track on 6 Music. And all week I’ve heard various Radio 4 comedy shows which are usually at least half-decent. We caught the first episode of Angstrom, a parody of Scandi-noir murder mysteries, which several times had me guffawing like a loon.

And I’ve been tuning in to Resonance FM on my way to and from work. They don’t have breakfast shows per se, so you end up catching repeats of some really diverse shows. I caught an Americana and bluegrass show one morning, a Sunday afternoon folk show another morning. And in the evening a well-written show about cyber security and so on. Up till now the only Resonance show I’ve sought out was One Life Left, the video game show by friends-of-friends. But I’ve known for a long time the fantastic variety in Resonance’s line-up, so it’s been good to begin to embrace it this new year.

Another activity that’s taken up some time this week is a somewhat frantic re-arrangement of the living room furniture. This happens every few months, and the latest re-shuffle was brought about by the removal of the Christmas tree. It’s made the space feel fresh and open and new.

It’s been nice to spend some dark evenings in the new arrangement, playing some old videogames, and watching some films. I finally caught up with Ron Howard’s Beatles documentary, which was just what I’d hoped it would be. And we randomly stumbled on Serendipity, a weird little rom-com from 2001 starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale (not Helen Baxendale who, it turns out, is a completely different person). It turned out to be great fun. One of those cute but slightly out of leftfield storylines thanks to some quirky movie magic, and at times it felt like it could have been a prequel to High Fidelity, with Cusack’s character occasionally merging into Rob Gordon territory.

I’ve also done some fun cooking this week, and particularly this weekend, as Megan’s dad brought over some of the bulkier Christmas presents we’d left at theirs, including a huge stock pot, a multi-function stick blender, sourdough baking ingredients, and other kitchen accessories. I still need to follow recipes practically word for word. But I’m getting good results. And making pesto from scratch is sheer heaven.

I made more progress on the new website I’m building for a client. It’s been mostly smooth sailing – touch wood – with a few little niggles here and there. I hope that with another session next weekend it’ll be ready to hand over and go live.

Finally, we ended the week, as last week, with a ramble on Hampstead Heath. I don’t think we’ll spend every Sunday there, but it’s not a bad place to have nearby. This morning we tried to head over a little earlier than normal and it was good to blow away the cobwebs and enjoy some space before it got a little busier.

We saw a sparrowhawk, a green woodpecker, and a wren or three, as well as some of the more usual feathered friends. We also noticed a surprising number of blossom buds on certain trees.

2018 Weeknote 1

The first week of any year always plays havoc with one’s sense of time, and normality. It’s helped that this year most of us went back to work on the 2nd, thereby ensuring the engine got started sooner after the new year break than usual. Even so, there’s still some amount of that engine ticking over reluctantly until the first full week back at it.

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This week was met with a winter storm that blew over a fair few trees and knocked a few roof tiles loose. At work this meant a number of calls about trees, though mercifully few that we were responsible for. And no injuries or even big upheavals as far as I can tell.

The worst we had was a large Beech which blew into one of our allotments – it’s strange how dignified a tree remains even at 90° to its usual position. This one in particular, its multi-stemmed, mutated trunk aside, maintained a spidery, intricate grace, the vast scale of which was more easily grasped at close quarters than at its usual lofty height.

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The re-worked flowerbeds at Sunshine Corner look nice and sharp. Bare, of course, but neatly marked out with metal edging and good compost. The new beds have been turned, like the Beech tree, by 90°. The darker bed in the photograph above is the new one.

No plants are visible yet as they were delivered to us in their winter slumber. It’s alarming how thousands of pounds of plants can turn up looking for all the world like little plastic pots with nothing but soil and a twig sticking out of it.

There are murmurings that this is perhaps not the right treatment for Sunshine Corner’s unique position at the boundary between town and country; that the original vision of this division calls for a softer transition. More appropriate, some say, would be a hierarchy leading from the wildness of Hampstead Heath(!) along Heathgate to the crown atop the Suburb: Lutyens’ formal Central Square.

But nothing is permanent – not least in landscaping. It’s an experiment, just like the meadow planting was an experiment that we gave a few years to prove itself before moving onto this new scheme.

There’s nothing that makes you look with some bewilderment at a long list of unlistened-to podcast episodes like a week or two away from the usual routine of hoovering them up daily. Some pruning to be done there, I think.

20180102_185049.jpgI did my best to soften the return to work by taking Megan and I to the theatre on Tuesday night – the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park. The play was Daisy Pulls It Off, a very jolly-hockey-sticks, 1920s tale of a girl who wins a scholarship to a posh boarding school, and the clash of personalities that ensues.

It’s all done for laughs, and the theatre itself is very intimate, so the winks and nudges are seen and felt at very close quarters. The actors almost burst with enthusiasm and made very effective use of the deliberately sparse set.

We loved it.


I’ve read with satisfaction some friends’ round-ups of 2017. Being pals of mine, they generally contain a healthy mixture of optimism, self-reflection, modest ambition, and gratitude. I’m in two minds whether to attempt one, but reading those of others has at least meant ten minutes spent listing a few highlights of my own – and more than just a few, which was very pleasing.

Along with some of these year-end round-ups has been some friends making plans for the year ahead, including – again – a mixture of the ambitious and the modest. And – again – it’s put a few ideas into my head as well.

Relatedly, I remain forever grateful that I still have blogs to follow via RSS* – some written by people I know, some not. Always inspiring and interesting though. Email newsletters are good, too. But, like podcasts, it can feel bad to fall behind.

* For a while I had been trying out Inoreader but I’ve just gone back to Feedly for some reason. It’s surprisingly easy to switch between the two, but then that’s the beauty of an open standard(?) like RSS, OPML and the like.


Today, to walk off some of the week’s enthusiastic cooking sessions, we capped the week off with a nice long walk on Hampstead Heath – together with about a million other people (and their dogs). The Heath is too hard to resist on cold, crisp days such as this. We even stumbled into the Dairy, by Kenwood, which it turns out is open every first Sunday of the month.

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Inside, we found an immaculately restored tearoom, opposite an immaculately restored dairy room, complete with marble basins. The Dairy is very well designed, being built atop an ice house to keep the whole place cool into the summer months (ice would have been brought up from the pond at the bottom of the lawn), and a fountain in the centre for fresh water (making use of one of the many springs that rise up all over the Heath).

It was the perfect Sunday afternoon for a wander on the Heath. We refuelled at Carluccio’s before walking down the hill back to West Hampstead.

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Finally, I have one or two new extra-curricular projects on the cards, including a new website for a literary society. I’ve done routine web admin for the Katherine Mansfield Society for a number of years and enjoy the two itches it scratches for me. I’m very flattered that it’s led to me being offered other, similar roles.

Onwards.


The Charterhouse

I was lucky enough to go on a visit to the Charterhouse last week. It was our annual staff training day – we tend to go to interesting and/or historical lumps of architecture, and this was a wonderful place to explore.

The Charterhouse opened to the public in January 2017, but its history goes back to the 14th century. The story is diverse and fascinating, and the fabric of the buildings themselves is very special. It’s a cliche, but it walking around the place absolutely feels like stepping back in time. If you can visit, I highly recommend taking a tour as the guide we had was knowledgeable and very engaging. We had a wonderful day.