Weak notes for mid-May 2021

Here are some weak notes, instead of weeknotes. Do you see? I’ll not bother to try and catch up on the weeks I’ve missed. They’ve been and gone. What’s been happening lately?

Photos!

I spent some of my enforced self-isolation editing some old photos from the past decade or so, partly to breathe new life into old photos that would otherwise languish on my hard drives, and partly to brush up on some Lightroom techniques I want to be more confident with. 

I have… enough photos now, that I can sort of pick a general assortment from my archive to just work on a particular selection based on a theme or mood, and that’s so cool. The process of finding those photos is actually a bit easier than I would have expected – I’m either searching chronologically for a particular event or trip, or I’m searching Google Photos for ‘fog’ or ‘orange’ or ‘guitarist’ or whatever. (I have basically my entire photo archive in Google Photos partly as a low-res backup, and partly to leverage the insanely good search algorithms.) These searches do mean I then need to identify an image’s filename or date, so that I can re-find it in Lightroom. But that’s not so difficult. It would be cool to squirt Google Photos’ metadata findings into the actual metadata or the master images themselves which Lightroom could then search. But still – this is a workable solution. 

I’ve not decided yet if this is to be a new, ongoing practice, or whether to call the current crop a set and move on. Certainly I am still taking new pictures and will continue trying to post those in the usual places. But the current set of re-edits is available here.

Robins!

Robin activities continue, and the DIY trailcam that monitors the bird feeder continues to work reliably, with the Moto G4 cameraphone at the heart of it continuing to give really surprisingly decent and detailed close-up photos. The birds’ activities have shifted in the last week or so. Last time I wrote, I think we had the three babies bossing their parents around, crying out to be fed, and then one or two of them feeding themselves but still squeaping for attention occasionally.

More recently, the activities have continued to change: the parents have not been seen for weeks now (almost), which is odd, but I think they are nesting and hatching a second brood somewhere. Hopefully we will see new babies in a month or so. And the babies are now very quiet and jumpy and stealthy. My trailcam catches one or possibly two of the three babies coming to the feeder regularly. Honestly, it could be all three – they’re surprisingly hard to tell apart even with their individual new growth of adult red breast feathers, which change almost daily.

And to bring you completely up to date, yesterday was the first morning I woke to find no notifications on my phone, meaning no sightings of any birds that morning. Normally there is a flurry of activity between sunrise and the time I wake up. This lack of activity was unprecedented and, naturally, a bit worrying. But a baby appeared mid-morning, showing its face a few more times in the day, but nowhere near as active as it had been. Meanwhile, M thinks she heard it singing once – a far cry (!) from the plaintive squeepings we are so used to hearing when they were dependant babies.

And then this morning, no sign of the baby on the early morning trailcam shots – but an adult! For the first time in weeks. And possibly a different adult than the last lot? Only one or two sightings today – and to confirm that it’s not a very advanced adolescent, I did see the baby separately at other times today – but again, far less than normal. So things are changing…

Websites!

I considered having another go at the latest Sunday Sites prompt, but once again bottled it.

The prompt was weather, and I had this neat idea of a screen resembling the inside wall of a room, in the centre of which would be a blind/curtains. When opened, the view out of the “window” would be either an image/video of real weather conditions, or animated ASCII art resembling some weather. (M also suggested using a source of public domain artworks that represent weather, which would be very smart; you could also grab such Creative Commons content from Flickr as well.) Closing and re-opening the curtains/blind would reveal a different weather pattern, refreshing the frame each time. 

This concept reminded me that when I occasionally sit down to think of standalone web projects, they are often skeuomorphic in attempting to resemble a real-world object – for example this project from 2010 I did for uni: an instruction manual for an SLR camera. For this reason – and my woefully lacking web design skills – these projects basically never escape the pages of my notebook. Thankfully, not everyone is as non-committal as me, and the examples of the sites that other Sunday Sites participants created from that prompt are, as ever, fun to look through.

Fortunately, one project which has – finally! – made it into the real world is the refreshed website for the Katherine Mansfield Society.

I’ve been looking after the web admin for the KMS for… god, a lot of years now. A decade or so? But when I initially took it over, my main role was to upload content to the existing CMS. This then evolved over time to me taking over the hosting of the website, and looking after the domain as well. When I took over the hosting, the previous webmaster kindly ported the Silverstripe-based CMS/database over to the new host (as they were removing themselves from involvement with the KMS website), leaving me in charge of the whole thing.

Ever since then, it has long been my intention to create a new WordPress-based website for the KMS, porting over some content, but keeping the new site lean and fresh. The old website was absolutely packed full of good content, but in quite unusual formats, structures and hierarchies. And the tricky part was that the Silverstripe install was getting more and more out of date as the years went on. I didn’t have the knowledge to keep Silverstripe up to date – I can just about do a WordPress site – and I was really concerned it would one day just break. It was a toss-up between me trying to update it or just leaving it as it was for as long as possible. Both routes would inevitably lead to the site breaking beyond repair one day. Fortunately, that never happened, and the CMS puttered on happily, if clunkily, well into 2021, albeit on a very old version of PHP. 

I have therefore done a full site-rip of the old site so it can continue to be hosted as a complete archive. It’s not the ideal solution, but there’s just too much good content that it would a) take forever to manually port it over to the new site, and b) be a terrible shame for it to just disappear overnight. There’s work to be done – a bunch of redirects to be set up – but I’m happy with this compromise. 

Meanwhile, the new site is fairly bare bones at the moment. I dragged my heals a bit on this project as it was all being done in my spare time, but we at least have all the sections we want it to initially have, and relevant content has been created or ported across. Next steps include adding more flesh to the bones, and then stepping back to refine the site’s design with fresh eyes with more content in place. The mobile-sized home page doesn’t look great, to my eyes, although I am perfectly happy with the responsive layout I’m using. And then there’s a bunch of back-end stuff to implement and tweak, and user accounts to be set up, so that KMS folks can edit pages easily.

So, it’s taken a while to get here: in some ways a number of years of good intentions, and in other ways about seven months of sporadic building and iterating. And – in the best way (e.g. from the perspective of the site’s users) – only about twenty minutes of downtime between the old site and the new, which is about as good as I could have hoped for. Onwards.

Radios!

More on this in future I’m sure, but I continue to tinker with radios of various flavours in my spare time. Whether it’s scanning the shortwave bands for weak signals, catching up with London pirate FM stations, finding decent ‘local’ stations to stream while playing American Truck Simulator, or hopping around a web-based SDR from another location, I’m often playing with radios, or learning about its history and development. 

Some recent prompts have led to me picking up a cheap Baofeng walkie-talkie style radio to see what it can do, and I’ve also taken the first steps towards studying for the Foundation amateur radio licence. In all honesty I don’t know how much I want to pursue being a ham, and I am currently apprehensive about ever actually transmitting via amateur radio. But at the same time, the medium interests me, and always has done, and it feels like there’s no great harm in studying for the licence, and then probably even taking the test to get a licence, as much for the education, and then seeing where it takes me.

I haven’t studied for a specific test in ages – most of my self-taught learning (e.g. web design, above) involves me trying to muddle out a problem, and spending far more time googling things than actually making much progress. This is a fine form of self-educating, but I do also miss studying a specific syllabus and taking a test at the end of it. So I figured studying for an amateur radio licence might be a fun activity and a way to test myself, both literally and figuratively.

OPML files of yesteryear (audio post)

This is a bit of an experiment, so please bear with me – or, if it’s not your cup of tea please move right along.

Roy Tang recently wrote a couple of posts looking back at some of the blogs he used to follow a few years ago, to see which ones were still going and which had disappeared.

I found this really interesting, and it reminded me that something I had been meaning to do for a while was to load up an old .OPML* file and add it to a modern RSS feed reader and see what blogs I used to follow on a given date, compared with those I follow now.

* this is the format of file you get when you export an RSS feed reader’s list of blogs – it’s a nice transferable file which is pretty human readable, but it’s also easy to just take it from one feed reader to another. I was often in the habit of changing feed readers, so I also got into the habit of making periodic backups of these small files.

Roy presented his findings in a neat list of blogs and some narrative. Mine were a bit busier, and I honestly didn’t have the patience to type as much as I would’ve needed to. So I decided to just talk for half an hour instead.

Here’s me loading up an .OPML file from 2010, discussing the kinds of blogs I followed then, and what has happened to some of them:

 

Just a note

The funny thing about establishing a routine – setting a precedent, if you will – is that it sets a bar and an expectation of oneself. And when the outcome of that routine is in the public domain – like a blog – people will (hopefully) get attuned to that routine or rhythm, and then (possibly) those same people will notice when the routine is interrupted or paused.

I remain in awe of the folks I follow who are so good at maintaining the routines they set for themselves.

Thank you to those of you who reached out to say hello, to check all was well, or to send a little update relating back to a previous discussion. I’m really grateful that a) I have friends who noticed I’d strayed from the blogging path, and b) who wouldn’t think twice about dropping me a line to check in on me.


I realise that I have a circle of pals who follow me on Twitter and – poor sods – get multiple-times-daily updates on my thoughts and movements, and that I have an overlapping but separate group of friends who follow me pretty much exclusively via my blog. Both forms are reflections of the same person, but have very different cadences (and probably voices).


With all that said, the past few weeks have been simultaneously busy (with Life Stuff), and glacially unproductive (with ten days’ mandatory self-isolation after an NHS covid app exposure alert). The former provides much to write about and no time to do so; the latter plenty of time to write, but little to say. That said, I did try to keep a roughly daily diary of my self-isolation, but that sort of life-writing falls more squarely into the private diary bracket than the public blog. Those lines blur quite often, however.


I thought recently, that if I were a) more technically minded and b) a psychopath, I would like to write a parsing tool which surfaces blog posts where I’ve written “…of which more in a later post” (or similar), or emails (etc.) where I’ve written “I’ll keep you posted!”. These could serve as writing prompts.

As with so many of these things, it’s not the prompts I’m lacking – it’s that magnets-attracting-or-repelling sensation I get, where sometimes an idea pops into my head and I simply must sit down and send an hour hammering out words, or sometimes I think “I should write about that*”, but never do.

* where “write about that” means as much “tell my friends” as it does “spend the time turning an experience or notion into words for the practice of doing so”.

Sometimes those magnets snap together – usually after a decent coffee – but sometimes they just grumpily shrug away from each other, an idea completely adrift from anything to show for it.


I have recently started a few embryonic blog posts on whatever device or writing material was nearest at the time the inspiration struck, but I often find it so difficult to develop those ideas if the inspiration flies away before the words finish coming. The perfect is the enemy of the good, as an ex-colleague* used to say so often – and he was right, of course, and far better for me to set something down than nothing at all.

* this ex-colleague also recently reached out to say hello as a result of reading this blog while laid up recovering from a medical procedure, which was a pleasant surprise! (The catch-up, not the medical procedure.)


Anyway, this is just a note, like those cute little note cards often say, to say hello and I am fine and normal service will (I regret to inform you) be restored shortly.

If you’re after something to read, my buddy Matthew’s weekly newsletter* always contains several articles I want to read, along with just-the-right-amount of commentary to sell to me why I should click through. Or, where the clickthru is inevitable, to reveal the depths of both mine and Matthew’s obsession with a niche subject, which is always fun.

* it can be a blog if you want it to. It has an index page, and I bet there’s an RSS feed in there somewhere.

On the telly we’ve been enjoying the Great Pottery Throwdown series past and recent – the emotional reactions of judge Keith are one of the loveliest things to witness. And we’ve been rinsing through Rose Matafeo’s Starstruck which I knew I’d enjoy, but it’s still a rather nice surprise.

And that New Yorker interview with Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder is as great as everyone says – although you probably need to already be a fan of his sense of humour to want to read this, one of the only interviews he’s ever given.

Cheerio, and thanks.

2021 week thirteen

It would be week thirteen where I slip off the wagon.

More to come as I remember it.

  • NTS put out a call for longform field recordings for…. some sort of project. This encouraged me to make some new ones of very boring soundscapes around me, but it also encouraged me to upload a few older longform recordings to /audio which had thus far only gone onto Soundcloud or were languishing on my hard drive. 
  • went into the office for a bit – had some IT-related things to do, and sort of fell into the rhythm of being there all morning. Was fine, but is increasingly odd. The main thing is learning how much of our work can be done from anywhere. And that it’s going to take a long time to re-learn office-based routines.
  • attended(???) a Heritage Digital webinar on a variety of subjects. It was very well presented and programmed, and as is often the case with conferences and seminars, it left me scribbling down ideas and feeling like I’d either learned a lot, or it had inspired several chains of thought. Grateful for that mind-stir.
  • Here are some things I saw this week:

 

2021 week twelve

Feels like we’ve crossed a watershed of sorts this week: the clocks went forward, 12 weeks into 2021, just shy of 90 days, and lockdown restrictions changed for much (all?) of the UK around this weekend. Spring also seems to be here, with blossom and birds all over the shop. But the weather continues to be changeable, with cold winds battling the warmth of the sun. I managed to eat my lunch outside in the park one day this week. It all feels very alive.

I found the lockdown anniversary hit me in an unexpected way. In a morbid sense, I suspect it was the way it was presented to me by the media, with solemn tones and a minute’s silence* and so on – in so many ways we are conditioned to find this treatment affecting.

Rightly so, of course – these things demand reverence and respect. I took a few minutes away from my work day to reflect, and found everything equally sad and frustrating. But I have a lot to be thankful for over that period as well. As much as it may make me feel guilty to admit as much, it is unhelpful to simply dwell on the – plentiful – negative sides of it, and I can’t help but also reflect on the positives.

* Hearing, or not, a minute’s silence play out on broadcast radio is still deeply affecting. It gets me when it’s shown on TV in a packed sports stadium too (remember those?), but hearing Radio 4 fall silent for a minute is quite uncanny.

On the subject of radio, I spent much of this week bouncing between BBC 6 Music and Boom Radio in the daytime. We listen to 6 Music in the mornings every day, waking up with Chris Hawkins’ mix of nostalgic and new music and his trademark silly wit. But I don’t actually listen to much else on 6 Music at the moment, so it was nice to see what goes out during the day.

When I wasn’t listening to 6, I was trying out Boom Radio, which launched fairly recently. It is, as the name implies, radio for ‘boomers’, and has a number of household name deejays from the glory days of radio and so on. But it is a much more refreshing listen than purely nostalgic re-launches of stations like Radio Caroline, with a surprisingly varied playlist (though nothing new, obviously), and pleasant chat.

Boom Radio also seems to be pioneering (or I am out of touch) a kind of radio advertising that is more akin to podcasts, with the host waxing advertorial for a few minutes. Ironically, and to the station’s credit, this is easier to tune out, and far less jarring than the way most commercial stations go to ad breaks playing the same few ads – and melodies – every fifteen minutes.

I’ve been listening to ‘the radio’ via a Google Home Mini, and jumping in and out of the two stations described above requires a little care. I can say “Hey Google, stream BBC 6 Music” and this works fine. I learned long ago that saying “play BBC 6 music” instead invokes a Spotify playlist with a similar title; it is the word ‘stream’ that is important here.

Boom Radio via Google Home Mini is a trickier affair. Asking it to “stream Boom Radio” seems to work, but you quickly get a recorded message along the lines of “this stream is not available in your region”, which actually refers to, I think, a Canadian station. But it’s hard to know what has gone wrong just from the audio itself. It turns out, Boom have come up with a workaround that means you need to say, “Hey Google, talk to Boom Radio”, which results in quite a weird mode being entered, with a different confirmation jingle, and a different, much more mechanical voice confirming the command where each syllable is synthetically mashed up against the last and no one word is fully played out. Kind of like an audio version of a newspaper cutting ransom note. All a bit odd.

I think the “talk to” command is more commonly used by online ordering services, where you “talk to” Starbucks or Pizza Hut, and the idea is that the device goes into a sort of two way conversation mode where it can ask for more information, rather than the pure A-B “hey Google, do this” setup.

So anyway, apart from occasionally making me question why a 35 year old is enjoying a station clearly meant for people nearly double that age, it’s been a nice diversion.

Another nice diversion (and, again, probably one more commonly enjoyed by people twice my age) has been the robin(s) on the bird feeder. Now that I have a reasonably reliable ‘trail cam’ setup using an old phone, I get much more holistic data about the robin’s movements and times. I was already vaguely aware of how often he feeds, and how sometimes there is a flurry of activity, with several visits over a few minutes, and other blocks of time with no visits at all. But what has been by far the most fascinating is how early he starts: consistently, the first recorded visit has been between 0300-0330 every morning. Very much still dark then (though London residential street dark, so not that dark).

I suspected this as I had woken to the sound once or twice at that time, but from checking the pictures and logs, it seems this is normal, daily behaviour. It’s fascinating. He also seems to stop at about 1900 every evening, though sometimes a little earlier. It’s comforting to know that, despite a frenzy of activity lasting from before dawn until after sunset, there is a block of about 7-8 hours where he is presumably tucked up and fast asleep.

It’s interesting, though not too surprising, to note that having changed the clocks for British Summer Time, his activity has also ‘shifted’ by an hour – e.g. his schedule has not changed at all, and is led by the length of the natural day.

On Saturday we took a walk which included a spell on a picnic blanket in a park, lots of photography, and discovery of an historic relic: on the Hampstead Heath Extension between Wildwood Road and Hampstead Way, I saw a piece of glass in the mud near a pond. At first it was so clean and on the surface that I assumed it could only be new, but the fact it had embossed letters meant I wanted to take a look. It was the base of a glass bottle, by Heinz, and I gave it a quick scrub before doing some preliminary Googling which gave me enough information that meant it was worth wrapping in tissue and bringing home for a closer look.

If I’m to believe this one particular source, then the ketchup bottle this belonged to would appear to date from about 1919-1928, having been manufactured in Illinois. Which is great! And, actually, surprisingly consistent with the history of development of the area: the houses in the immediate vicinity are also from that period. Before that time, the area was just farmland. The location of this object near a natural waterway on the Heath could imply it was a piece of discarded picnic rubbish, or possibly it has been carried along by water from a location originally nearer the residential streets around that part of the Heath.

On Sunday, I went for a run down towards Television Centre, doing a lap of the circular building itself. I felt uninspired looking for a running route, so I just picked a landmark a decent distance away to run to and from.

I may not make the most of living in London much of the time, but I get a kick out of being able to run or cycle to landmarks and locations that seem so significant in national or global history, particularly at a time when travel to these places is so unattainable for so many.

I don’t think I realised that part of the building is still used for television studios, but the perimeter road I ran along was ambiguous about whether or not it was open to the public and I think I ran past an open stage door at one point. But most of the building seems residential, though it naturally has that air of ‘private public space’ or perhaps ‘public private space’ that is so common around London now, with beautiful landscaped ‘public’ areas in which to walk, gather and enjoy, but flanked by people in high-viz jackets, and festooned with branded signs making it very clear you are on someone else’s land.

I enjoyed this run while listening to a compilation of Kenny Everett recordings, which was a nice bit of surreal serendipity. It left me feeling like I want to try making ‘live radio’ again (even just as a local ‘live’ recording) – something I’ve not done since All FM with John back in Manchester. And even then, it was almost always John who drove the desk for our shows, as the fear of something going technically wrong with a live broadcast made me pretty anxious. But I enjoy the idea of controlling multiple sound sources and levels from one place, and of course introducing good music to people who want to hear it.

What a wonderful opportunity that was.

The natural conclusion to all this is, of course, John and I washing up on some millennial nostalgic radio station in a few years’ time playing early 2000s math-rock to a dwindling audience, rehashing the catchphrases of our youth, asking our listeners if they remember MSN Messenger.