The Vast of Night – 1950s suburban technological sci-fi fun

I watched The Vast of Night on Amazon Prime this weekend, and what a fun film it was. The Radio Survivor blog mentioned it and the core components sounded like they’d be up my street: a low-budget lightly sci-fi tale set in 1950s small town America with a backdrop of local radio and telephone switchboards. Lovely.

It’s altogether really just very silly, but presented very seriously. From the snappy opening scene, I felt invited into the world of this little town as the local high school geared up for a basketball game. The way the two leads chatted away about tape recorders and radio voices and broadcasting and interviews had a lovely realism to it, especially with the camera milling around them as they walked-and-talked. Actually, one flaw with the film is that this pair’s relationship never really develops beyond both being witness to a strange event. It would have been nice – though maybe somewhat cliched – to see some more chemistry between them.

I digress. The film’s world feels very believable, and there is nice attention to detail in the technology both used and discussed, along with some enjoyable “gee, shucks” moments of discussing (probably accurate) 1950s descriptions of what life might be like in the year two thousand.

On top of that, the film features some really surprisingly exquisite camerawork and cinematography. For starters there’s a lovely misty murkiness about the whole thing, with nice lighting and lens flare and so on. Characters and extras are given room to breathe as the camera weaves in and around their very natural movements. At times there are some fantastic sequences of either very long one-shot takes, or really nice Steadicam-esque sequences that seem almost too ambitious for what is a silly little b-movie.

And silly it is: the story is a bit one-dimensional, and some of the longer dialogue scenes could do with some tightening up. I saw one review which suggested this would make a good radioplay or podcast, which made me chuckle given the subject matter. But actually I get that, and I can see that too. In fact, I occasionally felt like it would make a half-decent narrative-based point-and-click/walking simulator videogame like Firewatch and others.

But if it had merely been an audio-based production, the audience would have lacked the rather lovely set design, props and costumes/hair/make-up which all come together to paint a very well-fleshed-out and yet not too overly-ambitious world. It’s nice to sink into the world of 1950s excitement about new technologies and a feeling that anything could be out there…

It was a fun little romp and I felt refreshed having watched it.

Review: ETC front fork pannier bag rack / carrier

It’s a brave cyclist who entrusts the fortunes of his luggage (not to mention his safety riding on the road) to a piece of cheap £20-30 metal sold ostensibly as a luggage rack for the front forks.

But that’s just what I did ahead of my recent trip to Cornwall.

My trusty Giant Blvd mk II bike has long had a Topeak luggage rack with matching bags, but for a while now I’d been wanting to add front panniers to my bicycle, partly to boost my overall luggage capacity, and partly to balance out my load. Riding uphill with everything over your back wheel makes the bike feel a little prone to popping a wheelie at a time when such a manoeuvre would not be at all welcome.

I had the image in my head of the type of rack I wanted, and where it would mount. But finding something compatible with my particular bike was less easy. It turns out that a lot of bikes which are designed to take front panniers have extra lugs halfway down the front forks in addition to those near the axle. My Giant lacks these extra lugs, so this ruled out an entire range of front racks which require these.

Instead, I knew I was looking for a rack that anchored itself on the lower lugs by the axle (also used for the mud guards), and used a friction-based grippy fastener which secured the upper part to the front forks at whatever height required. The stability of these two matching side panels then comes from a single piece which goes up and over the wheel, joining the pair together solidly.

The rack I settled on, this ETC model from Amazon, seemed horribly cheap at just a smidge over twenty quid. I’d seen similar racks for more than a hundred. On the one hand I figured it’s a pretty basic construction: just some bent metal made to a tried and tested design.

And on the other hand I feared that something so cheap could not possibly be strong enough – or safe enough – to load up with heavy bags and be reliably used on busy roads. But I decided to give it a go, drop the cash down, and if I had any doubts when it came to installing the rack in terms of its safety, just not use it and either return it or chalk it up as a life lesson.

I also decided to buy some Ortlieb bags to go with it – easily three times the cost of the rack itself for the pair – partly as I’m well aware they’re just the best pannier bags money can buy, and partly as they also double up as drybags. Given that this trip was a camping trip, waterproofness was absolutely a feature I was looking for.

(Kudos, by the way, to Sigma Sports for having my bags in stock, dispatching them super quickly, taking Paypal for payment, and delivering via DPD and their lovely timed slots. They’re about the only courier I trust any more.)

When the ETC-branded rack arrived, its basicness was about what I’d expected from the admittedly mixed reviews I’d seen on Amazon. Some buyers found the kit perfect, easy to install, and almost tailor-made for their particular bike. Others had struggled to get it to fit, ultimately abandoning it – to the point of binning it rather than seeking a refund.

One helpful Amazon reviewer gave detailed installation instructions and a series of photos from various angles, for which I was immensely grateful – until I saw another reviewer had done the same, having somehow successfully fitted the rack a completely different way. Hmm.

I knew I’d have my work cut out getting it together – I already knew that it came with no instructions or even photos/illustrations – and that it would either work with my bike or it wouldn’t. I also knew I’d have an evening of swearing and calloused hands ahead of me, and this turned out to be the case.

But in the end, I got it to work just fine. The rack fitted – just about – and the fastenings felt secure. The biggest flaw was probably the width of the U-bolt which acts as a clamp around the forks. My forks are oval in section, rather than round, and so the U-bolt fits only unevenly around this non-circular fork, requiring the associated bolts to just be tightened as much as possible, which feels secure, but leaves a little room for movement if the bolts happen to work loose due to vibrations.

Thus far, the U-bolt has stayed rock-solid, with only one of the other bolts vibrating ever so slightly loose, but nowhere near being a danger, and a quick tighten sorted that out.

The Ortliebs I purchased came with three different widths of fixtures for different types of racks, and I was able to fit the nearest fitting brackets, adjust the lower ‘foot’, and the bags attach and remove as easily as I’d hoped, but still feel secure when attached.

Six weeks on, and probably 2-300km of riding down, the rack has been a great addition to my bike. The forward distribution of weight makes my bike feel more balanced when paired with the larger rear bags. And the racks don’t move a millimetre while riding, feeling secure even bouncing over potholes in the London roads. The Cornish roads, by comparison, were in pretty good shape, though there were a few off-road sections that tested the rack’s stability. There is some movement in the way the Ortliebs attach to the rack, but this is to be expected.

Overall, I’m really glad I took a chance on the ETC rack – for my particular bike, they worked out just fine. For any would-be purchasers out there, I’d say they’re worth a go. The variety of fastenings included in the pack is quite generous, and I think mean they’ll fit a wide range of bikes. But my advice would be to not force things: if it ain’t gonna fit, don’t try and make it.

Without further ado, here’s the final result – and a series of photographs of how I fitted it to my particular bike, which I hope might assist any other buyers of this rack left scratching their heads when they unpack everything:

 

Tour de France Stage 10

Yesterday’s TdF stage was a beautiful mess; surreal, stunning, painful, gorgeous… Just a bit of an epic on a day which looked like it could have been so straightforward.

There was one unexpected moment when I all but lost my shit: the helicopter cameras that provide such gorgeous footage throughout the entire race for the TV viewers suddenly showed a piece of coastal defensive architecture – it was only Fort Boyard! A surreal moment in a day packed with them.

The coverage had opened with the reassuring news that – aside from a handful of positive Covid-19 test results which have put individual team members out of action – none of the riders were being forced to leave the race at this point. The Tour’s rest days are being used as a roughly weekly moment in time to test all those participating in the race – the result of two positive results in one team (of anyone including staff, riders, etc) is a forced abandonment for the entire team.

But then came the news that the Tour’s ebullient director Christian Prudhomme has tested positive and is now barred from any in-person involvement. Prudhomme is the face of the Tour, and he is usually seen standing with his head out of a car sunroof as he drops the flag at the start of each stage. The car then follows the route the whole way, giving the race director oversight of the whole thing. News of Prudhomme’s positive Covid result was accompanied by images of him riding in the back of this car during an earlier stage with France’s newly-installed prime minister Jean Castex – masked-up, but very cosily chatting away. Castex has since tested negative, but is self-isolating for seven days to be on the safe side.

So, for now the race continues, though the spectre of “will the Tour reach Paris this year?” looms large. We will need to wait till the next rest day for the next round of tests and possible exclusions.

Meanwhile, Stage 10 looked like it would be pretty straightforward: a pan-flat profile, only one intermediate sprint, and fresh legs following the first rest day. And it was a gorgeous stage to watch, too – starting on one island on the west coast of France, noodling around the low-lying coastal towns and salt flats and ending on another island. The islands and wide estuaries along the route meant for a diverse range of bridges, and as usual there were a number of gorgeous-looking towns and villages passed through at speed, a few of which have been added to my perpetual Google Maps of places I’d like to visit someday. There was even a shot of a transporter bridge which apparently takes bicycles, so that’s definitely on the list.

Unfortunately, despite (or because of) the flat profile, high speeds and a tightly-packed peloton led to a number of fairly nasty crashes. With a whole bunch rolling along, filling the width of the road, all it takes is one momentary lapse of concentration or a sudden piece of road furniture and several riders can be sent flying. There were a number of shots of some very sore-looking road cases of rash, and that Lycra clothing doesn’t offer much protection when sliding along tarmac at 50km/h.

It all culminated in an exciting sprint finish – of course – and a tight victory for a very emotional Irishman who has worked hard towards the goal of a stage victory at the Tour de France for many years, and now Sam Bennett has one under his belt.

A close-up look at archival collections with the National Library of New Zealand and Te Papa

The National Library of New Zealand has always seemed especially good at presenting its collections digitally (which is handy for remote researchers/enthusiasts like myself). Their online catalogue gives pretty easy access to items with a digital holding, including photographs, paintings, letters and – of course – newspapers as part of Papers Past.

Through their blog, I have found countless stories of items in their collection – and, in turn, of Aotearoa New Zealand – which are so often richly presented and well-told.

Most recently I found myself fascinated by a post written by Lissa Mitchell, the Curator of Historical Documentary Photography at Te Papa, NZ’s national museum in Wellington. In the post, Lissa writes about two stereoscopes (3D photographs) taken in remote Milford Sound in early 1882. Early NZ photography has also been a cause of fascination to me for the way in which the landscape and its people are depicted. Sometimes it’s the sight of a newly-constructed town or city springing up, or the landscape shown at a time not terribly long after European colonisation begun.

Most of the time, these shots of early European NZ are ‘serious’ – a straight, no-nonsense photograph showing a scene for what it is, whether as an artistic object or a piece of documentary evidence. There’s often a subtext or some wider context which needs to be understood. But sometimes there’s humour and a twinkle in the eye which transcends the image – and in this post about two stereoscopes – one held at Te Papa, the other at the National Library of New Zealand, Lissa explains: “This pair of stereographs were not conventional colonial landscapes — empty of human presence and focused on the view — here was a representation of life being lived with hardship and humour.”

One of these stereoscopic images is below – and Lissa invites readers to zoom even closer in to the products assembled on the table to see if readers can identify the goods that the subjects of the image have just taken delivery of.

I love the detail these images contain. Seeing the faces of the two men in the picture one can’t help but read a little into who they were and what they were like.

As Lissa writes, “I imagine the fun they had recreating the two scenes after Burton had arrived — a novel way of spending their time in this isolated place.”

Indeed. It’s this level of detail that online archives can give: from the vast collection and the metadata in the catalogue, right down to a digital copy of the document itself and the smirk on the face or the label on the bottle. It’s just wonderful.

Little Saturday ride

Today I was in the mood for a little bike ride and I’m glad I got out for one.

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On the one hand, going for a little ride in London is easy enough, but it’s different to those days when I lived in a suburb of Milton Keynes where I could just spend a few minutes riding out to the edge of town and then find myself on country lanes.

But still, I’m grateful that I can just decide to ride for no reason other than the ride (well, alright, and a stop into the supermarket because I have a hankering for pork schnitzel).

So I did just that today: a pootle up towards Hampstead (I got my second best PB going up Arkwright Road, a sharp little 7.5% climb), and a moment’s breather at the top (Whitestone Pond, above, is one of the highest points in Greater London).

And then a nice steady downhill all the way to Swiss Cottage with a little rolling around the quiet backstreets eyeing up the big houses between there and Belsize Park.

The fact that I can combine this sort of mindless noodling about with a perfunctory stop at Waitrose with my quick-release Topeak pannier bags to grab some supplies is just immensely gratifying. I loaded up with dinner and drinks and then headed home again. Simple. And so rewarding.


I found this neat Flickr group the other day, Bike 180, where people just post pictures of/from their rides.

I think the idea is you aim for 180 days of cycling adventures inside of the year. That would be a stretch for me this year, but it would be nice to tot up how many cycling days I’ve had so far in 2020.

Anyway, the pictures people post to that group are just lovely and give me immense wanderlust – wanderlust for just getting out there.

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