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.

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.

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.


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.