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.

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?