2021 week seven

A much-needed few days off.

It being half term and M being off work, I took a few days off myself. Partly so that we had a block of time where we were both off work – rather than one having to tiptoe around the other. And partly so we could maximise on what we are currently able/allowed to do that most closely resembles taking a short holiday.

This mainly meant: some baking and cooking, whereby I mean more advanced/time consuming cooking. It’s a rare day that we don’t prepare one or both of our main meals from scratch, but with time off it’s fun to try out a more laborious recipe. Or make a cheesecake, which M did admirably and I was very lucky to devour a lot of it.

There were some days of watching films and TV without worrying if it was for “too long”. And there were a couple of days of extended walks in the local area. We challenged each other to plan a circular walking route that the other would end up either lost or at the very least going somewhere they’d not been before. We both succeeded on those counts.

It struck me, one of those walks having been to both Willesden Cemetery and Kensal Green Cemetery (and St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery next to it), how cemeteries are about the current equivalent of an outdoor museum or art gallery. That slow, self-guided shuffle around the various objects. Spotting interesting items and stopping to read the details of the ones that really stand out. We saw a number of names that deserved a quick Google – a renowned newspaper hoaxer, whose epitaph was simply: “Storyteller”; a pioneering aviatrix microlight instructor who tragically died pursuing her dream; and so on.

It’s nothing new that I enjoy spending my time wandering around cemeteries. But it struck me recently, it having been such a long time (bar one lucky afternoon) since I spent time in a gallery or museum, that this is very much an equivalent pastime in a number of ways. We were given a stark reminder that such places are not merely mothballed recreational spaces, however. The running order displayed at the entrance to the crematorium at Kensal Green Cemetery was fully loaded, and we saw some quite neat logistics involved in getting hearses and funeral parties in and out down the limited roads. A sobering sight. I am always careful to be respectful in cemeteries, but especially at the sight of a funeral party while visiting.

The other walk (which touched on the route of the first, in a neat sort of butterfly-shaped layout with one wing per day) took us around a planned housing development complete with community buildings and so on that we’d never really seen before. Rows of terraced housing and associated working men’s clubs and the like and it felt rather like parts of Manchester. And I discovered a park I’d never heard of which a) had a cool name, b) had a walled garden designed by an architect I’m familiar with, and c) has a combined children’s adventure playground and goat enclosure. Like, actually combined. Not a Venn diagram I ever thought would overlap, but here we are. No children being headbutted out of the way today, but I must return when lockdown lifts so I can see how the two sides interact.

We also stopped to pick up expensive bread and beers from local places, which really helped make it feel like a city break somewhere new. Our flat isn’t quite a neat and tidy AirBnB, but it’s not far off, and I count myself lucky to call it home, let alone pretend it’s a holiday home.

So, a successful few days of holidaying. I also took some pictures on my Minolta Hi-Matic 7s for the first time in about nine months. The stark sunshine was perfect for the black and white film. I’ve had some issues with the scans, but it may be due to the type of film, rather than an issue with the camera. Hopefully anyway. More on that in another post perhaps.

Here’s a shot I had to take, as I was channeling my inner Shawn Granton:

This weekend I had a bash at a project for Sunday Sites, which encourages participants to create simple one-off websites following a simple theme or prompt. The latest was trying out a WYSIWYG web editor, something I’d not tried in years. Didn’t even know they were still around, to be honest. Anyway, my thoughts (and the results) are here: https://wysiswyg.glitch.me/

Long story short, it’s fun to make simple standalone web pages and I want to do it more often. I know my understanding of web development will never really advance beyond what I’d learned by mid-2002, but maybe that’s fine, and if it’s fun then let me have my fun, I say.

As usual I feel I have more to say, but if it ain’t coming, I shan’t force it. Thanks for reading.

2021 week six

Is it worth writing a weeknote when there’s so little I can recall from the week in question? The problem, really, is trying to recall a whole week at the end of the week – or worse, several days into the next week. So the highlights that still stand out are fewer. But there were some! There must have been.

As an aside, I have spent the last wee while browsing the lovely underside of the swanky mainstream platform version of the web – the web of handmade personal websites. Websites with ‘about me’ pages and, sometimes, not ‘blogs’ but ‘journals’ or ‘diaries’. And in that alternative word, so much else can exist. A blog has a certain vibe to it, but a journal or diary? Ooh… 

(In fact, one such personal website sent me right down a rabbit hole which saw me type out a thousand words breathing new life into a decade-old project of mine: why do people keep diaries? It turns out there’s still meat on those bones.)

((Aside number two: an alternative to the weeknote is, if course, a notebook of disparate thoughts and subjects, alongside a very neat and minimal journal kept in the form of daily bulleted entries – both examples here from Wesley Aptekar-Cassels.))

Anywho. On Sunday I managed to run a decent half marathon distance into the City – down along Regent’s Park to the Bank of England and St Paul’s Cathedral, then back along the Strand. It was a long way but felt pretty comfortable, and took me to some really interesting areas. Doing it on Sunday morning meant London was pretty deserted, too. I hope to do another similar route again soon. 

The weather was still very cold and icy most of the week. During the week I was getting back into running but still finding icy patches and seeing frozen-over ponds on the Heath etc. The robins were very grateful for the ‘buggy nibbles’ I’ve started putting out. Little mealworm-stuffed parcels of goodness. They’ve also been collecting leaves and other bits for their nest, which is super exciting.

Wednesday nights lately have become cocktails and board games nights in this household. In one novel suggestion we’ve managed to turn the middle of the week into something to look forward to. It’s so simple that I can’t believe it took so long to come up with, and can’t believe I initially sneered at the concept. It’s great!

We started watching Deutschland 83 after I fell down a GDR/stasi wikihole started by watching Nils Frahm’s concert at the Funkhaus and me looking into the history of the venue. It’s a fun show – doesn’t take itself too seriously, and although it necessarily has to lay on the this is a period show here’s some pop music to remind you vibes, it’s done well, and makes for a believable world.

We don’t watch much drama (is drama the right word? I mean ‘TV fiction’, really.) Most of our watching is factual stuff – whether of the Grand Designs genre, the cosy travel/biography/history genre, or the ‘behind the scenes at the factory’ genre. I’m the same with books – I read far more non-fiction than fiction. Not sure why that is. Possibly something like wanting to feel like I’m learning something new…but that’s real? I don’t know. 

To a similar end, I also watch an ungodly amount of YouTube. I’m definitely in that trap of just finding comfort in the algorithm and how it, gasp, always seems to find something I want to watch. It’s a trap, I know. I read occasionally of people who follow the YouTube channels that they want to watch by using RSS, thereby only seeing each new video and never what the algorithm throws up. It seems enlightened and… Not for me. I take comfort in the feeling that there is always something else out there for me to see/watch/read/learn. And so I continue to soak up whatever is chucked my way.

On that note, I want to end on a few links to a few things I’ve enjoyed this week:

Megan Hallinan writes about all sorts of things but she always manages to give her blog posts a neat arc, which I love. She draws on a wide range of lived experiences, places travelled (and lived-in), and people she’s met to tell an interesting new story. Two recent examples include a post about her memories of the dark room, and (re)discovering Marconi’s wireless station not so far from where she grew up.

Jesse B. Crawford writes quite technical articles at Computers Are Bad and… I don’t know – you know that cliche where someone has a voice so good that you’d happily just listen to them read the dictionary? Something about the way Crawford explains often incredibly technical subjects makes them so damn readable. It’s uncanny. Possibly it’s just a nice overlap of personal interests with my own. But I’ve definitely found myself happily reading 1000+ words on something like credit card terminals just because of how he writes.

A recent post covers North Korea’s ‘wired radio’ broadcast system – and that’s a pretty good microcosm of the subjects Crawford covers: broadcast/network technologies old and new.

I think I nailed early on what it is I love about Computers Are Bad: each post is reminiscent of that one great article in an issue of 2600 magazine. Typically there are some articles I skim over. There’s one or two shorter ones that make me go ‘huh’. There’s the ‘hacker perspective’ column which I usually love. And there’s the Telecom Informer column which I find fascinating every time. It’s the latter that a) is my favourite feature in 2600, and b) most closely resembles Computers Are Bad. And rather than once a quarter, Crawford is posting almost weekly recently. It’s wonderful.

And Shawn Granton continues to write just the most comforting and readable regular blog posts, mainly on the two subjects of either cycling or photography (often both). I’m always happy when I’ve got a post of his lined up on my Kindle to read at bedtime.

And finally, this NY Times piece about an almost-lost archive of local history on the Shetland Islands.

Irregular timekeeping

A post from Roy Tang (itself inspired by a post from Austin Kleon) about calendars where each year is thirteen periods of 28 days has reminded me of a few things.

In general, I find these concepts of different ways to keep time and dates really fascinating. It’s such a fundamental part of our lives that to imagine a different way of doing things really twists my melon (man).

I find myself lusting after living under a solar clock occasionally – though this would never work in the latitudes I currently reside in; the day length varies too much. It might be better in the Tropics. In a fantasy world, though, I would love to try and live ‘by the sun’ even in climes where day length does indeed change throughout the year – simply rising at dawn and bedding down at nightfall. Perhaps rising in the middle of the summer nights by the light of the full moon to get some chores done.

Similarly, I was really captivated when I learned about early Japanese timekeeping, where each day was made up of a set number of hours, but each occurred at the same solar time each day, so that the hours themselves varied in length throughout the year. This necessitated clocks which could be so adjusted each day to keep them ‘in time’ with the sun. It’s the same as our current quirk of just sort of knowing the hours of daylight get shorter and longer throughout the year, but means clocks don’t need constant adjustment. I think the system we have is easier.

(As an aside, there are smartphone apps you can get, some with widgets, that will display the time in these alternative methods, and it’s actually kind of cool to be aware of the time in relation to the sun throughout the year. Knowing when local solar noon occurs is really quite nice. And actually, smartphones and smartwatches have made access to all this extra time/date metadata even easier: keeping track of the sunset/sunrise times, the phases of the moon, tides, and so on. And don’t get me started on Swatch’s ingenious internet time.)

Alternative calendars are similarly fascinating, but the abrupt changes in adopting a different one are felt less immediately.

In my old job at Network Rail I was intrigued to find that they (and, I understand, most railway companies with some link to the predecessor British Rail and the various regional railway operating companies) run to four week ‘periods’ of exact lengths, leading to a year having thirteen equal periods rather than twelve months of varying lengths. If I ever knew why they originally decided to do this – or why they continue to do this – the logic now escapes me.

I’d like to think it has some roots in the way that railways really gave to us modern timekeeping: even in a country as narrow as Britain, it was the coming of the railways that stopped local timezones being kept – where one town might be seven minutes ahead of the next, based on the sun – in favour of one national time zone, ostensibly so as not to mess up the timetables when trains could suddenly whisk you across the country in so short a time that variations in time zone would cause problems. I can’t think how this new railway-based approach to timekeeping would have lead to a new way of keeping days and months/periods, but perhaps it is linked.

Either way, the modern outcome for the rail employee of today in having to use this 13-periods-in-a-year system, regardless of inter-operation with other railway colleagues, has one quite crucial problem: being paid thirteen times a year sounds brilliant doesn’t it? Being paid on the same day every four weeks? So predictable and steady. Marvellous. Ah – until, that is, you remember that just about everything else in the world is done monthly – bills and rent and so on. And so when you are on a four-weekly pay period, ‘payday’ shifts every month, slowly going further and further out of sync with when your utility bills and rent/mortgage is actually paid. It’s actually sort of a nightmare. (Or it was for me when I was living one payslip to the next on a fairly small starting salary after university, and possessing the financial commonsense of gnat.)

The one nice aspect of four-weekly pay periods? That unicorn-like thing of a thirteenth payslip in a 12-month year, with no bills to pay that month. Sort of. But, honestly, I’d have taken one twelfth of that payslip spread across twelve monthly paydays FAR over the short-lived novelty of having an extra payday once a year.

As with all the systems referenced above: they might be all well and good in their own right, but they only work if everyone is using the same one.

2021 week five

Managed to run every (week)day this week. Good stuff. The weather turned a bit this weekend, so instead of running just went for some longer walks. Saturday’s walk took me through Chinatown, which was a little busier than the surrounding streets, and I enjoyed the sight of strings of lanterns being put up, presumably for the lunar new year.

I made another recording of church bells – luckily not an uphill run away as with the others, and the results were very pleasing. It’s the second time I’ve found myself startled by the first hit – at the moment I go to churches that I don’t know for sure have striking bells, and of course I don’t know the precise second they will strike. So I stand and wait around the hour and then suddenly it begins, usually much louder than I had anticipated.

It’s also the second set of bells I’ve captured now that (at 12 o’clock, anyway) follow the 3-3-3-9 pattern that I don’t believe I’ve ever noticed before. I know I now need to read up on church bells or striking clocks/chronometers to understand the significance. It’s fun learning this stuff ‘by accident’.

This was also a nice one as, after the bells died down, the nearby birdsong picked up again. The new recording is up at /audio (St Anne’s and St Andrew’s).

I realised that me going out recording church bells has a number of similarities to short wave radio listening: it’s about going out somewhere and experiencing something ephemeral yet somewhat predictable or repeatable. It also has a bit to do with the local atmospherics and conditions.

Made another thing in Garageband which, I think, owes something to Wilco’s Reservations. That’s up at /audio, naturally. It’s called Shannon. We played board games on Wednesday night and listened to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born and it had been too long since I’d heard both. So, so good.

I nuked both my phone and my iPad this week – the former was something I’d been meaning to do for ages as Android systems do slowly fill up with crud over time, and I’m guilty of occasionally adding apps that run background services to help with one problem or another, but it does all add up. And the iPad is a similar situation: it’s an older model with just 16GB of storage, of which the system takes up about 6.5GB. Now that I’m mainly using it for Garageband I have wiped it and left it only with that and the Minimoog Model D app and it all runs a bit happier and with plenty of storage headroom. It still chokes occasionally, helpfully ‘optimising playback’ for a few seconds before continuing. Better that than crashing, though.

Watched Nils Frahm’s concert film Tripping with Nils Frahm this weekend which was bloody lovely. His music is wonderful – a mixture of incredibly intricate piano with layered synths and electronics – and it was just nice to watch a concert film that puts you right in the thick of it. It was performed in the round so the crowd is always just off behind Frahm as he plays. I was captivated by the clouds of mist above the audience’s heads and reminded of that strange occurrence when many warm bodies gather together to watch a performance. I hadn’t thought about that in ages.

And the venue – Berlin’s Funkhaus – is really interesting. I found a great tour of the facility by Sound on Sound on YouTube, which includes some fascinating characters explaining the way the building was designed with the acoustics first and foremost. I highly recommend it if that sounds like your thing.

Tripping with Nils Frahm is exclusive to Mubi – if you want to watch it you can start a free trial using my Mubi referral code if you like.

Not much else to report this week. The rhythms of the weeks in early 2021 are a touch repetitive, but if it means repeatedly being able to do things I enjoy then I can’t complain. Nagging thoughts of ‘I’ve just realised I’m a bit bored of all this’ or wondering when I might see the sea again do feel a little bit selfish. But they creep in nonetheless.

Finally, the robin taste tests continue. Robin definitely appears to prefer mealworms to chopped almonds. Picky sod. But a new addition of (delightfully named) Buggy Nibbles are going down a storm.

2021 week four

January is done.

As I’ve seen a couple of people say, though, this is merely a calendar page-turn, and doesn’t really help much. On the one hand, woo, progress. But on the other, progress to what? A twelfth of another year has slinked by, barely noticed? Not sure how celebratory a mood this leaves me in.

Nonetheless! This week I have enjoyed a few silly hobbies, including more tinkering with Garageband and the Minimoog Model D iOS app, which was kindly made available for free back in the first lockdown. I had only dabbled with the latter before this week, but I’m now seeing how incredibly feature packed it is, and how it can be worked into a Garageband workflow more successfully.

There’s a process by which you can jump out of Garageband into a supported app, noodle around in there – with a tiny Garageband record/play button superimposed – then jump back into Garageband to place the track you just recorded in the other app. It’s very clever. And yet another surprise that my old iPad mini still happily handles this kind of abuse on its RAM and CPU.

I was running low on storage which initially caused problems, but once I’d had a tidy up it worked surprisingly smoothly. I didn’t make anything worthwhile of course – I mostly just spent an hour or two trying out the different presets and twiddling the knobs to see what effect they have. I tend to go for the bassy ones, holding down a low note, and getting lost in warbling, flanging bass notes turned up a little too high in my headphones. Precisely what I would do with a real synth, I’m sure. It’s a lot of fun.

I’ve hit a stumbling block in the shape of not being able to envisage actually making a song with a proper structure. Or, not quite knowing how to achieve that in Garageband. I know about building sections and being able to rearrange them. But I’m not quite into a proper flow state where I can do so successfully. I’m getting close though, and I imagine the two crucial missing pieces are 1) jotting down some notes and having a structure planned out to begin with, and 2) devoting enough time in one sitting to seeing an entire project through.

Until then I’ll just bung the headphones on and hit a bass note and just low it go BWAAAAHHHHHH in my ears for a while.

Other sounds that my ears have been delighted by this week are from the other end of the scale: church bells. Having successfully captured one church a few days earlier striking 12 o’clock, I noticed that a nearby catholic chapel struck the hour a minute or two later, so I went to capture that this week. The results are over at /audio of course.

Two notes on the newer recording: it unfortunately contains some unpleasant construction sounds – which I don’t mind as it is a true representation of the sounds of church bells in an urban environment. And the striking of this church bell was odd – I had expected 12 single strikes for the hour, but what I got was three groups of three, and then nine. I don’t believe I’ve heard bells do that pattern before. Possibly it has some significance relating to its… catholicness? Anyway, it was actually a pleasant surprise.

I think now that I have two in the bag, my quest is now to record all the striking church bells within a set area; NW3 seems reasonable, particularly as I once started and failed to finish a project to sketch all the extant pubs in NW3.

The return the other week of a robin has now become two robins, which is fantastic. They are feisty, territorial birds, so I am fairly sure that seeing two birds happily feeding near one another must mean they are a breeding pair. I really hope we see babies later in the year. I’d love to spot an identifying feature on these birds that pointed to one being one of last year’s babies (if that timeline even stacks up). Either way, it’s a delight seeing and hearing them at close quarters again.

This weekend’s main sporting entertainment was the cyclo-cross world championships at Ostend, Belgium. I love watching cycling, but cyclo-cross is just on another level. This course contained muddy slopes, steps, long 21% ramps, and a couple of sections on the beach – both through thick, dry sand and along the wet, harder sand, with some riders edging into the surf. Amazing.

The men’s and women’s elite championships were shown by BBC, and we enjoyed them both, though it has to be said the women’s round was a bit more interesting as it was a shorter, closer race. The men’s race felt a lap or two too long – towards the end, the podium was basically assured and the main players just plugged on to the bitter end. The men’s was a showdown between two previous title holders which had its moments. It’s just such an impressive sport to watch as you can just feel how their legs must burn as they come off a rutted, deep patch of sand and immediately have to dig in to power up a steep ramp.

I’d love to go and see a cyclo-cross event some day. By all accounts it is growing in popularity here.

After having a little moan last week about missing the freedom to go and do as I please during lockdown, I’m pleased to report that over the last few days I was able to… well, basically go and do as I please. Within reason / guidelines.

Long walks on Saturday and then Sunday morning took me to some familiar places, albeit (on Sunday) seen at a much earlier hour and with very few other people around. It was just what I needed, to be surrounded by interesting sights and trees and birdsong, and to have a few options for my next part of the route.

And finally, bitten by the bug of the Pottery Throwdown show on Channel 4, we bought some clay and had a bash at making some stuff. It’s really not very easy at all, though it is a nicely tactile process. I ended up making a tealight holder and trying to make a tortoise. Pictures when they’re good and done, I promise. 

Afterwards I felt a little unsure if I want to continue with pottery. I will try one or two new things just to see. But the abiding feeling was one I’ve had before when doing analogue art type things. The imprecision (not to mention my own lack of skill) is often what I find so disappointing about using tools in the physical world to make things, whether that’s pen and paper, paints, model-making, or now clay. I like clean likes and precision, and it’s hard to achieve those in the physical world. Or at least I find it hard.

And so all this made me realise something: that’s what I like about digital creative forms.

Photography, editing audio, and even writing and web design to a degree. It can all be done with pixel-sharp precision. The tools are infinitely precise. I love that about digital media. There are elements I love for analogue’s roughness – the decay of a delay effect on an audio sample, the somewhat unpredictable element of film photography, or the imperfections left in something screen printed, for example. But I think what I seek most of all in creative output is sharpness and accuracy. God knows I don’t always achieve it. But that’s what I’m chasing, and it’s good to acknowledge that.