2020 weeknote 7 – Hastings, a new camera lens, and The Lighthouse

Recent radio and podcast listening: Radio 3’s Saturday Breakfast and Unclassified with Elizabeth Alker; Giles Coren and Esther Walker’s podcast Giles Coren Has No Idea; Late Junction.

I think I’ve set myself an accidentally high bar when it comes to Weeknotes as I seem to be writing a thousand words or more and sometimes there just ain’t enough notes for the week. This week is one of them.

Trying to summarise office-based workmadness is getting beyond me, but I’ve noticed it’s taking up more and more of my mental energy which is in some ways good and in more ways quite bad. I keep having (or needing) little things that provide context and help me to separate work life from life life.

I went to see The Lighthouse this week and it was batshit crazy, and very enjoyable. It’s always so fun to watch a film that seems to have such a good grasp on what it’s trying to achieve, and it feels like it was all hands on deck. There’s a lot of questionable nonsense in there too, but not everything has to make sense. I really enjoyed it.

I seem to have made it this far knowing little to nothing about the director or producers/studio – possibly because some of their other output has been (afaik) horror, which I don’t tend to go for. But I find that I like media that sets itself restrictions and works within them (or, I suppose, watching old stuff that had what we now know of as restrictions but which were, at the time, simply the norm). So I may check out some more in this vein.

On the subject of films, I use Letterboxd to log the films I watch. Do you?


I picked up a new camera lens on a recent visit to St Albans – an old SLR 35mm f2.8 thingy from the 70s or 80s I think. I already had an adapter for putting M42 lenses onto my Canon dSLR, and I am happy to report that I’ve been enjoying using this new one.

It is extremely manual, and obviously focus is an issue as, with a modern dSLR, there isn’t a frosted glass focus aid or similar, so you’re just doing it by eye through the viewfinder. Or you can use zone focusing, which I don’t think I really understood before, but which I do now (to a degree), and it has helped me achieve some nice results.

On top of this it’s just a nice object – all-metal, solid construction, etc. It’s nice to have in my collection of lenses.


At the weekend M and I popped down to Hastings – oddly enough a repeat of a trip five years earlier, and somewhere we’ve felt drawn towards on a couple of other occasions since. We had a nice (if rainy and stormy) couple of days down there and I’m intending to write separately about our weekend.

I took my new lens and took some pictures with it.

One draw was the Hastings Parkrun course which is a fast, flat, out-and-back along the sea front. I’ve run that course twice before, so this time went for a third. Being on the front and out-and-back (and in the beginnings of storm Dennis) meant for a particularly fast out and a running-face-first-into-the-wind back. Fortunately what this meant overall was that I broke my PB for a standalone 5k*, which was unexpected and very nice.

* Strava tells me I’ve run a faster 5k before, but in the middle of a 10k run, which figures as that would make it a 5k with a rolling start and finish which you’d expect to be faster.

strava5129684779054075517-5990018-2148481

Anyway, being at the coast is nice and being at the coast in a winter storm is also quite nice (with the usual caveats). We ate good food and as much as we got soaked and windswept, we also found lovely cosy little places to warm up and dry out.

There we are, you see? I only wrote 700 words this week. Let’s see what next week inspires.

2020 weeknote 6 – storms, finance, St Albans and obsolete music formats

mg_0624-2320388-scaled-7519894

I watched the Seinfeld finale after all and it was… Disappointing? I was glad to have not read any reviews or synopses of it beforehand so I could experience it fresh. But it just felt tonally wrong. Still, what a great series and I’m glad I’ve dipped in and out of it over the past 2-3 years having never seen it before.

In work life, we had the most important meeting so far involving some of the extra tasks I’ve taken on in the absence of a boss. It went…Well? Apart from the bit where the committee brought up a section of the paperwork which we’d done wrong, and worse, that I couldn’t work out how. For a brief, sweaty-palmed moment, I felt convinced I had thus done all of it wrong, and was preparing myself for a really frustrating meeting. So it was a relief when it was just that part, and an easily-fixed problem at that. The rest of it was… fine.

The rest of the week continued to exhibit high levels of anxiety around the office. We also had a few episodes of what I would say are normal problems to deal with, but that on top of everything else just felt cruel. But actually it only served to reveal that we’ve been lucky to go without any of the usual ‘normal’ problems of late, freeing up headspace to deal with the more unusual situations that have arisen.

ANYWAY. When I wasn’t working or fretting about work, I found myself playing with the cat, and taking an afternoon off to wander home via the Heath, taking photographs of birds with a long lens, listening to field recordings, and getting home before it got dark. All these things helped me.

AND on Friday this week we crossed an important threshold: sunset was at 5pm. From here on in, the sunset will be before the end of the working day. This is such a lift of the spirits. It should give enough of a boost to get us to the day we put the clocks forward, and then we’re home and dry.

In the meantime, the weather this week was… Changeable. Wednesday afternoon was glorious and bright. Thursday morning we were bathed under a thick fog. Saturday was bright and beautiful and actually almost warm out of the wind. And then in the early hours of Sunday, a storm rolled in which caused some chaos around the whole country.

We even had a brief power cut, the longest of which in recent memory, even if only five minutes or so. I quickly pulled out  my little Tecsun shortwave radio and found blissful peace on the air with little to no electronic interference cutting through. I did a quick bandscan but the power was back on too quickly to really enjoy this little window of peace from RF interference.

It’s quite a rare occurrence. We just don’t have power cuts nowadays. I remember in the early and mid 1990s we had them every now and again, often caused by bad weather. It was regular enough (though probably not actually that regular) that we had a special places for the candles and we sort of knew what we had to do when a power cut happened.

I bet we only actually  had like one power cut every year or so, but it definitely feels like A Thing Which Used To Happen Which No Longer Does, or perhaps I am just in my mid thirties.


A tweeted photograph from Jonathan Ganley brought to my attention the death of Andrew Brough of NZ band Straitjacket Fits. Their Down in Splendour, which Brough wrote, is a stunning song, with wonderful multi-layered guitars and vocal sounds, and the guitar solo is a classic – beautifully understated, and it disappears just as soon as it arrives, leading me to almost always want to hear the song again immediately.

On Saturday, M and I popped up to St Albans to do Parkrun with some friends, one of whom is training for the London Marathon (and the other who, it should also be said, is doing his best to support her progress and training).

It was, as I said, a lovely bright and mild morning. I’d gone to bed the previous evening not looking forward to a run, and even that morning I woke feeling clunky and creaky and stiff. I decided to just attend out of politeness and see how it went. But thanks be to the herd mentality – and it was some herd, with more than 500 attending – as I got swept up in the event and ran well, and I even got a decent time.

And really, much like some Parkrun routes, this one is becoming a victim of its own success as it attracts crowds which fill the modest paths round the park, leading to occasional bottlenecks. I was left actually quite satisfied in the knowledge that if I ran the same route again with the paths to myself I could certainly shave some time off it. And although Parkrun is timed and is about pushing oneself, it is mostly about having fun and respecting the other runners and park users. And ultimately it’s all about getting out there, and I was so glad I did.

St Albans continued to give and give, as we found a lovely brunch spot in the George Street Canteen, had a nose around the market which was full of yet more splendid food offerings, before popping back into the warmth of the Pudding Stop for another hot drink and some brunch desert.

We also passed a great camera shop – Clarks Camera Centre on Holywell Hill – in which I found a warm welcome, some great service and advice, and I came away with a new (old) 35mm f2.8 lens with an M42 mount which I’ll be able to use on my Canon dSLR by the use of an adapter I’ve had for years.

img_20200208_140437-e1581275105899-3713977-7673964

I got rid of most of my film cameras a few house-moves ago, and lately I’ve missed the Zenit in particular, and its wonderful 50mm lens. So hopefully this neat little 35mm prime will scratch some of the itch I’ve had lately for shooting fully manual through vintage glass.

We had a great half a day in St Albans, then got the train home and I plunged myself into a wonderful bath of Epsom salts mixed with all manner of stuff including bergamot and CBD oil. Most relaxing.

As an aside, I hate writing St Albans on my phone and on my computer. Anywhere, ‘Albans’ comes up as a typo and leaves me full of doubt as to whether there might be an apostrophe. And on my phone, trying to first type the word ‘St’ always sees it corrected to At. Which is maddening. I feel for you, residents of St Albans.

And finally, this week I was tinkering with my MiniDisc player which is a thing that happens every now and then. I bloody love the form factor of the player and the discs, and I guess I get a kick out of a tiny bit of portable audio equipment still working nicely nearly twenty years on. The bonus is that most of my MiniDiscs are either mixtapes or compilations of related albums/singles that are all very much of a time and place, and listening to them now is a lovely little step through time.

These urges to listen to MiniDiscs usually leads me to naughty thoughts like… recording new MiniDiscs.

In the past I’ve actually recorded my Spotify Discover Weekly playlist to a MiniDisc which was… Stupid, really. The novelty factor was huge, but the practical side was a disaster – recording a line-in input in real time, combined with – by its very nature – a playlist of songs I have not heard before.

MiniDiscs can store metadata, but obviously recording audio like this doesn’t capture anything. So I end up hearing a song I’ve never heard before and want to identify, and my options are either checking Spotify and seeing if I can figure out which track it was in the playlist, or… Sigh… Or, reader, trying to Shazam the audio from my headphones into my phone’s mic. And honestly, I knew how ridiculous that scenario was already, but having typed it out just makes me feel insane for ever trying.

Anyway, this time round I decided to do something slightly less mad: just capture some favourite CDs via optical cable. One benefit of using optical/digital instead of analogue is the levels are set automatically, and the track markers are as per the CD rather than based on gaps of silence. It’s more precise.

There’s something neat about having a small, dedicated collection of the Best of the Best on a portable player. I’ve done the same on a tiny iPod Shuffle before – curated a sort of desert island all-time best-of set of albums that go with me anywhere.

So I rigged this all up and… The method I used somehow did not end up including track markers. Just one whole CD as a single track. At this point I just gave up. What was I doing? It’s madness.

So what I’m doing NOW is assembling a new digital library of The Best of the Best albums on my computer, ripped at either 320kbps MP3 or lossless, and setting up a means of syncing this stuff to my phone. Even this process seems needless when I have Spotify and (for now) Google Play Music’s library in the cloud.

But it just feels silly constantly streaming in a lossy codec the kinds of stuff a) I love, b) I already own, and c) that may not actually be available to stream. And there’s something very satisfying about a neatly organised music collection, even if it is digital.

God. These weeknotes are a bit long. I need to work on that.

Let’s dust ourselves down and see what this week has to offer.

Stuff I’ve seen and read recently: January 2020

I read a lot of stuff on the web, and while a lot of it flies by, some of it sticks or leads me onto other things. From time to time it’s nice to go back through the links and tabs I’ve saved and share the good ones.

It wouldn’t make sense to just publish my Pocket queue. Some things exist only in my phone browser. Some goes to Pocket where it may languish for months. Others get sent straight to my Kindle* to be read before I go to sleep.

Here’s what’s been occupying my mind and eyeballs in recent weeks.

  • Amelia Tait wrote this great piece on her electronic diary. It struck a chord because I too have the majority of my diaries from 2002 to present in an electronic form and it means I can instantly look up places, people, moods… And it’s a blessing and a curse. This kind of article would have been invaluable when doing my university project, and reading things like it always makes me want to return to that area of study.
  • Dan Milnor’s blog is very frequently updated and he talks about cycling, photography, environmental issues, books and whatever else is on his mind. He works for Blurb so he also often has interesting things to say about photobooks and similar projects. As an unstoppable force, he recently announced his latest project/collaboration: AG23.
  • Adam Elkus’ blog was yet another nice one I found on my recent trawl of Kicks Condor’s HrefHunt or that Hacker News thread. I enjoyed a few of his posts, but one that held my attention was this recent one about the videogame DOOM. Something about these sort of very in-depth posts is so enjoyable to read. One person giving their thoughts, impressions, insight and expertise on a (sort-of but not-really) niche subject.
  • Very related, Sophie Haskins‘ website pizzabox.computer (god I am actually starting to love these new TLDs when they’re used well) documents her quest to investigate slim workstation computers (in a so-called pizzabox form factor :3!). I had Sophie’s blog in my RSS feeds from a while back and I was so glad to see a new post for the first time in over a year. Her latest post covers setting up NeXTstep on a HP machine in enjoyably verbose detail – in a very chilled, conversational style which I loved. Even better, she also made a video of this process presented in a similar style which, she teases, should be the first of more to come. Bring it on.
  • I’ve already mentioned Frank Chimero’s blog covering his website redesign ‘in the open’. This recent post which is basically on the subject of website headers and footers is long, sprawling, and thoroughly readable. He writes so entertainingly but also knowledgably. Which is definitely a word.
  • Another find from my latest descent into the hypertext mines is Roy Tang’s website. He writes posts about the state of the/his world, and web and software development past and present.  He also actively writes weeknotes. A recent post about burnout was very interesting, and older posts on redeveloping his website – use of WordPress and Hugo etc – have kept me delving into his extensive (and beautifully-represented) archives.
  • This New Yorker piece on device addiction struck a chord. It was sent my way by Sean Bonner and his excellent email newsletter. The initial mentions of life in north west London were interesting, and the wider concepts discussed tend to make for an fascinating subject. Really interesting to read about the century-old book which explored similar themes of disconnection from human touch. I’m afraid I didn’t know much about the piece’s author, Oliver Sacks, and so it was especially poignant to learn at the end that this had been published posthumously.

*Some such items, like this recent longform piece on Instagram which I didn’t love but didn’t hate, lead to my Kindle’s screensaver having the most incongruous/weird/soothing/serendipitous images displayed on my bedside table:

img_20200201_120411-1-5378400-3040389

2020 weeknote 5 – Hamilton, smart meters, Sodastream and cycling

On Monday I had a longstanding appointment with Eon or one of its contractors to fit a smart meter for our flat. Exciting stuff. I’d arranged this with our building manager as the meters are in a communal cupboard. And I’d checked with Eon that this would all be fine.

The day came and… their contractor couldn’t find anywhere to park. Which is ridiculous. Was this the first such appointment they’d done on a London street? The chap was friendly enough but phoned and asked where he should park and I told him I really had no idea. He ended up doing laps and then waiting at a nearby pay and display until no spaces became available and he cancelled the appointment. This was all after our building manager confirmed to me that under no circumstances could the contractor park his van either in the turn-off to the building’s underground ramp, or indeed in the empty underground parking area.* Insert joke about smart meters and stupid policies/people.

* We were told that although our building, built five years ago, was built with a basement capable of housing probably fifty cars, it cannot be used for this purpose for an unspecified period of time due to local authority planning regulations, ostensibly to put people off owning cars? Not sure. It also means that bicycles cannot use the (gated) vehicle ramp to access underground secure bicycle storage, and muddy wet bicycles must be wheeled in through main, carpeted entrance and taken downstairs or in a lift. Marvellous.

Fortunately after all this kerfuffle, in the evening we had a performance of Hamilton to look forward to. And golly it was excellent. My previously-mentioned act of bankrupting myself in December to give us stuff to look forward to in January and February continues to pay dividends.

I can count on one hand the number of theatre performances I’ve been to since living in London, but I always enjoy them when I go. I guess I’m mostly put off by the ticket prices, but I know there are ways around that.

ANYWAY the theatre itself is beautiful and, I understand, recently refurbished. The seats were great and comfortable, and of course the show itself was just fantastic. Funny, sharp, and a great mix of lighthearted and serious.

img_20200127_175002-9947892-scaled-1673103

I am already making plans to grab some cheap seats again in a few months’ time to see it again. (I hear that Disney is filming a performance featuring the original Broadway cast, mind you, so that might do.) And I have inevitably become the sort of person who now listens to cast recordings in his spare time. The same happened with The Book of Mormon too, in fairness.


We got a Sodastream for Christmas, and thus have spent January enjoying carbonated beverages of various varieties, including some very posh ones that came with it, are made in New Zealand(?) and apparently cost £8 for a bottle of 500ml of what is essentially squash. Mostly we mix the fizzy with cheap squash or elderflower cordial, and it’s lovely.

The first gas cartridge finally ran out – I was becoming anxious about this as I wasn’t sure if it would sort of slowly run out or just stop one day. And… yeah. It just stopped one day. So that’s good to know for future. The weird thing with Sodastream is that you exchange the gas cartridges, and the cartridge has a sort of deposit system so to buy a full one costs x and to swap an empty one for a full one costs y.

There’s something inherently novel about using a Sodastream. We had one when I was a kid and I can still remember the a) glass bottles, b) the horrible fake cola/lemonade/whatever flavoured syrups, and c) the odd yellow and white plastic colour scheme. I suppose it was probably a late 70s/early 80s model.

Anyway, we were without gas for a couple of days and felt bereft. But now we have one full one and one empty ready to swap next time. Sodastream anxiety levels normalised.

It’s nice having a Sodastream – our main reason for getting one is so that we can avoid transporting (either ourselves or as a grocery delivery) bottles of carbonated water, which we drink a ton of. We already have a tap that dispenses water, so why not get one that dispenses bubbles of fizzy? So that’s what we did.


The rest of the week was anxiety about work stuff and anxiety about our impending exit from the EU. Both completely unrelated but equally head-fuggying and frustrating. That’s about all I have to say about that.

Luckily the weekend was better. I accidentally discovered that Seinfeld was to leave Amazon Prime at midnight Saturday/Sunday, so I had the whole of the last season to try and get through. And damnit if I didn’t almost manage it. But I still have two episodes left – including the double episode which is presented as one on Prime – ironically if I’d have started that 50-minute episode at just before midnight it will have played all the way through. But alas.

Anyway I can’t yet report on what the long-term effects of watching ten hours of Seinfeld in one sitting are, but it kept me amused all day at least.

I definitely make strange Kramer-esque noises from time to time, and I do wonder what would have happened to me if I’d grown up watching him on Seinfeld as I was so influenced by slapstick, physical comedy and the antics of Tom & Jerry etc. that I just know his eccentric movements and sudden entrances would have appealed to me massively.

Sunday saw another bike ride. I eyed up a few routes into central London and joined the dots between the local routes I know and the more distant signposted/highlighted cycle ‘super highways’ (are they even still called that? It’s a very weird name).

We rode down towards Kings Cross, stopping at St Pancras Old Church which I’d never even seen before let alone popped inside, and then carried on down to the river before doing a little loop and an explore around London Wall and heading back pretty much the way we came. It was a mostly satisfying little excursion.

I have to remind myself that cycling in London, even when planning a decent, joined-up route, is s-l-o-w. I am so desperate now for a ride where I just set out and get 20-30km out of the way without stopping, and ideally doing it at a steady 20-25km/h. Riding in London I’m lucky to get my average speed to hit 20km/h – it’s actually often nearer 15.

Anyway, that’s another week out of the way. 2020 is motoring along. I guess that with planned activities, decent weather for being outside, and being busy at work, I’m just basically quite busy? And that’s good? It’s making the time fly past at a decent pace anyway. Let’s see what February brings.

Pushing around text blocks

I’ve been following along while Frank Chimero redesigns his website in the open. He writes well, and the process of redesigning a website – no matter how simple – is interesting to me.

In a recent post, he wrote (emphasis mine):

I’ve designed for many years, but again and again, I have to relearn where to draw the line. I will strap myself to my desk and push around text blocks until I drive myself crazy. I will waste hours.

And suddenly a dim lightbulb at the back of my mind flickered into life. He’s talking about redesigning a website, but he’s pushing around text blocks? Unless I’m mistaken, I guess he’s talking about prototyping in something like Photoshop.

Of course! It’s all coming back to me now. I remember learning about this method in the web design unit I took in my degree. You figure out how you want your page to look using graphical tools, and then you write and edit the code to make it look that way.

But that’s just not how I’ve ever tinkered with web design.

Let me be honest here: the closest I’ve come to redesigning a website in recent years is picking the least worst WordPress template from a gallery of hundreds. I do occasionally use my c.2002 HTML skillz to tweak a layout or check how something is being presented – the vagaries of my work website’s CMS mean I often have to code HTML tables by hand which is quite a mental workout. But I don’t think I’ve coded a webpage from scratch since about 2013.

Anyway.

What I’m trying to say is, when I have done that, I’ve tended to just create some dummy copy, then tweak the HTML and CSS until it looks roughly how I want it to look. And that tends to mean that every line break or pixel shift is sticking to an invisible grid of defaults – I’m just adding a number to this bit or moving that bit over or down a bit. So my lumps of content just kind of slot into place according to how the code is interpreted by the browser.

This is compounded by the fact (or, indeed, exacerbates the fact) that my knowledge of HTML and CSS is just enough to get by. So I don’t know how to make complex layouts for webpages; I’m just sticking to the web design of the web when I learnt it in 2001/2002 – and that in turn is probably the web design of many years before as it trickled down to mere mortals like me.

But I like this way of working – I guess it’s almost like using a Word processor to style text. It makes me feel like I have control, but I’m only making moderate changes and letting the code/browser slot it into place. It inevitably means the page ends up looking very simple and conforming to some sort of grid – and that’s fine. It appeals to my quest for order. And that’s probably the fundamental difference with how I approach what I would very generously call ‘design’. I’m not being creative and making something from scratch. I certainly wouldn’t be able to use Photoshop to rough out a new design. I’m taking something existing and just moving it around into different slots.

That’s what web design is, to me.

Anyway. This is all to be read alongside a giant flashing banner which reads “Paul hasn’t sat down to design a webpage from scratch since about 2013, so… y’know…”. But with the recent promotion of the personal website and homepage by the likes of Kicks Condor and Matthias Ott, I’m thinking about this stuff a bit more, and crucially I’m browsing and finding myself inspired by scores of other people’s personal websites. Websites made by the kind of people for whom spending a weekend indoors tweaking their layout is time well spent. I love that. And I miss doing the same.

So I’ll probably continue tossing up between WordPress layouts for the time being. But I know that some time soon I will find the temptation too great, and I’ll sit myself down with some digestives and a pot of coffee, and I’ll try and bash out a set of webpages from scratch.

In fact, one box I’d like to tick that I’ve never tried before is handcoding an RSS feed. I’ve read a few tutorials. I get the idea. It doesn’t look difficult at all. I’ve just never actually done it. So that’s on the list. A few different webpages connected by an index page, and some content worthy of presenting in a blog format, tied together with an RSS feed for those of us who still dabble in such things.

Watch this space.