2020 weeknote 13 – gotta keep moving

It would be week thirteen that I took a while getting around to, even though there doesn’t feel like much to say. There is, of course. We all have loads to say about the current situation. All the changes that are taking place to our jobs and our daily lives. The different sounds outside.

One thing to be immensely grateful for is how the spring weather has been so pleasant. Cold, with northerly winds swooping down, but bright. And the days get ever long, with the promise of changing the clocks making things feel like they’re really shaking.

Of course the bright weather might have encouraged people out when they should stay home. But for those of us trying to stick to the guidance – one or two days this week I just didn’t feel the need to leave the flat – the pleasant weather has made it all the nicer once I did get outside.

I’ve tried to mix up my government-mandated daily exercise. Some days I walked, one day I ran, and another day I went for an extended bike ride. All had their individual merits.

The walk around neighbourhood streets revealed an eerie aural soundscape of… Well, peace, I suppose. I wished I’d had my Tascam recorded, because the sound was so uncanny. In reality, of course, it wouldn’t have made for an interesting sound recording as it was the absence of sound that was so interesting. And, really, this is the sound of quiet suburban streets up and down the country normally. It’s just unusual in north London streets.

On another occasion I found a walk actually quite dispiriting. No actual moment was unpleasant, it was just a slow slog around the local blocks with no goals other than being outside. I decided not to listen to anything and I suppose having an hour to contemplate what’s going on not just in my admittedly fairly privileged version of this situation but also the situation for those less fortunate… It just didn’t help my mood. It did remind that I am immensely lucky at this time, though. So there’s that.

The run and the bike ride were both much better for my mental health, and presumably my physical health too. The endorphins pumped and I came home feeling glad I got out. Running and trying to avoid others is slightly tricky, but not too bad now the roads are quieter. I’m still not running with headphones as I want to keep my awareness high. And the bike ride was pretty great – and made it much easier to distance myself from others. When cycling, the only needs I have to clean myself when I get home are from touching any communal doors to my building, and I never encounter anyone once I’m out. Naturally the roads being quieter makes cycling that much more pleasant, too.

IMG_20200331_141539-EFFECTSWorking from home has been going pretty well, all things considered. This has been my first week of actual lockdown after a dress rehearsal the week before. We got ourselves into a position where we were all able to at the very least access emails from home, but in reality, almost all of us have had full access to our systems from home,and we’ve even had the benefit of one or two members of staff who live locally visiting the office almost daily at their own risk, which has meant we’ve been able to request some documents to be scanned.

The hardest thing is the meta-work. What tasks can I complete, how, and to what extent? For me, I can do most of my usual tasks about 90% of the way. The missing bits are just hangovers from the fact our office relies heavily on paper filing systems. I expect that many offices with habits such as ours will emerge on the other side of this quite differently. It’s not just procedures that will change but actual attitudes.

A year ago if you’d asked me if I thought we could set ourselves up to work from home, the prospect would have caused me great anxiety. But we’ve managed it.

The other big change is, of course, having to call or Zoom rather than just talking to a colleague. This cuts down on some of the niceties of an office like ours – but it’s also enabled slightly more private backchannel communication, which has come in handy once or twice of late as some very strange decision have been made at board level with, seemingly, little regard for the humans those decisions affect.

We take each day as they come. Megan is also working from home most days, with her school operating a rota to ensure those pupils who need to come to school to allow their parents to do key worker jobs, or those in vulnerable environments. This, too, seems to be working well.

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Days have simply assumed a slightly different routine. We were already very good at planning our meals for the week, and cooking for two makes things easy to scale up for leftovers. We watch the six o’clock news every day now, just to get the latest updates. I try to avoid the news the rest of the day, but there is an inevitable drip-drip-drip when using social media – I check Twitter and Instagram several times a day, and it’s mostly a positive experience, though some stuff gets through.

We’ve also been caught by surprise by Jamie Oliver’s Keep Cooking and Carry On which I was surprised to learn was being prepared almost instantaneously in response to this situation we’re all facing. There’s something incredibly calming and reassuring in his delivery, and the tips are really handy. Like I say, I’d say we are pretty decent at keeping well stocked with staples and planning meals, but his show has given us a few tips and ideas as well as just being a pleasant diversion (despite being, necessarily, about the incident itself).

Speaking of keeping well stocked, as things were starting to go south, I found myself buying one or two extra items that I knew would last, and that we tend to use anyway. Tinned tomatoes, bread flour, that sort of thing. Then we all experienced that bizarre period of time where things were simply vanishing from the shelves. The shops are starting to recover, but only through some fairly severe restrictions on access to stores.

But it’s working. Visiting a large supermarket is now a very calm experience. I write this on the 1st April and a visit to a big Sainsbury’s this afternoon revealed shelves well stocked with most items. Pasta is returning to the shelves, and although eggs and flour were still scarce, I did manged to get half a dozen eggs. Everything else I needed was just… there. As were the staff.

I am so glad that the supermarket horror show of stockpiling was a relatively short-lived episode. It lasted long enough to cause real panic, and I suppose if there’s anything to be gained from that, it’s made me more grateful that I am so able to take grocery shopping for granted 99.9% of the time.

Meanwhile I’ve been tinkering with my Raspberry Pi Zero. I managed to, I think, nuke a micro SD card. I’m still not 100% sure what I did. It was either burning a corrupt image to it, or removing it while it was burning an image. But the card seems physically corrupt, rather than being able to be formatted and used again. It’s odd. But I started again with another and have been re-learning (or learning anew) lots in the process: operating it ‘headless’ where it’s just on and connected to my network, but I am able to SSH into it from my Windows machine. That felt pretty magical.

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I’m having trouble getting my RTL SDR dongle playing nicely with it, but I think I’m using software (GQRX) that is too CPU-intensive for the Pi Zero. Will try some command line based stuff. Mainly I just want to decode RDS from FM broadcasts on it. I think I can manage that.

Finally, here’s a sound recording taken from Hampstead Cemetery of a Scots Pine (I think), postively popping and clicking in the warm spring sunshine as hundreds (thousands?) of pine cones open up:

2018 Weeknote 2

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A quieter week than last week – weather-wise, certainly. Mostly quite grey, with a few sunny spells.

Work settled down, and the second week of the new year was a more normal one. To be expected. It wasn’t without its highlights; there were a number of small problems or queries that I felt armed adequately to tackle. And it reminded me yet again that that’s the job satisfaction I seek most – to find problems and to solve them. It’s reassuring that this can be sought in many arenas.

This week has been dominated by listening to, thinking about, and rambling about radio. More so than usual! I haven’t been doing much shortwave listening lately. But I have been re-familiarising myself with DAB and FM.

DAB occupies a weird part of my mind in terms of it having slowly – very slowly – become mainstream. Is it even mainstream yet? It is its own thing. Despite all this, I find enough elements about it to fascinate me. The variety of receivers. The number of available stations. The different stations that are available locally and nationally, and the weird way these are transmitted. I read with interest a Government consultation attempting to get smaller local/community stations on DAB – partly because, due to the nature of how DAB stations are transmitted, they can’t fully mimic local FM stations in terms of reach and coverage.

And FM is a constant source of interest, particularly a built-up area like north west London. Reception of big stations is rock-solid almost anywhere. Local stations are diverse and numerous. And pirate stations are as ubiquitous as legitimate ones. At home, I’m as confident in the strength of Divine 97.9 (drum’n’bass; occasional shout-outs to listeners) as I am Radio 4 when testing a new radio. If Divine goes down, I’m arming the warheads.

This surge in interest in radio was helped along by Megan and I staying in a rather gorgeous Airbnb before the new year which had a decent radio in the kitchen and a good hifi system in the lounge. It was also the kind of house one wishes to simply be in, so the radio was on a lot.

We wake daily to Radio 4, but we don’t really have the radio on at other times. It was the Airbnb that reminded us we both love to do this. So since then we’d been using my little portable radio as background noise, with an eye on a new DAB receiver with a good speaker. And this week we picked up a great Pure radio which was on a sporadic reduction at the supermarket. So radio now fills the flat while we’re cooking, pottering, tidying, etc. It’s been great.

My first set-up listen meant I caught a recent Peter Broderick track on 6 Music. And all week I’ve heard various Radio 4 comedy shows which are usually at least half-decent. We caught the first episode of Angstrom, a parody of Scandi-noir murder mysteries, which several times had me guffawing like a loon.

And I’ve been tuning in to Resonance FM on my way to and from work. They don’t have breakfast shows per se, so you end up catching repeats of some really diverse shows. I caught an Americana and bluegrass show one morning, a Sunday afternoon folk show another morning. And in the evening a well-written show about cyber security and so on. Up till now the only Resonance show I’ve sought out was One Life Left, the video game show by friends-of-friends. But I’ve known for a long time the fantastic variety in Resonance’s line-up, so it’s been good to begin to embrace it this new year.

Another activity that’s taken up some time this week is a somewhat frantic re-arrangement of the living room furniture. This happens every few months, and the latest re-shuffle was brought about by the removal of the Christmas tree. It’s made the space feel fresh and open and new.

It’s been nice to spend some dark evenings in the new arrangement, playing some old videogames, and watching some films. I finally caught up with Ron Howard’s Beatles documentary, which was just what I’d hoped it would be. And we randomly stumbled on Serendipity, a weird little rom-com from 2001 starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale (not Helen Baxendale who, it turns out, is a completely different person). It turned out to be great fun. One of those cute but slightly out of leftfield storylines thanks to some quirky movie magic, and at times it felt like it could have been a prequel to High Fidelity, with Cusack’s character occasionally merging into Rob Gordon territory.

I’ve also done some fun cooking this week, and particularly this weekend, as Megan’s dad brought over some of the bulkier Christmas presents we’d left at theirs, including a huge stock pot, a multi-function stick blender, sourdough baking ingredients, and other kitchen accessories. I still need to follow recipes practically word for word. But I’m getting good results. And making pesto from scratch is sheer heaven.

I made more progress on the new website I’m building for a client. It’s been mostly smooth sailing – touch wood – with a few little niggles here and there. I hope that with another session next weekend it’ll be ready to hand over and go live.

Finally, we ended the week, as last week, with a ramble on Hampstead Heath. I don’t think we’ll spend every Sunday there, but it’s not a bad place to have nearby. This morning we tried to head over a little earlier than normal and it was good to blow away the cobwebs and enjoy some space before it got a little busier.

We saw a sparrowhawk, a green woodpecker, and a wren or three, as well as some of the more usual feathered friends. We also noticed a surprising number of blossom buds on certain trees.

Learning to cook

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Some recent creations

I’m still learning to cook. I’ve been learning to cook for about ten years. In truth, I don’t think anyone ever stops learning to cook – only those who possibly never started to in the first place.

I can pretty much pinpoint the start of my learning process as looking at the instructions on a jar of Dolmio, then trying to reverse engineer my own pasta sauce. This, and trying to buy cheap ingredients with my student loan, sent me down a path and I’ve not looked back since.

This process slowed somewhat for two years when I was living in a small studio flat. It did, fortunately, have a full kitchen setup – just not a particularly large one. In that sense, I got quite good at working within the limitations imposed on me. Only two hobs. Only one workspace. A small fridge with an ice box. Etc.

Thank goodness I also had a proper oven.

M kindly referred to this studio flat existence as like living on a boat. I liked this metaphor. With her suggestions and assistance, I grew to quite enjoy cooking in my little kitchen. I even managed to create a fair number of nice, sit-down, multi-course meals.

Now though, we have a larger kitchen at our disposal. We also have much more storage space, access to M’s cookbooks, and – crucially – M’s knowledge of cookery, and her passion for trying new meals and techniques. It’s also much more enjoyable and efficient creating meals for two than just for one.

So I’m now happily using cookbooks to cook most meals. A handful of dishes have become staples. But I still like to have the recipe somewhere nearby, because I’m a forgetful soul, and I’m likely to mess up the order, or forget a crucial ingredient. I’m not yet cooking intuitively; I’m following a set of instructions to the letter. If the instructions are unclear, I’m not very good at improvising.

M and I joke that I’m a little autistic in this sense: I need absolutely every instruction, timing and ingredient written down in a clear, ordered list. Any deviation from the list will cause me some anxiety and possibly cause me to mess up the meal. A photograph of the end result is always useful. What the hell is this thing meant to look like?

Thankfully, an ingredients list, a clear method, and photograph(s) are the basic components of any good cookbook, so I am in my comfort zone here.

As I progress, I am beginning to learn shortcuts, and identifying opportunities for daisy-chaining two meals – tonight’s dinner and tomorrow’s lunch – which share preparation methods. And although I can chuck together a few familiar ingredients to make something from scratch, I’m actively enjoying the process of cooking according to a growing range of recipes.

My hope is that this will continue until – much like learning a new language – more and more components of each recipe will come to me naturally, and I will gain more and more independence.

With all this in mind, I was very interested to read Matthew Culnane’s latest post entitled Atomic cookery. It’s a great piece, and well worth your time. In it, he talks about dismantling cookery books and recipes, and how this process can inform the chef and actually free them from the rigidity of recipes.

It’s sort of a conceptual ‘teach them how to catch fish’ kind of deal, where knowing how and why to do something is so much more useful than just doing it because the book says so.

Mr Culnane also makes some interesting parallels with tech – and with web design in particular, which has a set of components and a certain order of things.

My own experience of learning web design – a frantic few months in 2002* of copying and pasting code from pages I liked, to see which bits did what – is quite similar to using elements of recipes to achieve another, quite separate, result.

It’s this modular approach that Matthew talks about which seems so relevant. But he warns against painting oneself into a corner by enforcing unnecessarily restrictive metaphors to different processes.


* Any web design learning I’ve done since then has simply tacked itself onto that initial blooming of understanding – CSS still seems like a relatively new and interesting innovation to me.