2018 Weeknote 7

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A slightly different pattern to the week, with Megan off for half term. It meant for slightly longer lie-ins and some spontaneous activities.

The first of which was a trip to the cinema after work on Monday. We went to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri* and we really enjoyed it. Neither of us had expected the level of violence, having only seen quite a glib, chucklesome cut in the trailer.

We enjoyed picking a few holes in the plot and some of the characters afterwards, but overall it was a romping experience with some laugh-out-loud moments, and some hide-your-face-in-your-hands violence, and some right-in-the-feels sentimentality.

Personally, I was on board from the moment I saw the shot which directly lined up the window of the Ebbing Advertising office and the police station across the road.

* I agonised over the capitalisation of ‘outside’ here – the web generally does so, but I distinctly remember that the film’s own title card kept it lower case. The posters generally seem to be all-caps.

Spontaneous trips to the cinema are usually a great idea, particularly when I’ve had a gift card burning a hole in my wallet since last May. That being said, spontaneous trips to Vue on a Monday are an especially good idea, as it’s only £4.99 a ticket rather, than £14.99.

If you ask me, a fiver is too cheap and fifteen quid is too much. Can we strike a deal and call it £7.49 whenever I fancy seeing a film? Joking apart, the other pleasant surprise was the quality of Vue’s premises: clean, modern, comfortable, and terrific audio and visual systems.

Tuesday was World Radio Day, apparently. I don’t much go in for ‘World X Days’ as it is – particularly when, what can I say, every day is World Radio Day for me. That said, this week I finally received the pocket DAB receiver which had been the cause of some angst the previous week due to terrible communications from the seller. So it was nice – and a novelty – to walk to work listening to a mixture of BBC 6 Music, Radio X, Resonance FM  and BBC Radio 4, and with plenty more at my fingertips. Naturally, my smartphone gives me oodles more choice, but there’s just something so beguiling about it all coming over the air.

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The radio – a Majority (what?) Romsey (what?!)* – is a decent little unit, although its design is a bit uninspiring, and it feels very light in the hand. Not the worst criticism for a pocket device, but it’s light and boxy to the point of feeling weirdly hollow. It has a roughly 10-hour internal battery, but the ’emptiness’ of the case means it feels like it could take a much larger capacity one.

* The state of the DAB radio market in the UK today is a weird one. I expect I’ll spend a thousand words elsewhere on the subject, but suffice it to say that some of the market-leading radios besides Roberts and Pure are the VQ Blighty and the various models made by a brand called Majority, including the Romsey, the Petersfield, and the Madingley Hall. Apparently, radios are now named after Tudorbethan semis with the St George flag fluttering in the driveway.

Naming conventions aside, the Romsey has very decent sensitivity, and it has performed well in the short time I’ve been using it. I have noticed that the menu/interface can be a bit buggy. It’s best not to disturb it for the few seconds while it’s locking on to a new station, for instance. I’ll continue to test it out in various scenarios, but I’m content with what I’ve seen (and heard) so far, for the price.

Workwise, I had a few estate inspections to make, and a nice meeting with one of our allotment folks. It also brings to mind that I’m leading a walking tour in the summer on the subject of our open spaces, so I’m starting to think about how to frame that, and where to go.

I took Wednesday off, which broke up the week nicely, and Megan and I went to Oxford for the day. I’d only been once, ten years ago, and I took few pictures, got rather lost, and I was hot and bothered, it being a sunny, busy day.

This time it was grey, damp, and relatively quiet, and we had a good old look around. We followed a decent walking tour which took in some of the central sights. And we had a quick look around the Ashmolean Museum, following their own guide to their top ten exhibits. This worked a treat as we managed to see some great stuff, get a feel for the layout, and now I can’t wait to go back and spend a little more time exploring. I even came away from the gift shop with an apron with a Minoan octopus design on it.

The walking tour was nice and compact, too. We’d been considering a much longer route which got out of the centre a bit more, but this one combined with some stops for cake and beer was the perfect length. We made it up the Carfax Tower for a view of Oxford’s many spires, university buildings and, currently, rainbow flags. And we took in a number of fine doorways, arches, passageways and edifices, many in that gorgeous hue of local stone.

As well as gawping at some of the truly magnificent architecture, we also made it to three pubs and two cafes, which isn’t bad going.

Of the latter, the Vaults & Garden Cafe in Radcliffe Square was a lovely place to stop for tea and scones, and the Nosebag on St Michael’s Street was a wonderfully homely source of many different cakes. Both also do a certain amount of savoury dishes too, if you need a quick lunch.

Pub-wise, I had been told, emphatically, by no less than three friends all at once, to visit the Turf Tavern, and I’m glad we did. Its layout has an olde-worlde feel and reminds me a little of Ye Olde Mitre in Hatton Garden. It also does decent student-pub style grub, and we stopped for burgers.

Before that, we’d popped into the Eagle and Child on St Giles’ street for a quick pint and a recce, admiring some of the literary adornments scattered about the place. Its associations with the Inklings writers’ group are worn proudly on its sleeve.

And in between our long wander and the train home, we spent a pleasant hour or so at the Bear Inn, on Alfred Street. This traditional pub would be lovely enough even without its own quirks plastered all over the walls: framed off-cuts of ties, each given to the landlord in exchange for half a pint. They each have a small tag identifying the previous owner and the ties allegiance, and it makes for a fascinating display which seems to cover almost every wall and ceiling. The tradition has apparently stopped, but the dates of the many thousands of ties on show seem to cover a period around the 1960s and 1970s.

I finished Robin Sloan’s Sourdough on the way to Oxford. It was a breezy read, never taking itself too seriously, but taking what could have been quite a pedestrian plot and turning it quite unexpectedly. I enjoy Sloan’s love of secret societies, and gently skewering Silicon Valley culture.

And reader, speaking of culture, I’m not ashamed to admit that over the course of me reading Sourdough, I attempted for the first time to make not just one but two starters. Neither succeeded. Unbowed, I will continue the experiments. (Probably without the music of the Mazg, but golly this article on the book’s ‘soundtrack’ is a fun read.)

This weekend I did some cooking and some baking (including a loaf, some sushi, and another attempt at a double down burger, sorrynotsorry). I also played about six hours of Banished, which is very much in my wheelhouse and I’m itching to continue to learn its complexities, and I watched the 1989 film The Wizard.

Probably the least strange thing about this film is the presence of a sassy 13-year-old Jenny Lewis. Elsewhere, we have a surprisingly solid cast, an escapist fantasy child-led road trip across the US, weirdly accurate references and product placements for 1980s videogames icons, and it all culminates in a videogame competition which also purports to be the unveiling of Super Mario Bros. 3 in the west. If that wasn’t enough movie for your money, the film’s ultimate conclusion – handled with a surprising level of sensitivity – also sews up a subplot concerning a dead sibling.

Also in videogames, M and I continue to make good progress in Portal 2, which remains some of the most fun I’ve had with the medium. The puzzles are relatively simple, but the level of style with which they’re packaged makes it a thoroughly enjoyable experience. And there are so many levels included in what could so easily have been a throwaway local multiplayer afterthought. We’re about two-thirds of the way through and I’m damned if I know what we’re going to play together once we finish this.

We capped the week off with a Sunday night jog round the neighbourhood. We saw an urban fox, some pretty houses, and the distant BAFTA searchlights tracing the clouds high above our heads.

Here are a few snaps from Oxford:

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2018 Weeknote 5

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Image from A London Year

What a busy week it’s been. Truly sticking it to January, I was. I think after too long these short days and dark evenings get to you and you just start to do things almost to spite it. I even managed two runs home.

Now February is here, perhaps there’s been a surge of energy, willing Spring to come along sooner. It’s also been nice to start a new month as it means turning the page in this lovely little book, which talks all about weather, the night sky, food, plants and folklore.

Workwise, I’ve had my head buried in the General Data Protection Regulation trying to work out how much of it applies to us. A lot, it turns out. There’s a bit of work to do, but it’s all fairly systematic and understandable and I don’t mind tackling it. It makes me think about things on a different level, too, with implications beyond just policy. It actually makes one consider people and other processes, too. I suppose it appeals to the side of me that quite likes rules and systems and processes.

To that end, a colleague and I attended a seminar on the subject in London which was helpful and got our minds going in terms of how it applies to us. It was also just really nice to be ‘forced’ into Central London on a weekday evening. The trip was bookended by witnessing an unusual chinook flight overhead and a post-wine meander across London Bridge looking either side and remembering that London is indeed okay.

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A few of my usual estate inspections this week, too. A utility company needed to dig a hole in one of our roads, so I’ve been keeping an eye on that. And about the most estate-management-thing that I did all week: clawing at fistfuls of damp earth, trying to locate an allotment water meter before realising it was actually located under a neat cover just nearby.

Mid-week we had supermegadeathmoon which did indeed stop me and my colleagues in our tracks: on our way to the pub, we stopped several times to take pictures on camera with lenses and sensors far to small to even replicate the unusualness of it all. It’s humbling but apt to realise how this very subtle difference in ‘size’ of a celestial object can have such an impact on our feeble monkey brains.

We celebrated the moon’s engorgement with the traditional scotch egg, cheese, platter of meats and red wine.

In radio this week, I learned about a self-described ‘pop-up’ DAB radio station which plays out repetitive sounds including tumble dryers etc to soothe babies to sleep. It reminded me of the Birdsong DAB station and got me looking into how such a station can exist.

I was recently made aware of the ‘trial’ London DAB multiplex as I’d been trying to see if I could get Resonance FM at home (I can – just barely), and of course, there are a number of other mini multiplex trials (also known as minimuxes) around the UK. A lot of them are trialling quite innovative systems, from using the newer DAB+ codecs (better efficiency and sound quality) to pioneering new ideas of what a radio station can be.

It also led to me learning about Upload Radio, where Joe Bloggs can record an hour of radio, upload it to a server to be moderated, and pay £20 to have it played out on a local DAB station. It’s an idea so ‘obvious’ but so great that I’m just thrilled to know it exists. Ditto the programmatic local weather services that just suck in Met Office data and use pre-recorded snippets to play it out. This is all done via cloud servers and is about as stripped-back a radio service as I can imagine.

What I’ve realised is that there is a lot of innovation occurring in the ten trial DAB multiplexes as much in terms of the business models as the actual output. Some are simply enabling a re-broadcast of community/local stations, but others are taking a look at the rather expensive, commercial side of getting on DAB and tearing apart the rulebook and I love it.

Later on this week I was thrilled to see an Ofcom licence awarded to Skylark, a Dartmoor-based setup which aims to broadcast field and folk recordings locally. I believe this is actually via FM, proving that innovation is taking place all over the place on radio.

I can’t resist the local angle on the radio – that a station can exist in a particular time or place. Of course, it’s fabulous that via the web one can just tune into any station and get a local flavour. But knowing the constraints of local broadcasting makes it all the more fascinating to actually be in the reception zone for a unique broadcast. I’m pleased to see Skylark, much like Sleepyhead did, has gathered a fair amount of press interest.

I assume I’ll be able to listen to Skylark on the web – but how much cooler to be within the FM broadcast area.

Finally in radio for this week, I happened to catch James and Nicky from the Manics on 6Music on Friday, sitting in for Iggy Pop. They played some fantastic music and it made me realise how rarely I listen to music radio these days. Not necessarily a bad thing, but a lovely reminder all the same of what’s out there.

Two things I enjoyed reading this week: Paul Stamatiou’s novella-length write-up of building a PC geared towards Lightroom, and I started Robin Sloan’s Sourdough, which I’ve enjoyed the first few chapters of. It feels familiar, somehow, having read Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, although for whatever reason I never finished that one.

This continues to amuse me whenever we happen to catch it on TV:

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After finishing Super Mario Land 2 last week, I made a start on the sequel, the first Wario game proper. I’ve only played a short while and it’s kind of got a different feel to it. Different flow. But it’s still great to play a game like this for the first time.

We also played more Trials Fusion (Megan is getting great at this and it’s fun to watch – Trials causes such twitchy fingers as you watch someone else attempt something that you’re SURE you could do – but then you try and fail just the same).

The big success this week has been trying out Portal 2‘s two-player co-op mode, which is surprisingly well-written and full-featured. It works really well as a two-player puzzler. Words can’t describe the joy I felt upon initiating my first infinite loop – truly one of my favourite moments in videogaming.

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This, followed by the use of the ‘see-saw’ bouncing platform also brought back fond memories of Circus Atari which, along with the use of those weird analogue ‘paddle’ controllers, was a very early taster of physics in videogames.

I also played a bit of Wipeout Pure on PSP this weekend, which I forgot made me very competitive. I like a bit of Mario Kart, but Wipeout‘s pulsing dance music soundtrack and insane high speeds (and high FPS) are pretty addictive.

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Why did I have time to play PSP this weekend? Well, I was on the train for a quite bit of it…

Y’see, my buddy John Tucker mentioned a few months ago that he was to attend his first ever comic festival (as an artist or an attendee), and I just had to get involved. But secretly.

For, you see, getting the upper hand on John isn’t easy.

So this weekend involved me hopping on a train to Cheltenham and going to said comic festival solely to show up at John’s stall and see his curmudgeonly face turn, however briefly, to one of genuine shock and surprise. It was very much worth it.

20180203_130028More on Cheltenham, and Sunday’s walk, to come…

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.