2020 weeknote 12 – the week that everything changed

Well this was the week that things really changed, for me and those around me. It’s been interesting keeping abreast of how the spread of the virus and the reactions by different countries has rolled onward, in waves. Interesting and kind of horrifying, when you spend more than half a minute considering what it all means.

It has, in many ways, been good that the upheaval has kept us all so busy. Heaven forbid what will happen when we are all set up with our new routines and we stop for a second to get bogged down in the sheer existential woe of it all – and that’s before even considering the actual health crisis worsening any further, which each day it threatens to on a hitherto-unseen scale.

We have found ourselves unexpectedly buoyed by taping occasional news updates from Chinese state broadcasters in which they describe the recovery process. Life, while not returning to normal, per se, is returning to something approaching it. Or at least a healthy, post-virus world.

At work I have been extremely busy helping as far as I can to get the office set up for home working. A few months ago, working from home on the scale that we soon will be would have been completely unthinkable. But, as with so much of this escalating crisis, unthinkable things are now having to be thunk, and it’s funny what you can achieve when you have to.

In fact, the extent to which we’ve established a working-from-home policy means that it’s only really a few little issues and niggles we’ve found, rather than any flat-out business critical failure points.

We’re lucky in that a lot of what we do isn’t business critical. And where it is, the timelines and deadlines are those we set for ourselves and we are fortunate enough not to be beholden to many authorities or external/market forces. We have a job to do, and we do it however we can. This will not change, but the methods and timescales may.

Meanwhile, anything that isn’t related to work, or keeping ourselves constantly updated on news has, by necessity, been for the purposes of distraction, amusement or entertainment. The rest of this week’s note is simply some of that stuff that has kept me from losing my mind the past few days.


We had the first day of spring, and the weather this week has been cool but increasingly wonderful and bright. There is blossom everywhere, and the spring weather looks set to continue. This does mean that people who ought to be self-isolating are popping out more than they might if it had been tipping down all week, and I am concerned about that. But at the same time, the sight of spring springing is a huge boost.

As well as a brief trip to a nearby park (where I saw the woodpecker above), I also popped to Hampstead Heath on Saturday to get some fresh air. Unfortunately, so did a lot of other people, and I really should have known better. I was able to keep my distance from most people, and I found myself a secluded perch where I spent a happy hour or so playing with radios, and eating cold pizza.

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On FM, my elevated position near one of London’s highest points meant stations came booming in loud and clear, and I found a good number of pirate stations giving shout-outs to the shut-ins.

I found that the signal on my little POP Nano radio was decent, but both my Tecsun PL-380 and my Motorola G7 Power logged 58 stations each on the FM band, with the Moto serving doubly useful as not only does it have an RDS decoder built-in, but it also neatly displays all logged stations in one big list, acting as a very useful results page for active stations complete with station IDs, where available.

I’ve written before about the pretty excellent FM radio software on an older Moto G device, and it’s just as good on my current G7 Power. It serves as an effective stopgap between idly tuning around with a normal radio and setting up some sort of portable SDR that will automatically log station IDs in a neat spreadsheet for me.

(A rainy day project I daydream of is a Raspberry Pi Zero-powered unit that I can just switch on, run an autoscan, and log all active stations in a spreadsheet. Might have a little screen and possibly audio out.)

The subsequent list generated by the Moto is displayed as you can see to the right: it’s a neat list of station IDs and frequencies and I only wish I could quickly and easily export this data into a spreadsheet. I suspect there’s an OCR capture that could do a half decent job. But even in its present form, the FM radio software gives me a decent overview of what’s around in a given session.

One surprise, beyond the ever-present London pirates, was decent reception of a station apparently broadcasting to Greenwich on 96.5fm. A later dig around uncovered this as Maritime Radio, with the always-helpful mb21 giving more information about where this station broadcasts from. Not a bad catch at a distance of approximately 20km.

It’s hard to tell where the pirate stations themselves broadcast from – obviously – so it’s never easy to known whether you’re getting fabulous reception across a vast distance, or merely being blasted from the nearest rooftop. I suspect it’s usually the latter, though there is usually a good range of signals when tuning in from a high point in north west London, with some sounding stronger and others weaker.

The variability in the tech used by each pirate could give rise to this, of course, but it all makes it feel as though you’re picking up signals from all over London.

On DAB, my position near London’s highest point meant great reception of a huge range of stations. The POP Nano picked up 148 stations without issue, and I noted down that I was getting reception of the following multiplexes on top of those I’d expect to get in London: Kent, Herts Beds Bucks, Surrey NSussex, and Essex. On the one hand, these extra muxes simply bring in local stations or local variants of commercial stations. But it’s still pretty cool to pick these all up along with the ones which are meant to cover my area.

Of note, the Kent multiplex coverage map [PDF] does show parts of Hampstead as able to pick up occasional offshoots of the signal over high ground:

So it’s perhaps not that unexpected, but still vaguely interesting to me.

I also had a scan around on shortwave and aside from the usual national broadcasters who have mastered dominating the waves, I was pleased to pick up two pirate(?) stations on 5780kHz and 6205kHz – possibly Laser Hot Hits and Euro Radio. (This was at approximately 1445 UTC on Saturday 21 March.)

Nothing else really of any note on the radio, although I did spot this new addition to the London Trial multiplex – Health Info Radio, which launched a week ago on various other local muxes, and whose sole purpose is to play a looped recording of coronavirus-related public information.

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On the YouTube front, beyond the usual tech videos I tend to gorge myself on, the algorithms threw me a wonderful bone in a series of aviation videos by a chap named Matt Guthmiller. I’m not sure what YouTube thought it was doing, but I was absolutely enthralled by this four-part series on flying a 1930s DC-3 from the US to Duxford.

Spoiler alert: it’s not quite as simple as hopping across the Atlantic. In fact, it involves hopping to Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and Scotland, before hopping down to Duxford.

At times, the serenity and majesty of early to mid 20th century flight is intoxicating, and at others you are hit with the nauseating concept of hurtling through the air in nothing much more than a 1930s bus with temperamental moving parts and a hell of a lot to understand about how to get it airborne and keep it there.

The four parts are available in this playlist, or just watch the first one below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JONkLEx6zeE&list=PLoruKoPAfKKjRtZw78nZC_E-pMmuaJJJ5&index=2&t=0s

Pro-tip: use the ‘Watch later’ button to save these kinds of YouTube clips to a… Watch later playlist.


And finally, I’ve recently seen a few good links to online collections of stuff and wanted to share some and add one of my own.

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The first, shared by Robin Sloan recently, was a directory of images by Eugene Delacroix. Delacroix is an artist I don’t know a huge amount about, but I stumbled across him years ago doing my degree as it turned out he kept diaries, and really enjoyable ones too. Sloan peppered a recent newsletter with images by Delacroix, all pilfered from this great online collection of his work from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The second collection was posted by the excellent SWLing Post, a great resource for all things radio – with a focus on shortwave and ham radio. They recently pointed to a subset of the Smithsonian’s open access collection of objects which is, quite simply, a bunch of radios you can look at. Wonderful.

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And finally, the National Trust’s ‘Collections’ image database is staggering in its scale – they have photographed countless objects held within their collections at the various properties they look after. You could find yourself lost for weeks on this website, whether searching across the entire collection by keyword, exploring the contents of one particular property, or paging through the works of one artist.

For the purposes of this post, I will simply point you to a collection illustrations and artworks by my man Charles Paget Wade. I have searched and filtered and refined this set so it may be a bit rough around the edges and not sorted in any particular way, but you get the gist.

By the collection’s very nature, this is not a greatest hits, but a snapshot of all that is contained within it: from sketches on the backs of letters, to glorious watercoloured ink sketches like that shown below, of the Great Wall at Hampstead Garden Suburb.

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2020 weeknote 3 – radio, field recording, and running

I feel like if I try and write these things quickly I might – just might – end up at weeknotes zero (as in, up to date, not going back in time). So, here she is: week three of 2020.


I noticed recently that my listening habits have tipped the balance from being mainly podcasts and some radio to mainly radio and some podcasts. This happens from time to time. I go through phases where I care more about what middle-class white guys have to say about the world of consumer technology, to caring more about music, current affairs and experimental radio and sound art. Thus, lately my ears have been mostly full of the latter.

An average day might look like this (thank me later, RAJAR):

Centreforce is not my usual cup of tea in terms of music. BUT it has the energy and pep of a breakfast show that I can’t help but enjoy at that time of the morning. But what really seals the deal for me are the shout outs. The radio nerd in me wants to call them QSL reports as listeners-in from Kent and Luton and Kilburn and south London chime in, with the deejay reading out the reports a few at a time every few minutes.

Out to Danny! Out to easy Dee, how are you fella? Out to Sam. Out to the 198.* Out to Bob the chippy – large cod and chips for me please mate – ah just kidding, not that kind of chippy are ya?! Out to Razzer. Biggin’ up Sara in Dagenham. Outs to the Cheshunt crew – oi, bring us a bacon butty yeah?

And so on. With deft use of the faders between each announcement for a brief burst of music.

* I believe this is a reference to the last digits of a phone number when used to identify an otherwise unnamed correspondent, rather than, say, Centreforce masquerading as a numbers station.

And it’s brilliant. It makes you feel like you’re on this big map of London and the home counties, where Centreforce, which started life as a pirate station, now broadcasts legitimately on DAB in glorious* 32kbps DAB+.

* listenable, but entirely not glorious. The state of Britain’s approach to DAB broadcasts is a bit of a shitshow, with the majority of stations still being in old-school DAB, and those that are in DAB+ having to squeeze as much juice as possible out of the fact that the more efficient codec allows for lower bitrates. As an example, Belgium broadcasts all its stations via DAB+ almost entirely at 96kbps, whereas most experimental British DAB+ streams seem to top out at 64kbps. ANYWAY.

Sure, the shout outs might be inflated or manipulated somehow but…. I bet they’re not. It just gives a lovely warm interactive edge to listening in, particularly on a breakfast show, as we are all variously on our way to work, on our way home, getting the kids off to school, or rejoicing in the sweet kiss of a day off.

The ‘OS’ show on BBC World Service is a funny one. It’s broadcast live from the middle of the newsroom at Broadcasting House, and sounds like it too. It’s one of the least good-sounding radio shows I listen to at the moment as there is a lot of background noise, and frequent delays when patching in correspondents from around the globe.

But, as with all good radio, this doesn’t get in the way of the content itself being great. It’s a refreshing take on the day’s news – and as with most BBC World Service shows versus BBC Radio 4, it knows it has a global audience, so you get the impression you’re hearing the news that actually matters on a global level rather than a bias towards events nearer to home.

Whilst I’m on the subject of radio, I saw this great visualisation of American FM stations from Erin Davis (via Robin Sloan) recently, which I loved:

Unnnf. Love it. Click through for how/why, and some other visualisations of similar data.


We also went to see Rose Matafeo performing her Horndog show at the Ambassadors Theatre which was great. She’s so funny and full of energy. I hadn’t actually seen her do full stand-up before, but she is great on Taskmaster and other things we’ve seen her in. Her show was great. The one we went to was a sort of technical rehearsal for a filming the next day, so it’ll be available somehow, soon.

It also meant that through a stroke of extreme luck, I managed to book seats dead centre of the middle of a row in stalls, right behind a space where some seats had been removed to place a camera for the filming the next day.

If only all London theatres had this kind of legroom.


On Saturday I went to a Field Recording workshop in Bethnal Green which was run by the label nonclassical and hosted by sound artist Kate Carr, whose Field Recording Show has recently just finished a run on Resonance FM and which I absolutely loved.

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It was a really great session – inclusive, interesting and a great opportunity to understand different takes on the same medium, and to try out new techniques and equipment in an encouraging and helpful environment.

For me, it was cool to try out a pick-up coil mic to record electronic noises which are not normally audible, and it was great to be encouraged to explore the immediate vicinity – a busy high street and a London park – looking for interesting sounds to do… something…with. (More on that in another post to follow.)

It was also an opportunity for me to chat with other like-minded people and find out about their motivations and projects. I struggled a bit with that aspect, but only through my own anxieties and weirdnesses. It was, as I say, a really inclusive, lovely crowd.

They’re running more workshops and I’d highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in field recording, regardless of background or prior knowledge.


And on Sunday we started the day off seeing Princess Mononoke at the Kiln – which was more batshit than I’d remembered, but no less beautiful.

I then decided to go for a longish run. Longish actually turned into 22km or so, which was perhaps a bit overlong given my lack of preparation. But the weather was lovely, I had good snacks and music (Gerling’s In the City came on at a really well-timed moment), and I met some fun animals.

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2018 Weeknote 10

I’ve done ten of these now, so I guess it’s A Thing? Admittedly I’ll need to do another 42 to make it official, and that seems like a bewildering number, but it feels like A Thing, so long may that continue.

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After the previous week’s snow, it was back to business as usual at work, for the most part. There’s a lot of seasonal admin going on at the moment – some big mailouts. My office has a very cyclical nature to it, which I enjoy, as you can usually tell what’s happening, or predict busy periods and lulls, and organise your work accordingly. It also provides semi-artificial deadline, and lord knows I need a good deadline. Amongst very estate-y tasks was spray-painting potholes on one of our private roads, which was rather satisfying.

I also made some more progress on the two websites I’m working on in my own time. They’re close to being ready now, which I’m pleased about. Both clients are very helpful in their feedback and vision for how they want things to look and feel. It’s been a very positive experience so far.


I can’t resist a good thinkpiece about daily routines or media consumption, so it’s no surprise that that NY Times one about news consumption and that Atlantic one about retweets caught my eye.

After the NY Times piece I found myself nodding along with most of it, and was pleased to find that Phil Gyford‘s ace Guardian Daily is still working well. It strips out the content of each day’s paper into just clean text and some images, and makes the whole thing swipeable in a browser. Crucially it allows the reader to focus only on the story (not easy on the full Guardian website), and it provides the sense of a finite, finishable object that the likes of Craig Mod and others so often hail. It also had me reaching for stockists of the Guardian’s excellent Weekly edition, but I can’t seem to find any; it only seems to be available by post in the UK. I might try a trial. It made more sense when keeping up with news while in, say, New Zealand. But actually the weekly round-up nature of it – the slow news aspect – seems more appealing than ever in this current age of breaking news.

And the Atlantic piece about retweets made some sense. I quite like some retweets. They’re a nice way to diversify your feed (only a little, mind you – the echo chamber is a persistent issue), and they often bring items of interest. But they also provide items of little interest – and worse, they often come without comment. My friend retweeted this thing, but what do they feel about it? It’s not as simple as just assuming they agree 100%. It might be promotion of a serious issue, or just a quick meme that made them chuckle. Context is important.

As the piece mentions, there’s no easy way to turn off retweets globally, although my third party app of choice Flamingo has such a feature. And even better, it allows quoted tweets to show – and these are the ones I want to see. They provide the all-important context.

My plan is to go retweet-free for the rest of the week, and then turn them back on globally, turning RTs off on a per-account basis until I reach a happy medium.


M and I watched series one of Spaced this weekend, and it’s the kind of show I can virtually quote word-for-word. It’s been some years since we both watched it, and although elements still cut deep as they’re so well written or edited, other stick out like a bizarre anachronism: ringing someone’s landline from a payphone in the pub? Smoking in a nightclub?! But it’s reassuring how much of this 1999 TV series remains hilarious and ‘cutting edge’, nearly twenty years on. Series two next.

I made more progress in Banished, you’ll be pleased to hear. I’ve got my community up to 150 or so adults, with plenty more children and students on their way. The game still occasionally feels like a grind, but the realism of the mechanics of the town’s expansion – oh no, the cemetery is full, I’d better build a new one – are engaging. I’m concerned that the game is a bit too open-ended. There’s no narrative or end-game (that I know of). So at some stage I will just have a steadily increasing town. There’s also no development of eras like some games have – where you’ll transition through styles of architecture or technology, say. Still, I’m still some hours away from the first perceived achievement level of 300 citizens, although I did get some cute awards for having a very happy town, and a very healthy town.

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I was bored on a train platform this week, so I was tuning round on my handheld DAB radio and stumbled on Forces Radio BFBS at a time when they were playing classic rock and indie. It provided a nice distraction, and I was a little stunned to see that the DAB+ station was streaming at a paltry 24kbps! I’ve seen other stations just scraping by on 32kbps, and they tend to be predominantly spoken word. But here was a music show sounding pretty decent on very little bandwidth.

In fact, the only audio glitch I could discern was the intro of the Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go which has some stereo separation which wasn’t being properly played out.

A brief scan of Wohnort tells me that this is the lowest bitrate of any DAB station, certainly nationally (apart from data services), and it’s very promising to hear such efficient compression sounding so reasonable.


On Thursday I went back to Oxford for the second time in recent weeks. This time I had tickets to see the wonderful Youthmovies play their first gig in eight years, and I was thrilled to see the Audiograft festival was taking place while I would be visiting, so I made some plans to enjoy some of the installations and performances from the audio/noise festival.

Now that I know the layout of Oxford a bit better, and I’ve scoped out a few good pubs and eateries, it’s a nice little city to wander round.

I made sure to visit the Natural History and Pitt Rivers museum(s?) this time, and loved them both. The former is well-lit under a glass roof, and has a classical, elegant display of animal skeletons inside a gorgeous neo-Gothic building. And the latter is a vast collection of antique display cases of various items from around the world. It’s a darker space, and has the air of rooting around a closed museum or even a particularly well-stocked attic space.

Unlike other museums with similar ethnographic collections, the Pitt Rivers lumps items of a kind together in one area. So here you’ll have writing instruments, or there you’ll find timepieces. Or, more specifically, you might find Treatment of Dead Enemies, or Charms and Amulets. It makes for a fascinating selection, particularly seeing such contrasting objects cheek by jowl across cultures.

After the museums and a much-needed pint – outside in the Spring sunshine! – I headed to OVADA, an exhibition space in an old industrial building. Inside I found installations of sound experiments, including vinyl records playing a Morse code version of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale which was then received by a device that attempted to decode and display the words. It did this through a thin veil of recordings of birdsong and other ‘interruptions’, causing small glitches in the text. I was pleased to find that the artist Kathy Hinde was around to explain a little more about her installation Twittering Machines.

Elsewhere I also found Sally Ann MacIntyre’s Study for a Data Deficient Species (Grey Ghost Transmission). It was a necessarily small (portable!) installation, with an enchanting recording I had also encountered via the recent Radiophrenia broadcasts. I’ve followed Sally Ann’s blog radio cegeste for a number of years, so it was nice to come into contact with her work at OVADA thanks to Audiograft.

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The space at OVADA affords a number of opportunities for installations like this one, but also some compromises. On the one hand it is a large space and allows for a number of installations to co-exist without feeling too crammed in. On the other hand, as some of these works are by their very nature audible, they compete for attention as they reverberate around. This worked quite nicely for the most part: hearing birdsong interrupted by music, impersonated birdsong, and the staccato human-spoken binary of Simon Blackmore’s How We Communicate made for quite a mixture of sounds and audio textures quite in line with the other textures on show, whether part of an installation or the fabric of the building itself.

An example of the aural environment on my visit to OVADA can be heard below:

Later, I made my way to the beautiful Holywell Music Room where I was pleased to catch three of the evening’s four pieces.

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It’s a gorgeous space, I’m sure, for any type of music and performance. But the three pieces I caught were all experimental in their own different ways. First was a wordless exploration of human vocal sounds in response to external stimuli – thought not strictly to my taste, I enjoyed the fact that such a performance found a home in such a space; they suited each other in their own unusual ways.

Next was an interesting cross section of nerdy audio experimentation and sheer noise. A series of four cymbals was placed upon individual speakers, through which sound was passed, causing the cymbals to reverberate. This was then, I believe, fed back into the speakers. It was essentially twenty minutes of feedback, but finely tuned, and the aural equivalent of seeing coloured dye dropped into clear water and watching as it swirled slowly, forming organic or pseudo-random patterns.

The last piece I caught was, I think, an interpretation of a simple narrative of house and the stories it held, told through spoken word, projected video, and overhead transparencies.

It caused me a little amusement that all three pieces suffered from the “It’s not finished!…. It’s finished!” issue as parodied in Spaced. But I was so glad to have caught such a diverse set of performances. And all as a ‘pay what you decide’ format, with anonymous donations upon leaving.

I would’ve been more sad to miss the last act, were I not headed to the Bullingdon for the Youthmovies show.

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It’s hard to summarise the show, really, as the band take up so much emotional space in my head, having soundtracked significant episodes in my life, some wonderful and some less so. But seeing a band play for the first time in eight years – in honour of a departed friend of theirs – was as emotional and uncanny and yet familiar as I had hoped. Fittingly, it wasn’t a perfect performance. They played songs they hadn’t played together in years, and most of them feature quite unusual time signatures. But it felt like a 100% positive and uplifting experience for all present.

As expected, I had forgotten over the years some of the magic of their live performance that made them such a favourite in the first place. Their recorded output will remain a bewilderingly impressive and imaginative selection of tracks. But it’s their immense joy at playing these special songs, and the modesty and passion they display when onstage that makes them a truly special band. It was an honour to have the opportunity to step back into those shoes for one night.


And then this weekend, with nothing much planned, M and I went for a nice walk along the canal on Saturday afternoon. And on Sunday I felt the urge to go for a little run, and ended up covering 22km.

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I had intended to head as far as I could towards the Thames, and to turn back for home whenever I felt like I was flagging. But as Foo Fighters’ My Hero hit its climactic chorus on Whitehall, and Strava announced that I’d hit the 10km mark, I knew I had to continue.

I treat these kind of cross-city runs as something of a sightseeing exercise – people-watching in motion, with some London landmarks thrown in for free.

I’m suffering some aches and pains a day later, but it’s reassuring to know I can still pull that out of the bag every now and then. As Spring comes, I intend to get a little bit of consistency into my running and walking.

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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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_130028-4506016-scaled-7889386More on Cheltenham, and Sunday’s walk, to come…