2018 Weeknote 7

IMG_0608-EFFECTS

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.

20180213_083639

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:

2018 Weeknote 3

Another windy week, with the weather turning decidedly wintry as the days went by. We had strong winds – a repeat of the other week – and the Suburb actually had more trees brought down this time than last time. Curious, as I hadn’t noticed the wind at home. But the Suburb is often said to have its own micro-climate. And it does sit on the top of a hill.

Other than continuing office-based admin, I had a few meetings on-site, and some photos to take for a couple of upcoming meetings. I think I strike a good balance between being in the office and getting out and about. But I’m also mindful that there are whole bits of the area I’m less familiar with. I should set up some kind of patrol cycle.

Fortunately, the weather behaved itself on Friday night as M and I headed out to see the Lumiere festival of light. We went last time and loved it. This time there seems to be more to see, and although there were a few repeats – with installations on this scale, one can hardly blame them – we saw a number of great displays.

My favourite ‘genre’ is absolutely the intricate projections of light onto buildings, where the very edges and details of the architecture are ingeniously built in to the projected images. With music pulsing out of decent sound systems, the whole thing unfolds on a grand scale.

_mg_0029-1_mg_0053-1The other vast improvement on last time was the closure of a number of big roads, like Regent Street and Piccadilly.

It’s heartening to know that art – and art which is largely uncommercial, beyond just getting people out onto the streets on a winter’s evening – can be given such a priority. That said, my biggest disappointment was that the – admittedly impressive – new screens at Piccadilly Circus were left on, with the neighbouring Lumiere installation inevitably paling into insignificance next to it.

I glimpsed at the new tabloid Guardian, but this kind of evolution feels less important than it did in 2006, with the launch of the Berliner format, when I very much remember buying my first Guardian and arguably beginning an allegiance that exists in some ways to this day.

This time, the new format partly feels cheapened, and on initial sight recalls the design of the Evening Standard. I think it’s the double-row title. But I haven’t sat and read a newspaper in many months and am not in the position to start again. So the main outcome for me is a website/app redesign, and that feels like just another lick of paint, and rather less interesting.

This week in radio*, I found out that the Raspberry Pi can output an FM signal natively. I had been looking for projects to do with the Pi Zero I was kindly given by Troels when I visited him in Copenhagen, and hoped there’d be a radio-related one. So it was with some surprise that I realised I wouldn’t even need a transmitter module. So for the first time, this week I finally booted up the Pi and started tinkering with it. Oh god, it’s my first time playing with Linux in a very long while.

* this is definitely becoming a reasonable alternative title for these posts

Much to my good fortune, a friend was holding a sort of low-key hack day at his workplace on Saturday, with the intention for people to gather and just crack on with a personal project. I saw this as the ideal opportunity to mix with like-minded people and make some progress on a few things, including the Pi.

20180120_161901-2

It was a really positive day, with a good mix of folks I knew and some that I didn’t. All were friendly and helpful and laid-back. Everyone was working on A Thing, and there was some coding, some website design, some electronics and some admin and emailing going on.

I was kindly lent a keyboard and monitor which enabled me to make great progress on loading up the PiFM software. By the end of the session I had:

  • finished my FM receiver advent calendar kit – which has been incredibly fiddly but not unrewarding;
  • done another hour or so on the website I’m currently working on – it’s most of the way there, now;
  • set up the Pi Zero so that upon booting – with just power attached, and therefore a very small unit – it begins broadcasting a low power FM signal on a set frequency, playing a given folder of MP3 files at random.

Very satisfying.

On Sunday, met with slushy, not-quite-snowy weather, Megan and I went to the Tate Modern first thing so that she could do a recce ahead of leading a school trip. It was naturally a whistle-stop tour, but my first visit in many years.

The pendulum in the Turbine Hall was as delightful as I’d hoped, and it was good to see the new extension at close quarters. The view from the top was great, even/particularly on as misty and grizzly a day as today.

We whizzed around, trying to find prints and woodcuts etc, and trying to orchestrate routes with as few nudes as possible (provoking a philosophical debate over whether it was necessary to steer primary school children’s eyes or not).

Even despite this, I saw a couple of real highlights, the most impressive of which was Babel by Cildo Meireles – a floor to ceiling tower of radios, all lit up and playing audio.

Having not read the piece’s information panel, it took hearing the Archers theme song – bang on 11:15, it turned out – for me to realise that the whole point of the thing was that these were all real radios, all tuned to something real. How utterly fantastic. And what a cacophony. I loved it.

I was also heartened by the detail on an information panel for a video installation with words to the effect that the artist had first conceived the piece in 1965, with the version in front of me finally brought to fruition in 2002.

Encouraging words to reflect upon, if I ever feel like a project I’ve started will never get finished.

Sunday night we closed the week off with a visit from a dear friend of Megan’s, with the three of us scoffing a giant macaroni cheese in front of Aladdin.

Using my old Android phone purely for FM radio

Samsung will be the next major phone manufacturer to enable the dormant FM chips in its devices. The FM chips will be switched on in Samsung’s “upcoming smartphone models,” which will allow users to listen to local radio stations.

via Samsung is the latest OEM to unlock FM chips in new phones | Ars Technica


This recent update is interesting to me at least because my current phone is a Samsung. Of course it means my current model won’t have its FM receiver unlocked (and, in fact, I’m not even sure the UK model has FM functionality, enabled or not).

When I first read a few years ago that most phones’ WiFi/Bluetooth chips also enabled FM reception, but that most manufacturers disable it in software, I was baffled. But I’d lived under this cloud of ignorance for many years and never questioned it.

Before my current Samsung, I had one, and then another newer, Motorola Moto G – cheap and cheerful – which both had FM radio apps built in. And great apps, too! Good reception (as always with smartphones, using the earphone cable as an antenna), and the software is simple yet robust. It covers the basics, like auto-scanning, presets, sleep timer, and even RDS display.

But it also has a really nicely-done record function which not only directly makes an MP3 of the station you’re tuned into (rather than, say, recording the speaker via the mic or something hideous), but also automatically inserts the frequency into the filename when it saves.

 

_MG_9930.jpg

The Motorola FM radio app makes for a great companion to pirate radio bandscans in a built-up area.

The presets/memory enables me to check for new stations I’ve not picked up yet, or to check on ones I’ve saved previously. Having a list of saved frequencies is great, and saving some as favourites makes it really easy to navigate a sea of potentially anonymous numbers.

The RDS enables me to get relatively quick station IDs with a decent enough signal (waiting for a twenty minute drum’n’bass mix to finish just on the off-chance the DJ actually name-checks the station is a bit beyond my levels of patience). And it turns out that pirate stations seem to love RDS – it’s rare I’ll find a station that doesn’t at least display the station ID. Some even post the show/DJ info, or a contact number/URL. There’s no easy way to export this data (not even copy and paste), but a quick screengrab will do in a pinch.

And, of course, the record function is fantastic for grabbing clear sample clips really easily. It lets me either record for 30-60 seconds to grab a reference clip, or I can even tune in, hit record, and leave it going with the screen off and audio on mute if I need a longer clip to grab a station ID.

It’s a bit of shame the recording function doesn’t have a buffer – quite often I’ll have heard a vital station ID or something else interesting and wasn’t recording. It’d be amazing to have a 5-second buffer for moments like that. Either way, the files are then saved on the device (or SD card, optionally), labelled and dated, and ready to be listened to on the device or exported to a computer/the web at a later date.

Anyway, now that I use my Samsung as my main phone, I held on to the old Motorola – and I’m glad I did. After a factory reset, and stripping off any unnecessary software (Moto phones run virtually stock Android, thankfully), the phone is a pretty decent pocket FM radio.

Running no other apps and living in airplane mode, the phone has a standby time measured in weeks rather than hours. And that’s if I choose to leave it on between sessions, which I do out of convenience, but could make it last month between charges if I needed to.

Of course it’s an overpowered/over-featured FM radio. But it’s one that lets me do some cool stuff, as well as make recordings, take screengrabs of RDS data, and make notes on the fly.

One next step would be to do some field tests – to compare the phone’s sensitivity with that of a ‘good’ FM receiver. Anecdotally, it certainly feels like the phone picks up a decent number of signals, locks onto them well, and performs pretty well. But until I’ve done some side-by-side tests, I can’t be sure. (Ironically, my ‘good’ FM receiver lacks both RDS and any recording function.)

Beyond that, I can also try again with the DVB-T dongle I’ve got for scanning other frequencies. But that necessitates some fiddly dongle/power/adapter compromises, as well as needed a more robust antenna. Simply using the phone as an FM radio with some cheap earphones and built in software is working brilliantly.

2018 Weeknote 2

IMG_9852-Pano

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.