2018 Weeknote 4

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Another week of various estate inspections, though fortunately nothing too dire – no more trees down. The Suburb didn’t escape the windy weather entirely though – I saw signs of damage to buildings, including St Jude’s, unfortunately.

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Lots of winter gardening going on – turning over of soil and tidying up here and there. And we’re almost ready to instruct our contractors to do the annual tree work on the estate. It’s one of the biggest jobs of the year, but we’ve got it down to a pretty fine art so far (I say that; it’s all down to my colleagues having done a grand job of it in years past).

I had a couple of evening meetings this week, which is unusual for me, but they do happen. Both estate management related, and both needing my input. It’s good to do these meetings now and again as the people who attend are good at asking questions about the things we do which we might not have considered. And it’s just nice to be able to do a periodic round-up of achievements and good news stories too.

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Earlier in the week, I met up with Jonty for a pint and a ramble about all sorts of things – initially radio-related but increasingly varied as our interests wove their way through one another. I came away pleased to have found a kindred spirit with so many shared obsessions, and the conversation left me scribbling away in my notebook for days afterwards. Some new projects, perhaps?

Fortunately for having a head bursting with ideas, I was able to take Thursday off. Unfortunately, I gave myself a little too much to do, and set myself up for the inevitable disappointment of missing a bunch of goals.

But I did get to muck around with some radio stuff – I satisfied myself that my RTL-SDR dongle is, in fact, working… But just not particularly well. I think my main problem is the antenna. So that’s another avenue to investigate. At the moment I’m favouring the ‘build one yourself with two pizza trays and some soldering’ over ‘buy one’ – but we’ll see.

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I also had a bash at filing some disparate audio recordings which were scattered over various hard drives. I found a handful that have some merit – they’re either clear enough, or they’re of an interesting thing – and I’ll try and do something with them.

Others were… a little disappointing. I was pleased to find a MiniDisc entitled ‘New Zealand Journal’, and knew it was an audio diary recorded on an early 2002 trip. I didn’t know much more about it, but was pleased to see the disc contained 41 minutes of audio. I left it digitising in Audacity, and was eager to hear it once it had finished.

To my surprise, there is about six minutes of me talking – I’m pleased to have that, at least – followed by about 30 minutes of various clips of what I think is NZ TV. I *think* what was going through my mind at the time was that it would be nice to have some snippets of NZ TV/radio to listen back on one day. But, a bit like looking back at holiday snaps to find ten photographs of the same tree, it’s actually sometimes better to have recordings of oneself rather than just the fluff around. Well, I suppose a mixture of both, if I’m honest.

Still, like I say, it was a slight disappointment. The holy grail (and I should know better than to set myself up for abject anticlimaxes) will be digitising the contents of a handful of microcassettes made on a Dictaphone when I was in year 7. The bulk of it is me dicking around while on a school trip to France, aged 11. I can’t wait to sample the delights contained on those.

Meanwhile, I spent some of this week playing Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, which is an all-time favourite of mine.

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It’s pretty easy, and the art and music is a delight. I was actually quite surprised how quickly I played through it, although I made good use of save states, which I wouldn’t have been able to the first time around. Still, it was nice to start and finish a game, and especially one so familiar.

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I plan to work my way through the roughly linear range of Mario games going forward, including the Wario games. Super Mario Bros. 3 is next. This one is much less familiar.

Saturday I messed listened to some radio, including logging some London pirate stations. As always, I found a cross-section. One station which I’ve grown rather fond of was playing a great mix on Saturday evening which included videogame samples. Another was, out of their peak hours, just playing a great playlist which I kept Shazam-ing (for want of a better verb) and adding to a Spotify playlist.

One station made me rather cross, however, as not only did they steal the hourly news of another commercial station, but they played out repetitive adverts for a herbal cancer remedy, gleefully listing the various other ailments it’s also good for. The thing that really got me though is that the station’s mission statement is all about the good it’s doing for the community. It’s basically operating as a community station, just without the license. So that wound me up.

I cook during the week, but usually from a limited list of staples that I am now confident with. The weekend is the time for me to grab a new recipe, usually from Good Food, but increasingly from Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, it seems. This weekend was the former, and I chucked harissa paste all over some sea bass and some potatoes and made a killer Mediterranean salad.

I also made a start on the Buster Keaton Blu-ray set I got for Christmas. It’s a collection of his early short films, starting with the Fatty Arbuckle collaborations. I get a unique joy from watching well-restored hundred-year-old films. Partly it’s the way you can see the seams between theatre and film as it makes the transition from one to the other. And partly it’s the crisp, clear footage of real-world scenes, or at least mock-ups of them.

The other achievement of the weekend was getting the current website project to an almost-finished standard. It even has a shiny new URL (which is quite a pleasant outcome at the request of the client). I hope we’ll get the final tweaks sorted shortly and then it’ll be ready to go.

Sunday I went to see my mum, who seems well and happy. It was nice to visit Amersham briefly, to see what’s changed and what’s still the same. The old Iceland building (which was also the site of a cinema way back when) has gone, leaving a vast hole in the streetscape.

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I picked up some beers from a new(ish) place that does microbrewery beer on tap, as well as food, which I’d like to go back to another time. It was also heartening to see my childhood pet shop which sadly closed last year has (re?) opened as a pet shop once more.

And the longstanding independent mobile phone shop next to it (where I bought a Siemens S8 many, many years ago) is now… a vape shop.

Because of course it is.

 

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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.

 

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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.