2018 Weeknote 19

Time to restart weeknotes, I think. Sorry about the hiatus.

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This week I had a film developed and printed for the first time in a few years. I posted some of the pictures here. It was a very pleasant experience, not least because I have a handy branch of Snappy Snaps nearby, and I found an unused scanner at work that has done nothing for three years, but that scans film negatives in at remarkably good quality. It was of such great quality that it’s now got me thinking about films from my past that I only ever digitised from the prints, or where I feel I could make better negative scans.

The quality of the scans is one thing, but what I loved was convenience of scanning two strips of negatives in one go (so, eight shots), and having the built in software not just crop them, but also colour-correct them automatically. I frankly can’t believe that before now I made do with a) scanning prints, b) getting crap neg scans from the photo shop, or c) trying to do my own scans on a too-cheap neg scanner myself.

Finding a good way to digitise physical ephemera is so far in my wheelhouse it’s not even funny.


Elsewhere this week I watched Jurassic Park for the first time in a wee while. By God, does it stand up. It’s so hard, of course, to separate it from the version etched in your brain – the lines, the scenery, the concepts, the score – but it still feels rollicking and vital. Of course it’s dated in place – it’s 25 years old this year, which is insane. But it holds up magnificently.

I also played the start of L.A. Noire again. Years ago when  I lived with him I watched John play through most of it and I think we both concluded that it’s gorgeous and nuanced, but ultimately quite boring. With the recent chat surrounding the remaster for Switch et al, it seemed like a good time to pick it up – especially as it was only £1.50 at CEX. Anyway the first few missions went by smoothly – the formulaic searching-the-scene-for-clues only feeling slightly clunky. But I forgot the ratio of mission to open-world, and I feel like that’s where I’ll lose interest in the end. But for now, as a primarily narrative-driven piece of entertainment, I’ll carry on until I don’t want to any more.

I also watched this interesting video about the current world record Super Mario Bros. speedrun. It was pitched to me, variously, as “like watching a Swiss clock maker explain his machine,” and, ” even if you aren’t into video games it’s pretty interesting.” I’d say it was somewhere in-between. At least, between M and I watching it, that’s the impression I got. It definitely had a handful of really interesting bugs and…. not hacks, but exploits, that are vital to shaving off the seconds – and sub-seconds.


20180515_075755.jpgFor many months now, I’ve been in the habit of reading from a couple of diary compilations – one of London diarists, the other with a rural angle – and around the turn of the month, a few pages from an almanac which talks about natural occurrences.

On top of of that, I always have my Kindle handy, and recently I’ve gotten into the habit of sending a so-called long read or an edition of an email newsletter to it.

The latter works only some of the time – some newsletters are more text-based than others, with some being mostly links (to be ctrl-clicked while browsing) or containing too many images to play nicely with an e-ink device.

But now and then, a well-formatted, single-column newsletter consisting of mostly text works a charm.  Two recent examples:

  • Craig Mod‘s Roden Explorers – the latest issue is here – usually contains tales of walking, meditation, photography, some tech insight, and whatever is bubbling around in Mod’s always-fascinating mind.
  • close, a monthly newsletter only onto its second issue – here – but this entry made for very interesting/familiar reading as a 30-something member of an extended collective community of folks who found kinship online in the early 2000s.

There are others, but I felt the need to jot down two solid examples while they were fresh in my mind. I tend to use one of two Chrome extensions for sending a newsletter (or any web article) to my Kindle – Send To Kindle by Amazon and Push to Kindle by fivefilters.org. They take a couple of minutes to set up, and your mileage will inevitably vary depending on what you send. But both can provide a preview of the content as it will be sent, so you can quickly see if it’s going to work or not.


Very pleasant, several months after starting things, to announce the launch of the new website for the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain which I’ve helped create.

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It’s mostly been a ‘simple’ WordPress.org installation, but there was quite a lot of content to convert, a fair few design principles to incorporate, and – as always – more technical issues than I had expected, mostly around the hosting.

The client was fantastic throughout, and it was a largely enjoyable experience for me, with experience being the operative word as I was able to learn quite a bit even doing something I felt was very much in my comfort zone.


In weekend-related activities, last Monday was a Bank Holiday, so M and I popped up to St Albans to visit friends and have a little wander. It was the third of three ridiculously pleasant Spring days so much ice cream and iced coffee was consumed, and the cool interior of the cathedral was most welcome.

The previous night we’d spent camping in West Sussex – a glorious little site on the wilder side of things. No showers or buildings, and just a few portaloos or compost loos dotted around with the occasional cold water tap dotted around. And, most importantly, they allow fires, so I was in heaven.

It was a great opportunity to test out some new camping gear ahead of a longer trip in Summer. But mostly it felt remarkable in feeling like a 2-3 night trip away, all completed within 36 hours or so. The nearby village of West Hoathly also has a lovely pub or two. And one nice surprise were views across to the ridgeway of the South Downs. We were able to pick out Chanctonbury hill fort and various other landmarks from our recent walk.

And then this weekend just gone, the good weather continued, so we were able to have a little barbecue on the patio – partly in celebration at having decided to scrub the slabs, tidy up the plants, and to buy some new ones to replace the feeble amongst them that didn’t survive the winter.

Onwards, into summer.

2018 Weeknote 9

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Well, then. The snow came! And although it’s sometimes boring to talk about the weather, it’s hard to avoid the fact that this week’s snow changed things up a little bit. It meant a change in footwear, a change in walking style, and just a change in psychology for a lot of people. It’s funny how snow does that.

 

Workwise, it meant that a bunch of jobs went out of the window as I scrambled to ensure our contractors could grit the relevant bits of land we’re responsible for. And to make things slightly easier for them, I took it upon myself to do the land around the office and the two flats we own. There’s nothing like the ‘blank slate’ of a snowed-in driveway to get me out there sweeping, shovelling and salting until it’s clear. Or clear enough, at least. But still, progress with cyclical maintenance rumbles on, and as usual I realise all too late just how much work is involved in this job or that.

It was nice pottering about in the snow. For one thing, the acoustics are wonderful, as the bed of snow absorbs everything and turns everywhere into a sort of anechoic chamber. For another, I suddenly realised I could do some animal tracking on some of the less trafficked areas nearby. I was able to identify the tracks of a cat, a dog, a fox and – maybe? – a muntjac deer. No badgers, sadly.

 

Meanwhile, something I loved reading this week was Andy Kelly’s travelogue-esque thing about the inhabitants of a town in the Witcher 3. It really caught my imagination, not least because I often have this kind of reaction to games, where I wish I could ‘report’ on the goings-on therein in a series of diaries or similar. I even had a go at doing that with a version of Harvest Moon once, but it turned out to be a terrible idea. But the way he brings the place and the people to life is subtly very clever, and it was just a very enjoyable read. Naturally some credit must go to the game’s developers for creating a world so rich and alive that it bears this kind of reportage!

It also reminded me that I’ve not yet spent enough time with Skyrim yet to decide how I really feel about it. I had visions of being able to do something similar to the above article by mincing around the game, looking around the various settlements and treating it like a little holiday. I also had in mind the concept of the newest Assassin’s Creed game that has a tourist mode – it’s set in ancient Egypt, and although it initially has the usual cutthroat assassiny goodness, it now has this update that allows the player to simply go about the world observing the ways of its people and not having to do any of the fighting or level grinding the main game requires.

Alas, as I Googled ‘Skyrim combat free’, I realised that such a function was not present here. The nearest I found was this chucklesome column in which the player tried to do just that, only they still had to use spells to at least enable them to outrun danger if not remove combat entirely.

Still, I spent some time in Skyrim this week and, although I felt a familiar reluctance wash over me as the loading screens spoke of dragons and spells and orcs, I have to admit I love the world design. Solitude looks stunning – from the architecture of individual buildings, to how it is all laid out in a very organic way. It’s a very believable settlement, and the scale is overwhelming in the number of buildings one can enter.

There are a good number of other characters milling about – guards with snarky one-liners just biding their time in the cold night air, traders plying their wares, and drunkards loitering outside taverns telling tall stories of past adventures.

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The lighting complements it all beautifully, whether in daylight or at night when the stars come out, a vast moon looms overhead, and occasionally a spellbinding aurora fades into view. As you’ll note from the slight pixellation above, I was dying for the Xbox 360 to have a screenshot function, but alas it doesn’t. Maybe that’s for the best; I’d spend far too long taking snaps as I went about the place. (I started to do this in GTA:V, but the process for uploading them was ever-so-slightly clunky, so I soon stopped bothering.)

I set myself the task of doing a task or two in Skyrim, to spend half an hour or so in the world, playing the actual game. And I did okay, although it just feels like there’s too much. Too much to learn, too much to know, too much to remember. And although I’m sure I could ignore certain things, it feels like I have a fundamental understanding of how the game plays.

For one thing, I kept accidentally unlocking/starting quests. I get that this is an open-ended game without a linear progression. But it gets a bit confusing not knowing which path I should be on. It’s fairly clear that ‘frightened woman’ and ‘drunkard outside tavern’ are side quests that are just there to fill your time, but I was stuck not knowing whether to storm a bandit-filled fortress or to go and retrieve an unknown object from an unknown place.

And then I fell foul of the world itself: it’s bloody gigantic, and the fact that it’s so organic and well designed means it’s actually quite easy to get lost.

Many of these problems are my own fault. I want to ‘get into’ the game. I want to play it. I want to progress. But I also realise that wayfinding and exploring and making personal decisions about which quest to follow are the game. Right? Just don’t get me started on having to learn spells or keep up to date with my inventory and so on.

This throwaway line in a Nintendo Switch round-up resonated with me, particularly as I had similar issues with Fallout: New Vegas:

That moment when playing Skyrim, scaling a mountain and seeing all that heady scale unfurl before you on a handheld. Followed by the moment, shortly afterwards, when you realise you don’t really like Bethesda games all that much and you just spunked away £49.99 to play a game you didn’t particularly enjoy five years ago.

Anyway. I’ll give it another whirl when I’ve got an hour spare.

Another game I decided to try out for the first time this week was Chrono Trigger (don’t worry – not the mobile or new PC version). But my current summary can be whittled down to “I just basically don’t like RPGs, no matter how beautiful they look.”

This weekend was nice and wholesome. Some cooking and baking, which included assembly of some smørrebrød on Saturday morning, and trying, and failing, trying again, failing again, and then finally succeeding in making some cinnamon rolls.

We haven’t baked much in this flat. Megan has loads of great equipment and is by all accounts a pretty decent baker. But it’s rare that we get the rolling pin out and do what I would describe as ‘proper’ baking. But this weekend on a flip through a Nigella recipe book, we alighted on her Norwegian cinnamon rolls. We were aware that it was quite a longwinded recipe (‘proper’ baking, remember), but also that we had a Saturday afternoon spare to roll up our sleeves and dig out the Kenwood.

Anyway, somewhere between that casual flip through a recipe book, and us stuffing our faces in front of a film on Saturday night, something truly uncanny happened. I’ll save the 900-page epic for another day, but the short version is this: digital scales can be off. I don’t just mean not correctly calibrated. I mean not calibrated properly from being powered on. How likely this is, I do not know. I only know it took us two lots of dough to realise something was amiss.

Reader, putting something with a known weight on a digital scale and it reading out the incorrect weight is an absolutely headfuck. I weighed about five more things. I started to try and work out how long it had been giving the wrong weights. How many other recipes it had subtly ruined. How I had been deceived for so long. I wondered if I could trust the glowing LED clock on the oven underneath.

It was all very unsettling.

But the good news is that we persevered, and we made some of the best cinnamon rolls I’ve ever eaten.

 

Ironic, then, that the movie we scoffed them to was one of sheer human endurance in the face of a seemingly impossible task. Yes, we watched The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. And what a story it tells. As a documentary, it works pretty well given the tricky filming conditions. It’s supported by a strong cast of oddballs, visionaries, competitors and other misfits.

Without giving too much away – just find it and watch it, it’s a hoot – it tells the story of a unique sporting event (and in particular the 2012 event) in which forty entrants compete to complete five loops of a forest/mountain/wilderness course something like 20 miles in length. It involves navigating, climbing, descending, running, hiking, traversing a storm drain under a prison (I shit you not), and just enduring all this, up to five times in a row, over the course of sixty hours with as much sleep and recovery as your previous attempt allows before you must set out again. The event draws competitors from around the world, who all go through a bizarre application process before assembling and waiting for the unspecified start signal to strike.

It’s a great film. Gripping. And you watch through your fingers wondering, ridiculously, how much of it you could comfortably tackle.

This was the second of two films we watched this weekend, after Wild. Megan had recently read the memoir the film is based on, but I came to the film cold, and I loved it. It tells the story very capably of what it’s like to go on a long, solitary walk, and the mindset of the walker embarking upon it, and the vast amounts of baggage – both literal and figurative – that she took along the way.

I am quite fascinated by films like Wild that try to tell a true story, and that have been produced by, or with the cooperation of, the people involved. I’m thinking of films such as Almost Famous or Apollo 13 – from both ends of the spectrum of ‘personal’ versus ‘global’ story. It can just make for a much more interesting story-behind-the-story, especially if paired with a good documentary or director’s commentary.

On Sunday, not that Wild or The Barkley Marathons had inspired us at all, we set out on the London LOOP again. This time we tackled two sections in one day. It was a fairly tall order, but we’re planning on walking the South Downs Way in a couple of month’s time, so it seemed like a good opportunity to stretch the legs and get an 18-mile day in and see where any problems may lie. It also helped that the snow was quickly disappearing and the air felt positively mild after a week of sub-zero temperatures and a sharp windchill.

 

Section three of the LOOP goes from Petts Wood to Hayes, and section four continues on to Croydon. Two very enjoyable sections, with the latter consisting of a surprising amount of woodland and rural settings.

I’m sure I wouldn’t be alone in saying that when I think of Croydon I don’t think of ‘farmland’, ‘golf courses’ and ‘pockets of ancient woodland’. Sorry Croydon. That’s all changed now. Well, almost. Your weird Emerald City skyline still looms in the distance and – yay, trams! But – boo, no service!

The panoramic views back to London including Wembley stadium, the Shard, and transmitter towers was also pretty ace even on a grey day.

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In general, something I found endlessly surprising about the Capital Ring, and that I continue to love about the London LOOP, is how you can emerge through a thick hedgerow, having stomped through miles of mud until you find yourself at a TfL bus stop and good transport links back to the centre of town.

Fortunately this was true for the end of section four – well, a kilometre or so short of the end, at least. Unfortunately even though the days continue to get longer, we were caught out by the quickly darkening skies and we had to cut our walk short. We had to choose between a busy, unlit road followed by fields, or to double back along a known, sheltered bridleway to the nearest buses – a pretty easy decision in the end. A smattering of photographs from the two sections is below. One of the last sights of interest before the daylight completely faded was the distinctive movement and white tail of a deer in Selsdon Wood.

But what a day. Long, varied, surprising, satisfying – and very encouraging, as it reminded us both that with even better prep and much longer days, we will be able to tackle 20+ mile days on the South Downs Way without too much trouble.

 

2018 Weeknote 8

I’m quite enjoying the opportunity to record these weeks as they fly by – they don’t seem to go any slower by me doing this, but at least I’m able to half-capture them before they completely pass me by. We continue to march onward towards spring – this week the sunrise shifted to being earlier than 7am and the sunset later than 1730, which feels like another of those little milestones on our way to summer.

The weather remains decidedly wintry, with some very cold and clear spells, and some occasional icy cold showers. The temperature is set to drop further soon, so we are not out of the woods yet. But as long as I’m dressed for it, I love this kind of weather.

A few interesting bits at work, including dropping some keys off at some houses whose owners have access to some private land that we own. That felt like a very estate-y job to do – and getting to grips with those pockets of land we manage is always helpful to me. I also took a phone call from one very concerned resident who informed me that a car had driven over a very important area of our land. Thankfully the damage was minimal, and the remedy was more kick-some-soil-with-my-boot than re-landscape-the-whole-area. Still a useful reminder that wherever you go, there are always idiots around with nothing better to do.

Not much reading or film-watching done this week. That said, I have put some more time into Mini Metro, which has become my go-to mobile time-waster app of choice. The player must plot urban light rail links between stations that procedurally pop up as time goes on, and the ‘city’ gets more and more busy and complex. The games can be relatively short, and the game strikes a nice balance between feeling essentially random while still feeling like you can chuck some tactics at it.

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What I’ve really enjoyed is the way the game has many (many!) ‘city’ models based on real-world cities, so in one you might have many short stops packed together in a small area, and in another you benefit from faster links serving very long lines. In most, the balance must be maintained between the number of trains in service, bridges/tunnels used to cross water, and how the lines interconnect depending on the type of passengers at each type of station.

I also looked into some guides to the game written by other players. As with all these things, there’s a mixture of snake oil and absolutely solid advice. Mostly it’s the kind of game I don’t mind figuring out as I learn to play. If I was doing badly every time, I’d start to wonder what I’m doing wrong, but as it goes, I think I’ve got it sussed.

Banished, meanwhile, is a trickier beast. I had a few more faltering sessions lately, including one where somehow, perplexingly, my citizens just completely ran out of food, and a particularly harsh winter struck. This immediately killed off first the children of the settlement, and then  the various food-gatherers, which only exacerbated the situation.

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I realised I could go back to a previous savegame of that town – not quite cheating, and I think permissible while I’m still learning the game – and tried to focus my efforts on food gathering. This went okay, but of course the game’s engine was still on a collision course with a very cold winter.

This time, although my citizens were well-fed and mostly hid indoors instead of doing their sodding jobs, I quickly realised that I hadn’t amassed enough firewood. One by one – and starting with the children, always starting with the poor children – they inevitably all began to freeze to death.

I have read glowing reviews of the game that where Banished is gripping and entertaining while the settlement grows, it suffers from a lack of end-game or narrative. I guess, then, in my muddling through the relatively early stages of the game, that is the game, in essence. Although the player is always striving towards equilibrium – or, dare I say it, flourishing success – it’s more about the journey than the destination.

Meanwhile, I struggle to sustain settlements of more than about thirty citizens, and I notice that in the absence of a narrative or any real milestones, the game does off some achievements when the player reaches a certain level. When I saw that the very first of these achievements is raising a settlement of three hundred citizens, I realised that I still have quite some way to go.

Both Mini Metro and Banished are a certain type of game – real time strategy (RTS), perhaps, or the more clunky ‘resources and placement versus the clock’. I grew up obsessed with other RTS games like Age of Empires II, C&C Red Alert 1/2, Transport Tycoon, Theme Park/Hospital and so on, and both the aforementioned games appeal to me in similar ways to these.

In broadcasting this week I was quite delighted to stumble on Chris Moyles’ morning show on Radio X on Thursday which was being done live from the London Eye. I have a strange fondness for Moyles; although I don’t particularly enjoy his style of presenting, it does have a very easygoing air to it, and I’ve enjoyed following his progress ever since tuning in to his late night shows on Capital way back when.

But it was the novelty of cramming an outside broadcast studio into one of the London Eye’s pods that captured my imagination. This combined nicely with the Eye’s inherent 30-minute cycles, which gave the crew a chance to nip out for a piss, and to let the show’s guests change over, swapping out a Warwick Davis for a pair of Wombats, for example.

I was pleased to read brief reviews of the show from other listeners: here was something a bit different, a bit fun, and it had some of the edgy magic that live radio can still convey.

I was disappointed to learn this week that Channel 4 have removed their HD channel from the Freesat platform. I haven’t the time to go into what this really means and why they’ve done it, but it came as a surprising blow to what seemed like a sustainable, forward-looking system. It was a slight wake-up call, too, when it is easy to idly wonder why we don’t just have a completely HD line-up of almost all channels on all systems in 2018. Alas, there are pressures of capacity and inherent costs in broadcasting such ‘big’ streams.

And I also read recently that the BBC will probably never get round to sorting out the weird problem of not having local news on their HD channels. All these little episodes just serve to remind that although it can seem mad that we can’t just crank up the quality or the coverage or the output, there’s usually politics or money or poor decisions made earlier in the process standing in the way.

A busy weekend started with a Friday evening trip to the V&A museum with work colleagues. We had tickets for the Winnie the Pooh exhibition and although my knowledge of those stories is quite limited, I can’t resist the opportunity to see such an exhibition, and it was a pleasure to go with such good company. That our visit coincided with the museum’s Lates event – this time entitled Pxssy Palace – raised a few eyebrows, but the atmosphere was busy and bustling, and we were still able to enjoy the exhibition itself.

It’s not a vast collection, but there was a sweetness to how it had been laid out which cleverly bridged the gap between making it a playground for children, and an interesting narrative for grown-ups. I was captivated by sketches, letters and notes made by Milne and Shepard, including hand-drawn maps, and recollections of trips to local woods when casting about for locations. It’s always heartening to see such collections of sketches and personal papers. It really makes you wonder at the size of the collections these exhibitions must draw upon. I also enjoyed a couple of items which showed the ‘animation’ in a series of still sketches, brought to life in GIF form below. We capped off the trip with a decent Indian curry and a few bottles of wine. A most pleasant way to spend a Friday evening.

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As often happens with exhibitions like these, I found myself taken with one small element I could have easily missed: one section described the process of taking the delicate pencil sketches and turning them into illustrations for the books. A fairly simple, integral process, but one I wanted to understand more about. This led to me taking out several books from the library the next morning on printing, typography and printmaking.

This impromptu trip the library was book-ended with first a short run and then a delicious brunch at nearby The Petite Corée, who use a subtle blend of European and Korean cooking. My smoked salmon had a yuzu dressing which was delightfully sharp and fresh.

I then did a little more website admin on two sites I’m currently working on. As with these sorts of projects, the tail-end tends to be a slower process of smaller tweaks, as opposed to the initial rush of big milestones.

Saturday was a celebration at a Hammersmith bar for some of Megan’s friends. We had a lovely time chatting with various people – old friends and new ones. And then Sunday was a sunny trip to Kent for Sunday dinner with Megan’s family. I can’t remember when I last had roast duck breast, but I’m determined to have it again very soon. It was exquisite. I felt like a medieval king by the end of it, with all the meat, cheese and wine I’d consumed.

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