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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Last week, M and I spent a week in Hampshire, camping near the New Forest.
We weren’t familiar with the area, so it was a great opportunity to explore, unfurl the OS map, and do a tour or two. We were blessed with mostly excellent weather which meant for spending hours outdoors, cooking and winding down, and doing some fun outdoor things like learning to paddle board and exploring castles. Maybe I’ll write more about some specific activities soon, but for now I felt like scribbling a brief write-up.
The weather wasn’t totally perfect – one night we were woken by what sounded like a heavy shower, but fortunately our tent held up pretty well. The worst weather episode was saved up for the morning of our packing up, because of course.
In fact, the severity of the wind and rain was such that our tent – and others around us – actually buckled a little. Pegs which had been driven into the hard, drought-addled land suddenly worked loose in the deluge. And then the wind lashed the weakened structures and it all felt a little bit apocalyptic for a few moments.
Thankfully the storm blew over within an hour or so, and the wind lingered after the rain had ended so that our tent was very much blown dry before we needed to pack it away.
It struck me at the time that it would be a great opportunity for a tent manufacturer to see exactly how different kinds of tents and gazebos react to such weather. I would guess that they conduct tests in wind tunnels or similar, but to actually see the failure points – particularly on tents erected by actual campers, literally in-the-field – would surely be very helpful.
Mostly what was nice about the week was just being outside for so much of every day. It tunes your senses to the natural world in a way that’s harder to do as you go about your day-to-day life in the city. I remember noticing the wind had changed one morning; lo and behold, it heralded a change in the weather.
I also have fond memories of the swifts darting about the site in the evenings – some whirling around in the trees, and others running low-flying raids mere centimetres above the grass for tens of metres at a time.
Our relatively remote location down near the south coast was also great for a bit of playing with radios.
In London I put up with the inevitable fog of radio interference that comes with densely packed residential areas. I’m lucky to be able to pick up a decent amount of shortwave stations there, but when visiting as rural as location as we were down near Milford-on-Sea, it still blows me away to hear the difference in the number and clarity of signals I can receive.
I spent a few evenings DXing on shortwave, seeing what I could find. Mostly the usual, but what was most enjoyable was just how clear so many stations were. The bigger stations boomed in with a strength and clarity approaching that of a nearby FM station. Meanwhile, other weaker stations – including the Dutch pirates – came in with enjoyable levels of signal. At home I can sometimes pick them up amongst the murk and the mire of interference. But it was nice to be able to actually listen to these stations for a short while.
The biggest ‘problem’ I was blessed with was the sheer number of stations I could pick up – automatic band scans regularly logged more than a hundred signals, and it was a constant compromise between checking out one station before wanting to carry on to the next.
I also had a few scans on FM – not an awful lot to be found where we were a mile or two inland, but down on the coast I was overrun by clear, loud French stations, which is a neat novelty. I was picking up more French stations than English – probably 30 or so foreign broadcasts creeping across the Channel versus the 15 or so local and national ones I had expected.
And, as I find myself doing more and more, I tried some DAB DXing on a small portable receiver, with mixed results. I didn’t log any foreign multiplexes, which was a little surprising given the number of strong French FM signals, but I did get a good range of British ones coming from all along the south coast, including the quite experimental selection on the Portsmouth trial operated by Solent Wireless. However, quite often I would find that although the multiplex was logged, actually tuning to a station would fail, so the signal must have been pretty weak.
I’m still working through the photos I took on my ‘proper’ camera, so I’ll be adding some to Flickr over the coming weeks.
Flickr’s a funny old place. Literally old, in web-years. And I go through phases of thinking it’s irrelevant in today’s web, to spending whole hours looking at photographs taken by others, and finding myself enthralled, enrapt, and inspired to take more and better photographs of my own.
It’s also recently been bought ‘back’ from Yahoo! by SmugMug, which either sounds like it’s a step in the right direction for a new future, or further scratches the nostalgic itch that Flickr belongs to ‘the old web’ and its attendant community.
But then I realise that, like a lot of these things, it’s just whatever you want to make of it, and if I want Flickr to be useful to me – and at the same time that makes me want to be a better photographer? – then so be it.
Time to restart weeknotes, I think. Sorry about the hiatus.
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.
For 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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.