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 6

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A quieter week than of late, but not without its highlights.

I spent some of this week reading Sourdough by Robin Sloan, and making bread and soup (not unrelated); also spent some time looking at a big rocket that put a car into orbit; and some more time daydreaming about radio. I managed to run home from work once, and I also tried my hand at pixel art with a nifty Android app.

I also spent rather too much time this week angry at an online retailer who responded bafflingly to a delivery mess-up. It makes me quite upset now to think how much mental energy I was forced to waste on that little episode, but it’s just the way my brain works.

Imbolc / Candlemas

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At some point in the week, thanks to my Pebble watch, I realised that the sun would rise before 0730 and set after 5pm – both rather neat milestones. For a brief, coffee-fuelled minute I dreamt of a quarter days type of system which showed the days on which sunrise and sunset times crossed a certain threshold from one mid-season milestone to the next.

Sometimes it’s nice to extrapolate these seemingly abstract patterns, like a moon phase chart which inevitably ends up having a lovely natural rhythm to it ala the Fibonacci sequence.

Suffice it to say that once the coffee high had passed, I did not, in fact, plot a new solar calendar with my new quarter days marked.

But I was interested to read, in my trusty bedside companion Almanac, of the festival of Imbolc (see also Candlemas) that falls on the 1st or 2nd of February and marks the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It appears like a marker pointing uphill towards the re-emergence of spring and life and light and, honestly, hope.

For too long this winter I have languished under a slightly-too-heavy fug of darkness and… not quite negativity, but a habit of using the shorter days and darker evenings as a scapegoat for inaction or procrastination. This is nothing new, of course. I’ve read several articles this Winter, as I often do, about Seasonal Affective Disorder, and of the natural reaction to this uncanny lack of daylight.

But for all its negative connotations, it is a perfectly natural occurrence, and a very cyclical, predictable one. So perhaps wallowing in it slightly is the correct response. We react to long, warm evenings by spending time outdoors enjoying nature; so it is that we should react to cold, dark nights by bundling up indoors getting our hygge on.

Reading about Imbolc/Candlemas, and noting the passing of a threshold of day length, I felt renewed energy and optimism and will attempt, now, to stride forward towards spring.

Certainly, it helps when the winter weather is crisp, and bright, and fresh, as it has been many times this week. There are even signs of spring emerging from the cold earth: bulbs are sprouting, and crocuses are making an appearance. We – and they – will continue to be caught out by harsh snap frosts and sudden hail showers, but we’re all remembering how to push up out of the murk and the mire, and to salute the sun once more.


The London LOOP

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Last Sunday, Megan and I started on the London LOOP*, a 150-mile path forming a ring around London.

* The ‘L’ in LOOP, of course, stands for London, making this not just a clunky name but also an example of RAS syndrome

This is not our first circular walk, nor even our first circular walk around London, as we completed the Capital Ring last February. That 78-mile walk took us exactly two years, done in fifteen sessions whenever we fancied it.

Now a year has passed since we completed it, and we have lately felt bereft. The London LOOP is, therefore, the only sensible sequel. We had looked at doing the Thames Path, but logistics mean such one-way walks are trickier to tackle in chunks. We will shortly be doing the South Downs Way in one go. But the London LOOP has come into our lives when we needed it most, and it is a long-term goal.

If 78 miles in fifteen sections took us two years, who can say how long 150 miles in 24 sections will take us. That is not the point. These walks give us the permanent Plan B, the perpetual answer to the question, “What shall we do this weekend?”

The first section

And so last Sunday we did the first section, and yesterday the second. The first was necessarily quite industrial, with tidal defences, refuse tips, and the rather barren sections of marshland where nothing much happens beyond the presence of some ponies and a few thousand seagulls. The Dartford crossing loomed in the distance for much of the day.

It wasn’t really until the end of the first section, at Bexley Old Town, that we were amongst scenery I found attractive. Before then it had all had quite a stark quality to it. Fortunately, we found a warm welcome inside a Greek taverna at Bexley where we filled up on some great food.

Pictures are on Flickr (which is still A Thing):

London LOOP Section 1 - 4 February 2018

The second section

The second section, tackled yesterday, was altogether different from the first.

Here we had miles of a rural-feeling riverside walk as the Cray burbled past. We saw elegant stone bridges, pretty parish churches, and our path took us through lovely patches of woodland.

An unexpected presence – compared to the omnipresent green parakeets – was a large number of pieces of natural woodland infrastructure. Infrastructure is probably too ‘hard’ a word for it, but we saw erosion protection in the shallow bed of the Cray river formed from flexible wood, and when we had left the Cray behind we saw delightful examples of recent live hedgerow fencing.

We, of course, passed noisy roads and a miniature spaghetti junction where we crossed the Sidcup bypass. But the natural bits felt deliberately, obstinately more natural and authentic in protest.

Once we’d arrived at the end of the second section, we realised that earlier ambitions to push on to the third were not worth pursuing. That cursed winter day length was not on our side, and the sudden, unexpected hail showers that greeted us on our arrival at Petts Wood also put an end to the day’s walking.

One further unexpected highlight of this section was literally uncovered in the grassy parkland of Sidcup Place.

Looking down at some tree roots that needed extra care while traversing, I noticed the face of a bottle mostly buried in the mud. Realising it was also embossed, I considered it worth a second or two to establish whether it was of further interest.

When I spotted the words ‘mineral water’, I committed and spent a few minutes clawing at the cold earth to retrieve what turned out to be a perfect specimen which I was able to carry home and clean up.

It turned out to be a clear glass bottle, something like 250ml in capacity, from Chislehurst Mineral Water Works (not so far away), with a crest marked HL after Harry Line, the founder. Dating it won’t be easy, but a quick Google tells me that the factory opened in the 1880s, was bought out by Whitbread in the 1950s, and closed in the 1980s.

I’m not sure if the Whitbread buy-out would put an end to the local branding, but whether the bottle is 20 years old or 120 years old, it was a nice find and a great souvenir from a very enjoyable walk.

Photographs from the second section are also on Flickr (click through for the full set):

London LOOP Section 2 - 11 February 2018