2021 week four

January is done.

As I’ve seen a couple of people say, though, this is merely a calendar page-turn, and doesn’t really help much. On the one hand, woo, progress. But on the other, progress to what? A twelfth of another year has slinked by, barely noticed? Not sure how celebratory a mood this leaves me in.

Nonetheless! This week I have enjoyed a few silly hobbies, including more tinkering with Garageband and the Minimoog Model D iOS app, which was kindly made available for free back in the first lockdown. I had only dabbled with the latter before this week, but I’m now seeing how incredibly feature packed it is, and how it can be worked into a Garageband workflow more successfully.

There’s a process by which you can jump out of Garageband into a supported app, noodle around in there – with a tiny Garageband record/play button superimposed – then jump back into Garageband to place the track you just recorded in the other app. It’s very clever. And yet another surprise that my old iPad mini still happily handles this kind of abuse on its RAM and CPU.

I was running low on storage which initially caused problems, but once I’d had a tidy up it worked surprisingly smoothly. I didn’t make anything worthwhile of course – I mostly just spent an hour or two trying out the different presets and twiddling the knobs to see what effect they have. I tend to go for the bassy ones, holding down a low note, and getting lost in warbling, flanging bass notes turned up a little too high in my headphones. Precisely what I would do with a real synth, I’m sure. It’s a lot of fun.

I’ve hit a stumbling block in the shape of not being able to envisage actually making a song with a proper structure. Or, not quite knowing how to achieve that in Garageband. I know about building sections and being able to rearrange them. But I’m not quite into a proper flow state where I can do so successfully. I’m getting close though, and I imagine the two crucial missing pieces are 1) jotting down some notes and having a structure planned out to begin with, and 2) devoting enough time in one sitting to seeing an entire project through.

Until then I’ll just bung the headphones on and hit a bass note and just low it go BWAAAAHHHHHH in my ears for a while.


Other sounds that my ears have been delighted by this week are from the other end of the scale: church bells. Having successfully captured one church a few days earlier striking 12 o’clock, I noticed that a nearby catholic chapel struck the hour a minute or two later, so I went to capture that this week. The results are over at /audio of course.

Two notes on the newer recording: it unfortunately contains some unpleasant construction sounds – which I don’t mind as it is a true representation of the sounds of church bells in an urban environment. And the striking of this church bell was odd – I had expected 12 single strikes for the hour, but what I got was three groups of three, and then nine. I don’t believe I’ve heard bells do that pattern before. Possibly it has some significance relating to its… catholicness? Anyway, it was actually a pleasant surprise.

I think now that I have two in the bag, my quest is now to record all the striking church bells within a set area; NW3 seems reasonable, particularly as I once started and failed to finish a project to sketch all the extant pubs in NW3.


The return the other week of a robin has now become two robins, which is fantastic. They are feisty, territorial birds, so I am fairly sure that seeing two birds happily feeding near one another must mean they are a breeding pair. I really hope we see babies later in the year. I’d love to spot an identifying feature on these birds that pointed to one being one of last year’s babies (if that timeline even stacks up). Either way, it’s a delight seeing and hearing them at close quarters again.


This weekend’s main sporting entertainment was the cyclo-cross world championships at Ostend, Belgium. I love watching cycling, but cyclo-cross is just on another level. This course contained muddy slopes, steps, long 21% ramps, and a couple of sections on the beach – both through thick, dry sand and along the wet, harder sand, with some riders edging into the surf. Amazing.

The men’s and women’s elite championships were shown by BBC, and we enjoyed them both, though it has to be said the women’s round was a bit more interesting as it was a shorter, closer race. The men’s race felt a lap or two too long – towards the end, the podium was basically assured and the main players just plugged on to the bitter end. The men’s was a showdown between two previous title holders which had its moments. It’s just such an impressive sport to watch as you can just feel how their legs must burn as they come off a rutted, deep patch of sand and immediately have to dig in to power up a steep ramp.

I’d love to go and see a cyclo-cross event some day. By all accounts it is growing in popularity here.


After having a little moan last week about missing the freedom to go and do as I please during lockdown, I’m pleased to report that over the last few days I was able to… well, basically go and do as I please. Within reason / guidelines.

Long walks on Saturday and then Sunday morning took me to some familiar places, albeit (on Sunday) seen at a much earlier hour and with very few other people around. It was just what I needed, to be surrounded by interesting sights and trees and birdsong, and to have a few options for my next part of the route.


And finally, bitten by the bug of the Pottery Throwdown show on Channel 4, we bought some clay and had a bash at making some stuff. It’s really not very easy at all, though it is a nicely tactile process. I ended up making a tealight holder and trying to make a tortoise. Pictures when they’re good and done, I promise. 

Afterwards I felt a little unsure if I want to continue with pottery. I will try one or two new things just to see. But the abiding feeling was one I’ve had before when doing analogue art type things. The imprecision (not to mention my own lack of skill) is often what I find so disappointing about using tools in the physical world to make things, whether that’s pen and paper, paints, model-making, or now clay. I like clean likes and precision, and it’s hard to achieve those in the physical world. Or at least I find it hard.

And so all this made me realise something: that’s what I like about digital creative forms.

Photography, editing audio, and even writing and web design to a degree. It can all be done with pixel-sharp precision. The tools are infinitely precise. I love that about digital media. There are elements I love for analogue’s roughness – the decay of a delay effect on an audio sample, the somewhat unpredictable element of film photography, or the imperfections left in something screen printed, for example. But I think what I seek most of all in creative output is sharpness and accuracy. God knows I don’t always achieve it. But that’s what I’m chasing, and it’s good to acknowledge that.

2021 week three

Another week done. I can quickly see how these weeknotes, like these weeks, can disappear and blur together. But I continue to want to try and demark the weeks in some way.

Part of this is inspired by the meme I’ve seen a couple of times recently which describes weekends for WFHers as merely “a longer lunch break” which, well, yeah. It’s a pretty apt description. But to shift that from being a pessimistic take, I just need to remind myself that the weekends currently involve a much better version of my lunch breaks, e.g. longer walks/runs, more elaborate food, and films in place of YouTube videos. Just… more and better. And that’s fine. Not even thisisfine.jpeg, but fine. Actually fine.

Lots of play buttons in this week’s post.


This week I added a couple of bits to /audio – one new musical composition entitled Everything’s Electronic which I built in Garageband, using some snippets of ham radio chatter from a web SDR.

 

That was a really fun session and scratched a good itch. My ageing iPad Mini 2 still runs Garageband surprisingly well. It stops to ‘optimize playback’ occasionally, but I have so far experienced zero crashes or any real slowdown. I had one slight data loss issue towards the end of this session where it had seemingly not autosaved correctly, or not uploaded the right version, so I lost about fifteen minutes of work. Fortunately by that stage I was finished and so that meant just some automation/panning and some mastering, rather than anything creative or new. It didn’t take long to rebuild what I’d lost, but it did scare me a little.

Once I was done it felt like a neat little thing that hadn’t existed a few hours earlier, and that came with the inevitable serotonin boost. Silly stuff, but it’s something I know I’ll be doing again soon.

It’s no exaggeration to say that I have had – at the very least – the urge to mix audio in this way ever since we added a sound card to our PC when I was about 10-11 years old. Around that time, Chris Moyles hosted a late-night weekend show on Capital FM and I distinctly remember he occasionally played mixes where he had cut and pasted audio clips together over a beat – including a Wallace and Grommit composition that riffed on the ‘cracking cheese, Grommit’ line.

Once I had a sound card at my disposal, and this concept of cutting together audio, the next obvious step for me was taping (I mean actually tape recording) some snippets from Wallace and Grommit directly from my TV’s speakers. I don’t even think it was a line feed, but rather straight from the speakers into the tape recorder’s microphone. Likewise, I don’t know if this then went by direct line into the sound card or, again, tape recorder speakers into a PC mic? But somehow I loaded some audio into my PC and ended up cutting together loops of Wallace and Grommit soundbites. I don’t think it had a beat or anything: it was merely the novelty of being able to manipulate the sound in this way, looping it to become a beat of sorts.

Anyway, this desire to create almost percussive, rhythmic loops of audio has clearly stayed with me 25 years later as I still feel compelled to make the same silly compositions.

The other recording I added is more natural: just ten minutes of field recordings taken on a walk to and around Paddington Cemetery yesterday in the snow, at a time when there was still some crunchy snow on the ground, but the trees were beginning to drip and the birds were being extra chatty.

 


This week also saw Joe Biden inaugurated, which was nice. The ceremony felt like quite a normal and generally positive thing to sit on my bum and watch, and for that reason it felt distinctly of another time (despite the wearing of masks and so on – though Barack Obama fist-bumps could fit comfortably into any timeline).

Other things that happened this week which felt otherly and normal include: the snow. I’ve already heard this hailed as being A Good Thing simply because it is A Different Type of Thing. And for that we can rejoice. Usual caveats about me being a soft southerner and our London snow being shortlived and a pleasant distraction from the great ennui; I realise that the recent weather has been absolute dogshit for much of the country.

M and I played some board games yesterday evening. Ticket to Ride Nordic Edition which we got form Christmas and is helping me learn Scandinavian place names, Monopoly Deal (a card game variant which we only just sussed out), and Scrabble, which I haven’t played in years. These were played while some nice music was playing and some chocolates were scoffed. Two or three hours later we realised we had thought only of the games, music or chocolates that whole time, and had not been disturbed by thoughts of all that stuff and so we should probably make a habit of this.

This week also saw the return of the robin (or just, like, a robin) to the outdoor space. The robin loves meal worms and it has been especially cold and harsh lately, so it’s pleasing to think it is enjoying the food I leave out for it. I’ve missed it.


My music recommendation this week is the band SAD HALEN who reeled me in purely by having a great band name, and who turn out to make great 90s-inspired guitar songs that make me think of Dinosaur Jr and The Beths and other people. The songs are nicely produced as well. Here’s an example track in case that sounds like your cup of tea:

2021 week two

Ah, the optimism of these early weeknotes. I know by now that some weeks I won’t have much to say, and that some weeks I will barely even remember to try and start one. But it’s a nice habit to try and strike up. I’m not sure when is best to write these – it seems ‘right’ to me for the week in question to be Monday to Sunday, and so it follows that these should be written up on the Monday. Doing so on the Sunday evening would be a bit snake-eating-its-tail: I’m still very much in weekend mode on Sunday evening.

Anyway.

Managed to keep up a pretty consistent week of running. My new shoes continue to put a spring in my step.

I have joined Strava’s monthly challenge of running 100km in January, and I am pleased to say I’m well on my way there after a strong start. I only have another 5km or so to do and more than ten days to do it. It won’t be the first month I’ve achieved this but it’s a decent total to aim for.

I did also join the 200km challenge, but that will remain just that: a challenge. Maybe I can aim for it later in the year when the days are longer. I did run 800-odd kilometres in 2020, so if I can hit a thousand this year, that would be a good thing to aim for.

The most enjoyable run of the week was Sunday’s, where I deliberately wanted to take myself (and my new trail shoes) off-road. I fired up Rungo (a brilliant navigational app where you plug in a route and it provides turn-by-turn directions in your ears) and pointed myself towards some green spaces near Finchley. Is Finchley a place? Near there, anyway.

I knew there were a few golf courses around there, but there also seemed to be fields and nature reserves, so I hoped I would end up there. And I did! Having run about 9km on roads, I suddenly took a turn down a muddy bridleway and the next couple of Ks were incredibly muddy and wet. At times I was splashing through ankle deep liquid mud. The rest of the time it was sticky, tacky mud. It felt great.

I passed a handful of families out walking dogs etc, but my goal of going for a long run which didn’t take me into town and the busy places turned out very well. 

I managed to make it a neat half marathon – just over 21km – which is a distance I can just about do if I decide I am going to. And I’m so glad I found some proper countryside vibes and returned home muddy, scratched by brambles, and full of fresh air. My trainers were trashed, of course, but they cleaned up well enough.


Running aside, I have managed to stay home about as much as I can.

It’s hard when the weather is bright and I want to be out taking pictures. But I scratched that itch this week by taking some still life type shots around the home. It’ll do for now.

I ween myself on Flickr – beautiful light-filled shots of streetscapes (many taken in the before time, I am sure, as I follow a lot of film photographers or those who remaster and reupload older shots) and it makes me yearn for those environments and conditions.

I find myself spending probably more time watching Youtube tutorials of people editing in Lightroom than I do actually editing in Lightroom. It’s helpful to see others doing it, but I do need to tip that balance back the other way.

I’m starting to move more towards picking out individual shots or small series and spending much more time doing selective edits for a specific upload or project. This helps me hone my skills in particular areas, and hopefully produces good, one-off results.

I am so much more used to taking an entire travelogue-type series of shots from a trip or a long walk and applying similar edits to the whole set to give it a uniformity, so it is good to try and focus on a small handful of shots instead, or even just one individual shot. 

I’ve even started to think along the lines of going much further back into my archive and finding similar – one or a handful of shots – and giving them a new lick of paint using techniques I now use and find natural that I didn’t when I originally took (and possibly edited) the shots.

It’s quite a mental somersault contemplating that a single image can be given so many different looks. Making the decision to do something quite stark, like making it monochrome, or doing a heavy crop, feels so definite and final. And yet of course I can re-edit the same image a number of times. It’s a lot to wrap my head around.


I’ve started hacking together an /audio page at this domain.

For years I’ve collected random field recordings of specific places that had a nice sound to them, trying to capture what it is to be there in a similar way that I am compelled to take photographs. I don’t often succeed – recording audio, like taking a wide angle photo of a scene, often reveals that the small parts of that scene which are appealing to you are in fact nearly drowned out (visually or aurally) by other more ordinary elements which your brain had tuned out.

Much like zooming in or cropping out a photo to allow the viewer to focus on the elements you find most appealing in a scene, creating a decent sound recording of a place requires ‘zooming in’ on that sound, e.g. ensuring that any other distracting sounds are as minimal as they can be.

It is possible to do some EQ and filtering in post-production, but it’s not easy to polish a turd when it comes to making field recordings.

With that all in mind, I wanted a place to call my own where I can stick those field recordings that most ‘work’ in my head, or that most capably take me away to the place they were recorded. I also have a handful of more musical or compositional tracks that I’ve enjoyed mucking around in Garageband to create. I’ve a lot to learn there, but by the same token I have dipped into it on and off over the years and have a basic enough understanding of how the software works to make it possible to come up with a track or two that make me smile.

A final point: there will be a mixture of Soundcloud and self-hosted tracks on the /audio page for now. Soundcloud seems to be the de facto place to stick audio and music, but the website (and app) are appalling and riddled with spam and weird UX and UI choices. (It reminds me of Flickr in the post-Yahoo!, pre-Smugmug days where every upload was greeted with spam comments and all kinds of signs of a lack of care.) But part of the reason I’ve sat on some of these recordings for so long is not having anywhere to put them.

Now, inspired by a few self-built, self-hosted websites, I’ve decided to just make my own place to put them, rather than relying on third parties with their ads and their spam and their clunky interfaces.

It’ll take a little work to get everything over here, and I want to make sure each file has decent metadata and looks neat. But it’s a start for now.


And finally, I’ve been reading usesthis.com for ages – it’s a site that poses creative people a series of questions and collects their tools and how they use them in their work and life. Usually computery tools. Often nice pens and stuff.

The last question is usually along the lines of asking what that person’s dream setup would be.

Often it is half-invented sci-fi daydreams of some near-future, no-expenses-spared version of what they already have. Sometimes it’s a variation of “well I’m pleased to say I’m almost there…”. But the answer to this latest post by music video producer Ninian Dorf just took me away with its simple but perfect scenario:

What would be your dream setup?

Early morning. A great view in a window in front of me. A good desk. Just peaking on my first coffee of the day. A great idea in my head.

Wonderful.

2021 week one

A couple of nights ago in our lounge was heard a very loud and piercing BANG, or more of a POP. I carefully went towards the source of the sound, in the kitchen, and started looking towards electricals – I assumed a fuse had blown, or possibly something under pressure had given way.

After a minute or so’s search, the source was identified: a button cell, or watch, battery had exploded. Or… popped, I guess. Just blown itself apart. Incredibly, it was in the kitchen in a zone which is currently the closest thing we have to a blast chamber: on a shelf between a cast iron set of weighing scales and a granite pestle and mortar. If I were performing the controlled detonation of another battery, this would be the sort of environment I would hastily erect around it.

Bizarre.

Anyway, the battery had come from some cheap Christmas decorations we bought at The Works, the discount bookshop. They were some of those cute laser-cut wooden buildings with little LED lights inside. They were astonishingly cheap, and each was powered by three watch batteries. The cheapness of the whole set has now made it abundantly clear to me, and I am only glad a) that I chose to remove the batteries before we packed the decorations away recently, and b) that the event occurred between two of the hardest objects known to our kitchen, rather than, say, near some wine glasses.

It briefly crossed my mind that I should tell The Works, but really, even in the best case scenario, this would lead to a small black and white A4 recall notice in the front window of some of their shops, and wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference. It is slightly troubling, though, to consider that each of these cheap decorations contains three potential blasting caps and the number of these which must now be scattered around the home of many thousands of people.


I have been reading an anthropological study of a Polynesian community written by Raymond Firth. We, the Tikopia was written in 1936 about the peoples of the island of the same name. I was put onto the subject having read about the island in that wonderful bedside table book, the Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky. That gorgeous book – part atlas, part history, part creative writing anthology – has inspired so many strange thought explorations in the years I have owned it. As each island is given two pages: one a map, one a page of text, I have rationed my devouring of its contents.

The entry on Tikopia made reference to the people keeping their population relatively stable through various rather grizzly and morbid means which intrigued me to the point of needing to know more. Beyond that, of course, reading about remote islands is just an infinitely comforting and fascinating thing for me to do as I nod off.

Having ransacked Wikipedia, I found Firth’s text (being as it was the source for so much of what we seem to know about this still quite isolated community). I’ve been enjoying his reasonably transparent approach to describing the people and their customs, but as I read I constantly remind myself that I am not familiar with anthropological texts, particular from the past, and that I may well be merrily reading a book which has some deeply outdated notions about how to describe and depict ‘other’ communities. But it’s best not to turn bedtime reading into an academic exercise: sometimes it’s just delightful to read Firth’s descriptions of island life, the weather and setting of the island itself, and so on.

There is a double enjoyment in describing what it is like to be on a tiny, isolated island (a genre I love to get lost in – scaling the island’s peak so that one can overlook almost the entire mass of land? Bliss!), but it is also fascinating as the Tikopia people were (are?) one of the last communities to have western influences forced upon them. As a ‘primitive’ people (okay, there I know Firth is using outdated language), reading about their daily lives is almost like going back in time.

As I say, I have not read many anthropology books – or not by that name, at least – but one series I have loved for years is Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guide books. The first – the Guide to Medieval England – still feels like the best to me. In his books, Mortimer holds the reader’s hand as though they have truly just arrived at this historical period and suddenly need to navigate an alien world. What is used for money? How do you obtain food? Lodgings? What customs might you be unaware of? And so on.

Mortimer’s books are lightly humorous and readable, but are also packed with decades of research and facts – he isn’t merely dreaming up some sort of cosplay version of the middle ages, but rather he translates the raw facts and history into what it would feel like to live there. Or at least to visit.

And as I read Firth’s work – he spent a year or so on the island, the sole European, living amongst the Tikopia, observing them, and (with his knowledge of Maori) learning to speak their tongue – I am immediately reminded of Mortimer’s books. Here, Firth is taking the reader with him: what is it like to wake up on Tikopia? What sounds can be heard beyond the walls of his hut? How do the people gather their main meal of the day? What games do they play in the evening, and what gossip do they discuss?

It is fabulous and readable stuff – feeling more often like some Time Traveller’s Guide to Polynesian life than some dry academic textbook. By all accounts it seems that it is still heavily used by students around the world today. But I am just so happy to read it ‘for fun’ as Firth’s descriptions are so vivid.


2021 is off to a decent enough start.

It was a shame to take down the Christmas tree, but it would have felt very odd leaving it up. The tree was still green and full of needles, but (despite some watering of its stump) was drying out very quickly. We have enough other, living plants in the flat.

We have kept the lights which adorn the windows and outside space as we tend to; they will probably remain until almost the time to put the clocks forward, or at least until the days feel sufficiently long. Already, one can sense the slight increase in day length on days when it is clear and bright.

I treated myself to some new running shoes at Christmas (my old pair had both Strava and my feet screaming at me to replace them for many months before), and they have taken me about 55km this year already so far. They are slightly more trail-y than my last shoes, with more knobbly soles, so some of those KMs have been muddy, grassy slopes (which is especially handy when one finds that most of north London seems to visit Hampstead Heath or Primrose Hill and sticks religiously to the narrow paths that make up perhaps 1% of those vast open spaces).

It is hard to treat the turn of the calendar year as a new start or a moment to look forward when it is in reality a time of abject, bleak darkness. It is rather a time of hunkering down and taking stock, if anything.

A bit like the fairy lights mentioned above, as each year passes I really think the new year hasn’t truly started until early spring. When the days lengthen and new life begins to appear, then I think it is really possible to draw a line under the previous year and look ahead as if having cleared the bottom of a curve which is now only just beginning to rise again.

So I will keep my head down for the coming weeks, and engage myself in more reading and genealogical research (Ancestry is currently free from home via my local library authority – maybe it is with yours too?) and embracing the fact that I have a cosy home with all I need for these short days. And I will continue to try and use what few daylight hours we have for breaking in my new running shoes some more.