Okay, it’s actually getting hard to remember how many weeks we’ve done this for. And I know we (the lucky, privileged ones who are just sort of doing things differently but are basically fine) are all probably kind of grieving in a small way for our previous lives, work or otherwise. Maybe that’s too strong a word, but there must be something psychological going on when you suddenly stop doing the stuff you normally do, or seeing the people you normally do, or whatnot.
Here’s some stuff that I have been doing.
I had my first functional Zoom meeting with work colleagues, which actually worked once I sorted out the wifi my iPad was using. I had initially run my iPad over wifi to a router in not just a different room but on a different floor. Not ideal for low latency communications.
My top tip for anyone with precisely my own setup is this: if you are near a desktop computer with a wired connection to your router, you can use your desktop machine to share a wifi connection (much like tethering with a mobile phone to share your 4G connection to other wifi devices).
I hadn’t realised this was was possible, much less that you can just enable it in Windows 10’s Settings under Network & Internet > Mobile hotspot. Pretty sure I used to do something similar with my MacBook back in the day as well.
Once I got this set up, my Zoom connection seemed rock solid, and it was a strangely useful/pleasant exercise. It’s not something I want to do permanently, but it’s good to have the option.
TeamViewer has also been rock solid for our entire office for the past few weeks.
Some of our functions can be done through browser access to webmail and so on, but we need access to our shared files and some bespoke software that isn’t available outside our office machines in any easy way.
TeamViewer has made this very easy. I have found the connection very reliable, and as I am using the same OS at work and at home, with TeamViewer in fullscreen it really is just like I’m sat in front of my work machine.
Homewise, we have kept ourselves amused by rearranging the lounge furniture and keeping an eye on the local bird population.
We have a friendly local pair of robins who are either building a nest or feeding and housing young chicks, and they’ve taken to our selection of sunflower seeds and fat balls, visiting the patio (handily, also the view outside my wfh window) scores of times a day to collect food or nesting material. It’s been a real joy.
I can often be found sat gazing out the window with my dSLR and 70-200mm lens in hand like some sort of Rear Window cosplayer.
We had a power cut on Monday night at almost exactly midnight. I wouldn’t normally notice a power cut until the next day when any old digital clocks might be found blinking 12:00* but we have a noticeably noisy extractor fan near our bedroom for the services in our building. We have naturally gotten used to the low hum it emits constantly 24/7 – so when it stops for whatever reason, it’s really quite noticeable.
* I tried to wrap this in blink tag HTML code but, no dice.**
** Apparently the'code' HTML tag works, though.
In this case, the power was out for about five minutes. Just long enough for me to stagger round to the window to check and see – yep – it had affected other properties in our street, and even the street lights, which I thought was unusual. Pleasingly, this was also the night of the April supermoon, and it was front and centre as I twitched at the curtains to look out into the street.
We basically don’t get power cuts any more. I remember them happening what felt like quite often when I grew up. But in the past decade or more I can’t remember a power cut lasting more than a few minutes, and more often they’re a brief flicker.
Rearranging the furniture seems to be very lockdown from what I’ve seen online. And even on the streets it’s been clear people have been having a clear out from the piles of unwanted stuff on garden walls.
The rearranged lounge has been especially pleasant as we now have a plethora of plants which rejoice in the sunshine that streams in most of the day, and our TV unit is now in a shadowy corner which makes it easier to watch, like vampires, while the aforementioned sunlight pours in, attempting to disturb our lockdown viewing.
Such viewing has this week included:
National Theatre Live’s Jane Eyre which was a very enjoyable and inventive production with real heart. It took me about half an hour to get over my initial feelings of not being able to fully get into it until I realised I was able to enjoy the production for what it was and how it made use of the set etc., and the story could come second. Unsure if this is how theatre is meant to be enjoyed, but sort of don’t care.
Jesus Christ, Superstar (which I spent the preceding days confusing with Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat – but apparently that was streamed the week earlier, so perhaps it wasn’t entirely my fault) – this was a weird one – a huge, vast, arena-sized production which mostly worked and made use of the giant stage, and benefitted massively from some good cameo performances and Tim Minchin absolutely bossing it as Judas.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which I was *delighted* to see was added to Mubi this week (it’s on Mubi in the UK for the next few weeks – if you need a code for a free trial, why not use mine?), especially having missed it in the cinema not so long ago. It was as beautifully shot as I’d hoped, and I loved it. About two thirds of the way through I noticed how weird it was – sorry – how there hadn’t been a single man in the cast. This made it no less enjoyable. Actually probably made it even more enjoyable.
Race Across the World on BBC iPlayer, which I hadn’t seen before, but seems like a cross between maybe The Apprentice and Channel 4’s Hunted except with more realistic restrictions, and has been great fun. Watching people romp around South America while we’re stuck inside has definitely increased our wanderlust.
In non-viewing, I was delighted that Radio 3 re-broadcast the live performance of Max Richter’s Sleep from a few years ago at the Wellcome Collection. Sleep is an eight-hour(!) piece of music designed, as you might guess, to fall asleep to.
It was broadcast from 11pm to 7am, and I found myself stirring – as I often do during the night – and quickly finding the constant musical companion pleasant, before nodding off again. Really wonderful. That’s available on the BBC Sounds app/website for the next few weeks too – I really encourage anyone to stick it on at bedtime and give it a whirl.
It reminded me that I used to fall asleep to a pretty ace playlist consisting of Stars of the Lid, Jonsi & Alex, some Peter Broderick stuff… It was a good playlist.
In fact, Stars of the Lid’s And Their Refinement of the Decline is something I stick on in times of anxietal need, including sleeplessness and on flights.
Finally, Easter was… weird. But, well, we made nice food and drank nice wine, and even ate and drank some of it sat outside on the patio – so it was a pretty great Easter, actually. We didn’t have much chocolate as, when we’ve been able to get out to the shops recently, it felt frivolous to stock up on essentials as well as the least efficient way to store and carry chocolate.
This isn’t just lockdown fever: in previous Easters I have been much happier buying a few Chocolate Oranges (by far the cheapest/best value chocolate by weight) and some bars of decent choccy rather than wanting any actual eggs.
Instead of chocolate eggs we drank nice red wine, and I ordered one of those home deliveries of craft beer that doesn’t work out very economical apart from the first box, and I liked a fair few of them. I’m not a craft beer lover, but it’s nice to try a few different ones selected by someone else from time to time.
I’ve also been managing to get out for a ride or run every 2-3 days which is keeping me sane. Most other days I get out for a stroll, and it’s been nice walking nearby roads I don’t know, remarking at some really quite interesting residential architecture.
On Good Friday I rode my bike down to the river and it was… Weird. Pleasant – what with the roads being clear enough – but eerie, what with the city being basically empty.
It would be week thirteen that I took a while getting around to, even though there doesn’t feel like much to say. There is, of course. We all have loads to say about the current situation. All the changes that are taking place to our jobs and our daily lives. The different sounds outside.
One thing to be immensely grateful for is how the spring weather has been so pleasant. Cold, with northerly winds swooping down, but bright. And the days get ever long, with the promise of changing the clocks making things feel like they’re really shaking.
Of course the bright weather might have encouraged people out when they should stay home. But for those of us trying to stick to the guidance – one or two days this week I just didn’t feel the need to leave the flat – the pleasant weather has made it all the nicer once I did get outside.
I’ve tried to mix up my government-mandated daily exercise. Some days I walked, one day I ran, and another day I went for an extended bike ride. All had their individual merits.
The walk around neighbourhood streets revealed an eerie aural soundscape of… Well, peace, I suppose. I wished I’d had my Tascam recorded, because the sound was so uncanny. In reality, of course, it wouldn’t have made for an interesting sound recording as it was the absence of sound that was so interesting. And, really, this is the sound of quiet suburban streets up and down the country normally. It’s just unusual in north London streets.
On another occasion I found a walk actually quite dispiriting. No actual moment was unpleasant, it was just a slow slog around the local blocks with no goals other than being outside. I decided not to listen to anything and I suppose having an hour to contemplate what’s going on not just in my admittedly fairly privileged version of this situation but also the situation for those less fortunate… It just didn’t help my mood. It did remind that I am immensely lucky at this time, though. So there’s that.
The run and the bike ride were both much better for my mental health, and presumably my physical health too. The endorphins pumped and I came home feeling glad I got out. Running and trying to avoid others is slightly tricky, but not too bad now the roads are quieter. I’m still not running with headphones as I want to keep my awareness high. And the bike ride was pretty great – and made it much easier to distance myself from others. When cycling, the only needs I have to clean myself when I get home are from touching any communal doors to my building, and I never encounter anyone once I’m out. Naturally the roads being quieter makes cycling that much more pleasant, too.
Working from home has been going pretty well, all things considered. This has been my first week of actual lockdown after a dress rehearsal the week before. We got ourselves into a position where we were all able to at the very least access emails from home, but in reality, almost all of us have had full access to our systems from home,and we’ve even had the benefit of one or two members of staff who live locally visiting the office almost daily at their own risk, which has meant we’ve been able to request some documents to be scanned.
The hardest thing is the meta-work. What tasks can I complete, how, and to what extent? For me, I can do most of my usual tasks about 90% of the way. The missing bits are just hangovers from the fact our office relies heavily on paper filing systems. I expect that many offices with habits such as ours will emerge on the other side of this quite differently. It’s not just procedures that will change but actual attitudes.
A year ago if you’d asked me if I thought we could set ourselves up to work from home, the prospect would have caused me great anxiety. But we’ve managed it.
The other big change is, of course, having to call or Zoom rather than just talking to a colleague. This cuts down on some of the niceties of an office like ours – but it’s also enabled slightly more private backchannel communication, which has come in handy once or twice of late as some very strange decision have been made at board level with, seemingly, little regard for the humans those decisions affect.
We take each day as they come. Megan is also working from home most days, with her school operating a rota to ensure those pupils who need to come to school to allow their parents to do key worker jobs, or those in vulnerable environments. This, too, seems to be working well.
Days have simply assumed a slightly different routine. We were already very good at planning our meals for the week, and cooking for two makes things easy to scale up for leftovers. We watch the six o’clock news every day now, just to get the latest updates. I try to avoid the news the rest of the day, but there is an inevitable drip-drip-drip when using social media – I check Twitter and Instagram several times a day, and it’s mostly a positive experience, though some stuff gets through.
We’ve also been caught by surprise by Jamie Oliver’s Keep Cooking and Carry On which I was surprised to learn was being prepared almost instantaneously in response to this situation we’re all facing. There’s something incredibly calming and reassuring in his delivery, and the tips are really handy. Like I say, I’d say we are pretty decent at keeping well stocked with staples and planning meals, but his show has given us a few tips and ideas as well as just being a pleasant diversion (despite being, necessarily, about the incident itself).
Speaking of keeping well stocked, as things were starting to go south, I found myself buying one or two extra items that I knew would last, and that we tend to use anyway. Tinned tomatoes, bread flour, that sort of thing. Then we all experienced that bizarre period of time where things were simply vanishing from the shelves. The shops are starting to recover, but only through some fairly severe restrictions on access to stores.
But it’s working. Visiting a large supermarket is now a very calm experience. I write this on the 1st April and a visit to a big Sainsbury’s this afternoon revealed shelves well stocked with most items. Pasta is returning to the shelves, and although eggs and flour were still scarce, I did manged to get half a dozen eggs. Everything else I needed was just… there. As were the staff.
I am so glad that the supermarket horror show of stockpiling was a relatively short-lived episode. It lasted long enough to cause real panic, and I suppose if there’s anything to be gained from that, it’s made me more grateful that I am so able to take grocery shopping for granted 99.9% of the time.
Meanwhile I’ve been tinkering with my Raspberry Pi Zero. I managed to, I think, nuke a micro SD card. I’m still not 100% sure what I did. It was either burning a corrupt image to it, or removing it while it was burning an image. But the card seems physically corrupt, rather than being able to be formatted and used again. It’s odd. But I started again with another and have been re-learning (or learning anew) lots in the process: operating it ‘headless’ where it’s just on and connected to my network, but I am able to SSH into it from my Windows machine. That felt pretty magical.
I’m having trouble getting my RTL SDR dongle playing nicely with it, but I think I’m using software (GQRX) that is too CPU-intensive for the Pi Zero. Will try some command line based stuff. Mainly I just want to decode RDS from FM broadcasts on it. I think I can manage that.
Finally, here’s a sound recording taken from Hampstead Cemetery of a Scots Pine (I think), postively popping and clicking in the warm spring sunshine as hundreds (thousands?) of pine cones open up:
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.