I wish I hadn’t shared that video earlier. Seems like much of the advice is not so good. Thirty-three tweets from a food microbiologist starting here, or unrolled by the ThreadReader app here.

This video on how to deal with your food shopping is good. I’m alarmed to hear that some coronaviruses can live frozen for — two years, I think he said? So buying open bread from the bakers and freezing it is probably not as safe as I had thought.

Venturing Out: A Status Report from Hackney

I had cause to go to Westfield in Stratford the other day. It looked like this at about noon:

IMG 3608

The Levis shop was open. I was picking up some jeans that had been in for repair. That’s a good note for when this is all over, incidentally. If your Levis wear into holes or get torn, most of their shops offer a repair service now. They may have done for years; I only learned about it a month or so back. But it means that for significantly less than a new pair of jeans, I have two good-as-new pairs, including the ones which were already my favourites. One antidote to fast fashion.

There was almost no-one around, and no-one was getting very close to anyone. In Lakeland I was able to get a refill (really, replacement) for one of our SodaStream CO2 cylinders. But they didn’t have any new ones. It seems unlikely that those have been panic-bought, but I was thinking of getting an extra one in case it becomes hard to get replacements, so others might have been ahead of me.

In and out within half an hour, and the parking was the least I’ve ever paid at Westfield: £3. I wouldn’t normally drive if I wasn’t buying much, but getting on the Overground would have been the opposite of social distancing.

Or maybe not, if it had been as empty as the mall.

But just yesterday I gave my daughter a lift to a friend’s house — same idea, avoid the bus — and up in Stamford Hill at around 4:30pm it was really busy with pedestrians. A lot of cars on the road, too. Maybe that was normal or less than, for that time on a Tuesday, though.

Dropped into the wee Sainsbury’s on the way back. No fresh fruit or veg at all. Most tinned goods and bread gone — no toilet rolls, obviously — plenty of snacks and crisps, surprisingly. Either panic-buyers prefer healthy options, or Sainsbury’s are quicker at getting unhealthy supplies back.

I have to confess to feeling a small amount of smugness at having stocked up over the last year or so. Brexit was the initial trigger, but I soon realised that having a supply of non-perishable items is actually pretty useful. If you can afford to buy a bit extra from time to time, and you’ve got the space to store it all, of course.

On the other hand, meals are going to get dull really fast without a regular supply of fresh things.

But if that’s the most we have to worry about, we’re doing better than many. I hope you are coping OK, dear reader.

The End of Newspaper Delivery

We’ve been getting The Guardian delivered on Saturdays for several years. Not any other days, because who has time to read paper newspapers except at the weekend? But it’s great to get up and have the paper there to read over breakfast.

Sadly, a couple of weeks back we got a note with our delivery:

Sorry, we are stopping deliveries from the 1st of October.

Not too surprising, I suppose. It’s hard to imagine that enough people get deliveries to make it worth their time and effort. And it’s not like they’re going out of business: they’ll still be selling papers, just not delivering them.

So I suppose we’ll have to go out and buy the paper on Saturday mornings, like it’s the — actually, not like it’s the past at all. I’d bet that there have been newspaper deliveries as long as there have been newspapers.

Still, it’s not like they’ve stopped everywhere. I expect there are still a few places out there that still deliver. But what next? Will our milkman stop delivering?1

In this golden age of home deliveries, remember that we depend on people being willing and able.

  1. Yes, we get milk delivered three times a week, since you ask. 

Two Wheels Good

Back when the internet was young — or at least the commercial, available-at-home internet — I sent an email with the subject line, “Bicycle on the Superhighway”. It was about me having a publicly-accessible email address for the first time since uni (as opposed to one that was only usable within the company where I worked at the time).

This was back when people — inspired, if I recall correctly, by Al Gore — were calling the net the “Information Superhighway.”

This post is not about all that, though; this is about literal cycling on a literal superhighway: specifically London’s “Cycle Superhighways.”

Since the building where I now work has showers, I decided it was time to get back on the bike. And since it’s in Westminster, it turns out there’s a really easy route, that uses CS6 and CS3: down Farringdon Road and west along Embankment, by the river.

These are fantastic cycling facilities, especially the Embankment one. Properly separated from the motor traffic, plenty of room to move and overtake, great sequencing of traffic lights so you hardly have to stop. It’s hard to fault it. Especially compared to nearly every other pathetic painted cycle lane in the city.

It gets a bit hairy where it all ends, in Parliament Square: the traffic there is unfeasibly heavy. Who drives near parliament?

If there’s a downside to it all, it’s this: I suspect that the motorised traffic is busier and faster, exactly because it’s not tempered by having bikes in the mix. I can’t be sure — I’ve never used Embankment before, and it’s years since I used to cycle regularly on Farringdon Road — but it feels to me that there’s a crazy amount of traffic and that it’s going faster than ever.

The latter can’t really be true — there are still speed limits, and they either won’t have changed or might have dropped to 20 mph in sections. But I still get this sense that, freed from interacting with the fragile two-wheeled minority, the armoured legions behave more like they’re on a motorway.

Whether that’s the case or not, the number of people cycling — especially in the recent bright spring weather — is huge. The only time I’ve seen more cyclists together was when I did the London to Brighton ride many years ago.

And also in the mix now are electric scooters and electric skateboards, which makes it all the more interesting. There’s even the odd cycle rickshaw.

It’ll be interesting to see how the volume changes with the seasons, but you can’t beat it for a way to commute: it’s faster than the tube, it saves you money, and you get some exercise. I recommend it for anyone who’s able.

New Job Obtained

Yesterday I started my new job. It all came about very quickly in the end: it’s not even a month since I finished at SAHSU. And I didn’t really start hunting in earnest until then. In fact I had two offers to choose from, which was nice. I turned down Capgemini, a massive consultancy, in the hope that the smaller one, whose offer I did accept, would feel more comfortable, more human-scale.

Though they do have some massive clients.

You’ll note that I’m not naming the company. That’s because the staff handbook makes it quite clear that they don’t want us to do so. I guess they don’t want the company name linked with arbitrary random sites on the web. I mean, we all know I’d be fine, but you never know what someone might say.

Here’s how good they are though: in a company full of PCs, when I said I preferred to work on a Mac, they said, “No problem,” and ordered one in for me. I’ve just been setting it up today. 15-inch MacBook Pro, 2018 model. Lovely. Much like my own one, though mine’s a 2017 model and Space Grey, rather than silver.

Not much more to report yet. I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into some projects.

Job Changing

I started at SAHSU in Imperial College London in March of last year. I finished there today. Well, yesterday: today was my last day of employment, but I had holiday entitlement to use up. It was a fixed-term contract for a year initially, and they were able to extend it by a month or so, but there was no more funding, and without funding, no job.

So I’m job-hunting again. I had an interview yesterday, and they’ve asked me back for another one next week. I have one with another company next week too, so there are jobs out there. I just need to find the right one.

So if you happen to know of anyone who’s looking for an experienced Java developer with a side-order of Python, and various other skills, point them my way.

Chile Trip, Part 3: Valparaíso, City of Colour

This port city is a bit rougher than Santiago, but its artwork is more established and more substantial.

This is where we stayed, and the view from the window of the breakfast room:

And here’s the same mural from ground level.

Some of the artists like figures with way too many eyes:

[aesop_gallery id="5518" revealfx="off" overlay_revealfx="off"]

Or way too many crowns:

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The art doesn’t stop taggers, though:

If your canvas is a wide stretch of concrete, sometimes your subject has to be sideways:

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And a few more:

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It was hard to reach the sea because of the port and the railway line. So we took the train a few kilometres along the coast to Viña del Mar, where there’s a beach:

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Back in Valparaíso proper the dogs are parked everywhere, as usual, and there are funiculars, because it’s very hilly:

[aesop_gallery id="5528" revealfx="off" overlay_revealfx="off"]

Italian Coffee is the Best

This post on someone who’s trying to bring Starbucks-style coffee shops to Italy is kind of annoying. Not least for the closing quote:

“It’s not that Italian coffee has always been bad,” Campeotto said. “They have been geniuses. The god of coffee is the Italian espresso. The problem is, they have been stuck there. They stopped.”

If they had already achieved the “god of coffee” (which I happen to agree with), then why would they do anything other than stop? If you’ve already achieved perfection you have no need to improve. Just make sure you maintain that level.

I spent twelve months of 1989-90 in Turin. A cappuccino was 1200 lire, or about 60p (around 45-50 US cents, probably). And it was delicious. The best coffee I had, or have, ever tasted.

The growth of Starbucks and the other chains came after that, and I’ve been looking for coffee as good ever since. I’ve never found it. The closest I ever found in London was Costa in its early days. It has slipped down to the level of Starbucks and Caffè Nero, though.

Which is not to say that any of those are truly bad: not, at least, compared to what was available before they came on the scene.

But nothing matches my memory of Torinese cappuccino.

Chile Trip, Part 2: Santiago, Street Art, and More

As you’ll recall if you’ve been paying attention, I started what appeared to be a series of posts on our trip to Chile. But then stopped. Well, not exactly, because here we are again. It just takes me a long time to sort out all the photographs.

We spent three days in Santiago (and another one at the end, just before we flew back).

You can click on any of the photos or galleries below for a bigger view.

Santiago Street Art

Santiago Street Art
Santiago Street Art

There’s a lot of street art, much of it showing some of the artists, musicians, and writers who have come from Chile or had an impact on it.

There are plenty of other subjects, though.

As well as oddities like this gym which is supporting the most popular Linux distribution:

Santiago Street Art
Santiago Street Art

And there is more formal public art, too.

Up Hill, Down Cable

Funicular Castle
Funicular Castle

Santiago is in the foothills of the Andes, at 500m above sea level, so mountains are all around it:

[aesop_gallery id=“5117” revealfx=“off” overlay_revealfx=“off”]

Though it’s hard to tell the mountains from the clouds in that first one.

But there’s a hill in the city itself, big enough to have both a funicular and a cable car. We went up one and down the other.

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Apart from the ride, you get great views, of course, but the main attraction is the giant statue at the top: Our Lady of the Radio Masts:

A statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that has been used to support various radio and mobile phone antennas.
A statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that has been used to support various radio and mobile phone antennas.

Also known as the Ladderback Virgin:

A statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary with a ladder up her back.
A statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary with a ladder up her back.

(OK, those are just my names for her.)

This is the kind of thing you really go up for, though:

[aesop_gallery id=“5132” revealfx=“off” overlay_revealfx=“off”]

Flags and Padlocks

A bridge covered in padlocks
A bridge covered in padlocks

La Moneda is the President’s official residence. Outside it we find the biggest flag I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t windy enough to really get the effect, unfortunately.

[aesop_gallery id=“5134” revealfx=“off” overlay_revealfx=“off”]

And then there’s this lovely bridge:

A bridge in Santiago, Chile
A bridge in Santiago, Chile

Which demonstrates that “love locks” get everywhere (and they didn’t originate in Paris, as I have just learned):

A bridge in Santiago , covered in padlocks
A bridge in Santiago , covered in padlocks

More later.

Chile Trip Part 1: There and Back

We’re not long back from a family holiday to Chile. I plan to write several posts about it. I’m going to take a thematic approach, rather than a purely chronological or location-based one. Though some will be that kind, too. There will be pictures, but not so much in this post, as it’s about planes, airports, etc.

First, then, the whole business of travelling to another continent, and to the southern hemisphere of our amazing planet.

Getting There

We flew on Latin American Airlines, or LATAM. They were pretty good. I have no complaints. Maybe not as good as British Airways to New York a few years ago, but certainly much better than the budget airlines. The only thing was that we couldn’t get a direct flight. There just don’t seem to be any to Santiago. Though a taxi driver told us towards the end of our stay that BA have one direct flight a week. If so, then either we didn’t find it, it was on an inconvenient day, or it was really expensive. Or any combination of those.

So we had a multipart flight out: first to São Paulo, then on to Santiago via Rosario. That was just a stop at another airport, without leaving the plane. Though some confusion in the booking system meant that we had different seats for the second part. We were not alone: it was all a bit chaotic, as new people boarded and wanted to sit in already-occupied seats, as people who were staying on didn’t realise they had to move. Still, it got sorted out.

Also I didn’t realise till later that Rosario is actually in Argentina. It doesn’t count as visiting a country if you stay airside, but still, interesting to have touched down in two more countries than we planned to.

Above all, it’s a long journey. Around 6000 miles, and about 22 hours, if memory serves.

Jet Lag

We didn’t suffer too much from jet lag going out. Except… almost every day for the entire three weeks I woke up around 4 in the morning. Usually got back to sleep OK. Our clock-time confusion was confounded after about a week when the clocks in Chile went forward by an hour. It’s the tail end of winter there, so it’s the start of summer time. But it’s earlier than when clocks in Europe change, relatively. Also it was only Chile: in Bolivia and Brazil the time was unchanged.

Taxis Home and Abroad

While I’m on travel I’ll just touch on taxis. Chilean taxi drivers, in common with those all over Europe, get out of their car and help you load your bags into the boot. This happens everywhere; except Britain. Or at least, except London. When we were getting a cab when we were coming home I was struck by the fact that all these people were struggling into the stupidly-designed-for-luggage black cabs with no help from the driver.

And then I was ashamed when it was our turn, and the driver did get out and help us. But it’s uncommon.

Internal Flights

Chile is distinctive on the map for its length. It runs almost the entire length of the continent. So there are some long distances to travel if you want to see much of it. As it is, I couldn’t say that we saw much of it, but we did see some very distinctive areas. Notably the Atacama Desert and the Lakes region.

They’re quite far apart, though, so we took some internal flights. All by LATAM (we should have signed up for their frequent-flyer programme), and all fine. Security at the airports was generally less intrusive than it is here. We didn’t have to take iPads out of carry-ons, and I once went through security with my metal water bottle full! Radical.

Long(ish) Distance Buses

The only other trip we took was from Santiago to Valparaíso, which was by bus (coach). A couple of hours. Very comfortable, if you could avoid hitting your head on the badly-designed overhead screens.

Santiago Metro and Valparaíso Light Rail

Santiago has a decent Metro system. You get a contactless card like London’s Oyster cards, called Bip!. Which is a great name, in my humble opinion. It also has the advantage over Oyster that you can make multiple journeys simultaneously with one card. So for a family of four, for example, you just put enough money on the card for everyone, and tap in four times.

I don’t really know why Oyster doesn’t support this. My only guess would be that they thought it would cause too many complaints with people accidentally being charged twice.


Coming back took even longer: 23 hours in airports and planes, but 27, 28, if you count getting to and from the airports.

The weird thing here was that we flew from Santiago to Rio de Janeiro; then, after a four or five hour stopover, to São Paulo. An hour and a half there, and finally on to Heathrow. I don’t understand why it was like that, but as I recall it was the only available option when we booked the flights.

The annoying part was that — seemingly because the Rio – São Paulo bit was a domestic flight — we had to collect our luggage in Rio, and then check it back in. We went landside, got Brazilian entry stamps in our passports, all that.

We took off for Heathrow at 22:10, which made it 02:10 in the UK. So I wanted to get to sleep, but first I wanted to eat. On these long flights, though, they don’t rush to serve food like they do on a short European flight. So it was, I think, around 4 am before I could close my eyes.

Adjusting back home wasn’t too bad, though. People always say it’s worse coming east, but, apart from sleeping late on Bank Holiday Monday, I didn’t have too much trouble.

Imperial Adventures

Just over a month ago I posted a brief note about job news, saying that more details would be forthcoming. I was, as I said then, just waiting for some paperwork.

It took longer than I expected to get that paperwork sorted out, but I received and returned the contract yesterday afternoon. On Monday I start work at the Small Area Health Statistics Unit (SAHSU), part of the School of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial College.

That’s quite a mouthful, but in short I’ll be working on programming something called the The Rapid Inquiry Facility (RIF), which is an open-source tool for studying health statistics.

I’m neither a medical researcher nor a statistician, but I am a programmer (or a software engineer, if you want to be fancy). Our job is to understand the needs of someone — usually referred to as “the business,” but I’m guessing that will be different in my new job — and translate those needs into actions in software. That basic definition doesn’t change according to the problem domain. Whether it’s sending payments from one bank to another, checking a person’s right to work on a government database, or doing something with statistical data about health issues, the programmer’s job is to understand what the user needs and make things happen on a screen.

The big difference for me, I think, will be that in this new role I’ll have the chance to contribute to doing something good in the world. As I said at my interview, I’ve mainly worked in financial software, and while, sure, people need banks, it wasn’t the most socially-usefully thing. The last half-year working at the Home Office had some value, but I was a tiny cog in a huge machine.

At Imperial I’ll be able to feel that I’m actually contributing something useful to society, as well as doing what should be really interesting work.

Oh, and: I’ll be back in Paddington, which I know from my Misys days, and it’s a much shorter commute than to Croydon.



I can remember when I first saw Star Trek.

That’s not so unusual, but if my memory is right — and I’ve just more or less confirmed that it is — then when I first saw it was the absolute first time anyone could see it, in this country, at least.

Here’s the memory (and it’s tied up, as many good things are, with Doctor Who).

It’s 1969. It’s the summer holidays, and we’re in a holiday home with a TV. That in itself makes me doubt the memory, because back then holiday houses just didn’t have TVs. A lot of houses in general didn’t. But this memory has always told me that we were on a family holiday. And it’s Saturday, late afternoon. I’m settling down at the TV, and somebody says — I think it’s my sister — ‘Martin, Doctor Who finished, remember?’ Because it was Doctor Who time.

And I said, ‘But this is like Doctor Who!’

And as the new programme started someone else — my Dad, I think — said, with a tone of surprise, ‘He knows all about it!’ And then the Enterprise swooshed towards me out of the screen.

I’ve long wondered how true this memory was. It was 1969; I’d have been five. But I just checked:

Initially, the BBC was the first-run broadcaster of Star Trek (12 July 1969-15 December 1971).

The series was shown in four seasons, the first on Saturday evenings at 5:15 pm (in the time slot usually taken by Doctor Who).

Which exactly matches my memory: summer, Saturday, Doctor Who slot. And the calendar confirms that the 12th of July 1969 was a Saturday.

I wouldn’t be five for another month plus. Not a bad bit of early-memory retention. I wouldn’t have remembered it at all, if it wasn’t for one thing: trauma caused by fear that my parents would turn the TV off just as this exciting new programme was starting burned it into my brain.

My Dad always liked Star Trek too, so I guess I was partly responsible for that.


Yesterday I watched the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, which are on Netflix (in the UK and Europe, at least; in the US they’re on CBS’s own new streaming service). And I really enjoyed it. I wouldn’t say it felt like being that nearly-five-year-old again, but it did feel like they’re trying something new and potentially very exciting.

Today I was looking at its entry on IMDB. It turns out there are user-written reviews there, which I don’t think I’d been aware of before.

Sadly they are almost universally negative. ‘It’s not Star Trek,’ is a common theme. But there’s a strong whiff of racism and misogyny coming through. Two non-white women as leads means ‘social justice warriors’ are running the show, it seems. Well from what I’ve read of Gene Roddenbery, I think he’d have been happy to be called a social justice warrior. Star Trek was always about diversity and tolerance.


I don’t know how many episodes of this new series they have lined up, but I know I’m looking forward to watching them. So is my inner five-year-old. So would my Dad have been. And so would Gene.

New Job

As you may know, I’ve been between contracts lately. Had quite a lot of interest from my CV, but not been so lucky with the tests and interviews.

Yesterday at about 10am a recruiter called me. Today at just after 5pm I was offered the job. A new contract, six months initially, with the likelihood of extending. Sometimes things go fast.

Spout Rolla

Back in Balloch in 1981, 82 or so we use to play a Pac-Man clone called Spout Rolla. But there are no references to it on the internet, as far as I can tell. So this is my story about it.

Once upon a time a gang of kids — thinking they were adults, but not really — used to go to the pub, and play a game.

The pub was actually the bar of a place called Duck Bay Marina. I see from that link that they now call it “Duck Bay Hotel.” Either way, it was a couple of miles outside Balloch, on the west bank of Loch Lomond.

Why did we go there, when there were pubs in the town? Two reasons, I suspect. One, some of us had driving licences and the chance to use our parents’ cars, so why not? (I wasn’t yet one of them at that point.) And two, it had video games in the foyer.

That had a dual advantage. We could play the games, and those of us who, let’s say, weren’t quite strictly within the parameters of the legal drinking age, could stay out of sight of the staff.

So: usually two machines, as I recall, plus maybe a fruit machine or two. I first played Frogger there. It was the era when arcade games had started to extend beyond shooting things in space to other tests of skill, like crossing rivers on logs.

Spout Rolla was in a similar vein. But it was a clear derivative of — let’s be honest, rip-off of — Pac-Man. I’m not sure I’d actually played Pac-Man at that point, but I must have been aware of it.

The idea was you guided a paint brush moving around a watery maze, painting the maze behind it. Fish would come out and try to catch your brush. If you painted all the maze you got a new screen (which I think might just have been the same maze in different colours, maybe speeded up a bit).

Instead of the power-pills of Pac-Man, there was one part of the maze that had a paint roller in it. If you approached the roller from the right direction, it went with you and you accelerated just for that section. Then you could turn back and roll over the fish that were following you, for extra points. And that was it.

Simpler times, simpler pleasures, I guess. It never made much sense, but we liked it.

Thing is, everything’s on the net today, right? Well, apparently not. When I googled it today, I found two surprising thing. First, that there are no references to “Spout Rolla game” to be found, with or without quotes round the first two words. Second, that Spout Rolla is a place in Scotland, namely a waterfall in Perth and Kinross.1

Could this possibly be that most unlikely of things (at least before Rockstar Games): a Scottish game?

My son suggested that there would be people my age trying to remember what the game was called. So I tried googling for a description of it: pac-man clone fish paint roller. That search has selected videos, which I didn’t. But I did find a possible explanation.

It seems there was a game called Crush Roller, also known as Make Trax, and the one I remember could be a rebadged version of that. Plus you can play it at that link. As with many games of the time, it’s not as satisfying playing them with arrow keys as it was with a joystick.

So, no, it’s not Scottish, but it could possibly have been rebadged for the Scottish market. Or maybe just that one in Duck Bay, who knows.

The only thing is that, seeing that version, I had forgotten about there being two rollers. I was fairly sure there was only one, but playing it felt familiar, so I guess Crush Roller/Make Trax is it.

  1. Initially the only Wikipedia page for it I could find was in Swedish. But latterly (2019-12-08), I find it’s better known as “Sput Rolla.” According to the “List of waterfalls of Scotland” article, “‘Spout’ is another common word found throughout England and Scotland for particular types of fall though it is usually replaced by ‘sput’ in the formerly Gaelic-speaking parts of the latter.” 

Looking Back and Forward

My recent and forthcoming live music experiences all involve bands of my youth that have reformed and are touring their old material.1 Wallowing in nostalgia, some might call it.

But there’s nothing inherently wrong with bands getting back together. It can be problematic if you are the band that tours as the Dead Kennedys, of course. There’s a whole saga there that I won’t go into, but if Jello Biafra’s not involved, and in fact is actively against it, then it’s not the Dead Kennedys.

Indeed, in his song “Buy My Snake Oil” Jello suggested that a way for old punks to make money off their history would be to

Give in
Ride the punk nostalgia wave
For all it’s worth
Recycle the name of my old band
For a big reunion tour
Sing all those hits from the “good ol’ days”
‘Bout how bad the good ol’ days were

Which is a fair criticism of old bands doing their thing in modern days, I guess. But I see two arguments to counter it, from a gig-goer’s point of view.


The first was made by my friend Andrew, around the time that the Sex Pistols reformed and toured. This would have been in 1996.

“I missed them first time round,” he said when I challenged him about it. “This is unfinished business for me.”

Which was a good point, and kind of made me regret playing the purist and not going.

In 1993 I had investigated going to see the reunited Velvet Underground. But I really didn’t want to see them at an all-seated venue. Partly because I’d had a bad experience seeing Lou Reed a year or so before (despite having had a very good experience with him a year or two before that).

I recall that I phoned the venue — Earl’s Court, I think — and found that it did have some standing room. But those tickets were sold out. So I didn’t go. Regretted that, too. So I’m taking the chance to see bands like the Rezillos, or The Beat and The Selecter, that I missed first time around.

OK, But What is it Really?

The second point about the “punk nostalgia wave” (or any similar accusation of nostalgia) is: that is not what it is.

Because here’s the thing: it isn’t nostalgia if you’re carrying on with something that was always there.

Nostalgia (noun): a feeling of pleasure and also slight sadness when you think about things that happened in the past

according to Cambridge.

But this isn’t that. Because while those bands’ heydays might have been in the past, their music has remained available and frequently-played. You can’t be nostalgic for an album you listened to last week, or last night.

And a live performance always happens in the present.

This train of thought was kicked off for me a couple of years back when there was an article in the Guardian, prior to The Force Awakens coming out. I can’t find it now,2 but it claimed that “nostalgia” was part of the cause of the excitement for the new film.

And I thought, no. Well, maybe for some people. But for many of us, if not most of us, Star Wars never went away. We’ve watched it, talked about it, read theories about it, and so on. It has been part of our lives.

Or take Doctor Who. Sure, there were the wilderness years before 2005, but The Doctor never really went away. The Tardis and Daleks are burned into Britain’s cultural memory, and I think they always will be.

Now if I were to see an episode of, say, Marine Boy: that would be nostalgic. I remember it fondly from my childhood, and have never seen it since. I’ve never even seen it in colour, because those were the days of black & white televisions.3

But I can’t be nostalgic for punk bands or Star Wars or Doctor Who, because they never went away. The sense of warmth and shared experience they bring: that’s not nostalgia, it’s something else. Familiarity, at worst. Or better: community.

  1. Or a mixture of old and new, as with The Rezillos↩︎

  2. This is why you should always save links, folks. ↩︎

  3. God, I really come from another time, don’t I? ↩︎

Saved Life

In International Clash Day I mentioned a life-changing song: “Wasted Life,” by Stiff Little Fingers. SLF’s anti-military song literally changed my life; or its potential direction, at least. I was probably moving in an anti-war kind of direction anyway, to be fair, but it was definitely a trigger point.

People say — or used they to, at least — that a song couldn’t change your life. By comparison, I don’t think there was ever a similar tendency to say that a book couldn’t change a person’s life. I suspect that is down to their comparative sizes: it seems respectable for something the size of a novel to have a major impact on a human’s psyche, while a three-minute song? Not so much.

Although if it were merely length, then people wouldn’t have complained if you said an album changed your life. I’m not sure that anyone ever said that,1 but I suspect that if they had, their statement would have been pooh-poohed just as much as the same claim for a song.

At this point I feel I ought to quote Springsteen, giving the opposite view:

We learned more from a three-minute record, baby,
Than we ever learned in school

he sings in “No Surrender.” Hyperbole, certainly, but there is a core of truth to it: the truth of the feeling you can get from listening to a great song.

With “Wasted Life” the feeling for me was of sudden crystallisation, or realisation. I had, for some years, been saying that I wanted to be pilot, join the RAF. This was before the horrors of the Gulf War, or for that matter the Balkans. Though it was in the heart of the Cold War, and British soldiers were stationed in Northern Ireland during the troubles — though not so much RAF staff, I would think.

But I was blind to all that, brought up as I was on a diet of Second World War films, Commando comics, and Airfix models of warplanes. I had, in short, a thoroughly romanticised view of war. And I just wanted to fly.

But I didn’t want to kill. I had always known that, I’m sure. But two lines of that one song made it real for me:

Stuff their fucking armies
Killing isn’t my idea of fun2

And that was all it took. I remember that it was a while before I could tell my parents that I had changed my plans. Perhaps because they would have asked why, and I didn’t want to have to explain it. Maybe because I thought they’d be disappointed. I’m sure my Mum wasn’t. My Dad kind of was: “But you were going to be a Spanish-speaking pilot,” he said. He had always been slightly amused that my school taught half of us Spanish, instead of the then-much-more-conventional French.

A life can hinge on such a small moment.

  1. Somebody must have, of course. ↩︎

  2. In an amusing followup to recent thoughts, I originally wrote that as “army,” but find that lyrics sites think this plural too. Correctly, of course. ↩︎

It’s Not Tomorrow if You Haven’t Gone to Sleep yet

Yeah, OK, so I missed my deadline: I’m typing this after midnight. But it’s still the same day I got up in, in sleep-cycle terms. Also in terms of how the TV listings mags give the days, too. Which can actually get a little bit confusing sometimes.

It stems, of course, from the days when all TV would have stopped by midnight or shortly after. Yes, kids, I know it’s hard to imagine, but TV stations used to “close down” at night. One or other of the channels used to even have a wee programme that was actually called Closedown, if I remember correctly. I think it was one of the weird religious things, where a priest or minister would come on and give a Thought for the Day kind of mini sermon.

Anyway, and still on TV, apparently the best comedy show around, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, is having that annoying recent habit, a mid-season break. We have no idea when it will be back. And… well, if you’ve watched it…

No, I’m not going to say any more about it. Just hurry up and get back, guys.

I may actually backdate this post, just so my daily posting doesn’t show a gap. After all, I’m treating it as still Thursday 16th of February, even if the clock doesn’t.

The Origin of the Bitface

Things go quicker than you think. This tweet post1 was inspired by a tweet, and I thought it wasn’t too long ago. But in fact it was April last year.

My friend Yusuf’s tweet inspired me to finally write about the term “biftace” and why I chose it and what it means. Actually I thought I had written this before, but it seems not.

So a long time ago, when I was first thinking of a name for my blog — before it even existed, indeed — I thought about the way the press used to refer to teachers working “at the chalkface.” The analogy with miners at the coalface was probably originally meant to disparage the labour of teachers as being less than that of miners. I’m guessing here, but considering the term seems to have originated in tabloid journalism, and tabloids tend to be disparaging of anything intellectual — though to be fair, they haven’t exactly been friends to miners either, over the years.

Anyway, I quite liked the term, and wanted to come up with something similar to refer to my own industry, that of programming. I tried out one or two for size, at least in my head. “Byteface” felt more accurate (it’s rare for an application programmer to care to much about bit-level things, and I mainly write Java, which compiles to bytecode); but it didn’t feel right.”Codeface” would have been another, but again, didn’t feel right.

“Bitface” did feel right, and so an early version became “The Bitface Diaries.” I don’t think I ever made that live.

When I started my Livejournal (which nowadays is just one of my syndication targets) I went with “Tales from the Bitface,” which I still like. And then when I decided to set up my own site I went with “A Labourer at the Bitface,” which harked back to the original impetus for inventing the word, and also alluded to my support for the Labour Party.

Which means I’m considering a rename now, as I consider my future in said party. But that’s another blog entry.

The conversation with with Yusuf was about hardware, which is not what the term was about. But I never worked out what we should call working with hardware in similar terminology.

  1. Post! This post, not this tweet. ↩︎

Recent Events

Just in case you think that I haven’t been paying attention to recent events… yeah, I know, how likely is that…?

Brexit? Trump? Celebrity deaths? 2016 is well behind us — though regarding Trump and Brexit, the worst is still ahead.

But anyway, I haven’t said anything about my work status since back in the summer. So I should bring things up to date.

I had a few interviews, but no serious interest. Then July was ending, and I was beginning to think that soon we’d be going on holiday, and once we got back it would be nearly September. That was longer than I fancied going without having something lined up.

And then I got a call from a recruiter telling me there was a bank in the City looking for someone with my exact skill set for a six-month contract. It was supporting — and to some extent building on — the products that I used to make at Misys. That wasn’t quite what I had seen myself doing. I was looking for something that was more of a change, more of a challenge.

But I went in to talk to them and it all sounded pretty good. A significant number of the people who work there are ex-Misys, and I know them, so it would make for a relatively smooth transition.

But a contract. I hadn’t really intended to go down that route. Still, the idea of being a freelancer appealed. I’d like to have a go at indie development one of these days, and the two can be complementary. We’ll see where that goes. But I decided to go for it. Set up the limited company (more on that in a later post), discussed the contract (including while I was on holiday) and started at the end of August.

And it’s… OK. The people are good, the location is great. But the work is not that interesting, and the internal politics are… interesting.

And there’s the pressure of knowing that you’re dealing (sometimes) with a live system. With real people’s actual money. Having only worked for a software company before, that feels unexpectedly high-pressure.

All things considered, when my contract is up for renewal at the end of February, I don’t think I’ll be renewing it (even assuming they offer it to me, which they probably will). So I’ll be looking for another position shortly. Maybe contract, maybe permanent again. It depends what comes up.

Pokémon Gone

I am so not a gamer.

Oh, I loved Asteroids back in the day. I solved Monument Valley, and I got on fine with Alto’s Adventure. But I’ve never got more sophisticated modern games. There’s a whole big post about that that I’ll maybe write one day.

But Pokémon Go has lit up the internet for the last week or so, and it sounded kind of fun. So I thought I’d give it a try. Probably more healthy than arguing about the Labour leadership crisis on Facebook, anyway.

I was just out at the shops, and I remembered I had it, and sure enough, there was a wild Golbat outside the local supermarket. You’ve got to throw the pokéball to catch them, right? I’ve seen enough of the TV series with my kids to get that.

A hovering Golbat superimposed on a shop called 'Local Supermarket'.

But could I catch it? Could I buggery. No matter how many times I flicked up on the screen to send the ball towards it, it just would not connect. I must have tried like fifty times, standing outside the shop like an idiot.

This is why I never get into games. I soon hit upon something frustrating and get bored with them. No doubt I was doing something wrong. I’ll try again, I suppose, but it’s very discouraging.

Oh, and I couldn’t get the name I wanted. “Devilgate” was taken, but so was it along with just about every suffix I could think of, including just random strings of numbers.

Kind of cool to see the pokéball rolling off under the vegetable racks, though.

Suzi Q, where are you?

I got a card in the post the other day, from my friends Di and Johnny. Regular readers will know Di as one of the most frequent commenters here (ie, she has commented). We disagreed over The Great Gatsby.

Anyway, the card had a post-it stuck inside, with some writing on it that I couldn’t quite make out. Di wrote, “Been trying to get this for you for ages… can you guess who it is?”

I was slow to realise that the “who” referred to the writing on the post-it. But she also said there was a clue on the back of the card.

On the back she’d written “devilgate.org”.

The post-it looks like this:


And I read it to say, “To Martin. Suzi Quatro.”

I mean, if it says that it makes sense considering my origin story; otherwise, not so much.

Thanks Di and Johnny. It’s a lovely thought.

Why Devilgate?

I always expect people to ask me about my use of the handle devilgate, but they almost never do. But an old friend did recently, and I wrote him the answer, and I think it belongs here.

So sit back and relax, and I’ll fill you in on the whole story.

You’re familiar with the origin story of the comics character Daredevil, I assume? Well it’s almost exactly like that, except with less radioactive material/eye interaction, blindness and skintight costumes. But with added rock ‘n’ roll.

So, back around the time I was in primary 4 or 5 (age 9-10), Suzi Quatro, as I’m sure you know, had a song called ‘Devilgate Drive’ (or so I thought for decades; I was telling a colleague at work this story a few years back and we looked for it on Spotify, and couldn’t find it; until we split it into two words: ‘Devil Gate Drive'; somehow much less satisfying). I didn’t actually know the song back then, but some of my classmates did, and started calling me ‘Devilgate’, precisely because I was decidedly non-devilish (or so I assume). I was seen as a bit of a goody-goody, because a) my Mum was a teacher, and b) I was a bit of a goody-goody.

As nicknames go, it was a lot better than it could have been. I remember once another kid asking me what it meant, and I said, “Devilgate: the gate full of the devil.” Which is kind of embarrassing, but considering how goody-goody I actually was (altar boy, and all that), it’s surprising that I wasn’t more bothered by the diabolical nature. Perhaps further evidence that all children are naturally without belief, until and unless they’re indoctrinated into having some: I probably didn’t really believe in the devil.

Anyway, spin forward a few years and I got online and was looking for a handle somewhere – Slashdot might have been where I first used it, and I was just trying to find out whether you can find the creation date of your Slashdot user ID, but it seems you can’t. I have a vague feeling, actually, that I used it somewhere else first, but I can’t imagine where that might be.

Anyway, having established it, it became my go-to handle. Wherever there’s a web service, if there’s a devilgate (or Devilgate: I see that I capitalised it back in the Slashdot days), it’ll almost certainly be me. Except for eBay, where I’m devilgate_real, because some bampot had nicked my name by the time I got there.

And so when I finally got round to registering my own domain, it was obvious what I’d choose.

I phone, you phone

So, I've got an iPhone. I walked into the O2 shop near work the other day, and came out half an hour later with an 8 GB phone and a £30-a-month contract.

The device itself is a thing of beauty, in both hardware and software terms.

iTunes, however, is an ugly piece of dingbat’s kidneys.

Don’t get me wrong: it does its thing well, from playing music, through purchases, to synchronisation. But my god, it looks ugly.

And nor do I like the way it presents the music it knows about; but then, I’ve never seen an application that does that very well.

As to typing with the on-screen keyboard, well, it’s actually not that bad; it’s never going to. Be fast, bit there are some smart optimisations, like automatically switching back from the symbol keyboard to the letter one when you hit space after a comma, or immediately after you type an apostrophe.

And I almost cry with happiness every time I see the transition from one app to another.

ETA: As you can see from the typoes above, I wrote that on the shiny device. I’ll leave them in for posterity.

Exciting times

These are exciting times in Hackney. Not only has my son just started secondary school today (where did those eleven years go?) but it seems that we are getting a new bookshop near the top of our road.

This is big news indeed. Our little corner of Lower Clapton is characterised more by chicken-based fast-food joints and kebab shops. A children’s bookshop opened on nearby Chatsworth Road a year or two ago (my daughter was their first customer). There was a brief, exciting moment last year when something that looked like a bookshop opened up on Lower Clapton Road, but it turned out to be a religious booksop, specialising the the Christian field.

But today I went up to get my hair cut, and I noticed a new sign up: Pages of Hackney. A new bookshop on the Lower Clapton Road, opening on Saturday 13th September. Excellent news.

Not so good is that Saf’s Barbers is “closed until further notice”. I hope everything’s all right. I still have shaggy hair, which never looks good when it’s receding.