Multiple personalities..

The title of this post isn’t meant to disparage a more serious mental condition, but it’s a good metaphor for my state of mind over the last few weeks. Plus by being called Al I’ve been able to weave it into irresistible puns based on that, and who doesn’t love a good pun?

I’ve been reading ‘Think less, live more’ by Richard Carlson. It’s not a particularly new book, it was first published in the 1990s and a colleague recommended it to me and I’ve been taking a lot from it. I’m only about 41% of the way through it according to my Books app, but it’s really helped me to put a framework around some of the things I’ve been grappling with myself.

To paraphrase its basic tenet (probably really badly) it outright states that your feelings are driven by your thoughts – and you have some degree of control of your thoughts, if you’re present enough to acknowledge them, recognise them and decide whether or not that type of thought is likely to fuel your happiness. I guess that kind of theory more recently would be badged as Mindfulness or Being Present. But I’m quite drawn to how Carlson achieves the same effect without feeling like you might have to bust out the buddhist bells and whack some joss sticks on.

As you can probably imagine, much of my thoughts have not been leading me toward happiness in recent times. When those negative thoughts surface now I’ve tried to learn to call them out to myself, to put them to one side, and leave some room for less damaging ones. It sounds really silly, but it’s been working – which surprised me. I’ve never been much of a self-help book kind of person, maybe it’s a case of finding something helpful at the right time?

So anyway, multiple personalties, right? In my private writing space I’ve been identifying my different voices, thought processes and moods. Of course, I’ve changed mine and anyone elses’ name on there because it’s anonymous and whilst I clearly felt the urge to expel whatever was going on in my mind somewhere, I’m certainly not prepared to go into too much detail in public. So I couldn’t take advantage of the subsequent pun-based idea I had, so I’m going to do it here without going into specifics.

For me at least, which this writing is principally for, it’s a combination of insightful and amusing – and I think to try to derive some amusement from what has been a genuine struggle is not necessarily a bad thing.

I’d like to introduce you to the Als.

Logic-Al is getting much more airtime in my internal monologue lately – he’s able to dispassionately weigh up the outcome of events and not worry about how that outcome came about. He recognises that however regrettable something might be, you can’t change it once it’s happened – so it makes most sense to focus on the present. He can seem a bit heartless or dispassionate, but he’s usually right. He’s been very much brought to the fore by the book I mentioned.

Analytic-Al was in the chair at first – he wanted to understand everything, he relived events both recent and further back, he scrutinised clues, agonised over the minutae of detail. Anyone vaguely familiar with my career would probably not be surprised he is often at the front of the queue, these are skills that have earned me my wages for less emotionally charged subjects. Whilst he arguably causes pain by reliving or discovering things, without him the road to recovery probably wouldn’t have been discovered, so whilst he needs to be tempered, he’s not a bad egg.

Cynic-Al has a very dim view of future opportunities – he’ll cherry-pick some of Analytic-Al’s work to turn everything that has happened back on himself. Things he should have done differently, things he should have anticipated, things he could have done better. He’s a bit of an arsehole in truth. He creates patterns that don’t really exist to sabotage the future, finds correlations without establishing whether one variable truly drives the other. He’s a terrible analyst.

Miserab-Al can’t see past the losses. He wallows self-piteously, simulteneously failing to see the myriad of positives in life that remain whilst agrandising things that are lost to almost mythic proportions. He feeds on the work of Cynic-Al and can’t envisage a path to a future with happiness, whilst often glancing wistfully backward through rose-tinted glasses.

Judgement-Al shifts the focus outward – he is concerned with the unfairness of situations, he fixates on how unfairly he feels he’s been treated by people, fate, whatever else. He looks to point the finger at other parties, trapped in his own bubble of feeling and unable to consider the bigger picture, life is unfair sometimes after all. He doesn’t have a very loud voice in my pantheon of personalities, I’m happy to say, but he pops up now and again.

Philosophic-Al is more accepting, he also takes Analytic-Al’s work but layers empathetic interpretations – he is in many ways the counterbalance to Judgement-Al. He isn’t devoid of emotion, and probably doesn’t put enough value on his own needs, but his heart is in the right place. At his core he is looking for answers like Analytic-Al, but with the ultimate goal of a calm resolution, whatever that resolution might be.

Antisociab-Al is a bit of a paradox. Nearly all of the Al’s are craving human contact, whilst the restrictions of lockdown are gradually relaxing allowing a little more mixing for those of us unfortunate enough to live alone, a year or so of heavier restrictions are surely going to make you ripe for wanting to be around people. Not always. Sometimes you don’t want to inflict Miserab-Al on the wider world, he’s quite a burdensome fellow. Again, luckily, he’s not really been a dominant part of the conversation so far. Even in more normal times it can be quite overwhelming to people, especially after a period of time without being able to.

Sociab-Al on the other hand has been more dominant too – he’s quite limited on options, but he’s been able to fashion ways for him to spend more time with more people in the last couple of weeks than he’d been able to in the twelve months prior. Whether it be football being available to play again (and boy, he’s played a LOT of football, I’m amazed he can still walk), meeting folk in gardens, for walks, clandestine secret project meetings he’s not allowed to talk about. He’s been a bit of a hero to be honest, he’s accepted the offers he’s received and run with them. He’s a good influence.

Inimic-Al has probably been the most eerily quiet. He has a silly name because I struggled to think of a better word that ended in al or le. But he’s angry. He’s similar to Judgement-Al I suppose, but instead of lamenting injustice he is just fucking furious about it. I know he’s there somewhere, more generally in life I’m quite good at keeping him under control – I’m at heart a peace loving person, I crave harmony, and I like to see the best in people. Inimic-Al is the opposite of that – he wants chaos, vengeance and beelines for the worst case scenario when it comes to the motivations of others. I don’t like him at all, in truth.

I’m sure there’s other Als that I’ve not been able to pigeon-hole into my weird personality segmentation – it’s nice that Comic-Al came forward with the idea for the puns to be honest, he’s not often far from the forefront of the conversation – I do have quite a fatalistic sense of humour, and it’s often by go-to mechanism to lighten a sad or stressful situation.

Welcome to the weird way I try to categorise my thought processes! I’m sure there might be other Als lurking about that I’ve not been able to identify (or come up with a pun for, more like!). It’s fascinating how we have such a wonderful capacity for abstract thought compared to our animal brethren, yet we seem to have reached a point where a significant chunk of the time we actually utilise it in ways that disadvantage us, or compound rather than resolve whatever problems we are working through.

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Locked down reprise

It’s been a while since I’ve written on here – aside from some geeking out with new routers and smart kit at home the last thing I talked about was struggling with lock down. Well, here we are nearly a year later and whilst restrictions are easing, we are still seriously hobbled with our ability to live our lives.

The period where things are starting to ease might be the worst, because you can almost see and touch the other side, but you’re still feeling desperately impatient for it to arrive. So that’s the general state of mind I’ve been feeling – cautiously optimistic that we’re over the worst of these things, that normality can resume, but also desperately impatient for some kind of normality.

Then along comes March. An underwhelming birthday – I think we’ve all had at least one now, some folk are now having their second lockdown birthdays, so that’s not a “poor me” statement. Days later I had to take my pet cockatiel of 20 years to be put to sleep, a not entirely unexpected thing – she has been poorly – but gut-wrenching nonetheless. Another family pet bereavement followed, then a friend passed away. Then my relationship collapsed on itself, and my whole world fell apart.

So much for cautious optimism, huh?

I won’t lie, the succession of things that individually I’m probably robust enough to cope with, whilst feeling sad of course, nearly broke me. I’m obviously not going to go into details or specifics, because this isn’t an anonymous platform no matter how few people read it. I’m lucky enough to have friends intuitive enough to look through the veil, so to speak, and I’m lucky to have a very cool boss who does the same.

I’m getting help, and probably the most difficult part of that process was admitting that I needed it. We all see the memes and the posts about it being ‘okay to not be okay’, we might even share them comfortable in the knowledge that at that time we are okay. But it’s quite difficult when you’re in that position, years of conditioning – mostly unwitting conditioning – to ‘get on with it’ is tough to break through. There’s always someone else worse off than you, right?

So I suppose if someone reads this in a similar position, look for help. Find some people to talk to without judgement, refer yourself for talking therapy via the NHS or – if you’re lucky like me – via your workplace. I’m trying to take some positive steps myself too – eating healthily, hydrating, finding time to exercise, be creative, making a point of writing something positive about myself down each day and severely restricting my social media use.

I’ve set up scheduled ‘Quiet mode’ on Facebook, which undoubtedly is my social media Achilles heel – now when I open the app on my phone it shows a picture of a cat instead of my news feed except for two half hour chunks of the day. I thought I’d find that really hard, and I probably will – it’s only been a day so far – but yesterday during my second half hour opportunity to binge on Facebook I found myself cooking my dinner rather than focusing on it entirely.

Outside of this I have set up private space to be able to write more openly about things, writing is often my creative outlet that I neglect, that has been helpful. There are a number of us doing the ‘positive steps’ plan, and we’ve got a group set up on, ironically, Facebook. We are technically allowed to use that group outside of our social media quiet time, but I don’t trust myself not to get lured into the rest of it so I’m being quite strict with myself. It’s good to have a support network though, and indeed, be part of that support network to help others with what their issues and goals are.

Yesterday after 9+ hours of no Facebook the time came and there were 20+ notifications, I’ll be honest, most of them were pretty meaningless. The ones from the group were ace, and there was one with an update on the lilies I sent to my Aunty in memory of her dog Digby she had to take for his final trip to the vet. They looked awesome, that aside it was mostly people posting pictures in beer gardens since the pubs have reopened.

I think I have a bit of a journey ahead of me to stabilise myself, but I’m certainly massively further along than I was, I’m cautiously optimistic (there’s that phrase again!) that I’m doing the right things – and as lockdown measures continue to ease it will be easier and easier to spend time with people and combat the crippling loneliness I’ve been enduring for, well, it’s more than a year now, isn’t it?

That was a cheery post wasn’t it? Haha! At least it implies the possibility of a happy ending 🙂

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Lightwave brainwave..

Gadgets are fun, right?

I love the idea of Smart Homes. I am a geek after all! There’s a few barriers without considerable investment to shoehorning this kind of thing into belligerently traditional non-smart home infrastructure, and of course the perennial problem with tech, especially the early stages of it, of compatibility or multiple choices of ecosystems, and of course the cost.

As someone already pretty deep into the Apple ecosystem, and the stronger focus on security it offers HomeKit was always going to be my preference over the other frontrunners in Alexa and Google Home. The drawback to this being a more limited choice of compatible kit, and a sometimes convoluted set up process. What I’ve found since playing with this is the default Home app used to configure it is actually pretty hobbled when it comes to tweaking your automations.

But there is a workaround to that, more on that later.

I do have a light in my office that connects to a Nest Home Mini just to control on/off and dimming, it doesn’t really interact with anything else so I’ll pass on that. I only bought it as it was a cheap way to better light my office which obviously in recent times I’ve been spending a lot more time in, and since it had smart capabilities I couldn’t resist picking up a cheap Nest Home Mini to play with it.

I’ve always wanted to start with my lights at home – partly because of having a pet bird and being able to control her lighting on a schedule is appealing for times (hopefully soon) when I’m likely to be out the house more at work or socially. Her UV light is sort of semi-smart being on a WeMo plug with a schedule, but obviously as autumn and winter comes I need to think about the normal non-UV lighting too.

Having scoured various options I plumped for LightwaveRF being the solution I wanted.

Lightwave RF switches are simple, functional but also pretty stylish

A couple of years ago an email enquiry even resulting in a chap coming round with a sales pitch. It’s not cheap, I pondered it but even with a discount for attempting the whole house was a bit much to find. I guess spending 6+ months at home makes you consider your environment more so I reconsidered this the other week!

I opted for switches rather than bulbs for a number of reasons – your bulbs can be as smart as you like, but if you turn off the switch then they’re off (I find this with my office light), and you’ve got strong muscle memory to simply flick off a light switch as you leave a room rather than asking a Virtual Assistant to do the honours.

Also, smart bulbs are expensive – most of my home lighting are recessed GU10 bulbs. Whilst there are options out there with Hue and Lifx offering options that work with HomeKit, with a switch I can use regular dimmable LED bulbs which is much more cost effective when you consider I have ten lamps in my lounge alone. The advantage individual bulbs would have is that you could have colour temperature / RGB colour options, or even do funky things by only lighting some of the bulbs or varying the colours of them etc.

I didn’t really want to do that – being able to control on/off and brightness was my only real drive.

Installing the Eufy doorbell came with its own complications but that’s not really relevant here!

Probably the main catalyst was succumbing to the whim of getting a video doorbell, I picked up a Eufy wired doorbell – currently this doesn’t connect to HomeKit (hopefully it will in the future), but it did signpost me to their internal security cameras. I use cameras at home to monitor the house when I’m not in, again, largely precipitated by being able to keep an eye on the pet birds as well as being mindful of security.

I replaced my ye old and slightly rubbish first generation Hive cameras with two very reasonably priced Eufy pan and tilt cameras, added them to HomeKit with no problems then realised as well as being security cameras (I set them to not do anything when I’m at home, based on Geofencing linked to my phone), but when I’m away they kick into actually acting as security cameras when I’m not at home.

Whilst the panning and tilting is cool, the field of view of these cameras is sufficient and it’s a bit freaky having the cameras following you around even when they’re not in active recording mode, so I disabled that.

Eufy pan and tilt cameras are ace in their own right, but add HomeKit in and they’re a steal – Eufy frequently have decent discounts too, so worth keeping an eye out!

By using HomeKit for this and being able to invite people to join your home, the same goes for others who might be spending time at home – if they have an iPhone of course – which is one of those nuisance limiting factors that plague these different systems.

So anyway, having a motion sensor in my living room made me start thinking about Lightwave switches again. As the living room simply has a single switch, it was the easiest starting point so I started stalking eBay for starter kits to save a few quid and eventually won one. Lightwave requires a hub, I connected that up to the router and set about wiring up the switch – I won’t detail that, follow the instructions, it’s pretty simple for one way lighting!

The initial barrier was occasionally a single lamp in my living room would light up – LED lamps obviously require much less power, and with dimmer switches sometimes even when off they let enough through to cause some flickering or single lamps to come on. Not a good start! A quick google led me to pick up an inexpensive bypass – it was actually designed to work with the Z-Wave dimmer system but does the same thing.

It was simply a case of wiring this behind one of the GU10 lights in the circuit, and recalibrating the Lightwave switch in the app – and voila, no residual light when powered off or flickering, and lovely smooth dimming working through both the Lightwave app and – once added – the Home app utilising HomeKit.

I think it’s the first time I’ve had decent dimming since switching the lights out from the halogen bulbs when I moved in to LEDs. Which then leads to doing clever things utilising the motion sensor.

A lot of this is kinda ‘because you can’ rather than making a game changer in your life – but it’s nice to have. I set up an overnight automation that if motion is detected (the motion detection on the indoor cameras are set to low sensitivity to try to limited false triggers) then the lights will come on to 40% if they’re not already on. When motion is not detected, and the lights are at 40% or less, then it will switch them off.

If everyone in my home leaves the immediate area based on Geofencing then the lights switch off. Then I’ve also set the lights to incrementally dim over the course of the evening to start to subliminally remind me that it’s getting closer to bed time. It remains to be seen whether this makes any difference or not, but it’s kinda cool regardless!

So that’s a total of seven automations:

The Home app is slick and easy to understand, but lacks the conditional nuances you really want to be able to properly automate things
  • Motion detected in Living Room, only when somebody is at home and only if living room light is off – turn lights on to 40% – so this means if one of us staggers downstairs at night the lights will turn on, obviously there’s a chance that a random movement or lights throught the window could trigger this.. so…
  • No motion detected in Living Room, only from 01:00 to 18:00 and living room light is on at 40% or less – turn lights off – if the lights are on at 40% then the chances are it was triggered by a movement, if that movement stops then switches the lights back off – if it’s less than 40% then it’s likely to be post 11pm when the lights dim to 20%
  • When the last person leaves home, only when living room light is on – turn off living room light – of course, having smart lights means you can check via the app if you’ve left them on – but why not just get the technology to compensate for potential forgetfulness?
  • At 8pm, only when Living Room light is on – set lights to 80% brightness
  • At 9pm, only when Living Room light is on – set lights to 60% brightness
  • At 10pm, only when Living Room light is on – set lights to 40% brightness
  • At 11pm, only when Living Room light is on – set lights to 20% brightness
Controller lets you either set up new or tweak existing automations with multiple conditions

Setting up automations in the Home app is really easy, but doesn’t give you all of the conditional tweaks that you might want (at least not that I’ve found), but if you download an app called Controller even with the free version you can both set up or customise existing automations to add conditions around presence, time or values for accessories. Home tends to focus on just one element rather than combining them, which is where the really clever stuff kicks in.

I can kinda understand that – but they could have an ‘expert’ mode or similar to manage these kind of automations in the native app rather than having to nip out to hack it, once you’ve done that, you can actually adjust the condition parameters in the Home app.

As a proof of concept I’m happy with my results – and definitely the bird room is next, the only reason that I didn’t start with it is because it’s a triple switch and Lightwave triple switches are double-width so there’ll be some work to do on extending the back box behind the existing switch in there. When I start considering upstairs there will be the combination of extending back boxes AND 2 or 3 way circuits to contemplate – so I shall see how I feel about that later! That’s the joy of a modular system.

That was a bit waffly but buried in there might be some helpful nuggets for anyone contemplating something similar! There’s something really satisfying about how the lights fade in / out when they’re turning on or off or changing brightness, and of course in addition to all the automations you can simply ask Siri to control them too!

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Internet AmpliFication

I put out a plea to ease my confusion in the murky world of internet router options the other day on Twitter and Facebook. Having spent far too long researching and reading reviews my mind was about ready to go pop. Plus, this makes a much more uplifting update than my last GrumpFest (which I’m happy to say I’ve largely overcome!)

Is it a router or a teeny tiny washing machine?

Having experimented with repeaters, they half work but the change in WiFi network name makes the experience somewhat less than seamless and the performance is sketchy at times too.

My house isn’t particularly big, but as it’s a townhouse it does go over three floors, and with the obvious need to work from home over the Covid period I’ve noticed performance issues on the 1st and 2nd floors with the ropey Hub 3 that Virgin Media provided me and perhaps unhelpfully insisted installing near my TV in the bottom corner of the ground floor.

The front-running solutions proffered by my friends were actually both created by the same company, UniFi is the commercial grade option with a lot more functionality, and whilst that appeals to my inner geek it’s a little overkill for my home needs, so I’ve plumped for the domestic grade Amplifi.

Biggest appeal was the ease of set up, which is definitely true. I ordered two HD routers, my intention is to connect the second upstairs via a gigabit powerline adaptor and run it in bridge mode, so in layman’s terms, it means that if I wander upstairs and the signal is better from the slave router, my device will connect to that instead – seamlessly, with the same SSID etc.

So it’s scalable. You can also add mesh based access points which simply plug into a power socket. It has an adjustable antenna that you can direct to toward the router(s) or other access points to give the best coverage. I went for the extra router because I wanted it to have an Ethernet based backhaul (connection back to the main router) rather than a wireless one. I also like the bonus Ethernet ports I’ll have on the additional router.

I’m pretty sure the two routers will meet my current needs, but by the same token, I have the option of scalability – if the top floor is still ropey I could get a further router or access point, or indeed if the spare room that isn’t my office suddenly requires faster internet I could do the same there.

Indeed, so far, the single router I have set up downstairs is already providing a much better range than the Virgin Hub 3 which is now sitting in modem mode providing the much prettier and more powerful AmpliFi HD with juicy internet.

Set up was as easy as promised. I made a note of the current Virgin Media SSID and password, duly put the Hub 3 in modem mode and allowed it to reboot, connected it’s #1 LAN port to the WAN port on the AmpliFi box, powered it up and then used an app on my phone to configure it, using the same credentials as my old WiFi network to make life easier. After a few tests it was up and running, all my devices connected to it without complaint and those things that were relying on Ethernet points connected up too with no issue.

The funky lighting it has is still currently a novelty, which I may tire of but it’s pretty cool to have an LCD screen which can either show the time, traffic to date this month, which Ethernet ports are in use or – my favourite – a live gauge of how much bandwidth you’re using, uploads and downloads.

The only tweaks I made to the settings were to change the DNS servers, again via the app. I don’t bother with a guest network as generally I’m happy for friends who visit to just join the main WiFi but the option is there, you can leave it open or add a password – and you can restrict the number of users. Not sure if you can throttle the bandwidth or not.

I’m going to resist setting up the second box until I’ve got the gigabit powerline adaptors next week – I do have a ye olde powerline adaptor I currently use as a fallback for my main computer in case the WiFi craps out whilst I’m working, but I figured I’ll wait until I’ve got the setup I want before adding phase 2.

But yeah, in a nut shell, it was easy to set up, it looks great, it wasn’t ridiculously expensive and it appears to be performing much better than the dreadful Virgin Hub 3 even with just the single router set up. So if you’re suffering similar problems, I’d definitely recommend.

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Locked down..

I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve found the Covid-19 prompted lockdown really difficult. March feels like an awful long time ago – I’d just finished celebrating my birthday by swimming with Sharks and other marine fish in Skegness as the rumblings of a lockdown began to become reality.

It made sense to make sure I got Ella back home before it became fully reality – with no conception of how long it would be before it would be over, I guess in my head I was thinking weeks rather than months. The prospect was difficult. Working from home took some adapting, and some investment in my office at home, but it has come pretty easy since. Being estranged from my girlfriend a horrible prospect.

Early in the lockdown I tried to make the best and make sense of this ‘new normal’ as everyone kept talking about. Group video calls were reasonably frequent which have now all but dried up, I tried to measure contacting people with not wanting to be too needy, and decided to occupy myself by torturing my Facebook friends with ukulele covers, slipping a few ‘significant’ songs in there as a proxy for not being very good at articulating how I’m feeling.

Live streams from many of the awesome musicians and bands I know and love were a hugely welcome distraction in those early lockdown weeks – latterly they felt hollow and made me miss everything that goes with live music. That’s not to belittle the excellent performances, and some fantastic innovation in being able to still perform. It just began to feel flat for me.

Making my own forays into performing was fun, but of course left with too much time in your own brain I started to worry people might think I took it rather more seriously than I did. I know I’m not a very good singer, and an average-at-best ukulele player, I’m sure people know that I know that, but it niggled at me until I didn’t want to do it any more.

Nobody said anything to make me think that, it was all in my own head.

Relationships have become frayed – misunderstandings or misinterpretations run wild amidst what is a spectacularly stressful landscape, where anyone can be excused for not thinking particularly clearly, and perhaps not getting their communication plan quite right. Work has been a welcome distraction, but at times quite stressful and emotional too – and oddly working remotely can make it more difficult to get respite from that.

Last week I found myself getting frustrated and feeling down whilst trying to present a positive front on Facebook, I can’t stand the idea of being one of those people who whines on Facebook, so I deactivated my account for a while to try to protect my mind a little.

Then I realised if I did that my associated Facebook page for my now one pet parrot Frankie wouldn’t update, I overcame this with a fake profile which so far seems to still be working. That sounds patently ridiculous really, but well, maybe her updates help keep some other person going during their own locked down dystopia?

In wider familial animal news a cherished family pet made her final goodbye today, I wasn’t able to say goodbye to her because of this accursed lockdown. It was the right thing to do to prevent her suffering, and not putting people at risk, but it bites – with Frankie, my nearest thing to a housemate, needing increasing amounts of veterinary care and not getting any younger I constantly worry about her.

Spending as much time as I do now with her stuck in the house I seem to notice endless things to worry about in her behaviour or demeanour – most of which are probably lodged firmly in the ‘in my head’ category, she’s probably just more tired than normal with the extra out-of-cage time she’s been enjoying!

A week into my self-imposed Facebook exile and amazingly I find myself feeling resentful that nobody really seems to have noticed.

Maybe they have, I’ve noticed when people have gone AWOL before and not always reached out to check-in, so I certainly shouldn’t be judgemental if others have the same impulse. I’ve hovered over the reactivate button once or twice, but I’m not sure I’m ready to step back into what can be a really poisonous as well as positive environment – which is counterproductive in many ways as I’m basically further isolating myself when already feeling hopelessly isolated at times.

Amidst all these negative thoughts I’ve decided I really ought to tackle losing some weight, I’ve duly acquired scales and a calorie counting app that syncs with my watch to track exercise too. I’m half a stone down so far, which is a real plus. Or minus I guess! Still a way to go, but a solid start!

Some of the work-related pressures will abate soon, which will make life easier in that regard. Left with a vastly unwelcome amount of time by myself I’ve had ample opportunity to overthink and generate unholy amounts of worry around all manner of things – which generally generates more questions rather than answers.

One thing is for sure, whilst I fully acknowledge having your own space is great, I’m not a fan of it full time. I’m also keenly aware that – by and large – I’ve been one of the lucky ones in this whole drama. I’ve been able to continue working and earning throughout, nobody I know has been killed by this dreadful disease, and for the most part I feel incredibly lucky.

But I also feel incredibly out of sorts, foundations have been shaken and whether they prove robust enough to hold everything up remains to be seen. I’m terribly bad at reaching out when I’m struggling, but luckily enough for me I’ve got an ill-updated blog that gets barely read so it gives me a way of dipping my toe into the water, or at least attempting to put some order to what’s going on in my brain.

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Blank playlists on Apple Watch

Since adding the perhaps inevitable final piece of the Apple ecosystem into my life one of the small bugbears I’ve had with my Apple Watch is that the music app had a long list of blank playlists before reaching my actual playlists. A quick Google search revealed this is clearly a reasonably common experience – but was quite light on providing solutions, which I’ve stumbled on today.

To be honest – it’s not really a big deal, but just a bit annoying. The ‘blank’ playlists are not visible on iTunes on my Mac, on my iPhone nor my iPad. I use iTunes Match to store my library in iCloud and stream from there or download on demand on whatever device I happen to be using – so I’m not sure whether the same issue occurs / is fixable in the same way if you use Apple Music or a locally stored library.

I should also add that I’m currently using the 3rd Beta of WatchOS 6 on my watch, which is a Series 4 cellular version. The fix is so obvious I’m kicking myself on not finding / trying it when I was using the latest production WatchOS. It’s a simple as opening the Music app on your watch, clicking playlists, then swiping right to left on the blank ones, tap the three dots that appear, tap Remove and finally confirm by tapping Delete.

Voila. They are gone. As I said above, a relatively trivial niggle in an otherwise fine experience – but one that’s surprisingly easy to fix but I’ve found no reference to online so figured I’d post it here if anyone is searching like I was for a solution!

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Why you shouldn’t wear cheap Ukrainian underpants..

Sorry, I couldn’t resist the shit joke headline!

A cheesy trailer I made from our depressingly inadequate photos and videos!

This is probably quite an overdue post really – since I’ve written in the past about exploring and abandoned places – as in honour of my 40th birthday last year my brother Rich organised a trip to probably one of the ultimate abandoned places which we went on in October last year.

In 1986 a spot of testing at reactor 4 in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power station resulted in a catastrophic explosion, exposing the graphite core – now on fire – to the elements, lofting fumes of plumes of fission products into the atmosphere over Ukraine and Belarus in particular, but also Western Russia and the rest of Europe.

Nearby Soviet ‘model city’ Prypiat – built to attract talented workers to the facility – was evacuated, albeit not immediately as the very secretive Soviet Union attempted to contain the disaster and not publically acknowledge it. Eventually though the inhabitants were bussed out, many never to return, and a 30km exclusion zone around the plant was put into effect – encompassing other towns and villages in the area.

Unbeknownst to me whilst not officially a tourist attraction – you can organise trips into the zone with authorised agencies – which Rich had gotten wind of and organised us flights to Kiev and a day’s excursion into the zone. The pressure is on this year as he turns 40 to try to find something on this level of epicness to reciprocate!

Bus wankers…

We landed in Kiev and considered a taxi to get to where we were staying, but instead braved the local bus – we had no idea where it went, but after a meandering journey it deposited us near the central railway station.

Upon reviewing Google Maps we found our apartment was quite a way from there – we’d texted and phoned the proprieters to let them know we were running late after a delayed flight and braved the underground (after managing to not find the terminal at the station and walked about a mile to find the next one!).

The railway station in Kiev is a rather grand affair
Even the underground stations were all marble and chandeliers!

A haughty Ukrainian lady behind the counter understood us well enough to help us find the right train to get on in the grandioise underground station – and we did a really good job of changing at the right times to get to where we needed to be. A bit of wandering and we found the building we needed, only to find no response from calling the number we’d been given. Bugger.

Whilst Rich continued to try to get in touch with the apartment owner I perused where we needed to be the following morning for our trip into the zone. Right outside the main railway station – where we’d just been, and quite early in the morning! Recalling there was a giant Ibis hotel right there, and that we were paying for the apartment on arrival, I suggested we go back to where we’d started and get a room there.

So we reversed our underground journey successfully – both legs cost us about 40p each – and quickly checked to see if booking online would beat the room rates advertised outside the Ibis hotel. No such luck, they were the same so we availed ourself of a room – happier in the knowledge we just hand to stumble outside to find our transport for the next day.

I think this is probably our minibus…

That morning we headed down to the street which was lined with minibuses bearing radiation signage – Chernobyl Tour were our trip organisers and soon enough we were checked in and sat on our minibus with a group of people from all over Europe. We had an excellent English-speaking guide (shamefully my delaying writing this means I’ve forgotten her name – I’m so sorry if you ever see this!) and we were underway!

The first obstacle was getting into the zone – it’s guarded by the military who had advance notice and check-lists of visitors, there was a stumbling block for me – my passport doesn’t have my middle name on it, but their list did – this seemed to cause a considerable amount of consternation from the officious Ukrainian soldier checking us in – I thought we were going to fail at the first hurdle but luckily our guide interceded and smoothed things over! That was just the first check-point!

Final check-point – you’d be in trouble if you got caught taking a photo of the actual check-point!

Before entering the exclusion-zone proper there’s another check-point complete with souvenir shops. Officially we were not tourists but ‘visitors’ to the zone – but clearly there’s recognition that there’s a commercial opportunity here. Mercifully we were able to traverse the check-point without issue this time and drive on. Once in the zone there are a number of sites we visited, our guide cunningly planning an order to try to limit our exposure to the number of other groups touring the area.

Trusty dosimeter..

Our first stop was the village of Zalissya – overgrown and long-abandoned we were able to wander around what were presumably paths at one time, now reclaimed by nature. A fair few buildings were still standing (many were bulldozed in the zone after the disaster before the realisation that disturbing contaminated earth was probably a bad idea). We’d been each equipped with dosimeters which enabled us to both identify radioactive ‘hotspots’ as well as cumulatively measure our exposure during our visit.

I read the news today, oh boy…

There’s something I find both harrowing and strangely comforting about abandoned places – comfort that nature moves back in, that human endeavours ultimately don’t count for much, but also sadness – music cards, newspapers, clothing – things that were once cherished left behind in the wake of an epic human folly. It was a great way to become acclimatised to this fascinating place.

A short drive later took us to the kindergarten – sinister dolls and childrens toys and cots set an eerie scene. Whilst I’m sure explorers both official and otherwise (those that sneak in without permission are referred to as Stalkers by the guides in honour of a computer game that features the zone as one of its settings).

Hello, Dolly…
Entry to Prypiat…

It was Prypiat that was really exciting for me though – built as a showcase Soviet city to demonstrate their affluence, desirability in a cold-war era when propaganda was really important. Deliberately placed close to the power plant to demonstrate how safe it was, it was designed to be a flagship settlement with fantastic facilities to attract skilled workers needed to work at the power plant, and of course the ameneties they would want to mean their families moved in too.

Fairground attraction

Trees close in on the roads and between all the buildings – tower blocks looming overhead it’s hard to picture what it must have looked like before. In the bus we’d been watching a DVD which included footage of the city before the disaster, and at various points whilst walking around the area our guide had pictures from the same points – it’s awe-inspiring to see how much its changed in not such a long time.

We saw the famous fairground, the swimming pool (which amazing was in use well beyond the disaster for people still working at the power plant, which was still generating power until December 2000 and countless other sites. Our guide was knowledgable and answered all our questions – it’s a difficult subject for Ukranians to tackle, ultimately it was a disaster done to them under Soviet rule – but they’re left with the consequences at the need to clear up the mess.

It was at once scary, awe-inspiring and a privilege to be able to stand so close to ‘ground zero’ – under that big steel arch is reactor 4

Having said that, the disaster was probably a big contributory factor to the fall of the Soviet Union too. The clean-up operation is still underway, as robots work under the new metal sarcophagus entombing reactor 4 (which was originally contained by a concrete covering). It’s a political and practical minefield which I can only really scratch the surface of with my limited understanding.

Much like I’ve really only scratched the surface of our visit with this post – it would be impossible to do it justice, if this sort of thing interests you though I’d heartily recommend a visit, it’s fairly inexpensive by our typical tourist fee standards and absolutely fascinating.

Unbelievably our trip included a hearty lunch in the cafeteria a mere stones throw from the reactor itself. We were warned not to take photos of the surly babushka’s serving us – the food was really good! I also got to make friends with some dogs outside, presumably descendants of abandoned pets who escaped the death squads who pursued them in the aftermath of the disaster. Life finds away – indeed, the Chernobyl exclusion zone is an incredibly successful accidental nature reserve.

Duga 1 over-the-horizon radar system designed as an early warning system to detect incoming missiles

On the way out of the zone we visited the Duga 1 radar installment – once a top secret and fundamentally flawed missle detection system, now abandoned and unable to be demolished due to the contamination of the land, it’s a monument to the levels of paranoia that era had. Clearly it wasn’t deemed too secretive by the time of the 1970’s when it would’ve been visible from the tower blocks of Prypiat – although our guide suggested it would’ve probably been described to curious locals as a TV aerial or similar – certainly evidence of old check-points suggest that any intrepid inhabitants wouldn’t have been allowed too close to it.

Our last stop was in the actual town of Chernobyl, quite distant from the reactor that it named it’s actually inhabited. People can only live there for 3 months at a time before leaving – there’s a cafe, there’s even a hotel which caters for folk undertake multiple day excursions. The population there are involved in the clean up operation – and storage of other nuclear waste which takes place within the exclusion zone.

A quick radiation check on the way out, and we’re good to go!

I know that there are pockets of people who have returned to their homes in the villages of the zone – we didn’t encroach on any of them, whilst it would undoubtedly have been a really interesting experience – instead heading back out of the zone and back to Kiev via a final chance to stop for souvenirs and a radiation scan to ensure we’d not picked up any nasty particles. One of our party did set off something, but he didn’t look too perturbed after returning from whereever he was whisked away to.

Checking our dosimeters upon exiting the zone showed that we’d been exposed to less radiation than we had received on our flight from London to Kiev, so all in all, a pretty safe endeavour!

We spent the next day exploring Kiev which is a massive and beautiful city – we witnessed the Ukrainian ministry of silly walks, I resisted the urge to bungee jump off a bridge, but amazingly we found a bit of beach by the river and it was warm enough to sit and bask whilst munching on snacks we’d found at a nearby shop. If you fancy a city break with a difference then I could heartily recommend this!

In the meantime, if you have any ideas for an epic 40th birthday idea for Rich then I’m all ears!

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Clowns with frowns pressing buttons controlling towns..

In the past I’ve attained accidental blogging success by recalling random things from when I was a young ‘un and people have searched for it and found sweet relief from something that was half-nagging at them but mostly unremembered.  Today I’m taking the mothballs off the blog to try to do that in reverse, because for whatever reason I’ve got a poetic earworm from what I think was a beer advert from the 1990s.

It had a male voiceover, reciting what I believe to be a poem called “What’s Going Down” over what in my head was dystopian urban imagery.  I’ve googled the words I can remember, and have found one solitary reference to it in a DigitalSpy forum post.  That’s it – and that’s based on somebody’s recollection of being taught the poem at school, not in the context of the advert!

Here’s the text as recalled by DigitalSpy user Lazlo_St_Pierre back in 2007 (!) (I’d considered registering and pinging him message but he’s been inactive since 2014 on there).

I’m looking through you
I’m looking through me
I’m looking through them,
And what do I see?

I see workers working
Lurkers lurking
Shirkers shirking
Clocks turning
And clowns with frowns
Pressing buttons, controlling towns

Profound?
No. It’s what’s going down.

I see dishonourable intentions
Emotional infections
Pressing interventions
And hopeless, rusting implications
Of dodgy, clapped-out, mapped-out futures
Imperfect

Profound?
No. It’s what’s going down

There’s no need to be a half-baked couch potato
In strait-jacket and tie
Or a jet-set wet in debt
Cause he’s had too much pie in the sky
Or getting your kicks
Sticking your snitch
In a stranger’s curriculum vitae
Tiddly-aye

I get where it’s at, cat
I don’t race with rats
I see through all that
There’s no grounds for frowns
Or improper nouns.
It’s just what’s going down.

I can certainly recall the start, first verse and the end verse too – and the final flourish of the advert finished with “It’s just what’s going down, cheers!” – presumably with the narrator supping on whatever beverage it was being advertised.

So there’s the challenge – who can remember what the advert was for?  Bonus points if you manage to find a clip of it on YouTube – I’ve tried (albeit not very hard), and failed dismally!

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HomePod works for me

Even as a self-confessed fan of Apple products, and someone fairly well engrained into their ecosystem I wasn’t initially sold on the HomePod – even though I had been holding out for its release as a solution to my lack of general music listening. And as I’m sure you know I do rather like music!

Initial reports suggested that if you didn’t subscribe to Apple Music then as a ‘smart’ music player you don’t really get much other than stuff you’ve bought from iTunes, the ability to play Podcasts and some probably awful radio station called Beats something or other. Apple Music doesn’t work for me, much like Spotify, as a chunk of music I listen to isn’t available on those platforms.

I do however subscribe to iTunes Match – which is a service that matches my iTunes library with the Apple Music database, and anything it doesn’t match it will upload from my library. Ostensibly I use it as a back up really, I still prefer to manually manage the music I sync across to my phone which is (or was) my principal source of music playing – but sometimes at home you might want to listen to something not on your edited playlist.

After it had been out in the wild it emerged that HomePod works with iTunes Match too, which meant that I probably fall into a niche use-case for it. I’m not that arsed about home assistant features where Echo and Google Home excel, I am interested in good quality sound, and a seamless integration into the Apple infrastructure which my digital life is wedded to. The price still seemed high, but armed with some vouchers I got from work that had limited retailer options, I felt I could justify it.

So today I got my box of excitement – a surprisingly weighty box, predictably elegant and simplistic in design it simply held the HomePod itself. After plugging in it powers up, then holding my iPhone close by allowed me to set it up in about 2 minutes – there’s a few options to click through and boom, it’s done and accessing your music library in iCloud.

I tested it with playlists, with music I know for certain doesn’t exist outside of my weird collection, it was all there and playable – of course, it couldn’t tell me who the drummer was, or any of the other facile enhanced features you could get by linking it to an Apple Music account – but then I don’t really care about that either!

The home assistant options are less impressive than Alexa or Google Assistant – but it can send messages, take notes or act as a speaker phone. I’m not sure I’ll do that. It was able to tell me the weather, read the news, tell me the traffic conditions on the way to work and delightfully inform me Nottingham Forest were three nil up against Queens Park Rangers, though! My limited Smart home kit (Hive thermostat and cameras) aren’t Apple HomeKit compatible so there’s no turning on the heating with my voice, but well, that’s not really a big deal!

The sound quality is excellent – I’ve tried a mixture of styles of music, it packs some bass for a small unit and doesn’t distort, drum and bass, dodgy live recordings and all things in between sound great. I’m not an audiophile, by any stretch, but it does sound ace. All my music is now easily available by just asking for it, and any other stuff I might want to play is streamable easily using Airplay.

If you’re a Spotify user this isn’t a great solution, if you are wanting to control lots of home tasks it probably isn’t either – that said, I expect to see improvements to support for more of the areas where rival smart speakers beat HomePod as they are software updates which will surely be forthcoming over time. That for me is a bonus, as I noted above, I had a specific use-case for this and it fulfils that perfectly. You can even utilise your iPhone’s music app to control music if you prefer that or want to build a playlist on the fly.

I probably wouldn’t have spent the full £319 on it, in spite of all that, but having some vouchers to take a sizeable dent out of that price made it a bit more tempting, and I’ve had a very happy afternoon listening to music at home which I’ve not really done much as I’ve been stuck with Bluetooth speakers and their ilk – Siri can hear me over surprisingly loud playback volumes and she’s only faltered a couple of times with my requests.

It’s a fairly unassuming looking canister covered in mesh, I went for the space grey one and it sits just to the side of my TV. When playing the touch screen on the top displays volume controls, when listening a colourful blob lights up – as I’m generally sat down when using it, I can’t really see it anyway!

In a nutshell I can say it works for me, but I can understand the general sense or reservation to the usual anti-Apple derision out there in review land. I do think when paired up with Apple’s under-publicised iTunes Match service then you have a match made in heaven if you do use iTunes to manage your music library, and that’s only £20odd a year rather than a tenner a month.

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Lessons learned?

Oh yes, I have a space for occasional musing don’t I?  I must stop forgetting this brain-dump zone exists!  So anyway, I was rummaging for something in my spare room the other day and unearthed a treasure trove of other random things.  I have to stay in the realms of vagueness because, well, I do – personal artefacts of the distant past, mementoes, things I must admit that I’d largely forgotten about.

Indeed, some so extensive that a fairly ruthless pruning of said artefacts took place awaiting the next bin collection day.  I’d actually managed to keep hold of (admittedly sealed) edible things from over 20 years ago – who does that, ha?  I really used to be an overly-sentimental twat.  But amongst the assorted things I found one was really intriguing – fond reminiscing and sadness all merged into one, and a warning for the future.

Without revealing anything identifiable (not that this is likely to be well-read, I’ve long since disabled cross-posting my blog to Facebook) I found a chronicle of a period of time from a significant other’s perspective.  At the time of receipt a deeply touching and thoughtful gift – and whilst spectacularly dated in terms of enduring sentiment, it’s something I’m glad I kept hold of and had an accidental reunion with, even if it made me feel a bit sad as well.

Reading between the lines and with the benefit of both hindsight and a couple of decades of built-up life experience and cynicism was really interesting.  I’m genuinely not sure whether or not it’s something I’ve read since the relationship that produced it decayed (surprisingly quickly after said chronicle was produced) – I probably did, to be fair, but given the lack of recall for some of the disposed-of artefacts it might not be surprising that I’d forgotten.

Unwittingly in the text there were plenty of signposts for things that were going not quite so brilliantly, and probably ultimately led to the relationship’s demise.  Of course, the odds these days of finding something enduring at the age we were at the time was pretty minuscule – and over time you kinda chalk it up to one of those things and either accept or bury what was at the time was what felt like heart-crushing pain.  Tis the circle of life.

But it was interesting how some of the between-the-lines themes might just’ve found themselves repeating themselves unwittingly, ingrained behavioural traits are probably default settings if left unchecked can creep back into your everyday if you neglect to stay on top of them – and sure is eggs is eggs, the pattern repeats, the consequences are remarkably similar yet you don’t make the connection.

Wow, that was vague wasn’t it?  Sorry for any incidental readers – increasingly I find this blog is a (very!) occasional mind-dump space, but this has been really useful food for thought for me.  I guess diary-writers might find similar insight in their old musings they made in private to themselves, but as I’ve never really done that I don’t have that luxury.  Whether I actually take such things on board or not or simply forget about them again until next time I go looking for something in the spare room remains to be seen.

But maybe committing the discovery to an insufferably vague blog post might just reinforce some brain synapses into making some connections that I’d clearly forgotten over the intervening years.  Or maybe not!  I dunno, more than a year since I posted anything and that’s what I came up with.  Haha!  See you in another few months…

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