2018: The Year of London

It’s that odd time of year, the bit between Christmas and New Year where time doesn’t really flow like you expect it to. No one knows what day of the week it is and everything seems to be simultaneously coming to an end and sizing up the starting blocks again. For a lot of people, it’s a time without clear purpose that’s bookended by very distinctive cultural markers themed on rebirth, which makes it pretty ideal for reflection.

It’s also the time of year when no one really wants to be working, and end of year lists/reviews/summations become ideal brainless exercises requiring little creative input and almost no resources!

So here we are, on the edge of a new dawn and taking a moment to pause and reflect on the year that was. A lot of people are regarding 2018 as the calendar equivalent of a dumpster fire, but personally it’s been a pretty big and progressive twelve months… albeit ones where a lot of good habits (*cough* blogging *cough*) fell by the wayside.

Which isn’t to say that writing has been completely absent; the first half of the year had a decent number of posts (8 total) spanning a range of topics. In a way, they quite neatly sum up my own interests, covering technology, superheroes, palaeontology, design/futurism, world building/sci-fi, photography, problem solving, and the beauty of nature. It may not be much, but it’s a fine spread, plus there’s probably something I could be arguing about quality over quantity (maybe).

As ever, there are also plenty of drafts that never quite saw the light of day. I’ve put together some musings on the problems that RSS feeds have when their owners don’t let you know they’re moving URLs; some of the influential voices I turn to, both online and off; a few scattered notes on Excel, VBA and the Grav CMS; and about half a dozen MiMs (remember those!).

On which note, it’s worth mentioning that whilst my published presence has been mediocre-to-none-existent over the course of 2018, I have been at least vaguely tracking my thoughts, reviews and ideas via more private channels. Workflowy continues to be a cornerstone of my productivity, as is Lightroom where I’m pleased to report my photo editing has continued relatively consistently. I’ve also been getting increasingly drawn in to Trello as a way to track to-do lists and ideas in general, in no small part to our complete reliance on the app at work.

Work. That’s been a pretty big, overarching theme of 2018 for me. I handed in my notice at Synertec not long into the year and left fully in March; by April we had settled in Fulham, and in early May I started my new role as Copywriter (now Content Manager – how time flies!) with Talent Point, which was a pretty big shift from working as a developer. In that sense my actual published work has accelerated, with a full 20 posts appearing on the company website since I started. I didn’t write all of them, but (with one exception) I was heavily involved each week from the start of June – so my actual writing output this year hasn’t been too shabby at all!

Writing for a living has definitely been a major part of why this blog has gone almost entirely unloved since July, as I struggle to find time or motivation. Back in Taunton, during the New 52 era, I’d spend most lunch breaks at work writing or editing drafts, but now that’s my job lunchtimes have become a lot less personally productive! On top of which, living in London means much longer commutes and longer hours, so by the time I’m home my focus is on finding food and being brain dead, not personal projects. It’s something both Alison and I need to start getting better at, so hopefully it won’t be quite as quiet in the months to come (though where have we heard that before, before, before…).

London also means an active social life, which is another drain on project/blog time, but not one I’m complaining about! We’ve become members of the V&A, Kew Gardens and (most recently and excitedly) ZSL! Plus, we now actually live somewhere with culture, which for me has meant getting to see/attend (in no particular order and probably incomplete):

  • The Book of Mormon (musical)
  • Goldfish (gig)
  • Harry Potter Experience inc. Behind the Seams (talk/experience/museum)
  • Todd Terje (gig/street party)
  • Swan Lake by Matthew Bourne (ballet)
  • Emancipator Ensemble (gig)
  • An Evening with Dougal Dixon & Darren Naish for the relaunch of After Man (talk)
  • Goldfish (gig – yes twice, yes worth it!)
  • Dinosaurs in the Wild (experience… hard to explain but awesome!)
  • Parcels (gig)
  • Biopsy of an App (UX/UI) with RED Academy (talk)

Without mentioning the countless museum exhibitions, listed buildings, parks, or general history. We’ve watched the sun set from the Walkie Talkie Sky Garden, eaten at Lima, gone on a 12 Pubs of Xmas crawl, taken a boat trip around the Thames, learnt how to drum and then performed at Walthamstow Garden Party and as part of a demonstration with over 700,000 people, walked most of Regent’s Canal and a good stretch of the Thames, discovered countless amazing pubs, restaurants or just interesting places, and now live somewhere with both parakeets and close friends in easy walking distance. One of those is very new; the other had been over half a decade!

But of course our life hasn’t been completely lived within the capital (or the moving van before that). We’ve had some excellent outings this year, some just for fun and others to celebrate huge milestones with our friends and family. The annual trip to Polzeath was shifted to coincide with a family commitment ceremony, taking place on the beach in stunning conditions and creating a thoroughly joyous occasion. We’ve also been back up to my home grounds of Cumbria to see one of my oldest friends tie the knot at our secondary school (a real trip down memory lane!) and to Sheffield for the first of the Uni group to exchange rings.

Individual outings, such as to the blogged about Vyne estate, have been a little less common, largely because we’ve tended to focus on London rather than travelling out, but we’ve still managed a good variety. Particularly memorable outings include a day spent at the Hawk Conservancy Trust with Al’s family and a trip to Oxford for the excellent (and now touring) Making of Middle Earth exhibition, both of which deserve their own full posts (much like most of what’s being covered in this one!).

Oh, and of course, we had a brief outing to South Africa for my Gran’s 90th birthday. It was great to see most of the extended family, and the celebration went down well, but it also provided opportunities to explore some new areas. We spent the first few days actually staying in Cape Town, something I’ve never done before, which meant seeing a whole new side to the city. Then, for our second week, we went on a short but incredibly varied road trip with my parents up through the Cederberg, visiting the stunning wildflower meadows (we got the timing pretty perfect for the first superbloom in years!) and kokerboom trees, before looping back to the Cape down the West Coast. It was a beautiful, relaxing and incredibly fun trip, even if our wallets are still recovering!

All of which is to say that London has been a very good move, our flat has become a real home and our jobs have settled in extremely nicely. For us, at least, 2018 has been a year of big and positive change, and a chance to really begin defining our lives moving forward. It’s been a stressful year at times, but that’s all happily behind us, paving the way for a very exciting 2019 and beyond!

 

The Marvel-ous Collection: A Beginning

I’m a pretty big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so it felt a bit ridiculous when I was given Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 for Christmas. To be clear, the gift wasn’t ridiculous; it’s a fantastic film and one I’ve been excited to rewatch since seeing it in the cinema. The ridiculous part was that this officially marked the start of my Marvel Bluray collection. That’s right, I might be a huge fan of the franchise and own a fairly sizeable solid-media movie collection, but I’m almost entirely absent the MCU!

I say almost, because in truth I do own both Guardians of the Galaxy (now Volume 1, I guess) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier on DVD, but for a 17 film franchise (at time of writing) that’s pretty meagre. Part of that reason is the Bluray dilemma: ultimately, I don’t care that much about the increased resolution for most films, but I definitely care about the extra features. As Bluray has become the de facto release location for collector’s editions and special features, I was increasingly left behind, waiting for both an excuse to buy a Bluray player and then, later, for prices to drop back to the realms of sanity.

Luckily, 2017 saw both goals achieved. Whilst Blurays remain expensive (Marvel’s particularly so), they’re now at an acceptable premium above the respective DVD release, so with bonus featurettes, content and a better picture quality they feel somehow more worthwhile. At the same time, Marvel finally released a collected set for both Phase One and Phase Two, something I find bizarre has taken half a decade. I mean, what other purpose does the marking of “phases” serve then to artificially create film sets? At any rate, the result was a sudden galvanisation to fill in the blanks and finally own some of my favourite superhero films.

Unfortunately, a quick look at the contents of the collected sets left me a little cold. Yes, there are new bonus scenes, animatics and fun Agent Coulson introductions for each of the films, but they also lack a number of key special features from previous releases, especially the big documentaries. As a result, I’ve thrown in the towel! If Marvel/Disney can’t get their act together and release a definitive edition of the MCU then I’ll just create one myself.

The first hurdle was finding out what variations existed, what the actual differences were and then weighing up the pros and cons. Luckily, Reddit came to my aid (after Google summarily failed) with a raft of suggestions for comparison websites geared towards just this kind of task.

Since then, I’ve been slowly going through the films, one by one, narrowing down my options until I’ve found the exact version that most intrigues me. So far, the few I have settled on have been “out of print”, but luckily a robust second hand market appears to exist, keeping resell prices low. It’s slow going, but honestly I’m finding it quite fun. I’m also tracking my decisions and aim to release a full list, and break down of why I chose each film’s specific version, once I’m done.

For now, I figured it would be worth a quick round-up of the websites I’ve found most useful, so without further ado, and in no particular order, here are my top five film hunting locations:

1. DVD Double Dip
Not the prettiest site, nor the most complete in terms of information, but what it does have is extremely easy to read, compare and review. Probably the best starting point I’ve found but take the accuracy with a pinch of salt.

2. DVD Compare
Very accurate, particularly when it comes to extra features, and great for comparing regional differences in films. Take particular note of the “Cuts” and “Overall” sections at the bottom of a search page to see if the film is actively censored anywhere in the world. I wish you could compare films side-by-side, but still easily my favourite comparison site.

3. Blu-Ray.com
Probably the most complete database of film releases on this list but a bit of a pig to search accurately. There’s no way to easily compare film versions without opening multiple tabs, but you can filter by country directly on the search bar and the user reviews are solid, often clearing up any confusion over oddly phrased features.

4. Filmogs
Another very complete database without easy comparison methods. Easier to navigate than Blu-Ray.com but the search is less intelligent (e.g. “Avengers” fails to pull back any collected sets). Again, useful for getting more information, plus acts as a competitively priced marketplace.

5. /r/DVDCollection
If all else fails, ask here and someone will probably either know the answer or own the film and be able to tell you. Really helpful bunch!

Of course, once you’ve narrowed down your options and decided which version is just right, you still need to buy the darn thing. Obviously if you’re looking at buying new then all the normal locations apply, but for second hand movies I’m having most success at the following:

1. Music Magpie – though be wary, several times I’ve spent a while looking at a film, come back later and found the price has shot up. Leave it a few days and it seems to drop back down again.
2. eBay
3. CEX
4. Amazon Marketplace

Happy hunting!

The New 52: A Summary [#52]

So the end is nigh. Fifty-two weeks, fifty-nine articles, two failures and the most complete challenge I’ve ever set myself. Sure, I may not have managed to write once a week, every week, during 2017 but I have managed to write a whole lot more than I would have done otherwise. I’ve documented my plan to record more of my media in 2017 than ever before, only to have innovative new technology create a road block. I’ve shared my ever increasing love and interest in photography, including some very big personal milestones. I’ve received my first genuine comment, not just from an anonymous stranger on the internet but from a creator and individual whom I have followed for years. I’ve discussed my own life, my travels, worries, annoyances and ideas; I’ve had a space to comment on wider industry trends, disturbing news stories and things which I’ve just found interesting.

It’s been a fantastic, frustrating and, at times, not particularly well executed fifty-two weeks. On the whole, though, I’m extremely proud of, and pleased with, the fifty official “New 52” posts that were published (see full list below – now numbered correctly). I’m also a little astonished that only six of them are MiM posts, with most being self contained articles I would likely never have written if it weren’t for this challenge. Sure, I’m annoyed that I missed two weeks, just like I’m annoyed that there are several MiMs and other articles still sat in my drafts folder, but that doesn’t take away from the accomplishments I have made.

So then, the next question is: fifty-two more? Well, put simply, no. I still plan to post, particularly with media reviews, but 2017 was about finally finding the courage to put my writing out into the world, and forcing myself to do so. That has now been achieved and I’m very happy with the end result. The next step is to focus that energy into new challenges and new skills. I will not be starting 2018 with any specific challenge or checklist of goals; instead, I’m going to forge forward with several ideas. The first step will be to clear out/complete as many incomplete projects as possible, beginning with that drafts folder. It’s ridiculous that I have drafted movie reviews from October 2016 that have never seen the light of day. It’s equally ridiculous that I have spent over a year talking about migrating theAdhocracy; changing the article format; implementing home-brew backed cross posting; and getting some of the travel videos I’ve shot edited, uploaded and accessible. The last year has been about learning new skills, proving that I can balance commitments with creative endeavours and working out where I enjoy putting my energy. I’ve now got a pretty good idea of how that will all work, so the next step is to begin applying it. I’m excited to see what my year-in-review will look like in another twelve months time, but the aim is for it to be even more diverse!

New 52 Challenge Posts:

  1. The New 52: A Challenge
  2. Scrobbling Movies
  3. Rating my Opinion
  4. A New Mozilla
  5. Month in Media: January 2017
  6. Martian Mirrors
  7. Interneting is (Apparently) Hard
  8. The Existential Crisis Question
  9. Awesome Azhdarchids
  10. TV vs Film: The Great Debate
  11. Willow, Wetlands & Nostell Priory
  12. Empathy Just Makes Sense
  13. Thoughts from Around the Web
  14. Month in Media: March 2017
  15. April Foolery 2017
  16. Duping the Genie
  17. Finding the Time
  18. Echoing Frustration
  19. Hyperfocal Stone Rows
  20. Vinyl Scratchings
  21. Factual Distrust
  22. Welcome Home
  23. Mister Vimes’d Go Spare & Assorted Odds ‘n’ Ends
  24. A Gap in Time
  25. Peaks & Troughs
  26. Security All The Way Down
  27. Month in Media – June 2017
  28. Marrs Green
  29. The Poetry of Spam
  30. Untapped Market
  31. That Anti-Diversity Googler & Self Introspection
  32. Where is Superwoman?
  33. The Weight of Opportunity
  34. Stickers, Eclipses and Lighthouses
  35. Life Between the Worlds
  36. When is a Cat a Mongoose?
  37. Sunrise on the Quiraing
  38. Month in Media – September 2017
  39. Month in Media – July 2017
  40. Forgotten & Surreal Instruments
  41. Welcome to the Grid
  42. Asking the Right Answers
  43. Insta Inspiration
  44. Fair Phones & Mobile Woes
  45. Dark Booking Patterns
  46. Month in Media – November 2017
  47. Spiders, Dinosaurs and CVs
  48. Death of the Internet
  49. Remember: Anger Leads to the Dark Side
  50. The New 52: A Summary

Welcome Home [#22]

Busy, busy, busy. Life is far too busy right now. I only got back from the Hebrides on Monday and we’re already packing for the next trip! Not that I’m complaining about being on the move, it’s definitely my preferred state, but I barely feel like I’ve touched base with the rest of my life.

It also means I haven’t been reading very much. A few articles, here and there, but nothing worth writing about (not quite, anyway). I’m now two months behind on my MiMs (shame!) and don’t foresee that getting fixed any time soon. A have thousands of photographs to process from the last few weeks and another few hundred still queued from before that. On top of which, work is stacked up as well, so lunches have been eaten into as I catch up on various projects. The long and the short of it is that I’ve not got anything to write about and only another 30 minutes to write…

Except, that’s complete nonsense. If anything, I actually have too much to write about! The Hebrides (both Outer and Inner) were stunning, the highlands were fascinating, we met some really interesting people and I’ve had time to try out a bunch of creative techniques and start up several new projects. The problem, really, isn’t lack of content, it’s lack of time to do the content justice. Still, sometimes you just have to put proverbial pen-to-paper and push forward, so here we are.

Hopefully, in the coming weeks, I’ll get some more rounded, fleshed out thoughts written on our latest trip to the Western Isles (maybe even with accompanying imagery – wouldn’t that be a shock!). I definitely want to write up a checklist of the species we saw, places we went and food we ate. But, that can all wait for now, because first of all I want to talk about a minor revelation (or even revolution) that I had whilst on the Isle of Skye. Specifically, a revelation about theAdhocracy and what it has come to mean.

It hasn’t been that long since I last wondered aloud what the purpose of this website is. Then, as with previous times, I slightly dodged the bullet, declaring it:

equal parts scrap book and playground.

Except, that was a bit of a lie. Sure, that’s what I use theAdhocracy for, but it was never the core purpose for its existence. I didn’t mention it then because it’s a little, well, embarrassing. I was ashamed of the actual answer because theAdhocracy is, in some ways, a triumph, but it is also a very large failure.

I have a website because I want to be a website designer. It’s that simple. I’ve always enjoyed mucking around with HTML, CSS and all the other bits and pieces that make up the internet. There was even a time when, with the help of a talented and much more artistic friend, I used to make websites for money. We didn’t make very many, we didn’t make them particularly well (my fault – not his), but it made me realise that the web was something I enjoyed working with.

That was a decade ago (shudder) and I’ve never gone back. I went to university to study computer science specifically to become a web developer, but chose my course poorly and ended up graduating as a geologist (long story). Now, I work in programming, but not with websites. That, truthfully, is why theAdhocracy exists. It was meant to be somewhere for me to relearn how the web works, to play around with new technologies and experiment with developing standards. But more than that, this website was meant to be a jumping off platform for a career.

theAdhocracy was supposed to be my portfolio. It was supposed to be somewhere I could point potential clients to, somewhere to create freelancing opportunities through. The first time I devised a logo (still haven’t made it) and registered the domain was actually before making my first (and only) freelance pitch. It was meant to be a relatively easy, sure-think put together by a friend. It was actually a massively embarrassing failure where I talked excitedly to someone who had no idea who I was, why I was there or what was happening and never contacted me again. It was a grounding experience and threw me a little, so after I graduated and decided to try again I made the decision not to pitch until I had a portfolio. Which is a bit of a paradox. And another failure.

But I’m not writing this to moan or ask for sympathy. I’m writing this because, whilst on the Isle of Skye, I realised I’ve changed my mind. I’m still interested in working on the web, but it’s no longer the only end game. There are a huge number of careers I’d like to try, with web developer still amongst them, but no longer at the top of the stack. Plus, even if I did go down the freelance route, it wouldn’t be as theAdhocracy. The name has a convoluted and personal history; it still makes me smile and I wouldn’t change it if you paid me (well… how much are we talking?). But it isn’t a customer-facing name. It doesn’t make enough sense.

So that’s that. This website isn’t going anywhere, but I’m officially shrugging off this weight of guilt and frustration that has built up over how I’m using (or not using) it. Maybe, some day, I’ll design another website – it may even be to replace this one. But from now on, theAdhocracy has one purpose only: to be a place I keep stuff I want to keep. Reviews, articles, links, photographs, videos… whatever! Somewhere to be creative, without worrying about how it will affect a ‘brand’ that doesn’t exist. This has been my digital home for several years, but I haven’t been able to think of it like that because I wanted it to be my digital storefront. Well, not any more. That ends today. Welcome home.

The Weak Link

I enjoyed reading this article, written by Ethan Marcotte. It makes some interesting points, aligns with my own cognitive bubble and provides some deeper insight into areas of stuff that I find interesting. Taken together, these parameters create a piece of writing that generally makes for a ‘good read’. Food for thought. Worth remembering.

Except, I won’t remember it. Perhaps I’ll find it inspiring or important enough to cross-post it, save it to Pocket, blog about it, highlight it in Evernote or employ one of the other myriad ways I’ve setup to somehow archive information. But will I ever look at it again? If not, what’s the point?

In a sense, these are all systems intended to enhance or expand my own limited storage space, to break the barriers biology has created. Archived information, though, is effectively forgotten if the archive lacks an easy and intuitive means of recovering it again. If a year passes and I suddenly find myself wanting information on pattern libraries, will I be able to cross reference my archive and pull back Ethan’s article? Will it even be relevant for the questions I’m asking at that time, or will it be discarded as white noise. What if I forgot to add that particular reference point or search the wrong archive?

Some of these systems are ones I’ve personally constructed, such as this website or my old Tumblr. These systems were designed by me, specifically so that I could find information quickly and intuitively. The problem is, they don’t really work. They just shift the required memory space away from the contents of the article, or video, or whatever else I’m trying to store and replace it with the keywords, tags or categorisation I’ve stored it under. If I’m lucky, future me will remember enough of these to pull back the right information at a later date, but the sticky issue is that if I don’t, the system breaks down and I will never know about it.

Honestly, I’m not sure a system can exist that does what I’m hoping to find. I want a means of quickly and easily adding to, maintaining and cross-referencing a database of information. I don’t mind a little upkeep, but preferably adding content would be near instantaneous and filtering it highly flexible. At this point I have nearly a dozen such systems, from online resources like Evernote to application specific solutions like bookmarks folders; even offline, meat-space concepts like notebooks. The reason I have so many is that none of them have worked. They are all either too personal, too restrictive in their access or have become too burdensome.

It’s borderline ironic that the web hasn’t magically answered this need, given that the entire technology is built on the concept of linking and cross-referencing information. In a way, I guess it could be argued that the web solved the reference issue but forgot about the index. Services like Google and Bing have attempted to fill that void but they can only do so much and will never be able to create the personalised experience I require.

Perhaps the future holds some answers or perhaps I have to just learn to accept that forgetting is, well, okay.

Where are the Reviews?

Given the increasing diversity of web based (and meat space) services it is a source of constant confusion and annoyance that there aren’t any far reaching, respected, crowd-sourced review sites out there. Places where services can be thoroughly named and shamed, that coalesce market pressure to enable consumers to actually push back against dodgy practices.

I’ve recently been shopping around for breakdown cover (I know, living the rockstar dream right now!) and found myself desperate for somewhere I could compare user experience and ratings for major services. Whilst looking for hosting I frequently found myself directed to Reevoo and Feefo when searching for reviews, so wanted to just go their directly this time. The problem is, neither website’s homepage actually lets you search for specific companies or websites, let alone reviews. Some further searching turned up the shopping microsite for Reevoo, but Feefo pages can only be reached by Googling “feefo+company name“. In other words, these services are aiming themselves squarely at companies, not consumers.

Trustpilot does a better job, but I’m not a fan of searching on URL rather than company name. It’s also clear that Trustpilot reviewers are not truly representative and often show clear bias towards negative experience. It could definitely be argued that this is due to the relative immaturity of the service, but I would expect Trustpilot themselves to be using this as a marketing strategy. Certainly, some breakdown services actively showoff their Trustpilot scores, whilst other (often far larger and better known) services appear not to care.

Personally, this appears to be an area that is just begging for a startup to pop up and begin making waves. Hopefully Trustpilot is just such a startup and within the next year or so it will invest heavily in promoting itself, both to companies and consumers, as well as refine how it works. Either way the market sorely needs some form of people powered leverage.

The Most Dangerous Way to Write

I have no idea how useful this little web-app may actually turn out to be, but it’s definitely a neat idea (and I wrote all of this in it too!). “The Most Dangerous Writing App” is certainly an odd one: keep writing in the completely streamlined text entry box for the allotted time limit (you set this yourself) or else “die”. Death, in this case, doesn’t refer to some chain-mail-esque curse, but the threat that if you stop writing for longer than ~5 seconds (total time unknown, I conducted a few simple tests but nothing too rigorous) the screen and box begin to fade, a red haze descends and then, ultimately, the “time’s up” message hits. At this point, it isn’t just game over… it’s message gone. Your entire piece of text (all of it) gets deleted, leaving you with a red screen, a red face and nothing to show for the effort.

As a result, I’m not convinced I’d ever want to try a time limit of longer than 5 minutes (which is what I’ve been experimenting with), just in case something went wrong. I’m also not sure what counts as “typing”; I went to correct typos and found it fading out whilst I was still hitting backspace, which was unnerving. Still, it definitely makes you stay focused, which is no bad thing. If that results in greater productivity then perfect, though I definitely felt the stress rising towards the end as the timer ticked down, my mind largely becoming clouded with thoughts of “this would be awful if it disappeared now”.

That said, once the timer has run down the option to Save or Restart becomes available and the risk of losing everything goes away, so I guess it’s probably a very good way of “getting in the zone”. At any rate, definitely worth a look, even if it’s just for some quick writing challenges or to get thoughts out without any formatting worries. Will likely try it out a few more times in the future!

Make Me Pulse

Screengrab of Make Me Pulse's 2016 Microsite with text reading "Make Me ..." followed by empty box and surrounded by geometric shapes

Occasionally, Stumbleupon delivers something totally unexpected and awesome. It’s why I still get the service’s weekly emails years after ever actively using the… app? Extension? Whatever, today it brought me Make Me Pulse, a fantastic design studio (well, at least a fantastic website for a design studio, though a brief review of their work means I’m relatively confident giving them the thumbs up as well) with some very clever interactivity on their site. I’d recommend checking out their homepage purely for the geometric, virtual “drum skin” you can play with, but tucked away in a semi-hidden corner is a very fun, quirky and captivating little ‘happy new year’ microsite. Definitely worth a check out.