May 22 2020

Home improvements: Conservatory edition

In a break from my usual service I thought I’d write about some DIY I have been doing during the covid-19 movement restrictions which have meant we have been confined to the home for a large part of the time. The idea of this blog post is to remind me what I have done, and perhaps provide a guide to others.

The Problem

Our house has a small conservatory at the back which opens into the dining room and looks out onto the back garden which is rather pleasant. It contains a large collection of toys, mainly Lego which lives on and in  Ikea Trofast storage units around the perimeter. There is a bespoke storage unit which holds more toys, including mounts for my son’s substantial collection of nerf guns. More recently it has gained an electric drum kit, and my guitar amplifier. It is where I practice playing, slightly detached from the rest of the family but vaguely audible and visible. It is also the cat’s dining room.

Below is a "before" picture, taken nearly 10 years ago to illustrate our new patio. It serves to shows the context of the conservatory rather than illustrate the problems:

IMG_1115

The Problem is that the conservatory faces west and this means for a substantial part of the year it gets unbearably hot in the afternoon, and very bright. Before the movement restrictions there were no blinds or window covers of any sort. Along with the issues of heat, it is also a little unattractive to look into and the view to one side looks into an odd space outside our kitchen door, facing onto our neighbour’s kitchen extension. So some decorative interest would not go amiss.

I have a vague plan to replace the conservatory with an extension running across the back of the house, so I don’t want to spend a huge amount of money for something that will be torn down in a few years time.

Some solutions

The deluxe solution to this problem is to get in someone like Hilary’s blinds who do a bespoke installation. It’s not quite clear what the price would be but it looks like well over £1000 possibly approaching £2000. Also they cover off the blinds side of the problem well but not any sort of decorative elements and the flexibility around what to do with the roof is limited.

I also looked at these clip fit blinds (and here), they are made to measure and have a spring fitting that sticks under the double glazing seal to hold them in place. They would be rather cheaper than the Hilary’s blinds option – probably a couple of hundred pounds for the four windows I’d like to install them on – the big ones looking down the garden. I looked at a few options like this but held off since I wasn’t confident of delivery under the circumstances. I also wasn’t too sure about whether the anchoring mechanism would work on my windows and under the current circumstances sorting out issues would be a pain.

As it turns out there is a very cheap blinds solution: Stick-on paper blinds! You can get a pack of six here on Amazon for less than £25. I liked this option because it was really cheap and, following a comment on the Q&A on Amazon I thought I could use the paper blinds as a try out for style and if I liked them go for some of the clip fit ones.

For the roof I felt there should be some sort of billowy sail like drapings which I thought would be rather good but I couldn’t find just I what I was looking for – again there seemed to be bespoke options but the route to DIY installation was not so clear. There are "conservatory sails" but these are sails which you use as a sun shade rather than install in a conservatory. I worried about fixings for such things too – I would need to screw mountings into the UPVC frame of the conservatory which didn’t seem ideal. In the end I went with this high reflective film for the roof, I think it had come up as I searched for blinds and the like. It cuts out about 90% of the light which is fine for a sunny spot. I spent about £140 on the reflective film.

Finally the decorative part to go on the windows looking towards the back door. It took me a while to hit the right such term for this, I ended up with this "privacy film" with a bird pattern – I spent about £40 on this.

Installation

I installed in three stages. The patterned film was a couple of evenings after dinner. The paper blinds similarly a couple of short evenings. The reflective film was an evening, and three weekend mornings – a rather bigger job. I wish I’d installed the paper blinds last because they didn’t like having water dripped on them and installing the films required quite a lot of water

The paper blinds are the simplest to install – you cut them to width with a pair of scissors and then stick them to the window at the top with a sticky strip. I found cutting them neatly tricky because they are pleated, and sufficiently thick that you can only cut them a couple of folds at a time. They come supplied with some little alcohol wipes so you can make sure the window you stick to is really clean. Each blind comes with a couple of plastic clips which you can use to hold the folds of the blind up. The inadequacies of my cutting and installation are not too obvious, these blinds work quite well. I found it necessary to cut them to length in order that the clips were able to old the folded part. They could do with a stiffening rod along the bottom edge.

The decorative film was relatively easy to install, you cut to size then peel off a backing film, wet the window thoroughly then squeegee them into place to remove the bubbles. My Stanley knife blade was feeling its age so I ended up scoring the film with the blade then cutting it with the scissors which occasionally left untidy edges. If I did this again I’d use more water on the window – a lesson I learnt from the final piece to be installed.

I left installing the reflective film for last since it involved working overhead and looked the most difficult. The length of the roof panes in the conservatory is nearly 3 metres, I decided wrangling that length of wet, sticky, thin film above my head was a step too far. So after a bit of experimentation I went for installing 150 centimetre strips, this worked pretty well. Installation was similar to the decorative film, except the instructions suggested spraying the window with water spraying the film with water and then spraying the exposed surface of the film with water once it was in place. This was a lot of water, most of which dribbled down my arms as I squeeged the film into place but it actually worked really well. Initially the film has lots of bubbles under it but one pass of the squeegee sorts most of that out. You need to clean the windows properly before putting the film on since any dirt leaves pimples in the film. I never quite cracked cutting the film to exactly the right size, if you cut slightly to big then I found it impossible to cut neatly down to size once in place (perhaps a sharper Stanley knife would have helped), so I ended up undersizing slightly – this isn’t too noticeable though. Similarly butting the edges of the film together was a bit tricky but mistakes here only show if you stand staring at the roof. Finding a corner to peel off the backing takes a knack, I found the best way was to pare away a corner.

The picture below captures the decorative film, the blinds and the reflective film once installed. The narrow windows at the top also have the reflective film on them.

finished

Close inspection shows the installation is not perfect but imperfections are only really noticeable to me when I go looking for them. This second picture shows a bit more context, it is full sun outside and the conservatory is not overheating!

finished2

I wondered about putting some modesty panel style film on the lower half of the patio doors.

Conclusions and further work

I am quite pleased with the results, the conservatory no longer gets unbearable hot in the sun. The reflective film is perhaps a little too reflective in the morning making the dining room a little dim. I’m not sure what the solution is here, the conservatory is quite small and I worry more substantial blinds, and their control mechanisms would be too bulky. You can get electrically switchable window/films but they cost about £40 for an A4 sized panel. The blinds look like pleated paper which is exactly what they are – I will replace them with proper fitted ones in due course.

Apr 06 2020

Strategies for dealing with anxiety

These are some strategies for coping with anxiety which I have been learning about in counselling sessions which I have been doing over the last few weeks. For me anxiety manifests itself as a tightness in the chest, disturbed sleep – typically waking very early, and repetitive thoughts. The repetitive thoughts can be benign, aside from keeping me awake all night, or they can be about how I’m going to fail to do something and let people down. These thoughts become more and more consuming. The current covid-19 pandemic actually helps me with my normal anxiety since the things that usually make me anxious are forbidden! It turns out this is not unique – see this article.

    • Mindfulness – this is a general strategy which is about focussing on doing one thing at a time, being engaged in that one thing exclusively. It can be applied to many activities but often it is used with a breathing exercise – focussing on counting breathes. For me a good start is not looking at my mobile phone when I am doing something else! That said the Headspace phone app provides some useful exercises in mindfulness;
    • Worry time – this is a strategy for dealing with underlying anxiety. The idea is that you set aside a time for worrying, and if you find you are worrying outside that time you can put off worrying until later. My strategy involved deferring worrying but then not scheduling worry time. I’m not sure whether this is how it is supposed to work but it is effective to a degree! There are some more notes on this here;
    • Safe space – this a strategy for dealing with anxiety in the moment. It involves focusing the mind on a “safe space”, a place where you feel safe and relaxed. It’s best not to include people in your safe space since they can be unpredictable and stressful. I use a place where I go walking, I also use the feeling of sitting on my train reading my book after it has pulled away from the station although this one isn’t so good since the train may stop unexpectedly or get busy. There is an exercise of safe spaces here;
    • Narration – this is a strategy for dealing with anxiety in the moment. It involves narrating what you are doing as you feel anxious thoughts arising. It always makes me think of the Pulp track, I Spy. It is a form of distraction;
    • Empty bowl meditation – breathing exercise with focus on endpoints and the flow. The breathing exercises I’ve done in the past tend to focus on counting breaths rather than observing individual breaths in detail.Instructions for this are here. I keep reading this as “Empty Bowel”…;
    • Willing hands – different posture for anxiety reduction. Looks like the “classic” mediation/yoga pose with palms upwards. The idea is that it prepares you for acceptance. Instructions for this are here – page 175;
    • Radical acceptance skills – this is a general strategy about accepting things as they are not as you wish them to be. The radical here just means ‘complete’. One difficulty with anxiety is the feeling that you should somehow be able to think yourself better, that an act of will will cure you. This reminds me of the lyric from Frozen “Let it go, let it go…” Instructions for this are here, they are oriented around dealing with past painful events;
    • Compassion mindfulness – this is a general strategy about feeling compassion towards yourself. It fits in with the acceptance exercise and starts with feeling compassion towards someone else (the exercise uses the Sanskrit word metta which means compassion or loving kindness). Instructions for this are here;
    • Relaxation – muscle relaxation is a common strategy in mindfulness. I see it more as a focus on the body and bodily sensations rather than muscle relaxation per se. There are some instructions here;
    • Effective rethinking and paired relaxation – this combines the relaxation step above with “rethinking”, that is taking a stressful situation and replacing the thoughts causing distress with alternative less stressful interpretations. Instructions for this are here (on page 332);
    • Body scan meditation – this is another mindfulness technique, I get hung up on the fact that it asks me to imagine my breathe flowing to my toes – which is not how respiration works! I should work out a suitable modification. Instructions for this are here (on page 335);
    • Wise mind: states of mind – this is more background than a skill as such. It talks about the combination of the logical “reasonable mind” and the “emotion mind”. The handout for this is here (on page 50);

Obviously, it doesn’t really work to only try these things only once you are having a bit of a crisis. I have struggled to find a quiet time to practice, we have an early rising 8 year old around the house the whole time at the moment. I’m working on practising when I wake up before I get up, this is usually a guaranteed quiet time.

These strategies come from the Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) family which is related to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. (dialectical means relating to the logical discussion of ideas or opinions, or concerned with or acting through opposing forces).

Dec 31 2019

Review of the year: 2019

My blogging this year has been entirely book reviews, you can see a list on the index page. I still find blogging a useful discipline to go with my non-fiction reading but my readership is so low there seems little point in writing other things for a wider audience.

A number of the books I reviewed related to music, I feel this is cheating a bit on the book reviewing front since these are typically teaching books which are more guided exercises than prose. I also read Ian S. Port’s book The Birth of Loud which is about the origins of the electric guitar from the point of view of Leo Fender and Les Paul. The music books are reflected by an increased collection of musical instruments in the household, we started the year with my electric guitar and electric and acoustic guitars for Thomas. We have since gained a bass guitar, for Sharon; a ukulele, for travel; an electric drum kit; an acoustic guitar for me (it’s very pretty – a Fender Newporter, pictured below); and for Christmas a keyboard for the family.

guitar

To learn to drum I got the Melodics app, which plugs into the drum kit and gives direct feedback as to whether I was hitting the right thing at the right time. I found this really usefully but discovered as a result that my guitar playing involved a lot of pausing for thought between passages, so I’ve started using Youcisian for guitar which has similar feedback functionality. The musical year finished with us getting a family present of a keyboard, and now I discover the theoretical side of music is so much easier on a keyboard – on a guitar the notes wrap across the fret board so you can access a couple of octaves with one hand in one place. This is convenient but it means note positions are not as obvious as on a keyboard where everything is laid out in a nice straight line.

Beyond music my reading has been quite eclectic this year. I started with Mapping Society on the use of maps to communicate data about society, moved on to a biography of Hedy Lamarr the Hollywood star who patented the frequency hopping method for secure communications. I went through a spell of reading more work relevant books – a couple of books on JavaScript, a book on marketing and one on international culture and how it impacts business interactions, and a book on rapid prototyping in business. I read several fairly academic history books, Higher and Colder on extreme physiology experiments on Everest and at the poles, Gods and Robots about representations of robots and similar in Greek and other mythology and Empires of Knowledge about some of the correspondents in the Republic of Letters. I also read the sumptuously illustrated catalogue of the Matthew Boulton exhibition. I read a couple of more data science oriented books (Designing Data Intensive Applications and Deep learning with Python). Angela Saini’s book Superior, on race science was a highlight. Returning to my roots I also read Lost in Math by Sabine Hossenfelder which is about how theoretical physics has lost itself in a search for mathematical beauty.

This years holiday was in Benllech once again, only a short drive for us from Chester. Thomas has been learning to swim, and Sharon and Thomas rather enthusiastically flung themselves into the chilly Irish Sea. To be fair the weather wasn’t too bad, we had a couple of really warm days – I got sunburnt feet – and only a couple of heavy downpours in parts of the day when it didn’t matter.

familybenllech _beach

Politics has been largely miserable over the last year, Brexit failed to happen several times through the year but only after it felt we had been brought to the brink of crashing out of the EU with no deal which I found stressful, and now we have a Tory government with a significant majority led by someone unsuited to run a whelk stall which will take us out of the EU, probably as a cliff edge towards the end of the year. I suspect the General Election was won in part because voters are fed up with Brexit paralysis, even those that wish to remain were probably not greatly enthused by the prospect of a second referendum which had every sign of being as tightly contested as the first.

On the positive side, my own team, the Liberal Democrats, has seen a general rise in its fortunes. We have been consistently taking council seats from Labour and Tory, with gains considerably above expectations in the May elections. In the unexpected EU elections in the summer the Liberal Democrats polled second with 19.6% of the vote with only the Brexit Party ahead of them, I tend to see EU elections as indicative of general support in the absence of the First Past the Post system. In parliament we saw mixed fortunes, we increased the number of MPs by defection and by-election to 21, then dropped back to 11 seats in the December General Election, losing our leader Jo Swinson in the process. This is despite growing our vote share from 7.4% to 11.6%, you’ve got to love the First Past the Post system!

Ever keen to be forced to do new things by apps, I’ve started learning Arabic in Duolingo, I have to admit this is largely due to finding Arabic script attractive. I suspect I cheat quite a lot by using minimal pattern matching rather than full understanding the language to get some answers right.

Dec 31 2018

Review of the year: 2018

My reading rate is somewhat reduced this year, 26 books covering both fiction and non-fiction in 2018 compared to 34 and 32 in the two previous years. In the autumn, Thomas and I started learning to play the guitar, Thomas taking lessons at school, me working independently – maybe this is what distracted me from reading. I wrote a blog post on this.

Anyway, to the books. I started the year with a Christmas Extravaganza – short reviews of books on walking, maps, birds, Vermeer and Caneletto. I read some work related books on machine learning, data strategy, and behavioural marketing. This last one was an attempt to read about something a bit different from my usual data science/technology area of interest but it turns out that behavioural marketing is marketing targeted using data which is already my patch. Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve, on the statistically analysis of word frequency distributions, felt like it fitted this category of work-like books.

A couple of the books were quite long: The Devil’s Doctor – Philip Ball’s biography of Paracelsus and The Silk Roads, by Peter Frankopan. Frankopan’s book is a history of the world viewed through the lens of the overland route to China from Europe which has it’s centre of gravity in the Middle East. I was a bit surprised when this coverage came all the way up to the present day. Lucy Inglis’ book Milk of Paradise, on opium and its derivatives, morphine and heroin, had a similar geographic coverage to Frankopan’s book with trade routes passing through the Middle East to China and Asia.

William Armstrong: Magician of the North by Henrietta Heald and Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis by Kim Todd were biographies of individuals. Armstrong was a Victorian industrialist famous for his house, Cragside, which was the first to be lit with electricity. Merian was a naturalist and illustrator in the 17th century, she is better known outside the UK – clearly a very remarkable woman. These days I prefer ensemble biographies such as The Philosophical Breakfast Club by Laura J. Snyder which covers William Whewell (pronounced: who-ell), Charles Babbage, Richard Jones and John Herschel, and were involved in the reform of British science in the 19th century. Sentimental Savants by Meghan K. Roberts follows the move from savants as monastic figures into men embedded in families in 18th and 19th century France. What’s your type? by Merve Emre finished the year with a biography of Katherine Myers and her daughter Isabel Briggs-Myers who created the Myers-Briggs Personality Test.

Other Minds by Peter Godfrey Smith is possibly my favourite book of the year, it is the story of thinking and octopuses. Godfrey-Smith’s idea is to understanding thinking better by studying the most radically different thinkers he could find.

Inferior by Angela Saini is the story of scientific studies of women. It is a rather sorry tale of men clearly desperate to find biological basis as to how women are inferior whilst ignoring societal factors. I’m still endeavouring to read more books by women. For most non-fiction and fiction this is no hardship, niche technical books present a challenge since the number of women authors in this area is close to zero.

Finally, we have The Anatomy of Colour by Patrick Baty, a history of paint and interior decoration. Aside from the outright art books, definitely the most beautiful book of the year.

This year we went on holiday to Westendorf in Austria, Thomas’s first trip abroad. We know Westendorf well – we’ve skied there several times and been once in the summer. We went with my mum, who has been going so long the tourist office gave her a “long service” award this time around! The weather in Westendorf was scorching, much like the UK had been for a chunk of the summer. Fortunately the bedrooms in our apartment were in the basement which was nice and cool.

westendorf

On the domestic front, we have had our driveway replaced with resin-bound gravel. Probably the largest construction undertaking that we’ve done, approaching 15 years after moving in we finally got around to replacing the rather uneven gravel and original concrete slabs at the front of the house. It took rather longer than expected, most likely due to the installers discovering that the existing driveways and paths were sitting on sand and other uncompacted material rather than any sort of properly made base. Having completed the driveway, the front garden and fences looked a bit tatty too so we got those fixed too. All it requires now is for Mrs H to get more plants. If you want to enjoy the whole process in pictorial form, there is an album (here). A before and after are shown below.

before

driveway

On a related note: we paid off our mortgage!

Politically I’m in limbo, Brexit  has deeply upset me – it sees my friends and colleagues from other EU nations treated as second class citizens, cast into Kafka-esque Home Office procedures. The future for my son seems less open and outward looking, with reduced opportunities. I gave up listening to the Radio 4 Today programme after getting on for 30 years regular listening. Some of this is specifically to do with the Today programme: John Humphreys has long struck me as greatly over-rated, over-paid, and unprepared – getting by on bluster. More recently outright brexity. More widely the BBC uses its requirement for “balance” as cover. It gets regularly reprimanded by the regulator for bringing in Nigel Lawson to counter climate change scientists. Question Time panels regularly comprise 3 brexiters and possibly one remainer, if that. Its headline news programmes have ignored serious stories about the Leave campaign, or even actively prompted the Leave side.

I’m looking forward to more learning guitar in 2019, more reading and hopefully better mental health. Brexit will have either happened or not happened fairly shortly.

Nov 17 2018

Me and my guitar

guitarPerhaps I’m having a mid-life crisis, or perhaps it is the appearance of slightly paunchy, balding rock heroes of my youth at Glastonbury or maybe it is just that my son has started guitar lessons, but I have bought a guitar.

I’ve never played a musical instrument, I don’t count the obligatory recorder of the 1970s which every child abused.

It turns out this post is going to be a bit of a “gear” post.

I got a Squier Affinity Series Stratocaster HSS from Dawsons music in Chester. Squier is Fender’s cheaper brand, introduced so that they could make some money instead of other companies making it on their Stratocaster knock-offs. Included in the pack are the guitar, an amplifier and some plectrums. I have to say I’m pretty impressed by the build quality. The inclusion of the amplifier makes it a pretty weighty package so don’t plan on walking home with it!

Starting on an electric guitar seemed to surprise some people, I don’t believe it’s a particularly odd choice. A starter electric guitar is a bit more expensive than an acoustic but you have the motivation of becoming a rock God, rather than the nun from Airplane! I thought maybe I could practice more quietly by plugging in headphones but in the end that hasn’t mattered.

Shortly before buying the guitar I’d done a little strumming on my son’s three quarter size acoustic guitar and got Justin Sandercoe’s Beginner’s Guitar Course, attractive since it comes ring-bound. I also got the accompanying Songbook. You can try out Justin’s lessons for free on his website. I’ll probably review the books in another post but I came to them because Googling for guitar lessons brings him up fairly high on the rankings, he explains things well (check out some of his videos) and is clearly a popular choice for guitar lessons.

I got a headstock tuner – this is a little device that clips onto the guitar headstock and helps you tune up. The steel strings on my electric guitar seem to stay in tune for a few days, whilst acoustic, nylon strings need tightening up most days. There are any number of smartphone apps which will fulfil the same purpose but the headstock tuner is more convenient, and I suspect more accurate. I also got a capo, which is a clamp that goes across all the strings of the guitar and can therefore change the tuning – I haven’t used this much yet. My tuner turned out to be a little too cheap and I’ve had to fix it with superglue.

On my list of things to get are are equipment for changing guitar strings, apparently not required until about three months in and guitar strap locking washers (which I don’t need for now since I play sitting down). I’m sure other gadgets will be tempting me, and I notice that people seem to rarely own just one guitar!

I also got some headphones, playing with the amplifier on low is fine but you tend to hear the direct noise of the strings which isn’t particularly pleasant, and now I have a tiny amplifier that plugs straight into the guitar and on to the headphones, and a music stand. Fortunately guitar gadgets are cheap compared to SLR camera lenses!

The thing they don’t tell you about learning to play the guitar is the pain in your fingers. Oddly, non-guitar players assume this is in your strumming hand. It isn’t. The problem is with your fret hand, which has to hold down thin wires quite hard. Asking for protection on online forums gets you the same response as asking a beginners question on a computing forum. You get called useless and are given no help. Three weeks in and I have callouses on three fingers of my left hand, and the pain is much reduced.

I suspect there will now be a series of blog posts on matters musical and guitar.

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