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.

Aug 09 2018

Westendorf

This year’s summer holiday was to Westendorf in Austria, it was Thomas’ first trip abroad.

We flew from Manchester to Munich with Easyjet and got a taxi from Munich to Westendorf which averages a two hour drive. In future we’d probably get the train to Wörgl since the drive is prone to delay, and is very expensive. FastTrack security at Manchester is worth the £5 per head.

We stayed at Appartment Kurz in Westendorf which is a 5 minute walk from the village centre, close to the nursery slopes if you are there in winter. We had the ground floor apartment which had a south facing terrace looking onto the very quiet street. Two of the three bedrooms were in the basement which was excellent since this meant they were relatively cool – temperatures approached 30 degrees for the whole week.

Appartment Kurz

Further measures to combat the heat were to go up the mountain in the gondola, attend the open air swimming pool, and have a 1 scoop ice cream available for 1€. The open air swimming pool was great – probably not so good if it was cooler.

Mum was staying in Westendorf whilst we were there which was really nice for finding things to do, during the week she was presented with a voucher by the tourist office for her 35th visit to the village! We used the lift system – and the local buses – which are a roughly hourly service between Worgl and Kitzbuhel barring ~3pm when there is no bus for two hours! The buses are free on the tourist card which seems to be an intrinsic part of staying in the village. We got weekly lift passes which are much more economic than pay as you go.

Day 1 – Sunday

A gentle trip up the Alpenrosenbahn with a walk along the back route to Choralpe, where marmots can be seen (maybe). Best value entertainment – the “Ball run” – 2€ for a small wooden ball to roll down a run back towards Talkaser.

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Day 2 – Monday

We took the bus to Hopfgarten and then the gondola to the top of Hohe Salve and back down to Hexenwasser, at Hoch Soll. Hexenwasser is a modest outdoor water park which is free to use. We had a ride up and down a chairlift, the only one running on the system, so Thomas could enjoy the experience.

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Chairlift from Hexenwasser

Day 3 – Tuesday

To Brixen and then up to Filzalm See which is another waterpark this time centred around a little lake. It has a barefoot walk, featuring a lot of mud and a mechanical treadle which allows you to make a Poseidon-like figure to rise from the waters of the lake.

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Day 4 – Wednesday

No lifts today, we walked the Wohlfühlweg (Wellbeing way) first thing in the morning, this is a trail along the edge of the woods by Westendorf that takes in some land-art style features. On our way back to the apartment we stopped off at Cafe Elisabeth for cake, so much cake. I’ve been to Cafe Elisabeth many times, it is only this time that I realised that Konditorei means “cake shop” in German, and not “air-conditioned” as had always assumed. In the afternoon we went to the outdoor swimming pool, very pleasant in the heat and quite reasonably priced – particularly if you go after 2pm.

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Day 5 – Thursday

Back up the Alpenrosenbahn, I went to the summit by Choralpe. In the evening there was a market in the village where we got chicken and chips for our dinner.

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Day 6 – Friday

Filzalm See again, early in the morning followed by swimming in the open air pool in the afternoon. I went for a walk through the woods where I saw some pigs.

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Dec 26 2017

Review of the year: 2017

As I finish work for the year, and we await Christmas Day, it is time for me to start writing my “Review of the year”. This is a somewhat partial view of the world, as seen through the pages of my blog which these days is almost entirely book reviews, you can see a list of my blog posts for the year here. My Goodreads account tells me I have read 32 books this year.

Linked to reading, I wrote a post on Women Writers – I’ve been making an effort to read more books written by women over the last couple of years. This has worked out really well for my fiction reading, where I’ve found some new sci-fi authors to enjoy, and some, like Ursula Le Guin who have been around a while. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is certainly in contention for my favourite novel ever. On non-fiction I’ve not had as much success – a chunk of my non-fiction reading is in technology and the number of women published in this area is tiny. I found the acknowledgements section of books by men a useful place to find women to follow on twitter.

This year I read Pandora’s Breeches by Patricia Fara – about women in science from about 1600 to 1850. I also read Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, about the Africa-American women who worked as “human computers” for the organisation which was to become NASA. I think this told me more about being an African-American than being a woman. I hadn’t appreciated previously the sheer effort and determination required for African-Americans to progress, changing the laws to end legally-sanctioned discrimination was simply the first step (resisted at every turn by white supremacists).

I read some fairly academic history of science too, Inventing Temperature and Leviathan and the air-pump. Inventing Temperature is about the history of the measurement of temperature. Temperature is important to most physical scientists in one way or another, perhaps more so for ones like I once was. This book covers the less-told history, and re-surfaces some of the assumptions that these days are no longer taught or certainly don’t stick in the mind.  Leviathan and the air-pump is about the foundation of the experimental method as it is (roughly) seen today. I liked these two books because they didn’t follow the “great man” narrative which is what you get from reading scientific biographies – a much more common genre in the wider history of science.

I also read a few books on the history of Chester, following on from reading about Roman Chester last year. Two things struck me in this, one was the image of post-Roman Britons living in the ruins of the Roman occupation. Evidence from this period immediately following the Roman occupation, in Chester it amounts to a thin dark layer of material in the Roman barracks which could well be pigeon droppings! The second stand out was the fact that Chester’s mint/money making operation was bigger than London’s in the 9th century. I was also interested in the “Pentice” a curious timber structure attached to the St Peter’s church by the cross in the centre of town that appears to have been Chester’s administrative centre since the medieval period (it was demolished in the early 19th century).

In news outside the world of books, we had an election in the UK, the result was a bit of a surprise but we can probably agree we are not in a great position now politically with a weak government steadfastly refusing to even countenance ending the Brexit process and an official “opposition” in the Labour Party supporting them in this.

Surprise hit of the year was the ARK exhibition of sculpture at Chester Cathedral. I wouldn’t describe myself as a connoisseur of art, particularly not sculpture but I loved this exhibition. The exhibits were scattered through the cathedral and its grounds. A life-sized ceramic horse, and three very large egg-shaped objects making a very public sign of what lay within. It turns out that sculpture works really well in an old cathedral, there are so many shapes and textures to pick up on. This picture encapsulates it for me:

On the technology front I read about Scala, I’ve also wrote a post about setting up my work PC to use Scala which requires a bit of wrangling. I read about behaviour driven testing, and the potential downsides of data science from a social point of view and game theory.

A final mention goes to Ed Yong’s “I contain multitudes”, one of the first books I read this year, which is all about the interaction between microbes and the hosts they live with – including you and me. Possibly this is my favourite book of the year, but looking down the list I don’t think there was any book I regretted reading and a fair few of them were thoroughly excellent.

No holiday post this year, we were back in Portinscale, on the outskirts of Keswick again – notable achievement: getting Thomas (5) up several peaks – starting with Cat Bells! Embarrassment prevents from writing much about my Pokemon Go obsession, in my defence I will say that it is educational for Thomas and encourages him to walk places!

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