Books, Me & My Life, Tech

Kindle

NOTE: This post is available here as a MOBI file for reading on a Kindle.

Hey, did I mention I bought a Kindle? This is it:

Kindle in left hand

It’s a Wi-Fi Kindle 3, the type released back in the summer of 2010 (it’s now known as the Kindle Keyboard, but I think that’s a clumsy name which I prefer not to use). This is the one I got. I forwent the 3G because I can live without it and would rather spend the ~£70 premium on something more fun instead.

But hang on a second Wilf, you say. If you’ve just bought a Kindle, why didn’t you get the current version? Indeed, Marco recommends the Kindle 4 as the best e-reader to buy, and he’s a pretty clued-up guy. Why not go for that?

Choosing my Kindle

Alright, let me get something straight before I continue. I didn’t just buy it, gosh. I bought it almost 2 months ago, at the end of November.

But no, it’s a good question and one that I pondered myself for a considerable time before purchasing my Kindle 3. Amazon’s Kindles first came onto my radar through listening to This Week in Tech podcasts back in 2009 and 2010. Steve Gibson, the host of Security Now!, has always been keen on Kindles, especially the Kindle DX. I vividly remember one moment of my month-long French holiday, walking up the hill to my hostel in Nice for the first time, listening as Steve excitedly described the potential of the large-screened DX to be a native PDF viewer. Thrilling stuff.

As it happens, I saw my first ever Kindle in the wild at the end of that French holiday in 2010. It was a white Kindle 2 at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle railway station whilst I was waiting for my Eurostar back to London. A man sitting opposite me in the waiting room pulled what I thought was an e-reader out of his bag, clad in a leather case, and started reading. I thought it was a Kindle and was interested to see one, so I went over to ask him about it. He confirmed my hunch and gave me a little demonstration as to how it worked. I was impressed, and knew that one day I would own one.

I was also put onto the Kindle by Murray, a loyal devotee to the written word, by Marco Arment (the host of the podcast Build and Analyze, and the guy behind Instapaper – more on that later) and more recently by my girlfriend, who purchased a Wi-Fi Kindle 3 during the summer and whose testimony and encouragement finally pushed me over the edge of my Kindle indecisiveness. If she loves her Kindle, heck, there’s gotta be something good behind this funny contraption.

When the Kindle 3 was released, I felt that whilst it was a good device, I wasn’t ready for it yet. I’d wait for the next version. In particular, I wanted a Kindle with a touchscreen. The keyboard on the Kindle 3 takes up space unnecessarily, and anyway, after having my life changed by my iPod touch and iOS 3 years previously, I wasn’t about to start buying new gadgets that relied on a keyboard and D-pad for navigation. No, this was 2010. This was the future.

Then, a few months ago, Amazon introduced the Kindle 4, Kindle Fire, and Kindle Touch. The Fire is a tablet computer with an LCD screen – not an e-reader – and I’m sure you know what the Kindle 4 is. It’s the newer version of the Kindle 3, most notably lacking a keyboard. The Touch is the one I had been eagerly anticipating, but I was disappointed. For a higher price, the Touch is sluggish (although the responsiveness has since been improved in a software update this week), and in some ways a touch screen may be worse for an e-reader than dedicated buttons (you can’t rest your fingers on the screen whilst reading in the same way you can on hardware buttons, meaning you have to move your fingers a considerable distance every page turn). And worse: the Kindle Touch is not even available outside of the US.

Fuck that.

Let me tell you how I chose my Kindle over the Kindle 4. For starters, it’s refurbished and hence was the cheapest option available (refurbished Kindle 4s are not available). And for £10 less than the Kindle 4, you get a whole lot more: double the battery life (2 months vs. 1 month), double the storage (4GB vs. 2 GB), built-in text-to-speech and speakers, and a screen which isn’t as ghosty. (The Kindle 4 only does a full ‘blink’ every 6 page turns, so by the 5th turn a non-negligible amount of residue remains from the previous pages. You know what I mean). Those advantages aside, the Kindle 3 sports the same software and same quality screen, and having been around for much longer, the availability, selection and price of covers and cases is much better.

My Kindle also sports a keyboard, which the Kindle 4s do not. Initially I thought that a keyboard might piss me off, being all flimsy and adding a lot of size to the device. Whilst I rarely use the keyboard for anything lengthier than entering my password, I find it doesn’t bother me. I ignore it most of the time, and I even think that a Kindle without the extra height might feel too small in my hand. I prefer the look of the Kindle 3 as well: the 4s look to be of a lower build quality and worse colour. I like mine best.

What Do I Think Of It?

Keyboard

The refurbishment left my Kindle looking and feeling as good as new. There is no deficiency or defect that I can identify, and I would buy a refurbished product from Amazon again in a heartbeat. When I removed it from its charming frustration-free packaging, it felt like new. You can still buy a refurbished Kindle from Amazon at this link. One thing of note: you don’t have any choice in colour – whilst in America there was a white version of the 3G Kindle 3 (the previous Kindles were all white, I think), this was never sold elsewhere. I’d have gone for the graphite version, anyway.

I’m sure everyone reading this knows all about Kindles so I’m not going to cover everything, but heck, why should I limit myself? Out of respect for your time? Nah.

When I un-boxed my Kindle, my housemate Adam was sitting next to me at the kitchen table and was as impressed as I was by the e-ink, and it took quite a few moments for him to be convinced that the image on the screen was not an overlay but was, in fact, being displayed by the Kindle itself. I like to describe e-ink to people by saying that it’s like an Etch A Sketch. The Kindle does work (and hence requires energy) when it comes to changing the screen’s imagine, but once it’s done: it’s here to stay. The shaking to clear bit doesn’t factor into my simile.

I think it’s awesome. Sure, the Kindle’s screen does not have a very high resolution (though perhaps it will in the future), and you can make out ‘pixels’ if you look closely enough. But I commend the person or company who persisted with the development of e-ink despite the predominance of LCD screens in computing. I’ve never had a problem with headaches for reading on my iPod’s screen for hours (and hours and hours), but once you go e-ink, you don’t go back. The lack of colour in  the screen is not a problem either, at least for the books that I read, which mostly lack any illustrations let alone colourful ones. Maybe one day there will be colour e-ink Kindles, too. But for me the biggest benefit is the ability to read outside in daylight without being overrun by glare. It’s great for reading outside, which is something I’ll be doing more and more of as the days get warmer. Here’s my view from where I was reading on a bench in St Andrews last week:

Sea

It’s a nice way to read.

One bad habit which I have noticed about my Kindle is that the screen is very slow to refresh and update when it’s cold. On Saturday I was sitting at Dundee station for almost an hour, waiting for my train to Perth. It was a cold day, and furthermore my Kindle had spent the night in my bag in a cold room. The result was that a page turn took somewhere around about 2 seconds, rather than the usual fraction of a second. I meant that rather than being a fluid motion as it usually is, I was unable to keep the flow of reading going during a page turn. Those 2 seconds were everything. For a while I thought my Kindle was dying, but after poking around in some search results revealed that this is just the nature of e-ink. After being at home for a while, my Kindle had a chance to warm up and it returned to its usual chirpy self. Oh well, I can live with that.

The battery life isn’t as great as I had expected, either. Over the Christmas holiday I was away, so for about 6 days I had no way of charging my Kindle. I thought I would be fine, but by the end of the trip my battery level was down to perhaps 15% or so. Yes, I’d been using it to read a lot of books and articles, but my Wi-Fi was off the whole time and I was getting anxious that it would indeed run out. By the way, the refurbished Kindle 3 (and indeed all new Kindle 4s) is sold without a wall charger. But I am happy to charge via my computer, and I suspect that I would be able to plug the Kindle’s USB cable into my iPod’s wall charger and use that instead.

Kindle Icon

Another problem is that the Kindle does not support the 802.1X authentication standard that my university uses to secure its Wi-Fi networks, so I have no way to connect to the internet with my Kindle at my halls of residence. It’s an annoyance for sure, but not a deal breaker. As I only own and use one Kindle reading device, it’s not important for me to sync my reading progress with Amazon’s servers very often so that’s not too bad. I would mostly be using Wi-Fi to download new Instapaper bundles (to be described later) or to archive articles, which I can work around. What I have to do then is to connect my Kindle to my computer via its supplied USB cable (amply long – I was impressed) and unlock it. I found a really cool icon somewhere online which I use to represent my Kindle’s storage drive on my desktop which you can see to the left.

Isn’t that cool? When the kindle is connected you can copy over any unprotected MOBI files or other documents that the Kindle can handle.

Apart from those few described problems: I think it’s great. I use my Kindle all the time now, far more than I expected that I would, so much so that I told my Mum that yes, in fact I wouldn’t mind receiving a case as a Christmas present. My girlfriend uses a silicone case for her Kindle, something a bit like this, on sale at Amazon, except in a nice yellow colour. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I would find the lack of rigidity in the cover distracting – it’s just a preference. It’s bad feng shui.

I took to Amazon and purchased a black leather case instead. This is it:

Kindle in Case, Cover Shut

(And this is what it is possibly copying.)

It’s cheap and it works. It cost £4.99 plus £3.29 for shipping. I had been happy using my Kindle without a case, but it started squeaking when I held and squeezed it in a particular way, and the screen got a bit scratched in my bag one time, so I took the plunge. I’m glad I did, I like the extra weight and thickness of the case, and the feel of the leather in my hand. I looks classier than a bare Kindle, too, and it identifies it as mine. Initially I found it weird that the magnetic latch closes on the rear of the case, but that makes sense. If it was located on the front as you might naturally expect, that would mean that it was stitched onto the back, and when opened, the magnetic flappy bit would obscure the Kindle’s screen. It could only be that way.

By the way, Amazon has a good reputation for customer service (as all successful companies seem to have). Check out Murray’s customer service success story:

Amazon support are awesome. Even though accidental damage is not covered under the one year warranty, I’m getting a new Kindle in the post for only £47, roughly a third of the cost of buying a brand new one. It was a case of literally typing my mobile number into amazon.co.uk and five minutes later a cool French dude had agreed to send me a new Kindle.

That’s excellent. I use my Kindle safe in the knowledge that even if my case does fail me and permit damage, Amazon will be on my side.

Kindle in Case, Cover Away

What Do I Read On My Kindle?

All sorts.

The first big thing I read was part project, part enjoyment. I read Murray’s blog, and in one post he recommended a trip report on the FlyerTalk Forums by a member called “Seat 2A“. The report was entitled “6 Trains on 6 Continents ~ Connected by 44 Flights on 14 Airlines“. (Part 2). If you hadn’t guessed it already, it’s a first-person account of a man flying around the world (in style, I might add) in order to travel on 6 world-famous railways, each on a different continent. The report had been sitting in my Instapaper unread queue for a long, long time, for it was too lengthy and hence daunting to ever consider tackling. However, I had read enough one day to know that I did want to finish it eventually. With a Kindle, I had my chance.

I would turn it into an e-book.

It was easier than I’d expected, but it took a lot longer. Perhaps I will detail the process in a separate post one day, but today I’ll just cover it briefly. I copied the source HTML of each part of the report, got rid of all the unnecessary junk, added the necessary markup for an e-book reader to interpret page breaks and chapters, and used Calibre to convert the resultant HTML document into a MOBI file. Kindles like MOBI files. The final result was about 15MB, filled with images and a chapter for every new post that Seat 2A had made in the thread for his report.

I devoured that trip report like nobody’s business, and earned the satisfaction of knowing that I can now make e-books. It was fantastic. If you have even a passing interest in travelling, I suggest you read the trip report too.

I could have saved myself a whole lot of time and used Instapaper’s Kindle support to read the report instead – that is, if the pictures weren’t such an integral part of the report. Instapaper is a free reading service developed by (the previously mentioned) Marco Arment, who is the host of the programming podcast “Build and Analyze” from 5by5 studios. I follow his writings and podcast and I have a lot of respect for the guy. I’ve used Instapaper for years, the free app since 2009 and I bought the paid version in 2010 soon after the price dropped to $5 in the App Store (permanently, down from $10).

How does it work? Basically, if you’re reading an article on the web, and you decide you don’t have time or don’t want to read it at the moment, you can click a button in your browser which will save the article into your Instapaper account. You can then read the article later at your leisure through Instapaper, either online, through the iOS app on your iPhone/iPad/iPod touch, or… on your Kindle! (Although images doesn’t usually survive the Kindle conversion). I add roughly 5-10 articles to my Instapaper queue every daily, mostly found by going through my subscribed RSS feeds or Twitter, and if I wanted I could have them automatically sent to my Kindle every day.

David Smith recently wrote the post that I had long intended this post to be, about how to easily read your articles on your Kindle. So instead of writing the same thing, I here refer you to his article, “Instapaper on the Kindle“, to learn all about it:

Getting an $80 Kindle 4 and pairing it with [Instapaper] will revolutionize your reading of web content. There is nothing more peaceful, when looking at a backlit LCD panel all day, than heading home and picking up an e-ink display to read all your favorite authors.

Read the whole thing if you can, honestly. It’s worth it. Back in December (before that article was written), not long after I first started using Instapaper on my Kindle, Marco greatly improved the service, and those improvements are reflected in David’s post. I sent Marco a brief note thanking him for the recent changes, and he was nice enough to reply.

Instapaper is my favourite iOS app and I have used the service daily for years.

I spend perhaps a third to a half of my Kindle time reading articles via Instapaper. For the first month or so that I had my Kindle it was more – I stormed through a backlog of hundreds of unread articles in my Instapaper queue, some of which had been sitting unread since 2010. My unread queue now stands empty most days, although in separate other folders I do have perhaps a hundred or so other articles to get through eventually (generally longer-form pieces such as New Yorker profiles and the like). It was such a relief to finally get through my queue, which is what I spent a lot of time doing over the festive period.

Thumb on page-turn button

The rest of the time I read… books. Of course I do. Here at the books that I have bought from Amazon’s Kindle Store:

Amazon’s not bad, you know. Each one of these books cost me around about 99 pence: either from the Kindle Daily Deal or Amazon’s 12 Days of Christmas sale. That’s a bargain. Usually books are more expensive though, similarly priced to the paperback version. Another thing that I like is that you can read a free sample of any book from the Kindle Store before you decide to buy it. It’s a better way of trying out a book than reading a blurb, that’s for sure.

How’s the reading experience? Yeah, it’s pretty good. There’s decent control over margin size, typeface style (serif, sans serif, condensed), font size, screen orientation, that kind of thing. I really enjoy reading on my Kindle, and as a result I find myself reading a lot more. It’s easy on the eyes, with nicely proportioned text, a good sized device, and whilst the software is nothing special, it performs its duty well. I really like knowing how far through a book I am, percentage wise, and how close I am to the next chapter (thanks to the progress bar at the bottom). It turns reading into a meta-game, trying to crank up the numbers and reach the next chapter.

Another benefit of the Kindle and something that makes me read more: it’s cool to read on it. It feels like more of an adventure than reading a paper book, at least in my experience.

Kindle in Case, Cover Away

By the way: in the column to the right-hand side of my blog is a list of those books which I am currently reading, which is linked to my Goodreads profile. I use Goodreads to keep track of progress with currently reading books, to record when I’ve read books, and to read every book I complete. I like the social aspect of it too. I recommend it. I also have a page on my website which lists all the books which I have read recently.

I love my Kindle.

Photography, You Had To Be There

The Joy of Nature

At least once in a while, a day comes along which knocks you on your ass. Yesterday was such a day.

Bastard from a basket

All week the sea had been rough, but to begin with it was accompanied by high winds and low, rainy clouds. It’s no coincidence that the most dramatic aspects of nature are often the most inhospitable ones. The conditions weren’t good for sitting out and appreciating the waves – but yesterday everything was perfect. The sea was just as violent, yet the weather had cleared to one of those beautifully sunny autumn days that I always hope for.

I leave the maths building at 1pm on Wednesdays, but yesterday I wasn’t home until 3. I headed to the pier and marvelled at the awesome combination of rough sea, high tide, and sunshine. It was incredible.

Boring

Jesus

PEW PEW LAZERS

Standard shot

Pew pew pew

After leaving the pier, I bumped into my housemate Adam who was sitting on a bench overlooking East Sands. I joined him. We sat together watching the sea for well over an hour, the surfers and the canoeists and the pier jumpers, a smile permanently fixed to our faces.

POWER

WHITE AND BLOO

I like her hair

How could you not smile?

Then I went and cooked with my girlfriend.

The sea was calm today.

Asides, Me & My Life, Opinion

I Am a Nerd

The popular understanding of what is it to be a ‘nerd’ is not right. I’m not saying that people are using the word differently than defined: I’m saying that I don’t think the current definition is quite what it should be. Google calls a nerd: “an intelligent, single-minded expert in a particular technical discipline or profession”. Wikipedia says: “Nerd is a term that refers to an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit”. My definition of nerdiness (which I believe I came to through Marco) is along the same lines. But it’s a bit simpler.

As far as I’m concerned, a nerd is simply someone who cares about something more than most other people. And you say nerds are nerdy about that particular thing.

You can be nerdy about computers, of course. You can be nerdy about roleplaying games. Obviously. But I also think you can be nerdy about trains and aeroplanes, about television, about music, about beer, about cider, about coffee, about cinema, about books. About just about anything.

I’m a huge nerd. It stems from the sort of personality I have (or the sort of personality that I am, if you like to think of things that way). I care about things. If somethings worth doing, it’s worth caring about doing it right. If I enjoy something, I want to get optimal enjoyment, so I find out the best way to do that. I care.

Nerds are the best kind of people.

Blogs, Wankery

Craig has a Blog

It’s called kazistkrieg.

I like it when my friends start blogging, but few of them ever stick at it. Good luck Craig.

Maths, Me & My Life, University

It’s a Riot

This is not a funny post. I moved back to St Andrews a month ago and I’ve enjoyed just about every minute since. I love it here.

St Andrews Castle

So far, my second year at St Andrews has been very different from my first.

I’m now doing only maths modules; the maths is harder and there’s more of it. This semester I’m doing modules entirely in pure mathematics, which I think is great. Next semester will be more applied, but pure is where my heart is. I’m currently taking 3 modules: a 2nd year one called Algebra & Analysis, a 3rd year one about Linear Algebra and another 3rd year one, Complex Analysis. Good stuff.

I’m not sure which one is my favourite. I tend to attempt my real analysis tutorial sheets first, but that’s probably because those are the easiest. Complex analysis is probably my least favourite but it’s not overly complicated. I’m just not that keen on complex numbers and complex functions. That’s how it is.

Almost all of my sentences so far have begun with the word “I”, or something like it. I’m so self-centred. Well, fuck. I don’t care.

My class hours are much better this year too. In first year I had a lecture at 9am every day, and my final lecture would end at either 12/2pm in first semester, or 1/2pm in the second semester. This year I have only 2 lectures each day, and they’re back to back (in the same lecture theatre, no less). The first one of the day is at 11am, and the last is at 12pm. This year I can sleep in longer, but still finish by the same time in the afternoon. Boom.

I also have 5 other hours of classes each week (mainly tutorials) which I carefully scheduled for maximum coolness. That’s 15 hours of teaching per week, an average of 3 per day. That’s manageable. Homework takes much longer than that, of course. And not only is the work harder this year, there’s more of it too.

Me & Milly & Nina

As a result of my maths work and other things, I’m much busier. I spend far less time on my own doing whatever the hell I want.

For instance: I’m writing less on my blog. I’ve not been keeping in touch with my family as much as I’d like. And I’ve been walking a lot less. This one’s a real shame. And because I’ve been out and about less, I haven’t been taking as many photos.

I now manage the photography group at Albany Park, my halls of residence. It currently doesn’t mean a lot but I’m hoping to get people to come out and go on photo walks with me and I’ll get them excited about seeing and photographing awesome and beautiful things. Then we’ll see what happens. The first thing is on Saturday at 2pm.

This year I’m living with my friends. This is so much better than last year. I can watch The Sopranos with Adam whenever we want (although we’ve only managed to watch 7 episodes and 1 film in the month that we’ve been back. We’ve been busy.) We have one more episode to go until we’re on season 4. I love the Sopranos.

And I have a girlfriend.

Oh yeah, that. Pretty important part of my life right now. A+++ She’s been the The Top Idea in My Mind for a while now. That’s why I’ve not blogged about anything serious for a long time. Usually when I write, it’s about the thing which has been dominating my thoughts. It gets to the point that I feel a need to express myself, and I can do that through writing. Writing as therapy. It clears my head. A bit like a memory dump. And at the same time I try to make it as entertaining as possible.

But the thing that I’m spending all my time thinking about nowadays is a person. It’s private. What’s more: she might well read this. Knowing that anyone at all might read my blog makes me self-conscious, especially when I’m writing about something personal. Doubly so now. So I’d better not say the wrong thing. Or something I’ll regret. Or something overly sentimental. Or something all teenage-angsty. Because I’m not a teenager I’M IN MY TWENTIES ffs:

lolololololol

Jeez.

Anyway, some things this year are just the same: I’m spending lots of money on food, I’m boozing, I’m leaving laundry later than I should, and I’ve not been reading even slightly as much as I want to (zero books so far).

Next post will be less bullshitty.

Dusk on East Sands

Honestly.

Don’t judge.

Me & My Life, University

Going Back

I’m moving back to St Andrews tomorrow morning.

Beautiful sunset from the pier

I haven’t been this excited in years.

Podcasts

This American Life

This American Life Poster“From WBEZ Chicago it’s This American Life distributed by Public Radio International.”

Just over a month ago I caught podcast fever like I’ve never experienced before. Having listened to Andy Ihnatko recommending the show for years on MacBreak Weekly, and more recently having my good friend and future housemate Mr Adam Kesby recommend it, when an episode of This American Life was mentioned on one of my favourite blogs, I took notice.

I decided to check it out, and I loved what I found.

Do you love watching documentaries? Do you like learning things and finding things out? Do you enjoy feeling cultured and having a wide view of things? Do you want to get inspired? Yeah? Then you’ll love This American Life. It gives me the same enthusiasm that the best television and film documentaries do, and you can listen to it whilst walking. Or eating. Or gardening. Or shitting. It’s up to you.

Episodes of This American Life are always an hour long, and are usually split into several “acts”, unified by a single theme. Each act is a different segment of the show and could be anything, but it’s usually documentary style. It could be personal, factual, funny, moving, or interesting. The About Us page puts it this way:

There’s a theme to each episode, and a variety of stories on that theme. It’s mostly true stories of everyday people, though not always. There’s lots more to the show, but it’s sort of hard to describe.

They do have a longer guide, if you’d like.

Episode #441, “When Patents Attack!“, was the first episode of the show that I ever listened to, sitting in Coach D of the northbound Highland Chieftain on 26th July. I was returning to Perth after a short stay in London, during which time episode #441 was released. In the previous months, there had been much bother in the ‘tech community’ about the morality of software patents and the existence of patent trolls. Of particular concern was a company called Lodsys, which was suing iOS developers over their use of In-App Purchase techniques.

Basically: it’s all a load of evil bullshit, and so This American Life decided to cover it. All of the tech blogs of course linked to it, with a strong recommendation to listen. This time I followed the advice. Really, you should listen to the episodes if you’re at all interested in the issues of software patents and patent trolls. It’s very good (although not quite one of the best).

The next episode I listened to was #438, called “Father’s Day 2011“. It was even better than “When Patents Attack!”, and the stories it contained stick in my mind. Moving. I listened to it whilst gazing out the window at the passing coastlines of Northumberland and East Lothian. It was a decent journey.

Borders Coastline

441 is a large number of episodes, yet as I write this entry in early September even more episodes have been broadcast. 444 in total. The first episode “New Beginnings” was broadcast in November 1995, when the show was called Your Radio Playhouse. Read the Wikipedia article if you’d like some history. The lack of polish and new-ness of the show is obvious in the first episode, but the promise is already there. For you number-lovers out there keeping track, there have only been about enough episodes for a new one every fortnight. Whilst an episode is aired every week on radio stations in America, roughly half of the time a rerun of an episode from the archives will be aired, rather than a new one. That’s fine by me.

The show is also distributed as a podcast. The most recently broadcast episode is always available for download from the feed, without commercial breaks. The available episode is therefore not necessarily the most up-to-date one. As explained on the TAL podcast page, however, all of the episodes are available to stream for free or to download for a dollar ((Although anyone with some technical know-how can easily find the URL to the mp3s which the flash player uses to stream past episodes. They don’t make it hard to find, but remember the show needs money to survive.)). You can browse the archives, and listen, on the website.

The host of almost all 444 episodes has been Ira Glass. He’s a journalist by trade and the creator of the show, and he’s wonderful. Here is a video of Ira that I’ve seen linked to by some creative types. It’s actually pretty interesting – watch it:

I think he’s right.

He’s got a weird voice, but I quickly grew used to it and started to like it. He seems like a really funny, sometimes playful, all-round decent sort of guy. Really endearing.

Perhaps my favourite thing about This American Life is that there is such a huge back catalogue. The About Us page says:

Probably the best way to understand the show is to start at our favorites page

That’s probably a good idea. Many of my favourite episodes coincide with their favourites, so if this post has interested you in the show and you want to know where to start, I have some ideas. I’ve listened to about 70 episodes so far, much less than a quarter of the total. Here are the ones that I can recommend to get you started:

  • #168: The Fix Is In
    • The story which led to the movie “The Informant” about a guy informing about a price-fixing ring. The website describes it: “The whole program is devoted to one story, in which we go inside the back rooms of one multinational corporation and hear the intricate workings—recorded on tape—of how they put the fix in”. It’s enthralling.
  • #396: #1 Party School
    • This episode’s about the drinking culture at Penn State University in America. I listened to this whilst walking 6 miles from my brother’s place through central London to St Pancras station about 2 weeks ago.
  • #419: Petty Tyrant
    • The story of a corrupt maintenance man’s rein of terror in Schenectady, NY.
  • #430: Very Tough Love
    • Have you ever heard of ‘drug court’? It’s this American thing which is about getting treatment for drug offenders rather than prison time. This episode is about one drug court judge who seems to be a total bitch.
  • #436: The Psychopath Test
    • This one’s about psychopathy. Are you a psychopath? Probably not. But would you know if someone else was?

Something I’ve noticed about my favourite episodes: they tend to be composed of just a single ‘act’. A single story. Most episodes aren’t so focused on just one story, which I’m glad of. I love the more varied episodes, but my very favourite episodes mainly seem to be those which cover just one main story. Maybe I like the depth of insight which they give me. Maybe it’s something else.

I’ve not listened to an episode for over a week, but that says more about my current emotional state than it does about my enthusiasm for the show. I just have other things to think about. Because that’s what the show makes you do: think. And laugh. And maybe cry. I’ve not had that happen, yet, but I’ve barely got started listening…

Further Reading:

Travelling, You Had To Be There

A Very Strange Man

I want to try something different here today.

43320

A few weeks ago, in the middle of August, I was taking the train down south. As usual I took the Highland Chieftain ((The Highland Chieftain is the only train from Perth which goes to Edinburgh and then directly onto the ECML and London. I like it because it means I don’t have to change, and I get to travel on an HST.)) but on this day it was delayed for 10 minutes before being allowed to enter Perth station. By the time I’d got on and travelled to York, we’d lost even more time and I missed my onward connection. Instead of catching my reserved direct train to Grantham, I would have to make alternative arrangements. Fortunately I’d prepared for such a possibility, and I knew that I could wait about 20 minutes and catch a train to Newark, and from there I could make my way to Grantham.

York station:

York station

Without a reserved seat on these trains I would have to be quick about getting myself a seat. On the train from Newark I was the only one in my whole HST coach, but from York the 225 was packed. I found a seat in Coach H ((Half of which was the train shop.)) – an aisle seat of an airline-style pair (no table).

There was a very peculiar man across the aisle, a few rows ahead of me.

He was in the aisle seat of another airline-style pair, and he was facing me. We weren’t face to face but I could see him clearly. If the direction he was facing was 12 o’clock, I could see him from 2 o’clock. I didn’t get a picture (too weird), but I wanted to. Let me try to describe to you what I saw:

  • This man was in his forties.
  • He was white, looked British.
  • He didn’t look retarded.
  • His face was boney.
  • He wore a royal blue jumper.
  • On the left breast of that jumper was embroidered a 3-inch diameter picture of a black and white cat.
  • He wore typical blue-jeans coloured jeans, mostly likely Tesco Value.
  • He wore hiking boots – fabric-type, not leather.
  • He had very bad teeth: discoloured, misaligned, pointed.
  • He had an awful grin semi-permanently fixed on his face, revealing his very bad teeth and a lot of gum.
  • His hairline was considerably receded, so he had shaved his head, leaving a short stubble of hair where it still grew.
  • His face was clean shaven, totally.
  • He wore sunglasses that looked like the wrap-around goggles that you wear at the orthodontist to shield your eyes from ultraviolet radiation used to set your brace cement. The CSI team wear similar ones. Like this, expect in black. Honestly.
  • He had a really creepy vibe.

Sitting behind me was a mother with her little toddler daughter. This girl was being annoying, wandering in the aisle and touching stuff. At one point this girl touched me, and reflexively I recoiled from it. The man I’ve just described was watching and when he saw this scene unfold, he laughed. He laughed. His face cracked with glee and he let out an almost silent chuckle that lasted a good 10 seconds.

He’s the most peculiar person I’ve seen in a while.

InterRail, Me & My Life, Travelling

11th May: Alpine Thunder

After a lengthy break, I briefly return to my InterRail Travel Log. This post continues from the last post, when I was on my way to Grenoble.

Storm clouds approaching 1

Space Invaders Against Homophobia

[Side note: read up about the city on Wikipedia, if you’d like. It’s a beautiful one and I’d love to return]

Wow, it’s been ages since I updated! Although it’s only Tuesday. Because I’m writing texts and emails to people about the same stuff, it feels like I’ve already written this.

The last bit of the TGV ride from Paris was really slow. At some times we were going barely 20mph, and one time we stopped. So much for being “sans arret jusqu’a Grenoble“. Maybe we were stuck behind a slow train… a very slow train. I don’t know. I don’t care.

We arrived about 15 minutes late, which wasn’t a problem. I got off the train and was surprised at how easy it was to exit the station. I’m used to stations where there are one or two specific exits, with everything else fenced or walled off. Here, everything was open, like you see sometimes in the movies, when the station is in the wilderness. Except this was a city. I wandered around the area confused for a while, with that feeling of not having ‘one’s bearings’ that usually accompanies arrival my in a new place.

Then I returned to the station to go to the ticket office, because I wanted to book a seat on a Lyon-Marseille TGV for Wednesday. Lyon is one of the largest cities in France, and it lies on the main TGV route to the south coast. If you want to go south quickly from Grenoble, you must first go to Lyon.

“Full”, the man behind the counter said.

Yeah, right. Anyway, it’s worked out okay. Lyon is a bit out of the way from Marseille anyway, so I’ll be getting there (more directly but more slowly) by regional train (ter), changing once at Valence and having a stop there for a few hours. It’s a chance to see another town.

River on Arrival

View from River 4

Place de Victor Hugo

I left the station and wandered to the river. There were lots of cars driving on the roads around there, and 2 dodgy people started lurking so I abandoned my riverside hangout and ended up at Place de Victor Hugo (I thought I had been much further west). It started raining heavily, so I sat on a bench under one of the trees there and ate some yoghurt and chorizo. Yeah, nice mix. After a while the rain hadn’t stopped, so I went and found the right bus (No. 1) and took it to Quinzaine, the stop for the hostel. A single ticket cost €1.40.

LIDL!

To my delight I saw a Lidl two stops away from the hostel!

Hostel signage 2

I got to the hostel and… wow, what a difference from Paris. It’s really modern and clean. I think I confused the receptionist – it was my fault, I wasn’t being clear – but then Julian (who I think is the owner? Not sure.) came along. He was friendly and spoke very good English. I put my stuff in my room and then checked out the hostel – it’s nice. What’s cool is that your Youth Hostel card is used as your dorm key! I ate some of my food in the kitchen, and then I ended up at the bar. I had some €1 ‘happy hour’ half pints of Kronenbourg (draught) and then a €2 local beer which the guys persuaded me to try (it was called Mandrin or something? I dunno. It was good, anyway). I fancied being even more French so I asked for a glass of red wine, but it was completely shit and so they didn’t make me pay for it (the bar man agreed with me). I didn’t drink it of course. Then I played some €2 pool. The people around were friendly – we mainly joked about our language differences and my attempts to speak French.

Hostel front door

Hostel Yard

Hostel desk

Bunk Beds

Afterwards I went on the internet for a bit (this might have been when I ate actually, just before using the internet – I don’t remember). I used the free WiFi with my iPod for browsing and I also used their resident iMac G3 to write some emails. What a throwback, in 2010. Those things are ancient, and slow, but nostalgic. I found the AZERTY keyboard unbearable, however. Jesus fuck. They’re close enough to QWERTY keyboards that it really fucks with your mind. The A and the Q are switched, for instance. Fair enough. But there are some weird things too – you need to use the shift key to get a full stop, and to type a number too. Seriously, check it out. Be warned: keyboards in France are not as friendly as they look.

Then I went to bed.

I got up early – I was awake before 7. Breakfast was decent. Coco Pops, an apple, some bread and nutella, and tea. And orange juice (I think it was squash). The views from the breakfast hall were good, including some of the mountains. Afterwards I went on the internet again. I finished and sent an email to Mum that I had started to compose the previous night.

La Bastille

I decided that I would spend the day walking to La Bastille, following a few sights from a map. And that’s what I did.

Casino

Casino

Main Road 2

Town Centre

As soon as I had left the flatness of the city and started to climb… it started to rain.

View from river 1

View from river 2

View from river 3

Over to the Alps

Storm clouds approaching 4

Storm clouds approaching 5

Storm clouds approaching 3

Storm clouds approaching 2

I’d been listening to The Pleasure of Finding Things Out until it my iPod had a little crash when I was in city centre, and I lost my place and gave up. Then PadPundit. At the top I took shelter, and the view was amazing, although much was obscured by the rain clouds and rain. The views were spectacular, that’s all I can say, especially when I caught a glimpse of lightning across the city and in the Alpine mountains. Being up that hill in the middle of a thunderstorm was one of the most awesome experiences that I’ve ever had.

I waited for the rain to give in, but it didn’t, so I headed down the hill wrapped up with my hat, hoodie and Berghaus waterproof jacket. It did the trick and kept most of the rain off me. Very cosy. On the way down I was listening to Starship Troopers (verdict: better and written in a more modern style than I’d expected).

When I was back in the town I came across a free museum about Grenoble’s history, so I went in. They receptionists encouraged me to get a French audioguide (it was free, but in French). I did, giving my provisional driving licence as a deposit. All of the labels in the museum were in French but I understood it well enough to find it interesting… to a point. After I’d seen everything I left for Grenoble’s Natural History Museum. This one wasn’t free, and the receptionist wouldn’t accept my €20 note! I’ll admit that’s understandable as was the ticket was only €1.10, but at Lidl on Monday they rejected my €20 even though I was buying something closer to €10. When will I get a chance to get rid of my twenties?

In Museum

Museum was great. Highlight: eagle owl.

I walked back to the hostel, stopping at Lidl for some groceries. When I entered the stop the security guard started to follow me, and after some confusion and misunderstanding, I realised that he wanted to keep my backpack whilst I was in the shop! Ridiculous. Presumably they think I’m going to steal from them. They’re not very trusting in France, and it’s not nice to be considered a thief.

Dicks.

The views of the mountains on my way back, and from the hostel, were amazing.

Motorway to Lyon

Technisud

Level crossing

Freight train near hostel

Hostel signage 1

I used the Internet at the hostel and then ate my salmon and some chocolate dessert things. I watched a bit of dubbed House – it was hilarious seeing the characters talking in French, the words not properly matching up with their moving mouths. I went back to the room, tidied my stuff, did some washing, had a shower, wrote this, and now I’m going to bed.

Sunset pink clouds atop mountains

My bed

In the morning I’m getting the 10:38 train. I’ll either bus or walk there, but I want to get postcards before I leave. It’s a lovely place.

Main road 1

Gardening, Me & My Life

Strawberries ’11

An early picking

Last year I grew strawberries seriously for the first time, and I wrote about the experience at length, here on my blog. In the concluding sentences, I wrote:

Finally, what will I do with these 100+ strawberry plants? I’ve not decided. I think I may be able to find room for another 20 in the front garden, but the rest will need to be planted elsewhere. Yet I can’t bring myself to throw them away – as I’ve said, I’d much rather have strawberries than no strawberries, and I’m happy to do the work to make that so.

As it turns out, I did put in the work to make it so. For much of my spare time in August and early September, I set to work. I put new runners into pots, and once they had established I found a spot for each one in the front garden, pushed aside the gravel and then cut through the ground sheet in order to plant the runner into the ground, well fed with compost. By the end of summer, I had well over a hundred new plants in my front garden.

I went to university, and whilst I was away: they grew. But not straight away. Once again, the leaves died back, and once again came a harsh winter. The whole garden was covered in several inches of snow for at least a month.

Snowed under 1

Snowed under 2

Yet despite the cold, once the snow had gone and the days started to get longer, they started to grow again. In early March when I visited for the weekend, I saw the first few signs of new growth:

New Growth 1

New Growth 2

Not much, but enough for optimism.

The next time I was in Perth was at the end of April, on the weekend of the Royal Wedding. My plants had come on amazingly well by that time: they were reaching up to the Sun, a bright green colour to the leaves, and many plants were already flowering.

Long shot of front plants

Closeup Flowers & Leaves

Late Spring Front

I like to think that Theo’s wave helped them along ((Theo’s my nephew.)):

Late Spring Front & Theo

The next time I was home was when I moved back from university at the end of May and many of the flowers had turned into berries that were close to ripening. Last year I picked my first berry half way through June, on the 18th. But this year, with my front garden plants better established, I had my first sample around about the 2nd, more than two weeks earlier than before.

The birds were wise to the ripening too, and I lost many of my early berries to blackbirds. Bastards. Like last year, I again tried to protect my ripening berries with clear plastic bottles, which seemed to be effective (although I didn’t have nearly enough bottles to protect them all).

Here is my first significant picking session, from the 6th June:

First pickings

As you can see I was a bit impatient, and they could have done with an extra day or two to ripen on the plants. However: fuck that, and anyway, the birds might eat them if I wait. Picking berries a day too early was a recurring problem for me for a while, as under the bright direct sunlight of the afternoon the colours are exaggerated and it makes the berries look riper than they actually are. I eventually learned to wait longer before picking a ‘ripe’ berry.

OK, the numbers. This is what happened last year:

A sexy Google Docs graph

The total yield was approximately 4.5 kilograms, equivalent to 10 supermarket punnets – about £20 worth!

And my prediction was:

What with my more mature plants, as well as the new ones I’ll plant, I predict I’ll grow at least 10 kilograms.

Heh. Yep, I beat that prediction. I grew 34kg. THIRTY FOUR FUCKING KILOGRAMS. That’s equivalent to £170 worth of the 400g punnets that Tesco sell for £2 at the height of the season, except it’s not equivalent as mine would surely be Tesco Finest and far more expensive.

I was amazed I grew so many.

This year’s graph:

Handy wavy statistics!!!!

I made last year’s chart in Google spreadsheets, but this time I used Numbers on my Mac. I don’t know how to use it properly but it does the trick, sort of. It’s not meant to be precise, hence my use of curved lines and and crappy scales ((Furthermore, I’ve adjusted my data so that if I’ve skipped a day of picking, I share the pickings of the subsequent day between the two days, rather than having loads of zeroes all over the place.)).

Look at the data. Absorb the data. Feel the data. Yeah, go on. Touch it.

You can see that I start picking (seriously, at least, and recording it) on 6th June in the front garden, and the yield after that increases dramatically, with the highest output being around the middle of the month (by which point last year the harvest was only just starting!). The back garden’s output was insignificant in comparison and pretty poor.

Last year I wrote:

Through the rest of June, I picked a steady 100 grams every day; this was the front garden in maximum production mode. Next year I would expect this portion of the graph to be level at at least 200 grams, as the plants will be much better established.

Midsummer Front

Not even slightly accurate. My plants were producing several punnets worth of strawberries every day. Several. Heck, I already miss it, but the amount of sugar that I ate mustn’t have been healthy for me. Strawberries are very sweet.

Here’s some more stats:

  • I picked 34kg of edible strawberries in total, 31.5kg of which came from the front garden and 2.5kg from the back garden. I didn’t weight the wasted ones.
  • The peak day for picking was 14th June, when I picked 1570g from the front garden. I had picked on the previous day, too.
  • The day when I brought the most berries into the house was 18th June when I picked 2670g from front garden. However, I had not picked the previous day so this is the production of two days, not one.
  • The first day of picking from front was 6th June and the first day from back was 4th July – 4 weeks later
  • The last significant pickings from front were on 20th July, with the back 2 days later.
  • Subjectively, the largest and tastiest berries came in the final week of June, which happens to coincides with the summer solstice.
    • Oh my God, the berries that week were so good. If you think you don’t like strawberries, number 1: fuck you, and number 2: try mine at the end of June. You have to try them fresh from the plant. Strawberries from supermarkets have been picked days ago, and are not at their best. Mine are no where near their best even just 2 days after being picked. Seriously, you’ve got to try mine.

Here are some of those big juicy delicious end-of-June ones that I’m on about. They’re SO good:

Biggest Berry

Biggest Berries

That’s about all that I have to say. Before I go, though, I’ll just lay out some of the problems I encountered:

  • Picking too soon. I just need more patience.
  • Rain collecting in bottles. It rained a lot this summer. When water collects in the bottles (as water tends to), if the berries are sitting in this water then they will go bad, wasted. Some even rotted and went mouldy.
  • Birds. I just have to accept that I’ll lose some to the local wildlife. I’ve got plenty to go around.
  • Clumsiness. I often break my plants whilst I’m picking. I’ve probably lost a couple of kilograms through my carelessness this year.
  • Growing too many to eat. Overdoing the berries can make you feel a bit off, I’ve found. First world problem.
  • The berries go off quickly. It’s best to leave picking them until right when you need them.
  • Washing the berries makes them worse. I think the cold water makes them harder and removes some nice scent from them too.

Another haul 1

I’ve not mentioned the back garden much. It was pathetic. The plants there are old, producing smallish, hard, deformed berries. The plants are mostly leaf and almost no berry. What’s more, they get much less sunlight than the front, and they’ve slowly become overrun by slugs. And even earwigs. Eww.

So: I’m getting rid of of them. In the next few weeks I’ll dig them up and put them in the brown-lidded bin. I have enough plants in the front garden. The back is just a waste of time, now.

A positive thing that I’ve learnt: you know you’re going to eat a delicious strawberry when you hold it up and it shines. Shiny ones are the best, and you rarely see that in supermarkets. They have to be very fresh. I think the shininess comes from the berry being laden with water/juice, which stretches the skin from the inside. Beautiful.

Another thing that I’ve learnt: contrary to previous reports, I don’t prefer refrigerated strawberries. My very favourite berries are those large juicy ones at the height of summer, picked and eaten within seconds. Unwashed, warm from the sunlight, juicy and amazing. And shiny.

Another haul 2

This year, when the berries finished, the runners once again went mad:

Runner 2011

What have I done with all the runners this year? Most I’ve destroyed, and with some of the others I’ll replant the worse-performing plants from this year. But the rest? I’m sending them down south. I spent some time last week and most of Monday digging a strawberry patch in my Dad’s garden. Diversification, baby. Here it is:

Nottingham Bed

I’m still sore from digging it. Roll on next June.