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 dollar1. 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:

  1. 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. []

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 Chieftain1 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 H2 – 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.

  1. 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. []
  2. Half of which was the train shop. []

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 along1:

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 scales2.

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.

  1. Theo’s my nephew. []
  2. 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. []

Me & My Life, University, Wankery, You Had To Be There

My 9 Months in House 11

House 11 in May

This post is one of the most difficult that I’ve written, and I want to explain why before I dive in. For a while it has laid untouched as a collection of rough notes and photos, gathering dust in my drafts folder. I was unsure where to take it or whether to continue at all.

This post is about my troubles and annoyances living with my first-year housemates. In the past I’ve not had a problem writing harshly about people I know, but this feels a little different. I’ve lived with these guys. You see, had they not been housemates but perhaps neighbours, I would have considered my so-called house”mates” (now ex-housemates) as being decent people. They’re not generally noisy, they’re not violent or into hard drugs, and they seem to be quite bright. But you see a different side to people when you live with them, and it doesn’t seem to be their best side.

By the end of first year I was anxious to be leaving them – domestic life was not fun, and at times frustrating and disgusting.

I was going to write this when I was still living with them. Although I don’t deliberately publicise this website, and few people that I know actually read it, I didn’t want to risk having them find out during the semester. I was still spending the majority of my time in the same house as them, and that would have made things awkward, more awkward than I could handle. You can’t avoid someone when you share a house (try as they might – more on that later), especially a house that only has one shower and one kitchen.

Now, first year is over and we’re all home for the summer. I’m not living with any of my housemates next year (only 1 will even be living in the same Halls of Residence, and he’ll be in a different house from me), and I’m not friends with any of them on Facebook. I was friends with one of them for a while, but I de-friended him late in the second semester after he started locking his door all the time – more on this later. Yup, I’m that kind of guy. I have a pending friend request from another of them, but I’m ignoring it. Permanently.

Therefore my ties with my housemates are now mostly broken,, and whilst I still don’t want them to find out (I won’t use their real names, instead I’ll just use offensive nicknames!), I feel it’s the right time to let the world know of the suffering I endured.

Future housemates and people that I will live with: take this as a warning. The behaviour I am about to document is not cool, and if you piss me off you too may be at risk of a swift de-friending.

Let me introduce you to my first-year house. It was my home for 9 months: House 11 of Albany Park, in sexy St Andrews. This is a picture that I took of it on the day I moved in, 18th September 2010:

7

It was a good day for many reasons. It was the day I first moved away from home, and the day when I met many of (what I hope will be) my friends for life. And it was a sunny day. The aesthetics of my house, however, was not one of those reasons.

It doesn’t look too bad on a sunny day like that Saturday. In the cold dead grey of winter… not so much. But I don’t care what it looks like on the outside, I’m more interested about the inside, and about my housemates in particular.

There were 6 of us, all male. I lived in room 6, clearly the best room in any normal Albany house. 3 bedrooms (rooms 1-3), the kitchen and the shower room were on the ground floor, and the other three bedrooms (rooms 4-6), the living room/common room and an additional toilet were upstairs. As an aside: here is a picture which I took of my room on the day I moved in:

6

The 6 of us never had any chemistry, not as a house. We never once all went out together. We never had a meal together, either in town or at home. We never hosted any parties, we never just spent a day hanging out.

That’s a real shame, and I take as much blame for it as anyone else. We had little in common except for the attribute of being fairly quiet people – pro tip: when applying for accommodation, don’t describe yourself as a quiet person.

Of the 6 of us, there was a sole Scottish guy, which is probably a representative proportion of the university population at large. He studies theology. There were two Chinese students, here as international students. One of them, studying mathematics, could not understand whatever version of English it is that I speak and this made any sort of conversation with him impossible. He must have been able to speak English to have been accepted into the university, but for whatever reason there was a language barrier there that I couldn’t seem to breach. The other studied economics. There were two English guys too, one a Muslim medic, the other an atheistic chemist. And then there was yours truly.

Quite a mix, don’t you think?

Our main source of problems was simply a lack of communication. There was no way to speak to everyone at once. No house meetings. No just hanging around with people when you could bring something up. I remember all 6 of us being in the same room together only twice. The first time was a couple of days into our tenancy, when we met in the kitchen to sort out how life together would work. I don’t remember the other time.

We devised a cleaning rota, well, I did, but we did all agree to it. There were 6 of us and we identified 4 tasks that needed doing every week: the kitchen, the upstairs bathroom, the downstairs bathroom, and the corridors and stairs. Every week we’d either clean one of those things or have the week off. We’d be responsible for cleaning our own rooms, of course. That way we’d clean for 2 weekends and then have a weekend off, with a rota that repeated every 6 weeks. Simple? I thought so. Unfortunately a lack of accountability, oversight, and a reluctance to confront each other rendered it useless at times and led to a disgusting house. We also made a list of items which we’d need. Cleaning supplies, a toaster, a bath mat, that kind of thing. I bought it all and collected £3 each for my troubles (I did not profit from this). This went surprisingly well.

Alright, who am I kidding, this is boring. I’m just going to list the things that pissed me off.

Let’s start in the kitchen, the main source of friction in the house. After my bedroom, it was the place I spent the majority of my time in St Andrews.

The fridge situation. There was one fridge between the 6 of us. This would’ve been at least workable if there were 6 shelves. Unfortunately there were only 5 shelves. Now, I enjoy to cook, and was by far the most prolific and adventurous cook of the house (this is something they said to me, I’m not making it up), so I took permanent control of one of the shelves, and I kept it full of my stuff. I took good care of my shelf, keeping it clean and using everything, so nothing went off or smelly or disgusting.

The others weren’t so careful. One time this spring, after the fridge had been smelling progressively worse and worse for a month or so, I finally went through everything to find the culprit. Amongst months-old packs of chicken, and eggs, and bags of carrots that had become frothy and smelly, I found a packet of beef burgers in the fridge that had been in there for months. What’s more: they were frozen burgers. To be kept in the freezer. At -22ºC. Not in the fridge at +4ºC where it turns out that meat will go white and juicy and frothy and mouldy and incredibly smelly after a few months. That was possibly the worst thing I’ve ever held in my hands and I am amazed I didn’t spew.

Our fridge. Rotten milk? Check. Rotten bacon? Check. Rotten broccoli? Check. Rotten carrots? Check. Rotten chicken? Check. Rotten eggs? Check. Rotten ready meals? Check. Crazy unidentified Chinese food and ingredients that had clearly gone off? Check. Rotten burgers? Check check CHECK.

We had it all, and none of it was me.

Fermented carrots

The Chemist was partial to drinking milk that was more than 2 weeks past its use by date.

And by the way, if you move my food around the fridge? Straight on my enemies list you go.

The freezer situation. For the first couple of months, the smallness of the freezer was not an issue. This was because people hadn’t noticed it, I think, and so I could basically dominate the top drawer with my Ben & Jerry’s, frozen prawns, frozen pizzas, fish fingers, and frozen portions of the food that I cook, like curries. I am used to cooking for a large number of people, and that’s what I do, so when it’s just me eating the rest has to be frozen if it’s not to be wasted.

However, after a while things began to change, and the Economist told me that we’d need to have a talk about fair use of the freezer. Fair enough. I made room for him. But others? Huge packs of frozen chinese dumplings. 8 packs of bacon. Oven chips. Oven chips. Scampi. Oven chips. More oven chips. Loads of ice cream. Pizzas. My problem with most of this is that it was completely unnecessary – most of the food stayed frozen all year and was never touched until we all moved out, when I took home the goodies (including 6 packs of bacon that had been in there since January). So, I was economising space and freezing less stuff so that my housemates could waste the freezer on food that they would never even eat.

This next thing ties in with both the fridge and the freezer situation. A couple of the guys weren’t the biggest fans of exercise and shopping, so they’d do their shopping by Tesco direct. Or, in the case of the Chemist, their Mum would place and pay for a Tesco direct order. The problem with this is that it makes most sense when doing this to place a large order all at once, whereas when shopping in person you just buy a little at a time. A small fridge/freezer can not accommodate your £110 Tesco direct order which will last you a few weeks, sorry mate. Please stop.

I had a quite lot of food in at once but that was because it was fresh and I like to cook and eat fresh food. The turnaround time for my shelf was very quick. I would also cook for other people (friends, not housemates) and so I used my space. Still, I never had nearly as much food as what came in with a Tesco direct order. That would dominate the fridge.

It got to the point where I would leave non-perishable foods on my fridge shelf whilst I was away to save my space, and return home a couple of days before the end of a holiday so that I could restock my part of the fridge and claim a spot for my milk carton before everyone else returned home and swamped the place with their frivolous and over-large purchases. Yes, I really was that guy. I’m sorry. But I don’t feel that I was taking more than my fair share, only guaranteeing it.

Next year I have a similarly sized fridge but with only 3 other housemates. You can’t believe how excited I am about this. What’s more, I’m on good terms with all 3 of them.

Washing up. One particular housemate, the Theologian, had an awful diet that made me cringe. He was fat, and probably still is. He had oven pie and chips or similar every day with some boiled frozen vegetables, or maybe he’d sometimes fry something. He didn’t know how to cook properly, and afterwards food was burnt or otherwise stuck onto the communal pots and pans, which he’d then just dump in the kitchen sink… and leave there, usually until dinner time the next day, when he’d wash and use them again. Afterwards? He’d just dump them straight back in the sink.

Shitted up stuff

Shitted up pan

This is not cool for a number of reasons. Firstly, this was communal stuff, provided to the house, and so we should have been able to use it. We could have used it if we really wanted, but that would have involved us cleaning all his ridiculous amounts of shit off it, and then cleaning it afterwards ourselves because we’re decent people, people who clean up after ourselves.

Overflowing Sink

Secondly, this blocks up the sink. How can we do our own washing up when the sink is full of his shit? We could wash his stuff up first – no way – or we could move his shit away to somewhere else in the kitchen. This is what I ended up doing, but it was always filthy, and touching it was disgusting.

Sponge-fest, also known as washing-up liquid fest. Yes, we didn’t share sponges. I, for one, because I didn’t trust the hygiene of my housemates. So, we’d have 6 kitchen sponges by the sink? Wrong. We had about 15 sponges by the sink, because people would forget which sponge is their own, or simply just start using a new one without throwing away the old one.

We each had our own washing-up liquid too. What annoyed me about the Theologian is that his Fairy liquid ran out about 2 months before the end of the year, and yet he didn’t get any new stuff. If I was in the kitchen when he was washing up, I would see him squirting his empty bottle into the sink, but I bet he stole other people’s stuff when I wasn’t there. I bet.

A small example of the problem

For what it’s worth: I kept my sponge in my cupboard. Washing-up liquid too. Weird, I know, but I have issues myself too.

One time I left my washing-up liquid out by the sink, and to my horror the Medic used it right in front of my eyes. The horror.

Drying rack. One thing that really fucking pissed me off was use of the drying rack. Do you know what a drying rack is? It’s the plastic holder thing where you put your wet dishes etc once you’ve washed them, for them to dry.

My housemates loved leaving their stuff in there permanently, leaving little room for actual use.

Drying rack

And what’s worse: a couple of my housemates clearly didn’t know how to use it properly. You know those little slats that you get in them to stand up your plates? Yeah? Well, you would think that you slot your plate into those slats wouldn’t you? That’s not what my housemates would do. They preferred perpendicular stowage, rendering the 15 plate capacity of the rack only capable of holding about 3 things. For example, see the bowl in the above photo. This happened every day.

The cooker. On the whole, the standard of cleanliness in the kitchen was poor, but the cooker top was especially bad. Every single cleaning inspection would note the poor state of the rings. This is a picture of it after one of my housemates had cleaned it.

3

I just want to point out that the Chinese housemates who fried like crazy didn’t give a fucking shit about keeping the cooker top clean. They were happy to just let all of the spillages and bits of oil that spit everywhere just accumulate and bake on and harden for ages. When it came time to clean the top, I was the only one whose cleaning ever seemed to have any effect (I used bleach), and it was 100 times more difficult than sorting out the problem as it happened. Learning how to cook and avoiding messing up in the first place would have been better.

4

I even saw people spilling stuff directly onto the rings… and they’d just leave it. Mother fuckers. Once I saw it happen and told the guy, the Chemist, to clean it up. To his face. He got a wet cloth and put it straight on the hot ring. Of course, the cloth burnt onto the ring and left fabric residue that would slowly burn off over the next few days. He actually thought he’d done a good job, when it fact it was worse than before. That really surprised me as I thought he was a clean guy.

If you’d just clean up any mess that you make after you make it, it’s so much easier than letting it accumulate. You’re living with other people guys, it’s not your own place so it’s not for you to fuck it up. Selfish.

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m no clean freak. But there should be standards.

One time I came down from my bedroom to find that one of the rings had been left on for ages. Note the mess also:

5

Once, the Economist’s rice cooker (don’t get me started on rice cookers) overflowed and he cleaned that up very poorly. There was starchy water everywhere.

Rice cooker and toaster

Tap water. I discovered that my Chinese housemates never drank the tap water. Apparently, despite being soft water that leaves little to no residue on the kettle’s heating element, it was ‘too minerally’ for them, and they couldn’t stand to drink it. Weird.

This ties in with boiling the kettle. I never worked this out. Often my Chinese housemates would boil the kettle before bed, fill up a container with the water, and take it to their rooms. But if they weren’t drinking it, what were they doing?

The kettle

More often than not, someone (I don’t know who) would fill up the kettle full (way over the maximum line), boil it, and just leave it. What a waste. That concludes my kettle rant.

Recycling box. Oh fuck. Firstly my housemates can’t read signs. After living in the same place for 9 months and each of us (at least supposedly) taking the recycling out every 6 weeks, you would have thought that we’d all learn what is acceptable for recycling and what is not. Nope.

The worst problem was milk cartons. Milk cartons are fine to recycle, but only if they’ve been rinsed out and had their lids removed, as the instructions say on the skip. But that’s just common sense. If you leave a milk carton out in the open in the recycling box, lid on, with the last tiny bits of milk in the bottle: that milk will rot and ferment and smell DISGUSTING. It will literally turn to cheese.

As well as that, I’d find all sort of things in the box which aren’t supposed to be there (notably tetra-packs which aren’t recyclable in Fife) like weird plastics and shit, and loads of recyclables in the bin – like empty tins of tuna and loads of cardboard.

The kitchen bin. This was a delight. The bin was supposed to be emptied every week by whoever was due to clean the kitchen. The problem is that the bin filled up more quickly than every week, and sometimes people wouldn’t clean the kitchen. This meant that the bin was almost always full, and that caused problems.

What would you do if the bin was full? Cram it all down? Yeah, fine, if there’s still cramming space. Just dump it on top? In and on and around the lid? Sure, why not, thought my housemates. And so the bin became one of the most disgusting things in the house. Food and crap all around the bin and the floor near it, and it smelled bad.

The worst occasion was once when we’d run out of bin-liners. One of my housemates used the bin regardless. I saw him throwing raw egg shells into a bin without a liner. And he knew it. Not cool.

The dirty bin

I’m getting quite bored of writing this. That’s enough about the kitchen.

How about the bathroom? I once made this note:

“The smells are FUCKING AWFUL. Today: it’s like being in a sewer in the bathroom. Piss smell everywhere. Also eugh. Upstairs bathroom is shit too.”

Do you remember the bathmat that I bought? That quickly went mouldy and was always so soaking wet that it was worse than having nothing there. When it was removed, the floor outside the shower door was always wet and filthy.

My housemates were filthy when it came to toilet use, some of them at least. On a couple of occasions the Theologian blocked the toilet with his shit. Pro tip: check if you’ve blocked the toilet if you’re prone to it. That’s not too the worst thing. What is bad is leaving the toilet in a state like this:

1

2

These were both soon after being cleaned too. Disgusting. I think a couple of my housemates never cleaned the toilets.

Also, the Mathematician smelled so bad. Whenever he’d been in the bathroom and I walked by the open door of it a while later… I felt ill.

My housemates were shit at getting things fixed too. When something breaks, you’re supposed to alert management so that they can get it sorted, which they do very promptly. Everyone knows this, and knows how to do it. To give you an idea of the situation, read this email which I sent to one of my dear friends:

“Throughout the year I’ve been the one to report problems with the house – except once when [the Chemist] couldn’t work the oven, and I ordered him to report it. Every other time, when the light broke in the upstairs toilet, when I discovered that there should be a working light above the cooker but that ours didn’t work, when the showerhead fell off the wall when I was showering, when the kettle stopped working… all of these times I’ve sent an email off to Albany and got it fixed. And they fixed it.

(Note: the instructions for what to do in case of a fault are printed on a laminated piece of paper on the kitchen wall; I just followed them)

This all came to a head back in March [2 months before] when one of the lights in the downstairs bathroom stopped working. There are two lights in the bathroom, so it’s still possible to shower with one broken, just with much more difficulty, using only reflected light. This time, not being urgent, I thought I’d give the others a chance to get it fixed. Because, maybe they’re not completely lazy fuckholes after all  – perhaps I was always too quick to take the initiative myself and they never had a chance to do the bit. Maybe they’re not clueless. Maybe they aren’t awful people. Maybe they do care.

So, I stepped back and didn’t report the fault. This, finally, could be their hour to shine. Their finest hour.

Do me proud, housemates.

I sat back and I waited. And waited. And waited some more.

Today, I finally gave up. At about 1am I sent an email to the Albany reception, and by 10am it was fixed.”

That just frustrated me and it sums up my housemates quite well.

My housemates were experts at avoidance. For a while I hadn’t realised this, but eventually it dawned on me. Whenever I was in the kitchen, almost always, no one would enter for the entire time. Even if I was in there for hours just cooking. And then, when I’d leave and they’d hear me entering my room, right then I’d hear someone going into the kitchen. This kind of thing happened all the fucking time, people clearly deliberately avoiding each other. Creepy.

It was annoying with the shower in the morning too. I would get up at 7.30 for my 9 o’clock lecture and go straight into the shower. Afterwards I’d get out and make my breakfast and then eat it in my room. I would be in my room about 5 minutes after leaving the shower. One of my other housemates also had 9 o’clock lectures, and he showered after me, but he wouldn’t go into the shower straight away. When I was in the kitchen making breakfast, the shower lay empty. Instead, he’d wait until I was back in my own room before leaving his. Hmm.

Another thing which annoyed me was the Theologian, again. Part way through the year he started to lock his door every single time he went into his room. It really creeped me out. What was he up to? Does he have trust issues? Does he really so mistrust us that he thinks he’s safer behind a locked door? It’s just a really creepy thing to do, and for this I defriended him. I can’t be friends with someone like that. I thought about raising the issue with him but the chance never occurred.

This guy also regularly got out of bed at 5pm at weekends and on some weekdays, though not during holidays. He didn’t even drink much. Whenever there was some time off, he’d always go straight home: from the first possible opportunity to leave and returning at the very last moment. He’d take his suitcases to his final lecture and leave straight from there, returning either the night before or the actual morning of class restarting. So anti-social.

He also doesn’t keep any of his own soap in the bathroom, and when I confronted him about this (how does he wash his hands?), he told me that he keeps soap in his room and brings it with him whenever he goes to the toilet. So weird!

Here is another moaning email which I sent to the same friend once:

“The other day, I had just finished cooking, and was in the kitchen, plates etc in hand, walking toward the sink to wash up. At that moment, who else but [the Theologian] entered the kitchen and dived straight to the sink area to wash up his stuff. Clearly I was already on my way there – I even had my pink rubber gloves on – but he just didn’t care.

P.S. He’s just entered his room again and locked the door.”

One time the same guy, who does very smelly poos, didn’t clean the corridors and stairs during a snowy week when the floors had got very dirty. I always was due to clean the week after he did his cleaning, which meant that if he skipped his cleaning, I had to bear the brunt of it. I told the story to my friend in an email like this:

“I asked [the Theologian] why he hadn’t cleaned the floors last week: ‘Because of the snow and ice. It was just going to get messy again’. I wasn’t happy with that and told him off for not letting me know. We could have worked something out, you know. Instead I end up doing 2 weeks of the worst floor cleaning.”

Dick. He often would skip his cleaning, clearly, but when I confronted him about it he always lied to my face. What can I do about that?

Moving out. This was a tricky time. After all of my housemates independently told me that they’d be moving out in Saturday 28th May, the final day they could and the same day as me – it turned out that this wasn’t true. The first to leave, of course, was the Theologian, leaving almost a week before me. Not only did he do ZERO cleaning, he did not even say goodbye to a single one of us.

Slowly the 2 chinese students left, again having cleaned only their own rooms. This left 3 of us to do the cleaning of the whole house. I ended up doing the bulk of it because I said I’d clean the kitchen – it was in a horrific state, especially the fridge. Oh God. I don’t want to think about it. The thing is we risked a cleaning fine if the house was not up to scratch, and the way that it was, a fine was definitely justified. So we cleaned it, begrudgingly. And avoided a fine.

A bonus then: seeing as I live close to St Andrews, I was able take stuff home all abandoned stuff from the freezer. Which, as you might expect, was a shitload of stuff, including 6 packs of bacon from the Theologian.

6 Bacons

On the final morning, I did have a nice goodbye chat with both the Medic and the Chemist. That was cool. Just to be clear, most of the problems through the year were down to one guy (Theologian).

The worst thing of all? I found my housemates boring. Sorry guys, it’s nothing personal. We just weren’t right for each other 🙁

That’s enough for one post.

P.S. The Economist asked me on one of the final nights of the year if I wanted to go to the New Inn to eat dinner with him. I was actually touched by that but I said no – I’d made plans with Adam1 already. The Economist was, on the whole, a good guy, as were most of my housemates. Unfortunately their habits weren’t always agreeable.

P.P.S. This is my house next year, and a general shot of the bike shed:

House 46 and others.

Bike shed

I love you.

  1. The recipient of those emails. []

Me & My Life, Opinion, Politics

The Future of RAF Leuchars

UPDATE: RAF Leuchars has lost its battle for survival. I’m deeply disappointed and saddened by this news.

I’ve lived close to the RAF station at Leuchars during the 9 months that I’ve been at university.

Entrance to RAF Leuchars

Leuchars is about 6 miles from St Andrews by road, but it’s much closer as the crow flies – according to Wikipedia, “Leuchars [is] about 3.3 miles North West of St Andrews town centre”. The eastern end of the runway, where landings and take-offs mostly happen, is barely a kilometre away from my favourite place in St Andrews, the far end of West Sands1. And take my word for it: the runway is close enough that I’ve been woken by several reheat take-offs.

I’ve grown fond of it, and my interest in aeroplanes (especially military jets) has greatly increased2 with my time spent watching it.

In February I wrote a minimalist entry about RAF Leuchars, starting with the line: “I hope it stays”. I ended the entry with the sentence: “More on this later”. Later is now, and the more is this entry.

Even before I moved to St Andrews, unbeknownst to me, doubts over the future of RAF Leuchars had already been circulating in the media. The BBC referenced the “background of uncertainty over the future of Scotland’s three RAF bases” in a news item about the 2010 airshow3 that I recently discovered.

Once I’d settled into St Andrews life and enjoyed the planes a bit, I read up on the base and soon encountered the fears over its future.

Tornado GR4 at RAF Waddington

There are 3 RAF bases in Scotland. RAF Leuchars which is in Fife, and RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Kinloss in Moray, neighbouring bases on the northern coast, to the east of Inverness.

  • RAF Leuchars is primarily an air defence station of fighter jets, home to 6 Squadron4 which provides Quick Reaction Alert5 for the northern part of the UK. Some of its Typhoons were deployed to Libya, and they recently returned safely.
  • RAF Lossiemouth is a large base which is home to several Tornado GR4 squadrons, ground-attack aircraft, some of which are currently in service in Afghanistan and Libya.
  • RAF Kinloss had flown Nimrod MR2s until their retirement, and was due to be the home of the Nimrod MRA46, a newer “maritime patrol and attack aircraft”.

After the general election in 2010, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed their coalition government and very quickly commissioned the “Strategic Defence and Security Review“, also known as the SDSR. The report was published on 19th October 2010, and the immediate casualty was RAF Kinloss. The Nimrod MRA4 programme was cancelled in the review, “at which point it was £789 million over-budget and over nine years late”, according to Wikipedia. With no aircraft to operate, the air base was no longer required7:

RAF Kinloss is set to close after ministers cancelled orders for the new Nimrod as part of the UK government’s defence review.

Nine of the MRA4 surveillance aircraft were due to be based in Moray.

RAF Kinloss station commander Group Captain James Johnston said there had been disbelief when the announcement was made.

Kinloss is out in the middle of nowhere, and the RAF is a large employer and the base a significant contributor to the local economy. Whilst nearby RAF Lossiemouth was unaffected by the announcements, the impact on the region of the job losses will still be great.

The same article also says:

The future of nearby RAF Lossiemouth, home to Tornado squadrons, remains uncertain.

It has been feared that the Tornado aircraft currently based at RAF Lossiemouth could be transferred to RAF Marham.

Tornado F3 Landing at RAF Leuchars

Kinloss wasn’t the limit of the SDSR on the RAF. See: Future of the RAF. The Navy’s and RAF’s fleet of Harriers was completely withdrawn as well, despite being in active service in Afghanistan and the only plane suitable for use on aircraft carriers and with VTOL capability.

What’s more, the SDSR did not include all of the cuts to the RAF. The MOD has a budget deficit, and either more funds needed to be raised or the services need to be cut in order to balance the books. The government decided that they want to close the gap, and they decided to do it by cutting the armed forces.

It was clear that more jobs would be cut (“Personnel will be reduced by 5,000 to 33,000“) with changes to the structure of the RAF, and hence more squadrons would be disbanded and more bases closed. The word on the street8 is that, in addition to the closure of Kinloss, the battle for survival between bases would be between RAF Leuchars, Lossiemouth and Marham. RAF Marham is a base quite similar to Lossiemouth situated in East Anglia.

That decision, however, has not been forthcoming. The BBC posted an article back in November of 2010 titled “No RAF Lossiemouth decision ‘until 2011’“. Not only was the decision not made in “the new year”, but The Courier reported earlier in 2011 that the decision wouldn’t be announced until after the Scottish parliamentary elections in May, presumably so as not to influence the outcome9. When May came, a final deadline was given for the announcement of the decision: the end of the parliamentary session, on 19th July. Now it’s July, and news reports say that a decision was made last weekend, with the result expected to be announced within the next week – although it has been slightly delayed by the News of the World scandal.

2 Typhoons taking off at RAF Leuchars

In further cuts in March, the government announced that XIII squadron and 14 squadron, operating Tornado GR4s at RAF Marham and RAF Lossiemouth respectively, would be disbanded, and a month or two later they stopped flying. “It will affect about 150 personnel but the MoD insists no final decision has been taken on closures”, said the article. There are now 5 Tornado GR4 squadrons, down from 7.

The RAF also got rid of a third of trainee pilots and stopped recruiting any more.

Sentinel R1 approaching RAF Leuchars

However, it’s the issue of base closures, especially that of RAF Leuchars, which most concerns me at present.

I spend most of my time in close proximity to RAF Leuchars, and I enjoy watching the planes flying (and especially taking off) there. Of course I want it to remain an active RAF flying station. I’m not going to provide an unbiased opinion of why it should stay. Maybe it should be closed. In an ideal world there would be no need for a military and no need for a Royal Air Force, but there is no such thing.

To put the base’s situation in context, let me give some history. RAF Leuchars has gone through a lot of change in recent years. It’s been a fighter base for a long time, having flown Lightnings, Phantoms, Tornado F3s and now Typhoons in the last 40 or 50 years. Fighter jets are those which exist to intercept and destroy airborne targets such as other jets, rather than ground targets like bombers. QRA duty, the main responsibility of RAF Leuchars, requires fighter jets and is still the main task for RAF Leuchars.

When I arrived at St Andrews last September, the sole fighter squadron at Leuchars was 111 Squadron (pronounced ‘treble one’ squadron, commonly known as ‘The Tremblers’) which flew the Tornado F310 and it was due to disband in March 2011 – although it was a long-planned withdrawal of the Tornado F3 at the end of its life, not a result of the SDSR. The disbandment went ahead as planned11. Leuchars’ other two Tornado F3 squadrons had similarly disbanded in previous years.

Tornado F3 Landing at RAF Leuchars

The replacement for the Tornado F3 was the new Eurofighter Typhoon12, and the first Typhoon squadron for RAF Leuchars, 6 Squadron, arrived in October shortly after I started at St Andrews. For a while it co-existed with 111 Squadron, but since its disbandment 6 Squadron has been the only fighter squadron at Leuchars, performing QRA duty for the northern part of the UK. According to the RAF’s website, 6 Squadron is only “the first of three Typhoon squadrons planned to be based at RAF Leuchars“. Due to the SDSR however, can I really look forward to a brighter future for Leuchars as the RAF fully equips with Typhoons? Maybe those 2 other squadrons will never arrive.

RAF Leuchars is still at threat of closure.

I’ve been following the news about Leuchars and Lossiemouth, and I’m going to let you know what I like about the base and some of its strengths, and tell a bit of the story about the build-up to the imminent closure announcement.

3 Typhoons flying over RAF Leuchars

According to almost all of the rumours, one out of RAF Leuchars, Lossiemouth and Marham is expected to close. Please beware whilst reading this that the MOD and government have been very tight-lipped (officially) about the whole matter, but certain rumours (such as this one) are generally accepted as being true. Of course, nothing is for sure until the final decision is announced, and I’m not going to claim anything ridiculous.

Early on it became clear that RAF Marham was safe from closure, either for political reasons (the area is a Tory stronghold, making the government unlikely to close it) or more likely for economic reasons (with the costs to relocate Marham’s assets too high).

The decision would be between Leuchars and Lossiemouth.

Moray too seemed safe, to me at least, as it had already lost RAF Kinloss to closure. It seemed unlikely that the RAF would further decimate the economy of the region by closing RAF Lossiemouth. What’s more, RAF Lossiemouth is a much larger and widely-used air base than Leuchars. Leuchars, which has fewer staff and only 1 active squadron, could be fairly easily relocated the 100 or so miles north to Lossiemouth, I suppose13. It felt to me that saving Leuchars over Lossiemouth would be like Tesco closing an Extra store to save a Metro store – it’s not going to happen when far more people use the Extra store, a store that is apparently far more capable.

And that’s what I’ve been thinking for almost my whole first year at university. That Leuchars is in its final months. Recently, however, in this past week, rumours in the news and reflections on the base’s utility have given me some slight hope that Leuchars will continue to be an RAF flying station, with one of the other bases closing instead – or even none at all.

I’d been intending to write about all these cutbacks previously, but thinking about it for too long was much too depressing to bother with. It felt like what always seems to happen when something fun and special enters your life14: it gets taken away as soon as you start to appreciate it15.

Now that I have that slight optimism I’m writing about it, still with a pre-announcement perspective. I’m going to dive straight in, using the 30 or so articles on the matters that I’ve saved over the past months as a guide.

F-16 at Leuchars Air Show 2010

The initial news after the SDSR was published in October was very pessimistic and spelled bad news for Scotland. “New Fears For Future Of Lossiemouth After Suggestions Tornadoes Could Be Moved“, said one article:

[Lossiemouth’s] Tornado aircraft could be transferred to Norfolk.

The defence review, which earlier this week delivered the verdict on RAF Kinloss, also announced that another two RAF bases across Britain were no longer needed.

However, Mr Robertson said the document he saw seemed to suggest thinking at the Ministry of Defence was that the fleet would be “centralised” at RAF Marham, in Norfolk, by the end of next October. The document also suggested RAF Kinloss would be placed into “care and maintenance” as soon as March next year.

Note that the MOD was looking to close 2 bases, rather than the 1 that I had been assuming. I had forgotten about that and I’m not sure what the current official position is.

With no talk of Leuchars, this would move Lossiemouth’s Tornado GR4s to Marham, leaving no need for the base.

The campaign to save Lossiemouth since has been loud and well organised, keen to see the base retained – with good reason, too. A base closure would be awful for any region, but especially for one as remote as Moray, with surely no possible way of replacing the £150m effect that the RAF has on the local economy – 16% of the total – and 5700 jobs from the 2 bases there. RAF Leuchars, if you’re interested, contributes £60m or so to Fife, and 1900 jobs.

By December, the feeling among the media had changed, suggesting Lossiemouth would be retained after absorbing Leuchars. Such an article from the time is this one from the Telegraph, entitled “RAF Lossiemouth to be saved at expense of Leuchars“, from which I will quote liberally:

After a significant public campaign to keep the Moray base open, the MoD has decided to rebase its Eurofighter Typoon fighters in Lossiemouth which will become Scotland’s sole RAF airfield.

This is an important part of the situation too. Scotland has 3 RAF bases, Kinloss which is closed or closing, and Lossiemouth and Leuchars. Closing either of them would result in there being only one air base in Scotland, a country 60% as large England. Surely such a large area – much of it uninhabited – is the perfect place to locate planes and train pilots. The population of Scotland may only be 10% of that of England, and perhaps that is a proportional and fair number, but somehow I don’t think so, judging by this Wikipedia entry. In any case, 1 air base for the whole of Scotland doesn’t feel like enough.

The move will come as a blow to the air force and civilian personnel at Leuchars which was thought to have been safe from the axe as Typhoons had already deployed there.

With a brand new squadron just moving to the base, it felt like the base was safe and had a secure future. But despite recent investment in Leuchars – spending £3m since November on improvements to accommodate the new Typhoons – that’s no guarantee from closure by the MOD. The runway has also been recently upgraded at a cost of £20m, or even £25m depending on who you believe.

But growing opposition to Lossiemouth’s closure, with pressure coming from Scottish politicians and celebrities, led the MoD to reconsider its position, defence officials told The Daily Telegraph.

I really doubt whether a campaign by locals will have had any effect on the final decision whatsoever. And celebrities? Ha.

“The base has fought a ferocious public campaign and it also makes sense as it has better facilities for the Typhoon than Leuchars.”

The Quick Reaction Alert jets, launched to deal with intruders into UK air space, will be moved to the base from Leuchars. Another factor in the Lossiemouth’s favour was that its Tornado facilities would have been very expensive to move.

If true, these are good points in favour of Lossiemouth.

The decision was also prompted by economic concerns as the removal of the new Nimrod MR4 fleet means near RAF Kinloss will close with the loss of 2,300 jobs worth £68 million to the local economy.

The nearby base at Lossiemouth supports a further 3,370 jobs and contributes £90 million annually. Ministers feared that closing both would cause mass unemployment in the area.

This too is a relevant and serious concern.

However, RAF Leuchars, which has 1,400 RAF personnel, will be closed despite “last minute pleas” from Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister, and Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Liberal Democrat leader and local MP.

Good news for Lossiemouth, it seems, means bad news for Leuchars.

There has been speculation it could be turned into an international airport to replace or work alongside the commercial one at Dundee as part of a review of the UK’s military airbases.

Leuchars is certainly a larger and more flexible site than Dundee airport, but is there really a need for another large airport in Scotland, this far north, especially as Edinburgh is less than an hour away? How much money can rich golfers have, seriously?

Still, some aeroplane activity would be better than none from my perspective.

The decision also means that RAF Marham in Norfolk will remain open because it has the only RAF Tornado servicing facility.

This would explain why Marham is saved.

An MOD spokesman said: “The Strategic Defence and Security Review means that RAF Kinloss and two other bases will not be required by the RAF. No decisions have been made on which bases, or any future use.”

It turned out that no such announcement as the article claimed was made, and the campaign to save Lossiemouth and the other bases continued16. For me and I’m sure many other people, however, it felt like a done deal, and that such a decision was inevitable. The arguments seemed to make sense financially.

Tornado Flying Low from Leuchars

The uncertainty dragged on, and when it was announced that 13 and 14 squadrons would disband in March, it served to further confirm my thoughts. They wouldn’t disband squadrons from a base if they were then going to close the base down completely a few months later, would they?

The news started saying that the closed base would be used to station army troops who are being moved back to the UK from Germany. Instead of hangars there would be barracks. This renders arguments to the economic impact of an RAF enclosure somewhat redundant: jobs would not be lost so much as changed (although how true this is, and how many jobs would be needed for the army, I have no idea).

Amid other worrying articles such as “Liam Fox’s emphasis on Moray only adds to fears for RAF Leuchars“, there was some more sensible news, such as “RAF Leuchars campaigners urge Westminster to takes its time on closure decision“.

It seems that Westminster did take its time, only reaching a decision last weekend. And, what’s more, it seems like that time has paid off for Leuchars, despite leaving thousands of people in a seemingly endless limbo. The word on the street now is that “RAF Leuchars soars ahead of rival Lossiemouth in battle for survival“:

LEUCHARS could be saved as an RAF base after a late change of heart in the Ministry of Defence’s review of its base closures.

It is understood that, while a final decision has yet to be taken, pro-Leuchars factions in the RAF have made the case that its closure would leave a strategic gap in the UK’s defences.

“It works well with Coningsby (in Lincolnshire) with the Typhoons and, while they could go to Lossiemouth, the extra distance is a problem.”

One of the reasons Leuchars had been favourite to close as an RAF base was because soldiers are due to quit Germany and move into disused RAF premises, and the army would prefer to move to Fife rather than Moray.

But the source said: “Fortunately, the army don’t make the decisions.”

This is, of course, by no means definitive, and it perhaps means absolutely nothing. Maybe even completely wrong. It’s a load of ‘coulds’ and ‘woulds’, with few if any facts. Still, it got my hopes up, helped along by articles such as “Meeting with Michael Moore leaves Residents Action Force Leuchars spokesman buoyant” and “Prime Minister David Cameron’s comments give hope for RAF Leuchars’ future“. The tide seems to be turning – or perhaps it is just desperation.

Further on in the article:

But SNP MP Angus Robertson, who represents Moray – which has already lost RAF Kinloss – said the strategic case for Lossiemouth has been acknowledged, with both an RAF and MoD departmental recommendation for retention.

He said: “In addition to the unbeatable strategic arguments, there is the unique key factor of unprecedented economic damage were there to be a second RAF base closure in Moray. No part of the UK is as defence-dependent as Moray, and a double closure would be unthinkable and totally unacceptable.”

The RAF recommended late last year that Lossiemouth should kept in preference to Leuchars. One reason was the Moray base dovetailed better with the Norwegian air force in protecting the northern access routes.

So it probably was just desperation, on both my own and The Courier’s part. That section seems totally damning of Leuchars, and yet, why had a decision still not been made until so longer afterwards? I’d like to see both Leuchars and Lossiemouth retained, but I don’t foresee that happening.

And just for interest:

Originally, Leuchars was not included in the review, but concerns over Moray meant it became an option. A third option, RAF Marham in Norfolk, has been all but ruled out as it is too expensive to move engineering facilities. Now the pro-Leuchars case may prevail for strategic reasons and due to concerns by some in the RAF about the lack of infrastructure in Moray.

If Lossiemouth were to close, it would almost certainly be combined with Kinloss to house many of the troops coming back from Germany.

That explains why Leuchars was not seen as being at danger to begin with, then.

JU Across the Beach

There are some particular points in favour of RAF Leuchars, specifically its location. Read this article in The Courier, entitled “Terrorist threat could see RAF Leuchars spared“:

The ability of the Fife base to quickly intercept any 9/11-type airborne terrorist attacks could be key to securing the base’s future. Fast jets could, for example, be at Grangemouth oil refinery in a matter of seconds. Typhoons from Leuchars could reach the Torness nuclear power station in under one and half minutes.

With RAF Lossiemouth in Moray also under threat, senior officials are thought to be attaching great significance to Leuchars’ geographical advantage.

While campaigners insist both Scottish bases should be saved, it has been suggested the pendulum could be swinging in favour of Leuchars.

“The current terrorism threat facing the UK is severe,” a source close to the UK Government told The Courier. “That means an attack is highly likely and thought is being given to the location of ‘tier one’ risk targets. Many of those in the northern half of Britain are within a very few minutes’ flying time of Leuchars.”

Also included is an interesting diagram which I recommend that you look at, showing the proximity of important northern locations to RAF Leuchars, and hence the effectiveness of the protection afforded by the station.

Lossiemouth is about 80 miles away from Leuchars, pretty much due north, and so it’s much further away from most of the important places in Scotland. The diagram is not entirely honest – yes, a Typhoon could reach Edinburgh in 75 seconds if it was flying at full speed, but it takes quite a while for a jet to taxi to the end of the runway and take off and increase its speed. It doesn’t reach Mach 2 instantly. A more accurate time would be perhaps 5 minutes after the first alarm.

One final, less important note, is the weather at RAF Leuchars. An article on Sir Menzies Campbell’s website, entitled “Case for RAF Leuchars Bolstered by Fine Weather for Flying“, states:

Figures released by the MOD to North East Fife MP Sir Menzies Campbell show that RAF Leuchars has one of the best records for available flying days among the UK bases.

Records for the last three years show that only 7 flying days were lost at RAF Leuchars which were due to adverse weather conditions. The average number of flying days lost at the RAF bases for which figures are available was around 25 per year.

Ming continues:

“Geographically, RAF Leuchars is in the ideal position. People living in Fife may be surprised to learn this but rainfall is on a par with the South East of England meaning visibility is very good for flying operations, and winters usually pass without significant snowfall. Added to this, RAF Leuchars’ location means its aircraft can be overhead Edinburgh or Glasgow within a matter of minutes and also able to reach easily the population centres of northern England.

This is surprisingly true. St Andrews (and hence Leuchars) has some lovely weather, and most of the time too – except the wind can be annoying sometimes. Leuchars has more sunshine than Greenwich, according to the Met Office, and similar rainfall levels too. Available flying days are extremely important for an air defence station, such as Leuchars, which exists to scramble jets at any time of the day.

For further context, an STV article, “RAF Leuchars figures show base should be kept, says MP“, says:

Since 2008 the Fife airbase has lost just seven flying days due solely to weather conditions.

Other UK air bases for which figures were available lost on average 25 flying days due to all factors. RAF Lossiemouth in Moray – also under threat – lost 21 flying days due to weather.

Leuchars is better than Lossiemouth then in this regard, then17. It can reach targets faster and it can reach targets more often. Surely then, if the MOD is concerned primarily about defence, Leuchars is the base to keep with the RAF, and Lossiemouth would then serve as an army base for barracks.

Either Marham or Leuchars could take over the flying of Lossiemouth’s Tornado GR4s. I for one would certainly welcome some more activity around my neck of the woods.

Typhoon taxiing at RAF Leuchars

Overall though, I still expect this week that the government will announce that RAF Leuchars will be closed, with Marham and Lossiemouth remaining largely as they are, and Lossiemouth inheriting QRA duties. Leuchars would eventually be used to house army troops returning from Germany. Despite being a nice little base in a good location, working well and entertaining me, it just seems to be the way of the world.

I will be massively disappointed if that does happen. I love watching the jets in my spare time at St Andrews. They’re just so cool. Loud and ferocious and impressive and inspiring. I sometimes feel that having an air force would be worth it even if there were never any more wars, just because of how awesome they are to watch, and to display our technology. How expensive can it be, anyway?

I’ve been able to enjoy it for a year, at least. I’ll always have that. I just hope for more.

  1. You’ll often find me on that beach during term-time. []
  2. Yes Murray, I like planes too! And trains. []
  3. It was a really good airshow. Tornado F3s, Typhoons, Tornado GR4s, Gripen, F-16s, Harrier, Vulcan, Red Arrows… Wow. []
  4. Flying Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4s. []
  5. Intercepting unidentified/unauthorised/enemy planes from the UK’s airspace, and responding to a 9/11-style attack. []
  6. It’s an interesting aircraft and I encourage you to read up about it. []
  7. Although David Cameron didn’t directly acknowledge this when announcing the cancellation of the MRA4. []
  8. I say that as I’m not sure how this became common knowledge and what the official line is. []
  9. Not that it stopped the SNP winning a massive victory… []
  10. The fighter/interceptor variant of the Tornado, as opposed to the GR4 for ground attack. []
  11. I’ll write about this and my sadness to see the F3s go another time. []
  12. OK, not that new. []
  13. Though I’m only guessing. []
  14. For me here, getting to live close to an air base. []
  15. OK, I might be going slightly over-the-top. []
  16. Again, the MOD were still looking to close two bases. Maybe they still are. []
  17. The ’25 flying days’ is unclear: one article says per year, the other implies since 2008. Oh well. []

iOS, Photography, Tech

How I Use Instagram

Warm February SunsetBeach Bonfire

I started using Instagram several months ago. The homepage describes itself as a “fast, beautiful and fun way to share your life with friends through a series of pictures”. I’d say that’s accurate. Essentially, it’s a social photo-sharing network which exists primarily within an iPhone app1.

For me, this isolation of the network is the most interesting aspect to Instagram. It gives it a small-community feeling, unique for such a large and popular service2, whilst at the same time it provides an insight into the company’s philosophy and future.

Twitter and Facebook are all about getting you connected wherever you are, no matter what hardware you are using. With Instagram, almost everything takes place within the sole iOS app: creating an account, finding friends, selecting or taking pictures, applying filters and editing, adding photo meta-data and uploading images. The homepage for instagr.am, far from being the hub of the service as with Twitter and Facebook, merely describes the app in a few lines and links to the App Store where it is available for download3.

I first heard of Instagram when posts appeared in my Twitter feed consisting of a short bit of text along with a link to an Instagram picture. I could view the image but do nothing with it. How was this any different from Twitpic with fancy filters applied, and why have loads of people suddenly started using it? It took me a while to realise that there was a social network behind it, with friends and interaction. None of that is immediately obvious4 when following a link from Twitter.

You can link to Instagram photos, by the way. It’s not entirely secluded. Of course you can5. This morning I uploaded a photo to Instagram. Anyone who follows me on Instagram would have seen it in their feed, and I also chose to publicise my photo on Twitter and Tumblr.

The link that was generated is http://instagr.am/p/F_6lD/. This is how it looks in the app:

Instagram app

And on Instagram’s website:

Instagram

Here’s how it looks on Twitter, with the image displayed inline:

Twitter

And here’s how it looks on a website called Inkstagram:

Inkstagram photo page

Inkstagram is an independent website which gives you access to a small number of Instagram’s features through your web browser. It uses Instagram’s API, and it’s the reason I used the word ‘primarily’ in the first paragraph: “[Instagram] exists primarily within an iPhone app”. Websites like Inkstagram are the exception to which I was alluding.

On the website, you can see your feed6, ‘like’ and comment on photos, follow and unfollow people, and see your own photos and followers, amongst a few other features. This is a very useful capability for me, particularly when I’m at university where Wi-Fi is not always available, rendering my iPod touch and the app useless.

The crucial limitation is that you can’t upload photos through the website. What’s more, if you go to Inkstagram.com you will be presented with a log-in screen. You still need an Instagram account to use the website, even if you just want to browse, and the only way to create one is inside the iOS app. All that someone without an account will ever see of Instagram is a page with a single, non-interactive photo. You don’t use iOS? Sorry mate.

North Sea Sunrise @ St AndrewsPiering into the distance

Why would Instagram make their social network so isolated?

Isn’t the web about openness and interoperability and, most importantly, linking? Yes, that’s how most people see the web, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right approach for every situation. Instagram’s approach has it advantages, just as does living in a gated community. A gated community of iPhone and iPod touch users, people with style, people who spend hours every day using iOS, people who care about quality, and people and don’t care if they can’t use the service from a browser.

At any rate, it doesn’t seem to have stopped Instagram from becoming very popular amongst the nerds.

Surely, though, Instagram’s goal is to increase their userbase. The app is free7, and there are no ads whatsoever. They have no income. Like any start-up, then, their initial goal must be to increase their numbers of users.

From their FAQ8:

Who are your investors?

We raised a $500,000 seed round from Andreessen-Horowitz and Baseline Ventures.

How will you make money?

We believe that the core of our product will always be free. There will be opportunities for consumers to buy extra add-ons like special filters, etc. However, we plan to experiment with different models as we grow and learn what special value we can provide to the community to make their collective experience more engaging, exciting and useful.

Wouldn’t an increase be best achieved by making Instagram available on more platforms? It’s obvious that they’re trying to grow, but I think they want to gain users not by making it easier for people to join9, but by making a first-class app that people want to use. If you build a great app, users will come. I think that Instagram feels that they can’t maintain their standards if they diversify this early. They’ll end up spread too thinly, stretched too far. They pretty much admit this in their FAQ:

When are you going to make the app for blackberry, android, etc?

We are currently working on making the iPhone experience as solid as possible. Only then will we consider other platforms, but currently we have nothing to announce.

This reminds me of Apple.

VictorWanderers

So Instagram is an unusually closed network for the time, but photos can still be shared and their user-base is growing.

What, then, do I think of Instagram, and how do I use it?

I think Instagram is fun, but I’m not a typical user. I’m not using it in the intended fashion.

From the FAQ, again:

We’re building the platform to allow you to experience moments in your friends’ lives through pictures as they happen.

It’s clear that the creators intend Instagram to be used spontaneously: take a photo, tweak it, and share it with your friends… and the world. Yet I can’t use it this way. I use Instagram from my iPod touch.

It’s a second-generation iPod touch… It has no camera.

An alternative method is acknowledged in the FAQ:

Can I process and share photos from my camera roll?

Absolutely. You can either take photos from within the app or choose from your library.

This is how I use Instagram. The only sensible way that I can get photos onto my iPod is through my computer when I sync my iPod. For me, this means that an Instagram post can never be spur-of-the-moment10. Perhaps I’ll get an iPhone one day, maybe even quite soon, but for now I’m stuck with my iPod and uploading pre-selected photos from my library.

I use iPhoto to manage and edit my photos. I take photos with a cheap compact camera11, and upload them to iPhoto soon after I’ve taken them. I rate my favourite photos, and I have a ‘smart album’ which includes all photos rated 4 or 5 stars, and it syncs automatically with my iPod.

Then, whenever I feel like it, I can select a photo from my iPod’s photo library and upload it to Instagram. So far I’ve put 10 photos up. They’re all included in this post at various points.

How about the photo that I added to Instagram this morning? It’s from an afternoon March 2010, when I went to St Andrews with both of my brothers and one of their girlfriends. The weather was misty and cold. Normally I find that depressing, but that day I found it magical, akin to the feeling of being in an empty field in the middle of a snowy evening, cut off from the rest of the world in an eerie no-man’s-land. We were at the end of West Sands, and it was low tide. We’d walked far enough from the dunes that they were lost in the mist, but not close enough to the shore to see the sea. All around us was flat sand and the blanket of mist like falling snow. There was nothing but the low roar of the winter sea and us. It was special.

When we decided to head home, I briefly lingered and took a photograph to capture the moment – or at least try.

This is the raw image as it came off my camera, a Fujifilm A860:

Original

Not awful, if I may say so myself. This is it after a slight bit of editing12 in iPhoto. It’s the version that I posted to my wall on Facebook, and how it would have been sent to my iPod:

iPhoto Edit

The process of uploading a photo to Instagram is really simple, provided the app doesn’t crash13. After loading the app, I tapped the middle button of the black navigation bar at the bottom of the screen. It’s called “Share”. I selected the above photo from my library and proceeded to the editing screen.

First you have to crop the image. You may have noticed that all Instagram photos are square. This is required and it can be a problem for me when it comes to selecting a photo, as I always compose with 16:1014 in mind, or 4:3 at the very squarest15.

Next: the tilt-shift feature. It’s a fairly recent addition to the app, added a few versions ago. It variably blurs the photo to decrease its depth of field16. Sometimes it works well, sometimes it doesn’t. I added a slight tilt-shift to make the sand at the bottom appear out of focus. It was the first time that I’ve applied a tilt-shift and not instantly removed it – I think it effectively and tastefully increases the feel of this photo.

Then comes what I believe is the most controversial part of Instagram: the addition of filters. Merlin’s not a fan, for one. They can appear gaudy and to begin with I thought they were all cheesy. Yet they’ve grown on me, and I think they can often add to a photo, such as in this case. Instagram’s reasoning behind the filters:

Mobile photos always come out looking so-so. We set out to create some awesome looking filters to transform your photos into professional-looking snapshots.

Fair enough. Here, I applied the filter called “X-Pro II”, but I could just as well have chosen to upload without a filter applied. I’ve done that before.

After that, you add meta-data such as a title and location, upload and publish, and wait for the likes and comments to roll in. That’s it.

Instagram saves a 612×612-pixel copy of the finished picture in your photo library, leaving the original untouched:

Output from Instagram

I’m really pleased with how it turned out. It’s one of my favourites. It received 8 ‘likes’17.

Evening SunHoverfly and Thistle

I have an interesting status in the Instagram community.

After figuring out what it was, I downloaded Instagram last year18 and played around with it a little, and then I uploaded my first image.

I forgot about the app and didn’t return to it until March, about 4 months later. When I eventually launched the app again, I was astonished to find that, despite having followed no one, and having uploaded only a single photo, I had 1624 followers. They weren’t even bots – the followers that I checked out all seemed to have legitimate accounts.

1624 people had decided that they enjoyed my first photo so much that they wanted to see more! It was really exciting.

For context, at the time I took some screenshots of the profiles of some of my internet heroes, ones who already had an internet following when they started to use Instagram:

John GruberScott SimpsonMike MonteiroDan Benjamin

I had the same sort of following as some of these awesome guys! I know it’s a childish thing to think about, but I still found it cool. These screenshots were from a couple of months ago now, though: they’ve all far surpassed my count now.

How did this happen? I’m not sure, but I can speculate: maybe my photo, for whatever reason, was featured in the “Popular” tab of the Instagram app. Unfortunately I have no way of finding out if it was. I’ve also searched Google using the URL of the relevant photo to see if I was linked to on the web, but judging by the results I don’t think it was.

What I find funny, is that after publishing my 9 subsequent photos, I’ve lost followers every single time. Please don’t get me wrong: I don’t care, it’s just weird. Merlin noticed a similar thing when he took a hiatus from Twitter: for every day that he didn’t post, his follower count increased. People are happy to follow you if it involves doing nothing, but once you start putting out new and different stuff, people aren’t so keen. Maybe you aren’t who they thought you were, or they don’t have the time to keep up. Whatever.

It seems like a paradox: the less you post, the more followers you get.

Something caused people to decide to follow me after publishing the sunrise photo, and for that I am proud. I must have done something right.

My most popular photo, with 13 likes, is the second one that I uploaded, taken on the pier in St Andrews. It’s strangely and disgustingly addictive seeing all of these random strangers telling you that they like your stuff:

Lots of Likes

It feels strange having a significant following, that’s all I’ll say. I suppose there’s nothing else to say. It’s not as if it made me rich or even made more people aware of me or my website. That’s OK.

I do have one friend on Instagram who I know in real life: Jonathan, my French computer science friend from university. His username is rustycarbon and I think you should follow him. Here’s one of his photos. He uses Instagram much more in the way that it’s intended that I do. He has 9 followers.

I’m getting into photography more and more every day19, and Instagram is part of the reason. I think that you should try it out if you can.

My username is wilfwilson.

Last October (I miss leaves)

UPDATE: I should have mentioned and made more of this in the post, but a lot of people don’t like Instagram. Kottke recently said on Twitter: “Every single thing I’ve read on the topic of “why Instagram works” is wrong.” I don’t know if Instagram will last. I don’t know if it’s going in the right direction. But for now, it’s a bit of fun and I enjoy it.

  1. Currently there is no iPad-optimised version of Instagram. iPod touches can run the app fine too, even if there is no camera on the device. []
  2. The description in the App Store claims 3.75 million users. []
  3. Actually, you can also edit some of your account details on the website. That’s it. []
  4. Or at least, none of that was obvious at the time. The website has since changed design to show more information more clearly. []
  5. There are many links to my Instagram photos in this very post. []
  6. That is, the photos of the friends that you follow. []
  7. It’s one of those apps that I’d be happy to pay for, like Instapaper. Is there something about Insta* names that makes them great for apps? []
  8. Read it all – it will only take a minute and you might learn something. []
  9. That is, by spreading to other platforms. []
  10. It also means my photos will not be properly geo-tagged. []
  11. £50 from Tesco. []
  12. Crop, increase black point, change the colours a bit – that kind of thing. []
  13. It hasn’t done so for a little while, but it used to quite often. []
  14. “Widescreen”. []
  15. In certain circumstances, and always when shooting in portrait orientation. []
  16. Thanks for the correction, Jonathan. []
  17. I’m not usually obsessed with this kind of datum. []
  18. I think it was at the beginning of November when I was home for Reading Week. []
  19. Please let me know if I start getting pretentious though, will you? []

Asides

Snow

Feels like it’s still winter here at times.