When I first got married back in 2001 (A Space Odyssey – cue the monolith and a hairy Martyn throwing a bone into the air), we spent the majority of our honeymoon backpacking around New Zealand which, at the time, was in the midst of making the first of the Lord of the Rings movies – the Fellowship of the Ring.

Though they didn’t make too big a fuss of the filming or even the mention of Lord of the Rings in the country, the merchandising was slowly beginning to creep in. I bought my copy of the official movie tie-in branded Lord of the Rings book from a NZ bookstore hoping to have something to read on the plane home.

I did start the book while flying home, but never finished it. It’d take me a good few more years until I had the patience to sit down and read it in its entirety (and even then, on a Kindle) and likewise for The Hobbit. But the movies were the first time I was exposed to J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterworks and it was an absolute blast.

I already own the extended editions of all six movies on iTunes, and I got it at a very good price when there was a sale on. But they don’t include all the extras. Plus, as you’ll have no doubt read my other posts – Apple and their content providers can remove purchased content from your library at any time, and for any reason. So I needed a back up anyway.

So I splashed out the £55 at Amazon and I’ve got say I’m very impressed with the packaging. A good while back I purchased the Breaking Bad Complete Series box set which contained a fair number of Blu-Ray discs which were all stored in scratchy cardboard sleeves (which, unsurprisingly, resulted in scratched discs on delivery and the whole thing had to be sent back – I now have the iTunes version which comes with all the extras, including audio commentaries – a first for an iTunes TV show package). Before sending the discs back to the retailer, I asked Sony, who distribute Breaking Bad on physical media, if they’d replace them. Nope. So why design such a poor storage system when you KNOW they’re going to get scratched? Sony are idiots, and doubly so when you consider they invented Blu-Ray discs in the first place.

Warner Bros., on the other hand, have done a fantastic job with storage – each movie comes in its own Amray case where the discs sit on a spindle and the disc’s surface is not exposed to a scratchy surface such as plastic or cardboard. This system ensures that your Blu-Rays will last a good while.

Speaking of Blu-Ray storage. Disney can join Sony in the doghouse because I’ve seen reviews of the £200 UltraHD/4K release of the Star Wars Skywalker saga where they store all the discs in cardboard or thick paper sleeves within a glossy and gorgeously designed book. Yes, it’s an impressive book, but it’s absolute shit for storing physical Blu-Ray media. And that price. I’m giving that one a massive pass. Plus I get the 4K/UltraHD versions of Star Wars on Disney+ if so desired. I already own a decent Blu-Ray set of the movies anyway – all stored in decent cases.

FInally, I am more hopeful for physical media these days. The Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5, when released, both will come with UltraHD Blu-Ray drives which means that people are more likely to have these in their homes than dedicated UltraHD players from Sony, etc. And this, in turn, should boost physical disc sales. (Though I always take that with a pinch of salt – streaming services are still the most popular way of consuming movie content – but assuming movie studios add value to the physical media in the way of extra content, maybe it’ll work out in the end.)

Before the internet entered our everyday lives.. Bob Hoskins convinced us to keep on talking

The one thing about this pandemic and being in isolation is that we’ve never been more reliant on technology to keep in touch with each other.

Ever since I was little and got my hands on my first computer, a ZX81 that my dad borrowed from a neighbour, and having got my mind and grubby little mitts around the Telex system at my dad’s work (he’d let me type them up and send them – often many would go to clients in Japan), I was enamoured with computer networks and communication systems.

When the internet became prominent in the 90s, I started to get heavily involved with web design, I.T. consultation (writing a recommendation for a wireless network system for a national African insurance company – it was actually cheaper than a wired system, believe it or not), and systems administration work. I effectively dropped out of university to work with the internet, helping set-up and run a Norwich-based ISP. All dial-up – ADSL would be a good few years away back then.

Back in those days, social media was barely a thing. Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes) were transitioning from dial-up only systems to the internet – these were the forerunners to internet forums – communities usually formed around a particular theme (such as computing, films, etc.). Usenet was a big thing – a global group of text-based forums where people could subscribe to, create posts, read posts and reply to them. You had to access them via a dedicated program on your computer as they were not generally web-based back then. Arguments about certain topics or people (aka flame wars) were a problem, but they were much less severe than they are now. In fact, everything back then was practically better – the fewer the people online, the less of a problem it was. Email spam was rare, DoS attacks were also pretty rare too. People generally, for the most part, behaved themselves.

Mobile phones were still pretty basic in the 90s – essentially limited to making phone calls, sending very limited text messages and playing ludicrously simple games. Cell coverage was pretty limited too, making it very difficult to get hold of people if they weren’t close enough to one of the few mobile phone masts.

Now?

We’re pretty much a 24/7 day, always on-call, always available society. We have more social networks than family members, mobile phones that are as powerful as our own desktop/laptop computers, superfast home broadband (well, there is room for improvement there), Wi-Fi is practically everywhere. It is fair to say that as a society, we are the most connected we have ever been.

And I’m finding it a bit of a struggle. My attempts to rejoin Twitter and start from scratch earlier this year were a noble one – just stick myself into read mode and post occasionally. Keep it light. Keep it non-controversial. I’d then find I miss particular people, then start adding them back into my feed. And before long it was practically my old account, just with fewer people I’m following, and with fewer followers. And it is still a trigger: so many political posts, so much anger about big and small things. A great deal matters, and yet so little does.

So I’m back off Twitter again. Hopefully for good. I need to keep my sanity about me.

Facebook has also been a bit of pain over the past few years too, but never at the kind of scale Twitter can get to. I’ve never really used it much – even back in the heyday when everybody shared everything with each other. But I will admit that over the past year it’s allowed me to keep in touch with family that bit better – my cousins, my sister, my aunts and uncle, old friends and colleagues – we’re all on Facebook. Even if Facebook is a data mining succubus, it has a genuine usefulness to it. Though with work and being on-call, it has proven difficult to switch off and sometimes I switch off in the wrong direction (e.g. friends and family rather than work) – and for that I am truly sorry. But the past few days on Facebook though have been fantastic, though – an old friend from school has found old cassette tapes that we used to produce for each other – a kind of radio show mixed with music and comedy – and uploaded them for me to listen. It brought back very fond memories, and I have to say that the quality of the comedy is on par with some of the stuff some so-called comedians pump out these days.

As I’ve said – the possibilities of the internet and communication back in the 90’s were so exciting and new. And here in 2020 it just makes me want to become a digital hermit at times, and especially within this pandemic which has promoted all this technology to become our primary method with talking to, and staying in touch with, our friends, family and work colleagues. Working in I.T. has paid off dividends over the years, but at the same time it does kind of extract a kind of toll.

In any event, I’m still here. Blogging, at the very least. I am a proud blogger even if I’m not particularly good at it. I was proud when Neil Gaiman(*) who introduced me to his friends as a blogger at a screening. It gives me a sense of value despite maybe not having such a good grasp on the English language or grammar as I’d like or should do (I blame the educmacation system, D’OH). Nor the patience for pease pudding, I mean proof reading.

Something that I watched recently on Apple TV+ struck home with me: Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet – Quarantine Special. While it is incredibly funny (this is the show that’s keeping me as an AppleTV+ subscriber), there was one moment when Poppy, who is the chief engineer at the game development company that features in the show, breaks down and cries – admitting to her boss Ian that she’s not okay. She’s single, she lives by herself and she isn’t coping very well in isolation. I had enormous empathy for her at that moment (and maybe a tear or three was shed). But as I have always been a bit of a loner, even while I was married, I tend to cope with things a bit better in these circumstances. Certainly I haven’t gotten to that point yet.


(*) (who made the news recently after travelling 12,000 miles from New Zealand to his own home in Skye – I don’t blame him at all for this given the circumstances and he did explain that he used every conceivable precaution going, but again, given the internet, the reaction was not at all pleasant and much Twitter blocking occurred – hence why I’ve quit, Twitter is far too toxic, and far too easy to enrage people and become enraged yourself.)

As we enter yet another week of lockdown, I’ve been all too successful at remaining indoors. While Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Ocado, Waitrose and all other grocery stores online delivery services are completely out of bounds, Amazon Prime Now has proven itself worthy over and over again. Best £7.99/month I’ve ever spent.

I’ve managed to keep up stocks of the regular staples including bread and main meals regularly over the past few weeks without too many issues. One has to keep checking available slots, but usually something turns up every few hours. This is in stock contrast to Sainsbury’s which is only delivering to the most vulnerable. Click and Collect is always unavailable.

The big problem with the main supermarkets is that they make the assumption that everybody drives and has a car. I don’t. The bus service where I live has reduced its services to about one bus per hour rather than the usual 10 minutes when they were operating normally. So it could take several hours for me to go grocery shopping each week – and bear in mind that I’d have to cart everything back by myself.

Virtual Music Concerts

I’ve not been to many music concerts in my life (I can count on one hand – The Divine Comedy at The University of East Anglia (UEA) back in the late 90’s, Last Night of the Proms at Hyde Park in the mid 2000’s, and similarly one trip to Guilfest in 2006), but as we’re all still in lockdown, new ways are being found to provide the concert-going experience at home.

Fortnite, the wildly popular video game, recently put on a virtual concert for Travis Scott. The event, called Astronomical, showcased a few of his existing songs as well as previewing a new track. It was rather spectacular – and more importantly, provided a virtual mosh pit where you could jump and run around and, in some cases, swim and fly. The Xbox controller’s haptic feedback engine vibrate in time to the music often.

I’ve put together a few highlights here.

It was a wildly successful event, and I have no doubt that we’ll be seeing more of these things in the future – lockdown or not.

Replacing the daily commute with a webcam

One of the most difficult things I had trouble sourcing when work asked us to start working from home was a webcam. Every other bugger was buying them as well. But I’ve finally managed to get my hands on one, albeit it at a cost which closely matches that of my monthly commute via South Western Railways. It is a 4K webcam, though, and designed for streaming.

Work has a regular weekly meeting with all employees, and a daily virtual coffee/chinwag in which using video is highly encouraged. My 16″ MacBook Pro is hooked up to my new 27″ BenQ monitor, and the lid is closed, so I can’t use the webcam there (and besides which it’s only 720p because Apple has seriously skimped on what is now a vital resource). I’ve used the 2018 iPad Pro temporarily, but the angle is such that it looks up my nose and just isn’t flattering at all. With the new Logitech Brio 4K Stream camera, it’ll sit on top of the monitor and will provide viewers with a much better angle, and at a much better quality.

I imagine that realistically, we won’t be back in the office much until June/July time, so it seems worthwhile making the investment now. Given the potential for reinfection, we may be using video conferencing a lot more.

Photo slideshows and video editing

I’ve started experimenting with Apple Photos’ slideshow functions to put together a few slideshows of various things. One thing that I put together was a tribute to the family cat, Lupin, who sadly passed away last month. It’s quite interesting that looking back on the photos, I took a LOT of pictures of that cat. But alas, it’s not great, so I won’t embed it here.

RIP Lupin Drake

After messing about with Apple Photos, I attempted to put together a slideshow of a trip I made to the Pacific Northwest I went on 5 years ago next month. I wanted to do something a bit special for the 5th anniversary. Alas, Apple Photos is a massive pain in the arse and, combined with my lack of organisational skills in managing the photos and date/time settings on the camera and iPhone, it’s all a bit of a mess. Re-ordering them in the slideshow caused significantly more problems.

I had even imported the exported slideshow into Final Cut Pro X, created some text overlays (with a flag for each country I visited) and polished the presentation. It looked good, apart from noticing the completely out of order photos which kept happening every time I messed about with the export function in Apple Photos. So I’d preview it in Apple Photos, see that it was okay, and got a completely different result from the export after putting all the effort in captioning and graphics and watching the results.

I think what I need to do is create an album, add the photos I want to add there, and then create the slideshow for that. I’ll give that a go soon, but having spent nearly 7 hours very early Saturday morning messing about with Apple Photos and Final Cut Pro X, I’m not in a rush to do so again too soon.

My Pacific Northwest travels of 2015

They came for our toilet rolls, because for some mysterious reason, people are pooping a lot more than they used to. Then they came for our hand sanitisers, because suddenly hygiene is seen to be super important now. Then they came for our pasta, because people suddenly find carbs super attractive.

Now that the coronavirus pandemic is escalating to the point of insanity by the Great Unwashed Public, supermarkets are struggling to keep stock of key foodstuffs and toiletries.

I thought that maybe I should book my regular Saturday morning slot with Sainsbury’s Online and add all my regular, not-at-all-panic-buying quantities of foodstuffs (there’s only me – I don’t need much). Alas, there are absolutely no available slots for at least two weeks. Tesco is the same. Ocado put me into a waiting queue just to get to their home page:

(We do this kind of virtual queueing at work for one client who sells shoes – and at this point of time, nobody is going into a frenzy buying shoes mainly because they’re stuck at home, can’t eat them, sanitise their hands with them (unless they wear shoes on their hands for the next several weeks), or use the shoes to wipe their arse.)

That said, I have plenty of food to keep me going for several weeks, and assuming that the local shops don’t close, there shouldn’t – providing people are sensible (oh please be realistic, Martyn – of course they won’t) then things like bread and tinned something should be fine.

This ain’t Supermarket Sweep, people. It’s not about filling your carts with everything you can find. Just do a normal weekly shop, and nothing should run out as quickly.

You know the ending to The Day The Earth Stood Still in which the alien leaves us a warning to mend our ways? If I were that alien, I’d have had the Earth blown to smithereens. Humans are the worst. (Hopefully the dolphins could facilitate a mass evacuation of dogs, cats, birds and other decent animals before the Earth is destroyed.)

I work for an employer who is, thankfully, sympathetic to working from home. And especially during this period where keeping tabs on this coronavirus outbreak is a necessity. And whenever I work from home, I continue to monitor South Western Railway’s performance. Pretty much every single day there is some incident which brings about major delays to the network.

Photo by Javon Swaby on Pexels.com

Over the past week there has been several train faults, signal failures, track circuit failures, and passengers taken ill. Some, like today, come in pairs (faulty train at Wimbledon – passenger taken ill between Clapham Junction and Surbiton). Or was it the other way around?

Yesterday I was due to work in the office, but as soon as I got to Woking there were problems with overrunning engineering works followed immediately by a train fault at Woking and a signalling problem at Vauxhall. So I turned around and went home.

Photo by David Bartus on Pexels.com
Britain’s Worst Nightmare – Leaves on the Line

It takes me between 90 minutes and 2 hours to get home “normally”, and up to 3 hours if there is major disruption on the network. This is to travel less than 35 miles from where I live.

All of this is absolute rubbish – and especially so in this time of the coronavirus. You don’t want to be stuck on a train with potential carriers – especially when they’re busy. When I was travelling on the Tube about a week ago, the trains were rammed-packed to the gills with people almost touching nose to nose. How is that going to contain this virus? It was made worse when there are signal/track problems on the Central line – which happened at least once during that week.

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Public transport must do better, otherwise gas guzzling cars are going to be the only way to get to where you want to go in a reasonably reliable way. And we’re supposed to doing our bit for the environment.

GAH!

(P.S. – I use stock photos now. I am that guy. Also: free with WordPress.com plan.)

I’ve been looking at the stats for this site, and along with lack of active blogging recently, I’ve decided to head back to WordPress.com for the hosting and ditch the likes of DigitalOcean and Cloudflare.

I’ve paid up front for two years which works out about a third of what I’m paying now. And I’m also saving money by not paying for plugins such as WP Rocket (caching/optimisation), Foobox (lightbox for images) and the Wayfarer theme. Though I am still using the Wayfarer theme because it comes part of my WordPress.com plan.

And, I don’t know whether it’s just me or not – I’ve noticed that with the Premium plan I can now add Google Analytics. I’m sure that when I signed up early last year the premium plan didn’t have this – only Business or E-Commerce plans had that option. So good news!

What’s not so good news is that trying to import a media library (images, etc.) is not the easiest thing to do with WordPress – so I’m ditching all articles from last year and starting anew. Besides which, one of my bugbears about search engines is that a lot of the stuff they archive can be so old and out of date, the information is useless. It can really hinder when searching for technical information. So the posts in this blog may not last much more than 1-2 years maximum before biting the dust.

Still a bit more work to do around here, but it’s nearly done. Comments should continue working as before.

I like Wimbledon. It’s a nice town. I had no idea that I’d be working here, though. Back when I lived and worked in Norwich for an ISP, we had a client in Wimbledon who needed on-site support. So I came down and spent the day helping them fix the issue.

Then, when I went to work for MPC in London, we were tasked with providing visual effects for the film Wimbledon in which we had to make Paul Bettany look like a world-class tennis champ by replacing his balls with CG ones. Oo-er missus. I mean tennis balls, of course – when he’s lobbying the tennis balls back and forth during the matches. The film also features one of the catchiest end credits tunes – Grove Amarda’s But I Feel Good.

But I digress.

Many years later I now work for an e-commerce in Wimbledon. I’ve been working for them for over two years and we’ve just moved into brand new offices (literally next door!). The view from the terrace is pretty good.

Peeking around the corner, on a clear day you can see the unmistakable outline of London:

In short – not a bad place to work. Not bad at all. If only South Western Railway and Network Rail didn’t keep breaking/fixing things every 30 seconds. Took me two and a half hours to get home last night thanks to a broken train at Surbiton. And the journey between Wimbledon and Surbiton was horrendous. Absolutely packed. Not helped with two lads pushed their way on before the doors closed and one had a backpack which took up so much space and kept hitting me..

What a week. Two days of South Western Railway disruption (today being the worst with signal failures at Woking and power failures at Raynes Park) and I get an email from the administrators of the now-defunct Wonga to say that any compensation owed will be 4.3p in the pound (a tweet of mine is embedded in that Mirror article – I’m famous – LOL).

I put in my claim many months ago and was told I was owed £593 (rounded up). I was told I’d receive significantly less than this, and it ended up being a measly £25. Twenty-five quid. Which is going to be two months late.

The administrators have put in their own claim – their fees are over £2 million. And I’m willing to bet the directors of Wonga are going to get away with little more than a slap on the wrist for all this mess.

The FCA (Financial Conduct Authority) has a lot of explaining to do as to why these companies aren’t better regulated. But similarly, they’re a bunch of fools. We’re already seeing many big banks increase their standard overdraft rates to 40% APR (equivalent) all because the FCA told them that their current daily charges were unfair.

My own personal authorised overdraft could potentially cost me up to double in fees because of the FCA’s meddling. They’re about to remove the buffer-free zone too. So they’re no longer a stand-out bank – they’re just like any other. Which is a shame.

And I’m still waiting on a good number of former creditors to pay up on PPI. One particular creditor has been delaying for months due to the amount of claims they’re still processing (even after the August 2019 deadline). That said, they told me that I’d still be earning interest on the sum they said they’d pay up until the point the money is released to me.

But it strikes me as hypocritical that banks can get away with delaying payment (or go tits up and expect a bailout from the government using public tax money) when it suits them, but heaven forbid you owe THEM money it can do all manner of things.

The FCA needs a kick up the arse, and some steel dentures in order to be an organisation that gets stuff done. Properly.

Now that it’s 2020, I felt it was time to cut back a bit on social media, which has recently become so Marmite-ish that everything tastes bitter and salty. So much anger. So much aggression. It’s all become very toxic.

So I’ve made it a New Year’s resolution to cut back on Twitter. I’m kind of scaling back on Instagram too, though mainly cutting back on the number of people and things that I’m following. The biggest problem with social media is that the more people you follow, the longer it takes to read everything, the noisier it gets, and it then ultimately exposes you to the knuckle-dragging Bad People®, and that makes you wonder why you bothered in the first place.

So, I’ve abandoned my 409-odd followers and the 600-odd people/things I were following and started again from scratch – retaining a follow a select few fellow twitterers whose tweets don’t make me want to go out and get a lobotomy.

My new account (@MartynDrake76) is going to be permanently set to private, and I’m resisting the urge to post anything to anybody who chooses to follow me. It’s more of a lurking/read-only account. Useful for checking the latest train info, or news updates.

Bring back the days of computing where nothing was interconnected. Where you had to wait 10 minutes for a computer game to load from tape, and if the system subsequently crashed just after loading the game, you’d do the same thing again. It taught us patience (well, maybe some of us – definitely not me).

Don’t get me started on Facebook. It has its uses (mainly family and close friends), but even then it’s not something I actively engage with much. Facebook’s Instant Messanger and WhatsApp apps are extremely useful – but that’s really the only things that get any kind of decent workout. The site itself I only glance at a few times a week at most – and for a minute or two.