Fiona has had long hair for as long as she has had hair. But recently she decided that she wanted to break with the past and make a radical change. This weekend, she went to the hairdresser and got it cut short. (We accompanied her for moral support, and to take pictures of the momentous event.)
Fiona wants to donate the old hair to a charity that makes wigs for sick kids. Right now the two braids are sitting on our dining room table, and they look really strange. They’re very recognisably still Fiona’s hair — thick and fluffy — and it’s like there’s a piece of her head on display right next to the vase of flowers.
Alan introduced me to Dar Williams a few years ago. (Not personally — we went to see her play the Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh a few years ago.) She was back on this side of the Atlantic in December, playing a few small venues including the Tuinzaal (Garden room) at Tolhuistuin. I’ve been to gigs at the Tolhuistuin before, but never in the Tuinzaal. It’s an intimate space with big windows, big enough to hold maybe 100 people seated, small enough not to need much in the way of amplification. Nice for an author reading, or a singer-songwriter with a guitar. It was a late afternoon gig, but at that time of year it was mostly dark outside already.
She played songs, she told anecdotes, and talked a little about her book What I Found In A Thousand Towns. I find her songs very affecting, and when she played “When I Was A Boy” at the end I couldn’t hold back my tears. As a parent of a couple of teens, the theme of growing up and innocence lost kicked me right in the feels.
Overall, 2017 was a crappy year for us for many reasons. But I try to make an effort to save this blog for things I enjoy and remember, not the things I would rather forget. And in the course of 2017 I made some purchases that brought me a (sometimes unexpectedly) disproportionate amount of joy.
1: Sennheiser HD 4.50 BTNC over-ear, bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones. I had got Abi a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones a year or two ago for her birthday. I had tried them on myself, but I found the noise cancellation effect to be really weird and uncomfortable, like my ears were constantly under pressure. So for a long time I’d ignored them as a product category.
My favourite pair of in-ear noise-isolating buds (also Sennheiser) gave up the ghost in the springtime. I do a lot of travelling on airplanes, and I found that my fallback earbuds (standard Apple buds) weren’t good enough. For listening to background music they were fine, but I found myself covering my ears with my palms to cut out the plane noise just to hear all the dialogue in a movie or a podcast. So I started looking into noise-cancelling headphones for myself. I spent a lot of time hunting down reviews and opinions, and whittled it down to the ubiquitous Bose QC-35s, the more expensive Sony MDR-1000X, and these newer and cheaper Sennheisers. Having been very happy with various sets of Sennheiser cans over the years, and liking the lower price (especially when I found a special offer on them at Schiphol airport), I bought them.
So after thinking that the noise cancellation would be what I’d enjoy most, turns out that when I’m travelling the it’s the bluetooth connection and the complete lack of wires that makes the biggest quality-of-life improvement. As I’m getting to and from the airport, sitting down and getting up on buses, trains, shuttles, and planes, going through security and all the other hurdles of international travel, I spend a lot of time taking my messenger bag off and on again, or just slinging it over a different shoulder. Not having to deal with headphone wires while doing this saves me a few seconds each time, but they were really annoying seconds that I’m super glad I don’t have to deal with any more. (I still have to connect up by wire when I’m on the plane and in flight mode, but I can do that in the “comfort” of my seat, and without time pressure.)
And now we’re into winter, I’ve discovered another important use case for these headphones: because they’re over-ear, and the soft foam covers mould themselves around the ears for extra noise isolation, they are also excellent ear warmers and ear protectors! I get earache when I’m exposed to cold wind. These headphones are more effective at keeping my ears comfortable than a beanie, although they don’t keep my head quite as warm.
The sound quality is great, and since switching from a Windows Phone to an iPhone, the bluetooth connection has been fine as well. It will stutter sometimes if I’m passing through a crowded area with (presumably) lots of other short-range wireless traffic going on. For the first couple of weeks of owning them, I found that they clamped my head a bit too tightly. Wearing them for more than an hour at a time would give me a bit of an earache. However, with flexing over time they have loosened a little. They still fit very snugly, but the pressure doesn’t cause me discomfort any more. Finally, the ear pads are covered in a synthetic leather-ish material that can get a bit sweaty when it’s hot. Other than that, I simply love these headphones.
2: Levis 511 slim fit jeans. Men’s fashion has been in the slim/skinny fit trouser zone for many years now, but I have never liked the way they felt or looked on me until I tried on a pair of sand-coloured slim fit 511s just after the summer. The fabric content is 98% cotton and 2% elastane, so they have a bit of stretch to them. I was unhappy with my weight at the time, and so I was trying on baggy cargo pants as well. The stretch and fit of the 511s is somehow magical: snug yet accommodating. They made me feel okay about wearing something stylish instead of something that would conceal my shape. I fell in love with them in the Debenhams changing room.
I did buy that pair of baggy cargo pants as well, but I have hardly worn them. I bought another pair of blue 511s a couple of months later, and I basically wear nothing else any more. Even putting on a pair of regular fit chinos now feels like I’m wearing ridiculous clown trousers. The fact that they’re standard Levis 511 also gives me confidence that I’ll be able to get hold of them anywhere, at any time. I’m not going to have to travel to this one particular shop and hope that they haven’t changed their line.
3: Asics Patriot 8 running shoes. No, I don’t run, but I do like a good long-distance walk a lot. This is the year I switched from walking in hiking boots to running shoes, which are a much better idea for the kind of urban walking I mostly do. I’m on asphalt and concrete most of the time, not forest floors and grassy hillsides. The breathability, flexibility, light weight, and shock absorption of these running shoes makes for a much more pleasant walking experience, with far fewer foot problems afterwards. (See also: Marathon walk from Oostzaan to Woerden.) They’re not all-weather shoes, but I’m not an all-weather walker.
After about 4 months of regular use, I’m wearing through the fabric lining and padding around the heel of these shoes already. Various running sites suggest that you should replace running shoes after about 500 miles, but that advice seems to be mostly because of the shock absorption. I think that walking probably puts less stress on a shoe’s structure and sole than running does, so I’m a bit disappointed but this. They feel like they’re the right size, and I don’t feel like my heel is slipping up and down and causing friction. I’m certainly not ending up with blisters there. Fortunately, as running shoes go, the Asics Patriot line is far from the most expensive, so replacing them isn’t going to break the bank. Maybe I’ll try a different brand next time, but I’ll be sticking with running shoes for long-distance urban walking from now on.
4: bGeigie Nano. This was a purchase for Alex rather than for me, but having it around the house has been fascinating nonetheless. The bGeigie Nano is a GPS-enabled logging radiation sensor, sold in kit form. Once assembled (lots of electronic components with lots of soldering), you carry it around to take readings of background radiation levels, and then upload those readings to a global database. The Safecast organization was set up in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011, with the goal of encouraging ordinary citizens to contribute to a more detailed picture of radiation in their environment. The data is freely available to anyone as a download, or as a conveniently browsable map.
For Alex’s final year school project, he built his device and together we surveyed the Zaanstreek area in great detail. Alex then used QGIS and PostGIS to build maps and overlays, and to calculate statistics for our local area. It was a fantastic project to watch him work on. Ultimately, the results showed that the background radiation around here is perfectly normal, but this is genuinely new information that Alex contributed. One of Safecast’s early members, Rob Oudendijk puts it like this:
When it comes to advice for other volunteers, I would say that my best piece of advice is to gather as much data as possible. Always have your measuring equipment with you. It doesn’t matter if you have made measurements somewhere before, it is always worth going back over the area to make sure that nothing has changed.
For me that data establishes a base level, which is like the background you need to make educated analysis of what changes may have occurred, if the levels should change.
5: I NEED YOU brand reading glasses. 2015 was the year in which I bought my first set of reading glasses, but 2017 was the year in which I properly incorporated them into my life. To wit, that’s when they I put them on my travel checklist, started keeping a pair permanently in my travel bag, and put them on as a matter of course whenever I am reading in bed. I also learned that I cheap €5 supermarket reading glasses suck. The brand I like is I NEED YOU, a German make. All the newsagents at Schiphol airport have a rotating rack of them, and that’s where I buy mine. The optical quality is good, their frames are stylish, and at €25-ish a pair I feel like I’m getting great value.
2018 might turn into the year for distance glasses for me. We’ll see.
6: Sharp R 212 microwave oven (€15 at our local second-hand shop). A lot of our household apparatus broke down in 2017: central heating boiler, dishwasher, oven, toilet, Fiona. On the afternoon of 31 December our car took a stone to the windscreen and put a non-trivial crack in it. As I said at the start of this post, it hasn’t been a great year.
But our old oven is a combination oven and microwave, and it was only the microwave part that broke (well, that and the digital display). The hot oven part still works fine. So rather than call out for a likely expensive repair, or spend even more money to replace it, we decided to just buy a separate microwave to supplement it. This was a great idea! A combination microwave and oven saves a lot of space in a small kitchen, but it also means you have only one non-stove unit for heating things. And if you’re cooking a big dinner, it’s really nice to be able to cook and re-heat multiple things at once. Also, we’ve got the “new” microwave in a more reachable location, and it has a rotating tray inside for more even heating.
We wouldn’t want to go back to just a single unit now. This loss actually turned into a win!
7: iPhone X. I have written quite a bit about my previous phone, the Nokia Lumia 930. When the new iPhones were announced last year I ordered an iPhone 8 on day one, but then returned it because I realized that the phone I really wanted was the iPhone X. I placed my order as soon as pre-orders opened, and I got hold of it on the day of release (Friday 3 November).
Going from a three-year old Windows phone to a top-of-the line iPhone was…transformative. It’s so fast. It actually has usable apps that fit into my life. I somehow managed to skip the entire generation of smartphones with fingerprint sensors, and zoomed straight into facial unlocking. It really was like stepping into the future.
The only thing I don’t flat-out love about this phone (at this point – ask me again in two years) is how precious it feels. I bought a case for it immediately, but even so I’ve been scared of damaging the screen. A couple of weeks after owning it I noticed a tiny scratch — maybe only 5 or 6 millimetres long, and probably just what they call a “micro-abrasion” on the screen. (Maybe not even in the glass – it might just be in the oleophobic coating.) Most of the time it is completely invisible, but every now and then when I’m watching a video the light refracts just a tiny bit differently, and I remember it’s there. So now I’ve got a tempered glass protector on it as well as the case. And, well, it feels less special with all of those layers wrapped around it.
Portrait mode on my new iPhone can be quite hit or miss. Even the hits look funny if you spend too long looking at them, or when you look at them side by side with the original. But so long as you don’t blow them up to full size on a big screen, the effect can be really nice.
Horns: Fiona really likes this film, and encouraged me to watch it. It’s a bit heavy-handed in places, but I quite enjoyed it. Other than his minor part in Now You See Me 2, this is the first time I’ve seen Daniel Radcliffe in a non-Potter role, and he was fine.
Wind River: Slow, moving, bleak, grief-bitten, hard to watch in places, but a very powerful and beautiful film. This is what a Western looks like in 2017.
Fantastic Four (2015): This film effectively simulates the feeling of falling asleep part-way through a film, then waking up and not understanding what is going on because you missed a crucial scene that explained why the characters are reacting to each other that way. Over and over again. It just made no sense.
The Way Way Back: Sweet coming-of-age comedy with some effective grown-up relation stuff thrown in. Sam Rockwell’s emotionally stunted character neatly avoided coming across as creepy; Steve Carell plays against type as an emotionally abusive almost-stepfather. The film walks a lot of lines very successfully.
The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young: Amazing documentary about a ridiculously tough multi-day ultramarathon race through the Tennessee mountains. But it’s not a rah-rah cheerleading story about athletes overcoming all odds. It’s very introverted, focusing on the quiet personal journeys that the runners make. Quirky and inspiring.
The Art of Organized Noize: Good documentary about the people behind the rise of Atlanta hip-hop in the 90s. Lots of great background and stories that reinforce a lot of the stereotypes of how ruthlessly exploitative the music business can be.
Thor: Ragnarok: Brilliant. More open and honest about being a genuine comedy than Guardians of the Galaxy was.
Justice League: It has some good bits. It has some bad bits. (In the climactic battle, the villain actually says, “No! This cannot be!”) When the team is together, they don’t have the same on-screen chemistry as the Avengers. It’s okay, but it doesn’t sizzle.
The Expanse season 2: Season one was good, season two is great. Loved this.
Mindhunter: Loved this, too. I used to enjoy Criminal Minds, and Mindhunter is like the prequel.
Rick and Morty season 3: Excellent
The Sinner: Interesting premise — we know exactly who committed the crime, but the story revolves all around the why, which is hidden even from the killer herself until the end. Unfortunately it’s also a very slow show, and it would have been much more effective at half its length. Maybe even cut down to a feature film.
The Good Place (seasons 1 & 2 up to mid-season break): Snappy and fun comedy about moral philosophy in the afterlife.
House of Cards season 5: Abi and I had watched seasons 1-4 together end enjoyed them. We started season 5, but couldn’t finish it. This was long before the Kevin Spacey allegations broke. With Trump in the White House, the political shenanigans the fictional president was getting up to in the show were no longer entertaining. I can’t see us going back to it.
Star Trek: Discovery (season 1 up to mid-season break): I thought the two-episode pilot was awful, but it has got better since then. Still not fantastic, but I’m willing to give it more rope. (Rainn Wilson as Harry Mudd is inspired, though.)
Parks and Recreation: I’m almost through season 6 now. Still enjoying it.
Universal Paperclips is a clicker game based on the idea of an AI whose mission is to make paperclips as efficiently in as great a volume as possible. Should be familiar if you are familiar with Nick Bostrom’s work, e.g. Superintelligence. I lost a couple of days to this.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: Hard to say anything about this that others haven’t already said before me. It’s an amazing game, whose impact on the open-world sandbox genre will be felt for years to come.
Music: Wolf Alice (new album Visions of a Life), Linkin Park (back catalogue), The Ting Tings (back catalogue), The Cool Quest (new single “Running” + back catalogue)