Below are the five most recent posts in my weblog. You can also see a chronological list of all posts, dating back to 1999.
Following on from 2020 in Fiction: In 2020 I read a couple of collections of short fiction from some of my favourite authors.
I started the year with Christopher Priest's Episodes. The stories within are collected from throughout his long career, and vary in style and tone. Priest wrote new little prologues and epilogues for each of the stories, explaining the context in which they were written. I really enjoyed this additional view into their construction.
By contrast, Adam Robert's Adam Robots presents the stories on their own terms. Each of the stories is written in a different mode: one as golden-age SF, another as a kind of Cyberpunk, for example, although they all blend or confound sub-genres to some degree. I'm not clever enough to have decoded all their secrets on a first read, and I would have appreciated some "Cliff's Notes” on any deeper meaning or intent.
Ted Chiang's Exhalation was up to the fantastic standard of his earlier collection and had some extremely thoughtful explorations of philosophical ideas. All the stories are strong but one stuck in my mind the longest: Omphalos)…
With my daughter I finished three of Terry Pratchett's short story collections aimed at children: Dragon at Crumbling Castle; The Witch's Vacuum Cleaner and The Time-Travelling Caveman. If you are a Pratchett fan and you've overlooked these because they're aimed at children, take another look. The quality varies, but there are some true gems in these. Several stories take place in common settings, either the town of Blackbury, in Gritshire (and the adjacent Even Moor), or the Welsh border-town of Llandanffwnfafegettupagogo. The sad thing was knowing that once I'd finished them (and the fourth, Father Christmas's Fake Beard) that was it: there will be no more.
8/31 of the "books" I read in 2020 were issues of Interzone. Counting them as "books" for my annual reading goal has encouraged me to read full issues, whereas before I would likely have only read a couple of stories from each issue. Reading full issues has rekindled the enjoyment I got out of it when I first discovered the magazine at the turn of the Century. I am starting to recognise stories by authors that have written stories in other issues, as well as common themes from the current era weaving their way into the work (Trump, Brexit, etc.) No doubt the Pandemic will leave its mark on 2021's stories.
Back in 2019, The Cure released a double-video-album featuring two live shows from 2018, their 40th anniversary concert at Hyde Park (which I attended) and their experimental "Curaetion" show from the Meltdown festival a few weeks earier.
Rumours that there would be a release had been circulating since the gig itself, where video director Tim Pope was spotted filming the gig (sporting a tee shirt reading "Yes I'm Filming. No I don't know when you'll see it."). Earlier in 2019 the "Anniversary" half had a limited run in cinemas, but the home video release was not officially revealed until much later, and the inclusion of Curaetion an unexpected bonus.
The release is available in several configurations. The "standard" issue is a two-DVD (or Blu Ray) set in a hard-book case, with some liner notes in the middle. A "deluxe" issue is a roughly twice-as-large boxed set containing the two video discs and two CD-audio discs of the shows.
When it comes to deluxe editions, I would historically have been the perfect "mark", but I've had some bad experiences with other releases (this is a story for another blog post), so for this release I pre-ordered the standard BR edition. Right up until release, I wondered whether I should have made the other choice. Eventually, pictures of other people's Deluxe Editions started to circulate, and I was re-assured that I made the right call. The larger box is just something harder to store, the larger booklet is an exact reproduction of the smaller, standard edition liner notes, which are not really notable.
I think the shows are great. The Hyde Park show is a fairly standard "best of" setlist, and my enjoyment of it might be coloured by having been at the show and having fond memories of it. But it's a great performance and very well captured, so I think there's something for people who like the Cure but weren't there to enjoy too.
I wasn't at the Meltdown show. The setlist for that one is much more esoteric, and it's lovely to have renditions of songs that are rarely performed live (And: across the two sets you get If Only Tonight We Could Sleep twice).
Getting the audio
I knew in advance that I would likely listen to the shows more often than watch them, so the CDs in the Deluxe set would have been useful for that, but I was fairly sure the audio mix would be the same as on the video discs, so I could just extract that. I was half-right: the BR set (at least) has 5.1 surround and separate lossless stereo mixes, but they have been mastered quite differently to the CD audio, which appears to be brick-wall mastered, to such an extent that the audio distorts quite noticeably in a few places. The BR audio does not seem to suffer from the same problems.
Getting the audio off the discs was interesting. On Linux, the tool of choice
for decoding encrypted Blu Rays is
libaacs, which requires a list of Blu Ray
keys which you must source separately. With my BR drive I was not able to
decode the discs using the keys I could find online. However, the separate tool
MakeMKV was able to decode them. I don't know exactly how but I speculate
MakeMKV contains some leaked hardware player keys that are not in more
Once I had decoded copies of the two videos, the trusty tool
ffmpeg is able
to easily extract the PCM stereo audio track. Unfortunately it cannot, in one
go, split the audio track at the chapter boundary points. This is easy to
script around: one
ffmpeg invocation to get the chapter offsets, then some
scripting to turn that into seek and duration command-line arguments for
ffmpeg invocations. For space reasons, I opted to transcode to FLAC
at the same time as extracting each track. I hit an interesting (although not
fatal) problem: the time taken to extract each track got progressively slower,
almost as if
ffmpeg was transcoding the entire audio track up to the point
specified as the offset to start extracting from.
If I wanted to answer categorically whether the BR audio was preferable, I would need to perform a double-blind listening test, using a tool such as squishyball. I certainly can't be bothered: the BR audio is fine for me.
It's still mostly all quiet on the Amiga project front. The last few months with both my kids at home have been too difficult and busy with no time for side projects. Primary Schools in the UK went back this week, and I've finally got around to installing the Gotek floppy emulator inside the Amiga A500's chassis.
I followed A short "Internal Gotek Floppy" Installation Guide , which explains that you don't need to print (or buy) a special mount for it: Simply removing the Gotek's top plastic case is enough for it to fit inside, and you can support it with some nuts and bolts.
Easy in theory, but it still took me a while, with plenty of trial and error to line it up just right. I ended up using some M4 bolts and smaller (the kind that you use in electrical sockets) to support the bottom part of the Gotek case in three places: one, at the front, re-using an original vertical support for the old floppy drive; and two at the back, screwing through two holes in the A500's outer case and mainboard. If I'd chosen short enough bolts, the back of the Gotek case could have probably just rested on the ends of those bolts, but the ones I had were another few cm longer, so I drilled holes in the Gotek case to run the bolts through, and secured it with nuts.
In that guide, the author has an OLED display for their Gotek that they wanted on the top of the Amiga case, so they fed the four tiny wires through the grill. I had a go at that, but I've got the OLED display and a rotary encoder, so that's 8 wires total, and damn fiddly. Instead for now I've just routed them all out through the hole left behind by the floppy drive's Button. I'm going to try and tidy it up with some heat shrink or similar.
So finally, my Amiga is one "unit" again, without dangly bits hanging off it (if you ignore those 8 tiny wires for now) that I can move around to store or use much more easily.
This is everything I have to say about watches (or time pieces, or chronometers, if you prefer: I don't).
I've always worn a watch, and still do; but I've never really understood the appeal of the kind of luxury watches you see advertise here there and everywhere, with their chunky cases, over-complicated faces and enormous price-tags. So the world of watch-appreciation was closed to me, until my 30th birthday (a while ago) when my wife bought me a Mondaine Evo "Big Date" quartz watch.
It's not an analogue watch nor an "heirloom timepiece", neither of which are properties that matter to me. The large face has almost nothing extraneous on it, although my model includes day-of-the-month. I like it very much.
And so I cracked open the door a little onto the world of watches and watch fashion and had a short spell of interest in some other styles, types, and the like. This drew to a close with buying a selection of cheap, coloured nylon fabric "nato"-style straps. Now whenever I feel the itch for a change, I just change the strap.
Smart Watches have never appealed to me. I can see some of their advantages, but the last thing I need is another gadget to regularly charge, or another avenue to check my email.
I appreciate that wearing a wrist watch at all is anachronistic (sorry), and I did wonder whether it's a habit I could get out of. A few weeks ago, during our endless Lockdown, my watch battery ran out, so I spent a couple of weeks un-learning my reliance on a wristwatch to orient myself. I've managed to get it replaced now (some watch repair places being considered Essential Services) and I'm comfortably back in my default mode of wearing and relying upon it.
I managed to read 31 "books" in 2020. I'm happy with that. I thought the Pandemic would prevent me reaching my goal (30), since I did most of my reading on the commute to the Newcastle office, pre-pandemic. Somehow I've managed to compensate.
I started setting a goal for books read per year in 2012 when I started to use goodreads. Doing so started to influence the type of reading I do (which is the reason I stopped my Interzone subscription in 2014, although I resumed it again sometime afterwards). Once I realised that I've been a bit more careful to ensure setting a goal was a worthwhile thing to do and not just another source of stress in my life.
Two books I read were published in 2020. The first was Robert Galbraith's (a.k.a. J K Rowling's) Troubled Blood, the fifth (and largest) in the series of crime novels featuring Cormoran Strike (and the equally important Robin Ellacott). Nowadays Rowling is a controversial figure, but I'm not writing about that today, or the book itself, in much detail: briefly, it exceeded expectations, and my wife and I really enjoyed it.
The other was Susanna Clarke's Piranesi: an utterly fantastic modern-fantasy story, quite short, completely different to her successful debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I really loved this book, partly because it appeals to my love of fantasy geography, but also because it is very well put together, with a strong sense of the value of people's lives.
A couple of the other books I read were quite Pandemic-appropriate. I tore through Josh Malerman's Bird Box, a fast-paced post-apocalyptic style horror/suspense story. The appeal was mostly in the construction and delivery: the story itself was strong enough to support the book at the length that it is, but I don't really feel it could have lasted much longer, and so I've no idea how the new sequel (Malorie) will work.
The other was Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. This was a story about a group of travelling musicians in a post-apocalyptic (post-pandemic) North America. A cast of characters all revolve around their relationship (or six degrees of separation) to an actor who died just prior to the Pandemic. The world-building in this book was really strong, and I felt sufficiently invested in the characters that I would love to read more about them in another book. However, I think that (although I'm largely just guessing here), in common with Bird Box, the setting was there to support the novel and the ideas that the author wanted to get across, and so I (sadly) doubt she will return to it.
Finally I read a lot of short fiction. I'll write more about that in a separate blog post.
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