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Auribus Teneo Lupum

For those that don’t follow the machinations of British politics – and I would understand if you chose not to – a leadership election is about to get underway. Between general elections and ill-conceived referendums, leadership elections are about the only other thing that breaks up the monotony of parliamentary democracy. As the party holding the election is currently in power the winner will become Prime Minister. Why anyone would want this job is beyond me, but that’s how it is. The next Prime Minister will be (probably) the biggest influence on the direction that Brexit takes from this point forward.

One of the underdogs in the race is Rory Stewart. He’s had an interesting and varied life outside of politics (Brad Pitt bought the rights to a film about him) and appears to be clever & coherent. This means that he’s got no chance of winning, but his ground campaign is pretty interesting and he’s doing a good job of putting some of the Brexit nonsense to rights. Rory is against a no-deal Brexit (yay), but he also thinks that a second referendum would be a mistake (boo). A couple of months ago I would have strongly argued that he is wrong, but acceptance sets in as time goes on and I’m developing some sympathy for this view. His reasoning is straightforward and nothing to do with sovereignty or democracy or any of the other tropes that Brexiteers wheel out, simply that there’s no point in an exercise where the result will only tell us what we already know: the country (or at least those that vote in these things) is still split. A referendum only solves the practical issue of whether we stay or leave – it does nothing for the social or political fallout, which will far outlast it.

The latin term _auribus teneo lupum_ translates to ‘hold a wolf by the ears’ and is used to describe situations where doing nothing and doing something are equally risky. A more modern interpretation would be ‘dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t’. It feels fitting for our current predicament.

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The mines of Paris

I’ve long had a fascination for things abandoned and decayed. Nowadays this manifests itself as an interest in history; touring castles and National Trust properties and sensible things like that. When I was younger, slightly less foolhardy and much less afraid of death or injury, my friends and I would seek out and explore abandoned buildings. It’s hard to explain to someone where the fun in this strange hobby is. Part of it is in the excitement of ignoring the myriad of signs that warn of danger and the consequences for trespass – mostly it was the excitement of being somewhere you were not supposed to be. There is a subset of urban explorers who prefer the underground to the overground – in the UK is manifested by ‘drainers’ who explore the vast sewage networks under our streets. You wouldn’t have caught me down there for any money but I do understand the appeal.

Underneath Paris, approximately five stories deep, lies one of the holy grails for urban explorers: a network of over two hundred miles of tunnels hewn out of the limestone bedrock. Known as the The Mines of Paris (carrières de Paris) or sometimes simply ‘The Catacombs’, the tunnels are the result of the five hundred years of mining activity which built the city above. A small section is open to tourists, where they can gawk at the millions of bones that were decanted there from the cemeteries above, but much of the tunnel network is off limits and the extent of them only known because of the small number people, driven by the unknown and the forbidden, that mapped the secret parts for future explorers.

Those secret parts have been used to host raves, dinner parties and film screenings – but for most explorers they offer something quite simple: somewhere secret, where the normal rules do not apply. After reading the recent New Yorker article on The CatacombsI found these lovingly created maps, showing the astounding scale of the tunnels:

Digital Map
Hand-drawn Map

Tourists have become less welcome since the internet brought the tunnels to wider audience – but the young urban explorer in me would have liked this place very much.

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Narrowing of perspective

In relative peace and prosperity we settle into micromanaging our lives with our fancy technologies and custom interest rates and eleven different kinds of milk, and this leads to a certain inwardness, an unchecked narrowing of perspective, the vague expectation that even if we don’t earn them and nurture them the truly essential amenities will endure forever as they are. We trust that someone else is looking after the civil liberties shop, so we don’t have to. Our military might is unmatched and in any case the madness is at least an ocean away. And then all of a sudden we look up from ordering paper towels online to find ourselves delivered right into the madness. And we wonder: How did this happen?

Ezra Baker in Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
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Architectural renders of temporary Commons

The Palace of Westminster, home to the House of Commons and the House of Lords, is literally falling down. Putting aside philosophical musings about whether this is a reflection on the perilous state of our democracy, the situation has become so severe that MPs are going to have to move out.

I take some dark pleasure from imagining specific MPs having to beg for hot desks around central London like many local government workers now do, but that wasn’t ever going to happen. Instead, they’ll have to slum it out in these temporary digs:

The architects have done a grand job with their brief, but it seems that the brief was somewhat limited in scope. The adversarial seating style no longer reflects the make-up of Parliament, so it’s a shame they didn’t have the option shake-up the layout a bit – or to move it out of London. Despite these gripes, I rather like it.

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Book: Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport

Cal Newport’s second book, Digital Minimalism, is somewhat timely given the increasing concern about the role of technology in our lives. In it, he asks us to look critically at the technology we allow into our lives as individuals and consider whether it adds genuine value, or whether we use it as a crux to pass time which would be better spent doing something else.

Top of his hit list is social media, which he argues most people simply do not need & those that do need it probably need it a lot less than they think they do ( he says 20 – 30 minutes a week, tops). In 2015 I closed my accounts on the big social media platforms and am embarrassed to admit how difficult I found it. On reflection it hasn’t made any meaningful difference to my life. True, there are people that I have lost contact with, but I still talk to the people that matter and the level of that contact is more substantial than a ‘like’ or a quick comment.

He goes on to set out the merits of of solitude – being alone with your thoughts without external interference. We’ve become so accustomed to filling every spare minute with something: checking social media feeds, reading emails, listening to podcasts and audiobooks – we very rarely allow or brains the time to just think. This something that we don’t fully understand the long term effect of.

He also makes a case for analogue activities. Humans are happier, he says, when they are creating something. We should prioritise demanding activities over passive consumption and cultivate high quality leisure activities – things that are meaningful and have defined outcomes.

It’s a good book and there isn’t a lot of waffle in it. It isn’t anti-technology, it just reminds us that we are the masters of our own time and need to take responsibility for how we use it. It was persuasive enough for me to reset my iPhone and ruthlessly cull and lock down my apps.

Definitely worth a read.

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Testing cheap ‘true’ wireless headphones

I picked up these SoundPEATS headphones for £26 from Amazon and they are far, far better than they have any right to be for that price:

I already have a pair of KZ6 in-ear monitors, which in their wired configuration are probably the best in-ear headphones I’ve ever owned. They come wired as standard, but you can swap out the wires for a bluetooth module if you don’t mind sacrificing convenience for sound quality (which I don’t). Alas, while sounding great, they suffer from the same problem as most other bluetooth earbuds: the battery module. This usually sits a little way down from one of the earbuds and makes them slightly heavier on one side and swings as you walk. It’s a minor design issue – but I want to be able to forget that I have the earbuds in.

Truly wireless earbuds seemed to be what I was looking for. I did some research on what was available and found some that sounded good on paper, but almost all came at considerable outlay. Apple’s AirPods would be the obvious choice but they’re reallyexpensive and look a little odd. These SoundPEATS headphones are listed at £32 on Amazon, with over two hundred reviews and a four and a half star rating (plus a 20% discount when I ordered). I’m normally suspicious of unknown brands with loads of good ratings but at this price they seemed worth a punt.

There isn’t much in the box – just the headphones, the charging box, a tiny USB cable, some different sized tips and a small manual. I had a little trouble getting the earbuds to connect to each other at first but since I figured it out now they connect automatically (you have to take the right one out of the charger first). The sound quality won’t blow you away but it’s far from awful – and these are over a hundred quid cheaper than AirPods. They are advertised as sweat and splash proof, but not waterproof. Battery life is supposed to be around 3 hours and the case will charge them three to four times before it needs charging. I can’t exaggerate how handy it is to be able to charge your headphones while they are in your pocket and have them fully charged when you need them. The connectivity is excellent too. I haven’t had any stuttering with my phone in my bag or my back pocket. They even work well with the Apple Watch.

Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’d highly recommend these if you want to see if truly wireless earbuds are for you.

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1.32 Gigabytes

We have a weird internet set-up at home, with our connection coming in from a device on our roof instead of via fibre or ADSL. It mostly works okay, but if the provider starts to oversubscribe connections then our speed suffers, especially at peak times. We had some extended periods of poor service when the service first went live but we stuck with it and over the past year or two it has worked mostly okay. It’s not stellar, but it’s cheap and unlimited.

In January we started no notice that we were struggling to stream at peak times and my wife was having issues browsing on her phone. I figured that this might be a good time to switch to fibre, it’s around £15 a month more expensive, but bound to give us a more stable connection and it would be faster too.

I logged into my router to find out how much data we use so that I could price up the right fibre package, and noticed something strange:

During a standard month we usually download around 500gb of data, and upload 50-60gb. In January we downloaded 450gb, but wait, what the.. we uploaded 807gb. We’ve already uploaded nearly 700gb this month too, in total nearly 1.5 terabytes of data and more than we’d use in two years. Something was very wrong somewhere.

My instant reaction was to ask my teenage daughter if she had anything on her laptop that might be uploading stuff. Torrents? She offered me a blank look. Then I remembered the torrent client running on our home server. And there was the problem: three torrents had been seeding endlessly since the end of December, to the tune of 1.32 terabytes. Whoops. Theoretically uploading shouldn’t affect download speeds, but I think that my creaky network was saturated by the constant transfers. Lesson learned.

Anyway, to those lucky people that were able to download a particular torrent 987 times.. you’re welcome.

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Photos from 10th February

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Living dangerously

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A year with the National Trust

Last year we joined the National Trust. It wasn’t something that we had considered before, but after arriving at Fountains Abbey on Boxing Day and realising it would cost us an arm and a leg to get in, we signed up to their family membership plan to spread the cost. It was a good deal on the day because we didn’t have to spend forty quid on the entrance fee, but whether the £120 spread over the year was worth it remained to be proved. Since I am a massive nerd, I kept track of what we spent over the year.

Here’s a list of the National Trust properties that we visited:

Without membership we would have paid £242.90 (including £17 parking charges), so we saved £113. Not bad! If cost is the only metric, membership has proved to be very good value for money. Having the card in our pocket (and the monthly direct debit going out) pushed us to get out as often as possible, and they were all well worth the visit.

Unfortunately there are only a dozen national trust properties within a couple of hours drive of us, and we’ve done the majority of them now. Some of the properties are massive and need more than one visit, so I’ve renewed the membership this year so that we can go back and explore those further and maybe visit a couple of the ones further out. I can’t see that it would be worth renewing further than that unless we move somewhere else, but we only need to visit five or six properties to cover the cost.

Here’s some photos from our year with the National Trust: