I’ve never started Christmas Day with a run before. Feels very different to all of those in the past that I started with a hangover. This is definitely better.

Weeknotes #53 — They’re behind you!

A week in which I…

  • Saw the team start to drift off on their Christmas holidays, some of them combined with summer holidays if they live in the Southern Hemisphere. Laughed as I heard one of the team was going down to Margate; the South African version looks a little more upmarket than our one here in England.
  • Kept leaving work every day with more on the to-do list than I started, for the second week running. I am looking forward to having some focused time to catch up when I get back to work the week after next, with most of the team still being out.
  • Continued to be very involved in the process of selecting the right kit to run in the new meeting rooms in my client’s London office. It seems that you have to pick a platform to be the centre of your universe and then bolt on other things around it. So, for example, if you mainly use Microsoft Teams then you’ll need to look at purchasing interoperability add-ons for BlueJeans, Zoom, Webex etc. It’s a bit of a gamble as the videoconferencing market is so fluid. Given that my client is focused around Microsoft it makes sense that Teams is the primary platform. It doesn’t look like our dream of simple self-service for every meeting is achievable just yet.
  • Was impressed by a BlueJeans who went out of their way to work with us as quickly as possible. We had someone rush halfway across London to provide some sample kit a few hours after we first spoke. Really impressive customer service. It’s such a joy to work with people who go out of their way to help.
  • Got some key orders over the line such as new laptops for the New York office. Most of the kit is now there, but we couldn’t close out on the networking gear in time so they will have to be ordered as soon as everyone is back in January. I’ll be planning the details of the rollout soon and hopefully we have enough information to make a solid plan. Next year is likely to involve quite a bit more travel.
  • Ran a pilot training session for our new soft phone system. I knew that session would be guided by the participants and we wouldn’t cover half of the things we wanted to; this is exactly how it played out. The participants brought sots of questions, some venting as a pressure-release valve from recent experiences and we also had a senior executive popping in late to telling us that they “only have 20 minutes” — all par for the course. The session was as valuable to me as I hope it was to everyone else, and gave us some good ideas as to how we need to restructure the training before we open it up in January to a wider audience. The consensus is that although we still have a lot of work to do to get the phone system to a level of quality and reliability that we are happy with over the next few months, being able to use the ‘land line’ phones from an app on any mobile device, anywhere you are in the world, is a game-changer.
  • Said ‘welcome back’ to a colleague who sits next to me in the office who had been out of the office for a few weeks. He’d been missed.
  • Had lunch with my client for the first time in a long while, to mark the end of the year.
  • Scratched my head as our SD-WAN reported connection blips for different sites, which seemed to resolve themselves as soon as they occurred and had no visible user impact.
  • Somehow managed to squeeze in some governor work on my commute and late in the evening. I still feel like I’m treading water and just about getting the urgent stuff done. I am hoping that I can catch up next week when I am off for Christmas, although I’m also trying to not be too ambitious as I know the holiday will slip through my fingers in a flash.
  • Joined the WB-40 Global Canteen videoconference for a Friday afternoon catch-up. It’s only the second time I’ve been able to hop on the call, and once again I found Matt Ballantine to be the only one there. The concept is great — a coffee and a catch-up with people beyond the office — and it was lovely to hear about Matt’s new job and the challenges he’s facing.
  • Attended Album Club #106 to hear Ben Folds Five’s debut. Great hosting and a lovely evening of music and talking nonsense. We’re going into our ninth year next year and it’s still the best night of the month. I enjoyed the album but it wasn’t up there with the greatest things I’ve heard; it took a few songs for me to get into it and I’m not convinced by Ben Folds’ ‘geeky’ vocals.
  • Spent Saturday in London with the family, meandering our way and shop-hopping from Euston to the London Palladium to see the panto. A lunchtime visit to Leon saw me tuck into my third delicious LOVe Burger of the week, perhaps one too many. The pantomime was good, but not as great as I had hoped; the review in The Guardian nails it with the description of it as “a case of double the entendres and half the story”. There’s always some fun at the panto where there are rude jokes that largely go over the childrens’ heads, but this one had the balance wrong — there were whole sections of nothing but innuendo, much of which seems very dated now.
  • Saw a silent disco walking tour, where the group sing along as they move from place to place. Nice concept!

  • Watched Stand By Me for the first time in years. It still really holds up. It’s weird watching it now that I’m around the same age as the dad telling the story, given that I was around the same age as the boys in the film when I first saw it. I hadn’t realised that it is based on a Stephen King short story.
  • Caught up with some sleep, and got back on the bike again with a couple of turbo trainer rides. The day feels a whole lot better once some exercise is out of the way.

Next week: A week off for Christmas.

The joys of commuting at Christmas. Someone just got on the train, puked up everywhere, and now we’re delayed in leaving while the poor cleaners sort the mess out. Windows are open, but I’m currently sitting downwind and am boxed in to my seat. 🤮

The best album I’ve heard this year

Warning: The songs in this blog post contain a significant amount of swearing and other adult material. It’s best not to play them out loud if there are little ears around.

I first heard Marika Hackman in early 2019 through my Spotify Discover Weekly playlist. I tend to stick Discover Weekly on in the background as I commute to and from work on the train. The playlist has been consistently excellent at introducing me to new music. As my brain is unfamiliar with the songs, it stops me from getting distracted — if I don’t know what comes next I find I can concentrate more. Occasionally, a song will break through into the foreground of my consciousness for a bit; I tend to ‘like’ them to explore them later, and then carry on with my work.

Marika Hackman’s Time’s Been Reckless was a different beast. It demanded to be listened to and made me completely stop what I was doing in order to pay attention. After a couple of plays of the album that this song came from, 2017’s I’m Not Your Man, I found myself becoming obsessed. It’s very rare for me to go back and start an album again as soon as it finished, but for weeks I just didn’t want to listen to anything else.

When I heard that Marika had new music coming out in 2019 I felt as though I had found her at just the right time. But how could the new album be anywhere near as good as I’m Not Your Man? The first single, I’m Not Where You Are, was very catchy but more electronic and poppy than what I had fallen in love with. I played it a few times, enjoyed it, but was worried that I wasn’t going to like the new stuff as much.

A little while later, The One came out. I was worried. I liked the music even less than the previous single. It was even more poppy and further away from the downbeat masterpieces on I’m Not Your Man, with amusing lyrics, a fancy video and some weirdness that I just couldn’t get my head around. It seemed gimmicky.

But when it was released in August, hearing the album changed everything. It all made sense. Any Human Friend is a masterpiece.

With 11 tracks spread over just 41 minutes, the album is a perfectly-sized thing that is much greater than the sum of its parts. It starts off with Wanderlust, a strange, folksy, delicate lo-fi song, somewhere between something off of Marika’s first album and an early song by Kathryn Williams. As it peters out, the start of The One is in perfect juxtaposition, ramping things up to its modern sound. It really works, and repeated listens reveal a depth to the song that I didn’t realise was there at first. Marika has even put out a couple of acoustic versions of the song which offer completely different perspectives, showing how good the song is.

All Night then brings things down again, with effortless vocals and a simple guitar riff quickly turning into a song that is lyrically shocking, but delicate and dreamy in its delivery. It quickly became my favourite on the album at first. It’s been difficult to stop myself from singing this as I go about my day, but given the lyrics it is one to whisper in your head as opposed to sharing it with everyone around you.

Blow has a wonderful eighties-sounding synth beat to it, and a release when the chorus comes around that you didn’t realise you needed until it arrives. There are echoes of The One, particularly in the backing sounds which are like the ‘human’ instrument on the old organs from the 1980s. I’m Not Where You Are follows, which again sounds so much better now that it is in the context of the album as a whole.

Send My Love is probably the highlight of the album for me after repeated listens. Forlorn and full of melancholy with a layered complexity that quickly creeps its way in from a simple start. When the song’s main lyrical content is over, it has built to a grand instrumental soundscape which makes me feel that I am at the top of a hill looking at the land all around, before being stripped back to leave nothing but the strange robotic vocal chant at the end. Cleverly, the same repeated lyric that finishes the song is actually the hook of the next one, Hand Solo. I don’t think I noticed it at first, and I imagine that if you have the vinyl this would be even more subtle as a flip of the record stands in between the two tracks.

Hand Solo is the third single from the album and at first I thought it was going to be gimmicky (with that title) but it’s actually a fantastic tune — bass-driven and thumping, again with the layers that reward repeated listens. There’s an excellent live version on YouTube that highlights just how good this song is1. Once again, it’s over as quickly as it starts.

The echoey sound effects at the end of Hand Solo turn into the the complex opening beats of Conventional Ride, which despite its strange timing turns into a relatively straightforward song. It’s good, but like all of the songs on the album it doesn’t outstay its welcome before getting into a Beatle-y dreamscape finish.

Come Undone has a swagger about it which you can’t help but love, with a bass riff that makes your feet want to dance. All of the elements from earlier in the album come together here, with very loud, almost grating FX-heavy guitar which gets better every time you hear it. The chorus is a real earworm; this is the other song that I found myself singing in my head.

Hold On brings something different again. It puts the brakes on, with a simple downtempo metronomic beat — at some points that is literally all you hear for a few bars — and eerie echoey vocals that are almost impossible to make out. Magnificent and beautiful.

Despite being the title track, Any Human Friend is probably the least memorable of all the songs. It has a fresh feel to it, almost like the sound of a clear new spring day after everything that has gone before, with minimal effects and Japanese-sounding strings. It’s a satisfying end.

The lyrics throughout the album are amazing. They are extremely explicit in parts without feeling like they are there just to shock; there is always a point. I haven’t yet bought a vinyl copy as it would be a rare occasion when I would be able to play it out loud; it’s definitely one to enjoy with headphones on your own.

I love this album. I’ve played it so much, but still enjoyed listening to it as I wrote this post. Marika Hackman is an incredible artist. I’m fortunate enough to be going to see her live in March next year, and I can’t wait to hear what she’ll do next.

  1. From the 4:31 mark onwards. 

Weeknotes #52 — Another naan bites the dust

A week in which I…

  • Felt like I spent most of my time in videoconferences and conference calls, picking up tasks, and not having a lot of time to get them done.
  • Helped my client with a separate project to refit their London office. Reviewed the bill of materials for the audio/visual equipment and raised a lot of questions, many of which come from me being new to the work. There’s an intersection with my programme which is deploying new technology to each of the offices. There’s massive pressure to hit a hard deadline, which means it is even more imperative than usual to keep a cool head and not be pushed into going down the wrong technology route.
  • Worked from home on Monday so that I could attend our final school Full Governing Board meeting of the year straight after work. I’m still carrying forward too many tasks and not getting as much done as I would like to each term. I am hoping that I can use some of the time at Christmas to catch up a little. We had two new governors in the meeting, and one of them came out with us for our annual curry-based social night. We get so little time as a team to talk about anything that isn’t on our meeting agendas, and it was lovely to get to know each other better and to build our relationships for a change.
  • Made progress with our equipment orders in Dubai and New York, and continued to wait for feedback on our chosen vendor in São Paulo. We’ve made some key decisions around our telephony and Internet service provider in Dubai and I now need to plan the detail on how we get the main changes done in all three locations in January.
  • Had a Wi-Fi survey completed in the New York office. We’ll use the results to determine specifically what wireless access points we should install and where they should be placed. I’m not sure how reliable or specific it will be given that the Wi-Fi is likely to be doing battle with an ever-changing landscape of other networks in all directions in midtown Manhattan, but we’ll see.
  • Completed a review of the ‘level two’ support contract with our vendor to clarify some elements of what we expect from them, given that we have now been live for almost half a year and have the benefit of experience. It’s good to work with a pragmatic supplier who sees mutual benefit on getting something like this right, and doesn’t just insist on ‘working to rule’ on what has been signed off.
  • Had a rare evening out with my wife and a whole bunch of our friends for a bizarre ‘curry and Freddie Mercury tribute act’ night. The whole curry house had been booked out for the event, so there was one sitting of food followed by an evening with Luke Antony singing Queen songs, and getting everyone up and joining in.
  • Felt dismay when the night out was sadly punctuated by the release of the general election exit polls. If I could have voted for a hung parliament, I would have; a gigantic Conservative majority wasn’t what I was expecting at all. The news quickly spread around the room and it took the shine off of things for a lot of people. When the morning came, we found out that it was as bad as we had feared. It’s going to take time to get used to the thought of having Boris Johnson and his band of rogues in power for the next five years. I don’t know what happens next, but I do know that there are a lot of motivated people out there who will want the electoral system to be reformed. I’ve always said that if I was one of the nearly 4 million people — 12.6% of the total — to have voted for UKIP in 2015 and found that I was represented by only 1 MP out of 650 I would have been outraged. Again, this time we have the Green Party pushing nearly 1 million votes for the first time and only having 1 MP. Given the focus and protests on climate change this must be a gross under-representation of the issues people care about. I have no idea how we could move from a first-past-the-post system to one of proportional representation, given that the governments in power have zero motivation to change it.
  • Enjoyed the 1992 version of Of Mice And Men with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. I’d seen it a long time ago and though that the rest of my family would enjoy it, and they really did. My 10 year-old was really touched by Malkovich’s acting as Lennie, and we were all taken aback by the emotional ending. I was surprised how much of an impact it had on me, especially given that I had recently read the book and watched the 1939 film version, so the ending wasn’t exactly a surprise. There are some really interesting differences between the book and the two films, which I may write up if I can prioritise the time.
  • Spent Saturday with my parents, my brothers and their families for a ‘mock’ Christmas Day. Everyone had a lovely time together and it felt more relaxed and less rushed than usual, probably as a consequence of the children all getting older. Christmas dinner was lovely. I had my first Christmas pudding of the year (definitely my favourite festive food) and rolled home with that ‘I can’t possibly eat anything for tea’ feeling. We’re all going on holiday together next year which should be a lot of fun; I’m looking forward to getting to know my niece and nephews as we really don’t see them enough.
  • Watched the latest instalment of His Dark Materials with the family, and sadly found myself getting bored. The series started well and had us all gripped at the beginning, but something about it is not sticking for me. We may skip it this week in favour of watching BBC Sports Personality Of The Year together for the first time.
  • Cleaned out our big envelope of vouchers that people have gifted to us and have come to the conclusion that we are really, really awful at remembering to spend any of them. The good news is that we have some money towards a meal at The Waterside Inn in Bray (given to us as a Christmas gift in 2008) and some Theatre Tokens from our wedding in 2004 that were to be used after our honeymoon, both of which are still valid. The envelope is no more, and I am hoping that leaving the vouchers in an annoying place on the kitchen table will push us into finally using them.

Just like last year, I’m planning to work over the New Year period whilst most of the team are off so that I can get prepped ready to hit the ground running in 2020. It has felt like I have been treading water over the past couple of weeks, doing just enough to keep any catastrophes at bay, and I am really looking forward to having some days with no meetings in place so that I can get some focused work done.

Next week: The last week of work before a week’s holiday for Christmas.