+++*

Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Post Category : Linkery : Page 1

But first, a quick commercial break

Or, links to things going on elsewhere.

It’s been quiet around here lately, partly because I’ve been trying to hide from the various summer heatwaves, and partly because I’ve been beavering away at something else in the background. I’ve set up a YouTube channel, and have posted my first proper video, the start of a Lego build. It’s only small, and I’m still learning, but one thing I’ve already learned is that coming up with the idea, shooting all the footage, writing the narration, recording it, editing the whole thing together…well, it’s a lot more work than just writing a blog post.

It makes me think, actually: years and years and years ago, Radio Scotland had a documentary about blogging, and included posts from me, read by an actor. I wonder if the actor who played me found it as much effort.

Incidentally, after the previous post on the Perseids, I did go outside for a while each night last weekend, lie down on the grass, and watch for meteors. There were a few, each night, streaking across the sky; and lying on my back looking up seemed to be the best, most comfortable way to get a full view of as much of the sky as I could. The grass is much nicer for lying on, at this time of year, than it will be for the big meteor showers of winter.

Voices through the wires

Or, hanging on the telephone

One of the tabs I’ve had open in my browser for a few weeks meaning to write about it here is this Guardian article about the steady decline of phone boxes in the UK.

It brought back memories, and it made me feel old at the same time. My first memories are from the early 1980s, when if you didn’t have a phone line and needed one installed, you went on a waiting list that was several months long. When we moved into a new-build house, on an estate with no phone boxes either, that meant several months of walking to the nearest one, on the main road at the edge of the estate, to make calls, and long, tedious waits—tedious if you’re a pre-schooler, at least—outside the box when you needed to receive one. We had the phone line fitted, the phone wired in because house phones were the property of BT, not you, back in those days; and then just a few months later, a lightning strike hit a phone pole a few hundred yards up the street, with a massive crash, scorching and burning out the newly-fitted phone line termination box (and presumably those of the neighbours too). We went back onto the waiting list, and by the time we reached the top again, the house was fitted with a socket and the phone had to be given a plug. The phone itself had survived the lightning strike, although its bell never quite worked properly again.

When I reached my teens, I became a heavy phone box user once more, partly because my father had bought a cordless phone—which was completely analogue, not at all encrypted, and therefore something that any nearby radio ham, such as my father, could tune in to and listen in on. I hoarded my silver coins and started phoning friends from the phone box on the main road again, feeding 10p and 20p coins into it every few minutes, occasionally getting turfed out by someone else who needed to make a call and thought I was hogging it. I’d do the same on camping holidays, finding the nearest phone box in whatever village or hamlet we were staying in. In fact, most campsites then had their own on-site phone box, for you to phone home to let people know you’d arrived safely—which my parents did religiously on the first evening of each holiday.

I remember the switch from fully-enclosed boxes, whose doors were so strongly sprung I could barely pull them open, to ones with gaps at the bottom of the glass on three sides; or in “deprived areas” like the Grimsby West Marsh, armoured-looking stainless steel phones on poles with no box around them at all. What I can’t remember, though, is when I last used one. I’ve had a mobile phone since the turn of the century; I can’t even remember the last time I had a voice call that wasn’t either for work, or with one of my elderly uncles. I probably stopped using phone boxes when I went to university, although I don’t really have any definite certainty on that. For me they’re a part of the landscape, I’d be sad to see them disappear, but I likely wouldn’t notice at all. When I lived in Bristol, the phone box on the corner of the next street had a sticker on its door saying it was due to be removed for about a year, before one day it suddenly wasn’t there any more. That must mean nobody had used it for, what, maybe a couple of years at least by that point.

Do we still need phone boxes? Yes, we undoubtedly do, but that’s just For Now. Within my lifetime, they’ll probably go completely. Still, the world moves on. They were a phase, a hundred-and-fifty year phase, but now, their time is fading. Their time will soon be past.

In the library

A Lincolnshire landmark

Yesterday I mentioned that the stack of unfinished and unwritten posts is still ever-growing, only, a few hours later, to come across a mainstream newspaper article discussing one of the things I’d considered writing a post about. The Guardian review of the new book from architecture critic Owen Hatherley opens with a discussion of a modernist building I’ve loved for a long time: Grimsby Central Library. In fact, I was in there only a few weeks ago, taking photos of some of the architectural details and so that I could maybe post them here at some point.

The seal of Grimsby by the library door

I first knew the place when I was a small child, when it still had something approaching its original layout. Children’s books in the basement, books on the ground floor, music and some of the non-fiction on the mezzanine, the reference library upstairs and an exhibition room above that. Nowadays the basement is Local History, Reference is on the mezzanine where Music used to be, and the upper floors seem to be closed and quiet, a partition blocking off what was originally a broad staircase. Nevertheless, for a 1960s building, an awful lot of the original detailing has survived. The Staff Lift looks still essentially the same as when it was installed, fifty-something years ago

Staff Lift

Similarly, the doors to the staff stairwell still have their original signage beneath more modern additions, and 1960 chandeliers still hang from the ceiling even if broken parts can no longer be replaced.

Fire Exit

1960s chandeliers

One thing it doesn’t have is the original shelves, which I rememeber surviving into the current century just about. They were tall, wooden, with a graceful curving profile when viewed from the side. Because of this curve, although the books at the top stood upright just as you’d expect books on a shelf to be, the books at the bottom were tipped back, tilted, so their spines were angled a few degrees in the direction of a standing reader. That little bit easier to see without bending down. I’ve never seen library shelves like them anywhere else, but I’ve always thought how ingenious they are.

It was over a month ago I took these pictures, so the librarians had put together a small display for LGBT+ History Month. I excitedly messaged a friend who used to work in the library back when we were both teenagers, just because we couldn’t have imagined it happening back then. I realise now it’s not just that we couldn’t imagine it happening, but that before 2003 it would have been illegal for an English public library to have a display about LGBT issues. Twenty years sometimes feels a very long time ago.

Book display for LGBT+ History Month

Incidentally, all my photos here are terrible quick phone snapshots taken whilst I was wondering round browsing the shelves. However, via Twitter, I did discover a blog post written by an archictecture fan a few years ago, with a whole host of much better photos of the place, particularly of the gaunt and haunting figures decorating the south side of the building, called The Guardians Of Knowledge; but also not forgetting something I remember very clearly from childhood, the floor of the foyer! Go and look!

Update, 9th July 2022: Since writing this post I’ve taken a photo of The Guardians Of Knowledge myself.

Paddling like a swan

All quiet on the surface, but flapping away frantically underneath.

It’s been quiet around here lately, hasn’t it. Over a month since the last post, and that was just a quick note itself. As the title suggests, though, that’s because things have been busy. I’ve been pushing hard to get one of my personal coding projects to version 1.0. At work we started a new product from scratch four months ago, and it’s just had its first beta release. And in my personal life: well, it’s a long story, and if I were to write all that down it would probably turn into an entire memoir, but it’s taking up a lot of my headspace too at the moment.

Nevertheless, I still look at my list of topics to write about, my list of drafts I’ve started, and think on all the ideas I’ve had that I didn’t have the chance to write down at the time, and I keep promising myself I will come back at some point and write them, whether to publish them on here or do something else with them.

Sometimes, I do manage to make a quick note, and this post really is one of those. The other day, a conversation on Twitter with the artist Dru Marland led me to some amazing photographs of Britain in the mid-80s, taken by a Swedish photographer named Bjorn Rantil. They’re of miners and mining communities, taken in 1985 just after the end of the strike. I started with this set, taken in Treharris, Abercarn and Tilmanstone among other places, but there are a few other albums on his Flickr account. If you don’t remember the 1980s, go and look.

Teaching an image to think

Computers work in unexpected ways

Following on from yesterday’s post about log4j: another security article fascinated me in the last week, too. You might have already seen it, because it was widely shared on Twitter and computer people everywhere were amazed and aghast at its engineering and its possibilities. The log4j vulnerability is a relatively pedestrian one by comparison, using something that is an entirely documented and public feature of the library. This, on the other hand, is a completely different animal.

It’s a hack which lets you run code on a stranger’s iPhone just by sending them a message. They don’t have to click on anything, they don’t even have to open it, all their phone has to do is receive it and the hacker can take their phone over. At least, could: the fix for this security hole was fixed three months ago in iOS 14.8 and later. If you are running an older version of iOS on your phone or tablet, then, er, maybe don’t. The analysis of how this hack works, by Google Project Zero, has started to be published; and if you’re a programming nerd, it is beautiful and amazing and horrific in just the same way that a biological virus is.

In short, this hack relied on the fact that an iOS device, when it receives an animated GIF, tries to hack the GIF a little so it will always loop forever whatever the GIF itself actually says to do. It does this in an unhealthy way, though. When it opens the file to change it, it doesn’t matter if it’s not actually a GIF. The software will try to be clever and say “ah, looks like your file’s got the wrong name there, don’t worry, I still know how to open one of these” and do it. Even if it’s not a GIF and therefore doesn’t really need to.

Secondly, the hack relies on a bug in an open source PDF-reading library, in the part of the code used to open embedded images that are in an obscure and rather out-of-date format mostly used by fax machines. PDF is a big, complex and rambly format (believe me I know, I’ve been on-off trying to write a .NET PDF writing library for some years now) so it’s not surprising there are bugs and holes in PDF-reading software. What this hack does, though, is frankly brilliant. It uses the capabilities of the compression algorithm of this particular graphics format to implement an entire virtual CPU in the memory of the target device. It’s a small CPU but it is a Turing-complete one, which in technical terms mean that if you ignore practical limits of time and memory, it’s just as powerful as any other computer. An entire virtual CPU…created by feeding a carefully-designed image into a buggy image decompression routine.*

Frankly, if you’re a software developer, this is genius. Evil genius, to be sure, but genius nonetheless. I’m somewhat in awe of it, in a dirty way. It’s a wonderful level of lateral thinking, to know that the bug is there to exploit and work out a way to reach it and trip it up to begin with; and then to build an entire virtual machine from the basic Boolean logic operations available inside a particular image format. As I said above, it’s beautiful, it’s amazing, and it’s horrific in the original sense of the word. It’s awe-inspiring. I might be good at my job, but I can only look upon this with amazement and envy.

* I assume the image itself looks like just so much white noise if you could actually view it, but you can’t have everything. It reminds me a little of Neal Stephenson’s early-90s novel Snow Crash, in which a carefully-designed image that looks like white noise can hack the viewer’s brain.

The past is a foreign country

Or, some news about a legend.

Back in the mists of time…

…oOo…oOo…oOo… wavy dissolve effect …oOo…oOo…oOo…

…I lived in Edinburgh and worked for a little 3-person tech firm, out of this guy’s study in his family house. And one day, he said to me:

Do you know the secret Armenian restaurant?

He described a building I’d walked past many times, tucked into a corner between the road and the railway lines near Abbeyhill Junction. As he described it, I recognised it immediately, because I walked past it on my route to and from the supermarket. It was, it turned out, something that sounded almost too magical to be true. A secret restaurant. It didn’t advertise, didn’t have a sign, didn’t send out flyers or list itself in the phonebook. If, however, you did somehow find its phone number from a friend-of-a-friend, and if the owner answered and felt like opening and thought you might be a good guest, you were given a booking, could come along, and enter a dark candlelit room where you would feel you were at an Armenian family party for the evening. The owner would cook all the food, then come out and meet everyone and talk to you and make sure he liked you. Like something from a fairy tale, strangely magical and otherworldly, and where the hosts might suddenly turn against you if you weren’t careful or said the wrong thing.

My boss had never been. He didn’t actually have the magic phone number himself, he just knew people who did, it was only really word of mouth that the place even existed. The building was solidly real, though, in Victorian red brick and with a boldly-painted Cyrillic sign above its archway. Whenever I walked past the gates were always firmly closed, the paint peeling and the building slowly fading, with buddleia bursting from parts of the brickwork.

I’m sure I could, if I’d dared, got hold of the number. My boss certainly could have done; he had a wide range of contacts from a broad range of social circles and scenes. Even if I had, I’m not sure I would have dared try to get in. I was a different person back then, much less brave than I am now. Besides, the story is so perfect, I would in some ways rather not have known if it was real or not.

Well, it was real. Someone at BBC Scotland has written an article about it.

It’s quite a sad story, the end of it at least. It’s interesting to know, though, that in some ways the secret Armenian restaurant has had a huge influence on Edinburgh, and on the Edinburgh culture scene. Given that the story has always stuck in my mind, too, it’s probably had a big influence on me in one way or another over the post-Edinburgh parts of my life. It’s almost like an urban fantasy. Sometimes, maybe, the land of faery can exist, or at least something approximating it.

And another cemetery note

Or, something to read elsewhere

Coincidentally, following on from yesterday’s local cemetery post, I came across an interesting article elsewhere: a piece by author David Castleton on the 1970s Highgate vampire panic. I was vaguely aware that this story involved a classic supernatural panic of the Spring-Heel Jack variety combined with feuding paranormal investigators and self-styled vampire hunters; the article tells the full story in intriguing detail. Whether there really was a vampire striking terror into 1970s Hampstead, you’ll have to judge for yourself.

For a long time I’ve had an idea in the back of my mind, the character of a paranormal investigator who tries to stay rational even as everything around him isn’t. I haven’t actively written anything down for a long time, but every so often I come across a little bit of information about the Highgate vampire or something similar and a few more lines of notes go in the appropriate place. Maybe it will come to something one day.

As far as I’m aware, at least, there aren’t any vampires active in the Greenbank area; as a sensible rational person who has seen a dead body and has handled human bones, I tend to treat cemeteries as interesting cultural and archaeological spaces rather than as haunted nexuses of mystical power. Still, it makes me wonder slightly when I take The Children to wander round the cemetery, and when we leave they start waving goodbye to people “we’ve been playing with” who aren’t actually there.

Not Photo Post Of The Week

In which we don’t have many photos, but do have some of the latest guided busway gossip

Back in August, we went away to Cornwall. As you’d expect, I took the camera, and took hundreds and hundreds of photos. They slowly went online – very slowly, because I’m impatient, and it takes a long time to upload photos when each one weighs about 4Mb.

Moreover, a few weeks after we got back from Cornwall, we moved house; and after we moved house, we were offline for about two months whilst we argued with various broadband providers whether our flat really existed or not. All that time, we were out taking more photos, which slowly built up. As a result, when we did finally get online, I had a rather large backlog of photos to deal with. Plenty of photos for me to upload 30-35 photos per week, and post the best few on here every Friday.

800-odd photos later, though, the end is in sight. I’m still working on the photos from the Easter weekend, but after that, that’s about it. The backlog is over, and I’m going to be putting photos up within a few days of taking them. Which leaves Photo Post Of The Week a little stuck, without the regular flow to pick the best of. I’m not entirely sure what to do with it. Do I return to it when I have more to show, or do I go back and post here photos that I took months or years back? I’m still trying to decide. Maybe it will just be replaced, with a sign like this:

Sign, Bedminster

In the meantime, there have been more Bristol Guided Busway developments following my most recent post on the topic. Chris Hutt yesterday published “At Last, The Truth” about the history of the West of England Partnership’s plans for Prince St Bridge, and Bristol Traffic has pointed out that their plans to replace the Bristol-Bath Cycle Path with a buses-only road are still marked out clearly on their maps despite being tactfully edited out of the text, which merely mention their aspiration to build an Ashton-Emersons Green route one day. Personally, I think Chris is being a tad optimistic as to whether he’s discovered the truth and the whole truth, as you could say, but we’re certainly closer to it than we’d be if we were relying on the West of England Partnership’s own somewhat misleading and vague publications and press releases.

Recent search requests

In which we wonder what people are searching for

More things, around the interwebs, that people have been looking for…

the deirdres are a rather good band from Derby – see here.
photo enlargement 99p – it does sound like a bit of a bargain rate. Unless, of course, you want to enlarge a photo of 99p, which is possible too.
unexplained black moods aren’t very nice, but if they’re that unexplained I’m not sure there’s very much you can do.
emo kids handcuffs – I have a lovely picture in my head, now, of emo kids handcuffed to street furniture in all their hang-outs – outside the art gallery in Exchange Square in Glasgow; outside the Corn Exchange* in Leeds, and so on. I wholeheartedly endorse this idea. Come on, people, together we can make it a reality.
triangle sidings are the London Underground sidings in South Kensington, in the basement of the Cromwell Road Sainsburys, where the air terminal used to be. More information, and photos, here.
chocolate coins left at doorstep – I don’t remember ever mentioning this, or anything of the sort. But if anyone does want to leave some chocolate coins on my doorstep, then, please, feel free to!
cara page journalist. Cara Page was, the last I heard, writing for the Daily Record. She’s infamous – at least in certain circles – for writing “exposés” about the sex lives of fairly boring and ordinary people, such as a charity shop worker from Peebles. None of it is “newsworthy” in any conventional sense of the word, but tabloid editors still strongly believe that a bit of Carry On-style tame dirtiness sells papers. Sadly, that’s all I know about her. And that, I think, is probably enough search requests for now.

* Now there’s a name that’s always puzzled me a little. “Hello, my dear sir, I’d like to swap this corn, if you may. For … erm … some different corn?”

The Unconnected

In which we bear bad news

Breaking bad news to people is always hard to do. Even if it’s something as mundane as a dead computer. I took a quick look at a machine one of the staff had brought in from home, in my lunch break; it’s vitally important she gets it working again, apparently, because it’s got all her daughter’s schoolwork on it, and they have to have a computer now to do all their assignments on.* It only needed a quick look to show that it’s not coming back to life. Its hard disk is almost certainly now a former hard disk, with no hope of getting her homework back.** But how do I tell her?

Latest addition to my RSS reader: Bad Archaeology. The navigation is a bit awkward, and their “latest news” page doesn’t seem to get archived, but there’s some very good stuff in there, if, like me, you would love to try poking members of the Erich von Däniken Fan Club with long pointy sticks. Their latest article is on King Arthur, as an example of what happens when you set out to prove a point, and try to use archaeology to do that. I’m tempted to write something longer about exactly that, soon.

In other news: I’ve been listening to Phoebe Kreutz lately. Her songs make me smile, and make me want to listen to more of her songs. So that has to be a good thing. Hurrah for good things!

* I’m not sure I believe that. This isn’t a rich town, and there must be many many children in the area whose parents don’t have a PC.

** A normal boot sequence halts with “Non-system disk or disk error”, which, if your other drives are all empty, is never a good sign. A Linux boot CD finds the hard disk, prints out lots of nasty disk hardware errors, and then says it can’t read the partition table. Not good, not at all.