No sitting in the dark during a power cut with our UPS

My desk lamp running on battery power
My desk lamp running on battery power

When I returned home from St Andrews this evening the whole of Anstruther was in darkness. There was a town-wide power cut. It turns out the power cut extended right down the Fife coast, as far as Leven, someone reported.

It was really quite eerie. Most houses were in complete darkness, a few had the flickering glow from candles at the windows. A couple of people were walking down the street using torches (‘flashlights’ for American readers).

The sky was spectacular: a blanket of pin holes. I had never seen so many stars while standing outside my house.

I walked into the house and found everyone walking around with torches. There were a couple of candles lit on the dinner table.

“We can’t find your bike light!” a tiny voice exclaimed in the darkness.

“It’s under my bed,” I replied. “I charged it over night.”

I handed Reuben and Isaac my keys and they went racing up the stairs to find it. The small LED torch on my keyring lighting the way. (I always carry a torch with me!)

I walked upstairs, ducked under my desk for a moment and then asked Isaac to switch on my desk lamp.

Suddenly the room was bathed in light from a 7.5 watt 3000K LED bulb.

“How did you do that?!” Isaac quizzed.

“Aha!” I said, “I have an uninterruptable power supply. It’s like a giant battery.”

We saw out the rest of the power cut sitting in my study: the only room in the house with any electric light.

I opened my curtains to show off to the neighbours that we had electricity.

Uninterruptible power supply

Uninterruptible power supply
Uninterruptible power supply

A few years ago we experienced quite a few power cuts here in the East Neuk. I got fed up of my PC suddenly dying when the power went out, even just with short blips in power. So I bought myself a UPS, an unterruptible power supply.

As I said, it’s like a giant battery into which you plug your equipment. It monitors your power supply and if the voltage suddenly drops out then the UPS immediately kicks you over to battery power. It announces it with a satisfying ‘click’, and sometimes even a ‘beep’.

The UPS I have — the APC Back-UPS ES-700VA — which cost me about £80 a few years ago, doesn’t have a massive amount of power but it does give me a few minutes to save my work and shut down my PC safely.

But this evening it occurred to me that I could simply plug in my 7.5W desk lamp into it and get maybe over two hours out of it.

I certainly recommend getting a UPS or two, not just to safeguard your data but look how handy it is in a power cut.

Stream Planet Rock radio in MusicBee on your PC

Pure Evoke-1XT Marshall edition
Pure Evoke-1XT Marshall edition

I wake up most mornings to Planet Rock radio on my beloved Pure Evoke-1XT Marshall DAB radio. But that’s in my bedroom, I don’t currently have a DAB radio in my study and Screamer Radio no longer works for Planet Rock.

Which got me thinking: could I somehow convince my digital music player of choice, MusicBee, to stream Planet Rock? It seems to handle pretty much everything else I throw at it.

The answer is yes; this is how in three easy steps.

1. Find the Stream URL

The first thing to find out was obviously the URL to stream Planet Rock. Thankfully that is displayed very prominently on their listening online page. This is what they currently are (although I guess, they may be subject to change):

  • http://www.planetrock.com/planetrock.m3u
  • http://tx.sharp-stream.com/icecast.php?i=planetrock.mp3

Both work, depending on the player you use, e.g. iTunes, Windows Media Player, MusicBee, etc; I use the first one.

2. Play the stream in MusicBee

Next, we need to tell MusicBee to use that stream.

Screenshot of MusicBee menu
File > Open Stream

That’s as simple as opening the menu and selecting:

  1. File > Open Stream.
  2. Then paste in the URL and click OK.
Screenshot of dialog to enter URL
Paste the URL then click OK

This may take a few seconds while MusicBee connects to the streaming audio feed and then BINGO! you’ll suddenly be listening to Planet Rock on your PC.

Don’t go setting your watch, though, to the streamed version. It can have a few seconds delay between broadcast and it emerging from your PC’s speakers. (My PC stream is currently 1 minute 25 seconds behind my DAB radio broadcast.) This is due to the software buffering enough data to ensure continuous playback, so that if some data goes missing and has to be re-requested from the server or if there is a local data bottleneck the audio doesn’t suddenly drop out.

What’s nice is if you use the first URL (the one ending /planetrock.m3u) then MusicBee will also display the name of the track currently playing:

Screenshot showing the name of the track currently playing: Iron Maiden—Wrathchild
Now playing…

3. Save the stream as a playlist

The final thing we need to do is tell MusicBee to remember this station. It would be a bit of a hassle to have to find, copy and paste that URL every time you want to listen to the radio.

Again, that’s simple.

  1. Right-click the name of the track
  2. From the context-menu select: Send To… > Playlist > <New Playlist>.
  3. A new playlist will be created in the Playlists panel, with the edit caret waiting for you to give it a name.
  4. Enter a meaningful name, mine says Planet Rock DAB.
  5. Then press Enter to save it.
Screenshot showing how to save the playlist
Send to > Playlist >

Conclusion

That’s all there is to it.

While I usually listen to MusicBee using the compact player view, when listening to streamed radio I prefer the mini player view which also pulls in the current track’s artwork.

Screenshot of mini player view
MusicBee mini player view

Where The Guardian advertises developer jobs

Screenshot of code from The Guardian website with WE ARE HIRING written in ASCII art
Screenshot of code from The Guardian website with WE ARE HIRING written in ASCII art

This evening I was reading an article by Giles Fraser on The Guardian website and I was intrigued to understand how they coded the drop-cap at the top of the article:

Screenshot of dropped cap
.drop-cap > .drop-cap__inner

So being versed in the ways of the web developer I highlighted the letter, right-clicked and selected Inspect (I’m using Google Chrome, other browsers are also available). This opens a code inspector where you can poke around the HTML, CSS and JavaScript that builds a webpage, and it even allows you to edit it in situ to better understand how it all fits together.

I smiled when I saw, at the top of the HTML code, written in a comment in a combination of text and ASCII art:

WE ARE HIRING

WE ARE HIRING

Ever thought about joining us?
http://developers.theguardian.com/join-the-team.html

What a terrific idea! Brilliant targeted advertising.

 

My albums of 2015

Album covers 2015
Album covers 2015

In 2014 I bought 23 new albums, I thought then that was pretty few. This year, however, I appear only to have purchased (or acquired) 15 albums that were released during these last twelve months—see the covers above.

One was a reissue (Opeth—Deliverance and Damnation), one was a free download (Slayer’s “When the Stillness Comes” for Record Store Day), and two were sent to me for free to review (Krysthla—A War of Souls and Desires, and Siderian—Cancel Your Future).

As last year, I suspect a significant factor in my buying so few new albums was my 195 metal CDs project which sees me reviewing a different album every week. Remarkably, after a solid day catching up with about a month-and-a-half of reviews I am currently still on track to finish that project in November 2016.

Top 15 artists (Last.fm)

Before launching into my top 10 though, I’ve just taken a look at my Last.fm top 15 artists over the last 12 months. This reflects what I’ve actually been listening to over the last year: at home, at work, and on my Android phone.

Top 15 artists over the last 12 months
Top 15 artists over the last 12 months

The first thing to note is that the number one artist there, Diabolical Masquerade, accounts for three of my 195 metal CDs that I reviewed this past year. Death’s Design (2007) has definitely been one of my favourite albums of this year but it comprises 61 tracks which explains why it shot to the top: that’s only about ten listen-throughs.

Marillion take #2 simply because I was learning the lyrics to Misplaced Childhood (1985) ahead of Fish’s farewell concert in Glasgow earlier this month.

And then we’re back to the usual contenders. Comparing this with last year’s chart makes for interesting reading. Lamb of God (who released a new album in 2015) rose nine places, while Iron Maiden dropped from #2 to #14 despite a new album; Steven Wilson replaced Porcupine Tree, and Opeth fell from #1 to #6 but curiously with more tracks played.

Overall, it would appear that I have actually listened to significantly more music in 2015 than the year before.

  1. Diabolical Masquerade (604 tracks played)
  2. Marillion (597)
  3. Lamb of God (441)
  4. Fish (435)
  5. Steven Wilson (425)
  6. Opeth (379)
  7. Slayer (298)
  8. Queen (273)
  9. Sepultura (271)
  10. Megadeth (265)
  11. Metallica (259)
  12. Dream Theater (219)
  13. Faith No More (214)
  14. Iron Maiden (213)
  15. Godflesh (205)

Looking at my most played tracks during the past year, 11 of the top 15 are from Steven Wilson’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. album. That’s the entire album! And removing the 61 track Diabolical Masquerade — Death’s Design anomaly from the results, Steven Wilson’s latest album was indeed my most played album of 2015, followed by Marillion—Misplaced Childhood, and then Lamb of God—VII: Strum und Drang.

Onto the votes for this year…

10. Iron Maiden—The Book of Souls

Iron Maiden—The Book of Souls

Iron Maiden’s highly anticipated 16th studio album was made all the more dramatic in 2015 as it wasn’t released until after singer Bruce Dickinson had been given the all-clear from throat cancer.

It was received with great enthusiasm. Blabbermouth gave the album 9.5/10, The Guardian gave it 4/5. Metal Injection was a little more reticent asking “whether it is entirely consistent enough to successfully contend against the leaner 80’s albums is debatable, but the fact that the  band is even attempting something of this scope and accomplishment is a wonder to behold.”

The first single “Speed of Light” is a raw, stripped down track that immediately left me feeling quite cold. It felt like a left-over B side from the Somewhere In Time (1986) sessions.

The problem I have with modern Iron Maiden is ironically exactly what I felt most excited about when Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith returned to the band: there are three guitarists. There was something punchy about two: one rhythm, one lead. With three the song writing seems to be compromised: too many chords, too few riffs.

It is a marvellous album. But I’m with Metal Injection: it doesn’t excite me as much as anything the band put out in the 1980s, or indeed Brave New World (2000) after Dickinson returned. Sorry, Eddie…

9. Metallica—Pier 48, San Francisco

Metallica live at San Francisco, Pier 48

I’m a big fan of Metallica live. Their 40th anniversary concerts are amongst the best live albums I’ve ever heard. I would love them to put them out on DVD.

This live recording from their gig at Pier 48, San Francisco — a private show for Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff — is like a best of from the first six albums. It was also a free download from LiveMetallica.com.

8. Maiden United—Remembrance

Maiden United—Remembrance

Maiden United, who perform acoustic renditions of Iron Maiden songs, came from an idea by Joey Bruers to put on a spectacular and different show for the Dutch Iron Maiden fan club convention. Maiden founder and bassist Steve Harris would be in attendance so it had to be good. It’s more than that: it’s great.

This is their third album, and I never tire of listening to these interpretations of classic Maiden songs, particularly “Strange world” and “Remember tomorrow”.

7. David Gilmour—Rattle That Lock

David Gilmour—Rattle That Lock

David Gilmour is by far one of my favourite guitarists in all of this fine world. Apart from James Hetfield’s rhythm playing, Gilmour is probably the one guitarist whose style I have most studied and tried to emulate in my own playing.

This album is one of my most recent purchases this year so I have not had much time to absorb it, but “A boat lies waiting” (track 4), his tribute to long-time friend and musical companion Richard Wright, is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard from Mr Gilmour. It reduced me to tears on one listen.

6. Faith No More—Sol Invictus

Faith No More—Sol Invictus

Now things are getting tight: it feels so wrong to place this album at number six.

I was so disappointed when Faith No More split back in 1998. When they reformed and toured in 2009 I bought a ticket to see them live. It was the most expensive concert ticket I’ve ever bought.

This… is a brilliant album. It’s the grown-up big brother of Angel Dust (1992).

5. Steven Wilson—Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Steven Wilson—Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Steven Wilson is a musical genius. I’ve loved pretty much everything he’s touched: Porcupine Tree, collaborations with Fish, Storm Corrosion with Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt. This solo album is no different.

This concept album is inspired by the story of Joyce Carol Vincent who died alone in her flat in London and whose body wasn’t discovered for almost three years. I’ve watched the documentary about her, it’s so sad. She was young, she was popular, and yet when he died… nobody noticed.

The album is delicate, it’s deep, it’s complex. It is quite simply beautiful.

4. Slayer—Repentless

Slayer—Repentless

If my car was hooked into Last.fm then this album no doubt would have recorded more plays: I played this album almost constantly to and from work for about four weeks.

Following Jeff Hanneman’s sad death in 2013, and drummer Dave Lombardo’s unceremonious dismissal there was much debate as to whether Slayer could return with anything half decent. Oh, and boy did they!

Exodus guitarist Gary Holt has been an excellent successor to Hanneman. His playing certainly complements Kerry King’s.

This is by far the strongest Slayer album, I’d say, since probably 1990s Seasons in the Abyss. Welcome back, boys!

3. Krysthla—A War of Souls and Desires

Krysthla—A War of Souls and Desires

If I could give all my top three albums equal place then I probably would, but I’m forcing myself to make a decision and so this amazing album sadly drops to third place.

Over on my 195 metal CDs blog I gave this album 100%. As I said there:

Their overall sound seems to be somewhere between modern Napalm Death and Meshuggah. And that is a pretty darned interesting and exciting place to be. The playing is precise, in places like math metal, twisting. And turning. Stopping and. Starting. Something that. Gutworm. Did.

I speculated in that review that this album might well make my top three best albums of 2015. And here it is. This is definitely a band to look out for in the future. Brilliant!

2. Martha Bean—When Shadows Return to the Sea

Martha Bean—When Shadows Return to the Sea

I was first turned on to Martha Bean by four cousins of her cousins with whom I sang in the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, back in the day. They kept posting little plugs here and there for her music and one day this year I thought that I’d go check her out and see what her music was all about.

“Flippin’ ‘eck! she’s brilliant,” I posted on my friend Steph’s Facebook wall. And sure enough she is.  Go check her out yourself on Bandcamp.

Her style is beautiful and delicate but with an underlying strength. She plays mostly guitar or piano, backed by drums, bass and cello (played, I believe, by her dad).

This so very nearly made it to number one. Held off this year by these guys…

1. Lamb of God—VII: Strum und Drang

Lamb of God—VII: Strum und Drang

The first album since vocalist D. Randall Blythe’s release from Czech prison and subsequent trial and acquittal (if you’ve not read his book Dark Days: A Memoir order it today—it is beautiful and funny and wonderfully, wonderfully written) and it is brilliant.

This is a more mature Lamb of God. They have their usual bite and twistingly heavy riffs. But this time round they’ve shaken things up with guest vocalists who bring melodic singing and even the first ever clean singing on a Lamb of God record from Blythe—and he has a lovely baritone voice.

My favourite track probably has to be 512, the number of the final cell he shared with a couple of Mongolian prisoners in Prague. “Six bars laid across the sky…” he sings, and you’re transported there. “My hands are painted red / My future’s painted black / I can’t recognise myself / I’ve become someone else / My hands are painted red / My hands are painted red”. Such pain, such experience etched into each word.

I’ve only been to three concerts in the last two years: two of those have been to see Lamb of God, including this year on my birthday. One of the best concerts I’ve ever been to.

This album is going to see me through to next year and beyond. Strum und drang indeed: storm and stress.

My new role for 2016—warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall

Agnes Blackadder Hall (formerly New Hall)
Agnes Blackadder Hall, formerly New Hall. (Photo credit: Google Maps)

It turns out that when a couple separates it is customary — in the antithesis of the Spice Girls song — for one to become two. So next month I’ll be moving into my new flat at Agnes Blackadder Hall in St Andrews, where I’ve been appointed as the new warden.

I feel very honoured and privileged to be given this opportunity. It seems like a very natural move for me, drawing on past experience working in three residential homeless hostels in London, as well as in pastoral care roles in parishes, prison and hospitals, and my last nine and a half years working at the University of St Andrews, as well as four as a student.

(I’ve just realised that I’ve spent 30.6% of my life at St Andrews.)

I’ll still be working as web architect within the digital communications team, the warden role will be alongside that post: evenings and weekends mostly.

I’m really looking forward to the new opportunities, the new challenges, new experiences… and the enormously steep learning curve ahead of me.

As I said a couple of weeks ago: To quote Faith No More: “Life to [me] is a dashing, bold adventure / So sing, and rejoice, sing, and rejoice”.

XAMPP Apache won’t start on Windows 10 — a fix

At work yesterday I discovered that the localhost Apache web server on my PC wouldn’t start; it was running XAMPP.

Each time I tried to start Apache from the XAMPP control panel I got these error messages in the console:

08:59:34 [Apache] Attempting to start Apache app…
08:59:35 [Apache] Status change detected: running
08:59:35 [Apache] Status change detected: stopped
08:59:35 [Apache] Error: Apache shutdown unexpectedly.
08:59:35 [Apache] This may be due to a blocked port, missing dependencies,
08:59:35 [Apache] improper privileges, a crash, or a shutdown by another method.
08:59:35 [Apache] Press the Logs button to view error logs and check
08:59:35 [Apache] the Windows Event Viewer for more clues
08:59:35 [Apache] If you need more help, copy and post this
08:59:35 [Apache] entire log window on the forums

Fix

Reinstalling XAMPP didn’t fix the issue. But this did, spotted on the ever-wonderful Stackoverflow:

  1. Press Windows + R to bring up the Windows Run… dialog.
  2. Type services.msc and click OK.
  3. Scroll down the list of services to find World Wide Web Publishing Service.
  4. Right-click it and select Properties.
  5. Change the Startup type to Manual.
  6. Click Stop and wait for the service to stop.
  7. Click OK.
World Wide Web Publishing Service properties dialog
This is the naughty culprit

That fixed it. Now Apache is running, as evidenced by the green light on the XAMPP control panel:

XAMPP Control Panel
Both Apache httpd and MySQL are running

Separation

Which path should I follow? (Image from Dear Esther)
Which path should I follow? (Image from Dear Esther)

Back in January 2014 I wrote a post about needing to rediscover honest blogging. It’s funny looking back at that now, almost two years later. A lot has happened in that time. I may not have fully rediscovered honest blogging, but I think I have definitely made a good stab at living a more honest life, and being more honest with myself and those around me.

I remember last summer, it was about 02.00 am, I was sitting in my hospital bed hugging my knees feeling utterly terrified. I had never felt so small and so vulnerable and so utterly afraid to die. I had gone into hospital, as many of you know, with suspected viral meningitis but having reviewed my family history I was told that they were now exploring the possibility that I’d had a brain haemorrhage like my dad, who had greedily had three.

What I realised that night and the nights following was that I wasn’t only afraid to die, I was actually afraid to live.

I looked back over the previous fifteen years or so and recognised that I had slowly and gradually lost something essential of who I was. I had lost my spark. I had lost myself in a vocation, in a job, in a relationship. And I realised that I didn’t really like the person I’d become. I realised that I’d let myself go. I realised that I couldn’t even look myself in the mirror any more, I had become so ashamed of who I was.

But here’s the remarkable, grace-filled thing about this personal epiphany: I simply observed and asked questions of myself without judgement. I, thankfully, recognised that beating myself up about it would solve nothing. This was a time for self-forgiveness, for listening, and for doing something about it.

Live without fear

I sat in that hospital bed in Kirkcaldy and I promised myself that if I got through all of this then I would live without fear, I would grasp life again, I would join the adventure once more.

This past year has been one of the happiest I’ve ever known. I think this has been the most content I’ve ever been, certainly the most consistently content. I’ve felt empowered, and as I’ve listened to myself without judgement I’ve learned and grown.

All this despite what’s going on.

Separation

After years of struggling together, a couple of months ago Jane and I agreed to separate, with a view to divorce.

It wasn’t a decision that we took lightly. I cried for about three weeks. But I think in terms of our own personal growth and happiness I think this is the right decision. Obviously, we now need to guide the children through this as gracefully as we can.

We told the boys a couple of weeks ago; it wasn’t as difficult as I had anticipated. Now is the time to make it public.

There is still a lot to sort out, a lot of practicalities as we untangle seventeen years of life together. But we’ve agreed to be as gentle and kind to one another as we can. There is no animosity, there is no resentment. We’re still friends, we just make terrible partners: we still don’t really get each other. We’re like bright, colourful lights that when brought together cancel one another out and produce white.

It’s important to both of us that we model to our children a positive, healthy approach to separating: that even though it is terribly sad that we weren’t able to make things work (and boy! did we try) that we can wind things up gently and courteously.

So… that’s where I am. A lot of uncertainly ahead, but within myself I’m in a good place. I’m healthier than I’ve been for a long time; I’m happier too; and I’ve got my zest for life again. Time to make it count.

And what amazing family and friends and colleagues I have around me—I’ve never felt so supported and so inspired by these amazing people. Thank you, thank you, thank you lovely people. I am truly and deeply humbled by your love.

As I tweeted a couple of weeks’ ago: