December, 2014

Rail Priorities

Over Christmas Network Rail managed to inconvenience thousands of travellers – particularly around King’s Cross and Paddington stations in London. The reason was that the scheduled works that they’d planned for Christmas Day and Boxing Day massively overran and therefore people travelling on the 27th found that either they couldn’t, or it would be particularly hard to do so.

As ever, Network Rail schedules big pieces of work over holiday periods. Those are often either Bank Holidays or around Christmas.

Certainly there’s work regularly carried out at weekends – but never weekdays.

I’ve no doubt that the intention is to minimise the disruption to as small a number of people as possible. But of course, what that really means is: “Don’t disrupt commuters.” And it’s all very well for the Chief Executive not to take his bonus (shouldn’t a “bonus” be awarded for meeting a “target” of some kind?).

It seems to me that a certain kind of traveller is more likely to be affected by works at these times – the leisure traveller.

Because when you travel by rail you’re probably doing so for one of two reasons: for work, or for a leisure related reason such as visiting friends and family.

The former group is bigger, but they rarely get planned disruption – assuming that they mostly work Mondays to Fridays. Woe betide you if you happen to work on Sundays. The latter group, however, routinely get disrupted. Engineering works and our friend, the “bus replacement service” will always be at the weekend.

The problem is that for those who travel by rail at holiday periods, but don’t use rail for work, the rail service looks – and is – bad. That’s because those users are getting a second class service (perhaps Third would be more appropriate). If I was to only ever travel by rail at Christmas, I think I’d pretty much give up on trains very quickly believing the service to be unreliable and overcrowded.

We’re told that 4.5m commute but “only” 2.5m use the rail during holiday periods. But I suspect that there is only a limited overlap between these gaps. Living in a car-less household, I’m in that overlap, but I think I’m in the minority.

“If you’re not a commuter, you don’t matter,” seems to be the message.

Then there’s the overall planning. If you’re going to close Euston and King’s Cross, you’d better make sure that you get your work done on time. Because you’ve just shut off access between London and most of the midlands, the north and Scotland – Marylebone notwithstanding.

And suggesting that large numbers of passengers travel to commuter station Finsbury Park is just stupid. But of course there are no other ways to ferry passengers up to Stevenage or Peterborough to continue mainline routes north.

So how about carrying work out a bit more fairly? Don’t put all the pain on occasional leisure travellers, but share the load a bit.

19,013 Songs

19000

That is what it says on my Google Play Music account. 19,013 songs.

Look, I realise that all the cool kids are renting their music on Spotify. It might not actually make any money, but it’s so much more convenient paying £10 a month and having access to all your music. Except when the album you want isn’t on it yet. Or the album you listened to yesterday isn’t on there today.

I may be old fashioned, but owning your own music gets around such issues. Plus there are high-tech solutions to give a Spotify-type experience and access to my music.

Which brings me to Google Play Music.

I think it’s a great service. I signed up before you could even get it in the UK (which led to issues over what I could buy for a while later, but they’ve all been sorted). You upload your music – or Google matches your local music to save uploading times. And then it’s safely stored and can later be downloaded. Plus, you listen on your IP connected devices including laptops, tablets and phones.

Pretty much all my music listening comes via Google Play Music now. The mobile app has an offline mode for all those times when you either don’t want to be streaming on your mobile data plan, or are simply out of service (e.g. the underground).

Certainly, its “Instant Mixes” could be better. And it’s not as good as Apple’s iTunes at finding album art, although iTunes is pretty ropey itself unless you’ve given it precisely the right wording in its various fields. Google is working at trying to improve this. They bought Songza and have apparently rolled out mood and activity playlists (except if they have, I’m either being very stupid in not finding it, or it’s more for those who rent their music via Google’s subscription service a la Spotify).

But it’s pretty good. With one big proviso.

There’s a 20,000 song limit.

Now I’m not sure if that’s an agreement that Google came to with the music companies (who really seem to object to people safely storing the music that they themselves bought); or whether that’s a Google imposed limit based on average usage etc. But I’m getting close to the 20,000 limit.

If there are an average of 12 tracks an album (I’ve no idea if that’s true), then I am 82 albums away from filling up my allocation. What then?

I think I’m probably going to hit that mark in the next couple of years!

You will also note that it says I have 70 days’ worth of music among those 19,013 songs. Why on earth do I want more? I can’t possibly listen to everything I’ve already got.

Well that’s true. But one way or another, I’ve accumulated a lot of music – legally – over time.

How?

– I bought magazines, like The Word, that came with monthly cover mounts (and then I’d sometimes buy the albums of artists featured on those cover mounts);
– I’ve bought BBC Music Magazine for many years and that keeps coming with CDs;
– I once subscribed to one of those part-works on jazz, leading to me owning many many CDs of jazz;
– I worked at a commercial radio station that in the late nineties was positively awash with CDs (it tends to be more about downloads now, and I was never really on the list for them);

What you also need to know is that 19,013 songs doesn’t represent my complete CD collection. There are many more CDs still sitting in boxes that have yet to be ripped. These include many of the CDs listed above. Notwithstanding the time-spent-ripping issues, I’d obviously fill my Google Music allocation instantly.

Songs bought on Google Play don’t count towards the total. But I would never want to limit my buying options to one store or vendor.

Now despite loathing iTunes as much as I do (hideous new look in the latest version incidentally, making it ever harder to navigate your music), I do keep all my music locally in an iTunes library stored on a NAS drive. And iTunes has no upper limit. So there is that.

This is all a long way around of asking: if Google is unwilling or unable to up its 20,000 song limit, and I want to Google Play Music functionality, where can I go?

Is there a paid for service that allows me something like this?

Amazon allows you to store 250,000 songs for £21.99 a year. That might be worth experimenting with. Songs bought on Amazon don’t count towards the total either. I’m unsure what Amazon’s player’s functionality is like. But the massively increased size makes it something to seriously consider if Google doesn’t up its limits. And it might get me into a better regime of digitising my life (Currently: photos, CDs, video and magazine articles).

Incidentally, this is all why I was also terribly sad to see the end of the iPod Classic – aka the iPod. I still have a 140GB model. I may not use it very often today, and I was already having to make hard choices over how I filled the device (there are podcasts to consider too!). But roll on somebody making affordable devices that can use dual SD or microSD cards that I can load up with 128GB or 256GB cards with.

The future is always just around the corner…

[Update – February 2015: Well Google must have listened to me! Yes – I’m sure that was it. They’ve just upped the limit on music from 20,000 to 50,000 songs! I reckon that I’m safe for at least another ten years or so. And no need to switch to anyone else just yet.]

M42 – Orion Nebula

Orion Nebula - M42

I’m rather pleased with this picture of the Orion Nebula. I’ve never seen it before, sitting within Orion’s belt, and being basically invisible without an optical aid.

This was taken in my first session with an iOptron Star Tracker – a mount that sits on a regular photographic tripod to allow you to take photos of stars, tracking them as they move. That said, this is only a six second exposure taken in quite a dark Norfolk site (Yes – that’s how I spent my Christmas Eve).

The lens is my Sigma 70-200mm, with this exposure at the full 200mm end at F2.8. My camera is a crop-sensor model, so that makes it the equivalent of a 300mm lens. Here’s hoping for more clear skies…

Radio Times – 24 December 2014

I know what you’re thinking.

It’s Christmas again, and I’ve no idea what to watch on television. I know that there’s loads on, but how do I sort the good stuff from the bad? Well fear not. I’m back for with a few holiday suggestions.

(In case you didn’t know, I’ve done this before.)

Radio Times 24 December 2014

As long as you’re not reading on a mobile screen, I think that you should be able to read this directly on your computer. But bigger versions are available.