Remembering how to write about something other than computer

About a month ago I bought a pillow speaker, a small, passive device designed to live underneath your pillow, so that you can listen to ambient noise and/or boring spoken word audio in bed without disturbing your sleeping partner. (Confusingly you can also buy a speaker pillow, such as this one, which is the same idea but with the speaker built into the pillow itself. I guess the sound quality might be better, but I decided against this because you can’t wash the pillow without destroying the speaker.)

The model I bought is the Pillow Talk from Roberts Radio. It's inexpensive – £15 plus postage – and well-reviewed. It connects to your audio source via 3.5mm jack. Crucially it does not have a battery or any power source so there is no danger of your pillow catching fire in the night.

It's an ugly, beige, teardrop-shared box with a couple of speaker grilles, on the top and at the fat end of the teardrop. Looks are not too important unless you have a transparent pillow or are bothered by the aesthetics of objects you can't see. The integrated cable is longer than you will ever need, which I appreciate.

You might expect that the audio quality can't possibly be any good when filtered through a thick layer of down, and you'd be right. I find I have to set the volume on my phone quite high to be able to hear voices, and even higher if I want to hear ambient audio, such as thunderstorms or the sound of the sea, in any more detail than a faint hiss. And what you hear is very sensitive to the position of your head relative to the pillow and the speaker. But it is possible to set it at a level which is audible without disturbing my wife too much, and listen to pleasant nonsense while I fall asleep.

There is a rocker switch on the side of the device with three positions, labelled A, B and C. The manual says to choose the position that gives the best audio quality but doesn't give any information about what the three positions actually mean. One review I read said that “there seemed to be no discernible difference between the three”, but I have found otherwise – particularly with lower-pitched voices, it is easier to make out the details in one position than the other two. I haven't carried out any particularly scientific experiments because bedtime is not really the time for that and I don't really care enough to experiment in waking hours, or to dismantle the housing to try to figure out if it is some EQ control, or switching between a series of different speakers, or something else.

As long as your audio quality expectations are appropriately managed, it’s good at what it does.

Thanks to the miracle of modern smartphone design, I also had to buy a dongle to allow me to plug both a 3.5mm audio connector and a USB C charging cable into my phone's sole USB C port. There is really no escaping this regardless of the speaker you buy: you don’t want a battery under your head while you sleep, so Bluetooth is not an option; and I don’t want to buy even more future e-waste to charge my phone wirelessly, so I couldn’t use the USB C to 3.5mm dongle that I already had.

I bought this JSAUX dongle. As long as you are careful to connect the USB C parts first, then the audio jack, it works fine. If you connect the audio cable to the dongle before connecting the dongle to the phone, it sometimes generates phantom volume control button presses, or fails to be recognised by the phone as a headphone adapter, causing you to wake up your partner when the audio blares out of the phone itself.

I’ve regularly gone to loud rock gigs for at least 20 years, some of which I played at. As a teenager I realised I’d need to wear earplugs to have any hearing left by my 40s, after a few too many nights at the London Astoria (RIP) standing near the front with the PA just to my left. Deeply uncool, but I got over it. I had very mild, forgettable tinnitus that had never caused me any significant problems, except for a spike in my mid-20s that made me double down on earplugs.

A couple of weeks ago I didn’t wear earplugs for a loud gig, including being on stage for one song. I had them in my pocket, but decided not to wear them, for reasons I can’t really explain. Big, big mistake! The tinnitus is louder, and hasn’t gone away this time.

Tinnitus due to cochlear damage is incurable, but on the advice of my GP I went to get a hearing test, to rule out treatable damage to the eardrum or middle ear as a cause; and also because I was interested in how bad my accumulated hearing loss is. I had a sense that my left ear is a bit worse than my right, but otherwise I felt that my hearing is basically fine.

Anyway, it turns out I was right on both counts. Hearing in the 0–20 dB range is considered normal, and both my ears are in that range, though my left ear is almost exactly 10 dB worse than my right. The audiologist told me he was amazed, given what I had told him about my fondness for rock music: he was expecting to see the line going steeply down and to the right above about 1000 Hz. But in a way it is bad news for me: if there is hearing loss, tinnitus can be ameliorated with a hearing aid, but my hearing is fine; and there is no treatable physical issue. I learned that some of his patients have reported improvement up to 6 months after the noise exposure; but whatever I hear by the end of February next year is going to be with me forever.

In conclusion: earplugs work. But you have to wear them every single time.

Audiograms below for the morbidly curious – left (blue, crosses) then right (red, circles). The chevrons on the left ear audiogram are for “bone, unmasked” as opposed to “air, unmasked”, but the same equipment was used throughout so I don’t know what the deal is there.

Audiogram of my left ear, showing hearing level at 15 dB at 250 Hz & 500 Hz, 10dB at 1000 Hz and 2000 Hz, and 20 dB (worst) at 4000 Hz and 8000 Hz Audiogram of my left ear, showing hearing level at 5 dB at 250 Hz, 500 Hz and 1000 Hz, 0dB (best) at 2000 Hz, and 10 dB (worst) at 4000 Hz and 8000 Hz


Last week I travelled to Berlin for a two-day technical event. Following my company's travel policy I travelled by train: Eurostar from London to Brussels, then Deutsche Bahn ICE to Köln and thence to Berlin; and the same in reverse to come home. This was the furthest I've travelled by train outside the UK since taking a sleeper train to the south of France as a child.

It's safe to say it could have gone better! The outbound Eurostar was 10 minutes late, which made the planned 20-minute connection in Brussels feel a bit tight. But I needn't have worried, because at some point while I was under the Channel, both the Köln and the Berlin trains were cancelled. The staff at the station sent me sprinting to a series of Belgian regional trains to Köln, and then onwards on a later ICE, which would have got me in 3 hours later than scheduled, after midnight. Happily I got talking to another traveller who found a better route via Düsseldorf, which got us into Berlin a mere 2 hours late.

The return journey was not much better: the train to Köln slid an hour behind schedule, meaning I missed my connection despite a 25-minute connection. The next Brussels train got me there 25 minutes before the Eurostar left; check-in closes 30 minutes before, so they didn't let me through. Eventually I got the last train home, again 3 hours later than scheduled.

It was still more comfortable in some ways than flying would have been. The seats are better (particularly on the ICE), there are power sockets, internet connectivity is mostly usable, so I got a decent chunk of work done in both directions. When I had to wait around in Köln, I just … walked out of the station and wandered around a bit. Good luck doing that in an airport!

I don't think it would have helped to allow longer for the connections. On the happy path, that would have just meant me sitting around in stations for just as long as I eventually did; and if the later connections had been cancelled I would have been really stuck. If travelling with my kids, I would probably break the journey overnight somewhere. (It didn't make sense, for me or my family, for me to spend more than 2 days travelling to a 2-day event this time.)

I had some good chats with strangers—one of my favourite hobbies. On the way out, it was great to have an impromptu travelling companion all the way from Brussels, who tolerated me trying and failing to explain an in-joke from a fake agricultural news podcast. On the way back, I talked to someone about computing and London theatres for about 2 minutes before another passenger turned up and claimed the seat I was in. Alas!

Speaking of fake agricultural news, the excellent recent Beef & Dairy Network Podcast live show had a running joke of the following form:

…and sexually, he goes like a train, by which I mean that halfway through he brings in a trolley groaning with snacks and refreshments.

…and sexually, he goes like a train, by which I mean it should be nationalised so that it's available for everyone for a reasonable fare.

…and sexually, she went like a train, by which I mean it was pretty good but not as good as some experiences I've had in Germany.

I found myself reëvaluating that last one. I can't find anything on the DB website (at least in English) that gives any hint about systemic problems with the network, but the patient Eurostar employee who put up with my melodramatic performance of the five stages of grief told me that they've been hearing the same story daily, for weeks.

Matthew pointed out that my calculations in the previous post neglect to consider that it's faster flying east than west. I had taken the estimated emissions of flying in economy from Heathrow to JFK, then doubled that number to get the round trip.

The calculator I used seems to give the same number whichever way I ask. I tried a bunch of other calculators, and was a bit surprised by the wide range of answers I got for the return trip:

I think the first two are including other effects beyond pure carbon emissions in a single figure; the Graun estimates them as two separate numbers; ICAO just reports emissions. But I could be wrong!

Anyway, even the most optimistic estimate is a little over 2 years' commuting; if I'm understanding the Guardian's answer right, they think it's more like a decade.

(I picked JFK just for the sake of argument, as somewhere I have flown to several times.)

I have worked from home for almost 6 years now, and I wondered today how the carbon footprint of my previous commute compares to a trans-Atlantic flight. (Maybe I would like to attend a conference or hackathon in the USA.) Here's a back-of-an-envelope calculation.

According to Google Maps, the distance from my home to my previous 2 offices by bike is about 8.4 miles, or 13.5km. Eyeballing the tube route I think it's about the same; let's round this up to 14km, or 28km daily round trip.

There are normally 227 working days in a year.

According to this 2020 Freedom of Information request to TFL, in 2018/19, the average normalised carbon emissions from London Underground were 44 gCO2e per passenger km.

44 gCO2e/km × 28 km × 227 days per year × 6 years = 1 677 984 gCO2e.

According to a flight emissions calculator I found in a quick web search, a one-way journey by aeroplane for a single passenger in Economy from London to New York emits 809 600 gCO2e, so a return journey is 1 619 200 gCO2e: almost exactly the same as six years of not commuting.

Chinese Satellite came up on a Spotify-generated Moody Mix playlist, sandwiched between Jonathan Coulton (Nobody Loves You Like Me) and Thom York (Dawn Chorus) . L said she liked it so I put the whole album on. When we reached Chinese Satellite again, she declared:

It sounds like Elsa. That's why I like this one, Daddy, it's the best.

(By “Elsa” she means Let It Go, currently on such heavy rotation in our home that “’lexa, elsa” are some of our toddler's first words…)

I can understand why this album is so popular—the songwriting and performances are great—but honestly it's mostly a bit too laid-back for my tastes. This track is one of the stand-outs: I like the energy and drive with each peak is a little more powerful than the last.

Writing this latest #dadrockmydaughterlikes instalment, I couldn't help but think of Adam Buxton's interview with Phoebe Bridgers (from about 48:00), where he tells her (from 01:05:15):

My daughter […] was excited when I told her I was talking to you […] but she said, “Why is she talking to you, Dad? You're 51!”

In a time before stale bands launched albums using data structures that destroy the planet, and before Thom Yorke was hoodwinked into selling an album via BitTorrent(‽), bands would launch albums as alternate reality games. Nine Inch Nails did this for Year Zero (2007); meanwhile, in Sweden, folk-pop singer-songwriter Jonna Lee launched a audiovisual art-pop project, iamamiwhoami, through a series of found-footage-style video clips with inscrutable names.

Good Worker, the third track on Kin, popped into my head over dinner; the baby enjoyed me dancing, so I put the real thing on. Mid-way through, L declared “I quite like this song”, started dancing along with me, and then periodically told me to FREEZE!

On the face of it, art-pop is really stretching the definition of “dad rock”, but I first learned about iamamiwhoami from jwz's blog so I'm pretty sure it counts.


L picked out a DVD that contains the stems for this EP, or possibly for the previous one, so I put it on on my phone. I've always been particularly happy with how Iota runs into Theta – on this EP, but particularly when we played them live, where the looped feedback build-up would make space for us to swap instruments. Like almost everybody I've asked, L enjoyed Theta the best out of those two tracks.

Hard to believe it's been 6½ years since we recorded these tunes. I regret that we never got nice packaging made! We enjoyed making friends with Effie the Whippet in between takes.

Effie the Studio Whippet


My favourite track on this album is the third, Hearth Shell, but we only got as far as the opening track, Gload. Ambient prog might not be the ideal genre for a three-year-old attention span! L described this track as “spooky”.

The CD packaging has really nice artwork, including stylised photographs of the four band members. So stylised that L didn't recognise one of them as “auntie Blue”, my cousin, with whom she spent a happy evening tootling on recorders and eating cheese 18 months ago. Either her mind was blown at the idea that CDs could contain the voices of people we know, or she didn't think it was remarkable in the slightest. It's hard to tell.


I first saw MONO at The Garage back in 2005. I vividly remember talking to an enthusiastic Frenchman who explained to me and Martin that Godspeed You! Black Emperor are the greatest musicians on this earth (stretches a horizontal palm as high as he can reach), but MONO are a close second (elevates his other palm to abut the first one).

(The other notable thing about that gig, for me, was the opening band. 65daysofstatic had just put out their first full-length album, The Fall of Math. I'd never seen a performance like theirs, with the combination of live band and intense, glitchy laptops. Incredible. But that's one for another post.)

I felt a sinking feeling when L picked this album. It's an hour-long post-rock instrumental, split across just six tracks. How could it possibly keep her attention?

At first glance, it didn't keep her attention: after a few minutes thumbing through the (beautiful) liner notes, L went over to the table and started doing some drawing. We listened to almost half of it before she remarked on it again. Apparently it's a great soundtrack for pre-school scribble-art!


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