Room Code

Sorry to make you memorize this random string of digits. If it helps, it can also double as a mnemonic for remembering your young relatives' birthdays, if they happened to have been born on February 5th, 2018.

ISO8601 is wasted

By [email protected] (RevK)

Why did we even bother?

Why create ISO8601?

A new API, new this year, as an industry standard, has JSON fields like this
"nextAccessTime": "2023-May-18 04:43:00+0000 UTC"

I mean, pick a lane, why "+0000" and "UTC"?

Why "YYYY-MName-DD" FFS, that is not *any* standard in RFC or ISO?!

I just don't know how they could have come up with that in any sane way.

The xkcd "cat" format would be saner!

(FYI, it is TOTSCO)

Carrier Services rate update (2024-05-24)

By Simon Woodhead

We will be updating our Managed A-Z Termination rates and codes on May 24th 2024. As usual, these changes are colour coded in our full rate files available through the portal as below. Where your account has custom rates, these…

The post Carrier Services rate update (2024-05-24) appeared first on Simwood.

Life at Simwood

By Amy Morrison

By Amy Morrison Hi everyone, as I have just landed back in Dublin after a fantastic time at ITW in Washington, I felt it was the right time to reflect on my experiences so far with the awesome team that…

The post Life at Simwood appeared first on Simwood.

Exponential Growth

Karpov's construction of a series of increasingly large rice cookers led to a protracted deadlock, but exponential growth won in the end.

Have I Been Pwned Employee 1.0: Stefán Jökull Sigurðarson

By Troy Hunt

Presently sponsored by: Report URI: Guarding you from rogue JavaScript! Don’t get pwned; get real-time alerts & prevent breaches #SecureYourSite

We often do that in this industry, the whole "1.0" thing, but it seems apt here. I started Have I Been Pwned (HIBP) in 2013 as a pet project that scratched an itch, so I never really thought of myself as an "employee". Over time,

ITW and a demo of the Potato on Tour

By Simon Woodhead

By Simon Woodhead We’re all safely back from Washington DC where we enjoyed a great ITW 2024. It was fantastic to see so many customers and friends in one place and even nicer to see Simwood being recognised and understood…

The post ITW and a demo of the Potato on Tour appeared first on Simwood.

Out standing in two fields

By pete

Keen to build on our previous success at being outstanding in a field, for 2024 we’ve set ourselves a tough new target of being out standing in two completely different fields. The Cambridge Beer Festival is being held this week on Jesus Green in Cambridge. A beer festival is pretty easy to organise: you need […]

Reflections on ITW

By Peter Farmer

By Peter Farmer It’s been a couple days since the team landed back at their various abodes after coming together for 3 days of meetings (and a little touristing) in Washington DC for ITW.  While, for me, living on the…

The post Reflections on ITW appeared first on Simwood.

Ocean Loop

I can't believe they wouldn't even let me hold a vote among the passengers about whether to try the loop.

Weekly Update 400

By Troy Hunt

Presently sponsored by: Report URI: Guarding you from rogue JavaScript! Don’t get pwned; get real-time alerts & prevent breaches #SecureYourSite

This is the 400th time I've sat down in front of the camera and done one of these videos. Every single week since the 23rd of September in 2016 regardless of location, health, stress and all sorts of other crazy things that have gone on in my life

Bloom Filter

Sometimes, you can tell Bloom filters are the wrong tool for the job, but when they're the right one you can never be sure.

Simwood-EE interconnect live

By Simon Woodhead

By Simon Woodhead I’m taking a break from the madness of the very international ITW to share some exciting news in our home UK market. Our interconnect with EE is live. It has taken 13 months from contract signature for…

The post Simwood-EE interconnect live appeared first on Simwood.

SSD death, tricky read-only filesystems, and systemd magic?

Oh, yesterday was a barrel of laughs. I've said a lot that I hate hardware, and it's pretty clear that hardware hates me right back.

I have this old 2012-ish Mac Mini which has long since stopped getting OS updates from Apple. It's been through a lot. I upgraded the memory on it at some point, and maybe four years ago I bought one of those "HDD to SSD" kits from one of the usual Mac rejuvenation places. Both of those moves gave it a lot of life, but it's nothing compared to the flexibility I got by moving to Debian.

Then a couple of weeks ago, the SSD decided to start going stupid on me. This manifested as smartd logging some complaint and then also barking about not having any way to send mail. What can I say - it's 2024 and I don't run SMTP stuff any more. It looked like this:

Apr 29 07:52:23 mini smartd[1140]: Device: /dev/sda [SAT], 1 Currently unreadable (pending) sectors
Apr 29 07:52:23 mini smartd[1140]: Sending warning via /usr/share/smartmontools/smartd-runner to root ...
Apr 29 07:52:23 mini smartd[1140]: Warning via /usr/share/smartmontools/smartd-runner to root produced unexpected output (183 bytes) to STDOUT/STDERR:
Apr 29 07:52:23 mini smartd[1140]: /etc/smartmontools/run.d/10mail:
Apr 29 07:52:23 mini smartd[1140]: Your system does not have /usr/bin/mail.  Install the mailx or mailutils package

Based on the "(pending)" thing, I figured maybe it would eventually reallocate itself and go back to a normal and quiet happy place. I ran some backups and then took a few days to visit family. When I got back, it was still happening, so I went to the store and picked up a new SSD, knowing full well that replacing it was going to suck.

Thus began the multi-hour process of migrating the data from the failing drive to the new one across a temporary USB-SATA rig that was super slow. Even though I was using tar (and not dd, thank you very much), it still managed to tickle the wrong parts of the old drive, and it eventually freaked out. ext4 dutifully failed into read-only mode, and the copy continued.

I was actually okay with this because it meant I didn't have to go to any lengths to freeze everything on the box. Now nothing would change during the copy, so that's great! Only, well, it exposed a neat little problem: Debian's smartmontools can't send a notification if it's pointed at a disk that just made the filesystem fail into read-only mode.

Yes, really, check this out.

May 14 20:04:47 mini smartd[1993]: Sending warning via /usr/share/smartmontools/smartd-runner to root ...
May 14 20:04:47 mini smartd[1993]: Warning via /usr/share/smartmontools/smartd-runner to root produced unexpected output (92 bytes) to STDOUT/STDERR:
May 14 20:04:47 mini smartd[1993]: mktemp: failed to create file via template ‘/tmp/tmp.XXXXXXXXXX’: Read-only file system
May 14 20:04:47 mini smartd[1993]: Warning via /usr/share/smartmontools/smartd-runner to root: failed (32-bit/8-bit exit status: 256/1)

There it is last night attempting to warn me that things are still bad (and in fact have gotten worse) ... and failing miserably. What's going on here? It comes from what they have in that smartd-runner script. Clearly, they meant well, but it has some issues in certain corner cases.

This is the entirety of that script:

#!/bin/bash -e

tmp=$(mktemp)
cat >$tmp

run-parts --report --lsbsysinit --arg=$tmp --arg="$1" \
    --arg="$2" --arg="$3" -- /etc/smartmontools/run.d

rm -f $tmp

Notice run-parts. It's an interesting little tool which lets you run a bunch of things that don't have to know about each other. This lets you drop stuff into the /etc/smartmontools/run.d directory and get notifications without having to modify anything else. When you have a bunch of potential sources for customizations, a ".d" directory can be rather helpful.

But, there's a catch: smartd (well, smartd_warning.sh) fires off this giant multi-line message to stdout when it invokes that handler. The handler obviously can't consume stdin more than once, so it first socks it away in a temporary file and then hands that off to the individual notifier items in the run.d path. That way, they all get a fresh copy of it.

Unfortunately, mktemp requires opening a file for writing, and it tends to use a real disk-based filesystem (i.e., whatever's behind /tmp) to do its thing. It *could* be repointed somewhere else with either -p or TMPDIR in the environment (/dev/shm? /run/something?), but it's not.

This is another one of those "oh yeah" or "hidden gotcha" type things. Sometimes, the unhappy path on a system is *really* toxic. Things you take for granted (like writing a file) won't work. If you're supposed to operate in that situation and still succeed, it might take some extra work.

As for the machine, it's fine now. And hey, now I have yet another device I can plug in any time I want to make smartd start doing stuff. That's useful, right?

...

One random side note: you might be wondering how I have messages from the systemd journal about it not being able to write to the disk. I was storing this stuff to another system as it happened, and it's in my notes, but I just pulled this back out of journalctl right now, and it hit me while writing this. Now I'm wondering how I have them, too!

Honestly, I have no idea how this happened. Clearly, I have some learning to do here. How do you have a read-only filesystem that still manages to accept appends to the systemd journal? Where the hell does that thing live?

The box has /, /boot, /boot/efi, and swap. / (dm-1) went readonly. The journals are in /var/log/journal, which is just part of /.

If a tree falls in a forest and nobody's around...

...

Late update: yeah, okay, I missed something here. I'm obviously looking at the new SSD on the machine now, right? That SSD got a copy of whatever was readable from the old one, which turned out to be the entire system... *including* the systemd journal files.

Those changes weren't managing to get flushed to the old disk with the now-RO filesystem, but they were apparently hanging out in buffers and were available for reading... or something? That makes sense, right?

So, any time I copied something from the failing drive, I was scooping up whatever it could read from that filesystem. The telling part is that while these journals do cover the several hours it took to copy all of the stuff through that USB 2->SATA connection, they don't include the system shutdown. Clearly, that happened *after* the last copy ran. Obviously.

Now, if those journal entries had made it onto the original disk, then it would mean that I have a big hole in my understanding of what "read-only filesystem" means even after years of doing this. That'd be weird, right?

Just to be really sure before sending off this update, I broke out the failing SSD and hooked it up to that adapter again, then went through the incantations to mount it, and sure enough:

-rw-r-----+ 1 root systemd-timesync 16777216 May 14 17:06 system.journal

The last entry in that log is this:

May 14 17:06:38 mini kernel: ata1: EH complete

There we go. Not so spooky after all.

Debugging

By [email protected] (RevK)

There are lots of ways to debug stuff, but at the end of the day it is all a bit of a detective story.

Looking for clues, testing an hypothesis, narrowing down the possible causes step by step.

It is even more, shall we say, "fun", when it is not definitely a software or definitely a hardware issue. Well, to be honest, we know it is hardware related, but it could be hardware because the software has set something up wrong, or is doing something wrong, maybe. Really a processor hang should not be something software can ever do no matter how hard it tries, in my opinion, but in a complicated system with complicated memory management hardware, it is possible that a hang can be the side effect of something wrong in software.

I was going to say that "when I was a kid, software could never cause a hardware hang", but I am reminded not only of the notorious "Halt and Catch Fire" accidental processor operation, but that one could walk in to a Tandy store and type the right POKE command on one of the earliest Apple machines and turn it in to toast, apparently. So maybe there has always been this risk.

The latest step in the "watching paint dry" process of trying to diagnose the small issue we have with the new FireBricks is underway now. It has been a long journey, and it is too soon to say it is over. It will be an awesome blog when it is over, honest.

One of the dangers with software is the classic Heisenbug: a bug that moves or goes away when you change something. We are chasing something which, by our best guess, is related to some aspect of memory access. This means that even the smallest change to software can have an impact. Make the code one byte shorter and you move all the interactions with cache lines when running code, and change the timing of everything as a result. When chasing a big like this, you cannot rule out those being an issue. So a change of one thing may result is a change in behaviour somewhere else. We have seem a lot of red herrings like this already.

The latest test is unusual for us. It is a change to an auxiliary processor that controls a specific clock signal to the processor before the code even starts to run. One we don't currently need. And we are removing anything we don't need, no matter how unlikely it is to be the cause.

What is fun is that this means we have not changed a single byte of the main code we are running.

If this works, and only time will tell, we can be really quite sure it is not some side effect of simply recompiling the code. It pretty much has to be the one thing we really did change.

Being able to test something so specific by a software change is quite unusual.

Electrically conductive bricks can replace fossil fuels in industrial processes

Comments

Understanding How the Brain Reads Code versus Language

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Show HN: I made a online free tool to enhance and auto-crop your screenshots

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The accidental tyranny of user interfaces

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Call to Action: Fediverse Media Server

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Turn Your iPhone into a Dumb Phone

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'I was misidentified as shoplifter by facial recognition tech'

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Effects of $9 Price Endings in Retail: Evidence from Field Experiments [pdf] (2003)

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Hurl, the Exceptional Language

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Braid: Synchronization for HTTP

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Hacking phones is too easy. Time to make it harder

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I was at Woodstock '99 and it destroyed my innocence (2022)

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How Home Assistant is being used to protect from missile and drone attacks

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The Algorithm Behind Jim Simons's Success

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Simplicity – Google SRE Handbook (2017)

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We will not increase income tax or NI, Labour says

The shadow chancellor told the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg she would face "difficult decisions" on spending.

Mandatory national service would get young people out of bubble, Cleverly says

National service will engage young people in society again, says Home Secretary James Cleverly.

Bored students can now enjoy Sonic 2 on TI-84 Plus CE calculators, thanks to port

By Matthew Connatser

Blast (processing) from the past

Retro interview  Just a few weeks ago, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was ported to the TI-84 Plus CE graphing calculator.…

Tributes to pilot who died in Spitfire crash

The pilot died when his Spitfire crashed in a field near an RAF station at Coningsby on Saturday.

UN fears 670 people buried under Papua New Guinea landslide

The land is still sliding and rescue is difficult, the head of the UN migration agency says.

Boos and jeers for Trump at Libertarian convention

Trump's speech divided the crowd, but the former US ploughed on regardless.

Police boss quit before he was sacked

Allegations from three women against David Broadway are proven to have amounted to gross misconduct.

Man in his 30s dies following Ballyclare crash

The crash happened on the Ballyrobert Road in Ballyclare at about 00:00 BST on Sunday.

Police give reassurances following beach murder

A 17-year-old boy has been arrested on suspicion of murder after a 34-year-old woman was stabbed.

Police give reassurances following beach murder

A 17-year-old boy has been arrested on suspicion of murder after a 34-year-old woman was stabbed.

Election poll tracker: How do the parties compare?

How do people say they will vote in the UK general election? Our poll tracker measures the trends.

Doctor-turned-actress finds NHS hope in Sheen play

Dr Otung says acting in Michael Sheen's play Nye gives her hope for the future of the NHS.

'Where has this Man Utd team been all season?'

Alan Shearer says Man Utd's FA Cup final victory against Man City was "thoroughly deserved", praising Erik ten Hag's gameplan and how his players executed it.

As Trump trial hurtles towards verdict, are Americans paying attention?

The former president's trial has been a historic moment and filled with salacious detail, but polls suggest a strange level of detachment.

Meet the Peaky Blinders - Ukraine's drone squad defending Kharkiv

High-tech drones help Ukraine's defenders - but they say they need more support from allies.

Made a post asking for the best British movies. One comment said this is ‘the best sequence in cinema history’ and I’m inclined to agree…

By /u/wouldyoulikethetruth

Made a post asking for the best British movies. One comment said this is ‘the best sequence in cinema history’ and I’m inclined to agree…

Wallace & Gromit: The Wrong Trousers - Train Chase Scene (YouTube)

submitted by /u/wouldyoulikethetruth to r/CasualUK
[link] [comments]

Why don’t they sell chips in the cinema?

By /u/zephyrianking

For clarity: by chips, I mean french fries.

I would absolutely rawdog an extra large bucket of the finest chips while watching a movie. I’m sure there are many others that feel the same way.

Why don’t cinemas offer a bucket of chips to eat? Seems like the easiest slamdunk in increasing profits. May singlehandedly drag cineworld out of administration.

submitted by /u/zephyrianking to r/AskUK
[link] [comments]

What, if anything would you change about UK Sunday trading laws?

By /u/DarthScabies

I'm on holiday in Poland at the moment and most shops are closed on Sundays with the exception of one Sunday every six weeks or so. Other countries in Europe do this as well. (Forgot to take Scotland out of the equation. Sorry.)

submitted by /u/DarthScabies to r/AskUK
[link] [comments]

Leaked National Service plans don't rule out arresting teens for not taking part

By /u/457655676

Leaked National Service plans don't rule out arresting teens for not taking part submitted by /u/457655676 to r/unitedkingdom
[link] [comments]

In Norway it is required by law to apply a standardized label to all advertising in which body shape, size, or skin is altered through retouching or other manipulation.

By /u/dannybluey

In Norway it is required by law to apply a standardized label to all advertising in which body shape, size, or skin is altered through retouching or other manipulation.
submitted by /u/dannybluey to r/Damnthatsinteresting
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Rishi Sunak announces National Service plan

By /u/PixelStatic

Rishi Sunak announces National Service plan submitted by /u/PixelStatic to r/GreenAndPleasant
[link] [comments]

Bruno pulling Dalot away from the BBC Interview 😂

By /u/AJ-Naka-Zayn-Owens

Bruno pulling Dalot away from the BBC Interview 😂 submitted by /u/AJ-Naka-Zayn-Owens to r/reddevils
[link] [comments]

Hood of this bullet train.

By /u/ash_jisasa

Hood of this bullet train. submitted by /u/ash_jisasa to r/interestingasfuck
[link] [comments]

my brother spent $4000 on robux without our parents consent (this is just a small fraction of the purchases made)

By /u/Renown_For_Dayzzq

my brother spent $4000 on robux without our parents consent (this is just a small fraction of the purchases made) submitted by /u/Renown_For_Dayzzq to r/KidsAreFuckingStupid
[link] [comments]

Swifties bullied billie on Instagram making her deleted her last versions posts.

By /u/Fun-Loss-4094

Swifties bullied billie on Instagram making her deleted her last versions posts. submitted by /u/Fun-Loss-4094 to r/Fauxmoi
[link] [comments]

What is this logic?

By /u/Lanabakery

What is this logic? submitted by /u/Lanabakery to r/facepalm
[link] [comments]

I'm beginning to suspect that Roblox is 98% garbage. Am I missing something?

By /u/eljefe3030

My daughter (8 years old) has been asking for Roblox for a while. Most of her friends play it and it's such a popular game, I figured it had to have some value. After all, I think Minecraft is a fantastic game with lots of opportunities for creativity and quality interactions with friends, so I assumed Roblox was on a similar level.

I started playing Roblox with my daughter, and holy cow, it is 98% money grabs. Much like the low-effort mobile games that constantly prompt microtransactions. Am I missing something, or is Roblox just complete garbage? There are a few games like Doors that aren't too bad, but my daughter is, of course, gravitating towards the high-dopamine-triggering pay-to-win type games.

In the meantime, I've limited her time on it and explained my reasoning, but I'd love to maybe find some decent games that she enjoys playing and that aren't pure cash-grabbing fluff. Thanks in advance for any suggestions.

submitted by /u/eljefe3030 to r/gaming
[link] [comments]

AITAH for telling my fiancée that I would wear a penis sleeve if she loses some weight and becomes prettier?

By /u/RecordDisastrousd

I posted this is in another subreddit and got mixed opinions.

My fiancée (26F) and I (27M) have been dating for 4 years, and we officially got engaged last month.

My fiancée and I are pretty open with each other. Last week, my fiancée asked me if I was open to wearing a penis sleeve, and she had heard a lot of good things about it online. I was sort of shocked, because while I don’t have the biggest member down there, it is average sized, and I’ve never heard any complaints about it in my life. I had never asked her this before, but I asked her then if she had experiences with a bigger member, and if it was more satisfying. My fiancée seemed hesitant to answer but she said yes, that she did with one her one of her exes. That was sort of like a gut punch and I felt like shit, but I told her I would think about it.

The next night, I told my fiancée that I was open to wearing it, but that I would also prefer if she lost some weight and looked a bit prettier like one of my exes to stimulate me more. I immediately regretted saying it, and we barely spoke after that. She cried a few minutes later.

The next day, my fiancée and I spoke again and she apologized for asking me to wear the sleeve, and for not taking my feelings into account when she asked me that question. I too apologized to her for asking her to look prettier, and I told her I didn’t really mean it, and it just came from a place of hurt. We both then laughed, and we’re back to normal now.

Was I an AH for asking her to become prettier? I didn’t really mean it, it just came from a place of hurt. But my fiancée asking me to wear a sleeve did hurt me a lot.

submitted by /u/RecordDisastrousd to r/TwoHotTakes
[link] [comments]

TIL there was a math question on the 1982 SAT that every single test taker got wrong. The question was so paradoxical that the creators were confused and didn’t include the actual answer as part of the selection. All 300,000 exams had to be rescored.

By /u/Brendawg324

TIL there was a math question on the 1982 SAT that every single test taker got wrong. The question was so paradoxical that the creators were confused and didn’t include the actual answer as part of the selection. All 300,000 exams had to be rescored. submitted by /u/Brendawg324 to r/todayilearned
[link] [comments]

What is a subtle insult/jab that will absolutely destroy someone?

By /u/CoatedTrout4

submitted by /u/CoatedTrout4 to r/AskReddit
[link] [comments]

Statically Typed Functional Programming with Python 3.12

Statically Typed Functional Programming with Python 3.12

Oskar Wickström builds a simple expression evaluator that demonstrates some new patterns enabled by Python 3.12, incorporating the match operator, generic types and type aliases.

Via Lobste.rs

Why Google’s AI might recommend you mix glue into your pizza

Why Google’s AI might recommend you mix glue into your pizza

I got “distrust and verify” as advice on using LLMs into this Washington Post piece by Shira Ovide.

Golden Gate Claude

Golden Gate Claude

This is absurdly fun and weird. Anthropic's recent LLM interpretability research gave them the ability to locate features within the opaque blob of their Sonnet model and boost the weight of those features during inference.

For a limited time only they're serving a "Golden Gate Claude" model which has the feature for the Golden Gate Bridge boosted. No matter what question you ask it the Golden Gate Bridge is likely to be involved in the answer in some way. Click the little bridge icon in the Claude UI to give it a go.

I asked for names for a pet pelican and the first one it offered was this:

Golden Gate - This iconic bridge name would be a fitting moniker for the pelican with its striking orange color and beautiful suspension cables.

And from a recipe for chocolate covered pretzels:

Gently wipe any fog away and pour the warm chocolate mixture over the bridge/brick combination. Allow to air dry, and the bridge will remain accessible for pedestrians to walk along it.

UPDATE: I think the experimental model is no longer available, approximately 24 hours after release. We'll miss you, Golden Gate Claude.

Nilay Patel reports a hallucinated ChatGPT summary of his own article

Nilay Patel reports a hallucinated ChatGPT summary of his own article

Here's a ChatGPT bug that's a new twist on the old issue where it would hallucinate the contents of a web page based on the URL.

The Verge editor Nilay Patel asked for a summary of one of his own articles, pasting in the URL.

ChatGPT 4o replied with an entirely invented summary full of hallucinated details.

It turns out The Verge blocks ChatGPT's browse mode from accessing their site in their robots.txt:

User-agent: ChatGPT-User
Disallow: /

Clearly ChatGPT should reply that it is unable to access the provided URL, rather than inventing a response that guesses at the contents!

Via Gemini is the new Google+

Quoting Scott Jenson

I just left Google last month. The "AI Projects" I was working on were poorly motivated and driven by this panic that as long as it had "AI" in it, it would be great. This myopia is NOT something driven by a user need. It is a stone cold panic that they are getting left behind.

The vision is that there will be a Tony Stark like Jarvis assistant in your phone that locks you into their ecosystem so hard that you'll never leave. That vision is pure catnip. The fear is that they can't afford to let someone else get there first.

Scott Jenson

Quoting Nivia Henry

The leader of a team - especially a senior one - is rarely ever the smartest, the most expert or even the most experienced.

Often it’s the person who can best understand individuals’ motivations and galvanize them towards an outcome, all while helping them stay cohesive.

Nivia Henry

Some goofy results from ‘AI Overviews’ in Google Search

Some goofy results from ‘AI Overviews’ in Google Search

John Gruber collects two of the best examples of Google’s new AI overviews going horribly wrong.

Gullibility is a fundamental trait of all LLMs, and Google’s new feature apparently doesn’t know not to parrot ideas it picked up from articles in the Onion, or jokes from Reddit.

I’ve heard that LLM providers internally talk about “screenshot attacks”—bugs where the biggest risk is that someone will take an embarrassing screenshot.

In Google search’s case this class of bug feels like a significant reputational threat.

Quoting Molly White

But increasingly, I’m worried that attempts to crack down on the cryptocurrency industry — scummy though it may be — may result in overall weakening of financial privacy, and may hurt vulnerable people the most. As they say, “hard cases make bad law”.

Molly White

A Grand Unified Theory of the AI Hype Cycle

A Grand Unified Theory of the AI Hype Cycle

Glyph outlines the pattern of every AI hype cycle since the 1960s: a new, novel mechanism is discovered and named. People get excited, and non-practitioners start hyping it as the path to true “AI”. It eventually becomes apparent that this is not the case, even while practitioners quietly incorporate this new technology into useful applications while downplaying the “AI” branding. A new mechanism is discovered and the cycle repeats.

Quoting Will Larson

The most effective mechanism I’ve found for rolling out No Wrong Door is initiating three-way conversations when asked questions. If someone direct messages me a question, then I will start a thread with the question asker, myself, and the person I believe is the correct recipient for the question. This is particularly effective because it’s a viral approach: rolling out No Wrong Door just requires any one of the three participants to adopt the approach.

Will Larson

What is prompt optimization?

What is prompt optimization?

Delightfully clear explanation of a simple automated prompt optimization strategy from Jason Liu. Gather a selection of examples and build an evaluation function to return a numeric score (the hard bit). Then try different shuffled subsets of those examples in your prompt and look for the example collection that provides the highest averaged score.

Via @jxnlco

Quoting D. Richard Hipp, 18 years ago

The default prefix used to be "sqlite_". But then Mcafee started using SQLite in their anti-virus product and it started putting files with the "sqlite" name in the c:/temp folder. This annoyed many windows users. Those users would then do a Google search for "sqlite", find the telephone numbers of the developers and call to wake them up at night and complain. For this reason, the default name prefix is changed to be "sqlite" spelled backwards.

D. Richard Hipp, 18 years ago

Mastering LLMs: A Conference For Developers & Data Scientists

Mastering LLMs: A Conference For Developers & Data Scientists

I’m speaking at this 5-week (maybe soon 6-week) long online conference about LLMs, presenting about “LLMs on the command line”.

Other speakers include Jeremy Howard, Sophia Yang from Mistral, Wing Lian of Axolotl, Jason Liu of Instructor, Paige Bailey from Google, my former co-worker John Berryman and a growing number of fascinating LLM practitioners.

It’s been fun watching this grow from a short course on fine-tuning LLMs to a full-blown multi-week conference over the past few days!

Via @hugobowne

New Phi-3 models: small, medium and vision

New Phi-3 models: small, medium and vision

I couldn't find a good official announcement post to link to about these three newly released models, but this post on LocalLLaMA on Reddit has them in one place: Phi-3 small (7B), Phi-3 medium (14B) and Phi-3 vision (4.2B) (the previously released model was Phi-3 mini - 3.8B).

You can try out the vision model directly here, no login required. It didn't do a great job with my first test image though, hallucinating the text.

As with Mini these are all released under an MIT license.

UPDATE: Here's a page from the newly published Phi-3 Cookbook describing the models in the family.

Scaling Monosemanticity: Extracting Interpretable Features from Claude 3 Sonnet

Scaling Monosemanticity: Extracting Interpretable Features from Claude 3 Sonnet

Big advances in the field of LLM interpretability from Anthropic, who managed to extract millions of understandable features from their production Claude 3 Sonnet model (the mid-point between the inexpensive Haiku and the GPT-4-class Opus).

Some delightful snippets in here such as this one:

We also find a variety of features related to sycophancy, such as an empathy / “yeah, me too” feature 34M/19922975, a sycophantic praise feature 1M/847723, and a sarcastic praise feature 34M/19415708.

Via Hacker News

The Cloud Is Just My Basement's Computers

I've had many different development platforms over the years - from Notepad++ on library computers in my youth, to Gentoo and then Ubuntu installed on a series of carefully-chosen laptops with working drivers, and then for the last five years or so on Surface devices via the rather wonderful Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL).

Of course, in the WSL era I am still just running Ubuntu, but inside the pseudo-VM that is the WSL subsystem of the Windows kernel. It's honestly pretty great, and I regularly joke that I'm using Windows as the GUI layer to develop on Linux.

Between the Steam Deck and WSL both being ascendant, maybe we finally got the Year Of Linux On The Desktop, just not as we expected.

...

Life-Critical Side Projects

TLDR: I am looking for new developers and maintainers for Takahē who want to help in exchange for my mentorship, or I'll have to sunset the project.

I find it important to have hobbies that aren't the same as what I do for work, which is why an increasing number of them don't involve computers at all - I'm very happy building new things on my camper van, making weird geographic art, or hiking around bits of the Rockies.

However, I still love programming and systems work, and I'll always have at least one project going on the side that involves it - nothing beats the size and complexity of what you can create in just a few hours of coding. That said, I have two basic rules for my programming side projects:

...

I am, approximately, here

There are many questionable things about American car culture, but the road trip is not one of them. In a country as large and geographically varied as the USA, road travel is not just a necessity, but it can also be the attraction itself.

When I first moved to the USA, I had vague plans of doing some driving around and enjoying the sheer alien-ness of tiny towns in the middle of nowhere, or motels where you are somehow the only guest. Nine years in, I've done a decent amount of that, but these days my attention is more focused around the camper van that I spent half a year building.

I like to try and share a bit of the experience with those who want to see it, and as well as posting pictures and videos, I've always liked the idea of having a live map of where I am - even if it's just for friends and relatives who are interested in my progress.

...

A Takahē refactor, as a treat

I had taken two months off from developing Takahē in the run up to PyCon US; both due to pressures at work (and then, more recently, half the company being laid off around me), as well as not quite being sure what I wanted to build, exactly.

When I started the project, my main goal was to show that multi-domain support for a single ActivityPub server was possible; once I had achieved that relatively early on, I sort of fell down the default path of implementing a lightweight clone of Mastodon/Twitter.

While this was good in terms of developing out the features we needed, it always felt a bit like overhead I didn't really want; after all, if you're implementing the Mastodon API like we do, all the dedicated apps for viewing timelines and posting are always going to be better than what you ship with a server.

...

Takahē 0.7

Today is the 0.7 release of Takahē, and things are really humming along now; this release marks the point where we've built enough moderation and community features to make me happy that I can open up takahe.social to registrations, albeit with a user number cap.

We've also launched a Patreon for Takahē, in a quest to make development and operation of Takahē more sustainable - and work towards start paying some people to help out with the less exciting work like triaging tickets, user support, and moderation of takahe.social. If you want to volunteer directly, that's covered in our Contributing docs.

There's some interesting technical topics I want to dig into today, though - it's been a little while since my last blog post and ActivityPub and friends continue to surprise.

...

Understanding A Protocol

Yesterday I pushed out the 0.5.0 release of Takahē, and while there's plenty left to do, this release is somewhat of a milestone in its own right, as it essentially marks the point where I've implemented enough of ActivityPub to shift focus.

With the implementation of image posting in this release, there are now only a few things left at a protocol level that I know I'm missing:

Custom emoji (these are custom per-server and a mapping of name-to-image comes with each post)

...

Takahē 0.3.0

So, after a few weeks of development, I'm happy enough with the state of Takahē to issue its first official release - which I've chosen to number 0.3.0, because version numbers are made up and I can start where I want.

We're only releasing Docker images right now in order to try and keep the support burden down (it removes having to worry about people's OS versions and library environments), so you can find it on Docker Hub.

A screenshot of Takahē

...

Twitter, ActivityPub and The Future

Twitter is - was - such a unique place. Somewhere where you can have the President of the United States coexist with teenagers writing fan fiction; where celebrities give personal insights into their lives while government departments post memes about public safety; the place that gave us @Horse_ebooks and @dril.

The "Fediverse", with Mastodon at its helm, is not this. It doesn't seem to want to be, and I honestly think that's fine - as many thinkpieces have recently said, the age of global social media might just be over. And given the effect it's had on the world, maybe that's alright after all.

But there is still a void to fill, and as someone who enjoyed Twitter most at its "medium" size, I think the ActivityPub ecosystem is well-placed to grow into such a space. But first, I think there's some important things we have to discuss about it.

...

Takahē: A New ActivityPub Server

When I decided to properly start using the Fediverse via my own Mastodon server, I knew it was probably inevitable that I would end up writing my own server - and, well, here we are!

My new server is called Takahē, and it's built in Django and also specifically with Python's async library ecosystem - I'll explain more about why that matters later.

A screenshot of Takahe

...

Static-Dynamic Content With In-Memory SQLite

This website has been running in some form since 2006, and back then it was one of my very first Django sites, stored in a Subversion respository and using the thrillingly new Python 2.5.

I can't actually remember if it was the very first thing I built in Django, but I think it might have been.

It was a very basic CMS built out of the standard building blocks Django is still known for - the admin, forms, and easy templating. It stayed like that for many years, with me authoring blog posts via a somewhat-custom markup language in a big text box in the Django Admin.

...

I Fight For The Users

By Jeff Atwood

If you haven't been able to keep up with my blistering pace of one blog post per year, I don't blame you. There's a lot going on right now. It's a busy time. But let's pause and take a moment

The 2030 Self-Driving Car Bet

By Jeff Atwood

It's my honor to announce that John Carmack and I have initiated a friendly bet of $10,000* to the 501(c)(3) charity of the winner’s choice:

By January 1st, 2030, completely autonomous self-driving cars meeting SAE J3016 level 5 will be commercially available for

Updating The Single Most Influential Book of the BASIC Era

By Jeff Atwood

In a way, these two books are responsible for my entire professional career.

alt

With early computers, you didn't boot up to a fancy schmancy desktop, or a screen full of apps you could easily poke and prod with your finger. No, those computers booted up to the command

Building a PC, Part IX: Downsizing

By Jeff Atwood

Hard to believe that I've had the same PC case since 2011, and my last serious upgrade was in 2015. I guess that's yet another sign that the PC is over, because PC upgrades have gotten really boring. It took 5 years for me to muster

The Rise of the Electric Scooter

By Jeff Atwood

In an electric car, the (enormous) battery is a major part of the price. If electric car prices are decreasing, battery costs must be decreasing, because it's not like the cost of fabricating rubber, aluminum, glass, and steel into car shapes can decline that much, right?

ev-battery-costs

On an

Electric Geek Transportation Systems

By Jeff Atwood

I've never thought of myself as a "car person". The last new car I bought (and in fact, now that I think about it, the first new car I ever bought) was the quirky 1998 Ford Contour SVT. Since then we bought a VW station wagon

An Exercise Program for the Fat Web

By Jeff Atwood

When I wrote about App-pocalypse Now in 2014, I implied the future still belonged to the web. And it does. But it's also true that the web has changed a lot in the last 10 years, much less the last 20 or 30.

fat city

Websites have gotten a lot

The Cloud Is Just Someone Else's Computer

By Jeff Atwood

When we started Discourse in 2013, our server requirements were high:

I'm not talking about a cheapo shared cpanel server, either, I mean a dedicated virtual private server with those specifications.

We were OK

What does Stack Overflow want to be when it grows up?

By Jeff Atwood

I sometimes get asked by regular people in the actual real world what it is that I do for a living, and here's my 15 second answer:

We built a sort of Wikipedia website for computer programmers to post questions and answers. It's called Stack Overflow

There is no longer any such thing as Computer Security

By Jeff Atwood

Remember "cybersecurity"?

its-cybersecurity-yay

Mysterious hooded computer guys doing mysterious hooded computer guy .. things! Who knows what kind of naughty digital mischief they might be up to?

Unfortunately, we now live in a world where this kind of digital mischief is literally rewriting the world's history. For proof

To Serve Man, with Software

By Jeff Atwood

I didn't choose to be a programmer. Somehow, it seemed, the computers chose me. For a long time, that was fine, that was enough; that was all I needed. But along the way I never felt that being a programmer was this unambiguously great-for-everyone career field with zero

The Existential Terror of Battle Royale

By Jeff Atwood

It's been a while since I wrote a blog post, I guess in general, but also a blog post about video games. Video games are probably the single thing most attributable to my career as a programmer, and everything else I've done professionally after that. I

Hacker, Hack Thyself

By Jeff Atwood

We've read so many sad stories about communities that were fatally compromised or destroyed due to security exploits. We took that lesson to heart when we founded the Discourse project; we endeavor to build open source software that is secure and safe for communities by default, even if

Thunderbolting Your Video Card

By Jeff Atwood

When I wrote about The Golden Age of x86 Gaming, I implied that, in the future, it might be an interesting, albeit expensive, idea to upgrade your video card via an external Thunderbolt 3 enclosure.

alt

I'm here to report that the future is now.

Yes, that's

Password Rules Are Bullshit

By Jeff Atwood

Of the many, many, many bad things about passwords, you know what the worst is? Password rules.

A roundup

By [email protected] (Jon North)


 Sometimes there are carpets of poppies everywhere, this year fewer but this field right next to our car servicing garage kept catching my eye and I caught it just in time while Mary booked the car in for its service.  This post will be a bit of a roundup of things I have posted on Facebook.

A while back I wrote about the plight of migrants and someone thought I might have been referring to our situation.  Of course not - we are incrdibly lucky to have landed on our feet after Brexit thanks to a very fair-minded French government and bureaucracy.  But I am ever more angry and concerned about people who have gone through unimaginable hardships to reach France and the UK, and then find in the UK at least that they are vilified and stranded.  I have been reading the various writings of Sathnam  Sanghera whose disssection of Britains imperial past is trenchant.

His autobiographical The boy with the topknot is among other things a powerful reflection on mental illness in his family; our own experienceshave echos here, and among other things his description of the slow realisation that things are wrong, attempting to rationalise the painful, is something we have known.  I have been fascinated also to see a bit from the inside the experiences of Sikh immigrants to Britain and their cultural context, including marriage exepctations and the complex place of women in his stories.  His novel Marriage material is an excellent read.

Before I pass on to lighter topics, the ongoing inhumaanity of the various refugee themes in the news is not the only awful and distressing thing we hear of and read about daily - the plight of British subpost-people wrongly prosecuted by the Post Office because of long-denied computer problems, the infected blood scandal or the plight of carers forced to pay back benefit overpayments (this links closely to my lontime work with carers through Crossroads) and the ongoing inhumanity around post-war immigrants (from the Windrush etc.) are only somr examples of things which should havce been sorted out long ago but have been swept under bureauratic carpets again and again.  I have often said that Dickens and his Circumlocution Office (in Little Dorrit) seem still  alive and well.  Apart from deliberate inhumanity, there are plenty of ways of mistreating people through shoulder-shrugging neglect - Dickens' "nobody knew" is classic now as then.

Our houshold chugs on, looking forward to a family visit here in a fortnight.  We are daily grateful for Edmond's liveliness at the age of 15!  After a thorough overhaulof the roof, more complex than we had expected, our friendly factotum M.Beaumann has continued his care of our premises with a splendid cleanup of yard and terrace and is now starting on a new front fence.  IN the caourse of this he has discovered some very ancient (well, as old as the house, around 50 years) mains electrical wiring which is still all too live.  A better casing and leaving well alone are the answers.  And our lawnmower is finally going to be cordless!

Lots of my Facebook posts are links to photos published daily in the Guardian, plus th odd cartoon that takes my fancy.  Also photos from French places we know well - the area around the Pic Saint Loup, other parts of our local Languedoc, and the Drôme where our old twin town Die is located, for example.

A night shot of the Pic Saint Loup with boar passing by
by an excellent local photographer, Régis Domergue

Although we have limited opportunity to watch sport on tv (Mary andn I are both gravitating more to radio and podcasts these days - for her it makes knitting easier!) we follow football and cycling keenly at least by results and reports, and I am fascinated to see that Liverpool have appointed another monosyllabic manager, Mr Slot (Arne), to replace the excellent Klopp (Jürgen).

Our language groups (reading and speaking in French with some French people trying their English) continue twice a week, with often excellent shared lunches thrown in - as the weather warms up we can start to  eat outside.

             

We read a lot - among authors we both enjoy are Eva Ibbotson, whose romantic novels with strong links to her Austrian background are beautifully written and full of well-observed characters; and an old favourite, Sara Paretsky whose V.I.Warshawski novels set in Chicago and around.  Sara Paretsky is an avid campaigner for women, and her fearless public profile is simply admirable.

To end, a cartoon and another poppy




Sagas all round

By [email protected] (Jon North)


Sagas have been on my mind in several ways since Easter.  But first, exciting times in the tortoise world.  We were given a new (to us) young one a few weeks ago, and he had been living in a cage inside until the weather warmed.  It has now done so and today the larger tortoise emerged from its hibernation in the enclosure in the garden.  I thought its was a lump of mud at first bat, as you can see, it has scrubbed up nicely and the younger one has joined it in the paddock!




The first saga has been of the literary kind, the Forsytes which have occupied our dvd viewing and my re-reading for the first part of the year.  My name, Jon, was chosen by my dad (who was emotionally attached to the books) because of the young man Jon, the youngest Jolyon of the family.  I think my father was rather muddled because he also professed an admiration for the 'man of property' epitomised by Soames who was on the 'other side' of the family.  Never mind, the story was worth reading again, and the two tv productions  are both good in theier different ways.   But the third part of the 9 volumes, going up almost to Galsworthy's death in the early 1930s, were never dramatised as far as I know and I like them even better than the Victorian and Edwardian ones - a much more nuanced examination of love and marriage, with a dramatic view of mental illness thrown in.


Two less welcome 'sagas' lately have been to do with roof and health, both happily resolved.  You'll recall perhaps that the roof was repaired last year by a firm which promised excellence and, as we thought, delivered it.  It turned out that what they did not do was the issue - first neglecting to tell us of very old insulation which we've now had replaced, and secondly failing to fix any but the end tile in a whole ridge.  Of course we could have no idea that there were problems - in the second case the rattling of tiles in the wind (after a long period of fairly calm weather) told us sometehing was amiss; and luckily our regular house and garden person Monsieur Beaumann was able to sort both.  It turns out that he has long been a roof specialist - if only we had known...

Our conversation groups still active, with new arrivals from Chicago




The health saga is not, for once, my various aches and pains but the long-running one of Mary's heart and blood (since a minor stroke in 2010), very well surveyed but needing careful supervision.  Not for the first time we have been glad of the very local A&E hospital, all built since we came here.  In the past week the care has involved feeet up and suppport stockings which are too hot for comfort when the weather warms up.

The warm srping is a lovely time for flowers, so here are a few more from our garden.






And finally a word of praise for one of the few bits of the British administration that actually seems to work.  With luck and a following wind my new passport should arrive soon, and like Mary's it was efficiently and quickly dealt with despite Brexit horror stories elsewhere.






 

Springtime with rain

By [email protected] (Jon North)

I have written before about the dry conditions here.  But when it rains it really does.  Last week we had 60 mm in a few hours, and another 40 at the weekend, but this morning we are back to bright sunshine and blue skies.  The photo above was taken a few days ago, a pink evening sky which we see quite often.


We have been a bit concerned about Edmond, 14 years old and with dodgy kidneys.  But we've just returned from the vet, and all seems to be fairly well after a blood test and with a bit more diuretic - desmite occasional wheezes, he is lively and has put on a bit of weight.  We hope he will be with us for a little whhile yet.

After our trips to the UK we have mostly stayed home and slotted back into our regular activities.  These photos of our regular Tuesday French conversation group were taken by someone elsse for once, so I'm in one or two!

After a good excursion on DVD into the works of Mrs Gaskell we have passed onto John Galsworthy, not just through 2 tv series of the Forsyte Saga but, for me, rereading the books.  I started on the paper versions but have passed over to the Kindle (lighter to hold in bed).  The Forsytes have a particular association for me because I was called after Jon, son of young Jolyon F.  My father pretended to admire the 'Man of Propeerty' characterised by Soames but much about Dad seems to me to have been nearer the softer, more emotional other side of the family, the Jolyons and their ilk.  Rereading for the 4th or 5th time I find much in the detail of the written version which can only be hinted at in a tv adaptation, and in the end it is the characters of Soames and his daughter Fleur which dominate the first 6 of the 9 books in the saga.  Of the final 3, which are far less well-known, I may write more anon.

Since we returned from the UK for the second time this year, we had one very enjoyable outing to see our friend Barry who lives in these rural surroundings in the area called the Laurargais south-east of Toulouse.  Barry is South African in origin but had long re-acclimatised to England where I met him in the Canonbury Chamber Choir in the 1970s.  He and his partner Peter (now sadly no longer alive) moved to France with their interest in antiques, and the house is a living reminder of those interests.  

A few garden pittures to end with.  Spring is with us, and the clocks go forward this weekend.





Home and more or less in good shape

By [email protected] (Jon North)

 

The light greeting our return

It is lovely to be back in the bright, light Languedoc.  Don't get me wrong, we had a very good trip (apart from the first few hours when the motorways here were closed by prefectoral decree, because of farmers' protests - 5 hours to get near Lyon then a speeding fine for going 8 km/hr too fast in our relief at escaping the jams).  We spent excellent days with our family, saw interesting things and ate and drank well.  Our return trip, despite threats of farmers' blockages) was calm and trouble-free.  We have established a simple, untiring driving routine, turn and turn about at the wheel with short breaks for fuel and snacks, and the hotels we used were convenient and reasonably comfortable.  

But on return our  wifi was (literally) on the blink, and we waited 3 days for the engineer to arrive.  The new world of telephones, internet, tv and radio has changed everyting.  Like most people, a few years ago we had a fixed telephone line through which an adequate internet connection could be made.  Then fibre arrived, and everything became much faster.  Above all, the internet require more and more capacity to keeep up with graphics and so on.  Now, everything comes in theory through the fibre-optic cable, much faster - if it works.  If not, there is no longer a fixed phone line, no internet and only the old tv signals via the aerial (if they work at all - I have not checked).  The tv satellite dish no longer works for British tv.  I am a sad old geezer who has not taken on board the brave new world of mobile phones which our children and theirs swear by.  For one thing the screens are too small - I love my iPad and computer whhich my old eyes can read.  And of course, we pay for the service we are not getting.

Goodbye to Jeff and Fi at the end of a marvellous week together

Since I started to write this a very helpful man arrived, fixed up our internet and left before we had a chance to make sure our phone line was working.  It was not and is not.  So now we decide whether to abandon our 'landline' phones and tell everyone to call on our mobiles, or try to get things straight  for the time being it's the mobiles or nowt.  Watch this space, as they say.  Above all,  do not phone 04 67 85 52 12 - you may leave a message which is never heard.

Until we arrived home, the only shock of our return trip was seeing the appalling mess strewn across the roundabout as we left the A9 here  for the main N113 road.  At the risk of being a serial moaner, I was shocked by the piles of rubbish left behind by the protestors.  I think we have always been in favour of fair prices for farmers - we enjoy good food and have the privilege to be able to pay for it.  So I support the agriculteurs in their demands for better conditions, and for proper rewards for local produce rather than cheap imports.  we love our local greengrocer who knows his local growers personally and guarantees freshness.  I just cannot understand why protestors should not clear up their mess.  We saw the final traces being bulldozed and shovelled away as we drove around yeterday, presumably a week or more since the first demos.  A lot of work for people not at all involved in the original  protests.



Anyway, this blog was among other things a way of sharing the odd notes I post on Facebook most days with you who do not use that dodgy medium.  Here are a few recent ones.   Letter to the Guardian: “I am grateful to His Maj for his encouragement to men to have the check (King Charles ‘doing well’ after prostate treatment, 26 January). I visited my GP and was examined, blood-tested and referred to my local NHS hospital in March 2022. I have now waited 22 months for an appointment. And waited etc. Of what exactly is he an example? (John Dinning, Cardiff)”

Another letter to the Guardian: ”Your article on a reproduction of the Bayeux tapestry (29 January) should have mentioned the copy in Reading Museum, sewn by 35 women from Leek in the 19th century. It’s beautifully exhibited in the lovely town hall, with free entry. (Plus older Londoners can travel there on their Freedom Pass on the Elizabeth line.) A great day out. (Rosie Boughton, London)”

And part of yet another letter to the Guardian, which rings strong bells: “…the huge issue for me, and many other drivers according to recent RAC research, is the dangerous dazzling effect of higher, brighter LED lights. I am an older driver, and acknowledge this is likely to impact on my night driving, but my optician has assured me that it’s not me, it’s the cars. I find night-time driving, if there is a lot of oncoming traffic, utterly terrifying, and feel trapped at home on winter evenings. It’s time for a close analysis of accidents attributed to dazzle, and legislation to ensure the safest possible headlight design and position. (Sheila Hutchins,Tregony, Cornwall)”


This on my mind very often: the face of local decline and fall. “Many councils are barely able to carry out their statutory and growing responsibilities in adult and child social care, let alone engage in the kind of “discretionary” spending that enhances the life of their communities. Last week, facing a rebellion by Conservative MPs fearful of further cuts in an election year, Mr Gove made an extra £600m available to local authorities. Useful but nowhere near enough.” The sign of timid, scared central government is to keep ever tighter central control over local spending.

Then, Jurgen Klopp is retiring as Liverpool manager - what a loss, but we all get older - he certainly deserves the rest of his life.  And Nottingham is among many local councils nearing bankruptcy - how can this be alowed to happen?



Photos from our travels

By [email protected] (Jon North)

More from our UK trip this week, at the Yorkshire Sculpture Parrk and in Uttoxeter


















Travellers' tales

By [email protected] (Jon North)

We are in the UK for the second time since Christmas, this time visiting Jeff and Fi in their new home in Uttoxeter. Like the first trip to Sam and Sas in Wirksworth, over new year, we are driving which has all sorts of advantages. However, this time things are complicated by the French farmers' protests. We set out from Lunel at 7.30 a.m. last Wednesday, but what should have been a quick 2-3 hours' journey to Lyon turned into 9 hours, and we eventually arived at our hotel in Cambrai around 9.30 in the evening (original plan, before 5 and in daylight - we are frequently caught driving after dark however much we try to plan to avoid it). 

Most of the motorway closures were officially organised by the Préfectures, so we drove most of the way south of Lyon on routes nationales, interesting but much slower. After that we just trundled on fairly empty motorways, but continuing on Thursday we were held up again by closures even on the short stretch to Calais and the tunnel. But there was no major holdup and we arrived at our friends Elizabeth & Nigel in good time, well tucked away in rural Surrey. 

 Despite the tedium of the Wednesday morning journey we were glad to get a different perspective and view of the northern Rhône vineyards around Crozes Hermitage whhich we have known for many years on occasional visits. Later on the town of Cambrai seemed interesting, with a splendid redbrick railway station just opposite our hotel - we resolved to exlor in the future when less pressed by travel unknowns. And the hotel itself was, as we found out on our earlier visit, very comfortable and friendly, with an excellent and welcome range of bar snacks to make up for the lack of a full meal. 

We have gravitated towards the Logis de France chain over many years because it always welcomes pets, and although we left our current dog Edmond in kennels on these trips the familiar ambience still attracts us. The farmers' protests look likely to continue, and we don't know if we'll be delayed on the way home next weekend. But luckily we have plenty of time. 

Our first day was delayed by official motorway closures, but more often the hold-ups are caused by long slow queues of tractors, one of which we saw heading south as we set out for Calais on Thursday. Shortly after that the authorities closed the A26 motorway for a short stretch, but we had a short journey and good alternative routes to the Tunnel. So after out overnight with friends on Thursday we drove at a leisurely pace to our home for the week in Uttoxeter, where we are very comfortably housed by Jeff and Fi who find a bit of time for us despite their busy working lives. We saw Sam, Sas and Ben for lunch on Sunday and shall see other friends and visit Wirksworth again before we leave for home at the end of the week.

 

Travellers' tales

By Jon North ([email protected])

We are in the UK for the second time since Christmas, this time visiting Jeff and Fi in their new home in Uttoxeter. Like the first trip to Sam and Sas in Wirksworth, over new year, we are driving which has all sorts of advantages. However, this time things are complicated by the French farmers' protests. We set out from Lunel at 7.30 a.m. last Wednesday, but what should have been a quick 2-3 hours' journey to Lyon turned into 9 hours, and we eventually arived at our hotel in Cambrai around 9.30 in the evening (original plan, before 5 and in daylight - we are frequently caught driving after dark however much we try to plan to avoid it). 

Most of the motorway closures were officially organised by the Préfectures, so we drove most of the way south of Lyon on routes nationales, interesting but much slower. After that we just trundled on fairly empty motorways, but continuing on Thursday we were held up again by closures even on the short stretch to Calais and the tunnel. But there was no major holdup and we arrived at our friends Elizabeth & Nigel in good time, well tucked away in rural Surrey. 

 Despite the tedium of the Wednesday morning journey we were glad to get a different perspective and view of the northern Rhône vineyards around Crozes Hermitage whhich we have known for many years on occasional visits. Later on the town of Cambrai seemed interesting, with a splendid redbrick railway station just opposite our hotel - we resolved to exlor in the future when less pressed by travel unknowns. And the hotel itself was, as we found out on our earlier visit, very comfortable and friendly, with an excellent and welcome range of bar snacks to make up for the lack of a full meal. 

We have gravitated towards the Logis de France chain over many years because it always welcomes pets, and although we left our current dog Edmond in kennels on these trips the familiar ambience still attracts us. The farmers' protests look likely to continue, and we don't know if we'll be delayed on the way home next weekend. But luckily we have plenty of time. 

Our first day was delayed by official motorway closures, but more often the hold-ups are caused by long slow queues of tractors, one of which we saw heading south as we set out for Calais on Thursday. Shortly after that the authorities closed the A26 motorway for a short stretch, but we had a short journey and good alternative routes to the Tunnel. So after out overnight with friends on Thursday we drove at a leisurely pace to our home for the week in Uttoxeter, where we are very comfortably housed by Jeff and Fi who find a bit of time for us despite their busy working lives. We saw Sam, Sas and Ben for lunch on Sunday and shall see other friends and visit Wirksworth again before we leave for home at the end of the week.

A new year with wine - a post for everyone, not just wine buffs!

By Jon North ([email protected])

Solutré, near Macon

Some of my friends are not really interested in wine and tend to skip these blog posts.  So before you  do that this time I will just add a note about the fascination for me apart from the stuff in the bottle or glass.  As you  can see from the photos, scenery is one of the many attractions.

 

Châtillon-en-Diois
 

 Wine exploration has shaped our visits to France ever since we started regular trips here 30 years ago.  If you look at the map of France, relatively small physical areas are taken up by vineyards, and you are much more likely to find yourself in logging forests or endless of cereals and grass, like the open horizons and rolling slopes of the northern plain we drove through on our way to England at the end of last year.

Beaujolais
 

But we hunt out the vineyards not just for nice wine but for the interesting people and scenery we discover, get to know and love.  I think of the beautiful villages just near us in Lunel or north of Montpellier around the Pic Saint Loup; or of the vineyards of the Entre Deux Mers area south of Bordeaux - the two 'seas' here are the rivers Garonne and Dordogne as the flow northwards to join together as the Gironde at Bordeaux; or of the cossetted iconic hilly  country of Beaujolais and the Côte d'Or in Burgundy and the breathtaking rocky beauty of the Rhône valley, whether near the great river at Condrieu and Crozes Hermitage just south of Lyon or, one of our favourite places, Beaumes de Venise tucked under the Dentelles de Montmirail, once best known for its fortified sweet muscat wines but now among the best red wine labels.

 

While I always liked wine, it was meeting people who were and are involved in making it that has captured our  attention.  Jean-Michel and Christine Jacob have just retired from their Hauts Côtes de Beaune vineyard and J-M will doubtless now have more time for his beautiful  art/sculpture, two pieces of which adorn our hallway.  Jean-Philippe Servières, our best local winemaker near Lunel, would probably like to retire, having had precious little chance of a holiday over the past 20 years; and Benoit Viot of the wonderfully-named Chemin des Rêves north of Montpellier has gone from small beginnings - we bought our first wines sitting in the kitchen in Grabels - to becoming president of the prestigious appellation Pic Saint Loup.  

 

We have got to know many other landscapes in the Languedoc, Rhône valley, the Diois (where twinning opened our interest in the Rhône Valley and beyond), or the wide variety of landscapes we have explored across the south - the wild hillls of the Corbières, coastal étangs around the Mediterranean where Picpoul de Pinet is produced, or tiny appellations with unusual grapes like Fronton north of Toulouse.  We discovered Seyssel in the far north of the Rhone valley towards Geneva thanks to musician friend and mentor Stéphane Fauth (and his wife Chantal whose cooking helped to 'oil' the many music courses we  shared).  And we have started to discover the Loire Valley, one of the longest river courses in France which always confused me because the river flows north a long way, just a short distance from the south-flowing Saone and Rhône, before turning left and west at Orleans towards the Atlantic; we got to know various bits of the river - Sancerre, the Touraine, a stretch towards Angers, on various drives south from different channel ports and thanks to good friends Sue and Ian who have a house south of Tours.


Fronton


New year's blog

By [email protected] (Jon North)

 


Our all-too-brief stay with Sam and family is over halfway through as I write - lovely and we shall miss them but the weather began - let's say - sub-optimal (grey and wet, though not cold).  But new year's day dawned with blue sky and sunshine.

Before we left home we indulged in Dickens DVDs, 2 sets of Little Dorritt, one excellent, the older dismal  (I once liked this version...), and then a surprisingly good Martin Chuzzlewit (Tom Wilkinson who played an excellent Pecksniff has just died).  The casts of all three are mostly outstanding, but the earlier Little Dorritt despite iconic actors like Alec Guinness and Derek Jacobi seemed wooden and stilted.  Not helped by a weird 2-part presentation which separated Amy's view from Arthur Clennam's.  Claire Foy's heroine is heaps better than Sarah Pickering, who seems to have done nothing else in film - Dickens writes a low-key character but not that low key.


I was encouraged by an Eng Lit friend to read most of Dickens on train journeys commuting to London, and still love the books - Mary came to them after she met me, and I remember buying a job-lot on £1 paperback classics to  round out our library.  Thinking over the whole series, the theme of financial insecurity and ruin, together with the vital importance of inheritance, is a strong common thread.  Dickens' father was in debt and spent months in the Marshalsea, so  CD knew of what he wrote.  Few punches pulled either - the suicide of Merdle with a penknife in Little Dorritt is memorable in book and on film.  But other books like Great Expectations - the title gives the game away -  Bleak House with its fog of law-courts, A Christmas Carol of course (we have just seen a DVD with the splendid Michael Hordern hamming it up), Our mutual friend with its heaps of valuable dust, all have money and greed at their centres.


In between whiles I have caught up with Ken Follett's latest Kingsbridge novel, this one skipping centuries forward to the  Napoleonic era, and yet another fictional rerunning of the battle of Waterloo.  The moments where a character tells another rather artificially the name of such and such a farmhouse or Quatrre Bras crossroads does jar slightly, but Follett like Bernard Cornwell has done his research, and Follett is respected enough to write about cathedral construction in the rebuilding of Notre Dame Paris just as Cornwell has written a decent factual account of Waterloo alongside the romantic version.  In my more idiotic moments I wonder how Sharpe, and a Follett hero, acting as adcs to Wellington might have bumped into one another!

We are having a great, relaxed family time here, and trying to live day by day before we drive back.  Having heard some of the awful horrors and knife-edge adventures of Sam & Sas's family holiday (they did ultimately have a good time with close friends) across the world we feel glad to have chosen more local, staid journeys, and in our own car.  It does of course strike us that the distances and complexities of air travel are inevitable when people fall in love with others from New Zealand or have great friends in the USA.  These things tend to conflict with environmental considerations.  But good plans tend to involve meeting family and friends in France, in spacious well-equipped gîtes as we did with Judi last summer.  Sam and I have been discussing areas of France to meet in, and in any case we plan to visit friends in Normandy in the summer.

This is to wish all our friends and family a hapy and healthy 2024.


Old year blog

By [email protected] (Jon North)


I'm writing this in Wirksworth where we're staying with family over the new year.  We spent a quiet Christmas at home before we left Edmond in our reliable kennels and drove to England.  We arrived on Thursday evening.

Musicians in Lunel last week

We'd decided to drive, and sharing turn and turn about that woekd well through the 1,000 km of France,  on Eurotunnel and up the M20, but the M25 was a crawling nightmare.  Once on the M40 we were fine again apart from rain squalls - the storms had passed or were further west and north - the M25 delay meant that we drove the familiar last miles in the dark, not as hoped or planned.  But we arrived safely at Sam's by 1800 and found Ed, Isla and Karen already installed in their nearby Airbnb.  On reflection the journey was a success - I think we shall be happy to drive that way again.

The Lunel sky we left behind     

When Jeff and Fi arrived a little later we were delighted -  our family was together; we all met up again yesterday for brunch and a mountain of presents.  Sadly Sas and Ben had bad colds and could not join us - fingers crossed that they will be better soon.




Mary with Ed and dog Maisie, Jeff, Fi, Isla, Heather and Karen



The roof, teeth and other less technical things

By [email protected] (Jon North)

 

Earlier this year I wrote about roof repairs.  Tiles replaced, tiles made secure, woodwork treated, well done if at some expense.  That led to two things.  One was the firm which did the work coming back for the first 'guarantee inspection' and of course recommending more work.  Of course, they had 'forgotten' to tell us things.  So the other, luckily, was that we discovered that our splendid factotum (gardener and general Mr Fix-it) Monsieur Beaumann is, perhaps first and foremost, someone who mends roofs.  If we'd realised thhis sooner we might have saved some money, but never mind, and better late than never.  He checked things over and found things the others missed.  He has now taken over all our roof needs, and has installed new insulation as well as removing mountains of pine needles which were apparently built as nests by rats.   Warmer and less rodent-ridden now!

Then there are my teeth, or what remain of them.  When I was about 10 some girls caused me to fall off a swing and break two front teeth.  After a few years of unsuccessful crowns and some pain, I had a dental plate that lasted over 30 years, then another fitted in France in an emergency over Christmas (when we discovered the efficiency of French health services), and now a new one is due.  The old method was to take an impression from the mouth with a kind of plasticene, but I discovered last week that this is old hat - everything is now scanned with a kind of glowing pen, and I should receive the result tomorrow.  The wonders of modern technology!

Our dog Edmond is in surprisingly good spirits at the age of 14 plus, and keeps us active getting up to give him breakfast and taking him for walks.  He does not seem to miss his twin sister Elvire, who died at Easter, and despite failing eyesight he's always at hand when his meal times arrive, and he still enjoys his evening walk with Mary.

We are looking forward to family visits over the winter, the first to Wirksworth for new year.  Apart from Sam and family we have several good friends there, and are kept in touch by regular mailings of Community Fayre, the amazingly longstanding community newppaper (which has just arrived by post).  Fewer and fewer things arrive in the letterbox - so much now is electronic - but another paper mailing just now has been the latest news from Médecins Sans Frontières, an absolutely admirable organisation engaged in relief work round the world.  There are so many good causes appealing for our support, and this seems to us as good as any recipient of our contributions.  A lovely watercolour shared on Faceboook reminds us of what we have to look forward to in Derbyshire.

Our reading in French continues twice a week with the splendid help of Danielle who corrects our pronunciation and explains French culture!  Mary reads a lot in French anyway, currently rereading the diaries of Edmond de Goncourt, while my serious reading is of British history in the long and detailed accounts of the British Emipre, One fine day by Matthew Parker.  This has fascinated me, starting as it does in the Pacific Islands and Arthur Grimble (whose stories, popular in the 1950s, were shared with us at school) and going on with the harrowing accounts of Amritsar.  The subequent topics, Malaya and Aftrica, are less familiar to me, but the sheer brazen brutality of the British in Kenya makes sobering reading.  "The Rev. Ryle Shaw, in a letter to the settler-supporting East Africa Standard, asked whether the British settlers should really be classed with ‘Asiatics imported for pick and shovel work’ who were ‘alien in mind, colour, religion, morality and practically all the qualities Europeans regard as necessary for constitutional citizenship’" is a mild example.  We have new book arrivals  in Christmas parcels (delights for the Day itself) just received from our friend Ruth in London whose failing sight and other difficulties never seem to deter her from thinking of us so generously.

The chaos of governments over immigration is not confined to the UK it seems: a report in the Guardian this week describes French indecision at its more rational but no less confused best:  "The French government has said it will push on with a planned immigration law in the face of a political crisis after opposition parties from the left to the far right refused to even debate it in parliament.  The president, Emmanuel Macron, and the centrist government were surprised... on Monday – the first time in 25 years that a government bill was rejected before even being debated by parliament.  The immigration bill is intended to show Macron can take tough measures on migration while keeping France's doors open to foreign workers who can help the economy.  But its contents have been rewritten several times, first toughened by the right-dominated senate, then partially unpicked by a parliamentary commission, resulting in ... fierce opposition.".

 

 There are no easy answers to world environmental problems either.  For example (from a recent article)

"This is a Tesla battery. It takes up all of the space under the passenger compartment of the car.  To manufacture it you need:
--12 tons of rock for Lithium
-- 5 tons of Cobalt minerals
-- 3 tons of mineral for nickel
-- 12 tons of copper ore

You must move 250 tons of soil to obtain:
-- 12 kg of Lithium, -- 30 pounds of nickel
-- 22 kg of manganese  -- 15 pounds of Cobalt

To manufacture the battery requires:
-- 100 Kg of RAM chips
-- 200 kg of aluminum, steel and/or plastic

The Caterpillar 994A is used for the earthmoving to obtain the essential minerals. It consumes 264 gallons of diesel in 12 hours.  Finally you get a “zero emissions” car.  Presently, the bulk of the necessary minerals for manufacturing the batteries come from China or Africa. Much of the labour for getting the minerals in Africa is done by children!  If we buy electric cars, it's China who profits most!  This 2021 Tesla OEM battery is currently for sale on the Internet for $4,99"

 

To finish, a sad song from Syria by a refugee

Take me to any country, leave me there, and forget all about me

Throw me in the middle of the sea, don’t look back, I have no other option

I am not leaving for fun, neither for a change of scenery

My house was bombed and destroyed; and the dust of rubbleblinded me

Let me try, no matter what, I am a human being

 Call it displacement or immigration … just forget about me

Christmas greetings and our best wishes for the new year to all our friends


 

 

 

 

End of November

By [email protected] (Jon North)

 


Well, we have seen Napoleon (the film..)  We do like our local 3-screen cinema, and the film did not seem too long.  But a bit boring partly because of drear dialogue.  It did have interest for us after a long period reading about that confusing period between the Revolution (other revolutions are available) and the mid-19th century - timeline of important events was well mapped out - and the battles were well-staged, but in the end they are battles and by definition confusing and noisy.  Josephine was well-acted despite the words she was given.  The music was bad to awful, and the credits at the end were simply endless - we gave up witing to see who played what music in case the cinema management locked us in!  Back home for a supper of M's delicious apple crumble.


 In my catalogue of aches and pains last time I did not mention the psychological effects.  Really it's all to do with not wanting to fall - I'm a bit too heavy and despite regular exercise I find getting up from the floor hard even when I am unshocked.  The result it shtat I love slowly and sometimes eem to shuffle just toe make sure I stay upright.  It is ironic - I used to stride out quite confidently, now Mary quite easily outpaces me, and I hold onto handrails a lot.   I am reminded of my father who always used to say going downhill was more difficult than climbing, and more recently I think of my brother Tom who also strode out before his final illness left him nearly immobile before his sad death.  Thankfully I am still realtively mobile and Mary is remarkably patient as we make our way round.

As you can see the autumn colours have been magnificent this November, with little wind yet to make the leaves fall.  We must make the most of plane trees,because what with road widening and disease a number are cut down every year.  A variety of alternatives are planted instead, but of course they take a long time to grow, which is a problem for sites like the Canal du Midi whose banks are largely denuded over long stretches.  Also in the centre of town (disease) which is being changed in all sorts of ways - we hope the efforts of the mayor and council to gee up the centre will be successful, though the supermarkets that ring the town militate against a certain commercial future.  Happily town centre commerce such as our excellenet greengrocers and the covered market Les Halles have an enduring place in local activity

 

 It is a quiet autumn for us all round, our tv watching has move on from the zany comedy with emotional asides, the American series Soap to the equally crazy but darker Twin Peaks.  Our DVD collection is being well used these darker evenings.  And we read a lot - one excellent discovery (thanks to Juliet who sent it to us) has been Lea Ypi's Free about her growing up in Albania - she is now a professor at LSE - which shed light on that very hidden country and society, emerging even more reluctantly than other communist states from the shadow of authoritarian rule.  It must seem as if the old evils might be preferable to some of the modern populist manifestations, but nobody really has any choice and where they do,  in place of rigged elections we now have mass voting for oppressive politicians, or control by gangsters as sems to have happened in Albania.  We met some really nice Albanians who have emigrated to France and are hav been takn under her wing by a marvellous French friend, older than us, who came on her annual visit to collect kakis (persimmons) from our tree.



Some of our regular activities have been going on week in week out since 2007, an amazing length of more or less continuous activity.  Our Tuesday French groups (some French people join us in separate sessions to improve their English as well as helping us with our French) has now extended to a second session for some of us French learners on Fridays, and the general pattern has settled into reading a text and then trying to translate bit by bit, a challenge for us all.  A good shared lunch always helps to round off the session.




 


Darker days

By [email protected] (Jon North)

seasonal table decoration at a friend's house

Neither Mary nor I really like driving after dark.  Sometimes we have no choice - people prefer to meet in the evenings and so on.  So yesterday when choir finished at 6 I had to drive home with headlights in my eyes, and various evening meetings will oblige both of us to do this.  Apparently most people don't mind - but brighter headlights and faster speeds make the thing more worrisome - so we do our best.  Planning our Christmas visits to family though, we plan to drive.  We can take our time, visit nice places, stay in comfortable hotels and eat good meals.  Mary particularly likes the egg sandwiches on the Eurostar tunnel crossing in the priority lounge!


The last health update needs a coda, partly for things I forgot, partly for things that are cropping up for the first time.  My dentist has had holidays over this half-term period, but eventually he will measure me for a new denture and take out a troublesome tooth.  Meanwhile, apart from sicatica and various stiffness round the legs, I am beginning to have moments of  pain in the hips.  Since I have had arthritis elsewhere it would not be surprising if hips started to play up.  I do know that hop replacements are simpler than knees, and usually successful, but I think I'll avoid further surgery as long as I can!

After the thrills of the rugby we are back to watching videos in the late evening.  We have more Montalbano to come when the newest DVDs arrive, but since Juliet's visit in the summer we have been catching up on the Camilleri books too.  The stories, in English translation or subtitles Italian videos, really repay a second (or maybe third) viewing.  Several of the tv episodes are taken from short stories I'm now reading.  In the end we understand at least some of the complex plots!  Now we have also returned to lighter viewing with the American series Soap which is often a spoof of itself, but with moments of intense emotion mixed with increasingly improbable plots.

Virginia creeper on our garage door


45 and counting

By [email protected] (Jon North)

 

at Wood Green Registry Office, 1978

Yesterday was our 45th wedding anniversary, another Saturday.  We celebrated today with a marvellous meal at the Ecailler des Beaux Arts in Montpellier.  It is a fish and seafood restaurant, not too far from the Med to make the oysters and other shellfish seem out of place - sadly none of thsoe for me since I don't want to tempt the violent reactions I've had a couple of times.  But many other kinds of fish and they certainly know how to cook it - Mary had sole and I rare-cooked tuna.  A lovely, sunny meal on the terrace.


45 marvellous years, attested by the ages and lives of our sons and their families, seems an impossibly long time, and details  blur, but so do even the details of the  last 17 which we've spent in France.  Before that we had spent a quarter of a century in Derbyshire, 3 different houses in Wirksworth, but I think this is the longest we've spent in one house.  Ideally houses would grow and shrink around your changing needs, but they are stubbornly inflexible, though bits wear out and need replacing or redecorating, while the gardens just grow and have to be cut back unless bits just die.  

our jasmine arch, sadly gone these past 2 years

The 17 years here have been accompanied by finding new friends (both French and fellow expats), much around the regular conversation groups we attend in various private houses twice a week through a network which has kept going in various forms since the mid 2000s.   We have a modest but active musical life for both of us, my work in and for the Montpellier English-language Library (now counting over 2,000 volumes) and a gentle getting-to-know this area and others in France with wine connections.  We were not dramatically affected by Covid and its restrictions because we continued to have a fairly quiet life (lots of reading and tv filling the gaps)

Our Friday conversation group  last week

This blog has returned from time to time to the subject of pain.  I remember writing a lot about it when my arthritic left knee was replaced in 2015.  Actually these days the multiple pains I have are not too bad - more arthritis, sciatica, a touch of gout (from uric acid, an occupational hazard of a wine drinker - my doctor keeps telling me water is better for me), and a weird hangover of the old knee replacement which is a cross between numbness and a diffuse kind of pain - repeated x-rays show the metal joint is still in place and working OK.  Oh, and intense itching which erupts at random on one leg or the other.  This is interesting - dermatologists keep wanting you to rub cream and so on into the skin, but having read a bit I know that this arises from neurological disturbance inside the body, not from the skin.  Ice packs help at night.  I keep gently exercising on my static bike and Mary enjoys her weekly Qi-gong sessions, and we are very well monitored by a variety of generalist and specialist medical services.

There is a lot more on my mind, not least random comments I make on Facebook which non-FB friends don't automatically see, and of course nobody has to read all this.  But watch this space...




Requiescat in pacem

By [email protected] (Jon North)

Actually I don't really believe in an afterlife, but I do believe in strong memories of people we have known and loved.  Today we are mourning the death of Polly, Shirley Jane Tatum, Polly Carton, my extraordinary colleague in the 1970s and friend from then till now.  We met when I was working in Friends House Library when she became warden of the building; colleagues, then I was her head of department for some years before she moved with Arlo in his new role as warden at the Coram Foundation.  By that time we and our families were firm friends and we benefitted for many years from her generosity in letting us enjoy holidays near the beach in Daymer Bay at her cottage, Angus.  Later she moved near daughter Jan and family to Bodmin.

Polly will be remembered for many things, among them the gardens - plants in the unpromising roof terrace by the flat in Friends House, and for the little garden between Euston Road and  Endsleigh Gardens which was a public thoroughfare as well as the entrance to Friends House itself.  She kept that in great shape partly despite and partly because of the pollution of Euston Road - aphids had a hard time beating the fumes...  Her gardens in Angus and then Bodmin were wonderful.  Then music (a passion she shared with Arlo) and table tennis (perhaps that also).  Until she died I think she was a very talented artist  - painter above all.  She could rattle away in Italian, as I am often reminded when we watch our favourite Montalbano.   She was an exceptional typist, a skill for which I was often thankful.  She was above all a passionate person, in championing right and justice;  and a steadfast friend.  She was a survivor, beating more than one heart crisis before it all caught up with her, and all with spirit, humour and fortitude.  How I will miss her as so many others will too.  Her memory will live on through her family, twins Jane and Sarah whom I have been privileged to know since they were 10, and their offspring.

Many other things on my mind, but they will have to wait.  This is for Pol.

A meal out in Padstow

future generations - 2 grandsons




ode to a faux grecian urn

Howdy everyone,

Today’s house, built in 2001, comes to you from, you guessed it, the Chicago suburbs. The house is a testimony to traditional craftsmanship and traditional values (having lots of money.) The cost of painting this house greige is approximately the GDP of Slovenia so the owners have decided to keep it period perfect (beige.) Anyway.

This 5 bedroom, 7.5 bathroom house clocks in at a completely reasonable 12,700 square feet. If you like hulking masses and all-tile interiors, it could be all yours for the reasonable price of $2.65 million.

The problem with having a house that is 12,700 square feet is that they have to go somewhere. At least 500 of them were devoted to this foyer. Despite the size, I consider this a rather cold and lackluster welcome. Cold feet anyone?

The theme of this house is, vaguely, “old stuff.” Kind of like if Chuck E Cheese did the sets for Spartacus. Why the dining room is on a platform is a good question. The answer: the American mind desires clearly demarcated space, which, sadly, is verboten in our culture.

The other problem with a 12,700 square foot house is that even huge furniture looks tiny in it.

Entering cheat codes in “Kitchen Building Sim 2000” because I spent my entire $70,000 budget on the island.

Of course, a second sitting room (without television) is warranted. Personally, speaking, I’m team Prince.

I wonder why rich people do this. Surely they must know it’s tacky right? That it’s giving Liberace? (Ask your parents, kids.) That it’s giving Art.com 75% off sale if you enter the code ROMANEMPIRE.

Something about the bathroom really just says “You know what, I give up. Who cares?” But this is not even the worst part of the bathroom…

Not gonna lie, this activates my flight or fight response.

If you remember Raggedy Ann you should probably schedule your first colonoscopy.

Anyways, that does it for the interior. Let’s take a nice peek at what’s out back.

I love mowing in a line. I love monomaniacal tasks that are lethal to gophers.

Alright, that does it for this edition of McMansion Hell. Back to the book mines for me. Bonus posts up on Patreon soon.

If you like this post and want more like it, support McMansion Hell on Patreon for as little as $1/month for access to great bonus content including a discord server, extra posts, and livestreams.

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Hello everyone! The word is out – I am writing a book!

Hello everyone! The word is out – I am writing a book!

If you ever wanted to read a book about McMansions, 5-over-1s, the ignoble toil of architects, ridiculous baubles for rich people, hostile architecture, private equity, shopping (rip), offices (rip), loud restaurants, and starchitects who behave like tech founders, this is the book for you!

Thank you all for your support throughout the years – without you this would not be possible. And don’t worry, I’ll still be blogging throughout it all, so stay tuned for this month’s post.

we’ve found it folks: mcmansion heaven

Hello everyone. It is my pleasure to bring you the greatest house I have ever seen. The house of a true visionary. A real ad-hocist. A genuine pioneer of fenestration. This house is in Alabama. It was built in 1980 and costs around $5 million. It is worth every penny. Perhaps more.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Come on, Kate, that’s a little kooky, but certainly it’s not McMansion Heaven. This is very much a house in the earthly realm. Purgatory. McMansion Purgatory.” Well, let me now play Beatrice to your Dante, young Pilgrim. Welcome. Welcome, welcome, welcome.

It is rare to find a house that has everything. A house that wills itself into Postmodernism yet remains unable to let go of the kookiest moments of the prior zeitgeist, the Bruce Goffs and Earthships, the commune houses built from car windshields, the seventies moments of psychedelic hippie fracture. It is everything. It has everything. It is theme park, it is High Tech. It is Renaissance (in the San Antonio Riverwalk sense of the word.) It is medieval. It is maybe the greatest pastiche to sucker itself to the side of a mountain, perilously overlooking a large body of water. Look at it. Just look.

The inside is white. This makes it dreamlike, almost benevolent. It is bright because this is McMansion Heaven and Gray is for McMansion Hell. There is an overbearing sheen of 80s optimism. In this house, the credit default swap has not yet been invented, but could be.

It takes a lot for me to drop the cocaine word because I think it’s a cheap joke. But there’s something about this example that makes it plausible, not in a derogatory way, but in a liberatory one, a sensuous one. Someone created this house to have a particular experience, a particular feeling. It possesses an element of true fantasy, the thematic. Its rooms are not meant to be one cohesive composition, but rather a series of scenes, of vastly different spatial moments, compressed, expanded, bright, close.

And then there’s this kitchen for some reason. Or so you think. Everything the interior design tries to hide, namely how unceasingly peculiar the house is, it is not entirely able to because the choices made here remain decadent, indulgent, albeit in a more familiar way.

Rare is it to discover an interior wherein one truly must wear sunglasses. The environment created in service to transparency has to somewhat prevent the elements from penetrating too deep while retaining their desirable qualities. I don’t think an architect designed this house. An architect would have had access to specifically engineered products for this purpose. Whoever built this house had certain access to architectural catalogues but not those used in the highest end or most structurally complex projects. The customization here lies in the assemblage of materials and in doing so stretches them to the height of their imaginative capacity. To borrow from Charles Jencks, ad-hoc is a perfect description. It is an architecture of availability and of adventure.

A small interlude. We are outside. There is no rear exterior view of this house because it would be impossible to get one from the scrawny lawn that lies at its depths. This space is intended to serve the same purpose, which is to look upon the house itself as much as gaze from the house to the world beyond.

Living in a city, I often think about exhibitionism. Living in a city is inherently exhibitionist. A house is a permeable visible surface; it is entirely possible that someone will catch a glimpse of me they’re not supposed to when I rush to the living room in only a t-shirt to turn out the light before bed. But this is a space that is only exhibitionist in the sense that it is an architecture of exposure, and yet this exposure would not be possible without the protection of the site, of the distance from every other pair of eyes. In this respect, a double freedom is secured. The window intimates the potential of seeing. But no one sees.

At the heart of this house lies a strange mix of concepts. Postmodern classicist columns of the Disney World set. The unpolished edge of the vernacular. There is also an organicist bent to the whole thing, something more Goff than Gaudí, and here we see some of the house’s most organic forms, the monolith- or shell-like vanity mixed with the luminous artifice of mirrors and white. A backlit cave, primitive and performative at the same time, which is, in essence, the dialectic of the luxury bathroom.

And yet our McMansion Heaven is still a McMansion. It is still an accumulation of deliberate signifiers of wealth, very much a construction with the secondary purpose of invoking envy, a palatial residence designed without much cohesion. The presence of golf, of wood, of masculine and patriarchal symbolism with an undercurrent of luxury drives that point home. The McMansion can aspire to an art form, but there are still many levels to ascend before one gets to where God’s sitting.

If you like this post and want more like it, support McMansion Hell on Patreon for as little as $1/month for access to great bonus content including a discord server, extra posts, and livestreams.

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pre-recession, post-taste

Hello, everyone. I hope this blog can bring some well-needed laughs in really trying times. That’s why I’ve gone back into the archives of that precipitous year 2007, a year where the McMansion was sleepwalking into being a symbol of the financial calamity to follow. We return to the Chicago suburbs once more because they remain the highest concentration of houses in their original conditions. Thanks to our flipping predilection, these houses become rarer and rarer and I have to admit even I have developed a fondness for them as a result.

Our present house is ostensibly “French Provincial” in style, which is McMansion for “Chateaux designed by Carmela Soprano”. It boasts 7 bedrooms, 8.5 bathrooms, and comes in at a completely reasonable 15,000 square feet. It can be yours for an equally reasonable $1.5 million.

Every 2007 McMansion needed two things: a plethora of sitting rooms and those dark wood floors. This house actually has around five or six sitting rooms (depending if you count the tiled sunroom) but for brevity’s sake, I’ll only provide two of them.

With regards to the second sitting room, I’m really not one to talk statuary here because beside me there is a bust of Dante where the sculptor made him look simultaneously sickly and lowkey hot.

Technically, if we are devising a dichotomy between sitting and not sitting (yes, I know about the song), the dining room also counts as a sitting room. The more chairs in your McMansion dining room, the more people allegedly like you enough to travel 2.5 hours in traffic to see you twice a year.

Here’s the thing about nostalgia: the world as we knew it then is never coming back. In some ways this is sad (kitchens are entirely white now and marble countertops will look terrible in about 3 years) but in other ways this is very good (guys in manhattan have switched to private equity instead of betting the farm on credit default swaps made from junk mortgages proffered to America’s most vulnerable and exploited populations.) Progress!

Okay I really don’t understand the 50 bed pillows thing. Every night my parents tossed their gazillion decorative pillows on the floor just to put them back on the bed the next morning. Like, for WHAT? Who was going in there? The Pope?

Here’s a fun one for your liminal spaces moodboards. (Speaking for myself.)

Yes, I know about skibidi toilet. And sticking out your gyatt for the rizzler. I wish I didn’t. I wish I couldn’t read. Literacy is like a mirror in which I only see the aging contours of my face.

When your kids move out every room becomes a guest room.

Anyway, let’s see what the rear of this house has to offer.

The migratory birds will not forgive them for their crimes. But also seriously, not even a garden?

Anyway, that does it for this round of McMansion Hell. Happy Halloween!

If you like this post and want more like it, support McMansion Hell on Patreon for as little as $1/month for access to great bonus content including a discord server, extra posts, and livestreams.

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Bonus McMansion Hell: Ye Olde Barrington

In which I am in my castle era.

mojo dojo casa house

Howdy folks! Sorry for the delay, I was, uhhhh covering the Tour de France. Anyway, I’m back in Chicago which means this blog has returned to the Chicago suburbs. I’m sure you’ve all seen Barbie at this point so this 2019 not-so-dream house will come as a pleasant (?) surprise.

Yeah. So this $2.4 million, 7 bed, 8.5+ bath house is over 15,000 square feet and let me be frank: that square footage is not allocated in any kind of efficient or rational manner. It’s just kind of there, like a suburban Ramada Inn banquet hall. You think that by reading this you are prepared for this, but no, you are not.

Scale (especially the human one) is unfathomable to the people who built this house. They must have some kind of rare spatial reasoning problem where they perceive themselves to be the size of at least a sedan, maybe a small aircraft. Also as you can see they only know of the existence of a single color.

Ok, but if you were eating a single bowl of cereal alone where would you sit? Personally I am a head of the table type person but I understand that others might be more discreet.

It is undeniable that they put the “great” in great room. You could race bicycles in here. Do roller derby. If you gave this space to three anarchists you would have a functioning bookshop and small press in about a week.

The island bit is so funny. It’s literally so far away it’s hard to get them in the same image. It is the most functionally useless space ever. You need to walk half a mile to get from the island to the sink or stove.

Of course, every McMansion has a room just for television (if not more than one room) and yet this house fails even to execute that in a way that matters. Honestly impressive.

The rug placement here is physical comedy. Like, they know they messed up.

Bling had a weird second incarnation in the 2010s HomeGoods scene. Few talk about this.

Honestly I think they should have scrapped all of this and built a bowling alley or maybe a hockey rink. Basketball court. A space this grand is wasted on sports of the table variety.

You would also think that seeing the rear exterior of this house would help to rationalize how it’s planned but:

Not really.

Anyways, thanks for coming along for another edition of McMansion Hell. I’ll be back to regular posting schedule now that the summer is over so keep your eyes peeled for more of the greatest houses to ever exist. Be sure to check the Patreon for today’s bonus posts.

Also P.S. - I’m the architecture critic for The Nation now, so check that out, too!

If you like this post and want more like it, support McMansion Hell on Patreon for as little as $1/month for access to great bonus content including a discord server, extra posts, and livestreams.

Not into recurring payments? Try the tip jar, because media work is especially recession-vulnerable.

BONUS MCMANSION HELL: liminal edition

BONUS MCMANSION HELL: liminal edition

dome sweet dome

As some of you may know, I have been going to language school for the last few months in order to learn the world’s most widely spoken and useful language: Slovenian. At this point, my Slovenian is about as coherent as, well, a McMansion. In order to feel better about myself, I have sought out a McMansion that is worse than my cases and word-order. This house (in Naperville, IL, of course) does, in fact, make me feel better, but will probably make you feel worse:

This Cheescake Factory house, built in 2005, boasts 5 bedrooms, 8.5 bathrooms and can be yours for the entirely reasonable sum of $3.5 million dollars. Also for some reason all the photos look like they are retouched with 2012-era Instagram filters.

First of all, trying to visualize the floor plan of this house is like trying to rotate seven cubes individually in my mind’s eye. Second, if you stand right beneath the hole in the ceiling you can get the approximate sensation of being a cartoon character who has just instantaneously fallen in love.

Even if this was a relatively mundane McMansion it still would have made it into the rotation because of the creepy life-sized butler and maid. Would not want to run into them in the middle of the night.

The mural is giving 1986 Laura Ashley or perhaps maybe the background they use for Cabbage Patch Kids packaging but the floor? The floor is giving Runescape texture.

Have you ever seen so many real plants in your life? A veritable Eden.

The overwhelming desire to push one of the chairs into the haunted jacuzzi…but in reality they probably put those chairs there to keep from accidentally falling into the tub at night.

(elevator music starts playing)

This is one of the all time [adjective] rooms of McMansion Hell. I personally am in love with it, though I don’t think I understand it. Perhaps it is not meant to be understood…..,

Continuing with the baseball theme, the guy in the painting looks how I feel after it’s been raining in Ljubljana for two straight weeks. (Not ideal!!)

And finally:

We love a house that has four unused balconies and also a sporting grounds that is large enough to build a whole second McMansion on top of. Everyone should so value their health.

Thank you for tuning into another edition of McMansion Hell. Be sure to check out the Patreon for the two bonus posts (a McMansion and the Good House) which both also go out today!

If you like this post and want more like it, support McMansion Hell on Patreon for as little as $1/month for access to great bonus content including a discord server, extra posts, and livestreams.

Not into recurring payments? Try the tip jar, because media work is especially recession-vulnerable.

Hi everyone: I’ve written a long deep-dive on the present state of the McMansion, from farmhouse…

Hi everyone: I’ve written a long deep-dive on the present state of the McMansion, from farmhouse chic to imminent environmental collapse. If you’ve been seeing an inordinate number of big ugly houses pop up in your neighborhood, you are not alone!

In my latest column for The Nation, I defend single stair buildings against their detractors - I…

In my latest column for The Nation, I defend single stair buildings against their detractors - I think single stair is wonderful! - But I also don’t think it’s some kind of panacea for the housing crisis.

In my latest for The Nation I make the uncontroversial claim that bike lanes are good, actually.

In my latest for The Nation I make the uncontroversial claim that bike lanes are good, actually.

in which i take on the argument that windowless bedrooms will somehow solve the housing crisis (lol)

in which i take on the argument that windowless bedrooms will somehow solve the housing crisis (lol)

In my latest column for The Nation, I take on the specter of AI and the idea that it is coming for…

In my latest column for The Nation, I take on the specter of AI and the idea that it is coming for architects’ jobs.

Howdy everyone! Some exciting news: I’m doing a stint at The Nation this month writing biweekly…

Howdy everyone! Some exciting news: I’m doing a stint at The Nation this month writing biweekly design columns. In this first one, I’ve done my best to expand on an earlier McMansion Hell post in order to answer the defining question of our time: why the hell is everything greige now?

here are some things i like

Often people say to me, “Kate, you’re an architecture critic! You must have an impeccably designed home full of wonderful design.” Haha, NO! However, I do think it’s entirely possible to collect design and live an aesthetically satisfying life on, like, a normal salary. Last week, I wondered via Twitter whether anyone would be interested in what my favorite things are - since this blog is usually devoted to, well, shitty and ugly things. The post got over 1,000 likes, so here we are. Because it’s February and everyone is miserable (February is the most miserable month of the year), I figured I’d try some positivity for once. The photos in this post are taken using my garbage iPhone and the links aren’t affiliate links so I’m not making any outside money on this post - but if you enjoyed it, you can always buy me a coffee.

  1. Swatches

I love Swatches. They’re one of the first things I bought with my first adult paychecks. They are inexpensive (for a watch), they are fun, they are very design-y. Some of the watches in my collection were co-designed by the likes of Memphis-Milano designer Nathalie Du Pasquier and famous composer Philip Glass. Every time I pass by a Swatch store I’m tempted to pick up another one. Once, when I went to a lecture by a famous architect, half of the people in the audience were wearing Swatches. (The other half were wearing Skagen watches which were popular during the height of minimalism.) Consider that an endorsement. Or a warning. $50-$200, Swatch.com.

2. This Mug Warmer, Specifically

I think good design solves a problem without creating another problem. The mug warmer is a great example. I hate when coffee goes cold. The first solution presented to me was a warming mug. The mug, though aesthetically pleasing, wore out easily and forced me to consume my coffee in the same mug every day if I wanted it to stay hot which is annoying. Exasperated, I bought this small, unbranded device (the brand name is literally listed as COFFEE MUG WARMER) on a whim. It is stupidly simple: when you put a mug on the warmer, it depresses a button which turns on a mug-safe electric coil. When you take the mug off the warmer the device shuts off. For some reason you can also use it to charge your phone. 10/10 no notes. $24, Amazon.com.

3. The Ikea Kallax

I think the Kallax shelf is a revolutionary piece of furniture. First of all, it holds a lot of shit – books, coffee table tomes, vinyl records, boxes for crafts and toys, clothes etc. It’s not the most economical plain Ikea bookshelf (that would be the Billy), but the diversity of items it’s able to accommodate makes it the most financially accessible large storage system out there and it’s not even remotely close. It is so simple, so easily reproduced: a bunch of interlocking boxes. Duh. In my opinion, the Kallax looks good, too – it is a statement piece and can fill up a decent size wall. I’ve used my Kallaxes as display cases, room dividers, bookshelves, craft storage, and more. Plus you can also put even more stuff (plants, collectables, more books) on top of it! $89 and up, IKEA.com

4. Muji Pens and Notebooks

Muji, a Japanese company known for their minimalist clothing and home goods, makes the best pens and notebooks out there, and unlike Moleskines, they are cheap. It is a cliche that architecture-y people love Muji’s stuff, but in our defense, that stuff feels sooooo gooooood. The pens come in a variety of points - many under 0.5 so you can get some real fine lines going; they write smoothly and travel well, even on airplanes. The pack of five slender notebooks is a must have - they don’t feel impossible to fill up, they lie flat, and they’re not so good looking that you feel that writing in them is a form of desecration. I go through several every year. Muji’s planners and novelty notebooks are high quality and make me feel as though I could potentially become an organized person. (This is not true but aspirational consumption is a real thing.) Under $15, Muji.com.

5. The Rains Backpack

I have three criteria for a backpack: it sits comfortably on the shoulders, it can get wet, and it doesn’t make me look like a hiker or schoolchild. The Rains backpack is the only one that satisfies all three criteria. I’ve taken it along with me when covering the Tour de France and the Tour of Spain and during those travels it’s survived some extremely wet days in both, along with the contents inside. (As you can see, mine has been through a lot.) $110, Rains.com

6. Vintage Ski Jackets

In Chicago it gets cold and it snows a lot. A good winter coat is a must, but those are usually very expensive and not very cute. Indeed, for absolutely polar weather I’ve acquired an ugly down insulated coat, but for the days where it’s like, 32 degrees (0 degrees C) I own a number of different vintage ski jackets so that I can match my jacket with my outfits. Vintage scalpers have gotten to a lot of the market - chore coats, 80s sweaters, etc, but for some reason the ski jacket remains relatively untouched. Fine examples made in the USA by companies such as Roffe sell for $30-50 on eBay. Apologies in advance for causing a run.

7. Open Edit Jewelry

Open Edit is a Nordstrom sub-brand of jewelry targeted at people who like big chunky statement pieces (aka me.) Their jewelry is relatively decent quality while feeling and looking expensive. Open Edit makes jewelry using a variety of bold colors and materials - translucent plastic, pastels, brass, etc. They also make pieces in more subtle forms such as loopy gold chains, y2k-drippiness and asymmetric styles that are popular at the moment. Nordstrom is trying very hard to be the cool department store these days and entry-level brands like Open Edit are a step in the right direction. What’s more, it’s very affordable. $30-50 Nordstrom.com.

8. Vignelli Hellerware

Rarely are home goods designed by extremely famous designers attainable by us normal people. In 1964, Italian high modernists Massimo and Lella Vignelli designed a set of dinnerware for Heller. Using melamine, a durable plastic, the multicolored set shows up repeatedly in primary source design materials from the 70s, including the MoMA show devoted to radical Italian design. Stackable, colorful, and genuinely fun, I love my Hellerware, which I received as a Christmas gift from my husband the year we were married. Your day simply feels a lot less bad when you’re drinking orange juice out of a cup that speaks to your inner child. $60 per set, MoMA Design Store.

9. Tom Sachs Nikecraft Shoes

As many of you know, I collect sneakers and own around 25 pairs ranging from Jordans to Chucks. My favorite pair, however, are the brown Tom Sachs Nikecrafts, a recent collaboration between the American contemporary artist Tom Sachs and Nike. Sachs has been working with Nike for a number of years, and the Nikecrafts are his attempt to design a functional, handsome “everyday” shoe - a “General Purpose Shoe,” an attempt I consider successful. I love the hell out of my Tom Sachs. The Nikecrafts are comfortable; the big tabs on the tongue and heel enable them to be easily put on without a shoehorn. The brown color can get dirty and doesn’t show as much wear. Plus they are hype-y enough to look very cool, playing into current trends of “normcore” and “Gorpcore” without looking too much like either. The current crop of Nikecrafts are sold out, but can be bought via resellers. $87-125 (size dependent) StockX.com.

10. The Freitag Maurice Tote

A writer is nothing without their tote bag. Whether the tote is a signifier of cultural participation (a la The New Yorker) or simply a carry-all, step into a cafe in any major city and you’ll find there’s a reason they’ve become a creative-class stereotype. The Freitag Maurice tote, while expensive, is the tote bag to end all tote bags to the point where I’ve gotten rid of most of my other ones. Freitag, a Swiss company, makes their bags out recycled truck tarps, hence they can take an immense beating. They’re water proof. They can be dragged through hell. They hold a lot of stuff and the strap sewn on the inside is, like, triple reinforced so even if you sling it across your shoulder when it’s full of heavy books, there’s nothing to worry about. This is probably my most beloved item. I use it every single day and it has never failed me. I find it very handsome. It has become a part of my personage. I cannot imagine my life without it. $170, Freitag.ch.

I hope you enjoyed this little post about the things I like! Now you, too, can outfit your life like an architecture critic making a middling income.

However, if you are filled with a bunch of hate in your heart and still want to see a McMansion this month, you can:

support McMansion Hell on Patreon for as little as $1/month for access to great bonus content including a discord server, extra posts, and livestreams.