The Grand Tour Ten Years On—Heart of Empire

Not for the last time on this or other trips, my fondness for overnight train journeys dropped me off in an unfamiliar city somewhere around dawn, when only fools and insomniacs are up and walking around. I’ve rarely had much problem sleeping since I was a teenager, so I must have fallen into the former category.

My fuzzy-headed recollection of that first morning in Moscow has a few clear spots. A somewhat unfriendly cafe where I found some breakfast, the westernised precincts of the GUM shopping centre, and Red Square right next to it, with its unapologetically Russian architecture, the tomb of Lenin, and St. Basil’s Cathedral. I was way too early to even think about checking into my hotel, so I found a nearby museum to wander around for a few hours, and more importantly to drop my rucksack into the left luggage room.

Moscow’s State Historical Museum, good for red bricks and the occasional pointy tower.

That first day was a jumble of impressions. High points included that initial period of roaming around Red Square and seeing the local sights, as well as finding a full-size prototype of the Soviet “Buran” space shuttle in Gorky Park. The main low point was making my way to the outskirts of the city to the Ismailovo Beta hotel and spending an hour or two persuading staff of my existence and subsequently the existence of my room reservation. (Not the last time I’d face this problem in Russia.)

The hotel itself was an anonymous block, and I didn’t even notice the casino on the ground floor until I checked my photos. But I had a great view of the local forested park, and I was only a short walk from the Partizanskaya metro station (the main reason I’d ended up in this location). So on my ventures to and from the city in the next couple of days, I would at least have the pleasure of inspecting Soviet subway architecture.

Soviet subway stations are heavy on the revolutionary sculpture and statuary.

Day One continued as it had started, with a lot of walking. There was sunshine aplenty, so that worked out well enough, and I did my best to get a feel for a city that seemed more reluctant to open up than most I’ve come across before or since. The Moskva River was my main point of navigation, with its frankly surreal statue of Peter the Great aboard a ship much too small for him and the nearby Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, far larger but much less attractive than St. Basils.

If Day One was wandering, Day Two began in a more structured way. Structured around museums, admittedly, but the Kremlin has its fair share of those. Amid intermittent showers, I visited the Tsar Bomba cannon and Tsar Kolokol III bell, both the largest of their kind. I wandered past stacks of cannons, perhaps retrieved from Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in 1812, and watched stern-faced Kremlin guards remain impassive in the face of local cats taking shelter between their feet.

A mammoth exhibit. Some ice-age tusks retrieved from the permafrost.

Mostly though, I appreciated the chance to get to know Russia better. St. Petersburg had been a decent introduction, but Moscow was a tougher nut to crack, and I had weeks left before I left Russia behind for good. Roaming through Russia’s history, military and otherwise, under the watchful eyes of Russian grandmothers serving as security, helped. But simply roaming the city helped even more, and the latter half of the day saw me make my way through Moscow until sunset and beyond.

By the time the day was over, I had a decent feeling for the physical layout of the city, but the spirit of it was something that I never quite figured out. I never did get to feel comfortable in Moscow, probably not helped by the fact that I can’t recall a single conversation I had while I was there. Even at a distance of ten years, that lack of recall speaks of a failure on my part. Fortunately, I had a lot of Russia left to experience.

Dancing fountains in the Moscow sunset.

The last vestiges of my time in Moscow faded into a kind of strangeness. I walked uneasy through the darkness, coming across a statue of Frederick Engels and a museum exhibit of colourful Lego. I woke the next morning and said my farewells to the Ismailovo Beta hotel, only to come across a woman on the subway who was using an Irish Dunnes Stores carrier bag. I made my way to the train station to catch my Trans-Siberian connection, only to find myself fascinated by the number of cigarette stubs tossed between the platform and the train.

Perhaps I just felt odd because I was doing something I’d thought of doing for years. Something that was the centre and the entire point of this trip. My Trans-Siberian voyage would have some breaks but the first section would be a full four days. Far more than the overnight train journeys that had been my previous limit. Even with my chunky guidebook, I had little notion of what to expect and Moscow had not been helpful in guiding me.

Cigarette butts discarded on the Trans-Siberian train platform.

So now I’m more or less caught up with my ten-years-ago journey. Still a couple of days behind (I left Moscow on September 4th), but that’s covered by that first four-day stretch. I’ll resume in a few days with some reminiscences about my time in Irkutsk and Lake Baykal and just how that first few days on the Trans Siberian felt.

The Grand Tour Ten Years On—A Tsar is Born

I like walking. Despite my increasingly decrepit feet and knees, that hasn’t changed and isn’t likely to. I still believe that the best way of getting to know a city is to get out and walk down its streets, be they grand central thoroughfares or narrow alleys in the old quarter.

That said, I’m still not sure whether my decision to walk from the St. Petersburg ferry port to my hotel by the Neva River was driven by a desire to get to know Russia’s former imperial capital as soon as possible or a desire to avoid having to expose my utter lack of Russian to the unforgiving eye of bus or taxi drivers.

(Who am I kidding? It was the latter.)

My first sight of Russia: a fine piece of Soviet concrete brutalism.

This is something of a habit on my travels, I’ve found. I won’t avoid human interaction, but I generally won’t seek it out either, and my favourite activity in any city is just to roam on my own until my feet start complaining. I do my research and generally have an idea of where I’m going, but it’s the moments in between and the serendipitous discoveries that tend to provide the most memorable moments.

Ten years ago, lacking any form of mobile internet access as I roamed, all I took with me was a shoulder bag containing some ID, a camera, and a heavily annotated guide to the Trans-Siberian Railway (still several days in my future). My travels up to this point had been entirely Western European (Tallinn was too brief to count), but St. Petersburg was my first encounter with the world’s largest country. It proved to be an oddly familiar experience.

Not familiar: a hydrofoil on the Neva River (with bonus Cyrillic signage).

St. Petersburg is, as noted, a former imperial city. It was built expressly as such, in fact, by Russia’s Tsar Peter the Great and his successors, and it has a scale and opulence to match. However, it’s also of a specific era. Dublin, where I’d been living for close to half my life when I visited St. Petersburg, is of a similar age, but whereas Dublin was an outpost of empire, St. Petersburg was an imperial capital with a scale to match. Buildings were taller, streets wider, and decorations more ornate. I lost track of the number of times I was fooled by the similarities between the cities into thinking I had a shorter distance to walk than I actually did.

Roaming St. Petersburg was a pleasure, due mostly to its combination of the familiar and unfamiliar. Much of the architecture took its design cues from Western Europe, reflecting the need of the Tsars to not only be a part of, but also outdo that world. At the same time, the presence of Russia bled through in everything. From the scale of the streets and buildings, to the genuinely Russian architecture of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, built on the site of Alexander II’s assassination.

Old school (old church?) Russian architecture.

There’s almost too much to recount about St. Petersburg, and any attempt to do so would turn this post into a list of “I went there, I did that.” The Winter Palace museum has an Indiana Jones feel, with locked-off cellars full of artefacts, and the streets around are crammed with streetside stalls selling babushka nesting dolls of every celebrity you’ve ever heard of. I came across rows of stretch limousines and fairytale Russian weddings, and I watched an untranslated movie in a cinema converted from a baroque opera house.

For the three days I was there, there was far too much to take in. Roaming and venturing into one of the many museums or churches, and taking a canal boat tour around the city (the Venice of the north, if Copenhagen can be ignored) was the best I could do. The one big planned venture I had was on one of the aforementioned hydrofoils, out along the waterfront to the Peterhof. There, gilded statues and carefully tended gardens were signifiers of a lost era, of lavish excess and imperial disdain. For the many tourists and locals enjoying the sights, it was just a nice day out.

Grottoes, fountains, gold, and porphyry. The display is the point.

I admit I was probably overwhelmed. There was never a point during my period in St. Petersburg when I was lost for something to do. Even venturing out from my “B&B” in a massive old apartment building (where I had early encounters with Russian bureaucracy) for dinner of pelmeni Russian dumplings was an appreciated delight. But my itinerary was carefully laid out and especially in Russia didn’t admit of any deviation.

So I enjoyed my final day with all of its attendant distractions, and made my way at last to Moscow Railway Station at the end of Nevsky Prospekt. Not as grand as many stations I’d come to know, and not yet the Trans-Siberian (that left from Moscow itself) but a start to my Russian odyssey. With St. Petersburg I began the process of leaving Europe behind. There would be a long way to go before I saw the last of it.

The Grand Tour Ten Years On—It’s Baltic Here

(Completely forgot to post this. It’s been left in drafts for the past few days…)

When last we left my ten-years-ago self, he was speeding through the German night, not entirely sure of his heading but hoping to make it to his connecting train in time. Well, he made it to Copenhagen in the end, after a quick ferry trip across the Baltic from Rostock, though with only a quarter of an hour to spare instead of the planned several hours. Falling in love with that city of fine pastries and finer cycling would have to wait until my multiple visits during later travels.

Finally back on track, or at least the correct tracks at the intended time, I was probably a bit too tired and out of it to appreciate the crossing of the Øresund Bridge and the long trip through the wooded Nordic landscape of Sweden that came after. The best recollection I have of that journey is trying to read and recover in between naps.

As much as I saw of Copenhagen: a forest of bikes outside the train station.

Thankfully, Stockholm was more than welcoming in its no-fuss, Scandinavian, slightly overpriced manner. Arriving on the afternoon of the 25th, the plan was to spend the next couple of days exploring before shipping out on the evening of the evening of the 27th. And that is essentially what happened. I have almost no recollection of the place I stayed other than an “if IKEA did B&Bs” vibe, but Stockholm itself made a stronger impression.

From the viewpoint of years later, the first thing I remember is how scattered and yet compact the city felt. Built across an array of islands, connected with many bridges, it felt welcoming to an explorer. Undoubtedly I benefited from my arrival by train, which dumped me into the heart of the city, and the late summer sun of August, which meant that my first port of call was having yet another of those new-city beers at a streetside cafe.

Is this a theme? It might be a theme, but more importantly it’s definitely a beer.

Stockholm, then, was for exploring. From the curious streetside lion sculptures to the presence of a Games Workshop store, to strange shops containing bric-a-brac piled high to the rafters on the old island of Gamla Stan with its narrow streets. (I also found some towels branded by the then-current Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie and still regret not getting one.) I visited the Royal Palace and the Nobel Prize Museum, then made my way out along the streets and shores, surrounded by greenery and spotting hot air balloons while standing beside a statue of Jenny Lind. I delved into the Vasa Museum, then had some fun at the Gröna Lund amusement park.

Knowing that I was still at the introductory stage of what was going to be a longer trip than I’d ever been on, I probably luxuriated in my Stockholm stay just a bit. The second day of my exploring, I ventured as far as my limited time allowed. I made my way to the Stockholms Stadshus, where the Nobel prize ceremonies take place and where I ticked off two travel habits that would stick with me: visiting every museum I had time to, and climbing to the top of the tallest building or edifice in sight. The sight that sticks with me though is of a group of Swedish ladies dressed all in black, standing cheering in a circle in a sunny park as two of their number did battle in padded sumo suits on the green grass.

It would stick in your mind too, admit it.

Beyond the obvious, I have no idea what the story behind this photo is.

Eventually though, I hefted my bags and made my way to the ferry port. I had a ship to catch across the Baltic. A ship that, it turned out, was full of Russian tourists, heading for St. Petersburg like I was. I definitely felt a bit isolated, though I was happy enough at having a cabin all to myself for the two-day crossing. The weather was good enough though that I spent a good chunk of my time on deck, luxuriating in the sunset while some finely dressed Russian pre-Influencers posed and photographed themselves against the sunset.

That sense of isolation probably kept me from wandering too much, though it wasn’t the largest of ferries. The big attraction every night was the strip club “Torn Off Balls.” Which, well, maybe it lost something in translation, but I didn’t feel like the advertising was working for me. So I never did venture in during the midnight hours and find out how the tearing off was meant to be accomplished.

I imagine it would come as a surprise, yes.

Strip club posters aside, the highlight of the trip for me was an afternoon in Tallinn, capital of Estonia. The ferry pulled in a bit before lunch and we had around five hours to roam before it would steam away again. So most of us jumped on an open-topped tour bus, myself included, for a whistle-stop introduction to the Baltic state. I almost lost my cap to an errant gust of wind, but another traveller caught it for me before it was gone.

Tallinn marked a further degree of pushing past my usual caution and testing the bounds of what I’d normally do. I raced around town on foot, practicing archery at the base of the massive city walls, climbing to the top of a mediaeval church tower with questionable safety standards, and exploring a grafitti-strewn Soviet-era parade ground by the sea. I scampered back on board in plenty of time, but it was a step forward for me from the relative comfort and familiarity of Stockholm. Russia would be a step further yet.

Falling wouldn’t be fatal, right? Just a few hundred steps to the bottom.

So that was Stockholm and Tallinn. Two sides of the Baltic, taking me from the familiar into a world that had been behind the iron curtain a few decades before. After another night of avoiding having my balls torn off, I had St. Petersburg to look forward to and the beginning of the longest land-based part of this trip.

The Grand Tour Ten Years On—Outset

Ten years ago, I began a journey. To be 100 percent precise, I began the journey the day before, with a flight from Dublin to London, but since the purpose of my trip was to keep me sea- and earthbound as much as possible, I counted London as the start of the journey. And specifically, boarding the Eurostar service for a trip through the Channel Tunnel at London’s St. Pancras station.

The entire trip is written up elsewhere on this site, but a decade has passed and I’m not the same person I was ten years ago (thankfully—it turns out growing up is something you can keep doing post your teenage years). So this post is more a quick trip down memory lane, ten years on, to see what might be found there.

The Tardis. For some reason I didn’t try to break in. Can’t remember why.

I stayed the night before with two friends, whom I’ve unfortunately fallen out of contact with since then, then headed for St. Pancras laden down with a large backpack and a substantial folder of printed out tickets and itineraries. These days they’d all be stored on my iPad and iPhone, but I had the sense to have backups in those days, and I’d get plenty of use out of them before I made it home.

Finding the British Library around the corner from St. Pancras provided a nice break and a further travel option sadly not available due to the absence of its operator. (Possibly for the best, that one.) In the end, the Eurostar served as a more-than-appealing substitute, allowing me to cross my first sea in subterranean fashion before whisking me past Liege’s gorgeous station and on to Cologne with its immense cathedral.

Cologne Cathedral. For some reason I didn’t go in. Can’t remember why.

This is where I also had my first taste of travel drama. In the years since, a bit more travel experience and a general maturing of my outlook has allowed me to cultivate something of a stoic approach to misfortune. Not a completely heartless stoicism, just an awareness that shit happens and that while crying about it might be reasonable, it shouldn’t be the only response. I don’t think I cried back then, but I certainly had a yawning hole in the pit of my stomach for a few hours.

Anyhow … I had a few hours to spare in Cologne, so I decided a beer by the Rhine was a reasonable way to celebrate my first time in Germany (for such it was). Beer enjoyed and the light failing, I returned to the Hauptbahnhof to find my connection. Or rather to fail to do so. Because while I thought I’d carefully researched everything in my booking, I’d missed the ultra-efficient German practice of treating trains like Lego, with carriages as the bricks. Thus my sleeper carriage to Copenhagen was attached to the overnight train to Warsaw and left serenely without me.

It wasn’t the beer’s fault. It may have been my fault.

In my defence, I did ask the station porter for help, but their English was no better than my German, and nothing was gained. Cue the dreadful feeling that I’d messed up the trip right at the start and some very much appreciated efforts on the part of a station attendant who did speak English and proceeded to get me onto another train that would get me where I was going, albeit a few hours late and in distinctly less comfort than initially intended.

And I’ll leave this initial bit of reminiscence there. That was only day one of the trip, after all, exactly ten years ago, when a very much younger me set out on his travels and almost crashed and burned at the first hurdle. Would the older me have fared as well? Probably. Would it have been as much of an adventure to him? Maybe not. He would know to get on the right train though.

Wandavision—Absolution, Forgiveness, and Redemption

If the global virus of the past year has been good for anything (other than billionaires), then it’s been good for the Marvel division of Disney’s entertainment megaplex. Not long after their ten-year story hit its climactic peak with Avengers: Endgame, the world got dropped into an enforced hiatus. As a result, instead of risking saturation of the market, Marvel got to take a break that Disney would never have allowed and instead begin its new era with smaller-scale TV offerings.

Moreover, those TV series themselves got rearranged in favour of those that could be filmed on closed sets, so instead of leading with the more traditional action offering of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Marvel kicked off phase four with the much stranger, much more personal Wandavision. Which, as its nine-week run unfolded, proved to be a tale of trauma and the harm that can spill out from it.

In an era when binge-watching has faded from prominence, but in which people are as eager as they’ve ever been for new media to consume, Wandavision was discussed and dissected endlessly online across its run, not just among Marvel fans but among more casual viewers. It’s mostly great in my opinion, so if you haven’t watched it, don’t read any further, as I’m mostly going to be talking about the ending.

Continue reading Wandavision—Absolution, Forgiveness, and Redemption

Crafting Inner Peace

For those of us hoping for a positive start to 2021, after (gestures vaguely) all of this, the first week has been a long year. The three horsemen of disaster—Trump, Covid, and Brexit—are abroad in the land, with Seasonal Affective Disorder loping along behind them like a particularly morose hound. After everything we’ve been through, self care remains very, very necessary.

One of the easiest ways to let the overtaxed brain drift away is to dive into some old-fashioned media consumption. But what to watch in these trying times? Netflix, Amazon, and their ilk have plenty to offer (I’m partial to a bit of Ted Lasso on AppleTV+ myself), but sometimes even the most easy-going narrative can require a little too much focus of the viewer. When seeking respite, it’s better to let someone else do as much of the work as possible.

At such times, YouTube is your only man. Cooking and baking channels are massively popular and might seem to fit the bill, but don’t be fooled. There are traps inherent in even the most alluring recipe video: not just the hunger they’ll inevitably spur, but also the subconscious guilt at the fact that you’ll never cook any of these delicious dishes, even though you could at least give it a shot. No, if you’re looking for pure guilt-free, stress-free viewing, you need to watch something where there’s no possibility of copying the feats depicted.

For me at least, I get that service from crafting YouTube. There’s an entire universe of YouTube videos in which expert crafters demonstrate their skills, and many of them rank among the Internet’s most soothing experiences. Stick on a video, or cue up an entire playlist, and let some of these voices (ranked below from least to most relaxing) ease all your cares as they demonstrate their skill and knowledge.


Metalwork—That Works

Born from the remants of the second version of the Man at Arms metalsmithing channel, That Works features a small group of forge-addicted smiths and their supporting craftspersons, mostly recreating weapons from popular media like games and TV shows, but also talking about their tools and working on more personal projects. They’re a lively and talkative bunch, and when they build a weapon there’s always a closing montage of it being used to stab, smash, and slice innocent fruit and veg. Even so, the actual process of smithing and grinding can easily lull you into restfulness, and perhaps a little bit of energetic destruction right at the end might be just what the doctor ordered to work off the last of your stress.

Machining—Clickspring

Metalwork on a much smaller and more precise scale than That Works, Clickspring sees a genial, soft-spoken Australian called Chris narrate his way through the creation of fascinating clockwork mechanisms. He seems to have only recently restarted posting after a bit of a gap, and he’s currently working on a recreation of the Antikythera Mechanism, but there are plenty of videos in his backlog, featuring both precision metalwork and the creation of the tools needed to do so. As long as you don’t have a problem with all the grinding and filing, or the Ozzie accent, Chris’s dulcet tones might be the perfect guide to a world of satisfying clockwork, demonstrating some of the surprisingly simple techniques that watchmakers have developed over the centuries of their craft.

Restoration—Baumgartner

A step further even than Clickspring in terms of precision and dulcet tones, Baumgartner Restoration offers up the wisdom and skill of Chicago’s Julian Baumgartner as he takes the dingiest, most damaged artworks and restores them to something close to their original form. There’s a lot to compare in the two channels, as both hosts are keen to emphasise the need to do things the right way and will occasionally throw in a wordless video as ASMR bait for their followers. However, Julian probably just has the edge in terms of the warmth of his voice, and there’s something exceptionally satisfying in watching cack-handed old restoration being removed and repairs to fine art being undertaken at the smallest scale. Plus, whereas Clickspring’s Chris breaks down his work into multiple short videos, Julian usually completes one restoration per video, ensuring a satisfying reveal of the finished work at the end.

Woodworking—Ishitani

For the ultimate in relaxing craft viewing, it’s to Japan we turn, and specifically the Ishitani channel of a Japanese maker of custom furniture. Carving, sawing, and hammering in a workshop set in unspeakably idyllic surroundings, these videos are almost entirely without narration of the kind that might tax a stressed viewer’s cognition. Instead, you’re invited to enjoy the simple satisfaction of seeing hunks of lumber being brought from their raw state into the form of furniture that you would weep to possess, with occasional cameos from the craftsman’s family and pet dog. In fact, the envy engendered by watching this furniture come into being, and the inevitable dissatisfaction with your own paltry surroundings by comparison, are some of the only minor issues with Ishitani. The other is the fact that the channel hasn’t posted a new video in over half a year, but with over three years of videos to watch, you won’t run out for a while.

Freshly Baked Reviews — January 2021

A few years back, I was in the habit of writing regular reviews on this blog. Covering games, books, and movies, the poorly explained schtick of the reviews was that I limited them to three sentences each. This both leaned into the fact that this was more or less my job for over a decade (compressing information into tiny packages, not writing reviews) and was a fun writing exercise, even if it did occasionally lead to long run-on sentences.

Anyway, after a 2020 that proved very hard for writing, I figure it’s worth my while to develop a better writing habit, and returning to something that was once fun seems like a good start. So expect a few more of these review bundles in the months to come, but in the meantime, here’s what I thought of four movies that I managed to catch over the Christmas break.


Soul (Pete Docter)

Pixar’s latest musing on the nature of life, the universe, and everything may not have been the biggest movie to be released online-only at the end of the plague year, but it wasn’t far off the top of pile. Telling the story of a teacher and aspiring jazz pianist who finds himself hovering between life and death just as he gets his big break, it sets its characters to explore the question of what life is for: a single grand purpose or the simple joys of existing day to day. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Docter, who also directed Up and Inside Out for Pixar, lands on the latter option as the best one, and while Soul’s message might prove a little straightforward if you’ve already spent part of your life considering it, Soul tells its tale with warmth and humour and is definitely worth checking out.

Wonder Woman 1984 (Patty Jenkins)

Okay, so this movie was the biggest online-only release of the festive period, made all the more notable by Warner Bros’ decision to shift its entire slate online in 2021, and it’s just a shame that WW1984 turned out to be a colourful mess of a film. The first Wonder Woman cannily cast Gal Gadot as a fish out of water hero, but despite the sequel being set some seventy years later, there isn’t any character growth to be seen, and Gadot and her talented supporting cast find themselves tumbling through a series of set pieces that are barely connected by the central conceit of granting wishes with dark costs. WW84 has clearly suffered from its many delays and the chaos surrounding the DC cinematic universe, and the result is a colourful and occasionally exciting shambles that doesn’t build on the success of its predecessor.

Tenet (Christopher Nolan)

If the pandemic year had a tentpole film, it was Christopher Nolan’s time-twisting Tenet, which Nolan fought to get into cinemas and which proved to be divisive on its release. Nolan’s success over the years has seen him lean increasingly towards structural complexity, as seen in Inception and Dunkirk, and Tenet pushes that habit further still, to the point where the structural games overwhelm character development and even plot clarity. Tenet is certainly a spectacle, but its drabness is only really alleviated by Robert Pattinson’s louche secret agent, and while repeated viewings might provide insight into its depths, there might not be much impetus to watch it again if it fails to engage and inspire on first viewing.

Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart)

Arriving just as the year was ending, in a small scattering of cinemas and on Apple TV+, Wolfwalkers is a spellbinding animated tour-de-force, set in a myth-soaked vision of the Irish past. Cartoon Saloon’s film tells the story of two girls—a hunter and a “wolf walker”—who connect amid the turmoil of Cromwell’s occupation of Kilkenny, with animation that sweeps and shifts in stunning hand-drawn fashion as the characters shift from human to wolf and back. Undoubtedly the artistic high point of all the films I’ve seen in the past month, Wolfwalkers benefits further from heartfelt performances from its voice actors and a story that invests viewers in the survival of the wolves and wolfwalkers as a vision of a threatened, romantic land.

One Year On

On December 3rd, 2019, I got my second cancer diagnosis. It wasn’t wholly unexpected by the time it arrived, but news like that still takes time to digest. You can read more about it here, if you want. My assumption at the time was that this would be the problem that I’d spend the next year navigating. That I would have to shape my life around it, one way or another.

2020 laughed at us all, didn’t it?

From the vantage point of twelve months later, cancer was just one of three major issues I ended up having to deal with. Of the three of them, it hasn’t been the hardest to get past, and it’s actually had the least impact on my day-to-day life. The others were, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has upended and ended lives around the world, and the unexpected death of my father just as the pandemic was seriously getting started. Amid all of this, I can actually count myself a little lucky: as serious as my cancer is, it hasn’t been a massive burden to add to everything else 2020 has brought.

Yes, my cancer was and is serious. Lung cancer, stage 4, not curable. I have regular checkups and slightly less regular scans to monitor its progress. My running career has come to a grinding halt, and I can still feel the cancer’s presence with every deep breath or truncated moment of exertion. But I had a lucky break: a mutation in the cancer gene meant I was suitable for a pill-based therapy. Four pills, morning and evening. Minimal side effects and no need to be plugged into a saline drip for hours at a time, or have bits of me irradiated.

The result is that after being beaten back at first—allowing me to sleep more easily and largely eliminating my persistent cough—the cancer has been held in check for the rest of the year. The last few scans have been almost boring in their sameness, and my doctor and I have been enjoying informatively brief get-togethers for the past few months.

There have been hiccups, of course. Back around April and May, I found myself coughing up blood occasionally. No cause was ever found, despite a bronchoscope giving the medical profession yet another chance to poke around the inside of my lungs, but the fact that this coincided with the stress of my father’s funeral and the aftermath seems to offer a neat explanation. The pills have not been entirely without side effects either: a rash on my legs and a lowered heart rate that has seen me heading for my bed earlier than I might otherwise. (Typically I’m more of a morning person anyway, as several ex-girlfriends have bemoaned, so I’m not sure that many would notice any difference.)

Back when I was first diagnosed, I expressed some hope that I’d be able to spend some of 2020 travelling and writing. Prioritising things and people that matter to me. As it happened, none of that worked out. COVID-19 meant that international travel of any kind was off the menu, and the stress of living through a pandemic, family bereavement, and a cancer diagnosis turned out to be (surprise!) not conducive to the creative spark.

As the year has drawn to a close, I’ve started to get moving again, though the latest lockdown has kept travel far away. I did the 2020 NaNoWriMo challenge and hit the 50,000 word mark on time, giving me a boost of achievement that was sorely needed. Okay, so I didn’t actually finish the book I was working on, but I did at least prod my writing habit back into life. I’ve also kept up my walking in the face of worsening weather: work’s “Walktober” event probably helped with that.

Last of all there’s been Christmas. A strange, truncated Christmas that I managed to spend with my mum in the face of imminent lockdowns across the island of Ireland. A grab for normality as hopes for 2021 are born in the swirl of Brexit deals, vaccine arrivals, and the departure of at least one straw-haired headcase from the corridors of power.

For the past year, I’ve been appending these posts with a “Cancer Update.” Doing my bit to let people know how I’m getting on without broadcasting it on Facebook. With the end of the year, I think it’s time to retire that. As mentioned above, I’ve been enduring well enough through the year, with minimal side effects and struggles (cancer-related at least). While I’ll keep updating this blog, the “Cancer Update” will only reappear if there’s actual news to pass on. If it doesn’t appear, assume that things continue much as they have in the past year. Though I won’t take it amiss if you contact me to say hi and ask for a more detailed update.

So the time has come to crumple 2020 up and consign it to the dustbin of history. We’ll take our good memories where we have them and look to 2021 for a chance to improve things instead. I’ll continue to post irregularly, no doubt, and hopefully will have a chance to inspire some envy with travel posts before too long. After all, one advantage of cancer is getting bumped up the schedule for a vaccine shot…

Safe Steps to a New Generation

For the third time in its history, Apple is in the process of moving its Mac computers to a new line of chips. In 1994 it switched from Motorola’s 680×0 chips to AIM’s PowerPC chips, in 2005 it began to switch from PowerPC to Intel’s x86 chips, and now in 2020 it’s leaving Intel behind in favour of its own Apple Silicon, in the form of the new M1 chip.

These three switches have given Apple more organisational knowledge of how to accomplish such transitions than perhaps any other company. You can see this in how they’ve become better at it over time. Moving to PowerPC allowed Apple to compete against Windows/Intel PCs, but the advantages provided were thin and disappeared over the course of a decade. In contrast, Apple secured for itself favoured customer status from Intel when it switched and enjoyed several years of chip designs perfectly suited for its Macs. As for the switch to Apple Silicon? Well, we’ll get to that.

The transition to Apple Silicon was announced in June 2020, but no details were offered at that point. Only with the December 2020 announcement and release of the first new M1 Macs did people get a proper look at what the new chips offered. And though this is just the first step in what Apple has described as a two-year transition of its desktop and laptop line, the early results are very promising.

The three Macs switching to the new M1 chip are the absolute entry level devices in its lineup: the Mac Mini desktop and the MacBook Air and 13” MacBook Pro. These are some of Apple’s best-selling Macs, but they’re also some of the cheapest, so choosing them for the switch to new, faster chips is the opposite of risky—it provides Apple and its customers with a safe and secure first step into a new era.

First of all, the new machines look entirely like their Intel-based predecessors. Apart from a few differences in coloration and port selection (most notable with the Mac Mini), these devices are dead ringers for the machines they replace. For customers looking for reassurance that the new Macs won’t be in some way cut-down replacements more akin to iPads than “proper” Macs, this kind of familiarity will be reassuring.

More to the point, the low-end machines being replaced have the weakest performance in the existing Mac line. If the new M1 chip has any performance gains to offer, it will show best in this setting. And by all accounts, the performance gains are substantial. The M1 chip may be a derivative of the A-series chips to be found in iPhones and iPads, but Apple has been honing its chip design expertise over the past decade and the M1 looks like it’s coming out of the gate competitive with the best that Intel and its main competitor AMD have to offer. And this, remember, is arriving in low-end Apple devices.

More exciting for laptop users, perhaps, is the battery life gains that the M1 chips offer. Eking out battery life gains with Intel chips has forced Apple to make trade offs between speed and power consumption for years, but M1 seems to have broken that deadlock for Apple, with early reviews reporting that both laptops can run for a full 8-hour work day without needing to be plugged in.

Perhaps the most interesting factor about the three new Macs is how little performance differentiation between them there is. Despite their differing form factors, they all use the same CPU, with a simple choice to double the RAM from 8GB to 16GB when buying. The most notable physical difference lies in cooling, with the MacBook Air being entirely passively cooled whereas the MacBook Pro and Mac Mini sport cooling fans of varying sizes. This upshot is that while the Pro and Mini should enjoy better top speeds, the experience in day-to-day use should be much the same.

If the machines aren’t differentiated much among themselves, then they do at least offer Apple some degree of differentiation between Macs and iPads. Especially in the form of the iPad Pro, iPads have been creeping into the territory of Mac laptops for a while, but the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, with their greater RAM, better selection of ports, and larger batteries, not to mention the improved M1 chip, should be able to maintain a comfortable distance for a while.

For Apple users, and even PC fans, considering new machines, these M1 Macs are as safe a bet as Apple could make them. Every indication is that they already run existing Mac software as fast as the machine’s they’re replacing, with software recompiled for the new chips running far faster. They’re arriving in recognisable form factors, so no peripherals will have to be abandoned, and the fact that the M1 is arriving at the low end of the market means that the price is right for those interested in trying the new systems out.

Might Apple be playing it too safe? Maybe, as there were a few complaints that the new machines weren’t exactly exciting and new, but the performance and battery gains of the M1 seem more than enough for now. It’s the second generation of machines when excitement is likely to arrive, in the form of new designs and form factors. There are already rumours of a redesigned slimline iMac in 2021, probably with an M1+ or the equivalent at its heart. Beyond that, it’ll be very interesting to see how PC manufacturers respond to Apple’s new machines.

As for myself, the time has at last come to put one of my old Macs out to pasture and try something new. Not my nine-year-old MacBook Air, which has been mostly superseded by an iPad Pro, but rather my ten-year-old Mac Mini, which has kept chugging away with the benefit of various upgrades but was never a speed demon in the first place. I wavered for a moment before deciding to order in advance of the first reviews, but that’s mainly because I’m expecting the existing Mac Mini form factor to disappear once the full Mac lineup is upgraded. Its size and shape are still based on the DVD drives it no longer sports, after all.

Regardless, I eventually put the order in and will have my new Mac in a few weeks. It’s the cheapest of the M1 Macs at the moment (cheaper even than the Intel Mac Mini it’s replacing) and I expect it to act as a media server and general purpose PC for many years to come. Life’s too short to spend it waiting for the next big thing to come out. Sometimes you just have to enjoy yourself while you can.


Cancer Update

Too grim a segue? Maybe, but please allow me my fun. I’m as locked down as anyone is these days, so apart from watching people pass by my ground floor window, the days are not full of entertainment.

Last week was particularly stressful, as I had a CT scan to check on the progress of my treatment and a meeting with the doctor to find out the results of said scan two days later. This usually causes a spike in my worrying, during which any minor complaint becomes a potential symptom. My head was not in a good space creatively, and my NaNoWriMo output was knocked out for a week. (And if that isn’t the most bourgeois whine I’ve ever made, I don’t know what is.) Luckily, the scan results came back positive, and the medicine I’m on continues to do its job.

As a result, locked down though I may be, I’m in a much better frame of mind this week and doing my best to catch up from my NaNoWriMo lapse. As long as this excessively mild winter persists, I’ll get out into the sun when I can too, and hopefully before too long I’ll get to visit my family again. Until then, and until vaccines start rolling out, keep safe and keep strong.

The Matter With Britain

These are dark days for Britain. As chaos engulfs the land, a venal and vicious ruler has risen up, interested only in seizing power by whatever means are at hand. Some have sunk into despair while others have abandoned their morals and thrown in with their twisted rulers. Amidst collapse, disease, and the dying throes of a nation turning in upon itself, you must gather your courage and your friends and make your way to the Field of Camlann, where King Arthur awaits your aid.

Wait, what did you think I was talking about?

Inkle Studios’ newest game, Pendragon, arrives at a fortuitously relevant time (for it). Its themes of loneliness, loss, and struggle in the midst of desperate times might cut a little close to the bone for some players, but that struggle also heightens the rewards of connections both new and renewed and reminders that hope is never entirely lost.

Inkle has a strong heritage in narrative games, with both the wonderful 80 Days (if you’ve never played it, seek it out—on almost any platform at this stage) and the more recent Heaven’s Vault, an archaeology-themed translate-‘em-up that’s only available on PC but is highly rewarding for those willing to delve into its science fiction worlds. Pendragon is a game on a smaller scale than Heaven’s Vault but it’s just as creative and rewarding.

The core gameplay of Pendragon consists of a series of chess-like encounters between Arthur’s followers, friends, and family as they crisscross Britain in their quest to reach Camlann before the once-and-future king’s final encounter with his bastard son, Mordred. A single play through of the game takes less than an hour in most cases, but with the opportunity to tackle different difficulty levels, unlock a variety of starting characters, and experience the twists and turns of the game’s narrative engine, there’s ample encouragement for replay.

The chess-like gameplay strikes a careful balance between being too intimidating and too simple. The basic concepts of threat and territory control are easy to figure out and amply signposted by the interface, with the special skills of certain characters suggesting particular strategies. Each encounter takes place on a limited battlefield, and though it can become crowded with enemies, their abilities and preferred tactics are likewise clearly signposted. Every battle provides the information that the player needs to win it, though victory isn’t always possible, and sometimes necessity or failing morale will see you fleeing the field.

In fact, victory is rarely a simple matter. Learning Pendragon takes the player along a specific path: First, learn the basics and simple strategies. Then learn to think a few moves ahead so that you don’t end up in a trap. Then learn how enemies act and where their weaknesses are. Then learn how to lure them into traps and dispose of them safely. Then … well, that’s as far as I’ve gotten so far. I’ve yet to even hit the middling difficulty levels.

Amid all of this tactical back and forth, Pendragon’s story engine does its best to weave a compelling tale. Each starting character has their own reasons for seeking out Arthur. You begin with the disgraced knight Lancelot and his lover Guinevere, both freighted with guilt, but other collectible characters who join on the journey do so out of a love of battle, a need to make amends, or sheer vicious spite. In addition to these main characters, there are others who may become your allies, their motivations created randomly and shifting in response to the choices you make.

These characters join you both on the battlefield, where their own skills open up new tactics, and around the campfire, where tales can be shared each evening of knights, faeries, and other Arthuriana. One of the game’s greatest strengths is how well it nails the feeling of the Arthur stories. The ultimately doomed nature of the best intentions in the face of time and dissolution is a recurring theme within both the original stories and Pendragon’s Britain. The world is unkind, and it only takes one person with bad intentions to make it far worse. Only through trust and determination can something better endure.

Mechanically, Pendragon has clearly been honed through multiple iterations. The short duration of each attempt at the game is a priority, with the constantly depleting morale counter pushing the player ever onwards. Characters can sacrifice themselves on the battlefield, to be rescued when the day is won, but this is a trick that can only be repeated so many times, with the food that extends its use always being in short supply.

In short, even on the lower difficulty levels, Pendragon instils in the player the sense that they’re racing against time. Both within battles, due to that falling morale, and on the longer journey as food runs out. Even once Camlann is reached, the pressure of time remains as you face Mordred, who grows stronger as the final battle proceeds, regardless of who faces him.

Mordred is, perhaps, the game’s biggest weakness. Depending on your character’s talents and the randomly generated battlefield you face him on, it’s possible for the final battle to feel unwinnable (in some cases it can even be unwinnable). This is exacerbated by the decision in this confrontation to remove the need to confirm moves, which is present all through the rest of the game. Changing the gameplay in such a way seems an oddly artificial way to up the stakes, and all it achieved was to annoy me when I lost twice to Mordred as a result of misplaced clicks. To have a quest end in such an anticlimax undercuts all the hard work done by the game’s narrative.

In a year like 2020, Pendragon will either match your mindset or undercut it. With its themes of learning how to cope with adversity, of maintaining the struggle even when things seem bleakest, it might feel a little too downbeat for some. For me though, the atmospheric narrative and gorgeous stained-glass art style kept me going through the initial stumbles of plumbing its gameplay depths. This is a tale of camaraderie and persistence in the face of a crumbling world. We could all do with a little of that.

For the moment, Pendragon is only available on PC and Mac, but it’s not an expensive purchase. Moreover, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it follow 80 Days onto a range of other platforms. If it drops onto one that you frequent, do take a look.


Cancer Update

I’m not as good at keeping this blog up to date as I was in the LiveJournal days. Sorry about that. The good news to report is that as of the most recent doctor’s visit, everything seems to be holding steady. I am a little worried about my medicine-induced low heart rate and the encroaching winter combining to turn me into a hibernating blob, but my workplace’s decision to run a “Walktober” event is at least encouraging my more active habits. We’ll see how well that lasts when the weather turns nasty.

There is also the issue of the ongoing global bastard (as one of my favoured YouTube channels calls it). Numbers are spiking in Ireland, especially in the North, which means that I may become even more housebound than I have been in recent months. My immune system is okay, but avoiding any trouble for my lungs seems sensible. I hope you’re keeping safe too, wherever you are. If we’ve ever met or talked, rest assured that you’ve been in my thoughts at some point during all of this.

Travels, Reviews, and Assorted Musings