DLR audio guides

South Quay DLR station - not actually on the guide I tried.

South Quay DLR station – not actually on the guide I tried out.

For those not aware, the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) is just what the name suggests  a light railway in London’s Docklands area (and beyond) — and a great way to get around. It passes through a lot of interesting places, and being elevated for much of its length, with only a few underground segments, it’s a good way to see them.

So it’s a great idea that the DLR have produced some free audio guides to point out places and facts along the various routes. Actually I was kind of surprised these aren’t advertised better, I just happened to stumble on them through a mention on someone’s blog.

Since I was visiting Canary Wharf yesterday anyway, I thought I’d skip the Jubilee line for a change and try out the Stratford to Canary Wharf guide (and the one in the opposite direction). So I downloaded the mp3′s, stuck them on my phone and set off.

The outward journey was a bit of a mess. The DLR is fully automated and has remarkably consistent timings between and at stations, which is another reason why the guides should work so well (and there are occasional beeps to synchronise with leaving stations in case something gets out of whack). However having listened to the instruction track I was under the impression that I should start playing the guide only once the doors closed and the train was moving out of Stratford. It turns out there’s a short introduction at the start of each track too, which meant I ended up quite a way behind where I should have been making it hard to get synced up (and I had to skip quite a few bits). Still: after catching up again there were certainly some interesting facts (and one terrible pun).

Coming back I was more prepared, listening to the intro in advance and then pausing at the correct spot before we set off, so the timing was much better. I even managed to bag a seat right at the front for the best view. It was slightly disappointing how much was just repeated from the opposite direction, but there were some different bits thrown in too.

On the whole the guides themselves are informative, and the narration is very well done. There were certainly plenty of things that I wouldn’t have known, or even noticed, on the route. I did notice one minor mistake (something was described as being on the right, when it was clearly on the left) but that was no big deal.

It would have been nice to have clearer instructions, or perhaps even bundle the files as an app. I’m usually against making apps for everything, but in this case it could also have the major improvement of splitting the guides more granularly so that one could start and end at any station, rather than having to travel the entire route (or struggle to find the correct starting point).

I only found out today that there actually is a mobile site which allows one to stream the tracks starting from any station. But so far as I can tell it’s not even linked from the downloadable guides page, plus there are plenty of bits of the DLR where mobile coverage would be poor or non-existent. Not to mention the data charges it could rack up for those not on an unlimited package.

Barring those improvements though, if you ever use the DLR I would recommend downloading them onto your phone/iPod to make your next journey a bit more interesting.

Blogomerge

I went ahead and imported the old blog’s content into this one. There was actually more than I remembered.

So if you’re looking for out-of-context snippets of my past life, dead links, and YouTube videos taken down due to copyright claims, you’re in luck!

A Song of Ice and Fire (so far)

(Don’t worry, no spoilers.)

I’ve been listening to the audiobooks of A Song of Ice and Fire. Just finished book 3 and started on 4. Don’t get me wrong, on the whole I’m really really enjoying them. However there are a few things worth commenting on:

  • The narrator is enjoying the “Hodor” bits a little too much. 
  • Tywin Lannister does seem to be doing a really bad Winston Churchill impression.
  • Obviously being an audiobook, I’ve no idea how some of the names are spelled (until I started looking at the wiki). So one unfortunate character will forever in my mind be known as “Sir Anus Fray”.
  • I was warned by a friend to expect a lot of the phrase “nipples on breastplates”. This doesn’t seem to have cropped up yet, but I did notice people do seem to be “taken in the rear” quite a lot (fnar fnar). And everything lasts “half a heartbeat”.
  • “You know nothing, Jon Snow” took a while to show up, but oh lord when it did, it really did. Easy to see why it became a meme.
  • Grrrr… I’ve just started on Book 4 and the narrator seems to have decided to slightly change his pronunciation of a bunch of characters and places. Because it wasn’t hard enough keeping track of them all already.

Review: The Second World War

The Second World War was really bad because lots of people died. I give it 0 stars out of 5.

Oh, I’m actually meant to be saying what I thought of this book by Antony Beevor about The Second World War. Well, in that case, it was excellent.

We learnt about the war a bit in school, but only really in the course of studying in turn Nazi Germany and the Cold War, so some understanding of WW2 was important to both of these. And then like  probably every British person, there’s all the stuff I learned about through cultural osmosis (‘Dad’s Army’, Dunkirk, the Blitz). It’s safe to say my understanding of the war was mostly limited to Europe. So reading this was a great chance to fill the gaps in my knowledge and see the bigger picture.

And what a big, horrifying picture it was. The book opens with the almost unbelievable story of Yang Kyoungjong, a Korean conscripted to fight in the Japanese army. Then he was captured by the Soviets, and placed in a labour camp. When Germany invaded Russia, along with many other prisoners he was forced into the Red Army, to fight on the Eastern Front. There he was captured once again, this time by the Germans, who sent him to fight in France. Where, after D-Day, he was captured by Americans.

In some ways, Yang was incredibly lucky. A sadly recurring theme of the book is how often the various armies ignored the ‘laws of war’, either taking no prisoners or abjectly failing to look after those they had taken. Or worse: I knew that the Japanese treated their prisoners poorly, but had no idea before reading this book that they sometimes engaged in cannibalism of them (and this was systematic, not just a few isolated cases).

Yang’s story is also a reminder there are aspects of the war almost forgotten about by many, in that his story began with Japan fighting the Soviet Union. Although this conflict generally isn’t considered a part of WW2 proper, and in fact ended just as the fighting in Europe was getting underway, it had significant effects on the future course of the war. The fighting between Japan and China is also something I knew next to nothing about before this. But then again, I’m sure many Chinese people know very little if anything about the war in Europe. It wasn’t called a World war for nothing, and Beevor does a great job of covering all the disparate parts and stitching them together.

On a different scale, he is also adept at describing the personalities involved, and dissecting their often flawed decisions. It’s remarkable how much in turn the Russian forces, then the Germans, suffered from meddling by Stalin and Hitler respectively. When they managed to leave things to the generals, things usually went better, although this wasn’t by any means universal and there are plenty of blunders by lower level figures described. Even Churchill wasn’t immune, he seemed to be regularly coming up with completely impractical plans, which his military advisers usually managed to talk him out of.

This also means Beevor gives a lot of insight into the internal conflicts, both within a country’s forces, and with their allies. Often pride was a danger, with generals on the same side competing for the prestige of capturing a particular city. The British and Americans regularly clashed over how the war should proceed, and obviously the same but more so with the Russians. Then there’s the Chinese (riven by their own split between Communists and Nationalists), the various French factions. the Eastern European partisans… at times the term “Allies” seems overly simplistic. This becomes especially prominent towards the end of the war in Europe (a topic I’m still particularly interested in, because of how it leads into the Cold War and shapes the Europe of today). Beevor covers all this diplomacy just as well as he does the military campaigns.

There is one aspect of the war that I would have liked to read a bit more about: the science and technology. For example Ultra intelligence from the Allied cracking of Axis codes crops up several times as swinging a particular battle, or saving a crucial ship. But Beevor never really explains where it comes from. Similarly the war concludes with the atomic bombs used on Japan, and he goes into some detail on the decision to use these, but makes no mention of the vast efforts of the Manhattan Project which had led up to them being available. Just a minor quibble, and I understand these things may have been thought too tangential in an already very long book, but to me it seems they could have at least been fleshed out a little, given their crucial effects on the war.

Anyway, other than that minor point, I thought this was an excellent history of the war as a whole, and certainly more than filled the gaps in my knowledge. Now I have the urge to hunt out scores more books giving greater detail about individual parts of the war mentioned here, which seems like a good sign. I believe Beevor has written a few of those himself, and if they’re up to this standard I really look forward to reading them.

2013 Reading Challenge

Completing Antony Beevor’s The Second World War yesterday evening at about 9.30 means that:

  1. I clearly had a wild New Year’s Eve
  2. I just barely succeeded in my 2013 Reading Challenge to finish 40 books this year.

At 783 pages it was a heck of a way to end, but I’ll save my thoughts on that book in particular for another post.

So, what have I learnt from this?

Reading this many books is surprisingly hard

As evident from only hitting the magic number 40 on the last day, it was a close-run thing. Things never fell too far behind schedule, but I did often struggle to find time to read around the other things in my life. However I managed to resist the temptation to give up, or the almost equally strong temptation to pad my number by reading lots of short books. I certainly benefited from having a few long distance flights, as well as…

Audiobooks

This is something I discovered a while ago, but audiobooks can be brilliant. Once again I did a lot of walking throughout the year, whether with the dog, into town, or just random jaunts to clear my head. Then there’s the large amount of travelling mentioned above: whilst being sat on a plane is an ideal time to read a real book or ebook, there’s all the walking around airports and long waits standing in queues associated with it too (especially you, US immigration). I’ve never understood those people who seem able to walk around with a book in front of their face (and heaven forbid trying to do that and keep the dog under control at the same time!) So audiobooks are a great way to make better use of that time.

With these I mainly caught up on some sci-fi classics, and am currently working my way through A Song of Ice and Fire (which also deserves its own post in the future).

The Kindle Paperwhite is great

My old 3rd generation Kindle finally gave up the ghost mid-way through this year. Actually it was still working, but the battery was clearly knackered and it would never seem to be charged when I wanted it. With the above mentioned travelling in mind, I decided to splash out on a new Paperwhite model.

Whilst I loved my old Kindle too, the Paperwhite is just nicer. The screen is better, the faster refresh is very noticeable, and I actually find the touch screen keyboard easier to use than the physical one. Plus losing the physical keyboard means it fits better in my pocket, and the light comes in handy for reading in the dark. Overall there’s nothing really revolutionary, but it all adds up to a very pleasant and convenient reading experience.

It was totally worthwhile

I’m really glad I decided to do this challenge. It meant I got round to experiencing some great books, some of which I’d wanted to read for a long time. Goodreads gave me just enough motivation, without nagging me and making it seem like a chore. And in what was often a very turbulent year for me personally, it was always nice to have reading, and with an overall goal in mind, to fall back on.

Obviously I’ll be doing it again in 2014. I’m raising my goal to 45, which is hopefully not too ambitious. We’ll see in a year!

 

Here’s the full list of what I read.

Meet the new blog, same as the old blog