Tag: review

Review of the year: 2023

Selfie of the three of us on the doorstep for Thomas' first day at school
The three of us

This year has been rather unusual as a result of redundancy, and long COVID.

I caught COVID in February 2022 and my fitness has been in steady decline since then – I used to be able to run 3x10km per week but through 2022 I struggled to work my way back to that level and in fact each time I made progress I was knocked back to a lower level until by September this year I stopped running. I have also missed out on holidays and family gatherings – knowing that an half an hour or so of mild exertion would leave me exhausted. In the spring of this year I approached my GP, and after a long series of tests which showed I was in otherwise excellent health I ended up in my local long COVID clinic in October.

The long COVID clinic has been really helpful – after an initial evaluation appointment (an hour long with two people!) I now have a monthly meeting with an occupational therapist whose main advice is not to do too much and rest. I’m currently stable but not doing much, looking forward to working my way back up very cautiously.

This summer, at the age of 53, for the first time in my life, I was made redundant. This was a rather stressful process, mitigated slightly by the fact that at the first hint of redundancy being on the cards (invitation to a meeting with line manager and a representative of HR) I made my “can I retire?” spreadsheet and that looked like a possibility! I am not retiring though. I wrote a “Leaving Address” blog post. After spending the summer lounging around doing not much except a little DIY, I then spent the Autumn doing little on the advice of the long COVID clinic.

Photograph of a stylised bronze-like women (called Myrtle) - she is a planter. Lying on a bench following repair
A little DIY – Myrtle fixed in the Kintsugi style – the brown part is a replacement

Then I became employed by mistake*! My old boss from ScraperWiki got in touch asking if I was available because UNOCHA were looking for someone to do maternity cover. I worked on the establishment of the Humanitarian Data Exchange for UNOCHA nearly 10 years ago. The day after my first contact I spoke to someone I’d worked with 10 years ago, submitted my CV and filled in a form. I had a contract inside a week! I’m really enjoying the work. The end of year townhall meeting was a bit of an eye-opener – it included personal testimonies from people working in Türkiye (where there was an earthquake earlier this year), Yemen (war zone) and Gaza (also war zone).

I blogged about 18 books this year, including biographies of Richard Trevithick, John von Neumann, Margaret Cavendish, and Grace Hopper. If nothing else they highlighted just how exceptional and unusual people who warrant biographies are. The Grace Hopper biography was prompted by Broad Band by Claire L. Evans a book about women working in computing over the years since Ada Lovelace in the first half of the 19th century.

There have been a few books that fit under the diversity theme, in addition to Broad Band, On Savage Shores by Caroline Dodds Pennock – about native Americans in Europe from the 15th century, Femina by Janina Ramirez – about women in the medieval period and The First Astronomers by Duane Hamacher . The First Astronomers is about aboriginal astronomers from various parts of the world (although mainly Australia) – they are very astute observers, aware of phenomena only recognised in the West in the later 19th century. I also gained a better appreciation for oral traditions from this book, stories are not meant to be taken literally – they are mnemonics to pass on vast bodies of knowledge as accurately as possible. I think these books have had the biggest impact on how I think.

There was a thread of books on data visualisation too – starting with Storytelling with data by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic continuing with Data Points by Nathan Yau, Resonate by Nancy Duarte and finishing with Storytelling with you by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic. In other technical books I also read Masterminds of Programming by Federico Biancuzzi and Shane Warden – about the inventors of a number of programming languages, and The Mythical Man-month by Frederick Brooks Jr. The Mythical Man-month is a classic in software project management, written based on experiences in the late sixties it has the air of fifties era sci-fi, fantastically insightful in places but deeply anachronistic in others.

With time on my hands I also started a series of technical posts of my own, on the ecosystems for different programming environments – starting with Python and Typescript – this turned out to be quite revealing – Python is my “first” programming language at the moment but researching the Typescript ecosystem clarified my understanding of Python.

I read a couple of historical overviews, The Earth Transformed by Peter Frankopan, about the impact of the environment on human history and vice verse, and How the world thinks by Julian Baggini – this is a comparative history of philosophy. The Wood Age by Roland Ennos and Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations by Simon Schama are difficult to classify. I must admit I struggled with Foreign Bodies, it featured incredibly long chapters, and the longest sentence I recall reading in English.

My son started high school, which went very well. There is a lot more preparation than there was when I was growing up, transition days, a couple of summer school days and a WhatsApp group! Mrs H is now Dr H – she graduated from her EdD in October.

Photograph of an 11 year old boy in school uniform and a woman in a graduation gown and hat with a starry dress. Both are smiling
Sharon, dressed for graduation for her Ed.D with Thomas

Personally, I am hoping for a better 2024 with some recovery from long COVID and perhaps the continuation of the work I am doing with UNOCHA.

  • Withnail and I reference :-)

Review of the year: 2022

Chester Cathedral on Christmas Eve

As is traditional here I present an annual review of my blog which is largely comprised of book reviews but this year includes some technical posts as I learnt some new software engineering skills.

In book terms I started the year with Natives by Akala – this is the autobiography of Akala, – it fits into the Black Lives Matter theme which I started in the previous year. Railways and the Raj by Christian Wolmar also has something of this air, the way the British ran the Raj, and the subsequent violence on Partition are a salutatory lesson.

I read a couple of books about scripts, one specifically focussed on Chinese script – Kingdom of Characters by Jing Tsu, and a second, very short book, on all scripts – Writing and script – A very Short Introduction by Andrew Robinson.

From a technical point of view I read Felienne Hermans’ The Programmer’s Brain which definitely provided a lot of food for thought, Software Design Decoded by Marian Petre and André van der Hoek and Data mesh by  Zhamak Dehgani. The topic of this last book, the data mesh, has been a central theme of my work this year.

My favourite book of the year was Pale Rider – The Spanish Flu of 1918 by Laura Spinney which was written before the covid pandemic, it was interesting to see the differences – no effective vaccines, or even a clear understanding of viruses and the similarities – arguments over schools remaining open. I also read The Art of More by Michael Brooks – a history of maths, it turns out accounting and bureaucracy were important drivers in the invention of maths. The last book of the year was Dutch Light by Hugh Aldersey-Williams – a biography of Christiaan Huygens – the second I have read.

On a more general history front I read Ask a Historian by Greg Jenner and Curious devices and mighty machines by Samuel J.M.M. Alberti, which is about science museums.

I continue to learn how to play the guitar, Play it Loud by Brad Tolinski and Alan Di Perna fits in with this – it is a history of the electric guitar, broader than The Birth of Loud by Ian S. Port which I read a few years ago. I have stopped with learning to play the (electronic) drums.

My posting this year was a bit more varied than it has been for a while, I started a thread of technical posts written as I clarified my thinking for a project I am working on at work – one of which, Understanding setup.py, setup.cfg and pyproject.toml in Python, has been my most popular blog post by a large margin and boosted traffic to my blog to the highest level ever! That’s not to say traffic is particular high – I had about 20,000 visitors this year. Versioning in Python was in a similar vein – technical information about some very specific technology. A way of working: data science and Software engineering for Data Scientists were a bit more general and philosophical, they have received rather less traffic.

In the summer the whole family joined Chester’s mid-Summer Parade as pirates which was a great deal of fun.

Thomas, Sharon and I (from the right) with two other pirates!

On the holiday front, we went to Ambleside in the Lake District for a week in July. The photos below are from Allan Bank by Grasmere – an exceedingly relaxed National Trust property. I was impressed by my new phone’s ability to take reasonable photos through windows – normally the inside of the room would be under-exposed, the photo album for the trip is here with many more photographs.

We also went to Dorset in October, where I grew up, stopping off at the gardens at Stourhead on the way down (pictured below). I scattered the ashes of my dad and stepmother with my stepbrothers in the New Forest. I was surprised how much ashes were involved – a large bag of flour-sized quantity for each of them. Dad would have been proud that two parties converged from two directions on the same location in the middle of the Forest from an X on an Ordnance Survey map, probably less impressed by me getting lost in a bog on the way back! Although as Mrs H said, getting lost having said a final farewell to my dad was rather symbolic. I posted a eulogy for my dad, here.

More photos from Dorset, including the Tank Museum, Monkey World and the Slimbridge Wetland Centre on the way back, here.

The Winter brought more entertainment, on the left you see me in my suit for the office Christmas Party. It is difficult to appreciate the sparkly-ness of the shoes but they are still out since I enjoy seeing them sparkle. On the right is the chief Roman from Chester’s Saturnalia celebration.

We all got covid earlier in the year, I still haven’t got back to my former running form – 10km in 50 minutes, I can only manage 3km in 15 minutes and struggle to run much further without post-exercise malaise setting in. My Garmin running watch generously tells me I still have the body of a 31 year old, 21 years younger than my calendar age!

I’ve have had quite a lot of counselling for anxiety this year – featuring Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) which I insisted on referring to as “disco lights”. It appears to have worked to some degree although in the depths of winter when I’m not doing anything that induces anxiety it is difficult to tell.

Review of the year: 2021

The year started much in the manner of 2020 with Thomas, now aged 9, going back to school for a single day before returning to home schooling because of the covid pandemic. Despite this he’s doing well, surprising his RE teacher by explaining what omnipotent and omniscient meant! In the Autumn term his class had a covid outbreak which he managed to dodge despite sharing a table with three of the infected. Sharon and I have both been vaccination three times.

We managed to go on holiday to Anglesey on the hot week at the beginning of the summer, much time spent on the beach and we all got a bit sunburnt. We also travelled down to Dorset to see my mum in October- the first time we have seen her in over two years. We stopped off at Stonehenge on the way, it is the first time I remember visiting Stonehenge, I probably did as a child since I grew up only an hours drive away. Things have changed at Stonehenge since I was young, you used to approach by parking at a visitor centre and crossing under a main road but now the road has been closed and grassed over and the visitor centre has been moved away so you approach by a half hour walk which reflects the approach our prehistoric ancestors are though to have made.




Overall we rather enjoyed the experience, it felt like a bit of a pilgrimage and once we got to the stones it didn’t feel too busy.

In domestic news we now have two new cats, Lily and Michelle – adopted from Warrington Animal Welfare which incidentally has a fine view of the Warrington Transporter Bridge. We adopted our previous cats, Bill and Ted, when we moved to Chester in 2004, Ted died a few years ago and Bill disappeared, presumed dead in April. Lily (on the arm of the chair below) is three, and her daughter Michelle is 8 months old – its a bit of a novelty having young, playful cats again. Unlike Bill and Ted, Lily and Michelle actually use the cat beds and cat tree we have generously provided, they have not tried to dig their way out of the lounger where they are currently largely confined (looking at no cat in particular, Ted).


For a while over the summer and autumn we had a trail camera setup in the back garden, this followed on from taking part in a hedgehog study run by Chester Zoo – they loaned us a trail camera to look for hedgehogs. None showed up until after we had returned the camera at the end of the study and bought our own! The highlights of our trail camera experiments were the evening a fox cub poked a hedgehog with their nose, and discovered it was prickly, and the tawny owl – an unexpected visitor for a suburban garden. We had quite a few foxes what looked like a family with three or four cubs – sometimes even showing up in the day time. And we have video proof that "yes, that is fox poo"!



I started and finished the year with books where the media was the message with History of Britain in Maps by Philip Parker to start, and Index, A history of the by Dennis Duncan which was about indexes specifically but also something of the history of the book. I have learned that indexes have been used as both satire and fiction.

I read a number of guitar related books this year, Guitar Method – Music Theory by Tom Kolb, How to Write Songs on Guitar by Rikky Rooksby, Guitar Pedals by Rob Thorpe, Riffs: How to Create and Play Great Riffs by Rikky Rooksby, Guitar Looping – The Creative Guide by Kristof Neyens and related to this Audio Production Basics with Ableton Live by Eric Kuehnl. My favourite of these is How to Write Songs on Guitar by Rikky Rooksby which is a bit of a "bigger picture" book, and rather more book-like than the others. I still play guitar badly but I treated myself to a new guitar (a Gretsch G2622 Streamliner DC in Ocean Turquoise, see below), it is a modest step up price-wise on my Squier Stratocaster and I think this shows.


On the more technical side I read Exercises in Programming Style by Cristina Videira Lopes which I really enjoyed, it shows the same program written in 33 different styles, all in the Python programming language. I also read Data Pipelines with Apache Airflow by Bas P Harenslak and Julian R De Ruiter, as well as writing a blog post on Python Documentation with Sphinx.

My history reading tended more towards the prehistoric with Hidden Histories by Mary-Ann Ochota which talks mainly about Prehistoric British landscapes, The Goddess & The Bull by Michael Balter – about Çatalhöyük one of the oldest settlements in the world, and Ancestors by Professor Alice Roberts – about prehistoric British burials.

On the Black Lives Matter front I read Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, Precolonial Black Africa by Cheikh Anta Diop, and Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera.

There were a couple of natural history books, Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake about fungus and Much Ado About Mothing by James Lowen, about moths. Sort of related since it pertains to the biological sciences was The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson which is a biography of Jennifer Doudna, and the CRISPR gene-editing technology for which she won a Nobel Prize. And finally, Eye of the Beholder by Laura J. Snyder which is a joint biography of Johannes Vermeer and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek who were both born in Delft in 1632.

The year ends largely as it started with covid once again running wild in the UK, this time with the Omicron variant and we are unsure whether Thomas will return to school at the beginning of the year. Prospects are a little better because we now have a vaccine, and this seems effective against all variants although Thomas, as a 9 year old, does not receive any covid vaccinations.

Review of the year: 2020

It’s been a bit of a year!

On the scale of things we were pretty well situated, my wife and I both have jobs which can be done online effectively although Sharon’s university employers, in common with many universities, had an unwarranted enthusiasm for maintaining some face to face student contact and getting students on site.

We have a moderate sized garden where Thomas (now nearly 9) and I played a lot of football, touchingly (and rather naively) he thinks I should be a professional football player! Thomas and I also did quite a lot of baking together. Home-schooling was a battle of attrition, Sharon took the lead on this, for which I am eternally grateful. My part was largely the baking which we passed off as "maths". Thomas took the philosophical view that home was not school and we were not teachers therefore there could be no home-schooling. By the end, and in common with many parents, he was spending most of his time watching videos and playing games on a tablet but we made it through and he is now really happy to be back to school.


We live next door to a supermarket which was handy particularly in the early days of lockdown when there were shortages of random food items, and often queuing to get into the shop. As a result of covid, and the forthcoming final exit of the UK from the EU, we now have a second freezer and a moderate stockpile of food.

We are on the edge of Chester, so we can walk from our front door into the countryside. I also discovered cycling for leisure again, and found the routes out along the Greenway and back along the River Dee were rather good – car-free, well-paved and almost entirely flat. I also cycled out to Ness Gardens as part of my company’s annual "challenge", any "challenge" that involves coffee and cake at the mid-point is fine by me!

This years blogging has been thin but rather more varied than usual, I found I had less time for reading than normal. The traffic to my website has increased this year though, presumably because people have more time on their hands.

I wrote a couple of technology blog posts (Type annotations in Python and Unit testing in Python), these are pretty popular – I guess people are often googling for just the problem I have been seeking to fix.

I attending some counselling sessions for anxiety earlier in the year, so obviously blogged about that. Coronavirus has not been a problem from an anxiety point of view (other than the normal anxieties everyone else has!): I have been largely forbidden from doing the things that made me anxious!

Since I was spending more time in the conservatory, playing drums and guitar, I gave it a bit of an upgrade. I also wrote a rare "Gear review" post about the Boss RC-3 Loop station – it’s a guitar thing!

On the book front You look like a thing and I love you by Janelle Shane had me sniggering quietly to myself reading it on the train, it’s an overview to machine learning mainly focussed on the often hysterical results of machine learning. I read How the states got their shapes by Mark Stein, followed by 1491 by Charles C.Mann about pre-Columbian civilisation in the Americas. The Black Lives Matter movement reached the UK, and I was rather proud to see the residents of Bristol (one of my home cities) chuck a statue of the slaver, Edward Colston, into the harbour. My actions on BLM were modest, I deliberately started followed people who weren’t like me on social media, and read Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga – this has helped me think differently about British history. Also by David Olusoga (and Melanie Backe-Hanson) I read A House Through Time and related to houses, I read The Address Book by Deirdre Mask.

Along the lines of my more usual reading in the history of science I read The Egg and Sperm Race by Matthew Cobb – which is about how we came to understand reproduction in animals (and humans). The Pope of Physics by Gino Segrè and Bettina Hoerlin – about Enrico Fermi, Science City by Alexandra Rose and Jane Desborough – about science in London, The clock and the camshaft by John Farrell – about technology in the medieval period, who would have thought hammering was so important! Finally, and a little unclassifiable were  Sea monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps by Chet van Duzer and Your voice speaks volumes by Jane Setter.

We didn’t really manage a holiday away this year, we visited my father-in-law in Malvern for a few days but various restrictions and our caution made anything more an impossibility. Here we are climbing up to British Camp on the Malvern Hills


Thomas learned to ride a bike! He’s not shown much interest until now, we bought a cheap second hand bike from Bren Bikes and he was riding without support within a couple of hours.

As an end to a poor year my dad passed away a week before Christmas. He’d moved to a care home in January this year following the death of my stepmother a little over a year ago. Initially rather ill, and a little confused, his health improved as the year progressed. By lockdown he had started making short trips out on the train. In lockdown he engaged with the social life of the care home, and was making daily walks around the garden but towards the end of the year his health was declining. He died rather suddenly on Thursday 17th December, my brother had seen him the previous Saturday. We are grateful for his mercifully quick end, and the final year he had. I wrote an eulogy which you can find here. The funeral was held on 30th December with most attending online, as many have done through this year – I posted the Order of Service here which includes the music, readings, eulogy and photos.

A picture of dad with Thomas and Sharon


My winter gloom is not so bad this year because I’m not cycling to and from work in the dark, obviously circumstances have made it a rather sad end to the year.

I guess all that can be said now is "Here’s to a better 2021!".

Review of the year: 2019

My blogging this year has been entirely book reviews, you can see a list on the index page. I still find blogging a useful discipline to go with my non-fiction reading but my readership is so low there seems little point in writing other things for a wider audience.

A number of the books I reviewed related to music, I feel this is cheating a bit on the book reviewing front since these are typically teaching books which are more guided exercises than prose. I also read Ian S. Port’s book The Birth of Loud which is about the origins of the electric guitar from the point of view of Leo Fender and Les Paul. The music books are reflected by an increased collection of musical instruments in the household, we started the year with my electric guitar and electric and acoustic guitars for Thomas. We have since gained a bass guitar, for Sharon; a ukulele, for travel; an electric drum kit; an acoustic guitar for me (it’s very pretty – a Fender Newporter, pictured below); and for Christmas a keyboard for the family.


To learn to drum I got the Melodics app, which plugs into the drum kit and gives direct feedback as to whether I was hitting the right thing at the right time. I found this really usefully but discovered as a result that my guitar playing involved a lot of pausing for thought between passages, so I’ve started using Youcisian for guitar which has similar feedback functionality. The musical year finished with us getting a family present of a keyboard, and now I discover the theoretical side of music is so much easier on a keyboard – on a guitar the notes wrap across the fret board so you can access a couple of octaves with one hand in one place. This is convenient but it means note positions are not as obvious as on a keyboard where everything is laid out in a nice straight line.

Beyond music my reading has been quite eclectic this year. I started with Mapping Society on the use of maps to communicate data about society, moved on to a biography of Hedy Lamarr the Hollywood star who patented the frequency hopping method for secure communications. I went through a spell of reading more work relevant books – a couple of books on JavaScript, a book on marketing and one on international culture and how it impacts business interactions, and a book on rapid prototyping in business. I read several fairly academic history books, Higher and Colder on extreme physiology experiments on Everest and at the poles, Gods and Robots about representations of robots and similar in Greek and other mythology and Empires of Knowledge about some of the correspondents in the Republic of Letters. I also read the sumptuously illustrated catalogue of the Matthew Boulton exhibition. I read a couple of more data science oriented books (Designing Data Intensive Applications and Deep learning with Python). Angela Saini’s book Superior, on race science was a highlight. Returning to my roots I also read Lost in Math by Sabine Hossenfelder which is about how theoretical physics has lost itself in a search for mathematical beauty.

This years holiday was in Benllech once again, only a short drive for us from Chester. Thomas has been learning to swim, and Sharon and Thomas rather enthusiastically flung themselves into the chilly Irish Sea. To be fair the weather wasn’t too bad, we had a couple of really warm days – I got sunburnt feet – and only a couple of heavy downpours in parts of the day when it didn’t matter.

familybenllech _beach

Politics has been largely miserable over the last year, Brexit failed to happen several times through the year but only after it felt we had been brought to the brink of crashing out of the EU with no deal which I found stressful, and now we have a Tory government with a significant majority led by someone unsuited to run a whelk stall which will take us out of the EU, probably as a cliff edge towards the end of the year. I suspect the General Election was won in part because voters are fed up with Brexit paralysis, even those that wish to remain were probably not greatly enthused by the prospect of a second referendum which had every sign of being as tightly contested as the first.

On the positive side, my own team, the Liberal Democrats, has seen a general rise in its fortunes. We have been consistently taking council seats from Labour and Tory, with gains considerably above expectations in the May elections. In the unexpected EU elections in the summer the Liberal Democrats polled second with 19.6% of the vote with only the Brexit Party ahead of them, I tend to see EU elections as indicative of general support in the absence of the First Past the Post system. In parliament we saw mixed fortunes, we increased the number of MPs by defection and by-election to 21, then dropped back to 11 seats in the December General Election, losing our leader Jo Swinson in the process. This is despite growing our vote share from 7.4% to 11.6%, you’ve got to love the First Past the Post system!

Ever keen to be forced to do new things by apps, I’ve started learning Arabic in Duolingo, I have to admit this is largely due to finding Arabic script attractive. I suspect I cheat quite a lot by using minimal pattern matching rather than full understanding the language to get some answers right.