Happy Easter!

An AI generated image of a giant chocolate easter egg surrounded by multicoloured rabbits

I hope you’re having a restful Easter break. We’re staying with my parents in York for a couple of days, as per usual (barring 2020 and 2021) and I will no doubt consist of at least 40% chocolate by the end of the day.

Easter has come comparatively early this year. Not as early as 2008 (23rd March), and the absolute earliest it can be in the Gregorian Calendar is the 22nd March. The last time it was that early was in 1818, and it won’t happen again until 2285. Still, the last time Easter Sunday fell in March was 2016, and next year it’ll be very late – the 20th April.

Despite Easter falling early, it’s still felt like a long time since the Christmas break, and I’m appreciating an extended weekend off work. As well as the Good Friday and Easter Monday bank holidays, we get Tuesday off work too, every year.

Playlist of the month: Funeral songs

It’s time for the fifth instalment of my playlist of the month. Whereas last month was a mostly upbeat selection of songs about alcohol, this month is a little different.

Please note that this blog post carries a trigger warning for death and suicide. Please don’t feel that you have to read this if you’re not in the right head space to do so.

Ten years ago, my good friend Dave Jennings passed away. His death, from a heart attack, was completely unexpected and I still miss him even now. Dave was a music journalist, and his review of a record as a ‘daft, punky thrash’ may have inspired Daft Punk’s name.

At his funeral, there were two songs that I remember:

  • Always On My Mind by Pet Shop Boys. This played during the service, and whilst it’s a typical upbeat synth-pop song from the Pet Shop Boys, the lyrics took on a new poignancy that day.
  • Changes by David Bowie. Dave was always a massive Bowie fan. Sadly he wasn’t alive for the release of Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, which I’m sure he would have loved. This played as we entered the chapel at the crematorium.

To this, I’m adding the three songs that I would choose to have played at my funeral, in the hopefully highly unlikely event that this happens any time soon:

  • Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) by Green Day. “It’s somethin’ unpredictable, but in the end is right / I hope you had the time of your life”.
  • One More Light by Linkin’ Park. The title song of their final studio album, about showing that you care about someone even though they’re not here anymore. Hearing this following lead singer Chester Bennington’s suicide makes it all the more heartbreaking.
  • Whole World Is Watching by Within Temptation. Yes, I had to have a song by my favourite band on this list. It’s a duet, and probably their most radio-friendly song to date.

25 years of Rollercoaster Tycoon

A photo of The Big One, a rollercoaster at Blackpool Pleasure Beach

Last week, the game Rollercoaster Tycoon turned 25 years old. There’s a good retrospective from The Guardian, including interviews with two people who played the game in their youth and who now design rollercoasters, and the game’s designer, Chris Sawyer. Whilst its graphics felt dated even in 1999, it was well-received at the time and was a game that allowed plenty of flexibility with each scenario.

I have fond memories of playing Rollercoaster Tycoon – indeed, I spent much of the summer of 1999 playing through the various scenarios. And of course, I ended up buying both expansions, which added additional scenarios and new rides.

Rollercoaster Tycoon was the second of Chris Sawyer’s games that I played extensively. I also spent many hours playing Transport Tycoon, which was released in 1994 and came on floppy disks. It’s notable that Sawyer wrote most of the code for his games in Assembly, which meant that the games were light on system resources but also hard to port to other platforms.

More recently, I’ve played the open source clone, OpenTTD, which works on modern computers. And there’s OpenRCT2, which is an open source re-implementation of Rollercoaster Tycoon 2, although it uses the original data files.

Of course, realising that Rollercoaster Tycoon is now 25 years old is another sign that I’m getting old.

The expense of keeping a car on the road

An AI generated image of a car being worked on by models of ancient Greek workers outside a Greek temple.

I write this at the weekend, after picking my car up from our local garage for the fourth time in as many months for repairs.

We’ve had our current car for almost five years, and it was seven years old when we got it. In that time, we’ve probably spent more money on repairs and servicing than we did buying it.

Its most recent visit was to replace two of the coil springs from the suspension, which failed in quick succession. The first went on the way back from Sci-Fi Weekender in Great Yarmouth on Sunday, and the second after going over a road hump on Wednesday. This resulted in a low grinding noise which prompted a call to our local garage.

Before that, we had both rear suspension arms and brake pads replaced, a new parking sensor, and a new wing mirror. My car has motorised wing mirrors which automatically tuck themselves in when the car is locked, but the motor seized up on one, and they’re sealed units, the whole wing mirror needed replacing.

I’m fortunate that there’s a good, independent garage within walking distance of home, that has been able to do all of these repairs. That means I can drop the car off in the morning, and then work from home. Having to fork out hundreds of pounds for car repairs, is even less fun when you also have to use a day of annual leave from work for it.

Earlier repairs have included replacement body work, a new timing belt, new front suspension, and the usual replacement tyres. I wouldn’t go so far as saying my car resembles the Ship of Theseus, but it’s certainly had a lot of work done on it over the years, and many parts are no longer original.

Whilst I would be tempted to cut our losses and get a new car, to get something similar in age and size to ours at time of purchase would set us back at least £7000. We just don’t have that kind of money right now, nor would we want to take on more debt to buy one. And I would rather keep this going until we can replace it with a used hybrid or battery electric model. Or somehow come into enough money to buy a new car outright.

Using Toolbelt instead of Jetpack on WordPress

A screenshot of the Toolbelt plugin in the WordPress plugin directory

A couple of weeks ago, I stopped using the Jetpack plugin for WordPress, and switched to Toolbelt instead.

Jetpack is one of the most popular WordPress plugins and is developed by Automattic, so ditching it has been a big step. Here’s my thinking behind my decision.

What’s wrong with Jetpack?

Jetpack is a big plugin. This is because it does a lot of things, but it can add some big overheads to your WordPress install. Whilst more recently some features have been made available as individual plugins (such as Jetpack Security), many still use the large monolithic plugin.

It relies on services provided by WordPress.com, so there’s background web traffic going there. That can have an impact on your web site’s privacy policy, especially across international boundaries. And Automattic has been in talks with OpenAI and MidJourney about using content from WordPress.com and Tumblr to train AI models. Whilst there’s an opt-out, this really should have been opt-in. My content is licensed under Creative Commons, and I doubt these models respect licensing.

I’m also not keen on how Jetpack inserts adverts for its premium services into my WordPress install.

More disconcertingly, there’s been a recent incident of transphobia that involved a Tumblr user and Matt Mullenweg, Automattic’s CEO. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the Twitter Joke Trial, where an amusing but poorly thought out post got the user into trouble, and Matt waded in. I’ve generally been a supporter of Matt but this incident made me decidedly uneasy. I’m a member of the LGBTQ+ community and try to be a good ally to my trans friends, and I don’t want to support a company which is hostile to trans people.

What is Toolbelt?

Toolbelt is essentially a replacement for Jetpack. Like Jetpack, it offers a wide range of features in a modular way. By default, they’re all switched off, so you just need to enable the ones you want. There’s some overlap with Jetpack, but Toolbelt offers some additional features that Jetpack doesn’t have.

Toolbelt is much more lightweight; since installing it, my WordPress installation feels faster. I haven’t been able to quantify improvements, but pages should load quicker. Hopefully, WordPress will use less server resources too now. It does mean that some things look a little different, as I’m using Toolbelt’s social sharing icons and related posts, rather than those from Jetpack.

For the time being, this means new posts won’t be automatically shared to my Mastodon profile (and occasionally LinkedIn) until I install a different plugin to enable this. And I am currently still using Akismet for spam protection, although Toolbelt offers a comment spam module.

The only major caveat to Toolbelt is that it’s not currently in active development, although it says it has been tested with current versions of WordPress (at time of writing). Maybe it’ll get renewed attention.

Converting Tuya devices to Tasmota

Screenshot of the Tasmota web site

I’ve mentioned that I have a few Tuya smart plug sockets around the home. It’s possible to convert these to run on open source firmware called Tasmota, to gain some additional features, and it’s something I’ve been considering.

The logic boards for many Tuya devices are from the Espressif ESP family, which can easily be flashed with different firmware. Tasmota is one such provider, as is ESPHome which is a sister project to Home Assistant.

What’s wrong with Tuya?

Tuya mostly manufacture ‘white label’ devices that are then sold under a variety of brands. Mine are branded ‘Coosa’ but I’ve seen others called ‘Hey!’ being advertised. Often, they come with their own branded app, but you can use them with Tuya’s own app as well.

I bought them a few years ago because they work well with Google Assistant and IFTTT (which I no longer use). They also work well with Home Assistant (especially since last month). They don’t work with Apple HomeKit natively but can be bridged in using Home Assistant or Homebridge. The other advantage was that you didn’t need a separate hub for them to work – they connect directly to your home Wifi network.

However, Tuya is a Chinese company. Though they claim to have servers in the EU, it could be that every time I use their switches, my request goes via China. In Home Assistant, there are a couple of custom integrations in HACS called LocalTuya and TuyaLocal that can issue commands locally on your home network. But if you use Google Assistant, the commands get sent across the web.

Local control with Tasmota

The Tasmota project offers a tool called Tuya Convert, which replaces Tuya’s official firmware and allows for local control. It mainly uses the MQTT protocol, which is openly documented and used by a variety of different Internet of Things devices. Once flashed onto your devices, they can be controlled locally and don’t need to communicate with external servers. Home Assistant has extensive MQTT support and an official Tasmota integration.

They also work well with Alexa devices, by emulating a Belkin WeMo or Philips Hue device.

This all sounds good to me, but I haven’t gone ahead and done it. Unfortunately, whilst Amazon Alexa is supported, Tasmota doesn’t easily interact with Google Assistant. And once I’ve flashed a device with Tasmota, it may be difficult or impossible to go back to the official Tuya firmware.

Of course, I can configure Home Assistant to work with Google Assistant. I haven’t yet, even though there are two ways to do it:

  1. Sign up for Home Assistant Cloud from Nabu Casa, which costs £6.50 per month
  2. Set up Google Assistant manually with Home Assistant, which is lengthy and may need to be reconfigured every 30 days.

I suppose if we used Amazon Echo devices instead of Google Home, this would be a no-brainer.

In the long run, replacing these smart plugs with ones that use Matter would be better and cheaper. My Home Assistant install is pretty-much Matter ready, with no need for an additional hub. Matter, like Zigbee, mostly works locally, and therefore doesn’t have the privacy implications of my current web-based Tuya plugs.

The Cartoon Museum

Inside the Cartoon Museum in London.

This is the fourth in the series of blog posts about places we went to in London – you can also read about the Bank of England Museum, the Cute exhibition at Somerset House, and the Young V&A.

On our last day in London, we went to the Cartoon Museum in Soho. It’s a relatively new museum, opening initially in 2006 and in its current location in 2019. It’s also quite small – allow a maximum of two hours – but with plenty to see. The walls are packed with illustrations going back a couple of hundred years, right up to now – the newest being Ben Jennings’ cartoon of Queen Elizabeth II taking the Elizabeth Line into the light when her death was announced in September 2022. It is mostly lots of pictures on walls, but there is a Spitting Image puppet on display as well.

At the moment, there’s a Wallace & Gromit exhibition, marking 30 years since the release of The Wrong Trousers. There’s several models on show, as well as some behind the scenes photos and some of the equipment used to film it. You can also see the actual Oscar that Nick Park won, although no photos are permitted of this. The exhibition is on until the 16th April.

A smaller exhibition shows the work of Oluwasegun Babatunde, a Nigerian comic artist who created a team of superheros based in Sub-Saharan Africa during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is on until the end of this month.

There’s also an activity room where you can create your own comic strips, and of course the ubiquitous shop.


The nearest tube stations to the Cartoon Museum are Oxford Circus and Tottenham Court Road. The museum is located in a basement, down a set of stairs, and sadly the lift has been broken since 2022. A recent crowdfunder to fit a new lift didn’t quite reach its goal but hopefully this will be fixed soon. Ear defenders and sensory backpacks are available to borrow once inside.

Young V&A

A photo of the interior of the Young V&A.

This is the third in the series of blog posts about places we went to in London – you can also read about the Bank of England Museum and the Cute exhibition at Somerset House.

The Young V&A is the new name for the V&A Museum of Childhood. It’s still in the same place, outside central London in Bethnal Green, but the new name reflects a complete refurbishment. We last went in 2017, and it’s changed massively since then. Before, it was very much a museum, with lots of objects in big glass cases and not much to interact with. Now, whilst there are still some objects to look at, it’s a much more interactive space, and somewhere to bring young children to play. Indeed, our eight-year-old was probably one of the older kids there. Dropping the ‘museum’ from the title therefore makes sense.

The gallery spaces have been split into themes – Play, Imagine and Design. Play arguably caters for the youngest children, although there’s a big screen with a playable Minecraft version of the museum (thankfully it resets regularly to discourage hogging). Imagine includes the dollhouse collection from before, and design looks at how products are designed. There’s a particular focus on recycling waste into useful furniture.

Japan: Myths to Manga

Japan: Myths and Manga

Then there’s an exhibition space, and the opening exhibition is called Japan: Myths to Manga. Whilst the main museum is free to enter, you have to pay to access the exhibition space, and tickets are limited. We made the mistake of not booking in advance, so when we were ready to visit the exhibition on a Saturday afternoon, no more tickets were left. So, we ended up booking tickets for the Sunday and came back the following day.

Personally, I concur with Ianvisits and found the exhibition a little under-whelming, but my wife and child seemed much more engaged. The exhibition is rather sparse, and I would have expected to see more objects there. However, I’m not in the target market for this and we did spend over an hour in the exhibition. There’s several clips from Studio Ghibli films to watch and plenty of Pokemon; but it was also good to read about the traditional Japanese stories and myths which inspired these works.


Because our hotel was located between Aldgate and Whitechapel, we caught the bus to the Young V&A, but it’s also a short walk from Bethnal Green tube station which is on the Central Line. It’s also not too far from Cambridge Heath station on the London Overground, on what will soon be known as the Weaver Line. Around the corner is the new permanent home of the Vagina Museum, although we didn’t have chance to visit this time around.

As you would expect from a recently-renovated museum, there is step free access everywhere, and there’s a dedicated quiet space in the Reading Room. Which we found quite welcome; although the renovation has been extensive, it’s a listed building and so there are limits. Any building popular with children is bound to be noisy, and the open space in the middle is quite echo-y.

Sci-Fi Weekender XV

A photo of a panel interview at a previous Sci-Fi Weekender in Great Yarmouth.

If you’re reading this blog post today or tomorrow, then I’ll be at Sci-Fi Weekender XV in Great Yarmouth, along with Christine and a large group of friends. As usual, I’m writing this in advance on a very old and wet Sunday – perfect blogging weather.

This is our seventh Sci-Fi Weekender event; the first one we went to was SFW 9 in 2018, near Pwlheli in North Wales. Our child was only two at the time so we went as a family, although that meant missing out on the evening activities, including John Robertson’s The Dark Room. It took us a while to work out why everyone was calling each other Darren and why there were so many pineapples everywhere.

Sci-Fi Weekender has moved around a bit over the years. The first event was in Pontins in Camber Sands on the south coast of England, but it had spent a few years in Wales before our first visit. SFW X (part I) was in Sheffield city centre, after changes to the site in Wales meant it could no longer be held there, and it’s been at the Vauxhall Holiday Park in Great Yarmouth since 2019 (SFW X part II). We’ve been to all of them since 2018, although after our first time we’ve had childcare in place. Not least because it’s a Thursday-Friday-Saturday event and it’s not a valid excuse for taking a child of school on the Friday.

Neil and Christine with Brian Blessed at Sci-Fi Weekender XIII

What is Sci-Fi Weekender?

Sci-Fi Weekender is perhaps best described as a residential science fiction and fantasy festival (or ‘Space Butlins’, if you will). It’s not a comic-con (like Thought Bubble, which we went to in 2014 and 2015), and there are usually only a handful of stalls. The main focus is entertainment, cosplay and interviews with actors and celebrities. It doesn’t tend to get many big names, although Peter Davidson (the fifth Doctor, and father-in-law to David Tennant) is the top-billed name this time. Previous SFW events have included Brian Blessed and Nina Wadia.

It tends to take place in holiday parks (the Sheffield years excepted) so that the majority of attendees can stay on site, and it also gives it a more intimate feel. Many guests stay the whole weekend, and some even mingle with attendees. Professor Elemental, who we’ve now seen seven times (eight if you include this weekend) always performs and usually gets involved in hosting a panel. We’re also looking to Madam Misfit‘s third visit.

Whilst the Vauxhall Holiday Park at Great Yarmouth is good, it’s a bit of a trek from Yorkshire. It’s roughly a four hour drive, and about the same by train but with three changes from Sowerby Bridge. We’re driving down as we’re offering a lift to some friends who are also going.

Also, don’t ask about the numbering. SFW X was delivered as two events, and then XI and XII didn’t happen because of you know what.

Build Something Better by Grace Petrie

Album cover for Grace Petrie's Build Something Better

There’s a new album out by queer folk singer Grace Petrie this week, called Build Something Better, and I think you should buy it.

Grace is someone who I’ve seen live a couple of times, mostly supporting Josie Long on tour. She’s always fantastic to see live; not just because her music is great, but because she can work a crowd between songs. I was not at all surprised when she did a stand-up comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2022 called Butch Ado About Nothing. Of her previous songs, Black Tie, from her 2018 album Queer as Folk is the one that probably resonates the most with me.

Her last album, Connectivity, reached in the UK album charts without much promotion. Grace is not on a major label – hence the links to her music on Bandcamp – and I gather its appearance in the top 40 was a surprise for her. This time, for Build Something Better, Grace is aiming to get into the charts again. So, if you can, please buy the album today or tomorrow, to give it the best chance of charting.

You can stream Build Something Better on Spotify if you want, or I suppose you can buy it on Amazon (sponsored link). But if you buy it on Bandcamp, you can pay more and more of your money goes to Grace. And it’s available in a variety of music formats, including lossless audio, if that’s your thing, with no digital rights management. However, if you do buy it from Bandcamp, make sure you download it, as simply purchasing the music isn’t enough to count for charts.

I’ve had a listen to a few of the songs so far, having bought it at the weekend, and I’m enjoying them so far. It’s already at Number 17 in the midweek charts, so a few more sales could get it into the top 10.