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Blogstacles

Hello blog, it’s been a while! Again!

I can put this down a lot to the fact I was teaching, at least up until just over a year ago. Not only is teaching a job which necessarily takes up a lot of your time and energy, but this blog is a place where I tend to talk about personal, day-to-day experiences and events. When those day-to-day experiences are almost entirely interactions with pupils and lesson planning…well, the former is definitely not appropriate to share on a personal and public blog, and the latter probably wouldn’t be a particularly interesting read either.

As a result, I didn’t really have much left to write about. I hadn’t been going to that many gigs, and I went through a phase of not playing at that many, either. I remember once talking in the staff room about the first night out I’d had in months, and ended up being envied for ‘having a social life’.

In the last year or so, the work situation has been all change, on a number of occasions. My career path is more of a career squiggle, though it’s been a very interesting squiggle. I’m sure I’ll write a blog post about that at some point, as I’m now venturing into pastures new as a software developer. My social life, however, seems to be becoming more stable (there’s a lot more of it, for starters), and as part of that I’m making it to more gigs.

I’m also, ironically, going to blame the march of technology for my lack of blogs – stay with me here – things have advanced so quickly that most tasks requiring dedicated time on a PC can now be done on a mobile phone. For anything lengthy, though, I tend to prefer to get the laptop.

Sure, I can thumb-type ferociously when ideas just have to come out, even if I have to tolerate the speed slowdown from my touch-typing, the corrections that are needed every other word, and the really annoying thing phone keyboards seem to do where the gaps between the keys sometimes seem to let you click on an element behind the keyboard, and all of your hard work vanishes into oblivion (and sometimes you occasionally click on an advert you didn’t want to open, or send a random stranger a friend request in the melee of flying popup windows). Argh! But a proper keyboard is much nicer.

The problem is: getting that proper keyboard means putting down my phone, putting down my coffee, getting up to go to another room, getting my laptop out of my work bag, finding the charger, plugging in the charger, waiting while the laptop boots up and installs updates…

OK, maybe I am being just a teensy bit lazy. But there never used to be a faster way of doing things on the internet. And when you have limited energy and limited free time, the more steps you know are between you and the ‘quick’ thing you wanted to do, the more likely you are to revert to scrolling through Facebook, because there’s only five minutes until Emmerdale is on, anyway, especially if the alternative is furious thumb-typing and the associated build-up of frustration. And so the enthusiasm quickly wanes, the ideas remain in the mind to disappear silently, and creative outlets of the written (or, rather, typed) word go on being neglected.

The Oyess folding Bluetooth keyboard, with my phone (in its case) on the built-in stand.

The Oyess folding Bluetooth keyboard, with my phone (in its case) on the built-in stand.

However, mind-numbing and endless scrolling has led to a solution. Potentially. I’m using it right now, to type this, in conjunction with my phone, and the WordPress Android app. It’s a folding Bluetooth keyboard. Nothing particularly revolutionary in that, you say – they have been around for a while – but I’ve never seen one like this before. Most foldable keyboards seem to still be designed to be used on a table. That’s all well and good if you’ve got yourself set up in a nice spot with a table and chair, and maybe a cuppa, but to me that’s not really an advantage over using the laptop. In fact, as implied by the name, you can also use a laptop on your lap, when you don’t have a table. The folding keyboards I’d seen before had the hinges so that the keyboard opened up widthways, which is fine if it’s on a solid surface, but unless it locks rigidly it’s going to fall through my lap, and even if it does lock rigidly, typing will put a lot of strain on those hinges. I can’t see them lasting very long. Also, what do you do with the phone? You could awkwardly stand it up, in a case that lets you do that (mine does), and balance both the keyboard and the phone on your knees, but it’s not a great solution, nor a comfortable one.

The Oyess folding Bluetooth keyboard, folded closed.

The folded keyboard: magnets hold all of the sections securely closed.

Then I saw a different type of keyboard. One that had the hinges the other way, so that the folded up keyboard looks more like a long, thin necklace box, and the sections of the keyboard can rest across my lap, putting a lot less strain on the hinges as I type. Plus, the back section folds into a stand that locks rigidly. It’s not quite big enough to hold a tablet (at least not my tablet), but it’s perfect for my phone.

It took a while to find this one, though. Scrolling through eBay, I saw many identical-looking adverts, from the same sellers, but they were all different keyboard layouts, so I started to get worried about accidentally ordering a non-UK layout. There are also two categories of negative review, at least in my book. Sometimes, you read a negative review and think “OK, sounds like they’re only human, everyone deserves a second chance”. However, when you see hundreds of negative reviews talking of items not arriving, and refunds not being given, and other shenanigans, that’s more than enough to make me steer clear, even if there are hundreds of positive reviews, too. I was beginning to think I’d never find a different, less-negatively-reviewed seller of this particular type of keyboard, but I did, and one from the UK at that. All I had to do was be willing to settle for a keyboard that was black rather than silver.

There are other advantages to this one, though, over the others: it has a physical on/off switch, rather than automatically turning on when you unfold it. The latter sounds like a great and convenient idea, but if it breaks, you’ll end up with a very expensive brick you can’t switch on any other way. I also like the fact that the lights don’t turn on needlessly – the power switch lights for a short time to show it is turned on, and then doesn’t waste power that should be going towards keeping your keyboard going for as long as possible. The red charging light also turns off to let you know it has fully charged – some of the other keyboards were criticised for not giving any indication of this. It also has a few more keys than the others, and a bit more of a logical layout.

Having written this blog post partly just to write something to test the keyboard, I can say that the chiclet keys are very pleasant to type on – perhaps even nicer than any chiclet laptop keyboards I’ve tried, and definitely easier to type on than my existing laptop keyboard or a desktop keyboard. Also, the other advantage of the hinges running across the keyboard, rather than up, is that the hinges fall between complete rows of keys. On the others, some of the letter keys were made slightly larger or smaller or shifted slightly to accommodate the hinges, and I felt that would mean I’d occasionally be hitting a hinge instead of a key, or hitting the wrong key, or generally getting a strange feeling to typing. I needed virtually no time to get used to this keyboard. It feels like I’ve always used it.

Of course, it only solves the problem when I have a lap to type on. It’s not quite compact enough to always have in my trouser pocket, so thumb-typing will still be the only practical method for most cases when I’m out and about, but for the times I have a bag with me it’ll take up hardly any extra space, and in the house when I get an idea, it’ll be ready to go in seconds.

Now that I’ve removed the technological barrier to my blogging, the only obstacle that remains is my effort. If I can’t surmount that, then maybe I really am just being lazy. Only time will tell, I guess…I’ll either post again in a few weeks, or I’ll be blowing off the cobwebs in another two years…

#love

A poem on a chalkboard, on a rainbow background. Text given in image description.

Mini-review: Bandicoot – Everything I Need

So, what is it about this Bandicoot track that makes it ‘everything I need’? At the time of writing, it’s had 310 listens. At least twenty of those are me (it’s actually becoming a bit of a problem…)

I’ve often said that I enjoy music that makes me feel like I want to conduct it. I don’t mean I wish to change anything, but that everything seems to be placed so carefully, just where I would have wanted it put, as if the orchestration itself is being treated like an instrument played with feeling. That’s what’s happening here. I’d say that’s the X factor…but I don’t want to confuse things with the TV show.

Orchestration isn’t about regularising the life out of something. You can write notes on a page if you like, but it’s not mandatory. The magic happens when you’re all contributing to the same score, to make one that becomes far more than the sum of its parts. It doesn’t have to be on a piece of paper. The way it builds, the way it weaves, the way it layers. If this track isn’t an epitome, it’s pretty bloomin’ close.

There is only one me

Waking up to who you are requires letting go of who you imagine yourself to be.   – Alan Watts

It started as a new year’s resolution – my only new year’s resolution – to keep a diary. I threw in the hashtag #ThereIsOnlyOneMe on a whim. It sounds pretty obvious, but so does a lot of advice we give ourselves and soon forget.

Originally, I was only thinking of logistics. There is only one physical me. No-one can be in two places at once. In work, I’m reasonably good at keeping a diary, but teaching does this for you in many ways, as you have fixed times for lessons (I just have to make sure I keep to what’s in the diary!)

The mistake I keep making, however, and the new year’s resolution I’ve often broken, is allowing things to clash outside of work. By keeping a ‘work diary’, in an isolated bubble which only applies to the time I’m in work, I don’t take into account the knock-on effect of working late, or the times where I need to see if I can finish early. I cannot be ‘work me’, ‘musician me’, ‘family me’, etc. in isolation, and keeping them each in their own little time bubbles means that – on rare occasions – they all add up to more than 100%. Gigs clash with work, gigs clash with pre-arranged family time, gigs clash with other gigs…

I’d already been given the solution in 2008 – a small paper diary – but in true Star Trek style, it was so successful a solution that I duly never used it again. In the past, and since, I’ve tried a slew of digital organisers, PDAs, my phone…all of them rely on the user (i.e. me) programming them correctly, and remembering to charge them…

I have tried other paper diaries, but they were too big…so I almost always left them on my desk at work…and so the problem of clashes outside of work continued.

Cue 2016, and a 59p diary, staring at me from the shelves of Poundstretcher. Four inches by three. Pocket-sized. Never runs out of battery, no delay in loading (once the right date has been found), and even if I forget a pen, I’m highly likely to find another before I would have managed to open the calendar app on my phone. This is the future, I thought. And it has worked, to an extent.

I’m realising, though, that the mentality shift of #ThereIsOnlyOneMe is so much bigger than this idea of keeping a diary. When you’re on the stage – whether it’s the stage of a lecture theatre, or any other type of stage, it can be helpful to have a persona. Crucially though, I’m not being false, just ‘Jamie+’: confidence ramped up to 220%, for a fixed and short length of time. Extroverted. Funny (sometimes). I step off the stage, and I’m back to being plain Jame again.

However, somewhere along the way, I got confused: my metaphorical stage and everyday life became flipped. I started simulating a ‘new me’, and he tried to simulate the ‘old me’ (badly), for backwards-compatibility with the real world. This is the thought process behind one of my so-called ponems:

In the past I may have been
Not me; a virtual machine.
Reacting as I thought I should,
Based on how another would.
Simulations of a soul,
Stopping me from being whole.

It’s gone on for far too long.
Now I sing a different song,
Rememb’ring who I am, and more:
Friends and family are core.

The past few months and years have been filled with challenges, some of my own making, some beyond my control. I thought I needed to learn who I was, but what I really needed to learn was who I was not. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say re-learn, since almost everything I’ve learned I already knew, annoyingly. In experimental physics, we sometimes need to push against the theories, change theories to match new data, perform experiments in ever more extreme situations to see if the theories hold. But my own mind is not, and should not be a physics experiment. The world is not a simulation. It is filled with real people, with real emotions, real feelings, real lives. And in the past, there’s one person I’d been forgetting to count amongst these real people: me.

I know me better than anyone else. I’ve been me for over thirty years. My family come a very close second – they cannot be me, but they know almost all of me better than anyone else. Anonymous memes, generic magazine articles, even well-meaning advice from friends must be taken along with the context in which it is given. Logic can plot a straight-line course, but the wind and the waves of your psyche will most likely have other ideas. You can’t take the advice of an icebreaker captain and apply it to your canoe (I do love my weird analogies…)

My new year’s resolution to keep a small diary up-to-date has unwittingly become a life-encompassing mantra: whether it’s my schedule, my relationships, my music, my teaching presence, my place in the blogosphere, or anything else…for 2016, and beyond, #ThereIsOnlyOneMe.

 

Solar Eclipse 2015 from Swansea, South Wales

New Year’s Resolutions 2014

  • Write more blogs

I’ve fulfilled this resolution just by starting this blog post…it has been a little while since I’ve written anything on here…been busy!

  • Come up with a new career plan

My original career plan – if I ever had one – ran out at the end of my first degree. I was offered the incredible opportunity to ‘bolt on’ a PhD, of course, but then chance took me on to teacher training. I’ll admit to feeling I was finally on to something near the end of 2013, in terms of a new career plan – “this is it…I’m going to be a science teacher!” – but in today’s world especially, nothing is certain. I did join the world of employment briefly, but it was only a short-term teaching contract. Now I may be rejoining the academia ‘track’ after all, and I’m quite looking forward to it, though I’ll miss teaching…or maybe I’ll get to do a bit of both in 2014?

  • Read the magazines I’ve subscribed to

Only I could subscribe eagerly to the Times Educational Supplement (TES) shortly after starting my teacher training, and then never get round to reading the things. It’s getting embarrassing. I don’t want to end my subscription as my reasons for joining haven’t changed, but at some point I really must open the plastic bags in which they arrived through the letterbox (yup, I haven’t even opened the packets!), shred and recycle the job newspaper bits (since all the jobs will almost certainly be out-of-date), and keep the magazine parts, giving myself some interesting bedtime reading for the next few months to keep the teaching part of my brain ticking over. Do you know what’s even more embarrassing? I haven’t opened up most of my Physics World (IoP) magazines either. And I call myself a physicist…

  • Dance

Not sway imperceptibly, DANCE…like nobody’s watching (even though they are). I think the teacher training has helped me immensely with this too: it necessarily forces you to stop being an introvert, even if you’re putting on a front and it’s all an act. As you practice, and practise, it becomes less of an act and even starts overwriting your previous behaviours (the amount of times I’ve found myself picking up dropped items for total strangers, before they’ve even noticed it’s hit the floor). I recently taught the topic of Forces and Motion, and I know it sounds silly, but the combination of having gotten used to being watched, and using myself as a visual example when explaining concepts, seems to have been the key to unlocking my ability to dance! New Year’s Eve going into New Year’s Day was a revelation! So many have tried and failed to get me on to the dancefloor in the past, some of them using quite a lot of force and they’ve still failed…or they’d get me on there under duress and I’d dance like a musical statue when the song had been paused. However, it wasn’t for nowt…all these years, I must have subconsciously been observing and noting and recording and thinking…2014 saw me hitting the ‘play’ button on all that stored information. I think my legs actually ached the next day – they’ve never moved so much! Even ‘worse’, now I seem to have the bug…

  • Sing

Oof…this is going to be a tricky one. I don’t sing. Then again, I don’t dance…and…well…now I sort-of do. It’s not that I can’t sing, but I won’t sing. I’ve been through this process of not being shy (to the point of being precocious, so I’m told, when I was younger), to being unwilling to play a single note in public on my violin, to finally realising I was missing out on enormous amounts of fulfilment and fun by being too reticent, which was the first step on my road to ‘recovery’ and beyond. I’ve even managed some really wild moments on the violin, and I want more! So why is this not the case for singing?

I’ve not sung for so long that my voice is a complete unknown to me, whereas even if I was given someone else’s fiddle to play I’d have a fair idea of the sound that will come out when I move the bow. You need no words when you play an instrument, so I’m not used to the concept of performing notes and lyrics at the same time, especially not with the alien instrument that is my own voicebox! I used to sing in school choirs, though, loud and proud…so I used to be able to do it…but if I try and sing like that now, I find that some of the notes are missing. I guess my voice must have broken, after all…(!)

I need to take this slowly, and it may be a resolution for next year instead…but something inside me is brewing. I shouldn’t allow this self-made strangle-hold to continue, especially if it would give me a bit more weight in the music world. I’ve had lots of great experiences, don’t get me wrong, but every now and then something hits you for six. Maybe if I’d been a singer as well as a musician in 2013 (and before), these negative musical experiences would have played out very differently.

  • Get a show on BBC Radio Wales / Radio 2

OK, now you’re just getting silly, Jamie. Even the singing is faaaaaar more likely to happen…but we can all dream!

Teach-nology

Hello blog, it’s been a while! Since I launched myself headlong into teacher training (PGCE) in September 2012, I’ve barely graced the interweb, except to grab teaching resources and carry out research for essays. I’ve now got a bit more free time to catch up on my pastimes, so here goes.

Looking back on the PGCE, I realised that the technogadgets I purchased bit-by-bit over the course of the year might have been even more useful if I’d owned them all right from the start. Who knows, this advice might even help the next bunch of PGCEers? Some of the items are pretty obvious (a laptop, for example), some of the items I already owned, and some of them I only acquired near the end.

Laptop

I won’t spend too long describing the laptop itself, but the principle. Whenever I buy new technology, I like it to be ‘significantly different’ to what I already have, at least in some aspect (my first snapshot digital camera had 6 megapixels, my next was 9 megapixels, for example). My mind wandered onto all sorts of exotic, feature-packed laptops – Core i7s and HD screens and backlit keyboards and reversible touchscreens – with the cost spiralling towards unrealistic heights. Was it really sensible to spend over £1,000 on something that was going to be carted back-and-forth to university and school in a rucksack on the bus? Not really. I had to forget what I wanted, and boil things down to what I needed: a small, portable laptop to type stuff on. It didn’t need to play games, it didn’t need to be fast, and as I’d be spending lots of time illuminated by massive fluorescent lights, I didn’t really need a backlit keyboard, tempting as it was! I’d spotted the Samsung NP-N102S in Sainsbury’s for just under £200, boasting a long battery life and a spacious 320 GB hard disk, but it only had 1GB of RAM, which on Windows 7 felt a little small.  It turns out there’s a solution which doesn’t break the bank…

Cheap RAM (memory)

It suddenly occurred to me to have a look at the Crucial website. I’ve seen adverts for their site so many times I’ve lost count, but I’m a relative latecomer when it comes to ordering things online, and I’ve previously only ever bought RAM from a shop.

The website makes it incredibly easy to find what you need, something which I treated with scepticism at first, as it seemed ‘too quick’, and I didn’t want to accidentally order the wrong thing in haste. Everything seemed to check out, though; you can either find the model number of your laptop directly, or download the system scanner. Either way, it found me a 2GB DDR3 chip for £6.99 (the least I’ve ever paid for a stick of RAM). I chose the free postage option (3 – 5 business days) and it actually arrived a day earlier than I was expecting, in a strongly-sealed plastic envelope with protective packaging inside, in the form of a plastic holder which did the job of holding the memory away from the edges of the envelope without being wasteful. Within minutes I’d opened up the access port on the laptop with a small screwdriver, and swapped the ‘old’ RAM for the new, doubling the capacity for a fraction of the price that it would have cost to buy the next-highest laptop model. There were no problems on boot-up and a noticeable speed increase (even though RAM doesn’t strictly affect the speed of the computer, RAM is faster to access than the hard disk, and computers use both to store temporary pieces of information as it’s running – that’s why your hard disk sometimes whirs and clicks furiously when you try and do anything – so overall you get an improvement). It’s been working perfectly to date, as far as I can tell. I’m a very satisfied first-time customer, and I won’t hesitate to use them again (well, I didn’t; I soon bought some RAM for another project – a computer with a relatively-old motherboard – and it was just as easy to find the RAM I needed quickly).

Cases

It’s entirely possible to buy a rucksack with a special lined pocket designed specifically for a laptop, but they’re really designed for standard-sized laptops (around 13-inch or above), not tiny netbooks. Small laptop, big bag … you can hopefully see the problem! Either you’d have to pad out your rucksack, or find something to put the laptop in to keep it safe from bouncing or slipping around in there.

I’d seen a few of my fellow students using neat little carry cases, which were solid and offered their own protection (i.e. outside of the rucksack). I found a similar case in Maplin for £9.99, which fitted my netbook perfectly, and I managed to put a few more things in with it, as we’ll read later on (it was like Mary Poppins’s suitcase by the time I’d finished!) It provided a reassuringly snug fit, but the added elastic strap secured the laptop. The carry handles are secure, but I accidentally tugged one whilst pulling the case out of my rucksack and tore one of them, so they’re not that robust (mum did a brilliant repair, though, which hasn’t failed yet).

[UPDATE: 27th October 2013] I forgot to write about the most value-for-money and probably the most useful item I’d ever bought: my USB Flash Drive Case! (Maplin, £2.99) Previous USB drives I’d owned either got mislaid within a couple of weeks, or I had to make sure to use portable USB hard disks which (in theory) were too big to lose. Of course, the case can’t do anything to stop me walking off and leaving the USB drive plugged into the computer, but at least I realise it’s missing within seconds or minutes, when I casually check that I have my keys and/or go to unlock a door. This could be, quite literally, the best three quid I’ve ever spent.

E-reader

The laptop carry case is described as a ‘Netbook and Tablet case’, but I don’t think they necessarily meant at the same time. However, I quickly realised that (protected by its own sleeve case) my Kobo Touch e-reader fitted happily in the net pocket within the case. I bought the Kobo originally to read research papers in preparation for my PhD viva exam (read my original review of the Kobo Touch here), but it came into its own on the PGCE, where a lot of the course material (course notes, presentations, research) was provided electronically for review. It probably would have cost me the value of the e-reader to print it all out, and my eyes wouldn’t have coped well with reading it all off a computer screen. Also, it meant that I could read this material before lectures, refer quickly to them during seminars, or peruse them on the bus or in the car (I wasn’t driving, before you say!)

Mini USB hub

This handy device came from the demise of poor Comet. Still pricey at £12.99, I thought carefully before I bought the Belkin Flexible 4-port USB2 hub (can’t find it on Belkin’s own site, but it’s still available here), but I could immediately see how it would fit nicely into my case. Any solid parts are small, and the ‘extension’ USB ports are on cables which branch out from the central block, which itself contains a USB port designed so that you can slot something in vertically, e.g. a Wi-Fi stick. One of the branches has a micro-USB connection, obviating the need for me to pack a separate micro-USB lead for the e-reader, and an attached mini-USB converter for other devices. The disadvantage of this, of course, is that (without additional leads) you can’t use micro- and mini-USB at the same time, but the inclusion of micro-USB as part of the hub is the selling point – micro-USB leads are expensive and difficult to come by, whereas you can pick up a cheap mini-USB to USB lead from pretty much anywhere (the supermarket, a ‘pound shop’, or even some corner shops and petrol stations), and you can just connect this to one of the other full-size USB ports. There are other (cheaper) small hubs, but I haven’t seen one like this before: other small hubs I’ve seen tend to slot directly into the USB port – it only takes one accidental knock and you could break the hub or the port, or both – you’re also relying on the USB port to support the weight of the hub and anything that’s plugged into it. As the name suggests, the flexible parts of the Belkin hub are a distinct advantage for storage and whilst it’s in use. It’s been a fantastic little gizmo and worth every penny.

Scanner

If only I could have squeezed a printer in there as well, I could have been entirely self-sufficient, like a technology-filled version of BBC’s The Good Life (ignoring the fact that Tom Good’s character would have been horribly offended by the comparison, since that was all about avoiding the rat race and the trappings of modernity). Still, the ability to scan the odd document without having to trapse to a special room was a huge advantage, not to mention that it saved carting back-and-forth the material you wanted to scan.

The EasyScan Portable Handheld Scanner from Maplin (currently £49.99) runs on 2 AA batteries, and stores complete scans as JPGs onto a microSD card (not included). It’s really lightweight, comes with a custom-made soft carry bag which fits snugly around it, and the whole thing (by chance) slots neatly into the laptop case. The scanner is easy to operate and the instructions straightforward, directing you to scan slowly and carefully. A green light will appear if the scan is successful, and a red one if you’ve moved too fast. It’s not painfully slow, but you do have to be careful not to slip, since the scanner tracks its position on the page using rollers, not optically (i.e. the green ‘success’ light will still appear, even if you’ve slipped a few times, causing distortion in the final captured scan). On a completely flat surface, with a completely flat sheet of paper, results are very good. However, it’s very difficult to keep the scanner moving in a smooth straight line on booklets, since the edge of the scanner overhangs the page margin by around an inch, meaning it catches on the staples. You can’t run over them (if you try, the freedom of the other end of the scanner causes the whole thing to go off at an angle), and the overhang is just that little bit too long for you to dodge the staples (you’d have to move the entire apparatus an inch to the right, meaning you’d lose some of the left-hand edge of the page in the scan). Also, if the batteries run out, it won’t run off USB power, unfortunately (which also means, if you don’t have a microSD card reader to hand, you can’t transfer the scans you’ve already done, either). So, some minor disadvantages, but I’d argue they’re overshadowed by the quality of successful scans, and the mere (and very cool) fact that you have a high-quality portable lightweight scanner that you can carry around in your laptop case! It’s not something you’ll want to use for high volumes of scanning (you can use your flatbed scanner at home for that), but there were a few times during the teaching placements where I thought to myself how nice it would be, if I could just lift a diagram from a textbook and display it on my computer slide presentation. For that, and that alone, this scanner is worth having (you could do this with a mobile phone camera, I suppose, but it could be out of focus and a lot more shaky, and therefore take you a lot longer to get a good ‘scan’ with your phone than if you just ran the portable scanner over it).

Graphics Tablet

Last but not least, I spotted the Trust Flex Design Tablet (Maplin, £29.99). A flexible graphics tablet sounds about as useful as a chocolate teapot, but looking past first impressions makes you realise there are distinct advantages, particularly in terms of portability. It’s light, thin, small, and whilst you can’t roll it up into a tube (not sure why you’d want to), the fact it flexes makes it fit nicely behind my e-Reader in the inside net pocket of the computer case, without me worrying that either will crack when the case is zipped closed. For processes requiring design accuracy, you’ll obviously want to use it on a flat surface, but as a mouse you can position the tablet and the laptop such that you can use both on your lap … sort-of comfortably. I found this incredibly useful when doing exam marking on the computer, avoiding repetitive multiple swipes of the trackpad in order to click on buttons and text-boxes; selecting these with a pen felt much more intuitive; this was also true when designing graphics for worksheets and slide presentations, which could be done much more quickly than with a trackpad or mouse. The tablet is very much like a mousemat in appearance, and this provides a pleasant surface to write or draw on, more so than a standard graphics tablet in my experience, because the interaction of the plastic nib of the (fairly standard) electronic pen with the softer flexible tablet didn’t feel as unnatural as with a rigid tablet, nor was it as hard on the hands.

 

Tales from Nem-a Firma (Stornoway gig review)

Stornoway, Jamie Nemeth, Pat Hall

I didn’t bring my ‘proper camera’, but my phone at least captured the moment, including Pat of tour van fame (right).

A good friend and regular Off The Chart Radio show listener introduced me to Stornoway‘s music around four years ago. They went on to be the first band to spend an entire year on my Unchart feature, as well as performing at festivals including Glastonbury and BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend, and performing on Later… with Jools Holland (after being spotted at Glasto). It was a privilege and pleasure to hear them perform live at Oxjam in Brecon three years ago, and to have the opportunity to interview the lead singer, Brian Briggs. You can imagine how excited I was to find out that they’d be playing in my hometown of Pontardawe on 20th February 2013, where I caught up with bassist and vocalist Ollie Steadman for a follow-up interview, and had another chance to speak to the whole band at the end of the show.

There’ve been a couple of line-up changes since 2010, but essentially Stornoway have the same core, not only in terms of musicians and musicianship, but in attitude. Even with all of their accolades and achievements, the band embraced and included the whole audience in a down-to-earth fashion, sharing with us their friendliness and good humour, as well as epic arrangements interspersed with beautiful unplugged vocal items. The intimate layout of the Pontardawe Arts Centre lent itself to creating, if you like, a ‘giant folk club’; the band seemed taken aback by the attentiveness of the audience, but performed as if they were at ease with it, interacting so closely with each and every one of us that they could have been sitting on the next seat over.

I remember commenting that the entire night was so brilliant that the word ‘gig’ was blatantly insufficient to describe the experience. If there was any way to clearly and undeniably demonstrate the difference between a gig and a show, this was it: incredible harmonies, instrumentally and vocally; choreographed instrument changes which flowed as perfectly as the tunes; perfectly-timed contributions, even when those contributions came from the sound of a torn newspaper, or a saw (yes, a saw, dragged through a block of wood, rhythmically and musically). In fact, the carefully-considered musical journey began with Laura J. Martin, their support act for the night and the entire tour, who opened with single-handed mastery of the loop pedal, flute and mandolin (perhaps it should be double-handed mastery of the flute and mandolin, thinking about it, so it’s not a perfect metaphor!) Her vocals and style had more than a pinch of Kate Bush, and she filled the stage, not relying on technology to do this, but using it expertly as a tool, creating a virtual orchestra. Ollie (from Stornoway) then joined her on the double bass for a couple of numbers, which was a teaser of things to come, in terms of the vibrancy of his playing.

After a short break, the lights went down and the audience volume with it, setting up an electric atmosphere. Led by a beautiful violin solo which blended perfectly into the catchy piano riff to ‘Coldharbour Road’, the remaining musicians appeared from the wings to take their places one-by-one. Many great performances followed, but I feel they excelled themselves with their performance of ‘November Song’, with Brian revealing its connection to West Wales, it having been written whilst he was staying there. There’s also a connection with the Swansea Valley itself, since Stornoway’s tour van was donated to the band by Abercrave man Pat Hall (read more about this here). The band were really pleased to find out in advance that he would be in the audience, giving them the opportunity to speak to Pat and everyone else about the impact of this kind gift, which had certainly not been forgotten. They also paid tribute to the van itself, which they’d been using since 2009, until its recent demise.

Talking of vehicles, hearing ‘Fuel Up’ live was another special moment for me; it’s reassuring to know that the song isn’t considered by the band to be ‘too old’ to perform – it’s the song that remained on the Unchart for an entire year thanks to listener votes, and remains a favourite of friends and listeners – but it’s also a timeless song by the very nature of its lyrics, which uses a car journey as an analogy for life’s journey. The imagery of travelling in the back of a car at an early age merges analogy with reality at a point we can all identify with.

The band finished the set with another unifying song – ‘The Ones We Hurt The Most’ – with the vocalists stepping down from the stage and positioning themselves just in front, to perform a capella in five-part harmony amongst the audience. This powerful work made many (if not all) of us realise that we were not only fully included in the musical experience of the night, but also in the emotional experience, with the song bringing myself and mum to floods of tears and a tight hand-hold. All of us as a family having watched my grandmother “fighting to hang on … [putting] so much in for nothing in return”, hearing these lyrics sung almost hymnally was so difficult and so incredibly emotive, as the sincerity of the vocals connected on a level which was almost tangible. When they sang of feeling like “strangers in a town we don’t recognise” on coming “out the other side”, the lyrics captured our emotions at the time perfectly, so perfectly that the song couldn’t possibly have been a work of fiction. On top of everything else the band had already shared with us, now they were sharing their hearts. Stornoway had created the very opposite of a ‘them-and-us’ atmosphere from the start, but at that moment, the concept simply didn’t exist. We were all just people, “… all going the same way down this long hard road”, as in the ‘Fuel Up’ lyric, a song which gains more meaning and poignance every time you hear it.

“And when your days are darker, put your foot down harder, drive on, fuel up and drive on …”

Stornoway’s new album, Tales From Terra Firma, was released on 11th March 2013 on the independent 4AD label.

Stornoway’s website: http://www.stornoway.eu/
Laura J. Martin’s website: http://laurajmartinuk.blogspot.co.uk/

Thistledown

Here’s a taster of our set at Swansea University’s Summer Ball on 5th June 2012, where we shared a bill with Tim Minchin, Pixie Lott, Rudimental (the UK’s #1 at the time), and more.

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Thistledown

Thistledown will be playing at Swansea University‘s Summer Ball on 5th June 2012!

The annual event, a popular end-of-year or end-of-university bash organised by Student Swansea Events and Swansea University Students’ Union, features headliners Pixie Lott and Tim Minchin, as well as many other live music acts, DJs, arenas, bars and even a funfair.

More information can be found at their Facebook event page: http://www.facebook.com/SB12GreatBritishGardenParty

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