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July 29, 2008

90 minutes of aerobic exercise a day

The BBC has announced breathlessly that the secret of weight loss has been discovered: eat like a mouse and do at least 55 minutes of aerobic exercise a day. That will probably allow you to lose 10% of your body weight and keep it off for a year. My joy is unconfined.

Of course, this weekend I had no trouble hitting the target at the glorious Warwick Folk Festival. We went to this festival two years ago; it's on a tricky weekend that normally clashes with either Trowbridge or Cambridge. It's a perfectly-formed delight; big enough to book big bands and have plenty going on, but small enough to be easy to get around and see everything you really want to.

My aerobic exercise came from Oysterband on Friday and Bellowhead on Saturday, in addition to a certain amount of ceilidh, swimming twice, and plenty of tent-pitching and general walking around. Memo to other festivals; here is how you set up for a band that people are going to want to dance to at a festival where the main marquee is seated. You set the stage high off the ground (nearly as high as me), you leave a big space at the front, and then you put the seats behind that. Result; everyone gets to see, those who want to stand can do so, and those who want to sit have an unimpeded view. Warwick was just about perfect in this regard.

An additional feature was a big screen, complete with local ads, screen lag, and cute camera angles. I am not sure the main stage at Warwick is big enough to warrant it, but some people clearly appreciated it.

Discovery of the festival for us was the loud and rather silly metalcore ceilidh band Glorystrokes, playing the Saturday night ceilidh. Great fun to listen to and pretty good to dance to. We also particularly enjoyed hearing Bella Hardy, fresh from the Proms, veteran folkie Tony Benn, appearing here with elder statesman Roy Bailey; and the suddenly Mercury-nominated Unthanks, with all new backing musicians.

We also found time for traditional crafts, including more corn dollies (I made a Welsh fan! And I had a picture, except that AirMe appears to have neither saved nor uploaded it). Marianne bought a knitting board, which is essentially French knitting on steroids. She's currently generating large amounts of square knitting; I have a plan to acquire stripy cotton yarn and channel her creativity into homemade dishcloths.

Posted by Alison Scott at 10:31 PM | Comments (0)

July 20, 2008

Money-Free Weekend

The concept of the money-free weekend came from the Simple Dollar. In truth, it was not entirely a money-free weekend. But it was pretty close.

First, I must tell you that TOR.COM, a new entry into the focal point fanzine market, went live today. They have a number of people blogging for them, of whom I am one. But have no fear, gentle readers: I decided that they didn't really want lengthy screeds on weekend life in and around Walthamstow and 'what I just watched on the telly', so I will continue to blog here too.

Saturday started with my regular trip to EFDSS for the last of their Saturday morning singing workshops. These aren't quite free but I paid at the beginning of term. They continue next term; singing workshops 10:30 - 12:30, lectures 1-2, instrument classes in the afternoon. So next time I'm continuing with the singing, and also taking up beginner's banjo. Be afraid. Lecturers next term include Jon Boden, Brian Peters, Maddy Prior, and Roy Palmer.

In going there, I missed the wake for the Orford Road Post Office, closing on Tuesday despite the best efforts of Walthamstow village residents. This photo shows an unco-operative Marianne posting perhaps my last ever eBay package in the black-shrouded post box.

From there we went to Chingford, where the Bargain Bookshop, was having its 20th anniversary party, complete with beautiful cake, Pimms, goodie bags and the Chingford Morris, slightly confused by actually dancing in Chingford. We had only a brief stop there because our main event of the day was a party in Cambridge. The party was jolly, with plenty of food, beer and interesting conversation. People had observed, from the closed beta, that I was one of the tor.com bloggers. I said that I was blogging fandom and they all moved away. Clearly I need a tor.com version of the "I'm blogging this" t-shirt. (Yes, petrol does cost money, so that's a bit dodgy; beer also).

This morning we went to beginners' and juniors' morris practice. Morris dancing is an excellent cheap hobby, in that you get dance instruction and healthy exercise and a sense of community and so on, all for free or very very cheap indeed. I did lots of dances, and played for a couple as well; in particular playing for the one that I bogged up completely yesterday afternoon.

From there we went to Halfords to buy accessories for Marianne's new bike. That wasn't quite money-free either, but it was very close as the bike came with a voucher for accessories that nearly but not quite covered the accessories. (Which were a lock, lights and a rack. She already had a helmet).

Quick lunch at home and then off to the Green Fair, where Marianne was one of 500 local children playing in a massive "Fellowship symphony" celebrating William Morris and I was one of several grizzled old folkies who'd been asked to provide some incidental music on the Hornbeam Centre's stall. The latter worked out rather well as the Hornbeam was selling organic real ale on its stall. The combination of cheery folk music, comfy grass to sit on and actual beer attracted a fairly large crowd over time. Our scratch band featured keyboard, piano accordion, melodeon, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, autoharp, guitar, concertina and a bloke dressed as the Green Man playing the bodhran.

The symphony, by comparison, turned out to be a huge and glorious undertaking, with several different bands and orchestras all around the park, playing sequentially and simultaneously. The fair was free, the symphony was free, there was free bungee trampolining for any child prepared to wait in a huge queue to go on it, and people kept pressing energy saving light bulbs and so forth on us.

As we were walking into the fair Marianne made a Spot Hidden Object role and noticed that at the bottom of one of the posters for the fair, in rather small print, were the words "featuring live music from The Men They Couldn't Hang". Now. It does seem faintly unlikely that a band I really like, that I follow, that I have all the main albums by and that I've paid good folding money to see on numerous occasions, could be playing a free concert half a mile from my home without my knowing about it. Turns out I was not alone in this; I mentioned the concert to several other incredulous TMTCH fans over the course of the afternoon. Of course, it was impossible to find out when or where they were due to play; I worked it out by the process of speaking to every sound engineer on every stage in Lloyd Park or Aveling Park, until I found one who said wearily 'well, they were supposed to be on now, but everything's running very very late'.

The result was that they played to a very small but very appreciative audience; this photo is slightly unrepresentative in that those people who were bopping moved back behind the grass so as not to get in the way of those sitting in the pleasant evening sun. Before they started Marianne said "They'd better play Colours, if they don't play Colours I'll ask for my money back...". They did of course, along with The Ghosts of Cable Street, Iron Masters, Wishing Well, Rosettes, Bank Robber, Walkin' Talkin', the Green Fields of France, Shirt of Blue and Smugglers. And maybe some others I'm forgetting. Anyway, it felt fabulous, as if they were playing just for us, and all free. And great for Marianne, as normally TMTCH play festivals where it's hard for kids to see, or venues where kids aren't admitted.

By the time they were done we had to dash home very very fast because BBC Four were televising the Folk Prom, featuring Bella Hardy, Martin Simpson and Bellowhead. If I'd paid £35 for a ticket to that prom I would be pretty offended, as you got just about half an hour of Bellowhead. A very good half hour however, and the BBC sound editing was excellent. Bella Hardy impresses me more every time I hear her; she was great live at Ely with Chris Sherburn (described, quite accurately, by Phil Beer that weekend as "the funniest man alive"). If you can use iPlayer then it's available on Listen Again on Radio 3 for a week.

Posted by Alison Scott at 09:43 PM | Comments (0)

July 19, 2008

More iPhone app reviews

Well, there seem to be lots of people out there on the web looking for iPhone app reviews, and I've just acquired a pile more apps. Obviously they're not cheaper by the dozen. But there you go.

One general point about apps; many of the apps seem to run better if you reboot your phone first. Now, that's not very Maclike; but I think what's happening is that some apps are strewing cruft around where other apps trip over it. So this is worth bearing in mind.

Banner Free is free and feels like it could be very handy in those noisy, crowded places where it's difficult to attract people's attention or make yourself heard. It scrolls a banner message (like an LED banner sign) along your screen. Nice and big, you just type the message. Bubble Wrap is also free and simulates a little piece of bubble wrap. Handy when you're stressed out.

After I mentioned eReader, a friend told me to pay actual folding money for Bookshelf. This has several nice features; it reads several ebook formats already, with more to come; it loads books over WiFi by looking in the eBook folder on my desktop (desperately handy), and then transfers books onto the phone in a few seconds. I've read a novel using it, too, which was perhaps not as pleasant, but much more portable, than carrying the book. £5.99.

Critter Crunch is a very cute action puzzle game which has had excellent reviews on other platforms. I still feel like I'm learning and am making silly beginner mistakes; which often prove fatal. I do like games of these kinds but normally get the most fun out of them in that sweet patch between sussing them enough to play effectively and exhausting their normally limited strategy. £5.99.

Motion X Poker screenshotMotion X Poker is getting rave reviews everywhere. This is an implementation of that fine old standard of beginning programmers, poker dice. But what a version; dozens of gorgeous sets of dice each with their own sound effects and lovely rendering. You roll the dice by shaking your phone, and manipulating the dice to hold and release them is super quick. I bought it for its secondary mode, where you just roll dice; handy if you're one of those people who can never quite find a pair of dice when you need them. But in fact I've played the poker dice quite a lot; I just want to unlock all the dice sets now. £2.99 which is a total bargain. Everyone's asking for two-player support but top of my wish list is a big ask which would probably be a slightly different program; I would like support for rolling an arbitrary number of dice (more than the 1-5 now supported), but even more I would like support for the commoner sorts of polyhedral dice. Because frankly it would be easier to carry around an iPhone than a dice box.

Brain Challenge also has pretty good reviews, but for me the jury is out. I enjoy the 'daily challenge' on these games, but as yet I've unlocked very little and have little enthusiasm for repeating those minigames I've tried. I may review this one again in a few days. £5.99

iDrops looked quite pretty at 59p, and it is a very sharp implementation of a puzzle game that I've never liked; where you click on groups of squares to remove them; as you do so the squares squeeze up and you have to get rid of all the squares to progress. If there is any strategy here beyond blind luck I have never found it. But this is nicely done, with sweet jellied edges to the squares.

Guitar ToolKit is probably best value if you're a guitarist, but I bought it because it has a splendid electronic tuner, which is another of those things, like dice, which I want to keep in my pocket at all times. It also has a sweet metronome with a tap the beat feature; I would like it to have more better beats (at least 6/8 and 5/4 please, both of which I use quite a lot). The feature which I don't use but obviously would if I was a guitarist is a chord diagram library with over 200 chords in it; the feature that doesn't quite hit the mark for me is reference tones, where I could do with all 12 like a pitch pipe but instead this just has the strings of standard tuning. Which is a little odd as the tuner offers you, as well as 'any note', a choice of dozens of different custom tunings. £5.99

Posted by Alison Scott at 12:25 AM | Comments (2)

July 15, 2008

Shiny new iPhone

Yes, of course I have a 3G iPhone. I now have a proper, bona fide, Apple queueing experience under my belt also. Which resembled a silent movie in which primitive iPhone hunters of Walthamstow ran back and forth between the O2 shop and the Carphone Warehouse shop depending on which was currently being the least disorderly.

CW won the day for me at least; they had more iPhones, and they were better organised. O2 had only 15 iPhones, and could only sell them to people who were upgrading as their systems had crashed. CW had clearly rather more than 15 iPhones, and could sell them to anyone, but only new customers could easily walk out of the store with them, because the credit check for existing customers required a search on the O2 system, which was just as crashed at Carphone Warehouse.

Anyway, after a couple of hours I had an 8Gb iPhone 3G, so that was one game won I suppose. I realised I had no idea how to transfer my SIM over, or even where the SIM was. The internet clued me into the need for a paperclip; we appear to live in a post-paperclip society but I eventually found one. Days later I discovered that the 3G iPhone comes with a Official SIM extraction tool.

The new phone is very nice, and 3G and GPS are £99 worth for me at least (yes, I know there's a contract extension too, but in the UK at least the tariffs are perfectly reasonable.) I noticed the yellow tint before reading about it.

I immediately set about getting apps for it, including social networking and games. AIM and Twitterific will work better once the much-heralded message count in background is implemented. AIM is a bit pointless if you have to actually be in AIM to tell if someone's messaging you. The best free app to give your mates a laugh is Carling iPint. Yes, it's advertising. That doesn't stop it being funny. The best free games appear to be the rhythm game Tap Tap Revenge, the currently unavailable Cube Runner and match-3 RPG Aurora Feint.

Other handy free apps include Apple's iTunes remote control (but just as with the Apple remote, better to control everything on your Mac, not just iTunes, and I'm sure someone will offer this soon); Light, which turns your phone into a handy torch; and eReader, which should read your eReader.com and fictionwise.com bookshelfs, but in my case at least only reads eReader books. It's a start, but I'm waiting for FBReader.

Exposure, a slick Flickr browser, demonstrates a likely iPhone business model. Like Twitterific, you can have this app free and ad-supported, or in a premium, paid-for, ad-free version. The App Store doesn't appear to support free trials in any obvious way, so this is an alternative approach. Exposure delivers a powerful hit of icy-cool future shock, with its 'Near Me' button; click it, and you can see the photos on Flickr taken near where you happen to be at the moment.

And what of paid apps? I've bought two so far. Super Monkey Ball is the poster demonstration game for the iPhone, and well worth £5.99 to amaze people. However, as other reviewers have noticed, it's incredibly hard and unforgiving, and it breaks the first rule of portable gaming, which is that you should make it easy for people to quit and resume at any moment. It also breaks the second rule of portable gaming, as I discovered while playing as a car passenger; whenever we drove round the corner, my poor little monkey flew helplessly into the ocean. So, it's very pretty and very clever, but you can't really play it when in motion, or when you only have a few minutes to play.

The second was Zen Pinball: Rollercoaster. The iPhone's a good shape for pinball games, and this table's reasonably interesting and a good price at £2.99. As I wasted many many hours playing the various Pro Pinball tables, I'm always slightly disappointed by other pinball sims. This one is a bit cluttered; some of the shots are not obvious and the modes are not as imaginative as they might be. But it's a reasonable attempt, and after all, you're gaming on your phone.

Which brings me to the great catch of iPhone gaming. Will the iPhone be a serious competitor for the Nintendo DS? No. Why not? Because the iPhone already has the battery life of a geriatric firefly; a few minutes' gaming and it's turning up its toes. To test the games I've bought, I've played with the iPhone plugged in; at which point it drains power faster than it charges.

The solution is clearly to power my phone through my bra, either by solar power or harnessing my natural bounce. I can't wait.

Posted by Alison Scott at 04:21 PM | Comments (0)