June 15, 2012

Very very quickly

Very quick update -- I finished MITx 6.002x and have an awesome certificate to prove it. Some of the course members are intending to press on with 6.003 (Signals and Systems) on Open CourseWare over the summer, and I'm joining in with that. So if you see me at a festival this summer I will probably be the one with the big textbook. 6.002x did not cost me a penny other than a little pencil lead (I already had the ream of paper I used), but without the formal course support, I have invested in the textbook and some support material for this one.

I also finished Udacity CS212, and have slipped in a bit of CS262 in the gap before their courses properly start up again on the 25th.

food -- notably Jamie's '30 minute' green curry with not-very-Korean slaw and noodles. This is becoming a regular for us, and got eaten up despite being full of vegetables. Also locro, a very inauthentic but highly delicious South American stew which we've been cooking ever since we got it out of this long-forgotten Sainsburys' casserole cookbook. Onion, stewing steak, tomatoes, paprika, potatoes, chickpeas, sweetcorn and chorizo.

Off to the Big Session tomorrow; it's hardly going to rain at all!

Posted by Alison Scott at 12:11 AM | Comments (0)

May 23, 2012

Dual-wielding external hard drives

One for my 'how to change the world list': someone needs to do something about external hard drives.

I understand that all hard drives fail, and I'm careful with backups, I really am. But the average life expectancy of an external hard drive on my desk, being used for Time Machine and never moved, is no more than a year. What's with that?

Anyway, last week I noticed that my Time Machine drive was reporting a 'lost+found' folder, which tends to be bad news, and today it's refusing to backup saying that the backup drive is read only. Which is, to be fair, a lot better than saying the backup drive is a brick.

In this case it's particularly worrying, because I had a machine hard disk failure a few months ago, and restored not with a full system restore but piecemeal so as to delete a decade of cruft from the system. I believe I recovered all the important data but there's always the chance something that I care about is missing, and if it is, then the only place it will be after I replace the backup drive will be on the last-resort offsite backup.

In other news: Diablo is toast. Well, on 'Normal' difficulty at any rate. I'm not very competent at these games, but putting all my points into stun and zapping him with a taser (sorry, dual stunning crossbows) did the trick; he just wobbled around with little birds fluttering about his head for 20 minutes or so while I pathetically battered him with the spike of my high-heeled shoe. Having delayed the final battle for 20 hours so that Jonathan could watch, he got bored and wandered off.

Meanwhile, it looks like a single crossbow & quiver is much more efficient than dual one-hand crossbows, but the dual crossbows look fantastic. Especially as I had one fire, one ice for a while. I am not entirely sure how the demon hunter is supposed to reload them from her hip-mounted quivers one handed at battle speed. Perhaps I am over thinking this.

Posted by Alison Scott at 09:41 AM | Comments (2)

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)

April 26, 2008

Wii Fit First Impressions

Unsurprisingly, I had pre-ordered Wii Fit. Regular readers will know that I'm particularly interested in two key gaming concepts; games that instruct in a fun way, and games that use physical simulators as controllers. Wii Fit tries to do both of these things. How well does it succeed?

The controller is a balance board, the size of two sets of scales, that measures your weight and how it is distributed front to back and right to left. It asks you your height, and how much your clothes weigh, to calculate your BMI. Here at PloktaCentral, we don't like BMI much as a measure of fitness or health, but there you go. We also don't know how tall the children are, so we had to guess. Having done that, it tests your ability to balance and shift your weight precisely, and gives you a Wii Age. All four of us are crocks, it appears.

Obviously, this is another inconvenient controller to go with the dance mats, guitars, bongos, wheels, snowboard and maracas. At least this one can be pushed under the sofa (and that is where they suggest you keep it). But it turns out to be fabulously versatile, and when combined with a remote and nunchuk holds the promise of full-body game controls.

There are then four sets of activities; yoga poses, more traditional strength exercises, aerobic activities and balance games. Of the four, I'm least convinced by the traditional exercises. The game gives you a model to follow in the manner of a fitness DVD, and it tracks your centre of gravity as you do the exercise. But I am not persuaded that you're getting much more here than you would from a DVD.

On yoga, however, the benefits are much clearer. Tracking centre of gravity is incredibly useful as a focus for static yoga; the first balance I did in Wii Fit was as good as any I've managed in an actual yoga class. Admittedly I have no sense of balance, but there you go. For other poses, it shows you where the ideal centre of gravity is, which helps you get the pose right. I think this probably works better for people who've done some yoga than for complete beginners.

The aerobic activities feel like games to me; I guess the difference is that they're more directly simulations of real world activities. But there's a fine line here. They include jogging, step, hula hoop, and some to unlock, including rhythm boxing. The jogging is a particular joy; I find running on the spot terribly dull, but they have an island to run round, populated with all the other Miis on your machine, hidden Nintendo characters, and interesting scenery. A nice touch is that there's a map of the jogging island in the instruction book. The rhythm boxing is the first game we've unlocked that uses the board for your feet, plus a Wiimote and nunchuk for your hands, to control all four limbs, opening up a whole new layer of controller complexity.

The balance games include ski slalom and jump, heading footballs (and avoiding panda heads), and a great tilt table game where you maneuver balls into little holes like a puzzle. That one I found very intriguing; after playing a couple of times, I completely forgot I was using my whole body to control it; the mental process felt identical to the irritating little puzzles you get.

WiiFit tracks your activity over time and unlocks things; given that it suggests you play for 30 minutes a day, unlocks seem to come a little quickly for my liking. It can store up to eight users per Wii, which was a pleasant surprise after family-argument-prone Zelda. One big change that Nintendo need to make is in Mii management. Our Miis now carry our history in half a dozen different games; they're essentially our individual user accounts on the Wii. But anyone can delete a Mii in the Mii channel; not even any parental control.

Overall, I'm very excited by this game. The whole family has registered, and we're all fighting to get a go on it. And we all like different things. Marianne really likes the Step, Jonathan has played a lot of the balance games, and Steven has displayed a heretofore unsuspected talent at Hula Hoop. What about me? I've been down the slalom track about 100 times. And gosh, my calves ache today.

We will need to play for some time to see whether it helps us stick to a regular exercise routine. I don't think there's any holy grail for the yoga or muscle exercises. And all the aerobic activities and balance games feel like minigames; there are different difficulty levels, but I'm not sure there's much variety in, say, the placement of the slalom gates, or the step routines. Most of them could be developed, using the same control system, into full games. Imagine a simulation where you buy a Lake District map to jog or walk around, for example? Or SSX Wii, controlling the board with your feet and doing tricks with the Wiimote and Nunchuk?

I expect Wii Fit to sell in huge numbers. The prospect it's offering is very enticing and the price point is not bad. But the real potential is in the other games that could be made using the balance board as a controller. Because it's splendid.

Posted by Alison Scott at 12:30 PM | Comments (1)

October 07, 2007

eBay Mountaineering

I didn't list anything on eBay to finish on postal strike days, but by next weekend it should largely be over, and so another big pile of household junk is made somebody else's bargain treasure. Apparently I specialise in MP3 accessories and film camera accessories, which this week is fair enough. There's also a bit of bric-a-brac and video game paraphernalia. Nevertheless, despite my industry, the total amount on the 'needs to be eBayed' pile went up very significantly this weekend, as we sorted through one column of boxes in the room that is almost entirely full of clutter. We don't really look like people with a serious hoarding problem *except* in bedroom 4.

For some reason, people don't stop buying books from you on Amazon just because there's a postal strike on. Amazon itself is using every other courier in the UK to get parcels through, but that's sort of not an option for li'l ol' me. So I'm writing careful notes to people designed to get them to say 'oh, no problem, the book turning up sometime randomly next week is just what I wanted' so they don't give me rubbish feedback.

I went, for the first time, to the English Tunes Session at the Horseshoe, a pub I know because we held Plokta.con Pi there. When we were there, the real ale was on; lack of beer this lunchtime meant that the intervals between sets were largely taken up with people discussing moving the session in grim tones. The actual music was splendid though. Once again people mistook me for a proper melodeon player because my box has velcro straps on it as for microphones; of course, I bought it from someone who plays in a band. I'm itching to go again, but not only is it a monthly session, the number of weekends when I have four free hours over a Sunday lunchtime is not that many.

Posted by Alison Scott at 11:39 PM | Comments (0)

September 07, 2007

How much is enough Geomag?

an unfinished Geomag model of a tetrix or 3d Sierpinski gasketI have been faunching after Geomag, the magnetic building toy, since first discovering it at a friend's house. But it's very expensive and I didn't just want a little. Oh, no. And I didn't want a knock-off, though some of the clones are as strong as Geomag (and nearly as expensive).

A couple of weeks ago, I discovered an eBay seller, selling new, presumably discontinued packs, at just a shade over a quarter of their RRP. So I have bought some. Quite a bit, in fact, though not in the leagues of the people who are serious about this.

Today was the first day that I really got the chance to play with it; I'd made some simple objects (such as the stellated icosahedron known as Spikey) but I hadn't really tried building stuff. By 'stuff', of course, I mean, mathematically interesting models. And I thought a nice model to start with would be the 3d analogue of the Sierpinski gasket; which also has a cute name, the Tetrix.

Well, obviously I had plenty of Geomag for n=1, 2 and 3. But n=4 requires 384 rods, which is still slightly beyond me. The photo here shows 3/4 of n=4. Over on Flickr is a chap who has the 1536 rods necessary for n=5 and is saving up for n=6. As an aside, sierpinski is one of the most fun single-word searches I've ever done on Flickr. There are printouts, graphics, drawings, blankets, quilts, statues, sculptures from pepsi cans, cookies, gardens and memorials. And the Triforce.

Yes, I've bought enough Geomag to finish the job. Yes, I know that I will discover that I don't have enough Geomag for the next job. I'll worry about that later.

Posted by Alison Scott at 01:18 PM | Comments (1)

August 03, 2007

Learning things: Dolls and Teeth

I am indebted to Dubious Quality for teaching me that Thomas Edison invented the world's first talking doll.

I have also learnt that you shouldn't ignore toothache and tooth decay in the last 24 hours. I mean, I already knew that, but the twinges in my other top wisdom tooth (the one I didn't have extracted last year) have been becoming irritating for a couple of weeks, and last night they turned into very exciting pain. Ow ow ow. I'm just waiting for the dentist's to open.

I've also learnt a lot about backing up computers in the last 48 hours, having finally bought a pair of backup hard drives. But I'm fairly sure that's all a bit boring.

Posted by Alison Scott at 07:20 AM | Comments (0)

April 22, 2007

Those People Playing Horns

adrift somewhere in the Mandelbrot Set"Those people playing horns..." remarked Marianne, "well, they have people playing horns on their heads." And so they do.

We were stuck, once again, on Marianne's homework. Each week she's given a list of words to try to include in a coherent piece of writing, and she always struggles to find the natural inner story contained in what is essentially this week's spelling list. This week we clearly had ph words: elephant, sphere, dolphin, pheasant, graph, photo, phantom, microphone, phone, physical, geography, alphabet, and pamphlet. "You could write about an elephant standing on a sphere," I offered, lamely. An internet search turned up this picture, and we digressed happily for an hour or two into the Mandelbrot set, of which I will never get tired. We've been using Mandelbrot on Cocoa, finally giving the G5 processor a proper workout. Marianne is looking for a fractal screensaver for Mac OS X. I think the perfect option would be something that shows previously generated gallery pictures and cycles the colours, but I couldn't find anything quite right. If necessary I will make a set of animated .gifs, but that seems excessive somehow.

Posted by Alison Scott at 08:45 PM | Comments (0)

March 26, 2007

Either those curtains go or I do

Death in a William Morris patterned shroud and Jonathan in an anorakSo it's officially summer, or at least summer time. Not that you would have been able to tell at the William Morris birthday party, which we went to with our friend Abi. It was absolutely perishing cold. I played some tunes on the melodeon with others from the folk club, and we met a giant skeletal figure of DEATH dressed up for the occasion in a William Morris patterned shroud. There was a remarkably good turnout; by the time we arrived they had run out of raffle tickets.

You can tell it's summer time because we are once again struggling with the timer switch. Our timer switch -- the one that wakes us up in the morning -- is a masterpiece of human interface design. People sat around for hours going 'how could we make this less intuitive?' and implemented everything they thought of. So the switch that turns it on and off is the same switch that switches from manual to auto. These are indicated by tiny LCD microdots as well, but you aren't about to see those when half asleep in the dark. It has a special 'random' setting, that turns the radio off at random times or wakes us up at random times in the middle of the night. It's very easy to set this by accident. Oh, and it steadily gains time, which is a far better thing in an alarm than steadily losing time. But still.

The timer switch lives between the mains power and the active speakers. The DAB radio, by comparison, stays on all the time. Except when it crashes, which, being fundamentally a computer, it does from time to time. As we use this bit of Heath Robinson as an alarm clock, we have another problem here. Critical systems should not fail to danger, and this one does. If we screw up the timer switch setting or the radio we don't wake up.

We use this very elaborate system as an alarm clock so we can hear Phil Jupitus from 7am on weekdays, but wake later at weekends. But all good things come to an end, and Jupitus finishes his breakfast show on 6Music next week. Last time it took months of grumping around before we found a radio show we could tolerate.

If we used a backup system it would presumably wake us early, and unnecessarily, at weekends.

We looked for stereo systems with inbuilt alarm, aux input (for the iPod) and DAB, but found very few. I suppose I could try again. But that 7 day alarm requirement seems to scupper us. Are we so unusual? It doesn't really seem odd to me. Worse, the day it's most likely to go wrong is the day I'm most likely to need an alarm; the Monday after the clocks go forward.

What I need is the Apple iWake; it's a little box that plugs into your wall and your iPod (or DAB) and speakers, and communicates wirelessly with your network. You can set it from iCal in any computer on your network, either to come on at pre-programmed times, or to wake you automatically a certain amount of time before your first appointment of the day. Something like that.

Finally, a ghastly warning. It is possible to download a playable (PC) demo of the new DS and PSP game Puzzle Quest. This game is a Japanese style RPG in which the combat mechanism has been replaced by a souped up version of Bejewelled. Yes, it's a little bit like Puzzle Pirates. Yes, it's completely addicting. Don't do it. But if you do do it, Druid is by far the most challenging starter class.

Posted by Alison Scott at 12:31 AM | Comments (0)

April 09, 2006

Guitar Hero (40)

As soon as I heard about Guitar Hero I knew I would have to own it. That combination of rhythm game, dedicated controller and rock music just spoke to me. Plus, I've never been able to get along with real guitars. I have this thing about strings. Late in Guitar Hero, you see your avatar on the cover of a guitar magazine. One of the fake headlines says 'Buttons or strings: the battle rages on'.

For those living under a rock, Guitar Hero is a PS2 game where you press buttons and pretend to be playing a guitar. In fact you are playing a half-size plastic guitar controller, and you play along to a set of classic and not-so-classic rock songs. The core of this sound is 80s stadium rock, not a genre that played particularly well in the UK, where presumably we could really do with Floppy Synth Hero. Nevertheless, the success of GH in the US has led to its release -- on Friday -- in the UK. And I was sufficiently convinced by what others were saying -- eg the television presenter who giggled all the way through his review or the blogger who described the game as an antidepressant in the form of a plastic guitar -- to preorder a copy.

This game is unbelievably much fun to play.

The basic premise is this. You play the guitarist in a covers band, that starts out playing a basement party, and then gradually get bigger gigs until you're in a stadium. You do this by playing the guitar part to 30 covers of variously more and less famous rock songs (I recognised about a third of them on sight, plus I knew about a third more when I heard them, leaving 10 I didn't know at all). They're pretty well all great fun to play.

You have the equivalent of one string, which you can strum up or down, and five frets. Oh, and a whammy bar which pitch bends long notes to gain star power. Score enough star power from long notes and combos, and you can invoke star power mode by tilting your guitar so it points vertically. At this point my fun meter goes off the scale. Not only can you play along to great rock songs, not only can you hit notes and hear them come out of the speakers as if Eric Clapton was playing, but you can store up star power and then unleash it just before the solo by acting like a rock god.

This is the first rhythm game I've played where the moves you make affect the music directly, note by note. Hit the notes, and the guitar part rings out. Miss them, and it's replaced by various squeaks. I found myself chortling with joy as I got better at songs and realised that guitar parts that I recognised were appearing from the notes I played, or that I'd got to the end of a fast section and not made any mistakes and had No Idea How I Did It. It really does feel like playing a real instrument.

It is possibly fair to say that real guitars have more than one string and five frets. However, I have played a tiny bit of guitar and I can confirm that Guitar Hero on medium is not dissimilar in difficulty to strumming three chords along with a song. And it really gives you a sense of what actual guitar heros are doing when they play, which is to your five frets and a string as Oblivion is to Pong.

And yes, my daughter is trying to get the hang of Smoke on the Water. On Easy. It's still pretty hard. The Easy mode of 'Os! Tatakae! Ouendan!' and the Beginner mode of Dancing Stage do not occupy me at all, but there are a number of songs on the Easy mode of Guitar Hero that I found quite stressful. The learning curve is pretty high on this game, but luckily it's not the sort of game where you get stuck and then try the stuck bit over and over again. Instead, you get stuck and go 'Hmm. Oh, well, I'm stuck. But hey! I can go and play I Love Rock and Roll; I can do that one. Perhaps I can really nail it this time...' The replay value of the earlier, easier songs is considerable.

Marianne lifted her head from the guitar and asked, eyes shining, "does that mean it's educational, Mummy?" I rather think it is. I've been getting a real sense for what certain rhythms look like, what it is you have to do with an electric guitar to make certain sorts of sounds that I've been hearing for years. It's surely at least as educational as chime bars or Boomwhackers, too. Of course it's not likely to improve my melodeon playing if I'm playing Guitar Hero instead.

There's a multiplayer mode which is apparently even better; if you and a friend have a guitar you get different parts so that the solos swap off and it really feels like playing in a band togther. I couldn't pre-order a second guitar, but I'll definitely be picking one up as soon as I can.

I'm just left with a sneaking suspicion that actually playing lead guitar in a band is Even More Fun than this. Difficult though it is to imagine.

Guitar Hero costs £50, for the Playstation 2, including the guitar controller, and is probably sold out at a gaming emporium near you. It's rated 12+, I think because some rock songs have naughty words in them.

Posted by Alison at 11:33 AM | Comments (0)

January 28, 2006

Wintergreen Video

Not quite my sort of music, but I love the video for WIntergreen's "When I Wake Up". You can watch it online, or download a version suitable for your iPod or PSP. And the comments are full of people saying "durr, Atari covered them in concrete." Which is so not the point.

Posted by Alison at 08:09 AM | Comments (0)

September 16, 2005

Cabvision: The Way the Future Is

I took a taxi the other day. It was a new taxi, and as I sat down the cab driver turned on Cabvision, a system which broadcasts 'entertainment and information' to the captive audience in the back of the car. I looked to see if I could turn it off. It played me a short safety video, because, you know, cabs are dangerous environments that I might not be familiar with. I felt uncomfortable. I had papers to read for my meeting; I didn't want to watch TV. I don't generally watch TV, except for turning it on for a particular show.

It then played me a short video about the controls, and I located them. One of them had a picture of a TV with a cross through it. Ha! I thought. It then turned to 'standby' mode, where it cycled quietly through a series of news headlines. I wanted to turn it off properly, but of course I couldn't.

We already have static ads on the backs of toilet doors, on the seat in front of you on buses, on anywhere, in fact, where the people who don't watch advertising on television can be caught. We have television ads in places like doctor's surgeries, airports and other waiting areas. There are ads on the tops of takeaway cartons, and the backs of bus tickets. Every few days, I see an ad that makes me think 'gosh, I hadn't thought of advertising there'.

Soon, all the static ads will be screens. All the ads on the escalators will be screens, timed to show you a complete ad in the 40 seconds it takes you to get downstairs. I think billboards and other static ads aimed at drivers are probably safe. But I could be wrong.

I huddled down miserably in my seat, trying not to watch Cabvision and wondering once again whether I've finally found the technology that I can't cope with, the one that turns me into one of the Old People.

Posted by Alison at 07:55 AM | Comments (3)

January 09, 2005

Better Living through Dance Mat

One of my Christmas presents was the new dance mat game, Dancing Stage Fusion. I know I've written about dance mat lots of times before, but I thought you needed a review of the new one. Konami have responded to criticisms of the previous Dancing Stage games -- which are Euro editions of the game Dance Dance Revolution -- by producing a game aimed to appeal to all the several constituencies of dance mat fans.

For the serious dancers, we have more and harder dances, including a highly configurable 'endless' setting, where you can modify the arrows so that they appear late, or fade out, or turn up in unexpected places, or, for the real obsessives, don't appear at all. My favourite of these is 'dark', where the arrows appear, but not the arrows at the top of the screen that show you when to play. You just have to use your innate sense of rhythm to work out when to step. As you can imagine, I'm rubbish at this. There's also the terrific 'mission mode', where you have to dance with specific objectives in mind. 100 missions run all the way from 'do an easy dance without dying', through 'do this one with between 4 and 6 million points', to 'do this one without any help from arrows at all.'

But as well as all the stuff for serious dancers, there's plenty for beginners too. There are beginner steps for all the music, 21 'real songs' with their original videos (as well as 33 songs just for DDR), and lessons to get you going. I think my favourite of the licensed songs this time is 'Mickey' by Toni Basil; the steps are great and it's a song that's just the right sort of speed and style for dance mat. For families it's possible for the first time to play 2-player with one player on beginner and the other on higher levels, and on the beginner setting there's no 'game over' -- great for the four-year-old who thinks it's just a new version of whack-a-rat.

As well as beginners and addicts, there are two more classes of DDR players -- those looking for a workout, and those who see it as a party game. Just playing the game does perfectly well for a workout, but you can set workout settings, watch your calories, monitor weight and progress while playing the regular game. This is a much better workout mode than before, though I'm still waiting for a calorie readout on doubles play.

The final set of new features are aimed at people who just want a laugh. The game finally has EyeToy integration, so you can watch yourself dance or play minigames where you dance with your hands and feet, or have to wipe off the screen while dancing to see the arrows. There are even a couple of games where you don't dance but use the dance mat as a controller for different games.

The game costs £25, or less by mail order. It's by far the best of the UK dancing stage games, with tons to entertain all types of player. And as you play you unlock more features; typically with one unlock for every five songs; a dancer, a costume, a song, or even a hidden mode. This is great to get you started on the road to dance addiction. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to practice doubles.

Posted by Alison at 11:51 AM | Comments (2)

January 03, 2005

Time To Ring Some Changes

Welcome to 2005, all. I have upgraded Movable Type (very hard, thanks) and have even paid for it, with only slight misgivings. It is clearly much better, but I did it solely because the comment spam was making the blog unusable. I hope to use the time saved not clearing comment spam to write constructive material on the blog instead, but who knows? I might just chill.

Update: At present, all comments seem to be coming up for moderation. I have no idea what is going on, and commenters aren't warned they've been put in a moderation queue. This isn't what I want; I'll try to sort it out.

Not resolutions exactly, but in 2005 I want to:

OK, perhaps not that last one.

Posted by Alison at 01:27 AM | Comments (1)

December 24, 2004

Tidings of the Season

All is peaceful here, though my children and husband will surely arrive home soon. So this is a good time to wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and a happy New Year. We sent two Christmas cards this year:

Santa Claus as an iPod person, with the message 'Wassail'

iPod Santa

A picture, drawn by Marianne, of animals in a forest looking at a Christmas tree

Marianne drew this picture for the family cards

And most of the cards also had a picture of the kids; taken in Epping Forest last month on a tree particularly well-optimised for climbing.

Hope you and all your families are having a restful and peaceful holiday.

Posted by Alison at 02:21 PM | Comments (0)

December 10, 2004

Back in the Groove

I've been neglecting the blog ; twas all covered with spammy weeds when I arrived this evening. But now, a quick dose of paraquat has sorted all. If you've commented recently, there's a chance you got torched along with a bunch of people quoting Shakespeare and selling stuff I don't want.

Meanwhile, Tibs writes to tell me that my previous entry is quoted in the pages of MacUser. I don't think this will be sufficient to make me buy the mag or anything, but they did give the URL, so if you're from MacUser then welcome.

Christmas approaches like the bottom of Wile E. Coyote's Acme Cliff. We have fallen into a pattern. Each morning I rise and walk to the post office to queue up with the previous day's batch of 'you weren't in when we tried to deliver a package' cards. Each evening I arrive home and swear at the colour printer while trying to print Christmas cards.

<neepy interlude>
There is so much that is good about this printer (It's a duplex printer that costs less than most duplex units, and it has very cheap consumables). But. The stock, shipped driver from HP appears to simply Not Work Properly in OS X. Symptom is randomly stopping in the middle of prints and abandoning them, and it seems to be quite common. Not just occasionally, but every time it's asked to print a graphics intensive document longer than a page or duplex. So yesterday, having struggled for a good while, I downloaded Ghostscript and HPIJS. This driver works. But it has an odd feature where it autodetects the paper being used. The card stock I'm using for the Christmas cards is slightly shiny, and the autodetect (I think) reckons it's photo stock, tips too much ink onto it, and muds up the picture. Randomly some of the time.

Luckily the ink is so cheap for this printer that I'm reasonably sanguine about it: to give you an indication, about 25% of the card is covered with a monochrome lump of pink. I've printed 50 sheets, and the magenta cartridge (the half-size one that came with the printer) has reduced by about 10% -- in other words, I've used about a pound's worth of pink ink on my cards. (I printed 200 text-and-illustration cards for friends last weekend, with lots of throwaways because of the problem described above -- they'd been quoted �80 by a copy shop, and I used �3 worth of card stock and hardly enough ink to bother with).

If this had happened with my first, grotesquely expensive, inkjet printer I would be beside myself with distraction.

Meanwhile the option to select any number of copies other than 1 is greyed out, and I'm completely baffled.

I want to tell you about all the cute Christmas present ideas we've had, and fine products we've discovered. But I think you'd better wait till after Christmas so as not to spoil anyone's surprise. We have only one present left to buy, and we've designed one card and commissioned a second (thanks, Sue!). We have five separate social engagements this weekend, and more the next. We are seeing nearly all our close relatives, at locations all over England and Wales, in the next month. Not to mention quite a few of our friends.

We have tickets to see The Polar Express in IMAX 3D as a Christmas treat, and a definite plan to get to Aladdin at the Hackney Empire, which surely must be the only theatre in London without online booking of any kind, not even through third parties.

And none of that is what I wanted to write about. What did I want to write about: music. But that will have to wait for another day.

Posted by Alison at 01:30 AM | Comments (1)

September 12, 2004

Wind Farms for PreBlighted Landscapes

The A13 is not a beautiful road (though there are some people trying to do something about that). Immortalised in poetry by Jah Wobble, it leaves London through the ugliest parts of its industrial landscape, running up to the M25 through Ford's massive Dagenham plant. Dock containers, gasometers, roadworks, revolting sixties concrete flyovers, industrial parks, giant inflatable McDonald's chips, 12-screen cinemas, you get the idea.

And, just as you come over the crest of a particularly ugly flyover, three shiny new Norman Foster designed wind turbines. They provide enough clean electricity for 2000 homes, though in this case they'll be powering Ford's diesel assembly clean room.

Wind turbines are controversial; people ask for planning permission to put large numbers of them on hills in areas of outstanding natural beauty. People rightly ask if it's worth blighting our countryside for the sake of clean power. But that's not a criticism of these wind turbines. They are quite the most beautiful thing on the A13; towering above the ravaged landscape, promising a cleaner, brighter future.

Posted by Alison at 08:57 PM | Comments (3)

The History of the New World Order

I couldn't sleep last night, and some time, about 3am, a thought suddenly sprung to mind: Lucy Huntzinger invented the blogroll. Obviously, this was long before online diaries were called blogs, and long long before lists of the blogs one reads regularly were called blogrolls.

Back in April 1997, Lucy kept a popular web diary, Aries Moon. At the time, web rings were popular, and there was a web ring for online diarists, Open Pages, open to anyone who wanted to join. Lucy's innovation was to set up a web ring, Archipelago, specifically for the diaries that she thought were well-written and worth reading regularly. This was a considerable innovation, and brought her plaudits from other people who found Archipelago worth reading, and hate mail from the journallers whose diaires she didn't include. She pointed out repeatedly that anyone else was free to make a similar choice, but she certainly took a lot of flak for being first.

And nowadays, as we count weblogs in millions, we all have blogrolls; public lists of the diaries that we personally think are worth reading regularly. But Lucy was first; and as it's becoming clear that blogs, and blogrolls, and friends lists, are key building blocks of the way people interact here in the 21st century, I thought it was important to note it down. For the historians, you know.

Posted by Alison at 07:34 PM | Comments (5)

August 20, 2004

Truth Gave Me Her Icy Kiss

Bugshaw is marking her birthday with the traditional question "Is this all I get"? My birthdays vary, but this year I too celebrated my birthday with a dose of moping. Wasn't I supposed to change the world? Whoops, something seems to have gone awry there. And I quickly set to counting all the things good in my life, like you do, and reflecting that the relatively few things that are less good are reasonable consequences of the choices I've made. And the birthday feeling slipped away again.

Bridget asks if she still has the potential to attain 'special', by which she clearly means not the everyday humdrum special that she's clearly attained already, but to do something extraordinary and notable. While I was getting old, I noticed that most of the extraordinary and notable things that people do make them no happier. But still. I know what she means.

In the story notes in Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang quotes Kurt Vonnegut writing in the 25th anniversary edition of Slaughterhouse-Five:

"To ... all others younger than myself I say, 'Be patient. Your future will come to you and lie down at your feet like a dog who knows and loves you no matter what you are.' "

I've shortened the quote from a longer one -- it's well worth buying one of these books just for the quote.

Posted by Alison at 08:04 PM | Comments (0)

Recommend me a Radio Show

When I first moved in with Steven, he listened to Chris Tarrant's radio show on Capital. I had been in the habit of listening to the Today programme, but Steven found it insufficiently London-centric and too serious. So I quickly got used to Tarrant, and put up with the relatively dreadful music.

When Tarrant retired, Johnny Vaughan took over, and we've given it a few months, but he simply Will Not Do. So, here are the parameters.

We listen from about 6:45 to typically 7:30 or a bit later. We don't listen very hard. Music would be nice, and we'd really like a station that plays nearly all electric folk and roots. Given that 2 million Britons attend festivals in the summer, you would think that there was scope for a digital roots station, wouldn't you? OK, well, perhaps that's asking too much.

Talk is nice too, though we discover we're picky. (Actually we knew that; we managed Tarrant's regular absences by steadily getting more irritated by Dr Fox by the day.) We tried BBC London while Danny Baker was on holiday and his place was taken by Julian Clary. That was fine, and we'd have happily listened to that show, even though there was no music. Now Danny Baker is back and we have honed our DJ requirements.

The problem with Johnny Vaughan, and Neil Fox, and Danny Baker is that they don't manage to be clever without being irritating. Neil Fox says stupid, offensive things, very consistently. Johnny Vaughan doesn't say very many stupid, offensive things, but he doesn't say anything very clever either. This isn't about not saying things I disagree with; opinions backed by brains are fine. When people on the radio say stupid things to me at 7 in the morning, I get angry and want to argue. So I'm looking for a presenter who is consistently clever and sharp-witted and never gratuitously offensive.

Danny Baker says a great many clever things, but he and the other people he work with spend most of their morning laughing at their own jokes, which gets very wearing. And he mixes some stupid things in with the clever things; for example, on hearing A level results, said 'Photography! How could you fail photography! OK, look through this window and press the button, how hard can it be?' Nevertheless, if he'd speak a bit more slowly, have fewer people in the studio all talking at once, and not laugh while presenting, I think he'd do.

The Global Village is a wonderful thing, and I'm happy to countenance streamed radio stations from around the world, with shows broadcast at all hours of the day or night that correspond to 7am in London. However, London stations have the big advantage that they mention, reasonably frequently, the current operating status of the London Underground and the expected London weather for the day. Regular GMT/BST time checks are also helpful. So while we might settle on a station from Paraguay, we probably won't.

Suggestions welcome.

Posted by Alison at 06:26 PM | Comments (0)

July 13, 2004

Howl's Moving Castle: a Digression

The trailer for Miyazaki's next film, Howl's Moving Castle, is online now. It's based on a book by Diane Wynne Jones, one of my favourite authors. One of my favourite authors because I really like her books, and tracked them all down in the lean years when it was necessary to scour second-hand bookshops for rare hardbacks, and one of my favourite authors because she's a really nice person.

We went back to Borders for another accident (there's something about large bookshops with everything on one level and coffee to drink while you're browsing), and I picked up River of Gods. The link there is to a Guardian review by Chris Priest, who really has no business accusing others of writing books that are difficult to follow. This is the first Ian McDonald I've read, and I conclude that I've been discriminating against his books for no better reason than that he has the same name as my father.

Anyway, back to Diana. In Borders there was an entire shelf of her books, all matching jackets and special promotions on the new one and all sorts. This may reflect the fact that her novels include several excellent and critically-acclaimed tales set in various schools of magic; a theme she's been exploring for decades.

Digressing again but staying on theme: Marianne's very fond of Jill Murphy's The Worst Witch, another pre-Potter series of books about witches-in-training. On 'come as a character from a book' day at school she dressed up as Mildred Hubble. I warned her that people would mistake her for Hermione. "Who's Hermione?" was her response. One of the joys of Saturday was that I pressed Charlotte's Web onto Marianne, who had read Stuart Little repeatedly after seeing the film, and she came home and read it cover to cover.

And I'm really looking forward to seeing Howl's Moving Castle.

Posted by Alison at 10:01 AM | Comments (4)

July 07, 2004

Short Bicycle Rant

I want to live in a world where people don't think it's funny to shout "You've Lost Someone!" to a woman cycling back from school on a tandem.

And perhaps even a world where it's considered peculiar for people to drive around in vehicles with three (or more) empty seats.

Posted by Alison at 09:09 AM | Comments (2)

May 22, 2004

If You Can't Be Good, Be Lucky

We've spent the last three nights at Bush Hall in Shepherd's Bush, watching Oysterband and guests recording material for a live album to follow on from their 'Big Session' tours. (Previously blogged here).

It's been unseasonably warm in London this week, and it was certainly unseasonably warm in Bush Hall, particularly on Wednesday. But we had fun nonetheless. The gigs weren't advertised, though they were listed on the website and mentioned here and there. There were about 60 people there the first night and 100 on each of the other two; of those, perhaps 20 went all three nights. These were sedate and seated gigs, and there wasn't much dancing; I did get up for a dance or two on two of the nights, but we were a small minority. There wasn't much singing along either, though we're promised that we'll sound like many more people on the eventual recording.

On each night, Oysterband started, playing a couple of songs from Rise Above (with help from piper James O'Grady), before introducing a first guest. For the first two nights, this was June Tabor, in each case doing Mississippi Summer (from Freedom and Rain), Sarah Makem's Factory Girl (which is on the 25th anniversary album), a splendid version of Love Will Tear Us Apart (duetting on the vocals with John Jones) (not recorded anywhere as far as I know), and White Rabbit (on June Tabor's collection of sessions On Air). Then a bit more Oysterband, joined by The Handsome Family on Wednesday. I was grateful for having downloaded some Handsome Family from eMusic and their own website; I think I'd have found them a bit incomprehensible otherwise. Even so, the vocals were pretty muddy on the tracks played with the Oysters.

After the break, another guest; Show of Hands on Tuesday, and Eliza Carthy on Wednesday and Thursday. The gigs featured two entirely different songs called "Country Life"; surely deliberate, with Show of Hands and Eliza Carthy with Oysterband respectively. Rose Kemp appeared on Wednesday, just for a few songs, and didn't do any of her own stuff.

a photo from Tuesday

There were a couple of a capella songs that were new to me -- and new to most of the singers, judging by the number of lyrics sheets being held.

The first two nights were more the same; I think on the third night they'd realised that quite a lot of people had come to all three sessions, and were quite a bit more varied. Flick could only come on Thursday night, and was well-rewarded. Jim Moray flew down from Scotland, on his one day off from the Richard Thompson tour, to join the session. According to JJ on Tuesday, his manager's told him to stop taking his PowerBook on stage because it 'makes him look like a technonerd'. Shame. We like technonerds.

Full set lists:

Tuesday: Uncommercial Song, If You Can't Be Good, Blackwaterside, Mississippi Summer, Factory Girl, Love Will Tear Us Apart, White Rabbit (the last four with June Tabor), My Mouth, Everybody's Leaving Home, Tumbledown/O'Farrell's Farewell to Limerick/the Quernstone Reel, By Northern Light. Show of Hands: Reynardine, The Train/Santiago/Soldier's Joy, (with Oysters) Country Life, We Shall Come Home, John Barleycorn (with everyone). When I get to the Border (June + all the fiddles), The New Jerusalem (everyone), 20th of April, (a song I don't know the name of by Show of Hands), Deserter (OB&SoH), Cornish Farewell Shanty (everyone)

We hung around like groupies afterwards, and were well rewarded with chances to chat to the band. I was completely tongue-tied in the presence of John Jones, who I've only been obsessed with for a decade or so, and have never quite had the nerve to speak to before.

Alison cuddling JJ

We also spent some time chatting to denizens of the Yahoo Oysterband group, some of whom were wearing the group "When I'm Up... I Won't Get Down" t-shirt.

Wednesday: Uncommercial Song, If You Can't Be Good, Blackwaterside, Mississippi Summer, Factory Girl, Love Will Tear Us Apart, White Rabbit, Molly Bond, Handsome Family: Weightless Again, HF & OB: House Carpenter, White Haven (and possibly one other?). After the break: Eliza Carthy: The Grey Cock, (with Ben Ivitsky & the Oysters & Rose Kemp): 10,000 miles/The Hungarian March, Just as the Tide Was Flowing, Willow Tree, (with everyone) John Barleycorn, (June Tabor & James O'Grady) Lowlands Away, (everyone) New Jerusalem, (most people) Tumbledown/O'Farrell's Farewell to Limerick/The Quernstone Reel, (June & fiddles) When I Get To The Border, (everyone) All Along the Watchtower, (Oysters +Eliza +Ben) Country Life, (everyone) Cornish Farewell Shanty.

We hung around again; and this time got to chat to Eliza Carthy:

Steven cuddling Eliza Carthy

We also spent a little while talking to Ian Telfer, who explained that they'd been working incredibly hard all week and were completely knackered as a result; nearly all the songs had new arrangements (and often different arrangements on the three nights), and it was hard work just keeping track of everything. He also mentioned that the sessions were being underwritten by the German record company that was planning to put out the CD -- but it would at least be available through the website.

Thursday: I've misplaced my notes, complete with speculatively ribald scribbled conversation with Flick. What I remember: The Soul's Electric, If You Can't Be Good , Everybody's Leaving Home, a James O'Grady solo (Etna?), an Alan Prosser solo, Molly Bond, then Jim Moray: Gypsies, Sweet England, (with Oysters) Cuckoo's Nest, Oysters (with Jim): Milford Haven.
Eliza: The Grey Cock, 10,000 Miles/Hungarian March, JJ:Thousands or More, Eliza: Just as the Tide was Flowing, Willow Tree, Jim Moray: Poverty Knock, Eliza plus fiddles/viola and guitars: Fuse, Everyone: John Barleycorn, New Jerusalem (everyone, even down to George the Roadie), Road to Nowhere, Cornish Farewell Shanty.

Oh, you were wondering what I remember of the speculatively ribald conversation? You'll just have to guess. And by rights, I should have a photo of Flick with Jim Moray for Thursday night -- but sadly, we didn't get to chat to him. I am sure he noticed me wearing my shiny new Jim Moray t-shirt, though.

Posted by Alison at 07:55 PM | Comments (1)

May 16, 2004

Dream Gig

We went to see Richard Thompson at the refurbished Hackney Empire, supported by Jim Moray, who described the experience as "Like playing in a Fabergé egg". We took with us a long-standing RT-lover, and Flick, a fellow Jim Moray groupie who knows RT not at all.

We arrived at the concert about 30 seconds before it started, thanks to a really nice dinner at the Green Papaya, a little further down Mare Street. I'd actually planned this in advance for once, haunted by the memory of previous long walks up and down Mare Street in search of restaurants. Yummy Vietnamese food, in a nice conservatory by the open door to the courtyard; there are tables outside, but despite the lovely weather it seemed a little stretching to eat outdoors in May.

Jim did 6 songs (such is the life of a support artist) -- which worked out at about £3 each for Flick, who at one point was threatening to not stay for Richard Thompson. Since last summer he appears to have come to an accommodation with himself about the extent to which he replicates his recorded sound. No PowerBook on stage therefore, and relatively stripped down, though still rocky and powerful, versions of the traditional songs. I did wonder whether people who hadn't otherwise heard his stuff would quite get the point. Set list: Poverty Knock, Lord Bateman, Fair Sally, Gypsies, Longing for Lucy, Two Sisters. Oddly, he didn't play the new single, Sprig of Thyme, or the other new track from the single CD. But I did get to buy the single, and a lovely Jim Moray tshirt, which I'll be wearing to see Steeleye Span tonight.

After plying Flick with G&T she happily settled down to a new experience "he's wearing a beret, Good God What Have You Brought Me To?" I enjoy watching Thompson solo and with a band, but I can never quite see the point of the band. And for once we had no dodgy family members, though Christine Collister joined him at the end for a few tracks, which Steven correctly pegged as an anticlimax. Acoustics in the new HE are mixed, though to be fair we were at the side of the dress circle rather than (say) in the middle of the stalls, which is where we'd have been if we'd got our act together and bought tickets as soon as we knew they were available.

Thompson punctuated the gig with (mercifully brief) renditions of traditional versions of past Eurovision winners, to help us cope with the grief of missing the Eurovision Song Contest.

He kicked off with two newish songs -- "Watch Me Go" and "Boys of Mutton Street". New to me, anyway. There were a couple of other songs that were new to me; "Alexander Graham Bell" and "Should I Betray You".

"Alexander Graham Bell" really freaked me out; I now know two funny songs whose first line is AGB, and I'm not sure the world has enough room for two. Because both songs take their tempo from the name, they're quite similar in lots of ways too, though the other, Huw & Tony Williams' Morse Code Song is actually singing the praises of Samuel Morse rather than AGB.

He asked us to send goodwill messages to Dave Swarbrick, who's still under the weather, before playing Crazy Man Michael, allegedly for the first time.

Overall it was a nicely paced set, lots of stuff we haven't heard for a while, or things played differently to usual, as well as some new songs.

Set List: Watch Me Go, Boys of Mutton Street, Outside of the Inside, Cooks Ferry Queen, Crazy Man Michael, Crawl Back, A Love You Can't Survive, Gethsemane, Vincent Black Lightning, Persuasion, Alexander Graham Bell, Should I Betray You (?), Hokey Pokey, Cold Kisses, For Shame of Doing Wrong, How Will I Ever Be Simple Again, Sibella, King of Bohemia, Feel So Good, Beeswing, Ghosts in the Wind, Wall of Death, A Heart Needs a Home.

Posted by Alison at 02:30 PM | Comments (1)

May 11, 2004

More on eMusic

I have to remind you all every so often that there's music you like at a good price on eMusic. They've just added 'booster packs', so if you're feeling short of downloads in a given month, you can buy extra ones (50 tracks for $15 is the best value). That works out at a little more per track than the regular subscriptions, but they don't run out at the end of the month. This means that by buying a booster pack, you can download in whole albums without having to scrabble around to find an album with exactly the right number of tracks. For me, the basic subscription plus booster packs probably works better than the bigger subs, because I'm generally rubbish at remembering to visit the site every month.

Posted by Alison at 01:07 AM | Comments (0)

March 06, 2004

Get Yer New Words for Old Here

Once again I'm fascinated by a list of OED appeals. General words this time rather than SF specifically. But surely one of my readers can antedate 'gaffer tape' to before 1988? They're looking for written evidence.

Thinking about my own childhood, surely there must be uses of 'Red Leicester' from before 1966? 'Fell off the back of a lorry' before 1973? 'Joined-up writing' before 1973? I mean, I was doing joined up writing in 1973, and I'm sure that's what I called it. 'Mushy peas' before 1975? 'Pass the parcel' before 1968? 'Snake-bite' before 1983?

And they're looking for any evidence of 'made up' (in the Scouse sense of 'be happy (with)'? Do you think they'd count my 2001 Christmas newsletter (.pdf)? Privately printed, in a run of 100 or so, no doubt including several of you.

Reading on in the OED site, I was fascinated by this little tidbit:

"hobbit: J. R. R. Tolkien modestly claimed not to have coined this word, although the Supplement to the OED credited him with the invention of it in the absence of further evidence. It seems, however, that Tolkien was right to be cautious. It has since turned up in one of those 19th-century folklore journals, in a list of long-forgotten words for fairy-folk or little people. It seems likely that Tolkien, with his interest in folklore, read this and subconsciously registered the name, reviving it many years later in his most famous character."

What this means, chaps, is that you can get on and sell those pervy hobbit fancier t-shirts -- it was a generic word for little people all along. When you get the Cease & Desist letter, you can go 'nyah nyah nyah' (another word the OED is looking to antedate...)

Posted by Alison at 02:26 AM | Comments (1)

February 08, 2004

Floppy Disks

For some time we'd been eyeing the pile of floppy disks. Someone should go through them and extract anything useful, delete anything sensitive, and throw them all away. So now I have. This, for example, is something I wrote for rec.food.drink.beer, probably in 1994 or 1995, but, according to Google Groups, never posted.

The Return of the Prodigal Daughter...
or... Killing the Fatted Pig...
or...Alison at the Pigs Ear Beer Festival

The design on the Pigs Ear glasses was particularly fine this year; we took home our glasses from the Friday, and sold our glasses on the Saturday to Steve 'I could do with a few more pint glasses' Davies.

The festival had a theme of pigs, as always; which sounds like a good time to tell you about toes.

Apparently there are Latin names for the individual fingers, but not for the individual toes. However, suitable ones have been suggested:

Porcellus fori, porcellus domi, porcellus carnivori, porcellus non vorans, porcellus pleurans domum.

At any rate, we arrived at Stratford Town Hall at about 8:30 on Friday. (for the benefit of Americans and others, I feel I should point out that this is Stratford, East London, not Stratford-upon-Avon; no swans, bardic theme pubs or come-and-be-done-eries). There was a queue for the festival; it had hit its fire limit and they were counting people in and out. Oh, the perils of real ale suddenly becoming popular. Nevertheless, we made it inside eventually, and paid the CAMRA price of a pound. CAMRA membership is brilliant value for the hardened festival goer; the discounts on festival entry and the Good Beer Guide add up to far more than my membership over the year.

As usual, I headed straight for the tombola stall; the tombola prizes are not improving. I got a copy of some previous edition of the Real Ale Drinker's Almanac; a book that might be quite interesting if not for two things;

a) sorting the brewers region by region is quaint, and you can see why, but it's terribly hard to look anything up in the book; as it's basically a list of beers with tasting notes, I would expect most people to see an interesting beer and look it up to see what Roger Protz thinks of it. However, it's practically impossible to find anything in it.

b) the Guest Beer fetish has meant that beers are being reformulated or renamed or both at a rate of knots, and many beers you're likely to come across aren't in the Almanac, or at least aren't in the 1989 edition of the almanac.

Nevertheless, a useful book to pick up for only the price of an inordinate number of tombola tickets at 30p each, and a little discussion where I pointed out that I actually had won every other available book in some previous CAMRA tombola. (They do also have bar towels, glasses, beermats and, wonder of wonders, beer as prizes.)

We drank a good bit of beer. Unfortunately, after all this time the beers are dim in my memory, and all I have left is my tasting notes, which appear to be written in Swahili. I even threw out the programme while clearing up in a fit of zeal.

Later I found disks full of the .cam files that were produced by my first digital camera, the QV-10. I'd converted these to .jpg long since, but realised I had nothing on the PC to view the originals. The net failed me, at least in freeware (the .cam format went through several iterations, of which I need the earliest). Hours later, Steven asked, 'have you ever heard of a program called Graphic Converter?' Well, yes, of course; it was even bundled with my Powerbook (*sob*). And of course, it reads the files beautifully; better than when they were new.

Posted by Alison at 10:26 AM | Comments (3)

January 30, 2004

Caution: Garageband may be Gateway Drug

I haven't spent any money yet, but it's only a matter of time. GarageBand is a cheap program (part of the 39 iLife) that makes you yearn for expensive things. I've delayed the process with some free workarounds. The rest of this post is Alison's brief guide to the things you can do with GarageBand and the stuff it makes you want.

The first thing you can do is build songs out of Apple's own loops. These come in two varieties; recordings of musicians (which you can transpose, retime and chop up), and software sequences (which you can transpose, retime, edit individual notes or groups of notes completely, and change the software instrument used). This is Lego music, but, hey, you can make cool things with Lego.

You'll want more loops. Make sure you've dragged the divider at the top of the loops section, because there are lots more loops hidden offscreen without a scrollbar. Turn off loop filtering, too; GarageBand can transpose all your loops so they don't need to be in key. But you may still want to Buy More Loops.

But pre-recorded loops won't really do. You can also record yourself singing or playing an acoustic instrument. Only one track at once, so you can't mic vocals and guitar and record both at the same time. You can use the inbuilt microphone for this, with surprisingly good results considering. But I guess a proper mic (and maybe also a pre-amp) are in my future. If you're like me, you'll also be struck by an urge to buy sheet music; I'm inclined to get the complete set of Purcell's catches, but you may want something quite different.

You can export projects to iTunes as an .aif, and convert them to loops using the Apple SDK. I haven't yet managed to find a loop I've made show up in the lists, but it's easy enough to drag them in from the Finder.

You can drag any AIFF file (which you can make from any of your music in iTunes by changing the encoding preferences) to your project and then sample to your heart's content. These samples are less versatile than any of the Apple Loops; you'll want to make sure that key and tempo match first.

You can also plug in an electric instrument. This is the one thing that I don't think you can do at all without at least an adapter, and people talk about pre-amps a lot. I don't own any electric instruments, though I faunch after a Bridge electric violin. GarageBand ships with a whole set of guitar amps, and there are more in the Jam Pack. I guess they'd work with fiddle, right? All academic for me at the moment.

Finally, you can use the software instruments. So you'll need a MIDI controller; and to prevent you from buying it straight away you can use MidiKeys, a beta that lets you use your Mac keyboard as a MIDI keyboard. This isn't remotely as good as having a proper MIDI keyboard, but it's a whole lot better than clicking on a tiny onscreen keyboard with a mouse. There's a slider for velocity, but you'll need to edit it afterwards.

Using MidiKeys and the amazing power of the Internet, I learnt a ton about drumming that had previously passed me by completely. I found Bill Powelson's site was a mine of information, in the sense that you really have to get in there, hunt through the dross and dig out the useful stuff with a pick. But there was plenty of useful stuff there, especially if you have no great desire to be a drummer but just want some tips for quickly producing four bars of plausible sounding rhythm.

Here you come up against one of the real limitations of GarageBand; it's hard to use it to tweak drum lines to sound only-just-not-quite-perfect, which unless you want only to produce techno, is what you need. Other, more expensive programs do this.

Guitar will be harder; the software instruments sound great, but my playing of them on MIDIkeys doesn't sound remotely like guitar. That was the point at which I diverted to drums, and I will return to guitar when I have a real keyboard to use.

The basic GarageBand doesn't include anything that sounds remotely like a fiddle; there is a violin in the Jam Pack, but I'm suspicious. Woodwinds are also pretty limited. If, on the other hand, you want really dodgy brain-frying synth noises, there are plenty. Martian Lounge, for example, which is a cantina.

GB only allows you to have one project open at a time, and there's no way to save snatches of MIDI for later use. (This contrasts with music, which you can save out as AIFF). The solution is to set up GB projects with names like '6/8 drum rhythms', containing lots of suitable bits of MIDI, and then cut and paste from one project to another, in the order 'copy', Open, 'new track', paste. That works, but is butt-ugly in a very 1.0 sort of way.

GB itself doesn't import or export MIDI, but Dent du Midi is a beta designed to address the lack of MIDI i/o support in GarageBand. It provides a perfectly serviceable workaround for the lack of MIDI import, so you can import MIDI files as a set of sequenced tracks. You then have to assign them each a software instrument in GB, but you've got the midi notes to play with. Export, however, is an unsolved problem at present; it doesn't export either to MIDI instruments or to .mid files. I don't believe you can cut-and-paste MIDI sequences to other MIDI software either (but I don't have any, so I can't check.)

If you use a lot of software instruments in the same piece of music, you may also need more RAM or a faster computer. I have 768Mb of RAM on the iMac, which seemed pointlessly much when I bought it. I'm sure GarageBand could soak up much more.

It may have more functionality that I haven't spotted yet; in which case, well, I'm sure I'll want to spend more money.

Posted by Alison at 04:29 PM | Comments (0)

Diana Cult Over?

Following Diana's death, many UK pubs called the Prince of Wales suddenly renamed themselves the Princess of Wales; complete with signs with ugly portraits of Diana, or white roses, or whatever. One of these is in Villiers Street near where I work. But when I went past the other day the pub had had a makeover, and is sporting a new sign, which clearly depicts some other Princess of Wales.

Dowdy Victorian Princess on pub sign

I'm taking this as a sign that the population is a little embarrassed about the whole mass hysteria thing.

Posted by Alison at 01:48 PM | Comments (0)

January 04, 2004


Marianne fished out the cheap recorder that Father Christmas brought her last year, demanding to know whether she could learn to play it. I explained that it was relatively straightforward to play, but that it would require persistence; not one of her stronger qualities. She wanted to know a tune she could play, so I gave her the first two bars of Jingle Bells, and we're taking it from there.

Dolmetsch has a a solid set of lessons online for those of us who aren't six, and (essential for teaching six-year-olds) lots of blank manuscript paper.

The cheap recorder won't even be adequate to learn on beyond the first five or six notes; it makes no pretence to play the lower notes in tune, and I can't make anything with a pinched thumb sound other than disgusting. And I discovered, or remembered, that Steven cannot read music or play any instrument, so I'm inclined to get them both recorders and teach them together. It occurred to me that I could start Steven on tenor and still teach them both in C, and, while buying them recorders, also buy myself a slightly better alto to replace my aged starter one.

But even the cheap recorder allowed me to remember the pleasure of tootling along to the music, in this case Oysterband tracks. Which in turn made me wonder; does anyone know how to divide up an .mp3 that consists of the last song on the album, several minutes of silence, and a 'hidden track'?

Posted by Alison at 05:12 PM | Comments (7)

December 05, 2003

Deja Vu

I have an unaccountable feeling of having written this post before. Over at b3ta, they were speculating about the Victorian Interwebnet. The Phantascope and Piano (via) made me laugh like a drain.

"Why's that funny?" asked Marianne. Ah. Well, it's complicated... So first I explained about the hamsterdance, and found it to show her. And then I explained about phantascopes, and zoetropes, and found a Build a Zoetrope page where you can print off a zoetrope pattern and stick it together. And then I grabbed the relevant hampster animation, dropped it into Image Ready, and turned it into a zoetrope strip of the right size. Some time later, we put the paper zoetrope under a strong light, gathered round, and spun the zoetrope while all singing that irritating hamsterdance music. And then Marianne understood.

Later I produced some more zoetrope strips (a big file, so don't grab it unless you're also making the zoetrope). There's something very theraputic, in a retro way, about grabbing animated .gifs from the Internet and turning them into zoetrope strips. And Marianne took the zoetrope to school the next day for Show & Tell.

Posted by Alison at 08:26 PM | Comments (1)

Children's Books

In one of those weird coincidences that happens, I was reading Teresa's post on Mary Sues, and a comment mentioned Peter's Room by Antonia Forest, a favourite author of mine who I haven't read for some years. Her books tell tales of the Marlow family. Four of them are school stories; these ones were reprinted by Puffin and are relatively easy to get hold of. The rest, apart from two historicals, are set in the holidays, and I have some but not all of them. I wondered vaguely if any the difficult ones were back in print, which led me to the web pages of Girls Gone By Publishers, a small press who specialises in reprinting the impossible to get books in series of school stories. They have negotiated with Faber to reprint all of Antonia Forest's work, and are doing so in reverse order of availability. But when I looked at their list of available books, I discovered that Antonia Forest has just died; her funeral is next Thursday. She was 88; her stories were published over 35 years, during which time the Marlows aged about four years. I guess we'll never know how their story turns out.

Meanwhile, Marianne is devouring a very favourite children's book of lots of other people. I didn't read Erik Linklater'sThe Wind on the Moon when I was a child, but after several friends raved about it recently, I bought a copy. It's not really to my adult taste, but it's clearly a book that would be a favourite if I had read it at the right time. There are a few of these; I sorely regret that I never read I Capture the Castle when I was a misunderstood teenager, for example. Meanwhile, Marianne got home from school in a bit of a funk, stomped into my room to see if there was anything she could break, found The Wind on the Moon and has been reading ever since.

Jonathan 'reads' books by following the words with his finger while reciting. After we took Marianne to school this morning, we walked home, and passed a man building a fence, a skip lorry dropping off a skip, and a man painting white lines on the road. Jonathan chased a pigeon, counted house numbers, walked along the top of the wall by the playground, and waited at the railway bridge until a train came. Partway through I started taking photos, and Jonathan's Book is now an exclusive 16-page limited edition. A small joy of the modern age.

Posted by Alison at 06:53 PM | Comments (0)

November 21, 2003

More on eMusic

In the end, I didn't cancel my eMusic subscription. I did, along with everyone else, try to suck as much music as possible out of the system before the unlimited period ended, but then I decided that there was still plenty of music on Emusic that was worth downloading in glorious, DRM-free .mp3 at 25 cents a track.

And they don't appear to have gone bust yet, which I suppose is a good sign. They've put up a letter from their general manager, explaining that they believe their business model can work, that they're not part of a huge record company any more, that they'll encourage you to listen to new music by giving you promos for free, that the unlimited model couldn't work in a world where we all have broadband and 30Gb iPods, that they're going to provide alternatives to the (hated) download manager, and that they'll find a way to surcharge for people who want to buy more songs in a given month than their plan includes.

All of which sounds good to me. And when I went to their list of 'recommended new arrivals' for me, I found Jerusalem by Steve Earle (which I bought at the Cambridge Folk Festival this summer), and Life'll Kill Ya, My Ride's Here and The Wind, all by Warren Zevon, and none of which I own (though I do have some of them on iTunes cos I'm a bad girl). $10 worth? You betcha. (Apparently I spoke too soon; although they're listed, they don't appear to be available.) Chance that I won't find 40 tracks I want to download in any given month for the forseeable? Nil. Chance I might forget to visit the site and spend $10 for nothing? Rather higher.

Posted by Alison at 05:55 PM | Comments (1)

October 21, 2003


I saw a link in Bloggerheads to a New Statesman story about the way we treat children. I don't agree with all of this, but much of it hits home.

Marianne will soon be 7. When I was her age, I walked home from school with my friends. Marianne and her chums are not released from the classroom until there's a responsible adult to take charge of them. The first school she attended required that all children were dropped off and collected, up to age 11. In the morning, we walked to school and were left at the school gate; now, nearly every parent waits with their child in the playground until the bell goes and they see their child go in with the teacher. Needless to say, little playing gets done.

We used to go round to friends' houses in the street, and walk to the nearby playground, and to a local gully with a stream, to play for hours unattended. We encourage Marianne to walk letters to the postbox, which is up in the village; it's out of sight of the house but doesn't require her to cross a road. She's just about willing to do that, and actively enjoys running on ahead on our walk to school in the morning. Sometimes she takes the path through the churchyard, leaving her unattended for as much as 100 yards. She wouldn't go alone to even the nearest playground, let alone the nice one with grass that's a few streets away. Even if she did there wouldn't be much point, because the only children who play there without their parents are far older than she is.

She attends an after school club; another of the attendees is the 12-year-old daughter of our neighbour. The walk to this club doesn't involve crossing a road, but nevertheless, our neighbour's girl isn't allowed to walk home alone; we'd be happy for Marianne to walk home in her company but it's not an option.

When I was young, there were a gang of neighbourhood kids who played together. I suspect we caused mayhem. There are plenty of kids around here, but ones the age of my children don't play out together. However, parents like me are rigorous in spotting local events, like the Residents' Association barbecue, the family fun day, the Art Event, or Apple Day. At these gatherings, the parents chatter amiably, trying not to think about all the other things we'd rather be doing, while our children run around in a nice, safe, pack in a garden, playground, or playing field.

We teach Marianne not ever to go anywhere without telling us or the adult responsible; but she hears that she shouldn't talk to strangers from everyone, all the time. The risk of her being abducted by a stranger over the course of her childhood is vanishingly small; the risk of her getting lost, or injured, and requiring the aid of a stranger is much greater.

How paranoid are we? Last year we stayed in a hotel for a couple of days. One morning at breakfast, a fellow guest, a woman in her early 70s, suggested that it might be nice if she took Marianne and Jonathan down to feed the ducks in the duck pond. Of course, we agreed; but such is the atmosphere of our times that parents are now primed to instinctively mistrust even such obviously amiable people.

Marianne has many friendships with adults whose relationship with her is somewhat more than, or different from, just 'a friend of my parents'. I believe it's important for children to develop friendships, with both children and adults, that don't always exist under the watchful eye of their parents.

I saw a cartoon earlier in the year; I can't remember which artist. The punchline was 'We're raising them in captivity'.

Posted by Alison at 11:25 PM | Comments (3)

October 12, 2003

Physical Gaming

We fell out of anti-consumer mode with a big bump yesterday. First I had an intimate moment with the Apple Store; some of you may not be counting down hour by hour to the release of your next operating system upgrade, but for those of us with fewer Macs than people in the house, Fast User Switching is a killer app; we have a child-friendly, stripped down desktop (with a Hello Kitty background) for Marianne, and an even simpler one for Jonathan. And now they'll only be a click away.

And then mid-afternoon we popped into Currys in search of very cheap video recorders. They didn't have any; there seems to be a price below which videos do not fall. But we noticed that the Playstation 2 can now be bought, bundled with an EyeToy, for £139.99. Woo, that's cheap. That's cheaper than I've previously seen a PS2 without an EyeToy. I've been faunching after a PS2 for a while; there are more dance games available for it, and the next Dancing Stage game, while it comes in both PSOne and PS2 versions, has more songs in the PS2 version, including Come on Eileen. And the EyeToy looks like fun. And I wanted to buy a board controller and play SSX. So we left with a big pile of boxes.

It's now about a day later. Steven and I are both knackered from the effort of trying to control a snowboarding game with a board controller. I bought a Gamester Sportsboard in the end; it's relatively tiny (I mean, tiny for a huge physical controller). It acts as the directional and speed controls when playing; you plug a regular controller into it as well to manage your tricks. Unlike dance mats or racing wheels, there's no suggestion that you can control the game more easily with a board; it's incredibly difficult to start with, and after a dozen goes each, we're just about at the stage where we rarely randomly fall off the mountain any more (though falling off the mountain is a major tactic in SSX, don't get me wrong). Another couple of weeks and we'll be playing at about the level of Rank Beginner. Various unaccustomed muscles ache.

Meanwhile, the EyeToy turned out to be better value than I was expecting. It links a USB camera that sits on top of your telly, with a set of little games that you control with your body. It's clearly a good cheap thrill to be able to see yourself on screen, and the controls (you wave at various bits of the screen to make things happen) are simple enough for Jonathan. The twelve mini-games are very simple; proof of concept rather than anything else. To win them you have to bounce around and wave your arms a lot. There's also a playroom for freeform bouncing around, allowing kids to see themselves onscreen in a variety of different environments. One of my children's favourite exhibits at the Science Museum is a room that displays multicoloured patterns as they dance; one of the dozen EyeToy playroom modes replicates this.

They played with EyeToy for much of the morning, and then challenged us to a series of family battles. The grownups won most of them, but it's not all that common to find physical games that adults and three year olds enjoy playing together.

Marianne and Jonathan washing windows

My theory? The next generation of EyeToy will be motorised, and user IDs will remember how tall people are; when you load it, it will automatically swivel up for Steven and down for Jonathan.

Posted by Alison at 01:22 PM | Comments (3)

October 09, 2003

Does Not Compute

With only a very few exceptions, the Americans I know are intelligent, literate, knowledgable, and sensible. Fine examples of the human race, in fact. Probably better, on average, than the Brits. So how come they're sharing their country with millions of people who are as thick as pigshit?

Posted by Alison at 01:00 AM | Comments (14)

September 09, 2003

Why Use a Postcode Anyway?

I had a letter to send, and for some reason I didn't have the postcode. Fortunately, Royal Mail has a postcode finding site. Makes sense; you put the postcode on the letter, it helps the postman, letter arrives, job done.

Except that for some reason, the Royal Mail Postcode Finder is unusable. OK. Perhaps not completely unusable. But it's buried under layers of menus, and you have to register and log into the site. Before you can find a postcode. Which you only wanted anyway to make their job easier.


So I mailed off my package to SW19; the postman can sort out the rest.

But now I'm cured, thanks to Chris Rand and NTK. It turns out that Royal Mail provides an accessible version of the postcode finder, designed for people who have difficulties accessing their regular site. That would be all of us, then.

Posted by Alison at 02:01 PM | Comments (1)

August 08, 2003

All the rest of the Music

Not all music is on eMusic; I picked up a dozen albums or so at Trowbridge and Cambridge (Radio 2 site, with lots of full-length videos). I haven't assimilated them all yet, but I did want to mention Elephant Talk, who don't have a website to speak of. We snuck off to see them after the kids were in bed on Friday night; they're improv musical jackdaws, laying down beats live and playing a dozen instruments on top of them, nicking from all traditions and none.

I also bought Farewell Sorrow by Alasdair Roberts, who I've blogged before. I missed hearing him at Cambridge (the perils of taking children to a festival; he was almost the last act in the club tent), but the album is astonishingly lovely. These are brand new, self-penned, Scottish folk songs; when I heard him at Crawley I wasn't sure if the songs were traditional, or slightly adapted, or new; they're new. The arrangements are spare, and the themes are traditional.

I didn't get to hear John McCusker this time, but I bought Goodnight Ginger anyway; and I picked up albums by Shooglenifty and Berreguetto on general principle. And I've just deleted everything on my iPod and replaced it with the music I've added to this machine in the last 60 days; some 8gb worth (largely existing stuff from our record collection).

Posted by Alison at 08:57 PM | Comments (0)

May 30, 2003

Alison Rediscovers Her Inner Brainless Bimbo

[originally written on my PDA, on the very wonderful Pocketop Keyboard.]

I got up at the crack of dawn, because I had to get all the way across London to catch the 7.45 from Paddington to Birmingham. I was in plenty of time, so as my train wasn't yet advertised, I looked round the bookstall a bit and got some coffee. I finally smelt a rat about ten minutes before my train was due to go.

Euston. Birmingham trains go from Euston. I knew that.

So, of course, I missed that train, but I caught the next one; and it turned out to get me to my exciting day of developmental activity in the nick of time. So that was all right.

Some of you may remember the Birmingham Metropole from the 1987 Eastercon. If you don't, then well done. At the time, they kept an entire extra hotel full of single rooms. They now pretend it's all one hotel, but I can confirm that the singles are still shabby and small. There's huge quantities of function space; it could swallow an Eastercon without even a burp.

Posted by Alison at 09:23 AM | Comments (5)

May 09, 2003

Pop-Up Pissoir

A few months ago, I was wandering down the street, near the office, when I spotted a small celebration. About ten people were standing around a metal object which was descending into the pavement. A few balloons and streamers were attached. Everyone applauded gently and then wandered off, looking slightly embarrassed.

I wandered over to have a closer look, but by the time I arrived all there was to see was a metal-rimmed circle of bricks, flush to the floor and looking a bit like a large manhole cover. And the odd balloon. Nothing to indicate what it was, or why it was being celebrated. I wondered half-heartedly whether it was some element of Secret Underground London, and would be pressed into service in the event of a nuclear attack. I walked across it a couple of times, but nothing happened.

Until last night, when I reeled down Villiers Street rather the worse for wear. The metal object was revealed in all its glory, and it turns out to be London's first pop-up open-air urinal. Apparently the area, which is full of clubs, has a particular problem with drunken men relieving themselves in any convenient spot late at night. (I trust we can discount the special circumstances of 31 December 1999, where Westminster council thoughtfully provided no portable toilets for a crowd of three million people.)

Each evening, the Urilift rises from the ground by remote control to cope with the expected late-night crowds, and each morning it slips away well before the rush hour, leaving a discreet and decidedly non-Parisian circle on the ground. The Guardian provides a helpful interactive guide.

So here's the question, for those people on my readership list who are appropriately equipped. Just what precise combination of drunkenness, urgency, embarrassment, and regard for social niceties and urban hygiene would persuade you to use a urinal in the middle of a busy street rather than nipping down a side alley and pissing against a wall in private?

Posted by Alison at 08:03 PM | Comments (1)

May 02, 2003

Sometimes I Just Like to Shut Out the World

The items in this blog that get more hits than anything else are unquestionably the occasional product reviews I do. People seem to search a lot on product names. So I thought I would drag discussion of my brand-new headphones out of the comments thread and do a proper review. It's the Sony Fontopia MDR-NC11, a pair of noise-cancelling earbuds that get mixed reviews, and they're Not For Everybody.

The first group of people that they're not for is the poor. At $150 retail (though you can get them for less, Super Shoppers), an immediate reaction of how much??? seems pretty forgivable. But it's only a small proportion of the cost of my iPod, and regular readers will know that I didn't much get on with the iPod earbuds, so I was going to buy some new phones in any case.

The second group of people that they're not for is those who don't like sticking things in their ears. For these are the contact lenses of headphones; to get a decent sound you have to shove them sufficiently far into your ear canal that they form a seal; without it, the NR circuits feedback and eliminate the bass. To facilitate this, Sony give you three differently sized pairs of earbuds so you can experiment and find the ones that fit you best. Nevertheless, there are lots of reviews of these phones that say, roughly, 'I put on the earbuds and the sound was crap'. This is a not-sticking-the-plug-in-the-ear issue; and I know, because I too was overly cautious with Dr Plokta's regular Fontopias. It's that earwax oversharing thing, you know.

The third group of people who'll hate them are the active; the problem with earplugs is that the sounds of your own body are amplified, and that happens here. Even when walking down the street, my breathing and footsteps were horribly intrusive. And I found it hard to maintain the seal. And outside, you run a serious risk of getting mown down by a double decker London bus.

They're rubbish in quiet environments, too. Although you can turn off the NR circuits and have passive headphones, the sound quality is no better, and may be slightly worse, than the much maligned iPod earbuds. Certainly it's no better than the Fontopias that don't have noise reduction.

Finally, you won't want them unless you're someone for whom Size Is Important. They're tiny; the phones are scarcely larger than other earbuds, and the circuitry fits in a little triangular box that could be a personal stereo remote control. If you're prepared to go for bigger phones, there are several other options. But at this size, the only real competitor are the non-nr Etymotic earplugs.

OK, so who's left? I'm a regular Tube commuter; having bought these in America, I tried them out on the plane, but you know, planes are a pretty quiet environment by comparison with my daily journey. They weren't bad on the plane, but they're astonishing on the tube. I can't hear station announcements. Train noise is hardly noticable. On the other hand, I can hear my music. Thoroughly, completely, as much as if I sat listening carefully to my proper stereo. Yes, it plays in my head, and no, the bass isn't fabulous. But I can hear it; all of it. I'd considered setting up a tube playlist for the iPod that didn't include subtle music because I simply couldn't hear it over the noise of the tube. And now I don't need to.

Now, part of the noise reduction is delivered by the earpluggy nature of the headphones, and part by the NR circuits. I can get a feeling for the proportions by putting my fingers over the earbuds' microphones to cancel the noise reduction; and I'd guess that the phones' basic design delivers about 60% of the reduced noise, and the circuitry the rest. In practice, this means that without the active circuits, I'd still be thoroughly irritated by tube noise.

Although these are best for reducing loud ambient noise, and I was warned they wouldn't reduce conversation, I can't hear someone talking directly to me while music is playing, and overheard conversations are much less irritating. Interestingly, I'd never previously noticed how many people have sign language conversations in noisy environments. Turns out they're everywhere.

And of course, I love this technology because it's purely sfnal. Tucked into each of my ears is a tiny Fenton Silencer. As we know, science fiction isn't a predictive genre; but Clarke does appear to have had a particular talent in that line.

Posted by Alison at 11:26 PM | Comments (2)

April 20, 2003

Living in the Future

I'm sitting here in my insulated geodesic dome (okay, poorly insulated geodesic dome) at the top of the Millennium Hotel in Minneapolis. Yes, it's the Millennium Dome. It's not the most sturdy structure; Erik Olson has suggested playing Dome Jenga, where you each pull out a bolt in turn until it falls down and everyone loses. We had The Time Travelers Ball Under The Stars here last night, and I'm now in the future.

To prove it, I looked for unprotected wireless nodes. Domes are good for that. A little bit of network configuration from Erik and I can blog. Hello Hinckley; are you reading me?


Spot the powerbook in this picture

Minicon is exactly like Eastercon, but with one important difference; Minicon has Unlimited Free Beer. It's even quite good unlimited free beer, from a local microbrewery. It's too cold and too fizzy, but if you get two, then the second one is warmer and flatter and just about right.

At the Time Travelers Ball, there was also Unlimited Free Cocktails; I had a Pink Lady. Pink Drink! Pink Drink! So all you people in the Hinckley Island drinking alcopops at �3 a pop, all I can say is 'nee ner nee ner'.

I may never come to Eastercon again.

Posted by Alison at 08:19 PM | Comments (7)

March 17, 2003

The Perils of Licensed Game Designing

Greg Costikyan has been ranting about the current state of the computer games industry. One of the conclusions was that people working on licensed product can and should use that as an opportunity to produce meritorious work. (Think of the only pin table ever to make a profit, The Addams Family).

When you have small children, people give you family games. A close friend gave us "Clangers: the Board Game" for Christmas. She knew we liked board games, and knew I liked The Clangers. It was an obvious present. My theory is that the people who make licensed board games know that.

Yesterday, it being Sunday afternoon, we played it. There's a board, with a number of spaces onto which you put round cards with a dustbin lid on one side and a picture of a character or event from The Clangers on the other. There's a deck of cards with the same picture on. There is also a sound chip that makes a squeaky clanger noise. Each person in turn takes a card from the deck, turns over a dustbin lid; if they match, they get to keep them both and press the sound chip.
The person who ends up with the most cards wins.

OK. So for an amount of money -- I'm guessing £9.99 here but it was a present -- you get something which has less gameplay than Pelmanism (pairs). Plus, Pelmanism is played with a deck of cards that you probably have around the house anyway. The main fun of Pelmanism -- hoovering up all the cards that you remember the locations of but your opponents don't -- is gone, because you don't get to choose your targets in this version. Also, the fact that there are four cards of a type in a deck is a feature of Pelmanism, not a bug; I'm always amazed at pairs decks produced for small children that only have two cards of a type. As with the Clangers game, it makes it very much harder to hit on a correct answer by chance.

The Clangers game does have one extra-special feature; some of the photos are very, very similar but not quite the same. So you pounce on a previously turned card with glee only to discover that it's Tiny Clanger pointing the other way. This does cause hilarity, but it's not really a benefit of a family game.

You do, of course, get a squeaky clanger sound chip; just the same ones as are inside the squeaky clangers, only much less cute because it doesn't have any clanger around it.

We had to work through the card deck about six or seven times to make all the matches; we were well through our second pass before getting a single match. Overall, Marianne got bored and distracted. I was amused by thinking about reviewing it on the blog. Jonathan repeatedly pressed the squeaky clanger sound chip, which may get pressed into service in all manner of other board games, and Steven endured the game with a pained expression. He's not the greatest fan of multi-player board games at the best of times, and this won't have helped.

Update, 27 April 2004: I've amended this review, removing some unkind thoughts about Susan Prescot Games, who made the Clangers game. Why? Because I got an e-mail from Susie Prescot, saying how sad she was that we didn't like the game, that licensed game designing is a perilous enterprise (which is of course true), that her development time and choice of images was limited, and that her daughter loved the game and Oliver Postgate liked it. It was, in fact, quite rotten of me to be nasty about a small game company; I love games of all kinds and I've known all my life what a difficult industry it is. I'm sorry.

Posted by Alison at 10:23 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

March 16, 2003

The Golly Sweater

Max spotted that the photo of me from 1983 showed me wearing a sweater with the Robertson's Golly on it, and commented that you couldn't buy one of those now.

In fact, you couldn't buy one of those then; it was a handknit by my mum. I absolutely adored that sweater, and of course I wouldn't for one second dream of wearing it today, and find it difficult to imagine I ever did. It's one of those Past is a Foreign Country things. Like lots of British children, I had a collection of the Robertson's badges (my favourite was the astronaut), and a golly at home (not one of the soft toys that has survived).

Even in 1983, that sweater was distinctly edgy; wearing it was a political statement about the way in which the desire never to offend tends to sweep up lots of perfectly innocent bits of everyday life, like favourite children's books about outwitting tigers and eating more pancakes than are good for you, or children's tendency towards the over-literal. Or, indeed, golliwogs. A completely wrong-headed political statement, but there you go. I was young.

And what of the books? The story in Little Black Sambo isn't racist, but the names and illustrations appear racist to modern eyes. There's a version,

Little Babaji, where the names and illustrations have been changed, but everything else is identical. Epaminondas is harder; this may be the most perfect read-aloud story ever, and all little children love it. (Sara Cone Bryant, who collected this tale, was an expert on telling stories to children). But it's set in a time, and a place, and the cadence of the story is dependent on the dialect in which it's told. Perhaps we have to let these things go.

Robertson's eventually gave up on their trademark golly, because it was no longer any damn use as a marketing device. And I'm sure the sweater wore out long ago.

Posted by Alison at 09:41 AM | Comments (2)

March 11, 2003

Care Patchwork Quilt

Avedon writes about plans to cut US after-school care funding, and the gap between school hours and working hours. In the UK, a recent Strategy Unit report on childcare concluded that we need 180,000 more childcare workers.

The thing that's really interesting in all of this is that there's always an assumption that what families need is a single childcare solution that pretty much covers the relevant hours. Although nearly all families use mixed care solutions in practice, much of the planning is based on the assumption that childcare is reliable, stable, and delivered by a single carer. And, for the most part, ours is. Nevertheless, if everything goes according to plan, then over the course of this year, we will have sourced childcare for our kids from:

a childminder, a day nursery, an after-school club, the school's own breakfast club, informal childcare from our parents, a paid babysitter, friends babysitting as a favour or in swaps, ditto relatives, and of course various paid and unpaid creches.

Oh, yes, and that old stand-by, using our own annual leave to cover gaps. And this is all pretty normal.

Posted by Alison at 12:08 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 13, 2003

Dancing in the Pews

Long-time readers will know that my favourite venue for live music is the Union Chapel at Highbury Corner. And that my favourite live band is the Oysterband.

On Saturday we went to see the Oysters at the Union Chapel. Obviously, what with the pews and stuff, it's not the sort of venue they normally play. But this wasn't an ordinary gig; the Big Session, with Eliza Carthy and a host of up-and-coming young talent, is intended to evoke the feeling of energy and cross-fertilisation of a fine pub session. The large audience appeared to be mixed between Oysterband fans, and Eliza Carthy fans, but with a noticable contingent of traditional folkies; presumably Waterson: Carthy fans.

The Oysterband opened with a couple of songs from Rise Above. But they quickly made clear the purpose of the night, changing the line-up between every song and showcasing the younger performers in turn. It's clear, both from what they said between songs and what they say on the website, that not all their fans are keen on this. But we thought it was great.

We've seen Rose Kemp before, of course; I think the first time we saw her live on stage must be getting on for five years ago now. I remember thinking then that her singing was somewhat immature; as she's 17 now, that's not surprising. She's singing well, and performing her own stuff; and she's confident and outgoing; one to watch.

But the person who startled us was Jim Moray, who'd been playing various instruments on earlier tracks. But to open his own section, he chose to perform "Lemady", sampling his voice as he went to provide an accompaniment on sampler and powerbook. "How superfluous!" said Flick, bouncing up and down. By the end of the song we were committed fans. He has an EP available, and the website has mp3 samples and a link to streaming video of his BBC Young Folk Award performance. (He lost out to a batch of cute toddlers who play their instruments nicely).

James O'Grady is a young piper who played with the Oysters when we saw them at the Marquee last autumn. He and Benji Kirkpatrick (guitar, bouzouki) both struck me as competent and energetic, and added greatly to the liveliness of the set; but neither look like stars in their own right.

The Oysters finished the first half with "Moon Over Milford Haven" ('we thought it was time to romanticise some British place names').

The first part of the second half showcased Eliza Carthy (who didn't appear at all in the first set), playing material from Anglicana, which feels like a mature return to traditional music, and which I'll buy. She also did "Fuse", backed by most of the band. "I also write my own songs; and I've read the rule book -- they're all miserable." Then everyone came on for a loud stompy song. A measure of how exciting this section was is that at the end, when most people retired, leaving the Oysterband on stage to do a couple of their songs, I was a bit disappointed.

After a couple more from Rise Above, everyone came back for the (first) finale; the expected anti-war rallying cry -- "Er, I suppose there must be some people in this country who are in favour of this war. Except that I don't know any of them. Everyone go to the march on the 15th. Or, that is, everyone who's not going to be coming to see The Big Session in Salisbury, go to the march" and a stomping version of 'All Along the Watchtower'. Encores were 'The World Turned Upside Down' and, er, something else. I have the second half of the set list, which says 'Put Out the Lights'. We do often get that as an encore in London, but not this time. And everyone finished with 'Bright Morning Star'.

It was terrific, from start to finish. If asked why I listen to traditional music, I could do no better than to point to this gig. Great singers, great musicians, terrific material, and a real sense that the event was being created right there in front of us. Thanks to the auspices of the Arts Council, tickets were £12. Cheap as chips, as they say on daytime telly.

Posted by Alison at 09:52 PM | Comments (0)

January 30, 2003

The Care of Listed Buildings

Until a couple of weeks ago, we had a local cinema. A fine, large, listed building that had seen far better days. Amongst its many charms was one of the very few remaining cinema organs still in place and working. It was the only cinema in Walthamstow, or indeed anywhere in Waltham Forest.

Several months ago, it was sold to a church. And not just any church, but the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, linked to the Victoria Climbié case, and being investigated by the Charity Commission because of questions about child protection issues and fund-raising strategies.

A vigorous campaign began to save the cinema and prevent the change of use application from going through. Planning permission was refused, but the cinema closed anyway shortly after New Year. But the cinema could not be used for church activity pending a public inquiry, tentatively slated for the summer.

It is common, when planning permission is turned down for listed buildings, for accidents to happen to the original fixtures and fittings. Very sad. Then, when the person or organisation wanting the change of use appeals, they explain that there's no need to keep the original fittings, because they've been destroyed anyway; and hence no reason to refuse planning permission.

Over the weekend, only a couple of weeks after UCKG took over the building, there was an illegal rave at the cinema. It went on for thirty hours, with police refusing to intervene due to lack of manpower. From the news article:

A police officer contacted the UCKG on Tuesday to ask about damage, and was told to fax his questions, and then they might respond.

When the Guardian contacted the group, the press officer refused to take our calls and sent a fax claiming they were "responding" along with the police.

But the police said the UCKG, which bought the cinema for £2.8 million, had not been in contact to report the damage.

There's been extensive damage to the screens, seats, projection equipment, and that unique organ. All of which makes it far less likely that the cinema will ever be returned to its proper use.

Posted by Alison at 07:45 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 25, 2003

Stick Close to Your Desks

Last night I took my mother to see H.M.S. Pinafore at the Savoy. The evening was primarily intended as a treat for my mum, but I enjoyed myself hugely, and have been humming the tunes ever since.

This production places the story thirty years or so forward in time to the era of ocean-going liners. That was a clever move which makes room for a sharp, metallic set, a set of highly mannered, smartly drilled sailors, and a female chorus of dotty suffragettes that brought the house down every time they appeared. The choreography was charming, nobody ever puts a foot out of place, and there is no suggestion that the production is taking itself too seriously.

I made the mistake of describing Pinafore as lowbrow to my Mum. But really, what more might you want from an evening out than wickedly funny songs, lovely music and a batch of nice camp sailor boys?

Now, one nice thing about G&S is that it's in the public domain. Remember that? So the G&S Archive has libretto & midi versions of all the operas. The librettos are available in Palm format from the wickedly titled Palm Pirates. You can even download early recordings as mp3s, entirely free and legally, though in a rather convoluted way; and there is a 100MB per day limit, which got me all of Pinafore and about a third of The Mikado. So now I would be able to read the libretto on my Palm while listening to the music on my iPod, on the tube; if only I could refrain from singing along.

Of course, I don't really want early recordings, although they're fine; I would really have liked to have gone somewhere and downloaded, with no fuss and for a reasonable fee, the cast recording of the production I saw last night. I have no further use for the little shiny discs, or the packaging; instead I want minimalist files, a quick and convenient download, no middleman, and none of the cost overheads of packaging, distribution and retailing. What's more, I think this will soon be true of everyone else. I wonder whether the record companies will work this out before they all go bust?

Posted by Alison at 01:14 AM | Comments (1)

January 14, 2003


My daughter is six today. She is dizzy, forgetful, stroppy, mercurial. Sometimes she throws her arms around me and tells me I'm the best mummy in the whole world. Sometimes she bursts into tears and tells me she hates me and I'm horrible. Sometimes whole minutes go between these two events.

She engages everyone she meets in conversation, and she wants to know about everything. Watching Mulan, she asks about war, and soldiering. Why just the men? Why are the Huns invading? What's an emperor? Why can't kids fight in wars? Why do people have wars anyway? After ten minutes, I contemplate pointing her at a copy of Sun Tzu. But she's moved onto arranged marriages. What's a matchmaker? Why does she want a husband? How can that be a dragon?

As we calculate what curtain accessories we need, she hounds down an unsuspecting John Lewis Partner. Why are there lots of different curtain poles? Why are they called finials? How do the bay connectors work? Why do you need special curtains for bay windows? What are bay windows? Why do we have curtains? Can she choose our living room curtains? (No.)

Her hair is totally out of control and she is missing two teeth. I feel vaguely guilty about this, as if I should somehow be able to control her defiantly grown fringe when hairbands, plaits, slides and kirby grips have failed; or if her next teeth would grow in faster if I paid more attention to her. She is skeptical about the tenets of all major world religions, but has an unswerving faith in the tooth fairy.

Steven sat her down and explained to her that he used to hold her on his forearm. He would cup her head in one hand, and rest her body on his arm, and her legs didn't quite reach his elbow.

She drives me completely bananas.

i really like Jamaica Ginger Cake

Posted by Alison at 11:59 PM | Comments (6)

Find the Golden Powerball

It's like something from the Twilight Zone. The Twilight Zone pinball game, that is. I was roused from slumber by a particularly insistent radio ad. "Find the Golden Powerball! Yes, you can find the Golden Powerball and win £100,000!" Inside specially marked packets of Finish dishwasher tablets, apparently. I suddenly had a flashback.

We were doing a lot of dishwashing, on one of those dark days between Christmas and New Year when the house was full of people. I loaded the dishwasher, pulled a tab randomly from the box in the cupboard, and noticed that they'd changed the colour of the silly little ball thing again. Sometimes they're red, sometimes they're a sort of pale blue. I don't know why they bother. Do they really think that the public is naive enough to think that a dishwasher tablet with a little gold-coloured ball in the middle will wash dishes more effectively? And I put it in the dishwasher, washed my dishes, and thought no more of it.

Until this morning. When I suddenly realised that what I'd chucked in the dishwasher was indeed a marketing ploy, but probably a different one to the ploy I'd first thought of. I went and looked carefully at the box of tablets for the first time. They all seemed to have little red balls in the middle. And the box didn't say anything special, though that's not particularly surprising. We habitually open a new box and tip the tablets into the old box, or vice versa, to save space.

Was it a golden powerball? It certainly washed the dishes. Perhaps there was an insoluble golden powerball clogging up my drains at that very moment. But I'd cleaned the filter since then, and I think I'd have noticed a powerball. I rang the customer service line. I asked, diffidently, about the promotion, without mentioning that I might have washed up a golden powerball. "It's on the packets in shops," explained a helpful woman. "There's a golden powerball. If you find it, you win £100,000. There are also silver powerballs, worth £5000, and bronze powerballs, worth £100." Ah. "How would you tell the difference between a gold and a bronze powerball?" "It's obvious," she explained. Well, not two weeks after you've washed it into oblivion, it's not.

Posted by Alison at 11:37 PM | Comments (12)

January 12, 2003

An Apolitical Blog

Avedon writes, "I've hesitated to add Alison Scott's Macadamia to the blogroll because it's so apolitical (a requirement of her job, alas)". I thought I should explain a little about this, for those who don't know. I'm in the 'politically restricted' group of civil servants, which mean that I'm prohibited from undertaking various activities, including:

holding, in a party political organisation, office which impinges wholly or mainly on party politics in the field of Parliament or the European Parliament; speaking in public on matters of national political controversy; expressing views on such matters in letters to the Press, or in books, articles or leaflets; being announced publicly as a candidate for Parliament or the European Parliament or on behalf of a political party.

Now, you will notice that this says nothing about the Internet; and it's largely unchanged from when I first started worrying about this sort of thing. I was posting to rec.arts.sf.fandom, back in about 1993 or so. Certainly, the odd chunk of political argument slipped out among the thousands of Usenet posts I made, but archiving was a bit dodgy at the time. I did consider, then, asking about their view of posting to Usenet on political matters, but I thought that if they thought about it, they'd probably decide it was a bad idea.

Blogs feel rather more clear-cut to me; it seems incontrovertible that a blog in my own name is equivalent to 'speaking in public'. So, if I slip and inadvertently express an opinion on a matter of national political controversy, rest assured that it's a mistake. Of course, to some extent this is a front; I have little urge to write about political subjects in any case. On subjects other than my speciality, my intellectual deficiencies are too painfully obvious to me. When the argument moves into my field, I struggle both with the difficulty of making cogent points that can be understood by somebody who's never studied the area, and the need to not talk about things that are not public knowledge, such as proposals under development or not-yet-published research.

So what do I want to write about? Well, clearly short essays on subjects that interest or trouble me, but that aren't political. Mail order, for example. But reading Pepys, I wonder if I should also record the minutiae of my day:

Saturday was fine and cold, and we drove with some difficulty to Croydon. The entirety of South London is covered with roadworks. We gathered up Mike Scott and went to the best Indian restaurant in an undistinguished Croydon suburb. There we met Mark and Claire Fishlifter, and Pat McMurray, who eat there so often that they have a loyalty card. We had a cheerful, rambly conversation. Back to Mike's, who showed me Weather Pop, a menu extra for those of us who are so computer bound we never look out of the window. We watched Princess Mononoke, ate a very small supper, and then drove home while Marianne quizzed us thoroughly on the motivations of characters. "Why does the Great Forest Spirit become the Night Walker?" On arriving home I chatted with Damien Warman, who was resting before going out to a Thai restaurant. We marvelled at Safari, now with an updated beta. And so to bed, though not till about 2am, which was very foolish.

Posted by Alison at 11:08 AM | Comments (2)

January 07, 2003

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

I drank my first latte at ConFrancisco, in 1993. There was a coffee cart in the lobby of the hotel I was staying in. And, in fact, there were coffee bars everywhere else in San Francisco. I drank a lot of large milky coffees that holiday.

I missed them when I got back to London, but soon we had coffee culture here too. Work is hard; it's not unreasonable to have a large, expensive coffee drink to help you get through the day, is it? Or two. At first it was quite hard to find latte, but help was at hand when the first branch of EAT opened just around the corner from my office. And it wasn't just the coffee; these shops sell pastries too. But I'm not poorly paid. I can afford a coffee and a croissant.

By spring last year my purse bulged with a festoon of cheerful coffee loyalty cards. A typical work day would involve me getting up, sleepily feeding the kids breakfast, walking Marianne to school, and walking to the station, where I'd buy a coffee and a Guardian. That would sustain me for the tube journey; on the way into the office I'd buy a grande skinny latte (see my concern for my health?) and a chocolate twist from EAT. At lunch I'd go to another coffee and sandwich shop, usually Pret. I'd have a baguette, a cake or croissant of some kind, and another large coffee. If I worked late I tended to nip out at 5 or so for another grande latte; otherwise I just bought the Evening Standard for the journey home.

When I bought a new toy computer I tried, experimentally, to knock the coffee habit on the head. In particular, I stopped buying stuff before getting on the train in the morning, and read the newspaper on my Clié. And I started going to Benjy's for coffee and toast at £1.10. It worked; though I eased up a bit after I was promoted. I mean, I could afford the computer and the coffee now, right?

Just before Christmas, as a lark, I had a cup of black tea. I remembered that I liked black tea. This is notable, because I don't really like Benjy's huge 60p cups of filtered coffee. So now I could just get the toast, and no coffee, and make black tea in my office for 4p a cup. No newspapers either. Back to Benjy's for lunch (in this cold weather, my super favourite tuna melt toasted panini), and more black tea, and water cooler water. The only downside is that I have to drink a gallon of Whittards Earl Grey to get any adequate caffeine rush.

And compared to my former habits, a single day of the new regime saves £7.50 or so. That's £30 a week, as I only work 4 days. Enough to buy four books, two DVDs, or a round of drinks at the Silver Cross. In just under 5 months, I'll have saved enough to buy a new digital camera.

But hey, don't I deserve a nice cup of coffee?

Posted by Alison at 11:00 PM | Comments (5)

January 05, 2003

Only two common words in English come from Icelandic

Interestingly, I discovered this from both the coffee table books I read this weekend while staying with my parents. The first, Iceland: The Warm Country of the North, by Sigurgeir Sigurjónsson and Torfi H. Tulinius, is a book of lovely pictures along with a little supportive text. It has the feel of the sort of book you buy at the airport when leaving your holiday destination, to remind you of how nice it all was. Just the thing to read instead of getting out of bed this morning.

The second book, lying around on the coffee table only because my parents would never dream of keeping books in the loo, was Schott's Original Miscellany, one of those books that pops up for the Christmas market and is suddenly found in bathrooms all across the land. An almanac for the internet age, this concentrates not on what you may need to know -- because everyone can now look those things up in a trice -- on stuff you'd never particularly realised was important. Everything's jumbled up, but it's a short book with a thorough index, so it doesn't really matter.

I didn't notice any facts that were clearly wrong, but plenty that were a bit dubious. For example, the list of notable Belgians included the Flemish painters (who we disqualify on the grounds that they predate Belgium), and a load of people we'd never heard of (who we disqualify on the grounds that they're insufficiently famous). And I work just off the Strand, so am skeptical of Schott's claim that it's properly known as just 'Strand'. All very well to tell you that a millihelen is the amount of beauty that will launch a ship, but the really interesting measurement is the milliantihelen -- a face that would sink a ship. [depressing aside: I just googled on that, and it seems I've used it online twice before, and nobody else has at all ever. As against many thousands of references for millihelen. So perhaps I'm the only person who thinks it's funny.] Worse are the Bowdlerisms (and Schott tells you the origin of that and many other words inspired by people). I have never, personally, seen the Internet abbreviation "RTBM", and the list of rhyming slang omits "Berkshire Hunt".

But Schott makes no claims to be exhaustive or authoritative, and there is plenty that's entertaining here. Far more than it's possible to lists, really. A list of famous horses, including Bucephalus, Rosinante, Silver, Trigger and Shadowfax. The recommended driving route from Lands End to John O'Groats. The list of London Thames crossings. Washing symbols, iceberg sizes, the plimsoll line, and, of course, a list of words which English has appropriated from each of many other languages, including geyser and saga.

I'd recommend this book, but you were probably given it for Christmas. Though if you're American, you can improve your stock at dinner parties by snapping up the UK version before US publication in July.

Posted by Alison at 10:36 AM | Comments (3)

January 01, 2003

Fact Number 15

Back on Live Journal, there is, as usual, a meme going round. So I sat down with the intention of writing a hundred random facts about myself. However, half way through fact number 15, I got sidetracked.

As a child I liked to sit in the garden on sunny days with a calculator, writing out long lists of primes, squares, cubes, triangular numbers, and so on.

As a fact, this left something to be desired. I mean, I don't think I'm insane, and I don't think I was insane then. But taken like that, it certainly sounds like an odd way to spend the glorious long sunny afternoons of a dimly remembered childhood. We had a large garden, with a large lawn, with a slope halfway down it by the pond. So I'd sit on the slope, in the sunshine, with the calculator, and work out the next prime, or cube, or whatever, and write it down, and carry on until teatime. I am fairly certain this was not an obsessive compulsive disorder. The lists of numbers were useful, you see.

I used the lists to make it easier to solve crossnumbers. Not just any crossnumbers, but the beautiful, complex and fiendishly tricky crossnumbers set by Rhombus. They occasionally appeared, as alternates to beautiful, complex and fiendishly difficult crosswords, in The Listener. We didn't, of course, take The Listener, but we did take Games and Puzzles, which reprinted some of them. I found them astonishingly hard. But given time, and application, and long lists of useful numbers, I could occasionally solve them.

In 1978, when I was 13, I got occasional access to a computer for the first time; our school had a terminal which connected to the minicomputer at the local college. Very nearly the first thing I did was to get it to print out a list of the first several thousand primes. This took a few minutes.

I remember holding the printout in my hands and being enchanted with the sense of possibilities that it represented. It wasn't that I regretted all those hours I'd spent in pointless calculations, exactly. Instead, they were my own personal pebbles on the seashore, being washed away by the incoming tide. That printout was my first glimpse of the way in which computers would come to change the world in which I lived in. Everyone kept talking about the big stuff. But what really made the difference were the things that were personal to me, like fanzines, weblogs, personalised Christmas cards, one-off t-shirts. And lists of prime numbers.

From time to time, over the years, I've googled for references to Listener crossnumbers, or for Rhombus. And today, for the first time, I found some more useful than just a vague reference. This page includes a link to a file containing 20 Rhombus puzzles, including a few errors, noted separately. And this lengthy article on how to solve crossnumbers makes it clear, in passing, what I have long suspected; that nobody before or since has come anywhere close to Rhombus's mastery of the art.

Posted by Alison at 09:47 PM | Comments (2)