Friday, October 30, 2009

SPAG woes - an introduction

SPAG stands for
specifically within the English language.

Now, I'm not perfect with my SPAG usage (if asked my SPAGuality, I'd say I was 'experimental'), but speaking English is something that most English people are taught to do almost from birth. Most of us start being taught to read and write it a relatively short time later. I'd say that practising something for such a large part of your life should make you quite good at it, yet so many British people can't speak or write a decent sentence for toffee and, even worse, simply don't care. What does it matter if you don't know where to put an apostrophe, which 'their' to use or even what a semi-colon looks like?

It's not important. It doesn't matter. It's a waste of time learning these things because everyone still knows exactly what you mean even if you miss out every vowel and don't bother with punctuation at all, don't they? But it vexes me. It makes my stomach acids bubble to read through my Facebook news feed and see apostrophes being abused, homophones being interchanged willy-nilly and lazy spellings infecting a sentence that may otherwise have turned out to be a pleasant read. Why does it prod at the less savoury parts of my psyche? Here are some reasons:
  • If someone has written (or typed) something, I'd like to think it's worth saying. If something's worth doing, you spend time on it, you craft it lovingly and you make it your own and as perfect as it can be. If I were to slap some letters down on a page with randomly interspersed items of punctuation and no regard for conventional spelling, I would feel that it's not that important to me. If that is the case, then why bother saying it at all?
  • The rules of SPAG are there for a reason*. That reason is to unify communication; to ensure that we can get our message across unambiguously** using the tools at our disposal. Sometimes it's harder than others, but in even the most simple of sentences changing so much as a comma's position can alter its  meaning dramatically.
  • Writing is an art form. You don't have to be any good at it to take part, but I am of the opinion that you should at least try. My writing is not by any means flawless, but I do make an effort. Otherwise, what's the point in doing it at all? Ignoring spelling conventions and denying the existence of punctuation is a textual version of inarticulate grunting, and I don't know anybody who enjoys being on the receiving end of that.
I'm going to write a series of blog posts on the theme of commonly misused or misunderstood uses of the English language. I'm sure these will be well-read and massively popular, and I would welcome comments and suggestions from both of the people who will read them, especially if I've got anything wrong. I'd also like to suggest the possibility of somebody 'guest-blogging' on the subject: I know there are people on various of my friends lists who have a similar bee in their bonnet yet are much more qualified than I to comment on it. If you're interested, let me know. Or just write something and send it to me.

* That's not to say we can't break them from time to time: I break many of them all the time. If we didn't break rules, we'd never make any progress. But breaking rules and being ignorant of them are different circumstances entirely.

** Although one of the more fun things to play with is the double meaning. But that's an example of rule-breaking as opposed to rule-ignoring, as commented on in *.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Photography - CaM rehearsal

First off: CaM stands for Chimes at Midnight. It's a new (almost foetal) band that's being built from the ground up. The idea is to learn a bunch of songs (very) loosely centred around rock ballads from the 80s and see if we can seduce some people into wanting us to play at their weddings. CaM's website is at .Feel free to have a look, but there's not much there at the moment. With any luck, after today's extended rehearsal there should be some photos, mp3s and maybe even a video or two up there within the next couple of weeks.

I took the opportunity of the all-day rehearsal to play with my D60 again. Today I tried to play around with 'interesting'/ alternative viewpoints. As usual, these are reduced-quality versions to save on bandwidth and web hosting. If any of my bandmates would like copies, I can send the full-quality versions. Just ask.

Here are some of my efforts:

Meet Jennie. She's CaM's singist.

This is a microphone stand. The blurry guy is Chris. He's CaM's keyboardist.

This is my Pod. It makes me sound like I do when I'm playing. It has lots of buttons and is a beautiful piece of equipment!

Chris and Jennie singing something. Can't remember what.

Chris's keyboard, with Chris blurred in the background. Some people would say he's best viewed like this, but those people would be horrible, nasty people who don't deserve to be listened to.

I really like this one for some reason. It's mine and Paul's guitars, with a bit of my Pod thrown in for good measure.

Microphone and very blurry drum kit.

Pensive Chris. He was not, as far as I am aware, deliberately posing for this pic.

Most of our gear, including our drummer, Mike. Not sure whether he counts as gear or not. Did you know that you can tell how straight a stage is by looking at which way the drool falls out of a drummer's mouth? By the way, the guitars aren't dead. They're just resting.

I think this is the best photo of the day. Taken with a nice wide open aperture, hiding behind a cymbal and manually focussing (not very well, I'd admit) on Jennie and shouting "Oi, Jennie!" just before pressing the shutter release button.

This isn't a great picture, but I had to include it because:

  1. I didn't get any better ones of Paul.
  2. Paul would be upset if I didn't include a picture of him.
  3. Paul looks very silly in this picture.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

How to save money - Odeon PremiƩre Reward Card: worth it?

As always, please read my disclaimer before acting on any information contained in this post.

Odeon cinemas have recently introduced their own reward scheme. The idea is similar to other reward schemes in that you receive points every time you visit the cinema and buy tickets and food. You get 10 points for every £1 spent, and you can redeem these for tickets and food. Tickets give the highest return, so I'll concentrate on those in this post. The catch is that you have to pay for the card in the first place. However, you do get a certain number of free points depending on which level of membership you opt for:
  • Classic membership is £1.99, and you get 100 free points
  • Deluxe membership is £4.99, and you get 500 free points
  • Ultimate membership is £9.99 and you get 1000 free points

Is it worth it?
That depends on who you are.

If you're an avid cinema goer and attend fairly regularly you'll build up enough points to redeem a ticket for a seat every now and then. If you're buying for a family, and you buy food each time you go, points will rack up more quickly than say, me going by myself and not eating anything, and you might get a few free tickets a year out of it. Having said that, even if you only go once a year, you'll still accrue points and as long as you keep going long enough you'll eventualy build up balance enough to redeem, even if that takes you 14 years.

In short, it depends on how often you go on average as to whether it's worth the time and effort, and there's no hard-and-fast rule for this.

Which level of membership should I go for?
That depends on where you are.

Different Odeons have different ticket price tarrifs, yet the number of points you get per pound stays the same. This means that the more expensive your local odeon is, the more worthwhile buying a reward card is.

How worth it is calculable using maths:
The price of a standard ticket at my local Odeon is £7.30, and to buy one with reward points would cost 800 points. This means that for anybody who mostly visits Kettering's Odeon cinema, each point is worth:
730p / 800 = 0.91p.
This means that:
  • If I buy the Classic membership for £1.99, I get (100 points x 91p =) £0.91 worth of points for the price, giving me a loss of £1.08.
  • If I buy the Delux membership for £4.99, I get (500 x 91p = ) £4.56 worth of points, meaning that I lose £0.43.
  • If I by the ultimate membership for £9.99, I get (1000 x 91p = ) £9.10 worth of points, which is a loss of 0.89.
Bear in mind that any loss in the initial purchase will eventually be absorbed by extra points that you earn with your purchases (it's a one-off joining fee, but there's no limit to your savings), so if you decide to get a rewards card it makes sense to go with the membership level that gives you the lowest loss. So for me, that's Delux membership.

To work out your own, do the following:
1. Work out how much your points are worth:
Divide your local cinema's standard ticket price (s) by 800:
w = s / 800

2. Work out how much the free points with each level of membership are worth to you:
Multiply how much each point is worth (w) to you by the number of points you get with each level of membership in turn (fc for classic, etc):
  • Classic: fc = 100 x w
  • Deluxe: fd = 500 x w
  • Ultimate: fu = 1000 x w

3. Work out the difference (d) between the price you pay for the 'free' points and what they're worth to you:
  • Classic: d = £1.99 - fc
  • Deluxe: d = £4.99 -  fd
  • Ultimate: d = £9.99 - fu

4. Pick the membership level that gives you the lowest value for d.
Note that getting a negative number for d means that you'll actually be making a profit. Getting a value of 0 means that you break even.

Extra tips
To save even more money:

Final note...
If I'd checked my email an hour earlier, I could have just directed you towards this.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Photography - Learning as I go...

I had a chance to have another play with my Nikon D60 DSLR this weekend. We went to the AMEF Strictly Culture event at the Pemberton Centre in Rushden, followed by the New Music Nite Weekender at the same venue. I started off playing with the automatic settings again, but filming and photography guru (and all-round nice guy) Andy Eathorne was there, and he gave me a few tips for getting started with the fully manual camera setting. Andy showed me just how easy the camera is to use in manual mode- the hardest bit is remembering what all the different settings do!

Anyway, here are edited highlights of my efforts with a few comments:

These are photos of the TARDIS video comment booth at Strictly Culture. I was playing around with shutter speeds here; the picture on the left was taken with a faster shutter speed than the one on the right, resulting in a darker, yet sharper image. On my camera's screen I preferred the second photo, but now I've seen them both in all their glory, I think the first one is probably the more effective image.

A belly dancer. I was playing around with ISO settings in indoor situations (the darker the situation, the higher the ISO number, in general. Yes, I know that's very basic, but when I say I'm new to photography I mean it). This is about the best picture I managed to take. Wish I could have got a sharper pic before she'd finished (because that would have taught me more about aperture/ ISO/ shutter speed combinations than failing to do so did, of course. Why, what were you thinking?)

Mucking around with shutter times again, under Andy's tutelage. I set the shutter speed to 'bulb', which means that you hold the shutter button down for as long as you want to expose the image, and then let go to close the shutter again. After pressing the shutter button I held the camera as steadily as I could on Emma for around 20 seconds, then turned around and waved the camera around in front of the ceiling light for a second or two. I think this is a pretty cool effect.

Taking advantage of the groovy colours from the lighting at the NMN Weekender in conjunction with the hotness of Emma.

This is approximately half of This Band Called, who headlined the NMN Weekender. They're a pretty good band, even if half of them weren't there. I was trying to work out how to take a decent photo in low/ unusual light conditions. I opened the aperture as far as it'll go (to let in as much light as possible) and then tried to find a shutter speed that gave a decent compromise between image sharpness and exposure.

Playing with focal depth this time, again under Andy's expert eye. The first picture was taken with a wide open aperture (low f-number), and then manually focussing on Emma before adjusting the shutter speed and taking the snap. The second picture was taken with a smaller aperture (high f-number), still manually focussing on Emma. The higher f-number (smaller aperture) increases the focal depth, meaning that the slide-y doors behind Emma are more focussed in the second picture than the first. Much of the fuzziness in the second image is caused by the slower shutter speed required for the smaller aperture.
A quick note because I didn't realise this at first: Such effects with focal depth must be done as 'zoomed in' as possible, as a wide-angled shot naturally increases the focal depth of the lens.

A close- up shot taken using the ambient light in the area in which we were standing.

Everybody loves mashed potato!

This is a blogged response to a post over at No Love Sincerer*; an extended comment, if you like. It put me in mind of a mashed-potato-related incident in my own history, and I'd like to share it here. It isn't actually my incident, and I wasn't even there at the time, so I'll do the protagonist the favour of keeping him (or her, of course) completely, utterly and totally anonymous in order to spare her (or, indeed, him) the shame that may result from the tale I am about to tell**. But I do see myself as being officially involved, as I was instrumental in solving...

The Case of Why the Mashed Potato was Weird
It was a cold, dark night, and I was talking (via email, if my memory serves me well) to my friend, who for the sake of argument I shall call Robin***. We were indulging in our usual repertoire of banter, debate and irreverent nonsense, and the subject of his surviving an entire week at home alone whilst his parents were on holiday inevitably shoulder barged its way into the discussion. It seemed that on one evening, tired of morsels of food packaged in polystyrene and acquired from the local chippy, Robin*** decided to have a go at cooking something. He decided upon the classic British dish that is bangers and mash, and set to work.

Upon completion, Robin*** confided to me, the bangers were done almost to perfection, if a little on the crisp side, but the mash was... weird.
'In what way?' I enquired.
'I don't know... just... not the same as they are when my mum makes them. Not unpleasant, really, but... strange.'

Now, I'm no culinary expert, but I do feel that I have a fairly solid handle on the process of making mashed potato, even if I don't often actually perform the necessary incantations, so I suggested that he went through his experience step by step, and I'd see if I could spot any glaring errors in his recipe. He agreed:
1. Peel potatoes.
2. Wash potatoes.
All good so far, as far as I can see.
3. Chop potatoes into quarters.
 Sensible move: reduces cooking time, helps to ensure even cookage and aids the mashing process.
4. Rinse potatoes once more for good measure.
Steady on there, mate. Don't want to go making extra work for yourself! What are you worried about? Solanum flu?
5. Place potatoes in saucepan.
Still tallying with my mashed-taters recipe, old chum.
6. Pour oil into saucepan.
 ... huh?
6. Pour oil into saucepan.
... um... huh?
6. Pour oil into saucepan.
You did say oil, then. Er... how much oil?
Just enough to cover all of the potatoes.
And then what did you do?
Cooked them.
On the hob? Submerged in oil? in a saucepan?
I think I'm beginning to see why your mashed potatoes turned out a little different from those your mum makes. Can I ask what the result was like?
A lot more soggy than my mum's, and a different colour- golden. And they were crispy on the outside, too.
Right. What did you do with them at this point.
Mashed them, and served them with the sausages, and ate them.
And I can only assume from the very fact that we're having this conversation that you didn't die as a result, which deserves congratulations in itself.

I went on to point out the error that, in my estimation, he had made, and outlined steps that he could take to avoid making the same error during future mashed potato making attempts. The event happened a few years ago now, but it still gets brought up whenever his parents go away without him**** and, indeed, whenever self-cooking***** enters any particular conversation.

Well, I find it funny.

To end, here's something from my youth...

The fact that that video played a part in my upbringing may explain a lot.

* View, follow, befriend, etc.

** See, Robin, I'm quite nice really. I apologise if any of the following is in any way inaccurate or didn't actually happen, but I can't find the original email and I'm writing for a public (if very small) audience, so feel I should make an effort as far as embellishments are concerned.

*** An assumed name.

**** They need to, now and then.

***** That's cooking for oneself, not the cooking of oneself.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Hallowe'en is EVIL!

Woke up this morning to Sarah Kennedy telling me that the Belvoir* Angel, a church mag that had been delivered to around 500 householdsin an area of Leicestershire, contained an article entitled Halloween isn't a treat - don't be tricked. The article was, it seemed, an attack on anyone who felt like doing anything at all beyond the ordinary daily grind on the evening of October 31st. It proclaims that all who celebrate Hallowe'en are "siding with the Devil and all his works," and the evening is a "concentration on evil and making fun of potentially dangerous situations," during which "normally law-abiding people damage the property of those whom they should be good neighbours," and "In some cases, they bring fear, especially to the elderly."

I think somebody got out of bed on the wrong side.

O.k, there are always going to be be people who take the revelry too far at Hallowe'en, but is the same not true for other occasions? If one person throws a kebab at a window on Christmas Eve, or during Diwali, does that make everyone who is celebrating either of them a devil-worshipper? No. It makes one person an idiot. The same is true for Hallowe'en. Yes, some people will go out on 31st October and be intimidating, possibly violent and may commit vandalism, but these will be a pathetic, embarrassing minority: only intimidating, violent vandals will take part. Most trick-or-treaters will be out for the novelty, the fun, and the social aspect. Party-goers will, on the whole, simply be out to have a good time.

I am particularly annoyed yet another example of religious indoctrination being used to attempt to control people: the article was, according to the sources I have read, aimed at revealing the derogatory effects of celebrating Hallowe'en on our nation's youth, and implies very strongly that anyone celebrating Hallowe'en will go to hell. I start to fume when people use their superstitions to instil fear in order to control the thoughts and actions of anybody, but I am especially concerned when it is aimed at children: it is just plain wrong, and I hope that the bloke who wrote the article is feeling very, very stupid indeed, along with anybody who o.k'd it.

Call me forward-thinking and partly sane, but I'm of the opinion that improving the attitudes and actions of the kind of people who go out to cause trouble during celebrations such as Hallowe'en, especially those at the younger end of society's spectrum, should begin with education about what it means to be a citizen of today's world, rather than with fictional threats of eternal damnation.

At best, the writer's stance detracts from the real issues behind trouble-making at Hallowe'en (or any other celebration event). At worst, it is potentially damaging to the minds and egos of any vulnerable people who are reading the words of somebody who is supposed to be a good example to them.

News just in...
It appears that the Bishop of Leicester has commented that he doesn't agree with the content of the article, and that it is 'overstating the issue'. Even some other religious-types have commented: a pagan representative has described the article as 'absolutely religious', and imply that it's more than a bit offensive to them, what with Hallowe'en originally being a pagan festival, and all**.

All is not lost, then.

* Pronounced 'beaver'.

** That doesn't seem to matter at Christmas, though...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Royal Mail part 2 - In the lion's den

This post carries on from yesterday's waffle about the Royal Mail, and my comments on how efficient, reliable and generally wonderful I find them*.

Parcel delivery
Parcels are, of course, only delivered when most people are at work, and the scrawled note that's shoved through my door afterwards appears to have been done so in frustration and surprise every time. "Why is nobody in?!" But I can cope with that- Royal Mail workers don't want to have to work when everyone else is in the pub or doing their weekly shopping any more than I do, and it's a clash of timescales that has processes in place to deal with it.

When delivery is attempted at one of the numerous households that are, surprisingly, unoccupied during working hours, there are a number of options that the diligent delivery person can take**:
  • The 'left with neighbour' box can be ticked.
Which neighbour is rarely noted or discussed, and many an evening has become a merry stroll up and down the road to see who has been the lucky recipient this time.
  • The 'left in a safe place' box can be ticked.
This is when the fun really starts: the final resting place of my package often has me wondering whether either my deliverer or I have a misprinted edition of the Oxford English dictionary with regards to the word 'safe'. Some true examples of 'safe' places that I have personally experienced:
 - The item has been left propped up against the front door.
 - The item has been left in one of the recycling bins.
 - The item has been flung with gusto over the garden wall, fence or gate***.
  • The 'returned to your local Post Office' box has been ticked.
This is where the fun takes a running jump, and the surreal back-end collection room of the post office comes into play.
Firstly, my local post office, which is inside a comfortable 8-minute stroll from my house, is shunned in favour of the one in Kettering, which is a 20-minute drive away.

Arriving at the more distant branch on a Saturday morning involves the following steps:
  1. Join the queue of disgruntled customers that is already snaking its way across the car park.
  2. Wait for around forty minutes as the queue continues to grow behind you at a much faster rate than it is shrinking in front of you, until you enter the tiny room with the reinforced glass partition.
  3. As you near the front of the queue, tempers begin to fray as there is one person behind the glass who quite clearly has just wandered in off the street and has not yet been told The System****. 
  4. When the next person in the queue hands over their 'sorry you were out' card, it is dropped in the bin, and the grubby notebook is consulted, presumably to find out if it makes any more sense than last time.
  5. The stranger behind the glass then proceeds to look under his coffee cup, behind the calendar, and in, under and around the bin before scratching his head and wandering out of the back door, where someone appears to be very noisily playing basketball with someone else's***** package.
  6. If you're lucky, the guy will return at some point. If you're extra lucky, he'll be holding a package. If you're luckier than a lottery winner with a blackjack, it'll be yours.
Sometimes the guy returns with a shrug and asks for your phone number so that you'll go away in the erroneous belief that they'll call you when (if) they find the package that they have so lovingly filed for you.

I've even been there when a particularly infuriated lady has enquired as to the possibility of a colleague stepping in to help out. The bewildered guy behind the glass stated, in all seriousness, that he's the only one there, evidently oblivious to the large and saggy man slurping on a large and saggy burger that everyone in the cramped, sweaty and pungent room can see through the glass.

In fairness...
It's not just the Royal Mail. Of the many delivery companies that I have had cause to deal with, not one has shone out above the rest as an example of good practise to be followed by all. I strain to recall a time when I haven't had to make a twenty minute drive to the back end of nowhere after an attempted package delivery. Even less easily recalled in my mind is an occasion in which I wasn't greeted by the sight of generic delivery company employees either engaged in an active sporting activity or otherwise just beating each other senseless with somebody's undelivered package.

* Not very.

** With none of these options, though, is there any indication as to who the parcel is actually for.

*** O.k, so this may well render the package 'safe' in some senses of the word, but has the added benefit of making sure that the parcel and/or contents are also 'broken'.

**** Another possibility is that there is no System.

***** You hope.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Royal Mail part 1: A British institution

But who wants to live in an institution?

So the Royal Mail are about to strike over pay and conditions. Again. The main outcome of this, for most of us, will be that the Royal Mail will appear to be not doing their job properly for a couple of days. Is it cynical to ask how appearing to not do their job properly for a couple of days is going to seem any different to the standard state of actually not doing their job properly that seems to preside over any dealings that I have with them?

Yes, this post will probably catch the eye of one or two Royal Mail fans and supporters, but(*).

This post, as ever, is about my own experiences. Any generalisations are flippant and you're welcome to comment with your own counter-examples, experiences and opinions. There will probably be a certain amount of hyperbole in evidence as well. Don't get angry; just divide by three. But my experiences include the following:

Letter delivery
My local Royal Mail employees don't seem to be able to read or count very well. We regularly get letters for people who live at different house numbers, or on different streets, or, most worryingly, a mixture of both. It makes me wonder how much post destined for my hands wanders off and ends up somewhere far removed from the destination written on its front. I can only hope that it undergoes some kind of holistic experience and, although not ending up where it was intended to be, finds itself where it needs to be to play its part in some grander scheme.

We also get lots of post addressed to somebody called 'The Occupier'. I can only assume that this is the self-selected moniker of a local Timelord or archvillain, but unfortunately there is never an address included so I can't forward his mail.

What annoys me most, however, is the amount of post we get through our door that isn't addressed to either of us, or anybody else. My email inbox has facilities to deal with such nuisance droppings, but unfortunately nobody has yet mass-produced a real-world-spam filter to fit my letterbox.

To be continued...

* I work in a profession that is constantly vilified by certain strands of the media and the types of people who get their opinions from somebody they've never met but knows how to mouth-off in print, and think that rather than being paid anything, we should pay for the privilege of being allowed to work in this particular job during the week, and at weekends should be paraded through town centres, battered and bloody, on crucifixes rather than being allowed a rest. I know what it's like to be almost exclusively unappreciated (in a work-life sense) by certain sectors of society. I know there are some Royal Mail workers out there who are diligent, devoted and do their jobs to the letter. I know that you must feel crap that everybody is moaning about you at the moment. Please come and work in Kettering and make my experiences with your company that little bit better, and I'll gladly remove my voice from that crowd.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Photography - First outing with my new camera!

Just a quickie today because I've done six hours of driving this weekend and I want to go to bed, but I wanted to blog quickly about one aspect of my birthday:

I got a camera (A Nikon D60 digital SLR, if you're interested). I'm quite pleased with it so far: it was easy to set up, and I'm pretty pleased with the quality of image that's being churned out, even though I'm only using the basic point-and-shoot functionality at the moment. I took around thirty photos this weekend, but I thought I'd share a few that I particularly like. These have been edited very briefly and basically (i.e. cropped and a tiny bit of contrast/ light adjustment on one or two) using Picasa. The photos below have had their quality reduced to take up less of my Picasa web album's space:

A frog in the pond in my aunt & uncle's back garden.

An example of dualitive nominism? It is, and it does.

Some sky.

My cousin scoring a try for his rugby team.

The birthday cake my mum made me (only 20 candles- she left the one in the shape of a '7' in her kitchen at home!)

I really like this one. It's rain on some blades of something grass-like* surrounded by something thistle-like**. This is about as close as I can get with the lens that came with my D60. I'm hoping that a decent macro lens will fall out of the sky (and land on something soft) so that I can explore macro photography a little deeper.

* Possibly grass.
** Possibly thistles.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Age - is it just a number?

I have a birthday coming up soon. This weekend, in fact. I have been described as a whipper-snapper recently, and some will be surprised to know that it's playing on my mind, but I'll be older than I've ever been before and that's quite scary. It's not a milestone. Not even a demi-milestone. It's not even a nice, round number. But it's still making me think about things: about the past; about the future; about the way we (humans) look at and use numbers*.

We, as a culture, and even (largely) as a species, ascribe a lot of importance to age, and particular ages. In the UK, for example, we can start having sex legally at 16, learn to drive a car at 17 and buy alcohol at 18. These are little more than arbitrary choices when you consider the massive variation of attitudes, achievements, intelligence and growd-upness between individuals of the same age (at any age). Even outside the law certain ages are ascribed similarly arbitrary meaning: 21 is when you 'come of age', whatever that means; you're peeking over the brow of the hill at 30, and life begins at 40.

But at the same time age is a very abstract thing. In terms of who I am, I haven't noticed a distinct change since... I can remember. Obviously things have changed along the way, but it's been a gradual change that those who have been close to me for any length of time fail to notice because it's so small, and we're all changing together. Age is fairly difficult to judge from the outside- anyone obviously younger than you, it seems, is barely more than a child. Anyone much older, a lot of the time, is a bit of an out of date codger. But where are the boundaries? When does someone change from being 'about the same age' as you to being a near-child or a codger? Is it as simple as that? Certainly not. So is age more defined by attitude and personality than by the number of years you've racked up on the Great Click-Counter in the Sky?

I tried an experiment the other day: I asked a class of fairly high ability 12/13 year-olds (year 8) to guess what age I'm going to turn on Saturday. The range of serious guesses** was astonishing: the lowest was seventeen; the highest fifty-eight. One got the answer on the nose, but the guesses were distributed fairly evenly along the scale, which suggests that the guesses were little more than wild stabs in the dark between a couple of vaguely sensible boundaries.

I have close friends with a wide range of ages, and there are people I cannot stand who are the same age as me. Some of the adults I meet are seemingly incapable of having any kind of intellectual conversation, whereas I could pick out a number of children in the lower years of my school who are more than comfortable taking part in more cerebral discussions, either inside the classroom or out.

So is age blurry rather than solidly defined? Are the numbers we ascribe to age futile attempts to unify what happens to us as we progress through life? Why is 40, for example, a landmark when people can be so markedly different when (or, indeed, if) they reach it? One of the big questions that getting a bit older always brings up for me is when does getting older stop being a good thing and turn into a bad thing? Or is it different for everybody? Or does everybody necessarily experience that?

This post is full of questions, I know! But I defy anyone to answer them with anything other than speculation. Maybe we should get rid of the system we have of counting numbers, and marking milestones.

Or maybe we should make every number a milestone, special in its own way. I'll start:

On Saturday I'll reach an age which, whilst not a multiple of 10, or a half-century, or a quarter century, or with any legal implications, can be just as special if you look at it in the right way. It's a special number because:

  • It's a perfect cube, and most people will have only four such birthdays in their life- it'll be my third, with nearly forty years to go until the next, and almost twenty years since the last.
  • The Messier object with the same number is known as the Dumbbell Nebula and, like many other such objects, is beautiful.
  • There are this many books in the Bible's Old Testament. For an atheist, that's a good'un.
  • Mozart completed this many concerti for piano and orchestra.
And, perhaps most interestingly,
  • It appears to be something of a magic number where sex is concerned, being cited by The Joy of Sex as the ideal number of participants for an orgy.
So it's a great number of years to celebrate. I just can't think for the life of me how to go about doing it.

* Yes, I do realise that's quite sad, thank you.
** The unserious ones included "a hundred and forty-six" and "minus one-point-three: you're still just a sperm, sir." I don't think that this last one was an attempt at an insult, but you can't always tell.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Microsoft Photo Story - First outing

Another training session, another piece of software introduced. This time it's Microsoft Photo Story, which comes included with Microsoft Office 2007*, and appears to be freely available to download from here.

The program is a bit like Windows Movie Maker (which I trialled here), except you're limited to using photos rather than video clips. It's basically a whizzbang slideshow maker- you can set slide timings, transition effects, you can zoom into certain parts of your photos, or zoom out from other bits, and then set it all to a soundtrack. The software even includes the facility to record a narrative soundtrack directly via your microphone, as well as a nifty little soundtrack creator: you tell it what instrument you want, select a mood and a tempo, and it'll generate some possibilities for background music. Whilst more limited than Movie Maker, its limitations seem, in my limited experience, to make the program a little easier to use. I certainly found it easier to time the slides to the soundtrack with Photo Story than I did with Movie Maker.

Anyway, enough waffle and on with the show. As before, this video does not exactly stretch the facilities of the software, the resources of the computer, or even the imagination of the creator. It is simply the result of my first tinker with Photo Story, and is intended to give anyone who wants one a glimpse into the basic concept of the program.

Comments and links to your own Photo Story efforts would be gratefully received!

* Which you won't be buying anyway if you've read this post.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Non-religious / humanist ceremonies: Keith Floyd's funeral

I'm a bit behind the times: I've only just, by chance, heard that Keith Floyd's funeral was a humanist one, and not the 'default' religious ceremony that is undertaken by or for people at various points in their lives: births, deaths, partnerships.

I'm a bit surprised, for a couple of reasons. The first thing I'm surprised at is the fact that I'm surprised: survey after poll after study indicates that the number of people who describe themselves as having a particular affinity with any given religion is decreasing fairly steadily, at least in the UK.

The second thing I'm surprised by sort of contradicts the first: I'm surprised that a famous person would be openly non-religious to the extent that they would actually prefer a non-religious funeral ceremony. Celebrity is no stranger to the stranger fringe 'religions', cults and barmy practises out there, but secular belief systems still appear to have a certain stigma attached: it's as if being non-religious is a bad thing, for bad people. Of course, this is an artefact of our society having religious indoctrination imprinted upon it to the point that it's an automatic, unthinking part of many* people's lives, but that's a rant for another day and another post.

I started this post with the intention of saying that, although undoubtedly sympathetic for those that Mr Floyd has left behind, I can find some positive aspect to his passing: a celebrity, albeit one in rather specialist circles, being mourned and celebrated in a non-religious fashion must do something to raise the profile, and indeed awareness, of non-religious ceremonies to accompany life's great markers. It will hopefully be the case that one or two people have been brought to the realisation that they can officialise and celebrate birth, love and death without having to invoke the name of a god that they don't really believe in. Certainly, the British Humanist Association have reported increased interest in their Humanist Ceremonies network, which is a good sign.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not for one minute advocating that religious ceremonies should be replaced entirely by non-religious/humanist ones. As far as I'm concerned, religious people are (and should be) entitled to their beliefs and traditions as long as they don't hurt anybody**. My point here is that avenues are opening up for people who don't seriously subscribe to a particular set of superstitious beliefs to first of all realise that not 'believing' isn't an inherently bad thing, and secondly to see that there are alternative ways to live your life and celebrate major events in their life.

There's an article about Keith Floyd's funeral over on the Guardian's website here, and you can get more information about humanist ceremonies here.

* Maybe even most? It certainly was a part of mine.
** Although I see hard-sell attempts to recruit people as potentially harmful, but, again, that's for another post.

How to save money - Use free software - legally!

As always, please read my disclaimer before acting on any information contained in this post.

Certain software packages are considered essential for certain daily activities. These are premium programs, and you pay a premium price:

  • For word processing, spreadsheets and presentations it's Microsoft Office (currently retailing at around £100-£300 for the standard edition);
  • For security it's Norton (£15 - £30 ish, at a quick browse);
  • For photo editing it's Photoshop (nearly £600 for a fully-functional edition);
And so on...

If I can take office software as an example, there is much pressure to buy the current market leader: Microsoft Office 2007. This pressure comes largely from the fact that many businesses and schools use it, and you need something that's compatible with it on your home computer. You probably also feel more comfortable with it because it's what you've always used, because it's always been at work or at school. This also has a bearing on your purchase decision. But when you take into account the different packages that you buy in order to fulfil your various requirements, the costs of kitting your computer out with the latest and greatest are disturbingly high.

But does it need to be this way? I think not.

Make the change and go free!
No, I'm not advocating software piracy or illegal file/ program sharing of any kind. As always with these money saving posts I'm keeping it within the realms of legality with regards to the law at the time of writing. 

There are two types of free software available:

Freeware is software that you can install and use for free (although sometimes a donation is requested), and is often made by independent developers or small groups.

Open Source
Open source software is similar to freeware, but with one major difference: the code used to write the program is freely available, meaning that anybody with an interest can work on improving it. This has benefits over traditionally bought software in that it is constantly being updated and improved, but user support is often limited.

Why is it free?
There are two main reasons why individual software packages may be available for free:
  1. Promotion: the piece of software in question may be given to spread the name of the company distributing it, either in the hope of making it the industry standard or with an intent to encourage you to purchase an upgrade to versions with advanced features (or a mixture of the two).
  2. There are many reasons why individuals are prepared to give up there time to produce and distribute free software. These include a reluctance to be tied to the commercial giants of the industry and a genuine interest in creating functional pieces of software. Many free software packages suggest making a donation to the cause, either financially or in terms of time and expertise. Some include varying amounts of advertising to create revenue, which is then presumably fed back into the software's development.

Some examples
In this section I'll give a few examples of alternative software that I currently use in place of commercially available, paid-for programs.

Office software
An open source software package comprising word processing, spreadsheet, database, drawing, equation editing and presentation programs. I have this installed alongside Microsoft Office 2007* on my school laptop (and use it preferentially to MS Office), and it is the only office suite installed on my personal laptop. Whilst preferentially saving files in the industry standard Open Document Format (which Microsoft conveniently ignores), it can open and save files in many different formats, including those used by the newest version of MS Office, so compatibility is not an issue**.
In my experience, it's a little slower to load than MS Office and the menus are not quite as user-friendly, but the difference isn't so much that the MS Office's three figure price tag begins to look at all attractive next to's complete lack of a price tag. Some of the functions differ between the two suits, and it can take a little time to adjust, but again a saving of at least £100 in many cases makes this more than worthwhile.

This is an online word processor and spreadsheet package - there is no software to download and you can access your files (stored at google's end, not on your computer) from any internet-enabled computer. Google Docs will open just about any word processing or spreadsheet and supplies the option to download files in a format that's compatible with both the and Microsoft Office software packages.

Neither of the above office programs provide an alternative to Microsoft's Outlook, which comes as part of their Office suite, so I'll include a couple here:
The future of email is online, and Gmail, google's free web-based email, is embracing the future like a large, jolly aunt. Gmail allows you so much storage space that it's near-limitless (I have over 2000 emails stored, and Gmail tells me that I'm using around 15% of my allocated space) and has features that transcend those of Outlook. It might take a little bit of getting used to, but believe me when I say that it's worth it- Gmail will change your email experience for the better. If you like Outlook's calendar features, google also do an online calendar, again with features that are at the very least comparable with those of Outlook. Google are constantly updating both services, and a recent update includes the ability to access your gmail and google calender offline using your browser (i.e. you don't need to download any special software to read and respond to emails).
If you really must download your email, then this is an Outlook alternative that I have tried. It's from Mozilla, the same company that provides us with the Firefox web browser (see below). It does most of what Outlook does with regards to your email, but doesn't include a calendar. If you like your calendars offline, you could try Sunbird (also from Mozilla) too. I have used both of these programs, but don't any more having migrated online with my email and calendar provision.

Security software
This is a basic firewall program that does what basic firewall programs do***. I've been using it for years now, and I've had no internet security issues. It's updated fairly regularly, which is a good sign with internet security software. They do a number of different products and packages, so make sure you find the Zonealarm Basic free download.
Avast! is free for home users and requires registration that lasts for one year. When the year's up, don't worry, all you have to do is re-register and enter the new code they send to in the appropriate box in the program. This piece of software monitors your system for signs of viruses. It scans your system in the background, you can choose to scan individual files, and it checks your system for bad things on startup. You can also schedule a 'boot-time scan' which means that the software will interrupt your computer before Windows has had a chance to start, scan the whole thing, and then carry on with the startup. Again, I've been using this program for years. It's updated at least daily usually (a good thing) and I've had no problems, either with the software itself or with viruses getting through (even though it has detected a couple and shown them the door).

Image/ photo manipulation
This isn't as powerful as photoshop, but for most users will be more than adequate. I haven't used this program much (because I don't do much image manipulating), but I get the feeling that I have barely scratched the surface of what it can do.

Audio/ video
An open source program for recording and editing sounds. Again, I don't do much of this, but I have found the basic features easy to get my head round, and I was directed towards it by an audio-visual enthusiast friend of mine who does do a lot of recording and editing.

Web browsing
A free, non-Microsoft alternative to Internet Explorer. Similar functions, but open source and therefore more customisable and faster updating than the market leader.
Another product from google, this browser is still a beta****, but looks set to become the new big thing in the world of internet browsing. It's my preferred browser at the moment, although there are a few gremlins that annoy me now and then. It launches much faster than either Internet Explorer or Firefox, and has a menu style that allows more of the screen to be used for actually viewing websites. It also has an innovative combined address/search bar, which I really like.

Other alternatives
As I mentioned earlier, the software that I have just listed are just a tiny selection of what's available, and are programs that I, personally, have used in place of more expensive commercial software. There are plenty of alternatives available, and if you're interested in 'going open source', I'd advise talking to any of the geekier mates or colleagues you might have, and doing a web search for "open source alternatives to [name of software that you currently use]". To start you off, one website that looks like it might be both comprehensive and useful is Open Source as Alternative.

The biggie
The biggest and arguably most difficult commercial-open source change to make is that of operating system. The chances are that you're reading this from a computer running a windows- based operating system (XP, Vista, maybe even ME). I haven't made that particular switch yet, but next time I need to buy a new laptop or desktop computer, I fully intend to go open source with my operating system as well.

I'll leave you with a suggestion: have a look for a laptop or desktop computer that comes with Windows Vista. Then try to find a machine with similar specifications that comes with some breed of Linux operating system. Note the difference in price.

* The school paid for it, not me.
** This isn't strictly true: Whilst will open and edit just about anything, Microsoft Office can't read Open Document files. If this would be an issue for you, it's easy to set the Microsoft Office formats as the default for
*** If you're not sure, here's a basic idea: a firewall is your computer's bouncer on the door to the internet. If it's not on the list, it's not getting in. It's your first line of defence against viruses, trojans, worms and hackers.
**** Put simply, it's not finished yet.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Your Horoscope with our resident Astrologer, Madame Teakay: Libra (September 24 - October 23)

Libra - September 24 - October 24

My Bob you're hot, and this month you're at your hottest. You'll be fighting off men and women alike, and dogs will be attaching themselves to your leg at any and every opportunity. As the moon enters its last quarter on the 11th, you'll find yourself unwillingly incarcerated in a superstitious ceremony of some kind, but you're not likely to be sacrificed, so take your mp3 player rather than garlic cloves and a stake. Don't forget to line up your decimal points later in the month and you'll avoid an embarrassing addition-related issue. Keep a couple in your inner jacket pocket just in case, if you know what I mean.