The Manchester Arena

I turned on the television on Tuesday morning to see a chicken being cooked. Two breathlessly enthusiastic Americans were discussing the flavours; the tenderness; exactly how healthy the recipe was.

It all seemed so out of place. I already knew from Facebook that a bomb had gone off the night before in Manchester Arena at the end of a pop concert. I was looking for the news, trying to find out more information. The image of a chicken cooking seemed so wrong, but so many other times I’ve woken up and watched the equivalent whilst other people were waking up to their own personal tragedies. This is how people compartmentalize their lives.

I went into work early: I knew that some of our students were likely to have been there and support would need to be put in place. I arrived at school to the news that 22 were confirmed dead and 59 injured. As the day wore on the students came into school and we heard stories from those who had been present in the Arena. One by one we marked our children safe, but the word was out that relatives were still missing.

As I went to bed that night they were playing The Lark Ascending on the radio, one of the most peaceful, beautiful pieces of music I know. It seemed very appropriate.

Next day dawned with unconfirmed reports that close family members of some of our students were dead, caught in the blast. Confirmation came at 10am. Assemblies were held. A teacher read The Lord is My Shepherd and children were given time for reflection. In common with many other English schools, our Year 13s were leaving at the end of the week. They were reminded that it was understandable to feel compassion, but that it was okay to go on revising and working hard, it was okay to enjoy themselves on their Leavers’ Prom. This echoed what a lot of people on the news have been saying: that the best response to terrorism is to carry on as normal, to go out and watch a concert; to have a drink; to meet up with friends. They’re right, but responding to terrorism is not the only reason for doing so. Doing these things is what being alive is all about.

Today is Friday. Our students are wearing pink wristbands as a statement of community, fellow feeling and quiet respect for those who are grieving. Tonight, the year 13s will go to their Prom wearing pink carnations. They’ll be getting ready as I write this, putting on suits and dresses, doing their hair, getting ready to celebrate the end of their schooldays.

I hope they have a great evening. Life goes on.

Silence

My friend asked me to cover her duties as organist over Easter whilst she was trekking in Nepal. (I say trekking, she’s checking on the progress of health centres she helped to set up whilst doing voluntary work a few years ago. There’s someone who’s making a difference.)

Last night I played the Maundy Thursday service. This is the service where they wash people’s feet (something I didn’t get to see from my position sitting behind the organ). It finished with the altar being stripped, following which a silent vigil was to be held.

After the final hymn, I collected my music together and headed out the door – I was returning home to a huge pile of washing up and maybe a glass of whisky – when something caught my attention.

Silence.

The church was now a large, empty space, filled with nothing but silence. Not the silence of the night, nor the silence that results from the absence of sound, but rather a conscious silence. The silence of so many people sitting with their thoughts.

Despite the fact I had so other things to do, I sat down and listened to my own thoughts.

There’s a lot to be heard in the silence. Films, TV programs, radio show, shops and malls, even some museums now, all like to impose their own soundtrack on our lives, trying to shape our emotions to their own ends. It’s easy to forget what can be heard when that external soundtrack is removed.

Read what you like into the above. As the world fills with more and more noise and activity, I’m increasingly drawn towards stillness.

WordPress Pharma Hack

Someone kindly emailed me to point out that my writing site had been hacked. Links for Cialis were now appearing scattered throughout the text.

A quick Google search revealed that this was a common hack, and was probably the result of some rogue code embedded in a file after a brute force attack. I ran a site security check (there are many free services if you search for them) which suggested that the problem was located in wp-config.php. I could have paid for a clear up, but taking a look at the file in question it was clear the code wasn’t exactly trying to conceal itself. Once snipped out, my site’s performance improved immediately.

… or so I thought.

A few days later, the adverts reappeared. This is a clever hack – snip out the code and it regenerates itself.

There are various flavours of the Pharma Hack, (a search for WordPress Pharma Hack will give you all the details you need and more) the one that hit me had added an innocent looking file: /wp-includes/init.php

I only discovered this after I’d deleted all my themes and plugins and installed fresh versions of wp-admin and wp-includes. When I restarted the site, the following message appeared at the top of the page:

include_once(.../public_html//wp-includes/init.php) [function.include-once]: failed to open stream: No such file or directory in .../public_html/wp-config.php on line 93

Checking line 93 of wp-config showed the offending line (I’ve surrounded it with **s):

** include_once(ABSPATH . '/wp-includes/init.php'); ** 
require_once(ABSPATH . 'wp-settings.php');//Disable File Edits
define('DISALLOW_FILE_EDIT', true);  

I removed the line, reset my passwords, including the database passwords, reinstalled my plugins and (hopefully) that’s it.

I should have noticed this sooner, of course, but I’ve not been blogging recently as I’ve been concentrating on finishing my next novel.

Even so, I must hold my hands up and admit that I’ve not given my sites the attention they deserve. I’ve installed some security software following a quick search for WordPress security plugins on Google, I’ll take some time to monitor what’s going on in future.

Martin Carthy

I wondered about going to see Martin Carthy last night at the Band on the Wall

I’d heard that his voice isn’t what it was, that he can’t always form the chords any more. Well, that’s what happens when you get older, and as my companion Crofty pointed out after the show "I love a musician that at 70+ doesn’t try to be anything other than themselves at 70+"

So last night wasn’t a virtuoso performance, but to be fair, that was never Carthy’s shtick. What we got was an engaging show, a bit of chat and an overwhelming sense of folk heritage.

On playing Bruton Town:
"I learned this from Davey Graham"

On an English version of Mrs McGrath:
"I didn’t realise there was an English version until I heard Tim Hart and Maddy Prior play it in ’68"

It would seem reasonable to assume that most of us in the audience had been part of the folk scene for the past decades, attending gigs in little pubs and clubs up and down the country. Carthy, of course, has been at the heart of all this.

I don’t listen to much folk music nowadays. Too many of the performers learned their craft in the conservatoires, and that doesn’t seem very folky to me.

Last night’s show may have had its imperfections, it was all the more enjoyable for it.

(And whilst not suggesting for a moment that Carthy is second rate, I’ve written more about performance here: Second Rate Entertainers)

Remembrance Sunday

I played at two services this Sunday. Every year, I forget about what happens at the second service.

Before the last post is played, a number of wreaths are laid, most of them by members of the uniformed services.

Every year, for the past four years, a girl has come forward to lay a wreath for her father.

Despite her best efforts to be brave, she always cries as she lays the wreath.

Heading off to College?

Now that the A level results are out, many students are about to leave home. There are many articles out there giving advice on what to do when arriving at college for the first time.

Here’s mine.

I’m sharing this because a friend recently asked me this: what I would do if I could go back in time and speak to myself when I was 18? What one piece of advice would I give myself?

It was a good question, and I thought about it for some time. This what I came up with, and I’m convinced it’s the best guidance a young adult could have.

Here it is.

Learn to drink your tea and coffee black.

I stopped adding milk to my drinks after an illness when I was 25. Since then my life has been so much easier. No more running out to buy milk in the evening, no more coming back from holiday to find there’s nothing to put in the coffee. No more having to get involved with the milk kitty at work (honestly, we order hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of IT equipment on a regular basis and yet still never have enough money in the tin to buy a carton of long life).

And just think of all the time saved when making a hot drink. All those trips to the fridge add up.

If only I’d know that when I was 18. I’d never have got into stupid arguments about who was using whose milk in the communal fridge.

Oh yes, and don’t forget this:

Drinking black coffee is cool.

That’s it.

Second Rate Entertainment

I love second rate entertainers.

I encountered a fine example whilst on holiday in Madeira last week. He had a residence in the hotel: 8:30 until 10 every night. Keyboards and vocals, he was a competent player with a good voice that came into its own when doing Elton John covers.

As is the nature of a great second rate performer, he’d arranged everything himself. He switched between keyboards to play different parts, occasionally improvising, all this done over a drum track. Such performances are necessarily individual in a way that singing along to a backing tape never is. He did 70s and 80s covers: Hotel California, Sacrifice, that sort of thing. Given that he was singing in what was to him was a foreign language his phrasing was odd, but hey, he was singing in a foreign language.

It would be easy to dwell on his faults: the arrangements that didn’t quite work, the bland repertoire (necessary, given the venue), his intonation.

But then again that’s sort of the point. I’ve written about second rate performers before at the end of my novel CAPACITY, when the Watcher listens to just such a performance (the scene was based on a concert I attended in a church in France when I was writing the book).

It’s so easy to see perfect performances nowadays. They’re the result of multiple retakes and remixes, they can be autotuned and airbrushed… I don’t have a problem with this. But this can give the impression that all performances should be perfect. That everything should be first rate, all of the time.

No. None of us are capable of that.

That’s why appreciating second rate performances, appreciating people who are willing to make a go of it despite their imperfections, is such an important thing.

Because, for the most part, that’s who we are.

Map AltGr to Alt on Linux

All I wanted was to make my AltGr key to work the same as my Alt key…

As my poor hands continue to struggle with RSI, I’ve been looking at ways to make my typing more efficient. One thing that occurred to me was to fix something that had bugged me for ages: the fact that I never use AltGr on my keyboard. Things would be easier if it acted like Alt. It would certainly make it more comfortable to hit M-x and M-g in Emacs

And so I searched and searched for ways to do this. The simplest way I found was to type the following command into the terminal:

setxkbmap -option altwin:meta_alt

But how to run that at startup?

My Arch Linux setup uses the i3 window manager, which is called from ~/.xinitrc. Adding setxkbmap -option altwin:meta_alt to the beginning of ~/.xinitrc did the trick.

That doesn’t work on Ubuntu 16.04, however. The easiest way there is to use dconf editor.

sudo apt-get install dconf-editor if you’ve not already got it, then navigate to org|gnome|desktop|input-sources and choose xkb-options.

Insert the following in the value box: ['altwin:meta_alt']

… and that’s it.

RSI, Tendonitis, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome…

I suppose it was inevitable that after so much time spent writing stories and articles and programming, I would suffer from Repetitive Strain Injury.

I’ve taken care of myself over the years: making sure I set up my work station properly, doing exercises, buying a suitable chair, using an ergonomic keyboard. Even so, things are getting more uncomfortable…

So now I’ve taken three further steps, as follows:

i3wm

I’ve installed the i3 tiling window manager on my Ubuntu setup. (Here’s an article on why you should use a tiling window manager)

I’ve used i3 for some time on my Arch Linux setup, mainly for speed and simplicity. As it has become apparent that using the mouse gives me the greatest amount of pain, it seems sensible to do anything to reduce its use. The i3 desktop is the perfect solution. It allows you to do nearly everything using the keyboard, which has the added bonus of increasing productivity.

I now deliberately push the mouse away from the keyboard so as to lead me not into temptation whilst I work. Doing this has encouraged me to learn the shortcut keys for applications such as Chrome and even things like VLC and Spotify. If I’m honest, it’s only laziness that’s stopped me learning them in the past: I could have searched for the Chrome shortcuts at any time, but it was easier just to use the mouse.

i3wm sits nicely on top of Ubuntu. Installing on Ubuntu is a great way to get used to using it, as you have the fallback of logging into Unity when you need it.

Evil Mode

If you read my blog, you’ll know I’m an Emacs user. However, as I said in this blog entry, you have to admit that vi has a great set of key bindings. I do my planning and structural editing in Emacs – there’s nothing faster – but When it comes down to plain text editing I find the vi commands easier on my poor hands. That’s why I use evil-mode.

I’ve set up my .emacs file (see below) so that I can turn evil-mode on or off by pressing F6. I’ve also added code which I found on Stack Overflow that causes evil-mode to go to Emacs mode when I press any insert command. Switching between modes allows me to get the best of both editors. For example, I much prefer vi’s ma and `a to set a mark and jump to it, rather than Emacs’s rather cumbersome C-x r SPC a. Points marked in vi are remembered no matter how often you turn on and off evil-mode in a session.

Dictation Software

Lastly, I’ve taken the plunge and bought voice recognition software, the software used to dictate this blog entry, as a matter of fact. On the plus side, it saves using my hands, on the minus side, Dragon Naturally Speaking only comes in a Windows version. I suppose I should have a look at installing it on Linux using Wine.

I’m finding using Windows 10 extremely depressing experience. Still, I’m only there long enough to dictate notes. After that it’s back onto Linux and Emacs where I use my precious hands to do the editing. I’m currently clocking myself on Emacs, comparing my typing rate with my dictation rate. It will be interesting to see which is faster. I’m having to get used to thinking my thoughts then speaking them rather than just typing and thinking at the same time. I wonder if it will have an effect the creative process? More on that another time…

.emacs and evil-mode

(require 'evil) ;; installed using Elpa

;;  The following ensures j,k for up and down follow visual-line-mode 
(define-key evil-normal-state-map (kbd "<remap> <evil-next-line>") 'evil-next-visual-line)
(define-key evil-normal-state-map (kbd "<remap> <evil-previous-line>") 'evil-previous-visual-line)
(setq-default evil-cross-lines t)

;; i a o etc go to emacs mode 
(defalias 'evil-insert-state 'evil-emacs-state)

;; Turn on and off evil-mode
(global-set-key (kbd "<f6>") 'evil-mode)
(global-set-key (kbd "C-M-z") 'evil-mode)

Goodbye Evernote, Hello Simplenote

Simplenote launched a client for Linux at the end of March, 2016. As a longstanding Evernote premium user, frustrated initially by the fact there’s no Linux client, and then frustrated even more by the fact I could no longer get the Windows client to run under WINE, I thought I’d give it a look.

As the name implies, Simplenote is simpler than Evernote. No notebooks, no reminders, no support for pictures.

In fact the only thing Simplenote handles is text, and that’s its great strength. Sticking to tiny text files means that notes load and sync quickly. Also, the whole experience doesn’t seem as cluttered as Evernote has become with its "all things to all people" approach.

Sticking to text means that Simplenote does a few things extremely well. It has Markdown support built in, for example. I write most of my Evernote notes using markdown format, but Evernote has a habit of adding extra hidden formatting that only becomes obvious when those notes are opened in Draft or Stackedit (it also throws in odd whitespace characters when I copy notes across to Emacs)

Simplenote allows you to download a zip file of all your notes, and its at this point the advantage of sticking to text only really hits home: the files downloaded are text files. That sounds obvious, but it means that rather than picking your way through xml or whatever, you can open an individual note in your favourite text editor and start editing. It’s that simple.

Keeping things text also reduces memory usage, which in turn allows Simplenote to add a history feature – pull back a slider and see previous versions of your notes.

There are some things that aren’t quite there… For example, although you can tag notes in Simplenote, I’ve yet to find a way to filter multiple tags, something that is essential if you want to replicate Evernote’s notebook stacks, which I do.

In summary then, Simplenote does a lot of things better than Evernote, but it’s not a full Evernote replacement.

So which will I be using in future?

No question. Simplenote, for the sole reason that it has the Linux client. It’s not just a question of what to do when there’s no internet connection, it’s also a question of speed. Chrome is so big nowadays it takes an appreciable amount of time to load. Add to that the occasional hiccup when changing between notes on a web browser and the benefits of having a client become obvious.

I wrote this blog entry on Evernote. It may be the last one I do…