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:


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…

Microbits. Really?

The BBC likes to think it single handedly ignited the 80’s UK programming boom thanks to its BBC B micro. Well, maybe so. If you were the sort of kid who’s parents could afford one. Most of us learned our chops on cheaper machines like Spectrums, Vic 20s and even Dragon 32s. (Remember them?) – and were grateful for the opportunity.

Well, now the BBC is back to save the world (or at least that part of it that concerned with educating British children) with the Microbit. Another spectacular example of Auntie knows best.

Now don’t get me wrong. The Microbit is a lovely piece of kit. It’s cheap, it’s flexible, it comes with a well thought out website to help program it. Boxes of the things are being sent out, free of charge, to schools up and down the country.

The thing is, I never asked for them. Are Microbits the best way to teach kids programming? I’m a teacher and I don’t remember being asked for my opinion. The trouble with this sort of thing is that they’re always proposed and built by tech-heads; by people who are very good at IT. They get it, they enjoy it. They always found it easy.

… exactly the wrong sort of person to understand what the average 12 year old non techy finds interesting or difficult. I’m not saying that you can’t motivate kids to learn computing. That’s my day job. But you don’t do it this way. I’m sure that Microbits are going to be featuring in the pages of most local newspapers over the next few months. Expect to see lots of photographs of smiling school children talking about how they’re learning to program. You can’t argue with that. Except the lessons won’t stick, there’ll be no progress for the majority and in a year’s time the Microbits will be sitting in the bin next to the video conferencing kits, the control equipment and the ghosts of the Learning Grids.

No doubt a group of manufacturers are currently sitting round, patting each other on the back as they congratulate each other on doing their bit for education. Frankly, I’d rather the money had been spent giving me a bit more preparation and marking time.

There’s a teacher shortage in this country, there are too many people saying what needs to be done and precious few actually prepared to get their hands dusty at the chalkface. You want to help, get in the classroom and get teaching. Otherwise, shut up, and stop wasting my time.

Learning the C Button Accordion Part Two

I’ve been playing the C button accordion for two months now. Here’s what I’ve noticed

  1. I’m really good at the piano accordion. This isn’t me showing off, more a realisation that having played the piano for something like 40 years now, my fingers go where they should without me having to think about it. I never really registered the fact that I just have to look at piece of music for my fingers to play it, nor that they can form the shape of, for example, a diminished chord all by themselves. Learning another instrument has been a pleasant reminder of what I can do. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop noticing my mistakes all the time, of course. I’ll always feel inadequate compared to better players.
  2. The fact that I already play the piano accordion has been a big help in learning the button accordion. I don’t have to think about the left hand or moving the bellows
  3. The button accordion patterns make sense very quickly. There are only three shapes to playing any major scale on three rows. Or any minor scale. Or any scale at all, for that matter.
  4. I find the crossover from little finger to thumb fiddly.
  5. The books I mentioned on my previous blog entry are excellent. I’m now using book 2 of Maugain Manu’s Methode d’Accrodeon. I’m still on book 1 of the HOHNER FERRERO MEDARD – METHODE D’ACCORDEON CHROMATIQUE COMPLETE. I’ve put links to the books at the end of this post.
  6. I am nowhere near ready to perform on the button accordion.

The books I’ve been using:

Methode d’Accordeon Vol1 by Maugain Manu


(Click on the images to be taken to Amazon)

Swearing in a Suit

Last week I headed into Manchester to do some writing, as I often do on Wednesdays. An hour in a coffee shop to go through my notes and get my ideas in order, and then off to the library for four or five hours of writing, free of the distractions presented by music and the internet.

All pretty routine, with one exception. I was going to a meeting that evening, so I was wearing a suit. The full works: shirt, tie, jacket, trousers, dress shoes. Nothing unusual. I wear a suit for the day job. I felt perfectly at ease.

Until I began updating my swearword list.

You haven’t got a swearword list? I started one when I wrote COSMOPOLITAN PREDATORS – a list of the different swearwords used by the inhabitants of Eunomia, the asteroid world where the action takes place. It made sense to me that an international community would have a cosmopolitan collection of swearwords. My swearword list contains the word, its meaning and its language of origin. I found it so useful I’ve been keeping it updated for the novel I’m currently writing.

It’s fun using swearwords from different languages, but not, I discovered, when wearing a suit.

Sitting in a cafe in a shirt and tie, copying down lists of rude words, I suddenly felt a little bit childish. Not just a little bit. I felt like there must be better ways to spend my time. I found that I was turning my laptop so that people couldn’t read the screen, that I was checking that no one was watching me.

Thinking about it, this shouldn’t have been surprising. My writing has always been affected by my environment. If not, I wouldn’t carry a notebook with me in order to capture live emotions. But even so, I didn’t realise that environment extended to what I was wearing.

Apparently it does.

So if you find yourself in a coffee shop in Manchester, and you notice a man in a suit blushing as he types away, come over and say hello. Just don’t take offence if I close the laptop first.