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.

EXIF: WordPress Images Appear Rotated

I recently encountered a problem with images appearing rotated whilst updating the latest posting in the How Writers Write feature on this WordPress powered website.

The images looked fine whilst I was editing the page, but when previewed they appeared rotated.

Searching online showed this to be a known problem, all to do with EXIF data. You can read more about EXIF data by following this link to How-To Geek

The WordPress problem seems to be that the images are recorded with one orientation and then displayed with the rotation stored in the EXIF data added to them.

The easiest way I’ve found to get the images displaying properly is to first strip the EXIF data and then to rotate them appropriately before uploading. There are instructions on the How-To Geek link above on how to strip EXIF data in Windows.

It’s a lot simpler in Ubuntu or similar.

First, install exiftool

sudo aptitude install exiftool

Exiftool allows you to look at the EXIF data in an image as follows

exiftool someImage.jpg

We want the data stripped. Copy your images to a directory (I just copy them to my pristine desktop) and then run the following command

me@comp:~/Desktop$ exiftool -all= -overwrite_original -ext jpg .

And that’s it. Time for a cup of tea.


A few years ago I was travelling back to Manchester by train. I couldn’t help overhearing the phone conversation of the person sitting opposite me. He was an aspiring actor, travelling back from an audition in London, and he was recounting the experience so loudly the whole carriage couldn’t help but overhear.

He was a interesting character; it quickly become obvious that every setback in his life was someone else’s fault, that the main thing holding him back was people’s inability to see his natural talent.

So I started to take notes: I’ve written elsewhere about how important I think it is to capture conversation live. In those days I used to write notes in the back of the paperback I was reading, and that’s what I did…

… until the aspiring actor noticed what I was doing, and took offence. He’d read my words upside down.

Which is a roundabout introduction to the real reason I learned shorthand: so I could quickly take notes without other people knowing what I was doing.

I was reminded of this on reading the following article on the BBC website: is the art of shorthand dying out?

Perhaps it is. I don’t use shorthand as much as I used to, I now mainly capture notes straight to Evernote on my phone (although I wish there was an app that understood Teeline).

But I don’t regret learning shorthand. It still comes in useful occasionally, capturing conversations, getting ideas down fast, and giving me something to do in boring meetings.

Anyway, isn’t life all about learning new things?

Learning the C Button Accordion

This Christmas I took the plunge and began learning the button accordion. As I spent quite a frustrating time on the internet trying to find a suitable tutorial I thought I’d share my experience here in case other learners find it useful.

I should point out that I can already play the piano accordion, so my advice may not be suitable for a complete beginner to the instrument.

In the absence of a teacher, the quickest way to learn a new instrument is with a suitable tutorial. Looking around online two books were mentioned

Methode d’Accordeon Vol1 by Maugain Manu


(Click on the images to be taken to Amazon)

Both books are only available in French. This shouldn’t be too much of a problem to someone who can already read music as the fingering is clear. If you can’t read music, you’ll need another book to explain note lengths and values.

I ordered both books. As the Methode d’Accordeon Vol1 by Maugain Manu was the first to arrive that’s the one I’ve mainly been learning from. It’s the more modern of the two books, and proceeds at a slower pace. If you can afford both books, buy them. Otherwise, If you’ve never played the accordion before the Maugain Manu is the one for you as it takes its time introducing the left hand. If you are already a confident piano accordion player and just want to learn the fingering of the right hand then the Ferrero Medard book may be more to your taste.

I’ve been learning for a week now and everything I’d read appears to be true… the button accordion does appear a more natural way to play. It’s not that great a step up from the piano keyboard, particularly given that my left hand is already used to using buttons, albeit in a stradella layout. I do have a tendency to get lost with the right hand still, and it’s difficult at the moment to play by ear, but that’s improving as I learn the scales (and there are only three fingerings to learn for the major scales… ).

Sadly, the button accordion is going to have to go back in its case for a few days whilst I practice for a gig on the piano accordion, but I’m already looking forward to getting it back out again…

Upgraded to Windows 10 and Ubuntu 15.10

… and that’s it.

Absolutely no problems at all. I didn’t even have to reinstall GRUB as some sites warned me I’d have to.

That’s a dual boot machine, partitioned flash drive.

I don’t know what else to say, I almost feel cheated. Both upgrades took about 15 minutes.

Looks like I’ve got no excuses for not filling in my tax return now.

The First Time I’ve Written the Word Chutzpah

I’m pretty sure the title of this post is the first time I’ve written the word Chutzpah. That last sentence was probably the second.

It’s not a word that I think I’ve ever used in everyday conversation, either. But I’m using it now because I’ve just experienced what I think is an excellent example of that quality.

By the way, if you’re a regular reader of my stuff, you may have realised that I like to protect people’s anonymity. For reasons that will very quickly become clear, I can’t do this in this post…

Yesterday I received a LinkedIn invitation from a Senior Project Manager called Tony Ballantyne. Now, I’ve made contact with another Tony Ballantyne in the past – the Historian Tony Ballantyne who I’m occasionally mistaken for – so I thought… why not?, and I accepted.

This morning I received an email from the other Tony Ballantyne explaining that he was moving to Australia, and asking if I’d like to buy his personalised car number plates. Maybe I should have been annoyed, but I had to admire his cheek. And thinking about it, isn’t that an inspired use of social networking? It’s not like he was trying this trick on just anyone.

Anyway, I’m not interested in personalised plates, so I wished him good luck on his move and that was that. If the other Tony is reading this blog post – think of it as more free advertising.

And if anyone else is thinking of contacting me in this way, don’t bother. It’s only amusing when it’s original.

There’s a Lesson Here Somewhere

I saw Chris Smither, one of my favourite singer songwriters, on Thursday night.

50 years in the business, he played to a crowd of around 80 in Manchester’s Band on the Wall, but I suppose there are many whose talent have gone unrecognised.

In some ways it was like meeting an old friend: I’ve watched him perform all over the country for the past twenty five years or so.

I spoke to Chris at the end, and we both remembered the gigs he uses to do at the Half Moon in Putney. I think there’s something storylike in the way we both live completely different lives and yet we connect infrequently in different venues, far from both our homes.

One of the many reasons I like him is he’s that he writes lyrics for grown ups. Yes, I like rock and pop music, but the stuff that I listened to when I was younger doesn’t have much to say to me now that I’m married with two kids.

Someone requested that he play Hold on. He began the song, but had to stop half way. It was his own song, his own arrangement, and it wasn’t working. As he explained, it had been a while since he’d performed it, and if you don’t practice them every day, you quickly forget them. This from an expert musician who performs live to an audience most nights.

There’s a lesson there somewhere.