Bag of Spoons
Just off the A1(M)

Tue, 01 Sep 2009

Summer holidays

Our summer holiday this year was a couple of weeks at Camping Village L'Atlantique in southern Brittany. We had a ready-erected tent from Vacansoleil. As well as not having to take all our camping gear this also meant that we got proper beds and a fridge. It's a great site for families with a set of pools with slides and the beach a few minutes walk away. The weather was good enough for us to be in the water almost every day. We were in the sea a lot, which was very clear and made for some fun snorkeling.

Once we were there we didn't use the car much as you can explore a lot of the area via cycle tracks. I do quite enough driving anyway. I don't speak much French, but had enough to get by in restaurants.

A couple of bonuses on this trip were an afternoon at Portsmouth before we caught the ferry exploring the old ships and then there was a little festival near the campsite where we saw some local musicians as well as a great English/Irish/French folk band I'd never heard of called Churchfitters. We liked them so much we bought their album.

From Gigs
[20:59] | [Travel] | Comments | G

Thu, 23 Jul 2009

Harry Potter 6

Saw it last night. Mini review on Multiply. Basically it's a good, if dark film. Purely for the fans and setting up for the last book which is coming out in two parts. Oh, and the kids' hormones kick in big time, i.e. lots of snogging.

[19:42] | [Review] | Comments | G

Thu, 16 Jul 2009

First gig

I've now been playing with The Barking Spiders (previously Unforgiven) for about 8 months. We've built up a set list of about 20 covers, some more polished than others. We feel we're almost ready to play a gig now, so we need to start talking to some local venues. We decided it was about time that we invited in some friends to our rehearsal venue to hear us play and did so on Tuesday.

It was a small audience, though bigger than at some pub gigs I've been to, but was still a fun evening. We borrowed a PA system to make the vocals audible and proceeded to play through all our songs. There were a few mistakes, but the response was pretty good. This was the first time that my family had seen me with the band and they were impressed. They've been putting up with me going out most weeks to practice.

We won't get many sessions with the whole band over the next couple of months due to holidays, but we plan to learn some more songs anyway. So keep an eye out for gigs in the autumn.

I recorded most of the session, but need to sort out what is suitable for sharing with the world. Tracks may appear on our site or possibly elsewhere. We have a Facebook page, but I don't like the fact that only those registered with the site can see it properly. I'm looking at other options for getting us known. Suggestions welcome.

[21:32] | [Music] | Comments | G

Sun, 05 Jul 2009

Rhythms of the World 2009

RotW used to be a free music festival based around Hitchin town centre using the church and various open spaces. As of last year it was moved to a private park and started charging as it was losing money. It's run by volunteers. I've been a few times and seem some cool acts. You don't get many big names, but then you are not paying much either. This year it cost £20 for a family of four per day, which is less than a single ticket at many festivals.

We were there yesterday, Saturday.Acts we saw included:

There was lots more going on with six stages and the arena for sport and arts demonstrations. Lots of 'alternative' stalls. We had dinner (pancakes) near the Bubble Inc stall and were treated to some great bubble making. I'l like to have stayed to see John Otway, but we had to get the kids home.

The move to a non-free festival has the changed the nature of the event, but it's still a wonderful, family-friendly event.

[16:26] | [Music] | Comments | G

Fri, 19 Jun 2009

Talking Guitar

The internet has become a great place for like-minded people to discuss whatever they are into, no matter how obscure the topic. I've used various forums to discuss A/V equipment, Linux and other subjects. Depending on how into that topic or if I need advice I may visit the forums infrequently or several times a day. My current obsession is improving my guitar playing.

I've been using Music Radar as a source of music news and they have a good forum with lots of guitar discussion. I managed to swap an old effects unit for a compressor pedal via their classifieds. I may use that again when I want to buy or sell again. To pass the time when driving to work I've been seeking out interesting podcasts. There are not too many about guitar playing. The most regular one I have found is Six String Bliss by a couple of guitarists in the US. They cover various news, talk about what they are doing and get some good interviews. They have a small, but dedicated following on their forums. Between them they have managed to put out several collections of music, generally covers. I've joined the forums and been made welcome. It's very low traffic compared to some of the big sites, but could be more fun.

There's an occaisional podcast at Boss. They have some good interviews that are not just about their products.

I seem to find several more guitar-related sites each week. There are many more forums, but I just can't take the time to look at more than a couple. There are also lots of on-line lessons in text, audio and video form. I like to run through some of these now and again to pick up some new ideas. I used to get that from the magazines, but rarely feel the need to buy them these days. I've got loads of sites bookmarked, but here are a few I visit regularly:

I'm interested in hearing about any other cool sites.

Talking of podcasts, I got a namecheck on the BBC World Service show that I've been listening to for years. They read out a comment I made on their Facebook group about early computer experiences. Not my first mention on the wireless, but it's fun to hear you name. Not quite as cool as my friend Simon who appears on Ray Davies' new album as part of the choir.

[14:22] | [Music] | Comments | G

Mon, 25 May 2009

Eric and Albert

On Friday I got a message from my dad to ask if I was interested in seeing Eric Clapton at the Albert Hall the following night. His neighbour has a box and there was a seat going spare. I've been listening to Eric's music for many years and admire him as a guitarist, but was not really in the 'Clapton is God' camp. Still, I couldn't pass up this opportunity to see one of the greats in this iconic venue that I had not visited before.

The Albert Hall seems smaller in real life than it appears on TV. The box was opposite stage, but still not too far away. The support act was Arc Angels from Austin, Texas. Their blues-rock reminded me somewhat of Derek and the Dominoes with some nice slide playing. One of the guitarists is left-handed and they swapped guitars in the middle of one song just to show off a little. They were pretty good, but the sound was not quite good enough to make out the lyrics.

Eric took to the stage exactly on schedule with his band. I didn't recognise the first song, but it was followed by a series of classics from the Dominoes album, some Cream and solo pieces like I Shot the Sheriff and Cocaine. There was an acoustic set in the middle that included Layla. The encore was Crossroads and they left the stage to great applause, right on schedule.

Eric was a good as I would expect, mostly playing his trademark black Strat. He seemed to be using a tiny Fender amplifier sitting on the drum riser. Andy Fairweather-Low backed him up with some cool soloing himself. I was less impressed by all the keyboard solos from the two players. They got a bit repetitive. There were a series of door-sized screens behind the stage. These were used well on the acoustic set to show close-ups of the guitars, but were otherwise just distracting when just showing random patterns, presumably to set a mood.

The sound was pretty good. Better than for the support. The volume was about right. It doesn't have to be deafening as when I saw McFly with my daughter a couple of weeks back. The mood was pretty relaxed with the audience seated until the last song, but good applause and a fair bit of shouting, some by men professing their love for Eric. It was obviously a very well rehearsed show with little spontaneity. All very well done, but a bit lacking in emotional involvement. Clapton didn't say more than 'Thank you'.

It was only when we were leaving that someone noticed that the Duke of Kent was in the neighbouring royal box. I hope he and his family enjoyed it, but it didn't seem to hold the interest of two girls there who spent half the show taking pictures of themselves. I'll be back at the Albert Hall next month with my family to see The King and I.

[20:52] | [Music] | Comments | G

Thu, 07 May 2009

Roland Cube 80x Guitar Amplifier

I've owned a few guitar amplifiers since I bought my first electric guitar as a student. When I bought that guitar I also bought a small, but sturdily built 10W unit called a 'Black Box'. It looked like someone may have built it from a kit. It made a noise, but I'm not sure it was too impressive. Next I picked up something that I think was called a V Amp in an auction when the company went bust. It was big and loud, but never left the bedroom. I used those with my old Vantage Strat. Whilst living in Germany I bought a Peavey Backstage 110. This had some use at home, but also made appearances at some jam sessions. It came along to the audition for my current band, but was determined to be a bit weedy. It puts 65W through a 10" speaker, but just didn't seem to move enough air to cut through.

For a while I've been using various amps at the rehearsal studio including a Marshall Valvestate and some random transistor combo. The Marshall sounded good, but was a bit flakey, probably due to lots of abuse.

I started looking for a new amp. The choice is vast. In the £200-400 range there dozens to choose from ranging from basic transistor amps through to pure valves with hybrids and modelling amps in between. Some people are valve/tube purists and won't consider anything else. I was keeping my options open. Somewhere I read about the Roland Cube range that seemed to get good reviews as versatile gigging amps with good reliability. The Cube 60 looked like what I needed with a variety of amp models and some effects. I was all ready to buy one when Roland announced the Cube 80x at the NAMM show in January. As well as more power it introduced an extra preset lead channel and a looper. The former sounded useful for gigging and the latter just sounded like fun. From listening to people like Steve Lawson I've been intrigued by looping and have wanted to try it. The 80x was not due out until April, so I resigned myself to hanging on for that as it just seemed ideal for my needs.

Last week it finally arrived and I 'un-boxed' it at a rehearsal. It made a very good first impression with the volume and sound quality. This was mainly using the Marshall model, but I also used the clean channel. It's very intuitive to use as you just choose the model and then twiddle the knobs as you would on an analogue amp.

To use all the features you need up to six footswitches. Those available from Roland's Boss range are pretty expensive, so I thought I would make my own. I bought a metal case and some switches from Maplin. A couple of hours of drilling and soldering, then I had something. It didn't quite work. I think one of the plugs is faulty. I also found that the momentary switch used to start/stop the looper did not work very well. Eventually I realised this was due to it being a normally open rather than the required normally closed type. I'll have to go back to Maplin and pick one up. I still managed to have some fun, but had to hold the switch down and release it when I should have just been pressing it now and again. The looper is great for recording one or more rhythm parts and then soloing over it. I can imagine that it could be used in performance to allow one guitarist to cover multiple parts, with limitations. It's not as capable as some of the stand-alone units, but then the whole amp costs less than a lot of those. Considering you are getting a three channel amp with several effects, the looper and a tuner for around £300 it's a bargain. I'm sure the sounds will not meet everyone's standards, but I think it's going to be good enough for what I need right now.

There are some professional demos on-line by Johnny DeMarco (slightly hyper American) and Alex Hutchings (more laid-back Brit). I'm getting some issues at the moment with Youtube and other Flash-based sites getting stuttering sound. This could be related to my recent Kubuntu upgrade that ran a lot smoother than previous versions.

[22:08] | [Music] | Comments | G

Sat, 18 Apr 2009

Travelling and stuff

I've been semi-offline for the last couple of weeks. We were up in Edinburgh for most of it visiting family. Apart from helping them get their new (old) house habitable we took in some of the activities at the Science Festival, which the kids enjoyed. We also did a little bit of walking with the most adventurous being a trek across the causeway to Cramond Island. There's some fascinating WWII history there that includes a spectacular line of anti-boat pillars

Pillars in the mist

Whilst away I did not have daily access to a PC, but didn't want to be totally off-line. The house had wifi, so I used by new BenQ E72 phone to access that. Using the internet on a small phone screen is a different experience to using a nice, big monitor, but you can do quite a lot, especially on sites that cater for mobile users. Sites I used included iGoogle, Gmail, Google Reader, Facebook and BBC News. So I was able to keep up with email and my RSS feeds, apart from items that needed Flash or things my phone can't do. I also used pocketwit for microblogging. I don't think I could get by without a PC, but it was better than nothing. I could access the net via GPRS for a small fee, but that would have been a much slower experience.

Just before I went away I had an issue on my Kubuntu system. An upgrade went wrong due to two packages trying to use the same file. The effect was to stop me using KDE. The system fell back to using Xfce. This was actually quite usable. I could still use most of the apps I am used to and it may have been more responsive than KDE. I still wanted to fix the issue and eventually found a blog entry from someone with a similar problem. So as of yesterday I have KDE back and everything is more or less wonderful.

Today I got in a hour of skiing at the Milton Keynes Xscape indoor slope. It's been a year since I skied, but it went pretty well. No falls and it felt good. I did find it tiring, but that may have been having to push myself back to the lift after each short run.

My friend Wulf is running some items about being eco-friendly on his blog. I'm doing similar things to help the planet and save myself a few pennies. A tip I picked up from ooffoo is that you can cook pasta by turning off the heat after putting it into boiling water. Leave the lid on and it will be done in about the usual time. We're all wasting vast amounts of energy by keeping the water at a 'rolling boil'. I plan to install some more low energy bulbs at home soon, but that involves a little re-wiring due to our use of X10 control units. Their dim-able lighting units don't like non-incandescent bulbs.

[20:57] | [Computer] | Comments | G

Wed, 25 Mar 2009

Ada Lovelace Day

I'm a day late for this event, but I'll post something anyway. I first learnt programming from Barbara Jaworski when I started upper school at 13. Although computers were not a subject in our first year she started a lunchtime computer group where I took my first steps with BASIC. We had a Teletype that connected to the local college via acoustic coupler. We could take it in turns to enter our programs and print the results.

Mrs Jaworski coached me through my O and A level computer studies as well as teaching me maths. I think she may be at Loughborough now. I thank her for starting me on the path to my career.

[13:05] | [Computer] | Comments | G

Mon, 16 Mar 2009

A better RSS reader

I came fairly late to the wonders of RSS and Atom. I think I first used them in a limited way on NewsIsFree and then to full effect on Bloglines. That worked pretty well for me. I looked at Google Reader when it first appeared, but it was slow and awkward. Once they had got it working properly I imported my feeds and have not looked back.

I subscribe to over 100 feeds. Most of these update infrequently. I see that as the real value of the technology as you can keep up with certain sites without having to keep checking on them. I've stopped following some of the busier sites as I can just visit them when I have time to see what's new. I'm using Postrank on one feed to filter it a bit. It's supposed to just give me the most popular posts, but you pay a penalty in getting them a bit later. I can live with that.

One of the things I feel that I miss using this sort of application is the comments. If you see each post as it appears then there unlikely to be many comment then and Reader does not make it obvious when there are some. Some feeds do include a comment count, but I think that's just part of the original post. I do click through to the original site when I feel the need to post a comment, but otherwise I might not see the responses.

Some sites offer one of a couple of ways to follow the comments. You can either check a box to opt for emails as comments come in or subscribe to a further feed of the comments. The emails can be overwhelming on a busy site and having lots of extra feeds to manage is a pain. What I'd like to see is an extra button in Reader that allows subscribing to comments on a particular post, but as a sub-feed of the main one. I don't know if RSS or Atom have anything to support this directly, but it should be possible to automate if there is either a feed for each post's comments or for all comments on the site. So has this been implemented anywhere?

A case in point is Steve Lawson's post about Twitter. It has gained over 50 comments today. I'm getting emails, but at one per comments it's a bit too much of a good thing.

I suspect that some people will watch the comments on a post for a while and then unsubscribe from the email or feed. If anyone happens to come along months later and add something useful to the discussion then it's unlikely to be read by many. I'm sure I've read something by Jeff Atwood on this, but can't find the appropriate post.

On the subject of Twitter, I gave a talk at Herts LUG about microblogging. I tried to explain what it offers as I know very few members who use it. Rob did a counter-talk where he ran through some of the issues with Twitter. These included those of security and identity. I've probably already overexposed myself on-line. It's probably possible to pull together all sorts of information about me from my various on-line identities. I've not noticed any problems with this so far and am wary of exposing details of my family or certain personal information. Other are less wary. You only have to browse Facebook to see examples.

That's enough of my waffling. Time for some guitar practice. I'm always happy to see comments on this site, apart from spam, but I don't get many. As I only have a few readers according to Google and Bloglines that's not too surprising.

[21:15] | [Internet] | Comments | G

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