Category Archives: Personal

The best of 2011…and 2012

I was intending to write a piece about 2011’s Albums of the Year, but there are two problems with that: 1) I only own five albums that were released this year, and 2) I’m no good at writing music reviews. What would be easier is for me to point you in the direction of reviews that say pretty much what I would like to say if I had the ability to write reviews.

So here goes…Evi Vine’s debut album “…and so the morning comes” is without doubt my favourite of those five albums. I first came across Evi Vine when she was supporting And Also The Trees at The Luminaire in December 2007. It’s taken a long time for her album to finally appear, but it was worth the wait – and here’s a review that explains very eloquently why:
http://www.sicmagazine.net/articles/889/evi-vine-and-so-the-morning-comes
Here is the opening track from the album – “For The Dreamers”:

Not sure this one should count as it’s not been released over here yet, but a friend in Australia sent me a copy of “Dark Magic”, the latest album by Melbourne band Sand Pebbles. It sounds excellent to me, a psychedelic rock sound that borrow elements from rock music of each decade but doesn’t sound like any of them. If that doesn’t make any sense, here’s a review that does:
http://www.theaureview.com/albums/sand-pebbles-dark-magic-2011-lp

Here is a track from the album:

The other three albums from 2011 that I own: “Solid State Recital”, the fifth album by Puressence – I think it ranks as their second best album after their 1996 debut. “So Beautiful Or So What” by Paul Simon – pleasant enough but unspectacular. I think the previous album “Surprise” had more substance. “Driftwood” by And Also The Trees – basically a follow-up to 2009’s “When The Rains Come”, eight more acoustic reworkings of songs from their back catalogue and very good indeed. A brand-new album is due this year.

So what else is there to be excited about in 2012? Let’s just say I’m hoping to hear a LOT more from these bands 🙂

Hook And The Twin

[Strangers]

The Title Sequence

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Out of the wilderness

My eight-month period of unemployment is about to come to an end – I start my new job tomorrow. I had plans in mind for a new career when I left my previous job in April, but didn’t really carry them through.

Even so, looking for another job in programming has been hard. The shortcomings of my skill set didn’t help – too much experience with outdated skills that are not much in demand, not enough experience with the flavours of the month. I applied for a few jobs as a C# developer hoping that my limited exposure to .NET technologies over the last few years might carry me through, but found out that I knew a lot less than I thought. Much of my recent experience is with Oracle – I would have applied for more jobs in that field if there had been any.

I had an interview for a job in the City back in May, and thought I did quite well, but never heard anything back from either the employer or the agency. Dealing with employment agencies has been one of the major frustrations – I got regular calls from agencies who found my CV on one of the job sites, but never heard from them again. A couple of jobs I went for required me to take a technical test – I never got the results from those. In all, before my successful interview I had three on-site interviews and I think four phone interviews – most of them were painful experiences.

December was a bit of a washout for job leads, and I was going to give up until the new year. Then a couple of weeks ago I looked at a local job site on the off-chance, and spotted a vacancy that looked like a good possibility. I put in my application, and was brought in for interview a few days later. I had to sit a technical test first, in which I apparently did very well, and then amazingly the interview went smoothly. I was offered the job next day. I could hardly have picked a better location – in the centre of Southend, an easy drive or bus ride away. After seven years of being stuck out on an industrial estate in Basildon, it is going to be a revelation to be able to step out of the office at lunchtime straight into the High Street!

So what have I been doing during the eight months of leisure time? I managed to largely complete a decluttering exercise on my house. I recorded some music of my own for the first time in twenty years. I’ve been teaching myself some web design skills, and have just about completed a rewrite of my ancient “Socca Stats” system as a web application. I’ve had more time for reading and watching TV, but I’ve done more of the former than the latter. I’ve enjoyed being able to sleep for 6-7 hours per night and thus stay awake during the evenings as a result – this is one thing I want to keep going.

There is no doubt that I am ready to return to work, though. It’s nice to have unlimited freedom, but ultimately some discipline is needed to balance against it. Freedom is still there, it’s just a case of making the most of evenings and weekends.

Welcome to my new-look blog!

I’ve been playing about with this blog for about three months, but I think I’ve finally worked out what I want it to be.

I would like it to be a sort of online portfolio, a showcase of the things I do, or would like to be doing. To that end I’ve spent the last few days putting together some “About” pages which can be accessed from the menu in the header and playing around with numerous themes until finally deciding on this one. I believe I now have it knocked into shape to my satisfaction!

I plan to post regularly, whether it’s just a new song or an interesting photograph, or a full-blown essay about whatever subject comes into my head. Feel free to look around and leave comments – I would like to have an audience for what I’m doing and I’m always interested in feedback.

As for the title of the blog…2839 is just a number I pulled out of the air five years ago when I created a YouTube profile, and I’ve used it for profile names on several other sites since then. Might as well try to “leverage” it as some kind of “brand identity”!

A history of home computing

Another chapter in the history of my computing kit opened this weekend with the purchase of an eMachines eM355 netbook. This is to replace my Acer Aspire One netbook which has finally given up the ghost. It’s had a short but colourful history.

Before netbooks became the boom industry they are today, they went through a couple of phases. The first incarnation eschewed the need for both a hard drive and Windows, being supplied with flash memory and some variety of Linux operating system, and to be fair these machines probably performed their job very well, whatever that job was meant to be. The buying public clearly didn’t want to be bothered with Linux, though, so Windows XP was soon offered as an option. This was the model which I bought in April 2009.

The problem is that Windows just does not fly on machines with flash memory, which is why those variants soon disappeared in favour of small hard drives. I found this to my cost, as I went through endless frustrations trying to use the netbook in the face of its preferred desire to freeze up and do nothing for minutes at a time. I honestly felt like throwing it against a wall numerous times, and mostly avoided using it.

I tried several suggestions to improve the netbook’s performance before I found the one that really worked – installing a utility called Flashfire. It was unbelievable – with Flashfire installed the thing ran like a dream! In this state, the Acer finally found its way into general use. It’s ideal for quick use anywhere around the house or garden, and with a mobile broadband dongle it’s usable on day trips and visits to my mother. It’s even been to New York and Berlin with me, being easy to stow in my hand luggage.

Trouble is, the boost in performance comes at a cost of Flashfire corrupting the flash storage. Before long the “disk checking” screen comes up on every boot. The machine remains usable – just – although browsing history and cookies may not be maintained correctly and irritating alerts pollute the screen.

In the end, though, the corruptions cause a major malfunction, at which point a recovery CHKDSK must be performed to repair the damage. This usually provides a few days grace from disk issues, but it’s a battle that is never won. After another malfunction on Saturday, the machine refused to boot at all – just flashing a momentary “blue screen of death” on entry to Windows before going back to the start of the boot process. Another recovery CHKDSK seemed to get it going again temporarily, but it resumed the cycle of death next day. I think it’s now safe to assume that this machine’s useful life is over.

It’s the latest in a long line of spent silicon. This list goes back thirty years to the Sinclair ZX-81,which plunged me into the world of programming. Having mastered ZX BASIC, I taught myself Z80 machine code, and even had three of my programs published in Your Computer magazine. My next computer was the Memotech MTX-500, one of many “home computers” of the 80s that never gained a significant user base and sank without trace. I never had much affection for this one.

Socca Stats - I started writing this system in 1989 and still use it!

My first “proper” computer was the Sinclair PC-200, bought in 1988. It was a PC with 512K RAM, a single floppy drive but no hard drive. It didn’t need a monitor, you simply plugged it into your TV. This model was much-maligned at the time, but it was far in advance of anything I’d ever used before. It was the first machine I ever connected a printer to. Using Turbo Basic I wrote a football statistics system that I still use to this day. I still have the PC-200, and it has returned to occasional use more recently than you might imagine.

 

The Amstrad PC2086 - image borrowed from popcorn.cx

My desire for more disk drives led to the purchase of an Amstrad PC2086, which had twin floppy drives, but still no hard drive. I upgraded it with a 20Mb hard card – which was more than sufficient at the time. I used every expansion port and card slot that the machine offered, adding a sound card and speakers, external 5 1/4” inch floppy drive, and even a serial modem, supplied by my employers, to connect to the mainframe to perform out-of-hours database support.

In 1994 I went mobile with my first laptop – a Zenith Data System model that was quite compact for the time. Still only a monochrome screen, but it was my introduction to Microsoft Windows 3.1 – the first properly usable version of Windows.  I got a lot of use out of this laptop, although its performance deteriorated – I think some of the memory failed – and eventually the hinges on the lid broke, which brought its active service to an end.

By then I had already bought another new desktop machine, an Atlantic PC, late in 1996. This came with Windows 95 and an enormous 2Gb hard drive. A lot of firsts here – my first colour screen, Pentium processor and CD drive. I connected to the internet for the first time on this one. This was a very good machine which served me well for many years.

By contrast, my next one was a disappointment. An Advent PC bought from PC World at the wrong time. It was supplied with Windows ME, acknowledged now as one of the worst ever versions. I had problems from the start with blue screening and freeze-ups. I persevered, however, and got years of use out of it. I connected to broadband for the first time. I ripped most of my CD and vinyl music collection to MP3 on this machine. I downloaded and edited holiday photos from my first ever digital camera. It lived on until 2008, by which time it wouldn’t even boot into Windows properly.

My trusty and long-lived Acer laptop

Meanwhile, late in 2005 I found the need for a laptop again, and purchased an Acer Aspire 3614WLMi. This was, and still is, a fabulous machine. It had Windows XP. It worked – it did everything I asked of it and very rarely let me down. I connected a USB TV tuner and recorded TV programmes. I learned all about video processing on this laptop. It went with me on holiday, including a trip to Los Angeles in 2008, and even to Whitby a few weeks ago, although it largely stayed put once the aforementioned Acer netbook had become a better option for mobility. It was my primary laptop for over five years, and it was with some reluctance that it was supplanted this year.

Before that, I needed a new desktop machine, a Packard Bell PC which I bought from PC World in April 2008. Bad timing again – this one came with Windows Vista, which must rival Windows ME for the title of worst-ever Windows. So despite its quad-core processor and 4Gb RAM, it has always given me headaches. If left in standby, it wakes itself up at 6AM for no apparent reason. It endlessly and noisily thrashes the hard drive when I’m not even using it. It drops the internet connection on a regular basis. I’ve tried all sorts of suggestions to fix these issues but to no avail. This machine now handles TV recording duties, heavy-duty video processing and my home studio recording, but for all other tasks I’ve always preferred to stick to my trusty laptop, despite its massively inferior spec.

The performance of the Acer laptop was becoming a concern to me early this year, and I finally decided to fork out on a shiny white Sony Vaio laptop. No skimping on the spec with this one – 17” screen, 6GB RAM, 500GB hard drive. It’s too big for my existing laptop bag, and frankly it’s unlikely that it will ever be moved from my desk. But it’s a worthy successor to the Acer laptop. Windows 7 is a massive improvement on Vista, and this is another machine that simply works, without me having to fight it. I hope that this one will give me at least five years’ service, if not a lot more. It’s hard to believe that its performance will ever be inadequate.

And so to the new eMachines netbook. I haven’t even opened it yet – setting up a new computer is hardly one of the great delights of life. I’m often told that I should go for a Mac, but I feel I’m too hooked into Windows to make the switch. Maybe when the desktop machine needs replacing I’ll consider it.

For now, though, I’m content with what I’ve got. The money I’ve paid out on all the above kit doesn’t bear thinking about – and I haven’t even mentioned the five printers and two scanners which have passed through my hands. I hope I never have to write a “Part 2” of this far-too-long blog post…

Uncharted Territory

I did something this evening that I probably shouldn’t have. I looked at the pop charts. It might as well have been in a foreign language for all it meant to me. These are three of the acts currently in the top ten: Nicki Minaj, Rizzle Kicks, Loick Essien. Anyone? It made me wonder whether chart positions are now being based on Scrabble scores rather than record sales.

Perhaps these are good songs. I don’t really have the urge to go onto iTunes, or whatever it is the kids use these days, to find out. I’ve heard of the current number one Cher Lloyd, because I had the misfortune to catch a bit of last year’s X-Factor. Her song (which I haven’t heard) has gone straight in at number one. I assume that’s not as a big a deal as it was when The Jam went straight in at number one with “Going Underground”.

This combination used to capture the best of the charts for me

The sad thing is that thirty or so years ago I would have known everything in the charts. In those days the new chart was released at Tuesday lunchtime, and I would write it all down so that when the Top 40 was broadcast on Sunday afternoon I would know when to press Record on my little tape recorder. Amazingly I still have the radio and the cassette recorder I used back then, and I even still have some of the tapes. I guess that illegal downloading has replaced that activity nowadays, but I wonder if anyone follows the charts as religiously as I used to?

I think I grew out of following the charts so closely in the mid-80s, not least due to the fact that most of my favourite bands rarely troubled the charts anyway. However, I would still have watched Top Of The Pops for many years, and still had a general idea of what was going on. A shelf full of “Britpop”-era CD singles shows that I had a revival of interest in chart music in the mid-90s. These days I rarely listen to the radio, and I haven’t read the NME for years, so I’m generally clueless as to the state of both mainstream and alternative tastes.

However, this shouldn’t be read as a “things aren’t what they used to be” diatribe by a grumpy old man. I do have an active interest in current music. I’ve been to 14 gigs so far this year, and only three of them have involved acts that date back to the 80s.

A debut album released this year – “And So The Morning Comes” by Evi Vine – is as good as anything I have heard in the last 30 years. A truly stunning and beautiful album. A band called Strangers are producing a series of perfect pop songs that are catchy, memorable and deceptively dark. I’m eagerly awaiting an album of compelling, hypnotic sounds from Hook and the Twin. Whilst following these bands around London’s live circuit I’ve come across other delights on the bill, including The Title Sequence, and a new band from East London called Paradise. Just a couple of weeks ago I watched the first ever gig of a new band from Southend called Lanterns.

I’ve no idea whether any of these bands will make the Top 40, or even how near they are to any kind of national recognition or radio play. All I know is that there is good new music out there to be heard, and with the wonders of social networking, these days there are more ways than ever to discover it. All in all, I’m quite happy for the charts to remain an irrelevance to me!

Ballad of a fallen salad

The Asda Prawn Layered Salad. I don’t know how healthy or not it is, and I don’t know whether it is the best of the Prawn Layered Salads offered by the various supermarkets. All I know is that the Asda variety got my vote as it is the only one which doesn’t contain bits of carrot.

It’s a small tub containing pasta shells, prawns, bits of cucumber and lettuce and a tomato which is usually softer than it should be, but provides one of the few occasions when I eat a tomato. The whole thing is topped by a savoury dressing, and a small plastic bag containing a folding spoon, which picks up far too much of the dressing when you have to fish it out and throw it away.

The great thing about this salad is that it goes with anything. Put it on a plate with a warmed-up sausage roll, quiche, or Quorn escalope, as I have been doing recently, and you have an easy-to-prepare and very satisfying meal.

At least that was the case. As of a few weeks ago, the words “improved recipe” appeared on the lid. An inspection of the contents shows that the pasta shells have been superseded by small pasta tubes. Having tried a couple of these since the change, I can also confirm that the tomato has gone missing. The new pasta is stickier and generally tasteless, the lettuce gets more and more disappointing, and as a whole it looks like a shadow of its former self. So much for “improved recipe” – there goes one of my staple weekly meals.

I suppose this means more visits to Morrisons to use their salad bar, but it’s a lottery whether they will have any of the bits that I like. Sainsbury’s and Waitrose seem obsessed with putting strings of spinach into most of their salad bar items, which puts me off.

Luckily for Asda, I am still too fond of their microwaveable packs of salmon or haddock to stop going there, and the fact that it is the nearest supermarket to me also works in its favour. But I feel like firing off an angry letter to their customer services to demand the return of the “classic” Prawn Layered Salad.

Independence Daze

“I can’t stand up and I can’t sit down ‘cos a great big problem stopped me in my tracks
I can’t relax ‘cos I haven’t done a thing and I can’t do a thing ‘cos I can’t relax”
(Independence Day -The Comsat Angels)

It all sounded so good in my head when I was daydreaming at my desk, contemplating life after the office. I imagined days of relaxing in the garden with books and music. Endless hours of free time to practice the guitar. Time to catch up with the many hours of recorded TV as yet unwatched, and the growing pile of still-unopened DVDs, not to mention watching again the best of a collection which, if translated into VHS tapes, might rival the size of the Bob Monkhouse archive. Days when I would just get in the car and take off somewhere, and yes, days when I would knuckle down and tackle the exercise of thoroughly cleaning, decluttering and rationalising every room in the house.

More than a month into my unemployment and I’m starting to wonder what I was thinking. The dream of freedom has turned into a world of bewildering possibilities, each one shouting into my head at the same time until I hardly know which way to turn. That is, of course, once routine chores have already taken their chunk out of the day, and not forgetting the passages of time which fly past in an instant when sat at the computer.

I get to lunchtime and wonder exactly what I have been doing with myself since breakfast. I might have read a few pages of whichever book I am currently reading, picked up the guitar for five minutes, made cups of tea or been shopping, but it all seems like marking time. Rarely have I felt a sense of achievement, or considered myself to have made genuine inroads into my long to-do list. Each room displays vivid reminders of what I haven’t yet done. Neither do I feel in any way relaxed, or have a sense of enjoying my freedom.

Then there is the issue of job-hunting. I have no pressing need to look for another job straight away, but the knowledge that I will have to find one some day looms large in my head. Thus I have already started searching, and once that process has started it is difficult not to see it as a full-time occupation in itself.

Perhaps finding a job sooner rather than later would be for the best. It would take away from me the responsibility of having to organise every day by myself, and push my personal time back to the margins of the evenings and weekends where it lived quite happily before, knowing its limitations.

But maybe just being able to express my frustrations on paper like this will help me to understand the issues. Organising my thoughts coherently could be the first step towards organising my days. Thus, one of the things I should certainly set aside some time for each day is writing.

I’m pretty sure I have no inclination to write fiction, so this writing will probably take the form of essays on whichever subject takes my mind. Whether anybody will want to read them is another matter, but I plan to post them here anyway!

Farewell To The Shade

“The poplars are felled, farewell to the shade”
(The Poplar Field, William Cowper)

February 2010

They weren’t poplars, in fact I didn’t know that they were called “Trees of Heaven” until the man from Tree Fella gave me an estimate on removing them. But the two Ailanthus trees that had stood guard in front of my house since before I moved in 18 years ago are now gone too.

They should never have been there in the first place. Planted by the council along with several others 20 years ago, they were the wrong type of tree to be growing so near to houses, given their potentially huge size and extensive root system. Builders must have earned a fair trade rebuilding the front porches of homes in this street over the years, mine was one of them two years ago.

July 2010

The issue of my trees possibly causing damage to surrounding properties was brought to my attention by a neighbour last year, after he had been in consultation with a surveyor. What bugs me, though, is that both in 2002 and 2008 surveys were done on my property, commissioned by the insurance company after I had reported the cracks in my front porch. Neither survey made any reference to the trees, even though I made a point of asking whether they were the problem.

In 2003 a pointless “semi-rebuild” of the lower half of the porch was done, which started cracking again almost before the builders had driven away. In 2009 the porch was demolished and rebuilt on new foundations , but even the new porch has several hairline cracks appearing now.

Maybe the felling of the trees will prevent any further damage to my house. I won’t miss the hours spent in autumn sweeping up the fallen twigs and leaves, and trying to stuff them into a wheelie bin that is too small. Perhaps my energy bills will be reduced by the fact that natural light can now reach my front bedroom and living room.

I will miss the trees, however. I’ll miss the distinction they gave my property, the pleasing sight of driving into my turning and seeing the two biggest trees in the street sitting in my front garden. I’ll miss the dappled light effect they created when the evening summer sun filtered through, and the sense of seclusion they fostered when in full bloom. And of course, the shade.

It’s not the only loss I have faced recently – I took voluntary redundancy from my job of 23 years in April. Likewise I am missing the shade and seclusion from the real world that my unremarkable job provided, but maybe I now have a clearer view of all that is out there, and natural light can now shine into my existence. And just as new, less destructive trees can be planted in the garden, perhaps the seeds of a new beginning are ready to grow in my life.

Last sunset on the trees, 25th April 2011