in Travel

Visiting Manchester 2014

I’ve made my way around a lot of Great British Cities in the last couple of months and now I’ve got Manchester to add to the list. After visiting a place and snapping some photos I’ve got into the habit of uploading them here and labeling them as my “adventures”. I can only kinda do the same for Manchester. I didn’t actually take any photos of Manchester.

So I drove up with three friends from London in my trusty Skoda last Sunday for Labour Party Conference. Despite getting off to an appalling start and scraping my front bumper whilst reversing out of my parents’ drive, the journey was fine and we got to Manchester in good time and in one piece.P9980821

It was my first Conference and once there I quickly learned the tricks of the trade. Go to exciting fringe events, don’t feel bad about taking free wine and don’t be nervous talking to anyone — and look confident, ’cause confidence gets you into just about anywhere.

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Whilst we explored the pubs around the conference center, we didn’t really go much further than that, hence my difficulty in putting together this post about Manchester. What I did see of the city was very nice, though. Lots of culture and I’m gonna have to go back.

On the last day of Conference we shamelessly got pictures with everyone and anyone. Below are those pictures. Thanks Manchester, let’s do it again sometime.

On Scotland

Nationalism is a limiting philosophy which erects barriers where none need exist. It divides friends and families. And it goes against the sensible trend, in a world where instantaneous global communication is now the norm, to realign former nations into larger power blocs. It is self-regarding,where localised self-interest should no longer be being thought of. It is reactionary: the nineteenth century idea of the proud nation state, operating alone, is no longer valid.

Scottish independence is a chimera, a distraction from the real problems that exist in all the countries of Britain. It is a utopian dream that uses nationalist ideology to placate people; to make them suppose that their problems can be solved, not by engaging in the politics of the Union, but by cutting themselves off and leaving themselves out to dry.

The polls closed for Scotland’s independence referendum a couple of minutes ago. We should know the result by the morning. The above are two comments two of my friends have made on Facebook over the last couple of days.

A decision has already been made and it’s probably slightly futile to comment at this stage, but the comments I’ve seen from people voting “yes” in the last twenty four hours has left me feeling obliged to write something.

I wish to make two very brief comments.

Echoing my two friends above, history has shown again and again that nationalism is a dangerous philosophy which unnecessarily divides people. The Scottish Nationalist Party has been very successful at creating and then exploiting these divisions.

Second, the idea that Scotland’s problems are a product of the Union and thus can be solved outside of the Union is not correct. An independent Scotland will not become a more equal society overnight and economists have warned again and again we simply do not know whether an independent Scotland — a claim peddled by the Yes camp — can achieve this.

Too many questions remained unanswered and any attempt to make this point has been dismissed as scaremongering. Currency and EU membership (specifically with regards to Spain’s potential hostility and the likely non-transfer of current UK EU opt-outs, which include items such as the Euro and Schengen Area) are two huge unknowns. If I was voting those would be absolute deal-breakers.

Fundamentally, we do not know, but we do not need to be further divided. I’m going to bed now, and I very much hope I wake up to find Scotland has voted to remain part of the Union.

Visiting Europe 2014, Short Film

As well as the photos I posted a couple of days back, when I was travelling I took a couple of bits of video for most places we went to. I didn’t want to have filming dominating my time there, as happened in Liverpool, so some days I filmed a fair bit of video and some days I didn’t film anything.

I wanted to cut together something which wasn’t too long but was long enough to offer a feel for the places we went to. I think the resulting ten minute film does a pretty nice job of taking you through all the places we went to and giving a brief but genuine feel for the places. Enjoy:

I launched my new blog

Yesterday I launched my new blog. It’s called BlogBettr and it’s a blog that wants to help you blog, better.

I’ve been very long planning the launch of the site and I’ve written about my struggles in getting it out the door a couple of times, but this time it’s real.

In the end what’s finally made the difference is writing consistently and treating the site as something which can be a minimum viable product, to be refined later, rather than something which has to be perfect first time.

The eBook’s not finished, the design’s not finished, it’s not particularly optimised at all — there’s still a lot of work to do, but I’m very excited to be doing it. It’d make my day if you checked out BlogBettr.

Visiting Europe 2014 Pictures from a month living out a backpack.

It’s a good couple of weeks since I got back from travelling around Europe for a month. I’ve written a couple of Eurotrip related pieces since then, including thought on living out of a backpack and some actually relatively useful advice on what to look for in youth hostels.

Until now what I hadn’t done was publish a gallery of my photography from the trip. I’d say I do a fair bit of travelling and where possible recently I’ve been following up trips with publishing some thoughts from places and pics in my adventures series. Pictures from Europe had been (for me) a big omission, and I’m fixing this.

So we were away for a month. I was travelling with my friend James, but we met friends of mine and James’ from home as we went and made new ones along the way too. We stayed in youth hostels and had three bags between us. I had my 25l backpack and a satchel for my camera gear and James had a single 20l bag.

We knew roughly where we wanted to go when we flew out but hadn’t really planned past that; past our first week we didn’t have anything booked. The most we stayed in any one place was four days (we did four days in Budapest, Vienna, Prague, Berlin and Verona) and the least amount of time we stayed in any one place was twenty three hours. We arrived in Munich at four in the afternoon on one day and left at three the next day. I didn’t really finish looking around Munich, going to have to go back there at some point.

Our route was a fairly good one, taking us to different places but not spending too much time on the road. We started out in Budapest, then got the train to Bratislava and then on to Vienna. From Vienna we got buses to Prague, Berlin, Munich and then Innsbruck in the Austrian alps. We stayed one night in Innsbruck itself and the next hiked to a mountain hut near(ish) to a town an hour away on the train from Innsbruck. The next day we hiked round and just made it back in time to get the train down to Verona. From Verona we did a day trip to Venice and then got the train across Italy to finish up in Genoa.

Vienna was definitely architecturally my favourite place. Most places bits of the city are nice, but Vienna the whole thing was nice. Really beautiful place. Berlin was probably culturally top; it just oozed cool vibes and seemed to be the “happening” place (for lack of a better way of putting it). Bratislava was our worst experience. I made a very poor call on the accommodation and it kinda ruined it.

Below is a very small (about ten percent) selection of the photos I took whilst we were away. They’re all taken on my Panasonic GF6 using the stock 14-42mm (at micro four thirds) lens (usually with a graduated natural density filter) or an Olympus 9mm bodycap fisheye. Apart from one photo — on a pedalo in Prague — taken on my GoPro.

The pictures are in chronological order and clicking on any of them will get you more infos. Please enjoy!

WordPress themes for writers: a coming of age WordPress' missing piece?

I’ve struggled for a very long time to find the “perfect” WordPress theme for a site like this, where I just want to write stuff and for that stuff to be super-readable. A typographic attention to detail, focus on readability and just simple minimalist nice design seems to have been something that nobody ever quite nailed.

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Heck, I tried to make my own at the start of last year. I liked it a lot and used it on this site for a long time, but it didn’t do everything I wanted. That required someone more skilled at these things than I.

WordPress is still very much fundamentally a blogging platform, a platform for writers to publish their writing. And the piece missing — the beautiful design to accompany the beautiful written word — was pretty major.

It was thus my immense pleasure to stumble across install Independent Publisher a couple of weeks back. It took me about thirty seconds to decide I needed to install it on my blog right that minute.

Indepdent Publisher touts itself as;

“…for independent publishers, creators, makers, and believers in the open source movement.”

If you believe that everyone has a right to independent publishing and that a beautiful, well-maintained home for your published work should be beautifully designed…then this project is for you.”

I’m not entirely sure the knight in shining armour ideological rhetoric is entirely necessary, but you very quickly get the picture: this thing has been built from the ground up to be the home for writing for people who care about this stuff.

The theme isn’t quite perfect, but it ticks an awful lot of boxes and the regular updates are making it better and better all the time. This thing is what I’ve been looking/hoping for for a very long time.

In steps a new hero.

One does have to wonder why there aren’t more themes like this, though. Independent Publisher has quite rightly been very successful; there’s obviously a large market for this kind of thing. You can thus imagine my immense delight at seeing a post about Just Tadlock’s new theme Saga on WPTavern earlier today.

WordPress themes made by people who actually blog using the platform on a regular basis are often significantly better than their non-blogger-made counterparts because if you are a blogger you fundamentally understand what it is bloggers want.

Justin’s Saga theme is a great example of that. Moreso than Independent Publisher, Saga completely gets out of the way and lets visitors enjoy the content without any distractions. It’s great.

Ooh, and things like designed-out-the-box integration with plugins like Subtitles are really nice touches. I hadn’t heard of that plugin before today either. It looks pretty neat.

Personally I’m not going to be making the switch; I’ve more or less given up on “featured images” ’cause I just wanna write and different themes handle different image setups differently etc etc and its a pain when you switch. I also quite like Independent Publisher retains some element of “personal branding” throughout; Saga does make for a slightly nicer reading experience, but it’s at the expense of this. It’s a small tradeoff I’m happy making.

These two themes are great, though. I’m delighted developers and designers are trying to fix the one thing that’s been missing from WordPress as a publishing platform. Lower the barrier to entry for making beautiful content, and then everybody will make beautiful content, right guys?

Because blog posts are the opposite of art

This afternoon has not been the most successful afternoon. I was meant to do some coding, but it wasn’t clicking so I’ve left it for tomorrow. I was meant to get started on a really cool new project, but I was waiting for an email so I’ve postponed that until I next have a free afternoon. I was going to go and read a book outside but the sun went and it would have been a bit cold.

I was going to record some music, but my bass broke and playing with just the guitar didn’t feel quite right. So I didn’t do that either.

Thinking my audio creative need could be satifisied with audio/visual creativity I switched to trying to get some more of the edit of my short film from visiting Europe sorted, but first Premiere Pro crashed and when I eventually got it going again and played what I’d done so far from the beginning I didn’t really like what I’d done at all which was sad cause this was meant to be the best film I’d made to date. I figured I’d have to start all over again or reconceptualise it.

But that’s going to take a while to work out so I left that for another day.

I was even meant to do my five hundred words of writing, but I just didn’t really feel like it and for the first so for the first time in a whole fifteen days I was going to “break the chain” and miss my writing. And I was okay with that. I’ve been trying too finish up an eBook over the last week-or-so, rewriting stuff I first wrote about a year ago (I don’t know what I was thinking a year ago, it wasn’t very good).

Proper serious writing requires proper serious focus and it’s quarter past eleven on a Friday evening and I’m tired and man I can’t focus on something serious like that right now.

Eventually I ended up in the place I always end up when I’m lacking creative willpower: sat on my bed with my tablet. From this point I will do one of two things: load up YouTube and watch some videos from really cool people that make me think man I want to do that or load up Press and read through my Feedly subscriptions and get all inspired and think man I want to write like that.

In a beautiful juncture between the two I ended up reading a blog post by filmmaker Emily Diana Ruth about her “Self Image” video project. My immediate reaction was man I want to do that. And then I could do that right now. I could make some art right now.

Except everyone’s trying to sleep and they might get a little bit annoyed if I start talking to a camera and wake them up. So I’ll probably never do it. Too self concious about these things.

I figured instead I’d do some writing, see what happened if I took all of the day’s wasted energy and turned it into words. Maybe I could make “art” out of that. Except I can’t, not — for once today — because I don’t want to, but because that’s silly. Blog posts aren’t art, blog posts are the oppostive of art.

Note taking for college students

A paper published at the start of this year reported that “the pen is mightier than the keyboard” and that:

“Whereas taking more notes [on a laptop] can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.”

The paper can be summarised in that basically students making notes on laptops write down more stuff than their paper-using peers, but because students making notes on paper can’t write everything down they have to listen much more carefully to filter out the useful stuff. In doing so, so the argument goes, the process of writing out the notes means you remember much more.

This is quite probably true. Indeed, I don’t doubt the validility of the study at all. The sentiment is one which comes up again and again. I spent the whole of last year making my notes on paper. I had one notebook for each of my modules and made nice neat notes. A huge majority of my friends and peers used laptops; I was the poster-boy, the last stand for the pen and paper in a digital age.

This is an accurate representation of how lecture theatres look.

So the study doesn’t lie, pen and paper is great and I did it for a year so I should know. It is thus that for the next academic year I’m going to be switching to a paperless-entirely-digital notetaking system.

All these studies and all these reports might be correct — physically writing down notes does make you remember more and does make you vastly more selective in what you write down, but that’s making the assumption that that is a good thing. In making my paper notes last year I was more selective in what I wrote down, but because of this I missed a huge chunk of what the lecturer was preaching to us.

And whilst I probably remembered more short term, when I came to look over my notes six months later to revise for exams, that was a relatively useless gain. I ended up having to “borrow” notes off computer-using friends.

So we’ve established that computers are better than pieces of paper and academic studies about note taking don’t actually really consider students’ needs. The burning question on everybody’s lips: what software to use?

I have given this serious thought. There are a number of options here:

  • Evernote/sophisticated note-taking app.
  • Simplenote/very simple note-taking app.
  • Google Drive/full producitivity suite.

We need to be web based for immediate syncing and ideally have native apps cross-device. Evernote and Simplenote would be pretty neat to use, but I’d like to be able to annotate presentations directly, which immediately makes Google Drive the only choice. Which isn’t ideal cause something simpler would be nice.

Simplenote is let down by its complete lack of formatting optioins, although one could always write in Markdown… Evernote is powerful, but doesn’t actually have too many formatting options and is probably actually a bit too bloated for my needs. Whilst a folder structure would be kinda handy, just #modulenumber and #lecutre, #seminar or #reading is absolutely fine.

What we’ve learned, then, is that paper sucks, computers are great and the perfect note taking app for students doesn’t exist. Yet. The picture up top is via this Vox report and originally on Flickr. Lecture theatres do actually look like that in case you were wondering.

Write something good days, write something bad days

One of the things I wanted to do after I got back from Europe last week was write every day. Specifically, write at fewest five hundred words. And so far, I’ve been successful! I have in fact written five hundred words every day for a whole ten days in a row now — that’s like five thousand words — and as everyone who has read any kind of blog post on productivity knows, writing every day is inevitably the first step to becoming mildly Twitter famous.

What’s the secret to your success?

Oh man, you know, I write every day.

So far I’ve got myself in a fairly good routine. I’ve been getting up earlier and then filling that time with writing. As I would have been asleep, it feels like there’s little opportunity cost on that time. Which is true to an extent.

The only slight downside is because I’m doing it every day at the same time and finishing around the time I’d normally be starting whatever I’m doing that day, I don’t really get to feel like I’ve achieved anything. Sure, I get to tick it off my to-do list, but then it auto-repeats for the next day and it’s another task looming immediately.

There’s also the issue I’ve run into the last couple of days that I don’t really feel like writing anything at the moment or I don’t really know what to write about (that second one being code for “I don’t want to write what I told myself I’d write). But, there is truth in the argument that if you get out of the cycle and get out of the committment of doing something every day then you’ll make the excuse again and again.

I’ve been doing this for ten days so far. It’s not exactly miracle-working. If I was going to stop, the initial “man this is a great idea” energy would be burning off about now.

It’s inevitable, then, that doing something like this there are good days and bad days. It’s being able to push through the bad days and not make excuses for yourself that are what makes the difference when committing to something like this.

Today, for example, I’ve got to go into town, buy some food, eat lunch and immediately drive two hours to go to a friend’s BBQ. But, it’s 9.53am and instead of doing one of the things I’d like to do today, I’m writing my five hundred words.

I’ll admit there are downsides to the whole writing every day thing. It results in you publishing slightly meta slightly pretentious blog posts and the arbitrary word count means I’ve found myself padding paragraphs out with one eye on the word count more than one should or I have before.

But, you’ve got to make the cut off somewhere. Five hundred words can take me half an hour to write if I’m in a hurry and if I’m trying to read Reddit and the news at the same time, it can take my an hour. It is arbitrary, but it’s a decent committment.

There’ll be good days and bad days. So far I’ve not given up, and I’ve not yet got any intention of doing so.