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.

empty-spaces1

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.

A month of trying Headspace

Let’s set the scene. It’s just over a month ago at Luton Airport. I’m waiting to get on a Wizz Air flight to Budapest. As with all budget airlines there’s a massive queue. As with all budgest airlines nobody’s entirely sure why there’s a queue, but the wisdom of crowds dictates everybody joins the queue regardless of whether they actually want/need to be in the queue or not.

Again as is inevitable with budget airlines there are more people queuing than there is queue space so the queue snakes out into the terminal building, criss-crossing with another queue for another overflowing flight and then doing the same again. People are trying to work out where the hell their queue starts and trying to get past in every direction. We seemed to be standing in a spot where everybody who had a buggy wanted to run us over/get past. It was a little bit stressful.

My friend James who I was travelling with pulls out his phone, loads up an app and starts having a little meditation sesh in the midst of all this chaos. It actually seems to work and James is the most chilled person in the building. I figured I gotta get me some of that.

The app James loaded up is called Headspace and it advertises itself as:

Headspace is meditation made simple, a way of treating your head right. Using proven meditation and mindfulness techniques we’ll show you how to train your mind for a healthier, happier, more enjoyable life.

This would usually be the kind of thing that gets my BS detector singing loudly, but given James was doing it — and he has a much more sensitive BS sensor than I do — I figured I’d give it a go.

I didn’t realise at first, but Headspace offers a suite of apps which more or less duplicate the functionality of its website. The app is available on iOS and Android and Headspace.com has the same content. The handy thing about the app is having it with you everywhere (obviously), so I probably don’t see myself using the web version.

Once you’re signed up and ready to go, you make a start with Headspace’s introduction series, Take 10. This is the only part of the app that’s free, but it serves as a really neat introduction to the whole concept and will basically tell you if it’s something that’s going to work for you or not. James figured he could manage without the guidance the app provides after doing it for a couple of days, but I’ve found it really useful so I’ve stuck with it.

You’ve got to really concentrate for Headspace to work; you kinda get as much back as you put in. At first I found it kinda eh, but a couple of days in I really started to enjoy doing it. This stuff actually works. After Take 10 you need to buy yourself a Headspace subscription to continue. It’s kinda expensive, so for the moment I’ve just got one month and if I’m still using it at the end of the month I might get another twelve, which is a fair bit cheaper per month. I’ve even cancelled my Netflix subscription I don’t really use anymore so it’s compatible with my budget.

The to-do list chronicles

I’ve long struggled to find the “perfect” to-do list solution. The “Getting Things Done” (GTD) methodology has never really striked me as any great secret — it’s literally just writing down what you have to do in small enough chunks that you can then tick them off and feel like you’ve achieved something.

Still, it does work. You would think putting a very simple tickable list into an app or just writing it down on a piece of paper is the simplest thing anybody’s ever done, but apparently it’s something massively complicated that has spawned a whole industry of innovative app-makers.

Yet, I never really liked most of them.

I think I first started using to-do list apps when I was about twelve as a way of organising my homework. The smartphone was yet to be presented to us by Mr Jobs so I wrote all my homework down on paper (we call them homework diaries here in the UK) and then got home and transferred them to my computer. Thoroughly inefficient and probably entirely pointless, but it was a start. My app of choice? Remember The Milk.

My First Remember The Milk Tasks

The tasks above are some of the first tasks I stored in RTM, back in early 2007. I hated learning Latin.

I did actually use it relatively consistently for four years straight and I can see from the archived list of my competed tasks I came back to it just as I was starting Uni around this time last year. I only stuck with it for about two months this time though.

What I’ve always really liked about RTM — and still really like — is the way you can add tasks and use a series of keyboard shortcuts to add priority, due date, repetition, lists and tags.

So to produce a task “Write ‘the to-do list chronicles blog post'” with a priority of three (I used to have everything priority one cause I need to do everything on the list, but if everything’s priority one it might as well be lowest by default. Clever, eh?), on the list #Personal, due today I’d enter:

Write 'the to-do list chronicles blog post' !3 ^today #Personal

That’s it. I’ve tried out more or less every to-do list app I’ve found and none of them have that simple functionality, so I keep on coming back to Remember The Milk.

For the bulk of the last year I’ve been using a slightly simplified version of Bullet Journal, which I first read about on LifeHacker last year. It’s kinda neat and I do actually really like it; you get a notebook, block out days and then use different types of bullets for appointments, reminders and things to do. Small Moleskines or Field Notes work best as you can take them everywhere (the downside being you have to take them everywhere, cause it’s only in paper form).

My Bullet Journal in action

You’re meant to write out a huge calendar, keep indexes of what you’ve done etc etc, but I keep mine simple. I just use it as a short term calendar and for simple tasks I’ve got to do that day.

Sadly I’m notebook-less at the moment as whilst in Vienna I poured coffee all over my Moleskine, basically ruining it. Once I’ve got myself a replacement/when I’m back at Uni I’ll be back Bullet-Journaling.

The moral of this story, then, is that the GTD methodology is bloody obvious, nobody’s made the perfect to-do list app yet and in a horrible twist of irony, me, the person most likeliest to be using technology for everything out of more or less all my friends, has gone back to pen and paper. Your move, internet.

What to look for in a youth hostel

A good hostel can make or break your stay in a place. I’ve just got back from a month of staying in hostels so I’d like to consider myself relatively well qualified when reporting what one should be looking for in a hostel.

When I first started my travels I was staying in places I’d booked whilst back in the UK. These places were often:

  • cheap
  • half an hour from the city centre by public transport
  • had decent reviews for quality etc.

My approach was often find a place we wanted to go on Hostels International, sort by best rated and then book whatever that place was. Price and quality were prioritised over location.

This was a mistake.

As soon as we were done with the places I’d booked from home we started looking at location first and not really caring about everything else. Anything on HiHostels isn’t going to be terrible, so your lower bound on quality isn’t really that bad.

Waiting for the tube in Budapest

Being in a central location means you don’t spend a chunk of your day travelling between the city centre and the hostel — time that’s limited cause you’re probably not spending that long in the place; you might be paying a little bit more for the hostel per night, but you then don’t have to spend anything on public transport to/from the hostel.

It’s also a lot easier to dump your bags when you’re arriving/leaving and the central hostels are usually a lot busier, so you’ll find it vastly easier to meet fellow travellers. Like a good hostel, meeting cool people who know the neat places to go can make or break a place.

So location is important.

Breakfast is often included in places, but more often than not it’s a piece of bread and some horrible orange juice type thing. Not really worth bothering about; you’ll find yourself having to buy something anyway. The hostel was stayed at in Verona offered you a piece of bread and butter and some tea or coffee, served in a bowl. The tea was absolutely stone cold and utterly disgusting. We didn’t bother with breakfast there again.

Breakfast at one place we stayed

The pic above was one of the better breakfasts we had. As a genearl rule, basically just don’t expect much from breafasts.

Also don’t expect much from WiFi. Places where the WiFi works in the rooms will say “OMG WE MADE THE WIFI WORK THROUGHOUT THE BUILDING”, but if it just says “free WiFi” expect to have to sit in the lobby to get your internet fix.

I’d initially planned on Skyping my parents and backing up my pictures to Google Drive, but it become fairly apparent fairly quickly this just wasn’t happening. Coffee shops are a much better bet here.

One thing that is worth looking at in reviews is if there’s any mention of plugs. As a general rule there are never enough plugs but expect a room to have a couple — not enough for everyone. That’s pretty standard.

What isn’t okay is if there are no plugs in the rooms. This more or less means you’re without your phone for the duration of your stay in wherever it is that doesn’t have any plugs. It doesn’t have to be a hostel deal breaker, but it’s something worth knowing. Hostels aren’t going to advertise “no plugs!!”, so look out for mention of this in reviews.

Washing facilities are relatively standard, but in all but one place we went to the cost was prohibitively expensive/ridiculous. Don’t bother, take some travel wash and do your washing in the sink.

That’s your lot. In a nutshell, find somewhere with a good location and you won’t spend much time there, so how good it is doesn’t really matter. You’re welcome.