Getting in the zone

How do you get in the zone? And by that I mean how do you prepare yourself to sit down and work on something for a long time (be that a piece of writing, a song or a computer program)?

For me it’s all about turning off distractions, or at least blocking them out so they don’t impair my creativity. Right now I’m sitting in my office at work with the window open. The clock tower is chiming 8, and there is the sound of building work outside. This is not conducive to getting me in the zone, but I can block it out because it’s a fairly common series of sounds around here (my office being near the clock tower and right in between two building sites, one of which will become my new office eventually).

If I can’t turn off distractions then I like to control my distractions as much as possible. This I’ll do largely through headphones and either very familiar music or unfamiliar music without words. I have Spotify play-lists set up to deal with both of these, and I also have a fair amount of music stored locally on my non-work computers.

So what do I mean by distractions? One of the main distractions is the notifications that any internet-connected computer churns out every few seconds. On my work machine I get notifications about emails, tweets, instant messages, texts and all sorts of other things. I need to have a peripheral awareness of them, but what they would really like me to do is to drop what I’m doing and insert some other task right at the top of my to do list. Sometimes that is what I need to do, but most often the task I’m working on now is the most important task, and anything that deviates from what I had intended to do is likely to make me less productive.

Once I’m in the zone, and once I’m writing, then I tend to zone out what is going on in the rest of the world quite well. I often find myself forgetting to notice that I’m hungry or thirsty, and it’s always a surprise to find that I’ve been sitting at my desk for a couple of hours and that the document sat before me has grown in size considerably.

The other key for me is not noticing my computer at all while I’m working on something. This is partly due to keeping my computer uncluttered and distraction free, but also to do with using the right keyboard. I generally either use my solar power Logitech keyboard, or else the keyboard of the laptop I’m typing on. Any laptop I use for this sort of work is likely to be made either by Apple or by Lenovo; both of whom are well-known for understanding what a decent keyboard should feel like and sound like. I also try and use a text editor for writing as much as possible – which generally boils down to either Sublime Text or Gedit. I wouldn’t say I have a favourite as such, and like most things I like to work in at least two different ways to ensure that I don’t get stale or become too reliant on a particular tool-set.

I suppose the flip side to this is what I do what I’m not in the zone. Sometimes I have to write, regardless of feeling like doing something else. I don’t have the luxury of not needing to work, and sometimes that work involves me sitting and writing something while all sorts of chaos is going on around me. If I feel myself getting too distracted then I’ll force myself to write for a certain amount of time, and then take a break, pace around for a bit, and maybe go and take a short walk somewhere. I’ll also use my walking time (I’m currently walking at least 7km each work day and at least 4km at weekends) to think about the next thing I need to do, or how to express some particularly difficult idea or concept.

New Music – March 2015

March was a great month for music. Here are a few of my highlights.

Matthew E. White – Fresh Blood
Clarence Clarity – No Now
Drake – If You’re Reading This Then It’s Too Late
Ghostpoet – Shedding Skin
Fyfe – Control
Will Butler – Policy
Emile Haynie – We Fall
Cannibal Ox – Blade of the Ronin
Drew Dave – Synthbased
Laura Marling – Short Movie
Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
Nils Frahm – Solo
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

The future and how we get there

I’ve spent a fair bit of this weekend reading through my notes from the conference I’ve just been at, and picking out some key concepts and quotes for a presentation I appear to be writing called “The future and how we get there”.

It’s mostly about new technology, and how we can use it to become more productive and make our lives more efficient. But I suppose it’s also a little about how the way people learn is changing, and how the bottleneck preventing instantaneous acquisition and processing of information has moved from the computers we use to…well…us.

It’s also about how we should be judged on output and not ideas, and how the theoretical only becomes powerful when it becomes actual.

Speaking of which, I’ve spent an hour or so this evening testing my theories about how easy it is to move a complicated WordPress installation with 9 years of content to a brand new WordPress installation on a different server.

See https://andyferguson.wordpress.com/ for what should be an identical clone of this blog (apart from this post, obviously). I’m not quite sure if this is me testing the water for a move to a hosted site, or if I’m just using this as a testbed for other projects, but it was an interesting experiment to run, and as I had a very recent backup (from this morning) it was also a good way to test my backup plan at the same time.

Technology is great when it works. And even when it doesn’t work it’s usually a learning experience.

Social media notifications

I thought it might be useful to mention that I turned off all email notifications on social media sites a few months ago. I do still get banner notifications on my phone, but I found myself ignoring the emails on the whole, and thought I’d remove a bit of noise from my inbox. I still regard myself as active on (in this order) Twitter, G+, Facebook and LinkedIn, but I also still very much regard email as my primary method of contact for anything urgent/important, be it personal or professional.

I suppose it’s also useful to mention that I’ve started scheduling a few posts, both to my blog and to my social networks. I very much try and keep content relevant to my (perceived) audience, but if you do see me posting things when you know I’m at work or in a meeting with you, then scheduling is probably the answer (I use Buffer for scheduling, and may write more about this soon).

New Music – February 2015

A section of new music I’ve stumbled upon this month. I owe a lot of this to Rough Trade’s albums of the month list.

Darren Hayman – Chants for Socialists
The Districts – A Flourish and A Spoil
Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
The Unthanks – Mount the Air
Andrew Combs – All These Dreams
Crushed Beaks – Scatter
Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass
John Carpenter – Lost Themes
Duke Garwood – Heavy Love
Vision Fortune – Country Music
Viet Cong – Viet Cong
Levon Vincent – Self Titled (not on the Spotify playlist)
Jose Gonzales – Vestiges & Claws
Jim White vs The Packway Handle Band – Take it Like a Man
Damon and Naomi – Fortune
Grooms – Comb the Feeling Through your Hair
Jib Kidder – Teaspoon to the Ocean
Bob Dylan – Shadows in the Night (not on the Spotify playlist)

New additions to my back up plan

I’ve been using Dropbox, Carbon Copy Cloner, iCloud, iTunes Match, Time Machine, Google Drive and Crashplan as part of my back up plan for a while. Recently I also added OneDrive and Copy, because they both give me a decent amount of cloud storage, and in the case of Copy it’s a decent interface to store large PDF files (such as downloads of Mac Format and Linux Format) that are too large for the Kindle app to deal with.

Today I also started experimenting with BitTorrent Sync. It’s not cloud storage, but it will mirror directories between multiple computers, and is only limited by disk space and the speed of my local network. I’ve not got much further than installing the client yet, but will write more about how it works if it proves to be interesting/useful.

New Music – January 2015

There have been a fair few great things released this month. The list below contains the things I can’t stop listening to right now

Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
Ghost Culture – Ghost Culture
Liam Hayes – Slurrp
The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
BC Camplight – How to Die in the North
Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
Belle & Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
Elephant Micah – Where in Our Woods

Albums of the year 2014

This year I’ve done things slightly differently in that I’ve not paid as much attention to how many times I’ve listened to something, but instead concentrated on how much I enjoyed it. Some records just can’t be listened to that often; they require complete attention and the kind of time commitment that I just don’t have most days, and I fear I may have left out a few such records in previous years.

I’ve gone for a top 20 this year, which are in no particular order, and also added my favourite live album (which is a live rendition of something that should have been in last year’s top 10 for the reasons mentioned above), and then added a load of other records I’ve enjoyed but can’t think of much to say about.

Everything here that is available on Spotify is in a playlist. Putting this playlist off shuffle may lead to some very odd juxtapositions though, and a lot of these records work best when listened to in the intended order.

James Vincent McMorrow – Post Tropical

I stumbled upon this in January, when I was looking for something new to listen to during my January commute to work. I had no expectations at all, and has not heard of the artist previously (although I’ve since checked out his debut album as well). James Vincent McMorrow has the sort of voice that would work very well with all sorts of different styles of music, and on first listen this reminded me a lot of How to Dress Well (not a bad thing), but what really sets this apart is the songs, which are sparse, achingly beautiful, and which flow together as a body of work. There is a sadness to this music, but also an uplifting feeling of hope and ambition, and I look forward to seeing what this artist comes up with next (which, if interviews are to be believed, will sound nothing like anything he’s done before).

I’m very surprised that this doesn’t feature in more end-of-year lists, which I suspect is down to the fact it was released right at the start of January. It’s certainly worth a listen, although if you’re anything like me then it will probably be a grower.

Sun Kil Moon – Benji

Sun Kil Moon is the current recording project of Mark Kozelek, formerly of Red House Painters. I’ve got a broad familiarity with all of Mark’s work, and two of his collaborative records were on my list last year. Red House Painters were probably my favourite band in my early 20s (which probably says a lot about my early 20s), and I find myself going back to their early records when I want to hear something that is both sad and hopeful. Benji is both of these things, but it’s also darkly humorous, and a step forward from anything else he’s released in the last 20 years.

The subject matter largely deals with death, and how it affects other people. A lot of the songs deal with true stories, and someone dies in (or before) almost every one of them. In the hands of many other singers this concept could easily degenerate into something that is very difficult to listen to. In this case it’s very much the opposite, and the combination of Mark’s vocals and guitars and the occasional bit of drumming from Steve Shelley gives the slightly morbid tales a lighter than expected backdrop that makes the whole thing a pleasure to listen to. And just when you think you’ve got a handle on this record, along comes the last song “Ben’s My Friend” which may be the best thing he’s committed to tape since the first two Red House Painters records.

This probably isn’t a record for everyone though. It’s emotionally raw, very sparse in places, and if you need more in your life than a voice and a guitar then it might leave you a little unfulfilled. But it might also give you new perspective on life, love, family, and getting to the age where the people you care about get old and die. I think it’s a record I needed this year, and is probably this year’s equivalent of Trouble Will Find Me – something I can listen to and wholeheartedly say “I can relate to that”.

Benji was released fairly early on in the year, but I’ve listened to it pretty constantly since then, and I suspect this will be one of those records I keep coming back to.

The Twilight Sad – No-One Wants To Be Here & No-One Wants To Leave

I can’t say too many good things about this band or this record. Every record they have made has been a flawless classic, and this one is no different. If anything, it sounds a little bit like the best bits of all their other records, as if they have taken the different sounds and textures they have used previously and then written new songs around them.

Personally, I always find that The Twilight Sad make more sense in the winter. They are the perfect sound track for walking to the train station on frosted mornings, and I have many fond memories of walking through the snow listening to one or other of their previous records. We have had no snow this year, but I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this was released just as the weather started to get colder.

I’m not sure why they are not bigger. Maybe it’s the fact that James Graham sings in a strong Scottish accent, but then he speaks in a strong Scottish accent so why shouldn’t he sing in the same way? Maybe it’s that they use texture and feedback to enhance the melody of each song, and that to some people that’s just noise. Beautiful noise though, and there isn’t a word or a note of this record that I would change.

The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream

None of their records have really engaged me before, but I think that Lost in the Dream is probably one of two records (the other being Future Island’s Singles) that should have been huge this year. I have no idea how many copies it sold, but I think this is a great example of what melodic and thoughtful rock music should sound like. The only negative for me is that I don’t feel I can relate particularly to the songs; they are great songs, but they don’t speak to me enough about my life in the way that (for example) Trouble Will Find Me did last year.

I think a lot of people reading this will enjoy Lost in the Dream though, and I very much look forward to what The War on Drugs come up with next.

Future Islands – Singles

The other record that should have been huge this year (and which possibly was). This is more keyboard/synth lead, and when I first heard it I thought it was a singles compilation, because every song was so strong. In fact it’s a new record that happens to be called Singles, and it is easily the best thing this band have ever done. It’s melodic, but also loud and energetic. It makes me want to stand up, move around, and perhaps even dance.

I also note they are on 4AD records. I’ve just finished reading Martin Ashton’s Facing the Other Way, which is an account of the first 20 years or so of 4AD, and it strikes me that quite a few artists on this list are either currently or formerly associated with the label. In this digital age I rarely consider record labels now, although it was something I was very conscious of when I was younger. This is the sort of record I would buy based on the fact they were on 4AD and that I liked the cover. In this case I would not have been disappointed in the slightest, as it’s a great record that I suspect I will still be listening to this time next year.

School of Language – Old Fears

School of Language is the side project of David Brewis from Field Music. I’m familiar with Field Music’s work, but wouldn’t say they were one of my favourite bands. I stumbled on this record quite by accident because I liked the look of the cover, and was surprised to find something so intimate, personal, and sounding very much like a solo record from someone trying to escape the confines of a band. It’s largely keyboard led, and has strong pop sensibilities without being in any way commercial or trite. It also contains some of the most beautiful music I’ve heard this year.

Initially I wondered how records like this got made, and I don’t see Field Music as being big earners, and it sounds like it was recorded in a decent quality studio. From reading an interview with Paul Smith of Maximo Park last week I learned that Field Music actually have their own studio, which makes a lot of sense, and also goes some way to explaining how the next record in my list came about.

Paul Smith & Peter Brewis – Frozen by Sight

Talking of Paul Smith, I suppose it’s worth writing about why the latest Maximo Park record isn’t in my top 20 when everything they have ever made has made the relevant yearly lists. It’s not that Too Much Information is a bad record, it’s just that it doesn’t add anything new, and I think this is a much more interesting and enjoyable listen.

The conception and making of this record has been well documented at http://thequietus.com/articles/16924-paul-smith-peter-brewis-interview. Paul Smith is the lead singer of Maximo Park, who I would imagine are well known to most people. Peter Brewis is from Field Music, and is the brother of David Brewis (see above). Together they have made a record that sounds a little bit like Field Music, and nothing at all like Maximo Park (unless you count Paul’s vocals, which are unmistakable). Frozen By Sight is certainly greater than the sum of its parts, and occupies a similar territory as Old Fears, although the addition of some of Paul Smith’s most interesting lyrics gives it additional definition and distinction. Each song is named after a place, and from a personal perspective it acted as a nice soundtrack to Donald Harrington’s Let Us Build A City, which I was reading at the same time, and which has chapters named after (and about) lost cities in the USA.

Frozen by Sight was released fairly late in the year, but it was one of the first records I wrote down when I was compiling this list. I’d certainly urge people to give it a few listens, because it really does start to pay dividends if you give it a bit of time.

Owen Pallett – In Conflict

One of the few records I actually bought on CD this year, which was more for the gatefold vinyl-type sleeve than for the music, although the music was very good too. I’ve followed Owen Pallett’s career from afar for a few years without really engaging too much with any of his music. This record really hit the spot for me though, and is lyrically clever, musically proficient, and a step up from anything else he’s ever done.

Mirel Wagner – When the Cellar Children See The Light of Day

An artist I’d not heard of this time last year, and a record that I found myself listening to repeatedly early in the morning, when louder or more complex music just didn’t work. The songs are purely vocal/guitar, and they don’t tread any new musical ground, whilst at the same time being a highly proficient example of the musical style they do represent. Mirel Wagner’s voice is pitch perfect, and this record could have been made in any year since the 50s, but there is something about it that sounds crisp, clear, and very much belonging to the modern age. It’s also got one of the best album titles of the year, which is initially what drew me to it.

FKA Twigs – LP1

Another artist I’d not heard of this time last year, and one that I initially stumbled on through seeing the record cover and thinking it looked interesting. I don’t normally listen to much R’n’B/dance style music, but this record takes the best bits of the genre, and reminds me a bit of Massive Attack in places (which is always a good thing). I also like how she uses some very unusual sounds and textures, and yet manages to sculpt them into something that compliments the vocals and lyrics perfectly.

The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers

My love of this group is well known, and to me they are the only band currently operating who deserve the tag “supergroup”. Brill Bruisers is very much a record of the summer, and is full of melodic energy, great pop songs, and some of the best lyrics that the various members of the band have ever written. I particularly like Dan Bejar’s contributions, and am hopeful that this time next year I’m writing about a new Destroyer record.

I recommend The New Pornographers to people a lot, because to my ears they make what I regard as pop music. I suspect that they might be a little weird for some tastes though, and that my definition of pop music is a few decades out of date.

Aphex Twin – Syro

Was anyone expecting this? I certainly wasn’t. I thought that Richard James has stopped making music years ago, so I was somewhat surprised when I saw that there was a new Aphex Twin record available. It’s probably not to everyone’s taste, but if you like electronic/synth music then it’s well worth a listen, and as with everything he’s done I think it’s the very best the genre has to offer.

Scott Walker and Sunn 0))) – Soused

Something else that I really didn’t expect. Scott Walker usually takes years to make records, but he is getting quite prolific recently, with this collaboration with Sunn 0))) being his 4th release in a decade (unheard of since the 60s). This collaboration is probably the most accessible record Scott has made in that decade (and is certainly the most accessible record Sunn 0))) have ever made). There are songs and tunes, as well as a whole lot of spine tingling vocals, obtuse lyrics, and interesting background atmospherics.

This record will not be for everyone, but it certainly makes me look at Sunn 0))) in a new light, and will hopefully gain Scott Walker a few new fans as well.

Thom Yorke – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes

I’ve been a fan of Thom’s work (both in Radiohead and as a solo artist) since 1994, and this record nicely summarises where he’s at today. It’s electronic/synth based, but also surprisingly tuneful, and I like the way the tracks flow into one to give a definite feeling of this being a collection of songs that belong together. I also like the way it was released, as a bit torrent download, and with minimal publicity. I suspect that if I didn’t follow Thom on Twitter then I might not have found out about this record, which would have been great shame.

It’s not available on Spotify, but can be purchased from http://tomorrowsmodernboxes.com/

Mogwai – Rave Tapes

I’ve written elsewhere about how I’ve started doing certain types of work whilst listening to music, after being a staunch fan of working in silence as much as possible for many years. I still find working to lyrical music quite hard, and as a result I’ve tried hard to find music that allows me to block out the noise of the outside world whilst at the same time allowing me to concentrate on what I’m doing.

As part of this shift, I’ve listened a lot to a Spotify playlist I created called Post Rock Classics. The title is somewhat ironic, but it largely consists of music with no words, interspaced with a few things that are largely instrumental but have occasional vocals that don’t detract from the overall mood of the music. Mogwai very much epitomise this sound to me, and are probably one of the bands I’ve listened to most in 2014 as a result.

Raves Tapes does not sound like a rave tape. It sounds a bit like their last record (Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will), but also has slightly more electronic elements. It is also probably the most consistent record they have made for a good while. If you like Mogwai then you’ll like Rave Tapes, and if you’ve not heard them before then it’s not a bad place to start. What more can I say?

Manic Street Preachers – Futurology

I wrote about Rewind the Film last year, and this record was recorded around the same time. Whilst the last record was largely acoustic, this taps into their more experimental edge, and contains some of the best music they have released since The Holy Bible (which is 20 years old this year – how did that happen?). The predominant sound reminds me a bit of Berlin-era Bowie, but it is also very much a Manic Street Preachers record, and in the year that my favourite record of theirs turns 20, it is a reminder that they still have something worth saying (and that by extension people of my age in the UK still have something worth saying).

This is another record I ended up buying physically because of the packaging, and the copy I have comes in the format of a hardback book with two CDs (one of the album, one of demos and bonus tracks). In the same way that vinyl is becoming collectable again, I think that there is still a place for lavishly packaged CDs in the digital age. I’m just glad that I don’t have to buy everything I listen to physically because I think I would run out of both space and money very quickly.

Zion 80 – Adramelech : Book of Angels v.22

This is the 22nd volume of interpretations of songs from John Zorn’s Book of Angels. The basic idea behind the project was to compose short pieces of music that could be interpreted by other artists in a variety of styles, although there is a strong jazz/classical/experimental leaning as you would expect with Zorn. I’ve collected these records for a few years (along with some of Zorn’s other work), and I find them a pleasant counterpoint to the more conventional music I listen to regularly.

Zion 80 are a new name to me, and they don’t include any of the usual John Zorn collaborators. They play modern experimental jazz with a guitar edge, and do a decent job of infusing these tunes with energy and enthusiasm. As with a lot of artists who have participated in this series, I imagine I will go and check out their other work at some point, and at time of writing this is probably my favourite in the series that doesn’t involve artists I’m already familiar with (Secret Chiefs 3 and Marc Ribot spring to mind).

It’s been a good year for John Zorn records in general. As well as three strong releases in the Book of Angels series, there have also been the usual array of other records, including the truly beautiful Testament of Solomon and the last installation of the “Moonchild Trio” series, featuring Mike Patton (of Faith No More/Mr. Bungle/Fantomas/Tomahawk etc.) on vocals.

Led Bib – The People in Your Neighbourhood

And talking of jazz, something else I’ve listened to a lot this year. I’ve been a fan of this band since Sensible Shoes was nominated for the Mercury prize, and this record really didn’t disappoint. It’s probably what I would play to someone if they asked me to snapshot modern jazz music in 2014, and there isn’t a bad track on it.

Gazelle Twin – Unflesh

I stumbled on this quite late in the year, and thought it sounded like it was worth a listen. I don’t really know how to describe it other than to say it’s electronic music with female vocals, and that it is beautiful and disturbing in equal parts. I’ve found myself playing this a lot over the last month or so, and I think it’s the best example of a style of music I’ve found myself drawn to more and more this year.

These New Puritans – Expanded

I don’t normally include live records on my end of year list, but I think this one is worthy of it for two reasons. Firstly, that I really should have included Field of Reeds on my end of year top 10 in 2013, and secondly because I’ve played this to death since I got it and think it’s probably the best thing they have done.

Expanded was recorded at London’s Barbican Centre, with a full orchestra. The setting and accompaniment really fill out the already rather excellent music, and the fact that they play everything from Field of Reeds in order makes it a fitting companion to the studio album.

I think there might be a DVD version out there somewhere, which I would be very interested in seeing at some point. I am also wondering what they might do next, seeing as every studio record they have released has been in a totally different style to the one before it. They may very well be the 21st century equivalent of Talk Talk, which is an honour I do not bestow lightly.

Before I write about my last record, I just wanted to list a few other things that I’ve enjoyed a lot this year but that I don’t particularly have anything else to say about:

Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
Perfume Genius – Too Bright
The New Mendicants – Into the Lime
Marissa Nadler – July
St. Vincent – St. Vincent
Timber Timbre – Hot Dreams
EMA – The Future’s Void
Gazpacho – Demon
Swans – To be Kind
How to Dress Well – “What is this Heart?”
Morrissey – World Peace is None of Your Business
Martha – Courting Strong
Adult Jazz – Gist is
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – IX
Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems
Dean Blunt – Black Metal
East India Youth – Total Strife Forever
Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for no Witness
Ought – Today More Than Any Other Day
alt-J (∆) – This is All Yours
Metronomy – Love Letters (which I managed to miss out by forgetting it was released this year)

Which brings me on to my final choice…

Pixies – Indie Cindy

For Christmas last year I received a copy of the new Throwing Muses record. It came with a book of lyrics and other writings, and would certainly have made my list last year if I’d heard it before December 25th. I was in no way expecting such a good record, and I’d not given them too much thought since the last 80s, when they were one of two American bands recently signed to 4AD records and touring the UK on the same bill. Pixies were the other band on that bill.

Anyone who has known me for a while will know how much I like the early Pixies albums. Surfer Rosa and Doolittle are two of my favourite records ever, and I still have fond memories of doodling the lyrics to Monkey Gone to Heaven on my A Level Biology exam paper when I’d run out of questions I could answer. I’ve followed Charles Thompson’s career since (as Black Francis and Frank Black), but had not expected him to record anything else that came close to those early records.

I’m still not sure he ever will, but I think that Indie Cindy is the closest he’s come for a good while. Musically it is not dissimilar to the last two Pixies records, but the sound quality is great, and the loud/quiet dynamics work so much better. Each song is strong, and it sounds like everyone concerned really enjoyed making the record. I certainly enjoyed listening to it, and I can’t believe that in 2014 I’m talking about Pixies, Throwing Muses, Swans, Morrissey, Apex Twin, Scott Walker and some band fronted by Mark Kozelek being at the forefront of making interesting and engaging music. It almost makes me feel young again.

First thoughts on new Macs, iPads and iPhones

I’ve been meaning to jot down a few notes about the latest product range from Apple for a while now, but work and travel got in the way. I now find myself with a largely free weekend, and I’ve also had time to visit the local Apple store and see a few of them first hand.

I’ll start with the new Mac Mini. Largely because I’ve been a Mac Mini user since they came out, and I’m probably due a new one. I was initially excited by what I’d heard about the 2014 Mac Minis, but based on the current range I might have to forgo buying one for the time being. My usual computer buying habits are fairly well established, in that I’ll buy the bottom of the range model, and then max it out with 3rd party hardware (memory, hard drives) to get the configuration I want. This time the base model is very underpowered, and because the memory is now not user-upgradable, I would have to spend quite a lot to even get something on a par with what I have now. Sure, I could spend £1000 and get a very nice machine that would meet all my needs, but for the same price I could get a significantly more powerful laptop, which would have the added benefit of being portable. I also wish Apple had not scrapped the server edition of the Mac Mini, because computers with two hard drives can be useful sometimes.

Next up is the new 27” iMac with retina display. It looks gorgeous, and it’s not as expensive as I’d feared. I still can’t justify one, but I think they have made all the right decisions with this machine, and I like the fact that it is possible to add 3rd party memory to get a really powerful configuration without breaking the bank. I’d like to think I’ll own an iMac again one day, and if I did then this is the sort of thing I’d go for. I’d also love to see a computer lab kitted out with these.

Both of the above come with Yosemite of course, which I’ve been running for a few months now. It’s a solid upgrade which hasn’t caused me any issues, and which looks a lot more visually impressive to my eyes.

I’ll now move on to the new iOS devices. This is probably the first year I’d consider myself a power user of iOS, and for a lot of this year I’ve left my laptop at home on short trips and done everything on my iPad and iPhone. I’m due a new phone soon anyway, and am also vaguely looking at iPads with more storage than 16gb, so I was particularly interested to see what Apple could come up with.

I very much like the look of the iPad Air 2. It looks like it could handle everything I throw at my devices, and there seem to have been hardware improvements around the area of recording video and audio, which I have found myself doing a lot of over the last year. I’m less impressed with the new Mini, and would have liked to see a smaller version of the Air, rather than something which looks like last year’s model with Touch ID tacked on.

I’m also quite torn regarding the new iPhones. I like the new features, but both models look a lot bigger than my 4S (and in the case of the largest one, not much smaller than my iPad mini). I have quite small hands, and as a result I’ve always tended to go for smaller phones, and I strongly suspect I’ll see if I can get a 5S next and then see what the upgrade options look like in a couple of years. I’m in no way an early adopter with phones, so I’m not too worried that I don’t particularly like these models as I’m sure there will be plenty of different options in two years time.

I’m liking iOS8, and especially the fact that I can manage text messages through my laptop. I have two factor authentication set up for a lot of different services, and it’s useful to get those messages on the screen of the device I’m actually sitting at. Apart from that it’s a solid but unspectacular update.

So yes, all in all not too bad, and I would not turn down any of these if I was offered them for free or on an existing contract. But I don’t think I’ll be buying any of them just yet.

10 influential albums

There is a meme going round about influential albums. I could probably list well over 100 albums that have influenced me a great deal, and I don’t really have any meaningful way to choose between them other than to just go with what feels right at the time.

But then I figured that maybe there is a way, and so I approached it from two different directions. The first is to take a list of albums that I’ve bought multiple times, be that replacing worn vinyl or cassettes with CDs or MP3s, or where I’ve bought multiple special editions or remasters. My thinking is that these records must mean a lot to me because I can’t bear to not to own the latest and greatest version of them. I’ve cheated a little in that I’ve bundled together records by the same artist that were made fairly close together, but it’s a list of 10 that makes sense. Of course, by using this criteria I’m going for things that were made a long time ago – I’ve owned most of these on either vinyl or cassette, and as I’ve not bought music in either format for over 20 years then there is a very strong 1980s bias to this list.

  1. Pink Floyd – Animals
  2. David Bowie – Low
  3. New Order – Power, Corruption and Lies/Low Life/Brotherhood/Substance
  4. Sonic Youth – Evol/Sister/Daydream Nation
  5. The Smiths – Strangeways Here We Come
  6. David Sylvian – Secrets of the Beehive
  7. Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden
  8. The House of Love – The House of Love
  9. The Fall – The Frenz Experiment/I am Kurious Oranj
  10. Manic Street Preachers – The Holy Bible

The second take was to just list my all time favourite records – the ones that at some point in my life were the thing I would reach to first when I wanted to listen to something familiar and flawlessly brilliant. This also seems very biased towards the period of time where I was discovering music, but there are also a few more recent choices there.

  1. Television – Marquee Moon
  2. Pixies – Surfer Rosa/Doolittle
  3. Cardiacs – A Little Man and a House and the Whole World Window
  4. The Cure – Faith/Pornography/Disintegration
  5. Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures/Closer
  6. Mr Bungle – Disco Volante/Faith No More – Angel Dust
  7. Jim O’Rourke – Bad Timing
  8. Radiohead – Kid A/Amnesiac
  9. Destroyer – Kaputt
  10. The National – Trouble Will Find Me

I could write about why I’ve chosen each one of these, but I fear it would be rather long.