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 an 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.

10 things beginning with S

There is a meme going round where people are asked to name 10 things beginning with a certain letter that mean something to them. I was given the letter S, and will attempt to come up with 10 things that are not people I know ( I could probably add another 10 if I include people, and I’m always wary of missing people out).

1. Spotify – It’s revolutionised the way I listen to music, and also the way I discover music to a certain extent. Before Spotify I always had to own things I like, and now I find I am perfectly content with streaming music. I also like the fact that I can save songs to my phone/iPad for offline listening. Not that I’m ever offline for long, but the functionality is very useful for those times when I am.

2. Sennheiser – Both sets of headphones I use at the moment were made by Sennheiser, and I suppose I have a certain amount of brand loyalty. I particularly like times when I’m able to wear my huge over-ear headphones, but am increasingly finding that they are too bulky for anything but listening to music in the house.

3. Substance – Two great compilation albums from the 80s – one by New Order and one by Joy Division. Between them they contain some of the best music I’ve ever heard, and tell the story of one of the most interesting (and tragic) musical transitions.

4. Sunrise – I like the sun. I like it being light and being sunny. The sun energises me, and the rising of the sun (which I see all too often) is something that I really like to watch and occasionally photograph. Sunrise is also the name of the calendar app I use on my Mac and iPad to keep my life organised, as well as being the name of a New Order song I really like.

5. Slackware – Not the first Linux distro I installed myself (that honour goes to Debian), but the one that lead to me learning a lot about how computers work when I was cramming IT knowledge into my brain about 10 years ago.

6. Sonic Youth – A band that have been with me since I was at school. They were probably my introduction to American guitar music, but also to the avant-garde. I could probably also say the same about Swans, who I discovered around the same time.

7. Summer – My favourite season, and the season I was born in.

8. Sideways – I’m astrologically Cancerian, which I supposed to mean I’m good at moving forwards whilst appearing to move sideways. I can relate to that, and  very much see it as a viable way to move through life.

9. Study – I like to study new things, and have really never stopped learning new things since I left University. I also have a physical study now – it’s the smallest front bedroom in our house, and it allows me to have somewhere to read, write, listen to music, and otherwise interact with things in an environment that I can totally control.

10. Sleep – I’m one of those strange people who doesn’t really enjoy sleep. It’s not that I sleep badly, or have particularly horrible dreams, I would just rather be awake, upright, and doing something.

My recent reading habits

Over the last couple of months I’ve been reading The Nearly Complete Works of Donald Harington, which is a three volume collection that I downloaded from Amazon for 99p per volume (while they were on offer – they are slightly more now, but still very reasonably priced). I’d not read any of Harington’s novels before, but I had heard good things about them, and so thought I’d wade in at the deep end.

I’m still only on volume 2, but apart from three other short books I’ve read nothing else for the last couple of months. I’ve enjoyed every page a great deal, and was actually expecting stand alone novels, rather than series of books that formed a definite chronology. Everything I’ve read so far has been set in or near a place called Stay More, and I would strongly recommend reading these books in the order they were written, and persevering with all of them, even those that seems unconnected or difficult at first.

The books I’ve read so far are:

Lightning Bug
Some Other Place. The Right Place.
The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks
The Cockroaches of Stay More
The Choiring of the Trees
Butterfly Weed
When Angels Rest
Thirteen Albatrosses (or, Falling off the Mountain)



First thoughts on my new keyboard

I am testing out my new Logitech K760 keyboard. So far it types really well, and although it makes slightly more noise, I think I will be able to get used to that. What is great about it is that it is solar powered, and it can be paired with up to three devices, which pretty much deals with the issues I’ve had with my existing keyboard. I didn’t want to go back to a wired keyboard, but I seem to be having to recharge my batteries every week or so, and I’m fed up of having to keep switching to my really awful backup keyboard. I would also like to be able to use my keyboard with my iPad on occasion, and this one allows me to do just that. It’s also set out exact like an Apple wireless keyboard, so I don’t have to relearn any muscle memory – I can just start typing and everything just works.

So far so good, but I suppose I’ll not know for sure until I’ve typed something substantial with it. And also when I’ve used it during the winter, when there is less sun.

Bad Timing, Eureka, Insignificance and other such things

24rd August – From Rome with Love – Another Woody Allen film, and another one that I enjoyed without being totally bowled over by it. There is quite a lot going on, and the multiple narratives can get confusing at times, but it was well acted and directed, and I am certainly glad I watched it. One thing that struck me is that Woody Allen is looking really old (probably because he is), and I was also quite surprised by how much of this film was in Italian, as I wasn’t actually expecting that despite the title.

2nd September – Ab-normal Beauty – I’ve been meaning to watch this for ages, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s visually stunning, with a spellbinding soundtrack, and was obviously made with a lot of love. It’s an 18 rating (and deserves to be), but if you’re not put off by that (or by the fact it’s subtitled) then it is well worth a watch.

2nd September – Bad Timing – Jim O’Rourke’s Bad Timing is one of my all time favourite records, and was inspired by this film (or at least named after it). O’Rourke also named his next two albums after Nicolas Roeg films (Eureka and Insignificance), and I thought it might be interesting to watch all three films back to back (or as it turned out over a three day period) as I’ve recently listened to the albums they inspired. Bad Timing stars Art Garfunkel, and is what I would probably describe as a psychological thriller. It’s fairly non-linear, but does have a strong narrative once you assemble the component parts, and if you can get past some of the dubious 80s fashion sense then it is certainly very watchable. I think this is a film I want to watch more than once, and I have a feeling that repeated viewings may divulge more meaning.

3rd September – Eureka – As with Bad Timing, I know the music inspired by Eureka far better than the film itself. Eureka was actually the first Jim O’Rourke CD I bought (in 1999, when it came out). From Eureka I worked backwards to Bad Timing, and then further back to his more experimental work that probably influenced me more than anything else I currently listen to. Although I was impressed by Bad Timing (the film), I had no such expectations for Eureka, due to the very mainstream casting choices and the fact it was based on a true story that didn’t particularly engage me. The first ten minutes changed my mind, and I really think whoever wrote the blurb and designed the DVD cover for this one should have tapped into the darkness that is definitely present rather than try and sell it as yet another 80s blockbuster. I also think it could have done with some serious editing, as the pacing in the middle is far too slow for my tastes, but then I’ve always said 90 minutes is my perfect film length, and this adds around 35 minutes to that. All in all, it’s a watchable film, but one that I don’t particularly want to watch again any point soon.

4th September – Blood and Chocolate – This film is named after my favourite Elvis Costello record, and is also about werewolves. As such, it was almost certainly going to be disappointing on some level. Blood and Chocolate isn’t a bad film as such, it’s just a film that is not quite sure what it wants to be (specifically it does not know if it wants to be horror or romantic comedy). It’s visually impressive, but once you scratch beneath the surface then there isn’t a great deal of substance until the final half an hour, and I wish that the care and attention that was obviously taken on the locations and sets permeated the rest of the film. I suppose the closest point of reference I have is Hemlock Grove, which I much prefer, and which does a very good job of making the supernatural element subtle and understated. Blood and Chocolate is neither of these things, and as such is far less satisfying.

5th September – Glass : A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts – This is a documentary about Philip Glass. I’m not massively familiar with his music, and as such had no real expectations regarding this film. It’s actually a really interesting snapshot into a creative mind, and it makes me want to check out more of his music now. I also have no idea why I added this to my watch list, but I’m glad that I did, because I really enjoyed it.

5th September – Insignificance – Marilyn Monroe, Joseph McCarthy, Joe DiMaggio, and Albert Einstein walk into a room. By that of course I mean The Actress, The Senator, The Ballplayer, and The Professor walk into a room. And hilarity ensues. Insignificance is the third Nicolas Roeg film to influence a Jim O’Rourke album title. It’s a comedy drama, with characters who look and behave a lot like famous people from 1954. As a premise, it’s fairly original, and it does work on some levels. I suspect I would have got more out of this if I’d known more about the famous people’s lives, but it is still entertaining enough for a lazy Friday night. Talking of which, I should get round to posting this before I leave for London in the morning.

Ten influential books

There is a meme going around where people are listing the 10 books that influenced them the most. I’ve been thinking about this for about a week, and I think I’ve narrowed it down to a list I can live with (at least for today). These are in chronological order of me discovering them.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table – I don’t really have a version of this in mind, largely because these stories were told to me orally as a child, and no one book contains all the stories as I remember them. I know that these were certainly the first stories I remember hearing, and also the first books I can remember reading, and that the archetypes and themes remain with me to this day. In particular I was enthralled by the stories concerning the Grail, and whilst I didn’t have the understanding of the symbolism and metaphysics at the age of 4, I think it is those stories in particular that have stayed with me to this day.

C.S. Lewis – The Chronicles of Narnia – My favourite books as a child in primary school, and also the books I came back to at University when we had to write a paper on religious allegory. I think they work on both levels, and that they should still be essential reading for children everywhere.

Frank Herbert – Dune (and in fact the whole Dune series) – I read Dune as a child, following my obsession with David Lynch’s very fine film adaptation (which remains one of my favourite films). I love all the books, and even have a soft spot for the TV series and the sequel/prequel books written after Frank Herbert’s death. No sci-fi I have read since has ever come close.

Thomas Hardy – Jude the Obscure – I had trouble deciding between this and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but I think Jude the Obscure has to win due to the fact that it influenced me more. I studied it for A level English Literature, and has such had to dissect every word over and over again. The style of writing wasn’t really to my taste, but I empathised so strongly with the eponymous character, and think I’ve probably absorbed a fair bit of how he saw fate and destiny into my own life over the years. I think it’s probably the first book I read where I could just instinctively see where the author was coming from, and I’m proud of the fact I wrote a large number of critical essays on this book that were highly regarded at the time.

T.S. Eliot – The Waste Land and other poems – Another A level text. Before I started studying Eliot I had read very little poetry through choice, and this was so different to anything we had been made to read at school. I loved the way he wove so many different thematic threads together, and thought that The Waste Land in particular was possibly the best thing I had read at that point. I still have a copy of this on the bookshelves in my study, and dip into it on occasion when I want something that is both familiar and challenging. I also hope that listing a book of poems is not cheating, although I think I’m going to cheat even more thoroughly before I’ve finished writing this.

Aldous Huxley – The Human Situation – Talking about cheating, this is another book that might not count, in that it’s not a novel and is instead a collection of essays. I’m including it because it is probably the biggest influence on my University years, and was quoted from more times than I can remember in essays about sustainability, human geography and ecosystems. It certainly wasn’t a set text, but it deals very nicely with our dysfunctional relationship with the planet, and as such made essential reading during my Environmental Science degree.

Don DeLilo – Great Jones Street – I’m torn between this and Iain Bank’s Espedair Street which I read at the same time (during my years at University) and which covers similar themes. Great Jones Street is the story of a famous rock star who goes into seclusion to deconstruct the mythology of fame, and it very much appealed to my (at that time undefined) introverted self. I’ve long struggled with the dichotomy of wanting to stand up in front of large groups of people and talk, and yet being terrified of social interaction and feeling very much like fraud whenever I open my mouth, and this book nicely explores those themes and a few other themes as well. From the day I read this until the day Kurt Cobain died I wanted to be a rock star. I don’t have those urges now, but I think this book nicely epitomises that time in my life.

Paul Auster – Leviathan – This follows on quite nicely from Great Jones Street, and is another story of a creative person who loses their creativity for a while, and is one of those rare books where I can strongly empathise with more than one central character (and in this case both of the two main characters). I love the way Paul Auster writes, and I’d also strongly recommend New York Stories from the same era.

Douglas Coupland – Generation X – I feel like this was written for me and for my generation, which of course it was. It was the first book that suggested it was OK to underachieve for a while on occasion, and I read it at a time when I really needed to learn that lesson. It was also my introduction to a writer I still like to this day, and nothing made me happier than discovering that a pixilated dolphin statue I discovered whilst wandering around Vancouver was actually a Douglas Coupland sculpture.

Donna Tartt – Secret History – The newest book on the list, and one that I first read in 2001. As well as being a very well written and utterly compelling debut novel, it also reminds me of the time when I had just arrived in Birmingham, and was building my life pretty much from scratch in the same way that the main character in the book was. The fact that some of the other characters reminded me a lot of the friends I was making at the time probably didn’t hurt.

Of course, I’ve read a lot of other books in the last 13 years, and some of those have probably influenced me a fair bit too. But I think the list above are the ones that contributed the most to me being the person I am today.

Automate everything

I’m a big fan of automating anything that can be automated, and I don’t like having to think about or do the same thing multiple times if there is a way round it. There are two main ways I achieve this:

1. Using forward planning and/or recorded muscle memory to ensure that I don’t have to think too much about things I do every day (my morning routine, walking to work, typing my PIN number, choosing what to wear or what to cook for dinner).

2. Using technology to automate commonly encountered tasks (adding my signature to an email, typing my phone number, taking notes at a meeting etc.).

The first one is fairly straightforward, and involves what I generally refer to as autopilot. After doing something for a certain number of times I find I can do it without thinking too much about it, and that takes all the mental processing out of the equation. Similarly, if I plan things like clothes and food once a week, I don’t have to spend any time worrying about what to eat or what to wear.

A lot of my technology automation involves If This Then That ( and Evernote, and I thought it was worth detailing how a few of these work.

If I add a photograph to Instagram, then it is also posted to Twitter and Flickr. This came about because I didn’t like the way Twitter makes you click on a link to see an Instagram picture – this process makes it look like a native Twitter picture instead.

I have a Google calendar that details all of my work appointments. 15 minutes before each appointment starts a note is created in Evernote with a template suitable for note taking, and also any agenda items or pre-meeting reading. This relies on keeping my calendar up to date and as detailed as possible, but I do that anyway. It’s very reassuring to know that I can open my iPad and find everything I need for a meeting right there on my screen.

If I write a blog post, then a tweet is sent announcing the fact. I want people to read what I write, so it makes sense to let people know that there is new content on my blog.

I have my computer and iPad set up with keyboard shortcuts that will insert my name, email signature, phone number etc. into what I’m writing. Similarly I have dozens of templates set up in the ITSM software we use at work to insert all sorts of text that I have to send out regularly.

Any email attachment I receive is automatically added to a folder in Dropbox, arranged by who sent the email. Most of these emails are only interesting because of what is in the attachment, and I’d rather have that information stored outside the context of the email thread.

Any document added to a certain folder in Dropbox is converted into an ebook and emailed to the Kindle app on my iPad. I prefer to read longer documents and papers on my iPad, and it means I can use the offline part of my commute to catch up with reading.

At a certain time each evening the whole contents of my computer’s hard drive is copied to an external drive that I keep plugged in to it (using Carbon Copy Cloner). I also use Time Machine, but I find that having a secondary backup source that isn’t reliant on a network connection is very useful. Also, CCC makes bootable backups, which can be invaluable in time-sensitive situations.

Every time I get a new follower on Twitter, details about that person are added to an Evernote document. I often used to miss new followers just using the Twitter app, and I find this way of doing it puts it a lot more in my face.

Every time I favourite a tweet, the full text of that tweet is copied to an Evernote document. I use this to make a note of interesting things people have said, but also links to articles or music that I want to check out.

Those are just a few examples of automation that I use quite often. I dread to think how much time I used to spend achieving the same results manually, and I would like to think I’ve freed up more time for pursuits that require me to be fully checked in to what I’m doing.

Working to music

I remember writing a blog post ages ago about how I’m one of the few people I know who doesn’t appreciate the presence of music when I’m working. This now isn’t true, and probably hasn’t been true for a year or two. Generally if I’m working (and music is an option), then I’ll listen to one of two playlists. One contains a great deal of post rock and other such things, and very much takes me back 15 years or so when I listened to very little else. There other one is a newer playlist, that is derived from a blog I read called Free Jazz ( I don’t always find what they are blogging about on Spotify (some of it is fairly obscure), but I’ve built up enough of a playlist to make it worthwhile now, and I’ve found myself listening to it more, especially early in the morning. Both of these playlists contain largely instrumental music, and I find that it is the presence of words, rather than the presence of music, that I find distracting.

I’m sure I’ve linked to the post rock one before, but I thought the other one was worth adding here, just in case anyone is interested.

How to be a morning person

I didn’t used to be a morning person, but now I am. I had to learn, because in 2004 I very quickly went from starting work at 2pm, to starting work well before 8. I have a few things that I think help, although I’m not always as good as I should be with some of them.

1. Go to bed early enough to get the amount of sleep you need.

2. Declutter your mind, in whatever way works for you (meditation, music, tea, gin, all of the above). The plan being that when you go to bed you’re not mulling over things from the day before.

3. Set an alarm for the time you need to get up, and get up straight away when it goes off. Snooze buttons do really contribute a lot to being groggy in the morning, and actually lead to less good quality sleep as well.

4. Only give yourself enough time at home in the morning to do the essentials. So if your morning routine takes 20 minutes, then set your alarm for 20 minutes before you need to leave. Any other time you have will probably be wasted, and working to a strict deadline may kick start your brain into heightened activity.

5. Eat breakfast. Breakfast is important. I generally eat two breakfasts – one as part of my morning routine, and another one when I actually get to work.

6. Use all your commuting time productively – to read, listen to music, work though things that are bothering you, or just to mentally prepare for the day.

7. Work out what sort of tasks you do best at certain times of the day, and try and plan your working day accordingly. For instance, I write best in the early morning, so schedule all my report writing, funding bids and that sort of thing into a morning slot. I brainstorm best around mid-morning (or late evening), and so make sure anything that involves ideas generation or collaborative work is scheduled into those slots. I’m groggy in the afternoons, so I use that time for meetings where I don’t need to contribute ideas, or anything mindless. I accept that I am lucky in this respect in that I have a lot of control over what my working day looks like, but it’s at least worth trying to map task types to times of the day.