Happy Birthday to us

Of all the bands I play with, or have played with, the oldest one by quite some margin is the Menai Bridge Brass Band.

This year we are celebrating our 120th Anniversary (though I’ve only been playing with the band for about 2 years).

We have had an excellent, if somewhat busy, year to mark this auspicious anniversary, with good results in several competitions and our first trip to the finals of the National Brass Band Championships for several years (we came 12th out of 19 bands in Section 4 but, bearing in mind that each of those bands came 1st or 2nd in their own regional contests a few months earlier, that’s not a bad result at all), as well as recording a CD (the production of which should be finished within the next few days).

The other big highlight of the year is coming up in about a fortnight’s time – a concert to celebrate our anniversary.  This will take place on Saturday 1st November at the secondary school in Menai Bridge (Ysgol David Hughes), a venue which should allow an audience of around 400 people.  All three bands that fall under the umbrella of the Menai Bridge Band (the senior, intermediate and beginner bands) will be performing along with guest soloists, including Gwyn Owen, a former member of our band who was a finalist for this year’s Bryn Terfel Scholarship (and who I look forward to meeting, as he had left the band before I joined).

Concert Poster

As well as the music itself, there will be a short presentation about the history of the band.  Apart from a break during the Second World War, the band has been running continuously since its inception, although it did dwindle to a very small size for a while in the 1960s.

Amongst other items, the concert programme will include a waltz (“Belinda”) composed by the band’s first conductor, George Senogles, and a piece (“Pont Menai”) written for us this year by local composer Owain Llwyd to mark our anniversary, as well as selections from the Vivat Regina suite by William Mathias, who was a long-term resident of Menai Bridge and one of the foremost composers in Wales; all these are also on our CD (if you’ll forgive a swift plug; NB copies should be on sale at the concert).

The intermediate band will be playing a piece that has been written (or possibly is even still being written) by its conductor, Hannah, to mark the centenary of the First World War, in which several members of our band went to fight; some of them did not return.

In case you were wondering, I play with all three bands: Bb bass (or tuba to the non-brass-band world) in the senior band and trombone with the others.

If you happen to be in North West Wales on 1st November you may like to consider coming along to the concert.

 

Technology-assisted language learning #1

Recently I’ve been quite busy with language-learning related stuff (mostly Spanish, but also bits of several other languages) and I’ve been exploring some technological aids to help me.

My previous language learning efforts have mostly focused on traditional media such as books and tapes/CDs, although I have made a fair amount of use of things like flashcard software (Anki is my favourite) and internet radio stations.

In the past couple of years, I have explored some of the language apps available for my Android phone.  However, this is a device of fairly limited capacity running on an old version of the Android OS (2.something) so there were several apps I’d heard of from friends (including Simon who runs the Omniglot website) and other sources that I wanted to check out but couldn’t get to run on my phone.

A few weeks ago I got myself a reconditioned Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 tablet.  This has a much beefier processor than my phone, as well as a lot more memory and storage space, and runs Android 4 (the wonderfully named Ice Cream Sandwich), so should have no trouble running the pick of the current crop of apps, language-related or otherwise.

Since then I’ve been trying out several different apps for Spanish and other languages.  I will probably write about some of them in forthcoming posts.  For now, though, I want to talk about the latest one I’ve been checking out: Duolingo, which exists as both a website and an Android app (I think there’s also an iPhone version).

As far as I can make out, Duolingo is basically a community-driven project.   On their website I found the slogan “We believe everyone should have access to education of the highest quality – for free”, which is a sentiment I share.  As the name suggests, their particular focus is on language education.  They provide courses in a variety of languages, both as source (the language via which instruction is given) and target (the language you’re learning).

A couple of the friends with whom I went to Spain in August used Duolingo to pick up a bit of Spanish in advance of our trip (the most notable result of which was one of them declaring “Yo soy una manzana”, which means “I am an apple”) and have been continuing to use it since then.  At the time, I didn’t check it out myself, partly because I didn’t have my tablet and didn’t know if my phone could handle it (nor that there was a website interface) and partly because I mistakenly assumed it would only be a beginner level course that wouldn’t have anything useful to teach me.

Yesterday, I got round to installing Duolingo on my tablet for a closer look and I was pleasantly surprised.  There are courses for English-speakers on about 8 or 9 languages at present (though a few of them only seem to be available via the website), as well as courses aimed at speakers of other languages.  One nice feature is that when you start a course you can either go from the beginning or take a placement test to assess your existing level of knowledge of the target language and fast-track you to a suitable starting point.

Out of curiosity (and a desire to learn/improve all the languages I can) I started the courses not only for Spanish but also French, German, Dutch, Italian and Irish, opting for the placement test in each case.

I was quite gratified to reach Level 10 in Spanish (I’m not sure how many levels there are, and it may vary between languages, but I seem to have ended up about three quarters of the way through the available units, and poised ready to start a lesson on the subjunctive).   There seems to be a reasonable variety of different lessons and exercises, with a combination of reading, writing, listening and even speaking, so I expect that working my way through the rest of the course should be quite useful. Apparently it is based on a generalised Latin American version of Spanish, in contrast to the peninsular Spanish focus of most of the instructional material I’ve used to date, but I don’t think that should be too much of a problem.

Given that I still consider my French to be a lot stronger than my Spanish (and I can generally string together a vaguely correct sentence in French much more easily than in Spanish) I was moderately surprised that I only reached Level 7 in French.  This is probably largely due to mistakes with accents, which are generally much harder in French than Spanish (as there are more to choose from and they aren’t always entirely obvious from pronunciation) as well as the fact I’ve done a lot more writing in Spanish than French recently (I think it was mostly the written exercises that let me down in the French test).

In German, I achieved Level 5 – not too surprising considering my German was never quite as strong as my French (though in theory I studied them to the same level) and is much rustier.  I was pleasantly surprised to get up to Level 3 in Dutch since, although it’s less than a year since I last had a go at learning it, I didn’t get very far in my lessons then. Both my Irish and my Italian are languishing down at Level 1.

My main goal remains to focus primarily on Spanish for the moment but also to do some gentle revision of French and German and probably do a bit of Dutch, using Duolingo alongside various other tools for each language.  Doubtless I’ll do at least a bit with both Irish and Italian too, although those are definitely lower priorities at the moment.

Amongst the other languages apparently in development (for English-medium courses) on Duolingo are Swedish, Russian and Hungarian.  All three have for some time been on my shortlist of languages to work on (I speak some Russian, though considerably less than German or French, and a little bit of Hungarian, though only a negligible amount of Swedish as yet), so I’m looking forward to trying out those languages when they go live.

There’s no sign, yet, of any courses in English for non-Indo-European languages on Duolingo, which is a shame as I’d definitely like to break further out of the Eurocentric mould in my language studies (Swahili being the non-IE language that interests me most, though there are plenty of others).  For now, at least, it looks like I’ll have to stick with other tools for explorations in that direction, as well as for IE languages such as Catalan that are not on the Duolingo menu.  However, for the languages that are available I think Duolingo will be a very handy addition to the toolbox.

 

To clip or not toe clip?

Just over a week ago, my bike started making some alarming squeaking noises from the vicinity of its transmission system (i.e. chain, bottom bracket etc.).

At first I didn’t have time to properly investigate, so I just slapped on some WD-40 (in case it was a simple lubrication issue) and hoped for the best.  That seemed to clear it up for about a day, but the problem soon came back and in addition to the disturbing noise I was becoming more aware of something feeling decidedly out-of-kilter.

When I investigated further, I discovered that the problem was in the right-hand pedal, whose bearings seemed to be on their last legs.  This was both a good and a bad thing, but on balance mostly good.

The main downside is that the pedal is essentially a sealed unit so there is no way to get in and mend it and the only option is to get a new one (or ideally two, so you retain a matched pair).

The first positive thing is that it’s a lot easier and cheaper to replace a pair of pedals than the entire bottom bracket assembly, which I had feared was about to go the way of all flesh.

The second positive is that I didn’t actually have to buy new pedals as I was able to take the ones off my mountain bike (which is currently and probably permanently off the road due to a bottom bracket shell issue that I’ve previously mentioned) and put them on my road bike.  Fortunately, unlike many of the other fittings of this bike (which is a fairly old French one), the pedals seem to use the same standardised size of fittings as most other bikes.

The third, and possibly biggest, positive is that, as a result of putting my mountain bike pedals on the road bike I’ve finally got round to getting toeclips onto it, which I’ve been intending to do more-or-less since I started riding this bike (or at least since I restarted using it a couple of years ago – I hadn’t become a convert to the joys of toeclips when I first had the bike).

Toeclips are designed to enable both of your legs to exert force the whole time you are pedalling, rather than just the leg which is pushing down at any given time.  This, fairly obviously, increases the efficiency of pedalling and is an especially noticeable benefit when you’re cycling up steep hills (a more or less unavoidable feature of cycling in Wales).  As an extra benefit, they also ensure your feet remain in a more-or-less optimal position for pedalling (assuming you’ve got the bike set up correctly), with the balls of the feet making contact with the pedal.

In both these respects, pedals with clips are better than traditional pedals without clips (which, confusingly, are not the same thing as clipless pedals), while retaining the convenience of being able to use them with more or less any shoes.  The only real downside is that the clips are a bit bulky and can get caught up on passing obstacles when you’re wheeling the bike, but it’s not a great problem.

Clipless pedals are ones which come with some system of cleats (there are also quite a few mutually-incompatible clipless systems), which enable you to attach your feet securely to the pedals to get the same benefits as using clips but to an even greater degree.  I’ve never tried them myself but they are supposed to be better than clips both in taking up less space (in fact, they are usually quite a bit smaller than ordinary pedals without clips) and providing better energy transfer.  They potentially also make it harder for somebody to grab your bike and ride off with it since you can’t easily ride them without the proper shoes.  That, of course, is also the main downside since you need to get a special pair of shoes (in some cases, it’s an ordinary pair of shoes to which you add cleats) to use the bike and, I think, you’d probably need to carry another pair of shoes to change into when you got off the bike as it’s probably not very comfortable (or good for the cleats) to walk far on them.

In any case, I’m very happy with my clipped pedals, which I’ve had on my mountain bike for the past 8 or 10 years and show no immenent signs of wearing out.

 

How to make a telephone queue particularly irritating

Phone queues are never very much fun [1] though, sadly, they seem to be a fairly inevitable fact of modern life.

This afternoon I had to spend a certain amount of time in a phone queue and, while it was actually fairly short compared to the average in-queue waiting time, I was feeling quite tired and slightly grumpy before I started the call and even more so by the end of it (though I think I did a fairly good job of being polite to the person I finally spoke to, as I realised the queue wasn’t his fault).

What made this queue especially annoying, apart from the inherent annoyance of having to wait in the first place [2], was the fact that while the hold-muzak was actually fairly good by hold-muzak standards (something by Tchaikovsky, I think), they kept on interrupting it with a message to say that I could also get information from their website.  That would have been fine – perhaps even useful – if I’d got the phone number from somewhere else and hadn’t realised they had a website.  However, I had already been on the website and it was from there that I found I could only achieve what I needed to do by phoning them up, so I wasn’t at all impressed to be invited every 30 seconds or to visit the website!

 

Footnotes:

[1] I suppose it’s conceivable that some people may enjoy waiting in a phone queue; I’m certainly not one of them.

[2] At least this time I was able to do some useful stuff on my computer while I was waiting.  I remember one time I made a phone call (I think it was to renew my car insurance) and ended up stuck in a queue for a very long time; fortunately one of my housemates (as I lived in a shared house at the time – this must be at least 10 years ago) had left a fairly interesting and not especially short book by the phone, and I managed to read a substantial chunk of it (my memory says about half, but it’s probably exaggerating slightly) by the time I reached the end of the queue.

 

Plumming the depths of memory

Memory is a funny thing.

You can forget about something for many years and then, due to a random association (or even no discernible cause whatsoever), remember it suddenly.

This happened to me yesterday while I was eating a plum. All of a sudden, a couple of lines from a German poem that I vaguely learned almost 20 years ago (and haven’t looked at or thought about at all for several years) came floating into my mind.

In this case, the association wasn’t too random since it is actually a short poem about a plum tree by Bertold Brecht (who, I believe, was more famous as a playwright, though certainly also a well-respected poet).  It is called Der Pflaumenbaum (the Plum Tree) and it runs like this:

Im Hofe steht ein Pflaumenbaum,
Der ist klein, man glaubt es kaum.
Er hat ein Gitter drum,
So tritt ihn keiner um.

Der Kleine kann nicht größer wer’n.
Ja, größer wer’n, das möcht er gern;
‘s ist keine Red davon,
Er hat zu wenig Sonn.

Den Pflaumenbaum glaubt man ihm kaum,
Weil er nie eine Pflaume hat.
Doch er ist ein Pflaumenbaum,
Man kennt es an dem Blatt.

Here’s my own rough prose translation: “There’s a plum tree in the yard. It’s small and you hardly notice it. It has a fence round it, to stop people tripping over it. The small thing can’t grow any bigger. Yes, it would love to grow bigger; but there’s no way it can – it gets too little sun. You’d scarcely believe it’s a plum tree as it never has any plums. But it is a plum tree – you can tell by the leaves.”

On one level it’s quite a mundane, almost banal little tale and the simplicity of the meter coupled with the strong rhyming makes it sound suspiciously like doggerel verse.  However, I think it’s quite charming and also, especially in the middle stanza, rather sad.

One detail that I find quite interesting is that while the first two stanzas follow an AABB rhyming scheme, the third stanza switches to ABAB.  Also, there are a couple of places where the basic rhythm of the stanzas is varied, most notably in the penultimate line (which is emphasing the identity of the plum tree against all evidence to the contrary and perhaps, therefore, most needs to be a stand-out line).  This slight break in the regularity, I think, makes a huge difference to the sonic impact of the poem (though it would make it slightly more difficult to set it to music – an exercise which I might one day try).

Another blog is born

Just over a year ago, I started a second blog.  The purpose of that one was to enable me to write in Welsh (mainly for the sake of practicing my written language skills) without cluttering up this blog with posts that most of my readers couldn’t follow (I’m assuming that most vistors here can speak English but not that many will know Welsh).

As I expected, my writing on that blog has been much sparser than on this one.  In fact, I only wrote my 5th post there yesterday, after a gap of over a year!  Still, it’s nice to have the blog and feel I’m doing a little bit to increase the amount of Welsh in cyberspace as well as keeping my own language skills reasonably rust-free if not exactly finely honed.

Last week I had my second ever visit to Spain – a lovely week in Catalonia with some most excellent friends (including some I’d never met before I went there).  In preparation for this, I’ve spent quite a lot of my linguistic energy over the past few months on trying to brush up on my (woefully limited) Spanish.  I got plenty of opportunity to speak Spanish (and learn a few words of Catalan) while I was there, and this has fired my enthusiasm to keep working on the language, partly in the hope that I’ll be visiting the area again before too long; I also hope to be able to visit other bits of Spain and perhaps Latin America and to continue to explore Spanish literature and films, as well as being able to talk to Spanish speakers who cross my path in North Wales or elsewhere.

I was very conscious while I was in Spain that, although I could understand a reasonable amount of written and (to a lesser extent) spoken Spanish, I was severely limited in what I was able to say (or write, not that I had very much occasion to write while I was there).

Therefore, I have just started yet another blog.  This one is similar to the Welsh one but in Spanish and purely to give myself *cough* regular practice at actively using the language.  Since I speak a lot less Spanish than Welsh, the posts are likely to be fairly short and I’ll try to keep them simple.  I’m hoping that I might get some useful feedback from Spanish speakers but even if I don’t, the simple act of forcing myself to write (and as far as possible, think) in Spanish on a fairly regular basis should be immensely helpful in my efforts to learn to speak and not just vaguely understand it.

As with the Welsh blog, this is actually my second attempt at a blog in Spanish.  (One of my first posts on this blog was a potted history of my earlier blogs, including both of these, if you’re interested.)  Similarly, the posts on the Spanish blog, like the Welsh ones but unlike the posts on this blog, won’t be automatically publicised on Facebook or Twitter but can be accessed via an RSS feed if you want to be able to follow them.

Macaroni and apples

Last week, I was on holiday in Catalonia.  This has reinvigorated my interest in Spain and the Spanish language (as well as giving me a taste for Catalan).  A few more posts related to my trip will probably follow soon, but for now here’s a trilingual treat that I came across while surfing Wikipedia earlier today.  (The third language in question, though, isn’t Catalan as you might expect from the start of this paragraph, but Latin, the grand-daddy of them all.)

In English, we have a well-known saying:

An apple a day keeps the doctor away

This is probably somewhat exaggerated but it’s certainly true that apples are quite healthy and eating them regularly is likely to have a positive rather than negative effect on your general health (sadly, I’m not sure that drinking cider counts).  Actually, I read an interesting blog post fairly recently (and, sadly, have mislaid the link to it) suggesting that bananas are even healthier and we’d do better to say “A banana a day…”, but that’s digressing.

There is also a Latin saying that probably still just about qualifies as well-known (at any rate, it’s one I’ve known for a long time):

Mens sana in corpore sano

This means “A healthy mind in a healthy body”.  Presumably the point of this is to indicate a correlation between mental and physical health.

The Wikipedia page on bilingual puns lists a delightful merging of these two sayings that approximates the meaning of the English one by substituting a similar sounding Spanish word (manzana = apple) for the first couple of words of the Latin one:

Manzana in corpore sano

(Literally, “An apple in a healthy body”).

Apple

 

NB in case you’re wondering about the title of this post, this Wikipedia article on macaronic language might help.