Losing my Sole

I don’t often have occasion to wear smart shoes and consequently I’ve managed to keep my last pair going for about 20 years (in fact they are my old school shoes). I’m not sure at what point in my school career I graduated to these shoes from my previous, smaller pairs, but I’m sure I had them for at least a year or two in which they got worn every day during term time. Since then they’ve had much more limited use, but have stood me well for events such as weddings and funerals (fortunately not too many of the latter) as well as gigs where I have to dress a bit smarter than usual (fortunately not too many of those, as it often involves having to iron a shirt too). They were also my stage footwear for my recent performance in Iolanthe.

Sadly, however, after the gig I was playing tonight (technically last night, as it’s now just about Sunday morning) the sole of one of my shoes decided to fall off. It possibly could be glued back on but since both the soles and uppers are wearing out somewhat, it’s probably time to lay these faithful old shoes to rest and invest in a new pair. Given that I’m unlikely to be giving them the daily wear that my school shoes got in their first couple of years, hopefully my new shoes will last at least 20 years too.

Byd Bach

I have recently been enjoying the opportunity afforded by modern technology to play board games at a distance, in two ways.

The first, which I might write about sometime soon, is using a gaming website called yourturnmyturn.com to play a variety of games mostly against random people I don’t know (although one of the random people I play against is my friend Andy, who introduced me to the site).

The other, which I’m concentrating on in this post, is using a Java-based gaming engine called Vassal, which provides a virtual gameboard for a number of games (loaded as modules)  and supports realtime play via a server or P2P network or play by email.

So far I’ve been using Vassal exclusively to play one game – Small World (I won’t go into the details of the game, as you can read all about it on Wikipedia).  This is a game that my brother, Wulf, recently discovered IRL and thought would work for online play.  While he was investigating how to make that happen, he came across Vassal and so invited me to join him in a game.

After our first 2-player game we recruited our friend Phil to join us for a 3-player game, as it seems to work better with at least 3 players (although the 2-player version is still quite enjoyable).  We have now just completed our second game and are about to start on a third, as well as inviting a couple of other players (including the aforementioned Andy, who is Phil’s brother) to join us for another (as far as I can remember, 5 players is the maximum).

One of the things that makes the game enjoyable, and highly replayable, is the way that the different race/power combinations (which are selected randomly as the game progresses, although you do have the choice to skip over races in the queue (at a cost of some victory points) in order to get preferable combinations) have quite different strengths and weaknesses and invite quite different tactics to make them work at their best.  The fact that the game is time limited (10 turns, at least in the 2 & 3 player versions) is also good, as it prevents individual games from dragging on for too long.

I anticipate many more good games of Small World, both using Vassal and (hopefully, one day) IRL.

PS in case you were wondering, Byd Bach is Welsh for Small World.

Practical Cats and Poetic Tempo

The other day I gave myself a treat and reread one of my favourite volumes of poetry: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot.  I can’t remember when I first read this and I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read it (certainly well into double figures by now) but it always gives me great pleasure to return to it.  As with all good poetry, I think it works best when read aloud so that you can enjoy the sounds of the language.

I would struggle to choose my absolute favourite from among these poems, but there are several I’m particularly fond of.  One of these is “The Old Gumbie Cat”.  I particularly like this one because of the masterful way that Eliot uses a mixture of two different meters to signal changes in pace within the poem.

By day, the Gumbie Cat likes to do nothing more than sit in warm sunny places and the stanzas which describe this (numbers 1, 3 and 5) are written in iambic octameter (i.e. each line has eight feet, each with two syllables and the stress on the second one).  The length of the lines and the even distribution of stressed syllables makes this quite a leisurely meter which well captures the general relaxation of the cat’s lifestyle:

I have a Gumbie cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;

Her coat is of the tabby kind, with tiger stripes and leopard spots.

All day she sits upon the stair…

In addition to the meter, the last line of each of these stanzas makes repeated use of the word “sits” to emphasise the laid-back nature  of the Gumbie Cat:

She sits and sits and sits and sits – and that’s what makes a Gumbie Cat.

By contrast, the even numbered stanzas describe the Gumbie Cat’s rather more active night life.  At this point the meter switches to using mostly dactyls (feet with 3 syllables and the stress on the first one):

But when the day’s hustle and bustle is done,

Then the Gumbie Cat’s work is but hardly begun…

In these first two lines from stanza two, the very first syllable of the first line is unstressed as are the first two of the second line (which effectively complete the final dactyl from the previous line).  The combination of shorter lines (roughly twelve syllables instead of 16) and the dactylic stress pattern give a much greater sense of movement which reinforces the description of the Gumbie Cat’s nocturnal busyness.

Incidentally (and possibly the reason why I was particularly sensitive to the meters this time I was reading Old Possum), I was recently trying to get my head round Dactylic Hexameter, the meter used throughout Homer’s poetry (and apparently the most common meter in ancient Greek poetry – possibly due at least in part to the major influence Homer had on later poets).  In ancient Greek verse, the feet determine the length of syllables instead of the stress pattern (long/short rather than stressed/unstressed) but the shape of the feet is essentially the same.  As the name suggests, dactylic hexameter consists of six feet per line.  Most of the feet are dactyls but some are spondees (two syllables, both long / stressed); in particular the final foot is always a spondee.  I cobbled together a line of dactylic hexameter (in English) which demonstrates the meter and describes the feet:

This is a dactyl and this is a spondee; here is another.

Apart from the final foot, which is always a spondee, there is more-or-less complete flexibility about which feet are dactyls and which are spondees, which allows for quite considerable variation of the rhythm within the confines of dactylic hexameter.  I’m not sure whether it’s required to have at least one dactyl in the line or whether a line consisting solely of spondees would be allowed.  So far the most spondees I’ve seen in a single line of Homer is 5 (which happens as early as Iliad 1:3).

Cheesecake

One of my favourite things about my local supermarket is that they often have cheese on sale at reduced prices to clear when it is approaching its sell-by date (when they are no longer legally allowed to sell it at any price).  This means that you can often pick up interesting cheeses substantially cheaper than they would normally be and when they are getting closer to the state of optimum readiness for eating (which is usually sometime after the sell-by date, at least for things like brie).

The most recent cheese I picked up in this manner is one that I’ve had before once or twice and which, despite my initial scepticism, is a cheese I very much enjoy.  Bowland is a Lancashire cheese with added raisins, apple and cinnamon.  It tastes remarkably (or perhaps not that remarkable, given the ingredients) like fruitcake and, since cheese and fruitcake is a well-established pairing, it works very well.

This is a cheese I usually enjoy on its own, in fairly small quantities (I’ve managed to make my existing piece last about a week, which is quite good going for me and cheese).  I did try a small amount with some cider, on the assumption that the apples in the cheese would complement the apples in the cider (and given that cheese (of the Lancashire/Cheddar variety, at least) and apple is another well-established pairing) and ought to work quite well.  Unfortunately I’d overlooked the fact that Bowland is quite a sweet cheese and my homebrew cider is very much at the scrumpy end of the cider spectrum, therefore this particular pairing was not a match made in heaven (my homebrew might work quite nicely with a good mature Cheddar, while Bowland could probably be washed down with a fairly sweet cider, but they certainly don’t go well together).

On your bikes

It occurred to me after my last bike-related posted that I hadn’t given any updates on the previous bike situation, in which my mountain bike was down for some fairly serious repairs and I was waiting to get my old road bike back.

It took a while to get all the parts I needed to fix my bike.  Eventually I gave it a new bottom bracket, crankset and rear wheel (the latter obtained from Recycle Cycle Cymru for £10 and the others purchased new), as well as replacing the  gear and brake cables, brake pads and chain and giving the rear derailleur a thorough clean.

Changing both the chainrings (as part of the crankset) and the rear cogs (with the wheel) meant getting a whole new set of gear ratios, as the new components were different sizes to the old ones.  In general it seems that the gearing is slightly higher now than it was (although having changed my tyres at more or less the same time makes it hard to tell as the width of the tyres also made quite a big difference – in fact since changing to thinner tyres after first drafting this post, I’m inclined to suspect that the fatter tyres had a lot more to do with the increased cycling difficulty than any change in the gear ratios).  At some point I should probably try to dig out (or reconstruct) the gearing chart I once prepared for the original chainring/cog combinations and do a similar one for the new gears.

While waiting to get these repairs completed, I got my old bike, a Motobecane touring bike probably dating from the late 1970s (as the company went bust in about 1980), back from the friend I’d given it to (in whose shed it was sitting unused much as it had in mine).   When I first got it back my other bike was still in pieces, so I spent an evening working on this one to get it into working order so that I could avoid walking to work the next morning.  Most of that work consisted in adjusting the mudguards so they didn’t rub on the wheels.  I noticed that the tyres were looking a bit perished but decided they would do at least for a few weeks.

The bike performed reasonably well on my way into work, but when I was coming home I heard some ominous squeaking sounds from the rear wheel area.  On stopping to investigate I discovered that the retaining nut for the rear brake assembly was missing.  I’ve no idea whether it had fallen off while I was cycling or if it was already missing, as that’s one bit of the bike I didn’t check carefully (having ascertained that the brake itself was working).  I rode very carefully the rest of the way home and then took a trip (on foot) to my local hardware shop to get a replacement bolt (fortunately it’s a standard metric size) before riding again.

My next ride on that bike was on a Sunday afternoon and was designed to be a short circular route along some country lanes near my house.  I say “designed to be” because my front tyre (or at least the inner tube) exploded when I was about halfway round.  On inspection, it appeared that the sidewall of the outer tyre had given way, causing the inner tube to get caught between the tyre and the rim and leading to its swift, explosive demise.  I did have a spare tube on me, but with the outer tyre wall so broken I had to push the bike home (probably only about a mile or so, but still a lot harder work than cycling it) and then order a new pair of tyres.

By the time my new tyres, Schwalbe Marathons like I (later) put on my mountain bike, arrived I had got the other bike working again so there was less pressure to get the road bike back on the road.  When I did get round to putting the tyres on I managed to cycle about 10 yards before the new front inner tube exploded.  This time, I think it was because I didn’t take due care to ensure the inner tube wasn’t trapped under the edge of the outer tyre.   Naturally, that had been my only spare inner tube of a suitable size, so I then had to wait several more days to get another one.

I fitted the new  tube and got the tyres both pumped up a couple of weeks back, and have taken the bike out for a couple of tentative spins down the road (mostly to the postbox and back) without the tyres blowing up.  This afternoon, I made another attempt at doing my previous circular ride and was pleased to be able to get home in one piece.

I think I’ll probably stick with using the mountain bike for most purposes, not least because I find it has a somewhat more comfortable riding position.  However, it’s useful to know that I have another bike I can fall back on if I need to take that one off the road for a while for maintenance.  I’ll probably try to use the road bike from time to time as well, to ensure that it stays in good working order and feels loved.

Fantastic folk-jazz fusion

I’ve been continuing to use the last.fm radio facilities for a fairly high proportion of my listening recently and it continues to turn up occasional gems.

This morning I was listening to The Be Good Tanyas artist radio, which plays music from artists deemed to be similar to this band.  I’m not sure how they go about determining similarity, but in this case the stuff that’s being played seemed to fit quite well together (unlike some artist radios I’ve tried, which come up with very random mixes of supposedly similar artists).

Anyway, one of the tracks that the radio played this morning was “Mad Tom of Bedlam” by Jolie Holland.  She was, I gather, one of the founding members of the Tanyas and continues to appear as a guest with them on a fairly regular basis.  This particular track is an old English folk ballad (though not an Old English one!) that I first heard on a Steeleye Span album in what sounds like a fairly traditional rendition (as far as I can remember it had a different name, though it was definitely the same song).  Jolie Holland has given the song a jazz twist, treating the tune quite freely and giving it a swing rhythm with drum kit accompaniment.   To my ear, this is an excellent fusion of folk and jazz.

The track is from her first studio album,  Escondida (which sounds a bit like a medical condition, although it’s actually Spanish for “hidden”).  I had previously listened to most of the album, which is available on Spotify, but I couldn’t remember it particularly well so I had another listen to it this morning.  The whole album is slightly jazz-tinged, although “Mad Tom” appears to be the most jazzy arrangement on there.  It’s definitely worth a listen if you get the chance.

Bonne idée in theory

The other day, while I was searching for a completely different Google Chrome extension, I came across an interesting one called Language Immersion for Chrome, which had the intriguing strapline “learn a new language while you browse the web”.

It describes itself as “an experimental extension that aims to simulate the experience of being immersed in a foreign language” and is powered by Google Translate.  It  works by translating certain words and phrases on any webpage into the target language of your choice (any of the 60 or so supported by Google Translate), substituting the translated phrase for the original on the page (it highlights the translated bits so you can spot them more easily) .  For instance, if you had la langue set to French vous pouvez see something comme this.   The context of the surrounding words in a language you can speak (I’m not sure if it only works for pages in English or for other source languages) enables you to grasp the meaning and the repeated exposure helps to cement the word in your head.  I think it is supposed to mimic, to some extent, the way that children naturally acquire language more-or-less by osmosis rather than sitting down to memorise long vocabulary lists.

The tool offers a couple of extra features, which are selectable as options.  One is the ability to click on a highlighted/translated phrase to revert it to the original language, enabling you to check your understanding; this feature is reversible, so you can click again to get the translated version back.  The other facility is the ability to hover over the phrase and hear an audio clip of it being spoken, handy if you want to work on your pronunciation.  Also, the tool enables you to specify your fluency level in the target language (on a sliding scale from “novice” to “fluent”), which alters the proportion of the page to be translated and possibly also the choice of the words translated (though I assume the words are selected pretty much at random and if it can’t find a translation for a particular word or phrase it picks another one nearby and tries again; I doubt it maintains lists of approved phrases to translate for each language and level).

So far that sounds like a pretty useful tool.  Unfortunately there are a couple of reasons why it didn’t work altogether smoothly and why, in consequence, I’ve removed it from my browser at least for now.  It takes a while to load the translations and the audio feature only seems to be available for certain languages and can be quite slow to kick in even with those ones.  There is also, of course, the problem of the inherent inaccuracy of a machine translation in the first place. I  spotted plenty of mistakes when I tried the tool using Welsh (which I speak quite fluently) and French (rusty but passable) so I’m sure there are also lots of mistranslations in the other languages.

To some extent those problems may get alleviated, although probably never solved entirely (especially the machine translation issue) as the software (both the extension and the GT backend) continues to be developed.  However, I don’t know whether I will use it again in any case.  I’m not sure of the pedagogic value of inserting random phrases from another language into a stream of text; it may be quite handy for reviewing and extending vocabulary but doesn’t necessarily offer any great benefits over more traditional tools like flashcards, and it doesn’t show you how to actually use the words idiomatically in the target language.

I think I’m more likely to get benefit from continuing to look at websites in the languages I’m trying to learn (when available – there aren’t that many written in ancient Greek!). Google Translate can be quite a handy tool for checking understanding of specific words and phrases with this approach, especially as there are several browser extensions available that let you select some text and get a translation immediately; however, I generally prefer to try and read to get a general idea of the gist of a passage without getting too bogged down in the details of individual words.  As with the language immersion extension, the surrounding text often helps you to get an understanding of an unfamiliar word, but if the surrounding text is also in the target language that gives you a much better feel of how the word fits in context.

I suppose it may be interesting to start trying to learn a more-or-less completely unfamiliar language (for which trying to read a website entirely in that language may be too much) with the immersion tool and then switch to (or at least supplement with) websites in the target language once I begin to acquire sufficient vocabulary.   This might be helpful as part of an attempt to learn a language but I suspect that it would work better in conjunction with other language-learning tools than trying to use it on its own.