Malwod noeth

Last night I went for my second meeting of the Bangor Polyglots (their third meeting overall).

When I first arrived, shortly after my brass band practice had finished, the only people already there were the three from last week; I don’t know if anyone else had been and gone before I got there.  I was able to greet both Rhian and Sam in Icelandic, as I’ve been working through a free online course that Sam pointed me to last week.  However, I haven’t yet got as far as learning the plural forms of the greetings, so I had to greet them individually.

Fairly shortly after I arrived we were joined by Edith, who is from Germany and teaches German through the medium of Welsh at Bangor University.  She speaks several other languages in addition to German, Welsh and English, including Finnish, Icelandic and French, and she’s planning soon to add Greek to the list.  As well as the modern languages, she has a good knowledge of Old Norse and Middle Welsh (and, I suspect, probably a few other archaic languages too).  She’s from the southern part of Germany and speaks the local Swabian dialect in addition to standard HIgh German (in fact, I think she was only half joking – if at all – when she said that German was her first foreign language).

A bit later we were joined by Jochen, who is also German, works at the university (in the music department) and speaks several languages to a high standard.  I have met Jochen several times on the local music scene, although we have never previously spoken to each other at great length.  He brought with him a girl from Paris who is over here to do a gig with him (she’s a singer).  Unfortunately I didn’t catch her name, or at least didn’t manage to make it stick in my memory, and since we were at opposite ends of the table I didn’t get much chance to speak to her.

Once everyone was there, we got a truly multilingual conversation going, with usually at least two threads running concurrently and languages being mixed freely.  French and German seemed to dominate, with a fairly healthy amount of Welsh and relatively little English.  Bits of other languages were used or spoken about, with a particular emphasis on Finnish in the discussion at my end of the table (and I also threw in a bit of Hungarian – which is similarly structured to Finnish but somewhat more familiar to me, although my knowledge of it is still extremely rudimentary – for comparison).

Last week, I learned that the Cornish word for snail is bulhorn, which has immediately become my favourite word for snail that I’ve so far discovered in any language and will probably retain that position for quite some time.  It is quite different from the Welsh word, malwoden, and while I don’t know the etymology of either word it seems obvious (and may well indeed be true) that they come from totally different roots.  This week there was some further discussion about snails and I learned (or possibly relearned, as it’s likely to be a word I once knew and had forgotten) that the German for snail is die Schnecke.  Even better, the German for slug is Nacktschnecke, which literally means “naked snail”.  I still loathe slugs, and resent the devastation they regularly wreak on my attempts to grow pretty much anything in my garden, but I think that’s a cool name for them.

I’m looking forward to many more meetings with the Bangor Polyglots.  The only trouble is that there are so many languages to learn and so little time to do it.

A great place to chill

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that a band with a name like the Penguin Cafe Orchestra should play some very cool music. 🙂

The PCO (as I’ll shorten them, although I don’t know if this is an officially sanctioned abbreviation) is a band that I was first introduced to way back in about 1990, when I used to go across to my maths teacher’s house for computer programming lessons.  It’s a sad fact that this kind of thing would almost certainly not be allowed to happen now, due to child safeguarding laws and suchlike.  In addition to taking my first steps in programming computers beyond what ZX Spectrum BASIC had to offer (not that I’m knocking that, as it was an excellent introduction to the whole programming thing), these semi-regular Saturday afternoon sessions over the course of several months, or possibly a couple of years, introduced me to the fine art of making guacamole (a skill which I don’t think I’ve ever got round to putting into practice but it’s nice to know it in theory anyway) as well as a whole load of excellent music, of which the PCO is very definitely at the top of my list.

The music of the PCO is often-described as New Age; Wikipedia defines this as “an umbrella term for various downtempo music intended to create artistic inspiration, relaxation, and optimism”, which is actually not too bad a description of the PCO sound in general, although quite a lot of their stuff (including most of my favourite pieces) is fairly up-tempo, energetic music.  There’s a good chance you’ve heard some of their music, perhaps without realising it, as several of their tunes have featured in films and adverts over the years (see the Wikipedia article linked at the start of this post for a list).

For some reason I used to believe that there was an actual Penguin Café (which I thought was in Edinburgh) and that the PCO was the band in residence there.  I now gather that this is not the case (at least the bit about the PCO being a house band for a café – there may well be a Penguin Café in Edinburgh as indeed there is one in Bangor).  Instead it’s the name of a group of musicians led by the English composer/multi-instrumentalist Simon Jeffes who, sadly, died of a brain tumour in 1997.  Incidentally, although the word café is properly written with an acute accent on the ‘e’, this seems to be absent from the official spelling of the band name.

The original PCO produced, I think, 5 studio albums and 2 live albums (as well as a few compilations) during their active years from the early 1970s to the late 1990s.  I have had the first four studio albums for quite some time and enjoyed listening to each of them many times over.  I have only just got my hands on the last studio album (Union Cafe, released in 1993) and one of the live albums (descriptively entitled Concert Program and hailing from 1995) and have so far only had time for one listen through each, but my first impressions are very favourable and I shall look forward to many more listenings of both.

One of the things I love about the PCO, apart from the many fine melodies, is the eclectic range of instruments to be heard in the ensemble.  Looking through the sleeve notes to Union Cafe, for example, I find that alongside violins, cello, piano, trombone, clarinet and cor anglais, there are appearances by a ukulele (that one has been a fairly common feature of pretty much all the PCO albums), electric aeolian harp and “clay pot and twigs”.  There’s also one track which was realized on a computer and another one featuring a guest performance from Kathryn Tickell on the Northumbrian smallpipes (as well as one with Nigel Kennedy – presumably this is back when he was still using his first name – on violin).  The whole PCO sound is very much instrumental music, although there was some use of vocals on their first album (mostly by Emily Young, who also painted the wonderful pictures of people with penguin heads that adorn most of the album covers).

Apparently Simon Jeffes’ son, Arthur, has taken up the mantle of the PCO, now redubbed simply as Penguin Cafe and has produced one album so far (with a completely new set of musicians), while many of the original members of the PCO have continued working together under the name of Anteater.  I’m not sure whether they have released any albums yet, but both of these bands may be well worth a listen whether they are following closely in the footsteps of the PCO or exploring new paths.

Ruby, my dear

I recently acquired a new computer programming book entitled Seven Languages in Seven Weeks (by Bruce A. Tate, published 2010 by the Pragmatic Programmers; ISBN: 978-1-934356-59-3).  As the name suggests, this is an introduction to not one but seven different programming languages and is designed to be worked through (it’s very much a hands-on kind of book) in a fairly short space of time.  Rather than purporting to provide complete coverage of each language (which would be impossible, probably even for a single one of them, in just one book) it aims to give a fairly general introduction to each one and demonstrate some of it’s particular characteristics, leaving the reader to hit Google in search of further documentation etc.  As well as giving you a broad exposure to a range of different programming paradigms, this book is intended to equip you to pick up the elements of a new language quickly and efficiently.

The seven languages covered by the book are (in order of appearance): Ruby, Io, Prolog, Scala, Erlang, Clojure and Haskell.  I’ve just started working on the Io section of the book and, if all goes according to plan, I intend to write a blog post about each of the languages once I’ve finished the relevant section.  For now, I’ll focus on Ruby.

Of all the languages in the book, Ruby is the only one that I already have a reasonable amount of familiarity with (although I’ve played a bit with Prolog and I’m fairly sure I had a quick look at Haskell once too).  I have already written a handful of, admittedly fairly small, real world programs (as opposed to tutorial exercises) in Ruby, which could reasonably be described as a general purpose scripting language.  At the moment, I would probably describe it as my second choice go-to language for general purpose programming; Python would be my first choice, largely because I’ve been using it for somewhat longer, am a lot more familiar with it and have a bit more dead-tree-format reference material for it; they are both excellent languages (each with several definite pros and cons relative to the other) and I’d rather get reasonably proficient at both than concentrate exclusively on either one of them.

The particular (though by no means unique) feature of Ruby that Tate focuses on in his book is metaprogramming, which (he says) “means writing programs that write programs”.  I’ve come across the idea before, mainly in my studies of Lisp (although I didn’t quite get as far as doing any metaprogramming for myself).  I still don’t feel that I entirely grok the concept, but I think it’s definitely something worth exploring further and it appears that Ruby will be a good vehicle for it.

A nice, slightly quirky feature of the book is that Tate likens each programming language to a film (or TV series in one case) character that he feels epitomises similar characteristics.  In the case of Ruby, the chosen film is Mary Poppins.  Tate describes the titular character (and hence also Ruby) as “sometimes quirky, always beautiful, a little mysterious and absolutely magical.” [Actually, to be pedantic, he applies that description to Ruby and then says “Think Mary Poppins.]

I fairly recently started (or rather restarted, as it’s an old project I started and abandoned several years ago) a programming project using Python, so I’ll probably try to get it finished in that language.  However, the next time I have a real-world problem to solve with a script, there’s a good chance I’ll reach for Ruby.

Hello, bonsoir & croeso

I recently joined a new group on Facebook called Bangor Polyglots.  As the name suggests, this is for people based in the Bangor area (that’s the one in North West Wales rather than any of the many others around the world) who speak several languages and have a strong interest in language in general.   As you might also guess from the fact that the name specifies a geographical location, this is intended to be a group that has face-to-face meetings rather than just existing in cyberspace.
The group only began to meet a fortnight ago and, at the moment, they meet on Monday evenings at one of the pubs in Bangor (the Ship Launch, down near the pier).  This is unfortunate for me, since on Monday evenings I have rehearsals with the Menai Bridge Band.  However, I discovered after the first meeting that they go on fairly late (until around 11pm), which gives me a chance to get across after the band practice (which finishes at 9).  Since the weather was fine (albeit cold) last night and I wasn’t feeling too tired, I cycled across to meet the others for the first time last night.

As it happens, there were only 3 other people there (though apparently there had also been one other person there earlier), one of whom I already know, so it wasn’t too daunting to join in the meeting.

One of those present was Simon, the organiser of the group (and the one I already knew).  He is also the creator and maintainer of the Omniglot website – an online encylopedia of languages and writing systems.  I first came across this fascinating website some time before Simon moved to Bangor so I was delighted when I met him a few years back and discovered that he was the man behind it.  He speaks several languages to a high standard and has a particular interest in the Celtic languages.   He’s also learning Russian, which I studied for a while (as a subsidiary subject) at university (far too many years ago).

The other two people there are, I gather, both students.  I think Rhian is studying linguistics and Sam is studying German (with a bit of Dutch on the side).  They both speak Welsh and Cornish, as well as several other languages.

Last night’s general conversation was mostly in a fairly free mix of Welsh and English.  I also had a bit of a chat with Simon in French and Russian and we all threw bits of quite a few other languages into the mix too, so it definitely qualified as a meeting of polyglots.  One of the notable topics of conversation was the notion of cellar doors, as propounded (though apparently not originated) by J. R. R. Tolkien.  Both Rhian and I were delighted to find somebody else (i.e. each other) who was familiar with this concept and we had great fun explaining it to the others and then all coming up with our own cellar doors in various languages (if you’ve no idea what I’m talking about you may want to check out the link in the previous sentence to Simon’s blog, where he has written about cellar doors today).  We also spent some time discussing compound words in German (and trying to make up some of our own, then translate them into Welsh), the Welsh translation of “passion fruit” (which none of us knew – I looked it up later and apparently it’s granadila, which is very similar to the French grenadille) and the current state of the various different proposals for a standard dialect of modern Cornish (a scene which appears to be even more fragmented than when I last seriously looked at it several years ago, when there were three main claimants for the title).

I did manage to get an answer for a question that’s been bugging me (slightly) for a couple of weeks.  A friend and I were discussing corgis (the small Welsh dogs beloved of Queen Elizabeth) and we couldn’t remember the meaning of the word.  It is a Welsh compound word, breaking down to cor + gi (< ci = dog) but we couldn’t remember what cor meant.  We did flippantly speculate that it could be côr = choir, which would make corgis dogs that sing in choirs.  🙂 However, it turns out (as Rhian reminded me last night) that cor is a synonym or abbreviation (I’m not sure which) of corrach = dwarf, so a corgi is actually a dwarf dog (not a bad description, really).

All told, I had a very pleasant evening with my fellow polyglots.  I’ll probably try and get across for the meetings (or at least the last part of them) whenever possible (which will probably be based on what the weather’s like and whether I’m feeling sufficiently energetic to cycle there and back).  I hope that this will help me to polish my French and Russian (and Welsh, for that matter) and perhaps learn a bit more Cornish and a few odds and ends of other languages.



It’s Bicycle Repair Man!

It’s been a while since my last post about bikes.  Since that time (last May, to be moderately precise), I’ve continued to cycle regularly to work most days, as well as a few longer bike rides (including a couple of roughly 25-mile round trips to gigs over in Bethesda), although my plans for a summer filled with long leisurely rides for fun were somewhat scuppered by the lack of a noticeable summer.  In all that time, I’ve not had to take any major maintenance downtime and, as far as I can recall, I’ve not really done (or needed to do) any work on my bike beyond an occasional cursory cleaning or pumping up the tyres and oiling the chain.

Until last night, that is.

The first day I rode my bike after my Christmas break (of just over a week), I noticed that the chain was occasionally going slack while I was pedalling.  At the time, it was only a fairly short-lived problem and had sorted itself out by the end of my first 3-mile ride to work, so I put it down to a week’s inactivity and rather cold weather causing the drivetrain to be a bit sluggish and didn’t think much more about it.

Yesterday, my bike was quite well behaved on the way into work but the chain started slackening again as soon as I left the office.  My first thought was that the rear derailleur might be sticking a bit and failing to provide the required tension, so I quickly nipped back to the office (where I keep a spare can of WD40 in case of emergencies – I have gaffer tape too, so I’ve got all bases covered :)) and gave the drivetrain a fairly liberal spray of oil.  This didn’t noticeably improve the situation on my ride home and I had plenty of time to analyse what was going on and come to the conclusion that the freewheel appeared to be sticking.  Once I got home I had access to my full set of bike tools and lubricants, so I preceded to spend the best part of the next hour tinkering with the bike to get it working properly again.

In order to get to the freewheel to inspect it properly, I had to take the rear wheel off the bike.  This gave me a good opportunity to give the whole undercarriage of the bike a slightly more comprehensive clean as well as to clean and lubricate the freewheel and sprockets.  This seems to have fixed the problem, at least for now, and the bike is running a lot more smoothly than it had.  I also took a bit of time to adjust the brakes.

I already mentioned when I wrote (about this time last year) about getting rid of my car that I much prefer bike mechanics to car mechanics.  Largely that’s because bikes are a lot simpler than cars and I have a much better (though still far from perfect) understanding of how they work.  Also the parts are generally somewhat more accessible on a bike than tucked away in the depths of a car’s engine.  The downside of that, of course, is that they are also somewhat more open to getting clogged up with dirt from the road.  I suppose the lesson I should take away from this is that it’s a good idea to take a bit of time out quite frequently to properly clean and lubricate the bike, rather than waiting for vital components to seize up.

Taking time to check your sums

I’ve got an old laptop that is currently running Windows XP (that was installed on it when it was given to me a few months ago) and at long last I’m getting round to carrying out my intention (which I’ve had ever since I received it and managed to get it to actually work) of putting Linux on there instead.

Since it is a fairly old laptop (a Sony Vaio from either the late nineties or the early naughties, as far as I can tell) and consequently somewhat lacking in system resources by today’s standards, it is likely to work best with a relatively lightweight Linux distribution.  I’ve decided to try out #! (aka. Crunchbang), a variant of Debian built around the Openbox window manager.  This is supposed to be fairly light in its demands on resources so should work ok with limited memory, processor speed and disk space.  If even this proves too much for the old machine, I’ll have to try one of the truly lightweight distros, such as DSL, instead.

I downloaded the ISO file for the latest version of #! last night, via bittorrent as this seems to be the way forward for large downloads.

Fortunately, I’ve adopted the habit of checking the MD5 checksum of any large download I make (I don’t always bother for smaller ones).  The Wikipedia page I just linked to will give you plenty more detail if you want it but, essentially, MD5 is a cryptographic hash function that provides a 32 digit hexadecimal integer (or checksum) corresponding to any input datastream (such as a computer file), in such a way that any change in the data will result in a completely different checksum.  By providing the MD5 checksum of the file as it is supposed to exist, the person sending you the file (or from whose website you download it) enables you to check that the file you have received is the same as the original.  Although MD5 is no longer cryptographically secure (i.e. it is vulnerable to deliberate attack) it still provides a pretty reliable way of checking whether your data has become corrupted in transit.

The reason I mention all this is that, on checking my shiny new Linux ISO file’s MD5 checksum against the one listed on the #! website for the same file, I discovered that it was different.  That meant that my download hadn’t been entirely successful and I was able to discover this fact before wasting time writing the file to a CD (since my laptop is too old to support booting from USB drives) and trying to run it (#! is, I believe, a Live CD distribution that can be installed to the hard drive later if you so choose – as is common with many contemporary flavours of Linux).

At this point, I expected to have to download the whole file (nearly 1GB worth) again and hope for better luck next time.  However, I discovered that bittorrent (using the Transmission client on Linux) had a function to validate my local copy of the file and, when it found a discrepancy, it was able to figure out which bits of the data were missing or corrupted and download them (again?) to create a working file.  On the second attempt, my MD5 checksum matched the expected one, so I am confident that the ISO I now have is a full working copy of the one from the #! website (which presumably should work ok).  Of course, bittorrent’s validate feature probably obviates the need to run a separate check on the MD5 checksum but it’s still nice to be able to get independent confirmation that the file is sound (and it would also still be useful for checking downloads that I haven’t got using bittorrent).

The next stage is to burn the ISO file onto a CD and then have a go at booting my laptop with it.  That’s probably going to be my main task for later this evening.