The Magic of Mushrooms

Normally, grocery shopping is not a highlight of my week. Occasionally, however, I stumble upon a bargain that makes it altogether more pleasurable. Today I found some button mushrooms going for about a third of their usual price, as they were approaching there sell-by date (but still looked in pretty good condition). Needless to say, these came home with me and were cooked up for my tea with garlic, olive oil, butter and a bit of salt and pepper. Very tasty and a great way to show I can write short blog posts if I put my mind to it. ūüôā

On the fundamental interconnectedness of all blog posts

Okay, so the title is probably exaggerating slightly (and yes, in case you were wondering, it is somewhat inspired by Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency), but I noticed just after I posted yesterday that it was my second consecutive post to feature the word “sweet” in the title.

Not only was the last post connected by its title to the post before it, but it was connected thematically (albeit loosely) to the post before that because they were both more or less about cheese (mascarpone – one of the major ingredients of my newly discovered pasta sauce – being a type of Italian cream cheese).

I’m sure if I didn’t have better things to do with my time I could probably discover a connection between tomatoes and Welsh grannies or Navajo rugs too!

Short and sweet

My latest category on this blog is apparently going to be a particularly short-lived one.

I set up a knitting & crochet category a few weeks ago as a result of my renewed interest in these (and related) crafts, which was a mainstay of my previous blogs but had waned by the time I started this one.

My interest in them is still going strong (at least for now – past experience suggests it will probably continue to be somewhat up and down) and I’ve decided to set up a separate knitting blog in order to be able to post as much (or as little) as I like about knitting and other fibre crafts without drowning my main blog.¬† I’m also intending to repost all the knitting-related articles I can still find from my previous blogs, so that I have them all in one handy place (this was prompted by the recent realisation that one of the old blogs no longer seems to be online – fortunately I have an offline backup of the text).

As a result, this blog will probably feature few, if any knitting posts.¬† I’m planning to keep the category open, though, just in case.¬† If there’s anything particularly notable – like my cunning new Firefly hat – I may put a note up here to direct you to the other blog.

The new blog is called Ar y Gweill (Welsh for “On the needles”, though the blog itself will be written, at least mostly, in English).¬† Unlike this one, posts won’t be automatically published to my Facebook wall.¬† If you want to follow my knitting posts, that blog (like this one) has an RSS feed available – or you can follow it directly on WordPress or just bookmark the site in your browser.

One of the reasons for keeping my knitting blog separate is so that I can link my knitting posts to my Ravelry profile.¬† Ravelry is a pretty big online fibre arts community, of which I’ve been a member for quite a few years.¬† It’s free to join and well worth checking out if you’re at all interested in knitting, crochet or similar crafts.¬† To see anything there (apart from a login screen) you’ll need an account.¬† On my knitting blog, I’m making the assumption that anyone sufficiently interested to want to see the details of my Ravelry profile or project pages etc. will either have an account already or be willing to get one.¬† If you are a member of Ravelry, feel free to give me a shout on there.

On the problem of muscle memory

Muscle memory is generally a useful phenomenon, as it enables you to do things such as touch typing or playing a musical instrument with little or no conscious thought as to what your fingers (or other appendages, though at the moment I’m specifically thinking of digital muscle memories) are doing.

I’m not sure how much it’s actually the muscles themselves that get used to how¬†they should be moving and how much it’s the brain subconsciously serving up the information as it’s required. ¬†I suspect it’s probably largely the latter, but “muscle memory” is still a convenient name.

However it works, and whatever you call it, I maintain that most of the time it is very handy.  However, there are times when it can prove to be more of a hindrance.

Largely because I do quite a lot of typing in foreign languages that use diacritics (i.e. accent symbols), I regularly find myself having to reach for these characters.  In the old days, I used to have to remember or look up the ASCII codes for the characters I wanted (fortunately, back then it was mostly acute and sometimes grave or circumflex accents on vowels, and perhaps the occasional cedilla, for typing in French).

Both my home and office PCs have somewhat more sophisticated methods set up for accessing special characters.  Unfortunately they are slightly different, which is where the muscle memory can get in the way.

At home I use Linux most of the time, and I have a Compose key (currently the right “Windows” key, which isn’t used for anything else by default on Linux) set up on my keyboard. ¬†Pressing this key followed by a pair of other keys produces a character determined by the keys pressed (a so-called “compose key sequence”); e.g. “compose” ¬†+ ‘a’ + ‘`’ (that’s a backtick, which hangs out just to the left of the number 1 on a UK keyboard, in case you were wondering) produces ‘√†’.¬†Many of the compose key sequences, such as this one, are fairly intuitive and easy to remember (or, you can just make an educated guess and if it doesn’t produce the expected result, delete it and try it again or look it up). ¬†This is a very straightforward way of making a lot of special characters available on a standard keyboard, and is my favourite solution to the problem.

At work, I use a Windows machine. ¬†On it I have installed a handy little utility called To Bach, which is actually designed to facilitate typing in Welsh but allows typing of the accents found in Welsh (mostly circumflex accents (√Ę) – called¬†to bach¬†(“little roof”) in Welsh, hence the name of the software – and, less often, acute (√°) and grave (√†) accents on all the vowels – that’s a, e, i, o, u, y and w in Welsh – as well as a diaeresis (√§), which as far as can remember only occurs on the letter i in Welsh but can actually be typed on any vowel with To Bach) as well as certain other special characters such as √ß and √Ī that don’t actually appear at all in Welsh. It is set up by default to use the right Alt key as the main trigger key. For circumflex accents (the most common by far in Welsh), you just hold down that key (and Shift if you want a capital letter) and type the vowel you want. For the others, you hold down the trigger key and then hit another key (e.g. ‘\’ to get a grave accent) before letting go of both and hitting the vowel key for which you want the accent.

Both methods are very straightforward but because they are different I often find myself reaching for the wrong key combination (e.g. “right Win” + ‘a’ + ‘`’ instead of “right Alt” + ‘\’ + ‘a’ if I want an ‘√†’ at work).

The obvious solution, which I may get round to at least partially implementing at some time, would be to reconfigure my Linux compose key settings to match To Bach (as I don’t think it’s possible to edit the configuration of the latter). Alternatively, there are Compose key utilities available for Windows, which would also give me easy access to characters that aren’t currently available via To Bach (e.g. if I want an ‘√•’ on Windows – not that I often do – I currently have to either fire up the handy (but not quite so handy as To Bach/Compose) Character Map utility or remember the Alt+134 combination, while on Linux I just have to hit “compose” + ‘o’ + ‘a’) so I could just install one of those and drop To Bach, although having used it for quite a few years I’d be sad to stop using it now.

All things being equal(ised)

For a long time my favourite media player has been Clementine. This is a powerful, well-featured and easy to use player that also has the benefit of being available across several different platforms, so I can use essentially the same player on both my Linux box at home and my Windows PC at work.

Amongst other features Clementine, like all good media players, has a set of equalisation controls.¬† One of my minor niggles with the program is that access to this is buried in the Tools menu and there doesn’t seem to be any way of configuring a button on the interface or a keyboard shortcut to bring the equaliser panel up.

(Of course, since Clementine is an open-source project I could in theory hack the source code but that would involve quite a steep learning curve and way too much work, so I think I’ll just stick with using the menu.¬† I may see if there’s a channel for getting feedback to the dev team, in case it’s a feature they’d like to consider for future releases).

Slight fiddliness of access notwithstanding, the equaliser is pretty straightforward to use.¬† In the version I have on my home computer (Clementine v1.0.1 for Linux) it is a 10 band graphic equaliser with sliders marked for frequencies between 60Hz and 16kHz (both of those probably pushing the limits of my PC speakers, not to mention my own hearing) as well as a pre-amp fader.¬† There is also a facility for saving,¬† loading and deleting presets, with a fair selection of pre-installed presets, mostly named for different musical genres (such as Classical, Rock or Ska) though there are a few others named for other things (Large Hall, Full Bass etc.).¬† While the sliders don’t have any marked scale on them, there is a nice feature whereby you feel a definite notch as you slide through the centre point (i.e. between cutting and boosting the given frequency).¬† It seems to be done by momentarily pausing the fader button when you drag it through that point but it gives an impressively tactile sensation for an on-screen slider.

Most of the time I tend to leave the equaliser alone but it is sometimes quite handy to be able to tweak it.  I had a clear demonstration of this yesterday.

Earlier in the week I’d been listening to an AC/DC CD (or at least its digital representation in my media library) and had actually got round to resetting the eq to the Rock preset, which has a classic smiley face slider configuration (i.e. bottom and top end pushed up and middle pushed down a bit), though skewed slightly to the left.¬† This gives a nice bit of sizzle to the sound which generally works well for rock music (hence the preset is quite aptly named).

Yesterday, though, I came to play a vintage opera recording that I’d only just picked up and never previously heard (Renata Tebaldi singing¬† Catalani’s La Wally, c. 1950, in case you’re interested).¬† The sound was disappointingly thin and crackly and I thought this was a problem with the recording (it was, after all, a cheap CD of a 64 year old recording).¬† Then I remembered about the EQ and, on checking, discovered that it was still set to Rock.¬† I changed it to Classical (flat up to 3kHz and then slightly attenuated for higher frequencies) and it was immediately transformed to a much richer, fuller sound without the annoying hiss.

Apart from being able to access the EQ panel more easily, I’d like to have a facility whereby you could save your EQ preferences for each track or album in your library, rather than having to reset the equaliser manually each time.¬† This would be especially useful when listening, as I often do, to a mixed playlist of music from different genres.

It is obviously good to be able to adjust the equalisation of your music files in order to be able to get the best possible sound for the combination of the recording, the musical genre, your playback equipment and your own personal tastes.¬† Perhaps less obviously, it’s also good sometimes to be able to to vary the EQ in order to bring out different aspects of the music.¬† Not only could this be a way to help you listen to a familiar piece with fresh ears but it can be very handy when you are trying to transcribe a piece of music as, with a judicious choice of EQ settings, you can emphasise the particular section of the sonic spectrum that you are trying to make out and reduce the amount of clutter from everything else that might be going on at the same time.¬† I’ve been trying to transcribe several pieces of music in the past few days and have just been discovering how useful the EQ controls (as well as other technological marvels such as the ability to slow a piece down without lowering the pitch) can be to aid in this task.

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.


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.