Music Makes My World Go Around

My love of modern pop music dates back to my childhood. I have a very vague recollection of going to see the film ‘Hard Day’s Night’ at the cinema, which would have been about 1964, I was only 5 then hence why I say vague. I was born ‘across the water’ in Bebington, which is the other side of the River Mersey from Liverpool, where the Beatles thing all sort of exploded during my childhood, although I don’t remember much about them apart from their appearances on TV.

The first album I can recall buying was by Simon and Garfunkel, although I’m not sure why I bought it, may be it was to impress a girl I knew at the time!  Anyway my musical interest sort of laid dormant for a couple of years or so. Then a friend of mine introduced me to the guitar, he was in a band and I went along to see them play a few times. I bought my own guitar and tried to learn how to play it, not very well I may add.

One of the first guitar pieces my friend Peter tried to teach me was the lead guitar from a Steely Dan track off of their album ‘Can’t Buy a Thrill’ called ‘Reelin’ in the Years’ which I feel I’m doing now! I literally tied up my fingers in knots learning that one track. I can just about remember how to play some of it still, but not at the speed required!

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I have been blogging around the world!

As well as my normal activities on Philofaxy, I’ve been taking part in the Philofaxy All Stars Tour, which is about a team of blogging doing guest posts on a variety of blogs, connected to readers of Philofaxy. The tour is going very well. Here are some of my contributions:

 

Choosing a digital camera

Choosing a camera these days is quite a difficult task, not because your choice is restricted, but because the number of models for sale is very extensive, terms of price and quality. These days even mobile phones have cameras of quite reasonable specification compared to the first digital consumer cameras of say 10-12 years ago. Over the years specifications have improved and the prices have come down.

When choosing a camera we will all have a price band in mind, what ever that price band is there will be quite a range of cameras to choose from.

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Improving your Skype audio

I use Skype a lot these days for keeping in touch with family and friends around the world. Computer to Computer calls are free so it makes a lot of sense to use it

However are you getting the best from your Skype set-up?

Because of the small delays in transmission across the internet it is possible that you might get an ‘echo’ coming back to you, which can be quite distracting.

Whilst Skype works with nearly all computer set ups. I don’t recommend using the built in microphone and speakers on your laptop.  You can improve the performance of your set-up by just plugging in some earphones/headphones in to the speaker out socket (normally the green socket) on your laptop or computer. This will isolate the incoming audio from your outgoing audio via the microphone.

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Apple TV2

I recently got this little gadget to save me the bother of carrying my iMac upstairs to watch rented films from iTunes, given that the iMac weighs in at about 15 kgs, it’s not a task I like doing that often!

So what is the Apple TV, well it’s not a TV in it’s own right, it’s a small box which plugs in to your TV via an HDMI interface. Apple hide the details about the Apple TV on their iPod pages.

It comes with a mains lead, Apple remote and a small instruction book. There is no HDMI lead included in the package so you need to consider buying one of those as well. I bought an ‘Amazon Basics’ one which seems to do the job ok and seems well made.

The Apple TV has an Ethernet port as well as Wifi (802.11n,g,b) so it can easily hook in to your home network internet connection. As well as HDMI there is a digital audio connection available as well.

The Apple TV can be used for streaming content from the internet, or from your own PC or Mac. By content I include Video, Audio, Photos.

Video

Depending on your location you will have different content providers available to you, for instance in the US it’s possible to watch Netflix movies. You can also watch You Tube videos as well. We have been ‘renting’ films from the iTunes store and watching them on the iMac or now on the Apple TV.

Photos

In terms of photos you can browse your own collections or look through Flickr on line. It turns our 32″ LCD TV in to a great digital photo frame! For the price most conventional photo frames I have come across only offer quite small screens and limited capacity and then you have to transfer the photos to the frame via a USB lead. With the Apple TV you just browse your existing photo libraries and you can view them in quite high quality on a large screen.

You can use your photos as a ‘screen saver’ on the Apple TV as well. Or as a slideshow with music. The box offers lots of different options.

Audio

You can browse and play your audio collection on iTunes on your PC or Mac via the menu system on the TV screen. I have our TV hooked up to a HiFi amplifier and speakers, so I now longer have to hook my iPod in to this set up to play music.

Remote Control

Controlling the box can be done using the supplied remote to navigate your way through a simple menu structure. Or if you have a recent iPod Touch, iPhone or iPad download the Apple Remote app (it’s free!) and you can control the Apple TV from that. You can also use ‘Airplay‘ to play music or video from your ipod/phone/pad device via the Apple TV. It doesn’t do this in real time, so if you say play this video, it streams it to the Apple TV and then plays it but with no pause, so your ipod/phone/pad device can turn itself off whilst you watch or listen.

Set up

Setting up the Apple TV is fairly straight forward. Connect your HDMI cable to a spare HDMI socket on the TV. Plug in the mains lead. Turn on your TV and select the HDMI input. If you are using Wifi (and I suspect most people will be) you need to select your own Wifi access point and configure the Apple TV to connect to that access point/router for this you will need to know the password for your access point. The box will then most probably check for an update of it’s own software and download it.

Then on your PC or Mac you need to enable Home Sharing and Photo Sharing in iTunes.

Additionally you might need your sign in user names and passwords for YouTube and Flickr, but once you have done these the Apple TV will remember the details and you will be able to look at your list of subscriptions and saved searches etc and you will be able to sit back in the comfort of your living room and watch plenty of things.

I’ve also found it great for watching Video podcasts, set up iTunes to subscribe to the higher resolution versions if one is available, some are in HD in fact and you can really enjoy a 30 minute or one hour show on a big screen.

Highly recommended, lots of features in a small box that is easy to use.

 

Protopage

I guess a lot of people use something like Google Reader or iGoogle. I’ve used both in the past, but back in about 2004/5 I came across Protopage and I’ve not used anything else since. It’s a free ad supported service.

I have Protopage sent as my home page in every browser on all my machines around the house. Why? Well I then have all my feeds and bookmarks on every machine, without having to copy bookmarks across or using the sync capability of modern browsers. I can also use the mobile version of Protopage on my iPod Touch.

And here’s what mine looks like: [Click on the photo to see it full size]

Of course it’s infinitely variable in terms of layout, mine is built up over many years, I do change things around every so often, but it generally stays like this.

So I have bookmarks as well as RSS feeds grouped together in to topic areas, news feeds in the center, a weather feed for Thouars. A Flickr feed for new photos as they pop up.

Along the top you will see other tabs for different pages again grouped by interest/topic. You can shuffle your panes (widgets) between tabs just by dropping them on the tab, then going to that tab and moving the widget to where you want.

Each tab can be set up as a number of columns or free form. Each widget you can resize too or have them automatically minimise, although with my big iMac I don’t need to do that so much.

In the top right hand corner there is a drop down of different search engines, these can be configured a lot as well. So I have Google (UK), Amazon UK, Amazon France, Ebay(UK), Wikipedia etc etc.

Here is my Weather tab, which also has my travel book marks and world times. The ‘Weather Station’ is in fact part of a web page that I feed on to the page and then using the x y off set I exclude the parts of the original original webpage I don’t want to see. The weather station is at Bewl Water Sailing Club in Kent, not far from where we used to live. I need to find a similar feed for here! If you click on that link you will see the page in full. [Click on the photo to see it full size]

Here are some of my settings screens so you can see how I’ve got it set up. This is the news feed

Other common formats for most feed addresses are as follows:
Wordpress – http://www.siteaddress.com/feed/
Blogger – http://siteaddress.blogspot.com/feeds/posts/default?alt=rss

 

This is the Flickr Feed:

 

This is the settings for the overall Protopage

If you haven’t tried it give Protopage a try, it’s free, it works on every browser and OS I’ve used it on and I do use quite a few !

You can see how I use one of my Protopage tabs to monitor a large number of blogs for new posts for a twice weekly feature on the blog Philofaxy which is a guest post I wrote for the Well Planned Life blog

 

Volkswagen Touran

I owned a Volkswagen Touran back in 2004 until 2008, it was a Sport TDI 140 model with a manual 6 speed box. This particular car replaced a Renault Megane Scenic that we had owned for about 5 years. We had got the MPV bug for sure, mainly for the comfort and practicality of being able to move the seats around and ability to go for long distances without too much strain.

After the Touran we downsized to just one car and had just a Vauxhall Zafira, again an MPV but a 7 seater and also an automatic. Sadly more or less from day one I found the Zafira not as comfortable to drive as the Touran mainly because of the position of the accelerator pedal, it was too far towards the driver. However, we didn’t mind too much because we were in the throws of moving to France so we knew it wouldn’t be for more than two years.

So having moved to France in May last year (doesn’t time fly!) and the lease on our Zafira was coming to an end in April, we had to get another car ordered. It didn’t take me very long to decide on another Touran, although I did look at other makes and models. But each time I came back to a Touran. This time though it is LHD (naturally) and an auto instead of manual.

 

Compared to the old one some things are new, some things are just the same and some things have just been updated. But as you can see the basic style of the car is very similar. Some people don’t like this but I prefer evolution rather than revolution when it comes to car design.

The new one is also a two litre diesel powered model, but an updated version of the previous one. It seems to be more efficient better mpg, or less litres/km if you wish. This one is fitted with the 6 speed DSG (Direct Shift Gearbox) autobox which is essentially two gear boxes with one side doing 1, 3, and 5th gears the other 2, 4, and 6th gears and the clever electronics shifts between the gears sequentially in milliseconds meaning that apart from the engine note you don’t notice the gear changes.

It is nice to have cruise control back again, the Zafira didn’t have it at all. And the version in the Touran is an improved version in the way it functions. It will even stay engaged even though the gear box has needed to change down. So as you approach a roundabout at say 90kph touch the brakes and this disconnects the cruise control, the car slows down, may be drops a couple of gears. You negotiate the roundabout than then flick the button to re-engage your previous set speed and the car will accellerate itself back up to 90kph changing gears as required.

The audio system on the car is also fitted with an iPod interface. I know these have been around for years but I never got around to having one fitted on the previous Touran. I’m using my iPod Classic which stays in the car and I sync it to update my play lists every few weeks. On a recent long journey back to UK I caught up on quite a few pod casts which was quite a refreshing change to listening to music.

I’ve done nearly 3000 km in the two months we have had the new car, this has included a trip to North West of England and back again which accounted for about half of that distance. Fuel consumption is very good on anything more than an around town trip, but even then it is in the mid 40’s mpg. The car displays litres/100km but it can be changed to display mpg and miles!! But I leave it in kms as I’m getting used to that now. The displays I’ve managed to change in to English as well.

Mobile Phones

Some technology in our lives become things that we depend on from day to day. Mobile phones are certainly fit in to that guise. I first used a mobile phone back in 1986, but it was only on loan to me for a business trip. Back then phones used analogue technology. Modern day GSM phones were not available then. They were also still very expensive. Not many people had mobiles back then.

It wasn’t until 1995 that we got our first mobile a Nokia Orange. It was a GSM phone, but phones of this sort or era would struggle to last more than a couple of days on a single battery. I used that one for a couple of years before we got a couple of Nokia 702’s a bit more chunky but better battery life.

Then in 1999, along came the Nokia 7110, it was quite a revelation at the time. A big screen a roller for navigation. It supported WAP. A slider covers up the keyboard when you aren’t using it.  The previous phones were recycled, but this one I couldn’t part with. Sure it got replaced with more modern phones, colour displays, cameras, all the things we now expect as usual in a phone. But I kept the 7110 going on Orange just for the Orange film Wednesdays.

It wasn’t until the other day that I realised that the 7110 was now over 10 years old. It still works, I quite like using it as a second phone, the large display is great because I can read it without my reading glasses. Sure it’s simple but for a phone for texting (it has predictive texting) or for calls it’s fine.

Contrast this with another gadget I found in the cupboard the other day a Sony MZ-NF810 Mini Disc recorder. I bought this for my wife Alison in about 2004, this was just before iPods took off, but at the time she wanted something with an FM radio. Alison moved on to an iPod Nano and like other bits of technology the Mini Disc recorder got put away in the cupboard.

I am looking in to doing a project at the moment that I needed to interview people. I remembered the Mini Disc recorder… perfect I thought… but when I looked in to using it, the software isn’t available for the Mac OSX, but even with the PC software installed whilst I could find a way of putting audio files on to the MD recorder, I’m not discovered a way of transferring it off the MD recorder on to a PC in a digital format.  The best way seems to be just linking the headphone socket to the line in on my iMac.Then I discovered the Voice Memo recorder on my iPod Touch which can save files in MP3 format, so with a small external microphone I’m sure this will do the job perfectly, so the MD recorder I think will end up back in the cupboard again, such a shame in a way,

 

Panoramic Photography

With the advent of digital photography it has opened up a lot more opportunities for me to experiment with techniques which whilst they were not available with film, they tended to be a lot more expensive to do.  Panoramic photography was one of these techniques I’ve previously tried using film, but it was never that successful for me.

With digital photography it is a lot easier to achieve good results, but certainly not fool proof. Some of my earlier attempts where quite good, although I found it difficult to repeat these earlier results successfully every time, so I recently had an opportunity whilst over in France to refine the technique and capture the same scene on several days using different techniques to see the overall results and to learn from the exercise.

I started off playing around using the software supplied with my Canon EOS 20D, called Photostitch. It does a fairly good job of joining your files together. But this software doesn’t work on my Mac, or at least it didn’t work under Snow Leopard. I discovered a later version of the software on the net that now does work.  It’s nice and easy to use. You just assemble the photos in the right order and it then stitches them together. What could be easier….

The photo above I took quite early on and I must have hit lucky in one of my early attempts. Subsequent panoramas just didn’t have the same impact as this one so I went back to the drawing board and tried out various options to discover what I was doing wrong.

I found that in order to get consistent results you need to lock the exposure of the camera, so this means putting your camera in to manual mode. Then I found it is best to pan across your scene and look at the variation in exposure you are getting as you go from one side to the other. You might need to make some adjustments so that the exposure falls slightly either side of what the camera considers the correct exposure. You are however aiming to get the least variation across the whole scene. To achieve this I found after a few attempts it’s best to aim for the sun at its highest point in the day so that your scene is illuminated as evenly as possible. Being cloudy isn’t too much of a problem as long as the cloud isn’t too patchy, otherwise you will have quite large differences as you pan across the scene.

The next important thing you need is to the ability to hold your camera as steady as possible so that your pictures scan across the scene in the same plane. I have done some handheld, but using a tripod or mono pod makes the task that bit easier.

When you are taking your frames for your panorama, I found it important to have a decent overlap from one frame to the next, rather than getting all technical with angles and things I just used the focusing spots in the viewfinder, the outer ones on my camera are at about a quarter and three quarters across the frame. So take a picture note where the three quarters one is in the scene and move the camera so that the quarter spot is roughly pointing at the same point in the scene. This also helps you keep the camera level if you are doing this hand held. Just keep repeating this until you have covered the whole scene.

Most people do panos in landscape mode, the photo below was done with a series of portrait pictures, you get a much more ‘natural’ landscape across the scene that way, but you do have to take more shots.

Try different view points, just moving a few feet to the left or right can make a difference.

 

As you can see with this image there is also the risk of getting your own shadow in the scene! I could have cropped that out and I did in other versions of this image, but I have left this one as it came out of the software to start with.

Be prepared for some seriously big images, I’ve reduced these ones in size to get them on to the blog in a reasonable time.

The best advice I can give though is to keep trying to shoot different scenes. I’m lucky in that the above scene in the second picture is only about 50 metres from our house so I can quickly walk there take a series of pictures, nip back to the house, download the pictures and go back again if I’m not happy with the result!

Have fun….

 

Going Native….

We moved to France last May with a UK right hand drive (RHD) car. Driving it here in France didn’t cause me any real problems as I had driven many miles, or should I say kilometres, here over the years. I’m lucky I can quickly adapt to driving in different situations. I’ve been driving for 35 years this year (eek!) And I’ve driven a variety of vehicles in that time from small cars to 7.5 tonne trucks and things like Land Rovers with big trailers.

Over the years I’ve driven left hand drive (LHD) vehicles, hire cars or vans mainly. Being here full time though has exposed me to more of the hazards of driving a RHD car in France than you would experience in just a holiday.

We are awaiting the delivery of a new LHD car next month, I hope. In the meantime, we have hired a Fiat Punto, which of course is left hand drive. So what is it like swapping over to LHD after years of driving RHD vehicles?

You still do odd things like walking to the passenger side rather than the driver’s side in supermarket car parks! Or going to release the seat belt on the left hand side when you are sat in the driver’s seat rather than the right hand side. But I’ve quickly adapted to driving a LHD car again for longer than a few hours. The other change over for me with the Fiat is that it’s a manual and our previous car which we had for two years was an automatic. So far I’ve only forgotten to use the clutch once when coming to a halt!

One thing I have noticed is how much safer it is sitting on the correct side of the car when you are driving on the right. You have a better view of on coming cars on roundabouts and you can see other vehicles so much better without having to look around the windscreen pillars. Likewise when turning into right hand junctions you have a better view of the road you are turning into.

I have heard people quite concerned about driving on the other side of the road than the one they are used to driving on, but concentrate on your driving, which of course you should be doing anyway, and you won’t have any issues. I use my TomTom SatNav to warn me of speed limits and speed cameras. The French police seem to be pretty active with their mobile speed camera cars in our area, so I suggest you need to stick to the speed limits wherever you are.

Safe and happy driving, which ever side you drive on….