Sunday, 17 May 2015

Travel Essentials


When I go on holiday or on a trip abroad, there are a few essentials that I have to take with me.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to talk about underwear, toiletries and a passport. That goes without saying unless you think I am the kind of person who only takes one pair of underpants, one pair of socks and sneaks into countries, spending a week or two there with a progressively stronger hum emanating from him.

Rest assured that I do take lots of underwear. Nor am I some kind of ghostly spy from a Robert Ludlum novel.

When I say "essentials" I really mean luxuries that keep me sane when I am on a totally tedious long haul flight, or stuck in a remote hotel on a business trip in a room with only a TV for company, which has three very poor channels all in a foreign language.

On a return business trip from China a few years ago, I found myself flying from Beijing to Amsterdam on China Southern airlines and while the service and environment were no better or worse than any European airlines, the entertainment left a lot to be desired. We had a small personal TV screen in the back of the seat ahead but the entertainment package consisted of three terrible English films and hundreds of Chinese movies. The Chinese passengers loved watching the latest national movies but for me they were terrible. I tried to watch one and gave up because it so awful.

I had nothing to entertain me, other than trying to compose a tune out of the close harmony snoring that was going on around me.

This is exactly why I need something to keep my brain from seizing up in disgust.


Here is my list:

iPod Classic


Regular readers will know that I am a huge fan of music . My iPod Classic can accommodate my entire CD collection. At the moment it contains almost 7000 songs which if played altogether would provide almost 22 days of continuous music.

It’s great for relaxing on a dreary long haul flight and even on holiday when sitting on a sun kissed beach watching the sun’s rays reflecting off the still blue water. 

Kindle

I am an avid reader and consume books. When travelling, I read so many books, especially if the trip is a solitary business trip or we are chilling out on a sunny beach somewhere. In the past I have had to sacrifice clothes (not underpants and socks you’ll be pleased to know) in order to cram another paperback into my luggage; either that or fill my hand luggage with books. Worse, I do have a tendency to hoard books so I end up having to bring them back with me too.

Not now though. My Kindle has saved me. I can download as many books as I like because Kindle storage weighs zero grams. It makes no difference whether I download one book or one hundred books. Gone are the days of taking an entire library onto an aircraft.

I know that purists mourn the dawn of the Kindle and other eReaders but when travelling, it makes life so much easier.

PSP

"We need a new manager!"

I am a sad old fool who still plays the odd computer game. As rare as that is nowadays, I do dabble, particularly on a long haul flight where the only entertainment is a library of bizarre martial arts films.

My particular favourites are football games, in which I either play football matches against the computer, and lose horribly, or as a football manager when I have arguments with computer sprites who play crap and end up getting the sack for precipitating the relegation of my chosen club.

It’s fun though – at least until the swearing starts.

Nexus 7 Tablet


I didn’t think I needed a tablet but now I am converted. The Nexus 7 is a smaller, cheaper version of an iPad but is just as versatile. I have converted my old collection of DVD’s into Nexus 7 friendly files and loaded them onto the device so that I can watch movies at my leisure. I also have an app called Sky Go which allows me to download movies from Sky’s library of films and watch them offline. Add to that a few other useful apps, like puzzle games, offline dictionaries and I  have a very versatile device that allows me to access the internet via hotel wifi to keep me in touch with what’s happening in the world and send/receive emails etc.

I can barely survive a trip without it.

Smartphone



I know what you’re thinking. Making phone calls, sending texts and surfing the internet on a mobile network while in a foreign land can be very expensive.

That’s true, but when abroad, a smartphone is absolutely essential. This device is smaller even than my Nexus 7 tablet which means I can fit it into my pocket when I am out and about. The great thing about my phone is that I can download maps of my destination and use GPS to find my way around foreign cities without the need for paying stupid money to download maps on the fly. I can also download offline dictionaries in a variety of languages which stops me looking like a fool when sitting in a restaurant which has no menus in English. There are so many useful apps available that my smartphone is almost like having a travel guide with me all the time.

And it takes decent pictures too.

Camera

"I''m still not sure I have anough cameras!"
As good as a smartphone camera is, it simply doesn’t meet the standard of a proper digital camera. We have two cameras, the first is a small one that fits snugly into my pocket and takes amazing pictures, particularly in the dark. The other is a digital SLR which Mrs PM uses to take incredible photos. Of course, it is much bulkier but the photos it produces more than compensate from the stigma of standing out like a tourist. At the start of this year I was too scared to use it, but I have spent 30 days trying to master a little bit of theory with a view to actually trying to take some half decent photographs with it when we go to Brazil later this year.

And finally …

I’m sure more sensible readers will roll their eyes and say “What about sun protection, health protection, guide books and all of the other essentials to keep you safe?”

Yes – they are essentials (particularly sun cream which prevents me devolving into a lobster) but I need simply pleasures to keep me sane on long tedious flights and when stuck on my own in a strange hotel room in deepest darkest China.

Sadly, I have to endure another business trip to China in June and I will have nobody to play with. The devices above will make the trip far more enjoyable.

So there!

Over to you, dear reader.

What do you regard as essential travel items?

Sunday, 10 May 2015

The Evolution Of Ideas


Can I share something with you, dear reader?

I’d like to take you on a journey inside my imagination. Don’t worry - I won’t steer you to the weirder zones (even I don’t want to go there).

I see my own imagination as a universe teeming with ideas and thoughts hurtling around the cosmos, some of which take form and head towards a central point where they can evolve and hopefully make the transition from my mind’s eye to the real world, becoming a Word document, a comment in my notepad or an email to myself to store in my ideas folder.

The pinnacle of this evolutionary process is a blog post.

However, I sometimes have a problem – actually getting these ideas to evolve into something tangible.

Sometimes, I am delighted when I have a thought and convert into a blog post. Yet there are many times when I find it tough. Such ideas are quite good until the point when I try to put pen to paper and at that point they refuse to advance any further.

There are several reasons for this.

Some ideas seem great in my head yet but when converted into real words lose impact and refuse to progress any further.

Other ideas when reviewed at a later stage seem to be ridiculous and are cast back into my imagination in the hope that they can improve.

Yet more ideas are simply too weird to be cast into the limelight.

I equate the process as similar to trying to crowbar an elephant into a garden shed – pointless and impossible.



Yet, bizarrely, the more annoyed I am about an idea, the higher the likelihood that it will be cast onto the internet for you to read, dear reader. It’s almost as if my creative juices are fuelled by an inner rage. I like to think of this as my inner Hulk. 



When the inner Hulk speaks,  I stop worrying about how good or bad the post is and focus solely on getting all of the angry words down. As the thoughts cascade around my head and the volume of my inner ranting voice increases, I find that I type faster and before I know it I have a very crude blog post that just needs to be sharpened before publication.

And that worries me slightly.

By nature I am a very laid back person who doesn’t like to be angry. Ranting is therapeutic and helps to disperse the rage – which is a good thing. The problem is that this shouldn’t be the catalyst that helps an embryonic idea develop into a blog post.

I need another more inspirational method to be more creative. I have been exploring the options and there are definite ways to achieve this.

One other method that works is to be passionate about the idea. Regular readers will know that I pepper my inane nonsense with posts about music, something I like to do on a fairly regular basis to bore you into coma. While my inner ranting voice inspires me to write about things that make me angry, another inner voice – the Blind Enthusiast – pours out my inner enthusiasm in a similar way to the inner Hulk.


I reckon that if I allow the Blind Enthusiast to expand his horizons, more of my weird ideas will make it from my imagination onto the internet to bore you even more, dear reader.

With that in mind, I am apologising in advance for the posts that will appear over the coming months – starting with this one.

The Blind Enthusiast is currently in charge and raring to go.

Before I go, let me just ask:

How do you develop ideas into blog posts?

Do you have an Inner Hulk or Blind Enthusiast?

Are you as weird as I am?

Thanks for listening.


Friday, 1 May 2015

Little Miss Nasty


I sometimes wonder why people feel they have the right to cause offence and be just downright nasty.

If I offend people, usually by accident I hasten to add, I feel absolutely terrible about it and I am usually overcome by guilt. Even if I genuinely dislike the person, I will apologise profusely, although sometimes I also wonder what good an apology actually does.

I mean if I were to say something along the lines of “I’m sorry I’ve just squashed run over your cat.”

The apology isn’t going to bring the cat back is it? A better alternative would be to try to replace the cat and offer some other form of compensation, surely?  Not that such things stops me. British people apologise for everything anyway – even if it’s the fault of the other person.

You may wonder why I’m talking about nastiness. Well a certain person has been at it again. I am talking about none other than Katie Hopkins, a woman I first mentioned in my post earlier this year: A Celebrity Rant.

A national tabloid has given her a column which gives her a stage to write offensive comments about anything that takes her fancy. And recently she seems to have cranked up her game.

If you are not aware, there are currently hundreds of people trying to flee from war torn places like Libya and Syria to seek sanctuary in the European Union and paying large amounts of money to unscrupulous traffickers who pile them in huge numbers into useless boats that simply cannot accommodate them. These boats then set sail for southern Europe on treacherous seas and hundreds of people have drowned as a result.

Katie Hopkins wrote an article describing these poor people as “cockroaches” and “feral humans” and that she did not care that these people were dying.

This isn’t all she has said. Recently she had a pop at depression basically saying that these people need to pull themselves together and “get some running shoes and some fresh air”.

She is basically trying to seek attention but is going about it in totally the wrong way. Some people try to claim the moral high ground by “telling it as it is” and don’t care who is upset as a result of their outburst.

In their view, it is a good thing to offer such appalling opinions, saying things like “It’s my opinion – just deal with it.”

The truth is that these people have no clue how hurtful their words can be. Nastiness is something I simply cannot understand. Why would you want to hurt the feelings of a fellow human being in any way?

Katie Hopkins is just the celebrity face of such nastiness (though I use the word “celebrity” in its loosest possible term – actually by saying that, am I being nasty to her?). In my opinion she says the things she says just for attention. In other words, she had a taste of fame on The Apprentice and now she wants more of the same, even if it means becoming one of the most hated people in Britain.

She is like a keyboard warrior, or internet troll – except she’s worse because everyone knows who she is and she actually says bad things in front of the camera too.

Australian comedian Adam Hills sums her up perfectly:



Of course, she won’t listen.

Nevertheless, she might think again thanks to recent events. Such is her ego that she thinks she can go to a TV channel with a proposition for a show where she interviews celebrities as a form of entertainment for the rest of us, the majority of whom really do not want to hear her utter a single word more. Unsurprisingly, when agents were approached to put forward their celebrities for a cosy chat with Ms Hopkins, nobody would do it, citing her controversial opinions and nastiness as the reason – and a pretty valid reason it is too. I know that if I were famous I wouldn’t want to even be in the same building as the woman, let alone the same room.

The one thing I could use Katie Hopkins for would be the unit in scale of nastiness. For example, if somebody were to say something nasty in front of me, I could chastise them by suggesting that they had reached a certain level on this scale.

The unit would have to be a centiHopkins (or cH)  because the top of the scale would be a Hopkins, i.e. the pinnacle of nastiness, with 0 cH being really nice (just like me) and 100 cH (or 1H) being really nasty.

The Hopkins Scale of Nastiness
Seriously, though, such nastiness is rife in the UK but it’s not limited to the shores of our small island. I’ve seen and heard similar things in other parts of the world too. People being nasty too or about other people based on wealth, religion, skin colour, nationality and even something as ridiculous as the sports team you support.
I’m not built that way and I simply do not understand  those who are.
The chances of Katie Hopkins ever reading my words are tiny if not impossible. 
But, if you DO stumble across this blog post, by accident, Katie, then all I have to say is this.
Please stop being nasty to people. 
As human beings we need to love and be loved and I think you are capable of both. 
If you want to be famous, the general public will hate you for uttering outrageous statements under the pretence that “these things need to be said”. 
The truth is that they do NOT need to be said. 
What you need to do is be a kind, generous and caring person who uses her fame for good rather than spouting bile and vitriol in the direction of everything that displease or annoys you.
There’s no need for it. 
Despite what I’ve said above, I will be nice to you because nastiness is not in my nature. I’m sure if you try you can eliminate this and people will warm to you.
I hope you care enough to listen to me, because although you wind me up with your outrageous and offensive comments, I can’t bring myself to stoop to your level and write a truly nasty post about you.
Being hated for being nasty is not a good thing - and nobody will love you for it.
Peace!



Sunday, 26 April 2015

Nine Inch Nails - The Meme


It’s that time of the month again, the time when I allow a little self-indulgence and pontificate about one of my favourite musical artists. This month it is the turn of Nine Inch Nails, the band fronted by Oscar winning musical genius Trent Reznor.

Yes, that’s right – Trent Reznor won an Oscar for the soundtrack to the Facebook film The Social Network, together with co-writer Atticus Ross.

In fact, quite a few Nine Inch Nails songs have found their way onto movie soundtracks and TV programmes.

Of all my music, Mrs PM finds Nine Inch Nails the least offensive and most palatable, probably because they incorporate elements of dance into some of their music. However, make no mistake, this is a band that produces angry songs ) sometimes very angry indeed) and that’s what I love most about them.

Anyway, without further ado, let’s plough into this.

1. How long have you been a fan?

I have been a fan since 1994 when I heard my first song by the band. In the early 1980’s, I was heavily into electronic pop music. Bands like Depeche Mode, Ultravox, Heaven 17 and Tears For Fears were huge favourites but they lacked the aggression I craved from heavy metal and rock music.

Nine Inch Nails bridged that gap. Their music is described as industrial but to me it is a fusion of that period from the early 1980’s with the menacing undertones that heavy metal and hard rock provide.

2. Do you remember the first song of theirs you heard?

The first song I encountered was Closer (see below). I first heard it at a rock club in Manchester called Rockworld that is now, sadly, no longer there. It was the only night club in Manchester that I could bear to be in and the patrons of the club were fans of punk rock, hard rock, heavy metal, classic rock and any combination of all of them. The dress code was non-existent and allowed everyone to express themselves in any way they desired.

When I heard the song I asked a mate who the band was. It wasn’t long before I bought my first Nine Inch Nails CD.

3. What’s your favourite album(s)?

My absolute favourite is the first album I ever bought – The Downward Spiral, which many regard as the band’s magnum opus. To be honest though I love every last one of their albums with the following standing out:

The Downward Spiral (1994)

Image result for the downward spiral

The Fragile (1999)

Image result for the fragile

With Teeth (2005)

Image result for with teeth

4. What’s your favourite song(s)?

This is an extremely difficult question, as always for a band that I love. My favourite songs are those that are the angriest. However, Nine Inch Nails have evolved over the years and while their music is quite heavy, I thought I would try to give a tour of the types of songs they produce.

Copy of A (from Hesitation Marks - 2014)

This is a recent song and is more electronic than some of the band’s earlier offerings. I find this to be a real earworm with it’s almost dance like beat. Recent songs seem to be less angry than earlier material because, perhaps, Trent Reznor is mellowing with age.



Discipline (from The Slip - 2008)

Moving back a few years, Nine Inch Nails offered an album for free on their website, an offer I simply couldn’t refuse. Nevertheless, I loved the album and this song is also a slightly dance-oriented song. I was watching a TV programme with a scene in a dance club and this song was playing in the background. Mrs PM didn’t believe it was Nine Inch Nails until Trent started singing.



Every Day Is Exactly The Same (from With Teeth  - 2005)

A while ago, when I was stuck in a bit of a rut, this song summed up everything I was feeling. The fact is I am still in a rut, but I can see a way out of it and I am a lot more positive. Every time I hear this song, it makes me consider what I want to do. I love it.



The Hand That Feeds (from With Teeth – 2005)

This is my favourite Nine Inch Nails song . It is angry but more subdued than the earlier material the band produced, which was full of rage and very heavy as a result. For me, this is the perfect Nine Inch Nails song.



Closer (from The Downward Spiral – 1994)

As I said earlier, this is the first song I heard by the band and I still love it. Mrs PM quite likes it too. However, be warned, the chorus is rather offensive with swearing. In fact, I was going to put up the official video, but I thought that might be a little offensive too. Despite all this, I think it is a fantastic song.

Warning - this song may offend.



5. Have you ever seen them live? (How often?)

Yes – I’ve seen them four times. The first time was probably the best because it coincided with the album With Teeth in 2005, but the most recent concert last year was another superb couple of hours.

6. Have you ever met them?

No. But I would love to.

7. Do you have a favourite era of their career?

Not really. Each album has its own merits.

8. Is there a song or album of theirs you dislike?

Strangely no. All of their albums appear frequently on my iPod and I like most of the songs I hear.

9. What do they or their music mean to you?

Let’s face it, Nine Inch Nails are the antithesis of happy-clappy music and that’s why I love them. Their music, on the whole, is dark and explores the negativity that exists in all of us. When I have had a bad day, I like nothing more than to pop on a good old angry Nine Inch Nails song because it has a cathartic effect and dissolves the negativity. You may think that’s a bit weird, and maybe you’re right, but it works for me.

10. Do you get annoyed when other people don’t like them?

Not many people I have met totally dislike them –even Mrs PM. So really, I don’t care.

11. Which artist do you want them to collaborate with?

Trent Reznor has collaborated with one of my favourite artists, David Bowie. I really wish this had been the start of more work between the two of them. Nine Inch Nails added something special to a typical David Bowie song – I’m Afraid of Americans is the result. Trent Reznor is the stalker in the video.



12. Are they underappreciated/unknown?

Not at all. In fact, they are more popular than ever, it seems.

13. Is there a song of them that everybody likes but you dislike?

No. I don’t really dislike any of their songs.

14. Do people think you are too obsessed with the artist?

I wouldn’t say so – unless they release a new album, in which case I do tend to overplay it.

15. Do you pre-order their new albums without having heard any music from it?

Absolutely.

And Finally ...

I hope you like some of the music above and thanks for allowing a little self-indugence.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Molto Bene


May is approaching and with it, improved weather and the holiday season, the time of the year when the days are longer and brighter and I get to enjoy the prospect of a trip or two abroad that isn’t work related.

The first of those trips is a long weekend to Bologna in Italy. Mrs PM and I plus five friends are popping across to the home of spaghetti bolognese and I can’t wait.

You may also know that this year I have decided to attempt to improve myself by adopting several 30 day challenges throughout the year. My reasons for doing this are as follows.

First, I have been tired of the same old tired New Year’s Resolution because I fail miserably. By forcing myself to concentrate on something for 30 days.

Second, other bloggers have attempted something similar and it yields results.

Finally, I am aware that this challenge is probably a bit of a midlife crisis. When I analyse my reasons for wanting to do it, I simply want to add a few more strings to my bow. Regular readers will know that I really want to do something other than my chosen career and by trying a few other things I get a sense of relief and a little bit of hope that something will appeal to me so much that I take a chance and go for it.

Anyway, enough of that crap; it’s early days yet.

My current 30 day challenge is to learn basic Italian in time for our trip to Bologna. And I am thoroughly enjoying it. One of the things I’ve always regretted is my limited knowledge of languages and the struggle I have when immersed in a culture that speaks little or no English, and I can’t even begin to make myself understood.

I’m really lucky that I speak English, American, Canadian and Australian fluently. My French is good enough to make myself understood, my Spanish is improving rapidly and my German needs some work.

Before April 1st this year, my Italian was limited to molto bene, scusi and ciao

But now I can say a lot more and I understand the basics. And all this from between 20 minutes and an hour a day learning from the internet using two tools that are absolutely free to use.

The first is Duolingo that offers lessons in the form of challenges, a bit like a game. Gradually you learn phrases, sentence structure and vocabulary, writing out translations in English and Italian and also practicing listening and speaking.

The second is Memrise that helps improve vocabulary with flashcards and repetitive tests with picture and prompts to help to jog your memory if you forget.

I have been using these tools to great effect to strengthen my Spanish skills and I am now able to have a very good level of understanding of online Spanish magazines as a result. I’m not fluent by any stretch of the imagination but I can get the gist of what I am reading.

I have 12 more days of Italian and then a real test when I actually go there and try to speak with the locals. Wish me luck; I think I’ll need it.

I have so far completed five of these 30 day challenges.

(1) Walk at least two miles every day – This was easy, In January I made a real effort to force myself outside every single day no matter how cold and miserable it was. As a result, I achieved a little more fitness than I would normally have done and since then I have continued to walk on average two miles a day on most days since then.


(2) Improve Spanish – I concentrated on my Spanish using Duolingo and Memrise for the whole of January as well as attempting to read Spanish web sites and watch Spanish videos. This was tough and still is but I have improved my vocabulary and reading skills.


(3) Photography – I spent February trying to improve my photography skills, reading books and trying to get to grips with Mrs PM’s digital SLR. I had an ally with this because Mrs PM is a great photographer and explained a lot of techniques she had learned on a course she attended a few years ago. I am attempting another photography challenge in May because of holidays. This time the emphasis will be to actually take Mrs PM’s camera and try to take as many cool shots as possible.


(4) Creative Writing – A few years ago, I bought two creative writing books and I have never read them. They have simply gathered dust on my bookshelf. In March I decided to blow off the dust and read them from cover to cover. Also, in March I write down lots of notes for writing ideas including a novel. I thoroughly enjoyed this challenge and it has sown the seed of a massive challenge later this year.


(5) Life Coach – When I found the creative writing book, I also spotted a book about being your own life coach. Both Mrs PM and I have no idea where it came from (she thinks I bought it and I think she bought it – perhaps it’s a survivor of my time with my ex-wife – I can’t remember). Anyway, I decided to read this too because, the author claimed, the book can change your life and make you grab your desires by the scruff of the neck and totally change its direction for the better. The truth is, that while I found it vaguely interesting, the book was full of Mr Motivator ideas like “JUST DO IT!!!” and while I could relate to some elements of it, most of it was aimed towards those of us who can burst into a room and announce “I’M HERE!!” with no fear of the consequences. All of the stories of success were a bit too contrived for me. It was good to read though – not something I would normally even consider picking up.



What’s next?

Our big holiday this year is Brazil in October so, depending on how successful I am with Italian, I am planning to spend 30 days learning Portugese.

One challenge I have been dying to try, but lacked courage and belief in my own ability to do so, is to write a novel in November (National Novel Writing Month – or Nanowrimo). This is a 30 day challenge just waiting to happen – so I am going for it.

Mrs PM can play a piano so she has been talking about buying a digital piano for a couple of years now. We’ve chatted about this and I said that if we buy one, then I will spend 30 days trying to teach myself how to play it. I can read music (well I used to be able to) so how hard can it be? Don’t answer that – I know it’s hard.

Anyway, enough of this nonsense for now.

Wish me luck with my Italian and I will let you know whether I made a complete arse of myself in Bologna or not in due course.