Sunday, May 01, 2016

Story a day May - Day 1

When Terry began scrolling through her phone, none of the photos she found were hers.

She hit the home button and looked at the familiar wallpaper and icon layout which was the same as it ever was, but then again she had left it much the same as it was when she had taken it out of the box on the first day. She turned the phone over to look at the case - it was the standard leather one, but on closer inspection it was a little more scuffed than hers.

She looked up as she realised what must have happened. The man had been coming out of the bar as she was going in, both of them engrossed in their phones - the curse of the modern age, she supposed. They had bumped shoulders and her phone had fallen to the floor - thankfully carpeted. She had picked it up and shoved it safely into her purse as she scanned the crowd for her friend Julie.

Terry had been a few minutes early for their lunch date, so she had ordered a martini and settled at the bar to kill time while she waited. Of course, that had been when she had realised how the old phone switch-a-roo had happened.

It would be easily sorted. All she had to do was dial her own number and call the man back to arrange a swap. He couldn't have gone far.

She heard the familiar ringtone and saw the man outside the bar take the phone out of his pocket and cancel the call without looking at the screen, hailing a cab with his other hand. The automatic response came back 'Busy - will call you back later'.

Terry realised that there was no way she could push through the crowd in time to catch him and cursed her carelessness again. She opened the photo app again and scrolled through the pictures again, morbidly curious for a glimpse into this stranger's life. Perhaps a picture of the subway sandwich he'd had for lunch or an idle selfie?

What she saw chilled her and the next number she dialled was the police, to report a homicide ...

Saturday, February 06, 2016

The Ballad of the Starveling Cat

Of all the creatures in the Neath,
There’s one with fur and claws and teeth,
That hides in the dark
and doesn’t bark ...

The Starveling Cat!
  (The Starveling Cat)
He’s not very fat!
  (The Starveling Cat)
He don’t wear a hat!
  (The Starveling Cat)

He’s waiting to pounce,
Without an ounce,
Of mercy in his soul,
And eyes like coals …

The Starveling Cat!
  (The Starveling Cat)
As tough as a rat!
  (The Starveling Cat)
He’ll squash you flat!
  (The Starveling Cat)

So don’t forget,
He’s nobody’s pet,
He’ll rip you apart,
And start with your heart!

The Starveling Cat!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Art of Noise

As OU students much of our time is spent with our nose in a book, or as is more likely these days, looking at a screen. What about the times when this is not practical - how can you study when you are on a crowded train, stuck in traffic or walking the dog?

The answer is audio.

Everybody has a smart phone or mp3 player of some description, but the problem lies in how to get your study material onto your device. Some materials are already in audio format - my course has various podcasts available online and also on the course DVDs, so these aren’t a problem. Other things need a more creative approach.

The simplest way is to simply record yourself reading out your notes - this is a very useful technique for getting those last few pages of revision notes to stick in the days before an exam. Just use a recording app on your phone and save it as a mp3 file and you’re done.

Module texts are a little more tricky. The first breakthrough for me was using my trusty kindle. I copied the kindle format file across and then went looking for text to speech. This is hidden under the ‘experimental’ menu options, at least on the kindle I have, and once that is enabled, pressing shift and symbol will start and stop the voice. If you want to record this as an mp3 then hooking it to your pc via a 3.5 mm jack lead will allow you to capture the sound and export it out using a program called Audacity.

The best option is using the text to speech functions on your mac or pc. The most reliable way of getting a good recording is to open up the course PDF document, selecting the text that you want and pasting it into a text file. I usually edit it to take out any things like tables of data or long lists of references, and break it down into manageable chunks.

Once you’ve got a ‘clean’ text file, on the PC you need to go to the ‘Ease of Access’ Center and enable the narrator - you probably want to uncheck the box marked ‘Echo User’s Keystrokes’ at this point. Now you should be able to select the text that you want to read and it will start playing.

On the mac it’s even easier - you select all and then click on services, Add to itunes as spoken track. You can pick the voice you want, but I like ‘Alex’. The track will then appear in your itunes library and you can set the properties for it. Click on get info, Options and check the options for skip when shuffling and remember playback position so you don’t lose your place half way through a chapter.

Another thorny topic is whether it is a good idea to listen to music when you are studying.

I find that anything with lyrics is too much of a distraction, so simple, minimalist tunes are best. I’m a big fan of the game ‘Animal Crossing’, so I was delighted to find a chrome plugin to play the music from the game, changing every hour - just google ‘Animal Crossing Chrome plugin’ to find it. You can switch it off and on as you like, and choose between music from different versions of the game as you prefer.

If you just need to block out background distractions, then an ambient noise generator is the way to go. A good one on Mac is called ‘Noizio’ (with a Z). Once it is installed select the sounds that you want and how loud you want them. I like a mix of river stream and sunny day to accompany my studies.