Tag Archives: writing

It didn’t work!

Somehow, I never expected that it would. I’m talking about National Blog Posting Month, which I dutifully blogged about at the time.

Bullying myself into an activity was never going to work. So you can rest assured that in the writing of this post and the previous one, no cruelty to the author was involved. 😉

And whether I write more posts will depend almost entirely on whether I feel like it, and whether think I have anything to write about.

How to make coffee without losing friends

You’ve probably noticed two trends in the instruction manuals or leaflets which come with consumer items. For one groups of items—mobile phones for example—the trend is towards giving less and less useful information. For example, my new phone has a red light on the side which sometimes flashes. It must do this for a reason, to indicate something, but I’ve no idea what and the manual doesn’t tell me. In fact much of the manual consists of sentences beginning “You can . . .” which mention a particular task but don’t actually mention how to do it.

The other trend is towards giving more and more unnecessary information—for example, telling you that candles burn and that the flame is hot.

Many sets of instructions are also written in barely intelligible English, translated from another language by a non-native speaker of English. Personally I think such translations should be required to meet a minimum legal standard, since confusion can in some cases be dangerous and in others can make certain features of a product unusable. If the instructions for a feature can’t be deciphered, then the feature is effectively not there and you may just as well have been sold a faulty product.

A couple of weeks ago I bought myself a Russell Hobbs coffee grinder, in order to let me drink nice, freshly ground coffee. It works very well.

My first reaction to the instructions that came with it was that it was a breath of fresh air to read ones which were obviously written by someone who knew English. Every word was intelligible.

My second thought was that they were rather detailed, but since a lot of the detail concerned safety and the reasons for various things, that was still OK.

What I wasn’t expecting, though, was the advice on personal relationships in step 20:

Extract from Russell Hobbs instruction manual

Item 16 is reasonable, though amusingly worded. So are items 17 and 18, though the writer appears either not to have heard of semicolons or to have missed an and out. Item 19 is certainly an adequate way of counting approximate seconds. But item 20???

That made me laugh out loud, but I’m wondering how on earth it made its way into an actual instruction booklet. In a draft as a joke when someone had been drinking, maybe . . . but the final booklet? For a well-known manufacturer? Do they know what is going out in their name?

I confess that when I grind the coffee, I don’t count in a “firm, clear voice”. I either time the bursts with my watch, or count quietly and take the risk of people jumping to conclusions.

National Blog Posting Month

OK, so I’ve just signed up for a thing called National Blog Posting Month, also known by the “elegant” name NaBloPoMo. This was probably a rash thing to do. The idea is that every day, for an entire month, I have to post something to my blog.

From past experience of writing a journal, this is unlikely to happen. Some days simply aren’t interesting. But it will be interesting to try, and to see whether I fail abysmally or only moderately . . .

The name is rather inaccurate. First, it’s not a specific month. It’s one month from the day I signed up. And second, it’s international. So it should really be called Ongoing international blog posting  exercise, or  Oninblopex.

I’ve a bit of a cold today and just thinking about doing this makes my temperature rise, so I’m definitely not predicting great  success. But let’s see.

Hmmm . . . Maybe I should go and un-sign-up . . .

Creative cycles

If you read this regularly, or read back a few pages, you’ll know that I’ve recently come back to blogging here after quite a long break, and that there’s been a mini-flurry of posts. You can read them below!


A while ago, an online artist friend wrote in her blog that she’d decided to try to draw something every day, to practise her art skills. I was immediately attracted to the idea of trying to write something every day, maybe for this blog, as a similar useful discipline. But then I hadn’t the energy for it and the idea foundered.

Then I re-read her post the other week, and was encouraged to have a go. My flurry of posts ensued.
I believe in encouraging the encourager, so I mentioned to her that she’d encouraged me to start writing again. Her reply was along the lines: “Well actually… Yes, I really ought to get back to doing that.. I’m not doing it at the moment”.

Another online friend, a clarinettist, had had good intentions of practising every day. She wrote in her blog about feeling discouraged at not managing to do it. (She also wrote very encouragingly about being encouraged by me! Thank you.) And as you know if you’ve read below, my violin practice lapsed over Christmas…

How many of your New Year resolutions took the form “I will [insert idealistic ambition of personal perfection] every day”? Did they succeed?

I very much doubt that they did, but I’m not sure this is a bad thing. Reflecting on my own situatiion and the experiences of my fellow bloggers, I found myself thinking about the idea of creative cycles.

Learning, rest and cycles

I think any creative activity is in fact a learning process. Musical performance is included in this, by the way, because you have to create your particular style of playing. You’re always trying to develop and move forwards…

But learning is hard work for the brain. It doesn’t like concentrating hard on one thing indefinitely; after working at something new, it likes time to assimilate what has been learnt. If you play an instrument, imagine this scenario: one day, you go to a long rehearsal, or you do some intense practice at home. You work hard at it. When you stop, you’re definitely ready for a rest… Next day, when you practise some more, you don’t want to work on the same piece again, so you practise something else. Or you do try to play the same music, but seem to be having an “off day”. Or, more likely than not, you have a day off from playing, but the music you were practising is still going through your head. You find yourself unconsciously whistling tunes from it as you do other things. A few days later, you play the music again. You find it has improved a lot–while you weren’t working on it. Your practice told your brain what was required to play. Afterwards–most likely while you were asleep, if the suggestions of recent research are right–your brain set about “reprogramming” itself to achieve what you’d fed into it.

It does seem that most of the improvement happens between practice periods, not during them. That’s one reason why it’s a bad idea to force yourself to practise the same thing for hours on end, expecting it to become perfect as you practise. When your brain says you need to stop, you need to stop.

I think something similar might apply over longer timescales. Maybe we shouldn’t expect to keep our self-promise to do a particular activity every day–or even every week. Maybe it’s not even desirable that we should. (Or maybe our needs in this respect vary from person to person.) Each activity needs rest periods. A particularly long, intense period of one activity might need to be followed by a particularly long and complete rest from it. This might actually be healthy and not a failure on our part at all; it might be the success of recognising the way of working that enables us to give the best results.

Solo musicians whom I’ve met generally say that they like to learn the notes for a piece, then put it aside for several months before coming back to it. Then they’re ready to work on getting it ready for public performance. Slogging away for ever isn’t necessarily the best approach. In fact I’m pretty sure that for any creative activity it’s entirely the wrong one. (On a smaller timescale: I wrote the bulk of this post a week or so ago. Then I left it, and now that I’ve come back to edit it, the process feels a lot easier than it did then.)

I’m interested in a lot of different things–that’s probably obvious from my blog posts. But with most of them I’m never happy unless I involve myself in them in some depth. I’ll buy a textbook on a subject and study it. I’ll try to find out what the “professional” approach to it is. I’m interested in music, mathematics, computer programming, writing, and so on. Well, I can’t do all of those at once in the sort of depth I want to. Typically I’ll immerse myself in one of them for several months. Then I come to a natural point where it feels like time to do something else. I take a break from the activity I’ve immersed in, and immerse myself in the next one. So each activity happens in cycles, interspersed with the others.

The most important activities never quite go away, though. For example, there’s no time in the last twenty years when I’ve not been playing regularly in at least one orchestra. But there have been times when I was working hard at improving my violin technique, and others when I simply did what was required to prepare for the next concert. Those times haven’t been ones of musical inactivity, though: I’ve had the sense of using and consolidating the technique that was previously worked on. A period of learning followed by a period of consolidation.

So that’s how it seems to work for me. If you’re involved in any creative activity, do you have a similar experience of it going in cycles? I’d love to hear from you.

Some science humour

I’ve not been able to update this blog for a while and now I’ve only got a short session in the library, so I thought I’d begin with something I can post quickly. Here are some science-related pages which I think are quite fun…


  • How to Write a Scientific Paper: very funny article by E Robert Schulman in The Annals of Improbable Research, 1996. Possibly explains why so many papers read the way they do… and practises all its advice on the spot. [Note: I successfully accessed this the other day, but at the time of writing it is for some reason unavailable. I hope it comes back, because it really is brilliant!)

Apples and Oranges

In arguments, it’s traditional to accuse someone of “comparing apples with oranges”, as though it were impossible. A few scientists have pointed out that it’s actually quite easy to compare apples with oranges, and even written papers on it:

  • Apples and Oranges: A Comparison: Short article by Scott A Sandford, originally published in The Annals of Improbable Research, 1995.
  • Comparing apples and oranges: a randomised prospective study: A more impressively written up paper by James E Barone in the British Medical Journal, 2000. However, the claim to have analysed results using FudgeStat software from “Hypercrunch Corporation” raises my suspicions that the research may not be entirely authentic.

Well I’m out of time already, so the rest will have to follow, along with various other things I have in the pipeline…