What’s in my bag? (start of 2018)

I recently discovered WordPress main-man Matt Mullenweg’s “what’s in my bag” posts (here is Matt’s 2017 bag-roster), and the various folk online inspired by him to provide their own accounts. My wife keeps asking me why I feel the need to carry so many gadgets, leads and other “clobber” around, although she is honest enough to be grateful when she needs a phone-charge and invariably hasn’t brought her own kit 😛

Photo of my bag and its contents (start of 2018)
My bag and its contents (start of 2018)

It will become quite clear that I like my gadgets (or “toys”, as I can hear my better-half calling them), so let me waste no more time, and get you introduced…

The bag itself

Photo of Osprey bag
Osprey bag

I was carrying around one of two bags I’d had for years, that were looking increasingly dog-eared. That isn’t a big concern for me, but my wife thinks differently, and one day a year or so ago, she insisted on finding me a new bag that would look less student-y and hopefully last a long time. We visited an Osprey outlet, where I chose this one—it has multiple compartments and pockets, as well as a “divider” in the main area inside.To my wife’s puzzlement, I do tend to keep quite a few items in this bag, but it’s so well-made it can hold them whilst somehow not looking overly “stuffed” (to my eyes, at least). I wonder if there’s some kind of Mary Poppins thing going down in there.

I also picked up an inexpensive “cable organiser” from Amazon UK, which does a very serviceable job of keeping my various leads and adapters (USB, HDMI, etc.) together, as well as a few of the items below, for a silly price. (See below for the contents.) As and when it falls apart, I’d probably just buy another one to replace it.

Laptop/tablet

Photo of ASUS Chromebook Flip C100PA, closed
ASUS Chromebook Flip C100PA

My main computer out of the house is… well, both of these in one: an Asus Chromebook Flip C100PA. A hybrid of a laptop and a tablet, this machine can be used either as a “regular” laptop, or “flipped around” so that the keyboard is folded against the back of the screen, turning it into a tablet. (For that matter, there’s also a “tent” mode, halfway between the two.)

I’m quite happy with Chrome OS, as it does pretty much everything I really need from a computer in most situations (and for the rest, there’s my iPhone and Raspberry Pi Zero W—see below). Moreover, as someone who used an Asus Eee 701SD (the original “netbook”, with a 7” display) for a number of years, I find the Chromebook Flip C100PA’s extra-small size (10.1”) a benefit rather than a drawback, not least because it fits snugly into the gadget bag. For what it’s worth: I also love the Flip’s looks—stylish aluminium, like a baby MacBook. I don’t have to try hard, to imagine this machine as an Apple-made product (running iOS?).

I also picked up a Neoprene “sleeve” to give the Flip a bit of extra protection inside the bag, as I want this little fella to last.

Mobile phone

My Apple iPhone 6S, which isn’t shown in the group portrait above, largely because I was using it to take all the photos here. The 6S does all the usual smartphone-y things you might expect, and I also use it as my ultra-portable music-production/recording studio, though that’s another (and long) story…

USB mains charger

Photo of Caseflex 6-port USB charger
Caseflex 6-port USB charger

As every gadget-fan is painfully aware, you can never have enough USB charging ports (especially if you are away from home with your family, and the members all need their phones re-powering).

I was fortunate enough to pick up a Caseflex 10A/50W six-port USB mains charger whilst Amazon UK was selling them. It’s a great charger for various reasons: it feels solid and well-made, and its six “smart-sensing” ports can give out up to 10A between them, which is enough for all the USB devices I carry around (and a couple more besides).

Moreover, the charger is dual-voltage (240V/110V), and the mains power connection uses a standard two-pin socket for easy swapping of cables. This means the charger can be used in practically any country with mains electricity—it served us well on our last family trip to South Korea, where we only needed the one charger for all our USB-powered devices.

Power bank

Photo of EasyAcc 20000mAh USB power bank
EasyAcc 20000mAh USB power bank

Sometimes, though, you’ll be away from a handy mains socket, and prior to our last trip to Seoul (where I knew my family would need phone-charging on a long day out), I picked up this EasyAcc 20000mAh power bank with four USB ports. This particular behemoth weighs nearly half a kilo, but as it can charge an average iPhone around ten times over, it has proven its worth to us on plenty of occasions.

Normally, a 20000mAh battery would take an eternity to charge over USB… so the EasyAcc has a rare ace up its sleeve, or rather two: a 4A pair of micro-USB input ports. If you have a USB mains charger with multiple ports—with each capable of delivering over 2A—the EasyAcc can be charged from zero to full power using both charging inputs, in around six hours. Fortunately, the Caseflex (above) can do this without breaking a sweat.

Travel router

Photo of travel router, hard drive and Raspberry Pi Zero W
Travel router, hard drive and Raspberry Pi Zero W

As a kind of networking “Swiss army knife”, I think the HooToo TripMate Mini is ideal for me. It has a dizzying range of features, including network-connection sharing and bridging (Ethernet and wireless), a 6000mAh battery for use as a power bank, network-attached storage (NAS) functionality (via MicroSD and USB mass storage) and file and media servers. All this comes in a device barely larger than a box of matches, which fits comfortably into my cable organiser.

Unfortunately, it looks as if the TripMate Mini has been discontinued, and no other HooToo travel router offers quite as many options. The TripMate Versatile matches most of the Mini’s features, and adds a couple more (a higher-capacity internal battery; the ability to use a USB hub), but it is considerably larger in size and lacks a built-in MicroSD card slot.

Data storage

Photo of USB hub, hard drive, MicroSD card and USB flash drive
USB hub, hard drive, MicroSD card and USB flash drive

Unsurprisingly, I have a few options when it comes to ferrying files around with me…

The main storage device I use on the move, is a Toshiba Canvio Basics 500GB USB3 hard drive. I could’ve bought a higher-capacity model, but my budget at the time was pretty tight, and I wanted to format it with exFAT to facilitate using the drive with as many devices as possible. I can either plug it straight into the Chromebook if I need extra speed, or if I want to share its contents with my other devices, I connect the drive to the TripMate Mini. (Interesting technical aside: when unmounting the hard drive, the TripMate sends it a “spin down” command—which our Mac does, but which the Chromebook (like Windows PCs) doesn’t.)

For those moments when a USB flash-drive is the best option, I keep an 8GB PNY metal “stick” on my keyring (not in the bag, but go with it here). I also have a 32GB Class 10 Sandisk Ultra MicroSDXC card, which depending on circumstances I slot into either my Chromebook, the TripMate (it has a built-in MicroSD card slot for sharing the card’s contents between the router’s users), or the tasteful lime-green USB SD/MicroSD card-reader I picked up from Poundland (which works fine).

USB hub

This is particularly useful with the Chromebook Flip, which packs just two USB2 ports (and you always “need” more than you have). I bought this hub before the Chromebook—but when I was pretty sure the latter would be mine soon—as I thought the design of the hub matched the all-aluminium Flip quite nicely. (The small but bright LED activity indicator lights on the Chromebook and the hub look remarkably similar too.)

Handily, the hub also includes an Ethernet port, for those moments when a Chromebook could benefit from a wired network link (and the travel router isn’t a better option, or isn’t working, or whatever).

Raspberry Pi Zero W

Remember earlier, how I said I could do most of what I wanted on a computer with a Chromebook? Well… for the times when “most” comes into play, there’s my Raspberry Pi Zero W. I use it mainly for document-processing and conversion (usually from Markdown to LaTeX, PDF and OpenDocument) with pandoc, converting audio to FLAC or MP3, and anything else where a Linux “box” would come in handy, especially if it could fit in a (large) matchbox.

Hang on, though… that’s an odd-looking RasPi? In a 3D-printed “dongle” enclosure… with a full-size USB plug on one end? Yes: “zero” has a ZeroStem board soldered onto it, which turns the Pi into an Ethernet USB “gadget”, as well as allowing USB powering of the machine. Sadly, the Chromebook doesn’t support Ethernet USB “gadgets” (nor, apparently, Zeroconf or mDNS), so I generally power the Zero from the USB charger (or power bank), fire up the travel router and let the Zero auto-connect to WiFi. It’s a handy way to extend my computing options, especially when the Zero is so easily transportable.

Cables and adapters

Photo of assorted computing adapters
A gathering of adapters

S*d’s Law Of Connectivity states that the one cable or connector you need in a tight spot, is the one you left at home that day (or never had in the first place). I try and ensure I have at least one of every type of cable I know I’ll need, and where possible, two (or even more) of the likes of micro-USB leads. (Still wondering why I got the aforementioned cable-organiser?)

At time of writing, I keep four (!) micro-USBs of various lengths (including one retractable) in the bag, as I regularly get asked if I have a spare. I also pack a Belkin retractable Ethernet lead, USB2 and USB3 extension cables, an HDMI-to-micro-HDMI lead (for the Chromebook), an AmazonBasics “braided” Lightning-USB cable, an Apple USB-Lightning “camera connection” adapter, a USB OTG lead for the Raspberry Pi Zero, a Portapow USB “Smart Charge”/data-blocker (or “USB condom” (!)) and a brace of USB and HDMI couplers. If I suspect I may need it, I can throw in the ChampSun HDMI-to-VGA adapter I normally use for our ancient Philips TFT monitor.

I don’t usually get “caught out” with that lot in the bag, but if I’m taking a flight, you can understand why I put most of it in the hold luggage…

Headphones

Photo of MPow H8 Bluetooth headphones on top of carrying case
MPow H8 Bluetooth headphones

For Christmas 2017, a family member made it possible for me to land some “budget” active noise-cancelling Bluetooth phones from Amazon UK (MPow H8). I know it’s almost a tradition for these “bag-tours” to include a “reassuringly expensive” set of Bose or Sennheiser cans, but I have neither the funds nor the justification, and these MPow phones sound and work fine for me.

At time of writing, I still have to find a good testing-ground to try out the noise cancellation, but the “passive” (over-ear) type does a pretty good job on its own. I think I’m going to need a bigger bag to accommodate the phones, especially in their rather spacious carrying case!

Handheld monopod

Yes, I own a “selfie-stick”. So neeeeerrr 😛 Seriously: I find this another “nice to have on you” item, and it takes less space in the bag than one might expect.

Out of the three types of stick you generally find out there (no shutter-control; shutter-control that uses your phone’s headphone-jack; shutter-control via built-in Bluetooth), I wanted a Bluetooth one. The SAMAR stick I bought, offers the best balance of functionality and low-price that I have yet found. I just have to remember to charge it up every now and then, to ensure it works when I actually need it.

The “substitutes’ bench”

(or, the items I might add to my “gadget-armoury” as and when needed…)

Allocacoc PowerCube

I admit it: I partly bought a PowerCube USB because I thought it looked like a “cool” concept… but also because I’d been watching out for some time, for a reasonably “compact” multi-socket adapter with USB charging ports, for travelling with. You know the drill: you get on a train or coach with power-sockets by the seats, only to find that the fellow-traveller next to you wants to use it as well…

My PowerCube is a four-UK-socket (Type G, BS 1363) model with two USB ports (putting out a total of 2.1A between them), so providing the devices aren’t too “thirsty”, the built-in fuse shouldn’t pop. This PowerCube also comes with four swappable mains input plugs, for the four most common mains electric sockets you’ll find around the world. The ‘Cube’s internal power connection is a 3-pin IEC (“kettle-lead”) plug/socket, so I can use an IEC cable to turn the adapter into an extension lead. (This is actually a sound idea for any plug/socket less robust than the UK type—that is, most of them—as plugging this beast straight into a US wall-outlet is a likely recipe for bent/broken plug pins.)

The main reason I don’t generally carry the PowerCube around in my bag: it’s just too big! At nearly 10cm along every edge, the ‘Cube is a chunky creature, so it either needs to go in a second bag, or better still, a suitcase. Still very useful, though—for travelling, and for avoiding awkward moments on a train or coach…

Video-streamer

Although I carry an HDMI cable for my Chromebook, sometimes it’s preferable to plug in a video-streamer device to a TV in a hotel room (where they make this feasible, naturally). We use both a Chromecast (the “hockey-puck” version) and a 2014-edition Roku Streaming Stick at home, and both are set up to connect to the travel router for their networking needs.

Well, that’s the theory. In practice, I’ve had lots of trouble getting either device to co-operate with the TripMate when we’re out of the house. Either they don’t “see” the WiFi hotspot the TripMate generates, or (more with the Chromecast) they complain they can’t get on the Internet, even when other devices on the TripMate LAN can do so. Weird how everything seems to work properly when I test it all at home?

Bluetooth folding keyboard

Believe it or not, I used this eSYNiC Bluetooth keyboard a lot before I got my Chromebook—basically, turning my iPhone into a jury-rigged laptop substitute. It sees less use now, though if I have to do a lot of message-typing on the iPhone (and/or I really have to “travel light”), the keyboard is handy to have around. It is also fairly compact, although as the bag feels increasingly full these days, I don’t always pack the keyboard unless I know I really need it.

And finally…

…the odds and ends which you can see in the photo at the top, but I haven’t covered yet:

  • A debit-card reader from my bank. I try and keep one on me, in case I have to set up a transfer to someone I haven’t transferred to before. Maybe one day, their iPhone app might be able to authenticate me (via TouchID, perhaps?), but for now, I’ll need this device sometime.
  • Cheap USB optical mouse, for those (rare) occasions when the Chromebook’s touchpad “gets in the way”.
  • My work gate-pass.
  • Nail-clippers (and I keep this to myself…).
  • Two pens: a rather battered Parker which needs a new refill, and a backup which might be a bit more reliable at the moment.

And one item I purchased just after taking the “group shot” at the top of this post: an IKEA JANSJÖ USB LED lamp, for those moments when the Chromebook could do with a light on the keyboard.

Phew…

Now I come to write it all down: the poor old Osprey is a bit stuffed these days! I think I need to try and “rationalise” what I carry around with me on a regular basis, as much for the state of my back as anything else. At least I have a pretty good idea of what’s actually in the bag now.

I’m weighing up (pun semi-intended) whether to invest in a backpack at some point, as there are times when I’ll want to carry more than the poor old Osprey can squeeze in. Stay tuned…

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Guitars and synths and recording, oh my…

I realised with a jolt the other day, that it’s been over two months since my last update here…

Well, as you may be aware if you’re familiar with my online presence, I’m hardly ever off Twitter (and, to a rather lesser extent, Facebook), but I rarely have the spare time to write anything much in depth for my “official website” (mmm, like the sound of that 😉 )

That said, to help reassure anyone concerned at my absence from these parts, there now follows a virtual “grab-bag” of items of possible interest, by way of a late-summer update, and punctuated by a couple of leading questions to myself.

Where’s the next page for “The Frets Files”, then?

Awaiting creation by me, basically… amongst other things, it depends on which of my guitars gets shoved forwards to volunteer as the next candidate for a page of its own. [flips a coin] Yes, I think I know just the chap… coming soon!

What happened to that album project, that you “bailed” out of the 50/90 Challenge to work on, then? Mmm?

Well you might ask…

Simple answer: I have been working, sporadically, on what I am presently referring to as “The Prog Album” or, if you prefer “The Proper One”, over the summer. There’s still a fair way to go on it: I have three tracks basically complete (barring further tweaks or additions, but structurally they are “in the can”), and about 15 minutes of “The Epic” (my first attempt at a 23-25-minute song-suite). Essentially, I need to write 20-25 minutes’ worth of further material for the album…

…and there’s the “rub”: I’ve been pushing for most of the summer against the dreaded “writer’s-block”, or at least, a difficulty in coming up with material which “fits” the project in hand, especially on the lyrical front. The block lifted briefly around the end of August, allowing me to pen a completely new song which I’m pretty pleased with… but more than that I will not say, at least for now.

Furthermore, my original plan for the structure album was for a “two sides” approach—i.e. shorter songs in the first half, with the “epic” taking up the second half (rather like “Meddle” by Pink Floyd)—but I’ve reached the just-past-halfway point of The Epic, and am not quite sure which direction it should take from where it currently ends. I was contemplating a “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”-type setup, where The Epic is split into two halves, “bookending” the shorter songs… except then I’d feel as if I didn’t meet my challenge to produce a 23+-minute suite!

Maybe I just need to stop agonising over the details, and just get on with it 😉

Fab. Gear?

Very droll… yes, I have been experimenting with a couple of new acquisitions (all of which, I should point out, thanks to some extremely good offers). Arturia‘s recent 15th-birthday sale (with some crazy discounts) allowed us to “land” their ARP2600V software synth (based on the classic ARP 2600 semi-modular). This is now plugged into Logic on our Mac, and I’ve already overdubbed some nicely spacey ARP tones onto at least one of the “Prog Project” songs (with the likelihood of more to come).

Furthermore, I’m still recording mostly on the iPad, and recently picked up Arturia’s iMini app (based on the Minimoog)—again, as part of Arturia’s birthday sale. This softsynth hasn’t yet found its way onto one of my recordings, but it’s only a matter of time—a terrific-sounding instrument, and all for (when I bought it) the price of a CostaBucksRepublic beverage!

Finally, yet another bargain I picked up via Amazon UK earlier in the summer (well over 50% off RRP…): a Samson G-Track USB condenser mike and integrated audio interface. It works well as a “one-stop shop” recording companion to the iPad (albeit requiring a powered USB hub and Apple’s Lightning-to-USB Camera Adapter to help out), and I’m already recording with it—both, parts for the Prog Project, and a couple of other bits and pieces.

So, at least that project has started groaning forward again after a relatively languid summer… what next, I wonder?

Wait and see… I’ll be interested to find out myself.

Hello 2014! (plus a few musical “resolutions”)

Happy New Year from myself… may 2014 exceed your expectations, at whatever height your bar is set 🙂

I’m not generally the “New Year resolutions” type, for the sort of reasons you might guess. However, I do so happen to have a couple of goal-ish thingummybobs, which I either aim to do something about during the next twelve months, or would rather like to if the opportunity presents. At least if I scribble them down here, I might be able to remind myself in a year from now, and figure out how I did…

For starters, I’m planning to participate in FAWM 2014—February Album Writing Month kicks off in about four weeks from now. I did the challenge (to write and record, from scratch, 14 songs in 28 days) in 2013, and I think it went pretty well, so barring any emergencies which require my attention, I intend to jump into FAWM again this February.

Oh, and in case you feel like hearing the results from my FAWM 2013 journey…



One event I don’t see myself doing in 2014, is FAWM’s “sister” initiative, the 50/90 Challenge. Basically, I attempted it in 2012 and 2013, and both times I found the “marathon at a sprinter’s pace” just too much to keep up with, what with a day-job, family demands and so on to juggle with writing fifty songs in three months. If I were single (or perhaps retired), I might just be able to manage 50/90, but I just don’t think it’s an option for me at my current stage of life.

Also, this year I would rather like to write and record at least one “proper” album during 2014 that isn’t “tarted-up demos from FAWM and 50/90” (to put it bluntly), so I suspect I would aim to spend a good chunk of my copious free time (!) this year, working towards that goal.

One more musical aspiration of mine: this year, I would like to learn lap-steel guitar (preferably C6 tuning, or CEGACE, low-to-high). That’s electric (plank-with-pickup-and-strings) rather than acoustic (e.g. Weissenborn)… and if I can get to the point where I sound not-unbearable on the instrument, perhaps I would try and get it onto the aforementioned album project?

So, a few scattergun (scatterbrained?) thoughts for you, as I embark on 2014. Have a good one yourself, and thanks for letting me amble along…

A Christmas (2013) treat for you…

Hi all! Just a quick post before I rush out for a few last-minute Christmas Eve preparations, to give you a little musical stocking-filler:

It’s my instrumental guitar cover of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” by Walter Kent, which I recorded in December 2012 for a Christmas EP for family and friends. I arranged it for guitalele, two electric guitars and electric bass, and if I say so myself, it’s a personal favourite 🙂

I’m not sure how long it will stay on my SoundCloud page, so if you’re interested, I’d get in there quickly… did I mention that I made it downloadable?

Anyway: Happy Christmas, and best wishes for the New Year!

50/90 Challenge 2013: announcing a “go-slow”

You may recall, if you’re following me here or on one of my multifarious social media presences, that I am currently taking part in the 2013 50/90 Challenge. If you need the background, feel free to read the above-linked previous post, and/or go directly to my “artist page” at the 50/90 site. It’ll help make sense of the rest of this one…

If you’ve looked at my 50/90 contributions thus far, you’d notice my submission rate has slowed dramatically since late July. The more astute may have worked out that this coincided with the school summer break (certainly in the UK)—I took a week off with my family last week, which was the main reason I only got one song out and onto the site during that period.

Now we’re back, things have really become hectic at home. My daughter has to be entertained, looked after, etc. while she’s off school, and my wife (who is working for an MA degree) has her final portfolio/dissertation to complete in the next few weeks. Clearly I need to support her in that, not least by generally trying my best to hold the household together 🙂

You may well have a sense of where this is heading…

As a result, I’ve been struggling to find time, energy, inspiration for 50/90 activity, but I feel I committed to taking part in the Challenge (even if, as I wrote on my artist page bio at the outset, I’m very unlikely to meet the 50-song “target”), and I would rather not withdraw entirely.

So, in a nutshell, I wanted to let you all know that as far as 50/90 is concerned, I’m going into “semi-hibernation”, probably for at least the next three weeks or so. I’ll try to comment on other participants’ songs, may well pop up on the 50/90 forums here and there, and may even contribute the odd song or two where I can, but basically, the “song every two days” routine is well and truly out of the window until at least early September. (And yes: so is any realistic chance of hitting 50 songs, but there you go.)

Once my wife’s MA work is “in” and daughter’s back at school, hopefully I can return to something like what I “should” be doing for the Challenge. I enjoy the activity, and already I’ve written some songs which wouldn’t have existed without 50/90, but there are times when family must be put first, and this feels like one to me.

As always, for the latest developments, stay tuned to my Twitter feed, my Facebook “artist page”, my page at 50/90 or… hey, how about all of them? 🙂 In particular, keep an eye out for a little thank-you I’m preparing, for everyone who has an interest in what I do musically. If all goes well, it should be ready within the next few days… and that’s all I’m saying for now. Catch you round…

Christmas Eve “wrap-up” (sorry ;-) )

Rushing around like one of Santa’s elves, but that’s December 24th for you…

Firstly: a warm, indeed toasty, welcome to anyone visiting from MakeUseOf.com, where “…amid the winter snow…”, the Christmas mini-album my wife Joy and I released in 2010, has just been featured in MUO’s Sound Sunday article on “holiday albums”. This came totally out of the blue, hence this site not quite being ready for readers interested in the album!

In case you’re wondering how to get to “…amid the winter snow…”, here’s the Bandcamp player for it:

I especially recommend skipping straight to my wife’s solo piano piece, “Snowflakes are falling”—I think it’s probably the best track on there. Joy is a really talented pianist and composer, and I hope we’ll all be hearing a lot more from her very soon.

In case you still feel like another dose of aural festivities, there’s also my Christmas “single”…

Finally, I’d like to thank everyone who has supported and encouraged me this year—too many to mention in total, but special “ta-muchly”s go out to Dave Jeffery, and also to the crowd from the 50/90 Challenge (see you in February for FAWM!).

I’ll be back here before 2012 is out, but in the meantime, I’d like to wish you all a very happy Christmas, and thanks again for making the season bright!