Monday, 10 December 2012

Learning Norwegian: reconsidering my goals

When I began learning Norwegian, I knew that it would be tough. From prior experience, I've experienced how tough learning a foreign language can be, both mentally and emotionally.

I thought I was prepared for this. I'd read a lot, and shared wry stories with fellow learners about the difficulties of motivation and the likelihood of looking and feeling very stupid. And for the most part I am ready for this - I can usually take it on the chin and treat it as part of the learning process. But sometimes it hits very hard.

Recently, while on a trip to Norway, I indirectly received some comments about my progress in learning the languages (I won't go into specifics here). It really knocked my confidence, especially as these words came from friends - they weren't meant to be personal and hurtful, I know... but the result was the same - I was hurt.

The comments were negative enough about my skills to make me question why I was even bothering to try, whether I was actually accomplishing anything and brought me very close to completely throwing in the towel. It affected me enough that, the next day, I refused point-blank an opportunity to have a conversation in Norwegian, something I'd been anticipating and looking forward to for weeks.

I'm still unsure what to think. I know full well that my main weakness is in my aural comprehension, struggling to understand what people are saying when they talk at normal speed, especially considering the multitude of accents, variations and dialects Norwegian has. The comments made me wonder if I'm ever going to 'get it', and whether it's even worth trying.

I could take it as advice, as a challenge - use this experience to drive me to improve my listening comprehension. I know that I can't get compliments all the time, and that anyone who tells me that my Norwegian is great and that I have nothing to worry about is lying to me and not doing me any favours. I need to learn from mistakes, and from failures, and try and make sure that, next time, these friends don't feel the need to make such comments.

On the other hand, my self-confidence and self-esteem have really been knocked by these comments. It's hard when you think you're doing well at something to be told pretty much outright that actually, no, you're not.

Am I ever going to get better? Am I ever going to be good enough at the language to make it worth continuing to put in all this effort? Should I switch my focus to another language, the speakers of which aren't all fluent in English anyway, rendering the learning more worthwhile? Or is it time to re-consider whether I really have those language-learning skills I've always thought I had since school?

Constructive thoughts much appreciated in the comments.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

A tale of language success

Those familiar with my postings will know that I'm currently learning Norwegian, but that's not the subject of the story I want to share today.

Last week, I went on holiday to Spain. I studied Spanish for two years in school at age 16 (I'm now 26), and haven't kept up with it since beyond occasional holiday. I intended to do a quick refresher course before leaving, but other things (mainly Norwegian) got in the way.

However, I turned up and was determined to follow the mantra of Benny from Fluent in 3 Months, and SPEAK. I knew I had limited skills, but I also knew that there were some situations I would be able to handle. I knew the basics of grammar, and I still had retained a decent amount of 'tourist vocabulary', including all the numbers.

On arrival I managed to buy bus tickets and, in probably my favourite victory of the whole trip, managed the entire check-in process in the hotel in Spanish. The lovely receptionist realised immediately that I was trying to speak limited Spanish, and spoke slowly for me and let me speak haltingly back to her, and we managed to do all the necessary admin, including me beginning the conversation, understanding all her requests, providing my passport and phone number, and understanding and repeating back to her the times for breakfast.

In the town, I managed to mostly understand menus and order in Spanish, and ask for drinks and the bill in the language. There were of course times I didn't understand, but it was really great to learn the words by using the English version of the menu (a simple form of parallel texts), as well as hearing and then retaining things said in context by waiters and other Spaniards around us, and things just generally coming back to me during the week.

There were times I had to resort to English - I had no idea how to ask the receptionist if it was possible for us to leave our bags on the last day (not knowing the word for leave or bags), and occasionally waiters would just go back to English if I was clearly struggling. And in Barcelona later in the week, I found that people will often just speak English to you as a matter of course - particularly after an ill-fated attempt at pronouncing Catalan!

But it's those little victories that mean a lot to me. Checking into the hotel. Successfully having a small conversation with a waiter where I clarified I wanted still water, not sparkling. Removing a misunderstanding about a restaurant reservation. Sorting out a very confusing conversation with another waiter regarding how many more tortillas de patatas we wanted.

And there's a further lesson in all of those, but particularly the last one. I asked for another potato omelette, then a moment later another one, since my friend wanted one too. I clarified I wanted 'one more for me, and one more for him'. I'm sure I messed up the grammar completely - I said 'Uno más para mi, i uno más para el'. I knew immediately it should have been 'una', and either 'mi' or 'el' must be wrong, and possibly 'para' too. But it didn't matter. I communicated successfully, and both my friend and I did get a tortilla de patatas.

Success :)

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Why I won't be buying an iPhone 5

It does look very pretty, doesn't it? And it's going to collect your e-tickets for you and have a really fast processor. It's got a great camera (just like the Samsung Galaxy S3 had when it came out), and a super-exciting new proprietary connector.


Unfortunately, there's one very good reason I won't be buying an iPhone 5. No, it's not because I'm an Android fanboy (though I am) or that I hate the fact everyone loves iPhones even though they do a lot of the same stuff less well (though they do).

Nope, the real reason is because I am only 11 months into a goddamn 24 month contract for an HTC Sensation which I can't even use. It was a beautiful phone, so quick, great at multi-tasking, tons of space and a crystal-clear screen. And then I dropped it and smashed it three months into the contract, so now I'm stuck using my old HTC Desire until the contract finally comes to an end.

Lesson learned? Don't get into really long contracts for shiny, swishy new phones that can make cocktails and open doors for you. One slip of the hand and they're just bits of plastic and glass all over the pavement.

*sad face*

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Tiffany Porter - Plastic Brit?

When Tiffany Porter broke the British record in the 100m hurdles in June 2011, the Daily Mail had a shit-fit. Here was an athlete from abroad, running for Britain under supposedly false pretences, taking the record, the glory and the opportunities from true British athletes. I hate to say it, but for once I think they kinda have a point.

Don't get me wrong. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm big supporter of integration and multi-culturalism in this country. I'm not about to get all anti-immigration on your ass. The fact is that this case has absolutely nothing to do with immigration - in fact, anyone using the issue to make a pro or anti-immigration argument is missing the point.

In today's Observer, Cuban-born triple-jumper and all-around lovely person Yamilé Aldama writes about her pain at being labelled a 'Plastic Brit'. In the run up to this year's Olympics, to be held in London, it's a phrase that has been bandied about to describe several athletes who have changed their nationality to compete for Great Britain, including Aldama, Porter, and others such as 400m runner Shana Cox and wrestler Olga Butkevych. But there's a very big and important difference between Aldama and Porter.

Aldama writes of her pain at being seen as 'not-British', since:
"I have lived in this country for 11 years, I am married to a British man, I have British children, I train under a British coach, at a British club. This is my home."
All of those things are reasons why I'm very happy to see her competing for Britain at the Olympics, most importantly since, as she says, she considers Britain as her home. That's the vital sticking-point here, and the key difference between her and Porter.

Tiffany Porter was born in the USA to a Nigerian father and a British mother. She holds joint American and British nationality, and lives in Michigan. She is married to an American. She trains in America. It's quite clear that, despite her joint nationality, she identifies first and foremost as American.

And that's why I don't support her as I would another British athlete. I believe that part of representing a country at any sport should be living in that country, being a part of that country. For athletes like Aldama, that much is true. It's similarly true for sportsmen like Kevin Pietersen or Mo Farah.

For someone like Porter, who just parachutes into the country to make it into the Olympics and to get funding, it's not true. When watching her on TV and in interviews, you don't get the sense of a British athlete - it's merely an American runner wearing the GBR vest. It's a symbiotic relationship - she gets to go major championships, and UK Athletics gets someone who can potentially win medals. But it's not fair for other British athletes and, ultimately, it's not fair on the fans either.

I'm not normally this patriotic about sport, even in athletics. I just wanted to weigh in here, and clarify why I feel there is a big difference between Yamilé Aldama and Tiffany Porter. I think the point is often missed amid both Daily Mail-style xenophobia and Guardian-esque political correctness/anti-Daily-Mail-ism. Because, despite what may be written, only one of these two athletes is a Plastic Brit. I wish them both the best in the Olympic stadium in Stratford, but only one of them will I be cheering for as a member of Team GB.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Learning Norwegian - Mitt nye hus

Yep! We're moving, and we've found somewhere new to live, after lots of worry and stress. It's in Lewisham, and it's actually a house! Like, with an upstairs and a downstairs and stairs and everything!

In the video below, I take you on a little tour of the house in Norwegian (with subtitles!). I make a couple of mistakes, as always, which I was kicking myself about afterwards, but I didn't film it again as I wanted to keep it as natural as possible.

I notice that I mainly kept forgetting genders, and not using articles before nouns where I need to. They're things that I do know, that just slip away when I'm speaking, so it's something I need to work on, but the main focus for me here in these videos is my pronunciation and accent.

Constructive criticism and comments are always very welcome.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Arron or Chris: who goes? Big Brother decides

It's no big secret that the producers of reality shows like Big Brother strive to create storylines to provide the best entertainment and bring in the biggest ratings. It's also no surprise then that they try and control who is voted out each week.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in The X Factor, which sofabet have written about many times. But in Big Brother, where only two contestants each week are voted on by the public, the situation is a little different.

This week, the two housemates up for eviction are Arron and Chris. But who do the producers want out?

There's considerable evidence pointing to the idea that they're trying to steer the vote towards Arron (viewers vote for whom they want to stay). With no live feed, viewers have no choice but to be fed the version of events presented in each evening's highlights program.

Tonight, in a task where contestants are not allowed to laugh, Big Brother had Arron wear several silly costumes, putting him at the centre of events, in potentially sympathy-winning situations. The third of these costumes also allowed him to show off what's perhaps his best asset - his body. Shots like the one below are surely enough to win him some votes from a certain, not inconsiderably-sized demographic of viewer.

(yes, this whole post is just an excuse to post this picture)

Indeed, the theory is backed up by articles on DigitalSpy featuring the two nominees, both shirtless. There's an obvious voting pull right there, as there was in Tuesday nights episode when, right before the voting numbers, the pair discussed their nominations while Arron stood naked and dripping wet in the shower.

Elsewhere in tonight's program, Chris's edit featured him largely being unpleasant and argumentative, largely with Becky. However, the show did go out of its way to show a particularly odd disagreement between Arron and Deana followed by an almost comically insincere apology by the former. And while Arron is being given every opportunity to sell his body for votes, he's also being provided with all the rope he needs to hang himself as the show gives him reason after reason to display his vanity.

Overall, it's hard to say who the producers want to stay this week. I was initially leaning towards Arron, but Big Brother's Bit on the Side, the talkshow following each evening's episode, made a point of campaigning for Chris tonight. On a purely shallow level I'd personally prefer Arron to stay, as well as because I find Chris (more) annoying. And it would make sense if the producers did too. Arron's good eye candy, and while Chris causes conflict which will be seen as entertaining, Arron certainly has the potential to do the same.

I'm loving this series of Big Brother, and I'm very pleased that after so many years the contestants are finally allowed to discuss nominations and strategise. Let me know what you think about this, and about Arron and Chris, below.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Why I dumped Google Chrome - a review

As a long-time user of Firefox who's seen praised lavished upon Google Chrome, when I got my new computer with Chrome pre-installed, I decided to give it a go and see what all the fuss was about.

Six days later, I'm back to Firefox. But why?

Firstly, the positives. I'm a big fan of Chrome's clean, unfussy layout. The screen remains uncluttered by sidebars, toolbars and other buttons, leaving more space free for the websites the user visits.

I also really liked Chrome's automatic website translations. When visiting a site in a foreign language, the browser automatically pops up a bar at the top to ask the user if they'd like it translated into English. I normally didn't want that, as I was visiting these websites to learn the languages concerned, but it's very handy to have, and easy to turn off for specific languages too.

In addition to these features, like all good browsers these days, Chrome is very customisable, with lots of extensions to be added and removed at will. This is where my problems started however, and ultimately is the reason I switched back to Firefox.

Chrome and I didn't get off to a good start, as the version that Lenovo has pre-installed on my laptop was a little old, and wouldn't accept some of the extensions I wanted to use. (Incidentally, I wonder if this is by accident or design on the manufacterers behalf, as all the extensions it wouldn't install were ones relating to privacy or ad-blocking.) The browser then wouldn't allow itself to be updated; I eventually uninstalled it, and reinstalled it fresh from Google's website, upon doing which I was able to install AdBlock Plus.

There were three activities in particular where extensions to the browser were important to me.

The first is a service I use called Pocket (formerly Read It Later), which allows users to save webpages they want to read at a later time, and synchronises between computers and smartphone. The official Chrome extension didn't even let me read the pages I'd saved without going to Pocket's webpage, and the three different user-created ones I tried were all fiddly to use. I found a workaround using one of these, but it required more clicks than the simple Firefox add-on.

The second activity that I like to use browser extensions for is Twitter, and I had a terrible time trying to find a Chrome extension that suited the way I work. Very few seem to support managing multiple accounts, and similarly few are able to load your tweets from when you last read, instead bringing up the newest tweets each time the extension is opened. Echofon for Firefox manages both of these tasks beautifully, with a simple, inobstrusive interface, and it was my longing for this that was the tipping point, finally driving me back to Firefox.

In going back to Firefox, however, I was concerned that I would have to sacrifice one great extension I'd found, that automatically scrobbled YouTube videos to my account. I'd never been able to find a working Firefox add-on before, so I was surprised and pleased to find that now there is a Greasemonkey script that does this very well.

All of this means that I'm very happy to be back with Firefox. Other than the automatic translations, there's nothing that Chrome can do that Firefox can't, and plenty that Chrome fails miserably on that Firefox accomplishes with ease. And while Chrome is supposedly less demanding than other browsers, when extensions are taken into account it was sucking up far more system resources than Firefox ever does.

For some users perhaps, Chrome could be ideal. But for me, and for how I work, it was a total letdown. I'm pleased to be back on familiar ground with Firefox.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Rolling my 'r' - an update

As you may have read in my last blog entry, I decided to dedicate some time this weekend to training myself to roll my 'r' better, to improve my language skills, specifically for Norwegian and Serbian.

I promised to record a video, and you can watch me stumble through my attempts below (the words with 'r' are at the end, from 3:27). I introduce the video in Norwegian (with subtitles, don't worry!), and then continue in English, explaining some of the methods I used and problems I had. It was pretty difficult; I had some skills before, and I don't know if I particularly improved how I sound, but I do feel a little more confident than I did before, and, as much as anything, I know what I'm doing wrong! Now I just need to keep practising!

Comments and constructive criticism are particularly welcome.

The following sites and videos helped me this weekend, so thank you to them. - this girl explains things well, and is fun to watch too - a really great video, an accompaniment to the previous link, that shows how to make your tongue less stiff. - for Spanish learners, but the concepts are the same, and I feel I got closest to getting the vibrations right with this one.

Sunday, 3 June 2012


Sorry, I'm not going to be writing about Eurovision for once! Instead, this post is about my goal for this long bank holiday weekend.

I'm going to spend some time with some internet resources I've found, and I am going to learn to properly roll my r's. Just like this man:

With the languages I'm learning, it's very important for me to be able to master this vital skill. It's one thing that's really held me back all my life when speaking foreign languages, from French to Serbian and now Norwegian.

Of course, all these languages have their own different sounds represented by the letter 'r', which are described in more technical terms that I don't really understand here. But when speaking another language, the fact is that using the English sounding 'r', where the top teeth meet the bottom lip, is a sure way to mark the speaker as a non-native, and is invariably recognisable as English.

That's why my goal now is to learn how to properly roll my r. I do have some approximation of it, which was taught to me by a friend in Serbia, and involves putting my tongue behind my top teeth and pulling it back. This isn't really enough though, as I can't maintain the sound, and I'm still not fully confident with it. Hopefully by putting my mind to the task this weekend, and really making an effort, I'll improve my speaking abilities and make myself more likely to be understood when using my languages abroad.

So, on Tuesday night, I'm going to record a video of myself speaking, and you'll be able to judge for yourself whether I've succeeded. It's a daunting prospect actually, showing my potential weakness to the world, but hopefully that'll help me to focus and overcome this barrier.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Eurovision 2012 Semi 1 - predicting and wishing

Less than two hours to go until the first semi-final, and I've been predicting. But first, here's the 10 countries I want to make the final on Saturday:

It was a close-run thing, and Jedward just missed out because of their annoying and frankly rude fans, who've made me wish for the Irish song to crash out humiliatingly tonight.

Of course, these are just my wishes, though some of them are tied to my predictions, as there's some I really need to come true if I'm to make any money in my bets! This year, as well as general bets - the most money is on Belgium in various forms - I've also put £1 on each of the ten songs I predict as my qualifiers. Afterwards, I'll come back here and let you know how much money I ended up, and we'll see if I made a profit on my £10!
That's it! Agree? Disagree? Either way, have a lot of fun tonight!

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Why I feel sorry for Valentina Monetta

You know, there's a lot of reasons to feel bad for this perky 37-year-old (I know!) from San Marino. First and foremost, she has to stand and sing 'Facebook The Social Network Song (Uh Oh Uh Oh Oh)' on a stage in front of millions of people. The poor girl also has to spend a lot of time with Ralph Siegel. It doesn't seem like a fun experience for anyone.

It's bad enough that a talented jazz singer has been shoe-horned into a song completely unsuitabed to her. It's a song for a 17-year old girl, though Monetta pulls off a pretty convincing impression of one in the video and in her performance. But it's the way that the campaign has seemingly overtaken her entire existence that makes me feel sorry for her.

Of course, all promotional campaigns involve creating an image for an artist, dictating where they go and who they talk to. But Monetta's has been taken to the next level. Even before the song was unveiled, a personal Facebook account had been set up in her name and started friending Eurovision fans and over the past few months has posted as if it were Valentina herself behind it. And throughout her promotional campaign, she's worn variations on the same clothes (always white and light blue, to reflect her country's flag) and always has to be pictured at a moment's notice on flights and in foreign cities allegedly 'on Facebook' or making friends.

We know nothing about her personally outside of 'The Social Network Song'. All of her interviews are about how much she loves to use Facebook and how cool social networking and the internet are, and nothing about her as a person (oh, except she loves kitesurfing, of all things!). Valentina Monetta just does not seem to exist outside of this song.

It's almost like this Valentina Monetta who we've got to know over the last few months and been friended by on Facebook is nothing but a character created by Siegel and the Sammarinese delegation to sell this song. It's as if 'Valentina Monetta' is just a creation in the way that Silvia Night was just a creation. But in this case, while she's just playing a role, there is a real person with a real career behind it, who is going to lose out.

But the reason I feel most sorry for her is that all of this effort is likely to be for about 8 points next Tuesday, and an early flight back to San Marino, and back down to earth to a bump, with nothing to show for it except for lots of blue clothes and a Facebook profile full of friends she doesn't even like.

She's Lolly for the 21st century.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Eurovision 2012 interviews

Almost two weeks ago now, I visited the London Eurovision Party as accredited press and took the opportunity to interview several of this year's performers.

As press, you always want to keep your cool and appear professional, but the one artist I was absolutely desperate to meet was Kaliopi from Macedonia. I'm a big fan of hers and have been for many years. After hanging around while she was in massive demand early in the day, I eventually managed to grab her right after her soundcheck. It's always a concern when you meet your idols, in case they don't live up to your impression of them, but I had nothing to worry about. Kaliopi was absolutely lovely and hugged and kissed me after the interview when I confessed what a big fan I am.

And she was a delight to interview too, and was shocked at how knowledgeable I was about her career (as well as a little humourously put out that I reminded her how old she was!). It was such a pleasure to meet her, and you can read my interview with her for ESC Nation here.

After having achieved my main goal for the day, I set about grabbing as many more interviews as I could. I'd made contact with Andrej Hofer, the Slovenian press representative, earlier, and he'd promised me an interview with Eva Boto, but she'd been snapped up by Channel 4 and the BBC. He came to find me immediately after my hugs and kisses from Kaliopi, and hustled me into the toilets where I finally got my interview with Eva. You can read that, as well as my chat with 2005 representative Omar Naber, here.

Filipa Sousa from Portugal wasn't very in demand compared to many other performers, as spent much of the afternoon sitting chatting to her parents, who'd she'd flown across to have a brief holiday with in London. I perched on a couch next to them, and her interview is here.

Finally, I ventured into the press scrum upstairs, where at least four acts were sitting with fan and professional journalists queueing up and trying to hold their ground to get their five minutes in. Compact Disco from Hungary headed off very suddenly, but I did manage to sidle my way on to Anggun's table, and did a very quick interview with her too, which you can read here.

The final performer who was hanging around was Sabina Babayeva, who was very sought after by the TV stations present, and I was warned that they were eager for a story on Azerbaijan's human rights record. With a large crowd waiting to get to talk to her, and finding myself at the back of the queue, I bade a hasty retreat. I wasn't able to stay for the party in the evening, where all the acts sang their songs and other hits, before fans and performers danced the night away to Eurovision music until the early hours.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Serbia - what I did wrong

In embarking on my mission to learn Norwegian, I've frequently been prompted to look back on what I did wrong in my previous time learning a language, in an effort to learn from my mistakes and go in with a fresh, open outlook.

My last big attempt to learn a language was Serbian, which I did as my degree course. This involved a year of study at the University of Belgrade. A year abroad should be a time of immersion, to fully experience life in the country where the target language is spoken, allowing the learner to properly appreciate how the language is used in context. I didn't manage to do this: I didn't embrace the opportunity, and therefore I didn't come home with a level as high as I would have wished. I've made a lot of excuses about this in the past, and while I recognise that some of these are valid reasons, I have to face up to the fact that the reason my Serbian didn't improve was, quite simply, my own fault.

The main problem, in essence, was that I missed home too much. I was quite naive, liked my home comforts and was in a relatively new relationship. I wasn't ready to be thrown into a situation where I was out of my depth and, for these reasons, I came up with several coping strategies that ended up being detrimental to my long-term language prospects.

I didn't speak to people!
Just reading that headline, it's blindingly obvious that I was doing something very wrong. I have to admit that I was very intimidated about talking to people, both to strangers and to my Serbian friends. It may seem strange that I was worried about speaking Serbian to my own friends, but I was very conscious of making mistakes around them, and thus hampering our communication. Similarly, while I did communicate in Serbian in shops and restaurants, I wasn't making enough of an effort to just talk to lots of people. Looking back, this is obviously something I should have been doing much more.

I isolated myself
I also couldn't face staying in the (free) student accommodation we were provided with. They were extremely cramped, didn't feel clean and I couldn't get used to sharing a tiny room with a stranger, so I struck out on my own and rented an apartment. In hindsight, this was a mistake - many people seemed to improve greatly from time spent with the other foreign students speaking in Serbian, an opportunity I missed out on by spending a lot of time alone, chatting with friends back home on the internet. This also meant that I was missing out on social bonding, which would have probably helped to make the whole experience more pleasant and enjoyable.

I spoke English

And when I did hang out with my friend from back home who was also learning Serbian there, we generally spoke in English. I also made other British or American friends, and even got a job teaching English to local teenagers. All of this meant that I was spending far too much time speaking English, and not enough time speaking Serbian. I thought that because I was going to the classes, and living among the sights and sounds of the language, that would be enough, but of course, I was wrong.

I was looking for ways to cope

Looking back, I know now that this was all very much a coping strategy, as I was finding it incredibly difficult to be away from home for such a long period of time, and in an alien environment that frequently made me feel stupid. Michael Sieler at No Nonsense Spanish recently blogged about 'benefits'. I recognise a lot of my own struggles in what he describes:
"I had a goal to speak to at least one native German speaker each day. Some times I would talk myself out of starting a conversation with someone I didn’t know and would instead just sit quietly next to them on the bus. For me, at that time, the benefits of not starting a conversation were greater than starting one. By not talking to strangers, I was able to feel safe and secure. I didn’t realize this was sabotaging my ultimate goal of becoming fluent."
For me at that time, the benefit of learning Serbian that would have been gained by hanging out with more Serbs, living in student accommodation and chatting more freely were outweighed by the benefits of not doing so - the security I felt I needed that came from the apartment, the English conversation and not exposing myself to the potential humiliation of making mistakes.

Like Michael, I now know that I was sabotaging myself. I felt at the time that I was doing what I needed to do in order to get myself through that year, emotionally and psychologically. However, in doing that I lost sight of the long-term benefits of being there, and didn't make the most of them.

It was clear when I came home from Serbia that I'd fallen well behind several of my colleagues in terms of being able to hold discussions and converse fluently. My Serbian still isn't as good as it 'should' be for the amount of time I've spent on it and the amount of work I put in. And looking back, and being honest with myself, I know it's because of the mistakes I made during my time in Belgrade; and they're mistakes that, if the opportunity arises again, I'm determined not to repeat.

Monday, 2 April 2012

The demoralising world of trust fundraising

Being a trust fundraiser can be a bit of a demoralising world to inhabit at times like this. The recession has bit funders hard, and money is limited. At the same time, many charities have lost major grants or statutory funding contracts, meaning that competition for these limited funds is up.

I, like everyone else, am working very hard at this time. I know that I'm currently producing some of the best work of my career, and I'm very proud of some of the applications I've sent out recently. Of course, as a young, developing fundraiser, it's natural that the work I'm producing is my best - I'd be disappointed if it wasn't, quite frankly. But despite the fact that I know I'm sending out good applications at a decent volume, the last month has been pretty quiet on the donations front. And that's demoralising.

It's not a pleasant experience with each day that goes by to bring a pile of post for the office, with nothing bearing my name. I feel like I'm sending out these good applications, for a very worthy cause, and that we should get be getting something back in return. But realistically, I know that's not how it really works.

What I need to remember, and what I'm always told, is that trust fundraising is very much a waiting game. You send an application off, and it may not even be looked at by a panel of trustees for six months, or even longer. Which means that these applications I'm sending off now really have no connection to the lack of donations that are coming in at the moment. This dry spell is linked to a period a few months ago when my applications were generally less numerous, and less targeted; they were still decent applications (I hope!), but I know they weren't as good as the material I'm producing at the moment. The work I'm doing now won't bear fruit for several months yet.

I know this in my heart of hearts, but it does make life difficult, and quite stressful. It's no fun not receiving money when you know you're doing good work. But hopefully in a few months I'll be all smiles, when this hard work pays off.

Just gotta keep positive!

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Eurovision 2012 - a draw analysis

It's been a week, which is plenty of time for the draw for the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest to sink in a little, so here's my take on what those random little balls have done to the chances of some of our favourite songs.

Semi 1

Semi 1 starts with, who else, Montenegro! A song like this was always going to struggle to qualify, and I think going first more or less wipes out any chances it may have had. It'll certainly be an entertaining start for the viewers! Iceland and Greece follow, two strong songs which should have decent chances of making the final from any starting position.

I personally feel that Latvia and Albania were always facing an uphill battle to qualify. Latvia risks coming across amateur and silly, if they aren't very careful with it, and Albania is probably just too weird for mainstream ears. In this draw, they're going to struggle. Romania probably isn't the kind of song that's really affected by the draw, but it certainly benefits coming after Albania - two songs could barely be more different!

Romania is followed by Switzerland, which I've automatically assumed is pretty doomed, especially in the first half of the draw. Following Switzerland we have Belgium and Finland. As good a draw as either were going to get really, once we knew they were in the first half, though both could have seriously benefited by getting to be the 'sensible', competent pop song in position 17 after a lot of silly stuff.

The song that effectively gets that opportunity is Denmark, performing after San Marino and Cyprus, one of which is almost certainly going to be ridiculous and hopeless, with the other definitely having the potential to be (I'll let you decide which is which!), as well as Israel's quirkiness. Either way, Denmark, which was already sailing through to the final, really does benefit from this draw.

Denmark is further helped by preceding the Russian Grannies too. Late on in the semi is a decent enough draw for them, but, in contrast, it doesn't work for Hungary. Initially I thought they'd got a great draw, but listening through in order, it really doesn't work coming after Denmark and Russia. Which means that Austria following Hungary comes in like a breath of fresh air; its qualification chances went right up for me after this.

Moldova is Moldova, and has a pretty decent draw, performing close to the end. And the semi concludes with Jedward. Watching these through in order, 'Waterline' came across as very ragged and a little bit hopeless coming on last, but we know how well Ireland polished up 'Lipstick' last year, and Jedward of course have form qualifying from the final starting position. They're almost certainly through.

Semi 2

The second semi-final this year is dominated by the ex-Yugoslav countries, so let's take a look at their draws first. Serbia opens the show, and, while it's probably not the best position for this atmospheric, quiet number with a long introduction (especially if the Azeris choose something along the same lines for the opening act), Željko is obviously qualifying. Less clear is Kaliopi singing for Macedonia in the unfavoured second position. I think these two songs would both benefit from performing the other way around. Slovenia and Croatia have been drawn together in the middle of the running order, probably not a great draw for either, and their chances will wholly depend on their performances. If one of Nina and Eva commands the stage and kills it, then the other is probably screwed. And Bosnia takes position 17. As the last ballad, it surely has strong chances of making the final.

Other fan-favourites in this semi-final include Joan Franka, performing third for the Netherlands, and Tooji taking 16th position for Norway. It's probably the worst draw that Joan could have got - I feel that her song would have benefited the most by coming across as a refreshing break from silly, amateur pop, and while Serbia and Macedonia won't be everyone's cup of tea, there's no arguing about whether they'll be performed professionally. Tooji, in contrast, needed a late draw, and he got it.

Others benefiting from the draw include Estonia, who get to perform their ballad after the potential madness of Georgia and Turkey, and also favourites Sweden, who get to follow two ballads. The draw isn't particularly kind for many of the first half - Malta, Belarus and Portugal all probably had slim chances of qualifying anyway, and would have benefited from being in the second half, and Bulgaria risks coming across as a less-good version of Ukraine, which it follows. Ukraine, with its storming performance, is probably pretty safe anywhere, and couldn't have picked a better song to perform after than Portugal.

Which leaves Slovakia, which I generally think is pretty chanceless wherever it performs, and Lithuania. The Lithuanians selected to go last, clearly believing it to be the best position to perform from, and they may well be right, with only one non-qualification from the last spot in the semi since 2008. But still, I do think there's a risk performing last, and that's that you take the chance of coming across as a silly interval act, or just simply not good enough. Both of those things arguably happened to the Netherlands in 2009, and they were effectively left with just one point, from Denmark (plus 10 from the barmy Albanian jury). If you're on last, you have to give people at least some reason to watch, and to vote, otherwise everyone's off to the loo before the reprise. Needless to say, I'm not sure Lithuania made the best decision here.


Moving on to the final, which is much harder to say anything concrete about, since, as much as a late draw can be important for an act, perhaps more crucial is the combination of songs surrounding them.

Either way, performing first probably isn't great for the UK. It didn't work for 'Da Da Dam', another ballad, in 2011, which lost a bunch of its votes from the semi by the time the final voting came around, and if the Azeris put 'Running Scared' in the opening act, it'll be a downbeat first fifteen minutes to the show. Whichever of the semi-final qualifiers gets drawn as the first uptempo of the night should be hoping to do pretty well come the scoreboard.

Later on we have France and Italy drawn together again (at 9 and 10), though this time I don't think the draw hurts France as much as it did last year, with both clearly going for rather different audiences. 13th before the break is probably decent for Azerbaijan, and Spain and Germany will both be pleased to be on towards the end of the show. Their chances, though, will greatly depend on what gets drawn around them.

So, there you have it! Do you agree, or do you have another opinion on this draw? Comment below and share your thoughts!

This blog also appeared in a slightly modified version at ESC Nation.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Soundrop - a Spotify app review

A new Spotify app caught my attention today. And unlike some of the present apps, which merely encourage you to read mediocre reviews of mediocre albums and then (not) listen to them, Soundrop really makes the most of the social heart of Spotify.

Soundrop, which like several other progressive web music projects, is based in Norway, allows users to enter a 'room' and vote on tracks to be played. The founders describe it as being like a jukebox:
"Music was originally social; people had to go somewhere to hear it. Today music is often experienced individually. By combining the concept of the jukebox with the pervasiveness of the web, we can restore music to its social roots."
There are a number of genre-specific rooms already set up within the app, but users are also able to launch their own rooms to share music with friends. I haven't tried this, so this review will focus on the experience in the in-built rooms.

The interface presents a basic chatroom, above a list of the songs in the queue to be played. Users can then simply scroll down and 'vote up' the songs they want to hear first. Songs re-order themselves based on the number of votes they've received, so more popular songs get played first.

It's a great way of making the most of the social aspect of listening, and will only improve as more people start to use it. At the moment, despite popular rooms having around 150 listeners, the voting is often dominated by a couple of people. There's the potential for some great competition between users to get their favourites played first, with positions changing frequently, but this just isn't the case in many rooms at the moment that simply end up with a long list of songs with two votes each.

It is, however, a good way of discovering new music within a genre you already have some familiarity with, and this is clearly how many listeners choose to use the service. It's really easy to add a currently playing song to one of your own playlists by simply dragging and dropping, or you can even make a playlist of the whole queue with a simple click.

No listening experience is without its disadvantages, of course, the most notable being that other people obviously have less good taste than you do. You can't skip a bad song that's voted for by other people, as you would then fall out of sync with other users; similarly you can't pause a track. Where the system falls down slightly is when the community votes for a song unavailable in your region. When this then reaches the top of the queue, the music simply stops for the duration of that track. It spoils the atmosphere somewhat to have to sit in silence for four minutes, or leave the room to find something else to listen to.

Overall though, despite a couple of disadvantages, I do really quite like Soundrop, and will definitely continue to use it in the future. It's simple to use, very easy to get the hang of and is pretty low-maintenance. If you have particularly eclectic taste, it's probably not for you, but if you're just up for some background music in a specific genre, or are up for discovering some new tracks, give it a try!

Find Soundrop within Spotify's app finder. You will obviously need Spotify to use the app, and will have to link Soundrop to your Facebook account.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

What we've been watching this weekend

A weekend away with some of my bestest friends, the guys from ESC Nation, always ends up with a few videos characterising the whole experience. The below represents some of my best memories of the last few days.

Obviously we watched Bizek Emi.

And of course there was Ragni. Including doing the Ragni dance moves to random dansband songs at the Patricia nightclub.

For some reason we watched this several times...

Of the many national finals we watched, this performance stands out for the hilarity it caused, as well as being a great song! Ventspils looks nice too!

And of course, there was the whole reason we were there in the first place

It was another great weekend. Thank you to everyone who shared it!

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Melodifestivalen 2012 - My Top 32

1. På väg - Abalone Dots
A beautiful country ballad with tight harmonies, this was always going to be my favourite. And it even has a really well-executed key change too!

2. Why am I crying - Molly Sandén
Big emotional break-up ballad, with lovely thoughtful lyrics - just my thing!

3. The Girl - Charlotte Perrelli
See, I do like schlager sometimes!

4. Amazing - Danny Saucedo
I wasn't particularly expecting to like this, but I really do! I find it really uplifting and positive to listen to.

5. Euphoria - Loreen
Not as dark as 'My Heart Is Refusing Me', and therefore not as interesting, but a goodie nonetheless.

6. Soldiers - Ulrik Munther

7. I mina drömmar - Maria BenHajji

8. Sanningen - Carolina Wallin Pérez

9. Why start a fire? - Lisa Miskovsky

10. Förlåt mig - Mattias Andréasson

11. The boy can dance - Afro-dite

12. Det går för långsamt - Mimi Oh

13. Jag reser mig igen - Thorsten Flinck & Revolutionsorkestern

14. Mirakel - Björn Ranelid feat Sara Li

15. Baby Doll - Top Cats

16. I din himmel - Sonja Aldén

17. Kyss mig - Axel Algmark

18. Goosebumps - Hanna Lindblad

19. Just a little bit - Love Generation

20. Aldrig Aldrig - Andreas Lundstedt

21. Sean den förste banan - Sean Banan

22. Shout it out - David Lindgren

23. Stormande hav - Timoteij

24. Youngblood - Youngblood

25. Salt and pepper - Marie Serneholt

26. Ge aldrig upp - Thomas di Leva

27. Lovelight - Andreas Johnson

28. Mystery - Dead by April

29. Land of Broken dreams - Dynazty

30. Don't let me down - Christer & Lotta
Well, you did let me down. I was hoping that this might be a charming little old-people number, along the lines of 'C'est la vie' from 2004. It's not, it's just horrible.

31. Allting blir bra igen - OPA!
Pointless. Why bother, really. I'm all for diversity in Melodifestivalen, but not when it comes up with songs as poor as this.

32. I want to be Chris Isaak (This is just the beginning) - The Moniker

And to get the taste of The Moniker out of my mouth, here's my favourite, 'På väg' by Abalone Dots.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Learning Norwegian - visiting Norway

As mentioned in my last entry, I've recently started learning Norwegian. My first test of my progress came a couple of weeks ago, when, after less than two weeks' learning, I paid a visit to Bergen, Norway's second city.

I've been following the Pimsleur method with my learning, which involves a 30-minute audio lesson each day. I'll go into this in more details in a later entry when I review the course, but for now I'll just mention that it's a pure audio course, at least for the early stages, which involves learning from two native speakers on the recording, and strongly encourages a focus on pronunciation and recall.

When I went to Norway, I'd just completed lesson eleven. I was determined to try out what I'd learned on my friends, and hadn't told them anything about it before going. My intention was to surprise my friend Harald by talking to him in Norwegian when I got off the bus in Bergen city centre. I was very nervous about it all the way there, but, as I disembarked, I ignored his English greeting and spoke Norwegian. We had a simple conversation, during which I asked him how he was, said that I wanted a glass of wine and asked directions to Stortingsgata.

My vocabulary was very limited, as was my breadth of topics to discuss, but that wasn't an issue for me at that stage. I just wanted to try my pronunciation and comprehension in a natural environment, but one with inbuilt support. I was extremely worried that my accent would be very strong, and that in particular I wouldn't be able to pronounce my 'r's correctly, a strong indicator of a native English speaker. I'm pleased to report that my fears were ungrounded, as I was complimented on my accent, especially my 'r's - I even realised that I was over-rolling my 'r's, an easily-rectified problem that I would have been overjoyed to have had during my years of Serbian.

I continued my experiences by speaking Norwegian to Harald occasionally during the weekend, but the real test came when we went to a party of a friend of his on Saturday night, full of Norwegians. Of course, most Norwegians, particularly young people, speak excellent English, but I was determined to at least try out my Norwegian, and hope they wouldn't automatically switch to English to accommodate me. Happily, most of them didn't, and most of them understood what I was saying and were happy to enter into a very simple conversation with me. They were rarely more than a couple of minutes before disintegrating into a 'Jeg forstår ikke' and switching to English, but the effort was made, some success was had and my confidence boosted.

I was very worried before going that I would be laughed at for my poor accent, or lack of comprehension, or that people would just want to speak English with me. The latter only happened once, and I persevered in Norwegian with her. I was also only laughed at once, but I suspect that was more because the phrase I used, while correct, was overly formal for the situation. And my accent was genuinely praised my several people - and since it's early days, I'm taking "you sound a bit Swedish" as a compliment too.

I think much of this success is due to following an audio course. It allows me to really focus on my pronunciation without continually thinking about how words are written and distracting myself by thinking about their written form. Indeed, I have no idea how to spell most of the words I've been speaking.

Opening myself up and speaking Norwegian to strangers was a massive step for me to get over, particularly after the pummeling my confidence took in Serbia. But now I feel much better about myself, am really buoyed up, keen on my learning, and look forward to going back to Norway - this time with a much wider range of topic areas and increased vocabulary.

Learning Norwegian - an introduction

Language learning is something that's always been dear to me. I started learning French and Latin at school at the age of 11, picked up German and Spanish when they were available in the curriculum, and always generally doing well at languages. They were my best subject at school, and I moved on to take Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian at university.

But since my university days, when I struggled somewhat with my learning, I've let my languages slip a little. I've made half-hearted attempts to renew my BCS, as well as occasional forays into my other languages, in particular on holiday, but with little long-term success.

Recently, however, I decided I wanted to be a little more dedicated. I wanted to learn a language and stick with it. I wanted to work hard at it and improve. And I realised that the only way I would do this was to actually use the language. I could try to brush up my BCS, and go and spend some time in ex-Yugoslavia, but realistically, that probably isn't going to happen.

So, I turned to a country where I've spent a lot of time recently, and where I have friends with whom I can practise my language - Norway. It may not be the most necessary language to learn, with many Norwegians speaking excellent English, but it's a good challenge for me, and one that's potentially achievable given my own circumstances.

I'm looking forward to it. And I'll be using this blog to keep you updated on my progress too, as a way of keeping myself honest and motivating myself. I've been learning for a couple of weeks now, so I'll be posting my first update pretty soon.