Are You An Inspiration Junkie?

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Not a day seems to go by that I don’t see a picture, usually on social media, of some artist/writer/creative’s workplace. I decided to ask on Twitter what the trend was about & one friend replied,

The Obsession With Creative Workplaces

Being curious about where the creators we admire toiled makes sense. Our lived spaces, where we work, where we eat, where we socialise are a kind of architectural biography, reflecting many choices we make over time.

I remember visiting Robert Frost’s cabin (Homer Noble Farm) in Ripton Vermont. It was a very basic wooden house, not much more than a shed really. I stood for quite some time and looked at the armchair where Frost used to sit & write his poems. It was challenging experience. I remember thinking “really, is this it?”

Yes, sometimes that’s all it is. Just sit down and write the damn poem!

Inspiration Or Procrastination?

Was visiting Frost’s cabin inspirational? I’m not sure. I didn’t suddenly start writing more often or more effectively as a result. I knew more about the poet and maybe more about how little a poet really needs in order to do their work. But, that is information, not inspiration.

Accumulating information and insights is useful and important, but it isn’t enough to trigger the thing inside us that makes us get to work. Acquiring more information is not the same as finding inspiration.

Or, to put it another way, it’s a great, potentially addictive tool, for procrastination.

My Office

I made the photo at the top of this article a few days ago in the Australian outback. I could have made a photo of my tripod, sitting in a field, on a freezing cold night. But, I’m not really sure how inspiring or helpful that would be.

What drove me to visit Frost’s cabin wasn’t the architecture, or a curiosity about famous arm chairs, it was his poetry. It was the work that inspired me.

I didn’t take up guitar because of the studios or lounge rooms where Hendrix, Prince & Van Halen recorded or wrote – it was because of the songs. I didn’t take up photography because of the darkrooms or Adams, Newton or Beaton, it was because of the photos.

“Inspiration comes of working every day.”
Charles Baudelaire

Where we work is not as important as the work we make. Unless we create some bizarre architectural folly, we are unlikely to be remembered for the space where we worked.

Next time you find yourself staring craving inspiration and feeding that hunger by staring at a picture of someone else’s workspace it might well be time to ask yourself whether you really should be spending more time in your own workspace.

Cameras Are Not Machines – They Are Artistic Instruments

Having come to photography after a lifetime of making music, I’m always fascinated by the way photographers think about their main creative tool – the camera.

Reading reviews, scanning forums, checking tweets and talking with photographers, I’ve always been struck by the obsession with technical minutiae; from megapixel counts, to perceived sharpness, distortions and aberrations and even the texture of the “bokeh.”

The camera’s technology does matter. But, when I compare the way photographers approach buying a camera with the way musicians approach buying an instrument, the differences are stark, mystifying and quite possibly revealing.

On Buying A Musical Instrument

When I shop for guitars things always start with looking the instrument over and observing any limitations. Notice I said observing. It’s good if an instrument plays in tune, doesn’t buzz, or have any damage. But, it’s not essential.

What really matters is the music you can make. Buying a guitar is a little like dating; you are trying to figure out if you can have a relationship with the instrument. Actually, you are trying to figure out what sort of music you can make with this particular guitar.

If the guitar has sufficient character and you are receptive enough as a musician, then the instrument will suggest to you what music to play. Some guitars just beg you to play blues, or rock, or jazz.

And, sometimes this character is connected directly to the guitar’s limitations and maybe even its faults!

It’s not about buying the best guitar on the market, it’s about buying the guitar that’s best suited to the music you make. Same is true for every other piece of kit, from amplifiers, to cables to effects. It is about creating your tone.

In fact, guitarists are often fond of saying “tone is in the fingers,” which really means your musical character will always come through. Even if you use someone else’s guitar, the sound of that guitar, in your hands, will not be the same as the sound of that guitar in someone else’s hands.

My Classical Guitar

I started out playing nylon stringed classical guitars and I have one in my studio today. If I compared this instrument to the best classical guitars I’d be forced to admit mine is, maybe not a piece of junk, but certainly not something any real classical guitarist would want to find themselves holding on stage.

But, my classical guitar doesn’t fill that role. I need it to fill a certain role in my recordings. It’s a background instrument and I don’t need it to have a big concert sound – I need it to have a crisp, light sound as a background instrument. That’s its musical purpose for me.

And, when I scan my rack of guitars (13 at present in my studio) each one has a different personality, suggests its own set of musical possibilities and feels perfectly adept to functioning in a unique way in musical compositions.

Buying Cameras As If They Were Instruments

The way photographers buy cameras often looks more like the way web designers buy computers than the way musicians buy instruments. Some might say that accurately reflects the way technology frames what is possible photographically. But, I don’t see photography that way at all.

To me photography is a lot more than just pointing a computer at the world.

That’s why I was fascinated by Zack Arias’ post today on camera technology. Zack laid out the technical issues involved in comparing camera formats in a very thought-provoking way.

On Lugging Two Very Different Cameras

On my recent trips, especially Rajasthan and Outback Australia, I’ve been carrying a FujiFilm x100s and a Nikon D800e. These two cameras look and feel different and I find myself making slightly different images with each.

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They beckon me in different directions. They make me look at the same thing in different ways (all three images in this post are of the same mountain range, on the same morning).

The x100s calls me toward making B&W and Infra-Red images, it pushes me to compositional extremes, between the dense and the starkly open and if anything, it encourages me to express my sense of humour.

The D800e asks me to make HDR images, explore subtler shades of colour, look towards the light in a more thoughtful way and whispers that I should look a little longer into the eyes of the people whose portraits I make.

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Am I exaggerating for effect? OK, a little. But, taking these two cameras as a pair does seem to create complementary images that I’m not sure I would make with the same models of camera and just using different lenses.

Another Example – iPhoneography

A lot of my favourite images from the past few years have been made with an iPhone. I love how direct the experience of making an image is – the point and shoot-y-ness of it. But, I also love how quickly things move from making the image to processing it.

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It’s one creative flow – from seeing a possible image to shipping a created image (to Instagram or whatever).

At no point am I making any conscious technical decisions. It’s the closest I’ve come, photographically, to the feeling of recording a great guitar part to tape, the wonderful feeling of capturing something artistic that is ready to share.

Buying Photographic Instruments

So, I’d ask you, the next time you are looking to buy a camera, maybe put down the magazines and switch off the internet for a while. Instead, think about how your favourite cameras make you feel when you use them. Imagine yourself photographing with creative freedom, imagine the camera in your hands the way a guitar, saxophone or violin rests and works in the hands of a master musician.

Yes, you are buying a piece of technology and yes, the technology matters. But, more than technology, you are buying an instrument for artistic and creative expression, a tool for speaking to the world through your images.

Postcard From Wilpena

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For four days last week I was off the grid, far away from the internet and any mobile phone reception, exploring the outback of Australia. My travels took me to Arkaba Station, on the edge of Wilpena Pound, just over 400km north of Adelaide.

This wasn’t a photographic workshop. It was a pure walking and nature experience.

Exploring the countryside by foot, covering about 14km a day (with two camera bodies, lenses, filters, water & supplies) over a mix of terrain, from flat scrub, to creek beds, mossy slopes, forests and rocky hilltops, sleeping under the stars (literally, with the temperatures dipping under 5C), showering in the open and waking with the dawn, was wonderfully challenging break from routine.

And, it was a fantastically inspiring few days (helped in no small part by Arkaba’s brilliant guides, great food, excellent camps and support staff). I left with three sets of studies I’ll be turning into prints once I return to Tokyo and burning desire to return soon to create more images!

Of course, I’ll have a few more articles to share with you, both on the wonderful accommodation, and also the photographic experiences including more fun with the FujiFilm x100s camera, some Black & White and HDR processes and some of the impression walking this land left in me.

But, for now I hope you enjoy today’s Black & White image, which represents the stark, ravaging contrasts of the Wilpena/Arkaba region.

The Road Not Taken

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Few poems are mentioned more often, in conversations about creativity and success, than Robert Frost’s wonderful meditation, The Road Not Taken.

Unfortunately, while the poem is often mentioned, the meaning is often lost in the rush to take the opening and closing lines as some sort of pithy statement about making brave, unconventional life choices, when in fact, the poem may well be trying to tell us something rather more profound and challenging.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Three Key Elements

The traveller is faced with a decision, to take one path or another one. But, Frost makes clear both paths are “about the same” and that morning “equally lay” un-walked upon that day.

The real dilemma is not that one path is better than the other. Rather, it is that by taking one path, the traveller is unlikely to ever back to this fork again, unlikely to ever travel along the road not taken.

So, the poem’s focus is not so much on the decision, since it’s largely a meaningless one; the traveller has to make a choice, but it’s a choice between two equal options.

Rather, the problem for the traveller is how they will tell the story, “ages and ages hence.” If put ourselves in the traveller’s shoes, then Frost is not calling us to reflect upon our decisions, but to reflect upon how we explain our decisions.

The Sigh

Many commentators spend a lot of time on the “sigh” that opens the final stanza. Is this a sigh of regret, or a sigh of satisfaction?

I’m more inclined to focus on the comma that ends the third line of this stanza, since this is the point when the traveller, many years after they chose which road to follow, is faced with the really important decision – how do they tell the story,

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,”

Telling The Story – Exaggerating The Story

That comma is like a pause, a hesitation if you will. The traveller could tell the truth, could tell what we already know from the opening lines; that the choice was really not much of a choice at all, that choosing one path over another didn’t matter.

However, the traveller lies, or at the very least exaggerates, not only claiming one road was “less traveled by” rather than being “about the same” and then goes on to claim the decision to take this supposedly less travelled road somehow made “all the difference.”

We like to believe we are unique, special, living a life full of brave, creative choices. However, the reality is often rather more prosaic and mundane than we might care to admit.

The Road Not Taken is a great poem, not because it defends some kind of bohemian notion of making unconventional life choices but because Frost so eloquently and succulently challenges our need to make ourselves look impressive by subtly embossing and manipulating the facts of our biographical story.

Guthrie Govan Live At The Adelaide Guitar Festival

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Adelaide is often known as the city of festivals, such is the proliferation of seasonal arts’ events in this modestly sized city. This past weekend saw the (rather awesome) Adelaide International Guitar Festival, which brings players from around the world, representing a wide variety of styles and genres.

As a guitarist, I of course love this kind of festival, though I have to admit, sometimes through gritted teeth, that guitar does not have as central a role in popular music as it did in my younger years.

There was a time when many pop songs (and most rock songs) had an obligatory guitar solo. And, there was even a place for instrumental guitar music as well and many of the heroes of pop and rock music where guitarists, often loved just as much, if not more for their guitar playing as for their singing or songwriting.

During my youth, many of the players I aspired to emulate, like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, where highly technical players, known as “shredders” for their ability to “rip” the guitar apart with a flurry of (often very fast) notes. But, after Grunge Rock changed the landscape of popular music, the virtuoso player slipped out of the popular consciousness and became a musical anachronism.

Guthrie Govan is a new generation of shredder, who came to prominence as an educator in the UK and writer for guitar magazines. In recent years he has become better known for his live and studio work (although he only has one album, 2006′s Erotic Cakes, to his name) and his collaborations with boutique guitar and amplifier makers.

I met Govan in Hong Kong, at a Suhr guitar clinic and he struck me as a really authentic and rather sharp guy. On stage his persona is almost totally devoid of rock-star pretension and he introduces each song with a wonderfully self-deprecating kind of British humour.

And, the music he plays is not easy – much of it written in odd times signatures and employing lightning fast volleys of notes and throughly modern, complex harmonies.

Not that the sell-out crowd minded. In fact, it was a warm, receptive audience who seemed to tune in well to the at times challenging, at times fun and throughly entertaining set.

Govan ended, as is increasingly becoming the custom, by eschewing an encore and just encouraging the audience to applaud loudly before the final song. Not that it really mattered, because by the time he and his band took a bow, we had been treated to a thoroughly masterful showcase of all the reasons why Govan is considered by many to be the supreme “guitarist’s guitarist” a player others, myself included, look to for inspiration.

Trends in music are often cyclical and given the directions music has gone in recent years, it might well be time for the virtuoso guitar styles to come back into prominence.

Whether or not that happens, it was nice for one night to be transported back to the days when instrumental rock was a more popular thing, appearing everywhere from TV themes, to films, to video games and of course, on car stereos and home HiFi’s.

Govan is a brilliant player and a thoroughly likeable fellow. I do hope he graces us with another solo album soon.

Postcard From The Adelaide Hills (FujiFilm x100s)

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It’s winter in Adelaide and remarkably cold for this part of the world, with several days since I’ve been here struggling to get into double figures.

On Monday I took a drive into the Adelaide Hills with my FujiFilm x100s in tow. My fondness for this camera has not waned and these two images reflect the kind of photos I created on the day.

The Adelaide Hills mark the western edge of Adelaide, where suburbia meets farm country and are home to some very quaint villages and excellent food and wine companies. I got my days wrong, so the shop at Skara Smallgoods was closed, but I did have a great time visiting Beerenburg, who make some awesome jams and sauces known all across Asia.

It was also great to visit Hahndorf Farm Barn, who run some great programmes to give kids a taste of life on a working farm (complete with milking cows, grooming and feeding animals).

The first photo was taken on an abandoned road and reflects the approach to HDR I’ve been working on for a few years now (and featured in Piet van Den Eydne’s book Pushing Light). It’s a multilayer process in Photoshop (using Nik plugins), where I’m trying to draw out the complex details you find in these sort of scenes, without (hopefully) making the image look too over-processed.

The second image below, is the kind of Black & White style regular readers of this blog will be familiar with. I first started using this kind of process in Oaxaca in 2011 and I really find the x100s is incredibly well suited to creating these kinds of images.

I grew up with the Australian countryside on my doorstep and still adore the way this kind of scenery looks deceptively simple, almost plain at first, yet reveals so much detail and subtlety as you look more closely. It’s a wonderful challenge as a photographer to try and capture this within the limited frame of a photograph.

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Why I’m Tweeting This Week From @WeAreADL

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All this week, I’m tweeting from Adelaide “Rotation Curation” account, @WeAreADL. I’m hoping it will be a fun experience.

What Is Rotation Curation?

Rotation Curation came into prominence thanks to the @Sweden account, where every week a different Swede would post their views and experiences, with the composite creating a rich and varied impression of life in Sweden.

Pretty soon the concept caught on, with many countries and cities spawning their own rotation curation accounts, with varied degrees of success.

They can be a mixed bag. I’ve followed @WeAreADL for a while now and it is usually good.  I’ve enjoyed watching some friends take turns on @hellofrmsg, Singapore’s version, but I’ve also had to block the account at times, when the resident curator seemed hell-bent on courting controversy for controversy’s sake.

Why Adelaide?

I didn’t grow up in Adelaide. I grew up in Sydney and while I adored that city in my youth, I fell out of love with Sydney once I entered adulthood.

After I left Australia in 1999, my parents settled in Adelaide and pretty soon I was visiting them on a regular basis. I really feel Adelaide still had a lot of what I had enjoyed about living in Australia combined with a much more pleasant and satisfying vibe than Sydney (here’s something I wrote about Adelaide in 2013 and another piece from 2012).

On top of that, Adelaide was a great change of pace from the crowded, frantic cities I had called home since becoming an expat; London, Delhi, Hong Kong, Singapore and now Tokyo.

I could go for long walks or bike rides, or nestle down to writing with almost no distractions. Once I realised a lot of my best thinking (and photography) was happening during the visits, I slowly increased the amount of time I spent each year in this city, along the way building up a rich portfolio of landscape images taken on Adelaide’s beaches.

Why Do The Adelaide Rotation Curation?

If I was a really strategic type, a personal branding obsessed freak, I’d probably play this opportunity purely for my ends. Of course, I’m not that guy.

I love Adelaide and I really want to understand the city better. Doing a Rotation Curation will introduce me to a lot of people and give me a little insight into their likes and lives.

Also, I really want to share what Adelaide has going for it with my friends across the world and especially, across Asia. I hope doing the week will pull a little more interest towards this very cool (and often under-rated) city.

And, of course, I think it will be fun.

Lucky Photos

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I believe in luck. OK, I don’t believe in the sense that I build my life around luck. But, I do believe luck plays a role in many of our achievements.

It fascinates me how just about all of the really successful people I’ve met also believe in luck. They’ll admit (at least privately), how good fortune & chance played some part in getting them where they are.

But, there’s another band of folks who visibly bristle at the mention of luck in connection to their success. They typically have some achievements, but not of the depth & distinction we associate with greatness.

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The two photos in this post are what I would call lucky photos. The first I took while out riding this afternoon.

We’ve had unusually heavy rain recently here in Adelaide & the water was pooling in a local jetty. I didn’t put the water there & if my day had gone according plan I would not have been in that spot at sunset. I happened to spot the pool of water & thought this image was possible. Luckily it was.

The second was a tree lined street I spotted out of the corner of my eye in a part of town I was exploring. It was pure chance I spotted this & unusually (for me) the rental car I’m driving has sattelite navigation, so I’ve a little more adventurous with exploring new areas on this trip.

Believing in luck is not a cop out. Creating decent images (or any kind of craft) takes effort & application. But, seeing the role of chance is really about appreciating the gifts all around us, the myriad of things outside our control that we draw upon for inspiration every day.

Multi-Output With Logic Pro And EZdrummer2

A few years ago I wrote a little guide for using EZdrummer, in multi-output mode, with Logic. Since then, Logic has been updated, from version 9 to version X and Toontrack have released a huge update to EZdrummer, in the form of EZdrummer 2. So, it’s time for a new guide, to handle the changes.

A Quick Note On EZdrummer2

First of all, let me say EZdrummer is a fantastic upgrade to what was already a great product. EZdrummer 2 is designed to be your go to tool for songwriting and beat production in styles that mimic what a real drummer might play (especially rock, pop, blues, jazz, folk and country). The easiest way to use EZdrummer 2 is as a stereo-output instrument, utilising the built-in effects and settings.

You can get a great sound working just from the presets. But, this guide is written for those who want to integrate EZdrummer 2 into a larger project setting and work with more detailed control of the sounds from each part of the EZdrummer 2 kit.

Create Your Instrument And Mix

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First, you need to create your EZdrummer 2 instrument. Logic gives you the option to either create a stereo instrument or a 16 channel multi output instrument. This is an expansion over the original EZdrummer, which only had the ability for 8 outputs. However, not all EZdrummer 2 kits and presets utilise all the possible outputs (more on that later).

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Then, you’ll want to go into EZdrummer 2′s interface and open the mixer. There’s a drop down menu that allows you to assign each track in the mixer to a specific output in Logic as well as a multichannel option, which automatically assigns the outputs, based on the EZdrummer 2 preset you have loaded. However, these assignments may be a little confusing a first.

A Note About Output Presets

When using the multichannel option to set your outputs, the results may not make immediate sense, depending on the preset you have loaded. This is because EZdrummer 2 tries to impose some consistency on which bits of the kit go to which output, despite the face not all kits and presets use all available outputs. The more you use EZdrummer 2, the more you’ll understand how this works.

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For example, you’ll see Kicks are sent to 1, Snare to 2, High Hats to 6, Ambient Mono Mic to 8, Shaker to 12, Tambourine to 13 and Ambient Percussion Mic to 14. But, you’ll also see effects being sent at times to the same outputs as some of the instruments, like Compression to 8 and Rever, Phaser or Tape, for example, to 1.

I don’t like to use the multichannel auto assigning feature for two reasons. First, I don’t want to route effects on the same outputs as parts of the kit if I can avoid doing so. Second, as we shall see in a moment, taking control of the outputs can, depending the kit being used, allow us to open fewer tracks in Logic’s mixer (which may, or may not matter to you, depending on how obsessive you are about project tidiness).

Setting Your Mixer

Next, you’ll want to look in the EZdrummer 2 mixer settings and adjust the output levels and panning to your taste. As I did with the original EZdrummer, I set all my outputs to -4.8dB, with no panning. Though I do find myself leaving the panning for the Toms in place more often than I used to.

Open Your Logic Auxillary Tracks

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Now it’s time to look for that little “+” sign on the EZdrummer track in Logic’s mixer (keyboard shortcut X to open) and open up auxiliary tracks for the EZdrummer 2 outputs. By default you can open up to 16 outputs in total, though as we’ve already mentioned, not every kit and preset uses them all.

This raises an issue you might want to think about if you’d like to avoid staring at unused tracks in Logic’s mixer. If you preview and decide on your EZdrummer 2 kit before opening the auxiliary tracks in Logic, you can keep your assignment tight and only open the number of auxiliary tracks you need. So, if EZdrummer 2 preset only uses X then open X.

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The drawback in this approach is of course, if you opt for another kit further along in the production, you mate either need to open more auxiliary tracks if the kit needs them (which may require changes to track naming) or be faced with staring at unused tracks anyway.

Either way, it’s a good idea to label and if it takes you fancy, colour code your tracks before you get too far into the project. And, before you get going, also check your levels in Logic’s mixer and make sure you are not hitting your output too hard. If you are up near the red with just the drums playing and no other instruments, then you have no chance of creating a good mix once all the other instruments come it. Start with your levels low and you can always bring them up later.

Final Thoughts

EZdrummer 2 is right at heart of my musical process and I’m loving the new features. It sounds great in stereo with internal effects, but run the way I’ve described above, through my studio setup, it is the drum machine of my dreams.

Below are two tracks for you to compare. The first is a loop in stereo output mode, with EZdrummer 2 presets and effects in tact. The second is the same loop, in multi-output mode, run out of Logic into a Rupert Neve Designs 5059 Summing Mixer, Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor and Kush Clarifonic EQ.

Look Up – The Digital Backlash Will Not Be Live-Streamed


Just in case you are not one of the multitudes that have contributed to this video reaching 42 Million views in the space of a little over two months, then take a few minutes to watch Gary Turk’s spoken word film, Look Up.

Watching this video for the first time with my daughter (who brought it to my attention), it was pretty clear this speaks to far more than just the so-called “digital generation.” There’s a challenge here for all of us to engage more with our physical environment and depend less on the often illusory emotional appeal of our online spaces.

In fact, it’s pretty clear for those willing to look, that a backlash of sorts, against many of the frustrations and false promises of social media is well underway. Whether people really spending less time online, or simply expressing a wish that they could unplug more often is, of course, another matter.

I’ve been pushing myself to rely less and less on map and location apps while here in Tokyo. These apps are wonderfully helpful at times. But, I find depending on them actually weakens my ability to create a map in my mind (as Borges would say) and build the connections that help me understand my new home town. Moreover, they tempt me to rely on online sources in English to find my way, rather than asking locals and in turn, reinforcing my nascent Japanese language skills.

Apps and digital devices are fantastically powerful. I love having a camera in my pocket & yes, maps can be great when one is really lost. But, it feels like many of us have outsourced vast swathes of emotional and cognitive energy into the tiny hand held screen. Anything that inspires us to claw some of that back – to literally stop and smell the flowers, rather than just walk past them with our head buried in a device, has my vote of thanks.