New year more blog

Yikes! Where did January go? Just one day left to meet my new target of at least one post a month this year.

Obvious January entry: self-improvement round-up of the silent last 6 months. The main items were various job applications and interviews over the summer, followed by starting a new job in September. The bad news: no running since July, after I lost my momentum, no pun intended, due to a few weeks’ unwellness. But still cycling, even all through this month in spite of fearing a repeat of last January’s tumbles.

July: ‘Character Strengths’ workshop by Lightbox – the Happiness Project. Extremely valuable. My main character strengths are (in that order):

  1. Judgment, critical thinking, and open-mindedness
  2. Appreciation of beauty and excellence
  3. Fairness, equity, and justice
  4. Honesty, authenticity, and genuineness
  5. Humour and playfulness

Take the test

August: Made a few extra pennies proofreading and teaching people to use WordPress.  Took a maths test at my local college to determine where I should start in order to become a well-oiled statistics-churning machine. I had decided this would be a good idea thanks to the character strengths reflection, my previous MBTI dabblings and the fact I enjoy working with data at work but feel stunted by my limited mathematical skills/knowledge.

September: Attended a work conference in Cork and took a few nice photos there. Started my new job – another part-time one on top of my existing one, bringing me back up to 33.5 hours. Exhibited as part of the St Werburghs Arts Trail. Started a maths course at my local college. Wrote an article for a local magazine.

October: Watched some wonderful Photoshop webinars, which were free at the time of broadcast from the US East coast, meaning 5pm to midnight my time. They not only taught me tons of things about Photoshop but also opened my eyes to the value of learning and using keyboard shortcuts beyond Ctrl+a/x/c/p and customised tool layouts in whatever application I use. Also worked out, thanks to my challenging new job, how crucial it is to me to feel competent and useful.

November: Kept giving my all to the new job’s raised-game requirements, including super-strict lifestyle discipline to keep my energy levels and alertness up – no gluten, no potatoes, no refined sugar, plenty of sleep etc. Fixed a puncture all by myself for the first time.

December: ‘Goals’ workshop by Lightbox – the Happiness Project. More reinforcement than new material, but did re-focus my mind on the importance of having goals in the first place, separating them out from aimless daydreams, breaking things down into smaller achievable components, and committing, even through something as simple as putting goals in writing. Started using Habits RPG as a result of this, tidying up bookmarks and recalling the success of a similar approach to dieting. Took test to get into fast-track maths GCSE class starting in January; only one in my class to pass. Became an official Twitterer as part of paid work for the first time. Finally got round to reading my book on speed-reading and Cordelia Fine’s ‘Delusions of Gender‘.

So that was the second half of 2014 – pretty busy. 2015 is starting out no different, not least as there are now not one but two evening  maths class a week, art group meetings once a fortnight and various new items on Habits RPG to keep up with!

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Pyramid of needs

Screenshot of two maps showing two runs with different distances recorded for same run

WTH, Sports Tracker?

Exercise

On Friday I finally took a closer look at my Sports Tracker stats after one more session of clocking less kilometreage than I’d expect (almost half less than when I completed Couch to 5k). I was delighted to find that, although the app had not seemed to be suffering from my phone’s dodgy GPS, it probably had been, or was malfunctioning for some other reason, as it was somehow recording the whole time and itinerary but randomly moving the “official” Start point.

Having checked my usual route on Google Maps, I now know that on my shortest runs I still do 5.4k. So at worst I have not got any faster. On Sunday I tried the Speed podcast – I quite enjoyed the interval training, which made running a little less dull for me. I was taken by surprise by the shorter length of the session, only taking up the first half of my usual route, and elected to keep running back since I still felt up to it, didn’t fancy taking ages to get home and felt it would go towards making up for only running twice in the week. I’ve come a long way from doing as little running as possible.

Deezer has not really worked out – switched itself off after a few tracks on Friday, didn’t start at all on Sunday for the unassisted home stretch (this could have been to do with my web allowance status). I guess there’s nothing to it but to find more non-glitchy CDs with run-friendly tracks to rip (some of my old NIN CDs are so scratched they only produce some rather hideous “remixes” these days).

I have also had to face the fact that my oesophagitis, while not requiring medication most of the time, has been triggered by running even when I’ve been careful not to go out too soon after eating, which has made running more unpleasant than it needs to be. So I’ve made a note to have a preventative Omeprazole on running days for now, but as I’m always keen to avoid medication as much as possible, I will also try daily peppermint and see whether that can be enough.

And in biking news, my secondary lock got unusably stiff so I sprayed some GT 85 into it and now it’s working good again. A small thing, but it made me feel a sense of fluency to be able to easily diagnose the fault and fix it myself.

Education

My main educational event of the week was Prof. Tim Cole’s ‘Holocaust Tourism’ at the Watershed (part of the Past Matters Festival of History).

The talk appealed to me from a variety of angles – I am, in no particular order, a survivor’s granddaughter, a human rights fan, a photography and ethics enthusiast, and a friend of a repeat holocaust tourist’s with no interest in becoming one myself. In spite of not being the most ignorant person in these matters, I learned so much I scarcely know where to begin.

First of all, Prof. Cole made a connection between different types of Holocaust Tourism. The SS visiting ghettos at the time, looking for photo-ops that would bring propagandist caricatures to life, are uncomfortably placed in parallel with present-day visitors to Auschwitz queuing to snap their own stereotypical images. There are two iconic compositions ever recurring in visitors’ photo albums, which survivors overall do not see as representative of what arriving at or living in the camp was actually like.

The most common one is the view of the rail tracks running towards the camp, which has a fairly obvious subtext of “end of the line” etc., but also, Cole argues, represents the view of the Holocaust as a “crime of modernity”, the scale of it only possible thanks to technology, mechanical innovations, efficient infrastructure. We were informed that this is a fairly dated view from a historiographical point of view, as modern historians have been focussing on other aspects of the Shoah, such as neighbour-on-neighbour atrocities often driven by good old-fashioned greed and allowed by the less violent turning a blind eye.

Auschwitz now is all about absence – the emptiness of this once overcrowded place; the piles of material possession without their owners, arranged as exhibits to invite reflection on the staggering numbers of individuals tortured and killed there; the freedom to explore the entire space that prisoners were confined to a small area of. And as one survivor points out, the grass where once there was mud so treacherous that a recurring theme in survivors’ accounts is the constant struggle to avoid their clogs being sucked off their feet into it and lost. Well, not all about absence in that one of the many things the former inmates find disorienting when they return (often purely because their children have hounded them into it, according to Cole) is that there are Polish families living in some of the buildings, a result of the local housing crisis.

I loved the stories of the more purposeful survivor “tourists” – the ones that had a very specific symbolic gesture to make their visit a healing one. The guy who ordered a pizza from a nearby village to eat inside the camp. The one who just wanted to walk in, and then walk out.  The sisters who posed for a photo clutching the no-longer electrified wire fence. While briefly googling these stories up in case there were some links, I stumbled on this apparently polarizing video of a survivor dancing at various Holocaust sites. If I’ve ever so violently laughed and cried at the same time before, I don’t remember it. Polarizing schmolarizing.

But while survivors distilling profundity out of frivolity, celebrating the view from the top of Maslow’s pyramid where they were once buried below it foundations, delighted me, I did not love to learn that there is no code of conduct whatsoever for visitors to what is now the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and one Watershed audience member reported witnessing a group of probable neo-nazis going around it menacingly, in black and jackboots, pointing and laughing. I had a chat with her after the talk, as I wanted to know how other visitors reacted to this, how one *could* react to this constructively. She said it did not seem possible to do or say anything as they were very big and imposing and possibly actively looking to provoke a reaction. But she recalled that one of them seemed moved by a photo of a child in the camp. Is this why there is no restrictions on such visitors? The hope that some will see the error of their ways? It is of course easy to forget not to dehumanise the dehumanisers. But I just hate to imagine the effect this would have on a survivor visiting the same day. I can’t even imagine how I would deal with it; I’m barely starting to come to terms with the comparatively trivial fact that you can’t  go to a concert these days without people disrespecting the music and its fans.

There’s also the question of guided tours being offered as part of stag do packages or imposed on busloads of boisterous schoolchildren. But who am I to speak of dubious juxtapositions, sandwiching this review between a my latest jogging and digital imaging travails, purely because this is the blog’s format?

Photography

There was quite a spooky moment for me while Prof. Cole was taking questions, standing in front of the screen where his presentation’s last image was still being projected. The photo’s reference numbers kept etching itself on Cole’s forehead as he moved back and forth, chillingly echoing the tatoos of concentration camp prisoners. And I was faced with the dilemma – would it be OK to take a photo of this? My current position is that if I’m having to ask the question, the answer is probably no. The McCullins of the world have a way to answer yes, but it requires a direct human engagement I’m at best not ready for.

Other than pondering the photographer’s gaze at the event above, I have been carrying on with my Easton Arts Trail preparations. I had a few days of deep grump after my first batch of canvasses and enlargements arrived. They are hugely disappointing. There is a lot wrong with them, some my fault, some not so much, most to do with the process, one to do with the photo itself; some that will hopefully not stop people liking them if they don’t know what they were meant to look like, some probably more fatal. It was always a risk using a cheap online service – when I had a large canvas done at Clifton Colour in December, what I got for the much higher price was a professional engaging with me and my photo to achieve the best possible result. With Photobox, there’s a lot of guesswork and hidden features. If you’re going to use them, ensure the following:

  • Check the default settings that live in your Account Preferences (rather than be visible at the time of designing the product). You may wish to switch the default from “crop” to “fit” and turn off the “enhancement” feature, which a customer service representative assures me is what caused the canvasses to look washed out. I shall report on whether or not turning it off has returned correct colours and what if anything else has been lost instead.
  • Be aware they use a 1.5% bleed around the image so if you are not wrapping it all around the canvas, allow for this, otherwise you may have some unwanted borders.
  • Take the time to look at their FAQs on how to get the best possible results.

A problem I have found was down to the original image was one of the main elements in the composition not being in focus. This was made obvious in the enlarged image in a way that it had not been on screen or in the smaller print, and is more than likely due to using a single focus point when shooting, as recommended in a free workshop I attended a while back. From now on I will try to remember that this setting is not in fact always best. I deliberately eschewed any photo ops last week because of needing to focus on the Arts Trail work and because I still haven’t got round to editing all of last month’s pictures or even some taken in April! Canvas and small prints of one of my photos (closeup of disused train element) Canvas and small prints of one of my photos (closeup of disused train element) Canvas and small prints of one of my photos (closeup of disused train element) Canvas and small prints of one of my photos (closeup of disused train element)

 

Stepping stones

Exercise

I’ve run back to Laura. I went looking for information about how essential the 5-minute walking warmup is (no other running training I’ve come across uses it, it always seems to start with a (more or less) light jog). I have yet to find the answer to that (comments welcome), but did stumble upon some podcasts designed for Couch to 5k “graduates” looking to improve their speed. As I’ve at best not progressed in this respect, I figured I’d give them a go. I’ve done three runs with the Stepping Stone podcast so far – I’m still no faster and find it much more unpleasant than running with my own music, but it does contain some good tips such as checking your posture. My sins: tense upper limbs, slouching, looking down rather than ahead. Speed one next. I’ve also run back to Sports Tracker (and given up on the European Cycling Challenge) after finding Endomondo lacking after all. Turns out Sports Tracker does voice feedback too. At least Eastville Park is teeming with baby birds who make me smile as I go past – new ducklings, almost-adolescent-already goslings and now cygnets too!

Photography

As usual, I had all manners of ideas and ambitions for the monthly theme set by work’s photography staff club – “Time”, and didn’t achieve very much. My main attempt involved photos of the same flowers in my garden on consecutive days, with the intention to do “something” linking them in post-processing. The first one I picked, a red and yellow tulip, had lost all its petals by day three. As for my plan B, a bunch of dandelions at various stages of development, I found that my experimental system of markers and body positioning for preserving angle and composition had been severely flawed . One of these days I will have to get over my dislike of tripods.

Composite photo of tulip on three consecutive days

Badly merged photos of same tulip from same angle on three consecutive days.

My main photography mission right now is getting things ready for the Easton Arts Trail. This has so far involved me purchasing Photobox credit while they were having a 70% off sale, and now fiddling with my selected images to make them fit the canvas proportions – mostly adding bits to wrap round the sides. If there turns out to be an interest in my products, I may need to get into the habit of judging quickly if a photo would look good on canvas so I can take a wider angle shot. Then again, a visit to my dentist’s today included finding that people with white walls don’t mind photographic canvases with white edges.

The main area of improvement highlighted by this process has been, unsurprisingly, my monitors. They are cheap and nasty and I haven’t got my head round how to calibrate them or use colour profiles. As a result, there is a marked difference in the test prints I’ve had done of selected pictures depending on whether they were good SOOC (straight out of camera) or needed some adjustments. The latter don’t look right, because I essentially can’t see them or what I’m doing to them properly. I’ll need to look into investing in at least one better one (I work with two), and possibly some serious training. I know there’s a lot more I could do with Photoshop than my current self-taught dabblings.

Education

I coincidentally attended two talks by Guardian writers last week. The first, by Cambridge University economist Ha-Joon Chang, titled ‘The Role of Economics in Public Life, and the second, organised by the Bristol Cable, by journalist John Henley, titled ‘Using social media for citizen journalism’. There were some common themes between the two, the main one being that people formerly known as audiences should challenge those who have so far been considered the custodians of knowledge and information, be they experts or journalists. Henley pointed out that audiences have always known more than journalists and are now able to make this known; Chang, that economists have somehow convinced the public that their subject is far too complex for the common person to understand, when in reality it is no more so than, say, international relations, which people don’t seem to need a degree in to have an opinion on the Iraq war. Chang was a very engaging speaker with his heart in the right place (he opened his talk by deploring the current ambience of only valuing things that make money, reminding us that we “cannot live by bread alone“). I was particularly taken by his exhortations to challenge, listen and cross-pollinate, as I frequently despair of the opinionated’s tunnel vision and cherry-picking (whether we are on the same or opposed sides) and of how difficult it seems to be for most people to see beyond the status quo (re. the latter see also Ruth Levitas on utopia). There was much more, I took copious notes and this really would deserve a post of its own – for now I will just say that I’d certainly like to read his books if I can ever find the time.

As for Henley, he told us about how the internet has radically changed what it means to be a journalist and pushed back the limits previously imposed on the “audience”. He used as illustrations two impressive Guardian projects of his involving Twitter and other interactive online resources: Greece on the Breadline (which essentially involved him requesting stories of hardship and solidarity on Twitter and weaving a series of blog posts, videos, interactive maps etc from the responses) and Firestorm (a multi-media online presentation covering catastrophic fires in Australia last year from a variety of angles, from home footage by an affected family to explaining how global warming has caused these events to become uncontrollable). His advice to would be citizen journalists was to aim for the same higher ideals that a good old-fashioned journalist would, and if at all possible learn to code.