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!

Music to my ears

Exercise

I didn’t get round to trying the Speed podcast last week after all. But I’m very pleased with myself for managing to get three runs in despite the week’s social busy-ness, several late nights and two and a half days of gorging on bad, bad (but so good) foods courtesy of VegFest. Actually, the gorging provided motivation (damage limitation). I did two more Stepping Stones runs and one to my own music. The latter was the fastest, in spite of a lot of faffing with my phone. This was due to a last minute decision to make it a Nine Inch Nails-themed event, in memory of the Cardiff gig on Wednesday, via a few songs ripped from old CDs and/or the Soundcloud app. Having now looked into this a bit more, it seems Deezer will be a better soluion.

Photo of D lock secured to pannier rack with bungee cord

Bun-Dee

Talking of apps, my counter one has stopped working, so I’m now relying on Sports Tracker’s voice feedback for my “You’re a third of/halfway/two-thirds of the way through” alerts. That, and using the same route most of the time.

Cycling-wise, I’ve been trialling a new D-lock carrying system, namely a bungee cord wrapped around my pannier rack, after seeing this on someone else’s bike at the Space for Cycling rally. It’s working a treat so far, though I did snap the lock onto my finger on Thursday and it’s still a little tender (hurt quite a bit at the time). Also slight complication to pannier(un)hooking, but the improvement to the (un)locking faff makes it worth it I think.

Education

Only one educational event this week: the Bristol Cable’s Journalism with Integrity workshop led by Mike Jempson, a long-time journalist and unionist who is also Director of MediaWise and a senior lecturer. A sobering look into moral and legal considerations of reporting.

Mike Jempson’s exhortations of transparency, objectivity and rigour were very appealing to this INTJ, yet a reminder that good journalism is hard work because it means that something that sound like a good story with no reliably-sourced facts to substantiate it requires either finding said facts and writing in a  way that is “relevant to your neighbours, not just your friends”, or a pass.

Or, I got to thinking, the right angle. I’ve been pondering what I could do for the Dignity March after they issued a call for bloggers, social networkers and photographers to help publicise their campaign. I think the lessons from John Henley’s talk are particularly important for such a story and in the current climate. His only answer to my question about how to make more people interested in an unpopular subject affecting a minority was to show the human, emotional side. And this, he had told us earlier, is best done via video, while data is more easily digestible as a graphic, and text is best used for discussion of ideas; and a mix of the three increases a digital visitor’s “dwell time”. So I have a method; but the clock is ticking if I am to employ it in any way useful to this cause. Day jobs have their drawbacks.

Going back to Sunday’s workshop, the most shocking thing for me was delving into defamation/libel/slander. It made me realise how suddenly my life could be turned upside down for blithely expressing an opinion or other statement that someone/an organisation could consider/claim to be a threat to their reputation. I don’t know how common it is for independent bloggers to be sued for such things but I will definitely bear the three essential criteria for defensible defamation in mind: truth (ie based on undeniable facts), honest opinion (one that any honest person might share), public interest.

This got me wondering how the hell critics and comedians do their jobs, as I made a mental note to delete a gratuitous line in my review of Wednesday night on another blog that was purely, as far as I can tell, a matter of taste. And how, if it was on a blog people read, I would have had to post an apology instead of deleting the dubious material.

Also, bloggers beware – if you pre-moderate comments (ie choose which you publish), you are liable for their content even if someone else wrote them.

There are some very complex considerations when covering court cases, some of which went hand in hand with special privileges card-carrying journalists have in relation to them, such as permission to tweet proceedings (which may be retweeted but not commented on).

Talking of Twitter and responsible journalism, here’s a great thread where Kerry McCarthy MP challenges a Bristol Post headline.

Finally, an interesting concept was briefly brought to our attention: the “right to be forgotten”.  Apparently the expectation is that after 9 months people forget the details of most news stories and most of the people in them, but the digital age has made this less linear if people’s past is only a google away.

Photography

Popped into the Greenbank to meet the member of its staff coordinating the exhibition and have a bit of a recce. This was really worth doing as I got to see that there are two different types of wall space available (all bricks, but with a choice of just red and a mix of red, yellow and brown). As most of my large pictures will have rusty hues on unframed canvas, I have requested one of the multi-coloured walls so they stand out more. I’m now wondering whether this was the right choice and may revisit it, especially since I’ve given up on artificially extending the photos to make them wrap (most will have black edges, one of them dark grey ones).

I have now ordered a first batch of these canvases, using photos that looked good in the test prints; fingers crossed they turn out all right too. I found that upon closer inspection, the test prints that were disappointing were different from the way the photos looked on any of my devices, not just my dodgy desktop PC’s monitors. When I pointed this out to Photobox, they promptly gave me credit to have them re-done. This is scary in terms of not knowing what to expect from the canvases, but good news in terms of using my existing computer equipment for photo editing. Certainly can’t fault Photobox for responsiveness. Almost everything I ordered yesterday has been despatched today; I expect the thicker canvases to be on their way tomorrow.

I took some photos of Boney M (who were great) on Friday night at VegFest, having scored a free ticket – quite a challenge what with dusk, dark skin tones, sparkly outfits and one silky white one, and the crowd. I haven’t quite reached the optimal levels of photographer rudeness needed to get to the best viewpoint if I’ve not camped there before anyone else has arrived, and I’m not sure I want to. But I got close enough that one of the superfans leaning against the fence took pity on me and let me have her place for a bit. None of the pictures were really good SOOC. I must practice more so I can take pictures in any condition that don’t need (much editing), not least because of lack of time.

Photo of three current members of Boney M on stage at Bristol VegFest

I also didn’t manage to get a good group shot with all of them in

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.

Back in the saddle

It’s been nice to take a break from the daily accountability of 30 Days of Biking, but, not unpredictably, the removal of this straightforward, externally imposed structure also left a vacuum I now need to fill with my own routine (until the next 30-day challenge anyway).

It’s not as if the last ten days have been devoid of self-improvement.

photo of pannier next to tools

Poorly pannier awaiting stitching expert next to electrician/carpenter tools

If it’s broke…

On 3 May there was the Bristol Repairs Cafe, where I watched Hilary stitch my poorly pannier back to some semblance of togetherness. As she didn’t have strong thread to hand I may have to have a go myself in the near future, but at least now I know it can be done. I’m aiming to make a habit out of attending these monthly as I have a large box full of things that need mending at home and never the confidence or motivation to do anything with them on my own.

Three free workshops

  1. Local food – Pollyanna or Panacea?“, an event organised by the University of Bristol as part of the Food Connections Festival. I’m not entirely sure whether I learned anything there other than the phrase “you can’t cross an abyss in two steps” (from one of my fellow participants), an interesting image though as with all metaphors, its application to other situations is debatable.
  2. Appreciation of Beauty” run by Light Box – the Happiness Project“). I’m pretty good at finding beauty around me already, as I think my obsession with taking close-up photos of rust demonstrate. Mostly I had been intrigued by the prospect of “making camera lenses from vibrant acetate” (by which they of course meant filters; mine unfortunately fell apart in my bag before I got round to taking a photo through it). We were told that beauty has measurable physical benefits (patients heal faster when they have a room with a view – I’m sorry, I don’t have a link to the peer-reviewed medical research this no doubt comes from).
  3. Smartphone journalism“, run by the Bristol Cable. This, unlike what I had vaguely expected (opportunistic use of phone camera for snap-and-tell), turned out to be a largely technical course on recording video interviews and vox pops. Out of my comfort zone in a number of ways, even though I had done similar things in a work context, but was not un-fun and I’ve been idly thinking about some real-life applications (watch this space). Even though the first thing we were told was that we’d have to invest in some kit because camera shake and bad inbuilt microphones.
photo of sign outside St Philip's recycling centre prohibiting walking in

Mixed messages? Be green, recycle – but always do it in a car. Mind you, says nothing about cycling in.

Feel the FOMO and don’t do it anyway.

The main area of self-improvement of this period, however, has been in all the things I have NOT partaken in – Bristol is teeming with free activities of all kinds this time of year, and will be so for months, to the point where I was getting a bit stressed from all the rushing around and also not getting anything done, be it writing, photo-editing, job-hunting or even just loading the dishwasher. So I’ve had to develop a similar attitude to these things as my budgetary “if it’s not essential, don’t spend money on it“. This means I have yet to attend anything to do with the Bristol Festival of Photography, but I did among other things

  • pull out the Virginia creeper from my back wall before it was all leafy again (not only was I told it was bad for the house, but last summer it attracted so many wasps I thought there was a nest in it), and took the cuts to the tip on the same day (knowing from past experience that disposing of garden waste becomes even more of a chore once it’s been rained on).
  • register to vote – cut it a bit fine and had to hand-deliver my form on the day of the deadline. I learned that the reason I found no letter boxes on City Hall to drop it into over the week-end was that they had all been removed in the 80s after poll tax protesters got into the habit of slipping excrement through them.
  • got the ball rolling for my Easton Arts Trail stall and inventoried my photo archive, making sure everything exists in at least two functioning and ordered locations. The next step will be to make sure all the ones that are important to me are in at least one cloud location, which can hopefully be both a backup and an online portfolio. Much as I dislike Flickr for various reasons, it’s probably the pragmatic choice.

Biking/running

  • Took squeaky bike to Women’s Night, it was quickly diagnosed as needing a good oiling in the chain. One more basic bike thing under my belt.
  • Got round to downloading Endomondo last week. It does the job. Signing up/signing in seemed slightly more complicated than with the other apps, but once past that hurdle, I found the app easy to use and reliable. I’m not sure about the voice that says “Go” once you press play. On the plus side, she sounds vaguely like Helena Bonham Carter telling Ed Norton to slide in one of my (many) favourite Fight Club scenes.  But it’s also annoying, as pressing play is not necessarily the last thing I do before actually starting. It would probably go away if I turned the Audio Coach setting off, but I quite like the little updates every ten minutes when I’m running, telling me how far I’ve gone and what speed I’m clocking – a definite bonus compared to Sports Tracker. Even though I’ve also been using ‘Round and Workout Timer‘ to tell me whenever I’ve done five minutes. With the latter, by the way, I really didn’t like the built-in sound, so used the facility to record my own; I found I had to shout at a high pitch for the sample to be heard over the music that keeps me going, so it’s a pretty silly sample, but I still like hearing it, telling me I’m that much closer to the end.
Animated gif of Marla Singer in Fight Club saying "Slide"

Yes, I am fully aware of the irony of quoting Fight club in relation to self-improvement.

30 Days of Biking #30 – Finish

I’ve done it! I have cycled (and written about it) every single day in April. Business as usual for many cyclists, and no doubt many of the joyful ones who took the Pledge had more exotic stories to tell. But an achievement for someone like me, relatively new to it, with a largely utilitarian approach as well as mixed feelings and experiences.

Perhaps most importantly, getting on the bike every day, rain or shine, bouncy or tired, and NOT FALLING OFF has been a big boost after the doubts that assailed me in January and caused me to take a two months’ break. I may not be the most joyful of cyclists (making me a bit of an interloper in the 30 Days of Biking community, as joy is in the membership description), I may never even regain the levels of joyfulness I experienced before The Scary Fall, but at least I have replaced dread with calm caution, re-acquainted myself with the practical advantages of cycling and even found some enjoyment in it again.

On this, my last mandatory-cycling-and-writing-about-it day, I attended the ‘Greenbank Gathering’, a community event at a local pub that included a stall by the local Bicycle User Group (BUG). This essentially consisted of a consultation by way of pen, paper and post-its.

Photo of BS5 BUG consultation document

If BS5 BUG got £1000 of funding, what should it do with it?

Photo of BS5 BUG consultation document

What would encourage you to cycle more?

Photo of BS5 BUG consultation document

The reverse of a list of cycling-related things; we were invited to put a tick next to the ones that mattered to us. Someone obviously felt a tick was not emphatic enough for this item, perhaps in light of it having been left till last and relegated to the back of the sheet like an afterthought.

I dutifully ticked my favourite items on the “one they made earlier” (training, repairs, secure parking), but didn’t feel I had much to contribute to the flipcharty things as my cycling bugbears (pun intended) are either up to me to improve or otherwise beyond the reach of local initiatives. What would encourage me to cycle more? A bike I can trust and the means to pay someone to fix/service it. A body that made light work of hills and felt comfortable in lycra, jackets that don’t cover its bum and shorts. Eyes that don’t need specs which in turn need a visor when it rains. A wider hallway so getting the bike out isn’t such a faff. Clear rules so everyone knows where they need to be on cycle paths. Cycle lanes that don’t end abruptly at the most dangerous point in the road. Less rain. No potholes. No deceptively lowered pavements that trip you up. No steady drip-drip of horror stories from other cyclists who’ve had a bad fall or been run over, of statistics showing that cycling is more dangerous than driving in the UK. Bike lights that are an integral part of the bike and get charged up by pedalling. Something less heavy and infuriating than D locks for security.

Fortunately there are plenty of reasons to cycle anyway, and plenty of support already available in Bristol (long may it continue). For now I’ll remain a cyclist/pedestrian/driver/public transportee, in whatever order happens to suit me at any given time, and while I enjoyed my 30 Days of Biking, I will also enjoy having the odd day off the bike. And writing about other things!