Egypt in Monochrome

This is probably not the album of holiday photographs that people want to see, but it’s one I’m quite proud of, and was a whole lot quicker to edit down than the colour ones. The idea behind this collection was that we carried my old iPhone everywhere we went, and just snapped random things with little or no thought as to the composition or subject.

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These are just the ones that are not portraits or self-portraits. Those may see the light of day another time, but I wanted to stick with pictures of things for now.

Beyond Good and Evil : Morality and Duality in Once Upon a Time

I’ve recently been watching the US TV show Once Upon a Time. I saw the first two seasons a couple of years ago, but then decided to wait until it was all available on Netflix so I could binge-watch all four seasons. For those who are not aware, Once Upon a Time takes traditional fairytales and gives them a modern twist, and also draws in more modern fairytales from recent movies such as Frozen and The Little Mermaid. One of the main themes that runs through the series is the battle between good and evil, and specifically what makes a hero and what makes a villain. As someone who is more interested in the shades of grey that all characters (and indeed people) possess, it maybe doesn’t seem like this show is something that would appeal to me, but I really do think that no character in Once Upon a Time is wholly good or wholly evil. In fact, it is the way the main characters move between the two that makes it so interesting to me.

This started me thinking about what defines our morality, and how people start on the path that ends with them being fairly close to one end of the spectrum. Do all people start out good (or at least neutral) and change according to things they do and things they see others do, or are there people who are literally born evil? I’m not sure I’m in a position to answer that question for the world in general, but I will try and answer it in the context of Once Upon a Time.

Season One of Once Upon a Time has several main protagonists. Emma Swann, her biological son Henry, and her parents Mary-Margaret and David are the heroes of the show. Mary-Margaret’s stepmother Regina (also Henry’s adopted mother) and the mysterious Mr Gold are the villains. At the start of the series they are all mostly adhering to type, although the season does chart Emma’s change from being a quite self-centred “normal person” to being the “Saviour” of the other characters (and the closest to a genuine hero by the end of the first season).

But if you scratch beneath the surface it is not quite that simple, and as the motivations and histories of all the main characters (and a plethora of minor characters) are explored, then it soon becomes evident that even the most evil characters started off with good in their hearts, and that every hero had to do some morally dubious things “for the greater good”. Additionally, the series takes fairy stories we know very well (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, Peter Pan) and twists them a little, so that the audience make certain assumptions about the morality of the characters and then have those assumptions turned inside out. Compare J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Captain Hook with their Once Upon a Time counterparts and you will see that things are not always what they appear.

Telling these complex moral stories only works due to the non-linear aspect of the storytelling. Once Upon a Time was conceived by the team that created Lost, and uses the same method of flashing back to add colour and context to each character’s current predicament. And it is only through juxtaposing the scenes set in the past and in the present that a morally accurate picture of each character is painted. And even when you reach the point where you think you know how a character would act in any situation, the story throws up a scenario where villains find something or someone to die for, whilst heroes find themselves needing to perform acts that they would condemn others for even thinking about.

I’m at the end of season 4 now, and I’ve not come across one wholly good or evil character, but I have noticed a definite trend in every character who has ended up being quite dark at some point. In no case were they born that way, but instead all went through a time where they were let down or otherwise disappointed by someone they looked up to as a figure of authority or moral guidance. And if there is a moral message at all it is that no-one is born good or evil, and that everyone has the potential for both. And while nature may play a small part, moral descent and decline seems much more about nurture, cicumstance, choice and consequence.

I suspect Once Upon a Time has a few more twists to come, but I’m glad that it seems more interested in genuine character development than in telling a simple story of the battle between good and evil. I think many other TV shows could learn a lot from it.

Adventures in Egypt

16th May

I remember the first time I was in Egypt. I was thirteen years old, and was taken to see the pyramids at Giza. Then (as now) it was really hot there, and I’d probably not taken too much notice about staying hydrated. So when I was handed a bottle of Coca-Cola (one of the glass bottles) I downed it in one. Now, I’ve never been much a fan of fizzy drinks and I’ve always found them quite hard to drink. They don’t go down easily and they leave a really odd feeling in my stomach that makes me not want to eat for a while. This time was no exception, and as soon as the last drop hit my stomach I threw the whole lot back up in front of dozens of people on the Giza Plateau.

That was my first trip to Egypt, and I’ve not been back since. Tomorrow, that is all going to change. I’m going on a one week holiday to Sharm el-Sheik, and I don’t plan on drinking fizzy drinks, seeing pyramids or being sick.

I have no other real expectations for this trip. The plan is to have a nice relaxing holiday somewhere hot, and that fact that it happens to be Egypt is secondary. But I can’t forget that this is the country where my Grandparents met and married, and the country which I read so many books about during my ancient history phase.

I think it will be easy to forget though. I expect this trip to be high on relaxation and low on history and mythology, but at the same time I am looking forward to returning to a country that has changed so much politically and economically since the last time I was there.

17th May

The journey starts today, after a very strange day rattling around the house with no dog and no cats. I’m not sure what feels worse – sending the animals to their temporary home for a week or powering down my computer and network. I miss them both, but in very different ways.

I am also glad that Birmingham International Airport now has decent free wifi. Although I’m less glad that all the news stories seem to be about Egyptian unrest and people hacking the controls of aeroplanes.

18th May

The journey to Egypt was fairly uneventful. Sharm airport was basic, but perfectly functional, and there wasn’t too much evidence of the heightened security that is a feature of most of Egypt right now. It took a while for our bags to arrive, but once they did we were herded into a small bus, and within half an hour or so we were checking in to our hotel.

The hotel is lovely. It’s probably the nicest all-inclusive hotel I’ve ever stayed in, and very much feels like Egypt (specifically the Asian part of Egypt). The room is spacious and air conditioned, and there is plenty of storage space (including a safe and a fridge). I’ve taken a lot of photographs of the hotel and the room, both high-quality colour pictures, and a series of black and white art shots taken on my old iPhone (which I use as a watch, camera and music player when I’m travelling). I suspect a selection of these pictures will make it to somewhere on the internet at some point in the next couple of weeks.

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I’m also really impressed that we were able to get dinner and drinks despite turning up at the exact minute the restaurant was meant to close. I have no idea what I actually ate (some sort of fish, some sort of bird and white rice I think), but it was delicious, and after 5 hours on a plane with nothing more than snack food it was very welcome.

One thing that did strike me about this room is that it’s not really geared for people travelling with multiple electrical devices (so people like us). We’re not just here for sand and sun – we’re here to take photographs, write, study, and do all the things we usually do but in a different physical location. The room didn’t have any spare plug sockets at all, but after realising that we can turn plug sockets on and off with the light switch, we managed to throw together a charging station that could deal with 4 USB powered devices and a laptop. Of course, we then switched the whole thing off again with the lights, but we won’t be making that mistake again.

After a few hours of sleep, the resort looked very different in the light, and is easily the largest such complex we have ever visited (with our hotel being one of three in the general vicinity). Exploring it is going to take a couple of days, and will result in many photographs. This is the day I took lot of black and white photographs as well, and it took me back to the days I would shoot everything in black and white because it looked more artistic. I’m now not sure it does look more artistic, but it is quite interesting to have a second set of pictures that capture the trip from a slightly different (and more blurry) angle.

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We also got to experience more of the hotel food. I wasn’t as convinced by breakfast as the dinner last night, but I did really enjoy the coffee and cakes I had afterwards. It’s very hot here, and bottled water has also featured quite highly in my diet so far. I suspect this will be the case throughout the trip, although it amuses me that they serve the red wine at a much lower temperature than the bottled water. The wine isn’t actually bad, and is served in modest enough portions that a glass or two with lunch might just be an option.

When planning this trip I wasn’t sure if I had ever encountered a place this hot before. Now we’re here it doesn’t feel much hotter than Italy in the summer, but we have not encountered the heat at the middle of the day yet. Thankfully there is always an air conditioned room to retreat to, and I think that I will be spending the middle hours of the day reading, writing, and staying in the shade. I suspect that makes me a bad tourist, but I don’t really get too much satisfaction from lying in the sun and turning my skin an unattractive shade of red. Maybe I’ll feel differently by the end of the week, but for now I plan on using the good parts of this resort to the full and barely paying lip service to the rest.

One thing we did do today was to make reservations at three local restaurants that we get to eat at once each as part of our booking. So at some point this week there will be seafood, Lebanese and Japanese. We have spaced these out throughout the trip so that we get a night of hotel food and then a night of something nicer. This may be our only concession to things organised by the hotel or the tour guide, as generally we like to be left to our own devices.

19th May

Last night we spent a couple of hours in an outdoor bar, enjoying the slight drop in temperature after the sun had set. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sun, but it’s also pushing 40 degrees here and I’m really not used to that sort of heat for sustained periods of time. We also took many more photographs, including quite a few artistic ones. I suspect we may visit this bar again, as it was very pleasant.

Today has largely involved lounging around, reading, and drinking endless bottles of mineral water (and the occasional cup of coffee, although far less than in the UK). The area around the pool isn’t too crowded, and people seem to be fairly sensible about the sun, although they might also be avoiding the locals trying to sell various services that we’ve been warned not to accept. Everyone is pleasant enough, but it’s very obvious that they are here to sell things that we just don’t want to buy. None of this is a surprise though, as Egypt is notorious for this sort of thing.

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I downloaded a lot of books before I left. I’m getting through them at about 2 a day, but even at that rate I won’t run out. I may very well make a decent dent in my list of things to read though. I may also start to make a dent in the cocktail menu, although some of them sound quite odd. I will try and remember to take a picture of the menu before I head home.

We are not doing any day trips this year (they are all quite expensive, and none of them appeal), but I don’t feel I’m missing anything, and I’m very glad of the chance to stay in and around this beautiful resort for a week and catch up on reading, writing, and everything I do that isn’t part of my day job and doesn’t require the internet.

Which reminds me, last night we did check out the free wifi room at the resort. The connection was really slow, but I was online long enough to catch up on the news and read my personal email. I have no burning desire to spend lots of time on the internet, but it is good to know that the facility exists in case of emergencies. I think that’s one of the big things about those of us who spend every waking minute online – when we’re disconnected from the internet we feel disconnected from everything, as if the world is going to crash and burn without us to monitor and record every event that occurs.

One further thing that strikes me about this resort is the total lack of cats. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere before where I’ve not seen at least one cat, and I really do think our cats would love it here, as there is plenty of sun, a wide array of interesting looking birds (who are very tame, and therefore very trusting) and an endless supply of other food that doesn’t need killing before consumption. I wonder if it’s the climate that drives them away, or if the resort owners have just scared them off. I know other parts of Egypt have cats, and I’m mildly curious as to why I’ve not seen any so far.

We’re going to a seafood restaurant tonight. That’s something else the cats would love.

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20th May

And as if by magic we saw a cat last night.

I also have a wonderful new cat figurine (only my 4th in over 20 years, but I do love them). Cats in Egypt are meant to bring luck, but the one we saw just bought us the first bit of bad customer service of the whole trip, and a distinct lack of understanding of what did and didn’t count as nuts (for the record, almonds are nuts, always). Thankfully it was also followed by some very good customer service, a large plate of fruit and a booking in a posh French restaurant for a complementary meal.

Last night’s movie was Gone Girl. I really enjoyed it, although I suspect it bled into a rather restless night.

21st May

Yesterday we spent a large part of the day on the beach. As a result I’m a little more brown (and red) than I was, but we do have many wonderful photographs of fish, snakes, crabs and assorted other sea life. When the tide is low it’s possible to wander in the shallow water and see a wide variety of wildlife, and when the tide is high there are even more things to see with the aid of a snorkel.

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We also discovered that the large “rock” we can see from the beach was actually a grounded ship. You can’t see it with the naked eye, but with the zoom on the camera it’s possible to see it quite well. I have a few good pictures of it, plus a few of other ships and helicopters (some of which may have been military) that passed us as we sat there.

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In the evening we went out for drinks and dinner. By the time we ate I wasn’t too hungry, but what I did eat was lovely (as was the wine, which was far better than the local bars), and they let us take a big plate of fruit back to our room.

Today saw another trip to the beach for more photography, followed by coffee, lunch and a brief siesta. Dinner tonight will involve a short trip to a Lebanese restaurant which is part of the next hotel across from ours, and tonight’s movie will be either Black Swan or The Brothers Grimm.

Tomorrow is Friday, and therefore a day of rest in Egypt. I suspect there will be no resting here though, as the guests at the hotel are a mix of German, Russian, Ukrainian and British people – most of whom probably don’t observe the Muslim day of rest.

22nd May

Last night we had our first truly great meal of the holiday. I’ve not tried Lebanese food before, but found it to be delicious, and to contain a lot of meat and a lot of salads and dips that remind me of both Greek and Turkish food. The service was great too, and we ended up leaving them a tip (in US dollars, like all our tips have been). What struck me about this place is that the staff obviously had a great deal of pride in their establishment and the food they served there. That came across in both the quality of the food and the service, and it’s certainly something that the fish restaurant from earlier in the week could have learned.

Today we saw our first camel of the trip, as well as a lot more fish. The camel was on the beach, having a snooze, and it was very odd seeing a creature I associate wih dry desert conditions so close to the sea. I suspect seeing a camel ticks a box somewhere, although we still don’t intend on seeing any pyramids.

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We also received two bits of mail – an invitation to cocktails tonight (which turned out to be a photo opportunity for the holiday company) and details of our departure, which is the day after tomorrow. In some ways I’m looking forward to being home again, but at the same time I’m going to miss this place and could very much get used to both the weather and the very relaxed lifestyle.

One more full day to go, after which comes my least favourite part of any trip – packing, checking out and the return flight. I generally see the journey to a place as part of the adventure, but the return journey always feels like going over old ground, and it can never end soon enough for me.

23rd May

I spent most of yesterday feeling a bit rough, and last night I didn’t really want to do much more than lie in bed and drink water. This is something that happens to a lot of people in Egypt, and I’m glad it’s come near the end of the trip when I’ve already seen and done most things I wanted to. I suspect today is going to be a quiet day on the beach (or by the pool), but I am hopefully I’ll have regained some of my appetite in time for dinner tonight (which should be Japanese, a cuisine I’ve always loved).

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One thing that strikes me today is that the shift to digital film has made it much easier to document holidays. 20 years ago I would have to buy reels of film, and could not see my pictures until a week or so after I got home. Now I have a camera, laptop and memory stick with copies of the same 734 photographs, and can look through them this morning to check if there is anything we have not recorded. I dread to think what it would cost to take and develop 734 photos now, but I suspect it is more than the price of my camera.

24th May

Time to go home. I will miss being here, but I am looking forward to seeing my dog and my cats.

 

Automate everything (updated)

This is an updated version of something I posted a few months ago, but as some of my automation methods have changed I thought it was worth a rewrite.

I’m a big fan of automating anything that can be automated, and I don’t like having to think about or do the same thing multiple times if there is a way round it. There are two main ways I achieve this:

Firstly – Using forward planning and/or recorded muscle memory to ensure that I don’t have to think too much about things I do every day (my morning routine, walking to work, typing my PIN number, choosing what to wear or what to cook for dinner).

Secondly – Using technology to automate commonly encountered tasks (adding my signature to an email, typing my phone number, taking notes at a meeting etc.)

The first one is fairly straightforward, and involves what I generally refer to as autopilot. After doing something for a certain number of times I find I can do it without thinking too much about it, and that takes all the mental processing out of the equation. Similarly, if I plan things like clothes and food once a week, I don’t have to spend any time worrying about what to eat or what to wear. I also tend to buy clothes in bulk, so that there is very little decision fatigue involved. Once I’ve found something that I like I’ll buy duplicates so that I can (appear to) wear the same things each day, which removes the need to make decisions. I also tend to do like-for-like replacements as much as possible, for things like clothes, headphones, laptops etc.

A lot of my technology automation involves If This Then That, Buffer and Evernote, and I thought it was worth detailing how a few of these work.

If I add a photograph to Instagram, then it is also posted to Twitter and Flickr. This came about because I didn’t like the way Twitter makes you click on a link to see an Instagram picture – this process makes it look like a native Twitter picture instead. Every photo I take on my phone or iPad is automatically synched with Dropbox, and every photo I take with my camera copies to my laptop, and eventually to the USB drive I carry on my keyring. All of this is automated using Carbon Copy Cloner (which is what I use to back up my machines as well).

I have a Google calendar that details all of my work appointments. 15 minutes before each appointment starts a note is created in Evernote with a template suitable for note taking, and also any agenda items or pre-meeting reading. This relies on keeping my calendar up to date and as detailed as possible, but I do that anyway. It’s very reassuring to know that I can open my iPad and find everything I need for a meeting right there on my screen.

I use Buffer to schedule social media posts to Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin. Generally I’ve got Twitter open anyway, but the other two I largely maintain a presence on by copying content from Twitter and/or my blog. I am hopeful Buffer will work with WordPress and G+ soon (it posts to G+ pages, but not to personal streams), at which point it will handle everything I want to publish to the world.

If I write a blog post, then IFTTT adds a tweet with a link to the blog post to my Buffer queue. I want people to read what I write, so it makes sense to let people know that there is new content on my blog.

I have my computer and iPad set up with keyboard shortcuts that will insert my name, email signature, phone number etc. into what I’m writing. Similarly I have dozens of templates set up in the ITSM software we use at work to insert all sorts of text that I have to send out regularly.

Any email attachment I receive is automatically added to a folder in Dropbox, arranged by who sent the email. Most of these emails are only interesting because of what is in the attachment, and I’d rather have that information stored outside the context of the email thread. I occasionally go through these and delete things that are no longer relevant, but they still exist in my backups anyway.

Any document added to a certain folder in Dropbox is converted into an ebook and emailed to the Kindle app on my iPad. I prefer to read longer documents and papers on my iPad, and it means I can use the offline part of my commute to catch up with reading. I can also email any PDF or free ebook directly to my Kindle and/or any instance of the Kindle app I’m running.

At a certain time each evening the whole contents of my computer’s hard drive is copied to an external drive that I keep plugged in to it (using Carbon Copy Cloner). I also use Time Machine, but I find that having a secondary backup source that isn’t reliant on a network connection is very useful. Also, CCC makes bootable backups, which can be invaluable in time-sensitive situations. I also back up my whole music collection to my NAS, as well as having off-site backups using a combination of Crashplan, Dropbox and iCloud/iTunes match. all of these involve persistent syncing of data, or run automatically once a day.

Every time I get a new follower on Twitter, details about that person are added to an Evernote document. I often used to miss new followers just using the Twitter app, and I find this way of doing it puts it a lot more in my face.

Every time I favourite a tweet, the full text of that tweet is copied to an Evernote document. I use this to make a note of interesting things people have said, but also links to articles or music that I want to check out.

Those are just a few examples of automation that I use quite often. I dread to think how much time I used to spend achieving the same results manually, and I would like to think I’ve freed up more time for pursuits that require me to be fully checked in to what I’m doing.

Travelling light

I’ve travelled a fair bit over the last few years. Monthly trips to London, a few courses and conferences each year, and holidays to New York, Rhodes, Canada and Bulgaria. I love travelling (both the journey and the destination), but I also don’t like having to navigate trains and airports with large suitcases full of everything I might possibly need. What I’ve tried to do recently is to travel as light as I can, whilst still having access to everything I might need on the trip. This is partly about planning what I’m wearing in advance, but also about risk assessment. For example, I used to always take a spare pair of shoes with me when I travelled overnight. I don’t like having wet feet, and it seemed worth it at the time. After a few trips where wet feet didn’t feature I ditched the shoes, and accepted that I may one day need to buy a pair of shoes whilst travelling. So far I’ve not had to, but I can always use a new pair of shoes, and it makes my bag significantly lighter by not having to carry a spare all the time.

I also try and reduce the load by wearing the heaviest clothes I need (generally jeans and whatever jacket/coat suits the weather), which means my bag or case should only have lighter items in it. My holiday packing is mostly shorts and t-shirts, and my business packing is lightweight shirts and trousers, none of which are particularly heavy or bulky.

I think I’m doing quite well on the clothes front, but I still carry a larger than average collection of technology, especially when I’m travelling for work. All of my devices are as light as they can be (Macbook Air, iPad mini and iPhone), but I could probably do with carrying one less device on some trips. I could also probably do with carrying around less cables and adaptors, and I should probably accept that I won’t need to connect my laptop to a projector or a wired network when I’m on a foreign holiday.

Why I’m bad at being on holiday

I am on holiday this week. This is largely because I still had 100% of my annual leave left (it resets in September), but also because I’m going to be in Egypt for a week starting on Sunday, and I wanted to make sure I was rested and relaxed enough to enjoy the trip rather than needing to spend half the week recovering from a fairly long stretch without a proper holiday. It strikes me that I’m quite bad at being on holiday though, because I don’t really know what to do with myself without some sort of structure and routine to keep me focused on the here and now, so I decided this time that I would actually write down what I planned to achieve, and tick things off when I’d done them. So in other words, exactly how I approach the day job and anything else that requires me to exert effort towards achieving predefined goals.

The first thing on my list was to prepare for my week away. I listed clothes I wanted to take, worked out if I needed to buy anything, and then assembled everything in my suitcase ready for sanity checking before I pack properly on Saturday. I’ve also been trying to reduce the amount of cables, adaptors and chargers I take with me, as well as removing anything from my everyday carry that looks dubious or won’t play nicely with airport security.

The second list of tasks revolved around technology. I’ve just bought a new hard drive for my NAS, which needed fitting. I wasn’t sure how long it would take, but actually due to the wonder of Synology it only took a few minutes, after which the NAS was back on line while the two drives started talking to each other and ensuring they were in sync. Again, I’m very impressed with this product, and would highly recommend it. I’ve also updated my 5 year plan for technology buying, and purchased a few other bits and pieces that I was holding off on buying until I was going to be at home for a decent stretch of time. I may write more about this later.

The final list of tasks was not a list of tasks as such, but an attempt to find a way of doing things to reduce the anxiety that comes from having a lot more time, and therefore a lot more choice about how I spend that time. This was dealt with by maintaining my usual routine of sleep, planning my meals and clothes in advance, and pretty much doing everything I normally do except work. I find that routine relaxes me, and that anything that can be automated should be, so that I don’t end up with decision fatigue. I also made sure I kept up my exercise regime, although I’m not quite hitting my usual targets because I’ve spent more time at home and less time walking between places. That said 6km a day is still fairly respectable.

That’s me done for now, although I’m hoping to schedule a few posts while I’m away, and also plan on keeping a travel journal (both text and photographs) so I have a proper record of this trip.

New Music – April 2015

I can’t believe it’s May already. And because it is May, it’s probably time for me to post a list of April’s new music releases that rocked my world. My Rough Trade album of the month was by Wand, and came on delicious red vinyl. The rest of this lot is pretty delicious too though.

Wand – Golem
Nadine Shah – Fast Food
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
Chilly Gonzales – Chambers
Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp
Follakzoid – III
Tobias Jesso Jr. – Goon
East India Youth – Culture of Volume
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress
Brian Wilson – No Pier Pressure
Duke Special – Look Out Machines!
Villagers – Darling Arithmetic
Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer
Blur – The Magic Whip

 

A few words about IT literacy

When I’m recruiting new IT staff one of the things I always look for is how computer literate they are. It’s a hard thing to work out, as it’s usually a mixture of what they know and what they have done in the past, but also how they think and how inspired they are by technology. I also try and think back 10 years, to when I was the person on the other side of the desk who was trying to blag that a whole load of dabbling with things at home was enough experience to allow me to support some fairly important systems in a large University.

I sometimes get asked what advice I’d give someone wanting to get into an entry level IT role when they don’t have any experience. I sometimes think that’s the wrong question, because everyone has IT experience, and also the opportunity to gain experience without leaving the comfort of their own bedroom. I thought it might be worth expanding on what I mean by that, and what sort of things would impress me if I saw them on an application form or heard them in an interview. I’d also say that this list is probably a good starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about IT in general.

Use more than one operating system (Windows, Mac OS X, Linux) and learn the skills common to all of them

There is a viewpoint that Microsoft have won the OS war, and that IT professionals should concentrate on familiarising themselves with Windows and MS Office because that is what everyone uses. I don’t share that viewpoint, but I do think that it’s important to use the software that other people are using, because if you want to be able to support that software then you need to know how it works. I think it’s essential to have an overview of all the main operating systems, and I’m particularly interested in people who run more than one, or who have changed their primary operating system and can articulate their reasons why. It suggests they have thought about what they want their computer to do, and that they have considered the financial, ethical and functional criteria that contribute to the decision as to what OS to use.

For instance, my current main OS is Mac OS X. I started to switch from Ubuntu at the end of 2010 in order to better understand an OS I was being asked to implement and be an advocate for in my workplace. The switch took a few months, but by mid 2011 all of my regularly used machines were Macs. I do however maintain machines running Ubuntu and Debian, and am now doing more Linux based work which may warrant a partial switch back at some point. I like using Macs because of the quality of the hardware and software, and that fact that everything generally just works. I dislike them because of the lack of freedom, and the number of decisions about how I use my computer that seem to have been taken away from me. I like using Linux because I can customise my computer to do exactly what I need it to do at no cost to myself or my employer, but I dislike the fact it requires a lot of maintenance, and also that I can’t use some software I require to do my job and therefore need to also maintain a Windows machine or a Mac anyway. I also still maintain that the 11″ Macbook Air is the best computer ever made, and until I find something better then I want to continue using one.

What I find about using multiple operating systems (and I’d include Windows in this) is that once you use more than one, you realise they all have things in common, and once you start to spot those patterns then it makes it easier to deal with unfamiliar operating systems. Windows 8 doesn’t faze me in the slightest because I remember the Mac OS9 –> OS X shift, and also the move from Gnome 2 to Gnome 3 (and Unity, and a load of other desktops). The key for me is getting to a point where the desktop doesn’t get in the way of being productive, and that comes through regular use.

As an aside, I’ve switched my main OS a few times, and also maintained two in parallel for quite a while. I was a (classic) Mac OS user until my Mac became too old, and then had a brief (maybe a year) period of using mainly Windows. I switched to Debian in late 2004, and then Ubuntu from 2005. I got another (refurbished) Mac in 2006 and maintained OS X and Ubuntu in parallel until 2009 where I found I was doing everything in Ubuntu and hardly ever turned my Mac on (to be fair, it was very old at this point). I then switched back to OS X in 2011 as detailed above.

What I’ve noticed is that people who have only ever used one OS are often scared of all the other ones, and the easiest way to get over that is to experiment with them. Linux is free, and will install on almost anything, and if you’re in the UK then you can pick up a decent refurbished Thinkpad from around £200 from http://www.refreshedbyus.com/, or a budget desktop without an OS from http://www.ebuyer.com/ for around the same price. Windows machines are also coming down in price every year, and it’s now affordable to maintain more than one machine in ways that it wasn’t 10 or even 5 years ago. And of course virtualisation is now easier than ever (but I’ll mention more about this later on).

Use more than one version of each operating system (or at least know how to use them)

Something else I’ve noticed (especially with people who grew up with Windows XP) is that it’s not just trying another OS that is scary, but moving to a new version of the same OS. It’s certainly worth being familiar with the last couple of versions of anything you’re using and supporting, and having an overview of what the upgrade path would be for someone using something obsolete and unsupported like Windows XP.

I also think that if you’re running (or experimenting with) Linux, then it’s worth trying out at least a couple of desktop environments to see what works for you (and for your computer). I’ve got machines running Gnome 3 (Debian), XFCE (Debian & Xubuntu) and Unity (Ubuntu). None of them are perfect, but all of them allow me to understand the similarities and differences of modern desktop operating systems.

If you use several different operating systems it becomes really easy to see how the user interfaces and features of one will influence another. And once you start to make those connections then it’s fairly straightforward to approach a new operating system or desktop environment and make it work well enough for you to help someone who is having difficulties with it.

Use at least two browsers

If you’re supporting software, then you’re likely supporting browser-based software, and knowing how that software behaves in all of the main web browsers is something you need to be up to speed with. I find the best way to do that is to use at least three browsers regularly, and for me that means Firefox and/or Chrome on my computers, and Safari for my iOS devices. I test everything on all three, and on other browsers as well (although if I’m asked to test things it’s usually because they have only been tested on Windows and someone wants the non-Windows perspective).

As with operating systems, if you use multiple browsers then you are unlikely to be surprised or significantly slowed down when a new browser grabs a decent slice of the market share like Chrome did a few years back. It also make it easier to switch your main browser if the one you’re using start to get slow and bloated, or no longer includes features that you really need.

Install a virtualisation tool and set up a new VM

I said I’d come back to this one, because I think it deserves a section to itself. Virtualisation software has been such a game-changer for me, because it has allowed me to continue using multiple operating systems without having to maintain a physical computer for each one. By using software such as https://www.virtualbox.org/ it’s possible to run multiple operating systems on the same machine, and also to set up virtual web servers to experiment with blogging software, wikis, and other CMS related things. I’m currently doing a lot of this sort of thing at work, and it’s great to be able to have virtual servers that are backed up and snapshotted so I can roll them back to the point just before I broke something. Once you’ve developed like this then you’ll never go back, and it will teach you all sorts of skills that are directly applicable to sysadmin work, as well as development and IT support.

Virtualisation is also great for those situations where you can do 90% of your work in one OS, but need to switch to another one for one or two specific tasks. The guest machine is only using resources when it’s on, and you may find that most of the time you don’t even need to boot it.

Know how to back up your data, and where all copies of your data are

I blog quite regularly about how I back up data, but it’s always worth writing about, as I find that things change as I stumble upon new products. My current plan is based on the 3/2/1 rule, with three copies of everything, on two types of media, with (at least) one remote copy. I use Time Machine, Crashplan and Carbon Copy Cloner to back up copies of my whole computer, and Dropbox, Google Drive and iCloud to ensure that files I use regularly are available on any computer I use.

How it generally works is that any machine that stays in one place (or mainly stays in one place like my heaviest laptop) backs up nightly (via Carbon Copy Cloner) to an external hard drive. I also have a portable hard drive that I back up to weekly with a bootable copy of the two machines where I regularly create data (as opposed to consume it). When I’m not backing up to it, this drive is kept in a different physical location to the machines it is backing up. Additionally, all my music is in iTunes Match, my photos are on two different NAS drives, all my portable computers back up to another machine via Crashplan and/or Time Machine, and everything text based I’m currently working on will exist in either Evernote, Dropbox or Google Drive, depending on what it is and who else needs to access it.

I’ve also started running some experiments with Bit Torrent Sync – maintaining a small directory of emergency music and freely available ebooks which I sync between all of my machines, and I also carry around an encrypted USB drive on my keyring which contains a lot of the same sort of stuff, as well as the installer for the latest version of Mac OS X, plus recent disk images of Ubuntu and Debian.

I test my backups monthly (sometimes more than monthly), including booting all the full disk clones to make sure they actually boot. I think this is important. I also try and replace my backup drives every couple of years to ensure that I’m not backing up to something that is likely to fail soon.

Know how to upgrade/replace key parts of your computer

This is something I think is so important, but it seems to be a dying art. Not that I’m surprised though, because Apple (and to a lesser extent other manufacturers) seem to be moving towards a world where individual parts of a computer are not upgradeable, and instead you just buy a new computer when it wears out or gets slow. So many older computers could benefit from a solid state hard drive (SSD) or some more memory, and both of these upgrades will make an old computer feel like a new one. There are plenty of people who will fit parts for you, but this will cost you, and often these are upgrades you can do yourself. Since I’ve been working with technology I’ve upgraded most of my machines (even my Macbook Air), but I do worry that the next computer I buy is likely to be less upgradable than the last.

I learned about computer hardware through buying an old machine from eBay and experimenting with it. I replaced the memory, and the power supply and the hard drive, and I’ve still got it sat in the shed 10 years later. There are still plenty of machines out there that you can replace pretty much everything in, and building a PC from scratch is still very much a rite of passage for anyone who is interested in hardware.

Know how to reinstall the OS on your computer

Long gone are the days where operating systems would not be upgraded for years. We’re now in a world where things change at least every 6-12 months, and it’s important that the operating system on your computer is up to date and receiving security updates regularly. Updating software is relatively straightforward on any computer, and we do seem to be moving towards the concept of an app store, where the OS is just another app to be upgraded when a new version comes out. Whatever you’re running, it’s a good idea to know how to upgrade the software on your computer, and also how to reinstall it from scratch. These are things that you can pay someone to do, but you never know where and when computer faults will happen, and the night before a deadline or while you’re overseas are not good times to learn about reinstalling operating systems.

Use more than one office suite, and learn the skills common to all of them

A big part of IT support is knowing about what the people you support are actually using. Arcane terminal commands and knowledge of compiling software will get you nowhere if you are supporting people who largely work with documents, spreadsheets and presentations. Particularly in a corporate or academic environment, knowing about a variety of office suites will serve you well, and it’s important to stay up to date so that you’re not surprised by changes to user interfaces. This is one area of IT that can be tricky to stay up to date with if you don’t use this software yourself, and as someone who writes in a text editor, and only really uses Word for specific work-based tasks, I’m probably not the best person to advise on it. Although the fact that I use Keynote for presentations and Excel for serious data manipulation does suggest I can at least use some of more than one office suite. I also like Libre Office a lot, and think it’s one of the most underrated pieces of software out there.

As with operating systems and browsers, there is so much feature-bleed with office software that once you have used a couple of different versions then you start to see how they all do roughly the same thing under the hood. This is also a class of software where manufacturers love to change the UI radically between versions, so be prepared to relearn menus over and over again. Of course, if you use keyboard shortcuts then there should be less learning to do.

Which brings me nicely on to keyboard shortcuts.

Learn keyboard shortcuts

On my main desktop computer I have a solar powered keyboard, which means that even in the cloudy climate of the UK I can pretty much guarantee that it will work. The same can’t be said of my wireless mouse, which is always running out of power and needing newly charged batteries. That doesn’t bother me as much as it might do though, as I’m fairly keyboard-shortcut-literate, and can do most of what I need to do without picking up the mouse. Not only can knowing these get you out of a fix if your mouse or trackpad stops working, but it’s a lot quicker to open or save a file using the keyboard when your hands are already touching the keyboard to type. It’s also a lot better on your wrists, and will make you look like you know what you are doing with your computer. It’s one thing I always look for when I’m trying to judge how computer-literate someone is, and it is usually a very good indicator.

A list of keyboard shortcuts for Mac OS X can be found at https://support.apple.com/en-gb/HT201236. Some of these will work on other operating systems, but I’m sure there are similar lists elsewhere (Ubuntu even has one on the screen the first time you launch the Unity desktop).

Host a website

In the days of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and a thousand other readily available web-based content sites, it’s rare to find someone to doesn’t have some sort of web presence. When I started out with computers it was harder to get content online, and I had to learn a fair bit of HTML just to have a simple home page, whereas now I can just create an account online in a few minutes. Despite the fact that it’s so easy, I still think it’s valuable to know how the nuts and bolts work, and how to set up your own website that you host and control yourself. My first site was hand crafted HTML, and my current website is a self-hosted WordPress blog (cloud hosted now, but originally hosted on a server under the desk in my office).

I think it’s still valuable to know how to configure a web server (I use LAMP – Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP), and install a CMS like WordPress on it. Even if you don’t use it for your main blog it is something you might be asked to do one day, and it’s a skills set that I’ve found myself using over and over again (and is in fact something I’m working on professionally right now).

Learn a programming language (or two)

I’m not a programmer, but I do know a little bit of HTML, CSS and PHP. Programming languages are not required for IT support, but as programming is largely about problem solving then there are a lot of transferable skills. Programming is also useful for solving in-house problems that your support tools can’t do (like writing a password generator or something to convert proprietary mailbox formats to something more open – both requirements I’ve come across in my own team).

Learning some basic scripting is also a good idea, and a familiarity with shell scripting and Windows powershell scripts is never going to be wasted time and effort.

Know what you can do and what you can’t do

And finally, this. It’s all very well to look and sound impressive by stretching your IT skills and knowledge to the extreme, but it’s important to be honest with yourself about what you can and can’t do, and which of your theories are backed up by practical experience. Experiments are all very well in the comfort of your own home, but when you’re dealing with other people’s computers and data then ensure you know what you are doing and when to ask for help and guidance.

Getting in the zone

How do you get in the zone? And by that I mean how do you prepare yourself to sit down and work on something for a long time (be that a piece of writing, a song or a computer program)?

For me it’s all about turning off distractions, or at least blocking them out so they don’t impair my creativity. Right now I’m sitting in my office at work with the window open. The clock tower is chiming 8, and there is the sound of building work outside. This is not conducive to getting me in the zone, but I can block it out because it’s a fairly common series of sounds around here (my office being near the clock tower and right in between two building sites, one of which will become my new office eventually).

If I can’t turn off distractions then I like to control my distractions as much as possible. This I’ll do largely through headphones and either very familiar music or unfamiliar music without words. I have Spotify play-lists set up to deal with both of these, and I also have a fair amount of music stored locally on my non-work computers.

So what do I mean by distractions? One of the main distractions is the notifications that any internet-connected computer churns out every few seconds. On my work machine I get notifications about emails, tweets, instant messages, texts and all sorts of other things. I need to have a peripheral awareness of them, but what they would really like me to do is to drop what I’m doing and insert some other task right at the top of my to do list. Sometimes that is what I need to do, but most often the task I’m working on now is the most important task, and anything that deviates from what I had intended to do is likely to make me less productive.

Once I’m in the zone, and once I’m writing, then I tend to zone out what is going on in the rest of the world quite well. I often find myself forgetting to notice that I’m hungry or thirsty, and it’s always a surprise to find that I’ve been sitting at my desk for a couple of hours and that the document sat before me has grown in size considerably.

The other key for me is not noticing my computer at all while I’m working on something. This is partly due to keeping my computer uncluttered and distraction free, but also to do with using the right keyboard. I generally either use my solar power Logitech keyboard, or else the keyboard of the laptop I’m typing on. Any laptop I use for this sort of work is likely to be made either by Apple or by Lenovo; both of whom are well-known for understanding what a decent keyboard should feel like and sound like. I also try and use a text editor for writing as much as possible – which generally boils down to either Sublime Text or Gedit. I wouldn’t say I have a favourite as such, and like most things I like to work in at least two different ways to ensure that I don’t get stale or become too reliant on a particular tool-set.

I suppose the flip side to this is what I do what I’m not in the zone. Sometimes I have to write, regardless of feeling like doing something else. I don’t have the luxury of not needing to work, and sometimes that work involves me sitting and writing something while all sorts of chaos is going on around me. If I feel myself getting too distracted then I’ll force myself to write for a certain amount of time, and then take a break, pace around for a bit, and maybe go and take a short walk somewhere. I’ll also use my walking time (I’m currently walking at least 7km each work day and at least 4km at weekends) to think about the next thing I need to do, or how to express some particularly difficult idea or concept.

New Music – March 2015

March was a great month for music. Here are a few of my highlights.

Matthew E. White – Fresh Blood
Clarence Clarity – No Now
Drake – If You’re Reading This Then It’s Too Late
Ghostpoet – Shedding Skin
Fyfe – Control
Will Butler – Policy
Emile Haynie – We Fall
Cannibal Ox – Blade of the Ronin
Drew Dave – Synthbased
Laura Marling – Short Movie
Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
Nils Frahm – Solo
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell