How to be a morning person

I didn’t used to be a morning person, but now I am. I had to learn, because in 2004 I very quickly went from starting work at 2pm, to starting work well before 8. I have a few things that I think help, although I’m not always as good as I should be with some of them.

1. Go to bed early enough to get the amount of sleep you need.

2. Declutter your mind, in whatever way works for you (meditation, music, tea, gin, all of the above). The plan being that when you go to bed you’re not mulling over things from the day before.

3. Set an alarm for the time you need to get up, and get up straight away when it goes off. Snooze buttons do really contribute a lot to being groggy in the morning, and actually lead to less good quality sleep as well.

4. Only give yourself enough time at home in the morning to do the essentials. So if your morning routine takes 20 minutes, then set your alarm for 20 minutes before you need to leave. Any other time you have will probably be wasted, and working to a strict deadline may kick start your brain into heightened activity.

5. Eat breakfast. Breakfast is important. I generally eat two breakfasts – one as part of my morning routine, and another one when I actually get to work.

6. Use all your commuting time productively – to read, listen to music, work though things that are bothering you, or just to mentally prepare for the day.

7. Work out what sort of tasks you do best at certain times of the day, and try and plan your working day accordingly. For instance, I write best in the early morning, so schedule all my report writing, funding bids and that sort of thing into a morning slot. I brainstorm best around mid-morning (or late evening), and so make sure anything that involves ideas generation or collaborative work is scheduled into those slots. I’m groggy in the afternoons, so I use that time for meetings where I don’t need to contribute ideas, or anything mindless. I accept that I am lucky in this respect in that I have a lot of control over what my working day looks like, but it’s at least worth trying to map task types to times of the day.

The road to Manderlay

My film watching has been fairly sporadic over the last few weeks, due to being quite busy, and not having a great deal of energy in the evenings. I’ve found it hard to watch anything too challenging, and as a result I found myself dipping back into the sort of films I’ve not watched for a few years. I also found myself writing less about them, but hopefully just enough to make recording them here a worthwhile exercise.

30th June – Captain America – Enjoyable enough to have on in the background, but it didn’t really draw me in, and I’m beginning to think this isn’t the genre for me.

3rd July – Europa – I really should have ripped this with subtitles. My German isn’t quite good enough it seems. I think I will have to come back to this one.

21st July – Xmen : First Class - One of the better superhero films. I actually quite enjoyed it, and I think that the people who made Captain America could learn a lot about how to do a historical superheroes film well. Or maybe I just like Xmen more?

26th July – Xmen - The original and best. I’ve seen this about 10 times and it’s very much a comfort film for me. I can’t even really articulate quite why I like it though.

1st August – Festen – My first Dogme 95 film, and certainly not my last. Powerful stuff for a Friday night, but compelling from beginning to end. I like the fact that the director set himself limitations, as it resulted in something that doesn’t look quite like any other film I’ve seen. And I do think that the total lack of music and effects made the story stand out all the more.

See http://www.dogme95.dk/dogma-95/ for more details on the Dogme 95 movement and an explanation as to why this film looks a bit odd in places.

4th August – Manderlay – The sequel to Dogville, although with a change of lead actress (Nicole Kidman being replaced by Bryce Dallas Howard). John Hurt’s narration is the highlight for me, and while I’m not sure the story is quite as strong as Dogville, it is still very watchable and has a strong social message. I think it’s probably worth watching the two films back to back, and I am very much looking forward to the third part of the trilogy. I also particularly liked the fact that Bowie’s Young Americans was played over the credits, as it was with Dogville. I think Lars Von Trier is fast becoming my favourite director, having now seen and enjoyed his last 5 films (I think that’s right – Dogville, Manderlay, Antichrist, Melancholia and Nymphomania).

Why it’s better to travel

Astrologically I’m a Cancer. This means I’m meant to like staying at home (as well as water, kitchens, and moving sideways). I do like staying at home sometimes (especially when I need to recharge), but I also find travel very rewarding, and tend to get itchy feet if I stay in Birmingham for more than a couple of weeks. I think part of this comes from the fact that I’ve lived all over the country, and therefore have friends all over the country who I want to visit, but I think a lot of it also comes from the fact that when I’m dissatisfied with an area of my life I generally travel somewhere new, sample the greener grass on the other side, and then head home when I find myself missing things I already have. This in no way makes the travel meaningless or futile – it just contributes to a necessary process of reminding myself that all places have their benefits, and that it would actually take a really good offer for me to leave behind the life I have built up and move on to somewhere new.

It’s not just the destination that is important to me though, it’s also the journey. I find long train and plane journeys to be a good opportunity to catch up on reading, listening to music, and sometimes just thinking. Thinking can be tricky when in economy class or a so-called “quiet coach”, but I do value a journey where I can just lose myself in thought, and sometimes it’s possible to do most of my recharging before I’ve even reached my destination.

This is particularly true when travelling to places I go to regularly. My usual route to London is incredibly relaxing, and I don’t really notice my surroundings because they are at least as familiar to me as most parts of Birmingham. I think I probably just enter a sort of automated state that is similar to my walk to work, and it is during these times that I find relaxing easiest. Of course, if my routine is shattered by delays or replacement bus services then that feeling of relaxation dissipates very quickly, but I am getting better at seeing these things as a learning opportunity rather than a guaranteed mood slump, and I think I am winning in that regard.

I’m also growing increasingly fond of foreign travel, and after a long period of staying in the UK I’ve visited Italy, The U.S.A, Greece, Canada and Bulgaria in the last few years. All of these were very different to each other, and also very different to what I’m used to here. But all of them were sufficiently inspiring that if I had to relocate for a while then they would all be viable destinations. But there again, there are very few places I’ve been to that I can see myself living, and I think I subconsciously try to imagine myself living in every place I visit, every street I walk through, and every house that catches my eye.

It’s great to travel, but it’s even better to come home. That’s probably the lesson of the last couple of years.

10 things beginning with K

This is another old post that never quite made it here. It’s probably about 3 years old at least, and is a response to a meme where I had to choose 10 things beginning with the same letter and write about them.

1. Knowledge. I’ve always liked to know things, and to learn as much as I possibly can about any subject which holds my interest. I have quite a few odd specialist knowledges, and I would like to hope that I will never stop learning new things.

2. Kafkaesque. Not only is it a great word, but it also reminds me of the time when I started ready properly, and devoured everything Kafka had ever written in a period of a couple of weeks.

3. Ka. In Ancient Egypt the supposed spiritual part of an individual human being or god, which survived (with the soul) after death and could reside in a statue of the person. This word (and many other words) reminds me of how much obscure Egyptology knowledge I have squirrelled away (despite never actually having studied it formally), and I remember being fascinated by the Egyptian concept of souls as a small child.

4. Kismet. A tricky one to explain, so I’ll go with the dictionary definition first “fate, destiny, fortune, providence, the stars, God’s will, what is written in the stars, one’s doom, one’s portion, one’s lot, one’s lot in life, karma, predestination, pre-ordination, predetermination, what is to come, the writing on the wall; luck, chance“. The idea of fate, destiny, and free will fascinate me, and probably also crop up a fair bit in things I write.

5. Kings and Queens. I was the strange child who learned the names of all the Kings and Queens of England and Scotland and could recite them in order and come up with random facts about each one. I probably still have this knowledge somewhere, but it may have now been replaced with other things.

6. Karma. Ties in with Kismet a little, and is just one of those words I like the sound of.

7. Kurt Wagner – Lead singer of Lambchop, who are a band I’ve liked for many years and always keep coming back to. I love the fact that at the height of their popularity he still worked sanding floors, and he’s always struck me as a totally down to earth bloke who just happens to make very good music.

8. Kid A. My favourite Radiohead album, which takes me back to my early days of working for the University where I had a lot less money but still somehow managed to buy more music and travel more. I like it when a band takes their sound in a new direction and takes their fans with them, and I think this record is a classic example of how to do it well.

9. Knives Don’t Have Your Back. And for my final musical choice, the (as yet) only solo album by Emily Haines of Metric. There are some days where this is the only record that makes sense for reasons I’m not sure I can articulate except to say that it is a thing of beauty.

10. Keys. My keys are one thing I always know the physical location of. They get me into my house and my office, and act as a sort of symbol of having a home, having a job and having responsibilities. I sort of like the idea of biometric keys, but I’m not sure it would be quite the same.

A few thoughts about memory

I wrote most of this a while ago, but figured it was worth finishing off and posting here for prosperity.

I have often been told that I have an unusually good memory. I can vividly remember things from very early childhood, and have often been able to conjure up obscure and accurate facts about quite trivial things. I know the full name of every member of my family (over 100 people) and who is related to who, and I know what month and year every member of my team started. And yet I can’t remember my own phone number, or the door code to get into my office, or what I had for lunch yesterday.

These are the sort of things that fascinate me, and I have tried to work out what sort of things I am likely to remember and what I am likely to forget.

I think I am very good at remembering things that interest me, or that involve people who interest me. I know exactly which CDs I own (or have ever owned), the name of every movie I’ve watched, and probably the name of most books I’ve ever read. Which makes sense to me because these things interest me. I also replay conversations in my head over and over again, and the more I like someone the more I will do that. And as a result I memorise the conversations and the facts contained within them quite easily (I also always hear conversations even when they were originally written, and for each person I imagine where we are talking, which is almost always a real place).

As an aside, I realised whilst writing this that it doesn’t matter how important the person was to me at the time the conversation took place, it is based on how important they are to me now. This suggests that I subconsciously store things anyway, and can later recall them when someone’s role in my life changes, and that I can also forget things if people become less important (which I think might be a useful survival mechanism).

As for things I forget. They are usually numbers, things that do not follow a pattern, and anything that I don’t find particularly interesting. I am very bad at remembering birthdays and anniversaries (apart from really important ones), and I am getting worse at remembering conversations unless I really like the person I am talking to. I sometimes wonder if I am more forgetful because I’m older, or because I have more to remember, or because memory is finite. I used to equate my memory to a smarties tube full of pennies – to get another penny in to the front one had to fall out of the back, but now I think it is not quite that simple.

A few notes about iPads

I get asked for advice on iPads a lot, and as a fair few people I know have just bought an iPad (or are thinking about buying one) then I thought I would articulate the thought processes I go through when making a decision about what to buy and what apps to install once I have bought it.

There are only three real decisions to make:

  1. What size of device do you want?
  2. Wifi only or wifi and 4g?
  3. How much storage space?

Currently I have a 16gb iPad mini that I carry everywhere and use for reading, internet access, and writing blog posts when I do not have my MacBook Air with me. I also have a 16gb retina iPad provided by my employers, which I use for accessing work email on the go, and taking notes in meetings. Both of these are wifi only, and both were the absolute bottom of the range when they were bought.

These devices match what I need them for fairly closely, as long as I have my phone with me to use as a tethering device to get online. They are both under 4gb away from being full though, and my work iPad has very little storage space left because I have been using it to film footage for a video we are currently making. I can certainly see a case for me buying something with a lot more storage, which would mean I could carry a fair amount of music and films with me and not have to rely on hotel wifi to access entertainment when I am travelling.

I would consider a 4g connection more seriously if it was not that both home and work have excellent wifi coverage, and that I have the ability to tether my iPad to my phone. There are very few places where I can’t get a decent connection, so I don’t see it as a priority right now.

As far as size goes, I think it’s just a matter of preference. I prefer reading on my iPad mini, and it is a lot easier to carry everywhere. I do prefer typing on the full size iPad though, and I think that it is the right choice for taking notes in meetings.

I also get asked a lot about apps, and thought I’d list a few that I use quite a lot:

  • Evernote, which I use to record everything I do, make notes at meetings, and which acts as the repository for all sorts of useful information.
  • Gmail and Good, for personal and work email. I find myself doing most of my email on my iPad now, because the interfaces are so much nicer.
  • Twitter, Facebook and G+ for all my social media needs.
  • Kindle app, which is on every device I use, and which lets me read books and PDFs wherever I am.
  • Dropbox, Google Drive and Copy, which are all cloud storage systems, but which I use for different things. I find Copy to be good for PDFs that are too large for the Kindle app, and the other two allow me to access everything I’m currently working on elsewhere.
  • VLC for playing media files, both locally and streamed from my NAS.
  • Spotify – for playing music I don’t own, but want to listen to occasionally.
  • BBC iPlayer, ITV player, Amazon Cloud player and Netflix for catch-up TV and streaming films and TV shows.
  • Keynote, which I use to write and deliver presentations at work.
  • Sunrise – which I find to be the best calendaring app around.

There are other things, but I think this covers the (non-default) apps I use most.

Tongue in cheek recruitment feedback

I was talking on G+ earlier this week about recruitment, and I was reminded of something I wrote a couple of years ago that I posted to a limited audience at the time. I figured it was worth posting a slightly edited version here, seeing as G+ isn’t great for finding historical posts, and everything here still very much rings true.

The following is a list of handy hints for people who apply for jobs in our team. It’s not aimed at anyone who currently works for us (or has ever worked for us), but is instead a collection of feedback I would love to have given to unsuccessful candidates (but didn’t).

1. First impressions are important. The initial greeting is a good opportunity to build rapport with the panel, and if you can’t manage a smile, eye contact (the floor does not generally have eyes), and some sort of handshake then the panel might already be questioning your basic social skills.

2. Try and wear something that is both smart and comfortable, but that also fits (if you do not know what fits then ask a friend). Also, if the weather is very hot (like is often is in August) then perhaps a three piece suit with an overcoat may lead to excessive sweating, especially if you are nervous. Excessive sweating is generally a bad thing.

3. At some point in the interview you will be asked to talk about yourself and your past achievements. It happens in most interviews so it’s probably worth having something prepared. It’s also worth bearing in mind that keeping it concise and relevant is a good thing, as is maintaining occasional eye contact to ensure the panel are still awake.

4. Interview panels will contain at least two people, so maintaining eye contact with only one of the panel for the whole interview comes across as rude and slightly creepy. Maintaining eye contact with someone’s chest is both of these things and a few other things as well.

5. If you’re interviewing for our team, then your interview panel will contain at least one woman (I’m the only male manager and we have to interview in pairs). This means that you will need to be able to deal with a woman asking you technical questions that you might not know the answer to. You’ll also have to deal with the same woman being your boss if you get the job, so being rude and patronising to her is probably not a good start. Nor is directing your answers to all technical questions to the male member of the panel, regardless of who asks them.

6. Read the job description for the job you are applying for. We might ask you hard questions like what sort of work the job involves, and if you can’t answer simple questions about what we do then we get the impression you’re not too interested in working for us.

7. We do not appoint candidates based solely on the length or the brevity of an interview. Although in some cases we do appreciate the brevity. We do say at the start how long we expect the interview to take, so that should act as a guide.

8. If you are late then acknowledge your lateness, apologise, and then move on. That is how we will expect you to deal with it in the workplace, so you might as well start during the interview. Of course, not being late at all would be better.

9. Listen carefully to each question. We are very unlikely to ask things like “tell me everything you know about connecting Windows 98 computers to a wireless network” or “tell me about every job you have had since 1980″. Answering such questions when they have not been asked is not helpful and just wastes time.

10. At the end of the interview we will ask if you have any questions for us. Again, this happens at most interviews so have a few things prepared. It’s probably best to only ask two or three though, and eight is probably too many, especially when you have to pull out a notebook to remember them all. Also, we are unlikely to tell you how many other people we are interviewing, or anything about our current hardware or software suppliers, or anything else that isn’t any of your business.

11. If you are unsuccessful in the interview, and especially if you are unsuccessful for the 4th time, then ask for feedback. We will give you detailed and constructive feedback which is not quite as candid as what I’ve written here, but which will highlight how you could have done better. Also, once you have received your feedback don’t sign the email address it was sent from up to loads of porn sites and religious newsletters and other such rubbish. We will find out, and we will know it was you.

On a more serious note, I do really sympathise with anyone who is currently job hunting, and I am generally happy to read through applications and CVs for jobs in areas I know at least something about (IT, project management, anything to do with education or Universities), because sometimes it helps to see the application from the side of the person doing the recruiting and shortlisting.

World peace and nostalgia

The new Morrissey album reminds me how much both Morrissey and The Smiths played a huge part in my musical upbringing. The Smiths were probably the first band who meant something to me at school, and while Morrissey has made a few substandard records, the new one is great, and is in fact the 4th consecutive album of his that I’ve loved, which hasn’t happened since The Smiths.

I’ve read two reviews that pretty much say what I want to say. The first is from The Quietus, the second is written by Luke Haines, another singer I’m a big fan of.

A brief interlude

I was just flicking back through my historical blog posts for reasons. One thing that amused me is what I wrote at the end of my 2013 post celebrating our Green Impact campaign at work (http://teknostatik.co.uk/2013/04/24/green-impact/):

“Hopefully what we have done so far has made a difference, but we already have plans for the next twelve months to build on this good work and hopefully aim for a Gold Plus award this time next year.”

So it turns out I called it. Because we did actually win Gold Plus, which I completely failed to mention in this year’s post on a similar subject. Of course, that means there isn’t anywhere else to go next year other than to try and sustain this year’s effort. But I suppose that is a good sort of problem to have.

And good problems are my favourite kind of problems.

What’s your backup plan?

This week at work we have been working on a video to promote backing up data. The tagline is “what’s your backup plan?” – which has made me think about how I back up my data, and how well what I actually do measures up to what we recommend.

The basic message is that for a file to be backed up, it needs to exist in an identical version in more than one location (and ideally three locations, one of which is physically separate from the actual machine the data is created on). I do try and adhere to this, although I think I’m still a step away from being as safe as I’d like.

I have two basic backup strategies. One is to ensure that any file I edit exists in some sort of cloud storage system (usually Dropbox, iCloud or Evernote). The other is to ensure that any computer I create data on is backed up regularly using at least two different methods/products. The combination of these two systems, plus the fact I use quite a few computers, ensures I always have several copies of everything, and can access historical copies of my data and bootable clones of my whole computer in almost all scenarios.

Most of this is now automated, in that all my machines back up locally through Time Machine on an hourly basis, and once a day to a bootable clone created using Carbon Copy Cloner. This works fine providing my house doesn’t burn down. I also back up my main home and work computers once a week to a disk that I keep with my at all times, but this has to be done manually, which isn’t ideal.

My iOS devices back up to iCloud, but also back up to my computer every time they are plugged in (with the backups then being themselves backed up as part of my other backups). I don’t have any unique data on them (at least not for long), but I still think it’s worth being able to restore them quickly and to have a second (and sometimes third) copy of all my apps.

So that’s my backup plan. It’s not perfect, but it covers most of the bases.