First thoughts on my new keyboard

I am testing out my new Logitech K760 keyboard. So far it types really well, and although it makes slightly more noise, I think I will be able to get used to that. What is great about it is that it is solar powered, and it can be paired with up to three devices, which pretty much deals with the issues I’ve had with my existing keyboard. I didn’t want to go back to a wired keyboard, but I seem to be having to recharge my batteries every week or so, and I’m fed up of having to keep switching to my really awful backup keyboard. I would also like to be able to use my keyboard with my iPad on occasion, and this one allows me to do just that. It’s also set out exact like an Apple wireless keyboard, so I don’t have to relearn any muscle memory – I can just start typing and everything just works.

So far so good, but I suppose I’ll not know for sure until I’ve typed something substantial with it. And also when I’ve used it during the winter, when there is less sun.

Bad Timing, Eureka, Insignificance and other such things

24rd August – From Rome with Love – Another Woody Allen film, and another one that I enjoyed without being totally bowled over by it. There is quite a lot going on, and the multiple narratives can get confusing at times, but it was well acted and directed, and I am certainly glad I watched it. One thing that struck me is that Woody Allen is looking really old (probably because he is), and I was also quite surprised by how much of this film was in Italian, as I wasn’t actually expecting that despite the title.

2nd September – Ab-normal Beauty – I’ve been meaning to watch this for ages, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s visually stunning, with a spellbinding soundtrack, and was obviously made with a lot of love. It’s an 18 rating (and deserves to be), but if you’re not put off by that (or by the fact it’s subtitled) then it is well worth a watch.

2nd September – Bad Timing – Jim O’Rourke’s Bad Timing is one of my all time favourite records, and was inspired by this film (or at least named after it). O’Rourke also named his next two albums after Nicolas Roeg films (Eureka and Insignificance), and I thought it might be interesting to watch all three films back to back (or as it turned out over a three day period) as I’ve recently listened to the albums they inspired. Bad Timing stars Art Garfunkel, and is what I would probably describe as a psychological thriller. It’s fairly non-linear, but does have a strong narrative once you assemble the component parts, and if you can get past some of the dubious 80s fashion sense then it is certainly very watchable. I think this is a film I want to watch more than once, and I have a feeling that repeated viewings may divulge more meaning.

3rd September – Eureka – As with Bad Timing, I know the music inspired by Eureka far better than the film itself. Eureka was actually the first Jim O’Rourke CD I bought (in 1999, when it came out). From Eureka I worked backwards to Bad Timing, and then further back to his more experimental work that probably influenced me more than anything else I currently listen to. Although I was impressed by Bad Timing (the film), I had no such expectations for Eureka, due to the very mainstream casting choices and the fact it was based on a true story that didn’t particularly engage me. The first ten minutes changed my mind, and I really think whoever wrote the blurb and designed the DVD cover for this one should have tapped into the darkness that is definitely present rather than try and sell it as yet another 80s blockbuster. I also think it could have done with some serious editing, as the pacing in the middle is far too slow for my tastes, but then I’ve always said 90 minutes is my perfect film length, and this adds around 35 minutes to that. All in all, it’s a watchable film, but one that I don’t particularly want to watch again any point soon.

4th September – Blood and Chocolate – This film is named after my favourite Elvis Costello record, and is also about werewolves. As such, it was almost certainly going to be disappointing on some level. Blood and Chocolate isn’t a bad film as such, it’s just a film that is not quite sure what it wants to be (specifically it does not know if it wants to be horror or romantic comedy). It’s visually impressive, but once you scratch beneath the surface then there isn’t a great deal of substance until the final half an hour, and I wish that the care and attention that was obviously taken on the locations and sets permeated the rest of the film. I suppose the closest point of reference I have is Hemlock Grove, which I much prefer, and which does a very good job of making the supernatural element subtle and understated. Blood and Chocolate is neither of these things, and as such is far less satisfying.

5th September – Glass : A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts – This is a documentary about Philip Glass. I’m not massively familiar with his music, and as such had no real expectations regarding this film. It’s actually a really interesting snapshot into a creative mind, and it makes me want to check out more of his music now. I also have no idea why I added this to my watch list, but I’m glad that I did, because I really enjoyed it.

5th September – Insignificance – Marilyn Monroe, Joseph McCarthy, Joe DiMaggio, and Albert Einstein walk into a room. By that of course I mean The Actress, The Senator, The Ballplayer, and The Professor walk into a room. And hilarity ensues. Insignificance is the third Nicolas Roeg film to influence a Jim O’Rourke album title. It’s a comedy drama, with characters who look and behave a lot like famous people from 1954. As a premise, it’s fairly original, and it does work on some levels. I suspect I would have got more out of this if I’d known more about the famous people’s lives, but it is still entertaining enough for a lazy Friday night. Talking of which, I should get round to posting this before I leave for London in the morning.

Ten influential books

There is a meme going around where people are listing the 10 books that influenced them the most. I’ve been thinking about this for about a week, and I think I’ve narrowed it down to a list I can live with (at least for today). These are in chronological order of me discovering them.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table – I don’t really have a version of this in mind, largely because these stories were told to me orally as a child, and no one book contains all the stories as I remember them. I know that these were certainly the first stories I remember hearing, and also the first books I can remember reading, and that the archetypes and themes remain with me to this day. In particular I was enthralled by the stories concerning the Grail, and whilst I didn’t have the understanding of the symbolism and metaphysics at the age of 4, I think it is those stories in particular that have stayed with me to this day.

C.S. Lewis – The Chronicles of Narnia – My favourite books as a child in primary school, and also the books I came back to at University when we had to write a paper on religious allegory. I think they work on both levels, and that they should still be essential reading for children everywhere.

Frank Herbert – Dune (and in fact the whole Dune series) – I read Dune as a child, following my obsession with David Lynch’s very fine film adaptation (which remains one of my favourite films). I love all the books, and even have a soft spot for the TV series and the sequel/prequel books written after Frank Herbert’s death. No sci-fi I have read since has ever come close.

Thomas Hardy – Jude the Obscure – I had trouble deciding between this and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but I think Jude the Obscure has to win due to the fact that it influenced me more. I studied it for A level English Literature, and has such had to dissect every word over and over again. The style of writing wasn’t really to my taste, but I empathised so strongly with the eponymous character, and think I’ve probably absorbed a fair bit of how he saw fate and destiny into my own life over the years. I think it’s probably the first book I read where I could just instinctively see where the author was coming from, and I’m proud of the fact I wrote a large number of critical essays on this book that were highly regarded at the time.

T.S. Eliot – The Waste Land and other poems – Another A level text. Before I started studying Eliot I had read very little poetry through choice, and this was so different to anything we had been made to read at school. I loved the way he wove so many different thematic threads together, and thought that The Waste Land in particular was possibly the best thing I had read at that point. I still have a copy of this on the bookshelves in my study, and dip into it on occasion when I want something that is both familiar and challenging. I also hope that listing a book of poems is not cheating, although I think I’m going to cheat even more thoroughly before I’ve finished writing this.

Aldous Huxley – The Human Situation – Talking about cheating, this is another book that might not count, in that it’s not a novel and is instead a collection of essays. I’m including it because it is probably the biggest influence on my University years, and was quoted from more times than I can remember in essays about sustainability, human geography and ecosystems. It certainly wasn’t a set text, but it deals very nicely with our dysfunctional relationship with the planet, and as such made essential reading during my Environmental Science degree.

Don DeLilo – Great Jones Street – I’m torn between this and Iain Bank’s Espedair Street which I read at the same time (during my years at University) and which covers similar themes. Great Jones Street is the story of a famous rock star who goes into seclusion to deconstruct the mythology of fame, and it very much appealed to my (at that time undefined) introverted self. I’ve long struggled with the dichotomy of wanting to stand up in front of large groups of people and talk, and yet being terrified of social interaction and feeling very much like fraud whenever I open my mouth, and this book nicely explores those themes and a few other themes as well. From the day I read this until the day Kurt Cobain died I wanted to be a rock star. I don’t have those urges now, but I think this book nicely epitomises that time in my life.

Paul Auster – Leviathan – This follows on quite nicely from Great Jones Street, and is another story of a creative person who loses their creativity for a while, and is one of those rare books where I can strongly empathise with more than one central character (and in this case both of the two main characters). I love the way Paul Auster writes, and I’d also strongly recommend New York Stories from the same era.

Douglas Coupland – Generation X – I feel like this was written for me and for my generation, which of course it was. It was the first book that suggested it was OK to underachieve for a while on occasion, and I read it at a time when I really needed to learn that lesson. It was also my introduction to a writer I still like to this day, and nothing made me happier than discovering that a pixilated dolphin statue I discovered whilst wandering around Vancouver was actually a Douglas Coupland sculpture.

Donna Tartt – Secret History – The newest book on the list, and one that I first read in 2001. As well as being a very well written and utterly compelling debut novel, it also reminds me of the time when I had just arrived in Birmingham, and was building my life pretty much from scratch in the same way that the main character in the book was. The fact that some of the other characters reminded me a lot of the friends I was making at the time probably didn’t hurt.

Of course, I’ve read a lot of other books in the last 13 years, and some of those have probably influenced me a fair bit too. But I think the list above are the ones that contributed the most to me being the person I am today.

Automate everything

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:

1. 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).

2. 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.

A lot of my technology automation involves If This Then That (https://ifttt.com) 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.

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.

If I write a blog post, then a tweet is sent announcing the fact. 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.

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.

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.

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.

Working to music

I remember writing a blog post ages ago about how I’m one of the few people I know who doesn’t appreciate the presence of music when I’m working. This now isn’t true, and probably hasn’t been true for a year or two. Generally if I’m working (and music is an option), then I’ll listen to one of two playlists. One contains a great deal of post rock and other such things, and very much takes me back 15 years or so when I listened to very little else. There other one is a newer playlist, that is derived from a blog I read called Free Jazz (http://www.freejazzblog.org/). I don’t always find what they are blogging about on Spotify (some of it is fairly obscure), but I’ve built up enough of a playlist to make it worthwhile now, and I’ve found myself listening to it more, especially early in the morning. Both of these playlists contain largely instrumental music, and I find that it is the presence of words, rather than the presence of music, that I find distracting.

I’m sure I’ve linked to the post rock one before, but I thought the other one was worth adding here, just in case anyone is interested.

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.