Thursday, 8 November 2012

November 8th

Well, this is a curious day. Things of interest that happened on November 8th, that cover most of the topics, subjects and whatnot that occupy my curiosity.

1602 - the Bodleian Library opens to the public.
1656 - Edmond Halley, he who spotted the comet, was born.
1847 - Bram Stoker, he who wrote Dracula, was born.
1889 - Montana is admitted as the 41st state of the union (of the USA).
1960 - Kennedy defeats Nixon for the US presidency.
1976 - Brett Lee was born.




Monday, 15 October 2012

The past that was like a dream

Four years ago I was in England, exactly a month after my 40th birthday. It was the last day in England before flying off to the USA for two conferences to speak at, connected together by a month traveling in a 7,000 mile loop by Amtrak. I'm (slowly) turning a diary from that trip and related content into some form of e-book. Partially to get some kind of neat filing and closure on it.

Even with the aide-memoire of Flickr, I'm struggling to remember that day. Apart from lunch with a colleague from back in the day, Andy Powell from Eduserv, in Demuths in Bath Spa.

And a nice lunch it was too.

Veggie lunches

Suspecting I was excitedly distracted about the forthcoming travels to America, and nudging myself to actually do the presentation slides (both sets were eventually put together the day before they were presented). And over lunch, discussing the Virtual World Watch project with Andy, who had recently agreed the funding. Oh (remembers) we definitely talked about the drawing up of life plans as we'd done similar exercises (him through a work thing, me through sitting on an Outer Hebrides beach for a long time and having the occasional very cold swim).

The day after the lunch was Heathrow, then a long flight over the Atlantic, Greenland and some of the USA to Los Angeles, and an airport hotel. And then the journey, through Santa Monica, California, Seattle, Montana, Gotham City, a certain election winner, Memphis, Graceland, then following the Mississippi to New Orleans, then Texas, El Paso, Arizona and a load of other places in between, then returning to LA. Finishing, as several of my trips to the USA were engineered to, at the Getty.

I occasionally look at the pictures, and the writings, from that trip. It seems a bit dreamlike at times (did I really do and see all those things?); four years and four subsequent trips to the USA, for very different reasons, perhaps makes that understandable. As well as other things done in the intervening time.

But the trip around the US was then, and this is now. In the scheme of things, four years is not a long time. It's the exact length of one US presidential term (oddly, I'm as pessimistic as Obama winning in a few weeks now as at this point four years ago). Less time than you spend at secondary school, or primary school. Less time than it takes to get pretty good at many skills.

Jura

In other ways, four years is a long time, as part of your life. If you live to be 80, it's just 5% of your total life. Oh. But if you live to be 58, then it's 10% - a whole tenth - of your adult life. The numbers occasionally get a little scary, especially when you're on the so-called wrong side of significant birthdays such as your 40th, and when you've become aware of many more deaths and divorces in your wider circle than births and marriages, over that four years.

And as a side point, the worlds population has as good as doubled - from 3.5 billion to 7 billion people - in the 44 years and a month since my birth. That freaks me out a bit every time I think about it, though it doesn't bother anyone I mention it to. I'm not that long into middle age and the number of people alive on this rock has ... doubled?! Still can't quite believe that.

Butterball

But, really, enough of this verging on the maudlin and being borderline OCD with numbers. Another bad habit I'm persistently trying to stamp on; spending time calculating time passing and life falling away. So meta; and yet so utterly pointless. Whether you do nothing, or are hyper-productive, or somewhere in-between as most people are, these things, life events, go on around you.

One of the things attempted over the four years between that lunch in Demuths with Andy and now is try and figure out ... stuff. The cliched stuff e.g. The Meaning of Life, what's the purpose of it all, what is meant by 'home', yadda yadda yadda, and also more tangible stuff, such as what am I good at and what do I want to do and what do I want to achieve. Why this 'quest' for some kind of enlightenment? Mid-life crisis? Experiences of mortality (which for many overlaps with the mid-life crisis)? Seeing various things die or end (people, relationships, ambitions, works) and pausing to take stock? Reflecting on four decades of experiences?

I don't know. Something to do, maybe.

Cats

Most of the advice, guidance, summaries of books on living, philosophies (Camus was pretty good, btw), other peoples writing, my own (bad) writing, whatever, I've come across over those four years either fit into those four things, or is of lesser importance:

1. Be realistic, no more or less, in what you can do yourself.
2. Quietly achieve useful things; feed your contentment, not your ego.
3. Be nice to the good people; avoid the rest.
4. Find The One; treat her or him well.

Personally, together these four things feel right. Oh, but there's one other thing am adding to that list, even though most people didn't suggest it (but Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway both did):

5. Get a cat.

That looks like a plan.

Anyway. Onwards to the next four years. And hopefully spending it putting those four (hopefully five) points into more sustained practice.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Bridges

There's two parts to this post.

First

Periodically, I get asked by people in 9 to 5 employment whether they should consider going self-employed. I usually send them back a few self-questions, point out that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, and when’s the right time to go self-employed (when you have a financial buffer and some contacts who’ll give you paid work), and when’s the wrong time (when you are thinking of buying a new house, and you’re going solo purely because you don’t like your current job or boss).

And bundled in there are a few bits of advice. Of which the most important is:

Don't burn your bridges.

I probably mention this every year on whatever blog I’ve been writing on. But, it’s true, and it’s just proved itself to me again. Though contracts have yet to be signed, I’ve picked up some work from a connection with a colleague from way back. In fact the last time I saw her was in (thinks hard) September 1998 - exactly 14 years ago.

That’s quite a while.

We’ve keep in occasional touch over the years, but then I popped up on the radar as someone who does what her service now needs pretty much exactly. That doesn’t mean that I got the gig purely because we were friends ‘back in the day’; a lot of negotiating had to be done, and the first version of the specification was rejected. The process has been professional.

But if we hadn’t kept in touch, or worse I’d burnt my bridge here with her, or her service, then this would simply have not happened.

For the benefit of Mr Powell

And it isn’t the first time this has happened. Virtual World Watch came about partially because I knew Andy Powell ‘back in the day’. I hadn’t met him for nearly a decade, but we’d been work colleagues at UKOLN. Then, he ended up as the big cheese director of the Eduserv Foundation, and after online chats due to our geographical differences of the time, the foundation hired me to do one snapshot report. Which became unexpectedly popular, a few more followed, and we negotiated the Virtual World Watch service. Which again, took some - professional - work, and again the first version of the specification was rejected. No easy ride just because we shared the same work kettle in the 1990s.

The moral here is; when you leave a place of work, try not to do it on bad terms with colleagues there. Sometimes, this isn’t possible. For example, one person from my past who took public credit for some work I did - nope, never working for or with him again. We’ve all got our lines, and mine was crossed there. But if there’s no need to rage out of a place, no matter how bad or disillusioned or whatever the reasons for going, then don’t. You never know when the old work colleague, a year, two years, five, ten, fifteen, down the line is running something big and is in a position to work with you on something major.

Andy as bat

Oh, and also, this fits in with the sensible advice of ‘be nice to people, unless you have a good reason not to be’.

Second

Support from loved ones is always good. Guess that's what makes them, to some extent, loved ones.

So, the other factor in me getting the aforementioned work is Becky. Who, despite ending up with a sickly boyfriend, then fiancee, never lost patience. Even when she had a lot going on (insane amounts of work; house hunting; buying a house; dealing with the largest cat in midwest America). And even when I was losing patience with my own health and wondering if it was ever going to get fixed. (It turned out after a year of dealing with the NHS in a myriad of ways that there were four things wrong with me, all of which are now being dealt with).

She sent me this, months ago. This I get. This is Becky:

And that's one of the many reasons I love her. Without her support, in many ways, I might possibly have gone mad. More likely, I wouldn't have been up for negotiating for the aforementioned work, and which I got. Due credit to Becky, without whom the difficult things would have seemed, and been, impossible.

Third

Because I can't count.

I'm realising this evening that the next 100 days is going to be mad for me. It didn't take my old colleague and new client very long to start posting messages about whip-cracking and deadlines.

Adding to that a whole bundle of other things - not optional, but essential bad-things-will-happen-if-they-are-not-done things - that have to be done before mid December. And several opportunities that, if not taken by December, will be missed.

This evening I've rewritten a to-do list for those 100 days. Some things I wanted to do this autumn are now reluctantly moved onto a new list entitled "2013, hopefully". And the new list looks, frankly and realistically, impossible. But then again, the seemingly impossible can be done; a good example being my favorite sports moment of 2012. If someone had told Richard Whitehead several years ago that he would do this...

...then he would have probably thought it impossible, too.

Roll on the next 100 days.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

One whole orbit of the sun

It's the first of September. Feels like autumn. There's been a distinct chill in the evening air the last few nights, and the first snows have fallen in Scotland.

I was planning to write the usual long, self-indulgent, post about the last year, all of which I've spent in England. And peculiarly, during which I've hardly travelled. Two trips to London, a few into the neighbouring county of Worcestershire, and as far west as Bridgnorth on a steam train. And that's been it (from someone who has been abroad 61 times to date).

But as I've started to type, have realised my heart isn't in it today. Or rather, it's more in working on developing work stuff, especially Silversprite and creating more ebook-ready content. And that's probably a good, better, healthier desire than blogging for the sake of blogging (whatever that is). Another time.

Wishing you a productive autumn.

Healthy dessert

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Decline

Sunday, 19 August 2012

A fragmented half decade

I've just mapped out the online services and websites (other people's, and the ones I host myself), as well as blogs and other places where I have accounts that I put content in.

The last time I did this exercise was a little over five years ago. Then, it looked like this:

Online footprint June 2nd 2007

Now, it looks like ... actually am not going to put a picture on here. From a security point of view, that's not wise. But basically; something a lot more complicated. And that's after deleting a whole swathe of social media over the last few weeks.

I'm a bit horrified by the number of things I signed up for, and the oft-weak reasons for doing so. In more than a few cases, the reason being "that looks fun" - and the excuse I've given myself being "Well, this may be useful at some point. Surely? Yes?"

I'm also now wondering how many of these are linked by the same password and/or sign-up email address. Some changes of either or both of these, starting with the critical work-related hosted services and moving outwards, have started.

So. The questions I need to ask myself in the future are:

  1. Do I need to open an account at this online service?
  2. How does it fit into the grand scheme of things?
  3. How much time is this going to occupy (kinda wish I'd asked myself that before starting on The Twitter)?
  4. Do I need another new email address and password?

Heck. That reminds me. Have a look at domain names I own, next... :-(

Friday, 27 July 2012

When the olympic bid was won

(Inspired by Sara's post)

On 6 July 2005 I was living in our house (with R, a Scot) on an island (Berneray, population 130) in the Outer Hebrides, wondering if I would ever get broadband. And still getting used to seeing the open sea from most windows in the house. On the days it wasn't raining, I went for long walks on the beach, and watched planes fly high, overhead, to America. Despite the walking, I was overweight.

We watched London win the bid, on satellite TV. We were surprised, thinking Paris was going to get it.

I was a self-employed person, doing education research, working on funding body content, and doing local website work. Bits and pieces. I didn't really have a clue what I was doing, or wanted to do, in life. Faithwise, agnostic; politically, socialist liberal somewhere, I guess.

On 27 July 2012, things are different.

I'm in the West Midlands, renting with people I didn't know or meet until I turned up. The NHS are fixing me, and have been for a while. Brushes with mortality, travels to America (and a couple of years living there), Sweden, Finland, Denmark and other places, death and life, focus the mind.

Now, I'm engaged to B (an American), and do have a clue what I want to do in life. I'm still self-employed, but am more focused on a few specific things, academic, science and literature.

I've written a heck of a lot in various media over those seven years, probably a few million words. Not sure how much of it is good, or was worthwhile. But, generally, writing is usually a good thing to do, even though the media changes, sometimes necessarily.

Politically, I'm somewhere between liberal and libertarian. I really can't stand intolerance, in the myriad of forms it takes. Still overweight, and still agnostic, though.

There's no real point to this post (to paraphrase Sara). It's momentarily interesting to think of then, and now, and the changes (many, some good, some bad) in between. And watching the opening ceremony itself... Many, many good things in a quietly subversive but also proud (in a positive way) ceremony; of which the best thing was:

... which is also ironic, or appropriate, on a personal level as I've spent much of the last two decades, and especially the seven years between the bid being won and the ongoing opening ceremony, using his invention. Tim Berners-Lee is up there as one of the great scientists, and inventors, of mankind. Like other scientists and inventors, he used the discoveries of others, and built on them to make something new. In this case, an easy way for anyone to share and access information and digital content with anyone else.

I met him and had a great chat, while failing to outdrink the other CERN people, at the WWW conference in Boston in December '95. The next month, just before giving birth to Ariadne, he sent a nice email with congratulations and a message that was read out at the launch event. Which was cool. 

His tweet during the ceremony applies not just to the web, but arguably to the NHS and healthcare, to information access both online and through libraries, to education and self-empowerment:



My favorite Olympic moment (and it doesn't contain any sport...).

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Coding


Today I (unexpectedly) did some coding. Only 15 lines of coding, and odd coding at that.

But deeply satisfying. There's obvious parallels between coding and writing, that become more obvious when you do both. Creating something from nothing. That something having an internal logic. That something working, when you "test" it under certain conditions.

It's a nice piece of code.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Home

NASA are continuing to release pictures taken from the International Space Station, and previous missions, for anyone to use. Consequently, people have been making time lapse movies, some of which end up on Vimeo.

There's several good ones, amongst them this one. Best played on a full screen, in a dark room, with the sound up.

View from the ISS at Night from Knate Myers on Vimeo.

Friday, 20 July 2012

July 20th: the day of mankind's greatest achievements

It's July 20th today. Three things, in space, happened on this day. Individually and together, these count as some of the biggest things man has done.

1969.

A large part of my book-reading fascination came from watching TV programs on space exploration. Of which the most significant mission was announced, and demanded, by this man in 1962:

And it happened, on July 20th 1969. It's difficult to argue against this being the most impressive thing mankind has ever done in history. Bar nothing else.

Which kicked me off onto a long childhood, adolescence, then adulthood of reading science fiction. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of books from authors such as Asimov, Clarke, Aldiss and Adams. And science fact; plenty of science and space fact, such as the books of Patrick Moore, and - especially - Cosmos, by Carl Sagan.

1976.

July 20th, 1976 - the first spacecraft to touch down on another planet and start sending back pictures does so. Here's the first picture it sent:

Take a moment to pause and think about that. A spacecraft went to another planet (taking 10 months), did several days of orbits, successfully touched down on a hostile surface, analysed soils, took pictures, and sent back data for over six years.

All using 1970s technology.

null

2011.

The touchdown of the last space shuttle mission, the day after it left the International Space Station and started its descent to Earth.

There were people in space before the Apollo 11 moon landing. There have been people in space after the Space Shuttle program. But in terms of seeing, watching on TV and online, the big space things, those that emotionally charge and inspire us, those 42 years and one day from when man first stepped on the moon, and when the last Space Shuttle returned, marked the high point of where man went, and how he or she got there.

(I've just realised those 42 years and 1 day encompass very nearly all of my life. But now, we're in a post-Space Shuttle age)

There are other endeavors in space. The International Space Station flies over us at speed, often bright in the evening or night sky. Probes and satellites and other machinery go out to the planets, beyond the solar system, to the asteroids and to Mars.

And its to Mars that I hope to see man, or woman, put foot on before I die. Though in these ongoing, partisan, economically turbulent times, that particular dream seems further away than it's seemed for years, decades. Can man get there, as prophesised and discussed in books such as Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, before let's say 2050? I hope so, but I fear the chances are less than 50%, now.

I hope so...

Mars

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Tweets I could not send

On Monday, I was in Birmingham New Street station for a while. The platforms are in a grim collection of parallel tunnels, under the station concourse. It's not a nice place to spend more than the absolute minimum of time.

I couldn't get a signal there, so couldn't tweet or do anything else online. In the tradition of Amber, these are the tweets I wanted to send, which ended up being scribbled on a discarded newspaper and sent out into the twittersphere next day. Unlike Amber's tweets, they aren't funny.
Man on the platform. Greying hair, uncombed. Baggy eyes, unkempt, glasses, odd socks. Sleep deprived. Crumpled suit. Crumpled life.
Glances, repeatedly, at the briefcase he holds. Looks at the display; calculates waiting time. Sweeps away fast food cartons from the bench.
Sits down. Stares at the briefcase. Motionless. Silent. Shoulders sag. No one else notices him, sitting statue behind the buzz of travelers.
Fiddles with briefcase locks. Stops. Looks around. I look away. Unlocks. Opens. Stares inside. Takes off his glasses, places next to him.
Reaches inside. Pulls out a picture, something framed, the cardboard prop to put upright on a desk or shelf. Holds with one hand. Stares.
Stares, keeps staring, at the picture. Doesn’t move, do anything else. Unaware of passing trains, passing people. They’re unaware of him.
Minutes pass. Trains come. Trains go.
He clutches the picture, closes the briefcase, puts his glasses back on. Stands, looks at the display. Thinking, calculating, or deciding.
Suddenly resolves. He turns around, walks with determination. Without stopping, looking at it again, puts the picture face down on a wall.
Climbs the stairs to the Navigation Street exit, disappears. Never breaks his stride, never slows down. Never looks back.
I wait a few minutes. He doesn’t come back. I lift the picture, curious, before the trash men find it, dispose, send to its landfill grave.
It’s him, at his wedding, tightly holding his new wife. Him; a little younger, happier, but unmistakably him. Enthused. Not crumpled.
The wedding photo was taken in a garden. Bright colours, flowers, blue sky. Big blue sky. Aspirational. The hopeful, newly married, couple.
And he’s left, abandoned it here, now. In a colourless, dark, tunnel underneath the ground. Accidentally, or deliberately, appropriate.
The glass in the frame is cracked, diagonally. I put it back, face down, where it was. Wondering at their back story. Wondering what next.
Wondering. Did he resolve to fix, make things work again? To give up? To try to forget? To move on? To be reborn, share a life with another?
We'll never know.
Birmingham New Street June 1974

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Funding libraries and the arts

Not all members of the House of Lords are aristocratic in nature, swanning around in castles and ivory towers with a limitless supply of inherited wealth and not having a clue what most people do. Especially since the reforms of 1999, it's a surprisingly mixed bag of people in there. From the House of Lords debate on July 9th 2012, a quote by Nicholas Trench, the 9th Earl of Clancarty, in a longer speech on arts and cultural funding:
For two years, the arts establishment has been patient and felt that it should wait its turn in the queue. But this is a false situation. The same government policy of ideologically driven public funding cuts is cutting back on state allowances, benefits, libraries, museums and symphony orchestras alike. The most devastating news last week was the prediction by the Local Government Association that a shortfall of £16.5 billion would mean an almost complete eradication of funding at the local level of arts and cultural services, including libraries, by 2020 unless there is a radical change in policy.
Alarmist? No, not if you follow factual information sources such as Public Library News which gives you as precise an update on the gradual disintegration of the UK public library service as there is. It's still a matter of concern that public libraries have been shoved in the same boat as the arts in terms of public funding.

As an analogy, it seems rather similar to the mutineers shoving Hudson and a few others into a small boat with minimal supplies, and setting them loose to fend for themselves. I hope the Viscount is wrong. I fear he will be right. Especially as he's a self-employed artist and freelance writer and translator, so he probably knows what he's talking about. One of his posts from last year, on arts funding.
  Library Closed

There's another issue here. The funding of the infrastructure of the arts sector and public libraries, and the funding and recognition of the artists and the librarians, what they actually do and their contribution to society. It struck me this morning listening to a radio debate on this issue, where the person against funding referred to the "place" of the artist in society (know your place? monetise or die?), and the person in favor of funding referred to their "contribution". The "debate" through all media has become deliberately toxic over the last few years, with a defensive vocabulary ("protect", "preserve") not helping.

And little or no mention of what it is that artists and librarians actually, accurately, do. It's this point that really bothers me. Campaigners and politicians may, or may not, be successful in keeping public libraries, art galleries, museums, complexes where artists work, open. But it doesn't solve or reduce a fundamental, national and long-term problem, that a large proportion (possibly most) of the public innocently, and some parts of the media and political infrastructure not so innocently, have very wrong ideas of what librarians and artists actually do. There's more than a grain of truth in the recent "What do I really do" memes for artists and librarians.

A personal feeling is that, until that issue is in some way resolved, or made better, there's always going to be a defensive campaign to "Save libraries", as they come under constant funding assault (and while there are still some left to "save"). It's easier to cut funding to something that is misunderstood by most people. And nope, I don't have a solution to mass educating many millions of people that librarians do (a lot) more than stamp books and put them on shelves.