Saturday 30 September 2017

#267 Some really good films about being on your own

I can't remember discovering Into The Wild. I think it's one of the films my old housemate Naomi put on in the lounge in Dulwich. I've watched it a few times during my career break. At once, a great inspiration and a perfect warning about the danger of extreme independence.

A Very Murray Christmas competes gallantly for my most-watched film. A more well-heeled, dry-humoured nod to loneliness, I find it as relevant in December as it is in Spring, Summer or Autumn. Plus it's a musical so it makes good background listening.

Come to think of it, Castaway, which is probably my number one favourite, shares the theme. I think, if it wasn't for Star Wars, one might worry that no films I liked had much to say for human relationships. I'm going to count the whole Star Wars collection as one film as I can't be bothered to rank them.

Harold And Kumar Get The Munchies. I've never been a stoner but any film containing hamburgers and Neil Patrick Harris deserves credit, so it makes the list.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Quiet. Solemn. Romantic. The flow of the Mandarin is like listening to music.

The Fast And The Furious. A representation of youthful angst, which glamourises the adrenaline junkie lifestyle by flooding the screen with shiny cars, popular music and Corona.

I think that's most of my favourites.

Friday 29 September 2017

#266 A mental health charity in south london

Yesterday I caught the overground... that's right, the overground. That's what Londoners call trains. In fact, only specific trains. Certain services that run over the area of the tube map. It's so as not to confuse the routes with the underground. Even though a fair amount of the underground is also above ground. Even though the underground is simply signposted as "trains" in places because that's the word tourists look for. The first time I told a Londoner I was getting a train and he replied "What, the overground?" I looked at him like he was barmy.

Anyway, so I caught the overground, down to Elephant and Castle to meet the press manager of a local mental health charity specialising in creative projects. I'd been looking for a way to feel useful and the opportunity to get feedback on my writing had sealed the deal. I knew nothing about art but as far as I was concerned, that was a minor detail.

CoolTan Arts got its name from the disused sun cream factory in which its founders had squatted until they'd acquired a legitimate residence in Brixton and later on Walworth Road. I got to knew the road intimately as there was nothing to do for the three hours between the interview and the start of my session, so I hiked the length of it down into Camberwell for some lunch and then back up again afterwards.

The crew at CoolTan were friendly and busy. They'd recently moved office from one site on Walworth Road to another and I spent most of my time compiling a list of sites that listed the organisation to notify of the address change. I found out they would have a stall at Walworth festival that coming weekend though, so I offered to head along and cover it with an article.

Walworth festival... So Walworth must be a place as well as a road. Or just a really significant road. A festival celebrating Walworth's culture and history. A road with its own culture? It must be a place. I Googled the festival. "The fourth Walworth summer festival of 2017". Why did this place need four summer festivals? Apparently it would be great if I could make the article search-optimised. I was definitely going to need to do some reading.

Thursday 28 September 2017

#265 Thinking about requests before granting them

Despite taking a while to decide on a coach to see, I'd received snippets of insight from some of the free interviews. The latest, Audrey, had unearthed the fact that I sometimes agreed to requests and then reflected later on how it might've been better to think them through first.

Take earlier this week for example. My housemate Bruno asked if a bed could be stored in my room for a while. "Sure" I told him. I had plenty of space. Then I thought about it. Did I want another bed in my room? Couldn't it go in the hallway?

Audrey asked that, regardless of whether or not I saw her again, I paid particular attention to any requests that were made of me for a week and kept a journal about what happened. She recommended I notice what was going on before, during and after each request. I took her up on the challenge but wasn't sure I'd get a chance to use it.

An opportunity came not long after I walked out of her appointment. I'd had a text from dad saying that my sister might join us for lunch on Friday. Lunch? We were going cycling, which had been my idea. I tried to remember whether we'd discussed asking her along. I wasn't 100% sure but I knew our plan had been to meet at 12:30. She was suggesting 1:30. I didn't like the way it felt.

I told him I didn't remember discussing asking her along. He said she was just meeting us for lunch if that was ok. Then he said we had discussed asking her. It felt like a mixed reply. I held off texting for a while and gave him a call later in the day. Voicemail. Could I get to the bottom of the situation by Friday? I wasn't sure. For the time being, I decided to be patient.

Wednesday 27 September 2017

#264 Can you feed yourself by writing online?

I made a bet with myself last Friday night. I wanted to see if I could earn more money online than I spent on food, for a week. It was a daft experiment. The kind of wager one might make in a pub, then regret when the buzz wore off. That's what made it fun.

Don't get me wrong. These days it's perfectly possible to make money online. A living, even but not with no experience. Not with no contacts. Not on a whim. So I decided just to try and fund three square meals a day, for seven days, to see if how far I'd get. They had to be full, balanced meals and if I missed one, it was game over.

We're five days in. I'll be able to last until tomorrow lunchtime. If I can earn more by then, I'll probably make it. If not, well, five days ain't bad. So how have I been funding this ridiculous experiment?

Copify. That's right, I know about its reputation. It's a content mill. Cheap labour writing cheap blog posts about cheap subject matter. Well guess what? This week I've eaten cheaply but not entirely poorly and I've written cheaply too but not poorly. I was able to afford what I think is a reasonable supply of fruit and veg, which is inexpensive if you know what to get and where to get it. Pasta. A mix of fresh and tinned meats. Value wholemeal bread and cornflakes for breakfast (37 pence in Asda). Even some chocolate.

I'd used Copify before and had written about about how to save money on car insurance, the postage requirements for mailing goods and documents to Sweden and the perils of wifi piggybacking. This time, I picked some similarly diverse topics, including the surge in worldwide demand for lithium and the benefits of hiring a barrister rather than a solicitor. The clients were quick to approve my posts. Only one had some minor feedback about adding subheadings.

Each article required between thirty minutes and an hour of research. The asking word count tended to be around 350 although it could be as much as double that. After researching, I could hammer out 350 words in under an hour, continuing to learn and plan as I wrote. It worked out much less than minimum wage but after factoring in travel time (zero) and travel cost (also zero), it wasn't quite so bad.

The requests on Copify don't run like water. Often the only pieces available are product descriptions, which look like they require specialist knowledge or would be way too boring to research and write. I doubt very much I'll make it to the end of the week without using alternative funds but it's been an enjoyable experiment. With more research into similar sites, I'm sure I could earn enough to eat for a week. Maybe even a couple of beers too.

The above bet was made for fun, not out of necessity. Do not attempt to fund your own diet by writing online unless you are an experienced digital nomad. The author accepts no responsibility for any consequences arising from the activity of any readers foolish enough not to heed this advice. 

Tuesday 26 September 2017

#263 Blogs written by women in New Zealand and London

Having not so long ago toured the blogosphere and reported my findings myah, my attention more recently turned closer to home. Who did I know that wrote a blog? Four people: Cath, Naomi, Amy and Leanne. Welcome to their worlds:

An Aussie In The World 
Bulging with photos and videos, the wonder from down under likes to write about her friends, local life, history and the world's most intricately designed party, which she's lovingly organising for her daughter next year. A fan of guest posts, Cath has attracted a small brigade of followers from around the globe and reliably produces several posts every month. She also writes poetry.

The Beast Is Loose
Naomi's a confident orator and has managed to capture her own style of speaking and type it out into whopping great updates, which is very fortunate because since emigrating to New Zealand, she's been up to all kinds of adventurous excursions and activities, all of which have been photographed and shared for her readers' pleasure.

Amy's been in New Zealand longer than Naomi. She likes to lay on the photos too, keeping their enviable antics thoroughly documented. The two blogs have a fair amount in common, with both going into the details of their experiences, which gives viewers a solid impression of the ups and downs of kiwi living.

Ten Years' Time
An active poet, Leanne's actions show it, amassing traction below bright lights at mic nights and summer festivals, spitting rhymes under summer sun rays that make some of Kanye's look as flat as runways. You might catch her in the intervals. Practically shameless and intergalactically famous. We follow her and who can blame us? Her inspiration flames us, imitation's aimless.

For completeness, I also asked myself who I knew that used to write a blog: Cesca & David and Mark & Lisa:

If anyone wants to read about walking from the southernmost tip of the UK to its northenmost tip, Cesca and David's blog has it covered.

Mark and Lisa are probably the loveliest couple I know. So much so that I really couldn't give a fig if any other couples I know read that. They kept a blog during their travels to Asia and Oceania.

Monday 25 September 2017

#262 Really basic thoughts on the existence of free will

For several days after writing #250 The Desolation of Windsor, I regularly checked the comments. In responding to a message containing the word "reject", I'd seized the opportunity to launch into one of my favourite discussions. That of the nature of free will. As usual, it was an easy conversation to start. Bringing the term into question often ruffled feathers.

If you leave a car running on a treadmill and step out of it, the seat belt alert will flash and bleep. You can walk out of the garage and go have your dinner, watch a film, take the dog for a walk and go to bed and that seat belt light will still be flashing. The car doesn't realise there's no one inside it.

Does it matter?

A concern held by some in the face of the abandoned car is that without free will, there can be no accountability. Yet I certainly hold my laptop accountable when it behaves inappropriately. If it does something really unwelcome, I make a judgement that it should be sent directly to a computer repair centre for a stretch. Once there, the laptop might be instructed to run diagnostics "to think about what it did".

With any luck and a bit of help from the repair specialist, my laptop would return to full functionality and service. It would have to complete certain tasks to show that it had changed. The machine's lack of free will seems no great hindrance to its operation or repair. In fact it probably makes both processes a lot simpler. I don't blame the machine when it goes wrong and it doesn't blame me for sending it away. Both I and the laptop simply do what we can to get it back to its optimum performance.

Sunday 24 September 2017

#261 Does anyone still write using a fountain pen?

I bought a new fountain pen recently. I was writing out a card and decided I couldn't possibly withstand the disgust I'd feel from completing it in biro.

Why on earth was this?

To understand my unreasonable fondness for the messy cartridge guzzlers, it's necessary to hark back to my early schooldays. My thoughts and feelings in this respect will be anything but original. As far as I'm aware, most of the country's children are still taught in exactly the same way. That said, I suppose some foreigners may regard the practice as quaint, or maybe I simply fancy that they might. I read that some private schools have implemented "biros and rollerballs only" policies, to the jubilation of certain parents and the annoyance of others.

As soon as I was old enough to write in ink, my parents were instructed that they must procure nothing less than a fountain pen. Like most requests that came from the school, this was idiotic at best and loony at worst. My classmates and I spent the next few years with ink stains all over our work, our hands, our clothing and our faces.

An ink spill is like a miniature oil slick. Unpredictable. Damaging. Difficult to repair and time-consuming to clear up. We were told fountains were better for handwriting. Sheer dogmatism. I found them scratchy, unreliable and as useless as the cursive handwriting we were made to adopt. The only time I really hurtled at cursive was using a biro and even then, I was always at my fastest when breaking a few rules and reverting to print here and there.

Despite its drawbacks which were many, I developed some affection for the clunky old fountain pen. It seemed to command sincerity. Probably because the wretched things were so cumbersome to wield that any poor sod who had gone to the trouble of doing so deserved their words to be read.

As I've said here, none of this is news although it does seem odd that the pens are still in such wide usage. I'm basing this on the fact they're still stocked in stationary shops. How have they not gone the way of the typewriter? The only possible explanation is that millions of people are using them. Yet I struggle to recall more than the odd occasion when I've seen someone do so. 

Perhaps they sit in old drawers of fall down the backs of chairs and radiators. Maybe some make it into the bouquet of a pencil pot and stay there, a reminder of the letters their owners fantasise about writing. I like my new pen, probably for that reason. It allows me to imagine being a bit like the sort of person who I believe might own one.

Saturday 23 September 2017

#260 Is it safe to eat in chicken shops in London?

Before moving to London, I'd never set foot in a chicken shop. Apart from KFC. When I found out my housemates ate from those places, I was mildly horrified. Weren't they full of grease and germs?

Getting me to cross the line didn't take much. The shock of witnessing my peers gorge so freely on imitation Colonel was counterbalanced by finger-lickingly low prices. Three pieces, chips and a can for... £1.99. They made the kebab shops look like Michelin.

The price should've been a warning. An indication of the nutritional content. Then again, these places aren't health food shops. I was still staggered that chicken and fries, plus labour and London rent could come in under the average meal cost of about £3.50.

Why were there so many? One road in East London, the A124, had about thirty. Each one less than a minute from the next and all of them practically the same. Why weren't a third of them burger bars? Or pizza places? It was as though chicken had some cockroach-like, all-consuming, evolutionary advantage in the urban fast food sector that enabled it to thrive.

While Burger King, KFC and McDonald's ran competitions and TV ads, these guys were on a whole nother level. They might print out some prices and sellotape them to the wall and that was about it. I could see where they were coming from. The last time I set foot in a Burger King, I must've spent a tenner. A person could almost get a meal in a proper restaurant for that. With free-range poultry. Organic lettuce and decent mayonnaise.

Or they could jog across the street, pay a couple of quid, wait thirty seconds and stuff their face with the deep-fried version, squirted with mayo that looked and tasted like PVA glue. It might sound horrifying at first. It would never turn into an ideal dining experience but the chicken shops, like all things quick and dirty, would forever have their place on the street and they would always be in that place. Waiting.

Friday 22 September 2017

#259 How to choose a career coach

The club at Shoreditch house was essentially a bar, like any other except with table service and nicer sofas. In an armchair, towards the back of the furthest room sat the last of the three coaches, Fiona Buckland.

I hadn't thought of seeing a life coach until a friend recommended it. I'd been convinced that a career coach would be better placed to advise me but I also knew that a great deal of a life coach's time was inevitably spent on people's careers, so throwing one into the mix seemed reasonable.

Fiona was a slim, well-pressed woman in her late thirties. She'd acquired a Ph.D., worked at Amazon and TEDx and had written a book or two. She spoke clearly. Obviously. We spent the first fifteen minutes or so discussing how the coaching process worked, where the boundaries were and the privacy of the setting, which was flexible. Then she got to work.

We discussed my desires and values. How I came across. Why I sometimes made a suggestion and then discredited it immediately afterward. I got a lot more from the introductory session than I had from the two career coaches. This created a dilemma. I wanted someone with Fiona's ability to pick up on my inadvertent cues and see the issues at hand but with the career coaches' knowledge of the job market I was targeting.

The presence of the dilemma in my mind was so great that towards the end of the session, I blurted it out. I then quickly apologised. The choice of coach was my issue, not something I should be dragging her into. Fiona didn't bat an eyelid and offered to provide me with contacts who had both relevant knowledge of the specific job market and behavioural insights. I thanked her for her troubles and agreed to email her the request.

I decided I'd recommend Fiona to anyone curious about giving coaching a try. The meeting had gone well. It now looked like I might be meeting a fourth or even a fifth coach before picking one but that might turn out to be a good thing. I was doing my research learning more about the world in the process.

Thursday 21 September 2017

#258 Thinking about yourself in the third person

It could be a difficult thing sometimes. Viewing oneself from the outside. It was Tuesday afternoon. I'd just had my hair cut by a new barber over in Greenwich and was on my way home. I noticed a row of parked cars a street away and trotted over to peer into a wing mirror. 

Despite feeling like the owner would come by and think I was stealing his ride, I was able to get a good glimpse of the damage. It wasn't good. The guy had turned me into a thug. I thought about it the rest of the walk home. Could I get it altered? It was quite short as it was. What if I turned up to an interview in a hat? I'd still have to take it off. Dammit, why had I tried somewhere new? No wonder there was no queue. I should have just waited it out at the usual place.

Once home, I arranged my phone on top of the stack of towels on my chest of drawers and hit record. Mirrors were fine but there was only so much you could see in 2D. I pranced around the room, pacing, wriggling, nodding. I wanted to see exactly how I looked to other people in the real world. When I played back the video, it revealed a tidier, more flattering result. Thank goodness.

I eventually satisfied myself that the cut wasn't that awful and I could meet people without being branded as bad news. I knew people weren't necessarily that fickle either and that bad news wasn't always easy to spot. I had a friend who always ended up dating the wrong kind of guy. She often thought it might be her fault. That either she was putting something out there, or even that she was turning the men bad herself. I Googled "Reasons why you're attracting guys who are bad for you" and came across a long list of articles.

As far as I could learn, there were a number of possible reasons. A lack of dating criteria. poor quality attention from the male caregiver in childhood. Excessive submissiveness. I hoped she'd do some research too. Left to her own thoughts, she might just sit around blaming herself.

It's often the case that when a person relies only on their own viewpoint, they miss things. People have evolved to focus on a limited field of vision but today we have video cameras and thousands of libraries worth of information that we can carry around in our pocket. 

The time for relying on our own personal experience alone, or even that of our friends, families and local communities is over. Everything we see, think, feel and believe is open to interpretation and we have faster access to a wider range of those interpretations than ever before. Whether we're dating or just checking out a new haircut.

Wednesday 20 September 2017

#256 Stephen Hawking's latest far-fetched comments

I didn't watch The Search for a New Earth, the BBC documentary staring Stephen Hawking that aired earlier this week. A friend messaged me about it while I was getting a haircut. "What has old Hawkers gone and said now?" I wondered. I found some of his past quotes a bit off the wall. It wasn't that I expected the veteran physicist to stick to a rigid script. I knew that if I was world famous, I'd probably come out with all sorts of twaddle but he did seem to have a knack for it.

Sure enough, I was informed that the eccentric professor had made a claim about humanity reaching planets that were four light-years away within the next hundred years. "Pffff" I scoffed merrily. It sounded like utter codswallop. To verify my reaction, I decided to Google the fastest manned spacecraft speed. The result was 25,000 mph. That was in 1969.

Ignoring the fact that in the last fifty years, nobody had traveled faster than the Apollo 10 crew, I decided to play along with Hawking's prediction and assume that somebody would smash the record within a century. At 25,000 mph, a four light-year journey to the Proxima b system would take... if my maths was right... which was about as likely... 100,000 years. To make the trip in 100 years, a person would need to be travelling at 25 million miles an hour. A tall order.

What I hadn't realised was that Hawking was part of a group including Zucks and a venture capitalist called Yuri Milner. They were working on a plan called Breakthrough Starshot. The project aimed to create a fleet of tiny spacecraft, propelled by an earth-based laser array, which would shine upon their miniature sails, a solution which, according to the project's Wikipedia page, could enable the little blighters to travel at up to 20% the speed of light. Not too shabby.

Reading about the plan, into which billions were being invested, softened me up a bit. I looked around for immediate skepticism but it looked like a lot of scientists were behind the idea and agreed that there were no big reasons why it couldn't work. I was suitably impressed. Maybe that documentary was worth a watch after all.

Tuesday 19 September 2017

#255 Deciding on a career coach

I spoke to two career coaches recently. Lisa Larue, from Careerworx and Corinne Mills of Personal Career Management. Both offered free introductory chats and were available the same week that I called them.

Lisa held a full house of qualifications. Two degrees, three diplomas. I took it as a good sign. At the very least, she had an academic understanding of working life. She'd been a career specialist for the entirety of hers. Lisa's website described a genuine passion for helping people and emphasised the importance of being happy at work.

Happiness. What a promise.

Corinne was a Managing Director at PCM, which described itself as the UK's leading career coaching provider. She also had two degrees and was frequently in the national media talking about career trends and issues. Her background was in HR.

The good thing about meeting Corinne was that I got to sit with her in person, in her office. This meant that I could get a feel for her character and soft skills as well as a glance at some of the frameworks she used. The drawback was that Corinne herself wouldn't be giving the coaching. She'd be picking a member of her team for that. The significance of this dawned on me as I left the building afterwards. I felt like I'd just spent an hour listening to a sales pitch for the services of someone I hadn't even met. That didn't feel right.

Lisa sounded fine over the phone but it was difficult to get to know her too, from the short conversation we'd had. Both coaches hadn't offered any groundbreaking insights during the free consultation, so I was finding it hard to differentiate them. Lisa's website was written using the words "we" and "our team" but hers was the only description on the site. Did she really have a team?

I decided to email Lisa about the team point, the length of her sessions and to ask if her rates included VAT. Either way, they were lower than Corinne's, for what looked like essentially the same package. This had me leaning towards Lisa but I really wished I'd been able to meet both coaches in person.

I'd checked out a few other coaching businesses before narrowing it down to Lisa and Corinne but now I wanted to go back and look for more. If I was going to get a good job, I needed the career coach to do a good job, which meant I needed myself to do a good job of picking one. The thought of attending face-to-face sessions and meeting the person first without having to pay the price of a small island was probably wishful thinking but I wanted to make sure it wasn't possible. It'd be a shame if I didn't find what I was looking for just because I'd stopped looking.

Monday 18 September 2017

#254 When Jimmy McGill goes straight

There was something satisfying about watching a loser dressed in a cheap suit, driving a cheaper car, going back to his cheap office and folding out a cheap sofa bed to sleep on. Jimmy went to law school. He took a mail room position at a large law firm while he studied. He passed the bar and began practicing law at a local courthouse.

Bob Odenkirk's character Jimmy McGill, from the Netflix series Better Call Saul, the prequel series to Breaking Bad, was a likeable guy. There was a part in episode two. A montage, where Jimmy did nothing but grind steadily at the courthouse for minimal pay. It must've been enough for him to live on. I wished he'd stuck at it. Jimmy was, how could I put it, a bit naughty, though. It was ingrained. We knew he'd always be a bit shady.

I liked the grinding Jimmy montage. I found all of the little details of his routine comforting. The suit, the quiet courtroom, the continuous work, the cosy living space, the sound of his coffee cup being filled from a vending machine each morning. It all felt so safe. I wanted him to stay there.

I felt that same sense of safety as I re-watched the first two episodes this evening. It'd been three days since I got back from Maidenhead. I'd spent most of that time resting, trying to shake off a cold virus. Watching the episodes had helped me feel like myself again. 

Had the weekend taken me outside my comfort zone? No. It'd all been a piece of cake but it was unfamiliar territory. It was outside my familiarity zone. It took me three days to find my way back into it afterwards. Three days and a couple of Better Call Saul episodes.

Sunday 17 September 2017

#253 The biggest and best biscuits in Blighty

I've been commenting on an awful lot of Ben's Cookies Facebook posts lately. It's rare that a brand excites me enough to be so well-tolerated among the adverts that pop up in the news feed. Who doesn't love photos of cookies though?

I think most of their pics come from Instagram. Let's see if I can find out how they get there. Ok it looks like they're submitted by various individuals. No sign of the photos on the individuals' profiles. Maybe they email them in and Ben mentions their Instagram name when posting them. Not a bad way to get several thousand views of a photo you take. If it's of a cookie.

There are some astounding food pictures on Instagram, I've never really delved into that world before. Look at Nina Joy's page. I have no idea how that girl stays so lean. She seems to live off junk. Or simply goes around taking photos of it and not eating it. I don't know which is worse. It looks amazing though.

I don't like it when a meal is nutritionally unbalanced. I'm not saying no burgers or pizza but would it do a fast food place any harm to offer a side of buttered carrots and greens? I want a Zinger Tower Burger with a little pot of roasted onions, squash and char-grilled peppers.

McDonald's are just about cottoning on with their bag of carrot sticks but zero points for creativity. Healthy doesn't have to be boring. If they at least served the carrots with hummus, they'd get a whole load more orders although admittedly McHummus doesn't sound great. I can't wait for McBroccoli though. I'm telling you, it's coming. Just give it a few years.  

Saturday 16 September 2017

#252 Cold remedies that don't work but are worth trying anyway

I must've written about cold remedies before but it's that season again, so here they are. They don't work of course but it feels defeatist to just give up and do nothing so without much further ado, on with the list:

1) Almond milk
Dairy milk would make things worse but almonds are a girl's best friend. And mine, apparently. They have vitamin E, which is like... good... for stuff... plus I think it contains a few B vitamins too.

2) Cocoa
Cocoa was put on this planet for one reason. To go in my mouth. It's like the mother of all... spices? I sometimes drink pure cocoa powder in hot water without any sugar or milk. The antioxidants are erm... oxygenating... or antioxidising... or something.

3) Chilli
That's right, the sniffles are an excellent chance to have a curry because the heat flushes out the sinuses. I don't know exactly what a sinus is or does but curries are delicious. 1.3 billion Indians can't be wrong. Go for the garlic naan and you'll also be protected from vampires.

4) Coconut water
I've liked this stuff ever since I first tried it back in 2013. It's practically a portion of fruit, which brings me onto the next remedy.

5) Orange juice
Vitamin C is about the only supplement that scientists agree might sorta possibly sometimes maybe be of any benefit when one has a common cold. It might have to be drunk before the virus really develops, I don't know. It also contains a lot of sugar so I have no idea how much of the stuff is ideal.

6) Cakes
This one isn't really mine but I had a friend who would buy cakes in response to an illness. It goes against medical and nutritional guidance but presumably it's about cheering up an unhappy patient Patch Adams style by making them feel better through enjoying something sweet. I found it endearing enough to include in this list.

Happy cold and flu season.

Friday 15 September 2017

#251 Which old search engines are still around?

When's the last time you asked someone to Google something and they said "I don't use Google. I use Excite"?

Yet somehow, miraculously, it's still there. You can type in more or less any of the old search engine names that you used to use in the 90s. Lycos, Hotbot, AOL and they're all still alive and presumably being used by someone or something. Perhaps Sergey Brin's old nemesis from high school or that engineer who recently wrote the anti-diversity memo. But that's still only two people...

From my days at uni, I can recollect another one or two very very geeky types, who've probably found some reason to convince themselves to choose one of the more unpopular search engines, an obvious subconscious decision to make up for nobody ever choosing them due to their own unpopularity.

How do they stack up against each other though?

I tried typing "How do I get to Maidstone?" into Google and instantly received a map and the answer that it was a 55 minute drive down the A2. Now, I don't actually own a car and am somewhat surprised Google doesn't know that but its first proper result is still fairly helpful. A suggestion that I take the train, along with journey time and a price. Not bad considering I haven't even clicked a link yet.

Let's see what happens when I type the same into Hotbot.

Maybe this is why the search engines are still active. Hotbot appears to have hijacked the Microsoft search engine, Bing and has given me pretty much the same information as Google, except the first three rows are advertising for tourism and hotels. I find this most unwelcome. I haven't even figured out how to get there yet. Apart from that, the results are fairly evenly matched.

Excite, on the other hand did an appalling job. No map, no journey time. Just a single link to The Trainline, followed by two links to hotels. The next result was completely irrelevant.

So there you are. My simple and not-to-be-relied-upon test suggested to me that while you can visit most of the old search engines, for nostalgia, you're unlikely to find much else there that you can't find using Google. There are, of course, going to be a few differences in layout and functionality when it comes to the searching and fringe features such as email but I'll leave that to the geeks to figure out. For the time being at least, I'm sticking with Google.

Thursday 14 September 2017

#250 Volunteering at Alexander Devine in Windsor part 2

Clasping a paper plate and fighting to keep the salad from blowing all over the place, I went and sat on a blue fold-up chair to eat my burger and sausage. I'd been standing up for four hours, directing cars around an industrial estate. It wasn't the worst job in the world. As the drivers approached, I'd stand right in their path and give what might ordinarily be a friendly wave but this was no friendly wave and they knew it. I wasn't saying "hello and welcome". I was saying "listen mate, I've clocked you and if you dare park in the wrong place, I will use my high-vis jacket and clipboard to the very limit of their capacities". Whatever that meant.

The night market had been a flop. If a town's going to host an irregular event outside of Christmas or a heatwave, it needs to be heavily advertised, yet not one of the passers-by who stopped at the stall had been aware there'd be a market. I was one of five volunteers who'd been asked to help. Even one or two would've been twiddling their thumbs most of the time, which meant that the whole thing felt less like volunteering and more like loitering.

An old couple turned up with a dolphin costume. They were regular volunteers and apparently the get-up really helped to convince drunk people. Sometimes to donate and sometimes to physically assault the costume wearer but either way, it got the public's attention.

We'd finished up around midnight and by the time the BBQ was over the next day, I was practically ready to use the burger bun as a pillow and cuddle the sausage to sleep. I was also famished though, so neither piece of meat escaped its fate. Having become an expert at putting up and taking down gazebos, I helped to get the place all packed up and then my friend gave me a lift to the station. It'd been an unusual couple of days but it felt good to be useful. It's a dangerous business, going out your door. Now and then I do though. I've yet to regret it.

Wednesday 13 September 2017

#249 Volunteering at Alexander Devine in Windsor

I couldn't tell you what got me out of bed this morning. The reasons were there. I had to get my ass to East Dulwich for 9am and then up to Maidenhead for midday. None of that meant much as I'd laid there at 2:30am the night before, listening to various people on the floor above making the kind of noises that awake people made. After turning in at around midnight the past few days, I'd hoped for an early night.

I'd been dreading trying to get through the day on four hours' shut-eye. Every possible negative outcome from sleep deprivation had danced in front of me like a mobile above a baby's cot. I'd be too grumpy to be nice to people. Too exhausted to contribute. What was the point in showing up if I couldn't function?

My friend and I had been cancelling on each other for a while. She'd been so busy that to see her, I'd agreed to help at a night market in Windsor for the hospice she worked for. She hadn't been bluffing when she'd suggested I spend the weekend working with her. They always needed people. So she'd be stuck with a tired me for 48 hours.

I did get up and caught the train out to Maidenhead. We then drove into Windsor. It looked like the Queen was home. Beyond the grey clouds and drizzle, we could just make out her flag fluttering on its mast at the castle. The morning went ok. I normally found four hours' sleep easier to deal with than six. Something to do with the REM cycles.

I'd stocked up on food for the evening and stashed it in my rucksack. I wasn't sure I'd get a chance to leave the market stall for long. Four more volunteers showed up. We put up a tent and arranged the wares inside an hour. Now all that was left was to stand around waiting for the public to show an interest.

Tuesday 12 September 2017

#248 Choosing a gift for someone who can't accept gifts

I needed to get a gift for someone today. I mean, I felt like it. It seemed appropriate. Only it wasn't appropriate. This person isn't supposed to accept gifts. At least I don't think they are. They liked the last one I got them though, so I figured it was ok. When they start to protest, I might think twice.

It's difficult shopping for gifts. Everyone has everything. At least most people I know seem to. It's not difficult like learning a piano piece or bowling three strikes in a row. More like getting one strike, or deciding correctly whether to bring an umbrella every day for a month.

I usually shop in the physical stores, I don't feel like browsing pictures of things, I want to pick them up. Get them instantly. Without postage. I find it surprising that so much shopping's done online until I remember how busy most people are. Too busy to go to the shops? Maybe, some of them. Each to their own.

I thought about asking the person what they wanted but that ruins two things. The element of surprise and the element of initiative. How can a person expect to get better at choosing gifts if they never choose them? To ask whether it's possible to choose the right gift isn't to ask much more than whether it's possible to really know someone. Nobody has everything.

I decided on a thermos, which had some suitable text written across it. It was more the text that I liked than the thermos. I wonder if everyone thinks they're good at choosing gifts. I sometimes get told that I am but then I wonder. The things that mean something aren't always very useful, whereas socks and utensils sometimes seem too useful.

The rest can help. The right gift bag, the right card, the right message written neatly in fountain pen. I hate gift bags but they've become necessary. Up until I was well into my twenties, I would've never thought to use them. Now look at me. Using gift bags. Who'd've thunk it?

Monday 11 September 2017

#247 The absolute cheapest printer in London

Page after page of material spilled out of the printer behind me. The sheets casually landed more or less in a tidy pile on the little plastic tray that had so far miraculously avoided getting caught on anything and breaking off. An orange light started blinking. Replace cartridge. Already? I'd just bought the thing on Monday. I was only half-surprised. I'd spent practically the whole week producing documents. Printer lights are like petrol tank lights on dashboards though. She still had a few left in her.

Before me sat the ultimate beast of a career file. EQ, IQ, personality, life story, work story, feedback summaries, written work, CVs, beliefs, values, skills, strengths, weaknesses, thought experiments, cultural fit. You name it. If I was going to see a career adviser, I wanted to walk in armed to the teeth. I'd positioned each section carefully in sleek black file with a contents page. The whole thing had been compressed and backed up online and offline. It was practically indestructible.

I'd skim-read the three career books I'd checked out of the library on Saturday and completed any relevant exercises. What I really wanted from the adviser was an expert opinion. Some insight and if I was honest, some assurance. You can't always get that in books.

A part of me wondered if I'd over-prepared but I didn't feel like I had. I'd just done everything I reasonably could. It wasn't like I'd gone overboard on philosophy or written about my extended family. I'd enjoyed putting it all together though. Did it mean something? Maybe I was destined for a career pulling together people's personal details and analysing them. It meant something else too though. I'd run out of excuses. It was time to get out of the house and go meet this person.

Sunday 10 September 2017

#246 Tests that are similar to IQ and EQ

I took an EQ test today. 45 minutes long. I felt like the results were accurate. Of course I did. I'd just answered the questions that underpinned them. Was it useful? Maybe. Wikipedia showed there was plenty of cynicism around the concept. As with a lot of personal tests, it was just another piece in a flimsy cardboard jigsaw, whose pieces never fitted together perfectly.

I had to admire the detail of the report though. Dozens of categories. Paragraphs summarising the implications. I scored high on emotional analysis and exceptionally high on understanding their complexity and how they impact our lives. I scored low on resilience and self-motivation.

I sent a link to my dad. I wanted to see if EQ was hereditary. He said he'd take it. I could see him maybe losing patience with the length of the test but if he wasn't too busy, he might get through it. I wondered if his girlfriend would take it too. 

It got me thinking about what other quotients a person could measure, so I Googled it. I found eleven

Intelligence, Emotion, Health, Morality, Courage, Resilience, Finance, Mind, Will, Spirit and Pragmatism.

I was sure half of those overlapped. 

Presumably completion of all the tests increases a person's QQ... their quotients quotient. I might have a go although not tonight. My Can't-Be-Bothered-To-Take-Another-Quotient-Test quotient is quite low so I'll probably do it tomorrow or something.

Saturday 9 September 2017

#245 The cheapest grass cutting service in East London

There was a small increase in global deforestation recently. It happens about once every three months, or when one of the neighbours complains. Allegedly. I suspect the landlord makes up their complaints to remind us about the garden without having to whinge about it himself. I also suspect our lives would be easier if we just bought a mower but for some reason it's an unpopular option.

There isn't a single English word for which I know the Polish equivalent but when I told one of the gardeners we were only booking them for an hour and he started speaking it, I knew damn well what he was saying. I told him this and he started laughing. I apologised for being so tight and explained that I only had agreement from the housemates to pay for an hour, which was true. I still felt like a bit of a bastard though.

I decided that if they couldn't get all the weeds in that time, I'd pull them myself. It was a risky strategy. Last time I put on the gardening gloves, our front lawn ended up looking like someone had taken a bite out of a pot of cress and spat it out back into the container.

The most embarrassing part was when I offered them a drink and then realised I only had water. I wonder if I could've made up a list of horrible alternatives to create the illusion of choice. Grapefruit squash. Tomato juice. Gin. I suppose not everyone's as fussy as me when it comes to drinks, so it probably would've backfired.

They cleared all the weeds within the hour with time to spare. I'd got them to undercut our regular gardener. Either I was a tremendous negotiator or a horrible human being. Probably both. In fairness, living in a shared house leaves one's hands somewhat tied. I left them the single greatest review anyone has ever left anyone for anything. I was surprised it fitted in the comments box. The last part was more of an apology for my poor hospitality and a promise to do better in future. Would I remember to get tea, coffee and juice? They'd find out in about three months' time.

Company used: Fantastic Services.

Friday 8 September 2017

#244 Feeling the temperature change

I liked how September felt. The change in air temperature always brought about a nostalgic feeling, probably because it was when I'd started school as a kid. Hardly the highlight of the year but a distinct, memorable time nonetheless. Only now there was no organisation to go back to after the summer. For the first time since I was four years old, September had come and I was completely uninstitutionalised.

As liberating as it'd been to take time out, I wanted to get some expert help with the next steps, so this morning, I started looking at career coaches. The first thing I noticed was that the only two coaches with Google ratings had solid five star reviews from all respondents. Those had to be engineered. This was the internet. No fair-sized group of people would all rate something perfectly unless they'd been paid off or were attached at the hip to the business owner. I decided to check out some other pages.

Getting an idea of prices wasn't straightforward. Some coaches hadn't even listed their fees. I assumed it must because they were fatter than your mamma. In the end, I found a coach who looked well-qualified and had enough self-esteem not to hide her fees or stuff her Google ratings full of silicone. I'd also received a couple of good recommendations to look into.

I decided to put together some typical career info. My likes, dislikes, personality and work history. I wanted to be prepared, so I could focus on getting from a coach only the kind of guidance that I wouldn't be able to work out for myself. I'd still need to carry on making applications and attend interviews after seeing the coach but I wanted the process to give me an edge. That way when next September came around, there'd be somewhere I wanted to go back to.

Thursday 7 September 2017

#243 The old libraries of London

Travelling to libraries had become a simple pleasure. Back in Dulwich, the most obvious option had been the local library, which I'd usually avoided. I found local libraries depressing, in a liberal sense of the word. Small, tatty outposts with pathetic selections. Had any attention been paid to the venues, it might be a different story but I found most of them to be incredibly drab.

I pitied those who travelled to the local libraries to work. Those who opted for the naff decor and lack of kitchen just to escape their own homes for a while. Replacing one soulless environment with another.

When I relocated to the Isle of Dogs, new options became available. Living on the Jubilee line made the entirety of the tube map feel more accessible. Being next to a Boris bike terminal had a similar effect. Now I could journey though the mazes of either the underground or the intricate backstreets of the city toward any one of the dozens of ancient buildings that collectively housed London's gargantuan collection of public books.

This adventurous approach to accessing literature was stumbled upon entirely by accident. On occasion, I'd have the thought of reading a certain type of book and would instantly set out to scratch that itch by getting hold of a copy as soon as possible. With it often being an evening or weekend and with titles only being available at particular locations, I'd find myself planning a route and visiting a different venue each time. The only drawback was remembering what came from where, when it came to returning them.

The bulging shelves tested my resistance to temptation and I'd find myself grabbing four or five volumes at a time, having to lug them home and renewing them several times before bringing them back. In this sense, I was a rather discourteous borrower. Deciding that just one or two books would be enough until my next visit took real discipline. What if I finished them quickly, or decided they were no good and was left with nothing? 

I found the trick was to read enough to know how much I liked each title before leaving the premises. I say "trick"; no doubt such behaviour is obvious to those exercising an ounce of common sense but it's easy to get carried away in the middle of a book browsing frenzy.

Carrying them on the tube provided its own fun. Were any of the other passengers looking at what I was reading? Might they judge me? Did the fact that I was wondering this mean I was judging myself? Presumably the "never judge a book by its cover" saying also applied to people. "Never judge a person by the cover of the books that they're carrying". Except I didn't necessarily buy the saying. Never take as gospel any advice that starts with the word "never". There are some exceptions.

Eventually I'd get the books home, where I'd typically get through one in a few days, half-read another two or three over a period of weeks and then painfully deliberate over whether I really needed or wanted to read the last one. Like a miserable vegetable on the plate of information consumption. I'd suspect it'd be good for me but could hardly face getting started on it. Pretty much at random, a time would come when I'd either decide I definitely wasn't going to read it, or I'd flick through it as fast as possible, telling myself I'd got the gist and that really, what I'd prefer was a completely different type of book. I'd hotfoot it back to the library and return the wretched thing along with any others I was still holding. Then the whole process would start all over again.

Wednesday 6 September 2017

#242 Getting noticed in internet searches without using SEO

I had a couple of calls this week from companies who publish articles about investments. It's not something I know much about. There will have been shareholder ratios that I memorised when studying business at school. I read monthly reports on the extremely low-risk money market deposits held by the insurers I used to work on. I read The Big Short after the financial crisis. It's one of the great stories of our time but I couldn't talk about when to buy or sell a stock, what different types of product there are, or what's going on in the markets this week.

If I came across a good opportunity to learn more about investment techniques and strategies that genuinely seemed to be educative in nature and not at all persuasive, that might be fun. I suspect though, that there can't be many companies in that market, that aren't trying to get people to part with cash that they might lose, even if they don't say that's what they're doing. If it looks like that's the case, I'll probably keep my guard up quite high. Even if I'd enjoy learning more about it.

A lot of jobs ask for knowledge of Search Engine Optimisation. I wish I knew more about it. My first reaction when I heard the term was to imagine people sneaking wording into websites to try to cheat their way to the top of the search rankings. I don't think that would even work these days. Google's just too smart for it. There might be other ways of getting a site ranked though that are legitimate... like making a really good website... which is harder to criticise. I might watch some videos about it.

When I search for "Something More Weekly" this is the first result I get. In fact it's the first four results but I'm never sure if that's because Google knows it's my website. I have to try and find someone who's never read the blog to type it in and see if it comes up.

Tuesday 5 September 2017

#241 What it feels like to feel things

Getting feeling back is like... when the instruments come in behind a voice. It reinforces everything without altering the lyrics at all. The length of the song, the audience, the stadium, even the musician. None of it changes. It all stays exactly the same except from nowhere, out of the blackness come a collection of supporting sounds, each one reaching a part of the listener that has evolved over millions of years to hear it.

It's why nothing matters. It's also why people drive themselves crazy taking whatever route they possibly can, or wallowing helplessly in aimless desperation until the feeling comes back. Some think there's something they can do. Their minds race off in the pursuit of it. Maybe for most of their lives. It's the only surefire way never to get there because there is back where they started. But there's no reverse gear. Doing nothing starts to get unbearable. The mind cannot cope with the possibility that there's nothing it can do and so it races. For however long.

Those who aren't there, can't stand to hear the destination talked about because not being there is so unbearable and getting there is so impossible that they have to distract themselves. Their distractions take them through one experience after another... pleasure, stress, pleasure, stress... until if they're lucky, one day something changes and some light starts to shine through. Over years, more specks can now and then penetrate the cloud cover. Still so seldom and impossible to catch. Just gradually more and more coming through. So gradually.

Then it dawns on you that you don't need anything more than what you have. You're still caught in circles and always will be but at least now you can feel it.

Monday 4 September 2017

#240 Thoughts on asking "Why not?" instead of "Why?"

I was having a conversation with an acquaintance earlier and we found ourselves chatting about the usage of a certain type of question. I say "we found ourselves chatting"; I mean I brought it up and she played ball, which is more than I know to expect from many other people when it comes to these types of discussions.

I'd been on an old video game forum earlier in the day and someone had asked me if I wanted to have some fun. I declined, mostly because I liked the irony of the response (why would anyone decline something fun?) and partly because I had no idea why I was apparently being propositioned on a gaming forum. It was what came next though, that got me thinking. The person asked "Why not?"

Why not?

To understand why this type of question gets me thinking takes some explaining. 

When you ask someone why something happened, you assume a normal causal relationship. It happened because of x. However, when you ask someone why something didn't happen, you assume another kind of causal relationship. A fake one. The it would have happened but... relationship (for an explanation of why I hate the word "but", see post #214).

Now... when all is said and done, I'm not saying that asking why something happened is any better. Ultimately none of us knows why anything happens... because you can always add another layer to the inquiry. Ok, so why did that happen? Ah but then why did that happen? We go on and on until nobody cares anymore. 

When something bad happens, if we can come up with a good reason before the level at which we stop caring, we excuse the thing that happened or try to deal with it. If we can't, we call it evil and we blame someone or something for it but that's another story.

At least when we rely on the normal causal relationship, there's some level of truth to it. We can prove that x happened because of y and y happened because of z. We come up with a nice little story.

Can we do that with the fake causal relationship? We can certainly try but I'm not sure it's always worth it. We thought that x was going to happen because of y but x didn't happen, so we ask why x didn't happen... sometimes it's a nonsensical question. To understand why, imagine how many things don't happen all the time.

When we want to know what sandwich a vendor stocks, we might ask them what they have. To ask what they don't have is madness. They don't have almost everything! Why don't they have almost everything? It's a completely bonkers question because nobody in their right mind would ever suppose that they should stock every possible filling.

If it's a really good sandwich shop, they might have thirty different fillings but there'll be millions and millions that they don't have. Grasshopper sandwiches. Great white shark sandwiches. Titanium valve spring sandwiches.

Say they don't have peanut butter though. How come they have all these fillings but not peanut butter? It's a reasonable question but it's not the most reasonable question (it might be for efficiency but I'm focussing on something else here). The most reasonable question is why we thought the shop would have peanut butter in the first place.

In the process of writing this, I think I've come up with a more eloquent way of expressing what I think I'm talking about...

Oftentimes, it is necessary, or more efficient to ask why something hasn't happened but sometimes...

It's like they're looking at a glass half full of water and asking why half of it is empty. 

The glass is half full and they're choosing to focus on the empty half.

Sunday 3 September 2017

#239 A souvenir

Are spiders getting bigger? It's that time of the year here in the UK and I'm clearing one of those critters out of the house every day. I'm a very humane spider-remover. I use a mug and a postcard. For a few magic moments, they're transported in their own private cabin, straight into the garden. Flight time is around ten seconds and there's always plenty of legroom. 

Mosquitos I'm less tolerant with. They tend to get squashed by a Coca-Cola coaster. The cork underside is great for smushing them... cause otherwise their little insect parts might still be alive and feeling pain. What? I don't know how that works. It does seem far-fetched that insect pain even exists, let alone compares on any level to human pain but I don't know what it's like to be an insect, so I grant them the mercy of a swift execution.

Mozzies are the only thing I'll kill. If it's a fly, I'll guide it out. If it's a wasp, I can usually do the same, or trap it under a glass. Under slides the postcard, which remains beneath the glass until both are positioned on the rear lawn. I then kick or otherwise tip the glass over and run like an Olympian for the safety of the kitchen. After a comfortable time has passed, I retrieve the glass and postcard.

I use the same postcard every time. It's the one my sister wrote to her friends from our family holiday in Vegas. I delivered it to them by hand, as I'd recently moved in with them in East Dulwich. Years later, when we vacated the Dulwich house, I kept the postcard. Dad had arranged the once-in-a-lifetime Vegas trip to celebrate my mother's fiftieth birthday. My sister wrote the card out with so much excitement and signed off saying she loved her friends loads and loads and loads with six kisses.

In the months that followed, my parents divorced and my sister moved in with her new husband, telling her friends she didn't want to see them anymore. Like the insects that discover a cosy home only to be flung into the garden, the postcard is a reminder of a fortunate time and how quickly luck can change. It's also good for getting spiders out.

Saturday 2 September 2017

#238 Another Medium tribute

It had been a good six months since I started writing on Medium. I'd written about thirty stories, no more than six minutes each. Three got into publications, which generally resulted in extra views. One or two got some comments.

My impression was that a lot of the 120 followers I'd amassed were fellow bloggers. People who followed people because they wanted to be followed. I thought the same about many of the 'like's my stories got. Some might have been genuine. Many would be in the hope that I'd reciprocate. I still liked that though. That sense of community.

When I first signed up, I found it almost as addictive as Youtube. Every day there were more stories to read. From alternative or satirical takes on the latest headlines, to straight-up news journalism, to poetry, to self-help, to heavy science and tech. The place was like a library but smaller and more immediately relevant.

The platform had taken some time out this year to redefine itself. A bit like me. They'd axed a third of their staff and announced that they were working on a new business model although they didn't know exactly what that was. This month, they started paying members based on the number of "like"s they received. The change received mixed responses but many people were just glad the business was innovating.

The site had reported something like 60 million visitors per month as of this year. That was comparable with some national newspapers and showed the benefit of being able to publish in one place that was accessible globally. I wondered how many of those visitors had subscribed.

I'd thought about writing a longer story about hurricanes to coincide with the weather in the USA this weekend but had decided to focus on revamping an older article instead, as I knew of a publication that might take it. I felt like I needed to try writing something longer though. I Googled the hurricane. There were still plenty of news articles appearing. Maybe it wasn't too late.

Friday 1 September 2017

#237 One million dollars

I can't fault the President for donating a million to Storm relief. It's more than I gave. Actually I haven't given anything. Does that make me less generous than Donald Trump? I guess it does.

He certainly has more to give but then he's also given more of what he has, so he wins whichever way you measure it, at least for this particular disaster. I feel slightly guilty and hypocritical for questioning the public nature of his donation but I'm going to anyway. 

Should a person comment publicly on the donations they make? I'm in two minds over this. On one hand, giving silently is very respectable, as it can be a private, personal decision. On the other hand, giving publicaly shines a light on the cause.

Asking reporters where the money should go makes the whole thing seem like a stunt. It's true enough that they might have found out anyway and this prevents him being criticised at a later date but I'm not sure press criticism should be the deciding factor in a charity donation.

Did he really need the press' expertise in this matter? He's the president, he could've asked any expert in the world for an opinion. Some of them might have spat in his face but to him that's just free kink.

The gesture certainly worked. During the past couple of hours, just about every major news company has jumped on the story. With that much attention being paid to your every move, maybe privacy doesn't seem like an option.