Friday, 29 February 2008

Princess Dead

I know that Lady Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, was affectionately known as Princess Di while she was alive but we really shouldn't use that moniker now. Referring to her as "Princess Di" is too close to saying "Princess, Die", which is incredibly poor grammar. "Princess, Die" is future imperative; we should be using the simple past adjective: "Princess Dead".

But seriously, I just read an 'idea catcher' that mentioned writing about an historical event that occurred during my own lifetime and the death of Diana was the first one to spring to mind. It certainly had the most impact. I remember turning on the TV that Sunday morning and flipping in mild confusion between channels until it became obvious what had happened. Then the awful thought "Well the telly's gonna be rubbish all day" sprang to mind so I turned the TV off, put on some music and read a book.

About the same time I was a big fan of the drama 'Ballykissangel' which was in (I think) its second or third series. I hadn't seen the first one but I still got very drawn in to the lives of all the characters, especially the intensely frustrating unrequited love between Assumpta Fitzgerald and Father Peter Clifford. I was so absorbed by that little love story that I got very excited when Peter called Assumpta from the telephone box to confess his love for her and promise to renounce the priesthood to spend the rest of his life with her. Then, of course, I cried as though a relative had been run over when Assumpta died. It struck me immediately how ridiculous it was to be upset that a fictional character had died - after all, Dervla Kirwan is alive and well and earning good money providing the voice for the M&S 'food porn' adverts - but that's the effect good art can have on weaklings like me.

The disparity between the two events also became very clear - not really caring about a real wife/Mother/icon dying but blubbing like an eejit because someone I'd never met got paid to pretend to be dead for a minute or two. There's nothing truly surprising about it of course: it's a simple indication that I had a stronger emotional bond with the fictional character than with the real person. It's easy to see why so many of Arthur Canon Doyle's readers got so upset when he originally killed off Sherlock Holmes. It's even easy to see why people get addicted to watching soap operas, although I have little time for them myself. By the way, I do mean both the soap operas and the poor saps who watch them.

Now here lies the problem with trying to write something based on an 'idea-catcher': ordinarily I have a point to make, some information to disseminate or at least a minor personal story to tell. With this post I have nothing of the sort and therefore no useful way to conclude this. The end.

PS The great writer Ray Bradbury, giving advice to budding writers at a workshop, said the following: "The key is to write. A lot. If you write 52 articles a year I dare you to write 52 bad ones." I'm rather hoping I don't meet his challenge...

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

The necessity of necessity

Most entrepreneurs, when making yet more money selling their autobiographies, mention the jumps or growth spurts they make when expanding the boundaries of their business or themselves. These are the moments when they're catapulted into a newer, larger arena. A place where they're the new kid, the small fish in a bigger pond. We all know that a goldfish will live quite happily in a goldfish bowl for years but it won't get much longer than about three inches. If that same fish survives being moved into a larger tank it'll grow bigger. That goldfish could even grow into a 20-inch carp-sized monster if it successfully adapts to life in a large pond. It's that move from the small and familiar into the big and strange that encourages and stimulates growth.

Geoff Thompson has said in many of his books that he draws inspiration from notable success stories like Sir Richard Branson. Richard's method of growing into something takes an amazing mixture of charisma and courage. A great example that Geoff quoted was the time when Branson bought his own island. At the time the Virgin King certainly didn't have enough money of his own to buy a whole island, he just persuaded a group of financiers to lend him the money and when he had the island he then figured out what he had to do to afford the repayments. Geoff himself used the same method (on a much smaller scale) to expand his book sales: he rented more space than he needed in order to store all the books he had to sell and then said to himself "My God, I'd better get out there and sell as many books as I can to be able to pay for this." What they both did was to deliberately put themselves in a situation where they had no choice but to grow.

Ordinarily this would be yet another post where I regurgitate a few muddled concepts gleaned from various books I've read over the years and cobble together a pseudo-intellectual take on some over-worked subject matter. However, a couple of things have come together and made a difference. Last week I was called into a 1-1 with my line manager and given a minor roasting about the decline in the quantity and quality of my work over the last few weeks. Over the weekend I thought about the situation and before lunchtime on Sunday I was already depressed about the idea of going into work on Monday. Then my girlfriend reminded me that I said way back in October 2007 that I wanted to get a new job by Christmas and I've quite obviously failed to do anything about it other than complain about my current job. (She just reminded me about my statement of intent, not the ineffective bleating I've been doing since then) Add the castigation to the procrastination and what emerged was a glimmer of inspiration.

Today I handed in my notice at work. I gave them 2 months instead of 1, partly because it always takes ages to recruit new staff and they're struggling with their workload already, partly because it gives me a little extra time to find a new job. I'll need the time because I haven't even applied for a new job yet, let alone been offered one. There's a good chance I'll end up doing yet another tedious admin job for a while, maybe even for the same employer, but at least it'll be in a different environment and I'm looking forward to something new. Anyway, the basic idea was to inject some necessity into the situation and force a change. Now we'll see what happens.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

One bad, one good

While sitting at home this week trying to shift the awful cold/flu/whatever I realised that due to the interruptions that have spoiled my training regime over the last month there's almost no chance of my meeting the first of my New Year 'resolutions' and I'm going to have to scrap it. When I'm well enough to resume training the cycling will have to change and I'm thinking about extending the distances to improve my endurance rather than trying to do the same short routes faster. I'll have to wing it as I don't really have a point of reference to work from. So, strike one.

Also this week I received an email from a stock photography website confirming that the three photographs I submitted have been approved for use. That means some of my work is now in the public domain and available to buy so even though it's quite unlikely to make me much money it does count as having something published. Given that another of my stated goals at the start of the year was to have three things published, I'm counting those pictures and any subsequent photos that get accepted to the same site( as one published item. One down, two to go - then I've met one of my resolutions.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

On having low energy (2) My take on Chinese medical theory

In Chinese medical theory, martial arts, philosophy, etc. each person has two basic types of energy: pre-birth and post-birth.

Pre-birth energy is literally that which you were born with - it's the energy levels inherited from your parents, grandparents and the rest of your ancestral line, much in the same way that you inherit some of their physical features and psychological characteristics. The amount of pre-birth energy you have is pretty much set: you can't do much to change it.

Post-birth energy is that which you take on from external sources and generate yourself during the course of your life. This energy is derived from the air you breathe, the food & drink you ingest and the exercise (both physical and psychological) that you do. This is the energy that you can add to and improve.

I won't labour the point about exercise as we all know how it works: you put the body under slightly more stress than it's used to and the stress causes some minor damage. In the recovery period after the exercise your body repairs the damage and reinforces the affected areas to withstand future stress. That's how muscles get bigger, heart and lungs get stronger, circulation improves, etc. It's also how your energy levels rise: as your body gets accustomed to the greater levels of stress and improves its overall function, 'normal' activities become so much easier in comparison that you feel more energetic.

Air is by far and away the most important one (anyone who disagrees is welcome to stop breathing for 10 minutes and get back to me later) and is usually the one that gets ignored. It's very difficult to get into the habit of breathing properly - only a few well-trained people actually manage it. Singers and people who play wind instruments do it very well as the ability to use their lungs & diaphragm properly is the foundation of their performing ability. Most of the rest of us don't even think about improving our breathing we just get on with it. However, using the whole of the lung while breathing keeps it in good working order (use it or lose it!) and even if you only do it for a few minutes a day it makes a difference. [To digress for a second: deep breathing improves your circulation, especially if you're a desk-worker. When you're moving around the heart pumps blood through the arteries and the contract/release motion of your muscles pumps blood back to the heart. When you're sitting still the muscle pump isn't working so it's the pressure of the 'fresh' blood that forces the 'old' blood back to the heart. If, however, you breathe deeply into your abdomen, the whole of your torso becomes a pump and helps move the blood around. Stretching the diaphragm like that also helps release tension in the upper body which, as the solar plexus is the emotional centre of the body, helps you to relax. On the flipside: deliberately relaxing your upper body improves your breathing as well as your posture.] If you need any more convincing about the importance of the air you breathe, try taking a walk in the countryside on a warm sunny day and whenever you get to the top of a hill just take a minute or two to deeply breathe in the pure clean air and see how that makes you feel.

Now for the one we have the most control over and the greatest obsession with: food. Think about the old adage that 'you are what you eat', well that is literally true. You eat an apple (or whatever), it's dissolved into liquid and the constituent parts separated out - some of those parts are used to create new cells in your body. That should demonstrate how vitally important food is to your general health. As to your energy levels; because of the sheer complexity of turning apples into muscle, the digestive process actually uses up an awful lot of energy. The purer the food you eat is, the easier it is digested and therefore the less energy it uses up in the process. If you ate nothing but lean meat, vegetables and brown rice you'd have a digestive system running at warp speed and maximum efficiency at all times. The minute you eat or drink anything impure your body has to work harder at digestion. That harder work slows everything down and uses up even more energy, which is why you feel sluggish and sleepy after big meals, especially if that meal happened to be junk. One of the best things you can do to improve your energy levels is to eat less junk. Now, what constitutes junk for one person may be Mother's milk for another and it can be very difficult to tell what's what. For example, when I had my first food intolerance test the results showed that I shouldn't eat celery or soya, both of which came as a surprise, as well as the usual admonition about sugar, dairy, wheat, yeast, caffeine and alcohol, which were basically to be expected. When your digestive system is working efficiently it uses up less energy while processing and because your toilet visits are more regular you're using up less energy generally because you are literally carrying less crap around with you. If you're using less energy for one thing, more energy is available for everything else - it really is that simple.

[The caveat about improving your diet is the bit they usually don't tell you: during the first 1-2 weeks while your body is adjusting to the change you will feel like hell. Caffeine withdrawal gives you headaches, sugar withdrawal causes mood swings, you'll be hungry most of the time and constantly thinking about your next meal, the food you are allowed to eat will seem bland to the point of revulsion and you'll be incredibly short-tempered.]

The overall point is this: improving your energy levels using physical means is best done in the good old-fashioned twin-pronged diet and exercise approach. I'm gradually improving my diet and when I've shifted this awful cold my workout routine will go from basic to brutal in a very short space of time but will still leave space for my increasingly important Taiji training.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

My take on Cloverfield

Now that half of the civilised world has seen the movie we're all completely engrossed in the opinionated analytical aftermath. For the three people out there who've been on a long camping trip and wonder what the film itself is like, here's the synopsis described in algebraic terms:
Cloverfield = Blair Witch Project + Godzilla + a huge sfx budget.
That's it. Don't look for anything deeper; it isn't there. Now, you could very well talk about the courage of using a single unwavering viewpoint for the entire film, something that could very easily have spoiled the whole experience, and it did actually work well - to a point. Unfortunately that point was passed very quickly and the tension gave way to boredom.

If you've been asleep for the last few years you won't have heard of JJ Abrams or Paul Greengrass and are blissfully unaware of the havoc the two men have created. The rest of us have ground our teeth through several movies that had the potential to be great but were completely ruined by their addiction to hand-held camera-work. I have a theory about this: either they saw The War Of The Worlds as impressionable children and developed a pathological fear of anything that looked like a tripod, or they're allergic to aluminium. What other reasons could they possibly have for not leaving the camera in a fixed position for more than 3 seconds at a time? Let's be honest: the second and third Bourne films would have been dynamic enough if all the movement had been created by Matt Damon's antics, we didn't need the camera to be operated by a man suffering from Parkinson's disease. The deliberately shaky camera-work of films like Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project do heighten the sense of tension and panic that power the films along but they have the unfortunate side-effect of evoking motion sickness in anyone who's recently eaten popcorn or chocolate - not great for the cinema-going public.

Seriously though, the real problem with this style of movie is that there's no comfortable middle ground: either it grabs you and you get it, or it doesn't and you don't. I didn't.

Friday, 8 February 2008

It's that pesky day job again.

I was going to try my best not to complain about work - I should be putting all my energy into finding a new job rather than bitching about this one - but we had one day this week when the sheer idiocy of the culture left me feeling as disconsolate as days of old.

It all started with a little bit of office politics. We've had something of a backlog of work for about the last 3 months because there's been a huge increase in the number of applications we've had to process (I'm talking in terms of over 30%) so of course we've been struggling. We were told first thing in the morning that we're not allowed to use the word 'backlog' as it has too many negative connotations so instead we're supposed to use terms like 'sudden influx', 'doing our best', 'everything processed in date order', etc. If the person we're talking to decides to say 'backlog' that's fine but we can't say it ourselves. There's one in the nuts for morale.

The most junior member of staff in the office, one I've referred to in previous posts as being less than efficient, takes the day's new applications down to one of the academic schools each morning. On this day she was allegedly questioned by the senior contact in the school who wanted to know more about how our office works, apparently because they're not happy with the service we provide. Now, given our lady's penchant for gossiping and rumour-mongering she could very easily have read too much into the conversation, but it's equally likely that there was some malignant political intent in the interrogation. Either way, it caused a great deal of indignant speculation which of course meant morale's decline got a little steeper.

And finally, the icing on the cake was provided by the marketing department. Apparently they've decided to test each department's customer service skills by adopting a 'mystery shopper' method, telephoning or emailing the poor victims and pretending to be difficult customers. Some of the academic schools have already received the out-of-work-actor-trying-to-get-by treatment and we've been told we may be next. Now that may be true, in which case they're a bunch of c**ts. It could be a rumour started by someone in management (or even in marketing) who thought it'd scare us on to greater heights of administrative efficiency, in which case they're a bunch of idiotic c**ts. It could even be the fabled 'Chinese whispers' created by the ridiculous internal politics of a large organisation. I think you may guess what my opinion is at this point.

It seems to me that the business-oriented management types they've now got running the place have decided that the lazy attitude that has historically existed across most non-academic staff of the university is unacceptable so they're using good old-fashioned Gestapo shock tactics to wake people up and make them work harder. Unfortunately, it also means they're creating a lot of unnecessary subsidiary work and making life difficult for everyone involved. The underlying ideology is obviously the ancient management philosophy that morale is an unnecessary component of working life.

Right, I'm off to update my CV.