Frequent Travellers and Possibilities for the New Year

Most weeks of the year I catch a plane from Birmingham to Amsterdam; and a lot of those weeks I come back again too. Yes this does result in a carbon footprint the size of a small 3rd world country and from an ethical viewpoint I struggle to justify the choice in terms of better career, more money, the fact that as a divorced father I don’t get to see my kids every night or simply the fact that this is the only life I have ever known. But the truth is if I have to stay in one place and live a ‘normal’ life I get bored rigid; so I keep traveling. What makes this all the more ironic is the fact that I suffer from motion sickness; I have barfed on boats and ships that were still tied to the dock; cars, coaches and buses on just about any kind of road and aeroplanes even before they doors have closed (though that may have had something to do with the vast amount of Guinness I had consumed the night before). And yet I still travel on the same flight every week.

You may think that I would be the only person on the plane making the journey on such a regular basis but there is probably somewhere between a dozen and twenty people all flying the same route and always the same flight-times. Over the weeks we start to recognise each other- not only the faces but the look on the faces. It is a world weary look, a look that has been through the check-in so many times, a look that knows exactly what to take out of a bag at security but mostly a look that simply wants to get onto the plane, open a book or close a pair of eyes and have the next few minutes of life pass as quickly and painlessly as possible. For those unable to sleep the look can be described as bored or possibly simply exhausted but it is a haunted look found on just about anyone who travels a lot, particularly those who travel for business.

My own personal routine, particularly on the 6am flight from Birmingham to Amsterdam involves a window seat, a sleep mask and a pair of Bose QuietComfort headphones (incidently I cannot rave highly enough about them- anyone who flies a lot, or even those who fly a little but like to hear the dialogue on an in-flight movie, should have something similar). On numerous occasions I have been able to fall asleep before we take off. Sure, I know I should listen to the safety announcement, but that means losing 10 minutes sleep and it is not as if there is going to be anything happen that I haven’t seen a hundred times before.

Except that every now and then some different does happen. And this is the point of this post: On my last flight of 2009 I was sat next to someone who so totally grasped life that it was just impossible, for me at least, not to get sucked into a wondrous experience for all of the 55 minutes of the flight from Amsterdam to Birmingham. Sure I tried to avoid getting involved- the Quiet Comfort headphones went straight onto my head and my laptop came out: I was going to inhabit my own world of peace and quiet and write a blog entry (the first part of this blog entry in fact). But then I allowed myself to open a little to the possibilities- for example it is just possible to gain a greater experience by interacting with people, rather than just writing about observing them. So I joined the conversation and the wonder began: we swapped silly stories and we laughed; we shared experiences and offered sympathy and understanding. I like to think that all three people sat in that row got off the plane with a slightly richer life. I know for sure that it is unusual to hear that amount of fun and laughter on a plane; we received several ‘looks’ from the passengers on the other side of the curtain in business class (to this day I do not know if the looks were of disapproval or envy, but I like to think the latter). And none of it would have happened had I remained closed to the possibility the world offers or if my fellow passengers had decided to just try to pass the time as painlessly as possible.

When I tell people about the journeys they I take they often look a little envious at a glamorous lifestyle of flying around the world, a notion I am often quick to dispels. The novelty and excitement of catching a flight soon pales; but it shouldn’t fade because even though it happens thousands of time every day the mechanical act of getting several hundred tonnes of twisted metal into the air is truly spectacular. Even more than that, and on a human level, if we are open to the wondrous possibilities out there, even if ‘out there’ is sat right next to us, then the world has the chance of being a brighter place, a better place, a place with more fun, laughter happiness and joy in it than we could ever have conceived.

And won’t it be a great thing if just a few more people open their ears, eyes and hearts as a new year beckons. There is beauty in the world. And fun and laughter. And sadness and sympathy. But it is the whole of the world that makes it the truly fantastic place it is: Sometimes we look around and become very complacent. We become inward looking. We lose the ability to grasp the world and see it for all that it is. Whatever the new year brings to you, I know that I will try to enjoy life more deeply and whatever  it brings. And all because of a chance meeting with a stranger on a plane.

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The meaning of ‘broadcaster’

I have commented before on the fact that I tend to prefer to receive my news and entertainment from publicly funded sources such as the BBC or CBC or PBS. I don’t believe that this is due to wanting to follow the official line but rather the fact that when I listen to the radio in particular, but also when I watch television I don’t always want to hear or see the familiar, expected or normal. Fortunately, there are presenters who epitomise these ideals, unfortunately, they appear to be getting rarer.

Two presenters in the UK who truly represented the ideal of a broadcaster were Humphrey Lyttleton and John Peel. I am expressing nothing new to anyone who listened to either of them to say that they were legends of their respective genres, bringing new music to at least 2 generations of people who would hide a radio under the bed sheets late at night and listen in to new and wonderful sounds.

Humph presented ‘The Best of Jazz’ for 40 years; each week his 1 hour show would introduce something new to even the most hardened jazz fan, whilst to me as the jazz neophyte it was all new. But the authority in his voice and the history of his playing meant that I wanted to listen and I wanted to like the music. Now, admittedly I didn’t like it all, but then that is the point of the broadcaster and it brings me neatly onto John Peel.

John Peel presented a show that towered over the independent music scene in the UK for three and a half decades. As he himself once put it “If there is an ‘up-and-coming band’ that I haven’t heard of; they aren’t”. He famously championed the Smiths, the Undertones and the Fall. But he also played a significant part in the development of the following:

  • Pink Floyd
  • David Bowie
  • Joy Division/ New Order
  • Billy Bragg
  • Blur

I could go on, but you get the idea- it is not a bad resume to have. The thing that staggers me is that not only was his influence immense, but the length of time he held it for was truly mind boggling. Especially when you listen to some of the, quite frankly, dross that he played. But the entire ethos of John Peel, and I like to thing of Humphrey Lyttleton too, was that presenters on a broadcaster should “not give people what they want but what they didn’t know they wanted”

And that to me is the beauty of radio and the ultimate downfall of the iPod. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am, unlike Alan Sugar, in no way saying that the iPod is dead or even likely to go away any time soon, in fact I have just seen a lovely little MP3 dream machine that I would love to find under a Christmas tree (preferably paired with a nice set of headphones too). But, here is the thing, unless I have been doing it very very wrong with my iPod you will never suddenly hear a track that you have never heard before, but that blows your mind, causes you sit down and just lose yourself in music for the first time. There are many songs that have the same effect even after repeated listenings (Johnny Cash singing ‘Hurt’ makes me cry every time I hear it on a decent stereo system), but I propose that there is still something just incredible about hearing a song for the first time.

Unfortunately, the majority of my praise for Humprey Lyttleton and John Peel is written in the past tense as they have both passed away. And in this era of fragmentation, market segmentation and focussing on the customer we are in danger of losing their like. There are radio stations and presenters who continue the tradition, and just as Humph and Peel were, they are shoe-horned into the late night slots, the out of the way schedule and the hard to listen to radio stations. But for people who like to hear something new, with absolutely no guarantee that they will like it, I suggest 6Music (available on digital radio in the UK and via the interweb throughout the world) and in particular Guy Garvey and Clare McDonnel or Alex Lester on Radio 2 (you might want to be a bit careful with the rest of Radio 2 though- it gets a bit cardigan cuddly middle of the road most of the time).

Reasons to live where we live

This is not a big post, nor is it particularly insightful. But as I receive the weather reports for Calgary (oh the joy of customising the feed of information into your own browser) I realise that I know what is the 3rd most important reason for not living in Calgary:

Calgary Weather Forecast

And people in England complain when the temperatue drops into single digits. Ha! They know nothing

Airbrush Outrage (again)

If you are going to make a point and convince people of the validity of it, then you need to be

  1. Correct
  2. Succinct
  3. Provide irrefutable evidence to backup your point

I learnt this when I was 17 and studying geography and admit that I need to remember #2 more frequently when I blog, but then I am not a professional writer with an editor to whip my words into shape. Unlike, say the Daily Mail. Which attempts to make the point that Jessica was airbrushed to look thinner on a calendar for Campari. And the evidence they provide is this photograph:

Jessica Alba before and after photo manipulation

Jessica Alba before and after photo manipulation

We can all agree that the image on the right is different from the one on the left is different, ergo it has been manipulated. Check for requirement #1. Also, presentation of the offending images is certainly the most effective way of explaining the problem. Check for requirement #2.

The problem with the Daily Mail’s outrage is that they have not presented evidence to justify their position. A brief look at the image on the right shows that it in no way resembles the  photo on the left, even a child can see the background is completely different. Furthermore, closer examination of Jessica Alba shows that this is almost certainly not the same before image used to create the after (her hair is different, her knees are in different positions, her head is held at a  different angle etc) So to agree with the Daily Mail we need to accept that the pool background can be changed and no-one should care, but because there is a person in the front it must be a truthful representation and we have to accept their (possibly flawed) evidence as proof.

Sorry, but the image on the right is art. Just as van Gogh, Picasso, Francis Bacon or Turner created images that were based on what they saw, so have Campari.In the case of the Jessica Alba she has provided the muse, the inspiration and the source material to create something that will adorn the walls of thousands of people. And Campari have even tried to head off the criticism by providing a behind the scenes look at the photo shoot– in fact, it looks as if the Daily Mail have taken one of the behind the scenes shots (i.e. not a photo taken by the photographer) and used that as the photo on the left. Now, if the behind the scenes photos have been retouched, then we have a problem. Otherwise, can’t we just look at Jessica Alba?

I have already commented on the practice of photo manipulation and wondered whether an image that is considered ‘photo realistic’ needs to resemble the source material and therefore convey the truth. For the record, I don’t think it does, but that is for a different discussion. My concern here is more that an established media outlet has expressed outrage, without presenting evidence for it. And, here comes the kicker in this connected age, other sites such as the Huffington Post and now Batblog itself are further perpetrating the distribution of the error. Hey, this is the way invasions can be justified…

What I use (3): Online sync and Backup

A while ago I wrote that I think that best way to access the right computing power at the right time is to have 3 different hardware solutions, I called them ‘Permanent Presence’ (a smart phone), Portable Solution (laptop) and Base Station (desktop/ server). At the time I noted that the downside to optimising the hardware solution is the need to synchronise information between the machines. Although there are various solutions for the large scale enterprise including Groove, I found that the solutions offered to a small business were clunky, slow and frequently simply failed to work.
The advantage that the large enterprises have, and probably the reason why the solutions work, is that someone has actually put some thought into designing an optimal solution. When you are not a storage/ backup professional the temptation is to just let a service provider sell you their latest toy and be happy with it. The problem with this is that you are no longer in control of meeting your requirements- you are reacting to someone else’s belief of what they think you need.
However, having someone do the thought for you is sometimes good and a couple of solutions have come along that allow the design of a fairly good solution. The tools are Dropbox and Mozy; both of which have been around a little while and both have won awards. So I am not some crazy evangelical here, and I am not even at the front of the wave; what I am proposing is that combining the best tools out their with some system design can yield an effective solution for virtually no cost.

So, as I was trying to come up with a better solution the first question that you need to ask is “What information do I need to keep synchronised between the machines and what information do I just need to copy to all my computers?” Examples of the first type of information include the documents you are working on, examples of the second time include photographs or MP3 files. Because what you actually need for photos is not a synchronisation service, and you don’t even want an interactive backup service- most times what you need is cold storage backup. These days even the most basic laptops often come with a DVD writer and the software to burn your photos to a DVD is almost ubiquitous. So burn away and make 2 copies of everything, then send one to some other location so that in the case of a real, biblical scale disaster (we are talking fire or flood here) you can get all your info back.
So, as we go through the files on your computer, the first thing we have done is determine that the vast majority of data (certainly for me) does not need to use a synchronisation service or an on-line backup. This is good because most times you will be charged by the Gigabyte, so saving all this space means that you are now most likely going to be under the free limit.

Next up, because it is the simplest to determine, is what needs to be synchronised. For me, where I work on a number of reasonably well defined projects, this is straight forward: Anything that is associated with a project that is ‘live’ needs to be synchronised. The net result of this is that, if like me, you file your documents according to the company you work at, then you finish up with a folder for the current work e.g. CompanyX 2008 and an archive folder CompanyX. When each project finishes, move the entire project folder into the archive (this approach works for e-mail too, but uses a different technology). So everything that is live gets stored under a special folder, cunningly called Dropbox. What Dropbox does is create a service on your machine(s) that monitors this folder and all subfolders under it; any change to any file is fairly rapidly copied to your private space (up to 1GB) on the Dropbox server. Yes, I know that this has potential privacy issues; so don’t put your medical records in your Dropbox. All your other machines are also monitoring the server (or do so as soon as they get switched on) and recognise that a change has been made and copy the relevant file(s) to their local Dropbox folder. As the blurb says on the web site “It just works” And that is the coolest thing about Dropbox- it just does it. No mess, no worries, it just gets on with ensuring that all the information you need is available on your local machine whether you are on-line or not. And it doesn’t matter if half your machines are Windows boxes and some are Mac’s- the files just magically appear.

You can achieve the same effect for e-mail by simply using IMAP instead of POP to collect your mail and then at a fixed moment, copying everything from the IMAP server to a local file and then manually copying the files to all relevant machines. This requires using the same mail client on all machines which is a bit of a blow if you have a Mac, but not everything is perfect.

Finally we come to the backup solution- now I know that some people like to backup their Program Files to recreate their machine in one go. Personally I think that there it is no bad thing to clear out the junk and garbage by going back to CD’s and reinstalling, so my backup is limited to the Dropbox (because if you do screw up, then you may still need to go back to yesterdays version) and the archive projects (because as a consultant, that archive is in fact your value to the next client). And once again, Mozy just seems to work. Obviously if you have a Mac you can use Timemachine to do this, but I don’t, so I can’t.

So, in summary:
Media: Burn DVD’s
Current documents: Sync through Dropbox, backup through Mozy
Archive documents: Backup through Mozy

I can’t say that I have had to use much of the Mozy functionality, but it does give me a warm fuzzy to know that I could.

A Child’s View

Sometimes we forget what the world looks like to other people.

Fortunately the ever simplification of taking photographs allows us to put a camera in the hands of quite small people and every now and then they are able to remind us in the most glorious, heart stopping way. Most of the pictures are not particularly composed well, but they are digital so it doesn’t cost anything and gives the little person a sense of pride and achievement. But every now and then this very innocence and different view of the worlds results in a picture that makes one stop and realise just how we take things for granted now that we are grown up.

I remember as a child having to stretch up to reach the light switch in my bedroom- that light switch is probably no higher than my navel, but at the time it was a great stretch. As my kids grow up I see the same behaviour: As winter has drawn in and it gets darker earlier in the evening so my 4 year old now needs someone to come upstairs with him. Not because he is scared but because he can’t reach the light switch.

The attached picture was taken by him with a Nikon D40 whilst we were on holiday. It may not be the best technical shot (everything was on automatic) and it may not be framed perfectly but it really made me stop and realise just how he sees me. Not as a regular sized person, but this strange, towering creature who reaches down to hold his hand.

I hope I can hold his hand for a long time to come. Even when I stop towering over him.

Quality shops, Discount shops and shoes

I want to watch something as the economy of the world heads into
complete meltdown. No, I don’t mean the sight of bankers being
evicted from their multi-million dollar homes (though that will raise
a wry smile); what I am curious to see is what sector of the economy
is able to ride the downturn out best: Will it be the ‘discount’
sector as more people look to save and are forced to shop for the
cheapest solution or will it be the ‘quality’ sector as people take a
long term view or simply wish to reward themselves with a little
luxury in these troubled times.

There are any number of economists who will have a point of view
on this question, but my inspiration for thinking upon the subject
was simply the act of putting on a pair of shoes. And no, I hadn’t
been eating too much strong cheese the night before, because as a
good friend of mine has said, there is no proof that strong cheese
results in odd dreams (and she should know, she does this sort of
thing for a living). These particular shoes are quite old and were
purchased when I was

  1. single
  2. working overseas (though I recognise that this does not
    narrow down the timeline)
  3. had a bit more money than sense

The shoes are made by Church & Son and are made with leather
uppers, leather soles and leather interiors. They took a long time to
properly break in (and I followed the instructions to only wear them
every other day so as not to damage the leather) but finally they
became a complete and total fit around my feet. I think that the
shoes are probably nearly 10 years old, maybe more and have seen
significant service throughout that time. Over the years they slowly
lost their shine and were replaced by less expensive shoes, but every
now and then I find the need to wear them again. And each time I do I
am astounded by just how much better they feel than any of my other
shoes.

So the question is whether or not sufficient people will pay the
rather large amount of money to support an out-and-out luxury store
like Church’s or will they ride out the downturn in their existing
shoes and buy whatever they need at Matalan/ Primark/ Winners.
Current evidence in the UK is that supermarkets with a ‘value’
approach (such as Aldi, Lidl or Morrison’s) are winning the battle
from the middle ground stores (such as Tesco) whilst the higher end
(such as Waitrose or Sainsbury) also seem to be riding it out. I
guess that there really is something to the old adage of doing
something different to stand out from the crowd- it doesn’t matter if
you are high end or low end, just don’t go for ‘normal’

And if ever there was a mantra to live your life to, then surely
that is one that I have followed. Whether I wanted to or not