Descending Beinn Alligin, Torridon, 2013

Try not to be amazed, confused and maybe a bit tearful, when you read my plans for 2014

My first plan for 2014 is not to use upworthy-style headlines to drive people to my blog again, but since you’re here, why not take a glance?

Over the past few years, I’ve tried to make plans for the upcoming year.

Read over some of my plans for the coming year from 2013201220102009 – all guaranteed to make me cringe, and you giggle.

For 2014, there are various things I’d like to do: (in no order)

  • Pass my driving test and take lots of post-test tuition.

    • I don’t need or want a car in central Manchester, but I would like to be able to drive/hire cars for long trips.
    • I’ve taken about 30 hours of tuition in central Manchester in 2013, but haven’t sat my practical test yet.
    • I’m not really interested in it for the ‘reduced’ insurance premiums, and I think I’ll find motorways relatively similar to motorway-style dual carriageways.
    • My aims are to:
      • be a safe driver by having experience evaluating the complex and worst case road scenarios and thinking through the best course of action.
      • be able to park and manoeuvre with impressive precision.
      • get experience driving different vehicles (small vans, automatics, non-power steering, 4×4, trailers etc.)
      • get experience with less-than-optimal road conditions (snow, single-track, rain, night, steep hills etc)
    • I’ve booked my practical test in early February, so I’ll prepare for that, and we’ll take it from there.
  • Learn a new sport (or several)

    • This year I’ve learnt to climb. I wouldn’t say I’m very good, but I know enough basics to pass them on to other people.
    • Often people pose the question, “what would you do if money was no object?”. Well, I’d learn a new, exciting adventure sport (or maybe several). So that’s what I’m going to try and do.
    • I’m quite interested (at some point) in learning to:
      • snowboard
      • hangglide/paraglide
      • pilot/glide
      • jetski (without being a dick)
      • windsurf
      • surf
      • kayak (whitewater and/or sea)
      • ski (cross country and/or downhill)
    • Other stuff that is on the list but isn’t really as appealing:
      • skydiving
      • caving
      • horse-riding
    • For the moment, I’m learning to snowboarding at chillfactore in Manchester, and we’ll take it from there.
  • There are several skills I’d like to develop:

    Climbing indoors in Manchester
    Climbing indoors in Manchester
    • Photography:

      • I’m really pleased with what I’ve done in 2013, it’s been a big step up from 2012
      • I’ve started combining it with climbing, and I want to do more climbing/mountaineering photography
      • I’m hoping this year that perhaps I can take more landscape/action sports photos with people in shot.
      • I want to be better at framing and composition – specifically I want to break ‘the rules’ more – things like:
        • overexposing the sky on purpose
        • chopping off the top of peoples heads (just on photographs though!)
        • shooting greyscale
    • Climbing:

      • I’m really pleased how can far I’ve come since I started in March:
        • Indoors: I’ve led some 5+’s. I can currently top-rope some 6a’s.
        • Outdoors, I’ve done various little bits, but most significantly I’ve seconded a trad HS route.
      • This year, I’d like to:
        • Develop my stamina on overhangs (which are often within reach in terms of difficulty, but are too tiring).
        • Do more outside:
          • second more easy trad routes.
          • setting up some top ropes on easy climbs/grade 2/3 scrambles, to make fun scrambles better protected.
        • Improve my knowledge of different roping techniques, such as:
          • what to do if you drop your belay device
          • how to get down from high places
          • how to place simple gear on easy trad routes
          • how to setup a belay
          • do more multi-pitch trad routes
          • gain knowledge in snow related ropework and belays
    • Descending Beinn Alligin, Torridon, 2013
      Descending Beinn Alligin, Torridon, 2013
    • Mountaineering/Hiking/Walking

      • I’ve done a lot in 2013:
        • Snow camping on Pennines, camping to Langdale, winter mountaineering in Torridon, backpacking in the Mammores, exploration/backpacking in Kyrgyzstan
        • Assorted day hikes
      • Whilst I’ve done some impressive things in 2013, I feel I got out less frequently in 2013 than I did in 2012. I’d like to spend more days on the mountains in 2014
      • I’d like to improve my micro-navigation skills.
      • I’d like to do more things in snow.
        • In Jan/Feb/March, I’m planning to do several days winter backpacking fun, possibly in Scotland.
      • I’m going back to Skye around Easter and am on standby to decamp into a tent in the Peak District at the first sign of a snowy weekend.
    • Public speaking

      Speaking at FLOSSK13 in Pristina, Kosovo
      Speaking at FLOSSK13 in Pristina, Kosovo
      • I’ve done various bits of public speaking in the past, this year I even ‘keynoted’ at the FLOSSK13 conference in Pristina,
      • I think I have what it takes to be quite good at public speaking – confidence, interesting anecdotes, and the patience to try and breakdown high level concepts into things other people can understand, all wrapped up in a compelling narrative.
      • I’d like to do more public speaking events, of all sizes, and I need to establish a way of doing that, and find a style and set of topics I’m comfortable with. I’m considering joining Toastmasters.
    • Systems Engineering

      • I quite enjoy making systems do things. In the past when I’ve been on holiday, after several days I’ve found myself designing scalable live video streaming platforms in my head.
      • In the past I’ve blogged about systems a bit, but I’d like to investigate and play with more tools and test them different situations.
      • In particularly, I’d like to become more familiar with Varnish-ESI, which is currently powering this blogs Recently Added Articles box (though not in a very effective way) and discover and play with more server tools like that, which can do exciting things.
      • I’d like to play with Varnish-ESI, Icinga,
    • Personalised mug at Barcamp Blackpool 2013
      Personalised mug at Barcamp Blackpool 2013

      Marketing

        • In 2013, I’ve spent a good deal of my time thinking about marketing, promotional and communication questions – from reading a book on crisis PR and blogging about epic customer service, to visiting 20+ conferences for work and getting personalised mugs into the hands of thousands of people.
      • In 2014, I’d like to:
        • improve my analytical skills in rapidly prototyping and iterating campaigns and pulling conclusions from from them.
        • find better ways to understand of the potential customers, so as to tailor things to them as best possible.
        • improve at identifying areas where the users see the most pain. and then optimising those processes to reduce wasted unnecessary steps (essentially applying the Toyota Way to web-service end users).
        • understanding and using ‘clever’ and perhaps underused strategies to create self-amplifying campaigns.
        • improve my understanding or how good and bad PR works, in industries I’m unfamiliar with.
    • Programming

      I'd like to learn to understand programming better
      I’d like to learn to understand programming better
      • I can write basic bash scripts, and in the past I’ve written trivial programs in PHP, C++ & Javascript.
      • For a long time, I’ve largely been only able to read/hack around with high level programming environments. Obviously this has lots of benefits and can get you a long way, but even a small, self-written bit of code added to an existing codebase which does something I need, would be a massive step forward.
      • My ambition here isn’t really to become a good programmer, but simply be more literate, and able to use tools better to get things done.
      • I’d like to
        • Meticulously go back through a basics book for a common programming language to make sure I understand the concepts that frequently occur correctly.
        • Make sure I under some basics in procedural programming.
        • Learn to use these limited skills to manipulate a library/existing codebase that does stuff I want.
        • Have a look round and see where I want to get to next.
  • Lose weight

    • At the start of January 2013, I weighed 11 & 1/2 stone. I currently weigh 13 & 1/2 stone.
    • Losing weight makes Mountaineering easier (less weight on knees), it makes climbing easier (less weight on arms) and whilst it doesn’t make photography easier, it would leave more room for weighty camera gear!
    • I have enacted low carb diet, round two.
    • In 2014, I’d like to reach and maintain 11 stone, and then develop a sustainable lifestyle around that weight band.
  • Blog More

    • It’s super embarrassing that there are 3 months in this year where I didn’t publish a single blog post.
    • I don’t expect anyone reading to find it embarrassing, but I do – I enjoying writing blog posts. It’s challenging, and often very fulfilling to get my thoughts into a coherent shape..
    • I’d like to do a month of blogging again, but I don’t feel that frenetic “months of blogging”, with large gaps in between them, is the way it has to be.
  • Read more.

    • I grew up without a TV and when I was a child, before I had a computer, I ingested most knowledge through books. Then dialup came along, and suddenly, everything was a short-form article or video consumed  through a screen of distractions.
    • I am resistant to DRM-encumbered ebook platforms, but I enjoy dead-tree-style reading materials and have a great deal of books I’d like to read.
    • In 2014, I’d be very happy if I got through 24 decent length books from my “unread” shelf. I think its ambitious, but not unrealistic.

      Smoke and Lasers!
      Smoke and Lasers!
  • Socialise more.

    • Over the past year, I’d say I’ve done quite well at channeling and training introverted & extroverted sides for different tasks. I love my solitude, but I also enjoy catching up with friends.
    • Last autumn/winter, I held two ‘epic parties’, that were great, but on reflection aren’t going to be repeated. (Too large, too inpersonal, too disparate).
    • This year, I think I’ll try and arrange several gatherings, that are smaller in size, but more focused and perhaps easier to enjoy.
    • I’d like to try to perhaps aim to spend at least one day a week socialising with people who I don’t see every week – which is a great excuse to make contact with old friends.
  • Travel as much as is appropriate

    • I don’t have any particularly noteworthy travel plans, nor do I have particularly strong urges to go anywhere right now.
    • Most plans, I have tend to be semi-spontaneous, or preplanned and then rapidly executed when the occasion arrives.
    • On balance, I probably prefer solo-travel due to reduced communication requirements, and not feeling responsible for others’ welfare.

      Me and my fixer Jules in Kyrgyzstan
      Me and my fixer Jules in Kyrgyzstan
    • My current travel interests
      • Currently I’m interested in (historically) Russian/Soviet influenced areas (particularly Baltic states, Eastern areas of Europe and Central Asia), the Middle East and Northern Africa.
      • I have a personal preference to climates that don’t stray far outside ~-10C -> ~25C whilst I’m there.
      • I’m not a fan of painful insects (mosquitoes, midges, etc), parasites, viruses or large omnivorous animals (bears).
      • I prefer countryside to cities, cold to heat, cheap to expensive, obscure to well-touristed, quiet to busy, self-planned to chaparoned.
      • Selfishly, I prefer countries where a significant proportion of the population’s first or second language is English, Russian, French or Swedish.
    • I’d like to do more travel on a bike in 2014. I don’t really have an ideal bike for this, not that it’s stopped me before.
    • The chances are 2014 offers a few scenic tours of the UK, perhaps with one trip somewhere cool abroad, but if the opportunity presents itself, you’ll just see a blur as I grab my stuff and go!

And that’s it! I think that’s all my current plans and aspirations for 2014. What do you think?

Do you think I should be focusing on something I’m not?

Explain in the comments! :)

How do you explain a blog post, as a medium, to someone who doesn’t immediately understand what it is?

I remember, when I was younger, my Grandfather telling me I should write something every day.

“Ho ho”, thought I, “Why would one ever want to do that?”

Well come 2012, since I managed to seprate handwriting from writing, I do want to do that, but considering my Grandfather is, quite understandably (and sensibly) not on the internet, I started to consider the idea of transferring some of my internet based written work to paper.

That’s when the fun started.

And how, to someone of a different generation, does one explain what a blog post is, and the etiquette surrounding them.

Wiktionary sums it up rather well:

Blog (Noun): A website that allows users to reflect, share opinions, and discuss various topics in the form of an online journal while readers may comment on posts. Most blogs are written in a slightly informal tone (personal journals, news, businesses, etc.) Entries typically appear in reverse chronological order.

Or simply:

A blog is a personal website that is used as an online journal (short for weblog).

But those definitions are largely still unhelpful to a non-techical person – to a layperson would you describe (this blog at least!) as something a bit like your own “letters to the editor page” but with a more informal tone?

But it goes further than that, you see, sure, I can print out a blog post, no problem. I can bind it into a pretty book, I can do lots of things. That’s all very easy.

But I can’t embed a video, I can’t use hyperlinks to reference the news article I’m talking about, or a wikipedia article or a song. Making a blog post into a self-contained article with footnote references and enough context in the article for it to make sense? That’s not quite what I was hoping for.

And what about my video blogs – transferring them to the TV screen, technologically, would be just one step – but how do you explain the difference in the medium? A video blog isn’t a movie, it’s not a bit of TV, it’s not formal, it’s not documentary, it’s not scripted and it’s barely edited – how can you even begin to put that in context?

Now of course, to put it back into perspective, I’m not naive enough to assume that it’s so hard to grasp the idea of my blog content in context, but considering how to transfer things to older forms of media did make me realise their limitations, especially in the context of things I currently take for granted – like hyperlinks!

Cooling Towers at sunset
Cooling Towers at sunset

A Blog Post A Day: Looking Back

31 days ago, I set out to write a blog post for every day in November.

The low points:

  • Posting various relatively poorly formatted, rushed or somewhat rambling posts that are probably below par.
  • Rushing to midnight deadlines
  • Desparately trying to push posts online at 11:50pm via GSM on a train!

The high points:

  • Completing various blog posts I’ve wanted to write for a long time. In particularly, I’m pleased to have posted:
  1. War. Peace. Who remembers them?
  2. How I sneaked into the tech industry without a degree and got my first job.
  3. Death: a free trial, but no one cancels.
  4. Why am I vegetarian? A two decade retrospective.

It’s interesting to note that mostly, those are quite personal articles – perhaps I’ve just not had the nerve to post them previously?

  • It was fun

It was actually a lot more fun than I feared it might be. Compared to February where I largely tried to post things, not necessarily write things, I feel that even the blog post with the least amount of writing is worthy. I was very tempted to do some posts with just photos, but I never could justify it given my stack of half-finished posts.

I actually surprised myself with how much fun I was having – I found it a lot more rewarding than I’d expected!

Moving on: November in Soho
Moving on: November in Soho

One of original missions was to reduce the number of part written blog posts in my drafts box. I binned a number, I completed a number, and as I wrote, I came up with more ideas, though I currently have a relatively modest 44 draft articles still to be completed and posted!

I’m hoping that I’ll continue to blog my way through much of December (as long as I have stuff I want to write!), but now my primary focus will be on another challenging project:

Can I make a short video clip every week for a month?

I’m Tim and I suck at handwriting

When people see my handwriting, they sometimes joke,

“oh so that’s why you work with computers

but reflecting on it, that probably does relate to it in some way.

Throughout my school life, I sucked at handwriting.

My wonderful handwriting...
My wonderful handwriting...

I mean really sucked. I was slow, it was scruffy, and generally larger than that of my peers. I resented it and generally disliked everything about it – being told  I had to do a long bit of writing was awful.

In primary school, I learnt that every teacher would have a go at “getting me to improve my handwriting” but it wasn’t as simple as that for me. Whenever I switched teacher, I chose not to use my ‘best’ handwriting straight away, so that the new teacher would notice a vague improvement over time. Occasionally teachers would say “oh feel free to spend longer, writing it slowly”, but why would I want to write something really boring, much more slowly, for a mediocre boost in legibility, with a very small amount of recognition for the time and effort involved, especially when, heck, almost anything is more exciting that writing!

In secondary school, I made various academic choices based on the fact that some subjects (*ahem* history), appeared to be more about how fast you could write rather than what you knew – whilst I got some support in terms of extra time – essentially handwriting was still an unwanted exercise. I made various sets of revision notes in various classes, but I was much better at remembering stuff, and quickly reading through a text book than bothering to understand what I’d appeased a teacher with several months back.

How evaporation in lagoons works
How evaporation in lagoons works

Midway through secondary school, I started word processed as many pieces of homework as I could get away with. Some teachers had the idea that rewriting an A4 sheet to make a small correction wasn’t a big deal. For me, it was a big deal. All my GCSE coursework that possibly could be, was word processed or drawn electronically, so that corrections didn’t require painful amounts of work.

By college, I used my own laptop in almost every lesson that involved any potential handwriting, though I remember that I continued to use handwrite some of my french classes, simply because I couldn’t be bothered to learn the codes for the accented letters. There were however, some incredibly technologically inefficient days when I spent the lesson (*ahem* geology) copying what the teacher had written in the presentation displayed on the projector, down into a word processing document on my laptop.

Whilst, my distaste for handwriting certainly didn’t seal my envelope for the technology industry, it must have had a knock on effect – the fact I was spending more time attached to a computer meant that technology related things were more appealing, more accessible, and actually somewhat important for my school work. The incentive to investigate and evaluate any tool that could make my work at school any easier (combined with the fact that evaluating a bit of software is more interesting than writing actual physics coursework methodology) meant that I familiarised myself quite well lots of different bits of software, as time moved on, increasingly on linux systems..

Since leaving the formal educational system, I could probably count the times my handwriting skills have been put into use on both hands.

For note taking, I vastly prefer my memory, recordings, or keyboard interfaces, and the only times I can imagine I’ve had to use hand writing is on official forms of various sorts.

On the flip side however, I write more than I ever have – a large proportion of my job involves writing to customers, I’ve written many many words on this blog for fun – what a strange concept!

I think once I was able to separate writing from making figures with a pen, and once I was able to separate, writing about things I didn’t really care about, to writing about things I did care about, I was able to actually get to grips with it.

The  idea that I’d have a log where I wrote stuff everyday – would have – at one point in time, not all that long ago, seemed like the least appealing idea ever – but I’m now 11 days through my plan to blog every day this month!

Why do I bother writing this blog anyway? I mean who even reads it?

As Clifford Stoll says in his very clever TED talk:

“The first time you do something, it’s science.

The second time, it’s engineering.

The third time, it’s just being a technician.

I’m a scientist.

Once I do something, I want to do something else.”

As I’m not an academic, I’m not a “scientist” per se, but I do share his desire to constantly do new things – let me explain:

Not long ago, I was talking to someone and they mentioned they read my blog. Suddenly I was really nervous and wasn’t sure why, and it made me re-evaluate why I write this here.

As it turns out, I hate repeating myself – repeating stories, repeating thoughts, repeating anecdotes. No matter how exciting it was the first time, by the second or third time it’s lost it’s sheen to me and I’d prefer to do or talk about something different. Obviously though, I do some pretty exciting stuff, go to some unusual places, occasionally think up something vaguely interesting but if I simply told people about it, I’d get bored almost straight away.

And that’s why the blog’s here. If I write things down almost straight away, or somehow put them up as a permanent record, then I can repeat them to people, as if they were fresh in my mind, without having to actually go over it again.

So I shouldn’t be nervous you’re reading my blog – it’s not like there’s anything self-incriminating here (except this I guess), and by reading this blog post, I now never have to explain to you why I get bored of repeating things out loud! :)

Thanks for reading! :P

Here’s a challenge…

On the 1st of March, I will start my fifth year of blogging. It’s had various incarnations over the years and I did have a website before that, but I thought this not-very-impressive birthday deserved a bit of a celebration.

“Well Tim”, you smugly point out, “shouldn’t your Happy-Birthday-To-Me post be on the first of March, not sometime in, what is this, January?!”

I thought, possibly, just possibly, I could be more interesting than a self-congratulatory post on a predictable date.

Therefore, I want to post a blog post, everyday, for the month of February. What’s more, I want to challenge my friends, my colleagues … neighbours … pets etc to join me.

Rules:

  • Your blog must be public
  • Virals/Images/Videos posts are allowed, but only if you comment somehow on the content.
  • 1 post per day, for 28 days of February, by the same person

Questions:

Q: Why?

A: Why not? Being able to write coherently, repeatedly is a valuable skill. Doing it on your own can be boring/lonely. Knowing other people are also having to rush for the 23:59 deadline is somewhat warming.

Q: Your blog posts are already boring? Why do you want to write more?

A: I’m glad you want to find out more. Click here.