Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Sleeplessness and shift work

Late shift today followed by a 9 AM start tomorrow, purely because the call centre closes at 5.30 on New Year's Eve. Which is a good thing, but getting home only to head back to work 11 hours later is something I've not done for a while. And, as I broke my bike chain heading into work today i shall be relying on public transport. Added to that, been awake since before 2 this morning, horrible night of insomnia. If only that guaranteed I would sleep tonight.

Moan, moan, moan.

Monday, 29 December 2014


Almost missed posting today.

Late shifts today and tomorrow, really does make my day feel like nothing but work. I keep meaning to rise early so I can get stuff done before heading in, but it's hard to get my head down too soon after getting home. I should get my arse in gear to look for another job; this one isn't terrible, but it doesn't have a lot in the way of job satisfaction and the shiftwork is starting to get to me. If I could get something 9-5, and/or something that I could get my teeth into - and that paid even close to what this does - I'd jump ship so fast. Or I could knuckle down and write. Even if that doesn't pay it would give me some sort of satisfaction, and I know I used to be able to write, at least to write half decent prose, but feeling that I have something worth saying is another matter.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Dinner and a movie

My usual Sunday evening is going to my dad's, making tea (this evening being chicken breasts in a honey & mustard glaze with creamy leek and mushroom tagliatelle. That's right; all this and I cook, too. Sorry, ladies, I'm spoken for). This is also usually followed by a movie, a DVD I've taken over that I think my dad and Margaret should enjoy. Yes, I do look upon this partly as an educational endeavor, introducing them to good films they probably wouldn't seek out of their own accord and, I confess, success has been mixed. They loved Stranger Than Fiction and Little Miss Sunshine, were bored by The Royal Tenenbaums and confused by The Prestige. I think I'll hold off on Adaptation, Rashomon and Pan's Labyrinth.

Tonight we had a selection but went for Life of Pi, a film I saw at the cinema and loved. I know a lot of religious people came out of it and loved it because it "affirmed the importance of faith" and I know some atheists who hated it because they saw a new-agey, there-are-many-paths-to-god message. I think that both are wrong, although I guess also kind of right.

Firstly, I love this movie because of the quality of the film-making; as well as the visuals, which are utterly stunning, the pacing and storytelling are superb. I think this is a masterclass in film making. But I also love the story. Let me get this straight; I am a hard-line atheist, often anti-theist - I believe that the denial of critical thinking and reliance on moral authority that religion often teaches is a terrible burden on humanity. I think there is a clear correlation; that it is perfectly clear that parts of the world that are more in thrall to this sort of belief are less humans and civilised and those that have shaken it off more so. So, no bush-beating here.

And there is undoubtedly a religious message in this film, and the Yann Martell book upon which it is based (I had read the book before seeing the movie - yay for me - so it is possible that I see more layers than the more visual art form allows, although I think Ang Lee and scriptwriter David Magee do a superb job of conveying these). But I do think many people miss a subtlety which, frankly, isn't all that subtle. At the end, after the story of survival, all those weeks at see in a small lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, when asked if this is true, Pi gives another possibility. Perhaps it is all a metaphor. Perhaps the hyena was the vile ships cook and the zebra the Buddhist sailor and the orangutan his mother - and he was the tiger. The the cook allowed the sailor to die and used his flesh for bait to catch fish - maybe even ate some of it - and in an argument killed Pi's mother. And that Pi, the tiger, killed him. That the story the film has told us in those spectacular visuals is a metaphor that Pi has created to allow himself to survive, to live with the events. And when it is put to him bluntly, "But which is true?" Pi answers: "which story do you prefer?"

And this isn't a cop out. Pi's early life of absorbing the ideas of Hinduism and Christianity and Islam, following all of them equally, fits this perfectly. On one level it is saying that there is truth and there is a good story and that, all being equal, sometimes it is fine to go with the good story. But rather than be a pure expression of faith this leaves multiple interpretations. Pi, as the narrator who has laid this tale before us, is fully aware of the disconnect between that which is factual and those stories we tell ourselves to get by. Sometimes it may be better to accept the internally consistent tale that makes us feel better but is just a pretty story. This is by no means a clear-cut, comfortable ending from any viewpoint, and leaves me, at least, pondering how we construct the reality that we live through.

The fact that the film - and the book - can be interpreted in multiple ways, has multiple readings, for me simply reinforces how excellent it is.

Not going to hit the 1000

I've been recording my runs on a website called bugmiles.com (along with several others; my recently found fitness fanaticism melding with my geeky urge to measure and record). I'm approaching the arbitrary milestone (as it were) of 1000 miles recorded - I started on the website at the end of April, I think, but included runs going back to the Sheffield Half Marathon earlier that month.. I'd set myself the challenge of reaching the 1000 by years end, but the snow may have scuppered that; I don't min at all running in the cold, but the pavements are treacherous with packed, frozen snow and ice and I think running on that would be foolish. Of course, i might have to go out anyway. Perhaps I ought to join the gym again.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

It was going so well

Today wasn't what it was meant to be. The plan was to spend the day with Becky. I haven't seen nearly enough of her recently, partly due to my awkward shift pattern at work. Tough over the Christmas period. And her being married doesn't help.

Today we had planned to meet up quite early, spend the day together and then take my son out for a meal this evening. The heavy snow that hit last night put the kibosh on that, though; while the tram is running fine it doesn't go anywhere near her and the buses seem to have been cancelled, on top of which she is quite timid about getting stuck out. So I hiked up to hers and we went for a lunch at a local pub instead. Had a lovely afternoon, but toward the end she started getting a bit upset. She asked me to go home with her, for a drink with her and her husband and I said I would if she wanted. He knows and has asked her to invite me over before, but I've quailed at the potential awkwardness. Or I'm a coward, one or the other.

But at her door Becky said, No, it's okay, you get home, it's not a good idea. I said I'd come in if she wanted but maybe didn't press hard enough. So twenty minutes walk down the snowy road she sends me a text saying she feels she's been abandoned. I try to call but she doesn't keep her phone on her. I text saying I'm heading back, and I start back up the steep, snowy hill, trying to call again and again. No answer by the time I get to the end of her road. I don't want to barge in but how can I take her saying I've abandoned her a walk away? So I call the housephone and he answers. Can I speak to Becky. She seems shocked I've called. It's alright. Yes. Everything's OK. Hangs up.

So I walk home. Already tipsy from the wine we'd had at the pub I think I need to drink more. Four hours later and not heard a peep. I've texted, asked if everything is OK. I hate this.

26/12/2014: A run in the snow

Just back for a run in the heavy snow that has been predicted. It was just starting as a left, big wet flakes swirling down through the cones of visibility under the streetlights. By the time I’d gone the half kilometre to the park I was wishing I’d worn my hat and gloves, and I could feel the snow settling against the front of my hi-viz jacket. But it was beautiful, especially in the park and when I got to the back roads, with streetlamps further apart and less ambient light, the flakes drifting and fluttering down, their shadows chaotic against the settling whiteness.

By the time I was on Beeley Woods Road the ground was almost completely covered but for some black voids beneath overhanging branches. Looking back I could see my tracks, alone as Crusoe’s on the beach. By now the exertion and pumping blood had made my extremities warm again, and I felt like I was in a silent cocoon formed by the falling snow.

A new start

I've been meaning to revive my blog for a while, and have made a couple of half-arsed attempts, but have decided to go down the route of making it a proper journal - that is, writing every day, even if it is only dull, pedestrian and, well, everyday stuff.

This is partly inspired by something Iszi Lawrence said on her latest Z List Dead List podcast - or, rather, something said by her guest, Irving Finkel, a man who has made it his mission to catalogue people's diaries as a resource for future generations. While I very much doubt anything I say will be a resource for anybody, I was very much taken with what Finkel pointed out as the vital difference between a diary and a blog; that the latter is, except in the case of certain statesmen, never intended for public consumption while that is the whole point of the latter. So I intend to write something every day, without concern that what I write has interest to anyone else, and I shall try to be as honest as possible. And, hopefully, the act of writing will re-engage that part of my brain that used to make me able to write, at last a little bit.

Here goes.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Review: The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Taleb's book pursues several central ideas that seem fairly commonsensical. The major theme is about the titular Black Swans - events that are ignored by forecasters (be they financial, social, or whatever) because they are either considered too unlikely to be worth taking into account or are not even noticed due to the narrow focus or inadequate models being used. Taleb points out that, rather than being the effect of gradual change, many of the most important changes to our world, for better or worse, are massive upheavals caused by unpredicted events. Financial crises, inventions, wars; so often these things are unpredicted and seem unpredictable, and cause fundamental transformation.

Taleb doesn't advance a model for predicting these things - indeed, part of his thesis is that the fervour for prediction tends to lead to a narrowing of foresight and the expression of false certainty, making the effect of the subsequent (and inevitable) unforeseen events all the more cataclysmic. Instead, he argues for a mindset that is open to seeing the possibilities rather than focusing on certain expectations.

Some of the blame for this outlook he places on the ubiquity of the Gaussian bell curve, or normal distribution, which is excellent for ranking the spread of certain characteristics (height and weight across a population, for example, where the vast majority will fall within a narrow band of the mean and outliers becoming increasingly rare - you probably know lots of people who are six feet tall, a few who are 6'4", and would be dumbstruck on meeting someone 8'), inadequate in areas with a massive disparity (income, book or record sales) and disastrous when used as a predictor - something unlikely can have a far larger effect than all the many median-scale common occurrences, such as a tsunami or a financial meltdown.

The author uses the terms Mediocristan (the place in which events follow the normal distribution) and Extremistan (the place where a significant number of events fall outside of it) and argues that we live with the dual problem that, while many of the vital mechanisms of our world are extreme we tend toward a certain blindness that leads us to think they are mediocre, that we like to form patterns and narratives that seem to make sense of the world and are then unable to respond when the world refuses to fit into these patterns.

While I find this difficult to dispute - especially within the utterly pretend-scientific world of economics which is the target of much of Taleb's vitriol - he tends to argue in terms so broad that this does somewhat dilute the strength of his points. For instance, he rails against the bell curve as a blemish on cognition, eventually conceding that it is just not the tool for the job to which it is being put, and this is emblematic of his approach.

Another example is his preference for the company of people with a broad intellectual scope rather than narrow expertise, and his extension to arguing that the former are generally preferable in all fields. Again, this is difficult to argue with on the face of things - many intellectuals whom I admire greatly have argued against the tendency of our educational system to train students in a limited fashion rather than educate them thoroughly - but the fact is that many of the most brilliant people who have provided the greatest boon to society are narrowly focused experts - not through training, perhaps, but because of targeted obsession in a particular field. If Taleb is arguing for a greater scope of education and interdisciplinary appreciation, I don’t think the point can be denied but, again, his argument is scattershot and it is not entirely clear what he is arguing for.

A final problem is that, early on, Taleb betrays our trust. He tells the story of a Russian author who, unable to get publishers interested in her experimental novel, published privately and became a huge success. Some time later he admits that she is a complete fabrication - and then returns to her in other examples throughout the book. I assume that he is drawing attention to the fallacy of narrative, about which he complains that we place too much trust. We are, as others have said, animals that tell stories to make sense of the world. This meta-textual trick of course makes us take what he writes with a pinch of salt, as we should, but as he uses personal anecdotes frequently throughout to support his points, the thought that he may well be making them all up further weaken his case.

All this said, The Black Swan is an interesting read from a man who obviously has some good ideas and relishes intellect and discussion. I imagine that he is a voluble and entertaining speaker - and probably an excellent conversationalist and dinner guest.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

When a cancelled run isn't cancelled. Or is it?

A bit of a shambles at the Sheffield half marathon today. Apparently it was cancelled as the company supplying the water stations, well, just didn't. The problem was , the only tannoy system was in the Don Valley Bowl by the finish line, and the starting pack was on Attercliffe common and Coleridge Road, so couldn't hear the bloody announcements. And, apparently, nobody had a bullhorn.

It was obvious there was a problem because of the the delay, but then when it got to 9.50 (fifty minutes late) the run seemed to start. I thought there was a distinct lack of water stations on the early part of the route, but there was bottled water by the time we were getting toward town. Going up through Sharrow and, especially, on Ecclesall Road, I did note how many of the spectators were passing out water or jelly babies, but just thought they were being randomly awesome rather than specifically awesome. Everyone who made the effort to do that is an absolute star. Plaudits also to the Frog and Parrot pub on Division Street and the Costa Coffee in Attercliffe which set up their own water stations.

For the run itself, many good things:

I survived it;
I ran the whole damned thing without stopping or walking, although the last two- or three km were hit n miss;
I finished in 1:53:34 which, considering I'm a 43 year old bloke and this is the FIRST TIME I'VE EVER RUN THAT FAR I feel quite pleased with.

Same again in Leeds in five weeks. Well, hopefully better organised.

I have just eaten a moderately sized pizza so now I am going to hose myself down and recline for awhile.