Saturday, 10 December 2011

On stretching my comfort zone

My new job is going well.  It took about 2 months, but my Director did find something to stretch my comfort zone last month, which he jokingly referred to as a “poisoned chalice”.  Based on how well I handled that, he took me for coffee earlier this week and outlined “Project Poisoned Chalice II”, which is the sort of project I was expecting after a couple of years with the company, not a couple of months! While initially somewhat thrown by it, a couple of days on, I’m feeling quite excited by the whole thing.

Firstly, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.”  I’m choosing to believe that I can do this.  Therefore, whether it’s possible or not is no longer in doubt, and the question becomes “How do I do that?”.  And figuring that out is one area in which I excel!  I can see the broad outline – I know what I’m trying to build – so everything from here on is figuring out what materials and tools I need, and how to combine them.  Logistics and creativity and logical steps are my bread-and-butter.  Sure, I’m going to need to learn how to use some new tools, and I’ll probably have to figure out how the claw side of a hammerhead works as well as the hammer side,  but there’s manuals for that.  To whit, I have just bought a couple of books related to the work I’m now supposed to be doing, and just need to find the time to gut them for info.

Using another conceptualisation, I can liken this to the Obeng project type “Going on a Quest” where what is to be done is clear, but how it is to be done is not, and the “business” is trying to do something it hasn’t done before.  Given the content of this particular project, I’d like to see it move within a couple of cycles into “Painting by Numbers”.  What’s we’re doing is new to us, but not novel in the wider world.  This, of course, makes it easier because there are techniques and pitfalls and the like documented...somewhere.  (The projects that spin off this one, however, will fall into any or all of the project types, and will need handling appropriately.  So the one I’m currently focussing on is a meta-project, if you will, which will define the actual projects to be done to impact our bottom line.)  Oooh! Metaphor alert!  We are indeed Questing at this stage, but not for the answers.  We’re Questing for the right set of tools and techniques for this company in this situation to enable us to produce The Plan.  And once we have the answers, we can see the spin-off/subsidiary projects, and can tackle them by whatever means are necessary.

Since my best workshops are those with an extended metaphor to make them somewhat more fun than your average Corporate Re-Engineering Day, in my head this combines with my Dungeons & Dragons hobby to become:
Phase I – map the dungeon we’re in, recruit allies/party members, find where the treasure is and slay any monsters between us and the goodies (do research! of everything! find mentors!)
Phase II – identify the treasure (Magic item? Non-magical weapon? Vorpal sword? Healing potion? etc) and figure out what’s useful in this context right now, what should be stored for the future, and what can be discarded
Phase III – Use the treasure to escape from the dungeon (aka complete Poisoned Chalice II by finishing the meta-project)
On-going maintenance – every 6-12 months do another dungeon sweep to update the meta-project and see if there’s anything else to be learned or slain that’s popped up while we weren’t looking.

Phases I and II are my research and prep stages, while Phase III is the most visible aspect of the project to everyone else.  Of course, I may need to make this somewhat that less geeky before using it in my office...

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Dissertation research, twenty-first century style

One of the two main draws for doing an MSc was the opportunity to do an extended research project.  My program requires a 10,000 word dissertation on an original historical topic and I've picked the UK government's response to Israel's 1980 de jure annexation of East Jerusalem contrary to all international law, and formalising a state of affairs that had existed de facto since the end of the Six Day War in 1967.  My research centres around British government documents from the time at the National Archives, and contemporary broadsheet and academic journal writing.  The biggest problem I seem to be facing is how to organise that much information, but the lovely folk at Sciplore have written a tutorial on how to use open source software to manage not only your references but your notes and structure as well.

So my workflow looks like this:
  • Track possible sources in Open Office spreadsheet
  • For every source I make notes on, create an Open Office document with one page per page reference from the original source.  So if I'm taking notes on pages 5, 90-100 and 253 I will have three pages in my Open Office document.  Save this as an OO file, then export it to PDF (in a different folder).
  • Open the PDF in Foxit Reader and add a bookmark with a meaningful name to every page of the PDF (which is why different pages for different page references mattered in the last step).
  • Use Sciplore MindMap's monitoring function to automatically import PDFs and their bookmarks, giving me ready made notes of key facts and thoughts, complete with hyperlinks back to the notes I've taken.  For journal articles or digital pictures of original documents I can also use Foxit's comment feature as well as bookmarks.
  • Rearrange nodes within Sciplore into a sensible structure, still retaining the hyperlinks.
  • Update my spreadsheet with the source's status (to read / first cut / finished / useless)
Theoretically, JabRef will pull references data from Sciplore and then link back into Open Office to manage citations and styles.  I haven't tested this bit of the workflow yet though...

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Israel images

I went to Israel for a week or so just after Easter.  I was (un)lucky enough that my Rain God status came into play again (Douglas Adams reference here) so as well as getting wet I got some lovely moody photos which you wouldn't necessarily associated with a Mediterranean country in late April.

Firstly, on a "Jesus boat" early one morning, the overcast sky and occasional shafts of sunshine made for some lovely effects:

Looking back to shore was a splash of green:

and a very moody mountain:

Shortly afterwards, of course, we got soaked and very cold because nobody had packed for this sort of weather:

There were compensations, as this sunset from a couple of days earlier in Tel Aviv shows:

And finally, some true Mediterranean weather, taken from the old port town of Jaffa (mostly Arab-population) looking back towards the modern city of Tel Aviv:

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Lottie Loves: Finishing School Catch-up M, N, O, P and Q!

I've been incredibly rubbish about keeping up with Finishing School of late. I blame trying to do an MSc while juggling a long distance relationship and a mounting sense of "What on earth do I do when I leave uni?". Here's a whistlestop tour of my thoughts on each of the last couple of month's worth of challenges.

Yes, I still haven't done I is for Image. This is an important one so I'd quite like to tackle it at a time when I can do so properly. It's just not happened yet...!

M is for Moisturise
This is directly proportional to my stress levels.  When life's good and in a stable it happens naturally as part of a daily routine. When life isn't, it doesn't and there is absolutely no point in worrying myself about it.  The only thing that almost never slips is my hands because along with a weak knee, I've inherited very dry skin from my mother's side of the family.

N is for Nails
Again, fingernail condition is directly proportional to stress: more stressed = more bitten.  Toenails are generally in better condition, and I will find time to paint them tomorrow.  Just not tonight when it's already half eleven...

O is for H2O
My take on this challenge is to drink less tea.  I get plenty of liquid each day, but a dripfeed of caffeine via a pint-sized mug of tea every couple of hours does nothing for my stress levels.  I am noticeably calmer when I limit myself to two such mugs a day (but I also don't function in the mornings without at least one of them!).  So I'm sticking to that limit, and replacing the remainder with sugar-free fruit squash, diluted more than the bottle recommends just to take the taste off the disgusting London water that comes from my taps.

P is for Posture
Mine is better than many people I see, but it's still not great. 7 years of ballet wasn't entirely wasted, and nor were the years of horseriding that followed. I have a tendency to stick my chin out and to walk with great long strides: efficient for getting places, but not for looking elegant in the process. Tomorrow marks the start of a return to the 200 sit-ups challenge for me. It's not quite the 2 x 30 mins a week Lottie recommends, but it's a darn sight better than what I'm doing at the moment, which is absolutely nothing!

Q is for Quick Fixes
I've been taking advantage of the current trend for vintage-era head adornments. My hair is my single biggest bugbear (as you'll remember from H is for Hair) but the ability to throw on an alice band and still look fashionable is wonderful. I rarely leave the house without eyeliner, mascara and lipstick and have go-to shades which don't draw attention to the fact that that's all I've done. I always wear stud earrings and a gold chain plus a right-hand ring, so jewellery is covered by default. Similarly, I have key outfits and a couple of pairs of shoes that will improve an ensemble. I'm not yet back into the habit of laying out tomorrow's outfit tonight because as a student who doesn't always have to leave the apartment it feels kind of pointless. I have no doubt though that now I'm into Dissertation research and having to actually Go Somewhere almost every day I'll get back into this one quickly enough.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Addicted to Swing

Learning to dance was on my 30 Before I'm 30 list. While I wouldn't say I've learned to Swing Dance yet by any stretch of the imagination, I have taken great strides recently in the right direction.

I spent the weekend at the London Swing Dance Festival and had a fantastic time. I also introduced my friend Adam (who's danced solo in the past but never done partner dance) to the joys of both partner & swing dancing. Swing dancing, incidentally, in this case refers to Lindy Hop / Charleston / Jitterbug / Shag / Balboa / Blues. It doesn't include West Coast Swing, which is a style all in its own right with its own classes & festivals.

Friday night was the competition for all those who actually know what they're doing, and gave some idea of how big the vintage dance scene in London actually is. It's huge. Really!

I've danced on and off since I moved to London, racking up maybe 10-12 lessons over an 8 month period. Certainly, the guy in the Beginner's stream who most closely matched my skill & knowledge had been dancing for about 2 months, which given how long it takes me to master new hand-eye-foot-coordination tasks seems about right. Saturday was Charleston - solo & partnered. Up until this point, I've very much disliked Charleston because it just wouldn't click in my head as a rhythm. Finally, I began it get it. We ended the day with a Lindy Hop class, restoring my by-then waning confidence that I could actually dance at all. Not just because it was moves I knew, but because we covered more ground - Lindy is easier, which at least explains why I found the Charleston so hard the rest of the day!

The highlight of Saturday was the Jumps & Lifts taster class. I think 5 of the 15-20 beginners were brave enough (or stupid enough?) to give this one a go. We all coped, and most of us managed to put them into practice on the dance floor later. We had a further Jumps class later on Saturday, and covered one of them AGAIN on Monday evening, so they're now firmly in the repertoire, at least for partners I've danced with before and feel confident that they won't drop me!

Sunday was mostly Lindy Hop and some styling elements, as well as getting the hang of following the different styles & confidences of the leads. Following is not something I have found easy in the past. I had a couple of social dances on Saturday night with guys I didn't know, and had never seen before, let along danced with. Somewhere in one of those, it finally and completely clicked in my brain how do to it. Switches between moves and rhythms I'd never managed smoothly before fell into place and stayed there. And it was GREAT. There was a also a dance with a coursemate where we did almost nothing (other than the lifts) which we'd been taught, but still had an exhilarating time with him leading and me following steps and rhythms I couldn't repeat now.

It's not plain sailing - just because I know I can do it doesn't mean I always go on the dancefloor in the right state of mind. But I know what it feels like and Sunday was definitely better than Saturday in terms of following the guys' leads. Also for the first time, I found a partner where it very much clicks in dance terms. It'll be interesting to see if that connection persists when we haven't been dancing together for two days!

Finally, here's a video of the Charleston routine we did in front of the entire festival on Sunday night. 1 hr of tuition and a further hour or so rehearsals scattered through the day.  We're pretty damn good!

Now, if I can just justify spending the money on the upcoming Swing weekend in August...

Thursday, 21 April 2011

In which Firebox are awesome

I've been meaning to buy a portable BBQ for a while, and it occurred to me late last night that I really should have organised it before I went camping for Easter weekend. Lo' and behold, this morning, Firebox send me an email shot which has a link to a portable, flatpack BBQ for the princely sum of £21.99. Add same day (yes, same day) delivery, and it's another £12.50. This is still less than just about every other one I've seen, and has the added bonus that I can order it online, go out for the day, then sit at home between 6pm and 11pm waiting for it to arrive. I'd be at home then anyway, frantically packing for the weekend away. Thus far, a plan with absolutely no drawbacks! Sure enough, about 10.15 this evening, the courier brings me a package. It's even more cool than I expected, which given my love affair with all things Firebox (and ThinkGeek) is saying quite a lot.

It came in a cardboard sleeve. That's a standard 8" (20cm) chef's knife for scale: I had to use something to get the packaging open...

Out of the sleeve it looks like this:

The black panels are held together halfway down the short sides, so it opens out into an X-shape. Two triangular side panels fold out to brace, revealing a charcoal grill which you slide out from parallel with the side and insert as a cross-brace, further stabilising the X:

The silver grill you could see in the second photo is a three-way fold which opens out to form the actual BBQ area for food and adds yet more bracing to the X to make sure it hold its shape. And there are you are, ready to go:

And just to prove I could do it in almost no time at all, here it is repacked and ready to take away with me:

I'll be honest, the build quality is not quite up to the standards I expect from Firebox, but this only needs to survive two or three camping trips to pay for itself in money I won't spend on on-site caterers. I have 7 or 8 trips planned this year, so even if I end up ditching it at the end of the summer, it's been a very worthwhile investment.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Motorcycling - wow, there's a lot to do

OK, this isn't an original 30BeforeI'm30 idea, but it fits in the general scheme of Doing Interesting Stuff Because I Can And I'm Deadline Driven.

I have several friends who own motorbikes. After many, many years of not wanting to go near one (my late Grandad had a stiff knee from a motorcycling accident in his teens) I was finally persuaded to give it a go late last year. It was ACE!! I'm a bit of an adrenaline junkie in some ways - it's why I loved cross-country horse-riding best - and this ticked all my boxes.

I have another friend intending to gain a motorcycle license, so the idea is we can motivate and hold each other accountable this summer. The plan is for the Direct Access Scheme, where the last part of the training and the test is carried out on a big (500cc+) bike, and you can immediately ride these without restriction - it's only available to over 21s, and we're definitely that! The Standard A1/A2 route carries a 2-year restriction on riding bikes over 125cc and I guess neither Dichotomy nor I are feeling patient.. There's a number of steps to go through - I'll link posts to them as they happen:
  1. Get your provisional license - I'm fine because I have a full driving license
  2. Get some glasses that have two arms and a current prescription - hopefully sorting out this week
  3. Do a one day Compulsory Basic Training course - tentatively May this year
  4. Pass the Theory Test and Hazard Perception Test - I am massively not looking forward to these! I passed the Driving Theory test many years ago, but the Hazard Perception is new. On the other hand, I've been driving for over 10 years, so hopefully my perception of hazards is pretty good.
  5. Practice on the road - optional, but recommended
  6. Take an intensive riding course and the slow-speed Module 1 test - tentatively sometime in the first two weeks in August
  7. Take the Module 2 test - hopefully also in August
  8. Ride, and practice, and possibly undertake further training

Simples, right? Or at the very least, some light relief from my MSc finals and Dissertation writing, which has to happen concurrently!

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Lottie Loves: Finishing School L is for Ladylike

This challenge contains quite a lot of Stuff To Think About, so I've posted it verbatim, with my thoughts below.

I have offered up so much to think about this week that I am going to make the challenge simple. All you need to do is think and give a little thought to being ladylike.

  • Think about your own behaviour. Are you ladylike all the time? Do you have a lady like image? If you don’t, what can you change to improve that?
  • Think of a woman from the past or present that you admire. What do you admire about her? Is she ladylike? If so, what makes her ladylike? What is it about her behaviour and look that you like?

By reflecting on the image of others and looking at yourself you can see where improvements need to be made. None of us are perfect and we are all a work in progress but working towards being ‘ladylike’ is a move that will stand you in good stead.

Just remember, ‘Ladies’ command respect without even trying. Being respected makes an enormous difference to every woman’s life.

I have just had a tattoo done, which is not the first thing you might expect someone claiming to be ladylike to say. I'll let you ponder that for a while, as I outline what I think being ladylike is about. Then I'll post a picture, and you can decide if you think my tattoo is, in fact, ladylike.

Lottie identifies posture & confidence, being well-presented, using good language and good manners as the key features of being ladylike. I won't argue with any of them, but I will add one more: an aura of quiet strength, rather than of overt power. This is not to say that women can't or shouldn't be assertive, upfront and loud when it's appropriate, but it is more a more stereotypically male way of getting things done. Perhaps this is what Lottie meant about commanding respect without trying?

So, posture and confidence: other people see me as more confident and with better posture than I do. Generally, though, I don't slouch horrendously (although I no longer have a ballerina's posture after 20 years away from the barre!) and if anything I tend to err on the reserved rather than over-the-top side of confident.

Being well-presented: my personal sense of style requires that as well as clothes being clean, pressed and fitting right, they also have to have an understated elegance to them if I'm going to feel truly ladylike. This tends to manifest in the cut and quality of pieces I buy or make, and you will often find me bemoaning (rather than the unladylike cursing I'd like!) my "champagne tastes, on beer money" lifestyle.

Good language: definitely a work in progress, and dependent on who I'm with. My language is far from terrible but I'm conscious of odd things I could improve.

Good manners: this really should go without saying. I will always say "thank you" to the driver when I get off the bus - many people don't. It's so basic to decent human interaction I don't know where to start with contemplating this one, other than to observe that I've been learning over the last few years that saying "no" can be done politely.

Strength rather than power: I find this one hard to articulate. I know what I mean, but I'm not sure I'm good at putting it into words. It's not about avoiding being the centre of attention, but someone who is ALWAYS the centre of attention doesn't embody this to me. It's about making things happen without making unnecessary waves. Maybe that's the key: it's about drawing as much attention to yourself as is necessary to achieve your aims (which should broadly be balanced, and not totally selfish or totally altruistic).

A Lady I admire: Ok, this is hard. Role models of grace and elegance are not something I have ever sought out, especially since my ballet teacher used to refer to me as "The Baby Elephant". (She was right - there's a reason I find the relaxed style of Swing & Jazz Dance much more fun than restraint inherent in classical ballet or ballroom!). OK, I'm going to be a bit contentious and pick Samantha Cameron. She's not classically pretty, but she's always well-turned out in an understated way, and has managed to balance motherhood, being the wife of the PM and a career thus far.

So, I mentioned earlier that I've just got a tattoo. And I'm assuming many people will have gone "Ugh. Call yourself a lady?!". So, here's a picture - does it embody elegance, grace and confidence to you? Comment (either way, I'm genuinely interested) and let me know!

Monday, 21 February 2011

The psychology of partner dance

It will come as no great surprise to anyone, I'm sure, to learn that I can be a little headstrong at times. So what on earth, you may wonder, possesses me to take up Swing Dance, where the leader leads, and the follower, well, follows? I'll give you a clue. Women are not the leaders here. So, there's all sorts of characteristics which you need to be a good dance follower that don't, shall we say, come terribly naturally to me.

First, you need to trust your partner. If you're dancing properly, you're committing your momentum and body to moves that will only work with the physics of him catching that momentum and working with it. If he sends you out on a spin, or pulls you back from one, it's his job to catch you and guide into the next move, and yours to stay upright and in rhythm, going wherever he sends you. Abdicating control so completely is something that's taken me months to get the hang of. It's still hard with new rhythms and patterns, but it's getting easier all the time.

Secondly, it's the lead's job to decide what happens. If he's not telling you what to do, you don't get to make it up or decide. And just because you've been practising a move all class doesn't mean that's what he's going to do next. I'm getting better with this. It's a mental shift to realise that all options are on the table, but once I do make that shift I've had some of the most fun ever, especially doing moves we haven't explicitly been taught.

Related, I need a strong lead. Again, no surprises there to anyone who's ever met me! If the guy is acting like he knows what he's doing and pushing me around (in dance terms), I can do things I didn't know I knew how to do. If I'm floundering around wondering if that was a lead or just a change in pressure, my footwork goes to pieces, my composure falls apart and it's just a disaster. As in dance, so in life...

This is the the final thing, and the reason I'm learning all these weird mental shifts: it's truly co-creating. You both need to do your bits, and only your bits, for it to work. And when it does, it's glorious. As in dance, so in life...

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Not quite tapas chorizo in red wine

This is heavily inspired by - but in no way based on! - one of my favourite tapas dishes, namely chorizo in red wine reduction.

2 venison sausages, cut into 3/4" chunks
2tsp diced garlic (I used Very Lazy Garlic)
1tbsp balsamic vinegar
Spritz of olive oil

  1. Spritz a heavy-based frying pan with oil, add garlic, and put on a high heat
  2. When the oil is hot but not smoking, sear the sausage chunks, then turn the heat down to medium
  3. Cook the sausages for 10-15 minutes, turning regularly.
  4. When the sausage chunks are cooked, add the balsamic vinegar and toss the sausage chunks in it
  5. Turn the heat down and simmer until the balsamic vinegar forms a syrup
  6. Serve immediately

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Feel the fear: lessons from scuba-diving

For much of my life, I worked off the basis that "winners never quit, and quitters never win". It brought me a lot of success in many ways, because most of the time my physical, mental and emotional reserves were greater than the task at hand. I could, in fact, keep up with the boys on a hike with my feet in tatters. I could be close to the top of the class and play two instruments to a high standard. But, a sizeable minority of times, I over-estimated my own strength and collapsed in a heap of exhaustion, made worse by my own recriminations for not being good enough to meet some arbitrary, outside standard.

In late 2009, I went scuba-diving in the Caribbean. I'd been interested ever since regretting not taking up the "Try Scuba" course on offer in Egypt in 2001. Let's bear in mind that while I'm an OK swimmer, my base stamina is pretty poor unless I'm in training for something. Also, I hate having my face in the water. Also, I'm terrified, in an unspeakably primal way, of drowning. Why scuba? Because it's a challenge. Because there's a while world of nature to explore which rarely sees signs of humanity. Because for all I hate getting my face wet, I love being in the water. (I outlined this post while in the bath!)

So I signed up for a scuba session while cruising around the Caribbean. Warm water, gentle waves, pretty fish...what more could you want?

A couple of days before, I went snorkelling for the first time in years. It was ok. I actually enjoyed it by the end, after a couple of hours finning around at my own pace. I now realise my latent tension caused the mouthpiece to give me an ulcer, which is important later.

So the scuba course starts, and I'm quickly separated off for some personal hand-holding for this whole breathing-under-water lark. But I can do it, I rejoin the group, we swim away from the shore, see a ray, some coral formations and several schools of fish. So far, so good.

On the boat out to the dive site we find out it's a wreck dive. Absolutely awesome! And not something I'd thought you could even get close to without at least the basic qualification. I'm pleasantly surprised to discover I'm not seasick and have acclimatised after 2 weeks on the cruise ship. We descend down a line, me following someone with ear problems because it's a nice, slow pace. At the point we're to leave the line and swim openly, I freeze. I'm acutely aware of what feels like a hole being worn through my cheek. The obvious solution is to spit the regulator supplying me with oxygen out, yet that's clearly a dumb idea too. A slightly panicked exchange with the guide later, during which time she does remove and check my regulator (eeeek!) she agrees to take me back to the surface. As soon as I step over the back of the boat I'm hit with wave after wave nausea that none of my usual techniques touches. A seasickness pill doesn't help and I spend the 2 hours of the dive and return to shore trying not to throw up.

The pill didn't help, of course, because it wasn't seasickness. It was pure and simple gut-wrenching (in the most literal sense) terror.

Despite that, I consider the dive a success. I felt my fear, I did it anyway, and quit while I was ahead. I did not break myself, and I did not put my own life or anyone else's at risk.

And you know what? I still want to learn to scuba-dive one day. A 5 day intensive course is not the right route for me, but in slower time I can do it. At the point where I have time, money and a hot climate available, I will.

And the most valuable lesson I have learned from this (and have good cause to apply elsewhere right now)? It's ok to not succeed. It's good to know your limits, so you can extend them gradually rather than busting them - and you! - wide open out of impatience, stubbornness or pride. I've been guilty of all three in the past, but I'm choosing not to be again.

Challenge yourself. Stretch yourself. And always leave a harder challenge for next time!

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Jordan: What's a girl got to do to get a shower around here?

Way back in October I spend a week hiking through Jordan. I've been intending to blog about it ever since, and failing miserably. Since then I've also been to Venice, and have just booked a further international trip for late April. I'll try to be a bit more timely about those ones!

Anyway, I spent a week hiking from Dana Nature Reserve to Petra, booked through KE Adventure. The temperature was consistently over 40C, and there was comparatively little shade. Indeed, some days seem to consist of hiking from the shade of one tree to the shade of the next...We were supported by a team of Jordanians driving 4x4s, but all our hiking was on Bedouin tracks, and we only saw the trucks at the campsites. Because of the remote nature of the campsites:

and the arid climate, all the water we used was carried in by 4x4. So, after a full day hiking through the heat, how do you make yourself fit for the group dinner time?

If there's a convenient waterhole, you can sluice yourself off, but without any soap or detergent in that. Or, you can just chill out, as at this stream we came across in the middle of day 3. We'd had an enormous climb that morning, so this was like a little slice of heaven when we descended the col and found a shady stream for our lunch stop:

Assuming that there is neither stream nor waterhole, the first thing you do is gather up your - ideally environmentally friendly - toiletries, and your 1.5L bottle of water. Then you find somewhere to provide some shade and privacy:

You look behind you to make sure you're not going to inadvertently flash an unsuspecting group member or local:

Then you set up your stuff in a convenient niche:

It is - just about - possible to wash yourself, and wet and rinse my shoulder-length with the 1.5L bottle. It's a bit of an art form, but it is doable. And the balmy 30C+ temperature combined with the aridity meant there was no need to towel off! You'll also appreciate - ok, maybe not - the exfoliating nature of the fine desert dust that gets into absolutely everything, and the combination of sunscreen and dust that gave my hair the most body it has ever had. I'm assuming it looked horrendous, however, so I won't be recommending this as a beauty regime any time soon.

And there you are. All ready for dinner at the communal mat:

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Venison casserole: tonight's randomly-seasoned crockpot meal

This is a real make-it-up-as-I-along job, even more so than normal.

Serves: 4, especially if do a baked potato on the side.

Main ingredients
4 venison sausages
1 small butternut squash
1 small parsnip
3 small carrots
2 small onions
2 courgettes

1 tbsp juniper berries
A good slosh of Worcester Sauce
A smaller slosh of Balsamic Vinegar

  1. Dice vegetables.
  2. Slice sausages into 1-1.5" chunks.
  3. Put all ingredients in slowcooker (crock-pot).
  4. Add water to half-way up the ingredients.
  5. Sprinkle/slosh seasoning over ingredients.
  6. Stir. Turn crock-pot on, leave for 4 hours or until you're hungry.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Lottie Loves: Finishing School K is for Kit

Lottie's challenge runs thus:

Find a space which can be yours for your beauty routine. Obviously a dressing table is ideal but it can be anywhere else. You can use a bathroom counter, a random table, a chest of drawers, a desk, anywhere where you can find a bit of space just for you. It need only be small, enough room for a basket or two. If you already have this space then tidy it up and make it work better for you. My big thing about beauty areas is that they must have everything in sight and easy to just grab. No digging around in bags, draws, boxes. If you can see everything you can grab it and go.

A-ha! I thought smugly. I have one of those already. I did tidy it up before taking this photo - apologies for the glare, it's a south-facing baywindow so when there's sun there's no way to shade it. My make-up stuff is in my room, while my toiletries are in the shared bathroom downstairs and I haven't photographed that because it would look like I'm on commission for Lush or something!

Then I read the next bit:
  • Mirror: yep, got one of those. This flat has more mirrors than you can imagine. There's one fixed to the wall behind my dressing table (alright, chest of drawers...) and one to the other wall of the bay behind me. While I can't see my whole face in natural light at the same time, I can at least have one side lit and try to match them up!
  • Make-up brushes: I have one I love, and a few that are adequate but no more. The one I love is great precise application of eyeshadow as a liner, but not so good for covering large areas. It was free with Cosmopolitan magazine years ago. I so rarely use any of the others, though, I've never really had the impulse to buy better ones. Although I might wear blusher more (and I really should if I've put foundation on as I'm so pasty to start with) if I had a brush for it I liked...
  • Storage for hair accessories: Check. It's the bottom drawer of the mini chest of drawers you see on the right of this picture, plus the three oversized brooch/hairpin flowers lying on the front.
  • Cotton wool & buds: Downstairs in the bathroom with the nail varnish and remover. I use tissues and spit to remove make-up mistakes, or cover them, depending on the nature. Very occasionally I get it wrong I go right back to the beginning and cleanse, tone, moisturise, make a cup of tea and start again.
  • Make-up: In the right hand chest of drawers. The top draw has eyeshadows, the middle has bracelets (ok, not make-up!) and the bottom has lipstick and blusher. The foundation chills out on the top all the time. Eyeliners and lip-liners live in the pencil pot along with mascara, nail scissors and file.
  • Wipes: I don't use them. Tone + cotton wool does the job, and they live in the bathroom.
  • Potions and lotions: Deodorant is up here, body moisturiser is both up here and in the bathroom, hand creams are one pot per room, facial cleanser/toner/moisturiser is in the bathroom. I have about 4 different varieties of perfurm up there, two of which I wear regularly, one I never wear and should ditch and one that's heading that way but it was a gift and I feel bad...

As to where I got the chests of drawers and pencil pot? Rymans Stationers. They're sold as desk organisers, but they're felt lined, good quality and just perfect for this!

The left hand chest of drawers contains my costumer jewellery and my earrings are on the stand on top of it. There's a pair of gold cufflinks (pen nibs, love them!) just in front.

The red and white tape is not crime scene tape. :) It's holding the opposite window shut while I wait for my landlady to give me the number of the handyman who can finish the job of fixing it.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Rooftop gardening: January planting

I'm lucky enough to have a roof terrace attached to my apartment, and it came with many, many pots. I used to have an allotment, although my record with house plants is atrocious. It seems that plants have to be practical for me to remember to look after them.

Anyway, I ordered a multipack of four types garlic, some shallots and some dwarf peas in the depths of winter. Garlic is supposed to be planted out in Nov-Dec, but it doesn't start growing until the spring. So I put two of the garlics out when they arrived (it's not like they're going to grow sat in a box on my windowsill, after all) then promptly forgot about them. I went out this morning to plant another of the garlic types and the shallots. The shallots, at least, are supposed to be planted out now. And some of my earlier garlic had grown!

I think this is the Purple Solent, but I forgot to make a note.

These pots have the other garlic I planted originally. I'm not giving up on it yet, but I do need to remember not to plant other stuff in these pots!

Today's garlic - an elephant variety - went in these pots.

Finally, each of these pots has two shallots in it. I'll probably add carrot and/or basil or thyme to the pots to make more use of the space.

We're also getting a trellis, via a very long and involved story. But trellis means full size peas and beans and sweet peas! I'm not quite sure where we're going to put it, however...

Monday, 31 January 2011

Lottie Loves: Finishing School J is for Juggling

Yes, yes, I know I've missed I. I've been missing I for weeks and it's been holding up my progress on the rest, because I have this weird compulsion that I should do things in order, or not at all. If the sun doesn't come tomorrow morning, we'll know it's all my fault for deliberately doing things out of sequence.

Right, with the disclaimer out of the way...J is for Juggling. I used have this down pat: I spent 5 years working 4 or 5 days a week and getting my undergrad degree around the outside of it, and still maintaining a social life. Then I moved cities in September to just pursue an MSc, and suddenly I have no time to do anything. In a sense, when I ran my life as tight ship because I had to, everything worked. Now I "only" have 8 hours of classes a week and a couple of regular socials, the yawning emptiness and lack of structure means I get very little done. As Lottie wisely says in her challenge post, the first thing to go in that is taking time for me.

So my challenge for this week is to spend half an hour a day updating my blog - I have a week's hiking in Jordan and an awesome city break in Venice I haven't written about yet! - or playing the guitar. I won't manage it every day: I'm going away for the weekend for instance (although I could take the guitar with me. Hmmm.) but I'm also not going to beat myself up if I do miss the odd day.

Structure. Regular bed times before midnight. FLYLady. Life is so much easier when it runs smoothly instead of me looking for the next plate that's about to stop spinning!

Monday, 3 January 2011

Home networking for Dummies

I have a BT phone line. Into this is plugged a microfilter, allowing me to have both a telephone line and a broadband connection. The phone line plugs into a cordless phone base station. The broadband (DSL) line plugs into a router. The router transmits wirelessly so that our smart phones and laptops can connect. So far, so good.

Sadly, someone else has been connecting to the wireless, having broken the key used to secure it and is costing me money in excess bandwidth every month. So I have a new (to me, it's actually secondhand from a trusted source) router, which has several snazzier security features which should stop the bandwidth thief. It should be simple to swap them over: 1) note down the username and password for the broadband connection; 2) unplug the old router; 3) plug the new one in; 4) connect it by ethernet cable to my laptop; 5) type in the username and password; 6) tell my laptop and phone about the new wireless network and password; and 7) off we go.

Oh, no. Oh, no we don't, not by a long shot.

Steps 1 through 4 worked fine. Step 5, however, failed miserably. I tried three different approaches to the router configuration settings, and it resolutely denied there was an internet connection to configure. Huh? So I tried to ring my internet provider to ask what was going on. I dialled the number, the DTMF (tone dialling) played a merry tune and I waited. And waited. Rang off, tried again. Nothing apart from a gentle hiss. Ring the number from my mobile, connected straight away. By this time, however, I've realised it's not my broadband provider that's the problem - or at least, not the first problem I need to fix - it's the phone line. Or lack of one.

There's a model of networking which goes something like this - it's a while since I've had to use it in anger. I've been stepping through it layer by layer trying to identify the problem(s) I have:
Physical layer (cables, sockets)
Data Layer (zeros and ones transmitted over physical layer)
Network layer (slightly higher level addressing, eg MAC addresses?)
Transport layer (TCP/IP - the mechanisms of getting the bits to your computer in the right sequence)
Session layer (linking the bits together properly)
Presentation layer (layout and making things look nice)
Application layer (doing stuff - the layer the user actually interacts with most of the time).

(You can remember it with the mnemonic Please Do Not Throw Sausage Pizza Away.)

Each layer relies on the one before to work. I can't influence the S, P and A layers, and they rely on the T and N layers, which are the ones you usually worry about when setting up a network connection. These, in turn, rely on the D and P layers. It seems that it's my Physical layer that's the problem. All the components are plugged in, and the router will talk to my laptop all the way up to the Application layer. However, it won't talk to the microfilter, and somehow breaks the phone line's Physical connection too. If you think of the router as a barrier, all communications are fine INSIDE the barrier. The internet continues to work OUTSIDE the barrier, but messages aren't getting through the barrier like they should. To confirm this is the problem, I did the following:

Unplug router from microfilter. Pick up phone, get dial tone. So far, so good. Replace phone. Plug old router in to microfilter. Pick up phone, get dial tone. Okkayyy... Replace phone. Plug in new router to microfilter. Pick up phone. Get no dial tone.

Interesting. In the sense of the Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times."

Pull the sofa away from the wall. Remove the faceplate. Ooooh, that doesn't look like it should:

On the back of the faceplate, not connected to anything, is this:

I've put that lot back together, and asked around on Facebook for advice as well as briefly googled the router model. It's probably that my BT line has a rubbish signal-to-noise ratio and the router can't handle that. I'm going to try to get the router plugged into a friend's network at the weekend to confirm that the router is A-OK, then assuming it is, call BT and ask them what they can do to clean up my phone line.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I hate doing anything with technology. It's not quite black magic, in as much as I understand the principles of how it should work. It is, however, not simple. And I like things to be simple, especially when they're built on logic, and should thus work as predicted.

The Ultimate maple-and-parsnip soup

Ingredients for 8
8 medium parsnips
Generous shaking of chopped coriander (I used dried)
4 tbsp olive oil
The chunk of celeriac out of the fridge, about 1/5 of a whole one
4 tablespoons maple syrup
2 oz butter
2 medium onions finely chopped
2 cloves garlic crushed
2 tbsp plain flour
2L vegetable stock
most of a 300ml tub of creme fraiche
salt and pepper

  1. Preheat oven to about 200C
  2. Chop parsnip into chunks 2" long by 1/4" wide or thereabouts and slosh with olive oil and coriander leaf. Stir to ensure even coating
  3. Roast for 20 minutes, turning once if you remember
  4. Meanwhile peel and chunk celeriac and boil for 15 minutes, reserving water
  5. When parsnips are soft and lightly golden brush with maple syrup and return to oven until glazed (may need to increase the heat), about 10 minutes
  6. Meanwhile soften onion and garlic in butter, then stir in flour and cook for 1 minute more
  7. Put onions, parsnips and celeriac in large pan and add stock and celeriac water. Bring to boil, cover and simmer for 10 minutes
  8. Leave to cool, then puree in a blender. It's supposed to be thick, but shouldn't quite hold its shape
  9. Return to heat, stir in creme fraiche (or double cream), season to taste. Heat but don't boil, and serve