Monday, 16 January 2012

Sense memory at the souq

Smells are evocative. For me, it began on the plane with the unidentified but specific smell I associate with the Middle East, particularly the souqs. The scenery traveling from Cairo airport to Giza was quintessentially Arabic too, although I was too tired to take much in yesterday evening.

This evening, sat sipping mint tea after a wander around Khan al-Kalili souq I was struck by the power of the senses to remind me of other places and times.  The setting sun and the dusty city coming to life on foot could be anywhere in the Arab world. Cairo by day is full of traffic and like nowhere else I've been, but when the sun went down and the mosque emptied, it was all people walking, buying from the street food vendors, greeting friends in the inimitable Arab style and bustling around.

The sound of traffic dying away, and the horns giving way to a hub-bub of voices, in a dialect of Arabic so unlike the Modern Standard Arabic I've started learning that I can't even follow the ritualized greetings. The call to prayer from the mosque in the square reminded me of the riad in Marrakech right by a minaret, and the 4am call. The inevitable sound of souvenir hawkers approaching the table we're sat at, selling everything from tissues to pashminas, from "Rolexes" to jewelry. The studied continuation of Indo-European language conversation as their sales pitches are ignored.

The taste of tooth-achingly sweet mint tea, drunk black with spoons of sugar added. Again, Morocco.

The smell of spices from the souq. The smell of sweetcorn charring over an open brazier. The gentle scent of mint from the tea. The subtle underlying whiff on the breeze of incense burning. And pervading it all, the unmistakable smell of shisha pipes, of tobacco laced with fruit smoke. All these are are the smells I love, reminding me mostly of many happy hours in Muscat, in the old souq haggling over pashminas, or sat in a local cafe eating mezze and drinking avocado juice, or sat in the desert with some locals, sharing a barbeque of local dishes and conversation.

For all that there are similarities, there are differences. The language. The stall owners are more practiced at flattering in English. The city is so much bigger, but also very densely packed with people. These make it far and away the least laid back city after London and New York. "In'shallah" its not much in evidence here!

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.