Saturday, 31 January 2009

Film: The Wrestler

The Wrestler is not the sort of film that I would have gone out of my way to see. Despite the fact that Mickey Rourke is a good actor and the film has been well received by critics, it’s just not the sort of thing that I end up seeing, but some friends of mine were seeing it and I was in the area so I thought I’d tag along too.

The film is about a past-his-prime professional wrestler going by the name of “The Ram” and involves him trying to come to terms with the fact that his glory days are probably long gone. The whole theme of the film is perfectly summed up by a conversation he has at one point where he discusses how much he loved the 80s for the music such as Guns and Roses and the having-a-good-time ethos as opposed to the 90s, which wound up depressing “once Cobain came along and ruined it all”. The progression from a high to the inevitable low symbolised by this transition from the 80s – a notoriously flamboyant era, to the 90s – a notoriously dreary era, and trying to come to terms with this is something that’s incredibly well dealt with. There are hundreds of clues throughout the film that “The Ram” is having difficulty making the transition from his glory days, such as the scrap-book-like wall in his van, to a scene where he gets one of the local children to play an old wrestling game on the “NES” with him – a vintage gaming console, whilst the child is talking about “Call of Duty 4” – one of the modern graphically intensive all singing all dancing first person shooter games of today.

The main character is likable. He’s a bit of a no-hoper, but he has a certain amount of charm and it’s difficult to not genuinely feel for him. Emotionally, I was surprised at how well the film handled itself. Films that find themselves diving in and out of a strip club rarely have that sort of emotional investment. I wonder if some of this empathy that you take away from the film was down to the very visceral reaction you get from the violence that you see in the ring itself with each blow to the face making you wince in pain. The one thing that everyone knows about wrestling is that it’s all staged, with my friend that’s really into it going so far as to describes it as a mixture between a soap opera and a boxing match, and so it’s really jarring to see that despite the fact that it is all choreographed to a certain extent, there is a definite reality to the pain and injury that is inevitably sustained. There are also frequent comic moments in the contradiction between the two sides of each wrestler, one half being the tough, muscle bound Herculean hero in the ring and the other half being the theatrical type with a slight case of stage fright in the dressing room.

I realise that I’m being typically vague on the plot and that’s not necessarily because I’m worried about giving out spoilers, it’s just that it’s not a focal point of the film. The plot is barely worth mentioning. That’s not to say that the film dithers about too much, it just has a fairly vague fragmented structure. The pace, as I’ve hinted at, is remarkably well handled and at no point was I checking my watch. I was even faintly surprised and disappointed when it ended. The fact that the film ends with no significant closure could even be symbolic of the way that we all struggle to let things go completely and put them to rest.

After all of this rambling, I think what I’m trying to say is that I would recommend this film. It is gritty, a little dirty and violent and probably not for the squeamish, but beneath it’s rough exterior is a very sensitive beast, much like the main character himself, and anyone can relate to the theme and mood in some sense.

Additional Notes:

I think the best definition I can come up with for a wrestler is “action-thespian”. I’m still thoroughly confused as to why grown men follow wrestling, but I’m sure they’d probably be at a complete loss as to why I sit at a computer for 75% of my life.

Writing all of this vague analysis makes me think of all those hours I spent at school dissecting literature. I always took the view that dissecting literature was like dissecting a frog in that both die in the process, yet here I am talking about the symbolism of a wrestler in a strip club.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Did not think that through

I came into work an hour and a half early this morning to let some engineers in so that they could do some work on our network that required it to be taken offline. This was going to be done before anyone else turned up so as not to interupt anybody's work. I decided that whilst they were working, I could start doing my work and browse the internet a little.

Who else can spot the subtle flaw in my plan?

It's moments like this that I realise I could probably use a little more sleep.

Pointless Prattle: The Impossibility of Dave

I don’t understand why there is a TV channel called Dave. I don’t understand how someone thought the concept of it was a good idea. I don’t understand why I find myself watching it.

For those out of the loop, Dave is a freeview channel that almost exclusively shows repeats of programs such as Have I Got News for You, QI, Top Gear, Mock the Week, Dragons Den etc. It often sounds and looks like a good line up, until you remember that these shows are probably a couple of years old and that you’ve probably seen them before. The problem is compounded in the case of topical news shows as the news they’re talking about is no longer current.

As a channel, it should, on paper, be an absolute failure. They have practically no innovation and that which they do have tends to be mediocre at best. I therefore find it highly depressing when I find myself watching it if I’m looking for something on TV.

I’m not really going anywhere with this, I just find it odd that some of the most enjoyable TV is stuff that’s been and gone as opposed to anything that they’re making at the moment. Maybe this shows clearly around Christmas, when they still wheel out the same old Christmas specials, but I can honestly say that there hasn’t been a TV show that I’ve actively looked forward to watching each week on TV since they aired the first couple of seasons of 24 and even the Simpsons has lost it’s ability to make me stop whatever it is I’m doing at six. Maybe I’ve outgrown TV a little, or maybe I’m just not quite mind numbingly bored enough to watch lifestyle prattle or soap operas.

In case you’ve missed them, this weeks articles were:

Getting Through Boring Commitments

Cave Emptor: Buyer Beware - Doing your homework before shopping

Credit where Credit is due

Issues of Naivety and Trust

Of Mice and Graduates

The Virtues of a One Day Stay-cation

Coping with Computers

Adapting a Student Lifestyle to a Post-Student Lifestyle

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Adapting a Student Lifestyle to a Post-Student Lifestyle

One of the most jarring things about going from a student to a graduate for me was the change in lifestyle. The way that I’ve adapted my life to fit around work and a slightly stricter timetable isn’t perfect and I’m sure it could have been done better by someone with more willpower, but it works for the most part.

I am aware that not everyone had the same student experience as me. Some people took a much more serious approach to studying, some people locked themselves in a room eschewing all social contact, and some people threw themselves into every single student society possible leaving no room for pub-based socializing. This probably won’t apply to any of those lifestyles or make sense to you if you are one of those people. Also, this isn’t a way of me saying that I think you’re wrong, just that you've had a different student experience.

My advice to anyone who is trying to break out of a student routine that was similar to mine and into a more professional routine is as follows:

Find a balance. You should know what you can and can’t do, so don’t deny yourself a night out, but just know when is a good time to finish. Staying out all night will undoubtedly catch up with you if you do it too much. Of course, a lack of sleep affects different people in different ways, but it can also be subtle in the way it affects you. You may not realize that you’re not functioning as per usual or that it’s taking you an extra couple of seconds to answer questions that have been put to you.

Hangovers are not your friend. A recent medical report has said that there is no cure for a hangover, but I’m fairly confident that we all have ways of avoiding them that are moderately effective. The best one is of course to not drink, but that’s the boring sort of thing that a parent or a policeman might say, so I understand it's effectiveness and uselessness at the same time. Other methods involve lots of water, pre-emptive painkillers, fatty food, more drinking or staying up so late that the alcohol seamlessly processes itself. I probably wouldn’t recommend the last two for a subsequent release into a working environment.

Find a way of getting up in the morning that works for you. Lying in until the last minute and then having to rush around is no good. You can get away with turning up to a lecture disheveled and reeking of beer, but the slow-witted quick-to-comment colleagues you collect in an office might make mention of it in that irritating faux-sarcastic manner. Time to clean up a little in the mornings is pretty useful and not having to rush around puts you in a better and more mellow mood.

Eat Breakfast. This makes a massive difference. It’s not just subversive marketing by Kellogs that suggests breakfast is important, it really is a life-saver of a meal. Something to wake you up is also good and whereas I’m not going to tout a caffeine addiction, I have to say that I am a different person without that first cup of tea.

Last night reminded me of the way I used to live, as I went out with some friends and probably drank a bit too much. As I said before, I know not everyone has had the same student experience, but mine took me to a lot of pubs and bars at least three times a week. My nights out would also almost always involve very late nights that would occasionally continue once I got home through to four o clock in the morning. A couple of times it even got to the point whereby the sun was starting to come up and I decided that there probably wasn’t much point in sleeping anyway and I have now found out that after about thirty six hours, I involuntarily fall asleep.

This morning also reminded of the way I failed to adapt early on in my working life. I wouldn’t say that I have a hangover, but my brain does feel a little bit like over-cooked rice; all my thoughts are sticking together and several of them are welded to the bottom of my skull. I remember having this sort of feeling when I was still making sales over the phone and I remember it being deeply unpleasant. The morning after a night out is always enough to make you swear off never going again and for me, it has got to the point where I’ll start seriously thinking about how things will be in the morning whilst I’m still drinking. Maybe that’s a sign of adaptation, maybe it’s a sign of growing older and more responsible, I’m not sure.

Everyone is going to have different routines and capabilities. How far your life adapts or needs to adapt is also dependant on how lenient your job is, or even what your job is. I’m approaching this from the standard viewpoint of nine until five hours, but different hours will inevitably invite different lifestyles. It’s best to find what’s right for you and don’t be surprised if you don’t get it right first time. It will take a good few months at least to get used to the change.

Additional Notes:

Apparently, only being able to stay awake for thirty six hours makes me somewhat of a lightweight but it’s not something I necessarily want to work on. A recent adventure to Belgium and back on a six to eight hour coach journey in which one could only take short naps before being interrupted by an inconvenient ferry trip and all the complications surrounding boarding, traveling on and disembarking the said ferry taught me that I could probably stay up much longer if I cheated and took short naps throughout the day. The blog I mentioned a few days ago has an interesting article on Polyphasic sleep patterns that might be worth trying some day.

Ironically enough, I made more sales when I was hung over. My theory on this is that nobody really wants to buy insurance from someone who sounds overly polite and cheery, because they instantly think it’s some kind of fraud. Maybe they’ve read the KPMG profile of a Fraudster that I mentioned the other day, but regardless of the reason, more people seem to buy things from someone that sounds like their spirit has been crushed.

I am clearly bitter that my flat mates can have a lie in after a night like last night. The night was fantastic, as we went to my old university’s comedy night and saw a forgettable but passable female working class comic, whose jokes seemed entirely based around the fact that she was female, working class, or female and working class, we saw Dave Gorman who was unbelievably funny, and an up and coming group called “Pappy’s Fun Club” that was so unexpectedly brilliant that my cheeks still hurt from laughing. I even got a hug from compare Alex Zane who then looked as confused/drunk as I felt.

I was however sensible/boring and came home before going with the others to the student union bar that stayed open late. My main motivation behind that was because the union bar on a Wednesday night is normally full of drunken rugby players, who by eleven are predominantly naked. Nobody needs that.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Coping with Computers

I like to think of myself as computer literate and I like to believe that I am capable when it comes to the computing end of technology. Therefore, I really wish I knew why every now and then, a computer will just stop working or cease to function in the way that it has for months or years before. I’m not saying this happens to me on a daily basis, but it’s got to the point that I’m never too sure what to expect when I press the on switch.

I’ve probably used a computer every day of my life since I was about 8 for one reason or another. I was introduced to them much earlier than that, but from about that age onwards, we had a trusty IBM 286 sat in the office that would whir and clunk along quite happily as I wrote “epic novels” or played Lemmings. To cut it short, I would say I know a fair amount about computers. Whereas I’m not a programmer, despite my half hearted attempts, I can perform basic technical support and probably know more about computers than the average bear.

With years of computing experience behind me, I therefore know that a computer won’t do anything that you haven’t asked it to do. Of course, this isn’t strictly true in reality, but that is by and large only because you sometimes ask your computer to do something without realizing it. Not reading something through and clicking “Next” a little bit too quickly on a random installation of something relatively minor could request something to be put on to your computer that will set in motion a serious problem later on in your computer’s life cycle, but almost nobody can see these things coming. My own computer has recently started doing some interesting things in that it is slowing down, whirring a little too loudly, and just occasionally freezing up completely. It is admittedly a lot better now that I’ve blown an air duster into it and extracted most of the dust from inside the case, but all the same, I’m dreading what will happen next because last time it got sick like this, it actually caught fire before telling me what the problem was.

Computers are unavoidably part of our everyday life. I know that I for one go to work, sit in front of a computer all day and then come home to sit in front of a computer all evening. It’s not quite as tragic as that, but it’s getting there. Therefore, I want to fully understand the ins and outs, the workings and intricacies and the functioning of the guts and innards of computers. I feel that programming is the modern day equivalent of magic, and I know that if magic existed, I would quickly become a keen student of the subject so I’m never too sure why I’ve never really thrown myself into it with the enthusiasm I clearly have. The only answer to coping with computers has to be to absorb as much information about them as you possibly can. I’m not suggesting that everyone should train to be a software engineer, but with just a little more awareness, you could become much more efficient and it might even serve to bring your blood pressure down a couple of notches if you know why your computer is vomiting digitally.

Additional Notes

Whenever I think back to something that happened when I was a child, I always assume it was around the age of 8, 12, or 16. I don’t know why I’ve chosen those ages, but I always use them when someone asks me how long I’ve been doing something that I’ve been doing for a long time. Maybe I just like multiples of 4. Perhaps this means that 24 is a good age for me to be. Maybe in years to come, I can say “yeah, I’ve been running this blog since I was 24” and be accurate about it…

I recently uncovered a disk with some of my early writing projects on. Considering how young I was when I wrote them, I'm actually incredibly proud of them. Maybe I'll post a few at some point, but I'm sure if I did, I'd instantly regret it. Once you're on the internet, it's incredibly difficult to get yourself off again.

Dust doesn’t really do justice to what was inside my computer case. It looked more like fur. I’m sure I saw the graphics card breathing…

My computer honestly did catch fire at one point. Luckily, I only really needed to replace the motherboard, and it was about due for an overhaul anyway. It was also entirely my fault: I’d put the power pack in upside down (it was the only way it would fit) and this meant that the thing couldn’t ventilate properly. I think I was also trying to over-clock the processor, which can’t have helped. The flame looked like a tiny orange LED from the side. It was only when I saw smoke that I knew something was probably wrong.

Just to offer a quick link, the site Lifehacker has all sorts of useful little tips, downloads and suggestions for getting functionality and efficiency out of your computer. If nothing else, it makes for some fascinating reading as you realize just how versatile a computer can be.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

The Virtues of a One Day Stay-cation

Yesterday, I took a day off work in order to try and burn through a few things in my Quest-log. When I’m at work, I often feel that if I could convert the amount of work that I put in during the day at the office into time spent working on my own personal projects, that I could write epic novels, symphonies and produce telephone directory sized comic books on a daily basis. As a result of having a few paid leave days that needed to be demolished, I decided to put my idea in to practice.

I’m still not sure whether it was productive or not. I spent most of the evening oscillating between saying to Fien that “I’m disappointed that I didn’t get enough done” and “I enjoyed my day off and feel really happy about it” which, aside from confusing her a little, made me feel like I hadn’t made the most of my time off, even if I wasn’t entirely dissatisfied with it.

As for what I managed to get done, it wasn’t a complete disaster. I wrote two (albeit fairly lackluster) posts for this blog, I caught up with my lectures and even got ahead by doing one of today’s lectures early, I finally committed to Bristol Board the pencil outline of the first page of a comic I’ve been working on/thinking about for the last month, I did a load of washing in my current favorite blog topic and I had some time to chill out with my girlfriend as well. When I look at it like this, it was a hugely successful day, with more than one item being crossed of my list.

On the other hand, I could have done more. I have a project that I’m working on for a friend that, despite the absence of a due-date, is now so far overdue that it’s starting to go moldy and I had hoped that I would be able to at least partially cross it off my list. I didn’t finish that first page of my overly-planned comic. I only did a couple of lectures and no real substantive work on my course. I only did one load of washing. Essentially I started a lot of things but either finished them poorly or didn’t get far enough into them to feel that I’d achieved anything.

I think if I were to analyze my day, and I’m going to, then I’d say that I didn’t have enough direction. What I should have done is set some clear goals to have achieved by the end of the day, and whereas I had specified some vague goals from my to-do list, the fact that they were vague goals presented itself in the vague results that I attained.

I think I would do this again, but be clearer about what I wanted to during my day. I’ve always had a tendency to squander any time off work anyway and I’ve only now realized how one can succeed in making the most of it. Maybe I need to take a lesson from the way in which BPP College teaches its classes, in that they start every session, lecture and chapter of their manual with a “Learning Outcome” section that tells you what you’re going to do and allows you to keep focus. Next time I have a day off, I will sit down a make a “what-I-want-to-get-done Outcome” page to help me keep the same level of focus. If it works, maybe I’ll let you know about it.

Additional Notes:

I actually cannot stand the word “Stay-cation” as it sounds incredibly trashy, but it does unfortunately describe the staying-at-home during your time off idea perfectly and so I find myself unable to use any other word.

I promise I’ll stop talking about the ********ing washing machine now. Anyone reading this can clearly see how shaken up and simultaneously relieved I am about the whole thing. If I was clever, I’d make some sort of joke about spinning the story around, but I’m not too sure if that even makes sense, so I’m not going to try.

The other quirk of my day off was that I’d specifically chosen that date so that I would be at home when my girlfriend was around as well, seeing as she has Mondays off. I think that initially, she was worried that she was distracting me from getting things done, and maybe I thought the same at first, but if I were to do this all again, I’d chose a Monday again because she’s fantastic company and I think that maybe the reason I’m at least partially productive at work is because there’s always someone to vent to in case something doesn’t go quite as planned, or if you want to get a thought out of your head. This little comment will also be a fantastic way of finding out if she actually reads this thing or not.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Of Mice and Graduates

It’s very difficult to squirrel away money for a later date. For the foreseeable future, I know that I am consigned to renting an overpriced flat and that any thoughts of a mortgage or getting a foothold on the property ladder have been successfully stamped out by an over-inflated market that is only now being reconciled, but this doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be trying to collect funds for a later date.

When I was still at school, we studied John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”, which despite the best efforts of the English Literature interrogation approach of dissecting text, I thoroughly enjoyed. Without giving too much away, the main theme of the book is that two friends are trying to work and save enough money to buy a farm of their own and live the American dream. One of the comments made early on is that all the farm labourers start with that intention but end up spending all of their earnings on whiskey, women and pool (assumedly in that order). It becomes clear later on in the book that this is probably what is going to happen to the main characters as well and that they too are going to end up getting locked in this cycle of working, earning money, spending money, repeat.

This cycle sounds an awful lot like what can happen to anyone in life if you’re not careful. There is a significant consumer urge built in to a lot of western society, and if you are immune to it, congratulations, but I know that I for one am not. Somehow, I get convinced that I need to buy things that I really don’t need to buy. Fortunately enough, I have a guilt switch that gets automatically thrown once the money gets too big and I don’t spend vast amounts of money or land myself with buy now pay later schemes that can become crippling, but I can see how easy it is to fall into those. It is so difficult to resist the lure of instant gratification. Work for most people is tough or at the very least despised and we all need picking up from those sorts of things, and a quick bit of retail therapy can often seem like the obvious answer.

I don’t know what the answer is to this. It’s easy enough to preach willpower and budgeting, but we’ll all give in to that eventually. Maybe the key is to just always work and not give yourself the time to spend your earnings, or maybe it’s to earn so much money that you can’t realistically find enough ways to spend it all.

Of Mice and Men is quite a short book and well worth a read. It has certainly become more poignant to me since living an independent existence with an uncertain goal before me.

Additional Notes:

The name of the book comes from a poem, “To a Mouse” and the full saying goes something along the lines of “The best-laid plans of mice and men/often go awry” or as it is in it’s native Scottish, “The best laid schemes o' mice an' men/Gang aft agley”. I really hate it when things gang aft agley.

Issues of Naivety and Trust

Due to a mixture of a rarefied existence at university and a natural lack of life experience, I often find myself assuming that everyone is trustworthy and deep down a generally good person. I often find myself saying “oh, but they’re ok really” and I’ve recently started to wonder if that’s always going to be the case.

This sentiment is often called naivety, but it made me think that maybe it’s not such a bad thing. It could be that the basic levels of trust are what gets us through society as a whole and maybe this naivety is just a good intention to get through life as smoothly as possible. I’m confident in the fact that even people that you couldn’t possibly describe as naive get caught out by people betraying them or otherwise acting in an untrustworthy manner, so maybe on some level we just need to forget about it, get past it and just hope we don’t get stung.

The following quote is from KPMG’s profile of a Fraudster published in 2007:
“Why are people often caught unaware when somebody is accused of fraud? Because it
is usually the colleague who is known to be helpful, polite and inconspicuous.
But most importantly it is the colleague that enjoys the absolute trust of both
superiors and colleagues.”

This is quite a frightening summary, and if we are to believe it, it means we need to become entirely self reliant in all matters and probably go and live in a cave, fending for ourselves for fear that the mild mannered guy who does all the printing might be the one stealing your sandwiches. Let the quote sink in for a while and you realise that what it is telling you is that those most likely to betray you are those that inspire the most trust in you.

It’s clear that everyone gets caught out. The number of frauds that take place on a daily basis are staggering and we’ll probably be seeing a lot more of them coming to light as we hit the recession, as the majority of frauds always come to light when money is a little bit more scarce. I’m guessing that this is because people start looking at their account books a little closer only to notice a few holes, and the most famous recent holes in account books started to become apparent around 20 years ago on the last market slump, such as the Robert Maxwell pension scandal, and we’ve already had some crackers in the financial crisis leading to our current recession, such as Bernard Madoff, whose fraud can no longer be called a fraud, but more of a lifetime achievement.

Despite massive frauds taking place on a daily basis, trust isn’t a bad thing. It is required for a smooth running of society after all. You have to trust the postman to deliver your letters, the bank manager to direct your finances without skimming bits off the top, the insurance company not to steal your credit card details when you give it to them over the phone, your contractors not to swipe your beer from the fridge, and your government not to give away your personal details, including the names, addresses and private phobias of your children. Whether or not you can trust them is irrelevant, you have to trust them on some level, other wise it all falls apart and you have to move in to that aforementioned cave.

I’m not saying that we should all live with our heads in the sand. It is clear in some situations that you shouldn’t hand money over for something. I’m not saying that you should respond to all those “update your information” requests that get emailed to you from “Loylds” or “Bralcays” or “Hallifacts” bank, or that you should give money to the Nigerian colonel in order to unfreeze his assets, but at the same time, try to have a little faith in the rest of humanity. I hate to go on about it, but my adventure with the washing machine generated a lot of distrust towards the man I was buying it from and in all sensibility I should have walked away, but as a result of having a little faith, I do now have a functioning washing machine and clean underwear again.

With the quote above in mind, look twice at the mild mannered man in grey who never offends but that just seems like a cog in the machine, but remember that not everyone is a fraudster and the majority of people are still for the most part good and deserve your trust.

Additional Notes:

Bernard Madoff: the man with the most comical name for a fraudster embezzling money. Really though, once you get to swiping fifty billion dollars before anyone notices, that’s undeniably talented.

You’ll notice I painfully avoided the phrase “Credit Crunch”. I can’t stand it. What’s even worse is that at some point I heard a stupid joke referring to a cereal called “Credit Crunch” and now all I can see when someone says something about financial complications, is a bowel of cornflakes.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Credit where Credit is Due

About a year ago, I found a self-help blog that had a fantastic article on how to make money from a blog. The blog, by one Steve Pavlina, is one with a massive archive of original articles, many of which are interesting, helpful or a mixture of both. There are undeniably some things that he posts about that I don’t agree with, but with the sheer volume of posts that he’s made, that’s hardly surprising.

The reason I’m posting this is because there are quite a few things that I read that I agreed with wholeheartedly, to the point that I didn’t need the advice because I’d already thought of it before, but just hearing it from somewhere else made me think that maybe it was a good idea after all. It may be that you might be able to find something helpful there too.

His blog can be found at

As a personal recommendation, I find this to be a particularly inspirational article:

On the off chance that he does glance at this, thanks Steve.

Additional Notes:

As of writing this, his blog appears to be discussing the merits of polyamory. Just so we’re clear, these posts are not what I’m referring to when I say that I’ve read about things that I’ve already thought about and it was nice to have them confirmed. One loving relationship is more than enough for me thank you very much. There’s also some talk of Eagles and Bears which I’m not fully behind, but I can see what he’s trying to say.

Oh, and don’t worry, I’m not using you loyal readers (or reader) to make money from you and exploit you. If I was, I’d be finding some subtle way to suggest that you click on all of those advert links, but that sort of thing gets you in to trouble with Google, so I can’t do that.

Cave Emptor: Buyer Beware – Doing your homework before shopping

I was always taught to never rush in to things when it came to going shopping for certain items. Doing the research about whatever it is you’re buying is absolutely essential if you’re wanting to avoid being consumed with regret.

Over the last couple of years of living independently of my warm and fluffy home in the Cotswolds, I have experienced first hand why you must be careful in what you buy. My recent adventures aside, there have been several things that I’ve regretted buying or wished I’d looked in to things a bit more. The following pieces of micro-advice, will either help, or tell you something you already know, and sometimes being told something you already know is very helpful.

1) Cheap stuff will almost always break. Now, I’m sure that Argos don’t do it on purpose, and to be perfectly fair, they are just the middleman in that particular consumer arrangement, but the amount of stuff that we’ve bought from there that’s cheap and has broken is staggering. The best one was a tent that Fien and I bought to take to a festival, and the only time we realised that it wasn’t one hundred percent in working order was when we were trying to put it up. That’s pretty stupid on our part for not testing it first, but even so, it was cheap and of low quality and it broke. It also chose to break in the rain, which did nothing for my blood pressure, and I should think that was a very educational day for the other Belgian festival goers in our immediate area as they were able to witness first hand the versatility of the English language once it is directed towards a pile of semi-waterproof unhelpful broken-enough-to-be-a-problem canvass.

2) Paying over the odds for something doesn’t mean it’s going to be of a higher quality. It sounds ridiculous and patronising, but finding out exactly how much something is meant to cost is crucial to living without buyers remorse. If you have it in mind that cheap stuff will probably break, you can fall in to the trap of automatically assuming that expensive is better. Do a bit of background research into costs and you’ll be amazed to see that things can be cheaper in places you wouldn’t expect them to be.

3) Make sure the item is right for your needs. Apparently, people only ever buy things for one of two reasons. They buy things to solve a problem or they buy things to make themselves feel better. Whatever you’re buying, if it’s a solution to a problem, make sure that solution will be adequate and won’t just create more problems, and if it’s something to make you feel better, make sure it’s actually something you want. Never underestimate the power of advertising in it’s ability to make you feel like you need things that you really don’t.

A couple of days ago, one of the bloggers I regularly keep up with posted this. This is an example of incredible ingenuity in terms of merging a PC and several games consoles to make a monstrously-incredible media station. This gave me an idea for a solution to a problem that I’ve had for a while in that I have a console sitting around that’s been demoted by a newer model but still has some use left in it. I quickly became obsessed with the idea of hooking it up to my monitor through my PC, and a trip to Maplan later found me the owner of two pieces of equipment that wouldn’t do the job, but that I had been convinced would. This was completely my own fault. I hadn’t researched the matter properly and it was only when I came to look a bit closer at the ends of the cables that I realised that the two ends just wouldn’t fit together, no matter how hard I mashed them together. Although I did manage to get the redundant kit returned and acquire something to get the job done, I wasted a lot of time in trying to get it right, that wouldn’t have been needed if I’d just spent another half an hour finding out exactly what I needed.

I was lucky in that I made this mistake with something incredibly small that I could take back, but had it been something bigger I could have found myself in a very difficult situation.

Additional Notes:

I’m not actually too sure what happened to our tent. I think Fien managed to offload it onto an unsuspecting sibling, but as far as I’m concerned, if that tent so much as even thinks about coming back to England....

The man at Maplan actually ended up telling me that the cable I needed was probably available on the internet. I don’t know why my ears didn’t hone in on the use of the word “probably” earlier than they did. It turns out the actual cable was a figment of the assistant’s imagination. There were forum threads on the matter, but I quickly ascertained that they were forum posts on how to theoretically make a cable and what sort of equipment and sorcery one would need to splice the wires together.

The Blogger that I’ve linked is Shamus Young and his blog is for those of us with a penchant for the geeky side of life. If you’ve ever played a role playing game such as Dungeons and Dragons, his webcomic “DM of the Rings” is also fantastic, but probably won’t make any sense to any anyone that didn’t understand this last sentence.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Getting Through Boring Commitments

We’ve all been stuck in situation where time appears to have actually started going in reverse. The following short tips can apply to pretty much anything, be it a board meeting, a tutorial or lecture for a much loathed subject, or even family commitments that you couldn’t think of a decent excuse to get out of in time.

1) Don’t watch the clock: This is my absolute number one rule to avoid time slowing down. Stop watching the time. A watched clock becomes insecure and stops ticking out of fear that you’re eyeballing it for making too much noise. I regularly glance at my watch thirty minutes into an hour long lecture only to find that the next thirty minutes feel like days.

2) Preparation: This is another one of those things where I find myself not practicing what I preach. A little preparation for whatever it is you’re about to go in to can go a long way. Even if it takes half an hour out of your schedule before hand, you will consider that time well spent once you’re able to use that preparation, as it will make the time fly past if you have a vague idea about what is going on.

3) Be interested: If you pretend to show an interest, you might inadvertently become interested and once you become interested you’ll probably uncover all sorts of new information that you wouldn’t have found otherwise that you would genuinely consider interesting anyway. You often get out of something what you put in and a positive attitude will normally yield positive results.

In my own experience, I have often had problems getting through Tutorials in an academic scene. These often take a topic from a lecture and force a discussion about the topic in a small group of about twenty people. This requires you to know the subject in order to participate in the session and the hour can turn into torture once it becomes apparent that nobody has done any of the required background reading. These sessions have traditionally been ones that I have eyeballed the clock into submission, attended unprepared, and have not been interested. Recently, I’ve been preparing more, I’ve not been watching the clock and I’ve been pretending to show an interest and miraculously enough, it’s worked and even the driest subjects have actually started becoming quite engaging. Even the law of Equity and Trusts has become at least partially interesting and Equity and Trust law is far from interesting.

These three little points are nothing earth shatteringly original, I realize that, but I actually first discovered that they work when I was asked to stand in for my boss on a management meeting. Management meetings are particularly dry affairs that managers tend to dread, as they have a tendency to run for over three hours, but I loved it and it went by remarkably quickly because I was prepared, interested and I didn’t watch the clock.

This again probably boils down to the idea of making the best of a bad situation. As tempting as it is to sit around whistling “always look on the bright side of life”, I realize it’s not all sunshine and optimism, but a little of the latter can go a long way.

Additional Notes:

Just a quick disclaimer to any family who may be reading this, by family commitments you can’t get out of, I’m certainly not relating any personal experience there, nor am I suggesting that it was an excuse that I used to get out of your last barbeque; the dog really had eaten my shoes. Honest.

I also fall apart in tutorials because I can’t bear awkward silences, which normally results in me trying to answer something that I have absolutely no knowledge about, thus humiliating myself and turning the awkward silence into an awkward conversation, which is only a minor improvement.

Admittedly, I loved the management meeting because I could believe for three hours that I was important and had a higher salary than I actually do. It’s always good to day dream.

Pointless Prattle: The Ending for the Italian Job

It’s Friday, so it must be time for some pointless prattle from me.

The BBC have an on their website under their “Also In The News” category that caught my attention this morning. Apparently, the Royal Society of Chemistry have been running a competition inviting people to provide a solution to the ending of the film, “The Italian Job”.

The Italian Job ends with the characters in a coach full of gold bullion bars that is hanging precariously over a cliff. The characters are in the front end of the coach and the gold is at the back end, hanging over the cliff, and the coach is rocking gently back and forth. The final line is uttered by Michael Caine’s character, “Charlie”, who informs everyone that nobody should move and that he has a plan. We as the audience never get to know what that plan is as the film then pans out to see the coach balancing over the cliff and then cuts to the credits.

Setting aside the debate as to whether this is a worthwhile distribution of time and resources by the Royal Society of Chemistry, on a more fundamental level I don’t think this is news. I don’t mean that in the sense of “this isn’t about anything that is important”, far from it as my favorite parts of the news are the pointless irreverent bits. What I mean is that this isn’t news in the sense that I’ve heard the winning solution before.

The winning solution to the end of the film involves draining the fuel of the coach so that it balances out and they can get the gold off the cliff safely. I am ninety-nine percent certain that Michael Caine himself came up with that solution and wanted to use it as the starting point for the sequel. I recall seeing or at least hearing about an interview with him whereby he claimed that he did genuinely have an idea, as his character says, and the opening to the sequel would involve them draining the fuel, but that a gust of wind would carry the coach off the cliff anyway. After that, they’d get to the bottom of the cliff and find the gold had been stolen by bandits, whom they would then have to chase for the rest of the film.

There was probably a very good reason for never making the desired sequel and there is every possibility that I’ve imagined this, but as I say, I’m certain that I’ve heard the solution before. If this rings any bells with anyone else, please let me know!

Additional Notes:

The source of this is information is here. It’s actually quite an amusing read, especially the solution given by one of the children that entered the competition involving frogs.

The posts for this week, in case you have missed them, have been as follows:

The Benefits of Part Time Studying for Graduates

Control and When to Give Up

The Fallacy of University

Making Use of Wasted Time with Computer Games

Making the Best of a Bad Situation

Fighting Cliche in Creativity

David Hing and the Antique Washing Machine

The Problems with Preparing for Exams

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Blogging to Get Through your New Job

It seems that Anna Sam, the French checkout girl that I talked about yesterday, isn't the only person to make the best of a bad situation with a blog. It seems people the world over need to discuss and vent about problems with their new jobs and I'm looking forward to seeing some substantial posts on this one.

Additional Notes:

Honestly now, who in their right minds would actually want that job?

Just to make it perfectly clear, I'm not in any way suggesting that he may be using this as a way to get himself noticed, or land a publishing deal...

The Problems with Preparing for Exams

Whenever I’ve taken an exam, I’ve always found that I’ve never done enough preparation for it or that I’ve over prepared the wrong bits. Those first few seconds when everyone turns over the first page of their exam booklet to frantically find a question they feel they can answer is always followed by an almost audible collective slap as palms of hands connect with faces throughout the exam hall in despair, as they’ll always be one question that you’re just not sure if you’ve done enough work for.

I took a Statutory Analysis exam a couple of days ago. This was a slightly odd one in that it was an online multiple choice test that you had to sit down and complete in two hours completely uninterrupted. I was given a deadline of the 29th January to complete this, and against all tradition, I got it out of the way over a week early, purely because I got sick of preparing and worrying about it.

I absolutely abhor the anticipation-dread that one goes through on the run up to any exam or assessment of any kind. I actually normally do quite well in exams, but this knowledge that I perform quite well under pressure still doesn’t stop me from automatically tying knots in my stomach and getting incrementally more aggressive and moody the closer I get to the day of the exam. The main cause of this is undoubtedly the sheer uncertainty about the content.

Although you can get a rough idea about the sorts of things that will come up from past papers if they’re available, they are often inconsistent. Also, if you look at these, you can’t help but try to work out if the same topics will come up again this time around and whether it may be best to tactically avoid those areas of study. Not only that, but there’s always the risk that a topic that has only been asked for a vague outline in the past will suddenly require you to delve in to an unprecedented level of detail when it comes to your exam.

The level of detail that I go in to during my revision is never enough and the only time I will ever realise that is when I’m sat down in the exam trying to answer the question. It’s always too late, but I always find myself being able to picture the exact page that my notes are in, or the exact layout of the text book, desperately trying to peer through my brain fog and reach the precious text that lies beneath.

Maybe the answer to exams is to do exactly what I do and just get on with it, otherwise you’ll waste time. An exam is a throw-away piece of work that is just a check that you were listening anyway and nobody’s exam scripts are of publishing quality, nor are they expected to be. With this in mind, so long as you have been paying attention to at least some of your lessons, you should be able to pass without issue.

Additional Notes:

Multiple choice exams always catch me out, because I, like almost everyone else, assume that a multiple choice exam will be much easier than any other exam. In a way, this is true, but I always find the pattern is the same: You read the question, you answer the question, you spend the next five minutes changing your mind and second guessing yourself. The agonizing thing about multiple choice exams is that you know the answer is in front of you. It’s horrifying to realise that you have the question and you have the answer in front of you on the same page already and yet you still can’t get it right.
This online test could not be interrupted by anything, and a temperamental internet connection could have cost me a lot of marks. I was almost tempted to use my inconsistent internet connection that I have at home, just so that I could be furious about it and complain to my ISP about something new, but I could see that wouldn’t be constructive.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

David Hing and the Antique Washing Machine

A few weeks ago, on some bitter Sunday morning, our washing machine decided to throw a tantrum. It had obviously decided that it had done enough spin cycles for its lifetime, and although it was going to keep doing them if we asked nicely, it wasn’t going to do them quietly and it would make it audibly known that it had reached the spin cycle to ourselves, to our neighbours, and to the rest of Camden. Technically speaking, the bearings had gone. Realistically speaking, it was only a matter of time before the whole thing would tear our clothes to shreds, pack its bags, leave us and possibly explode. If we were lucky, it would happen in that order.

Our landlord had clearly foreseen this circumstance and all four of us very clearly remember him saying that the washing machine was to be considered an added bonus, as until the week that we saw the property, it hadn’t been working at all and a plumber had accidentally stumbled in and fixed it at some point through some kind of witchcraft. I think the exact words were something like “it’s on its last legs.” This wasn’t our landlord being unreasonable or evil, but merely sensible and responsible, as the space for our washing machine is very small, and the model that had just started making a fuss was a compact model, therefore being an awkward and unusual size. This meant the price of a basic model would be somewhere close to the region of £400 and second hand ones are creatures of myth.

After much stroking of beards and pondering of what to do, my suggestion of waiting until our clothes started cleaning themselves was struck out. Washing things by hand wasn’t really an option, as any bath water that’s left in our bath for any length of time generally makes its way into another bath in the flat downstairs, and whilst they are lovely and altogether patient people, we never really want them knocking on our door to tell us that we’ve flooded their flat. The final option was to play Tetris in our kitchen and find space for a full sized washing machine. Considering the hobbit-sized washing machine barely fitted in, I wasn’t hopeful, but somehow Matt and Kris are able to conjure space out of nothing and make things fit, a wholly desirable skill that I someday hope to develop.

The next step was to find a suitable replacement for our temperamental little friend. After a little searching, we discovered there were many bargains to be had on, a free to list, free to search classified adverts site, and so, in-between mouthfuls of my sandwiches at lunch time, I braved the internet in search of our next washing machine with a budget of around £80.

Funnily enough, anything cheap seemed to have disappeared already, and so I was very pleased to find one machine that boasted a good condition, was fully functional with no repairs needed and was selling for a price that was within our range. What was even better was that I could have a look at it the same evening, and if I wanted to take it, the chap selling it would drive myself and the machine over to my flat after the viewing.

After joking with my fellow office colleagues about how I was probably going to meet an axe murderer who was only selling the machine because it just didn’t get the blood out, I found myself being picked up in a car from Canada Waters and driven to a quiet secluded industrial estate in the Docklands to view my potential new washing machine. I instantly thought to myself that I have seen films that start and end this way, and those particular beginnings and endings are never really happy. I wasn’t too sure what to expect as I followed my guide into the small shanty-like door, but as it happened, it was genuinely where the washing machine was currently residing, so I am luckily not writing this from beyond the grave.

The warehouse itself was a classical fantasy cave of treasure, if you replaced all the treasure with household appliances in various states of disrepair and applied a healthy layer of grime. There were heaps of fridges, freezers, televisions, washing machines, tumble driers, bicycles, a lawn mower and I’m pretty sure I saw a light aircraft. The machine that I was there to see was, in hindsight, probably a lot older than the three years that the salesman had suggested and to put it politely, was a little bit damaged. To my amazement, the chap demonstrated that it was in full working order and I can’t help but be impressed by how quiet it ran. I’m even impressed that it ran at all.

For some reason, I agreed to buy the thing. If asked why, my only excuse would be that it was dark, and it didn’t look so bad in the dark.

The man who was selling this I have loosely described as a salesman. He was a Chinese man of average build with glasses and a flat cap with a thick accent, who described himself as an “office manager”. I couldn’t help wondering if the warehouse I’d just seen was the office in question. Apparently he runs a home clearance business whereby he buys up old appliances when people are moving house and then sells them on months later for what should be a profit. He was friendly and chatty enough, but the thing that stood out the most about him was the way in which he drove.

To him, red traffic lights were something that happened to other people.

I know that to drive in London you have to be quite aggressive and pushy in the way that you manoeuvre the car, but judging by the way he cut people up or drove along the middle of the road, this guy seemed to believe that he was floating about four feet above all other traffic. Among the U-turns, the driving on the other side of the road and the using of speed bumps as launching ramps, I realised that I wasn’t too sure what to hold on to in the car itself, as any part I grabbed hold of would probably come away in my hands. MOT certificates were clearly something that he had only heard about in passing. I’m also not sure if he had a clutch pedal or not, as I’m fairly sure that changing gear shouldn’t sound that painful.

Through some higher power or another, I survived my second hand shopping experience with a veteran of a washing machine now partially installed in the kitchen. After a quick clean, it isn’t anywhere near as grubby as it was when I picked it up and it might just prove itself worthy.

As grateful for my adventure as I am, I think that the next time I’m in the market to buy something like that, I’m going to hope that I’m in a financial position to buy from a real shop.

Additional Notes:

Of course, our landlord was being perfectly reasonable. Whoever refitted the kitchen clearly had more sinister plans than to provide something functional in that they left no space for a full sized washing machine. Either that, or he just lost count and guessed the number when it came to that particular bit, as sometimes happens in life.

Our flat is small. There are four of us living in it. Space is at a premium and hard to find, yet Matt and Kris always, without fail, manage to find somewhere to put things. I’ll never know how they got a piano in their room.

At one point during the journey, or rather time trial, home, this guy mentioned that you have to be quick, and “sometimes when the light just changes to red, there’s a policeman waiting just behind you and you get a ticket and it’s a real pain in the neck”. I’m still wondering just how many times this has happened. This is why they shouldn’t call it “getting points on your license”; people are just going to treat it as a competition.

I’m now thinking of a name for our washing machine. It’s clearly been in this world long enough to develop sentience, so it therefore deserves a name. If you have any suggestions, please let me know.

UPDATE: Kris' father reckons the machine is probably about 20 years old. It's almost as old as I am, but has probably had a lot more experience in washing clothes.

Fighting Cliché in Creativity

Even when I was at primary school writing stories as part of our education in English, part of me knew that “It was a Dark and Stormy Night” was the default way to set a dramatic mood. The rest of me knew that you never rely on the defaults for these sorts of things unless you want it to look like everything else. This sort of cliché can take a lot to break out of and you can find yourself slipping into it by mistake; after all, the reason it’s a cliché in the first place is because everyone else has done it first.

Nobody expects the cliché
I have had experience in the field of doing-things-everyone-else-has-done-first. For a long time now, I have run a webcomic as a hobby. It’s a fantastic method for teaching one how to draw and how to make websites and see what does and doesn’t work with compositions. I’ve learnt a huge amount from updating my comic over the last two years, even if I haven’t kept up with it on a regular basis, but I think I have also inadvertently created a complete catalogue of every single webcomic cliché out there.

In no particular order, there is an author self insertion character, the main female character tends to be violent, the predominant subject matter is a group of friends living together, it has a mad-cap inventor character, it has ninjas and relatively two dimensional characters with minimal development beyond things happening to them. For the uninitiated, that is a description of pretty much every single webcomic out there, with the only exception being that mine doesn’t have a constant discussion of video games.

I didn’t sit down and design it this way. I didn’t think carefully about what to put in. It just happened. Of course, not thinking about what to put in is exactly what landed me with the samey-mess in the first place. My only excuse is that I’ve never really taken my comic seriously where others do and that there is a certain degree of work that goes into it, as I very rarely copy and paste images and everything except the formatting, lettering and coloring is done by hand. Upon writing that, I can see that might make it seem like my comic is entirely digital, but the drawing and design is all done by hand which is still the significant part.

How to Avoid it
This could sound preachy, but I feel I can offer this advice because I’ve made the mistakes already.

1) Be aware of existing clichés and stereotypes: Study other ideas, creations or whatever it is you’re trying to do and try to identify common trends. I didn’t really notice the similarities between several different webcomics until they were pointed out to me and had I realized before, I would have taken a conscious effort to avoid them.

2) Don’t be afraid to abandon an idea even if you think it was a good one: There’s nothing wrong with a cliché if it’s done well, but you have to realize that your work will be judged against work that is already out there and will be judged harshly as a result.

3) Don’t be afraid to try something completely different: I’m repeating the point above really, but don’t be scared to shake things up a little. Sometimes you can shake things too far, so keep it within the realms of your genre, but don’t be afraid to experiment.

4) Plan things through: My inner youth cries out in pain as I offer this as advice. Everyone tells you to plan things through, and no one listens, and I do include myself in that definition of no one. I always used to write in a freeform manner which came across as rambling and directionless. Not only that, but when you don’t plan, you accidentally fall back on all those tried and tested ideas automatically and your creativity is completely stifled.

I’m repeating myself again, but there is nothing wrong with a cliché. Some people manage to make a formula work exceptionally well for them. You look at the Simpsons for example: That took the very standard and basic premise of a family sitcom and turned it into something that had never really been seen before, even when you consider that it’s heavily influenced by the Flintstones, which in turn was influenced by the Honeymooners.

There are, of course, no new ideas, but there are some incredibly over used ones.

Additional Notes:
When I was writing stories at primary school, my first book was how I learnt to spell the word “suddenly”, as it was the only way I could convey action, and all action happened suddenly throughout the book. It was fast paced in the way that arrhythmia is fast paced, haltingly and unhealthily.

Whilst writing this, I really struggled to find another way of saying cliché. Ironically enough, I seem to be working to turn the work cliché into a cliché itself.

I always used to write in an incredibly rambling way. Now I just write in a rambling way. A subtle difference, but you would notice if I abandoned my planning phase again.

Making the Best of a Bad Situation

I was directed to this article this morning about how a French checkout girl called Anna Sam has gone on to write a best seller based on her eight years experience working behind a till in a supermarket. This has been pulled together from the blog that Anna Sam has been keeping as a vent for various frustrations provided by the nature of the job and above all else the customers. If you speak French, the blog can be read here.

The article makes for an interesting read, and I wouldn’t mind reading the book. This is a fantastic example of someone making the best of a bad situation and finding an escape route to bigger and more exciting things. There’s nothing wrong with being a checkout worker, we all need them and the queues wouldn’t move very fast without them, but there is something a lot more exciting about what Anna Sam has managed to achieve.

If everyone kept and published a record of their daily lives, there would be a huge amount of poorly written and boring text out there, but there would also be the occasional shining example of a genuinely interesting, amusing and maybe enlightening piece of literature. If you’re bored, or depressed about your situation, why not write about it and see if it can transform into something interesting?

Additional Notes:
Reading about the content of her book, this confirms a suspicion that I’ve had for a long time that the checkout workers at my local supermarket are judging me based on the things that I buy. Seeing as the supermarket is so close, I use it as my own personal fridge, because if I buy things in bulk, I am the proverbial squirrel that can’t remember where he’s buried his winter supplies and I forget I have food whilst it slowly rots in the fridge. As a result, the combinations of food that I buy are by their very nature quite odd. A bunch of bananas, a bag of rice and branston pickle, for example, raises silent questions as to exactly what it is I’m planning to cook. There’s also the more direct judgment when I bring a crate of beer and a packet of super noodles and nothing else to the check out to be confronted with the chatty one who asks “oh, is you’re girlfriend away tonight?”

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Making Use of Wasted Time with Computer Games

There’s a fantastic cartoon from Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” that shows two adoring parents proudly watching their son play computer games and imagining job adverts in the future that require expert Mario players with hours and hours of video game experience. The world we live in today might be coming closer to that, but it’s still a long way off, however, computer games and employment are starting to nod to each other in vague recognition as they pass each other in the street. This article that I’ve stumbled upon is an interesting look at how principles from the World of Warcraft can be used to improve innovation in the work place. It’s a good principle and I’ve already seen that you can take elements of a game to make your work easier to do and talked about it in an earlier post about how I made a “quest log” of all the things that I had to do .

This made me wonder if I haven’t been wasting my time as much as I think by playing so many computer games in my spare time. There are undeniably some benefits that I have picked up as a result of hours and hours of my spare time sunk in to the digital addiction. However, just as a quick disclaimer, a lot of gaming is still a massive waste of time. If you already play games then this is the silver lining to your stormy cloud, but if you don’t, I wouldn’t recommend starting a forty-hour-a-week gaming habit in an attempt to gain some small perceived benefit. If you want to try, that’s great, but just remember, all things in moderation . Additionally, if you are going for a job interview or are talking to a particularly quick-to-judge boss, I wouldn’t recommend babbling on about how playing your level 78 Gnome Warlock has given you team management skills. Most of the time when people hear “spends a lot of time playing computer games” they still hear “wastes a lot of time” and in many ways they are right.

What follows is a list of skills that I think you can gain from games. For the purposes of the following, I’m really talking about the World of Warcraft, but some of the ideas will apply to other games as well. Feel free to skip to the end if you just want to know where I’m going with this


Undeniably, there is a lot of maths involved in games. Most of the time it’s hidden beneath the surface and obscured by the game engine, but for games like Warcraft, it’s very much at the forefront of being effective in the game. Balancing all of the numbers that go in to your character can drive people obsessive and is one of the driving forces behind acquiring more stuff and spending more time playing. Keeping track of which items stack on to which skills, and which skills give you a percentage bonus to which actions and all the associated intricacies that go with it frequently baffle me, but I’ve found a greater confidence in numbers and throwing them around since I’ve started playing the game. At the same time, this isn’t exactly calculus.

Problem Solving

Especially in the later part of Warcraft, some of the group activities require some very specific actions to get around certain problems. The earlier quests do also challenge you to a certain extent, but this rarely extends beyond some ambiguous directions and map reading problems which has frequently highlighted that I often muddle East and West. The only caveat that I’ll throw in here is that most of the problems are already solved for you. You often get directed by members of your group who have done it before in how to play, or told to go and look at the tactics filmed and posted on YouTube. I actually find this very frustrating, but the problem solving is still there on some level.

Team Work

Running on from the problem solving is the more obvious element of team work. Even being told how to do something, it takes a certain amount of skill and co-ordination to pull things off. Developing the efficiency of a team and finding out what works and what doesn’t work is easy to do in Warcraft and happens seamlessly the more you form groups with the same people. You could however argue that this is building the wrong kind of team work to transfer to the real world, unless you end up working somewhere that kills trolls as part of their business.

Social Skills and Team Management

Even if you successfully dismiss the problem solving and teamwork points, if you have gotten in to any of the social aspects of Warcraft, you can not deny that you will be building experience in resource management and efficient allocation of team members, not to mention a healthy amount of dispute resolution. Getting a group to work together at all is an effort, but getting them to work well together is almost a full time job in itself, and some people become very successful with social skills through Warcraft and gain a massive amount of confidence. If nothing else, the game can teach you a lot about people that you might not otherwise know.

Time Management

The very nature of Warcraft is the attainment of goals. Balancing what to do and where to go and working out how to do it effectively has pretty much become the game for me. I like planning our little expeditions that get as much done in as short an amount of time as possible and it’s made me very good at identifying what is and isn’t a good use of my time. This will sooner or later break in to real life, and for all I know, I’m using these skills already. I think in some ways this goes back to the “all things in moderation” argument as well; I’m very conscious of the fact that I could easily spend far too much time playing this game, so I try and get as much out of it as quickly as possible. As a result I also despise waiting around whilst other people mess about wasting time trying to get ready.

Hand Eye Co-ordination

This is probably pushing it, but I’ve often heard it argued that gaming greatly improves hand eye co-ordination. From personal experience, this is a lie. I still appear to have two left hands, which is a problem as I’m right handed, and I can’t help feeling you’re more likely to get carpal tunnel syndrome or RSI before any positive benefits.

Other Games of Note

As I’ve said, above I’m really talking about World of Warcraft and you can not apply these principles to all games because of the variable nature of differing gameplay. There are a few other examples of note however:

  • Eve Online is fantastic for the mathematics side of things and the game essentially trains you to become a stock broker or business manager.
  • Guild Wars was very good for the Team Work and Social Skills side of things in terms of finding the right skills, people and combinations to get through things.
  • Finally, something like LittleBigPlanet I have to mention for the sheer creativity of the Problem Solving included in the core gameplay.


Maybe it’s not that one can learn skills through a game, but maybe it’s that games have become so much more like work. The elements I’ve discussed above could easily be seen as an emulation of work activities rather than anything more abstract. Perhaps it’s our very nature to want to work and make efforts towards a larger goal; Warcraft is after all a hugely popular game with somewhere in the region of 11 million players, if one is to believe the official Blizzard figures. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that anything you do in life is bound to teach you something that you can transfer to something else and in gaming, there may be more than you think. In nature, young predatory mammals play-fight with each other to teach themselves to hunt, so maybe we are doing the same with our games.

Additional Notes:

I have a problem with my lefts and rights, my easts and wests, I also whilst playing occasionally miss enormous landmarks and walk off cliffs because I’m not looking where I’m going. This is a true and accurate representation of my directional skills in real life. I once took my girlfriend when I first met her to see Buckingham Palace and couldn’t find it. Buckingham Palace, as you probably realise, is not exactly inconspicuous, especially as it has a road leading up to it that is specifically designed so that you could land a plane on it.

Thinking about team work, it might also make management uncomfortable if you say that you are “used to working with a group of people to take down bosses”.

Monday, 19 January 2009

The Fallacy of University

I don’t regret going to university, but I would have done if the only thing I got out of it was of an academic nature. Through the use of my psychic intuition, I get the impression that a lot of people that have been to university probably feel the same way.

The very nature of academia can seem shallow to those not entirely immersed in the student ethos. I got through university and was spat out the other side with a good degree, but during the process, I got by on the bare minimum. I saw people killing themselves with stress, worry and sleep deprivation in order to keep up with the recommended reading and ending up with the same grade as me. However, without that wider reading, the academic experience is undeniably going to be a shallow one and for me, all it became was a series of skin-deep essays and exams. I didn’t do spectacularly well in any of them, but I did well enough to get the same classifications as those of my colleagues who had eaten drank and slept the world of Ancient History for the full three years. The frustrating thing is that I was a bad student in reality but on paper I was one of the best. The call for decrying the numerical grading systems of the academic world is a subject for another day, but how can someone really assess a person’s mastery over the discipline of History or any of the more subjective arts subjects with a score between one and one hundred?

The academic side of things is obviously not the only reason that people go to university, even if it should be the main reason. There are a lot of good things that one can get out of the university experience. It is a time when you are among several like minded individuals who you should get along with, societies could lend weight to an existing interest or allow you to try out new things that could become valuable to you later in life, and the experience of living away from home but still retaining a certain degree of a safety net is invaluable. I owe my independent lifestyle that I have at the moment to being able to face the real world one step at a time through the university experience and then put it all together after graduation.

I find it a real shame that there is such a massive drive to get everyone going to university. This isn’t sour grapes in the sense that I feel the experience should be more exclusive, but I feel that it shouldn’t be mandatory. We all know people that have gone to university that are either not capable of meaningful studying or just wouldn’t get anything out of it and so many people get pushed into it by schools, parents and the government when what they would really benefit from is starting work or learning a different kind of skill. I’m sure a lot of school leavers end up going to university because they feel they have to and that they would be a failure if they didn’t.

I have a friend that joined the police instead of going to university. As it happens, this friend was more than capable of university level of study, but he wouldn’t have gotten as much out of it as he has done with the police force, because he is perfectly suited to the job; He has good presence and charisma, he’s remarkably good with people, he’s strong and confident and he has enough intelligence to understand what’s going on. If we had more police officers like him, the country would be a much safer place. If more people followed paths that they were more suited to, we would have a country that would make a lot more sense.

If you don’t feel you got what you wanted to out of university, it’s not too late to follow your dreams and expectations. It may be time to take up part time studying as I so strongly advocate (see my ramblings on the matter here) but for me, I’m going to be happy with the fact that I did at least get something out of it and wasn’t purely there because I thought I had to be. I know people who want to get into radio and so spent their university life running the studio, gaining a vast amount of knowledge and huge number of contacts, I know people who wanted to get into journalism that spent their time snooping around the university digging up a surprising amount of dirt and I know people that wasted their time and didn’t get anything out of their three years, but it doesn’t matter what you have done, it’s what you do with it that will count.

Any graduate out there may think that they’re at a significant advantage to non-graduates in the job market. In my albeit limited experience, I would argue that the playing field is a lot more level than you may think.

Additional Notes:
Academia should be the driving force behind going to university, but I did meet someone who never intended to study in the first place. He attended the first year of his university six times, using it as some kind of expensive holiday reosrt, before ending up having to work twelve hour shifts without holidays or weekends for the following four years in order to pull himself out of debt. The interesting thing is that he didn’t regret a second of it.

I actually had a radio show at university as well. It was great fun to do but just occasionally you would find yourself suddenly realizing that you were sat in a small dingy basement room, listening to music and talking to yourself.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Control and When to Give Up

Wanting to be able to accept the things you cannot change and change the things you cannot accept is a wonderful sentiment. I’m not entirely sure where it comes from; a quick search on google for the adage reveals it is used by various religious groups, self help books and alcoholics anonymous.

I find the first bit particularly different. As a matter of course, if there is a problem, I like to do something about it so that it becomes less of a problem. Anyone that has ever had to write an essay knows that the best way to stop worrying about it is to write the damn thing. Changing the things I cannot accept is fair enough, but accepting the things I cannot change is going to take some work.

The only thing that really gets me stressed to an unbearable level is not being able to do anything about something that is effecting my life. That may make me sound like a control freak, or some kind of miniature despot, but it’s not really as bad as that. Considering I am remarkably flexible in terms of things happening to me, there’s not much that I would say actually effects me anyway, but just occasionally, something will happen and there will be absolutely nothing that I can do to stop it weighing heavily on my mind.

Just as a case in point, our internet connection is something I can do nothing about. I have been telephoning our ISP (who shall remain nameless unless they don’t get their act together pretty quickly) since I first signed up for the service over a year ago to complain about slow speeds and frequent disconnection. After being told that this was because of a broken router/a broken modem/a bad network/problems in the area/solar flares/the infinite power of Christ and offering a variety of solutions such as replacing the hardware/upgrading my network/restarting my computer/sacrificing a goat, it has transpired that the cable in our area is just completely overloaded at peak times of the day. Unbelievably, there is nothing that they can do about this until enough people complain, but I would put serious money on the notion that whenever someone does complain, they get fobbed off with one of the aforementioned stupid excuses and they probably believe them.
Bottom line of this rather uninspired and only-blood-boiling-if-you’re-me rant, our internet doesn’t work and our ISP won’t fix it. This qualifies this particular mind boggling series of events as a thing that is effecting my life and the lives of my flatmates, but it is also something that I can do absolutely nothing about other than complain.

If you think very carefully about your life and things that have been happening in it, anyone will see that these sorts of things happen all of the time. We can’t help it if we have work that needs to be done but don’t have the components required to complete it. We can’t help it if they’ve sold out of Banoffee Pie and the only reason that you picked that restaurant in the first place was because your girlfriend really wanted Banoffee Pie. We can’t help it if the train is delayed due to “passenger action” and will make you cataclysmically late again.

The thing that frustrates me the most about these things is that for the most part, they are so insignificant that getting upset about them just makes you feel stupid. I know I’m not really that dependant on the internet, and maybe it’s a good thing that I’ve been cut off from my own particular brand of digital heroine, but it doesn’t stop me from wanting to holler insults down the telephone at the moron who has just told me to de-fragment my computer in order to make the internet work.

I’m not too sure where I’m actually going with this, but what I’m really trying to say is that I wish I could let things go more often. I’m sure that if I had focussed more on the things that I could do something about as opposed to the things that I couldn’t do something about when I was looking for a job back when I’d first graduated, I would have had a much better time of things and a few more opportunities to chose between. It would have been better to proactively research more options and distribute my CV to more places than to become despondent about companies not getting back to me. I can’t do anything about a company’s policy on interviews but I can do something about more companies realising that I exist.

If you find yourself trying to control the uncontrollable, give up and move on to something else.

Additional Notes:

Seeing as complaining is the only thing I can really do about our internet, I make sure I do as much of it as possible. Thanks for listening. I feel a little bit like this article is probably copy for copy’s sake, but I just wanted to vent about it somewhere and everyone I know is already bored with it.

I’ve actually developed a new way of getting my own back on technical support. I ask if I can put them on hold for a second, put the phone down on the side and walk off for ten minutes. If they’re still there when I come back, I pass the phone to someone else in the flat without telling them who’s on the phone or what the phone call is about. It’s not an original idea by any means and it is very closely modelled on the way they deal with me on a regular basis, but I still like it.

Friday, 16 January 2009

The Benefits of Part Time Studying for Graduates

Studying is good for your level of happiness. This is probably because it is constantly challenging your definition of happy as you wade through countless lectures, tutorials and deadlines that you thought you had put to rest at your graduation ceremony, but it is still good for your level of happiness. Let me climb back onto my soapbox and tell you why it is a good idea for you to study again alongside a day job.

Why should you?

Starting with the very obvious and easy to understand reason first, it will give you new skills, new experiences and a new qualification. Even at the very least, it will give you one of those three. Some career paths may open up to you once you’ve done a little bit of extra studying, including some that may not be initially obvious, and you may find that employers will see extra training that you’ve done, or are in the process of doing, after your graduation and think “hey, this one isn’t lazy! Let’s talk to him and find out what he’s all about”. I don’t totally agree with doing things for your CV alone, but it is undoubtedly going to be a pleasant side effect of studying.

Secondly, I always find, the more I have to do, the more I get done. Part time studying forces you to do a certain amount of things in your spare time, which means that the remaining spare time you have is a lot more focused. You’re much less likely to spend an unfulfilling evening watching rubbish that you dislike on television if those three hours have become more precious to you and your spare time slightly more scarcely available.

The main motivation behind my part time studying was for the sake of my sanity. My brain wasn’t getting much of a work out during the day and there wasn’t much to occupy my mind in the evening either, as I would inevitably find myself burnt out after work anyway and vegetate in front of the TV or a computer. This is similar to the point above, in that studying gives you something to focus on and refines any other spare time into spare time that you use as opposed to waste. You might have also found yourself in a situation whereby every day feels like a grind and that your job covers the same ground a lot. I quite like my job, but that doesn’t stop it from being a repetitive mind-masher that eventually turns your brain to sludge.

Finally, studying part time is good for the ego. It means that you’re able to say when people ask that you work in x company by day, but by night, you study to become a lawyer/doctor/IT consultant/superhero. This will, if you are anything like me, make you feel better and reaffirm to yourself that you are going somewhere and not stuck in a dead end or boring job. Whereas you shouldn’t boast, you should allow yourself to at least take a little pride in your efforts.

What should you do?

You should do something that you enjoy. I absolutely loath that piece of advice, so allow me to clarify: You should do something that interests you and that you can see yourself sticking to, or you should do something that you’ve always wanted to try. Before going to university, everyone used to say to me that you should do something that you enjoy, but really, I don’t know how you’re meant to know what you will enjoy once you get to university. I enjoyed Music, English literature and Theatre Studies at the time, but I knew that three years of studying would kill either one of them for me and at the same time I knew I enjoyed History and suspected that this would be more likely to survive three years of studying, hopefully allowing me to enjoy it even more over time. As it turned out, I was wrong and three years of studying smashed any positive feelings I had for History into kindling instead. The point is that I thought I would enjoy History and it turned out that I didn’t, and there is no way that anyone could have told me that would happen, nor was there any way that I could have known. People have told me I will hate law, but so far I haven’t experienced even a glimmer of negativity about the subject. You will never know if you enjoy something or not until you try it, but a lot of the time you will have a rough idea, so go with your instincts. Essentially, don’t start an intensive medical degree if you can’t stand the sight of blood, or an IT consultancy training program if you can’t stand the sight of wires.

As a graduate, chances are you’ll have a choice of places. Most places say that a 2:1 is preferable, but don’t lose hope if you don’t have that as they will often interview you, if not just give you a place anyway. With part time courses in particular, it is much easier to get a place in a college than it is to get a place for a degree after A levels. The cynical view is that they want your money and the realistic view is probably that….well, they want your money. I know that I applied for a place on my course at BPP way beyond the deadline and about three weeks before term was due to start. My place was confirmed almost instantly and I only have a fairly pedestrian academic record.

What to avoid

A lot of places give you funny qualifications. Training is big business and there is a lot of money to be made, which means a lot of people are trying to take money from training programs that really aren’t worth it. Do some research into what you’re signing up for. A lot of IT training appears very suspect in that it masquerades as a job interview process that advertises on the job training with no prior experience necessary. I applied for one of these thinking it was a genuine job opportunity and was given a telephone interview that seemed perfectly legitimate until they started talking about course fees at the end of the call. I would be instantly suspicious of anything that doesn’t directly advertise itself as training.

Also, in a similar vein, avoid anything that promises to make you lots of money very quickly. If it’s too good to be true, blah blah blah you’ll be ripped off and end up selling your soul and your home will be repossessed and you’ll die alone with cats and the cats will eat you if a fire burns down your house (that has already been repossessed) etc. Some training courses claim they’ll guarantee you a job after you’ve finished as well. This could also not be as good as you may think it is as they could easily dump you in a dead end job and tell you they’ve done what they said they would.

In general, it would be best to go for something that is being taught from an institution with at least a little bit of a positive reputation. I’m not suggesting you should only settle for Oxbridge style quality, but anyone that is in a position to study part time should be able to do better than “Learningz4U, location: Back room of Euston station.”

When should you? When should you not?

Make sure you have at least some spare time in which to study. Of course, having said that, it may not take up as much time as you would suspect, as I’ve mentioned above, the more you have to do, the more you get done and once you get into a routine and so long as you set a little time aside every now and then, you can get through all manner of work that is required of you each week.

I would recommend part time studying only if you have a job first. Also, it’s a good idea to see if you can work full time and still have energy to do it. I was able to get enough experience so that I can, if necessary, work on autopilot, leaving me more energy to do the studying in the evening. If you have a highly demanding job, or if you’ve just started a job, it would be better to wait until you feel you would be able to manage what is essentially extra work on top of what you already have to do.

Be aware that if your life is full, part time study could completely knock you out. If you have a hectic work life, a hectic family life, children, other commitments that you don’t want to lose, other projects, second jobs, or anything that is dominating your time, part time study will finally break you. The window of time doesn’t have to be massive, but it does have to be there!

My last suggestion is an absolute no-brainer. Studying does cost money, significant sums of money in some cases and basic extortion in others, but even the lowliest evening class will cost money. Therefore, going back to my first point here, working is an absolute must. Studying just for the sake of something to do during the day is a tremendously bad idea, as is studying in order to stay away from work. Although it’s a short wander away from the subject, a lot of people I know have done masters degrees after their bachelors, purely because they couldn’t think of anything else to do. This really just puts you in even greater debt and doesn’t always advance you as far as you would have thought. If on the other hand you desperately want to do a masters degree, you’re passionate about the subject or your particular career path demands it, then that is a different matter. My flat mate is applying to do a masters degree for decent reasons and he will undoubtedly get a lot out of it.

How will it affect your life?

Studying will for the most part make you happier and give you a little more fulfillment in your life. It will also make you slightly more stressed out most of the time and will make you think really hard about whatever stupid advice you took that lead to you doing it in the first place and might possibly encourage you to start practicing voodoo on any relevant advice givers.

The major downside of it is one that I’ve already touched on and that is the cost. You will have to cut back a little and set aside more than usual to pay for it, which can be incredibly daunting if you are already in debt from a pre existing student loan or something similar.

The only other major thing that is a little unfortunate is that you will find yourself with a few more commitments during the week that you have to honor. This of course will vary depending on what it is you’re studying and where you are studying it. I am fortunate enough to study at BPP where they provide you with all the lectures on DVD and give you a USB stick with all the lecture slides on at the beginning of the year, which means if you can’t attend one of the lectures, you can catch up with it at home. This of course reduces the set-in-stone commitment level of set hours a week and is an absolute gift to anyone who has an even slightly variable weekly timetable.

What I do and how it has helped me.

If you think I’m a tedious bore, feel free to stop reading (although how you’ve made it this far already I don’t know). This is just to show you that I’m not completely plucking these ideas and opinions out of the ether.

I graduated and spent about two months out of work, desperately-yet-not-trying-too-hard searching for a job. I then got a job in a call centre selling insurance. After three months of that, I got a job in the same company administrating the sales and processing applications and doing a lot of paper work. Five months after that, I had worked out all of the subtleties of the job and I was critically and dangerously bored and needed a change. Instead of a change, I started my part time law GDL conversion course at BPP. I chose the conversion course because it was something I had always considered doing, with law being something I was particularly interested in and because it was something that a lot of people had suggested I would be good at. I am now about three quarters of the way through it and due to finish this year.

The course has given my brain something to do, it has given me an overall goal, it has made me more productive (even with huge periods of non-productivity, I’m still better than I was before), it has introduced me to new people, it has given me something interesting to put on my CV, it has given me a huge number of interesting things to talk about and think about and it has obviously taught me a huge amount about our legal system. If nothing else, this course has kept me going whenever I’ve felt a bit down and given me something to focus on, giving me direction and an idea that I can get somewhere if I work hard enough. It doesn’t matter if I don’t eventually train as a lawyer, the course has already paid for itself ten times over.

I’m not saying that I’m a model student, a model employee, a model friend, a model individual, or a….model….but part time studying has improved my life and lifestyle no end and made me feel a better person for it. I can’t stress enough how much I recommend trying it.

To Conclude

The truth is that life is a lot like studying, but without the leniency in time limits. There will always be deadlines and things you need to work for and learn and develop so you should abandon the notion that once you’re done studying, you’ll never have to do it again. What you should bear in mind though is that the second time round, in a different environment and with a different ethos, it can be a lot of fun and you will find yourself appreciating the act of studying a lot more. It’s now no real mystery to me why mature students at university always got their work done and put the hours in; it was because they had a different way of thinking, and it was almost a frivolous hobby for them, whereas for the rest of us, “student” was our label, our attitude and our profession.
Part time studying is not for everyone and I’m not saying everyone will be as happy with it as I am, but it’s worth a try and might just revolutionize your life.

Additional Notes:

I attend BPP professional education in Waterloo for my conversion course in law and can genuinely sing their praises. Apart from them forgetting that I’d paid one set of my course fees, I have absolutely nothing negative to say about them. I know that they also do courses in accountancy and actuary and I can only imagine they do these courses just as well (especially accounting: they get free coffee and everything).
Although they are technically rivals of BPP, I have also heard good things about the College of Law, but I can’t give them a personal recommendation.
There are several universities and colleges across the country that specialize in evening classes and part time courses. In central London, I can also offer a recommendation for Birkbeck College as I know a few people who have done things there and say they’re pretty consistent, but elsewhere it’s worth digging around and seeing what is on offer.

The law training is starting to kick in now as I feel myself compelled to write: I am not to be held responsibility for any regret, loss of sleep, sanity or sensibility due to any perceived misrepresentation of the benefits of part time studying.

Any requests for parts of my hair for use with voodoo dolls will be considered on a case by case basis.