October, 2015

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A break from all these words

One of the things that film photography gives you is the total surprise factor. Like when you find a film in your fridge that you thought you remembered taking pictures on but then weren’t quite sure. We were developing films yesterday as part of LoLo’s class 8 project and I found such a film lurking in the fridge. Actually, I thought it was the one on the scanner but, having developed it, I found that that one was actually an unused film. It will now be used to show people what an unused film looks like. And I was not at all annoyed at having wasted 25 minutes of my life developing nothing of any use.

But the film in the fridge was the one I had been looking for and I was pleasantly surprised to find that some of them were all right. Here are some of them. In the same way as I take the approach of knowing I will never be either first or last in a marathon, I am also happy that my photos will never be the best or worst out there. I would just like to get better over time.

I think there is something about black and white photos that gets the imagination going that colour photos don’t do in the same way. I don’t know if it’s an association with years gone by or something inherent in the simplicity of black and white or something completely different. But this photo started me thinking of what the story behind it is:

Berlin 5 030

The light coming through the trees surprised me in this one. It’s not how I remember it (which begs the question of why exactly I decided to take a picture of a bunch of trees, but I have form on that one):

Berlin 5 026

See? (this one was about the texture of the bark and I wanted to see if it would work with the other trees out of focus. Next time I will stick to the texture of the bark.) (And sorry about the dust and tiny hairs on the negative, they are an absolute pain to get rid of – what looks big here is probably less than a millimetre in real life!)

Berlin 5013

And, finally, a few to show that I will always return to my love of shapes. I think I like geometry when I was younger.

Berlin 5 029

I do love my spiral staircases with random Berlin graffiti. Apart from the graffiti, it reminded me of the double helix shape:



Berlin 5001

And I was determined to get this one just to get the point of intersection. Unfortunately I also managed to get something in the top corner. I could probably Photoshop it out if I knew how to use Photoshop:

Berlin 5011




The London blog

This week’s blog is only a few days late… I had planned to write it before we left for London, but with a family coming to stay in the house while we were away, there were a few things that I needed to get done before I went to pick up the rest of the family and go to the train. And suddenly it’s Friday.

Our usual plan of attack is to show up in London and then figure out what to do. There is always a handwork/sewing/material event that is the prompt for us to go there in the first place, but the variety of other offerings and special exhibitions is always impressive, no matter what time of year we are there. Having posters everywhere is very helpful in finding out about the shorter-running events that a simple internet search might not immediately come up with.

Take the Chocolate Show, for example. It was inevitable that we would go once we saw the first poster. A huge exhibition hall devoted to chocolate. With so much tasting opportunities that we grew quite selective (= picky) by the end of the day and probably aren’t going to eat any chocolate for a few more days still. But we can now identify a Madagascar dark chocolate by the taste, so we  learned something useful.

We saw some fun chocolate replicas of everyday items…



… but the most unusual part of the event was the fashion show at the end.


Some of the costumes seemed to have only a tangential connection to chocolate, but a chocolate Dalek costume?







There is nothing quite like the variety of museums in London. This time, we finally got to go to the Imperial War Museum, which was being renovated the first time we were down there. I feel I should warn those in the Shard that someone has their sights on them…


The Science Museum had a capsule that had been around the moon and had the scorch marks from re-entry on the bottom…


… as well as a 19-volume book of part of the human genome:


It wasn’t all just museums, though. Homage was paid to the Pineapple Dance Studios (I thought it was just a dance-based brand to sell over-priced clothes, it turns out there are also real dance studios.)


And there was Billy ElliotBob Dylan and the choral evensong at St Paul’s. So a decent dose of culture in there as well.

The other benefit London has for me is the time on the underground. Apart from when we try to get on a train at Holborn at 6pm and decide instead to walk 20 minutes to a different line rather than stand in the crowd that can’t even get into the station, never mind onto a train, Tube time is reading time and my goal is to get through one novel while I’m there. This week was Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Purity, which was long enough to challenge me to get it finished before we got home. It took me until York on the train back yesterday, but I made it. Review coming next week.

Challenging my assumptions – and loving it

It turns out I quite like finding out why my assumptions are wrong. As long, that is, that there is a proper explanation for my unconscious errors. And that I am not the only one making these mistakes. Nobody likes to be the only one in the class who doesn’t get something…

So take class sizes. I remember well a conversation with someone years ago where there was concern about a child being the only one in their age group for the church class they should be in. The question was whether to put them in with a slightly older age group so they were not on their own. But he was left in a class of one because “parents pay a lot of money for their children to be educated in smaller classes”. Wrong. Well, not that some parents pay for this, but wrong that this is beneficial for the child’s learning.

How about the experience of the Blitz in wartime London? The expectation on both sides of the conflict was that the constant bombing would destroy the morale of the Londoners. The British government thought that three to four million people would flee to the countryside, others would refuse to go to work, the army would spend its time keeping control among the civilian population, and industrial production would come to a grinding halt. Except that none of that happened. Not what we would expect to have happened. Why?


Malcolm Gladwell looked in his book David & Goliath at these and many other examples of how what we think will be a disadvantage can sometimes be an advantage and vice versa. This book follows on from several others (not all of which I have, yet, read) which demonstrate his versatility and ridiculously wide areas of interest. As well as his ability to demolish my assumptions. He is something of a phenomenon, writing for the New Yorker for almost twenty years (that would be enough for most people, but he seems to manage to get his editor to give him time off to write his books as well) and, before that, the Washington Post. His website is insanely minimalist. If you are Malcolm Gladwell, I guess you can do that.

The (very simplified) answer, by the way, to the class size is that the right way of thinking about it is that both classes which are too large and too small are not good for learning. We probably thought that the smaller the class is, the better, but the benefits of reducing from 100 to 50 to 40 to 30 diminish, and beyond a lower number, results get worse rather than better. Seems obvious now.

And the Blitz phenomenon was because those being bombed fell into three categories. Those who died were in one category. But, without meaning to diminish the impact on them personally, there was no ongoing effect for them. The second category was those for whom a bombing raid was a near miss. They suffered from the shock of the experience and were left traumatised from it. But the third group, the vast majority, was the people for whom the experience was a ‘remote miss’ – they heard the sirens, the planes, the bombs falling, but the bombs fell a few streets away. Instead of being traumatised by the experience, they felt the opposite after a few times – they felt invincible. Gladwell gives an example of how they described the feeling:

When the first siren sounded I took my children our dug-out in the garden and I was quite certain we were all going to be killed. Then the all-clear went without anything having happened. Ever since we came out of the dug-out I have felt sure nothing would ever hurt us.

To put the size of the groups into perspective, there were around eight million people living in the Greater London area at the time, and less than fifty thousands deaths and fifty thousand injuries. So the ‘remote miss’ group was by far the largest, and this accounted for the lack of panic, and part of what we now call the ‘wartime spirit’.

In Blink, Gladwell looks at a very different set of questions. How is that we can sometimes make instant (and very good) judgements on something, better even than when we consider the question deliberately and thoughtfully?

We do it with people all the time. I remember hearing somebody speak in public one time. They were a senior leader in a church, much respected, very outgoing, very funny, very personable. And I didn’t buy it. Based on… what? I suppose I put it down to a feeling at the time, but that’s so vague as to be useless if you want to share the impression. ‘I don’t know him, but I had a bad feeling.’ Haven’t we all said something like that before – or the converse ‘I just had a good feeling about her’?

What Gladwell shows is how we are able to pick up on tiny clues without realising it. It’s usually based on experience and it happens behind what he calls a ‘locked door’, inaccessible to our conscious mind. But it’s something we start learning as babies. A baby will look at our faces to see what emotion is behind our words, and will start this unconscious learning process. It turns out that our facial expressions can be, and have been, categorised, and that they are universal. A tribe with no previous contact with other humans had the same reaction to a series of pictures of faces (yes, I’m wondering how they did that research as well) as people with similar backgrounds to us. When someone has spent time studying the process in detail, they are able to describe what they are seeing, put a vocabulary to it. But for most of us, it happens unconsciously and we cannot coherently or accurately describe why we feel a certain way when we encounter something. However I arrived at that almost instant judgement all those years ago, I was right. It took a while to see the evidence of that unconscious impression, but there had been something there that some part of me had picked up on.

Blink is a remarkable look at how we think – and how we think we think, which is quite a different thing.

And if you needed another reason to buy the book – you will also find out why the Pepsi challenge (Pepsi won against Coke in blind tastings) didn’t translate to relative sales success. And why male chief executives who are over six feet two make up almost a third of the population of chief executives but less than 4 percent of the population. And why our assumptions about our views on race equality might not be as straightforward as we believe.

One year down…

One year.

1,500 pages.

350,000 words.

That was year one then.

1500 pages

I think I have done two things in the right order. Run a few marathons. Then try to write a novel.

It feels similar. Both are painful, for one thing. And year one of running was trying things out, not worrying too much about it and getting to the end of the year and realising that there had to be a better way of doing it.

That’s about where I am now with the book. And I’ve just re-read Sol Stein’s book on writing because now I see what he’s talking about. I didn’t get it the first time round, I was too dead set on just writing. But since then I’ve read some excellent novels… and some pretty poor ones, but I can now see what’s wrong with them. I haven’t dared read through any of what I’ve churned out this last year.

So I’ve gone back to the absolute basics of my characters. I’m stopping myself from going any further until I can see a difference in them when I write from their perspective. It might still not be good – but it’s definitely not as bad.

It all just takes time. And patience. And definitely a good dose of bloody-mindedness.

There are more than enough days when I think I could happily chuck it in. It’s hard work, lonely, and you spend far too much time doubting yourself for it to be a healthy way to spend your time. But I don’t stop mid-marathon either because I know it will be worth it when I cross the finish line. And anyway, I couldn’t really stop writing.

George Orwell understood it well:

Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

And, having waded through more than a reasonable amount of Thomas Mann’s incredibly long books in which not a lot happens, I am glad that at least it wasn’t easy for him:

A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

So… on with year two. Year two of running was the year of breakthrough. Here we go then…