A day of highs and lows

Isaac

Isaac

Today has been quite remarkable, emotional, upsetting, beautiful and mysterious.

Isaac

Jane and I walked into the living room this morning to witness Isaac taking, what we now suspect may have been a petit mal, an absence seizure. Isaac was lying on the floor, staring into space, quite floppy, quite unresponsive but still breathing. We cuddled him until he came round after about 20-30 seconds.

He’s been fine for the rest of the day, kindly and carefully looked after by his grandparents.

At the time we’d simply assumed that was zoned out and heading off to sleep because he’d been up really early and it was around the time he would be going off to sleep anyway. Not to mention that his two older brothers were notorious for falling asleep on the living room carpet.

It was only in conversation with my Mum (retired nursing sister and midwife) on the phone this evening that she wondered whether it might be a petit mal. We’ll keep an eye on him and get him checked out at the GP on Monday morning.

Edinburgh

I then drove Jane down to the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh to allow her to visit her maternal Grandma, who is really very unwell. It turned out to be a most upsetting visit. Lots of prayers and lovely, caring thoughts for Jane, her family, and wee grandma please.

Meanwhile Reuben, Joshua and I had a lovely visit to Homebase at Straiton to buy an indoor broom, which Reuben chose (it was the red one). We were there for AGES while R+J asked “What’s that?… What’s that?… We’ve got one of those, haven’t we!… Can we go upstairs now… I need the toilet!”

Thank goodness for Sainsbury’s next door. After team wees we bought a few essentials (sausage rolls, pasta, strawberries, raspberries and two LEGO Ninjago warriors for two lovely boys who were just an absolute delight to be with all day. I love them all so much.

And now the boys are in bed, although Reuben has been sick (just as Joshua was last night), and I was feeling ready to sit and weep when I wandered through to the living room to watch Andy Murray beat Marcos Baghdatis at Wimbledon. Wimble-well-done Andy! A good ending to an unusual day.

I pray that tomorrow is less dramatic but equally full of cuddles.

Dodgy gig in Edinburgh

Dodgy playing live at Edinburgh's Electric Circus

Dodgy playing live at Edinburgh's Electric Circus (L-R: Andy Miller, Nigel Clark, Mathew Priest)

On Wednesday evening I drove down to South Queensferry, teamed up with my brother Eddie, and the pair of us took the train in to Edinburgh Wavelery to see—what Wikipedia calls—’English power pop trio’ Dodgy in concert at The Electric Circus on Market Street (which is right next to the station).

The summer of 96

In 1996 I was working with homeless young people in London, and living in a very nice basement flat in Eccleston Square with my good friend (and former National Youth Choir of Great Britain member) Jonny Coore. We had a summer of beautiful weather. It was the summer of Euro 96, which was hosted by England, and the city was alive; the atmosphere was electric. It was the year that I got engaged for the first time. And the soundtrack to that summer of 1996 was Free Peace Sweet by Dodgy.

In many ways it was a strange choice of album for me. I was heavily into metal (still am), I was trying my hardest to avoid anything with the ‘Britpop‘ label, like Oasis and Blur, and yet here I was listening to Dodgy again and again and again.

But the song writing was fabulous, and I loved the use of acoustic guitars throughout the songs.

Live

I was always under the misconception that Dodgy were from Birmingham. Apparently they started out as a band called Purple, a trio from Bromsgrove and Redditch in Worcestershire, who moved to London had a few line-up changes and re-badged themselves as Dodgy.

So, they were in London in 1996. I was in London in 1996. How on earth did we never bump into each other?! I would have loved to have seen them in concert back then.

So I made up for it this time around. They were coming to Edinburgh on their UK tour. I live about 50 miles from Edinburgh. I bought a ticket. My brother bought a ticket. And on Wednesday evening, I stood about 10 feet from the tiny stage at The Electric Circus and grinned from ear to ear for about 90 minutes.

It was an intimate gig. Dodgy were fun, and professional, and played a fabulous set. Despite my dodgy back (no pun intended), which was really beginning to hurt by the end of the set, I could have stood and listened to them for another 90 minutes.

Guitarist Andy Miller stood stage left behind a lap steel guitar on a stand. His playing was intricate and delicate but never too much. At times his guitar sounded more like a keyboard and I loved it for that. Every now and then he would look out to the crowd and smile. He obviously seemed to be enjoying himself.

Vocalist, guitarist and bassist Nigel Clark stood centre of stage, armed for most of the evening with an acoustic guitar, occasionally taking bass for a few of their earlier hits. The rest of the evening bass duties were handled very comfortably by a friend of the band. There was a warmness and confidence about his stage presence that suited the venue.

Drummer Mathew Priest has a fabulously simple drum set-up but he plays it so melodically and with such space. If I was a drummer he’s the kind of drummer I would want to be. I enjoyed his between songs chats, and we all marvelled at his knitted drumstick warmers in what I presumed were Aston Villa colours.

Thank you Dodgy.

New album

Dodgy released a new album Stand Upright In A Cool Place earlier this year, from which this is a track

Playing live

I don’t get out much these days. That’s my choice. I have three small children and a wife to support. So when I do get out to see a live band it’s a real treat. I’m glad I made the effort this time. Dodgy live were more than I expected. The venue was much smaller than I had expected but as a result there was an intimacy and a relaxed feeling to the gig that I relished.

The gig also reminded me how much I miss playing in a band live. Maybe one day I’ll get back to it. I sure hope so.

As my brother and I stood on the platform at Edinburgh Waverley to catch our return to Dalmeny, Eddie asked me “So, have you got any other bands you’d like to see live on your… bucket list?”

If you don’t already know, a ‘bucket list’ is a list of things you’d like to do before you kick the bucket (die).

“Why?” I asked, “If I don’t are you just going to shove me in front of the next train?”

Dodgy were definitely on my list. I’ve scored them off now… but do you know what? I think I might just write “Dodgy” on that list again.

Epilogue

A few weeks ago I got a phone call from my Mum.

“Hello Mum!”

“What’s this I hear about you going to a dodgy gig?”

“The band are called Dodgy.”

“Ah… right,” she said, obviously sounding quite relieved.

Postcards of old Edinburgh (in 1824 and 1845)

This afternoon I came across these few postcards of old Edinburgh.

Edinburgh from the West End

1824

Edinburgh from the West End of Princes Street, 1824

Edinburgh from the West End of Princes Street, 1824. Aquatint by T Sutherland, after J Gendall

I thought it would be fun to compare that image with the same view captured in Google StreetView.

2008

Edinburgh from the West End of Princes Street, 2012 - Google StreetView

Edinburgh from the West End of Princes Street, 2012 - Google StreetView

St John’s, Princes Street

St John's Chapel, Princes Street, from Castle Terrace. Coloured lithograph by Nicol after W Mason, c.1845

St John's Chapel, Princes Street, from Castle Terrace. Coloured lithograph by Nicol after W Mason, c.1845

There wasn’t much to see in the Google StreetView of the image above: mostly trees.

Edinburgh from the Castle looking east

Edinburgh from the Castle looking East. Coloured Aquatint by T Sutherland after J Gendall, c.1824

Edinburgh from the Castle looking east. Coloured Aquatint by T Sutherland after J Gendall, c.1824

The thing I find most astonishing about this view from Edinburgh Castle is the space once occupied by the Nor Loch, to the left of the picture. The Nor Loch was filled in and the land reclaimed to create Princes Street Gardens. The road up The Mound, and the Waverley Bridge are quite prominent in the absence of other buildings, particularly the Scottish National Gallery and the National Gallery of Scotland. And how few buildings to the south-east of the castle, south of the Old Town.

View of the Old Town from Princes Street

View of the Old Town from Princes Street

View of the Old Town from Princes Street, looking West. Coloured aquatint by I. Clark after A. Kay, c.1814

Lazing on a Sunday afternoon

Room 106 at The Bonham, Edinburgh

Room 106 at The Bonham, Edinburgh

On Sunday afternoon Jane and I drove to The Bonham hotel in Edinburgh and enjoyed a blissfully quiet afternoon, evening and morning in the company of one another. It was our first night away together without any children since, I think, May 2010.

The Bonham is a gorgeous hotel on Drumsheugh Gardens, a stone’s throw from St Mary’s Cathedral on Palmerston Place and overlooking the Dean Bridge. It fuses traditional with modern quite effortlessly.

We got a fabulous deal through itison.com: dinner, bed and breakfast, with unlimited movies for a bargain £140 (for one night). To give you an idea of how much we might have been saving, a Scottish cooked breakfast costs £14.00.

After booking in we climbed the stairs to the first floor, unlocked the door to room 106 and were welcomed with a bottle of champagne (or whatever the Italian equivalent is) and the TV was on showing… F1 Grand Prix. Now that’s my kind of hotel room. None of this patronising “Welcome to room 106 Mr and Mrs Saunders” nonsense message on the screen.

Dinner was utterly fabulous in the critically acclaimed Restaurant at The Bonham. I would happily eat there every night!

All in all, a wonderfully relaxing 24 hours in the company of my favourite wife, reading, watching telly and enjoying the silence.

We drove back to Anstruther yesterday afternoon just in time to pick up Reuben and Joshua from nursery, having first bought the boys a present (Star Wars lightsabers for Reuben and Joshua, and an Ikea chair for Isaac) and treated ourselves to a new kingsize mattress. (Hopefully that will help my back mend.)

Daddy’s taking us to the zoo today

Reuben beside the Penguin Cow sculpture at Edinburgh Zoo

Reuben beside the Penguin Cow sculpture at Edinburgh Zoo

Joshua beside the Penguin Cow sculpture at Edinburgh Zoo

Joshua beside the Penguin Cow sculpture at Edinburgh Zoo

I had a day off today so that I could meet up with my old National Youth Choir of Great Britain friend, and former flatmate, Jonny Coore and family in Edinburgh.

Around 10:00 we set off (in the rain) to Edinburgh (in the rain) to visit Edinburgh Zoo (in the rain).  But what a great day (in the rain).

The first time I visited Edinburgh zoo I was in primary 3, so probably about 6 or 7 years old.  The last time I visited was for a funeral tea for a former member of the zoological society.  So this was my third visit.

I already knew quite a bit about zoos because I’ve listened to The Mighty Boosh on the radio.  Unfortunately, Edinburgh zoo is disappointingly not like Bob Fossil’s Funworld, so I did feel a little out of my depth as it turned out.

Animal magic

First up we saw the sea lions (not seals, those are different) which I explained to Reuben and Joshua look a bit like cats (cos they’ve got whiskers) that live in the sea.

Next up: flamingos. I explained to Reuben and Joshua that flamingos are a bit like pink cats, who stand on one leg. After an introductory talk by someone from the zoo’s education centre he invited questions from the public. Jonny had a question: what do they taste like?

Further up the hill we passed what I thought was an emu. I ignored the ‘emu’, he used to scare me with his pink windmill nonsense. Emus aren’t like cats.

The next talk we heard was about lemurs which I explained to Reuben and Joshua looked a bit like cats.

Reuben and Joshua don’t have a very wide experience of animals so I was trying to relate these new, exotic animals to something they do know about.

Before heading to the picnic area we saw a Malaysia sun bear.  My Mum used to have a bear in Malaysia.  No word of a lie.  I think she called him Joey.

Lunch

We then had lunch.

It’s nice that there’s a section of the zoo set aside for people to bring their own picnics.  It reminds me of a restaurant I visited recently that had a section set aside for diners to leave their pets.

The highlight of lunch had to be that Jonny ate a Club biscuit.  The lowlight was discovering that 500 ml bottles of Coca Cola cost £1.30 at the zoo.

Thundercats and a revelation

After lunch we climbed the hill to discover the giant cats: a leopard, a tiger, a jaguar, another one that I can’t remember, and another one that I couldn’t see.

I couldn’t think of an animal that Reuben and Joshua know about to compare the leopard, tiger and jaguar to.

I also learned at that point to run a zoo all you need really is a very large estate and cages with photographs of animals on them.

If the accompanying text also informs visitors that this particular animal is quite shy which explains why you might not catch sight of them then you don’t even have to go to what must be the troubling expense of actually buying the animals.

So Jonny, his son and I started to think about the kind of zoo that we could realistically open.  It contained cages with — amongst other things — plasma TVs, paperclips, a chest of drawers and sticks.

We went to look for lions but found gibbons. The rain started to pour down so the gibbons took refuge in a custom-built cave-like shelter. We took shelter under a custom-built shelter-like shelter. And then for a moment I wondered if it was us who was sheltering so that we could watch the gibbons, or whether the gibbons were sheltering so that they could watch us.

I then remembered that we had chocolate biscuits in my rucksack and forgot all about the gibbons.

Penguins and monkeys

We trotted down the hill again towards the penguins enclosure for the Penguin Parade. The parade didn’t happen, for some reason, but we did watch a few small penguins feeding. They eat fish.

The monkey house provided more shelter from the rain and plenty of entertainment.  Did you know that monkeys … actually, I didn’t learn anything new about monkeys because I spent most of my time in there trying to prevent Reuben from poking a baby in a pram. Or stealing my glasses.

And that was our visit to the zoo today. Tomorrow I go back to work.

How I took back my life

Filing

On the whole, over the years I’ve managed to keep myself pretty well organized. As a child growing up I was always reorganizing my room: rearranging the order of books, folders, stationery, … everything! If it wasn’t nailed down I moved it. It’s probably inevitable that I should get a job working as an information architect!

A few friends have been urging me for months to blog about how my organizational method works for me, so here it is. But before I get onto that, here’s a little of the journey that led me to where I am.

A short history of organization

I always knew there was room for improvement. I’d adapt and improve my methods for filing documents, managing tasks, keeping a diary. At Selkirk High School I had my trusty school diary — when it wasn’t being stolen and scribbled on by Phil Graham — which recorded what I should be doing and when.

In 1989 I moved to St Andrews and I bought myself a cheapish Filofax clone, which I loved and cherished and packed full of useless stuff that probably made me less productive. But it did have tabs, and a lot of coloured paper — that’s got to count for something, surely.

In 1996 I bought my first Psion, a Siena 512KB. It was a life-saver: now I could keep everything in it, neatly organized. No more scribbling out entries, no more running out of contact sheets because everyone listed under “S” had moved and moved again.

My Psion became central to how I organized my life. And then I discovered that I could synchronize it with Schedule+, and then Microsoft Outlook 2000. The joys!

Crisis

Fast forward to 2003 and you’ll find that Jane and I have just moved from Inverness to Edinburgh. I’m now working with two parishes and I’m beginning to panic. The organizational methods and techniques that I’ve evolved are now being stretched to the limit and I’m beginning to panic.

Really beginning to panic. I just couldn’t keep on top of everything that I needed to do. I remember one morning where I was sitting at my desk in the study and my head was spinning. I had so much to do, but really didn’t know where to start.

I needed assistance, and I need it immediately.

Take Back Your Life

I found it in a book called Take Back Your Life by Sally McGhee, as documented on my blog entry of 25 January 2005.

Take Back Your Life book cover

It’s a really fantastic book, that draws on David Allen’s Getting Things Done techniques but instead of notebooks and diaries and baskets McGhee advocates the use of Microsoft Outlook and a PDA. Works for me!

So this is what I do:

1. Collection points

From my blog post of 2005:

One of the first steps, McGhee says, is to work out how many collection points we use. That is, how many locations do you collect information and tasks from? I was amazed to discover that I had 28 different locations. I’ve now reduced this to eight, which is far more manageable.

Three years later and I now have four (give or take):

  1. In-tray
  2. Mobile phone/PDA
  3. Telephone/answering machine
  4. Email

In tray

My in-tray at home

Pretty much everything goes into my in-tray at home:

  • all mail
  • books
  • CDs
  • contents of my bag
  • documents
  • magazines
  • scribbled notes
  • telephone messages

Really, whatever I need to deal with or sort or tidy away. It all gets dumped into my in-tray. It’s reassuring to know that anything that I’ve not processed yet goes into my in-tray, into the one location that is my main collection point.

At one point in Edinburgh I had no fewer than eight in-trays in my study. It was totally unmanageable.

You’ll notice that there are two in-tray stacks — the one on the left is mine, the one of the right is Jane’s. My in-tray has three levels:

  1. In
  2. Post out
  3. Waiting for

PDA/Outlook

Anything that doesn’t go into my in-tray goes directly into my PDA (O2 Xda Orbit running Windows Mobile 6) or into Outlook Tasks or Calendar — and since my PDA synchronizes with Outlook at both home and work everything ends up in Outlook.

So when I sit down to work out what I need to do I really have to look in only two locations:

  1. My in-tray
  2. Outlook

2. Processing my in-tray

In-tray contents moved to my desk

The next thing I do is begin to process my in-tray. I know from experience that even if the tray is stacked 12 inches high I will still get through it in under an hour. It doesn’t intimidate me how much stuff is in the tray. In fact, quite the opposite, I’m reassured that everything I need to deal with will be processed in one sitting.

I move the contents of my in-tray onto my desk, and starting at the top work through it piece by piece making a decision on every item. There are four options:

  • Do it
  • Delegate it
  • Defer it
  • Delete it

A lot of stuff I can do in less than 5 minutes. Some things just need reading, or throwing into the recycling, or filing away in my filing cabinet:

Filing cabinet

Anything that needs to be deferred for later I add to my Outlook Tasks. Sometimes I’ll add it to Outlook and file the documentation in the filing cabinet (because at least I’ll know where it is when I need to find it later).

3. Processing Outlook Tasks

Usually within 30 minutes I have a clear desk, a few items in my Post Out tray and it’s time to move onto my Outlook Tasks. This is to deal with tasks that I’ve promised to do when I’m out and about, or at work, or have entered into Outlook while processing my in-tray.

Screenshot of Outlook Tasks 2003

Outlook allows you to categorize your tasks, there is also one, default uncategorized group into which any new item is automatically added. Following the guidelines in Sally McGhee’s book I have categories such as:

  • Home Projects
  • Work Projects
  • Blog
  • Computer
  • Desk
  • Home
  • Phone
  • Shopping
  • Waiting for
  • Someday Oneday

Download your head

Before I go any further I often start by ‘downloading my head’: getting out of my head those things that I said I’d do but haven’t recorded anywhere else. This is a great opportunity to stop relying on my memory — that’s why I used to get so stressed.

The first time I tried this exercise I ‘downloaded’ over 85 items … and then was amazed at how relaxed and calm I felt. But it stood to reason that since I was no longer relying on my memory to hold everything it freed my brain to do what it does best: think and plan.

Process

Using similar criteria for dealing with my in-tray I’ll start at the top and work my way through the list, making a decision on each item:

  • Do it
  • Delegate it
  • Defer it
  • Delete it

Some items I do immediately, then delete from the list. Other items get deleted immediately, usually because I’ve decided that it’s no longer a priority. Further items may get delegated to someone else so I’ll either write to them or email them.

If I defer an item in my task list I’ll usually do one of two things:

  • Categorize it within Tasks — these I think David Allen calls “contexts”: where do I need to carry this out? At home, at my desk, on my computer, when I’m shopping? Or …
  • I’ll schedule a time for it by moving it from my task list into my calendar

4. My calendar

This last step was one of the most significant when I moved to this method. Now I have everything in one place: in Outlook (and synchronized on my phone/PDA), I know what I’ve said I’d do (my tasks) and in many case when I’ll do them (my calendar).

Further improvements

I’ve been using this method now for about 3.5 years and I keep refining it, tweaking it to make it a little better and more effective, particularly as my responsibilities change and as I respond to the different tasks and projects that I take on, both at work and at home.

I know when I need to go back to my task list and calendar and start planning again because it’s at those moments that I begin to feel stressed and overwhelmed. It’s during those moments that I realise: I’m not managing my tasks, they’re managing me. Then half-an-hour later once I’ve processed my in-tray and Outlook tasks and scheduled things I feel relaxed and in control once again.

That’s about it in a nutshell. The only really significant thing that I’ve missed out is how I manage my projects within Outlook, but perhaps that could be a post for another day.

Scotland on Rails — three months on

The JRuby Guys at Scotland on Rails
A presentation by the JRuby Guys (Charles Nutter and Thomas Enebo) at Scotland on Rails.

This is a post that I’ve had sitting in my WordPress drafts since early April about the Scotland on Rails conference that I attended, actually the same weekend that Jane and I discovered that she was pregnant … so that made it a memorable event.

It’s been quite useful to come back to it after three months, because some things have settled in somewhat. I’ve had the chance to reflect quite fully on my experience of that two day conference (over a Friday and Saturday) and realise what I really took from it that has been valuable.

Initial response

This was my initial response, written a couple of days after the conference:

Excellent

In many ways the conference was excellent:

  • Great location and venue (South Hall Complex, Pollock Halls in Edinburgh)
  • Very well organised
  • Interesting, knowledgeable and passionate speakers
  • Friendly delegates
  • Plenty of space (both physically and in the timetable) to mill about and meet with folks

Disappointing

However, in many ways I personally found the conference disappointing

… and that’s as far as I got. Now we’ll never know.

Seasoned reflection

What I struggled with mostly was simply my inexperience with the Ruby on Rails (often abbreviated to just ‘Rails’) framework and Ruby as a language. So I sat through presentation after presentation that went into the nuts and bolts of the framework/language, and entirely over my head.

What I went there hoping to get a sense of was what sort of projects Rails could be used for within our university setting. I guess I was looking for more of a Show and Tell kind of stream of talks. Wow me with what cool and funky projects you’ve been using Rails for.

Instead it felt like, in many ways, a conference for über-geeks. The opening keynote presentation was about the new features in the next version of Rails; but in microscopic detail. It was like having an interest in rally cars and going to a conference about rally cars, but the opening speech being about how they manufacture the nuts, bolts and components that make up the engine.

The second keynote speech the following day, by David A Black was — in stark contrast — inspirational. It was deep, artistic, philosophical and simply inspiring.

The other notable presentation, for me, was by The JRuby Guys. They were approachable, entertaining and very knowledgable. What interested me most was that JRuby is essentially a “Java powered Ruby implementation”. It allows you to run Ruby (and Ruby on Rails) within a Java environment. Our servers are mostly Sun machines, which have Java built-in, which means that if we wanted to adopt Rails for any projects this would be an excellent way to deploy them with as few hiccups as possible.

Agile

But despite the numerous presentations that went entirely over my head (I thought MVC was a music and video store rather than a programming architectural pattern) the one thing that I took away was a real respect and appreciation for Agile software development and Test/Story-Driven Development (TDD/SDD).

The examples of agile that were shared in the various groups and presentations made perfect sense to me, I could see the practical uses of it in my own work at St Andrews. That’s what I ultimately got out of the Scotland on Rails conference; well, that and a free t-shirt! Oh, and the O’Reilly stall made a bob or two from me.

Interestingly at a recent staff meeting we’ve agreed to look more closely at Agile. I’m looking forward to that, and I have the Scotland on Rails conference to thank most sincerely for that.