Hoarding and what journalists do

Two things in Saturday’s Guardian caught my eye. A “boo” article about compulsive hoarding (“Why didn’t someone stop him? The council? The neighbours? Someone should have intervened…”) and a “hurrah” article about personal informatics—which (it seems to me) is just electronic compulsive hoarding!

Both articles interested me a lot because I have hoarding tendencies myself, but what struck me most was the extent to which both articles were shaped by the journalists’ desire to tell a story.

Refreshing contrast is provided by the new Science Behind the News Stories site.

The last 36 years have just been a diversion

Contemplating, as one must at my age, the menopause (I shall be fifty this year, so it is something of a hot topic—pun intended), I happened upon a new angle from which to consider this transition: as the end of a temporary state, during which one’s true personality has been submerged. An article on the Guardian women’s page (where else?) quotes one Jane Polden, a psychotherapist: “She’s felt overwhelmed, controlled almost, by this hormonal surge … and now it’s draining away, and she can work out who she is, and who she wants to be.” The fertile years have been a distraction. It’s an attractive idea.

Joining the dots

Now I have set things up so that posting to this blog generates a tweet automatically. And, whenever I twitter, my Facebook status updates. Is this a good idea? Or will it just result in a lot of things getting mixed up that ought to have been kept separate?

I’m not sure what I think about all this web 2.0 stuff. It makes life harder in some ways. It is certainly harder to say “Sorry, I was too busy” when the fact that you have just spent several hours having unproductive fun is a matter of public record.

And how do prolific twitterers manage when travelling? How can I say “I’m in Venice” without saying “My house is unoccupied and ripe for burglary”—especially when my professional site, which is linked from my personal one, tells the world that I have access to an impressive array of computing and photographic equipment?

Perhaps my tweets need to be a bit more elliptical.

FOSDEM photos online

I finally got round to posting my 2007 FOSDEM photos (actually Andrew took some of them). And I’ve put up some from this year, too, and a few drawings I did last year.

The whole lot are on flickr now. If anyone who is in them doesn’t want to be seen, please let me know ASAP.

If there is a photo of you that you like, do ask me for a higher-resolution version of it.

PS (11 Feb): I have now finished this job, so look again now if you want to see the ones that were missing before.

Chesterton Fen – a walk on the wild side

Yesterday the sun shone, so a perambulation was called for. Out the front door; pause on the pavement to toss a coin. Down the river on the Chesterton side. Boats, reflections, beautiful effects of low winter sunlight. So far, so routine (which isn’t a complaint – I never forget how lucky we are to live here).

On the way home Andrew proposed a variation: up the footpath and then home along Fen Road, past all the mobile-home parks and the Roma houses that lie between the railway line and the A14. A small step out of familiar territory into a totally alien world.

There were dogs. Two slim, tentative, curious ones came out and gave us a friendly sniff. Two huge shaggy Alsatians gave me a fright by barking, but those were chained up in a driveway.

There is money on the Fen. There are shiny 4x4s with personalised number-plates, and some of the houses are really grand, with imposing gateways and trim little stable-blocks for the trotting horses (trotting races are very popular with the Roma).

There’s poverty as well, of course: some of the mobile homes aren’t big at all, and some of the plots are very packed-together. But it all looks tidy enough, at least as far as you can see from the road.

There’s industry there, too. Beyond Silverman’s (known to anyone who’s had to economise when furnishing an office) there are lots of little industrial units. Motor repairs; upholstery repairs; landscaping. Practical stuff. Services, mainly, rather than goods.

And the settlement is expanding still. Builders were at work as we walked past.

Most Chesterton people never venture over the railway line except to follow the river. Would I, without Andrew? Probably not.

Art and competence

Silence here has gone on longer than I expected. Curiously, a long silence is harder to break than a short one (I find this in personal correspondence, too). It seems as though you have to write something important, not just the usual trivia.

So, a few days ago when out for a walk in the sun at midday (trying hard not to be SAD this year) I was very pleased when a really good idea for a profound and fascinating posting popped into my head. And of course the predicable then happened.

I can still remember what was going to be the second half of it, which was (I do distinctly recall) the less interesting bit. This was about Malcolm Gladwell’s recent idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to attain world-class competence at anything. The question that occurs first in reaction to this is: why only 10,000 hours and not even more? The answer seems to be: because nobody ever has more than 10,000 hours to spend. So in fact, if you turn his statement around, you get the answer to a more interesting question, which is: how do we decide what world-class competence is, or what it should be? And it seems that our definition of world-class competence is: “That degree of competence that can be attained by the most able individual after spending as much time practising as anyone can ever find the time for”.

The corollary is that our concept of world-class competence is not an absolute – if the world changes in such a way (for example by the invention of new technology) that an able individual can attain a higher degree of skill in less than 10,000 hours, then we will cease to value competence at the level that we previously judged to be world-class.

Ah, now I remember what the first half was about! There’s nothing like starting to write for unblocking the memory, after all. It was about realistic visual art and its relationship with graphic-arts technology.

Think about Vermeer. He put in his 10,000 hours, for sure. Achieving the effects that he achieved in paint on canvas is slow. But what would a modern-day Vermeer be doing now? I’m certain that he’d start with a camera in his hand, and use Photoshop and a graphics tablet. And that means that he’d be able to produce his results so much quicker. Anybody with a reasonably good eye for composition and colour, and a taste for arranging objects and lighting, can get halfway to producing something like a Vermeer these days by using those tools. The competence that he worked so hard to attain is now pretty easy to come by. Perhaps he could have got it in 1,000 hours of practice. What would he have done in the following 9,000 hours? What would our understanding of the possibilities of art now be?

I will go hundreds of miles just to look at an original Vermeer. I don’t quite know why, when I can look at a reproduction any time. This is another piece of the puzzle, though.

The uses of travel

The Office of the Brand of Abu Dhabi explains (in yesterday’s Guardian) whom it is trying to attract:

They are people who use travel to enrich themselves, always seeking new experiences in new countries … They want unique experiences that feed their sense of discovery. They reject the sameness that increasingly dominates their lives … they crave authenticity, exclusivity, quality.

I feel … targetted. Though I’m not planning a trip to Abu Dhabi any time soon (it would involve flying, for one thing, and generally speaking we don’t). But is that why I travel? It seems so shallow, when you put it like that.

On Tuesday afternoon, on the way to the Albert Hall for Prom 64
(on the final leg of our journey home from Rosenheim via Brussels, trains all the way) after an hour or so browsing the treasures displayed at the British Library (Jane Austen’s own writing-desk, on which the cancelled chapters of Persuasion are displayed—the actual writing-desk! the very pages on which she wrote, with all the crossings-out and second thoughts right there!), I was trying to explain to Andrew why I choose to take the laptop with me on trips these days and to keep up with my email, rather than getting away from it all as he does.

My reasoning is that if I make myself available to my correspondents, especially my customers, as I go, then I can travel far more than I otherwise would (at the cost of a small sacrifice of time while going along). But why do I want to travel more? My home is nice enough, modulo the climate—it’s not a mystery, of course, why anyone would want to get away from the English winter, damp and grey as it is, but why travel at this time of year? The reasons that occurred to me at the time had to do with foreign languages, with being somewhere different (whatever that means), and with feeling the sun on my skin (it’s been a wet summer here).