Thursday, 31 December 2009

Forward Momentum Is Everything

Things happen in your life, even (or especially?) when your life is structured and mapped out to near-perfection, that totally derail your plans. It’s the things that don’t make you feel sorry for even one second that make life worthwhile, and teach you to take everything as it comes.

I didn’t even get close to reaching the ambitious goals I set myself in June. Did I have a marvellous holiday? That'd be an understatement. Ever since I’ve been on a thrill ride that only seems to become more fun with each passing day. Normal just doesn’t quite exist anymore, and I’m not mourning the loss.

And somehow it’s turned December, and I had to be reminded I hadn’t updated this blog for months. I’m backing up, sorting out, and have stopped postponing decisions I'd been leaving for later. I’ve cancelled subscriptions I’ve been meaning to cancel for months, have discontinued old web domains, basically stopped what no longer fitted into my life.

Definitely different from the normal backing up and sorting stuff that I normally do towards the end of December.

I initially didn’t think I had much to show for 2009, where it concerns accomplishments. Closer inspection tells me that’s not quite the case. I passed my teacher training course, officially qualifying me as a teacher in higher education. I got a promotion, which is one way to interpret that I’m doing something right professionally. I gave what in my opinion was one of the best birthday presents ever. I managed NaNoWriMo in November, which was an accomplishment in itself, besides the added value that that particular project had as well. I read six books more in 2009 than I did in 2008. I’ve finally started those postponed driving lessons, and got my driving theory certificate in one go.

I did a shitload of photography both privately as well as professionally, and I even got paid for my first poster. I saw Neil Young perform, experienced Rammstein live again, and it took me twenty-eight years, but I’ve apparently finally learned to relax. (Though not all the time.) I wrote three chapters for my PhD thesis.

That thesis is my biggest failure as well. Then again, as I keep jokingly telling people: theoretically I have at least eight more years to finish it, so I shouldn’t be in such a rush. I predicted 2009 would be a better year than 2008: in many ways it was, because I got at least two research spots where I’m more than welcome to spend some time, and I did quite some decent research besides that. My whiteboard, tellingly, is not empty, as it was last year, but still has last thesis chapter’s structure on it, which I haven’t removed yet. Still, I could have done more. More positively, I could have done less.

Physically, I think this has been the year when I’ve seen the most doctors, dentists, and other health officials ever. This despite the fact that I’m pretty healthy as healthy goes. Weird, that. It doesn’t help I have a toothache as I write this. On the other hand, this too can only get better.

Writing-wise (thesis and otherwise, my private diary the only exception) this has been a very bad year, continuing the downward spiral I started last year. I’ve been word counting on a daily basis for the past four years now, and this has been the worst year for writing since 2006. (I wrote a third more this year than I did in that year. Comparatively, I only wrote 50% in 2009 of what I wrote in 2007.

Last year around this time, I summed up 2008 as a year with no real lows and no real heights, steady on a comfortable level. I said that I should probably aim for heights in 2009. I think it’s safe to say I managed that one. For me 2009 was the best of years and the worst of years, to misquote Charles Dickens. The first half was the worst (though it wasn’t entirely bad), the second half was the best. It’s simple, really: you can’t have heights without the lows.

I’m not sure what to expect for 2010. In 2009 I marched into the unknown reasonably optimistically, to discover the unknown is nothing to be afraid of. I have the suspicion 2010 is going to be brilliant, but it’s never good to have too high expectations of anything, especially not of an entire year. I predict that if 2009 was about changes, 2010 is about even bigger changes.

I wish for everyone’s 2010 to be like my 2009: an adventure that gets better every single day. That for you, 2010 is going to be the year in which you’ll reach for all the goals you’ve set yourself and find them closer than expected. A year in which you’ll conquer the things you fear, get everything you really desire (but not too easily), and in which you’ll have the strength to push yourself, to dare to do great things. A year in which no one can stop you unless you let them.

Finally, have my year in pics, here.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Setting goals means one of two things: insanity or perseverance...

... and only time will tell which it is going to be.

I don’t like Dickens. Perhaps a strange thing to admit for someone who reads as much Dickens and writes so much about him and his works as I do, but the only novel I really like and which redeems everything is The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and that’s probably just because it was left unfinished. The rest just makes me want to bash my head against random hard surfaces most of the time.

Right now, I’m on the last Dickens book I’m discussing in my thesis (Bleak House), and I’ve gone through it so many times (in the past as well) and have gathered so much of my own commentary on it that I’m getting pretty sick of it. (Even though I tend to think it’s one of the better novels.) I’ve managed to connect it all, but since I’m left with a piece of text of about 5000 words long now, and which is more summary than analysis, I’ll definitely have to go back to it. Just not today.

I’ve gone back to reading Gaboriau (who should be known as a philosopher besides just a novelist and a journalist, but then this is the first time I’m reading him, and everything that’s new is exiting). I’ll probably move to Wilkie Collins after that (that’ll be coming home), though I might take a break in-between and go for some Patterson (how modern of me) too.

I’m not sure if this is just the change of the old romans de gare into modern ariport novels, and whether it has anything to do with the fact we don’t travel as long as we did once upon a time, but modern detective fiction definitely reads quicker than the old stuff. I’m not sure which I prefer (purely generalising, the new seems to sacrifice characterisation for plot, while the old just beats you over the head with plot and characterisation), but right now I’m starting to become fed up with the nineteenth century, and am really looking forward to getting to the Sherlock Holmes chapter and safely into the new territory of the twentieth century.

Goal: finish this chapter in the next two weeks, start the next one and finish that in another two weeks, which leaves another week for the chronological chapter, which will pretty much be cut and paste, except I’ll have to analyse everything together in entirely new and exciting ways.

In-between I will be bored, bowling, camping, swimming, or (hopefully) driving. Last holiday I’m not going anywhere, I think. I’m currently just horrifically jealous of everyone who’s getting on a plane.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Sun, flowers, and a camera = bliss.

Relaxation was in order, so someone pushed a camera into my hands and sent me off to photograph gardens in Overschie. It’s a very good way to get to know the new camera (and I do admit I’m still getting to know it), and I experimented with (exposure) bracketing. Until now, I’d take a picture that I knew was more or less near what I wanted exposure-wise, and then manually adjust going from that picture for the right one. With bracketing (which is automatic on the 50D) I try to take the perfect picture in one go and end up with some room to move in with the other two pictures, one over-exposed, one under-exposed. Because the sun was unreliable today this wasn’t an entirely bad thing.

(Try picking a favourite in situations like this, though: there're usually two you want to keep.)

I love, I have to admit, underexposures, especially with colourful flowers. Underexposure brings an almost unearthly deep colour to pictures like that, partly because the background becomes so dark it's non-existent.

You can also get some really contrastive results, almost like paintings. (Proof you don't have to buy your wall-decorations anywhere: just make your own and have them printed on canvas.)

And sometimes, besides just pretty pictures, you get lucky and take an actually good one. I'm really proud of the bee picture, and even prouder of the one with my grandmother. Virtually impossible to catch her not paying attention, but when you do it works.

These were all taken with my macro lens, none of them went into a graphics programs except for a 50% size reduction, and the complete result can be here.
And I got to finish this at McDonald's, pouring my heart out. All in all, a wonderful day. ;)

And now, apparently, I am walking my dog. And I probably have to make it easier to order prints from the website.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Final weeks

Final weeks are strange. Or maybe it’s just me, and I’m reliving my student days vicariously through my students.

In my experience teachers aren’t horrifically busy in the final teaching weeks of a year. (Unless they’re language teachers and they have to go through the hell of oral exams.) Students tend to be horrifically busy trying to make deadlines and do oral exams and fix things that they postponed or forgot and really need to fix last minute. (Suffices to say, this is impossible, unless you’re good at taking deep breaths and have infinite patience.)

It’s when the teaching stops that things get rough for us. You have to find those marks you put so carefully away three months ago. (Too carefully, as it turns out.) Leftover presentations, leftover assignments, in short: up in paperwork over your ears. (I tend to try and make the paperwork digital. The only advantage to this is that its easier to hide.) There’s thesis checking and the defences that logically follow. And this is all besides trying to get your exams checked in record time. (Or at least in time for resits.) You don’t plan too much and put your life on hold for a bit. (Lunch becomes the most important meal of the day, because there’s the risk of being asleep before dinner.)

Don’t pity us, though. There’s no greater satisfaction than sitting back after the rush and discovering (almost) everything went all right, and the things that didn’t are easy enough to fix. (Relatively speaking.)

But do gives us a thought, especially when you’re about to write an email you probably don’t need to send. ;)

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Don't mind the techno-babble, or: choices-choices...

After getting sunburn on two consecutive days (well, I made an effort), today seems to be the day where the evening gets cool. There’s a wind (can’t call it a breeze) starting up, and I suspect we’ll have rain in a little while. I’m not entirely unhappy about that.

I got work done. I’m not done, not even for the day, but I need to get Poe (Edgar Allan) out of my head for a while, and I’m poking at pictures. (Among which, these.)

And I’m reading up on camera reviews, because now that I’ve decided my new camera isn’t going to be the Canon EOS 5D Mark II (because I simply can’t justify the expense), I’m slightly torn between the new entry-level 500D and the semi-pro 50D.

Why am I buying a new camera while I have a perfectly good camera (EOS 400D) sitting right in front of me, you ask?

Because of the Digic 4 image processor and the improved noise reduction boosting the ISO range and increasing shutter speeds, the little girl says, smiling brightly.

All right, I’ll explain.

I’m taking more and more pictures inside (official IBL house photographer, and then consider that once upon a time I was just a lowly nature photographer), and I don't want to use any kind of flash unless it's absolutely necessary, this is where specs start to pay off. Apparently I can go up to ISO 1200 without noise becoming a major problem. (Currently, results in 1600 ISO make me want to cry, though 800 is all right.) Now I'm looking at 1600 ISO pictures taken with both the 500D and the 50D which look fine, and 3200 ISO results that you can get away with, and besides those I've seen 12800 ISO pictures and they're still pretty decent, if you don't try to blow them up. I need fast shutter speeds in dark surroundings.

I am, as said, not 100% sure yet. I'm 80% sure I’ll go for the 50D, because I want to go up a step, which means leaving the hundreds range. (Because when it gets down to it, with the 500D I'd just be replacing an entry-level SLR with a more advanced entry-level SLR.) The semi-professional 50D is slightly heavier, which (strangely enough) makes it easier to hold still, and it's faster and more accurate. I can save custom set-ups, which would be perfect since I hate Canon thinking for me while I’m taking pictures.

But in the end, for me it's all about the light sensitivity, and the video option isn't really a dealmaker or breaker, because if I wanted video I'd buy a video camera.

See you at FOKA Monday afternoon, I guess.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The most magnificent thing in the world...

... is to get home after what can only be described as a rapidly worsening day and find that you haven't sold your soul to the devil after all (only just lent it out), because there's still your old love looking out for you.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

We all knew this day had to come.

Despite having subscriptions to several magazines (among them ZOOM and other such hobby-related reading) I will always prefer books, which is probably why I have a magazine backlog of about six months.

One of my more questionable subscriptions (probably the first to go if I have to cut back) is Dutch “Schrijven Magazine”. I have to be completely honest and admit I probably only read it because it often makes me laugh in disbelief. Put two writers in a room and wait for them to disagree, mm? The April-May edition has Dutch author RenĂ© Appel commenting on dialogue tags (or identifiers), by means of an example in the form of an extract from a Dutch novel:

“Het woordje ‘zei’ wordt opvallend vaak gebruikt. ... Het is net of de schrijfster in deze functie geen ander woord kent dan ‘zeggen’ en voor de verandering ‘vragen’. ... Een schrijver kan mensen ook iets laten melden, voorstellen, suggereren, veroordelen, reageren ... etc.” (14)

Freely translated:

“The word ‘said’ is used remarkably often. ... It is as if in this instance the author can’t come up with anything besides ‘said’ and the occasional ‘asked’. ... An author can also have people report, propose, suggest, denounce, react... etc.”

But wait a minute. I liked Appel (back when I still read Dutch novels), and I rather admired him, which makes it easier for me to take his word on this, but I also remember a discussion on using identifiers in fiction which came to a different conclusion.

The English equivalent of Dutch ‘zei’ is said. Now some people think said is boring (“Writers are supposed to have vocabulary!”): most people don’t even recognise said when it occurs in dialogue, which is why I say: Use It! Said is like the perfect spy: it doesn’t draw attention to itself. Without going as far as becoming said-bookisms, there are identifiers (which some authors use to make things more exciting) that just get in your way when you’re reading.

What are you talking about?" she hissed.
Try hissing that. (You can’t: no sibilants.) Or laughing it. Seriously.

Famously, in a conversation between Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, Arthur Conan Doyle uses (in his 1887 A Study in Scarlet):

"I would not have missed the investigation for anything. There has been no better case within my recollection. Simple as it was, there were several most instructive points about it."
"Simple!" I ejaculated.
"Well, really, it can hardly be described as otherwise," said Sherlock Holmes, smiling at my surprise.

Yeah. (Agatha Christie is guilty of this as well, so maybe this is a detective fiction thing.) But let’s just say that’s why you want to avoid overly exciting identifiers. Just for fun, let me show you a Tom Swifty:

"Pass me the shellfish," said Tom crabbily.
(Or my personal favourite: "I might as well be dead," Tom croaked.)

This is part of a bigger discussion, of course, the one about showing, not telling. While I’m not a complete proponent of that one (I always defer to Orson Scott Card, who says it’s best only to use it for dramatic sequences), I do have a soft spot for said. I have to agree with Appel that you don’t have to use it as a dialogue tag all the time, as with everything the rule is: if you can leave it out, do.

Just don’t leave said out altogether.