Saturday, 27 December 2008

To us a child is given

No, no - we haven't been keeping a big secret! This is the newest member of our extended family - a nephew. One of the joys of the Christmas family gatherings was meeting him for the first time, as well as meeting all of the older family members again!

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Christmas traditions

I read an article by Julian Baggini in yesterday’s Herald about the true meaning of Christmas in 2008. Basically he argues that the use of the word true introduces an element of subjectivity, and so we need to remove it and then take the “Martian-eyed” view of Christmas, if we want to discover its meaning today. He concludes that the meaning of Christmas revolves around families.

Two thoughts occurred to me. Firstly, with families come traditions – some good, some… well, let’s say stuck in the past. We had our first family Christmas celebration yesterday with the Fish Wife’s family in Fishtown. It didn’t go entirely smoothly! The events of the day served to remind us that as we are now firmly embedded in our middle age, so her parents are now old… and things will have to change in the future.

The second thought was prompted by an entry over at A Sideways Glance, which prompted the thought that there is a community aspect to Christmas. This could be about the office parties, church events, or just friends getting together. Now if we read the biblical accounts of the first Christmas, it was basically a community event. There was no extended family for Mary, Joseph and Jesus – they were joined by fellow travellers, working shepherds, wandering magi.

Is there a point to all of this? Maybe it’s just to say that our traditions are not always what they seem (a theme that I’ll return to some time soon), but let’s make the best of them and

Have a happy Christmas.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

My favourite Christmas card

I hope I don’t offend anyone by singling out one of the many Christmas cards that we’ve received, but I really liked this one. The picture is called Aurora by Ryan Bliss.

It’s actually a corporate card - from one of the professional associations that I belong to. Usually I find that this type of card comes with some sort of ‘tinsel-ly’ version of the corporate logo, fit only for the recycling pile. There are two reasons why I liked this one. Firstly, it was sold in aid of a charity which provides independent advocacy for young people who are in residential care, and I think that it’s a good way for my association (The Association of Directors of Social Work) to spend money if they choose to send Christmas cards to their members.

But the main reason that I liked the card was the image on the front of it. It seems to fit with the way that I feel about Christmas this year. It’s alright to join in the festivities of the season (provided we don’t behave excessively in any form of consumption). At this time of year it’s good to have some fun and relax. This is a long-standing tradition in the dark, chilly northern winters. Yet, it seems to me that there is another message in this card – that while the festivities and Christmas lights might be in the foreground, there is something cosmic happening in the background. For many people, that’s how it will stay. But for me, as we approach Christmas Day, the emphasis is changing. I’m taking the time to focus on the cosmic aspect, to meditate and reflect on the significance of Christ’s birth. This may sound a bit trite – but I’m happy that I’ve found a way to bridge the gap this year… and not to be seen as the Christian killjoy moaning about the commercialisation of Christmas.

Christmas is what we make it – either a time of fun, relaxation and rejoicing or of stress-filled moaning and negativity.

Earlier this week I found this quotation, and while it’s out of context… it does seem to fit the bill.

“In the midst of the noise, rush, distractions and soul-neglect, we make space for God to speak to us and renew our relationship with him.”

Friday, 19 December 2008

Friday photo: Snow capped

Sunday, 14 December 2008

The Christmas party dilemma

Every year it happens to me. I agree to go to the office Christmas party. Why? Well, to be honest, simply out of a sense of duty. After all, I’m the boss and it’s important to be seen at these things.

Then the day of the party comes around and I really don’t want to go, and I promise to myself that next year I’m definitely NOT going. There are some convincing reasons why I shouldn’t go – it’s an additional commute only at the weekend; it disrupts family time; since I’m driving, I don’t drink – which means that I see and remember things more clearly than most of the others.

But really these are just excuses, as I attempt to justify my future non-attendance to myself.

Does the attendance of the boss boost morale or put a damper on the enjoyment of others? I don’t know – maybe a bit of the former. But for my staff group the latter seems to be completely irrelevant, which is great!

So, last might I duly went, and had a fairly good time. The food was mediocre, and the behaviour was boisterous. But I’m glad I went, and I did enjoy myself – staying much longer than I had intended at the start of the evening.

I consider myself to be very fortunate to have the staff group that I do. All of the teams mingled freely during the evening, there was much laughter and fun, three people who left us during the year came back for the party, and I didn’t feel like too much of a party-pooper.

It’ll be interesting to hear some of the tales on Monday, although I recognise that I will only hear the edited highlights!

Will I go next year? Almost certainly. Who knows I might even try to forget that i'm the boss, and just have some (sober) fun!

Friday, 12 December 2008

Friday photo: Winter's dawn

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Mundane, whimsical anarchy

I heard the news today that Oliver Postgate died - he's the creator of Noggin the Nod, Ivor the Engine, Bagpuss and the Clangers. (For those who don't know, they're all children's television shows, popular in the UK before the presence of multi-channel mind-numbing inanity.)

My favourites were the Clangers - funny pink creatures that lived on the moon and spoke in whistles. Or so I thought, until I discovered that the whistles were used to represent English words. Postgate got into a bit of trouble with the (then) uptight BBC for the clip below. Now I don't usually think that swearing is big or clever, but I do like this clip for it's realism and Postgate's subversive streak in including it on a children's programme for Auntie Beeb.

They certainly don't make them like they used to!!
(And yes, there is more than a little irony in Jonathan Ross' presence on that episode of QI!!)

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Fire in the sky

This photo was taken this morning. It's completely un-edited, not 'Photoshop-ed' - just as it was snapped.

The sunrise was breath-takingly beautiful. Words completely fail me... I can't begin to describe it.
In fact, for the last couple of days the light around here has been absolutely amazing. So more images will follow in due course. And later in the week I might even get around to stringing a few words together for an entry (but then again...!)

Friday, 5 December 2008

Bellwethers and self-awareness

I was interested to discover the original meaning of bellwether – it’s the leading sheep of a flock, with a bell on its neck. So now you know too!

Of course it’s the other meaning that we tend to focus on nowadays – the indicator of a trend concept.

Why was I thinking about any of this in relation to self-awareness and developing daily disciplines? Well, over recent years I’ve identified a few triggers that indicate that I’m a bit off form. I don’t mean anything dramatic, just little things that happen ordinarily when I’m OK, but somehow slip away when I’m not. I use them as wee warnings that I need to take some time to work out what’s going on. Sometimes it’s simply physical (for example, I’ve had a cold recently), but it’s harder to recognise when it’s emotional. Of course, the change in demeanour doesn’t (usually) happen overnight. Hence the bellwethers, the wee things that might show you that everything’s not quite hunky-dory.

Some of the things that are indicators for me include:
- Reading the newspaper every day
- Trimming my beard regularly
- Polishing shoes

There are others, but it’s quite a dull list – those three are the highlights!! The point of this entry – if there is one – is to suggest that developing these bellwethers might just help you to spot that things are heading south, as early as possible.

Of course, once you spot it you need to do something about it!

Bellwethers and self-awareness

I was interested to discover the original meaning of bellwether – it’s the leading sheep of a flock, with a bell on its neck. So now you know too!

Of course it’s the other meaning that we tend to focus on nowadays – the indicator of a trend concept.

Why was I thinking about any of this in relation to self-awareness and developing daily disciplines? Well, over recent years I’ve identified a few triggers that indicate that I’m a bit off form. I don’t mean anything dramatic, just little things that happen ordinarily when I’m OK, but somehow slip away when I’m not. I use them as wee warnings that I need to take some time to work out what’s going on. Sometimes it’s simply physical (for example, I’ve had a cold recently), but it’s harder to recognise when it’s emotional. Of course, the change in demeanour doesn’t (usually) happen overnight. Hence the bellwethers, the wee things that might show you that everything’s not quite hunky-dory.

Some of the things that are indicators for me include:
- Reading the newspaper every day
- Trimming my beard regularly
- Polishing shoes

There are others, but it’s quite a dull list – those three are the highlights!! The point of this entry – if there is one – is to suggest that developing these bellwethers might just help you to spot that things are heading south, as early as possible.

Of course, once you spot it you need to do something about it!

Friday photo: cold and twisted

Friday, 28 November 2008

Friday photo: Winter bloom

Sunday, 23 November 2008

One degree of change

If anyone is still keeping an eye on this blog, you must have noticed a bit of a gap between entries.

The thing is that I've gathered piles and piles of material relating to daily disciplines and practices, but I didn't want to start posting here until I had organised it thematically with at least an inkling of the order that I would use for the first few entries. Well, surprisingly, the pile has grown and is more disorganised than ever.

How can this be?

Well, one of the disciplines that I need to develop is organising! And another is to stop procrastinating.

So I'm going to post here more consistently - it might be a bit random and disorganised, but maybe as I start to work through the material things will become a bit clearer. If not, I might have a bit of fun along the way. And, at the very least, I'll manage to get rid of some of the paper that's piling up in the study!

It's one degree of change - a small shift which might lead to big results.

One degree of change

If anyone is still keeping an eye on this blog, you must have noticed a bit of a gap between entries.

The thing is that I've gathered piles and piles of material relating to daily disciplines and practices, but I didn't want to start posting here until I had organised it thematically with at least an inkling of the order that I would use for the first few entries. Well, surprisingly, the pile has grown and is more disorganised than ever.

How can this be?

Well, one of the disciplines that I need to develop is organising! And another is to stop procrastinating.

So I'm going to post here more consistently - it might be a bit random and disorganised, but maybe as I start to work through the material things will become a bit clearer. If not, I might have a bit of fun along the way. And, at the very least, I'll manage to get rid of some of the paper that's piling up in the study!

It's one degree of change - a small shift which might lead to big results.

Marigold the Snow Queen

You know there's something weird with the season when your snow-person is decorated with marigolds!

Of course, it may also say something about the creator (not me) of this al fresco art piece!


"Humility – it’s not about seeing yourself as worse than you really are; it’s about seeing yourself and others as you all truly are. And that’s equal in God's eyes."

We all need to look at ourselves in the light of this - and, then, make whatever adjustments are necessary in our behaviour.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Friday photo: fall-en wonder

Monday, 17 November 2008

The Great Stink

Today is World Toilet Day.

According to Tearfund:

The figures are overwhelming, almost 900 million people without access to clean water, the majority of them women and children. While over 2.5 billion, a third of the world’s population, are without a clean and safe place to go to the loo.

In 2000, world leaders signed up to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), targets that could transform the lives of millions around the world.

We’ve only got another 7 years to go until the targets are meant to be met, and progress on water and sanitation is the most off track, with experts predicting that the goal on sanitation is unlikely to be met until early in the 22nd century, more than 80 years too late.

You can find out more here.
This is potty! (OK, no more silly puns from me.)

How can this be? What are our leaders doing about it? It’s simply not good enough.

But hang on a minute – what am I doing about it? Moaning about it on this blog isn’t likely to help very much. One of the problems is that the numbers are just too big; and the problem is too far away. Maybe that means it’s time to make it personal.

I often think that we respond to the latest crisis, give a few quid (or bucks), then forget about it. What’s stopping us focusing on one or two issues that each of us can contribute to and stay in touch with? Dare we get deeply involved with any social justice issue? It doesn’t have to be toilet-related, but if that ‘pulls your chain’, it’d be worth checking out the WaterAid site.

“We cannot tell what part in God’s plan our little moments play.”
Margaret Killingray

Sunday, 16 November 2008


if God exists


what's God like?


Saturday, 15 November 2008

Barack Obama: My part in his success

(Title inspired by Spike Milligan)

No, I didn’t play any role in his election victory. But – for me – that’s not his success. His success will be measured by the way in which he tackles the issues that he talked about during his campaign; by the way that he works collaboratively with other leaders (political and otherwise); by the way he builds on the goodwill that he currently seems to enjoy; and by the way that he creates hope and makes a difference in individual lives.

Why should this matter to me, living in Scotland? Well, in these turbulent times – geopolitically and economically – the impact of the United States will be felt across the world. In my opinion, that impact wasn’t a positive force during the Bush years. Obama needs to change that.

I was catching up on e-mails today, and I came across this article from LICC. It’s a useful reminder that we all have a role to play in the success, or otherwise, of Obama’s presidency. We can all pray.

Also, we should be willing to hold him to account, and since he used the Internet to good effect during his campaign, we can use it to make sure that he is doing what he said he would through our use of cyberspace. As Hillary Clinton said recently:

“I want to do everything I can to make sure his agenda is successful.”
We can all do that. And while I’m at it, I shouldn’t forget Messrs. Brown and Salmond (tempting though it is!)

Friday, 14 November 2008

Friday photo: Rainbow's end

Monday, 10 November 2008

Now hear this - or read it if you prefer

I came across this article today, which is interesting in some ways. Judges (certainly in this country) seem to have a habit of offering opinions without any evidence to back it up - beyond their own opinions. A bit like bloggers really!!

I wonder if the real issue isn't the difference between listening and reading, but instead is related to our concentration spans. We have become used to sound bites and quick summaries, and perhaps have lost the capacity to focus on anything for more than a few minutes.

I know that I've lost my ability to concentrate for any period of time, and now plan my work and other activities in half-hour slots to try to deal with this.

I also have a theory about the way that we should write for computer-based texts, but I'll keep that for another time.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Friday photo: Changing

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Magnificently weird or...

... weirdly magnificent?

I saw this bunch - Fleet Foxes - on Jools Holland last night and I still don't really know what to make of them. (There from Seattle like some of my blogger mates.) Also, if you can access the BBC's iPlayer, there was a very strange performance from Monkey's World and a classic from Al Green - Let's Stay Together.

Oh, and Dolly D enjoyed Pendulum - a sort of drum and bass popular beat combo m'lord.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Rhetoric and reality follow up

A couple of interesting questions about yesterday's Friday photo.

Firstly in reply to That Hideous Man - I dunno. Occasionally Blogger doesn't seem to want to enlarge my photos. I can't provide an explain, nor have I found a solution. Yesterday provides a perfect example - both photos were taken in the same way, handled in the same way and imported in the same way BUT only one of them would enlarge. If anyone can suggest a solution, please let me know.

The inscription reads:

Never again should a people starve in a world of plenty.

His Girl Friday's question has a more complicated answer. In some ways the photos seemed to create a narrative - in an ironic sense. They were taken in Cambridge, Massachusetts (although that is not particularly relevant). I was wandering around snapping photos as the Fish Wife and Dolly D were sitting enjoying the sun.

(As an aside, the ability to take large numbers of indiscriminate photos is one of the joys of digital photography. I probably wouldn't have taken these photos if I was still paying for film and processing!)

Anyway, as I was wandering around I spotted this statue in a corner of the park, so I strolled over and snapped one side of it - the side with the inscription above; then went round to the other side and took a snap. Initially I didn't pay any attention to the guys lying on the benches in the background - I could also remove them from the digital image later!

Subsequently, I discovered that there was a small community 'sleeping rough' in this park. Then I realised how easy it is for us to airbrush the poor out of our world, even when our rhetoric says something different!

I hope that makes some sense, and that the photo will enlarge this time.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Friday photo(s): Rhetoric and reality



Monday, 27 October 2008

Art or story?

Having waded through all of the photos that I took while in Boston, I've been asking myself - do they tell the story of our holiday? Is this my objective when taking photos or am I trying to create/ capture some form of art? What would I need to change to incorporate the element of narrative (I already know about the shortage of people photos!)?
And even as I ponder these questions That Hideous Man posts an entry on his blog that combines both aspects! I think his still life on a medical theme is particularly impressive, although a blood-stained action shot would have rounded off the tale.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Friday photo: Charles River

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Celebrating "fall"


It's been a wild and wonderful day here with the first autumnal gales. Wonderful in terms of the power of the wind, and as I sat in my car before going into a meeting today I watched the clouds racing across the sky, then I noticed a few spots of blue sky, and for a few seconds the sun broke right through in all its dazzling glory. It was also fantastic to see the trees on the way home tonight blazing with autumn colour in what is apparently one of the best displays for many years.
All of which leads me to another Boston reflection. It seems to me that they take their 'fall' celebrations very seriously - or rather energetically. I might have some misgivings about the Halloween associations, but there is a real feeling of entering into the spirit of the season as we wandered around - even the withces hats hanging in the beautiful courtyard of Boston Public Library.
No more words - the pictures will tell the story more eloquently.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Politics - U.S. style


While we were in Boston we saw the second presidential debate. Not “Joe the Plumber”, but the “THAT ONE” one. It was inevitably hard to avoid with TV news reports, commentaries and adverts providing some interest to the casual spectator (i.e. me).

This linked with one of my Boston highlights – visiting the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. It’s really worth a visit if you’re in Boston (although I thought the stuff on the Cuban missile crisis was a wee bit short and lightweight – but I’m probably being picky!)

Two aspects of the museum triggered thoughts about the similarities and differences with the current campaign.

The stunning similarity for me was the exhibit that showed excerpts from the very first televised presidential debate – between JFK and Richard Nixon. One was eloquent, photogenic, energetic, calm, composed, thoughtful and talked a lot about vision and the need for change; the other was quite brusque, awkward, reactive, direct in responses and talked a lot about experience. Sound familiar?

The difference – for me – was the issue of religion. In his speech accepting the Democratic party nomination JFK emphasised that he did not want his religion to be an issue in the election, he wanted to be judged on his policies alone. This time around there has been much talk of religion – especially that of Barack Obama. The fact that religion is an issue still comes as a surprise to me, given that it’s not a big factor in elections over here.

I heard someone recently suggesting that the emergence of faith in U.S. elections was a reaction to Watergate (Nixon again!) and the need for the population to be re-assured about the moral integrity of their potential President. However, I am concerned (as an ill-informed onlooker) that the test of authenticity as a Christian is largely based on the issue of abortion and to some extent homosexuality. Why highlight these two? Why not use the attitude towards poverty and injustice, which would be more biblical?

Anyway, it’s intriguing that Obama has been keen to talk about and expand on his religious views. Of course, there are issues relating to his family background that mean he has to establish his own position – to some extent. But I admire the way that he has not chosen to give the ‘correct’ answers to the questions that he’s been asked. He seems to have remained true to his beliefs and principles, even when he knows that he will get a negative reaction (as at the Saddleback event).

I will watch with interest to see the outcome on November 4th.

It was twenty years ago today...

Not Sergeant Pepper... but me and the Fish Wife getting married. Only a fool would choose to get married in the second half of St Andrews in October - but we met there, got engaged there, so where else would we get married? Anyway we had a brilliant day. The weather was great and so was the ceremony, the meal and all the other stuff that goes with a wedding.

And since then we've had 20 years of (mostly) happiness together - how great is that? (By the way the question is rhetorical.)

Monday, 20 October 2008

The Freedom Trail


Before I begin properly, can I just say that I know how boring other people’s holiday snaps can be. So I’ve put them in a video thingy – you can choose to look at them or not. It’s entirely up to you and I won’t be offended if you choose not to.

One of the main features of the tourist-y side of Boston is the freedom trail – a red line that’s painted or embedded in the pavements leading from Boston Common to the Bunker Hill monument (or the USS Constitution, depending which route you follow at the last wee bit). Fortuitously our hotel was right on the trail towards the end – this was a handy navigational aid for us.

On our first full day we followed most of the trail – working backwards. This meant that we were going against the flow (aye, I know – nothing new in that for me), but also that we saw things from a slightly different perspective. Anyway wandering through the streets of the North End was really fascinating (although there did seem to be a lack of coffee shops open!)

By lunchtime we had arrived at Faneuil Hall where the ‘patriots’ plotted the Revolution. Anyway, right next to Faneuil Hall is Quincy Market, which is a great place to eat and be entertained. The central section of the Market is wall-to-wall food outlets serving almost every sort of cuisine – except haggis! Outside you’ll find street entertainers. Later on we discovered (or were misled if it’s not true!) that the performers have to audition to be allowed to do their stuff around the Market. They don’t get paid by the Market, they earn whatever passer-by ‘tip’ them. Some of them were really good. We saw a very good and funny juggler/clown, a group of kids doing breakdancing or hip hop or something (not sure about these sort of categories) and a very good singer/songwriter. I really liked her stuff – a bit of Suzanne Vega maybe? She’s called Cheryl B Engelhardt and if you look very closely you can see her in the bottom left corner of one of my photos. (What do you mean you didn’t look at them? I’m officially offended!) Cheryl has a website – it’s worth checking out and you can hear tracks from her second album on her myspace page.

Back to the Freedom Trail – it meanders on through the city centre past various sites of interest until it reaches Boston Common. If you’re ever in Boston it’s worth the walk, and you can get guided tours from the Park Rangers in period costume. However, I’d recommend taking one of the trolley tours, which will also let you see other parts of the city.

They may not have as much history as us, but they do it well – and probably know their history a lot better than we know ours.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Anticipate the consequences

As the father of a teenager, I find myself frequently advocating that Dolly D should "anticipate the consequences". This handy little catchphrase fits two scenarios - when something has gone horribly awry and when disaster looms due to lack of foresight and thinking. I probably use these words at least once a day and more frequently when we spend lots of time together – at weekends and holidays.

Well, I provided an opportunity for her to take revenge just before our trip to Boston - in fact, on the day before we flew out. For a few weeks I had been planning to harvest some of the chillis that we’ve grown in our greenhouse and preserve them. The method of preservation is to de-seed them, chop them ready for use and store each fruit in a little jar filled with olive oil. It’s a tried and tested method.

Now I know that chopping chillis can cause irritation to your hands and any part of your body that your hands come into contact with; so being smart and anticipating this consequence I used my trusty method of self-preservation. I rubbed my hands with oil before I started to chop, thus providing a barrier between the jaggy chemical stuff and my delicate hands.

I then set about chopping and storing chillis for about an hour, and a nice wee pile of jars were ready for future use. I wouldn’t usually chop chillis for this long, and there was a slight stinging effect, but nothing too serious. (Astute readers will probably be anticipating a twist in the tale coming up.)

Being in a helpful mood I cajoled Dolly D to help with some washing up – I washed, she dried. This is where things went a bit pear-shaped. By immersing my hands in hot water I removed any remaining barrier, opened the pores in my hands and let all the chilli juice in. The pain was intense, and it only got worse as I tried various remedies. I had planned an early night since we were leaving early to catch our flight. Instead I spent a sleepless night as my hands burned and stung.

Inevitably, Dolly D had some advice for the occasion – “Dad, you should’ve anticipated the consequences”. For once she was right!

Friday, 17 October 2008

Friday photo: Making an effort, leaving a trail

Thursday, 16 October 2008

First impressions of Boston

On arrival in Boston, our immediate impressions were of efficiency in processing us through security for "aliens" – which we had heard horror stories about – and in the taxi queue where the woman supervising the taxis chased away a driver who didn’t have a valid licence to operate as a taxi for the airport. Having been reassured by these small issues, we were subjected to a moderately terrifying taxi ride to our hotel – almost all of it underground as part of Boston’s ‘big dig’.

When we got to our hotel room, we were treated to a magnificent view of the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge at sunset. The bridge would feature in many of the photos that were taken in subsequent days. (Note to self – make space in my case for a tripod on future trips like this! Hand held at slow speeds is a bit tricky!)

Over the first couple of days our real first impressions were that the people were very polite and helpful (although the accent was a bit difficult to tune in to); the streets were incredibly clean – no litter at all, anywhere; we felt safe within the city (as long as we were sensible about where we went); and there was a sense of pride shown by people. Pride in their country (lots of flags flying); pride in their city; and pride in their sports team. I found this to be a positive attitude rather than any sort of jingoism.

There is definitely a lot that we in Scotland could learn from the citizens of Boston – at least in these areas.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Go Sox!

We've just come back from a holiday in Boston (USA). We had a great time and there's lots to think through and write about. Still catching up with laundry, mail, photos etc, so in-depth thought will have to wait!

I felt that I had to publish this photo today. The Boston Red Sox are playing the Tampa Bay Rays in the baseball play-offs, but are currently being pounded. They are trailing 3-1 in the best of seven series, losing the last two games at home (1-9 and 4-13 respectively). Now I'm not an expert on baseball, but that's not good... not good at all.

But as any Red Sox fan (and it seems that almost everyone in Boston is part of the 'Sox nation') will tell you, things were worse when they played the New York Yankees in 2004. Then they were 3-0 down, but went on to win the next 4 games, clinching the series and going on to win their first World Series since 1918. They qualified as wild cards in 2004, as they did this year - a good omen?.

They might win tomorrow night and take the series back to Florida for the last two matches. Hope springs eternal so you never know - GO SOX!!

Friday, 3 October 2008

Friday photos: Double blueberry delight

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Comfort zones... the saga continues

I stumbled across a scribbled note today from a podcast that I heard about Abraham Joshua Heschel, in which Krista Tippett talked about his “prophetic inclination to mistrust whatever the comfort zone is”. Given my endlessly restless nature, I like this!

But it also reminded me that I had some unfinished business with comfort zones (previous entries
here and here). When I wrote my last entries, I had been doodling on the whiteboard in my office at work. I’ve tidied the doodle up - a wee bit - and come up with this diagram (I don't know how to make it any bigger!).

Of course, our individual personalities and attitudes will determine how quickly we move from one zone to the next – and I guess that some people bypass discomfort and go straight to dysfunctional as soon as there is any change or stress. Additionally, if we are facing multiple stressors, the nature of our stress changes more rapidly, so that we can become distressed as soon as we are moved out of our comfort zone by the ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’.

By nature, I am suspicious of comfort zones – they’re not areas of growth or development – but I do realise that they play a vital role in establishing equilibrium after a change has occurred. This resonates with this quotation, which I came across recently:

“Any form of stress that prompts discomfort had the potential to expand our capacity – physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually – so long as it is followed by adequate recovery.”
Loehr and Schwartz from The Power of Full Engagement.

The problem, for me, is that many people and organisations like to stay in that ‘maintenance mode’ for the long-term, resisting change and shrinking defensively deeper into the comfort zone. Maybe I’m just too restless… but I’m delighted to be in some small way in the company of Heschel!!

Maybe the saga concludes here, but you never know...

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Thriving on Chaos

I came across the quotation below in an article by Michael McKinney, writing about the current financial crisis. I think it has much wider application as well.

"effective visions are beacons and controls when all else are up for grabs... To turn the vision into a beacon, leaders at all levles must model behavior consistent with the vision at all times."
Tom Peters, Thriving on Chaos

Sunday, 28 September 2008

More Ryder Cup reflections

Following on from yesterday’s entry, there are a few other lessons that seem to come from the way that the American team won the Ryder Cup last week.

The principal issue is teamwork. This has been claimed by the Europeans as the decisive factor in their run of victories in recent Ryder Cups. The argument being that they worked better as a team, even though the Americans had the more gifted individual golfers.

Well, this year I think that Azinger did a fantastic job of planning and managing his approach to team-working. It appears that he grouped his players into 3 groups of 4 – based on the way that they lined up in Sunday’s singles matches, and in the paired events on Friday and Saturday. He combined is ‘flair/momentum’ players (Kim, Mahan, Leonard and Mickelson); his ‘rowdy, Southern boys’ (Weekley, Holmes, Perry and Furyk) and his ‘steady guys (Curtis, Cink, Cambell and Stricker).

I surmise that his Sunday philosophy was that if the first 4 players could build the right momentum, then they would sweep away their European opponents – this was only partly successful. (Although, as an aside, I think that the success of Anthony Kim against Sergio Garcia was hugely significant in both the outcome of the Ryder Cup and in establishing Kim as a mega-star of golf in the very near future.) By contrast the second group of 4 were all successful, and they completed the victory (rout) by each winning their matches. The crowd were really into it with these players – 2 of them from Kentucky where the match was being played. Finally, for Azinger, if his first two cohorts didn’t finish the job, then he had his steady guys at the end to grind out the necessary points.

The lesson here is about planning ahead and creating contingencies for a variety of scenarios.

But in reality, the Ryder Cup was won on Friday and Saturday. Again, Azinger worked with the same groups of 4 players, but he further divided them into pairs – mainly a blend of (Ryder Cup) youth and experience. It has long been a hobby horse of mine that people work best in consistent teams. There is a need to hold your nerve and let a team blend together. A couple of years ago, we brought a team together to implement a new software system. There were some initial difficulties and tensions, and some calls to change the composition – from within the team and from outside of it – but we stuck with it and let the sort out their differences. In the need we had a very successful implementation, in fact, the corporate Head of IT said that no other project had ever been so well managed.

Anyway, Azinger decided on his pairings and largely stuck by them. In the 16 matches on Friday and Saturday he used 7 pairings. By contrast, the European captain Nick Faldo used 13 pairings – which didn’t exactly indicate a high degree of confidence in his players (or his own decision making?).

There are other lessons that I could potentially draw out – like developing individual talents, using resources wisely, and about making sure that you have the right challenge mechanisms within your team, but enough already!

Congratulations to Azinger and his team for a well-planned and merited victory. And just for the record, Faldo didn’t get everything wrong – his choice of Ian Poulter as a wild card wasn’t universally popular over here (I didn’t agree with it at the time), but he was the most successful individual in the competition!

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Some lessons from the Ryder Cup

I watched a chunk of the Ryder Cup last week. While I love watching sport, I didn’t really enjoy it. Firstly, I had a stinking cold (so was feeling very sorry for myself); secondly I don’t have a high regard for either of the captains; and thirdly we (Europe) lost. Actually we were thoroughly thrashed by a much better team. But there’s always next time!

Anyway, after the disappointment of losing I started to look more closely at the differences that there seemed to be between the teams, and while I have no inside information, the following things occurred to me.

Europe seemed to be over-confident, probably based on their status as favourites going into the competition. This was based on our run of success over the last decade or so. But the problem with this way of thinking is that this particular group of individuals had never played in the Ryder Cup before, and only 4 of them had any significant Ryder Cup experience (Garcia, Westwood, Harrington and Jimenez). Over-confidence and complacency are not good attitudes in any environment.

Another difference seemed to be that we were looking for things to whinge about. Whether it was Azinger’s (ill-advised) ‘pep talk’ to the fans, or the way that putts were or were not conceded. In golf and in life you need to be able to deal with these minor irritations and focus on the objective. Maybe there was a sense of wanting to win the competition while maintaining some sort of moral high ground.

But for me the biggest difference between the teams was teamwork, and I’ll deal with that in another post.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Friday photo: GOMA

The Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow

Thursday, 25 September 2008

The return of Jools

Jools Holland's fantastic Later Live returned to BBC2 this week. I thought that Elbow were pretty good. I really enjoyed the strings on One Day Like This, and the lyrics - especially the refrain:
It's looking like a beautiful day
So throw those curtains wide!
One day like this a year’d see me right!
But for me the star of the show was Imelda May. I loved the look and the sound. But then again it's all a matter of taste!

Low level blogging

I haven't been blogging (or commenting) much recently - lots of excuses, no reasons. I'm reminded of a quotation from Virginia Woolf:

"I have lost friends, some by death... others through sheer inability to cross the street."

So rather than lose all of my blogging friends, I thought I'd better step off the kerb again!

I've had lots of ideas for blog entries (even put them together in a file), but zero output. That's life at the moment.

This entry simply a re-entry to blog-land. I checked out Lucy's place and came across one of those cyber-quiz thingumyjigs. I could have answered most of the questions at least twice (Does that mean that I have a split personality? If so, how many ways has it split?...). Anyway, my output is below. Play if you like - but remember there are other sources of careers advice available!!

You Are the Philosopher

You love thinking things over and developing theories.

Learning is very important to you, and you pursue knowledge relentlessly.

You love to talk about the things you know, often in more detail than people would like to hear.

And you know a lot! You're always taking on new subjects, interests, and hobbies.

You are at your best when you are left alone to ponder your newest ideas and experiments.

You tend to withdraw from environments that are loud, contentious, or passionate.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Friday photo: mellow fruitfulness

Monday, 15 September 2008

small acts - the sequel

"Do your little bit of good where you are. It’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world."
Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Imagine how surprised I was to get this link in an e-mail today!

God does work in mysterious ways - and through our small acts.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

In praise of a software upgrade.

I usually find software upgrades a pain in the behookie - unnecessary downloads and restarts for no perceptible gain in functionality.

However, to my great surprise I'm quite enjoying the latest version of iTunes (8.0.0). I'm having a bit of fun with the 'genius' button. Now I know that it's just another way to try to get me buying more music from the iStore, and in essence it's no different from marketing ploys used by other companies, like Amazon. But it has one feature that I like - it generates playlists from your music library. It's much more random than I would be if I selected the music myself. I like that!

The big question is how long will I resist buying more music - that I hadn't intended to buy - from iTunes?

Small changes, radical effects

This morning started normally (well, it’s been ‘normal’ for a couple of weeks) with an early morning run. It was beautiful but not spectacular morning, with a tinge of pink in the sky and some small pockets of mist clinging to the hills. After showering and breakfast, normality was abandoned. We decided to opt out of church this morning. Instead we will go this evening to hear That Hideous Man concluding his series on Ecclesiastes.

This meant that we had a large chunk of a day with no specific plans, which also allowed some space for thinking.

Yesterday we went to visit my parents. My dad is finding it difficult to maintain his garden, and he wanted a small tree removed. So we took a variety of tools and gardening clothes with us to do it for him.

True to form it started to rain as the removal exercise reached the point of no return. So I pressed on, getting wet and covered in soil and mud. Every time that I have removed a tree or shrub I have the same experience. Eighty percent of the job is done fairly quickly, but there are always a few roots that are buried deep or are hidden away – and this is the bit that takes the time. Anyway, I knew that I was nearing the end, when my mum came out to give me a telling off – it was wet and I should come in. The first bit was obvious! The second bit was a judgement call – it was getting very wet, but I was nearly there. I decided to keep going, and a few minutes later the last root was cut and the stump came out.

Due to the weather, we weren’t able to complete the clearing up, but we’d done the important bit. My parents will be able to do some of the clearing up (I took away the heavy stuff) or it can wait until our next visit.

It was only after we had removed the tree that I realised how much of an issue it had been for both of my parents. Maybe it was just a generous display of gratitude, but I got the impression that this tree had been a major problem for them. Removing the tree did open up a bit more light in their garden, but for them it was as if the whole garden had been liberated from a shadow that had hung over it for years. What might seem to me to be a minor change, was for them a significant improvement, and had I given up they would have been left with their problem for a few weeks.

My conclusion – sometimes the biggest changes can come from apparently small adjustments.

By way of a postscript, I spent almost as long this morning cleaning up the tools that I as had used, as I did taking the tree out. But as I removed the grime, I was able to do some thinking and that can’t be a bad thing, can it?

Friday, 12 September 2008

Friday photo: Modesty

by Giosue Argenti
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow

Monday, 8 September 2008

More on comfort zones

Had a bit of a frustrating meeting today with a colleague. This individual (please note gender neutrality to avoid identification!) is a senior manager in a fairly large organisation, responsible for a budget of several million pounds, a significant group of staff and - most importantly - the delivery of public services to needy people. They are experienced in their job, having been in their role even longer than me.

Anyway, they are heading up a project re-designing a bunch of services in their area of responsibility. We disagreed very early on in the meeting - as they tried to tell me how I should be doing the workforce planning for this project (the irony of this may become obvious in a wee while).

After a few minutes I thought we should move things on, so I asked where the project plan was. The response - 'there isn't one, and I don't do project plans!' This wasn't a humble recognition of a deficit in the management toolkit, this was almost a badge of honour. Next I asked for clarity on the objective of the project - there isn't one, or at least, it's not clearly stated. It seems that the approach to the project was to thrash around wildly, doing lots of things and asking for some major investment in the hope that the services will improve.

I've known this individual for over a decade, and I know that we approach things very differently. Nevertheless I was shocked by the (initial) attitude that planning was unnecessary. Effectively this manager's comfort zone is in handling operational issues, almost at an individual case level.

Well, being awkward - like I am - I wasn't prepared to let this rest. I have absolutely no intention of being associated with a project that is doomed from the outset, so I forced the issue, and in doing so, forced this individual out of their comfort zone - and into a place where thinking was required. In the end we agreed a way forward. I doubt that it will lead to any lasting change, but at least it's a first step.

The moral? If there is one, it may be that the deeply entrenched comfort zone is the hardest to deal with. For us as individuals and for those who work alongside us.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Comfort zones

His Girl Friday reminded me about the talented (and gorgeous) Alison Krauss. I’m not at all familiar with her bluegrass music, but I remember being completely blown away by her collaboration with Robert Plant (of Led Zeppelin fame).

Some genius came up with the idea of taking these two singers from completely different backgrounds and putting them together – and it worked. Both Alison and Robert have spoken about how they felt quite intimated by being removed from their comfort zones, which got me thinking…

If we always do the same things, in the same way, with the same people there is a real danger of complacency and the loss of innovation and creativity. Of course, it’s hard to move from your own comfort zone unless you’ve got the discipline to challenge yourself. It’s much more likely to happen when we’re forced into a situation, or when someone else challenges us.

This is quite topical for me as I’ve been challenged lately in a couple of areas where I think that I’m pretty good at what I do. The details don’t matter, but I’ve been doing these things for many, many years and – on reflection – I have become quite complacent. So I needed the constructive criticism to give me the impetus to look at how I’m performing and to raise my game.

It’s not exactly pleasant to be challenged in this way - then again, it’s not too easy to be the challenger either. So I’m grateful for the timely comments.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Friday photo: Bee heaven!

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Taxation and accountability

This is a real thrupenny thought!

The SNP government in Scotland has published its proposed legislative programme for the parliamentary session, including plans for a “Local” Income Tax to replace the current Council Tax system.

As I understand it, the proposal is to abolish the Council Tax, which is a property based tax set and collected separately by each of the 32 local authorities in Scotland. (By the way, the thrupenny bit comes in because it’s likely that the proposals would add 3pence to the existing Income Tax rate.)

Now I need to declare a pecuniary interest in this. First of all, I work in local government; secondly I’ll be a ‘loser’ financially if the SNP proposals ever make it to the statute books.

Predictably there’s been a party political stooshie about this with all sides adopting their familiar, entrenched positions. But I want to spend a few moments thinking through some of the underpinning issues as I see it.

All parties in Scotland seem to agree that the existing Council Tax regime is unfair. So what constitutes a fair system of taxation? Ideally it should reflect consumption of the end product and to some extent reflect ability to pay.

Neither the Council Tax nor any form of ‘local’ income tax will reflect consumption, and any attempt to measure the use of local government services by each citizen/ family would be so hideously complex and contentious that it would be completely unworkable. Income tax does come closer to measuring ability to pay.

What else do we need to consider?

Cost of collection is surely an issue. To collect Council Tax, each local authority needs to have staff and systems to notify citizens of the amount that they are each due to pay, collect these amounts through a variety of methods, and chase those who choose not to pay. There is a also a system for assessing individual relief from payment due to individual financial circumstances. On the other hand, it is argued that Revenues and Customs already collect money from all income tax payers, so varying the percentage to be collected from me shouldn’t be too difficult. It is clearly more straightforward to collect if the rate is set nationally, as opposed to separate rates for each authority.

Of course the big, philosophical show-stopper is about accountability – so the opposition parties say. The argument runs that each Council must be accountable to their citizens for the amount of money collected from taxation to run their services. There is a certain logic to this position – except that Council Tax currently represents less than 20% of the money spent by each local authority. The rest of the money comes through direct charging for services (e.g. use of leisure facilities, payments for social care), business rates AND funding from central government – which in turn comes from INCOME TAX (and other nationally set taxes).

Do citizens judge their democratically elected representatives solely - or mainly - on the basis of how much tax they pay? What view do they take of outcomes and the quality of services delivered? What about ensuring that services are provided to the most vulnerable?

And what about the fact that turnout in local government elections is laughably low and likely to decrease if/when they are de-coupled from Scottish Parliament elections?

In my opinion, if the issue is about fairness then ‘local’ Income Tax wins the argument. This is also true in terms of the cost of collection.
As for accountability – well there’s a real debate around that, if only the politicians were capable or willing to look at it from the citizens’ perspective rather than a party political one. But is there any prospect of a mature debate on this? Not a chance!!

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Newton's pebbles

"I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

Isaac Newton

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Chances and choices

Where you live should not decide
Whether you live or whether you die”
U2 – Crumbs from your table

Last week the World Health Organisation published a report on life expectancy and some of the factors that influence it. The report was headline news here because of one startling statistic that emerged – male life expectancy in Calton, Glasgow is a mere 54 years; eight miles away in Lenzie it is 82!! A difference of 28 years in 8 miles.

Obviously this degree of divergence is appalling and begs many questions.

The WHO report states:
“The toxic combination of bad policies, economics, and politics is, in large measure, responsible for the fact that a majority of people in the world do not enjoy the good health that is biologically possible… Social injustice is killing people on a grand scale.”

The issue of Calton/Lenzie has sparked a predictable and lamentable round of political point-scoring. The reality is that significant investment has been made in places like Calton, but change on the scale that is required is long-term. It’s easy to get all high and mighty about these kind of situations. But the reality is that we live our comfortable lives in blissful ignorance of the situation right on our doorstep. I don’t know what the comparative life expectancy is for communities in and around Perth, but I know that poverty and hopelessness exists alongside middle-class affluence and consumption.

So before I criticise those responsible for social policy in Calton, I need to take a long, hard look at myself first.

On the day that the WHO report was published, there was another story in the headlines here. The Duke of Sutherland needs to raise some cash, so he’s planning to sell some paintings from his collection. The thing is, he’s been kind enough to lend them to the National Galleries of Scotland, who don’t want to lose them. So the Duke is prepared to sell two Titians for the bargain price of £50 million each.

To be honest Titian isn’t my ‘cup of tea’ anyway. But I’m horrified that the Scottish Government is planning to make a significant contribution (about £10 million) towards buying these paintings. How can this be justified?

My solution would be to let the Duke sell his paintings at market value (£150 million each!), then he can make a donation of say £50 million towards the development of arts related projects in Calton and other deprived areas of Scotland to provide some hope and stimulation for those whose life expectancy is somewhat less than the typical gallery viewer who would see the Titians anyway. At the very least, the government could divert their, actually, our £10 million to what in my view is a better cause.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Pilot House

Yesterday’s photo was of the Pilot House in Irvine Harbour. The Pilot House stands at the entrance to the harbour, and provided vessels with an indication of the state of the tide – and therefore, the depth of water in the channel in to the harbour. The idea was that a serious of ‘globes’ were raised and lowered automatically according to the state of the tide.

I can remember the pilot house working when I was a child, but – sadly – it has been out of action and in a state of disrepair for many years now. The globes are lying around the building, slowly rusting away.

I don’t know if the pilot house was unique. However, it is indicative of a once thriving harbour, which is not well used nowadays.

It strikes me that our lives could use a pilot house system – indicating when we are operating at capacity, when we are fully charged, when we need an injection of something to get us back on track etc, etc. Unfortunately the indicators for our well-being are not as obvious as globes rising up a mast outside a building. So we need to find other ways of assessing how we’re doing. This is part of ‘developing daily discipline’, which I’ll write about another time – and maybe in another place.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Friday photo: Pilot House

Monday, 25 August 2008

... while sitting on our bums

Aye the Olympics are over for another 4 years. I really enjoyed them - the spectacle, the sport and the success. So I thought it was time for a few reflections.

It's funny how we (in the UK) get carried away with a few medals here and there. OK, so we did exceed expectations, but the way that the media has been extolling their virutes, you could be forgiven for thinking that the athletes had found a cure for all forms of cancer or eradicated global poverty. The word "heroes" is being inappropriately and over-used. They did well and hopefully they will inspire young people (and some oldies) to take up sport.

Which brings me to my next point - look at the sports where we did win gold medals. The Aussies and others had a point about us winning when we were sitting on our bums (cycling - 8 golds; yachting -4; rowing - 2; everything else - 5). I heard another observation about winning at 'posh' sports - rowing and yacthing would fit that bill. As we begin the inexorable build up to 2012 and the games in London, will we be promoting a wide range of sports, offering equal access and opportunity to all? (I have my doubts!)

I liked some of the alternative medal tables that were produced by the BBC News magazine. This leads me to wonder how much money was spent per medal achieved by some of the 'successful' countries - and what are the issues of justice relating to that. Maybe our politicians could focus on some of these issues - rather than arguing about whether or not we should have a GB football team in the 2012 games.

But I don't want to be a complete party-pooper. My last reflection is on the fastest man on earth - also, in my opinion the coolest man on earth - Usain Bolt. How awesome was he? Three golds, three world records! Maybe I'll switch my allegiance to Jamaica - they do quite well in both the traditional and alternative medal tables!

Friday, 22 August 2008

Friday photo: Cosmic!

(not one of mine!! Story and details here)

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Back to work: Keep going

The final couple of thoughts/rules - call them what you will!

Firstly, tackle the backolg methodically. You'll need to work out your own method. I have some thoughts, which I might post another time - but I would advocate that you do not start at the top of the pile (physical or electronic) and work your way down.

Secondly, set realistic daily targets and stick to them. making progress against these targets is a great incentive to keep going - especially mid-afternoon on day 3, when you feel thoroughly jaded (the Scots word 'scunnered' covers it very well!).

Finally, take a few moments as you're tackling your mountain to remember something positive from your break ... then start again until you hit your target for the day!