The month long absence was largely to do with focusing on starting work as a trainee solicitor at Bird & Bird although, with the first two weeks spent on what broadly amounted to an LPC-lite Professional Skills course, very little has actually been going on. The trainees are a fantastic bunch, and I’d managed to meet about two thirds of them already through various social events over the past two years since the summer scheme (yes, it has been that long). From that bunch Rachel, Chelsea and Matt have joined, with Kelvin also starting in the firm’s Hong Kong office. Rob will be joining us next year.
Obviously client confidentiality means I’m unlikely to discuss work at length here, but the firm culture is possibly even better than we had hoped. Rather than waxing lyrical about the ubiquitous “work-life balance” claim of every law firm, instead they just give us great hours with virtually no late nights so that people can, well, go away and have lives. I’ll be in the IP department for the next six months and, having been a student for too long, I’m actually looking forward to getting properly stuck into some real work.
With classic poor timing in my last week of freedom before work, my Xbox 360 finally gave up the ghost, refusing to start and displaying the dreaded three red lights — meaning a critical hardware fault. While an electronic device of that value ought not to break after just 2 years, Microsoft’s support has been stellar. With unusually high failure rates they extended their warranty to three years, meaning that after logging the problem online they emailed me a UPS label and paid for all transportation costs. Once received the turnaround was only around a day, and it arrived back working fine. The included note stated they had found problems in both the motherboard and DVD drive, so not exactly a minor repair. The inclusion of an unboxed scratched-up disc of outdated tennis game Top Spin 2 was a somewhat insulting gift, but the 1 month Xbox Live subscription card was vastly more welcome. Overall it was a problem that should not have happened, but being able to resolve it for free without even calling up a helpline mean Microsoft get top marks for their response.
Saturday’s graciously fair weather was particularly welcome as it featured a trip up to Oxford for Chris and Alissa’s wedding. In a rare display of efficiency, the anticipated gallery of wedding photos is already up. Those pictures probably convey more of the wonderful day than I can with words, but then that’s never stopped me before…
The wedding itself took place in the heart of Oxford town in The Church of Mary Magdalen (the name being pronounced, somewhat confusingly, in the regular manner unlike the inexplicable Oxbridge college pronunciation — maudlin). Chris and I have discussed the high church nature of the services there, but I had not realised the true extent, with the whole affair easily mistakable for a Roman Catholic one. Having lived opposite them for years I know all his family well so it was great to see his parents, brother-and-best-man Alex, as well as sister-and-bridesmaid Jennifer.
Transportation to the reception had been something of a secret, the bride and groom travelling in a replica of the car driven by Inspector Morse, while everyone else clambered aboard a Routemaster bus, presumably for the benefit of the visiting Americans, Alissa’s family and friends. We journeyed to Kingston Bagpuize House for the reception. A marquee in the garden featured a string quartet, drinks and canapés while everyone settled in. Most interesting however, was the artist who cut out freehand profile silhouettes of the guests without drawing anything first. He had an exceptional eye for picking out details and everyone was enthralled by his work. Meanwhile I was able to catch up with Guy, Francis, Ravi and Cameron who formed the Whitgift contingent.
The cutting of the cake — being a large one atop an impressive tower of smaller cakes that formed the marquee’s centrepiece — was followed by dinner inside the house. It was as delectable as one would expect, with a careful seating plan that ensured conversation flowed easily despite the mixed generations. The bride and groom made it through the speeches relatively unscathed, though with time slipping away proceedings were running very late and I had no hope of returning to London that night as planned.
Fortunately Chris’ parents, Sue and Dick, graciously agreed to put me up in their apartment (the benefit of being good friends with the groom’s parents!), though as it turned out I only hit the sofa bed at 5am after several hours of celebrations with Alex, Jennifer and several others. This would have been fine except that I had to be up just 3 hours later to head back to London for a family lunch. Navigating Oxford in the morning light made me realise it really is a pleasant town that I ought to spend more time in, much as Cambridge will always hold more importance for me. Fortunately I already have invitations to return.
I have been quiet but the result is a full gallery of photos from the States. Unsurprisingly you will find lots of photos of Clark (who became progressively easier to photographs in just the 2 weeks I was there) and Karleigh (who is the sort of kid that complains when you stop taking photos of her). At the end of the gallery you will find all the photos from before and after the Art Melt at the Dixon house. Dave Marley had been planning this all summer, and the event was a great success.
The principle is simple — several artists get together to exhibit their work while anyone is free to come by and view. Debbie was initially worried about the number of people who might descend upon the house, but she thoroughly enjoyed the night. Alongside the art was a range of food to nibble, cold drinks and live music from a band Dave knew. It was particularly interesting being around the week beforehand, seeing several of the artists coming to the house to sketch ideas and prepare.
Distinguished visitors included a man running for judge which highlighted another idiosyncrasy of the American system. Elected positions are not just the obvious political ones, but rather span sheriff, district attorney (the chief prosecutor) and judges. On the surface this appears a more democratic way of doing things. However beneath that, and the reason we do not adopt it here, is the concern that these people cannot be expected to do their jobs properly when a popular election is imminent — they are clearly conflicted by a desire to retain their position.
To avoid going stir crazy while cooped up in the apartment with medical books, a pregnant Jenna discovered couponing which has now overtaken her life (we mused that given our family’s apparent addictive personality — Caleb and WOW, Manel and cleaning — it was a good thing none had ever been hooked on drugs). The basic system involves matching specific coupons with sales on at certain stores. So if there is a buy one get one free coupon and a buy one get one free sale at the shop, after both items and the coupon are rung up, the marvel of modern technology and automated tills reduces the price to zero. It gets much more complicated than that, of course, but there’s a very odd feeling walking away with $18 of shampoo for 82 cents, particularly as the clerk apologises since he had technically overcharged us. The whole procedure becomes significantly more challenging when performed with three children in tow, I discovered, when we hooked up with Cassie. Jenna’s least proud moment, however, has to be sitting in front of Target cutting out coupons around 10pm only to find that once she was done the store had been closed for 10 minutes.
Jenna and I discussed a group photo she had taken of her friends at university and how she felt she was very much part of the picture despite not being physically in it — she can see herself in it. In much the same way I am very definitely in many of the photos in this gallery. In fact as a photographer I have often found that I can tell how another photographer feels about their subjects simply from the way they choose to shoot them, occasionally with surprising results…
While the photos are being sorted out, here are some miscellaneous musings from my trip…
I had always assumed one of the drawbacks to city living in somewhere like London was the background noise — an incessant din which prevails throughout the night. Imagine my surprise to find that the comparably insignificant town of Natchez (and even Baton Rouge on some nights) was far louder outside, with a near deafening roar from cicadas in particular, as well as creatures of that ilk. Cicadas are particularly loud insects since their “singing” is not produced by rubbing parts of their body, but rather through clicking “timbals” in their exoskeleton, the sound being amplified by using their body as a resonance chamber.
The Coca Cola issue has become more severe now that I drink it more regularly in the UK, to the point where I actually have to avoid it in the States. Most Americans are sadly (blissfully?) unaware that they are given worse Coke than anywhere else in the world. In fairness, regular travellers aside, the rest of the world is largely unaware that US Coke is so bad either. The reason is that proper Coca Cola is sugar based, but the US variety is made with cheaper corn syrup instead. This actually spans to most soft drinks there, but the flavour is particularly noticeable in cola. You have been warned. And Americans, come try the good stuff!
Jenna and I share similar views when it comes to children’s books, both disliking the majority of modern drivel which is thrown at kids on the basis that so long as they are reading it’s a good thing. In fact bad books can even stifle their imaginations. For example Karleigh produces all sorts of stories when playing with her toy ponies but in the bookstore, were one to cave to her whims and buy the branded tie-in pony books, she tends towards reproducing the basic stories within rather than inventing her own adventures for them.
Personally there are two things I expect from a good children’s book: inventive originality to develop imagination and avoiding talking down to children. The latter means a decent vocabulary in order to expand the child’s, as well as content with some sort of depth, which sort of ties into the first part. There is a strange idea that children’s stories need to be obvious when in fact children are often more open to parallel imagery than adults. Neil Gaiman’s books for children have always appealed to me since, as an author of adult fiction too, he does not sit down with the goal of just producing a children’s book. Rather he has various ideas some of which suit novels or comics while others work best as children’s books. I was glad to be able to buy a copy of The Wolves in the Walls, a personal favourite, for Karleigh.
On a related note, all parents should carry around notebooks to jot down those wonderful things their child comes out with (and an adult never could). I heard several Karleighisms during my trip that I’ve already forgotten and wish I had written here or elsewhere. The alternative is to attach a dictaphone to your child but that might be considered expensive, time consuming and also slightly creepy.
I will write about the rest of my Stateside exploits once I go through the several hundred photographs from the trip and trim them down into something more manageable (hopefully without the Gallery glitch that plagued my last USA trip and I never actually solved). For now I will just discuss the fairly painless trip back.
Although they were keen to carefully rescan the Nintendo DS Lite I bought Kirsten as a birthday present (the dual coloured ones are very sleek with a matt black interior and back, clearly designed more for business executives than younger gamers), American security surprisingly gave me less hassle than their British counterparts. On the other hand most of the security was at the quaintly parochial Baton Rouge airport, with all of ten gates (a substantial rise, I am told, from its original four).
Jenna brought me to the airport with Karleigh and Clark so, several dozen photographs later, it was pretty hard to tear myself away. Things improved at Bush Intercontinental in Houston as I had a couple of hours to kill drinking martinis in a bar and chatting to a pleasant LA resident who was in town for a radiotherapy trade show. With his girlfriend working in “the industry” (she was a set designer on the short-lived Joey) we discussed the risk of an impending actors’ strike in the coming month. That for me is what travelling alone is really about, and the essence of what Frank Moorhouse meant in describing the martini as a travelling drink.
I also stumbled across a store that was demoing Shure earphones, specifically the SE310s that I have been eyeing for a while, allowing me to try them with my own music. In short they are exactly the revelatory aural experience that I had heard and have suddenly jumped from merely desirable to a must-have purchase. I didn’t dare try the SE530s for fear that their £250 price tag might start to look appealling. The 310s will be more than enough for now. My only concern is that with the foam earbuds (not the rubber ones pictured here) expanding further into the ear canal than I had realised, providing a great sound isolating seal, they may become dangerous for use when walking around the City. That would mean I’d need to carry two pairs of earphones which is cumbersome. Real world testing will be the only way to find out I suppose…
I am writing this from a computer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana which will come as something of a surprise to many of you. I had been planning to visit sometime this summer but the final arrangements were extremely spur of the moment, having almost abandoned the idea due to inflated ticket prices and other commitments. It being last minute anyway I arranged a roof over my head with the Dixons but declined to tell anyone else of my plans. I like to keep people on their toes.
And so on Friday I was able to stand in the doorway of Jenna’s apartment and watch her expression transform as she tried to fathom exactly why her cousin was not several thousand miles away. Or rather in her state of shock, as she explained later, whether I would be staying the night. Her newborn baby Clark was the major driving force behind my trip and he is as cute as one would expect, and good deal better behaved. I first met Karleigh when she was around three months old so this was a very different experience. At just a few weeks he is perhaps less interesting, although Karleigh’s wonderfully sweet attempts to take care of him make up for this.
In a fashion befitting my surprise visit we shortly took off to Natchez, a town in Mississippi where my aunt and uncle have bought a new house. Other notable events include eating tamales and buying around forty cans of spray paint at Wal-Mart with Dave, which strangely caused no problem with staff but attracted several questions from concerned shoppers. We’re vandals looking to join a gang, we explained. In fact the supplies were for an art event Dave is hosting at the house in a week. Finally, curiosity piqued by its schedule, a few of us also popped into the tail end of local cult festival BabelCon, dropping in on a lightsaber fighting demonstration.
-I’m positive, we’re all going to die!
Being something of a cynic I generally decry most attempts at “self-help” publications as being either unnecessary (generic, obvious platitudes) or unhelpful (not actually applicable to the reader’s individual circumstances). Even when working in a library I felt uneasy around those sections. I also dislike the concept that one should never be unhappy. Things in life do go wrong and sadness is a perfectly natural, often cathartic response. However allowing oneself to dwell on the negatives and spiral into something worse is entirely within one’s own control. In the end it is your own outlook that controls your mood and not the world around you. Most people find the rain depressing and with the accompanying lack of sunshine (at least in England) there is a genuine biological explanation for that. Yet I quite enjoy the freedom of wandering outside without the crowds of people that usual hinder any stroll in the City. Since I expect to get wet, that is hardly a concern.
The reason I mention this is that I recently stumbled upon The Positivity Blog. I would hardly describe it as life changing, and indeed most of its ideas are concepts I have gradually learned through experience over the past four years or so. Nevertheless, it’s still worth being reminded on a regular basis. Significantly less saccharine than I had expected and nothing so crass as a daily affirmation, its posts tend to be written in the form of lists, often based on the tenets of famous figures like Bruce Lee, Mark Twain and Gandhi.
With exams wrapped up at the end of last month I hopped on a plane to Prague with Sally, Ben, Alex and Anna from law school. This unsurprisingly resulted in a deluge of photos which I have now sifted through to produce the new Prague album in the Gallery. I decided to postpone posting until I had the photos sorted, which has delayed things somewhat. The trip was great fun with a mixture of sightseeing and regular stop-offs in beer gardens to replenish fluids lost in the heat. After we had decided on a cheap city break I ended up picking Prague on the basis I thought it would be prettier than the alternative Budapest. Friends better informed than I seemed to agree and the architecture was certainly stunning, in proximate variety more than any specific style. The football was on during our stay so that covered the evenings’ entertainment and we found the food surprisingly good for a country not famed for high quality cuisine. Being mid-week it also appeared blessedly free of the infamous stag party crowd. All in all a thoroughly enjoyable jaunt.
Travelling light we decided to make do with just hand luggage (and for a period like that I can successfully survive out of a small rucksack — it’s my camera that takes up the most space). This highlighted one of the oft forgotten, and perhaps most serious, results of terrorism. With no baggage in the hold we were limited to liquids of no more than 100ml. However the hair gel I used comes in nothing smaller than 150ml, leaving me with no option but to use wax! I decided to forego the intriguing experience of debating the true state of matter of a solid network within a liquid medium with airport security on this occasion…
Flying back the perils of flying a budget airline befell us as RyanAir apparently ran out of planes, resulting in our flight leaving several hours late, around midnight. Waiting in Prague was fine with several packs of cards and me annoying everyone by repeatedly winning the game Sal introduced, “President’s Men” (once you win it rewards you, making it harder to be unseated). However it meant we arrived back at Gatwick after the tubes had stopped running. While the others headed off by various means I elected to hang around the airport to kill a few hours until they started again. This led to my discovery that as refreshing store-bought beverages go, a pint of milk is much better value than a coke. Sipping milk from a plastic carton while listening to podcasts and reading Kafka on the Shore could only look normal in an airport — they are transient places where everyone is on the move and no one belongs so anything fits, and for that I love them.
With exams still dominating my life (for another 48 hours or so) I’m just closing some slightly techie tabs in this post:
Those who use Firefox (which incidentally is now over 60% of you) and also browse a large number of photos on the web may be interested in the “color profile support” feature in Firefox 3 which is switched off by default. Activating it, the result is vibrant colours, more similar to how they appear in Photoshop than the washed out appearance in web browsers. There are drawbacks with its current implementation, including a 10-15% performance hit, but if you have a decent machine and view a lot of photos you may find it worthwhile. Meanwhile the downside for web designers is the issue of colour matching if some images are treated differently from other elements like CSS colours or embedded flash (yuck!).
I was already quite keen on Battlefield: Bad Company for its characters and destructible structures, but even so the Snake Eyes trailer would have won me over almost on its own, making light of the fact the game’s release has it going up against the PS3 behemoth Metal Gear Solid 4.
I am well slept and recovered from the Bird & Bird summer party last night, a perfect way to celebrate a good IP & Commercial exam (though I don’t actually finish until Tuesday). It was held at The Eve Club, resplendent in its Moroccan themed decor although sadly a little too small for the rapidly growing firm, which must make these events harder and harder to arrange each year. The crowded venue meant it did not quite live up to the riverside Boat Club do two years ago, but it was nevertheless good fun with a chance to meet a few more future trainees to fill in most of the missing gaps. This year’s summer students were invited too, so it was odd already not being the “new kids”, though it was pleasant to know everyone was watching them and not us!
A trial version of the Creature Creator for Spore, the forthcoming game from Sims creator Will Wright, has been released and I recommend everyone tries it out. Although limited in terms of body parts, the ability to totally shape the body means the trial still allows massive scope for possibilities and EA have announced that over 300,000 creatures have already been uploaded by people in the last few days. My first creation was the gravitationally challenged DownLow on the right. The real surprise for me was how intuitive the editor feels, something you can only really experience by trying it out rather than watching Robin Williams playing with it.
Spore is essentially a game based around evolution so that you start of as a single-celled organism which you gradually evolve first as an individual then a tribe, and finally a planet-conquering species before heading out into the stars. With the Sims many people spent half their time just in the editor recreating friends and family, so releasing the creature creator for free seems like a bold move. However with Spore it seems much of the fun will be in seeing how they animate and interact within the game world, whether they work well or not. I suspect the DownLow, for example, may have significant balance issues…
So download, give it a spin and share what you come up with.