Thursday, 29 October 2015

Learning from Fitbit Food Tracking

I’ve had a couple of chats about fitness trackers and the real benefits of a Fitbit. Tracking what I eat is one of them, even if it feels a little obsessive at the start. Taking photos of bar codes to get the nutritional information turns out to be slightly cool.

The trick for the first couple of months is not to use the calorie counter to control what you eat, but to be honest in recording it and hence understand what you’re eating and how you feel when you do.

I got a cold and saw exactly what I’ve always suspected. My calorie intake goes up, I eat more biscuits and chocolate and my exercise goes down. Colds make me put on weight, or at least stop me losing it. It lasted a fortnight, and I can see it in the colour of the calorie counter target icons: green and red instead of yellow and green (yellow means I’ve eaten even less than my 500 calorie deficit).

Understanding must, of course, lead to action. So in the morning a single Penguin (106 calories) has replaced the cellophane pack of Belvita biscuits (220 calories), and a home-made sandwich (220 calories or so) has replaced something from Pret (400 calories or more). The ingredients (bread, ham) of the sandwiches costs as much as one Pret sandwich. So there’s a financial saving here as well.

I’m trying to find lighter lunches. I find an Itsu sushi plus a Miso soup, at around 400 calories, is a little light and slightly bland, whereas a Square Pie is tasty but has silly calories – because pie means pastry and pasty means calories: 620 for the steak and kidney. There’s a Crepe Affaire in Spitalfields Market which does a few reasonable savoury crepes. I suspect that if I didn’t eat the bread on a salt beef at the Lower Eastside Deli in Shoreditch that would take lunch back to around 400 calories. (It is at least solid meat, so more filling than the Itsu.)

The afternoons between 3 and 4 are my bugbear. I need something. My senses are bored, and I’m slumping. (If I go straight home, I fall asleep on the train.) I've been having a yoghurt and maybe tea or coffee and a Kit-Kat. A mess: useless caloires. Fruit doesn’t do it. Maybe the mistake I’m making is thinking that food will pick me up, and it won’t. Perhaps I need to schedule some routine stuff for that hour that I can bash out to pass the time.

I’m right now trying a couple of pieces of dark chocolate. Maybe I need something sweet at lunchtime instead of all that dreary protein and carbohydrate. Ice cream, for instance. That is well-known to be medicinal. Perhaps I have a starter and dessert at Canteen, instead of fish-and-chips. It’s worth a try.

Losing weight, I’ve had problems with constipation, which is what happens when you don’t eat enough fibre. Also, I think porridge on a regular basis doesn’t help this either, as it is soluble fibre and doesn’t help with bulk. So my evening meal is a full-of-fibre root-vegetable stew with added Polish sausage and some grated cheese. It gets cooked in bulk, and four servings get put in plastic containers and stored in the fridge.

We singles tend to eat the same meal at least twice in succession, and sometimes four times. It’s all very virtuous, except the Penguins, and I suspect I need to add some variety to it, probably from a restaurant at least once a week.

Monday, 26 October 2015

What to do with a £35m Rembrandt

The Trustees of Penrhyn Castle recently sold a Rembrandt portrait for £35m to a foreign buyer. The export license has been temporarily withheld to allow a UK institution to raise the money. More details can be found at Bendor Grosvenor’s excellent site.

If a bunch of private and wealthy individuals want to stump up £35m for the painting, by all means let them. If a bunch of charities want to, they must consider if there aren’t better uses of the money. Unless their aims are pretty much limited to “financing old estates by the purchases of assets from those estates” the chances are that there will be better uses of the money. “Better” here meaning “more closely aligned with the purposes of the charity”.

The real question is: under what circumstances can the tax-payer be rightly asked to stump up enough money to build several hundred homes for nurses and teachers, just so a canvas can go on hanging in a castle hundreds of miles from anywhere? “Sentiment” is not an acceptable answer. “Because otherwise the taxpayer would be stumping up for regional subsidies that they don’t have to now because tourism generated by the canvas” is an acceptable answer.

Art has two sources of economic value: its price to a buyer; and the NPV of the cash flows it generates as an exhibit. When art can’t be sold – as for example the Rothkos at the Tate Modern – its economic value is in its drawing power and the ability of the museum to extract money from visitors. (So those Rothkos at the Tate really aren’t worth the $200m or so that his auction prices would suggest.) If a buyer is willing to pay way more than the exhibit value, the seller is getting a good deal. I don’t know how much money Penrhyn makes, but it can’t be enough if they’re thinking about selling a Rembrandt.

The Rembrandt is worth £35m to the mystery buyer, because the buyer gets to enjoy it and whatever other benefits it brings. It is quite likely that ownership of a painting like that could lead to deals that would easily yield more than £35m. It is quite unlikely that anything like that much would gained if the painting remains in a castle in deepest Wales. It is not worth £35m to the taxpayer. Or to any kind of consortium.

But it is worth £35m of other people’s money to the Trustees of Penryhn. (Or £22.5m after tax, according to Grosvenor.) In fact, it’s worth any amount of other people’s money. Anything is. What the Trustees are really after is having their cake, the Rembrandt on the wall, and eating it, £22.5m in the bank to pay for the roof.

Nope. If they want the money, they can let the Rembrandt go to where it can do some good: the National Gallery, or the NPG. Or they could start renting it out for exhibitions and charge a decent rate for it.

But but but.... isn't the value of Art above mere grubby money? Shouldn't we keep it because Heritage and The Nation?

Art is not an essential part of our national identity, like, say, secure borders and a requirement that all dealings with British government organisations (social security, for instance) are done in English. (But I digress.) Art is, for all the attendance figures at museums and the queues of young foreign students at the Tate Modern, a minority occupation that takes a fair amount of reading, looking and changes of mind to appreciate. Also money. Art books aren’t as expensive as statistics text-books, but they aren’t cheap either. Art is not a spiritual substitute for religion, though we may get spiritual feelings from the contemplation of certain works. Neither is the mere looking at art a form of self-improvement: that comes with the discipline of learning and appreciating more. If you think that simply looking at art is improving, just examine the faces of all those young foreign students being dragged round the Tate Modern.

That's not the argument to keep the Rembrandt in the UK.  The argument is that it is more valuable at Penrhyn than it is in some mansion in Dubai or Peking. Because the setting adds, or subtracts, to the experience of seeing the painting. Old Masters make more sense in old castles than they do in new starchitect buildings.

So how about this, which I think Dr Grosvenor suggests as if it would never happen. How about we sell the Rembrandt, but it has to stay in Penrhyn? The owners can let it travel and keep the income, and they can pay the insurance as well. They get a bunch of private viewing days at the castle. And of course, they can sell it on. Under the same conditions.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

What Really Motivates Me

I exercise and eat right because I’m scared that my blood-sugar may once again be 8 to 9 mmol / Litre, and I don’t want to turn into a fat, shapeless old man

I want to stay employed because I don’t want to be poor, and I don’t want to be made to work a zero-hours minimum wage job

I stay sober because I never want to be a self-pitying drunk again

I try to get seven hours’ sleep because I don’t want to go through the day tired and in danger of dozing off at my desk

I keep the house clean and neat because I don’t like mess and chaos

I read serious books and keep up with my bits of art and culture because I don’t want to have my brain turn to mush

I stay at the organisational level I’m at because I don’t want to do the jobs a grade higher

I don’t want you to expect anything of me, because I might not be able to do it

I don’t want any favours because I have no way of returning them: I have no contacts or useful skills

This just about covers every waking hour of my week.

What’s missing here?

Monday, 19 October 2015

Symphony In Grey - Broadgate Tower

So let's get a little Whistler on yo'ass with the titles here.

I've been doing a little more with my life than this, but it's all in Latek and I can't get Blogger to display that very well.

Also, it's been the week of my AA birthday, and that's always a little emotional. Twenty-two years sober, one day at a time. It's easy to think that sobriety is some kind of given after so long, and so it's no big deal, and that dealing with life is just a walk in the park. Well, it isn't. Every night I get to bed sober is another win. And I can forget that.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

September 2015 Review

The month started with a grand signing ceremony of powers of attorney at my solicitors, about which I wrote in the August review, though it happened at the start of in September.

I saw Transporter Refuelled at Cineworld; Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Cartel Land, Irrational Man, 99 Homes, Life at the Curzon Soho; A Girl at my Door and The Forecaster at the Renoir; and Legend at the Curzon Mayfair. I’ve now grasped that all the good movies come out in autumn, hence the sudden rush after months of me moaning about there being nothing on.

I read Do No Harm, by Henry Marsh; Magnus Resch’s The Management of Art Galleries; Maurice Mashall’s book on Bourbaki; Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, by Robert M. Sopolsky; Faraday, Maxwell and the Electromagnetic Field, by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon; David Deida’s The Way of The Superior Man; Nat Hentoff’s Four Jazz Lives; Ralf Kromer’s Tool and Object: A History of Category Theory; and large chunks of the Bottazzine/Gray Hidden Harmony- Geometric Fantasies: The Rise of Complex Function Theory. Plus I made an effort at Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life, and gave up.

Record of the month at Rough Trade was an extract from Has Richter’s Sleep. Noisy guitar band CD was from The Pretty Reckless. I think I may have downloaded Halestorm’s Into The Wild Life as well.

It was sort out the A/W look time. I have been going with cotton or wool casual shirts, but decided I was tired of it, and the cut didn’t, ahh, present my figure to best advantage. So I was looking up and down Regent Street and Long Acre for ideas. After a while it became, looking for anything that wasn’t black or grey. Ever try on a jacket and know you’re going to buy it before it’s even settled on your shoulders? From Hackett as well. But it’s perfect. And I’ll be wearing it on all informal occasions for the next two years. That jacket, a tee-shirt and chinos is my new casual look. Add a scarf and gloves if it gets colder.

I had lunch at Sketch, which is an experience. You have to go there just to see the toilets. It really is like something out of a 1960’s science fiction movie. Supper at Picture, where Josh the barman now makes amazing virgin cocktails based on the vaguest of suggestions from me. Mas Q Menos is my current go-to place for after-training-on-Sunday supper: the tapas are just the right size, it has a pleasant atmosphere, and Spanish service, which means they don’t rush you and a couple of hours can pass quite easily.

Back at the start of August I had supper with some old friends on Sunday evening, so saw the movie in the afternoon, then went training, and then to supper. This worked out rather well, and does solve the problem of passing time between leaving the gym at (say) 10:45 and the start of a film at (say) 14:00. So I’ve done that a few times, and it works well.

One other thing went on in the month, but I’ll write about that later.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Waterloo Sunrise

As long as I gaze on a Waterloo sunrise / I am in paradise.

Friday 9th October 07:40. Every second unit crew charged with getting pictures of London should have been there. So should every serious photographer looking for stock shots. Instead me and a dozen others with out iPhones were there to record one of the most spectacular sunrises I’ve seen from Waterloo Bridge.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Walking To Krasnoyarsk (2)

The story isn’t about walking to Krasnoyarsk, a town I picked simply on the sound of its name and its remote location. If I had chosen Aberdeen or Cape Town, there may be people who would regard the thought of walking there as quite pleasant, and the point of the story would have been lost.

There are things that happen in our lives that have long-running consequences and change the way we deal with the world. Bereavement, sustained unemployment, debilitating illness, malicious accusations, nasty divorces, personal bankruptcy, addiction, prison sentences, long-running legal cases – to name just a few. These threaten, or actually ruin, our finances, career, reputation, skills, assets, wealth, health, and even our bodily integrity.

Sometimes, surviving one of these events changes us. We have to focus on one goal to the exclusion of almost everything else. Ordinary life, whatever we thought that was, fades into the background. At some point we stop feeling anything about our situation. We can’t afford it. We won’t get get through this if we carry on feeling self-pity, or loneliness, or abandonment, or sorrow, or fear, or uncertainty. And to feel anything else would be insanity. So we feel nothing about ourselves. We have feelings within and from ourselves: we are hungry, tired, weary, footsore, cold, wet or thirsty. But these are feelings as information, not feelings as emotions. And we silence the thoughts and feelings about other people and what they do. We ran out of the energy for that in the first week. They can help us or not. If they do, we thank them and don’t ask why. If not, we shrug and don’t think about it.

Thinking about how we might be living, and how everyone else we know is living, if this thing hadn’t happened, becomes almost painful. We want it to stop hurting when we remember what we used to do, and the only way to do that is to stop remembering that it was enjoyable. We cut the link between what we did and the pleasure it brought, and so save ourselves the pain of missing that pleasure, and the fear of never feeling it again. What we don’t know is that the link can’t be re-made: the psychic surgery is permanent.

When we get back, we try to re-establish our old lives. After all, isn’t that what we were going back for? It is then we find that the psychological changes we made can’t be undone. We can go to the leaving drinks, or a dinner party, or a weekend away with the crew, or a match, but it isn’t the same. We can’t connect the event and the people with the pleasure anymore. On the surface we are as cheerful as we ever were, perhaps oddly, more so, and that is real, as are our polite manners, engagement with the economy and interest in culture and sports. These things can be done with the head. Ask us how we are, what we’ve been doing at the weekend or on holiday, and you’ll get the sense that we don’t really seem remember what we do. Our day passes and is forgotten. What we did was just a way of passing the time that was better than watching some dumb TV show, but it wasn’t our life. We can go through the motions but we can’t feel the feelings. If belonging is about enjoying being there, we don’t belong anymore. Anywhere.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Walking To Krasnoyarsk (1)

Imagine you wake up somewhere you’ve never seen before. It’s cold and damp. There’s a lot of rain outside the window. The light is unfamiliar. So are the smells. There are people talking downstairs, and you recognise it as Russian. What are you doing in Russia? And where, exactly in the vast area where they speak Russian, are you? The people downstairs aren’t surprised to see you, but they don’t seem to know who you are. They give you some tea and bread. Eventually you find out you’re in a village two hundred miles from the nearest large town, Krasnoyarsk. You know enough to know that you are in the back end of nowhere. You can’t speak the language, you have some money but not much, and you still have a credit card but you have a distinct feeling that’s no use to you here. You get bars on your smartphone but no 3G, so you don’t have GPS or maps. Mostly you have no idea how to get back home. The people in the house draw a simple map that points you towards the main road and the next village. There’s no public transport, no trains until Krasnoyarsk, and they have work to do today. Just before you leave, one of them gives you a piece of paper and you gather you should show this to other people.

Over the next couple of days your friends, acquaintances, Linked In network and Facebook buddies learn that you are trudging through the rain in Siberia. They don’t know how you got there. You can’t explain it, because nobody ever knows how they wind up heading for Krasnoyarsk through the rain. Some of them think it’s a crazy stunt, some of them can’t even understand it, and the few who have a sense of what may be happening are worried. They looked up Krasnoyarsk on a map, and when they did, their hearts sunk. They knew you were in the middle of a wasteland.

None of them have the resources to send a helicopter or a rescue party for you. Many are in debt, with children to feed and mortgages to pay. None of them know anyone in Russia they could call to help you. After a very short time, even the most well-meaning are reduced to platitudes about “hanging in there”, “reaching out to people”, “at least it’s not snowing”, and how they are praying for you. Some of them do a calculation like this: it’s two hundred miles, at 3 miles an hour for eight hours a day, he’ll be there in less than two weeks. Anyway, someone must be passing with a car or lorry who will give him a lift. That makes them feel a lot better. But it’s three hundred miles allowing for the curves in the road; and you can’t walk for four of the hours because when it gets hot, it gets too hot to keep up that pace, there’s nowhere to buy bottled water, and you’re not a Marine, but an office worker, and walking that far every day for a week turns out to be exhausting and painful. And outside the towns, Siberia has one person per three square kilometres. There are no cars on the country roads.

Your friends put the phone down, go back to watching television and eating lunch. You go back to a damp room to try to sleep. You sense they are embarrassed because they can’t help: your calls are making them feel bad because they are reminded of how powerless they are. You went to all the office leaving drinks parties, and talked to everyone, getting drunker as the evening went on. With your single friends you went on weekends to Amsterdam or Barcelona or Copenhagen, where you rented flats and went to bars and clubs. Home or away, you and your friends would sit around until two and three on Sunday morning talking nonsense about life, philosophy, football, women, music and anything else, then crawl into bed and wake up in time for a shower, a cup of coffee and a trip to the restaurant for lunch. Your mobile buzzed several times an hour with messages and texts. One day on the road you start to miss all this, suddenly, you feel an emotional pain. As much as you enjoyed it, now it hurts when it isn’t there. For one afternoon, you sat unmoving, and felt how much you would be missing if you never got back. You walked that evening and night to make up for it.

And you decided you could not afford to think of life back home. Of how you would be living if you weren’t here. If you were going to survive, if you were going to get back home, you were going to have to think only about walking, and finding shelter and food, and resting when you needed to. You looked at the stars and understood for the first time how men could find their way by starlight. You don’t know the names of the birds here, but you realise you can hear the different songs. You are going to need to get whatever interest and enjoyment you can from the walk. You send one text a day to confirm you’re still alive and on your way. You stop doing that after the second week.

It takes weeks to get there. You thought it would be days: one long-distance lorry, one farmer needing to go to the town, and you would be there. But no. A few cars go by, some with families, some with businessmen, a few with partying kids, but none stop. Some even shout things like “Best thing I ever happened to me” or “Just be yourself and don’t get depressed – you’ll find someone to take you there”. Each night you find someone who looks at the piece of paper, shrugs, or grunts, or shakes his head, or says something that probably isn’t complimentary, but who lets you sleep on the floor anyway. You would help them, but they can see you aren’t a farmer and can’t help them.

Since that awful afternoon, all you think of is taking the next part of the journey to Krasnoyarsk. You don’t think about what you’re going to do when you get there. You stop anticipating anything, you stop wondering why nobody stops to offer you a lift, you stop wondering how you got to Siberia, you just think about walking. You learn to recognise when you need to rest, when you are about to faint, when you need to get shelter from the heat. You got smart enough to shelter from the first drop of rain in the first week. You don’t wish for better boots or clothes: you have to do with what you have, and wishing would make it worse. If it was winter, you would be dead by now, but it’s late spring, it gets hot during the day. It rains a lot around Krasnoyarsk in the spring. So you walk through flies, midges and god knows what else with wings and teeth that nip and for all you know can leave all sorts of poisons behind. If you get to the next village or farm, and find somewhere to sleep, and someone who offers food and tea, that is a successful day.

Eventually you get to Krasnoyarsk. You find a big hotel where they can take your credit card. You’re too tired to feel anything, and when you can use the hotel internet, you look at your bank account and realise that you’re on your overdraft. Your employer has stopped paying in your salary, but your landlord and everyone else are still taking out their charges. You have just enough money to get home, if you do it cheap. The concierge tells you there are three Aeroflot flights a day to Heathrow via Moscow. The prices are low and you snap up a ticket for tomorrow. You don’t bother telling anyone back home you’re in Krasnoyarsk at last, because it’s only another staging post. Your journey isn’t over. It isn’t over when you board the plane, and it isn’t over when you pass through immigration, and it isn’t over when walk through your own front door. Because you have the fall-out to deal with.

Your employer accepts your story, doesn’t think you’re crazy, is happy to take you back, but hey, you missed work and they won’t pay what you’ve missed, so you’re months in debt. It takes almost a year to get your debts paid and your overdraft cleared. When you see your friends and colleagues, there’s a slight awkwardness. Your very presence reminds them they couldn’t help you, that they were powerless while you were heading for Krasnoyarsk through the rain. You in turn had to forget about them and their lives so you could make it through another day. If there ever was a connection between you, it’s broken. You never do feel a wave of relief at being back home. Because you will always have something else to deal with. It’s no longer a relief. Everything and everybody is now something to deal with.

It puzzles you that strangers helped you on the way to Krasnoyarsk. One day you show someone who speaks Russian the piece of paper they gave you at the start of your journey. He reads it and looks at you with a mixture of pity and surprise. What does it say? you ask. He tells you it says: “this man is lost and has no friends. He is going to Krasnoyarsk. For the mercy of God help him if you can.”

Thursday, 1 October 2015

August - September Pictures

A bunch of photographs from the last few weeks. I’m still playing around with the software more than with, you know, an actual camera taking pictures, currently trying Sequential to look at the pictures (rather than Preview or Picasa) and a trial of Pixelmator to do basic editing on them. That combination is better than Picasa. The ‘Heal’ tool in Pixelmater is amazing - for those of us who haven’t made the jump to Lightroom (obscure Star Wars pun).

As ever, click to see all the glorious detail in the original.

Getting off the airport bus at Liverpool Street; yet more construction, this time at Barons Court; the Canada Memorial in Green Park; two pictures of the trendy young of Shoreditch in Mark Square lunchtime; interior view of the Wild Food Cafe, and a view out on to Neal's Yard; can you spot the army helicopter in this picture?; I love the natural back-light effect on the thistle, Richmond Park early Saturday morning; two views at Virginia Water. The first is all about that little patch of red in the trees across the lake.