The Weight of Opportunity [#34]

I’ve started this article three times. The first time it was going to be about how my creativity in writing is declining in large part because my creativity in photography and videography is rising. The problem is, I already wrote that article in July. The second time it was going to be about how finding a comfort zone in creative output is perfectly okay, but does slowly erode that output over time, as desire and drive give way to repetition and complacency. That article was decent and had some valid points but it slowly morphed into a third article about time management and a feeling I get which I’ve dubbed “the weight of opportunity”.

The thing is, right now I’m laser focused on other creative outlets which aren’t this blog, so writing is slipping further down my priorities list. And that issue isn’t getting much better. My mind is full of ideas on stuff to build around the flat (which will never happen), videos to record, ways to streamline my data storage (riveting to no one except me), photos to edit and a myriad other ideas and brain-worms. But none of them really make me want to write.

Which is a real shame, because I do want to write, but the stuff I want to write about feels so heavy. There are a heap of things which I want to record and discuss so much that I simply can’t – the words don’t come out right. Articles I care so much about they have to be too perfect to exist. I never did write up my top 5 lists for 2016 which I had so meticulously planned. Nor did I ever write an article on our incredible trip to the Outer Hebrides, Skye and the Highlands. I even have maps planned out for that one! Even this week I’ve been working every day on an article about our trip last week (cause of no blog post, sorry) to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I’m forcing myself to put words down but it’s still a cop-out as it’s only part of the article I actually want to make. Plus, it’s taken me a week and I’m still holding on to it rather than publishing. It just isn’t ready yet… perhaps, as with so many others, it never will be.

Time management is definitely a large part of this issue. Right now we’re travelling a lot on the weekends and knackered during the week. There’s been a fair amount of potential, albeit unrealised, upheaval at home (in a good way) which has meant free time has been dominated predominantly by discussion. That isn’t a bad thing. It’s very healthy and absolutely necessary, but it does create a bit of a black hole for personal, creative time. The result is that most week days are spent sorting out big-life-adult stuff after work, eating dinner and. Just. Collapsing…
Weekends then become either a frenetic dash around seeing friends, family, culture or whatever (again, not complaining, just another time sync) or, and this is a big one, they become crushed under the weight of opportunity.

Which is to say that weekends such as this one, when I’m home alone with no plans whatsoever, are just incredibly stressful. I want to pack all of the things I possibly can in to whatever time I have, be it an hour or a day or a weekend. I spend weeks thinking up a huge list of tasks and projects I want to tackle. But then I wake up (late, because lie-ins are bliss) and hit a wall. I feel heavy with the anticipation of infinite possibilities and realise two things: I don’t actually have enough time to do everything on my list and I have absolutely no idea what to pick. Picking any one thing necessarily makes it more important, in my mind, to everything else I could be doing and that’s a decision I find incredibly hard. It’s a very real sensation of weight and it crushes my drive utterly. The result is that I end up watching some Youtube, pottering around and generally doing nothing. I don’t even procrastinate well: I don’t play video games or read books or watch films. I achieve nothing.

And then my free time is gone and I have nothing to show for it. I get a little depressed about that and swear that next time will be different. But it never is. Part of it is just poor time management. I definitely could set aside more time during even the busiest week to sort out stuff. The periods when I actually manage this are incredibly fruitful and make life so much more fun, but then I get ill or especially tired or fail at something and I fall off the wagon. I could also micro-manage my large blocks of free time and set absolute periods of work, creation, life goals etc. On paper that sounds great, in reality is turns the weight of opportunity into the wall of creative block. Every. Single. Time.

Seriously, whenever I do that, no matter how I come at it, I invariably wake up or get to that period of time and realise I have zero inspiration. It happened yesterday. I had set aside four hours, far more than I needed, to shoot a small segment of video for a project I’m working on. I woke up and conditions were perfect! It was a beautiful day, there wasn’t any wind or irritating building work to make sound an issue. It’s the day I’ve been waiting for to shoot this sequence for over a month. But the sequence never happened. Instead, I got up and realised I needed some dialogue for the video but I had no idea what to say. Two nights ago, struggling to get to sleep, I’d come up with the perfect phrasing but now, poof, it had completely gone. I ended up watching some Youtube videos to get some inspiration. Then I discovered a new game on my phone. Then I put a wash on. Then the clouds rolled in, the wind rose and the sequence has been impossible to shoot ever since.

I’m not really too sure how to get past the weight of opportunity or the creative block it creates. I’ll continue to try different techniques to overcome it and, certainly, some of the ones I’ve tried in the past have helped. Incrementally I feel like I’m beginning to win, but conversely the weight of past opportunities wasted is growing as well. A small part of me hopes that writing about it may help me rationalise and move past it, but a larger part of me knows this to be false hope. It’s just who I am; it both kills my creativity and also fuels it. For now, it feels good enough to be able to take that weight and transfer it into at least one goal achieved this weekend. Unlike last week, at least there will be a blog post.

 

That Anti-Diversity Googler & Self Introspection [#31]

Standard workday, standard work lunch catching up on RSS feeds. Of course, quite a few of them are discussing the leaked “Anti-Diversity” manifesto from the, now infamous, ex-Google employee (name forgotten and ultimately unimportant). It’s been an interesting view into a very specific bubble of the tech sphere, but one which has helped elucidate the issue, if only a little.

Of particular note is the response from Adactio, which is easily understood by the title of the piece: “Intolerable“. I will hold my hand up right now and say that I find the whole issue a lot more complex than Jeremy Keith outlines, but I cannot argue with his conclusion. Nor can I argue with the incredibly diverse and well-written sources he links to, each of which is definitely worth a read.

That becomes particularly true if you’re anything like me: someone whose gut instinct was “this is utterly wrong”, but who found themselves wondering if, beneath the anger, fear and sexism, a valid point was lurking. Having now read through the links (linked below) I feel a little more confident in my gut reaction, which is a nice feeling.

Just to clarify my use of the phrase “valid point”, it is not valid that one gender is in any way better or worse at being involved in the tech sector (or any sector, for that matter). Instead, it’s more of an issue of how we go about addressing the very real disparities between both job prospects and job uptake by any dissuaded minority group (and yes, women are not a literal minority, but they are in tech due to centuries of discrimination, so I feel it a valid term within context). I have a personal distaste for anything that borders on “positive discrimination”. All it creates, long term, is embitterment and injustice, in my opinion. However, having read the links below I feel a lot more at ease that the diversity programmes at Google and similar companies are not going down this route, instead focusing on making the workplace a more attractive environment for everybody. That’s something I can get behind.

If there is one element of Keith’s article that I will find fault with, it’s the blanket tone of dismissal. I understand where he’s coming from and it’s a tricky thing to call out, because it’s an opinion I find myself feeling towards other subjects. I simply don’t feel the world is ever black and white enough to make a statement like:

I refuse to debate this. Does that make me inflexible? Yep, sure does.

But, hypocritically, I also find myself agreeing with the directly following statement:

But, y’know, not everything is worthy of debate. When the very premise of the discussion is harmful, all appeals to impartiality ring hollow.

As an example, earlier this week the BBC came under fire for featuring Lord Lawson on a program about climate science. The argument for his presence is that it provides “the other side of the debate” and that the BBC have a mandate to be as impartial as possible. The issue with their reasoning is that it implies there is a debate to be had. In terms of scientific consensus, the degree to which man-made climate change is refuted is utterly negligible. The debate has been settled for decades and continuing to present it in any other way is directly harmful. It is akin, though less instantly vitriolic, to claiming that the BBC needs to include a Holocaust denier in documentaries on WWII. Yes, there are some people out there who believe that the vast majority of historians are wrong, but no organisation in their right-mind would claim that there is an actual debate soliciting both sides being heard.

Perhaps, then, it is I who is wrong on the Anti-Diversity Manifesto. Perhaps Keith is right and any discussion of non-diversity is, by its nature, only destructive and harmful because that debate, too, has been settled. Still, I can’t help but feel that claiming so and shouting it so loudly only serves to reinforce the opinions of dissenters. It’s hypocritical of me, but I don’t feel that shutting down people with these opinions is the right course of action. Perhaps, in time, that will change. For now, I’m just happy to see that the discussion being had is largely positive.

Reading List:

A Brief History of Women in Computing – Faruk Ates

So About This Googlers Manifesto – Yonatan Zunger

Dissecting the Google Employees Anti-Diversity Manifesto – Ether Alali

The Poetry of Spam [#29]

I get a fair amount of spam posted to theAdhocracy. For the most part, it’s easy to spot and formulaic (though admittedly increasingly intelligent). Spam comments either thank me for helping solve a problem or just compliment my writing style/ability/content, then state a place, person or website that will help me “grow my website” (or some-such similar phrase). Occasionally, I get the old-school type of copy-pasta spam that just jumbles together a group of phrases (“Please to be meeting your face in the hot jungle with spider cannons“), but most of the time modern spam is eloquent enough and passable for actual human writing.

I’ve had a few posts that I was 99% sure were spam but which actively addressed something unique to the article or the website in general. A few months ago two comments, on widely disparate posts, both made reference to an error in Internet Explorer when viewing the website. Neither post linked out to or referenced a third party, both used acceptably human names and email addresses, and both were entirely different in phrasing and style, yet addressed the same issue. I’m now certain both are spam (I’ve seen the same comments on other blogs which don’t filter comments) but, weirdly, the problem they were referencing was real. Perhaps it was an issue common to a large number of WordPress websites, which made the message viable, but if the comments contain nothing but a warning… why bother posting them?

Occasionally, though, I get something pretty special. Spam comments which are so clearly not human, yet so weirdly unique, I’m left desperately wanting to know more. One such comment greeted me when I logged in today:

Paige nodded as he handed her Sasha’s tennis ball.

Wait, what? My spam panel showed me that this wasn’t even a one-off. I have 17 comments, all from completely different email addresses, all pointing at different products on the same popular clothing website (weirdly, each link was a different search result page for “funny nurse” t-shirts). No two comments are the same, but when strung together in order of posting, they almost make a story. I’ve Googled a couple of the phrases used and have found them scattered around various other blogs, so this is clearly a spam bot of some kind, but I have no idea what the origin of the text is. Which is a shame, because I’m now actively interested in the world of Paige, Sasha et al. I want to know what “flashing” is; why there appear to be Roman gods knocking about; why Jade is so happy about the catalogues? It reads like excerpts from a 70’s sci-fi pulp, and I’d love to know why. Why create a bot that produces this? Was it intentional? Is it picking parts from an actual story or are the phrases completely random, pulling from a set list of names, nouns, verbs etc.? Whatever the reason, the spam will be destroyed, but I felt like preserving the weird little tale it created. So without further ado, here is some Spam Poetry:

Paige walked again to Melody’s station and sat down.
Again within the Otherworld Paige and Troy sat in silence.
She took Julie’s hand and they flashed to their spot.
Monica, don’t worry about getting Paige’s love energy.
One after the other they walked by means of, it shut behind Amber.
Kelly and Monica appeared with troopers behind them.
Amber took Paige into her arms and hugged her tightly.
Kelly and Monica appeared with Aphrodite behind them.
She locked up and Sasha flashed into the yard.
He waved and flashed, Paige turned back to her buddies.
She took Julie’s hand and they flashed to their spot.
A eating room chair appeared behind her, she sat down.
A eating room chair appeared behind her, she sat down.
The catalogs landed in Jade’s palms and she smiled.
Julie and Zoey dove in and Paige walked over to Wes.
Julie and Jake were there to help.” Paige replied.
Paige nodded as he handed her Sasha’s tennis ball.

Accio Deathly Hallows

10 years ago today the Harry Potter series came to a close. With the publishing of The Deathly Hallows a large part of my, and many others, childhood came to an end. I find it strange that a decade has passed since, but probably for different reasons.

Whilst I was eager to read The Deathly Hallows when it first came out, I have to admit that the Potter franchise had lost its lustre for me. I grew up alongside the release dates, but as they stretched out over the last three books my own ageing overtook the target audience. By the close of the series I still counted myself a fan, but my life revolved far more around the likes of Lord of the Rings, Pratchett’s Discworld and authors like David Gemmell.

But the release of The Deathly Hallows does mark a pretty big event in my life, though I wouldn’t realise it for another three (!) years. Several days before the book was officially released, a little known channel on YouTube uploaded what would become a viral, fan-favourite and Harry Potter inspired song: Accio Deathly Hallows. The musician was Hank Green; the channel was “Brotherhood 2.0”, the fledgling website that would evolve into the Vlogbrothers. Whilst Hank and his brother John have become far better known for other reasons, ranging from writing The Fault in Our Stars (John) to creating VidCon (Hank), that song was what changed their experiment on YouTube into a community. Both brothers have pointed to Accio Deathly Hallows as a pivot point, the first time either had considered that their involvement in YouTube was more than just a one-year deal. The popularity it gave them on the platform ultimately changed both of their careers and, arguably, the face of both YouTube and the web in general.

That, for me, is the far bigger anniversary today. The Vlogbrothers, their content and their outlook on life have been a hugely impactful and important part of my life as I left home, went to University and officially began to “adult”. They remain one of my most watched YouTube channels, a huge inspiration and a brilliant example to the world of how to be humans. Whilst it feels like Harry Potter ended years ago (which I guess it did), the idea that the Vlogbrothers have been vlogging for over a decade is equal parts encouraging and terrifying. Forget Accio Deathly Hallows, I’m more interested in Accio DFTBA.

Security All The Way Down [#26]

Source, one of the many blogs I follow, has recently had a themed content week focusing on security. For their main readership this means security for the newsroom, security for the journalist, but their articles are both fascinating and widely applicable. It may seem a bit ridiculous but the reality is: everyone is a target. Yes, a journalist is more likely to be specifically targeted, because they have access to unique and often-times damaging material, but literally every single person has something that is valuable to someone else.

Maybe it’s money in the form of online bank accounts, crypto wallets or card-verified e-commerce sites like Amazon. Maybe it’s social media accounts, valuable for gathering personal identifiers that can be sold en masse for identity theft purposes or even to be used as part of modern botnets, spreading viruses and further compromises. Maybe it’s compromising personal information, images you wouldn’t want widely distributed or conversations you’d rather pay to keep out of the public eye. Maybe it’s just the thrill of seeing how far you can go, what you can uncover.

It’s unlikely that you would be directly targeted, but it’s actually fairly likely that you will be targeted at some point. It’s happened to me. A few years ago I received a message from my bank querying a large sum purchase made with a debit card that I hadn’t used in years. I freaked out a little, contacted them and had the transaction cancelled; once the bank had assured me that no further charges would occur I calmed down and started trying to piece together how the hell someone had managed to skim a card that had been out of circulation for years.

The answer, as is so often the case, was the combination of forgotten accounts, common passwords and third party security breaches. Exactly which chain of interconnecting services led to this particular attempt at fraud is impossible to prove, but here’s my best guess. Back when I was heavily active on League of Legends they had a mass server breach, with hundreds of thousands of accounts compromised. The parties involved made off with data tables of passwords, account names and associated email addresses; no credit card details, but enough personal information to be seriously damaging. My account name was unique and the associated email address had a different password, so I figured I was safe. I was wrong. Someone, somewhere, managed to link my username to an old email account, which used that same password (Error #1). They accessed that email account without my knowing (Error #2 – setup two-step authentication!) and from their likely downloaded my entire email history (Error #3 – if you don’t need it right now, encrypt/archive it or delete it).

Within that database of emails were messages from an ancient PayPal account I hadn’t used in years (Error #4 – close accounts you no longer need). That PayPal account had a different password, but that doesn’t matter; whoever it was simply had a password reset request sent to my compromised email address and flipped it. That PayPal account was still connected to my old debit card, which I’d never closed down despite no longer using it (Error #5). They tried to use that account, with that card, to make a purchase when luckily a third party, my bank, flagged it as suspicious. As a result, the purchase was cancelled. Great, right? Problem solved, issue avoided, time for a cup of tea, right?

Wrong. I contacted PayPal and had the account closed, I went to my bank and terminated the card and figured the worst of it was over. Except, the email account was no longer accepting my leaked password. Four years later and, for some reason, the password happened to be flipped back to the original one; I’ve just managed to regain control, through sheer luck, but the ripple effects are still being discovered. That email account was the main personal ID for dozens of other online accounts, many of which have been deleted, taken over or banned. Some were used for spam, others for malicious “fun” and others just destroyed. I’ve spent the best part of the last two weeks going through that old email account, finding associated logins across the web and shutting them down or taking back control.

The whole ordeal has spanned years and is still on going. Now, on the one hand, I got lucky. Losing so many accounts didn’t impact my financially, it didn’t uncover any secrets that could have been used to blackmail me or hit me IRL (I’m too boring for anything like that) and I never really felt any negative impact from it. I’ve lost some memories and a decent chunk of my personal time, but that’s about it. But like I said, I got lucky.

So, whilst very interesting and a recommended read, going through Source’s recent articles on personal security have left me a little red-faced. For everything I supposedly “learned” I’m not much better today then I was four years ago in real terms. I’ve slowly been building a database of accounts I have, what they’re associated with and the personal details they contain. I’ve reset my passwords and made sure they’re all unique. Where possible I’ve closed accounts I no longer want or, at the least, removed any personal identifiers from them. But beyond that? Not much.

Reading through A Guide to Practical Paranoia is like reading a checklist of ways I’m falling behind. It recommends using local password managers like KeyPass rather than cloud-based services, but I still haven’t managed to even make that step. Tor and other end-to-end encryption are mentioned as good first steps, but all I have is WhatsApp… not sure that really counts. Don’t use out of the box, popular options for data you care about it says, which I agree with whilst writing on a WordPress blog running the vanilla theme.

Perhaps it’s time to start making inroads into my personal security again. The reason it hasn’t happened yet is because it’s hard, it’s boring and it can be pretty confusing to boot, but the alternative is harder and potentially actively damaging. In the mean time, though, I can definitely recommend giving the suggestions and ideas on Source a good read over:

A Guide to Practical Paranoia – Stephen Lovell (Source)
Why My Motto as a Security Journalist is “Assume Breach” – J. M. Porup (Source)

 

Peaks & Troughs [#25]

I believe that inspiration comes in waves. I’ve believed this for quite a while, largely because I’ll have periods of time where I can draw really well, or feel like writing every day, or take a chain of photographs I’m very happy with. When these periods occur, it feels like I’ve been hit with a wave of inspiration that is just carrying me forward, creating ideas that bounce off each other and inspire yet more to form in their wake. That concept of cyclicity is appealing, not just because it explains these bursts of creation, but also because it somehow negates the less fruitful periods in between.

I think it’s fair to say I’m in one of those less fruitful periods right now. That isn’t to say I’m not being creative though, far from it, but that creativity isn’t as immediately obvious. So perhaps I’m wrong about the whole wave-inspiration model. It’s something I’ve blamed in the past for failing similar challenges to the New 52 concept I’ve got going on at the moment. Challenges work great until you hit a trough between creative peaks, at which point they falter. But perhaps that idea is just a get-out-of-jail free card. A lie to make the failure seem, somehow, less.

Which is a fairly harsh way of looking at it. I’m not saying that taking a break, putting energy into something different or even just stepping back for a bit are a bad thing. They aren’t. That’s just how I look at it, the whole failure vs creation dichotomy. It isn’t a good way of looking at it, but it’s my way.

Still, as I said, maybe I’m wrong about the whole premise. Right now I am writing. I’ve written something every day this week, but none of those things are finished enough to publish. That isn’t a failure unless viewed through a very specific lens, which probably isn’t helpful in the first place. It’s just a different kind of progress. And that’s okay.

Sometimes, it’s okay to make incremental but unrealised progress. Right now, I’m learning how to edit in Adobe Premiere Pro. It’s absorbed quite a bit of my free time, time I would normally use to write. Once I’ve gotten to a stage I feel comfortable using the program I will have developed a very useful skill, on top of which the time required to utilise that skill will decrease massively. My creative output will increase. But in the mean time, from a birds-eye view, it will appear to wane and falter. That’s okay, but it isn’t great for time sensitive challenges.

What I’m really trying to say is this: I think my belief is wrong. I don’t think creativity comes in waves. I think certain types of creativity appeal more, or less, at certain times. And once a certain type of creativity has risen to the surface, it takes over for a while, making switching back and forth difficult. Right now, I don’t want to be writing; I want to editing photos or videos. That’s where my head space is at, that’s the creative itch I want to scratch.

Which is, truthfully, just a very long winded way of saying that I don’t have anything to write about this week. But, also, that sometimes that’s okay.

A Gap in Time [#24]

My last post was on the 8th. Today is the 20th. Do you see a little problem there? In short: 12 days are longer than a week. Sad times.

For 22 weeks I have written a minimum of one article every week. Frequently, I’ve actually managed more; in fact, the total number since the start of the year is currently at 31 published, and I know there are several more sitting at > 50% completion. Still, the challenge was one article per week for 52 weeks and I didn’t even manage half. It’s a better track record than many previous challenges, but still not a fantastic end.

However, I’m not going to stop here. You’ll notice I’m still numbering today’s post, but skipping one. The week of #23 will forever be blank but the challenge will continue, one article per week until the end of the year. I’ll be interested to see how many other blank spots appear (hopefully none).

As for the why, I think that’s the part which is most frustrating. A combination of tiredness, apathy and forgetfulness is the real answer. Last week was a build up to a fun weekend celebrating a family birthday, meaning we were staying with my partner’s parents. As a result, there was a push to get the photographs from our recent trip edited and ready to show, so that took priority of me team and wiped me out creatively. Every evening was spent gutting out a third of the stills I took and actually editing several dozen favourites, whilst lunches were spent sorting out bills etc. or just taking a break. Writing took a backseat because I was tired.

I had hoped to write something on Sunday afternoon after we got back, but as tends to happen the day disappeared. We’d intended to return before dinner and actually arrived home at 10pm, without dinner. At that point, I just forgot. It’s that simple. I came very close to missing previous uploads whilst in the Hebrides due to lack of internet and just scraped through. I was proud of that. I’m not so proud today.

Mister Vimes’d Go Spare & Assorted Odds ‘n’ Ends [#22]

Well, back from trip number two, which was a little more relaxing (though a lot more tiring… I do not understand how bodies work). As a result, I’ve actually been reading a bunch of stuff, including some fascinating finds in my Pocket archive, which I just want to get off my chest.

First up is a pretty recent post from Brynn Metheney, a fantastic artist whose work I’ve followed for years. The post details a recent contribution to an interesting project, the Endangered Species Book. That’s an impressive list of artists to be working on a single project and it seems like a very worthy cause. Definitely one I’ll be keeping my eye on.

Next, are a combination of quite old posts that have taken me far too long to catch up on. Both are written by Richard Thornton, a friend of mine who is currently living/working out in Japan (I say currently, but he’s been out there for years now). The first is a brilliant look at sake culture, which was utterly alien to me but now has leap-frogged up my bucket list for the land of the rising sun. The second is a rather more personal account of shaving-procrastination (I can seriously relate) and snowboarding (I have zero life experience to understand this utter madness). Like everything Richard writes, they are funny, inciteful and make me equal parts jealous of his life and incredibly grateful for my own. Perhaps Japan should be the aim for 2018…

Finally, the oldest of the lot, is a short story I saved to my Pocket account so long ago I have zero recollection where it is from or how I found it. Mister Vimes’d Go Spare is an utterly fantastic piece of Discworld fan fiction; in fact, it’s so good that I was almost convinced it had been written by Pratchett himself. The script, phrasing and language is very witty and the overarching concept is so incredibly correct to the voice of the series that it is definitely part of my head-canon now. I almost added it to this month’s MiM, but I don’t feel fan-fic is something I need to keep track of in that way. If you’re a fan of the main series, you should definitely read this – it provides some clever closure on several key themes and characters.

That suggestion does come with a slight word of warning, however: it may get to you a little bit. Personally, reading Mister Vimes’d Go Spare made me realise I have been avoiding reading Pratchett since he passed away. It hasn’t been an intentional, conscious choice but it is clearly one I’ve stuck to. Reading a story that even mentions, and briefly touches on, several of these characters I love and hold so dearly was, at times, surprisingly hard. Not only that, but the core idea at work was, and remains, incredibly powerful. Vimes has always been one of my favourite characters and, I think, the one that has been most influential on my own personality and life. Part of that reason is the character’s understanding of and relationship with the concept of justice. It’s a very nuanced one, yet contains absolutes which have always appealed to me. Vimes and the Watch storylines shaped my own concepts of morality a great deal.

As a result, Mister Vimes’d Go Spare cut close to the bone. The central concept is that, in the wake of Vimes’ death, his ideals and belief in justice take on a life of their own. That shouldn’t be confused with ‘good’ or ‘right’; Vimes never lived in a ‘good’ world, never had much time for something just because it was ‘right’. But there are standards. Some things have to be done, and they have to be done in a certain way. That’s justice. Not making sure the good guys win and the bad guys lose, but making sure that the result is fair and that everything is equal. It’s a very powerful idea. Talking about why I enjoyed the short so much to my partner, even writing this now, and truly contemplating that idea gets to me. It gets to me because I believe it; because, to me at least, it is true. It also gets to me because it is one of those wonderful Pratchett ideologies that feels important and correct; something that is both worth remembering and striving to obtain in our world. And that gets to me because we won’t be getting any more of those. So be warned: it might get to you, too.

Welcome Home [#21]

Busy, busy, busy. Life is far too busy right now. I only got back from the Hebrides on Monday and we’re already packing for the next trip! Not that I’m complaining about being on the move, it’s definitely my preferred state, but I barely feel like I’ve touched base with the rest of my life.

It also means I haven’t been reading very much. A few articles, here and there, but nothing worth writing about (not quite, anyway). I’m now two months behind on my MiMs (shame!) and don’t foresee that getting fixed any time soon. A have thousands of photographs to process from the last few weeks and another few hundred still queued from before that. On top of which, work is stacked up as well, so lunches have been eaten into as I catch up on various projects. The long and the short of it is that I’ve not got anything to write about and only another 30 minutes to write…

Except, that’s complete nonsense. If anything, I actually have too much to write about! The Hebrides (both Outer and Inner) were stunning, the highlands were fascinating, we met some really interesting people and I’ve had time to try out a bunch of creative techniques and start up several new projects. The problem, really, isn’t lack of content, it’s lack of time to do the content justice. Still, sometimes you just have to put proverbial pen-to-paper and push forward, so here we are.

Hopefully, in the coming weeks, I’ll get some more rounded, fleshed out thoughts written on our latest trip to the Western Isles (maybe even with accompanying imagery – wouldn’t that be a shock!). I definitely want to write up a checklist of the species we saw, places we went and food we ate. But, that can all wait for now, because first of all I want to talk about a minor revelation (or even revolution) that I had whilst on the Isle of Skye. Specifically, a revelation about theAdhocracy and what it has come to mean.

It hasn’t been that long since I last wondered aloud what the purpose of this website is. Then, as with previous times, I slightly dodged the bullet, declaring it:

equal parts scrap book and playground.

Except, that was a bit of a lie. Sure, that’s what I use theAdhocracy for, but it was never the core purpose for its existence. I didn’t mention it then because it’s a little, well, embarrassing. I was ashamed of the actual answer because theAdhocracy is, in some ways, a triumph, but it is also a very large failure.

I have a website because I want to be a website designer. It’s that simple. I’ve always enjoyed mucking around with HTML, CSS and all the other bits and pieces that make up the internet. There was even a time when, with the help of a talented and much more artistic friend, I used to make websites for money. We didn’t make very many, we didn’t make them particularly well (my fault – not his), but it made me realise that the web was something I enjoyed working with.

That was a decade ago (shudder) and I’ve never gone back. I went to university to study computer science specifically to become a web developer, but chose my course poorly and ended up graduating as a geologist (long story). Now, I work in programming, but not with websites. That, truthfully, is why theAdhocracy exists. It was meant to be somewhere for me to relearn how the web works, to play around with new technologies and experiment with developing standards. But more than that, this website was meant to be a jumping off platform for a career.

theAdhocracy was supposed to be my portfolio. It was supposed to be somewhere I could point potential clients to, somewhere to create freelancing opportunities through. The first time I devised a logo (still haven’t made it) and registered the domain was actually before making my first (and only) freelance pitch. It was meant to be a relatively easy, sure-think put together by a friend. It was actually a massively embarrassing failure where I talked excitedly to someone who had no idea who I was, why I was there or what was happening and never contacted me again. It was a grounding experience and threw me a little, so after I graduated and decided to try again I made the decision not to pitch until I had a portfolio. Which is a bit of a paradox. And another failure.

But I’m not writing this to moan or ask for sympathy. I’m writing this because, whilst on the Isle of Skye, I realised I’ve changed my mind. I’m still interested in working on the web, but it’s no longer the only end game. There are a huge number of careers I’d like to try, with web developer still amongst them, but no longer at the top of the stack. Plus, even if I did go down the freelance route, it wouldn’t be as theAdhocracy. The name has a convoluted and personal history; it still makes me smile and I wouldn’t change it if you paid me (well… how much are we talking?). But it isn’t a customer-facing name. It doesn’t make enough sense.

So that’s that. This website isn’t going anywhere, but I’m officially shrugging off this weight of guilt and frustration that has built up over how I’m using (or not using) it. Maybe, some day, I’ll design another website – it may even be to replace this one. But from now on, theAdhocracy has one purpose only: to be a place I keep stuff I want to keep. Reviews, articles, links, photographs, videos… whatever! Somewhere to be creative, without worrying about how it will affect a ‘brand’ that doesn’t exist. This has been my digital home for several years, but I haven’t been able to think of it like that because I wanted it to be my digital storefront. Well, not any more. That ends today. Welcome home.

Hyperfocal Stone Rows [#18]

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to spend a long weekend in Dartmoor. We ended up visiting Wistman’s Wood for much of the first afternoon, which was so captivating we would have definitely spent the whole day there had the heavens not opened. It was our main reason for going and it definitely did not disappoint; there is genuinely something ethereal about that location!

Before the weather turned, we also managed to get up to a couple of tors and visit some of the wonderful stone rows that Dartmoor is (apparently) famous for. I come from the Lake District, so standing stones and Bronze Age circles are nothing new to me, but I have never seen anything quite like the stone rows of Dartmoor. Combined with their incredibly curated streams, the rows create a fantastical landscape that I really wasn’t expecting. I will definitely be back, during better weather and with more time.

However, the combination of rows and stones also offered a great opportunity for creating leading lines in landscape photographs. I’ll admit to spending far too long waiting for specific lighting conditions, wind directions etc. but I also had a lot of fun. The odd part was, I really struggled to get my shots in focus. To try and foreshorten the shots a little bit, hopefully creating a feeling of being ‘pulled’ into the photo, I was shooting landscapes using zoom lenses, which is not a technique I’ve tried before. Part of the reason I’ve steered clear of this setup is that zoom lenses tend to have tighter depths of field, making it harder to get the full shot in focus. Still, with scenes of prehistoric landmarks marching off to distant, cloud-shaded peat fells, I wanted to capture the sense of vastness that seemed to be all around me.

Logically, I know that the next step is to reduce the size of my aperture. But what I found was, on a windy day without a stable tripod, that at the apertures needed for full focus I was losing clarity. I was also struggling to get the foreground and distant background in focus, no matter the exposure I went for. I happened to notice that focusing on a particular stone, about a third of the way into my composition, was giving me much better results. I’ll admit, at the time I just went with it, though it felt counter intuitive. Having come back and done some research, it turns out my intuitions were just wrong.

Hyperfocal distance. It sounds like something out of Star Wars, doesn’t it? In reality, however, it may finally be the answer to one of my biggest ‘errors’ when taking landscape photographs. I won’t go into a huge amount of detail in this article about the whys and hows of hyperfocal distance (though if that’s what you’re after, there’s a reading list at the end) but just coming to understand it a little better has been enlightening.

In brief, the hyperfocal distance of your lens/camera/setup is the point within your frame that allows for the broadest depth-of-field when in focus. That sounds a little odd, so to understand first realise this: it is impossible to get an image completely focused in one shot. No matter how good the lens, how wide the focal range, how small the aperture you will always have some areas out of focus. But, the level of “out of focus” can be completely imperceptible, so a lot of photographs appear to be in focus. These shots are using their hyperfocal distance; the actual, truly focused region will be at the precise point in the frame that enables 99% of what’s left to be only slightly out of focus. Our brains fill in the rest.

Now, that isn’t something I’ve ever come across before and it’s not something I’ve specifically learned, but it does seem completely intuitive to me. My problem is that the solution I’ve been using for years fails to understand the actual cause of the issue. I think I have always assumed that focus works by focusing from me to wherever I set the focal point. Changing the aperture, I believed, then changed the focal grading from that point outwards, so a large aperture has a steep gradient and clear blurring/bokeh, whilst a small aperture produces a very shallow gradient where only the very closest extremes are noticeably fuzzy. In a way, I was right, but the effect is far more centred on the focal point then I had realised. It’s not a line in the image, in front of which everything is focused, but more a circle or ellipse, around which the focus slowly worsens in a semi-linear manner.

What that means is that focusing on the distant horizon, effectively to infinity, which has always been my go-to technique, will result in an out-of-focus foreground. Seems obvious, right? But it will also reduce focus in the mid-ground. Conversely, focus near to the camera and the horizon becomes blurred. The trick, as I had accidentally stumbled upon, is to focus somewhere in between the two, effectively allowing your focal circle the widest diameter possible.

Fantastic, right? I just need to focus at the mid point of the frame and everything will slot into place! Well… no, not exactly. Or at least, not easily. Drawing a line between yourself and the horizon and estimating the mid-point isn’t going to give you the hyperfocal distance. Why? Well, that’s because the camera doesn’t “see” in three dimensions, instead it effectively “sees” in 2-D. Especially with zoom lenses, that foreshortening of the landscape matters, moving the hyperfocal distance towards you. It seems a good rule of thumb is to focus somewhere around the one third mark, but in reality that will be wrong more than it is right. The internet is full of suggested methods to work out your hyperfocal distance, some easier than others, but as of yet I haven’t actually tried any of them out.

But it won’t be too long until I do. We’re heading to the Outer Hebrides in the next few weeks and you can be sure that I will be taking a lot of landscape shots whilst we’re there. Learning about hyperfocal distance (as well as other factors that can result in reduced clarity) has really lit a spark in my mind. I’m itching to get out and try some of this theory in the field; it’s a nice feeling, one I haven’t had for a while (with photography, at least). Hopefully, next time I report back, it will be to say that I’ve finally answered one of my longest standing conundrums with landscape shots: how to focus, well, everywhere.


Whilst researching the topic I came across a whole lot of really informative and interesting articles around the web. Some are specifically about hyperfocal distance, but some are more focused on lens sharpness or landscape techniques. Hopefully, combined, they will form a good bed of information to start practicing with.

Hyperfocal Distance ExplainedPhotographyLife

How to Choose the Sharpest AperturePhotographyLife

What is the Sharpest Aperture on a LensImprove Photography

Panoramic Photography TutorialPhotographyLife

How to Calculate the Sharpest Aperture of Any LensEnvatotuts