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Page 5

When Procrastination Isn’t Bad - 3

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Some time ago I started writing about times when procrastination can be good - but I never got around to continuing with the subject. Recently my interest was renewed by reading a blog article by John Wesley, titled “14 Ways To Procrastinate Productively“. Just the sort of thing that simply must be read when you ought to be doing something else!

In describing how procrastination can be productive, he divides it into two categories. There’s Structured Procrastination, where the desire to avoid an important task can act as motivation for doing other valid tasks - like getting organised, networking, planning ahead, unresolved odds and ends, meetings, errands, getting up to date, and assisting others.

That makes sense to me; the last time I was a student and needed to study for exams, my procrastination led me to do vacuuming and other household chores as a means of avoiding studying. Necessary chores got done, which may not have happened if I’d had nothing to procrastinate about. Similarly, unblocking the gutters is a necessary task I usually put off, but given the choice between unblocking gutters or starting my tax return, I somehow find the motivation to go up a ladder and get my hands dirty.

Procrastinating at Lake Ohau, NZThen there’s Unstructured Procrastination, which John Wesley describes as a way of recharging creative energy and allowing the unconscious mind to work on difficult problems. He includes examples like lunching, exercising, walking, relaxing, coming up with great ideas, and reading good books - in other words, using downtime (while procrastinating) to rest and refresh the mind. An example of someone flat out recharging his brain (at Lake Ohau, NZ) is pictured. If this means returning to the original task with renewed vigour and fresh ideas, then it could indeed be productive.

If you’ve got other more important things you should be doing but want to avoid, then you’ll probably appreciate John Perry’s Structured Procrastination website as well.


Bad Opening Sentences

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The bleak winter gale thrust its icy tentacles unimpeded up the bare legs of Jock McMuffin, inflicting painful shrinkage upon his manly appendages and reminding him that it was not a good night to be wearing a kilt outdoors … but having scaled the prison wall it was too late to go back for the long pants he now wished he’d worn instead.

What’s that all about, you may ask? Its just something I felt inspired to write after visiting the website of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest and reading the 2006 results. This parody contest is a “whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels”. It is named after Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who is famous for the immortal novel opening “It was a dark and stormy night”, commonly viewed as a good example of a bad way to start a book.

Visiting the website and following the link to the Results of 2006 Contest will reveal a smorgasbord of entertaining and imaginative opening sentences. Reading them made me itch to write something, and the competition is open to anyone so why not have a go yourself?

If the purpose of a novel’s opening sentence or paragraph is to engage the reader’s attention and make him/her want to continue reading, then most of the winning entries do their job, even if they are supposed to imitate bad writing. And if you’re wondering why Jock McMuffin is scaling a prison wall in a kilt, or whether he escapes successfully, or if he gains comfort for his chilled appendages … then my dubious-quality example has done its job too.


Other Things To Make Writing A Novel Easier

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Last time I wrote about a tool which I’m finding helpful in the task of writing a novel (yWriter novel writing software). To be complete, here are the other two tools which are helping me most.

1. PDA with fold-up keyboard

Many creative types feel most inspired when out in nature, walking, or anywhere else that’s far away from a desk with a computer on it. Some sort of mobile text capture device is needed to take advantage of these moments. While a notebook and pen has served well for centuries, a more modern and flexible way is to use a handheld computer with portable keyboard.

Palm with fold-up wireless keyboardI currently use a Palm (Tungsten T5 model) with an infra-red wireless keyboard (see photo, coffee mug shows scale), though countless other devices will do the job. The Palm fits in one pocket, the keyboard folds up and fits in another, making it far more portable than any laptop. With an internet connection using a phone or wireless access in a cafe, any writing can be e-mailed to yourself, thus providing a secure backup method when away from home.

Most of my novel writing has been done on long weekends and holidays using this setup, or earlier equivalents. The small keyboard may take a little getting used to for some, but its fine for folks like me who spend most of their time thinking of what to type rather than actually typing.

2. Voice Recognition Software

I originally bought Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software for home use when I started developing an RSI problem, and have found it useful for all sorts of writing tasks, including e-mails and this blog. The latest version is uncannily accurate, and learns from its mistakes.

For novel writing, it allows creativity to flow onto the computer screen as fast as you can speak into a microphone. This leads to smoother “flow”, more natural written conversation, and greater output … or so I’ve read. I’m yet to achieve this - years of writing slowly is a hard habit to break - but the potential is there. Not having to use a mouse is a great occupational health bonus too!

Writing a novel has never been easy, and still isn’t, but with tools like these to help facilitate the process there are fewer obstacles than ever. Its getting harder to find excuses for why my first novel still isn’t finished!


Something To Make Writing A Novel Easier

Thursday, May 24, 2007

It is often said that everyone has at least one book in them, but have you ever tried writing one? If you have, you’ll know what a huge challenge it can be to transform the ideas in your head into a completed written work. Here I share a tool which is proving helpful in the writing of my own novel.

yWriter - free novel writing software by Simon Haynes, Spacejock Software

I’d always written using just a text editor, one file for each chapter. That was fine when it was short, but with twenty chapters or more it gets harder to keep track of what has happened, to whom, and when. Especially if you don’t write often. Seeing the big picture isn’t easy with just a huge mass of text to look at.

Then I found yWriter, software that applies project management tools to novel writing. The author designed it to help him write his own three published novels, and found it so useful he made it available to all at no cost. It works with plain text files, but text is organised into scenes, with scene descriptions, character profiles, details of the conflict and outcomes for each scene, and the ability to generate synopses and timelines, and more. It allows the whole project to be broken down into well-documented scene-sized chunks which are easily visualised, and helps with plot development.

Since recently finding yWriter I’ve used it to provide structure to my novel so far, effectively giving a skeleton to what had become (in my mind) just a huge mass of flesh. It has helped me organise my thinking in regards to the whole plot. With a clearer mental picture of the story so far, I’m more likely to work out how the story ends, and perhaps finish writing it at last!

It also helps with continuity. What type of explosives did Brutus hide up his dress at the autopsy? How much detail of the accident did Rupert reveal to the maid in the wardrobe incident? If these details occurred in chapter two they may be hard to remember when writing chapter nineteen, especially if many years have passed. With yWriter, small but important details can be found and kept track of more easily.

You still have to think of what to write, which is the hard part, but yWriter can help you organise the project and thereby shrink one of the obstacles. If you’ve ever dreamed of writing a novel, why not have a go!


Inspired By Coffee Excellence

Monday, May 7, 2007

When someone takes pride in their work and does something really well, it can be an inspiration to others. I found this to be true recently at Epic Espresso in West Perth (Western Australia).

Originally I went there for some of their beans to try out at home, but the glorious aroma of fresh coffee enticed me to sample one of their drinks immediately. It was exquisite! I read their brochure/menu and learned just how seriously they take their coffee, and why it is so good.

A long macchiato at Epic EspressoThey use their own custom blend of fresh, locally roasted beans, as well as filtered water and the best milk. The espresso machines are gorgeous, hand-crafted and state of the art - there are only a few hundred in the world as good. Naturally the grinders are of the highest quality, and even the cups are of a high standard to maximise heat retention.

In keeping with the tools and ingredients, the staff are all highly trained to world barista champion level. In fact one is the 2006 WA Barista Champion, and another is the 2006 WA Latte Art Champion. The owner, Corey Diamond, was trained by the 2003 World Barista Champion (also an Aussie, by the way) and is an accredited coffee judge. His mission for Epic Espresso is “to raise espresso coffee to an art form” and “be the state’s leading authority on espresso coffee”. In other words, they really know what they’re doing, and they strive to do it well.

The payoff for customers is fantastic coffee. I’ve always drunk coffee with sugar, but Epic Espresso is the first place I’ve truly enjoyed it without. Their espresso was the best I’ve had, as was the long macchiato (pictured). And the ristretto … awesome! What this drink lacks in size (the cup wouldn’t look out of place in a doll’s house) it makes up for in quality and intensity - I could still taste it three hours later.

I took some of their beans home with the aim of improving my own coffee creations. With my comparitively humble equipment I can’t expect to match what is served at Epic Espresso - but experiencing the excellence of coffee done really well has inspired me to have a go.

Note: Some bloggers write paid or sponsored reviews; I don’t. The above is my own opinion.


Car Myth: Do Older Cars Cost More To Maintain?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

My car at age 18You’ve probably been told - as if it was a proven fact - that cars beyond a certain age cost more to repair and maintain. This, allegedly, makes it more economical to trade up to a new car rather than keep an older car running. When speaking to several car salesman recently (for research only) they implied I was throwing money down the drain if I didn’t replace my old car immediately. Being a curious fellow, and they being salesman, I wondered if it is really true.

In the spirit of the Mythbusters TV program, I decided to put it to the test. Since buying my car over 20 years ago, I have kept track of every dollar I have ever spent on it, and most of the numbers were already in a spreadsheet. I did some calculations, made some charts, and the result was clear.

I excluded car licensing/registration, treating this as a fixed cost because it would be the same whatever I was driving, within that category of car. The only significant variations have arisen due to changes in government policy - not something I wanted to figure in my calculations. I also excluded petrol expenses because of their great variability which has little to do with the age of the car.

Everything else was included - servicing, all parts, labor, oil top-ups, new tyres, major things like a new engine down to little things like a replacement plug lead or light globe - whatever costs were required to keep the car running. I also included insurance because it varies according to the age of the car, and I’ve kept the same policy throughout. Because of the long time period involved I’ve adjusted for inflation (using the government CPI figures) in order to make fairer comparisons. The chart below illustrates the year by year total real costs:

As you can see, costs varied from year to year. The last year was particularly expensive due to a new reconditioned engine and a variety of other parts that were best replaced at the same time. However, more expensive years are balanced out by cheaper years, and its the long term averages that tell the real story.

The car salesmen I spoke to all agreed on ten years as being an optimum age to replace a car. With twenty full years of my own data, the obvious thing to do was obtain an average annual cost for the first ten years and compare it with the last ten:

Average Total Car Costs
(including insurance, excluding licencing/fuel)
First ten years: A$ 1268.90 per year
Last ten years: A$ 954.90 per year

Despite what the salesmen said, my car has cost me LESS to keep on the road as it has grown old … and I’ve got all the receipts to prove it! That’s even after taking into account the recent cost of a replacement engine, which is possibly the biggest expense an ageing car is likely to incur. After the recent work, I expect the average cost over the next few years to be even lower.

What I didn’t consider was the cost of purchasing the car, including loan interest. In my case this was all paid in the car’s first three years, which means I’ve now had over 17 years with no purchase or loan expenses to bother with. This makes keeping an older car even more economical. Had I replaced my car after ten years, I would have had the extra purchase or loan costs - and the higher trade-in value of a younger car would not have offset this.

Also the insurance premiums on a new car are more expensive (approx $150pa more on a similar car). The salesmen’s estimates of the servicing costs of a new car under warranty weren’t much less than I’m currently averaging, so I don’t think having a warranty saves as much as they like us to think, as my experience bears out.

My situation may not reflect everyone else’s. I bought my car new and have looked after it and driven it sensibly. Had I bought a second hand car with dubious history, or neglected it and thrashed it with stupid driving, then the outcome could have been different … logic suggests an abused vehicle could cost more to maintain.

Now when a salesman assures me it is costs more to keep an old car than replace it with a newer one, I can politely say “poppycock!” As far as I’m concerned, that myth is busted.


A Tale of Two Burkes

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The world is full of coincidences, and I found this one interesting. Two men, on opposite sides of the world, both former politicians turned lobbyists, both convicted of crimes relating to their times in politics … and both named Brian Burke.

Brian Burke One, who has his own Wikipedia article, was the Premier of Western Australia from 1983 to 1988. During that time he conducted what were to become known as some shady deals, and allegations of improper conduct led to a royal commission. In 1994 he was charged with various offences including travel expense rorts, and served seven months of a two-year prison sentence. In 1997 he was imprisoned for stealing campaign donations, but this conviction was later quashed.

Brian Burke Two, a former state senator in Wisconsin, US, was convicted of misconduct in 2005. He was sentenced to six months in prison for using taxpayer funds to pay aides to solicit cash for his state attorney general campaign, and for altering records. The gory details are in this article.

burke.jpgFurther similarities are revealed in the image on the right (from the WisOpinion website). The text on it reads “How Brian Burke’s reckless ambition and a political system where breaking the rules became commonplace conspired to end his brilliant career”. This was written about the Wisconsin Brian Burke, but could be applied just as well to the West Australian Brian Burke. Even the expression on Burke Two’s face - that innocently pleading “Who, me? I never done it!” look - has a lot in common with pictures I’ve seen of Burke One.

Speaking of which, photos of the West Australian Burke are suspiciously absent when doing a Google image search. I wanted to include one which showed the similarities in their expressions, but I couldn’t find one, which is remarkable considering how often his face has been gracing our TV and newspapers recently. I suppose that’s one thing the Burkes don’t have in common.

My sympathy goes out to all the other Brian Burkes of this world who really haven’t done anything wrong!


God Helps Those Who Help Themselves - Really?

Thursday, March 29, 2007

You have probably heard the phrase “God helps those who help themselves”, and if you are like three quarters of Americans, you might think it comes from the Bible (as per this newspaper article). Having read most of the Bible but never come across the phrase, I became curious about where it originated, and just how true it is.

I found that the saying is often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but most likely originated from Aesop’s fables circa 500BC:

“A Wagoner was once driving a heavy load along a very muddy way. He came to a part of the road where the wheels sank half-way into the mire, and the more the horses pulled, the deeper sank the wheels. So the Wagoner threw down his whip, and knelt down and prayed to Hercules the Strong. ‘O Hercules, help me in this my hour of distress.’ But Hercules appeared to him, and said: ‘Man, don’t sprawl there. Get up and put your shoulder to the wheel. The gods help them that help themselves.’”

So much for the idea that the saying comes from the Bible - it doesn’t. But is it a biblical concept? Not really.

It may appeal to our “do it yourself” culture, but spiritual self-reliance is not consistent with Christianity. The Bible teaches that God helps those who trust in Him, who are not able to help themselves - the ultimate example of this being Christ dying in our place to pay the penalty for our sins. God does instruct us to work diligently, and demonstrate our faith by our works, but when he blesses our work it is in response to our heart and our trust in Him, not because of the work itself. Some relevant words which do come from the Bible:

  • Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the Lord. - Jer 17:5
  • He who trusts in himself is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom is kept safe - Prov 28:26
  • You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. - Rom 5:6
  • Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. - Deut 15:10

Even if a phrase sounds biblical, has been around a long time, and many people think it is from the Bible - that doesn’t necessarily mean it is. If in doubt, check it out!


How to Travel Differently - Part 5

Monday, March 26, 2007

Part Five in a series of tips for flexible non-conformist independent travellers:

Use minor back roads instead of highways

A back road near Pemberton, Western AustraliaThe idea of taking the road less travelled is nothing new, but the majority of people, when travelling from A to B, still tend to follow main roads. This is often the logical and sensible choice, and sometimes the only choice. If, however, there are alternatives to the main routes and you have the freedom to choose, taking a less used back road can lead to unexpected delights, and the joy of “discovering” places that seem unspoiled compared to places on the well trodden paths.

Other benefits are less traffic, fewer people, and the tendency of minor roads to be more scenic than the busy highways. Downsides may include fewer facilities and a lower standard of road, so planning is more important. Also the journey will probably take longer, but if you’re on holiday and enjoying the drive that shouldn’t matter.

My most memorable example of this occurred when driving from Melbourne to Mansfield in southeast Australia. The obvious route would have been the Maroondah Highway, but on the map I noticed a minor road (between Warburton and Jamieson) which looked more interesting. I chose this less travelled route and enjoyed a lovely winding gravel road through remote mountains and forests, historic abandoned mining sites, and a couple of tiny settlements that appeared to have changed little since the gold rush days. I felt like I had travelled back in time, and dug up treasure! Another delightful find was the back road between southern Canberra and Adaminaby - a bit rough in places and prone to snow, but a much more scenic alternative to the well used highway through Cooma.

All you need is your own transport, a decent map, and the curiosity to go beyond where everybody else goes. Not knowing what you’ll find can make the journey more interesting, and even if the back road turns out to be ordinary, it will still get you to where you were going anyway!


Lake Monger Drying Up

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Lake Monger drying up, PerthI went for a walk recently at Lake Monger and was saddened to find that it’s drying up. It’s normal for Perth’s smaller lakes and wetlands to dry up over summer, but not Lake Monger - it’s one of the largest lakes in the area, and although the water levels rise and fall with the seasons I’ve never seen the levels as low as they are now.

The first photo shows the shallower western side (the wooden posts are normally under water), and the second shows what is normally a channel of water surrounding a small island. The sign advising not to enter the water looks a little out of place! While most of the lake still has water in it, much of this is alarmingly shallow - one bird I saw standing in the middle of the lake had water only up to its knees (or the part of its legs where the knees would be if it had them).

Dried up channel, Lake Monger, PerthWhy is it so? The lake occurs in a low-lying area where groundwater reaches the surface, and so groundwater levels affect the lake depth. A percentage of Perth’s water supply is pumped out of the ground, and this percentage has increased over the last 30 years. Combined with a doubling of the population in this period, and a decrease in rainfall, it’s not surprising that the lake level should be abnormally low. It wouldn’t have helped that last year was our driest on record.

With still another two months of warm weather to get through before the brief rainy season, Lake Monger will undoubtedly get even drier - hopefully not too dry for all the bird life that depend on it when other lakes have dried up.


Cheesed Off With The World?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Have you ever been irritated or annoyed by the culture you live in, or felt discontent with human society in general? If so, it could be a sign that you are sane and well-adjusted! That’s what is suggested by these three quotes from very diverse sources:

  • “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” - Jiddu Krishnamurti, philosopher

  • “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. … Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”- Bible, Romans 12:2 (MSG Version)

  • “If you aren’t grumpy, that means you are content with the world.
    And who the *#@!* could be that!” - Bob Geldoff

The Bob Geldof quote is from the book “Grumpy Old Men“, based on the BBC TV series of the same name. When I read the book recently (a great laugh, by the way) his words reminded me of the other quote and also the Bible verse. What I liked about them is that each, in its own way, points to the same idea: that our cultures and societies are far from perfect, and that it’s not a good thing to be satisfied with this imperfection or try to fit into it.

What sort of people would we be, if we saw that the world was going down the toilet but didn’t think there was anything wrong with that?

So if you feel a bit cheesed off with the world around you, don’t feel ashamed; a little grumpiness is to be expected among thinking, discerning people in a faulty world. The trick is to not become over-critical and judgemental whingers, and to this end there are plenty of good things in the world we can choose to appreciate, if we look for them among the irritations.


How to Travel Differently - Part 4

Friday, March 9, 2007

Part Four in a series of tips for flexible non-conformist independent travellers:

Plan to have occasional camera-free days where possible

Cameras are fantastic for capturing memories and documenting a holiday. On a short trip, visiting different places every day, it makes sense to always have a camera handy. On a longer trip, however, it’s likely that not every day will be spent seeing new sights that need to be recorded. Leaving the camera behind on these odd occasions can actually enhance the enjoyment of a holiday.

This is because we see things differently when continually alert for photo opportunities. Even when using cameras in moderation the time spent taking photos - or contemplating the taking of photos - can get in the way of fully experiencing the place or activity being photographed. Just how much cameras can intrude on our enjoyment of the moment is only apparent by going camera-free and feeling the difference.

I first noticed this on a ski holiday over 10 years ago. Carrying both video and still cameras got in the way of skiing, and the time and energy spent using the cameras detracted from the very activity I was there to enjoy, so I made a point of only taking the gear once to each area I visited. Having the images to look back on is great, but so are the memories of the camera-free days, which were the most enjoyable. Since then I’ve made a regular habit of leaving the camera behind occasionally … and it’s strangely liberating. It leaves you free to study the scenery more intensely with the naked eye, soak up the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of a place without being distracted by the process of documenting it, or even the subconscious thoughts of documenting it.

Even if you only get to visit a photogenic spot once, try getting the photography done then put the camera away. Capture the scene through a lens, but also make the time to fully soak it up through your eyes and other senses too … vivid memories are the best souvenirs!


Making a Difference … Without Knowing It

Monday, March 5, 2007

Things we do can make a difference in the lives of others - but we don’t necessarily get to see, or hear or know about it. This truth is pointed out in a book I’m reading:

… we need also to unlearn the idea that our unique mission must consist of some achievement which all the world will see - and learn instead that as the stone does not always know what ripples it has caused in the pond whose surface it impacts, so neither we nor those who watch our life will always know what we have achieved by our life and by our mission. It may be that by the grace of God we helped bring about a profound change for the better in the lives of other souls around us, but it also may be that this takes place beyond our sight, or after we have gone on. And we may never know what we have accomplished, until we see him face-to-face after this life is past.

Book cover: What Color Is Your ParachuteThis is from the epilogue of “What Colour Is Your Parachute” by Richard Bolles, a classic book about career change and finding the right occupation. In this bit the author is talking about finding our mission in life - our purpose for being on the earth, rather than merely what job we do. He makes the point that we should not be discouraged if what we are doing does not appear to be achieving anything or helping anyone. Doing something worthwhile may not consist of any particular activity or accomplishment that others can see. We should do and be what we are made to do and be, enjoying any recognition and feedback that might come … but not depending on it.

There’s a story in the Bible (Luke 17:12-19) of Jesus healing ten lepers and sending them away; only one bothered to return and thank him. The other nine had just as much reason to be thankful, but Jesus got no feedback from them. Nothing much has changed: few people, when helped by someone, go to the efforts of thanking the person who helped them and explaining how they were helped. But lack of feedback doesn’t necessarily mean people haven’t been, or won’t (later on), be impacted by what you’ve done … like unseen ripples in a pond.

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