Camellia Sinensis

The Time Of Your Life (aka Good Riddance)

I don't usually do memes... but then for that matter I don't post a lot lately either. Recently I saw the decade meme on my sister's blog, and it seemed like a nice way of summing up the past 10 years, detailing everything that happened year by year. A few weeks ago someone asked me "what was your biggest change in the last ten years?" and I was stumped for a while, before eventually saying "puberty!" When I thought about it more, I realised that the past 10 years have neatly encapsulated a whole chunk of my life that had a clear beginning at the start of it, and a clear end at the end of last year, but during which there were so many changes to my life that they were perhaps the most critical years of my life. I started writing it, and it was good to write... but I'm not going to post it.

It turns out that the story of my life, from my perspective, is a story of many other people. Some wonderful, some despicable, some who it hurts to remember and some who are best off forgotten. Some of them are still part of my life, some are reading this blog, and others are unknown to everyone who may ever see this. It's not for me to tell their story. I realised that it's not a story for the telling, it's a story for living.

And yes, a lot certainly happened in the last ten years. Ten years ago I left school, a few months ago I graduated university and officially ended full-time education. Ten years ago I got my first ever boyfriend, now I'm in what feels like the first real relationship that could actually last, and that I really really want to. Ten years ago I started learning computing, now I'm moving into a job teaching it. Ten years ago I lived away from home for the first time, now I'm finally starting to call somewhere else 'home' for the first time. Ten years ago I was starting to build a life, it took most of those ten years to put it together, and the path seemed very unclear at times, but I think I'm finally there, there's still so much still to do but I can see the road ahead of me and I know my place in the world at last.

So, I raise my glass (or mug of tea) to the last ten years. Not forgotten but definitely gone, I'll look back but I won't live in the past. And here's to the next decade, and all the wonderful things it may bring.
Camellia Sinensis

Hair today, gone tomorrow?

I'm thinking of getting my hair cut. At this point, readers are welcome to dismiss this as a girly post of little substance, although there is actually a little more to it than that.

I've been wanting to get it cut for some time. I quite like having it long (it keeps my neck warm) and it doesn't require much maintenance, but at the point where it's trailing in my food and the washing up bowl, it's frankly just annoying. It's also so thin that most hair ties don't grip it well, so tying it up tends to fail and fall out, which is a pain for things like dance classes. So I was thinking of getting a few inches taken off, nothing too drastic.

However, there were complications. For a start, most hairdressers I've found will only take a maximum of 1-2 inches off and still count it as a trim, which means you'll pay about £20 or more for something that will barely get rid of the split ends, let alone make any real difference to the length. So, I'd been considering taking a pair of scissors to it myself, and then letting a hairdresser tidy it up.

Then another issue cropped up. Someone suggested to me that long hair could be very useful for wig-making for cancer patients. This really appealed to me, partly because of my hatred of things going to waste that could possibly be useful, and also because it just generally seemed like a Nice Thing to do. So, I looked into it. Turns out that Cancer Research will take hair (and even pay a small amount for it), but that it's unlikely to be used for cancer patients, due to the fact it takes too long to make a wig and because they get a free synthetic one on the NHS -- they could have to pay up to £2000 for a real-hair one, which suddenly makes it feel a bit less like charity. However, there is a charity called the Little Princess Trust that takes hair and fully funds the making of wigs for children who have lost their hair through illness. This sounds like a more worthy cause to me -- having a wig is not really necessary for anyone, but children are more likely to be upset by feeling different than adults are, and their peers are likely to be more cruel and non-understanding than adults in my experience. So, this seemed even more like a Good Thing. However, whereas the adult wigs require 6 inches of hair, the children's wigs require 10-12 inches. Which is quite a lot more than I was planning to cut off.

I think I'll still do it. I really want to now I've looked into it, and my hair is really driving me crazy. And yet, I still feel a little funny about it. It won't even change the look of my hair much -- it's so long that taking 12 inches off will still leave it just about on the shoulders, it's not like I'm shaving it all off. And given how fast it grows, it'll probably be back to being long again in a month or two. So why am I hesitating? Is it just because of a fear of change, or messing it up? I think part of it is just a need for a little encouragement. My hair is generally the only part of my appearance that anyone ever compliments me on -- people often come up to me and say how much they love my hair (which seems a little weird to me, it's not that great and it's full of split ends), including a woman in a pub just the other day spontaneously coming up and telling me how lovely long hair was and that I shouldn't cut it. I guess that's just vanity, but it does make it just that little bit harder to go through with it when everyone's telling me not to.

So, I thought I'd run this past people. Most people are unlikely to talk someone out of doing anything for charity no matter how stupid it is, but I thought I'd like to at least explain why I'm doing it, and see if people agree. And of course ask that people don't laugh at me if I end up with uneven hair for a bit :-)
Camellia Sinensis

Identity Crisis

The internet is a scary place sometimes.

It all started with an email about puppies. I realise that sounds like it was probably spam, but something about it made me open it. Some gushing woman said how she read my forum post and was dying to adopt one of the cute puppies, please contact her as soon as possible. Now, spam often looks a bit like that, but usually gives an email address, not a phone number. And then, another similar one came in. Both were addressed to someone with a similar name to me, so it was clear they had the address wrong.

This had happened many times before. I started getting emails about viewing houses, invites to parties, order confirmations from furniture companies, all from the same location in America. Usually I just contacted the sender (if I was sure it was not spam, for example if there was a conversation thread going between several people or I had checked out the company), but this time I wasn't sure I could do that. If the senders were responding to an advert, they would have no way of knowing the real address of the puppy-owner. This possibly meant that the fate of a litter of puppies was in my hands, not to mention that if my address had been posted on a forum I was due for hundreds of these emails. This time I had to act.

It took a while to pin her down. I won't go through the details, but it involved more browsing of dog-owner forums than a sane person should ever do. Eventually though, I found her and the correct (but very similar) address, and emailed her to tell her about the mistake. She seemed really grateful, and did her best to correct the problem, and I forwarded on any other puppy-messages. In fact I've sent her a few incorrectly-addressed emails since then. Because I've emailed her, she now also shows up on my google-talk when she's online. It's odd, but it seemed nice to have this link with another similarly-named person. Who knows, we may even be very distantly related.

That's not the scary bit though. The scary bit came when I got another email addressed to a different similarly-named person, this time confirming a book order. I wasn't sure if it was spam or not so I ignored it at first, but then another similar one came from the same company. I googled the company, and they seemed real. I was about to send them an email asking them to check their records or phone the person for the real address, when it struck me that I may be able to find it online myself. I searched around, and quite quickly came across someone in the right state, working in the same field as the book subjects. I could only find the name and the company they worked for, but the company's website listed a web designer with the same surname. I clicked on the link for the web company, and under the contact details I could see the home address listed, which was the same as the address in the order, confirming my thought that they might be husband and wife. So, I prepared to send an email to the webmaster, asking him to tell his wife to change her account details with this book company.

And that's when it hit me, what I was about to send. "Hi, you don't know me, but I've been searching for personal details about your wife and I've found your home address and place of work online, please could you tell her that I currently have access to your credit card details and telephone number? And hey, we might be related!"

...when did the internet turn me into such a crazy stalker??? :-S
Camellia Sinensis

Nine years, three degrees, ten things...

Just the other week, I was listening to Alanis Morissette's album Jagged Little Pill. This was the first cd I ever bought, I hadn't listened to it in years but it started to feel appropriate again. Today, one of the lyrics jumped out at me:

"life has a funny way of sneaking up on you when you think everything's okay and everything's going right, and life has a funny way of helping you out when you think everything's gone wrong and everything blows up in your face".

What particularly amazes me about life is the circles it goes in, and the coincidences that appear so often. As a rational person I know it is mostly about our tendancy to see patterns in life, and that there are a million times when I go on a train and not run into someone from childhood, or when the very thing you wanted from the supermarket didn't happen to be on offer there. But sometimes amazing things happen, the sort of things you thought only happened in films.

As a child, I used computers from an early age, and was part of the 'computers for kids' debate -- now I work in that field, with people who know my grandad's company, with one person who worked with my dad many years ago, a boss who knows my phd supervisor, and a collegue who took the same masters as me on the same year as my boyfriend, and also went to school with a member of my boyfriend's band. Now, Lancaster isn't a huge place, so coincidences like this are not that surprising, particularly when people all work in the same field, but there always seem to be things like this going on, like when I found that archangelonline was supervised by my boyfriend's dad, or when two people I know from very different circles happen to meet on a speed-dating event. Recently, I was there wishing I could see friends despite not being able to travel home, when I found that my best friend from school has a conference in Lancaster and wants to meet up for a coffee. And even more bizarrely, a few days ago a person crossed my mind who I haven't seen or heard from in 9 years... and within a week he contacts me out of the blue on Facebook.

Actually, that last one freaked me out quite a bit, it wasn't an entirely welcome contact. Basically we went out for about 2 days before he dumped me, and said that 'one day he would explain why'. That always bugged me, but I felt that he was the one person I would probably never see again. Life should have taught me never to make that assumption. But I'm not really upset, I'm glad he got in contact really -- I have no real desire to stay in contact, but not only has it provided closure on that little niggle in my head, but it has really put my life into perspective. Comparing myself to how I was back then, I can see I've moved on so much. Life has had its ups and downs in that time, but mostly what I've achieved is distance -- I've moved forwards and become someone I'm a lot happier with, someone who can now hold down a real relationship with a wonderful guy and be the person I want to be.

And of course, just as I'm musing these things, erfalaswen posts her LJ meme...

Post 10 things that you've done since moving to Lancaster that you're proud and pleased to have done. Stuff that you look back on and remember and smile about and feel good about.

The circle comes round again, time for another meme...
Cut due to lengthCollapse )

...But really, the thing that I'm happiest about is that I have 10 such things to list, and many more, including all the little things like nights spent with friends, meals cooked and jokes shared. I'm looking forward to seeing what life brings in the future.
Camellia Sinensis

The devil's in the details

As part of some research I'm doing for work, I've been looking at the amount of personal details freely available about a person online. This is something I do actually think about, and have looked into how much of my data is easily found before. Still, the more you look into it, the more paranoid it gets you, and the more you find things that you didn't realise were there. For example, through a simple search of my name on a few choice sites (without logging in or registering anywhere) I can find:

  • My date of birth

  • The names of my family, including my mother's maiden name

  • My place of birth

  • My home town

  • My personal email address

  • Where I work, details of two previous jobs, where I did my degree and what degrees I have

  • Lots of photos of me

All this as well as any professional information, e.g. papers I may have written or conferences attended. And I'm someone who is careful about my personal information. What you can't find are my phone number or my current address, but with a tiny fee paid for a search of the electoral register this could easily be found. It really makes you think, not to mention worry. From not trying very hard, I have pretty much the whole contents of my CV available, plus details such as date of birth and mother's maiden name that are commonly used as security questions (although not by me if I have the option). And if you think it's just me, I will gladly search for details about anyone on my friends list and let you know what's out there. When was the last time you checked how secure your data was? Do you think before putting personal details on Facebook, blogs, Amazon wishlists? And, of course, does it matter?
Camellia Sinensis

I can't get no statisfaction

It's not often that statistics get me up in arms, but this one really grated on me. As part of my work I've been doing some resesarch into the student experience, including whether students feel their experience lives up to their expectations and so on. So, I was interested to listen to this discussion between the NUS president and a guy from the Student Experience Policy Committee, on whether students are satisfied, and if not why not.

The thing that got me steaming was the Student Experience Policy Committee guy claiming that "83% of students are satisfied on their course". Now, this is a figure taken from the National Student Survey, which surveyed universities all across the country, and got reasonably high response rates, so I'm not even going to point out that the percentage is meaningless without a figure for the number that represents (i.e. it's 83% of a pretty high number, not of 10 students who were paid to answer a survey). So why am I annoyed by this figure? Can you spot it, boys and girls?

He claims that "83% of students are satisfied on their course". In fact, all he can really claim is:

  • 83% of students who replied to this survey are satisfied. It may be that miserable people or stressed-out people aren't motivated to respond to long surveys for no money.

  • 83% of final year students who replied to this survey are satisfied. That's right, the survey only asks people who are at the end of their third year whether they are satisfied or not, and unsurprisingly most of them are reasonably satisfied. Well DUH! If you were unsatisfied with your course, you're pretty likely to drop out or transfer to another course long before this stage, aren't you??!

And of course that doesn't even begin to address the question of what it means to be 'satisfied', and whether students would regard themselves as 'just about satisfied overall, but really not happy about a number of things', which is my personal experience of students. I'm not saying they are all utterly miserable, but I think that statistics like this are rather misleading and unhelpful, and that the surveys are designed to produce back-patting figures rather than to identify problems. Really, I'm just not satisfied.
Camellia Sinensis

The needle returns to the start of the song...

Over the last few months, I've been coming to terms with one of the biggest changes in my life -- ceasing to be a student. While this sounds silly, I've been in full-time education from the age of about 5 until October of last year, and it's been a big change for me, at least mentally, to be cut loose from this safety net. Finally, I've become a real person, with a job, and a pension, paying council tax and national insurance contributions. I've finally stepped into the real world.

...or so I thought. Today, I got a letter from the university, confirming that actually, despite not taking any classes, having any contact with supervisors or in fact pretty much any contact with the university whatsoever, I am still officially classed as a full-time student. Apparently finishing the full-time part of the PhD doesn't change your registration, and you continue to be registered as full-time until final submission.

This is weird for me. On the one hand, it's good news, as I can now apply for a whole range of cheap deals -- quarter-price conference fees, hopefully a railcard for the daily commute, and possibly even exemption from council tax. A part of me is wondering if I should feel cheated that I was missing out on all these things for the past few months. However, a part of me just feels like it's a bit of a step backwards. Free stuff is great, and potentially a big financial relief, but I do sometimes wonder if I'm ever going to stop being a student (in the literal sense, not in the "all academics are students for life" sense), and move on with my life.
Camellia Sinensis

A dip in the pool

Today: shock, relief, sadness, worry... as the news hit that Rileys is closing. Shock, as I had no idea they were in trouble. Relief, as our much-beloved Loughborough branch is staying open. Sadness, as I found that Lancaster is gone. And worry, because the one that matters to me could be next.

Weirdly, I'd never been to Rileys in Lancaster. I say weirdly, because I like playing pool, and because when I go home we practically live there. And yet, somehow I never went to the one here -- I think it must be to do with the people I go with, and the different circles I move in up here (ie currently none) compared to home. So I can't say I'm going to miss it, but I'm sad that the opportunity has gone.

I think we started going to Rileys not as a conscious decision, so much as through a gradual gravitation. At first, we simply played pool in the pubs like normal teenagers. Then, when the tables hiked their prices, we started going further afield. When we started staying out later, we started looking for places that would let us carry on chatting and playing games, rather than dancing in a loud sweaty pit. Food and pool came to be a greater attraction than alcohol, once the initial novelty wore off and people stopped trying desperately to pair off.

I don't go down that end of the country much nowadays, and haven't had a good game of pool in far too long, but it's reassuring to know that there's still a friendly place I can go, a little haven where you can still relax with coffee and curly fries, good friends and a good game or two. I just hope it's still there next time I get the chance to visit.

Camellia Sinensis

Virtually Reality

A few weeks ago I was playing games on a Wii with some friends, and it struck me that a lot of the fun of the system comes from being able to move something in the real world and have it move something in the virtual world. Some of this thrill may be due to the novelty value of the technology, as I seem to recall the same fascination when I first used a mouse, but I think there's more to it than that. As part of my new job, I use computing devices in schools with children, and I often see that fascination from them. For example, when using a tablet PC, they were enchanted with the fact that they could use the input pen to draw on the screen like a real pen, and even more so that they could use the other end of it as a rubber. The same children were fairly unimpressed with a touch-screen & stylus Nokia internet tablet previously -- the joy seemed to come from the fact that they could use it as though it was real, and took more delight in scribbling on a page than I'd imagine they would with real paper and pens.

Another time I see this 'almost real' sensation take positive effect is in 3D displays. As another part of my job I was in the uni's VR Cave the other week (did I mention my job ROCKS?), and everyone there was being wowed by the 3D image of an office chair. Assuming that the rest of the audience weren't chair fanatics, I got to wondering just what the excitement with virtual 3D is. Because it is exciting. I can stare enthralled at Magic Eye pictures for ages, while an auto-stereoscopic TV or immersive environment just takes my breath away, for reasons I can't quite understand. After all, it's not like you'll often find me staring at an orange, going "wow, look at it! It's so round! I can see all its sides! And look at the detail on that texture!!" So it clearly can't just be the third dimension that's so fascinating.

So what is it about these technologies that's so entertaining? It seems to be this 'almost-real' feeling -- the joy of finding things to be not quite as they are. A pen is real, and therefore boring, while most adults won't have much time for pretending that a twig is a magic wand. But the fun perhaps is in the believable illusion -- knowing that a piece of paper is flat is vital to the excitement of seeing shapes protruding from it.

Or, of course, it could just be that I still have a childlike ability to find amusement in the mundane. Perhaps I'll go and study an orange for a bit...

Camellia Sinensis

Back on track

There's obviously a lot that's happened since my last post, and even more before that. There's been definite highs and lows, and pretty much everything in between... but somehow very little to write about, or no time to do so in. My inspiration's been squashed under the pressures of just getting through a day without falling too far behind.

But things are starting to get... easier. It's not that I have more free time (quite the opposite), it's just better structured. For example, every day now starts and ends with a 20 minute train journey, with little else to do but think... and add to that the Livejournal app on the iPod, and suddenly you have the perfect window for blogging. For getting my mind in order before the hectic day ahead.

So instead of a blog of thoughts over a cup of tea, this may become a blog of thoughts on a train for a while. But that's ok, because at the moment this train feels a lot like my life -- it's not perfect, it needs a lot of improvement and it's far too overcrowded, but I feel like I know where it's going, and am fairly hopeful it'll eventually get there. (The metaphor is perhaps overextended a little there, but the two are definitely linked, as can be seen by the fact that when I'm already running late, so are the trains.) In the meantime, it's just nice to be having thoughts again, and time to write them down.