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Sunday, January 22

A lot has happened since my last blog entry. Well, over a month's worth of stuff. My life has changed significantly, as I predicted, and I've not really had the chance to catch up with any of it. I should, at least, attempt to write about some of the events of the last month, lest they one day retrospectively shed any light on what's to come.

Farewell to Newcastle
It wasn't a huge event to say goodbye to the job I'd had for one month short of nine and a half years. The job had pretty much fizzled out for me. I had an exit interview with the boss, where I explained to him some of the things which are hard to say from the position of someone ensconced in the workings of the office. How can you say it straight when you're planning to depend on some of the things you may be making quite a stand against? Perhaps if you feel you can say these things then you're in a very strong position.

Anyway, I had been quite outspoken with the boss and I think he may have wondered whether my parting comments at the usually awkward leaving gathering would be destructive to morale. I think I could have gotten away with saying some cheeky, even downright rude things in my parting speech. However, I had no intention of doing so. While perhaps it might have looked like I had nothing to lose (what were they going to do? sack me?), I reasoned that I had a lot of friends whose future depends on the success of my ex-employer. Unless the members of the company recognise their own responsibility to improve things, then there might not be a company one day. So, I spent the morning of my leaving day writing a speech. I put jokes in it. I am quite pleased that it was reasonably well-received.

I won't explain the tedious details of the speech... well, these details may be tedious, but they're not the whole thing. I started off by telling the story of picking up a hitchhiker on 15th November (oh, bit of a tip - it really freaks them out if, when you drop them off, you ask them for their share of the petrol). I had had a discussion with this hitchhiker about how I felt that a lot of the things that made my life stable also tied me down. A house, a job that is needed to pay for the house... and so on. I explained that I felt I could not free myself from the life I was leading. Though I quite liked having all the things around me, it was also weird to see my "advantage" as chains. I felt totally unable to change my situation.

Yet, a few days later, I had already resigned my job and found a new one - something I would never have believed myself capable of. The point I was making to my (now ex-) work colleagues was not that they should all quit their jobs and change their lives, but more that we all have more ability to change the status-quo than we think. If something is in need of a change, then it's not as hard as it might seem to go about making that change happen. Sitting back and complaining about it certainly isn't going to help.

I remember receiving criticism on another blog for some comments I made about how keen I was to change the way things were done at work in order to make them better. The other blogger thought that I was just being suckered in by management, expecting me to do more work for the same pay. That somehow, I was being a victim of "working for the man". The truth of the matter, though, is that one's job is an important part of one's life and one's concept of self-importance. Part of the reason I left my last job was related to how my transition through the company had reached a point where working there was negatively contributing to my sense of achievement and self-esteem. At that stage, I felt that I could gain more by a fresh start, building on what I'd learned from my previous employer. Indeed, this is exactly what I'm now doing and it's great. However, I had never felt that way before. If I saw a problem in my work, I saw it as part of the fun of having a job to fix the problem. That's what I'm being paid for. That's what my identity as a working man means - doing the best that I can in the role I've chosen to take.

Hopefully, I encouraged my ex-colleagues to make the most of what is, despite a recent spate of exits and reorganisations, a good company. Of course improving the way the company works should not be done at the expense of actually producing the output that the system is supposed to produce. Nor should the system become some huge lawnmower that cuts down everything in its wake. People are important.

So, I gave my speech. It had been preceded by a few words from my ex-team-leader. He was probably more interested in the gig I'd done at the start of the week, than anything else. Fair enough - he'd seen me at my computer loads of times and only once on a stage with a guitar. Then I received the obligatory card with silly comments in it, put my stuff into a bag and walked out of the office. It was weird. It still feels a bit weird.

That was my big exit from Newcastle.

Poppins
That weekend, we were celebrating my girlfriend's birthday. We went to London for a night out. We took a "flight" on the London Eye, went for a meal and then went to see Mary Poppins, the new adaptation of P.L. Travers' books, which includes many moments and songs from the Disney movie, but also has its own songs and vision for how the story should be told. The show is on at the Prince Edward theatre, which is part-owned by its producer Cameron Macintosh. This theatre also saw the original run of Evita (which I happen to know as I have a programme for the show in a clip-frame on the wall in my house in Newcastle). As might have been expected for such a show, our expectations were high.

In some ways, the show is excellent. There's no doubt that the Sherman brothers' songs are worth performing loud and proud on stages everywhere. The choreography was, on the whole, excellent, and the set was inventive and interesting - like a huge dolls' house, sections of which could be dropped down or flown to reveal the different floors.

On the down side, however, the magic seemed to be missing. The basic premise of the movie is that two perfectly innocent children are among a bunch of extreme and unbelievable characters. There's the totally unfeeling father, the rampantly suffragette mother, the odd neighbours, neurotic household staff. They meet up with the cheerful and enigmatic chimney sweep and the magic nanny and things turn around. The father cheers up, the mother gets closer to the children and their behaviour - wanting to fly a kite - is not seen as a problem any more. In the stage adaptation, however, the children are not so wholesome. There's a definite darker-side to this show and the kids are reasonably obnoxious too. Where I quite liked sympathising with the kids as these sane real characters, now the show has changed the emphasis and the real person in the mad-house is Mrs Banks. She sings a song bemoaning the identity crisis of "being Mrs Banks." Equally, the kids need to learn a lesson about their temper, which is achieved in a rather unpleasant (read not-entertaining) nightmare scene. It's more adult, but I'm not convinced it's truly in keeping with the magic which made Mary Poppins first capture the hearts of the world.

The flip-side of this view is that Walt Disney's original movie was quite saccharine, and perhaps doesn't quite stand the test of time. I've parodied its premise on stage myself. By today's standards, the whole thing seems very unlikely and tame. The stage show may endure longer as a result of reflecting a more worldly audience. I don't know.

Probably the biggest problem in the staging of the show was that some of the "magical events" associated with Mary Poppins, like inanimate objects moving of their own accord, people being sucked out of chimneys, or dancing over rooftops were present, but not particularly believable. Either the props behaved too much like they were just machines, or safety restrictions prevented the cast from being able to do stunts. The rooftop scene was especially restrictive as the cast were genuinely a storey or so above the stage when on the roof of the set and so couldn't do all the leaping about that so gave the Chim-Chimerney scene in the film its fluidity.

The new songs were, for the most part, pretty good. They didn't jar with the existing, well-known songs, but the Sherman brothers songs still leapt out as being of outstanding quality.

Comparing this show with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which I found better on stage than it was when I rewatched the movie, I think that it has been shown to be possible to recreate a Dick Van Dyke movie with a Sherman brothers soundtrack on stage a lot better than Poppins managed.


Crisis at Christmas
No sooner were we back from the weekend's West End show watching, than we were due to pack for Christmas. Unlike previous years, where I'd been a general volunteer, staying somewhere in London for my voluntary work at the Crisis Christmas shelter, this year I was going to be staying at my girlfriend's parents' house and volunteering as an assistant shift-leader.

In some ways this might be seen to be an upgrade. I'd traded in the solitude for company of a girlfriend (whom I first met during last year's Crisis Open Christmas).
I'd traded my white general volunteer badge for a green shift leader badge - surely some sort of increase in rank? Was I not going to be better off?

Overall, I think perhaps I broke even. Maybe I even personally fared worse. Perhaps I was able to contribute more to the event than I had in previous years, but I felt reasonably low and exhausted by the end. I don't know if it had anything to do with the fact that I was the most unsettled in my daily life than I had ever been at Crisis.

Living in a house which is running normal daylight hours, while working a night-shift, is a bit weird. On the up-side, I had someone to say hello to when I arrived back from the shift. I also woke up to find a meal being prepared by someone else. So, in that respect it was easier. I'm not sure that I got my mind focused on the night-shift as well as I had done while alone. However, I've never been a huge fan of loneliness, so it was a fair swap.

The traveling time to and from the shift - a hour or so's commute to/from London - was not a particular advantage, but it didn't bother me a great deal and gave me a bit of time to unwind after a particularly hard shift or two.

The new role as shift-leader seemed to change my outlook on the shelter and its occupants (volunteers and guests alike). Having to keep my cool in emergency situations and realising that I had fewer people above me to support me was more of a challenge than it had been. Conversely, I think I managed to offer more support to the newer volunteers than I would have otherwise.

Overall, I came out of the event exhausted and uncertain of my immediate future. It was probably the fact that I spent the entire event musing over my own situation - I was not homeless, but I didn't have a place to live in the part of the country where I'd be working only a few days hence. I had places to stay, but nowhere to call my own. My house in Newcastle can't be considered a home to me anymore. That's something that will take a lot of adjusting to.


So, priority one after Crisis was getting back into the swing of things and finding a new place to live.

Finding a new home
Though I could stay at my girlfriend's place for as long as I needed, it seemed a priority to find a room to rent. The logic went like this. If I didn't have a room, then I had no idea of what space I had for my stuff. Without that idea, I didn't know how much of my stuff, and thus how many of my out-of-work activities, I would be able to put together in it. I had to visit Newcastle to pick up my things and I couldn't do that without knowing how many of them to pick up. I also needed to have some idea of how rich a life I could expect to be living in the future - dependant on the standard of living and the space to do my own thing, I'd have.

So, I had to find somewhere.

I think I saw, in total, about 12 different properties. One of them was great, but too small. One of them was perfect, but not available, in principle until the end of January - but then it proved not to be available at all. D'oh! Then there were 8 absolute shit-holes. Seriously. I'd have paid £400 a month NOT to live in these places. Someone was offering a "studio-flat" which was actually a bed-sit with a nasty shower-unit blocking the route to a nasty toilet, in a cramped broom cupboard attached to room, into which I wouldn't have taken a cat, let alone failed to swing the aforementioned pet-mammal around in. On most viewings I had to keep control of my face, lest I reveal to the person showing me around that I was trying to bide my time until I was allowed to escape from the place. It's rude to look frightened and then run from a house viewing.

However, one room was great. It has its own sink, a nice sash window. Space enough for the double-bed (provided), plus space for another 3 or so of those beds. Not that I wanted a room full of beds, but I like space. I want space to have somewhere for my computer, a TV, some books, and my musical instruments. There's plenty of space in this room. Its only disadvantage was that the walls were a mucky putrid colour.

I rented the room and got permission to paint it. Sorted.

Sadly, I've not managed to live there yet, but the time will come. The room does contain a load of my possessions, and I've even used the address for various items that I've been buying from ebay. The house is under a mile from my office and I have walked there in under ten minutes. I even have a new set of bed linen, pillows and duvet. It will be great to live there. I just have to sort it out.

Guerilla Moving
Having sent the money for the deposit on my room and the pro-rata payment for the first month's rent (minus the time already past). I had to collect my possessions. I scooted off to Newcastle. I filled the car, with things that I'd packed on the spot. During this trip, I also showed two friends around the house with a view to them renting it. It's looking like a possibility, which is nice. I trust them to live there and be good tenants, treating the place and the neighbourhood with respect.

I discovered exactly how much stuff my new car can hold. I bought the car in September and I hadn't had cause to drop its rear seats down and fill it with large objects. I was truly impressed by how much it could fit. The stepladder, table, guitars (3), keyboard, countless boxes, bed linen, clothes and washing basket didn't seem to overfill it. I might have squeezed more into the car, but I ran out of time. I was in the house for a total of about 3 hours on Saturday 7th Jan.

On Sunday 8th January, I spent about 90 minutes at my new place unloading the car and meeting 3 of my new housemates. It's a house of 7 in total, plus the occasional visiting girlfriend. The house mates seem like nice people. So far, so good.


The New Job
Monday 9th January, I started my new job. There was the obligatory induction, followed by an introduction to my new team. I'm going to be working on a new product (well, a total rewrite of an existing product in such a way that doesn't rely on its existing design).

I got a computer, installed some software on it and spent my first week getting around the challenges posed by trying to get the code related to the company's internal frameworks to work on my machine. I also did a bit of self-training on a new computer language - C#. In my previous job I'd been a C++ expert and I was given an interview for this new place according to those skills, even though the company has moved on to C#. It's up to me to learn C#, which is a natural successor to C++. So far, what I've seen has made sense, but I've not had to use it in earnest, yet.

A week into my new job, I was given a design challenge. It's not that complex, but our understanding of what it entailed seemed to change on a daily basis. This is the bad thing about doing up-front-design, but it's also the good thing about doing up-front-design on a small subsystem, rather than the whole project. We will implement a first-attempt at what we now think is required. It should be expandable or easily replaced at a later stage if necessary. Either way, we've learned a lot more about the problem in the process.

The company I work for has a system of working that is similar, in some respects, to that which I left in Newcastle. It's also different. Where in Newcastle, we did everything in short bursts (originally 3 weeks, then it became 1 week), in this place we do things in 6 week iterations. However, an iteration is actually composed of one week's preparation, 4 weeks' implementation, and 1 week's "wash-up". So, we appear to be moving only 4 weeks in 6? Well, perhaps, or perhaps we are moving all the time, but we gain stability in the "wash-up" week and insight in the preparation week. In the 4 weeks' implementation, the ideal is to remain in sync all the time and to set weekly milestones (mini-iterations). So, it's no different to the Newcastle system... except that we now put effort into working out the detail for what's coming in the short, mid and long-term. So people outside the team can see what's going on, and people within the team can predict a little more of what might be required, rather than doing everything on a short-sighted hand-to-mouth sort of a way, which, quite frankly, DOES NOT WORK.

I'm only explaining this in such detail in case any of my ex-colleagues read this. There is a better way. While I am neither dogmatically promoting my new employer's system as perfect, nor am I experienced enough with it to understand its full implications, I am really happy that I am working in an environment where people have answers. They're not definitive answers, but they do exist. I have some idea of what I'm likely to be doing between now and 2008!

A Pyrrhic Victory
Some victories are not worth it. That's basically what is meant by a Pyrrhic Victory. In other words, the cost of winning is far too great. Such a problem was demonstrated to me recently. I'd argued over Christmas with my girlfriend that, when we saw The Producers in the West End last year, we'd seen it with someone other than Nathan Lane playing the role of Max. She had argued firmly that it had been Nathan Lane. I knew otherwise, but bit my tongue. It wasn't worth making the point.

Then we went to see the movie version of the show and noticed, in the closing credits that Brad Oscar, who had been in the broadway production, had a small cameo in the film as a taxi driver. My girlfriend thought this was good, as she knew he had played the role of Max in the show. I couldn't stop myself pointing out that he had, in fact, played the role of Max when we saw the show together on Lee Evans' last day as Leo Bloom. I should not have bothered. This led her to insist that we should find out for certain that I was wrong and that she had indeed seen the show with Nathan Lane in the role.

I can't help being a musicals geek. So, I knew the answer all along. Ultimately, it was my own blog (April 23, 2005) which furnished the answer. I wish I'd kept my mouth shut. If she wanted to have happy memories of seeing Nathan Lane, then what difference did it really make?

The Producers
The movie of the musical of the movie. Was it any good? Well, not bad. There were some highlights. Nathan Lane is always going to be a highlight. Will Ferrel was also excellent as Frans Liebkin. The music is good and always was, and the look of the movie was impressive. From the musicals-geekery point of view, it was nice to see that it was set at the Shubert theatre, a place I've visited.


Here it is

In addition, there was a poster on the wall of the theatre for My Fair Lady, which would have been playing on Broadway at the time that this movie is set - the late 50's. A nice touch.

The downside to this movie can be summed up in three names - Matthew Broderick, Uma Thurman and Susan Stroman. Let's take Susan Stroman first. She did a smashing job of the direction and choreography for the stage show and should definitely have been involved in the movie. However, as its principle director, she should have done something more than just plonk a camera in front of the action as though we were watching a stage production. In places there was more, but overall, it felt bitty - sometimes it was just the film of a stage-show and sometimes it was in movie-mode. something was missing. In a similar twist, some of the script was hastily edited to avoid the references to there being a stage, or an interval. Rather than rewrite those bits, they were tweaked into pointlessness.

However, it's not in my interest to say too many disparaging things about the genius that is Mel Brooks. Ms Stroman takes the first bit of blame.

Secondly, Uma Thurman. She can't particularly sing or dance and she's not got the stunning good looks for the role of Ulla, the swedish dream-date that acts as the love interest and leading lady for the movie. What a horrible piece of casting. As a result there were several hilarious camera tricks to mask the fact that she couldn't dance.

Finally, Matthew Broderick. I don't know why he ever got the role. He's always been too cool for Leo Bloom. Bloom is a loser who is not a man - he's a mouse. He's timid, awkward and we need to see that so that when he starts acting cool it's a big change. Broderick just isn't awkward. Lee Evans had the role to perfection and should have been put into the movie. I know that Broderick created the role on broadway, but it should have been Evans on screen. Simple as that.

So, it was a mixed blessing seeing the movie. I enjoyed it, despite the various glitches that howled. Even though we saw it in a relatively empty cinema, people laughed out loud, and I don't think I've been to a movie with laugh-out-loud moments in it in a very long time.

Reading a book!
Not content with watching movies. I finally got myself back into reading a book. I had started the fourth of the Dan Brown novels (or at least the fourth one on my list to read) - Deception Point. I like Dan Brown's writing, and this book, after a slightly dull start, was no exception to his high-standard of fast-paced, intriguing, plot-twisting fun reads.

Not Writing The Musical!
I've done a lot of thinking about my hopes to adapt The Musical! into a radio play. I've not managed to do a whole load of writing, but I have managed to generate a bunch of ideas. I may be about to get time enough to assemble them into a series of scenes within the episodes of the series.

I would like to spend some time doing some writing, but somehow the opportunity has always been "just around the corner". Maybe I'm nearly at the corner, now.

Not moving in
The commute from Southampton to Farnborough, where I now work, is somewhere between 1 and 2 hours each morning. It's just over an hour back. Given that I have a rented room less than 10 minutes' walk from the office, then I really need to organise myself and stop the driving and petrol expense. However, I have no intention of deserting my girlfriend while she's suffering the slings and arrows of exam stress, so I'm staying around here, providing moral support, among other things. The exams ease of shortly.

Not revising
Though I'm not revising myself, I am providing key revision services. This basically involves transcribing sections of text for my girlfriend to quickly reduce down to note-form on the computer for memorisation purposes. It's quite an industry we have going here. From the page, through the computer directly into her brain. I couldn't do it. I was also the sort of person who memorised methods, rather than essays. I would hate to be a student again - it looks too difficult.

Not blogging
Somehow, I've managed to go a long time without writing a blog entry, and then this essay pops up. I recommend against such large blog entries. Sorry to everyone who has waded through this one. I'll try to blog more often in smaller chunks. You know me, though, I probably won't manage it.

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