Monday, 31 January 2011

Goals for 2011: January

So, how have I done with my five goals so far? Well there's some good, some bad and some of it is downright ugly. 

1. Lose weight

This goal has not gone well at all. In the past month I have managed to make it to my local Zumba class once. The excuses have mounted up and made me realise I need to look for other exercise opportunities. My current workplace has a gym onsite with a reasonable monthly membership. I may try pay-as-you go at first to work out if it's cheaper than paying a monthly rate. 

My attempt to stop eating so much rubbish has not gone well either. However I have made one positive change. Instead of investing in ready meals I have been cooking big batches of meals in the slow cookers. I have inherited some plastic takeaway meal containers from my mother and they are a handy portion size. All I need to do is remember to take the meal out the freezer the night before. Him Indoors and I have noticed a big change in our weekly shopping bill since we adopted this tactic. On average we're spending £30-£40 on our weekly food budget. This is a massive drop from the average £50 we used to spend and still run out of food halfway through the week. Finances will be discussed later. 

Assessment: Could do better. 

2. Make more of an effort with my writing

Thankfully this goal seems to have gone a little bit better. This week I started the Open University course A174: Start writing fiction. The fees are covered by the lovely ILA and is part of the reason why I applied for it. My life is rather hectic at the moment and I like being able to study when and where I choose. Today I spent two hours working my way through the first block and I've been very impressed with the content so far. The course materials include an anthology and audio CD. I was chuffed to learn that Alex Garland and Tim Pears were contributors to sections covered by the CD. It was very inspiring sitting on the shitty bus into town and listening to writers express their love for their craft as well as imparting some words of wisdom. 

One of the exercises encourages you to use a paper notebook for assignments. Today I've enjoyed scribbling down ideas on paper. I may decide to start writing first drafts on paper before committing them to an Open Office Writer file. 

Write in for Writing's Sake is chugging away nicely. Being the moderator has encourage me to contribute and get more writing down. You've got to lead by example, haven't you? Some of the stuff I have produced has not been amazing but at least it has got me writing. I have got some ideas for the site and which direction I want it to go in. The first big change is moving it over from Tumblr to a Wordpress platform. Tumblr is a tad clunky and I'm wary of how often its servers seem to go down. Also the site is a bit irratic in IE, as I discovered from user feedback and my own experience when I tested it. You forgot things like that, especially if you use other browsers (I'm a fan of Chrome personally). 

Assessment: Doing well, keep going!

3. Be more organised

At the moment I'm channelling this goal into small areas such as planning teas for the upcoming week. I hate wasting food and try to avoid throwing things out whenever possible. I've started using my pocket diary the Mothership got me as a graduation present. More of my social events tend to be written in there than on Google Calendar these days. Lately I have been using Google Calendar for long term events, such as reminding me to pay off my overdraft before the interest free period runs out. 

Next month I would like to be better at managing housework. I am a very messy person and it takes me a real effort to tidy up. Also I'd much rather spend the time cleaning doing other things. But then the mess builds up and it takes twice as long to clean up as it should do. Also I am very bad at starting something then wandering off halfway through never to return. Last Monday I cleared out some old Masters coursework and it still needs finished off. 

Assessment: Good start but need to make time for boring tasks (and finish them!)

4. Be better at keeping in touch with people

This is my most successful goal in January so far. In the past month I have seen a number of friends I had not met up with for a while. Sometimes this was bitter sweet. Last Thursday I had tea and cakes with a friend who is moving to another city for job purposes. It made me sad that she was going and I regretting not making more effort to meet up on a regular basis. 

Yesterday I went to see Glasgow's local ice hockey team, the Braehead Clan. It was a really good atmosphere and surprisingly chilled out considering the violent nature of the game. Fans were good natured despite the Clan's defeat to the Belfast Giants (who seemed to play rather dirty in my opinion). The tickets are a tad pricey for a weekly outing at £15 for me. I could stretch to going to two games a month at the maximum due to current finances. However the best part of the day was seeing friends that I had not seen since New Year. There was some good banter and that helped make the day. 

Next month I may have to cut back on social outings due to my OU class. This is unfortunate but we shall see how it goes. 

Assessment: Excellent stuff! 

5. Be better at managing  in more control of my finances 

This month has not gone well. At the beginning of the month, myself and Him Indoors sat down and made ourselves do the budget outlined by It highlighted some good areas but there were some ugly bits. I was horrified to find out how much money I had withdrawn and had no idea where most of it had gone. Now I have started writing down what I spend in a little cashbook to help keep track. It's a start and hopefully a good habit to keep. 

Alas I had a slip up last week. In my folly I decided to withdraw the last of my cash the day before I got paid. I thought it would not be a problem. Except a payment for something online came off my debit card and pushed me a couple of pounds into an unauthorised overdraft. Lesson learnt this month: don't clean out your account the day before payday. 

Assessment: Not a great start to the year but it's onwards and upwards from here. 

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Why Libraries Are Important

I feel I'm going to be preaching to the converted with this post but here we go.

This morning the Museums Libraries and Archives twitter feed tweeted a link to this article posted by the Guardian about the closure of libraries in Yorkshire . The article itself doesn't concentrate on librarians views but more on the users (who are the important group here). Most users were rather horrified at the thought of their local library being marked for closure. The reporter visits an area called Eastfield, fifty miles from Scarborough. The library has been renamed a 'community resource centre' but it appears to live up to this glamorous title. According to the report only 1 in 4 homes in this area have access to the internet. The centre provides a vital resource by offering computers which is vital in the age of the digital economy. Many jobs call for basic computer literacy skills. I'm not sure if the reliance on computers is a good or a bad thing but that is a topic for another post. As well as offering computers the centre lends books and offers meeting room facilities for local groups. The average age of users did seem to be fifty and upwards. Either they filmed the report during school time or perhaps the local schools have well equipped libraries. I doubt the later is true.

One important issue highlighted here is the concept of digital poverty. I discovered this term when reading Don Tapscott's work for my Masters dissertation. As society and information moves into the digital domain, we forget people are left behind. Some people are lucky to afford to pay off their gas bill every month let alone splash out on a basic computer which still costs hundreds of pounds. You forget the monthly cost of paying for internet access as well (and the electricity to run it). This assumption that everything is online forgets that people need a decent amount of disposable income before they can consider having internet access at home.

Books, the internet, other information mediums are expensive. Libraries provide a vital centre point for access to information. That is where trained information professionals, like librarians, come into force. These individuals have spent time and effort studying navigation tools and access points for information. They know to make information available, how to help point people in the right direction. Yesterday I spent a good ten minutes trying to explain to a library user why articles they found on Google Books did not reflect the database systems and journals that the university had available. University is the first time for many people start navigating information for themselves. Without having trained individuals present to help guide them, people may find themselves overwhelmed with information whilst never finding what they are actually looking for. I am not being patronising, even after six years of being a student I still find information and research over whelming. How many times have you read an entire Wikipedia article without finding what you were looking for? That is why universities have subject librarians to help students. On a local level, outwith the education sector, a reference librarian can help the keen amateur, the confused high school student, the new parent wanting 'How to...' guides.

Although with the increase in tuition fees, many individuals may find university closed off to them. They will not have opportunities to learn how to gather and analyse information. Local libraries may find themselves picking up the slack with hardly any resources to combat it. Volunteers are useful (being a volunteer myself I have to speak up for them) but people that are time rich may lack the skills needed to provide a good service. Volunteers might be unable to see past the services they want from a library and be blind to what others want. They may choose to reduce the number of computers to make way for more Catherine Cookson books. Or sell off the DVD collection to raise more money for comfy sofas. Or they may choose to weed out books they find unsuitable for readers. Or decided to end the costly subscription to online journals because they don't see the point of it.

A user at my volunteer workplace with was so grateful for the service of the library. Without it they would not have a quiet, suitable place to study. Without the services of the librarian they would have not been able to find relevant material for their coursework. The librarian at this institution is a paid, qualified member of staff who is currently re-cataloguing the book collection. They have created a catalogue/access point that is suitable for the users of the library and is much more effort than labelling each book a different number. Without her experience and knowledge it would be impossible to navigate the available resources this institution has to offer.

Closing libraries is robbing people's entitlement to knowledge and learning. Libraries, learning and resource centres, information signals, whatever you want to call them are vitally important. In times when people's disposable income is being cut there needs to be access to resources. Not everyone can afford to buy books off Amazon nor do they have the internet access to use their service. This concept might be difficult for the Powers That Be to understand. After all, most of them were educated during an era of free grants for students. Most probably did not need to use their local library due to facilities they had in their parents' homes. They forget that not everyone has that luxury. Closure of libraries highlights the widening gap between Britain's rich and poor in society. The new poverty this decade we will see will be those who lack access to information. That is a truly depressing thought.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

So I had a think....

Yesterday I had myself a little ponder. What do I want to do with 2011? This is the first time in my life that higher education has not been on the horizon as an escape route. I'm not sure if one HNC, one BA Honours and one Master of Science has done me much good in life.

Here I present my goals for 2011:

  1. Lose weight
  2. Make more of an effort with my writing
  3. Be more organised (and this does not mean buying 101 pocket diaries)
  4. Be better at keeping in touch with people
  5. Be better at managing  in more control of my finances 
A little explanation is in order:

1. Lose weight

This is something of a tried and failed venture. I'm not going to post very much about that goal on here. It's a little too personal to have blabbed across the internet; even in this day and age. However I will give you an idea of what I need to do to achieve this goal. A friend is getting married in June and I plan to have lost two stone by them. I've done the research (and by that I mean Googled) and losing two stone in six months is do-able. For those who know me in the "real world" and see me picking up another chocolate, feel free to slap it out my hand. 

Another way I'm going to achieve this goal is to not drink during the week. I've noticed my weight tends to bob up and down when I'm guzzling beer. It is very easy to slip into a 'beer a night' habit  especially when there is lots of it lying around after New Year. Don't slap a beer out my hand but a stern finger waggle may do the trick. 

2. Make more of an EFFORT with my writing

I enjoy writing. Unfortunately I am easily distracted especially when writing on my netbook. As I mentioned in my previous post I have installed StayFocusd which has a nifty nuclear option. You can select an option which will block ALL websites for a specified time, with the minimum starting at one hour. I used this the other day and found it be an excellent feature. I knew that I would not be able to faff around on the Internet for hours. So I got stuff done. 

When I write I know I write reasonably good stuff. The trouble is that I lack the motivation to finish pieces or go back to edit them. During my writing class, the tutor would take in pieces of work and return them with feedback written on the drafts. Instead of reading them I flung them in a folder. It's time to take them out and start reading the comments. 

By the end of the year I would either like to have performed in a slot at Words Per Minute or have my work published in some medium (this does not include Write in for Writing's Sake). There's a whole world of online writing sites out there and it's about time I explored them. 

3. Be more organised.

My friends will tell you I have a shocking memory. There have been times I have received texts asking "Where are you?" Or I make arrangements with one group of friends, forgetting that I have other commitments. Last year I started using Google Calendar which includes an option which sends a text to your phone to remind you of an event. This has been rather useful; the only drawback being that I don't own a smartphone. I can only update the Calendar  when I'm on a computer. Not always a problem but not very handy if I'm out and about. 

The Mothership bought me a snazzy University of Glasgow pocket diary as a graduation present. I know I said no more diaries but this one really suits me. It's pocket sized with lined paper (surprisingly difficult to find) and feels rather robust. As part of my decluttering I am moving towards only using certain bags on a regular basis. This should make it easier to have my diary to hand when making arrangements. Which leans me onto...

4. Be better at keeping in touch with people

On New Year's Eve myself and Him Indoors hosted a party. At this party I saw a lot of people that I had not seen since our last party in November. Prior to that party (do keep track) I could not remember the last time I had seen a lot of my friends. 

And that scared me a little. 

As you grow older you sometimes grow out of friends. Time is short so why spend it with people that you don't care for? The simplest way of assessing this is by thinking of the friends you have interacted with in the past three months. Is there a reason why people are off this list? Perhaps they live in another city. Or they have been dealing with some personal issues. Or maybe it's a subtle sign that this person is no longer important on your social spectrum. 

Or, like me, you've been too lazy to arrange to meet up with people. Lack of money didn't help in that black hole between finishing university and getting a job I enjoyed. People are becoming more open about saying "I can't afford to go out for dinner and drinks. How about we just do drinks?" 

To end the waffle, I am going to find out if I have been too lazy or simply out grown a friendship. 

5. Be better at managing  in more control of my finances 

This may surprise some people but I am a bit rubbish with money. I tend to be an impulse buyer especially where Amazon is concerned. Online shopping suits me. Physically venturing out to the shops fills me with dread; I think this is due to the screaming fights I had with my mother clothes shopping as a teenager. Also being the above average size makes clothes shopping a painful experience. 

Shopping online is so easy. Click, click, card details, click, click. Sit back and wait for the postie to arrive with your goodies. Then I wonder why it rolls around to the end of the month and I haven't got a pot to piss in. has been a help. For months I have been getting the email updates, primarily for the money off vouchers. But I started reading some of the main articles and have realised that I am truly a bit rubbish with money. This shows how grown up I'm becoming: I'm doing a budget with Him Indoors in the next couple of weeks. Hopefully being more aware of my money will lead me to consider my spending choices a bit more wisely. 

So let's press that button for 2011. It's going to be a bumpy ride...

Monday, 3 January 2011

2011: The Year of Good Intentions?

Greetings everyone. I ushered in the new year by hosting a small soiree at my flat. By the time the clock struck midnight on 2010 (and closed that door behind me) around 25 people were crammed into my living room. It was a sea of people hugging and kissing and shaking hands and wishing everyone a Happy New Year. I wish I had thought to take more photographs.

2010 was not a bad year. Not the best year of my life (I think that belongs to the later half of 2002) but not down there with one of the worst (1997 was the start of a steep decline). In 2010 I:

  • Completed a Masters in Science 
  • Turned 25 and had a wonderful time on my birthday
  • Moved flats
  • Got a new job more suited to my qualifications
  • Went to my first professional conference
  • Started cooking properly again
So what do I plan for 2011? In the last days of 2010 I started feeling a bit lost. This is a usual cycle for me and hits every couple of years or so. It didn't seem to matter when I was a teenager. After all, when you're fifthteen, you think you're going to live forever. That feeling starts to ebb away when you're twenty five. My mother retires this year. My mother is old enough to retire. "Life is too short" was the wave that came crashing over me this year. 

And this time I am determined to do something about it. By coincidence an article appeared in yesterday's Sunday Herald which was part of a section of columnists writing about trends we would see happening in 2011. One article tackled the subject of alternative lifestyles; primarily a move away from the greed of consumerism and the constant need to acquire material goods. The first half of the article about minimalism really spoke to me. Despite my better attempts I have tried not to fall for the consumerism trap of always wanting more. But I have. My wardrobe is full of clothes I hardly wore and were expensive impulse buys. There are boxes of unread books stacked high in my bedroom. Enough is enough. 

Part of the above article discusses a blog called Minimal Student. Last night I was up until two in the morning reading through the articles. The blog's writer, a girl called Jessica, seems to be writing just for me. Of course I know she isn't but that is the mark of a good writer; making the reader feel like they are the intended, and perfect, audience for this material.

I'm going to ferment on what I have read over the past day. Already I have taken baby steps by an extension to Chrome called StayFocused. It is a handy tool. You can list websites that you are allowed a certain amount of time to browse. For example my blocked sites include Facebook and Twitter which are bad for eating up my time. Initially I didn't realise that the time you set includes all the sites listed on your blocked list. So I had used up my allotted time by the end of breakfast time today. 

Which meant I got stuff done. I put away the weekly shop Him Indoors ventured out to buy, cleaned out the kitchen cupboards, finished some work owed to someone else and caught up on some Write in for Writing's Sake admin. Late afternoon I settled down to watch The Usual Suspects in memory of the late, great Pete Postlethwaite who died today. Another reminder that life indeed is too short; he was only sixty-four. 

I feel like I have collected my thoughts a bit better. Tomorrow I am going to spend time thinking. Proper thinking not just "Oooh what shall I have for tea tonight?" Then I'll come back here and decide what I am going to make of myself in 2011.