Friday, May 30, 2014

Mitigating suffering

DSC06134It’s been a road week: drilling up and down the M11-M25-M3 motorways for meetings, money, and, finally, Munich.  A lot was accomplished; a lot still to go.

This week, too, my elbow calmed down, finally.  The doctors at Addenbrookes said I had a picked up a nasty staph infection, fortunately superficial, but likely one that I should have had looked at when it happened.   Next time I will (I promise) listen to the folks pointing me to the walk-in clinics instead of waiting until it becomes a case for the A&E.

More generally, this became a week when I was touched more by suffering among others than is usual.  They told of health scares and personal tragedies: then there were the news stories.  Collectively, it reduced to a question that the Shrink  and Sage might consider: Should we engage whenever people are hurting? 

Partner and family is straightforward: I do everything I can without limits.  ‘Being an expat complicates things, because the question is always whether to get on a plane to give support in person.  In this case, it took some reading, a couple of consults with colleagues, and a few calls to agree (and feel like) I’d done what was needed. 

For friends, I ask and offer.  One suffered a rough week working through a death in the family and just needed someone to listen.  Another potentially needed a network to tap into for an interpretation or a second opinion.  I try not to fix things or transfer a burden, unasked.  But, if a person means something to me, I try to be available and open with information and connections as needed.  Thankfully, both of these situations ended the week better than they started.

shootingWhere is the limit for distant events that are more distant?   The shootings in Santa Barbara, isolated and senseless, were a terrible tragedy and stirred a lot of sympathy for the people killed and their families.  Conversations with European friends about Why It Happened and What Needs To Change always lead to difficult rationalizations about American firearms.  Here, everyone connected seems to have followed the law and done what they could, but failed in the end: were criteria or policies wrong?   People generalized their own experiences: are there universal and effective rules for defining and enforcing boundaries?  Op-eds lamented the rising incidence of violence against women and the spread of misogyny among men: should there be greater personal awareness and community action?

Still, nobody can mitigate all suffering.  What, then, are the limits of engagement?  The Shrink and Sage suggest:

First of all, you have to really be sure you have understood how others are feeling and not merely assumed they feel how you think they feel.

Second, feeling someone else’s pain is not good enough: you have to know how you can lessen it, and be willing and able to do what’s necessary.

Both these steps require thought and understanding. Emotion here is useless unless it is guided by reason. Thoughtless generosity can sometimes cause as much harm as stubborn selfishness, inappropriate aid can hinder more than help.

I’ve been thinking about all of the human stories I engaged with this week, and, among the thoughtful miles, found my own two rules, not dissimilar from the Sage:

I always care on some level.  I don’t believe that any compassionate human being avoids sympathy for the pains that others suffer.  

I act in cases where I feel responsible or where I know that I can make a difference.  People should not simply engage on the basis of guilt.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Tech Monday

DSC06038A Chinese student and his mother have checked into 5 Woodside for the next few weeks while he prepares for his exams in math, physics, and chemistry.  He finds my everyday technology, especially my MP3 player and TomTom, charmingly retro: he seeks ever tighter integration of all functions into a single platform.

Chagrined, I’ll try to regain some credibility with a few tech links to start the week…

bladDutch Newspapers:  A new reading platform, Blendle,  has opened in beta to aggregate content from leading Dutch newspapers.  Whole newspapers and curated articles are available, some with a micropayment. 

I have long used Kranten en Tijdschriften on the Nexus to read Dutch news, but this is becoming a good alternative.

cloud backupCloud Backups: After losing a couple of months of pictures in the January disk crash, I decided that I needed to migrate from removable hard drive backups to a cloud solution.  I turned the job over to Carbonite, and have been happy with the features. 

It runs in the background and updates nightly, establishing a full mirror with 30 days of version histories.  I can grant read-access to others for file sharing and access files remotely, somewhat duplicating Dropbox

I haven’t been able to get it to recognize my removable USB drive and the System Mirror feature is not working, but otherwise it’s good peace of mind.

skype-translator-2Full-Translation Skype:  This is an exciting idea: imagine an online call with simultaneous voice translation / transcription of foreign languages, both ways, during a conversation?   Google/Microsoft Translate apps, based on statistical rather than linguistic approaches to converting between languages, has become fast and accurate.  Now, with faster servers, Microsoft will be hooking its translator into the voice stream as Skype Translate.

This has the potential to change a lot of expat life, from conversations and language learning to business and social interchanges.  I can’t wait to try it.

bourneEarpiece mike:  I like having hands-free capability on my phones, and use the Bluetooth comm/media features of my Ford Fiesta to the maximum.  Outside the car, though, I’m often forced to type with one hand while clutching the phone with my other. 

The earbud/mike solution, Bourne’s solution in the Waterloo Station sequence, turns out to be both affordable (about £10) and effective. I am using it more and more  even at my desk: the noise cancelling and the capability to free both hands for typing and note-taking is really liberating. 

I have to be sure to keep the volume cranked down and a mute button would be nice, but it’s otherwise part of my standard kit now.

text pixFind picture; Add text:  I have a large Word document with the each individual line tagged by one of several different pictures.  I wanted to do a Global Search and Replace, replacing the index pictures for text tags.  It took a while to find, but Word does have a nifty solution.

Select one of the images and Copy it to the clipboard.  Open Find and Replace, and the Special menu at the bottom.  Select Graphic from the list of items and a ^g appears in the Find field: this tells the search to look for the graphic on the clipboard.  Type the replacement text in the Replace field, and proceed as normal.

This likely works with all sorts of embedded objects or formatting, but is completely counterintuitive to set up until you’ve learned the trick.

DSC05285 (1300x851) - CopyLists and Diaries:  I organize my day around appointment calendars, receipt logs, and task lists.  My philosophy is that a ‘note to self’ should not requiring more than one step: open one of my three diaries and jot a note.  

Lifehacker and the Home Work podcast have made a case for using productivity apps, though, so I’ve given a few a (re)try.  I may be retro, but, for me, these ‘aids’ still turn simple tasks into multi-step Projects.  

Evernote, which I love for transcribing voice memos in the car,  still requires too much formatting and hunt-peck typing to create bulleted lists at my desk. 

Calendar requires opening, clicking, typing, tabbing, checking, and saving each time I want to schedule an entry.

Auto-updating contact books, itinerary aggregators, and receipt transcribers make too many errors and omissions. 

Collaborative sites require a lot of work to organize and maintain files and messages.  

I may be wedded to a particular style of work that leaves me at odds with electronic alternatives generally.  But I have to get my work organized and done, and electronic alternatives just aren’t simple and accurate enough yet.

CourseraOnline Courses:  I’ve been auditing an online course in Analysis and Design of Algorithms through Coursera on occasional evenings this month.   Taught by a Stanford CompSci professor, the content is clear and moves ahead briskly: it’s much different from the fuzzy filmed class lectures available through MIT Courseware.

I’m learning  a lot in small bites, and it’s nice to keep a hand in (recreationally) on the technical side.  I hope that there will be comparable courses in history and languages coming available soon to broaden the focus from business and technology.

Disclaimer:  As always, I have neither been solicited nor compensated for any of these product references.  The experiences and opinions are entirely my own.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

London Justice and Cambridge Sunshine

DSC06064 (1300x975)Life is seldom just.

But in the small world of the courtroom drama, it can be.  Under cross-examination, deceptions are revealed; with the clack of a gavel, wrongs are avenged; in the jury room, moral fog clears to mortal certainty.  It’s a satisfying few hours, moreso when a few big names are tossed into the revival of a classic theater.

12 Angry Men is a bit of a 50’s anachronism, fighting battles against prejudice that citizens of the 21st century (think they) have left behind them.  The jurors are prepared to convict a black youth of murder simply for being black.  Only Juror 8, laconic Tom Conti, takes a stand against the conflicting evidence and the biases of the other 11 jurors, eventually persuading them all to join in voting ‘not guilty’.

12 angry menIt’s also a star vehicle.  In securing seats, the w.wezen knew of my fondness for Robert Vaughn (even though we both preferred David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin), here playing Juror #9.  Now 81, he has a small insightful role in the production, but is thoroughly enjoyable as a recognizable presence.

The production is, finally, good drama, with vivid characters locked in close, well articulated, verbal struggles.  Even in the 50’s, I doubt that people shouted at one another as these folks do (they certainly wouldn’t be effective in making their points this way today).  But the arguments and evolution of the play, marked by the slow rotation of the central table, are compelling and engaging.  Even the rants that seem over the top are effective as a period piece.

DSC06086 (936x1300) DSC06099 (1300x975)DSC06078 (1300x969) DSC06089 (974x1300)

I like a bit of airing to balance the weekend; a train trip to Cambridge on a sunny Sunday scratched the itch.  Clare’s Fellows Garden was open and in full bloom, and the Cam was filled with punters.  A good walk, a little naming (in customary British Latin), and tea along the river completed a good weekend.

DSC06104 (974x1300) DSC06105 (1300x943)

Monday is back to Poole, back into closing the partnerships and fundraising: the only jobs that matter in the coming weeks.