Me and my dumb brain

Today those polite folk from up north have been talking about mental health and how it affects them and those around them. Mental health is one of those issues that we too rarely talk about. I think it’s partly because you can’t see the problem and unless you have experienced it yourself it can be very difficult to understand. There has always been a stigma attached as if for some reason having something wrong with your mind is much worse than having any other kind of medical issue.

Whether you know it or not you’ve known people with mental health problems. Maybe chronic conditions that they will have to learn to live with for the rest of their lives, maybe just short term problems that time and therapy can help with. I’ve always been very impressed at how brave some of my friends have been to come out, as it were, to me or their community about the difficulties they face. Today it felt like it should be my turn.

For most of my adult life I’ve suffered from social anxiety. It’s never been too much of a problem but being in public spaces and interacting with people I don’t know well has been hard. In particular this affects me with phone calls and video conferences which I try to avoid wherever possible. Mostly I can push myself past this, particularly if there are a few drinks to be had to calm my nerves, but it still affects the things I will consider doing meaning I just stay at home a lot.

Some years ago though things got a little harder. Since then I’ve been suffering from IBS, a simple name for a condition that isn’t really understood and is mostly the diagnosis you get if you have chronic stomach problems and no-one can identify why. As you might expect from that there isn’t really a cure or anything that will help symptoms for everyone. For some people one thing works, for others something else will work. For some it only lasts a while, for others it lasts a lifetime. One thing that is true for many people with IBS is that it causes anxiety and depression and that has been true for me for about four years now.

Going to places I’m not familiar with, long journeys, anything where I’m expecting to be stuck somewhere and unable to go to a bathroom at short notice all trigger my anxiety. Add in the social anxiety which makes me feel pressured to not act out of the ordinary when I’m around other people when this is going on and you’ve got a great combination for me never wanting to leave the house. Add in other normally manageable life stresses and you’ve got the perfect recipe for panic attacks when I do. Oh and did I mention that stress and anxiety make IBS worse?

Thankfully I’m in the position that no one of my problems are debilitating, it is just the combination of them and other normal sources of stress and how they feed each other that makes me go through periods of extreme anxiety often with short periods of depression. Alleviating one of them helps to alleviate the others automatically. Shortly before ChloŽ was born my IBS was largely gone. The anxiety remained but I went into therapy and for a time things were mostly normal. Unfortunately things have taken a downturn lately. One thing’s for sure, adding a baby to your family sure increases your stress levels and along with some medical issues with family members I’ve got caught back in the viscous cycle. And so now I’m taking anti-depressants to help stop the panic attacks and get my anxiety under control again. Medication is not something I take likely, but it is necessary right now while I get back into therapy.I’m very proud of the family I have who have supported me since opening up about this. It’s made the difference between feeling like someone who has to hide themselves and someone who can actually be themselves, which is very important for someone with social anxiety. If someone opens up to you about something like this, please accept and support them. You may not be able to understand exactly what they’re going through but taking the pressure off by letting them know that you’ll help in any way you can means a lot.

The bizarre world of the expectant father

I don’t often blog about non-work related stuff. Actually scratch that, I don’t often blog. But I can’t help but talk about how life becomes very strange when you’re expecting. None of this is new but it is new to me so therefore you must read it again and in some cases relive it.

Random strangers are suddenly your closest friend

I don’t know how my wife copes with it at least I don’t have to wear a stamp on my forehead proclaiming me to be an expectant father. Even so the fact does occasionally slip out while I’m talking to people I don’t know. All of a sudden I’m expected to offer up details on how far along we are, how my wife is feeling, if we know the sex, what names have we picked and damnit I just want to order some new checks please I don’t need to hear about how great the schools are around here.

They’re also all experts

So far I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that the city I live in is great for kids and terrible for kids. Natural birth is way better but epidurals are the way to go. Working from home is going to be great when the baby is here but also terrible. I don’t know what it is but when it comes to raising a child people suddenly start talking like they’re an authority rather than giving you suggestions like for other subjects.

They all think that you must be excited

Of course we must. I mean we’re only a few weeks from a large change in the status quo that by all accounts nothing can prepare you for so excitement is the natural reaction right? Generally I tell people that I’m actually petrified and everyone laughs like they think I am joking.

Which is strange because they apparently also think that your life is about to become terrible

  • What’s that? You’re feeling a little tired? Haha just wait until your baby is here!
  • You went to the cinema? Better do as much of that while you still can!
  • Laundry day? When your baby is here it will be laundry hour, amirite!

Need I go on?

But naturally we’ll want a second

Without a doubt the most bizarre thing to me is how common it is for everyone from friends and family to the supermarket trolley boy to ask when we’re planning to have our second. Hold your horses there buddy the first one isn’t even cooked yet, plenty of time to be thinking about dessert later.

Sycamore Canyon, July 27th

We went for a hike through Sycamore Canyon this afternoon getting some amazing overlooks of the Pacific coast as well as seeing some very alien landscape. This canyon was one of those hit by the wildfire recently and while the firefighters clearly worked hard to keep the campsite untouched as soon as you walk out onto the trails the impact is clear. The area looks almost desolate with blackened trees littering the hills. It’s so quiet up there too, it seems that few people want to explore while the canyon is in this state but I found it quite interesting to see just how different everything is right now. It’s not all bad news, there are lots of signs of regrowth, prickly pears with green buds, agave with green shoots and many trees are showing new green leaves. I think the most spectacular thing was how a lot of the damage was clearly only skin deep. Lots of the trees there are black on the outside yes, but where the bark has started to peel away the branches are a bright red underneath, as if untouched by the heat and flames. It makes for quite a spectacular contrast. We’re planning on going back there a lot to see how everything changes.

This trail was just under 4 miles though we extended it by having to park down the road because the campsite was full. It’s mostly a loop with a spur off to follow the ridge to overlook the coast. It is amazing to be up so high and see down the coast. Today the skies were clear and the ocean was a beautiful blue making for some truly epic views. Check out the photos I took on the map below.

Wildwood Regional Park, 1st June

Last weekend a friend of ours was visiting so we took him out to one of our favourite walks in the Wildwood Regional Park. We’d spotted earlier in the week that there was a closer entrance to the park, just a few minutes drive from our house so we decided to try it from that side. From the maps it looked like we could drive quite close and by just a mile or so from paradise falls. Of course things never work out like that. One of the roads was closed to public traffic and so we ended up parking further out. We spotted the start of a trail leading up into the hills and so decided to take that instead. It ended up being a very steep climb up some 600 feet in the first hour but it was worth it for the views from up there. After we got down into the park and to the waterfall we found a flatter route back, it just involved going past a water reclamation facility so we had to put up with some bad smells for five minutes.

This is a five and a half mile hike, quite steep at first but it flattens out once you get out of the hills and into the main park. It took us three hours to complete.

 

How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age

A friend recently made me a deal where he would buy me this book if I’d read it and tell him something that I learnt from it. I think this is all a cunning plan of his to get all his friends to do the same and save him having to read it himself but I’m never one to turn down a free book, especially when it is one that a former manager recommended I read. Well ok so he recommended I read the original which was written in the 1930’s. Since then there have been a number of books based on the same ideas for different audiences, even one in pink for teen girls (I am not kidding). This version attempts to bring the concepts into the modern age by using more recent examples and explaining how you can apply them to the internet age.

The title of this book always put me off. It made it sound like a textbook on manipulative practices to make people like you. That isn’t really what it’s about though. It’s more about changing your own attitudes and behaviours than it is trying to get others to change theirs. The claim is that others will react to your attitude towards them and often respond in kind so if you can change yourself for the better then you’ll see others respond to you in better ways.

The principles in this book are well worth anyone taking the time to read over and try to follow. This is particularly true of those in corporate environments and they are all vital for those who manage people. It should come as no surprise then that all of them are also covered to one degree or other in other management books that I’ve read. This means that nothing in this book was completely new to me. Some of the chapters did put some of the ideas into different contexts and had me thinking of ideas that might help me manage my teams though.

What I liked about the style of the book was its simplicity. It’s short and doesn’t mess around. You can see what all the techniques are from the table of contents. For many you don’t even need to read into the chapters to understand why they are important but the chapters provide useful examples of how they can be applied in certain situations. I’m planning on making a list of the chapter headings to stick up by my desk somewhere for quick reference. A couple of the chapters seem to go off the rails a little, particularly towards the end and some of the examples meant for the digital age felt a little contrived and jammed in for the sake of it. I do wonder if it might be as good to read the original and rely on yourself to figure out how to apply it to the modern world.

I think the thing I immediately drew from the book is that I am consistently too negative. I was at first going to make this post a scathing review of the book because for sure it does have some problems. But that would be ignoring all of the benefits you can get from reading it. And what would be the point? Maybe it makes me feel big and clever but it doesn’t make me look big and clever. So hopefully this is a more positive review that should convince you to take a flick through, it is certainly worthwhile if you haven’t read much like it in the past.

And now I feel big and clever for seeing that being negative only makes me feel big and clever. Ah well, can’t win them all.

500px isn’t quite Flickr yet

Since the big changes to Flickr last week I’ve been mulling over the idea of switching to a different photo sharing site. 500px had caught my eye in the past as being a very similar concept to Flickr. It has social aspects like Flickr does, maybe even more so as it supports the notion of “liking” a photo as well as making it a “favourite”. They seem to target the more professional photographer (yes Marissa Mayer, there really is still such a thing) and the curated photos that show up through their main photos section shows that. Frankly it’s a little off-putting since my photos don’t even come close to that level, but the same can be said for Flickr’s similar sections so I guess it’s not that big of a deal. So I took a day or two to upload some of my photos, put 500px through its paces and see how it measures up to Flickr. I’ve built up a fairly specific workflow for my photo uploading and I’m measuring against that so what might be show-stoppers for me may not affect others.

Ultimately if you can’t be bothered to read the details I found that 500px is a nice enough photo site and while visually it may look better than Flickr right now it is missing much of the functionality that I find important.

Basic organisation

500px lets you organise your photos similarly to Flickr. You have your photo library and you can put your photos into sets. The main difference is that while in Flickr your full library is generally visible to everyone, on 500px it isn’t. Instead the main photos you see for a person are those put into the “public photos” area, which just appears to be a special set. This is a little odd. If I want to see someone’s photos I have to click through all their sets, Flickr just lets me browse their photostream. Stranger still, sometimes photos randomly end up in the public photos set without me putting them there. I don’t know if this was something the website did or the plugin I used to upload, but after uploading two sets which overlapped all the photos that appeared in both sets were suddenly in the public photos set too.

Browsing through photos is hard on 500px. On Flickr if I go to a photo I can see which sets it appears in and easily move back and forward through any of those sets or the photostream. 500px only shows you thumbnails for the set you got to the photo through, it makes finding similar things from the same photographer more difficult. 500px also supports tags of course, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to show all the photos from a photographer with a particular tag. There doesn’t even seem to be a way to see a full-size version of a photo, just the 900px wide version on the main photo page.

Uploading

I’m not the sort to trust online sites to be the place where I store and manage my photos. I keep everything managed locally in Lightroom and rely on Jeffrey Friedl’s excellent plugin to then mirror that to Flickr, so I wanted to do the same with 500px. They have a Lightroom plugin too. Excitingly for me it is open source so while I found problems here it could be possible for me to improve it myself. 500px’s plugin is in a word “basic”. It can upload your photos tag them and name them but that is about it. It is remarkably slow to do that too. For some reason it does the upload in two passes, the first pass eats up my CPU and seemingly does nothing (maybe rendering the photos to disk somewhere?) then it goes ahead and does the upload. This is frustrating since you have no way to guess how long it might take. Probably not a problem for small uploads though. The other big problem for me is that it uploads the photos in a random order. I like my photos to be in the order I shot them but there doesn’t seem to be any way to do this at upload time with 500px’s plugin. Just the lack of options in their plugin mean I’d be spending a long time trying to make this plugin do what I really wanted, things like tagging based on rating, stripping certain metadata from photos etc.

Organisation

Once you have your photos in Flickr you can use their excellent organiser to put things into sets and arrange things how you like. As I mentioned I prefer to do this in Lightroom and just mirror that, but that doesn’t work for things like the order that photos appear in sets. Flickr makes that pretty easy, you can reorder a set manually or by various attributes like capture time. After uploading to 500px put all my photos out of order I figured I could just correct this online. Sadly the 500px equivalent is extremely basic. You can reorder manually … and that’s it. For a set of a few hundred photos that just doesn’t cut it.

Portfolios

One feature that 500px has that Flickr doesn’t is portfolios. They are effectively a custom website to show your photos off on, no 500px branding, very clean layouts that just show your photos off. They’re a little oddly implemented to my tastes, you have to create custom sets to appear in your portfolio, and those sets don’t show on the main 500px site. Want the same set in both? You have to duplicate it. I wasn’t a fan of any of the available layouts either but that is just my taste. Apparently you can go in and edit the layout and styles directly so you can probably do better things with this. Ultimately I don’t think it’s a very useful feature for me, and if I wanted it I could just use Flickr’s API to build something similar on my own site.

Stats

One of the things that scares me about Flickr dropping Pro membership is that they are probably going to be phasing out their stats. I like to be able to see how many people are looking at my photos and where they are coming from and while Flickr’s stats offering was always simplistic to say the least I could at least use it to find sites that were linking back to my photos. 500px boasts “Advanced Statistics” for the paid tiers, but I’m sad to say that this claim is pretty laughable. Flickr’s stats are poor, 500px’s stats are even worse. They track the social aspects (likes, faves, comments) over time but not the photo views which is what actually interests me. You can see the total views for each photo, but not over time. And that’s about the total of all the stats you get. 500px’s highest tier also boasts Google Analytics. Don’t be fooled though. This only extends to your portfolio views, not views of your photos through the main 500px site.

Summary

There is a recurring theme throughout this post. 500px has the basic functionality that you need for putting your photos online but not much beyond that and has nowhere near the functionality. There is another problem too that affects any site that isn’t Flickr. Flickr was the first big site in the game and has a great API. They are the Facebook of photo hosting. Almost any application or tool that does anything with photos boasts some level of integration with Flickr, support for other sites is random at best.

All of this is not terribly surprising. 500px launched just 4 years ago, Flickr has has more than twice that time to develop its feature set, user base and developer base. Maybe 500px will improve in the future but for now it just doesn’t have the features and support that I need and Flickr provides. Maybe I’ll continue looking at other options but if it comes down to Flickr or 500px, right now I’ll stick with Flickr.

Hello new Flickr, goodbye social

To say that it was a shock to find Flickr had released a massive revamp of their site is something of an understatement. Ever since Yahoo took over the reigns the site has received minimal attention leading many to believe that it wouldn’t be long before they gave up altogether. Every time Yahoo announced another set of web properties that they were discontinuing users breathed a sigh of relief to see that Flickr wasn’t on the list … yet. Now those days may be over. Love them or hate them it is clear that Yahoo have invested a lot of time and thought into the changes that they released earlier this week.

The thing that strikes me as really odd about the changes though is what they seem to be doing their best to hide, the social aspect of the site. Flickr was possibly the first social photo sharing service. Many other sites have always existed that allow you to put your photos online and show off your portfolio. Flickr though was always aimed at also making connections and discussing each others photos. You have contacts, comments, favourites not to mention information about where and how each photo was taken right alongside each shot. It seems remarkable that in this time when everyone seems to be trying to build social sites that Yahoo have decided that the social aspect is less important. When you look at a photo’s page now you see a giant version of the photo. All of the information about the photo and comments people have left are hidden below the fold. The front page suffers equally. Where before I would see a list of recent comments on my photos and thumbnails of what my contacts have uploaded recently my current page shows me one and a half pictures from my contacts.

Yahoo seem to have decided that the photo is all that is really important. I disagree, the photo is of course very important but the information about the photo and how people react to it is very important too, far too important to hide.

Afterburner steak rub

This is a recipe for a steak rub that I made up last night. It came out pretty well and everyone enjoyed it. It slightly caramelises the surface of the steak infusing it with herby goodness and after you enjoy that flavour a nice kick of heat comes in the after taste.

  • 1/4 handful fresh sage, finely chopped
  • 1/2 handful fresh thyme, finely chopped
  • 1 handful fresh parsley, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp brown sugar
  • 2 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper

Mix it all together in a bowl, rinse off your steaks and apply liberally to each side about half an hour before you plan to start cooking. These quantities should make enough for 4 small steaks.

Six hour chilli

I’ve enjoyed making and eating chilli ever since I was in university. It has a lot of appeal for your average student:

  • You can make it in bulk and live off it for a few weeks
  • You can make it spicy enough that you start bleeding out of your nose (and thus totally impress all your friends)
  • It’s dead simple and really hard to screw up

The great part is that really once you have the basic ingredients you can just go nuts, vary up the ratios, add extra bits and pieces, whatever you fancy. Eventually though I discovered that I was getting a bit too wild and really wanted to nail down a basic “good” recipe to work from. It took a couple of tries but here it is. It’ll take around six hours to cook, an extra hour for prep depending on how lazy/drunk you are.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups chopped onions
  • 2.5 lb lean ground beef

 

  • 56 oz diced tomatoes (canned works just fine)
  • 2 tsp chilli powder
  • 2 tsp chilli pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1/8 cup cilantro leaves (I use dried but fresh is probably good too)
  • 1/2 tsp chipotle chilli pepper powder
  • 1/2 pint stout or other dark beer
  • 2 cups red wine (I tend to use merlot)
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 1/8 cup tomato puree or†1/4 cup tomato ketchup
  • ~3-4 tsp coarsely†ground black pepper

 

  • 3×12 oz cans of mixed beans
  • 2-3 large bell peppers (red and/or green), chopped

Instructions

  • Fry the onions in some olive oil until they start to turn translucent, then throw in the beef and stir until it browns all over.
  • Add into a large pot with the tomatoes, spices, wine, beer and broth
  • Cover and simmer for 2 hours, stirring†periodically (use the remains of the stout to help you get through this)
  • Drain and add the beans
  • Cover and simmer for 2 hours, stirring†periodically (it’s possible you’ll need more stout)
  • Add the chopped peppers
  • Cover and simmer for 1-2 hours, stirring periodically
  • Serve with cornbread and the rest of the bottle of wine

Tips

  • This makes a lot of chilli, make sure you have a large enough frying pan and pot. You can try scaling it down but I find it works best when making it in large quantities.
  • After adding the peppers you’re basically simmering till it is about the right consistency, uncovering and/or adding some corn starch can help thicken it up at this stage.
  • This recipe comes out pretty spicy, you might want to drop the chipotle chilli pepper power if that isn’t your thing.
  • Unless you are feeding an army make sure you have tupperware to hold the leftovers. It reheats very well, if using†a microwave throwing a little extra water in helps.

I made a thing to help with GPS in Lightroom

Yep, this post is totally not Mozilla related so I’ll keep it short, but a lot of people in Mozilla do take great photos and maybe they are stuck in my position: No actual GPS device and an compulsion to try to correctly GPS tag their vast collection. I put it off for a long while but finally this weekend wrote a Lightroom plugin to help ease a lot of the manual labour. Go check it out if you’re interested. It’s even on github!