Time flies but are we having fun?

2014 is ripping by in way that makes me wonder whether those long, lazy Summers that never seemed to end from my childhood are some kind of alternate reality. Why does time get so distorted depending on our age and the perspective we must then bring? I know there are answers out there somewhere.

Writing this post; rather than just thinking about writing a blog post is perhaps my way of trying to tie down the days that have flipped by into weeks and months. Is that how long it takes for anything exciting to happen in my life? Well no; my no-blogging has been more on the opposite side of the scale: too busy, never ending “to do” lists, prickly prioritisation problems, my previously creative-space free time been sucked away into one non-productive area in particular (perhaps a post for another time).

I’ve decided to try and reclaim EMpression by simply combining it with what is happening in my life: work, wife, mum, step-mum, mentor, reading, writing, homework, travel, fun, friends, family, celebrations, future study plans, renovation projects, knitting, running . . . ok I have a thing for lists!

My point is, I don’t have time for extras at the moment; but I have felt really bad about neglecting EMpression. I feel better when I am writing and even better when I am writing with a point. Originally, I wanted to use EMpression as an outlet and a kind of means to prompt me to try new things; to do and to explore and to discover. The reality is this takes a lot of time and although I might like my life to be about continually learning and going in new and different directions it is difficult to combine the path of discovery with my daily deal. But I do not give up that easily. I figure that EMpression just needs to broaden out and allow the daily deal in. No promises; but no more regrets; it is time for EMpression to reclaim a place and space in my week.

I will be updating all the EMpression pages over the next couple of weeks: new book lists, new book reviews, new pictures, new posts. I hope you can still find something to enjoy as you dip in from time to time.

And then there were none

My blogging efforts have hit an embarrassing low point over the past two months. Like Agatha Christie in her well-known murder mystery “And Then There Were None” I feel like I have been slowly killing off my posts with the precision and dedication to purpose that I actually began EMpression with.

In the beginning, I took to EMpression with a flurry of blog updates on first impressions, try times, verdicts and the odd book review. I participated enthusiastically in online chat forums, Google+ circles and avidly followed the latest posts from my new blogger and Twitter friends. But only three or four months in, I found myself being really critical about my ideas for my next post, my writing style, the images I would or would not use. I was surrounded by half-finished posts and half-baked ideas. I reproached myself continually which added to my procrastination. The time between publishing posts got longer and longer punctuated by excuses and protestations that barely covered my guilt at killing off EMpression missed post by missed post.

A washing line of random ideas and writings (taken at the Sydney Writers Festival 2013).

A washing line of random ideas and writings (taken at the Sydney Writers Festival 2013).

I became confused about what EMpression was really about. I reviewed my favourite blogs, I searched for method and meaning, I wanted to unravel the mystery of why I was not blogging when I had “so many good ideas”.

Well the truth is I felt like I was writing into the void: more spam than comments; too few views to be doing anything worthwhile – right? I was a victim of the paralysing fear of not being meaningful!

And so, it was better not to put myself “out there” at all. This of course does not just apply to blogging. The potential for self-sabotage exists in all of us. What aspects of life, love, work and play have you deliberately downplayed, being persistently negative about or in worst-case killed off? Have you done this out of a fear of not being appreciated, out of a fear of being successful and not being worthy of success or for some other equally crazy reason? By crazy, I don’t mean to invalidate the fear itself, it is real, but the fact is, it is in my head or yours and that is the crazy part.

I have decided to abandon my search for meaning, and for method. I am just going to write and post and include whatever damn image I want. I am going to favour participation and productivity over purity of thought. Dear Reader, please accept the consequences of this EMpression (r)evolution which is likely to result in the occasional typo, grammatical fault and lame post. Apologies in advance but I have decided in favour of EMpressing rather than impressing!

Jane Austen Redux

I don’t do many book reviews but I have just finished Second Impressions by Ava Farmer which feels like it has been lingering in my “to read” pile for longer than it should. This sequel to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (P&P) was twenty-four years in the making, spawned a private library of Early English Women’s Writing and is possibly an unparalleled attempt to write a follow-up text in the idiom of the times and with the wit and characterisation of Austen herself. In some ways Second Impressions is a truly remarkable achievement. However, no matter how idiomatically correct the sequel is, the incomparable P&P is a tough gig to follow and for my mind idiom does not a plot make!

Second Impressions takes us on a journey (around Europe) with the Darcy family, ten years on from where we last left the happy couple at the end of P&P. Much has changed over the ensuing decade and we find that the Bingleys have five (soon to be six) young children, the Wickhams have headed for the land of opportunity in Virginia, America, Kitty is married as is Mary and Mr Bennett is still Mr Bennett (Mrs Bennett’s nerves ended up getting the better of her and she has unfortunately deceased). Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her daughter Anne get quite a starring role in the sequel and I never thought I would say it but I ended up feeling a little sorry for Lady Catherine.

The premise of the novel really is the fact that it is a sequel written in style of Austen with incredible historical and literary accuracy. The writing is extremely Austen-like, it is a little uncanny and certainly Ava Farmer is a clever woman (but more on her later); however, there is just is not much of a story. It is possible Farmer grew so enamoured of the persona she was adopting as she wrote that the idea of a plot was of secondary importance.

Having said all that, Second Impressions is an easy, fair read. I appreciate the work that went in to creating such a sequel and can see what a labour of love this was. Stay tuned for more about Ava Farmer in my next post and why we all owe her a debt.

At the Festival

We avoid each other as we brush past,
look away as we touch
in the intimacy of the crowd.

130526 Wordline

Last week I was lucky enough to spend a few hours at the Sydney Writers Festival. I felt “inspired” and brave enough afterwards to start putting some of my scribblings down as part of EMpression. I hope you enjoy the odd poem or short piece of prose I will include going forward.

By the way the photo above is of my young daughter wandering (wondering??) through a “word line” (a hills hoist of words).

There is no place like home (or I am going to try not to be too negative but . . .)

170413 Sandy FeetI have been avoiding this post. I have procrastinated to an embarrassing extent. How hard can a few words about a cruise be? Firstly, I shied away from posting this final verdict because I found it hard to be true to myself and yet not overwhelmingly negative about the cruise experience. Once ashore, I almost wanted to relegate the whole experience to a dim, distant memory. Maybe with the passing of time, I would look back with a softer perspective.

Unfortunately that has not been the case. And so, here I am, doing the unavoidable: my final verdict on our cruising holiday. Just to refresh all our memories (it has been a while after all), about 4 weeks ago my then 6 year old daughter and I (she turned 7 a fortnight ago) happily embarked on the Carnival Spirit for a South Pacific tour. We left Sydney on 11 April and headed out to sea bound for Vanuatu and New Caledonia. What could be hard to take about that?

Now, I don’t mind reading carefully constructed and thoughtful critiques but I really cannot see the point in some of the hardcore “hate” reviews that float about. I don’t want to be part of that and I don’t want to offend anyone we met on the cruise, because we met some really lovely people and to all of you, thank you for making those 10 days so much more bearable, BUT honestly these so-called funship family cruises suck!

Basically our cruise experience was one of: bad weather, vomit bags, too much food served in the proportions of an inverse food pyramid, some of the unhealthiest looking people I have ever seen and the most expensive add-ons you can imagine.

Let me break this down a little.

Staring out at rough seas

Staring out at rough seas

Bad weather and vomit bags: I guess they go together and unfortunately our cruise was not like the calm, turquoise blue seas and endless summer days of the website. Several days at sea were pretty rough, we pitched and rolled with a swell that while far from being “A Perfect Storm” seemed to be perfectly vomit inducing for many. I really prefer going out to dinner without fellow guests vomiting at the next table. Luckily enough we were not sick ourselves and I must say that the Carnival staff were pretty saintly in the way they cleaned everything up so quickly.

FOOD: I have to use CAPS. There was just so much FOOD – it was crazy, 24 hour pizza and soft serve icecream meant you could never go hungry. As if? Who could go hungry? It seemed like the whole cruise revolved around mealtimes. I did not take any photos of some of my fellow cruisers’ meals but I should have, because some of the breakfast mountains I witnessed were truly amazing: towers of bacon, eggs, pancakes, waffles, hash browns, french toast and a garnish of more bacon, just to top it all off. The amount of food being eaten was ridiculous, it made me think of that Spurlock documentary “Super Size Me”. I know I sound obsessed, but it was not normal, let alone healthy.

An evening meal - hmmm

An evening meal – hmmm

 

Me on "Elegant Night" with our table waiter Joseph (a lovely guy)

Me on “Elegant Night” with our table waiter Joseph (a lovely guy)

 

$$$: everything that was not included was basically really expensive. For example, each day and evening there were photos taken by the ship’s photographers of happy cruisers heading off for a day of exploring the islands or at one of the many, pretty tacky theme nights. Given these probably cost around $1-2 to produce you would think that a reasonable sale price might be $10, or perhaps you could be encouraged to purchase multiple photos with a 10 pack saver or something similar. No way, most photos were $19.95 – $39.95, no package deals. I actually heard of someone who spent $1000 on commemorative photos! It wasn’t just the photos, the shops on board sold cheap trinkets at outrageous prices and the onshore excursions we were encouraged to purchase were at least 2-3 times more than what you would pay if you organised it on arrival at port. One of the onshore excursions we did was basically a bus ride with a local woman yelling at us for about an hour with an hour at a dirty beach that was supposedly a “natural wonder”. All of that for the bargain price of over $100 for my daughter and I. I think this is an Australianism, but what a ‘rip off’.

I want to and should end on a positive note and that has to be the happy feeling I had inside as the ship ploughed her way through the Heads into Sydney Harbour. Good trip or bad, there is nothing quite like coming home. My final verdict is one of thanks that the cruise is over and done. This is the try I have least enjoyed but like all other tries I have learned something: I am a confirmed travel snob. Oh dear. I hope you enjoy some of the photos at least.

Images below

Bad weather was hard to avoid

The View!

The View!

Vomit bags - urrghhh

Vomit bags – urrghhh

But not all days were gloomy

Port Vila

Port Vila

Footsies with the fish in Vanuatu

Footsies with the fish in Vanuatu

The ship’s interior was truly a fascinating mishmash of the awful and the dull

 

The Club Lounge

The Club Lounge

Close up of one of the ceiling lights

Close up of one of the ceiling lights

Corridor to our room

Corridor to our room

Pharaoh's Palace Room

Pharaoh’s Palace Room

 

Life’s a Cruise but I’ll be happy when it’s not

Well this is just a very quick update to let you all know that my radio silence has been due to a few very busy days (read weeks) and the fact that I am now somewhere in the South Pacific heading for Vanuatu. I know, I know, it sounds awesome but honestly it’s not.

We have just had 3 days of bad (but apparently not dreadful) weather which has meant most of the ship has been closed, well the outside areas anyway. Given the inside is a cross between Las Vegas and a Pharaoh’s Tomb, outside is generally where you want to be. So due to bad weather we have spent a lot of time in our cabin which whilst perfectly fine is really intended for sleeping only not for spending days on end inside of. Our balcony which we paid extra for has seen no use except for our hopeful forays out each morning before coming back inside: “yep, still windy and raining”.

I seriously have a whole series of blogs in me about this experience (which is a first and therefore qualifies as a First Empression) and I am trying to surreptitiously take some awesome pictures of my fellow cruisers so I will keep this post short. We arrive in Vanuatu tomorrow and it will be great to try and get my land legs back. I am picturing snorkelling in bath-warm water under a radiant blue sky with parrot-coloured coral fish below, but I don’t want to get my hopes up. That way if is merely an extension of this cruise by look and feel but on land, I won’t be too disappointed.

Highlight so far: my 6 year old’s karaoke last night in front of 120+ drunk and dizzy cruisers!

I’m a gamer and proud

Egg ornamentsDid you spend your Easter break like me: playing games, learning new games, trying to invent games and getting excited about the potential of gamification?

Ok, maybe you did not do all of these things but surely over Easter with the downtime from work you afforded yourself some playtime. If not, you should have.

At the moment I am seriously fascinated with games, gaming design, gamefulness and gamification. If you have ever flicked over to my Reading List, you would have seen that one of my must read books this year is Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal. Now I actually read this book sometime ago as part of my bookclub but this time round was different. I read it with purpose and obviously a more open mind.Reality is Broken

I found myself completely drawn into McGonigal’s view of the real world and the power and potential of alternate reality. The combination of the two with the mobilisation and motivation of the hundreds of millions of gamers on our planet creates the possibility for something massive. I am not talking about getting more gold or energy, I am not talking about something purely virtual and neither is McGonigal. In fact her ambition is for gamers to win a Nobel Prize in the near future. For what? Well it could be anything really: maths, science, medicine, literature or even peace.

The idea that we can use games and gameful approaches to solve big problems in ways that are collaborative, fun, other-wordly and via creative learning experiences seems pretty close to Utopia. McGonigal is openly optimistic but why shouldn’t she be if you take the time to really think about the power that games can unleash and the current business trend for incorporating gamification into our workplaces, wider environments, social and commercial enterprises.

The idea alone makes me feel happy and hopeful.

I admit that in the past I have taken a stereotypical approach to gamers and online or video games at least: loser, loner teenage boys with an unhealthy fascination for blowing stuff up. I could not be more wrong and in fact I’m a pretty typical gamer: female (47% of us are), in my 30s (ok just squeezed in there, the average gamer age is 30) and playing a little here and there mostly on mobile devices through social network platforms and app style games. I also enjoy JustDance with my daughter on our Wii.

Angry-BirdsJPGSo I’m one of many, but after reading Reality is Broken, and also thanks to my current MOOC on Gamification I’m excited and proud to be a gamer. I’m sure you are too, you may not think of yourself as part of the gaming community but if you have played Angry Birds (now at more than a billion downloads) or Microsoft Solitaire (apparently the most played game of all time and the most used application in Windows) you are a gamer. If online or mobile is not your thing, then be out and proud about Monopoly, Scrabble or Blindman’s Buff. Games are part of what makes us human, they tie us together, they create belonging, motivation and inspiration. If you are not a gamer you should be.

If you would like to try some of the new games I have recently played or been introduced to, try one or more of the links below. I have only included a small selection of games that can be played quickly but I take no responsibility if you cannot stop playing!

4 Pics 1 Word

Free Rice

Chore Wars

Jewel Mania

Meeting Tokens (this is one I have just seen and really like the idea of, I would definitely have used this game in previous jobs).

Also a great introduction to games and gameful approaches: http://99u.com/videos/7091/aaron-dignan-how-to-use-games-to-excel-at-life-and-work (meeting tokens appear at minute 24) and Jane McGonigal’s recent TED Talk on how gaming can add 10 years on to your life (no really) http://embed.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_the_game_that_can_give_you_10_extra_years_of_life.html

 

Dinner and drinks with the ladies

130321 Striding Out

Last night I was surrounded by friendly faces, witty and wise conversation and the kind of buzz that comes from a good night out. Amazingly, I was actually with the very people I see almost everyday: my neighbours.

Just after 7pm, with the kids in bed, four front doors suddenly opened and our street’s finest firmly strode out and into the waiting taxi. The ladies of our street had organised a night out away from our wonderful children and partners just for the pleasure of being together.

The Watering Hole - The Bar at the End of the WharfWe had all wanted a real night out which meant heading to a hip drinking spot on the city’s edge. We wanted views and ambience and we got them. The Bar at the End of the Wharf at the Sydney Theatre Company Pier 4 is a big, airy space but still somehow manages to encourage the cosy chat session we had in mind.

I’ve been out on many girls’ nights before which start with such promise but quickly descend into pseudo counselling or husband-bashing sessions and it is a pet hate and secret fear of mine when conversation drifts this way. Usually I say something inappropriate like “if you don’t like it why don’t you leave him?”. Not recommended. I did not want to go down that ugly road given I would wake up this morning and see those same faces as we got about our day (and their husbands too)!

I need not have feared. We waxed lyrical on the world’s problems from Climate Change to Australian Political Squabbles/Faux Leadership Challenges to the Internet to Children’s Education and all the way back again.

“Honest” was what I kept thinking to myself; “everyone is being honest”. What I mean is that everyone felt entirely comfortable to say what they thought and that their viewpoint was worthwhile hearing and discussing. This is such a refreshing way to have a conversation.

Of course, we all know each other pretty well, having lived literally next door to each other for the past 2 years. Somehow though, in just a couple of hours (and a couple of bottles of vino) we cemented the friendship that can take us beyond being just good neighbours.

Hopefully this is more than a passing moment in time. I’ve moved around a lot and I can honestly say there is really only one neighbouring couple that I still stay in touch with and even so mostly by Facebook these days, although I do still really get a buzz out of seeing what they are up to and watching their boys grow up via photo and status updates. But my former neighbours Dave and his family are the exception for me. After all, people come and go, they move, they return to their homelands, things change and usually we all just get on with the next chapter of our lives.

After last night I find myself hoping and wanting to ensure that whatever happens in the future my friends, who just happen to be my neighbours, and I take our friendship with us. I don’t want to hold hard on to the present, I just want these ladies to be part of my future as well. And as with all good friends, I have a suspicion they think the same way.

The Hood

The Hood

What I’ve learned from blogging

time to update blogIn January of this year I started EMpression as a way of trying new things and sharing that experience with others. Basically I was new to blogging, my technical skills were low (WordPress to the rescue) and I had not had to write anything other than a business plan or work emails for many years.

I was a casual Facebook user but the idea of routinely sharing part of my life via social media was also a challenge. What limits would I set if any? What was interesting to share – was I a good judge of this anyway?

In the past two months I have blogged on topics and official tries (under the EMpression rules) as diverse as online education, running, books and book reviews, selling a second hand car, detoxing, friendship and more. And guess what? I’ve learned a lot.

I’ve learned a lot about blogging, the type of posts that appeal, the importance of visual content and that blogging is not a quick and easy past-time but more like a permanent part-time job – blogging is a commitment. I’ve learnt a lot about blogging from EMpression but also from other blogs I follow and these lessons are not limited to the blogosphere.

MY TOP 5 BLOGGING and LIFE-LESSONS (SO FAR!)

1. Just because I find something interesting does not mean that everyone else does – a.k.a. the stats don’t lie

2. If you do not have a clear purpose or niche then you may be misunderstood, ignored or just be plain irrelevant – if this is you, it is time to redefine your blog or you can of course just make peace with the fact that your popularity is limited. There is nothing wrong with this, with over 152 million blogs out there my guess is that quite a few of us are writing primarily for ourselves and are ok with that.

3. Develop your own style and stick with it – it’s true for the way we dress and the way we write. You can’t pretend to be something you are not for long, it just doesn’t work after a while, you feel uncomfortable and those around you sense it. There are lots of bloggers and folk on Twitter that I love and follow regularly. I often wish I could write the way they do, or tweet with such casual wit but the fact is “I am me and they is them”. Appreciate others but don’t copy, be yourself and give us your world or worm view.

4. If in doubt cut it out – or less can be more. I say “can” advisedly, sometimes you need those extra words, sentences and images, but often there is a quicker way of saying something that achieves even more impact than your original drafting.

5. Passionate hobby vs passionate paid work – just because you are passionate about something does not mean your past-time will be a lucrative one. Blogging as a job, like any job, requires investment (time, money, skill etc) and commitment. You need to have staying power. A well planned work project usually yields better results than a haphazard, fly by the seat of your pants approach so if you intend to monetise your writing and creativity passion through blogging then be prepared and be ready to perform. Think of it as a job that you really, really love by all means, but you are not going to get paid unless there is a reason for it, blogging in itself is not the reason.

I could go on, but just one bonus tip for now:

Have a favourite channel and work it – social media offers a number of platforms to support the blogosphere. Twitter and Facebook are perhaps the most well known but there are others, such as Pinterest which is a growing favourite of mine. Anyway, the point is, work out which channel works for you best and then use this as your main feeder and teaser to your blog. I am not saying I do this well by the way, but others do and it really works in building interest and support for the main game: your blogsite.

Please share some of your tips and lessons here if you are willing. My learning curve is still pretty steep and I would love to hear what you learned the hard way or what has worked really well for you. Onwards and upwards, have a great week.

(Image from www.briansolis.com, a great blog by the way)

My MOOC is done

Coursera Statement of AccomplishmentAfter six weeks of online video lectures, a host of resources to read, many of which I simply did not have time to get to, and of course the odd comment on the discussion forum, my MOOC is officially over. So how did I go and what is the verdict?

Back in January, I became part of the online education revolution that is happening in many of the world’s most prestigious universities (see blog post). Not knowing really what I was up for, completing a MOOC (massive open online course) was an official EMpression try and having worked in the agribusiness sector for most of my career, I decided to enrol in An Introduction to the US Food System: Perspectives from Public Health (Johns Hopkins University via Coursera) and it was that easy.

I started off pretty enthusiastically and by the time I gave a mid-course update last month I was still enthused but starting to find the time needed to really get into the course (especially all of the recommended readings) was pretty onerous and I was starting to fall behind.

As things turned out, I had several very busy weeks and the ability to log in whenever and wherever to the course was a godsend. I was often interrupted and so being able to pause and come back to lectures took out some of the stress. I typically did two weeks lectures in one day which meant I would have a fortnight relatively free before having to study again. The nature of this course with quite discrete topics each week made this approach viable but I could see that this might not be the case with a course that built up a knowledge and practice base week on week.

Weekly topics were typically split across 4-6 lectures delivered by a commentated slide presentation. The videos were easy to watch and I quickly fell into my undergrad pattern of feverishly taking notes. I have always found that the act of writing something down seems to instil it in my brain and my recall is then pretty good. In each lecture there were 2 or 3 multiple choice pop quizzes which acted as a check on my understanding as well as a reminder about the topic quizzes to come.

Weekly quizzes were set and these could be attempted 3 times (questions varied on each attempt) with one’s best score selected for grading purposes. A tick box Honour Code forms part of each quiz – this is obviously open to abuse, although I suspect that not many people would bother to hire a quiz double but perhaps I’m naive. A minimum 75% average across all quizzes was required to pass the course. The multiple choice quizzes were not particularly difficult but they did require clear subject matter knowledge. I admit to missing out on a couple of readings here and there and this cost me a couple of marks in the end. So if you are aiming for a perfect score you cannot ignore the readings. Quizzes typically take no longer than 15 mins and my tip is to complete the quiz as soon as you have finished the topic for the week to maximise your grade.

Not bad, but room for improvement

Not bad, but room for improvement

I received my Statement of Accomplishment on 7 March last week. Grades are given separately and can only be accessed on the Coursera website. I was satisfied with my result (95.6%) and the course overall, but in this I was in the minority. On average only around 10% of people who enrol in a MOOC go on to complete the course and attain a Statement of Accomplishment. Why the big drop? Obviously, a large number of people probably never intend to finish the course, they are just playing around without penalty. I assume for a number of enrolled students a course might simply not meet up to their expectations and there must be some out there who fail to make the 75% average grade (although not many if the quizzes are seriously attempted – they were not rocket science).

The MOOC concept is awesome in theory but like anything we all lose motivation and momentum in practice. MOOCs are just like any other form of study, they require more time than you think and often more time that you actually have. The number of courses offered and universities participating continues to grow and my guess is that MOOCs are likely to become a permanent fixture in online education. Six weeks ago around 2.5 million people had enrolled in courses with Coursera (there are other MOOC providers as well, see original blog post) and as I write this there are now 2,932, 046 Courserians. These volumes present enormous revenue opportunities and I have a sneaking feeling that a small enrolment fee and perhaps even another small fee on completion may well be introduced in the medium term. Perhaps MOOCs will evolve as extremely low-cost rather than free educational models but the principles of lowering barriers to quality education and equity of access still hold. As for MOOC course and grade relevance to future employers I think that may still be a way off being realised, if ever. MOOCs might be an interesting addition to your CV but don’t hold your breath for a promotion on the back of doing one.

Well the MOOC is over and I am ripe for my next try, all ideas are welcome, I have a couple of suggestions from a couple of you sitting on the backburner which is great but please keep them coming.

 

Postscript: I have already enrolled in my next MOOC (Gamification, offered through Wharton) and I plan to do all the readings this time (yeah right, I am sure I said that in each of my undergrad years as well)!