Blogging 101 – new beginnings

I’m just starting a course on blogging, and will be publishing here regularly over the next few weeks. My first assignment is to explain why I’m here and what I want to get out of the course, so here goes.

I initially set my blog up as I had a number of streams of thought on things like travel, humour, music, personal change etc and found that writing about them was cathartic. I had thought it would be very structured but that’s not the way it’s worked out!

The main reason for signing up for the course was so that I could learn more about the best ways of getting into the habit of writing regularly, and also learning how to build interest and followers. The latter two are important to me because I have played in a number of bands in the past and I want to be able to develop a fan base for the next one I join and to encourage more people to go to see live music generally.

Hopefully you’ll enjoy this journey I’m taking – I’m very excited about it 😀

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Mountains of calm

Think of a mountain. Think of a mountain that stands on its own. Think of a mountain that stands on its own and can be seen for miles all around. Chances are you’re thinking of Kilimanjaro, the highest free standing mountain in the world, with its snow capped, flat looking summit and perhaps elephant or giraffe on the savannah below. I don’t know whether it’s that image, or the fact that I spent the first four years of my life not too far away in the foothills of the Mountains of the Moon (properly called the Ruwenzori), but when my friend Andy and I were talking about doing something significant to mark turning 40, there was only one possible choice for me. We had to climb Kilimanjaro, one of the Seven Summits (to be frank, probably the only one I’ll ever climb).

I’m sure that if you’re interested, you’ll find plenty of accounts of the climb, of the vegetation and landscape: this isn’t one of them. To cut a long story short, I failed to summit when I went with Andy, due to altitude sickness: I went back three years later and was probably the last tourist to reach the summit on the day (my cousin Chris had been to the summit and was on his way back down when I got there).

What I found fascinating was that when Andy got back down, he said “never again”; Chris came home and signed up to go to Everest Base Camp (after that trip he said it would be a long time before he went high altitude trekking again); and me? A month after I got home it was announced that my work were looking for people who wanted to climb Kili (I’ve been told you can only use the abbreviated term if you’ve been to the summit) the following year, for charity. I was sorely tempted, and would still love to go back.

The mountain is huge. Once up out of the savannah, rainforest and moorland (on my trips that took the best part of a couple of days), you leave most of the vegetation behind and arrive on a moonscape. Black volcanic rock and dust everywhere, with lighter coloured well worn paths crossing the landscape, and giant lobelia, mosses and lichen for company. And this is the bit I still remember most, which permeates my thoughts and dreams. Walking around the main summit cone of Kibo for several days as part of acclimatisation. Walking up and down the valleys which run down the sides, some of which are dry, some have a little water – that’s when it hits you.

You are tiny compared to the bulk of the mountain. You are flesh and blood, it is rock. It’s been here for thousands of years, you will be on earth (comparatively speaking) for hardly any time at all. I hesitate to use the word spiritual, but the realisation of how insignificant I was in terms of size and presence was a revelation, and brought about a massive feeling of respect, awe, and humility. It also brought a huge rush of calmness, of acceptance, of peace.

And yet, humans are doing untold damage to the mountain, its glaciers, its animals and its vegetation. And there’s a real conundrum at play too. The local people rely on tourism to provide money and jobs, and in order to get there the tourists tend to fly. But the glaciers on the summit have shrunk, which means the streams lower down have less water, which makes life for those who live around the foot of the mountain much more difficult, which means they need to rely more on jobs from tourism related businesses. And the cycle continues.

A final point. Would I go again? Yes! And again? Yes! If only to recapture that feeling of my true place in the grand scheme of Mother Nature i.e. a mere speck on the surface of our planet, but I’d like to find a way of doing it which didn’t contribute to the damage being done.

What are backups, when and why are they needed?

As I’m keeping this simple, I guess I should start by explaining what a backup is, and why it’s necessary. (Apologies to those who know, but if my blog item on Patching was Security 101, then this is surely part of IT 101!)

A backup is simply a copy of one or more files kept on a different device than your working version. You need one so that if the original file is lost, damaged or deleted, then you won’t have to recreate it from the beginning. Some files are irreplaceable e.g. family photos in the digital age (because we no longer get film negatives with our snaps) so we need to be careful.

Here’s a question: do you backup your home PC, laptop, smartphone, tablet etc on a regular basis?

  • Those of you using the iCloud or something similar – well done. (As an aside, and not part of this discussion – have you thought about how secure the data is there: after all, you don’t control who has access do you?) You probably just need to worry about how often you back up to that cloud storage and whether you have an Internet connection at the time you need it.
  • Those using iTunes or similar – that’s great, your device is backed up, but what if the place you backing up to e.g. your home PC dies?
  • As for the rest – do you use a thumb drive or external hard drive of some sort?

Another question to consider is: how often do your files change? If you have a document which you work on regularly e.g. accounts for a social club, it may be something you need to backup regularly. If it’s a treasured family photograph, or an invoice for an online purchase, the file won’t change but you should really have at least one backup copy.

There are many backup solutions available. Perhaps the simplest is to use an external hard drive or a thumb drive (also called a memory stick, USB drive, pen drive etc) and simply copy the files you want across to it. Make sure you keep the drive in a safe place (not next to your computer though: if the computer goes up in flames during a house fire, having files copied on a device sitting next to it probably won’t be any use) and, if the data on it is sensitive you may want to encrypt it. (Hmm, I think I’ll need to write a separate post on encryption!)

As you can infer from above, there are many cloud based services like the Apple iCloud or Microsoft’s Office 365 where you can hold all your files and not have to worry about messing around with thumb drives etc. Personally, if I was going to use them for some of my own sensitive files, I’d ensure I used some of their more secure services like two factor authentication.

That sounds scary and technical, but it’s basically a combination of a password and a code generated on a separate device (as they say in the trade, it’s something you know and something you have, which “proves” you are you). That device may be software on a phone, a pin code that’s sent to your phone or email, or it may be a physical thing like a fob which your bank provides: I have one which looks a bit like a small calculator which I have to slide my bank card into, and it gives a code which I have to type in on the website before I can access my account details.

There’s another time when you should seriously consider making sure you have backed up your data properly, and if you don’t do it at any other time then you should make sure you do it when … upgrading your device and / or the operating system software on it. Apple tend to force the backup if you use iTunes, because that’s the first thing they do before upgrading the software. Given that right now many people will be eligible to upgrade their Windows version for free (if it’s a personal device which is compatible and running specific earlier versions, it’s worth making sure your essential files are backed up before you start.

Change brings questions…

On a previous blog entry, I was asked some interesting questions, and promised to try to answer them sometime. I think that time is now! So here goes:

What motivates people to change? 
I think there are probably a lot of reasons why you might want to change. For me, it was a slow realisation that the way I was spending my life was not making me happy or content. I was simply existing, going through the motions of living. I was stuck in a rut and I didn’t like it, and I realised that action was needed to get out of that rut. And importantly, I was the only one who could take that action – my happiness was (and is) my responsibility.

Can you change on your own or do you need the help of others? 
In my opinion, you are the only one who can actually change anything but – and I think this varies from person to person – you may find it helpful to have someone to talk to. Verbalising your thoughts and feelings – even just getting them down as words – can help clarify things in your head, and help you to prioritise your actions. You may not choose to hit “send” on the email or text you’ve written, or you may be walking in woods and just talking to the trees, but getting what’s in your head outside your body somehow is probably something that most of us would find helpful – it certainly worked for me.

Why do you think some people change and others apparently don’t? 
Making big changes takes a huge amount of commitment – it’s not something that you can do in half measures. Once you’re started on the road to change then very often there’s no going back. As with other aspects of life, there’s a fear of the unknown, a level of comfort in what you have and what you know. For example, you may be turning your life completely upside down, which will uproot everything and leave you having to make new friends in a new place: that’s a scary place to be when you’re young and full of energy, but when you get to my age it can have a paralysing effect and prevent you making the changes you want or need. Again, it’s down to you – what do you want most, what will make you happy, or are you prepared to stick with what you have?

Is there anything “spiritual” in your discoveries or has gaining knowledge of (for example) topics like domestic abuse been your biggest learning curve? 
I think it’s all been spiritual to some extent, but I’m not sure if that’s down to what I’ve done or a burgeoning awareness of the scary otherworld which I’m learning about. Since making the decision to change, I’ve certainly felt a lightening of my spirit, a sort of emotional release, and there’s definitely a reduction in the stress I feel. I’ve had a number of people tell me since then how much happier I seem, how much better I look, and I take that as affirmation (if any were needed) that my decisions were the right ones.

I’ve always thought that I’m not a particularly deep thinker, but finding out about things like domestic abuse, modern slavery etc – and the fact that it’s going on around me, involving people I know – is widening my horizons and making me think about these things in more detail. When I have spare moments I find myself thinking more about these things and I feel that I’m evolving into a more conscious, compassionate human being – and that’s actually making me feel happier. Of course, I’m not happy that people are having to suffer these things, and one of the things I’ve resolved to do as part of my new life is to try to help if I can – I just need to work out how to do that.

Was the change (eg the decision to eat differently) hard or easy for you? 
I think most of us know what is right and wrong about aspects of our lives. Some things can be easy to change – eating better just meant being more prepared, more organised, and making more effort rather than taking the easy way out ie ready meals and takeaways. It also helped that I had a new partner who was also committed to those ideals and so we support each other in this respect. 

Deciding to end a 25 year marriage, and nearly 30 years as a couple, was very difficult. I obviously had to think long and hard about it, about the pros and cons of such a drastic step. In the end, and after months of soul searching, I worked out that in order for me to be truly happy I had to make the change. As I mentioned above, this was one of the decisions which, once made, meant there was no way back and the life I knew would be gone forever.

What might motivate you to change again? 
I think that I’m still changing, still becoming the person I wanted to be. I’ve taken a few steps, and am definitely on the road to a more fulfilled, happy life. And I think that’s probably going to be an ongoing thing, for the rest of my days. I’m responsible for the changes in my head, in how I treat others – but I believe that there are things I can do which may help others. One of the reasons for uprooting my life was because I didn’t feel that I was helping anyone other than myself. I now have the opportunity to start making a difference to those who need my help, and I’m determined to do that. So I think the process of change will never finish, now it’s started, because I don’t think I’ll fully attain that goal. But I think I’ll be a happier person for trying to get there. 

Would you change anything about the change?
No, I don’t think so. It had to happen when it did because I needed all my previous life experiences to help me make the decisions I did. It was inevitable that it would cause hurt and upset for some, for a short while at least, but in the long run I think it’s one of the most positive, liberating things I’ve ever done. I hope that those who were hurt are able to move on and find their own true happiness, because I think that they were also unhappy in their lives and are now able to do the things they need to without me holding them back. But I’m glad that I made the decisions I did, and am happier than ever. 

A Norwegian Adventure

For the first time in 8 years, at the weekend I was back in Norway, the country I consider to be my spiritual home. It was a whistle stop trip though – my delayed flight arrived 2 hours late on Friday evening, and I was back at the airport before 11 on Sunday morning. I took the airport bus into Oslo city centre – it left within minutes of me getting on the bus and was a clean and quick trip. Free wifi on the bus, and regular updates on the monitors on the bus meant I knew when I’d be getting into the city.

A short walk through unfamiliar streets and I was at the quayside waiting for a ferry across the fjord. It’s a commuter service which runs every hour. What a way to enjoy the views of the city, sitting outside in the glorious sunshine, the only downside being the smell of the diesel engines pushing us across the sea.

The bus service at the other side is timed to meet the ferry, and my parents were there too. Another quick and easy trip on the bus and we were at our destination.

Saturday morning brought a leisurely breakfast then a trip back by bus and ferry into Oslo to do some shopping, then back across the fjord to my aunt and uncle’s before heading off to the reason I was there in the first place: my parents’ Golden wedding party, part two.

We’d had part one in Scotland the week before, with family and friends gathering for a while on the Sunday afternoon, and part two was something similar but for the Norwegian contingent. Buffet dinner and drinks in a bar / restaurant at the edge of Oslo fjord, with all manner of boats going past while the sun made its lazy transit, bathing us in glorious light all afternoon and well into the evening. A final bus trip for the day and time for bed.

Sunday was more or less a repeat of the Friday, but in reverse and with no delays to the flight. I have to say that the cleanliness and efficiency of the public transport in Norway was a notable improvement on my experiences here in the UK – at least from a timekeeping point of view. Services were coordinated so that a delay to e.g. the ferry meant that the buses wouldn’t leave till it came in. For an “expensive” country, which Norway is renowned to be, the 50 minute trip from the airport on the bus was about £12, and the bus / ferry combined at the other end was about £3.50. Not bad at all. Ok, the beer was £6.65 for a half litre, or £5.23 for 400ml, but there wasn’t exactly time for a lot of that, and the prices aren’t that far off “London prices” for beer these days.

The visit was way too short, but did re-emphasise to me how much I love Norway and that I need to go back soon, and then often after that. Who knows, maybe my very rusty Norwegian language skills will improve and I’ll move on from just asking if people speak English, or responding in English when asked a question in Norwegian: that would be a desirable outcome!

Change happens from within, right?

Over the past few months I’ve had a massive change in lifestyle. I’ve reduced the amount of alcohol I drink significantly. I’ve stopped eating ready meals, in favour of home cooked food or meals in cafes and restaurants. I’ve even managed to start getting 7 or 8 hours sleep a night, sometimes more, for the first time in years. And that’s all been brilliant, because I feel healthier and fitter and have lost a bit of weight. I need to do more, and need to do some exercise, but it’s a good start.

I’ve also stopped being quite such a couch potato. I don’t watch nearly as much TV as I used to, have cancelled my subscription to Sky Movies, and spend my time reading or talking to people instead. Weekends have become a hive of activity instead of the usual struggle to catch up on sleep from the week before. Joining the National Trust and English Heritage has opened up a whole new world of places to see, all for the cost of some fuel to get there. I’ve found I’m learning about all sorts of things, from how catholic priests were hidden in the Middle Ages at Oxborough Hall to how German POWs were used as labour at Waddesdon Manor (some of them not leaving till the end of 1919, well after the end of the war). Trips to Bletchley Park, the National Space Centre and the Imperial War Museum in Duxford have refreshed and reignited by passions for space and air travel, for the engineering involved, for codes and cyphers. I had stagnated in life and that was making me tired, stressed, irritable and grouchy. Outwardly, my sense of humour got me through but hid a multitude of issues.

Talking to remarkable people who do so much for their communities, selflessly helping those worse off than themselves, has opened my eyes to some extent to the extreme hardship some people face, from unemployment and poverty, to substance abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, people trafficking and all sorts of other things. Just living is incredibly tough for a lot of people, and in many cases it’s through no fault of their own. For those of us who have had a cosy, uncomplicated life, we can never fully understand or appreciate how lucky we are, or what others would give to have the lives we do. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. It’s tough and emotional, but I think you’ll be a more complete and compassionate person. I’m trying to do just that and I think I’m getting there slowly.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you find yourself in a rut, there’s only one person that can get you out of it. Make the effort, learn something, see something new, do something different: it’ll be hard at first, but the rewards are just awesome.

The guy that speaks his mind

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