Phil Gyford

Writing

Friday 3 March 2006
Ugh

After an enjoyable and unusually sociable weekend I spent the parts of this week I wasn’t battling Movable Type for an impending deadline battling a gang of ruthless flu-like symptoms. That’ll teach me to leave the flat and step out into your germ-infested world.

I began the week as I finished the previous one, cursing Movable Type for not quite letting me do what I needed to make everyone’s lives simpler. As Jones put it, MT is like a jumpy steed that can never quite be tamed, not even by the most dangerous yet infuriatingly attractive rancher. By lunchtime the flu-thing had hit me but that dark mare haunted my dreams all night and I lay awake, sweating, and being unable to think of anything but MT’s input fields and checkboxes. One day my beauty, one day!

But then Tuesday seemed remarkably fine, I got some work done, went to class… and then felt exhausted and lay awake at night seeing a pile of wooden objects — xylophones, abacuses, the backs of broken chairs, all the colour and smooth texture of 1970s G-Plan furniture — and being unable to tell which bits of the shuddering heap was my body. It was in there somewhere, but… ugh, the closest I’ve ever come to hallucinations I think.

Wednesday I was still incapable and moved almost to tears by the kindness of NHS Direct, before I left the bed and propped myself upright in front of John Mills in Waterloo Road in an effort to divert the the molasses waterfall of phlegm away from my chest.

That night my prone and sweaty night hours were spent being unable to think of anything without seeing it through the vicious frame of The Apprentice.

Yesterday and today have seen an improvement, but with another half-sleepless night between them, and a pile of work to do, not to mention the larger ignored pile of non-work stuff I’d hoped to do this week… all I can say is *cough*.

Addendum: At the risk of providing the slimmest of spoilers to Pepys’ Diary readers, I wanted to record this upcoming account of illness:

Thence I went to see my Lord Sandwich, who I found very ill, and by his cold being several nights hindered from sleep, he is hardly able to open his eyes, and is very weak and sad upon it, which troubled me much.

s/sad/mad/

4:01 pm | 2 comments | Link
Sunday 12 February 2006
Mask class

Nearly half-way through the spring term already, and I’ve written nothing about acting classes so far. I’ve been trying to finish a programming project, but personal project deadlines have something of Zeno about them, so I should admit temporary defeat and get this written now before more weeks slip by.

To catch us up: I’m spending about twelve hours a week doing acting classes at the City Lit in London. There’s the year-long Drama Foundation course: 100 minutes of movement followed by 100 minutes of voice on Tuesday evenings, and just over three hours of acting on Wednesday evenings. I’m also continuing with the very basic singing class I started last term (90 minutes on Wednesday afternoons) but Thursday’s Introduction to Stanislavski finished last term. To replace that I’ve joined a class called Mask, three hours on Friday evenings.

Unfortunately the Foundation classes that I originally had such high hopes for aren’t inspiring me at the moment. If they were the only classes I was taking this term I’d be wondering if there’s any point continuing with this acting nonsense. Unless things take a turn for the better, more of that another time. However, I also have Friday evenings to look forward to — I leave Mask feeling enthusiastic and wanting to do more.

I was surprised by this at first. Mark, the Foundation acting class teacher, suggested I take Mask to improve my physical acting. I’m relatively OK with being affected by a situation, but if I can’t represent that externally, what’s the point? And if I have problems being someone else I’m not going be much of an actor. I could see purely physical acting with masks might help, but it all sounded too much like mime and like most people, rightly or wrongly, my gut reaction to the idea of mime isn’t good.

But Mask has been both enormous fun and incredibly challenging, like all the best classes. As someone who probably thinks too much, I’ve been surprised how liberating it’s felt to do more physical theatre.

The obvious difficulty is that it’s extremely difficult to have the audience understand what you intend when they can’t see your face and (usually) you can’t speak. Early on we had some exercises that helped us realise this. In small groups we had to perform a short, simple and silent scene in front of the class. First this was done without masks, and then repeated wearing neutral masks. We all knew it would be harder with masks, but even so it was amazing how much less was communicated without faces, and how restricted performers are when the mask has to be kept facing the audience all the time. There is a whole new set of things to be aware of, rules and guidelines to absorb.

A lot of the classes have also been about taking on very over-the-top and stereotyped characters, contorting our bodies to be obviously old, lecherous, innocent, sprightly, etc, etc. All very silly and a lot of fun. Maybe we’ll have to reign in the exaggeration later but it’s been quite a liberation from the usual acting classes, in which one is trying to be, to some extent, realistic. I’m not sure if I’m finding it easier to be uncharacteristically demonstrative because everyone is there to be physical, or because of the teacher’s encouragement, or because of the feeling that one can somehow hide behind the mask.

Whatever, it has felt like a whole new, previously shunned, seam of acting has been revealed as fun and challenging. Yes, I’d still love to do serious, dialogue-heavy acting that illuminates the psychological and political issues of our time, blah, blah, but the idea of doing something that is more about the physical performance, that’s not so naturalistic and is more spectacular also seems a possibility. Without it being associated in my mind with men in leotards pretending they’re stuck in glass boxes.

6:05 pm | 1 comment | Link
Monday 30 January 2006
46,000 junk TrackBacks a week

My frequently cranky installation of Movable Type began throwing up even more Internal Server Errors than usual at the weekend. They seemed to appear instead of any admin screen that would show some TrackBacks. So I poked around in the database and realised the number of junk TrackBacks received by the system had rocketed recently, as made obvious by this graph:

Graph showing number of junk TrackBacks received per week

Each column is a week, starting when I upgraded to MT3 last year. For the last few months of 2005 the number of junk TrackBacks received hovered around the 1,000 per week mark but started shooting up just before Christmas. Each of the past two weeks I’ve received over 46,000 junk TrackBacks! Is this just me or has everyone experienced such a huge increase recently?

To its credit, MT has let only a handful of these through — there was a bad rash of a couple of dozen one day but otherwise it’s been almost nothing. I deleted all these in the database which seemed to clear up most, but not all, of my Internal Server Errors. Then I found MT’s option to delete this spam automatically, which will hopefully help in future.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t fixed the Internal Server Errors that often appear when anyone tries posting a comment, to the frequent frustration of Pepys’ Diary annotators. Grrrr.

7:40 pm | 3 comments | Link
Sunday 22 January 2006
A trip to the Falkland Islands

It’s only been two weeks of catching up on email, feeds, updating websites, fixing bugs, tidying up, plodding through to-do lists, having meetings and generally avoiding writing, and already the fortnight we spent in the Falkland Islands seems like months ago. Before more memories leak from my head here’s What I Did On My Christmas Holidays.

If you’ve heard of the Falklands, chances are it’s because of 1982’s Falklands War. I realised recently that, like many of my formative memories, there are grown adults alive now who weren’t even born when these things happened. So I guess there are people in the UK who haven’t heard of the place. Weird.

The first thing you’ll notice about the Falklands is that it’s a long way from London and a pain in the arse to get to. There are two practical choices. The quickest is to fly with the RAF from Brize Norton, an 18 hour trip including a two hour re-fuelling stop at Ascension Island, for around £1,600 return. While you won’t be sitting on a bench with a helmet and parachute, the planes still aren’t particularly salubrious. And the RAF is picky about flying conditions so you may end up waiting at a dull Brize Norton for way too long with little information.

The second choice, and the one we took, involves a much longer journey via Madrid, Santiago, Puerto Monte and Punta Arenas. While this is cheaper you need an overnight stay in Santiago or Punta Arenas to make the connections, turning the journey into a two day, three plane, ordeal. Either way it’s a trek and if you’re as much of a bleeding heart greeny as me, you’ll be trying not to worry about the enormous damage your lengthy flights are doing.

But hey, wake up! We’ve arrived in the Falklands now!

Stanley from the air - 3

I was told the Falkland Islands are around the size of Wales, although this appears to be entirely wrong (Falklands: 12,173km2, Wales: 20,778km2). Still, it’s pretty big for the number of people there. Around 2,000 live in the capital, and only meaningful town, Stanley (which is never referred to as Port Stanley, despite us veterans of the 1982 media coverage remembering it that way). Another 900 or so live outside Stanley, this sparsely-populated countryside being referred to as “camp”. There are two main islands, East and West Falkland, and several smaller islands with a few people living on them. The military base at Mount Pleasant, thirty miles from Stanley, might have a couple of thousand people on it, but they rarely seem to leave the base. There are also a lot of sheep.

Conversations in the Falklands are peppered with acronyms: FIPASS, FIRS (formerly FIBS), FIDC, FIC, FIDF, FIGAS, BAS, MPA, BFBS, etc. Another bit of local lingo: Apparently when troops arrived there they referred to locals as “Bennies”, after the simple-minded chap in Crossroads. When they were ordered to stop using this term, the locals became known as “Stills”, as in “Still Bennies”. Although “Bennies” seems alive and well.

Enough of the Factbook, what’s the place like? Surprisingly nice actually. I didn’t know what to expect but the Falklands turned out to be more appealing than whatever I’d been expecting. We spent just over a week in Stanley between Christmas and New Year (thus getting the impression that no one does any work) and five days visiting Saunders Island and Sea Lion Island to see the wildlife.

Houses on Ross Road

Stanley is small and, especially when the sun comes out, very pretty. There are cute houses, often white, maybe made of wood, with coloured roofs. Small, quiet roads. A view over Stanley Harbour and its picturesque wrecks. Green, hilly countryside all around. A few shops (groceries, souvenirs, not much else), pubs, a handful of places to eat (including a couple of very tasty restaurants, the Brassserie and the Malvina House Hotel). The town appears to be undergoing considerable expansion, with the graveyard that used to mark the eastern end of town now approaching the middle. I’ve never been to Scottish islands but Stanley, and the Falklands in general, are much like how I imagine them, in both look and feel.

Most of all it seems a very sociable place. No doubt social connections in any small town or village are pretty tight, but when it is as cut off from the outside world as Stanley, they must be stronger. It feels like everyone knows everyone else, particularly among those who grew up on the islands. As my dad said after visiting, at times it can be like being in the enclosed social world of a soap opera. On our last night we ate at the Brasserie and it seemed like the place was full of people we’d met over the previous fortnight, much like the limited social hubs (the Queen Vic, the Rovers Return) in any soap.

It may be that the lack of media helps make it a sociable place, making it feel even more cut off from the world. Newspapers sometimes find their way in via the planes but otherwise printed local news comes via the weekly black and white magazine Penguin News. Unless you subscribe to the limited satellite TV offering you’re stuck with a single BFBS “family” channel which broadcasts a selection of programmes from the UK terrestrial stations. Given the international and military nature of BFBS the weather forecasts are a surprise, covering Germany, Cyprus, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Gibraltar, Iraq and some place in Canada as well as the Falklands.

On the radio there’s BFBS’s two stations, one with popular music, the other with mainly talk and “classic”/classical music. Incidentally, someone told me that country music is big in the Falklands — if there’s a disco for school kids they want to dance to old country tunes rather than whatever’s in the charts. I have no idea why. There’s also the local, amateur-sounding, Falkland Islands Radio with music and local news/events.

It was only when I left the Falklands and reached Santiago that I realised one aspect of media that had been missing: advertising. I couldn’t recall seeing any outdoor ads and I think this is a major reason why Stanley feels so idyllic and calm. We become so used to our public spaces being polluted by companies selling us stuff that unfortunately it becomes normal. Go somewhere that is free of this constant shouting and you begin to realise the effect it has on you. It’s much easier to relax without it.

Which brings us to mobile phones. These are a new technology in the Falklands and the population is going through the usual social teething problems. They haven’t reached the point where most people have a mobile so the devices are still exotic and unnecessary items that owners feel they must justify. People can now turn up to appointments late because they can call at the last minute to apologise and schools wonder whether to ban mobiles.

Gypsy Cove

But enough of the big city living. Outside Stanley, camp is a remarkably beautiful place. My only mental image of the Falklands countryside was of soldiers yomping across cold, bleak rocks. But, particularly when the sun’s out (the war was in winter), there are some great sights. Clear, blue seas, sandy coves, picturesque hills to climb. And, perhaps best of all, wherever you are there’s hardly anyone else around. Although we were there in summer it did get pretty cold at times. The Falklands are a similar latitude to London, but the wind is pretty constant and conditions change rapidly.

But you’re unlikely to travel to the Islands solely for the landscape. I’ve never been one for animals and birds but I was won over on this trip and we met plenty of people who’d travelled around the world to photograph the Falklands wildlife. We saw an awful lot of penguins: Gentoos running in and out of the sea; Magellanics popping out of their burrows; King penguins standing around looking elegant; and Rockhoppers jumping up and down cliffs and coming up close to investigate. There are many other kinds of birds to see — albatross, oyster catchers, cormorants, etc — but you can’t beat watching hundreds of penguins from a few feet away.

Being able to sit and watch seals was also amazing. Forget cute little sad-eyed baby seals. Seeing a group of huge elephant seals throwing their weight against each other on the beach in front of you is quite a sight.

It’s possible to walk from Stanley to see penguins but for the the best experience it’s a bigger journey. There are several flights each day from Stanley’s small airport to the other islands in small eight-seater propellor planes which deliver great views if you’re not, ahem, busy throwing up. (I didn’t do well and in the few hours it took me to recover it appeared that everyone on West Falkland had heard about Sue’s brother and his flight.) The planes form another part of the close social fabric, shuttling people, mail, farm produce and other items around the remote settlements.

Rovers

In camp roads are patchy. There are a couple of paved or gravel roads, although driving them at night must be a fearsome experience. Otherwise you’re on muddy tracks or, to get to some of the best places to see the sights, simply off-roading across the rocky, boggy, lumpy landscape. Consequently everyone, in and out of Stanley, drives a 4x4. I don’t mean “everyone” in the sense of “simply everyone drives an SUV these days darling!”. I mean it really is rare to see a vehicle that isn’t a Land Rover or some curvy Japanese variant. I was frequently amazed by what Rovers (as they’re known) could get over or through and I have fallen in love with their stubbornly boxy and practical shape.

The islands are well set-up for tourism. The major wildlife spots have very comfortable catered lodges or self-catering homes among the farm buildings. Cruise ships stop in occasionally, and Stanley will transform suddenly and briefly when a crowd of tourists in matching jackets come ashore for a few hours. Most of the Islands’ economy is based around sheep and selling fishing rights however, with oil exploration a possible future source of income.

As you might expect the Falklands are a very British place in that slightly old-fashioned, expatriate kind of way. Queen Elizabeth II is on the money, much of the food in the stores comes from Tesco or Waitrose and most of the inhabitants’ closest links are with people in UK (never “the UK” for some reason). I can’t help thinking it must be one of the least sustainable ways to live in the world: It takes at least one flight to get anywhere, never mind the number of flights to get back to the UK; Almost everything must be imported, usually from the UK (and how far did it already travel before arriving in the UK?); Everyone drives their 4x4s everywhere, even just round the corner. Having said that it feels like a “small”, “light” or simply easily old-fashioned way to live, particularly to this Londoner: Stanley’s small enough that you can just pop round to friends’ houses; There’s little consumerism (what would you buy?); The countryside is just next door. I fear this is a seductive illusion of self-sufficiency however.

Before I went I couldn’t tell why someone would choose to live there but it didn’t take long before I could see the appeal. If it wasn’t so arduous (and expensive) a journey a part of me would be tempted, as a drastic way to escape the real world. Well, maybe if they had broadband.

More:

1:56 pm | 3 comments | Link
Tuesday 10 January 2006
Buggy New Year

I’ve just returned from Christmas and New Year in the Falkland Islands, visiting my sister (photos and writing will appear sometime soon). If you read Haddock.org you’ll have noticed it stopped updating on 21st December. The Directory is a manual operation requiring editorial, librarianship and swearing skills that even the computers of 2006 can’t manage. Given that I selfishly trust no one else to press the correct buttons, this usually goes quiet when I’m offline — expect it to catch up gradually this week.

Haddock Blogs however should run smoothly and automatically. Unfortunately a small coding error on my part caused the script to stop updating the site only hours after I’d left for the airport. So, please accept my apologies for my inability to get round to making that horrifically old and error-prone script half-way decent. This year it’ll be given a sharp smack with some modules and a good few spoonfuls of Clue, I promise. For a limited period the front page and the RSS feed will contain a greater number of entries, so hopefully few of the ramblings about babies and computer games will be missed.

On the plus side, Pepys’ Diary only suffered from a handful of spam annotations and Movable Type carried on publishing the wodge of diary entries I’d prepared before leaving. Byliner trundled on, but as I can go for a couple of weeks without paying it any attention, even when I’m online all day, that’s not really a surprise.

Right now I must continue catching up on email, feeds, a new load of entries for Pepys, and staying in waiting for my luggage to complete its journey home.

1:41 pm | 3 comments | Link
Tuesday 29 November 2005
Not being me

Last week I realised just how difficult I find it to not be me. This is going to be a problem, unless there are a lot of plays and films out there featuring characters based on me.

There were two occasions where I noticed I still felt like me when I should have been trying to be someone else. The first was when we had another go at the improvisation exercise I mentioned last time: a group of people having a conversation, an object with a great significance is placed on the table, and the same conversation continues but with the subtext now changed thanks to the object’s presence.

This time the group I was in decided we were soldiers, chatting about the previous night on the town, and the object was our orders, sending us to war.

(Something in me feels embarrassed to play roles I know nothing about; farmers the previous week, now soldiers. But the other half of my mind argues that: (a) the whole point is to be someone different; (b) this is just some stupid middle class guilt about how, as a gentle educated chap, I can’t possibly know what it’s like to be a hard-working farmer, soldier, etc, and I should get over myself; and (c) I’m hopeless at coming up with improvisation ideas, so I should shut up and get on with the scenes until I come up with something I feel happier with.)

The improvisation was alright, although I think we were all a little scared about crossing the invisible line that marks the difference between not letting the object affect you, and making the nature of the object way too obvious.

To get back to my original point, about how I find it hard to not be me… I started off feeling like I could pretend to be a squaddie who had been out drinking and pulling birds, but making that obvious, demonstrating it to the audience, was another matter. I didn’t really know what to say and, in these scenes, I always tend to let anyone else talkative carry on while I keep quiet. I felt something in me censoring what I was saying and doing — I could imagine how I wanted to appear, but it wasn’t happening physically.

Once our marching orders appeared I faced a variation on the problem. The news affected me internally — this was surprising news, I was nervous and excited, I looked around fondly at these friends I’d soon be fighting alongside. And yet I had no idea how to make this apparent, how to act it externally. It’s possible that sitting there quietly was the right thing to do under the circumstances but, if you know me, sitting quietly isn’t something I have problems with. I should be able to react to this news, and the feelings inside me, in the way someone else would.

The other occasion when I struggled to not be me was the following day, in Introduction to Stanislavski. We’re working on scenes from David Hare’s The Blue Room, and I’ve been looking at those featuring a fortysomething politician: in one he’s formally telling his wife how happy they are together, oblivious to her frustrations, and in the next he’s meeting a teenage prostitute in a hotel and planning to set her up with a place to live.

Our task was to “hot seat” the characters, and I was first up. Sitting in front of the class, in character, and answering whatever questions they ask of me. The only preparatory work we’d done was a very brief biography for our characters, so there was a lot of improvising of details involved. I thought my slightly evasive political bluster worked at times (although a Today programme interviewer would have wiped the floor with me) but, looking back, I had to agree with Georgina that there had been far too much of me sitting there. I realised how much of a gap there is between what I had — a sketchy background, a generalised idea of how a politician behaves when interviewed — and what I needed to create a complete and specific character.

This is all giving myself a hard time, but I need to be critical to work out where I’m going wrong. Among other things, I have to stop telling myself I could let go of my censoring inhibitions if I wanted to. And just relax and let go of them.

The more acting I do, the larger the gap seems between where I am and where I want to be. Which isn’t dispiriting yet. It seems a manageable challenge as long as I only look at one small element at a time.

4:42 pm | 3 comments | Link
Sunday 20 November 2005
Using a British/UK Windows keyboard with an Apple Mac in OS X

If you have a Mac and want to use a keyboard that’s designed to be used with a British Windows-based PC, you’ll notice that some of the keys don’t produce the expected characters. @ and ” are generally swapped, for example. In addition the Command (Apple), Option and Control keys may be swapped round. Each of these problems needs to be tackled separately…

This page supersedes two older versions of these instructions (version 1, version 2). If you want more background information you might find useful stuff there.

Moving Command, Option and Control keys

If you’re using Mac OS X 10.0.1 - 10.3.8, then uControl lets you swap and change the Command, Option and Control keys around via a moderately friendly System Preferences pane.

uControl doesn’t work on Mac OS X 10.4+ (Tiger), but Apple has built a similar feature into the System Preferences. Open the System Preferences application and click ‘Keyboard & Mouse’. Then click the ‘Modifier Keys…’ button in the bottom left. Re-map your keys and click OK. I change mine to look like this picture:

Picture of the Modifier Keys pane

Unfortunately, OS X applies these changes to all keyboards — so if you have a PowerBook or iBook with a PC keyboard plugged in, you’ll have to re-map the modifier keys whenever you want to use your laptop’s keyboard. If I recall correctly, uControl applies your changes to the keyboard you specify, so it swaps back and forth automatically. Sometimes progress isn’t always in the right direction…

Moving punctuation keys

Another addition to Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger) is the ‘Change Keyboard Type…’ button next to the ‘Modifier Keys…’ button in the ‘Keyboard & Mouse’ preference pane. I hoped this would take standard Windows-oriented UK PC keyboards into account, but I’ve had little luck with it. Whichever keyboard type it suggests for me, none fix the problem of wrongly-mapped characters.

Instead, we will use a custom Keyboard Layout to re-map the troublesome keys. While I haven’t had problems with this over the years, I can’t take responsibility for anything that goes wrong if you follow these instructions.

  1. Download this zip archive, unzip it, and place the enclosed British-Windows-2.rsrc file in your ‘/Users/yourname/Library/Keyboard Layouts/’ folder (if you don’t have a ‘Keyboard Layouts’ folder there, just create one).
  2. Next, open System Preferences and click ‘International’. Click ‘Input Menu’ and select the checkbox next to ‘British - Windows - 2’.
  3. Make sure the checkbox at the bottom of the window, next to ‘Show input menu in menu bar’, is selected and then quit System Preferences.
  4. Now you should be able to select the ‘British - Windows - 2’ keyboard layout from the little icon towards the right of the menu bar.

Hopefully your keys should now be re-mapped successfully: try typing! This layout swaps ” and @, and also the ` and \ keys. If you don’t want the ` and \ keys swapped, then try this older ‘British-Windows’ layout — un-Stuff the file and follow the instructions above. You should then have a ‘British - Windows’ option in the menu bar Input Menu to try.

For more information about how to create and edit a Keyboard Layout file, read the older instructions: version 1, version 2.

Again, if you have a laptop and want to use its own keyboard, you’ll have to use the Input Menu to manually change back to whichever Keyboard Layout you were using before (simply ‘British’ in my case). Also, note that whenever Mac OS X prompts you for your password to authorise something it flips back to your default Keyboard Layout — so if you use any of the re-mapped characters in your system password, be careful. Some applications, such as Virtual PC and Internet Explorer also seem to use the default Keyboard Layout — annoying, but not the end of the world.

5:33 pm | 9 comments | Link

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