Programming

At the end of 2014 I took a beginners statistics course and was introduced to R, which is a programming language and software environment for statistical computing. It was brand new to me, but I picked up the basics fairly quickly. As is my nature, I played around with it a fair bit, trying things out, and eighteen months later, I know enough to have convinced my boss that I am literally a magician based on what I can produce.

To complement, in the last year or so I’ve taught myself the basics (and a bit more) of LaTeX, which is a document preparation system and markup language. Perhaps just the basics, but enough to produce documents that I’m actually proud to present to management as my work, rather than the (especially now) disappointing documents I used to produce using Microsoft Word.

Despite all this, I still feel intimidated by the idea of programming languages that I don’t know. And it’s holding me back. I think it’s probably because I don’t really have any formal background in computing, and everything I’ve ever learnt has been self-taught, but I seem to pick up the basics of anything I try without any issue.

I taught myself enough HTML in 2003 to be able to build the website for the Leeds University LGBT society from scratch – I did the whole thing in Notepad (the ongoing management of the site was another issue, I hasten to add), but I was scared to learn any CSS because it was new.

When I was maybe 12, I wrote some games in BASIC – from memory a slot machine (poker machine, fruit machine, or what you will) that was pretty simple, but functional; and a safari park management sim – all text based (because I’m not artistic enough to do graphics). The object of that game was to balance the antelope and lion populations by culling or inseminating either lions or antelope on each turn – again, a simple game, but proof that I could write programs, and was good at it.

There’s little point to this post, other than for me to combat the impostor syndrome I suffer dreadfully from. I can’t go back to when I was 14 years old, change my mind and decide to do a Computing GCSE instead of Business Studies (even though, with hindsight, I totally should have) – that would probably have taken me somewhere. But perhaps this can be an inspiration to someone who can make that sort of decision.

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No, your concerns about immigration are not about immigration

I wasn’t going to write this. I didn’t think I needed to write something parading my many privileges. But it’s been on my mind for weeks. Since Brexit, since Trump and now since Pauline Hanson, Sonia Kruger, since people all across the developed world are claiming they have concerns about immigration. For all sorts of reasons. But it’s doublespeak. It’s a cover for nasty prejudices that people would rather pretend they didn’t hold. But people are not really concerned about immigration. And I know.

know.

I know because I am an immigrant. But the nice kind. The kind that people don’t have a problem with. The white, middle class, childless kind. The kind who is steeped in privilege.

But going deeper, and removing the many layers of privilege, I have been a very bad immigrant. I have done many, if not all, the things that people who have concerns about immigration cite as reasons for their concerns. And none of the people who have these concerns have objected to me.

I moved from one country to another

In 2012 I moved from the UK to Australia. It’s glaringly obvious that I’m a migrant, but it still needs saying. None of the people I know who have concerns about immigration objected to my migration. Most thought it was a good thing. Some attended a party I had to celebrate my migration (and, ironically, discussed their objections to immigration with me at the party). But not a single person has ever objected to me – and specifically me – moving from one country to another. That’s how I know you do not object to the concept of migration – you didn’t object when I did it.

I arrived in Australia with no money

Many people who have concerns about immigration suggest that immigrants are a drain on the economy. It’s okay for wealthy people to migrate because they are able to support themselves, but people who do not have healthy bank balances should not migrate. They don’t have concerns about immigration per se; just about people who have little money migrating.

When I moved to Australia, I arrived with little more than enough money for a flight back to the UK in case some emergency meant I needed it. That’s all I had. And from people I know who have concerns about immigration I received words of encouragement and offers of support. That’s how I know you do not object to the concept of a person migrating with no money – you didn’t object when I did it.

When I arrived, welfare supported my family

When I moved to Australia I was unemployed and my partner was studying and receiving Austudy – a welfare benefit. For the time that I was unemployed, this was the majority of the money our family of two had coming in. People I told about this – people who have concerns about immigration – didn’t voice any objection to this. Some told me how it was good that we had some money coming in. That’s how I know you don’t object to the concept of immigrants relying on welfare – you didn’t object when I did it.

Shortly after arriving, I took a low-skilled job

Quite a lot of people who have concerns about immigration base this concern on unemployment. There aren’t enough jobs, and immigrants are taking those jobs. Immigrants are the cause of unemployment. Especially when immigrants are taking low-skilled jobs. It’s okay for highly-skilled immigrants: nurses, sports players, scientists – we need those kind of people, but low-skilled immigrants just contribute to unemployment.

When I arrived, after a couple of weeks of unemployment, I took a job cleaning ashtrays in a leagues club. A low-paid, low-skilled job that anyone could do. The response I got when I told people I know who have concerns about immigration was, strangely, a positive one. “That’s great!”; “Good on you!”; “It’s good that you’re earning money”. Nobody told me that I was stuffing up the economy and contributing to unemployment amongst Australian citizens. Nobody suggested I resign for moral reasons. That’s how I know you don’t object to immigrants taking jobs – you didn’t object when I did it.

There are probably a myriad other reasons people cite for having concerns about immigration – things that the faceless hypothetical immigrant does that cause untold damage to society and to the economy. I’ve probably done most of them. I arrived with no money but I had a mobile phone (I can’t have been that poor if I had a mobile phone!); I spend money outside of the Australian economy, sending gifts to my family overseas; I hang on to my culture and traditions, doing things I did in England; I haven’t adopted Christianity; I eat English food; not applicable here, but wherever I moved, I would have continued to speak my mother language; I watch English TV; I lived rent-free with adopted family for a while when I moved here; I’ve been a burden on the health service. Nobody has ever objected to any of it. Nobody.

So I know your concerns about immigration are really concerns about something else. Because you only have concerns about things that I have done when you strip away my privilege. When you take away my whiteness, you start having concerns. When you take away my middle-class upbringing, you start having concerns. When you take away my native speaker level of English, my childlessness, now my income, my abled body, my lack of religion, all of it. That’s when you start having concerns.

So let’s be honest – what are you really concerned about? And are you quite comfortable holding those concerns?

More letter writing, this time to the council

There’s a proposed development for a plot of land with a house currently on it in our area. I read the application, and I was very much “don’t care either way”. Then yesterday, a flyer found its way into our mailbox that was littered with racism and NIMBYism, and that pushed me very quickly from “don’t care” to “fully support”.

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SAY NO! – TO 28 ROOM BOARDING HOUSE

Chinese developer, Jiankai Pty Ltd wants to demolish the historic old home and gardens at 154 Welbank St, North Strathfield and replace it with a huge 28 room boarding house.

The boarding house, designed by architect firm Ghazi Al Ali, could be housing 60 or more renters on this small residential block.

This boarding house would be on an unprecedented scale for this area and if allowed could be the beginning of a tidal wave of similar developments destroying the value of our homes and the character of our beautiful and safe suburb.

Please contact Canada Bay council to submit your objection to this proposed development.

I was unable – and unwilling – to respond to this directly, as it did not say who it was from, and in any case it seemed more productive to take action against these people rather than engaging them in an ultimately pointless argument. But here are my objections to their objections:

  • Highlighting the Chinese name of the developer and Arabic name of the architect (when those details really are irrelevant) is out-and-out racism. We should oppose racism whenever we see it, even (and especially) when it causes some inconvenience to us.
  • The house and gardens are not historic. Neuschwanstein is historic. Taj Mahal is historic. Westminster Abbey is historic. An unremarkable three-bedroom house built on stolen land is not. The history of the Wangal clan of the Eora nation (of which I am, woefully, largely ignorant) is the history of this piece of land, and this house plays no real part in that history.
  • Change is good. The house is old and tired, and the architect’s previous projects are beautiful.
  • House prices falling would be a good thing for this area. More families being able to afford to live here.
  • This area is perfect for this sort of development. It has good transport links and is perfectly situated for access to Sydney, Sydney Olympic Park and Bicentennial Park.
  • This area is modern and multicultural, and this sort of development is in-keeping with that. Opposition to it is not.

In honesty, the development will cause a bit of inconvenience. It’ll be noisy and annoying, and the people who end up living or staying there might be noisy, rowdy or generally irritating. But the choice between that and supporting the cause of people who push a NIMBY agenda using racist rhetoric is a very very easy one.

So I wrote to the council to register my support for this project.

Dear General Manager
I write regarding the development proposal for 154 Wellbank Street, North Strathfield, and and I would like to register my full support of the proposal.
I have lived in the vicinity of this property with my boyfriend for three years, and I have never been particularly fond of the appearance of the 20th Century house that is on the block and I am irritated by claims from some in the local community that it has any historic value.
The property was sold last year for $2.25m, which is an outrageous price for a family home in any area. Some members of the local community have said that this development will lead to a drop in the value of homes in the area: given the astronomical price of this property at its last sale, a drop in house prices is certainly a good thing. Further, a $2.25m property being occupied by a single family seems to me to be a case of excessive under-occupation and I welcome the proposal to use the land more economically to house more people.
Although I have not seen the type of intended occupants of the proposed boarding house, developments of this kind tend to be marketed to either students or tourists. The location of this property is a perfect location to house either students or tourists. Its proximity to North Strathfield station would make it attractive to intended residents, giving a boost to the economy of the area.
There have been other developments in Wellbank Street recently, some of which are ongoing, and disruption and disturbance has been minimal. I am confident that the proposed development would not cause any excessive disruption to me or to other residents in the area.
I have researched the architect linked to the proposal, Ghazi Al Ali, and have found the other projects they have worked on, especially Omar Mosque in Auburn, to be modern and beautiful. The proposed development would be a welcome replacement to the tired, ugly building which is currently on the block.
North Strathfield is a modern, multi-cultural, and forward-looking suburb, and this development is exactly in keeping with its character. I hope council will recognize this and approve this proposed development.
Yours,
John Avocado

Here’s a fact sheet about the Wangal People, produced by Canada Bay Council. [PDF]

I’m making a hat

I have taken up knitting again. Not seriously, but just as a pastime. I have in the past knitted a couple of things – well a couple of scarves, because that’s all I knew how to do. But last week, I did a little bit of learning, including learning how to read a knitting pattern, and I found a very simple pattern that wasn’t a scarf and I made a start.

This is the pattern I found –  it’s a simple hat, “Cozy Cobblestone Cap”, and the pattern looked manageable.

I felt a little apprehensive about starting because it really is the first thing I have ever made from a pattern, but I was brave and cast on and knitted the first row.

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The first ten rows were garter stitch, so it was a pretty easy start, and got me well into the flow. And I progressed quite quickly. Then the tricky (not really) part. The second section was the “cobblestone” pattern bit – alternating between knitting and purling every couple of stitches – I’ve never managed to do that before, but a couple of YouTube video lessons, and I managed it. Day two and the pattern was emerging.

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By the third day I’d knitted enough that the pattern showed and I was able to wrap it around my head – it was starting to look like a hat!

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IMG_20160426_173607508Disaster struck on Sunday night though – after knitting about six rows, I noticed I was knitting on the wrong side – I’d either missed a row or added one somewhere, and I couldn’t see exactly where. I spent an hour or so on YouTube trying to learn how to rip back the stitches to get back on track, but… I wasn’t game enough to try. I decided to just add another row to get back onto the right side, and hope the inside-out section looks like it’s just part of the pattern.

Last night I finished the main section and started the crown. I had to learn to decrease – the simple but new-to-me SSK (slip, slip, knit) stitch. Again, a couple of YouTube lessons, and some practice on a practice bit of fabric that I have on the go. The crown didn’t take long, and the knitting of the hat is finished! All that is left to do is form the shape and sew the seam. So I think a couple of YouTube videos on seam-sewing will be the order of today.

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I’ll update when it is finished – hopefully it will be a hat and it will be wearable. And hopefully we’ll have a cold winter so I can wear it!

Last albums & pop goodbyes

I grew up listening to M People. I’d probably still say they are my favorite band, although I listen to them much less now than I did when I was 15. Mum & Dad bought me their album Bizarre Fruit II for Christmas in 1996 and I became addicted to it. Then in 1997 we went to see them live at the Hull Arena for their Fresco tour. I bought the album shortly after that and became addicted to that too.

Over the next few years most of my money was spent on building a collection of M People CD singles: their total of four albums I managed to collect quite quickly – and all the international versions thereof – but by probably 2000 I had managed to complete my collection. I owned every M People release.

After Fresco in 1997 and their subsequent Best Of album in 1998, I waited for their next album. It never came. And I never understood because they were at the top of their game, they were successful and so popular, but the next album just never happened. Heather Small made a solo album, and the band toured and kept touring for years – in fact they never split, so I always hoped. Even until last year when Heather finally announced she was leaving the band, I had hope that they might record new material. It didn’t happen.

Artists that I love do seem to have a habit of doing this. Not all of them, of course, but I become wary of getting too attached to bands and artists now. My favorites seem to do disappearing acts too often, so I tend to just assume that every album is their last nowadays.

I discovered Moloko pretty late in their career – towards the end of their promotion of Things to Make and Do which was their third album. I bought their fourth, Statues, on a whim and I fell in love with it. I am still in love with that album and I think I always will be. It was a wonderful final album for a band that I discovered I loved when I went and bought the rest of their albums on the strength of Statues, but like M People, they put out a Greatest Hits and then just stopped recording. Lead singer Roisin Murphy put out a couple of solo albums, but then even she disappeared for eight years before recording (the rather delicious) Hairless Toys last year. She’s got something new coming this year but because of what seems to happen with artists I love, I won’t believe it until I’ve bought it.

Confessions on a Dance Floor would have been a perfect final album from Madonna. To me it felt like a retrospective, like a goodbye, and like it was the album she had always wanted to make. It wasn’t of course – she’s put out another three since then. But I’ll say the same about her latest, Rebel Heart – it feels like it could be her last. I’m sure it won’t be.

Macy Gray’s Big should have been her last. I loved her first three records, but when I bought Big over Easter in 2007, I was sure she would never make a better one. To date she hasn’t. The Sellout was flat, her collection of cover versions was dreadful, and although she gave a good effort when she recorded a version of Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book in its entirety, it was disappointing.  I wonder if I would have lamented Macy Gray’s disappearance if she had quit after Big. I’m sure I would have.

Perhaps the Spice Girls should have given up after Spice World as well. Their two albums were pop perfection (despite most of the non-single tracks on Spice being garbage), and what became their last album seems to tarnish my memories of them. The Ting Tings, whose first album I adored, made a “could do better” second album, and then a third which honestly sounded like they were happy enough with demos of some songs they had written, and didn’t bother to do any real production on them. They should have quit while they were ahead.

So I wonder – was M People’s disappearance a good thing? Could they ever have made an album as good as their first four or would they have become tired and gone the way Macy Gray did? I’ll never know I guess.

But I wonder.

A Letter to First

Today’s glance through the archives has revealed parts of my personality that are probably not as far in the past as I think they are. I like to think I’m not quite as insufferable as I was five or ten years ago, but people are not always the best judges of their own characters. Either way, it’s been interesting to look back and see what I wrote in the past and think about how much of it represents who I feel I am today.

I used to be the sort of person who would write letters of complaint to companies for fun. I don’t really do that any more, apart from the occasional review on TripAdvisor, or a rant here on the blog or on Twitter.

Twitter’s an interesting one because more and more people are writing letters of complaint in 140 characters. I like it actually – when I do it, it makes me think about exactly what the issue is. With 140 characters you can’t ramble on, your complaint has to be precise, specific and targeted. But I also like that companies who use Twitter properly to engage with customers are increasingly understanding that a long letter does not necessarily mean a more serious complaint.

But I haven’t always been on Twitter, and as I said, I did used to write real letters of complaint. Here’s one from 2009 – it’s to First, the bus company, about a not completely out of the ordinary bus trip.

Dear First

I travelled this evening (June 4th) on the number 12 service in Leeds from Roundhay Road to Leeds City Centre, and was disappointed with the service.

As I boarded the bus I was ignored by the driver for around a minute (a rather long time) as he adjusted the sign on the front of the bus, making me feel particularly unwelcome on the bis.

Further along Roundhay Road, the driver stopped at a bus stop and waited for around five minutes with the engine left switched on. Whilst I understand that such waiting is necessary for timetable purposes, I was, and still a, unsure why the driver did not switch the engine off. Aside from environmental concerns, this appeared to me to be an unnecessary waste of fuel which, given the current economic situation and especially recent fare increases, is totally unacceptable.

Again, further along Roundhay Road, the service was further delayed as the driver parked the bus (once again leaving the engine running) by the Tesco Express store close to the Thomas Danby College. He left the bus, went to the store and apparently made a purchase (as he came back with a full carrier bag). This delay to my journey was clearly not for timetable reasons, and a delay for the driver to carry out seemingly personal business is both inappropriate and unacceptable.

I would add that my experience this evening is not typical of the First service, leaving me extremely disappointed by this journey, and I would therefore like a refund of my fare.

I look forward to hearing to you.

Best regards

John Avocado

And here is the response I got from First:

Dear Mr Avocado,

I am writing in response to your email of complaint recorded with us on the 05th June 2009.

We are currently investigating the matters highlighted and will send you a full response as soon as the investigation has been concluded.

Thank you for your continued patience.

Yours sincerely

pp scribble

Nicola Davenport
Customer Services Team

I did get a follow-up asking me to phone them to discuss the matter, but for the £1.80 fare I couldn’t really be bothered.

There are a few other letters and whinges hanging around in my sent items mailbox and probably in archives at my parents’ house somewhere. Maybe I’ll stick them up here.

Saturday 30th March 2002

As a teenager I kept a journal. I’ve looked back at it a few times over the last ten years, and it’s cringeworthy, but slightly amusing. Though also bloody boring – I didn’t lead the most exciting teenage life, and certainly not the sort of life that was worth documenting, but I did anyway.

My journals are in boxes now at my parents home, up in the attic somewhere, and I daresay I’ll retrieve them when I next visit, and may perhaps even publish more entries depending on what embarrassingly awful morsels I find.

In the meantime, here is my entry from 30th March 2002.

Saturday 30th March, 2002

I warmly welcome myself home from another ‘holiday’. We went to Otley near Leeds for the Easter weekend and arrived back today at five o’clock. We stayed at a hotel called ‘Chevin Lodge’, which was, by all standards, a most bizarre place, almost like Fawlty Towers; the staff were so dizzy it was untrue. Good/bad news: there were some waiters in the (rather nice) restaurant. To save space on the Love Web, I list them HERE!:

1/ Will, student (at Leeds uni!!), (longish) blonde [sic] hobbit-hair, v. attractive, but looks quite dim.

2/ Santiago (from Spain (?) ). Tall. Black hair (short). Not really that attractive, but he was a waiter.

3/ “Manuel” (unknown real name. From France (?) ). Short (yay!), but didn’t have the youth of the other two.

What is it with me and waiters?! No, but we had quite a nice (if somewhat amusing) time.

In other news (or (rather) the main news to everyone else …) the Queen Mother died.

I don’t remember now, but it seems I had a bit of a thing for waiters, which is an oddly specific attraction I think. Or maybe it was”just a preference”. (And in case you’re curious, the Love Web was basically just a list of all the boys I had crushes on, but organized, with any friendships and relationships they had with each other marked accordingly. I was a very odd teenager!)