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What’s in my daily work bag?



by sjhoward

This is the 2,296th post. It was published at 20:36 on Tuesday, 3rd February 2015.

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» Reviews

Over the last few years, there’s been a growing trend in business publications and productivity websites to ask notable people what they carry in the bag they cart to work each day. These people always seem to have a well-organised kit of polished shiny expensive things, and an astounding absence of junk. I struggle to relate to this. So, to redress the balance, here’s what’s in my bag.

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This is my bag. It’s a Jasper Conran briefcase that Wendy bought me a few years ago. It’s dark brown, and I usually carry it while wearing a black or grey suit, which probably counts as a fashion crime.

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This is my Lenovo N20p Chromebook, which is the laptop I carry most often. I do have a work-issued ThinkPad, but this is faster, lighter, has better battery life, and does most of the things I need to do on the move—even more so since the Office webapps were upgraded. The battery life is so strong that I don’t bother carrying the power cord.

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I usually carry a stack of these cardboard document wallets with papers related to projects or meetings in them. This one is a bit atypical: I usually label them with a sticker in the top-right corner with the title, place, date and time of the meeting they relate to. After the meeting, I typically over-label the sticker and reuse the folder. This is a great system because it is so flexible: it doesn’t feel ridiculous turning up to a meeting with a stuffed folder, or with a folder containing only one sheet. And with top-right labelling, I can see where I should be and when by just flicking through the stack of folders in my bag.

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This is a Moleskine Large Ruled Cahier Journal. This is what I take notes in. I usually have about three of them on the go at any one time so that there’s always one to hand. The paper in them is great quality Moleskine stuff, which is great because I like to write with inky pens. The cardboard cover is just about sturdy enough not to get bent out of shape in my bag. And it’s just about informal enough to doodle in, and still formal enough to scribble down minutes when required. It’s a great product.

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These are some individually wrapped Boots lens wipes. I have these secreted all over the place. There’s nothing worse than having a giant smudge in the middle of your glasses and no easy way of cleaning it off.

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This is an M&S umbrella; I can’t link to it as they don’t sell this model any more. It goes up, it goes down, and it keeps me dry. I’ve never yet seen a profile of someone’s work bag which includes an umbrella, which strikes me as slightly baffling.

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This is a random plastic wotsit I found in the bottom of my bag. I’ve no idea what its function in life is or was. I probably won’t throw it out though, just in case.

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This is an EasyAcc PowerBank which I rarely use, but which occasionally saves my bacon if my phone has run out of juice. When the PowerBank is charged, it seems to hold its charge forever, so it works well as an emergency top-up device that I can just leave rattling round my bag.

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These are pharmaceuticals (paracetamol and ibuprofen), busting the stereotype that men don’t carry this sort of thing. I very rarely have recourse to use them, but I’m always very glad I have them when I need them. These particular ones came from Boots, and are about 20p more expensive than the equivalents in the major supermarkets. I must have been feeling flush when I bought them.

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The Control of Communicable Diseases Manual is a book a refer to constantly, and this is the brand new 20th edition that I bought only last week. I had the good fortune to met its esteemed editor, David Haymann, once—though didn’t find out that it was him until afterwards. I dread to think what smalltalk I subjected him to. Sorry.

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This is an empty flash drive that I carry just in case. This particular one is from Maplin (they don’t seem to sell this variety any more), and was bought in a crisis when I couldn’t find any of my 6,000 other flash drives. My talent for losing these things knows no bounds.

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This is a pair of engraved steel collar stiffeners. I’ve no idea how they got in my bag, but then: who doesn’t have a pair of engraved steel collar stiffeners in the bottom of their bag?

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This is an entanglement of my phone charger and headphones. I rarely listen to anything other than speech through my headphones, so I just use the ones that came with my phone. Apologies to any audiophiles who wince when they see people like me. The phone charger is also the one that came with my phone. It’s a handy one to carry as the earth pin slides down to make the plug more compact. A clever bit of design!

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Confounding stereotypes again: Wet Ones. Another thing I don’t use all that often, but feel very glad that I carry whenever I do need to use them.

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This is a collection and a half of writing instruments. I’d love to have a strong rationale for each on of those, but it really is just a jumble. My preferred pen is the black Uniball Gel Impact—there is one of those in there, but there would usually be two or three. The rest are mainly freebies from here and there. You’ll be pleased to hear that I retrieved the lid for the whiteboard marker just after I took this photo.

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This is a free name badge that MPS gave me and all of my fellow medical-school graduates. I’ve never worn it: it’s another thing I carry just in case. As I write this post, I’m wondering what possible situation could arise where I’d need this… but nevertheless, it stays in the bag.

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And finally… a book. I always carry a book to read on the Metro. I’m about two-thirds of the way through Faceless Killers at the moment. No spoilers please.


This post was filed under: Reviews

The life-changing magic of tidying



by sjhoward

This is the 2,293rd post. It was published at 22:58 on Monday, 19th January 2015.

The picture isn't my house. I'm not that tidy.

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Today, I finished reading a rather unusual book. Marie Kondo’s The life-changing magic of tidying is a book for which I wouldn’t have had even a passing consideration had it not been for a recommendation from Tim Harford in the Financial Times. Tim—an economist—reckoned that a book on tidying had—in his words—”rocked his world”. This I had to read.

Kondo’s book rocked my world, too.

Kondo is a professional tidying coach. Who knew that such a thing existed? Her advice, delivered in a way that can only be described as heartfelt and beguiling, is to bin most of what you own, and form an intimate relationship with what is left. And when I say intimate relationship… this is a lady who believes most strongly in talking to your possessions at length, caressing the spines of your books, and treating every inanimate object in your home as if it is your friend.

Her horror at some of her clients seemingly innocuous actions—balling socks, hanging shirts, keeping shower gel in the shower—is absurd, yet delivered with such passion that it becomes entirely endearing.

I so badly wanted to share so many passages from this short book that it might have come close to plagiarism. But because I really, really want you to buy the book and experience the beguiling madness for yourself, I’ve chosen a single passage from the start of a chapter to give you a flavour of the advice within.

 This is the routine I follow every day when I return from work. First, I unlock the door and announce to my house, ‘I’m home!’ Picking up the pair of shoes I wore yesterday and left out in the hall, I say, ‘Thank you very much for your hard work,’ and put them away in the shoe cupboard. Then I take off the shoes I wore today and place them neatly in the hall. Heading to the kitchen, I put the kettle on and go to my bedroom. There I lay my handbag gently on the soft sheepskin rug and take off my outdoor clothes. I put my jacket and dress on a hangar, say ‘Good job!’ and hang them temporarily from the wardrobe doorknob. I put my tights in a laundry basket that fits into the bottom right corner of my cupboard, open a drawer, select the clothes I feel like wearing indoors and get dressed. I greet the waist-high potted plant by the window and stroke its leaves.

My next task is to empty the contents of my handbag onto the rug and put each item away in its place. First I remove all the receipts. Then I put my purse in its designated box in a drawer under my bed with a word of gratitude. I place my train pass and my business card holder beside it. I put my wristwatch in a pink antique case in the same drawer and place my necklace and earrings on the accessory tray beside it. Before closing the drawer, I say, ‘Thanks for all you did for me today.’

Despite—or, perhaps, because of—the madness, it seems to me that there is actually some really sound advice in this book. And Kondo’s enthusiasm for tidying is contagious. I couldn’t help but do a bit of tidying while reading.

So wonderful craziness with a dash of sense and a heap of motivation. What’s not to love? Trust me, Marie Kondo’s The life-changing magic of tidying is a book you will really enjoy—even if it would usually be the last thing on your reading list.


This post was filed under: Reviews,

The picture isn't my house. I'm not that tidy.

Thoughts on the Serial podcast



by sjhoward

This is the 2,291st post. It was published at 05:39 on Thursday, 15th January 2015.

This post was filed under:
» Media
» Reviews
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Among my friends, not having an opinion about the Serial podcast is roughly as socially acceptable as not having an opinion on the Cereal Killer cafe. And as someone who listens to a lot of podcasts (most of them actually of radio shows), I feel particularly entitled to have a view.

For those who have been offline over the last few months, Serial was a weekly podcast with a new episode released each week. It was presented and produced by experienced American radio journalist Sarah Koenig. The podcast followed Koenig’s investigation into the 1999 murder of schoolgirl Hae Min Lee, for which her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, had been convicted and imprisoned.

General life and busyness mean that I didn’t quite manage to keep up with the weekly pace of Sarah Koenig and Co’s Serial. A couple of week ago, though, I finally finished the first season; here follow a few jotted thoughts.

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It was very addictive…

Serial displaced everything else on my podcast playlist. I listened to episode after episode, and couldn’t get enough. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and look forward with keen anticipation to the second season.

…but not as innovative as many people suggested.

Blog post after newspaper column after magazine review have suggested that Serial‘s format of a single story told over several weeks is novel, yet Radio 4 has used this structure for decades on hundreds (probably thousands) of dramas, and tens (probably hundreds) of documentary series. The combination of a sort of gonzo journalism and drama was, I concede, a little unusual—but not novel.

Sarah Koenig was the perfect host…

I’ve never listened to anything Koenig has done before. I don’t know if she’s a regular on This American Life because (heresy ahead) I don’t listen to that show. But for this, she was perfect. She has a brilliant radio voice and great way of writing text that pulls in the listener. This listener can’t praise her presentation highly enough.

…but the overall tone was odd.

Jonathan Rothwell wrote a few weeks ago about the weirdness of the show’s slightly jaunty ‘whodunnit’ tone and the way in which this jars with the reality of what is being described. This is a real life brutal murder case; the very existence of the journalist’s investigation implies a reasonable suspicion of a miscarriage of justice, with all the additional harm that carries; yet the story is often treated rather lightly. I found the cognitive dissonance of content and tone unsettling.

The production was fantastic…

The handoffs between Koenig’s presentation and clips of interviews and archive material were seamless. I think this owes much to the writing and the presentation, but also the production and compilation of clips that demonstrated each point was impressive. This is something a lot of Radio 4 productions do really badly, so it’s a joy to hear it done well.

…except for the use of music.

Music is powerful, and especially so in radio drama where the only stimulus is auditory. If you add in music underneath a witness’s recorded testimony, it will change my perception of that testimony. If you are trying to make a balanced review of a case to allow me to reach my own conclusions, then your music is likely to be prejudicial. If you are trying to make drama and argue for one side or another, you probably shouldn’t be playing with people’s lives through a podcast.

I worried about the narration overstating facts…

There were a few episodes in which the characterisations of events in the narration extended beyond the described facts of the case. It is difficult to describe exactly what I mean without giving an example – apologies if this counts as a spoiler.

In episode six, there is a lot of discussion of the ‘neighour-boy’. He is reported as having once said that he had been shown the body, but he did not testify at the trial. This is repeatedly characterised Koenig as the ‘neighbour-boy’ being a witness to the murder. This is evidently false: seeing a body is not equivalent to seeing a murder.

There are a few similar incidents through the series, and I can’t quite decide whether they are mere slips of the tongue, or whether there is a conscious decision to refer to the events in these terms to heighten the drama. Either way, given the import of the situation, it seems plainly to be wrong, and unfair to interviewees as much as to the accused.

…and got a bit claustrophobic in parts.

This may be the public health physician coming out in me, but I felt that the series was very narrowly focused on the case at hand—with a couple of notable exceptions. The series would have benefited from drawing more on similar cases and from aggregated data about many cases. I wanted stats!

I don’t know why it aired before completion…

It isn’t clear to me why Serial started airing before the series was complete. It seems a curious decision, and one with which I’m not entirely comfortable. Hypothetically, if someone had confessed, would the series have continued? Would it have been fair to air a recorded confession prior proper investigation? Would it be fair even to report such a confession? Starting a story which has such a big impact on the lives of all involved without clear knowledge of where it might end strikes me as mildly irresponsible.

I think this changed the nature of the podcast, too—the tone and focus seemed to shift as the podcast went on, in a way which might well be attributable to the media coverage it generated. It started out as an exploration of the limits of reasonable doubt, and ended as an unsolved whodunnit. The former was a more interesting concept, with more interesting stuff to explore, than the latter.

…nor why there were strange gaps in the story.

Relevant questions seemed to go undiscussed in Serial – though it’s possible I just missed them. (Possible spoilers ahead.) It’s not clear to me whether Jay knew where the body was. It’s repeatedly said that Jay was able to show where the victim’s car was, but there’s no discussion of whether he knew the location of the body. This is a bizarre omission given that his story is that he helped to bury the body.

And don’t get me started about that conclusion.

I felt like the podcast got a bit wrapped up in itself by the end. My impression throughout was that the intention was to explore the nature of reasonable doubt. It seemed as though the show caved to externally generated expectation to ‘solve’ the crime in the final episode – an unrealistic expectation which wasn’t met, but was sort of pointed at and talked around. This was a shame. I would’ve liked a much more strident ending that pointed out (spoilers ahead) that – no – we don’t know who committed the murder but – yes – the trial outcome was wrong because of the gulf of doubt. I wanted Koenig to come out fighting about ‘innocent until proven guilty’, not giving a personal reflection on her own personal theories about Syed’s guilt or innocence.

But overall—I can’t wait for Season Two.

There were problems, but—all things considered—I enjoyed Serial. It’s great to hear speech radio done really, really well. I donated towards a second season and will look forward to listening to it. In the meantime, I’m now totally hooked on another This American Life alumnus’s podcast: Alex Blumberg’s Startup (and Reply All, which I actually discovered first). Oh, and This Week in Google, of course. Not forgetting my preferred alarm clock, The Globalist. And More or Less. And… well… all the good stuff.


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