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Past Present

People following my Facebook feed may have noticed that I did quite a big presentation for work this week. I work for a large and pretty well known telecoms company. Like most big corporates it does a lot of things and has quite a few programmes to stop staff getting too bored. One of these the the Dilbert-sounding “My Customer Challenge Cup competition” and it was that that I’m involved in. The final of the competition will be held in the Adlon Hotel in Berlin and the prize is a genuine and rather large trophy. The team I’m working for has a project to display a particular set of data using Google Earth. For a while I’ve been asking if I could work on it because I’ve worked on other projects involving mapping data. Finally they said that I could, and what I found is that they had a somewhat quirky prototype that was designed for a completely different project. I spent 5 days working on it and got it to a stage where it now displays our data in a much more efficient and flexible way. I’ve been doing this job for 10 years now and I like to think that I’m quite good at it.

The other team members were so impressed with what I’ve done that they asked me to join the Challenge Cup team. That was last Friday. The semifinals are 5 days over this week and next week. Our semifinal was Wednesday and I found out on Monday that I would be presenting as well. Bearing in mind that last week I was away on holiday as well, it was a bit of a surprise. Whatever, that’s what they pay me for. We met up in Stoke on Tuesday for rehearsals, in a subterranean meeting room in Telecom House that had a TV and VHS video recorder, old school overhead projectors, AUI network cables, and windows right up near the ceiling at outside ground level. After we finished there we went to a hotel overnight and I spent more time reading through my script and writing out notes. I was using pretty much every technique I could think of to remember what I was going to say, including the Roman Room (or rather my kitchen) system, a list of items with the initial letters turned into a half reasonable acronym, and simple rote repetition. Problems with memory are one of the consequences of dyspraxia, but there are workarounds and strategies you can use. Interestingly, during the rehearsals our team leader had all kinds of advice for the other people presenting, such as where to look out and how to give emphasis to certain phrases, but for me he just told me to slow down slightly and otherwise said I was fine.

On the day itself we went over to the hotel/conference centre and did yet more rehearsals. We also had to go down to the room where we’d be giving our presentation so we could sort out sound levels and positions of things on stage. It was quite a fancy setup with around 10 tables laid out cabaret style, a row of chairs at the back for the judges, the cup on a shelf behind them:
Fwd: The presentation
and a stage with 2 rear projected screens, floor level monitors (so you can see what you’re presenting without having to look behind you) and a floor level clock so you could see how much time you had left (10 mins for the presentation and 10 for Q&A). Our team was the last out of 10 to present and we saw a lot of different styles from the other teams, from videos to roleplays.

We left the room to get miked up for our presentation while the previous team were answering questions, and then waited to go on stage. Waiting in the wings felt a bit like the time last year when I was waiting to walk out to fight. We walked on stage and did our bit. I had 4 slides to do some or all of, including one with pretty maps for people to look at, which was probably a relief after the previous two which were pretty heavy on stats. I think I look a bit like a university lecturer:
Presenting
All those rehearsals paid off and I managed to keep speaking clearly throughout. Even with radio mikes you’ve got to speak properly or you just get a louder mumble or gabble. I did fluff my lines a bit on one slide, but I just used less formal language rather than my mind going completely blank and no one noticed. We finished almost dead on time with 3 seconds to go, and then other people in the team had to answer questions about the data and statistical methods we used.

After all that the next port of call was the bar, for something a little stronger than coffee. Later on there was a formal dinner where we were encouraged to dress smartly. I think it’s fair to say that I did:
Smart!

The results were announced after dinner. We didn’t get through this time, but there’s still a wildcard place to be announced on the 18th of November and a lot of people were interested in what we’d done and said we had a very strong project. The purpose of the Challange Cup is to get people wanting to do something that will improve customer service and the events themselves are supposed to get different parts of the company working together and making contacts, and it’s fair to said it did that.

As for what I’ve got out of it, it was good to meet members of my own team face to face for the first time. I haven’t had to do a presentation for work for some years so it’s good to know I’ve still got those skills. Although I’m not the only developer working on the project I think it’s significant that they asked me to join the team as technical lead so I’m going to have an interesting conversation with my line manager over the next week. I’ve done a few different mapping applications now so I’m thinking about writing a paper about what I’ve done and submitting it through the company’s review process to get it published with a title like “Geographical representation of data using XML-based technologies”. Some developers get very possessive about code they’ve written and deliberately keep it somewhat obfuscated or use ageing technologies that fewer people are likely to have used, but I know I won’t be around for ever and I think writing good code with plenty of documentation is much better. Create a good algorithm and people remember you for a long time. Create a badly written but mission critical application and people swear at you for a long time.

Tickling the Ivories

Haven’t exactly been keeping up to date with LJ, even if I do read my friends page several times a day. It’s easy to get out of the habit of things. However one thing I’m getting back into is music. When I was about 3-4ish my parents got a cheap upright piano (mostly wooden frame) which I learned to play. I kept up with things going through various bits of education, joining the recorder club at junior school, taking GCSE music at high school and AS Performing Arts at 6th form college. For my 18th birthday (in 1996) I finally got a MIDI keyboard and played about with some extremely limited DOS based sequencing software. At university I even had a go at writing a MIDI sequencer for my degree project. After graduating I did a couple of evening classes at the Leeds College of Music in music production and sequencing between 2004 – 6. I kept hold of my coursework and thanks to Soundcloud I can embed the first bit of music I wrote under tuition from LCM:

Transitions 2 by mhoulden

I did another course the following year (final coursework on Soundcloud here) but with getting into Thai boxing and lots of business travel I didn’t spend as much time as I could have done on music. However, back in March this year I thought I’d dig out my mini Evolution MK 7 controller keyboard and see what I could do. It was the same weekend that John Prescott read the Shipping Forecast so I thought it might be fun to have a go at remixing it and adding a few drum loops. The end result was this:

2 Jags at Sea – the Gale Force 8 Mix by mhoulden

John Prescott himself found out about it via Twitter, retweeted it, and now the work-in-progress, final, and music video versions have a total of about 2000 plays between them.

What I found from that there is an audience for the type of music I write. It’s not the type of music I’m generally known for listening to, but I do like bits of Prodigy and some of the techno-style Fear Factory remixes as well as hardcore and thrash metal. Having a background in classical music theory helps me to understand how things fit together (last week I was digging out one of the Associated Board theory books to try to remember what chord forms a perfect cadence in D minor). Composing music by putting together drum and instrument loops (some from loop libraries and some recorded manually) is very different to the "classic" way of doing so I picked up from GCSE music, but it still takes time and skill to come up with something you’d want to listen to. Selling an old mobile phone meant I had some cash to buy a new controller keyboard, and now my setup looks something like this:
Double Keyboard
(I also have a full size Casio WK-3200 off camera)

My Soundcloud account is mostly works in progress and trying out ideas, but what I’d like to do is maybe write 4 – 5 decent quality tracks of about 4 minutes each and see what I can do with them. Selling music through something like iTunes probably wouldn’t make a lot of money but it would be good to do more than just noodling around on the keyboard at home.

Interclub #5

Last Sunday was my first time in the ring since my fight in May last year. It was a long time coming after fights in October and March, and another interclub in May this year fell through, so it was good to be back. The show started at 11.30 and my fight was at 3 so it was a very long time to wait. They changed it from 5 rounds to 3 but it was still quite long enough. We both do MMA and grappling (he had 4 MMA fights) so there was a lot of clinching and kicking involved. With the adrenaline involved as well it was absolutely exhausting. There’s various things I picked up from it that I need to work on, but that’s part of the point. I’d say he probably had the edge over me this time. As far as terminology goes, someone complained when I described an earlier interclub as a fight, but this time the organizer described them as fights so that’s good enough for me.

At this one they had a professional photographer so I got loads of photos, which are on Flickr at http://www.flickr.com/photos/mhoulden/sets/72157624271646904/. Some of my favourites behind the cut (on LJ). What surprised me is just how aggressive I look in them. Obviously this is full contact martial arts and I’ve seen other people pulling similar faces, but it’s very different when it’s you.
Continue reading Interclub #5

Belt Up

Busy weekend (as the fact that I’m posting this on Thursday shows). On Sunday morning I went to a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu seminar. 3.5 hours of wearing pyjamas and trying to strangle people and bend their limbs the wrong way. At the end people were awarded stripes and belts by Victor Estima, our head instructor. I was one of them:
P1000132

The BJJ grading structure goes white -> blue -> purple -> brown -> black -> red with 4 stripes in between and I got my blue belt. There’s no set criteria for getting a belt in BJJ: they look at things like progress, technique and how you get on with people. I was trying hard to do what I could and I think the main stand out bits were taking the time to show a beginner the correct way to tie his belt at the start of the seminar, and later during sparring tapping out (beating) a purple belt via a particularly technical submission called a clock choke. You don’t expect belts and at the end a few people got blues and purples but not me. I was thinking “Fair enough. Maybe I need to work on a few things”. Then we stood up and someone said “Actually, there is someone else who’s worked hard. Marcus, step forwards.” Just over 2 years since I started in this game with virtually no experience and the incredibly tedious affliction of Dyspraxia which affects balance, coordination and spacial awareness.

After the seminar there’s a belt whipping ceremony where everyone who’s been promoted gets whipped on the back:
P1000116

It stings a bit but it’s not too bad. I’ve done it to other people but now it was my turn. Afterwards my back looked like this (behind the cut):
Continue reading Belt Up