Weight Loss Journey: The Sixteen Week Hitch

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I last wrote about my weight loss journey back in late February. I’m very pleased to report that I’ve made some great progress: from 117Kg in early February I’m now down to around 105Kg which is a real achievement to me!

The whole process of Weight Watchers has now fully ingrained into my psyche in a positive way – my whole perception of food as a whole has really shifted. I’m now a lot more conscious of what I’m eating; before I was less so, and even when I attempted a simple calorie count, that’s not the big picture at all!

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I’m a convert to the Weight Watchers SmartPoints system – it’s a scientific approach to consolidating a lot of confusing and complicated nutritional stats into a system that can be understood a lot more at-a-glance! I’ve noticed it’s not foolproof (more on that later) but the results can be surprising and I’m finding it motivating.

I’ve noticed a lot of my go-to foods that seemed insignificant, like a McDonalds milkshake, or even a simple supermarket sandwich, are packed full of unnecessary, empty points and this is definitely an area I feel I was letting myself down with before. Less so now!

Overall though I’m feeling fantastic – others have noticed an appreciable difference in my physical appearance which is endearing and motivating, especially as I have no self-esteem when it comes to my appearance generally, so noticing I’m able to fit into older clothes again, and my current clothes are feeling and looking baggier is a happy result of my effort so far. One of the things I’m really having mixed feelings about, and have for a long time, is how to receive and handle praise but I’m doing my best to channel it into positive energy and it’s driving me forward!

However, it’s not been plain sailing. I’ve recently had a bit of a bump or plateau where I’ve not been losing (much) weight; indeed, I’ve actually put on a pound or two! This has been more a disappointment than anything.

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The important lesson I’ve learned from this recent wobble is firstly: not to panic. Some weeks are good, some are bad. That’s normal, that’s life. I’ve taken a few days to mull over my progress so far, which overall has still been encouraging. Firstly, what are the circumstances around my recent wobble? Easy:

  • Complacency: It’s so easy, even when strenuously trying to avoid it, to fall into the “I’ve lost so I can…” mindset. I’m certain in the last few weeks I have done this to a minor point, saying “my weekly points [intended as a buffer zone] can take it”. I need to be a lot more disciplined.
  • Lack of focus: The last few weeks I’ve both had to content with the mental struggles of my final year university deadlines and some time off work afterward. I hold my hands up to being less than completely focussed during that time on my weight loss goals and more on my immediate challenges and goals.
  • Time away: I also had a week off after my final deadlines which culminated in a pleasant, if not a bit undisciplined weekend away to see a friend. Honestly, that week I simply took my hands off the wheel.
  • Restrictive SmartPoints budget: This is an emergent challenge – as my weight decreases the suggested SmartPoints I should look to consume has shrunk also. This has been a challenge recently as my new target, 30, is remarkably easy to “blow” with an unwise, impulse-led food choice.

However I’ve taken this into account and I’ve given myself time to mull over where I’m potentially going wrong and, more positively, steps to take to rebuild my momentum:

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    View from a sunny walk in Sutton

    Getting active: This is a step that I initially tried last summer; now the long winter has ended and there’s some glorious weather I can finally get out for fitness walks. I do feel I do better to do multiple short-ish walks throughout the week – aiming for at least three 1.5 mile walks a week – than a few long ones for motivational reasons. They’re also great for starting the day and helping with my mental health!

  • Cutting out problem foods: I’ve decided that a go-to snack for me – pitta bread with houmous – has to go as I’m eating it to excess which negates the health and weight loss benefit. Because I know myself, it’s not enough to just say “no” internally; I’m just not having it in the house for a while.
  • Focusing my attitude: Ultimately I need to take this seriously again to get down to my personal goal weight of 95Kg; I’ve made good progress and I need to just carry on that momentum. Part of this was thinking I’d plateau’d but I don’t genuinely think this is the case and my mental focus just needs to be sharpened to the weaknesses I’ve identified.

So that’s my plan for the summer! I hope to be able to report more encouraging news next time!

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Editing The Thaw – Starting Off!

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Just coming up to a year ago I finally finished the first full draft of The Thaw, a post-apocalyptic thriller novel I started between my second and third years of University. I’d recently read Stephen Kings’s On Writing and, as I finished the draft at some ungodly hour, I recalled a piece of advice:

“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.”
Stephen King – On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

King recommends leaving a book to sit for six or so weeks:

“You’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.”

As is unfortunately life, getting around to editing The Thaw, for me, has taken considerably longer. There’s two big reasons for this gap, because I’ve wanted to edit the book for ages:

  • Guilt about working on personal projects while in the final throes of University, where all my creative and productive dragon energy needed to be focused on my work.
  • Self-doubt about my abilities as an editor and a writer, frankly; can I do this work justice?

Happily, both of those issues are moot – my coursework is in and I finally j umped into the editing process. So approximately five chapters in, how do I feel so far about it?

I feel… impatient, honestly. The beginning five or so chapters have taken some intense work but it’s good work too. I’ve some notes I’ve made myself from a readthrough of the first draft – I’ve taken the approach to ask myself questions I want each chapter to answer.

Indeed, re-reading the book after such a time away from writing it (which was an intense process) has allowed me to soak it in afresh. Yes, the opening is the weakest part and taking the most work because I feel that, while I was writing it, I was yet to find my feet in my own work. But what I’ve read later on is some thrilling and, honestly, brilliant stuff. I’m really confident about it because it’s a fantastic story and I want to share it!

So what is my rough plan for the edit? I’m planning to take the time over the next three or four weeks to really get to grips with fixing the deficiencies, foibles, niggles and nags of the first draft, ironing it out into something less… raw from the forge of my mind. Then a week or so off then back to square one for the third pass. Once I get there I’ll have a much better idea of what I want to do with the book going forward, and maybe even share some extracts!

Ah, heck, here’s an extract now! Enjoy!

“Not too much further, Mr. President,” Abercrombie reassured coolly. The moisture seemed to drip around the prefabricated panels loosely lining the corridor. Abercrombie turned to Miller. “We’ve achieved a lot since your last report, Vice-President.”

Miller smiled again. Even the President thought his apparent glee peculiar and looked suspiciously at his junior and deputy. “Excellent. I’m sure the President will be impressed with your results. I knew you were the right choice in this division, David.”

“I do hope I’m about to see tangible results for my investment,” Meadows mused. Abercrombie stopped at the end of the tunnel. Another heavy metal partition blocked the end of the passageway. A door, like before, was here, with a computer next to it. The door was wide, with a viewing hatch punched into the metal.

“Gentlemen,” Abercrombie said lightly, “take your positions.”

Meadows and Miller stood before the closed viewport that was just on eye-level. Abercrombie tapped a few buttons. The noise reverberated into the rock outside. A metal shutter slid with the ticking of a delicate mechanism. Two gasps were audible.

Abercrombie laughed as he watched the dark bodies of the President and the Vice-President almost stick to the wall, transfixed. “Gentlemen, I present to you the future of the American race.”

Book Review: Sirens

SirensAs part of my recently-concluded Creative Writing degree course I had the opportunity to briefly study Crime fiction, which proved an enjoyable divergence from my recent reading. Indeed, this lead onto a conversation with a friend of mine who’s been urging me to dip my toe into noir crime fiction for as long as I can recall; serendipitously, Sirens happened to be on sale on Amazon and, after a little prod from my noir-aficionado friend, it ended up sitting on my bedside table not very long after.

From the off, I recognised a lot of traits in Sirens that I had identified as part of my studies, in particular in relation to the set text I examined and enjoyed for the Crime strand of the module, Shut Eye by Adam Baron. There are some flawed, morally-ambiguous characters, a seedy, gritty underbelly and the usage of the city, in the case of Sirens, Manchester, becomes a character in itself. Reflecting on my studies, Sirens was making, well, all the right noises.

The book has a gritty, bleak tone that is exemplified by the deliberate choice of setting and time: Manchester in November. Even as someone that is not familiar with Manchester at all (indeed I’m a Londoner) that alone does a great deal to set a mood and tone that the book keeps going all the way through. The presentation of Manchester is vivid in accentuating that sense of tone, even when the action and story move across distinctly disparate areas of the city – abandoned industrial areas to exclusive penthouses to what amounts to the epitome of suburbia are all facades that contain the overarching mood. It’s deeply atmospheric and engrossing, the city itself drawing me in as a reader.

The characters, too, are equally atmospheric; they all occupy shades of grey in terms of morality that are reflected in the bleak winter skies that permeate the Manchester in Sirens. It’s an effective mix, the sensation of not knowing who can be trusted, and certainly having ideas of who is bad and who is good upended and subverted just aided in my immersion. Like Shut Eye, there’s a corrosive, and compelling mix of corruption, vice and politics. Better, none of it is presented in a polemic way; if anything, it’s presented in a realistic, gritty stance. As nice as the reader may consider themselves, they can’t help but relate to how real this all could be, behind the façade of closed doors.

The protagonist, Aidan Waits, is perhaps initially a little cliched, the down-on-his-luck detective caught with his hands in the till but the journey he embarks on allows exploration of the character’s depth – who is he working for? Is it ultimately himself? Overall the protagonist is engaging and effective – both as a character and at his job, so there’s something to relate to beneath the multi-faceted surface. He’s an engaging protagonist and the ambiguity over his end goals is another point that propels the reader to finish the book; now he’s waist-deep in this mess, how is he going to get out of it? Or, more to the point we’re led to question, can he?

Being fairly new to the genre of crime thrillers, I’d cut my teeth on pacey books such as the Jack Reacher books from Lee Child. These are action-oriented and, most pleasing for me, unpretentious and accessible. Approaching Sirens I was a little concerned that, being a more serious, “noir” story, it might not quite live up that accessibility. These concerns were for naught; Sirens has a breathless pace that, while perhaps not as unrelenting as Lee Child’s works, which became a reference, still allows for a great deal of immersion into the atmosphere and world created, but it doesn’t linger too long to outstay its welcome. It strikes what I would say is a very good balance. There’s a lot going on that we experience as a reader throughout the first two-thirds of the book that immerses us in the world; details begin to stick out and make us ask questions. It is these questions that propel us, the reader, into the final third of the book where the threads we’ve been wrapped around begin to unravel. This was very satisfying, and Sirens sets up and ending and then delightfully subverts it; the payoff for persevering through the bleak and brutal landscape of Manchester that is portrayed is very satisfying.

I can only wonder how much more concentrated this would be to someone familiar with Manchester; however, this prior knowledge is not essential and this does well to not impede the accessibility of Sirens as a book; as before, Manchester becomes but another character in the story. It’s refreshing, too; while the story briefly touches the classical setting of noir, London, it purposefully doesn’t linger. If anything, London feels an alien landscape from the familiarity of Manchester. This is an effective subversion of the genre, and I feel choosing a setting the author is clearly familiar with, and isn’t London or Edinburgh helps set it apart. There’s no reason these s orts of urban crime stories couldn’t take place in any large metropolitan area, and again the fact that Manchester becomes its own character in the story helps justify that choice.

All this is pulled together with Joseph Knox’s immersive, haunting and evocative prose. It isn’t flowery by any stretch, but neither is it utilitarian. The sparse, pointed and precise construction of the prose is something I appreciated; it lacks pretention, but it doesn’t lack style. It propels the reader through the story but doesn’t linger for self-indulgent reasons, which is why I burned through the book so quickly once it had bitten into me. This is certainly a characteristic it shares with Lee Child’s work which is a major factor in my enjoyment of those books and the writing fits the mood an accentuates it effectively.

Overall as an introduction to potentially wider reading of noir fiction, Sirens was a strong candidate. Gritty, arresting and immersive; I’d highly recommend it! On the back of Sirens I’m certainly looking forward to reading both more of Joseph Knox’s work and more noir crime as a genre!

Workflow: Switching from Dropbox to OneDrive

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I thought it might be interesting to chat today about why I’ve made a pretty big (but hopefully seamless) change in how I carry out work. I’ve been using Dropbox as a file-storage and backup system (indeed, all my important project files are live on my Dropbox for seamless syncing and backup) but I’ve been pretty limited by the 5Gb limit my Dropbox account has.

I’ve used Microsoft’s email service, Outlook.com, since before it was even Outlook; I finally switched to an ISP-agnostic email in 2009 with Live Hotmail – who remembers that? A bonus of this loyalty on the basis of having an account that long was that I qualified for an upgrade to the storage capacity of my email’s associated OneDrive (back when it was SkyDrive) to 25Gb.

25Gb… 5Gb… can you see the immediate comparisons?

But I have only recently made the step to move my writing projects to OneDrive. There was more behind my decision than just the voluminous amount of free cloud storage that I had been ignoring for the most part!

As part of my Creative Writing course at Kingston University I have been granted access to Microsoft’s Office 365 subscription service for free. Having used this for three years now I’m pretty much a convert to this way of getting Office – I get useful new features fairly regularly but the key feature for me is adaptability:

  • autosaveOffice 365 allows me to legitimately own Office and use it concurrently on more than just my main PC but also my ThinkPad laptop, my iPhone and my iPad; the latter two require Office 365 to allow document editing on the go.
  • I recently received updates to the versions of Office 2016 that I have installed on my two PCs and there was one feature that pushed me over the edge to finally switch to OneDrive: AutoSave.

AutoSave in Word (and other Office programs, but Word is my mainstay) has changed how I work quite profoundly, and I’m now a lot more flexible in how I work as changes to documents are synced in real-time without any user intervention, so I can switch from my PC to my laptop to my iPad with so much ease the transition doesn’t even need thinking about. Dropbox, while very good with syncing, just doesn’t quite have the baked-in integration that allows total flexibility – I’d always need to hit Control + S and leave it a couple of seconds to sync. Even little things, like the syncing of my Recently Used document lists in the Word 2016 backstage view just give the impression of a tightly-integrated solution which saves on wasting valuable seconds. They add up!

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I’ve also found that the significant bump in available storage space allows me finally to back up my Camera Roll from my iPhone as iCloud has a similar, restrictive “free” storage allocation which isn’t really suitable for people who have owned an iPhone for a while, or have a high-capacity iPhone like I do (my current iPhone 6S is a 64Gb model as 5 years of a 16Gb iPhone 4S became… fun to say the least!). It’s a pretty seamless process – and being seamless is precisely why I’m enjoying the transition to OneDrive as it’s not as much “effort” as I was expecting!

Obviously this new-found convenience comes at some abstract cost – my privacy, arguably. There’s been stories about an update to Microsoft’s terms of service that on face value seem quite severe – swearing or profanity no longer “allowed in Office 365 documents”, but this isn’t something that concerns me deeply. I’d have to be a paid-up member of the tin-foil-hat brigade to buy into that being a valid and pertinent threat to myself on a personal level, and besides, Microsoft’s service is free and providing great convenience. The fear of “everything I upload being scanned” just seems a bit far-fetched, and with recent revelations about companies like Facebook and Google (the latter coming as no surprise) it’s almost to be expected. My data is gloriously uninteresting anyway.

At the moment I’ve just moved my critical writing folders to OneDrive and my camera roll but I’m evaluating at the moment, once the pressures of University work are over with, whether to migrate a lot more of my local documents and photos folders. Considering that a few years ago I was quite dead-set against the idea of “cloud syncing” (when I only used one computer at a time, and ferried USB drives everywhere, which are risky if lost) but I’ve totally turned a corner. Certainly when my University-provided Office 365 expires I will be looking to buy my own plan (it’s not unaffordable; around £80 a year or so) for my future endeavours. That bump from an already capacious 25Gb to 1Tb would alleviate my storage frugality concerns too!

Overall though, I’m pleasantly happy with the OneDrive experience as it fits into my workflow even better than Dropbox did – and I had no real issues with Dropbox’s integration! But the very tight fit that OneDrive provides to the other Microsoft products I use – Office and Windows – and their recent embracing of alternate mobile platforms after seeing the light that Windows Phone was doomed to irrelevance means that it provides an even-tighter integration for my workflow and, ultimately, a more productive me. And that’s all good!