Sunday, 23 December 2012

Gravity Light

I admire the concept of kickstarter funding, but until now, I have not seen anything that I really wanted.
The funding concept is simple, some genius has an idea, but needs money to take it further, so they set up a web site explaining the invention and make possible customers an offer; in exchange for one of the, as yet non existent items, you send some money. If all goes well enough cash is sent to get the project off the ground, and eventually you are the proud owner of the relevant gismo.
What the various kickstarted sites do is to provide a single site where these projects can be displayed. I suspect that they also require some standards and financial discipline, but I haven't checked that.
There are obviously risks, the thing might not be made, or the early prototypes are rubbish etc. etc. As I understand it, when it all goes wrong you are supposed to get your money back. I love the idea, but one way or another I am usually not quite filled with enough enthusiasm to actually send cash.
Today was different. I came across some guys who want to make a light that runs on gravity. They think they can make these things so that they sell for a few dollars and can potentially replace kerosene lamps, which are all over the third world and are smelly and dangerous. They cause indoor air pollution, contributing to asthma and such, and they cause fires.
The lamp works by having a pulley that drives a small generator. The force comes from hanging a sack of rocks from the pulley and letting it slowly fall to the ground. So actually, it doesn't run on gravity, it runs on the muscles that have lifted up the sack of rocks. According to the bumph the device comes in a sturdy sack, which once unpacked can be used to hold 9 Kilos of rock, mud, or whatever you have available.
It seems such an obvious idea that I am amazed that no one has thought of it. I suspect that it was waiting for the LED to be invented so that there was a light source available that does not need much power. I did find some similar ideas in student projects from a few years ago, but they did not get made, I presume because older lightbulbs used too much power so the sack of rocks would have been too heavy to lift
If these guys do manage to make lots of them it should only be a matter of time before bright young kids all over the world have figured out how to power all sorts of other things from them. I can picture Raspberry Pis being connected as we speak.
Will it charge a phone I wonder? The possibilities are endless.
If you are interested, the link to the project is 
You can watch a video of the thing working.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Radio Prank

I’ve been to Australia twice and I loved it both times, even though I nearly drowned surfing on Bondi beach, I still love the place. It is important to be clear about that. So what comes next is not aimed at Australians in general, neither, if any of them happen to read this, am I doing a whinging Pom act.
Two DJs from the Australian radio station 2Day FM called King Edward VII hospital in London and pretended to be the Queen and Prince Charles. They phoned at about 5.30 am and hence the call was taken by a night nurse, rather than a trained receptionist. That nurse put the call through to the ward, where another nurse was taken in, and gave out some details of their royal patient.
One of these nurses now appears to have killed herself.  Details are available all over the media, including three BBC reports at:- and On the face of it, this is just another example of the media not caring a damn about anyone other than themselves. To my mind, the matter has been made a lot worse by the chief executive of the radio station, Rhys Holleran, defending his reporters by saying:
"I think that prank calls as a craft in radio have been going on for decades. They are done worldwide and no-one could reasonably have foreseen what happened.”
He should have said that the whole thing was his fault. He is the chief executive, and therefore responsible for the culture of the station that thinks it is OK to try to deceive hospital staff. That thinks it is OK to phone a hospital at five am and see if nurses can be caught off guard.
Why should the hospital have to act as though everyone phoning them is a possible fraudster or some lying prankster? Is nothing sacred? Has no one at the radio station ever had a relative in hospital? Is there any difference between this prank call and the Levenson Inquiry description of blagging in order to try to obtain information illegally? This sort of stunt, and hacking Milly Dowler’s phone come right out of the same stable that says “fuck you” over the door.
Was it actually illegal in this case, I don’t know, there is obviously some work there for international law experts, who will no doubt charge a lot. I was under the impression that you were supposed to tell people if you were recording them, and certainly if you then intended to broadcast the material.
Whether it was illegal or not does not alter the fact that it was bloody stupid, and more likely to lead to adverse consequences than good ones.
I can understand all the people who have hurled abuse in one form or another at the two radio presenters who carried out the prank. I hope they survive, the last thing the world needs is another suicide. The DJs obviously did not ask themselves how they would feel if a member of their family was on the receiving end of that sort of trick. It is probably reasonable to say that it would be difficult to imagine that the nurse might kill herself, but it is not hard to think that she might have been disciplined or fired. Do we want to live in a world, where radio presenters phone people, who are going about their normal job trying to help the sick, and pull tricks on them that might get them fired?
If one uses a little imagination, it is easy to see another possible side effect from this. Every relative phoning to ask about their loved ones in hospital in future is likely to find it harder to get through and harder to find out anything about a relative in hospital. As I write, armies of PR people are probably busy writing new protocols for how to take calls from the public. I can just imagine all the additional data being collected in every patient’s record in order to ask bank style security questions every time a mother phones to find out if their child is getting better.
I find it sad that Jeff Kennett, the Chairman of Australia's national depression charity, Beyond Blue, said the radio pair had no intention of causing any harm and urged the public not to condemn them. He has an odd definition of harm. They must have known that at the very least anyone who fell for the joke risked public humiliation and possibly being disciplined or fired. If that isn’t harm, I don’t know what is. It is not clear exactly who dreamed up the stunt, but neither they nor the two DJs should be blamed on their own, others too, have a responsibility to bear.
We are given to understand that lawyers approved the transcript. I went to a seminar by a very senior British judge a few years ago, where he said that there was hardly any teaching of ethics in law schools, so it may be too much to expect ethics from lawyers, though they ought to have an eye on risk management. Someone at the station should consider getting new lawyers.
The buck really stops with the chief executive. He is the one is responsible for the culture of the organisation; he should have considered whether this was a sensible thing to do. He should have asked what the downside might be if this went wrong. Hopefully the station will lose a lot of advertising revenue and the trustees or owners, or whoever sits on top of the chief executive, will fire him, unless he has the decency to resign first.
The station also ought to compensate the nurses family. Just because they say they meant no harm, it doesn't let them off. 

Monday, 3 December 2012

The Leveson Report

I started reading the Leveson Report, partly because I thought I should, and partly because I just finished the NaNoWriMo. In my case that amounted to 52000+ words in 28 days. I gave myself an extra day for a quick edit, and had it validated in on the last day.
It leaves a bit of a hole in your life, so why not read Leveson, it's apparently 2000 pages long.
I have to admit that I have not got very far. No doubt Lord Leveson is a clever chap, and I can’t say I’d want the job of listening to all that stuff. In general, what I have read is clear and reasoned and I imagine, for many people, very boring. That seems to me to be a big mistake. Having spent months learning how the press distort things, one might have hoped that he would produce a short punchy version that everyone could grasp. As it is, he has put himself in the hands of the very press he was set up to investigate. It will be their versions of his report that everyone reads. That seems to me to be sad and frankly stupid.
Having got that off my chest, there is one brilliant sentence in paragraph ten which, I think, sums up completely the need for something to be done that the press cannot escape from.
 “There is no organised profession, trade or industry in which the serious failings of the few are overlooked because of the good done by the many.”
That is the powerful case for doing something that cannot be got around or undone. That is the reason why we regulate doctors, nurses, social workers and a host of other people. Meaning well, or being attached to well meaning organisations, or following a good cause, or the public interest, does not justify individuals doing wrong in order to do right.
There is one caveat, I guess, and that is the situation where the laws themselves have been corrupted. In that case, the law may no longer be seen as the arbiter of right and wrong. That is the argument for every revolution, and sometimes it is right. I don’t think that hacking Milly Dowler’s phone, or Charlotte Church, or any of the others, falls into that category. The newspaper people who transgressed did not do it in order to make society great, to correct terrible wrongs, or anything remotely like that. They did it to sell newspapers and advance their careers. To hide behind the noble purpose of a free press just shows what a bunch of unprincipled bastards they were. All the newspaper people who are now trying to make sure that they are not properly regulated in the future would do well to try and think of any example where the sort of behaviour described by Levenson was crucial, and the only way, to investigate and publish a story of great national interest, so important that the very fabric of our democracy would have been threatened if it was not exposed.
The most recent story of that importance that I can think of was written by the man from the Guardian who exposed the whole thing. As far as I am aware he did not have to resort to dirty tricks in order to write the story, and what's more, most of the so called free press did their best to rubbish what he wrote and tried to stop him.

Sunday, 25 November 2012


Despite previously blogging to the effect that I was not going to do the NaNoWriMo thing; this year I am. My original plan was to be doing it in my motorhome somewhere near a beach in southern Spain, but what with one thing and another I'm still in Worcestershire.
Why do it? mostly because I had an idea, that's not so unusual, but if that idea gets connected with a character in my mind, and the character likes it, or at least reacts to it, then the next step is the keyboard.
There are some disadvantages, one being that 50,000 words is classed at success, 50,000 during November, that is. It's not the number that I object to, it's the mesmeric quality of a target.
If you join the web site, and fill in your totals now and again they ping up this nice graph that shows how you are doing. One becomes captured by the numbers. I have no idea how long this novel really should be, maybe 49,000, maybe 63,000, but there is every likelihood that by the end of November it will be 50,000. Given that most agents and publishers seem to expect adult novels to be in the 60,000 - 80,000 range, there is a sort of flaw in the NaNo concept, unless the Nano bit is about it being a small novel, or possibly it is a cunning ploy to keep most of this rubbish away from traditional publishing.
Anyway, there is it. About when we should have set off to Spain the area we had intended to head for had major floods, one of the contributing factors to not going, though there were others.
Right now, outside my window, the river Severn is over it's banks and as high as I have ever seen it since we moved here.

In 2007, in our old house we once had a major flood, (see picture, right). There is something reassuring about being able to  stand on my roof terrace in the new flat, and look at the water (see below), and think that it would take an unimaginable catastrophe for the water to get this high.

The novel is not about floods, it's much more scary than that, but I must get back to it, the numbers are calling.

Monday, 19 November 2012

PCC Elections

Wake up Mr Cameron
My mother did not vote in the PCC election. I should say right away that this is the first election, ever, that she has not voted, and she is 89. My mother was a policewoman during the war, she is one of the most upright, law abiding and effective people that I have ever known. For many years she ran her own business. Since retirement she has spend thousands of hours doing voluntary work, serving in charity shops, driving infirm people to hospital, helping man phones in the local voluntary centre, in fact generally being a model citizen.
So why did she not vote? Because she knew nothing at all about the election or the candidates. How come? Because she had received no information through her post box, heard nothing from any of the candidates and does not use the Internet. As a result she had no way of finding anything out.
What was completely remarkable about this election was that if you don't use the Internet then you had no chance of playing your part as a citizen. In some ways I think it is reasonable to expect the Internet to play a big part in our lives, but to make it essential seems to be going a bit far without actually asking people if that was OK.
For some time I have had a theoretical objection to the TV license, in the back of my mind, because it means that in order to listen to party political political broadcasts, or to listen to the Queen or the prime minister, you have to pay to be able to receive TV. However, there was still the possibility of listening to the radio, so if you did not want to pay to receive TV you were not completely cut off.
This election has gone a lot further.
There is also another somewhat unfortunate aspect, the actual web site was rubbish, as is the result service. I can find out from the PCC site, who got elected, but they have not published the percentages. I can read about the low turnout all over the place, but I don't get the official data, from the place I voted.
This is not democracy in action. For institutions to exist in a decent society, not only must they act in a proper way, but they must be seen to do so. Were they trying to convince us that policing only matters to those who use the Internet?
All I can say is Dear Mr Cameron, wake up. If you stop treating me like an idiot, I might stop thinking you are one.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Fix it

The events at the BBC are quite extraordinary, yet somehow depressingly predictable.
Obviously many people are shocked by the allegations made about Jimmy Saville, but they are still allegations. They are being investigated by the police, and if he were alive one can be sure that his lawyers would have been issuing injunctions by now to suppress some of the press coverage in the hope of ensuring that he got a fair trial.
Perhaps because he is dead, perhaps because there are so many allegations, perhaps because some people did find him "creepy", we seem to have forgotten the need for due process.
Unfortunately what seems to have happened next is that the lack of normal process in the Saville case has led the media into a frenzy of thinking that trial by media is OK. That is is reasonable to put unsubstantiated allegations on TV, or repeat them on TV and in the media, without due process.
Whatever the truth of any of these allegations it will be a very bad thing if we abandon due process.
I'm not a lawyer, in fact I have to say that lawyers mostly annoy me, there are too many of them, they charge too much and they seem to promote a narrow view of the world. Nevertheless there are good reasons why we have a police force, a crown prosecution service, courts, juries and judges, and they are all independent of each other in a system that has evolved over centuries. TV programmes and newspapers and the internet are not a substitute.
The legal process may get things wrong from time to time, but if it does, there are appeals and mechanisms to secure redress. If we resort to the media and the Internet as an alternative, there is no appeal or redress and we will end up with a much more unfair society. We have only to look at the tragic cases of people killing themselves because they have been attacked on the web to see the extremes that are possible. As a society I'm sure we don't need more of that sort of thing, and I am prepared to put up with a few lawyers in order to ensure that.
If Jimmy Saville's alleged activities, and the fall out from revelations about them, end up undermining a fair society as well as apparently abusing children, then he really will have fixed us.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Liquid Nitrogen Cocktails

I borrowed the picture from the Guardian, via Google
When I first read headlines about liquid nitrogen in cocktails, I thought the media had gone mad. Nitrogen is liquid at almost 200 degrees below zero. Above that temperature it becomes gas.
Liquid Nitrogen has many uses, but one example is in the NHS where it is used to freeze warts, that gives an idea how cold it is. There is no way you can drink it. Pour it into your mouth and your lips and tongue would freeze solid. If you did get it into your stomach, it would explode because of the rapidly expanding gas.
That is not what happened to the poor girl who lost her stomach; she didn’t explode on the spot or freeze her mouth solid.
As far as I can work out, these cocktails have a small amount of liquid nitrogen added, which rapidly evaporates, making an interesting mist and adding to the drama of the drink. So why is it dangerous?
That's where the physics comes in.
If you add alcohol to water, it lowers the freezing point. The more alcohol you add then the lower the temperature you need in order to freeze the mixture.
Most cocktails have between 15% and 40% alcohol, which means that it would not turn into ice cubes unless you got it below the temperature that you find in most domestic freezers.
The table shows the freezing point of alcohol water mixtures.

Freezing point

Next question, how do they make these cocktails? I am surprised that the media don't seem to provide details, but from what I've seen, the barman makes up the cocktail and tips a little liquid nitrogen into the mixture.
That will cool the cocktail; exactly how cold it gets will depend on the temperature that it started at and how much liquid nitrogen is tipped in.
When you mix something that is at minus 190 degrees with something that has just come out of the fridge behind the bar, the final temperature depends on the volume of the two quantities that are mixed. The average cocktail is around 100-125 ml. Cocktail mixing is not an exact science but on average, something like a teaspoonful of liquid nitrogen would drop the temperature of the cocktail to about minus 15 degrees.
If you stuck your fingers in it, you would rapidly get frostbite. Bang down a couple of those cocktails and there is a good chance that your stomach gets frostbite. In other words, chunks of the stomach lining would freeze solid and die. The next thing you know you are in hospital having a gastrectomy.
Why the stomach, rather than the mouth or the gullet? I think the answer is that the fluid goes through those parts quite quickly, not allowing enough time for significant heat transfer to happen. In the stomach, on the other hand, the fluid stops moving and sits there doing damage. It won’t take long.
There will obviously be demands that such drinks be banned. That is probably not necessary, they can be made safe just by training the barman to use only minimal amounts of nitrogen and checking the temperature. If the drink is more than a few degrees below freezing, then don’t drink it. Not even if your friends dare you.
If you must drink one of these try asking the barman if he has 'O' level physics, but anyway take your time, pose a lot, sip it slowly and if you want to be really safe, drink a pint of warm beer first.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Apple Maps

There has been a fair amount of chatter on the web about Apple’s new map app. If you upgrade your Iphone to the new operating system, IOS6 as opposed to 5 then you find that the old Google Maps app has been replaced by Apple Maps.
There are a number of differences; motorways are yellow instead of blue, being an obvious one.
For me the biggest change is that the versions of the maps that show satellite pictures have such low resolution that they are useless. The following is an example.
I live in Worcester UK, a town that has been here for hundreds of years. The picture gives a little history; the city was the site of one of the last battles of the civil war.

Rather more recently a pedestrian bridge has been constructed across the river Severn. Today I took my car to the garage, on one side of the river and walked back home across the bridge. I tried out the map apps on the way. I have an Iphone 4s, not the latest one, so maybe the thing works better on the Iphone 5. On the 4s it is useless.

The bridge is not small, the picture on the left is taken from a little further up river.

Apple maps satelite view with me standing on the bridge comes out as some sort of abstract art. The black fuzzy line is the river Severn, one of the largest rivers in England, hard to miss. No bridge is discernable. 

 The map view is better, though there is no sign of the bridge.

On the bridge I opened the web browser and went to Google maps, their satellite picture is next. Although the structure of the bridge is not visible, they have drawn in the route, so if you were walking that way you might guess that there was a bridge available.

As it happens neither system is particularly up to date.

 The next picture on the right shows the satelite view of where I live, you might think it is an industrial wasteland or rubbish dump. the picture on the left shows what it actually looks like, both Apple and Google are about two years out of date.

Interestingly the various web reports I have read say that Google is about to produce a new app for IOS6. When I opened Google maps in Safari, it gave me the option to put an app on my desktop, i.e. on the phone. I did that and bingo, I have an app that opens Google maps. It may not be the version that Google are working on, but it will do for now.

Monday, 20 August 2012


I spent yesterday with Lois at the Quilt show at the NEC. The Wednesday group that Lois belongs to, had an entry in the group competition. They didn't win, but that's not really the point.

The show is a fascinating event. I have no idea how many people are the least bit aware of this activity, certainly before I first went last year, I had no idea that so many people were involved in making quilts. I didn't attempt to count how many entries there are, but it runs into hundreds and the audience into thousands. Not only that, but people come from all over the world, both to exhibit and to visit. The audience was mostly european and about 99% female.

The security guards were mostly male and made pointless sexist remarks when we arrived,

'the men's creche is over there, the dancing girls arrive at three,' quite unnecessary. Quilting as an activity must in some way select its participants. A huge proportion of the audience seemed to have the same affect. Shirley Williams the day she did go to the hairdresser might be an appropriate image. Full of understanding, good humour and reliability.

This sense of of homogenaity is less obvious in the quilts. Some have obviously been designed to look like an archetypical quilt, other stretch the art form in every direction. Any subject can be imagined as a quilt, a brilliant set based on the large Hadron Collider, for example. The winner in the group category had a series of pictures of a sort of spoof olympics, based around quilting, the funniest cartooning a play on words on tacking, a term used in stitchery and also sailing.

There were some sailing boats too, though I wouldn't want to sail several,of them. They look like sailing boats, but the masts are in the wrong place, so they would be very hard to steer. The boat in the picture would be pretty good at going backwards. On the other hand an image of a boat on a quilt, is not really expected to win the olympics.

To my mind the art fell into three categories. The first might be called quilts designed to look like quilts. The second is art, in which the artist feels able to tackle any subject, but happens to like quilting as a medium. The third, is the second one, but taking the possibilities of the medium into the art - tackling a subject in a way that could only be done with fabric and stitching. I rather liked those.

As well as the exhibits there was a massive commercial show, not just the makers of sewing machines, but a vast complex of stalls selling things you might use to stitch better or more easily, but also an amazing array of art and craft with a predominantly textile underpinning.

Some of these devices could have multiple uses. I bought a neat wooden stand that is supposed to be used for holding an embroidery ring, but in fact will hold my iphone and allow me to set up a standard position for photographing documents, a copying method I find is rather quicker and less fussy than using the scanner that is built into my printer.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Yeah Definitely

Commentating must be a desperate business. Having to think of something to say, while fascinating events unfold in front of you. No chance of second thought, no editing, no time to think, no reflection; it goes out as you say it, and there's no getting it back.
What is even worse is that people like me, and people much more skilled than me, are sitting there listening, ready to pounce on every dumb comment, every out of place word or wrong piece of data.
“Murray is forcing Federer into unforced errors,” says John Lloyd. 
So now we have an extra category of errors, not just the usual, forced and unforced; now we have forced, unforced errors. How could that come about, just supposing for a moment that it wasn't just John Lloyd getting over enthusiastic. Maybe if Murray is simply creating an atmosphere of pressure, the possibility of unforced errors goes up. Is that what a forced, unforced error looks like. I can just about get my head around that, but what about unforced, forced errors. Maybe those are really impossible, but perhaps if one player has such a great style that even when they are completely relaxed, playing with no pressure at all, barely even trying, so you couldn't say that they were forcing anything at all, they might still force errors, without even meaning to. Those would be unforced, forced errors.
Enough of that. I may be getting the commentators disease, of having to talk all the time. Possibly the worst moment of this was after Ben Ainsley won his forth sailing gold medal. We saw him talking, being shown on the big screen at the venue and the idiot commentator is doing a voice over telling us what Ainsley is saying. OK, if he was talking chinese, that might make sense, but all the commentator is doing is stopping us hearing what Ainsley is actually saying. English does not normally need to be translated on the BBC. 
The crowd did get their own back; the same commentator was doing vox pops on the shore after the women's laser radial. The Belgian girl had just won the bronze medal, so why not interview some Belgians.
’What did you think of that?’ says the interviewer.
’Fucking great.’ says unknown Belgian. Whoops.
While I am in ranting mode, there are two more pet hates, I'd like to get out of the way.
The first is the over-adoption of certain words. I've given up on Yeah No. Is it one word or two? I know longer know what it means, I've heard it so often I'm not even sure I can any lomger explain why it is a daft thing to say. I've not however, given up on 'absolutely'. Over and over we hear both interviewees and interviewers using the word when it is simply not necessary, and often not really appropriate. I was pleased to hear the various fighters from the independent republic of Yorkshire who said “Yeah definitely” as their first words to many answers. If it is impossible to avoid these instant replies, I think I prefer “Yeah definitely.” Whereas absolutely is rarely true, and is frequently inappropriate; yeah definitely, is OK, it's expressing an opinion, and that doesn't seem inappropriate.
There is obviously something built into commentators genes that makes them adopt words. It is now seemingly impossible to use the word early without saying early doors. What on earth have doors got to do with anything? I once thought that it must be referring to leaving early, in the way the Eddie Waring talked about players getting an early bath, when they had been sent off. A glance or two at the web suggests that it comes from theatres, the doors opening early for the cheap seats. So what exactly does, 
"They let the New Zealanders get away early doors," mean in a sailing race. What doors, they are on the ocean.
Finally, there is the background music. The constant need to put some sort of thumping beat behind commentary and voice overs is beginning to make me change channels. Surely if the words are not dramatic or interesting enough to hold attention, then re-write the words. Adding a thumping beat is just a cheap trick and adds nothing. After watching these olympics, surely any one can see that we don't need to add drama, or worse still, some sort of false sense of excitement. Let the events speak for themselves. As I write this, the BBC is running a repeat clip of some of the rowing, along with a background beat that was not there during the events. Why?
For those who have read this blog for some time, I should apologise for going on about this, I have mentioned it before.  (Stop the bloody music;postID=2686805028156897544)
Will someone in broadcasting please listen. I am tired of my wife yelling at the TV every time the news bomp bomp bomp head bomp bomp bomp lines bomp bomp bomp come bomp bomp bomp on.

Post script.
In the into to the closing ceremony Gary Lineker
"They came from all four corners of the country and all four walks of life." All four walks of life? Really Gary, and what four would those be?

Saturday, 11 August 2012


I haven't been blogging because I have been watching the Olympics. Glued to the TV and clutching two iPads, I have missed very little, but there are lulls. In those I read on the iPad. I have an app called Flipboard. It keeps popping up on other people’s must have lists, so I am in good company. It allows you to pick up feeds from all sorts of other sources, see the picture to get the idea. 

Being lazy, I rather like having all that stuff gathered together on one page and kept up to date for me.
Among other things, I get a feed from the New Yorker. If I subscribed to the paper magazine I know I would never read it all and masses of paper would clutter up the house. On Flipboard I get a selection, made by someone else, so I’m probably missing something, but it is constantly refreshed, with no waste paper and therefore guilt free.
As a side effect, I also get emails from the New Yorker with links to other morsels of wisdom and humour. Among those I found a piece called “Everything is Fiction” from Keith Ridgway [born October 2, 1965 is a Dublin-born award-winning writer. He lives in Dublin after living in the UK for many years, Faber & Faber]
In the midst of a piece where he says he doesn’t know what he is doing –
I don’t know how to write. Which is unfortunate, as I do it for a living.’
He says -
‘I know how to wait until the last minute before putting anything on paper. I mean the last minute before the thought leaves me forever. I know how to leave out anything that looks to me—after a while—forced, deliberate, or fake. I know that I need to put myself in the story. I don’t mean literally. I mean emotionally. I need to care about what I’m writing—whether about the characters, or about what they’re getting up to, or about the way they feel or experience their world. I know that my job is to create a perspective. And to impose it on the reader. And I know that in order to do that with any success at all I must in some mysterious way risk everything. If I don’t break my own heart in the writing of a book then I know I’ve done it wrong. I’m not entirely sure what that means. But I know what it feels like.’
If that doesn’t capture what you need to do as a writer, I’m not sure what does. You can read the rest of the piece at:

Wednesday, 11 July 2012


Editing gets into my head. I am about half way through obsessionally trying to find all the spelling and grammatical glitches in my current book. Also trying to spot where I’ve got the time line wrong, or accidentally muddled the plot. There are a number of problems that are almost unique to this activity, the first being that Microsoft Word is insane. For example in this paragraph it thinks obsessionally should be spelled obsession ally. I don’t know who this ally is, or what he or she is obsessed about but I wish he or she would get out of my text. Note the “he or she” there. If I put they, word green lines it and wants to change it to he or she.
I also hate the way that it can’t make up its mind. Actually, Word is not alone in having these problems, (wordiness, consider revision), The ‘Pages’ app on the iPad can’t decide what to do about z. If I write realized, it changes it to realised, then it decides that is wrong and suggests I change it back. I have encountered similar circular idiocies in Word, but fortunately, I have managed to train myself not to record them.
 After a few hours, it becomes necessary to watch the TV or go shopping, just to give my eyes a break from the screen. We went to what might be called an out of town shopping centre, if it was out of town. One of those assemblages of prominent branded retailers all in large shed with a big car park.
I guess they have such a lot of trade that it makes sense to have a restaurant as well. There is a drive through KFC. As you come into the car park there is a sign that says “DRIVE THROUGH PARKING” Normally I can steer past this without my blood pressure changing a millimetre; after a morning of editing a phase like that causes problems.
There cannot be such a thing as drive through parking. Parking, and driving through, are mutually exclusive; you cannot do both at once. [Word thinks that should be “Parking, and driving through, is mutually exclusive”.]
The sign could be amended to Parking and Drive Through, or maybe KFC Drive Through, with Extra Parking. Better still might be a sign that says, “Do Not Read When Editing.”

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

A new sponsor for the olympics?

Like many others, I watched the Olympic torch being carried through our town. It is a remarkable sight, not just the torch, that I’ll probably never see again, but also the massed crowds.
The crowd behaviour leads me to conclude that a new sponsor is needed.
In the past, I guess people just came to see and remember, but now they expect to take pictures and movies with small digital cameras or phones. How do you take a picture with a phone when you are in the middle of a crowd that is five or six deep? Answer you hold your hand up in the air. A brief glance at the attached movie will show all the upheld arms. If you couldn’t see the cameras and phones in those hands, you might think it was a fascist rally.
Bear in mind that the torch business does not just last the few seconds of this clip, not by any means. It goes on for about half an hour or more of various police motorcycles, busses trucks and other hangers on who appear necessary to the action, and come before the small party jogging along with the torch.
The crowd in our case had been there for about half an hour, and this was back when there was actually some sunshine this summer.
The upshot of all this is that the huddled masses have been sweating a little by the time the torch arrives and is greeted by many upheld arms.
Having experienced this phenomenon, in the middle of the crowd, I make a plea that some major manufacturer of underarm deodorants takes on sponsorship of the torch relay and as a publicity venture issues free deodorant to anyone who has a phone or a camera.
I’m sure it would be good for business and would certainly be appreciated by anyone standing in the middle of a crowd of upheld cameras.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012


Why am I in Narbonne? because the alternator has broken and we have to wait a day for Fiat to fit a new one. It is a small pleasant town that we would otherwise have passed by. In fact we had already passed it by when the alternator failed we were almost level with Carcassonne, but if you breakdown on a French motorway, even if you have made it to a service station, you get taken where the official rescuers take you.
As we are now back in France it is necessary to get the French SIM in the iPad working, which meant a visit to the local SFR shop

Fortunately the hotel had a good wifi, so google maps told us where to look. At first sight it seemed odd that the marker pin came down in the middle of one of the bridges over the river ( see map). However google maps is accurate, the shop is actually on the bridge, which is completely built over.
So here I am, iPad functioning writing this blog sitting in a cafe in the main square in Narbonne and Lois is smiling.
Among the many interesting things about Narbonne, most of which I have not discovered yet, is the local accent. I think it is Catalan. They pronounce many words differently; for example the word 'demain', tomorrow, which is when the van will be ready. Round here they pronounce as it is written, to an English person. Normally in France the latter half of the word is pronounced 'man' whereas here they say it 'main'. 'Cinq', or five is pronounced 'sink'. My french is not brilliant, but add in the strange accent and a stay in Narbonne is a study in miscommunication.
Hopefully the van will be ready soon.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Saint Tropez

We had lunch in St Tropez today. The van was having it's brakes replaced, a job that took four hours, plus two hours for lunch, as we are in France. This left us with six hours to kill and no van to sit in. Unfortunately it was also raining quite hard, so some sort of sightseeing in the smart car forced it's way onto the agenda. Saint Tropez is about 30 miles away along the coast, and of course it is famous, so off we went.
Luckily it stopped raining by the time we got there. It took over an hour to get there because the road winds around the edge of the sea. This is great for the passenger who can sightsee, but there are so many bends and enough traffic that the driver has to concentrate all the time. I think it is a feature of France that the place is also awash with cyclists. Not the Dutch kind who swarm over Amsterdam, these are the serious looking, lycra clad versions. They go almost as fast as a car and tend to be sociable and talk to their mates, thus taking up so much road that you have to follow them around a few curves before they either notice or there is enough straight road to be able to see your way past them.
So getting to Saint Tropez takes a while. When you get there you need to park, fortunately they have provided some huge parks, one of which is by the harbour so you can be envious of the masses of floating gin palaces and very elegant yachts.
The harbour front is covered by restaurants and shops selling stuff that is priced about five euros more that any other place nearby. Take the trouble to walk back a few streets and you find yourself among a mass of designer boutiques with almost every famous international brand represented.
The place is a sort of Torquay meets Bond street, and it grows on you.
We wondered around the shops, where dressing yourself for a stroll down the block would cost the same as a small car and had lunch as about the cheapest thing to do.
Luckily it was only going to take six hours to fix the van, so our temptation to bankrupt ourselves in order to look cool was curtailed. We made it back with our wallets intact and picked up the van. Now we can drive it without making horrible graunching noises every time I touch the brake pedal.
The history of Saint Tropez is that it was a sleepy little seaside place until Bridgett Bardot made a film there. Since then it has been trendy, and judging by the designer goods on show it is likely to stay that way.
Hardly surprising therefore that there was a painting of Bardot on the wall of the bar where we ate.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Broke brake

For the last few miles the van has made funny noises when we stopped. Graunching, would be the normal english word, which translates into French as...
Spent an interesting day driving around Frejus, which is west of Cannes, looking for a Fiat dealer. We eventually found one and arranged to have one of the front disc brakes replaced on Wednesday. That means we will have to stay here a couple of days. Oh what a shame, the camp site has it's own swimming pool and the mediterranean is about sixty yards away. We actually swam in both today.
Last night it poured, with added thunder, leaving a few puddles about the place which have dried out in the sunshine today.
I did manage to write a chapter last night while the rain was keeping me awake. Now we have French Riviera weather, as in the post cards, and it's hard to write anything with an iPad in a deckchair.
The brake disc saga has been instructive, however. If you want to get to know a strange place, set your
mind on finding something out of the ordinary.
We once spent a whole day on Zakinthos trying to find a printer cable,
Lois was writing a thesis and it was the one thing we had forgotten. That escapade turned out to be much more fun than watching numbers of package tourists steadily turning pink by the pool, reading those novels where the author's name is in gold block letters on the paper back.
Tomorrow is my birthday, I think I might go to St. Tropez, it's just along the road.

An addendum. In the afternoon I did actually swim in the sea. Lois took a picture to prove it.

Sunday, 8 April 2012


At the moment we are in venice. Anyone who has been there will know that it is almost impossible to describe, so I won't try. Reading some of the web resources I find that many recommend simply getting lost as one of the top travel tips. The place is a mass of tiny winding streets interrupted by canals of varying sizes, so getting lost is easier than trying to find any particular attraction.
The process of getting lost is assisted by modern technology. I carried a new iPad, so in theory I could use Google maps to get around - in theory. My iPad has a phone SIM in it, so should be able to work anywhere. In fact it needs a decent 3G signal or access to WiFi. In order to avoid vast data roaming charges from my UK network I bought a pay as you go Italian SIM card. That worked well in Verbania and traveling along the autostrada to get here, but in Venice it is far less good. The picture shows what Google maps produces for most Venice, not very helpful.
An alternative is to use what I think is called a MiFi, which is a sort of mobile phone that produces a local WiFi signal. We tried that on the second day and did manage to get maps to work for a rather larger part of Venice. The rechargeable battery ran out after about four hours, so if you really needed to rely on this to get around, then you either need two, or you have to keep switching it off to save power. It takes a minute or so to boot up each time, so would not be much help for things like translation on the iPad. The app called Converse, for instance, is brilliant but it needs the Internet to be connected.
I am impressed with the iPad, I've taken some great movies and pictures with it, but if Apple really want people to get the best out of it, then they should use some of their money and muscle to get the mobile phone companies to perform better. It is completely foolish that a place like Venice, an internationally renowned treasure should have a rubbish mobile phone coverage.
Having said all that, nothing can detract from the wonders of the place. It is, of course, unique. The solution to getting everyone to walk and use public transport and be slim, is not to flood the place and make the streets narrow. Anything learned about to live life here would probably not be relevant anywhere else. I am sure they run the place better, they could learn something from Disney about how to manage crowds and queues, for example, but in general it is just one of those must see places and I am immensely glad I came.
The pictures are just a sample, limited both by space and by writing in Blogger's very primitive iPad app.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Research or reality

Research versus reality

Part of my novel Side Effect is based in Verbania, in Northern Italy, a place I've never been to. I did pass fairly close to it on a coach going to a ski resort, but that hardly counts.
How come I set the scene there? I needed one of the characters to have come from somewhere near London and to have been on a holiday to Italy, when she was still at school. I searched for places south of London that were twinned with towns in Italy that looked as though they would make a plausible holiday destination. After a certain amount of messing around I found that East Grinstead was twinned with Verbania, a town on the north side of lake Maggiora. On that ski trip the coach had driven along part of the shore of that lake, on the way from Milan, and I remember that it looked pleasant. So Verbania was, at least a possibility.
I set about researching the place from the Internet and spent about an hour playing with Google Earth, trying to get an idea what it was like. It seemed to fit the bill. The place looked as though it had a romantic charm and a certain amount of style, sufficient to be impressive to a 17 year old schoolgirl, who might fall for an older italian in a place like this.
Much later in the book that same schoolgirl's daughter returns to Verbania, with the same italian, after she has discovered that he is her father. By then he is dying and the place also has to make sense as a a setting for a sort of nostalgia, that she has never had, a place that could be sad and happy at the same time, where ragged ends could come together and life make sense.
Finding all that out from the Internet is a tall order, but the tools available now are very impressive. After a day researching it I was fairly sure that it worked and I included Verbania in the book.
This year I got the chance to go there and see if the real thing lived up to my imagined view. At one level I have to say that I was slightly anxious, what if it was completely wrong? I guess I would have to go back and edit the book. As it turned out I found that my impression from the web was a good reflection of the actual town.
The real thing has more depth. You can't get the atmosphere of little cobbled streets and the elegance and style of some of the shops, by looking at pictures taken from a satellite miles above. What is surprising, I think, is the way that the structures you can see give the impression of the sort of place that it turns out to be. Well designed public areas, like the harbor for instance, are clearly seen from space, so it is easy to assume that there would be shops and restaurants capable of paying the kind of taxes necessary to keep up appearances. It wouldn't be cheap and there wouldn't be rubbish in the streets; and there wasn't. The picture show Lois in one of the charming, winding streets. It would be impossible to capture that from space, but google street view is already beginning to provide pictures that do reflect local detail.
If I had been there would I have written the same thing? I think there is a real risk that I would have written too much, would have been tempted to include a little more flavor, a little more depth and perhaps got in the way of the story.
If you want to write about a place, then I suspect you have to go there and walk the streets, smell the flowers and eat the soup, or in my case, the pizza. If on the other hand you need a place for something to happen, then what you can find on the Internet may be enough. If the place is a setting, then you need about as much reality as the backdrops and scenery in a theatre; enough to take the imagination of the reader to a place that works for them in the story, and preferably no more than that.

This post is being produced on my iPad, sitting in our camper beside Lake Maggiora, see the second picture. The text was written in pages, which seems to default to American spelling and the post was constructed in the free blogger app for the iPad, which is a bit on the clumsy side. I am fascinated to see how it turns out,

Friday, 24 February 2012

The BT saga

Moving to the new flat has meant a long saga with BT in order to get a phone line and broadband. Of course I have no idea whether my experience is typical or just a crazy anomaly but it has consumed so much time and energy that I can’t resist trying to write it down. The key question is of course whether I can write it without degenerating into a quivering heap with my blood pressure going through the roof.
The saga began before we moved. I was impressed by Sky’s offer of phone plus broadband at a good price and with all the TV stuff as well. I signed up after talking to some very helpful people on the phone, my old phone at the old house, that is, they sent me a helpful text the next day saying how pleased they were to have me as a customer, and two days later they sent me a text saying they were sorry, but they couldn’t do it after all. I phoned. The nice lady sounded upset and set about investigating and after about ten minutes said she had no idea what the problem was. So we cancelled the order and did another one. Another text next day saying how pleased they were to have me back, and next day a text saying that the refund of my original order was under way, and the next day a new text saying that they were sorry but they couldn’t do it after all. More phone calls and it remained a total mystery.
“There must be something about the exchange,” was the best they could do.”
I went into Worcester and tried to sign up with a SKY operation in the shopping centre. Ten minutes on their computer got the same message. “Sorry, we can’t do broadband at that address.”
So if Sky can’t do it I went back to BT. I ordered a new phone at the new address by filling in the form on the Internet, and then the trouble started.
They sent me emails and text messages, all saying different things. It took me some while to figure out how to export text message so that I can show them on here, so this is just a sample.
Foolishly, I tried to phone them in order to find out which day they were actually coming. That involves working your way through lots of choice menus, which usually start off by asking you to key in the number that you are calling about, tough when you don’t have a number yet. Some of the time I just had to hang on until the computer felt sorry for me and connected me to a human.
How we ended up with multiple order numbers and multiple dates on which engineers were supposed to come and connect us up, with what they expect to be different packages, no one knows. Phoning only makes it worse.
In addition to the various texts and emails I also had a voicemail informing me that there was a problem and they would get back to me.
With the possibility of an engineer visiting on 20th, 24th, or 27th I tried phoning to clarify what was actually going to happen. I was informed that 27th was the only valid date and that my order did not include broadband and could not be altered. Luckily a man turned up on the 24th and installed a phone and a package of broadband kit arrived. The phone worked but the broadband didn’t. I waded my way through the phone menus again and was informed that there was a problem at the exchange and that the broadband would start on 31Feb.
“What about 27th, can you make sure to cancel that.”
“There is definitely not anyone coming on 27th.”
Fortunately, we were in on the 27th when two men arrived, expecting to connect a phone, actually with a different phone number. We politely asked them to go away, after first offering them a cup of tea; after all, they work for an insane organization so they might need some sustenance.
The broadband did actually start working on the 31st and two days later a man phoned asking how to find the flat because he was coming to fit our phone. We explained that we now had a phone, had told a few hundred people the number and didn’t really want another one. As he had not actually made it as far as the flat, we didn’t offer tea.
I decided to leave it a few days before writing this piece, in case anything else happened. Two days ago I had another voicemail saying my order had not gone through and to please contact BT. I note that the phone number they quote does not work from mobile phones, yet they are calling to say that they haven’t connected me. What sort of world do they live in?

I started writing this piece, ready to lay all of the problems at the door of BT, but that would be unfair. Yesterday I caught a piece on the BBC with a quote from Julia Stent, director of telecoms at uSwitch. For those not in the UK, that is the outfit set up by the UK Government to help us all switch provider in order to promote more competition and supposedly better service as a result. She said,
“Britain might be riding the wave of a super-fast broadband revolution, but for 49% who get less than the national average broadband speed, the wave isn't causing so much a splash as a ripple.”
Is it any wonder that BT are hopeless, when one of the key agencies responsible for improving things has not yet realized that about 50% of the population will always get a below average service, it’s the nature of averages. If they can’t get that right, can they even count?