Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Why aren't you all Skyping?

I have regular meetings with my agent. We chat, we can see each other... yet we're 80 miles apart, and even better it doesn't cost anything.

We use Skype the internet phone/video thingy and it's absolutely brilliant.

Now, what I don't understand is why so few people use it. Oh, I know Skype has millions of customers. But my agent is about the only person I know I use it regularly with. We have several friends who have it - but they don't keep it on, which misses the whole point. Skype is like phoning, but it's better and it's free. And we have lots more friends who have broadband, but don't use Skype at all.

I know it's a bit more of a faff than picking up a phone, because you have to be in the room your computer's in (unless you have one of the dinky Skype phones that work when the computer's switched off), but it's so much better than an ordinary phone call if you have video - particularly if you go for the HD video, which is stunning quality.

This is beginning to sound like an ad for Skype - it's not (they're not paying me anything, the swines), but I'm genuinely amazed that more people don't make use of it. Get Skyping people.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Desperately seeking psychic

A few days ago I made a rare venture into watching BBC3 to see a rather odd little documentary called Gary: Young, Psychic and Possessed. (At the time of writing it's still on iPlayer here.)

In it, the filmmaker, Emeka Onono tried to produce an open-minded study of the self-proclaimed psychic healer Gary Mannion. Watching, it was as fascinating for its revelations of the mind of the documentary maker as it was for the work of Mannion. Onono so wanted to believe.

This came through particularly strongly when looking at two studies of Mannion. Onono portrayed the work of the (admittedly sometimes rather puerile) website Bad Psychics, which has a great swathe of evidence against Mannion as a personal attack, rather than the useful dissection it is. But when he visited a 'research' establishment that allegedly has some positive results for Mannion, he didn't point out that the Scottish Society for Psychical Research isn't exactly a proper academic institution.

Similarly, when Mannion blatently made the claim to have successfully treated people with cancer in the introduction to one of his shows, Onono made no attempt to challenge Mannion about this disgusting and probably illegal act.

Despite giving Mannion every chance, it became clear through the programme that there was very little evidence for success, and every evidence of failure. But the really sad thing, was Onono's closing oration: 'On paper this was undeniably a victory for the sceptics. But I'd noticed Gary's patients often came to him when they felt conventional medicine had failed them. And they left with something valuable. Hope.'

No Emeka, they left having been conned. This wasn't a victory 'on paper' for the sceptics, it was an absolute trashing. Despite all his wannabelieve leanings, Onono had shown that Gary Mannion was a fraud. It's a sad reflection of our ability to mislead ourselves that he could end the programme with those words.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Unbalanced parking

I ventured out to our local Borders yesterday and encountered a bizarre phenomenon in the car park.

That's the view of the car park on the right - it was packed. Forget recession, it was heaving. This car park has two disabled rows. One was reasonably in use. But take a look at the other one.

There literally wasn't a single car in it. (It's not entirely obvious from the picture, but that's not just one row of spaces in front of the camera, there's another totally empty row to the left hand side of the roadway too.)

I'm all in favour of disabled parking, but I can't help but feel they've got the balance a touch wrong here.

Muttering about incompetent planners, I went into Borders only to be cheered up immensely by seeing the end of the popular science shelf. They've got taste in Borders:

Friday, 27 March 2009

I'm reading in black and white

I'm reading a book in black and white at the moment.

Before you conclude that I've finally cracked under the strain and gone to pieces, because pretty well all books are in black and white, let me explain. I love old movies. But it takes a certain amount of patience to enjoy them. As soon as my kids see that a film is in black and white they give up. Usually with a movie of that period you have to make some allowances. Take one of my favourite films, It's a Wonderful Life - it is, without doubt, a great (if schmalzy) movie, but, to be brutally honest it's a bit slow in places. And, well, a trifle clunky. But that doesn't matter, as long as you approach it the right way.

It's the same with this book, Gather Darkness by Fritz Leiber. It's a classic SF book, written in 1943. I can honestly say it doesn't feel as old as it is, but, yes, you do have to make allowances for the fact it's a 'black and white' book rather than a technicolor one.

One of these allowances that surprised me, in reading my 1979 edition, is just how rubbish the copy editing is. I keep seeing typos, some as blatant as substituting 'minds' for 'hands'. I suppose this is because a) it's a cheap NEL version and b) it was before the publishing process was so computerized. I know even now some mistakes slip through in every book, but not as many as this. (Incidentally, in typical NEL fashion of the period, the cover has nothing to do with the story.)

Then there's a certain allowance for creaky writing. Leiber is a reasonable wordsmith, but he ain't no Jane Austen. At one point he says 'The invisible music rose to an exalting climax...' - so you'd expect visible music, Mr Leiber? (What he means is the source of the music is invisible, but still.)

But that doesn't stop it being a gem of a book, with a sort of 'we know things you don't' plot I love. So we've got the world ruled by a scientific hierarchy using a fake religion with real 'miracles' driven by technology, but there's a growing 'witchcraft' underground movement that uses even better versions of the same technology to throw the hierarchy into chaos. (Hang on, did Philip Pullman read this before he wrote The Golden Compass? The witchcraft people even have 'daemons' of a sort. Hmm.)

I couldn't do it all the time, but just occasionally it's fun to make that little extra effort and read a book in black and white.

Thursday, 26 March 2009


For a while I've wondered why my 10-year-old Nokia 7110 phone still looks pristine and shows no signs of giving up, where my children's phones are temperamental wrecks after one year.

Admittedly, the 7110 is built like a warship (hey, but it does have that exciting pop open bit at the bottom over the keys, and a variant of it was used in the Matrix!) and the modern phones seem to be made of tissue paper. But it's not just that, it's the way they're treated. I look after my phone - they throw theirs around like hair straightners (which also die after a year, but that's a different story).

On first thought I wondered if it was late adopter syndrome. You know the kind of thing. Most people my age are slightly hesitant with computers, because they weren't around when we were at school. This doesn't apply to me, because way back in 1984 I was programming PCs and they're now second nature. Mostly when someone asks me how to do something on a computer I don't know, but this background means I just muck in and try, rather than be scared of the thing. It's that fear of doing something wrong that holds many back.

But it's not quite that with the phones (and, for that matter digital cameras and other small, portable electronics). The difference, I think, is that I respect them as compact masterpieces. You shouldn't be able to cram all that stuff into that small space - and when you do, it needs some respect if it's going to keep functioning. It's not that I see phones as some strange new object to be handled fearfully, I'm just aware what's in them and how fragile it all is.

Chuck your phone around the place like a hairbrush, and you'll get the results you deserve.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Vote for us!

I was slightly shocked to receive an email from a major publisher canvassing votes for one of their titles, which was entered for the Galaxy British Book Awards. This set of prizes seems to be the book equivalent of one of those 'people's choice' TV awards - the voting is done by the general public, and the shortlist is mostly celebrity vehicles or TV endorsed fiction. There was even a separate category just for the Richard & Judy bookclub selections.

I suppose I shouldn't have been shocked by this attempt to drum up votes. There's a long tradition of advertising to encourage people to vote one way or another, and this was just direct email advertising. But somehow it doesn't seem the sort of thing book people do. Not us, you know?

I duly clicked through and voted for a competitor to the book being pushed. As it happens both were from the same publisher (I'd be furious if I were the other person and found out that book A was being promoted above mine) - but my choice wasn't spite. It was simply because I'd read the book I voted for and enjoyed it, where I could never imagine reading the book I was being canvassed to support.

Here's the link for the book awards - have your say in an unbiassed way (of course if I had a book in there, it'd be different...), and you even get the chance to win £200 of book vouchers. Can't be bad.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

How can you know someone you've never met?

I recently had an email from science journalist Angela Saini. We've never met, never spoken on the phone, never exchanged emails, yet each felt we knew the other slightly, as we had read each other's blog and posted comments on them.

So, in a way, I feel like I know Angela, but we don't really know each other at all. I suppose there's a two dimensional spectrum of knowing at play here. At one end is your best mate, at the other that embarrassing kind of 'knowing' someone where you go up to them in a bar, and you say 'don't I know you from somewhere?', and they sigh and say 'I'm on TV.'

But my initial example is a genuine two-way knowing from people who have had no real direct communication. With all the electronic media and social networking going on these days, I think we need a new word for this kind of indirect knowing someone. It could be to knowe someone (the 'e' at the end for electronic) or to kmow someone ('m' for media) - or something else much better someone else can think of.

Whatever it is, it would be useful to have such a word to get round the need to tediously introduce yourself 'We sort of know each other from exchanging comments on blogs' - or even worse, 'I "know" you electronically,' which sounds like a euphemism for low grade cybersex.

What do you think? I'd love to get to knowe you.

Monday, 23 March 2009

I don't get FriendFeed

I'm not one one to be shy with electronic communication. I've got this blog and the website. I use Facebook and Twitter. I'm a member of two online websites for authors. But I just can't get the hang of FriendFeed.

The estimable Maxine from Nature recommended it, and I've tried, I really have - but it just doesn't work for me. The idea is that it amalgamates all your feeds - Twitter, blogs, websites you like (I think) - all into one place. Seems reasonable. But then there are rooms for discussions on different topics, which can be sort of overlayed on your main feed. And people can comment and discuss any of these things - I just get lost.

Part of the problem I have with FriendFeed is that I can't be bothered to go there. All the blogs I read (you can see the list down the bottom of the page) are automatically pulled together for me by Google Reader. I don't have to go anywhere to see these. I use iGoogle (the version of Google you can add widgets to) as my home page, and on it is a view to the Reader - so every time I start my browser, I see the latest posts from any of these blogs. Similarly I use a Firefox widget called TwitterFox that means I never have to go into Twitter, I just see new tweets every time I go into the browser.

Admittedly I do go into the writers' sites and Facebook once or twice a day, but that's a simple, straightforward check on some conversations. FriendFeed just leaves me baffled. Maybe I've got the wrong kind of mind.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Bring back the letter thorn!

I love Anglo Saxon writing. Part of its appeal is that it looks like a foreign language, yet if you read it aloud, much of it is intelligible. And I can spend hours poring over (admittedly in translation) the Anglo Saxon Chronicles. But the thing I think we really ought to revive from Anglo Saxon is the letter thorn. That's not a thorn for putting letters on, but the 27th letter of the alphabet, called thorn.

I was reminded of this when there was a fuss on the news about the Icelandic bank, Kaupthing - because they use a thorn in their logo. It's the shape after the p in the picture. Thorn is a letter that's rendered as 'th'. Just think how often we use 'th' in English because of its thorny Anglo Saxon background. I'd love to bring it back. Þat's þe þing þat I'd like - it's a bit confusing to begin wiþ, but oþerwise fun!

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Doin' the Dog Walk

A while ago I wrote (only partly tongue in cheek) about how important a dog was to a full time writer. On walks with the dog I get my best ideas, pull books mentally into shape - generally do much better thinking that sitting at my desk.

I wanted to share one of my favourite dog walks, through the nearby village of Hinton Parva. I'm sorry this will be a bit of a long post as I couldn't decide which pictures to miss out.

As we get on the edge of the village there's this wonderfully incongrous neighbourhood watch sign. There's not a building within 100 yards - I guess it's the cows and horses that are watching.

This isn't flat territory - I love the rise and fall of the walk here on the edge of the chalk ridge of the Downs (which confusingly are upland).

Heading down into the village. Apart from the wires, rather pretty. Most of the walk is on road, but it's the kind of road where you only meet a car once every 10 minutes or so.

Tucked away just off the main road through the village is a tiny green with traditional Wiltshire buildings...

... and a lovely little church, St Swithun's. It's Saxon in parts, and Norman for most of the rest of it.

Unlike many churches, it's unlocked every day...

inside on the sunny Spring day it's cool and welcoming.

I love the old font - wonderful carved detail.

Goldie isn't quite so impressed at being left outside.

So back across a field to the highlight of the walk...

With two houses, a barn and lots of fields this has to be the street sign with the biggest pretentions of grandeur ever.

So it's back uphill on the winding way home.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Is this iPod Art?

I'm very fond of the work of British (but resident in Portugal) artist Lucy Pepper. Her work is not unlike Posy Simmonds - I don't say that to make it sound derivative (it's not), but it has that same combination of use of spare, cartoon-like lines and funny insights into middle class angst.

I bought one of her pictures last year (I don't buy art, but I just loved this one), and was delighted to discover that what I thought was a pastelish sort of painting thing was actually produced using a computer. Now Lucy is making use of the flexibility of the computer medium to produce what I think is verging on a new artform. It's a cartoon that is drawn as you watch (though speeded up) - so you see exactly how that elegant woman is created from a series of strokes. I find it hypnotic and fascinating. I think it's the ideal art to have on something like an iPhone or iPod Touch.

You can find out more about Lucy and her work at her website. Here's the cartoon that got me started on this:

how it is to be 38 and three quarters from lucy pepper on Vimeo

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Tied in knots

A while ago I had an invitation to a dinner for former IT managers at British Airways. It would have been a lovely opportunity to meet up with former colleagues and find out what has happened to them in the years since I left the airline. But I didn't go. Why? Because they decided it would be 'fun' for the event to be black tie. Dinner jackets (tuxedos) and bow ties for the men, flash frocks for the women.

When I was a student (and for a number of years after), I wore black tie at the drop of a hat, but these days, the concept repels me. I'd rather eat dog food. It's partly because I've abandoned that sign of corporate bondage, the tie altogether. When I started consulting for large companies I always wore a tie, because I thought it was expected. These days, it's almost the norm for consultants to turn up with no tie (quite possibly a suit, but no tie). I really can't see any reason for wearing those silly strips of cloth - doubly so for the ones tied in a ludicrous bow, something I'm pathologically incapable of doing, so I have to resort to getting someone else to tie it, or using the nasty pre-tied ones.

The other reason I don't like black tie specifically is that it has no function but to be elitist. To say 'Look at me, I'm special.' (Or possibly a waiter.) Just how much a source of embarrassment it is becomes clear if you try going for a drink in a pub before/after an event while dressed in black tie. You feel conspicuous and stupid.

I've nothing against dressing smartly on occasions. I'm happy to turn up with a good jacket and trousers. I don't try to make a point by arriving at events in jeans and trainers. But the concept of having a special kind of jacket and tie just for 'dressing for dinner' is at best Edwardian. This is the twenty-first century. Please get over this silly concept (take note, cruise companies), and consign it to the dustbin of history where it belongs.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Now Appearing in Chicago

I have been to Chicago once. To be precise I flew through it, as a hub, enjoying (if that's the word) the most frightening landing I've ever experienced on a plane.

We were a few minutes late and the (presumably ex fighter-) pilot up front was determined to make up time. He took us into such a steep angled turn that those on the right of the plane were looking directly downwards out of their windows. Passengers were screaming. Suddenly he snapped the plane horizontal. We landed, I kid you not, less than three seconds later. I was with a group of experienced airline staff, and every one of them was white as a sheet.

So you might imagine my second approach to Chicago was with even more trepidation. But no. In fact I didn't even notice I'd been. This is because that estimable newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times has kindly syndicated my contribution to Vulpes Libris on its website. That's what I call virtual travel.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Through a haze fuzzily

I was in hospital this morning for a gastroscopy - nothing too worrying, just one of those camera and light thingies they put down your throat to make sure everything's in one piece. I'm pleased to report that it is.

The most fascinating aspect is not the procedure itself but the sedation used in the process. It's the second time I've had it - and it's the weirdest feeling. Unlike a general anaesthetic there is no sense of slipping away. You are fully conscious as they inject the stuff, answering a couple of questions. And the last question is after the event, not before. You are conscious to some degree throughout, but there is just a slice cut out of your memory with nothing in between. It's so strange, but rather fascinating. I wouldn't recommend having a procedure requiring sedation just for the fun of it, but if you have one, enjoy!

Monday, 16 March 2009

If I ever meet Sir Paul McCartney

Many years ago one of the mobile phone companies had a series of ads were famous-ish people said who they would like to have a one-to-one with and why. Inevitably their choices veered to the pretentious (no prizes for guessing Martin Luther King was one of them).

Well, I'd like a one-to-one with Sir Paul McCartney. And what I'd like to ask is what was going through his mind when he allowed the phrase 'this world in which we live in,' into the theme song to the Bond movie Live and Let Die.

I mean, world in which we live in???

Every time I hear this, I want to cringe and simultaneously throw my shoes at the source of this illiterate guff. The really silly thing is that he could have left out either of those offending 'in's without spoiling the scansion, just by extending a word to a second note. So either 'wor-ld which we live in' or 'world in which we li-ive.' But no.

So come, on Sir Paul. What's your excuse?

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Branding idiocy

Our local commercial radio station, serving Wiltshire, is GWR FM. It has a strong local presence - a real feel of being part of the West - along with a striking black colour scheme.

Unfortunately, every five minutes at the moment, they are proclaiming that they'll be Heart FM from 23 March. This is just stupid. Unlike GWR's strong West Country feel, Heart has a mushy Midlands persona. And if you associated any colour with it, it would be pink.

Of course you can see the benefit from the radio company's point of view. It helps them save on costs. But benefits for the listener? None. Wiltshire's local radio becomes a part of a fuzzy Midlands mashup. And we aren't even in the Midlands. Time to switch to BBC Radio Wiltshire, I think.

(In all honesty, I usually listen to BBC Radio 4 anyway - but the kids like GWR.)

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Steam driven computing

I love my big, shiny, black, rather menacing Dell with its elegant flat screens and enough processing power to run NORAD - but sometimes it's useful to remember that writing isn't really about having a whizzy computer. I wrote my first few books on one of these.

It was IBM's first truly portable computer (it was too much like a part of a tank to really be called a laptop). Those two 3.5 inch diskette drives were it as far as disk storage went. No hard disk. One had the operating system, the other the word processing software and you saved your files on any space left.

I can't remember exactly how many lines of text you got on the screen - about 10 I think. And that screen was rubbish. But it did the job.

It wasn't the first PC I used - I'd worked on both at XT and an AT at work (the latter was only the second of these in the UK), which had hard disks, though admittedly only 10 Mb or thereabouts. But the 'portable' PC was enough for my book writing.

These days I hardly ever use a laptop. My current laptop dates back to 1998 and is due to be replaced (probably with a netbook) soon. It still looks quite stylish (it's a little purple Sony Vaio), but it's impossibly slow now. No one expects me to take a laptop to give talks any more - I just take a memory stick. And I prefer to work on paper on the train - I think better on paper.

If I'm doing a lot of text on the move and want to capture it electronically, I've got one of these rather fun electronic pads from Selwyn Electronics. You write on an ordinary pad with a special pen, and the clipboard below captures an electric version of the page (up to 999 of them) which can then be taken as a simple scan, or text recognized and input to a wordprocessor.

Like all text recognition it has its moments of madness. but for most things it's acceptable. Usually, though, an ordinary scribbled-on bit of paper is enough for my needs.

Friday, 13 March 2009

On Parliament Hill

An enjoyable excursion to north London today to speak at Parliament Hill School (nowhere near the houses of parliament). It's a girls' technology college, which I suspect is quite uncommon.

For someone whose journey to work is normally walking down the corridor, it's actually quite exciting to be setting off at 6am for a commute into London. I'd hate it every day, but it's rather a pleasant change occasionally.

The year 11s were a brilliant audience, and the reception was excellent. The only problem was a common one with schools. When I do a real world lecture, I'm often in the room up to an hour beforehand, checking the visuals are okay, making sure everything is fine and leaving nothing to chance.

In a school it's often a bit different. I arrived in the room 1 minute before the event - to discover there was no screen, projector or computer. A moment or two feeling slightly panicky followed, as the presentation is essential for this particular talk. The good news was, though, that there were hot drinks and biscuits, which kept the audience happy while the technology was rapidly set up.

All in all, a good morning - and back to sunny Wiltshire (well, dull grey Wiltshire) in time for lunch.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

In the halls of power

The night before last I was in our local council chamber, watching the planning committee in action.

I was there to support some friends who had the last of a whole string of planning applications up that night. If this one went through, it would give them permanent permission to operate their business - microlighting and skydiving from a delightful Wiltshire location. They have had huge trouble from a very small bunch of protestors, who totally fail to represent local opinion in the village, but who have continued to find every excuse to hold up and disrupt the process. Tonight was the bad guys' last chance to torpedo things - so it was almost an anti-climax when the whole thing went through with no opposition.

However, it was truly fascinating to see local democracy in action. If you've never attended a local government session, I'd strongly recommend it. After all, these people are making decisions that will have a direct impact on your life. I don't know if all council meetings are open to members of the public, but the planning committee certainly is.

The decisions these ordinary folk from the local areas are having to make can be quite complex. Yes there are straightforward planning applications, but also considerations like whole new schools and all the infrastructure implications that go with them. Despite all the 'little local despots' caricatures, these people are doing a hard job on our behalf.

Of course you get the people who love the sound of their own voice - and those who find it difficult to string together a sentence in a way anyone can understand, or who drift off onto subjects not under discussion - but at this meeting, at least, an efficient chair and the professional support staff keep it on track with tact and good grace. I was pleasantly impressed.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

I wish I weren't a climate change pessimist

The International Climate Congress in Copenhagen this week has stepped up the pressure on those who want to pretend that climate change doesn't exist.

Despite the mockery that has been aimed at those predicting sea level rise in the past, we now hear of catastrophic rises of 1 metre or more by the end of the century.

It seems it is now 'almost impossible' to restrict temperature rises this century to two degrees - itself a target that would cause significant problems in many countries. Figures as high as six degrees have been bandied about. This would truly be devastating - see Mark Lynas' book on the subject. And the increase of carbon dioxide dissolved in the seas giving extra acidity is threatening to endanger many aquatic species.

The repeated message is 'things are worse than we thought they were.' Those who complain about the accuracy of climate models rarely seem to notice that when they are inaccurate they almost always err on the side of caution (arguably, in part, due to political pressure), so things turn out worse than predicted.

I'm afraid I'm a climate change pessimist. I believe that things are going to get worse, and that governments will only take serious action - rather than fiddling around with minor efforts that are more posturing than practical - when things go seriously wrong. I really wish this weren't the case. I don't want to be negative about this. The scientists could have it wrong. Things could magically correct themselves without big efforts on our parts. But the outlook is undoubtedly grim.

(Photo by www.freefoto.com)

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

An affair with a Victorian composer

If the title sounds more like something from Heat magazine, apologies.

When not hard at work writing the next book, I run our village choir. I soon discovered that one of their favourite composers was someone I’d never heard of in a couple of decades of singing – a man called Caleb Simper (what a name).

To be honest, it’s really not my kind of music – seriously Victorian. I particularly like Vaughan Williams’ comment about Simper and his contemporary Maunder: Composers with ridiculous names: their names are about the one thing these composers couldn’t help; other aspects of their activities are less innocent.

However, we were going to perform a Simper piece and I wanted some programme notes, so looked him up on the web, only to find there was practically nothing about him there. He wasn’t in Groves, the ultimate musical dictionary, either.

Now you might think ‘not surprising with some obscure guy’, but in his day, Simper was the equivalent of Andrew Lloyd Webber. He had over 5 million copies of his music sold – that’s a lot of music.

So I looked into him and have ended up custodian of the Caleb Simper website.

This has resulted in Simper sightings all over the world. In the UK, with most lesser Victorians he was successfully expunged from many music cupboards in the 1960s, but he has clung on well in Australia, the USA, South Africa and India.

So I now find myself in a really strange position. I feel I ought to keep this web page up, as the guardian of Simper’s memory. But I can’t stand his music! Hey ho. Life keeps us on our toes.

Monday, 9 March 2009

The two faces of Facebook

I don't share the views of those who moan and groan about Facebook eroding this, that and the other - and probably causing your mind to rot as well. If people spend hours a day on it, yes they should get a life, but a quick pop into it on occasion is good fun.

Facebook is particularly useful if, like me, you spend much of your working day alone. It gives a little sense of community as and when you want it.

But I've a real dilemma about how to use it. When I first went on Facebook, it was at the encouragement of the publicity person for a publisher. She saw it purely as another way to get exposure. 'Want to build up friends fast?' she said. 'Ask PR people. They'll be friends with anyone.' (Sorry, PR people, but it wasn't me who said it.) In that mode of operation, you accept friendship offers from anyone, because it's all about getting the biggest number of friends so you can use it as a PR vehicle.

But the problem with this approach is that the information you see about other people becomes increasingly meaningless, because it's about people you don't know. At the moment I can see pictures of my nephew's birthday party (you can't escape, Edward!), and little snippets of news and views from lots of people I know and like. Should that be sacrificed for exposure? I suppose the ideal would be if Facebook let you have two kinds of friends - the ones you communicate outwards to, and the ones whose stuff you will see. (Or does it already do this? I'm no Facebook expert.) But arguably this reduces the community nature of the beast.

Hmm. It's a tough one.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

The book signing as a fishing trip

I did a signing of Ecologic yesterday at our local Borders. They had done a great job, producing some excellent posters and a brilliant signing position with the sort of display of books you'd normally only expect for a big name. All in all, it was a good experience.

There are two types of book signing. There's the signing by the celebrity author, with a queue of people out the door, and there's the signing by the ordinary author like me, where most of the time there's no one at your table.

One of my customers (yes, I did have some) asked me if it wasn't dispiriting sitting there on my own with no one coming up. In fact, it wasn't. (Or at least it wasn't for me.) It had a rather similar appeal to that I'm told fishing has for many. It was a chance to sit and contemplate, to watch the world go by. I sat there for four hours, and it really was fascinating, just watching what people do in a bookshop.

But there were more parallels than that. I started spotting the likely candidates for buyers. I'd try to entice them with a smile. (Women smile back a lot more.) If they came and studied the display I'd say 'hello'. Sometimes this was totally ignored but if I got a response I'd then try to open it into a conversation. It really was like fly fishing, delicately trying to get the link in place without losing the fish.

I don't say this to insult the people who bought my book. They were all extremely intelligent, excellent people. But rather to draw a parallel with the experience.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Choosing company names with care

We often see around our village, delivering to one or other of the pubs, a van from a company that sells cheese.

The company is called Bermic. Now I'm sure they're a very good company - from their website, it looks like they sell some really excellent regional cheeses. They even sell cheese wedding cakes. No really. That's one on the right with the wonderous Cornish Yarg on top:

But I can't help but think they made a mistake with the name. The chances are it's one of those first name combos. Bernard and Michael or Bernice and Michael or some such. But for me, the name 'Bermic' immediately brings lavatory disinfectant blocks to mind. I'm not sure quite why - perhaps it's because it has a similar feel to Harpic - but that image springs to mind every time I see the van. And, frankly, that's not a good association for cheese.

So next time you're naming a company, give a little thought to the feel of the name. It can't do any harm, can it?

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Pulp fiction

Pulp fact, even. I happened to be in a bookshop the other day with a senior editor from one of the big publishers. I was looking at one of the books on the shelves, which hadn't just got a few handling marks - it was seriously browser-battered. Knowing that bookshops can send books back and get their money refunded, I asked if the publisher even paid them for books that so obviously couldn't be reused. The response was a bit of a surprise to me.

In principle, I was told, the publisher could refuse to refund a book that was in a really bad condition. But in the end, the chances are they would all be pulped, so it didn't matter. Returns weren't usually sent back out.

I suppose I imagined craftspersons in the warehouse, carefully restoring returned books to the piles waiting to go out. Giving them a quick polish with a chamois leather before they lovingly restored them to stock. But, no, it's heave-ho into the mashing machine.

Perhaps it's just me, but this seems an awful waste.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Quill pens and publishers' accountants

In my imagination I know just what the accounting department of a publisher looks like. All Victorian-style tall desks, quill pens and hunched accountants scribbling away in vast, dusty tomes.

Surely it can't be any other way?

Why do I say this? Because in our up-to-the-minute, instant-electronic-transfers-of-cash, point-of-sale-information-system world, publishers pay their authors' royalties only every six months, and that can be 9 or 10 months after the cash was earned. And that's if you're lucky. Over the last few years, some publishers have worked hard to get royalties paid annually instead.

In case there's any confusion over how authors get paid, the normal process is like this. Up front they get an advance, which can range from zero (often with academic publishers) to a lot. They probably average about £2,000. Once the book starts to sell, the author's earnings from each sale (typically around 50p per book), starts to offset that advance. When the advance is paid off, then the author is paid royalties* - but royalties are paid a six month period at a time, usually three to four months after that period ends. So for July to December 2008, the author will typically be paid in April 2009.

This system was designed for laborious manual accounting. There is absolutely no justification for maintaining it with modern information flows. Rather than trying to move royalties from six monthly to annually, there is no reason why publishers couldn't move to monthly payments, perhaps 2 months behind sales. Unless, of course, the staff in publishers' accounting departments would like to move to receiving their salary every six months, four months in arrears...

* Sometimes you have to wait longer than this, as some publishers set aside some money to offset returns (books sent back by bookshops) before paying royalties.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Lies and statistics

'There are lies, damned lies and statistics,' said Mark Twain, apparently quoting Disraeli, though no one seems sure what his source was. For a long time I found this dislike of statistics hard to grasp. Coming from a physics and operational research background, statistics was an essential tool for understanding large groups in action. It was the only way to handle many, many issues. Yet now I do understand this. It's not a problem of statistics, it's a problem of the combination of statistics and either the media or politicians.

In a recent piece in the Times, David Aaronovich calls into question the much bandied about statistic that in Britain today, the average person is caught on CCTV 300 times a day. After a bit of detective work, he tracked this down to a book, where the number was used to describe a day in the life of a fictional person who has a very unusual day that conveniently takes him in front of many more cameras than the average person encounters. There is no basis for this number in fact whatsoever.

Now what's interesting here is not the made up numbers, but the attitude of some of the people Aaronovich questioned. A Dr Wood, co-author of a report for the Information Commissioner's Office which quoted this 'statistic' came up with the remarkable response: 'there are probably all sorts of questionable things in [the report], in fact I hope there are many.' He also said that it would be 'politically autistic' to argue that an incorrect or hypothetical number undermines the argument.

Leaving aside that rather unsavoury remark 'politically autistic' - what the good doctor was saying is, it doesn't matter if we tell the truth or not, as long as we persuade people to react the way we want them to. Am I the only one who finds this attitude totally disgusting? And leaving aside the dubious morals of such an approach, it can backfire. As I cover in Ecologic, Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth was able to be attacked successfully in court because the movie took the same political approach to data - it doesn't matter exactly what it says, as long as we're using it for the right reason. The result was to give those who want to shoot down the concept of climate change considerable ammunition.

I know full well how essential it is for a media piece to be eye catching and attention grabbing in a world bombarded with information. But it doesn't justify lying to make your point.

Monday, 2 March 2009

I'm ready for my closeup, Mr Cox

I was delighted to be invited to appear on literary agent Peter Cox's podcast Litopia Daily to talk about Ecologic. I must admit, when I was asked, I thought it would just be one day, but I've been roped in for the whole week, so regular listeners will have to cope with my ramblings all the way through to Friday.

When I first heard about such podcasts, I was a bit uncertain. I like listening to speech radio when I'm in the car, but I couldn't envisage ever taking the time to listen to something like this - a daily (well, weekdays) broadcast on writing and writers. Since then I've started listening, and it is rather addictive. I gather it (I'm not sure if it's the daily podcast or the Friday evening Litopia After Dark) now has significantly more listeners* than Richard and Judy's current TV show has viewers. (For non-UK readers, R&J were once the doyens of UK daytime TV, but moved to an early evening slot on a digital channel to see viewing figures collapse.)

So, why not give it a go? Today's podcast post (you don't need an iPod/MP3, you can listen from your computer) is here.

* 'Listeners' sounds so mid-twentieth century... perhaps it should be podders.