Monday, 30 May 2016

Should you love your job?

Thanks to Eric Doyle on Facebook, I came across an article written by Janelle Quibuyen, who was complaining that 'quitting your job to pursue your passion is bullshit.' I'm afraid it was a piece that totally missed the point of working for yourself. And as someone who made the shift 20 years ago, and hasn't had a proper job since, I wanted to stick up for those who take the plunge.

Firstly, it is important to say something about the 'your passion' part of 'pursuing your passion', which seems not to have occurred to the author of the article. Just because you are passionate about something doesn't mean you are good at it. Few passionate football fans are potential professionals. Shows like The X-Factor demonstrate the gap that can exist between enthusiasm and ability all too clearly. So to make this kind of thing work, you need to be objectively sure that you are at least competent. Don't rely on your own opinion or that of your friends and relations - they will lie. Have a go in your spare time and see if anyone will pay you for it.  Of course you can get better, and you will if you go for it full time - but you have to have some initial aptitude.

Try, if possible, to arrange some kind of transition, so that you don't go straight from employed to nothing coming in. It will almost certainly be bumpy - you might need to change accommodation arrangements, rely more on a partner/move back with your parents for a while. And it could end in failure. No doubt about that at all. But if you have a passion and you're genuinely good at it, you are going to kick yourself if you never try.

Taking the plunge is inevitable a compromise. You will have to weigh positives against negatives. I still don't earn as much as I did when I left my job 20 years ago - so you may well have to plan for a cut in income. One of the things we did about this was to move from somewhere it was expensive to live to somewhere cheap. Unlike our friends who stayed around the London area, we aren't sitting on a million pound house now. But in exchange for having less capital, I was at home most of the time while my children grew up - far more than I would have been if I had left the house at 7am and got back at 6.30pm. And we got to live in the country, rather than the suburbs, where I think the children had a better life.

Similarly, you do have to weigh potential loss of earnings against really enjoying your working day. I don't dread Monday morning, I look forward to it. How much is it worth to spend one of the biggest chunks of your life doing something you love, rather than something you hate? And if I had stayed in my job, when I retired, I would have had far less to look back on and think 'I did that' than is the case since I became a writer.

Of course, as the article suggests, there is a degree of uncertainty. Sometimes it is hard to get enough money coming in, and you've got to be prepared to be flexible, to have a portfolio job, rather than always doing the same thing (though I've found that part of the positives). But bear in mind that the impression of certainty from a salaried job only lasts as long as they don't decide to lay you off. At least when self-employed you can do something about it - you aren't a victim.

Also, as the article suggests, not everyone leaves a job because they have a passion, and not everyone has the kind of drive required to do it all yourself. It seems likely that Quibuyen doesn't. And that's fine. Self-employment and attempting to live the dream is not for everyone. But to suggest, as she does, that somehow this is something only privileged middle class people can do is the real bullshit here. Quibuyen says 'The statement [quitting your job to pursue your passion] reeks of privilege. It confirms you had a full-time job to begin with. It confirms you had time to develop a passion (that you can capitalize off of, enough to meet your cost of living). It confirms you had the option to pursue something different because you feel like it. There are more challenges to being self-employed than just mental perseverance and grit. We are predatorily luring working class people into an entrepreneur lifestyle as the answer to living a meaningful life and loads of money.' I find that patronising and simply untrue as a blanket statement. There are plenty of working class people who successfully set up their own business, doing something they really wanted to do. She seems to suggest that if you are working class you can't have aspirations or a passion. I'm sorry, that's so condescending.

To make this kind of thing work needs personal drive and a certain amount of luck. I was lucky, for instance, that the company I was working for was offering voluntary redundancy, so I didn't have to go from earning to nothing in one go. But the fact remains that for some people, whatever their background, taking such a move can really work. It's not a universal panacea. It definitely isn't for everyone. But I'd suggest if you aren't happy with what you do in life, it's at least worth thinking through.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Where'd it go?

I'm afraid it's that time of year again, when blogging becomes difficult, thanks to all the exciting alternatives like trimming the hedge, cutting the lawn and arguing on Facebook about EU referenda (okay, that doesn't happen every year) start getting in the way, and posts become somewhat sporadic. However, I would like to assure my reader that I've not given up. As a bigger and more Austrian person once said, 'I'll be back.'

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The Pie at Night - Stuart Maconie - review

* See footnote
I've never been a fan of the 'hello sky, hello grass,' Fotherington Thomas school (or should that be skool?) of travel writing that is packed with purple prose and lengthy descriptions of scenery. What does the trick for me is a travel book that explores the (often humorous) interaction between the writer and people and places, preferably with more urban and suburban adventures than countryside and wilderness. When it comes to plain humour, the master of this genre is Bill Bryson (even if he did freewheel a little in his latest), but if you want a combination of humour; wry, intelligent observation and lyrical writing, the trophy has to go to Stuart Maconie.

Whether he is exploring his experience as a music journalist in Cider with Roadies, the north in Pies and Prejudice or more southerly climes in Adventures on the High Teas, Maconie delivers. Now he has returned to his first love, the north of England in The Pie at Night. Rather than being a straight travelogue, here Maconie concentrates on 'the north at play', from crown green bowls and the worst league football team ever, to food and drink, seaside fun and, inevitably, music (where Opera North even shows him it's possible to enjoy opera).

I'm probably more than a little biassed as I have a similar background in some ways to Maconie - we both come from a Lancashire mill town (Wigan and Rochdale respectively) but have made our careers elsewhere, which makes it very easy to feel every bit of Maconie's hymns of praise to northern life that some might find less easy to identify with. But I defy anyone not to enjoy the author's enthusiasm for everything from the most brash northern entertainment to sophisticated food and drink.

Perhaps the only thing that seems a little odd is his admission to not liking the observational humour of many modern stand-up comedians, when Maconie's own humour is very much about people and their little quirks. I love, for instance, his remark 'I'm reminded of the time I asked for Scotch and Dry Ginger in a Salford boozer and the barman said, "What do you think this is, Life on Mars?"' Yet there is a difference - most of the stand-ups I've seen mock those they describe, but Maconie's gaze is usually a beneficent one.

Maconie introduces us to a good roster of human characters, but it is the characterful places that dominate whether we are visiting a station buffet that sounds more fun that any pub I've ever been in or the eerie beauty of the Trough of Bowland. He can make the Lake District seem wonderful, but then absolutely captures one of my favourite buildingscapes, Salford's Media City: 'I love the light and the water, the facilities, the campus-like feel of the place. I love the fact that at night it feels like Blade Runner, like Tokyo. It excites the child in me just like those fairground lights and floodlight did and do.' If you've ever been there at night, you will know exactly what he means.

I'm sure southerners get fed up of us northerners droning on about how special it is in t't north (especially if we have chosen to live elsewhere). But I hope The Pie at Night will give a glimpse of some of the reasons behind that love affair - and for those of us who are northern, however long we've been away, it will generate delightful pangs of memory. Is it a little over-rosy? Possibly - but it works wonderfully well.

You can find out more or buy it at and

* The picture above is the hardback cover, which I prefer to the paperback (shown below). I also prefer its subtitle, which in going to paperback mysteriously morphed from 'In search of the north at play' to 'what the north does for fun', which feels like the publisher's hand at work...

Friday, 20 May 2016

The PR Corner - issue #2

I was always a fan of Pseud's Corner in Private Eye. These days, the most purple prose I receive is often in the form of press releases for books being offered for review. I will provide an irregular series of these, both for your entertainment and, I hope, as pointers of what not to do with the press releases for your own books. 

Note that the books themselves could be brilliant... or not. But a poor press release is unlikely to generate many reviews. Names will be omitted to protect the innocent and guilty alike.
I suspect the problems are fairly self-evident, but just in case here's a few key pointers to look out for:

  • Who is celebrating this book?
  • Science fiction and fantasy are not the same thing. Make up your mind which it is.
  • I seriously doubt anyone is going to see the world in an entirely new light after reading it.
  • Should it be a surprise that Thera and Arthe are anagrams of Earth?
  • After some pretty grandiose claims, 'Will his side win?' seems a trifle limp for a cliff-hanger.
  • Early five star reviews usually mean friends and relations.
  • Are any authors reading this chomping at the bit so far? Does the writer know what 'chomping at the bit' means?
  • Is it really possible to combine 'a heavy dose of fact' with fantasy?

[Title]: Celebrated Sci-Fi Fantasy Epic Hailed a “Melting Pot of Science, Fantasy & Adventure”
X Y’s [Title], volume one of [Series Title], fuses science fiction and fact in a way that will force readers to see the world around them in an entirely new light. Meet The Keepers from Thera, who have responsibility to keep a balance between the interconnected relationships of Earth, Thera and Arthe, where good and evil fiercely battle to prevail. Then there’s Michael Stone, Keeper of [Title], a man who represents and stands for everything that is good. But will his side win? Find out in a new adventure that is already scoring five-star reviews.

United Kingdom – While many new fantasy authors vanish from the scene as quickly as they appeared, those able to carve out their own, wholly-unique new approach to the genre are the ones leaving authors chomping at the bit, and rapidly adding themselves to the bestseller lists. X Y is one such maverick, choosing to buck all trends by melding science fiction and fantasy with a heavy dose of fact.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Do we pay for Channel 4? Understanding cost and price

I recently mentioned on Facebook a petition to keep Channel 4 in public ownership (for non-UK readers, Channel 4 is a public service broadcaster, owned by the government and funded by advertising). I noted in my post on Facebook that Channel 4 doesn't cost a penny to the taxpayer. One of my commenters replied that ' It can't be said that it doesn't cost the tax payer, though. Anything that is funded by advertising is of course paid for by us, even if we don't have a TV, as a share of the cost of everything we ever buy goes on an advertising budget.' At first sight this makes sense - we pay for products, some of that money goes to the advertising, so we pay for the advertising. But the reality of costing and pricing is rather different and worth briefly exploring.

I ought to say that I'm not an economist, but I did write the costing models for British Airways for some years, so I have some experience of costing in a large company, and also have a little sideline selling organ music and sing-along hymn CDs and downloads (no, really), for which I have to deal with pricing and costs like advertising directly.

The problem with the 'we do pay, because someone pays for the products' picture is that this only makes sense if prices were directly linked to costs. So it would be true if the company makes the choice to advertise, then they add a bit extra to the cost of the product so I, as the consumer, pick up that cost. But costing and pricing isn't like this. A price is set by the market. You look at what's out there and decide what the market will bear - what is the best price you can get for the product. That price will often be varied in special offers, or once you get a better idea of what sells and what doesn't. It is not in any sense derived from the costs. To say 'Yes, you do pay for advertising' makes no more sense than to say 'Yes, you do pay for the staff canteen.' Both are true at one level, but the fact that you do so makes no difference to the price, and so to say that we pay for an advertising supported service doesn't really make sense. It makes more sense to say that with a service that doesn't have advertising like the BBC or Netflix, you pay not to have adverts.

But why, if this is the case, do companies pay such attention to costs? It's not to set the prices, but rather to see if the price is viable. The costs that go into this fall into two categories, fixed and variable. While accurate, these are rather odd terms, as fixed costs are usually the ones you can vary, while variable costs are fixed as long as you go ahead with the product or service. This is because fixed costs are your overheads. You pay them whether or not you put on a service or put out a product. But variable costs are the costs of actually making and selling the product or service, so they are only received if you do that particular thing. Advertising is generally a fixed cost (though it can be variable if it is tied to a specific product).

To pull it all together, let's look at one of the products from my music site - a track downloaded from Amazon. Here is a non-vocal track, Bach's Air from Suite No. 33, better known as Air on a G string:

The track costs 99p. We spent some money last month on advertising, mostly on Google. So if you buy that track, are you paying for my advertising? I suppose so, technically. But the fact that I took out advertising had no influence whatsoever on the pricing. In fact Amazon sets the price in this case - I have no control over it. So the existence of the advertising has zero impact on what you pay. And that's all that matters to you. Just to rub it in, here is the same track on iTunes, where it only costs 79p:

The fact that you indirectly pay for the advertising (unless I make a loss, in which case I pay for it) has no impact on the price you pay - so to say that you still pay for a service supported by advertising is misleading at best.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The essential drivers of fiction: character and plot

We've now come to the end of the BBC's thriller Undercover, and there is pretty well universal agreement that somehow a very promising concept had turned out something close to a disaster. (Spoilers after paragraph 4.)

Watching the show, I was reminded of a talk I attended a while ago on the nature of psychological thrillers. The speaker explained that the difference between a psychological thriller and a murder mystery was that the thriller is character-driven, while the mystery is plot-driven. And it was made clear that, from the speaker's viewpoint, this made psychological thrillers a higher form of literature.

The reality is, I suspect, far less black and white. While it's true that the plot-driven 'puzzle solving' aspect of a murder mystery usually takes centre stage, very few modern murder mysteries ignore character - think of something like The Bridge, for instance. But there is still a feeling among writers of 'literary fiction' that character is far more important than plot.

Unfortunately, Undercover demonstrates exactly why this is a disastrous line to take. The characterisation was good, although like many pieces with a pretention of sophistication, the character still have a certain formulaic nature (good cop/bad cop, three children: the academic, the fun one and the challenging one). But the plot was more full of holes than a colander.

I've already moaned about the way that central character, undercover cop Nick, supposedly took on the cover of being a crime writer - but how could you use a cover occupation that required you to have existing published books? But there were far more holes than this. The biggest one was the lack of internal logic. We don't usually notice it, but all fiction should obey an internal logic. It doesn't have to be the logic of this world - fantasy, for instance, applies a different set of rules - but once the logic is established it has to be followed through. In Undercover, this didn't happen. For example, we had the security services killing two people to cover up the fact that someone who died in British custody had committed a murder in the US. But there was no possible reason why this needed such a drastic cover-up. It was totally implausible.

The killings and Nick's cover story were by no means the only holes. Other oddities were the introduction of apparently significant events that then never played a part in the plot (Maya's epilepsy, the confession by the handler), Maya's ability to sway the US Supreme Court against the use of lethal injections, and the way that Maya, who up to now has been regularly racked by uncontrollable emotion, quite happily chatted with the man who had shot her critically ill son (strictly speaking that was more a character failure than a plotting one). I could go on and on. It was a plotting disaster.

So, by all means have a piece of writing that is primarily character driven. But don't think that this gives you the excuse to play havoc with the internal logic of the piece. The result is just irritation and frustration for the reader/viewer.

Image from Wikipedia

Friday, 13 May 2016

King (to be) Conned

'Let them eat sugar pills!'
We all have someone in the family who has slightly barmy ideas, and that's fair enough. But when that person has huge access to the media and aspirations to be monarch, it's a bit worrying. And what do you know, Prince Charles has done it again.

He has recently told the world that we ought to attack the antibiotic resistance crisis by using homeopathy instead. Specifically (though not solely) when treating animals.

Let's be absolutely clear. There is no significant scientific doubt remaining about homeopathy. It has no medical benefit other than the placebo effect. Homeopathic pills are sugar pills. They are not medicine.

Although the Guardian article linked above is primarily about use in animals it does say that Prince Charles 'proposed a solution to the growing crisis of antibiotic over-use in animals and humans'. Anyone suggesting using homeopathic treatments for illnesses requiring antibiotics is potentially putting lives at risk.

As far as the animal side goes, this is often used as an argument by those who support homeopathy to show that it can't just be a placebo effect, because the animals don't know they are being given medicine. (Clever animals - they aren't.) However, this ignores the good quality trials showing that veterinary applications are just as much placebo as human. The animal might not know it is being given a medicine, but the person who is applying it thinks it is, and this changes the human's behaviour, producing any actual effects. In many cases though, the 'effect' is simply imagined - either the animal would have got better anyway, or the person sees what they want to see.

When I wrote Ecologic, for the section on organic farming I interviewed an organic milk producer who was genuinely upset about the health of his cattle because the Soil Association forced him to use a homeopathic treatment first, and his animals were suffering as a result. Even though we may not be so concerned about the feelings of animals compared to humans, we still shouldn't be putting them through this.

I headed up this article with the word 'conned' rather than 'con'. I believe that Prince Charles is absolutely genuine about this, rather than being in the pay of the suppliers of Duchy Organics etc. However, it is entirely inappropriate for him to make this kind of intervention and shows again the less palatable side of the monarchy.

Image from Wikipedia:

This image was originally posted to Flickr by National Assembly For Wales / Cynulliad Cymru at It was reviewed on 29 August 2011 by the FlickreviewR robot and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

PR's Corner - issue #1

I was always a fan of Pseud's Corner in Private Eye. These days, the most purple prose I receive is often in the form of press releases for books being offered for review. I will provide an irregular series of these, both for your entertainment and, I hope, as pointers of what not to do with the press releases for your own books. Names will be omitted to protect the innocent and guilty alike.

BOOK TITLE: Searing Book of Poetry & Prose Empowers Reader to Tackle Society’s Downfalls
Masterfully constructed by renowned poet, author and playwright, X Y, ‘Book Title’ cuts right to the core of humanity and the human condition; a clarion call to readers that urges them to stand up and fight for what’s right. Both heartfelt and raw, Y’s words speak directly to the heart of his readers.

United Kingdom – X Y is more than just a writer, he’s a fearless warrior who passionately calls out to society. Not one to let humanity’s problems slip by unnoticed, Y calls his readers into action through bold poetry and short stories that force the redefinition of every shred of their existence.

His new book, ‘Book Title’, is no different. Prepare for something bold and profound; intense messages of truth and hope that will inspire even the most apathetic to band together for the world’s greater good.


Indulge yourself in a rendezvous with notable poet, author, and playwright X Y as he shares with us a compilation of his best works, ranging in nature from poetry to short-stories, as well as his reflections on the human condition. Allow him to share his thoughts with you, listen to what he has to say, and let your heart respond to his words.

A moment of patience in a moment of anger can save a thousand moments of regrets, so accept your past with no regrets, embrace your present with confidence and face your future with no fear.

We must open up our ears and hearts and listen to the cries of our society, we must come together and think what can we do to bring a change and how can we be the solution to our society's problems, we must listen in order to respond.


With the volume’s popularity expected to increase, interested readers are urged to secure their copies without delay.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

The proof is not in the pudding

One of the most hated activities in all of writing is proofreading. It takes a special kind of focus to sit down with a manuscript and go through, word for word, looking for the slightest slip. And even though books from respectable publishers will usually have undergone this process with at least three separate pairs of eyes, I have hardly ever read a published book where I didn't spot an error or two - which means that there were probably several more, as once I get into a book, I tend to read so quickly that I don't spot much at all.

This being the case, there was a huge temptation when I got a spam email from a proof reading service. What are the chances, I thought, that their email would have a mistake in it? Wouldn't that be deliciously ironic? I have reproduced it here for your delectation. I could only spot one punctuation error, but who know what might be lurking within. (And I do wonder about the journal publication service.) Meanwhile, back at the pudding*...

X Proofreading company is one of the world’s leading editing and  
proofreading companies. Our company’s primary objective is to provide  
clients with prompt, professional, and affordable editing and  
proofreading services. Our careful proofreading and editing services  
provide clear, error-free materials that let you present a  
professional image. 

At X Proofreading company, we offer the following services: 

1. Proofreading and editing 
2. Translation from other languages to English 
3. Manuscript write-up 
4. Manuscript critiques 
5. Publication of manuscript in a relevant journal 

Send your documents for proofreading and editing to; 
email address 1, 
email address 2
* I should note that, as it often misrepresented as 'the proof is in the pudding', the phrase is 'the proof of the pudding is in the eating,' just as the proof of the writing is in the reading. I deduce that if the activity involving writing is proofreading, the activity involving pudding should be proofeating.

Monday, 9 May 2016

End to End review

I very rarely review self-published books, but I love humorous travel books, particularly those set in the UK from the likes of Bill Bryson and Stuart Maconie. So, when I was offered the chance to read a book described by the author as 'a travelogue adventure in a similar style to Bill Bryson' featuring a bicycle trip from Lands End to John O'Groats I plunged in, and I don't regret it.

Alistair McGuinness tells the story of a three-man trip over the 800+ mile trail that would sometimes test the individuals involved to the limit, but that also brought romance to one and a nightmare experience in a youth hostel to all. (The dog mentioned on the cover, incidentally, doesn't come into the story at all - it's just a postscript that somehow got into the subtitle.) The book is solidly written, and has been well edited. I never got bored or felt I wanted to give up on reading it. If I had to sum it up in one word I would say 'Pleasant.' Two words? 'Mildly pleasant.'

Unfortunately, it didn't really live up to the promise of being similar to Bryson's style. The key to good humorous travel writing is to skip the mundane and highlight (dare we even say exaggerate in some cases?) the unusual and extraordinary, injecting a sense of the absurd and delightful. There is too much writing in End to End  along the lines of this extract: 'Breakfast was a quiet affair, broken by requests for water, juice, and more tea. Our cooked breakfast was served by a teenage waitress, who didn't hover at the table too long, except to collect orders for additional toast.' And I care about this because? It's a factual account, but it lacks any bite.

There is one well-flagged incident in the youth hostel visit, which had plenty of potential for humour, lacked pizzazz. We have a nice set-up with one of three cyclists saying he doesn't want to stay in a Youth Hostel, particularly with dormitories and organic muesli as breakfast. With a certain inevitability a hotel booking is missed, it's too late to book a family room in the hostel, and all the worst possibilities come together in a dormitory with plenty of comic opportunity in the problems of getting back into a dark dormitory when returning from a night out. But although the opportunities for hilarity are there, the telling lacks the sophistication it needs, falling a little flat. A comic narration like this needs to build relentlessly, and for whatever reason this never happens.

So, at risk of damning End to End with faint praise, it is fine as a simple description of a biking holiday that really stretched those involved. But it has no real narrative thrust, none of the comedy genius that is present even in Bill Bryson's lesser works. I am glad I read this book. I hope others will too. But think of it as a simple travel account, not travel humour.

End to End will be available on Amazon soon...

Friday, 6 May 2016

Why I might vote 'out' in the referendum

Here's the thing. I have done my best to assess the actual information, rather than scaremongering, from both sides and at the moment, neither has swayed me. Here's my logic for therefore voting out:

  1. My vote won't decide what happens. *
  2. If I vote 'in' I seem to be saying 'things are fine with the EU,' but they aren't
  3. If I vote 'out', then I'm adding weight to the argument the government needs to do more to distance us from the less palatable aspects of the EU. 
The usual objection to this kind of voting to make a point is 'But if everyone voted like that, we would be in a mess.'

I'm sure I don't need to point out to you the logical error in that argument. But just in case I do, we are talking about unconnected events. The way I vote will not have any influence on how other people behave. The 'What if everyone...' argument has no merit because my action is independent. 

* OK, strictly speaking, it could be totally balanced with my vote being the decider, but that is ridiculously unlikely

Thursday, 5 May 2016

CleanSpace review

The tag. It's neatly styled, but does get rather grubby.
I have recently had the opportunity to review the CleanSpace app and tag for Good Housekeeping - but there's only limited space there, so I'm going into more detail here about this personal air pollution monitor/clean travel app.

The CleanSpace tag is a slim plastic device about the size of mobile phone, which monitors levels of carbon monoxide. Powered by wi-fi, so it never needs a charge, the tag connects to a smartphone by Bluetooth, passing on information to the CleanSpace app. The idea is both to encourage the user to travel in a green fashion and to be able to keep an eye on the air pollution on your route, choosing a healthier alternative if necessary.

The tag only measures carbon monoxide levels, which seems a touch dubious when one of the main concerns in city air pollution is the levels of particulates, notably from diesel exhausts. However, I was reassured by Ben Barrett from King's College, London, who told me:
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a good tracer for combustion sources in general – vehicle exhaust, gas cooking, cigarettes, biomass burning etc – all of which are also sources of particulate matter. Therefore it is true to say that carbon monoxide is a good measure of combustion-related particulates. CO also has the advantage of being relatively stable, so more straightforward to measure with a miniature low-cost electrochemical sensor. CO is not related to non-combustion sources of particulate matter, such as construction dust or transboundary ‘secondary’ PM (nitrates, sulphates and ammonia). However, as the CleanSpace sensor is principally designed to allow users to monitor relative exposure to vehicle exhaust as they travel (thus linked to their CleanSpace low carbon miles), this is a intricacy that is unlikely to affect the vast majority of users.
The app. The control panel is a little
confusing to begin with - there's a lot
going on.
So far, so good, then. The CleanSpace app is available free from the App store and has a dual function, which can make it a trifle confusing. It both keeps track of the output of your tag and notes your miles travelled and how many of them it assumes to be green - i.e. travelling by foot or by bike, rather than by car, bus or train.You can use the app without a tag, just to keep track of your mileage, although you then miss out on the personal air pollution details.

As you hit certain targets for clean miles, you are awarded little rewards, from a free coffee for your first mile to the rather more dubious benefits of free yoga sessions. In a particularly unnerving fashion, the app also tells you how many clean miles you have travelled in comparison to the average user of the app. The trouble with this is that if, like me, you are a walker, your typical mileage will be dwarfed by cyclists. (See the image. I recorded 1.44 miles last week (I did more, but I didn't have tracking on all week), but the average user did 25.69 miles.) It would be sensible if you could tell the app which you were, and it compared like with like. Similarly, it seems too broad brush that it treats all motorised transport the same - so I don't get any brownie points for travelling on a train rather than car, or an electric car rather than a diesel taxi.

Fun though the app is on its own, it has the potential to be far more interesting when linked to the tag. Setting this up proved a little fiddly. It took several attempts to get the tag to link to my phone by Bluetooth, and when it had, I didn't realise for a while that it expected to me go onto the website and validate my first data there, rather than being able to do so on the phone app. Inevitably also, when the tag is active, the app uses battery on the phone even faster than the distinctly noticable noticable drain from the app when it is monitoring travel.

I managed some medium quality air by walking
near a dual carriageway in Swindon
The travel monitor in the app mostly works fine - it just occasionally missed a bit of a journey - I found the tag rather less reliable. Sometimes the phone didn't think it was linked to the tag. Other times I made a journey with the tag active and it registered no pollutants - yet I had been walking alongside dual carriageways through the middle of Bristol. The problem seems to be either the tag's power system, or its Bluetooth link. (The other possibility is that found it hard to meter the air in packed pocket, but I also tried it in a loose top shirt pocket, and it still registered nothing.) Either way, the tag was more intermittent than I liked and only managed to monitor about half my walked journeys - though if you regularly take the same route, that's plenty to build up a picture.

You can take a look at your air quality exposure as a graph showing peaks, or as a map, which seems to combine the data from any tag it can lay its hands on to give the best picture it can of its surroundings.

There's no doubt this is a great idea, and though in this relatively early phase it seems a little over complex, it lacks the ability to tailor to your travel means, and it can be inconsistent, it does, nonetheless, provide a useful overview of how you are travelling and what the air quality is like.

The app is downloadable from app stores, while the tag is available direct from CleanSpace or from

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Nightmare scenario

I don't often have nightmares, but when I do, of late, they have had two themes. Some involve sitting my Natural Sciences finals exams, only I haven't revised since 1976. (For some reason it's never my Masters exams from the year after.) And the others put me back with my previous employer, British Airways. What used to be a great place to work has become a seen of hatred between workers and management.

I suspect I know why both of these are occurring. As an RLF Literary Fellow I am currently helping science students at Bristol University with their writing skills - and for third years it is that terrifying time of year. As for the BA nightmares, I'm afraid, while exaggerated, it reflects the way the airline is shooting itself in the foot.

When I was at BA, the IT department (then known as IM for Information Management), was central to the airline's success. The IM director, for example, was a full board member. And this was because sensible airlines knew just how important their ICT systems were to survival. Our biggest American rival used to say that it was a booking system company that happened to fly planes.

There are two big factors behind this importance attributed to ICT. One was, indeed, the booking system. Written a language rarely used outside airlines and banks, designed for ultra-fast high levels of transactions, it needed a small army of programmers trained in this very specialist language. The second was scheduling and yield management. Airlines have complex schedules, which have to change at a moment's notice, and airlines led the field in the business of changing the price of seats over time to maximise revenue. There were plenty of other reasons too, from the way that the newest technology was often employed in the airline business to managing a huge and complex engineering business, where safety was paramount.

It was always possible that some of the ICT business could sensibly be outsourced. But the core aspects were the company's crown jewels. Yet, now, much of that business is being sent offshore, and many of the key workers are leaving or being transferred to an external company. It clearly is a nightmare for those who work there. But I also think there is the distinct danger that it could become a nightmare for the company, which used to be a world leader in this field. And that would be a shame indeed.