Tuesday 29 December 2009

Don't look back, look inside!

My, what a year it’s been. I’m currently sandwiched between Christmas 2009 and the 2010 New Year – and taking a break from my sprout and cranberry bubble-and-squeak to write a few notes for The Fonecast’s first podcast of 2010. Next week we’ll be looking back at 2009, turning our backs on Swine Flu and President Obama’s election in favour of the iPhone 3GS, Avenir Telecom and Digital Britain.

As part of my research I’ve browsed through Google Zeitgeist – its spirit of 2009 summary – for a little inspiration. And you know what? The UK mobile industry doesn’t play much of a part in it. Oh, sure, there’s a lot of online stuff and that inevitable bleed-through into the mobile internet… but we’re not really all that big. Lady Gaga, cheap flights, Facebook; they matter to the people of the UK. Mobile phones? Not important.

And for a moment I was taken back to my school days and a lesson from our Religious Studies teacher. One day he talked on the subject of “No-one believes in their own immortality”. He said we could easily imagine a world without other people – but not without ourselves. I remember it as being a very effective lesson. At this point we’d not read Freud’s thoughts on the subject. I still haven’t.

Anyway, it brought me back to a topic that I’ve touched on a couple of times this year. We in the mobile phone business really shouldn’t be so full of ourselves (if, of course, we are). Things that we think of as enormously big deals don’t carry the same weight for other people. No-one outside our little bubble world cares about the merger of Orange and T-Mobile. Not really.

Which means we 'mobile people' probably need to spend more time in 2010 explaining why these things are important. And perhaps, just perhaps, we need to get a little perspective, too!

Monday 28 December 2009

The rabbi, the comic and the poet

I've had a good year for live entertainment. A few weeks ago I went to see An Audience with Rabbi Lionel Blue. It was the last part of what I thought of as my "carpe diem" 2009 tour. You see, I'd nearly booked tickets to see Chas & Dave - but didn't. Next thing I know, they're not performing together. I didn't want the same sort of thing to happen again, which is why I've been to see John Cooper Clarke, Simon Amstell and Rabbi Blue this year.

And you know what? All three shows were pretty similar (in a good way, naturally). Any one could have been prefixed by "A conversation with..." - but I reckon the rabbi told the most jokes. After suggesting that problems were also opportunities, he went on to explain that his health was presenting him with plenty of opportunities at the moment. (May he live to 120). My favourite joke involved the mohel - but he tells it much better than I could, so I won't. Sadly there wasn't time for me to meet him after the show, although he was happy to wait.

John Cooper Clarke - who, like Rabbi Blue, doesn't seem to be planning retirement - also kept the audience entertained with jokes and conversation between his poems. And Simon Amstell's entire act was very much like a conversation with the audience.

Which is how I like my stage shows. If I wanted something two-dimensional, I'd have watched them on TV. If I wanted to drift off into my own thoughts, I'd have read a book. Instead - and in all three cases - I left feeling that we'd had a bit of a chat and the world was a better place. If only they'd consider touring together.

Saturday 26 December 2009

Xbox 360 vs PS3... by a man who knows nothing about gaming

I’m not much of a gamer. I don’t have a games console. But my girlfriend’s son does. In fact, since yesterday, he’s had two.

He’s been a PlayStation fan for years, having upgraded from the PS2 to the PS3. I like the PS3. I like the amount of technology that Sony has squeezed inside, including WiFi and a Blu-Ray DVD player. And I like the games. In fact, I grew quite attached to Resistance: Fall of Man and its story (to say nothing of the multiplayer shoot-people-from-around-the-world mode).

Anyway, there’s now an Xbox 360 in the house as well. Playing Halo 3 on a friend’s Xbox convinced our PS3 fan that he’d also like an Xbox.

My first impressions weren’t good. Unlike the PS3, the Xbox 360 doesn’t have built-in WiFi. So that’s an extra £50 for an adaptor. Then I noticed that the controllers don’t come with rechargeable batteries – unlike the PS3. And, perhaps the worst difference, the Xbox wants you to pay for online gaming against other people – again, unlike the PS3.

Installing the wireless adaptor wasn’t straightforward. Plug and play? Not a chance. Instead, we realised that you needed to run an installation CD with drivers on it. Now, it may be because we plugged in the adaptor first – or it may have been a different problem – but we couldn’t get the Xbox to read the CD. Mixed Media Disc, it told us. That’s all. A flashing green light on the adapter told us it was looking for a network… but nothing more. There wasn’t a wireless option in the console’s network settings.

So we went online. “Turn on your Xbox 360 console and then insert the installation disc”, said Microsoft. “Turn off your Xbox 360 console by pressing the power button. Then, turn on the console. The update process should start automatically. If the update does not start automatically, you already have the correct drivers. In this case, you do not have to take any additional action.”


We then found that other people had also had problems, which wasn’t particularly reassuring.

Anyway, we eventually solved the problem by changing the console startup settings to boot from the disc. (We’d also cleared the memory cache but I don’t think that had made a difference).

Having finally got the machine online and registered for a month’s free Xbox Live Gold membership, it was time to play Halo 3. You know what? It’s a lot like Resistance: Fall of Man. Perhaps I’m naïve but I was surprised at just how alike they were. Which also means I’m looking forward to it.

Friday 18 December 2009

The trains looks so beautiful in the snow

Yesterday morning I received a promotional email from Southern Railways.

"Ho ho ho Amigo!", it said. "Merry Happy Christmas! I so excited! I never see the snow before. The trains will look so beautiful. And Southern trains give you so many great Christmas offers, like off-peak tickets for only half price but only to Christmas."

That, by the way, is the voice of Loco Toledo, the fictional Mexican wrestler promoting rail travel.

I wondered whether talking about trains looking beautiful in the snow was such a good idea, given that heavy snow was forecast for the south of England later in the day. Beautiful, possibly. Moving, possibly not.

Sure enough, this morning there are cancellations, short notice alterations and delays... along with Loco's recommendation that Santa should take the train (even though Christmas Eve services start closing from 8pm). All of this hasn't really been thought through, has it?

Thursday 19 November 2009

20% of potential online daters don't stand a chance

The Advertising Standards Authority has just upheld a couple of complaints about online dating service eHarmony.

One complaint was about the TV ad that suggested 2% of Americans were marrying after meeting on the eHarmony website. Well, that 2% was based on market research - and the ASA didn't think it was good enough to substantiate the claim.

The other complaint was about an offer to "get started at eharmony.co.uk today and review all your matches for free". Completing a registration profile on the website involves answering 258 multiple choice questions. eHarmony says it's not always possible to find a match; in fact, it's not possible to find a match in 20% of cases. That's one in five people who can't even get started with the lottery of online dating because eHarmony reckons there is no-one in the world for them.

Anyway, the ASA upheld the complaint because some people wouldn't have any matches to review. And it got me thinking about the odds. On the surface it seems that finding a truly perfect match is as likely as flipping a coin 258 times and waiting for someone else to choose the same sequence of heads and tails. Which, if everyone's different and my maths are correct, means we don't have anything like enough people on this planet.

Sunday 15 November 2009

Installing a new hard drive in my laptop

Last week's excitement involved installing a new hard disk in my laptop. And here's what I learned:

  • I can buy a 320GB 7200rpm laptop hard drive from eBuyer.com for just over £50 delivered.
  • Installing a 320GB 7200rpm hard drive in a Sony Vaio VGN-SZ2XP/C laptop isn't too difficult if you have a decent set of instructions and a couple of small Philips screwdrivers. I went to LaptopLogic.com and NotebookReview.com for guidance. (I chose the alternate option in step 10; it seemed much safer).
  • Symantec has a special tool for removing its Norton anti-virus software, which deletes the odds and ends that can get left behind.
  • If Microsoft Word (Word 2003) is refusing to save your changes to the default font and page settings, it could be caused by Adobe PDFMaker, which is part of Adobe Acrobat 7.0. The PDF print option messes with the Normal.dot template, apparently.
  • Battery life seems better with the new installation and the new drive, which is something I wasn't expecting at all.

Tuesday 6 October 2009

A major disorientation

I'm reading Independence Day at the moment; quite slowly, because it doesn't really suit being a 'bedtime book'. Anyway, here's one of my favourite paragraphs so far:

Joe may be verging on a major disorientation here - a legitimate rent in the cloth. This actually appears in textbooks: Client abruptly begins to see the world in some entirely new way he feels certain, had he only seen it earlier, would've directed him down a path of vastly greater happiness - only (and this, of course, is the insane part) he inexplicably senses that way's still open to him; that the past, just this once, doesn't operate the way it usually operates. Which is to say, irrevocably.

From Independence Day by Richard Ford.

Saturday 3 October 2009


"Re-write it", he says. "I want colour," he says, "I want drive and beauty and humble, human warmth and ecstasy, and all the tender, sad emotion of your sweet womanly heart, " he says, "and I want it in fifteen words."

From The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl & C.M.Kornbluth

Monday 14 September 2009

Not 99 problems, just one

It's six years since Jay-Z's The Black Album was released. So I'm sure I'm not the first person to say this but, dearie me, what's the point of BBC Radio 1 playing "99 problems" - of which the key message is "I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one" - in a 'clean' version that removes the word "bitch"?  Not even the entire word in some instances, just the first bit (if you'll forgive the pun). It's pretty damn obvious there's a word missing - and it doesn't take a lexicographer to work it out. Kanye West sang "heard they'd do anything for a Klondike; well, I'd do anything for a blonde..."  That's clearly not another choc ice reference. What’s next for the daytime playlist - "k the pain away"?  Once upon a time, bands would include an alternative line - "she'll grab your Sandra Bullocks" is better than the original, I think - but that seems to be too much trouble now.

There's a school of thought that says words are neither bad nor good. Much like guns and dogs, it's the owners who are the problem. I'm inclined to agree, although I'd be less worried by someone waving a dictionary around than by either of the two other options. My point is that the message is either likely to be offensive or it isn't. Either play the whole thing or not at all.

I was only reminded about the Radio 1 incident and my latent annoyance when I was flicking through The Guide (The Guardian's entertainment listings) this weekend. There's an ad for a band called what at first glance looks like "FACK BUTTONS". On closer examination, the A is actually a star, reminiscent of the grawlix used in comics to denote swearing. On the pages either side are articles that mention the band's real name. Apparently it's a U, not an A. So this is a band that uses swearing in its name but isn't brave enough to print it, although the newspaper reviewing them doesn't have a problem. They don't look so clever now.

I enjoy wordplay. I don't mind some swearing. But I also like a bit of integrity. Now, where's my David Hasselhoff CD?

NB: Yes, I know "... Buttons", as Radio 1 probably calls them, have been around for several years. Yes, I'm sure it's the Buttons' record label that I should be blaming. And yes, I know I'm sounding a bit Meldrew again.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

Sounds like Paris

An assortment of sound effects from a trip to Paris in August 2009. They include:

  • The Ashford Eurostar terminal
  • Eurostar train arriving
  • Onboard the train
  • Paris Eurostar terminal
  • Paris Metro
  • Street noise
  • TV weather forecast
  • More street noise
  • Café
  • Park
  • Street musicians
  • Street noise
  • Another two groups of street musicians
  • Inside the Pompidou Centre
  • Protest march
  • Cafe outdoors
  • Walking through Jardin du Luxembourg
  • Frog & Princess pub / football on TV
  • Sacre Coeur interior
  • Metro interior (including busker with accordian)
  • Eurostar - pre departure announcement
  • Onboard Eurostar message

Monday 7 September 2009

What good has that done anyone?

In May this year I bought a camera. A nice little Samsung L313 from Argos. Catalogue number 559/1473 to its friends in the warehouse. 13.6 megapixels for £99.99. What a happy customer I was.

Alas, it went wrong after a couple of weeks. The controls would ‘freeze’ when you were using it and the only way to get it working again was to remove the battery for a moment.

I took it back to Argos and they replaced it. I was a happy customer once again. I liked Argos. I liked Samsung.

The second camera then developed an identical fault within three months. I took the camera back to Argos and told them what had happened. All I wanted was a replacement camera. Unfortunately my local Argos store wouldn’t do that. They wanted to send L313 off for a repair. Even when I suggested this wasn’t acceptable for a relatively new camera, their response was that their terms were within the law and that’s all they’d do.

Next, I wrote to Argos head office and told them my tale of woe. They wrote back to say they were sorry to hear of the problem but their terms were to repair faulty items if they were more than 30 days old and within 12 months of purchase.

So I headed for Her Majesty’s Courts Service online. £25 later and I’m taking Argos to court. Two weeks later and I receive a letter from the court telling me the defendant’s made a full admission. The next day a cheque for £99.99 plus £25 costs arrives. The day after that I get a letter from Argos telling me they’ve decided not to contest the matter.

What a waste of time and money. Argos is now £25 out of pocket… plus the time taken by head office staff to deal with the legal stuff… plus the wholesale cost of a faulty camera (which I still have in a drawer somewhere). I've spent at least a couple of hours chasing around and I no longer trust Argos.

Ultimately, no-one really wins. And that’s all a bit disappointing.

Friday 21 August 2009

Enthusiasm is my enemy!

This article was originally published on TheFonecast.com

Enthusiasm is one of the great intangible powers of the world. It’s attractive, it’s compelling and sometimes it’s dangerous. And – yes, I’m going to try to keep this relevant – it sells mobile phones.

I was reminded of this the other day when I read a Sunday Times piece about Apple’s Steve Jobs. It wasn’t particularly sympathetic to Mr Jobs but it made mention of the “reality distortion field” that people often describe as surrounding him. That’s his enthusiasm – and it’s the enthusiasm that’s transformed Apple from a mere computer manufacturer into the company it is today. The Apple iPhone arrived in 2007, enthusing the so-called fanboy while also enticing millions of others to ditch their smartphones for the new Apple device.

It’s enthusiasm that's made the Apple iPhone – later the iPhone 3G and now the 3GS – a device that’s changing the way the mobile industry works. We may not like this… but we may not have much choice.

Despite the iPhone's popularity, the reasons not to like it are manifold. For example, many of the technical specifications aren’t as high as other current smartphones. Some of the iPhone’s features have lagged years behind other devices.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve not bought one myself. I had a Nokia 2110 back in 1995. I had a Nokia 7650 in 2002. I like cutting-edge – when it’s relevant to me – and I won’t upgrade just for the sake of changing my phone. (I’ve got a HTC TyTN II at the moment, since you ask). And yet I’m thinking about getting an iPhone.

Why?  It’s that darned enthusiasm. It’s not affected me directly – but it’s affected other people. Developing software for different operating systems is expensive, as MoBank’s Steve Townend said in this week’s edition of The Fonecast. That’s why MoBank started with a single OS. If I want to use MoBank at the moment, I need an iPhone.

Now ipadio, which works with pretty much any mobile phone in the world, has created an iPhone application. I can still use ipadio from my current mobile… but if I want the extra features, I need an iPhone. Ocado. Google Earth. Amazon Kindle. All iPhone lovers. Of course, support for other operating systems may well follow, but who wants to wait?

So what’s going to save me from ending up with a mobile device I don’t really want?  What's going to save me from needing a not-really cutting-edge device to run the latest software? (Now THAT'S ironic, Morissette).

Perhaps technology development. Maybe the next iPhone (or the Apple Tablet) will have a higher spec and a better keyboard experience, both of which are important to me. Perhaps we’ll start seeing more apps for Android. Or perhaps commercial reality will come to my rescue.

Strand Consulting has recently published a report that describes the iPhone as a mobile operator's worst friend. It points to Apple’s small market share and the high data usage it encourages on flat-rate tariffs. In fact, it reckons that no mobile operator in the world has increased its overall turnover, profit and market share due to selling the iPhone.

Enthusiasm’s difficult to beat. I’m a big fan – but not when it overwhelms reality. Perhaps it’s the accountants with their Symbian smartphones and their BlackBerry devices that’ll have the last word on the iPhone. Meanwhile, I’ll hang on to my HTC for a little longer… and maybe I’ll take a look at second-hand iPhones on eBay when I have a moment.

Wednesday 29 July 2009

25 years of dodgy coverage

In my last article for TheFonecast.com I looked forward to a world of cyborgs… but feared that decent battery life could stifle my dreams. And this week I’m on a similar theme, despairing that the UK’s mobile coverage problems probably won’t be solved before the Silver Jubilee of Vodafone and Cellnet’s networks.

To illustrate my worries, let me tell you a story. Once upon a time I worked for BT. “British Telecom” they called themselves then, before the shame of being a British telecommunications company caused them to change their name. And, as all British Telecom employees did, I signed the Official Secrets Act.

Fortunately, the information I’m about to disclose wasn’t passed to me in the course of my work – otherwise this could be the last opinion piece I wrote for a while.

When I started work at BT, they were – in simple terms – the UK’s telephone company. In reality that wasn’t true, because Kingston-upon-Hull had its own telecoms structure, Mercury Communications had recently been formed and System 4 carphones were available, but let’s overlook all that for the moment.

One of BT’s responsibilities, so I was told – this is the bit I was told outside work, your honour – was to make sure every town and village had telephone service. If a remote community or village didn’t have a property with telephone service, BT (or its predecessor, Post Office Telecommunications) would make sure there was a telephone box available. This may have been fiction or exaggeration, but it seemed perfectly plausible to me. Therefore, in case of emergency, there was a pretty darned good chance someone would be able to phone for help.
Red BT K6 telephone box
Fast-forward to 2009 and BT no longer has a monopoly on providing telephone service. The red telephone box is disappearing, with a number of local councils choosing to ‘sponsor’ an unprofitable local box for £500 a year – around half of the actual running costs – to prevent BT from removing them.

Yet there’s no true mobile replacement. Almost 25 years after the first cellular mobile phone call in the UK and I could still be stuck in a large number of UK locations without service from any of the country’s five networks. Worse still, rival networks won’t lift a finger to help. If I’m a Vodafone customer without coverage and there’s O2 service available, the networks will shrug apologetically. Even my handset joins in – taunting me with an on-screen “emergency calls only” message but not letting me make any.

Okay, so it’s all being fixed. To quote Ofcom’s consultation document from earlier this month: “We believe that now is the right time to look more closely at the nature of, and reasons for, the persistent 2G ‘not-spot’ problem as well as the state of mobile broadband coverage and work where appropriate to facilitate better coverage”. And emergency roaming could be in place by the end of the year if trials work out okay. But it’s still taken a quarter of a century.

This article was originally published on TheFonecast.com

Thursday 23 July 2009

Tweet The Kotel

Last year I did some work that involved a little research about The Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall, the Kotel and the al-Buraaq wall). Now, leaving religious issues aside - which is nigh-on impossible to do, given the wall's location - I ended up with a basic grasp of 2000 years of wall history and a desire to pay the wall a visit. But now I don't need to... or at least, I wouldn't need to if I wanted to leave a prayer in a gap in the wall.

tweetyourprayers.info lets you send prayers via Twitter or email. It's not 'official' but is operated anonymously by a man from Tel-Aviv with help from people in Jerusalem. He prints the Tweets or emails and they 'post' them between the stones.

Why are they doing it? To quote the website, "It seemed perfectly sensible, almost trivial, to provide anyone on the planet the opportunity to quickly and easily place his prayer in the Kotel". And it's that trivia that'll bug a lot of people, I'm sure.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

The Singularity is… errm… on its way, I think

I’m an optimist. I’m not quite sure why I’m wired that way but I’m perfectly happy with it. Much as you’d expect, I suppose. And although I tend not to tap-dance in the gutter when it’s raining, I firmly believe that life is like a musical.

That’s probably why I’m such a fan of what’s become known as ‘the Singularity’; a point when technology and evolution are expected to combine. As computers become smarter, so they’ll be able to build smarter computers themselves – and before you know it they’ll be repairing people and improving the design. If all goes well I’ll look like a combination of Robocop and Jude Law.

Of course, it might not quite work out that way. Watch out for Skynet, Agent Smith and the Master Control Program.

“Fascinating”, I hear you say. “Bring on the medical nanobots. But what’s all this got to do with mobile phones?”

Excellent question. It’s just that when I start looking towards the future, it seems that current mobile technology is a bit clunky. That’s when my optimism gets a bit shaky. Forget artificial intelligence, I don’t even have decent coverage at home unless I pay Vodafone to steal my broadband with one of its femtocells. Many of us are still using a stylus to peck at tiny on-screen characters. GPS mapping can be painfully slow to respond. Calls drop. Batteries expire. Networks get overcrowded. Even the much-loved iPhone is acclaimed predominantly for its operating system, not for its technological advance.

Which, as Carrie Bradshaw often said, got me to thinking. Exactly what am I looking for in my next phone?

I want plenty of memory. Actually, no I don’t. I want access to the memory that’s on my laptop in my office. The laptop that’s too big to carry everywhere. So perhaps I need a smaller laptop. Maybe I do want plenty of memory after all. Oh, and a physical keyboard. Or at least a decent-sized on-screen keyboard. But not too big, otherwise I’ll have the laptop problem again. And I’ll look a bit daft holding it to my ear. Perhaps the ‘Spider Computer’ that Ericsson mentions in its Life in 2020 project. Mind you, when I was younger (and stronger) I carried a Nokia Communicator for a while. Now, that was a cutting-edge piece of kit.

I’m pretty sure the basic technology I want all exists today. To start with, I can already store all my data in the cloud. I may not trust it but I can certainly do it. Apple’s multi-touch screen was born with the iPhone, while Nokia has patented ultrasonic gesture control. Augmented reality is starting to go mainstream – just imagine how well it would work with a pair of video glasses. (I’ll do without the Bluetooth contact lenses for a while). I can even get a computer that fits into the size of a plug. So my portable, easily controllable device is realistic. Why can’t I find it?

The answer, I fear, is the stuff that’s bugged mobile phone owners since Ernie Wise called Vodafone’s office above the curry house in 1985. It’s battery life. It’s coverage. It’s cost. And it’s combining them all in a device that doesn’t compromise one in favour of the others.

All we seem to be doing at the moment is dancing round the edges of the problem. It feels as though there’s something just waiting to be invented – or improved – or perfected – and then I’ll have the mobile phone I want. I don’t know what the answer is… but I’m hoping it’ll be delivered by singing rats in a gondola. Or something very similar, with music by Marvin Hamlisch.

The future belongs to the geeks

Originally published on TheFonecast.com. Cartoon from gapingvoid.com

Monday 13 July 2009

Another couple of my favourite-yet-rarely-used words

Anthropomorphism: attributing human qualities to other things or animals

...and, almost inevitably

Sesquipedalian: having many syllables

Sunday 28 June 2009

Top five favourite-yet-rarely-used words

Callipygian: having shapely buttocks.

Eldritch: weird, unearthly, ghostly.

Eleemosynary: relating to or supported by charity.

Gallimaufry: a mixture, a jumble, a medley.

Serendipity: making a fortunate discovery by accident.

(Best not to use them all in the same sentence).

Friday 26 June 2009

What's the point?

A little while ago I thought about writing a book. A book that explained the things I'd learned since becoming a copywriter. Well, you know how it is. Clients, friends and re-runs of "Mock the Week" have conspired to slow me down. I put a draft version of the introduction online a few weeks ago - and here's part of the unfinished first chapter.

What's the point?

Before you start writing, there's a question you need to ask yourself: why am I doing this?

I'm not talking about personal motivation, although I'll come to that another day. What's the purpose of the copy you're writing? Are you trying to sell something... or do you want customers to telephone for more information... or do you simply (although it rarely is simple) want people to think fondly of you?

If you're writing for yourself, you need to think about your aims carefully. If you're writing for someone else, they'll probably tell you what their aims are - but you might need to ask. You'll sometimes find that clients have a formal "briefing document" they send you. It'll probably be packed with irrelevant stuff about Pantone colours and image guidelines, but read it carefully. And if you don't get anything in writing, make sure you confirm the objective of the copy as part of your formal quotation. You are sending a quotation, aren't you?

Thursday 11 June 2009

Tuesday 2 June 2009


Last week I was on holiday in Padstow, which has certainly been changed by tourism - the Metropole hotel has towered over the town for many decades - but I don't think the new trend of 'gastro-tourism' has made the town a worse place. In fact, after a good value meal at the Rick Stein cafe and some excellent pub cooking at The Golden Lion, I struggled to find any discord or anything to complain about... except tourists who didn't know how to enjoy themselves.

Tuesday 26 May 2009

How to be a copywriter

How to become a copywriter.

  1. Start doing the job
  2. Keep doing the job

Let me explain.

When I was younger I didn’t want to be a copywriter. I wanted to be a stunt man. I’m not sure exactly what started it but I think I was partly inspired by TV’s “The Fall Guy” and partly by the opportunity of being paid to behave recklessly. No pun intended.

Anyway, it didn’t take me long to realise that you didn’t start in the stunt business as the driver of fast cars. You started as cowboy #3 thrown through a window… or as ‘second victim’ floating downstream. The driving thing wouldn’t happen for a long time – and that’s assuming your bones had healed enough for you to sit down properly.

So I became a telephone engineer. I could picture myself as “Fall Guy” Colt Seavers when I sped through the countryside in my yellow van. I looked like the star of “Danger UXB” when I spliced cables together. And I didn’t need to jump from helicopters.

Fast-forward twenty years and I now write about technology instead of installing it. It’s a job I’m very fond of. Except… a few months ago I was given a copy of “The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook”. You’ve probably seen one; it’s spawned a series of books that offer tips about everything from avoiding an unwanted romantic encounter (disguise yourself) to jumping from a moving train (look out for fence posts and try not to break anything when you land).

Suddenly I wanted to be a stunt man again. Or perhaps a secret agent. The book was entertaining. Amusing. Based in fact. Yet, to quote the authors, “Do not attempt to undertake any of the activities described in this book”. Because this kind of thing needs training, experience and – occasionally – a bit of luck, too.

Which brings me to my point. “Faking it” can work in the short-term but it’s no alternative to experience. You can’t start your dream job simply by picking up an e-book or listening to a series of MP3s. Sure, you need to read what other people have written and see what other people have done – but that’s just part of the process. Cowboy #3 was thrown through an awful lot of windows before he ever rode a horse with John Wayne. The vast majority of copywriters – heck, the vast majority of people working in any darned job whatsoever – start somewhere near the bottom of their chosen ladder. So don’t waste your money on “get smart quick” schemes. And get smart slowly.

Thursday 21 May 2009

The way of the car salesman

I’ve just been to look at a new car – well, not a new car*, a second-hand car – and I was particularly struck by 'the way of the car salesman'. Having searched online and found a car, I turned up at the car showroom… only to find a car that looked very similar to the one I’d seen on the web but costing £500 more. When I mentioned it to the car salesman, he said – without the bat of an eyelid – "we put those prices online to make the cars look more attractive".

"Hang on", I thought, "what about people walking past" – and then I realised that many people probably don’t just ‘walk past’ anymore but browse online first.

Even so, it seemed a strange assumption that someone would look online, find a dearer price at the showroom and wouldn’t think “this is a car salesman being deceptive before I’ve even started talking about purchase prices and part-exchange values”.

An odd technique… and what’s probably just as odd is that I didn’t dislike the salesman for admitting it!

* despite the temptation of the scrappage allowance; a word that's been in the dictionary since 1949

Get the briefing right

Seth Godin posted about working with creative people in his blog yesterday. He says there are two types of creative brief: the "clean sheet" and the strategic, defined (some would say "prescriptive") brief.

Although giving your designer, copywriter or architect a free rein can produce spectacular results, it also means - rather like dealing with the Mr Tourette cartoon character - that you're not in a position to complain about the finished product.

Giving someone a clear brief - "use these colours, fit to this space, other people have done this and we'd like something similar" - means you know what you're getting (and, more to the point, you know what you're not getting).

As a copywriter, I prefer the second option. It means more work for the client... but it guarantees results. As Seth Godin says:
The strategic mission takes more preparation, more discipline and more difficult meetings internally. It involves thinking hard without knowing it when you see it. It's also the act of a mature individual, earning his salary. The clean sheet of paper is amazing when it works, but involves so much waste, anxiety and pain that I have a hard time recommending it to most people.

[Video clip not safe for work. Or my mother]

Tuesday 5 May 2009

David Devant and his Spirit Wife

David Devant and his Spirit Wife played a gig on Saturday night as part of the Brighton Festival Fringe. After completing a 60-minute set at St. Andrew's Church, Waterloo Street, Hove - a great venue in every sense except, sadly, for the acoustics - they crossed the road and carried on performing at The Iron Duke pub (with a little help from the audience). I recorded a couple of minutes of video and some audio on my mobile phone.

Thursday 30 April 2009

Carbon footsteps to Brighton

It's around 10 o’clock on a rainy weekday morning and I'm driving into Brighton. I've always been a fan of public transport, although living in London taught me it's sometimes neither cheaper nor quicker. Today I thought I'd compare the costs - not just financially but also the environmental impact and the time I'm spending.

Fortunately there's a Brighton & Hove Council car park opposite my destination. That's £2.20 for two hours, which is pretty competitive for somewhere as busy as Brighton. I could have parked further away for less but time is of the essence today.

My journey took 33 minutes to cover 12.3 miles. Now, let’s assume my car does 28 miles to the gallon. Okay, it’s not an assumption. I’ve been keeping track of my average fuel consumption for the last couple of years. That’s just under a gallon of petrol for the round trip. Petrol’s 94.9p a litre at the moment, or £4.31 a gallon if you prefer, so – putting my trusty solar-powered calculator to work – that’s £3.79 on petrol, plus £2.20 on parking, which is a penny short of £6.

If I head over to vcacarfueldata.org.uk, I learn that my car emits 248g of carbon per kilometre. That’s pretty high compared with smaller, newer cars. So, swapping between imperial and metric again, my 24.6 mile round-trip left 9.8kg of CO2 floating around. I don’t know exactly what that means but another quick internet search suggests it’ll take a single tree a whole year to absorb that, so it doesn’t sound too good at this stage.

£5.99 for the round trip, 9.8kg of CO2 footprint and 33 minutes each way. It’s time to take a look at a bus trip.

Brighton & Hove busJourney time on a bus is going to be longer. To start with there’s the five minute walk to the bus stop, plus the extra five minutes to make sure I don’t miss the bus if it’s a bit early. Then there’s what should be around 42 minutes on the bus and another three or four minutes walk at the other end. Let’s say 55 minutes in total if I’m lucky.

My return ticket costs £3.50. Nothing more to pay. The driving’s slightly Brighton & Hove bus stopshorter than the car trip because the bus stops on the main road. So we’re looking at 11.1 miles each way; a 22.2 mile round trip. I can’t calculate a precise personal carbon cost because it’ll vary depending on the number of people on the bus. Apparently a bus produces five times more CO2 than my car – but it also carries more people than my car. Looking at carbonindependent.org, they say figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs suggest an average 89g per km per person, so I’ll use that – which gives me a figure of 3.2kg of CO2. I could also factor in my personal CO2 emissions from breathing more heavily when walking uphill, wear and tear on my shoes, wear and tear on my car – but I’m just after a rough figure to compare a trip to Brighton and back.

So – driving from Lewes to Brighton takes 40% less time than catching the bus but the bus costs 40% less and only produces a third of the Carbon Dioxide. What does that mean? Nothing that I didn’t know or couldn’t guess. If there’s time for me to choose between taking the bus and driving myself, I’ll take the bus. And I’ll be looking more closely at carbon emissions when it’s time to change my car.

Sunday 26 April 2009

Rhinos on Kilimanjaro

Around 10 days ago a friend of mine swam about a mile for charity. A great effort for a good cause. He's now considering a trek up Mount Kilimanjaro for the same charity, Marie Curie Cancer Care, and asked for thoughts about raising sponsorship.

Well, I thought about a few ideas - including adding an optional donation to the quotes/invoices his business sends out and/or finding an angle for press coverage - but I got distracted by the concept of sponsorship. The more I thought about it, the more I thought the recent Red Nose climb for Comic Relief had 'devalued' climbing Kilimanjaro as a challenge. We got the impression it was hard work but anyone who was reasonably fit could do it... which made it seem noble yet a bit silly. Another concern was the funding: this type of event isn't as clear-cut or as inexpensive to arrange as a sponsored swim. Because some of the sponsorship may go towards paying for the trip, not towards the charity's work, technically a sponsor could raise more money for charity by asking people to donate and then not going!

One alternative for the Marie Curie walk would be telling everyone that you're paying the organisation costs yourself - which has the disadvantage of emphasising the 'fun' aspect of the challenge and making it sound a bit like a holiday.

Of course, the big flaw in my theory is that sponsorship works. Even cynics like me will support their friends. It's all about the greater good, as Mr Spock once said. Although he didn't ever sit in a bath of baked beans.

Anyway, I wouldn't have thought much more about this if I hadn't just read a chapter in Douglas Adams's 'The Salmon of Doubt', a book he wrote when dead (yet is considerably better than anything I've yet managed while alive). He talks about campaigning with a team of people in rhino suits who were climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and summarises his thoughts thus:

...the deal seems to be this: "Okay, you are trying to raise funds for this very worthwhile cause, and I can see it's an important and crucial matter and that lives or indeed whole species are at stake and something needs to be done as a matter of urgency, but, well... I don't know... Tell you what - do something really pointless and stupid and maybe a bit dangerous, then I'll give you some money".

[Update: It was the London Marathon on Sunday - but Major Phil Packer isn't likely to finish for a couple of weeks. Now that's a sponsored walk. He quotes philosopher John Dewey on his website: "Without some goals and some efforts to reach it, no man can live".]

Thursday 23 April 2009

Lewes: the Cuilfail Tunnel

A few months ago I moved to East Sussex and now live just outside the county town of Lewes. I was born and brought up over the border in West Sussex – and grew up with the slightly odd idea that West was best. Because I’m here in Lewes, I thought it was time to learn slightly more about the East; my new home. And I’m going to start by heading underground.

Cuilfail TunnelThe Cuilfail Tunnel is the single reason that many people don’t visit Lewes, because it allows traffic on the busy A27 to bypass the town. It’s around 430 metres long, boring through a chalk hillside between the eastern edge of Lewes and the roundabout south of me at Southerham.

The tunnel was officially opened in December 1980, although it’s part of a traffic planning process that started before the Second World War and involved a couple of angry public inquiries in 1964 and 1972. The bypass itself was started in 1975, with work on the tunnel beginning a few years later.

Today, the tunnel is having more than £2 million of government money spent on renovating it. There’s new cladding and new lighting going inside, which will apparently help to reduce future maintenance costs. It may not be pretty but it’s a welcome alternatCuilfail Tunnelive to the original plan from the 1970s, which would have seen all the houses demolished along one side of South Street.

The tunnel gets its name from the Cuilfail area of Lewes, although it’s not a local name. Just over a hundred years ago the land above the tunnel, which is now a golf course, was owned by a local solicitor who named it after a house he owned in Scotland. Apparently the Gaelic root means "Shelter” or “Retreat”.

And the tunnel’s not the only modern landmark in the area. At the Lewes end of the tunnel is a spiral sculpture of Portland Stone that suggests a giant ammonite fossil – the kind of thing you might find in the chalk that the tunnel cuts through. It was created by Peter Randall-Page and was placed here in 1983 to Peter Randall-Page ammonitemark the tunnel’s opening. Locally it’s often called the snail – perhaps an appropriate metaphor for the state of local traffic if the tunnel wasn’t here.

Tuesday 21 April 2009

Merging your offline and online life

I read something the other day on someone's blog - oh, how I wish I remembered where - about merging your online and offline lives. The reference was made by a chap who'd published a book about his attempts to become famous online. No, I can't remember the details. (I'll edit this post if I ever find out!)

Anyway, as the result of assorted circumstances, he felt there was little point in pretending to be someone different according to the medium he was using. And I'm inclined to agree. Hence my FriendFeed account.

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