Friday, 27 February 2009

Book review: "The amulet of Samarkand", by Jonathon Stroud

We got this book free when we bought JK Rowling's 'The Tales of Beedle the Bard'. The front cover shows a mischievous imp huddled in a cranny, an amulet clutched within it's hands. This, along with the font and the title, give a distinct impression that this is a fantasy book.

I must admit that, although I love science fiction, fantasy is not my favourite genre. Fantasy books can be too overwrought, and can introduce a world far too complex for the reader to easily grasp. This is one area where the Harry Potter series succeeds - the magical world that Harry inhabits is unveiled slowly, and you do not get a steep learning curve.

This book is the direct opposite. The book starts from the perspective of Bartimaeus, a djinn (a type of demon, although he would not like me to call him that). His magical properties are immediately unveiled as he is summoned by a magician. However, this is done delicately, and the reader is not faced with an impenetrable mass of terms or concepts.

There are two main characters in this book; Bartimaeus, a cheeky and sarcastic powerful djinn, and Nathaniel, a precocious trainee wizard. Nathaniel summons Bartimaeus in order to fulfil an act of revenge (to steal the amulet of Samarkand); the act leads to a roller-coaster set of events that runs out of everyone's control. The narrator swaps frequently between Nathaniel and Bartimaeus, but it proves easy to keep track of whose mind you are in.

The setting is in a contemporary London where magic abounds; although it may be an alternate reality, you never quite get to know (if it isn't, then the entire cabinet are magicians). London is used well, and is prevented as a dark, foreboding place.

It is very fast-paced, and the events unfold at breakneck speed. There is little time to breathe, yet the two main characters are very well developed. It is a delicate balancing act, and one that the author accomplishes well.

The book is quite a magical read, and that is not just down to the skilful writing of the main plot. For there are frequent footnotes interspersed within the text that give humorous and sarcastic asides from Bartimaeus. An example (when describing another demon):
"A variety with five eyes; two on the head, one on either flank, and one - well, let's just say it would be hard to creep up on him unawares while he was touching his toes."
These footnotes add magic to the book; they amount to much more than the sum total of their words. They actually bring out a whole new aspect to Bartimaeus' character. You could choose not to read them, but if you did that then you would miss some wonderful writing.

One disappointing point is that the characters meet children on several occasions who appear to have special properties - they can see Bartimaeus when concealed, and steal something from Nathaniel. It is suggested that they are part of a 'resistance' against the rule of the magicians. These events are not really put into context or explored further; I can only assume that they are in the later books of the trilogy.

All in all this is an excellent book; in my opnion it is better than Harry Potter, although it has a very different tone.

I give this book 5 out of 5.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Book review: "The suspicions of Mr Whicher", by Kate Summerscale.

Şencan saw this book in WH Smiths last week and pointed it out to me. I was instantly put off by the 'Richard and Judy' book club sticker on the cover, but the blurb on the back cover piqued my interest. At first it was hard to tell if it was fiction or non-fiction - the title and the cover have a certain fiction styling to them. When I flicked through and saw the photographs, I realised that it was based on a true story.

This book details the investigation into the murder of a 3-year old boy, Saville Kent, in a small village in Wiltshire. The death was particularly brutal, and the boy's corpse being left in a cesspit below a privy.

Immediately the suspicions of the local police, the locals and the media fall on different people within the household. Was the murderer the father, the nursemaid, the sister, the brother, the stepmother, or some strange combination of the above? They were all suspected, and all suffered because of those suspicions.

The lack of progress by the local police (which included allowing themselves to get locked up into a room by the head of the household one night) allowed a detective from London, the eponymous Mister Whicher, to come along and try to solve the case. As much as anything else, this book is about Mister Whicher and the formative years of the detective force.

This was the first locked-room story, and the author shows how the case influenced mid-Victorian writers. This was partially because the murder occurred at a time when both policing and particularly detectives were new. Detectives were disliked in many quarters as being people who pried into private lives - an ungentlemanly act. There was a first, highly-botched trial that ended in an acquital, followed by another, much later one. During this process, the reputation of every man, woman and child who had been in the house at the time of the murder was dragged through the mud.

Charles Dickens had his own opinions of the case, and his suspicions also get mentioned. It is fascinating to see what he believed happened, and how wrong he got it - or did he? For at the end of this book there is a great deal of doubt about who the real murderer was.

I could not help but make parallels with the Madeleine McCann case; a media frenzy; a family accused; alleged local police incompetence. As with Madeleine McCann, it involved an innocent beyond repraoch, and as in the McCann case the truth will very probably never be known.

There are some negative points about this book- it starts off trying to be a murder mystery or thriller but soon drops that aim, preferring to discuss reactions to the case. It contains large tracts of descriptions about the Victorian world. I found the latter fascinating, but others would not. Once the initial murder has occurred and the suspects discussed, the book loses much of its pace.

Additionally, although the author can hardly be blamed for this, the characters involved (Mister Whicher aside) are actually not that interesting. They were normal working an upper-middle class people, typical of their times.

All in all it is a strange piece of work, but an enjoyable read. I give it 3.5 out of 5.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Radio interview

About six years ago I did a 6,200-mile walk around the coastline of the UK. During the walk, I did many radio interviews with various radio stations. These saw me being interviewed in some strange situations and locations - the strangest of which was upside-down on a flood bank in Somerset.

Throughout the year, I did regular call-ins to BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, talking to Ray Clark on the afternoon show. The trip was bookended by two studio interviews. I had never been in a studio before, and had never been interviewed on the radio, and the experience was both exciting and frightening at the same time. I was surprised by how small and cluttered the studio was with various paraphernalia. By the time the end of the walk came I was an old hand, and took the second studio visit in my stride.

Yesterday afternoon, I had a phone call from the producer of the show, and she invited me onto this morning's show to talk about walks in Cambridgeshire. I haven't done any radio interviews for years, and so I was more than a little bit nervous.

So, with the idea that forewarned is forearmed, I spent an hour yesterday afternoon currently picking out the best walks I have done in Cambridgeshire, ready to talk about them in the interview. This has to be the most fun sort of research possible, and I soon realised that Cambridgeshire is far from a bad county to go walking in. True, it doesn't have any mountains to speak of, but some of the walks are fantastic. Little can beat the stroll up the Cam and Great Ouse from Waterbeach to Ely on a summer's day, and seeing Ely Cathedral appear on the horizon like a ship.

The only problem is that I hate public speaking. I have a tendency to gabble, and my pronunciation is far from clear at the best of times. This is particularly true when I an enthusiastic about something, and I am very enthusiastic about walking.

In the end, the slot was about five minutes, and involved asking a question about geocaching (which I know little about). Still, it was fun, despite the fact that the phone and Internet connection to our home went down last night. This meant that I had to do the interview on my mobile, something that I prefer to avoid.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Toxic ships

There has been a great deal of press over the last few years about a company in Hartlepool called Able UK, who wanted to start breaking up ships. Over the last couple of weeks, the controversy has reared its head once more, with a French ship heading over for dismantling.

From the BBC Website:
A former French aircraft carrier - rejected by India and Egypt as being too toxic to be broken up - has arrived at its final resting place in Teesside. The Clemenceau is to be dismantled and recycled at Graythorp, Hartlepool.
and The Times:
A ship regarded as too dirty to be broken up in India has docked in Hartlepool, where it will be dismantled and its toxic contents sent for burial.
These are interesting perspectives on an important environmental story. Yet the story is more complex than these snippets make it seem. Firstly, how 'toxic' are the ships? Secondly, even if they were rejected by India and others for dismantling, does that mean that they cannot be safely dismantled in Britain? After all, the removal of materials such as asbestos is a large and successful industry in Britain.

For years Able UK have been attempting to get permission to scrap a number of ex-US military ships, part of the US strategic reserve. These are old ships, stored in case they were needed in the future. As times goes on, newer retired ships replace them, and the old mothballed fleet needs scrapping. The US Government insisted that this be done in an environmentally friendly way, and Able UK won the contract. Greenpeace supported the move, Friends of the Earth resisted it, and cost Able UK a fortune contesting them in court.

Now Able UK has won the contract to break up the massive French aircraft carrier. This time, both Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth both support the move. I welcome this as being far-sighted, realistic environment activism. But wait a minute; as mentioned, when Able UK wanted to break up some American warships over five years ago, the FoE complained (see also here). In the latter link, note the phrase:
Between them the structures of the two ships contain more than 800 tonnes of American toxic waste - with more than 500 tonnes of asbestos and 300 tonnes of solid PCBs set to be buried locally in Hartlepool - on UK soil.
The word 'American' is notable here. This gives the impression that they are not complaining about waste from the French ship, as it is 'European' toxic waste.

A spokesman of the 'Friends of Hartlepool' group called it “a floating timebomb” (from the Times). This has to be one of the exaggerations that gives so many groups bad press. In an attempt to get press attention, they have raised their rhetoric to a massive degree. In what way can it be called a timebomb? What is their justification for such a stupid, dramatic phrase? Now, it could be that they are concerned about 'dumped' materials leaching out of the ground over time. If so, this is hardly a timebomb; more of a timeleach.

As an example of the utter rubbish that environmental groups can come up with, see the following link on - 'Asbestos ship of death'. Oh my God! It's a ship of death! We're all going to die!

So what are the alternatives? There are several that I can think of. The first, and most horrific, is for the ships to be sent to India or Bangladesh ( for disposal. The Greenpeace website has a good article on a relatively good Chinese outfit. Only the truly brain-dead will believe that grounding ships at high-tide and having barefoot men cutting them up is an improvement over what Able is suggesting.

I am all for environmental agencies trying to ensure that things are done properly. However, they also have to realise that jobs need doing. If that is the case, then they need to work with, not against, people and organisations to ensure that it is done in the best reasonable way. The situation with Able UK is not perfect, but it is better than the alternatives.

House tidying

We've got the Landlady coming around this evening for an inspection. As well as doing the usual (cleaning the kitchen, vacuuming etcetera), I have to decide what to do with the magazines and newspapers laying around the place. We've got various cubbyholes we can put our reading material out of view, but I don't want the house to look unloved. For this reason I want to leave a couple of things out.

So which newspaper gives the best impression? We have many copies of the Times and Guardian around, but which one to leave on top of the pile? The Guardian and Times both give very different impressions, although either is far better than (say) the Sun or the News of the World. I wonder what my Landlady would think if I left a copy of the Daily Sport out...

Then there are the magazines. We subscribe to the Economist, the London Review of Books and Private Eye. The latter is by far my favourite, but I think LRB or the Economist gives a better impression. Which should be given prominence? Additionally, there are a few copies of 'Writing Magazine', 'Air Forces Monthly', 'Triathalete' and 'Country Walking' in the bedroom. Each of these would give a very different impression.

Then there are a couple of copies of Viz .

I think I've spent more time considering all of this than tidying. Not that I'm an obsessive or anything. And writing this Blog post has also taken more time from the tidying...

Perceptions of heroism

There has been a lot of justified praise for Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot of Flight 1549 that crashed into the Hudson in New York. He did a good job in crash-landing the plane; depending on how you define it, this was the first successful splash-landing of a large passenger jet.

On the other hand, he did exactly what he should have done. There were also others on board the plane; are the media saying that the co-pilot did nothing? Focussing on one man may give the media good stories (epecially if they can build him up only to bring him down later), but tells far from the whole story.

Then there is the strength of the Airbus A320 plane, which did not break apart as it hit the water, or the weakness of the General Electric engines for failing under bird strikes - or their strength for still giving power despite the bird strikes. That is an important point, the engines continued giving a little power. This meant that the crew had full electric power (and not the reduced power given by the Ram-Air Turbine under the plane), and the power gave them a little extra help.

The truth is, being a pilot is usually a routine job, yet we rely on them to treat a routine job as a critical job. When they get it wrong (, they get suitable admonished. Let's not just praise Captain Sullenberger, but all the crew on the planes that we fly on.

Friday, 6 February 2009

OpenOffice Writer for authors

As mentioned in a previous post, there are other word processors aside from MS Word.

One of the best-known (and free) word processor packages is OpenOffice Writer, part of a free, open-source productivity suite that also includes spreadsheet, database and presentation packages. It is available for all major consumer platforms; PC, Mac and Linux.

OpenOffice is open-source software. What this means in reality can get fairly complex, but at a basic level it means that all the source code for the programs are available on the Internet. Anyone can download the code, alter it, and make their own versions, as long as they fulfil the conditions of the licence. In theory this means that any programmer can take the code and alter it in any way that they want. A side-effect of open-source software is that bugs can be fixed faster than closed-source programs (although this is very much a matter of debate).

Firstly, let me discuss the positives. Writer is a good writing package; it has everything that most people will need to write a novel within it. You can track changes, take notes, alter font size, create indexes and footnotes; in short, you can do all the common tasks that an author will want to do.

OpenOffice allows extensions to be included. These are third-party pieces of software than extend the core OpenOffice functionality. Although there are literally hundreds of extensions, there are a couple that are of obvious use for authors - LanguageTool and Writers' Tools.

Of the two, Writers' Tools is of most interest. It has various functionality; amongst others, a writing timer (to see how long you are spending writing), an Internet word lookup, remote backup and a task list.

LanguageTool has a grammar checker that picks up many common errors in many different languages. Note, however, that such functionality is built into Word, and Word's version is, in my opinion, better integrated into the main package and picks up more errors (see below).

Writer can read and write files saved from Word; indeed, it has always managed to successfully to convert basic documents for me, and so this is not a particular problem. I had had difficulty in the past (with older versions of OpenOffice) when converting complex technical documents, but that should not be of relevance to most authors. Unfortunately, Word had difficulty opening my 120,000 word test .doc file saved from Writer; the footers were corrupt and inaccessible from within Word. This is more likely to be a problem with Writer than Word.

However, Writer does have various features and bugs, and is nowhere near as highly polished as Word. As an example: on my aged but otherwise serviceable laptop system (purchased in early 2005), Writer with a 120,000 word novel frequently pauses for a couple of minutes when saving documents. This is highly annoying, and alone may be enough to force me over to Word. Likewise, the start-up time in loading a document can also be much longer when compared to Word. Again, this is covered in more detail below.

On the other hand, the public participation in the OpenOffice project can be fulfilling. On New Years Day I discovered a bug in the Writer Notes functionality, and submitted a bug against the component. A fix was made available within a couple of weeks (although that is not yet in a release version). Whilst this is good for a techie like myself, it is of little use (or interest) to the majority of authors. Likewise, I am unsure how many authors would want to download and install extensions; it is better for functionality to come included within the package.

One of the claims made by proponents of OpenOffice is that 'it is as good as Word'. I thought that I'd look at this claim from the perspective of authors. I am assuming that an author is more interested in the content of any text rather than the styling, except when creating manuscripts (publishers tend to have very strict styling rules). With this in mind, I assume that the following features are of greatest importance:
  • Textual editing
  • Spellchecking
  • Grammar checking
  • Headers and footers
  • Page numbering
  • Page formatting for manuscript printing.
  • Margin settings
  • Change tracking and notes
This post will focus on the Writer package. It is currently at version 3.0.1. The following comparisons were done on a laptop running ista Home Premium, using Word 2007 and Writer 3.0.1 with LanguageTools and Writers' Tools installed as standard. No configuration changes were made, aside from changing the default language to UK English.

Textual editing
There is not much to be said about either Writer's or Word's text editing facilities. Both allow text to be entered, altered and formatted with ease. Styles can be applied to text with ease in both packages.

Both Writer and Word have spellcheck capability for multiple languages. Spelling mistakes in both can be picked up with highlighting in the text, and in a separate spellcheck window. Both support many different languages.

Grammar checking
I created a file with some common grammatical mistakes. The following text was used:
This sentence should not contain any grammatical errors.
The use of the passive voice was detected by most of the readers.
Then three of the men left, leaving one behind to stand guard over the boxes.
The boy went to the the school.
That were a stupid thing to do.
The fat brown fox ran up the hill.
i went to school today.
Action on the bill is being considered by the committee.
This section contained the following errors:
  • lack of capitalised first letter
  • subject-verb agreement
  • repeated word and white space
  • fragmentary sentence
  • passive voice
I believe that these are a good subset of all the possible grammatical errors.
For the test, I selected the ‘grammar and style’ option within Word. With this, Word detected all of the above; Writer missed the fragmentary sentence, subject-verb agreement and both examples of passive voices.

Word also has a very competent auto-correction capability; for instance, I mistyped ‘grammatical’ above, and Word corrected it as I typed. This may sometimes get in the way, however, especially when writing colloquial dialogue or purposefully non-standard English.

In practice, with the example document, both packages picked up useful errors. To get the most out of the grammar and spelling tools, you will have to have a good understanding of English and be able to configure the packages appropriately. Most of all, grammar checkers are notorious for picking up false positives, and you need to be able to understand the rules of English enough to reject them.

Word beat Writer in the quantity of items picked up, and also in the usability stakes. In particular, when going through my 120,000 words test file, Word found a far greater number of potential problems.

Headers and footers
I tried to insert a header and footer in the same document using both packages. This was trivial in both packages, although Word gave me a bewildering variety of footers. It also proved easier to find the options in Writer to insert the page count. Here, the simplicity of Writer won.

Page formatting for manuscript printing.
I tried altering the page to have the following features: double-line spacing, 1.5-inch left margins, 1-inch right margins. In both packages this proved easy. For these simple changes, there was little to choose between them.

Change tracking
I often switch change tracking on when doing simple line-editing. This means I can then review these changes later, and accept or reject them as appropriate. Both packages allow changes to be tracked.

Here, the buttons on word’s bar (accept, reject, previous, next) make it a much better and easier to use solution. Writer can perform similar functionality, but not as elegantly. Instead of clicking on easy-to-find buttons, you have to select menus. Additionally, I found the way that Word displays the changes on-screen to be preferable. Here, Word is the hands-down winner.

Word also has a 'reviewing pane', which allows you to see all changes made and go between them. This is very useful, and is missing from Writer.

Notes / comments
I often add notes within the document (for instance to mark somewhere I want to do a little extra research). Here, Word wins hand-down, with easily-viewable buttons to move between notes. However, Writer’s functionality in this area is improving all the time and, whilst far from perfect, is a workable solution.


In my opinion (and I wish that this were not the case), Writer is nowhere near as polished as MS Word, particularly in relation to the more arcane features. The saving delay mentioned above is noticeable on all our PCs, but is particularly crippling on my laptop. There are also a series of other little bugs and features that prove to be highly annoying.

At the end of the day, it comes down to whether it is worth MS Office is worth the cost. As a computer programmer, I am happy enough to stick with OpenOffice at the moment. Others may differ, especially if they are not particularly computer literate. However, when it comes to a final check of the document, I will load it into Word in order to perform final checks. This immediately removes OpenOffice's greatest advantage, as I still need a copy of Word.

The guys and gals who work on the OpenOffice suite may want to take a deep breath, and instead of adding many new features in order to compete with Word, improve and expand the features that are already there. A reviewing pane for changes would be particularly useful.

In my opinion, if you are going to be making your living out of writing, then you really cannot go much wrong in using Word. However, with the speed that OpenOffice Writer is being developed, that may not be the case for long.

For further information, see an old article at This is, in my opinion, a very subjective piece, but gives a different viewpoint; also note that it is an old version of OpenOffice. There is a more up-to-date review of Writer in OpenOffice 3 for authors at

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Three more walks on website

Three new walks are up on my website:
  • Walk 826 (A circular walk from Easton to Shawford via Winchester)
  • Walk 827 (A circular walk from Coombe Bissett)
  • Walk 828 (A circular walk from Cranborne)

There have also been some updates to various other pages.
This means that all of this year's walks are up to date.

The Drake Equation and Intelligent Life Elsewhere

I thought I'd have a little fun today.

A BBC News article published today claims that scientists have calculated that there could be between 361 and 38,000 intelligent civilisations in our Galaxy. This has long been a question that has interested many scientists and members of the public, but the problem was that there was so little information available. People would look at the issue; some would say that there were thousands, others that we were unique. Although rooted in science, such estimates were little more than guesswork.

Until 1995 it was not even known whether any planets existed outside our solar system. It is perhaps reasonably assumed that life cannot evolve without any such planet, called extrasolar planets. However, since then, thanks to some rather nifty astronomy, we have found 339, and a number that is increasing all the time. This makes the odds of there being intelligent life elsewhere (ILE) much greater. All of the planets found so far outsize the Earth; most are gas giants the size of Jupiter or larger. However, it is believed that if gas giants can form in a system, then smaller, rocky planets (such as Earth, Mars or Venus) are likely, if not inevitable.

So, how to work this out? When I was a teenager I was fascinated with the Drake Equation, created by Dr Frank Drake in 1960, as part of the Search for Extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) project. It was developed to try and work out the probabilities of radio signals being sent out by ILE.

There are various forms of the equation; perhaps the most accessible is:
N = R * fp * Ne * fl * fi * fc * L

This is not as complex as it looks. Basically to work out N, (the number of races capable of communicating with us), you need to know or estimate:
  1. How many stars there are in the Galaxy at the current time (R)
  2. The number of such stars that have planets (fp)
  3. The number of those planets that can support life. In our solar system, this is one. (ne)
  4. The probability that such a planet has developed life (f)
  5. The probability that such life is intelligent (fi)
  6. The probability that the society survives long enough to send detectable signals into space (fc)
  7. The length of time that society exists (i.e. sends radio signals) (L)
As can be seen, the odds of detecting intelligent life reduces through every step; we have got firm figures for the number of stars in the Galaxy, and we now know that a good number of those stars have planets. After this, we get into total guesswork. For instance, if life develops, how likely is it for intelligent life to develop? In the 4.5 billion years that Earth has existed, only one race has developed enough intelligence to send radio waves into outer space. Is it inevitable that life, given enough time, becomes intelligent, or were we a fluke?

If you wish to try your own values, there is a Drake Equation calculator on the server. Remember, your guesses may be as accurate as any scientists...

Within my lifetime I expect many of these factors to be increasingly firmed up. Science is improving all the time. New telescopes such as the postponed Terrestrial Planet Finder from NASA or the planned Darwin mission from ESA should allow us to see exosolar planets in great detail, even to the extent of detecting chemicals required by life in atmospheric gasses. However, we are finding it hard enough to decide if there has ever been life on Mars, and that is literally in our own backyard. Any evidence found will be interpreted and argued over ad nauseum, just as the Martian meteorites have been.

In many ways this is pointless information; I cannot foresee us ever having the capability to travel to these worlds, and the knowledge that life exists on other planets will not effect the Human conciousness long term. Scientists will be excited, theologians worried, and the rest of us will continue living our lives regardless.

So what are my views? Basically, they have not changed in twenty years. I am certain there is life elsewhere amongst the 200 to 400 billion stars in our galaxy. The number is just too large, and you would have to be very, very insular to believe that Earth is unique in having developed life. Intelligent life, however, is a different matter. The fact is, after nearly fifty years of searching we have not heard anything from outer space (the Wow! signal notwithstanding). This makes me believe one of the following is probably true:
  • We are the only intelligent lifeform in the Galaxy;
  • We are not listening for messages in the right way;
  • Other ILE is too far away from us, and their signals too weak for us to detect;
  • Other ILE has developed, perhaps several times over, but died out many years ago (disease, nuclear devastation etc).
  • They are around us as we speak, watching us and waiting for the right moment to intervene...
As much as I would like for the last of these to be true, and for friendly aliens to land tomorrow outside Washington (*), I think it is highly unlikely. I like sci-fi, but I never forget the 'fi' part of the title. The distance are just so vast, even to our nearest star, Proxima Centauri, that it would be exceptionally hard to travel to it using current or realistically envisaged technology.

(*) Why is it always Washington and America that the aliens land at first? My argument would be for New Delhi or Beijing. Then again, I would love it if the aliens read the wrong map and landed outside the Old Hall in Washington, Tyne and Wear...

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

The energy strikes

Currently, maintenance and construction workers at many power stations throughout the UK are on strike over the use of foreign labour. The BBC has coverage in several places, including a good background Q&A.

By nature, I really do not like wildcat sympathy strikes; I never have, and never will. They do not allow employers to react, and can punish one employer for the actions of another. However, in this case, whilst I disagree with the strikers' actions, I have some sympathy with their cause.

One comment was made on BBC Radio 5 a few days ago that does not seem to have gained much currency, but which may be important. That is: if non-English speakers are employed on contracts, it is very hard to get English speakers working with them. The reason is simple: communication.

Likewise, it could be hard for someone speaking only, say, Spanish, to work in a team of English speakers. Whilst this may not be important for jobs such as fruit picking, the construction industry may be a different matter. What language would safety warnings be in? How easy is it to spread safety-critical messages from one person to another? Could health and safety be a limiting factor to the free movement of workers within the Union?

Construction is one of the more dangerous jobs that someone can do. Moving machinery, deep holes, tall structures; they all are potentially dangerous. Communications between workers is vital, and therefore mixed teams may not necessarily be safe.

The truth in this particular strike may never be known; it will be wrapped up in a veil of secretive contractual agreements between the various contractors and subcontractors. Unless this veil can be taken down, all we have is rumour and supposition.

One thing is for sure: Brown's 2007 "British jobs for British workers" quote has spectacularly backfired. They were meaningless words that he should have known were unenforcible.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Book review: "The $5 billion dollar misunderstanding", by Stevenson

This book has been on my to-be-read shelf for nearly a year. The reason is not the topic, but rather the fact that one glance shows that the wealth of contractual detail contained within is dense. Despite this, I completed it fairly quickly; in its way, it is a riveting read.

It details one of the most troubled procurements in the history of the US military - the A12 Avenger-II naval stealth plane. The development of this plane started in the mid-eighties, but was cancelled in January 1991 after a spend of nearly $5 billion dollars. After all of that time and money, not even the wooden mock-up had been completed. The cancellation led to a series of court cases that are still being appealed, 18 years after the cancellation!

The A12 was supposed to be everything that the US Navy and Marines wanted in a combat aircraft; it would be stealthy and capable of fulfilling many roles (deep strike, interdiction, fighter escort and others). The stealth aspect was highly important, and resulted in the plane's distinctive design - a tailless isosceles triangle, which looked somewhat like a smaller version of the contemporary B2 bomber. It could also be said to have led to the vast majority of the problems that befell the project.

First, let me say that this book is not an easy read. The acronym count is very high, and the wealth of contractual detail is sometimes overwhelming. However, it is also fascinating. If you want to know the way large projects are poorly run by the US Government and contractors, then this book will give you a good idea.

To say I was well and truly flabbergasted is an understatement. The entire project was illegal from the start, with (so the author contends) the Navy consistently lying to the US Government and the contractors. The Navy wanted this aircraft so badly that they were willing to subvert the procurement process repeatedly. From my reading, it appears that at no time was the project even legally funded! The Navy was spending money it did not have...

As time went on, the unit cost of each aircraft rose considerably. Initially each plane was meant to cost around $45 million; in the end the cost was $91 million, and some say as high as $136, $165 or $200 million dollars (a large part of this difference is whether development costs are included in the per-unit costs). In the end it was estimated that, had it continued, the A-12 would have consumed up 70 percent of the Navy's aircraft budget within three years.

From the very beginning, this project was out of control, yet no-one in the Navy wanted to admit it to the Government. It was a secret 'black' project, and this added its own complexities; it was hard for anyone outside the program to see in, and it also made it easy for people within to hide the truth. There had not even been a proper requirements capture stage, where people sat down and worked out what they wanted the aircraft to be. This is important, as surely a military vehicle (plane, tank and ship) has to be created to fight a specific real or future threat? Instead of finding threats and designing requirements that could beat those threats, it seems that the Navy just came up with a random wish-list, then tried to find threats that would justify the plane.

One of the more fantastical facts is that, at the time, the US Government had three stealthy aircraft under development - the B2 bomber, the YF-22 (later F22) fighter and the A-12. A logical conclusion would have been to allow the teams to understand the technology on each others' planes, allowing 'lessons learned' to be passed on. It is claimed that the team behind the A-12 were told they would get this, but the Navy reneged on the agreement. This meant that the team building the A-12 had to re-learn many issues that had already been solved on the other planes - a massively costly way of doing things. One of the major issues in term of cost, time and weight in the A-12 project, the creation of the long wing-spars out of composites, had already been solved on the B2.

You will not get technical details on the A12 in this book. However, if you want to know how people (perhaps with the best of intentions) can illegally subvert a process, then look no further.

I would give this book 2 out of 5 stars, mainly because I would have preferred more technical than contractual details.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Review of January 2009.

So, the first month of the year has whizzed past. So what is my summary of the last month?

Well, things have been interesting on the writing front (and I mean that in the Chinese-curse way). I had intended to get my latest novel up to a standard where it is publishable. The working title of this piece is 'The Tin Plot', and it is based in a Cornish tin mine in 1827. The target appeared achievable at the beginning of the month; I had a good, sturdy draft and what felt like a good plot.

However, I had niggling doubts about the opening of the book. The last two-thirds of the book were fine; a rip-roaring storyline and increasingly faced-past events led to the finale down in the depths. This was not the case for the first third, however. In comparison this felt too slow-paced, and dwelt too much in the details of Cornish tin-mining which, whilst fascinating to me, were probably not to other people.

These niggling doubts weighed heavily on my mind for some time. Then, in the middle of the month, I set about doing something about them. I felt that the form of the book was imperfect, and what was the point of submitting something that I was not happy with? So I created a spreadsheet of all the scenes in the book (I tend to write on a scene-by-scene basis), with a synopsis of each one. I then skim-read the book and allocated my own values for various attributes, including tension, to each scene.

This showed me that I did have a problem. Aside from the prologue, the start of the book was very descriptive, but also contained very little action. If someone was interested with the minutiae of tin mining it would please them; otherwise, it may not keep their interest. And losing a reader's interest is a no-go. So I sat down and worked out what scenes needed improving. I shuffled some around, and created new filler scenes.

As a consequence, I think that the new format is much better. In the process I've moved things around to create tension. Some superfluous scenes that did not really move the action on have been removed or merged. I don't believe I've lost too much in the process. Someone reading the book should still get a good feeling for the characters and the period.

I say think, as I have yet to re-read it. I've been editing the book for so long now that I've lost any detachment from it. I know the story too well, and that makes it hard to remain objective. For this reason, I think I'll put it down for a month and work on my next novel, working title 'Salutations and Valedictions'. This has been planned in detail and, although I want to do some minor changes to the plot, is ready to be started on. In the meantime I'll probably do a read-through of 'The Tin Plot' with Şencan if she is agreeable.

I have reasons to feel positive about the walking that I have done this month. In January I completed 106 miles, which, although under the 125 miles I need to complete every month to reach my 1,500 mile target for the year, is still good for a cold and wet winter month. I have also started the long process of getting myself fit again after my injury of last year.

In February I'd like to get seven days walking done - somehow I doubt that I will, but it's a good target.

The big news if that we have finally set a date for the wedding! Our plans for the entire year now revolve around a solitary, joyous day in August...