Tuesday, 31 March 2009

My trip on the Jeannie Johnston trip to Dublin - day one

I arrived at the ship at about 18.00, after a long bus journey from my home. On my back was an 80-litre rucksack, into which I had packed many changes of clothes. I was one of the first volunteers to arrive, and the bosun's mate, a young Australian woman, took me down to choose a berth. Each berth had two bunks in it, each with a blanket, pillow case and life preserver. On the wall hung waterproofs and harnesses. As the ship was not going to be full I decided to have a berth on my own, and she pointed out one where there was a little leak from the deck above - the top bunk was unusable, but the bottom was fine and dry. I chose this, although later regretted it. It never leaked; indeed, it remained quite dry unlike other bunks, but the berth was filled with a sickly damp smell for the entire journey.

After getting a few things ready I went up onto deck. People were milling around and dinner was being served by the galley. People were eating with their plates resting on the side rail of the ship. I had eaten a large lunch with Sencan and some of her colleagues (it was International Talk Like A Pirate Day, and they were all taking advantage of that. It seemed very apt). I was told that were were going to have to move the ship, so as the sun continued to sink down on the other side of the river we pulled in the mooring lines and motored upstream slightly. I had little idea of what was happening, but helped where and when instructed. A heaving line was thrown out, at the end of which was a Monkey's fist, a knot designed to make the end of the rope heavier. This line was thrown out, and someone on land pulled it, also pulling across the heavier mooring line. When that was attached to a bollard, we on deck had to tighten the lines then wrap them around large wooden posts called Samson Posts.

After we settled in I watched the Waverley come in - the last sea-going paddle steamer in the world that is based up near Glasgow. I had seen this in Scotland, but had no idea that it ever came down to the south coast. Then everyone got ready to go out. Our new berth was in the actual docks area, so we had a long walk to get out and into town. The security guards noted our leaving, and we soon settled in a pub which is adjacent to the cinema that Şencan and I go to. It felt strange being there in such different company. I had four pints, but after the Irish lads went on to a club in town, myself, a couple of the Irish and virtually the entire English contingent went back to the ship. I found that a visit to the undoubted attractions of a strip club did not tempt me when compared to a lie-down in bed.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Book reviews: "Triptych", by Karin Slaughter

I've not read any of Karin Slaughter's books before, and Şencan warned me that it would be a bloodbath. So it turned out to be.

The book starts off at a frightening pace. A prostitute is found murdered on the stairwell of a run-down block of flats in Atlanta. Jaded Detective Michael Ormewood is called in to investigate, and he is soon joined by Special Agent Will Trent. From the start, the two policemen do not get on. It is exceptionally fast-paced, indeed, it is a little too much so, and I had to start reading it twice after I lost track. Additionally, the initial part of the story is written from Ormewood's perspective, and at this point he is a thoroughly dislikeable character.

The story improves when John Shelley is introduced as a sub-plot. John is in his mid-thirties, and just out of jail after having spent twenty years inside for the rape and murder of a schoolgirl. Soon he discovers that someone is using his name and social security number, and has a perfect credit rating. John is a very well-drawn character; the crime he was convicted for is truly heinous, but so are his tales from prison. As his story unfolds, it becomes clear that he may not have been guilty of the crime he was convicted of. This part of the story is told very well, and the ambiguity of his guilt is beguiling. The cleverness of the writing means that he is an utterly sympathetic character, even if you believe he is guilty.

After this point, the story takes off and becomes a riveting read. It is sparsely written, and the action carries you on. It jumps through time from the present to the past, ye this never gets confusing; it is always obvious which time you are in.

The major problem with the book is its use of stereotypes. There are two disparate detectives who do not get along or trust each other, and a murderer who strikes rather to close to home. It gets worse when you examine Ormewood's character - he runs the full gamut of family problems (a disabled child, a wife who is falling out of love with him, and a neighbour it appears that he is having an affair with).

All of the major characters are broken. Whilst all literary characters should be flawed in some way, the flaws in these characters go so much deeper than just a drink problem or a failed relationship. Unfortunately, rather than giving the characters depth, it makes them feel a little like caricatures. Only John feels like a real human being.

The entire feel of the book is dark and foreboding. Some of the descriptions of the victims' injuries are fairly gruesome, and perhaps unnecessarily so. The story could have been equally well told without it. Frankly, it did not shock or horrify me; I just found it bland and distasteful.

This was an entertaining book to read, despite its dark atmosphere. I would give it three out of five. This would have been four out of five if it were not for the first couple of chapters, which were far poorer than the rest of the book. If there was a sequel to this stand-alone novel, I would read it.

My trip on the Jeannie Johnston trip to Dublin - background

The following is the text from a trip that I did on the sailing ship 'Jeannie Johnston' to Dublin last year. The full report can be found on my main website.

On Thursday, September 18th I went to the Southampton Boat Show, nominally to perform some research into a short story that I was planning to write. Whilst there, I went around the Jeanie Johnston, a replica 19th Century tall ship.

I got chatting to Rob, an Irish man who works on board the ship. During our conversation he told me that they were sailing to Dublin on Saturday, and that there were places still available for trainees. I complained that I did not have any experience, and he said that was fine. It was certainly a tempting offer, and after walking around the show some more I went to the Platform pub and had a pint. My usual hobby I long-distance walking, and the thought of going on board a sailing ship for a short period was certainly intriguing.

Before I could go, I had to get permission. I gave my partner, Şencan, a quick phone call, but she was not at her desk and so I left a message for her. When she phoned back I asked her if she wanted to come. She could not take the time of work, but was keen for me to go. Having got the right answer, I went back to the ship and booked myself in for the trip. Rob and the captain gave me a list of things that I would need - passport (obviously), sunglasses, sun-tan lotion, lots of spare, warm clothes and a good coat. It seemed like a short list for what promised to be a four or five day trip.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

The agony and the ecstasy of Formula 1

So the start of the Formula 1 season is upon us.

Another year of pain, heartache, and bewilderment.
Another year of scandals, incomprehensible rule changes and stupid mistakes.
Another year of hoping, wishing, and crossed fingers.
Another year of joy, excitement and, most of all, action!

Every year I tell myself that I will not watch another race, that I've had enough of the stupid, childish politics and arguments that goes hand-in-hand with what should be the pinnacle of motorsport. Yet every year I get up early to watch the first race of the season.

Why do I do it? Why do I put myself through so much? It's not as if I'm a fast driver (we have a Honda Jazz, for goodness' sake), and no-one would ever accuse me of being a petrol head. I don't do any competitive sport - I prefer to challenge my own body and mind, not take part in some macho competition.

Despite all this, I love watching twenty overpaid drivers go round and round a twisting circuit for 90 minutes, 18 or so times a year. The reason is simple. At the final race of last year, in Brazil, I went through so many different emotions on the same lap - horror, excitement, anguish, pain; then, finally, joy. Lewis Hamilton needed fifth place to win the F1 world championship over Ferrari's Felipe Massa. Going into the last lap, he was sixth in truly awful weather. However, Glock was on dry tyres on a wet track. Hamilton overtook him on the penultimate corner, sealing the world championship.

So many races, so many miles of racing, and the championship came down to the penultimate lap. It was exhilarating to watch, yet my joy for Lewis Hamilton was tempered by my sympathy for Felipe Massa, the man who would be king. The expression on the face of Massa's father in the pits sums up formula 1 perfectly - joy as Massa passed the line, winning the race, then horror as Hamilton made his move to win the championship. Only the hardest of hearts could have felt anything but sympathy for the Massas and Ferarri.

Yet the year was dominated by stupid mistakes by all the major drivers. These are to be expected, especially as so many of the top drivers were young and relatively inexperienced. The real shame was that the championship was riven by political infighting and particularly incomprehensible decisions by both the FIA and the race marshals, who have an inordinate amount of power over each race. The championship was decided in closed rooms, not on the track.

That is bad for everyone.

Yet the racing is just part of it. The technology is also utterly fascinating. This year is a case in point - the rules have undergone massive changes, and this has led to a reversal of the field for today's race - the two best teams of last year, McLaren and Ferrari,are at the back and in the middle of the field respectively, whilst last year's back marker team, the re-badged Honda, is at the front. Why have Brawn managed to get such a good car, and McLaren failed (they share the same engine)? The answer is simple; great people, great minds and the application of great technology.

Every one of the drivers is superb. Yes, all of them. Even Sato. Go onto any Formula 1 website or forum and you'll get criticisms of drivers (some justified, much of it not). Yet all of them, even the perennial back-markers, are all far better drivers than I will ever be. They are fit men (you have to be to be able to cope with up to 5 time the force of gravity on your head and neck), and all are undoubtedly intelligent. You need a superlicence from the FIA just to compete, and those are not granted without good reason.

More than anything else, Formula 1 is a thinking man's game. Again, this is part of its appeal.

It is surprising - and perhaps alarming - how much my heart rate increases during dramatic moment in a race. My heart feels as though it is busting out of my ribcage, working far harder than it does on a walk. How can such a static activity as watching the TV cause such ructions within my body? The answer is simple. I'm in love.

Yes, I'm in love with Formula 1. And that, my friends, is the agony and the ecstasy of the sport.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

A complete history of my left ankle

I looked down at my left ankle as I was sitting in the bath today; my much-abused, scarred and skinny left ankle. It is my Achilles Heel, figuratively, if not literally. All the miles that I have walked and the mountains I have climbed make my past feel like it is a different reality, as though it belonged to a different person.

For thirteen long years, an injury to my left ankle dominated my life. Just when I thought that it was finally healed, that the pain was gone forever, I would be launched back down into the abyss. This is the story of my life through that time. It is all from memory, without any external references to go by. Some of the timings, particularly of the earlier days, could be wrong, but are indicative of what happened. I may be guilty of unreliable narration, but no errors will be deliberate.

I first noticed the problem at school; at least, I think I did. The memories are so hazy, clouded not just by time, but also by pain. The primary school was right next door to my parent's house, the house in which they still live, in a quiet, nondescript village in southern Derbyshire. Off to one side of the playground there was a sand pit; it may have been there for the juniors to play in, but it was also used as a long-jump pit. I used to like jumping, which is odd, as I have never really learnt how to fall.

One day I jumped into the pit, and was rewarded with a sharp pain from my left ankle. It was a searing hot pain that just as soon subsided, to be replaced by a dull ache. I looked down, pulled my sock back, and was greeted with the sight of something strange above the knuckle of my left ankle. I touched it gently, pushed against it, and was rewarded with another sharp pain as something popped back into place. As far as I remember I didn't tell anyone, and just hobbled around for the rest of the day.

Fast-forward some time, perhaps days, probably months. I am sitting at the bottom of the stairs in our house, the house that my dad had built for us, holding my ankle out and flexing it, wanting someone to see the problem. It started to happen increasingly frequently; I would be walking along, then I would have a sharp bout of pain and the peroneal tendon would ride up over the knuckle. In response, I would just push it back over. With hindsight, I was probably doing lots of damage.

I think I was about eleven or twelve when this happened. I moved on to middle school, where my leg was put in a cast for two or three months. The idea was to immobilise the ankle in order to allow it to settle. It seemed like a vain hope at the time, and so it turned out. The cast was lightweight, made from fibreglass, and over the months my left leg whittled away to nothing, the muscle lost through disuse. At first I had to put a ruler down it to scratch any itches; later on, a pen could be squeezed down the gap. After a few months they replaced the cast with another fibreglass one. They cut off the old cast with a vicious-looking circular saw, and I was greeted with the sight of horrid layers of flaking dead skin on my leg. Then it was encased once more; out of sight, but certainly not out of mind.

I had these large, wooden crutches, the sort you see in films of injured soldiers during the Great War. The modern, metal ones were available, but for some reason I was given the unwieldy wooden ones. The strange thing is I actually quite liked them, and in future times I would ask for them specifically. I became very adept at moving speedily with them, the top of the crutches seemingly embedded under my arms. I was a speed demon on crutches.

Other things proved more difficult. I used to have baths to clean myself; dad would wrap a bin liner around the cast, and I would sit in the bath with my leg sticking out. I recall it as being an impossibly awkward position, and utterly humiliating.

Then, when I was thirteen, I moved onto Denstone College. This school, situated on the top of a remote Staffordshire hillside, took pride in excelling in anything outdoors; sports, CCF and Pioneers, all physical activity, and all things that I had terrible trouble in doing. This set the tone for the five years that I spent there. It was a good school, but the emphasis on sports rather than academic excellence did not suit me.

At one point my dad and I were asked to go into hospital. We were greeted by a doctor and a photographer. I took my shoes and socks off and lay down on the bed. What followed was hideous. I gritted my teeth against the pain as the doctor manipulated my ankle into various positions; he would hold it in each one as the photographer snapped away. Apparently the photos were taken for a medical journal; if so, I never saw the results.

The doctors gave me a list of things that I could not do; I could not roller-skate, ice-skate, run, ski, or do anything where I stood a chance of twisting my ankle and worsening the problem. The list seemed all too restrictive for a thirteen-year old boy. My elder sister used to go roller-skating at a rink in Derby. I would watch her, ruing the fact that I could not take part.

I remember certain events vividly; when I was fifteen I was sitting in the library at the school doing some work. I screwed a piece of paper into a ball, then walked over to the bin and dropped it in. That is all I remember. I woke up in the sanatorium, with the matronly school nurse clucking over me. There had been a female prefect in the library at the time, and she filled me in on what had happened; I swayed as I walked over to the bin, as if drunk. I managed to get back to my seat, but then keeled over, out cold. The pain had got too much.

That was enough. That happened on a Wednesday or Thursday; on the Monday (May Day bank holiday 1988) I went into Bretby Hospital, where a pleasant doctor called Doctor Newton reassured my parents to trust him; that everything would be fine.

How I curse his name now.

I was on a men's ward despite being only fifteen; I think everyone else there was at least twice my age. Mum and dad were naturally worried, but no-one ever asked the questions that should have been asked. We got told there were two alternatives; they could put a metal rod between bones in my leg and my foot, permanently immobilising the ankle; or they could operate to try and staple the tendon down. My parents understandably chose the latter.

On the Monday I was bathed by a nurse, who shaved my leg. Then, on the Tuesday, I went in for the operation. First they covered my leg in a bleak fluid - iodine, I think - then they gave me a tablet that made me go all woozy. I remember trying to be manly and brave despite being very, very frightened. I had scarcely been into a hospital before; had never broken a bone or had other injury. Everything was so new and strange. They helped me to dress into a robe, and then, as I lay prone with my pulse racing, I was given an injection. Someone asked me to count to ten; I had not been expecting this. I counted to ten, then, unbidden, continued. I think another injection was given, and only then did a welcoming smothering blanket of sleep come over me.

I awoke back in my bed; my overriding memory is of having an incredibly dry mouth. It was so dry that I could not even croak, and I lay motionless in bed for what felt like hours before a nurse approached and offered some water to my lips. It took me some time to come to after what had been my first operation; to my surprise, my leg was in another cast, plaster this time, and the cast was attached to a series of metal rods and pulleys. The pain only came on slowly, rising in waves as the effects of the anaesthetic subsided.

When Doctor Newton eventually came to visit, I got told that I now had metal in my ankle. Apparently they had lengthened the tendon; first they had cut a sliver lengthways out if it, then they had cut the remainder. After that, the had used the sliver to join the two halves, extending it. Finally, they had put an evil-looking staple over the lot. That was a much as we knew; we only learnt a little more when my dad sneaked a peak at my medical notes as my mum distracted the doctor. My dad's attempt at humour: "Well, so, you're worth something to me now. If you die I can scrap you." It was weak, but I could see the fear in his eyes.

I cannot recall how long I was in hospital for; possibly a week, possibly less. Mum and dad brought in reading material for me - books and magazines - and I spent a long time talking to the people who surrounded me. One of them was a man in his fifties who worked for the railway works in Derby. He had been cycling home one evening when he had fallen off his bike, shattering a leg in many places. His friendly voice filled in the long gaps between visits from my parents.

My leg remained in a cast for a while, then it came out. For an all-too-brief period, I was without pain. I could do things. Then my ankle and leg start hurting once more, and I think there was another operation, followed by a long period with my leg in a cast. It was the start of a pattern that would last for ten years; an operation followed by an all too brief period free of pain. I tried to make the most of those periods - I did my Duke of Edinburgh's Award Gold expedition (the expeditions at Denstone were very hard), and did lots more walking around the area from school. For these reasons, I know that my love of walking has always been with me.

When I was eighteen I went to Queen Mary and Westfield College in London, to study the obscure subject of geological engineering (a combination of geology and civil engineering). The studies were interesting, and it allowed me to look at large engineering projects - a love that is still in my life.

Unfortunately, the pain-free period was not to last. At about Easter time, we went on a geology field trip to the southwest. It was an interesting trip, even though geology was not my favourite subject. The lecturer was an emeritus professor, so old that he had been a Japanese prisoner of war. During one of the nights I ended up jumping on a bed and banging my ankle on the wooden side of the bed. The next day we had a long walk studying the geology of the Torquay area, and my ankle was pretty much agony for the rest of the day.

So started fifteen months of absolute agony. At least, that is the way I remember it. That is the funny thing about pain; it is hard to remember exactly what it was like. Perhaps it is a self-defence mechanism, but I would see a specialist after yet another setback, and he would ask "is it the same sort and intensity of pain that you had before?".

The honest answer is, I could never tell him. It was the same sort of pain, certainly, in the fact it would be in my ankle and leg; but the same intensity? How do you measure that? The mind draws a curtain over pain, dulling the memories with time, but always lets you remember that it had been there. The memories of the pain have permanently scarred me; the scars are invisible to everyone else, but are all too vivid in my own mind.

For months I saw a beautiful blonde physiotherapist, Andrea, who would try and teach me to walk properly again. She would work the muscles and tendons to try and relieve the pain, moving and massaging my ankle. In the meantime I was seeing a pleasant orthopaedic surgeon, who would give me a series of ever-increasing complex x-rays and scans, looking for somewhere that the metal within my ankle had fractured the bone. The strangest of these was a bone scan; a kind of inverse x-ray. In this they injected me with a radioactive dye, then waited as the dye got absorbed by the bone. This gave them a very good view of the structure of the bone within my leg. As I half expected, it did not show up any problems.

They gave me a strange electrical device to attach to my leg. Every ten or so seconds, it would send a pulse of electricity into the muscles in my lower leg, causing my entire leg and knee to jerk up uncontrollably. Occasionally I would attach it to my wrist; if I held my fingers out straight, the electricity would cause my fingers to jerk closed into a fist. I went to the cinema to see Basic Instinct with some friends; the jerking of my leg caused the seat in front to move backwards and forwards, causing the man sitting in it to give me curious looks, as if he was wondering exactly what I was doing to cause my leg to spasm in that manner.

One day, a friend of mine, a devout leftie, visited the physio with me. I was attending the London Independent Hospital in Stepney Green, an excellent private hospital. The friend did not approve of private hospitals, and certainly did not approve of me attending one. One day, I managed to persuade her to come with me to a physio session. She sat outside reading a book whilst Andrea manipulated my leg on a bed. Suddenly she warned me, 'I'm going to just try something', then pressed down on the ankle.

My entire body jumped off the bed, and I screamed as I passed out. My friend came running in, wondering what these awful people had done to me. I didn't blame Andrea, particularly given what happened soon afterwards.

Despite the pain, I used to go for seven-mile walks along the Regents Canal, from neat my flat in Mile End all the way to Paddington. That was the funny thing, the thing that no-one seemed to fully understand; short walks did not really seem to effect the intensity of the pain. There was a nearly continuous pain, a background low drone that I could ignore. However, this background discomfort was accompanied by occasional hideous, agonising sharp spikes of pain. The merest pressure of the duvet on my foot could cause a painful twinge, and whilst the painkillers could dull the background pain, they did nothing about these sharp spikes. So, occasionally, if I felt up to it, I would walk.

I really enjoyed these strolls. The Regents Canal is a schizophrenic beast; one minute it passes through a beautiful area, all modern, glass-fronted buildings and posh wine bars, the next it goes through an area of old industrial buildings, with rusting wharves and graffiti-laden canal side buildings. I loved every single inch of this green corridor through the centre of the capital. I think they helped to keep me sane, helped to focus on something other than the pain.

I had probably been seeing Andrea for these hour-long physio sessions for about nine months, the majority of the academic year. Eventually Andrea proclaimed that she thought the problem was neurological rather than orthopaedic, and invited me to go down to see a different surgeon.

She led me downstairs to a small consulting room to see a man. My first impression was that he was a jovial man, and he had a round face, round glasses and a healthy mane of wild, shock-white hair. He introduced himself as Professor Sidney Watkins - the professor bit impressed me, if nothing else. I sat down on the bed whilst he studied my notes, then he spent about five minutes asking me some fairly searching questions and manipulating my ankle this way and that. Only then did he say the magic words: "I think I know what's wrong."

I cannot tell you how good those words sounded to me; I had seen so many specialists who were routinely perplexed by the injury. Yet here was someone who, after only a cursory examination, thought he knew the problem. For some reason I instinctively trusted him; perhaps it was his air of authority, developed over many years of practice, or perhaps it was just desperation on my part. I wanted someone to know what was wrong with me.

His idea was that the problem with my ankle was nothing to do with the metal or the bone; nothing orthopaedic, but neurological. In particular, that the main nerve providing the left-hand side of my foot was damaged. What's more - and I cannot tell you how much I wanted to hear this - he knew what to do about it.

Fast forward some time, and I'm in hospital for what I think was my third operation. This time, the hospital was very different - the London Independent is a light, airy and friendly place, clean and tidy. What's more, the room was private. I remember watching the first ever episode of Peak Practice, with Kevin Whatley starring alongside my beloved Derbyshire scenery.

I cannot remember much about the operation or the aftermath; just that Prof Watkins appeared to be confident. When he opened up my ankle, he discovered that some stitching had been left in after the first operation all those years ago. This was right next to the nerve, and the rubbing of the stitching against the nerve was causing the pain. Then, when I had banged my ankle on the bed, the nerve had actually swollen to encompass the stitching. As the stitching was attached to the tendon, the merest movement of my ankle would pull the stitching through the nerve, causing the pain. He removed the stitching, and protected the nerve with some fatty tissue.

I left hospital on crutches, my bag slung over my shoulders. My flat was less than half a mile away, but it was a stupid sign of independence.

For a year I had been attending occasional lectures at the Institute of Civil Engineers in Westminster, listening to talks on what was going on in the wonderful world of civil engineering. One evening, I chatted to a man in his early thirties, a civil engineer with a large international firm. He had spent the last ten years doing nothing but designing concrete beams; he was the acknowledged expert in his company on the things. Because of this, because of his utter specialisation, he never got to do other, more varied work. This in turn meant that he could not get chartered status, a prerequisite of progressing in the career.

I wanted to do site work; to be going around digging tunnels and foundations, constructing things. Yet at the back of my mind I knew that there was a good chance that my ankle would never be good enough to allow me to do site work. That meant that I would be stuck in an office all day, designing beams or some other ridiculous specialism. That was not what I wanted from life.

Friends started getting me freelance computing work, and slowly I started to abandon my degree. I did not tell my parents at the time; instead, I made sure that I had a firm background behind me before telling them. Thankfully, although they were disappointed, they understood.

With hindsight, it was the right decision. For my ankle did go wrong again a few months later, and I was plunged back into a cycle of pain, sleepless nights and physio. Professor Watkins again tried to protect the nerve with a sheaf of fatty tissue. I was plunged back into hospital life, and my degree was further abandoned.

I'd like to think I did fairly well for myself in that period; I did some freelance and contracting work, earned a little money. I was going through a phase where I would not tell anyone what was really going on, as if the truth (none of it in any way scandalous) was a weapon that could be used against me. There were a bunch of people, friends, who I went out with, singing ourselves hoarse in the back of a car on a Friday night, yet I doubt any of them really knew me.

Slowly I started to realise there were gaps in my knowledge. I could program well enough - certainly well enough to earn a good income - but I was totally self-taught, and there were gaping holes in my knowledge. As I was missing Derbyshire, I said goodbye to London and went back up north, enrolling in an HND at Derby University.

I really enjoyed the course. I was a mature student and, what's more, one who knew an awful lot about the subject I was being taught. In particular, I knew more about programming than most of the lecturers who were meant to be teaching it. I'd like to think that I thrived.

Then, my ankle went again. This time, instead of going back to see Prof Watkins in London, we went to a private neurosurgeon in Burton. The surgeon studied me, then proclaimed that the problem was probably not in my ankle but my lower back. In some ways that made sense; I was getting shooting pains in my leg, but I'd never really had any bad back trouble. My dad really did not like this prognosis; he could not see the sense in having someone fiddling about with my back - with all the consequent dangers - when the previous operations had all been in my ankle. He immediately sent me down to London to see Prof Watkins.

It was good to see the Prof again - he was a jovial, pleasant man, and I trusted him, even though he had not yet managed to fix me. He had an unshakeable aura of authority around him, a confidence that I now knew came from being one of Britain's top neurosurgeons. He took a look at the notes from the doctor in Burton, proclaimed him an incompetent, and looked at sorting me out.

So it was another operation. Again the Prof. tried to wrap the nerve with fatty tissue. Then it was back to Derby, and this time I felt as though it may just, finally, be over. I don't know why; part of it was trust in the Prof, and part of it was the fact that I was older. But most was the fact that there were now other things in my life, things that meant I was no longer quite so afraid of the pain.

I left Uni, and got a job at Acorn Computers in Cambridge, working on various bits and pieces of software - a port of Macromedia Director, work on build systems and Network Computers. Looking back, I loved it.

The pain started again before the end of my first year at the company. I drove down to London to see the Prof, who actually apologised for having had to operate so many times to fix the problem. That was a measure of the man - he was famous, so much more important than me, yet he apologised, even when I didn't think such an action was necessary. What is more, he had only a handful of private clients left; he had mostly retired, aside from his work in motorsport. I felt honoured that I was one of them, that he had not left me behind. Perhaps he saw me as unfinished business.

He decided that there was no other option but to remove the nerve out of my foot. It was something he had been trying to avoid; an irreversible action that could lead to serious problems with my feet. Yet again I found myself in hospital, afraid, trying to be a man despite the fear.

I remember asking Prof Watkins if he thought I'd ever be able to walk the Pennine Way, and his reply "I can't see why not," was joy to my ears. People had been telling me for years that I could not do this, must not do that, in case I hurt my ankle and cause myself another bout of pain. Yet here was a wise, expert man, who was telling me otherwise.

Telling me to chase my dreams.

I had the operation, and the same, long, curving red line on my ankle was cut open again. They had given up trying to stitch the wound closed, and a series of about thirty metal staples kept the wound closed.

I was determined to walk. At the time I lived in Waterbeach, just north of Cambridge, My bedsit was about two hundred yards away from Bottisham Lock on the River Cam, a beautiful spot. On one gloriously warm Sunday aternoon, I set out to walk from my front door to the river without crutches. It took me about ten minutes to limp to the river, where I was greeted with the sun glinting down on the water - it is a beautiful, enlivening spot. Even now, over ten years later, after thousands of miles walked and countless spectacular locations, it still holds a place in my heart.

The hideous reality only hit me once I climbed the bank up to the lock- I would have to walk back. It took me about an hour, including a long rest on a bench near a level crossing. Tears were streaming down my face by the time that I finally made it back to my front door, a heady combination of agony, adrenalin and euphoria running through my system.

About three weeks after the operation I drove down to London, parked at South Woodford, got the tube to Mile End, and then walked to the hospital. All the time the staples resolutely held my ankle together, like a line of miniature military defences over a trench.

Prof Watkins seemed happy with the results; he showed me a little tube that contained the nerve he had removed. It was a few millimetres in diameter at one end, and at the other it was a messy blob about double the size. He'd had to cut it out from the surrounding tissue, as it had been unclear where the nerve ended and the scar tissue began.

Next he used a needle and another instrument to test how much feeling I had lost in my foot, and thankfully the damage was little. The nerves had been damaged for so long, that some had grown over the side of my foot, meaning that there were few areas without feeling. In that way at least, the operation had been a success.

He used a disposable plastic staple remover to take the staples out - it looked like the sort you get in any office. As he did the last few at the top of my ankle, about an inch of the wound reopened. I was given an injection of local anesethtic, and some medistrips were applied to hold that part of the wound together. I managed to get back to South Woodford, and somehow I drove back up the M11, despite feeling very woozy from the drugs. Thank God I had bought an automatic car.

And that was that. Within fifteen months I had completed the Pennine Way, and I haven't looked back since. I'm a very different person to the boy I was then; I am more confident, and the fear of further pain no longer lurks like a spectre over my shoulders.

I still get pain from my ankle occasionally; brief glimpses back into the past that cause me to go into a cold sweat. Şencan tells me that my leg occasionally spasms in the night, in the same way that it did in those awful, hideous days of '92 and '93. I sleep through it every time. Perhaps my ankle will go wrong again, and the pain restart. If so, then at least I have made the most of the last ten years.

The problem is that I've seen so many other people who have had much more serious medical problems than mine, yet they live through it. Was the pain really that bad, did I have to let it consume me so utterly? And was the fear of the pain, that feeling that I would never escape it's clutches, worth the anguish? More than anything else, I feel ashamed of my own weakness.

So that is the story. The boy and man who suffered all that pain is the same person who now walks thousands of miles for fun. People seem to think I walk because of the ankle; that is far from the truth. I did the Pennine Way to prove that I could walk; since then, I have done it because I love it.

Was I weak? Was I strong? Was I a drama queen? Was I stoic? I don't know, and in many ways I don't care. I'm glad it happened; I'm glad I suffered, I am who I am due to the troubles and pain. The pain shaped me, formed me into the man I am.

I can't imagine being anyone else.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Book review: "Bad science", by Ben Goldacre

If science were a person, it would be an old and faded star, living the life of a recluse in some Beverly Hills mansion. Newspapers write sensational stories about his life, caring little for the facts or accentuating what little information they have. Even science's friends do little to help, and instead would stoke the fires by giving inept statements to the media.

If this analogy were to be stretched even further, then Ben Goldacre would be science's chief spokesperson, cutting through the incorrect stories to reach some semblance of the truth. He would be fighting a losing battle.

In 'Bad science', doctor, researcher and Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre details the way that many parties - nutritionists, the media, politicians, even pharmaceutical companies and scientists themselves - are misrepresenting science to the public.

The main interface between science and society, the media, is doing an exceptionally poor job, one that is costing everyone. Instead of reporting science fairly and evenly, they are, as a whole, descending down to the lowest common denominator, their stories aimed solely at increasing their circulation over fair or accurate reporting.

The media, akin to a hungry wolf, needs a free supply of stories with which to feed its ravenous belly. And the wolf cares little for the scientific method. It will report any story, based on the scantiest of evidence or misreading of scientific papers. It is particularly hungry for the current 'in' stories - autism and MMR; the beneficial aspects of antioxidants or the harm or benefits of certain foodstuffs.

It is hard to stress how important this book is. On the front, Charlie Brooker is quoted as saying, "The most important book you'll read this year, and quite possibly the funniest too." Whilst the second part of the statement is debatable, the first is an understatement. Indeed, this might be the most important book you ever read. What is more, it is also easy to read.

There is much wrong with the way the public sees science, and Ben Goldacre, who also writes a 'Bad Science' blog, goes into some of the complex reasons. No-one is spared - the media, the pharmaceutical industry, so-called 'alternative' therapies, and even the public itself - all comes in for criticism.

Is it right that the public are being conned by alternative-health therapists into using alternative medicine rather than conventional? Is it right that the media routinely reports scientific trials incompetently? That the media use 'doctors' who have no real formal qualifications to peddle their own 'treatments'? That the pharmaceutical industry often misrepresents data from trials on its drugs? That the media have put the lives of our children in danger by making a 'scandal' out of the MMR vaccine?

This book contains all the basic tools on how to filter adverts, media reports or scientific advances, in order to get to the truth of the claims. And there are a great deal of claims out there. Indeed, we are bombarded with them every day - a new hoped-for cure for cancer, or a new drug with some silly pseudo-scientific ingredient that will magically give you less wrinkles. All of these are promoted daily in the media, yet the media rarely, if ever, look at the science behind the claims. And, as Goldacre points out, an alarming number of the claims are either hyped-up or plain wrong. The media's obsession with 'new breakthroughs' harms the public's perception of science.

As an example, he gives a simple experiment to show that 'ear candles' do no good at all (yet no journalists have ever tried similar 'research', and continue to promote them). He also mentions that our schools are being filled with a nonsense called 'brain gym', a pseudo-science that claims that movements can aid learning difficulties, yet has no science backing the claims. This leads to the incredible situation where the state is indoctrinating our children with bad science from a young age.

Homoeopathy also comes in for criticism, in particular to the fact that no clinical or scientific research backs it up. Yet despite this, people continue to make vast amounts of money from this con. Ben Goldacre explains some of the reasons behind this very well, including the fallacy that something diluted to 30C (i.e. one part in 10^60) could possibly have an effect.

The book also has a detailed chapter on the placebo effect - the strange fact that giving someone a non-effective treatment can actually improve symptoms. This is a fact long regarded by scientists, and little understood. It is the placebo effect that allows many 'alternative' therapies to show improvements, and allows fraudulent claims of improvements to be made.

Despite what his critics may say, Ben Goldacre is no friend of the pharmaceutical industry, and this too comes in for heavy (and justified) criticism. The chase for profits can 9and often does) get in the way of good science.

There are some funny moments in the book - Ben Goldacre gets his dead cat Hettie to be a 'certified professional member' of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants. This shows that people who use such associations as proof of skills or training can be exceptionally bogus. Additionally, when he contacts the 'academic' institution 'Institute of Optimum Nutrition', he gets told that they are 'a research institute, so they don't have time for academic papers and stuff'. This is how farcical 'alternative' medicine can get - a research institute that admits it does not publish papers!

The book also details several reasons why good scientists and people get things wrong, including cognitive illusions. These are useful when trying to interpret many kinds of evidence, and not just scientific papers.
  1. We see patterns where there is only random noise
  2. We see causal relationships where there are none.
  3. We overvalue confirmatory information for any given hypothesis
  4. We seek out confirmatory information for any given hypothesis.
  5. Our assessment of the quality of new evidence is biased by our previous beliefs.
These could perhaps be condensed as the following statement: "I've taken drug A, and as expected I feel better. Therefore drug A has cured me. After all, it cured my friend." Did drug A really cure the person, and can an effect really be seen from only one person's experience?

Decades ago, science fiction writers wrote stories of dystopian future worlds, where the Human race has split up into the intelligentsia - the scientists, the artisans and the politicians - and the workers - everyone else. The intelligentsia lived luxury lives, whilst the proletariat toiled away endlessly, unable to change their fate from birth.

In reality a split has occurred, except the scientists are on their own on one side, trying (and generally failing) to explain to the public how science works, and what can be expected of it. In the meantime, the public perceives scientists as nerdy, geeky poindexters with no social skills.

This image, whilst deserved in a few cases, is really far from the truth. We need scientists, and we need to understand science. Failure to do so could be bad for us all.

Pet Shop Boys at Koko.

Last Friday I happened to visit the Pet Shop Boys website, and I noticed an offer for free tickets to see them perform a couple of songs for the Channel 4 'Album Chart Show' in Camden yesterday. There were only a couple of tickets available, so I sent an email, then got a confirmation a few minutes later. I was in.

Only then did I realise the problem. Yesterday was also my birthday, and I wanted to spend as much of it as possible around Şencan before she travels back to Turkey on Wednesday. We had a chat, and the lovely lady wanted me to go. What a star ;-)

It turned out that a friend, Neil, also had managed to get a ticket, so I drove up to his house in Purley yesterday afternoon, then travelled by train from there up to Camden.

Koko used to be called the Camden Palace, a nightclub that I used to spend a lot of time in when I first moved to London. Sadly, I had not been back to it in over seventeen years, during which time it had been through at least one refurbishment. In truth, I hardly recognised the place. It is funny how it appeared to have changed from how I remembered it - the whole building appeared to be taller, as though someone had added an extra floor on. The decoration was also very different, appearing far more baroque than it used to.

We got in with no problem - no-one even asked to see our tickets. The interior was packed - after dropping off our coats at the cloakroom (£2 each) we went up to the balcony on the second floor and watched as the run-up started.

As it was all being filmed for Channel 4, the show took on a certain theatrical and surreal feel. A presenter asked everyone to shout, yell and wave our arms in the air as though a band had just finished. These scenes would be merged in later and were, quite frankly, pants.

PSB were the first band on and ended up doing a short set - only two songs - 'Love, etc' and 'Always on my Mind'. Both excellent, of course, but I really wanted more.

There then followed a short period whilst Sarah Cox did some links, and again we were asked to wave our hands in the air for the background music. It was all very artificial.

Lady Sovereign was on next, performing three songs whilst wearing outrageously large white sunglasses. She made a few comments about drinking Red Stripe, then asked all the crowd to put their middle fingers in the air. Utterly tosserific - rage against the machine, girl! What followed were three very poor rap songs (although I am being unfair - I have just listened to some of her songs on YouTube and they are far better than the performance last night). Plus, she is undeniably cute.

We left soon after that, as we hadn't heard of the other bands following on. Also, the rather long lag between the bands was annoying and the beer was expensive (then again, it was a club). We got our coats, bought a Subway each, and then headed back to Neil's place.

I ended up crashing on Neil and Ina's couch for the night - the first time I have done that in years. I used to spend an inordinate amount of time sleeping on friends' sofas, but as I've got older it has become less and less necessary. It felt strangely pleasant, as though I was regressing nearly twenty years - going to the Camden Palace and then sleeping on someone's sofa.

All in all, it was a pleasant way to spend my birthday. It was quite cheap as well; about twenty quid for the fuel, five for the train ticket, and a tenner or so for the drinks. Not at all bad.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

The tent

I put up my North Face Westwind tent in our garden on Friday, airing it out ready for the season. I've had the tent for nearly ten years now, so this annual ceremony has become ritualised. With the coming of spring, out comes the tent.

The Westwind is a two-man expedition tent, and is therefore correspondingly heavy for backpacking use. Despite this, it is my automatic choice for any walk that is going to last longer than two or three days.

There is a trend in long-distance walking for what is called 'ultralight', where people camp with as little equipment as possible; the idea being that it is best to reduce the weight that you have to carry.

I take a slightly different view. Yes, the Westwind is heavy, but it is also fairly large internally, and that matters. I have got a small one-man tent that is about half the weight - my Jack Wolfskin Gossamer. This is a good tent, but gets annoying after a couple of nights out. The main problem is that I am over six feet tall, and I cannot get dressed or undressed within it. Instead, I have to unzip the thing and sit half-in, half out. This is far from ideal in stormy weather. Additionally, the inner of the Gossamer is entirely mesh, which allows the wind to sweep under the flysheet and right through the tent. I can stand it for a couple of nights in a row in summer, but any more than that and I start to feel overly constricted.

The Westwind is very different. After a couple of nights it starts to feel like a home; as it is a two-man tent there is stacks of room inside for me, and I can also have all my kit inside with me if needs be - rucksack, cooking equipment, even my boots. There is also a large (if awkwardly shaped) porch. I can stretch myself out, sit up without scraping my head on the fabric, even do warm-up exercises, all without going outside.

I bought the tent in 1999 ready to do the Pennine Way, and first used it in May of that year when I walked from Matlock to Castleton along the Limetone Way. Since then I must have spent well over a hundred nights under it, and it is still nearly as good as new. About eight years ago I spilt some coffee in it one cold morning, and this has led to a little mould around the seals, but nothing that is too bad or will cause it to leak.

It is a very good, sturdy tent - it has been used at base camp on Everest, and when I first bought it I found instructions on how to erect it on the NASA website - they use the thing on expeditions in Antarctica. Some may say that this is overkill for walking in Britain, but I say exactly the opposite - it is ideal. I have carried it for literally thousands of miles, and have never once had to use the guy ropes, even in the stormiest weather. It may be blowing a gale outside, but I am warm and snug once I am safely ensconced inside.

On wild campsites I am surprised how much larger it appears than the small, lightweight tents such as the Hilleberg Atko or Terra Nova Laser. On large, commercial campsites, I am surprised by how tiny it appears against the massive tents that car-campers use.

There are some problems. On windless summer there can be rather a large condensation build-up on parts of the tent inner, and even leaving a generous amount of the zip open to the outside air does not cure this. As mentioned earlier, it is also fairly heavy for a backpacking tent (although I am happy with that). Another factor is the bright yellow colour - it makes stealthy wild camping much harder as it sticks out like a sore thumb. Additionally, on a sunny summer's morning the interior lights up in a hazy yellow glow, although as I am a morning person this really does not bother me too much.

We spent Friday night in the tent. Şencan had never spent the night in a tent before, and as she feels the cold much more than me, we piled in with our sleeping bags, duvets and lots of pillows. She used my lovely North Face Blue Kazoo bag, and I used my old but still very usable Ajungilak bag. It was a cold night, but we were plenty warm enough in the bags and under a duvet. Unfortunately the condensation problem was the worst I have ever seen it - actual droplets of water formed on the inner. This was probably due to having the tent firmly zipped up with two people being inside. It was also a very cold night outside, and there was absolutely no wind.

The Westwind has lasted me ten years, and I have little doubt that it will still be going strong after another ten. I adore the thing.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Thoughts on 'keynesian'

Every so often there is a word that comes to pre-eminence in the public's mind. Sometimes it is a brand name such as 'google', which can be both a noun and a verb. Twitter is going the same way, which is why you hear: 'Please twitter me with that info'. Perhaps it will catch on; perhaps it will die out.

Sometimes it is a word that catches the zeitgeist. 'subprime' was added to the OED last year. This is timely; after all, is there a better word to sum up the economic problems that we have at the moment?

And sometimes it is an old word that circumstance propels to new heights. Such is the current popularity of 'keynesian'. After thirty years of only being of interest to dry academics, historians or economists, it is now mentioned widely. Politicians appear to be increasingly eager to hang their hats on the coat-tails of Keynesian economics.

The problem is that although the word has been thrown about ever-increasingly over the last few months, nowhere in the media have I seen a decent explanation of what it actually means. Not on the BBC (broadcast, at least), nor in the Economist, nor in the Guardian. I freely admit that I may have missed it, but explanations are far less common than the actual usage of the word. It is almost as though 'Keynesian' has become a sound bite for politicians and media alike, and one that they know the public will not really understand.

It is being used as an insult, as a promise, as a threat. Some see it as the only way out of the current crisis, whilst others see it as a grave threat to the free market. Indeed, the old 'monetarism versus Keynesian' debate has been thoroughly reignited.

This is not the case for that other 'new' term, quantitative easing. This has been explained ad nauseum on many media sources. Perhaps this is because quantitative easing is a tools, whereas keynesian describes a philosophy.

I believed that I had a reasonable idea of what 'Keynesian' meant. However, when I found a link about John Maynard Keynes on the BBC Website, it turned out that I had some of the details wrong. (At least I hope that I've got it wrong, and that the BBC has it right).

This is a bad sign. The hard economic times that we find ourselves in requires clarity; after all, it was a fundamental lack of clarity and understanding that has led us into this mess. The public deserve clarity. If politicians want to spend their way out of recession, they should say so. If they want the free market to sort it out (although the free market - and a lack of regulation - got us into this mess), then they should say so, and give us the hideous details. We're adults, and we can handle it.

For one thing, I doubt any pre-existing solution will work. Keynes came up with his ideas in response to the Great Depression (and made a great deal of money in the process); the more free-market monetarism was dreamt up by Friedman in the 1960's. Both have been proved to be wrong, and both do not account for the globalised nature of the industrial and financial markets that has developed in the last twenty-five years. Already there are fears that much of the money we are injecting into our economy via quantitative easing is actually going abroad (the Independent).

What we need are solutions tailored to our current situation. Unfortunately, there is a possibility that the solution will not become obvious until after the crisis is over. The situation in any one country is tied up with those of many others - which is exactly why Germany has been so severely hit by the recession, despite having followed much more sensible fiscal policies than us over the last decade.

Hiding behind buzz-words (even ones the best part of a century old) is somewhat akin to hiding risk on the balance books. You may fool some people by using such terms; the danger is that you may also end up fooling yourself.

Friday, 20 March 2009

A fable

I wrote the following fable for my Tuesday evening writing class. Enjoy!

The fable of the bear and the ants.

The bear was a miserable old fellow, with scarcely a single friendly bone in his whole furry body. His age had not dimmed his strength, nor had it improved his ill-temper. He had first moved to the cave when he was a young cub, and it had been his home ever since. It was a damp, sandy home, dirty and smelly, but it was a home nonetheless. Most bears would sweep out their caves; make them a nice, comfortable place in which to raise some cubs. Not this bear. He liked the feel of the damp sand under his fur at night.

It was the ideal den for a large brown bear. Salmon swum freely in the nearby river. If not salmon, then there would be trout. If not trout, well, he was a large bear, and there was always some food around.

Some tall, green trees stood near to the entrance of the cave, and they offered the bear shade from the sun during the hot summer months. Between the cave and the trees there was a sunny glade, where the grass was the comfiest. In the middle of this glade stood a solitary ant-hill. It was a large and ancient example of its sort, about five feet tall and as broad as the entire stretch of the bear's arms.

Now, the ants were of little interest to the bear, and the bear was of little interest to the ants. The ants did not bite or sting, and should not have been a nuisance to such a large bear. So they should have lived side by side with no problems.

But the bear had other ideas. He disliked the ants more than he disliked any other creature, and he disliked a lot of creatures. On the first day he moved into the cave, he had smashed the top off the anthill, and had roared in rage as thousands of ants got into his fur. The feeling of their tiny feet on his skin sent him gamboling into the river to rid himself of the pests.

To his horror. that was not the end. Within a month the anthill had been rebuilt, and there seemed to be just as many ants as ever, thousands of the things, scurrying about on their miniature legs. They avoided him, and he avoided them; except, that is, for the rare occasions when he would stamp on them with his gigantic paws, or try to smash down the anthill.

The beast grew old. No other bears ever came to see him, nor the birds; he had chased them all away from his glade. It was his glade. His and the hated ants.

Then, one day, in a fit of violence, he destroyed the anthill. Not just the top, but the middle and the base as well. His skin was thickened with age, and he could no longer feel the ants running over his fur and skin in their attempts to escape. He razed it right down to the ground, until only a pile of sand and mud remained. In the middle there was a hole that went further underground than even his long arms could reach. The ants had escaped. Beaten, he fetched some old, sun-bleached bones and dropped them in the hole, a final sign of contempt to the weak from the mighty.

The ants had had enough. Ants always take the long view; thousands of them may die, but the colony as a whole would survive past the awful, hated bear, with his paws so big and wide. Some of the colony wanted to move away, to go somewhere safer, away from bears, but no-one knew of such a place. Others wondered why they should be the ones moving. Instead they hatched a plan.

Ants do not think like you or me; they do not even think like bears. Sometimes one colony does not even think like another colony. This colony was very ancient. They had seen many bears come and go; some kind, some quiet, some nasty. But none of their tales from generations past mentioned a bear such as this.

Above the entrance of the cave was an outcrop of soft sandstone, heavily sculpted by rain and wind. On hot days it offered the bear protection from the sun, and he would lie out, letting the wind rustle his fur. On wet days it offered shelter as he stood outside, watching for anyone unwise enough to intrude on his glade.

The rock was soft, but the ants were little. They started one crisp March day, and ended on a blazing-hot summer's evening. Of course the bear noticed that there were not so many ants about, but that pleasing fact in no way made him curious. If they were gone, then they were gone. He only hoped that the rest would follow. He never went to look above his cave, where a big mound of sand was forming, right at the very lip of the ledge.

Each ant could carry only a few grains of sand, but they worked tirelessly night and day. A few grains of sand every half-hour, multiplied by tens of thousands of ants. Slowly the ledge weakened, and the bravest ants stayed until they could feel the first tremors in their legs as the earth started shifting. Tremors that were far too small for a big, mean bear to notice.

The ledge fell whilst the bear slept. Tons upon endless tons of sandy rock blocked the entrance. For days they heard the bear trying to dig himself out, then, finally, glorious silence.

Occasionally other bears came; but now there was no cave for them to live in. The glade had been ruined, at least for the bears. But for the ants it was better than before. For now there was a mound of loose sand in which a new, larger colony could be formed, Nestled behind this was a dark cave that gave protection when danger came. And in the middle of the cave, the white bones of a large, old, grumpy bear.

One ant may be small, but never underestimate the power of millions.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

The death of RISC OS

RISC OS was an operating system developed by Acorn Computers to run on their ground-breaking ARM chip in the late eighties. It went through many different versions in its 14 or so years of mainstream life, before being dropped by Acorn's successor, Pace. I was there right at the end, and it still hurts.

I shall start this story in 1996, just before I joined Acorn. The company had been split into two different business units - Acorn Risc Technologies (ART), who developed consumer-based computers, and Online Media (OM), who developed Set Top Boxes. Both these units used ARM chips, much the same hardware, yet were not allowed to share technology. The source code of RISC OS got forked.

Just before I joined the company, the folly of this was realised and the two business units were merged into one. However, the source code remained forked. Over the next few years and, I, along with various other people, merged those changes back into one tree. It was a process that was still not fully complete four or five years later, as the process was done in a piecemeal, as-required manner.

The consumer-computer part of the company was canned in 1998, along with a new computer, the RISC PC 2, (or Phoebe) project. However, the Set Top Box and Network Computer parts of the business were kept, and that was the part I was in.

We had a big contract with a Japanese company, Funai, to whom we delivered a series of projects - I think we got to seven or eight in the end. Funai 1 was a basic Network Computer, Funai 3 was one with two smartcard slots, and I think Funai 4 had an email client. My memory is hazy about the other projects.

Then we got a contract to produce an Internet Access Card (IAC) for a television. The idea was that many people did not have computers, but wanted Internet access, so why not build Internet access into a TV? We worked on this, and at the end of the day we produced a viable, solid product with in-built Modem that displayed well on the target TVs (manufactured at Vestel in Turkey). The initial product sold poorly, but confidence appeared to be high, and we were working hard on the successor projects, Bethany and Martha.

(A word on the naming schemes. The original IAC project was codenames Lazarus, as it arose from the dead. The successor was called Martha, after Lazarus' sister. Bethany, the successor project using vastly improved technology, was named after the place that Bethany and Lazarus lived.)

Then Pace canned the project. Various reasons were put forward for this, but I was told that the Network Computer work had actually made a large profit the previous year. Various reasons were given. The first was a potential lack of future business; as far as I am aware, that was far from the truth. The second was that we were not a core business for Pace, which was undoubtedly true. The third, and in my opinion the most realistic, was that Pace had trouble recruiting engineers, and needed us. There were no redundancies, and I was moved over to work on a Set Top Box for a Portuguese broadcaster using Windows CE and MS TV.

RISC OS was canned just as some significant improvements were being made to it. Much of RISC OS ran in the ARM chip's 26-bit mode. Later versions of the ARM chip did not have this throwback, and were fully 32-bit. For this reason, many parts of the OS that were written in ARM Assembler either had to be fixed or rewritten in C. (For more details on this, see a document by Paul Skirrow). There was no great pressure from the management for this to be done, but a talented (no, genius) engineer did it as a skunkworks project. I sat in the same cubicle as him at the time, and in the corner there was a prototype ARM development board. This frequently had oscilloscopes or logical analysers attached to it as the engineer tried to find the sources of bugs.

Much of the Kernel of RISC OS and other parts of the the heart of the system were written in ARM assembler, some by people who were actually involved with the creation of the original ARM chip. Because of this, the code was very efficient, and in places hard to alter. Efficiencies in terms of speed came at the expense of maintainability of the code.

One of the biggest problems with selling RISC OS-based systems to third parties was, strangely, the development tools available. When compared to software tools such as Microsoft's Visual Studio, the development environment was poor. We had a very good C compiler (based on Norcroft C), a very basic, bare-bones C++ compiler (based on CFront), and a debugger that did not cut the mustard. Having said this, it was relatively easy to develop for, especially when you had the experience.

The problem lay in getting that experience, and Acorn was lucky in the fact that many kids had grown up in schools programming on their systems, and had used Acorn systems at home. Many of my colleagues were in their late twenties and early thirties and fitted this mould. However, this was not of much use for third parties who may have wanted to use RISC OS. They wanted a nice, shiny development environment for their engineers to use, and we could not offer them that. The management did talk to various providers, including ARM, to see if we could use their development kits, but the talks got nowhere for various reasons.

I still remember the Monday morning when the engineer announced that he had a basic 32-bit Kernel working. We all crowded around to see his work. It was basic, but it was a start. What had started as a side project by one engineer became slightly less unofficial, if not quite official. Over time, more and more modules (distinct, separate parts of the OS) were converted to 32-bit. Modules that were written in C were fairly easy to convert; the compiler was altered, as was a shared library for C applications. The assembler was a different matter, though; each module had to be converted by hand.

We got that 32-bit build up-and-running on a Lazarus board (the board that went into the Alba Internet TV); I still have that board in storage, with that build on it. This build was easier than those of a desktop PC, as the Lazarus board was far less complex than a PC.

A couple more good engineers got involved, and slowly more of the OS was converted. The hardest part, so I recall, was ADFS, part of a filing system. This proved very difficult to convert to 32-bit due to the lack of available registers. In the end it was done, and just as they started looking at the creation of a Hardware Abstraction layer for newer hardware, Pace cancelled all work on RISC OS. It was a terrible time. On the day of the announcement a bunch of us went out to the Fort St George pub by the River Cam and got very, very drunk.

RISC OS lived on. One company, RISC OS Limited, had already licensed some old 26-bit sources, and these were released as RISC OS 4 for existing Acorn computers (Risc PC, A7000 etc). Variosu other incremental improvements came over time, but then something really exciting happened.

Castle, a long-standing company in the Acorn field, managed to licence the 32-bit sources for RISC OS off Pace, and released a computer (the Iyonix) that used the much faster XScale processor. This continued to be sold, until it was end-of-lifed last year.

This led to a split in the RISC OS world - Castle, with much newer (and in my opinion better) underlying technology. This included full 32-bit compatible code, and many improvements we had made at Pace. On the other side of the split was RISC OS Limited, with older sources, but many new UI improvements. It was a fork in the sources that has still not been resolved.

Here the software versions become complex. RISC OS Limited released RISC OS 4. Castle released RISC OS 5 on the Iyonix (with a new HAL and 32-bit). Later, RISC OS Limited released RISC OS 6, with other, mostly incompatible improvements. The fork in the sources got larger, and the resources available to RISC OS got more divided. It was ART and OM all over again.

Then a deal was done to open-source Castle's version of RISC OS 5. RISC OS Open Limited was set up, and now they can apparently build an Iyonix ROM image. Third parties are altering the code base; adding applications and fixing bugs. RISC OS lives, just.

Unfortunately, and with regret, I have to say that RISC OS is now firmly in its old age. It is sitting comfortably by the fire, slippers on its feet, telling anyone who'll listen about the glories of it's youth. The youngsters - Linux, Symbian, Android, and others - somewhat reluctantly gather around the fire to listen to the stories. Even Windows joins in, although he is really an old-timer that has had many facelifts (or, more accurately, an old-timer that regularly gets rejuvenated at the fountain of youth).

RISC OS is still a good system for low-cost, embedded systems, but the world has changed around it. In the last decade computing resources (memory and processor power) have become so cheap that the baseline for a low-cost system has increased massively. In the world where my camera has a cheap, 4GB Flash memory card, why do I still need my OS to fit in 2MB (or 1 2,000th of the space?)

These resources meant that it is much easier to use other cut-down full computing systems, such as Linux, Win CE or even Win XP on these devices. They are known, reliable systems, are portable between different platforms and have many engineers who know and understand them.

There is still a need for very small, cut-down OS - for things like controlling washing machines, where few resources are still available. However, RISC OS has never been the sort of OS you would use for these applications.

RISC OS is being squeezed from above and below. Unfortunately, and with regret, that is why I think it will die. True, now it has been open-sourced I think that it will continue being a hobbyist OS, perhaps even one that will be popular. However, the time is probably past for it to get a new lease of life by being incorporated into mass-market consumer products.

I hope I am wrong, and some talented people are working hard to prove me wrong. I wish them luck.


So now for the second part of this essay. What could have happened?

In 1997 Acorn proposed a new consumer Operating System, Galileo. It was due to have some advanced features such as Quality of Service (QoS). This is a concept where high-priority tasks are guaranteed certain system resources that they need. Try watching video clips on YouTube when your system is running many different tasks - the video regularly become jerky. A QoS Operating System will guarantee that the video has enough resources (such as memory and processor power). There was also a new module microkernel, a vast step up from the efficient but hard-to-maintain RISC OS Kernel. Pre-emetive multitasking also featured. It was a neat idea for a company that was hoping to be big in the video on demand market.

Unfortunately, Galileo got canned in 1997, either shortly before or shortly after I joined Acorn. I remember seeing some demos of non-rectangular windows, along with reams of documentation. It is one of the great what-if moments in Acorn's history; not that Galileo got canned, that was probably the right decision; but what if they had decided to start Galileo a couple of years earlier? There are plenty of successful, niche market OS in the market - could Galileo have been one of them? There was an in-depth description of Galileo in a Byte magazine in 1997 - it still makes fascinating reading.

Another what-if: What if the resources that got put into Galileo (a largish number of extremely competent engineers) got put into RISC OS. What would I have done?
  1. Rewrite the Kernel and other core OS parts in C
  2. Create a Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL)
  3. Modernise the file system
  4. Add full memory protection
  5. Run the new RISC OS on a non-ARM system as a proof-of-concept
  6. Get a modernised toolkit with improved debugger, and ideally given them out for free to interested businesses.
  7. Produced new, improved Programmer Reference Manuals.
This would have give RISC OS the potential of extra life by removing the current reliance on ARM chips. Although it could be argued that the future for RISC OS lay in ARM chips, the creation of a HAL was necessary (and has since been done for the Iyonix), and the rewriting of the Kernel would have made the whole system much more maintainable, at the expense of a tiny amount of efficiency.

What I did not mention was turning the kernel from co-operative multi-tasking to pre-emptive multi-tasking. This change would have modernised the operating system , but would also have meant that many applications running on the ARM would have been broken. Whilst such a switch from CMT to PMT was possible (Windows did it from 3.1 to 95), I am not convinced that it was actually technically required for the markets that RISC OS was being considered for. PMT is best for open systems where users can pick and choose thousands of different applications to run; CMT may be better where a few, known applications are to be run (e.g. early STBs). This is only a rule of thumb, and it should be noted that a good CMT can be better than a bad PMT. Again, the definition of 'better' is also vague.

All of this is idle talk, because it never happened. If it had, though, would we be talking about RISC OS in millions of mobile phones instead of Symbian? Or RISC OS-powered notebooks rather than Linux or Windows XP? Who knows. All I know is that I miss it.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Book review: "Break no bones", by Kathy Reichs

I picked this book up from the library, keen to read another crime thriller (there are none on on my to-be-read shelf at the moment). I had heard many god things about Kathy Reichs; the character in this book, Temperance 'Tempe' Brennan, is the inspiration for the main character in the well-regarded TV series 'Bones'. Kathy Reichs is also a producer on the show.

The book starts off with Tempe at an archaeological field school on a sandy island off the coast of South Carolina. Her students find many ancient, pre-Columban bodies, then, on the penultimate day of the dig, they find a much more recent corpse in a shallow grave. The discovery leads Tempe into a dark investigation involving other bodies and missing people.

There is a sparsity to he language, as if words have been missed out. This lends itself well to a fast-paced plot, but got wearying to read after a while. Tempe is a forensic anthropologist, and the book reads as though a forensic dissection has taken place on the sentences. Commas are also used sparsely, and most sentences are under ten words long. There was little let-up in the short, staccato sentences.

Having said that, the book does contain some very good, if sparse, descriptions and text - for example, 'In my view, death in anonymity is the ultimate insult to human dignity'.

The plot is fast-moving. Each chapter is only about eight pages long, and this forces the reader on. However it also means that some of the chapters end and start in places that do not necessarily appear to be natural places for a break.

There are perhaps too many medical terms, although the important ones are explained to the reader in a clear, understandable manner. Given the author's background, the usage of the terms is forgivable. She does not let her undoubted expertise overwhelm the book, and the snippets she does give enhance the impression that Tempe knows her stuff (even if the reader is left unclear).

Unfortunately, the plot has major flaws. In a week, three separate murder victims are found, all with the same damage to the bones in the lower neck. All have been dead for some months or years. All three bodies turn up within a week for random reasons; one is dug up by Tempe, another is found washed up in a barrel, and a third had been hanging from a tree for months. It seems massively coincidental that these bodies are found by chance in the same week that the investigation is ongoing, and no attempt is made to explain this coincidence. This really spoilt the plot for me. My suspension of disbelief had to go into overdrive.

One of the rules for detective fiction should be: "do not leave anything to chance". Everything to do with the murder plot should be adequately explained. The way the bodies turn up at the right point in the plot to move the story on could almost make them classic MacGuffins.

The cast of characters is also rather large; Tempe herself, the lover, the ex-husband, the victims, the policeman, the best friend, the cat, the dog, the kitchen sink... There are too many people in the book, many of whom are peripheral. Some should have been cut out to make the book tauter.

The ending is also unsatisfactory. An attempt is made to do a double-twist at the end, but it really doesn't seem to work. The villain is a one-dimensional bad guy, and the final attempt at adding a thrill by having a final attack by the villain (boo, hiss!) was hackneyed and did not work. Much is made at the beginning of the book is made about a search for a young woman, Helen Flynne, who had been reported missing. Throughout the book I felt as though she had some special significance, but no; she ends up having been just another victim. Her character needs to either have been more involved or cut out completely (again, see above; there are too many characters).

There's also eight or so pages at the end of the book, just before the epilogue, where the loose stands of the plot are pulled together. This is too much, and indicates that the plot was not adequately explained before the denouement. The sections of books after the denouement should be used to bring the reader down to a gentler pace, and tie up the loose ends in the protagonist's life. It should not be used to explain aspects of the plot that the reader should have known before the denouement. What is worse, this could easily have been done in this book; all it needed was a little reorganisation.

Having said all of this, the book was undoubtedly gripping. It is hardly high literature, but it does keep you reading. I read the book in a day and a half, and mostly enjoyed it; I would definitely read another one of her books. However, I still only give it 2.5 out of 5. The short, disjointed sentences and the plot holes spoilt the book for me.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Seeing my name in lights

A long time ago, another life really, I worked for Acorn Computers in Cambridge. Whilst there I did lots of interesting stuff - Internet Computers, Internet Access modules for televisions, work on build systems; all stuff that, looking back was fun and good.

Well, Acorn went bye-bye ten years ago, but Pace (the Set Top Box makers) took over the part I worked for. They kept the Acorn Operating System, RISC OS, going. Then, in 2002, it all got cancelled.

Now, I really liked RISC OS. As an operating system it was very easy to use, with some features that are still not in Windows or Mac OS X (such as right-clicking on windows furniture causing the inverse effect). I still miss it. I've got a computer capable of running RISC OS somewhere, but I haven't started it up for years. I could run it on my PC using an emulator called VirtualAcorn, but it seems pointless. My memories will probably be better than the experience.

Pace canned their work on RISC OS in 2002, and with it went any realistic chance that RISC OS had as a mainstream operating system. However, it still has its fans, and new versions were produced by several companies. The ownership of the code became a thorny and complex issue, one which I believe had not been fully ironed out. The source code was open-sourced a year or so ago, and today I went to have a look at it. I was somewhat surprised to find my name in a few places.

The following is a commit log I made into the source control system. See: https://www.riscosopen.org/viewer/view/castle/RiscOS/Sources/Kernel/s/ARM600
Fix to bugzilla bug 4065

1MB VRAM was not being correctly identified. This was
due to register corruption in r12 in the VRAM detection
routines in s.ARM600. This bug has been a longstanding
one introduced in Kernel 4.69 two years ago.

Been put through the Kev&Mike change control process

Version 5.40. Tagged as 'Kernel-5_40'
This was apparently seven years, eleven months ago. How time flies.

It would be interesting to know who owns the copyright of the text above. I originally wrote it, but it would have belonged to Pace, who I was working for at the time. That code was passed onto two different companies, one of which open-sourced the code. The relevant licences are fairly heavyweight, and the chain of ownerships and rights complex.

I spent half-an-hour this afternoon looking through some of the source code, the first time for nearly seven years that I had really studied it. I guess this must be what it is like for an author to go back and read something he had written many years before; a creeping sense of joyful familiarity. Or perhaps it would be better to say an editor, as most of the work I did were in areas of the code that are not in the public domain. I have read over most of the code many times in the past, either sorting it out for putting into various build and versioning systems, merging code, searching for bugs, code reviews, or just for pure intellectual interest.

There was also a short document that I wrote back in 2000. We had a project to build a low-cost, ROM-based Internet access computer (which eventually became the Bush Internet TV). The customer wanted to support many different countries - Turkey, Germany, Spain, and others. This meant we needed many different languages, and as there was no disc, it had to be done in ROM, which was short of space (message translations are invariably large).

I looked at this problem on-and-off as time permitted, and I took the notes with me when I went on a walk through Scotland (the same walk where I met Sam). One wild night I pitched my tent on a boggy stretch of ground on a beallach, got my notebook out, and worked out an answer.

People often say that getting away from a problem can help you find a solution; on that occasion I think I took it to extremes.

Whilst looking into all of this I found a webpage that showed an Easter Egg (a treat hidden within the software). In this case it was a photo of the development team and, yes, I'm in it. What's more. I've actually got the original copies of the photos somewhere.

It really feels as though it was a different world. The technology has moved on so far in the last seven years. What we were trying to do then - low cost devices for Internet access - are now coming onto the market in the form of Netbooks. Some of these use the ARM chip, although these use the Linux operating system. I wonder if anyone will try and port RISC OS onto them? If so, I can see myself getting one, just to use a real Operating System, and one that I contributed to in a a little way.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Book review: "Supercontinent" by Ted Nield

This was another book that we picked up after a talk at the Bath Literature Festival. Of the four talks we attended, this was (for me, at least) the most interesting, as it covered a subject that I have long been interested in.

The book starts off with a piece of science fiction; an alien race coming back to visit Earth a few hundred million years in the future, only to find no trace of life - the entire surface of earth has essentially been wiped clean as the continents have reformed into one massive landmass. Only when the aliens turn their attention to the moon do they find traces of the race who once inhabited the planet below.

This is an interesting way of introducing this book on what is called 'deep time', or geologic time. In particular, it talks about how continental drift formed, then broke apart, one massive landmass on Earth. It also details how the current map of Earth that we all know is in transit, and how another large landmass will one day form. This cycle of the creation of a supercontinent which is then broken up, takes about 500 to 750 million years. It is the longest cycle in nature, longer even than the time it takes for the sun to revolve around the galaxy. As an aside, for maps of what past Earth and future Earth may look like, see the excellent www.scotese.com website.

That is one thing that needs noting about this book - the numbers mentioned are either very, very large, or infinitesimally tiny. As you read it, you are exploring things that are far away from our ordinary everyday understanding. Despite this, the information is presented in a way that is far from overwhelming.

The author outlines the botanical and geological reasons for believing that now-separated landmasses were once together, and goes into the theories that gained currency before continental drift, mainly involving the 'lost continents' of Atlantis, Lemuria and Mu (fans of the KLF can sing 'All bound for Mu Mu land' at that mention). It is a fascinating history, one that even includes Marie Stopes and Scott of the Antarctic.

There is a certain amount of humour in his writing, not least when the author discusses uniformitarianism (the concept that natural processes that operated in the past are the same as those that are observed today). He also details the conflict over Graham Bank, an island near Sicily whose tendency to rise out of the sea routinely causes diplomatic incidents as countries attempt to claim the land mass. Before it is all sorted out, it invariably sinks beneath the waves once more. This lightness of touch does much to improve the readability of what could otherwise have been a very dry academic text.

It also mentions the geology time charts that are so familiar. These charts outline the various geological epochs, and should be instantly recognisable to anyone who has done elementary geography. Right at the bottom, past the Cretaceous and the Jurassic, is the Precambrian, little more than a small, ill-regarded little sliver on the diagram. It is like this, so the author claims, because Precambrian rocks have very few fossils - it was before complex life had evolved. Later bands (such as the Jurassic) can be classified by the lifeforms within them. Earlier ones cannot. This led all those early rocks to be rolled up into one big 'precambrian' chunk.

Only now, scientists realise that 88% of the Earth's history is contained within that chunk. The rest, that long list of names of familiar names, takes up only 542 million years, or just 12% of our planet's life. Later chapters in this book details some of the ways that geologists are attempting to uncover what the Earth was like in those ancient times.

Two timely lessons are embedded in this book; one is that the consensus in science can be wrong, and that scientists will fight very hard to keep that consensus despite the evidence. Both of these are embodied in the way that many geologists and geophysicists declined to believe in the theory of continental drift, despite the ever-increasing body of evidence for it.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is when he talked about snowball earth, the time when the entirety of the earth's surface was covered by thick layers of ice. I have always had some problems with this idea, and the author explains the situation far more clearly than the several TV programs I have seen on the matter. He also takes time to display some of the counter arguments against the controversial theory.

The book started with a fiction, and ends with a tragic fact. It ends with a description of the 2004 Asian Tsunami, and the author then makes an eloquent case not just for his science, but all science:
If today there is fresh water on Namibian farms and in Vienna, and an emerging tsunami early-warning system in the Indian Ocean, it is because geologists in the past have done the science that brings a closer understanding of deep time and the inner workings of the Earth. You cannot pick and chose with science. A seemingly rarefied geology that reconstructs the lost supercontinents of Earth's deep past is the same science that (with political will) can save hundreds of thousands of lives in the Indian Ocean when the next tsunami strikes. The arcane business of how our Earth's atmosphere evolved during the Precambrian under the influence of evolving life is the same science that helped us understand the massive, uncontrolled climate experiment in which the human race is currently engaged. But to deny one part of science is to deny it all. Science hangs together. It is a supercontinent.
If you want a detailed introduction to plate tectonics and deep time, then this could be just the book for you. It is very readable, and is (for a science book) fairly accessible. I would give it 5 out of 5, as the author has managed to make a subject that is often impenetrable understandable.