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On your last trip...

Did you discover what the Earth people eat?


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Books 2015 #6
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  1. Planet Ponzi by Mitch Feierstein

  2. A Clergyman's Daughter by George Orwell

  3. Stuffocation by James Wallman

  4. On Roads by Joe Moran

  5. North Korea Undercover by John Sweeney

  6. Not My Father's Son by Alan Cumming

  7. Jumbo: The Making of the Boeing 747 by Clive Irving


Before I review this book, I'm going to rant fulsomely about the evils of Digital Rights Management, which enormously complicated my purchase of it and made me waste an hour or two trying to get the bloody thing to work. I have a generic e-reader (i.e. not a Kindle) and I wanted to buy this book in .epub format. No bother - I found it on the Kobo store fairly quickly and bought it. When I downloaded it, though, I didn't get an .epub file, I got a file that has to be run through Adobe Digital Editions. This then produces an .epub that can only be read on five registered devices.

Argh! First off, this prevented me from completing the purchase using my phone. Second, the version of Adobe Digital Editions I downloaded kept crashing and wouldn't let me do anything. Third, when I finally got a version of it working, it was a gruesomely non-intuitive and unfriendly piece of software, and it took me ages to work out how to get my e-reader working with it.

This is everything that e-books shouldn't be. If I'm honestly paying for something, I should get it in a universal, non-restricted format that lets me do what I damn well want with it. I specifically wanted to avoid buying it from tax-dodging cretins Amazon, who also impose crappy DRM on you, and yet I still had loads of hassle.

The thing is, DRM is actually an obstacle to what it's trying to achieve. It makes being a legitimate purchaser so bloody awkward that it's tempting not to bother. What's my incentive for paying, when it's actually less hassle to download a pirated version? And why should I have to put up with restrictions on the use of something I've legitimately purchased? And if someone was buying this product with the intention of pirating it, they'd know how to strip the DRM anyway, which isn't hard - I've successfully done it with Kindle downloads and it's quick and easy.

Gaaah! Anyway, once I'd done battle with crap software and my e-reader's dodgy battery, I got to read the book, which is very interesting indeed.

The 747 is a ubiquitous icon these days, but according to a Guardian article I read recently, demand for it (and the even bigger Airbus A380) is waning, and big twin-jets seems to be the airline's choice at the moment. But the 747 was truly revolutionary when it first flew in 1969, and it's the plane that drastically altered the economics of long-haul travel, making it much more affordable. Interestingly, Boeing ended up selling far more of them than they expected - it wasn't predicted to have a long life, at least not as a passenger jet. Concorde had created lots of excitement, and it was expected that by the eighties most long-haul travel would be done in supersonic planes. The 747's body was therefore designed around carrying freight containers, and the upper deck and raised cockpit were there to provide a lifting nose for loading them. It was anticipated that the passenger versions would later be converted to freighters.

Of course, Concorde's success was very limited and the supersonic revolution never happened, although Boeing did a lot of work in trying to develop a supersonic transport of their own - the 747 was seen as a much less glamorous project.

The book goes into quite a lot of detail as to how the first passenger jets were developed, touching on the de Havilland Comet which was the very first, but focussing mainly on the 707, and how Boeing wanted to build on its success. The 747's design took a long time to evolve and it's a fascinating story. The resources required to design and build it were colossal and the technical challenges were way bigger than you'd realise - from a project management perspective it's hugely interesting. The risks were significant - if the 747 had failed, it would have taken Boeing down with it. It took some very brave people to see it through. Lots of personal stories are involved.

It's a well-written book that fully captures the drama and excitement behind the development of something so iconic that we all take for granted now. It's interesting that the everyday workhorse has survived for so long - it's a flying juggernaut, really - when Concorde came and went rather less successfully, having carved only a tiny niche for itself.

It reminds me a bit of British Rail's attempts to develop high-speed trains in the sixties and seventies. All hope rested on the revolutionary Advanced Passenger Train, which was meant to be the saviour of InterCity, but time and time again the challenges couldn't be resolved and ultimately the project was shelved, becoming an expensive failure. The much less radical stopgap solution, the InterCity 125, that was meant to just fill in until the APT was available, has been going strong since 1976 and the design has never been bettered. The 125 was not particularly radical in technological terms - the only significant advances were in the power-to-weight ratio and in braking performance - but it was the right train at the right time. It still is - it looks likely to be with us for some time yet.

The book shows how important it is to get the right balance between the technological and commercial challenges of transporting people, and the 747 got it right. It'll be interesting to see how long it stays with us - I don't think it'll fly off into the sunset anytime soon.

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Books 2015 #5
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  1. Planet Ponzi by Mitch Feierstein

  2. A Clergyman's Daughter by George Orwell

  3. Stuffocation by James Wallman

  4. On Roads by Joe Moran

  5. North Korea Undercover by John Sweeney

  6. Not My Father's Son by Alan Cumming



Yes, that's Alan Cumming the actor. This is an autobiographical book, but one with a deliberately limited scope - it doesn't cover much of his acting career, it's specifically about aspects of his upbringing, and how he came to terms with them.

He grew up in rural Scotland and had a loving mother but a horribly violent and abusive father, who left a very toxic legacy in his life. The book is about Alan's efforts to resolve the issues this left him with, and also about other things he found out about his family when he appeared on the BBC show "Who Do You Think You Are?", which shows celebrities researching their family trees. It was all quite a dramatic story, which at times was hard to read and a bit depressing, but ultimately very positive - whatever goes wrong in your life, this book gives you hope that you might one day get over it.

The book focusses almost entirely on his family and only covers his acting career when it's central to the plot, so it's almost entirely devoid of celebrity gossip and deals with the lives of a small group of people. It's very well-written, moving, honest and quite inspirational. It's amazing how positive he manages to be - after all he went through, I wouldn't blame him for being a cynical, bitter, miserable bastard.

It's made me grateful for what I have, and inspired me to be proud of what I've achieved, and that has to be a good thing. Highly recommended. :)

Also...it's made me realise that I know practically nothing about my family history, especially on my dad's side, and it's high time I researched it a bit.

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#Analogue #Photography #Adventures
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I've been out shooting a bit of film recently, and I'm pleased with the results, so I thought I'd share a bit with you.

First off, here's some shots from my Coronet 4-4 Mk 2. This is the first film shot in it for around fifty years, and possibly only the second film ever shot in it, judging by the condition of the camera. You can find the story of this camera and its previous life here.






North Berwick


Nice vintage Class 117 at the Strathspey Railway


Shot into the sun over Edinburgh


Climbing the Radical Road to Arthur's Seat


Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow


Conehead.


People Make Glasgow


Near my old office in Glasgow






Next up, a roll from my Kodak Reflex Brownie. This is the second one I've owned, it's an eBay replacement for an old one that got lost. Takes the same film as the Coronet 4-4, but I didn't think the results were as good.






Necropolis, Glasgow


Western Harbour Lighthouse, Edinburgh


Ardfern


The Kelpies


Loch, palace and church, Linlithgow


Linlithgow






Finally, something entering the semi-modern era, my lovely Pentax ME Super. I need to get this serviced and cleaned, and the lens I used with it wasn't really designed for manual focus so it was a bit tricky to use, but I like the results.





It's that bridge again.


Walk on the Fife Coastal Path (aka the Stratton Boot Camp)


Ruined church on the Fife Coastal Path


Kelpies


View over Ardfern


Ardfern again


Union Canal towpath near Winchburgh


Western Harbour lighthouse again


Hope you like those. There's a lot of life in film yet. :)

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Books 2015 #4
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  1. Planet Ponzi by Mitch Feierstein

  2. A Clergyman's Daughter by George Orwell

  3. Stuffocation by James Wallman

  4. On Roads by Joe Moran

  5. North Korea Undercover by John Sweeney


I'm a seasoned North Korea watcher so I lap up any books I can find on the subject - the sheer completely bonkers nature of the regime fascinates me, and I'd dearly love to visit the place, despite the many very serious issues that presents - like funding the regime and only ever getting to see one side of it. I think it's true to say that hardly anyone truly knows what's going on in there, but from various sources you can piece bits of it together. A lot of it isn't encouraging.

This book is authored by the BBC reporter who took a group of LSE students into the country and secretly filmed much of his visit, and the whole thing was massively controversial because most of the people on the trip had no idea that an undercover documentary was being made. If the makers of the film had been caught, everyone on the trip could have been in very serious trouble indeed, and a fair point was made that those who didn't know about it were being exposed to a high level of risk they knew nothing about. Despite the controversy, the film was shown, but I've not actually got around to seeing it as yet. I suppose I should watch it sometime... anyway, this book mixes observations made on the trip with information from North Korean experts, defectors and observers, and throws in some history as well, making it an interesting work that told me quite a lot of stuff I didn't know.

I found the writing style a bit annoying and it almost put me off reading the book completely at the start - it's full of bad puns, attempts at humour that I don't think work very well, and the style is a bit tabloidy, but it does make the fairly grim subject nature a bit more accessible to a wider audience, I guess - a lot of North Korea books are quite tough to read and won't appeal to the casual reader. If it gets information out to a wider audience, that can only be a good thing.

Anyway... full of thought-provoking stuff, like just about any book on the regime is. The attempts of official guides to present the country as a socialist Utopia are almost laughable as even a fool can see through them, but it's hard to laugh when you uncover the truth. I'd always thought that the truth of what North Korea is like is probably somewhere between the truly horrible stuff that defectors tell us and the glorious propaganda from the regime, but the more I read, the more I realise that almost all of it lies at the grim end of the spectrum. The book tells us what happened in the terrible famine of the mid nineties, and the brutal attempts of the regime to keep hold of power.

A place that gets mentioned regularly is New Malden, a town I spent a lot of time in growing up, and know very well. It has a huge ex-pat Korean population in it, mostly South Korean of course, but a few North Korean defectors live there too, and it was interesting to read of their experiences.

As in other books I've read, the author states that at least for now, any attempt to resist the regime is doomed to failure and the government is highly unlikely to fall because the costs of failure are way too high. Other tyrannies have collapsed because those involved in it felt they had something to gain from the regime failing, but the North Korean elite know they will be exposed for what they've done and will be made to pay for it, so no-one, inside the government or out, feels they can take the risk of attempting to topple the dynasty and the incredible personality cult that props it up.

A disturbing but gruesomely fascinating read, every bit as weird and uncomfortable as you'd find anywhere. It reads like dystopian fiction and it's hard to believe it's actually real. The place continues to horrify and fascinate me in equal measure.

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They don't make 'em like this any more...
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Anyone of a certain age (in Britain) will remember this classic series. I have to admit that every time I see it, I get all teary and emotional. It's a VERY powerful nostalgia trigger for me - watching it reminds me of being a little kid again, back in the days when I only went to school in the morning and came home to sit on the sofa eating spaghetti hoops and fish fingers while watching this. Or perhaps I'd watch it at "Aunty" Jenny's house. Jenny was one of those people referred to as aunty who wasn't actually related to me - she was the mum of someone who went to school with my sister. She babysat me sometimes, and I liked going to her house because her husband had a model railway that filled a whole room and seemed absolutely enormous to little five-year-old me.

Trumpton was made before I was born, and seems to be from a completely bygone era. The pace of each episode is incredibly slow, the stories are very simple, and there's something incredibly English about them. The whole of society is there. Everyone has their place. The narration is so comforting and familiar and everyone my age recognises Brian Cant's voice. The production is such a labour of love too - it's a masterpiece of model-making and craftsmanship. Everything must have taken forever to make and animate.

The biggest running gag in the show is that the fire brigade ("Pugh, Pugh, Barney-McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grubb!") never had a real fire to deal with - it was always rescuing cats from trees and stuff. I only found out recently that this was because it was too difficult to animate flames using the technology and budget available at the time.

Trumpton had two companion shows, Camberwick Green and Chigley, that were very similar and supposedly set in neighbouring villages. Camberwick Green had the famous music box in it, parodied to perfection in Life on Mars...



Chigley, though, had an eccentric aristocrat in it who had his own private railway! How utterly brilliant! I wanted one, and I wanted time to fly while I drove trains.







There was a biscuit factory as well, where all the staff finished work at six o'clock and then went for a dance. Every single day.





It all reeked a bit of old-fashioned Conservatism of the pre-Thatcher variety, where paternalistic business owners looked after people and everything was a bit cosy and traditional and nice. I suspect it all harks back to a golden age that never existed, but ahh, what innocent fun it all was - it was a sedate, safe, reassuring world where nothing bad ever happened, and everyone was nice to each other. Just a few years later kid's TV was rather more cheaply put together and was all ZAP BOOM KAPOW and lasers and shit. It all seemed extremely bad to me.

Well, I'm probably silly to feel so nostalgic about this, but wasn't everything great in Trumptonshire? Let's all just have a nice cup of tea and sort everything out, shall we? Then we'll take old Bessie to the biscuit factory dance, and all will be well.

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Books 2015 #3
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  1. Planet Ponzi by Mitch Feierstein

  2. A Clergyman's Daughter by George Orwell

  3. Stuffocation by James Wallman

  4. On Roads by Joe Moran

Stuff

Oh dear...how pathetic my reading is this year! It's time I did some catching up. I don't really have much of an excuse - I'm not working full-time at the moment, so I should in theory have quite a lot of time. Anyway, Stuffocation looked like an interesting book, but in my case it was preaching to the converted, was repetitive and boring, and didn't really tell me anything new. It just says "having cool experiences is better than acquiring stuff, and materialism is rubbish". There, I've just saved you having to read its waffly content. It's trying to do an admirable job, but I found "How To Be Free" by Tom Hodgkinson a much more satisfying, challenging and enjoyable read around a similar subject.

Roads

Abby got hold of this book – it was of interest to her professionally as she’s a driving instructor. As a transport professional (and geek) I was keen to read it myself. It’s a history of the road network in Britain during the motorway era, so the story starts with the opening of the Preston Bypass in the late fifties.

When it comes to transport literature, railways seem to dominate the positive press. There’s a romance and nostalgia about railways that seems to be missing from the road network, something much more utilitarian and rather less loved. Yes, we’re fond of cars, and plenty of people are fond of buses and vintage fire engines, but the roads themselves get scant attention, probably because they’re seen as very boring. This book manages to make a potentially dry and academic subject lively, funny and inspiring, and as such I’d strongly recommend giving it a read.

Moran goes into plenty of detail as to how motorways came about, and how they were designed – although they initially had no speed limits, they were designed around 70mph operation, so that’s how that came about. He looks at the design of the roads and structures, and especially the signs – pioneering works of modern graphic design, however mundane they might look, with lots of ideas behind them. He even manages to make service stations sound glamorous and interesting, which they were in the early days. I didn’t realise they were one of the very first Thatcher-era privatisations, but I know now.

He describes how early Utopian dreams didn’t quite come to deliver, and how the idea of urban motorways fell out of favour. He focuses on plans for motorway boxes in London, which would have flattened vast areas and thankfully never came to pass, but you get the idea if you drive along the city centre section of the M8 in Glasgow, something I always find a bit terrifying. It’s everything that’s wrong with motorways – badly designed, ugly, and very out of place, carving the city in two. Thankfully no-one attempted to build anything like this again.

Particularly interesting was some history on road protests in the early to mid-nineties, something I was slightly too young (and timid) at the time to be involved in, but that I vividly remember, especially because I ended up studying a lot of it while studying for my Transport Planning degree a few years later. Twyford Down, the M11 Link Road and the Newbury Bypass were all notorious for the direct action they attracted, and for the brutality meted out by police and security guards. Although all these roads ended up getting built, John Major’s government lost the appetite for more road building and many plans were quietly dropped. Later on in the Brown and Blair era, however, they ended up sneaking back onto the agenda.

The perspective of the book is one of a social history, which puts a human angle on the subject. It’s full of colourful characters with a lot of different agendas, and harks back to all sorts of episodes in British history. Really entertaining and interesting, and all about the reasons why I got interested in transport in the first place – while it’s essentially about getting from A to B, there’s reasons why the people in A want to get to B, and those reasons are why the transport system exists. It’s more than just getting them there in one piece, it’s about letting them do the things they want and need to do with their lives.

Transport is all about people and their goals and interests and aspirations, and this book brings that vividly to life. It’s not an easy or obvious subject to write about, and Moran has done a fine job. Not just for the geeks!