Flash Says…

Archive for the ‘Miscellaneous’ Category

Some of you may be aware of my sideline as founder of the Pylon Appreciation Society. This week, electricity pylons have been in the national news as the new T-Pylon design was unveiled in Nottinghamshire.

As a pylonophile (?) I have been asked for my opinion, leading to a hectic few days, and more than ten live interviews across BBC radio stations.

I also had the opportunity to contribute to some print articles, and you may enjoy Meet the Pylon Spotters, a BBC feature article which included an interview with me, as well as These new electricity pylons will make Britain a duller place which I wrote for Guardian Comment Is Free. I’d particularly welcome comments on the Guardian piece as it was my first for CiF and I am naturally proud of it.

While electricity pylons may not inspire everyone, the Pylon Appreciation Society, which I’ve run for over a decade, has more than 600 members, of all ages and backgrounds. If you’d like to join us, be it as someone who enjoys a casual glance and a quick photograph, or a techie who seeks to understand the engineering structures in more detail, you would of course be more than welcome.

It has been a very busy few days, and I’m glad for the chance to share my passion more widely.

Today I received an unexpected email. Five years ago I’d written this missive to “future me”, and it was delivered out of the blue, completely forgotten. So what did it say, and how accurate was it?

“Today is 7 Jan 08” I began. “Bill Gates showed off a coffee table with a touch sensitive computer in it and reckons in 5 years’ time there will be ‘tens of millions’ of people sitting around them in their lounge.

“So here you are, 5 years on – amazing things will have happened like the Olympics, and like Leytonstone tube getting more accessible – so, have you got an interactive coffee table yet?”

Wow. Touch sensitive coffee tables eh? Well, I’ve got a tablet that I use in bed or in the lounge, and a smartphone of course, but that’s as touch sensitive as my house gets! Cynically, I googled “touch sensitive coffee tables” only to find an article – dated today – about a new giant tablet which will act like a coffee table, or even an air hockey game. But it isn’t an actual coffee table – that was just an analogy for its size. So I suppose Bill Gates is hoping nobody remembers what he said half a decade ago!

I wish I’d been more insightful, more detailed. Instead I referred just to “amazing things… like the Olympics”. Well, it WAS amazing, and living near enough to hear the closing ceremony fireworks from my house, it was exciting too. I spent two very enjoyable days at the Olympic Park (one watching Tom Daley grab Olympic diving bronze, another seeing Paralympic heroes Oscar Pistorius and David Weir in the stadium) and benefited from other 2012 events such as New Year fireworks, and seeing my current favourite band Tom Williams and the Boat performing live at an east London park.

But my local station remains inaccessible to me; there are stairs and no lift. I still have to get a minicab to Stratford in order to get onto the Underground. The thing I failed to predict was Ken Livingstone being ousted as Mayor of London. In came Boris, and out went many promises on which disabled people were depending. He shelved plans to make my local station accessible to me, saying there was no money… while I still have to fork out a fiver for each cab ride to my nearest accessible station.

Therefore, my first hopes for the next five years are that Boris loses the next Mayoral election, and the Tories lose the next General one. Budgets and benefits have been cut beyond what some people can cope with, which is shocking and depressing to see.

There were other sadnesses that I didn’t predict. After more than two years of illness, my dad died in 2011. Then last year my 12 year old greyhound succumbed to cancer. I don’t feel ready to lose anyone else close to me, although my nan-in-law is in her nineties…

Perhaps the next five years will bring opportunities to travel and relax. I got ill in 2011 and I’m still trying to manage my health challenges now, although I’ve now got the assistance of some great specialists. My immediate priority is a holiday, and then when I’m well enough, a puppy!

I’d also like some more opportunities to speak on TV and radio; this is something I didn’t predict, and which really began in 2008 when I was featured on Countryfile and The One Show. By 2012 I’d also been on Radio stations 2, 4 and 5, loads of local radio programmes, BBC World, Sky News, and on BBC Breakfast TV – though each only for a few minutes at a time. Hopefully over the next five years I’ll get more chances to share my knowledge and experiences with the world! If I could one day make my living in that manner, I’d be delighted.

Those are my hopes for the future – what are yours? Do you have a prediction for how we will be living in 2018? Perhaps you can help me reach my goals in some way! Let me know your thoughts.

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I spend every Wednesday – and every other Monday – scouring certain websites as soon as I wake.

Many years ago I devoured The Railways Archive’s repository of train accident reports – intrigued by those that happened in areas I know well (such as the Taunton Sleeping Car Fire where pupils, from a school I would later attend, gave assistance) and my eyes opened by others, how one simple error could lead to disaster. They were a horrific but fascinating set of reports, often harkening back to a bygone age.

But eventually I read up to the present day, and new reports aren’t published often enough to sate my interest. Then I discovered Ofcom – who manage complaints about TV programmes, publishing fortnightly adjudications in a Broadcast Bulletin – and the Advertising Standards Agency, who make weekly rulings on pesky advertisers. At last I can bury my nose in adjudications on a regular basis! Better still, they are often entertaining.

When I open an Ofcom report, I try to guess why the programmes concerned have caused problems. An unbalanced news report? Swearing on reality TV? Too many adverts on a shopping channel? Revealing too much flesh on a pay TV programme? I delight in the formal descriptions of what exactly happened, the minutiae of the offence.

My favourite complaints are those from individuals, preferably which have not been upheld. Usually these are people whose misbehaviour has been featured in a Watchdog-style exposé, or they took part in reality TV but now regret how they acted and retrospectively claim they never consented to be filmed. Their complaints are often unintentionally hilarious, ridiculous and clearly unfounded.

So that’s what I look forward to reading on a regular basis. What’s your guilty pleasure?

A few weeks ago, I wrote up some tips for cyclists on the Dunwich Dynamo. My husband completed the ride on Sunday morning, so I have invited him to guest post. Here are his thoughts and experiences of the trip.

Mike Bristow, about to set off for the Dun RunLast weekend, I did the Dun Run. For those who don’t know, it’s a bike ride from London to Dunwich, leaving Hackney at 8pm and arriving 116 miles away at the beach the next morning.

You don’t get to see glorious countryside (well, not until the sun rises) but it’s fantastic fun. These are some of my impressions from the night.

***

One of the most memorable things from the ride is the “river of red”. As you cycle along, you’re following a bike in front, with a red LED blinking, and they’re following a bike with a red LED blinking… and so on, until the next bend in the road. But sometimes, as you crest a hill, you see a bigger part of the river – the twinkle of red swooping down a hill and working up the other side of the valley until it reaches the horizon.

It’s awesome.

And you know that even though you can now see miles of bikes, this is a small portion of the red river. If someone stood there and watched, they’d’ve already seen the river flow past for hours, and they will still see it for hours to come.

Every time I saw the river reach the horizon, I grinned. I grinned a lot.

***

I’d set off with a friend and FOAF, but by the time we reached Woodfood, I realized I’d be frustrated with the pace. So I said something like “I think I’ll head off at a faster pace – see you at the end. Of course, this means you’ll pass me in 20 minutes when I’m fixing a puncture!”. They chuckled good-naturedly at my unfunny quip, and off I went.

Do Not Taunt The Puncture Fairy.

I’m not saying she’s a bitch, but she does have teeth sharp enough for my “puncture proof” tyres – I guess they’re around 4000 miles old, so they’re not exactly fresh, but hardly worn down to the canvas.

Of course, it was the rear tyre of my hub-geared bike, so it took me a while to fix. Luckily it happened outside a village hall, so I could use the light of the kitchen window to sort it out by, and I could overhear the locals chatting – and have a chat myself.

The locals were a mix of baffled, bemused, (“you’re cycling where? for fun?”) and genuinely entertained by the sight. I got a fair few “good luck” wishes as I set off again. Only to stop, swear, and realign my back wheel.

***

In my one previous longish run, I’d navigated by poring over google maps before I set out, checking the route out in the google map app on my phone, and then pausing at junctions to check out where I was going now and for the next two or so turns.

This worked really well, and I was prepared to do the same thing.

But on the Dun Run I just followed the river, too lazy to check out the route in the way I had planned.

This was a mistake that added – I guess – 7 or 8 miles to my journey (and around 100 odd others who made the same detour that I did).

As a tactic, it also failed because during the day you see so much more – it sounds obvious, but it’s surprising how limiting the darkness is.

The patch illuminated by your light is where you are going, and generally this is not towards the pole holding up the road sign, so they’re hard to read – something that I did on my test run quite a lot.

***

The ride starts in an urban area, and for me the shift into proper countryside happens when you turn right at Epping. As I approached that junction, the lights went red, and every cyclist stopped. There was no real traffic to drown out the noise, so as the lights went green, all you could hear was the sound of a hundred cleats clipping into the pedal.

I don’t think I saw a single cyclist jump a red light on the whole ride.

***

The coaches put on by Southwark Cyclists were fantastically well done – dealing with a mob of flagging, sleepy, cyclists can’t be much fun, but it was expertly and efficiently done. If you’re doing it, I’d recommend getting the coach ticket. If nothing else, it helps prevent you from throwing in the towel before you get to the start…

***

Next year? I’ll do it again, but I can’t see my diary for next year yet, so maybe I’ll be busy – it may be 2014 before I pedal to the beach again.

When I do it again, I’ll:

  • have a better pump. I didn’t get much air in the tyre, and while I’m sure there were track pumps about at the various pop-up roadside stalls, I didn’t spot them. My hand pump is good enough for getting enough air in the tyre to get home from work (especially given that I go past at least 3 bike shops that have a track pump chained up outside), but doing 80-odd miles on a under-inflated tyre wasn’t fun.
  • strap a torch to my head to be able to see things off my path (e.g. road signs).
  • be less lazy with navigation – following other people the wrong way is no excuse for getting lost.
  • Get a coach ticket earlier! The Dun Run next year is the 20th-21st July 2013; coach tickets back will be sold via http://southwarkcyclists.org.uk from, I guess, around late April onwards.

I expect I’ll be asking the Mrs for an all-night pass next year – hope to see you on the beach!

Since I got a Kindle app for my smartphone, my eyes have been opened to eBooks. I’ve only ever read free ones as there are so many out there, including classics, that I don’t need to pay for them. Instead, while I still enjoy buying novels in dead tree version, I only read books on my Kindle which will fill a different need. So what do I look for and what will get my attention?

On a Kindle I seek books which will keep me occupied when I’m travelling or can’t sleep; I need to be able to dip in and out readily. Other than that, these are the features that I look for:

• Attractive cover. It should be simple and easy to understand (especially when squished up small) but must not look too home made or I will be put off, in case the book is not professional either. Nor do I want something which will glare on my screen, so save vibrant yellow for other uses.

• Proper categorization. Nothing turns me off more than reading what I thought was a crime novel, only to find a fantasy-based ending that is not possible in reality. But getting the category right can work in the author’s favour, as I have been tempted to experiment with different categories of digital books, for example I am sampling “chick lit” and if I like it I may well buy several paper books in this genre, but I don’t feel confident enough to try it unless it’s free. Making sure your book is in the right category means I won’t be disappointed and might later spend money buying up other books of yours of the same type.

• A simple name. I don’t want something that’s trying to be clever, or is so obscure that I can’t work out what it’s about. Once I’ve made a bunch of downloads, the way I will choose which one to read next will come down to the name. Examples I’ve enjoyed include The Penal Colony by Richard Herley and Falling Star by Diana Dempsey. I initially picked them out because the name (and the cover illustration) made the basis of the story obvious.

• Not part of a series. I just know that it’s a taster in order to get me sucked in rather than something I can enjoy in its own right. When an eBook is part of a series I know that if I enjoy it I then have to go through some hard work to source the rest of the series (and in order) particularly if I didn’t discover them as they were published and “grow up” with them. I feel that I’m likely to be disappointed trying to get hold of further books in the series, and that it would be better to enjoy a one off story which will be more representative of that artist’s entire catalogue. So I am actively turned away from eBooks which are subtitled “(One of the XYZ series)”. If your tactic is to make the first book of a series free, think again if you wanted to attract me! Try making one of your one off novels free instead.

• Decent reviews. I do look at the reviews and star ratings on Amazon and good reviews will influence me to give a book a go; but not one liners such as “wonderful!” – I need something which will describe what I will get and exactly why it’s a good read.

• High ranking (high number of downloads). To be honest this only affects me because the way I search for eBooks on Amazon seems to be ordered by download, and so if it’s more popular I’m more likely to discover it. I set more store by reviews, though.

• In the style of authors I know I like. So if the subtitle reads “(Like Stephen Leather)” or “(Like Tess Gerritsen)” I’ll give it a go. This works both ways – if the subtitle says it’s in the style of an author I dislike, then I’m more likely to pass over it. But so long as the description is accurate, it should work in the author’s favour in terms of drawing in new fans.

One final thought: As I’m not paying for what I read digitally, I hope it will give me a taste of new authors. However, they need to meet the same standard I’d expect of a professionally published book: for example in a story I just read, the writer used “raised” instead of “razed” and “you’re” instead of “your” – and this spoiled my enjoyment by jarring and pulling me out of the adventure. I have also been disappointed to find that, having gone and read the free eBooks from some of my favourite established authors, they are only providing short stories or very early works which are not representative of their novels that I might buy in supermarkets either in form or standard. I don’t expect much for nothing from a favourite author, but I don’t just want to be given stuff that wasn’t considered good enough for a regular publisher – it might not be good enough for me, either! I’m mostly talking about authors who I now like enough to go out and buy their latest novel on the day of release. Perhaps instead of only publishing old or short stories, writers could release a book or two digitally for free a year after paperback release – perhaps only having one available for free at a time so that no matter when you discovered an author, there would be some reward for the reader but not enough to eat into the writer’s royalties? It would let new readers see what their books are really like, and get them hooked enough to pay for other examples. If prospective readers rely on what’s currently out there for free, the lower quality or shorter format might discourage them from ever buying a real book with that author’s name on it.

But of course, I don’t expect something for nothing! In return for receiving free eBooks, I…
• Review books after completion (or after deciding to discard them!) I wish that there was a prompt on the Kindle which would pop up once you’ve reached the last page of a book, inviting your review. After all, Amazon have integrated the Kindle with your account login, so it shouldn’t be too hard for it to prompt you for a review when you finish a story.

• Tell people about it. I tell my friends about books I’ve enjoyed, and I tweet about them too. I understand that authors, like all businessmen, rely on word of mouth to help them succeed, and I’m willing to be a part of that if I feel I’ve had a good deal.

• Look by more books by the same author. Not in the same series (see above); I find it hard to get every book, in order, and if I do they are almost certainly going to be second hand and so not paying a royalty to the author. But I will look for other novels by that person, ideally in the same genre as the free eBook that I enjoyed.

So what else can I do? Authors, it’s over to you. Where should I be looking for free eBooks and how do you feel about providing them free of charge? Do you see free digital books as a way to get new fans hooked, to reward existing fans with extra content, or both? Or do you find it all rather frustrating, or just not see the point? If I’ve enjoyed a free eBook by you, how can I best thank you – what can I do in return?

I hope this blog is useful in telling authors what I’m looking for in a (free) book download, and I’d love to hear what I can do in return – apart from blogging, obviously!

In the current economic climate, you might think that companies should take every customer they can get. But some are just not worth the hassle… Here are the lessons I’ve learned where the relationship just didn’t work out.

Firstly, follow your gut instinct. This week I was called by someone who wanted a new website. He asked if I used Dreamweaver. I explained that no, I didn’t, because I prefer to create website code from scratch. “You don’t use Dreamweaver? That’s ridiculous!” I responded “Well, I have the skills to create a website directly. I don’t use software to do it for me…” “Ridiculous!” he insisted. “You’ll be telling me you don’t use Fireworks next!” He had clearly learned one way to create websites, and assumed it was the only way. I could tell that the conversation was going nowhere, and didn’t even bother to take his details, because he was so stuck in his ways. I just knew that we wouldn’t see eye to eye. Apart from anything else, his comments of “Ridiculous” were mildly offensive – I felt like saying “if you know better, go and do the website yourself!”

In another case, alarm bells started ringing from the off, but I still did the deal. Guy (not his real name) contacted me needing a website for his Private Investigator business. He would check out internet brides, to make sure they didn’t have family elsewhere before marrying someone from the west.

My suspicions were raised when Guy wanted to make a 2 hour round trip to pay me the deposit in cash rather than cheque. However, some customers like to meet me, so I agreed. We discussed his website, and I went away and did the work. We met again so I could receive the balance owed, and this is where it turned weird. Guy confided that he was a wanted man in an Asian country, and needed money from his PI business so he could raise a bribe to stop officials throwing him in jail if he returned. At this point I smiled politely, while thinking “how can I get out of this?”

Several months later Guy asked me to update his website, which I did, but then he vanished without paying. At renewal time his website simply expired. Perhaps he was in prison?

Guy taught me another lesson – don’t be afraid to walk away. That’s exactly what I did when I met another customer, who I’ll call Alex. I’d explained to Alex that I specialised in website accessibility, and would provide him with an elegant but straightforward website with text and static images. This was agreed. We met so that I could show him the demo of his website. The conversation went like this:
Me: [finishing demo] … And that’s your website.
Alex: Where are the dancing animals?
Me: What dancing animals?
Alex: In my head, the website has animals dancing across the screen.

The first three words are the issue here – “in my head”! Having explicitly been told that I didn’t do animation, even making a joke out of the fact that my name is Flash but I don’t create Flash movies, Alex still envisaged that I’d provide some – but never told me about it! We agreed to part ways and he settled up. Later, I saw the next incarnation of Alex’s website – it had pages whizzing in from all sides and tinny music playing – very much “My First Website” – reminiscent of something from the late 1990s. I’m glad we parted company, because I would never have allowed myself to produce anything like that!

What should you do about awkward customers? I think the key here is “be proud of your price” – if they are going to be hugely fussy and need lots of changes to the website, or command a lot of your attention then they will have to pay for the service you provide.

It’s not always like that; I have several long standing customers and I appreciate their loyalty – I hope they enjoy the level of service I give them in return. But if your instinct tells you something’s not right, listen and don’t be afraid to walk away – it could save you a lot of trouble in the long run.

Today for the first time I drove to a shopping centre – the new Westfield in Stratford City, which opened two days ago. Just ten minutes from my house, this could be what I need instead of trekking into town for shopping. My only concern was whether it would have those horrible concrete whirly-round ramps, which I’d enjoyed as a child but secretly feared as a driver. It was time to have a go and find out.

On approach I was surprised to see areas for vehicles to stop for searches, but I surmise that the entrance is shared with the Olympic Park. I pity the poor chap whose job is to stand there all day, waving people on to Westfield.

I followed signs, noticing “Best for M&S – Carpark B” so I stayed in the right lanes, managed not to get cross with everyone else changing lane at the last minute, and entered the carpark. Hooray, it was level – no nasty whirly ramps. “I’ll come again!” I thought.

At the barrier a staff member handed me a green plastic chip (about £2 sized) from the machine, which I took along with a leaflet about how the parking operated (you pay on exit, but for a few weeks the first 2 hours are free) and took instruction on where to find the disabled bays – “at the front”.

Lo and behold at the other end of the carpark, on the same level I entered, were several aisles of disabled bays. I dutifully memorised my aisle (213) and followed signs “to the shops”. This led to an escalator down to Waitrose (er, isn’t Waitrose at the opposite end to Marks & Spencer?) where a helpful assistant directed me back through the carpark to a lift by a sign for John Lewis (er, isn’t John Lewis on top of Waitrose?)

I looked back and made a mental note of how to get back to my car from the lift, as well as which floor I was on (Mezzanine). And so down into the shopping centre!

I did indeed come out near Waitrose, but equipped with a map and following signs it was easy to find Marks & Spencer, even though it was at the opposite end. The floor was clean and polished, and I whizzed through in my wheelchair; although there were lots of people there was room to move too. I smiled as someone’s overloaded bag burst in front of me (sorry, but he was laughing too). I even smiled at a child carrying a large Build-A-Bear bag with something pink inside. And I smiled again to see that Lego Store was only full of adults, even though it was well past school kicking out time.

In M&S I had a good experience as a kind assistant not only showed me to the item I wanted, but carried my basket there, and then took it to the tills for me. A second assistant loaded my full shopping bag onto the back of my chair. Now I just had to find my way out.

It can be hard to navigate when your eyes are at other people’s waist heights, but it was a direct route, passing the same shops I’d noticed on the way there (including queues of tweens outside Pulp) and I found my way back to Waitrose. Now to find a lift… hang on, it doesn’t have Mezzanine on it. Just LG, G, 1 and 2. Bother. Now where?

I consulted my map, but it didn’t show lift locations. I tried to retrace my steps, but I could only get a feeling that “I came out near Waitrose, and went past the ad for Foyles, so it’s around here somewhere”. I couldn’t find any manned information points, nor did I remember seeing one.

I spoke to a Westfield branded assistant. He wasn’t sure of the right lift but sent me in the wrong direction anyway, taking me to Carpark A. Not to worry, there were lots of assistants in the carparks and one was certain she knew the way to the Mezzanine in Carpark B… To cut a long story short, she didn’t. However I can now tell you what Carpark C looks like, as well as the rest of the mall! There was a specific moment when she stopped marching ahead and started looking lost, when we realised we were stuck with each other until I found the Mezzanine. I offered her my map and made desparate jokes about wanting to get back to the car before free parking expired. She asked if I could take a travelator but I didn’t want to try this as apparently it’s rather angled, and my chair was already quite “tippy” because of my shopping on the back – and I didn’t trust my guide any more!

We were just about to give up and ask the Concierge when we discovered the right lift at last! And it became apparent that the lass had been confused because other carparks don’t have a mezzanine between LG and G, and other parking aisles beginning with 2 are on level 2, not M. She thought I was wrong, and so led me on a wild goose chase whilst trying desperately to help.

Not to worry. I now fished out the green chip and posted it into the payment machine for validation. There was a low height machine – well done, Westfield! The chip seemed to come straight out again but I was assured it had been validated. I can imagine if there hadn’t been an assistant there I (and others) would have kept retrying to enter it until the machine made a sound or displayed something on the screen. Oh well, I know for next time!

Now to find my car. Hang on, other people had parked up since I’d made a mental image, and so I couldn’t see it across the carpark any more! The lift was at aisle 201 so I had to push almost the whole way across the carpark, past 25 rows of cars, over several inverted V shaped metal ramps, nearly getting stuck each time. I’d only had to pass one ramp on the way from my car to the lift so I’m still not sure whether I took the same lift back again!

All’s well that ends well, and I suppose I managed the trip on my own – and there were none of the whirly ramps that I feared. But I was almost at the point of panicking when not only could I not find the lift, but nor could the member of staff who was “helping” me. Next time, I’ll park elsewhere – and when all else fails I’ll remember there’s a concierge service on level 1.