Gwynne and Marsh: Questions of Grammar

I attended a debate last night. Titled Questions of Grammar, it featured David Marsh, Production Editor for the Guardian, and Nevile Gwynne, author and pompous buffoon.

The premise was a discussion on the merits of grammatical education, although it was confused slightly between this topic and a wider one about the evolution or otherwise of language.

Gwynne was stuck in the Dark Ages, arguing for the rigorous education of every nuance of grammar.

His view was that while words have changed, grammar has not changed significantly since the 16th century. And that every child should learn its intricacies so that they know when to stray and when not to. (Shit, did I just start a sentence with a conjunction?) Someone not educated in grammar is, after all, incapable of thinking, so he believes.

His argument against the use of “hopefully” when qualifying an entire sentence, while grammatically watertight, was utter bunkum.

Marsh was more pragmatic, accepting, nay embracing, grammatical evolution. He delighted over split infinitives and quoted some grammatical ugliness from Wodehouse that simply sang *because* of its grammatical ugliness. (I wish I could source the quote.)

At one point, through the powerful use of utter fiction, Gwynne cited a causal link between declining grammatical education and the suicide rate in the UK. Shoot me now!

The high point of the evening was when a girl from the audience, aged around eight, stood up (after being invited to do so by our chair, Matthew Reisz) to confidently refute Gwynne’s suggestion that schools stopped teaching grammar in the 1960s. (Ah bollocks. Split infinitive.) Her Islington school was, she informed us, rigorously educating its students in the specifics of grammatical structure.

The low point of the evening was when Gwynne retorted almost angrily, asking whether the girl knew what a conjunction was.

I myself asked a question of the protagonists:

Is American English a different language altogether, or are they simply illiterate?

My question was intentionally loaded, prompted in part by a very eloquent lady, who sounded vaguely American, having previously asked a question. Gwynne berated the intentional bastardization of the language by the Americans, while Marsh cited their use of some traditional constructs, such as “gotten”, that have fallen out of favour/favor over here.

(As an aside, my view is that the Americans have some beautiful constructs – the use of write as a transitive verb (“write someone”); the omission of a preposition in “schedule a meeting Monday”. Any assertion that American English constitutes a different language because of subtle grammatical differences is preposterous.)

To me, Gwynne came across as inaccessible and unapproachable. His formal stance made one not want to listen to him, thus defeating his own argument about the important constituent parts of communication. Marsh came across as fun (to the extent that grammarians can be fun) and accessible.

I could see myself sharing a Nando’s with Mr. Marsh; but hopefully I’ll never encounter Mr. Gwynne ever again.


Reuleaux polygons and tetrahedra

My friend Rob sent me this video today. I just watched it. And I loved it. Here’s the background.

Certain 2D shapes are such that their height is the same regardless of their orientation on the plane. The obvious example is the circle, meaning that your bicycle runs smoothly down the road.

But there are an infinite number of other shapes that share this quality. For the UK contingent amongst you, the 50p and 20p pieces are examples.

You see, they’re not quite heptagons. They’re actually Reuleaux heptagons. That means that where they might have straight edges, the edges are instead slightly curved. And the point on the coin that is opposite that curved side lies at the centre of the circle of which the curve is an arc.

To prove it, take a ledge (e.g. the bottom lip of a laptop screen, or the point at which a radiator guard meets the wall). Place two 50p pieces upright on the ledge. And grab a ruler. Place the ruler across the top of the two coins and drag the coins left or right. You’ll find that the ruler remains the same distance from the ledge at all times.

Simply delightful. And yet more so when you discover that there are Reuleaux triangles!

Now you couldn’t make a bicycle using these shapes, as the centre moves around as the coin rolls. So while the highest point of the wheel would remain a fixed distance from the ground, the point of the axle would wobble go up and down relative to the ground, and so the ride would be a little bumpy.

Now, it gets better. As well as there being an infinite number of Reuleaux planes, there are also an infinite number of Reuleaux solids, which share similar properties. So you can balance a board on a bunch of them, roll it around, and the board will remain a fixed distance from the floor.

You can buy a bag of them here. *reaches for credit card*

(Oh. I also love the guy’s enthusiasm for the subject.)

Tying expenditure to income: emotional blackmail

The idea of government earmarking specific items of income for specific items of expenditure is, to me, preposterous. In the most recent example, George Osborne today confirmed that £10m per year from the fines imposed on the banks for their part in the Libor interest rate fixing would be made available to help war veterans injured in recent military campaigns. A similar example of earmarking previously cited by George was one that confirmed that not a penny of RBS bosses’ bonuses would be funded by the taxpayer.

(As an aside, the spending sums being spoken about here are trivial: £10m equates to 37 pence per year for each UK household, which comes down further when you factor in the fact that the majority of HMRC’s tax intake comes from businesses.)

As a taxpayer, I’m unable to request for example that my corporation tax, VAT, employer’s and employee’s PAYE and income tax is only used for NHS care and that it is not used for the purposes of war.

The balancing off of receipts against expenditure is nothing more than emotional blackmail. We don’t hear, for example, how the legitimate tax owing that has been written off for numerous large corporations has reduced the NHS’s ability to provide primary care for children. That wouldn’t make a good headline now, would it?

The issue is further clouded by the fact that HM government owns 81.14% of RBS, which was fined £390m in relation to the Libor scandal.

So please don’t patronise me, George. Talk about savings; talk about income. But don’t tie the two together, there’s a good chap.

Paralympic medal analysis

China topped the Paralympic medals table (95G, 71S, 65B), followed by Russia (36G, 38S, 28B), #TeamGB (34G, 43S, 43B), Ukraine (32G, 24S, 28B), Australia (32G, 23S, 30B) and the USA (31G, 29S, 38B). Indonesia and Sri Lanka rounded off the table of 75 medal-winning countries, with a bronze apiece. (Eighty-five nations won Olympic medals.)

Interestingly, while less than 42% of countries competing in the Olympics scored medals (85 of 204), 51% of the 147 countries participating in the Paralympics medalled.

Thirteen nations won Paralympic medals that had not won Olympic medals in 2012: Nigeria, Austria, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Namibia, Angola, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Chile, Fiji, Iceland, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Iraq and Sri Lanka.

But 23 countries that won Olympic medals failed to score any in the Paralympics: Kazakhstan, Georgia, North Korea, Lithuania, Mongolia, Trinidad & Tobago, Armenia, Moldova, Estonia, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Qatar, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Uganda, Gabon, Botswana, Bahamas, Guatemala, Kuwait, Grenada, Tajikistan and Montenegro.

Algeria and Hong Kong were the two nations whose Paralympians most notably outshone their Olympian counterparts. While each nation scored only a single Olympic medal (Algeria a gold in the men’s 1500m; Hong Kong a bronze in the women’s keirin), Algeria clocked up a whopping 19 medals in the Paralympics (4G, 6S, 9B), Hong Kong taking home 12 (3G, 3S, 6B). These nations were trailed by Egypt (7.5 Paralympic medals per Olympic medal), Tunisia (6.3), Greece and Morocco (6 each). China won 2.63 Paralympic medals per Olympic medal; #TeamGB 1.85; USA 0.94.

Bottom of the list of Paralympic medal winners in converting Olympic medals to Paralympic medals were Jamaica (0.08); Ethiopia (0.14); India (0.17) and Romania (0.22).

Of the nations winning ten or more Paralympic medals, Cuba (17) did the best job in converting them to gold (53%), followed by Ireland (50% of 16) and Belarus (50% of 10). Greece did the worst job here (8% of 12), beaten by the Czech Republic (9% of 11) and Turkey (10% of 10).

[Click through for a full-size version.]

Paralympic medals

The Olympics opening ceremony: my review

It’s now four full days since the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, sufficient time to give an objective review.

It was fucking awesome.

It started at 2059 BST, with a 60 second countdown. Each number gave an insight into London or the UK. The 43 bus to London Bridge; the 30mph speed limit sign; £22-worth of mini-orchids (ouch!); the 12 in the top-left quadrant of the dartboard; eleven and a half Fournier Street (an art gallery in the east end); Number 10 (natch); ending with street signs for EC2 and N1.

Then, a dragonfly’s journey from the source of the Thames near Kemble all the way past the Olympic stadium and past the Thames Barrier.

Starting beneath the water, it makes the brave leap into the air, past the river’s source marker stone, past children happily splashing, ratty, a field of poignant poppies, river boats, trains with ketchup aboard, Olympic rings carved beautifully into rape fields, ducks. All of this interjected with great, Great British sporting accomplishments from days gone by.

Through Putney and past rowers, village cricket, on past Battersea Power Station and the accompanying flying pig (from the cover or Pink Floyd’s Animals), past parliament and Big Ben (yes, the bell).

Across to the London Eye and the South Bank (with accompanying music from the Show), rapidly under six bridges before flying through Tower Bridge complete with its resplendent Olympic rings (now to the tune of the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen), a quick look back to the Shard before rising high and mighty above London and orientating itself ready for the nine drum beats at the beginning of the EastEnders theme tune.

Back down to river level beyond the Thames Barrier, and back upstream, into the docks north of the river and mysteriously into the Underground system (Jubilee line), a Victorian-era tunnel under the Thames, the Blackwall Tunnel (I think), back above ground to the docks, through ceremony preparations into the Olympic stadium (now live) ready for another countdown, this time from ten, each number struck off to the exploding of numbered balloons to the sheer delight of the children holding them.

We’re over six and a half minutes in, and there has been nothing but delightful imagery, pulled heartstrings and ear-to-ear grinning. And we’re not even started yet!

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to London, and to the Games of the thirtieth Olympiad. To open our ceremony, Olympic cyclist, member of Team GB and Britain’s first winner of the Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins.”

Bradley, sporting a delightful yellow t-shirt, rings a huge bell, and a few understated helium balloons rise into the air.

“And did those feet in ancient times…”

Oh Jesus Christ. If you weren’t already proud and blubbing, you are now. Humphrey Keeper, selected only ten days ago, pipes in, completely unaccompanied. He’s also wearing yellow, surrounded by fellow choristers in block 248, high up in the cheap seats. This is epic.

During this flawless and goosebump-laden performance, British village scenes play out in the centre of the grassed stadium.

Verse one gives way to a choir on Giant’s Causeway for a verse of Danny Boy, then Flower of Scotland from Edinburgh Castle, and Bread of Heaven from the Welsh coast. “Feed me ’til I want some more.” All interjected with footage of historic rugby moments. (I can’t help but feel that Scotland lost out on the melody stakes here.)

Then back to the stadium for the yellow-shirted choir to sing verse two of Jerusalem. Jonny Wilkinson’s 2003 World Cup–winning dropkick prompts the first audible sound from the audience as a cheer interjects the beautiful melody. (No harmonies, making it all the more powerful.)

Sir Kenneth Branagh makes his way rather smugly into proceedings, and I’m uncertain whether the smugness is his or that of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, FRS, the part he is playing.

Eight and a half minutes in.

“Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises….” Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act III, Scene 2.

Branner, sporting sideburns rivalling those of Wiggins, gives a rousing rendition from partway up a huge grassed hill, to a group of top-hatted men below, all listening intently, all to the backdrop of the powerful chords of Nimrod. I only hope they can move it all in time for the start of the athletics.

“I cried to dream again.”

Evelyn Glennie comes in to lead some 1,000 drummers, an introduction to the Industrial Revolution. The turf is methodically uplifted as landscape makes way for industry.

Six chimneys rise from the ground. Trevor Nelson starts speaking, asking us to turn up the volume on our remote control. Oh the irony.

Branner/Brunel grins manically, cigar in mouth. The Suffragists enter. The grass has made way for the chimneys and a hugely detailed map of London that would have been lost on most. The rousing whistled tune of  Underworld’s And I Will Kiss takes us into the next stage. Magical.

An army of Sgt. Peppers enter to bring vibrant colours to proceedings. And then HMS Windrush. The Chelsea Pensioners. The Pearly Kings and Queens. All the while, industry behind them is forging an Olympic ring, steam billowing from the molten steel. Branner continues to be smug.

Four more Olympic rings are brought into view from above. The one forged at ground level is lifted skyward and the rings are slowly moved into place to form their familiar logo, lighting up with understated fireworks descending from their still glowing edges.

Huw Edwards witters on. As does Hazel Irvine.

Absolutely breathtaking.

Then video footage. To the Palace. Buckingham Palace. An old-style taxi (an LTI FX4, I believe) carries the besuited (indeed betuxed) Daniel Craig into the grounds. Bond, accompanied by a couple of corgis, is escorted to a large drawing room. A back shot of someone that looks like it might be the Queen at a writing table. The audience expects it not to be her. Either it’s not going to move beyond a back shot; or it’ll be one of those imitations. Dame Helen Mirren, maybe.

She turns round. Jesus. It’s her. It’s only Lizzie Windsor! “Good evening, Mr. Bond.”

“Good Evening, Your Majesty.”

The pair of them take off in a helicopter, past Nelson, over Whitehall, past a rather creepily waving statue of Sir Winston Churchill, St. Paul’s, a speedy fly-by of champagne-popping bankers (bankers) atop 1 Poultry, and our second pass through Tower Bridge. The helicopter stops to hover over the Olympic Stadium, lit in deep blue. Bond opens the side door. After a slight smirk from Craig, the Queen leaps out, followed by Bond.

Union Flags are the order of the day, their red, white and blue forming the basis of both the parachutes and the lit audience. The Queen makes her way to her seat. God, smile woman! (Sorry.) Members of the armed forces carry a Union Flag up the grassy mound ready to be hoisted.

And now we have our National Anthem. Performed by the Chaos Signing Choir for Deaf and Hearing Children. All wearing pyjamas. Unaccompanied. And putting 99.8% of us to shame by singing the second verse. Danny’s objective is clearly to make people blub. And God is he doing just that?

The opening bars of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells kick in as members of the NHS and Great Ormond Street Hospital enter the stadium, together with children on wheeled beds. Bedtime reading gives way to swing dancing and on-bed leaping (much to the joy of my daughter—a special late-night treat for her to watch this), and then soothing music and the children sleep.

JK Rowling reads some of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan and then there is a rather scary (and arguably unnecessary) sequence involving Voldemort (from Harry Potter) and some rather scary creatures (Death Eaters?)

“I really like the use of children in the show so far. Obviously going to hospital might be quite scary for kids. So there’s quite a dark side to the ceremony. But the light around the hospital beds is like a big contradiction.” Insight right there from Trevor Nelson. (Shoot me now!)

Oodles of Mary Poppins fly down from the sky to rid the world of he who shall not be named. Trevor Nelson continues to talk utter bollocks.

And so ends the period of leftie multicultural crap, as defined by Aiden Burley MP.

A short pause and the mood becomes serious as Simon Rattle begins conducting the London Symphony Orchestra playing Chariots of Fire. The opening bars kick in. Beautiful strings. In comes the monotonous beat of the electronic piano, played by Mr. Bean. The mood lightens gloriously. I hate Mr. Bean with a passion, but the comedic sequence works absolutely beautifully.

“Frankie and June say thanks, Tim.”

The famous six pips of the top of the hour introduce the next part of the ceremony. A white mother drives her Mini into the stadium to the Archers theme tune, parks and grabs her shopping, letting her mixed-race son out of the back seat. His head is buried in his DS. The car’s registration: TBL 2012.

They make their way to a house that’s just been built in the middle of the stadium. Michael Fish gives his famous 1987 weather report quashing rumours of hurricanes, while a cloud unleashes its fury on the house, the mother rushing inside.

Family life gets underway indoors, while the boy chooses to sit on the doorstep with his DS. The Sugababes’ Push The Button kicks in. Choon.

Harry Hill’s TV Burp gives way to video footage bringing in social media: Facebook-style status updates flicking across the screen. Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark chime in. The kid is dragged indoors by his mum.

Oliver! Charlie Slater extolling the virtues of fish pie. Wallace and Gromit. Victoria Wood. Fawlty Towers. The Kumars. Blackadder. Corrie (Rosie Webster is “going nowhere dressed like that, young lady!”) Desmonds. A montage of the best of British is projected onto the outer walls of the house.

And the Rizzle Kicks’ When I Was A Youngster accompanies the two girls of the house out for their night out. And there follows a musical journey from the 60s to present day.

The Jam’s Going Underground. Neon, dancing and youthful exuberance, giving way to Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight, the last song of the night? Not tonight.

Gregory’s Girl. Charlie Chaplin. One of the girls drops her phone, picked up by a boy who desperately searches for her. The Who’s My Generation. The Stones’ Satisfaction. Millie’s My Boy Lollipop. The dancers form the CND logo. The Beatles’ She Loves You.

Kes. A Matter of Life and Death. The boy connects with the girl who’s lost the phone. Mud’s Tiger Feet. The Specials’ A Message To You Rudy. Bowie’s Starman to the backdrop of men shooting into the air on jetpacks. Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody complete with Wayne’s World footage and much air guitarage. The songs are all too brief but their resonance and importance is there for all.

The Sex Pistols’ Pretty Vacant. After all, the Queen is present now. New Order, Blue Monday. Lots of luminescence. Lots. Frankie’s Relax. Soul II Soul’s Back To Life. Sheer joy. The Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams. The Prodigy’s Firestarter.

Trainspotting, Four Weddings. The boy and the girl finally meet to the tune of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles. (Are West Ham moving in after all?)

They kiss. There’s a montage of kissing. Charles and Diana. The spaghetti kiss from Lady and the Tramp. Beth Jordache and Margaret Clemence from Brookside.

Oh, and here comes Dizzee Rascal live on stage singing Bonkers. Can this *get* any better?

The whole stadium is now alive with colour, lights and sound. The kids go back home for a house party while Amy Winehouse chimes in with the beautiful melody of Valerie. Muse’s Uprising. Tinie Tempah’s Pass Out.

Suddenly the house rises from the ground to leave a calm fella sat at a desk tapping away at his keyboard. The caption reads: Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Inventor of the World Wide Web. Apparently Al Gore was busy. “This is for everyone” flashes across the crowd.

A short video interlude now. To the first relay of the Games: the torch relay. To the sound of David Holmes’ I Heard Wonders. It was an event that was met initially with much traditional British cynicism, but that later gained momentum as the crowds came out in force and many deserving people got to live out a dream.

First, brief footage of its 1948 journey to Wembley, its cauldron lit by John Mark. Then to 2012. From Greece to Westminster, Edinburgh to Liverpool. Union Flags à gogo. Princess Anne. David Beckham. Michael Johnson. Schoolchildren. Oodles of them. Stonehenge. Jack Charlton.

Lifeboats. Horses. Whitewater rafts. Zipwire from the Tyne Bridge (safely making it to ground level). The Queen. Communities coming together. A marriage proposal. To Hyde Park and the Red Arrows. Army helicopters. Denise Lewis.

David Walliams. Ade Adepitan. Open topped buses. David Cameron. William and Kate. Eddy and Patsy. The London Eye. Amelia Hempleman-Adams. Tower Bridge.

Back to David Beckham, racing up the Thames in a Bond-esque speedboat, jets of water shooting from either side. Accompanied by 16-year-old future footballing star Jade Bailey. David driving, Jade carrying the torch. Under the partially opened Tower Bridge, alight with fireworks.

A pause to remember those who are no longer with us. (At this point, NBC cuts to adverts, just as we would have done for a 9/11 memorial, I expect.) Faces of regular people zoom out gracefully in a short montage. In part, a tribute to the terrorist attacks on London on 7 July 2005.

Back to the stadium, and a burning sun. Silent dance. (Not my favourite.) Emeli Sandé comes in with Abide With Me. A cappella.

Calming. Soothing. Poignant. Eighty thousand people in the stadium. And you could hear a pin drop.

Trevor Nelson talks some more shit.

[Here follows one hour and 40 minutes during which the Olympic athletes enter the stadium, country by country, in alphabetical order. I won’t bore you with the detail.]

The Arctic Monkeys kick off a celebration for the athletes to enjoy with I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor while fireworks light up the night sky. Red, white and blue lights up the audience. They then slip into Come Together, altogether unnecessary in my opinion.

Illuminated human doves enter the stadium riding bikes. (You read that correctly.) They circle the stadium’s inner perimeter, the athletes all gathered in the centre. One of the bikes lifts off into the air. Spielberg calls his lawyers.

Enter Sebastian Coe and Jacques Rogge. Coe welcomes the world to London, in front of the 204 flags of the nations that entered the stadium. Then it’s Rogge’s turn. A dedication to the Games’ volunteers. Rapturous applause and cheering. An announcement that all participating teams will have female athletes increases the rapture.

The Queen formally opens the Games of the Thirtieth Olympiad.

The Olympic flag is carried into the stadium carried by: Doreen Lawrence, Haile Gebrselassie, , Sally Becker,  Ban Ki-moon, Leymah Gbowee, Shami Chakrabati, Daniel Barenboim and Marina Silva. Muhammad Ali joins the flag to represent athletic virtues. And to the Olympic anthem as the flag is carried further up the grassy hill to be hoisted alongside the Union Flag.

Back to Beckham on board the boat. Beckham is no longer driving, but assists with the transfer of the flame to the torch held by Sir Steve Redgrave on the dock. He sprints up some steps, all a little too fast for my liking, torch aloft.

The Olympic oath is read out by British Taekwondo athlete Sarah Stevenson. Similar oaths are read on behalf of judges and coaches. The word “Olympism” is used, much to my utter disappointment.

Redgrave enters the stadium, witnessed by 500 of the people who built the Olympic park. He hands the torch to Cameron MacRitchie, who accompanies six fellow young athletes for the last few legs of the relay, each nominated by a British Olympic hero from the past.

MacRitchie lights torches for each of the seven young athletes. They gather around one side of a huge circle of spokes, the ends of which are formed by the 204 copper conches brought in along with each of the Olympic teams. They light the conches and the flame spreads around its perimeter.

The spokes slowly lift from the horizontal to form a cauldron up high. Quite beautiful.

Footage shows from key moments of historic Olympics. And the footage ends with five gold rings floating above the earth.

And there ends the ceremony.

Or at least that’s where the ceremony *should* have ended. Instead, Paul McCartney is sitting at a piano. The great bell is struck again to introduce him. Hey Jude. Kill me now. There’s a problem with the opening bars, as he’s out of time with his supporting backing vocals. He looks like a jowly dog. Not in a good way. Na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na. Jesus wept.

“Just the women. Now everybody together.” What the fuck just happened here?

And we’re done. Three hours and forty-four minutes of blissful Britishness, heartstrings, pride, joy, tears. Followed by seven minutes of Paul McCartney.

Key-ring cards: memories of America

Yesterday I was reminded of a feature of American life that I loved. Allow me to explain.

Our local library closed down last month. At first, I thought it was a symptom of the Coalition Government’s cuts. But I later found out that it was because a few of our local libraries were being consolidated into a big one on Clapham High Street.

This new library opened on 2 July. And I took my daughter for the first time yesterday. And I have to say: it is fabulous.

Its design is based on a spiral. The books adorn the outer walls of a circular sloping walkway. Every so often, a gap in the books allows you to walk into one of the study rooms.

On the inside, you overlook a huge open space, with a children’s reading area at the bottom.

Upon entering, we picked up our new library card. It came in two connected plastic portions: the main credit card–sized card to slip into your wallet; and a much smaller tear-off piece that had a small hole in its corner. It is *this* that reminded me of America.

It performs exactly the same function as does the card that goes in your wallet. But it’s smaller and travels the world on your key-ring rather than in your wallet. It’s more accessible, and way cooler. We later used it to check out our first two books using the barcode thereon.


In America, these key-ring cards were commonplace. I had a few: one for New York Public Library, one for the Food Emporium and one or two others that I struggle to remember. But I remember fellow shoppers having scores of these things, scrolling to the appropriate card for the shop they were in to get their discounts or collect their points.

For whatever reason, they’re not so commonplace in the UK. This is the first one I’ve ever encountered. But I love it. And I wish I had more.

Oh, and if you’re in the area, check out Clapham library. Utterly fabulous.

The single best thing about Twitter

For me, the single best thing about Twitter is this: Twisst.

The account uses your location to give you advance warning of the International Space Station passing overhead. It only alerts you of the passes between dusk and dawn, those that are visible to the naked eye.

Before I stumbled upon the account, I used to occasionally pop along to one of the many tracker pages that showed the path of the station, to see whether it was in the vicinity of London. On one such occasion, I was lucky. Sat in Starbucks with my daughter as dusk fell, I hit the bookmarked site and discovered that it was going to pass over Croydon in around 20 minutes’ time. We finished our drinks and my shoulders carried her to the middle of Clapham Common for the 5.20pm fly-by. Beforehand, I tweeted the passing to allow friends to enjoy it too.

From around 5.15pm, wind brought an abundance of cloud into what was a relatively clear sky, and our skyward gazing was fruitless. My friend Simon thanked me for treating his family to an awesome fly-by. Mixed feelings.

(On a previous occasion, we had about five minutes’ notice and my daughter and I ran/were dragged from the Windmill pub to the middle of the Common like crazed fools, and were treated to a fabulous sight.)

But the chances that it would be passing over at or around the time you checked were remote.

With the Twitter account, I know when it’s coming over. In advance. And that’s lovely.

Tonight, it was due to pass over at 2015. Before dinner, I looked out of the loft skylight and there it went, moving east-north-east, taking three or four minutes to journey from horizon to horizon. It glimmered in the dusk, its six occupants whizzing round the planet every 92 minutes and 24 seconds.

There is something simply magical about the ISS. And knowing in advance that it’s coming over is similarly magical. And if you’re reading this? Get outside: it’s coming over London again at 2152.

My #ukgc12

Friday marked the start of UK GovCamp 2012. Or #ukgc12 as it swiftly became known.

I say “start”, because this year’s event was a two-day affair. Friday was held in the traditional unconference manner, no pre-arranged agenda, just enthusiasm, energy and bright people discussing things close to their hearts. Saturday was marketed as a “Doing Things” day, with more focus on doing than talking.

I could only attend the former, my second such event, and it was thoroughly enjoyable.

Reclaiming the High Street

After the introductions and formalities, I attended a session about rejuvenating the High Street. It was fascinating. Lots of revolutionary stuff going on down in Herne Hill by all accounts, individuals and traders getting together to reclaim ownership of the area’s activities from the council.

So many people talk of their sadness at the shops that are closing on the High Street. While that is indeed sad, it’s something that has to be embraced. The world has moved on. First, out of town shopping centres drew shoppers away from the High Street. Next, the internet came along to remove some of the remaining shoppers. While High Street shopping is still going on, it’s no longer sufficient to support the numbers of businesses that were there ten, twenty years ago. And that’s just fine.

When people talk of the High Street, most people immediately think of shops. They don’t immediately think of restaurants, libraries, community centres, youth clubs, gyms, coffee shops, art galleries and the like.

The High Street needs to become the place you go to do stuff that you can’t do on the internet – most of that list, if you will, and then some. There are lots of things that can’t be done online, and the High Street needs to fill that gap, rather than trying to compete. Yes, there will always be a need for physical shops. But people shouldn’t look for Woolworths to be replaced by a similar shop.


On next to a session about intranets and their place in the workplace. Lots of debate as to whether they should be social or functional, and about people’s appetite to help their colleagues.

What I’ve always found odd about intranets is that there tends to be one of them in an organisation. Outside the firewall, I go to the BBC for my news, Google to find things, Facebook for community, Twitter for lively debate and insight, etc. But if I want to do stuff within my workplace, there’s one place to go: http://intranet.

It’s not quite like that nowadays. Systems spring up, collaboration tools are introduced. But in the main, there’s the ethos that everything you need as an employee lives under one roof, which still strikes me as odd and likely contributes to the difficulty organisations have in engaging with their employees.


Next, to communities. The session was billed as discussing the way in which communities could be brought closer together through technology, led by the delightful and super-intelligent Ingrid Koehler. The 45-minute session was ten minutes old before I realised that we were talking about online communities (professions, like-minded individuals etc.) as opposed to neighbourhoods.

This is not because I’m stupid. (That factor is responsible for many other things, but wasn’t relevant in this instance.) It’s because many of the issues that prevent geographically grouped people (neighbourhoods) from getting together online are equally relevant to bringing together geographically disparate people with a common interest or occupation.

In each case, there is the impetus to create and manage a community; and the impetus for the community to engage. It’s a very delicate circle that is easily broken. Without content of interest, the users won’t bother. Without users, the management of the community will flounder and content will suffer.

And then I had to leave to pick up my daughter from school, returning with her a couple of hours later to introduce her to the wonder that is GovCamp. And to allow her to pick up her very own t-shirt and name badge. She loved the technology and was blown away by all the people.

As for me, I didn’t have the same connection as last year, not having worked in government for almost a year. The sense of common purpose that GovCamp brings about is powerful and addictive. I felt ever so slightly removed from proceedings. Nonetheless, it was great to meet some old faces, to discuss things with some frighteningly intelligent people, and to be welcomed into such a thriving and warm community.

My colourful maw

Today I went for a tooth colour matching.

Why? Well, back in November 2010, I had a little accident. While walking up our front steps at home, I slipped on the wet tiles. Under my right arm was an Ikea box, held with both hands. With no hands free to cushion my landing, my front teeth took the full impact, shattering as they met one of the terracotta treads. As I rose, I could make out tens of pieces of enamel through the tears that were forming in my eyes. I was inconsolable.

Almost a year later, I’ve had lots of dental treatment and paid lots of associated bills, with thanks to my dad for his much appreciated contribution.

By 9am, my daughter and I were 20 miles from home having ridden six Tube trains and were sat in a dental laboratory in Northwood Hills. We were there to ensure that the two crowns that filled the gap you can see in the photo were the right colour. And it’s quite an art.

Because teeth are not white. Their colouring is subtle, with elements of opaqueness. And it was these subtleties that my technician, Raul, was trying to replicate.

To do so, seemingly oddly, he used paint. He had a colour palette containing, among others, colours you wouldn’t immediately associate with teeth: blues, browns, oranges, reds, yellows. Certainly an array beyond those that form the average American’s view of the average British maw. He went through two iterations, each heated to 800°C before we were both happy.

The result was tremendous. I struggled to tell the difference between the natural front tooth and its new neighbours. I couldn’t take them away with me, but I can’t wait for the last dental appointment of the series, when my smile will once again be complete.

Moroccan deaths outnumbered Norwegian deaths: what makes a news story?

On Friday, 76 people died in two related attacks in Norway: a mass shooting on Utøya Island and a car bomb in the capital Oslo.

Today, 78 people died when a military aircraft crashed into a mountain in southern Morocco.

Today, four days after the Norwegian tragedy, its news occupies the number two slot on the BBC News site. Twelve hours after the Moroccan plane crash, it occupies tenth spot, almost ready to be assigned to the archives, when it hits 13.

News is a funny old game. While there are political ramifications that have resulted from the Norway tragedy, the human fallout from the two events, the grief and devastation caused, will be similar.

But below are the key differences that, in my opinion, make one more newsworthy to British news outlets than the other:

Interestingly, at its most human the article about the Moroccan plane crash talks of an “accident”. Yet the stories surrounding the Norwegian events as “tragedies”.

The relative prominence given to the two news stories reminded me of my post of three years ago: What is news? In many respects, it’s a combination of personal risk and personal interest—all news becoming less relevant with time—although the measure is much more complex than that.

I wonder whether the BBC use a set of metrics to gauge the relative ratings of their news stories.

Next Page →