Wednesday, 6 July 2011


I’ve moved my blogs to and I’ll soon be moving my web pages there too.

I hope to see you soon in my new online home!


Thursday, 17 February 2011


My general blog is moving house today!

I have another blog, dealing with personal finance and debt, which is on the Wordpress platform. I decided that the two blogs would be happier if they lived next-door to each other.

So from now on you'll find this more general blog at:

I look forward to seeing you there!


“Broadcasting House” is one of my favourite radio programmes and I always make time for it. (0900 every Sunday on BBC Radio 4, if you haven’t got into it yet)

Time was a central theme in one of the first items last Sunday, 13 Feb. A character’s obsession with “the quickening pace of time”, as he grows older, is the central theme of a stop-motion film “The Eagleman Stag”, a 9-minute short nominated for a BAFTA in the “short animation” category. The film’s director Mikey Please was interviewed; the BBC website tells me that he is a freelance animator who graduated from the Royal College of Art last year [only last year and winning a BAFTA? Impressive!]. He has directed several music videos and title sequences as well as making his own short films.

By the way, through watching the award ceremony later that day I now know that Mikey’s film won the BAFTA. Do the people at the BBC know something that we don’t know? Was his selection as an interviewee a lucky or a smart choice? Or did the editors at “Broadcasting House” have a time machine?

Alvin Toffler

The quickening pace of time as one gets older is, of course, not a new theme. I remember reading Future Shock and The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler’s remarkable books of 1973 and1981 respectively. Toffler was very interesting on this phenomenon. He suggested that one solution was for retirees to live in enclaves where clocks ran slower. He was totally serious, of course. Although I haven’t retired, I qualify, age-wise; I want to move there now.

An anecdotal, non-scientific illustration of the time-speeding-up phenomenon came from the late Tony Curtis, when interviewed in his 80s.

“Could you give us a thumb-nail sketch of your movie career?”

Curtis: “Well, I arrived in Hollywood as a very young man with very little money. So I checked in to the cheapest motel I could find. I had a shower and put on a clean shirt; then I came down here to meet you.”

Which proves the point rather neatly.

Stop-motion and “The Wind in the Willows”

Back to that interview about animated film “The Eagleman Stag”. Paddy O’Connell, the host of Broadcasting House, said: “from Wallis and Gromit onwards, the UK has a hold on stop-motion”.

I love Wallis and Gromit to bits (and I live in Bristol, where Aardman Animations is based), but I really must dispute the idea that the UK’s hold on stop-motion started with them. Paddy is maybe too young to remember, or he didn’t have young children in the 80s, as I did, but in 1983 there was a wonderful feature film version of “the Wind in the Willows”, followed by more than one TV series. They were produced by Cosgrove Hall and voiced by wonderful British character actors such as David Jason and Michael Hordern. Both the feature film and the TV series were, according to good old Wikipedia, “sometimes misidentified as being filmed in claymation, which is incorrect. The method used by Cosgrove Hall is a stop-motion animation process using scale model sets and pose-able character figurines.”

Best version

A review of the 1983 feature, on Amazon, says: “Before it became a Wallace-and-Gromit ghetto, model animation was pioneered by Cosgrove Hall – and this is arguably their magnum opus. Beautifully produced, lovingly detailed, with a great vocal cast and classy score, it has the nerve to stick closely to the book. As a result it is the best screen version by miles and, in my opinion, likely to remain so.” To which I can only say “hear, hear!”

Thursday, 3 February 2011


I know that many Londoners complain about their public transport. The overcrowding is a problem, of course, and one that I have recently experienced. I’ve seen how often people don’t even try to get on to a Tube or Overground train because there is not even any standing room; not even “room for a small one?”

However, I’d suggest that one thing they could do, in order to feel better about the transport where they live, is to spend a few months outside the capital and then go back to London to see the difference. OK, compared with most other European capitals London’s system could be improved, but let’s judge by British standards. We have many unique qualities but, as we all know, we are not world-famous for efficient public transport.

Last week I was “up in town”, as we yokels say, for a Facebook marketing seminar at the Thistle Marble Arch. The Thursday session finished just before 18:45 and I had to get up to my daughter’s flat in Haringey; some considerable distance, which would require at least one change, whether I went by bus or train. I knew I needed to go east, then north, and I didn’t want to take a bus along Oxford Street as I know how slow that can be on a Thursday, i.e. late-shopping night. As I left the hotel into a side-street, three buses pulled up, all going north; wonderful! One was going to The Angel so I figured that would do as a first leg. Sure enough it got me to Camden Town within 20 mins. Leaping out there, I found a 29 heading north for Haringey, right behind it. So I got on board and was soon at my destination.

I waited less than 30 seconds for both buses. Luck of the Irish, you might say. Maybe, but at that time of the evening you might have had to wait 30 minutes in the city where I live, not 30 seconds. I got a seat both times, I might add.

The next morning, I used trains just for variety. Leaving my daughter’s at 08:00, I was at Haringey Station at 08:02; a southbound train arrived 2 mins later. Changing at Highbury, I walked across the platform to a Victoria Line train two minutes later and then changed at Oxford Circus. I was at Marble Arch station at 08:30. That was less than 30 mins after setting out from Haringey station. Look at the map and you’ll see that was something.

You might like or dislike Ken Livingston’s politics; like or dislike his talent for self-promotion that led to the slogan “Mayor of London” being so ubiquitous. As a non-Londoner, however, I am impressed with how efficiently the capital’s public transport functions. Strikes permitting, Transport for London gets my vote.

Please, please, Ken, now you have some spare time I beg you to come and fix the public transport here!

Friday, 14 January 2011

Shock horror: the guard drops. A politician saying what he's thinking. Malfunction of usual filter system.

Radio 4 interviewer on ‘Today’ programme this morning: "Your party normally does well in by-elections; how do you explain ... " (i.e. the fact they didn't win the Oldham East by-election)

Lib Dem President Tim Farron: "We are also a party that is not normally in power. Don't know if you'd noticed."

Could this start a trend? I doubt it Quite a few LD people have committed indiscretions lately, though rarely live on ‘Today’. This was different; a gentle rebuke for an ingenuous question.

I’d love to see a similar phenomenon when sportspeople are interviewed just seconds after finishing their match or event. For example:

“How do you explain the fact that despite ….. you lost to Usain Bolt?” (this was actually asked, in even more patronising terms, of Asafa Powell, one of the pre-tournament favourites, immediately after the Beijing 100 metres final.)

“Well, Gary (apologies; it wasn’t Gary Richardson but I just have this thing about his questioning style), I ran as fast I could (maybe I even ran a personal best) but he ran even faster. Don’t know if you’d noticed … but he’s pretty good.”

Sadly, it won’t happen very often, thanks to a combination of politeness and the media training that all public figures (politicians, sportspeople and celebs of all kinds) get nowadays. Politeness is a virtue I value; but in these situations I’d appreciate a little less of it.

Thursday, 13 January 2011


Do "ugly fonts" help us remember what we read? Is the everlasting trend towards making information more "readable", and in general easier to digest, counter-productive? There was an interesting piece on Radio 4's "Today" programme this morning, together with a very short and unscientific test of the theory: from three short pieces on three different subjects, all the presenter could remember about the text she’d been shown in Arial was that it was in Arial.

I said the test was “unscientific”, not just because it was so short (they probably had to leave enough time for yet another weather forecast) but also because I strongly believe that interest is the key to memory. If she’d been shown three pieces of text in three different fonts, but all on the same subject, then we would have removed a very significant variable.

If this theory is true (and it seems logical that making our brain work harder will aid recall), then my wonderful Kindle is too easy to read! Maybe it needs more font options. It currently has the choice of a "regular" typeface, also “condensed” and sans-serif.

I was somewhat surprised when I found that the Kindle’s “regular” typeface was a serif font; I’d always heard that sans-serif was better for reading onscreen, serif for print. Maybe the point is that the Kindle is designed to be as close as possible to the experience of reading from the printed page.

Thursday, 6 January 2011


Just when British rail travellers thought they had seen the end of travel miseries caused by the ice and snow in the weeks up to Christmas, they’ve been hit with steep fare increases. The average fare hike is double the inflation rate and some fares will rise by 12.8%. Meanwhile promised improvements to services are in most cases nowhere to be seen, although to be fair punctuality has improved. (By British standards, that is; we say that a train is punctual if it’s less than 10 minutes late, whereas in Spain, the land supposedly of ‘manana’, if one of their high-speed services is five minutes late your fare is refunded.).

Rail’s share of “total miles” small?

A recent article in last weekend’s Independent on Sunday (2 Jan 2010) by Alexandra Woodsworth, of the Campaign for Better Transport, says that even steeper rises are planned from January 2012, as the government wants to reduce the taxpayer’s contribution to the cost of running our much-criticised rail network. In itself a justifiable aim, if you consider it unfair to subsidise so heavily a mode of transport that represents 8% of the total distance travelled in Britain, (The Economist, 1 Jan 2010) compared with “85% by cars and vans”. That last phrase makes me wonder whether the statistic included freight miles; time to call in Tim Harford and his team at Radio 4’s wonderful “More or Less” programme with their genius for unpicking the headline statistics so beloved of many journalists and so often misleadingly used. It was Gore Vidal who said, “The worst thing I can say about my fellow-Americans is that they don’t like any question that can’t be answered in ten seconds” and sometimes I think we are going the same way.

Captive market

The Economist article points out that UK rail fares have grown by 50% in real terms since 1980 and it’s already well-known that our fares are the highest in Europe by a massive margin. Despite that, many commuters have no real alternative and “many rail firms enjoy a virtually captive market, (and regional monopolies too) hence passenger numbers continue to increase: we complain but many of us cannot vote with our feet because we need the trains to get to our jobs. The claim is often made that trains are “favoured by the better-off” but this is somewhat misleading: trains are not so much the favoured solution as a necessity for those who work in London, where wages and salaries are higher but so are living costs.

Subsidies and profits

The same magazine has often made the claim that the taxpayer subsidy of rail (currently £4.4 bn / annum) is four times higher than it was before we privatised the network in the mid-1990s (a decision taken by the then Tory government but implemented by Labour) but it’s not clear if that’s inflation-adjusted. Either way, can this massive subsidy be justified in view of rail’s small share of the travel market? And can it be consistent with the highest fares in Europe? (and in many people’s opinion the worst services?)

In a recent post I quoted a letter scoffing at a claim by a senior manager in the train operating companies (TOCs) that there would be fares “to suit everyone’s pockets”. The writer guessed whose pockets would be best suited by the new fares and it would not be the traveller. These new fares will be better news for the taxpayer and best of all for the TOCs themselves. The partial justification of the increases is planned improvements to the services provided by these privately owned train operators; that’s equivalent to Tesco, for example saying: “we want to open new stores next year, which will of course increase our market share, our turnover and our profits; that’s a good economic decision for us but to pay for it we need you, the consumer, to make the investment, so we will increase all our prices now.”

Off-peak more expensive?

“And another thing …” Why are our rail fares so complicated? Last week I travelled from Bristol to Exeter. Even though I knew exactly which train I wanted to get, there were seven different single fares available, just for that particular train, according to, all with slightly different conditions attached. If I had not been sure which train to take, there would have been dozens of different fares.

Of course advance booking is usually cheaper than walk-up and off-peak is cheaper than peak, i.e. “anytime”. However, here’s the most ludicrous thing I noticed last week: the walk-up fare for an “off-peak single” on my train was slightly more expensive than the equivalent fare for an “anytime single.” As Jeremy Clarkson might say, if he’d ever written about trains (which I doubt), “you couldn’t make it up.”


“What’s green about encouraging us to drive?” The Independent on Sunday, 2 January 2011.

Alexandra Woodsworth, The Campaign for Better Transport.

“After the deluge, the pinch: Britain’s expensive trains are set to get even pricier.” The Economist, 1 January 2011.

“ … Britain’s definition of punctual includes trains up to ten minutes late”. From The Economist 4 June 2009: “Pay up, pay up, and board the train.”