Use your Common Sense

18 Oct

break-the-rulesI’ve always believed that rules are there to be pushed and bent rather than followed to the letter. The responsibility for this lies with my father. When I was growing up, if someone told him he couldn’t do something I guarantee he’d be straight on it. For instance, he once bought a piece of land that adjoined his rear garden and in the process of deciding what to do with it, a hostile neighbor told him there was no way he’d let my dad fence it off. Well, that one rather rash statement set in motion a series of events not unlike the recent Russian escapade with Crimea. My dad, my brother & I started digging holes at 5am one Saturday morning and inserting fabricated concrete posts. Over the course of the morning we were joined by a series of mates and friends on what we jokingly termed ‘Operation Stalag Luft Drei‘ (a reference to the film The Great Escape).

By the Saturday afternoon, the posts were fully in place and were shortly joined by fence panels. As we had a gang, the irate neighbor didn’t dare issue a direct challenge, but we did spot him later on with a tape measure, making sure that the fence in question was within planning regustalag-luft-iiilations. My dad was a loose cannon, but he wasn’t stoopid. Or more to the point, despite his healthy disrespect for the law, the one thing he didn’t want was PC Plod knocking at the door and asking to see the fence. Our neighbor cut off diplomatic relations with our family after that and issued sanctions, such as refusing to take parcels while we were out and telling my dad he wasn’t to park in front of his house. In the UK, the road kerb in front of a house is a public highway, so the neighbor had no right to issue such an ultimatum. Parking hostilities weren’t on my dad’s radar until the neighbor told him he not to do it. Red rag to a bull. After that, every once in a while my dad would park outside the neighbor’s house overnight as a wind up. Unlike me, he used to enjoy a fight before breakfast.

Growing up as a teenager it all seemed like harmless fun. My dad must have been a nightmare neighbor for that one poor guy. However, he was as nice as pie to all the other neighbors, fetching shopping for the elderly, etc, which obviously infuriated the man next door, as he was unable to get anyone else on his side. What I took from this debacle and many others is the following: every street has an a-hole. Now I’m an adult, I’d like to add that if you can’t spot them, it might just be you…


Based on my experiences of growing up in a world with rules that were there to be bent, I’ve gone on to develop a healthy disregard for the Nanny State. They say you can’t legislate for idiots, but this doesn’t stop the powers that be from trying. When someone figures out how to bypass a rule, more rules spring up to try and plug the hole. It’s like Hercules fighting the hydra!  One of my colleagues once told me that at his school they had only one rule: use your common sense. Apparently, the governors figured that if they had a set of formal rules, a smarty pants would soon come along and exploit a loophole. The end result would be a weighty tome of donts instead of a page of guidelines.  So they distilled every rule they had down to a single statement which covered all eventualities and also taught the kids to use their brains instead of referring to a rule book.  This I applaud and my father agrees. If only common sense wasn’t so uncommon these days…





War Drugs

25 Sep A5WFJR Pills / Tablets

This is an article about the use of drugs in war, not the war on drugs. For the latter, please refer to the US State Dept.

panzer-ivA few years ago I watched a documentary about the use of drugs in war. The premise of the show was that Hitler hadn’t actually intended to invade the Low Countries & France the way he did. First a bit of history: the German offensive against the Allies began on the 9th May 1940 with the invasion of Luxembourg and within a couple of days both Luxembourg and Belgium had fallen. Unlike most sensible tourists, the Panzer divisions didn’t bother to stop in Brussels for beer, they just kept on rolling. By the 19th May, the Germans had reached the English Channel. After a short delay, which allowed for the evacuation at Dunkirk on the 26th May, the advance resumed and shortly thereafter France fell.  Allegedly, the lightning advance to the Channel took place because the Wehrmacht were ramped up on amphetamines (pervitine, which is actually crystal meth) and couldn’t be reasoned with. After ten days, all the meth they’d imbibed took its toll and the army collapsed into a deep slumber, thus giving the Brits a narrow window in which to organise their escape.

pervitinI found this to be a fascinating explanation as to why the Germans just stopped when they had the Allies on the ropes. Had they continued their advance the Second World War would have played out very differently to the way it did. It’s a good story, but is it true? It’s certainly true that the Germans had a secret drug programme (Projekt D- run out of Kiel) and it’s certainly true that they built up a massive reserve of pervitine prior to invading Europe. It’s also true that pervitine addiction and withdrawal was a real problem in the ranks. German officers knew from their experiences in France that prolonged use of pervitine caused sleep disorders and irrational behaviour. It was still used though, for the duration of the war. In order to negate the German advantage post-D-day, the American army issued speed capsules to their men. To counter this, the Nazis issued massive quantities of drugs to their Fuhrer, in the belief that it would turn him into a superhuman.  As with nearly all people who take large amounts of experimental drugs, this did not end well.

German scientists were aware of the shortcomings of pervitine and continued to experiment in secret. Eventually, in 1944 they produced drug D-IX, which was a combination of cocaine and crystal meth for alertness, with added heroin to counteract the meth downer that troops complained about.  It was too little, too late. At the end of the war, while the Americans were busy collecting the rocket scientists (later called NASA) and the construction moles (75% of all German construction after 1941 was underground), the Brits sent the SAS to Kiel, to collect the Nazi drug programme. Without giving any more away, this forms the basis of the plot for The Ferret Files.

fly-agaricA bit more research into the history of drug use in warfare, and you’ll find that every army has been up to it since records began. The Incas – off their heads on cocaine. The Zulus fought on a mixture of tobacco, marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms; they believed that the fungus made them bulletproof. Again, this did not end well.

Research into war drugs has never stopped – it still persists to the present day. Those in charge will do anything they can to give their men the edge over the enemy.  I’m no expert on modern war drugs and we’re verging into hearsay here, but I’ve read that some of the pills and potions the US Army trialed in Iraq made their soldiers paranoid and trigger happy. Those drugs, along with the weapons surplus from that war were then sold to various US Police forces. As I said, it’s hearsay, although it does resonate given the escalating situation that’s currently playing out across America.

My drug of choice is alcohol. I have a fairly large cache of the stuff. Should WWIII break out, that’s the drug that I’m going to take. It might not turn me into a psychotic killing machine capable of staying awake for weeks at a time, but it will ensure I have a damn good time and no horrible withdrawal symptoms… at least until I run out!



It’s Just a Bean

23 Sep coffee-beans

coffee-beansI have a pretty strict morning ritual that I like to follow, which starts with fruit tea, then breakfast and finally a shot of espresso. If I’m on the road for any reason, then between hotel breakfast and my place of work I’ll drop into a coffee shop. Nowadays, I stop at one espresso. Previously, I used to drink three or four, until I had an unpleasant episode and my doctor got involved.  I gave up coffee for nine months after that, until temptation finally got the better of me. We were in Italy – the home of espresso – when after a particularly enjoyable meal the waiter asked if we wanted coffee. I’d been there three days and said ‘no’ to espresso every time, but this time I cracked. It was seven o’clock in the evening when I drank that little cup of joy. Seven o’clock the next morning, I finally got to sleep.

The first time I had the coffee ‘swirl’ was back in my coding days. I’d been drinking coffee black without sugar for a number of years, primarily because one customer I used to visit always had a mug of coffee ready before I’d even taken my coat off. It came white, with a ton of creamer that tasted like stale plastic. So I switched to black. As I later discovered, the coffee machines of the 1980s dispersed a truly disgusting brew. Black no sugar came with a suspicious froth on top and tasted like the River Humber. After much persistence, my pals and I got permission to install a filter coffee machine underneath a desk and started brewing our own. Pretty soon, we had a lot of friends. There was a particular deadline for a drop of code and the only way to hit it was to keep on working through the night. I did a forty hour shift, kept awake by coffee. By four in the morning I was seeing colours and nothing around me would stay still. To this day, that experience remains my yardstick of too much caffeine.

An Espresso Shot YesterdayCoffee is one of those things that I’m passionate about to point of excess, along with real ale (aka microbrewery beer) and chillies. While I don’t have an espresso machine, I do have a ‘Presso’, which delivers hand-pulled shots. On the bean side of things, I grind my own using a burr grinder. I started out working my way through the widely available over-the-counter beans but no matter what I did, with the Presso machine it’s impossible to get a crema on top of an espresso shot. Hence I was forced to switch to an internet-based supplier of artisan beans. The coffee that comes out now looks like a miniature Guinness, which is precisely how a great shot should look. And it tastes divine. Heaven in a cup!

In the name of science, I did once try to recreate the original coca cola recipe using bags of mate de coca that a friend had brought back from Peru, along witcocaine2h ground up kola nuts obtained from a herbalist (a source of very strong caffeine). The result was lift-off, followed by a mid-air explosion. FYI: mate de coca or coca tea, which is made from coca leaves – the source of cocaine – isn’t available outside of South America. If you insist on typing ‘mate de coca buy’ into Google and following your nose, that’s entirely your business.

We now have a coffee shop on every corner in London, which is a massive step forward from the 1980s. The missus can’t understand what all the fuss is about. She’s happy with instant coffee from a tin and avoids Americano or Latte like the plague. Meanwhile, I’m busy browsing beans on my phones, winding myself up.

“It’s just a bean,” she says, shaking her head. “I don’t understand what you’re getting so excited about…”








Version 1.0

14 Sep

Here’s a question for yoversion-1u: how many versions of a document / manuscript does it take to create a Version 1.0?

To clarify, V1.0 is something that you the author are happy to publish and distribute to the world. On the cover, after the title, in large, friendly letters, it says:


Document Name

Author: YOU

You will be judged on the content, the grammar, the spelling and the layout. If it’s a work of fiction, add the plot and characters too.

halberdPart of my day job is authoring design documents, which are subject to internal review prior to being published. Hence I’m used to criticism. The most complex design doc is the High Level Design, or HLD. I reckon on 4-5 iterations by the time v0.1 goes out for comment. I then expect to go through another 2-3 versions before final publication. I’m really happy if v0.3 is the final version before v1.0, which gives 8 versions in total. If a document reaches v0.5, I start minor increments (v0.51). Once we get to 15 versions (v0.56) , I’m chomping at the bit to get the damn thing out the door. At this point, between me and success there’s always a pedant who won’t be moved because he/she doesn’t like a particular paragraph or requirement definition. All the time I’m boiling away inside, feeling personally slighted and wishing for a medieval weapon.

For The Ferret Files, I tried to follow my tried and tested methodology. It took six revisions to create v0.1. I figured v0.3 should be it. I was wrong. We’re finishing up on v0.53. Where I went astray was my estimation for how long it would take. I thought perhaps weeks. Try two people full time for four months. The final version of Ferret is revision 13. I was not happy with this figure to begin with. Recently, I saw Jeffrey Archer being interviewed on TV. He said that on average it takes him 17 revisions to get a manuscript right, all hand written then typed up. He neglected to mention that he has a secretary to do the dirty work. So by his estimation it takes two people full time for nearly a year to produce a best seller.  Suddenly, I’m feeling much happier.

My copy editor asked me why I was on v0.53 and not v0.8. Well, it all harks back to my first serious job, working for Commodore computers, who made the C64 and Amiga. One day, I met Frankie, a big shot engineer over from California, who was auditing the UK’s manufacturing processes. We got on rather well – he was a solid, no crap kinda guy at work, a hoot down the pub., which is where he told me about a recent chip manufacturing saga.

chip-03“Have you ever looked at what’s stamped on the top of a chip?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s the chip catalogue number.”

“And after the serial number?”

I’d never paid much attention to the last set of figures, which on most chips was ‘-01’ or ‘-02’. Occasionally, there was a ‘-03’. Frankie explained that in order to blow a chip, the engineer must first create a mask. The final set of figures was the mask number. Given that each mask cost $100,000 (in 1982), the engineering department obviously preferred a ‘-01’. Frankie then pointed me to a chip that had ‘-05’ on it, which, I remarked, had  presumably cost a cool half a million dollars to get right. Frankie laughed. The engineer who been tasked with making the mask didn’t know his ass from his elbow. By the time he’d reached ‘-07’, this was obvious to all and sundry. Except nobody stopped him, so on he went creating new masks and muffing it up. Each time, his boss figured he’ll get it right soon… if I just give him one more chance… And so on. Eventually a working chip appeared with the suffix ‘-33’.  It had cost months of messing about and $3.3m to make.  To avoid public humiliation, the suffix was immediately changed to ‘-05’. This was followed by an enquiry, during which the engineer responsible was reassigned and told never to work on chip masks again, and his boss was fired. Presumably into orbit.

The moral of the story for me is quite simple: keep your version numbers low, preferably below 0.5. If you get to 0.5, panic and start the cover up. Management can’t tell the difference between 0.5 and 0.54. They can. however, tell the difference between 0.5 and 0.9. If you’re covering up, don’t leave it until 0.7, as this grabs too much attention. Finally, if it takes 33 revisions to get something out the door, perhaps you’re in the wrong job…





Rise of the Sexbots

8 Sep

machina_aSome years ago I found myself working with a bunch of very bright management consultants, all with impeccable educational records. It was around the time of the dotcom boom, and conversation frequently veered towards the next big craze – which stock to buy/company to invest in. One of the group was a bit of a computer nerd – actually, he was a lot of a computer nerd – our go-to guy for deep technological problems. So we’re having a quiet beer one night and he offers up some confidential advice from a successful entrepreneur he once worked with.

“You only need to ask one question of any technology, to know whether or not it will be successful,” he said. “Does it aid the spread of porn?”

Well, we all tittered and guffawed.

Meanwhile, he carried on, talking about the history of film-making, and how the very first porno-shoot took place almost as soon as the photograph was invented. When the movies came along, so did the porno-flick.  With the invention of the cine camera came the shooting of home porn. In the 70s, the video cassette appeared. According to our friend’s business model, it was always going to be a success. The same applies to the CD, the DVD and Blu-ray – all meet the spread of porn criteria. Finally, in the 1990s, the internet came of age. Was it going to be a success? I’ll leave that one to you to answer.cine-camera

My friend’s prophecy 15 years ago was that the mobile phone would morph into a mobile data device with an LCD screen, and because it would be possible to spread porn using such an invention, it too would be a roaring success. We applied the ‘spread of porn’ criteria to many companies and many different technologies, to see which ones we thought might make it. Apart from the mobile phone, Virtual Reality (VR), which was still in its infancy back then, stood out as a clear winner.

Fast-forward to today, and VR has taken amazing steps forward. Porno-VR is already being trialed, and porn stars are already figuring out how to licence their images accordingly. The thing is, in order to become fully immersed in such a virtual world, ancillary devices are a must, for both sexes. They’re on their way too. Here’s a link to an article I stumbled across the other day: SEX ROBOTS

freefly-vrHowever, it appears all is not well in the world of sex robots. There are certain moral and ethical issues arising around the creation of sentient sex toys. Is it alright, for instance, to produce Sexbots of children? Whoah! I hear you say. For the record, I was uncomfortable even writing that sentence, it does my head in. Once the basic mechanisms have been perfected and Artificial Intelligence modules installed, where do you draw the line? Dogs; sheep; co-workers you fancy who’ve said ‘no’; exes who’ve slapped you with a restraining order.  There is, of course, a campaign against Sexbots. Personally, I think the whole scene is just damn weird, and I’d prefer a real person any day. Would I have an affair if I wasn’t getting any at home, or might I visit a Sexbot Booth for a few hours? That’s coming too.  I can just imagine telling the missus I had a go on a Sexbot but it’s OK, because I programmed it to look and talk like her. I’m pretty sure I’d be sleeping in the car. To be ultra-realistic, my missus-a-like Sexbot would have to have the occasional headache. What would I do then? Cheat on the Sexbot that looks like my missus with another Sexbot that also looks like my missus?!? And what might I do if Sexbot #1 finds out?

The only people who are going to make money out of such a complicated scenario are the lawyers. I have to wonder, did we miss a trick all those years ago? Perhaps the question we should have been asking all along, regarding the potential of a technology business to succeed is this: does it facilitate the spread of lawsuits?


Libel or Bust

31 Aug

I’m still stuck in Edit Hell – the 7th circle to be exact, which is populated with pedants and grammar Nazis. Trust me, you do NOT want to run into the comma Brownshirts – they’re the worst!

While working through the comments I’ve received from beta readers, I was asked to consider whether the following paragraph is libelous:

Led-Zeppelin According to Emerald Room hearsay, the hippy had begun selling weed back in the day, when it was still exotic and difficult to obtain.  Legend had it he’d bumbled his way into a sound check one day and with a combination of charm, cheek and a bag of very good marijuana, secured himself a job working for Led Zeppelin as their new dealer, their old one having been busted with a K of Morocco’s finest down his pants the night before.

That was Woody’s story and he was sticking to it.


Tell me what you think in the comments below. Does it constitute libel in your country? If you want to know what I think regarding the UK laws, keep on reading…

In an earlier draft of the novel two incidents were picked up during copy edit as potentially libelous. In the first incident, Ferret says some horrible things about David Icke, then repeats a bunch of facts about Icke’s life, which when checked, were not entirely true. In the second incident, Ronnie Wood pockets a wrap of cocaine. Being of sound and belligerent mind, I had to go check things out. I found the following article to be a very good summary of the UK libel laws, it’s definitely worth a read:

In the case of Icke, the horrible things that were said are fine. Calling him a ‘shell suit wearing conspiracy nut’ is permitted, as it’s simply an opinion. Relating facts about his life that are untrue – that’s libel and depending on the damage to his reputation, may result in compensation. In the case of Ronnie, a quick search of the internet reveals he was a bit of a party boy back in the day, so it’s definitely something he might have done. However, he’s recently cleaned up his act and become a dad again.  As The Ferret Files is a contemporary novel, Ronnie’s act of pocketing drugs might well have happened yesterday.  One of the reasons I included him as an incidental character is because I once met him at an exhibition of his paintings and he was a thoroughly nice chap. However, I don’t wish to damage his reputation (or mine), so out went the pocketing of marching powder.

Now, onto the Led Zep paragraph. Woody is talking about the early 70s. A quick search of the internet reveals that the Zep were out of control in those days, and a few spliffs was nothing compared to the rest of the well-documented things they were up to.  In context, Woody saying that he became Zep’s dealer, without specifically saying what he dealt, or to whom, at a time when the band were allegedly out of hand on a combination of drugs and alcohol,  whilst entertaining groupies of a questionable age is hardly going to damage their collective reputations. Plus, it’s a story told by a character who, once we get to know him, is not entirely reliable.  Hence, in my opinion, the paragraph stays as it does not constitute libel.

Now, back to Edit Hell. If only I’d brought a ball of string with me and unraveled it on my way in…


Edit Hell

29 Jul

They say that a piece of Art is never finished, as in the artist will always find something he/she isn’t happy with, which requires a bit of a tweak. I am that kind of fiddler, and it doesn’t help reading through yesterday’s output before starting today’s.  I like working this way, the only thing is, it slows down the whole process of finishing a story. But, we’re well past that point now, down the final furlong.  I’m not changing any more bits. No more rework. Honest.

And then the suggestion comes from my copy editor – ‘this scene here, it’s good, but if you do it like this it’ll have more impact…’  And damn, she’s right. Three spots, three bits of rework, three scenes that now whiz rather than just motor.Troll

Welcome to Edit Hell.

As each section is redone, it has to be re-read and re-checked. The Comma Fairy thought she was headed for the beach, but she’s been pulled out of retirement and redeployed with her bag of tricks. Lurking in the background is the Split-Infinitive Troll – sentences pass over his bridge, and he slams his hammer down, causing words to jiggle about (damn, he even got me on that last sentence). The Definition Gremlin is my worst enemy by far. You know – when you misspell a word, but it’s still a word, just not the right one – so the Speelchucking Goblin lets it through the gate.  Auger was the last word said Goblin gave a free pass to. It was meant to be Augur, as in someone who tells the future. Instead, I ended up with a tool for boring through wood. Dur!  Another one that made me laugh was ‘chicken coup’. The Goblin let that one through without so much as a light frisking. I’m sure a coup by chickens would be interesting to watch – it sounds like a scene straight out of Animal Farm, but what I actually wanted was an enclosure for chickens, which is a coop. Bad Goblin!

So down the final straight we go. Just got to re-read the whole novel end-to-end for the umpteenth time, making sure that the Continuity Homunculus hasn’t messed the running order up (there goes the damn Troll again) and we’re done.

Sleepless nights? Not me.

Since I started taking a hammer to bed, that pesky two am in the morning Brilliant Ideas Gopher doesn’t stand a chance…

Amber Jones Barry, Editor

Making marks to achieve better copy.

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