In my late ’20s, I bought a bicycle, a Raleigh Routier, from a cycle shop in York. I used that bike quite a bit, most memorably for rides to and from Durham and Bishop Auckland from Hartlepool in 1989, and a 40-odd mile round trip to work in Derby from my house in Markfield, one summer day in 1990. I’d had bikes when I was younger of course, but that was the first one I ever rode over any significant distance.

That bike was stolen in the early ’90s and I didn’t own a bicycle for many years after that, but about ten years ago I bought another bike and started cycling again as a means for getting to and from work. When I started a job at Nottingham University I took my bike on the train between Spondon and Beeston each day. I replaced that bike with a car in 2008 after which I cycled only occasionally.

A bike I was particularly fond of, my Ridgeback tourer, was damaged in a collision with a car in 2010. That brought a halt to my cycling for a while but I bought a new one, a Carrera hybrid in 2013 and went out on it five or six times that year. I don’t think I went out on it at all in 2014.

But at the beginning of 2015, a friend on a music forum started a conversation about cycling, setting himself a target of 1000 miles for the year. Thinking that I should use my own bike more often, I offered to do 500 myself.

I set off on my first ride of 2015 on the 9th of January. I took a wrong turn through a farm gate, and was bitten by a dog, just below the knee. I think I managed about 7 miles on that first outing. Undeterred, I kept going and had reached my target of 500 miles by April. Naturally I moved the goalposts for myself and decided I’d try for 1000 miles in 2015. But I’d hit that by June. Eventually I set my sights on 2112 miles by December 31st, 2015.

I came to find cycling compelling, addictive. It appeals to me in so many different ways.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it undoubtedly keeps me fit. The roads and country lanes of North-West Leicestershire are not flat. I recall cycling home to Derby from Nottingham University one day in 2007, and nearly collapsing once I arrived. Yet the same distance (14 miles) would be an unremarkable run out for me now, of the sort I do every other day.

bikemelbourneThe hybrid, a few miles from Swarkestone Bridge

Secondly, it has been a terrific challenge, at least once I arrived at a suitably demanding target.

Despite being a fundamentally outdoor pursuit, it also appeals strongly to my inner (perhaps outer) nerd. I have taken great and lengthy satisfaction from planning rides using online maps and route planning tools, calibrating my bike computer, making use of GPS devices and preparing spreadsheets to document my progress and provide various statistics. The satisfaction of entering another ride distance into the spreadsheet and seeing the yearly total climb a little further toward the target is a powerful motivation. I sometimes go to sleep pondering the number of miles I need to do in each of the remaining months, mentally distributing them according to the probable provision of daylight hours and decent weather.

I even quite enjoyed learning to adjust the derailleur gears on my road bike.

The quality of construction and design of the bicycle has evolved quite a bit since I bought my Routier in 1989. But even more significant has been the development of tools and accessories that make the cyclist’s life easier. It’s possible to plan routes on an online service (I like the course creator at that will determine the exact distance, show you a gradient map and export routes to another device if necessary. Much easier and more convenient than unfolding a map, then drawing on it with a pencil, as I used to do 25 years ago.  Frame-mounted GPS units or watches will show the exact distance travelled and even record your route. Take a smartphone and you have a handheld device that will pinpoint your location on a map at any time, as well as providing a camera (all of the photos in this piece were taken with an Android phone, and I’ve used it for navigation purposes more than once). And bike lights, once bulky and powered by heavy batteries the size of small tea mugs are now small, lightweight objects that will give bright light for many hours on a pair of AAAs or even a coin cell.

Cycling has given me an opportunity to explore the area surrounding my home to a much greater degree, over the last year or so, than I had ever done in the preceding five years that I’ve lived here. I’m very fortunate to live in a rural area with a wealth of potential cycle routes through leafy lanes and farmland. I have mainly used a small number of regular routes which I’ve planned or discovered for myself through the early part of 2015, but there have also been occasions, time having permitted, when I’ve taken a random, unknown path quite spontaneously. My favourite ride is a 25 mile route that takes me through Swepstone, Snarestone and Twycross down to Sheepy Magna, then across to Market Bosworth and back through Barton in the Beans, Nailstone and Ibstock. I often do that one on a Saturday when the weather permits, accompanied by a football commentary on Radio 5 Live provided by a DAB personal radio strapped to my arm, pedalling quiet roads in open spaces. Joy.

bikezouch600The road bike near the Leics/Notts border

I have never been so conscious of the weather expected for the following few days, or of the sunset times. I have learned that weather forecasts are generally quite accurate over four days or so, but that even when the next three or four days are forecast to be rainy, there’s nearly always a sufficiently dry interval to get out on two wheels (I am prepared to go out onto damp roads on my hybrid, but not in actual rain. I insist on defiantly dry conditions for my road bike to leave the garage).

Cycling also offers boundless opportunities for retail therapy. In 2015 I purchased:

  • Two pairs of cycle shorts
  • Two pairs of winter cycling leggings
  • A pair of thermal tights
  • A second bike helmet
  • A high-visibility jacket
  • Several front and rear bike lights
  • Three bike mirrors
  • A handlebar extender, for mounting gadgets
  • A seat post camera mount
  • A GPS bike computer
  • Two GPS watches
  • Three personal radio / phone armbands
  • Two pairs of cycling gloves
  • A Boardman road bike
  • Two new (faster) tyres for the hybrid
  • Two bike pumps (one floorstanding, one portable)
  • A pair of wearable reflective strips
  • Two sets of pedals (to accommodate shoes with cleats)
  • Two pairs of cycling shoes (see above)
  • A cycle cleaning brush
  • Various consumables (lubricants, cleaning materials, inner tubes)


graph2015Miles per Month, 2015

Most of my excursions have taken place during my lunch break. They often provide a very useful means of clearing my head of the mental clutter of work. But during the summer months I often venture out during the evening as well, making the most of the more numerous daylight hours. On a few occasions I’ve gone out after dark, and that’s a very different experience, but quite rewarding, despite – or perhaps because of – being unsettling sometimes. Out in the country the spaces between villages, perhaps a mile or more from the nearest artificial light save the ones attached to your bike, can be very dark indeed.

I hit my target of 2112 miles in October, and by the end of 2015 had cycled 2702 miles.

But of course, I didn’t stop there. I set myself the same target for this year, 2112 miles. And I’ve already done 103 of them.

road_foreverBecause you see, the road goes on forever.


Rock and Roll Never Forgets

Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister, leader of the legendary British heavy rock band Motorhead, died yesterday, at the age of 70. Phil Taylor, the drummer from their classic lineup with guitarist ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke, died last month.

I first saw Motorhead in January 1978 at a club in Middlesbrough called the Town Hall Crypt – a basement under the Town Hall. I’d gone with two friends from school. We missed the last bus, and by the time my Dad came to pick us up, we’d already walked half way back to Hartlepool. It was their first album tour. They were extremely loud.

I actually learned to play A-shaped barre chords at that gig – I was right up at the front of the stage watching Fast Eddie coaxing power chords from his humbucker-equipped Strat a few feet in front of me. It had never occurred to me to clamp my little finger over three strings at once instead of fingering them individually and to be honest it seemed like cheating.

lemmyTheir next two albums propelled them into the big time and I don’t think they played Middlesbrough again, but I saw them whenever they turned up in Newcastle over the next few years. I was there for the Overkill tour and the Bomber tour. In 1980 I went to the ‘Brain Damage Party’ event at Stafford Bingley Hall, a great big shed where I’d seen Rush twice the previous year. Motorhead were the headliners, but Saxon, White Spirit, Vardis and a number of other bands from the short-lived New Wave of British Heavy Metal were also on the bill.

A few months later I saw them on the Ace Of Spades tour at the Mayfair club in Newcastle, and that was my last Motorhead gig. I tuned out after that, though I’ve downloaded some of their later albums in the last few years.

I met the band backstage on the Overkill tour – Lemmy,  Philthy and Eddie were signing autographs for a few fans after the gig in their dressing room at Newcastle City Hall. Lemmy drew a hat on the photo of himself in my tour book before signing it.

Lemmy’s lifestyle was by all accounts rather like his music – completely unpretentious, utterly uncompromising and arguably a bit excessive. Born to Lose, Lived to Win. We shall not see his like again. Perhaps if he’d indulged a bit less in the typical rock’n’roll excesses he might have had a few more than his three-score-and-ten. But that’s the way he liked it, baby. He didn’t want to live forever.

The UK’s Media and its Power to Manipulate

This photograph must be the saddest, the most tragic image I’ve ever posted on this blog. It shows a dead Syrian boy, lying face down, drowned, washed up on the Turkish coast.


The UK’s Independent newspaper printed it earlier this month, prompting a huge public outpouring of grief and support for Syrian refugees, which appears to have pressured our Prime Minister into accepting 20,000 of them to seek refuge in the UK.

You might be forgiven then, for assuming that the child drowned in some desperate attempt by his family to flee war-torn Syria.

But that’s not what happened at all. The family of this unfortunate child killed him by placing him in an unseaworthy vessel, in order to leave a country where they had already found refuge and were completely safe, to attempt to enter another country without permission.

If they were ever refugees, they were certainly refugees no longer. At this point they were economic migrants. Would-be illegal immigrants.

Despite this, the photo was redistributed endlessly on social media in a campaign to highlight the plight of refugees. “We must do more to help!” bleated one of my Facebook friends. “AT WHAT LEVEL DOES THIS HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH FLEEING PERSECUTION OR ESCAPING A WAR-TORN COUNTRY?” screeched another easily-led contributor, responding to a post that spelled out the answer to her question in terms her seven-year old daughter should have been able to understand.

People are so effortlessly manipulated by the left-wing press. Rather sad, isn’t it?

The “High-Definition” Audio Con

Years ago I became excited by the prospect of new formats for digital music reproduction, to replace the Compact Disc Digital Audio format (CDDA) format conceived in the 1980s. A number of competing formats emerged, all intended, ostensibly at least, to provide a more natural and rewarding listening experience by virtue of representing music in “higher definition” – SACD, DVD audio, more recently Blu-Ray audio.

I’ve had an interest in the techniques used by digital audio since I studied encoding methods as part of a Computer Science degree course, and as a technologist who loves music, I was intrigued enough to research the technology and principles that underpin these new formats.

I discovered that they were completely pointless.

Here’s how digital audio works, in simple terms. Any sound is experienced as variations in pressure against the ear drum – these arriving there by means of a sound wave. Audio recording is the process of capturing a representation of this sound wave, or ‘waveform’ by some means. Before the advent of digital recording, this was often done by representing the waveform by an electrical signal encoded as magnetism at continuously varying degrees of strength along the iron oxide emulsion bonded to a flexible film tape.

Digital audio works by sampling the waveform at regular intervals. These samples are stored as numbers representing the amplitude of the wave at the point it was sampled.

There are two essential dimensions in a digital recording, then. The first of these is the sampling rate, or frequency at which the original waveform is sampled. The second is the bit depth, or the number of binary digits allocated to store each sample – which represents the accuracy of the representation at that point in time. The CD audio format uses samples taken at the rate of 44,100 per second (44.1 khz), at a bit depth of 16 – so one second of CD audio is represented by 44,100 16-bit numbers. For this reason the CD format is sometimes referred to as 44.1/16.

Let’s consider the sampling rate first.

If you’re at all familiar with the principle of encoding visual data in digital format, you might see an analogy between the definition of a digital image, and the definition of a digital audio recording as described above. Naively, it’s tempting to draw a comparison – the greater the frequency, the greater the ‘resolution’; the more accurate the reproduction. Intuitively, this seems reasonable. However, after a point, in reality it becomes categorically fallacious. Here’s why.

Human beings can hear frequencies from approximately 20 Hz to 20000 Hz. This upper range begins to degrade from the age of eight or so. Digital audio can be (and is) filtered, so that sounds at inaudible frequencies are removed from the recording by the time it is transferred to the medium used to deliver music (or spoken word, or bad Rush albums, or whatever). This next point should be obvious but I’ll state it here anyway – removing the representation of inaudible sound from a digital audio recording makes no (zero) difference to the experience of listening to it.

Here’s the critical point. It has been known since the 1940s that a sampling rate of twice the highest frequency to be encoded is sufficient to capture a signal losslessly. There exists a mathematical proof for this, published by an American mathematician and electronic engineer named Claude Shannon. This is why CD audio is represented at more than 44,000 Hz. Digital audio is based on this principle. A higher sampling rate than 44.1 khz simply cannot improve the fidelity, or ‘resolution’ of human-audible material by the slightest degree – in theory, principle or practice.

This is a hard, well-established and indeed proven fact. Anything which contradicts it is marketing nonsense or simple ignorance.

Nonetheless the sampling rate fallacy is widespread; one of the most successful urban myths of modern times. Here’s an image snatched from a BBC website page about digital audio, which attempts in part to show, entirely mistakenly, why a higher sampling rate represents a waveform more accurately.


On the face of it it looks compelling, doesn’t it? Look how much more accurately the Blu-Ray audio samples seem to track the waveform labelled “Original music recording” than the crude, stepped samples of the CD audio data.

But actually, they don’t. The Blu-Ray audio sampling rate cannot in any circumstances provide more information than the CD sampling rate to reconstruct the waveform. This is a corollary of the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem described above.

Now let’s examine the other important measure of a digital recording – the bit depth. This governs the range of values that can be used to represent a single sample. This is not such a cut and dried issue as the sampling rate in theory, because a 24-bit number for example can, undoubtedly, pinpoint an analogue value with greater accuracy (ie less error) than a 16-bit number, as used by CD audio. A 16-bit number allows one of 65536 discrete values to represent the sample, whereas 24-bit allows one of 16777216 values to be used.

The difference between the value to be encoded and the value selected from the range to represent it, the ’rounding error’ in other words, is known as the quantisation error.

In practice though, what happens is this: during the process of converting the analogue signal to audio, a tiny quantity of white noise is added to the signal. This practice is known as dithering, and its purpose is to make the quantisation error independent of the source recording – in other words, the error / distortion is all in the noise. Without dithering, 16-bit audio would give you a slightly distorted version of your source recording. Dithering allows an undistorted, completely accurate representation of the source, plus a little noise.

Here’s the important point – in 16-bit audio, you can’t actually hear the quantisation noise. To discern it at all, you would have to have exceptional hearing. You’d also need to be listening to an extremely quiet passage of your recording in a soundproof room, using remarkable equipment, at a volume that would render you deaf (seriously – literally deaf) when the drums kick in.

To be clear, bit depths greater than 16-bit do have a legitimate purpose in the recording process, because audio data can be re-encoded many times in a studio, with a little error being introduced in each new generation. This means that the quantisation error is multiplied, potentially hundreds of times, in the production of consumer audio – which introduces a risk that it might eventually become audible. 24-bit recording and processing minimises the cumulative error and can prevent this.

However as a medium of delivery to the listener, no purpose whatever is served by encoding the final product at more than 16 bits, at least for human listeners.

What does all this mean? For regular two-channel stereo, the so-called “high definition” audio formats don’t actually work. They cannot offer a higher resolution, or greater fidelity listening experience than that offered by the existing CD audio format. It’s not the case that the difference is too subtle to be discernible on most equipment, as some imagine. There is no audible difference at all.

Why do they even exist, then? That of course is down to the power of big numbers in marketing, and the potential to make people pay more money for a format that, intuitively, seems as though it should be superior.

Naturally, these formats are popular among those members of the audiophile community without the technical nous to know any better. They offer tremendous opportunities for equipment snobbery. Many will even tell you that they can hear a difference, but their credulous faith in “high-definition” audio places them squarely in the same category as the advocates of astrology, religious belief and homeopathy; concerns similarly with no basis whatever in logic, science or reality but sadly no shortage of followers.

It’s important that we resist these pointless formats though, because they are wasteful not only of consumer money, but of bandwidth, storage, and CPU time.

It is possible already to purchase music downloads encoded at a sampling rate of 192khz, and a bit depth of 24. One of these will take six times longer to download and take up six times more space on your hard drive than an equivalent 44.1/16 download. It will typically cost twice as much. And it will offer exactly no improvement whatever; not the slightest difference in “resolution” or “definition” than a standard CD.

If, thanks to the marketers and the gullible audiophooles who are their useful idiots, one of these ridiculous formats should eventually become the standard for the distribution of digital music, then whether we’ve been conned or not, we’ll all end up paying the price.

Twenty Years of Peace in Northern Ireland

It is twenty years ago exactly since the Provisional IRA’s “ceasefire” – the day they declared a “complete cessation of military operations”, as they described it. It wasn’t a perfect ceasefire and the fragile peace faltered for a while a year or two later – but nonetheless this day, twenty years ago was surely the watershed moment in the end of organised terrorism in Northern Ireland.

I was absolutely amazed to see this happen, having been used to seeing atrocities in the news regularly for as long as I could remember (the ‘Troubles’ had started at the end of the ’60s).


But what really stunned me was the timing. The Provos had set off huge bombs in London occasionally. I had been hoping to move my career there for a while, so I was quite apprehensive about this. Their cessation came into effect, as if for my own convenience, on the day before I started a new job as a systems manager at a Japanese bank in the City of London. I couldn’t believe it.

Of course, it must have been a considerably bigger relief for thousands of ordinary people on both sides of the religious and political divide in Northern Ireland.

I’m not sure what motivated the leadership of Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA (the same thing really) to do this. I can only assume that they had come to realise that the years of violence had only strengthened the resolve of the Unionist majority and the British government to oppose them, and polarised the two communities. Perhaps they were sick of the lethal justice regularly visited upon them by the British armed forces.

Most probably I imagine they foresaw, correctly, that they’d have more influence from a position in which they’d be able to take part in the political process than one which perpetuated their exclusion.

Ten Years Gone

I started this blog ten years ago today, on 31st May 2004.

In those days I used an external web-hosting service and an Open Source weblog product called Pivot. I replaced that with a WordPress install running on my own web server a couple of years ago and have only imported a handful of posts from the old blog, so not all of those old pieces are online here – but I did publish most of them as an e-book on Amazon a while ago, called A Satellite View (I wouldn’t bother).

Sincere thanks to all my readers for dipping in occasionally. I don’t post as often as I intended to, but I hope this little niche corner of the World Wide Web will still be here in 2024.


Since my first post in 2004 I’ve had five different jobs, moved house from Derby to NW Leicestershire and got married. I shouldn’t think the next ten years will be as memorable.

But who knows?




The 2014 Local Elections

I’m typing this in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 England local elections. In a nutshell, what happened was this: Labour’s performance was lacklustre. They gained only 32% of the popular vote, two percentage points ahead of the Conservative Party who also performed relatively poorly. The Lib Dems remain unpopular with the electors. But Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party performed spectacularly well – at the cost both of Labour and the Conservatives, but more substantially the latter.

It seems that UKIP are riding a wave of cynicism and discontent among the public, disaffected with traditional politics in general but dissatisfied with the traditional parties’ policies with respect to Europe and immigration especially. They have gained 161 council seats – a staggering achievement for an organisation more usually considered a pressure group than a political party.


I was pleased to see that the voters had disregarded the laughable, frightened squeals and scaremongering smears of the Left and their useful idiots on Twitter and Facebook, who had in the weeks leading up to the election attempted to portray UKIP and their supporters as fascists and racists. And I am especially encouraged to see strong support for the two centre-right parties – some 46% of the electors voted Conservative or UKIP.

However, there is a huge and obvious danger here. The next General Election is only a year away. If large numbers of voters who would otherwise vote Conservative were to give their support instead to UKIP, the end result may actually be that Labour will slime under the door of Number Ten, and into power. A Conservative government would be considerably more sympathetic to the aspirations and interests of UKIP supporters than would a Labour administration, yet a vote for UKIP might well, in practice, amount to a vote for Ed Miliband.

For this reason, I think it critically important that the two right-thinking parties of the Right form some sort of electoral accord, to maximise the electoral chances of the Conservative Party and to afford UKIP some sort of limited power – perhaps in the form of guarantees on our relationship with Europe or immigration policy.

The Prime Minister has already appeared to rule out this possibility, and Nigel Farage also seems reluctant to entertain it. Yet such an accord would undeniably work in the best  interests of both parties; UKIP especially. It represents the only possibility for Farage and his followers to wield the slightest positive influence in government. Without it, the only influence they can offer is to help into power Labour, a party instinctively hostile to their principles and aspirations.


Tony Benn

The veteran former Labour minister and tireless socialist Tony Benn died today.

I went to hear him speak at Northampton Guildhall in 1984. I came away realising that he was more or less insane, but very impressed by the strength of his convictions and the articulate passion with which he spoke.

Unlike the ignorant, graceless union leader Bob Crow, who left our planet a cleaner place for his passing earlier this week and with whom he shared the same perverse, long-discredited hard-left politics, Tony Benn had a lot in common with Margaret Thatcher in some important respects – a similar integrity, stubborn courage and outspoken honesty.


What he sadly didn’t share was her wisdom and common sense. She was a visionary. He was myopic. History has humiliated him at every turn; reality was his arch-enemy. And where she was a winner, he was on the losing side of every cause he espoused; from Irish unity to nationalisation, from withdrawal from the EU to one-sided nuclear disarmament.

He assured us that Britain’s campaign to recover the Falkland Islands would fail. He maintained an unshakeable faith in the state’s capacity to run the nation’s business, long after nationalisation had made basket cases of Britain’s great industries, exporting millions of jobs abroad.

And he was convinced that Tony Blair’s modernisation of the Labour Party would backfire. “You don’t win votes by selling out”, he opined in 1994. Blair did just that of course, overturning eighteen years of Conservative rule and winning the next three General Elections with handsome majorities by jettisoning the core principles of his party, and of Tony Benn.

Benn was a profoundly misguided man. He lent enthusiastic support to some idiotic and wicked causes, from the Miners’ strike to terrorism in Northern Ireland. But he was instinctively honourable and driven by principle, there is no questioning that. As strange as it may seem, I’m sure he believed every ridiculous word he said. And he undoubtedly had the interests of ordinary people at heart, even though the philosophy he held dear has always failed them.

2013 In Review

The end of another year then, and a fairly eventful one for me, so I thought I’d take an opportunity to look back over its memorable moments.

In January, the firm I worked for closed its office in Coventry, which meant that I would work from home five days a week, for the foreseeable future. The twenty-six mile commute to and from Coventry had irritated me somewhat so I was pleased in that respect. It certainly meant a significant saving in time and petrol. And it was nice to be able to get out of bed at 08:45 and be at my desk ten minutes later, having visited the kitchen en route to pick up a coffee (I usually took a bath at lunchtime).

But even with regular contact with colleagues through email and Skype, working from home permanently is a curiously disconnecting, isolating experience. It feels a little like being unemployed, albeit considerably less stressful.

In February the University of Leicester confirmed that a skeleton found in the excavation of a car park carried out in 2012 was, beyond reasonable doubt, that of Richard III. I was particularly amused to note, while watching a documentary about the find, that the remains of the last King of England to die in battle were transported from his resting place of centuries in the back of a Citroen van.

The ineffectual Liberal Democrat minister Chris Huhne, better known during his time in government for small-minded detraction than for a constructive contribution of any sort, received a prison sentence for perverting the course of justice on the same day – so it was a very entertaining news day, all things considered.

In April, the world lost its greatest and most inspirational national leader. Margaret Thatcher, the remarkable woman who had so dramatically transformed Britain’s fortunes following decades of decline, consigning socialism to the dustbin of history, died on the 8th of that month, at the age of 87. She received a state funeral in all but name, and was cheered to the skies by grateful Britons lining the route.


Sadly but extremely predictably, many on the Left were unable to contain their bitterness and spite for the humilation they suffered at her hands in the 1980s. I’ll never forget the laughable spectacle of the wretched has-been actress-turned-MP Glenda Jackson, her haggard, unappealingly masculine features contorted into a sneering vision of malice, indulging a hysterical outpouring of bile from the benches of the Commons. Of course, simple jealousy better explains Glenda’s poisonous incoherence than a difference of ideology. She was never a successful politician. She was never an especially brilliant actress either, to be fair.

On the 19th of May, Sir Alex Ferguson, surely one of the greatest football managers of all time and certainly one of the most successful, led Manchester United onto the field of play for the final time. He had led United to Premier League title victory thirteen times in his twenty-seven years in charge, and won the Champions League twice. He was succeeded by David Moyes.

A few days later, following months of anticipation – indeed the tickets had gone on sale in May 2012 – Rush’s Clockwork Angels tour came to the UK.  I attended two memorable concerts at Manchester and Sheffield, and wrote about them at some length here.

One evening in late 1977, I was alarmed when one of my upper back teeth disintegrated, leaving a broken stump in my mouth. In May this year I noticed a small swelling on my gum at the same point. I consulted a dentist, who assured me that the swelling was a simple abscess, but insisted that the remains of the tooth, still there thirty-six years later, should finally be removed. I agreed. The offending truncated tooth was removed at a dental practice in Ashby, on the 12th of June this year. It only took about twenty minutes and wasn’t even a particularly painful operation. I left the surgery wishing I’d got round to having it extracted a few decades earlier.

Improbably, a British competitor won the Men’s Singles competition at Wimbledon in July, becoming the first Briton ever to win a singles title there in shorts.

Later in July my charming wife and I travelled by car to La Rochelle for our summer holiday. My parents used to drive me through France, usually en route to Spain when I was young and I had long wanted to repeat the experience for myself.


I must admit that our journey didn’t really evoke the spirit of those childhood adventures in the 1970s. I delegated the navigation task to a SatNav, for one thing. And the motorways in France seem soulless now, stripped of the colourful advertising hoardings that I remember as a teenager. Still, we had fun taking the car under the Channel. We also had beautiful weather and a wonderful time in La Rochelle, and were able to visit friends in Dieppe whom I hadn’t seen for many years.

In August occurred possibly the most shameful episode I can remember in British Parliamentary history. Following compelling evidence that Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria had used chemical weapons against civilian targets among its own people, to massively lethal effect, our Prime Minister and other senior figures made an impassioned plea to the House of Commons for support for military action. Clearly, a powerful response was necessary. It was extremely important that crimes against humanity on such a scale did not go unanswered.

Instead, our Parliament preferred to send the message to the Syrian government that it had no problem at all with weapons of mass destruction being used against civilian population centres, and that President Assad should feel free to wreak chemical carnage among his populace at any time in the future if he so wished.

Happily, the British Parliament’s craven, weak-kneed cowardice was not the last word on the subject. A credible threat of action from the US government prompted the Syrians to commit to relinquish their chemical weapons, under international scrutiny.

One early morning in late September, I passed out in my bathroom. I was only unconscious for half a minute or so, but I decided later that morning to stop drinking. I haven’t touched a drop since. I must say I haven’t really missed it. I’ve enjoyed being alcohol-free. It’s by no means a permanent measure, but it is an indefinite one. I won’t drink again for a while.

Also in September, tired of working from home permanently, dissatisfied with my salary and feeling insufficiently stimulated by the nature of the work I was being called upon to do, I interviewed for a new role at a company based in Essex, with a satellite office in Castle Donington, roughly ten miles away from home.

I was offered the position the next day and my career there started on the 21st of October. I spent the first two weeks working from the head office in Chelmsford as an introduction to the company. It’s been a bit of a culture shock in some respects, but an enjoyable challenge.

In November, a report published by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales suggested that the UK economy is set to grow faster than that of any other Western nation, and that confidence in business is at its highest for ten years. The Office for National Statistics had already reported a “fairly strong” performance across all sectors of the economy.


That and other economic good news strongly vindicated our Conservative-led government’s strategy for recovering from the nightmare it inherited from the previous Labour administration – leaving egg all over the embarrassed collective face of Her Majesty’s Opposition, as Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls confirmed with a hilariously red-faced, spluttering and roundly mocked performance in the Commons on the occasion of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, to the great pleasure of the benches opposite him, and indeed to the general entertainment of the wider public.

Not a bad year, all things considered. Here’s to a successful 2014. I’m particularly looking forward to the death of the Scottish National Party in September.



An exhibition of World War Two equipment that I saw yesterday made me think about the way technology has changed in my lifetime. The remarkably quaint and primitive-looking military telephone that I saw there would have been something like state-of-the-art only twenty years before my first day at school.

I thought it might be interesting to compile a list here of the technological innovations that have made the biggest difference to me personally in my own lifetime. Of course nearly every aspect of everyday life has been influenced and changed by the creep of technological progress and the following are just tokens of that really.

Furthermore, none of them is really a single innovation; for example some depend on underlying technologies like the microchip, the LCD display and the transistor which were themselves dramatic and fascinating innovations in their own right.  But here they are anyway, in rough chronological order.

Colour TV

The television had been invented long before I was born, and what a marvel that must have been for the early adopters of that technology – even to stare at fuzzy moving monochrome images on a tiny curved screen must have been a thrill to people who could afford it in the 1940s.

I grew up with television. There were three TV channels in the ’70s, but we could only receive two on our black & white TV: BBC 1 and ITV. The day we got our first colour TV, one day in 1973, was possibly one of the happiest days of my life. I remember sitting down in front of it, awestruck. Colour television was hypnotic; almost hallucinogenic. Even so, most TV programmes were still shown in black & white, as I recall. The TV listings in the Radio Times would cleverly indicate which programmes were to be shown in colour by the inclusion of the word Colour in italics next to the title.

After Colour TV nothing was the same again.

Quartz Timekeeping

In the early ’70s, watches were strictly mechanical, and not particularly accurate. You wound your watch up in the morning, and set it every day or two by a time signal broadcast on the radio, or by the “speaking clock” service available via your telephone.

But in 1975, while watching an episode of Kojak, I was stunned to see Telly Savalas press a button on the side of his watch, thereby causing a row of glowing red numerals to appear upon its dark face. It was possibly the most desirable thing I’d ever seen. A year or two later I had my own LED digital watch, and I was very proud of it. But quite honestly they weren’t particularly practical. The battery would expire every few months, and you had to operate a button to tell the time.

It wasn’t until LCD became the display technology of choice that the digital watch truly came of age. I bought my first LCD watch in 1981 or so. By this time, many analogue watches were also powered by quartz movements. You could now keep your watch in a drawer for a few weeks without having to set the time on taking it out, and you could depend on it being accurate to within a few seconds a week, or better.

Seiko’s advertising at the time claimed that “one day, all watches will be made this way”. But interestingly, the old-fashioned mechanical watch didn’t die out completely. It is still popular with traditionalists, especially customers of more high-end brands like Hublot and Rolex.

A related innovation was the so-called radio-controlled (radio-synchronised, really) timepiece. These work by tuning into a time signal service sourced from an atomic clock and broadcast on shortwave transmitters, at regular intervals.

The first watches to use these were highly expensive and looked a little strange, with a conspicuous receiver module. These days they’re cheap, and look like ordinary watches.

I own four radio-controlled watches, and five radio-controlled clocks. They are accurate to within a small fraction of a second, all the time, and they adjust themselves when British Summer Time comes and goes.


I first gained an appreciation of music from watching TV programmes like Top Of The Pops and from listening to my big brother’s records on his mono, portable record player. I must admit I still sometimes miss the smell of the valves warming up when listening to old Beatles songs.

But stereo music listening really was a revelation. My parents’ first stereo HiFi, a Sanyo as I recall, probably wasn’t really all that great. Actually it definitely wasn’t. But it certainly seemed a lot better than their old ‘radiogram’, or my brother’s old record player. I bought one for myself in 1980, a Sony – and that was the business.

The Pocket Calculator

My Dad occasionally brought home an electronic calculator from his place of work in the early ’70s. It was the size of a small typewriter, was powered by mains electricity and had a nixie tube display. I simply could not believe the speed at which it performed what, to me, seemed like complicated arithmetic calculations. You’d key in something like 16 x 23 and the very instant you hit the = key, the solution would be glowing on its display. It didn’t even seem to have to think about it.

By 1977, it was possible to manufacture electronic calculators that were small enough to be powered by a battery, and inexpensive enough to be purchased by anyone who needed to use one. I can’t remember what brand my first calculator was. The first ones had LED displays, like the digital watches of the time. But I do remember putting away my slide rule for good.

Calculators are quite interesting in one sense. I still own, and occasionally use a couple of calculators that I’ve had since the mid ’80s. They aren’t really much different from a calculator that you’d expect to find in a shop today. It seems that, like the shark and the wasp, the pocket calculator has long since reached its evolutionary potential.

The Video Recorder

My parents bought our first VCR in 1981, ushering in a revolution in the art of watching TV in our household. Important broadcasts could now be saved for posterity, and watched over and over again. You didn’t have to hope for a repeat. I recorded every episode of Blackadder II and The Young Ones and watched them repeatedly. Furthermore you didn’t have to miss a programme because another was on a different channel at the same time, or because you were out, or you’d gone to bed.

You could go out and rent, or buy feature films to watch at home. You could even now watch the sort of film that, let’s say, you’d be highly unlikely to see broadcast on one of the mainstream TV channels, in the comfort of your living room.

In the 21st century, video recorders record incoming programmes in original broadcast quality onto a hard drive. They know what time your favourite TV programmes are on, and they will record them for you automatically.


The Microcomputer

Computers seemed impossibly complicated and esoteric to me as a young man, even though in many respects they were a fair bit less complicated than they are now. In the 1970s a computer seemed to be a huge thing, requiring its own room, maintained by boffins in white coats and festooned with tape reels and flashing lights. A large corporation or university might own perhaps as many as one of them. I couldn’t really imagine what “computer programming” might entail.

But by the early 1980s, advances in solid state technology and miniaturisation ushered in the age of the ‘microcomputer’ – and brought computing within the reach of ordinary people. My parents bought a Sinclair ZX81 – an impossibly primitive machine with a little touchpad keyboard and a tiny, one kilobyte memory that plugged into the TV. Later they bought a rather more usable 32K BBC Micro. I spent many hours playing computer games, but also learning to write programs in a simple language called BASIC – a pursuit that led to a degree in Computer Science, and a career as an IT specialist.

A lot of people did nothing more adventurous than  playing the games, of course. I must admit my happiest memories of our BBC Micro are of hours spent immersed in the space trading / shoot-em-up game Elite.

By now, most homes have at least one “microcomputer” – the term is redundant now that even the most powerful computers are physically small – and most workplaces have them scattered around their employees’ desks.

The Microwave Oven

To be honest, I don’t recall having been excited by our first microwave oven, acquired one day in 1985. In fact I was wary of it at first. I used to leave the room while it was switched on. But most of the food I eat these days is prepared in a microwave, and certainly it’s an awful lot more convenient than sticking things in saucepans. The microwaveable plastic container, first available in 1986 ushered in the era of the microwave ready meal, and was probably equally important.

Portable Audio

I never did have a Sony Walkman, the cassette player that wasn’t much bigger than a cassette, and allowed people to listen to music “on the go”. But I did buy a portable headphone AM/FM radio with a belt clip in 1984. I bought a smaller one ten years later when I lived in London, and it accompanied me everywhere – on the tube and train commuting to and from work, and walking around the West End on a Saturday. To this day it’s rare for me to leave the house without my portable radio if I’m likely to be walking or cycling for any appreciable duration. In the late ’90s I bought a MiniDisk player that allowed me to carry a few records around with me. I now have an MP3 player that contains more than 700 albums, with room to spare.

Digital Audio

The great enabling factor of portable audio is of course the possibility to represent music (or speech, or whatever) in a digital format that can be squeezed into an electronic storage medium. But it was in traditional, home music-listening that digital audio first made its mark – in the form of the Compact Disc. I bought my first CD player in 1992, although they had been available for a few years before that.

Compact Discs were physically smaller than vinyl records. They were a lot more tolerant of minor scratches, and they didn’t wear out. You could now skip from one track to another at the press of a button. You could play them in a car. And despite what some luddites will tell you, even to this day – they provided substantially better audio quality than vinyl as well.

Later came the MiniDisk and the MP3; formats using a compressed representation intended to allow music to be listened on portable devices. In recent years it has been possible to buy and download a music album in a matter of minutes, even in a lossless format, thanks to the ease with which digital information can be transferred over a network.

The Internet

This is the big one, for me. It’s just not possible to overstate its influence.

It’s probably instructive to think of it as having two phases. When I first sat down in front of an Internet-enabled workstation in the ’90s, relatively few people had access to the World Wide Web and email. As it became available to the public in general, no longer the domain of academics and technology professionals, most people who used it gained access via a slow, dialup connection.

Even in this early phase, the Internet was massive for me. Being able to communicate with people in different countries every day on messageboards or via email, browse websites dedicated to particular interests, look up information using an Internet search – this was all invaluable to me.

Later, as broadband Internet connections took over from dialup connections and computers became more powerful and capable, the Internet gained a new role as a multimedia platform – in the 21st century it became possible to listen to radio and TV programmes in high quality, or download films and music in large quantities.

These days I do most of my shopping online, on the Amazon site or at I do my banking online. I’m able to work from home thanks to my Internet connection. The company I work for, like many others, relies on the Internet to provide its services.

The really nice thing about the Internet is the number of services it provides access to that are free to use. Google Maps, Outlook Mail, file-sharing facilities like Dropbox. Operating Systems like Linux and FreeBSD can be downloaded free of charge. Thousands of videos of varying quality can be viewed at YouTube at no cost. Photos can be shared on free sites like Flickr. You can share information on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter for free. This blog and many others like it are, of course, free to read as well.

I don’t suppose there’ll be a technological innovation again in my lifetime that will make as much difference as the Internet did. But who knows?

The Mobile Phone

I first saw a mobile phone in 1987, on a train to Stevenage. It was being operated by a rather self-important-sounding managerial / executive person, issuing instructions to his minions back at the office. It was huge. It looked a bit like a walkie-talkie from a Vietnam war film.

By 1994 or so mobile phones had started to become relatively affordable, and small enough to carry around on a belt clip. I decided I had to have one by Christmas that year, and after an awful lot of deliberation and research, I bought one from the Orange shop at Liverpool Street Station. I didn’t actually think I needed it, but had decided that it would be a simply awesome gadget, or ‘toy’ if you prefer. My Nokia Orange 2140 was a primitive phone by today’s standards, certainly. It was actually considered a small phone at the time, about the size of two cigarette cartons, but it was too heavy to keep in a suit pocket. It didn’t last long before recharges. You could send text messages using its mono, character-only LCD screen, but only in upper case. It cost £250, in addition to the contract.

Sometime before every teenager seemed to have one, in the first few years of the 21st century, the mobile phone had lost its appeal as a professional status symbol. Now of course, a mobile phone can be a computer, Internet terminal, media player and camera as well as a telephone.

Digital Photography

I was a fairly keen photographer before I acquired my first digital camera in 2000. But it’s fair to say that my interest was transformed by it. Photography already had a long and distinguished history, yet I would argue that it only came of age on the day the first digital camera rolled off the production line.

In fact my first digital camera only had the necessary capacity to store about 70 photos on a 35MB memory card, only the equivalent of about two rolls of film. But I didn’t have to buy the film in the first place. More importantly I didn’t have to take my photos to a lab to have them processed. I could transfer them to my computer and see them immediately. I could tinker with the contrast, sharpen them, crop them, touch them up. And I could share them with friends and family anywhere in the world, or post them onto a public forum, within minutes. You can share your holiday photos while you’re still on holiday, using a laptop or even directly from a smartphone.

These days memory cards are cheap and hugely capacious. A 4GB card costing about £5 will hold about 1500 photos in my Pentax DSLR; that’s roughly the equivalent of 40 36-exposure rolls of film. And it can of course be used time and time again.


The introduction of wireless network cards made using Internet-connected computers at home, and in some work environments, much easier. You didn’t have to worry about being close to an ethernet socket or dragging a long cable to your router or modem. In the present day, every laptop and smartphone has it built in so you can carry them around the house while connected. WiFi also allows Internet access to be provided easily in hotels, cafes and bars. Of course, if you haven’t set your router up properly it also allows your neighbours, and possibly even random passers-by to use your Internet connection. But it’s easy to prevent that if you know what you’re doing.

Flat Panel Monitors and TVs

Admittedly they don’t really do much different than their CRT ancestors, other than providing much higher resolution (thereby providing a medium for High Definition TV programmes and films). But they take up a lot less space even though they allow for much bigger screens, and they look nicer. A lot easier to carry around, as well, if you need to do that.

The present LCD technology which is used for these devices is an interim measure. Flat panel screens will come of age when technologies like AMOLED, which don’t require backlighting, can be used at an affordable cost.

Plasma screens don’t require backlighting of course, but let’s be honest – they don’t look that good either.


I first bought a GPS receiver in the mid ’90s. It was a lot of fun to use, and actually quite useful for navigating around London – even though it had no built-in maps. It just told me how far away my destination was, and pointed the direction. I’d have to guess at which roads to take, but at least I never felt completely lost.

But satellite-guided navigation really came into its own with the advent of the SatNav – a GPS device that had two important additional features – a set of maps, and the logic to plan a route to your destination from your current position. I bought one of these three years ago for £99, and it has been absolutely invaluable for travelling by car. Gone are the days when you had to pore over a map to plan your route, or ask someone for directions after getting lost. Even when driving in France this year it provided clear and accurate navigation all the way from the English Channel to the Atlantic Coast.

Many smartphones and tablets have a GPS receiver built in, and the necessary maps and apps to provide SatNav functionality can often be found for free.