Monday, 28 September 2009

Carpe Diem

"Seize the day", as the famous quotation from Horace's Odes goes.

Maybe it's my age, maybe it's a philosophical moment that grabs most of us occasionally, but this quotation has been prevalent in my life for quite some time now.

A while back I recall watching Billy Connolly on TV, and during one routine he said the following (abridged); "My wife Pam keeps telling me to eat healthily. And I try. She tells me that I'll live longer. Well, maybe that's true that if I eat broccoli, lettuce and other green stuff and cut out meat I'll get another five years. The problem is you get those five years later when your talking gibberish and smelling of pee! I want them NOW!"
Interspersed with the occasional F-word, you get the idea. So I took this on board. How often have we heard, or actually said ourselves; "I'll do that when I retire". All well and good, if you can. My concern is that I'm not going to be as physically fit when I'm seventy as I am now. I'm not going to have the energy, etc to do all the things I'm looking forward to.

There will be certain things I'll be doing, and I am looking forward to a few of them that you can only get away with at a certain age. Buying a pint of milk at a local shop and counting out the amount in the smallest denomination of coin possible, one at a time. Oh, and I'll have two purses with different coins in each!

My career allows me the very fortunate position of having a work-life balance to be envied.
True it is now at the stage of not knowing what a weekend is, and often I ask someone close to me what day of the week it is! But I also don't suffer from Monday morning blues, or keep a close eye on the minute hand as it rotates excruciatingly slowly toward five thirty. I regularly start early and work well into the night, taking breaks and doing other things whenever I feel like it. I want a day off? I take it.

But, there is a compromise to all this. A big one. To go freelance and enjoy, if that is the right word, this lifestyle I have had to "cut my cloth to suit" as they say. Financially this lifestyle is difficult, and at times very stressful. I am not married (offers on a postcard please!) nor do I have children, and I wonder at times how I would cope with those responsibilities. My friends are probably right though; I would find a way.

But I digress a bit. On two occasions in the past ten years I have been very lucky to have travelled abroad for a six-month period at a time, backpacking. At "my age" it is not that easy to do, due to the responsibilities we amass along the way, and on the first occasion I was running a retail business. Emotionally things were tough and I suppose I "ran away". I was 36 at the time. The result? Best thing I ever did. I returned to enormous debt and all sorts of business headaches, but within one year I had turned the business around in a way I could never have done had I not gone away. I cannot explain it to you here, but to coin a cliche; it was a life-changing experience. I did the whole thing on my own, which is no big deal, but at the point of departure I had never been anywhere for longer than two weeks before. And here I was heading off for six months. I'm not ashamed to say I cried as the plane lifted off from Edinburgh airport.

On my return I noticed one thing instantly; nothing had changed. Some didn't even know I had been away! But I was different. More relaxed. A different view on life. I guess I could say finally that I was alive and aware of my own presence. That sounds very pompous to say that here, but that was the feeling.

My point is I could have waited until I was seventy. Maybe by then I would never have done it. But I would never have had the benefit that the experience gave me and which became so valuable over the last ten years.
As a direct result of that experience I launched myself full-time into the film industry and I've never looked back. It was always a passion and something I longed to do. I definitely knew I didn't want to look back and think "what if". The experience and gamble paid off, albeit a slow progression in this chosen career. But the crucial point here is; I "chose" to do this type of work. All my life I had fallen into every job, and mostly hated them all. This was a big change.

Sure, it's not easy, but what is in life? Our own circumstances at times conspire against us. But it doesn't have to be a big change, or a big event. It could be something as simple as writing a letter to a long-lost friend, taking a gamble to change your career, or going back to study. You just have to do it. That feeling you get of having achieved, of having actually had the courage to face up against the criticism of others, and there are always many, and pull it off. That feeling money can't buy. But it goes beyond that. It certainly boosts your self-confidence, but it also brings alive a great spirit within you, a drive to solve and cope with any problem that comes your way.

So, when the sun next rises, as it surely will, seize the day, do it now, not tomorrow, before you end up smelling of pee!

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Speyside Way

On the glorious autumnal morning of the 19th of September, myself and my best friend Pauline, started a journey by mountain bike following the Speyside Way. Although the guidebook that you can purchase is written north to south, the maps are numbered south to north, and it is this direction that we took. To me it is the logical way to do the route, be that it is naturally downhill as the Spey flows toward the sea.

We start the route in Aviemore. Recently, plans have been put into practice to extend the route to Newtonmore, but on this journey we are starting at the original place. The route follows excellent cycle track and it twists its way through sun-dappled woods, now on the turn from green to gold. The first village is Boat of Garten, and if there was ever a small village I could see myself retiring to in Scotland, then this has to be it. A beautiful little place with many individual and unique houses, unfortunately peppered with circa 1960's constructions as well, though this does not detract from it's charm.

We carry on following a disused railway path, a sad remnant of Beeching's cutbacks of the railways in the 1960's. The route links up many whisky distilleries, as was the railway's purpose to transport the hops, and then the finished product in barrels.

What is charming, and a complete surprise, is that many of the old railway stations have been restored and preserved for all time, even down to some of the original advertising signs. The best example of this was after Grantown-on-Spey, and a little hamlet called Cromdale. Here was by far the best example of a restored station.

Thanks to the Scottish Rights of Way Act just a few years ago, we can now enjoy many routes on our mountain bikes that were once the preserve of the person on foot. That is, however, except for the Hills of Cromdale on the Speyside Way. For about five miles the powers-that-be have seen fit to install what must be one of the most ludicrous designs of a gate ever invented.

It consists of two L-shaped galvanised steel posts, seen here on the right, leaning against each other, which you pull apart at the top, which then reveals a V-shaped opening that you pass through, but impossible with a bike and panniers!. Now, one or two of these would have been tolerable, but on one occasion we counted 14 in a one mile stretch! And in the oddest of places. For example, we came upon a two-metre-wide, twenty-five metre-long, enclosed section, with one of these gates at either end . . . smack bang in the middle of a field! Bizarre. It became so irritating, and threatened to spoil the experience of the trip, that we decided to detour the remaining section.

That night we found a spot just before the settlement of Ballindalloch, on the banks of the Spey, to camp. The patch we chose was very neatly mown, and we suspected it was part of the fishing embankment for the nearby estate, but as it was already getting dark when we arrived, and we would be away very early, we decided to pitch our tents.

The next day our route took us to Fochabers. Once again we were following old railway paths or quiet back roads, but we also had some fairly stiff climbs to do. These would ordinarily have been fine, but with heavy panniers strapped to the back of the bikes it made the effort doubly hard.

At one point we passed through the restored station of Blacksboat. This little station wasn't quite in the league of Cromdale, but it was still a joy to see. I did notice, however, that some of the twelve-inch-high pointed pieces of white picket fence along the edge of the platform, had come away. I asked Pauline for her screwdriver from the tool kit, and those that know me well will not be surprised to hear that I set about doing a little of my own restoration.

The route then took us past the Tamdhu distillery at Nockando and finally onto Fochabers. This was forecast to be the best day, weather-wise, and in the most part this proved to be correct. It was so relaxing and enjoyable, powering the bikes along, past numerous golden fields of freshly cut wheat and through woods with early autumn sunlight streaming through.

At Fochabers we decided to camp in an actual campsite, with access to showers, but it was on the very busy main road from Aberdeen to Inverness. However, we were so tired from the days cycle up the many climbs, that we were both out for the count very quickly in our own one-man tents.

We had left a very short day for the last push, and as such enjoyed a long-lie and a late start out.

After just twenty minutes we were privileged to pass very close to a large buzzard bird of prey sat atop a wooden post. We tried to glide to a silent halt but it was too late, and it took flight, though this was a spectacular sight, and so very close. The route was very quick and straightforward out to the Spey estuary, where it spills into the north sea, past tens of corpses of trees, strewn about the river banks, ripped up and brought here by the recent violent floods.

I had thought beforehand, that this is where the route would end, but it swings due east and continues a few miles along the coast to officially end at Buckie. After such a fantastic and picturesque journey, the final stretch was in some disrepair, and was a disappointing end to the trip. We both assume the route starts, or ends, at Buckie for transport links.

Our route complete we headed back to the nature visitor centre at the mouth of the Spey for lunch. Then, to the backdrop of RAF jet fighters out of Kinloss thundering around the sky, we push onwards the final ten miles to Elgin, and the train that will take us to Inverness and then Edinburgh.

Both Pauline and I have completed many hiking routes and cycle routes over the years, some in far off places such as northern Italy and North America, but mostly in Scotland. My top trip in Scotland to date is the Great Glen route, from Fort William to Inverness, in glorious summer sunshine.

However, the Speyside Way, on a beautiful autumn weekend, I would say is a close contender for the top spot.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Apples and other fruit

First, I must apologise to my readers. It has been over a week now since I last published, and there is a good reason for this. Gradually over the past week, a flu-type virus got a hold of me. Thankfully I didn't start making oink noises, so I reckon it wasn't the dreaded swine version. My flat-mate and best friend Pauline would say it was just man-flu! I reckon it's the changeable weather from horrible cold and wet weather to sudden clear blue skies and mid-twenties temperatures. No such changes for Pauline over the past week though; she has just returned from an incredible adventure canoeing down the Zambesi river . . . as you do!

Scorchio all day apparently, as they paddled down crocodile and hippo infested waters! There was apparently one crocodile for every ten square metres of river! You see, you just don't get that sort of risk in Portobello seaside.

So, that's why I've been absent from my writings. All well now though, so much so I'm about to head out on a mountain bike run through the local hills.

Back to todays blog though. Followers of my blog will have read previously that I am big on good service, and the epitome of this for me is Browns restaurant in George Street, Edinburgh. That said I find myself today singing the praises of the giant computer manufacturer Apple.

A good number of years ago I would find myself constantly tearing my hair out and shouting expletives at the CRT screen connected to my PC, as it failed on numerous occasions to do the simplest of things. Occasionally it would deny existence of the printer, despite it being located right beside the screen! OK, so if I'd actually remembered to switch it on it may have helped, but why didn't it say that instead of saying there was no printer?! And it loved to crash, just as you were getting to the end of a lengthy piece of writing that you just knew you could never repeat in such a witty manner. It would suddenly disappear. Gone forever. Aaaaargh! Many a time I fantasised about launching it out of the first floor window.

A friend of mine had been a fan and prolific user of Apple MacIntosh for many years, and he always had one reply when I would moan about the misgivings of my PC and Microsoft; "I know the solution" he would say. "Buy a Mac!" And so I did.

Almost four years ago now I took delivery of not just any Mac, but a Quad G5 no less, reputedly at the time the fastest machine in the world. I was a very proud owner, admiring its sleek aluminium finish. But hang on, wasn't it supposed to have a CD/DVD drive/recorder? I hunted everywhere but could see no drawer or button release anywhere. Frustrated, and in Victor Meldrew style, I immediately got on the phone to Apple. There was a moment of silence after I had finished my rant which gave me that terrible sinking feeling that I was about to be humiliated, and that my story would be passed around for years to come. "You've never owned a Mac before have you?" said the very helpful Irishman on the other end of the phone. I hesitated, and closed my eyes slowly as I answered in a deliberate fashion, no. I was guided toward the top left button on the keyboard which had the symbol for eject printed on it. I hesitated, hoping the man was wrong, and then pressed it. Immediately a thin sliver of aluminium on the front of the tower slid down out of sight and a CD/DVD tray elegantly slid out.

But my main point is to say that not only does Apple provide a customer service that I cannot fault, no matter how hard I try, but its products are designed and built with the customer as the priority. I too am a prolific Apple Mac user now, having not just the G5 but also a MacBook laptop and the latest iPhone.

Let's look at the iPhone for a moment, as a great example of a brilliant piece of design. The other day I needed the telephone number of a company. I opened the iPhone's internet browser, Safari, and searched on Google. Within a few seconds the search produced results (I should also say here that the iPhone displays actual internet pages, not the cut-down versions on most phones). Then I enlarged the view and found the number. I was about to write it down when I thought I'd highlight it and copy and paste it into a note. However, somehow the iPhone recognised it as a telephone number (it wasn't on the site as a link, just part of the text), and transfered automatically to the phone keypad and dialed the number! Then when I was finished it gave me the option to store it as a contact! The designers just knew what the user may want.

One other piece of praise for Apple Mac, this time my laptop. You may think that a power cord connection to recharge the battery is not worthy of much thought in terms of design, but here again Apple thought it out. Consider your laptop sitting on the coffee table, plugged into the mains to charge. Someone walks past, doesn't see the cable, catches it on their leg and before you know it your laptop has been dragged off and has hit the deck with disastrous results. Not a problem with the MacBook. The connection to the computer is magnetic! It simply pops out if tugged. Brilliant! Oh, and should it fall of the coffee table it has a motion fall sensor and it detects when someone has dropped it and instantly locks the hard drive to protect it!

For me customer service goes beyond just the human interaction between you and the seller. It also applies in the product or service (see my rant on Scotrail).

Which brings me to "other fruit".

The other day I found myself in the unfortunate position of shopping for some veggies and fruit in a local supermarket called Asda, part of the global giant Wallmart. I find all supermarkets depressing places, containing vast amounts of people all miserable and hating every minute of spending their hard earned cash. These giant supermarkets, soulless places, and are not interested in you as a person. In fact when you go through the checkout the operators have now been trained to greet you with a smile and ask how you are, an interaction usually only found in your local store, but somehow meaning nothing in the supermarket as it is a programmed response. But, unlike in your local store where you would happily exchange pleasantries, you're in such a foul mood and desperate to escape this purgatory you rarely answer back in a pleasant way. Or is that just me?

But the supermarket have found yet another way now to raise our frustrations. The self-checkout machine! This abomination sits there, tempting you that by doing the supermarket's job for them you will somehow save time. If you've ever used one os these hideous machines you will know this to be a lie. And like the operator this damn thing talks to you! I avoid them at all costs now, not just for the reasons stated here, but also in my opinion it is doing away with a job for someone.

So, I put my basket on the designated area and duly start to scan my items. Of course the expected happens occasionally in that certain barcodes refuse to scan, after it's taken you several attempts to find the damn thing on the package. Then you must put the item in the "bagging area", presumably because it can detect the overall weight and compare it to your original basket load and make sure you don't steal anything.

But I take my own hesian bags to avoid using plastic, and it doesn't like this. I enjoy the moment of pleasure to annoy this machine occasionally. So, I'm finished scanning, and meanwhile the people using the normal checkout with several trollies containing a months supplies have all been through, paid and left several hours since, when the machine informs me "unexpected item in bagging area". What? I have no idea what this could be. Help needs to be sought. More delay. Then I am ready to pay, and press the appropriate button. Now, I don't know about you but I know my choice is to use cash or use a card. Just to make sure though the machine tells me to "insert cash or select payment card". I'm already on the case and just sorting out some coins when three seconds later the machine says "insert cash or select payment card". YES, I KNOW!!! I now have the requested cash ready, and I'm about to insert it when the machine says "insert cash or select payment card".

Aaaaargh!! It is at this point that I start shouting out loud at the machine, much to the amusement of everyone around me. And then, just in case after paying for my groceries I might decide to abandon them and leave the store empty handed the machine tells me "please remove items from the bagging area. Thank you for shopping at Asda".

I don't answer.

Asda Walmart shouldn't just be selling fruit, they should be talking to Apple!

Wednesday, 2 September 2009


Bizarre title you may think to my blog. Well, it's the figure connected with my subject today, that of the total world population to date. I was surprised to see this figure so high as when we talk of the world population we always refer to it as 6 billion. However, it is obviously much more like 7 billion, and rising. Two thirds of this figure live in Asia, another billion in Africa, half a billion in Latin America and the Caribbean, three quarters of a billion in Europe and just over a third of a billion in North America.

It's a touchy subject, population control. China embarked on this and it was surrounded in controversy and tales of wrong doing by the government in terms of forced sterilisation, etc. They adopted the one child family and for the most part it has brought their population under control, to the extent that some Chinese authorities have relaxed the policy now. Of course people die, and people are born, and if we want to replace the population as it stands there needs to be an average of 2.1 births for every woman. In the western world we may think this is high, as there are a large number of the population who have only one child or decide to have none at all. However, if we take Africa as an example, the average is 7 children per woman.

And we are living longer. It's estimated by 2050 that there will be a little over 2 billion people over 60, which makes it the fastest-growing group on earth. This will bring obvious financial challenges to the likes of pensions and health care.

But, population growth is a bigger issue than most consider it to be. Our focus at present is on global warming and tackling the issues causing it. Then there's energy and trying to provide enough without adding to climate change with pollutants.

At present there are countries in the third world that have very fertile lands, and grow an abundance of food, yet their populace are starving. The reason for this is simple; the food they grow is exported to the developed world for our ever-growing demand for more. Not just that but take into account the vast amount of water it takes to grow anything and we are importing virtual water from these countries and plunging them still further into a crisis.

We eat well in the west. Too well. In the UK alone more than 50% of people are obese, and one can probably safely assume this has increased the demand on food imports, and so the cycle continues to get worse.

But the system seems to be working for us, albeit that is a selfish statement. But for how long? Within my lifetime there will be more than 9 billion people on the planet.
We can only just feed everyone at some level now. With land being increasingly diverted to grow bio-crops for alternative fuel we are reducing the available arable land for food production. The south island of New Zealand, for example, has a growing water crisis due to the switch to raising cattle in ever increasing numbers, and the water table around Christchurch are at dangerously low levels.

So global warming does not come on its own. Cutting our emissions and living greener is only one of the challenges.
To grow food we need an abundance of water, which is becoming a rare commodity. It is projected that within 30 years one fifth of the planet will either have turned, or be turning, into desert. We also need an abundance of oil to drive the machinery and get the goods to market, another commodity well past its peak level.

What would happen if the third world countries that export their own food to us suddenly decide to stop doing so, and instead feed their own people? What happens when the population rises and demand for food escalates but cannot be physically met?

Consider that at the moment any cut in co2 emissions will be cancelled out in the future by an out of control population growth. That could lead to increased temperatures, so less fertile land, less water to irrigate, less food grown, and with oil on the decline less ability to export food.

So what can we do? I think we need to take all of these issues into account, at the same time. We as individuals could change out eating habits. Eating less meat would have a remarkable effect on the use of water, being the most demanding in relation to all our food stuffs. Drive less and continue to develop sustainable forms of energy production. But let's face it, we've heard these solution suggestions many times.

But what of population? As the density increases so does the ability to produce more children, and they in turn become able to produce more, and so on. And all these mouths have to be fed, and watered. We in the developed world also have a responsibility to the third world, least of all to reconsider that that we are currently taking their food for our own consumption. Ask yourself; where would you get your food if the supermarkets did not exist?

In short we are heading for a situation that may see a refugee crisis at borders on an unprecedented scale. And it would take very little to tip the balance toward this anarchy.

But we can't take away peoples rights, that is not the solution, and I do not advocate any kind of forced control. But consider this; if birth rates continued at the current level then in 150 years we would have 134 trillion people on the planet!

We should be talking about this.