Friday, April 29, 2005

The New Airbus

There was cheerful news this week as Airbus managed a first ever flight of their new A-380 series - the biggest passenger aircraft ever.


It's about time we heard good news from the civil aviation industry, as it's been taking us steadily backwards for decades now, and I'm not talking of the giant leap backwards with it's failure to even think about a replacement for the Concorde.

Why do I say steadily backwards?

Because here's a hard-to-believe dirty little secret about civil aviation known only to anoracks and insiders:

Over the past 40 years or so, civil aircraft have become slower.

Yes, slower.

Not just a fraction slower either - we're taking about 15% slower as compared to the faster models in service from the mid 1960s to the late 1970s.

And that 15% isn't trivial over the distances jets cover - add that amount to the ratbastard tedium of a ten hour flight back in 1965 and you get an extra hour and a half of bored-to-tears-misery in 2005.

90 minutes of time - the one commodity you can never buy back.

To make this regression even more painful, new slower aircraft are designed to have less space per person inside, and the inside itself is colder and less airconditioned than ever before (leg room, cabin heating, and a/c all cost money).

There's no magic wand to solve all this overnight, but the A380 may be a step in the right direction. It's claimed to cruise at the very fast speed of 630mph, a useful 25mph faster than its rival Boeing 747, although incredibly, still slower than the legendary Convair 900 series from the 1960s, with hindsight the biggest lost opportunity in civil aviation history.

The huge amount of space in the A380 series just might translate into slightly more legroom for everyone. And as a new plane it takes advantage of the quiet fuel-efficient engines and advanced simulation and modelling techniques that enable it to be designed and built cheaply and operate unobtrusivley.

I really hope it works well, I hope plenty get sold, but above all else I'm delighted that it's faster than it's older rival (as it damn well should be) and bucks the slower-is-better trend that would have had us back in turbo-props in another couple of decades...

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Film - The Technical Writer

News comes in, sadly a year or two late, of a strange and seemingly doomed independent film project called... (drum roll)

"The Technical Writer"

Yes! A film based on my so-called profession, or at least what I did for most of my life and will doubtless do again, despite the risk of death by boredom.

According to the reviews our hero, an American technical writer, is a recluse or acrophobic or something who hasn't been outside his home (a block of flats) for years. He phones out for delivered food and stays alone in his basement flat writing software manuals.

Live the dream, eh?

The block of flats is home to the film's other characters, who include a couple of Russian prostitutes and someone dying of cancer (at the time of writing all good Indie film obligatory characters, although the terminal case should really be suffering from AIDS rather than cancer).

Among these flakes and zombies, perhaps it isn't surprising that our hero keeps himself to himself, although he does get to say lines like:

Few people are conscious of the evil pleasures of technical writing.

Heh heh heh.

If only it were true.

Any of it, actually.

The boring truth:

Most tek riters I've known are cheerful, articulate, well adjusted, artistic souls courageously out of place in the nerd-dominated fields of software development and engineering.

True, we have our irritating eccentrics and a worryingly high number of pathological liars and sociopaths (physically harmless but annoying and impossible to deal with, despite their charm). But perhaps a few personality disorders are inevitable in a craft (not a profession) that attracts failed programmers, failed testers, failed systems analysts, and failed fiction authors.

None the less, introverted and inadequate tek riters are pretty rare, and the fair to high pay rates mean you don't have to bunk next door to a prossie very often.

Despite all that, it's a great pity the makers of The Technical Writer didn't manage to get a distribution deal after they finished the film. No matter how bad the reviews, I'd have paid money to see it and probably enjoyed it very much.

Let's live in hope of BBC 2 or Channel 4 one late-night.


Friday, April 15, 2005


The lovely Kate Winslet got slated in The Daily Wail yesterday...

I suspect, like most actresses, she's wonderful company in small doses, but insupportable (as my French friends would say) for longer periods...

No matter, she's a good at what she does, is a beautiful woman, and despite what the Wail says I suspect us Brits will love her for ever. If nothing else, she's made a series of interesting films and has totally refused to cash in on the fame "Titanic" brought.

She did a very good job on that film, because some of the lines were unworthy of a third form drama group.

Personal fave:

Mr. Andrews, we've heard about the iceburg, and I can see it in your eyes.

Try saying that with any realism.Posted by Hello


Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The Ferrari Dino

In London yesterday for the best day of the year so far - warm and sunny under a vanilla sky.

Near London Bridge, a Ferrari Dino 246 GT slides into view, unusual silver paintwork glistening in the sunshine. I stroll closer, hoping the lights won't change before I get close enough to really hear it set off.

It does so, but quickly pulls in to the side and the driver, young and self-conscious doesn't realise it's still in gear as he stops and it leaps forward a foot or so. Mechnical problems? Clutch trouble?

I don't think so. For some reason every 1960s and 70s sportscar I've ever driven has always been a complete swine to drive in cities. It's something about the really heavy clutch action, the heavy steering, the obstructive gearchange, the lousy view, the plug fouling and the stares from everyone that conspire against you, at least for the first few miles.

The modern ones are much easier, but the lovely feline bitchy nastiness has all but gone.

The Dino has that bitchy quality in spades, but it's also tiny, very low and exquisite, even if the build-quality is no better than a 1960s Fiat, which is something to ponder in a vehicle that does nearly 150 mph with only partially understood areodynamics...

None the less, 33 years after production ceased, it's still the most beautiful and charismatic car ever made - you've got to see those complex curves in 3-D to fully appreciate the brilliance of Pininfarina's finest work. Posted by Hello


Saturday, April 09, 2005

"My Name is Rachel Corrie"

"My Name is Rachel Corrie" is the title of a new play that has just opened at the Royal Court theatre in Sloane Square.

A group of us including one or two people who knew Rachel were invited to see a preview on Wednesday night.

The script is by Katherine Viner, but really it is written by Rachel Corrie herself - a thoughtful and articulate young lady with plenty to say. None the less Ms Viner did an excellent job compiling and editing the many e-mails, letters and diary entries that Rachel left behind, not forgetting her lists - Rachel was a compulsive list maker, although well aware of this sometimes absurd trait. I particularly enjoyed the wit and humour in the description of Rachel's trip to an ice-cream parlour supervising a group of mental patients. As a psychology student in the 1980s I had some similar experiences myself, and know only too well the mixture of humour, sadness, and sheer... well, insanity that such trips involve.

Later of course the mood became darker, as Rachel describes the incredible conditions she finds as an ISM volunteer in the Palestinian city of Rafah in 2003 - called with some justification, the world's largest prison. The last twenty minutes of the play were unforgettable and full credit to actress Megan Dodds who managed to narrate Rachel's last long e-mails from Rafah with such realism. At this point I forgot I was watching a play and just listened to the horror and anger and shock in the words. It made no difference I'd read them before, but I can confirm the script is 100% accurate, nothing has been added for rhetorical effect.

The play ended, like Rachel's life, unexpectedly and was harrowing for all of us. A young man sat next to me who'd been with Rachel when she died was in tears, and nobody was left unaffected. Wisely there was no attempt to portray the death itself, instead we had a calm desciption by one of the eye witnesses.

It's a powerful play and a fitting tribute to a short but full life. The set was vivid without being overwhelming and Alan Rickman's direction was naturalistic and unobtrusive. The star is Megan Dodds - it must have been a nightmare to learn the entire script, and a lonely and nervous experience to go on stage and perform it entirely alone. Not that you'd have noticed - Megan put on an amazing natural performance that made you forget you watching acting and brought Rachel to life. I never knew Rachel Corrie, but I feel I've come very close to knowing her now. It makes her death even more upsetting.


Directed by Alan Rickman
Cast: Megan Dodds
07 April 2005 - 30 April 2005
Evening Performances - Monday – Saturday 7.45pm
Saturday Matinees - 16, 23, 30 April 4pm
£7.50 – £15

Monday, April 04, 2005


It's necessary to understand what real intelligence work is. It will never cease. It's absolutely essential that we have it. At its best, it is simply the left arm of healthy governmental curiosity. It brings to a strong government what it needs to know. It's the collection of information, a journalistic job, if you will, but done in secret.

All the rest of it-- intervention, destabilization, assassination, all that junk-- is in my view not only anti-constitutional but unproductive and silly. You can never foresee the consequences. But it's a good job as long as intelligence services collect sensible information and report it to their governments, and as long as that intelligence is properly used, thought about and evaluated.

David Cornwell (John Le Carre) as quoted in the Paris Review

In the midst of the Pope Death mass hysteria (yes, 80-something year olds do die, even those with the direct line to god) the results of the official enquiry into the intelligence on Iraq has already been forgotten. The verdict was "Dead Wrong" which gives me the opportunity to type the most beautiful phrase in the English language:

I told you so.