Sometimes a “staycation” is the way to go

The demise of the British seaside resort and the rise in cheap air travel abroad, has seen most Brits jet off to sunnier climbs for their summer break. You can’t blame them really, as virtually guaranteed sunshine is hard to find at home. However we shouldn’t, no mustn’t, consider a foreign holiday as a first option. There is so much on offer in the UK, and if you’re lucky you’ll get the weather too.

This year my wife and I decided to head to the Lake District. It’s an area I know a little, but my wife didn’t know at all. Situated just south of the England Scotland border, it’s an area with dramatic mountain landscapes interspersed with some of the largest lakes in the UK. It’s a mecca for walkers and cyclists, although we choose the more sedate option of driving.

Bakewell

SignWe’d tried to make it to the Lake District last June, but had to call a halt to our holiday after two days after a family emergency. This time we aimed a driving to Bakewell in the Peak District, before heading up to Bowness-on-Windermere. We’d stayed in nearby Matlock in June and had briefly visited Bakewell, after visiting Chatsworth House. We liked what we saw, so we decided to stay there on the way up this time.

Bakewell is home of the Bakewell Pudding, an oddity not to be confused with the Bakewell Tart that you’ll find in just about every UK supermarket and cafe. Our hotel claimed to be the place where the recipe was first conceived, but then so did at least three other establishments in the town! The hotel was also the first place I’ve cone across where they disallowed mobile devices in the restaurant, a policy that is sure to devide opinion.

We spent the day wondering around the market town, and along the banks River Wye thanks to some thoughtfully landscaped paths. Before returning to our hotel, we stopped off at a pub with outside seating overlooking the river. Ordering drinks was an experience, as you had to stand on a glass panel with the stream that originally fed the water wheel running beneath your feet. It was just about warm enough to sit outside in shirtsleeves, so two very quaffable pints later we returned to the hotel for dinner.

The Lake District

From the moment we stepped from the car and checked into our hotel, we knew we’d made a good decision coming here. I mean, just check out the view from our room!

IMG_E0387

It got better. Lake Windermere, the ten mile long lake that acts as a magnet for all visitors was little more than ten minutes walk away. From there we made good use of the ferries to Ambleside at the north end of the lake, and Lakeside in the south.

Windermere Lake
View from Bowness north towards Ambleside

Ambleside and Lakeside were VERY different. Ambleside is a busy town full of climbers, walkers, and outdoor types. It is at the heart of the Lake District, with many good walks around it. Lakeside in comparison is a small sleepy village that most people don’t even know is there. Instead they pass it by on the road towards Broughton-in-Furness. That’s a real shame, as it has stunning views and some very peaceful hotels right on the lake’s banks.

Whilst Lake Windermere acts as the major tourist draw to the area, the other lakes do their bit too. Among them are:

  • Coniston Water where Donald Campbell broke the water speed record. It is also near the Old Man of Coniston, arguably the highest peak in the Lake District.
  • Ullswater situated in the east is a popular sailing destination, and has a 20 mile walking trail nearby.
  • Derwent Water south of Keswick in the north. Keswick’s a smaller version of Ambleside, but without the charm. It does have the lack on it’s doorstep though, and that’s reason enough to visit it.

Other places that should be on your list to visit are:

  • The beautiful village of Grasmere, described by William Wordsworth as, “the loveliest spot that man hath ever found. That probably explains why he set up home there at Dove Cottage. If you’re there and fancy a meal in a Michelin Star restaurant, I’d thoroughly recommend The Dining Room at the Oak Bank Hotel.
  • The Honiston Pass, a narrow road just south of Keswick that goes through the highest point in the Lake District. It’s a road best tackled on foot or two wheels, unless you’re happy with numerous sharp bends, blind crescents, and nothing to stop you dropping a couple of hundred foot down the mountain if you’re not paying attention! It is a stunning drive, even if the weather isn’t great.

Before we left the Lake District, there was just enough time to soak in the views from the hill overlooking Lake Windermere. It was a view neither of us wanted to leave, but the journey south beckoned.

Shrewsbury

On our way home, we stopped off in Telford. Our idea was to visit the Ironbridge Gorge Bridge, but it was undergoing repairs and was completely under plastic sheets. So instead we went to nearby Shrewsbury on the banks of the River Severn.

The first thing you notice about Shrewsbury is it’s history. There are Tudor buildings everywhere and some quaint alleys and courtyards that are well worth exploring.

Shrewsbury
An example of Shrewsbury’s Tudor buildings

 

Technical Communicators: There’s hope for us yet!

“I found that exercise rather depressing”, I said having participated in an exercise at a recent training session. Unsurprisingly my slightly tongue-in-cheek comment solicited a question from the trainer. “Why’s that?” To answer that, I need to explain the exercise.

We were given a scenario. We’re in a large city with a transport problem. There isn’t enough of it for those who want to travel. The answer is possibly hot air balloons! As the Head of Transportation, we’d one hour to research whether they really are the answer to all your problems. In order to do this, we had four options:

  1. Read the blueprints and instruction booklet?
  2. Watch other hot air balloonists and devise a plan?
  3. Meet with a subject matter expert and ask them questions?
  4. Just buy a balloon and try it out our self?

In our group only I went for option 1. Five went for option 2, with one other going for options 3 and 4.

Now do you see why I said what I said? As a Technical Communicator, I design how best to present the blueprint, and I write the instruction booklet. If no one but me would choose to even look at them if they’re in a hurry, what is the point in my profession?

OK so we’ve managed to buy another hour’s research time. What other research method of the three remaining choices would you choose? Six went for option 3, with one each for options 1 and 2.learning_styles

With eight people, it’s hardly a scientific sample, but it did raise some interesting insights into the different learning styles people have. According to Peter Honey and Alan Mumford, these are:

  • Option 1 = Theorist
  • Option 2 = Reflector
  • Option 3 = Pragmatist
  • Option 4 = Activist

As a follow up exercise, our group completed a questionnaire that aimed to demonstrate which of the four learning styles we best fitted. Guess what? The person who’d said they’d immediately just buy a balloon and learn from their mistakes, found they’d actually a high theorist score.

Ha! You can deny it as much as you like, but well designed and written technical documentation will always be needed. Especially for those who say they don’t read it.

Boris, Burqas, and Ambition

I’m not a fan of our former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson. In some people’s eyes he fits the “lovable rouge” category, but in my eyes he’s a conniving individual who’ll do pretty much anything to achieve what he wants.

So what does he want? It’s pretty clear to anyone with a brain cell, that he wants the ultimate job in UK politics. He won’t admit it of course, but if you’re in doubt, listen to this interview with the BBC’s Eddie Mair from a few years ago. He was the London Mayor back then, but was jostling for position to be elected as a candidate in the next General Election.

Boris Johnson’s recent remarks about Muslim women wearing burqas or jiqabs, are a perfect example of how he undermines those who he’s supposed to be supporting. His “light blue touch paper and retire” communication style, is designed to raise his profile with those that matter.

Writing in his Daily Telegraph column, he says Burqa and Niqab wearers look like bank robbers or letter boxes. Such words are provocative, and directed solely at Muslim women. But to then disappear on holiday whilst all the media talk about his remarks, is classic Boris.

This past week the media have reported how various members of the Conservative party want Boris to apologise. This won’t happen of course, mainly because he’s gone into radio silence mode, and he has a line of fellow Conservative party members to support what he wrote.

With all the talk about Boris, you’d be forgiven for forgetting what the real issue was. Should we allow a person’s face to be covered in public?

There are over half a dozen European and African countries that have banned the burqa and niqab. Many more have partial bans. Most countries, like France, Switzerland, Austria, Chad, and Cameroon, specifically mention the various forms of head dress worn by Muslim women. Denmark’s ban is different, banning all clothing that covers a person’s face. The law is designed to be non-discriminatory by not targeting religions or gender. For example, balaclavas as well as burqas are illegal. Presumably so would the vendetta masks favoured at many a demonstration.

There are other examples of countries imposing a dress code on its citizens. Many Middle East countries require women to dress modestly. Barcelona in Spain has laws banning swimwear away from the beach. Thailand suggests men not wear shorts, or women short skirts, except in beach locations. Many Christian countries ask men and women to cover legs and shoulders when visiting churches.

So if these laws and traditions exist, is it right to discuss whether a person is allowed to cover their face? In short, yes! If you think I’m wrong, think of organisations like the Klu Klux Klan. However the discussion should be about whether we want this country to be open and inclusive, not whether Boris Johnson would make a good Prime Minister.

Brexit and The Irish Border

If there is one political story that is rarely off the front pages, it’s Brexit. It’s everywhere. It’s the first question on every political show, and rightly so. After all it’s outcome will affect us all for decades to come. “OK”, I hear you say. “How do you know this when we don’t know the detail of what is on offer?” True enough, we don’t know what the deal will be, or even if there’ll be a deal. Here’s the thing though. Regardless of whether we have a deal with the European Union or not, the political landscape will be significantly different for better or worse.

A year ago, the topic of conversation over Brexit coffee tables was the three main problem areas of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. Namely:

  • The rights of citizens of European Union countries who already live in the UK to remain here.
  • Trade negotiations.
  • The Irish border.

The first was fairly easily resolved. There was never any real desire from anyone to throw people out of the country that were legally here. It is undeniable that immigration played a part in the Brexit vote, but that was about reducing the number coming here, not exporting those already here.

Trade negotiations is a little more difficult. Will we still be part of the customs union and have a tariff free agreement? Or will we follow the Norway model of being part of the European single market. This would allow us to have broadly the same tariffs as the custom union, but also allow us to negotiate our own trade agreements with non-EU countries. Lastly there’s the no deal option, where we’d have to negotiate all trade agreements under World Trade Organisation rules.

If there’s no deal on trade, it could well be because of the final issue. There’s been a border in Ireland since the formation of the Irish Free State in 1920. What was later to become what is now known as Ireland, consists of 26 counties. It’s a separate independent country. The other six counties make up Northern Ireland, which form part of the United Kingdom.

So trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland is a big issue if there are different rules between the two constituent parts. The problem would be made worse by the total lack of any border controls. When “The Troubles” were at their height, there were border points, mainly manned by the military, on major transport routes. This was mainly aimed at ensuring would be terrorists couldn’t get in to the north from the south, and to prevent them from escaping to the south once they’d committed an atrocity.

There were also customs checks back in the day. Cross border smuggling was big business with petrol, booze, and cigarettes being top of the list of items smuggled. The problem was the border goes across some of the remotest parts of Ireland. There are hundreds of crossings, some little more than thin dirt tracks, making it virtually impossible to control. Logistically things haven’t changed. The military border points may have gone, but the myriad of border crossing remain. Should there be different trade rules between the two constituent parts of Ireland, it will equally difficult to police and enforce.

You can understand why all the talk is about trade, but there’s one aspect of the Irish border issue that gets very little coverage. Whisper this quietly; it’s the possibility of a united Ireland. This gets little media coverage because it’s a bigger problem than post Brexit border trade. The two topics are inextricably linked. If we want to remain part of the customs union, the European Union say we must be part of their club. Therefore if we want to leave, different trade rules apply. Neither Ireland or the UK want that.

No matter how unlikely that may seem, a united Ireland of 32 counties would solve the trade issue at one fell swoop. It would create a plethora of other seemingly intractable issues though. Logistical issues like what flag the country would use, or what national anthem they’d sing. The Irish government has stated that should a united Ireland ever come into existence, that nothing would be ruled out. Perhaps that’s more of a politician’s  answer, as they know that such small scale decisions are fraught with historical and jingoistic significance.

Agreeing to a united Ireland may be the easy part. Deciding on changing the wording of the Irish national anthem, agreeing on the colours and design of a flag, now there’s a discussion bound to bring out all the old arguments.

Hindsight: the Photoshop of history

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It provides colour and clarity to what at the time seemed colourful and clear, but was in fact sepia toned and fuzzy. Think of it as the Photoshop of history. Knowing all the facts allows you to edit out all the blemishes to deliver an accurate statement of fact.

In my last post I described my athlethic annus horribilis.  In it I described my “Strike Three”, which saw me suffering what I though were side effects of taking antihistamine tablets I’d been suffering from shortness of breath and a stiff calf muscle.

t turns out they were fine and I was suffering from another more serious illness. As the calf muscle got stiffer, I sought medical advice. Straight away my GP told me to go to hospital where I spent a whole week after being admitted.

The stiff calf and breathlessness had been caused by a blood clot in my leg, some of which had broken off and made its way to my lungs. Thankfully the clot hadn’t made it into one of my pulmonary arteries, or else I may not be typing this today! Instead it was a case of resting and taking anti-coagulation drugs for awhile.

As to what caused the clots, they can’t say. It was probably connected to the broken pelvis I described in “Strike One”, but they can’t be sure. So it goes down as as idiopathic deep vein thrombosis. Cue lots of idiotic gags!

My athletic “annus horribilis”

I’m a fit and healthy individual. I’m competitive, without having outstanding sporting talent. I love exercising, but have never quite made the grade from being an enthusiastic amateur.

This year has been a real test, both physically and mentally. You see I’ve experienced a series of setbacks, some fairly major.

Strike One

Last March I went for a run near my office. It had been raining slightly, and as I went around a sharp corner, my foot slipped on a metal drain cover. I fell heavily on my left hand side. Picking myself off the ground, I found I couldn’t put any weight on my left leg. I’d fractured my pelvis (ischium).

Deep joy. Three days in hospital whilst my consultant decided if I needed an operation. Thankfully I didn’t, but I received differing quotes of when I would be able to run again. This tended to vary between when I could run run again, to when it would be safe to do so. Anything up to six months of doing nothing, and during the time of year when it is great being outdoors running around your local park.

Strike Two

Two months into my recovery I decided to do a local Park Run. I’d done it the week before by walking around the course. This time I decided to see if I could jog slowly around part of the course. I joined the back of the 350+ runners. As I jogged around, it felt good. So much so, that at the half way point I continued running.

I finished in a little under 36 minutes. Not my fastest time by some margin, but I was more than happy with my fitness. I’d suppressed the urge to end quickly as people sprinted past me in the last few hundred meters.

Later that day I felt really tired. In fact I felt utterly drained. Weird as I hadn’t felt like I’d put in a lot of effort earlier in the day. The following day I developed a rash around my neck and left ear. Shingles! Deep joy. A week of antibiotics, followed by several weeks of letting the virus work though my system. Even now two months later, I’m still not 100%.

Strike Three

Throughout all these issues, I’ve changed my exercise routine to do what I can. I’ve used a cross trainer instead of running. I’ve adapted my gym sessions to include more weights and flexibility work. Trouble is life can still leap up to bite you when you least expect it.

I’ve always been very mildly asthmatic. It is something I don’t tend to notice except in the summer months. For a month or two each year I notice a drop in my breathing efficiency. It doesn’t amount to very much, but it is noticeable, especially during prolonged physical exercise.

This year the English summer has been very warm and dry. My part of London hasn’t experienced any rain, not one drop, since mid May. It’s lovely summer weather and I’m not complaining, but it has created an issue for me. As well as the seasonal shortness of breath, I’ve had a ticklely dry cough, runny nose, and dry mouth.

In an effort to overcome these annoying symptoms, I took some over the counter allergy tablets containing cetirizine hydrocloride. Big mistake. Why?

  • On day one of taking them, I was unable to walk more than a few hundred meters without having to sit down to catch my breath. It’s a common side effect, but if I’d have known it was going to be that bad I wouldn’t have started taking them.
  • On day two I started getting a stiff calf muscle. Even having stopped taking the tablets, my calf became so still and sore, I could be found hobbling around. Yes you’ve guessed it, oedema (swelling due to water retention) is a side effect that affects around one in a thousand people. How lucky I am!

Down but not out

Here I am four months into my six month recovery, and it’s been far from straightforward. I’m getting there, but it is frustrating. Some workouts have gone better than others, but that’s normal. Even when 100% fit, you sometimes have sessions when it’s an effort to put one foot in front of the other.

The worst part of the last few months, is that earlier this year I was approaching a level of fitness I hadn’t seen in many a year. My personal best running times may not have been at the levels they were in my mid 20s, but they were coming down. Sometimes by a far margin.

Before all these setbacks, I’d set myself an ambitious 10k target time, and was hoping to run my first half marathon in over 25 years. I was close to meeting the 10k time, and had earmarked a half marathon. I’m not giving up. Those targets still exist, and I can’t wait to get back on the road and smash them.

Activism British Style

As a long time activist for Amnesty International, I’m no stranger to attending public events designed to draw attention to human rights. Whether it’s campaigning for a Turkish journalist imprisoned for writing an article critical of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or campaigning for Argentinian women to be given the right to sexual and reproductive healthcare, I’ve done it all.

Last week I took to the streets of London in a march targeting the US President Donald Trump. Unlike some there, I didn’t want to see the visit postponed. Like it or not, he is the democratically elected leader of the USA. He has the right to come here, but so have I to demonstrate against everything he represents.

Some say activists are a special breed. We spend hours, days, months, and even years campaigning on something. It can be a frustrating exercise when there doesn’t seem to be any success in sight. That’s why a sense of humour and a thick skin helps.

These qualities were very much in evidence in the anti-Trump march, but with a British twist. The British sense of humour is often understated, cutting, and anarchic; often all at the same time. Take these as an example:

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The Online Chameleon shows his real colours

I write this the morning after Croatia’s win over England in last night’s World Cup semi final. I’m also, as if you need reminding, Irish. So I can write about the game with a degree of detachment, despite having lived in England since three years of age.

Well to a degree. There is no doubt where my loyalty lies when Ireland play England in any sport. Just in the same way most British born Indians want India to beat England in a cricket test, I want to see Ireland trounce England in the Six Nations.

This World Cup is different. For a start, Ireland didn’t qualify. If they had, I’d feel different. Until England progressed and Ireland were knocked out that is. I’m Irish first and foremost, but can support the team that represents where I live, has provided me with a living, and where my family live.

Having a split nationality has it’s advantages. I don’t get hyper at the slightest chance of success. The euphoria ever since England’s 6-1 demolition of Panama, the England media has scented World Cup success. The fans loved this, and happily sang The Lightening Seeds unofficial England anthem. “It’s coming home. It’s coming home. It’s coming. Football’s coming home.” It was everywhere.

My response to such hyperbole was, “Yes, but where to?”

Don’t get me wrong. I wanted England to succeed. It would have been great for this team of inexperience youngsters, and the manager Gareth Southgate. It is just that I could clearly the problems the England team had compared to others. Even the rather laboured win against Tunisia in England’s first game perfectly demonstrated the issues.

We (sorry England!) have talented players. In Harry Kane they’ve a world class striker. In players like Jordan Pickford, Harry Maguire and Kieran Trippier, they have young players that have yet to reach their full potential. That’s a scary proposition for the European Championships in 2020.

Our (there I go again) problems are also the youth and inexperience. On occasions the didn’t manage a game as well as they should. Certain players, should I mention Raheem Sterling, didn’t pass when there were better placed players. Small margins maybe, but these win you games at the top level.

This morning I can go into work with my head held high. My team didn’t lose last night. The same can be said of all England fans. Yes they may have lost a World Cup semi final, but the overall winner was the pride the country showed in their team. The last few weeks have united the country in a way not seen for many a year, and long may that continue.

10 July 2002: In the Wider Interest of Football

In the wider scheme of things, the 10th July 2002 won’t go down as a major historical date. In fact the only significant event according to onthisday.com was the sale at Sotheby’s of Peter Paul Rubens’ painting The Massacre of the Innocents for £49.5 million.

In football circles however, the rise of AFC Wimbledon was about to start. The story of this football club is the stuff of legend. It’s about how Wimbledon FC was allowed to move 60 miles from its home, change its name, and alienate it’s entire fan base. All, according to the English Football Association, “in the wider interests of football”.

Not lying down quietly, the fan base set up their own club, held player trails on Wimbledon Common, and organised on this day 16 years ago a friendly against Sutton United. No one knew what to expect. Would anyone turn up?

As it happens, yes they would. Some 4000 fans queued outside Sutton’s ground on a balmy Wednesday evening. So many in fact that the kickoff was delayed by almost an hour to allow them all in.

The rag bag mix of players ran onto the pitch. They weren’t fit, hardly knew each other’s names, let alone where they were supposed to play, but we didn’t care. After a long hard battle to keep our club, we fans just wanted to watch football.

We lost the game, fairly easily as it turned out, but it didn’t matter. Never had a defeat seemed like a victory until that evening. I was there that evening, and the smiles on the faces as we left the ground, is a sight I’ll remember until my last breath.

We knew we were onto something special.

Roll on to 2018 and our club has multiple promotions under it’s belt, turned professional, and maintains a position in the third tier of English football. We’re not the biggest or wealthiest club by some margin, but it was never about wealth or prestige. We just wanted to get back to watching our team play football.

Whether this changes remains to be seen. It is a fact that with our success comes expectation. The sense of anger and injustice over the original decision to allow the club’s relocation is still there, and it manifests itself occasionally in a greed to get back to the Premier League.

We may well have been founder members of the Premier League, but that was almost 20 years ago. These days the league is a different place. Money abounds. Money we don’t have. We run our club on a shoestring. Our playing budget is around £3,000,000. With some Premier League players on £250,000 a week, our budget wouldn’t last long.

So for now we do our best to maintain our position. We’ve got a new ground to look forward to in around 18 months. It’s just down the road from where the old ground was before it was knocked down to make way for apartments. Whenever we play that first game back on Plough Lane, it will be another lump in the throat moment in the life of this incredible club.

Mimecast & Ataata: A TechComm match made in heaven

Today Mimecast announced it had bought Ataata, a cyber security training company. It’s a common sense acquisition for one of the leading cyber security companies, but from a technical communication perspective, it’s so much more.

Ataata provides short videos aimed at educating users about all aspects of cyber security. There’s lots of training companies who provide educational videos, but Ataata do so in a way that’s engaging and fun. Users love them. In fact they look forward to receiving the next one! Take a look at one and see for yourself.

Mimecast has been looking at how it can educate its users. We recognize that having the means to prevent threats from entering an organisation is only part of the solution. If you personally don’t fully engage in identifying where threats exist, you’re asking for trouble. In short, the weakest link is you.

I’ve been involved in projects at Mimecast looking at educating users about cyber security. We’ve embedded copy into the user interface to warn them about phishing attacks, and written white papers on steps companies can take to protect their data. It’s not just about using our cloud solution. This has been a focus of our CEO, Peter Bauer who’s been quoted as saying, “Our customers desperately need help training their human firewalls.”

It’s as a technical communicator that I’m interested in the Ataata acquisition. Our job is helping our users use our software, but achieving this is so much more than providing help. Mimecast recognizes the need to provide assistance where it’s needed most. Yes we provide online help, but we also provide embedded user assistance in the user interface.

This takes the form of text and video tutorials, but we’re also redesigning our user interfaces from the ground up. Gone are the dialogs with 20-30 fields and options, and in come wizard type dialogs with user friendly questions. By answering a few questions, we can identify the configuration a user needs, and set the options for them behind the scenes.

All this is designed to deflect support calls. Support calls cost money. End users spend time looking for content, and if they can’t find or understand the content, they contact our support staff. Whether it’s the cost to our users trying to complete a task, or our support staff dealing with queries, time is money. If we can prevent our users ringing us, it’s a win win solution.

This acquisition may not directly educate users in how to use our software, but the preemptive nature of Ataata’s solution means users should have less issues. The most expensive support call category involves data loss. Phishing, whaling, and impersonation attacks can take time (a lot of it) to recover from. Our software has solutions to prevent these attacks, but we want to provide another layer of protection.

In the ideal world, our cyber security solutions should never be needed. If we’re all vigilant 100% of the time, companies like ours wouldn’t be needed. The fact that companies like ours exist, shows how delusional that view is. Having a multi faceted approach to protecting your data is the way ahead, and from a technical communication perspective there’s so much scope to integrate our content in a fun and engaging way.