Harry’s back

I feel like I’m temporarily living in Potter land. In what may actually be the highlight of of career so far, I managed to get into press screenings of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and to get to review the new Deathly Hallows book. Between writing up both of these things, I have spent a fair bit of time being paid to read and munch popcorn.


Nice one! I’ll post the relevant articles here in a few days. I need to allow a decent amount of time to elapse between their print publication and their appearence here.

Faulty cameras and dodgy MP3s

Two experiences in the last week have left me feeling less than enamored with the customer focus of two different international companies.

Firstly, and bear with me on this as there is a point here somewhere, I recently picked up a funky new stereo for my car. It’s a Sony and I’m thrilled with it. I bought it because it has a bluetooth receiver in it and so any cell phone with bluetooth can connect to it. I review phones sometimes so I tend to change handsets every month or so and obviously car kits are expensive and inconvenient to fit every time you change phone.

Anyway, this gripe has nothing to do with phones so we’ll move on. The stereo also plays MP3 CDs, allowing me to record 15 or so albums worth of MP3 tracks onto a single CD. This is an excellent extra, particularly as I didn’t notice it had this functionality until after I’d bought it. Sweet.

I tried this out this week and was very happy, except for one thing. Like most people, I now buy music either online or when I do buy a CD I rip it to my hard disk almost immediately. in the past I used Windows Media Player, but because I got an ipod some time ago, I moved over to Apple’s ITunes. I’ve been mostly happy enough with it until now, when I discovered that while ITunes will let you record an audio CD and while it will let you record an MP3 audio CD, it won’t let you record an MP3 CD of any audio that you have ripped using ITunes or bought online using the ITunes music store.

What? I have legally paid for music so that I can listen to it in my car. I don’t want to sell the disc or give it to my friends, just listen to it, but apparently Apple has decided I can’t. I’m actually not sure this is legal (although I presume it must be or I would have heard about it) but I was under the impression that when you buy a CD of music or software, you are buying a license to use the content and as such are entitled to make backup copies as long as they are for your own use and aren’t sold, passed on or otherwise used to infringe the copyright of the intellectual property holder.

I can’t see how making a CD to play in the car is any different than making a back up, or for that matter transferring audio from a PC to an IPod. This strikes me as a case of rights erosion.

Anyway, the stereo in question plays Windows Media Files, but I have to re-import all my bought CDs into Windows Media in order to burn the discs. Whose interests is all this in I wonder. I don’t think it’s mine somehow. Apple 0 Microsoft 1. Faceless corporations 1 consumers 0

So I mentioned there was a second act to my Monday morning consumer electronics rant, so here it is. I picked up a Canon digital camera in Tokyo last year and was very happy with it. An excellent camera that produced great pictures. All went swimmingly with it for months and months and months until the warranty ran out. I managed to drop it while out taking pictures. (In fact the picture in the masthead of this blog was the last picture it took.) I dropped it onto a grassy surface from around 3 feet off the ground – so it didn’t fall hard or far or onto a surface like concrete. Nevertheless the lens wouldn’t retract and an ominous E18 appeared in the display screen just before it turned itself off.

I googled the error message to see if other people had experienced the same fault and A LOT OF responses came up. It turns out that Canon cameras of the same class as mine are plagued with such problems, and the company charges around €150 to repair the problem.

So why do I feel short changed by this experience? After all, I dropped the camera, didn’t I? I did the damage, after all.

Well, yes I did. However, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for an item of consumer electronics like a digital camera to be able to withstand reasonable wear and tear. As I said, I didn’t drop it on concrete or drive over it or anything – it fell a short distance onto a soft surface. However, the real nature of my grip is this.

I brought the camera to a repair place and they took it in for repair. I heard nothing back from them for several weeks so called in to ask how the repair was going the other day to be told that Canon has stopped repairing cameras with this fault. It has also said it won’t repair a camera purchased in another geographical area. This is because I paid less for my camera in Tokyo than they are charging for it here and Canon seems to want to discourage people from undercutting the market price for its technology in their customer’s home countries by buying when on holiday.

(Coincidentally, it seems that there is a class action law suit being prepared in the US to argue the point that the flaw is a design flaw inherent in the design of the camera. If this is found to be the case, Canon will have to accept that it can’t charge people to repair the damage. This will cost it a lot of money, so I’d guess they’ll argue strongly that it’s not true. And it may not be, I don’t know.)

Canon 1 Me 0. Faceless corporations 2 consumers 0

These go to eleven


Nigel Tufnel: The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and…

Marty DiBergi: Oh, I see. And most amps go up to ten?

Nigel Tufnel: Exactly.

Marty DiBergi: Does that mean it’s louder? Is it any louder?

Nigel Tufnel: Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it? It’s not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You’re on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you’re on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?

Marty DiBergi: I don’t know.

Nigel Tufnel: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?

Marty DiBergi: Put it up to eleven.

Nigel Tufnel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.

Marty DiBergi: Why don’t you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?

Nigel Tufnel: [pause] These go to eleven.



Apparently I should be restricted. I mean more than normal, that is.

Free Online Dating

I shamelessly lifted this idea from Jamie, a neat guy I met at boot camp. I read his blog every day. Usually it makes me feel inadequate, because he actually finished his book, but I wouldn’t admit that publicly.

Oh wait . . .


Author interview: Paul Johnston

I met crime writer Paul Johnstone a few weeks ago for a very pleasent few hours in the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin to shoot the breeze over his new book. The resulting interview was published in The Sunday Business Post.


First Person: Johnston bounces back
Sunday, July 08, 2007 – By Alex Meehan

Crime writer Paul Johnston could have been forgiven for giving up his writing career and trying his hand at something else. After all, not everyone could work through writer’s block, being dumped by their publisher, losing their agent, having their marriage fail and, to top it all off, contracting a virulent form of cancer.

Yet this is exactly what the Scottish writer did. He battled all these setbacks to regain his health, find love again and have his ninth novel, The Death List, published. Johnston is back and this time he’s armed with a sense of conviction and a willingness to go places other authors shy away from.

The Death List is a page turner and, with the right push, it could be the novel to take Johnston’s career to new heights. It’s a gritty and violent thriller, set in London, pitting a crime novelist against a psychotic serial killer named the White Devil.

There’s an uncanny resemblance between Johnston and his latest protagonist, Matt Wells – he too is recently divorced, has writer’s block and has been dropped by his publisher. Surprisingly, he claims the resemblance is mostly coincidental.

‘‘Is Matt based on me? No, not really,’’ Johnston says.

‘‘At least I didn’t plan it that way and anyway, there’s nothing much in that for a writer unless you mess your characters around to have fun. Really, this is a book about the nature of revenge.”

In the story, Matt is depicted as a writer best known for his short-lived series of detective novels set in Albania – a dig at Johnston’s own Alex Mavros series of Greek detective stories.

‘‘If anyone thinks they’re featured in the book and that I’ve treated them badly, then at least I’ve also made fun of myself. Satire doesn’t take any prisoners – it goes for you as the writer as well.”

Johnston was also inspired by his interest in Jacobean literature – his bad guy is named after John Webster’s tragedy The White Devil – and by the visceral nature of the urge to seek revenge experienced by people who perceive themselves wronged.

‘‘Everyone feels like knifing their boss or strangling their wife at some point, and urban myths abound featuring angry wives exacting revenge on their adulterous husbands by pouring honey in their petrol tanks or spurned au pairs phoning the speaking clock in Australia and leaving the phone off the hook,” says Johnston.

‘‘In many ways, revenge like this is quite childish, but the urge fulfils a basic human need.

‘‘The problems start when people seek to do serious harm, like the White Devil in the book. That was the premise on which I based this story – I wanted to investigate that.”

While Johnston’s books have never been lacking in violent content, The Death List is notably darker in this regard.

The author underwent serious surgery to battle the cancer he was diagnosed with in 2003. The resulting operation to remove a kidney and surrounding tissue left him scarred and thoughtful.

‘‘Without trying to get too precious about it, I think the violence in this book is a reflection of the real world.

‘‘We do live in a violent world and I was shocked when I came out of hospital and saw what had been done to me on the operating table.

‘‘My books have never been for shrinking violets in terms of violence, but this personal experience made me more concerned to be very open about it, perhaps in a slightly disturbing way. I think this is the real world.

‘‘It’s the same here. I read an Irish paper this morning at breakfast and there was a story about how some kid had been stabbed, and someone else had been shot, and a house was blown up,” says Johnston.

‘‘At home, I have a one-and-a-half-year-old child and I spend a lot of time changing the TV channels because at any minute incredible violence from the streets of Baghdad or Gaza can appear on the screen, complete with bodies and severed limbs,” he says.

‘‘It’s up to each individual how much they want to take on. Some people will watch a movie like Seven and think it’s disgusting, and others won’t be bothered at all.

‘‘Hopefully, reading books like mine is a reasonably cathartic experience, because there’s certainly an element of writing these books that’s cathartic.

‘‘Confronting your fears robs them of power and we all go through unpleasant experiences, but that’s all part of the experience of life.

‘‘If you consciously try to stay away from horror movies, crime novels or violence on the news, you are cutting yourself off from a large part of real life. The role of death in life.”

Johnston argues that there’s nothing unhealthy about reading about the darker aspects of the human condition, as it can act as a release.

‘‘I do think crime writers have some responsibility in what they write, but when people read novels, they are capable of accepting that, while it may be a reflection of society, it’s not the real world,” he says.

‘‘Violence can also be entertaining in a dark way. I’m sure many people will remember seeing the movie Pulp Fiction in the cinema – the part where they accidentally shoot the guy in the car – everybody laughs. I’ve seen it since and I still laughed.

‘‘Sure it’s violent and revolting, but it’s also funny.”

Johnston has setout to deliberately write a commercial novel in The Death List and is unapologetic about the appeal of his books and their place in the publishing world.

‘‘I certainly don’t have a problem with the idea of commercial writing, but many people do, particularly in the world of literature.

‘‘Crime writers tend to be fairly down to earth types, because at the end of the day you’re trying to sell books and I’ve never understood why anyone would write a book if they didn’t want it to be popular and sell.

‘‘This was a deliberate attempt to write a page turner – I like reading page turners – but it’s not the easiest thing to do.

‘‘People tend to be dismissive of popular authors like James Patterson as if their commercial appeal makes them lesser writers, but in fact writing this kind of fast-paced book is difficult.”

The publishing world has been both cruel and kind to Johnston.

On one hand, he’s had eight other books published, has won awards for his writing and was able to turn professional after just his second novel.

On the other hand, he wrote three full books before being published for the first time in 1997 and, before The Death List, he was dropped by his publisher.

‘‘In my case, the reason was that my editor left the publishing house I was signed to and suddenly there was nobody in-house to champion my work. Understandably, everyone else just looks at the bottom line.”

Having worked in business in the past, the author says he can see why publishers would question the wisdom of keeping him on board, but believes there are other ways to deal with the issue rather than just dumping the author.

Johnston feels it would be better for the industry if publishers put more time into fostering talent and advising writers who aren’t hitting the mark on how to tweak their work.

‘‘I think this is a journey that all writers have to undertake at some stage,” he says.

‘‘Ian Rankin is a case in point – he’s a successful writer, but was close to being dropped in 1997; about a week later he won the Golden Dagger and since then his career has been in permanent lift-off.”

According to Johnston, publishing companies have decided not to build authors in the way they did in the past.

‘‘In literary fiction it’s not so bad – if they see someone at the age of 25 who they think may win the Booker Prize in 15 years’ time, then they probably will support them, but they certainly won’t pay them much, unless it’s obvious Zadie Smith-style material.

‘‘With genre fiction that definitely doesn’t happen. They do the sums on every book.

‘‘From an author or an agent’s perspective, this is simple – potentially any book that’s published can make money.

‘‘Perhaps not much, but people will always sell 3,000 or 5,000 copies.

‘‘Also, generally speaking, most publishing companies write off advances anyway,” says Johnston.

In order to stay published, Johnston says most authors now have to write certain kinds of books.

‘‘That’s where things get sticky, because no genre fiction writer is comfortable with the idea of being told what to write. It might not be an explicit order, but heavy hints are dropped and it’s generally made known to the author that certain types of books will be more welcome than others.

‘‘This doesn’t bother me, because I’ve never understood why an author would want to write books that wouldn’t sell anyway. That’s bonkers.

‘‘I’ve always wanted my books to be as widely read as possible, even if I haven’t always been my own best ally in that.”

Taken from The Sunday Business Post

Specialisation is for insects

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”


— Robert Heinlein

Is your worldview naturalistic?


Is your worldview naturalistic? If so, you might find the brights to be interesting.

So just what is a ‘bright’? This is a new term coined by a group of web activists who want to create an online constituency of people who identify themselves as having a particular worldview, one that’s predominantly naturalistic and is free of supernatural and mystical elements.

Broadly speaking, I lean fairly heavily towards the ideas you can find at www.the-brights.net and think the world would be a better place if more people adopted a naturalistic worldview.

(I’m not that keen on the label ‘bright’ however, as it implies that if you don’t hold these views, you must be a ‘dull.’ Tribalism has always been part of the problem posed by religion and superstition throughout history, so it would be nice to try to do away with that. I don’t dispute the need for an upbeat positive sounding label, though. The language used to describe things says a lot about how they are perceived. Bright is much better than atheist or pagan.)

It’s interesting to examine why an internet constituency is an important thing – after all, surely people can just hold whatever beliefs they want and that’s that. Well, it is and it isn’t that simple. I watched a very interesting lecture with Richard Dawkins recently on youtube, in which he pointed out that identifying yourself as an atheist made it almost impossible to get elected in most Western countries – including the US and here in Ireland.

In fact the only other groups that find it harder to get elected to high office in the US are gay and black people. In many parts of the world, even quietly saying that you choose not to believe in supernatural forces will actively work against you, because of fear and mistrust. A lot of theists sincerely believe that it’s not possible to live a moral or good life without a belief in god. De facto, those that don’t believe in god are a threat.

By creating an international constituency, people can assert their conviction without fear of retribution and lobbyists for the Bright movement get to point to the level of support there is for their worldview.

The movement’s three major aims are:
  1. Promote the civic understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic worldview, which is free of supernatural and mystical elements.
  2. Gain public recognition that persons who hold such a worldview can bring principled actions to bear on matters of civic importance.
  3. Educate society toward accepting the full and equitable civic participation of all such individuals.

So there you go. Hope that brightens your day!