Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Happy 50th birthday NASA - sort of.....

NASA officially opened for business on October 1 1958, but today marks the 50th anniversary of the governmental act that made it happen.

The US Federal National Aeronautics and Space Act that created NASA, was signed into law 50 years ago today on July 29, 1958.

Eisenhower, the most reluctant of space warriors insisted that the agency be civilian and only grudgingly signed up to the space race at all - largely at the instigation of Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Keith Glennan was NASA's first, short-lived, Administrator, ably assisted by the cerebral Hugh Dryden.
There's a good Youtube video about the early days of NASA here

Monday, July 28, 2008

A bittersweet victory

Middle Middle, Middle, 'Sex, 'Sex 'Sex!

No doubt the visitor numbers to this blog'll go up a bit now that I've got sex into it - although the 'Sex in question is Middlesex County Cricket Club - the mighty Crusaders - who stormed to their first trophy since 1993 with an outstanding three run victory over Kent on Saturday night to win the Twenty20 Cup.

And what a bitter-sweet experience it was for me. I've supported the Middle since the mid 70s, but finally got round to becoming a member this season. Rory and Sophs have both been to Lord's for days this summer while Rory and I saw the side lose to Hampshire in the Twenty20 at Richmond, while Sophs saw the men in pink triumph over Kent (a good omen!) in the final home group game at Uxbridge.

I thoroughly enjoyed our unexpected QF win over Lancashire at the Oval....before it dawned on me that when the 'Sex strolled out at the Rosebowl on Finals Day, we'd be about 150 miles north in Birmingham at the wedding of Jac's brother James.

Now Saturday was a lovely day: the sun shone, the three-part wedding ceremony spread across Birmingham was a real event and we all got back to the hotel happy - not least as I glanced up at Sky Sports news and Saw that Middlesex had beaten Durham in the semis, and were about to start the final against Kent.

The only problem was there was no Sky Sports in the hotel, Sophs wanted to go to bed, and I was on babysitting duty for our three and two nieces. The kids wanted to watch Last Choir Standing....and the Lottery....and Casualty. I just wanted to keep up with the scores.

So the next couple of hours passed with lots of channel flicking, lots of nail biting - and five rather rowdy kids. I finally managed to wrestle the remote controls and got onto Sky Sports News as the presenter said 'We're down to the last ball and Kent need just three to win.......Henderson bowls, Kemp plays it over his head....but he's run out and Middlesex are victors by three runs!!'

So, I wait 15 years for Middlesex to get a sniff of a trophy - and then can't be there for the big day. But we won. I had a really nice day anyway - and there's always Antigua and Dubai to look forward to....yeah, right...in my dreams!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Dog days

And so the summer holidays begin. For the next six weeks my best efforts to do any work will also involve child juggling and the need to occasionally stop a seven year old in mid-flow while a client explains something technical over the phone.

For the past three years, we've attempted to juggle work and kids on school holidays without the support of any professional childcare. This summer, child number one is well and truly old enough to look after herself - though I'm reluctant to leave her in charge of the other two for too long; child two has some cricket and tennis planed but will probably be bored by about 3.15 today, while child three is booked in on a Lighthouse activity week, two days of tennis, two more of football, a cricket day and a couple of U9 matches, plus an art workshop. So, I expect to be working some odd hours as I carry out my taxi duties around and about Buckinghamshire.

We're all off to Cyprus for a fortnight - hurrah! - and I hope to be able to spend some decent time with the kids while the weather's good (that said, we haven't seen the much hyped mini heatwave here yet in the slightly misty and distinctly grey Chiltern microclimate).

Normally I'd be pretty quiet at this time of the year as most of my clients seem to disappear from about now through to the end of August, but somehow things continue to roll along this year.

Today I'm writing a staff booklet, but have become horribly distracted - not least by an hour's conversation with the rather wonderful James Burke recalling his time as the BBC's science correspondent covering the Apollo Missions. I must say that I was utterly charmed by the man who started off by saying: "Don't forget, we're talking about 40 years ago and I may not remember anything," and who then recalled events, people and impressions as if Armstrong had landed on the moon just a few months ago.
Asked why the US sent men to the moon, he responded, after a significant pause, by stating that it was a gigantic political PR exercise....having already said that the $24 billion spent on the programme was roughly equivalent to what American women spent on make-up over the same period.
What was most revealing though was how much NASA relied on journalists to make sense of the space programme for the world's public - the US broadcasters focus on adventure and the race to the moon first caused the public and then Congress to lose interest in space exploration once that 'race' had been won, while the BBC focus on scientific benefit enabled the British audience to stay loyal to Apollo right through to Apollo 17 and beyond.
Next week I'm talking to the Apollo author, Andy Chaikin so the dissertation's moving along well at the moment. I just now need to be able to hook into the Soviet side of the story in some way.
It may be dog days for the work that pays the bills - but for now, I'm having a pretty good time.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Opportunity lost

I've spent some time on the dissertation over the last week (after a work-induced break of the best part of a month) and it struck me that yet another anniversary of a momentous event passed virtually without comment yesterday.

On July 20th 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to step onto the surface of another world.

Their moon walk was witnessed by some 450 million people on earth with a similar number listening on the radio, primarily tuned to Voice of America. I was only five, but I can remember vividly my Dad getting me up to watch the BBC's through the night coverage, and then having a big fried breakfast as dawn broke over suburban Wembley.

At a time when the war in Vietnam was getting ever worse, when famine gripped Biafra, and while the Prague Spring was still a memory tinged with blood, the world united - all too briefly - in awe of man's achievements.

As the dissertation takes shape, I'm, still debating the reasons for America's journey to the moon. It's too simple to ascribe it solely to beating the Soviets - they were, effectively, out of the race from 1966. Yet the mix of nationalism, romanticism, and frontier spirit that drove Apollo remains nebulous.

Yet on July 20th 1969, it seemed that mankind could achieve anything. How sad that we lost that spirit of endeavour so quickly.

I'm looking forward to revisiting the Apollo period later this week when I interview the BBC's science correspondent of the time, James Burke. He's more of a bit of a hero of mine, but I'll have to put my 'fan' head to one side and button myself down as a historical researcher to pick up Burke's perspective of that unrepeated convergence in world history.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


It's absolutely persisting down outside - another great British summer. But it's only a couple of weeks 'til I jet off to the sun and at the moment I've got a smile on my face.

Work shows no sign of slowing down and over the last 24 hours, three clients have contacted me with with:

  • clear briefs
  • decent deadlines
  • good project rates.
Even today, my contact on the project that was getting me down (probably because I was unwell over the bulk of it) has come back to me asking for a few small additions - but actually phoned me first to ask if I'd have time to do them.

Days like these demonstrate to me that most of my clients are really nice people and most of the work is fun...most of the time.

I know I'll be busy over the next fortnight meeting deadlines imposed by my own holiday - now it looks as though I'll be hitting the road running as soon as I come back. Credit crunch? Not round here...yet!

Happy days!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Reading List

I'm a reader. I can't go to bed at night without reading a chapter or two, and no journey or holiday is half as good without a book or several.

I'm in town tomorrow and plan to drop into Foyles between meetings to pick up a title or two for my summer trip to Cyprus. I've already got a couple of course/dissertation books tucked away for my time in the sun:

Richard Overy's Why the Allies won looks set to be absorbing, while Mark Byrnes' Politics and Space appears to be a worthy, but readable, account of NASA's image making. Somehow, though, I suspect I'll struggle to make too much headway into either while lying around the pool, so I'm going to look for some other readables that has to fit the following rules:
  1. It has to be paperback - with two text books already, I'm a tad weight-limited
  2. It has to be absorbing - nothing too heavy (or for that matter light-weight) for poolside reading
  3. It has to be swappable - Jac will also be bringing her reading stack and we'll undoubtedly end up swapping at least one or two books over the fortnight.

At present, there are a couple of titles I'm leaning towards. One is Don DeLillo's Falling Man which is just out in paperback. I came to De Lillo through my love of Paul Auster's work which is not a million miles from De Lillo's, and loved both underworld and Cosmopolis. Falling Man has garnered very mixed reviews, and I want to see for myself whether this post 9/11 work stands up to his previous force and perception. It's a shame Auster hasn't got anything new out. I'm the kind of reader who hoovers up back lists, and have read just about everything the New York Trilogy - Travels in the Scriptorium author has produced.

I love a good short story too and enjoy work by the likes of Richard Ford and William Trevor. Again, neither has new work out this summer, so I'm heading towards another old favourite William Boyd and his latest collection: The Dream Lover.

I reckon I've still got room in my suitcase for one or two more good reads. I'm hoping that I'll get a free hour tomorrow to browse around Foyles and stick my nose in a few books in a way that's so much more fun than browsing online. But I'm open to suggestions for that unmissable summer read - any offers?

Love me, hate me, but please don't take me for granted.

The freelance law states quite clearly that work only comes in when you're busy - and the busier you are, the more people want a slice of your time.

That's how it definitely feels at the moment. I already have enough work to see me through to my summer holiday - with a regular project due to kick in as soon as I return. Within weeks, I'll then be back into my MA studies, and the careful balance I just about managed in the last academic year between work and uni.

So, I haven't been looking for new work recently - yet it seems to be looking for me. Yesterday I was offered two new projects - one I'm taking on this side of the holiday - and I hope I can pick up the other one too, although that's subject to the client negotiating a start date with their client for mid-August. A third client also contacted me yesterday and I just had to turn them down - and that didn't go down too well.

They're an IC consultacy/agency I've worked with occasionally in the past and seemingly had sold my services into their client without actually letting me know anything about the project. The first I knew was a call yesterday afternoon from an Account Manager asking me to come to a meeting this morning with the expectation I could pick up a project and run with it over the next month. Now in the past, I've done that - and that seems to be my reputation in the agency. Yesterday, I just had to say 'sorry can't do it......and perhaps next time you could check with me before promising me to your client.'

I thought that was the end of it, but today the MD called. At first, she was polite and positive, telling me I could probably get the work done in the next fortnight and suggesting that a bit of extra evening and weekend work could be quite useful in the run-up to my holiday. I still declined - and quite politely too. She got on a bit of a rant after that, and wasn't to be placated by me telling her that I knew nothing of the project before last night, and that I'd never have agreed to it anyway as I'm away over the fortnight that the main effort is planned (and who plans IC work in August anyway!??!?).

I'm feeling a tad hard done by now, the agency's fed up with me and their client must think that they - and me - are mad. And all because the business development person and account manager didn't actually check my availability before selling in my services. Just because I'm freelance, why should they assume I'm always available for work?

I hope people like the work I do and the way I work. I can live with it if they hate everything about me. But PLEASE don't take me for granted.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A wreck - but on a high

I'm a total wreck today, but on an emotional high that's surging adrenaline through my veins and bringing renewed vigour to even the most mundane tasks.
Physically, I'm still suffering the effects of a recent stomach bug, and every meal's currently a case of Russian roulette. But slowly I'm improving. The swelling's finally gone down on my cracked knuckle, though it's still tender to the touch and still hampering my already lousy typing. And to cap things off, I've got a stubborn summer cold that has glued up one ear ever since I flew to Scotland 10 days ago. So at the moment I'm a particularly unappetising prospect.

But I've finally settled into the rhythm on my current editing/rewriting project and what looked like a train crash of good intentions and questionable process is slowly coming together as useful and usable intranet content. I now have one contact to deal with rather than a deluge of conflicting information from many, and we're groping towards a way of working that suits us both.
A couple of other pieces of work have come my way this week including, deliciously, some scripting on a video covering the internal problems the company is having paying suppliers. The irony is that it's for the company that always pays me late and, having taken on the writing at the 13th hour, I've knocked out the job without a purchase order!
So what's given me the new energy? It's probably the cloud I've been riding on ever since about 8.35pm yesterday when Middlesex CCC defeated Lancashire to reach finals day of cricket's Twenty20 Cup.
I've supported 'the Middle' for over 30 years - having first made my way to Lord's at the age of 12 to watch the likes of Gatting, Brearley, Daniel and Edmonds. For the first decade of my love affair with the club, they could do no wrong, regularly picking up trophies. But for the past 20 years, the cupboard's been pretty bare, and I've got used to season on season of underachievement.
But something's changing at St. John's Wood, and a new breed is emerging: talented players who've got the appetite for winning and don't realise when they're beaten.
At about 6pm last evening, in the unfamiliar surroundings of The Oval, Middlesex were 21-4. Lancashire were rampant having ripped the heart from Middlesex's batting. An hour or so later, 'Sex left the field 176-8. Moments before, Dawid Malan had departed for 103, scored at almost two runs a ball. He'd lashed the Lancs bowlers all around the field, turning near disaster into hope.
That hope turned to joy about 90 minutes later when Tyron Henderson splattered Dominic Cork's stumps all over the square and Middlesex were heading to finals day for the first time since 20/20 began in 2003.
Malan was immense, but so was Middlesex as a team. In 32 years of supporting my home County, I've never been so proud. It was one of those perfect games of cricket. I wanted Middlesex to win and they duly did having put my heart through a blender first. I wanted Lancashire's talisman, Andrew Flintoff to do well - and he did with 50-odd runs and three wickets. And, in this gloomy summer, I wanted the sun to shine - and even that fell into place.
Surrey members had been let into the match free, and there was one in particular in the lower tier of the pavilion where I was seated who moaned about Middlesex and declaimed loudly how inferior they were to his side throughout the evening. Even he had to swallow a large helping of humble pie by the end (and Surrey are precisely where this season, sir?)

I grew up on the exploits of Slack, Butcher, Barlow, Radley and the spin twins, Edmonds and Emburey. Now the likes of Godleman, Joyce, Morgan, Malan, Finn, Murtagh and the rest may just be propelling Middlesex back to cricket's high ground.

They've won nothing yet, but they've put me on a high today, despite the rain, my lack of sleep and the mountain of editing I've still to do.

Sometimes inspiration comes from most unexpected sources.

Monday, July 07, 2008

A milestone approaches

Some time today I'll hit 10,000 page impressions on this blog. For many that'll be nothing - they probably get that many in a day, but this has been a slow burner - although I do seem to have my regular lurkers who come back again and again to see whatever inane drivel I'm putting up here. Someone was on the blog for 30 minutes + last night.....although they may just have been looking for examples of how not to blog!

Anyway, 10,000 is a milestone for me and is lifting my spirits a little on a wet and miserable Monday when the work ahead of me just feels like total slog.

I got a project out of the blue a couple of weeks ago - I still don't know who recommended me - and actually am wondering if it should have been destined for some other 'Leapfrog'. I'm already busy, so didn't actually need the work, but 'freelancer fear' kicked in. While Jac's busily communicating the delights of timber on a long term contract, I've lost a piece of work recently. Weirdly I'd already compensated for its loss before I even picked up this new project - but that fear of never quite knowing where the next mortgage payment will come from led me to take on what appeared to be a fairly straightforward edit/rewrite piece.

However, for me at least, it's becoming a bit of a nightmare - not helped by the fact I've now had a dodgy stomach for the past five days, and it's showing no signs of settling down.

I'm very confident about writing for the web. And, over the past couple of years have delivered half a dozen sizable projects for different HR departments. In each case the writing has been factually correct ; has worked within the medium and has conveyed a real sense of personality. In short, it has engaged the audience. That's what I'm trying to do on this latest project. But on one hand, at heart, the content providers don't really want to change anything, while the web developers want to impose a style so strict that the result looks like a set of airfix model instructions. They're used to publishing soulless procedural information - and what I'm giving them is a rather different animal. It's guidance on change management, an area where there's no 'right' answer, and this copy has to press buttons with people.

At the moment, I'm in the middle, and I'm not happy. In fact if they turned around and sacked me from the project, I'd probably be happier. Wishful thinking perhaps, and I'll do all I can this week to give them what they want. But I don't feel comfortable and am kicking myself for signing up for something that really doesn't sit in my talent set.

It's the old 'why have a dog and bark yourself?' I'm probably too emotionally involved and should just take the money and run. In business it does little good to cut off your nose to spite yourself.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Diverse rumblings

I'm slightly perching rather than sitting on my faux leather office chair this morning, digesting changes to some copy rather better than my stomach has been digesting food these last few days.

It's the classic micro-business dilemma: I've got a sizable project on with tightish-but doable deadlines, and a stomach bug that's being fed only by an Imodium and alka seltzer diet. If I don't work, I'll miss the deadlines - and every day I don't work, I don't get paid. There's no-one I can hand it on to, so the only solution is work when I'm feeling reasonable - which will probably mean some work over this weekend and certainly a couple of evenings next week. This is work for a new client - and I really don't want to let them down or give a poor impression of myself and Leapfrog.

Just to add to the fun, daughter number two is also at home, while I have to drive over to Watford later in the day to pick up daughter number one from a schools outward bound course.

Jac, fit, healthy and busy is staying well clear!

The main project occupying me is worthy but a bit of a grind. It involves taking a lot of copy produced in one format, unformatting the whole thing and rewriting it for the web. The content's solid but lacks a little zing - but every time I put the zing into it, the content owner pares it back again. We'll reach a compromise, I'm sure, that'll make it both useful and readable, but for now, it's a slog and stomach rumbles and clammy skin aren't helping my inspiration - this one's about 99% perspiration!

I've also been quoting for a couple of other jobs this week that, if I win them, will kick in later in the year. In both quotes I've used the term 'light edit' - and now I'm regretting the term.

One potential client wants a revamp and update of their publications suite - everything from the headed paper to their brochures, newsletter and web site. One option I've given is to simply take the current material and re-write it where necessary based on the information they already have - that's my light edit. It doesn't involve new research or the creation of anything different (that's option 2!) but could mean changing every word on the page in some instances. In others, nothing will change bar the new design they're bringing in.

But my prospective client doesn't see that as a 'light' edit - and actually has a point. I'm going to have to use that particular term with some circumspection in the future!

Anyway, that's for the future - today's just about riding out the bug and ploughing through as much of client number one's site as my stomach, my daughter....and the makers of Imodium will allow.