October, 2014

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Taking stock

Having now had my first pay on one day a week less, I thought I would try to capture my thoughts on the first month and a bit with dedicated writing time. It would be fair to say that I’ve been reflecting throughout on what works, what doesn’t, and what I will try out next. So, here’s something for each of them. It’s a bit selfish I’m afraid:

What doesn’t work

  • Answering the phone. Mainly because nobody I want to speak with tends to call during the day. I could, however, have benefited from all sorts of government grants and legal assistance with pursuing a variety of apparently nefarious organisations. So send me an e-mail. Surprisingly I’m good at just deleting the junk ones and getting back to work.
  • All other distractions. There are a lot of them. My most productive day was probably the day our internet wasn’t working, that taught me something.
  • The one day a week thing. I did know this in advance, or at least was very strongly forewarned. I’ve mentioned Stephen King’s book On Writing before. His basic rule is 2,000 words a day, every day. You shut yourself away and don’t emerge until you’ve done them. I’m now up to about three (productive) days a week, although the word count isn’t there every day. But I can’t disagree with him on the principle. So this also goes on the ‘what to focus on next’ list.

What does work

  • A routine. Well, I think it would work, but I haven’t quite figured it out yet. Do I cook dinner in the morning so it’s done or in the afternoon as a break? And when to read during the day?
  • Not going back over what I’ve written. Just keeping going. It can be edited (it will need to be edited!!!)
  • Reading lots. My solution to this is audiobooks in the car, that way I have an hour of reading time every day which is otherwise lost time. I love my local library, they have hundreds of audiobooks on CD and Audible has some good deals on other books, so I’m building up a queue to add to the pile of physical and e-books. I really must go and read something after writing this…

What I will try out next

  • The one single thing I’m going to focus on right now is the 2,000 words a day no matter what. But I’m also realistic to know that it’s too much of a change to get to that overnight. It feels more like a training plan for a race where you build up and don’t notice the difference. The days when I have no (good enough) excuse for writing come to 5 out of 7, so, with the aim of succeeding rather than aiming too high, this week will be 4 out of 7 days and I will take it from there.IMG_0393

Trumping the Stasi

Doctor Who manages to appeal to both my generation (who remember it from “before”) and the current youngsters who don’t have to worry with really rubbish effects these days – everything looks very real. One of the episodes a few years ago was set in the world of the reality show Big Brother, in which the contestants are supposedly being observed day and night. The extent to which that is true seems to vary by country according to what is culturally acceptable, or at least possible. I can’t imagine anything worse than being observed all the time. And the film ‘The Truman Show’ was based on the idea of someone’s entire existence being a reality show.

All good entertainment (well, maybe not Big Brother now I think of it, I can’t see the attraction). And at least it couldn’t happen in real life, could it?

Some government organisations are familiar to most in the Western world. FBI, CIA and NSA in the US, the old KGB, now FSB, and the Stasi in East Germany. Can you imagine if any of those agencies could get anywhere near a Big Brother world, where they could monitor us all the time? If you saw the film The Lives of Others, you will have seen what now comes across as a lack of technological sophistication in the Stasi’s operations, but remember that this was now decades ago. And of course, that was a Soviet bloc country, so attempts to spy on its citizens was to be expected. Their values were completely different from the Western powers, for whom individual freedom was paramount. Or so went the narrative.


Then came Snowden.  And, thanks to him, we found out that the US and UK governments have been running operations on a scale so vast it is scarcely imaginable. And something the Stasi could only have dreamed of (and probably did in their wildest imaginations).

One of the other authors at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival was Luke Harding. I confess that I didn’t really know a lot about Edward Snowden before the event and went along to find out more. It’s set me off on an unexpected journey of discovery into topics of which I thought I had a reasonable factual understanding. Last week’s blog was about more than running in sandals by the way, it’s also about how the things we thought we knew can be totally wrong. More on that another time.

Harding’s book, The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man is the story of Snowden and the Guardian team that worked with him to reveal the extent of government surveillance of ordinary civilians. That bit’s rather important. You and me. Not terrorist suspects (the usual justification for any infringement of our rights), not people suspected of anything else illegal, us. Just because they can. No, it doesn’t mean someone is reading your e-mails, but our e-mail and phone data is apparently being captured and stored.

I can’t find that in any of the UK political parties’ manifestos. You know, ‘If elected, we will set up an elaborate system where we tap the major communications cables running through the UK and record as much as we possibly can on you, our electorate. We won’t need a court order beforehand, we’ll just do it because we can. We will assume everyone might be up to something we would want to know about, and we want to know about everything.’

Harding’s book lays out the extent of the information gathering exercise being undertaken, and the reaction of the US and UK governments to what Snowden revealed, including the US director of national intelligence, James Clapper, lying to Congress about it:


‘In March 2013, Clapper told the Senate intelligence committee that the US government does “not wittingly” collect data on millions of Americans. The statement was untrue, as Snowden would reveal and Clapper would himself later admit. It was also perhaps a felony.’

And closer to home, what did David Cameron do about the revelations?

‘The prime minister […] chose to shoot the messenger. He dropped ominous hints that charges could follow if the Guardian carried on publishing. In a speech in Brussels, Cameron said that he couldn’t afford to take a “la-di-da, airy fairy” view of the work of the intelligence services.’

Harding goes into detail of the process which the Guardian followed to ensure that nothing that could harm intelligence operatives was published in the newspaper, dealing with the common assertion that the information in the Snowden papers compromised state security.

So why was so little of this covered in the other media? In the UK, according to Harding, the media were warned off (via a ‘DA’ notice which suggests that there could be national security implications). That seems to have been enough to trump the public’s right to know of what their elected officials were sanctioning.

So back to the Stasi and East Germany. Another of the scenarios I discussed with East German journalists (included in my book) was revealing secret government documents. What did they have to say about this one? Here are some of their comments, I’ll leave it to you to join any dots you might wish to.

‘I find that fundamentally OK, yes, definitely, because all governments tend, I believe, irrespective of whether in the East or in the West, left or right, only to expect of the valued population that which the government considers to be right and important, and that is not always what is really important and above all what the truth is.’

‘There is an unspeakable practice within politics of keeping things secret, for the simple reason of making politics easier. So the question would be whether that is even politics, of course it is politics, but not the understanding of politics which I have. My understanding is of course about making things as transparent as possible, in order to open precisely this access to society, to let them participate in social decisions. The whole reason for there being media is really that politics has failed in this question for hundreds of years.’

‘The majority of government documents classified as secret serve to cover up some mechanisms of power which deserve to be made public.’

You might remember the storm that erupted in Germany when it transpired that the US had been bugging Angela Merkel’s mobile phone. Germany has learned lessons from its past which the US and UK appear not to. There is a wonderful irony towards the end of Harding’s book when he notes that many of those involved in bringing to light Snowden’s information now live in Berlin. Not just Berlin, though. East Berlin. The former home of the Stasi.

Perceived wisdom

Something that has been on my mind for a while is perceived wisdom. There are so many things that we take for granted as being true that we don’t ever really challenge them, they just are what they are.

In my head, this growing awareness probably came from my running. A couple of years ago, I started running, prompted by a recognition that I wasn’t doing my body any favours by sitting at a desk all day and getting very little movement. And certainly nothing that could even remotely be described as exercise. I found the trainers I had bought a few years previously, the last time I thought I should do some form of exercise, and off I went. It wasn’t a pretty sight, and it felt a lot worse. But in time, and with some training, I could go further and a bit faster. I can still remember the day I ran my first half marathon distance, not something I had set off to do when I set out. It just felt good on the day. I returned full of a sense of triumph to find my family variously playing piano and working on a quilt (with the piano teacher). Running can be a solitary experience.

And of course I then started reading about running. Lots of do this, don’t do that. And then I read ‘Born to Run’, which it turns out is rather well known in running circles.

The book is a series of stories about different runners, all of whom have achieved remarkable things. Including winning a 135 mile ultra marathon through Death Valley. In the summer. Yes, really. (I should note that the race has since then had to move, something to do with the potential damage to the Death Valley National Park – I think the potential damage to the participants is the greater risk, but what would I know?) People enter this race to win, not just to survive. But the thing the book is best known for is the story of a people, the Tarahumara, who live in the Copper Canyons of Mexico. They run – a lot. And they are fast, which shouldn’t really be a huge surprise as running is a part of their daily lives. Enter Ted McDougall, an American better known as Barefoot Ted, who learns about sandal making from the Tarahumara. They use old truck tyres strapped to their feet and run in them. About as basic as you can get. Of course, sandals are a form of footwear used thousands of years ago across many civilisations. But wait, you can’t run in sandals nowadays, you need support, cushioning, padding.

Except you don’t. Not in my experience anyway. Of course it takes time to change ingrained running habits and your calves will hurt for a while. And at first you can’t run anywhere near to the distances you were running in trainers, so you  have to plan the transition. If you rush it, you will end up injured. But that’s not because you need support and cushioning, it’s because you have to learn to run differently. Rather in the way we would run if we were truly running barefoot.

We were at a sports shop this weekend to get a pair of shorts for LoLo. While she was wandering around, I went to see the trainers. I was amazed to find these shoes being sold as ‘barefoot’:


In case you hadn’t noticed, look at the cushioning on these things:


And these are ‘barefoot’?

Personally I wouldn’t even call my sandals barefoot, because they aren’t, and I can tell the difference when I’m actually running barefoot.


But almost everyone I meet tells me I need support and cushioning. Perceived wisdom.

And then, just this year, the American College of Sports Medicine issued new guidelines on what running shoes should offer (see here for the detail). Avoid high, thick cushioning and orthotics, don’t get motion control or stability features and make sure they’re light. Sounds rather different from the ‘barefoot’ shoes above, doesn’t it? But perceived wisdom is very ingrained. I suspect I’ll remain the only person running races in sandals in Scotland for a while. The upside is I think I have the most fun, and I have some lovely conversations with people along the way, as well as getting some extra cheers from some of the spectators who notice!