Category Archives: Dan’s dispatches

Feeds are no substitute for real content on Twitter

A while ago a service called paper.li came on the scene, which offered to pull together feeds into a daily digest of ‘news’, which it would then tweet from your account. It was never much good, tweeting the same message each day and giving little indication as to each digest’s contents. Should you delve deeper and actually click on the link, you’ll find that as often as not the stories will have little or no relevance to that of the Twitter account they’re being featured on. Many people tried paper.li for a short period, but most quickly realised its shortcomings and got rid of it. Most, but not all.

Some still use paper.li and other broad feed aggregators to fill their Twitter accounts, possibly under the mistaken belief that this is providing valuable content for them, whereas in fact it’s driving away many potential followers. The simple fact of the matter is that nothing compares for on-topic, audience focused tweets written by a real person. Of course this takes time and effort – an argument I repeatedly see being made when I confront organisations on their use of feeds.

Yes, tweeting takes time, but it’s only 140 characters. It’s the equivalent of typing a couple of short sentences, and in those sentences you could be providing your stakeholders, users or customers with information only you can provide; dates of events or meetings, a call to arms, sharing of news, and a great many other possibilities besides. You don’t necessarily need to tweet every day so long as when you do tweet, the contents are useful for your audience. That’s not really so difficult or time consuming, is it?

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Ireland road trip

An unenthusiastic driver and a small city car might not seem ideal for embarking on a 1,500 mile road trip to explore the Emerald Isle. Perhaps we should have seen sense, booked a fly-drive or travelled around by train. But no, gripped by an unusual sense of adventure, we had soon booked car ferries and hotels that would see us cross the Republic of Ireland from coast to coast. Twice. We’d also need to cross the entire breadth of Wales and much of England just to reach the boat over of course, but the fun is in getting there – no need to get bogged down in details.

And so it was, we loaded up our modest chariot, cramming what little we could in the minuscule boot and heaping the rest across the back seats. Our new SatNav app was set for Fishguard, and given this was its first outing, we were counting on it to take us at least roughly in the right direction. On to the M4 motorway, the Satnav instructs us to follow the course of the road for the next 180 miles. Nice and easy. Easy that was, until we reached the Newport tunnel just closed by a lorry fire. We ground to a halt at first, and then began to proceed at a pace that would not see snails break a sweat. Would we even make the ferry and get to see the shore of Ireland? Happily we eventually emerged out of the contraflow system and made best speed for Fishguard port, arriving shortly before check-in closed.

Just when we felt we were getting our sea legs onboard the ferry, Rosslare emerged from the sea fog and it was time to return to the car. We were on Irish soil, and my first precarious miles of driving abroad began. It’s just as well that Ireland makes for a relatively gentle introduction to hitting the road in another country. The core principles remain the same, such as driving on the left, but it throws in some unfamiliar elements to keep you on your toes, such as speed limits in km/h and the use of many curious road signs using the American yellow diamond format.

Continue reading

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Any Human Heart

William Boyd’s book Any Human Heart follows the life of writer Logan Mountstuart (LMS) through some of the most defining and turbulent years of the Twentieth Century. The book is based on the journals of LMS, an approach which allows a uniquely personal insight into the deepest feelings of the character. This works brilliantly, as it captures character’s humanity – his lust, frailty, fortune and despair, and lays it bare before us on the page. In doing so it reveals something profound about all of us, how we live our lives with the hand we’re dealt and interact with the events of our time. Indeed it’s this passage through every decade of the past century that provides the book with a second compelling strand of narrative. Through his long life, LMS encounters the bright young people of the 1920s, is forever changed by WWII and has a particularly memorable run in with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, amongst an array of others.

I’ve taken this book quiet slowly over quite a number of weeks, dipping into just a few pages each evening, and progressing LMS’s life little by little. By the conclusion of Any Human Heart I found I can scarcely recall the early years, which rather accurately reflect the memories of the man himself, looking back 70 years on from his earliest journal entries. By doing this, I felt I’ve followed LMS on his journey, albeit in microcosm, allowing me some of the same reflection of LMS’s actions over the weeks I read the book as the character applies to himself over the years of his life.

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Walking in the Chilterns

Towards Ivinghoe Beacon

Walking in the Chilterns combines two of my loves: great countryside and indulging in the tranquility of nature. Actually I should include a third: photography, as if I’m going somewhere scenic, my camera will likely as not be coming along to capture the places, and perhaps something of the moment.

I’ve spent many days off and weekends in search of some of the best of the area’s landscapes. There are some real corkers too, such as the panoramas from atop Coombe Hill, Ivinghoe Beacon, and Whiteleaf Hill – all of which I’d be a very long time getting bored of, especially when they can be transformed entirely depending on the time of day, weather or season.

Enabling all this good walking in the Chilterns is an extensive network of footpaths, ranging from national tracks to the smallest of snickets. However all these options can make for a bewildering choice when it comes to planning a walk, as the bigger routes by no means have a monopoly on the best walking.

As I can only occasionally set aside a day for walking, I find it worthwhile to put some time into planning, to help ensure there are some good highlights on the routes I take. Happily, there’s a good range of both online and offline resources that make this easier than ever.

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The journey through life, one radio station at a time

Radio stations may often serve as background audio but our choice of station is often read as an indicator of our stage in life. The formative years are intimately associated with Radio 1, whereas Radio 4 is often portrayed as a middle-aged and full of dreary domesticity – albeit almost exclusively by those who don’t listen to the station.

These days I’d comfortably pledge my allegiance to 6music. As a station, it speaks to me and where I am now, while indulging in shared culture I can relate to. 6music’s core audience is, I imagine, around mid-20s to mid-40s, and its presenter line-up is full of names the audience grew up with, including the likes of Adam and Joe, Marc Riley, Stuart Marconie, Mark Radcliffe, Cerys Matthews, Craig Charles, and others. The music on 6music evokes delight, surprise and serendipity, all in a way that’s somehow attuned to my musical tastes. It is the farthest cry possible from the dismal repetition of commercial radio, which I choose to avoid at all costs.

Although I struggle to define the demographic, I suspect 6music is expertly speaking to a group that I happen to neatly fit into. It’s perhaps for those who have cast aside self-consciously following the trends of the latest hot indie bands that defined our university years and have moved on to wanting new musical discoveries, but now entirely comfortable in our own musical tastes.

The strange thing is that this progression is often one that’s done unconsciously. I only realised that I’d mentally moved on from listening to Radio 1 while on car journeys where I found myself feeling entirely out of touch with the music and callers on the air. Was I ever in the position of those Radio 1 listeners with the radio on revising for some exam? At one time, yes, but it seems a far cry and thoroughly distant from my life today.

And so, without seeking to be defined, I have, I suspect, made the move from one demographic group to the next; one of several I’ll likely make during my lifetime. Yes, radio may only be background audio, but it’s someone we choose deliberately and it continues to say something about us.

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This week in corporate Twitter – the good, the bad and the absent

It’s been an eventful week, and one that’s seen Twitter used brilliantly in some cases – and rather less well in others.

The good: the Chiltern cow incident

A Chiltern Railways (CR) train hit a herd of cows that had escaped on to the track at around 7.30pm on Thursday – mid evening, but still well within London’s extended rush hour. Their main line was closed but CR’s consistently excellent communications team stepped up the mark to help inform the large numbers of passengers facing disruption. CR do Twitter well – really well in fact. By day their tweets are friendly, engaging and create a real community spirit amongst commuters and travellers. However when events call for it, CR’s twitter team is in place to get vital information out and be there to respond to customers’ questions.

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Calculating the commute: to live near or far

For the past couple of years we’ve explored the Chilterns and discovered a growing list of delightful towns and villages, where we could quite easily see ourselves living when we upscale in a few years time. This has led me to wonder: just how realistic and affordable it would be to live in these places? Would the various commuter factors make it impossibly expensive or impractical, or could owning a home in the Chilterns be a distinct reality?

I wanted to find out whether it’s more cost-effective to live in a pricier but easily commutable town or to live further out where property is cheaper but possibly have to drive to and park at the local station. To find this out I put together a spreadsheet comparing house prices and commuting costs in each of our favourite towns and villages.

This looked at:

  • annual mortgage payments for the typical price of properties that meet our house criteria
  • annual season ticket for me to travel to work on the train and tube
  • cost of parking for a year at a station in cases where I’d have to drive to the station, plus an estimated £1,000 annual cost for running a second car
  • petrol costs for the year of Tara driving to her work in outer London, based on mileage at 13p/mile

What the figures say

There was a £5,964 per year difference between the cheapest and most expensive towns. Far and away the most expensive on our list is Chalfont St Giles, due to it having some of the highest house prices and requiring a second car to drive to the station, which in turn has expensive parking. Continue reading

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High Speed 2

The country is becoming increasingly exercised about the proposed high speed railway line that will link London to Birmingham in 45 minutes. In due course it would also see journey times to the north and Scotland cut and provide the backbone to a British high speed rail network. What’s not to like?

By rights I should be heartily in favour of High Speed 2 (HS2), the name given for this new high speed railway line. It would cut the journey time to see family and bring to this country the sort of rail travel I’ve experienced in Germany and Japan. However I find my enthusiasm muted at best and at worst I’m opposed to the plans altogether.

I’m not a NIMBY, the route will not run within sight or earshot of where I live, however it will run through the Chilterns and impact many of our favourite towns, villages, countryside and walks. Furthermore, I question the absolute necessity for the route that is trying to be sold to us. Are there really no alternatives to this massive financial outlay and substantial environment impact?

Losing the peace

As a nation, there’s a good many of us who are intent on finding a peaceful corner to call home. While some are happy in the noisy bustle of the urban jungle, many others are keen for life away from it. While transport is vital, it needs to be measured and balanced with maintaining a healthy national environment; if the land is utterly criss-crossed with noisy trunk routes then there’ll be no respite from the noise. If HS2 were to closely follow existing motorway routes, as the West Coast Mainline does, then I don’t think I’d have such concerns, however much of the route cuts a swathe through some of Britain’s finest countryside. Valleys unspoilt and at peace with the sounds of their natural environment threaten being ruined with the sight of another huge concrete construction, accompanied by the intense noise of high speed trains passing every few minutes. The limited tranquility of this island will be encroached upon further, a development I cannot welcome. Continue reading

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Walk in the woods

Wendover Woods was my destination on the latest in a series of days out walking in the Chilterns. I find Wendover a very pleasant village, within easy reach of the two highest points of the Chilterns and a high street lined with independent and specialists shops. One of the village’s highlights is the wonderfully helpful and friendly tourist information office; well worth visiting for maps and local knowledge before embarking on a walk in the area.

The Ridgeway through Wendover Woods

My walk is the latest of several forays into the Chilterns to explore the nature and landscape on our doorstep. My last big walk followed the ancient Ridgeway track from Wendover over the hills to Princes Risborough. It was an excellent route for views, taking in Coombe, Pulpit and Whiteleaf Hills, all commanding fine panoramas over the Chilterns, Vale of Aylesbury and beyond. Continue reading

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A brief melting pot: motorway service stations

We’ve been travelling up and down the country over the past few days, and finding brief respite from the road in the institution of the motorway service station. Although visually unexciting, motorway services do in fact contain as full a cross-section of Britain as you are likely to find anywhere, and are fascinating for it.

Motorway services have this amazing captive audience, as they provide the only option for fuel, food or a WC stop for perhaps 50 miles. As a result everyone is forced to use them, irrespective or whether they’re landed gentry or chav, Jag driver or on a coach trip. What results is something of a spectacle of Britain passing through those doors – all strata of society forced together unnaturally and out of necessity. Regardless of whether they’re veering off into the Waitrose, or queuing up at the KFC, they are all there together, for a short while.

Curiosity demands a pause with a coffee to bear witness to this constant flow of people comprising this country of ours. Most stops take place far from both home and the destination, surrounded by unfamiliar accents that are in turn supplemented by an array of dialects even further out of place. You may be sat next to the sort of people you’d never meet in your life otherwise, and are briefly granted an insight into lives that are no less British but potentially entirely foreign to your own. All these people brought together, all trying to kill time by browsing the WHSmith or deciding whether £8.99 for a breakfast is highway robbery taken one step too far…

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