Archive for April, 2009

Notes about Isabel Dalhousie, by Nick Smith

April 28, 2009

Please remember words are usually better in print, so advertise in and subscribe to Bookdealer while you can: let the article commence…

Airborne with Isabel

After several weeks globetrotting with an attractive literary Scottish divorcee, Nick Smith thinks that he might have found the perfect fictional heroine…     

You know when you’ve been travelling too much when you no longer care what the time is and you start to think that everything can be dealt with in American dollars, even in London. I’ve been to Vancouver, Frankfurt, Abu Dhabi and Stevenage, all in the space of a month. Had it not been for my constant travelling companion – the wonderful Isabel Dalhousie – I might have found it a chore.

Isabel is of course fictional. She’s the well-heeled, professional philosopher who gives her name to the series of Alexander McCall Smith’s novels that have titles such as The Sunday Philosophy Club, The Right Attitude to Rain and The Careful Use of Compliments. I’d been thinking of reading them for a while but, put off by their covers, I’ve allowed them to languish on the ‘not very probable’ pile. Conventional wisdom has it that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but since Adam McCauley’s stylishly evocative designs appear to propel Isabel unashamedly towards the ‘mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes’ sector, I fell foul of the trap. Until now I’d taken the expression to be metaphorical, and never really suspected it could be applied to actual books. And yet faced with a half-stocked Borders in Heathrow I decided to grab a couple of paperback Isabels and give her a whirl, covers notwithstanding.

The Isabel Dalhousie novels are deceptively light comedies of manners set in Edinburgh, McCall Smith’s hometown. Unlike the author’s fantastically popular No1 Ladies Detective Agency series, which is implicitly about moral philosophy, these books are explicitly about moral philosophy. His protagonist is editor of the quarterly Review of Applied Ethics, a journal that provides the serving spoon with which to dish up the moral dilemmas that confront Isabel and the ensemble cast of mostly well-to-do, well-educated, white Scotsmen and women. Although this may seem light years away from Mma Ramotswe’s Botswana, the two series share the core concern of how to reach an understanding of proper human behaviour (another similarity is that the heroines of both employ a sidekick called Grace). I read recently in The Ethical Executive by Robert Hoyk and Paul Hersey that one definition of such behaviour is that which hurts no one while being of potential benefit to all: what game theorists call the ‘non-zero sum’ result. Resolving conflicts of interest with this outcome in mind is what Isabel Dalhousie, as both philosopher and human being, is striving to achieve, and this is what supplies these books with their plots.

After several days airborne with Isabel I confess myself deeply attracted to her. I disagree sharply with critics who find her wealth, moral integrity and beauty a little too good to be true. I find her fascinating precisely because she is perfect, as well as enjoying the comparative novelty of a central character without a tragic flaw. To include a plotline where a 40-something divorcee ­– no matter how visually splendid – can bag herself a ‘beautiful’ 28-year old bassoonist shows McCall Smith’s knack of demonstrating how predictable currents of probability can have an unexpected undertow. And yet it is her generosity of spirit, rather than her wealth or looks, that makes her so attractive. She is undeniably extremely rich by any standards, which is not in any sense a virtue, but she is anonymously philanthropic, which certainly is.

We also like her because she allows a fox to live in her garden, where it rears its young under the shed. Brother Fox is a moral test for the reader. Why would Isabel allow a fox to live in her garden when you’d have Rentokil around to exterminate it faster than you could say knife? The answer is, she’s inherently good: the sort of person who instinctively and deliberately cares for people who are emotionally less well off than her, for whom goodness is literally the day-job.

It would be nice to say that I’ve got a lot in common with Isabel, but she is, alas (for me at least) an inspirational character. But I do have plenty of sympathy with her as a professional journalist. As editor of the Review of Applied Ethics she has her imperfections, occasionally overstepping her remit by straying into the territory of moral theory, much to the self-satisfied irritation of some members of the publication’s editorial board. Again, I sympathise: I don’t claim to be an expert in moral philosophy, but I have edited more than my fair share of monthly magazines and I know that the most time-consuming issue, that requiring the most diplomatic agility, is that of dealing with ‘the constituency’. For those thinking the duties of the modern magazine editor mainly consist of literary luncheons in Bloomsbury, or knocking off the Telegraph crossword while flicking through a file of press releases from Faber & Faber, light Sauternes to hand, the truth will be a rude awakening (I certainly agree with that ­– ed). The grubby reality is that the job is a defensive role, where much time is spent fending off offensive skirmishes from the Awkward Squad, be they in the form of advertisers, contributors, editorial board members, publishers or even readers.

Usually I deal with professional journalists, seasoned hacks who know the ropes, who’ll chop you out 800 print-ready words before you can say ‘double whisky’. They can be a trying bunch, so I can only imagine Isabel’s life as an editor of a peer-reviewed academic journal, whose contributors appear to be driven by motives more greedy and devious even than the pursuit of money or alcohol. Their need to publish is not fuelled by the desire to contribute to the canon of ethics, to bequeath their wisdom to future generations, or even to cast light on the thornier points of current philosophical thinking. It is triggered by the need to draw attention to the self, to rack up wordage in order to climb the academic ladder, or to carve a notch on the academic bedpost, during the execution of which, if an arch rival becomes irked or jealous, so much the better.

Pity the poor editor. Isabel spends much of her time reading unsolicited paper manuscripts (she refuses to read electronic submissions on her computer screen, forcing her into the very modern moral circle of hell called sustainability.) Most of what she receives is borderline at best, such as a paper entitled ‘The Concept of Sexual Perversion as an Oppressive Weapon’, which doesn’t make it into print, or ‘On the Ethics of Pretending to be Gay When You Are Not’, which does, despite being a straightforward disquisition on lying, while pretending not to be. Then there are the papers submitted from PhD students, postdocs and other junior academics that have no realistic chance of making it into the Review of Applied Ethics. Before rejecting their work, Isabel treats these self-deluded souls thoughtfully, despite their uninvited arrival in her ‘moral proximity’. Although she is too polite to say so, this is amateur flotsam and jetsam from what a former colleague on a magazine in the Isle of Dogs used to call ‘the green Biro brigade’.

Politeness is, of course, what sets McCall Smith’s books apart. Over the past few years I’ve read nigh on two dozen of his novels and not once have I encountered so much as a syllable that would make a nun blush. His style is understated, breezy and polite – perhaps too polite, as I find myself serenaded into allowing his use of the formal third person singular, which one normally detests. Even when Isabel and Jamie (her 28-year-old bassoonist) consummate their affections in a country house in Scotland, there is a discreet cutaway to the morning after, with only a brief flashback to explain how they got there. Their love is that of ‘Eros’, while their union is symbolised by the housekeeper needing to resupply only one of their rooms the following morning with a fresh bottle of water.

That McCall Smith can get away with such lightness of touch, when we’re told the public demands ever more extremes of explicitness, confirms my long-held belief (and I suspect his too) that while sex may sell, some things are more important to the success of a novel, both in creative and commercial terms. And because he never underestimates his reader, he rightly assumes his readers will think so too. When The Right Attitude to Rain is adapted for television it will inevitably be treated with a heavy hand by producers who, thinking they know better, will crank up the raunch factor in an attempt to reach a wider audience. Of course, I can’t be sure that this is exactly what will happen, but there is plenty of form.

Somewhere, 35,000ft above the Canadian Shield I snap shut The Comfort of Saturdays, switch on the in-flight entertainment and wait for lunch to arrive. They’re rerunning Andrew Davies’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, the one when Colin Firth as Fitzwilliam Darcy famously takes off his shirt. If I’m being charitable, the best I can say is it’s not particularly good. But TV adaptations never are because their producers always want consumer-digestible, zeitgeisty piffle no matter what the directors have in mind. It occurs to me that with each successive television incarnation of Jane Austen’s heroine, the amplitude and acreage of Eliza Bennet’s décolletage increases in inverse proportion to the editorial attention paid to the moral and social concerns of the novel. This is particularly sad because it is Austen’s almost imperceptible rebellions, rather than the pulchritude of her women, that make Pride and Prejudice so naughty in the first place. Travesties of interpretation such as this are not simply an error of professional or even literary judgement on the part of the television hacks, but an ethical issue concerned with how far we should be allowed to distort a classic in order to make it acceptable to a mass audience ­– a debate I feel certain that Isabel, for all her almost saintly perfections, would find impossible to resist.

 

 

 

 

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‘Shortcut for the armchair traveller’ feature article in Times Higher Education Supplement by Nick Smith

April 27, 2009

Researching a feature on Ernest Shackleton earlier today I came across an article I wrote about print on demand in 2006 for the Times Higher Education Supplement.

Shortcut for the Armchair traveller

Nick Smith unearths a publisher who can supply rare or out-of-print travel books at the click of a mouse

As you read this, someone somewhere is tearing out their hair.

This person is a biographer of the early 20th-century explorer Ernest Shackleton, and the cause of all this frustration and despair is the difficulty of getting hold of a first edition of the great man’s book Aurora . You could try a copyright library, or you could go to a book fair in New York, where for $100,000 (£54,000) a dealer will be only too pleased to track down one of the five or six copies that are circulating in the commercial world of antiquarian book collecting.

But imagine that you could, at the click of your mouse, order the printed text or even a facsimile of the first edition of Aurora , neatly bound and delivered to your door within 24 hours for under £20.

Now imagine that virtually any out-of-print, rare or collectible travel book could be accessed that way. Enter CuChullaine O’Reilly, who describes himself as a “literary archaeologist”. He is one half of the US-based husband-and-wife publishing team that will bring Aurora to the masses.

Their Classic Travel Book company will publish it on demand, book by book, so that not a single copy will be pulped. The process will ensure that researchers and academics – who are among the O’Reillys’ main customers – will be granted unprecedented access to valuable primary source material at an affordable price.

Many great 19th and 20th-century travel texts are out of print, and mainstream publishers cannot or will not do anything about it. The problem in the past has always been lack of a large market for such books. But, argues O’Reilly, most books serve a limited market. More than half of those published in the UK sell fewer than 250 copies a year, so the traditional publishers’ objection that “the book won’t sell” simply doesn’t hold water.

“It just doesn’t make sense that so much great literature is out of print,” he says. He believes that the combination of herd mentality and lack of vision in publishing is the main reason for bookshops being awash with works of “polished mediocrity”.

According to a study commissioned by the British Library, 90 per cent of newly published work will soon be available digitally. O’Reilly thinks this might help to “ensure that financial considerations are no longer the sole motivating factor in publishing and library sciences”.

The Classic Travel Book company was born of the O’Reillys’ love of long-distance equestrian travel. They are the original Long Riders, founders of an international guild of horsemen dedicated to the traditions and philosophy of geographical exploration on horseback. The Long Riders’ Guild is also dedicated to the preservation of equestrian literature, for which there is a limited market. The guild established a publishing arm that was gradually overtaken by the more generalist Classic Travel Book imprint, which has more than 200 titles on its growing list. It contains works from long-forgotten explorers such as John Duncan and George Younghusband, as well as the less famous works of big names such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Leonard Woolf and, of course, Shackleton.

“Any book selling fewer than 500 copies a year is a good candidate for making available on demand,” says Suzanne Wilson-Higgins, commercial director of Lightning Source, a Milton Keynes-based company specialising in printing, binding and distributing on-demand books.

And while their traditional clients are academic, professional and scientific publishers, business is increasingly coming from specialist trade publishers and imprints such as The Classic Travel Book company. They have also brought into print a wide spectrum of what Wilson-Higgins calls “non-traditional” publishers. These include old-fashioned vanity self-publishers as well as database publishers, the so-called “content aggregators” who source digital collections of books or even scan out-of-copyright titles, rework the covers and sell them (quite legally) over the web. As Wilson-Higgins says: “No warehouse, no stock, less risk.”

And no waste. “To fell forests and then pulp books is not a responsible act,” O’Reilly says. “Our mission to preserve rare and important travel knowledge is tempered by the realisation of our ecological duties as publishers.” He believes he has a moral duty to share the profits he makes with the academic institutions, scholarly societies and charities associated with travel writers, past and present, featured on the Classic Travel Book list. For example, he is working with author Glynn Christian – the profits from Christian’s book will help create a community library on remote Pitcairn Island.

Mike Berry, an independent antiquarian bookseller and owner of Somerset-based Rare Books and Berry, believes print-on-demand will enhance his traditional business. “I can supply books to customers where previously the rarity and cost made this impossible, so the reader wins. It will not affect the sale of first editions, as this is a collectors’ market,” he says.

Berry thinks that collectors will even go for print-to-order books. “I am happy to make these available – people want to use bookshops as well as the web.”

The reader may be considered the winner in all this, but the writer is not doing too badly either. Robin Hanbury-Tenison, described by The Sunday Times as “one of the greatest explorers of the 20th century”, has more than a dozen of his books on the Classic Travel Book list and sells them via his website.

Hanbury-Tenison, who, as editor of The Oxford Book of Exploration , is no stranger to traditional publishing, decided his most recent book, Worlds within: Reflections in the Sand , should go straight to the on-demand format. “It’s the second instalment of my autobiography and doesn’t have the wider appeal of some of my earlier books. It was a book I just wanted to write, and I didn’t want to get stuck into the process of lengthy meetings with publishers and so on. I just sent off the manuscript, and in ten days I had a copy of the book in my hands.”

LIFE IN THE SADDLE

Before you get 100 pages into CuChullaine O’Reilly’s 600-plus page novel Khyber Knights , the protagonist is being tortured in a prison cell in Pakistan. It is a terrible scene where two men are held in separate rooms and forced to listen to the other’s sufferings while their assailants try unsuccessfully to beat a confession out of them with cricket bats. They are accused of being in possession of a large amount of heroin.

Basha, O’Reilly’s wife, says the book is based on her husband’s real-life experiences. “Every word you read is true. A few names have been changed here and there, but that was basically what happened.”

O’Reilly is known for his journeys through Pakistan, which form the source material for Khyber Knights , widely held to be the best and most authentic book on the country written in English.

Basha O’Reilly is the other half of the publishing partnership behind Classic Travel Books and the Long Riders’ Guild website, described by the O’Reillys as “part-museum, bookstore, tack room and Guild Hall” and as containing “the world’s largest collection of equestrian travel information”. She is known in equestrian circles for her ride from Russia to the UK and as author of children’s book Count Pompeii – Stallion of the Steppes , first in the Little Long Rider series.

Long riders do just that. They ride long distances. They are a tight-knit, though far-scattered, community whose significance lies in the quality of their literary output.

The O’Reillys plan to circumnavigate the world on horseback, a feat never before accomplished.

Details: www.thelongridersguild.com/

Nick Smith is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and has been a judge on the Thomas Cook Travel Book Awards

Nick Smith’s review of Bob Headland’s ‘A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration’ as appeared in Bookdealer magazine (full text)

April 27, 2009

A few people mentioned to me yesterday at the Antiquarian book fair at the RGS that they’d not seen my review of Bob Headland’s new Chronology in Bookdealer. Here is the full text, but remember words look better in print so please subscribe to the magazine… 

 

Cold hard facts from the bottom of the world

Nick Smith reviews

A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration: a Synopsis of Events and Activities from the Earliest Times until the International Polar Years, 2007–09

By Robert Keith Headland

Quaritch, HB, £110 · ISBN 978-0955085284

Ever since Pythagoras postulated that the Earth was spherical the possibility of there being Polar Regions has intrigued philosophers and explorers alike. In the 8th Century a Northumbrian monk conjectured that the poles were places of eternal cold: in the north he thought there was an ocean, while in the south a great land mass. The Venerable Bede was of course spot on, but it was to be well over a thousand years before the likes of Robert Peary or Roald Amundsen would be able to see that for themselves by setting foot on the geographical poles. In 1366 pioneering travel writer Sir John Mandeville was the first to use the word ‘Antartyk’, while in 1487–88 a Portuguese naval expedition commanded by Bartholomeu Díaz de Novaes discovered the Cape of Good Hope. In 1516 the earliest printed description and illustration of the Southern Cross Antarctic constellation appeared in a work by Andrea Corsali, an image that adorns the front cover of Robert Keith Headland’s monolithic A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration.

In the 1600s the southern seas were getting positively crowded, with Dutch, English, French and Spanish expeditions all contributing to the exploration and mapping of the region. In 1736 the lighting of London streets with whale oil lamps created ‘great impetus to the whaling industry’. In 1762, John Harrison claimed the Board of Longitude’s £20,000 prize for the invention of an accurate chronometer for the determination of longitude at sea. By the 1800s the sub-Antarctic islands were starting to see the slaughter of marine mammals on an industrialised scale, when barely a year went by without a whaling or a sealing voyage setting forth to plunder the biodiversity of the South.

But it is the 20th century – starting with the Heroic Age of Polar exploration and ending with the dawn of an age of environmental responsibility ­– that forms the bulk of Headland’s Chronology. In a tome of well over 700 pages, the 20th century begins on page 231. To express just how intense this surge in activity in the region is, the first two millennia of the Chronology are dealt with on just one page. Political issues such as territorial sovereignty, international accords and the Antarctic Treaty weave their way through the latter part. These threads are supported by a wealth of scientific, expeditionary and tourism-related material that will be of inestimable value to researchers, academics and anyone with more than a casual interest in polar affairs.

Since the Second World War there have been several compilations of chronological lists of Antarctic expeditions, but this title is essentially a third edition of the author’s Chronological List of Antarctic Expeditions and Related Historical Events (CUP, 1989). There are major structural changes. For instance, its historical extent now includes up to the International Polar Years 2007–09 (for some reason I’ve never managed to work out, International Polar Years are considerably longer than the more conventional calendar year). This means that there are some 1,500 new entries, while a tenth of the original entries have been significantly amended. Headland is nothing if not thorough: in his introduction he notes that there are some additional minor voyages of discovery, several hundred more sealing voyages, corrections to dates and notes, better indexing of subjects, revision of the histograms and bibliography, and ‘similar improvements in completeness and correctness.’

One of the most curious effects of reading a linear chronology such as this is how dispassionate academic history can be compared with its so-called ‘popular’ counterpart and as a consequence it is sometimes hard to gauge the relative importance of historical events. While the polar community celebrates the centenary of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s iconic British Antarctic Survey of 1907–09 (otherwise known as the Nimrod expedition), Headland allocates what seems to be a rather measly 22 lines to the subject (although in fairness he allocates fewer to the 1982 Argentine invasion of South Georgia, during which he was captured, and even fewer to the invasion of the Falkland Islands.) And yet within those 22 lines salient points for the academic historian are rattled off in a prose style that has a taciturn beauty all of its own. Here’s one sentence from the Nimrod entry:

‘Party of 15 men wintered at Cape Royds on Ross Island; climbed Mount Erebus (3794 m), 10 March 1908; Shackleton and 3 others (Jameson Boyd Adams, Eric Stewart Marshall, and John Robert Francis [Frank] Wild), discovered and sledged up the Beardmore Glacier to the farthest south of 88 • 38º S (01 • 62º [180km] from the South Pole) where Shackleton took possession of the Polar Plateau for King Edward VII, 9 January 1909; insufficient supplies necessitated their return; discovered nearly 500km of the Transantarctic Mountains flanking the Ross Ice Shelf; discovered coal at Mount Buckley.’

Somewhere in here is the human drama of the Boss’s decision to turn around a tantalising 97 miles from glory. He could have pushed on and claimed the pole but his men were in bad shape and he needed to get them home safely. This has been called one of the greatest decisions in exploration, and one that defines Shackleton as an icon of management leadership a century later. But this category of interpretive analysis is not what the Chronology is about – it is about cold, hard facts from the bottom of the world. There’s even one for antiquarian bibliophiles: ‘Book, Aurora Australis, printed at Cape Royds, 90 copies made.’

Bob Headland is of course a legend in Polar circles, having held the post of Archivist and Curator at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge until late 2005, when he left in order to pursue his research and to get his Chronology finished. During his career he has spent probably as much time as anyone else in the Polar Regions. He spent two winters at Grytviken on South Georgia involved in biological research with the British Antarctic Survey in the late 1970s. In 1982, a third winter of study was cut short by the inconvenience of having to spend time at the Argentine forces’ pleasure (a ‘Galtieri: his part in my downfall’ moment if ever there was one). South Georgia not only provided Headland with masses of field experience, but also resulted in studies on the biogeography of the peri-Antarctic islands and an interest in their history, which in turn led to his 1984 book The Island of South Georgia.

In his introduction Headland admits that there’ll probably be no fourth edition to his Chronology. Improved access to the White Continent means that the sheer volume of data will become unmanageable in book form. As commercial flights and tourism cruises increase in frequency, the maintenance of such a project will become more difficult and will inevitably be handed over to the online environment. Which means that for those preferring their reference works to be made out of paper and board the time has come to invest. At first glance £110 might seem like a tall order, but for that you get the definitive work. Bob Headland has produced a monumental work of scholarship based on a lifetime’s dedication to his subject, and if his Chronology does not become the final court of appeal for all factual matters to do with the events and activities in Antarctic exploration, then nothing ever will.

Nick Smith is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a Contributing Editor on the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York

‘Olympic Time’ by Nick Smith, E&T magazine (full text)

April 15, 2009

Olympic time

With less than a year to go until the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Nick Smith went to Canada to see how electronic timing equipment trials are progressing

We’re looking at a fairly innocuous electronic component that could be straight out of a Radio Spares catalogue. But to Christophe Berthaud, head of Olympic timing at Swiss-based watch manufacturer Omega, it is at the heart of an infrared system he’s installed at the Whistler Sliding Centre, the site of the bobsleigh, luge and skeleton competitions for the 2010 Winter Olympics to be held in Vancouver, Canada.

This high-performance, world-class sliding sports venue includes a 1,450m-long competition track, as well as the usual Olympic village buildings. Whistler is nestled in the beautiful Fitzsimmons valley on the southeast slope of Blackcomb Mountain in British Columbia. Its centrepiece is the horseshoe-shaped competition track that may look benign on television, but is terrifying up close. The athletes are barely visible as they whistle past at up to 90mph (140kph).

Along the track there are 42 pairs of infrared emitters and receivers that send a time-tagged message along a wire to a central computer in the onsite control/timing tower each time the light beam is broken.

There are two systems working in parallel – a master and a backup – placed exactly 1cm apart. The instrumentation receiving and processing the data for both systems sit in a 19in rack.

The system looks remarkably straightforward, and anyone expecting to see sci-fi pioneering technology will be sorely disappointed. But the simple infrared sensors will track the progress of luge and bobsleigh competitors in real-time to the precision of a hundredth of a second. The systems used in the Olympics can resolve to the millisecond, but they don’t use that resolution in most events because the committee felt that such tiny differences were beyond the reliability of the technology. At a hundredth of a second, you can award a gold medal with confidence.

“What is important in terms of technology is that we never bring anything new to the Olympics,” Berthaud says, describing the evolutionary process of developing and installing new timing systems for the 2010 Winter Olympics. “If a technology is used for the first time in the Olympics, it is not when it is new.

“This switch here,” he adds, pointing to a tiny blue gadget in his hand, “this is the first time this particular one has been integrated into a timing system that’s going live. There is some evolution of the electronics in terms of the number of cards or the type of component, but there is no dramatic change between this system and that used at the 2006 games in Turin.”

Berthaud, an engineer by education, has spent more than 20 years working with Olympic timing technology. He knows the six-year rhythms of integrating new electronic systems into the mix. The key is to deliver something better, more accurate, faster and more appealing to the public while maintaining infallibility.

With an estimated three billion viewers expected to switch on during the course of the Games, the key issue is reliability and the system testing starts in earnest a year earlier.

In a way, the engineers at Omega have made a rod for their own backs with new innovations such as the photofinish, synchronized on-screen timing, split times and a host of other technical achievements over successive Games.

Sports showcases rely on the integrity of their measuring and timing systems as much as they rely on their ability to broadcast evermore sophisticated programming to keep the punters hooked. Today’s systems are light years away from the early days when synchronised chronographs simply recorded the time the skier started and finished his run and the results were pinned to a notice board several hours later.

“We are in the process of holding test events,” says Berthaud. “We started last October with the short track, then we had the ski-jumping and the cross country. Now we are having a cluster of tests on all the remaining events except ice hockey, which will be around September. We have a complete cluster of six to eight weeks on all venues including test events or the Paralympics – the first time it has been done.”

One of the systems that Omega is bringing to the 2010 Games is a new timer designed for the alpine skiing event. Called Chronos, it’s a new generation of timer with a new clock and software. Chronos was developed last year, tested at the end of last season and tested again at the start of this season. It’s being trialled at the World Championship at Val d’Isère where it is being used as a back-up system during the races and the main system during the training.

“We don’t take risks with the new technology. We progressively bring it to the front. The Olympic test event for alpine skiing was in March 2009 when it was used as a main system for the first time in advance of 2010. There are other systems in development and we can expect further announcements before the Games open, but depending on how the process goes we’ll release them during the year.”

As the countdown progresses toward the opening ceremony on 12 February 2010, Omega’s technologists are actively involved in preparations for the competition where, for the 24th time, the Swiss watch manufacturer will serve as official timekeepers at the Olympic Games. On 12 March, they will play the same role at the Paralympic Games.

At Omega’s first timekeeping assignment for the 1936 Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, a lone technician used 27stopwatches to time each event. Seventy years later in Turin, Italy, Omega deployed 208 professionals – 127 timekeepers and 81 data handlers – with 220 tonnes of equipment. Those numbers will be blown away in 2010 as the company mobilises the largest timekeeping contingent ever in winter sport.

It may sound like a contradiction in terms, but the reason for all these people is to minimise the possibility of human error. “What we are trying to do is get rid of human intervention,” says Berthaud. “Most of the innovations in timekeeping emerge from controversies.”

Berthaud is adamant that Omega has a good relationship with the athletes and develops the technology with athletes as design partners. “What you have to remember,” he says, “is that Omega doesn’t deliver the records – the athletes do. It is all about the athletes, and their results only become official once they are approved, so the judge of the International Federation is the ultimate timekeeper.”

The technological dream, he says, is to develop systems that can become independent of the judges. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008,Omega installed a camera with a capacity for taking 2,000 frames per second. “There were two instances where a decision was made on the basis of precision down to one pixel,” says Berthaud.

In the bobsleigh event, the competitor starts and stops the chronometer by passing through light beams. With these systems “no one can make a contestation. You can have a cell that doesn’t work, but there is no human judgement”, explains Berthaud.

I’ve spent four days touring sites including a snowboarding test at Cypress. But Berthaud is on a tight schedule. There is time for one last question. I ask him what will keep him awake the night before the Games. “Nothing. The Olympic Games is six years in preparation so if the day before the games start you don’t sleep then you’ve done something seriously wrong.” I check the time on my recorder. We’ve spoken for 14 minutes, 29 seconds.

Nick Smith’s Winter Olympics Omega technology preview feature is now out in the latest edition of E&T magazine…

April 15, 2009

With less than a year to go until the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Nick Smith went to Canada to see how the electronic timing equipment trials are progressing…

To read more you’ll need to get hold of Engineering & Technology magazine (11-24 April 2009) or visit http://www.theiet.org/magazine

Shah ‘Abbas – review of exhibition and catalogue as appeared in April 2009 Bookdealer

April 13, 2009

For those who asked to see my review, but couldn’t get hold of the magazine, here it is in full

Anyone lucky enough to have travelled across the desert through Iran to Isfahan will know that it is not just one of the most beautiful cities of Islam, but also one of the wonders of the world. The Royal Square, or the Maidan-i Naqsh-i Jahan, is the jewel in Isfahan’s crown, greedily boasting not one, but two glorious mosques – those of Shaykh Lutfallah and Masjid-i Shah – as well as the magnificent Ali Qapu palace. Not much has changed since the square was first built four centuries ago: shops sell carpets, silverware and antiques, while clouds of pigeons circulate above what was once the heart of the capital of Shah ‘Abass’s Persia. Horse-drawn carriages take tourists on trips around the city, while dark alleys lead off into the depths of the legendary bazaar. Side roads punctuated by old caravanserais that have been converted into teahouses drift down to the river where Isfahan’s famous bridges cross Iran’s only permanent natural waterway.

Isfahan in all its glory is the work of one of the formative figures in the creation of modern Iran. Shah ‘Abbas, the country’s most influential king and a great military leader, ruled Persia at a time of great political renewal, when it emerged as a world power with a national identity. For those of us who find Middle Eastern history something of a closed book it may be useful to think of Shah ‘Abbas (who reigned from 1587–1629) as being contemporary with William Shakespeare, whose dramatic output straddled the end of Elizabeth I’s reign and the beginning of King James I of England’s. In fact the Bard, aware of the colossal wealth of Shah ‘Abbas, even name-checks the ‘Sophy’ in Twelfth Night. In a scene where Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are plotting to bring down Malvolio, fellow conspirator Fabian says: ‘I will not give my part of this sport for a pension of thousands to be paid from the Sophy.’

Heartbeat of Persia and home to the Shah’s government, Isfahan played host to the Dutch traveller and artist Cornelius de Bruyn, who passed through the region in the early 18th century. His illustration of the Maidan from Voyages de Corneille le Brun par la Moscovie, En Perse, et aux Indes Orientales (1718) is one of the highlights of the British Museum’s fantastic new exhibition Shah ‘Abbas: The Remaking of Iran (also the title of the accompanying catalogue). De Bruyn’s depiction of the plaza ‘full of tents, where all kinds of things are sold’ is shown both as a gigantic wall-mounted reproduction, as well as in its original binding. His account of the square conjures up an atmosphere that remains to this day: ‘One continually sees a prodigious crowd of people of quality who come and go to the court. One also finds there troupes of clowns and charlatans … There are people there who have monkeys whom they make do a thousand tricks that attract the people because there is no nation on earth that loves a bagatelle more than the Persians. Also, the cafés and bazaars are full of these clowns.

In other galleries, there is a fabulous array of ceramics, tapestries, carpets, manuscripts, paintings, coins and religious artefacts. Another breathtaking highlight is a slightly surprising collection of blue and white Chinese porcelain. Perhaps not that surprising, as China was an ancient trading partner of Persia. In fact, the history of blue and white porcelain begins with the export of cobalt from Persia to China. These ceramics were so highly prized that at the shrine at Ardabil a special building to house the collection was commissioned, its walls lined with niches contoured to fit each ceramic exactly. The overall effect of the exhibition is quite stunning and its curator Sheila R Canby must be congratulated for creating a magical experience for anyone with the slightest interest in the arts and treasures of the Middle East. It will be interesting to see if her efforts will help to overturn the widespread and baffling prejudice the British media holds against this beautiful and wonderful country.

The exhibition is logically and thematically divided into four geographical aspects of Shah ‘Abbas’s life: Isfahan, the Ardabil shrine, the shrine of Imam Riza at Mashad and the shrine of Fatimeh Ma‘sumeh at Qum. The catalogue follows the same format, although after the splendours of the exhibition is an anticlimax. On the page, Bishn Das’s iconic portrait of Shah ‘Abbas seems muted, the full-length portraits of Robert and Teresia Sherley lack scale, and the sub-collection of Armenian Christian crucifixes and censers lack the historic grandeur they exude in three dimensions. The ostentation of the silk and gold carpets, prayer rugs and the 17th century leather filigree bookbinding loses its fizz in print. The reason for this is that no catalogue could ever hope to do justice to such a truly exceptional exhibition, although there are quite frankly times when, as we shall see, the editors could have at least tried. But this is only to be expected: a catalogue can only really serve as a reminder, like a faded postcard from your favourite holiday.

Closer inspection reveals that the catalogue of Shah ‘Abbas: the Remaking of Iran suffers sorely from poor editing. In the index we are promised 128 catalogue entries, but the book comes to an abrupt end after 127. Of the entries themselves, 63 begin with the words ‘the’, ‘this’ or ‘these’, which to be charitable doesn’t matter that much – except that it does, because it makes you want to stop reading about the artefacts. This could have been put right in a matter of hours by a competent sub-editor. I could forgive this had the picture editing been any better, but there are pages of images in Shah ‘Abass: the Remaking of Iran that are not good enough to be published in a book from the British Museum Press.

By far the most disappointing is on page 104 – ‘Interior of the fifth floor of the Ali Qapu gatehouse, Isfahan, 1598-1638’ – where a snapshot grabbed on a cheap compact camera (or mobile phone) has been post-processed to the point where there is hardly any of the original digital data left. Almost as bad is the image on page 110, where the ‘Golden Ivan, Shrine of Fatimeh, Ma’sumeh, Qum, 1519’ has such pronounced barrel-distortion that it looks as if it were taken with a camera from a Christmas cracker. On pages 10–11 there is a (captionless) photograph of some ceramic tile-work that is over-extrapolated to the point where it is hard to tell if the original ever had a single point of focus.

The objection to these comments from the publisher will no doubt be that it is hard for photographers to get access to some of these holy sites and that decent photography of parts of Iran is scarce. This may be the case, but I speak from personal experience when I say that during my travels through Shiraz, Esfahan, Tehran and many other Iranian cities, the only time I was prevented from using my professional photographic equipment was when I was in a government treasury building. (As for holy sites where photography is not allowed for cultural reasons, the procedure is obtain special permission or leave your camera behind ­– not to grab shots by stealth using a mobile phone, or a similar tactic, as appears to be the case here). I accept that these criticisms may seem insubstantial in the grand scheme of things, but they are justified considering the expense of the catalogue – a Sophy’s ransom at £40 – compared with the twelve quid you’ll need to get into the show.

Shah ‘Abbas: The Remaking of Iran is running at the British Museum until 14 June 2009

http://www.britishmuseum.org

A selection of Nick Smith’s photographs of Iran was exhibited last month at the Royal Geographical Society, where he is a fellow. He is also a Contributing Editor on the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York 

’70 Great British Pubs’ in the Daily Telegraph

April 4, 2009

If only we all had time machines we could go back to yesterday and buy copies of the Daily Telegraph in which there was a supplement called ’70 Great British Pubs’ – I wrote the sections on London and the Home Counties – a product of extensive field research over the past two decades. I didn’t write the South Wales piece – someone else had snagged that – but it did interestingly feature the Uplands Tavern in Swansea, where I used to waste my indolent youth. The article said that its most famous drinker was Dylan Thomas, although I’d argue that in the grand scheme of things Osama Bin-Laden is better known. Bin-Laden of course studied at the West Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education (‘Wiggy’) in Mount Pleasant, and according to Simon Reeve, in his book about international terrorism called ‘The New Jackals’, the young Osama used to like to go to the Uplands Tavern for a game of pool. Reeve tells me that when he went to Swansea to do a spot of fact-checking for his book the person behind the bar had never heard of Bin-Laden or Al-Qaeda. I appreciate that this all sounds very silly, just like a typical internet conspiracy theory, but for those wishing to check it out I recommend Simon’s book… and yes it is the same Simon Reeve that did the popular BBC travelogues including Capricorn.