Monday, November 3, 2014

The joys of Text

"To Miss Bennett. I am sorry to tell you that I have had to exclude your son permanently from school."

Roger Easerhope, headmaster at Cheam Common Junior School in south London, made headlines when he expelled a 10-year-old pupil with the following words. It was newsworthy because the expulsion was not issued after a face-to-face meeting with the parents. It came in the form of a text message sent by the exasperated headmaster to the child's mother.

I suppose we should be grateful. After all, the headmaster did resist the temptation to send the message: Dont cum bak 2 skool.

A trawl through the newspaper archives uncovers another bemused teacher who could not decipher an essay one of his 13-year-old students had written.

"I could not believe what I was seeing. The page was riddled with hieroglyphics, many of which I simply could not translate," the teacher told the newspaper.

The girl's essay began:

"My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we used 2go2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 :- kids FTF. ILNY, it's a gr8 plc."

Which according to the newspaper translates as: "My summer holidays were a complete waste of time. Before, we used to go to New York to see my brother, his girlfriend and their three screaming kids face to face. I love New York. It's a great place."

As you may have guessed by now I am not a fan of text messaging but I am in a minority.

It's not just the incessant rat-te-tat-tat key hammering or the Chinese torture 'meep meep' of the message received that gets my blood boiling. It's the complete destruction of language, grammar, spelling and syntax. I had mistakenly thought this alarming trend was confined to teenagers, until I started to get messages from people who ought to know better.

A friend of mine took me to lunch in a swanky Dublin restaurant recently. He's one of those smart fellows whose decisions help shape the economic direction of our country and no, he deosn't work for the IMF. I sent him a handwritten note to thank him for his generosity. The following morning I received a text message from him on my mobile phone. The message said:

Tnx 1m 4 Msg. TANSTAAFL. Cul8r.

Now I like to think I'm a reasonably intelligent man. I have even been known to run the Irish Times cryptic close on the odd occasion. So I sat down to study his message. After a few seconds I was able to decipher most of it.... the pidgen English 'thanks a million', the cringingly awful 'see you later', but TANSTAAFL? I was completely baffled and made a mental note to ask Lisa, my 11-year-old niece what it meant when I saw her next.

But the unpleasantness of text messaging doesn't end there. The Accident Group said 'Ur sackd, gudby' to 2400 people, many of them by text message and incredibly the former Prime Minister of Swaziland, Sibusiso Dlamini was sacked by text message last September following a political reshuffle by the southern African nation's King. U mst b jkng!

Whatever next? Will villains receive text messages from the local police station saying: U iz nikdski? O plz!

In Ireland over 90% of 15-24 year-olds own a mobile phone. But youngsters today have SUCH a lot to put up with. We just don’t understand the strains they are under.

Research by mobileYouth (or should I say mY) found that some teenagers suffer withdrawal symptoms if their phone doesn't ring leading to "lack of self esteem and anxiety". In some cases it gets so bad that they suffer sleep deprivation and cases of repetitive strain injuries are also common as text addicts lie awake at night glued to their mobile phones. A case of 'my thum hrtz'.

Last night was Lisa's birthday and after handing over my present - earrings chosen by a street savvy friend - I asked for her help to decipher my friend's text mystery. Her eyes rolled to the back of her head like Linda Blair in the Exorcist.

'Loved the bling bling, but get with the programme, Granda,' she said. "TANSTAAFL. There's no such thing as a free lunch."

I need to go back to school.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Psion - The end of an era

I ran the public relations for Psion PLC from 1993 to 2001.  It was an exciting, dynamic and creative environment, jam-packed with hugely talented individuals who worked wonderfully well together as a team.  Psion was acquired by Motorola Solutions, bringing the curtain down on a company that was once a household name.  In memory of Psion, I reprint below an article I wrote celebrating the 20 year anniversary of the original Psion Organiser.

Twenty years ago the world's first hand-held computer rolled off the production lines. Sleek, black, with red trim, the Psion Organiser 1 was narrower than a packet of cigarettes and the same weight as a pound of butter.

There was no QWERTY keyboard, no fancy colour screen and no handwriting recognition. But there was a calculator and a stopwatch and a smart conversion system if you urgently needed to switch from metres to feet. Forget Word and Exel; but if quadratics or polynomials were your bag, the Psion Organiser 1 was the business. Boasting an amazing battery life of six months on a single nine-volt battery, the device was priced at £99 sterling.

In engineering terms, the Organiser 1 was pure genius. The brainchild of David Potter and Charles Davies, it was conceived during a business meeting between the two in a café in London's Maida Vale in 1982. Both had forgotten to bring notebooks (the paper kind) and they ordered a flotilla of napkins to write on as they had coffee. "Wouldn't it be handy if you had a device you could carry with you that would keep track of all this jumble?" one of them said - no one is quite sure which. They returned to their desks and got down to work.

Top of their wish list was the "jumble tracker", so they included a database to store business and personal contacts. They designed a small window at the top of the device (you really couldn't call it a screen) that allowed a maximum of one line of text, or up to 16 characters, to be entered and viewed. But with only 2KB of internal memory for the entire machine, it helped, when entering your contacts, if you weren't too popular.

Potter and Davies also wanted the device to be durable - and they succeeded. With almost no moving parts and a brick-like design, the only worry you had when the Organiser 1 slipped from your grasp was whether the object you were dropping it onto might be damaged. Despite its physical clunkiness the Organiser won a number of design awards, though these were mainly for clever electronics rather than aesthetics.

The first batch of machines was prone to the occasional bout of eccentricity. During initial testing the software engineers were perplexed as the calculator added two and two together and repeatedly came up with nine. A tribute to Douglas Adams, perhaps? But these were just the awkward beginnings for a device that would transform the way a generation did business. The internet blossomed at exactly the right time and whole legions of Psion users rose up, swapping tips, files and advice. The Organiser's successor, the Series 3, became standard issue, alongside loud ties, for all self-respecting yuppies. By the early 1990s Psion's devices had made rapid technological advances and had, in marketing speak, "crossed the chasm", moving from niche product to mainstream. Their appeal was cross-generational. Pop stars such as Madonna and Cher carried one, yet the Series 3 also had a following among more sober audiences - a user group sprung up in the House of Commons and three found their way into Buckingham Palace.

The Series 5 was the last generation of consumer hand-held computers Psion produced. They retained many of the classic touches that marked Psion out from the crowd. Battery life was still an impressive month on one set of AA batteries, durability still good and the design awards continued to flow.

But the technological contrasts with the Organiser 1 could not be more striking. The Series 5 could record music, had built-in e-mail and, with 8MB of internal memory (well over 400 times the capacity of the Organiser 1) allowed access to thousands of phone numbers, names, addresses and appointments. In total a staggering 4 million people were set to fall under the magic spell of Psion, an amazing achievement for a company that raced from obscurity to number 75 in the FTSE 100 at its peak.

In June 1999 Psion launched the final variant in the series, the Series 5mx, designed to help equip and support a new breed, the mobile worker. Serious corporate applications had been developed with global giants such as Citrix, Oracle and IBM and many small companies now depended upon Psion devices to help run their businesses more efficiently.

Today the customer has never had it so good. A whole range of hybrid products have sprung up trying to pack the best features of a mobile phone and a hand-held computer into a single device. It is a fiercely competitive market with some of the most innovative, dynamic companies in the world battling for our cash. But sadly it is a market without Psion.

In 2001 the IT industry experienced its worst downturn since 1985 and Psion was not immune from the impact. The company conducted a business review and decided to cease manufacturing its consumer organisers. Competition from leaner, hungrier, more cost-efficient competitors meant that the company that had invented the organiser and defined a new category of gadgets had finally decided to shut down its production line and Psion off.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Hello old trout!

"Hello old trout."

I was rooted to the spot as the greeting emerged from the mouth of my 2-year old son, safely ensconced in his pushchair, to an equally open-mouthed neighbour.

"Lovely morning," I said before she could speak, pressing on into our driveway.

'Walls have ears', my mother used to tell me, well, kids have them too and they can often land you deep in it.

Clearly at some point, I had likened my neighbour to an elderly freshwater fish and my son had never forgotten.

I remember when I was six or seven, hearing someone in my class swear for the first time, but I didn't quite catch the word they used.

When I dropped my fork on my toe later that evening over dinner, the misheard expletive poured out of me:

"Ah you howie," I roared, and not an eyebrow stirred, nor a hair moved in the house.

A week later after hearing the word in its full glory, I accidentally tipped a glass of water over my school shirt.

"Ah you whore," I roared and received an almighty clatter around the head, an hour long interrogation and no supper for my troubles.

The reason I mention this is that as a parent, this debate has reared its ugly head again.

I made the mistake of teaching my eldest son (5) the phrase 'poo poo head'.

I accept that a literal translation of this could clearly be offensive, not least to the old trout, oops... to my neighbour, so I made a mental note not to use it again and to encourage my son to stop saying it.

It was used in fun I explained to some of my in-laws who were present during the discussion and I even cited the urban dictionary which describes it as a phrase "usually used in a joking, lighthearted manner towards a friend".

However the reaction of one of my in-laws surprised me:

"If your son said that to another boy in our school, he would be sent home."

Could that really be true?

Would a teacher suspend a child because he called another child a poo-poo head or even worse, if he pooh poohed a poo-poo head?

It could happen.

After all, Christopher Clarke, son of then UK Education Minister, Charles Clarke, was sent home for swearing at a caretaker's assistant.

Christopher who was 15 at the time, was carrying a football in the playground when a fellow pupil kicked it out of his hands. The ball landed close to the caretaker's assistant who confiscated it prompting Christopher to swear at him.

Rough justice or the right call? You decide.

For me though, one crucial detail was missing from the newspaper report to help me decide if the punishment was fair.

Was Christopher suspended for calling the caretaker's assistant a 'poo-poo head' or a 'howie'?

I think as parents we have a right to know.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Driving Instructor

The Driving Instructor
By Anthony Garvey

'How often does the bus come through here?' I asked Tom as he poured my first ever pint in our local pub.

'Dunno,' he replied, scratching his head thoughtfully. 'Maybe once or twice... a month.'

Relocating to North Kerry is an experience brimful of positives but public transport is not one of them. Living in London, I had become so dependent on hailing cabs or hopping on buses or trains, I had never taken the time to learn how to drive. I had a very basic grasp of the fundamentals thanks to a few spins down the local beach in my teens, but effectively I had not put a key in the ignition for over twenty years.

And so, at the not-so-tender age of 39, I passed my theory test and armed with my provisional license, rang up to book my first driving lesson. I peered nervously through the curtains as the car pulled into the drive the following day, its giant 'L' plates gleaming for all to see in the sunlight.

My head was packed with fear. Fear I'd hit something or someone, fear I'd stall with hundreds of cars behind me, fear I'd never get beyond first gear.

'Any tea in the pot,' asked Jimmy, my driving instructor, shaking my hand warmly. 'I've just spent an hour teaching a guy from Croatia, agus ni raibh
focal Bearla aige. We had to communicate in sign language,' he said, hands extended in the 3 o'clock position.

After tea, Jimmy gave me a refresher course in driving basics and incredibly, half an hour later, I was driving, slowly and nervously down a country road, but nonetheless, driving.

As we were trundling along, Jimmy rolled down the car window, his instructions weaving seamlessly into his general conversation:

'I've just quit a high pressure (third exit) job in manufacturing,' he said, peering out the window. 'In for 7 a.m., 12-hour day (right hand lane), people screaming at you about targets (wait until it's clear).'

'Don't you miss it?' I asked.

'I miss the (watch the bicycle) money, but the quality of life I have now has increased ten fold. I'm happier (indicator), my wife is happier and I see more of the kids than I ever did before (clutch down and brake).

He strummed his fingers on the dashboard distractedly.

'But on a day like today, I look out at the blue skies (into second) and realise there's something missing (check your mirrors),' he said, pausing dramatically. 'You're not in a hurry, are you?'

'Not at all,' I replied.

'Great. Follow the signs for the beach,' he ordered.

Five minutes later, we pulled onto the picturesque beach in Ballyheigue, which is nestled into some small cliffs. I parked up and he hopped out of the car.

'Jesus, he's going to do a Reggie Perrin,' I thought, picturing the neat pile of clothes sitting by the car as he disappeared into the sea. I wondered briefly how I was going to manoeuvre the car back to the driving centre.

I rolled down the window and he motioned to me to get out. As I did so, he picked up a pebble and skimmed it into the water.

'Smell that sea air, fantastic isn't it?' he said inhaling deeply. 'You don't get this on the production line.'

We walked for a couple of minutes and Jimmy pointed out the South coast of Clare and the Brandon mountains in the distance before we got back into the car.

'There's great (seat belt) rock fishing in Kerryhead and breathtaking views (first gear) across Tralee bay of the Dingle peninsula and the Maherees,' he said putting his hands behind his head. 'God it's good (build your revs) to be alive.'

I've had five lessons now and I've driven all over North Kerry, all of them punctuated by scenic stops. I've had a peek at the golf course at Ballybunion, admired the views at the edge of Slieve Mish and marvelled at the cathedral in Ardfert. But we've also done our share of town driving with guided tours of Killarney and Tralee, courtesy of Jimmy.

And because we go at our own pace we're able to handle those with a death wish, who step out without looking and the eternal honkers who, unlike us, are in a desperate hurry to be somewhere else.

The driving lessons have become more of a life experience than a chore and the fear that I had before starting off has been completely eliminated. I've applied for the test and although with the backlog, it is still some way off, because of the relaxed way I have been taught, I have every confidence I will do myself justice when it finally comes round.

As Jimmy might say:

'While others in the big cities are stuck in traffic (handbrake on) we roll along at our own pace (into neutral) admiring the county they call the Kingdom (engine off).

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Mixing it in Monaco

'Have you got everything?' my wife asked as I zipped up my suitcase.

'Not quite,' I replied, donning my sunglasses. 'I haven't got a decent

I had been invited to Monaco, to watch the world's top poker players do battle. And in poker, if you haven't got a decent moniker, you may as well fold before you're dealt in.

Famous for Rainier and Kelly, Grand Prix and Opera, our base camp was Monte Carlo, a six minute helicopter spin from Nice. I was entering a world where Dave 'The Devilfish' Ulliot sits down with Antonio 'The Magician' Esfandiari and Chris 'Jesus' Ferguson tries to outdraw Mel 'The Truth' Judah, with a cool EUR300,000 top prize on offer for the winner.

Poker, synonymous with grubby clientele, ash stained tables and marked
cards, is in the midst of a revolution with men and women queueing in their
droves to play, as this back alley pursuit transforms itself to front of
house. A staggering 60 million people play poker at least once a month in
the United States while 13 million adults in the UK play in one form or

The game has its own lingo which can take the unsuspecting by surprise. Talk of
'limping in after a bad beat on fifth street', might encourage the casual
observer to cash in their chips and order a taxi back to the airport.

Commercial casinos are currently illegal in Ireland, despite Michael Lowry's best efforts. The most high-profile attempt to build a casino, a proposed scheme for the Phoenix Park attracted no fewer than 20,000 objections, so Irish punters have to join a private member's club to accommodate their poker fix.

There's the Macau Sporting Club in Cork and there are several clubs in Dublin, the most famous of which the Merrion Casino Club, is just a hundred yards from Government Buildings. Not giving too much away in politics is part of the game. Poker is no different. Many of the top players hide their eyes behind dark sunglasses to stop their opponents 'getting a tell' or learning any information about their hands.

Ireland's most notorious poker representative in the Monte Carlo Millions,
32 year old Dublin born Phil 'the Unabomber' Laak, goes one step further.
He's called "the Unabomber" because he always wears a hooded sweatshirt
(hood up) at the table. When a big bet looms, his fingers wiggle like a
master pianist and he shoves his chips in the middle. Then comes his
signature move - he ties his sweatshirt up around his head peeping through
the merest glint of light to see what his opponent will do.

Strange? Not a bit of it, says Tournament Master of Ceremonies, Matt Savage
who claims one player turned up for an event wearing a motorcycle helmet
while another wore a Holloween mask. Sadly for Phil he didn't make it past
the first day of the three day event. He zipped up his hood for the final
time finishing out of the money in 56th place.

Many professionals divide their time between playing live tournaments and
playing poker on the internet. And it's not just the professionals who are migrating to the internet. Lee-Anne Smyth who began playing at Queen's University in Belfast
made so much money after graduating she decided against taking a
EUR60,000-a-year job. Now she is on the way to earning EUR330,000 a year.
Lee-Anne logs on each day and plays for five hours against other gamblers,
betting by credit card. She says her honours degree in pure and applied
mathematics helps her calculate the odds of what cards are left in the pack.

Day two in Monte Carlo saw the field narrow to a final table consisting of
the top four Americans, two Finnish, two Swedish players and one British
player. Four players who failed to make the final table (including the
Devilfish) got the jolt of a lifetime when their Amsterdam-bound flight was
intercepted by a bolt of lightening and was forced to return to Nice.

Sprinkled in amongst the pros are a whole raft of celebrities who have taken
to poker with gusto. Pop star Robbie Williams and movie idol Ben Affleck
have all been reported playing in regular card schools. Author Martin Amis,
comedian Stephen Fry and businessman Phillip Green are renowned enthusiasts.
Sportsmen like Sam Torrance, Steve Davis, Michael Owen and Jimmy White are
also regular players. The big attraction in Monte Carlo was French singing
sensation Patrick Bruel. He held his own against the top players but was
eventually knocked in 25th place.

Day three offered one surprise after another as play at the final table got
under way. Phil 'Tiger Woods' Ivey was in a commanding lead, having nearly
double the chips of his nearest rivals. Phil continued to dominate until
the table was down to the final three players but then an unwanted card
appeared and suddenly he was out leaving two Finns to battle for the top
prize. Ten minutes later it was all over and Jani Sointula was EUR300,000
richer. His secret? Not a nickname in sight.

After the tournament was over, some of the dealers decided to organise a
game for themselves back at the hotel. Prices in Monte Carlo are expensive -
a pint of beer is EUR12 and a Gin and Tonic is EUR20. So one of the enterprising
dealers slipped down to the local supermarket to buy 100 cans of beer.
Borrowing one of the supermarket trolleys and heaving it a full mile, all
uphill, back to the hotel, he was in the process of manouevring it into the
lift when the sharp-eyed concierge barked:

'What room are you in, sir?'

'628' he replied as the doors to the lift closed.

Imagine the surprise of World series of Poker champion, Scotty "the Prince"
Nguyen when he came down to settle his bill the following morning. He was
staggered to see a late night charge of EUR600 on his bill. 'What's that for?'
he asked incredulously.

'Corkage,' the concierge replied grimly.

Who said drink was expensive in Ireland!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Mature Student

As I walked into class at the IT Tralee for the first time, armed with a biro, a notebook and a strong desire to learn, a young woman in her early twenties, eyed me up and down:

“Cool,” she said, licking her lips suggestively, “a fit lecturer.”

I smiled, sucking my stomach in an extra inch over my acid washed jeans.

“I’m not a lecturer,” I said softly, taking out my course timetable. “I’m a student, same as yourself.”

Truth is, at 43, with no iPod, piercings or tatoos to be seen, it was an easy mistake to make.

When I signed up to do a Masters in Business, a full 20 years after achieving my primary degree, I wondered whether there would be anyone on the course who fondly remembered Blake’s Seven, The Human League and The Prisoner as I did or if all the chatter be about Lost, The Arctic Monkeys and Prison Break.

I was initially comforted by statistics which showed that 13 per cent of all full time college entrants in Ireland are mature students, until I dug a little deeper and discovered a mature student is defined as anyone above the ‘barely out of short trousers’ age of 23.

When the rest of the students milled in to class, they were all, as I expected, in their 20s. Everyone carried a bottle of water – in my day a hip flask was de rigeur - and they brought folders, highlighter pens and computer memory cards. Each raised an eyebrow or two upon discovering an ‘extra’ mature student in their midst.

And it wasn’t just the younger generation who expressed surprise at my decision to return to college.

"What are you thinking of at your age?” one of my golfing pals asked disapprovingly, while another muttered something about me having a mid-life crisis.

When the real lecturer arrived (ten years my junior) I braced myself for questions on Florence Nightingale, the Easter rising, and living through the First World War.

But instead we were asked to talk a little about our experiences as undergraduates. When my turn came, I explained when I was first a student back in the mid-1980s, I lived a simple life.

I started the day with a lecture or two and a quick spin to the college library to feed my brain and build on my powers of reasoning. Then it was off to the betting shop in the afternoon, to brush up on my mental arithmetic and to develop life skills, such as accepting defeat with grace. Finally I would spend my evenings at the theatre, seeking nourishment for the soul.

“I’m not ashamed to say I shed more tears in the Abbey than I ever did in Terry Rogers,” I said proudly.

“You’ll find the routine a little different nowadays,” the lecturer said handing out a wheelbarrow load of notes and course material. “Your first assignment is due in midday, Wednesday week and remember,” she said glancing in my direction, “you need to submit it online.”

The weeks and months flew by and suddenly the gruelling, brain sapping, mind numbing torture that is exam time was upon us. The hardest part of all was the actual writing itself.

Isn't it simply extraordinary that 20 years on from my early college days, we are still writing exam answers in longhand? We've advanced sufficiently to incorporate blackberrys, wiis and iPods into our daily lives, but not far enough yet to permit the use of technology in exams.

I hadn’t used a biro in years, save to scribble hurried notes on a telephone message pad or choose the also-rans in the Grand National. And after writing for hours with one, my scrawl became so illegible, I had to switch to BLOCK CAPITALS, which makes it look to the examiner like you need URGENT MEDICAL TREATMENT.

But once the exams were over and a 10,000 word thesis was safely negotiated, graduation began to loom large. Twenty years ago as the cameras flashed, I proudly held my primary degree aloft and shouted 'freedom', long before Mel Gibson stole the idea for Braveheart.

This time round I made more of a fuss.

I wore my robe and hat everywhere for a full week after graduation - to the local school to drop off my son in the morning, to the supermarket for the weekly shop and most importantly, to golf on Saturday morning with my pals, to show the begrudgers, the cynics and the naysayers that you’re never too old for a bit of learning.