Ten Years On: The Day’s A Blur

July 7, 2005 was like any other normal day. A few days a week I took public transportation – either overground train, or tube – to my university office in north London where I then worked. Other days I drove. I liked to vary the commute.

That day, I’d pre-booked the car in with a dealer for a routine service, so drove to work a bit early. Being near the college, they would send someone over to my office, collect it, work on it, and return it by the end of the workday. Ho hum.

As usual, by 8:30 they’d picked up the car and taken it away. I think it was on my desktop sometime around 9:30 when I first saw the BBC web site update: there were rumors of electrical fires/ explosions in a couple of tube stations.

Very odd stuff, to say the least. I remember colleagues shaking their heads.

Screen capture of BBC web site.
Screen capture of BBC web site.

And I remember one – the first one to suggest it – saying these sounded like bombings.

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The Appropriate “Grade Level” For Your Novel Is…

The other day Kindle sent out a note suggesting we authors optionally “age rate” our books. I thought I’d share it. I’ve removed the superfluous and “personal” parts and screen captured the core of it:

Edited message from Kindle.
Edited message from Kindle.

Kindle sends out lots of stuff – some useful, some not. But this just seems a sloppy tech issue from their end. There’s a straightforward reason I haven’t chosen an under-18s level for my novels and Kindle knows it already.

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Bluntly Tweeting

Singer James Blunt has been in the “non-musical” news here in Britain in recent days. He got into a dust up with a Labour MP over that politician’s assertion that artists from elite educational backgrounds disproportionately dominate the U.K. entertainment scene. Many onlookers have sided with Blunt.

One of Blunt’s statements in his very public reply published in The Guardian:

….I got signed in America, where they don’t give a stuff about, or even understand what you mean by me and “my ilk”, you prejudiced wazzock, and I worked my arse off. What you teach is the politics of jealousy. Rather than celebrating success and figuring out how we can all exploit it further as the Americans do, you instead talk about how we can hobble that success and “level the playing field”….

The politician came back at him immediately and condescendingly….

Stop being so blooming precious….

Thus perhaps another difference been the U.S. and U.K. In America, I believe a politician would have instead at that point sought to “tone it down” and “make nice.” Advisors would have been nervously at him, warning, “Don’t alienate his fans! They’re potential voters!”

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“Viewed You Today”

As you may recall, I signed up for About.me a few weeks ago. Based on my initial impressions, I like it. It strikes me as a kinda Linked-in that’s more entertaining, artistic, and driven by “people” and “interests” – including, but not overwhelmingly, career interests. I certainly see where it could prove useful in a networking sense.

In just these first couple of weeks, I’ve had something around 4,000 visits to “view me.” I suppose that’s flattering. But I have no idea yet what those “views” really mean.

I have also spotted certain careers and “interests” predominating among those who are stopping by to “view” me, “add” me to a list, or even to “compliment” me. There are lots of IT, marketing, and other business professionals. Some have extraordinary educations and skills sets. For instance, one who “viewed me” the other day was a Turkish graduate of MIT, and she also plays classical piano. (Good grief. When I discovered that, talk about suddenly feeling yourself inadequate!)

There are journalists. There are entertainers. There are regular international travelers. There are quite a few academics and students. Some people don’t display “amazing” bios, but seem merely friendly and interested in following others as on other social media. All appear to be something of a cross-section of our world; it’s astonishing how diverse the site is. And thankfully, so far, weirdoes and – insofar as I can tell – sp@mmers mercifully seem at a minimum.

A screen capture from within my About.me yesterday.
A screen capture from within my About.me yesterday.

Now something of a downer. I’m also seeing quite a few authors – certainly enough to have caught my attention – have a book cover as their photograph. Meaning literally they have a cover of their latest novel as “their picture.”

My gut reaction: that’s misunderstanding the site. Why? Even as an author myself, my take is the site’s used as a platform to present oneself as a unique individual. It’s about getting to know each other as people. Ultimately, it is about building relationships – business and otherwise.

For example, a market research specialist doesn’t usually represent her/himself with a photograph of the cover of a recent research report. It’s far more likely to be a Hi-Res photograph of her/himself climbing a mountain, or snorkeling, or gardening, or standing on the Great Wall of China. He/she aims to make him/herself “memorable” and – above all – “human” to you, thus leading you to want to know more about them.

Hence the site’s name?: “About.me?”

As an author, it seems fine to note one’s book titles and why you write. A writer’s works and motivations are part of what being a writer is. In that regard, they are no different from anyone else in terms of explaining their occupation, career aspirations, and listing former employers on their CV.

But to me you must never lose sight of the fact that it’s supposed to be about you as “a person.” It’s not first and foremost about your novel(s). Social media – to me, anyway – is about sharing yourself.

Too many authors appear to think “building relationships” and “interacting” on social media is about pushing their book(s). That, to me, is exactly backwards. On social media, your works flow from you as the person who created them.

If upon discovering you someone wants to read your book(s), he/she certainly will. However the “bells and whistles” approach we often see employed by authors on social media is close to “sp@mmer-like” and, frankly, just annoying. It has never led me once – not ever, not anywhere, not anytime – to want to buy a book.

But, then again, maybe I’m the one who has it all wrong? Well, even if I do, I don’t care. Just my take.

Have a good FRIDAY…. wherever you are in the world. :-)

Oh, I just thought of this. I’ve never played piano. However, I think I may have to pull out my old guitar from the closet, practice a bit, and add that to my About.me bio. Hey, don’t laugh: as a teenager, I used to play lots of Beatles’ songs fairly well. ;-)

“Americans now get soccer”

As we all know – and as the #johnbrooksforpresident Twitter hashtag reminds us – the U.S. had a big, surprise win over Ghana at the World Cup on Monday courtesy of John Brooks’s dramatic goal as the game was ending. Reading Americans’ reactions to Brooks’s unexpected, last second header heroics, my [English] wife joked, “Americans now get soccer.”

During World Cups, inevitably this question arises: Why isn’t soccer (football) even bigger among U.S. sports? And Americans are lectured (for the umpteenth time) that although it is not the top sport in the U.S., all the rest of the world is obsessed with it.

Technically, though, “all the rest of the world” isn’t: that’s always been an exaggeration. True, soccer is nearly a religion in Europe, Latin America, and parts of Africa. But it is often overlooked that it is far less important not only in Canada, but also in much of Asia and Australia/ New Zealand. Indeed the billion person Indian subcontinent is definitely not soccer-crazed: its passion is cricket.


That said, U.S. soccer has come a long way in the last two decades – particularly the women’s game. The U.S. women’s soccer team has been far more successful than the men’s team: it is one of the best globally. Yet an interesting question is this: is it possible the “rise” of soccer within the last generation is a flip-side to the “decline” in the fortunes of U.S. professional tennis?


I recall tennis was pretty popular when I was in high school back in, uh, the Middle Ages 1980s. However, soccer was well down the sports preferences list. For both women and men.

Yet when we consider how there is no U.S. man currently in the tennis “Top Ten,” and realize, the Williams sisters aside, among women only Sloane Stephens is in the “Top 40,” one wonders if many excellent American athletes who might in the past have played professional tennis – especially women – have instead taken up soccer?

Plane Courtesy

Back on Friday, we were on British Airways, which we almost always fly internationally (save for Ryanair). This flight was on a 777; that’s what BA uses to Newark (although they are supposed to be using Dreamliners too, I believe). I still don’t like that aircraft; but I will admit this one was a better cabin experience than many previous 777 flights. image The flight (in comparison to, uh, others) was relatively uneventful. One exception was finding ourselves upgraded to premium economy. The other was, less happily, discovering ourselves sitting behind a late twenties/ early thirties, American couple.

Yes, we all have our off moments. Still, this was all too much to have possibly been a mere series of coincidences. Please pardon me as I get this off my chest. ;-)

The male half of the couple was seemingly one of those people who “things just happen to.” Somehow he dislodged/ broke the plastic cover enveloping the outer leg of his aisle seat. Using his laptop, he almost sent a drink flying as well. The cabin service director at one point also announced that an iPhone had been found in a lavatory. Guess whose it was?

Sitting in front of me, his companion apparently inhabited her own, shall we say, “plane of reality.” She proceeded to recline her seat (in premium seats recline pretty far) for nearly the whole flight, including during meals. Yeh, why have perhaps an ounce of consideration for the person behind her? Indeed, did she even notice there was someone behind her?

More ridiculous, mid-flight, to reach her seat after having used the lavatory, of course he didn’t stand up and let her pass; she decided to climb over him. Naturally in grabbing the back of her seat to seek extra balance for this gymnastics move, she managed to shake and push back her already reclined seat even farther – so much so that it clipped and nearly knocked over an open bottle of water I had on my tray. I’d think nothing of behavior like that from an eight year old. But from an adult?

Twice her pillow also slid back to us after she’d gradually pushed it brainlessly between their seats. Once is an accident. After the second time, instead of shoving it back again between their seats, I just left it on the floor. She displayed no obvious interest, or concern, about it having vanished.

After landing, as we stood waiting to disembark, I glimpsed the dim-looking and self-absorbed expression on her face: it reminded me a little too much of a certain study abroad U.S. student who has been seen a great deal since late 2007. It all clicked. Suddenly, everything that had gone on before made more sense. ;-)

We’d met up in London a little more than a week earlier with an Alaska college friend of mine and his wife during their first visit to the British capital. Over lunch, he noted that he thought the people-watching is absolutely amazing. His wife (whom we did not know before then, and now do) agreed enthusiastically, and added that she couldn’t get over the incredible variety of shoes seen on the women. At that, my wife grinned and concurred with her wholeheartedly.

We may wish we could get to know some of those people we all “watch.” Then there are others we actually do encounter whom we really wish would keep their distance. And the more distantly, the damn better. :-)

Language Barriers

On February 24, I noted CNN’s report on the tragic death in Rome a couple days earlier of U.S. study abroad student John Durkin. The 21 year old college junior’s body was found in a train tunnel. He had been hit and killed by a train.

He was last seen alive leaving a bar called Sloppy Sam’s. Insofar as I know, there have been no major new revelations. However, yesterday I did notice the Portland (Maine) Press Herald had reported this on February 27 (my emphasis in bold):

….Italian authorities say Durkin was struck by a train in a railroad tunnel between St. Peter’s and Trastevere train stations. The tunnel is about two miles from the bar, Sloppy Sam’s, in the opposite direction from his dormitory.

The area where the bar is located, the Piazza Campo dei Fiori, has open air markets during the day and is a popular nightspot for foreign tourists. It also has seen incidents of violence in recent years, according to press reports.

Italian newspapers reported that an image taken from a security camera near the San Pietro train station shows Durkin walking along the tracks toward the tunnel at daybreak. He was described as “staggering” but uninjured….

….Durkin went to the bar with friends who left at about 1:30 a.m. while he remained. He left at 2 a.m. when the bar closed but his movements in the four-hour window from 2 a.m. to when he appeared on the camera near the train station are not known.

Besides how he ended up wandering on the tracks, what he was doing and where he was from 2 a.m to 6 a.m. seems something Italian authorities want to find out. However, of course it is entirely possible that it may never be known.

What caught my eye also in the article is this next paragraph:

Sloppy Sam’s describes itself as “the only dedicated American bar in Rome.” It has English-speaking staff and shows American sporting events on television, according to its Facebook page….

I suppose it’s little surprise that American students new in Rome would gravitate to an “American bar.” Yet the presence of the Vatican and the millions of pilgrims who visit it, as well as all of the other Rome tourist attractions, likely contributes to English being not uncommon in the city. For instance, the Rome Metro even offers its automated, on train station announcements, in Italian and English.

Politeness dictates that you don’t reflexively assume an Italian in Rome understands English; but, by the same token, until I’m sure I never assume someone does not understand English either. That’s not to say everyone you meet in Rome speaks some English. Far from it. But in most restaurants and bars in the tourist areas, even if they don’t have signs up announcing “English spoken,” someone working there probably can manage a bit of it.

St. Peter's at dusk. [Photo by me, 2013.]
St. Peter’s at dusk. [Photo by me, 2013.]

When we saw Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square in person back in September, in the crowd my 19 year old English nephew, who had never been to Rome before, briefly ended up standing next to a couple of Italian women. They spoke little English, and my nephew speaks almost no Italian; but he does know Spanish fairly well. He said to me afterwards that they had had a laugh together babbling in bits of the three languages.

Toward the end of our week there, my nephew announced that Rome is his favorite city.

Never let a language barrier be a turn off. Italians are usually very relaxed. My experience after several visits to Rome over the years is, yes, they appreciate when you try some Italian, but they don’t really expect non-Italian visitors to know too much of it.

A Benefit Of Experience

Researching facts is straightforward enough. But imbuing invented characters with a “three-dimensionality” that leads readers to picture them not as cardboard-like cutouts, but as real people? Accomplishing that latter is far more difficult.

I raise the issue because I worked yesterday on part of a chapter that dealt with characters confronting another’s sudden, life-threatening illness. (You would not expect me to reveal whose; and I won’t.) Doing so prompted me to reflect on this. If you write fiction, likely you have your own take.

What might a character blurt out in a moment of emotional turmoil? True, it is possible to research a response, or even to imagine one. However, if you have yourself actually said something for real, or overheard someone else say it, that certainly makes it easier to know what to put in a fictional character’s mouth in a similar situation.

Florida Gulf coast sunset. [Photo by me, 2013.]
Florida Gulf coast sunset. [Photo by me, 2013.]
Nearly twenty-five years ago – good grief, I can’t believe I just wrote “twenty-five” – my (now late) graduate school advisor had joked with me that every September the students were “age 18,” while over the years he had progressed from being their older brother, to their Dad, to, finally, their grandfather. But he believed that aging process had contributed to making him a better lecturer than he had been in his 20s: he felt that as he had grown older he had also grown increasingly “the wiser” compared to those who were always “age 18.”

I feel now that I am better grasping what he had meant. In that, perhaps the historian and political scientist in me is also bubbling to the surface. Specifically, I’ve been coming to conclude there is no way I really could’ve written Passports, and its sequel, say, two decades ago.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not asserting fiction cannot be written by anything other than old folks. Rather I suppose what I’m finding is that there is sometimes no substitute for (perhaps harsh) personal experience to help you turn your characters into the most believable “people” you can.

American Study Abroad Students … And Alcohol

Back on Saturday, CNN reported on the death of a American college junior in Rome:

A U.S. student who went missing while studying abroad in Italy was found dead inside a railroad tunnel in central Rome, police there said Saturday.

Investigators are looking into the death of John Durkin, an economics major from Rye Beach, New Hampshire. The 21-year-old attended Bates College, but was one of six students from the Maine school taking part in a study abroad program in Rome through Trinity College in Connecticut, his school said. Both colleges are working with Italian authorities….

….He’s been in Rome for a little more than a month as part of a semester-long program, according to Tom Durkin, a family spokesman.

Two days ago, he went to a bar with a group of friends and never returned, according to the spokesman, who said he left the bar alone….

We do not know exactly what happened there yet, of course, so we should not jump to conclusions. That said, whenever we hear of such tragedies, I wince. I find I cannot but think on the incredible disservice we are doing in essentially infantilizing 18-20 year old American adults when it comes to banning them from access to legal alcohol.

Yes, we are told that young man was 21 – so had reached the “21 year old” age to drink legally in the U.S. However, that would have meant he was encountering alcohol legally for the first time in Rome three years later than young Europeans around him in that bar. Even if he had drunk legally at home briefly before venturing to Europe, the legal social alcohol scene (including how to consume sensibly, with whom to engage in a bar, when to stop, etc.) would still have been very new to him; and on top of that, he finds himself ignorant of local European social signals.

Obsessed as we appear to be in the U.S. with “protecting our kids,” are we honestly preparing study abroads for “18 year old” alcohol legality outside of the U.S.? Do we not realize that American 18-20 year olds in England, France, Italy, and elsewhere, find themselves mixing with young Europeans who are familiar with legal alcohol and adult behaviors surrounding it? In compelling American 18-20 year olds at home into drinking as an “underground activity,” when they find suddenly they can consume booze “above ground” legally in places like Italy are those young Americans mature enough to handle it?


It seems not, and it is no joke. When I worked in a London university, I noticed that when it came to alcohol American study abroad undergraduates often behaved like kids let loose in a candy store without parental supervision. Effectively, we force an extended childhood on them at home, but we don’t appear to want to reflect on the dangerous ramifications of that for when they “leave the nest” and fly off to study abroad.

Consular Access? Uh, Maybe….

Americans’ reactions to Amanda Knox‘s treatment in the Italian justice system are often intriguing. Some seem to feel she is an “innocent abroad” Italian prosecutors have decided to persecute despite there being “no evidence” of her guilt. Others appear to think she is a victim of a foreign miscarriage of justice.

Italians “targeting” her – from among thousands of other U.S. students in Italy each year – hardly seems credible. As for a “foreign miscarriage of justice”? U.S. official responses to her arrest, trial and conviction undermine that contention also.

The U.S. Embassy in Rome was notified by Italian authorities within hours of her arrest in November 2007, and she was subsequently visited in jail regularly by American consular officers. U.S. officials kept an eye on her murder trial and visited her in prison after her conviction. Throughout, the U.S. appears never to have lodged any complaints with the Italian government about a “biased” or “shoddy” prosecution.

Interestingly, commiserating with Ms. Knox’s plight, Tony Renzo, a 23 year old Italian who had participated in a semester-abroad program in the USA, recently told USA Today:

“This story is like a nightmare for students abroad,” … “It’s so frightening to think about getting arrested in a foreign country.”

Mr. Renzo makes an excellent point there perhaps inadvertently. Objectively it could be extremely “frightening” to be a foreign national arrested…. in some states in the U.S. Due to the U.S. federal system, “international law” is often of no concern to state-level officials. CNN:

….Edgar Tamayo Arias, a Mexican national, was executed at 9:32 p.m. [January 22] CT, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said….

The Mexican government had vehemently protested his pending execution, asserting that he, as a Mexican national, had been denied access to Mexican consular help. CNN continues:

….The Bush and Obama administrations had urged Texas and other states to grant Tamayo and inmates in similar situations new hearings, fearing repercussions for Americans arrested overseas.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has also weighed in on Tamayo’s case, arguing that setting an execution date is “extremely detrimental to the interests of the United States.”

“I want to be clear: I have no reason to doubt the facts of Mr. Tamayo’s conviction, and as a former prosecutor, I have no sympathy for anyone who would murder a police officer,” Kerry wrote. “This is a process issue I am raising because it could impact the way American citizens are treated in other countries.”

That “process issue” evidently matters not at all to the state of Texas:

Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, said the state was committed to enforcing its laws.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re from — if you commit a despicable crime like this in Texas, you are subject to our state laws, including a fair trial by jury and the ultimate penalty,” she said.

However, as Secretary Kerry noted, Tamayo’s guilt was accepted; the issue was the question of disregarding the process agreed under “international law,” and in doing so creating difficulties reciprocally for Americans arrested abroad. Meaning is the U.S. upholding its end of the 1963 Vienna Convention, which the U.S. ratified, and allows U.S. diplomats to visit Americans who are arrested overseas?


It is easy to imagine the indignant rhetoric that would have come flying from the Texas governor’s office if Ms. Knox had been a Texan and Italian authorities in Perugia had denied her U.S. consular help. Yet given that Texans do travel outside of the U.S., we may hear some for real someday regarding someone else, because with that execution the state of Texas may have just made life a little tougher for U.S. citizens abroad like Amanda Knox. It will become harder for the U.S. to argue it is entitled to consular access to its arrested nationals abroad when certain U.S. domestic jurisdictions choose to wave aside that reciprocal right to access when it comes to someone else’s.