Thursday, March 15, 2012

Marker posts

(Cough. My new Doctor Who, Wirrn Isle, came out today but I'm not ready: I was planning a proper piece about that for its official release date at the end of the month. I'm new at this. But while I go off pondering that, I have been writing the following and wanted to share it with you.

That's all. Carry on.)

When I went freelance as a writer, people said the reality of it all would hit me on that first day I would be my own boss and would no longer have to go into an office. Nope. I sat there in my own office, fielding calls from six bosses instead. But it hit me last week as I did some drama work in New York and some business in Florida.

This is the first time I've worked in the States and I know that's not actually a big deal but it feels it to me. On the one hand, I feel great that I'm doing something that requires me to be thousands of miles from home and which just happens to include New York. But on the other, I don't half feel the pressure that the trip has to fund itself.

I don't know what it is in me that prefers working: it is better to be crew than passenger, I deeply feel that. So despite spending some days entirely in my motel working, and maybe because I've not even glanced at Disneyworld or Legoland or Harry Potter Country or Kennedy Space Planet, this trip feels very new and quite odd. Enough so that I've noticed what a difference it makes not being a tourist.


You just don't look like a tourist

Everybody knows. Everybody knows you're not a tourist. I got some time off in New York and went to a museum where on the way in, the staff were greeting everyone with "Hi! Welcome to New York! And where are you folks from?". Until I reached the desk and they just said "What's your ZIP code?"

(Since you ask, I said it’s 10017. That’s where my US iTunes account is registered.)

The museum exhibit was about the street grid plan of Manhattan. I've written about this before, I've written drama about it, and a few months ago I heard a exhibition was opening. I preordered the accompanying book on Amazon. And then thought, sod it, why not just go to the museum? It’s the Museum of the City of New York and the exhibition is The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011. Runs until July 15.

Anyway, so, one thing that I'd written about was how the streets were planned long before there were enough people in Manhattan to live on them. Long before they were as flat as they are now. I specifically wrote about John Randel Jr marking out the streets and avenues with wooden posts. Now I learn that he did that at first but people kept pulling them out. So instead, he began using heavy masonry. And one was found just a few years ago.

Picture New York as hilly terrain - Manhattan means “Island of Many Hills” - with just a few streets down near the harbour where the Hudson and East rivers cross. Less than a fifth of the island had streets then but it’s a small island, it was filling up. So the council divided the rest of the land into what then became 12 avenues and 155 streets: getting the maximum room possible for the most number of people.

Rocky, wild, hilly countryside and then these stone markers, spaced out at precisely calculated points. That photo at the top of this is of the marker post that was found. The very post that John Randel Jr banged into place to mark the crossing of 4th Avenue and 26th Street, back in the 1810s and 1820s when there just wasn't a 3rd Avenue or a 25th Street. There wasn't anything.

And just to show you, here's what that spot looks like now. 

It's now 26th and Lexington: the 4th Avenue is now broken up into chunks with names like this one, Lexington. Just as the 6th is officially the Avenue of the Americas, even if nobody calls it that unless it's their address.

It was very strange and personal seeing that marker post. It felt like the last time I was in the States and I saw a bit of the Titanic's hull in an exhibition. I was naughty then and touched it but I was good now and didn't press on the post.

Made me think. And I'm not even sure what it made me think. But may I throw some thoughts at you?

After New York I went to do some work in Florida and the car rental firm says I drove around the state for 730 miles. Normally that means I haven't found a car park.

But this time it meant I had quite a lot of time to think. And because I was in Florida, there wasn't a lot to distract me. New York feels real and dirty and kind of like it was built on purpose. Florida towns feel like they were just spilt there.


Collected thoughts from a travelling bloke

Man cannot live by Domino's Pizza. But it's only a two-minute drive.

In New York, the kindest thing you could say about me is that I look very English. But in Florida, I look slim. Now trying to work out where I could go to look hot.

Speaking of hot, it is a rule: you cannot switch on air conditioning too quickly.

Just got served by a guy whose tag says his name is Ishmael. "Call me," I said. On the good side, he actually had not heard that before. On the bad, I appear to have a date for the evening.

The poorer an area, the more churches it has.

E Street Radio really does not play anything except Bruce Springsteen music. He’s done some tremendous stuff. But he’s not half done some duffers too. Enough duffers are on his new album, Wrecking Ball, that I wasn’t going to buy it. But it became the accidental soundtrack to my driving on this trip, so I did. Rocky Ground is a good song. I keep calling it Rocky Road.

Sirius XM, the satellite radio service that includes E Street Radio and The Coffeehouse, sounds fantastic. It plays tracks I've owned for years and makes me wonder if they are new recordings, sometimes even new arrangements.

At my sleazy Florida motel where I was to be for most of a week, the desk clerk looked me over and asked: “Will one key be enough, sir?” I promise you he winked.  In New York, the desk clerk looked at me too. I was one man, staying one night, in one room. He didn’t ask. Just gave me two keys.

Just one more thing

Everything is easier once you've done it.  So why do we ever wait?

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Travels with my iPad

Back in June 2010, I really wanted to know whether Apple's then-new iPad was genuinely useful for writers or whether I just fancied getting one. Nobody seemed to have written about exactly the things I wanted to know, so I selflessly bought one to find out and tell you.

Now I'm bemused that it was only June 2010. Just as with my iPhone, this iPad has become so much a part of my every day work that I don't understand that I've only had it a short time.

But about two or three weeks ago when I was booking flights for a trip, I really wanted to know whether I could get by only taking my iPad. This time there are many articles out there about replacing your MacBook or your PC with an iPad but that's not quite what I was thinking. Forget what I would normally have used or normally would've taken, given the jobs I needed to do, could my iPad cut it?

I have selflessly gone on a ten-day trip the States to find out for you. I'm about halfway through and writing to you from a film noir-style motel that looks right out of Veronica Mars to me. It's all business in Florida with a completely accidental stopover in New York. Both ways. And within which I've managed to arrange some drama meetings.

So there are two things for you right there: Florida business and New York drama. It was impossible to do the work without taking something, and I gambled on taking just my iPad. Ten days is right on the edge of how much clothing you can pack, even though I could cut that down because I knew I'd have washing facilities. If I added my MacBook Pro then as small as it is, that's another chunk of packing and then there's the mains cable. There is no possibility that I'm going to let my MacBook Pro get chucked in the hold so adding that one thing would automatically mean two bags instead of one.

Which means everything taking longer. And since my time in New York, especially, is very tight, it made a difference. With multiple bags, I'd have taken a cab from JFK. With only carry-on luggage, I skipped baggage reclaim and was on the New York City subway system at lightspeed.

All of which is great if my iPad did what I needed.

Pretty much, yes. There've been some problems. Yesterday I thought I needed to print out some legal documents and I was able to use my iPad to connect remotely to my office Mac in England and email myself the forms, but there proved no way to print them out here. If I were staying in a fancier hotel, it might be different.

Oddly, this blog has been the hardest part to write: for some reason Google insists I want to write it in HTML and never want, for instance, to press Return when I could type me some line break tag instead.

And I did hit a Flash problem. If you know what Flash is, you know that it's a problem. Even when it works, it's a problem. But it was flavour of the minute once and I can tell you now that certain official US corporate websites require Flash for no very good reason. Just to enter account numbers into a form, they need Flash. This smacks of a bored web designer to me.

But iPads will not play nice with Flash so I did remote-control my office Mac again and fill out the form there, some 4,000 miles away from me.

Then iPads kind of make you do one thing at a time. You read books on them, or you email, or you write, or you watch films, you don't tend to skip about between them. And I had to do more of that than usual: I'd look up a tiny detail of some PDF legal form here and need to research another detail about it on a US business website there. Business means financial too so I was checking online banking, moving funds around, recording everything and that meant swapping from the Numbers spreadsheet to the web browser and back and to and back and to.

Two days ago that was fine: I zipped back and forth like nobody's business. Today, not so much.

If you do something that uses up an iPad's RAM then when you swap back to, say, the web browser Safari, it won't have been able to hold the page in memory and so must get it again. That's fine, but with online banking that's seen as your logging out of the secure system so today I was re-logging in.

And a similar thing happened with Numbers: when I went back to that spreadsheet, the document had closed.

I get it and it's not a gigantic deal, but I don't get how it was happening today when I was in a hurry and not yesterday when I was also in a hurry. You thought the word hurry was key, didn't you?

There was one difference. Today I was typing standing up as I ran around, yesterday I was typing at the desk and also using my iPad to play music.

Typing. That's one thing I forgot. I have written thousands of words on my iPad without getting an extra, external keyboard. Thousands of words typed directly on the glass. But it is slower and my fingers do blunt a bit, so shortly before I left the UK I bought an external keyboard. A Logitech Tablet Keyboard for iPad. Quite often it gives me a double character when I first start typing, but otherwise it's so good that it is transformational.

While we've been talking, my iPad has been downloading a film off iTunes for me. Angela is away on holiday and mentioned that she'd watched The Third Man last night: call me daft, but I want to watch it with her, so to speak. So I rented it off iTunes and will watch it in a mo.

This one piece of metal, glass and plastic has been how I've run my business for this trip. It's how I've kept in touch with people. Perhaps madly, it's how I've been arranging drama meetings back in London. And it's been entertainment. I've read books, I've read scripts, I've watched many TV episodes, I've watched a film or two and I've listened to music a lot.

This would be an ad for iPads except for one thing.

As I write this, it's Tuesday evening Eastern Standard Time and a new iPad will be announced tomorrow. Plainly, I'm not writing on that new iPad tonight but I'm also not writing on the previous one, the iPad 2.

This is the same iPad I bought right back in June 2010. I've sat with friends who have iPad 2s and those are clearly enormously faster. I know that business with Safari pages and Numbers spreadsheets closing does not happen with iPad 2. And the iPad 2 does have cameras to let you use FaceTime. No question, iPad 2 is very good. One presumes iPad 3 is going to be better still, though search me how.

But I've no reason to buy it. Except fancying it, obviously. As much as I've grown accustomed to having my original iPad with me everywhere, this trip has made me appreciate it even more.

Mind you, if you fancied buying an original, nay, classic iPad... one careful if very constant user... You'd have to tear it out of my hands but I'd throw in the original box on my way to the Apple Store...