Our Monsters on Moshi

Last night my six-year-old son signs in to MoshiMonsters, the popular online children’s game, which now has over 50 million users worldwide. He is very excited because he got a monthly membership for Christmas so he can now do more with his pet Monster. So while I get dinner started he clicks through to his friends’ tree, the space where children post messages to each other, and lets out a shriek of delight. A pink monster in America called KittyKat wants to be his ‘friend’.  “I’m going to send her a message,” he yells and excitedly begins typing. Continue reading

Fireworks please

On the evening of Friday 28th October my dear friend Basil sends me a text: “Congratulations on the publication of your book. Well done.”  I respond quickly: “Thanks for remembering the date but has it actually been published? There have been no fireworks.”

Don’t worry, he texts back, “I’ve arranged some for tomorrow night and some more on November, 5th.”

On Saturday, on a Harry Potter Muggletour for my daughter’s 11th birthday I surreptitiously peer into bookshops from the South Bank to the West End – no sign anywhere of Is Your Child Safe Online? There are, however, fireworks that night.

On Monday, in Kingston with my mum, we pop into Waterstones. Nothing. By Tuesday, I decide to email my publisher, White Ladder. Has the book actually been published? They respond quickly. Yes indeed it has! It was in the warehouse on Friday, my copies will soon be in the post and they are very pleased with the book. Must say, I know the book is about the online world but I’ll be rather relieved to see a paper version. I was starting to wonder if it only existed in my imagination.

Heartened by the news from the publisher, I visit the Wimbledon Waterstones, my local bookstore. I know they have ordered 200 copies because the publisher told me this on the day I did the BBC radio interviews two weeks ago. It isn’t on the shelf yet so I pluck up the courage to ask when they expect it in.

At the counter, a young shop assistant asks if he can help. I ask him if the book is on order and he does a quick search. “Yes,” he says, “we have one on order.” My mother raises her eyebrows. I am hoping he means that is my one of the 200 ordered! Nervously, I mutter, “I’m just curious as I wrote the book.”

“Oh,” comes a rather disinterested response, “well it is in the warehouse so I guess not too long now”.

Before my son’s school assembly, one of the Dad’s congratulates me on the publication of my book. I tell him about my experience in Waterstones. “No, no, no,” he says, “you should have walked out, walked back up to the counter and said to him, look sir, can we try this again, please.  You see, I am the author.”

It makes me laugh. But, I am after all, just another author in a country where over 200,000 new books are published each year – that is over 550 a day.

Okay, so it may not be the next Harry Potter (or War and Peace) but, even if I say so myself, it is a serious book written in an accessible way which I believe will give parents plenty to think about as well as practical advice. In the playground, one Mum tells me she really worries about her children online and thinks there is a need for it. I hope others will too.

It is currently available online at Waterstones, Guardian Books, Tesco and Amazon, among others, will soon be in selected bookstores and as an e-book.

Radio Gaga

After 13 interviews in a row with the BBC’s regional radio stations yesterday about my book Is Your Child Safe Online?, friends and family have been ringing to ask if they can listen again. Having played back the five that were live, and feeling very much like my own worst enemy, I’m not sure they should listen to any but in the interests of publicity here goes. Continue reading

Is Your Child Safe Online?

After six months of fascinating research my book Is Your Child Safe Online: a Parent’s Guide to the internet, Facebook, Mobile Phones and other New Media is finally in production. In the course of research I have interviewed a wide cross section of people from child psychologists to computer scientists, teachers, academics, criminologists, parents, children and experts from the industry.   It is due out in October and will be published by White Ladder.

Feeding Africa

Rising food prices and the link to political instability have been a core theme across global media in recent weeks, following the release of United Nations updated food price index in January. That was bad news; for seven consecutive months the index rose, in both real and nominal terms, to highest levels since records began in 1990. And the forecasts do not look good either Abdolreza Abbassian, a UN Food and Agricultural Organisation economist and grains expert, says “high prices are likely to persist in the months to come”. Continue reading

The blame game

Image created by my 5-year-old son

For parents over, give-or-take, the age of the 35 the ease and familiarity with which children use technology today is at best perplexing and at worst terrifying. Now, according to the editorial in the latest issue of Psychologies magazine, there is some evidence to suggest that computers may cause psychological problems in later life. The magazine cites a study by Bristol University’s Angie Page (more on this here) which finds that children spending over two hours a day at a computer screen have a 60 per cent higher risk of psychological problems. So, for those of us whose childhood memories are of wind-in-the-hair freedom, Ladybird books and spot of benign telly when the nights drew this is something of a relief. The computer after all, must be to blame for poor literacy skills, increases in violence and the rise in teenage pregnancies – the list goes on.  It is certainly a view the Daily Mail would have us believe. Continue reading

Vietnam: Back to bikes?

Recently I started blogging for Better Cities Now, a relatively new site that describes itself  as providing “news and insights for the people that run cities”. It is an interesting concept and thought it would offer a forum to write a about a recent trip to Vietnam. I ask if that country’s city planners could leapfrog the transition from scooter to car and do what London with its Barclays-sponsored bicycle scheme and now Beijing, as this story explains, are doing to get people back on their bikes.  In the two Vietnamese cities I visited, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon),  the roads are already jammed with scooters.  If, as happened in China, rising income levels means there will soon be many more cars on the road, pollution could be about to get much worse.

A country on the move?

The energy in Vietnam is palpable. In a place where not more that 20 years ago towns and cities teemed with bicycles, the roads of Vietnam now pulse with scooters carrying everybody from heavily pregnant women to babies sandwiched between their parents, middle-aged men in suits and flower-sellers precariously balancing colourful bunches.

Roads are being upgraded, buildings are going up and increasingly cars are being driven by its youthful population – 61% are under the age of 35. This is clearly a country on the move. This year it is expected to be the third fastest growing economy after China and India with GDP growth of 5.3%. Little wonder then that Intel has recently opened its billion dollar factory for business in Ho Chi Minh city, formerly Saigon.

Like many parts of the developing world there are contradictions. Heading south west to the Mekong Delta the landscape quickly becomes rural with a distinctly developing world feel.  At regular intervals in this lushly green agricultural landscape are bustling towns. Here street markets, homes, barber shops, wedding outfitters and cafes open their doors right onto roads while scooters, bicycles and the occasional car, truck or bus hurtle past at breakneck speed. One has to wonder about the impact of pollution on the inhabitants and shopkeepers. Yet infrastructure development, though haphazard, is clearly happening. While some parts of the road heading southwest are potholed and dusty, the state-of-the-art 1.5kilometre bridge crossing the Hau River into thechaotic commercial centre of Can Tho would not be out of place anywhere in the West.

But let us not forget that 70% of this country is still rural. Of the 87 million strong population there are 10 million farmer households. In 2009 agriculture contributed 17% to GDP and the government is hoping that this can be improved. Vietnam is now the world’s second biggest exporter of rice after Thailand, producing around 40 million tonnes of rice year. After feeding its people in 2009, 6 million tonnes were left for export and the government is hoping to boost this by increasing the productivity of its smallholder farmers. In doing so it hopes to improve livelihoods; the average income for farmers in Vietnam is currently $10 a month.

Little wonder then that agribusinesses like Syngenta which has a 24% market share here, followed by Bayer with 11%, are here too.  The argument is that if Vietnam’s smallholders – and the farms which range from an average of 0.5hectares in the south to 0.1hectares in the north are small – can boost the productivity of existing land they will not only improve their own livelihoods but help to achieve global food security. Rice, a staple crop which feeds some 3 billion people world wide (nearly half the world population), may not be a highly traded commodity but it is vital to food security. Some of the farmers in region have bought into this and are using pest control and herbicides to protect their crops from insects and disease. If applied in exactly the right quantities, and at the right time such technologies are said to boost yields by 20% without any additional input costs and with no risk to biodiversity. But this is a huge challenge in a country like Vietnam and the training of farmers is essential.   

One thing is certain, the farmers of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta certainly reveal how complicated, and yet how absolutely critical, the business of agriculture is to the country’s economy. Indeed the fertile Mekong Delta produces 17 million tonnes of rice every year; all the rice available for export comes from here. In addition, there is a thriving aqua industry of fish and shrimp and 3 million tonnes of fruit are cultivated in the region.

But as the autumn in the Mekong Delta draws to a close the annual flooding, which brings with it vast quantities of fish and alluvial deposits necessary for winter-spring rice crops, has still not come. The water is the lowest it has ever been and poses a threat to the crop that has been central to Vietnam’s recent success. It is crucial then that all the stakeholders from farmers to government, businesses, environmental agencies and scientists work together to find solutions to issues of crop failure and climate change. Failure to do so could see Vietnam’s already demotivated farmers heading to the big city  in search of a better life with the likes of Intel.

6 November, 2010