Manifesto

(I read the following at the launch party for Dream Paris, 11th Sept 2015)

It’s a common question asked of all authors: why did you write this book?

So when I finished Dream Paris, just like when I finished all my other books, I sat down and thought about what my answer would be when asked that question.

It was only than that it occurred to me how odd this was. I’d just spent 381 hours or 15 and a bit days (I timed myself, see my website) writing a novel over the course of a year, and I hadn’t once stopped to think why.

Why am I doing this? Why write at all?

There’s a very easy answer to this. That great writer about writing, Sol Stein said that a writer was someone who couldn’t not write. But perfect though that answer is, it doesn’t actually answer the question. Why write at all?

I spent a lot of time over the summer, wondering just that. I spend a lot oIf my time writing, my family put up with it, they’ve rearranged their lives to a certain extent to let me spend my time sitting at keyboard.

Why do I write? I could say it’s because I’m a story teller, but every human is a story teller. The first story we tell ourselves is the story of who we are. We make up the story of what sort of a person we are: happy or sad or popular or deserving or hard done by. We make up stories about other people, our friends and acquaintances, and our stories about them never match their stories of themselves. We put ourselves in their shoes so we can try and understand their motives and actions. This is what scientists call a theory of mind, some say this is the dawn of intelligence.

So I don’t think it’s enough to say that I’m a story teller, because everyone is.

I could point out that like many people in this room I’m a professional story teller, what’s called a teacher, and have been since I taught fencing on a children’s camp in America and discovered to my surprise that I enjoyed it. All teaching is story telling, teaching is taking the real world in all its splendid, unknowable complexity and reducing it to a story that a child can understand. Not only understand, but believe. And any teacher will tell you that the student doesn’t always believe what you’re saying.

So I’m a teacher and a writer. I don’t know which of those things come first, I know that they’re both linked. Incidentally, my wife often points out that those are two things nearly everyone thinks they can do until they try it…

Now, I don’t know if the above explains why I’m a writer. I know it leaves me thinking who wouldn’t want to be a writer?

But that still doesn’t explain why I write what I write.

There’s a certain cachet in being a writer, and whilst I’m delighted with this, it’s a sign of our society that someone who has written an impenetrable 80 000 word novel about the pain of being middle class is generally held in higher esteem than someone who gives up all their free time to run a Scout Troop or a Brownie Pack.

It’s also true that there is less cachet in writing SF. Indeed it’s not uncommon for people to ask me if I ever intend to write a ‘proper’ book. And yes, that is as rude as it sounds.

Well, I believe that SF is the only truly original form of literature of the past 100 years. SF encompasses everything from the mainstream but adds its own unique sensibility. I believe that SF is read by people who appreciate the beauty in Euler’s Identity just as readily as they appreciate the beauty in the St Matthew Passion, and if they don’t understand either of those things then they don’t scoff at them, they don’t say they are boring they are pretentious, they set off to learn about them. SF recognises that there is as much beauty in maths and science as there is in the arts, and that all these things make humans what they are. In my opinion, to try and explore the human condition without acknowledging the cold equations is to fail as a writer.

I believe what I just said to be true, and I could say that’s why I’m an SF writer, but it’s not.

The truth is, I’m an SF writer because when I write, I write SF. That’s the way that I think. SF isn’t about the robots and spaceships and rayguns – I rarely write about those things anyway – it’s about the way you look at the world, it’s the way that the stories are told. I can’t write a story without extrapolating, without asking what if, without acknowledging the fact that there is a cold, impersonal but ultimately wonderful universe out there.

I want to explain the world, I want to find wonder in the everyday. Ultimately, I think that the fact of the evolution of the horse is more wonderful than any unicorn and I can’t pretend otherwise. That really would be selling out.

This is why I write
This why I write what I write.
I can’t help it, I have no choice

A Pierre Victoire Event

When my wife and I lived in London, we’d often go to a little chain of restaurants called Pierre Victoire. Back in the 1990s you could get a three course meal and a glass of wine for £4.99.

It was excellent value and very tasty. My wife used to be in catering and she would often comment on how they brought the cost down: smaller portions, using cheaper vegetables like carrots, warming the cheap red wine slightly to make it taste better and so on.

And then Pierre Victoire put the price up to £5.99. Same good food, still excellent value…

… but we stopped going. There was something about that extra pound that meant it no longer seemed like such a bargain. I don’t know, maybe it was the difference between paying for two meals with a tenner and with having to pull out a note and then scrabble for two more coins.

There are lots of occasions in life when a tiny change makes all the difference. My wife calls these changes a Pierre Victoire Event. You can read an Emacs example of this here on my Tech blog

Hiroshima

The picture shows the Peace Dome in Hiroshima. The bomb exploded almost directly above the building, it was the only structure left standing in the area afterwards.

It’s very quiet around the dome, nobody has a lot to say. They all look to a point above the building and imagine.

I took the picture below in the Peace Museum, just around the corner from the dome. The red ball hangs over the map: it represents the point of detonation. There is a model of the dome beneath the ball.

The picture in the Peace Museum that upset me the most was of two children playing with kittens. Despite the fact they were in the middle of a war, despite the fact rations were tight and they expected to be firebombed at any time, the children were laughing and smiling. They looked just like any kids anywhere, anytime.

The picture was taken three days before the bomb.

Plane Crash

I saw a plane crash yesterday. The pilot was killed.

Actually, I didn’t see the crash itself. The two planes had been crossing the sky repeatedly, performing stunts. I’d been trying to get a photograph of the pair of them as they crossed: the camera on my phone wasn’t quick enough to capture the actual moment.

At the moment of the crash I’d been having a conversation with a soldier who was giving a demonstration of army equipment. He was showing me the smoke grenade apparatus on the front of a vehicle, and I was making notes for a possible story. We both noticed the black smoke rising from the trees. We both looked up and noticed there was now only one plane, circling, looking for its partner.

"Ah," said the solider. "That’s an issue." He’d talked about his time in Afghanistan. I guess he’d seen this before.

A military band had been setting up nearby. They sat with their instruments in their hands, looking at the smoke over the trees. I heard the conductor say that they didn’t have anything appropriate in their pads to play. The band packed up in good order and left.

Shortly afterwards, two helicopters turned up and hovered over the scene. The festival went on. Music resumed on the main stages.

Later that night, I ate a lamb rogan josh and pilau rice whilst watching Seasick Steve.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-33750405

Install Mediatomb on Ubuntu 15.04

Now that Ubuntu 15.04 has moved to systemd, Mediatomb no longer runs from the dash.

If you want to run it on a per user basis, open a terminal and enter

$ mediatomb

However, if as I do, you prefer to run it system wide, it’s better to use systemd

$ systemctl start mediatomb

To run Mediatomb on bootup

$ systemctl enable mediatomb

Note that it now runs on port 50500, for whatever reason.

I’ve learnt a lot about systemd over the past couple of weeks, mainly from the Archlinux wiki. Here are a couple of links:

https://wiki.archlinux.org/index.php/Systemd

https://wiki.archlinux.org/index.php/MediaTomb

Ubuntu 15.04 + Chillblast Fusion Quasar

I’ve installed Ubuntu 15.04 on my new PC with little difficulty. The machine came with 64bit Windows 8.1 pre-installed, I partitioned the SSD and HDD drives appropriately and Ubuntu went on with no problems…

… once I’d managed to get the usb drive with the installer to boot in the correct mode.

Windows had been installed in legacy boot mode, the usb kept booting in UEFI mode. First I changed the BIOS settings so that devices booted in legacy mode only. This meant that the PC wouldn’t boot from the usb at all. I eventually found an option in the BIOS to force boot from usb and everything went fine.

So far everything is working okay apart from printing from usb (network printing is fine) and Geeknote connection to Evernote. I did have problems getting the Linux Spotify client to work, but the following post gave a solution: http://www.webupd8.org/2015/04/fix-missing-libgcrypt11-causing-spotify.html

I hope the above is of some use to someone!

Update 10/5/15: Had to download the latest hp-lip to get usb printing working. All sorted now

The Only Good Thing about Vinyl was the Covers

I must have bought about 200 vinyl records before I bought a CD player. You can see some of them above, there’s a prize for the first person to name them all (album and artist).

It’s the first time those albums have seen the light of day for about 20 years. Some of them came out about ten years ago when my wife bought me a digital turntable for my birthday, but they quickly went back on the shelf when I discovered just how badly scratched they had become simply through being played.

I’d forgotten just what revelation CD quality sound was, I hadn’t realised just how much I’d taken it for granted. Today is Record Store Day and I note that lots of people are rediscovering the pleasures of vinyl.

Well, good luck to them. I won’t be joining them. CDs were much better than vinyl, and digital downloads are much better than CDs. My CDs are now ripped and in the attic and my music stored in the cloud so I can access it where and when I like. I toured the US one summer whilst at University. I took a Walkman and four C90 cassettes with me. Eight albums for ten weeks.

Never again.

Codes that Changed the World: Fortran

Before Fortran there was no poetry in programming

The BBC are doing a a very interesting radio series on programming languages called Codes that Changed the World, starting with this one on Fortran.

I learned Fortran 77 at university as part of my maths degree. What most sticks in my memory are the dreadful videos we were made to watch featuring a male programmer trying to explain concepts to his dumb girlfriend. That we found the videos offensive goes without saying. I (and many others) stopped going to the lectures and taught ourselves using the text book.

What really puzzled me was why they showed the videos in the first place. Even the lecturer used to apologise for them, saying they were dreadfully old fashioned, but they can’t have been that old. I went to university in 1984. Now, when did Fortran 77 come out, I wonder?

How to be a Great Writer

I was having a conversation about Detective Fiction with a friend of mine recently.

He brought up the fact, apparently well known in detective fiction circles, that the mobile phone is killing detective plots. Writers are tying themselves in knots trying to invent situations in which their characters are unable to make phone calls: they lose their phone, they’re out of charge, there’s no signal, whatever.

Now, I should state again for the record that I don’t read much detective fiction. I’ve nothing against it, it’s just not my thing. But I can’t help thinking that the writers he’s talking about are missing the point. They’re making the same mistake that bad SF writers do: they’ve had an idea and they’re going to hammer the story around it to make it work. They’ve worked out a plot, and they’re going to follow that plot to the end, even if it means getting their characters to act in some pretty strange ways.

I’m often asked about how much I plot a story, and I usually say the same thing. I plot about half way, I have an idea about the ending but that’s it. I always end up following my characters somewhere else. This is one of those things that you can’t be taught, it only comes with practice.

Good writing involves finding an original set of characters and putting them in an interesting situation. Find those things and the story will write itself. A real character will have their mobile phone with them, they will remember to have charged it. Instead of asking how they will lose their phone, a good writer will instead ask what happens next after the character has made that call a lesser writer would have been trying to avoid. That will resuly in a far more interesting story…

You can tell great writing by the way that it just is. There’s something very unforced about it, something very natural, a sense that what you’re reading could be no other way than the way it is. Characters act naturally, any surprises in the story come from their circumstances, not from their reaction to events. Plots unfold in a manner which appears logical (at least on reflection), nothing seems contrived.

Great writing leaves the reader thinking "I could have done that. All I needed was the basic premise and I would have written that. I mean, what else could have happened?"

And that’s the point. It all seems so real, so natural. That’s the mark of a great writer. Someone who has worked hard to make it all look so effortless.

5 Common Linux Misconceptions

1. The Linux Filesystem Hierarchy is a logical, sensible structure

It’s not. It’s something that has been cobbled together in an attempt to unify diverging practices. In an age of terabyte hard drives its easy to forget a time when you were limited to just a couple of floppy drives for storage and had to store programs across different locations.

That’s why program files today are stored in /usr and /opt. And /usr/local. And /usr/bin and /usr/sbin. Oh and /bin and /sbin. When you can’t store everything in one place, you have to make (sometimes artificial) distinctions between where things go. Remember a time when you used to boot up a computer with one floppy, then put in a second floppy with an application program, then a third floppy with data files?

Someone designing a directory structure in a world where terabyte HDDs are the norm might be persuaded it was a good idea to keep bootup files separate in /bin. But /usr/sbin? /opt? I don’t think so.

Have a look at Gobolinux http://www.gobolinux.org/ As they say

GoboLinux is an alternative Linux distribution which redefines the entire filesystem hierarchy.

If you want to know what goes where, there’s a nice overview of the Linux Directory Structure here: http://www.comptechdoc.org/os/linux/usersguide/linux_ugfilestruct.html

2. Bash is just like the Windows shell, except with different commands

Here’s a simple test. How do you use the ls command to list directories only?

Checking the man page, it’s obviously ls -d, right?

Wrong.

Do a Google search on linux list directories only and you’ll find a lot of people making the same mistake. It all comes down to failing to realise that its Bash that’s expanding the * wildcard, and not the ls command itself.

If you’re going to use Bash, you’re going to have to take a little time to read up on how it works. This is a great site: http://linuxcommand.org/

(My preferred method is ls -d */, btw.)

3. The .exe files are in there somewhere

It’s easy to accept that file extensions aren’t necessary in Linux, but it’s hard to shake the idea that something like exe files are still lurking in there somewhere, albeit under different names.

Not really. Linux is far, far more modular than Windows. This is down to the philosophy on which the system is built: programs tools chain their input and output to produce results. A typical Windows application is a flat pack wardrobe, something that solves one problem. A typical Linux application has been formed from many parts using the equivalent of saws, hammers, screwdrivers and chisels.

As an example, a GUI based program that would be a single exe file in Windows would typically be a graphic interface to command line utility in Linux. In terms of user experience, there should be no difference, but behind the scenes, things are very different.

4. Linux is faster/uses less resources than Windows

That may have been true back in the Windows Vista Bloatware days, and it may be true for lightweight distros like Puppy Linux http://puppylinux.org/ and Damn Small Linux http://www.damnsmalllinux.org/, but its not so true now.

Windows 8 may have the worst user interface ever devised, but it installs quickly, loads quickly and runs quickly, matching if not beating systems like Ubuntu 14.04 in benchmark tests.

Why mention Ubuntu 14.04? Well, that leads onto the next point…

5. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, so long as it works

It does.

It really, really matters.

You might do everything via the command line. You might think that Openbox is all you need as far as desktop management goes, but you’re in a minority.

If you’re the only person using your computer, then fine, but if your less technologically inclined partner, friends, parents or children are relying on you to provide the IT then all of a sudden looks really matter.

Of course they does. In a world slowly being taken over by Apple this is so obvious it shouldn’t need saying.

The command line is fantastic, lxde is a miracle of economy, damn small linux is damn fine, but they’re not what most people regard as a solution. What most people want is something that looks good and is so easy to use they don’t even have to think about it. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t care how my shirts are made as long as they look smart and feel comfortable. Most people feel the same way about their computer.