The Path of a Story

There’s a story that turns up every so often where one of the characters wonders what things would have been like if x hadn’t happened. If they’d never been born; if they’d never met their partner; if they’d never found the item that turned them into a superhero. Some films that spring to mind are It’s a Wonderful Life, Shrek 4 and Sliding Doors.

It’s something I occasionally think about when writing a story, or more usually, rewriting a story. Sometimes when I’m rewrite I think of a good idea and start to include it, only to find I’ve already done it a few pages later. 

I feel as if I’m creating when I write, but how much creation is there? How much of the path of a book is fixed by my experience and personality? As my friend Eric Brown often says, writing is about letting your subconscious take over. Part of becoming a writer is learning how to do that…

I’ve written more about this here: I Used to Worry about Finishing Stories

Cargo Cult Science Fiction

There’s too much Cargo Cult Science Fiction.

 The term “Cargo Cult Science” was first used by physicist Richard Feynman in 1974. It focuses on the superficial rather than the underlying causes.

Cargo Cult Science Fiction is SF built on Cargo Cult Science.  

Now don’t get me wrong. Cargo Cult SF isn’t SF based on imaginary ideas. Some of the great SF novels contain no real science (a classic example is The Stars my Destination by Alfred Bester).

Cargo Cult SF is SF that doesn’t take the science seriously.  In Cargo Cult SF it’s good enough to say something scientific sounding (quantum carburetor anyone?) without exploring the imaginary science further.

In Cargo Cult SF the hero gains superpowers by being bitten by a radioactive vampire bat and no one else in the story thinks to experiment with radioactive tigers, jellyfish or wombats.

In Cargo Cult SF people use time travel to change past events and no one ever thinks to use time travel to change them back again.

In Cargo Cult SF Gaia steps in to save the USA and no one asks what exactly had she been doing when people died in floods and famines in other parts of the world.

If you don’t follow the science, no matter how wild your idea is, you’re not writing SF.

The Machine Stops

Then she generated the light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her. There were buttons and switches everywhere — buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.

The Machine Stops – E. M. Forster

I was reminded of the above story while looking at Wikiquotes. I was struck by just how much the quotation described me using my iPad at the time.

I don’t think it’s the purpose of SF to predict the future. I think that the majority of SF writers would agree with me on this. I think what we’re seeing here is a reflection of our world in Forster’s reflection of his world…

The Muppets Christmas Carol

As anyone who has seen it will attest, the Muppet’s Christmas Carol is the definitive version of the story. Dickens’s version, whilst competent, fails in a number of rather obvious areas. These include only having one Marley and glossing over the role played by Rizzo the Rat. Worst of all, he neglected to write a number of songs that sound good being sung by Kermit the Frog; Statler and Waldorf; and, hardest of all, Michael Caine.

I’ve watched the film every Christmas practically since it came out. However, when I heard that the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester was screening the film accompanied by a live orchestra I must admit I was confused.

Who’s idea was that, I wondered? Who looked out the movie score? Who put together the click track for the conductor to play along with? Who thought people would pay money to see something that airs for free on TV every December.

Whoever they were, they knew what they were doing. The hall was packed with families. When I say families, I should point out I saw about three actual youngsters there. Most of the children in the families present were now adults, my own two included.

Did the addition of live music add anything to the film? If I’m honest, I kept forgetting there was an orchestra present until someone made a mistake. The music was too loud, it tended to drown the speaking.

But that didn’t matter. Everyone knew the dialog. Not only that, they sang along quite happily.

So it was a great show, though not for the reason I was expecting. When I booked the tickets part of my motivation was to support an orchestra, not out of any idea that orchestras need protecting, but because I like orchestras and if no one goes then they’ll stop playing.

But this wasn’t about the orchestra. It wasn’t about the music. It was all about the feeling of community.

The Muppets Christmas Carol accompanied by a live orchestra. Surely this must be the cultural event of the year.

The Food Bin

This is a green bag. A green bag of food waste.

The green bag contains things like potato peelings and leftover scraps: the sort of things that can’t go on the compost heap. The green bag normally lives in a container. When the bag is full, it’s taken out to the green bin. Here, someone has taken it from the container and left it on the kitchen counter.

This is very much the COP26 solution to the problem of keeping the house tidy. It has the appearance of doing something to help the housing environment, but it achieves nothing. It’s actually offloading the real problem (taking the green bag out to the green bin) onto someone else, all the while giving the culprit the chance to boast about their green bag credentials.

Who was it? Investigations are ongoing, but I’m pretty confident it will turn out to be the dog. The dog seems to be behind most of the crimes committed in our house, including drinking the last of the milk, not putting the butter back in the fridge and failing to turn on the dishwasher.

Genesis

On Friday night I saw Genesis for what will probably be the last time. It was was an excellent, though flawed, gig. Excellent because of the warmth of the crowd, the good humour of the band and the body of work they played. Flawed because they are getting too old for performing. Much comment has been made in the media about how Phil Collins performs seated (as does Mike Rutherford for part of the performance). What’s not really been mentioned is how often Phil Collins is off key and out of time. If I’m to brutally honest, the other original band members weren’t at the top of their game either in terms of their playing.

But this isn’t a problem. Phil Collins still has great stage presence and charisma, he controls the audience with a wave of his hand. And there is is something rather magnificent about seeing him refusing to give up, walking onto stage using a stick. Unlike some other groups still touring, I don’t imagine that Genesis need the money. They were performing because they wanted to. 

I’ve written before about Second Rate Entertainment and how much I enjoy it. This was hardly a second rate entertainment. The light show was of typically high standard, a lot of time had clearly been spent on arranging and rehearsing. I’ve seen a number of older bands in the past few years using backing vocalists and musicians to support ageing singers and players. It’s usually done thoughtfully and honestly, the audience is under no illusions about what they’re hearing.

This was a gig aware of mortality. The song Fading Lights, the last song on Genesis’ last album together was used to introduce a medley of old hits.  The most poignant moment was in the middle of I Know What I Like. Many of us remember how Phil Collins would perform a lively dance with the tambourine. Now all he could do was rather wryly hit it on his head.

I  don’t know what non fans would make of the event. I saw a lot of history in this performance a certain  bravery and quiet resolution not to gentle into that dark night.  I was very moved.

And I knew that’s not just because of the gig.  I’ve been a Genesis fan since I was a teenager. That concert felt like an end bracket on part of my life, one reflected in the fact that I was taking my son to university the following day. The end of another era.  But another built on a solid body of work that I will certainly remember.

Genesis AO Arena Manchester 24/9/21

Seduced by Productivity

I feel that I’ve been seduced by productivity. 

It’s been a gradual process. It began when I discovered GTD. At the time I was swamped with work. I constantly felt there was something else more important that I should be doing. GTD reassured me that I wasn’t neglecting anything, it organised my life. You can implement GTD with a pen and paper. I used Emacs.

That’s where the seduction began. You see, Emacs is just too useful. You can use it for everything, and for years I did. I used Emacs for everything from writing novels to reminding me to chase people for returns at work. It was my calendar, my project planner, my note taking system, everything. 

But slowly I started to introduce other applications into my workflow. Like most people, I spend a lot of my time away from my desktop computer and so I had gradually moved some of my work onto Evernote and Todoist: apps that work well in a web browser or an a mobile phone.   

I spent most of 2020 at my desk: it will probably be the last year that I use Emacs for everything. Emacs remains a powerful, flexible tool that I will use for many aspects of my writing, tech and personal life, however despite such excellent applications as Orgzly and Beorg (both of which I use), there’s no getting away from the fact that Emacs works best as a desktop application.   

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Evernote for years. I currently love it and the direction it’s going, but therein lies the problem. Like Emacs, Evernote is getting just too useful.

I’ve heard it said that before there were washing machines and vacuum cleaners people were content to wash and clean much less frequently. New technology made these tasks easier and so people did them more often.

It’s the same with tools like Emacs and Evernote and Todoist. They mean I can be more productive, and so I am.

But since when did being productive become my primary aim?

Productivity tools mean I can be a more productive writer, but I didn’t start writing because I wanted to be productive. I started because I enjoyed writing, because I had something to say. Over the years I found I was writing because my todo list told me to.

Yes, I want to be more efficient, yes, I don’t want to forget things, but why should productivity be my principle goal? I can understand that it’s my boss’s aim for me to be more productive, but why should it be mine? 

I had a revelation a few months ago about my writing regime. I wrote about it here, and what I said there still holds true. 

I continue to use Emacs, Evernote, Todoist, but now I try to use them to improve my work life balance. I use them to try and maximize enjoyment of what I’m doing. Yes, I frequently forget this and slip back into old habits, but I’m getting the hang of a new way of working.

It’s much more satisfying.

Educational Research

Why not do your own educational research? It’s easier than you might think. Just follow the steps below.

1: Choose a hypothesis.

This is the hardest bit. You could try something obvious such as you get better with practice. You could also try to demonstrate something that is patently ridiculous, for example, sniffing oranges improves grades. To be honest, it makes no difference what you decide on, someone will believe it.

I’m going to choose an obvious hypothesis as it will make it harder for someone to disagree with my conclusions.

Hypothesis: students get better at something when they practice it.

2: Find some Citations

Use this random name generator https://www.behindthename.com/random/ to find some authors to cite. Here are three I generated as an example

Bradford Jamison Elliott, Geoffrey Maitland Roach, Teresa Dorean Robbins

3: Graphs and Charts

Research looks more convincing with a graph or chart. I’m going to create a cycle chart. Educational researchers love cycle charts. Here’s one I knocked up using Graphviz.

Dissatisfaction -> practice -> improvement -> testing

4: Test your Hypothesis

Split one of your classes in two halves. Test your hypothesis on one half, leave the other as a control group. If you don’t get the results you want, just ignore some of the students or swap them around between groups.

5: You’re going to need an Acronym

Think of a word. Some good words to use the basis for your acronym are VECTOR, INSPIRE and RAISE

I chose ERIC, as my friend is called Eric. Eric could stand for

Expectations, Rewards, Involvement and Consequences.

That looks a bit boring, so here it is rewritten as a flowchart:

6: It must be true, I read it on a blog

Publish your research on your blog and then tweet what you’ve done. Retweet other people’s research in the hope that they return the favour.

Running Obsidian on a VirtualBox Windows 98 Image

My mother unearthed  a load of old  CD ROMs in her attic over Christmas.  She was a big fan of adventure games, in particular MYST and Obsidian, and she wanted to play them again.  The games won’t install on Windows 10, but there was an old Windows 98 installation disk amongst the CDs and so a solution presented itself.

  1. Install VirtualBox
  2. Create a Windows 98 Virtual Machine
  3. Install the games on the VM

I did the following on an old laptop (> 10 years) with Ubuntu installed. It should be no problem on a more modern machine.

Given the number of posts online by other people attempting to run Obsidian, I thought I’d share the process I followed.

Before You Start

  • Install VirtualBox. VirtualBox is free and open source. If you’re not familiar with it, there are lots of tutorials on the web.
  • You’ll need ISOs for Windows 98 and the games you want to use. As I already had the CDs, I created the ISOs using Brasero on Ubuntu.

Creating a Windows 98 VM

The following pages how to install Windows 98 on VirtualBox

Be aware, however, that most of the initial steps outlined were unnecessary: I simply chose install from CD. The Windows image formatted the C: drive for me, I didn’t have to insert a boot disk or fdisk the hard drive.

However, on booting up the VM, the following error occurred

While initializing device NDIS:
Windows Protection Error. You need to restart your computer.

This is due to the fact that modern machines are much much faster than those that Windows 98 used to run on.

I found a fix here: https://www.betaarchive.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=24439.

You need to download the NDIS.VXD file (there’s a link in the article above) and copy it onto your virtual machine. I found it easiest to make a floppy image.

If you’re using Linux, you can make a blank floppy disk image with this command

mkfs.msdos -C /path/imagefile.img 1440

Mount the disk…

sudo mkdir /media/floppy1/
sudo mount -o loop /path/imagefile.img /media/floppy1/

… and then copy NDIS.VXD across to the C:\WINDOWS\SYSTEM\ folder of your Windows 98 image. Don’t forget to remove the floppy image or change your boot order when you’re done or you might find your image fails to boot (I wasted an hour before I realized my mistake!)

The above fix should mean that Windows 98 can now run. You’re not finished yet, however, as you’ll need to install video drivers. Go to the Configuring Video section on this link to find out how.

And that’s it, you’re done.  You can now install your games as normal. In my case the meant inserting the Obsidian disk 1 iso and then following the instructions (I’d forgotten about installing QuickTime, but there it is!)

Call me sad, but I enjoyed doing the above more than playing the actual games. It was also a buzz hearing the old Windows start up noise for the first time in years…

One last thought, the entire Win98 image is only about 175Mb.  It’s almost worth cloning it and having a clean install for each game.

bliss

I ripped my CD’s in the noughties.  Now they’re sat in the attic awaiting the collapse of civilisation. When the electricity stops working I can at least look at the covers and remember what music used to sound like.

In the meantime I can enjoy listening to my music wherever I like. Since I digitised my collection, however, I’ve never managed to keep it tidy.  I’ve tried various software to sort out my folders, eventually settling on Picard and Emacs. The trouble is, the collection always seems to grow faster than my attempts to tidy it.  

This weekend I gave up trying to manage it myself and installed bliss.  bliss audits your music collection according to a set of rules that you choose and then fixes any problems it finds.

By way of introduction, bliss fixes your cover artwork.  The software is very flexible, you can choose whether to embed the art into the individual music files, keep it separate or both, for example.

Here’s a picture of it in action:

Scanning Albums

You can choose from alternate covers if you want to match the art in your original collection.

Alertnate covers

Finding lost artwork is only the beginning. You can apply rules to do such things as fix genre or sort out your folder structure. Fixes can be applied manually or automatically, as below:

Fixing Genres

I’ve wasted a lot of time over the past few days just watching it work:

Scanning in action

What’s the catch? Well, not a catch as such, but you have to pay for bliss. It comes with 100 fixes, so that’s a 100 pieces of cover art installed for example.

11 Fixes left

You can buy more fixes but for a large collection you’re going to end up spending £59 or equivalent for unlimited fixes, and let’s face it, if you don’t have a large collection, you’re not going to need the software.

Is it worth it?  As a writer I believe that people should be paid for their creative endeavours however, full disclosure, bliss offer a the license free to people who blog about the software. But even if they didn’t, I’d pay the money.

Fifteen years of trying and failing to tidy my collection have proven to me it’s not going to happen any other way.

Find out more here: https://www.blisshq.com