Thursday, October 13, 2016

Like a metaphor

I remember learning about metaphors and simile in English at school. It didn't take long to learn the difference (similes use the words "like" or "as" in them), yet it felt like we kept on having tests where we would have to work out which one a particular phrase was. I checked whether the phrase had "like" or "as", ticked the appropriate box, and moved on. "I've got this already", I thought.

At the time I considered them overrated. I was reading a lot of Science Fiction and I liked ideas that tickled the imagination and a clever plot. All this flowery metaphor and simile didn't add to the story, and I could do without it.

As I grew older and my literature tastes expanded I began to understand the appeal of language that painted a picture with words. Like a maturing tree I spread my branches into different genres - the classics, historical detective stories. There I found phrases that were sugary on my mental taste buds and, like a perfect bit of Prog, conjured up visions in my mind. As a coal miner pursues a seam relentlessly into the earth, I mined the rich vein of Literature with a capital L and discovered perfect gems set into great works.

As I considered this, like an athlete looks back on their performance, I wondered if it meant I had a lack of imagination. Later I thought it was probably because, like one's taste-buds become dulled with age, and food needs to be more highly flavoured, actually it was more that I had a great imagination then and now it was getting more dull. Maybe back then those SF stories conjured up great visions in my mind as a conjurer conjures up great tricks.

Imagine then, if you will, that I travel back in time like some Eighteenth Century explorer, and visit my younger self. I go to that child sitting at one of the desks arranged in rows as if they were some grid for learning, and whisper in his shell-like ear. I tell him of my subsequent discovery of the benefits to the mental palette of this rich flavour that can be found in writing that paints pictures in the mind's eye. I encourage him to use more metaphor and simile, as his English teacher has already done many times, like a broken record. He hands in an essay for her to read, and waits as she digests it like a good meal.

"Happy?" he says to the English teacher as she finished it off.

"As a sandboy," she says.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Dara O'Briain's Go 8 bit - more fun that I thought it would be

Lately I've hugely enjoyed watching Go 8 Bit, an original programme on the Dave channel. It's like sitting on the sofa watching your friends play a console game or sitting next to them as they play on a PC, but on TV. I thought it was worth checking out, but it turns out that watching people on TV play games is more fun that you might think.

It's billed as Dara O'Briain's show, but it was created by Steve McNeil and Sam Pamphilon, who have done it as a live show. They are joined by Ellie Gibson, a gaming journalist, who does a bit on the history of the games they play. Each week they have a couple of guests, usually comedians, who join Steve and Sam's teams and play video games each other.

They usually start with some sort of retro game in the first round, like Galaxians. For the next two the guests each play their favourite game against the other team captain. The fourth round is pretty random. The last one is the big finale. One week they had a level of Little Big Planet especially written for the show. Another time they were playing Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, with the team captains sitting in a plastic container with a large balloon inflating above them as they read out the bomb manual.

The games are played out on a big screen at the back of the stage, and the way they get around having to look at the back of the contestants heads for the whole show is to rotate the stage back and forward by 90 degrees between the chatty bit and the game playing bit. While the rotation is going on the teams unfortunately feel the need to entertain us by, for example, pretending that they are paddling canoes.

The audience try to predict who they think will win each round, but it's often hard to call. Just because someone played a lot of a game 20 years ago doesn't mean they'll be any good against Sam or Steve, or sometimes it does.

If you're old and you like games, then I'll pretty sure you'll love this. If you're either or neither, then let me know in the comments what you think.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Embed Getty images for free

You can now embed some Getty images for free, providing its for non-commercial use.

That is all.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

I'm thinking of designing a University course...

I'm thinking of designing a University course covering the following modules:
The growth of home computers in the pre-PC era.
The rise of punk and indie rock in the 80s and the rise of the New Romantics.
Lincolnshire rural life between recessions.
The Grammar School system and exam-based qualifications before the introduction of GCSEs.
The role of the eldest child in the nuclear family.
I'll call it

My Life as a Teenager

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Yes in concert at The Royal Albert Hall

I put this on Facebook before I went:
In the year of my 40th birthday I went to see Genesis, my favourite band. Since then I've been to see Kate Bush, one of my favourite artists. Tonight (in the year of my 50th birthday) I'm going to see Yes with Ben, another of my favourite (old) artists. ELO is another favourite, but I'm not so fussed to see Jeff Lynne. In the year of my 60th birthday I think we can expect to see Pink Floyd reunite and then that will be a full set of (old) favourites.
We were a bit late so the support act had started before we sat down. I didn't know who they were, and my initial thoughts were that they might be Marillion. I'm not familiar with anything but their first album, but I did know they'd gone on to release several more. After they'd back announced one of their songs I search engined it, and found out they were Moon Safari. They seemed like a young prog band, so a good fit for being support.

As a fan I'm pretty rubbish. Their last song was a tribute to Chris Squire, who died last year. During the concert they also paid tribute to Peter Banks who died in 2013. I didn't know that either of them had died.

The lineup was Jon Davison on vocals (who I thought was Jon Anderson until I did the research for this blog post), Steve Howe on guitar, Alan White on drums, Geoff Downes (half of Buggles) on keyboards and Billy Sherwood on bass. Although they weren't all the people who performed the original albums, I couldn't tell at all.

The concert was advertised as two albums in full - Drama and Fragile, but they also played other songs, most of which I didn't recognise, apart from Owner of a Lonely Heart. Steve Howe did most of the talking and he introduced that track by saying that they were happy to play music from all of Yes's career.. Those are two of the three albums I own (the third being Close to the Edge).

Hearing an album in concert is great, you know exactly what's coming up and there's so much to look forward to. Being of the generation brought up on tapes and LPs I never use shuffle, so there's always a natural order to tracks. I slightly prefer Close to the Edge to Fragile, but Fragile does have Roundabout, which is a fantastic track. For the last track on Drama, Tempus Fugit, the legendary Trevor Horn joined them to sing the lead vocal. My theory is that because they were in London he popped up the road. I was quite excited about this, as he did a great job on Drama and then has gone on to produce many notable albums.

My teenage son was one of the youngest there - most of the audience was as old or older than me, and mostly male. It's not really a surprise though, although in one form or another they've been releasing albums in recent years but haven't really gained many new fans.

For a review with song titles and good pictures there's this this one with words by Gary Parsons and pictures by Dave Pettit.

They announced that they'd be back next year touring with Tales From Topographic Oceans. I like that album, but I don't think it has as wide appeal as the two they did this time.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Top twelve albums

In the spirit of owning your own words here's something I put on Facebook (but then this is living on Google's servers, but at least it's away from a walled garden).

List 12 albums that have stuck with you. 1 album per artist only (yes, I know, difficult). No compilations (also difficult). Don't take too long; don't think too hard.
  1. Tubular Bells - Mike Oldfield
  2. Time - ELO
  3. Close to the Edge - Yes
  4. Sensual World - Kate Bush
  5. So - Peter Gabriel
  6. The Seldom Seen Kid - Elbow
  7. Wish you were here - Pink Floyd
  8. Joshua Tree - U2
  9. Genesis - Genesis
  10. The Invisible Band - Travis
  11. Kingdom of Rust - Doves
  12. and one compilation to break the rules
  13. Pure Moods
Since then I've thought of another album which could go in at number 12 - Keane, Hopes and Fears.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Would you like For the Win by Cory Doctorow?

"Would I like For the Win by Cory Doctorow?", said no-one to me, ever. Book reviews are useful as such, but the most useful thing is for someone to give me enough information about the sort of book that a book is that I'd know if I'd like it. It may be lacking in depth of character, but if it's got spaceships in it, or mind-expanding travelogue (I'm looking at you Iain M Banks) then that's enough for me.

So would you like it? I think you'd need to know a bit about gold farming, or at least read up on it before you start. I think you'd need an interest in video games, but not necessarily. You would have to enjoy, or not mind, explanations of economics as applied to the virtual world. They are sprinkled throughout but avoid being not too patronising.

What I'd like to know about it is how much is made up, without having to do the tedious work of typing stuff into search engines to see, for example, if there really is an MMO called Mushroom Kingdom run by Nintendo. If you know someone who's done that heavy lifting already then let me know. I did do a bit of looking at real MMOs and tweeted this:

If you want a proper review then here's one I approve of from the Book Smugglers.

How to get books you really want from the library every time you visit

  1. Get old.
  2. While you're getting old develop a like for a variety of fiction styles: SF, historic detective stories, fiction that wins literary prizes but isn't too wierd, magical realism.
  3. Read about a book a month. Go to the library every three months.
  4. (And this is the important one.) Keep a list on your phone of authors you've liked previously, or that you've heard about on TV, radio, newspapers, book blogs or book podcasts.
  5. Visit the library and work through that list.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Quiz

Answer as you see fit. No search-engining allowed.

  1. What were the skies like when you were younger?
  2. Why does it always rain on me?
  3. Tell me why.
  4. Do you know the way to San Jose?
  5. Why do birds suddenly appear?
  6. Is she really going out with him?
  7. What are words worth?
  8. Who let the dogs out?
  9. Why does my heart feel so bad?
  10. Do you really want to hurt me?
  11. What is love?
  12. Where did you come from?
  13. Would you hold it against me?
  14. How many roads must a man walk down?
  15. Will you still need me?
  16. Do you realise?
  17. Is there anybody out there?
  18. Like does he have a car?
  19. Are you waiting for the family to arrive?
  20. What does the fox say?
  21. Where do you come from?

Friday, September 04, 2015

Brian Eno goes on the internet

Brian Eno's looking at cat videos on the internet? There goes the future of ambient music.

Insert discussion of the original meaning of the word meme and what it now means here.

Memes are supposed to be understood by lots of people without explanation. This one fails.

I've been visiting Universities with one of my sons, looking at their Music Tech courses. (Insert link to blog post about thoughts on that when it's written.) At Portsmouth they had an analogue mixing desk that used to be used by Coldplay. The guy showing us round made some disparaging remark about their music. I wish I'd been quicker off the mark and asked, "Couldn't even Brian Eno" have saved them. For Brian has breathed on music by U2 and Coldplay and probably other people and made it more shiny.

There was a BBC documentary a few years ago about him and I remember a bit from it where he said that he doesn't go on the internet as he would find it too distracting. I can't remember the exact words, but it was along the lines that it would ruin his creativity.

Picture from Joe Plocki and put through

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Music and critics

Is there a song that you could listen to over and over again for the rest of your life without getting fed up of it? Is there a song where you think, "I want to live in this song. I want the intro to be my porch. I want to walk on the bass, to sit on the synth line and watch the melody. I want to sleep on the repeat to fade until it all starts again."

This quote from Laura Potter has captured a nagging feeling I've had for a while:
A significant amount of time and money are spent exploring ways to increase our emotional ‘attachment’ to products, yet we become attached to what objects signify, or to whom they refer, not directly or materially to what they are. I’m not convinced there is any point trying to actively design attachment into things, because the conditions under which objects become personally significant are highly subjective: either contextually dependent or serendipitously evolved.
I'm taking it out of context, and it goes on to talk about making things. However I think it captures the way I feel about creative work, and music in particular. I don't like reading reviews of things I've heard, seen or read, as by the time I've finished them I have an attachment and I don't want anyone to spoil that.

Monday, July 13, 2015

PR for pirates

Pirates Feb 16, 2012 9-041 
I admire the PR firm that took on pirates. I imagine it went something like this:

"Ahoy!, we're pirates, we'd like t' improve our image."
"Just so I can understand how best to help you, can you tell me what your core business is?"
"I see. How would you define piracy?"
"Stealin' from other people."
"Any other related activities?"
"Kidnappin' sometimes, sinkin' ships, fightin'. Surprisin'ly always a bit o' fightin' with t' stealin'. Sometimes a bit of killin'."
"But stealing is your core business?"
"Hmm, that is generally what most people think of when they think of pirates. You haven't given us much we can go on really if you want an improved image."
"Some people say our accent be charmin'."
"You're right, that is maybe something we can work with."
At this point a second person from the PR firm chips in, "maybe we could have a 'talk like a pirate day'?"
First PR person: "Yes, I can see that working."
Second PR person: "Given time, I think those clothes would appeal to people".
"They're just our normal clothes though", says the pirate.
"Give it time though, I think this one is going to take a few years to work on."

So now we think pirates are charming, with their sailing ships, nautical adventures and treasure maps. The PR firm that took them on must have done it a long time ago, because probably no matter how old you are you can't remember a time when pirates weren't good fun.

I wonder if the same company will be approached at some point in the future.
"Hello there, we're relatives of Jimmy Saville...".

(Pirate translation provided by

Friday, May 15, 2015

Font pocket fluff

(Or pocket lint for my US readers, I don't know what the Canadians say). Here are some font related things front the depths of the pockets of my mind.

Just my Type - a book about fonts by Simon Garfield. It's full of useful information, but light-hearted enough to say that there are worse sins than using Comic Sans inappropriately.

I'm old enough to remember Sans Serriffe.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Review of "Secondhand memories" by Takatsu

My review as a Librarything early reviewer:

The first thing to talk about with this book is the form. Normally it doesn't make much difference, but this is a cellphone novel turned into a book turned into an ebook (I read it in PDF). So small chapters are turned into nicely laid out pages which are then put onto a screen. I think it would be nice to own the paper book. As the chapters are so short I think it's a good coffee table book which you can leave lying around and pick up to read bits and pieces from.

I read it in several bigger chunks and I found the pace of reading quite intense. There are a lot of line breaks, rather than longer paragraphs, which I took a while to adjust to.

The story itself takes a couple of unexpected turns and then follows a fairly predictable path, though you do need to keep reading to see if what you think might happen actually does. I couldn't really relate to some of the things the main character did, though perhaps it's because I'm a bit older than he is.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Personal thoughts on Terry Pratchett

I thought about writing some thoughts on Leonard Nimoy after he died, but I wouldn't have said that much. I was genuinely sad when I heard the news about Terry Pratchett, so I feel I have to write some stuff down.

I met him once. He was patron of the Friends of High Wycombe Library and he gave a talk at their inaugural meeting, at our church as it happened. From the circumstantial evidence I think it was 2003 or 2004. After the talk he was doing signings and I gave him a list of the BBC top 100 books to sign, which he had five books of his in it. He looked bemused at signing this, rather than a book of his. I don't know where that piece of paper is. It isn't lost - it knows where it is.

He was born locally, in Beaconsfield, which is probably why he agreed to be patron. In his talk he said how tolerant librarians would let him take out a couple of hundred library books at a time. I thought I was a prolific reader as a child, but he wins. He also talked about his days as a reporter on the Bucks Free Press.

Some have compared him to Douglas Adams. Some may consider this heretical but (*whispers*) the trouble with Douglas Adams though was that he didn't write much. By the time he got to the fifth book in the Hitchhikers trilogy it was all wearing a bit thin, though the Dirk Gently books were more consistent. Terry Pratchett wrote so many books, with plenty of originality and humour all the way through.

I've got a blog post that I'm gestating about things that you can put into a book or film that will cause me to forgive other faults, like poor plot or character. One of those things is Terry Pratchett. I've just finished The Long Mars and it sort of faded out at the end, but I can forgive that because, well, Terry Pratchett. Or you could blame Stephen Baxter for that bit.

Here are a couple of good articles on the great man:

Have you read any other good articles?

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Fan fiction

Yesterday I had one of those moments, which is like opening a door in a wall in a garden and finding a country on the other side. In the uncommon newsletter there was a link to an article on how stories change us. I followed a link to stories are waves, which was much more interesting. It talks about how story telling is getting a bit more like pre-Gutenberg days. It mentioned the Organization for Transformative Works and I found the project, Archive of Our Own which has 1.4 million bits of fan fiction. That's a lot of storytelling.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

The Singularity and worms

I read SF pretty much exclusively as a kid and then as I grew up I read more widely. In recent years I've read more SF than in the previous twenty or thirty or so. One of the things that I heard for the first time when I came back to SF was the Singularity, the idea that one day we'd be able to upload our brains into a computer. I heard it first being talked about on Charlie Stross's blog, probably this entry Three arguments against the singularity in 2011 (this blog post has been brewing for a while). He also wrote a book called Singularity Sky. If you read the wikipedia article I've linked to then you'll see it's been around for a while, since 1958. Probably the reason that it's being talked about more recently is because as computing power increases it become more believable.

As neurons are more complicated than bits you can't measure the capacity of the human brain in terms of computer storage, but there are as many networked computers as neurons in the average brain [citation needed][no it isn't, this is just a blog post, the fact that I think I read it somewhere is sufficient], so it is possible that networked processors could contain a brain.

The thing that made this blog post graduate from the draft list is this blog post from Matt Webb (who is writing about really, really interesting things at the moment) who links to a project called OpenWorm.

"The nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) is tiny and only has 302 neurons. These have been completely mapped and the OpenWorm project is working to build a complete simulation of the worm in software."
That's a fascinating baby step to achieve the singularity. I suspect that the key thing to realistic life is getting the interfaces with the outside world working properly.

Saturday, November 01, 2014


Last Saturday I went to Comicon. It was held in the same place as Worldcon, Excel in London, so it was interesting to compare the two. It was far, far busier (over an hour queue to get in), less well organised, the average age was a lot lower and mainly all about the companies selling stuff. I wouldn't say the latter is necessarily a bad thing, as it's a good way of small businesses selling their stuff, but if you're thinking of going it's worth knowing that. It mainly consists of two of the big halls full of stands. 


 Even if you don't know much about it you may have heard about the costumes. I found that the most interesting thing about it. It started on the train at Amersham. There was someone with a purple jacket and bow tie. It could have just been his normal way of dressing, but the cyberman head fastened to his suitcase was a bit of a giveaway. 

The photo at the top shows one I was extremely impressed with. Not only had this person made this elaborate Pokemon dragon type thingy made out of cardboard (maybe you can tell me what it was?), but they were queuing up with this awkward tail and would need to negotiate the crowded halls with it. I reckon about a fifth of all people there were in some sort of costume. It seemed like more, probably because they stood out more than the "normal" people. There were lots I didn't get, mainly the anime/manga ones. In my mind there was a hierarchy of costumes:
  • Obviously home-made. I place this higher than the next one because I rate enthusiasm more highly than actual skill.
  • Very probably self-made. Some more generic outfits, say in the steampunk style, could be bought, but someone made them by hand, so all credit to them.
  • Shop bought, usually super heroes.
  • Wigs or normal items indicating a character, like the guy who had a dressing gown and a towel. I put tally marks on my arm.
There was a stand for a Star Wars fan group, and they had what we called "professionals" as a short-cut for "really good costumes". They had R2-D2, sand troopers, tuscan raiders, storm troopers, clone troopers, imperial guards, Boba Fett and Darth Vader. They would walk around the show in their various groups, and attract lots of people wanting photos. I did a bit of research afterwards on the UK Garrison, and it seems like the costumes are hand made. You can't buy them online, because Lucasarts would clamp down on that. There are very detailed descriptions on the websites of the fan groups. Extremely impressive attention to detail.

Not just comics

The strapline is "the UK's No. 1 popular culture shows". It's "shows" because they aren't just in London, but in other cities too. So it's not just about comics, but also film, TV, games (video and tabletop) and YouTube. So there is merchandise associated with all sorts of popular media. For example, off the top of my head - Toy Story, Hunger Games, Sherlock and Breaking Bad, as well as the ones you might expect - Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. At Worldcon these sort of people were called "media fans". What I'd be interested to see is Nine Worlds, which seems to combine the best of both type events.


There were talks by people who were famous in areas I didn't recognise. One of my lads met TomSka, which may or not mean anything to you. I pointed out Robert Llewellyn to them and said "Red Dwarf". That reference went over their heads, so I said "Scrapheap Challenge", which did make sense, as when they were younger we'd watch it on Sunday evenings.

Costumes, again

Some of the costumes that were particularly memorable:

  • A penguin onesie with a sign that said "Andy lost my squeak"
  • Someone dressed as Buzz Lightyear dressed as a woman (from when Andy's sister, Molly, dressed him up for a tea party)
  • Deadmau5
  • Someone dressed normally, but with a Sims diamond suspended above their head

Thursday, October 09, 2014

xkcd inspired Blackberry keyboard prediction

I did the same exercise as above with the predictive text on my Blackberry Playbook. I got this:

Say hello to my wishlist A new report by the way we can help you find the best way to get the school uniform turned around and see if you are available in the UK AND IRELAND THE

Toto, I've a feeling we're not going to be at Wycliffe! That should be fun to be awriger 9780749011352

Bond, James Bond with the latest news and information on the screen and the other day and night and I am hoping to get the school uniform 

I'm a leaf on the wind. Watch this space for the first time Monday morning close to the people who gave him ideas and I was surprised at how many weren't his own words of the most important thing is that the information you need to tell you that you can get the gps

Goonies never say never been to the people who gave him ideas and I was surprised at how

You have my sword, and my bow, and the other day and night and I am hoping to get the school uniform

You can see that it quickly gets to some stock phrases, and that it's learning from what I actually type, like Wycliffe and that long number which is an ISBN.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

What I'm reading: 2312

When I finish a book I'm always straight onto the next one, so I'm writing about this book having started it recently. It's 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. Here are some linked thoughts on it.

It's set two centuries into a future where the solar system is being colonised - planets, moons and asteroids. This is not a new theme, but I've read another book? about this recently so from that unrepresentative sample, it appears to be a popular topic. When I was younger happily read books about hyperspace and faster than light travel, and although I can't remember for sure, I probably assumed that someone would invent a way of doing it, or maybe I didn't care that it was actually impossible. Now that we're well into the 21st Century and physics has got pretty deep into the atom, and far back in time, it looks like nothing's going to happen on that front anytime soon. Travel to the nearest exoplanet is approaching feasible (conference on charlie stross's blog about this) but there are places to go nearer to home - planets, moons and asteroids. So it's an SF novel about a plausible future.

The plot also shares some similarities with another novel - Blue Remembered Earth - I've read recently, in that it's about the unravelling of a puzzle after someone dies by chasing round the solar system. I don't know if this is a coincidence or a new sub-sub-genre.

I saw Kim Stanley Robinson at a panel at Worldcon on "The Pleasures of a Good, Long Info-Dump". Cory Doctorow was also on the panel and asked him a lot of questions. It was interesting, but skewed the panel to mostly be about those two. He's one of those authors who I'd heard a lot about, possibly due to his Mars trilogy, but I've never read any of his books.This novel contains a few Info-dumps in interstitial chapters, showing his working on his world-building and filling in the history between now and when it's set.

I came across the word "spacer" in it, and it took me back to a song by Sheila B. Devotion with the same title. I remember being surprised when it came out in 1979. My experience of SF, apart from Star Wars and Close Encounters, was all in books so to hear a song about it was a genre-crossing experience. A couple of weeks ago I was listening to an Italo disco show by Ana Matronic and she played a song by Charlie called Spacer Woman, released in 1983. I've never heard of Italo disco, so there's a whole historical genre to explore.

Finally, for now, I came across this a couple of days ago - Habitasteroids. It riffs of the fact that in the books a number of asteroids have been hollowed out, or tented over, and contain human friendly habitats. It answers the question
If you wanted to start a colony with your friends on Twitter, which asteroid would you need?
When I ran it a couple of days ago the answer for me was Cambridge, and now it's Acapulco.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Meeting Maggie Philbin and Stephen Fry in my living room

Tomorrow's World (along with Top of the Pops) made Thursday evening the best TV evening of the week (in fact the best evening of the week, but that's another story). We would be shown some really cool new inventions, many of which had great potential to change things. I don't remember many of them appearing in normal life though. When I worked for a small electronics company I understood about how much is involved in bringing things to market, and making them on a big enough scale to make enough money to make more.

I remember when the Walkman was first shown, something which did change how music was listened to. My memory of the way it was presented, which many be flawed, was that the revolutionary part was not the small tape mechanism, but the headphones. The inventors had found a way to get good quality sound from a tiny speaker, because after all, who wants to walk around with a big pair of headphones on?

I also remember when the digital camera was first shown. Although it was new, I thought, "of course, break a picture down into pixels and store it digitally". Not that making it wasn't an achievement, but it was a logical outcome of pixels. Again, my memory may be frail, but I think at the same time they showed a thermal printer so you could get the pictures "developed" relatively quickly.

My Dad (he too was a fan) had a book based on the series which I read several times. The presenters that were on it when I was watching were Raymond Baxter, the founder of the show, William Woollard, Michael Rodd, Kieran Prendiville, Judith Hann and Maggie Philbin. Do those names bring back memories for you? I heard a story many years ago from someone who had an invention featured on the programme. Judith was demonstrating it and in order to make something happen she needed to press three keys. Someone thought this was too prone to failure, for whatever reason. So instead she pressed a key on fake keyboard and the inventor pressed the three keys on the real keyboard.

What I didn't know until I looked up the programme on Wikipedia just now, was that there were many other presenters, and it ran for many more years than when I stopped watching, which was probably some time in the mid-80s, while I was at University.

Given that history I was very pleased when Maggie Philbin appeared on Bang Goes the Theory earlier this year. The programme had transformed itself from a fun and games science show to showing the science behind the news. I'm happy with either, but I wonder if there was pressure to be more educational. I checked on Twitter and Maggie has a twitter account. When Tomorrow's World first came out it was all one way - from the TV (or the book) to our living room. Now I could, should I want to, tweet Maggie and maybe we'd have a conversation in our living room. Stephen Fry is a prolific tweeter and you may end up having a conversation with him too. How far we've come. It's like we're living in the world of tomorrow. Now there's an idea for a TV programme...

Friday, September 19, 2014

Re-entering fandom

Until I went to Worldcon I hadn't done anything you could call fannish for many years. The closest thing I got was reading the blog of someone I've been following for years. I discovered them on a blog directory (yes, such things existed) when I was looking for local people who also blogged. I knew them as Coalescent but I didn't know much about them. The blog was mostly book reviews

In hunting around the internet after Worldcon I found that he, for it is a he, is Niall Harrison, editor of Strange Horizons and he lives in Oxford, which is sort of local.

The Hugo Awards, voted on and awarded at Worldcon, includes entries for best fanzine. I wrote previously about how doing a fanzine required "confidence and work". That was in the days of paper, but now we have digital publications a blog counts as a fanzine, for the winner was (look a digital link) A Dribble of Ink edited by Aidan Moher. It has previews of cover art, guest articles, reviews, and other good stuff.

With blogs all that copying and distribution is done away with, so not so much confidence is needed. That doesn't mean it doesn't need work though, for here is Exhibit B, the second place fanzine, Book Smugglers. Not only does it have a fantastic rate of quality output it even has a publishing schedule every Sunday. The two people who run it have day jobs so they must spend a lot of time on reading and writing. I'm very impressed.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The seventh wave is not the biggest

Listening again to the Ninth Wave suite on Hounds of Love, and inspired by xkcd's graphs I drew this based on searches on

Those slightly wiggly lines are drawn with more skill than it looks.

Raw data for those really interested.
1 132227
2 105959
3 75735
4 119380
5 71926
6 67014
7 108539
8 74096
9 64234
19 69869

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Worldcon - the world SF convention

This particular Worldcon is called Loncon3 as it's the third one to be held in London. On the morning before I went I put a photo of my Star Wars T-shirt on Facebook and commented how it would make me fit in. Not that I needed to fit in. I saw:
  • a large green cat like figure
  • several top hats, some with brass goggles
  • several Terry Pratchett hats
  • a spoon headdress (worn by a space scientist)
  • a Tardis dress
  • a dragon on someone's shoulder
  • just the one fez
The breadth of the programme is amazing. It runs from Thursday to Monday. There are 600 items which means at any given time there are about ten things to choose from. All sorts of types of SF are represented: literary, film, graphic, TV, young adult, music and science too. 

As well as all those items there was an art show, dealers stalls, a games tent, a library and a fan area. What I was looking forward to was seeing some authors I've read or certainly heard of, in the flesh. Like a twitcher I ticked off Cory Doctorow, Kim Stanley Robinson, Paul McAuley, Alastair Reynolds and Chris Foss, the artist. The list of people who I've heard of, or read books by, but didn't see in person, was longer. Headed by Charlie Stross, it included George RR Martin, Brian Aldiss, Ben Bova, Lauren Beukes etc. etc.

One popular format on the programme is the panel. One moderator, four other people, usually authors, and a question to consider. I went to one on ideas vs. story, one looking at Elysium and Gravity, and other space films, and one on that age-old question "what is SF". Or to be more accurate:
SF as a genre is both loaded and contested, bringing with it decades of controversies, assumptions, prejudices, and possibilities. What do the genre's various practitioners and consumers think SF is? Are we speaking the same language, or talking past each other? How do perceptions of SF - in terms of who can write it, who can consume it, and what kinds of stories can find a market - create or reinforce realities? Is 'core' SF still about space exploration and colonisation, or is there room for other types of stories? If SF is 'dying', as we're frequently told, what does that mean and in whose interests are the preparations for its funeral?
Some people who are more fannish than me are probably bored of the question, but I found it interesting.

Moderating a panel is a skill and those that I saw did it well, though there was one famous author who seemed to take over the questioning. There was also a Q&A with Chris Foss, the artist. I enjoyed it, but at the end I thought that he does do quite a lot of spaceships. When a van passes me with diagonal stripes on the back I'm now thinking of him. The art exhibition showed just what a vast breadth of SF&F artists there are.

There was a really good writeup in The Guardian and a picture gallery. I saw the Waggott family in that first picture and a couple of the other people there myself. I went on a Friday. On the Saturday they had the costume show - Masquerade - so there were probably many more people in costume around the place.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

APA, Fanzines and publishing in the 80s

A couple of hours ago I booked a day ticket (or "membership" as it's called) for the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention. I've spent the time since digging around on the internet into my past. Let me explain.

I went to University in York between 1984 and 1988. From my early teens my reading material was almost exclusively SF. When I went to University I joined the British Science Fiction Association. (A while back when I was doing some vanity searching I came across an index of letters to the BSFA journal. Someone dutifully recorded that I written two letters.) I was also invited to join an Amateur Press Association, or APA, called The Organisation. If you're read the article I've linked to you'll understand how they work. What it doesn't do is explain how things were before the internet, for those who haven't experienced it. In the 80s there were three or four TV channels. There were books and magazines. There was Doctor Who and Blakes 7, and Space 1999 and Star Wars. Amateur publishing was a labour of love, and a non-trivial effort. For The Organisation APA I would write something most months, usually discussing things people had brought up in previous months. I would print as many copies as there were members (we were invited, you could be kicked out for non-contribution) and then days or weeks later I would get a copy of everyone else's contribution mailed back to me. I think I chucked all mine out at some point, as there was quite a stack, but I may have retained one issue in the loft. That was a way of getting your thoughts out and hopefully carefully read by a group of people. The other way, writing and copying a fanzine and distributing it at meetings and by post, needed more confidence and work. Each contribution was like a small fanzine though, and mine was called Life in the Gap, referring to what it's like living in the gap between Jesus' death and return.

The reason I'm saying all that, and talking about the internet, is because now the publishing is so much easier. That orange Publish button is up there at the top right of the screen, just waiting for me to push it. Of course there are millions more words and pictures now so you need different ways of getting that careful reading. So being part of that APA felt like a small privilege. I would try and contribute every month. I probably dropped out towards the end of University when finals and then hopefully working life were looming.

I've been trying to see if there was any trace of The Organisation on the internet. Having a generic name hasn't really helped. I found a reference in the Wikipedia article on Birmingham Science Fiction Group, so I'm not just making it up. I also found a history in a fanzine, Prolapse 3, in the article "whatever happened to APA-B?" (the original name of The Organisation). I remember some of the names - Joy Hibbert, who I met at my first SF convention (this year's Worldcon is my second) Lucon at Leeds University, sadly now died, William McCabe, who wrote the article and signed off as WAM, and Kev McVeigh.

Towards the end of the article there's a mention of Charles Stross. I've been reading Charlie's blog for a while now, initially when other people linked to his articles on the publishing industry. I've even read a couple of his books. I suspect I left before Charlie joined, but there's a small point of pride - I was in the same APA as Charlie Stross, a published SF author. I tried to find some other reference for Charlie's membership, but I've only got that one. No mention on Charlie's website. I found a mention of it in Ansible 212, I connection with the death of Ken Lake, but I have to confess I don't remember if he was a member at the same time as me.

What I did find on his website, though, was his autobiography. There are several points of similarity with my own - we both owned an Amstrad PCW (though he used his to much better effect than me) and did Computer Science at University, including learning Pascal. From there the similarities end as his career went from technical authoring to fiction authoring and mine has gone from software development to IT management.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

15 miles from Star Wars

My writing ability is not good enough to convey the excitement I felt when I first watched Star Wars at age 11. Since then it has been a small part of my life in many ways, which I may document at some point. The reason I'm writing now is to say that I'm


Episode VII is being shot very close to where I live. I am excited.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

How to keep the sound person in church happy

Disclaimer: I am not a professional sound engineer. I am an amateur who does the sound desk at church once a month. 

Another disclaimer: Your church may not have the luxury of a sound desk. I read an article recently in a Christian magazine that talked about the role of a "Worship Pastor" as if every church had one. I realise this article may not be relevant, though it may be useful in future.

The speaker at a Christian festival starts his talk on the stage with a joke. "What's the difference between a terrorist and the sound guy? You can negotiate with a terr-". The rest of the sentence is inaudible.

That's not a good way to keep the sound person happy. Here are some tips.

Care of microphones

Microphones are like ears. They don't like being banged, or having warm, moist air blown into them (unless it's by someone very special). If you want to check if a mike is working, speak at normal volume, or just tickle it. If you tickle it you should hear a scratching sound.


Church microphones are not miracle workers. When you pray, speak clearly. Hushed, reverent tones that you might use in a housegroup may not get picked up properly in church.

Starting off

At concerts there will be a sound check when the band and the sound engineers work together to get the microphone levels right. It would be great if everyone who was going to speak in church turned up early (even before the pre-service prayer meeting) so that they could work with the sound person to get the mike position and volume right. That's not going to happen though. So when you first step up there the sound person will not have the volume turned up full. He or she doesn't know how loudly you're going to speak, they don't know if you're going to clear your throat loudly, or adjust the angle of the mike (cue squeaky sounds). They will use the first few words you say to set the level. So don't start off like this:
(Long pause)
Can you hear me?
We may or may not be able to hear you. Depending on where the speakers are we may hear you louder than you hear yourself. That's not enough words to get the level right. So be prepared for the first sentence or so to not be heard by everyone and just keep speaking. The sound person can't get the level right if you're not speaking.


Another tip you can learn from concerts is what to do when you want to get louder. If you notice the singer will often sing with their mouth really near to the mike (you don't need to speak like that). When they want to belt out a line they will move their mouth back so that the volume doesn't overload the sound system. If you want to raise your voice or shout just lean back slightly.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

An elder reacts to Magic: The Gathering

A word of explanation for the blog title. My children have brought to my attention the YouTube phenomenon of videos entitled "(social grouping) reacts to (meme)", e.g. "teens react to Flappy Bird". It consists of watching the expression of a member of these social groups watching the meme on YouTube. They also get asked questions about it. I thought about recording my own "I react to (social grouping) react to (meme)", which would consist of me with a puzzled expression on my face as I really don't see the point of watching someone else watching YouTube. However I thought it made a good title for this post. The elder is me, because my children tell me I'm old.

Magic: The Gathering has been around for over 20 years and at some point in the past few years I became aware of it as some sort of trading card game. Recently one of my children has bought a set of cards and so I can play it too, after a fashion.

It's a fantastically complicated game, almost resembling Calvinball. The full rulebook (which you don't need to read to start playing) has over 200 pages. A turn consists of 5 steps, according to the beginner's guide, each of which may have up to 5 sub steps. At its heart it's a battle game, where some of your cards are creatures which attack your opponents creatures. It also involves drawing from a shuffled deck, so has elements of chance. Crucially you don't exchange cards with other people, so you go away with all your cards intact (though in early versions of the game you would put up a card as an ante). This is partly because the cards are collectible, with some being worth much more than face value.

What particularly interests me is the business model behind it. There's a core set each year plus quarterly updates. There are sealed booster packs where you get a selection of semi-random cards. One of the tournament formats involves everyone opening several of these booster packs. So a keen player may buy new cards all the time. (The advantage of this format is that it provides a more level playing field, rather than some people having great decks with the best, most expensive cards.) I'm not saying there's anything wrong with this (there's no reason why you can't play with older cards with friends, or in some of the tournament formats) I just find it interesting how the company (owned by Hasbro) makes its money. Pictures of all the cards are available online, so there's no practical reason (although it's illegal) why you can't print out pictures of cards. I suspect if you played with an obviously printed out deck you would get sneered at.

I guess one of the reasons why the rules are so complicated is because new cards need to have new rules, or they're not that interesting. Here's a random example:
Whenever an enchantment enters the battlefield under your control, put a 2/2 white Cat creature token onto the battlefield. If that enchantment is an Aura, you may attach it to the token.
I'm impressed with the ability of the card creators to come up with new stuff all the time, and also of the experienced players who can play without spending 5 minutes every turn trying to work out what they could do.

It's a bit like backgammon where there's a mixture of luck and skill, where you need to play several games to see who is really a better player, and where a beginner has at least a chance of beating a better player.

Other notable features, which I won't go into, are the quality of the artwork (although if you're expecting something other than standard fantasy illustration you'll be disappointed), the back stories that are available if you want them, the art of "deckbuilding" and the fact that children can play.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Proteins in a single cell

From Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything", talking about a cell in the human body:
Typically a cell will contains some twenty thousand types of protein, and of these about two thousand types will be represented by at least fifty thousand molecules. 'This means,' says Nuland, 'that even if we count only those molecules present in more than 50,000 each, the total is still a very minimum of 100 million protein molecules in each cell. Such a staggering figure gives some idea of the swarming immensity of biochemical activity within us.'
In a single cell. Wow.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Half a million views on Flickr in one day

I don't often check my Flickr photo stats, but I happened to the other week and found a massive spike in the number of views. Normally I get around 100-200 views a day, but on that particular day I got 569,829. My theory is that they came from this post on Viralnova about money trees. I reckon that somehow embedding the pictures on that web page caused the view count to go up. It's interesting that as well as the two money tree pictures the ones near it in the photo stream also got a lot of views. I couldn't find anyone else reporting that they've had a similar big jump, so I put this post out there in case someone knows just why the pageviews did go up.