Car Stereo

So, my car, a rather fetching, pink Honda Jazz, only had a CD player, a format that is well and truly being bypassed much like vinyl.  (I know, I know, there will be collectors who say that you can’t get the music quality from anything other than a shiny disk or what you need for that real genuine experience is a string quartet in the backseat, but, you know, I’m an SF writer, people expect me to be cutting edge.)  Also, I keep forgetting to change the CDs in the car, so my choice of music has become somewhat limited.

As I had to go to a Honda dealership anyway due to the nearly annual car recall to fix a minor electrical part that might possible, 1 time in 10 trillion, burst into flames and oh, while you are here, do you fancy a new Honda; so, while there, I asked if there was an upgrade for the stereo – nope.  Try Halfords, they said.

So, I went to Halfords and asked if there were any options.  The chap there said he had the same problem with his Honda Civic (which as he works in a car place, probably wasn’t pink), why not try a Car Audio Specialist.

I tried the nearby Car Audio Specialists and they said, no problem at all, that’ll be £120 for the kit, 2 hours work at a sucking-of-teeth price, shall we call it a reasonable £240 all in.  I thought not.  I can surely beat £240.

There were options on-line.  I should have thought of that in the first place.  I ordered one for £21, including postage from Portugal, and I set about dismantling the car and fitting it.  It took half an hour of fear and worry to take the dashboard apart, five minutes to plug it in and say ten minutes to put it all back together again.

So, £240, including two hours of expert, versus £21 and an hour of amateur.

Even if I include the aborted Plan A, which was to build the kit from scratch, is only adds £27.75 and an hour of a faffing in Maplins.  That’s only becomes £48.75 and three hours of amateur, and I have a perfectly good soldering iron, which is bound to come in useful for something.

Since my success, I’ve added a Bluetooth receiver for £11.99, so I can play anything at all from my phone while it’s still tucked inside my pocket.  Technology eh?

But, and here’s the downside, I resent having to become an expert on so many things.  I’ve added car maintenance to bricklaying, plastering, fire installation… etc, etc, etc.

I’m an Indie Publisher, so I’m also an editor, proof reader, cover designer, copy editor, accountant, marketing director (thinking of firing myself from that one), lawyer, CEO, the poor  intern who makes the tea and so on and on.  I want to be a writer.


A Tale of Two Talks


I’ve given two readings recently: the first at Dysprosium (the 66th Eastercon) and another in Moseley. The first was for a friend’s book, Touchstone by Andy Conway (well worth a look) leading into a discussion about Indie Publishing, and the second was to promote the Festival of Writing on Sun 26th April in Moseley’s Prince of Wales pub for the Pow-wow writing group. I read my own work for that one. By co-incidence, Andy Conway’s time travelling saga is set in and around Moseley and has a few scenes in the Prince of Wales, both today and at various points in the past.

At both I had a box of books, Andy’s and my own, for sale.

I didn’t sell any.

Of course, this isn’t that surprising; the audience for both talks were all fellow writers intent on selling their own books (or writing their own books and then selling ‘em).

I remember flying at the Edinburgh Fringe and realising that the utterly packed Royal Mile was full, absolutely full, of actors, directors, stage hands and so on, all trying to sell their show to others who were trying to sell their show. There were no punters at all. People were agreeing to swap flyers. It was an exercise in getting rid of flyers, not in selling tickets.

The audience at both talks enjoyed them, I think (I hope), and that’s what it was all about. There may be another indie author created by the first talk eventually. I’m not sure we sold the Festival of Writing at the second one as such, everyone was going to go anyway. It was another flyer swap experience as we were all already in the same show.

I’m looking forward to the Festival of Writing (it was the Birmingham LitFest until Writing West Midlands created another one and nicked the name), but they don’t appear to have any programme items on Indie Publishing. To my mind, you can’t discuss publishing today without reference to this revolution. My talk at Eastercon was preaching to the converted as it was full of indies, and again it was flyers for those with flyers.

I should really have swapped the talks over: sold the festival to Eastercon, Indie Publishing to the festival crowd… and worn a different shirt.

Three Books

At the end of the film The Time Machine, Filby and the Housekeeper realise that three books are missing from the shelf.  They have been taken into the future!
There’s a scheme by Porcupine Books at the next Eastercon for people to give a short talk on a book that has influenced them.  I’m one of the writers due to whiffle on about a book, but not one of the following three.

A friend of mine gave me three books for my <cough-cough> sorry, birthday.  They were The Mortdecai Trilogy by Kyril Bonfiglioli, Einstein’s Monsters by Martin Amis (for the essay Thinkability) and Who Will Remember the People by Jean Raspail.  The three books that influenced his life.

What are these books for me, I wonder.

I think they are The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, Introduction to Pascal (Second Edition) by Jim Welsh and John Elder and Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran.  It’s rather an odd collection now I write it down.

The Day of the Triffids is also rather a stand-in.  I could have chosen The Chrysalides, also by Wyndham, or any number of others.  I trying to recall that book that got me into Science Fiction, but I’m not sure I remember it or that there even was one.  I wish there was one, but there really isn’t.  It might be one of the Target Doctor Who books.  The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came much later and I’m a fan of the radio (and perhaps a theatre) version.  Telly with Doctor Who and Blake’s 7.  It’s all a bit rubbish compared to those who say The Lord of the Rings changed my life.

On the other hand, Introduction to Pascal was the manual of a life change.  I went to University to do Civil Engineering – mad idea, what was I thinking – and I realised my enormous mistake about four weeks into the course.  Somewhere I have the very fluid mechanics test that left me high and dry, and pushed me over the edge and into deep water – as it were.  I turned the page over and made notes on the back as I went through the University prospectus to find an alternative course, any alternative course.  So, after Anthropology, Astrology, Astronomy, Biology and Carpentry had all turned me down, Computer Science was next in the alphabet.  They accepted me on a Friday to start the following Monday.  I was four weeks behind, I panicked.  (As it turned out I was further behind in Civil Engineering than I was in Computer Science, but I didn’t realise that at the time.)  I bought the only book on the recommended reading list that I’d been told about and I read it cover-to-cover – twice.  I didn’t think I followed it at all.  During the first workshop on programming, we were given twelve questions and I was hopelessly stuck on Question 6.  You can’t turn a computer round and make notes on the back about Cover Design, Drama, Education or English Language.  (As if I’d do any of those.)  Oh god, I thought, I have just wasted my life.

I turned to one of my brand new colleagues and whispered, “I’m stuck on Question 6 – help!”

“What!” they replied, “but we’re all stuck on Question 2.”

I love programming in Pascal, still do, even though it’s now hidden in an IDE called Lazarus.

Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran did change my life.  I wanted to know where I was academically with writing, so I did the MA at Birmingham City University.  I sort of walked it, but then I had been doing all the modules on an ad hoc basis over and over for the past dozen years.  I wish I’d not done the intensive version and spread it out over two years, because I enjoyed it so much and it would have been nice to appreciate the scenery during the journey.  I even snuck into film course I wasn’t doing run by Andy Conway.  (It’s his book I’ll be whiffling about at Eastercon.)  We got chatting, I started to give him lifts home and he said I should self-publish.

“Oh, but isn’t that vanity publishing.”

“No, not at all, read this ebook by David Gaughran.”

So I did.  Interesting, I thought.  By page 5, I thought I must get a Kindle one day; by page 10, it was on my Christmas list; by page 15, I’d ordered one and by page 20, I was coding in html.  My conversation from occasional playwright to committed indie publisher was faster than someone with a road map to Damascus asking for a bit of light to read by.

Would I take these three books off to the future with me?

Probably not, because I’ve read them.

A Kindle can contain more books than you can read in a lifetime, so, if you could only take three books to the future, surely you’d choose a Kindle and… two other Kindles.

You know, perhaps I should have added the first novel I published to this list of books that changed my life, but it’s kind of cheating.  Or should it be the first one I completed?  To steal and paraphrase an anecdote from Peter Ustinov, the favourite book of my own is, of course, the next one.  (Actually, it’s not as it’s being a bit awkward.)

And your three books?

The Bechdel Test

There was an interesting talk at Redemption on the Bechdel Test. It’s the one that checks whether films have a) two named female characters, who b) have a conversation with each other that c) doesn’t involve men. Originally it was a cartoon by Alison Bechdel, a comment on the under representation of women in Hollywood films, and I think it really makes a valid point.

A few people mistakenly thought that it was a test as to whether a film was good or bad. In fact it says nothing about quality, but put simply if the raft of output from a film studio fails the test a lot, then it’s underrepresenting women. I found a figure that says 44% of films fail the test. That’s truly appalling, particularly when films that pass the test can have dozens of male characters with triple barrelled names and super hero alter egos, while the only two women in the film have the briefest natter about shoes. The Bechdel Test can be seen as a bare minimum. Passing the test means women are represented, just not necessarily well.

(The Mako Mori Test is an interesting contrast and it requires at least a) one female character, who b) has her own narrative arc that c) isn’t about supporting a man’s story. There’s also the Sexy Lamp Test: if you replace the female character with a sexy lamp, would it change the plot? She may look beautiful, have endless conversations with other named sexy lamps, and be won by the man at the end, but she doesn’t actually do anything other than get turned on. She doesn’t affect the narrative.)

Some films will fail because of their subject matter. The Great Escape was the film used as an example, and obviously there aren’t going to be any female characters in a WWII POW camp. But, for every POW film there ought to be a film set in a nunnery. The balance of, say, a dozen films ought to be representative, just as the average gender balance on panels at a convention should be about fifty-fifty.

I thought about my published books. I’ve five.

The Other Christmas Carol’s protagonist is Carol Christmas and she has a conversation with Mrs Claus about Christmas quite early on. Well done me, I suppose, and yet most of the other characters, bar one important one, are male. Father Christmas, the three Wise Men, Rudolf – the source material is all about men.

The Derring-Do Club and the Empire of the Dead and The Derring-Do Club and the Year of the Chrononauts are steampunk adventures about three sisters. These novels romp through the test with flying colours. It’s a male world, the Victorian age, but these three young ladies hack a path through life, are named and constantly talk about life, the need to learn Latin, sword fighting, the dastardly plot to bring down the British Empire and, you know, stuff. (And men as well.)

The two near-future SF stories are more interesting in this regard. I, Phone does pass the test. The second most important character, Alice, is female and does interact with a named female friend early on. They do go out on the pull as it were, but not all the conversation is about men.

Hashtag, on the other hand, perhaps doesn’t pass the test. There are conversations between two named female characters that aren’t about men, I can think of one straight away, but only one of them is ‘on stage’ as it were. It may pass the Bechdel Test on a technicality, but I feel that, in the spirit of being brutally honest, it fails the test. It’s interesting why. The protagonist, Oliver Braddon, is male, it’s a first person narrative and the plot doesn’t really allow him to ‘overhear’ any ‘real’ female-female conversations. (The quotes are a fiddle factor here, because the story is set in a world where everyone receives everyone’s thoughts via social media, so there are billions of named females talking incessantly to every other female on the planet, mostly, judging by social media today, about cats.)

I’m not worried that I’ve decided to fail one novel for the sake of argument. Only 20% of my protagonists are male, the other 80% are female. It’s those sisters skewing the data, but it is a surprising bias. Forthcoming novels, despite a heavily male political thriller, are going to maintain that slant. Does that make me a feminist writer? Probably not.

Software Summit

Have we reached a software summit?

I’m having two old computers being checked over, one’s Vista and the other is even a Windows 98 machine. They are old, slow and lack hard-disc space, but they do run Adobe Premiere 5.1. I bought Adobe Premiere Elements 10, the all singing, all dancing version of the video editing software and it is unusable. You used to i) add footage to your project, ii) place it on the timeline, iii) fiddle with it, and finally iv) export the finished footage. Now you i) get media to add to the project, ii) delete it off the timeline because rarely do you want the clips in alphabetical order, iii) add clips to the timeline, iv) fiddle with them and v) undo the ‘helpful’ automatic adjustments that the program feels it wants to do, vi) swear, viii) repeat step v and vi until you’ve lost the will to live and finally… but ‘export’ is greyed out on the drop down menu. Where is it? Why won’t it work? Repeating step vi doesn’t help, searching every single drop down menu doesn’t help? Searching every single drop down menu while simultaneously doing step vi doesn’t help. Until, after spending hours trying to work it out, you discover that in this age of social media you now longer export files (so why is the option there!!!), but instead you ix) ‘share’ your video with others.
To justify a new version, they’ve added bells and whistles, but you can no longer cycle on it.

Borland Delphi is another one. I learnt to program in Pascal, so Borland Pascal was my choice for my own setup. My freelance programming uses it. When Delphi came out, the rather brilliant Windows programming environment, I embraced that. It was so quick, easy and powerful. Delphi 4.0 was marvellous. Of course, they then started to improve it, add features, until eventually it was a) very expensive and b) impossible to use. A whole community sprung up to create Lazarus, an open-source Delphi 4.0 clone. OK, the slider component is upside down and other oddities, but it works, you can program in it, if you get stuck, the forum sorts it really quickly.

Word is another that tends to be improved so that you have to spend hours relearning it. It updates and then, where is everything and how do you turn various options off? I can’t imagine anything that it’s lacking (other than clarity in the menu structure), so any ‘improvements’ won’t be. It does all the word processing I, or anyone else, need: words, paragraphs, spell checking, undo, tables, pictures, etc… OK, I’d like a feature that counts the number of words added today, which Scrivener will do apparently. But basically, it’s job done, isn’t it?

Adobe Premiere 5.1 worked. Borland Delphi 4.0 worked. Word works. OK, a little faster loading up perhaps, that occasional crash in the former sorting and all the stupidities in the latter need removing, but basically that’s video editing, programming and writing covered. Spotify plays music, so stop creating later versions: I really don’t need the ‘discover’ button hiding again.

All sorted.

Or would be, if it worked on the 64-bit machine.

No Hal or Skynet-like computing improvements are needed. In fact, lunacy beyond lunacy, I have to go backwards to previous hardware to use software that hasn’t been improved to worthlessness. To beat the Terminator, all you have to do is wait for it to be ungraded.

Why can’t they leave it alone? I’d pay good money to have them leave it alone.

Or am I a luddite? Or a ‘Cyberluddite’? I like the sound of that.

Latest: I found the installation kit for my digitising card and it comes on several floppy discs!!! Extraordinary, a real blast from the past.

Extra latest: but it won’t run on Windows 7 and needs Windows XP.

See It Yourself

Well, the new washing machine is going through its clean cycle.  The instructions said ‘select this and that’ except it doesn’t have this or even that.  The transit bolts took a &!**£% age to remove because it’s not just bolts, but also the plastic bit.  I’m a writer, words are important: bolts are metal, plastic bits are plastic bits.

The other issue with crawling around in confined spaces to screw things in, adjust the other and general get dirty is my reading glasses.  I’ve had to have reading glasses for a while and they are great for reading and wonderful for computer work.  (I exaggerate, they’re OK.)  However, for DIY they are a pain.  There I am, under the worksurface, trying to see the stupid screw hole and I need my glasses, but I’m looking at an odd, so they fall away from my nose and I can’t see.  I get up, carrying this whatever with my hands full, and my glasses are still on, so the whole kitchen is out of focus.  That close-distant, close-distant switching is headache inducing.  I need voice operated glasses that automatically adjust when they detect a swear word.

They also need to go completely black to prevent me seeing something else that needs doing.

The roofers are replacing the workshop roof and the main chap spotted a section of fasica that had fallen away from the main roof.  I don’t know, at the moment it’s one step forward, another back, then another back…  I’ve asked for him to quote, but it’s one of those items that require a ‘yes’.  ‘Pay bill or have water running inside the house’ isn’t really a choice.  And I want to make progress.

I have managed over 2,000 words a day on the new novel, so that’s forward movement.

Worldcon Theatre Approaches…

I am sitting amidst stuff for five plays at Worldcon.  It’s spread across in four rooms of the house.  I’m not doing five plays, just the one, but having done lots of theatre, I have lots of stuff, so I can usually answer “Do you have…” with “Er… somewhere…”.

The Cancellation and Re-imagining of Captain Tartan is on the Thursday, 10pm.  I need a few more cast for walk on parts – anyone interested?

I went into theatre at SF conventions, because I thought there ought to be more of it.  Geoff Ryman did a superb version of Gilgamesh way back at Novacon and I’m appearing on a panel about ‘SF and Theatre’ with him on a Worldcon panel, which I’m looking forward to.  Sorenson and Raines did funny plays, of course.  I wanted more.

Now there is.  It does feel a little like handing the baton on and my work here is done.