Drabbles

I was in Norwich recently and ended up reading the local paper, the Eastern Daily Press to be exact.  Imagine my surprise when I turned the page and read about a competition: ‘Can you write a drabble for our Norfolk Day competition?’  In association with the National Centre for Writing and an independent children’s bookshop, Bookbugs and Dragon Tales, no less.  What a lovely, a delightful and surreal discovery for, you see, I invented this literary form.

Way back, we wanted to do an anthology for the Birmingham University Science Fiction and Fantasy Society – good idea, but, you know, it seemed like hard work.  Well, I thought, why not restrict it to… I don’t know… 100 words… exactly.  It’s the last clause that made it work.  Someone else remembered a Monty Python book had a game called ‘drabble’ – apparently – where people sit in a circle and the first to finish a novel, wins.  We wrote to Michael Palin for permission to use it – he couldn’t remember anything about it, but said ‘yes’ and the name stuck.

I wrote the rules and then the first-ever drabble.  The dashed off first draft came to 98 words.  Ooh, this is easy, I thought, I just need to add 2 words.  But this took ages because every time I crowbarred them in, the added pair looked like obvious padding.  It’s that last clause.

We also thought we’d ask a few famous SF writers to contribute – 100 words doesn’t sound like much, so the request suckered them into trying and the challenge has them in its clause.  They all replied.  Let’s ask a few more, and a few more and The Drabble Project was born.  It’s a sold-out hardback from Beccon Publications.  I personally numbered every one of the limited edition with my calligraphy pen.

Yonks later, I was browsing in the dealers’ room at a convention and happened to pick up a collection of drabbles.

What’s this, I thought.

The woman behind the table gushed to me about how wonderful they were ending with, “Have you heard of drabbles?”

“Er… I invented them,” I replied.

I’ve even met someone who described himself as a ‘drabblist’.

It’s good to know that this short thing is still out there being fun.  A competition in Norwich – extraordinary.

These days I’m writing novels of between 80,000 and 120,000 words.

What’s a drabble – a paragraph?

Now, I just need to cut 308 words exactly from this blog.

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…but it’s not real

There were two stories on the BBC website today about non-fungible tokens (NFTs).  In one, a surgeon tried to sell the ‘ownership’ of a woman’s x-ray.  It showed a bullet lodged in her forearm.  He acknowledged it was a ‘mistake’ – also an invasion of privacy and a misuse of medical records.  The other story was Julian Lennon selling the ‘ownership’ of memorabilia associated with John Lennon, including two guitars.  These are both NFTs, i.e. you ‘own’ it, but can’t have it.

Now, I can see the point of selling digital items.  Someone makes a virtual yacht, then it’s fair that they should be paid.  Ebooks are digital items after all and I sell those.  However, NFTs are insane!  They aren’t things.  And environmentally they are madness.  Just like cryptocurrencies, all these computers need to be running to prove so-and-so owns this x-ray, guitar, coin, $908,000 virtual yacht, and that there’s only one of it, two, 18,925,000, as many backups as the owner made (’cos if I’d paid $908,000 for a virtual yacht, I’d back it up a few times).

It’s been suggested that authors supplement their meagre income by selling parts of their intellectual property.  Not the publication rights, copyright, physical copy or virtual ebook, but the NFT ‘ownership’.  So, you could buy Magdalene Chase from my Derring-Do Club series, a murder weapon from my next book, or a character.  Hang on, wouldn’t selling Charlotte Deering-Dolittle make me a white slaver?  And ‘ownership’ isn’t defined here in the same way as a dictionary would have us believe.

You’re buying bragging rights and nothing more in a get rich quick scheme aimed at parting the gullible from their money.

It really is the Emperor’s new clothes.  Can I sell these as NFTs?  You might argue that I don’t own them already, but I could write my version of the story and then sell the non-existent clothes featured as non-fungible tokens.  In fact, in my version of the tale, not only can you buy the left sock and the right sock, but also the other 49 pairs of non-existent items that the Emperor kept in his sock drawer.  It’s pushing non-fungible towards some sort of limit.

But they don’t exist, you might say.

Ah, but that’s the point.

P.S. If you wish to own this blog post as an NFT, please get in touch with your bid.

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Real People

I’ve been to a real, actual in-person convention with non-virtual avatar-less human beings.  ArmadaCon (Hello, to the new sign-ups) is held in November, often clashing with Novacon, but sometimes doesn’t.  This year’s didn’t, opening up the possibility of going to both.

We took a lateral flow test before going – phew – and then drove down to Plymouth.

The con was the usual round of silliness, sensibleness and sundries.  I won the Just A Minute by 29 to 28 and other scores beating Dave and Dave and Dave.  I interviewed one of the guests of honour and formed a third of a writers’ panel on publishing with guests Dave Turner and Chrissey Harrison (see above).  On the Sunday, they gave me my own slot for a talk on computers in science fiction, which was a mere excuse to prattle on about computer keyboards.  Regular readers will groan at this, but it was to a new crowd.

Conventions are amazing.  Where else can you touch the same parachute fabric as was used on missions to Mars and Titan?

But it’s all about meeting fans and friends – we all have similar interests – and it’s a chance to be around wonderful, inspiring people.  And it did its trick.  I came home with inspiration, ideas and incentive.

So, fired up by this renewal, I considered Novacon, wondering if I could manage a late booking.  However, I’d also bought back from ArmadaCon a raging cold.  I took a lateral flow test – phew, again, but also bleurgh.  I mean, who wants to be around smelly, infectious humans?  Well, me, but… I could do without viruses.

Take care.

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A Keyboard With Knobs On

It has become frankly silly.

I’m sitting here with effectively seven keyboards.  I haven’t grown extra arms.  To be fair, the gamepad and the foot pedals aren’t connected and my old trusty Logitech K350 is languishing to one side.  The Logitech is there ready to leap back into the fray if the replacement hits a snag.

I bought an Ergodox off Gumtree.  This is an ergonomic, split, columnar, ortholinear, tented, mechanical, underlit keyboard and completely customisable.

What does all that mean?  A writing colleague asked if I had RSI and I don’t, but surely the trick is to get an ergonomic keyboard, one designed for your hands, before you get RSI.

So, to explain:-

Split’ means that the keyboard is in two halves.  You move these apart to reduce shoulder strain.

Columnar’ means that the keys are arranged in straight columns unlike the usual staggered layout.  (Look at your keyboard now: it’s a honeycomb pattern.)  This change is because your fingers are straight.

Otholinear’ means that these columns of keys are shifted up for your middle finger and down for your little finger, because your fingers are not all the same length.

Tented’ means that the middle is raised and looks a bit like a tent.  This is to avoid twisting your wrists to lie on a flat keyboard.  Technically, the two sides ought to be vertical, but I’ve found 15o is about right for me.  This keyboard doesn’t have a tenting kit, so I made one from MDF.  It looks terrible!  It needs painting, but it is more comfortable (or will be, once I lower my desk by 3 cms).

Mechanical’ means the keys make clicky noises and is therefore more exciting.  Yeah!  People go on about it, but I don’t really care.

Underlit’ means that there are LED lights tucked under each key.  If you have keys with transparent letters, they shine.  All the reviews, particularly those on YouTube, really go to town demonstrating the glow, rippling patterns and flashing as if writing in a disco helps you concentrate.  I thought this would be another ‘meh’ feature, but it turned out to be useful.  I can see the keys in the dark and I’ve used the keyboard as a torch!  More importantly it turns from white to red when I switch to Layer 1.  I’ll have to explain that too and it’s in the section after next.

Customisable’ means that every key can be turned into something else.  If you don’t like where the ‘@’ symbol happens to be, then move it.  I write fiction and Shift-2 for double quotes is a pain, so I moved it to here, there and everywhere.  Indeed, a one point I had five different ways to start dialogue.  I’ve narrowed it down to the US keyboard layout and then swapped the apostrophe and semi-colon.  I created dedicated keys for ‘!’, ‘?’ and ‘#’ as well as one for interrupted speech.  Indeed, the keyboard is rarely the same from one week to another, which makes it tricky to learn.  I have a map printed out as well as writing on blank keys with a sharpie pen.  Some changes have been easy to learn.  I get the apostrophe right, but a colon tends to be the following sequence: double quotes, space, swear, backspace, backspace, shift-semi colon.  There are extra keys too, so I’ve dedicated one to italics.  Add this to AutoHotKey and Macros (see earlier blogs) and who knows what’ll happen when I press, say, this key here.

The layer concept is like pressing ‘shift’ for capitals.  On Layer 1, the red layer, I’ve set up the cursor keys.  Layer 2, the green layer, is a numeric keypad, although I’ve yet to really use that in anger.  The idea is that using keys for multiple functions reduces the space taken up on your desk and finger movement.

Overall, the new keyboard does make touch typing straightforward, but it doesn’t forgive bad habits.  I’ve discovered that I must have been reaching way over with my right hand to press ‘b’.  The extra centimetre was something my right index finger could do, but now with a split keyboard, it’s more like 20 cms – that’s an impossible reach.  The letter ‘p’ is tricky as my right little finger is slightly bent and goes for the ‘o’; this has been going on a long time as my right ‘ring’ finger presses the ‘p’ quite happily.  I’m trying to train myself out of it.

I do mistype and suddenly Word brings up some madness because I’ve managed to press control-alt-b-u or whatever, and it’s some esoteric shortcut for something you’d never need.

Numbers are a problem.  I used to just go along the top row with my right index finger, but that’s counterintuitive when 1-5 are over here and 6-0 are way over there with F8 and F15 in-between.

Another major issue is going back.  Recently, I tried typing on my old Logitech, which is ergonomic, but only slightly in comparison.  My fingers couldn’t cope with it at all.  It was like fumbling around in boxing gloves.

But it is easier. This blog has just gone over 1,000 words (sorry) in one sitting and my fingers, wrists and shoulders are fine.

I did find I missed the dedicated cursor keys.  You can put them on the Ergodox, of course, and I bought special yellow arrow keys for this.  With the old keyboard, I was in the habit of resting my fingers up against them when rewriting.  I bought another keypad with four keys to replicate this old setup… and then another keypad for nine keys, so I can have dedicated volume controls and keys for copy, paste and cut, and to type my email address, make a cup of tea… etc.

Unfortunately, the little keyboards were fiddly to reach. I moved them to sit between the big Ergodox ones and the tenting creates a barrier.

The solution?  Why another keyboard!

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Gamepad

My obsession for the perfect keyboard (much like Stephen King’s search for the perfect desk, see his excellent On Writing) knows no bounds.  I bought a gamepad and, after a ludicrous amount of Googling, found a utility to customise it.  It’s called ‘antimicro’ and it enables you to change all the buttons and thumb sticks.

I had the idea to use it to navigate a Word document as a macropad.  Instead of fiddling with the cursor keys, say, I can use the exciting thumb stick to nip about as if writing about spaceships needs a more futuristic set of controls.  (I’m currently writing a novel set in 1901, so it’s not really apt.)  The gamepad also extra buttons which I can use to do… er, stuff.

I have managed to get it working, but I’ve not used it in anger as such.  This is partly because I have a full keyboard in front of me (stop press: 2.5 keyboards) with perfectly good cursor keys (and autohotkey and autocorrect (see previous blogs) that do everything anyway).  However, it’s mostly because it feels awkward.  That’s probably only the learning curve.  I really ought to practise. 

I suspect the gamepad is merely a stepping stone to overleap towards the ultimate setup.  Other ideas have made this one positively, er, last month.  It might come into its own later.  I can see a genuine use when editing and beta-reading, but I’m not currently doing any of that.

But I can sit back and browse the internet, so that’s a step that’s not backwards.  And it might give you ideas.

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Kipling Makes Exceedingly Good

A BBC website story today talked about whether Enid Blyton should lose her English Heritage blue plaque because she was racist.  (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-57517254)  Enid Blyton?  Racist?  Surely not?  They had an example and… oh dear; oh dearie, dearie me.  Ouch.

Further down, and the point of this blog, they mention Rudyard Kipling’s “racist and imperialist sentiments” as being beyond the pale.  Now, I’m currently writing a novel set in the British Raj and it’s soaked through with racism and imperialism.  And sentimentalism.  Well, of course it is; it’s set in the British Raj.  However, the article is a pause for thought.

There’s a scene early on in “The Man Who Would Be King”, the Sean Connery/Michael Caine film based on Rudyard Kipling’s tale, set in a train carriage.  A middle-class, well-to-do Indian gets on and Caine’s character tells him to shut up.

“Thank you, sir,” the Indian says, deferentially, before Caine physically pushes him out of the moving train.

There’s racism in the scene – clearly – but it doesn’t follow that Kipling was racist.  He’s describing things as they were, holding a mirror up to reality.  Considering how things go for Connery and Caine, you could argue that the story is anti-imperialist.  It’s really about people getting above their station: you could easily translate it into two business consultants arriving at an office.  The Man Who Would Be CEO perhaps?

(Hmm, I’ve just looked up Kipling on Wikipedia and he wasn’t exactly that woke.  Perhaps, I guess, you can say he was a product of his time.  I’m not going to back myself into a corner trying to defend him.)

My point is that fiction has to reflect the time it’s set.  (Or be such fantasy that, say, the British Raj was not racist.)  You can’t have anti-slavery Romans, for example.  Spartacus, and all those who claimed to be the great slave revolt leader, did not want to get rid of slavery.  They just didn’t want to be slaves – fair enough – they wanted to own slaves – ah, hang on – maybe even their former masters.  The system, you see, was just the way of things.

So, where does all this leave my characters?

Not throwing Indians off trains, I hope.

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AutoCorrect

I blogged recently about AutoHotKey, but that’s quite a complex program.  A quicker way to change text is to use Word’s AutoCorrect.  Just follow the rabbit hole that goes File>Options>Proofing and you’ll find a button called ‘AutoCorrect Options…’

It’s preloaded with things like “do’nt” being replace by “don’t”.  (It was tricky to write that as Word, of course, changed the typo.)  I see it also corrects “drnik driveing”, so it’s quite a moral feature.

I added “teh” and “adn” for “the” and “and” as I often make that error.

But I’ve highlighted an example of one that makes things really easy for writers.  I write the Derring-Do Club and the heroines of that are Earnestine, Georgina and Charlotte.  Those are long names to type, so I’ve set up an autocorrect to change “e#” to “Earnestine” (see image) with “g#” and “c#” for the other two.  It becomes easy to think of the ‘#’ as whoever’s name, and I chose the ‘#’ because my little finger can reach it when touch typing.

It’s also another reason to have your characters start with different letters of the alphabet.

Currently, the sisters are facing a man called Maçon and he has that tricky cedilla under the ‘c’ – no problem, just set up “m#” and no more labouriously inserting that single character from the menu.

In the cosy mystery that’s currently being edited, I have a suspect called “Mrs Entwistle”, but I kept spelling her name “Entwhistle”, six backspaces and then “istle”.  Now, it’s just “me#”

Note that they are all in lower case, not upper case.  This means it catches both “e#” and “E#”, whereas if it’s in upper case, then you have to type upper case.

Finally, if it corrects something and you don’t want it to have, as I have needed in writing this, then simply do a Control-Z to undo.  “Earnestine” becomes “e#” again.

This all comes down to that Big Rule of Computing:

If you are doing anything repetitively, get the computer to do it.

There’s usually a way.

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AutoHotKey

I’ve got this piece of cardboard on my keyboard.

It’s the endless drive to improve my writing environment and I’ve been looking at the keyboard.  It’s strange that I’ve seen buttons and thought, why don’t I use that.  I found this piece of software called AutoHotKey.  It’s free and it’s here: https://www.autohotkey.com/

You can use it to change any key to any other key or sequence of keypresses.  My Logitech K350 keyboard has 12 function keys that I just don’t use when writing, so I thought I’d repurpose them.  (I do use them when programming, so this might prove an own goal later.)

So, F1 is now Ctrl-Alt-W, which is the code to bring up Wordweb.  The F1 key has a big ‘W’ printed on it, so that makes really good sense.  Then double quotes to avoid the awful strain of Shift-2, then Ctrl-F for find… etc.  I’ve even added Copy and Paste in F8 and F9.  This means I can highlight text with the mouse and easily copy, cut (with delete) and paste without straining my little finger.

Not all of these work, particularly the double-quotes.  Perhaps I should add ‘yet’ as there’s an unlearning/learning process.  I thought about swapping the ‘@’ and double-quote around.  This is the US keyboard arrangement and it makes much more sense.  Single quote shifted is a double quote, after all.  (However, my partner did some typing on my keyboard and, of course, couldn’t find the ‘’@’ and neither could I when typing this sentence.)  In the end, I used F4, which on the Logitech K350 has an ‘a’ printed on it, for the ‘@’.

Here’s my autohotkey script, which is a few technical lines and then the list of my definitions, so far:-

#NoEnv  ; Recommended for performance and compatibility with future AutoHotkey releases.
; #Warn  ; Enable warnings to assist with detecting common errors.
SendMode Input  ; Recommended for new scripts due to its superior speed and reliability.
SetWorkingDir %A_ScriptDir%  ; Ensures a consistent starting directory.
f1:send, ^!w
f2::send, "
f3::send, ^f
f4::send, @
f8::send, ^c
f9::send, ^v
f11::send, Cheers,{enter}David.{enter}
Return

That’s it, except I need to repaint the keycaps or just update my piece of cardboard that tells me what’s is what.

Would I recommend this?  Yes, I think I would.

Now, to finish with a return and an f11.

Cheers,

David.



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Elements of Science Fiction and Fantasy

I’ve been watching Sapphire and Steel (1979-1982) starring David McCallum and Joanna Lumley, and I’m troubled by the opening narration.  It’s a perfect example of a common problem with fantasy and science fiction.

The deep voice at the start says this:-

All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver and Steel. Sapphire and Steel have been assigned.

The problem, obviously, is that use of the word ‘element’ – they’re just not.  It ought to be:-

All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Carbon with Iron Sulphide, Carbon, Radium, Aluminium Oxide, Silver and Iron with Carbon. Aluminium Oxide and Iron with Carbon have been assigned.

(In some of the episodes, Lead and Silver have also been assigned and they aren’t mentioned as such.)

In Ancient times, it would go like this:-

All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic heavy elements don’t exist. All other elements are available: Fire, Earth, Air and Water.  Fire and Water have been assigned.

And, if you think about it, it’s ‘forces’, so surely, “…Strong, Electromagnetic, Weak and Gravity.  Strong and Weak have been assigned.”

All very silly, I know, but there’s an important point here.  Mixing science with fantasy always destroys the suspension of disbelief.  To give another example.

The Force is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.

Which is fine.  Even the use of the word ‘energy’ works, because it’s the non-scientific definition.  However, in the Star Wars prequels, the Force was suddenly generated by midi-chlorians, tiny living entities inside all the cells of the body.  This brought the concept under scientific scrutiny and it immediately failed.  Biology doesn’t work like that, so the suspension of disbelief – whoosh!  There it went.

The solution for Star Wars would simply be to remove those lines and pretend they never happened.  Mysticism in a space fantasy isn’t a problem, it follows its own rules and that’s part of its universe.  Pure Science Fiction occupies this universe and so its rules are those rules.  As you move towards Science Fantasy with FTL, teleportation and so on, you generate new rules and you must follow those.  Fantasy has magic and ‘can do anything’, except it has to follow the rules of its magic.

Science fiction must obey the scientific laws, and fantasy must obey its own lore.

So, finally, to fix Sapphire and Steel, it must be dragged away from the clutches of science.

All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transcendental agents may not be used where there is life. Corporeal agents are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver and Steel. Sapphire and Steel (and maybe Lead and Silver) have been assigned.

Job done.

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Blade Runner: November, 2019

A selfie in time.

It’s the month and year Blade Runner is set.  The future is the present.  So, it seemed appropriate to re-watch this genre classic and I picked The Final Cut from the profusion of versions.  I did realise that I’ve watched this film possibly too often.  I know it.  I can even quote the dreadful voice over from the other version at the right moment and various lines from Tartan: Restrung (my skit of Blade Runner and The Matrix) kept popping into my head.

Bryant: These three wooden tops are still on the loose. I want you to gafiate them.

Deckard: Look Bryant, I was secretly quit when I walked in here, now I’m quadruply quit.

The first thing to mention is the clunky technology.  Really, in 2019, having to squint at the remote to find the play button.  DVDs are so old-fashioned.  The tech in Blade Runner is just as awkward, big computer screens full of chunky text.  There’s a video phone, but it’s a big thing attached to a wall and not a slim device permanently glued to the user’s hand.  And we don’t have flying cars yet.

But criticising a film based on its out-of-date kit, isn’t fair.  If all the passers-by in the street scenes had been staring down at a rectangle of light, then the 1982 audience wouldn’t have understood what was going on.  Although, oddly, the sequel has saved the original by making it a parallel universe.  It’s interesting that Blade Runner was set forward in time, whereas Blade Runner: 2049 is set a step sideways from now.

The voice-over wasn’t needed.  Indeed, if there’s ever a Blade Runner: David’s Cut, I’ll chop the scrolling infodump at the start and that irritating line from Gaff put over the ending.

The themes, what it means to be human, are still there.  Deckard is, and has to be, a replicant, of course.  Only Harrison Ford disagrees now.  How to make an actor play a replicant who thinks he’s human?  Tell him he’s playing a human, of course.

I did like the lack of CGI.  It seemed grounded in comparison to the recent filmic trend to show everything and anything, even if it’s not possible.  Ridley Scott did change film-making by showing a run down, aged future, so we were seeing a down-to-Earth future rather than a comic-book over-choreographed puff piece.  Deckard is injured and stays injured, things hurt, they are awkward and imperfect, i.e. it’s real.

Does it hold up?  Yes.  It deserves its status as a classic.  I hope, like Orwell’s 1984, that it will continue to influence now that it’s slipping through the present towards the past.

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