Sunday, December 4, 2011
Print publishers don't like short books. They take about as much work to create and market, but they don't generate as much money. And readers like to buy big books so they feel they've got their money's worth. When I was first reading, I was used to novels of 150 pages. Now most publishers won't even touch anything under 300 pages, and some genres seem to demand even more.
E-books, on the other hand, don't have that sort of prejudice. I'm wondering whether e-books are going to spark a revival in shorter forms. Any thoughts?
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
My birthday started in a horrible, uncomfortable Central London hotel after a lousy night's sleep. The tiny, overpriced room was stupidly hot, the bed was lumpy, and the walls were so thin I could hear my neighbours' televisions as if they were in my own room. The guy next to me on one side was watching cable porn at 5am, and on the other side, they'd decided they needed to watch a war movie before breakfast. And for this luxury, I was paying well over £100. Not a great start to the day, but never mind. I was determined to have a good time.
The plan was that I would be speaking at a conference in the morning, then heading 150 miles home by train to have a birthday dinner with my family after being away for two weeks, and then we'd all go to the local carnival. Carnival's always a fun night out. Didn't quite work out that way.
I got to the conference in good time for my technical rehearsal at 8am, only to discover that they'd moved my slot to mid-afternoon, and there was no need for me to have stayed in the damn hotel anyway. Still, I figured I could do my bit, get a later train, and just about make it in time for dinner. Well, if they'd been on time, it might have worked. The entire conference was chaos, and they were running late right from the get-go. I don't even remember my panel, though I think it went well. When I got to Paddington station, I literally ran from the Tube for my train, and missed it by about 30 seconds. There was no way I was going to make it home for dinner now.
At least I'd make it to the carnival, though. Stay positive, Matt.
Since I had an hour to kill, I figured I might as well get something to eat. That's when I discovered there was a "problem" with my credit card, and they wouldn't accept it. Turned out the bank's automated systems had decided that the hotel bill was an "unexpected expense" and had blocked my card for my own protection. And since it was after 5pm, there were no humans available, and they couldn't deal with it until the next day. Thanks, Lloyds. So, no money. No food. The day gets better.
Finally, I got on a crowded train at 6.30. I should have been home three hours earlier. Twenty minutes into the journey, the heating broke down. This was November in England, remember, and nights are cold. That was okay when the train was full, but once it started to empty out, it began to get really chilly.
Never mind, I could endure it. Just a short while longer, and I could enjoy my long-awaited evening with my family.
And then, ten miles from home, the train broke down. No power. We sat in the cold, dark carriage, with no idea what was going on, until a repair train came and towed us back to the previous station. We got onto a replacement train, and I finally reached my station at about 10pm.
Even though this is starting to sound like a rejected script for a John Candy movie, the day wasn't finished with me yet. You see, when the carnival's in town, our tiny little town would get thousands of visitors. Everywhere you can possibly squeeze a vehicle is taken. Half the roads into and around town are blocked off, and the rest are full of traffic. My usual ten-minute drive home turned into well over half an hour, and I ended up having to park nearly a mile from my house. Of course, I wasn't dressed for a cold English night, and I recall the walk as an endless, freezing trek, losing the feeling in my fingers and face.
I eventually arrived back, tired, cold, hungry and dispirited, to a cold, dark, empty house, and a note that said, "Sorry, didn't get you any cards or presents, and there's no food in the house because we didn't get round to shopping. You'll have to go out and get yourself something."
And that, as they say, was that. My worst birthday ever.
This year, I spent most of my birthday lying on the sofa, suffering from a stomach bug. It wasn't a great day, but it's far from the worst birthday I've ever had. I had loads of Facebook & Skype wishes, I talked to friends and relatives from round the world, and I was surrounded by a family who love me. That's what matters.
Thursday, October 6, 2011
Download Making Better Movies with Moviestorm, Vol 1
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
"My book is just over 450 pages, fully illustrated, in PDF format. I require Kindle and Nook versions, and I need you to upload it to Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and Kobo, priced $19.99. I will also require a notarized warranty from you that in the event of any defects you will fully reimburse anyone who has purchased the book from me. If I do a second edition, will this be included in the original price?"
Saturday, September 24, 2011
Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Friday, August 26, 2011
No-one told him the yellow flowers were for the princess, but then, no-one ever tells you anything when you're ten. Gareth was sitting in the loft of the barn, swinging his legs over the edge and thinking gloomy thoughts. To make matters worse, his mother had spanked him in front of the whole Court, and everybody, except of course the King, had laughed at him.
Saturday, August 20, 2011
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
What we're seeing is anger leavened with a large dollop of dontgiveafuck.If you have a kid, and spend their entire life telling them that they're worthless and lazy, telling them to shut up, not giving them pocket money but expecting them to help out around the house, promising them stuff but not delivering it, dangling your shiny toys in front of them, and meanwhile constantly ramming down their throat that the only measure of success is wealth, expect them to be resentful and surly instead of grateful and happy.One day, if they don't top themselves in a fit of depression, they will snap. They'll lose their heads and go crazy. It will be over some trivial, pointless thing, like the colour of your tie. If you try to figure out what was wrong with your tie, you're totally missing the point. It ain't about the fucking tie. It's not even a protest. It's not rational. It's just an explosion of pent-up emotion and aggression.So what do you do? Yell at them? Lock them in their room while you carry on partying? Take away the little they do have in order to pay for your smashed porcelain that's worth more than they can ever hope to repay? Beat them for being uppity?Or maybe you should try talking to them and figure out what's actually wrong. In fact, if you go to a neutral person, they'll probably tell you to start treating the kid differently. The kid doesn't have control over his circumstances. You do. So it's up to you to make the changes.I'm not in any way condoning the riots. But if we want to stop them happening again and again, we need to understand why they're happening, and address the circumstances that lead to people feeling this way. Yes, some of them, maybe most, are idiots along for the ride, but the mood in the country is so discontented that it's not surprising that they've turned to looting shops en masse instead of scratching cars in parking lots and spraying graffiti on the walls.Give people decent jobs with a living wage. Give them hope for a better life. Help them get out of debt instead of bailing out the bankers. Reduce the gap between rich and poor. Lock up corrupt politicians and businessmen instead of people who just want to smoke a bit of weed. Educate people instead of closing schools.Then the idiots will be the crazy outcasts once again, not role models for thousands of pissed off people who've had enough of feeling that they might as well kick the shit out of something.
Sunday, July 10, 2011
Friday, June 24, 2011
Friday, June 17, 2011
Thursday, May 26, 2011
- The edges of the blocks are so perfectly straight they look like they were cut with lasers, and they're accurate to within a couple of microns, more accurate than we could do today.
- The designs on the blocks are cut absolutely identically, as if they had been moulded.
- The edges are so sharp that if you touch them, you will cut your finger.
- The blocks fit together so tightly you can't get a razor blade between them.
- There is no sign of weathering or damage on any of the blocks, they're as pristine as the day they were cut.
Q: London, Munich, Moscow, Miami. Which is the odd one out?
Sunday, May 22, 2011
Let’s just look at six common themes in fantasy literature. Sure, there are plenty of counter-examples of fantasy literature that don’t use these tropes, but there are a lot that do. I’m sure you’ll recognize them.
By the way, don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not bashing Game of Thrones. It’s a good book, and I really like a lot of George R. R. Martin’s work. The Armageddon Rag is one of my favourite novels. My concern is with the underlying ideas that appear in a lot of books of this kind, and which we somehow automatically accept as “good” without necessarily thinking them through. I blame the troubadours and the pre-Raphaelites who created this perception of the world of knights in shining armour that still persists into the 21st century.
Our hero seeks to regain the throne that is his by right. His family was deposed, perhaps many generations ago, so he intends to kill the usurpers and restore the true monarchy.
There is an implicit assumption here that inherited power is fundamentally right. Because our hero’s great-great-grandfather used to run the country, this gives him the right, and indeed the duty, to take charge. Don’t ask whether he’s competent. Don’t ask whether he’s the best person for the job. Just look at the genealogical tables, and that determines who should have the power.
And, furthermore, don’t ask how his family got into power in the first place. So a few generations further back still, our hero’s family conquered the kingdom and seized power? Well, that’s okay. They’re not usurpers. That was legitimate because, well, he’s the hero, right? And if anyone from those days should try and regain power for their family, they’re obviously evil rebels and should be put down, harshly.
Here’s a modern comparison. A descendent of the Duke of Thuringia, who was deposed by Napoleon in the 1780s, decides he’s the rightful heir to the throne of Germany. So he gets a group of loyal Thuringian supporters together, and plots to assassinate the President of Germany and blow up the Parliament, then set himself up as a divinely appointed dictator. By most standards, that would make him a great villain, but in a fantasy world – he’s our hero.
That example leads in perfectly to the next trope, the Noble House. Everything is done out of loyalty to the House. The House is everything. The only people you can trust are members of your own House. The reason for wanting power isn’t for your own selfish ends – that wouldn’t be heroic – it’s to bring glory and honor to your House. And woe betide anyone who insults your House – they clearly have to die. Anything you do in defense of your House is justified. After all, it’s for a noble cause, right?
We have that trope in modern literature too. It’s called The Godfather. The Noble Houses of fantasy worlds are no different to Mafia families jockeying for supremacy, and dealing out death for the slightest imagined slur on their honor.
And relying on your family to do everything, and putting them in positions of power? That’s called nepotism, and it’s one of the most widespread forms of corruption. Here’s an example from Game of Thrones: one of the country’s leading generals dies, and the king replaces him with a highly experienced warrior. The dead guy’s family is insulted, because his son should have followed in his father’s footsteps (see the rightful heir trope above). But the son in question is six years old, sickly, and largely insane. Anyone with half a grain of sense could see that he’s not exactly the ideal candidate for the job, but in a fantasy world, family honor trumps common sense every time.
The bloodline is a recurring trope throughout fantasy literature. Everything about a person can be determined by their genetic background. Everyone from this country is shifty and untrustworthy. Everyone from that country is a skilled trader. Everyone from that nomad race is a cruel savage. And in order to preserve that distinction, the cultural norms of every tribe, nation and family dictate that crossing those genetic backgrounds produces half-breeds who are to be treated as outcasts.
In many places in fantasy worlds, people who aren’t of the True Blood, or foreigners, are treated like scum. They’re only fit for lower class jobs, and the city guard can mistreat them with impunity.
It makes me think of slave-owning states in the 18th and 19th century, where white people carefully graded everyone by their degree of blackness: mulattoes, quadroons, octoroons, and so on, and that determined their civil rights. It’s reminiscent of eugenics programs, apartheid, or the segregation of the Jews in ghettoes. But in a fantasy world, that’s okay.
Here’s another common trope. Our hero is the son of a blacksmith, but he’s always felt different and special. That’s because he’s really a noble. And so he regains what is rightfully his. (Because he’s the rightful heir, he’s restoring his family and the bloodline is what counts, remember.)
In most fantasy worlds, apparently, nobles really are different to ordinary people. They’re more skilled. They have better morals. They’re more intelligent. And they have a Destiny (say it in your most sonorous Christopher Lee voice, with an echo). They’re highborn, and so they deserve to have the best of everything. And if they have to kill a few people to get it, then fair enough. They’re nobles, after all.
And, by contrast, peasants are peasants, merchants are merely money-grubbers, and slaves are just slaves. And, of course, they should keep to their station in life. If they have to die in the service of the nobility, then don’t worry. They’re only commoners. In fact, if you have to start a major war to settle a dispute between nobles, then that’s fine too. The joyful populace will cheerfully line up to be slaughtered, just as long as House Hero avenges the insult from House Arrogant.
Let’s just recap one little thing in that last paragraph in case you missed it. Slavery is legal in most fantasy worlds. It’s okay for our hero to own people. Because he’s a noble, right?
Our hero has to acquire many skills, but there’s one that matters above all else. He becomes a real man when he learns to use a sword and kill people. Even women aren’t exempt from this – if she’s not a Xena-esque warrior woman, she learns how to use a weapon in secret. Again from Game of Thrones, we’re supposed to like Arya, the girl who studies swordsmanship, rather than her girly big sister Sansa, who just wants to marry a handsome prince.
Combat is everything – either in the form of vengeance or tournaments, or simply to demonstrate prowess. Rulers who aren’t warriors are usually to be despised, and it’s a matter of personal honor that our hero should regain his throne by killing the evil king himself, thus proving his fitness to rule.
In a fantasy world, violence settles everything. Tombstone and the Wild West were a model of law and order compared to most fantasy worlds. Think Somalia and you’d be about right. Everyone’s armed, and death in a bar brawl is nothing unusual. Power goes to the strongest and most ruthless, and they keep it by inflicting death on anyone who might be a threat to them. In the modern world, that’s a country in chaos. In a fantasy world, that’s how things should be.
After our hero regains the throne (at the point of a sword, naturally), he’s going to restore the Old Ways. Once again, everything will be like it was in his father’s day, or a century ago, or a few millennia ago. All you have to do is invoke that trope, and the reader knows implicitly that our hero is doing everything for the best of reasons.
In a fantasy world, there’s no such thing as progress. It was always better back in the old days. The Old Religion was right, and the country will be improved if we get rid of the false priests and put the old ones back.
When that happens in the real world, it’s scary. Margaret Thatcher once proclaimed that she stood for a return to “Victorian values” in Britain. What the Victorians stood for was actually pretty horrific: the belief that white people had the right to conquer everyone else and destroy their culture; the belief that Christians were morally superior to everyone else, and therefore had the right to treat them as they pleased; no votes for women, black people, or peasants; the entire economy and judiciary in the hands of a small hereditary elite; the workhouse for poor people; death for the most trivial offenses; sexual repression (except if you were an aristocrat, in which case you could do as you liked) and so on. Dickens wrote about social injustice for a reason – Victorian society was a far from pleasant place for the majority of people.
Further back in history, look at what happened when the Catholics and Protestants took turns bringing back the Old Ways throughout Europe. Decades of death and terror, and people burned at the stake for following the previous Old Ways. One minute you’re a loyal subject, the next you’re a dangerous heretic in fear of your life.
In the West, there are very few people who think it’s a good thing that Ayatollah Khomeini re-established the Old Ways in Iran. Though we liked it much better when the British, the French and the oil companies got rid of democracy in Iran, and brought back the Other Old Ways in the form of the Shah. And look how well that worked out for the Iranian people.
Monday, May 16, 2011
At flight deck level, in aircaft dispatch, the dispatcher used a chinagraph pencil to write the number of each aircraft on the inside of the plexiglass dome as it took off, and erased it with his thumb as it landed, giving him an instant view which aircraft were in flight.
Saturday, April 30, 2011
Sunday, April 24, 2011
Thursday, April 21, 2011
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Last week I tried an experiment. Instead of posting bits and pieces on Facebook as I encountered them, I compiled everything into a single daily blog post which appeared first on the Web, and then on Facebook as a note. It was a deliberate attempt to reduce the number of FB posts I make: I know I post a lot, but that’s because I keep stumbling over all sorts of interesting things. The journalist inside me wants to share them with you, but I’m wary of bombarding people with stuff they don’t want to read. I also wanted to try writing slightly longer pieces, but not as long as the short essays I usually put on my blog.
The blog experiment revealed several interesting things.
· The number of comments and likes dropped off almost to nothing. Most of my posts get some reaction. The blog posts, which typically contained 10-15 items, got almost no response. I suspect this is due to the following reasons:
- Most people simply don’t read the longer posts. They’re not good to read on a phone, for example and they demand a lot more commitment than short 240-character posts. It’s also really easy to skim through your Facebook feed and see what looks interesting, whereas this is much harder with a blog. No readers = no reaction. Simple.
- The layout Facebook gives to links is actually very effective: a short summary, an obvious thing to click on to see the item (and you can view videos right in the post without leaving the page, and an easy mechanism to make a comment or like a post, again, without leaving the page. In a blog, it's much less obvious whether you're going to like what you get, and you actually have to look for the link, so people don't click through as much.
- It’s much easier to react to a single post than to a long post. It’s clear what you’re reacting to, rather than having to explain in your comments which bit you mean. If I post about three films I've seen, it's so easy to click "Like" on the one where you agree with my comment, rather than write a comment saying "Yeah, I didn't think much of BLAH movie either."
· Blogging is hard work. It would typically take me an hour at the end of the day to write up one of those posts with all the URLs I’d saved, add in all the links, find images, and so on. Clicking “share this” is so much easier. Click the button, add a quick comment, and get back to what I was doing. It takes less than a minute.
So, in other words, compared to Facebooking, blogging is more work for me, and is less effective at communicating this kind of information to you. Sure, blogs are great for longer pieces like this, where you need to hold someone’s attention for a few minutes, but that’s not what Facebook’s for.
What we seem to have created is a smorgasbord of what I've taken to calling "infosnacks": tiny morsels of assorted information that we can help ourselves to all day long every time we fancy a little nibble. There’s an endless supply of it out there, and we can survive on it quite happily.
You could argue that a non-stop diet of infosnacks is bad for us, and initially, that was how I felt. Surely spending time reading proper, well-written articles has to be somehow “better” than lots of stupid little postings.
On reflection, though, I’d have to disagree. Infosnacks are a fine metaphor, but it’s not the same as subsisting on a diet of chips and chocolate. There's no requirement that our daily information intake has to be limited, or contain certain vitamins. And infosnacks aren't all we consume anyway. We can, on occasion, easily find ourselves drawn to sampling more weighty, nutritious fare: someone posts a small taster, we follow it up, and next thing we know we’re reading an informative article about something quite in depth.
It all depends who your friends are. It’s more like a conversation, where people are quite happy to contribute a few sentences here and there, rather than a debating society where everyone takes turns to hold the floor for half an hour and make a speech. And because it’s so easy to post, you may find that your friends post some quite surprising and interesting things, which actually makes for a pretty damn good conversation.
So, it’s back to Facebook posts for the little things, and blogs for longer, more complex thoughts that won’t fit into 240 characters.
Sunday, April 17, 2011
- OK, movies. Watched two documentaries, Food, Inc and Urban Explorers. Food, Inc didn't really tell me anything I didn't already know, but seeing it on screen really turned me off eating a lot of what's in the supermarkets. Urban Explorers was interesting, but could have done with being half an hour shorter. Still, well worth watching just for the pretty images of abandoned places. I just wanted to know who the hell simply walks away from a fully furnished castle and leaves it to rot?
- Here's one I may or may not see when it reaches Netflix. Atlas Shrugged could be fascinating, or could have me throwing things at the screen. This review intrigues me: A Movie This Demented Should Be Against The Law. I have to admit, I've tried to read it and failed. And Ayn Rand's philosophy pisses me off. But I'm prepared to give the movie a shot.
- Game footage is getting more and more like movies. Check out this latest Unreal demo. And remember, this is real-time in-game footage. This is not a cut-scene. This is not pre-rendered. This is gameplay.
And while your jaw hits the floor, I'll just tell you that this is taking not one, not two, but three top of the range custom nVidia graphics cards to run it. So don't expect it to work on your laptop. Don't even expect it to work on your current generation super-duper video production PC. Figure on getting a whole new machine when this comes out in two years.
- I spent much of yesterday browsing Wonderland, a hugely entertaining blog that talks about games of all sorts. What initially caught my eye was this glorious Lego steampunk TIE Fighter. Neat, huh?
- Also from Wonderland, an excellent post on social mechanisms in games, based on a superb talk by Raph Koster, who I should follow more closely than I do. He "explained how societies work, how humans work, and how we interact as beings with each other, described as social mechanics and how they could be applied (and are sometimes applied) in social games. [Here's] his list of the 40 essential social mechanics that have ever existed, in order that game designers need never have to reinvent them again." Bloody brilliant stuff.
- It's a damn shame I missed the Muppet Art Show last night. Woulda liked to see that, and it looked like people had a lot of fun.
- Damn shame I missed the hillbilly burlesque last night too. Looking forward to the next Kitschy Kittens show.
- The average person on Twitter gets 2700 messages a day. A year ago, it was 400, and I thought that was a lot. Math: if it takes 5 seconds to read a tweet, it would take 3 hrs 45 minutes a day to read your Twitter feed.
- Most people log in once a day, and only read their direct messages, @messages, and whatever's been posted in the last 10-15 minutes. Math: most people only read 1% of their feed. In other words, if you post something on Twitter, there's a 99% chance that a given one of your followers won't see it.
- Click-through rates on Twitter links have dropped from 38% a year ago to 14% now. So given that hardly anyone is going to read your tweet, the number of people who will actually click on a link is near enough non-existent (o.14%). Math: if you have 500 followers, then maybe ONE of them will actually click through.
- Retweet rates have dropped from 25% in 2009 to 17% in 2010 and 11% now. Math: if you have 500 followers, maybe ONE will RT your post. And if he has 500 followers, maybe one will click through and/or RT it.