They Took More Than The Laptop…

“Sir, we don’t want you to worry. Can you come home soon – your house has been broken into.”

And with those words my working day ended and a stressful night began. When I got home there was mud on the floor, an open window and 2 policemen insisting I put bags over my feet. At first it didn’t look like anything had gone, certainly nothing important:  savings jar still present, large monitor and old pc still sitting there, and then I realised that my laptop was missing.

I work in IT and I learned a valuable lesson that night. I would be sacked, potentially prosecuted if I had not found a way to reliably back up the information we store locally and yet I didn’t apply this to my home life. So what did I lose? About a year’s worth of writing projects. I can attempt to recreate some of them from memory but they won’t be those pieces, all that time and investment has gone.

So think of this a public reminder. If you store anything important on your PC/Laptop/Phone then find a way to store it somewhere securely. You can store backups with a friend or in the bank, use an online storage provider (Skydrive or Dropbox for example) whatever it takes. Oh and if you want to get proper security encrypt your computer – at least that would force most low level criminals to just wipe it before they gain the benefits.

So I’ve been quiet while I work through the ramifications of that little event.

I’m still waiting on a new machine to arrive but that’s a different story.

BBC to broadcast Olympics in 3D – why?

According to the BBC the Olympics will be broadcast in 3D.  Looking closer I see that what they really mean is the opening and closing ceremonies and the final of the 100m sprint. Oh yeah, and some retrofitted highlights.

Hardly “The Olympics”.

The problem, it seems, is one of capacity.  The BBC is worried that if they punt too many extra dimensions our way they’ll not be able to cope and we’d lose some sports that nobody will watch anyway swimming coverage.

But why bother?  Only 6% of British households have 3D televisions and despite serious promotion by all channels (including hardware vendors) take up has been only  marginally lukewarm.  If the film industry is anything to go by, the increased expense and lack of any discernible benefit means that 3D will go the same way it always has – into the gimmicky bin. If people want anything, it’s affordable quality entertainment.  I have to ask whether the BBC would be better off investing in new different programming?

Let’s be clear.  Muddying the image, reducing the broadcast quality and all in the name of adding an extra dimension doesn’t seem like a good commercial idea. Manufacturers like it because we need new kit.  Broadcasters like it because they can say they are charging more for gimmicks innovating. However Joe Punter doesn’t seem all that enthusiastic. As someone who gets headaches and can’t really see the type of 3D film makers are using. I am certainly never forward to sticking a  Brechtian Alienation Device on my nose and in fact refuse to indulge this current fad.

Since when did fantasy mean… well, Fantasy?

If can't tand my pretentiousness... click this picture!  Recently I found myself doing some research and ended up reading The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges  which is a series of [very] short fantasy stories.  I was particularly interested in The House of Asterion which invokes a particular Greek Myth.  As I read I was struck by how narrow the modern interpretation of “fantasy” has become.  Ask a person on the street what, in literary terms, the word means and they will likely define it in terms of swords and sorcery, magic, elves and dwarfs or perhaps modern supernatural stories (invariably featuring a moody person staring out of the book cover).  They also mean doorstop books that have very specific story types and you buy them in sets – or the hopes that the overall arc will someday be finished.

I’m pretty sure Tolkien would wonder what he started.

In The Aleph Borges tells a number of tales.  He even goes out of his way in his afterwords to say that the stories should be considered fantasy and he covers everything:  Magic, Myth, The Other, Timelessness and he does it all in very short stories that make you stop and think.   I don’t claim to have discovered Borges after all I he’s pretty famous in certain circles but I only decided to read him from a happy accident.

The problem is genre.

Now I don’t mean genre as story type.  I don’t mean genre as popular writing.  I  certainly don’t mean it as poor writing.

What I mean by genre is that concept of bookshelf.  Perhaps even genre as shopping experience.

Let me tell you a story…

On a grey day, when rain pounds the pavement, a man walks into a bookshop.  He goes up to the pretty sales assistant and, after flashing his no.1 smile asks, “Where can I buy more of this?”  He flourishes a largish book.  The cover clearly indicates a hooded man and his beardy sidekick slaying the dinosaur analogue.

She gives him a look and points to the shelves where there are an array of hooded men vs the dinosaur analogues (some of them are even the good guys).

The man thanks her and wanders off for a browse under the convenient sign.

Genre is a marketing term.  It’s a happy pigeonhole.

Notice that the man doesn’t go and look in the “fiction” section and he certainly doesn’t go to “dark fantasy”.  He goes to the shelf that says this genre and that.

It’s not surprising.  We like our generic handles.  We like being able to buy easily.  That man has also been me.

It strikes me that there are a lot of books out there that we genre fans (and writers) might like but we don’t get to easily read them.  We don’t see them – they’re hiding away somewhere else. There’s a distinct partition “This is our territory and they are over there“.  I also understand why the big publishing companies like that shelf.  It makes it easier to produce books that people are looking for.  And it sells.

But I worry.  That’s a big shelf.  And there’s a lot of hooded men and beardy sidekicks but there’s not a lot of variation.  I worry that there’s a very narrow horizon on display.  It’s hard to find the gems in there (and there are a few great books squirreled away in amongst the rest).  I remember reading horror as a lad, I still like the occasional horror tale now but can you find any decent new stuff?  No, not really.  Horror collapsed at the end of the 20th century as copycat novels and over exposure caused an entire (ancient) story type to disappear.  You still find horror but more often in the generic fiction section or as an extra veneer on other stories.  I am told that there’s a healthy underground but I’ve never managed to find it.

In an ideal world my story would be different…

On a grey day, when rain pounds the pavement, a man walks into a bookshop.  He goes up to the pretty sales assistant and, after flashing his no.1 smile asks, “Where can I buy more of this?”  He flourishes a largish book.  The cover clearly indicates a hooded man and his beardy sidekick slaying the dinosaur analogue.

She gives him a look and says “That’s great.  You can buy some of that over there but we also recommend this stuff.”  They have a chat.  She points out a few different options and the man realises there’s more out there than his habitual spot.

In this story the man widens his horizons and goes off to find gems.  Maybe I’m atypical in my reading habits.  Maybe I’m more arrogant than I like to admit.  But I do like being surprised.  I do like being told stories that surprise and entertain.  I like stories that fill me up and I like stories that show me that there’s no horizons.  I like to read everything – I even like reading about beards and pointy hats but sometimes, just sometimes, I like to worry about what’s round the corner on the other bookshelves.

In short.  Read The Aleph by Borges it’s great.

And recommend me some gems so I am proved wrong.

The Weird Weird Weird world.

I’ve just read this amusing post by Charles Stross.  In summary a student has asked what his credentials are for writing about space science.  Stross correctly points out that he’s a SF author and that’s about that.  What’s weird is the student’s expectation that Stross should be qualified and be able to demonstrate those qualities. Here’s a quote of the most headscratching paragraph:

Your time is clearly very valuable, as you would rather argue with me over this than simply take a minute or two to state your credentials. Furthermore, I have no need to know the extent of your writings, I simply need to know if you are indeed certified to be considered a credible source on the topic. For instance, if your credible knowledge is on the topic of slaads and borrowing from George R. R. Martin, you are not considered a credible source on space colonization. So let me just ask you this, why should I believe your article has any rational basis, when for all I know now is your true expertise lies in the githyanki.

Mr Stross, I don’t know if you will ever read this post, but if you do, you have my sympathies.

I would be more surprised except this is the age of the Internet – or so everyone keeps telling me.  We’ve managed to create the biggest information repository ever seen and what do we fill it with?  Cats, Sex and a sense of entitlement.  Information has become so ubiquitous that people expect it to be there as reliably as the sun rises in the morning.  They expect,  if they want to know something, that the information should always be there.  And if it’s not, well this is the Age of the Internet… it should.  I see it all the time.

I moderate a couple of online forums and we frequently see students asking questions about some paper they need answers on.  Rather than do the research, students frequently turn up and ask some questions which amount to “I have a paper to write and I need you to supply the answers”.  And so I understand Charles Stross’s grumpiness.  If I were him then perhaps I would be even more direct but I suspect he has more patience.

The best description of the weird wide world in which we live is in this post by Neil Gaiman – taking fans apart for their… pushiness.  Enjoy!

Paul WS Anderson… I hate you

This is an open letter to the other Paul Anderson.  The hack one.  The one who makes terrible films. If you are the good one please stop reading.

Dear Paul,

Please stop making films. Just stop, desist, cease – find a new hobby, do something different.

You made the reasonably enjoyable Event Horizon and then what happened to you?  You made Solider, you made The Sight and then AVP: Aliens versus Predator – a film so bad even its name is nominatively redundant. I look at your spiralling career and I wonder if this is the path you sought when you left film school.  “What have I done ?” I hear you ask.  What have you done… you have made this:

Yes this.  What were you thinking?  What is this?  What were you on when you made it?  Why didn’t you at least attempt to make this?  That is not only a great piece of cinema but an excellent adaptation of the books – it even has a great cast.  Instead you hired Milla Jovovich (your wife) and … Orlando Bloom in some sort of crass faux renaissance France crapfest.

I am led to believe you are trying to remake The Long Good Friday.  My head is in my hands,  I weep at the contempt you evidently feel for other’s work.

Please just stop …

Pretty please.

With a cherry on top.

Ebooks and the library of the future

Harper Collins has determined that 26 loans is the average lifespan of a library book before they are replaced.  They have also decided that, in order to protect this revenue stream, ebooks be crippled so that they disappear after that amount of loans – forcing libraries to buy more “stock”.

Am I the only person that sees the inherent flaw in this argument?  No.  Librarians are up in arms over it.  Quite right too.  But there’s a more insidious concept creeping into the discussion – the software license.

Software has always been sold with a license.  This tells you what you can and can’t do with it and is, in effect,  a rental agreement.  There’s always been a grey market in used software (even though some court cases have ruled that licenses can’t be resold) but these are reliant on physical media.  It has also been proposed that some DVDs be sold with a limited lifespan – as far as I am aware, this never took off  (phew – think of the waste!).   I can’t think of a time when this concept has been applied to books … until now.

Books last  and I like having books around.  I like going back whenever I can to dip into my favourite ones whether it’s for research or  pleasure.  I think it’s fair enough to charge for replacing something physical when that needs to be replaced – but electronic files with a built in shelf life?  Really?  Is this something that the big publishing houses think is a truly good idea?

Two flipsides have occurred to me – and I don’t know if proponents of ebooks have really thought about this.

If you can get an ebook from a library for free – why pay?

If you can store a LOT of ebooks on digital media – and you can – why would you go to the library?

If both of those points come true – who is going to pay the authors?

Writers want to write stories that will be read, but should they be expected to be happy amateurs?  Is it fair to inflict crappy DRM and software derived licensing (ugh – the book EULA) on readers?  I don’t think so either.  There’s a happy medium somewhere even if I don’t know where it is.  I suspect the cloud option (a la Steam*) will be the end result.

That’s the world we live in.  As it is written so it shall be, “… you live in interesting times…”

*  but I still want physical books!

(Burger) Bunfights at the Point of a Pen

There’s a war going on.  It’s filled with religious themes,  where the combatants are split down tribal lines. It’s replete with bitterness, personal feuds, recrimination and accusations that the other “did it first”.  It’s not a new war either because we’ve been here before.  No, not Afghanistan,  I’m talking about the row over what constitutes a good book.

The eye rollingly named Edward Docx* has had a minor rant published in the Guardian.  He claims, with no irony, that no matter how you dress up a burger it’s still a burger.   Burgers being is his oh-so-clever-never-heard-that-before metaphor for the sin of genre.

How very droll of you Mr Docx.  I challenge you to an eating contest.  On the one hand we will eat the filth that McDonalds serves the poor masses and then on recovery we will consume hand crafted tasty burger-treats.  If you still cannot tell the difference then I will bid you good day and recommend you have your taste buds checked out.

You see the problem I have is that Mr Docx  conflates the word genre with bad.  Even as he stresses that there’s bad Michelin starred linguine restaurants you can sense the clenching of  teeth or a titter  hidden behind a single hand.  My my a chip so large that it can’t fit into a McDonalds deep fat fryer.  I feel the urge to put a consoling arm around his trembling shoulders and tell him it’s ok to admit that any book from any form can be horrifically bad.

And that’s the problem.  It’s not that genre is bad, it’s that there are bad books.  I can’t comment on Larsson’s The Girl With…  books because I’ve not read them.  However I can say that if I could, I would  go back and prevent Dan Brown learning to write.  A man like Dan Brown represents all that is bad in book writing.  He is the very epitome of what happens when you give marketing departments a budget and tell them to sell the feculence from the side of the road.  The Da Vinci Code is, for want of another metaphor, a Big Mac:  plastic, bland, lacking in nutrition and bearing only a vague resemblance to the picture on the board.

And yet people do buy Big Macs…  yeah Mr Docx I am puzzled by that too but then I am not the one confusing one type of burger for another.

We can stretch his metaphor further.  Has he never been in an alien city and unsure where the good places to eat are?  Has he never stood on a street and wondered whether it was the Chinese or Indian tonight?  Or had trouble when the group decided that it’s Italian for tea even though he wanted Michelin rated linguine.  Even then, when he’s sat down (presumably alone because he bemoans the lack of sales) for his Michelin meal it seems that he’s not sure what’s going on because even in these sorts of restaurants they’ll only make you what’s on the menu.

Docx goes on a tirade about the constraints of genre, arguing that genre means that the writer has limited paths he can take to tell his story.  While he’s doing this he doesn’t mention that genre is a marketing concept.  He doesn’t seem to grasp that many authors are unsure if they are going to write genre and that these are attached to them at a later point.  He doesn’t understand that some literary fiction authors have a wide following.  In fact he doesn’t seem to understand very much.

So why is he in the Guardian pontificating?

Or is this a clever ploy to increase his sales?**

* (ho ho ho I see what he did thar… )I don’t normally indulge in a bit of the old Ad Hominem but considering Docx’s press photies look like this I hope he’s got a sense of humour about him.

** In which case I have to salute him because I bet his Google search rank has gone up.