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I should be working…

August 31, 2010 Leave a comment

… and indeed I am, quite hard, which is why I haven’t been posting much.

But I thought I’d share with you the story of how everything goes to hell during a zombie apocalypse just because it’s funny.

There’s also a comic about the pleasures, perils and pitfalls of working from home, the worst of which, as you’ll see, is the degradation of social skills. Not a problem in my case, I never had any to start with…

I didn’t find these my myself – well, I sort of did, but someone in the Speculators writing group sent us all an email link to another bit of the site, a comic about the proper use of the semicolon; apparently it can be used in many ways other than to indicate a wink when sending a text;

Now it’s time for some special high caffeine coffee and back to work. And watch out for that zombie apocalypse…

The world according to Douglas Adams

August 23, 2010 Leave a comment

You probably haven’t been asking yourself ‘What’s Jon been doing for the last week or so?’. Because I haven’t posted. But I’ll tell you anyway.

I’ve been living life in accordance with some of the musings of the late and wonderful Douglas Adams, of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame.

There are several different themes in what follows, but don’t worry, just go with the flow.

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

Well actually, I don’t. It’s a sound I hate, but real life has been somewhat chaotic largely due to a particular individual who I have no obligation to help, but try to help anyway because he’s kind of family. This has meant days out ensuring he gets to doctor’s appointments and the like; days trying unsuccessfully to persuade him that doing something means getting up before 3pm, which in turn means going to bed before 5am; sorting out stuff he wanted for a camping trip that fell apart after the first night (the fact that you know someone who’s a distant relative of the site owner isn’t enough to get a free pitch, plus we had to drive over there to retrieve his tent and other stuff that he managed to leave behind…); also a whole load of other stuff.

I’m deliberately missing out the more sensational episodes because you probably wouldn’t credit it, and anyway I want to save it for a story. I’ve always threatened that bits of his life will end up fictionalised if he’s not careful.

Partly it’s ADHD that gives the impression of sheer bloody-mindedness and non-co-operation because he gets distracted, confused, genuinely insomniac and so forth. Partly it’s sheer bloody-mindedness and non-co-operation. Often it’s difficult to tell which.

From his point of view another quote applies: He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it. From my point of view: Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.

The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.

This has been the case with the dishwasher in the past. This time it was the oven, which wasn’t satisfied with just being an oven because it wanted a second career as a flamethrower. Turns out when it overheated, it fried the circuit board which led to the flamethrowing issue. Why should a gas oven have a circuit board in the first place? Can I not use it if there’s an electricity power cut then?

It is a mistake to think you can solve any major problems just with potatoes.

Not sure about this one. A pile of chips can solve many problems… We decided to strip the walls in the living room, finally, which was entertaining because prior to me moving here a few years back the place had been a multi-occupancy student let and commensurately poorly maintained. Paper had gone over a plaster skim which had been put over older wallpaper which covered holes from old pipework that had been filled with pages from children’s comics… Not found any holes that had been filled with potatoes yet but there’s still time.

And finally:

He attacked everything in life with a mix of extraordinary genius and naive incompetence, and it was often difficult to tell which was which.

I may not have done a whole lot of actual work – though I have, finally, finished a rewrite of a distance learning module and my latest story is progressing at the rate of one whole sentence each day. But I have, in between interruptions, been able to plan my global domination of the e-book publishing market.

Some time ago I had an idea about how e-books enable authors to take control over pretty much everything to do with publication and publishers really now only have the function of providing a ready-made readership. So if you can develop your own readership, you no longer need them. The only problem from the writer’s point of view is developing the readership – and of course persuading people that something is worth purchasing.

The purchasing thing is also something I’ve blogged about. On the whole people who use the internet want free stuff. So the paid-for stuff has to have some add-ons. These might range from a physical copy, to artwork or podcasts or videos or Easter eggs embedded in the file, to running a membership-only chatroom/forum related to the work(s).

I don’t think anyone’s going to be wanting to use a forum or chatroom relating to my work, no least because my author blurb usually says something like ‘Jon Vagg writes late at night under the influence of too much caffeine. He has no other life to speak of and is socially inept. You really wouldn’t want to know him.’ But the other options are all still very much possible. We have the technology… or at least in the next new weeks, I’ll have some of it and various friends of mine have other forms of expertise that mean we can collectively put some stuff together.

So I (or, in fact, we) are now in a planning phase, and stuff should start to come together in the next couple of months. It largely depends on me being able to write more than one sentence of fiction a day…

There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.

I’ll go with the second theory. That fits both my life at the moment and the ideas and project I’m trying to work on. Watch this space…

Or, alternatively, this space –> [.]

Instructions!

August 11, 2010 2 comments

V bought a new kettle yesterday – not an electric kettle (she makes those explode) but the type that you use on a gas hob. And it came with its own little manual – four pages of instructions. That gave me pause for thought, because it seems the larger the thing you buy, the fewer instructions come with it.

My computer, for example, came with no instructions at all apart from how to plug it into the wall – admittedly that was probably because a lot of the other stuff I’d want to know was preloaded into the setup files.

I’m just wondering if there’s some inverse law of instructionality. The more complex the thing, the fewer instructions you get with it, because it’s supposed to be self-explanatory? I’m now dreading going to buy a bag of nails because I’m anticipating a manual the size of a telephone directory…

The instructions themselves are amusing, though I suspect only to people like me with twisted and OCD minds: ‘After boiling has occurred, turn off the heat source and wait for a short period of time. Lift the kettle from the hob ensuring the hands are protected through the use of an oven glove or other suitable insulator. Open the whistle and commence pouring.’

This reminds me of an exercise I did many years ago, in which I found it was surprisingly hard to describe a process in sufficient detail that a robot could follow it.

There was nothing in the instructions about making sure where the coffee cup was…

Some of the instructions are whimsical. ‘Do not attempt to remove the lid immediately after boiling as there is a potential risk that heat from the escaping steam will cause scolding [sic].’ Even household appliances get to tell me off??

And some of the instructions might also apply to me. ‘Examine regularly to ensure that knobs, whistles and handles are not becoming loose.’ ‘Avoid extreme temperatures as this may cause bronze tinting.’

While I’m on the subject, can anyone explain why warnings on some products are different in different languages? I have a can of deodorant (yes, I do use such things) which says in translation from the Portuguese, ‘Abuse of solvents is prejudicual to health’. However in English it says ‘Solvent abuse can kill instantly’. Maybe it’s somehow less dangerous if you can read Portuguese? Or English readers are more stupid and need the consequences spelled out graphically?

I made this

August 8, 2010 2 comments

I didn’t do my usual sitting-at-the-computer-until-my-eyes-bleed thing yesterday. Instead I built this:

What is it? Answer: a stepped tone generator with in built fuzz/distortion. A self contained noise instrument. Not having played with this stuff much for around 20 years and not having handled a soldering iron for over half a decade I’m pretty pleased with myself – though I have to acknowledge that it didn’t actually work until Stu discovered one of the components in the wrong place and fixed it for me.

It’s the result of going to an electronic music workshop run by Stench, a Leicester-based experimental music outfit. Interesting afternoon, with much conversation about circuit-bending – the ‘creative short-circuiting of electronic devices’, as Wikipedia has it. For the curious reader (you have to be pretty curious type of person to want to know, I suspect) there’s more on the topic at anti-theory.com. Or google it, there’s lots of stuff out there.

This all happened at Fabrika in Leicester, which is going from strength to strength, with fairly off-the-wall things happening. I don’t, for example, know who thought up the idea of workshops on recycling bicycles into other household items of furniture, decoration and utility but it’s a brilliant concept. No, I haven’t been, but just the idea of it is cool – workshops twice a month apparently.

Anyway… the evening was a Stench performance. Stench is a collaborative umbrella for a bunch of people all doing their own thing. So it started with someone whose name I didn’t catch, working with a range of samples. Then there was Steve Auxilec. Ordinarily it wouldn’t be the kind of noise I’d listen to for very long; the improvisation he did was pretty ‘ambient’ with no identifiable rhythm. That said, I zoned out to it and felt strangely refreshed afterwards. Someone commented ‘That looked like you’ve just downloaded the master code and re-set your circuits’. Why, what did I do??

I left about half-way through the next set, by Threep, because I had to get home early for other reasons. But what I heard was excellent. In fact, at the point I was leaving, quite a few people were turning up and the event was running until, I think, around 1am – so I hope everyone had a good time.

Next project: an urban-inspired take on a tribal mask, I think. I’ve got the stuff I need, had the whole project in a box in the shed for about a year and just never got round to it.

Oh, and if anyone with relevant knowledge can explain why a couple of virtual synthesizers I’ve downloaded (for Mac) need some additional sound files – VSTi support, or some such thing – and how I get hold of them, I’d be grateful.

The new master institution?

August 8, 2010 4 comments

In sociology, there’s a concept called the ‘master institution’. This traditionally refers to churches, schools, employment, and perhaps one or two others; organisations in which there is some hierarchy, a moral code, and a set of enforced social norms. They are key institutions that people used to engage with on a regular basis, be a part of, and learn patterns of behaviour that were held to be acceptable to others in society.

Yes, there are arguments about how this concept should be deployed, and yes, there are also arguments about the ways such institutions fitted into power structures to ensure the hegemony of the ruling class and so forth. But it’s also been observed that secularisation of society, the advent of long-term unemployment and other social changes have meant that many people no longer engage with these ‘master institutions’ and don’t receive the kinds of socialisation they provided, across a range of areas – dealing with confrontation, sexual behaviour, parenting skills and many others besides.

It’s the parenting skills bit that interests me momentarily.

Yesterday, for reasons I’ll explain in another post, I was out of the house all day. And I did something I almost never do – grab a meal at McDonalds.

In the short time I was there, I saw two families with children. I can’t talk – I was there in an old T-shirt and five-o’clock shadow looking disreputable – but in the way we English have of pigeonholing people I’d say these were families with histories of long-term unemployment and chav culture; in short, people who’ve never really been engaged with any of our master institutions. They shouted at each other – every conversation sounded like an argument – and at their kids, who were toddlers – ‘C’mere ya little shit!’ when they wandered off, as kids of that age do. Even a babe in arms got shouted at, and then shouted at again for having the temerity to start crying because it was being shouted at.

And the staff were great with them. In between clearing trays and mopping the floor, they fetched kids back to parents who wouldn’t move to get their kids, preferring to shout instead. There were conversations between the families and the staff that, from the snatches I overheard, were advice on parenting. Even the security guy, or floor manager, or whoever he was spent time talking to them about the inappropriateness of shouting at kids who’ve been made to cry because they’ve been shouted at. And it was all done with smiles and politeness and non-confrontation.

And it made me think: in terms of social change, the new ‘master institutions’ aren’t church and school – they’re places like fast food restaurants. If you need to learn appropriate social behaviour, moral values and parenting, you’ll learn these while having a burger and fries.

How strange. But in a way, how obvious – because these days, their ‘attendance’ and ‘congregation’ will be far higher than any school or church…

Drumming

August 4, 2010 6 comments

I’ve pretty much always had a drum or two around the house, either bought on holidays or bought for me as presents. But I rarely do much with them. This is the current one:

Small djembe drum

A small djembe

(The pic, by the way, is courtesy of Chris Cafferkey – it is my drum, but the background is a Seminole-style patchwork quilt she made a few years back).

I ended up doing a bit of drumming round the fire at a pagan gathering a while ago – where I was doing the fire stuff you’ll see in previous blog entries – and when I saw an ad for a local drumming workshop, it piqued my curiosity.

See, here’s the thing. Being a writer, I spend about 110% of my waking hours in front of my computer, writing stuff – or researching and preparing to write, or editing. It’s all very right-brain, word-based, analytic stuff. I write some things that look like stream-of-consciousness, but when they get fitted into stories it’s all carefully manicured and tailored to the plot… And the idea of crossing over to the ‘other side’ and doing something more physical, more visceral, perhaps, appealed.

So I went to the workshop. And learned a lot in a short space of time.

First, I’m crap at drumming. That much I already knew. But I could keep a simple beat going, at least. Apparently if I bothered to practice every day for say three months I could get pretty good.

Second, I learned some basic technique. For djembe this is essentially the bass slap, the higher-pitched ‘tone’ when you hit towards the edge of the skin and the ringing tone you can get from a glancing blow on the very edge. Yes, there are many more techniques. I said I was a beginner and these are basics. I found my own way of working out a rhythm, running it to a lyric in my head. Actually I already knew that one from years back, but doing it again was a challenge. And I learned I’ve very right-handed, struggling to lead into any beat with my left hand.

Third, and most importantly, I was impressed by the teaching/learning style. I guess I’m used to ‘learning’ being a case of discussing something, working it through in a conversation of some kind, and then putting it into practice. Almost every type of learning I’ve done, from academic to shiatsu to first aid, follows this general pattern. This, however, was very different. If you want to learn to drum – you drum. You see and hear what the workshop leader is doing, and try to replicate it, and then he goes off into something else that makes the beat more complex or interesting, and you keep going, and then he comes back to the basic beat and takes you off in another direction. It’s a whole lot more intuitive and I found I was using my whole body, almost doing a sitting-down dance, in order to keep time.

Which takes me to a fourth observation, which is how stiff my body is from all the sitting-down-thinking-and-typing I tend to do.

Lots more as well. I noticed how the drum I was playing was reverberating to the other drums, for example. And how loud a drum really is when you go at it (which at home, with neighbours, I almost never do). And I’ve decided I need a bigger drum because the 8-inch diameter is basically the whole length of my hand, which makes a bass slap tricky.

I’m going to keep going. At home, and not necessarily in that particular workshop because it’s Afro-Caribbean based and that’s not my particular thing, but maybe there are other groups elsewhere. But the more left-brain, intuitive, rhythmic side of me needs to come out from wherever I’ve been hiding it. And it’s a good upper-body workout as well… It must have been inspirational because I’ve started randomly hitting and slapping things just to see what they sound like and whether I can copy a rhythm – the rhythm of the dishwasher as its working, for example…

I’m sure there are more ‘analytic’ sides to drumming; but for the moment that’s not how I’m engaging with it. I’m seeing it as a counterpoint to the other stuff I do, not a replication of it.

In other news, I’m planning on going to a music event of a totally different kind, Stench, at Fabrika, Leicester on Saturday (they’re running Sunday as well, but I’m not sure I can make it then). This will be home-made electronic music, the kind where people have fiddled and rebuilt and customised various electrical appliances to make interesting sounds. Should be fun.

And for now, it’s back to the sitting-at-keyboard-thinking-and-writing thing…

Ebook publishing – new styles and possibilities?

August 1, 2010 8 comments

In surfing the net I came across a couple of things that made sense to me (though whether I’ll be able to act on them is another question).

They’re basically thoughts about how ebook publishing in future might look a lot less like ‘publishing’ and much more like some other things, like running nightclub events or selling software. Or a mix of both.

First: Doug Toft’s Posterous Blog. Headline details: publishers had five main functions: curating (i.e. maintaining and developing a ‘collection’ of authors), editing/publishing, printing, distribution, promotion of their authors’ works. However, 90% of the work involved in publishing disappears with digital versions. OK, so the files need to be edited, put into multiple digital formats, and someone needs to do a lot of SEO work – but even so, the one key issue that digitalisation doesn’t change is the ‘curating’ function.

So what can publishers deliver that makes it worthwhile for an author to do business with them? Answer: readers. He describes the new functions of a publisher, apart from curating, as creating, leading, and connecting together potential members of a ‘tribe’.

Book publishing then comes to look a lot more like – this is my view, I should say, not his – being involved in promoting a band, or running a successful nightclub event.

Second: a thought about the future of ebooks from the NY Times article ‘E-Books Fly Beyond Mere Text’. Headline details: ebooks offer publishers and writers all kinds of new possibilities, such as embedding video, games, music, easter eggs and so forth. For many books the key attraction will remain the story – plot, characters, language style and so forth – but obviously these new possibilities are available and can be exploited, just as they can in Word files, if you want to do it. And savvy writers can build them into the text.

Again my take on this is that few authors will be able to do it by themselves, but within a collective that involves multi-media people (or a multi-media publisher, of course) it will become increasingly common, accepted, even expected. After all, many if not most textbooks are already supported by dedicated websites – with an ebook, the dedicated support can be built into the book – including, perhaps, letting the reader know the support materials have been updated and allowing them (for a payment?) to upload the amended version, in the same way software companies get you to buy a product and then charge for the update/upgrade.

Any thoughts?

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