Monday, August 31, 2009

How To Annoy People - Part The Fourth

Upon being eliminated from The Apprentice:
He says: "You're fired."
You say: "I think you'll find I'm not your employee, Sir Alan. At this stage you're no more my employer than you are mine... in fact, as that's the case, you're fired. By the way, you do know a contract of employment works, don't you?"

Yes, it's a short and puerile post today, but it's a sunny bank holiday here in London, so I'm going out on the balcony with a cup of tea. I recommend you do the same.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

On A DVD Cover, No-One Can Hear You Establish Character Through Dialogue

I'll freely admit that I haven't seen this film, but I do like the way the packaging contains a clue as to the demeanour of the main character.

To crack the code, just take a look at the letters in bold in the tagline, and see the word they create...

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Per Internet Ad Astra

As this picture suggests, outer space is watching us, and as Nietzsche didn't quite say, if the abyss gazes into us, shouldn't we also gaze into it ? I think so.

Anyway, in the spirit of checking our Dobsonians have their secondary mirrors aligned correctly (and other matters astronomical), I'd like to point you towards this page on NASA's website, where you can arrange to have your name - or someone else's name - put onto a microchip which will be put onto the Mars Science Laboratory rover which will be heading to Mars in 2011.

Granted, thousands of other names will be on there too, but I think it's an amusing thing anyway, and if you know a fan of matters celestial, they might like to be included. When you sign up, you can print off a free certificate, which could be a fun present for someone.

Until next time, keep watching the skies...

Friday, August 28, 2009

And I Resent Those Unskippable 'Don't Pirate Films' Warning On DVDs I Buy, It Feels Like Paying To Be Told To Do Something I'm Already Doing

I should imagine that, by now, you've heard Stephen Fry's podcast on the subject of piracy, copyright, DRM and the like. If not, it's worth a listen, as it makes some good points and raises some interesting issues which are worthy of discussion.

I point you towards it, not because I'm going to discuss any of the issues within it, but rather because I was thinking that there's one area of copyright infringement and piracy which rather tends to be overlooked in these discussions, and probably because it has next to no commercial impact; that is, items which are not commercially available. I'm mainly thinking here of things such as radio and TV shows, but it also applies to albums and films to a slightly smaller degree. I can't claim to have the most wild and esoteric tastes, but I find that certain things I'd cheerfully pay to own are no longer available, due to never being released on CD or DVD or whatever. Examples would be Victor Lewis-Smith's Radio 1 shows or the first self-titled album by Animal Logic (for some reason, Animal Logic II is available as a download, though its predecessor isn't).

So, if I want to own these things, and be able to play them whenever I want, the only real route is to see if I can find them online, and then download them there - which invariably means getting them for free and the original creators getting no money. Which, in the case of items such as the above, I'd actually be happy to pay - and as commercial releases are often of higher quality and contain extras which are missing from copies thrown onto the 'net, I'd certainly welcome the chance to do that (not to mention the conscience aspect of things).

Now, I'm painfully aware that the vast majority of music and film which you can download from t'web is commercially available - new films and CDs are often there to download within hours of release (if not before) - but I have to say that I feel slightly less bad about downloading material which isn't available in a commercial form; yes, I know it's copyright infringement in the most literal sense, but much of the argument about this topic seems to focus on the fact that doing so is taking money away from the appropriate parties, which in the case of non-commercial downloads of non-commercially available material, doesn't apply. To give an example, before there was a full release of On The Hour, a BBC radio series which was both influential and spectacularly funny, many comedy websites and discussion boards would provide links to places where you could download the series. Now that it's available to buy through the usual routes in its full form, those sites have removed those links, which seems only right and proper.

So, I think this is a bit of an overlooked area, and as one who's always keen to replace cassettes and VHS tapes wherever possible (let's face it, mp3s and DVDs just take up less space), I may simply be trying to justify questionable behaviour on my part as a means of enabling my obsessive-compulsive collecting tendencies to be satisfied. But I like to think there's something worthy of discussion here.

Incidentally, thinking about the non-availability of items which are owned or produced by the BBC led me to wonder if there isn't a commercial opportunity for a hybrid of iTunes and the BBC iPlayer whereby one can pay a sliding scale fee to access items which have been broadcast but are no longer on iPlayer; for example, 50p to download an mp3 of a radio show which is over a month old (and which isn't going to be released commercially), £1 for a TV show or documentary, with the prices increasing depending on DRM issues and whether you can download them to keep or just to stream or whatever, and upwards to the point where downloading the stuff just becomes less attractive than buying the DVD.

I appreciate that the BBC has to balance its public service and commercial thinking, but given that they sell millions of DVDs each year, I would have thought there was some way to ensure that people could get to listen to the Afternoon Play they thought sounded interesting, or see the episode of Mastermind in which someone they knew was a contestant, even if they took place outside the 'iPlayer timespan', for a fee which is small enough to be appealing to a punter but useful enough to justify the service.

Just a thought...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

I Think The Staff May Have Placed Them On The Same Shelf Deliberately

Here are three DVDs I saw in Blockbuster last night:



Hero walking towards the viewer? Check.
Gun in right hand? Check.
Explosion behind him? Check.
Circle or cross-hair motif? Check.
Queen to King's Rook Four? Check.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Just Over Three Minutes, But Skewers A Number Of Films


Ah, The Onion. Often imitated, even more often embedded.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I Suspect Everyone Already Knows About This...

... but I’ve recently been having a look at Making Of, and finding it both interesting and informative.

Granted, I’ve mainly been looking at the stuff about screenwriters, but there seems to be a lot of other stuff from people who know all sorts of useful stuff about the making of films.

Have a look, why don’t you?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Feel Free To Steal The Contents Of This Post To Share With Your Friends

Journalism Examination, Paper One

Compare the following items, and then write about the concept of plagiarism, using your own words as little as possible (50 marks):

5 August 2009 - Cracked.com's article '15 more images you won't believe aren't photoshopped'

and

21 August 2009 - The Sun's article 'No computer tricks, just amazing photos'

Bonus Question: Is it clever to steal stuff that's been viewed over a million times?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Seeing Signs And Picking Up On Clues

I recently saw most of (not all of) M. Night Shyamalan's Signs again, and it set me to thinking.

Not about the film itself, really - I saw it in its entirety a few years ago, and was rather let down by the ending, with (spoiler alert) a substance that covers two-thirds of the Earth being something that galaxy-travelling aliens respond to as 'twere acid - but rather the amount of foreshadowing in the story.

To be fair, the semi-rewatch meant that I picked up on references to the aliens not liking being near water which I hadn't registered in my initial viewing, but it also made me realise just how much of the film is spent setting up elements which will pay off in the final confrontation of the film; the last words spoken by the main character's wife, the daughter's tendency to leave half-drunk glasses of water around the family home, and things like that.

I'm not knocking this at all - in fact it made me notice that the 'violent reaction to water' on the part of the aliens was less deus ex machina than I'd initially believed - as I think that foreshadowing is terrifically important in a story; as most modern writers have the luxury of being able to finish their work before handing it in (since there are now limited venues in which to publish serials Dickens-style), I think it's nice if they go back and slot in a reference or two to something that's coming later on, and which only becomes apparent as such when the revelation is made. One of my favourite examples of this is the original novel of The Shining, where Stephen King sets up the means by which Jack Torrance will die (whilst I like the photo at the end of the film version, the sudden death of Torrance struck me as almost a bit too convenient, whereas in the book it made perfect, logical sense).

As a reader or viewer, I find this both gratifying (as it flatters my intellect that yes, I spotted that reference to it earlier on), and also reassuring - there are a number of TV shows which I've stopped watching because I've had the sneaking suspicion that the creators were just making things up as they went along, and I wasn't convinced that the final destination was going to be worth the journey (most notably Lost, who lost me with the end of the first season; I'm reliably informed by people I know that it's coming together and gathering steam as it approaches its end, after some draggy, not-moving-stuff-forward bits of earlier seasons, but I'll wait until it's all done and get their final verdict on whether it's worth the trouble or not).

I think it was the writer Chekhov who stressed the importance of foreshadowing by saying that if you have a gun put on the mantelpiece in Act 1 of a play, it should be fired by the end of Act 3. I think there's a lot of truth to this, and as I say, I admire it when writers are able to set up later events in a way that they remain both inevitable and surprising.

But...

Well, the thing is, life doesn't often seem to be this neat, does it? It's fairly rare for all the random and unexplained events in our lives to suddenly become infused with meaning later on, whether it's mere hours or whole years further down the line. Whilst I'd love to claim that the arc of my life is holographic or symphonic, I think that would mean me ignoring the enormous amount of things in my life that just seem to happen.

People often say that 'everything happens for a reason', and I think that's true insofar as it means that current events are caused by previous happenings, but not that everything that happens has some ultimately enlightening or positive outcome; a man may drive his car into a bus queue because he has a heart attack at the wheel or because he's been drinking, but for the families of people killed or injured in that sort of event, the 'reason' it happened has to be ascribed to bad fortune or human folly, not to some kind of over-arching pattern to our lives, and a sense that if we just live long enough everything we've ever seen or heard or done will come together in a beautiful climax of meaning and insight which will make every second of loss or seemingly random tragedy seem worthwhile.

So from thinking that Signs was a bit lacking in foreshadowing, I actually shifted to thinking that it had gone too far the other way, making the whole of the central character's life into a run-up to the events of the film's final act. Which would be fine, except that all the events had conspired and converged, and then he was still alive at the end, and ... what? What now? His whole life had effectively been leading up to that one time and place, and now it had passed, he had to carry on living, which is a less a climax than an anti-climax (which would be the word I'd used to describe the end of the film, really - it builds really well, but doesn't seem to have a worthy ending).

On the other hand, it could well be that it's my age that's a factor here; I'm 38, and whilst I can look back on my life and think that a lot of things which seemed horrific and terrible at the time have actually nudged me along the path to where I am now, and I'm more very happy and aware of my good fortune in life, there are still an awful lot of stray and unresolved plot threads; though perhaps as I grow older they'll recede in the memory and seem so unimportant that I'll just forget about them, and find that in my old age I can really only recall the causes and effects of my life that seemed to match with its overall narrative, as if my life had been one single and seamless story.

The reason I mention age is because it does occur to me that, in quite a few of the older people I've met in my life, there's a sense of "I wouldn't worry too much" which is almost akin to that of a child (and indeed may be why children often seem to get on well with their grandparents), but not an adult. The question of whether a current problem is likely to be something that matters to us in five years' time is one which tends to put things in perspective, and it may well be that, as one approaches the age at which HM The Queen may be gearing up to send you a telegram, there's an increased sense of perspective, and that, in its way, makes everything you've seen or said or done feel like part of a cohesive story. I guess the only way for me to see if this is the case is to grow old, which means living, which was part of my plan anyway.

Besides, I thought Unbreakable was a far better film.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Now I Think About It, Plastic's Not Actually That Malleable, So Perhaps 'Rubber Man' Would Have Been More Appropriate A Name?

Pictured, the comic character Plastic Man, who you may recognise from the cartoons which used to be shown on TV.

However, despite the fact that the glasses look kind of similar, am I alone in thinking that 'Plastic Man' may not have been the original name for this fancy dress costume?

The hair doesn't match at all, and the overall look and pose makes me think it may actually have been intended to be someone else who recently died, and who was alleged to have had a fair amount of involvement with plastic in a more medical sense...

Friday, August 21, 2009

My First Attempt At Uploading Home-Made (Well, Abroad-Made, But You Know What I Mean) Video To The Blog....

video

... so please be gentle with me if it doesn't work.

Presented for your delectation, though, some footage of the 22 July 2009 total eclipse of the sun, which Mrs MyWife and I saw on honeymoon last month. The footage was shot in Varanasi in India, on the banks of the River Ganges, and runs for just over a minute, with totality occuring about half-way through.

If you decide to watch it, you may well want to turn the volume down a bit, as the sounds of the crowd and the like are pretty loud. And also because this stupid-sounding chap keeps on talking during it, and making asinine remarks. Honestly, some people have no sense of occasion.

I shot this, on a small hand-held digital camera, so I apologise for the shakiness and slightly dodgy picture quality, and for the way it looks a bit grainy - probably avoidable if you're some kind of expert in editing and formatting, but I'm still finding my way with this techie malarkey, so please indulge me.

Anyway, hope it's of interest, and that the reaction of the crowd gives you a flavour of the atmosphere and general sense of excitement at seeing what is, I think it's fair to say, something of a once-in-a-lifetime event.

If this embedding doesn't work, I've also uploaded the video here by way of a backup, though you'll need Windows Media Player to view it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Beyond The Fringe

Whilst a lot of coverage of events in Scotland at this time of year focuses on the Edinburgh Fringe, it's good to see that Auntie Beeb hasn't forgotten that there are other places in Scotland.

By which I mean: the BBC Writersroom are holding a couple of their roadshow events in Scotland in September.

On Tuesday 1 September, they're at the probably-not-named-after-the-film Tron Theatre in Glasgow, on Thursday 17 September they'll be at the probably-not-named-after-the-computer Spectrum Theatre in Inverness, followed by the not-named-after-anything-I-can-think-of-to-allude-to Caird Hall in Dundee on Wednesday 14 October.

Oh, hang on, I've just realised that they're scooting down to the Norwich Playhouse on Wednesday 6 October, which rather throws off the Scottish run of events, doesn't it? Anyway, 75% Scottish is a good enough proportion to justify the overarching theme of this post, I think.

As is usual with these roadshows, folks from the Writersroom will be talking about what they look for in scripts and how they assess them, and you can save on postage costs by handing your script in to them in person, too.

Entry's free, but you do need to get your name on the list so they'll unclip the velvet rope and let you in, and you can find out how to do this (and all the other salient details) here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I've Been Watching The West Wing A Lot Recently, And As A Result Have Delusions That I Could Be A Political Advisor

So in one line, here's how David Cameron can guarantee he becomes next Prime Minister:

Don't let Tory MPs say anything about expenses or pay, whether they think it's on the record or off the record.

In fact, if he just gags them all and concentrates on the party's key attribute of 'not being Labour', I reckon they could get in.

Mind you, Alan Duncan has a very good point when he says that being an MP or in Parliament "has been nationalised". I guess it's something to do with being - in theory anyway - a servant of the people, and having your salary paid as a result of citizens being taxed. That is still part of the job description, right?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Drive-By Posting

It's a very strange and busy day, so I won't linger long, but I wanted to share the following:

Mrs S and I are currently re-watching Prime Suspect, and it's good to see that memory hasn't amplified the programme's quality, not time diminished it; it's of a generally very high quality, and despite the length of the episodes, it's good and pacey.

What I didn't know, however, was that in 1980, Lynda la Plante, who created the show (as well as the frankly-not-good Killer Net, but let's pretend that didn't happen) appeared in Rentaghost as the character Tamara Novek.

Crikey. Definitely one for the 'I had no idea' file as far as I'm concerned.

EDITED TO ADD: Photographic evidence, to prove I'm not just making this stuff up.

Monday, August 17, 2009

He Also Provided Colours For a Comic Called Watchmen, Which You Might Have Heard Of...

I've often thought that John Higgins is a rather under-exposed comic writer and artist; not necessarily under-rated, as people who know of his work tend to admire it, but it's not as if the release of a new item from him is likely to be made at the San Diego or Chicago conventions, which is a pity, as he's a good solid artist (and a particularly skilled painter), and a friendly chap (I say this on the basis of having met John at a convention in about 1986, where my fanboy excitement meant I gabbled and talked nonsense, but he was very indulgent of my drivel).

Anyway, the first 22 pages of Razorjack, which he both wrote and drew, can now be seen for free online here - it's a PDF file, so you'll need to have appropriate PDF-reading software - and I think you'll agree it's worth a look.

And no, despite Hollywood's current fondness for adapting comics to film, it was not the source material for that Russell Mulcahy film about a killer Boar.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

It's No Wonder I Feel So Old

This week, Marvel Comics have been celebrating their 70th Birthday - and good for them, I've often enjoyed their stuff, and they seem to have bounced back rather well after being declared bankrupt a few years ago.


That said, I do seem to remember an Anniversary back when I was a teenager - here's the corner box from Marvel's X-Men comic, issue 211 in 1986:


So, 1961 + 70 = 2009? Oh Marvel, I hope it's not creative accounting that has helped you claim to have a healthier bank balance...

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Unintelligent Design: The Watches Worn By 007

The latest post in this occasional series is swimming against the tide a bit, but still...

There really is no need for watches to be waterproof to hundreds of metres. I'm qualified to dive, but only to 30 metres, and yet there are many watches which are water resistant to depths of 200m or more.

An example: the Omega Seamaster Planet ocean is water resistant to 600m. The deepest recorded dive using scuba equipment is 330m, just over half that. By 200m, the penetration of light from the surface is pretty much gone, so you'll need a torch to read your watch (it doesn't seem to glow in the dark or have a light, but I may have missed that). Similarly, the Rolex Submariner (dial pictured) is water-resistant to 300m, which seems a bit unnecessary.

Yes, I know there's a lot to admire about watches with the impressive build and reliability of Omega and Rolex, but this just seems excessive. I'm pretty certain there's a middle ground to be struck between making something sturdy enough to survive the general bashes and splashes of everyday life (so: a watch that doesn't scratch, and will withstand water if you go for a swim, a shower or do the washing-up) and building something to withstand events that very few people are actually likely to experience.

Then again, since many of these watches which are strangely water-resistant to the depth of the Mariana Trench are top-of-the-line models, maybe reducing the spec and reducing the price, even if it means increased sales, might work against the prestige aspect of the watches?

Hmm. Maybe it's 'intelligence' in marketing terms at the expense of design intelligence, then.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Oh, This Can't Be For Real... Can It?

One of my many sophisticated friends sent me this picture this week, I gather it's doing the rounds at the moment... surely it's not real?

I gather it originates from Holy Moly, but they're not that well known for doctored pictures, are they?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Remember That Doctor Who Episode With The Daleks Flying All Round Canary Wharf?

Canary Wharf is in Docklands in the East of London, not far from Forest Gate, where I spotted this on the pavement the other night:


I'm not forgetting about the lasers and everything, but now I've seen one in real life, I think that they're slightly less menacing. Forget firing paint onto their eyestalk, it looks as if putting a carrier bag over them might be enough to render them blind.
Then again, most people look taller on TV, don't they? The Daleks' agents must have demanded that they're only shot from the most flattering of angles.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Big Issue Poetry Competition

My li'l sis has kindly pointed out to me that Big Issue In The North are running a poetry competition.

It seems like a pretty good competition - the winner is published in the magazine, interviewed, and you get books and CDs and a certificate too. There's an entry fee, which is £2, but you can enter 7 poems for a tenner, and as all the money goes to charity anyway, I'd argue it's all rather civilised. And before you ask, no, it doesn't seem that you have to live in the North of England to enter.

I'm not sure if I'll enter - I haven't written much poetry since the inevitable teenage poems, and I'm wary of not doing anything overly purple or riddled with angst (which, if I'm honest, probably describes far too much of my poetry), but it's for a good cause, so I am thinking about it...

Anyway, let me know if you have a go (and if you win or are a runner-up or anything like that), and thanks to my wee sis for the tip!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

First With The News! Especially The Bad News! (May Contain Italics)

I've written before about how my then-boss was keen to be the first to tell us about the "50 planes that were unaccounted for" on 11 September 2001, and I noted then that it wasn't true; I was interested, then, on holiday, to note how many time people seemed keen to be the first ones to share bad news, whether or not it turned out to be accurate.

An example was almost directly before we got onto the overnight train from Agra to Varanasi; the train station was pretty dirty and smelly, and the trains passing through looked packed with people (and don't forget I'm used to the London Underground, which as we all know is often the worst transport system in the world*), and it was oppressively humid, when one of our party confidently stated that she'd been on the overnight sleeper before, and it was like a tin sweatbox on wheels. A groan went around the group, and even though another of our number said she'd been on the overnighter a couple of years ago and it hadn't been that bad, it was as if the miserable possibility was inherently more plausible. It took root almost instantly... and was pretty quickly proven wrong.

Similarly, a couple of days before the total solar eclipse, someone from our party told us that they'd had a conversation with someone in the foyer of our hotel, and that he'd said the best place to view the eclipse wasn't likely to be from the banks of the Ganges river, but instead from the roof of our hotel, in the city of Varanasi. I suggested that the middle of the city might not be ideal, as there might be some glare or other visual pollution from being in a built-up area, but the idea that we shouldn't get up and go and watch the eclipse from the ghats in Varanasi seemed to seize people's imaginations quite quickly - though it quickly fell by the wayside when someone actually went up onto the roof and reported back that it wasn't so scenic - nothing against the HHI hotel, you understand, but being on a roof usually means walking round air-vents and ariel cables and the like.

I was struck, though, by how the people passing on these stories (and I use that word in its most 'fictional' meaning) seemed enormously keen to be the imparter of news - specifically, bad news. It was almost as if they had a schadenfreude-esque glee in being the first to be in the know (or, as it turned out to be, the 'don't know'), but particularly in relation to something grim. In a way, I think this is echoed in the general tone of newspaper headlines (and certainly of opinion columns) - there's a general sense of being appalled or outraged, and if someone can point out a hitherto-unknown but ultimately grim proposition, or point to something current as being a sign that the barbarians are at the gate and that society's fraying at the edges and young people nowadays no respect always on Spacebook and exams aren't proper exams anymore it's not like it was in my young days we're all doomed don't you see the end is nigh we're all going to die -

You get the idea.

I think it was Douglas Adams who noted that the only thing that travels faster than light is bad news, and it does seem that people often take a strange pleasure in sharing the grimness, even if it applies to them - misery, as the saying goes, loves company.

Whilst I'm always keen and eager to be the first to make some devastatingly insightful remark and point out something which no-one else in the room seems to have spotted, I'm increasingly becoming wary of doing so from a reflexively negative angle, because my recent (and indeed not-so-recent) experience suggests rushing to be first with the bad news can mean that one overlooks little things like facts and accuracy.

And that genuinely is cause for concern.

*Okay, I exaggerate slightly, but given that all the tubes to and from East London have, for the last year or more, been as good as switched off all weekend, every weekend, I think my sense of grievance may not be entirely misplaced.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Appropriately Enough, This Post May Itself Be Unnecessary

In a post last week I pointed out a couple of films vying to be Least Necessary Sequel, 2009, but don't fill in your voting card just yet - check out this contender!

Clearly, this contest ain't over until ... um, the multi-lingual copyright warnings start to appear on your TV screen.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

I'll Be Honest With You: Sometimes I Put Similar-Looking Books Down Next To Each Other...










... in the hope that the excitement contained in one might rub off on the other.


I'll leave it to you to decide which is the exciting one.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

A Bad Week For Men In Their 50s In The Film Business, To Be Sure

As you've probably guessed, I try to avoid covering things which everyone else is talking about in this blog, mainly because other people tend to make more insightful remarks using far fewer words than I, but:

As you've probably heard, the writer-director John Hughes has died, aged 59. Hughes was an amazingly prolific screenwriter, and something you may not have known - because I didn't until I read the BBC profile linked to above - is that he also wrote more recently under the pseudonym Edmond Dantes. I enjoyed his work less as time went on, but some of his films still hold up pretty darn well, for my money: Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and the slightly-less-well-known She's Having A Baby are still worth your time. Some of his films were a bit emotional for my tastes, and his later works seemed aimed more at younger or family audiences than me, which is interesting if you've ever read his frankly rude writing in National Lampoon magazine, but he was clearly someone who could write for pretty much any audience, and the "You're so conceited" outburst in The Breakfast Club sums up a lot of how I felt about the so-called popular kids at school.

Less well-reported, but also unwelcome news, is that Blake Snyder has died - like Hughes, of a heart attack, in his 50s. Snyder's less of a name in the general film audience, but he was a very successful spec screenwriter, and - this is how I know of his work - he wrote a terrific book on screenwriting called Save The Cat! which is a lot more funny and pragmatic than a lot of other 'paradigm'-based books on this subject. I heartily recommend this book to you - it's riddled with excellent analyses of how existing films have used the structure Snyder advocates, and ones which didn't - and it's a genuine shame that one of the more human-level teachers of writing is gone.

And both of heart attacks, in their 50s? That's an unpleasant coincidence, at the very least.

Friday, August 07, 2009

New - And Hopefully Improved - Website

Well, after a while of threatening it, and one blind alley of trying a Flash version, I've re-vamped my website.

Some people have previously commented that they couldn't see anything on the site - that may have been a side-effect of me creating it in Word and then HTML-ifying it, I guess - but hopefully this one will be more accessible across different browsers. It's a bit more professional than the previous incarnation, I think, but I still aim to add some more stuff to it (particularly pictures, it's a bit text-heavy at the moment), and thankfully the freebie software I found online to do it makes that sort of thing pretty straightforward.

Anyway, I'd be interested to know if you think it's nice or nasty (or somewhere between those poles), so please feel free to have a look, and let me know. Thanks!

Thursday, August 06, 2009

PreScience Fiction

You may have seen in the news that scientists have been interested to see emissions of gas on the surface of Mars.

You may also have read The War Of The Worlds by H.G.Wells, in which, in Chapter One, there is the following section:

... Lavelle of Java set the wires of the astronomical exchange palpitating with the amazing intelligence of a huge outbreak of incandescent gas upon the planet. It had occurred towards midnight of the twelfth; and the spectroscope, to which he had at once resorted, indicated a mass of flaming gas, chiefly hydrogen, moving with an enormous velocity towards this earth. This jet of fire had become invisible about a quarter past twelve. He compared it to a colossal puff of flame suddenly and violently squirted out of the planet, "as flaming gases rushed out of a gun."
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go and check that the cupboards in my underground compound are well stocked with canned goods.

The Competition Is Hotting Up...

... to win the coveted prize of Least Necessary Sequel, 2009! Check out these recent releases!






















Coming soon: Thelma and Louise 2, and Police Academy 8: Tackleberry - The Early Years!*

*I'm kidding about these. At least, I think I made them up. Lord have mercy on us all if they're sitting on a development list somewhere.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

"...Stating Point Of View: Indicate Precisely What You Mean To Say..."

So I'm on the brink of setting pen to paper with The Body Orchard, a novel I've been threatening to write since ... well, probably around the time that Britain joined the Common Market, or perhaps even longer ago .

Anyway, as it's a rather complex thriller (essentially a 'locked room mystery' on a highly-secure military base), I've spent a goodly amount of time planning it all out - the relationships between the characters, the events, the forensic and investigative stuff - to the extent that I now know about 75% of what happens in it. Whilst I appreciate that going into it with every detail nailed down would probably be wisest, I've found that being immersed in the story often means that new possibilities become clear - I guess this is what people mean by 'characters doing things I didn't expect them to do'.

So I know the structure of the book, the main events and the general tone of it, but I'm finding myself pausing before I actually start the physical writing of it, because of uncertainty about one thing: the point of view from which I'm going to write.

As it's a murder mystery, I'd like to write in the first person, so that the reader has the same information - and the same chances of solving it - as the detectives; the alternative, of course, is to write it in standard third-person omniscient narrator fashion, which would frankly be easier as it allows me to do cutaways to a knife being sharpened in a dark room (not actually a scene which appears in the story) or similar, to add some sense of foreboding and the like. However, I'm very much up for the challenge of writing a whole novel in first-person mode (something I've never done before), and the only real obstacle to me doing so is one very simple thing...

My main character is female.

Now, this was obviously a deliberate choice on my part, so it's not something I can whinge about - and indeed I wouldn't, as I'm really looking forward to writing about this character - but there was something that I heard (no, make that I was told) repeatedly when doing English at school, and then talking to people who were studying English Literature at college level, which is that male writers can't write female characters. Not that they're not very good at it, or that they tend to stereotype or whatever, but that they simply can't do it.

Yes, I'd argue that this is a nonsense generalisation - and as much a heap of festering horse manure as the suggestion that female writers can't write male characters (something I never heard with the same degree of frequency) - but unfortunately it slightly colours my thinking about writing (or approaching writing) an intelligent, capable female character in a way that's actually more irritating than anything else.

I'm aware there's a danger of making her into some kind of Lara Croft-meets-VI Warshawski character, or going too far in a contrary direction and making her into a cross between Bridget Jones and a member of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, but in all honesty my approach to writing women has always been the same as writing men, as quite frankly I don't think I have any more insight into the behaviour of other men than I have into women. Granted, I have more details about the functioning (or otherwise) of the equipment, but that's about it.

Hmm, I think I've actually talked myself into writing the book from her point of view, which is good, as I think it serves the story best; and if I can write from the viewpoint of Heather Watson in a way that doesn't drag the reader out of the story to any extent (either because of an inaccurate representation of how women [or, indeed, people in general] think and behave, or due to writing which is shoddy in some other regard), then I'll consider I've done what I set out to do.
Y'know, I often remember that this blog isn't just here for the things-that-look-a-bit-like-other-things in life, it's also here for other stuff, like stuff about writing - and, of course, me venting about the nonsense I used to hear back in college about writing (much of which, I have come to realise, bears about as much relation to creation as trying to re-create the delights of a fine meal by eating a recipe book).

So, as dull as this post may have been for you, for me it's been very useful, as it's helped me decide on something which was holding me back from starting on The Body Orchard. If I hadn't tried to express this uncertainty, I suspect that the book wouldn't be started for a while yet - though hopefully not, as the post title above alludes to, when I'm sixty-four -waiting that long would probably not be an ideal way to go about becoming a paperback writer, as much as Mary Wesley's life and work suggests it can be done.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

It's Even Possible That It Was Based On The Taoist Yin-Yang Symbol, But I Have To Say It Doesn't Seem Very Likely

Between 1998 and 2004, there was a comic book publisher in the USA called Crossgen Comics.

As is the case with many comic companies, Crossgen's various titles had shared themes and some overlap of concepts, one of which was that various characters had been endowed with superhuman abilities or powers after they'd been branded with a sigil - a mark which also doubled as Crossgen's logo, and which looked like this:



In the comics, the origin of the sigils was a running mystery which was gradually explained over the course of a couple of years, but now, well after the event, it occurs to me that perhaps readers might have saved time by looking a bit closer to home for the origin of the sigil:












Or even - if you squint a bit - this, dating from the 1960s:















And to think people worry that I wasted my time at college. Fie, I say!

Monday, August 03, 2009

Indian Summer Holiday: Part Three Of Two*

All right, all right, I know I said that I wouldn't post any more about our recent holiday (it's mere footsteps away from blogging about what I had for lunch, I know)... but I forgot to share one picture.

What do you think this is ? Apart from what a policeman would call 'probable cause', I mean...


Well, yes, we all know what it looks like, but it's far more innocently than it appears: as mad as it may seem, the above is how the HHI Hotel in Varanasi provides you with in-room powdered milk for making tea and coffee.

Whilst I've - ahem - been known to avail myself of the little shampoo and shower gel bottles you get in hotel bathrooms, I'd certainly think twice about nicking the HHI's in-room powdered milk. I mean, imagine the reaction if customs search your luggage.

"And what's this, sir?"
"Um, I think it's Coffee-Mate, but it could be Marvel - some kind of powdered milk, anyway."
"Of course, sir. Would you like to come into this back room for a humiliating strip search?"

*This numbering system is valid, by the way - both Douglas Adams and Mad magazine have used it, so it must be all right.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Indian Summer Holiday: Part Two Of Two

Previously in the blog: on their rather belated honeymoon, Mr and Mrs Soanes have arrived in the Indian holy city of Varanasi, in time for the 2009 total eclipse of the sun. Now read on...

Varanasi - also known as Benares - is one of the holiest cities to followers of Hinduism. The belief is that if you die in Varanasi, you'll be released from the wheel of life, and instead of being reincarnated, you head on to ... well, a better place.

The River Ganges runs through the heart of the city, and the faithful come to bathe in it from many miles around, as you can see:





Just a little further along the river from these pictures, on what are known as the ghats, cremations are held; the bodies are wrapped in white burial shrouds and a fire is lit (accelerated with large amounts of clarified butter), and the deceased is cremated. It's seen as disrespectful to take pictures of the cremations, so we didn't - but I was particularly interested to find out that the cremations are supervised by one family, who make a considerable amount of money from this, but because of their bottom-rung status in the very strict caste system, are seen as 'untouchables'. I can't imagine people of such obvious wealth being social pariahs in the same way in the west, and a part of me almost prefers the fact that money, rarely, isn't the yardstick of a person's standing... I said almost.

Every night in Varanasi, they hold a ceremony to honour the sunset - and, I suspect, to seek its rise the following morning - on the banks of the Ganges. We were able to attend this the night before the eclipse, and had really rather good seats, as you can see...


But we were up early the next morning to see the solar eclipse. The sun was due to start being obscured around 5.30am, and so we were up at stupid o'clock to see it, but I have to say it was worth it. And many other people clearly thought this, too - there were thousands of people on the banks of the Ganges to watch it:

As I say, it was well worth seeing, and being where we were for one of the longest eclipses expected in the next century or so was pretty startling. By now you've probably seen the footage of the eclipse (most of which was filmed where we were, as many other areas had cloud cover spoiling the event), but in case you haven't, here are a couple of snaps...

One just before -



- and a couple during the eclipse itself (slightly distorted by the effect of the camera, I think, but you get the general idea):



It was, in a very real sense of the word, amazing to behold, and at the moment the moon completed obscured the sun, a gasp-stroke-cheer went up from the crowd, myself included. It was genuinely startling to see, and I have to admit there was a tiny part of me that wondered if the sun was going to come back out... and I wasn't alone; Varanasi is one of the cities devoted to the god Shiva, who's linked with the sun, and so when the sun started to emerge once again, the cheer that went up made it like being at a football ground when the home team has just scored; people were very happy indeed.

The path of the moon over the sun was pretty much from NNE to SSW, but oddly enough the local papers reported it with the following pictures:


Hmm. Looks like the press are pretty much the same the world over, eh ?

That's probably enough self-indulgent posting for today, so I'll stop taking up bandwidth; if you get the opportunity to visit India, though, I heartily recommend it - there's something overwhelming to all the senses about the immensely busy cities, but the way religion is such a strong part of daily life is almost refreshing, and I found the history and scenery really interesting. It's very apparent that there's an enormous amount of poverty - oddly counterpointed by adverts by expensive consumer durables, both on TV and in the teeming streets - so I was kind of mindful of being a 'poverty tourist', if you know what I mean. That said, it is, from the admittedly small section of the north of the country we saw, quite fascinating, and we plan to go back.

Okay, I'll shut up about India now. The usual self-absorption and snark will return tomorrow.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Indian Summer Holiday: Day One Of Two

Well, like a character from a 1970s sitcom, I'm now going to inflict my holiday pictures on you.

However, as they're not only my holiday, but the rather belated honeymoon of myself and Mrs S, and furthermore they include a total eclipse of the Sun in addition to lots of other sights in India, I hope you'll indulge me... and if not, well, this shameless use of bandwidth will be over by Monday. Honest.

Okay, so we started off in Delhi, where they have a long tradition of blowing into a Butternut Squash to charm cobras:


A-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Comedy.

But seriously ladies and gents, one thing which came over very strongly was just how strongly interwoven religious belief is with Indian life - as you can see from the following, which we spotted on the landing in our hotel:
No vase of flowers in the Hotel Gautam in Delhi, they instead have a statue of the deity Ganesh. Newly adorned with flowers and saffron too - Ganesh is the god to whom you traditionally make requests and/or offerings at the start of an endeavour, so I like to think that the hotel had started the day off by freshening up the accoutrements around Ganesh.


After a day or two looking at temples in Delhi, we moved on to Agra, where you can see the Taj Mahal (as evinced in this post). The thing about the Taj Mahal is, it was built by the Shah Jahan as a monument to the memory of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, but he was never actually able to set foot in it while he was alive; his third-eldest son, keen to become king, killed his elder siblings and imprisoned his father in a fort in Agra. No, I know, not the most persuasive approach to get Dad to let you take over the family business, and just to make it even worse, the rogue son imprisoned Shah Jahan where he could see the Taj Mahal being completed - here's the view from Shah Jahan's quarters in the Agra Fort:


Kids can be so ungrateful, can't they? Tch.

After Agra, we travelled by overnight sleeper train (mercifully air conditioned - I haven't mentioned it, but apart from the occasional bursts of monsoon-style rain, it was very hot) to Varanasi, the holy city on the Ganges where we planned to watch the eclipse - a full solar eclipse was predicted for 22 July, with five minutes or so of totality. One of the best for the next hundred years or so, they suggested... and on that almost cliffhangery notes of built anticipation, I'll leave you.

Second and final part of this brief summary tomorrow.!