Summer Begins

We’ve had a few false starts this year and I’m doubtful that today’s “heatwave” will last, but I did gardening today! So summer must be here. Right? Anyway, here are a few photos of the good weather so far.

The grounds of Langar Hall:

The Grounds of Langar Hall

Charlotte on a log:

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A seed pod on a palm tree:

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A decaying something:

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A frog in a pond:

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A shrub we transplanted from our soon-to-be-paved back garden:

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Office 365 Trial… Oh

Microsoft have recently given MSDN subscribers a free one year subscription to Office 365. I thought it might be a nice alternative to Google Apps for Business, especially since Google have started charging for even the most basic of services.

I managed to get my domain set up and the email client works really well. The new Outlook.com style website is pleasant and functional. After that, it started going a bit downhill. In-site instructions are unclear, navigation around the Office 365 administration screens is confusing, bordering on non-sensical, and that’s before you get to the Sharepoint administration.

It’s also quite buggy. Here are a few error messages that I regularly encounter:

News Feed Error

This error appears whenever you try and add or delete any content from the Office 365 News Feed.

 

Calendar Error

This error occurs whenever I try to delete a calendar. I don’t dare create any more calendars now, for fear of them never going away.

 

Sharepoint Error

This error happens randomly, whenever you try to do anything with Sharepoint.

I’ve got a support ticket open with Microsoft for the Calendar bug. So far, I’ve had two phone calls from very polite people who were completely unable to suggest a solution (genuine bug located!) and I’ve now been referred to another team. The latest email says that, since my issue is low impact, it may take a while for anyone to get back to me. In the meantime, Google continue to run pretty much unopposed.

Out of Print

Grendel Tales - Devils and DeathsGrendel Tales: Devils and Deaths by Darko Macan and Edvin Biukovic is one of the first non-superhero comics that I bought for myself. It was way back in 1998 when Sheffield still had Starstore, a huge shop selling all kinds of awesome stuff. Sadly Starstore didn’t survive into the 21st century, but this comic, recommended to me by one of the staff has stuck in my mind ever since.

“Grendel Drago has been fatally contaminated with radiation. But a Grendel must die in battle, not in bed, so Drago prepares for his final mission — he will kill the mysterious monster on the outskirts of town and die in the blaze of combat.” – Amazon Summary

What follows is a story of love, loss, war and sacrifice. It’s equal parts gentle, tragic, brutal and unforgiving, and, throughout all this, the characters come alive with rare clarity.

Devils and Deaths is now out of print and, for the first time in my life, I’ve come across a book that I can champion beyond its grave. This is a fantastic story with some beautiful artwork. So if you have even a passing interest, please seek it out.

Some Thoughts on Windows 8

I like it. I do. I think having the same base on which you publish phone, tablet and PC software is a smart move, business wise. Personally, I believe that big screen work (software development, photography etc.) means that predictions of the death of the desktop are daft, and if you can get your OS working on every form factor then that’s a good idea.

So what’s good?

  • Basic desktop operations (copying, searching etc.) are faster.
  • The UI is noticeably prettier.
  • It boots super fast and shuts down pretty much instantly.
  • Windows 7 software appears to just work.
  • Hot-corners and gestures.
  • Metro applications look really good (Maps full screen is great).
  • IE10 has clearly taken cues from iOS and scrolls smooth as butter.

What’s bad?

  • No start menu (easily fixed with 3rd party software, but still).
  • Four mouse clicks to shut down instead of two. Now this may not seem like a big thing, once you’ve figured out how to shut it down, but it’s indicative that Microsoft are allowing the UI to get in the way of the functionality, and that’s the worst possible course to take.
  • The integration between metro and desktop really does jar. Metro’s gaudy colours, tendency towards light on dark, and huge fonts mean that switching between the two modes (or maybe you’re brave enough to dock a metro app) really isn’t nice.
  • Everything is hidden. When trying to install an application, the Windows Smart Screen blocked it, even when I ran the installer as an administrator. The key was to click “more information”, which looks as if it’s a generic help prompt. This then revealed the “install anyway” button.
  • Lots more like the above…

Of course, I’m still easing myself into it. Once I settle down and get used to its little idiosyncrasies (every OS has them), I probably won’t notice much of the above. But I’ll remember, and so will many other users, who sat there wondering exactly how the hell they turn their computer off now. Still, at least it won’t be the ongoing nightmare of Windows Vista.

So, Microsoft, this is a decent opening gambit, but you’ve got a long way to go. Let’s just hope we get some incremental updates soon.

Carrie (2013)

So apparently it’s time for another Carrie re-imagining. After the awful Carrie 2: The Rage, we really could have been done with this. But no. Here we go again.

Watch it again. Force any thoughts of Carrie from your mind. You’ve got sad-person-voiceover as the camera sweeps through a burning city to reveal some monstrous teenager responsible for the entire mess. That’s pretty cool. I like a good monster story, especially when the monster is human. Shoot it in the found-footage style that made Chronicle so effective and I’d definitely be up for that.

Shame they felt the need to drag out an old property. The film would probably have a better chance if it stood on its own. But no. The machine grinds on.

To cheer us all up, here’s the trailer for another 70’s movie about psychic folks: The Fury.

Addendum: Since posting this, I’ve been informed by @GhostFinder that this is a new adaptation, one that is supposedly far closer in plot to King’s original novel. While I’m not sure that matters, it will probably make a small percentage of potential viewers a bit happier. Personally, I’d rather see original horror movies.

Social Networks in Fiction

I’ve been reading more contemporary fantasy recently, as well as some crime, and I’ve come to the following conclusion: Modern stories that don’t feature social networking feel out of date. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter have become a massive part of the average person’s life.

When asked why they don’t use social networks in their fiction, a lot of authors answer, “Because they’re so quickly out of date. We don’t know what’s coming next.” This is both true and utter rubbish. There are aspects of social networking that remain constant, while others are transient at best. It would be prudent to avoid describing the user interface, logo, strapline or platform specific features. These can change in the blink of an eye and, as Facebook has shown (much to the ire of many), regular re-designs in the name of a better user experience are the norm.

Then there is the branding question. Some authors dislike naming specific brands, choosing instead to either make up their own or just describe the service being provided. If you do choose to mention brands, it’s probably sensible to use those that are best known. I think also think it’s a safe bet that (share prices and privacy related controversy aside) Facebook and Twitter are not going away any time soon.

So what should you feel free to write about?

  • Updates – Small pieces of text attached to a specific user.
  • Replies/Conversations – Updates that reply to or expand upon other updates.
  • Media (pictures, videos, audio) – A feed or stream of images attached to a specific user.
  • Avatars (profile pictures) – Pretty much every service has this feature.

The best way to write about social networks is to simply describe a short-form, multi-user conversation tool that has the ability to attach rich media. Come up with a generic format for updates and replies using either indents or italics to distinguish it from the rest of your prose. For example, I could write the following:

[SamStrong] -> Morning, all.

[ANOther] -> [SamStrong] Morning!

[YetANOther] -> [SamStrong] [ANOther] Indeed it is the morning!

[SamStrong] -> [ANOther] [YetANOther] Did you see this? <MEDIA>

Sure, the formatting and styling of the posts could be improved, but, in terms of describing a conversation that is clearly restricted in scope and is distinguished from normal dialogue, it could work.

Short of inventing your own formatting, you could just make it clear that a specific chunk of dialogue is communicated online. Writers describe stuff all the time. Social networks should be no different.

Whatever you choose to do, and however you choose to represent the way your characters communicate, just don’t ignore social networks. They aren’t going anywhere. The world is full of wonderful, scary, fun technology that humans love to exploit. Many classic novels are still loved, despite the fact that they got their vision of the future horribly wrong. By misrepresenting the present you do yourself a disservice.

p.s. The same goes for phones. They haven’t been just phones for quite a while now. Use that.

Autumn

I love autumn, from the colours, to the weather, to the fact that I get to break out the chunky jumpers. Autumn also means that the internet looks better. Like here, Uwe Eischens photoblog, Moments Like This. Mr. Eischens always posts lovely images, but this is just beyond stunning.

Morning Beauty

On Urban Fantasy Worlds

I guess my latest writing project is urban fantasy. It doesn’t contain any vampires, werewolves or other common supernatural creatures. It does feature magic, servitors, egregores and rituals. The magic is of the human kind. That is to say it’s based around feelings and how these, when considered en masse, affect the world. So I have egregores, these vast, barely-sentient entities created through force of feeling, intent and memory. They sit behind humanity, nudging, assisting, guiding, blocking. In the case of my story, a human performs a ritual that corrupts of one them.

The ritual is the problem. Does the person know if it will work?

If they do then magic really needs to be a known factor in the world. I think it’s unlikely that a group of mages/wizards/cabalists/whatever could operate all throughout the ages, without the public getting the slightest hint as to their existence. Mostly though, I just don’t like that idea. Not just because a lot of writers take that route, but because I have no interest in my heroes being part of a group that denies mankind that kind of knowledge and power.

If not then why have none of the other rituals, that people perform every single day, worked? What makes this one special? It’s highly unlikely that, assuming magic exists, no one has ever carried out a ritual that works, especially considering the ridiculously world-changing stuff people have a tendency to pray for.

Why do authors restrict how many people know about magic? Because it allows them to limit their world. A world with magic as a known quantity is not our world and as such would require far more detailed construction. The logic of their world is, mostly, that of the real world, so right off the bat they’ve removed a large chunk of complexity from their novel (and likely added a chunk of people to their potential readership).

So I find myself left with two choices:

I can attempt to create a world where magic works and exists in the public eye. This could be fun, but is most likely to result in an inconsistent mess.

Or I can back the hell off and have my ritual, somehow, be the first ritual to succeed and have significant consequences. This would feel like cheating.

Thoughts?