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Monthly Archives: August 2013

Today I am waiting in for the broadband engineer to install our wifi. From the estimated 5 hour window I was quoted, he now has just 20% of his allotted time remaining before he becomes Officially Late.

As a freelance writer, I usually work from home, so it’s not like I’m losing out on any real income. On top of that, we’ve just moved house, so being at home is more exciting than usual. The novelty has not yet worn off having a new fridge to go through, a new dishwasher to empty and new windows to stare vacantly out of.

And yet, somehow, no matter how much I enjoy hanging out at home, the oppressive backdrop of Waiting For Someone makes it one of the most tedious ways to spend the day.

I’ve finished work now. I’ve catalogued some bits I’m planning to sell on eBay. I’ve tidied the kitchen. I’ve read a bit of my book. I’ve watched some TV. Finally, out of desperation, I have turned to my blog, because, despite not really having anything to write about today, it’s all I have left to do.

If I’d been able to leave the house I might’ve visited the local Sells-Everything shop to buy some bits for the house. Some oven cleaner, perhaps. I might even have stretched to cleaning the oven. Unlikely. But I might have done. It would’ve been nice to have the option.

But those potentialities are lost to me now – at least until tomorrow. The day is, essentially, written off. I’m luckier than most in that I’ve not had to miss any work. Last week I had to wait in for the dishwasher to be delivered. It came about 36 hours late. So that was 2 days I lost to the gods of logistics. What do you do if you’re actually supposed to go in to work? How sympathetic are bosses about this kind of dilemma?

What if I had to walk a dog or pick up some children? What if I had some other responsibilities that required further input than staring into a computer screen waiting for inspiration? Fortunately, I suppose, I don’t.

What’s the alternative, though? We discovered to our chagrin that it’s essentially impossible to buy something and pick it up yourself. Only the wonderful John Lewis and the hectic confusion that is Ikea allow this sort of thing. For anything else, there is just the interminable waiting.

When the Raspberry Pi was first introduced I thought it was a great idea. I mean, it was the start of people doing things for themselves. Computers would no longer come packaged and pre-assembled. You could make it yourself. You wouldn’t have to rely on delivery men or engineers or technical support to make it work.

Obviously, the technological-savvy among us have been living like this for years. The power and independence you possess when you learn to build your own computer or fix your own car is astounding.

But what about all the people you put out of a job every time you replace your own motherboard or MacGyver your own carburettor? I guess we might be more sympathetic towards them if they could manage to turn up on time.

The engineer has less than an hour now before his deadline arrives and he is sucked into the abyss of the evening. Will I have to wait for him again tomorrow?

After a while, you start to wonder if you’ve not somehow gone insane. Have you got the wrong day? Are you waiting in the wrong house? Have you fallen asleep and missed him? Has your brain somehow shut out the sound of him frantically knocking at the door? Is time standing still?

When will he come? It could be at any second. Is it now? Is it now? Is it now? Is it now? Is it now?

Constantly on the edge of your seat, determined not to miss it.

That terrible sinking feeling when you go to the front door to find the ‘I’m sorry, I missed you’ card.

I was definitely in. Did you knock? Did you? Really?

I’m not so sure.

[…]

I just checked. No card.

I wonder if Samuel Beckett was waiting for a delivery man when he wrote Waiting for Godot. There is something about this dragging, ponderous time that makes one begin to err on the existential.

I’ve just received a message saying he should be here in 10 minutes. Just in the nick of time! The languorous pendulum was slowing, the fuse was running short.

Now I have to make the effort to emerge from my day-long reverie and actually communicate with someone in the flesh. Sounds hard.

Is it now?

It is now.

Addendum: I feel bad now that he is here, because he is a very nice chap.

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Everyone loves a good dinner party, but perhaps the best dinner party in the world would be one where you get to invite your five favourite protagonists from books you love. Here’s who I’d choose and why… [warning: some spoilers be here.]

1. Bokonon from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle

Bokonon is the founder of the religion Bokononism, one of the main topics of Vonnegut’s novel. He was born Lionel Boyd Johnson, but after becoming stranded on the island of San Lorenzo, decided to change his name, renounce Christianity and found Bokononism, a religion that is based on the assumption that all religions are false. The first words of the Books of Bokonon are ‘All of the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies’.

Vonnegut was a notable humanist, and all of his novels contain a distinctly secular voice that raises awareness of the dangers of dogmatic beliefs in everything from religion to capitalism, forcing the reader to cynically question the established belief systems of western society. Bokonon is the perfect symbol of Vonnegut’s imagination, being both a religious leader and a parody of one.

He’s also one of the most likeable of Vonnegut’s characters in that, unlike the often passive and undetermined anti-heroes of his other texts, Bokonon proactively shapes his own life and destiny, as well as those of hundreds of others on the island.

2. The Weaver from China Miéville‘s Perdido Street Station

There aren’t many Miéville characters you’d want to invite to dinner. Most of them are either dishonest or insane, and you’d be lucky if you ended up surviving the evening. The same goes for the Weaver, of course, but the experience may be so inexplicably bizarre and entertaining it’d be worth the risk. The Weaver is a giant pandimensional black spider that ‘weaves’ the fabric of reality up into attractive patterns. It is not constrained by any human impulses, such as kindness, morality or logic: its actions are based solely on what it thinks will improve the quality of the weave.

The Weaver walks on four of its legs and uses the other four as ‘arms’; one pair forming deadly sharp pincers that can kill you in an instant, the other pair looking almost human (although an insect black), with two creepy child-like hands. Because of its extra-dimensional nature, the Weaver does not think or communicate like we do, instead forming a sort of sing-song stream of consciousness, metaphor and allegory that is extremely difficult to follow but fascinatingly horrible to listen to.

It’d be unlikely that my other guests would survive dinner with the Weaver, and they would at least expect to lose a body part or two (whatever makes the weave pretty), but maybe parlaying with a creature from another dimension would be reward enough.

3. Dirk Gently from Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and The Long, Dark Teatime of the Soul

Any science fiction fan worth their salt loves Douglas Adams. I remember listening to the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio show in the car when I was a kid, then I picked up the novels and loved them even more. Both the TV and film versions I always found a little disappointing, largely because Douglas Adams’ voice sounds funnier in my head than it ever did being voiced by actors. Life, the Universe and Everything, the third novel of the inaccurately named five-book trilogy was always my favourite, mainly because it was about cricket.

As much as I love the Guide, I think Adams’ lesser known Dirk Gently novels are even better. The first novel, described as a ‘thumping good detective-ghost-horror-who dunnit-time travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epic’, is particularly clever, combining complex ideas about science, music and literature to create a darkly comic fantasy full of engaging and quirky characters. Not least of these is the eponymous Dirk Gently, a thoroughly eccentric chap who runs a bizarre detective agency in Cambridge.

Gently’s detecting methods are based on a holistic interpretation of the universe – that is, the belief that all things are interconnected. This methodology means that Gently is frequently seen paying close attention to seemingly trivial and obscure details, such as why sofas get stuck on staircases, what The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is really about, and what that horse is doing in the upstairs bathroom.

4. Crake from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake

Okay, so he destroys all of humanity (including himself) and in that way is possibly not an ideal dinner guest, but Crake’s ideology and motivations are so fascinating I’d like to pick his brains. I have a theory about this particular text, which I have studied and written about at length; that is, if approached in a certain way, it stops being a dystopian novel and becomes a utopian one – specifically a posthuman, ecotopian one – because although ‘humanity’ is destroyed, Crake’s vision of a ‘better world’ is a reality.

Rather than build a utopia around human values, such as wealth, morality, happiness and so on, Crake bases his utopia upon non-human values. He creates a new species to inheret the earth after the humans have gone, and they are perfectly adapted, both physically and mentally, to their environment. Unlike humans, they do not wage war, they do not kill other living things, they do not cause pollution or harm the environment in any way. The Crakers, as they are known, life a perfectly harmonious existence in an ecotopian paradise, and the only cost was the human race, something Crake considers to be a blight on the planet.

I read this book as a challenge to humanism rather than a dystopian analysis of Crake’s megalomania… but even if we take it at face value, Crake would surely get along nicely with my other chosen guests, who all at least lean in the direction of misanthropy.

5. Beatrice from William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing

By far my favourite Shakespearean heroine, Beatrice provides some light comedy relief at this otherwise rather dangerous gathering, being arguably the only sane member of the party. I admire her quick wit and sharp tongue, and her sparring matches with Benedick are amongst the best pieces of dialogue ever penned.

She is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most rounded female characters, being both cynical and jovial, practical and frivolous, happy and contempletive, fierce and loyal. I’d invite her mainly to play devil’s advocate, and because I think she’d be a great conversation catalyst. I’d love to see her interact with the other guests – I think she’d be a fair match for all of them.

Chances of the host making it through the night alive… About 0.01%.

I quite like TNT’s Falling Skies. In an era of extremely mediocre science fiction TV it continues to entertain and does not make me want to boil my own head in a vat of cooking oil. Unlike some of Syfy’s more vanilla offerings, Falling Skies manages to be a bit gritty and creates a set of characters that aren’t entirely loathsome.

The premise is fairly hackneyed, but well done: A race of hostile aliens known as the Espheni have invaded the earth (represented here solely by the USA) and humanity must fight for survival in a grim and dystopian post-apocalyptic world. The aliens possess ‘harnessing’ technology that allows them to control and eventually assimilate human children, and they also have cool stompy mechs that like to blow stuff up, as well as lots of other overwhelming tactical advantages. Nonetheless, the human spirit continues to prevail and, led by history professor Tom Mason (Noah Wyle of E.R. fame) and Col. Dan Weaver (Will Patton), a rag-tag band of survivors mount a substantial resistance.

[*Season Three Spoilers to follow*]

The third season has just finished airing and it’s on par with the what’s gone before – it isn’t the most amazing SF series ever made, but it continues to break even and keeps me interested.

In this season we are introduced to a new alien ally, the Volm, which of course raises all sorts of ethical debates between characters about why one alien is more trustworthy than another, and whether or not this should be a solely ‘human fight’ against all things otherwordly. The various xenophobic views aired by a number of protagonists are fairly predictable, and there is a lot of emphasis placed on notions of American patriotism and independence.

In the season finale, Tom Mason’s clan, with a lot of help from the Volm, manages to secure a significant victory against their antogonists. Afterwards, they are greeted with the news that they will now be packed off to Brazil while the Volm win the war on their behalf. Tom, et al, are up in arms at this revelation, which they consider to be a massive betrayal of trust.

This is just one of many utterly incomprehensible reactions on the part of the protagonists, who all seem to be blessed with the inability to make sensible decisions. The Volm appear to have the humans’ best interests at heart, encouraging them to seek safety in the sanctuary of Brazil (quite why Brazil is so safe is not explained) while they do all the hard work.

But the human band of fighters aren’t willing to take a back seat, instead literally jumping at the chance to throw their lives away in the face of a hugely advanced enemy and overwhelming odds. The really baffling thing about this scenario is not so much their desire to stay on the front lines, which can be chalked up to national pride, but rather the fact that they get really angry at the Volm for wanting to protect them.

It all comes out in the wash anyway, as the Volm decide to let them get on with it and get themselves killed if they want to. There is a bit of tension between the two races now, which, judging by the volatility of the human characters, may well lead to pow-wows in the future.

One must question the tactics of the humans, which do not seem to be informed by any knowledge of military protocol or even by common sense, and which frequently result in them getting into hot water. If you know you are being approached by a hostile force in unspeakably advanced flying ships equipped with tracking technology and ultra-deadly weapons, is the best choice really to take to the air in a couple of rickety old crop-dusting planes and try to outpace them? The human pilots don’t even take the two planes in separate directions to split their attackers up; they just fly one after the other in a nice little line, giving the Espheni some really easy target practice. Unsurprisingly, both planes are shot down in about two minutes.

This kind of decision-making happens all the time. When Tom’s love interest Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood) discovers that their new baby is some kind of creepy alien hybrid, she decides that her best option is to pick the kid up and just wander off aimlessly into the alien-infested wilderness. Unsurprisingly, again, she is captured within about two minutes.

Although all of these frustrating events make me wish they’d retitle the show Humans Making Rubbish Decisions (Oh and There Are Some Aliens Too), the show manages to redeem itself somehow. Fierce, battle-hungry Maggie (Sarah Carter) is not as inept as the others and manages to hold it together in most tricky situations, and John Pope (Colin Cunningham) makes a great dark comedy foil, taking bets on which member of Tom Mason’s family is likely to kick it next.

The two alien races are nicely done, with good use of CGI and animatronics, and the whole aesthetics of the show are just dirty and rugged enough to provide relief from the unbearable gloss of your average SF show.

Folleree’s rating: 3.5 / 5

In this age of text message abbreviations and internet neologisms, it seems as if quality writing is losing its importance. But with every person who uses the word ‘lol’ in the place of a full stop, or whose interest in punctuation lies exclusively with the exclamation mark, the province of the writer becomes increasingly vital.

Language is teetering on the brink of a void of incomprehensibility, and it is the writers that keep it hanging on. Technology changes language. That’s inevitable, and it’s brilliant as far as language is concerned. Language is something that shouldn’t be allowed to get stale. It’s a bit like bread. If it gets stale, it becomes brittle and it breaks. And makes you feel a bit sick if you consume it. Language needs to evolve and mutate in order to stay relevant to our ever-changing society, and technology inspires these changes more than anything else.

But no matter how good change is, if a language fails to communicate what you want to say, it becomes little more than a meaningless collection of empty symbols. We have to understand the diversions and transgressions of language in order to use it as a tool of effective communication. If we approach language with ignorance, it gets away from us. It starts saying things we don’t intend.

Language is how your brain makes sense of the world

Language is the only thing your brain understands. Everything it sees, feels, smells, tastes and touches is almost instantly transcribed into a linguistic equivalent in order to make it meaningful. Language is a sense mediator. In the same way your computer translates the binary and html code making up this blog post into something you can see and understand, your brain turns the world into a complex language system so that it can be processed.

Now that the world is filling up with increasingly complicated things, we need language more than ever, and we need writers to help us wrap our heads around all the new concepts entering our vocabulary. But enough of all this abstract stuff about brains. What does this mean in the real world?

Language = money

Language is the best and most effective way to sell products, promote businesses and communicate ideas. It’s a vital and often overlooked aspect of brand identity and marketing. A picture can only tell your customers and clients so much – the words you use are what really hooks them in.

You know your product, your services and your company inside out, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily know the best way to talk about them. Writers do. Words come easily to most people, but it takes time and skill to hone them into something that makes people want to throw their hard-earned cash in your direction.

Google speaks your language

A nicely designed website will impress your customers but it won’t hold much water with Google. If you want your page to hit the top of Google rankings you need SEO keywords. But you can’t just shove them in anywhere – they have to be carefully woven into the fabric of your copy so that they make Google happy and appeal to your customers.

Google doesn’t like repetition. If you copy and paste big chunks of text across multiple web pages, Google may think you’re an evil robot. Sometimes, you need someone with the talent to write essentially the same information in many different ways. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. A thesaurus will only get you so far.

Spread the word

Social media sharing is a big boom industry that helps websites get loads of new traffic, but before you can tap into this seemingly infinite marketing resource, you need some quality stuff to share. It’s no good simply posting a link to your website; you need to share new material on a daily basis to keep people coming back. Blog posts, news feeds and articles will draw in anyone even vaguely interested in your industry. These pieces need to capitalise upon buzz words and trending topics that will make them super shareable. The hotter your content is, the further it will go and the more people it will reach.

An internet of words

The internet is where we live most of our lives now, and it’s full of words. A lot of them aren’t used properly. If you want your website to stand out, get yourself a decent writer.