Category Archives: General

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2016

My Reflections on 2016
And so, one year ends and another begins. But has it been a good year? One to cherish or one to throw in a box, hide the box in a cupboard, lock the cupboard, send the cupboard into long-term storage for our distant ancestors to discover and marvel at what we all put up with?
That, as always, depends on your personal point of view, what you value and what your values are. Here are some of my thoughts which, as I re-read them, do seem a little on the pessimistic side.

The war.
It didn’t end, in case you hadn’t noticed. Conflict in Iraq, Syria, Yemen. Terrorism in France, Germany, Britain. Bullying by America, China, Russia. But to me it all seems the same thing, a war that has been going on for thousands of years, still justifying itself with the same, tired old excuses and clichés (in no particular order):
I know better than everyone else, so everyone must do as I say.
I’m going to protect what’s mine, no matter what.
I’m going to protect you, whether you like it or not.
You’ve got it but I want it, so I’m going to take it.
You started this, so I’m going to finish it.
You think differently to me, so you deserve to die.
Nothing’s changed since caveman Ugh first decided that caveman Ogg in the cave next door was being a pain in the ass because he’d got hold of fire and hadn’t shared it around.
How desperately, desperately sad.

What else?
Ah yes, celebrities. Scores of them: Alan Rickman, Andrew Sachs, David Bowie, George Michael, Terry Wogan, Victoria Wood, Zsa Zsa Gabor… the list of those who passed away goes on and on and on. Yet it’s been said that we are only imagining that more celebs have died this year than in previous years and indeed, according to no less an authority than the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-38329740) there have not, in fact, been more than an ‘average’ number of celeb deaths across the whole of the year. It seems there was a large statistical spike in the first few months of the year that really caught our attention, causing us to continue to notice subsequent deaths for the rest of the year. Still seemed like an awful lot, though…..

What else?
Oh yes, disasters, natural and man-made. Whatever country you live in I guarantee you can find a disaster of some proportion has happened to or near you. Take Indonesia as a random example. According to https://watchers.news/2016/11/17/natural-disasters-indonesia-2016/ Almost 2000 floods, landslides and whirlwinds struck that country in 2016, destroying or at least upending the lives of more than two and a half million people.
Then there were the financial disasters that have rocked the economies of the world. You don’t need me to spell them out because there’s a very good chance you were affected by one or more of them to one degree or another.

What else?
Politics, of course. It’s been more of the same. The same promises, the same platitudes, the same fact that politicians failed to listen or, at best, listened selectively and then interpreted what they heard to suit themselves. In the West, we’ve had referendums and ballots and elections. Did things get better? Will things have gotten better by the time the next elections come around? Did you notice that in many instances, the same people got elected? Different faces, maybe. Different names, even. But still the same people under the skin, still intent on personal agendas, personal gain and attainment, still driven by some of the platitudes I used earlier, particularly:
I know better than everyone else, so everyone must do as I say.
I’m going to protect you, whether you like it or not.

And yet…

Has the year really been all bad?
Well, no. There’s been good stuff too. For instance, there’ve been amazing advances in… stuff. You know? Science stuff. Things like the use of VR in surgery; artificial limb technology; the introduction of driverless cars; improvements in artificial intelligence – okay, maybe some of those won’t pass muster as ‘good’ with everybody, but their potential is stunning. We just have to hope those with the power to utilise these advances is wise enough to know when not to utilise them.
But don’t be disheartened. In our universe of almost infinite possibilities there must surely be a chance that, eventually, someone will come along and invent a disinfectant that kills 99% of all known mistakes, cock-ups and misuses. Maybe next year.

So much for the world. The rest of this article is just about my own life, so you can skip reading if you want (but happy new year to you all the same).

The last year has seen many changes and happenings, good and not so good.
2016 saw my father pass away, aged 90. What a man he was. Right up to the very last he was blessed with a mind that was like the proverbial razor. His acumen was unaffected by the aging process, unlike his body. He would regularly beat his children and grandchildren at UpWords™ (a sort of 3-D Scrabble™ which I highly recommend!)
I remember fondly our many conversations where we set to right the world of politics of all flavours. I can’t describe how much I will miss those chats on the phone every Sunday afternoon and the warmth of his welcome when we managed to find time for a brief visit to his South Wales bungalow. But at least his pain – and there was a lot of it, though stoically he rarely let it show – is now gone and, at last, he is once again with mum, the woman he loved and missed more than anything.

As for me, well… I haven’t written anything for months. I really do love writing my little stories but, somehow, this hasn’t been the year for them. I even stopped attending the NSFWG workshops. I miss the camaraderie and critique of like-minded people but it would have been unfair of me to continue reserving a seat in the pub; I think I did the right thing in freeing it up for another soul to occupy more regularly than I could.
Work has taken up more and more of my life, with several visits to China and Europe, and more to come. What’s really tiring, though, is getting up between 5 and half past, so I can beat the traffic on the M1 for my 80 mile round trip and get to the office early enough for my meetings. Many of my team are in Beijing, and many of my bosses are across the Channel, so very early mornings come as a necessity. The effect, of course, is that come evening time, especially towards the end of the week, I’m knackered.
I’m waiting to get the first of my hips replaced. I see the surgeon in January. Simple things like walking for any length of time, climbing stairs, sometimes even lying down in bed have become extremely tiresome. With luck that will begin to be resolved in 2017, government funding of the NHS permitting. Hip problems are not life-threatening and so often are sent to the back of the queue when money is tight. And no, I can’t afford private treatment.

Reading back what I’ve written I have to admit it all looks a bit depressing. But honestly, I don’t actually feel down at all. Work is good, even great. I have an excellent employer. My trips to China have been brilliant, finding some super new colleagues and friends whose work ethic is exemplary and who have hosted me wonderfully well. I’m looking forward to going back there again in April.
My good lady wife now works at a school where her genuinely excellent teaching skills are finally being appreciated. Fingers crossed that the temporary role matures into a permanent one at the end of the summer term. It’s a bummer that my Christmas present to her didn’t turn up in time for the day itself, but the latest email says it’s now arrived in the UK so hopefully it will be delivered early in the new year.
Our kids all seem to be okay (who can tell with kids?) settling into new homes (including in the Shetlands Isles) or doing well in school (both teaching and learning) or settling to new jobs for others. And so I come to the end of my discourse. It therefore remains only for me to wish each and every one of you my best.

Have a Great and Happy and Prosperous 2017! And I really mean that.
Nigel.

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Beijing, Being Here

I Like China.  I like Beijing.  I like the people I meet here.  I love the food.

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I’m not too found of the bureaucracy.  However, whatever country you visit, there’s always some red tape that’s a pain in the backside.  You just have to live with it.

So, the journey here.  It was a pain.  It started off with the M1 closed down to 1 lane for absolutely no reason whatsoever.  Then my flight from Heathrow to Zürich was delayed by an hour, due to some ‘technical’ issue in Zürich – no idea what.  However, the Swiss Air A320 was comfy enough for the 1 hour 30 minutes flight time, even in economy. The on-board snack was fine (croissant).

There was supposed to be a 2 – 3 hour  stopover before the transfer at Zürich, but this disappeared so the transfer happened quite quickly.  Never travelled Swiss Air before but it was okay; although in Zürich after queuing to board, everyone in the queue (except those already in the know) was sent to a different queue to get our boarding cards stamped, then had to queue up again to complete the boarding.

Previously, my visits to Beijing were via large, 747-type long-haul aircraft.  In the newer planes there is a little more room in economy seating.  However, this time I was on an Airbus 330-300, and the economy seating was well below expectations, and only 3 toilets available.  For a journey of 9.5 hours covering around 8000 km, this was not a great place to be.  On the other hand, one of the stewardesses was very pretty.  🙂

I got very little sleep, it was so cramped – not to mention smelly with everyone around me farting every 10 mins!  Main meal was okay – honey chicken with garlic, rice and brocoli, but the caesar salad was not good.  The sweet was apparently carrot cake, though I couldn’t taste any carrot; and it came with a sprinkling of almonds, which everyone knows I can’t stand, that had to be scraped off.

However, arriving while it was still dark provided the reward of beautiful Beijing-by-night views from the plane:

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Eventually we arrived at the airport around 5:30 AM to be greeted by Chinese immigration control:

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It took the best part of 90 minutes to clear through here, though I must say the young lady wielding the stamp was actually very efficient and officiously pleasant.

Next, of course, my luggage didn’t arrive on the carousel.  I spent an age trying to find it.  There was no official to even speak with until well past 8 AM.  Eventually I went to the Star Alliance baggage reclaim, joining a queue of irate Chinese-speaking complainers.  (If every you come to Beijing, the one thing you will notice is that western-style politeness isn’t a strong factor when there’s queuing to be done.)  By 9 AM I’d recovered my bag and been out-queued for several taxis before finally landing one.

You will love Beijing taxis.  You never see any accidents, I have to say, but the way they drive here is maniacal!  Any road-space is taken by whoever gets there first: car, bus, truck, bicycle, pedestrian, whatever.  Best thing is to focus on anything else but the traffic.  But Beijing at night is as exciting as any othr world city, with the added bonus that you don’t feel threatened, as can happen in some places.

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Arrived at my hotel, the Park Plaza, one of the best in town, only to find they had no reservation for me.

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I don’t know how that happened but, fortunately, I knew the name of a Chinese colleague who is (a) well-known to a lot of people in Beijing and (b) well-respected/liked by same.  As soon as I said his name a room was made available at company-negotiated rates and, finally, at 10AM I was flat-out on the bed, snoring my head off until mid-afternoon.  I was, to use the vernacular, knackered.

Saturday night was a very enjoyable alcoholic iced beveage in the hotel lobby lounge (above photo) and then more sleep.

Sunday (overslept so missed breakfast) I was still feeling quite exhausted, despite a decent bit of kip.  I’d had plans for a little more sight-seeing but I just didn’t have that much energy left, and my hips were killing me, so I resigned myself to a day of recuperation so I’d be ready for the week’s work ahead.

To round-up, let me say if you get the opportunity to come to Beijing, take it.  China is a super place to visit.  I’ve done several of the Beijing ‘sites’ and they are well-worth visiting (Olympic Park, Forbidden Palace, etc.).  The country’s history is great and the people (apart from men clearing their noses and throats whenever they feel like it, and everyone barging and shoving all the time) are generally warm and friendly.  Watch some of the TV.  It gives you a very good insight into the psychology of the people.  Take the time to learn a few words (ni how = hello; shi-shi = thanks) and people are usually happy to give you a little of their time.  But be warned – when I was here in February this year I was virtually asked to marry a young lady (I was saved by my colleague at the time) so you never know how things will pan out!

Best wishes to all.

Nigel.  🙂

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Left or Full Justification?

I can’t make my mind up.  Do I prefer that fictional books I read are printed (ink or pixels) with paragraphs left justified or fully justified?  Since school days I’d always considered that full justification should be the preserve of factual books, newspapers and magazine.  Somehow it looked purpose-designed for learned treatises and similar worthy works, but now I’m not sure.  What do you think?

In case you are unsure, this paragraph is left justified. In case you are unsure, this paragraph is left justified. In case you are unsure, this paragraph is left justified. In case you are unsure, this paragraph is left justified. In case you are unsure, this paragraph is left justified. In case you are unsure, this paragraph is left justified. In case you are unsure, this paragraph is left justified. In case you are unsure, this paragraph is left justified. In case you are unsure, this paragraph is left justified. In case you are unsure, this paragraph is left justified. In case you are unsure, this paragraph is left justified. In case you are unsure, this paragraph is left justified. In case you are unsure, this paragraph is left justified.

Whereas this one is fully justified. Whereas this one is fully justified. Whereas this one is fully justified. Whereas this one is fully justified. Whereas this one is fully justified. Whereas this one is fully justified. Whereas this one is fully justified. Whereas this one is fully justified. Whereas this one is fully justified. Whereas this one is fully justified. Whereas this one is fully justified. Whereas this one is fully justified. Whereas this one is fully justified. Whereas this one is fully justified. Whereas this one is fully justified. Whereas this one is fully justified. Whereas this one is fully justified. Whereas this one is fully justified. Whereas this one is fully justified.

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BREXIT – HOW DID IT COME TO THIS?

I am a pretty apolitical person, but today I make an exception.  Here’s my open letter to the leaders of the UK, the EU, and the rest of the world…

BREXIT

To the vast majority of politicians all around the world, but at this time most especially to the leaders of the UK and Europe, I say this:

YOU DIDN’T LISTEN

Here is what you did.  Left, right, centre, whatever.

You ignored us.

For years you have chosen to ignore the voices of dissatisfaction that have been clamouring for your attention for so long.  For years you assumed that you could disregard the people for whom you had a duty of care and pursued agendas more favourable to your personal dreams and aspirations.  Why?  I’ll tell you:

  • Because you are adept at shouting down every argument, i.e.: you could ignore us.
  • Because you are adept at skilfully answering questions of your own choosing rather than those asked, i.e.: you could ignore us.
  • Because you are adept at cleverly turning conversations to topics you feel more comfortable discussing, i.e.: you could ignore us.
  • But mostly because you believe you knew more and better than anyone else; and so you could ignore us.

Don’t get me wrong: I am sure that a large majority of you entered politics with every intention of changing the world for the better.  But to iterate: I am absolutely convinced that a large majority of you believe that you know best.

Why do I say that?  I’ll tell you:

  • Because you believe your ability to understand complexity exceeds that of the rest of us.
  • Because you bicker between yourselves and apparently don’t care how it sounds to others.
  • Because you are addicted to half-truths.
  • Because you prefer to call each other names, rather than talk sensibly.
  • Because you are convinced that you, disregarding all others, are right.
  • Because you make promises, fail to meet them, and then don’t respect us enough to say sorry.
  • Because, when confronted, you revert to bad-mouthing your opponent’s policy rather than answering the question about your own policy.
  • Because you hardly ever say, truthfully, “I don’t know”.
  • Because you so rarely admit to your mistakes, and even more rarely apologise for the hurt you cause.
  • But mostly, because you have no respect for us.

Do you actually know the reason why the vote favoured Brexit?  Do you care to know?  I’ll tell you anyway.

It was never really about straight bananas, excess bureaucracy, immigration or austerity.  Those were factors, certainly, but they weren’t the real reason.  The real reason is because: you never asked us.

It’s because way, way back in 1975 the people of the United Kingdom voted to join a Common Market.  That’s all.  A COMMON MARKET.  Not a United States of Europe.

But since that date there has been an ever-increasing, ever more urgent drive towards greater and greater unity in Europe.  Across the board.  Financial.  Political.  Social.  Legal.  Powerful men (and a few women) sat in their lofty castles and drew up plans to build a brave new world.  They set up mechanisms and rules and laws.  They set up a civil service to enable those mechanisms and rules and laws.  And British governments – all of them – went along for the ride.

But nobody asked us if that was what we wanted.  Until now, not one politician, once in power, ever asked us if that was what we wanted.  You all just assumed that you knew best.

Credit to Prime Minister Cameron for at least giving the people of Britain this opportunity.  But I’m pretty sure he did his sums before he decided to give us this chance, and it’s a personal shame for him that when he added up the numbers he came up with the wrong answer.

There’s an assumption and a question still on my lips, though – how will the rest of Europe will fall?

There’s one last thing to say, and this is also intended for all the leaders of the world, whether in democracies, dictatorships or whatever:

At least we in Britain have had our revolution relatively quietly and peacefully.

And I expect that the decision of (little more than half) the people will be observed without undue prevarication or fuss.

THAT’S BECAUSE WE’RE BRITISH.

 

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Author United’s letter to the Department of Justice

Unless Penguin/Random House (or equivalent) decide that my work is worthy of their commitment (which I suspect is entirely unlikely unless I am suddenly transported to a parallel dimension where birds swim and fish fly) then I whole-heartedly concur with Tim’s thrust, which is that the indie publishing business would be hammered in the event that the Big 5 one more became dominant!

Tim C. Taylor

There’s been a big fuss in the small world of publishing news recently because a letter has been written by somebody called Douglas Preston, and signed by some very important people who wish to return the publishing industry to the good old days when it was largely controlled by six big corporations (or maybe five now that Penguin and Random House have merged). It’s a big deal for me because this letter represents a direct threat to my livelihood. The text is long and boring and with lots of details that won’t make sense to publishing outsiders (or insiders for that matter). So I’ve taken the liberty of cutting out 99% of the words and rewriting it in metaphor. The essence of this very important letter remains unchanged. Indeed, I think it shines with more clarity in my version than in the original.

 

Dear Department of Justice,

Every year…

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5 Accomplished Authors Who Turned Out To Be Hoaxers

Interesting. I think I agree that it shouldn’t matter who the writer is, as long as their work ‘works’, i.e. appeals to their readership. On the other hand, I’m not sure I like the idea of someone writing stories based on or in the style of the original thinking of others. It might be clever and skilful, but it grates with me. Ian Fleming’s James Bond books are a case in point. Since his death, Faulks, Deaver and Boyd, Kingsley Amis and John Gardner have all increased the coffers of the Fleming estate (as well as their own bank accounts). And I’ve no doubt their efforts were excellent, and certainly people like Amis and Gardner are good enough writers in themselves. I know we all stand on the shoulders of giants but… it just grates with me, is all.

The Reader In the Tower

I present for your perusal this article from Cracked yesterday.

I have to admit, I’m a little conflicted.

On the one hand, ideally, writers should be honest about who they are. On the other, a good book is a good book, whether it’s a true story or not – and the reverse is also true.

Stories (especially ones purported as fiction in the first place) that suddenly go from best book this decade to most horrible trash ever written reveal more about readers’ bias than about their fraudulent authors. The identity of the author shouldn’t change what you think of their actual prose.

I’m reminded of the tragically short life of Thomas Chatterton. It was only after his suicide that those who had shamed him for being a hoaxer recognised that he was an immensely talented writer, who probably shouldn’t have told all those fibs about exactly where his manuscripts…

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Books – Short or Long?

I heard on the radio today that there’s a move a-foot for authors to be paid by the number of pages that readers actually read, rather than by the book – I didn’t catch the whole article but I suspect a certain South American river may be the source of the story.

It’s certainly an interesting idea. In theory it would root out all those writers who (and I’m prepared for someone to say I ought to be included in this) really and truly shouldn’t be writing in the first place. I’m sure we’ve all picked up books that have a great cover, an intriguing title, excellent blurb on the back and so forth, but when we actually turn the pages (physical or electronic) and begin to absorb the content we find that the quality of the writing leaves something to be desired. Even ignoring the punctuation and spelling and just looking at the execution, we suddenly come face to face with paragraphs a bit like this:

The king had a princess he was going to mary off to the first guy who could rid his kingdom of the deadly menace that had been stalking his kingdom for many years in the form of a hideous monster. He made a proclamateon that anyone that could kill the beast would get his daughters hand in marriage as a reward for killing the beast.

“Let it be known that I will give my daughters hand in marrage as a reward for killing the monster that has been molesting my kingdom for many years.”

Hmm. No, I won’t reveal the book or writer because that would be poor sport, but the above exemplifies the quality of all too many works currently being offered to the public and marketed (okay, self-marketed in this case) as being ‘a great read’. (Alright, maybe there aren’t too many quite as dire as the above, but a fair few get awfully close!)

So maybe being paid for what the reader reads isn’t a bad idea. But there may be a problem.

Following that particular marketing strategy would, I think, result in a plethora of short stories and potentially hammer a nail into the coffin of full-length novels. It could become more economical for a writer to focus on tales of a score of pages rather than invest their time in producing anything more substantial. (If that’s where the money is, you can’t blame the author; they need to eat too, you know.)

That’s not to say established writers, the ones with great agents and funded by wealthy publishing houses (yes, admitting to a smidgeon of jealousy there!) wouldn’t still write epic tomes of adventure and daring-do. I’m sure they will. But for newbies it will mean there is less incentive to write ‘big’.

Writing a long piece is a great way to hone your burgeoning skills as an author. A single plot line doesn’t always suffice for a full-sized book so you will need to master the art of keeping track of multiple plots and sub-plots. You will have to learn how to develop your characters in a way that makes the reader (hopefully) empathise with (if not necessarily like) them. You have to come to grips with pace and tempo, as well as expanding your vocabulary so your reader doesn’t get fed up seeing the same word repeated over and over. And learn grammar rules so you avoid the sin of starting sentences with ‘And’!

And(!) what of the future? Will we become so accustomed to being spoon-fed with short-bursts of instant storylines that we lose the ability to concentrate on anything longer than a few pages? Where will the next Tom Clancy come from? The next Jane Austen? Terry Pratchett? (Hugely missed.)

So what I’m saying is, don’t forsake the big book in favour of the little book (and I confess to having written several shorts myself.) By all means read short stories, especially those written by newcomers, but also browse the catalogues and pick up the next Dune, the next Lord of the Rings, the next Dracula. If you don’t, our literary world might easily become a far less diverse and interesting place to be.

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Terry Pratchett

TPWhat can you say?  A great mind and brilliant talent is gone.  RIP Terry Pratchett.

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R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy, the Legend who was Spock

And so a legend passes. Mr. Spock, aka Leonard ‘Eyebrow’ Nimoy, is no more. He will be long remembered as an amazing character who helped spark the imagination of countless numbers the world over, and certainly fuelled my love of SF.

Leonard Nimoy

Spock is dead. Long live Spock!

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Preview of new Book Cover

Not that the book is complete, yet, but I thought you might like a quick preview of the cover I’m planning for Shun House, which I hope to put up for adoption in the Summer.

 

Shun House

Cover for book, hopefully release in summer 2015

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