Friday, 30 January 2009

It's on the shelves!

Not that I've been to a bookshop to see it yet, but my latest title Ecologic is now officially published. Wee-hee!

In case you're interested, here's what it's about:

We aren't well equipped to deal with green issues. Our natural tendency with such an emotive issue is to be swayed by feelings, rather than logic. And that's fine to get us all excited - but it doesn't make for good solutions to green problems. Ecologic uncovers the reality behind the greenwash and the eco-bogeymen.

It includes:
  • Why biodegradable carrier bags are worse for the environment than conventional ones
  • How a marketing organization gets primary schools to promote their brand
  • Why you're better off not eating celery than eating organic food to avoid additives
  • How a BMW 3 series can be better for the environment than a Toyota Prius hybrid car
  • Why carbon offsetting and being carbon neutral can have no impact on the planet
  • How a cottage garden can teach a big lesson in sustainability
  • … and much more

You can find out more at my website or at the Amazon online bookshop.

It has already had a wonderful review in BBC Focus magazine. Here's a few of the highlights:

This book crackles. Every paragraph pits your heart against your head. Those with green sensibilities and a nervous disposition may have a cardiac arrest. But the rest of us will have our synapses set alight...

He rails at ‘MMR madness’ and has the notorious Channel 4 programme The Great Global Warming Swindle bang to rights as an intellectual swindle itself. He is intelligent on fair trade and the “muck and mysticism” of organic farming and understanding about our unfortunate confusion over biodegradables...

A cracking read for anyone who cares about both their environmental footprint and their sanity in a world being flooded with greenwash and gobbledegook. (5 stars out of 5)

Thursday, 29 January 2009

On the bridge of the Enterprise

When I was little (no, don't laugh) I used to pretend the desk in my bedroom was the bridge of the USS Enterprise. Coming into my office in the dark just now, it seemed as if, a little later in life, I had accumulated enough twinkly lights on my desk to qualify.

I've just counted them up, and apart from 2 LCD screens and three more LCD information panels, I've a total of 37 LCD lights in blue, green, orange and red. Some of them even mean something to me.

Who needs the Enterprise any more?

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The monster and the chicken

UK TV's most unlikely hero, the shambling Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has just televised his head-to-head with retail monster Tesco (for US readers, roughly our equivalent of WAL*MART, though it's Tesco's rival ASDA that actually belongs to the big W). (See Channel 4 website.)

Last year Mr F-W made an impressive series of programmes that persuaded quite a few people to move from buying 'standard' (i.e. lowest welfare legally possible) chickens to those with improved living conditions. Since then, some UK supermarkets have ousted standard chickens entirely from their shelves, or at least have the aim of moving to a minimum standard of 'Freedom Food' chickens, which are still indoor reared, but have much better living conditions.

However, Tesco, Britain's largest, most powerful and most aggressive supermarket, has refused to countenance moving away from standard chickens. In the show, F-W goes up against the might of Tesco by trying to raise the issue of chicken welfare at their AGM. Despite some dirty tricks from Tesco (suddenly slapping a £86,000 bill on him for postage), he gets his motion on the agenda. It fails - but he gets around 20% support, unusual for corporate investors on an issue like this.

What's Tesco's response? An appalling interview where they claim high standards of welfare and squarely put the blame on... the customer. Yes, it seems Tesco only sells these poor creatures because customers demand cheap meat. These are weasel words. Of course customers want cheap food. Ideally they would like it if Tesco gave all their food away free. But are Tesco rushing to give everything away because their customers would like it? Erm, no.

The conditions in which these chickens are raised is entirely down to Tesco, NOT the customer. If Tesco decided tomorrow to move to a minimum standard of Freedom Food, many of their customers would cheer. And so big is Tesco's buying power that they could probably do so with only a small increase on the price of a chicken.

The fact is, Tesco has got used to using chicken as a loss leader to compete with other supermarkets. This has nothing to do with customer demand, and everything to do with Tesco's power games.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Prank as high art

I'm not a great fan of the practical joke, but many years ago I took part in a prank that took the form onto a whole new plane. The ceremony I am about to describe happened when I was at university - I took part as a member of the choir. The whole thing was an elaborate practical joke, taking months of planning. It was called The Immersion of the High Professor.

Kings Parade in Cambridge was closed to traffic and a procession of hundreds, all in academic garb, ambled (we were instructed not to be formal) down it, through Trinity College and onto the backs. Here the High Professor was presented and stripped down to his underwear behind a curtain of cloaks. The choir chanted a Latin responsary, of which I can still remember this couplet: "In combinationibus stat." (He stands in his combinations.) "Sancta Michaelis designatus est." (Labelled 'St Michael's'.)

The High Professor was then slapped across the face with a fish (according to the handout for the crowd, this was introduced a few hundred years ago, but no one knew why). Finally he was rowed off down the river while the choir sang Superflumina Babyloniis.

According to the handout, this ceremony celebrated the actions of a medieval professor who drowned bathing in the Cam while attempting to set an example of cleanliness to his students. He died at age 68 (I can't remember the exact number, but it was about this) and now the ceremony is enacted every 68 years.

This was all undertaken with the assistance of the police, Trinity College etc. The best bit of all came about 10 years later, at least 100 miles from Cambridge, when we had some people we hadn't seen for ages round for dinner, and one of them told the story of this amazing cermony he had seen while visiting Cambridge as a tourist - he had been one of the huge audience that assumed it was for real.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Do editors read?

The title of this post might at first glance seem monumentally stupid. Of course editors read - it's a major part of their job, but that's not what I mean.

Let's draw a parallel for a moment. There's a show on the TV that every now and then asks movie actors what was the best film they've seen that year. And quite often, actor after actor admits they, erm, haven't really seen many movies.

What I'm wondering is, do editors curl up with a good book in the evening? Not one of their own - they've read their titles to death - but books in general, just like a 'normal' person.

The reason I ask is that I can imagine that editors might have had enough reading in their day job... and yet, surely editors need to have their fingers on the pulse of the book market, and to have read the competition and know what they're up against? It's an interesting conundrum. (Nice word, conundrum.)

Friday, 23 January 2009

List rage

Stuck in a Starbucks, waiting to pick up one of the daughters last night, I made one of my occasional purchases of the Guardian newspaper. I was delighted to see it contained the Science Fiction and Fantasy part of a "1000 novels everyone must read" series. I should have known better. Such lists are designed to get you hot under the collar and irritated. 'They' are bound to get it wrong - and they did.

First, though, the good news. I'm pretty hot on SF up to the 1980s, but there my knowledge trails off, so it was good to have some more recent recommendations, which I'll pursue. But for the rest, I have two lists of my own. The 'why the heck did they include this?' list and the 'how could they miss that?' list.

WHY THE HECK DID THEY INCLUDE THIS?

Even by my loose definitions some of the books they included aren't really SF & fantasy. Lord of the Flies, for instance. Yes, it's a great book, but the fact there's a nuclear war in the background doesn't make it SF. And to call Thomas Love Peacock's Nightmare Abbey good fantasy is just silly. Yes, Peacock is important because he was partly responsible for the establishment of the novel, but that doesn't make this tedious tripe good. There was also much too much space given to arty, aren't-I-clever, unreadable, boring Literature-with-a-capital-L SF. These tend to be either obscure novels written in 1909 by a non-entity, or the output of the New Wave bores. I mean, three J G Ballard books listed when there's only one Asimov? Come on.

HOW COULD THEY MISS THAT?

Where to start? Where to start. This is a list that includes Anthony Burgess twice and Rabelais (yawn, aren't we clever, arty list choosers?) - but there's no James Blish (what???), no John Brunner, no Harry Harrison, no Clifford Simak, no Bruce Stirling and no Robert Rankin. They list the wrong Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land rather than The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.) The good news is Gene Wolfe is there - but it's so wrong to include his Urth of the New Sun stuff, which I find a little cold and is probably his weakest writing, and leave out his stunning 'real world' fantasies like There are Doors or Castleview.

But the thing that really makes it clear this list is rubbish - neither Ray Bradbury nor Roger Zelazny are on it. And that's just plain stupid.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Start with the easy stuff

I've blogged before (here for example) on the writer's habit of prevarication. Almost everyone I've ever spoken to who writes admits to it. They'll put off starting writing as long as possible. So how to get round this?

If I've got a particularly bad case of the avoid-writing-itis I tend to trick myself by starting with the easy stuff. Something that's still part of the work in progress, but is easier to do than the bit I had been intending to start on. Then, once I'm into the writing process I can switch back to what I should be doing. Once I'm writing, it's easy to keep going.

The book I'm working on at the moment makes this particularly easy because it has 100 self-contained sections. Some are harder to write than others - so if the next one on the list really strains the brain, I'll pick off an easy one and then come back to the tough one. But even writing something more continuous, it's usually possible to skip around a barrier that's encouraging prevarication, get yourself up to speed, then come back and smash that obstacle.

It won't always work - maybe won't work at all for some - but I find it useful.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

A cracking conceit

I have just finished reading Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon (see at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com), recommended to me by a couple of people, to whom I think I'm grateful. This is, without doubt one of the most remarkable books I've ever read. It's almost as if an author has set out to break all the traditional rules for a successful novel, and has made it succeed by sheer willpower. There something hypnotic about this book's attractiveness.

Aside from its absurd length, there were bits that really irritated. The fictional island race that were a cross between Western islanders and Manx, for instance, were initially baffling, then an over-played joke. Various sections dragged. Whenever he transcribed an email they seemed intentionally boring. I admit to skipping through a few pages occasionally when the plot obviously wasn't going anywhere. And the ending was a let down - the whole thing had been so complex, so conspiratorial and so engaging that the end goal seemed to underplay the effort of reading it.

Yet despite all this it has to be one of the best novels I've read. It helps, I suspects, that many of the principle characters are geeks (and I found the sections centred on them much more interesting than the gung-ho war sections). It's worth trying - and giving it time to get going, because something of this complexity is impossible to really get into in the first few pages. Remarkable.

I'm now gathering enough wind to take on Stephenson's even bigger Baroque Cycle.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Porridge

I don't eat it myself, but I was struck this morning, constructing the porridge for my children, how similar a technique it was to mixing concrete. Now, given the Scots also consume a drink that once claimed to be made from girders, it's hard not to feel there's a theme developing here. What building product could a haggis be likened to?

Monday, 19 January 2009

Amazon Marketplace: angel or devil?

I've seen a number of articles and letters in authors' publications bemoaning the existence of Amazon Marketplace. I think it's worth putting the story straight as it's by no means black and white.

Just to be clear what I'm talking about, if you got to the page for a book on Amazon, you will see over on the right something like this. It's an opportunity to buy new and used versions of the book from sellers other than Amazon. The mighty online bookseller doesn't do this out of the kindness of its heart - it takes a cut - but both seller and Amazon benefits from the purchase.

There are broadly three types of Amazon Marketplace sale. The first is new books from a catalogue seller. This is a company that's a virtual bookshop. They use an electronic catalogue and when you buy a book from them, they just order it direct from a distributor or publisher. From the author's viewpoint, this is no different from any other bookshop selling the book. The author will still get their royalty and all is well with the world.

Secondly there are one-off new sales. These might be unwanted presents, or a reviewer or author selling off unwanted copies. This is a relatively small group of books - not anything for authors to panic about. And anyway, often it's authors doing it. For instance if you look at the Amazon.co.uk listing for my book Upgrade Me and go into its Marketplace entry you will see the cheapest entry is from Creativity Unleashed, selling signed copies. That's me - and as an author I have no problem with it.

Finally there are the secondhand books. These, I admit, can be a worry for authors. If someone intended to buy a new copy from Amazon, with its accompanying royalty, and instead decides to to buy a secondhand copy, the author (and the publisher) loses out. This is true. However, quite a lot of people will prefer a new copy - and those who buy a secondhand copy may well not have stumped up the full price anyway. If someone buys a secondhand copy and they like it, it is likely to encourage buying the next book new when it comes out.

Best of all, secondhand copies are often of books that just aren't available new. Amazon now lists lots of out of print books where the only copies are secondhand ones. Better that a reader can buy one of these, rather than not at all.

I accept absolutely Marketplace will result in some lost sales. And it's sometimes a place of madness. So many people list books at 1p without spotting that this limits the amount the seller gets from the book to £1.58. Any large format book is liable to cost more than this to post - the seller will make a loss (or realize this and cancel the sale). However, on the whole I don't think Marketplace does as much damage to authors and publishers as many fear.

Friday, 16 January 2009

How novels are written

Thanks to Graeme Talboys for bringing to my attention this delightful irony-laden look at the process of bringing a novel to fruition:

Thursday, 15 January 2009

I hate proposals

I'm just in the process of writing a proposal for a new book. I'd say that this is possibly the worst thing that writers have to do (with the possible exception of anything involving accountants - sorry Ian).

In part, the pain is similar to that of putting together a business plan in the real world. It's hard work, yet of itself it isn't a true product. It's just a pale reflection of something that might happen in the future.

There's also the need to constantly suppress the urge to woffle. A good proposal has to be concrete, to interest the reader, even though it's not the real thing. For some reason, the brain is constantly trying to output woffle when writing a proposal (probably to avoid having to do some serious work).

Finally, it's something that triggers a period of agonized waiting. Will they like it? What will they say? It's like doing exams all over again. What joy. But it'll be worth it in the end if the publisher goes for it. And they will go for it. Won't they?...

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Another strange website of mine

I've previously commented on my Organizing a Murder site for mystery party games. If I trace that back, it came into being because I once was involved in running a youth group. I used to write mystery games for them, and the best of these eventually became the Organizing a Murder book. I have to confess, though, that it's probably not the strangest website that I run. That honour probably goes to the Hymn CDs site.

This all started because my favourite music is Tudor and Elizabethan church music, and I'd set up a little subsite dealing with the object of my musical affection. Someone who works with a very impressive organist, John Keys, got in touch to ask if I could give a mention on my site to his CDs... and since then it has become a little hive of activity in its own right.

The idea is simple. In churches people traditionally sing hymns accompanied by an organ - but many church organists are getting elderly, with fewer young organists coming in. These CDs are accompaniment tracks - karaoke hymns, if you like - to sing along to. Since the humble first beginnings of 6 CDs there are now 32 different discs, with some impressive organ voluntaries as well as the hymn stuff, and the tracks are also available as MP3s.

I just find it facinating, the way something quite complex and totally unintentional has sprung into being without any original intent on my part. I just wanted to wibble on about the music I like - I received an electronic communication from some people 100 miles away that I've never met (still), and now I'm responsible for this thriving little website, helping out hundreds of people who need this stuff. Very strange, but somehow very internet.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Staying on Task

In a recent post on Litopia, evmurphy asked how people manage to stay on task, rather than get distracted when researching on the internet. It's so easy, she says, to go off on a tangent that leaves the work in progress far behind. She suggests having a separate account on your PC for writing that only has the writing tools in it, so you have to switch out of it to get online.

For me there are two potential problems that get in the way of writing. One is prevarication. Pretty well every writer I know, however much they love writing, will put it off with anything and everything, including blogging, reading internet posts and so on. I handle that by having strict time slots. I allow myself a bit of prevarication after breakfast before getting down to the grind - but no more than half an hour.

The second - the problem evmurphy describes - happens during the research part of the writing process. Here the writer gets so interested in tangential material they don't get back to writing. This, I'm afraid, I haven't really experienced. Once I am writing (and I'm including the research part), I get really carried away with what I'm doing and am not easily distracted. If I see something potentially useful/interesting but irrelevant as I research, I slam it into OneNote, but then carry on with the topic at hand, because that's what is filling my mind right then.

It's not really a practical solution, but I think the answer to that second problem has to be to love writing. Once you get started on it, it should pull you in and preserve you from distraction. You can still very easily be put off starting the writing, but it's much harder to get waylaid while doing it. How to love writing? I'm not sure it's something you can learn. Most of the writers I speak to describe some sort of compulsion to write. It's not optional. Without that drive, maybe writing is not for you.

Monday, 12 January 2009

I wouldn't mind having children if...

... I could ever find a comb or a hair brush
... I didn't find the settings on my webcam changed every time I switched it on to do a Skype video call
... their idea of tidying up wasn't throwing stuff on the floor
... they thought to try to find their school ties more than 2 minutes before the school bus goes

I could go on all morning, but feel free to add your own.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

A moment of joy

It doesn't matter how many books you've had published, when you get to hold the real thing in your hands (see below - my hands) for the first time, it's a true thrill. My advance copy of Ecologic has just arrived - and it's pleasingly chunky and funky looking. Should be in the shops at the end of the month.

You will be hearing more of it around then, but I'm sure you'll forgive my enthusiasm right now.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Grumpy old moan

I've very kindly been tagged by Emma in what is sometimes referred to in blogland as a meme. Rather than list 31 one word answers to these questions and nominating at least seven others to suffer the same fate, I'm going to explain why I'm not going to do this.

I ought to stress the grumpiness I mention in the title is just how I fear this will come across - I'm not in any sense irritated about being tagged!

Problem one is the 'meme' thing. I hate the word, I hate the concept. Richard Dawkins (usually referred to on Nature Network as He Who Must Not Be Named) came with the idea of a meme as the equivalent of a gene in idea space, something that mutates, grows, spreads by natural selection - but I think it's a flawed concept, typical of the biologists' response to physics envy where they try to explain everything in biological terms. The word gives me the creeps. The concept just doesn't work for me.

Problem two is that these are really electronic chain letters. Back in the old days of paper and pen, chain letters were poisonous things that claimed you would suffer all kinds of ills if you didn't pass them on. They're pyramid selling without the money. On principle I won't participate in anything that even vaguely resembles a chain letter.

So there you are. Yes it's decidedly bah humbug. But what can I say? It's the response these things bring out in me.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Can Mr Spock ever win?

I've just been reading an entry in Tania Hershman's blog in which she says that logical arguments will never win against feelings and belief.

She goes on to make some very sensible points about how we write fiction, but I was held up on that original statement. If it's true, we might as well give up on science and go back to magic. I know there's always a battle between logic and belief, but I hope it's not true that emotion will universally rule the day, leaving facts to fester.

In my book Ecologic, coming out at the end of the month (please bear with me as a I get excited about it over the next few weeks) I argue that, in old Star Trek terms, we need a balance of Mr Spock's logic and Dr McCoy's emotional response.

The trouble is, with green issues we do tend to be led by the emotion, the feelings, and to ignore the logic. This is always happening in the media - Ben Goldacre has just pointed out another example of a newspaper ignoring the facts. But I do think it's possible to take that step back, to recognize bogeymen for what they are, and not to always go with the gut.

I thought that was one of the best parts of what makes us human. Or am I being hopelessly optimistic?

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Doggy Identity Parade

A very strange conversation yesterday morning.

I had taken Goldie, our golden retriever, to the vets and on the way out to the car, someone stopped me. 'Have you had that dog since it was a puppy?' they asked. 'Yes...' I said, hesitant because it sounded like they were about to accuse me of dognapping. 'Could you come and look at our puppy and see if you think it's a retriever?' they said.

So I went along to their car and took a look at their puppy. All I could really say is that it very much looked like Goldie at that age. Something like this -

Apparently they had been sold it cheap with no documentation and were worried they'd been sold... well, a pup. As far as I could tell it was a retriever. All I can say for certain is that it was cute.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

More fiction with science that isn't science fiction

A while ago I covered a novel with science as its theme that (probably) wasn't science fiction. I have recently read another book in this genre, which I thought worth a mention.

Let's get the bad news out of the way first. Rad Decision by James Aach (see here at Amazon.co.uk and here at Amazon.com) has some big weaknesses. The title tells you nothing, the cover is awful, the book itself is all too obviously self-published (don't use underlining for emphasis, Jim), and it has a couple of real problems as a novel. There is absolutely zero identification with the protagonist. In fact, I don't know who the protagonist is. The person we identify with most (I don't know if this is intentional) is a Russian spy, who is anything but the hero. Otherwise we get lots of characters thrown at us who are often indistinguishable, and for whom we don't care at all.

Finally on the negative (sorry, Jim), the science is thrown in too heavy handedly. We have (rather scruffy) diagrams of the reactor system. Why? We have little lectures on what a millirad is and much too much detail on how the safety systems work. Yawn.

So you might wonder why I'm bothering to comment. Well, despite all this, the book has two big things going for it. One is that we talk a lot about nuclear power, and this is an insider view of the reality (including a scary dramatized description of the Chernobyl accident) - making it clear just how little of it is black and white. There are many shades of grey here. Secondly, the section of the book towards the end where things go wrong is genuinely tense and page-turning in its excitement. You might not care about the characters, but you want to know how things will turn out.

So this is a book that could do with a big professional edit - but I'd still recommend taking a look at it if you are interested in just what's going on (or, more accurately, when it was set - 20 years ago) in nuclear power stations, and would like that information in effective story form.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Look! Shiny!

A somewhat rambling entry this morning, as I'm still recovering from withdrawal symptoms. Circa 10pm Friday night our internet connection went down and it didn't return until Sunday morning.

I've been without before - but never for so long without any choice. It was horrendous. It's not that I'm addicted or anything. I don't necessarily do a lot online at the weekend. It was the inability to get information as and when I wanted. The knowledge that I can't just check things. The lack of control.

We were going to the Milton Keynes Snowdome on Saturday. Normally I'd just find where it was online about 5 minutes before leaving... but today I couldn't. (Luckily the GPS knew where it was.) I like to check my emails every couple of hours - it's not essential, but when I couldn't it was so painful.

I found myself wandering into the office and staring weakly at the router, hoping to see that fourth light labelled 'Internet' illuminated.

Sad indeed. But it's over now - and it's great to be back.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Writer's block(ed nose)

One of the questions I'm often asked is 'don't you find it difficult to just sit down and write?' or 'What about writer's block?'

I don't really believe in writer's block. Once you've overcome the powerful urge to prevaricate, it's just a matter of sitting at the keyboard and getting the fingers to move. What comes out might be rubbish - but it's important to keep going.

However, as I'm currently in the throws of one of those irritating hacking cough type colds that last two to three weeks and leave you feeling heady and without any brain between the ears, I have to admit that under these circumstances, writing becomes almost impossible. I can manage the blog, but getting down to a book - just stacking up in the brain the different things that need to be balanced in the mind before commencing typing - seems impossible.

Often the writing job appears rather easy. Choose your own hours. Take the dog for a walk whenever you like. No commuting. But when your brain is clogged up, it's very, very hard indeed.

Urgh. Pass the medication.