31 August 2017

New versions of my novels


Over the past few months I have been uploading revised versions of all my novels. The revisions consisted, first, in weeding out a few typos and secondly in emending in two or three places vocabulary which, when it was first used, was perfectly unexceptionable but now, in these hypersensitive times, can give rise to unintended offence and hence interruption of the reading flow.

The latter I have improved by reducing my addiction to the more formal punctuation with which I was raised, converting here and there semicolons into commas, colons into dashes, splitting the odd sentence, and excising quite a few commas (to which I found I was badly addicted, not least those of the Oxford variety).

I have also regularised the spelling to the accepted standard of what is termed by Silicon Valley ‘British English’ (let us slip past, without comment, the ‘cultural appropriation’ of my mother tongue by others). Thus I have converted, for example, -ize verb-endings to -ise. The -ize ending is etymologically more correct, deriving as it does from the Greek, but -ise, coming to us through Norman French, is rather more idiosyncratically English, and Englishness is something that characterises all my stories.

The net result is a smoother, less irritating feel, or so I hope, and does better service to the ideas at the origins of each book. It should also enhance the familiarity felt by English readers and the exoticism felt by foreign ones, both of which are a Good Thing.

The new versions are now available from the usual places, and I recommend them if you have downloaded earlier versions and to want to keep copies in your electronic library.

30 August 2017

Impressions of the Kobo Aura One

From Wikipedia:
The Kobo Aura One was released on 6 September 2016 and it is the first e-reader with a 7.8-inch E Ink Carta HD waterproof touchscreen display with a 300 ppi screen. The Aura One weighs 252 grams and measures 195 by 138.5 by 6. 9 mm. It has Wi-Fi, 8 Gio internal storage, and 512 Mio RAM. The Aura One is lit by nine white LEDs and eight RGB LEDs around the frame. The additional RGB LEDs allow the device to have a night reading mode that limits the blue light that comes from white LEDs. It was the first Kobo eReader with built-in OverDrive support.
I bought one of these to replace a Keyboard Kindle, my first ereader, which I have owned from new. Among the features that attacted me were the screen size and illumination, OverDrive support, and the ability to display .epub files.

The screen size is indeed a plus, enabling one to set larger font and margin sizes and still see plenty of words on the screen. The 300 ppi display is excellent, too, though I was less impressed by the illumination. It becomes patchy as it veers towards the red end of the spectrum.

The rendering of .epub files is idiosycratic to say the least. Some files that render perfectly elsewhere have no top margin and need to have the @page directive altered in the CSS. Widow and orphan control is ignored and can result in clumsy white spaces at the bottom of the screen; this apparently cannot be fixed in .epub files, though Kobo are said to have their own standard – .kepub – which allows such control. Just what we need, another ebook format. At least one html entity, lowast, is invisible in .epubs, which leads me to wonder what other eccentricities exist in the software.

Font choice is an appealing feature of the Kobo Aura One. Most of the built-in fonts (two or three of which, serifed, provide an acceptable reading experience) can be adjusted for weight – made more or less bold – and the size is more finely adjustable than in most ereaders. You can use your own fonts if you prefer, by creating a folder called ‘fonts’ in the root directory and dragging them there. However, such fonts are not adjustable for weight without specialist tweaking of the hidden configuration files. I did not feel confident enough to play about with those and in fact deleted the sample fonts I installed as being far from easy to read.

Initially I was pleased with the Kobo Aura One, despite its eye-watering price. Unfortunately its battery would not retain a charge. Charged to 100% last thing at night, and with the device in sleep mode, it would report perhaps a 30% charge in the morning. The drain while reading seemed reasonable; it was only while sleeping that the power ebbed away. Needless to say, this is a deal-breaker as far as an ereader is concerned and I returned my specimen as faulty.

Given the trouble and faffing about this has caused, I did not want a replacement and opted for a refund instead. There are reports at MobileRead of similar problems; if Kobo’s attitude to quality control is so lackadaisical, I am not prepared to be an unpaid tester, especially given the fact that the store where I bought mine is 15 miles away on congested and thoroughly tedious roads.

In all, then, I cannot recommend the Kobo Aura One – or perhaps any Kobo device – and have gratefully returned to my ancient but reliable Kindle.

12 August 2017

Adrian’s Wall


Eleven years on from a bitter divorce, Adrian Stowell is becoming not only a hermit but a misanthrope. He has vowed never to get caught again, to concede to another woman influence over himself and his property, and has surrounded himself with a wall of cynicism and mistrust.

One June morning he is working in his front garden. An attractive neighbour, not long arrived in the Hampshire village where Adrian lives, comes through the gate. He has never seen her before and might never have met her but for the fact that her cat has gone missing.

He accepts the flyer she offers him and promises to search his outhouses. Her eyes are kind; she smiles at him, and from then on Adrian can’t stop thinking about her.

This is a story about the alienation wrought by the increasing fragmentation of modern society and the difficulty one modern man has in adjusting to it. He struggles besides with the sort of masculine mindset which was once critical to the rise of civilisation, but whose value is becoming more and more derided, even despised.

It is also an unsentimental love story touching upon loneliness and bereavement and, above all, the magical power of forgiveness.

Extent: 119,000 words
Published: 12 August 2017

Adrian’s Wall: First chapter

A commotion outside made him get up and put his face to the window. The ginger cat was tormenting something at the edge of the lawn. Cries of alarm were coming from the parent blackbirds: the sodding thing had got hold of one of their chicks.
    As ever, the sound of the back door opening scared it away. It dashed into the shrubbery and escaped through one of its usual holes in the hedge.
    His slippers wet with dew, Adrian reached the fledgling and saw that it was beyond hope. The cat had not only opened its breast but hooked out one of the eyes. As gently as he could, he picked up the young bird and crossed to the rockery.
    The chick remained motionless, stunned, panting, its pulsing heat spreading into his palm. Despite the plumage it had acquired, it still bore much of the reptilian look of the sparsely fluffed nestling, wobble-headed and straining upward, instinctively gaping for food. Even so, it had begun to leave all that behind. It had begun to lead its own little life.
    He laid it down and, taking a grapefruit-sized rock, ended its suffering.
    Yesterday there had been two fledglings clucking and chuckling in the shrubbery or on the lawn, begging to be fed. Four had left the nest. The other two must have fallen prey before this morning, to a magpie or hawk, or a rat, or, more likely, a cat. The same one, probably. There was no sign of the remaining fledgling, nor, except for the calls, of the parents.
    When, having washed his hands, Adrian got back to his breakfast table, his porridge was cold and his tea barely warm. In any case he didn’t feel like finishing the meal.
    There were three cats he had come to recognise as living in the vicinity, but the ginger one, in particular, treated his garden as its own. He normally drove it away when it appeared. It had learned that it was unwelcome and could now be made to scoot if he merely rapped on the window.
    On occasion he had not expelled this cat but waited to see what it would do. For long periods it would sit on the lawn and watch the same spot in the shrubbery. He had investigated but found nothing special there, no reason for surveillance. Or the cat would venture to the place where he kept a broad, shallow, china bowl as a birdbath, and then it might drink. This had struck him as odd, because cats were supposed to be fastidious. He had seen it eating blades of untrimmed grass, and prowling along the edge of his lawn, and lifting its tail to piss on his flowers. He had found his border plants crushed where the cat had been lying, and he had often found its smelly droppings and been obliged to clear them up.
    He blamed the ginger cat for these crimes because that was the one he usually saw. The second of the three trespassers, a shapeless tabby, he had seen on his property only once or twice. The third was an exceptionally ugly, off-white Persian – at least, he thought it was a Persian. Its face looked as if it had been pushed in, giving it a most disagreeable expression. One lunchtime it had encountered the ginger cat. The two had circled one another suspiciously before the Persian had retreated under the garden bench, from which place of safety it had glared out until its rival had wandered away.
    The law was such that one could do little about cats in one’s garden. Adrian had tried to be an upright citizen and explore what the market offered in the way of legal repellents, with no effect. He had hurled harmless missiles, and missiles that would leave no mark, but had only once managed to connect, again with no effect. He had considered an air rifle, but its noise might pinpoint him as the culprit. And he had noted with interest such stories as appeared in the press about ‘cat killers’, who usually, disturbingly, sounded rather like him: middle-aged men living alone who took pride in their gardens and had little contact with their neighbours.

    ∗ ∗ ∗

Towards dusk he unlocked the personal door to the garage. Though he had not used the car today and the boiler was only heating the water, the garage felt warmer than the air outside, retaining as it was some heat from the June sun.
    Some months earlier, on collecting his car after its first service, he had found in the passenger footwell a small carrier bag marked with the dealership’s logo. The bag had contained a partly empty canister of antifreeze. He had put the canister on a shelf and almost forgotten about it.
    Apparently antifreeze had a sweet taste, irresistible to cats.
    From another shelf he took down a wooden, six-bottle wine box. It held things he used when servicing his bicycles. At the bottom, a cassette brush was lying in an oblong, old-fashioned, enamel pie-dish, originally white with navy-blue piping, these days much begrimed.
    He now removed this dish, gave it an extra wipe with a rag partly soaked in bike-cleaning fluid and, taking the antifreeze, stepped out of the door. Where best to leave the dish? His back garden was almost completely private, bordered on two sides by fields. There was next to no chance of the dish being observed by human eyes – beyond the remote possibility that someone might come to call, and even if they did, he knew nobody who wouldn’t ring at the front door rather than come round to the back. To be on the safe side, however, he placed the poison next to the shed where he kept his mower and wheelie bins.
    During what remained of the evening his mind kept returning to what he had done, or was about to do, which was to cause the prolonged and agonising death of the ginger cat. At his usual time he tidied up the kitchen and climbed the stairs.
    While cleaning his teeth he confronted what hitherto he had been avoiding: the mirror.
    Lying in bed, Adrian reviewed the inward debate that had been going on since putting the dish out, or even while formulating his plan.
    Of course, it was the careless – the literally careless – owner who was to blame. The cat was simply being a cat. He had never understood why anyone would want to keep such a creature.
    Cat owners surely read the newspapers too, were surely aware of the feline slaughter of the nation’s songbirds and small mammals, and were just as surely indifferent to this. They let their cats roam at will, day and night, knowing they had the protection of English law.
    The neighbourhood cats invaded his territory, the one tiny sanctuary that remained to him in this world of duplicity and greed. They did whatever they liked when he wasn’t on watch, and in the past week they had killed at least one of the young birds in which he had been taking such a fond interest. As soon as he had realised that the blackbirds were building in the larger of his two choisyas, he had refrained from all activity that might cause them concern. When mowing the lawn he had feigned ignorance of the nest-site; such observation as he had allowed himself had been conducted through a window.
    After further thought, Adrian switched on the lamp, got out of bed and put on his dressing gown.
    Better the annoyance of the ginger cat than a guilty conscience. And what if he were found out? What if the animal managed to return to its owner before it collapsed? It would be rushed to a vet, who might recognise the symptoms of ethylene glycol poisoning. The police might become involved. Those cat killers in the news were fined and disgraced and surely had to move house. In any case, he had read that most fledglings were doomed. Were that not so, the world would be overrun with blackbirds.
    As he unlocked his back door he acknowledged that he was, yet again, absorbing the consequences of other people’s selfishness. The cost of not doing so was confrontation. Confrontation required courage, and it might just be that he had used up whatever small reserves of that he had been born with.
    He kept an old funnel in the garage and used it to pour the antifreeze back in the canister, not knowing how else to dispose of it. Since the entire contents had now become polluted, he would take the canister to the council tip next time he was passing.
    He had erred. He had let himself down. Even in conceiving of poisoning the cat, he had behaved without honour or dignity.
    Feeling scarcely better, Adrian went back to his bed.



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28 May 2017

The Dada Engine

The auto-generation of text noted in this post is in fact pretty lame compared with this glorious achievement: a web-page that, every time you refresh it, writes a new academic essay. Not just any essay, either, but one guaranteed to get you good grades if you are enrolled in a humanities course in Britain or America, or indeed anywhere else that has been comprehensively hegemonised … See? Even I’m doing it!

A sample:
In a sense, Foucault suggests the use of the neotextual paradigm of discourse to read and modify society. Sartre uses the term ‘posttextual rationalism’ to denote not, in fact, deconceptualism, but predeconceptualism.

However, the neotextual paradigm of reality suggests that the goal of the poet is deconstruction, but only if Lyotard’s model of the neotextual paradigm of discourse is valid. Baudrillard uses the term ‘posttextual rationalism’ to denote a dialectic totality.

It would be almost as funny as the Sokal Affair, were it not that its database is so abominably accurate.

6 May 2017

Simplicity


I have been a cyclist since the age of four (and before that a tricyclist) and several of the machines I have ridden were equipped with internally geared hubs. Some others had derailleurs, while a number had no gears at all, but a simple freewheel.

Of the internally geared hubs, the Sturmey-Archer three-speed proved the most reliable. A Sturmey-Archer four-speed failed on me, likewise a Shimano 8-speed installed on a Kalkhoff Agattu electric bike, of which more anon.

The very principle of a derailleur is a bodge, since the mechanism forces the chain from sprocket to sprocket. Best efficiency in the drivetrain is achieved when the chain-wheel (the big cog connected to the pedals) is perfectly aligned with the rear sprocket. This is seldom achievable with a derailleur. Sideways distortion also increases the wear on chain and sprockets alike. What’s more, derailleurs can be fiddly and tedious to adjust.

Of course, gears are useful and in hilly districts may be necessary. Luckily I no longer live in a hilly district.

This time last year I owned three bicycles: a Giant CRS hybrid with a 24-speed derailleur gearset, the Kalkhoff, and a Norco Heart (pictured), which has a flip-flop rear hub – on one side is a freewheel and on the other a fixed sprocket, so that depending which way round the wheel is fitted you can be riding a fixed-wheel bike (‘fixie’) or a regular single-speed.

The Giant had an aluminium frame and hence an aluminium derailleur-hanger, the thing from which, as the name suggests, a rear derailleur hangs. Coming up one of the few gradients hereabouts, the gears began to make an unwonted clicking. ‘Oh great,’ I thought, ‘more maintenance when I get home.’

A few yards on, the hanger broke off. The springs in the derailleur caused the whole assembly to collide with the spokes of the rear wheel, which instantly buckled and fouled the aluminium rear-carrier and the mudguard stay, both of which buckled too and got dragged into the melange of metal. The right-hand chainstay had also been knackered, I observed, meaning the frame itself. In half a second my pricey hybrid had lost perhaps 90% of its value. Or even 100%, since I really had no need of whatever components could be salvaged from it.

As for the Kalkhoff, it seemed like a good idea at the time. I bought it on the strength of glowing reviews and to begin with was quite pleased with it, despite the inordinate weight. The motor made up for that, and conveyed me, with pedal assistance, at a stately 15 mph wherever I wished to go. Soon, however, a fault developed with the Shimano hub such that I lost the use of 7th gear. Then the other gears started slipping. Then something obnoxious started happening in the impenetrable depths of the motorised drive: whenever I wished abruptly to stop pedalling, the cranks kept moving forward and I had to learn to ease off rather than stop. Next, alarmingly, twelve miles from home, the drive failed to engage at all, with or without battery power. I backpedalled and changed gears, up and down, and the drive engaged again; but not long after that this fault became permanent and the Kalkhoff became another heap of scrap rather like the Giant.

Secretly I was not sorry. I have fond memories of a Raleigh roadster I bought second-hand in 1978 and fitted with a single-speed freewheel. On that simple, worry-free, steel-framed machine I covered over 14,000 miles. The Norco is its replacement.

I love this bike. It is light, as steel bicycles go, and with its 75-inch ratio is rideable up all but the steepest local gradients; I don’t mind sometimes having to stand to pedal. I use the freewheel because a fixie is hard on the knees, and besides I like to coast downhill. The machine is all black, so that when I hide it somewhere among vegetation and go off for a country walk it is there to greet me on my return. It cost an eighth of the price of the Kalkhoff and has no battery, so is recharged automatically by my breakfast. In the time I have been using this bike exclusively, I have grown fitter and find little difference now in effort between the Norco and the Kalkhoff. Best of all, there is almost nothing to go wrong, and I have the tools and knowledge to service absolutely everything on it myself.

The moral of this odd little tale, which you do not need me to belabour, is that what is simple is often good, and when we become ambitious we sometimes let ourselves in for far more trouble and expense than our ambition is worth.