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The Lair Of Gary James

Posts Tagged ‘inspiration’

For the Benefit of Future Historians

Posted by BigWords on April 29, 2019

The Prelude

Because dates matter so much, and often the specifics are lost to time, it is important to make note of when certain ideas, decisions, actions were originated. This isn’t going to be a horrifically in-depth look at what I am doing – mainly because I am not quite at the point where I can happily lead you to the Brand New Thing with confidence (there is still a painful amount of Javascript and PHP to fix), but I can enlighten anyone who is wondering where certain things have gone.

Students of psychology, interested in how a person gets from point A to point B will likely be parsing this post with interest, as it goes some way to explaining why I’ve done certain things in the order in which I have. There are also going to be some (fairly common among creative people) incidents which I am going to be naming and using herein, so be prepared.

Don’t Press the Big Red Button

Lets start with the night of the 23rd of April. Nothing about that Tuesday is really important in and of itself, and it is only the chain of circumstances which exist outside of the day that makes it of note, but because so much focus is placed on when things happen we have to accept this as The Last Day for On This Day posts over on the Database. The date of note should properly be Wednesday the 24th of April, given when I made the decision to halt all pending posts on the Database blog, but I dislike stating the event took place on Wednesday when all the consideration and planning took place the day before.

It’s only slightly sad to see it go, but being buried among all the other things in the Database wasn’t helping On This Day reach its potential. The problem lay in its placement: without an identity of its own, it was only ever going to be an aspect of a sprawling mass of data. Don’t get too upset, if you happen to like that feature – there’s a twist coming. There’s always a twist. In many ways life is somehow more twisty than novels, as you never now where some ‘wham moment’ is going to come, out of the blue, to change things. You’ve got to keep a look-out for the wham moment… It shouldn’t be too difficult to spot.

There Are Two Kinds of Features in the World

There’s an important distinction to be made between the type of things which can only ever be used as part of a greater work, and those which can happily exist in isolation. A great example of this is an EPG – when you want to know what shows are on right now an EPG is a very handy tool to have on your television, but it isn’t something which has much (or any) use if you don’t have a television. How many people, bereft of a television, are going out to purchase a television guide from their local newsagents? Not many, if any, I’ll wager. The EPG is a feature which can only properly be used as part of something greater, in this case (in abstract) network scheduling and (in fixed form) a television.

Within the concept of an EPG there lies a whole bunch of other concepts, unimportant to this train of thought, but I might come back to those. The important thing to take away is that you can’t strip out an EPG and use it, for anything remotely interesting, without the surrounding technology and events which make it useful. It also, crucially, is location-specific. While you may not consider this to be a drawback, if you are using your EPG to find the latest episode of your favorite series, it hampers the use of EPGs globally – nobody in Australia is going to give a moment’s thought to what is currently showing on Norwegian television, and it is unlikely that an American would care what is on French television.

The basic format of an EPG, therefore, can’t be scaled up. There’s no way to deliver a single EPG to the world, and make it useful to all due to the inherent limitations.

We need another example, so how about we take a gander at maps.

Maps used to be considered as giant, unruly things, which needed to be manhandled back into a more compact form when they were used. Folded over and over, they rapidly made users lose patience when attempting to locate that one street, but have, in the modern age, ballooned into big business. Do an internet search for a company, and you will likely find a map in the top right of your screen which displays the location of the company. There are sites such as Google Maps, which attempt to provide a comprehensive guide to locations, and satnavs which guide people as they go about their work and leisure. There are a multitude of apps which have maps of various descriptions and levels of usefulness.

I’m sure someone, somewhere, has come up with an app which shows what the layout of your location looked like in the eighteenth century, telling you what companies used to exist in the buildings you pass every day without a second thought. History drips from each and every map, and that alone makes them an intriguing and possibility-laden tool. There is a lot more which can be done with maps, but we aren’t talking specifically about maps today.

The thing you should be seeing here is that maps are scalable – they transcend their use in other media.

The difference between maps and EPGs is how they can be exploited on a large scale, and this way of seeing things is something you should be looking at in everything you do, and in everything you experience. Can something be sliced out of its location and expanded in isolation, or is it best left as is? There’s usually a clear Yes/No answer to this, and if you can’t immediately see the way in which something can be utilized outside of its current use, then the answer is likely “no.”

A lot of people these days have many different things on their sites and blogs, and while I appreciate the convenience of having these disparate projects gathered together in one place it does mean that people wanting only one of these interests highlighted have to wade through material which isn’t of as much interest to them. By splitting things out, the material of interest can be intensified in its concentration on a specific subject. This isn’t something which will work for everyone, and I accept that some interest are only ever going to be marginal, though in this instance I think I’m on the right track.

Crowdsourcing in Meatspace

When people talk about crowdsourcing, they often use it as a term which exclusively applies to the internet. This is fine, as far as things go, but there is a lot which can be done in day-to-day interactions which go some way to answering the question of this having a real-life equivalent – let me start by offering a small piece of advice:

When surrounded by extremely talented people, it is common sense to make use of the wealth of experience and knowledge that people have.

While I’ll always be hesitant to flat-out ask for help, I have been picking the brains of some of the programmers who I have access to at the moment. It has been rather difficult putting into words some of the effects which I always wanted to achieve, and struggling through some difficult (and highly experimental) notions on my own hasn’t produced the results I’ve been after, which is why talking things through – however imperfectly, and however far from implementation – has been a great way to figure out the edges of the possible. These discussions have revealed hitherto-unsuspected means by which to completely alter the appearance of common utilities for rather dramatic effect.

I still can’t reshape tags and categories into something useful – and I doubt either will improve any time soon – but there is real headway happening.

Before I get any further into the main thrust of crowdsourcing in everyday life, addressing the limitations of tags and categories is important.

Grab a book – any will do, so long as it has chapters, sections, segments, or its contents are otherwise separated somehow. A film guide, cookery book, or any index is perfect for this. I want you to loo through the contents for a moment, and see how things are laid out in a very specific manner. Most film guides (or guides to musical artists, television series, novels, or other media) is usually handled alphabetically, with – in certain instances – a small section at the back of the work ranking these by ratings, or years released, or some other metric.

Now take a look at any blog doing much the same function as one of these guides. Take your time and work out what is different about the two media.

Anyone with a sense of order and logic will note immediately that the online versions of these guides aren’t (usually) presented alphabetically. In order to have an alphabetical list you need some side-scripting in play. However, when using tags or categories to search through a site’s contents the material is presented in a ramshackle manner, with no sense of planning at work. Tags and categories are even worse when the important aspect of a post isn’t the entire post, but merely a small portion of that post. Then the tags and categories are next to useless, returning a great amount of useless (and counter-productive) material.

We can consider categories to be a top-order sorting method, sorting posts into a handful of groups which have a specific area of interest. If you look at blogs which focus on pop-culture, you will likely see a Music category which returns reviews of albums, singles, and possibly live gigs, as well as noting where interviews have been published. You might get posts dissecting promo imagery, noting which posters are for sale, talking about merchandise, and other results. If you are only looking for reviews this can be annoying. Worse, when a review is buried in a post which covers other things a reader might not look all the way through the post, preferring to go elsewhere to read a standalone review.

Tags a second-order sorting method, able to look at specific things – a particular band within the music category, say. Narrowing down the number of results to those which comply only with the specific area of interest required. There is, however, a problem with this method as well – if someone is covering things as they come across information the results will tend to jump around the timeline of the band: making note of the release of their second album, then covering their formation, then looking at a reunion tour, then a review of their first album, before covering the childhood of the lead singer, then noting their break-up. There is (currently) no way to sort tags by the date the material covered occurred, only by the date the piece was published.

What we need, then, is a more refined third-order sorting method, and one which doesn’t rely on the whole post being considered important.

Sections have long seemed the method by which this can be accomplished, though I am skeptical of their backwards-implementation – who has the time (honestly) to go through everything they have written and objectively look at each paragraph, then place code detailing to which larger work it belongs, and where in that work it should be placed?

Lets say, for argument’s sake, that someone has written extensively on television. Their content might be broken down in Categories by the nationality of each series broadcast (ignoring the thorny problem of joint productions), with each series earning its own tag. Maybe, in this scenario, there are some posts which cover rarely seen television shows, or which cover those which are no longer extant (in whole or in part), though by looking at the categories and tags it is difficult to see in which order the events took place.

What would be required is a way to:

a) return only the information pertinent to the subject of lost series or missing episodes.
b) arrange the order into a timeline of when each show was initially broadcast.
c) split out only the information about the show (ignoring commentary and personal updates)
and d) join the information seamlessly so that it appears to be a longer work split for internet publication.

Almost everyone ought, in this day and age, should be familiar with the big names in CMS . Instead of looking at these as cheats (which I often do), I’ve been attempting to ponder the ways in which they operate, and how they could be radically improved for the benefit of readers. Considering the range of subjects which can be covered in a single post – especially from anyone with eclectic tastes – this might be something best handled by an overlaid application, able to be accessed by a blog’s creator while viewing the resultant pages without going into the control panel to make alterations.

By selecting a section of text, one ought to be able to give the highlighted material a meta-tag related it specifically – perhaps “Everything I’ve Written About John Coltrane” – before highlighting other paragraphs and tagging them as being specifically about Tim Buckley, or Iggy Pop, or Linda Ronstadt, or Robert Johnson, or whoever else. Then, because selecting individual paragraphs on a given page to return isn’t going to magically sort them into order, there needs to be a secondary action where the (rough) chronology of the event can be indicated. It would make sense to have the ability to override this, however, to place it within the collected material in a specific place.

Once enough material has been properly curated (at least a few thousand words) in the prescribed manner there should be a place on the dashboard to further fine-tune what is a single work. each paragraph able to be grabbed and moved up or down in placement in the collected document – though not edited, as this would also change the original post. Having placed the “collected highlights” in order, the same software which allows for the tagging and ordering of the text really needs to do something with the results. My initial thought was that there should be a generated page presented to the reader, giving them only what they came looking for and nothing more, but something else occurred to me…

What if the completed document could automatically be pushed to, say, Smashwords?

Crowdsourcing in Meatspace (second attempt)

I seem to have got sidetracked. I’ll attempt to remain on-topic, but don’t hold your breath.

As I was saying, there’s a lot to be said for asking really smart people their opinions on attempting something before you go ahead and do whatever stupid thing you intend to do. It isn’t a way of proceeding that I have ever really thought about, preferring to leap first then check out where I’m likely going to land. It has worked in my favor as much as it has been a hindrance, and the mixed results really should tell you that getting someone to check over your plans is probably a good idea.

Some things have proved utterly impossible even using the full range of tricks, but – in almost every conversation – there have been nuggets of information I’ve been storing away. Small details which, when placed together, are enough to provide me with a rough guide with which to proceed. There are things which, although they might prove difficult to implement, are very tempting… Almost enough to justify doing something crazy with the bones of the Database. I didn’t want to tread over old ground without a notion of how to make it work perfectly, but the On This Day feature – so cramped and neglected within the guide – was the perfect thing to expand and nurture into something greater than itself.

An aborted attempt at dumping a bunch of stuff online brushed up against the possibilities of the feature, though my considerations there hardly covered enough to justify immediately proceeding, and when work interrupted the process I put the thought to one side. Now, with things more or less settled for the moment, it is time to reassess the concept of expanding and refining the concept. This led to the first of two things which would prompt my decision to remove the feature from its current home – the scripting required.

Having adequately covered how my brain processes what should be achievable with current technology, I’ll move onto the suggestion of doing something with a proper platform…

There are days where you find the perfect thing you need for the work you have to do almost just sitting there, ready to be plucked up and used. Then there are days where no matter what you do, or where you look, the perfect tool for the job remains ever out of reach. There’s a few things which, despite rarely being used, are essential to have in your toolkit for the moments where they come in handy.

Here’s another piece of advice for you – never turn down an opportunity to play a game. If someone suggests you might want to turn up to play a board game with a handful of interesting people don’t immediately write it off as something which isn’t for you… Grab these moments, as they often work on the parts of your brain which need a little oiling once in a while. I spent a very enjoyable evening, and, for a small while enjoyed a game of Trivial Pursuit.

On Monday the 22nd this game led into a conversation regarding the way in which certain television series have seemingly been completely ignored by the internet, and how the lack of information perpetuates the lack of awareness – it is a problem that can only be solved by presenting information about these series into public awareness, but tracking down such information is hardly profitable when so little is known about the series. A classic Catch 22 situation. If someone was to systematically present these forgotten series in some way, the audience might (generously) be a small, devoted one. That isn’t what most would want for their work, although generating enough interest to garner a large audience of the curious is quite possible.

Not only is it possible, treating the information surrounding these series with a splash of magic – tantalizing snippets of history focusing on the ingredients which are sure to bring in the curious – might lead to such a resurgence of interest that the near-invisible series from not-too-long-ago might, eventually, be released to the public either on a physical format – a dedicated DVD or Blu-ray, or as a special feature on a computer game – or even on a digital platform somewhere. The starting point for any of these shows to gain traction these days is repeated exposure to their existence, and that requires a special kind of presentation.

By the morning of the 23rd I had a list of around fifty shows which, for various reasons, have never been repeated nor released on DVD. That it is possible for me to do this without a great deal of effort – merely searching for the shows through Google and clicking through two or three links – should tell you something about either the woeful treatment certain series receive, or will merely confirm the depth of my obsessive-compulsive tendencies. When I covered the Compact Annual, noting that I had no idea what the show was about, I never suspected that things would lead me to deliberately uncovering more information on shows which had disappeared from public view, though in retrospect my frustration at the lack of adequate information being readily available must have lingered in the recess of my brain.

It was working out the breadth of productions absent from any retailers’ lists which, combined with the interest of people who had heard of some of the shows, that the second thing to push home the notion of repositioning On This Day happened.

With people who knew code to hand, and with suggestions for shows that ought to be better remembered, things began to snowball. On the 23rd I decided to register a domain on which to place day-specific comic-book information, and – the next day – I picked up three more domains on which to detail the history of television series, films, and music. Every time I think I’ve covered enough to justify a launch I’m confronted with another coding challenge, and when I think that the code is (more or less) stable and cohesive enough to launch I pick up more information which needs to be added. I’ve been very conscious of certain failings which exist in similar things, deliberately avoiding the common pitfalls.

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The Primordial Stew Of Imagination, Part 2

Posted by BigWords on November 30, 2009

When To Add, And When To Take Away

In the previous post I ran through the precedents of the story, but sticking all of those ideas together higgledy-piggledy would be a mess. Simply adding ideas without knowing who, what, where, how, why and when is madness of the highest order. The bag of tricks is filling, but to pull out objects in the right order we need to go back to basics and ask whom the characters are. This is where I normally throw away the rulebook and look to television for a bit of help. There are lots of threads at AW which have various people urging against the use of televisual techniques in writing, but one in particular is acceptable. If you go back to the beginnings of my story you should see where I drew from Star Trek.

Yes, the cold, analytical mind on one side of the focus character, the hearty life and soul on t’other. It isn’t, you will discover, a particularly original idea. There are examples you could pull from very popular books of the last few years that contain the same set-up, though I’m sure J.K. Rowling wouldn’t admit to borrowing the make-up of the central trio from an old SF show. I also allowed myself the luxury of hand-waving the living situation of the characters at that point in the story, mostly to let the narrative move quickly on to other things rather than worrying about how they could get their hands on regular money.

There is very little in the above taken from the previous post. This is important. When the story requires any of those elements to be brought in they are already bubbling away under the surface, there to be brought onto the stage when they will have the best possible effect then quickly ushered from the limelight to concentrate on character and plot. It may seem counter-intuitive to plan deeply and yet present a thin slice, but reversing the levels would turn the novel in to a comedy, or unbalance the flow so severely as to make it unreadable. I think I have gotten away with most of the descriptions in the first draft, but they will be refined and pruned, edited and clarified as needed.

None of what has come before actually answer where the ideas come from, but I’m getting there…

I skipped any explanation of where my hovs came from in the last post. This is where I show how I stitch together the different ideas that others have come up with, throw in some new thinking, make major (and fundamental) changes to the transport system of the future. There isn’t enough space in a single post to list every instance of flying cars ever seen in fiction, but you should know the basics anyways.

  • The use of petrol in the future strikes me as dumb, mainly because the stresses would make it uneconomical to use. A fuel cell of some sort seems more believable. This would eliminate a lot of engine noise (handy if it was ever filmed :D), and provide a logical reason for bigger explosions than you would see than with an ordinary car crash. Hollywood Rule 1 is The bigger the explosion, the better.
  • A HUD rather than a conventional dashboard would be a logical step forward, with adaptive and customizable software to make each vehicle perfectly suited to its’ owner. There are already steps towards this kind of use, but we are still a way from having a completely digital representation rather than dials. I never completely bought into the fact that dials and switches in spacecraft for this reason.
  • Your now thinking “how do you stop fender benders?” right? Well, sensors on the sides, top, bottom, and on each of the corners would keep a minimum safe distance between the vehicle and all those around it. The screen could then flash red if an accident was imminent.

None of that is radical. This is:

  • Every action, every movement even, would be recorded and fed into a main computer system so that safety could be assured by insurers. The police would have full access to this system.
  • Roads incline up to the next vertical level anti-clockwise around buildings, descending clockwise. This wasn’t a big deal in my story, but I had it worked out before I started.
  • Hacked cars can be made invisible to the constant recording.
  • The cars need to be at least four feet above a solid surface to operate safely, save for military-grade vehicles. A plot point about the DCU vehicles travelling freely in a vertical manner never came across clearly, but it was what I had intended.

The rest of my uses of the technology rested on the fact that it wouldn’t be cliché.

I have to admit that I was reminded of an old First Comics’ series called Zero Tolerance when I got into any sequence where the flying cars came to prominence, though that is obscure – even for me. Umm… Maybe if I just pretend I was thinking of Fray, nobody will shake their head and sigh at my geekishness slipping to the fore.

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The Primordial Stew Of Imagination, Part 1

Posted by BigWords on November 29, 2009

The old “where do ideas come from” question keeps resurfacing, and – even though I already covered this – there are writers asking this question now. I really don’t know how to explain the process that goes with the formation of story, character, concept and (shudder) Big Ideas, but I’ll give it a fair whack… The least I can do is dissect the piecework of thematically linked elements I used for my NaNo, since November is technically still with us. It won’t be pretty and it won’t be entry-level, but if you’ve come this far then you might as well see the “behind the scenes” extras.

The Scalpel Cuts Thin And True

There are, I am reliably informed, no new ideas. That’s fine. That’s groovy. I’ll play along with the notion that no matter how far I push things I’m never gonna create an entirely new genre, or open up hitherto unknown elements of the craft, or be able to transform the written word in ways which would make Shakespeare spin in his grave. None of that really matters. If originality is over-emphasised by a lot of writers, it is merely due to an abundance of fear. We’re all in the same boat – you, me, Stevie King too – when it comes to new ideas, mostly because the printed word has existed for so long. There are a lot of books, and writers, between the creation of the Gutenberg bible and this moment in time.

Which is why we have to take the scalpel to the world around us, and cut off slices of cool and interesting stuff. There’s big differences between the writing methodologies which have been given prominence over the last decade or so, but the generation of material is still the responsibility of each and every writer. You want my own examples?

  • Robots on the rampage featured in the lacklustre I, Robot adaptation. If you can ignore a woefully miscast Will Smith, and the not-so-subtle allusions to Apple being the OS of the future, you will find a couple of salvageable ideas in that mess of a film.
  • A robot rebellion (where the artificials gained some semblance of sentience) also makes a mark in the superior Michael Crichton novel Westworld. The films are recommended, though the television series is somewhat less impressive.
  • An agency dealing with cybercrime and robotic crime is the focus of the Ghost In The Shell manga and anime. It contains the best depiction of a future society where robots and people co-exist. The multitude of robot forms is more realistic than I, Robot‘s conceit that one company runs the entire industry.
  • My plans for Charlie were directly influenced by The Godfather, Part II (though it is kinda difficult to get close to that kind of character study, never mind surpass it).
  • The idea of the Turing collar came directly from an article in New Scientist which pondered the possibilities we might face once robots gain the level of intelligence we have.
  • The small pink rabbit/cat joke characters I used was (in part) a joke at Tenchi Muyo‘s expense. I never did like the annoying pet.
  • Robot dinosaurs are common in many SF works. I did, however, base my views primarily on old comic-books of the sixties and seventies, wherein they were treated with more seriousness than in some novels.
  • The notion of a robot framing a human for a series of murders really caught my attention. I’m not sure if I lifted the idea, or if it was a reaction to I, Robot. Maybe a little from column A, a little from column B.
  • The comm’s used throughout my story are direct lifts from Doom 3, which was the first game to make me like the PDA as a game device. It had, of course, been an SF staple for decades, but if I wanted one it would be the make and model seen in Doom 3 I would get.
  • Plastiglass is a more complicated notion than glass reinforced plastic, but the idea is in use today. The technology I describe at one point where the glass can be made to turn opaque is also not a strictly SF idea.
  • The concept of a city being built vertically goes back to Metropolis, and has seen a resurgence in popularity thanks to Judge Dredd and its’ spin-offs.
  • Flying cars… Well… Um… Moving swiftly on-

I would also add stories from The Outer Limits, the legendary RUR, and bits and pieces of non-fiction as having some bearing on the way I fixed my ideas up. See… There really are no new ideas – it is all in the handling. That accounts for the nuts and bolts, but the actual writing will bring out other elements of any idea that can be conjured. There are a few things which haven’t been covered here, but they aren’t pushed to the forefront.

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My NaNoWriMo Novel Is A SF… And A Horror… And A Thriller… And…

Posted by BigWords on October 21, 2009

It isn’t surprising that I couldn’t work out what I wanted to write for NaNo, given that the blank canvas laid out before me could take any number of turns. The work, as has been pointed out, doesn’t have to be a novel of outstanding brilliance and originality, it is merely required to hit the fifty thousand word mark before the end of November. Most of the ideas I generated in the last week have been short stories, maybe novellas at best. Not a problem.

The thought that I might be able to tie these disparate elements together in a patchwork of overlapping events was one which only came to me this morning as I sat down with a cup of coffee and a smoke. Maybe it was a moment of divine inspiration, it might have been desperation… Hell, it could possibly have been an injection of caffeine to the system which finally nailed the concept in my brain. I’m gonna be writing a novel made up of novels…

Which is a dumb way to think of the idea, but I can’t think of a better way to put it. There seems to be quite a lot of history building in my subconscious already, and I have the feeling that I may be writing closer to 400k rather than 50k when I’m done with this. I’ll try to get the main story out of the way during the month, and – if I have time – begin filling in all of the strands which aren’t essential to the overall universe.

Exact information would be hard to give without me beginning anything, but I’m sure the SF elements will be heavy to the front, with horror and comedy bubbling beneath the surface. The thriller aspect should be handled with the nature of the plot, but I’m not sure how many other genres I can draw from. This might work after all…


The first person to say “cyberpunk” gets poked with a sharp stick.

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