Sunday, September 21, 2014

Gatekeeper in beta

It's been very quiet here for a year or so, but that's because my writerly time has been spent drafting, honing, editing and polishing the "first" (really, now it's done, the fifth) draft of my second novel. Not saying this blog will suddenly burst back into life, but I may have a little more time for it now that...

I've sent Gatekeeper out to my small cadre of beta-readers!

One of the things I wish I'd done, looking back on the early days of War of Nutrition, was solicit feedback from a wider cross-section of readers. I've been really fortunate this time round that seven friends and family have volunteered their time to read (slightly more than) 100,000 words and give me some constructive criticism, for no other payback beyond a credit in the acknowledgements section and a beer or two.

So this is kind of a nervous time while I wait for that feedback. I'll be distracting myself assembling a list of agents and publishers to which I'll start submissions next week. After my experiences last time round I'm not expecting that to lead anywhere, but I have to try. Phrases like "you've got to be in it to win it" and "you only need one 'yes' " have been floating round my mind a lot, and despite another friend's recent disappointing experience with "traditional" publishing, on the other side of the coin there's the inspiring (to wannabe writers) story of The Martian currently setting t'Interweb aflame so I figure if it can happen for Andy Weir then why not for me?

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Dead Pool comes to life

It's been exactly a year since I wrote my sad tale about the frogs we were "losing" in our pond, which I'd started referring to as the Dead Pool.

Since then the rate of loss has decreased, but the reason for the deaths has become graphically clear. It's a bit of a give-away when you look out of your study window to see the heron stood atop the lych-gate with a pair of frog's legs sticking out of its beak.

It was too late for that one, but I did rush out flapping my arms and yelling when I saw the damn bird hoik another out of the pond. This second frog was luckier, as the heron dropped it and flew off in a fright. The dazed frog managed to hop away into the bushes so I like to think it survived. At least for the time being.

The really good news is that the pond is presently full of tadpoles. Not as full as it was - when they first hatched it looked as though there were thousands; the water was black with them. Well, OK, it always looks black, what with having a black pond liner at the bottom, but you know what I mean. But fuller than it might have been had Nikki not come running in to fetch me after one of the local cats had pulled a massive blob of spawn out of the water and was proceeding to munch through it.  I tipped it back in. I don't think we lost much.

Having thousands (OK, hundreds) of tadpoles wriggling about in the pond has been a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand we love having them, and waiting for all the little froglets to come hopping out. On the other hand we don't really like having the pond totally submerged under a carpet of pondweed, but we haven't been able to do anything about it because each handful of pondweed removed comes complete with half-a-dozen little wrigglers, all caught up in the tendrils. So we've left it, mostly. Not sure if the lack of light is slowing their development though. Online resources suggest they should start growing legs 6-9 weeks after hatching. This lot hatched at the beginning of May and are only now starting to show signs of legginess. We continue to wait for the first hopper.

At which point I probably won't be able to cut the grass for a couple of weeks O_O.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Croaking Frogs

One of the features of our new garden that surprised me when we first saw the design on paper was the pond.

I don't remember explicitly asking our designer to include one, yet once I saw it on the plan I quite liked the idea. We had a pond here when we moved in, but it was a sad little effort. Hidden under the large acer planted in the border between us and our semi-detached neighbour, it had clearly suffered some damage to its liner as it never filled up beyond half-way and the half that did fill was always choked with weed. Notable mainly for its brief occupation by a drunken party guest on the evening of our housewarming, the pond nevertheless proved to be home to a small population of frogs. When we dug it out and filled in the hole in April 2009 the frogs disappeared, only to reappear again one by one whenever we moved a large rock, wooden sleeper, or pile of twigs anywhere in the garden.

So I had great hopes that once garden construction was complete and the pond had become established it would attract back some of our original colony. As we moved into Spring and the water lost its winter chill this did indeed prove to be the case. We caught the occasional glimpse of a pair of eyes gazing at us from just above the still surface, and while watering the garden early one morning during the recent hot spell I disturbed four adult frogs with the hose as they slept in the damp patches under the leafier shrubs and bushes. It appeared we had succeeded not only in attracting back the originals but adding to the numbers. Until things took a turn for the worse.

We began to find bodies. One or two only at first - a dried-up husk on the path and a pale, mottled corpse lying on its back in the shallows near the pond edge - but having disposed of these they were soon replaced by others. The area is occasionally visited by a heron, so initially we wondered if this had been attacking the frogs. Or maybe one of the many local cats was to blame? But in all cases the frogs appear not to have been injured and in the majority of cases they die in the pond itself, their ghostly pale bodies often floating upright with their back legs resting on the bottom so they appear to be standing up under the water. One awful weekend morning I fetched four bodies out of the water.

These aren't pets, of course, but I must admit to feeling sad at their demise, along with a nagging feeling of guilt in case we're somehow responsible for the deaths. It's nice to have somewhere for the frogs to live, but I didn't expect or want it to become a death trap. I've started mentally referring to it as the Dead Pool.

The sides of the pond are fairly steep, and the exposed liner is slippery when wet. Added to this the recent hot spell meant water levels became quite low, so it occurred to me that the frogs may not be able to get out once they'd jumped in. Is it possible for frogs to drown? Amphibians breathe, at least in part, through their skin, so I guessed that if they were trapped in water that had a low oxygen concentration (which our pond almost certainly has, with no submerged oxygenating plants or other means of replenishing the levels) it could be possible they were effectively asphyxiating. As you will have noticed from the photo, I've added a rudimentary "frog ladder" to the pond to help them get out. They're still dying.

Brief research online suggests the problem may be a slow-release fertiliser in the baskets of the pond plants that is toxic to frogs. I don't remember seeing any dead frogs before the plants were installed, so this is a possible cause, but there again the plants arrived fairly early in the year, so I don't remember seeing any live ones before then either.

My research also pointed up that, since amphibians absorb much more than oxygen through their delicate skins, they are a kind of "environmental indicator" species that will be affected by any chemical pollution. So maybe it's that. Discussions with neighbours who also have a pond have revealed they too are suffering from frogs that croak in the less traditional sense. I don't take much comfort from the knowledge that we're not the only ones this is happening to.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Great Outdoors

After the transformation of our back garden at the end of last year from tattered wilderness to outdoor designer living space, we've watched with eager anticipation as the lengthening days have worked their magic on the dormant twigs and anonymous clumps of leaves that were planted last November. By yesterday, when we gave our new barbecue and patio furniture their first trial run, it was looking like this:
Neither of us is, by any stretch of the imagination, a plant expert, but even so there are some instantly recognisable and welcome plants in the borders. Two varieties of poppy (I love poppies) - one a deep orange with single flowers; the other redder with frilly edges to the blooms. By request we have several rhododendrons, yet to come into their full glory, a couple of clematis beginning their long climb up a pair of obelisks (out of picture to the left in the shot above) and two roses - a pink bush beside the bird feeder and this one:
which will eventually trail over the lych gate at the bottom of the garden. These were joined last week by a new specimen whose buds are currently holding on tightly to the secret of their colour. It's planted on the right of the arbour seat (behind the camera in the first shot above but visible in the pond shot below) and will eventually frame the whole structure with colour.

Since the main garden work was completed too late to plant up the pond, it remained barren until last week when another truck load of plants arrived for the front garden. At long last the frogs who have taken up residence in the intervening months will have somewhere to hide from the marauding heron who occasionally visits to check whether the pond has developed any fish.
At present these new plants are still on the sparse side, but it won't be long before they've filled out a bit. We've started with three or four dwarf rushes and two small lilies and we'll see how we get on with those before adding more. I always think a pond should have some water visible as well as the plants.

As for the rest of the garden, well much of it is still a mystery since apart from a few requests, we gave the designer and the landscaper free rein. We're hoping to recognise more favourites as the year wears on and other things come into bloom.

On the other side of the house, the front garden has been a work in progress for much of this year, since we had an early hiccup with the design. But now it's almost complete, bar the pyramid capstones on the new front gate pillars. Planting was only completed on Friday so everything is still looking very new, young, and unestablished, but this photo gives a hint of what it will be like.
It's North facing, so we were limited with plant selection. Our designer recommended a "green and cream" theme, both because cream and white flowers will lift the gloom of the almost sunless garden, and also because they're the ones that do best in positions with low sun. We did insist on a ceanothus though, having seen a fabulous specimen on a recent trip to Oxford, and we've positioned it where it catches what bit of sun the front garden gets, but where we can still see it from the house.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The plot thickens

...but it's not gravy yet.

Last time I mentioned The Second Book, I'd arrived at the synopsis expansion stage, or the bit where I have to get really detailed about the whole story arc. Writing time has been very off and on since then, but I finished Stage 6 earlier this week and then discovered that my character definitions were already (almost) as detailed as they needed to be to put a tick beside Stage 7 as well. All I really needed to do was a little more thinking/finessing about the characters' major story goals and how they would change by the end of the novel (those that do), which only took a couple of hours or so.

The description of the Snowflake method mentions that by encouraging you to work a certain way, it can help to force out ideas for sub-plots, character traits and so on that really enrich the story. I've certainly found that working out very well so far, and was quite excited when I spotted a bit where I could shoe-horn in some of the writing I did last year for my 100 Themes Writing Challenge.

So here I am (already!) at the point where I need to create a detailed scene list. War of Nutrition had 96 scenes in total and I'm working with that as a notional (albeit flexible) target. It splits nicely into three sections and allows each scene to be relatively short but still end up with 80-100,000 words. I'd like to be closer to the top end of that word count this time round, although it's not so much of a driver for eBooks as for print. War of Nutrition started off at 100,000 in the first few drafts, but in the end I couldn't deny it needed radical surgery to give the first half the pace it needed, so it ended up closer to 80,000 in the published version.

To be honest this time round there's one part of the plot that I'm still a little woolly about. If you read that 4-page synopsis you would immediately spot the part that turns from very definite "she does that, he does this" into vague statements of intent. A sequence of events with no real explanation of how they start or finish. In that respect, maybe it's a bit of a cop-out to say I've "done" step 6, but I'm going to let myself off that hook and press on with scene definition anyway. I know there'll be no escape for this stage. When I hit that point, about three-quarters through the story, when I don't *really* know what's happening (well, I know the what but not so much the how) I will have to work it out. You can't know how the scene is set up, how it plays out and how it ends without the how. See? Because there are lots of 'hows' in that sentence. So you have to know. And I don't. Not yet. But by the time I come out of the end of steps 8 & 9, I will.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Money! (It's a gas)

After almost exactly two years, I'm finally getting to the bottom of the eBay pile. Maybe I'm overstating it slightly in the title. There has been money, of that there is no question, but for the most part it's not been a gas. Much of it has been mindless tedium; there's been some rumpling disappointments (that's like a crushing disappointment but with lighter weights) mostly in the areas of postage - either miscalculating the cost of it or fragile things getting broken in transit - but also more general stuff like items not selling for what I thought they were worth, and some buyers being worse than moronic; some dogged determination (it took 22 attempts - almost a year - to sell that damned walker for instance); but there have been some highlights too, some of them even approaching exciting.

I could bore on for hours (or pages, since I'm writing) but to avoid putting you to sleep I'll choose two examples from each side of the eBay boxing match*. In the red (for excitement) corner, the highlights include:

The Biscuit Tin

When my Mum died in 2011 we spent well over half a year emptying her house ready for sale. We threw away loads of stuff, naturally, but I'd already had six months' examples of what would sell on eBay (ANYTHING), so things that I might previously have binned I decided were worth "having a go" with on eBay. Into this category fell the old biscuit tins that had lain gathering dust in the outhouse since my Dad died in 1993. He kept nails and screws in them, and I don't think my Mum ever went near a nail or a screw in her life. She certainly wasn't going to start after he'd gone. I thought there was a chance they might be collectable, so I took a photo of all of them - there were 5 - and put them up as a job lot for £7.50.

The next day I woke up to a message from someone requesting additional pics of one of the tins - a Huntley & Palmers one with a motif of common birds. In the original photo you could only see the lid. My initial reaction (that it was a bloody nuisance) gave way to a feeling that I ought to play along, so I posted pics of the other four sides. My interested party turned out to be a French collector of British biscuit tins:
"In France it is very hard to find good tins. British tins are so beautiful and elaborate."

After exchanging a couple of messages, the lady made me an offer:
"We are interested only in the HP tin (we like tins with birds) and wondered if you might be prepared to accept an offer of 85£ for it plus postage."

I had to read it twice. Eighty-five quid?? For one tin??? Was she serious? Did she mean Euros? No, she was serious and she was bidding in Sterling. Crikey. Later (once the tin arrived safely in France) she was kind enough to send me a photo of it nestling in her collection. It had been spruced up, polished and burnished, and sat proudly on one of the glass shelves that line her apartment (almost certainly a bijou apartment, being French and all). I got £25 for the other four tins in the end too.

The Buffalo Nickel

Word was, this is a very collectable coin. Not being a numismatist I had no idea, but a quick Google suggested it could be worth anything from $50 to $150 (most if not all the sales being in the US). I stuck it on for £14.95 - have you ever tried to take a photograph of a small coin so that a buyer can get an appreciation of the condition? - and watched excitedly as a bidding war started that saw it sell eventually for over £100. I sold an Indian Head penny the same week. Between them these two coins fetched £150. As always with these things, I end up wishing I'd had a few more!

Contrasting with the above examples, in the blue (for disappointment) corner, we have:

The Very First Thing I Sold. 

An early lesson in the black art of setting your starting price. The 14" portable TV with built in VCR that provided the majority of my entertainment in the apocalyptic days post-separation and, later, was all Nikki & I had room for in our first flat. Listed (before I'd learned to wait for Zero Listing Fee weekends) for 99p and sold to the only person who showed any interest for... 99p. So that's 89p after eBay took their cut.

The Ceramic Plaque 

I'd bought this as a Christmas present for my parents during their heraldic phase (a brief period following our holiday discovery that the Beresford family have a crest, and a coat of arms) and it hung on the living room wall for over 40 years. I never really did know whether they liked it or whether it was tolerated because it was a present. One of those things you hardly even notice is there after a while.

It sold for £46.50, which I was pleased with. I was less pleased that having survived 40 years with the Beresfords, less than 4 days in the company of Royal Mail was enough to break it into two pieces, requiring a full refund and a total failure of their "compensation" scheme (yes, I did make a claim and yes, it was denied). I think the guy who bought it was even more disappointed than I - it was the third one he'd had arrive broken.

So there you have it. I'm glad I've done it, but I'm glad it's almost over. The crates are all gone (well, they've reached the bottom of the stairs. They're on their way to being gone) and I took a load of cardboard boxes and other packaging material to the tip this weekend, so the study is returning to a semblance of order. By the time I've sold these last half dozen items we'll have made almost five grand in those two years (although "made" is another overstatement - you can hardly count it as profit when you sell, for instance, three grand's worth of bedroom furniture for 500 quid), which has bought us some nice new furniture for the revamped living room and allowed me to be unusually generous when sponsoring mad friends who walk, run, bike, or grow moustaches for charity.

*See what I did there? Boxing match. Things get posted in boxes. Eh? Eh? Sometimes I even make myself laugh.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Taking the tablets

Almost exactly a month since I posted about my new tablet.

I'll be taking it back today.

No, I haven't dropped it! Nor am I bored or disappointed with it. Far from it, especially since I discovered Miniclip 8-ball pool for Android which I've been playing every evening since downloading it a couple of weeks ago. Every evening, that is, except yesterday evening, when the Nexus flashed a low battery sign and turned itself off.

Funny, I thought. I'm sure I left it on charge last night. I plugged it back in and spent an hour watching Pointless and the news (national and local). You can get through all that in an hour when you're fast-forwarding through the boring bits. It's amazing how many boring bits there are when you're not listening to the TV in the background while playing pool.

After an hour, the Nexus flashed its low battery sign and turned itself off. I suspected it was failing to charge, so I left it plugged in overnight. This morning, it flashed...  well... you get the picture. The device is only just 5 weeks old and it won't charge. Not a good sign.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The fish move in (with video!)

As I'm sure you remember, our ocellated barbs were in the vanguard of fishy occupancy in the new tank having moved in last month. Apologies in advance for the photo quality. They only sit still for about one shot in twenty. On a good day.

It took about three weeks for the biological filter to establish, so the weekend before last I mastered my trepidations (a process not too dissimilar from mustering up my equipage) and reached once again for the net to capture the cherry barbs.

We thought there were ten of these. You might imagine in a tank as small as a BiUbe it would be easy to count fish, but the cherries move around very quickly. They're also past masters at finding hiding spots. They rarely all shoal together and even then they're gone again before you can start on the fingers of your second hand.

So as not to distress them TOO much, I transferred them in two groups of five with a short rest between, having previously removed all the vegetation and the central volcano from the BiUbe's bubble tube so I had a better chance of snaffling the little buggers. All in all it went pretty well. "No fish were harmed in the making of this transition." They were soon exploring their new home, getting very excited at the vastly increased space and the downward bubbles from the filter inlet. A new experience, since in their world bubbles had previously only travelled up.

I'd already decided to leave the BiUbe running for a week or two. Recently the cherries have been breeding actively. I was concerned that eggs on the verge of hatching would be left behind and it seemed a shame to lose them. This proved to be a lucky decision, because our count was off by one. On the Sunday morning, while eating breakfast, I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. A lone cherry had spent the night in the rather apocalyptic-looking tank, now totally without decoration, and also without any company for the poor chap. Or chapette, actually, since it was a female.

Reaching once more for my trusty net I soon had the straggler in hand (well, jug) and poured her in to join the rest of her family. And then, for once, I *didn't* ignore my little voice. Check that old tank again, it said. So I did. I stared for several minutes into the supposedly empty tank. My patience was rewarded with a swim-past by the smallest cherry barb fry I've ever seen. Barely half the size of the first one we saw in the tank almost three years ago this little guy/gal, immediately christened Tiny Kev, was no longer than 3-4mm. Dilemma! I was not at all sure I could retrieve such a small fish undamaged with the net, but it would be weeks before he/she (let's say she) grew large enough to net. Weeks alone in a tank that resembled an aquatic prison cell. Only one thing for it: I had to drain the tank to the point where I could dip Tiny Kev out with a small plastic beaker. And that meant removing all the ceramic substrate so there was no danger of squashing her.

It took more than an hour to remove the noodles (no really, that's what they're called) one at a time with a set of kitchen tongs. Going very slowly to avoid squishing TK in the event she couldn't swim away fast enough, or panicked and swam the wrong way. Once most of the noodles were out I started sucking out the water gradually, with a turkey baster (I'm very well equipped, aquatically speaking. Can't say the same for the kitchen. Any more), into my all-purpose fish-transfer device (3 litre plastic measuring jug) and carrying it through to the kitchen where I let the muck settle to give me chance to check for Tiny Kev before pouring it down the sink and returning for another few litres.

On the third such trip, TK emerged from the muck like Voyager traversing the intergalactic dust cloud. She had inadvertently been sucked into the turkey baster and survived not only that, but also being squirted out again into the jug. Not apparently any the worse for the experience I'd soon poured her into the main tank where we lost sight of her for a worrying couple of days. But it's OK! We spotted her again eventually, eagerly chasing a small flake of food and managing to avoid being eaten herself.

So here they all are, twelve cherries and five ocellated barbs, happily enjoying their new home. It takes a minute or so to get going, but if I stand very still they think I've gone and come out of hiding...

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Barring the code

I bought some printer ink yesterday. I know - rock and roll, eh? I had an urgent letter to print. Naturally the printer, which had been showing "zero ink" (a friendly black cross in an empty cylinder) for weeks, chose that particular day to start printing things as if intended for the spirit world (i.e. ghostly).

Nowhere nearby sells Lexmark cartridges, so I planned to drop by the PC World in Stockport on my way to pick Nikki up from work. During the journey I remembered that the evil Excel parking shysters had taken over at the Peel Centre (which used to be free for parking of less than an hour), and I'd come out without any coinage. Maybe I should risk dropping in at Staples, even though for the last couple of years they've never stocked the particular black ink cartridge I need?

Staples didn't have the particular black ink cartridge I need.

Off to Peel then. Risk another few months of illegal threats from Excel that they'll take me to court for the heinous crime of depriving them of their £1 for five minutes' parking, or pop along the road and pretend to be a customer of Dunelm Mill? The latter was the better option on this particular occasion, requiring a couple of minutes' extra walking in each direction. With the previous detour to Staples I was already running late and on arrival I discovered that this particular branch of PC World has had a complete refurb since my last visit and is now more of a Curry's - majoring in domestic appliances rather than computer frippery and having moved the ink to a completely different part of the shop. By the time I found it I was definitely late. I grabbed a couple of cartridge packets and headed for the till, but was beaten to it by a gentleman who would easily qualify for an ESOL course, with his undecipherable query about why he couldn't pay with the credit card he repeatedly waved under the nose of the till guy.

Was it my hopping from foot to foot, or my thunderous countenance that gave the till guy the clue I was in a hurry? Who can tell, but full marks to him for calling over an interpreter another operative to deal with ESOL so that he could attend to me. Only for some reason he found it impossible to scan my items.

Yes, well done Lexmark! A masterpiece of packaging design. Your plastic blister is smooth on five of its six surfaces, but inexplicably ridged on the side beneath which the ink cartridge packet has its bar code. The ridges diffuse, refract and reflect the scanner's laser light, rendering it completely incapable of actually reading the code. Till guy had to type it in. More delay.

He didn't spot that I had two of the same item either. So rather than entering "2x" of "this", we had to go through the rigmarole again: scan; fail; retry; fail; examine packet; retry with scanner at a different angle; fail; type the code in again.

I wasn't late, but it was close.

The letter didn't need printing in the end.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Reaching the plot spot

It's about six weeks since I wrote that I'd completed Snowflake Stage 3, and now I've moved on past stages 4 & 5. That's taken a little longer than the method itself estimates, but it's still phenomenal progress in my world. To reach this point in developing a novel took me well over a year the first time round.

Now, it gets harder. Stage 6 requires the expansion of the 1-page synopsis from Stage 4 into a 4-page synopsis that contains all the story elements. As the method puts it: "Figure out the high-level logic of the story & make strategic decisions". So here is where I have to knuckle down and work out exactly what I want to say through these ten characters that populate the worlds I have in my head.

As you might imagine, I'm pretty much down with the main events. The start. The end. What the major "disasters" are, even if their details are a bit vague right now. Each of these ten people has a story too, that needs to be woven in among the main plot, stitched together in the rich tapestry of the story, hopefully in non-obvious and utterly compelling ways (*vbg*). But the main difference between this and War of Nutrition  is in its depth. I want to put more into this story than just the story.

Yes, WoN had a message - messing with yer food: A Bad Thing - but it was an overt, slap-you-round-the-head-with-a-wet-fish kind of message. I'd like my second novel (working title "Touchwood") to have a bit more about it. A little bit allegorical. More thought-provoking. A dollop of "what is he really trying to say here?" And that, I strongly suspect, is going to prove a whole heap harder than last time.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The crux of the matter

Here we are at a nexus...

Literally. A Nexus 7. Following the rapid and unexpected demise* of my iPad on Tuesday last, I was faced with a dilemma. Stand and fight (aka get it mended) or run (to Android, or away from Apple).

A friend of mine has previously been heard to say "I haven't picked up my iPad since I got the Nexus." Well… I've now had mine for almost a week. Long enough to get over both my initial flush of enthusiasm and the almost immediate early disappointment at the reality of its limitations.

There's no doubt that once you're used to the differences, the Nexus is a lovely device. With my limited experience with this month's book club book, I'd have to say the reading experience is better. The Kindle app is identical on Android, but the Nexus is more book-sized, easier to hold, and altogether more comfortable. And it has auto-brightness, so you don't need to keep adjusting it to read in bed vs daylight. It's also (hardly surprising) beautifully integrated with Google. Google Now and Google Play, to name only two, are really cool.

Much of the other stuff that I did regularly on the iPad is pretty similar. With dedicated apps for sites like eBay and Facebook - their image is *almost* identical. The few games I play (Sudoku, Spider Solitaire) are available on both platforms (same app in each case) and perform pretty much the same if they're not hampered by the smaller screen size. For sudoku, particularly, the smaller screen isn't really an issue and I'm even beginning to get used to the small cards on Spider, although it IS easier to play on the iPad. And I'm loving the Android 8-ball pool game that lets you play in real time against a real human opponent selected from those who happen to be online at the same time. That was quite a find.

The major drawback I've found is with browsing. Much of the time, Chrome on the Nexus delivers you to the "mobile" version of a website owing to the smaller form factor. I've always utterly hated this image and find it next to unusable in the majority of cases (especially Facebook, eBay, Amazon, searching, etc). The iPad gives a more "regular" browsing image, much more acceptable for me. I discovered today (thanks Annie!) that there's a setting to force Chrome to serve up the desktop image of a website rather than the mobile version, so I'll be trying this out later.

The only other slight niggle is with the Metro. I got into the habit of reading the daily Metro via the iPad app rather than the printed version, and it is a REALLY good app. It exists for Android, but has a number of limitations including being stuck in portrait format, and displaying one article per page. So LOTS of scrolling on the Nexus. iPad better. I hope the developers will sort out the portrait/landscape issue soon. I'm sure it would be more readable/usable the other way round. But for now, not so good.

So in summary, I'm currently leaning towards keeping both devices. Horses for courses. If I'm reading, or out and about, the Nexus is the stronger candidate. If I'm browsing, at home, or playing games with fiddly pieces, the iPad wins out. I don't think I want to adopt my mate John's "Nexus for everything" approach, especially if I can wangle a cheap fix for the iPad (thanks AGAIN Annie! :o))

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Cucking Fookies

Been on the Internet for years, me. I can't claim to have been "one of the first" to hit the wires, but I wasn't far behind. About twenty years ago I think it was when I first read a newsgroup. Roughly 18 months later when I became a permanent rider of the electric surf.

So I know about cookies. I know what they are, and what they aren't, and what they can and can't do. And I appreciate the fact that they get on with what it is they do quietly, in the background, with a minimum of fuss. Hardly any fuss, in fact, beyond having to clear them out occasionally when things get in a bit of a tangle. Or should I say I appreciated that fact. Because recently, it stopped being true.

Recently, legislators got involved and decided that our human rights were being infringed or something by these quiet, unassuming little blobs of text. Our personal data was being kept!! OH NOES!! Without our knowledge!! Well, without our knowledge if we were the kind of surfer who didn't bother to learn how things work. So, 98% of surfers then.

So now every time I visit a new site I get some sort of annoying little pop-up.
Our site uses cookies! Please do not continue unless you agree to our use of cookies! By continuing you are confirming that you understand you will probably not die as a direct or indirect result of our use of COOKIES! x

Jeez. What I really need now is a browser with a "silently accept all cookie prompts" option!

But it's worse than that. The commercial use of cookies is becoming even more annoying than the warnings. I sell stuff on eBay, so I regularly search for that stuff to see if it's saleable, and for how much. And then, every bloody site I visit for the next month is plastered with adverts for whatever I'm trying to sell. Even something as innocuous as the Hunger Site (which even after 12 years I still click on every day) - and, you know, fair enough, they want to raise as much money as they can for their good causes - but crikey I went there the other day and TWO of its panels AND the top banner were all offering me the same aerial signal booster that I've got listed on eBay right now. Gimme a break!

(I've sold it, by the way)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


I never learn. It's always when I'm most distracted that I ignore my little voice, and it never turns out well. In the past I've cut myself, broken an ankle, smashed crockery, shattered glassware, tripped and fallen, and each time I've had a prior warning via the little voice, ignored it, and come to grief. Over the years I've grown better at heeding it, but then there's some days, like today...

I was heading out to the dentist, intending to drop in at the charity shop afterwards and then grab a coffee and finish off this month's book club book while waiting for a later appointment at the doctor's (nothing major, don't worry). The book is on my Kindle app, so I was taking the iPad with me. Little Voice suggests it's probably not a good idea to balance it on top of a box of charity shop fodder, as it could slip off. In a hurry and not wanting to turn loading the car into a marathon, I ignored it. The iPad slipped off and took a nosedive onto the front path. A backward glance suggested it was OK so I dropped the box on the back seat and returned to pick it up. Then I noticed the shards of glass on the path.

Yeah. Apparently even Gorilla Glass™ isn't strong enough to survive a header onto a stone path from five feet up. Especially when it lands on one corner.

Never mind, I thought. Instead of nursing a coffee and reading in between appointments, I'll head off to the Apple Store and see if they can fix it. Can they fix it? Yes they can. That'll be £199 please sir.

Hmm. Well. Coincidentally that's only £1 less than our home contents insurance excess >sigh< so I'll be forking out one way or another, dammit. Apparently there are cheaper places to have your glass replaced than Apple, so I might suss one of those out, but right now I'm feeling very tempted by the Nexus 7. A whole new tablet that *isn't Apple*, and comes in at or below the cost of a new screen. All my apps are available on Android too. Seriously tempted.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The February of technology

Which is a whole lot different to the march of technology.

Because our February (and our January come to that) has seen the wheels start to come off of our tech-filled home. Or at least, that's how it looked at one stage, with the freezer developing a problem where it wouldn't, um, freeze, and the pile of expensive TV equipment refusing to display any of the HD channels.

You know how it is when things go wrong. You reach for Google to find out what they're saying on the forums. Or at least, we do. On the subject of our freezer a small number of people had been very vocal about what a pile of shit it was. Well to be honest that's not been our experience. We've had it over 6 years and apart from a problem with the auto-defrost element shortly after it went out of warranty ( O_O ) which was soon fixed, we haven't had a moment's bother with it. That's the thing about review forums. If you've had a bad experience you're more likely to gripe about it than you are to go and give a glowing review if you've owned something that's given years of trouble-free service. A bit more digging uncovered a slightly larger number of folk who HAD gone into print about how happy they were with our freezer, so we decided in the end it was worth repairing.

Which was a good decision because the fault was a simple evaporator fan, replaced in less than 15 minutes and all's well again. No more spongy "frozen" bread or slightly soggy fish food. And better to pay £80 for a year's service cover than £700 for a new model!

The TV thing was slightly more frustrating and hard to track down. Since installing it (at the beginning of December) we've had an intermittent problem where the screen would go blank, flash "No Signal" and then recover in 1-2 seconds. Only ever happened when watching HD programmes or, if recording them, the recording would freeze for 1-2 seconds while the PVR tried to cope with the loss of signal. I replaced the coax aerial leads. I replaced the HDMI cables. I bought an aerial signal booster. Nothing made any difference. Then a couple of weeks ago I retuned the PVR and it lost the HD channels altogether. And then it lost ALL the channels.

Aha! I thought. That intermittent fault was on the PVR's tuners, and now it's gone hard. Plugging the TV directly into the aerial, bypassing the PVR, allowed us to view HD again thus proving (I thought) my theory.

We took the PVR up to Warrington (the closest service centre) where they plugged it in, tuned it up, and it worked perfectly.

Their tech guy listened to our tale of woe, and opined that we had an aerial fault. I've always been a bit suspicious about folk who work on roofs. Roofers and aerial installers. You never can be quite sure what they're up to up there, can you? And you can't check it out very easily. AND we've had bad experiences in the past, with both. *AND* I was well ready to blame that new aerial. We'd paid for the top quality HD high bandwidth jobby and probably had a coat hanger up there. Tech guy recommended a local firm of aerial riggers (local to us, not him) that handle all their installations and they paid us a visit last Friday.

This is already a long story, so I'll cut to the chase - our problem lay not with the aerial, which was delivering a signal "five by five" (or strength 10 as it's actually called on the TV and the PVR) - but with how we were conveying that signal to the equipment. All those brand new cables I'd bought were... well... shite.

New aerial guys whipped us up some new cables in double-quick time and within minutes all our signal strength bars were fully green and everything was tickety-boo.

Anyone want to buy a signal booster?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

In a life I more nice

I'm a lucky man. There can't be many men as sought after by hordes of Russian beauties as I. They write to me all the time.

Some of them, of course, take themselves out of the game with their first line. I could never be attracted to anyone stupid enough to ask, in their opening sentence, "What is your name?" when they've sent their email to my primary address, embodying as it does both my first and last names.

In her latest email, Olga assured me: "In a life I more nice." I could only wonder which life she was talking about. Still, I was reassured that she will be more nice when she eventually reaches it.

Recently, Svetlana was also moved to write to me, declaring: "I am 25 years, growth 178." Is this some arcane tumour denomination they use in your country, Svetlana? If so you can hardly expect me to hop the next plane with your life span already so badly compromised.

She went on earnestly: "I hope, our dreams will come true also we probably we shall embody them in the validity."

I'm sure I could aspire to hope for the same thing dear, if only I understood what it meant.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


Took the plunge last Friday and transferred our five ocellated barbs to the new tank. I wanted them to have 48 hours in there, producing their ammonia, so that when I borrowed some of the BiUbe's bacterial culture it would have something to eat.

Look away now if you're squeamish, cos things are about to get messy. When I did the BiUbe's filter change on Sunday I scooped out a few handfuls of the ceramic substrate and scattered it among the new ceramic "noodles" that the AquaStyle uses, figuring there'd be some cross-pollination in the filtration pods. I also added the water from the water change (yes, there'd be some nitrate in it, but not enough to be harmful, and there'd be a small amount of bacteria floating around in it too, I thought) and then - the messy part - squeezed out the filter sponge into the new tank. Finally I had a couple of spare sachets of StressZyme bacteria culture left over from previous filter changes, so I squirted this into the new tank for good measure.

Well it's been another 48 hours since I did that, so today was time for some testing. Sure enough there was a small amount of ammonia detected in the AquaStyle (normally bad, but at this stage good) AND a small amount of nitrite too. This proves the bacteria are working. I'll leave it another couple of days and test again, and include a nitrate test this time to see how far it's built up. I'm not expecting to have to do a water change in the new tank for at least another week, but I'll keep monitoring to make sure the ammonia & nitrite levels don't get too high.

The barbs seem quite happy, although they're definitely the shyest fish we have, and spend most of their time behind the plants if they can detect any movement in the room. Once we've all sat down they will eventually venture out, only to disappear again at the next sign of movement. Once the cherries have moved in, we'll be after some new species. Preferably something not so easily spooked!

Saturday, February 09, 2013

New Review

I've been soliciting.

Not like that! No... a few months ago I happened across a post by a well-known blogger of "all aspects of writing, publishing and book promotion" suggesting how one might go about persuading one or more of the Amazon top x00 reviewers to review one's work.

Sounded good to me. Sounded worth a go. So I did. I trawled through the top 500 reviewers (this list changes regularly - we're talking those who were the top 500 last October) and found a couple of dozen who (a) accepted requests and (b) had biogs or existing reviews which suggested they might be interested in my book. I fired off the emails.

Surprisingly quickly, I had some replies. Positive ones. And in the fullness of time (it does, after all, take SOME time to read 90,000 words) a review appeared.

There was one request I sent out back in October that didn't result in a reply. But that was entirely expected, since those are his rules. It's Big Al, over at the Kindle Indie Author's review site "Big Al's Books & Pals".

The deal there is, you pick the reviewer who you think is most likely to be interested, fire off a request, and wait. They either pick up the request or they don't, but if they do a review will eventually turn up on that site. And for good measure they will also syndicate the review to the Amazon product page AND Goodreads. Cool!

And sure enough, just last week, Al's review of War of Nutrition was posted, giving it 4 stars. I particularly liked the bit where he says "[War of Nutrition] surpasses the typical thriller in characterization. Not only the protagonist, but many of the minor characters are fleshed out well beyond the norm, which gives rise to many sub-threads or stories". I was well chuffed with that.

You can read the full review here.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Fun with ammonia

You may have heard the comedic feminist epigram: "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle."

Well... fish may not need a bicycle, but they do need a cycle. The period, in the life of a new aquarium, during which the biological filter is established, growing enough nitrifying bacteria to convert the waste products from the fish (ammonia) into still-toxic nitrite, and then much safer nitrate. While this is happening, the tank is said to be cycling, a process that is complete when ammonia and nitrite levels fall to zero (or as close as makes no difference) because you have enough bacteria to eat it all, and nitrate levels gradually rise until the next partial water change.

You can cycle a tank with a small number of fish, which is how we started off the biological filter in the BiUbe, but this is stressful for those fish as they're subjected to higher levels of ammonia and nitrite than is best for them, so this time round I was hoping to do a "fishless cycle."

A fairly easy concept to grasp but more complicated in its execution, the fishless cycle basically involves introducing chemical ammonia into a tank for the bacteria to feed on (and starting the colony off with some bacteria from an existing tank if possible) and waiting until you've grown a colony large enough to handle the waste from your fish, at which point the fish can be introduced. In practice this is a bit of a juggling act because (a) you don't know how much ammonia your colony of fish is generating and (b) you have to guess that amount and then add it daily to keep the bacteria fed until the fish arrive. It's also important to do regular testing to monitor the colony's progress. Too much ammonia can kill off the bacteria and put you back to square one.

The first challenge was finding a source of pure ammonia. Or ammonium hydroxide I should more properly say. Most of the bleach available from supermarkets is contaminated with perfumes and surfactants to make it more acceptable as a cleaning agent. Any of that is not good for the inside of an aquarium. After a short search we eventually found a local shop (of the kind we usually refer to as "plastic man" because they sell a huge array of plastic tubs, buckets and bowls) with a stock of Kleen Off - pure ammonium hydroxide. Result!

It's never as easy as that though is it? The bottle had no indication of concentration, so to arrive at the required ammonia levels (4 or 5 ppm) in our 130-litre tank I had to do some experimenting. I'd found a handy guide to fishless cycling that talked about adding "a few drops at a time", testing, and repeating until the numbers came up, so armed with a jug containing 2 litres of treated water, my bottle of ammonia and my testing kit, I made a start. First with 3 drops, then 7, then another 10, 20, 50. Pretty soon I was up to 200 drops in my 2 litres and the test phial had barely shifted from the weakest colour (0.05 ppm) to the next blob (0.1ppm). Pretty soon the water was looking pretty syrupy with ammonia and I was approaching the point where I'd be adding the equivalent of half a bottle to the tank every day. That can't be right! (I thought). Slowly the reality dawned on me - the ammonia was bleaching the dye in the test kit.

I think we'll be cycling this new tank with some fish from the BiUbe!

Friday, February 01, 2013


Hot on the heels of yesterday's post, where I claimed "KaraTankee" might mean empty tank, we have FuruTankee. Because Google translate is my friend, and tells me that the Japanese for full is "furu".

The only thing it's not full of, is fish. We have plants, we have rocks (the black pebbles that have recently seen service in the BiUbe, the spare piece of ocean rock that I bought to address the acidity problem, but didn't have room for, and a nifty little moulded pile of rubble from those nice people at Fluval), we have a heater, and we have an assembled filter with its input strainer in place.

It all hums along very nicely. Armed with her 'A' Level physics - far more recent than mine - Nat calculates it will take about 15 hours to heat the water up to 24°C. That'll be tomorrow then.

That's when the process of "cycling" the tank will start in earnest, with the addition of a tasty mix of ammonia, old filter squeezings and a bit of rock from the old tank. Yum!

Thursday, January 31, 2013


Well, you know, KaraTe is "empty hand". KaraOke is "empty orchestra". So KaraTankee is "empty tank."
Yep, the new aquarium! Collected from the supplier Tuesday evening, cabinet assembled yesterday and the tank washed out and put in position, and you might just be able to make out a layer of "black glass" gravel at the bottom (so strictly speaking I guess it doesn't qualify as KaraTankee any more).

We bought a bunch of new (artificial) plants too, so they'll be going in tomorrow along with 130 litres of Manchester's finest tap water. We're lucky we still have some actualleh, after yesterday's burst water main. So far I've not done much else apart from wash all the bits of the filter. And my hands, obviously. Very important that, as the set up instructions make clear. Item 2: "Wash your hands and arms. It is very important to remove dirt, moisturiser and other impurities."

Not much chance of there being any moisturiser on my arms. I think the last time I used that was when we went to Greece in 2005 (God, that's seven years ago. SEVEN YEARS!).

The subject of washed hands comes up again later in the instruction booklet, under Fortnightly Tank Maintenance:
"What you will need: A bucket, gravel cleaner, towel, water conditioner, filter supplement and clean hands. All items are available from your local Aqua One retailer."

That's good to know.
"Hello, is that Urmston Aquatics? I'd like a pair of clean hands please. Mine are just too mucky."

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The snow is falling

Writing is often referred to as a solitary activity. Even though you may choose to undertake it in company, by  its very nature unless you're writing collaboratively you're obliged to spend a lot of time inside your own head. That's not conducive to social intercourse.

If anything, as a self-published author, it's even worse. No agent to engage with, no editor, no publisher, no cover designer, no... well... you get the idea. And while you're engaged in all that editing, proof reading, polishing, formatting (for Kindle, etc), and spending time wondering what meta-writing to put out there on Facebook and Twitter to promote your work, and what NOT to put out there so as to avoid totally pissing off your mates by blathering on about it the whole time, there's not an awful lot of time left for yer actual writing.

And then one day you find, as Pink Floyd famously did, ten years have got behind you. Only it's not quite ten years since I finished War of Nutrition. It's "only" four. Or one-and-a-half if you count the rewrite (which you should, because that's the one that eventually got published).

So, ever conscious of the passage of time, I've been trying to decide what to write next. And then, having chosen what I thought was the strongest contender from the list of two or three dozen ideas ("log lines") I've assembled over the years, I've been trying to get my head around exactly how I can turn it into a novel-length story.

After several months (intermittent!) work, I'd fleshed out quite a rich world - two worlds actually, since the story moves from one to the other - in which the action could take place, together with a fairly strong (I thought) cast of characters. Trouble was, at this stage, I didn't know what they were all going to do. I mean, I had the germ of a story idea, but beyond that I started to get a bit bogged down in exactly what all these people in this marvellous new world were going to do that was interesting enough to make you all keep reading.

Breaking out of the inside of my head for a while to talk this over with Blythe during one of our journeys back from Yorkshire, she introduced me to Snowflake. I'll just take a sip of tea while you get over your surprise that I'd never heard of it. Sorry, but no, I hadn't. But it sounded like just the ticket to get me over my hump. When I was writing WoN I worked to a template that was ideally suited to a thriller, but this new work is a science fiction/fantasy fusion, and that old template didn't fit. The Snowflake method is open-ended enough to suit pretty much any genre, so I thought I might give it a go.

Today I finished Step 3. OK, much of the work for the first three steps I'd already done while prepping the world and the characters, but that aside working within the framework has already even at this early stage thrown up some great new ideas and directions, and vastly strengthened my view of the characters, who they are, what they can do, and what they will be able to do by the end of the story. It's fair to say that so far, Snowflake is working out pretty well.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Our new aquarium... prototype

During the long project dubbed the "new new lounge" last year, we debated what to do with our fish. We've now had them three years, and I think I can claim that the spectres of my past fishy disasters have been exorcised. We recently discovered another THREE fry in the tank, happily swimming around what has become the "nursery" area (in and around the ocean rock I introduced to solve the acidity problem) which brings to a total of ten the number of cherry barbs we've bred in those three years. Must be doing something right.

But the impending move into the new room gave us the opportunity to introduce a new aquarium. The BiUbe has served us very well and is a doddle to maintain, but it has limitations. At only 35 litres it was pretty much at capacity with the cherries and the ocellated barbs we added about eighteen months ago. Probably over stocked now, if anything, after all the breeding. So the fish we have don't have a lot of room, there's not much scope for adding more plants or rocks or anything to make the tank more interesting for them, and there's no room for extra species. Hence the debate. Were we happy with what we've got, or did we want something new and if so, what?

Armed with my newly built confidence after three years of successful fishy husbandry I was keen to expand. Nikki was too, but had a concern that anything new wasn't TOO big, and wouldn't dominate the new room which she wanted to keep fairly sparsely furnished (despite the - albeit temporary - fact that it is currently home to one more sofa than we actually want. We're hoping eBay or Gumtree will shortly come to our rescue on that score).

After much debate and more than a few visits to local aquarium suppliers and not-so-local websites, we settled on a model. But Nikki retained a slight niggle that it was too big. Too tall. Too dominating. So with the cabinet and tank dimensions off the web and a ready supply of eBay storage and packaging materials, I built the above mock-up. OK, OK, it's not perfect. The top half isn't the right width and the whole thing is too deep, BUT... it's the right height and the right width at the base, so it gave us an idea. Enough of an idea for Nikki to give the green light. I'll be ordering it today :0)

(For a photo of the real thing, here's one on a supplier's website in the Black Ash cabinet we'll be going for to match the TV stand. Ironically the manufacturer's site doesn't have such a good pic)

Incidentally the small green fish visible in the picture above isn't part of our new stock. It's one of the toys Hobo brought with him from his Mum's house, and remains one of his favourites even though it's lost a fin and is looking very tatty these days.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Why we called him Hobo

What with one thing and another it's been well over a year since I posted a cat update. The last time a photo of our lad appeared on here, we didn't even have him yet.

When he arrived we decided to call him Harley, but even as we were making that decision my little voice was insisting it would be better to wait awhile and let his name suggest itself to us without our help. And, as always with messages from the little voice, it was bang on. It turned out he wasn't a Harley at all.

Not half an hour after he arrived, he'd chewed through the telephone cable. Luckily it was the power supply rather than the signal cable, so easily mended (and subsequently wound around the base of a table lamp to keep it out of temptation's way). We had to keep him away from any similar damage - under desks where PC cables abound, and behind the TV being the main sources of "fun" - for at least six months before he was old enough to get bored with cables and seek out other entertainment.

But right from the off, he showed a definite preference for sitting in bins (when he wasn't pulling their contents out), and for sleeping in cardboard boxes, plastic carrier bags, or rolled up newspapers. So we had to call him Hobo.

Here he is in a favourite sleeping place - the cardboard box under my desk where we dump old envelopes, junk mail and other papers on their way to the recycling. Whenever it's less than half full he likes to curl up in there where it's safe, warm and fairly quiet. He's never far away from people and follows us from room to room even though he's not all that keen on being cuddled or stroked. Maybe he'll grow into that, but he's very sociable even so.

In the year we've had him he's learned to stop jumping on the fish, walking on my keyboard (he had a knack of hitting EXACTLY the right key combination to shut down my PC), or parading across the table while we're eating, but he'll still chance a quick strop on the bedhead if he thinks we're asleep, and since we moved into the new lounge he's been very keen to try and find a way up onto the mantelpiece. And he's grown too big to sleep comfortably on my lap :0(

He's still generally as cute as a cute thing though, so just this morning we've been talking about the possibility of getting him a companion. Watch this space.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The eRoute to eSuccess

When I first started writing War of Nutrition (so long ago it even had a different title), self-publishing was frowned upon by "real" authors. It was a route for amateurs and, more importantly, it was the route that once taken could never lead you back to "proper" publishing. Real publishers and agents, it was said, would never touch anyone tarnished with the shame of self-publishing.

What a difference twelve years makes. So what happened? Lots of things:

Computers and the Internet.

Of course the Internet existed in 2000, but there were far fewer of us on it, and outside of the US most of us accessed it over dial-up. Slow and clunky, yes, but even back then it was starting to connect us in exciting and previously unimaginable ways. One of those burgeoning ways was a new route for authors to reach their readers, but much more than that the Internet provided a faster, easier and more accessible research tool. I can't begin to think of how I'd have learned enough protein science, or geography, or helicopter piloting (all of which are essential to the plot of WoN) before the Internet, but it would certainly have involved hours and hours in public libraries and in my case would probably have prevented the book ever being written.

The Recession

While traditional publishers were at first bemoaning, then begrudgingly accepting and then (almost but not quite) embracing the self-publishing revolution, the world plunged into recession. There was no longer as much money to risk on unheard of new authors (there never had been much), and scarce agent and publisher resources were focused on known quantities and guaranteed profit-makers. If you're an Ian Rankin or a Stephen King, no problem. Otherwise getting published became an even less likely proposition (and the odds never were that good).


(Other e-readers are available) Obviously ePublishing could never have taken off in the absence of a platform to ePublish to. In the vanguard, Kindle offered not only a device but also a (fairly) simple route for authors to go it alone. Its success has been well documented, followed up in short order by other variants by the same and other suppliers, and eBooks recently overtook hardcopy sales in at least one marketplace. Although there still are, and will continue to be for many years, some dyed-in-the-wool lovers of paper, it's inevitable that these will decline as the generations turn and in a decade or two will be looked upon with the same gentle forbearance currently reserved for lovers of vinyl, 8-track, Betamax or more recently HD-DVD.

Naturally, it's not all good news. Easy access to self-publishing has removed many of the gatekeepers, and there are easily as many deluded authors as there are deluded auditionees on The X Factor. All their friends and family have told them what a good writer they are, they've had this cracking idea for a story which they've knocked up in a few weeks. No, they don't know how to spell- or grammar-check and have no idea what a copy editor is, but why does that matter when they're only a few clicks away from seeing their name on Amazon's bestseller list? With several thousand new works being published every day for e-reader platforms, consumers of fiction have to plough through mountains of dubious quality output to find something worth reading. So ironically, now that it's easier to publish, it's harder to find something that was worth publishing, let alone is worth reading. Not surprising readers tend to stick with what (and who) they know. Unless you're prepared to spend hours online on Facebook and Twatter or in Amazon forums and the like, the chances of you drumming up a readership beyond your list of Facebook friends are slim to none. And even interesting THEM in your creation is hard work half the time.

Not that having those gatekeepers in place was necessarily all that much better. What? You've never read a bad book? Never reached the final page and thought "God. That was *crap* - how did it ever get published"? Lucky you. During my 100-Theme Writing Challenge last year, I had the opportunity to explore reasons why in this post. It's depressing. But like so much in life if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. In the end it's probably better to write your book because you want to write it, not because you're expecting to get rich off the back of it. Very few people get that lucky.

(Originally started writing this in Feb 2012 shortly after War of Nutrition was published for Kindle. Hard to believe almost a year has passed.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Finishing off at the back

Last time anyone on here saw a photo of our imminent new deck, it looked like the last photo in this post, which was the position after three days' work. Unbelievably, the next ten working days saw the whole job finished, including laying circular patios (two of them) and linking path, fitting a pond, casting a base for a greenhouse, (re)building the entire garden wall at the back, erecting about 50 metres of new fence, lining the old fence to match the new wood, installing a water feature, cabling everything up including various lights, laying a lawn, building two new gates, an arbour seat and two sets of pyramid-shaped trellis, and planting.

At the end of which, the new deck looks like this:
In the almost two months since it was built, I think it's been dry for something like five hours. I'm hopeful that we have chance to enjoy it once or twice this year, but at present it's covered in frost.

You should just be able to make out in that picture the clever planters that the garden designer included on the left and right borders. On the "attached" side, the planter is also backed up with a 5-foot screen so that we get some privacy on the deck. On the other side, the planter forms the edge of the deck, next to the path.

I'll save more photos for now, while the planting gets established and the year gets a little older.

Monday, January 14, 2013

There's only so many times you can say...

..."Nearly There."

But we really are. The "new new lounge" has been occupied since just before Christmas, and there's been quite a lot of progress since we were floored at the end of November.

That new radiator we were waiting for was fitted (and didn't leak), and also in this picture you can see our two new Stressless™ recliners that were delivered on Saturday. They came without hard floor protection so in the end we had to bring the carpet offcut down again for that end of the room, which will be there until the specialised sticky felt pads arrive in March.

The two other observations made obvious by this photo are that we're still waiting for the new curtains (probably worth a post in their own right as it's quite a long story) and replacement sofa (on order, due in about two weeks). Meanwhile the old brown leather sofa from the other room is performing seating duty. Well, I say old, but we've only had it a tad over four years. Nevertheless it'll be on Gumtree pretty soon. Maybe even later today.

This angle gives you a good view of the rug (yes, there's a purple theme developing :0) - it relieves the grey) and my top Christmas pressie from the lovely Nikki which has yet to be used but will undoubtedly also be the subject of future blogging. This photo also reveals that we're still undecided on a new ceiling light - we'd like it to make a statement but haven't found one that speaks loudly enough yet - and we need some kind of console table or sideboard or something for the right hand side of the fireplace.

At the other end of the room things are almost complete...
with the addition of a shiny new Panasonic TV mounted on a gorgeous BDI Avion Noir cabinet in black oak, complete with Arena cantilever bracket. This excellent piece of kit is the absolute dog's danglers in TV cabinets. The build quality is the best I've ever seen and the whole thing sits on heavy duty rubber wheels that allow it to be rolled out easily for access to the cabling, which has proved necessary on more than one occasion since first installation. Our original HDMI cables weren't long enough and our digital aerial signal needed a boost. And then I had to recable the BOSE system so it would work properly with the new kit. Probably also worth noting that both the BDI cabinet and the Stressless recliners have been bought from the proceeds of just over 18 months' eBaying activities and so were, essentially, "free."

The only thing still missing from this end of the room is a new aquarium, which we're still debating, so not quite there yet but... um... nearly.

Friday, January 11, 2013

I used to be apathetic...

...but these days I just can't be bothered.

We had a lovely weekend - the one just gone - spending time with some good friends who were in town to attend Corriefest at the Lass O'Gowrie. Friday night, a double-handed episode from the 1970s re-enacted in the pub by a bunch of really talented actors (some of whom look uncannily similar to the original characters they portray, but ALL of whom had their mannerisms off to a tee), followed by a full day programme of events on Saturday featuring actors, a famous scriptwriter and casting director, and the showing of some "lost" Coronation Street-related TV footage. It was all Corrie gold, and a really enjoyable series of events.

In among all this, the subject of our blogs came up. This one, and the one our friend writes. We had both connected our blogs up to Facebook through a clever widget that copies each blog post into a Facebook post, which seemed like a good idea at the time. Unfortunately it turned out that for both of us, there was an unexpected downside that had hit us squarely between the eyes.

Writing here, on a personal blog with a small but friendly audience who know what to expect, and come here to read exactly that, feels comfortable. Not in a bullish "it's my blog and I'll write what I like" kind of way, but - well - it IS my blog, and I write about anything I find interesting, whether it's worldly comments on the state of the nation, or using a potato to prevent leaks. But opening the blog up to facebook, where an audience of "friends of friends" not only could be several thousand people but also is likely to comprise mainly those who would think "what on EARTH is he on about now" felt distinctly... less comfortable. We ended up feeling inhibited about the topics we could write about, because there was a kind of implied impetus, or requirement, for them to be somehow more interesting.

It's all in the mind, this, and we both recognised that. Even so, it was coincidentally how we both felt about it. In my case, I was quite happy doing the 100 Themes Writing Challenge and having them posted to Facebook because it was literary. It was "proper" writing. Not just random stuff about the garden, or the cat, or the decorating.

My friend unlinked her blog from Facebook this week and I unlinked mine yesterday, so now I feel liberated from the (probably totally imagined) expectations of people I don't know, and I'm sincerely hoping I'll get back to more regular updates. Lots has been happening both inside and out. And there's a whole weekend coming up for me to write about it :o)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Floored all over again

We've not been sitting around doing nothing while all this work's been going on in the garden. Well, *I* have, but downstairs in the new new lounge our Floormeister has been getting on with laying another tranche of American White Oak flooring, similar to what we had laid before refitting the kitchen last year.

He was quicker this time (smaller area; simpler job) and this is the result:

It still looks a bit like a furniture show room in there, since the newly sold parental dining room suite won't be collected until Sunday, and it echoes like a bastard with all the hard surfaces and no soft furnishings, but it now definitely looks the part.

New TV cabinet arrives on Monday, along with the plumber to fit the replacement radiator that was delivered a couple of days ago (fingers crossed this one won't leak), followed in short order by the new TV (Tuesday). We still haven't decided on what seating we want in there, so for now we're going to have to manhandle our existing sofa from old lounge to new. That'll be fun. It had to be taken apart to get it in (both arms off), so we'll have to have a repeat performance to get it out again.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Changes to the Landscape

It's been a long time coming. Procrastination before approaching a landscaping company, changes to the design, holiday absences for everyone concerned (us, the designer, the landscaper) none of which were coordinated, and enforced delays on account of the bad weather, but finally, today, work started on what will be a radical change to our back garden.

It began like this:
At the beginning of October there were still leaves on the trees and the grass, in anticipation of being ripped up any time soon, hadn't been cut for several weeks. The old ratty hydrangea was still gamely hanging on to some fading blooms, but the camellia bush and most of the crocosmia had already been collected by a grateful neighbour.

The conservatory was long gone, having been demolished by the crew who fitted our bifold doors back in June, leaving behind a rather odd fragment of deck that was soon to meet its maker. Well, our neighbour actually, who requested it so that she can make planters out of it.

The site where the old garage stood has been a dumping ground ever since it was taken down in June 2009. It had also become extremely overgrown with brambles, some as thick as my wrist (I kid you not) which wove in and out of the flowering currant and around the bits of old skirting board and whatnot that littered the area. You can also see the rotting remains of the garden benches created from railway sleepers by the previous owners.

So, 8am last Wednesday morning dawned (just) and within three-and-a-half hours a team of three guys had chain-sawed everything flat, cleared the site, taken down the back wall and were making a start with the side wall:
A couple of dozen lengths of tannelised decking framework rested on a pair of trestles and all in all the site was unrecognisable from what it had been the day before. I was already well impressed with progress, but the following day things reached a whole new level with the arrival of a little yellow digger :0)

With the aid of this and the dumpy little turf cutter (just visible at the bottom of the photograph), the entire bottom half of the garden was stripped down to mud and all remaining tree stumps and large bushes removed. The digger then created trenches for the footings of the replacement walls and path. They also dug out the pond, being careful to save all of the rich loam that covered the whole site to a depth of... oooh... at least half an inch.

On Friday, the team changed slightly and split into sub-teams. Joined by a deck construction expert, two of them set to work creating the foundation framework for our new curved deck, while the third concentrated on building walls. By the end of the week the new deck was already taking shape with the framework in place for the apron and one of the steps emerging from the front.

Friday, November 16, 2012

What happened on November 14?

Apart from our garden project starting, that is, of which more in a later post.

No, I'm talking about the extraordinary explosion in my blog activity. Page views to be precise.

I haven't really paid much attention to this in the past. I know who my main readers are (hi people! Kiss kiss) and I also get a bit of passing traffic, but I'm never going to be in anyone's "top ten" blog list, or make enough to live on from the revenue generated by any click-throughs on my ads, so I only visit the overview and stats pages two or three times a year out of interest.

However, when I started the 100 Theme Writing Challenge, I started to check on the stats more frequently. I was interested in whether having some free story telling would drive my visitor count up. And it did, a bit. It went from a daily average somewhere in the high 20s, to hovering in the high 40s/low 50s most days, with a small domed peak at weekends when occasional readers caught up. This would occasionally reach into the upper 60s. Then yesterday, this happened

I did a bit of a double take to be honest. At first glance it looked like most of my readers had evaporated. Then I noticed the scale and realised Blogger had adjusted the graph to cope with the new peak. 293 page views in a single day.

I have no idea what happened. Is it one new reader (hello!) catching up with several months of posts? A handful of people all catching up with a slightly smaller backlog, but all at once? Or a large number of people attracted by some unknown publicity all paying me a visit and reading a couple of pages each? I just don't know. But whoever you are... don't go! Pull up a chair. Sometimes it gets quite interesting around here :0) Especially if you like decorating.

The only inkling I have about what caused that enormous spike is that I had recently advertised War of Nutrition on a "local interest" Facebook page. But I only posted that Amazon link, so anyone spotting it would have had to click through several pages or do some research to find this blog. I can't believe 293 people all did that! Weird. It's back to normal now though, as you can tell from the graph.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

In a pickle

It occurred to me just yesterday, having written recently about the "progress" we've made with the house this year, that if you were to look at it from one perspective we've only really got one room that can be classed as "finished."

The perpective I'm talking about is having a room decorated, furnished, and laid out in a way you'd be happy to live with... well... forever.

So the room that's done is: the kitchen. It was completed as near to the date of that post as makes no difference, is kitted out pretty much with all the gadgets we need, is in daily use as a kitchen, and doesn't contain any extraneous furniture or shite that really belongs somewhere else.

The same cannot be said for ANY other room at the moment:
  • Rear reception room. Erstwhile dining room, currently undergoing refurbishment as a living room, but finishing that project has been delayed by a postponed flooring installation, a leak in the new radiator requiring replacement, and we haven't chosen any new furnishings or entertainment equipment for it yet.
  • Front reception room. Currently the living room, but when the new living room is complete will be flipped into a dining room, therefore requiring carpet removal and another new oak floor installation
  • Hall. Currently a storage space for one of the sideboards. And the radiator cover needs attaching to the wall
  • Garden. Reconstruction project starts TODAY!!
  • Front small bedroom. Never decorated since two months after we moved in, requires plaster reskim and decoration, plus possible fitted wardrobes and bed replacement.
  • Front large bedroom. Currently without any recognisable form of bedroom furniture since the old lot was sold on eBay in August and since then we've had all our clothes in cardboard "removals" wardrobes and the contents of bedside cabinets in plastic crates, pending the new handmade bedroom furniture which won't arrive until next month.
  • Rear bedroom/study. Decorated and furnished, but currently home to a huge assortment of packing crates storing things to be sold on eBay, and cardboard boxes in which to parcel them up and send them off when they ARE sold.
  • Bathroom. Second room to be refurbished back in 2007, we were never really happy with the result and have recently decided to do it all over again (at least in part) to get it right.
  • Attic room. Still only half decorated, now two years since it was completed.
We have often said we're glad we didn't tackle the whole house at once, like our near neighbours who have basically been living in a building site for at least as long as we've lived here. But we're not that much better ourselves when you think about it!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Another family heirloom bites the dust

It's almost eighteen months since I first "got serious" about shifting our old tat through the auspices of eBay. A few months less than that since I blogged about it. In that year and a half I've sold things from as small as an enamel lapel badge to as large as an entire bedroom suite comprising super-king sleigh bed (with mattress), triple wardrobe, five-drawer chest and two three-drawer bedside tables. That went to a hotel owner in Staffordshire who, in the end, was glad I'd persuaded him to come in a Luton van. He admitted he would never have got it all on the trailer he had been intending to come with.

Some of the items I've been glad to see the back of. Some of the really bad DVDs we've bought over the years, and many of the things mentioned on that blog post linked above. Things that have hung around for years not being used and never likely to be.

Some things I've had to let go with a twinge of regret. Mostly stuff that has been part of my life since childhood, but which I had to reluctantly conclude there was absolutely no point hanging on to. The Kodascope Eight Model 30 vintage cine projector that the whole family used to gather around to watch holiday footage, interspersed with reels from my Dad's small collection of B&W Felix the Cat cartoons. When I opened up its old wooden box and that familiar smell hit me, all the memories came flooding back. But hey, I don't need the object to have the memories, and it went to someone who will actually use it.

Similarly with my Mum's old Singer sewing machine. Not something I had any emotional attachment to ;0) but I was delighted that it went to a guy in the Netherlands who refurbishes them and passes them on to retired ladies who are keen on quilting. Once again something that had sat unused under Mum's sideboard for 25 years gets a new lease of life.

And since I've arrived through a roundabout route at the sideboard, it's time to reveal that it is that very sideboard, along with its matching dining table and four chairs, that is the subject of this post. For it too was sold, this weekend just past.

Solid walnut. Yes, solid, not veneer as suggested by the plonker from an auction house who came round to value it and tried to make out it was veneered because he could see a join in the top. Idiot. That's where the wood itself is jointed by the craftsmen whose workshop I visited, aged 13 or 14, to see the dining room suite being made. It was my Dad's gift for attaining his majority - 21 years with the same firm.

Walnut's not "in vogue" at the moment though, and the whole thing was both too small for our needs and too small for the room it would live in, not to mention having suffered from various forms of neglect over the years. It would take an expert, an expensive expert, to return the suite to the soft matte patina with which it originally arrived from the makers. It lived 40 years in clouds of cigarette smoke, was polished with the wrong kind of polish, suffered water damage when someone attempted to wash off the smoke residue (and left a tea-tray sitting on a damp patch), and was constantly exposed to sunlight and curtain movement on one corner, so all in all it was in a pretty sorry state.

And we don't like the style much either. Offspring never do like the style of their parents, do they? I'm no exception. So it joined the ranks of eBay sales. 228 of them since May 2011. Unfortunately we were just half an hour too late returning from our Sunday lunch with friends to arrange a pick up for that day, so we have to hang on to it for another two weeks, which in turn means our flooring guy will have to work around it.