Feeling REALLY stupid

My Amazon Associates ID is “legenofthesun-21”.

Not, “legendsofthesun-21″.

Which kind of explains why I haven’t been getting much click-through referral joy from the programme.

On the other hand, I’m not sure how it explains me getting any kind of click-through referral joy in the first place. (Scratches head.)

Google desktop search

Google has finally decided to hit the desktop. We all know it’s going to be good. The question is now, do I want Google to know what’s on my hard disk?

I’m getting the same kind of itchy feeling I had with A9. I wonder if it’ll go away. I’m happy enough with the way Lookout lets me search my mail and documents quickly. How much better is Google’s search, and how much privacy do I have to give up to get it?

The tool has only just been released; it’s going to be a few weeks before the dust settles.

I me a River

iPod, iPod, iPod, yada yada. They’re shiny and all, but until they come with an FM radio, experience shows that if I had one, it would just end up gathering dust in its cradle.

iRiver H340 portable music playerThe new iRiver H340, now… that’s a different question. 40GB of hard disk joy. FM radio, and the ability to record radio broadcasts. Built-in MP3 encoder, so you can record from other line-in sources, too. 16 Hours of battery life. 2″ Colour screen, and it also acts as a picture viewer. Nifty.

Okay, so it doesn’t integrate with iTunes, and it doesn’t support AAC, but my music collection is MP3 all the way, baby. And seeing as it plugs into my PC as an external hard drive, how hard can it be to knock together a little app to rip through my iTunes config files and recreate my playlists in Winamp playlist format?

Have I mentioned recently that my birthday and Christmas are just round the corner?

(It would have been fun to have been the first to come up with the “I me a River” title, but Ed Hawco beat me to it by a good year and a half.)

Writing without end

Paul Graham’s recent essay, “The Age of the Essay” struck a chord with me. The kind of essay writing he describes, a more free-flowing exploration of ideas than the traditionally structured “taking a position and defending it” essay, is exactly how I write.

Writing makes me think better. By putting words down on the page, my thoughts take better form. And the more thoughts I write down, the more ideas arrive. It’s like letting them out makes space for new and better ones.

I never learned how to write a “standard” essay at school, like most of my British and American contemporaries did. It wasn’t until after we were out of university and married that Abi told me about the technique of “say what you’re going to say, say it, and then say what you just said.” This came as a revelation to me, and has always struck me as a deeply uninteresting way to put an argument.

We did have writing exercises at school in the Netherlands, but we were never restricted to writing just essays. In every writing assignment, up to and including our final exams, there was always at least one topic choice that was open to a fictional approach. No matter how bizarre the topic, I always chose this option.

All our Dutch teachers warned us (and me especially, as a persistent offender) of the danger of sticking to fiction for these assignments. Stories are harder for teachers (and external examiners) to grade, and so they generally get judged more critically, and end up with lower average grades than essays. It was always deemed easier to write a competent essay than a competent story.

I’m sure that my contrary nature contributed to my insistence upon always choosing the story option, but mostly I just enjoyed writing fiction. And at school I always wrote stories the way Paul Graham describes “real” essay writing: I started with an idea, and then I developed it. If I didn’t find myself excited and surprised by the road the story took as it flowed out of me, then that was an indication that my readers would bored, too.

At school, I don’t think I ever knew where a story was going to end when I sat down and started it.

Looking back on it, this is probably what I used to enjoy most about writing fiction.

It is certainly what I enjoy most about blogging. When I get a-rambling, I rarely start off with a well-defined idea of where I want to go with the thought that prompted me to start a new entry. I rarely start off having done all the research (if any is needed) to back up what I say. If I start an entry in a new Firefox window, then chances are I’ll have about twenty or thirty tabs open in it by the time I come to press “save”, and I’ll always have learned something new on the way.

Coming back to fiction: it has been about a year since I last tried to write any, and probably three since I actually finished a story. So why did I stop?

Until now, I probably would have mumbled something about not having enough time, or not having anything really interesting to say, both of which reasons are thoroughly nixed by the existence of this blog. I think I realise now that the real reason is: I stopped enjoying writing fiction.

So, digging deeper: what made me stop enjoying it?

Plot. Endings. Structure. At some point in the mid-nineties I started being more concerned about these things. It started to worry me that I usually had no idea where a story was going. (Although this was a perfect jumping-off point for the “Best Openings” contest in the IMPs writers’ group on Compuserve.) I got into the mindset that I had to have an outline before starting a story. I started to feel inhibited about writing without an ending in mind. And guess what? Pretty soon the ideas just dried up. Without ideas, I couldn’t come up with endings, and so I stopped creating beginnings. Catch-22.

One of the things I have started admitting to myself is that I don’t persist with things I don’t really enjoy doing. I started taking Tae Kwan Do lessons earlier this year, but stopped stopped going after a month or two. At first I tried to rationalise away the reasons for not going to the classes (family demands, injured shoulder, etc.), but the deep down real reason is that I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I had hoped I would. Likewise, there are plenty of reasons I could trot out for selling my drum kit earlier this year, but the real reason is that I wasn’t enjoying playing as much as I used to.

The other side of this coin is that if I find myself persisting with something, that’s a way for me to know that I really enjoy it. Blogging, for instance. I’ve been doing this since 2000, without much sign of stopping. Ergo, I must enjoy doing it. Likewise golf. I don’t play very often these days, but I do still play.

(Curiously, I feel like this piece of self-knowledge is related to my realisation that a personal music player must have an FM radio built in for me to actually keep using it regularly. It has the same sensation of lifting the veil of self-delusion, and drawing the sting of unfulfilled desire.)

In summary, the only way I will ever write fiction regularly (and consistently) again is if I find myself actively enjoying it. And I to enjoy it again, I must stop worrying about outlines and endings, and just let it flow. I have to start surprising myself again. I have to start writing to please myself before I can even think about sending stuff out into the big wide world again.

That’s certainly what I do here with this blog. Some posts are for the benefit of family and friends, to let them know what I’m up to. Some posts are pointers to, or snippets of information about things I find interesting (like the Movable Type tutorials I’ve written). And some posts are just for myself: me thinking things through out loud, talking to myself in public. You might find them interesting, or you might not. If you take away something of value from the post, that’s cool, but it’s a fringe benefit. I’m no pundit, and I’m not trying to generate an audience for my ramblings.

I’ve had some story ideas brewing for a while now. We’ll see if this new self-knowledge helps to turn them into something tangible, or if it’s just another layer of writer’s block to hide behind.

Book awards season 2004

I’m way out of touch with my SF sources. It was only this morning that I learned that Lois McMaster Bujold won this year’s best novel Hugo award for Paladin of Souls.

This gives Bujold a total of four best novel Hugos. Only Robert A. Heinlein has more best novel Hugos. This latest win now puts her clear of Asimov, who has three. Given the size of Bujold’s fan base, and the fact that she seems to be having fun with the Chalion series, I wouldn’t bet against her notching up another win before the decade is out.

Update: Patrick Nielsen Hayden pointed out that Heinlein only has four best novel Hugos, which means that Bujold is tied for first place. However, Heinlein was awarded a “Retrospective Hugo” for best novel of 1951, at the 2001 WorldCon. According to the WSFS constitution, “A Worldcon held 50, 75, or 100 years after a Worldcon at which no Hugos were presented may conduct nominations and elections for Hugos which would have been presented at that previous Worldcon.” When I was looking up the various Hugo tallies in my spreadsheet, I had included this Retro Hugo in Heinlein’s total.

Paladin of Souls was good, but I didn’t think it was necessarily Hugo material. Not having read any of the other nominees, I can’t say how it looked in comparison, but I doubt if it will end up on many lists of all-time greats. Abi reckons that this makes up for The Curse of Chalion losing out to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods in 2002; she’s probably right.

The other awards that have just been announced are the Shamus Awards for best Private Eye detective fiction. This year’s winners are The Guards by Ken Bruen (Best Novel), Black Maps by Peter Spiegelman (Best First Novel), and Cold Quarry by Andy Straka (Best Paperback Original).

Abi and I make a point of buying the Hugo (novel) winner each year, assuming we didn’t already own it. Given that I’m much more into detective fiction these days, I think I might have to start doing the same with the Shamus.

DVD players

Our DVD player, an old Panasonic A160 from 1999, is dying. It has always had a habit of intermittently refusing to play discs for no apparent reason, but it is now rejecting more discs than it is willing to play. And the usual trick of eject/reinsert no longer works. Very annoying, and using the PS2 as a fallback player is less than satisfactory.

So, any suggestions for a replacement? Our requirements are modest:

  • It must be multi-region, with built-in NTSC to PAL conversion. (Our TV doesn’t handle NTSC signals)
  • Quieter than a PS2. (Shouldn’t be hard)
  • Cheap (sub-£100).

We don’t care about surround sound and home cinema hookups right now. Our living room isn’t set up for extensive speaker setups, and that’s not going to change any time soon. We don’t care about fancy features like zoom, picture-in-picture, or bookmarking. Amazon has several players in the price range I am thinking of (£30-£40). Does anyone know if they’re any good? (Although at that price, it’s pretty hard to go wrong.)