Blogging 101: A Good Reason To Drop Out.

It all started quite well. I signed up for the Blogging 101 and Writing 101 courses. I wasn’t the perfect student. Several of the assignments that I carried out I did so several days after the suggested day. And then I stopped writing at all.

A casual observer of my blogging habits in the past could have concluded that I had just ‘fallen off the wagon’ and stopped blogging because I had just not developed the habit or because the assignments hadn’t appealed to me.

But I did have a very good reason for my radio silence.

On the 20th of October 2014 M had a sub-arachnoid haemorrhage. The symptoms were a blinding headache which caused her so much pain that she was curled up on our bed sobbing.

This was the start of a very scary period in the lives of our family.  This included long periods of unconsciousness, two surgical procedures (the fitting of a ‘drain’ to relieve inter-cranial pressure and surgery to treat the aneurysm which had bled) and the beginnings of a complex recovery.

Not for the first time, I was very grateful to live close to an excellent hospital (Addenbrookes in Cambridge) which, as well as being the teaching hospital for Cambridge University, is also the regional center of excellence for Neurosurgery and Trauma.

During this time I did have a couple of goes at writing a blog entry. But the issue was too big, too complex to boil down to a simple blog entry, and at the same time I was also staying in contact with the many friends and family who wanted to follow M’s progress. Phonecalls, Facebook posts and Facebook Messenger entries all had to be made and, after that lot, I often felt drained emotionally, and unwilling to say anymore about the situation.

So how are things now? M came out of hospital a week ago. It is nice to have her home. And I think being in familiar surroundings is helping her recovery. Physically she is doing well. She tires easily, but this is expected. Her memory is mixed up. She can remember things that happened before her sudden illness, but she is finding it difficult to hold on to memories of events right now. I am sure these issues will improve as time passes.

I’m going to aim to make more blog entries from now on. I may go back to the 101 courses for ideas. But for the time being I have plenty to write about!

Writing 101: Be Brief.

The letter looked like just another piece of litter until I picked it up. The name on the front was written beautifully though smudges by the dampness of the ground. But the name was meaningless to me. Looking for clues I read the letter.

Simple, beautiful and heart felt. The letter was apology, and plea. The letter told of a broken marriage, a love pushed too far, of ties that should bind stretched till they snapped.

I didn’t know who had written it, but the desperation touched me. I need to get this letter to the owner, for better or worse.

That was then. I did find the author. They reclaimed the letter, with a heavy heart. As I understand it, the recipient had thrown the letter away. It hadn’t penetrated her heart in the way it had touched mine. Too much anger and scar tissue.

I wonder where they are now?

Dream Reader: The Beginning.

I stumbled over my own feet as I hurtled, half running, half staggering towards the tree line. I couldn’t hear my pursuers, but I knew that that was just a matter of time, and while I was here, in the open I was in danger.

My legs pumped, driven by adrenaline, but still the trees seemed to edge towards me agonisingly slowly. Maybe I wasn’t hearing them because my head was filled with the sound of my panting and the thrum of the blood pumping.

How had it come to this? I wasn’t a bad guy. I hadn’t killed anyone. But still men in uniforms would be massing to find me as soon as they realised that I wasn’t home.

I began to run through the process in my head even as I continued my hell for leather sprint for the woods. They would arrive at the apartment. Not getting an answer they’ll have had to wait for clearance before battering the door down. That would have given me a few minutes.

Having swept the little apartment and realised I wasn’t hiding in a cupboard they will have gone for my tech. I’d been ready for this. The whole system was set up to cover my tracks, and as long as they had waited for back up the system would have cleaned itself up. Every user account sanitised, the plan had been to return the machine to tabula rasa. I hoped the data scrub was as thorough as I’d planned, otherwise others would be in danger too. Of course I wasn’t going to make it easy for them. The blank accounts were password protected, the discs encrypted.

After that, they would start looking for me. Of course, the street cams would help them with that. Ever since big data became a reality everyone was followed wherever they went. Everything from face recognition to gait analysis had meant that a citizen could be found even if they had left their smart kit at home. To try and evade the cameras I’d been living a lie for the last year. Every time I left home I had a small stone in one shoe. It was just enough of an irritant to make me walk a little oddly. I hoped it would be a big enough change to put the system off. Today I’d left the house in normal shoes, both feet comfortable and ready to run. I knew that once the auto-track came up blank they would start the more arduous process of pulling the files, watching me when I hit the street, tracing me from one camera to the next. It had been busy, I hoped that I’d blended in.

Suddenly my mind was back in the present. The trees were finally closing around me. At first I kept up the same pace. At the edge the trees were thin and I would easily be seen from the open ground. I needed to get deep into the brush. I only started to slow down when the dry foliage began to push back, Newtonian reaction hindering my headlong thrust.

I stopped, leaning against a tree. My breathing was ragged, and suddenly loud in this quiet place. As my heart began to slow and my panting receded I strained to hear any activity. I had no idea what my next step was going to be, where I could go. I could scarcely believe I’d managed to get this far.

And then I heard it. Apparently the drones were much quieter than the planes which used to traverse the sky before the end time. Now there wasn’t anywhere for planes to go, so the drones were the only flying objects that the city still had. And they were the sole preserve of the Goverment and Military.

It sounded quite a long way away, and looking up the trees were dense. I was probably in danger of stepping into a clearing if I made a run for it. I would be better either staying put or moving slowly. I decided to keep on moving, carefully looking at the trees ahead. The burning in my legs and the constriction in my throat were soon forgotten as I kept advancing. Now was the time to think beyond simply going on the run. I had to draw up a plan, and soon.

The drone was getting closer now, its engine note steady and ominous. Turning to try and locate it I took my eye of the path and suddenly tripped. As I arced towards the ground I saw the culprit, a thin wire across the path. Even as I slammed into the ground, I heard two people break cover and move to each side of me. Initially neither of them spoke, then the one on my right knelt on the space on my back between my shoulder blades. The one on the left leant forward and whispered “They’re very close. Come with us and don’t say anything”.

I was in no position to argue as I felt the cool plastic of cable tie handcuffs close around my wrists. Then I was picked up with apparent ease and placed back on my feet. Now I could see I was between two people of my height, though the one who had held me down was almost comically stocky. Before I could take in anything more I was pushed away to one side, deeper into the woods. The combination of panicked running and having just fallen bodily to the floor had left me disorientated and I had no idea where we were in relation to where I had entered the trees. But my companions seemed to know exactly where they were going.  And within a few minutes they stopped me in a small glade. I made as if to talk before the smaller of the two men held a finger to his lips. Concentrating on the one man I didn’t notice until it was already too late that his companion had a small syringe. It stung as he jabbed me in the leg, but I didn’t have any time to react. I suspect I collapsed like a rag doll.

I have sometimes fantasised about writing. I can imagine that seeing something you have written is immensely exciting. But it is also scary. I wrote the above as it felt like something I could get behind putting on paper. At this point it says nothing about what the crimes are that mean the protagonist needs to be on the run. I read a lot of dystopian fiction when I was a teenager and young adult, and I guess that is sort of where it is going. A lot of the books I read then have dated quite badly. The worlds of 1984 and Brave New World for instance have some features which we would recognise (mass surveillance and high levels of psychotropic drugs), but lots that haven’t come true. There is always the space for dystopia fiction which draws on the societal state when the story is written. The mass surveillance of the 21st Century is something that we buy into, often entirely voluntarily, but most people would be shocked by how much we share, and what the risks are. Maybe a story called 2041, a world where the computers look after you every need, often meeting it before you have really realised it was a need at all. What are the risks.

I think the younger me reader would have liked this. And I hope they would have wanted to read the rest.

Blogging 101: Dream Reader.

I’m a voracious reader. Or at least, I aspire to be. Last year (2013) I set out to read a book a week for the year. I didn’t quite make it. But I continue with a similar aim even now.

I read a whole range of books, sometimes going through periods where I read lightweight books about zombies or comedic trifles, but at other times I read more serious books. This was even more the case when I was younger, when reading was less of a luxury, and I aspired to be more widely read. I went through phases of Aldous Huxley, Anthony Burgess, Iain Banks and 19th Century classics (Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte).

Some of these writers I loved for their story telling, some for their audacity with language and some for the breadth of ideas they conveyed. I remember reading ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and marvelling at the invention of a teen slang which is then used so skilfully that it never needs to be explained, and which was so self supporting that I would find myself thinking in Nadsat after I had finished reading.

My dream reader would be either my younger self, or Anthony Burgess himself. And if I were ever to write a long piece for proper publication I would want it to have elements that echoed Burgess himself.

One of the things I always thought most remarkable about Iain Banks as a writer was the thought that ‘The Wasp Factory’ was his first novel. And that seemed like and incredibly audacious beginning for any author. If you haven’t read it, then go, read and remember that this was the debut novel. You will see what I mean.

Book Review: Regeneration – Pat Barker.

I wrote the other day about my first ever book club meeting, and how much I had enjoyed it. Now comes the review, my thoughts and feelings.

For the record, I read this at the first part of a trilogy (I purchased all three parts as a single volume, it was cheaper than the individual parts) and it was on my Kindle. The Amazon page for this is here.

Plot Summary (Slight Risk of Spoilers).

The story revolves around Siegfried Sassoon, the famous poet. Most British people have heard of him because of having to study World War I poetry at school, and his poetry is useful for those studying because it shows a very distinct arc. At the beginning of the war Sassoon’s writing was full of patriotic fervour, but by the end it was a bitter, angry denouncing of those in charge.

Regeneration is set in 1917. Siegfried Sassoon has written a declaration denouncing the war, and an MP is shortly going to read it out in Parliament (everything that happens in the chambers is recorded in Hansard, the official record of government business). As an act of protest it was a dangerous one. Sassoon could have been considered to be stoking dissent in the ranks. Robert Graves, another famous writer persuades Sassoon to accept being sent to a hospital for shell shock.

At the hospital Sassoon meets Rivers, a doctor charged with helping those officers who are suffering from shell shock to get better with an eye to being sent back to the front line.

Reading It.

This is one of those strange books where it isn’t really appropriate to say that I enjoyed it. The story is at times extremely harrowing, and my notes that I made as I read show that. I describe one character as a bastard having read the chapter where he, to all intents and purposes tortures a poor patient. Having said that the writing was excellent, never feeling laboured or stilted in any way. This is especially important in those sections that talk about the awful experiences the soldiers have endured.

I would say that if anyone is setting out to read it they should probably avoid doing what I did. I found myself wondering how much of the story was factual, and what, if any were the product of the author’s imagination. This being 2014 I did what any right minded, internet connected person would and googled Sassoon. Obviously he has a Wikipedia entry, and obviously it tells you about what happens at the end of the book!

Reading More.

I really did find this a striking book to read, and one that I am sure will stay in my memory for a long time. I didn’t want to start reading the rest of the trilogy straight away. It was the sort of read that you feel the need to ‘decompress’ after. But I will, and soon. And I’m looking forward to it.

And Finally.

I have signed up to the Blogging101 blog-prompts. Today’s task was to change the title of my blog, so I’ve done this. But the above is my actual blog entry. I have a list of blog topics in case the prompts don’t work, or require an entry. I’m trying to improve my blogging habit and my writing style.

Synergy – Control For More Than One Computer At A Time.

I am not, by habit or practice, a tidy person. This is strongly reflected in my work desk which is awash with stacks of papers, forms and diaries. Unfortunately, I am also someone who has two computers on my desk (see many previous comments on the subject).

The computer I use most is a 27″ screen iMac. The screen is lovely, with excellent image quality.

However, I don’t particularly like Apple keyboards, so I don’t use an Apple keyboard. Instead I have a wireless Logitech keyboard (a  K230 for the record). The previous keyboard that I had didn’t have a number pad on it, so I added a separate wireless number pad (also Logitech, a N305). I’m also not that keen on Apple mice because I need at least two buttons and the direction of scrolling is all wrong, so I have a trackball, which I like because it doesn’t need lots of desk space (M570).

The brilliant thing about the Logitech kit is that they all link using Logitech’s ‘Unity’ wireless system, and, importantly, each Unity USB connector can support up to 6 devices. That means I can have the keyboard, number pad and trackball all connecting to a single USB connection, and I don’t lose a heap of precious USB ports.

I am very happy with this setup and can type quickly, mouse around accurately and enter data in spreadsheets efficiently.

Then there is my other computer. The keyboard is stiff and not particularly pleasant to use, and the mouse is an old Apple mouse (pre touch surface, even pre-rollable nipple thing) where the whole case of the mouse is the button. Its horrible.

So how do I manage this setup, and the challenges of limited desk space, preferred hardware etc. Enter Synergy, a simple system to manage multiple computers from a single keyboard and mouse.

Setting up Synergy appears to be easiest when you are sharing multiple Windows computers as Windows is provided with a nice handy app where you can name computers and define where their monitors lie in relation to one another. Users of other systems need to create and edit a text file to define these relationships. So I chose to make the iMac the server machine and the Windows machine a client. Following instructions was simple enough, and after having a few connection issues caused by misnamings of the two systems I was suddenly up and running.

I have a similar issue in starting the Synergy server on my Linux box that I have setting the keyboard, activating the screensaver etc, so initially I was tempted to append the instructions to activate the server onto the script that sets these things up. However, the only time I’m going to use the Synergy system is at work, so it doesn’t make sense to add this overhead to all my Linux systems. Instead I created a script which launches the Synergy server. I run this after my initial login (and after the keyboard setting script).

Using Synergy is simply a matter of mousing over to the screen edge which is defined as the point at which the two computers meet. For reasons of understandability this should be the edge of the screens where the monitors abut. Pause for a moment and the mouse will flip over to the other screen, and you are in control of the other computer.

One unforeseen advantage of this has been the way that the keyboard layout on the server computer, that is the iMac is the keyboard layout used on the other computer. As I have written elsewhere, I use a non-Qwerty keyboard layout. In Linux I can choose a Dvorak keyboard layout, but with UK punctuation (a £ sign, the @ sign being on the middle row, just by the return key etc). I also have the Caps Lock key and the left hand Ctrl key swapped so that I have a Ctrl key on the home row of the keyboard. Replicating the finer points of this in Windows is difficult as the normal Dvorak options are US English, Dvorak left handed and Dvorak right handed. Customisation is possible, but it requires installation of extra programs and understanding an arcane piece of software.

However, using Synergy with Linux as the server fixes this as the Linux keyboard layout is carried over to the Windows computer as I flip over. Bonus!


The Thirty Year Rule – A Shock.

Travelling to work this morning the big story on the radio was about this years documents released under the ’30 year’ rule. In the UK sensitive government documents are kept secret for thirty years, and then, normally released unless they are considered still too sensitive.

Today’s stories concerned the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher and whether there had been a plan to close many coal pits before the miner’s strike.

But the really shocking thing about these stories is that they were thirty years ago. I remember these events. They can’t possibly have been so long ago can they?

And then, the next scary thought. That was the year that I took my ‘O-levels’!