Some Things Are Truly Magical

All my life, the one thing that I was totally rubbish at is dancing. Yes I can ‘Dad Dance’. But when it comes to real dancing I have two left feet. Each year here in the UK we have a very special show on television called Strictly Come Dancing which is broadcast each saturday night for three months, culminating in the final just before Christmas (in the US it is known as Dancing with the Stars). This year’s winners were television presenter Caroline Flack and her professional partner Pasha Kovalev pictured here. uktv-scd-final-3

Of all the dances each couple had to master, for me there is only one dance that, if I was able, I would love to learn. I give you the most beautiful dance there has ever been, the Argentine Tango. Watching the professionals perform it is pure magic.

The accompanying video is of the couple placed third in this year’s world championship in Buenos Aires – Shirley Xu and Jesus Haborda. If they only placed third, god only knows how good the winning couple are! If I find a video of them I’ll post it here.

The noble game

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My Chess Sets

The history books tell us that chess originated in Eastern India somewhere between 550 – 280BC. Back then it was known as Chaturanga, a game of four divisions of the military –  Infantry, Cavalry, Elephants and Chariotry, represented by the pieces at the time that would slowly evolve into the modern pawn, knight, bishop, and rook that we all recognise.

The earliest evidence of chess as we know it was in Sassanid Persia, where the game came to be known as Chatrang. It was taken up by the Muslim world after the Islamic conquest of Persia, renamed Shatranj. The Persian version of the game reached Western Europe and Russia in the 9th century. By 1000AD it had spread throughout Europe, after being introduced into the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors. Around 1200, the rules started to be modified in southern Europe. In 1475 several major changes made the game essentially the same as it is today.

As you can see from the picture above, I own two chess sets, one playable, the other a beautiful miniature copy of the Isle of Lewis Celtic Chess set which is far too small to use (Click on the picture to magnify it).

While I have always loved chess, I freely admit that I am totally rubbish at it. Lets face it, when you are participating in what in essence is a strategic war game, any serviceman can tell you that being restricted by an open battle field of sixty-four squares (8X8) is limiting to say the least. But chess was never a modern war game. Instead it is a game that reflects the age old thinking and strict battlefield tactics of the generals from yesteryear.

Years ago when my mother was still alive, one weekend when I was home on leave, I made the mistake of showing her the moves of the various pieces. Mum absolutely trounced me. I should have known better. When it came to board games, mum was an absolute demon. I miss her more than I can say. Had she lived, she would now be ninety-nine, being born in the month of May, 1915. She was my best friend. But the one thing I don’t miss is being thrashed by her when playing chess, or even draughts…

😉

For Goodness Sake Make Time!

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I forget how many times I have told people, especially new writers, to pace themselves. I was having a conversation on Facebook with one of my female writer friends yesterday. She has bought copies of five of my eBooks, which I am eternally grateful to her for. Three of them are short novellas, averaging 168 pages. I don’t know about you but I can read a novella in an afternoon, or a morning. For instance, if I start reading at twelve noon, I will have finished it by seven in the evening, barring interruptions and calls of nature. When I read a full length novel (150 – 200,000 words) it takes me the best part of three twelve hour days.

As writers, if we are going to do justice to our own writing, there is nothing more stimulating than spending hours reading other people’s books. From them we glean those ideas that hadn’t necessarily occured to us. With every book I write comes endless reading beforehand. Its called research. The writer in question makes me laugh. She claims that she has no time to read. When I told her about my reading a novella in seven hours, she assumed that what I’m doing is speed reading. Sorry to disagree with you my dear friend but it isn’t. It’s just a normal reading pace. She seriously needs to make time to read. In other words, she needs to pace herself.

I’ve seen photographs of her with a library of books in the background. I’m assuming that given her profession, the library is her own. Maybe not. If, as she claims, she has no time to read, why does she have access to one, if not to read the books? in my case my own library is divided up into actual physical books in my five shelf bookcase, as well as eBooks and PDF files on this laptop. I’ve read every single one of them at least five times. Some like Graham Hancock’s epic work Fingerprints of the Gods, several dozen times. In that case it will usually take me a week, simply because its seven hundred and nineteen pages are jam packed with information…

Currently I have one hundred and seventy three eBooks and one hundred and twenty physical books. I also have one hundred and forty-two PDF files which I constantly refer to when I’m in research mode.

How many books do you have? Have you read them all?

A lot of people buy books, millions of us in fact. But how many can truthfully say that they have read every book in their possession? Some people like to kid themselves that by having a large physical library in their home, it will impress their visitors, by creating the illusion that they are well read, and therefore intelligent.

If you want to impress the hell out of your visitors; read the damned books in your personal library to become fully conversant with the content of each of them! That way when your visitors ask you about a certain book you won’t be caught out in a lie.

Despite what some idiots believe, books are not for decoration, even though the multicolours of the jacket’s spine undoubtedly creates a splash of colour.  Every one of them contains the end product of a writer’s accumulated knowledge and hard work. They are meant to be read, not just looked at!!!

PS – I will admit that since I became a fulltime writer, I no longer read for pleasure. Plus, these days when I read a book, the editor in me is constantly on the lookout for poor grammer, spelling and punctuation.

That is the one major drawback with full-time writing; the end of spending hours simply reading for pleasure…

😉

Imagination and Observation

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When I was a child during the late nineteen forties into the fifties, our only family entertainment was the radio. Times where tough back then. To all intent and purpose, Britain was bankrupt and in a period of austerity. It was still recovering from the ravages and deprivations brought on by the Second World War. Food was still being rationed. No one had much money.

One thing I absolutely loved to do was imagine what the people we used to listen to on the radio each night actually looked like. Far too often my childish imaginings were way off target whenever I saw a photograph of them. When I was ten, we finally got our first black and white television after we had emigrated to New Zealand in 1958. My favourite childhood activity of imagining what people looked like faded into the distance for me, or did it?

For all of us the difference in the post war standard of living between New Zealand and here in Britain was startling. For the first time in their lives my parents had spare money left over each payday. Compared to what they had to put up with in Britain, New Zealand was, and still is, a paradise.

Apart from playing outside, climbing trees, making friends with the Jersey cow named Gwen that gave us and the owner of the orchard we had moved to and his family, fresh milk each day, plus making tree huts out of whatever was at hand, my main passion for reading, instilled into me by my parents from the age of four, meant that I still liked to imagine what a character, or characters, in the particular book I was reading at the time looked like. Even today at sixty-six, whenever I read any book I find myself creating a mental image of what those characters may look like, or at least how I would like them to look that is.

When I write a book, I conjour up mental images of my characters in my quest to get to know them intimately. Plus, having created that mental image, it makes it easier for me to work out what physical attributes to give them along with the various mental and emotional traits which are necessary for the reader to also imagine them. As their creator, you will soon find out which characters you like and which you loath. Yes, even we writers don’t necessarily like every character we create. In that regard, people in books are really no different from people we all encounter during our lifetimes.

~~~

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Continuing the twin themes of this post we now move on to observation. I don’t know about you but I like to observe people. Doing so is just another tool that I use when creating my characters.

Here’s a challenge for you. Could you pick out the writer from a crowd of people in the street? What does a writer look like? Is there anything about their physical makeup that says writer to you?

In my own case, if I managed to conquer my fear of what lies beyond my front door for a moment and left the safety of this house to head into town, chances are that because of the way I look folk would either ignore me, or having briefly observed me, simply pass me off as a dishevelled down and out and cross the road to avoid me. In their wildest imaginings it is safe to say that not one of them would make the connection between the individual they saw before them and the successful mid list writer that I have become. Why? Because most people are far too quick to judge others by the way they look, often making completely incorrect assumptions. Everyone makes snap decisions about others…

If writers were easily recognisable, we would lose our anonimity and to a large extent our privacy. If your are passionate about writing, the last thing you need is to be constantly interrupted. From my personal point of view, there is a lot to be said for looking dishevelled. It doesn’t mean that I am someone to be avoided at all costs, far from it. I’m comfortable with who I am. You should be too…

Profit or Quality?

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You would think that given the number of glitches appearing in most video games these days, that the people responsible for making them would endevour to put out a quality product from the get go. Sadly that isn’t the case. Take the immensely popular Mass Effect trilogy as an example.

By the time the first of the games appeared in 2007, written for Xbox, both Bioware and Electronic Arts realised at the eleventh hour that the Sony platform was the dominant system, owing to Xbox being so unreliable. Subsequently the game was made roughly compatible with Sony’s PS3 system. But like most games originally conceived with just one game platform in mind, instead of doing a total rewrite of the software to make it work with the PS3, Bioware and EA decided to maximize profit in favour of quality.

Fortunately when Mass Effect 2 appeared in 2010, at least the game had become more player friendly from the point of view of ease of control over your character. But like the first game, ME2 had some serious glitches, which were taken care of by a downloadable patch.

Then in 2012 ME3 the third and final game of the franchise appeared. It is relatively glitch free thank goodness. I have installed all of the add-ons for both ME2 and ME3, making both games that bit longer and enjoyable. Had Bioware bothered to totally re-write the first Mass Effect game, making it user friendly, I would also have that on my hard-drive.

Now all we ask for is that the games platform of your choice is made reliable. I had endless trouble with my PS3’s Blueray disc-drive, due to it being a dust trap, thereby rendering it inoperable. That was until I cottoned on to doing away with game discs altogether in favour of direct download to my PS3’s hard-drive. Now the only problem I have is when it decides to lock up for no good reason. When that happens on restarting the platform, the first thing I see is a request for a report from Sony to find out why it locked up. So far I’ve yet to see any improvement in its software, which makes me wonder why they want to know what happened in the first place if they are not going to send a patch to fix the problem?

What everyone in the video game industry has to do is to get out of the habit of profit over quality. It’s a no-brainer, that if you sell a quality product, you will soon gather a faithful following willing to spend money…

 

 

Before Television

What did you do before television dad? How many of you have been asked this question by the younger generations? Here’s what I’ve done all my life, and still do. I listen to the world via short wave radio.

I started when I was a highly inquisitive seven year old using the family radio. Philips Radio The tuning was so hit and miss on these old sets that if you sneezed or coughed while you were carefully moving the tuning knob a millimetre at a time while daring not to breath, you could lose the station you had been trying to tune in altogether.

If your father loved short wave like you, and was any good with his hands, he would have made a long wire aerial Longwire out of bare copper wire and a couple of insulators, the longer, the better, and suspended it between the house and a tree in your garden with a wire back to the house which he had then connected to the old radio’s aerial socket. Or if he was feeling a bit more adventurous, he may even have constructed a dipole. Dipole

All aerials have their shortcomings. I’ve tried out dozens of designs over the years.

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Probably one of the more successful is the Loop. This is an aerial that could have been designed by Heath Robinson. It’s so darned easy to make. Simply construct a cross out of plywood, with each arm the same length – two foot is about right. Mount it on a sturdy base so that it can swivel, or use a hook as in the illustration. Then begin winding wire around it so you end up with what looks like anywhere between nine to twelve loops. Secure the ends of the looped wire to two terminals. Then all you have to do is connect it to the aerial socket on your radio. The beauty of this super simple design is that you can tune it simply by turning the whole construction to get the maximum signal gain, unlike the long wire or the dipole.

My latest shortwave radio is the Sangean ATS 909. Sangean ats909I bought it over a decade ago.

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Probably the best set I ever owned was the Yaesu Musen FRG7. Unlike the Sangean with its telescopic aerial, it isn’t portable. I see that Sangean have now brought out the ATS909X to supersede my old one. Will I be buying it? Only time will tell…

To someone of my generation, there is still something exotic about listening to radio broadcasts from other countries. Without a television screen before you, the mind takes over. You find yourself imagining what the people broadcasting may look like. You pick up clues about them from their unconscious speech inflections. If I was to suddenly go blind tomorrow I wouldn’t really miss the television. After all, I was born at a time when radio was still king. Listening to plays, comedy half-hours like the Goons and panel shows like Animal Vegetable and Mineral, or What’s My Line was what we did back in the fifties. Then when dad had gone to bed it was my time to listen to the world via shortwave until I fell asleep.

😉