Friday, 29 August 2008


Over four months in now, and I've decided to make my first substitution; it dawned on me that I hadn't been using a monthly face mask since the first month (although you will be glad to hear that I use a moisturising face scrub at least every other day), and it didn't feel quite right that this was going to be something that I couldn't make up.

So I've substituted "Solve twenty-five of the problems on Project Euler" for number 82, which was previously the monthly face mask. Project Euler is a site that posts challenging maths and computing puzzles, and there are over two hundred of them now. I think this is a challenge that will really appeal, as some of the puzzles do have "brute force" solutions - such as number 6, the one that I am considering first - i.e., you could solve it with a program that would obtain the answer through simply performing the required operations, but there is always the probability that there is a more elegant solution. With a bit of careful thought one should be able to find the answer...

I'm going to try and solve the first ten problems, and then see which other fifteen take my fancy.

More soon on other things!

Wednesday, 27 August 2008


Some progression on one of my travel plans! I'll be visiting the US next summer - in fact I'll be crossing the whole country!

Last week my friend Dave and I were sat in the pub bemoaning the fact that neither of us had had a holiday this summer and that next summer we should do something. Very quickly, and I forget which one of us came up with the idea, we snowballed on to the idea of a road trip across America. A few hours speculation - supported by me going home and getting my Lonely Planet guides - lead us to the rough outline of a plan that we have now. We'll start in New York in early July, rent a car (Dave is insisting on a convertible) then head west-ish, passing through a fair few states - much more than the five I had as my goal - and end up in San Francisco about five weeks later.

We sat down last night for a few hours with GoogleMaps and a hastily cobbled together chart and came up with a rough outline of an itinerary. Dave works in the United Arab Emirates and is headed back there on Friday, and won't be coming back to the UK until next summer, so although we have ten months to sort out what we're doing exactly we just had to get a few details down now while we're both here.

Destinations along the way include Washington, Denver and Las Vegas, but nothing is set in stone yet regarding our itinerary - so if anyone has suggestions of cool places to visit (on a roughly east to west journey across the US) we'll be glad to hear them! Also, if you have any advice about good/cheap motel chains that are worth staying in that would be helpful too. We're planning on motelling on the big drives (Chicago to Denver, Denver to Las Vegas), and saving our nickels to stay in the Bellagio or the Wynn when we arrive in Las Vegas!!!

To get some ideas I read "Drive Thru America" by Sean Condon, which is published as a Lonely Planet Journey. It's interesting and very enjoyable, but at the same time the author's frequent flights of fantasy and digressions - which reminded me of some of the writing of Woody Allen - mean that it's a narrative inspired by a road trip rather than a straight account of the trip that he and his friend took. It's well worth a read if you like travel books (and I've not read that many before, so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about), but I think I need to read quite a few more books for inspiration.

Ten months to go...

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Spook Country

For the longest time I've forgotten the associated pleasure that goes with reading a William Gibson novel for the first time... Spook Country was great, and for the very simple reason that Gibson has tapped into something with his latest "series" of books (going on past performance I'm guessing we can expect one more novel set in the almost present day of Spook Country and Pattern Recognition), something which one of his characters says quite early on in the book: "Mysteries are cool."

Hmm, maybe they say that secrets are cool, but it amounts to the same thing. By having the story be about people who are not in the know, and not even in the know about what they aren't in the know about, he creates a beautiful structure that keeps the reader turning the pages from very early on in the novel because we need to know what it is that is going on. We need to know what is in the mysterious cargo container that Hollis Henry is sent on the trail of, even when she doesn't know that that is what she is after. We need to know what happens to Tito, the young man who seems almost superhuman in his physical abilities and mental discipline, and yet who is actually quite a humble character.

Spook Country has a genuinely intriguing plot, and is written beautifully. Gibson really knows how to turn a phrase; while I have a great fondness for the Sprawl Trilogy and for the Bridge Trilogy, I have to admit that he just seems to get better and better with each book. He tells compelling stories that are populated with fantastic, interesting and three-dimensional characters and which just hook you from the start in a world of amazing observations and a real sense of place.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

I'm a guy in my late twenties. I wasn't even born when Star Wars came out, but of course it casts a shadow pretty much over my whole life, what I think, how I respond to popular culture - everything - it all comes down to the hum of a lightsaber, seeing the Millennium Falcon (aside: Best. Spaceship. Ever) jump into hyperspace, and watching a small green man lift an X-Wing through the Force.

OK, so the prequels didn't quite live up to the original films' brilliance - it was probably unreasonable for me to expect them to - but they were something, and they had their moments of greatness too. When Star Wars: The Clone Wars was announced I was a bit sceptical; I'd quite liked the animated Clone Wars shorts, they were fun, they were alright - but it wasn't serious Star Wars. The Clone Wars film was supposed to be somewhere in-between though, filling the gap between Episodes II and III, kick-starting a computer-animated TV series... I mean, is it a Star Wars film, or is it a 100 minute trailer for a show?

The answer, to borrow from another famous sci-fi franchise, is it's Star Wars, Jim, but not as we know it...

From the tweaked opening music and fast-paced scene-setting replacing the opening text crawl through to the "nothing more Star Wars" dialogue-free closing shots The Clone Wars is hugely enjoyable - if you take it on its terms and for what it is. Highly stylised versions of the prequel trilogy's characters, beautifully animated backdrops, a story that doesn't focus on politics and trade federations (although there are quite a few mentions of shipping routes): it's a cool, fast-paced antidote to some of the tedium in the prequels.

It's not without flaws unfortunately: it's a little episodic in places, the music isn't bad but it's just not the same as having John Williams at the helm, but these are minor complaints next to the inclusion of Jabba the Hutt's uncle, Ziro the Hutt...

It's also true that the animation is a little under-developed on some of the characters, and that some of the sparring between Anakin and his padawan seems bizarre (having been raised as part of the Jedi Order, would a young girl really start out so cocky when she's first apprenticed to a renowned warrior?), but all in all this is a fun film that definitely doesn't detract from previous films in the Star Wars franchise. It's not Episode II.5, but it works well as an introduction to The Clone Wars TV show and is definitely enjoyable for both kids and adults alike.

And it also really makes me want to start research on making lightsabers a reality...

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Crooked Little Vein

I read a few books in the last week (including The Raw Shark Texts, which was alright but not as great as it initially promised) but the one which stands out in my mind is Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis. Ellis is the writer of a lot of graphic novels and comic books, and writes a very interesting blog, and Crooked Little Vein is his first novel.

It's a very strange story: a detective who always gets the thin end of the wedge, who always ends up working the weirdest cases is tasked by the Chief of Staff to the president to find the real constitution of the United States - something which can help bring the country back on track. He sets off, meeting body modifiers, Godzilla porn enthusiasts and serial killers on the way...

It's probably not to everyone's taste (and I think ten minutes spent reading through random posts on Ellis' blog will help you to figure out whether it might be to your taste), but it is an entertaining read and it's also a thought-provoking read. People say, "Oh, there's all kinds of weird stuff on the internet" - but the internet is mainstream, it connects a huge percentage of the world's population, and so if something is on the internet, is it not already in the mainstream?

Even if that material is for Godzilla porn enthusiasts?

Crooked Little Vein is not for everyone, but it's a good read, moves along at a breakneck pace and makes you think as much as it makes you go "There can't be people interested in that..."

Monday, 11 August 2008

Happyslapped by a Jellyfish

Happyslapped by a Jellyfish by Karl Pilkington is not exactly what you would normally expect from a travel guide. It's not really close to what you would expect from a series of humourous anecdotes either, mainly because all Karl does is moan about his previous holiday experiences.

That first paragraph probably sounded harsh, let me put this another way: despite being unlike any humourous travelogue you've probably ever read (or any other you ever will read) Happyslapped by a Jellyfish is brilliant. From the opening introduction (wherein Karl discusses why he has stopped buying lottery tickets - because if he won his girlfriend would always want to go on holiday) through to the final handwritten page (which is the end, unless you're a Chinese person who 'reads books back-to-front') it's a fascinating insight into the mind of a person who just doesn't view the world in the same way as other people.

For those not in the know, Karl Pilkington is one of the stars of the world's number one podcast, The Ricky Gervais Show. The other stars, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (creators of The Office), once did some radio work and Karl was their producer on that show. The podcast started in late 2005 and has had several series since then; the format of the show is quite simple all in all, with Ricky and Steve basically just finding out what Karl thinks about various subjects.

I think the only way I can really give you some insight into the mind of Karl is to leave you with a few quotations (from his quotations page on the Pilkipedia - a Ricky Gervais Show fansite):

On Life:
"I look at life like a big book and sometimes you get half way through it and go 'Even though I've been enjoying it, I've had enough. Give us another book.'"

On Ugly Babies:
"You can be an ugly baby and everyone goes 'awww innit nice?' There was some women in a cafe the other week that I was sat in, and she came up and she sat down with her mate and she was talkin' loudly goin' on about 'oh the baby's lovely.' They said 'it's got, er, lovely big eyes, er, really big hands and feet.' Now that doesn't sound like a nice baby to me. I felt like sayin' it sounds like a frog. But I thought I dont know her, there's only so much you can say to a stranger. I dont know what kept me from sayin' it."

On Jellyfish:
"They are 97% water or something, so how much are they doing? Just give them another 3% and make them water. It's more useful."

Friday, 8 August 2008

Flash Fiction: Five Cigarettes

Five Cigarettes
by Nathan Ryder

“I thought you said that you were going to quit.”
She exhales and blows the smoke out, a small grin tugging at the corners of her mouth.
“Let me guess, they'll kill me, right?”
The cigarette is almost gone anyway, I don't know why I brought it up. Just something to break the silence.
“Well - ” I began.
“It's not really been top of my list, you know?”
She checks the pack while she takes another short drag.
“Only four left,” she says quietly.
We both sit in silence, and only speak again when we hear a faint noise, drifting through the night. That's the way it's been for the last few days, just talking until we decide to sleep.
“I'll stop after these are gone,” she says, “I'll make them last.”
A week ago there were six of us. Now there's just me and her.
“We can probably get some more from that shop on the corner,” I suggest. “It's no big deal.”
“No,” she says, taking one last drag and stubbing it out. “I'll stop after these.”
Something outside, closer than before, sends a long howling moan into the night, and once the noise stops we just look at each and blow out the candles.
Ben died two days ago.


We escape over the roofs, jumping from the edge of one building to the next.
They got in.
They're not fast, but the way we figure it, we need to get away and out of sight as quickly as possible. They've not got enough left mentally to chase us for long, they might not even “think” to follow us out of the attic...
There's just so many now.
We stop, out of breath. She points to the top of a petrol station a few stories down. We stop and watch the street, wait until we've caught our breath.
The flat's trashed, gone. And here there's empty streets.
We scale down a fire escape and then just run for it. We climb up onto the roof of a van and from there I can just about reach onto the petrol station. She boosts me up and then I reach down for her, pull her up.
We lie back, saying nothing. I realise after a few minutes that she's shivering. I pull the blanket out of my pack and drape it over her. She looks at me and smiles, lifts the edge of the blanket and I huddle underneath with her.
I wake at sunrise. She sits, her legs hanging over the edge of the roof, watching the dawn, smoke trailing up from the cigarette in her hand.


I hear a scream, drop the torch and then pick it back up again, run.
At the doorway to the shop there isn't a second's pause, and without thinking I find myself throwing the torch straight at the man looming over Jane. She's still screaming. The man stumbles back and I jump over her, falling forwards and taking me and him over to the floor. His arms shoot up and his dead fingers grip at my throat. I put my hand out, scramble and find the torch.
As he starts to pull me down to his mouth I bring the handle of the torch down on the man's face. He moans, growls again and his arms struggle again at me; I bat them away and smash the torch in the centre of his forehead. With something sounding like a sigh he stops moving.
I roll off him and look over to Jane. She's sobbing still, but looks like she's calming down, composing herself.
Something's wrong and for a second I don't understand.
Then I realise. I can't say anything.
“I was just having a smoke,” she says, wiping her eyes and nose on her sleeve, “I turned around and he was just there...”
She catches me staring.
She looks at her hand.


“You promise?” she asks quietly. A thin plume of smoke rises from the cigarette in her hand. Since lighting it a few minutes ago she hasn't inhaled. She holds the other hand close to her, keeping it out of sight.
“I promise,” I say, hoping that my voice doesn't quaver.
She finally takes a drag. We used the last candle two nights ago, and the only light is from a pale yellow moon.
I don't know how long it is before she speaks.
“Where will you go?” she asks. I look at her, and see the light hitting her eyes. They're more distant than yesterday. I'll have to... I'll have to go when she falls asleep.
I want to.
But I promised.
“I don't know... Maybe the next town. Try and find some other people. Food would be nice too!”
“Yeah,” she says, “I think I'll feel better if I eat something.”
I look down, but know that she's looking at me.


Two days later I set out. She died peacefully, and then I waited.
She went less peacefully the second time.
I wrapped her in a bedsheet and laid her in a rooftop garden that I found.
I stood over her and smoked the last one out of the pack.
I'm glad I never started before but I don't think that one will kill me.

Creative Commons License
This short story is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works License. Feel free to repost and share it with others, so long as you credit me (Nathan Ryder, 2008) as the original author and link back to this page. It would also be nice if you dropped me a comment!

Intro to Flash Fiction

Thing number 16 on my list, as regular readers will be aware, is to write 101 pieces of flash fiction. I decided on this as a nice creative challenge, something to just flex my mental muscles while I was thinking about other creative things.

Instead it has taken me over 100 days just to get to the point of finishing the first one! I have plenty of ideas, but when it comes to writing something of between 250 and 1000 words (which is what I am going to take as my restriction) you have to be very creative with the story that you're telling. Now, I'm not suggesting that I am very creative, but I'm hoping that readers will find something interesting in at least a few of these stories that I'm going to tell.

On the off chance that someone wants to link to anything I write, please remember to credit me (Nathan Ryder) as the author, and if for some bizarre reason you'd like to reproduce it in some way or whatever then please get in touch. Look at the Creative Commons licence that I have in the main site sidebar for further detail.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Haiku and a promise

Stitch her together
From fresh meat; my servant snarls;
We wait for lightning.

I don't know what that says about me, I really don't... But there it is. I guess I was thinking about zombie haiku the other day, and a little later this came to me. Something Frankenstein-y, mixed in with black and white movies from the 1950s (I watched the excellent The Last Man on Earth a few days ago, much better than I Am Legend!).

For a long time I've talked about flash fiction as well... And I've promised and promised to write and put something up. And every time I've broken that promise.

Tomorrow I will post my first piece of flash fiction, Five Cigarettes, as it is written and tonight I am just going to go through and see if there is anything I want to tweak. I finished writing it at the weekend, and decided to let it rest for a few days before I looked over it again.

In other news I have started learning C++, as in the absence of news on my corrections from my examiners and news of jobs I've applied for (I've pretty much settled in my head that I am going to go on holiday in September) I thought it would be good to keep the learning process going. Learning C++ is something that I think will be pretty good too, as it gives me some more skills for the future, and will also allow me to achieve one of my 101 things.

'Til tomorrow then!

The Moonstone

It took me a while to get into The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. I started reading it for two reasons, the first of which was that last year I read another novel of his, The Woman In White, which is pretty good; the second reason was that I had recently read somewhere that The Moonstone is thought of as being one of the first detective stories - possibly the first. Since I've grown very attached to reading mystery and noir stories over the last year it seemed like a good book to read.

It starts off quite slowly really, and for a while I was worried that I had mis-read the review ("It's the first detective story... but not that good..."), however before I was a quarter of the way through I was totally hooked. What's great about it is that it totally gives you the feeling of being a participant or a close friend of those involved; it is told in the form of various journals and records of events as they happened and just like the characters in the story, one develops theories as to what has happened to the titular diamond - and time after time that theory is shown to be wrong (the true circumstances of the disappearance of the Moonstone are brilliant, and very imaginative).

The characters themselves are always well-written: some of them are not very likable people, but they are all three-dimensional, they all stand out from the page. Collins gives such life to them, especially to Gabriel Betteredge (a devoted manservant) and to the outcast Ezra Jennings - who gives one of the shorter contributions to the tale but leaves one of the biggest impressions in my opinion.

I don't do marks out of ten or anything like that, but if you are looking for a good book to while away the time as you sun yourself on a beach this summer, or to pass the time on the train or in the evenings then you will be hard pressed to find a better companion than The Moonstone.

Saturday, 2 August 2008


It's been a while, but yesterday having watched "Zombie Haiku" on Youtube (courtesy of a Boing Boing link, and by the way, I guess the link is a little bloody and zombie-ish, so reader beware) I was inspired to write a couple of haiku in the evening. The first actually is a zombie haiku, and is - in some ways - a bit of a cop out, but I think that a lot of fun could be had with it, especially if one was to illustrate it in a really interesting way.

brains... brains... brains... brains... brains...
brains! brains-brains-brains... brains...? BRAINS!!! brains...
brains...? b-b-braaaains? braaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaains...

Let's leave aside the pedantic notion of whether or not zombies really go for brains, or whether it is just a general human flesh thing that they do. I quite like the idea of zombie haiku as a funny little thing, and the haiku in the Youtube video are pretty funny.

The second haiku that came to me is more of a story - well, not quite. Or rather, I was originally thinking of it as the starting point of a story (not in a haiku form, but in some kind of descriptive prose) but then I realised that perhaps the simple imagery of it - and everything that might be suggested by it, or one's own imagination could create from it might make it quite a nice little haiku.

The black box tumbled;
Blocking sunlight we saw it,
And all we knew changed.

That's all I got for now, maybe more later. I was going to go out trainer shopping, but I think that the shopping centre will be busy (and plus, no-one should ever go to a mall when they've been thinking about zombies, it's just wrong) and I can probably shop in more peace if I go tomorrow.

The rest of the family are all out now, so I might just use this opportunity to get some writing done that I keep putting off...

Friday, 1 August 2008


With an absence of pressing emails in my inbox this morning, and also a lack of urgent matters at the office I decided to go and see WALL-E at 11, take the morning off and relax. It was a good plan, WALL-E was just beautiful.

There are lots of big ideas running all through WALL-E; the biggest is probably the disturbing backstory that is responsible for the state of the earth at the start of the film. A single corporation drowns the earth in rubbish, and then takes the entire population away for a five year cruise among the stars that stretches to seven hundred years while robots clean the earth. After seven hundred years there's only one little robot left, a little eccentric maybe, but still working hard.

In some ways the plot of the film is really straight forward, but then it doesn't need to be complicated: it's really engaging, and it's just gorgeous to look at. The romance between WALL-E and EVE is fantastic too, it's one of the greatest little love stories I've seen in a film in a very long time, and once again Pixar's animation has taken another step forward. WALL-E's earth that we see at the start of the film seems almost photo-real, and despite being filled with rubbish is gorgeous to look at.

Plus, and this is a big plus, the Pixar short before WALL-E, Presto, is just sublime. It's a laugh out loud couple of minutes, that reminded me a lot of the sheer anarchy of old Loony Tunes cartoons.

It's been out a while, if you haven't seen it, go and see WALL-E!