Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Script Frenzy! Tomorrow!

I've been looking forward to Script Frenzy for the last few weeks; it's been great because I'm part of a group who are all looking forward to it too, so we've been letting ourselves get quite excited about it all! Now it's only a day away, and I'm slightly panicking, just as I always do before NaNoWriMo - what if I don't have an idea that will actually spin out to the length it needs to be? What if I just don't have the time to do it? What if life gets in the way? What if it just isn't good enough?

Well. The last question isn't a problem, because Script Frenzy isn't about quality, it's about quantity, and writing towards a goal: that goal being to write 100 pages of script in 30 days. Not 100 good pages. Not 100 finished-send-it-to-Warner-Brothers-or-maybe-Fox-if-WB-don't-pick-it-up pages of script. Just 100 pages. That's only a problem if I don't spend time.

What if life gets in the way or I don't have time? One of the truest things I've discovered through NaNoWriMo and through work in general is that busy people can always fit in "one more thing" - April looks like it is going to be quite busy. I've taken on another workshop which is in a week's time, and have to prepare an introduction/welcome for it, and that's something I've not done before. I've taken on two more students for private tuition. But I'll find the time, I will.

Which just leaves the question of whether or not I have an idea that will actually make it through to 100 pages. And that is something I don't know. I don't even have a title. At the minute I have the pre-credits sequence more or less completely in mind. I have the overall plot I think, what I think happens.

It's a murder mystery. I think. I know whodunnit. I need red herrings. I need other problems. I need to get a handle on the protagonist, who he is, what he is like, how he would respond to the situation that he finds himself in.

Here are some words about my script that I'll leave you with:

Screenplay. Whodunnit. Noirish.
Sci-fi. Far future. Deep space.
Future shock. Changing attitudes. Transhumans.

Tomorrow: GET WRITING!!!

Thing 65: Flickr

I finally pulled my finger out and signed up for Flickr this morning! Someone was telling me that I don't have enough pics on Facebook, and this set off my thinking about 101/1001 and the fact I hadn't started on Flickr yet. Now, Thing 65 says that I will sign up and upload 101 pictures. This morning I uploaded 30 pictures, but I'm tweaking the idea of Thing 65 so that I'm uploading 101 pictures that I take or make AFTER signing up.

I've only used the site for about an hour or so, but already I love it. Registering was a bit of a chore, having to get a Yahoo ID first, but after that it's all good. The interface is beautiful, it's totally pain-free to use.

So. Time to take more pictures!

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness

Bionic arms. Vegan psychic powers. Survival challenges in value stores. Insanely good artwork. Brilliant, three dimensional characters that you care about. Jokes referring to the fact that this is taking place inside a comic book. Jokes making reference to the video game like nature of Scott Pilgrim's world.

I want to say that I will wait, but if my local comic shop has volume four in this week then I am buying it. Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness not only raises the bar on the previous two books, it pretty much blows them out of the water - which is saying something. The world is getting more and more fleshed out, while at the same time retaining a strange sense of mystery to it (it's the modern world, but full of curious little touches that none of the characters bat an eyelid at).

Scott Pilgrim books: GO AND READ THEM.

Thing 78 Complete!

I decided to re-read Scott McCloud's three books on comics now as I was trying to decide whether or not to write a script for a graphic novel/series of strips during Script Frenzy (starting Wednesday!!!). I've had a great time re-reading them, and it's certainly given me a lot to think about in terms of telling stories with sequential art. However, after a bit of reflection I don't think that I am quite there yet in terms of being able to write something like that. I have ideas which I am still trying to draw together - and they are coming together, slowly but surely - but I think for Script Frenzy I am going to go in the direction of a film... More on that in another post.

One thing that the three books have done is to make me realise that I definitely do want to do some kind of comics project in the near future. The ideas I've had might not be in a shape where I feel ready and able to do something with them, but I know that I want to achieve something.

And I will. Watch this space.

Making Comics

The final book in Scott McCloud's trilogy on comics is more of a follow-on to his first book, but also finds time to expand a little on webcomics and digital delivery without making the speculations about the future that I found a bit problematic in Reinventing Comics. Some of the practical things in the book go into maybe a little more detail than I would possibly have liked - it is his longest book of the three - but then that would be really useful to someone who is seriously interested in going into the field and looking for good places to start and exercises that would be helpful to get them going.

The sections on composition and differences in approaches to showing things greatly expands on some of the basic "philosophy of comics" that he talks about in Understanding Comics. The sections which cover webcomics and talk about things that online creators are doing go into a good amount of detail, without going overboard. While he mentions a few times that he now largely uses digital methods for producing comics this is no call to arms to just leave behind pencil and paper.

I really liked the mini-essays towards the end of the book on Japanese comics, genres and thoughts on comics culture. Once again, as I re-read it I was struck by many examples of books which make me think, "Ooooh, I really need to read that." The first time I read it this lead me to Black Hole by Charles Burns, Blankets by Craig Thompson, Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware and eventually to Maus by Art Spiegelman: all of these have something amazing to offer the reader, and there were many more which have stuck in my mind this time as books I need to track down.

Making Comics does make me want to make comics, but also makes me want to go and read comics - no bad thing.

Reinventing Comics

While Understanding Comics is considered to be a bona fide classic, I get the impression from what little I have gleaned from the comics world that Reinventing Comics is seen as a sophomore slump in Scott McCloud's trilogy (well, a trilogy so far, who knows what he has planned for the future) of books on comics. I wouldn't go quite so far as to call it that, but in some respects it hasn't aged well compared to Understanding Comics. Whereas that is still thought of as a definite work when considering comics and comics theory, there are aspects of Reinventing Comics that have lost some of their impact in the decade following its publication.

That's not to say that McCloud doesn't make a number of interesting points about the potential for comics. We do need to get away from thinking that comics are either

  • people in spandex
  • or those funny strips in newspapers
and we certainly need to get away from the a priori condition that comics are for kids. The truth, of course, is that for a long time there have been many instances of material that were comics but which satisfied none of those conditions. The problem of course is that there was kind of a collective consensus among people who don't read them that "that isn't comics... And in fact to call it comics is very dangerous indeed."

(although, seriously, let's not have any more newspaper stories with headlines like "Pow! Comics Not Just For Kids!" going on about how comics have grown up... Seriously)

The areas where Reinventing Comics falls down is when McCloud speculates about the future. Anyone with more than a passing interest in webcomics might have heard about micropayments - an idea which has a lot to offer in some respects but which is difficult to implement from what I have understood in the past; it's an idea for revenue generation which doesn't seem to work nearly as well as other models for generating income from webcomics (such as selling adspace on pages, and selling t-shirts etc).

Also, on this, my second read through (or is it my third?) I'm still not 100% convinced on the idea of using laptops/screens of some description as "windows" to look at comics: McCloud's thesis on this is that there are examples of comics which are hundreds, even thousands, of years old, from the Bayeaux Tapestry through to Egyptian paintings; these older examples were not bounded, but all through the last 150 or so years we have done just that, and bound comics within paper and borders on pages, breaking up the continuous flow of sequential pictures and words. A return to the possibilities of the past then could be done using a computer screen as a window on to a larger sequence, no four panel strips, no standard American/Japanese page size... I don't quite see it. Because at the end of the day, a person is still limited by the screen, this is now the border. Sure, you move along, but is this really any different than if we printed a comic as a concertina arrangement of pages?

Reinventing Comics is still a great read though, and where it might not succeed in my eyes it might be a wake up call and a brilliant idea to others. Even given what I have read about micropayments, there is part of me that still wonders if there is something to it. But more than anything, people working in comics and people reading comics need to be open to new ideas and new expressions of comics - and we need to share our enthusiasm with others.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Thing 45: Ico

Ico was not my first gaming love on the PlayStation 2; I think that by the time I got around to playing it I had already sampled Metal Gear Solid 2 and Final Fantasy X, both of which still have a strong pull on me in terms of the storyline (if not necessarily by their gameplay at times), but there is something fabulously haunting about Ico that has drawn me back in as I start to replay it.

Ico is a boy who is different: cursed with horns he is taken to an ancient castle and imprisoned so that the people of his village will not be cursed as well. Freed from his prison by an earthquake he wanders the castle, finding Yorda, a strange and fragile girl who is pursued by shadowy creatures. Together they travel through the castle, looking for a way out...

...which does nothing to describe the beauty of the game. Essentially a puzzle game, it would be an interesting thing if it were just about this one solitary child trying to find his way out of the castle. By adding the dynamic created by the character of Yorda, who is not under your control, cannot fend for herself, is too physically slight to perform some of the tasks that you can - something else is created. You are not equals, you are her protector, and very quickly you get into the mindset of thinking, "OK, I can do this and this to get to the doorway; how am I going to get Yorda there?"

And the puzzles are fiendish at times! I've played the game once before, and while things are exactly the same on a second play through I've already reached a point where I'm thinking, "And what do I do here?"

I'll write again when I have finished replaying the game, but will probably focus more on the emotional impact that Ico has than on the game mechanics. It's a beautiful, beautiful game... I'd go and play it some more now but I'm supposed to be working!

(which clearly isn't what I'm actually doing, as I'm blogging, oh well)

Thing 78: Understanding Comics

In an effort to try and generate some creative momentum for myself I'm pushing on with a few different things at the moment. My broad idea for Script Frenzy - the first time that I've taken part in it - is going to be something comic-related. Kind of. More on that soon.

To try and get some of the philosophy of comics going through my veins, apart from reading them on a daily and weekly basis as I do, I thought that now would be a good time to tackle Thing 78 on my list of 101 things, to re-read Scott McCloud's three books on comics, Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics and Making Comics.

I'm currently reading Reinventing Comics, I finished reading Understanding Comics over the weekend. It was just as interesting as I remember it being when I got it some years back. I can't quite remember when that was. Within the last five years probably. The central points of it (in my opinion) are that:

  1. comics are not a new phenomenon, although they are taken that way because of the various genres that adopted comics as a framework for telling stories in the last century;
  2. there is something very special going on when people read comics - which isn't to say that there isn't something special going on in your mind when you read a book or watch a play or film, but there is something about comics that is universally understandable - paradoxical since so many people partition off comics as being just for kids;
  3. comics are an artform, comics have a value.
It's certainly given me a lot to think about again, and following hot on the heels of it are the ideas of Reinventing Comics, which focuses a lot more on the ideas and situation as it was in the 90s, as well as pointing out what might happen in the future.

(of course, Reinventing Comics was written in 2000 or so, so we are already seeing whether or not some of McCloud's predictions or ideas are coming true)

Hopefully this will give me some inspiration as I sit down to map out my Script Frenzy; it's not a graphic novel - well it's only going to be scripts in any case, not illustrated except in my own notes maybe - and it's not intended to be a comic strip in the traditional sense. The working title is "Emergence" - and that's all I'm going to say for now, I've got off topic!

Understanding Comics is a brilliant piece of work, presenting in a simple way some really complicated ideas about what comics are. If you have any interest at all in comics and what they can be, you should give it a read.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

A Couple of Classics

My friend Cyran was asking what my definition of a classic film was recently, and I realised that I don't really have a definition that I was using for Thing 71. In my mind I was thinking something like "a film that is considered by many to be great" and for the purposes of Thing 71 it had to be something that I hadn't seen yet.

Well, the two films that Cyran loaned me last week certainly fit the bill. On Friday I watched The Maltese Falcon which I vaguely knew of (I knew Bogart as Sam Spade and that was about it), and then yesterday I watched Citizen Kane, which I thought I knew about but clearly I didn't. I didn't know just how much of it I was familiar with from a Simpsons episode (the one where Mr Burns misses his old teddy bear), and as I didn't know that much about the story - other than it being the life of a wealthy man, and it beginning and ending with "Rosebud" - there was a bit of a disconnect for me as I sat down to watch it.

That's not to say that it wasn't enjoyable: the framing device of having the journalist trying to figure out what Kane's last word meant was brilliant, and the jigsaw puzzle story that this results in is well put together and well told. It's by no means the perfect movie or the "best" that I've heard many critics call it, but it's brave and it doesn't do anything by half measures. From what I've read about it before, there always seems to be a focus on Welles the writer, Welles the director, and his performance always seems to come last in his list of accomplishments (indeed, in the closing credits he gives himself last billing as a performer). It's a very clever performance: starting off extremely big and larger than life, but becoming more and more subtle I think as Kane's life becomes a greater excess (the opera house, Xanadu).

The Maltese Falcon was my favourite out of the two films though; a genuine mystery, perfectly executed and with stunning performances from all concerned. I've only ever read one story by Dashiell Hammett before, The Thin Man, and I knew nothing about the core mystery - though I vaguely knew that Peter Lorre was in the film as well, and Sydney Greenstreet, both excellent. The film is brilliant precisely because it is a mystery, and remains a mystery until the final moments. Many thrillers and mystery films today have their secrets revealed halfway through the final act, to leave some kind of action sequence/chase for the final reel, whereas this keeps the suspense going and you know that there is some final revelation to come... Bogart is brilliant, an absolutely perfect performance; his sly smile, his confidence and the seemingly out of place music that accompanies him through the film - only turning more dramatic as the mystery begins to unfold towards the end.

I have a few classic films on DVD that I haven't watched yet, and should do soon. Yojimbo, The Godfather Part II, and when I get the chance I think I would like to buy some westerns starring Clint Eastwood (especially Unforgiven). And watching all of these great films stands me in good stead for Script Frenzy which is just around the corner...

Monday, 16 March 2009

Flash Fiction: Gone

Nathan Ryder

I met Lisa through WhoKnowsHowLongWeveGot.com. I had stumbled across the site while chasing data and studies to look at and comment on, and it seemed like something I should sign up to.
We started chatting online, first by email and then by IM. She told me a little about her family; about her job as a secretary for one of the few banks that hadn't collapsed in the chaos of the previous six months. She seemed interested in my own work when I told her about it; she was the first person I had met socially who seemed to get it.
She asked me challenging questions about my research. Who's going to look at your site in five years' time? I didn't have snappy answers for that then – I'm not sure I do now – it's just something that I felt I had to do. She understood that drive, and I was grateful that she did. I still haven't answered that question for myself about why I sift through the data, collate and look over the reports and statistics, searching for a pattern.
She didn't mind either that donations through my site (FadeStatistics.org) were paying the bills. I liked to believe that I wasn't tapping into just the layer of desperation that was building up over the global population. I felt better about it that way.

It felt like there was a real connection between us.
We decided to meet.
“After all,” she said, “'Who knows how long we've got,' right?”

We're on our second drinks when she steers the conversation towards our personal theories. She looks really beautiful, I've told her that once already and want to tell her again, but don't want to seem too eager.
She tilts her head to one side when I pause to think about it, try to put my complicated thoughts on the Fade into words. A smile plays across her lips, a smile that carries to her green eyes. Her skin is pale, a fragile beauty, slightly aged before her time – unsurprising, given the circumstances, it's hit us all – but still gorgeous.
“Don't tell me you believe in the ideas coming out of the Bible Belt?” she eventually laughs playfully as I put my thoughts in order.
I smile back and take a sip from the overpriced house red. The bar isn't the nicest place; it was probably alright a year or so ago. The really nice places are now all too expensive for the likes of me and Lisa. The quiet local we might have gone to last year will have closed.
“Well,” I say, “I'm an agnostic when it comes to faith... But no, they can't have their cake and eat it, insist that this is it but 'oh no, we're not going just yet, sir, praise be, it's all part of the plan.'”
“I don't believe that either,” she says, reaching over and squeezing my hand.
“I don't know what it is,” I reply, squeezing her hand back, “I'd like to figure it out. Or at least be a part of solving it. The way I see it, we have to keep looking.”
The other inevitable question came up a few minutes later. I think I brought it up, but I don't remember too clearly. I remember what she said:
“Where was I? I don't know. At home I think. My sister...” She pauses and looks away for a minute.
“My sister was at home with me, she was over for dinner and she called me in from the kitchen. The newsreader was shaking as he spoke; I remember sitting down next to Kate and just listening to the announcement, and to the President and everyone else as they said we had to be strong, that plans were in motion, that 'we' would figure it out.”
“I'd seen it more and more over the month before that – missing persons, suspected abductions – but that was the first time it was really real. Do you remember that thing the other year with the bees? And those feet washing up out of those rivers in Canada? There's always something going on, something in the background and I would think, 'That's weird,' and go on with my life.”
I nodded without saying anything.

We decided to leave the bar. The atmosphere was oppressive and strained in there, people compulsively glancing around the crappy sheen of class every few minutes – just to make sure I guess, though whether they were checking for themselves or on other people I don't know – and so we walked for a while. I tried to keep the conversation on relatively safe subjects: the latest re-runs on TV; the revised property statutes that were being rushed through by the government; Z-list celebrities arguing in the headlines and on the glossy magazines over who had been most traumatised by it all.

We're walking side-by-side.
We're holding hands.
She's pressed in close to me, head resting on my shoulder.

The skies are clear as we walk slowly around the outskirts of a park. It was late July, and not too late at night; we felt fairly safe despite what was being said on TV about the breakdown of society. I hadn't seen too much of that, no signs of looting or rioting or anything that the media had been warning about. Just the usual scaremongering – it doesn't matter that we're all scared anyway, someone has to whip that fear up even more.
Outside her apartment building we pause, chatting about nothing because it's easier than talking about the thing that we both want to know. We smile, both admit that it's been a lovely evening and that we should do it again. We smile some more and beat about the bush, kiss, hug, kiss some more.
Then with her arms tight around me she whispers in my ear, “Stay.”

We both agree that there's no pressure, and in an effort to prove this Lisa puts the TV on, before heading into the kitchen to put the kettle on.
Her living room was nice; family pictures on the wall, a bookcase filled with Tom Clancy and Stephen King, and really neat and tidy. I remember making a mental note to clean up my place before I invited her over.
She comes back through and sits next to me, taking my hand and squeezing it. For thirty seconds we make a pretence at watching a sitcom; almost simultaneously we look at each other, smile, and then start kissing.
We're interrupted by the kettle whistling on the stove; she smiles, kisses me again and jumps up.
“Do you want some help?” I ask.
“No, it's OK,” she calls back, “Do you want tea or coffee?”
“Tea please.”
Ten seconds later –

I wonder, I'm sorry, I know I said I would write this out straight, but I can't. I wonder, I wonder if we had just stayed together, whether...
I know it doesn't make any difference now.
What ifs don't make a damn bit of difference.

“Dan, do you take milk and -” Her sentence was broken off suddenly. I heard something fall, a clang, a rolling; instinct kicked in and I was up. The kitchen was only a few feet away, but my heart was pounding and I was breathless as I stepped up to the doorway.
I didn't expect... Despite the news and what we knew, I didn't think it could be. All that I did, my collection of studies and data, compiling every shred of news on the Fade, and I just – my mind didn't really grasp it until then.
The kettle was rolling a little, rocking slightly on its dented side. Hot water steamed away from pitted grey lino. Poetry fridge magnets. Simple countertops and generic white goods. Obvious Ikea mugs and utensils. More family snapshots pinned to a cork board.
My eyes focused on all of that, barely able to look at the pile of clothes, the black pants and red top that she had been wearing, settled halfway between her black shoes.
The shoes had little silver bows on them.
I hadn't noticed that when I met her.
And her shadow, a dark outline, Fading.
The edges remaining defined for a few seconds longer than the core, the Fade at work.
I didn't mean to, I tried to keep my eyes open, but I suddenly blinked.
Her shadow was gone.
I sank to my knees and just stared at the clothes and the space that she had occupied. Some time later I called the free phone number that you were supposed to use to report a Fading. Lisa Woods ceased to be a person and became a statistic, another string of 1s and 0s that would be used to try to figure out a pattern to the Fade.

That was two years, seven months and four days ago. Eight months ago I began stockpiling. Six months ago I left the city. I hated the feeling of constant scrutiny from other people. I decided to leave after the first time someone tried to break into my apartment. I found a small farming community in the country; we just work to survive and look after each other. We have a big fence. Others come out this way, but they leave us be mostly. I write, sending letters any way I can to other researchers; I can't break the habit. I spend most of my time helping with the crops and the livestock.

Populations are starting to dwindle, clustering together, coping as best they can. The official statistic is that every second between twenty and fifty people around the world Fade. Some think that the true impact of the Fade could be greatly underestimated.
People still die of natural causes of course, and children are still born, but it doesn't matter now. Millions have committed suicide since the Fade phenomena were confirmed by the United Nations. Several countries have decided that now is the time to test their nuclear neighbour's mettle.
No one has reported signs of any other species Fading.
It isn't the Rapture, it's not war or terrorism or aliens (well, that we know of). CERN was discounted. Theories involving disturbances between consciousness and interactions on the quantum scale, while interesting, are untestable.
The world gets larger every day. Remnants of governments try to keep the peace.

There is no pattern.

I don't want to know what happened to Lisa. I don't want to know what's going to happen to me, or when. Time is running out, for all of us.
I hope that it doesn't hurt when I leave my shadow behind.

I hope you're reading this, whoever you are. It's a selfish desire, and while I am still a confirmed agnostic I have one prayer that I make regularly:
Please God, if you're out there, I don't want to be the last to go.

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, 2009) as the original author and link back to this page. It would also be nice if you dropped me a comment!

The Club of Queer Trades

Having read some GK Chesterton before, I was mildly disappointed by this book of detective stories. The book starts off so well, setting up the main characters and an organisation of individuals who earn a living doing things that no-one else does. The first few mysteries are genuinely strange, and are always resolved with a note that the persons involved are connected with the Club of Queer Trades. However, the fact that these stories are linked together turns out to be an extremely wafer thin twist at the end, and for me the conclusion was quite disappointing.

The characterisation, the trades that the various individuals engage in, and the way that the story makes you feel like you are there - living and breathing in Victorian London - all conspire to make you fall in love with the book. Ultimately though, while the individual strands of the six stories are enjoyable, the resolution of the book left me quite nonplussed. Read The Man Who Was Thursday instead.


I've been a fan of Watchmen since before I read it, since I first looked through a book on comics and saw Nite Owl's costume and Rorschach's mask. The first time that I read it I loved it, and then each time since I've taken something else away from it. The film version could never be as good for me as the version that played out in my head as I read it.

That said, the film version of Watchmen is much better than fans of the graphic novel might have been expecting. Yes, there have been some changes; yes, there will be many parts that you think should have been kept in; yes, while some parts are very true to the graphic novel others have changed quite dramatically.

I thought that it was a really enjoyable film: despite being over two and a half hours long I never felt like it dragged once. Patrick Wilson was excellent as Nite Owl, absolutely spot on in terms of look and character, and Rorschach was spot on too; the special effects work for Dr. Manhattan is superb, and there was a real attention to detail throughout the film, getting as many stylistic parts from the graphic novel in, while still making new interpretations as well.

Is it the perfect Watchmen adaptation? Perhaps not, but perhaps every fan of the source material would disagree with me on the things that they really wanted to see. Is it a good film? Yes, it's enjoyable, action-packed and still deals with some of the big themes of the graphic novel. One to watch on the big screen.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Thing 93 Complete!

1. All-out, intense (12)
7. Woman's undergarment (4)
8. Physical effort (8)
9. Stimulant (6)
10. Tennis bat (6)
11. Attempt (3)
12. Whale food (5)
14. Rocky projection (5)
16. Upper limb (3)
18. French brandy (6)
20. Enthusiastic (6)
22. Plant scientist (8)
23. Hideaway (4)
24. Tiny scurrying animal (6-6)

1. Coal-miner (7)
2. Himalayan kingdom (5)
3. Excuse (6)
4. Speculative idea (6)
5. News item (7)
6. Run away and marry (5)
13. Ancestry (7)
15. Earth's attractive force (7)
16. Sharpness (6)
17. Call to duty (6)
19. Aroma (5)
21. Subordinate to (5)

It always seems to happen when I try to fill in a crossword that there is one answer that I just can't get. Well, that's if I get that far. Sometimes I just stare after the first half dozen answers are filled in... Which is why I decided that this would be a good challenge for my 101 things. I've tried about twenty so far, maybe more, and was beginning to think that this might be something where effort alone was not going to win the day, I needed a bit of luck.

I had two pieces of luck today: one was that this crossword started me off with a good few answers; the second was that the final clue I needed to answer was "9. Stimulant (6)" and I had "_I_L_P". This in itself was not lucky, but the fact that the only word I could think of that would fit that was "FILLIP" was a bit fortuitous. And it was right! I have no idea where I saw that word, possibly in some classic novel.

In any case, another one down! I can switch focus to another one of my goals, onwards and upwards!

Monday, 9 March 2009

Every Last Drop

Every Last Drop is the fourth book in the Joe Pitt series of novels by Charlie Huston. It's not a good place to jump into the story, as in the previous three novels there have been so many double crosses and switches of allegiance a beginner would struggle to know exactly what's going on and who knows who.

However, the Joe Pitt novels are a series that are well worth getting into, fusing classic noir fiction themes with a compelling vampire mythos set in present day New York. In this installment he finds himself even more on the outside than usual, everyone who he's ever allied himself with - and a few he hasn't - all trying to play him against the other vampire organisations in New York, while he just tries to survive and take them down a peg or two for the trouble they put him to.

I'd recommend the Joe Pitt novels to anyone with a love of good noir: start with Already Dead and work your way through them all. Four books in the series so far, one more to go - I'm hoping that the final book will be out before I finish 101/1001, so I can give a review of the whole series. 'Til then, without wanting to give too much of the story away, I will just say that I love these stories, and I think you will too.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

I was going to wait. I was going to give it a month or so before buying book two. At least.

But then I was walking around Worlds Apart last Thursday, and I happened to glance at "S" in the graphic novel section. And there was Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. I had had a good morning, been to a meeting about a workshop I would be tutoring on this coming week... Well. Since I am writing a mini-review about it, you can guess what happened.

The opening of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World goes off in a different direction given that book 1 focuses on Scott so much; it threw me a little, but then I was back in with it and hooked right through to the end. O'Malley's artwork is just as fresh and sparkling as it was in the first volume, and the story continues to twist and turn away. The blurring of the edges of reality are great, you never quite know how far things could go in it - when Scott defeats Ramona's second evil ex-boyfriend and gains a "power-up item" as a result I started giggling.

When it turned out that he couldn't take it because he had chosen a different skillset at an earlier levelling up opportunity I laughed out loud.

As with volume 1 I read the book in one sitting, just before bed one night. Volume 2 is brilliant, a fantastic continuation of the story; I know that not all of the series has been released yet, and I am hoping that I can stretch out the pleasure as long as possible before I reach the end of the volumes already released. But I just don't know if I can. I might have to see if Worlds Apart has volume 3 when I go there this Thursday.

Don't read Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World if you haven't read Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life. Do go and read them in order at your earliest opportunity.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Classic Films

My friend Cyran (who is also doing 101/1001) recently mentioned that I hadn't actually made a list of classic films for Thing 71; I started off with some in mind - My Neighbour Totoro was one of them - but since then I've kind of meandered with it. I knew of some films that I wanted to watch or had provisionally pencilled in as a potential, but I hadn't really done anything about it. I'm not suggesting that the following list of films is in anyway definitive - and Cyran and others may disagree with my idea of "classic" - but these are some films that have sprung to mind recently while I have been running the idea around in my head of what I had in mind.

The Seven Samurai
Citizen Kane
The Godfather, Part II
The Godfather, Part III
Forbidden Planet
Blood Simple
Godzilla (the original)
On Her Majesty's Secret Service
North By Northwest
Gone With The Wind (?)
The Big Sleep
Near Dark
Withnail And I (?)
The Sound of Music
The Conversation

So, what do you think? Do you agree with what I have listed? Anything essential that I am missing? Bear in mind, these are classic films that I feel I really ought to have seen but haven't. You're not psychic (probably), so you don't know what I have or haven't seen - so tell me, what is a classic film that you would recommend?

Recent Books

With Script Frenzy approaching I am winding down on reading books at the moment and trying to turn my mind to writing more, but I have a few books out from the library at the moment, and so feel that I should get them finished before I start writing my breakthrough screenplay.

Or graphic novel. I haven't really decided between one or the other yet.

Earlier this week I finished End of the World Blues by Jon Courtenay Grimwood; I've been meaning to read something by him for a long time, and vaguely had an idea that he had written a sequence of books (or maybe more than one, I don't know), so when I saw the book on the shelf my first instinct was to check that it was not "Book One of..." End of the World Blues centres on Kit Nouveau, a British ex-pat living in Tokyo. He runs a bar with his Japanese wife, a famous artist, and teaches English to a woman he is having an affair with.

A series of events leave him convinced that someone wants him dead, and so when his dead ex-girlfriend's mobster mother visits to ask for help in finding out whether or not his ex really is dead, he leaves Japan pretty quickly and begins investigating. Neku is a Japanese teenager who tags along with him; she is also one of the last humans from the far future and her presence in our time is as much a mystery to her as it is to the reader. The novel alternates scenes from now with scenes of a strange feudal future in the last years of Earth, and while this makes for an interesting novel I'm not entirely convinced that it makes for a totally satisfying experience. The disconnect between the two eras is quite profound, not least because there is very little crossover between the two storylines. Neku isn't out to change the future or perform some desperate mission - which quite refreshing, a time traveller not out to save the world in some way - but at the same time the expectation at the start that she is there to perform some vital service fizzles out (especially since she is dramatically introduced into Kit's life).

End of the World Blues is an interesting novel, and an engaging read; for me, it's main flaw was that the scenes in the far future could have been skipped without effecting the enjoyment or understanding of the parts of the novel set in the present day.

Dr. No is the sixth James Bond novel, and while it's not one of my 101 things to read all of the Bond books I have a feeling that I might have managed that by the time my 30th birthday rolls around. Fleming's genius is taking us on a real escapist journey, and making the reader feel as though they really are there with James Bond as he tangles with the henchmen of the mysterious Dr. No, or that we are living the high life as a double-0 agent.

I don't want to spoil any of the story at all; it's as well-crafted as any of the Bond stories that I have read so far, with a mix of glamour, danger and excitement, bound together by the paradox of cold-hearted killer and ladies' man that is James Bond. I'll keep my eyes peeled for Goldfinger once Script Frenzy is over and I am back to borrowing from the library.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009


While I've been solving maths puzzles, reading books and working on pieces of fiction, I've also been throwing a few little haiku around. Here are three.

Your smile dies out,
A memory taken now.
A fading picture


"I can wait," she says,
At Winter's Edge. I decline;
I know her too well.


I watched a while,
Then realised, too late - BLAM!
You knew where I was...

Thing 82 Complete!

82. Solve twenty-five of the problems on Project Euler. (25/25) - done! 4/3/2009

Very pleased with this, feels good to get something else accomplished. So many of my goals are things that I have to chip away at - read 101 books, write 101 pieces of flash fiction - it feels good to have done this and for it to be done. It doesn't mean that I won't be doing any more of the problems, but I can put them to one side for the moment while I concentrate on other things.

The thing that has come out of working on this and on Thing 62 is that it has made me realise just how much I miss doing maths as part of my regular routine, as part of my life. I've been enjoying what I've been doing in terms of work recently, but lately it's come to me just how important maths was - and is - to me. So I need to start thinking long term about how I can make it part of my day-to-day life again, or how I can work that into my long term career goals.

But that's a thought for another day! Thing 82 - done!

Project Euler, Problems 10 and 17

Problem 10
Calculate the sum of all the primes below two million.

I was thinking about this for quite a while; it's extremely simple to write something which checks if a number is prime or not, and it's just as simple to put together a loop to check all of the primes below two million (start with 3, go for all the odd numbers up to 1999999, add the contribution of 2 at the end). The problem is actually summing all of that, because the basic C++ construction can't handle it with simple integers (which is pretty much all I can do at the minute!).

Then, late last night I had my idea: check what the limit is for integers, and then have it sum up to somewhere just below that limit, then output the sum and start from 0 and keep going, summing and outputting all the way up to two million. This gave somewhere in the region of seventy 10-digit numbers. Ouch! Except I could then copy the output, import it into OpenOffice Calc and get that to sum them all. Problem solved.

Problem 17
If the numbers 1 to 5 are written out in words: one, two, three, four, five, then there are 3 + 3 + 5 + 4 + 4 = 19 letters used in total. If all the numbers from 1 to 1000 (one thousand) inclusive were written out in words, how many letters would be used?

NOTE: Do not count spaces or hyphens. For example, 342 (three hundred and forty-two) contains 23 letters and 115 (one hundred and fifteen) contains 20 letters. The use of "and" when writing out numbers is in compliance with British usage.

For a little while I thought - for some reason, I don't know - that this was much more difficult than it actually is. It's quite easy. Work out the number of letters used to write the numbers one to nine, and then ten to nineteen. Now, for twenty to twenty-nine the total letters are going to be 6*10 (for all of the "twenty"s) plus the total letters for writing the numbers one to nine. Repeat for thirty through to ninety-nine, take the total and you have the number of letters for one through to ninety-nine.

Then, for example, from one hundred to one hundred and ninety nine we have 100*10 (for all of the "one hundred"s) plus 99*3 (for all of the "and"s) plus the total letters for one to ninety-nine. Repeat for all of the other hundreds, and add 11 at the end for "one thousand". I thought this was so much more difficult than it was, but after the idea came to me it took me about twenty minutes with pencil and two small pieces of notepaper, all worked out by hand.


And that my friends, is twenty-five problems done for Project Euler. Blog post on completing Thing 82 to follow!

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Project Euler, Problems 11 and 30

Problem 11
In the 20×20 grid below, four numbers along a diagonal line have been marked in red.

08 02 22 97 38 15 00 40 00 75 04 05 07 78 52 12 50 77 91 08
49 49 99 40 17 81 18 57 60 87 17 40 98 43 69 48 04 56 62 00
81 49 31 73 55 79 14 29 93 71 40 67 53 88 30 03 49 13 36 65
52 70 95 23 04 60 11 42 69 24 68 56 01 32 56 71 37 02 36 91
22 31 16 71 51 67 63 89 41 92 36 54 22 40 40 28 66 33 13 80
24 47 32 60 99 03 45 02 44 75 33 53 78 36 84 20 35 17 12 50
32 98 81 28 64 23 67 10 26 38 40 67 59 54 70 66 18 38 64 70
67 26 20 68 02 62 12 20 95 63 94 39 63 08 40 91 66 49 94 21
24 55 58 05 66 73 99 26 97 17 78 78 96 83 14 88 34 89 63 72
21 36 23 09 75 00 76 44 20 45 35 14 00 61 33 97 34 31 33 95
78 17 53 28 22 75 31 67 15 94 03 80 04 62 16 14 09 53 56 92
16 39 05 42 96 35 31 47 55 58 88 24 00 17 54 24 36 29 85 57
86 56 00 48 35 71 89 07 05 44 44 37 44 60 21 58 51 54 17 58
19 80 81 68 05 94 47 69 28 73 92 13 86 52 17 77 04 89 55 40
04 52 08 83 97 35 99 16 07 97 57 32 16 26 26 79 33 27 98 66
88 36 68 87 57 62 20 72 03 46 33 67 46 55 12 32 63 93 53 69
04 42 16 73 38 25 39 11 24 94 72 18 08 46 29 32 40 62 76 36
20 69 36 41 72 30 23 88 34 62 99 69 82 67 59 85 74 04 36 16
20 73 35 29 78 31 90 01 74 31 49 71 48 86 81 16 23 57 05 54
01 70 54 71 83 51 54 69 16 92 33 48 61 43 52 01 89 19 67 48

The product of these numbers is 26 × 63 × 78 × 14 = 1788696. What is the greatest product of four adjacent numbers in any direction (up, down, left, right, or diagonally) in the 20×20 grid?

I thought for a while about whether or not I should approach this one, whether it would be something that could be done in a reasonable amount of time. I also struggled with how I could do it simply with my limited amount of C++.

Eventually I decided that the best thing to do would be to do it myself - after all, there were only 400 entries in the grid. The simple thing with this was to cross out numbers as they became irrelevant. Initially my criteria were for just plain low numbers, anything below 10. Then, as I found a sequence of four numbers which produced a higher value, z, than the previous high, it hit me that I should find the largest number x such that the cube root of z/x was greater than 99. That way, I would then be free to remove every number less than x which remained in the grid. As numbers were blanked out, opportunities to "connect four" were reduced, and new sequences became apparent. This gave a new high z, and a new x, and so on. This approach probably took around 40 minutes to give the correct answer, much less time than it would have taken for me to program something to search the grid in C++ (had I even known how to encode the grid).

Problem 30
Surprisingly there are only three numbers that can be written as the sum of fourth powers of their digits:

1634 = 1^(4) + 6^(4) + 3^(4) + 4^(4)
8208 = 8^(4) + 2^(4) + 0^(4) + 8^(4)
9474 = 9^(4) + 4^(4) + 7^(4) + 4^(4)

As 1 = 1^(4) is not a sum it is not included. The sum of these numbers is 1634 + 8208 + 9474 = 19316. Find the sum of all the numbers that can be written as the sum of fifth powers of their digits.

Following the previous problem that I solved which involved the sum of factorials of digits this was quite straightforward to solve. With a little bit of thought looking at multiples of 9^5 I was able to establish quite quickly what an upper bound would be; then I simply adapted the routine I'd used previously, and it arrived at the correct answer in next to no time.


Two to go!!! Maybe by the end of this week? Keep your fingers crossed.

Vegetarian Month I Final Update

My first month of vegetarianism is over; it was pretty good all in all; I don't think that I used it to its full potential all in all, I should have looked at more different recipes than I did, but it did feel good to have a change.

I did miss eating meat and fish, but I didn't crave it at all - except on one occasion when my family were having bacon - and now that I'm back eating meat and fish I don't feel any great compulsion to eat it. I had a nice trout fillet on Sunday and some cottage pie yesterday, but think I will be eating less meat and fish from now on.

The best thing that came out of the month was my discovering homemade soup. So simple, so tasty and I just loved making and eating it. I'll be doing that more often.

April might be veggie month II, not decided yet. Veggie month III will probably be next February. Stay tuned for soup recipes!