As well as Boot and the Hardknott Pass, which I’ve been talking about the last couple of weeks, I spent a fair amount of time around Ullswater while in Cumbria. It’s the second longest of the lakes (after Windermere) and has often been claimed to be the most aesthetically pleasing. For example, Wainwright called it, “that loveliest of lakes, curving gracefully into the far distance“. Be that as it may, it certainly has a wealth of natural beauty and historical interest. But the fact that at many points around its shores, the hills encroach very steeply, means that it is only thinly settled, and parts of it are quite difficult to approach except on foot or by using one of the several launches that go to and fro.
The particular part I want to focus on runs down the eastern side of the lake. It is another part of the Cumbrian network of ancient trackways – later adopted by the Romans for their own purposes. This one is now called High Street, running by the hill of that name a little further south, and ultimately connects to Ambleside… and hence Hardknott, Boot, and the coast.
My starting point, after some gentle approach climbing up from the lake, was at an ancient stone circle called The Cockpit. Nobody knows the original name, or indeed the original purpose. It probably dates from the Bronze Age, could be up to about 5000 years old and is one component of a large collection of ancient sites on Moor Divock. Whenever and whyever it was built, it lay then as now on a crossroads. A roughly north-south route from Penrith to Ambleside crosses a roughly east-west route coming across from Castlerigg (near Keswick) to the Eden Valley and Shap. The much later Romans would be making similar journeys, though they were more interested in their settlement near Cockermouth than in looking at the Castlerigg stone circle. And nowadays casual explorers like me go there.
So from The Cockpit you head south – like Burnmoor near Boot, the current terrain is wild and slightly boggy, but back in the days of prehistoric occupation it was rather more pleasant. There’s a long steady climb up towards Loadpot Hill, but well before you get there you can see many of lakeland’s most dramatic peaks in the distance – Blencathra, Skiddaw, the whole length of the Helvellyn ridge, and then Fairfield and others heading south. You also regularly see other signs of human occupation, from other prehistoric arrangements of stones through Roman mileposts, to a very few much more recent (and ruined) dwellings. The track itself stretches out in front of you, and there’s a real sense of walking in the footsteps of a whole throng of ancestors. You really could walk on through the Kirkstone Pass and down to the shores of Windermere, provided you were equipped for the journey.
I didn’t do that, but turned off the ridge into Martindale, where one last historical treat awaits. The current old church of St Martin’s dates from Elizabethan times, but a church has been there since the Middle Ages. The font – which has been used there for some 500 years – was originally a Roman altar, retrieved by some enterprising villagers from somewhere along High Street. In the graveyard is an ancient yew, which some believe is among the oldest living trees in England and could be up to 1300 years old. That would probably predate the first appearance of Christianity here, and would mean that, like the Roman altar, it had once been involved in very different expressions of spirituality.
All in all a great walk, and one to revisit at some stage. And, of course, all good raw material to stir into the (pre)historical novel Quarry which is slowly coming together in my mind.
Last week I talked about my trip across to Boot and thence up onto Burnmoor to enjoy the prehistoric monuments there. Readers will remember that I had got there over the Hardknott Pass. But the pass itself enjoys another ancient ruin – the much more recent Roman fort of Mediobogdum. It is surprisingly well preserved – presumably because it is far enough away from any of the nearby farms that the stones were not robbed too extensively for building projects.
It’s one of those forts which makes you curious about the Roman predilection for building forts at regular intervals. At least, I presume that this is the reason for building just here. The next fort along is down at Ambleside, at the top end of Windermere – we suspect that this is either Galava or Clanoventa as mentioned by Antonine, and the local publicity strongly favours the first of these. That fort – which is also worth a visit – has been nicely reconstructed so you can easily imagine the life of the garrison, with easy access along northern, north-eastern, and southern land routes, and a decent-sized port to access the lake. But from Ambleside you can also head more-or-less due west, towards the distant sea. To get there you have to cross ridges containing some of the highest Lakeland peaks, and the Romans – like modern road-builders – chose to go over the Wrynose and Hardknott passes.
(As an aside, just to finish the chain of forts and roads, you can head roughly north-west from Ambleside to get over the High Street route (which was an ancient track long before the Romans borrowed it) up to near Penrith and thence on to Hadrian’s Wall. I’ll be saying more about High Street in another post soon. From Penrith you could also go along what is now the A66 west towards Troutbeck, or east towards Appleby-in-Westmorland. Or southwards towards Kendal, Kirkby Lonsdale and Lancaster.)
But then we get to the business of regular intervals, The Romans could have marched on a few miles further down into the valley before building their next fort – say down to the village of Boot, which is comparatively sheltered and protected. But no – the fort was built high up in the pass. In summer it is a spectacular place, with views all the way down Eskdale to the Irish Sea and over to the Isle of Man. The road ended at the sea, at Itunocelum. Now, on a fine day, it would be a great place to be posted. But even in summer, you get a lot of days with low cloud pressing a long way down the pass, or wet trade winds bringing drizzle or worse up from the sea. My guess is that even in summer, you get the great views at most one day in three.
And then there’s the winter days, when a soldier in the garrison would expect lots of gloom, cold and darkness! If you had come up here from southern Italy, you might well be wondering where on Earth you had come to! It’s not even as though there were large numbers of hostile natives to keep at bay – it would have made more sense to site the fort somewhere else.
But here is Mediobogdum. On a clear day it is genuinely spectacular, and also gives a peculiar insight into Roman military thinking.
A few days ago I finally achieved a long-standing goal of walking north from Boot (in Eskdale, Cumbria) up towards Wastwater. Boot is quite remote, to say the least. The shortest route from Grasmere, by a considerable margin, is over the Wrynose and Hardknott passes, but these are difficult in a lot of weather conditions, so some folk take the longer route around southern Cumbria via Ulverston and Broughton-in-Furness. Happily the weather smiled on my journey, so the passes needed only ordinary care – and I’ll be writing a bit more about Hardknott on another occasion. Wastwater has a reputation of being the most remote lake in all of Lakeland, but since it has a fairly direct route up onto Scafell or Scafell Pike (depending which track you choose at the start, down in the valley) it still attracts a decent number of people.
The attraction for me was the chance to see some of the prehistoric sites just north of Boot. Today the region is a rather damp and unprepossessing tract of moorland, but back in the Neolithic and Bronze ages, it supported a reasonable population who (presumably) found it a pleasant spot to live. Times change. Back then, the sea level in the north-west of England was probably somewhere between 10 and 30m above where it is now. The change is principally because the land has risen rather than the sea level falling. As the weight of ice fell away from the land after the close of the last ice age, say about ten thousand years ago in round numbers, the land bounced back (the technical term being “isostatic rebound“). If you take a map of present-day Cumbria and shade in another 20 metres worth of sea, you find that places like Boot were not so far away from the coast.
Not only that, but the vegetation was quite different. Much larger tracts of land were wooded. It is not yet clear whether the trees formed continuous forest, or were scattered in coppices, clustered around the various tarns and streams. Whichever of these is the case, the landscape back then would look very different from what we see today. This change is partly climatic and partly to do with land clearance – the (fairly recent) adoption of sheep farming in the hills has had the side-effect of considerably reducing the tree cover. Some places have kept a decent amount of woodland, but others have almost completely lost it.
As you climb up from Boot, passing some comparatively recent peat-cutters’ houses, you come up onto the moorland plateau. To your left is a belt of lowland, leading to the Irish Sea. Ahead, if you have picked the correct track up onto Burnmoor, is a large rocky outcrop. It overlooks not just one or two stone circles, but no less than five! The first – Brat’s Hill – is the largest, comprising 42 stones in a 30 metre ring, and containing 5 burial cairns in the interior. Following this are two pairs of two smaller circles – White Moss are closer, and Low Longrigg further away.
Why five circles so close? Did they serve different purposes? Did some fall into disuse and needed to be replaced? Did they belong to different clans or religious groups? Or take turns of importance according to some rota? Were the smaller ones practice rings for children or novices? We just don’t know. Most people assume that the outcrop was used as an integral part of the whole – perhaps to summon people to the place, or address them once there. Was it used for group exhortation, religious ritual, treaty negotiation, or social debate? Whatever the original use, it is often now just called “the altar”. Today, as well as the sea off to one side, the great peaks of Scafell and Great Gable overlook the plateau. It is a magnificent place. Perhaps the stone circles were originally in woodland glades – in which case some of the distant views would not be visible. But my personal suspicion is that the trees stopped well short of this area, and that the long views of mountain and sea were an important part of the experience.
Further on – once you have torn yourself away from the rings and skirted the fringe of Boat How – you get to Burnmoor Tarn, nestling in a hollow of the surrounding ridges and overlooked by Scafell. On the northern side the path goes over a saddle and down into Wastwater. And up in the saddle there is a more substantial ring of stones, called Maiden Castle (as so many of these places are). The stones are about 7m across, and are positioned on a slightly larger dry area, raised a little above the damp moorland. It is almost certainly a burial cairn, and you have to wonder who wanted to be buried here, overlooked not just by Scafell and the Gable, but also several other more northerly peaks which have by now become visible.
From here, I turned back to Boot, but you could go on exploring this plateau for a considerable time. But whether you stay a long or short time, the area leaves more questions than answers in your mind. What were these circles used for? Politics, religion, or just fun? One day, I intend exploring these questions in fiction, with an as-yet-untitled story centred on the stone axe “factory” in Langdale… I now have a working title – Quarry – but not much storyline yet…
Well, a couple of weeks have passed and it’s time to get back to blogging. And for this week, here is the Alexa post that I mentioned a little while ago, back in December last year.
First, to anticipate a later part of this post, is the extract of Alexa reciting the first few lines of Wordsworth’s Daffodils…
It has been a busy time for Alexa generally – Amazon have extended sales of various of the hardware gizmos to many other countries. That’s well and good for everyone: the bonus for us developers is that they have also extended the range of countries into which custom skills can be deployed. Sometimes with these expansions Amazon helpfully does a direct port to the new locale, and other times it’s up to the developer to do this by hand. So when skills appeared in India, everything I had done to that date was copied across automatically, without me having to do my own duplication of code. From Monday Jan 8th the process of generating default versions for Australia and New Zealand will begin. And Canada is also now in view. Of course, that still leaves plenty of future catch-up work, firstly making sure that their transfer process worked OK, and secondly filling in the gaps for combinations of locale and skill which didn’t get done. The full list of languages and countries to which skills can be deployed is now
English (Australia / New Zealand)
Based on progress so far, Amazon will simply continue extending this to other combinations over time. I suspect that French Canadian will be quite high on their list, and probably other European languages – for example Spanish would give a very good international reach into Latin America. Hindi would be a good choice, and Chinese too, presupposing that Amazon start to market Alexa devices there. Currently an existing Echo or Dot will work in China if hooked up to a network, but so far as I know the gadgets are not on sale there – instead several Chinese firms have begun producing their own equivalents. Of course, there’s nothing to stop someone in another country accessing the skill in one or other of the above languages – for example a Dutch person might consider using either the English (UK) or German option.
To date I have not attempted porting any skills in German or Japanese, essentially through lack of necessary language skills. But all of the various English variants are comparatively easy to adapt to, with an interesting twist that I’ll get to later.
So my latest skill out of the stable, so to speak, is Wordsworth Facts. It has two parts – a small list of facts about the life of William Wordsworth, his family, and some of his colleagues, and also some narrated portions from his poems. Both sections will increase over time as I add to them. It was interesting, and a measure of how text-to-speech technology is improving all the time, to see how few tweaks were necessary to get Alexa to read these extract tolerably well. Reading poetry is harder than reading prose, and I was expecting difficulties. The choice of Wordsworth helped here, as his poetry is very like prose (indeed, he was criticised for this at the time). As things turned out, in this case some additional punctuation was needed to get these sounding reasonably good, but that was all. Unlike some of the previous reading portions I have done, there was no need to tinker with phonetic alphabets to get words sounding right. It certainly helps not to have ancient Egyptian, Canaanite, or futuristic names in the mix!
And this brings me to one of the twists in the internationalisation of skills. The same letter can sound rather different in different versions of English when used in a word – you say tomehto and I say tomarto, and all that. And I necessarily have to dive into custom pronunciations of proper names of characters and such like – Damariel gets a bit messed up, and even Mitnash, which I had assumed would be easily interpreted, gets mangled. So part of the checking process will be to make sure that where I have used a custom phonetic version of someone’s name, it comes out right.
Wordsworth Facts is live across all of the English variants listed above – just search in your local Amazon store in the Alexa Skills section by name (or to see all my skills to date, search for “DataScenes Development“, which is the identity I use for coding purposes. If you’re looking at the UK Alexa Skills store, this is the link.
The next skill I am planning to go live with, probably in the next couple of weeks, is Polly Reads. Those who read this blog regularly – or indeed the Before The Second Sleep blog (see this link, or this, or this) – may well think of Polly as Alexa’s big sister. Polly can use multiple different voices and languages rather than a fixed one, though Polly is focused on generating spoken speech rather than interpreting what a user might be saying (the module in Amazon’s suite that does the comprehension bit is called Lex). So Polly Reads is a compendium of all the various book readings I have set up using Polly, onto which I’ll add a few of my own author readings where I haven’t yet set Polly up with the necessary text and voice combinations. The skill is kind of like a playlist, or maybe a podcast, and naturally my plan is to extend the set of readings over time. More news of that will be posted before the end of the month, all being well.
The process exposed a couple of areas where I would really like Amazon to enhance the audio capabilities of Alexa. The first was when using the built-in ability to access music (ie not my own custom skill). Compared to a lot of Alexa interaction, this feels very clunky – there is no easy way to narrow in on a particular band, for example – “The band is Dutch and they play prog rock but I can’t remember the name” could credibly come up with Kayak, but doesn’t. There’s no search facility built in to the music service. And you have to get the track name pretty much dead on – “Alexa, Play The Last Farewell by Billy Boyd” gets you nowhere except for a “I can’t find that” message, since it is called “The Last Goodbye“. A bit more contextual searching would be good. Basically, this boils down to a shortfall in what technically we call context, and what in a person would be short-term memory – the coder of a skill has to decide exactly what snippets of information to remember from the interaction so far – anything which is not explicitly remembered, will be discarded.
That was a user-moan. The second is more of a developer-moan. Playing audio tracks of more than a few seconds – like a book extract, or a decent length piece of music – involves transferring control from your own skill to Alexa, who then manages the sequencing of tracks and all that. That’s all very well, and I understand the purpose behind it, but it also means that you have lost some control over the presentation of the skill as the various tracks play. For example, on the new Echo Show (the one with the screen) you cannot interleave the tracks with relevant pictures – like a book cover, for example. Basically the two bits of capability don’t work very well together. Of course all these things are very new, but it would be great to see some better integration between the different pieces of the jigsaw. Hopefully this will be improved with time…
I have been in Cumbria the last few days – England’s Lake District – and have been surrounded by history. Of course there are the hills, first established up to about 500 million years ago and steadily being reshaped by nature’s forces since then. Then there are the various lakes and tarns, mostly the result of glaciation on a timescale of about 11,000 to 100,000 years ago. And of course the various signs of humanity’s use of the landscape, going back a few thousand years.
But also there are specific signs of human activity, and I have been happily looking at some of these. Just outside Ambleside, at the northern end of Windermere, are some rather well displayed remnants of a Roman fort. It’s name is not known with certainty, but the most likely claim is Galava, identified in later Roman records in this vicinity. The earliest fort held a unit of about 200 soldiers, and was upgraded over time to have about 500. As well as barracks and all the usual paraphernalia of a Roman fort, it also boasted a jetty onto the lakeside at which, one presumes, cargo and passengers arrived and departed. From here, roads led off west towards the splendid fort in the Hardknott Pass (which I haven’t yet visited) and also up the eastern side of Ullswater towards Penrith, Carlisle, and Hadrian’s Wall.
But as well as that there are considerably older signs of human habitation, and I have to admit that these excite me rather more than the Roman ones. Back in Neolithic times, there was a stone axe “factory” up amongst the Langdale Pikes. These tower impressively over the Langdale Valley, and are easily identified from many miles away as you approach. If you come as tourist, your first view of them might well be from Windermere railway station, but actually they can be spotted from a few places rather further afield. Axes from Langdale have been found all across Britain and beyond, and were clearly highly prized items in their day.
And as you approach the pikes along the Langdale Valley, on the valley floor just outside a village called Chapel Stile, there is a collection of boulders which are adorned with Neolithic rock art. Like virtually all of such art in Britain, it seems abstract to us, and does not admit of any easy interpretation. It is impossible – when you are there – to think that the people who cut the marks on those rocks were not making a connection with the stone axe site, but the nature of the connection is now unknown. Perhaps they were directions, or messages of welcome, or warnings of how to treat the local deities – but we just don’t know.
It’s an enigma, and a pleasant one to contemplate as you make your own way along the valley… and one day I hope to spin all this lot into a story…
Today’s blog about the link between King Arthur and Cumbria looks at his death, and the mysterious circumstances of the Lady of the Lake. But first, a link between a figure who was definitely real, and the Arthurian tales – the Matter of England, as it has been called.
For this, you have to walk a little way up from the southernmost tip of Ullswater, from the villages of Glenridding or Patterdale. Follow what is now the Coast to Coast walk up the long valley until you get to Grisedale Tarn, in the saddle point between the summits of Fairfield and Dolly Wagon. From here, if you wanted, you could drop down again into Grasmere. And here, according to rumour, Dunmail, the last British king of the region and possibly the whole country, ordered his crown to be flung into the tarn rather than fall into the hands of his victorious enemies (see an earlier post I wrote all about this). When the time is right, just like Arthur, he and his men will reclaim the crown and return to England’s help./ Now, Dunmail (probably) died around 975 AD, a few hundred years after the (probable) time of Arthur, but this shows that the connection was firmly in people’s minds.
Returning back down the Grisedale valley to Ullswater I found, to my surprise, there is a belief that this was the Lake from which Arthur’s sword came. Now, once again this part of the overall story had always been linked in my mind to the south. But not by everyone, apparently. One of the Ullswater passenger steamers is, in fact, called The Lady of the Lake to commemorate this. But how old is the tradition?
Like so many other things about these events, written evidence is comparatively late and almost certainly cannot be relied upon. We have to just look at possibilities.
Indeed, The historian Michael Wood went on record to the effect that the original stories “surprisingly, do not take us to the South West or to Wales, but to Cumbria, southern Scotland, and the ancient kingdom of Rheged, around the Solway”. Arthur’s final battle – at Camlann or Camboglanna – has been variously placed in Cornwall, near Cader Idris in Wales, or near Carlisle – if we follow the norther trail, then the Roman fort of Birdoswald is a very good candidate. Those who watched the 2004 version of King Arthur may remember the whole northern setting. Several other events from Arthur’s life can be credibly located along the Roman Wall, and if he really was mortally wounded here, then a retreat down to Ullswater is feasible. Carlisle to Pooley Bridge, the nearest point of Ullswater, is only about 20 miles.
I must admit that back in the days when I was committed to the southern theory, I could never reconcile the two mental images this last episode conjures up. One is of a moorland battle, with Arthur gazing round at bodies strewn among heather and gorse. The other is of the lakeshore where the sword was finally given back. Down south there are comparatively few places where these images could be reconciled. But a battle near the old wall, followed by a retreat to Ullswater, makes much more sense.
The setting is undoubtedly atmospheric, especially of a morning when mists hover over the waters, with the mountain peaks rising darkly above. When you’re there, it’s actually quite easy to imagine the Lady’s arm emerging from the waters, or Sir Bedivere standing on the shoreline, sword in hand, torn between obedience and desire. I could go along with that.
What of his resting place? Again there is plenty of variety in the tradition to choose from. You have the romantic vision of him that artists often pick, in which he is carried away in a barge, tended to by queens. But there are other options. And according to one of these, Arthur, and possibly a selection of his followers, ended up in caves below Blencathra, also called Saddleback.
Blencathra is north east of Keswick, and only about 8 or 9 miles from the closest part of Ullswater. And it’s a comparatively easy 8 or 9 miles, across open land not particularly broken up by hills and valleys. It’s also an exceptionally bleak area to cross in the wrong sort of weather conditions. Now I have to admit I have never climbed Blencathra in all my many visits to the region – it’s a bit shapeless at its summit, overlooked by the rather more interesting Skiddaw. And part of it – Sharp Edge – is one of the most hazardous locations of the region, resulting in more deaths, injuries and mountain rescue call-outs than anywhere else. For a different and much more upbeat view, real mountaineers such as Doug Scott and Chris Bonnington have said it is one of their favourite climbs. Either way, some say that this is where Arthur rests.
There are lots of competing stories and interpretations, but for me the whole process has been one of realisation that the north-west has a very good claim to Arthur.
Being brought up in the south of England, I had always assumed that King Arthur was basically a southerner. After all, there was Tintagel, Glastonbury, even Winchester, though I knew from an early age that the round table hanging in the castle there had no real connection with him (dendrochronology has set a date around 1275). If I thought about the north at all with reference to Arthur, it was only that maybe he’d gone up there once or twice to trounce some band of malcontents.
But then, rather later, I discovered a strong Welsh connection, and my perspective started to shift a little. I found out that more places, over most of the country, had a claim to Arthurian material, and the southern homeland idea got seriously knocked.
Of course, Arthur is a national symbol, irrespective of any historical reality, so it is natural that associations would be nationwide. And it’s clear that some suggested links are wildly speculative, presumably made by hopeful locals wanting to be attached somehow to the person of the king. But not all of them can be dismissed so quickly.
I’m going to talk in this post and the next about a few links up in Cumbria. Until recently the Lake District had been completely off my Arthurian map, but no longer. But calling it The Lake District brings to mind quiet walks by placid waters, and this is only half of the story of the region. The names Cumbria or Rheged evoke a much more robust image. Until comparatively recently, the area was better known for its rugged and apparently impenetrable mountains, than its placid waters. In 1724, Daniel Defoe wrote that it was “bounded by a chain of almost unpassable mountains which, in the language of the country, are called fells“. So what better place could there be to symbolise the wild unconquered parts of the land?
One of the two easy routes in to the wild heart of the region is from the Eden Valley, via Penrith (the other is up north from Kendal along the shores of Windermere). And indeed, signs of Arthurian connections begin in the Eden Valley. A few miles south and east of Penrith is Pendragon Castle, built, according to legend, by Uther Pendragon, the father of King Arthur. Allegedly Merlin tried to alter the course of the River Eden to make a moat, but his powers were insufficient, and the river stayed where it was. Perhaps with a little more historical footing, Uther is said to have died there after some of his Saxon enemies poisoned the well.
Closer to Penrith is the Neolithic henge known as King Arthur’s Table. Of course the monument itself is vastly older than any probable time of Arthur – probably about 2500 years older. In its day, and long after, it would have been a stunning sight – it is some 90m across, originally with two entrances though one has been obliterated by modern buildings and a road. I can easily imagine a post-Roman leader stopping by to establish some link with ancestral glories. Much later, the site was linked explicitly to Arthur when it was believed that the circular space was used for jousting. In fact we have no idea what the original purpose was, but the area has several henges within a small area, so was presumably a significant location to our remote ancestors (the second henge in the old engraving is long since lost, but nearby Mayburgh Henge still remains).
After that, move a few miles south-west to Ullswater, arriving first at Pooley Bridge. It’s an easier and more obvious route to follow into the hills than today’s A66, although the trail along the 10km of the lake ends in a series of abrupt and dramatic valley ends. Ullswater is one of the longest and deepest of the Cumbrian lakes, and has its own set of monster-in-the-deep tales, reported from early times through to modern visitors. But let’s stick reasonably close to Arthur.
At the northern end of the lake, not far from Pooley Bridge, is Tristamont, or Trestamount, shown on many maps as Hodgson Hill. Local legend has it that this was the burial place of Tristan. Now most of the Arthurian stories present Tristan as a Cornishman by birth (born of Elizabeth to Meliodas, king of the lost land of Lyonesse), but linguistically the name can be linked to Old Welsh, and so directly to the Cumbric language. So a connection with the north-west is far from impossible. The idea of an actual castle, not just a grave, goes back to the antiquarian Rev Machell, who in the 1630s described walls and fortifications here. Now, although it is true that many standing stones and ancient walls in the region have been robbed for building, modern archaeologists are very sceptical that Machell recorded anything more than natural deposits of glacial rock. Under the right conditions, these can indeed look artificial. About the only definite sign of human construction is a ditch around the east side of this hill.
From medieval times – much later than any original King Arthur, though broadly consistent with his reimagining in courtly chivalric terms – we have the tale of Sir Eglamore and his fiancee Emma, probably originating from somewhere around the 13th century. They lived near the waterfall at Aira Force, but the knight was absent on the Crusades for a very long time. Returning unexpectedly, he startled Emma as she was sleep-walking, so that she slipped down the waterfall to her death. Eglamore lived out his days as a hermit beside the falls. It’s a very Arthurian tale, even if not directly linked to the tradition.
So that’s got some of the peripheral details out of the way – next time I’ll be looking at the central details surrounding Arthur’s death and the Lady of the Lake…
For today, a couple of things. The main one is a recap of the main points from the Kindle formatting series. But before getting to that, a quick digression into something else that has involved a lot of work over the last few months.
Back now to the world of ebooks, and a few highlights from the series.
Ebook formatting is similar to physical book layout, but not the same. It’s basically a long thin web page, which can be resized n multiple ways, rather than a fixed-layout snapshot. Don’t try to force too much old-habit thinking into the new world.
The rise of ebooks has put enormous flexibility of choice into the hands of readers. Some people will be happy to accept whatever factory defaults have come their way, but others will want, and expect, to set their device up in their own particular way. They will fiddle with fonts, margins, alignment, colour scheme, and so on. As author or publisher, you should make available as much choice as possible and not assume other people like your choices.
Test your book with lots of different styles of background colour, margin size and so on. Remember that although Kindle accepts png image files, it does not (yet) respect any transparency settings you have chosen. If you want a transparent background, use gif format.
There are two navigation methods for Kindle and other ebooks – a table of contents and the device navigation method typically accessed through a Go To menu or similar. They should both be present.
Think about how formatting will look at the extremes of font and margin size as well as the happy medium. Readabiity studies have made harsh comments about some ways of styling a book as you move away from the centre towards the edges. There are technical solutions which can work around these problems.
Finally, no matter what you do, the result will not be delivered in exactly the same way onto all devices with all possible settings! Quite apart from user choice, there are too many differences that arise between different pieces of hardware and software, and different versions which appear over time. You may well get your writing set out with what you consider the perfect layout in one situation, but it will look quite different to somebody else. This is the reality of digital publishing, and – in my view, at least – it’s something to be engaged with rather than lamented.
My first piece of news today is by way of celebration that I have been getting some Alexa voice skills active on the Amazon store. These can now be enabled on any of Amazon’s Alexa-enabled devices, such as the Dot or Echo. One of these skills has to do with The Review blog, in that it will list out and read the opening lines of the last few posts there (along with a couple of other blogs I’m involved with). So if you’re interested in a new way to access blogs, and you’ve got a suitable piece of equipment, browse along to the Alexa skills page and check out “Blog Reader“. I’ll be adding other blogs as time goes by.
The second publicly available skill so far relates to my geographical love for England’s Lake District. Called “Cumbria Events“, this skill identifies upcoming events from the Visit Cumbria web site, and will read them out for the interested user. You can expect other skills to do with both writing and Cumbria to appear in time as I put them together. It’s a pity that Alexa can’t be persuaded to use a Cumbrian accent, but to date that is just not possible. Also, the skills are not yet available on the Amazon US site, so far as I know, but that should change before too long.
In the process I’ve discovered that writing skills for Alexa is a lot of fun! Like any other programming, you have to think about how people are going to use your piece of work, but unlike much of what I’ve done over the years, you can’t force the user to interact in a particular way. They can say unexpected things, phrase the same request in any of several ways, and so on. Alexa’s current limitation of about 8 seconds of comprehension favours a conversational approach in which the dialogue is kept open for additional requests. The female-gendered persona of my own science fiction writing, Slate, is totally conversational when she wants to be.
It all makes for a fascinating study of the current state of the art of AI. I feel that if we can crack unstructured, open-ended conversation from a device – with all of the subtleties and nuances that go along with speech – then it will be hard to say that a machine cannot be intelligent. Alexa is a very long way from that just now – you reach the constraints and limitations far too early. But even accepting all that, it’s exciting that an easily available consumer device has so much capability, and is so easy to add capabilities.
But while all that was going on, a couple of hundred million kilometres away NASA ordered a course correction for the Mars Maven Orbiter. This spacecraft, which has been in orbit for the last couple of years, was never designed to return splendid pictures. Instead, its focus is the Martian atmosphere, and the way this is affected by solar radiation of various kinds. As such, it has provided a great deal of insight into Marian history. So MAVEN was instructed to carry out a small engine burn to keep it well clear of the moon Phobos. Normally they are well separated, but in about a week’s time they would have been within a few seconds of one another. This was considered too risky, so the boost ensures that they won’t now be too close.
Now this attracted my attention since Phobos plays a major part in Timing – it’s right there on the cover, in fact. In the time-frame of Timing, there’s a small settlement on Phobos, which is visited by the main characters Mitnash and Slate as they unravel a financial mystery. This moon is a pretty small object, shaped like a rugby ball about 22 km long and about 17 or 18 km across its girth, so my first reaction was to think what bad luck it was that Maven should be anywhere near Phobos. But in fact MAVEN is in a very elongated orbit to give a range of science measurements, so every now and again its orbit crosses that of Phobos – hence the precautions. This manoeuvre is expected to be the last one necessary for a very long time, given the orbital movements of both objects. So we shall continue getting atmospheric observations for a long while to come.
The first part of this blog talks about background, so if you’re keen to read instead about my new chat-bot Blakeley Raise, just skip down a few paragraphs… I’m very excited about Blakeley Raise, and hope you’ll check out the new possibilities. If you can’t wait to give it a go, click here.
So, the background… I had the great pleasure of going to the technical day of the Microsoft London Future Decoded conference last week. It was packed with all kinds of interesting stuff – far too much to take in in the course of a single day, in fact. There were cool presentations of 3d technology – the new Hololens device, enhanced ways to visualise 3d objects within a computer, and how 3d printing is shaking up some parts of the manufacturing industry. And lots of other stuff.
But it all threatened to be a bit overwhelming, so I kept my focus quite narrow and stayed mostly with the AI stream of presentations. Top level summary: Slate (in Far from the Spaceports and Timing) has no need to worry about the competition just yet, but there is some really interesting work going on. It will take a lot of generations for Slate to emerge! But the work that is being done is genuinely exciting, and a mixture of faster hardware, reliable communications, and good programming practice means that some tasks are now trickling into general everyday use.
One speaker used the phrase “slices of intelligence” to capture this, recognising that real intelligence involves not only a capacity to learn tasks and communicate visually and in words, but also to reflect on success and failure, set new challenges and move into new environments, interact with others, be aware of moral and ethical dimensions of an action, and so on. We are a very long way from producing artificial intelligence which can do most of that.
But within particular slices lots of progress has been made. Natural language parsing is now tolerably good rather than being merely laughable. Face recognition, including both identity and emotion, is reasonably accurate – though the site http://how-old.net/ produces such a vast range of potential ages from different pictures of the same person that one can be both flattered and disappointed very quickly (give it a try and you will soon find the limitations of the art at present). On a philanthropic note, image recognition software has been used to provide blind people with a commentary of interesting things in their immediate neighbourhood: see the YouTube snip at the end of this blog.
Here’s the bit about Blakeley Raise… For those of us who develop our own software, it is an exciting time. It is extremely easy now to develop a small program called a chat-bot which can be incorporated not just into web pages, but also message applications like Skype, Facebook Messenger, and a host of others. So inspired by all this I have started developing Blakeley Raise, a bot who is designed to introduce potential readers to my books. You can think of Blakeley Raise as a great-great-ancestor of Slate herself, if you like, though I don’t think Slate will be feeling anxious about the competition for a long time yet.
But one of the great things about these bots is that they can be endlessly reconfigured and upgraded. Right now, Blakeley Raise just works by recognising keywords and responding accordingly. Type in “Tell me about Timing” – or another sentence containing the word “Timing” and you’ll get some information about that book. To find out more, navigate your browser to http://www.kephrath.com/trial/BlakeleyRaise.aspx and see what happens. All being well – meaning if I can solve a few technical problems – Blakeley Raise will soon appear on other distribution channels as well. (For those who remember the episode where a Microsoft bot quickly learned how to repeat racist and other inflammatory material, don’t worry – Blakeley Raise does not learn like that)
Finally, here’s a video of one of the more philanthropic spinoffs from Microsoft’s enthusiasm about AI in practical use…