Category Archives: Historical fiction

A bit of history

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.

Commanding Officer's house, Ambleside Roman fort
Commanding Officer’s house, Ambleside Roman fort

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.

The Langdale Pikes from a distance
The Langdale Pikes from a distance

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.

Rock art at Chapel Stile Boulders
Rock art at Chapel Stile Boulders

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…

The Langdale Pikes from Chapel Stile boulders
The Langdale Pikes from Chapel Stile boulders

Language and pronunciation

Half Sick of Shadows Alexa skill icon
Half Sick of Shadows Alexa skill icon

I’ve been thinking these last few days, once again, about language and pronunciation. This was triggered by working on some more Alexa skills to do with my books. For those who don’t know, I have such things already in place for Half Sick of Shadows, Far from the Spaceports, and Timing. That leaves the Bronze Age series set in Kephrath, in the hill country of Canaan. And here I ran into a problem. Alexa does pretty well with contemporary names – I did have a bit of difficulty with getting her to pronounce “Mitnash” correctly, but solved that simply by changing the spelling of the text I supplied. If instead of Mitnash I wrote Mitt-nash, the text-to-speech engine had enough clues to work out what I meant.

So far so good, but you can only go part of the way down that road. You can’t keep fiddling around with weird spellings just to trick the code into doing what you want. Equally, it’s hardly reasonable to suppose that the Alexa coding team would have considered how to pronounce ancient Canaanite or Egyptian names. Sure enough the difficulties multiplied with the older books. Even “Kephrath” came out rather mangled, and things went downhill from there.
Amazon Dot - Inactive
Amazon Dot – Inactive

So I took a step back, did some investigation, and found that you can define the pronunciation of unusual words by using symbols from the phonetic alphabet. Instead of trying to guess how Alexa might pronounce Giybon, or Makty-Rasut, or Ikaret, I can simply work out what symbols I need for the consonants and vowels, and provide these details in a specific format. Instead of Mitnash, I write mɪt.næʃ. Ikaret becomes ˈIk.æ.ˌɹɛt.

So that solved the immediate problem, and over the next few days my Alexa skills for In a Milk and Honeyed Land, Scenes from a Life, and The Flame Before Us will be going live. Being slightly greedy about such things, of course I now want more! Ideally I want the ability to set up a pronunciation dictionary, so that I can just set up a list of standard pronunciations that Alexa can tap into at need – rather like having a custom list of words for a spelling checker. Basically, I want to be able to teach Alexa how to pronounce new words that aren’t in the out-of-the-box setup. I suspect that such a thing is not too far away, since I can hardly be the only person to come across this. In just about every specialised area of interest there are words which aren’t part of everyday speech.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

But also, this brought me into contact with the perennial issue of UK and US pronunciation. Sure, a particular phonetic symbol means whatever it means, but the examples of typical words vary considerably. As a Brit, I just don’t pronounce some words the same as my American friends, so there has to be a bit of educated guesswork going into deciding what sound I’m hoping for. Of course it’s considerably more complicated than just two nations – within those two there are also large numbers of regional and cultural shifts. And of course there are plenty of countries which use English but sound quite different to either “standard British” or “standard American”.

That’s for some future, yet to be invented, dialect-aware Alexa! Right now it’s enough to code for two variations, and rely on the fact that the standard forms are recognisable enough to get by. But wouldn’t it be cool to be able to insert some extra tags into dialogue in order to get one character’s speech as – say – Cumbrian, and another as from Somerset.

King Arthur and the north – part 2

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.

Grisedale Tarn from Dolly Wagon
Grisedale Tarn from Dolly Wagon

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.

Lady of the Lake on Ullswater
Lady of the Lake on Ullswater

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?

Looking down Grisedale towards Patterdale
Looking down Grisedale towards Patterdale

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.

King Arthur (2004) DVD cover (Amazon)
King Arthur (2004) DVD cover (Amazon)

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.

Water, mist and hills...
Water, mist and hills…

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.

The Death of Arthur by James Archer (Wiki)
The Death of Arthur by James Archer (Wiki)

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.

Looking across Derwent Water towards Blencathra under looming skies
Looking across Derwent Water towards Blencathra under looming skies

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.

King Arthur and the north – part 1

Round table, Winchester Castle (Wiki - By Martin Kraft - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16639627)
Round table, Winchester Castle (Wiki)

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.

Daniel Defoe's memorial, Bunhill Fields Burial and Gardens, Islington
Daniel Defoe’s memorial, Bunhill Fields Burial and Gardens, Islington

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?

Pendragon Castle looking out at the River Eden (Wiki)
Pendragon Castle looking out at the River Eden (Wiki)

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.

King Arthur's Round Table, engraving (English Heritage)
King Arthur’s Round Table, engraving (English Heritage)

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).

1825 painting of Ullswater (Wiki - Museum of Wales - By John Parker - This image is available from the National Library of WalesYou can view this image in its original context on the NLW Catalogue, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47585043)
1825 painting of Ullswater (Wiki – Museum of Wales)

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.

Glenridding and Ullswater, picture taken from a similar place as the painting above
Glenridding and Ullswater, picture taken from a similar place as the painting above

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.

Aira Force (Wiki)
Aira Force (Wiki)

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…

Arthur meets the Lady of the Lake (Wiki, illustration by Henry Justice Ford)
Arthur meets the Lady of the Lake (Wiki, illustration by Henry Justice Ford)

Kindle preparation part 2 – the files

Contents of epub file
Contents of epub file

Last time I looked at the basic principles of a Kindle mobi or general epub file. This time I’ll be focusing a bit more on what the different ingredients do. We’ll also start to uncover a few more places where Kindle and epub handle things differently. For reference, here is a sample set of files you need for an epub book – Kindle is essentially the same but some “administrative” bits are inserted automatically by KindleGen so you don’t need to worry.

Somebody who uses Microsoft Word or some similar software to construct their book may find the following paragraphs confusing, since they will probably never have needed to address this directly. But under the bonnet this is what is happening with your book preparation, and many years of technical software and QA work has convinced me it’s better to know rather than not know. At very least this may help diagnose when something goes wrong!

Preamble / metadata section of opf file
Preamble / metadata section of opf file

So, the key ingredient is the opf file which ties everything together. It has four main sections. The first is Metadata – a general information section containing things like author name, book title, publisher, ISBN (if any), price, brief description, and so on. The kind of detail you might expect to see on a library card or catalogue entry. I’ll be giving specific examples of the different files later in this series but for now want to concentrate on principles rather than details. There are also some important places where you have to ensure that a reference in one place matches one somewhere else – again, I’ll return to this.

Manifest section of opf file
Manifest section of opf file

The second section is a list of resources – the Manifest. For epub this must be complete, and although KindleGen is clever enough to fill in some gaps, it is good practice to be thorough here as well. So this identifies all content files, any separate style sheets, all images including cover, the ncx navigation file, and anything else you intend to include. But it’s a simple list, like the ingredients for a recipe before you get to the directions, and this section doesn’t tell KindleGen or an epub reader how to assemble the items into a book.

Spine section of opf file
Spine section of opf file

The third section – the Spine – does this work of assembly. It lists the items that a reader will encounter in their correct order. This section turns your simple list of included items into a proper sequence, so that chapter two comes after chapter one. Here you also link in the ncx file so it can do its job.

Guide section of opf file
Guide section of opf file

The final section – the Guide – defines key global features of the finished book. For example, this is where you define the cover, the HTML contents page, and the start point – the place where the book opens for the very first time, and the target for the navigation command “Go to Beginning” (or equivalent). It’s worth remembering that the start point doesn’t have to be the first page – many books set this after the front matter, so that you skip over title pages and such like and begin at the beginning of the actual story. But be warned that following a scam to do with counts of pages read, Amazon does not take kindly to people putting the start point too far through the book.

epub treatment of png and gif transparency
epub treatment of png and gif transparency

Images can cause unexpected problems. The opf file expects you to supply not just a file name, but also the file type, such as jpeg, png or gif. And here we encounter one of those annoying differences between devices. Kindle accepts png files along with jpeg and gif, and many people are used to the convenient feature of the png format that it allows transparency. A png with transparency will – usually – take on the background from whatever happens to be behind it, like the page background for example. An epub file will do exactly this if you use coloured background.

Kindle treatment of png and gif transparency
Kindle treatment of png and gif transparency

But KindleGen does not. You can supply a png file successfully, but internally it will be converted to jpeg format… and jpegs do not allow transparency. The background will be converted to white, and the final effect will not be what you hoped for. The way round this is to use gif images if you want transparency, but since this is an old format many people do not suspect that this is necessary.

Now, sometimes this won’t matter – for example if you want to insert a map, and have it look as though it is on white paper. But other times it looks decidedly odd, when it is intended to be just a logo or divider symbol. It’s a thing which particularly catches out those who are used to printed books, or older Kindles which only supported black-and-white. It’s not very long since I discovered this hidden conversion png -> jpeg that KindleGen does, and as a result expanded my pre-publication testing considerably.

A couple of closing comments about the files themselves. The contents files ought to be valid HTML – this sounds obvious, but most browsers, and KindleGen, are very forgiving about syntax errors, so people often forget to be careful. But although the output file may be generated, such errors can lead to surprising changes of appearance between paragraphs. It is good practice to use the w3.org online validator to check this – it’s completely free, and will either confirm that the file is valid or else tell you what’s wrong and how to fix it. Alternatively, once you have built an epub file, the free epubcheck utility will do a similar job as one of its several checks. (I’ll come back to epubcheck when I talk about building an epub file). Other than that, you are at liberty to split up content however you like – all in a single file, or one per chapter, or whatever. It’s up to whatever you find convenient (though a few epub apps load just one file at a time so you might notice a slight delay every now and again while reading).

Goodreads annual stats and other things

A quick blog today, focusing on a couple of things. First, like most of us, my annual Goodreads statistics appeared, telling me what I had read in 2016 (or at least, what GR knew about, which is a fair proportion of what really happened).

Cover - The Recognition of Shakuntala (Goodreads)
Cover – The Recognition of Shakuntala (Goodreads)

So, I read 52 books in the year, up 10 from 2015 (and conveniently one a week). but the page count was down very slightly. I guess I’m reading shorter books on average! Slightly disappointingly, there were very few books more than about 50 years old, with Kalidasa’s Recognition of Shakuntala the outstanding early text. This year, I have a target of reading more old stuff alongside the new. In 2016 there was also more of a spread of genres, with roughly equal proportions of historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and non-fiction (aka “geeky”), contrasting with previous years where historical fiction has dominated.

I also recently read that Amazon passed the landmark of 5 million ebooks on their site in the summer, slightly ahead of the 10th birthday of the Kindle itself. The exact number varies per country – apparently Germany has more – but currently the number is growing at about 17% per annum. That’s a lot of books… about 70,000 new ones per month, in fact. Let nobody think that reading is dead! As regards fiction, Romance and Children’s books top the counts, which I suspect will come as a surprise to nobody.

Finally, we have just had a space-related anniversary, namely that of the successful landing of the ESA Huygens probe on Saturn’s moon Titan on January 14th 2005. An extraordinary video taken as it descended has been circulating recently and I am happy to reshare it. Meanwhile the Cassini “mothership” is in the last stages of its own research mission and, with fuel almost exhausted, will be directed to burn up in Saturn’s atmosphere later this year. I vividly remember the early mission reports as Cassini went into orbit around Saturn – it’s a bit sad to think of the finale, but this small spacecraft has returned a wealth of information since being launched in 1997, and in particular since arriving at Saturn in 2004.

(Video link is https://youtu.be/msiLWxDayuA?list=PLTiv_XWHnOZpKPaDTVy36z0U8GxoiIkZa)

Celebrations

Christmas pudding and whisky
Christmas pudding and whisky

It’s a time of the year when we think about celebrations. Midwinter is an important time for several different religious reasons, but nowadays the main focus is on family and social events. To some extent, the spiritual roots of the festival as a time when new beginnings are stirring in the darkness of the year – at least, for those of us living in the northern hemisphere – have been overlaid with a focus on much more immediate pleasures. We meet as families, we eat and drink, we play games. In many workplaces the office party provides an arena in which normal hierarchies can be set aside for a while.

Yi Peng Lantern Festival, Thailand (Photo by Justin Ng)
Yi Peng Lantern Festival, Thailand (Photo by Justin Ng)

My guess is that even at times when religious observance was more common than now, these more visceral elements were still an important part of the winter festival. Human beings may be rational animals (the saying goes back to Aristotle, some 350 years BC) but we are also playing animals, and fun-loving animals. Go back through the sacred calendars of the world’s religions, and you will find plenty of opportunities to celebrate as well as be solemn. Hardship and deprivation hardly ever erase the human desire to make meaning by way of groupish events.

Of course, the very same things which make an event good for one person might be difficult or painful for another. The celebrations that a group of people chooses can serve to reinforce difference, rather than undo such barriers. We may be good at finding causes to celebrate, but we’re also good at finding ways to include and exclude others from our celebrations. It would be nice to think that opportunities for inclusion might outweigh exclusion as we move forwards.

I see the act of celebration as one of the great unifying threads holding humanity together, whether you look back into the remote past or forward into the distant future. Whichever of these I am writing about, there will always be group events! However challenging the times, however alien the setting, it’s hard to imagine a society which has no provision for communal events.

The M31 Andromeda Galaxy, the most distant object easily visible to the naked eye, NASA/JPL
The M31 Andromeda Galaxy, the most distant object easily visible to the naked eye, NASA/JPL

Kindle Countdown offer – historical fiction

Cover - In a Milk and Honeyed Land
Cover – In a Milk and Honeyed Land

I was nearly set up to start a series of blogs on Kindle formatting, having been reading a lot about that recently. But those aren’t quite ready yet, so instead I am just advertising that a Kindle Countdown offer is now running on my historical fiction series.
So all this week, up until Monday 12th, you will find the following books at reduced price on the Amazon UK and US stores;

 

In a Milk and Honeyed Land

Scenes from a Life

The Flame Before Us

 

Thin slices of intelligence – meet the bot ‘Blakeley Raise’

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

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.

HAL 9000 from 2001 - A Space Odyssey (Wiki)
HAL 9000 from 2001 – A Space Odyssey (Wiki)

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.

Blakeley Raise icon
Blakeley Raise icon

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.

Kinninside Stone Circle at Blakeley Raise, Cumbria (Wiki)
Kinninside Stone Circle at Blakeley Raise, Cumbria (Wiki)

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…

 

Guest blog at Dawlish Chronicles – South-West England’s Gigs

This is a guest blog I wrote for Antoine Vanner’s Dawlish Chronicles – follow the link for the original in context. The part at the end where I talk about Dawlish refers to Antoine’s protagonist, Nicholas Dawlish, who is a Royal Naval officer in the latter part of the 19th century. I have reviewed several of his books before, and am looking forward to reading the latest, Britannia’s Amazon, available now in paperback and shortly in Kindle.

Antoine has kindly given me space today to talk about gigs and their use in south-west England, specifically the Scilly Isles and Cornwall. So far as I am aware these have never been used in war, but their history is no less exciting or varied for that.

Gig Lyonnesse on St Agnes
Gig Lyonnesse on St Agnes

First, what is a gig in this context? Picture something that looks roughly like a clinker-built rowing eight. Keel to gunwale depth is around two feet, and once crewed, the waterline is almost exactly at the mid-point. At 32′ long, just under 5′ beam, but with elm planks only 1/4″ thick, the boat is light enough that the crew can pick her up and carry her into the water. Many years of experience mean that a gig has been built robustly enough to take on the Atlantic swell, despite the apparent flimsiness.

Like an eight, each oarsman has a single oar, and they sit to row alternately port and starboard facing the cox’n. But curiously, they have only six rowers, reflecting part of their history. A mast and lugsail could be fitted if desired, though in commercial practice this was rarely done. They are fast, tough little boats, and at one stage played a crucial role in the economic livelihood of the islands. Today they have retired from commercial use, but have found a new lease of life in competitive sport. The annual world gig racing championship is held on Scilly every April/May. In 2016 it attracted more than 150 boats from many different countries.

Some of the 3000+ rowers in the 2016 races (ITV West Country)
Some of the 3000+ rowers in the 2016 races (ITV West Country)

We can trace the history of the gig back to 1666 at least, when vessels from St Mary’s were involved in rescuing the crew of the Royal Oak, wrecked out at what is now the Bishop Rock lighthouse. We have no reason to suppose there were not earlier vessels of essentially the same pattern. All modern gigs are based on the lines of an early 19th century design by William Peters. They had two principal uses, the main one being to get local pilots out to incoming ships as quickly as possible. Whoever got there first got the contract, hence the need for speed. Scilly was one of the major landmarks for vessels inbound from the western trade routes, but the seas are treacherous here, with countless rocks and reefs. Even with modern navigation aids they are hazardous: how much more so in former days? So families or village groups would aim to spot new arrivals as early as possible, and get out to them as quickly as possible.

The St Agnes gig, Shah
The St Agnes gig, Shah

The other use, more humanitarian than commercial, was as a kind of early lifeboat system. Gig crews over the years have saved a great many lives by going out – frequently in horrendous weather – to rescue crews and passengers suffering shipwreck. Cargo could also be brought back, and an 1887 rescue of 450 cattle from the Castleford involved lashing the animals’ heads and horns to the sides of the gigs Gipsy and O&M, and towing them to a handy nearby island! Such rescues were fearfully dangerous acts, and the churches on Bryher, St Agnes and elsewhere remember many who never returned.

Now, gigs came to the attention of the revenue authorities, who suspected that they had a third use – for smuggling. Certainly they would have been capable of it, with their proven seagoing capability. Even the Cornish coast was within a day from the Scilly Isles for a good crew – the 40-odd mile trip to Penzance typically takes under 10 hours, and Newquay was within comfortable reach. Gigs could easily make the 250-mile round trip to France’s Breton coast by staying out at sea for a day or so, and were robust enough to cope. Bonnet (of which more later) rode out a thirty-hour storm on one such trip by keeping head to wind until conditions improved. A good crew can sustain speeds of around 7 knots, but speeds of nearly 10 knots have been recorded over a measured mile with racing crews rowing at 40 strokes per minute. But therein lay a problem – an eight-oared gig was faster than the customs cutters of the time. This was clearly unacceptable, so a law was passed in 1829 limiting the crew to no more than six oars per boat.

Time passed, and both piloting and rescue ceased to be the responsibility of the islanders. The last recorded pilotage was in December 1938, when the Bryher boat Gipsy went out from St Agnes. As for rescue, the last known one was of the Panamanian steamship Mando in 1955. For a time, it seemed possible that gigs in the traditional sense would die out. Some of the older craft were laid up in storage, others suffered the usual fate of wooden boats which are not constantly cared for.

Bonnet pulling ahead of Golden Eagle
Bonnet pulling ahead of Golden Eagle

Then competitive racing emerged, giving a new lease of life to the design. Informal races had been part of gig culture for a long time: now it has become organised. Inter-island men’s, women’s and mixed races take place weekly during the tourist season, quite apart from the challengers coming from further afield. And here, the robust nature of the vessels is once again proved. Bonnet still races today – she was built in 1830 and had a long and busy working life. She is heavier than her modern siblings, but if there’s a bit of a sea this might not be a disadvantage. Back in August, I saw her beat a dozen other boats to win her race. The Cornish gig Newquay was built back in 1812, and is claimed to be the oldest ship afloat which is still being used for broadly the same purpose as when she was made. Appropriately, she is owned by the Newquay Rowing Club, who also look after Dove (1820) and Treffry (1838) – all still racing.

So, this brings us to Antoine’s own protagonist, the naval officer Nicholas Dawlish, and the timeline set out for his life. Bonnet had been working for 15 years when Dawlish was born in December 1845, and for over fifty years at the time of Britannia’s Spartan. There’s a fair chance that Newquay was built before Dawlish’s father was born. On the assumption that Dawlish passed the Scillies at some stage during early career – and it would be wildly improbable if he had not had cause to see them at close quarters – he would have seen gigs in active commercial use. I wonder, with his eye for design, if he took the time to appreciate their blend of speed, strength and elegance?

Finally, for those who want to look at videos, this video has the 2016 men’s final and lots of links to other clips: