Where are they now… Margaret Cavendish

For today, a blog which I wrote for The Review and reposted here…

If I asked you to name some early science fiction writers, I’m guessing you’d think of Jules Verne or HG Wells, who established in the 19th and early 20th centuries so many of the conventions and themes of the genre.

Portrait of Margaret Cavendish (Wiki)
Portrait of Margaret Cavendish (Wiki)

You probably wouldn’t think of going back to 1666, and Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. But in fact, in the same year that the Plague was raging, and London experienced the Great Fire – only some 50 years after the King James Bible was translated, and Shakespeare was writing plays – Margaret Cavendish published her novel The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World. It has been called “the only known work of utopian fiction by a woman in the 17th century, as well as one of the earliest examples of what we now call ‘science fiction’ — although it is also a romance, an adventure story, and even autobiography“.

Margaret Lucas was born in 1623, the youngest of eight children, and had a lively childhood, partly spent with Queen Henrietta Maria in exile in France. In 1645 she married William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, who was a staunch royalist and reasonably successful military commander (so had had a difficult few years until the Restoration of Charles II). He was an enthusiastic patron of the arts and sciences, which is perhaps why he and Margaret formed a happy couple – her lively and wide-ranging intellect would undoubtedly have attracted his attention. He was devastated by her death in 1673, and died just three years later.

Cover - The Blazing World (Wiki)
Cover – The Blazing World (Wiki)

She was not only an author of fiction, but also wrote over a dozen original works in diverse fields – poetry and plays, as well as a number of early scientific and philosophical treatises. The Blazing World was routinely distributed with her non-fiction Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, thus combining imaginative and scientific discourse. She was the first woman to attend meetings of the Royal Society, and engaged in debate with leading figures of the time such as Descartes, Hobbes, and Boyle. She was not shy about disagreeing with the thinking of the age when she felt it was in error, a habit which brought her criticism and conflict.

The Blazing World is, by modern standards, a slightly odd book. The protagonist, a lady whose name we never learn, is abducted by an impatient suitor, but her virtue is preserved by divine intervention which diverts the ship towards the north pole where the wickedly motivated men all perish. The lady herself is rescued by creatures which are man-like but with animal qualities – once in the Blazing World proper, she will meet Bear-men, Fox-men, Fly-men, Bird-men, Fish-men and so on. Her rescuers take her through a narrow passageway which connects our world with The Blazing World. Since there is only one such passage, and the celestial view in her new home is entirely different, a modern author might well describe this as a wormhole connection rather like in Stargate.

The Emperor of this world is smitten with her, and after a very short interval the two marry. There is then a long passage in which the new Empress quizzes the various theoretical and experimental factions in her new home – clearly satirising the state of affairs in the Royal Society, though many of the barbs evade recognition by today’s reader. Part of this section describes the creation of a array of miniature universes, each intending to explore some particular theme, and most of which are unstable and collapse again because of their own inconsistencies. It sounds very like an early exploration of what we now call the Anthropic Principle – the laws of the universe are constrained by the fact that intelligent life has arisen in it.

Portrait -Margaret Cavendish - © National Portrait Gallery
Margaret Cavendish (née Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle upon Tyne, (by Pieter Louis van Schuppen,
after Abraham Diepenbeeck, line engraving, late 17th century, NPG D30185, © National Portrait Gallery, London

In a way that would now be considered rather shockingly indulgent, she then as author brings herself in as a character – a sort of muse and scribe to the Empress. The two become exceedingly close friends. We are assured that the relationship is entirely platonic, but the degree of closeness far exceeds anything else in the book except that of Margaret to her husband.

The second half of the book describes a kind of interplanetary war – the Empress learns that her original native country is under attack by a large alliance, and decides her duty is to help. So she devises a kind of blitzkrieg strategy including air power (the Bird-men) and submarine warfare (the Fish-men) to overwhelm the assembled enemies. The combination is unstoppable, and it is clear that if she wanted, she could assume control of our world as well. Being of a restrained disposition she does not do this, but withdraws again once victory is assured.

The book closes with William and Margaret gaining inspiration for certain changes to their own estates on the basis of what they have seen in the alternative world, and a commitment to ongoing friendship and communion between the two worlds.

Margaret Cavendish and her writing went off everybody’s radar for many years, with the rise of the true novel. However, after a considerable time of obscurity, she has started to resurface. In 1997 the Margaret Cavendish Society was formed to encourage academic study of her work. The blend of feminism, science, philosophy, fantasy and interpersonal relationships has found a resonance in our own age.

Margaret is quite open about her purpose in writing the book, and her pride in being its creator: “…you may perceive, that my ambition is not onely to be Empress, but Authoress of a whole World… in the formation of those worlds, I take more delight and glory, than ever Alexander or Cesar did in conquering this terrestrial world… concerning the Philosophical-world, I am Empress of it my self; and as for the Blazing-World, it having an Empress already, who rules it with great Wisdom and Conduct, which Empress is my dear Platonick Friend; I shall never prove so unjust, treacherous, and unworthy to her, as to disturb her Government, much less to depose her from her Imperial Throne, for the sake of any other, but rather chuse to create another World for another Friend.”

Stirring words, indeed, and ones which many an author would identify with!

 

Kindle preparation – summary

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. 

Lake View Country House sign
Lake View Country House sign

Lake View Country House, on the southern edge of Grasmere, Cumbria, is opening for the 2017 season tomorrow (Wednesday April 5th) after a major programme of refurbishment and renewal. Amongst other things, I am one of the contributors to the new blog there, which is part of the new web site. So have a read of the articles there, and subscribe for occasional news updates!

 
Some devices
Some devices

Back now to the world of ebooks, and a few highlights from the series.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
Flush both sides working well
Flush both sides working well

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.

 Happy kindle preparation and formatting!
Here for convenience are the previous articles:
Spine section of opf file
Spine section of opf file

Superstition

Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria
Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria

I’ve been thinking on and off about superstitions for a little while now, and it’s clear from other people’s blogs that I’m not alone in this. Synchronicity, perhaps.

To be clear, I see a big difference between superstition and religious faith, and I’m not going to be critical of either. They both are built around the conviction that actions in the here and now are not just casual and without consequence. Instead, they carry weighty implications which resonate in both natural and spiritual worlds. Religious people can be superstitious, and non-religious people can be superstitious – though the rational constructions of each of religion, atheism, and science are typically hostile to such practices. People of any religion or none might throw a pinch of salt over their shoulder, or uncross knives in a drawer, or say “white rabbits” at the start of a month, or avoid walking on the divisions between paving slabs!

Religious thought tends to be more systematic, with a careful body of thought surrounding its core principles. Whether embedded in a written or oral tradition, faith encourages theology – rational exploration of the hinterland of a central mystery which itself eludes the possibility of capture. Superstition is based around individual actions which do not necessarily build into a coherent whole. Each such action serves a specific purpose, often placatory, and doesn’t have to be combined with anything else.

Hawthorn
Hawthorn

One of the fascinating things about superstitions is that they are often tied to particular situations. Often this is to do with place – some specific deed must be done in a specific place in order to be effective. So we have all kinds of special places – trees, bodies of water, hills, and so on, often quite separate from the deeply sacred foci of religious thought. A wishing well might be found only a short distance from, say, Stonehenge, or the temple at Karnak.

But as well as a special place, there are special things to do or items to use. Maybe special words to use. For today, out of all the superstitions in the world, I want to focus briefly on leaving gifts of metal. Most old towns in England – and no doubt elsewhere as well – have a wishing well where people leave coins. Often these days the coinage is collected and given to charity, but the impulse is, I believe, much older and much less thought-through than making a donation to a worthy cause.

A Bronze Age axe hoard from Galicia, Spain (Wiki)
A Bronze Age axe hoard from Galicia, Spain (Wiki)

Back in the Bronze Age in northern Europe, metal items were regularly deposited in large quantities in streams and rivers. We find tools, weapons, scraps of spare metal, jewellery and so on – the whole gamut of artefacts. In some cases these might possibly be understood as a ritual deposit of weapons, either captured from some enemy or, perhaps, being ‘retired’ after the death of the wielder. In most cases we just don’t know the reason.

What we do know is that over time this developed into a veritable industry in its own right. We find huge deposits of tools, typically axe heads without the shaft, carefully buried or placed in piles. These represent a huge investment of time and effort – the ore had to be dug, the metal prepared and moulded, and so on. But in many cases these are not items at the end of long and faithful service – they had never been used in either war or peace, and often the metal was far too soft to be useful in any sphere. These axes were made just to be disposed of.

It’s hard to think of a reason for this, given the limited resources available to the societies of the time. Often we humans have indulged in conspicuous consumption and waste, just to prove we can. Perhaps these axe deposits were an offering to placate someone or something. Perhaps the return of metal to the Earth was seen as closing the cycle of extraction. It’s an open field for guesswork, but for today I’m going to link it with the long lineage of metal gifts which also surfaces in wishing wells.

Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria
Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria

But there’s another similar modern habit which – at least in my mind – is connected to this. It is the habit of hammering coins into trees. In some places you can find hundreds of coins all driven into a stump or old tree – the pictures are from Cumbria, between Grasmere and Rydal, but you could find similar scenes in many other places. I don’t think there was anything particularly unusual about these trees to start with – but as one person after another follows suit then the place starts to gather its own perceived value.

So the ancient tradition of giving back metal to the planet, whether in water, underground, or attached to a tree, is very much alive still in our century! I wonder which existing superstitions we will take into the future with us, and which new ones we will invent?

Kindle preparation part 5 – formatting and media queries

Flush both sides working well
Flush both sides working well

Last time in this series we looked at some of the difficulties of presenting a book in an electronic medium, where the layout on every page can change according to user settings and from one device to another. In particular, there is the problem of handling the two extremes – small or large font size compared with screen width. At one end of the spectrum you get a lot of words per line, and the tendency for the eye to lose its place in a screen full of text. At the other, with few words per line, word spacing becomes irregular and “rivers” of white space tend to open up.

Flush layout with large gaps
Flush layout with large gaps

On grounds of aesthetic appearance and readability studies, there is broad agreement that left-aligned text is preferable in the limit of few words per line. For many words per line, text which is flush both sides is more familiar and traditional, giving an impression of neatness. The question then arises, is it possible to have the best of both worlds?

Now with traditional print layout, all of this is decided by author or publisher, and the reader has no choice. Once the design is chosen, that’s it. The phenomenal rise of epublishing, with free and easy to use tools enabling indie publishing, has given huge empowerment to authors. But I sometimes think that authors have not caught on to the fact that it has also given huge empowerment to readers, who want to exercise their freedom of choice to change the layout of the book to suit their own preferences.

So what does that mean for Kindle formatting? A Kindle or ebook is basically a long thin web site, conveniently represented in pages by software or hardware. The basic building blocks are HTML files and CSS style sheets, together with some added contextual information to tie the whole lot together. This is hidden from many authors, who may simply upload a Word document to an aggregator site which itself does the difficult work.

New model Kindle with automatic left alignment
New model Kindle with automatic left alignment

But being essentially a web page gives access to another set of options. Ebook devices like Kindle do not usually support everything that a real web site would – for example you cannot use script commands to query the settings in a dynamic way. But there is support for something called a media query, embedded inside the style settings. Media queries are often used to render a page suitable for printing, or for voice readers, or to accommodate a wide range of screen sizes from mobile to wall-mounted TV with the same basic design. So Kindle books can be responsive, but not dynamic in the strict technical sense.

Regular media queries are of limited use here – in terms of pixels or centimetres, the screen is what it is. Happily, there is a fairly straightforward solution. A web device – including an ereader – allows widths to be specified in a unit called em. An em is directly related to the font size, unlike physically derived units like pixels or centimetres. So while the size of the screen stays the same in terms of pixels, it changes in terms of ems as different fonts are selected. Better still, the em width also varies as the user chooses different margin widths. For a standard device font at default size, by convention 1em = 16px. But this can be changed in various ways, including user selection of font size and page margin.

So here is the way to have an ebook layout which is responsive to user choices. It’s not as flexible as what you can do in a real web site, but then the device doesn’t allow you to make so many adjustments. Anyway, it’s a whole lot better than having a one-size-fits-all compromise. Basically you can have a different set of style rules for large fonts than for small ones, and so maintain appearance across a very wide range of settings. Left alignment is easier for the eye to follow with only a few words per line – and avoids the tendency of justified text to leave large rivers of white space in the middle of pages. Justified text is preferred where there are lots of words per line. Newer versions of the Android and iPhone apps make this choice for themselves unless told otherwise, but most actual Kindles do not. With media queries you don’t have to pick one or the other and make do – you can have both, as part of a responsive Kindle design. You can have as many multiple separate queries as you wish, though personally for simplicity I would tend to stick with two – one for large fonts (compared to screen width) and one for small. Similar comments apply to paragraph settings – regular spacing with indent, or a small vertical gap with no indent.

Media Query Definition
Media Query Definition

What are the rules to follow here? Well, firstly you should always have a default set of styles which apply in the absence of more specific choices. And the default ones should always go first, and those governed by a media query afterwards. That’s because of how the style sheet is parsed – the whole file from start to finish, and any later directives which happen to apply are chosen in preference to earlier ones.

Finally, do keep it simple. Media query support, along with style sheet support in general, is patchy on most ereaders. The number of legacy and old-model systems is high, for several reasons. People hang on to their Kindles for a long time, so long as they continue to function. Many software companies producing phone and tablet reader apps don’t bother to code for recent enhancements, reckoning that the extra investment in time is not worth it. So any media queries used in a Kindle or generic epub book must be simple. It would be great to have different styles for whether your reader has chosen normal screen (dark text on pale background) or inverted (pale on dark), or indeed the several colour options available on some devices. But support for the media queries “inverted-colors” and “color-depth” is very erratic and cannot be relied upon. So you should not specify colours in your style which might end up unreadable for the colour scheme chosen by your readers. Better to avoid colours altogether and just let the device choose.

One epub reader options
One epub reader options

As I have said several times, not all Kindle devices, or Kindle software apps on computers, phones and tablets, treat the content the same way. My phone Kindle app (both Android and iPhone) handles changes of font size differently from my various actual Kindles, including the way it decides to justify text. This is something built into the app itself, not a thing I have direct control over. I like some reading preferences that other people don’t, so anything that you as author do by way of styles and media queries should not intrude on personal preference.

I started with some screenshots of how things would be if you had to make do with just one style, and moreover used measurements in fixed units. Here by contrast is the same content, using media queries and a responsive design. Personally I like the flexibility, and the way the presentation adapts to changes in user choices. Not everybody will, and maybe not everybody will want to dig in to the details of how their Kindle or epub book is being constructed. Those who simply hand over a Word document to Smashwords or a similar site may be perplexed by all this.

Authors spend a great deal of time and effort researching the background to their books. They look out for what they consider a good cover. They may pay for the services of an editor. Yet many authors dislike the thought of engaging with the technology that finally delivers their book into the reader’s hands. By way of doing something, many just try to copy the methods they used for print. But ebooks are a different medium to print, and need their own treatment. Happily, it is relatively easy to offer a better reading experience for those who want it. Complete consistency across devices is not possible, but through media queries and the use of ems to measure dimensions we can get a good way towards that.

This is almost the end of this little series, and the last item will be a quick summary of key points.

Some devices
Some devices

Half Sick of Shadows – some extracts and the cover

Draft Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Draft Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

I thought for today that I would put together several snippets from Half Sick of Shadows, together with a good draft of the planned cover. Both picture and writing may change a little over the next couple of months, but they’re pretty close now to final version. All being well, I am hoping to release the book around or just after Easter this year.

Half Sick of Shadows is a fantasy, of novella length rather than full-length novel, and owes a great deal to Tennyson’s poem, The Lady of Shalott, which itself is based on 13th century material concerning Elaine of Astolat. However, I have taken the plot in what I suspect is an entirely different direction than the earlier authors had in mind.

======================

First extract – from quite near the beginning

From that point on the lady sang each day, whether the people were in view or not. It made her self-conscious at first, and she felt riddled with doubt about the quality of her voice. But then she reasoned that since neither could hear the other, it could hardly matter. The main thing was to join herself in spirit with them. One day in the future, when she finally met them and learned how they spoke, she would concern herself with matching their tone.

But all unknown to her, her voice slipped out from behind her walls, and spilled like a faint echo of the river’s song across the eyot and over to the further shore. Passers-by listened to the leaping sounds, and whispered to each other of places where another world came close.
“It is a goddess of the running waters,” said some, “a queen in exile,” said others, and a few just sighed, aching in their heart for the loss of a place they had never known.
She did not hear that, but she saw how people came out from the village to look at her walls, or kneel with arms outstretched and faces turned up to the sky. A cairn of pebbles started to grow where the bank came closest, and when it was waist-high they left gifts there, little offerings out of their meagre possessions.

Second extract – further on

Unquenchable hunger seized her again. She tried not to eat, but it was stronger than gravity, irresistible as wind, and she could not deny it. Great helpless tears rolled down her face even as she tore at great strips of leaf and swallowed brimming bowls of sap.

Heavy, and feeling full to bursting, she wallowed on her couch, desperate for nightfall to come. Would she have even one more day before the unstoppable urge to sleep overwhelmed her?

They came that evening, and held up the infant again so she could see it. She sang again for them, and her song was full of both the beauty and the sorrow of the passing world. She watched the glow of wonder on their faces as they heard her. She knew what they could not, that this would be the last time she would see them, and she sang to bless them as the shortening day eased into night.

Long after they had gone, she lay looking at the riverbank where they had stood. The world was made up of shadows now. When her brother and sister next came, when they held up the infant for her to see, she would no longer be there. She would be lost in her own world of slumber and transformation, and the quick years of the world would roll unseen around her.

How long would they continue to come, she wondered, once the sound of her singing was gone? Would they think that she was lost to them, lost somewhere in the shadows? She watched herself stuffing food into her body, slithering awkwardly, heavily, into her chamber, and she felt that her heart was breaking.

Third extract – towards the end

The lady saw, and passed softly among the raucous din to stand near him.
“You know it too, don’t you? You know that you should be with her. Not this king, for all the food that fills his larder.”
He shivered and looked around. The man beside him asked a question, but he shook his head, puzzled, took a pinch of salt and tossed it over his shoulder. The lady withdrew, and his anxiety retreated again

.…

The king gestured to the minstrel and sat again. The room hushed in anticipation.
His singing was beautiful, she realised. The assistant kept the rhythm steady and flowing on the longer strings, as the master sang out the tale, plucking out higher riffs and ornaments here and there. She watched with admiration as his lay unfolded, not knowing the words but appreciating the patterns. And her own voice lifted up and joined him, even though her body lay on the couch within her chamber.
The lady moved among the guests, less than a shadow among them, step by step up to the musicians. She stood in front of them, basking in the melody. The singer’s words never faltered, but his gaze followed her as she came up to him. She had no idea what he saw of her – perhaps some extra brightness against the firelight, or a flicker of movement like a hidden bird within a thicket – but something in him knew that she was there.
The people heard his song, though not hers, and they were wild with delight as he finished, stilling the strings with the flat of his hand. The king took a ring from his own hands to give to the minstrel, but he shook his head. Instead, he stood and bowed very low before the lady. The room was silent now, waiting to see what happened. She wanted to lift him up: this adulation was altogether too much. But she knew that the desire was fruitless, and that she could not touch him.
The king spoke, a note of puzzlement in his voice, and the minstrel stood upright again. His answer was quiet, respectful, and he gestured to where the lady stood. The king, eyes narrowed, glanced here and there, but could not see her. She looked beyond him to the queen, and her face was alive with interest. She was aware, and so was the king’s right-hand man, who had moved across behind the queen to protect her.
There was a growing noise in the room, a buzz of speculation, and suddenly the focused attention became too much. The lady fled the room in haste, pulled herself from the couch and its loom, and pattered to and fro in the courtyard, slowly being soothed by the sights and scents of her garden.
Finally, she curled up on a bench in the pale sunshine. She could only face a few people at a time, she realised.

======================

Not too long to wait now…

Identity, belonging, and taxes

Gladstone's budget briefcase (Wiki)
Gladstone’s budget briefcase (Wiki)

I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time now, but last week’s Budget here in the UK crystallised my thoughts. For non-UK readers, the Budget is a financial appraisal and forward plan presented by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It’s an event where various changes to taxes are made, funding for different major projects is announced, and so on. It’s a chance for everyone to see what the Chancellor and his advisers think is going to happen, and how the country’s finances are going to be handled.

I’m not going to talk about the Budget itself – if you want, the whole document is available online. But there was one tiny snippet in the associated news which caught my eye:

Making tax digital – The start date for unincorporated businesses and landlords with turnover below the VAT registration threshold is deferred by one year to April 2019. Unincorporated business and landlord with turnover above the VAT registration threshold will be required to keep records in a digital format, and make quarterly reports of their results, from April 2018, using appropriate software.

In brief, it means that all firms, however small, will soon need to install suitable software, and be periodically linked up to the government tax computers to transfer earnings details. Those of us who are employed already get tax routinely withheld from our wages every payday, and the picture for the self-employed is rapidly converging.

UK Tax return (Wiki)
UK Tax return (Wiki)

Seeing as how it is only a short time since the tax authorities dealt exclusively in annual paper documents, this shift to online quarterly assessment is a vast change. And it is probably only a staging post on the way towards daily accountability. It’s a huge step from days of yore, when if the local land owner – or his lord, or the king, or the conquering overlord – needed some revenue, he just sent his heavies around and took it.

We live in a world where increasing numbers of people expect to move internationally during their working life – perhaps as much as 1/3 or 1/2 of people entering employment now will make such a move before they retire. So daily accountability is a necessary step to make sure that the right amount of taxes are paid in the country where they are due… a highly charged matter which several multinationals have run foul of.

So all that collided in my thoughts with another modern trend. This second one has been called “filiation versus affiliation“. It describes a major shift which has happened from the ancient world until now. Back then, your birth family – filiation – counted for everything, even in adult life. Social mobility was extraordinarily hard. We are moving towards a situation where as an adult you choose your own affiliation – your friends, your employment, your peer group, your gang, or whatever. Different countries are at different places along that trend, but we are all slowly moving that way. I find it exciting that I can chat with, work with, and be friends with people across the world who I am never likely to meet… but there are problems and difficulties as well.

So all that made me think, what if you could choose your country – your national affiliation – as easily as joining a Facebook group? Maybe I like the education system in Sweden, the stance on nuclear weapons in New Zealand, and a whole collection of other policies scattered around the world’s nations. But geographically I like living here in the UK, and in particular have a number of tip-top favourite places.

A Carthaginian Shekel c. 300BC (Wiki)
A Carthaginian Shekel c. 300BC (Wiki)

So… what if I could shop around with my tax liability? I go off to work, earn a few shekels, spend some of them on the necessities of life… and owe some agreed fraction in taxes. What if I could then decide which nations I wanted to support with those taxes, and effectively buy fractional citizenship there? In much the same way as I dispose of the rest of my income – so much to the supermarket, so much to a local independent store, so much to Amazon, so much put aside for a rainy day, etc.

I don’t think this would be an easy transition to make – for example, how would I pay London Underground for the trips I make on the Northern Line? I’m quite sure my ticket price doesn’t cover the cost of capital investment and replacement. How would I pay for the running of the National Parks that I love? There’d be all kinds of difficulties to work through.

But on the other hand, this could be a logical direction for democracy. Right now, the world’s major democracies are struggling with how to manage situations of narrow majorities. Big policy changes are being made on both sides of the Atlantic which go against the wishes of almost half of a population. So why not consider not only voting in a ballot box, but voting with the results of our labour? A parliamentary or presidential democracy results – seemingly inevitably – in governments becoming increasingly hardened in their stance on issues, and the voices of minority groups become increasingly hard to hear. Maybe the ability to move our citizenship, or fractions of it, away from one country and into another would undo that.

Kickstarter Logo (www.kickstarter.com)
Kickstarter Logo (www.kickstarter.com)

At very least it might make budgets more like a kind of kickstarter pitch. Last week, the overall majority enjoyed by the current British government meant that the Chancellor could pretty much do as he pleased. He didn’t have to win anyone over to his position – although in the days since his speech we have seen some backpedalling after interventions from the Prime Minister, so perhaps a bit more discussion beforehand would have been prudent. But what if I could listen to his ideas, decide if I liked them, and then decide if I wanted to support them by means of citizenship and taxes? I might take into account the present government’s track record on things I care about, or the present Chancellor’s level of experience and expertise. Maybe I’d be persuaded, or maybe I’d take my tax elsewhere to someone who convinced me better.

I think people have a capacity to take a long view, so this wouldn’t rule out big projects taking years to come to fruition. After all, we already do that with pensions, or funds set up in childhood for major events later in life. The biggest risk is, perhaps, that money, and those with it, would potentially overwhelm everything. But in many ways that’s already true – public funding has been successively cut back on a whole raft full of artistic, educational, and environmental causes over the last few years. Maybe a kickstarter style approach to national budgets would bring funding back to some of these.

The present system has winners and losers, and I dare say so will any new replacement one. But I wonder if overall such a system would be more equitable, or less?

Justice (Wiki)
Justice (Wiki)

Cumbrian voice skills and Martian course corrections

Grasmere Lake
Grasmere Lake

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.

Cumbria Events Logo
Cumbria Events Logo

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.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

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.

Artists's impression, MAVEN and Mars (NASA/JPL)
Artists’s impression, MAVEN and Mars (NASA/JPL)

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.

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

Kindle preparation part 4 – formatting

Some devices
Some devices

Kindle formatting has sometimes been the subject of intense debates. At one end of the spectrum there is a belief that it should mirror print conventions as far as possible. Alternatively, there is a contrasting belief that we have a new display medium which needs to be free to develop its own ideas. I’m inclined towards the second view, though I do think that some print conventions still have value. To extract parts of a long debate on The Passive Voice blog about text alignment, which attracted quite opposing views:

“Do not force the reader to read the way you want her to… Just get out of the way… Good readable text that flows nicely… keep it left justified… Is there anything that shouts ‘amateur and non-pro” more than a justified book?… I’ll take amateur and readable for people who read with large font sizes… There’s a lot to be said for left justification on a smaller screen with larger font”.

Obviously a lively topic. But first, there is the question of what is feasible. Some expectations may simply not be realistic, and we’ll come back to this later. Even if you restrict yourself to Kindle files, there is considerable variation in how the same file is displayed by different devices. Step away from Kindles into the diverse world of epub readers and reading apps, and the variation only increases. As usual, most of this post will talk about Kindles specifically, but an exactly parallel process applies to epub books.

Epub text alignment menu
Epub text alignment menu

Now, as well as differences between devices, you are faced with individual reader choices. A Kindle device, or a software app emulating a Kindle on a phone, tablet, or computer, places enormous flexibility of choice in the hands of the reader. The reader can change font, font size, margin width, line spacing, and background colour, as well as swap between portrait and landscape orientation. Many epub readers offer even more choices.

Now with traditional print layout, all of these are decided by author or publisher, and the reader has no choice. Once the design is chosen, that’s it. This has given rise over the years to a set of conventions for printed books. Not so with ebooks. The phenomenal rise of epublishing, with free and easy to use tools enabling indie publishing, has given huge empowerment to authors. But I sometimes think that authors have not caught on to the fact that it has also given huge empowerment to readers.

Kindle Options (Portrait)
Kindle Options (Portrait)

As reader, I don’t have to put up with someone else’s choices. If I want a serif font instead of san serif – or a dyslexic-friendly font for that matter – or I like big text size, or wide margins, or two columns side by side, or different background colour, or whatever, I can choose that. If the author or publisher tries to stop me, I’ll get frustrated. It’s not appropriate any longer for an author to try to decide how a reader ought to read his or her book. Sometimes I hear people say that what matters is the layout of the book when originally downloaded, but this shows a misunderstanding of how the devices work. My reader settings are mine, and yours are yours, and they get applied equally to newly downloaded or existing books. There is nothing magic about the settings chosen by the author. If I want to read your ebook with right-aligned text, I can do so, and I can feel frustrated if you try to stop me.

Forced right-aligned text
Forced right-aligned text

As I mentioned before, not all Kindle devices, or Kindle software apps on computers, phones and tablets, treat the content the same way. My phone Kindle app (both Android and iPhone) handles changes of font size differently from my various actual Kindles, including the way it decides to justify text. This is something built into the app itself, not a thing I have direct control over.

So what does that mean for Kindle formatting? A layout that looks good when the font is small compared to the page width may well be confusing when the font is large. A layout that is easily readable when the font is large compared to the page size may well seem non-standard when the font is small.

New model Kindle with automatic left alignment
New model Kindle with automatic left alignment

Now, being a new technology, and moreover one which has grown up linked closely to the world of web page design, there has been a great deal of systematic study of the readability of different styles. This hasn’t happened to the same degree with the world of print, except in the very specific area of font design. Some choices which are routinely made in a printed book, and which have become part of the lore of book production, were originally made for all kinds of diverse reasons including wartime economy. In particular, the normal print practice of justifying text both left and right is not based on considerations of readability, but rather on maximising the number of characters on what was a scarce resource – paper. Change the ratio of words per line significantly away from what is common for a novel, and flush-both-sides becomes rather unreadable, as reported by numerous systematic studies.

If the paper is wide compared to the typical word size, then your eye loses its ability to scan lines comfortably. This is why newspapers and magazines split text into columns – and why the landscape mode in recent ereaders gives the user the option to do just this.

Flush layout with large gaps
Flush layout with large gaps

If the page is narrow compared to the words, there is a tendency for the layout to become erratic and irregular. Areas of open space appear, called “rivers”, creating a ragged and untidy appearance. Text which is left-aligned only, with ragged right margin, is better spaced, aesthetically more pleasing, and also more readable. In times past, the Kindle layout engine was heavily criticised for its poor showing in this area. It has improved, but is still way behind the result that can be achieved with a fixed page width. If you think about it, this is inevitable. Every time you change the font size, or the margin, or the aspect – even if you highlight a piece of text and then later jump back to it – every time something like this happens, the Kindle software has to recalculate the position of each word. You get huge advantages over a physical book with rigid layout, but you also have to recognise, and cope with, the limitations. Newer versions of the Kindle layout software deliberately switch to flush left only (ragged right) as the font size increases, to address this very issue.

Flush both sides working well
Flush both sides working well

Readability considerations, then, suggest that flush-both-sides works best in the middle range of Kindle fonts, degrading in different ways as you go towards the extremes of size options. And although modern Kindles have recognised this, and provided a built-in solution, older ones do not. So next time we’ll look at another option that can be used by authors which they can control. For today, it’s enough to recognise that there is something to think about here, and that trying to simply copy what is done in print does not necessarily work well.

I mentioned earlier about things which are simply infeasible in ebooks, even though normal and appropriate in print. One of these concerns hyphenation. The print version, with fixed word positioning, can be carefully laid out to get hyphens in the perfect places. Kindle books can’t – any choice which is correct for one person’s device and settings will be wrong for the next. Recent software layout engines do a reasonable job of inserting hyphens, but they struggle with some words, especially proper nouns. You can easily see this if you find a book line with several long words, then expand the font size. At some point the layout engine just gives up.

Single line left at bottom after reflow
Single line left at bottom after reflow

Another area is that of widows and orphans – single lines appearing at the bottom or top of a page, which are considered distracting to the reader. A publisher of a printed book tries hard to eliminate these by judicious choice of word selection and spacing. It can’t be done on a Kindle. If as author you did carefully sort all that out on your own device, it will all go wrong with a change of settings or on a new gadget.

So there are stylistic choices which are sound and reasonable in print, but which cannot be carried over to ebooks. It’s well worth thinking about this when you’re preparing a book, and only spending time on the issues that can be fixed. And do try out how the book appears when viewed with completely different user settings than the ones you personally like!

Some space news

I ran out of time this week to do much by way of blogging, so here are three bits of space news which may well make their way into a story sometime.

Stop Press: just today NASA announced that a relatively close star (39 light years away) has no less than 7 planets approximately Earth size orbiting it… see and the schematic picture at the end of the blog.

False colour image of the area of interest (NASA/JPL)
False colour image of the area of interest (NASA/JPL)

Firstly, the Dawn probe, still faithfully orbiting the asteroid Ceres, has detected complex organic molecules in two separate areas in the middle latitudes of the dwarf planet. The onboard instruments are not accurate enough to pin the molecules down precisely, but it seems likely that they are forms of targets.  The analysis also suggests that they formed on Ceres itself, rather than being deposited there by a meteor. The most likely cause is thought to be the action of warm water circulating through chemicals under the surface. Some of the headlines suggest that this could signal the presence of life, but it’s more cautious to say that it shows that the conditions under which life could develop are present there.

Recent cratering on Mars (HiRise camera, U Arizona)
Recent cratering on Mars (HiRise camera, U Arizona)

The second snippet spells difficulty for my hypothetical Martian settlements. This picture was captured by the Mars Orbiter and shows two larger impact craters surrounded by a whole array of smaller ones. The likely scenario is that one object split into a cluster of fragments as it passed through the Martian atmosphere. This of itself wouldn’t be too surprising, but inspection of older photos of the same area shoes that this impact happened between 2008 and 2014. No time at all in cosmic terms, and not so much fun if you’d carefully built yourself a habitable dome there.

The problem is the thinness of the Martian atmosphere. It is considerably deeper than our one here on Earth, but hugely less dense. So when meteors arrive at the top of the layer of air, they don’t burn up so comprehensively as Earth-bound ones. More of them reach the surface. Even a comparatively small rock has enough kinetic energy to really spoil your day. Something that will need some planning…
Artist's impression of Kuiper Belt object (NASA)
Artist’s impression of Kuiper Belt object (NASA)

Finally we zoom right out to the cold, dark reaches of the outer solar system. A long way beyond the orbit of Pluto there is a region called the Kuiper Belt, and out in the Kuiper Belt a new dwarf planet has recently been found. It goes by the catchy name of 2014 UZ224 and it took nearly two years to confirm its existence. Best estimates are that it is a little over 300 miles across – about half the size of Ceres. I’ve never sent Mitnash and Slate out anywhere like that – it’s about twice as far from Earth as Pluto, and the journey alone would take about four months one-way. I do have vague plans for a story set out in the Kuiper Belt, but appropriately enough it’s some way off yet. But even at that distance, you’re still less than half a percent of the distance to the nearest star… space is really big!

Schematic picture of Trappist-1's planets
Schematic picture of Trappist-1’s planets

Writing, ancient and modern