Reaching Nirvana

Way back in the 80s, I owned my first computer. A ZX81, the first computer small enough and cheap enough to be of interest to the casual home user. It came with a massive 1k of RAM, expandable to 16k with a RAM pack.

As you can imagine, programming it was a tricky job. There were games available to buy, loading from a cassette tape player, and some of them were actually pretty good, keeping me entertained for hours. But there were also loads of magazines to buy, each containing listings for programs for you to type in and save on your own cassette tapes. Some of these games were pretty nifty, but one in particular has stayed with me all these years as a metaphor for life.

The aim of the game was to reach Nirvana. You would start in the middle of a grid, and could move north, south, east or west, via arrow keys. Each turn, you would move one step, with the idea of reaching Nirvana. When you thought you had reached it, you would enter a different command.

Every time you said you thought you’d reached Nirvana, guess what? You had.

So you could wander the grid for hours, visiting every square, or you could declare you’d reached Nirvana on the very first turn. Either way, you would win.

Pretty silly game, really.

And yet…

Isn’t that true of life, sometimes? That we can wander around all our lives, looking for something mysterious, waiting to discover our purpose, trying to find happiness? And all we have to do is to make up our minds that this, here, right where we are, this is where we’re meant to be, and what we’re meant to be doing.

Okay, it might not work for everyone, or all the time, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion that more often than not, we’re still wandering when actually we’re already there.


Planning with a new tool

Timeline, showing separate arcs and how they link to the entities

Timeline, showing separate arcs and how they link to the entities

I’ve been using Scrivener for a while now to plan out the structure and plot, but with tables galore with multiple columns, I was looking for a tool to help me keep the timeline straight. Someone in the nanowrimo group suggested Aeon Timeline, so I downloaded the software on trial. It’s usually 20 day trial, but in honour of nanowrimo it’s currently available to last through until mid-December, so well worth looking at. The full version is $40 (After trying the free version I ended up buying through paypal and paying £31 including VAT, as I could see the value of such a tool in many different projects).

It looks wonderfully complicated, especially when you look at the sample file (for Murder on the Orient Express) but I suspect that for any project you’re very familiar with it’s much easier to understand. Certainly I watched the ten minute introductory video and very quickly started to build up my own project, using the global arc to keep track of the historical background of my story and creating three sub-arcs, one for each main character.

I have a choice to view each arc separately or see the timeline as a whole with the arcs interwoven, the colour scheme I’ve set up making it easy to tell which events belong to which story arc. Each event has a start and end time (I’ve mostly just put them in as single events rather than having any duration) and you assign them to an arc and can add tags and notes. I’ve created entities for each main character and for their children, and by associating events with entities I can easily keep track of how old the babies are. The Mac version will export to Scrivener, which I assume creates the structure and files ready to flesh out, but the Windows version doesn’t have that facility yet.

I’ve currently got as far as mapping out the background so I can see the global attitudes and laws, and introducing my characters, setting up their situations, then having everything go sour on them.

Timeline with arcs interwoven

Timeline with arcs interwoven

Now I need to figure out the ending, in the process interweaving the three arcs that until this point in the story have been mostly separate. I suspect a lot of that will get worked out when I get down to actually writing and closer to the point where I need it, but I’ve got the first half to two-thirds mapped out nicely. I haven’t included every single episode on the timeline, but I do know how the main points are related and I can use it as a handy reminder when working further in Scrivener, where the intention is to have chapters set up with episodes/events divided between them, and to flesh everything out as I go. I’ll have the facility to play around with order a bit, but I’m trying to get it set as much as I can before writing because I’m sure it will save time later.

Then I’ll reach the end of the planning, I’ve decided the rest of my planning is going to be a Wallace and Gromit Wrong Trousers train chase scenario, where I’m frantically planning each bit as I go along, slamming down the tracks just in front of the hurtling train and praying that I don’t run out and crash.

I like the idea of using the beginning of each session to go through the previous section and note any problems, as I feel this helps with continuity, but what I mustn’t do is allow that to derail me from moving forward. It’s a tricky balance, and in nanowrimo the focus is on the extreme of moving forward and not reviewing, rather than constantly editing and rewriting and failing to move forward at all. There has to be a middle ground, where progress is made at a good pace but not at the expense of having something usable at the end – my nano stories so far have suffered from this trying to pull the ideas out as I travel fast, and eventually I’ve ended up in some very strange places, because I can’t slam the tracks down and watch where I’m going at the same time.

The biggest benefit of this new tool is that it provides another way to work through my preparation, as I’ve been lagging for a while; having done the basic planning, there’s seemed little more to be done when what I really want to do is get stuck into writing but am holding off for nanowrimo. The trouble is that novel number 2 is starting to get jealous and nudge at me demanding its turn, and I keep shoving it back in the box and telling it to wait until number 1 is finished.

Roll on November!



Games I have loved

Thinking of Sims Castaway the other day (I was reminded of it by this book) made me think of all sorts of games I’ve enjoyed playing.  Castaway was not a particularly well-made game.  I had the Wii version, one of the first Wii games we got, and I would monopolise the TV for hours on end playing it, but it made little real use of the controller’s special features and the interface was clunky at best.  The graphics weren’t brilliant (although on the HD tv we have now they might look better; might try that over the holiday) and the game was slow to play.  Although you could build up your house and furniture to a big degree, it was awkward controlling your characters when they were inside buildings and each game area had a cap of the amount you could build, so as soon as you started getting a decent home with lots of furniture it would constantly catch fire.

But the speed (or lack of speed) was part of the joy of the game.  You were forced to live through the day and night, choosing when to rest, when to relax and when to go and find supplies.  Each morning you would decide whether to stay put and gather or go exploring, and every time you uncovered a new area you faced the choice of whether to stay where you were or move camp and build up again.

There were three ways of ending the game: either you found all the bits for the radio and signalled for help, you built a boat and sailed away by yourself or you stayed and made yourself comfortable.  I didn’t tend to go for the end game though; I would just drift through, exploring and creating, and enjoying the zoned-out relaxation the game brought on.

Another game I enjoyed was Colonization.  I believe it came from the creators of Civilisation, but never really became the same hit.  You played a country colonizing America, either the Spanish, the English, the French or the Portuguese, and would take your turn building up your settlements and dealing with the natives.  I still recall with fondness the different statesmen you could develop for different benefits.  In particular, finding Pocahontas would reduce all hostilities with the natives to zero and make them build up much more slowly.

A third game that I really enjoyed and miss is Transport Tycoon.  You would start by running buses within a town, and build up routes and transport systems.  Industry Giant was similar, but included collecting resources and building commodities, and omitted the passenger transport issue.  The graphics on these games are all poor by today’s standards, but they took up a lot of my time in earlier years.

Anno 2070 is a current game that plays along the same lines, building up your world – a combination between Sim City and Industry Giant.  The process of building up an empire gradually appeals greatly to me, and I’m currently awaiting the latest Sim City game.

Over Christmas I feel the urge for a massive games session coming on.  But in these days of ipads in front of the TV, do we really have much of a passion for hours spent at the computer playing any more?


Who’s your hero?

Who do you look up to?  Who do you really admire?

One that I’m fond of is Ada Lovelace – in a world full of men, Ada Lovelace became what is normally recognised as the world’s first computer programmer.  She worked with Charles Babbage, who developed the world’s first mechanical computer, the analytical engine, in 1842.  Ada was a mathematician and by all accounts she loved to think.  I don’t know how those who knew her reacted to her, but in a world dominated by men she must have been a formidable figure.

Another woman I admire is Rear Admiral Grace Hopper.  She was another computer programmer, this time after the second world war, when she was instrumental in the development of computers and computer languages.  When you talk of computers being debugged – Grace was the person who first coined the phrase, after discovering  a moth stuck in the relays.

In a world still dominated by men, these two stand out as exceptional females, but why are there so few women in the computing world?

There are other women in top spots, of course, but my suspicion is that women tend to get on with things quietly while men are busy crowing about what they can do.  Men can have more of a tendency towards the obsessive, logical mindset that enables them to excel in the field.  Or maybe men are those who had the time to play with these systems when they first came out, while women were busy running the house, and now they are busy keeping the area as a boys’ club, fighting to keep the place to themselves and exclude women.

I don’t know what the answer is, whether it’s any of the above, all of the above or other reasons.  All I know is that I love trying to figure things out, and I enjoy the challenge that computers provide.  And I feel sad when people suggest that they don’t need to try to understand, or even care to understand.  I feel that it’s become fashionable to be ignorant, and to wish to remain that way.  Famous people crow about how they’re useless at maths, and it’s acceptable to be poorly educated.  “I don’t need it” is the cry, instead of “I want it.”  And meanwhile the world around us becomes more and more complex and fewer and fewer people understand it or can be bothered to even try.


Writing is writing, right?

ICT in action bannerSo we’ve reached the summer holidays, and all this free time.  The trouble is, there seems to be so much I want to do, for a change, and therefore little time to do it in.

I do still want to write regularly, but I’ll also be writing on my other blog – ICT in Action.  That’s far more technical than this one, which is more creative.  I’ve decided to work on a project over the holidays, which will use all my skills – technical skills, programming skills and creative/writing skills.  I’ve no idea where that blog will go – I’m writing for myself in the main instance.  I know we talk about needing to think about audience and purpose, but for now my audience is primarily myself, to record what I’m doing and enjoy the chance to be productive, and if anyone else finds it who fancies learning about technical stuff then they’re welcome to it too.

I’m not an expert, and a little voice inside me is crying out: “Why bother?  You’ll only look silly, trying to pretend to be this expert when you’re not.  No-one will bother reading it unless it’s to laugh at you and your silly efforts.”

Then I firmly turn round to that voice and reply: “Yes, it may be pointless.  Yes, it might make me look silly.  But at least I’m doing something constructive, enjoyable and possibly useful.  At the very least the skills I will develop will help me personally and professionally, and maybe it will find the sort of readers who would enjoy my topics.  I’ve had enough of watching the content others create and feeling envious; it’s time I started doing things myself.  If it looks silly to others, then tough.  I’m sure that if I do anything like this my skills will improve, which is a benefit in itself, and at least I will have tried.”

The line between user and creator is blurring; I’d like to experience the other side for a while.  Trouble is, whatever I intend to do today ends with the phrase: “but first tidy your desk.”    That’s why I’m getting everything done but!  Is it better to work on it piece by piece, or clear it all off into a pile, achieve the desk that I’d like to have ready for working and then gradually work through the displaced stuff?  Clearing my desk is like archaeology – I gradually get down to different tasks that I’ve put to one side or forgotten to do.

Jack of all trades

jack of hearts cardI often bemoan the fact that I know a little about lots of things, but not much about anything.

It would be nice to feel I was a real expert in something – but my old chemistry teacher, describing how he got the right to put Doctor in front of his name, explained that it’s a process of knowing more and more about less and less until eventually you know everything there is to know about nothing at all.

While we do need people who are experts in particular areas, we also need those who have an overview: who can look at several related areas and see how they fit, or consider different options.  Otherwise how can the experts know their expertise is needed and right for the job?

So rather than complaining that I can’t pick what to specialise in, I’ve decided I’m going to play to my strengths and cover everything: not to the point of becoming an expert, but to the point of knowing what they entail, what the main features are and what the individual strengths and weaknesses are.

Specifically, this summer, rather than agonise over what programming language to focus on, I’m going to pick three or four possibles and work through them in parallel, working out how they are similar, how they differ and which does particular tasks more efficiently.  In the same way, with game making, I know of a few different packages, so it’s looking at each, maybe making the same game in each package, to see how they work and how to use that package best.

I’m nudged into action by a particular person whose programming skills I have admired enviously from afar – only to learn that I’ve studied computer science and he hasn’t but just gets on with it anyway.  It’s about time I learnt that attitude – if I don’t go out and find these things, they won’t come crawling into my lap!

I was off work sick today, but will be going in tomorrow for the last day, finishing up, tidying up and preparing for the long summer – and I have several things I intend to do this summer.  This study of different languages is only one.  I may tell you about them: not sure whether I want the nudge of knowing I’ve made them public or would prefer to keep quiet just in case (or is that setting myself up to expect failure?!).