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Saturday, 23 July 2011

Crashes and thumps

One essential for a professional writer: back up, then back up again and back up some more, and do it often.

I had a fright yesterday, when my computer died.  I followed that up by a piece of totally amateur over-reaction.  I should have known better.

To explain, I have been messing about with computers since 1963, so I was ahead of the curve when the first home computers emerged 30 years ago, and after a while, I got regularly assailed bloody amateurs who would wail at me in the 1990s:

This computer's got a virus!  Come and fix it!

Me: How do you know it's got a virus?

It won't load my file!

(Patiently) What was the file created in?

(Impatiently, with the tone of saying "Der!") Microsoft!

The amateur doesn't state that there is a problem, the amateur presents a diagnosis, in much the way that many patients barge into a doctor's surgery, shouting that they have a cold (i.e., a virus) and demanding an antibiotic (which doesn't work on viruses).

You can try to educate them, but it doesn't usually work.  Well, in this case, the educator showed his lack of schooling, because I assumed the worst, a hard disc crash, when I had been working flat out, and hadn't dropped the latest iterations onto Dropbox for several days.  the computer had died, therefore it was a disc crash.

Luckily for me, Eddy the Techie at Hibiz has been helping me out for more than 20 years. He is a gentle and courteous man, and he took my diagnosis with a grain of salt, though it wasn't quite as simple as he had hoped.  In the end, he took the machine away and I am working on the MacBook.

While I was waiting for him, I redid one of the two jobs, an urgent analysis of the location of some 300 images for Curious Minds, and as the fault appears to be either a fritzed CPU or a dodgy power supply (or both), he had no trouble extracting the draft ms of the book-in-progress.  So far, so good, and the disc drive seems to be in good condition.

But, while I have an external HDD, and this week, I actually found a place for it on the desk, it holds nothing as yet.  No music, no photos, no reference PDFs that I need to read for the book, nothing.  I can (and do) burn CDs, but I haven't done so lately.  I transfer copies of many files to the travelling netbook and the MacBook, but not of late.

I also park copies of a few key files, over the network, on my wife's computer, but not lately.  Works-in-progress are regularly uploaded to my Dropbox account, but between the last upload on Monday afternoon and the early Friday morning crash, I had written about 10,000 words of first draft, mainly because I was taking smaller bits of text, already written, and assembling them into a whole.

In short, I had been a double-amateur.  I had offered a diagnosis when I should have stated symptoms, no harm done there, but I had made the effects of the disease far worse by getting too busy working when I should have been doing some basic house-keeping.

I hope to find that I have escaped the worst, but I will certainly be taking more care in the future.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Thallium and hirsute pursuits

I am closing out the first draft of 'Misplaced Ingenuity'.  The final chapter is written, and I am most of the way through the two preceding chapters. Today, I am dealing with some strange thallium tales.

I knew about thallium first as a small boy in the 1950s, reading newspaper stories about thallium poisoners and being shushed when I asked questions.  Anyhow, I knew that thallium poisoning makes the hair fall out, and I even know why now, though this is not the place for technicalities. More recently (well, in 1978), I found this:

Thallium acetate was first given therapeutically to terminal tuberculosis cases to suppress 'night sweats'.  We shall never know whether the tests were successful because the side-effects of the treatment were much more noticeable — the patients' hair fell out.   The future of the drug obviously lay in its depilatory action. . . the chief dermatologist at the St Louis Hospital in Paris introduced it in 1898 as a pre-treatment for ringworm of the scalp, and after the First World War, it was extremely popular for this purpose.
— John Emsley, 'The trouble with thallium', New Scientist 10 August 1978, p. 393-394.

Skipping over the the alleged and almost certainly mythical CIA plan to poison Fidel Castro with sub-lethal doses of thallium, just enough to make his beard fall out, I looked at other therapeutic and non-therapeutic uses, back to William Crookes original; discovery. Then I found a great story at the National Library's Trove web site. It was a 1933 story about quacks and the like.

I think I have got what I need for the morning. Mind you, I need to scrutinise the way in which Crookes got involved with a spiritualists and attended séances with her.  Could it be, as some scurrilous types suggest, that he was having it off with her?  Or was he slightly batty on account of thallium poisoning, as some kind people suggest?

We can probably come to a conclusion on that. The man had a beard, it never fell out.  Gossipmongers defeated Kindly 1-0.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Textbooks on e-readers

Although I have officially retired, as an old educator, I still keep an eye on the flickering pulse of education.  Not a finger, just a benign eye, but occasionally, I am moved to play again, as recently, when somebody expressed horror at the idea that school texts might find their way into Kindles, Nooks, e-readers or iPads.  I took a contrary view, and here's an edited form of it:

Emerging briefly with my elderly writer's hat on:

One of the problems with textbooks is that they tend to recycle and regurgitate what the other, older textbooks say.  This is not an original statement: Thomas Kuhn made it almost 50 years ago in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, though he was talking about the absence of real-time physics in the stuff read by physics undergraduates.

Eyre and Wylie as they would have been originally shown.
Eyre and Wylie, as they are usually shown.
The result, especially at the school level is textbooks full of stodge.  And errors, like references to Zinjanthropus (30 years after the name was dropped!), or an iconic picture of Eyre and Wylie, trudging across the sands towards Albany, an image that leaves out the horses they still had--and more importantly, is nearly always mirror-reversed, so that the shadows and position of the sea make it clear that they are heading EAST! 

You can, in fact, put a lot of activities into a book, which is something I tend to do when writing for the young (in the e-mail, I wasn't explicit, but here, let me state that I was referring to Australian Backyard Explorer, which was, after all, the CBCA Eve Pownall Book of the Year for information books in 2010). (OK, that book isn't a textbook, but it goes well beyond the bounds of a "normal" book.  All of the variations that I used there could be applied to make textbook readers sit up and pay attention—and when did you last see a mere-smear textbook that did that?)

But as I write, I find myself continually chafing and wishing I could do the sorts of things I could do on a screen, if only at the level of branching, hypertext and the occasional animation. It would be good to launch into a sideliner on the art of engraving, and how this commonly generates mirror images, stuff like that. (I have another classic example in two 18th century engravings of James Cook's Endeavour, hauled up on the shore in northern Queensland, which are mirror images, and quite a few botanical engraving pairs, where it only matters if you have the two side-by-side.)

I'm sure there are many more bells and whistles that I have missed, but that's where I would start.  The thing is: every time somebody finds a new trick, a few clever-clogses will take it a step further, and in no time it all, it catches on with the mob.  That's how Gutenberg's method for producing bibles 180 times as fast suddenly changed many other things. 

As people begin to work in a new medium (dating myself, my own new medium, way back when, was the overhead projector), they begin to gather together a set of methods and techniques.  I worked with and in a workshop gang (less the guilty escape blame, the others were Peter Robinson, Ken Jones and Rex Meyer) who used swivels made from drawing-pins, staples and slightly modified press-studs, so we could get animation on a flat screen. 

Before long, we would look at a new and puzzling task and somebody would say "you could press-stud that", and on we would go.  Or one of us would find a wrinkle using rubber bands or resin-cored solder or whatever. Each of these would then be applied to the next problem, or used as a further launch-point. 

I have faith in the new creators who will be coming along.  I confidently predict that if textbooks go onto the screen, they will still be textbooks, Jim, but not as we know them--or if they are, it won't be so for long. 

Bushnell's 'Turtle'.
Today, I am putting together a short piece on primitive submarines, going back to Cornelius Drebbels' 1620 vessel which may or may not have navigated the Thames.  It was based on a 1578 design with a hull of leather stretched over a timber frame.  I wouldn't judge present or future submersibles on that, and I don't think we should damn future textbooks, based on the paucity of intelligence, verve, intellectual honesty or creativity that we see in so many of today's crop. 

We should just be looking, shaking our heads, and planning to do better. 

Now I will get on with the tale of Bushnell's 'Turtle', which went to sea with a 70 kg clockwork bomb ticking away, a bomb that had to be affixed to a hull before it went off.  Definitely not a good reference point for predicting the future, that one.

A small afterthought added in late 2011: I think we haven't even scratched the surface yet on e-books, and I have a few ideas about what we might explore: try clicking this link.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Water has been passing under the bridge

Well, I got home, settled in, finished off Curious Minds, thought for a day or two, and then moved onto the largely-researched and long-planned book on wild inventions. Looking into the noted, I was reminded that I have actually been doing first draft stuff, so I now have around 20,000 words in the bag.  I am hoping to limit the text to 50,000 words, given the heavy load of illustrations, so that's going well.

At this point, I have Curious Minds in editing, Australian Backyard Naturalist edits are coming back to me, and I am moving into the spring offensive, the time when writers get out and about is upon me, so there may not be much more appearing here.

Appearances scheduled as of now:

July 5, State Library, Scholarly Musings;

July 12: Forestville Library, morning tea with primary children;

August 25: Zart Art, Box Hill, Melbourne: Illustration for Information;

September 2: St Kieran's Manly Vale: workshops;

September 6: St Patrick's College Manly: Lunch With the Stars.

Enough to keep me active!