Look for Briefs.

All I know about writing (is it III?)

Look for briefs.

The blank page is a terrible thing, but a quick look at various online resources (Ralan, Duotrope, whatever) that list open anthologies looking for material will often show up venues that are looking to collect stories around a particular theme. Straight away the writer has somewhere to start — a constraint that offers structure and directs thought. (And if the antho takes reprints, the writer may have something in the shelf they can send, too.) There are also some magazines that focus more narrowly than others, or have a mission or mandate. These include (a very non-exhaustive list):

Not One of Us
The First Line
Expanded Horizons

It’s always possible to arbitrarily pick a topic, but the advantage of working to a brief is that it is set externally and fixed, and it has a deadline, both good things to work within to develop discipline. And unless the remit is extremely narrow, the story should be submittable elsewhere if it does not make the cut. And it can be submitted elsewhere for one very simple reason — it exists.

Anyway, anything that gives a jumping-off point has its uses.

 

The empty page is a troubling thing.

 

Metrics. Scopus, Google Scholar, Web of Science and H-index.

When I fire up WordPress is asks me ‘What’s on your mind’. Usually I don’t just bang on about my current bugbear without having a point, but today is an exception.

I’ve been thinking about how people in my field get measured. So, well, I’ll clearly be using google scholar (gs) from now on, since WoS and Scopus (S) give my H-index as 16, but gs gives it as 18.

Even though WoS and S give the same number, they disagree on which papers are inside and outside the band. That’s not a surprise; all sources agree on papers that are well-cited and all on papers that are poorly cited, but there’s the great middle ground where just one or two citations might put a paper ahead of ten or a dozen others.

Metrics are the bane of many a researcher’s life. They vary from field to field, from sub-discipline to sub-discipline. Someone doing work way ahead of the curve will not be cited as much as someone doing routine work on a hot topic. A junior author on a few papers by a big name gets an artificial boost. Some fields publish more than others, but managers may not be able to know this.

Citations per year; the most distressing thing about this graph is that it actually goes bad 20 years... I feel so old.

Citations per year; the most distressing thing about this graph is that it actually goes back 20 years… I feel so old.

One thing I don’t like is an idea that having a lot of low-cited papers should be a negative. Now, yes, I have quite a few, but some of those were written to give a student experience of the publication process; the work was definitely publishable, just perhaps not as exciting as some other stuff I’ve done, but I felt that there was value in both putting the results into circulation, and in getting a student to go through the process of writing a paper (and therefore working out what was important, how to say it and how to illustrate the points they were making), responding to reviewers’ remarks, and so on, through to seeing it in print. Penalising researchers for having a long ‘tail’ will partly mean less material out there waiting to be discovered, and less chance that that student will get a chance to see how the process works.  Conversely, I suppose it might prevent some ‘stamp collecting’ research. But even the stamp collecting is useful — from great masses of routine crystal structures useful guiding principles like the bond valence sum approach to evaluating and predicting crystal structures can arise. It is like crowd-sourcing. The individual contributions may seem trivial, or at least only of very limited appeal, yet the trends across the whole lot put together add up to something important.

Picking winners is always fraught, and the great problem in science management is often seen as making sure that all staff are ‘productive’ when they are very diverse and their outputs are contributions to knowledge rather than material products. So we look at patents and funding obtained and papers cited, all of which work well (or at least ‘badly but not appallingly badly’) when the person in question is working in a large field with lots of peers. Anyone who strays too far off the curve is penalised, and it is very difficult to tell someone who is hewing out real new territory from someone who is achieving nothing; partly because in science one can turn into the other remarkably quickly. As science as a career has mainstreamed, gone from the province of a relatively few gifted amateurs to an established career path, as economies depend on it as a source of new ideas, there is a natural tendency to try to shape it to produce useful outcomes rather than let the useful applications arise naturally from all those clever people following their noses. This is not unreasonable, especially as so much of it is funded by tax dollars; but I do wonder what we’re missing.

Thus ends my ramble.

The Early, and Marginally Interesting, Asimov.

Can there be anything left to say about Asimov? Between his various volumes of autobiography, his vast and highly personal output of essays, introductions and afterwords, and the various volumes of critical material written by others, surely not much space is left. Well, there’s always room for a personal response. And The Early Asimov invites such a response possibly more strongly than any other volume of Asimov’s fiction.

 

Covers of the Panther editions of <i>The Early Asimov</i>, with typically anonymous Chriss Foss spaceships.

Covers of the Panther editions of The Early Asimov, with typical, essentially unrelated, Chris Foss spaceships. They don’t quite all fit on my scanner.

 

Speaking of fiction, let’s get that out of the way first. This is, essentially, a leftovers collection. By the early 70s, most of Asimov’s output had been collected. The premier collections relevant to the 40s were the robot books, I, Robot and the much inferior The Rest of the Robots (which, as we say, filled a much needed gap in the literature) and the Foundation series. Other stories from the early days (bracketed as 1938 to 1949) that had already been collected elsewhere include the famous ‘Nightfall’ and his first story to see print (though not earliest written) ‘Marooned Off Vesta’.

So, it is fair to say, much of the stuff here is second-rate. If it wasn’t it would not be here. It is interesting in the context of the author’s career, but not of itself. ‘Black Friar of the Flame’ is interesting as a precursor to Foundation, but is otherwise a fairly routine adventure. There are a few forgotten gems, ‘The Red Queen’s Race’ is in volume 3, by which time Asimov was an established pro, putting most of his work into Astounding, the premier outlet of the field. These later stories read much like the stuff to be found in collections like Nine Tomorrows and Earth is Room Enough.

One of the more interesting things to look at is the evolution of the author. At the beginning the stories show signs of very careful planning — the rigging of the deck that allows the science-y core of the story to matter at all. This is most apparent in ‘Marooned Off Vesta’ (in Asimov’s Mysteries) and ‘The Callistan Menace’. By the early 50s in his second-string novels like The Stars Like Dust, Asimov was clearly making it up as he went along, then justifying the plot after the fact by putting long, unlikely speeches into the mouths of his characters. It’s not in everything he wrote, but it occurs often enough to suggest that he was not terribly fond of rewriting or, when it comes down to it, of writing a really good book when a fast and acceptable one would do. And we can see that happening before our eyes in this collection; Asimov’s goal is to publish, not to write great stories.

This is implicit in the stories, but explicit in the other main component of the book, the lengthy afterwords and introductions that bracket every story. This book is really mash-up of nostalgic autobiography and anthology, and as we go along we see, in his notes, Asimov ‘learning’ not to plan ahead too much, ‘learning’ not to rewrite. As he becomes surer of himself it becomes progressively clearer that the only metric that matters is whether the story sells. I don’t know if it is true, but Asimov appears to show very little interest in writing as an art. He notes that he ‘found the range’ and after that everything sold, but there is no critical evaluation, really, of his earlier works. Stories are evaluated in terms of how many times they were rejected before being sold (or lost) and how much money they netted him. This is, perhaps, the root of why Asimov is so frustrating as an author.

The middle section of The Gods Themselves, a handful of stories scattered through his career, some of the Foundation books, perhaps the early Robot novels and The End of Eternity; these are wonderful tales. But they are buried in so much that is little more than filler. Asimov was proud of being productive, and now and again pointed out that, when moved, he could also be ‘good’, but that was clearly not his primary objective. What books might he have written had been happy to knock out but one or two a year? Who knows.

There is little here of current interest unless Asimov himself is interesting to you; but if he is, then this is a must-read.

Say it ain’t so, Joe.

In Your Face, a not-quite impartial review.

First, a statement of conflict of interest: I have a story in this book. Having said that, I can easily talk about the strongest stories without mentioning my own…

The front cover of <i>In Your Face</i>. Yes, it's ugly.

The front cover of In Your Face. Yes, it’s ugly.

The book sets itself to tackle potentially distressing subject matter, things that challenge what we think is ‘right‘ by showing the justification for the dark side, for example. Or just hideous mental images. It contains the long and somewhat contentious ‘Wives‘ by Paul Haines, and it and some of the other pieces (‘No Fat Chicks‘ by Cat Sparks, the story that triggered off the whole book, for example) ask us questions about the fundamental nature of human beings.

We are animals. For tens of thousands of years, might did make right. The ancient Greeks for all their civilisation kept boys for their pleasure — not something acceptable where I live. Mores change. What is universally ‘good’ or ‘bad’? The man who rapes a lot of women will ensure that his genes stay in circulation, and is thus anything but a perversity when viewed against the imperatives of survival and evolution.

We’ve been civilised for the blink of an eye. We have decided that some of these things are wrong only yesterday, in evolutionary terms. We have to try to control ourselves using our intellects, but should we be so surprised that it so often breaks down? No, not really. Should we think about this when we punish people – men – for crimes? Hard questions to look full in
the face.

Is tolerance really a virtue, or just the top of the slippery slope, asks Ian McHugh, in ‘Tolerance’, a story that opens ‘The paedophiles are protesting again’. ‘Home and Hearth’ by Angela Slatter is one of the most powerful pieces. It asks unflinchingly about the limits of parental love.

A clutch of stories look at the unseen implications of leaving our children a world in dire straits, when we are fighting the planet itself and there are no spaces left for niceties. And some, like Alan Baxter’s ‘Bodies of Evidence’, conjure up some gruesome scenes, enough to make me (not the toughest of mind’s eyes, I must admit) squirm.

I’m extremely pleased to be in this book. Not just because for me any story that sells is a minor miracle, but because the quality of the company is so high, the production values are so high, and the book aims to do something more than the already-tough-enough task of assembling some worthwhile reading material. Nearly every story worked for me (the strike-rate is very high), and every single one made me think about my assumptions, about maybe how I was, despite my best efforts, still a creature of the darkness as well as the light. We all think about doing wrong. We all act out of base motives sometimes. It’s hard to look that in the face.

The editor, who set out to confront, trigger off new, challenging thoughts, and at the same time to entertain, has succeeded, and succeeded comprehensively. Even if she was silly enough to buy one of my stories…

Available as ebook and large format paperback in most of the usual places, but here is the publisher page.

Born to be mild…

A-sittin’ in the springtime sun

I’ll say this for a typewriter; there’s no other writing tool quite so good for working in the bright sunshine. The average computer screen is useless when the sun is streaming over your shoulder. But the type on the page just gets easier and easier to read. The old AlphaSmart comes close, but certainly lacks atmosphere compared to the typewriter. Sitting on the deck near the garden with a drink and a pile of papers held down under a rock, it might feel a little old-fashioned, but it’s an experience not to be missed.

Making a few notes. No electricity required.

Making a few notes. No electricity required.

One of the great things about technology is the diversity it brings. We have more ways than ever now of getting words into a pleasing order. From handwriting, through typewriters to desktops, laptops and tablets running a vast range of software. You can write using tools from any era — use whatever works for you. Whether it’s a crow quill pen or WordStar or a touch screen. Emulators let you run pretty much any old software you like, and as long as the file format can be converted to rtf, doc or odt (and there are open source tools that will do that for a lot of formats, though not all…) you can get the files out. OCR is pretty solid these days, allowing the typewriter a new lease on life.

When it comes to writing, if it works for me then that’s all the justification I need.

Just a random ramble.

Random Thoughts on Open Access Publishing.

There are a lot of problems with Open Access (OA) academic publishing. The biggest one is simple — if authors are paying to get their work out there, there is a financial incentive to publish everything that can be paid for. This has resulted in a vast explosion of completely crap online journals springing up, which effectively take money and post a pdf on a website and do little else. There are decent OA journals, but they virtually all come from established publishers. I have even used them myself. A new nadir was reached recently when it was pointed out that some journals are even charging people to be on their editorial staff, because such things presumably are seen as valuable on a CV or something. It is hideous to behold. Browsing old libraries and looking at the standards of papers in pre-internet era journals, it is on average much, much higher than now. I don’t think the good journals (say, those of the American Physical Society, IoP, IUCr, etc) have deteriorated, but the scientific literature is so diluted now.

The internet has enabled rapid search, but has also made it essential. New authors (and perhaps older ones too) must research the places they publish. I repeat; the best place to publish is the place you find the most useful papers.

BUT… I agree it is undesirable that publicly-funded science is published in subscriber-only journals. But how do we avoid the current problem that open access has become a synonym for rubbish?

The DOAJ website is something of a clearing house. They have a list of journals and a list of ones they have delisted. They link to places like http://thinkchecksubmit.org/, which can also help out. Having said that, DOAJ is funded by memberships and these include publishers, which is definitely a conflict of interest. It may be a necessary evil in getting the organisation running, but it is not a good look. A few quick non-exhaustive spot-checks suggest that the publishers on the DOAJ website are mostly not listed as dodgy at Beall’s list. So that’s a good thing.

DOAJ is meant to be a kind of ‘white list’ for open access. That’s a good idea. Ideally, though, it would be beneficial if labs and universities took more interest in the white list.  They (largely, though governments matter too) control the metrics by which researchers are measured, they produce the research and use the results.

I can imagine a parallel world where the OA journals are run by consortia of labs and universities. They could do it with minimal duplication of effort, host a network of mirrored servers, not charge a fee because they would be paying themselves anyway, base publication purely on merit, and probably save a lot of money that would otherwise be funnelled into the pockets of crappy OA journals.

Clearly this is impossible.

It would potentially send the current good publishers to the wall, it would be prey to things getting published because the people in the research labs have closer links to the publishers (though governance could probably deal with that, and even now publications have to have editors and boards and referees who may know the authors, so it’s not that different — there could be rules about submitting your paper to a non-local editor with non-local reviewers, which would be easier if the whole thing was done through a wide, multinational network such as that proposed). And it is against the modern trend of outsourcing everything (though the labs could get together and outsource the whole exercise in order to satisfy that modern fantasy).

What can I say? I have my doubts but I am not convinced it is unworkable. How something like http://arxiv.org/ would fold into it, I’m not sure. Anyway, just some thinking aloud.

 

If thinking’s allowed.

 

 

Just the facts, sir. Hawker: An aircraft album by Derek N. James.

Hawker: An aircraft album, by Derek N. James
Ian Allen, 1972, 128 pages. SBN 7110 0294 0

Hawker was one of the great names in aviation until the end of the 1960s, before it was subsumed, like so many other great names in British engineering, into a single large entity, in this case British Aerospace and then BAE Systems, although the Hawker name persists in various fields apart from defence. It’s not quite as unfortunate as how most of the great British car makers ended up as parts of British Leyland, which was very efficient because then they could all go broke at once. In the case of the aerospace industry, it was bailed out by the government because of its national security implications, before undergoing various mergers, public offerings, acquisitions and so on, so it kind of still exists.

 

The last Hawker-built Hurricane during assembly.

The last Hawker-built Hurricane during assembly.

Founded by a group of men that included WWI pilot H.G.Hawker, and T.O.M. Sopwith, Hawker was founded on the ashes of Sopwith (famous for the Camel) and in that tradition specialised in single-seat, single—engined fighters and light bombers right from the start, and stayed true to that mandate right through its time, from the rather dull Woodcock and Horsely of its first phase, through the handsome biplanes of the 30s and the famous Hurricane of the war and on to the Harrier, probably the last plane to be thought of as a ‘Hawker’ rather than British Aerospace (or now Boeing/BAE Systems).

This book is a model-by-model catalogue of the planes made by Hawker. Factual, replete with statistics including production numbers, technical specs and even aircraft numbers, this is a useful reference work but, apart from the quite brief introductory material, not really a books to read through. Indeed, apart from the military historian, it is hard to think who would read it. There is no human story at all. Also relatively little broader context. It is narrowly focussed on the qualities and success or otherwise of the craft discussed.

Why did I read it? I am not sure. Why am I blogging about it? Because I read it… Should you read it? No, because (a) I doubt you’d find a copy, (b) it is of very narrow focus, and (c) who really needs to know?

That’s a bit flip. The fan of the development of the fighter, at least up to the 1960s, would find it a useful text. I read it solely because I’ve mostly been reading fiction lately, including a lot of manuscripts, and this was not that.

So; there we have it.

Nautilus keeps trying to open files using uninstalled application(s)

Just a reminder to self: On my Debian box, I uninstalled (‘removed’) Calligra, but Gnome (well, Nautilus) keeps trying to load it when I double-click on some documents.

cd .local/share/applications/

grep calligra *

rm calligra.desktop

Done. The grep just checked for which .desktop files had it in, then I removed the one that did.

 

Know won kneads two no.

Wagga Wagga Wagga Wagga Wagga Wagga Wagga Wagga

So, all you sciency people out there who look at materials, whether you’re a solid state chemist or a condensed matter physicist or a materials engineer or whether you work with organic materials or metals or ceramics or… well, let’s face it, everything you can touch, sit on or turn into a useful gadget is made of stuff and stuff means materials and materials means the annual Wagga Condensed Matter and Materials Meeting…

Go to this magisterial website: http://cmm-group.com.au/

Or go direct to this one: http://www.wagga2017.unsw.edu.au/

And take a look. It’s cheap! Just a few hundred dollars for accommodation, meals and the meeting. It’s cheap, but it’s not nasty, though it might be bloody hot. Here are the important dates:

Key Dates

Abstract Submission Open Monday 12th September 2016
Abstract Submission Close Friday  11th November 2016
Notification of Acceptance Friday  23rd December 2016
Conference Begins Tuesday 31st January 2017

 

Here’s the conference flyer as a png file, stolen directly from the conference website:

Wagga Wagga Condensed Matter and Materials Meeting announcement.

Wagga Wagga Condensed Matter and Materials Meeting announcement.

 

Confer-o-mania.

This is Hancock: An album a week/month/year #13, plus a pointless rant.

Tony Hancock was a very good comic actor. Galton and Simpson were even more elite in their own field of comedy writing. Time was to show that Hancock needed Galton and Simpson more than they needed him — they went on to even more world-famous successes, like Steptoe and Son (the seed of Sanford and Son in the US), whereas Hancock went on to do some good material, especially on his TV show, but the scripts were not as consistency funny or heartfelt and his career, it might be asserted, started to slip from the time they parted.

Some of the front of the LP sleeve of <i>This is Hancock</i>.

Some of the front of the LP sleeve of This is Hancock.

This is a recording from the radio show, which pre-dated and then ran alongside his earlier TV work. It is indeed by Galton and Simpson, and it has the more expansive cast of the radio show — with Bill Kerr, the Australian who did not make it onto the TV shows, Hattie Jacques, Kenneth Williams and Sid James. As I recall as Hancock went along he became more and more paranoid about his co-stars betting too much attention, and the cast was slimmed down until we have episodes like ‘The Radio Ham’ which are essentially Hancock in a room.

The back. Funnier than the front.

The back. Funnier than the front.

And what a cast! All of them were leads in their own shows at different times. It’s like a supergroup of radio comedy.

But I have to focus on ‘A Sunday Afternoon at Home’. Except I have mentioned it previously. But I’ll have a rant anyway…

In the US Bob the Builder is dubbed, when the original is in English! I do find this odd. We don’t get Bob saying ‘stone the crows it hot in here today’ in Australia. We get Neil Morrissey. It can’t be that people in the US can’t understand any kind of English that is not ‘American’ English, surely? Or are they troubled by things not their own? And then they cast Hugh Laurie as House in that show, House, and his accent was so good the producer apparently did not even know he was English — Hugh Laurie, a man who had been on TV for more than 10 years before House was made, who had had his own comedy shows on the BBC, co-starred in Black Adder and a bunch of other programs and been in a useful handful of movies. Does the rest of the world not even exist once you go south of Canada? I do not get it. Well, really I do; the USA is so big, so resplendent in its own vast panoply of creative talent, there’s no need to look outside, and what comes in from outside is a small fraction of the total market. It’s easy to be ignorant of the rest of the world when you are the dominant force. It’s actually not unreasonable that the bulk of the population sees the rest of the world as impinging only slightly; but actual TV executive have no such excuse. The raging ignorance of people inside the industry is weird. And even if they did not know Laurie was not a Yank, did they not even look him up? He’s not exactly invisible. Which brings me to Seinfeld. Let me outline what happens in ‘A Sunday Afternoon at Home’ as recorded on the record I am talking about: nothing. It is a show about nothing. Remind you of anything? Yes, except it was made in about 1960. More, you have four essentially self-centred, annoying characters entertaining themselves by being annoying to each other. Remind you of anything? Yes, and yet the people behind Seinfeld have said they knew nothing about Hancock. If they did know they’re lying and if they didn’t they’re insular and parochial.

Rant ends.

Anyway, this is funny, both sides and even the copy on the back. It is witty, inventive, and performed with a keen ear for a laugh. It is peak radio Hancock, which is comedy of a high order. Uncle Bert and Auntie Edie would agree.

Or not, whatever.