Oct 222012

How do you write a poem ? I've been doing it for about 20 years now, and all I can say about it is – I haven't got a fucking clue. There's a conscious process of inspiration, of thinking about how some other writer you enjoyed would have expressed something, and an unconscious process of just expressing yourself and they are in constant conflict and out of that contradiction comes poetry. 

I have no idea why there are times I can write 5 good poems in an hour, and times I can't write a line of poetry in six months. 

But my latest six months appear to be ending… I had a depressing few weeks, you know they kind, when you're nostalgic and romanticise the past even as you know you're doing it and remind yourself of what was wrong with those same pictures – and then you just feel sadder because your memories are as sad as the world now  ? And all you can do is cling to the few people who make you happy, because you know the world probably never will. 

Then I had a hectic weekend, an insane one, going from one emotional extreme to another – with a shitload of rock and roll thrown in. 

How do you write poetry ? Fuck me if I know… but I can tell you how I wrote this one. I took all those crazy emotions of this weekend – and quite a few of you reading will recognize yourselves as having produced one of these intense moments… and you try to find out what the emotion behind it was, and find words to make others feel the same feeling -and then you tell them what you are doing to them so they feel it even more (you hope)… and you build it all around a line that started as a horrible joke you then declared "I have to use in a poem one day" to the general horror of your current audience.

And you call the whole thing by a neologistic title that nobody will be entirely sure they figured out. 

And so I give you: Secretionitive


Then finally, to put an unpopped cherry on the old cake, you write a blogpost (which you haven't done in too long) about writing a poem (which you haven't done in even longer) and you try to make sense of your mind until everybody thinks you're being really insightful… or something.

Jun 262012

The assignment for last week was to write something inspired by one of Amanda's previous assignments. So, I wrote a sequel to her story for assignment 3 – with my own special twist.

I make my way to the front of the church. Some idiot had actually chosen an open casket for this ? Seriously ? Because looking at corpses always brightens up everyone's day right ? Fucking idiots. I look down at the former habitation of my soul, which is now standing angrily at my own funeral. There's some sort of flicker to it, I can't describe it. It's like, looking at your own house – you know where the window is that doesn't shut properly. There's something that says "I can get back inside."

He walks up to me. Still the silence, but he is shaking his head vigorously. He knows what I saw and he is telling me not to. Well screw him, screw all these people. I lean down and bring the face of my soul to the face of my body… and touch lips to lips. It's like being sucked into a vacuum cleaner, and then I'm inside… my eyes pop open and I'm looking at the ceiling from my cold body. I can feel a certain unfamiliarity though – the stuffing and embalming left it's mark, and the smell hits my senses. Let's just say Calvin Klein won't be bringing out "Embalming Fluid 1" cologne any time soon.

Of course all the movies and media have been full of stories of zombies and vampires and the like for years, but I know the true name of those who rise from the dead… revenant. That's me. I revenant. I shamble therefore I am. I reach my hands up, grip the sides of the coffin and say "Boo !"… at least, that's what I try to say, what comes out is more a sort of ghastly groan. Apparently my vocal cords don't work very well… and it seems I am not entirely in control of my reanimated body, my arms struggle to remain upright and as the church erupts in screams of shock, surprise and fear I managed to shuffled all the way out of the coffin, but I'm clumsy and it clatters to the ground beside me. 

Without my willing it, my legs shuffle towards the nearest person, I vaguely remember her as a colleague I never much liked. I try to pull back, but my body is not listening. I try to speak but all I that happens is more groans and growls. Is this what it's like for the zombies in the movies ? Fully conscious inside a prison body that does whatever it wants ? Is this the reward for the revenant who returns ? A body you reanimate, re-enter, and then cannot control ? My arms reach out and grab her as she struggles into the mass of people, pull her closer, and my jaws open and then my teeth sink into her arm – not stopping their motion until they clench into the bone and my head jerks back and I rip a giant chunk of bicep off her and swallow it as blood sprays all around me. 

Fucking hell !  I want to throw up, and if the embalmers hadn't removed my stomach I suspect I may have, but the body in which I'm trapped swallows down the chunk of human flesh with every sign of enjoyment. My spirit is nauseous but the brain it's attached to is filled with the same glee I used to get out of biting into a really good cheeseburger.  I revenant… okay, so maybe this wasn't the best idea I ever had. 

I hadn't let go of her, the crowd is still running for the doors, she is struggling to try and pull away from me but apparently my new grip is rather strong. Maybe I got some sort of mobile rigor mortis. Either way her attempts to pull free of my grasp is about as effective as a mouse trying to break free of a mousetrap. Again my head plunges down and I yank out another chunk of flesh, this time from her neck. As the major artery gets ripped blood sprays up under high pressure painting a crysanthemum on the ceiling of the church and falling on me like a red shower. 

On the upside, at least she bleeds out fast now, and the screaming stop. Revolted as I am, I cannot convince my body to stop. I am just a passenger in it, something else, something more primal is the conductor of this railway now. It keeps eating until all that remains is bones – picked clean. Then it shambles out toward the door, I can sense it's hunger… something tells me that this hunger will never be stilled no matter how much I eat. I find myself wondering if the bite is really contagious, if I bite somebody now and they get away without being eaten all up… will they turn into something like me ? Will they find themselves trapped in a canibalistic, undead body shambling about on an unending quest to feed an eternal hunger ?

Is this the zombie apocalypse ? Am I patient zero ? Oh well, I never did like the world very much. At least I'll get to watch it end. Or maybe I'm the only one, and sooner or later somebody is going to blow my brains to bits. Would that stop my body  ? Or would they need to cut of my whole head ? Or throw a grenade and blast all of me into a pulpy, splattered mess all over the walls ? 

I wish I could have some control at least, I could make sure all the idiots I hate got eaten first, especially that penguin who led the ceremony. That would be poetic justice in my book. But my body is as oblivious to the commands I try to send it as a 3-year old to kid to the finer details of class-action tort law. Fuck me sideways… actually, come to think of it, the body doesn't seem to have any great desire for getting fucked and even if it did I may not be able to ever again anyway. I mean we all know men will fuck practically anything with a hole in it but somehow I imagine that trying to digest them during the act is probably likely to cause a mild case of erectile dysfunction in even the most desperate guy. Pity I'm not a preying mantis. They don't lose out on getting laid just because of an insatiable cannibal urge. 

My body trips over a fallen …something… and lies face down in the sun for a while. 

Jan 232012

A twitter conversation on Friday had a mention of the phrase "novacaine wore off" when when @SamWilson1 spoke about her dentist visit. Amusingly both myself and Leigh Andrews first read it as "novacaine werewolf". Me and Leigh agreed it would make a great horror story title and that we would accept the challenge of writing such stories. At first I was going to use it for the next Karen Anderson story, but then I came up with an idea that I liked more, and which I felt wouldn't fit into the mileu of those tales, so instead I wrote a short story on it's own. Here it is.

Growing up in the small town of Balito our neighbor was a widower named mister Roger Kane. His wife lost her life in the birth of their youngest daughter and he doted on his three girls and spoiled them in a way that all the rest of the neighborhood kids envied.  The three girls were my childhood friends. Sally the youngest, was two years after me, Cheryl was a year younger and Nancy was my age. Their father had affectionately nicknamed them Sugar, Candy and Nova respectively and they had called each other by those nicknames so they had stuck. 

Time however, as is it's ancient habit, passed. I grew up and went to University and got a job and I hadn't seen the Kane sisters in many, many years. So there I was sitting in a pub in Johannesburg at the age of 28 when a strange woman walked up to me. "Didn't you grow up in Balito ?" she asked, I looked more closely and there was a certain familiarity. 

"I did yes, do I know you from there ?"

"Nancy Kane, everybody calls me Nova" she exclaimed and I realized this was my childhood friend back. With her and her sisters I had made the innocent and not-so-innocent memories of childhood. Played hide-and-seek and "show me yours I'll show you mine". It was a blast from the past. Of course we started drinking together and catching up on our lives so far. She told me how their nicknames had stuck so much that although Sugar and Candy were both married now with different surnames they were still known by nicknames that had only been funny with their maiden names. 

One thing led to another and we ended up in her apartment for a nightcap. She poured me a drink and then asked me to excuse her while she slipped into something more comfortable. As cliche as it was, I still smiled. I sat sipping my drink while she was busy and mulling over the events of the evening. In my wildest dreams I wouldn't have expected to ever see Nova Kane again, let alone that I'd be sitting in her apartment about to engage in dark and carnal delights with her nubile young body.

A moment later I saw what looked like a large husky come patting out of the room she'd gone into. It seemed quite a big dog for her small apartment, and sleeker than any husky I'd seen before, almost wolf-like I thought. Suddenly it growled and then it pounced, my hands reached up ineffectually trying to steer those jaws away. I may as well have tried to stop a jet from taking off. I felt those fangs sink into my throat, Everything went black.

Nov 292010

Science fiction, everybody knows it's a genre of fiction that is only enjoyed by weirdo, geeky types – not high literature and not all that great as mindless entertainment either. The characters are shallow (even moreso in Science Fiction Horror films where they are regularly even worse than in other horror), the plotlines predictable… well basically it's soap opera's in space right ?

Oh how wrong. As a few English literature professors to name their top ten greatest pieces of literature from the 20th century and two books are almost guaranteed to be on both lists. Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a strange land" and J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" – one science fiction, one fantasy – both prescribed works for every literature degree in the world today, as important to the history of English literature as Shakespeare.

So it seems that science fiction can in fact be high literature. Stranger in a strange land is particularly telling – it is set against what was, at the time of writing, one of the most overdone memes in the genre: crude humans attempting to interact with a much more advanced and civilized Martian culture. 

Yet on this meager basis is crafted a tale that is not only very good fiction (I'm quite shocked that there is no film of it – perhaps because it's just too deeply honest) but one of the best studies of true human nature. It was not only a literary masterpiece – it was also a bestseller in the popular mind and to this day the term "grok" which it gave us remains in use (though it's not longer quite so strong a counterculture as it was in the 70's). 

So science fiction is in fact very often very good fiction. Stranger in a strange land is just the most powerful example but no such discussion would be complete without mentioning Arthur C. Clarke and many other greats of the genre. Science Fiction it seems can be truly great fiction.

But how about the science ? Again there is the good and the bad. Among true science fiction aficionados the vast majority of the science fiction that gets made on television or in film are considered the worst of the genre – not least for frequently being ignorant of science. When the science fiction has bad science, people tend to complain. Rare exceptions are allowed where the fiction is so good that we don't mind if the science is flagrantly ignoring the laws of physics. Firefly springs to mind, and the way most S.F. fans are prepared to forgive George Lucas for putting sound in space, their stories we love for their exceptional fiction – not their particularly good science… which is why none of us will ever forgive him for Jar-Jar Binks ! 

In fact – with good science fiction we find an incredible complicity between science and science fiction. Science inspires science fiction – which inspires young people to become scientists and engineers – often with the dream of perhaps helping to realize some of those stories they loved so much in their youth. 

This explains at least in part why so much of science fiction's impossible predictions do end up coming true in time. Verne predicted submarines nearly 80 years before we could build one – and got the majority of the details right ! When we did build one, we named it the Nautilus, after the fictional ship of Captain Nemo in "20 thousand leagues under the sea". Verne's "Paris 1930", written in the 1800's  was never published (though the manuscript survives) the publisher didn't believe anybody would be convinced that by 1930 Paris would be a city with electric streetlights and people driving self-powered vehicles (the book was written well before the invention of either the lightbulb or the car). 

Verne even wrote about a moonlanding, he predated rockets by a bit too much and his space ship was basically fired from a huge gun. Even then – he correctly predicted the location from where we actually did go to the moon nearly a hundred years later: Florida. The closest point in the USA to the equator. Verne knew, as NASA later did, that the closer you are to the equator the less energy you need to reach escape velocity (Newtonian physics explains why – look it up if you really must know).

And Jules Verne was probably the first science fiction author to ever live. Others who followed would go further. Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001 before the Moonlanding, and in the introduction to the sequel 2010 he writes that the moonlanding came ten years earlier than expected (it happened between the two books) and he adjusted his expectations accordingly. Sadly Clarke's vision was then rather too optimistic. The next few decades did not build on the Apollo 11 landing as it should have, but not because of technology problems (most of Clarke's predictions are now recognized as very likely) instead – politics got in the way.

Much later Clarke would complete the trilogy with 3001, in which his lost astronaut returns to earth a thousand years from now… to find a human civilization with ideas and technology that while far removed from our own is not only feasible but feels… likely.

And then there are those who take it all to a whole new level. Orson Scott  Card springs to mind here, the series he began with Ender's game followed Einsteinian physics meticulously – ships were constrained by lightspeed but made use of time dilation – so a trip that took 80 years would feel to the passengers like it took a few months. In this manner humanity ultimately colonizes other planets, it's an idea that is obvious to any physicist as a possible approach but it does have downsides – for returning home it means a good chance of coming back to a planet where everyone you love is dead. Card realized however that it makes colonization of other planets feasible – colonists generally don't plan return trips after all. Then Card predicted a method for faster-than-light communications so these ships could still publish books and such. For this he invented the philote -most fundamental particle of all, and how it could be split. If you split a philote, and twisted one half – the other half would twist by the same degree regardless of how far away it may be. 

He called this link an "ansible". Remarkably – modern quantum physics actually allows for exactly that, the names are different and we do it with electrons – but the methodology does in fact work and forms a crucial part of quantum encryption technologies, quantum computing and indeed quantum teleportation. Currently it is crude and costs a fortune to build – but there seems to be no practical reason why an ansible based on quantum interference could not be possible in future, and perhaps even allow faster-than-light communications, all without ever breaking Einstein's laws. The information isn't traveling, the matter is simply doing what matter does in a quantum universe.[1]

Star Trek and the like invented warp drives to get around Einstein – and this inspired real phycisist to study their feasibility. Mathematically at least, it turns out warp drives do work  ! You can trap yourself in a bubble of space time and then move that around – there is no limit to the speed at which space-time can move. Of course, that revealed a major catch: warp-drives create an event horizon… so our starship Captain will be flying blind and couldn't steer the ship. Not perhaps entirely impossible to get around, one could still potentially fire up the warp drive on some sort of pre-programmed route that automatically exits warp at the right time – though doing so without already knowing exactly what's on the other side would be risky in the extreme – not exactly ideal for exploration missions.

Science and science fiction – complicitely driving each other forward toward a better future for mankind… isn't that nice, and in the meantime – we get some of the greatest books ever written. Sometimes it's more science than good fiction. Asimov fell into that trap a few times – he was a great scientist himself and his books are excellent and believable science, but the fiction is often strenuous, I find Asimov hard to read as an author. His books are more like philosophy of science textbooks with a parable to explain than like stories… I enjoy them but I can understand why they are not particularly well known outside SF circles. Sometimes the fiction wins (firefly again) – but all the time there is a marriage in S.F. of two of the greatest achievements mankind can claim. Art and Science, and it produces some truly beautiful children. Weirdo geeky fans at conventions notwithstanding.

[1] Just some notes on this – which I felt should be clarified but would bog down the main text. Card wasn't the first to propose the concept and he didn't invent the name either. Card was inspired by the earlier works of Le Guin and in the books themselves subtly reference them as the source of the name although Card's ansible is remarkably better thought out than Le Guin's was and has a more accurate name in the books (ansible is basically the folk name by which people know the product). Quantum teleportation by entanglement is the current physics most like the ansible as a concept. However this may not be capable of superluminal communication at all (the consensus today is 'probably not' but it's by no means a settled question) and more-over current technology cannot maintain quantum entanglement over more than microscopic distances. Card was aware of the quantum physics and built on top of it – if an ansible is possible it will take significant development from what is currently possible and may require physics discoveries not yet made (or very widely anticipated), but since Relativity and Quantum still aren't consistent – we know our physics picture of the universe is incomplete… who knows what the next paradigm shift will bring.[2]

[2] Sorry, but people e-mail me and complain if I don't point this stuff out. At least I put in a footnote, can you imagine how cumbersome it would have been to spell all that out in the article ?

Aug 252010

Ebook Diva – an online publisher held a writing competition this month. The theme – erotic horror. I was invited to compete and after some thought I decided to do so. My idea required a a co-author and I asked for volunteers. The very talented Chantelle Goosens stepped up to the plate.
After some planning and a lot of writing and editing – we submitted the results of our labors today. It is called “The Fallen Lamb” and I really do hope you will like it enough to give us a vote. Taking the time to write it better has put us at a disadvantage as we have less time to gather votes so please do vote for us if you like the story. To vote visit this page and click the “Like” button next to The Fallen Lamb.

I also put a copy of the story up here for those who may want to read this after voting closes, it’s in the literature section of the site.

Sep 072009

D34r Dr Grammar,

I red a bl0gpst 2day that sed txtspk is stoop n wus sayin’ why cannot kids spell nemore ? What gives ?



Dear L33t0,

It seems every third blogpost on the net these days is lamenting the loss of grammar and spelling skill among the youth (as they put it), the comments fields to these posts invariably then come down to a near perfect 50/50 split between those arguing that such complaints are simply pedantry and a fear of freedom, a sort of longing for the days of the “Kings English” and pointing out that Shakespeare, the greatest English poet of all couldn’t even spell his own name the same more than once – versus those declaring that good spelling and grammar is just good manners and consideration for your readers, that anybody who ever uses txtspk will obviously never get a job, that our schools have no standards etc. etc.

Who is right ?

Well, as with just about every question on which debate rages, it keeps raging because people are trying to oversimplify it. This isn’t a right or wrong question with two simple sides. It’s a complex issue with multiple sides and historical influences. Firstly, we need to understand where each side is coming from.

When I went to school we were taught that written and spoken language are very different, that we don’t write as we pronounce, that we don’t construct sentences the same way when writing. This came about for two big reasons – firstly, until not long ago virtually all writing was the recording of information such as news, books and important letters. This meant that writing was, by it’s nature, a very formal thing in almost all cases. Secondly – only a small handful of the population was literate anyway, so writing was always the preserve of a tiny elite (this didn’t start changing until the 18th century really). So when only a small and highly educated group used  the medium, it is not surprising that it was held to a very high academic standard.

As reading and writing became more commonplace, this didn’t really change the standard though – because writing was still special, we wrote school projects, curiculum vitae’s and letters to our banks. We wrote business letters, and just occasionally a letter to a penpal who would only read an respond many weeks later. It was a rare thing, done with care and attention.

But nobody spoke as we wrote, no-one in the entire history of language ever has, and if anybody tried- nobody would actually understand them – or want to. Language, both spoken and written has always been an evolving thing, because of the formal nature of writing however it evolved far slower and in fact artificial systems were  created to deliberate retard it’s evolution – there was a good reason to do so, so written works would remain readable for a long time – hence concepts like “The King’s English” was invented. Since the only writing ever done was at least somewhat formal and important, and since this writing was something the average person only rarely did – it worked.

But then came the communications revolution and the internet. The first generation of internet users were highly educated because the early years of the internet was primarily an academic medium. More-over, the only major interface to it was computers with keyboards, on which  nearly all the users were highly proficient (since most of them worked with keyboards all day long) – hence we didn’t see the change really start back then. Leetspeak developed but it was more a kind of subculture thing than a true trend.

It was the cellphone revolution that really changed things. Suddenly we had a generation who mostly used writing, not in any formal setting  but for conversation. For them, writing was not something special and rare done with important reasons, sometimes they would write something important – but very nearly all the writing they do is conversational – a means of just chit-chatting, as transient as a greeting on the street.

To make matters worse, the major interface in use for this had a length limit of 140 characters, and no keyboard, just a very annoying keypad on which even the best typists are still really slow. They adapted, this highly informal conversational writing, took on the phraseology and grammar of spoken conversations, and it’s spelling became a form of highly phonetic shorthand.

As such, that is not a bad thing, it’s what written English would have been five centuries ago if those in power had not deliberately taken measures to control and retard the evolution of written language. Now without getting into the anarchist-language vs. controlled language debate, the reality is that one can slow the evolution of a language but it cannot be stopped. If written language deviates too far from spoken, it becomes useless so it has to follow, albeit at a slower rate and this has always been true.

The problem we face now is that this conversational style of writing is the only writing practice most youngsters get. I stand by my belief that there is nothing wrong with it, where appropriate. Using txtspk when writing an SMS is just clever, it’s natural and appropriate to the medium and the purpose of the writing. Using it to write a curiculum vitae is not – since the person reading will most likely not be from the SMS generation and will judge it a sign of low intelligence or education (regardless of whether there is any truth to this). This is gradually changing, we see professors at major universities like Oxford calling for the removal of spelling marks in tests because they applaud the liberation and true democratization of linguistics that is happening here, but for now this is still the world we live in.

In 20 years or so, when every personnel manager was a member of the SMS generation, sending your CV in what is now proper written English will be sure to have you marked as “out of touch, and too old for the job” – it will be as bad for your career as it is to send it in txtspk now ! But until that day (rue it or delight in it – but nobody can possibly prevent it) enlightened self-interest declares that txtspk English should be used only where appropriate. It is appropriate only in conversational writing – the kind created by cellphones and the net, where we are talking to our friends – like we would in a pub over a beer, and the fact that we are using a written medium is completely inconsequential and in fact if anything a hindrance. It is appropriate then to reduce that hindrance as far as possible so that the natural rapid flow of the conversation can largely survive.

It is quite acceptable, and if you aren’t a very good typist, in fact more polite, to use txtspk when on a cellphone keyboard or having a chat on IM, or even when tweeting.

It is not appropriate (at least not yet) to use txtspk when writing formal or important stuff. You shouldn’t use it to write your school assignments, you shouldn’t use it when writing a blogpost that you mean to be a serious and formal statement on a topic (even if that topic is a very casual and informal one) and you certainly shouldn’t use it for business or academic correspondence.

So that is my take on it, txtspk is just a natural human response to the idiosyncratic nature of formal written language when you try to use it to have an informal friendly discussion. When suddenly those Latinisms and archaisms of spelling that have given English one of the highest rates of dyslexia in the world become so cumbersome as to prevent meaningful conversation, rather than aid it as it does in a formal setting, but we are some ways from it being a natural and normal form of writing for most people – from in fact, it being possible to write a novel in txtspk that anybody over the age of 20 will actually be able to read (yep, I’m ten years too early myself…) – but since the youth virtually without exception has embraced it, it’s inevitable that this will change.

So Doctor Grammar’s advice, if you were writing something formal and somebody gets pedantic over the spelling of a word you got wrong, apologize and correct it. If you were having a conversational chat with a friend and the same thing happens, tell him to: g0 f4 urslf.

UPDATE: It occurred to me later that there is in fact one crucial thing our schools should be doing differently. I read articles about teachers complaining that children have lost the ability to write cursively because “all they do is type” – but none of them know how to type well. Losing the skill of handwriting is neither surprising nor a bad thing, a pen is an archaic technology now and before long it will be like that kid who was using a walkman for a week – they would just spend the entire time wondering “how on earth did people cope with this ?”. I will go so far as to say that if my grandchildren know what a pen looks like –  I will be a very sad man indeed. We live in a world of typing now – but our schools are not teaching this essential skill. We used to have typing classes for girls, as part of our sexist past. Where we’d teach them to type fast and efficiently on typewriters while schooling the boys in woodworking. As the computer revolution made typists obsolete – we started teaching computer literacy, and typing classes became ancient history (this was starting even when I was in school).

Now we have a generation growing up doing 90% of their written communication by typing – and never having learned to do it well. When you are expected to hand your CV in as a typed document rather than a written one, it’s a major problem if you type with one finger. Schools need to expand computer literacy classes with good old fashioned 60-words per minute on a qwerty typing classes – now that is preparing kids with an essential skill.