Silicon Valley: Creator of a Modern Dystopia?


At my local book club last week, we mused on the fact that one person’s utopia is another person’s dystopia (the club met to scrutinize my novel, which is a dystopia set late in the 21st century). So it’s apposite that Rebecca Solnit should write in the London Review of Books about the utopia/dystopia (my words) of present-day Silicon Valley and its city neighbour San Francisco.

Silicon Valley projects a fairly clear image worldwide. I have a mental picture of glass-and-steel modernist office buildings; interior spaces scattered with pool tables and relaxation zones. And, outdoors, I see expansive and manicured greenery. Clean jobs for young techy folk. Close to utopia? Granted, I am aware of the long hours’ culture in Silicon Valley but I understand the pay is pretty good.

Solnit explains that San Francisco has become “a bedroom community for the tech capital of the world.” The tech corporations provide luxury, private buses so their staff can work as they make the long commute. According to Solnit, the influx of high-paid young people has distorted the housing market – pushing out the arty crowd. This could be the rant of someone who has ‘lost out’ but it’s an intriguing, and partly humorous, read.

Here’s Solnit’s summary but click on the link for the full story in which she compares and contrasts the tech world with the Gold Rush:

Sometimes the Google Bus just seems like one face of Janus-headed capitalism; it contains the people too valuable even to use public transport or drive themselves. In the same spaces wander homeless people undeserving of private space, or the minimum comfort and security; right by the Google bus stop on Cesar Chavez Street immigrant men from Latin America stand waiting for employers in the building trade to scoop them up, or to be arrested and deported by the government. Both sides of the divide are bleak, and the middle way is hard to find.




What Motivates Us To Get Up For Work Every Day?

In developing the main character, Jayna, in A Calculated Life, I needed to understand more about the nature of emotion, and how emotion differs from feeling. I found enlightenment in Antonio Damasio’s Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain.
So I’m interested in this online article by Walter Chen who argues that people are more motivated in the workplace by their emotional drives than by the prospect of monetary rewards. And he explains the science behind this emotional motivation. Here’s a snippet from Chen’s article that references the experimental work of Antonio Damasio (click on the link above for the full article):

Making decisions is all about our intellectual capability, right? I thought so too, turns out, that’s completely wrong. In an experiment by Antonio Damasio, named Descartes’ Error he discovered that the key element for making daily decisions is to have strong emotional feelings:

“One of Damasio’s patients, Elliot, suffered ventromedial frontal lobe damage and while retaining his intelligence, lost the ability to feel emotion. The result was that he lost his ability to make decisions and to plan for the future, and he couldn’t hold on to a job.”

The way our brains are built makes it necessary that emotions “cloud” our judgment. Without all that cloudy emotion, we wouldn’t be able to reason, have motivation, and make decisions.

Incidentally, Damasio pointed out in Looking for Spinoza that Shakespeare analysed the nature of emotion and feeling in four lines of verse, toward the end Richard II:
(Richard II) asks for a looking glass, confronts his face, and studies the spectacle of ravage. Then he notes that the “external manner of laments” expressed in his face is merely “shadows of unseen grief,” a grief that “swells with silence in the tortured soul.” His grief, as he says, “lies all within.”

New US Evidence on Climate Change Scepticism: How Does This Stack Up, Boris?


So, the UK has a cold snap, London experiences proper snow, and Mayor Boris announces he’s a climate-change sceptic, on the basis that… the weather feels colder, not warmer.

Thus, it was fascinating to read the results of new research on climate change scepticism. Polling carried out by the University of New England suggests that people who change their views on climate change at times of unseasonable weather conditions, are likely to be politically independent rather than being aligned to the Democrat or Republican parties.

Of course, Boris isn’t politically independent but maybe this research finding also applies to a maverick (definition: an unorthodox or independent-minded person). In which case, I fully expect Boris to flip-flop on climate change if we have a hot summer.

Personally, I reckon that what Boris says on this subject is not necessarily the same as what Boris believes. I suspect he fully understands that higher global temperatures lead to erratic weather conditions. I guess he made his statement to endear himself to the less scientifically minded sections of the Tory Party.

Or is that a trifle cynical?

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Ugly Fonts Help Proofreading: M J Hyland

Here’s a great tip from M J Hyland, author of This is How and lecturer in creative writing at The University of Manchester. In a nutshell, she says:

Printing off your text in an ugly font will make mistakes show up more clearly.

The online magazine expands on Hyland’s observation by quoting New Scientist’s explanation of how the brain reacts to different fonts.

Also according to M J Hyland:

When you’re actually writing, fonts can be a really useful visual way of distinguishing between different works or even sections of the same piece – sometimes if I’m moving between two projects (if I’ve just finished a first draft of something and am moving back to a previous project to edit, or if I’m taking a break from a novel to work on a short story) I put the two projects in different fonts so that as soon as I look at the screen I get a sense of which ‘voice’ I’m in.

I’m definitely going to take the advice on Ugly Fonts. Let me know if you’ve tried this before. Which is a good Ugly Font?

I realize I’m already doing as Hyland suggests with her second piece of advice. I’m currently redrafting a short story that I’m going to give away later this month. I’m writing this short story in Century Gothic instead of Times New Roman, which I used for drafting A Calculated Life. And the different font does put me in a different frame of mind.


Students discover lost Blake etchings in Manchester’s John Rylands Library


An exhibition next month at John Rylands Library in Manchester will present previously lost etchings by poet and artist William Blake. The librarians at John Rylands suspected their collection of over one million books included many commercial etchings by Blake. But the students discovered more than expected, under the guidance of Manchester University’s Blake specialist Colin Trodd. I understand that over 300 etchings were discovered in the collection.

John Rylands library Achivist Stella Halkyard said :

As well as being a creative artist, Blake was an engraver and produced a wide variety of work.

The students had some specialist training in identifying prints from David Morris at the Whitworth Art Gallery before hunting through the collection. They found out we actually had a huge number of commercial engravings by Blake.

During the 18th and 19th century, engraving was looked down on as an art form, and commercial engraving more so.

But Blake is a hugely influential figure whose work was ahead of his time and whose poems are taught in our classrooms.

It is incredibly rare to have so many engravings by Blake together in one place. It is an incredible array of subjects and really showcases his talent.”

So put a note in your diaries: Burning Bright’: William Blake and Art of the Book runs at the John Rylands Library from February 7 – June 23


Self-Publishing Tips: From Manuscript to Kindle


So, your manuscript is finished (raise the flags!) and you’re ready to self-publish your ebook. You’ve already set up an account on Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and you’ve completed all the information requested – book title, description, categories, verified your publishing rights.

Here are my hints and tips that should contribute to a smooth upload of your completed book. My advice is really aimed at other novelists rather than writers of non-fiction since their books have more complex formatting issues. And I took the simplest route, I believe, by preparing and uploading a Word document to the KDP website. (I won’t deal with the Front Cover upload in this blogpost). The KDP conversion process will produce a .mobi file, which you can download and check before you hit the Publish button. Read more

Severn Estuary ‘Wrong Place to Start’ with Tidal

    Scotland turbine
One of the world’s biggest tidal energy turbines being prepared for deployment in Scotland.
A Royal Society report says we’re underestimating the amount of electricity that could be generated from tidal sources, says Matt McGrathBBC Environment correspondent.

In summary – 15% of UK needs could be met from barrages that exploit tidal flow and 5% from planting turbines underwater in fast flowing tidal streams. The report’s co-author, Dr Nicholas Yates of the National Oceanography Centre, says: Read more

Authors Tempted to Switch to Self-Publishing

I didn’t notice this (staggeringly interesting) story in the run up to Christmas and I reckon it’s worth resurrecting. According to the Digital Census by Futurebook, almost half the traditionally published authors responding to their survey have contemplated switching to the self-publishing route. This is the first time that Futurebook (part of The Bookseller magazine) has posed questions to authors in its annual census.

In addition, traditionally published authors expressed less satisfaction with their publishers’ achievements (6.2 out of 10 rating) compared to self-published authors’ satisfaction with their own publishing efforts (7 out of 10 rating).

Trad authors complained about their ebooks being over-priced and that their publishers were slow to respond to market changes. They were disappointed with publishers’ ebook strategies as well as their marketing efforts.

As for authors who self-publish, many would be tempted to move to a traditional publisher for the kudos, for further intellectual property exploitation (eg translation rights), and . . . for improved marketing. (Ha ha! See above).

According to Futurebook’s Sam Missingham:

The obvious conclusion seems to be that we are at a significant moment when many authors are weighing the pros and cons of pursuing a self-publishing or traditional publishing route for their work.

Or a case, possibly, of the grass always being greener on the other side.

Maybe we’ll witness more developments in 2013 akin to literary agency Curtis Brown’s move into ‘self-publishing’. Curtis Brown is self-publishing in the US market for its established UK authors such as Tony Parsons.


More Punctuation Malarky: A Crisis of Commas


A passing remark on The Guardian Books Blog cost me dearly in woman-hours in the run up to Christmas. Blogger Alison Flood reviewed a self-published novel to test whether the online praise for the book was justified. (Mary Campisi’s A Family Affair – not my own cup of tea). I won’t present Alison’s conclusions, only her first comment:

First up, the commas. She employs the scattergun approach.

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Climate Change Sceptics – Media Analysis

newspapers detailThe Green Alliance blog carried this assessment of media scepticism on climate change in a guest post by James Painter of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

In summary: Right wing newspapers in the UK are promoting climate change scepticism through their opinion pieces rather than through their news columns.

The RISJ has conducted research and according to Painter:

This research prompts an array of interesting questions.  One is the obvious and oft-asked one of why climate scepticism is more of a right-wing phenomenon both in the media and in wider society.

But it is also worth asking what the main drivers are of climate scepticism in the media.  Is it newspaper owners or editors pushing an agenda?  Is it journalists concerned with ‘balance’? Or is it the decline of specialist environment correspondents, who have an understanding of where mainstream science consensus lies?

Or are the media merely reflecting wider society, where there are loudly sceptical politicians and lobby groups?

At a time of questioning of journalistic standards in the press, it’s worth wrestling with these questions more.

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