JOHN MEANEY

31.12.14

2014 FUGIT; 2015 VENIT

New Year's resolutions? Gonna need some psychological prodding to keep going? Try Dr Ann Maria de Mars' blog for thoughts on perseverance (incl. "persevere at the right thing") or Steven Pressfield's War of Art book. The latter has tiny "chapters" that will seem simplistic to the vague or casual reader, while speaking volumes to anyone engaged in an actual struggle towards a longterm goal - especially that of getting a novel written.

A new dedication to fitness? Good for you. For the seasoned gym rats, January is a hateful time, because gyms allow far too many people to enrol... in the certain knowledge that by February, most of the newcomers will have fallen by the wayside, but still be paying money to the gym in some form or other. Maybe you should start by walking every day and doing push ups, and join that gym in a few weeks time? But hey, start something now.

So, how about a 2014 round-up?

I'd pick my best SF reads of the year, but... I haven't ready any. Not a thing. That's pretty telling. Crime fiction, certainly - always! - including new books by old favourites, John Sandford and Ian Rankin, as well as re-reading some of their earlier work. (I've been reading Sandford since his first two books, written as John Camp.) A bunch of books by C.J. Box, who I discovered only last year. Those are the stand-outs.

My computer consultancy has been all to do with graduate training programmes this year, both writing material (cyber security being just one of the topics) and delivering two bootcamps for global brand-name organisations, which meant four months away from home, but a chance to do good work. Nicely successful, thanks to all involved.

My first programming job in the commercial world began in February 1982, when I was 24. The company's live production system was an IBM System/34, using the RPG II programming language and without a database (the data being stored in flat files, and formatted by the programs). We wrote code in pencil on pre-printed coding sheets, for an operator to key in and compile.

The exciting work was on the new non-production box, the System/38, using RPG III and an inbuilt relational DBMS, later re-engineered to become DB2. An ex-IBM expert called Ian Smith performed an amazing job as a consultant setting it up, and was soon offered the chance to head up the IT department - except that in those days, of course, the term "IT" hadn't been coined yet: this was the DP (Data Processing) Department. Wonderful days.

And now? I'm writing this on a laptop on which I code primarily in Java, but also C#, C++, Frege, Haskell, Erlang, Python and Ruby (off the top of my head), while using MongoDB or MySQL or SQL Server or JavaDB for the persistence (object-relational mapping by hand or Hibernate, either way will do), and including web apps with EJBs and servlets and JSPs, with HTML5 UIs, including jQuery for the snazzy modern look'n'feel... Times have changed.

To anyone starting a software development career in 2015: how similar do you think IT will be in 33 years time - at the start of 2048 - compared to now? Buckle up, and carry on learning...

It's a good job that old notions of age making it more difficult to learn new stuff are plain wrong. For example: adults talk to children in a slow, exaggerated way when the kids are learning their first (or a second) language - and if language teachers talked to adults in a similar (not identical) way, the adults would pick up new languages as easily as children. (The problem isn't really teachers: it's adult natives of another country not knowing how to talk to people who are still learning the language. No one makes TV dramas for adults where the language use is deliberately slow and simple...)

Likewise, early studies of memory involved undergraduates - the experimental psychologist's test sample of choice - memorising lists of nonsense syllables, as directed by an academic. When the researchers wheeled in retired older people, with decades of work experience where relevance is materially rewarded, these test subjects had no motivation to perform well on nonsense memorisation, and did not view the academics as authority figures. (It was experimental psychologists themselves who came to recognise the unintentional bias in the methodology.) More recent studies show very different results.

And then there were the researchers who discovered old Eleven Plus papers in a Scottish archive, and realised they had a nice opportunity. These were IQ tests that school pupils sat, aged eleven, back in the old days - a practice that ended mostly in the early 1970s - and determined which kind of secondary education they received. (The inventor of IQ tests, Alfred Binet, did not believe that intelligence was a single, measurable thing, or that his tests should be used to categorise people for serious social purposes.)

The rediscovered test papers allowed researchers to find people in their seventies and get them to resit the tests, and compare the results. Guess what? A large group had increased their IQ by twenty points or more. (That's massive.) And the correlation? These were the people with intellectually demanding professions and/or considerable further education.

Learning new stuff makes you smarter... and that's not a tautology. You don't just take new cognitive material on board: you increase your ability to learn yet more.

I find a deep geeky joy in learning a new programming language, but hey, maybe I'm on my own. Again.

"That's all very well, John," I hear you cry. "But tell us about your books. Never mind computer programming and the novels you're reading... What are you actually writing?"

I'm glad you asked. Thank you. The idea for the new novel came to me in early 2010, and it's part of the reason I returned to the computing fold, having previously dropped my computing work to literally a couple of weeks a year (albeit with some seriously interesting clients). Finishing my postgraduate studies part-time at Oxford (having put them on hold back in the last millennium), and getting back to the leading edge of current tech, all integrated with planning to write a contemporary novel, heavy on the cyber security but for for the general reader as well as the specialist, to be started when the Ragnarok trilogy was finished.

The plan was to finish the book the last spring.

What I hadn't counted on was the need for a total rewrite, which is business as usual for the professional novelist, but stress-inducing for the writer who's planned for months of computer-related work and no writing... But hey, it's only hard work. I finished the rewrite and got the book to my agent a couple of days before Christmas. This being the first book I've written on spec since - gulp - the 1990s, it's now Out There in the hands of editors who with luck will be reading it in January and liking it enough to offer money so they can publish it...

Fingers crossed for 2015.

21.11.14

CATCHING UP, MOVING ON

Ah, those intermittent bloggers and their pathetic excuses for long absences... What to make of them?

It's a good while back that I guest-blogged on Mr Stross's fine site, and my more modest contributions dwindled even further after that experience, when I glimpsed just how much ongoing effort it takes to keep that kind of high-octane blog going.

Well, I'd said some time back that I was going to teach two massive, bootcamp-style graduate programmes this year, pretty much back to back, and that's exactly what I did. Thanks ever so much, guys... You and the Monster were awesome!

So that was my summer, and a fine one it was too.

Writing-wise, the Satellite 4 Souvenir Book features a YA story set in the Pilots universe, and called Jonquil's Ray. I hope all you Eastercon 2014 attendees like it.

I suspect it's my final piece of science fiction to be published, twenty-two years after my first story appeared in Interzone. Like Charlie Stross, who's written about the same thing on his blog, I've no desire to write more SF. All done, and it's been magnificent.

I'm working harder than ever on the new book, of course. It just ain't SF...

22.8.14

CLASS OF 2014!

Massively special: the best of all grad programmes, back for a 3rd year, finished last week, and a huge honour to teach.

Here's a shout-out to my homies: Alex (Captain 100%!), Calvin (it's all quantum), Connor (Ginger and Tablets!), Dan (Chinstrap no longer), Divia (you wuz brill!), Jamie (cool under pressure), Mark (awesome), Matt (the new Brian Cox), Mikey (keep it real, King Java), Tom (trance and maths, what could be better?), Victoria/Tors (my mentor forever!), Westlee (coolest of dudes)... You guys are absolutely amazing. Keep on being brilliant!

4.7.14

MENTIONED IN DESPATCHES

I blame Steve Deas - I followed links from one of his archived blog posts - for reading about one of my fellow authors in the online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and being unable to resist checking to see if there's an entry about me. There is, and it's written by John Clute, who is a Very Smart Man.

The entry mentions a "capacity to knit heterogeneous material together", which - following a late-night discussion in the bar at Eastercon - might have a genetic basis in my old noggin. (I'd always thought it was the coffee.) The clue is what Yvonne calls the "crop circle on John's skull", but never mind that. JC picked up the hint of Zindell's Order of the Pilots informing my own Pilots future (absolutely). How many encyclopedia entries feature the words "gonzo", "euhemerist" and "multiplexly rationalized" in the same place?

The final words of the entry are: "there is no predicting his next steps." Too true. I'm working this out as I go along. My wonderful agent John Parker said a long time ago that I'll never be the kind of writer who effectively writes the same book over and over again. This is not entirely comforting to publishers.

P.S. Yes, I had to look up "euhemerist", and I had to turn to my Webster's when the OED failed me. Myths retold as history, kind of thing, meaning in this case Norse mythology. Oh, you knew that already? Respect.

3.7.14

GRR... ARGH...

On a non-intellectual level... It's weird to have sporting favourites among athletes you've never personally met, and it's not entirely beneficial when martial arts become spectator sports. (According to Bertrand Russell, yer ancient Greek intelligentsia - whose MMA-equivalent was of course the pankration, the number-one Olympic discipline - thought that spectators were superior to athletes. Even though Plato was a grappler.) But I'm rooting for Lyoto Machida and Ronda Rousey in the UFC this weekend, even though their opponents seem to be perfectly nice, respectable people (and Rousey's into trash-talking).

Lyoto is of course the poster-boy (poster-36-year-old) for shotokan karate, although every MMA fighter needs to add to their core discipline, whichever art it is. (You want to know what the ultimate martial art is? The really, truly ultimate art? ...It's the one you actually train in.) And he respects the people he fights. He's aiming to take the middleweight world title, having dropped down from light-heavyweight, where he had the belt but didn't hang onto it.

And Dana White, president of the UFC, referred to Ronda Rousey as "the new Chuck Liddell", which has to be the highest compliment he could possibly pay any fighter. (Chuck was DW's friend as well as an amazing champion who showed that striking could beat grappling, so long as your grappling defence was good.) Rousey won silver in the judo world championships, plus Olympic bronze, before moving into MMA. Her mother won gold in the 1984 judo world championships, and Rousey trains with Gene LeBell and his guys. The USA isn't a particularly strong judo nation (perhaps because they still have serious competitive wrestling, which certainly disappeared in Britain with the advent of televised "show" pro wrestling), but these people are the best.

Meanwhile, didn't I say I wasn't going to do any writing for four months? Well, I thought I was telling the truth...