Tuesday 31 March 2020

Steampunk Retro Keyboard

Way, way too cool. @Modquokka posted it on Twitter. It's stunningly gorgeous and if I could get post delivered here, I'd buy one. It's available through this Etsy shop which also stocks a few other cute gadgets.

Sunday 29 March 2020

A Little Bit of Light

I've had an absolute spurt of writing the past couple of days. No idea if any of it's any good, and don't really mind. It's just nice to be writing anything again. It's been raining quite a bit today and my neighbour has just told me they heard my piano. His wife had come to gather amaranthus from the back garden and they explained to me how to cook it so that I can have some too. They have been amazing during the lockdown, offering potatoes and rice. Thankfully, I have enough in my stores for now but looking forward to the avocado tree being ripe enough to pick. There will be enough to share with everyone on the street when that happens. I feel fortunate to have such lovely neighbours that I care for and who care for me.

Without the nightclubs and traffic, life has been very peaceful lately. At night you hear the cicadas and frogs, but mostly it is silent. In the evenings, I have started to pay more attention to the little shrine on top of my piano. I light candles and scented oil. It's beautiful to look at and brings a sense of peace.

A few of my books are about the gods. The Children of Lir is about Irish mythology, and there are several Iranian folk tales and gods mentioned in Those Rosy Hours. For my part, as a living, breathing human being, it's more complicated. I went to primary school in Leicester, which is predominantly a Gujarati community in the UK. As such, I went to a mixed Hindu school and Diwali was a huge part of my early childhood. It's one of the largest Diwali celebrations outside India, with plenty of sweets and fireworks.

However, moving to a quintessentially English village (one famed for its witchcraft), I grew up with a strong sense of heathenry. 'A respect for the land upon which you are born and the spirits which dwell upon it,' as it was once explained. I became very much part of the Pagan community, running a large moot in Reading with my friend Cassie during our university years and attending many sabbat festivals from the New Forest to Fife. 

Later down the line, I turned more towards Humanism and put away the books and iconography. I'm all for science and rationalism, I don't dispute it, but I'm also a storyteller, and therefore mystery and magic is in my blood. I take a great deal of comfort from Einstein. He placed huge value on fairytales and is one of the great scientific minds who has not asked us to choose between science and stories: "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science."

So, that's why I still light the occasional candle, and why I feel more inspired when I do. 

When I moved to Africa, it was a bit of a shock as I came from a country where the seasons formed the mainstay of the celebratory calendar: May Day bonfires and maypoles, summer solstice, winter solstice, the start of spring and the death of the year at Samhain. I now live in a country where it is eternal equinox, and plants grow all year round, never decaying. Sometimes it's a little wetter, sometimes a little drier, but the seasons for me are marked more by wildlife than by weather: the season of the spiky black caterpillars, the season of the millipedes, the season of noisy crows on the roof and the season of avocados from my tree. It's an equatorial existence and not well suited to British paganism.

I did go looking for local traditions, but this part of East Africa was so completely Christianised that nothing much remains. What does remain is not on display to foreigners as it is in West Africa. No Vodoun priests or spirit parades. What gods there are stay quiet.

So, for a long time I didn't really bother. 

Then I went to India with my family for a holiday and came back with the above. A set of familiar faces from my early years, representing the things that every pantheon has a name for. On the far left is Saraswati Varnesvari, the goddess of letters and a fitting patron of authors. 

It is also pleasing to note that Saraswati, who in different avatars is the patron of musicians, poets and bibliophiles, is also the patron of history and science. How much nicer when these things are softly intertwined rather than harshly separated.

Saturday 28 March 2020

House of Melodies

My blog has become a stream of musical interludes and book reviews lately. It's been a long time since I posted anything meaningful about writing.

I'm going to explain why that is.

Basically, I finished writing a book a while back and it sucks. It wasn't meant to suck. It was a really good topic - about post-mortem photography and the history of photography, split between Victorian England and today. Victorian England is weirdly a genre I love in computer games but detest in general. Okay, The Ruby in the Smoke, that was good, but usually it just doesn't float my boat, so I probably shouldn't have written about it. Only, you kind of have to if you're talking about the history of photography, and post-mortem photography in particular.

I've been going through trying to transfer the hard copy edits to the soft copy since the start of the year. It's three months now and I just can't finish it. I can't tell if that's because it's tediously boring to everyone or just to me. There's something about it I don't like and it's definitely not the book I intended to write. But sometimes I write things I don't like and other people write to tell me they did like it. It's utterly impossible to be objective about your own work. 

I don't think it's bad enough to be a bottom-drawer novel, but it's not what I wanted it to be. 

So I don't know what to do with it.

And that's been the sticking point. I feel like I can't move on to another project if there's something left unfinished like this. It's a wall I can't get over. And there is another story I've been meaning to tell. It's another historical fantasy, and I've been researching it for almost as long as I haven't been able to complete Secure the Shadow, but now I've lost all motivation for both books.

I've had no interest in writing anything for ages. 


Not a single twitch of the fingers.

What I have been doing instead is practising the piano. You may know that I have a piano-building project in Kigali. I tune and fix other people's pianos whilst trying - extremely slowly - to build one of my own. Ironically for a piano technician, I play very poorly. But that doesn't stop me trying, and with the C19 lockdown, I've been trying even harder. What I learn to play often links up with what I've been watching on Netflix. Yesterday, I mastered the theme tune to Jurassic Park. One of my favourite pieces is from The Notebook. At the moment, I'm bashing away at Georgiana's piece from Pride and Prejudice, although I was mostly watching Pride, Prejudice and Zombies.

Anyway, I usually practise with the mute on so as not to upset the neighbours. The only time I take the mute off is when it rains. We get some really full-on thunder storms here and, as we all have tin rooves, no one can hear a thing whilst it's raining. I learned the very beginning of Victor's Solo from Corpse Bride, and I call this my 'rain song'. It's the first thing I play when the rain starts because it's so delightfully Gothic and suits the whole thunder and lightning backdrop perfectly.

It was whilst playing this last night that I got to thinking how spooky it would be to live in relative isolation with no discernible neighbours and to hear a piano playing, but only when it rains. Something slow and melancholic, obviously.

The thought just sort of landed, as all the best story ideas do. I think it's because I've been playing computer games recently. Lamplight City and the incredibly atmospheric Call of Cthulhu. Games were always the driver for my desire to build worlds and tell stories. I think I've probably spoken about my love of MUDs before. I haven't played anything in forever, but rejoined Gog thanks to the lockdown. I think it's oiled some rusty connections in my brain.

With no more than the thought of a piano in the rain, I sat down and emptied 2,000 words onto the page. That's more fiction than I've written all year and it was really easy.

I think I was afraid of doing something like that because, 1) it doesn't help finish Secure the Shadow and 2) it isn't the next novel I had planned out and started researching. It's something completely fresh, which could so easily gobble up 100,000 words and turn out just as bad as Secure the Shadow or worse. I've written a few bottom-drawer novels and the older you get, the more you realise how much time they represent. 

It's unpleasantly upsetting that the book I wrote about death and dying has taken a huge chunk of my life that I will never get back. I still don't know what to do with it. I've set aside this weekend to try to stay awake long enough to complete the edits, order some changes to the cover, and reorder a proof copy. 

I'll be amazed if I make it.

I'm thinking I might just self-publish it on the side without any fanfare and forget it exists. 

Though that's difficult, because it'll be out there for someone to read, and I've mentioned how I feel about my backlist. This book doesn't feel good enough to publish and it doesn't feel bad enough to bin. It's a nothing book. It says nothing, it contains nothing... it's instantly forgetable. 

But, if I can't get over that and write something else, I don't think I'm going to write again. I'm just afraid that what I do write will be very disappointing. I want to write this historical fantasy I was thinking about but at the moment I doubt I have the skill to do it justice. I can't afford to mess it up like the last one

The nice thing this random story has taught me, if only for an afternoon, is that writing can still be fun. I still enjoy it. And I enjoy it more when I haven't planned it. When the story is wide open to me. 

It's also a good old-fashioned ghost story, and I adore those. I love reading them, I love writing them. I don't know why I don't do more of that. It was always the dark, ghostly things I was drawn to when I started writing. Simple stories. Abandoned places and lost souls. 

Recently, someone tweeted about Creeper's Cottage, the Hookland novel I wrote. It's a book I think few people have read, but I had a lot of fun writing because it didn't require any research. It was all about story rather than real dates, places and events. I felt very free writing that, even though it was set in somebody else's world. Pure ghostly goodness. 

It makes me sad that I don't talk about writing anymore - and that I don't write much anymore. The start of this year wasn't much fun, and in times of stress I often bury myself in work and movies rather than the page. This time of isolation has given me a bit of breathing space to explore things I used to enjoy, such as RPGs, and bored me enough to be creative. My mind has had a chance to wander and it's come back with an idea. As I have nothing better to do right now, I may as well follow it.

Working title: The House of Melodies, music yet to be written.

Friday 27 March 2020

Songs To Make Us Happy

My friend Jeremy invited me to join this facebook group where people post songs that make them happy. I am experiencing a world of conflicting, complimentary and downright crazy musical tastes. Helps pass the time. Come join in.

Five of my current happy tunes:

  1. Me First and the Gimme Gimmes - Different Drum (which, of course, you then have to follow with The Seekers - just because it's that kind of deal.)
  2. Taper Jean Girl - Kings of Leon
  3. Paradise by the Dashboard Light (guilty pleasure, okay! I defy you not to sing.)
  4. Ezra Furman - Restless Year
  5. One Republic - Counting Stars

Let me know what you're listening to. Or, better still, let the world know by joining the group.

Thursday 26 March 2020

Guns, Germs, and Steel

My friend Chris put me on to this after we were having a lengthy discussion about why some countries are technologically advanced and others are not, and about the large historic differences between Africa's technological development and that of countries along the Silk Road such as China and India.

It's one American man's attempt to answer his Papua New Guinean friend's question about the disparity in the economic and technological status of their countries. 

It was written in 1997, and is a pretty dry read. When you're used to receiving your world history from Harari, Frankopan and Bryson, this is more of an academic explanation than an engaging story. Quite a lot of lists of things and I lost count of the number of times 'Fertile Crescent' was mentioned.

However, there were some juicy nuggets of knowledge in there, such as why certain animals were never domesticated:

Zebras  are  also  virtually  impossible  to  lasso  with  a  rope — even  for  cowboys  who  win  rodeo  championships  by  lassoing  horses — because  of their  unfailing ability to watch the rope noose fly  toward them and then to duck their head out of the way.

The fact that Japan adopted guns then completely abandoned them:

A famous example [of technology being adopted then given up] involves Japan's abandonment of guns.  Firearms reached Japan in A.D. 1543, when two Portuguese adventurers armed with harquebuses (primitive guns)  arrived on  a Chinese cargo ship. The Japanese were  so  impressed by the new weapon that they commenced  indigenous gun production, greatly improved gun technology, and by A.D. 1600 owned more and better guns  than any  other country in  the world. 

But there were also factors working against the  acceptance of firearms in Japan. The country had a  numerous warrior  class, the samurai, for whom swords rated as class  symbols and works of art (and as means for subjugating  the lower classes). Japanese warfare had previously  involved single combats between samurai swordsmen, who stood in the open, made ritual speeches, and then took  pride in fighting gracefully. Such behavior became  lethal  in the presence of peasant soldiers ungracefully blasting  away with guns. In addition, guns were a foreign  invention and grew to be despised, as did other things foreign in Japan after 1600. The samurai-controlled government began by restricting gun production to a few cities, then  introduced a requirement of a government license for  producing a gun, then issued licenses only for guns produced for the government, and finally reduced government orders for guns, until Japan was almost without  functional guns  again.  

Contemporary  European  rulers  also  included  some who  despised guns and tried  to  restrict  their  availability.  But  such  measures  never  got far in Europe,  where  any  country  that  temporarily  swore off firearms would  be  promptly  overrun  by  gun-toting  neighboring  countries.  Only  because  Japan was a populous,  isolated island could it get  away with its  rejection  of the powerful new military technology.  Its  safety  in isolation came to  an  end in 1853, when the visit of Commodore Perry's U.S.  fleet bristling with cannons convinced Japan of its need to resume gun manufacture.

And the fact that the wheel appears to have been independently discovered in South America as it is found on ancient Mexican ceramic toys, but was never developed for human transport or agriculture due to there being no domesticated beasts of burden capable of pulling it.

There's also some very interesting chapters on the origins of writing and types of writing systems. And it was interesting to learn that modern English shares something with one of the most ancient writing systems, cuneiforme, in that it's still read left to right, top to bottom.

The general theme of the book is that there are many factors that affect the technological advancement of cultures. Largely it rests on food production, climate, and the availability of native plant species and animals that are compliant for domestication. This leads to larger populations and less focus on daily food production - due to reserves - therefore more people can focus on other pastimes such as art, architecture and invention. As the title suggests, it also looks at the role of weapons, infectious diseases and available resources on development, which is interesting in relation to the current Covid-19 outbreak.

Tuesday 24 March 2020

Lockdown - Really This Time

I was a bit premature with my last post, saying we were on lockdown when the airport closed. I popped across the road to get beer on Saturday night and came back to discover we'd been placed on full lockdown, meaning we can't leave the house except in cases of extreme necessity. 

This is not a bad thing at all, and all the restaurants and supermarkets in Kigali are doing home delivery. Though Saturday night my electricity went out for several hours and my laptop died. Felt a bit apocalyptic sitting in the dark, waiting for zombies to scratch at the window...

Still, it's important that we all follow the rules, and police are out on every street enforcing them. It's eerily quiet - no sound of traffic or music. The start of April is Genocide Memorial Week and that's normal for then, but not normal for now. Usually, just before memorial starts, people head to the bars and clubs for one last night out. This year, it's not just the bars and clubs that are closed but also the memorial sites.

I class myself as extremely fortunate though. I work for two survivors organisations, one as a programme manager and the other as a funding consultant. I mostly work from home anyway, so things haven't changed much for me. Though the moment someone says you can't go out, that's all you want to do. I'm also lucky in that I live in a nice house in a private compound with a garden. It's certainly no hardship for me to stay home. I was also going to offer my back apartment to travellers stranded by the sudden airport closures, but I didn't get anyone before the lockdown started and KLM are evacuating people back to Europe still. Hopefully anyone who wants to leave will be able to do so. 

Not much to do but twiddle our thumbs and wait it out. Maybe I can get back to doing some writing. Or maybe I'll just work my way through the entire Kings Quest saga, thanks to Gog. Also enjoyed Lamplight City. Audible are also offering a load of free audiobooks to help pass the time. Helped to get my friend Giulia a piano just before the lockdown happened, and I'm also going to take this time to learn some new tunes. What are you doing to pass the time?

Hope everyone is staying safe and well.

Friday 20 March 2020


I took a picture in the local supermarket in Kigali the other day - all the beer was gone, but there was still plenty of toilet roll. Dad put the above together to illustrate priorities. Legend.

Sitting here talking to my computer and counting down. At midnight tonight, so about three hours our time, the international airport is closing. No commercial passenger flights going in or out for the next thirty days. 

There's a lot of foreigners staying here. Mostly because it's home. If we're going to get sick, might as well be in our own beds, in our own homes, where friends can throw food over the gate if we need it. Also because most of us trust the government here to do a better job than many of our own are. I have an Italian friend working for an organisation here. She didn't much fancy going back. Watching the way the UK government is reacting doesn't fill me with confidence, either. Whereas Rwanda has been on high alert for Ebola since 2015. It's got a proven record of being pretty good at virus containment. They've acted swiftly and consistently. I'm happy to ride it out here.

One of the measures has been to remove visors from all moto helmets. Motorbikes are a common form of public transport, but swapping helmets isn't all that hygienic. The picture on the left is from the first day the measures were introduced and I didn't know. Now I have my old university beanie and a pair of shades to prevent bugs getting lodged in my eye. I like the new look.


Today, I said goodbye to my friend Nick. He's with Peace Corps and they've all been evacuated on a private charter back to the US. It cut his placement short by about six months and I'm going to miss him. We weren't allowed to hug goodbye, so we took this picture with him a few metres back. Our first attempt (right) was not quite as successful.

Even though you're happy, there's still a moment of mild unease. Being a writer and a homeworker, I'm used to self-isolating even when there isn't a pandemic, but when you suddenly know that you can't go out something inside really wants to. I think everyone's feeling the same. Even though you're fine where you are, knowing you can't leave can be a bit of a strange sensation. Thankfully, life is still pretty normal here for me, though I am mindful that for some this is going to be a very rough ride. Especially those in the tourism and service industries, and who face financial difficulties because of it.

Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, stay well. As we say here, turikumwe, komera (we are together, be strong).

Friday 13 March 2020

Pitch Meeting

One of my favourite distractions. This guy is very funny. Here's a couple of my favourites, but he's covered most of the greats from Breaking Bad and Harry Potter through to a two-hour compilation of all the Avengers films.

I also like the Honest Trailers series. Their latest one on The Witcher and 'the minimum number of syllables' made me spit tea across the keyboard.

And if you run out of all that, try Bad Lipreading. They've covered Game of Thrones, The Last Jedi, and Carl from Walking Dead.

Wednesday 4 March 2020

Stuck in a Moment

Oh, woe is me!

Was so excited when I saw this. You have to listen to 500 hours of audio before you get the Master level. That's almost 21 days of listening.

So, you can imagine my confusion when I hit 21 days and three hours of listening and it still said I had an hour to go.... 21 days and four hours... and five hours... and....

It got stuck at 1 hour to go!

Then my phone crashed completely and when I rebooted everything and reinstalled Audible, I was down to 19 days of listening and around 36 hours left to go to Master level.

I cried.

I know it's sad. Measuring yourself by how many hours of your life you've spent on Audible, but I was quite enjoying seeing the count go up. It was as though someone had thieved time and stolen part of my life.

I contacted Audible. They said the one hour thing was a known issue and suggested these fixes:

I am sorry to hear your concern. I want to inform you that this is a known issue and our team is aware of it and working diligently to resolve this issue.

Further, if you have recently updated or reinstalled the Audible app, it is possible that your Stats and Badges have disappeared. Follow these steps to re-download your Stats and Badges:

1. Open the Audible app.
2. Tap the menu button in the left corner and tap "Library."
3. Tap the 3 vertical dots in the upper right corner of the screen.
4. Tap "Refresh."

The app will refresh all content within in, including your listening stats.

To see your listening stats and badges in the app, tap "Stats" from the left navigation menu.

If your stats and badges are still missing after refreshing your app, follow the steps below to sign out and back into the app.

1. Open the Audible app.
2. Tap the menu button in the left corner of the screen.
3. Tap "Settings."
4. Scroll down and tap "Sign out" followed by "OK" to confirm signing out.
5. Tap "Sign in" from the Welcome Screen, followed by entering your Amazon/Audible account information.

After signing back in, you should now be able to see your Stats and Badges by tapping the "Stats" section on the left navigation menu.

I hope this helps. If the issue persists, it will require additional research and investigation by a next level of Technical Support who will review your case and care for it accordingly.

I tried those suggestions but they didn't work. Hopefully they do for someone else. My badges were still there, so I was still a member of Amazon Brownies, and I didn't feel like spending the rest of the week back-and-forthing with tech support to fix the issue, so I just let it go.

So, I'm now working my way back towards mastery, and hoping I can finally break the 1 hour to go! barrier.

Sunday 1 March 2020


It's been a while since I did a book review. I finished this one a few weeks back, but got distracted before writing about it. Not something I'd usually pick up but it was on sale and sounded interesting:

From one of the world's most highly regarded social scientists, a transformative book on the habits of mind that lead to the best predictions. 

Everyone would benefit from seeing further into the future, whether buying stocks, crafting policy, launching a new product, or simply planning the week's meals. Unfortunately, people tend to be terrible forecasters. As Wharton professor Philip Tetlock showed in a landmark 2005 study, even experts' predictions are only slightly better than chance. However, an important and underreported conclusion of that study was that some experts do have real foresight, and Tetlock has spent the past decade trying to figure out why. What makes some people so good? And can this talent be taught? 

In Superforecasting, Tetlock and coauthor Dan Gardner offer a masterwork on prediction, drawing on decades of research and the results of a massive, government-funded forecasting tournament. The Good Judgment Project involves tens of thousands of ordinary people - including a Brooklyn filmmaker, a retired pipe installer, and a former ballroom dancer - who set out to forecast global events. Some of the volunteers have turned out to be astonishingly good. They've beaten other benchmarks, competitors, and prediction markets. They've even beaten the collective judgment of intelligence analysts with access to classified information. They are "superforecasters". 

In this groundbreaking and accessible book, Tetlock and Gardner show us how we can learn from this elite group. Superforecasting offers the first demonstrably effective way to improve our ability to predict the future - whether in business, finance, politics, international affairs, or daily life - and is destined to become a modern classic. 

This article on the BBC reminded me about it. 

It interested me because I quite like statistics and I often wonder how so many people get to positions where they are influencing major decisions with what appears to be subjective opinion rather than tested prediction models or at least a relatively evidence-based, educated guess. 

This book also wondered this aloud.

Unfortunately, due to an Audible glitch, which I'll talk about later, I lost all my notes on this one, so it'll be a pretty short review. All I can say is that it was interesting. It went into quite a bit of detail about how we guestimate probability and touched on a few of the things covered in Eagleman's The Brain and You, such as there being two parts to your brain, the slower-thinking, reasoning part and the snap decision, quick-calculating part, and how we need to quiet the second in order to make better decisions, which isn't easy when you're put on the spot or in a stressful situation.

The bit about the 'wisdom of the crowd' was interesting, and how the greater the individual input, the more accurate the overall prediction tends to be. There were also some clever examples of how accurate someone can be when they break down a large problem - such as how many piano tuners there are in Chicago - into ever smaller parts: how many pianos, how many times they need tuning, how long tuning takes. By taking a very rough guess at potential figures for each unknown, the final figure proved to be not far off. 

I don't think I'd make a superforecaster, but I do enjoy thinking things through, and it was heartening that, although maths is an important component in superforecasting, you don't have to be a brilliant mathematician to be a good reasoner. I've always been fairly numerically challenged, but I like looking at trends in statistics. 

Anyway, it was nice to know that forecasting accuracy is something that people are pushing for. It does appear that news is more and more driven by personality and misinformation, and it would be wonderful if the people we turn to for insight actually had to show their track records on prediction. 

[UPDATE: Trevor Noah just nailed the above point about accuracy.]