In which I confess things about code

I have a confession and my confession is this:
I have a masters degree in computer science and am an out-and-proud geek, yet I couldn’t code my way out of a wet paper bag.
 
Ask me to use existing software to work out the viewshed analysis of an ancient Mesopotamian settlement, or display the pottery distribution of an Egyptian burial mound and I am *there*. I’ve even been known to set up the odd blog and website in my time, tinkering with templates and settings and what-have-you. I wrote this post using markup language to make certain words bold and create the hyperlinks and so forth.
 
But ask me to do anything more complex than working out why something isn’t displaying as italic on a webpage and I am lost. Honestly, anything more involved than coding a simple webpage (and let’s not forget using tables for layout was still an accepted practice when I learnt, gods help me) and I am stumped.

Suggest I create a computer programme from scratch? I will laugh and laugh at you. And then go hide under my desk hugging my MacBook, sobbing, feeling like a traitor to my geek-self.
 
Coding is a skill set I have just never learnt.

I’m clearly not scared of computers or technology and I have been playing with them since my father first brought one home in the late 80’s. I cut my geek-teeth on DOS and the C: prompt.

Somewhere along the way, however, I fell into the role of playing with (and frequently breaking!) the software that my brother coded. I became all about making existing software dance to my tune – learning what could be bent to do what was needed, and what you just had to work around because “it wasn’t built for that”. When faced with these limitations however, for some reason, I never thought “well, the tool I want doesn’t exist, so why don’t I just make my own?”

Which is crazy, when you think about it.

Because I am, first and foremost, all about learning the WHY. I have to figure out how things work and their underlying logic. It’s why I am constantly trying new things, picking up new hobbies. I am driven to understand how things are put together. So it would make sense, wouldn’t it, if I was to learn more about how the software I love playing with was coded and put together?

It’s not really because I doubt my ability. I’ve just… never learnt. Is that because I was never given the opportunity? Was it assumed that the boys would learn this stuff whilst the girls would just learn the touch-typing? Did I mentally just put this stuff into a “the things my brother does” box and move on to other things?

No matter.
 
2015 seems like the perfect time to change that. And Emma Barnes couldn’t agree more – her clarion call in the Bookseller lays out wonderfully all the reasons we should, every one of us, be reaching for that how-to guide. (Whilst Publishing-centric, the argument holds true for any industry really).
 
It really isn’t rocket science. Learn to code and you will be much better prepared to understand what is possible and to know when the tech-heads are having a laugh and taking you for a ride. You’ll be better placed to articulate what you actually want. You will be able to understand the limitations – certain things HAVE to be done certain ways because you decided things right at the beginning. Do ISBNs have 9, 10, or 13 digits, for example. Only code the capacity for 9 into your programme at the start and… Oops! Time and money to fix.

I’m not saying we all have to become professional coders and build our own Twitter, or version of Word, our own publishing platform, or a remote control that turns the kettle on in the morning three minutes before the alarm goes off so it’s boiling when I stumble into the kitchen…

(OK, someone has to build me that. NOW.)

I’m not saying you have to build a whole new thing from scratch. We can’t all be the ideas people and we can’t all have the desire, or quite frankly the time, to be the next Silicon Valley innovator. But in this day and age of open source, RaspberryPIs, and APIs, I do think we all need to educate ourselves and learn at least the basics.

Computers don’t scare me. Code, for some reason, does. A little bit. So here I will make my stand and say “Enough”. I will not be defeated Ruby, or Python, or Java, or (insert programming language here). I am reaching for the coding tutorials and I am excited about it.

I really am.

Who’s going to join me?

 

10 books that have stayed with you

I have been nominated for the ’10 books that have stayed with you’ challenge by the Lovely Leen. Here they are, after not too much thought and in no particular order:

1. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)
2. Yes Man (Danny Wallace)
3. The Darkness Visible (William Styron)
4. The Crow Road (Iain Banks)
5. Harry Potter (J. K. Rowling)
6. The Famous Five series (Enid Blyton)
7. Wolf Speaker (Tamora Pierce – ok, pretty much any Tamora Pierce, but this one was the first I found)
8. Neuromancer (William Gibson)
9. Cryptonomicon (Neal Stephenson)
10. Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham)

Nominate yourself. Or don’t. Your call :)

Happy day!

The Nephew was born yesterday, so I am kinda like this right now:

Because my brother accidentally named him after a comic book character, The Nephew will henceforth be referred to as Code-name Marvel.

Despite being twice the size of Little Star when she was born, he’s the spitting image of his big sister. I’m not sure the world is going to be able to cope with this much cuteness…

Questions Meme

Oh, internet question memes, we love you so much, you gift to uninspired bloggers everywhere!

This from Tembrooke via Tumblr. I’m not tagging anyone because I only really use Tumblr to keep my Sebastian Stan/Captain America/Teen Wolf addictions fed.

1. What’s your favorite board game?
I love a good game of Chess, but it’s really hard to find someone to play with. Monopoly is a close second.

2. How many books (roughly) did you read in the past year?
Around 200 – 3 to 4 a week is fairly standard.

3. What franchise do you like better, X-Men or Avengers?
Avengers at the moment.

4. What’s your favorite musical decade (70’s, 80’s, etc.)?
I have a soft spot for early 2000’s

5. If you could live in any time period in history, which one would you choose?
I quite like now actually – I’m rather attached to modern plumbing and electric kettles and affordable printed books (gods bless Allen Lane and Penguin). It would be quite fun to be running around in the 1920s though I think, so long as I had money.

6. How many foreign countries have you visited, if any?
7

7. Have you ever re-read a required book from school to see if you still liked/hated it?
Yep. Jamaica Inn, and still loved it. Great Expectations, and still hated it.

8. Name a TV series you’d like to see rebooted.
I don’t fully get the whole “re-boot” thing, if it is rebooting for rebooting’s sake. I’d just like for there to be more awesome stories being told, be that a reboot of an old idea, or something completely shiny and new.

9. Do you believe in luck?
I lean more towards Karma.

10. Which Harry Potter book did you like best?
The 1st, because it was a completely unexpected gift.

11. What’s your favorite Pixar movie?
Wall-E (and Brave).

Any other questions for me? Chime in in the notes/comments/Twitter/Ask box. You know you want to.

Because it’s been a shitty week

My brain is wibbling right now and it sucks. Lots of people I’ve spoken seem to be having similarly sucky times right now, so I hereby decree today Baby Dancing Groot Day. Because everything is better with a Baby Dancing Groot.

Dancing Groot video

Dancing Groot gif

So this just happened in the #brightmansions kitchen… Gincake (with recipe) #365

So this just happened in the #brightmansions kitchen... #gincake #365 @estriel @pollygcs

Gin is good. Cake is good. Friends are good. So what better way to christen the Bright Mansions kitchen than by combining the three? The original recipe came from here, but we tweaked slightly.

Ingredients – for the cake

  • 385g plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 230g unsalted butter
  • 350g caster sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons freshly zested lime rind
  • Juice of one lime
  • 60ml gin
  • 60ml tonic water

Ingredients – for the glaze

  • 225g icing sugar
  • 5 tablespoons gin
  • Juice of 1 lime

Ingredients – for the icing

  • 320g icing sugar
  • 2-3 tablespoons gin
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Zest of a lime or two

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F / Gas Mark 5 / 170-190 C
  2. In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, salt and baking powder. Set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until soft, light and pale.
  4. Add one egg at a time, beating each one until fully combined before adding the next.
  5. Add in the lime zest and vanilla.
  6. Add in half of the dry ingredients and mix until fully incorporated.
  7. Mix in the gin, tonic and lime juice, followed by the rest of the dry ingredients.
  8. Pour into your greased/lined tins/cases.
  9. Bake for about 40 minutes until golden and until a knife stuck in the middle comes out clean.
  10. While the cake is baking, mix up the glaze. Mix up the icing sugar with about half the gin and the lime juice. Add more gin until the glaze is very runny. If you need more liquid, add in a bit of tonic water.
  11. As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, prick it all over and pour the glaze over the top, allowing it to soak in the cake.
  12. Cool completely.
  13. Mix up your icing, aiming for a very thick consistency. Spread across the top of the cake and cupcakes.
  14. Decorate with a sprinkle of lime zest

Things we learnt

  • The recipe made 1 x loaf cake and 18 x muffin-sized cup cakes.
  • Depending on your oven, and what size cakes you decide to make, the cooking time does vary. The cup cakes were ready at about 30 minutes, the loaf cake took a good 15-20 minutes more as it was much deeper.
  • Sift your icing sugar. No one likes lumpy icing.
  • If you need slightly runnier icing, add a squeeze of lime juice. Do this REALLY cautiously, because it only takes a drop to turn perfect icing into runny goo.
  • This is a really simple recipe, but it does take time. And make sure the cakes are fully cool before icing.

Social Media works – or how Tumblr made me buy a book

Let me set the scene. It’s a Monday, about 4:45 on a sweltering summer afternoon. It’s that time of day when you’re still working but the heat is starting to get to you, and your other colleague is leaving early, so you give yourself permission to take a five minute break and look on twitter and… The next thing you know it’s an hour later and you’ve only just managed to pull yourself out the Tumblr hole you fell into. Plus you’re £11 the poorer and payday is still a week away.

I blame Alana Whitman.

See, Alana retweeted this which lead to this, and the art was just so good (in particular this caught my eye), and I figured any author that inspires this much love and creativity in her fans might be worth a second glance.

So I followed the link-brick-road to Rainbow Rowell’s tumblr.

I don't know if hearts are coming out of my eyes, but they should be.

Along the way I got sidetracked by Tamora Pierce’s tumblr. Yes, Tamora Pierce has a Tumblr. The real Tamora Pierce. *Nods* Go, I’ll wait here whilst you go roll around in that glory like kittens in catnip.

Back to Rainbow Rowell and her rather awesome Tumblr.

It is the Tumblr of someone who is actively engaged with, and clearly passionate about, her readers and fans. I found her voice delightful, the things she reblogged made me smile, or think, or both. Her fans were witty, talented, and informed – it takes a solid talent to come up with this Hobbit/BBC News mashup. And (without struggling too hard, I will admit), I found myself in love with her world. Before I knew it, I’d followed yet another link and was buying a copy of her book, Fangirl. Not just any copy either, oh no. I was buying the fancy hardcover special edition. In all it’s pink glory (oh my gods, it’s so bloody PINK!)

Had I read a single word of the book before I purchased, like a sample chapter? No (beyond snippets in the fan-art). Has anyone I know read the book and recommended it to me? No.

I’ve gone on record about how I feel about book recommendations. Plus I really don’t like spending hard earned cash on a book I hadn’t even heard of an hour ago, let alone the fancy-pants hardcover when I could get more than 50% cheaper as an ebook without having to wait 2-3 days for delivery.

So what made me this time?

It all comes down to a masterful use of social media, in particular Tumblr. Without hammering me over the head with BUY ME!!!! messages, I was sold. There are no links at the bottom of each post asking me to buy the book. Yet I bought it.

As I said, a masterful use of social media, because I don’t think it was ever planned to be a masterful use of social media. It is genuine.

The cynic in me cries out that this could be a masterful use of social media by a very savvy PR team at the publishers. If this is the case, which I sincerely doubt BTW, my hats off to you. I don’t begrudge the sale.

Because people say social media is easy. People are wrong.

I have done the research!

Yes, the entry (and cost) points are low, but the only easy thing about it is how easy it is to do badly. It’s damn hard to maintain a group of followers, keep them entertained, engage in conversation, build a profile, all the while retaining a coherent voice and identity, let alone keeping a rabid fan-base happy. People have the online attention span of a brain injured goldfish these days.

It’s not just one blog post, or some tweets, or a facebook broadcasting updates. It’s building all of these, and other, tools into a constantly evolving web of conversation, across a multitude of channels. It’s grabbing my attention before I’m seduced away by the next Benedict Cumberbatch gif.

It’s luck. If I’d looked at tweetdeck 30 seconds later, I’d have missed the retweet that started everything.

To be good at social media (where good = building and maintaing an audience) you need to embrace both the permanence and impermanence inherent in the internet. What I tweet now is broadcast then forgotten, but people read on a time delay, they link to archived content, a conversation you thought closed suddenly spawns a new hydra-head. And you have to keep up with it all. It requires time, and energy, and is intangible because no one can possibly track what influenced a particular sale.

Unless it’s the sale to a slightly bonkers publishing blogger in Oxford, but that’s by the by.

It’s stupidly tricky to do an ROI (return on investment, yes I do know what I am talking about 😉 ) on a full social media campaign. You can try, with trackable urls and cookies and google analytics and other fancy thingamajigs, but there still comes a moment in a sales meeting when you have to justify sending 100 proofs to book bloggers on the off chance they might generate a sale or three.

Social Media is word of mouth. It’s the newsboy on the street corner shouting the headlines. It’s the Regency ladies in their drawing rooms a-twitter about the latest three volume novel. And it isn’t a campaign that you can give a month to and then focus on something else. Fangirl isn’t Rainbow’s current book, but if I like it I’m sure to buy her other stuff (power to the backlist!!!). Part of what makes her Tumblr, and Twitter, so engaging is that they have history. They’ve been active for a while. It’s safe to fall a little bit in love because you know they will be there in the morning.

You can’t quantify it. Ten tweets doesn’t equal one book sale. But sometimes one Tumblr post can.

(I didn’t start this post intending to rant about social media and marketing and communities, but that’s where I seem to have ended up. It’s clearly where my head is right now. )