Category Archives: Writing

Morning Call

Early morning calls are rarely good news. When the call is from your brother, his voice freighting two words with loss and grief, it’s about as bad as it gets.

“It’s dad.”

The call came at 6.45 AM on Sunday. For a few hours, I ran on automatic, alternating between doing what I normally did and trying to figure out what to do next. Actually confronting the news would wait. Would have to wait. My family were a hundred miles away from me in the midst of a pandemic. Could I be with them? Through the morning, I narrowed in on that question, and by lunch I had an answer from my doctor: yes. A visit to the hospital and a Garda checkpoint later and I was heading north.

I arrived not long before the body came back. He’d died at 6.00 AM, and as always with these things, matters followed their own course. My parents were lucky enough to have most of their immediate family living close by, so my mum had support as what needed to be done was done. By the time I arrived, I was there to fill in a missing piece. To offer support and presence, and to help figure out what came next.

My big contribution that day was to provide a photo of him that people could use. He wasn’t the most comfortable photo subject — in most photos of him, his smile was thin, if there at all. Perhaps he’d just gotten used to the formality of the job he’d held as head teacher of a primary school for 40-odd years. I found a different one. One where he was laughing. One of him and me, as it happened. I cropped myself out of it and sent it on.

The original photo, with tart.

The photo came from a couple of years before. My mum had been ill, needing heart surgery and then a lengthy recovery in hospital. I was between jobs, so I decided to head north and stay with him for a few months. Despite the circumstances, I appreciated that time we had. I think I told him that. I hope I did. The photo was of the two of us attempting to bake an apple tart. Despite it being the middle of summer, we’d decorated it with the only pastry shapes we could find cutters for: Christmas trees. Maybe that’s what he was laughing at.

The tart turned out pretty well, in the end.

After the pressure of the first day, the next few were all waiting. We had time for realisation to sink in, as the body lay in repose in the house with us. Mum fielded condolences from her and dad’s expanse of family and friends. I did useful things, like cancelling his satellite TV subscription (awkward) and deleting his Facebook account (easy enough, as he’d never really posted much there).

The last missing piece arrived on Tuesday night. My brother flew in from Australia and arrived a little before midnight. Like me, he’d needed permission to travel through the pandemic, but his journey had been much longer and the prospects for his returning after were far more questionable.

The day of the funeral was … strange. I suppose it always must be, but then 2020 hasn’t been a normal year so far. The weather seemed to feel the strangeness. There was sunshine before and sunshine after, but during the funeral itself, there were two hours of squally, cold rain. Even so, the road between our house and the chapel was lined with people seeking to pay their respects. Not able to attend the funeral due to the pandemic, they did all that they could.

I helped carry the coffin to the grave. Helped lower it in, along with my brothers and uncles. Then we walked home again, through the easing rain. I found myself wanting to do everything I could but not knowing whether anything I did could make a difference. The funeral was over, and now the living without him had to begin.

It’s a huge gap to fill. Most people probably feel the same way about their parents, so please excuse me if I talk about him for a bit. I often tell people that I know that I’ve been pretty lucky in life. A strange thing to say, given my medical history, recent and otherwise, but my mum and dad are at the base of why I believe it.

He was born in Ardglass, County Down, a few years before World War II ended. Grew up there, made friends, got an education, saw a bit of the world, then came back. Got a job in a local school, became headmaster, got married, had four kids, retired, played golf. A life summed up in a paragraph; accurate but missing almost all of the important things.

His four kids are pretty different in temperament. We each took different things from our parents, but all of us learned from his curiosity, both about the world and the people in it. How to treat other people is the most important lesson that parents can teach, and he and mum aced that.

When I was young, I was constantly amazed at how many people would come up to him on the street and start chatting. As a shy kid, it was incredible that so many people knew him. Part of that was down to his job, which brought him into contact with so many. But mostly it was because he was interested in them, and they picked up on that. Not that he always remembered who they were on first meeting, but he never let on and usually figured it out quickly enough.

You could see that attention repaid in the crowds who braved rain, wind, and pandemic to line a narrow country road and see the coffin go by. You could see it in the generous tribute in the local paper, written by the father of several children he’d taught years before. The letters that crammed into our letterbox as the days went past after the funeral. He’d given out love into the world, and the world gave it back.

He loved sports, though for different reasons. Most of his sons picked up on his love for rugby and football, but I was the only one whom he snared into supporting his beloved West Bromwich Albion. He was a little more successful in passing on his contempt for Manchester United. He liked horse racing too, and golf, and he’d watch cricket as well, if only to see England lose.

He loved history, a love that kept my own love for it alive after school had done its best to bore it out of me. We’d planned to visit Venice and maybe other sites before the lockdown came in. He loved stories, both reading them himself and reading them out to his pupils. He’d have drained the local library dry of books if he could.

He loved quizzes more than almost anyone I knew, and they gave him an outlet for his curiosity and ability to retain odd scraps of information. It’s a love and a trait that I inherited too. He took part in several TV quizzes, most notably Mastermind, where his specialised subject was the Second Punic War. As a kid, I accidentally taped over his recording of that appearance. As an adult I retrieved a copy of it from the BBC archives.

Above all, he loved my mum. An ex-girlfriend of mine once turned to me after meeting my parents and said “They never argue!” or words to that effect. Which wasn’t exactly true. I imagine they were being on their best behaviour at the time, but the fact remains that they were together long enough to see several of their kids get married and have kids of their own, to build their own house in a beautiful part of the country, and to enjoy a retirement that saw them travel to various parts of the world both sunny and historical on a regular basis. If they argued, they loved and knew each other well enough to know that the arguments weren’t the important thing.

He wasn’t perfect. He could be a grumpy sod, especially when West Brom were being managed by Tony Pulis, the Irish rugby team were hoofing the ball into the air for no good reason, or Rory McIlroy was failing to putt properly. He had a tendency towards temper when driving that I’ve inherited as well. The world is full of idiots, and most of them are on the roads (a good proportion of them driving BMWs).

He never quite settled into retirement. His curiosity and need to be doing something wouldn’t let him. He churned through library books, wrote a book of his own, joined the local golf club and ran it for a while, volunteered to help out with charities and his old school, and did his best to fill his days. When his grandchildren came along, he loved them too, though they at last managed to remind him of the value of moments of peace and quiet.

I could go on adding detail until my memory ran out and all my readers had given up, but no matter how many words I added, it wouldn’t amount to more than the barest glimpse of a life. That he died so suddenly, without warning and a chance to say goodbye, hurts for those of us left behind, but the silver lining is there to see if you can manage it. It was a good life — it could hardly be a better one — and it ended without suffering. He left behind the best of memories and having done his best to leave the world better than he found it. We should all be so lucky.

For his family and friends, we now have to adjust. As much as death is an inevitable part of life, saying goodbye to a massive part of your life isn’t something that we’re taught to do. We have to figure out what our lives will be like in his absence. We’ll have to cope with the grief of all the moments that will never be. To be reminded every now and then that there won’t be another chance to talk with him. To see a photo, or read something and think of sharing it, and be pierced to the heart in an instant.

The sun is shining and the world is still. There are terrible things going on, and it sometimes feels like the worst people are running everything. But most of us have examples we can look to and know that it can be better. My dad was that for me. He is still.


Cancer Update

I normally think of myself as a pretty stoic person, but starting to cough up blood the night before my dad’s funeral, while waiting for my brother to fly back from Australia in the midst of a global pandemic pushed me as close to panic as I’ve been for a long time. Exactly what the cause was, I don’t know, but the odds are that wearing a mask for extended periods of time was too tough on my lungs and a blood vessel went pop somewhere. Then I made it worse by taking part in the funeral while wearing a mask too — though that part I don’t regret at all.

As a result I haven’t been able to stay at home as I wanted to — even with the pandemic, there are still people dropping by to offer their condolences, and I need to be isolated so I don’t have to wear a mask. I did get myself checked out at the hospital and there are no signs of anything worse going on, and it’s now been several days since the last spot of blood, so I think I’m on the mend. Still, it’s a reminder that despite the good scan results recently, I need to take care. Especially amidst everything that 2020 has become.

Two Bad Words

When I was 19, I had cancer.

(Content warning for discussions of illness and mortality. If you want to avoid that, skip to the last four paragraphs for the summary.)

That’s not 100 percent accurate. When I was 19 I was diagnosed with cancer, but the cancer itself—Hodgkin’s Lymphoma—had been hanging around since I was 18, perhaps 17. Over the course of a year and a half, it had kept me from sleeping with constant itching, set off regular sweating, and carved a couple of stone off my weight. When a couple of lymph nodes swelled up and I was sent off to a hospital for diagnosis and treatment, it was a relief.

Chemotherapy consumed my life for eight months. As a teenager who hadn’t taken time out between school and college, it served as my gap year. I’d advise travel instead. Lethargy and nausea pinned me to the couch most of the time, and constipation was a very unpleasant occasional visitor. The brightest spot in all of this was getting to spend more time with my youngest brother, fourteen years younger than me, who was just starting primary school.

It was worth it in the end. After eight months I got the all clear and went back to college, doing my best to resume my life with barely an acknowledgement of what I’d been through. For the next two decades and more, I stayed healthy and gradually became something close to a functional adult.

Then, this January, I noted a wheeze in my breath.

Given how this article started, you can probably see what’s coming. I didn’t. For all that cancer had never left my mind, it wasn’t the first thing I thought of. Back at 19, I had symptoms aplenty. Now, I had none. I was healthy and fit. In fact, just a few months before, I’d run a half marathon in a little over an hour and a half. The wheeze was probably the remnants of a cough. It would go away.

It didn’t.

After a few months, I went to see a doctor. They did the usual checks, listening to my breathing and my heart, asking if I had ever been prone to asthma or had any allergies. Neither those checks nor blood tests showed up anything, but I got an inhaler and tried it out. It didn’t make any difference, and running and cycling were now chores instead of enjoyable exercise.

I went back to the doctor again. My mum had gone through heart problems the year before, and I knew that heart and lung problems often went together. So I was sent to a cardiac consultant. Tests were done, including breathing tests, but once again nothing was found. I began to seriously wonder what was going on.

I went on a holiday to South America. You can read about it in previous entries in this blog. It was a special experience but I noticed that the wheeze seemed to ease while I was there. Could there be something at home causing it? I checked with the doctor when I got back. I’d had a leak problem in my apartment for a while, and I suspected that there might be mould present. But there wasn’t a good way to check for that, so I focused on resolving the leak and hoped that would deal with the wheeze.

Then I started to cough up blood.

Back to the doctor I went. I was referred to a respiratory consultant but first I was sent to St. James’ Hospital for a chest x-ray. The reaction was quick—my GP got in touch to tell me that the hospital would be arranging more tests. A couple of weeks later, I was brought in for a meeting with a consultant (by mistake, I was sent to the Lung Cancer Surveillance Clinic first, though I wouldn’t put it past the universe to just have a warped sense of humour) and told that part of my lung was blocked and had collapsed. I was scheduled for a CT scan and bronchoscopy not long after.

It was that day that I first became sure, if not absolutely certain, of what was going on. My wheeze had turned into a persistent cough, and the doctor performing the bronchoscopy told me (and my parents) that the CT scan had found a mass blocking one of the passages in my lung. The bronchoscopy saw a sample taken from it and an enlarged lymph node between the lungs, and I was told that the next step would be a PET scan.

Things moved slowly as the PET scan was scheduled. I did a little reading. If the CT scan and bronchoscopy look for the shape and substance of things, the PET scan looks for something different. It examines the body for fast-growing cells. Cells like cancer, wherever they might have spread. If I was being sent for one of these scans, the doctors probably had a strong suspicion that cancer was involved.

(As an aside, the PET scan was one of the more interesting medical experiences of my life. It involves being injected with radioactive fluid, which was delivered in a lead-lined case and injected using a lead-sheathed syringe. Before the scan, I was left alone in a room for an hour, and afterwards I was told to stay away from pregnant women and small children, so radioactive was I for a few hours. Sadly, no superpowers ensued.)

Finally, the day came. I was brought into another meeting in St. James, and I brought my parents. I’d tried to prepare them, explaining my suspicions the weekend before, but it still wasn’t easy. The doctor was clearly uncomfortable, and there was a nurse hovering behind us, perhaps ready to pick up the pieces.

Exactly what he said, I can only remember in snatches. Two-word bursts. Lung cancer. Not curable. I was more focused on my parents. My mum’s pained silence. My dad’s breathing coming in shorter, louder gasps. We were told the situation. Not curable but treatable. There would be more chemotherapy, and perhaps radiotherapy, after some further tests. No surgery though. It had already spread enough that cutting it out of the body would only inflict pain without benefit.

That was several weeks ago. The tests have been coming back slowly since then. I’m not a candidate for more advanced immunotherapy treatment, but I might yet be eligible for a pill-based form of treatment that would be preferable to the standard chemotherapy. Even then, there will be scans and tests aplenty to come. With cancer, especially one that is treatable, not curable, it’s all about seeing what treatment works best. Holds the cancer in check or even pushes it back.

That’s what my life is going to be now. Treat, test, repeat. Exactly what my prospects are, it’s hard to say. As a non-smoker in my 40s, I’m already an outlier among lung cancer patients, so the usual statistics don’t apply. For myself though, my assumption is that this is what is going to take me out eventually. Treatments don’t hold forever. There are two alternatives to this fate: some other death intervenes, or cancer treatments advance to the point where they can do something more than just treat. To where “not curable” is no longer the status quo.

Am I being morbid or hopeful? I’m not entirely sure. I’ve already had another two bad words: Stage Four. But that’s mostly a way for doctors to gauge their progress and effectiveness. What matters now is direction. Whether the cancer goes forward or backwards. I won’t know that until we’re already deep into treatment. Regardless, what I want is time. Time to read, to write, to travel. Time to spend with my family, especially my nieces and nephews. If nothing else, I want the treatment to give me that.

It starts tomorrow. My first chemotherapy session and six weeks absence from work. What do I do with that time? I have ideas, and some of them will show up here. I won’t be posting about this on social media, so this blog will become the home of whatever thoughts I do have. Though they won’t be restricted to cancer alone. Or at least not biological cancer—there are plenty of metaphorical cancers in the world. And I have thoughts to share on those.

If you’ve read this far, thank you. If you know me personally, I apologise. I’ve had to tell more than a few people about this, and it’s never been fun. If you stick around, you’ll have my gratitude. Already, I’ve been overwhelmed by the offers of assistance and expressions of love from friends and family. That, at least, is one thing I don’t see changing any time soon.

Moments of Clarity

Autumn is my favourite season. I may be a little biased because I was born in September, but still. There’s a clarity you only get in autumn, when it’s too cool for a heat haze but the sun is still strong enough to burn away the mist and fog. On days like that, you can see all the way to the horizon in perfect clarity, every outline sharply delineated.

This blog has, after around seven years of life, undergone a bit of a facelift. Part of that is the new title. When I first created it, the intent was to document some travels I was planning and provide a replacement for the LiveJournal site I’d been using for years. (The archives of that site are available through the link above.) Given that the LiveJournal site had been a collection of random thoughts, the process for creating a title mostly consisted of coming up with some vaguely pretentious and throwing it up there. “The Limits of Human Imagination” was vaguely pretentious enough for my purposes, and it’s served in a mediocre fashion ever since.

So why the new title? “The Clarity of Now” seems just as vague and pretentious, right? Well, there’s a little more thought behind it this time. This past twelve months have seen as much upheaval as I’ve had to deal with since, well, the year that saw me set up this blog in the first place. In fact, a lot of the events of that time have echoed in the past year. The main difference is that I’m not the person now that I was then. I have – I hope – more insight into myself. More clarity, if you will.

The Clarity of the Now, then. Why? Because I’ve come to understand that now is the only thing we can have clarity about. The future is always unformed, and all the worrying and obsessing that we might do about it won’t change that a bit. The past might seem more solid, but try to recreate that past and you’ll find that memories aren’t to be trusted. We’re prone to obsessing about past mistakes and regrets just as much as the future and to as little purpose. The past is fixed and gone, providing lessons to learn from, and the future remains unborn in the now that we have and that we create moment by moment.

You may have noticed that it’s not just the titles of my blogs that tend towards pretension. That’s okay. This is a statement of purpose going forward, so I’ll allow myself a little bit of pretension this once.

I’ll still keep writing about my travels, whenever they happen. And when I have time, I’ll add more detailed diaries of those travels under the travels tab above. (Including the long-delayed addition of my Greek odyssey.) I do have some new travels planned, for all the craziness of this last year.

I’ll get back to writing reviews too, as my cultural consumption gets back on track. Thinking about how I react to what I watch, read, and play is something I enjoy doing, and it’s good to have an outlet for that. Plus, whoever reads this might get pointed in the direction of something they’ll enjoy, which would be a bonus.

The main thing though is to start doing something that I’ve wanted to do for a while: talk about the world as it is and what might be done about it. About politics, society, the environment. I’ve made multiple abortive attempts at this already, only to pause and reconsider, daunted by the scale of the subject. Well, I’m going to try again, and this time I’ll stick with it. A single person may only be able to make a small difference, but there are so many people making an effort already, and it’s the pebbles that make the avalanche. I’ve done little pieces here and there, but this pebble is tired of being stationary.

So that’s the reasoning behind the revamp. The acceptance that the only clarity there is is now. These are serious times, but there’s light to be found, and we can see all the way to the horizon, even at sunset.

On Female Leads and Genre Fiction

Taken in the British Library. Sadly he was busy saving the universe. Travelling by train is all very well, but travelling by Tardis...
An encounter of my own, some years ago. Though time travel makes that a tricky thing to pin down.

On a weekend when Roger Federer won his 8th Wimbledon title and Disney announced its intention to release all the movies coming out over the next three years (these were the things that registered with me – your mileage will undoubtedly vary), the biggest news was that the newest incarnation of the Doctor will be, for the first time, female. This is not only a big thing for me – a viewer of Doctor Who since an unreasonably young age – but it means that the three big ongoing science fiction/genre fiction franchises (Star Wars, Star Trek (with its new Discovery series) and Doctor Who) will soon have female leads.

Continue reading On Female Leads and Genre Fiction

Terry Pratchett – An Appreciation



So much enjoyment in so little space.
A Pratchett bookshelf – and this isnt all of it.


Certain authors and novels, if you come across them at the right age, will change your life. Terry Pratchett was one of those authors for me, and while his recent death was long anticipated, due to the cruelty of early-onset Alzheimer’s, the news, when it came, proved just as gut-wrenching as the original announcement of his illness had been.

Already, there have been plenty of appreciations of the man and his work. It’s a mark of both the nature of the man and the talent of the author that someone who primarily wrote comedic fantasy touched as many people across as many fields as he did.

I never met Terry Pratchett—the closest I came was during one of his visits to Dublin, when I spotted him walking in College Green, heading from Trinity College to (presumably) a pub, surrounded by a gaggle of students and admirers. It would have been nice to have the chance to talk to him, but at that stage he’d been talking to me through his work for years.

Books like Good Omens, Small Gods and Pyramids reduced me to helpless giggling more than any since Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (Another author and decent human being taken too soon.) Across the 40 books of the Discworld series, Pratchett mixed the deftest wordplay with humour both low and cutting and serious thoughts that stole upon you in the midst of the laughter and stuck around long after the jokes were done.

As a kid growing up in a Northern Ireland still caught up in the lunacy of the Troubles, Pratchett provided constant reassurance that there was a better humanity out there. That being decent to other human beings mattered most of all, that you ought to be suspicious of anyone or any organisation that would tell you what to think, that being curious, patient, and argumentative were all good things. Thoughts that I found it hard to express, even as I was working them out in my own head, I found reflected in his prose.

As an aspiring writer, the most important thing I learned from him was that it was possible to underlay fantasy and science fiction writing with serious topics without preaching to your audience. I learned as well that language was a game, one that you won if you brought a smile to your audience’s face, or just made them pause and consider for a moment.

As a human being, he was, like his collaborator Neil Gaiman, like Douglas Adams and Charles Darwin, one of those people it was possible to admire without having to look up to them. Possessed of immense talent that never overwhelmed his innately decent humanity, yet driven by an inner anger that allowed him to churn out books of breathtaking quality and wit year after year.

That same anger helped him to deal with the unfairness of his diagnosis. Deeming it “an embuggerance,” he continued to live his life even more fully than before, fighting on behalf of those suffering from Alzheimer’s and those who believed that they had a right to end a life that had become unbearable. His eloquent arguments in favour of the right to die in the manner of his own choosing revived a debate that is still going on.

Reading Pratchett and authors like him and growing up where I did and among my family and friends has led me to the belief that if we have a purpose in life, it’s to increase the amount of happiness in the world, both your own and that of those around you. Far more than the number of books he sold, the joy that his work and personality brought to so many is a marker of his success in life.

If I ever have any kids, I’ll enjoy sharing his books with them. And whether or not they turn out to be fans like me, I hope that some of the lessons that I’ve learned in reading his books will be the same lessons I share with them.

A New Beginning

It’s been way too long since I wrote in this blog. My writings have rarely been regular, but recent developments workwise have suppressed the writing impulse to the point where nothing has been appearing for several months. This is clearly unacceptable. So consider this a manifesto for getting back on track.

When I first set up this blog, it was as a receptacle for stray thoughts as I made my way eastwards around the world. (You can go all the way back and check it out if you like.) I also adorned it with some earlier blogging efforts and sprinkled a few of my more favoured attempts at fiction across the top. Further down the line, I began to throw a series of reviews at it, mostly books, cinema and games. Well, I’m still enjoying all of those, but the reviews have dwindled to nothing.

Along the way, there have also been moments of whimsy, political opinions and reflections on the current course of my life. All of this should provide plenty of material to keep the blog mill spinning. Which makes it all the more disappointing that it hasn’t. I still enjoy writing, it’s just that the moments where it previously fitted into my schedule have been shuffled around, and an attempt needs to be made to nail them down again.

There’s plenty to be said for commenting on the state of the world. Politics and the media are in no less surreal a state than they have been for the past few years. The Ferguson affair in the U.S. and the ISIS rearrangement of borders and peoples in the Middle East are raising hackles and some of the weirder excesses of both participants and commentators.

On a more personal level, my reading habit is finally getting back in gear after a few months (hell, call it a year and a bit) where it was hard to find time to fit reading into the rest of my life. Right now I’m rereading Julian May’s “Galactic Milieu” trilogy, having already raced through her “Saga of the Exiles.” May’s one of the best science fiction writers I’ve ever read, and the Saga of the Exiles would make a great TV miniseries in the mode of Game of Thrones. So add that to biweekly cinema excursions courtesy of a Meetup.com group and some PC and iOS game experiments (both good and bad), and there should be plenty of reviews emerging in the near future too.

Lastly, and most excitingly (for me at least), I’m finally planning to head off on a holiday lasting longer than a week. It’s been over two years at this stage, and it’s more than long overdue. The destination is Greece, as longstanding a travel goal as I have, and the itinerary is intended to take in as much beautiful scenery and sites of historical interest as the cradle of western civilisation has to offer.

So look for some brand new travel diaries coming towards the end of September. In the interim, I’ll try and keep the home fires burning by dropping the odd opinion, review and unusual fact into the hopper for general distribution. Possibly not tomorrow’s cinematic outing though. I’m not sure how much I’ll have to say about The Expendables 3.

The Bilocated Man

20131112-104003.jpg
The bowl of ages…

In my kitchen cupboard sits a bowl that’s stands out from the crowd. My crockery tastes tend to run to bachelor minimalism, but this one has a faded floral border. It also has a couple of hairline cracks, one of which covers more than half its width. It may not be long for this world, but it’s the venue for my breakfast cereal every morning.

This bowl, along with one other plate in that cupboard, is the sole survivor from the package of crockery and cutlery that I was given when I moved down to Dublin from County Down, just over 19 years ago. At the time, I had just turned 19 myself. So, as of late September/early October this year, I’ve officially lived in Dublin as long as I did in Northern Ireland.

It’s not quite that neat, of course: my first year in Trinity College Dublin was very disrupted, and I spent most of it, especially the latter half, up north. Still, insofar as I can identify a tipping point, this is it. When I came down to Dublin to go to college, I was a kid. Now that I’m still in Dublin, having just finished a Masters course, I can’t really claim the same measure of youthfulness.

I will forever be from Northern Ireland. When I first moved to Dublin, I had to face the question of whether I was Irish or British. I definitely didn’t feel like the latter—growing up in a nationalist, Catholic family saw to that. But I didn’t feel like being Irish suited me either. The experience of growing up in the North during the Troubles was a thing all of its own. So I eventually settled on insisting on my Northern Irish identity.

Though being Northern Irish hasn’t changed, it no longer seems to cover everything. This is not necessarily a bad thing. One way of reading it is that there’s more to me than was when I first arrived here in Dublin. I recently added an Irish passport to my British one, so maybe what’s grown about me is the Irish part.

It’s a funny thing, to realise that you’ve built a life in a particular place. Friends, work, education, habitation. An interest in local culture and politics, a landscape littered with memories and associations. The same thing is true up North, of course, but up there it’s a case of experience accumulated in the accidental form of childhood. Down here in Dublin, it feels a little more deliberate. Or perhaps necessary is the right word.

Perhaps the nature of it then is that we all live multiple lives, often overlapping one another. Childhood, teenage years, college, first job, first house. Sometimes, as in my move to Dublin, you get a clear break that allows you to divide what came before from what came after. Not that live is usually that clean. It is, and always ought to be, a work in progress.

With my Masters over and a job hunt underway, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that another life has started, adding another layer to the person that I am. I have no idea where this current path will eventually take me. It might just be that 19 years down the line, I’ll get to write something entitled “The Trilocated Man”. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

Apple Gets Hyper Over Education

And you can play games on it too. That will be good for learning, I'm sure.
Apple's iPad has just got a big push into the education sphere

This afternoon saw Apple’s latest media event taking place in an unusual venue for the company – New York – and without the oversight of the company’s late founder, Steve Jobs. The focus of the event was education, a subject that Jobs claimed was close to his heart, and although the event was very much U.S.-centric, the announcements made there have much wider implications.

There are three main prongs to Apple’s education push: The first part is an upgrade to the iBooks application for the company’s iPad device in order to enable it to deliver media-rich, interactive text books for students in the U.S., focusing first on the high school level. The aim is to provide cheaper (assuming you factor in the cost of the iPad itself), more engaging, more up-to-date text books for students. That Apple has managed to get some of the main textbook providers on board already is undoubtedly due to the fact that if the technology company succeeds in turning the textbook market electronic, it will simultaneously kill the market in second-hand textbooks.

Prong number two is the new iTunes U app. I’ve been using the iTunes University section of the iTunes Store for a while, as it has an amazing selection of free audio and video recordings of lecture series. The new app takes that idea to the next step, allowing educators to create and manage courses and deliver them to students. Together with the iBooks app, it’s nothing less than an effort to make tablet computers in general and the iPad in particular central to education in the U.S. And where the U.S. leads in this regard, the world is likely to follow.

However, for me – someone who isn’t involved directly in education at the moment – the most interesting element of the announcement was the third prong: the iBooks Author application for the Mac. Although the focus at the event was on using this application to create textbooks, it’s clear that there’s much more potential here: iBooks Author allows anyone to put together rich media books, using video, audio, pictures and 3D elements together with text in an easy drag and drop environment. I’ve already downloaded it and am tinkering with it now to check out its capabilities, but already it’s reminding me a lot of a storied application from Apple’s past: Hypercard.

If you don’t know what Hypercard is (and unless you used a Mac in the late ’80s, you probably don’t), you could take away a few elements of the above description of iBook Author and it would apply pretty well: Hypercard created stacks (read: ebooks) into which content creators could place audio, graphics and even video, linked together with a programming language that prefigured the HTML code of the World Wide Web. iBooks Author may not offer the same degree of interactivity and expandability, but the capability is definitely there, and the drag-and-drop creation is much easier. The ebooks sold through Apple’s iBook store may be called books, but they’re really standalone apps, designed to run on the iPad. They’ll deliver content first and foremost, but the manner in which they do so will be limited only by the imaginations of those who use the app itself.

Of course, this being a brand new program from Apple, some caution is warranted. It’s already been pointed out that the EULA attached to iBooks Author may be overreaching itself. Similarly, Apple’s applications and devices tend to really hit their stride only when they reach the 2.0 milestone. Compare the original iBooks app, a polished but underwhelming competitor to Amazon’s Kindle, with the new textbook delivery system it has become. iBooks Author has a limited number of templates at present, and it will be a while before its users get to grips with what it can do. Already, however, I’m impressed with what I can see and am looking forward to playing with it and seeing the results.

A Taste of the Future

One of the great things about reading science fiction is receiving a glimpse into the future. It’s not true of every science fiction writer, but a great many of them are well read in the social and scientific trends of their day and weave that knowledge into their writing, extrapolating out to take a guess at where we all might be in a few decades, centuries, or millennia. Of course, predicting the future is a hard business, and it’s a truism that nothing dates so quickly as science fiction. Still, Verne had men travelling to the moon, Clarke foresaw the communications satellite, and Gibson gave us cyberpunk and the kind of brain-computer interfaces that are even now emerging into the light.

I’m even guilty of it myself, in the short stories that I’ve written that veer into the science fiction arena. I’m not claiming any great foresight, but I do enjoy finding here and there among the materials that I read an idea or two that sparks a story. In some cases, the original inspiration gets forgotten. So I don’t really know where I got the idea for “Life and Death on the Edge of Unreason“. I suspect I just liked the idea of an observation station orbiting a star about to go supernova. As settings for a detective story go, it’s pretty evocative.

It’s not the best story I’ve ever written – the fact is that a detective story in a panopticon society with instant access to information is never going to work well. Still, I was reminded pleasantly of it when I read this article, all about  one of the main elements in the story – a charred planet surviving in a star’s outer layers. Pleased enough to be inspired to tidy it up and offer it here as some Christmas reading material. I hope you enjoy it.