Category Archives: Technology

Aristotle: The Price of Being Right

TheFactFile.org states that: “Aristotle (384-322 BC) was a famous Greek philosopher born in Macedonian city of Satigara in Greece. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Aristotle was the first genuine scientist in history. His writings include – physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theatre, music, rhetoric, linguistics, politics and government – and constitute the first comprehensive system of Western philosophy.”

“Aristotle was the first person to study biology systematically,” Wikipedia continues, “he spent two years observing and describing the zoology of Lesbos and the surrounding seas, including in particular the Pyrrha lagoon in the centre of Lesbos. His data is assembled from his own observations, statements given by people with specialised knowledge such as beekeepers and fishermen, and less accurate accounts provided by travellers from overseas.”

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Aristotle came to the conclusion that nature was like a household where everything had its place. He used the ancient Greek word for house “Oikos” and this is where the modern word ecology derives from. He went even further and settled on the ancient Greek word for information to describe nature, the ordering of things, which sounds like a precursor to modern-day genetics. He could not have known how close to the truth he was back then. Others took his conclusions further and did so with astonishing results that appear to reveal new things to us daily.

The main criticism of Aristotle comes from his “spontaneous generation” theory on the origin of some animals. It was not understood at the time how maggots suddenly appeared on rotting meat. Aristotle reasoned that these animals essentially conjured themselves up out of thin air. “In 1668, Francesco Redi challenged the idea that maggots arose spontaneously from rotting meat,” according to Wikipedia, “In the first major experiment to challenge spontaneous generation, he placed meat in a variety of sealed, open, and partially covered containers. Realising that the sealed containers were deprived of air, he used “fine Naples veil”, and observed no worm on the meat, but they appeared on the cloth. Redi used his experiments to support the preexistence theory put forth by the Church at that time, which maintained that living things originated from parents.” Maggots, as we know now, come from eggs laid by flies. With the meat covered, the flies had no access to lay the eggs, without it they did. Aristotle’s theory was in ruins and he gets an incredibly unfair rap from Science today because of it. Could those new theories have been arrived at without his work to react against? I think not.

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We must always approach Aristotle’s observations with a retrospective kindness, appreciation and awe. He was working in a very limited geographical and technical area. He didn’t have microscopes, natural history museums, papers from other scientists to consult or patrons funding his work. His deductions relied on observations, crude dissections of living animals and probably the opinions and hearsay of locals.

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Yes, Aristotle got it wrong, but is that such a shameful thing? A mistake is an experience, choice or concept it is necessary for us to have or make in order to evolve beyond it. All great achievements are the product of absorbing, blending and surpassing one’s influences. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge the passing of the torch of inspiration from those who have gone before, however flawed they or their theories may be.

Aristotle took the then-logical step of circumventing gaps in knowledge with supposition. Today, with all the resources at our command, that would be scientifically unacceptable but that is a judgement born of our time, not from his 23 centuries ago.

Perfection is an illusion. Yet perfectionists demand it from others while being far from flawless themselves. The margin of error of the human condition is often our greatest area of excellence and discovery,

We must be totally fearless in our pursuit of new knowledge. The prospect of derision must never be a weapon to bludgeon the voyager seeking truth. Even if it is there, it can never be a consideration for the innovator. It is what makes me worried for the modern world with our narrow-minded right-fighters reminding us every second on social media that they, and only they, are correct. How can someone dare to develop new thoughts and ways of thinking in the face of such intellectual Luddites?

All that must be cast aside. You cannot second-guess the reaction to something you have created. You can never please everyone and it is impossible to try.

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© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

(Check out my epic fantasy vampire novel “The Vorbing.” All donations gratefully accepted here.)

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The Meaning of Life or Get Down With The Randomness, Baby

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Tbe meaning of life is that great philosophical, existentialist and ethical question that mankind has preoccupied itself with since the birth of rational thought.

Once the human animal acquired conscious thought, it was going to start overthinking things. There had to be a reason for everything. Nothing was going to be left to chance from then on. This new logic thing in our brains couldn’t handle luck or randomness. Everything had to be explained step-by-step from our perspective.

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It is a combination of man’s mental acuity and self-importance to try and attach any meaning to life. Why can’t we just be an extremely fortunate life form randomly hurtling through space on an ideally-positioned rock? If life has any meaning, it is the basic biological one of passing on our genes to the next generation before we die. However sophisticated we are or imagine we are, it really doesn’t get more complicated than that.

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The first cave paintings were early man taking a step back from himself and seeing his world one step removed (we do this today with all forms of art). He was observing himself, seeing how his society operated, explaining what he could and posing new questions to himself that needed answers (some believe these paintings were the first attempts at speech by the human animal. They were also probably the first attempts at interior decorating too).

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We set out to explore the world: a thirst for knowledge backed by a lust for domination, power, land and gold. It only threw up more questions – who were these alien peoples we encountered and how could God have created them? God, of course, was the perfect explanation that man sought. This deity ticked all the boxes. With a wave of his mighty hand, the world and humanity, the beings he made in his own image, were there.

Science then came along and upended the theology apple cart. It gave us evolution and natural selection, both structured adaptations to random scenarios. The dinosaurs lost the evolutionary lottery by getting wiped out by an Act of God. It could happen to humans too but that is too difficult for us to contemplate. We need information fed to us piecemeal to formulate opinions, Doomsday is too hasty for us. It isn’t logical.

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Of course, we look for endless reasons for our existence – psychological, philosophical, theological. We even invented religions to explain our existence back to us (most of the world’s religions were founded as offshoots of another because of disagreements to the theological direction being taken. “All roads lead to God” as one quotations goes. “There are many roads in Monotheism” might be a better way of putting it).

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Albert Einstein in a random moment

Albert Einstein, the very figurehead of the concept of genius, had his say in 1935 on The Meaning of Life:

“What is the meaning of human life, or, for that matter, of the life of any creature? To know an answer to this question means to be religious. You ask: Does it make any sense, then, to pose this question? I answer: The man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unhappy but hardly fit for life.”

I’m not saying that life is meaningless but random – chaos theory, if you like (the problem is that some of us can’t see meaning without structure, the curse of that logical mind of ours). The Fractal Foundation defines Chaos Theory thus: “While most traditional science deals with supposedly predictable phenomena like gravity, electricity, or chemical reactions, Chaos Theory deals with nonlinear things that are effectively impossible to predict or control, like turbulence, weather, the stock market, our brain states, and so on.”

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Talking Heads had a witty take on where we’re headed with their 1985 hit “Road to Nowhere.” It dares to suggest that we’re all just making it up as we go along and nobody really knows where we’re headed, even if they can’t or won’t admit it to themselves or others. Twist your melons around that, you overthinking homo sapiens!

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes writers should be paid for their work, you may donate here.

To read more of my writing, check out my short story Nightfall and my novel The Vorbing.

Beautiful Self-Interest: A flaw at the heart of Economics, Mathematics and Conflict Resolution

The Business Dictionary defines self-interest as a “focus on actions or activities that are advantageous to an individual or organization. For a business or individual to survive and grow, a degree of self-interest is necessary. When there is too much focus on self-interest the benefits of the group at large diminishes.”

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Adam Smith

The Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790) wrote two books “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759) and “The Wealth of Nations” (1776) (considered “the bible of capitalism”). He proposed a theory that capitalism was essentially fuelled by the self-interest of people: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

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John Forbes Nash Jr.

John Forbes Nash Jr. was an American mathematician whose life story was told in Ron Howard’s 2001 film “A Beautiful Mind” starring Russell Crowe. Nash updated Smith’s theory with some of his own ideas. He reasoned that the individual could get what they wanted yet still benefit the group they belonged to. This film clip of Nash and his classmates in a bar neatly explains Nash’s theory.

Nash won the Nobel Prize in 1994 in Mathematics for his equilibrium theory. John Moriarty of Manchester University describes the theory as “the ability to analyse situations of conflict and co-operation and produce predictions about how people will behave.” He goes on to say that Nash’s equilibrium is “perhaps the most important idea in economic analysis.” So why hasn’t Nash’s equilibrium been adopted more by the mainstream?

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Firstly, you can’t quantify human nature. It is not fixed but fluid and unpredictable. It’s not like Cambridge Mathematician Alan Turing’s “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis” where he could explain the markings and patterns on animals with an equation. That was rooted in genetics and evolution is a mighty slow thing. Human nature is extremely fast, just look how it changes day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute on the internet. It can be contradictory and even illogical at times. Applying logic to potentially illogical behaviour is to construct a house on shifting foundations. The structure will inevitably collapse. That’s the first problematic element of Nash’s theory but I propose an even bigger flaw that’s prevented it from being embraced in a wider context.

The human condition is one variable but a bigger one is the group itself. In the film clip with the blonde, Nash’s theory might work when he’s with a group of friends. They presumably know and trust each other and should therefore support one another for the common good. Again, it should work for a family, they too should presumably know and trust each other and have common goals (but human beings are complex creatures and there is no guarantee that the family isn’t dysfunctional and operating in a counter-productive way.) Assuming that these smaller groups want to progress along the same path together, we can expand the theory outwards to a community of people. Here the theory begins to fall apart. A community of people might not know or trust one another or have common goals. That possibility lessens even further when you expand the theory to a city or a country or a conflict between two countries. So the more you expand Nash’s theory outwards, the less chance it has of succeeding.

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Nash with his wife Alicia at the Oscars

Nash was also schizophrenic: “I was disturbed in this way for a very long period of time, like 25 years.” It affected his marriage and he and his wife Alicia divorced in 1962. His condition improved in the 80s and they remarried in 2001. Sadly the couple were killed in May 2015 when the taxi they were passengers in crashed in New Jersey. A sad loss of a great man. Life is not predictable.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

Aliens – The Best Sequel Ever Made?

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Ridley Scott’s Alien was released in 1979 and was a big hit. By 1986, it had faded away into the eerie mists of time somewhat when the sequel Aliens was unleashed by Twentieth Century Fox and writer/director James Cameron.

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Hot off The Terminator, Cameron was just the right guy to take on this sequel. He loved the original and had the sci-fi and technical know-how to push the franchise forward into thrilling new territory. Aliens was a huge hit that summer and earned Sigourney Weaver an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (unheard of for a science fiction movie at the time but indicative of the performance Cameron pulled out of her on set.)

Aliens, like all the best sequels, takes the original concept and expands upon it, deepening the meaning of it. We learn that Ripley’s first name is Ellen and that she had a daughter back on earth who died while she was drifting in space for 57 years (with nothing left for her back on earth, the traumatised Ripley is forced to return to the depths of space and confront her old alien enemy like the Minotaur in the labyrinth of legend.) We learn the name of the Alien species – the Xenomorph (interestingly, both Ridley Scott and Michael Fassbender are using that term to describe the Alien in interviews promoting the new film. James Cameron pulled off a similar trick in Terminator 2, another contender for best sequel of all-time, naming the liquid metal T-!000 a “mimetic poly-alloy.” T2 is making a welcome return in summer 2017 in a new 4k 3D version supervised by Mr Cameron.) The original Alien life cycle was based on an African wasp which lays its eggs under the skin of humans before the hatch out. Cameron expands this concept by making the Alien species a hive organism with a giant queen laying eggs at the apex of the hierarchy. Cameron even names the Alien planet LV-426. (They’re on LV-223 in Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott again paying homage to the superior sequel Aliens.) The weapons and futuristic forklifts the space marines use delighted audiences with their ingenuity.

The film was shot at Pinewood Studios in England and the British crew gave Cameron a hard time as they thought they were making an inferior sequel to a British director’s classic original. They even dubbed Cameron “Grizzly Adams” at one stage. Cameron said: “The Pinewood crew were lazy, insolent and arrogant. We despised them and they despised us. The one thing that kept me going was the certain knowledge that I would drive out of the gate of Pinewood and never come back.” If you’re wondering why Cameron painted the Brits in such a bad light in Titanic, now you know.

 

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It was also a difficult shoot for Sigourney Weaver using flame-throwings, shooting weapons and having to carry two heavy guns strapped together and the child Newt on her hip. Weaver injured her back from it and you can tell from the way she struggles to run from the Alien Queen near the end.

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Jim Cameron was responsible for so many shoot-‘em-up moments in the 80s; The Terminator’s single-handed destruction of a police station, John Rambo’s single-handed destruction of the Viet Cong, the Soviets and the team of Nixonian American mercenaries who double-crossed him and left him for dead. He does it again in the finale of Aliens when Ellen Ripley lets rip with flame thrower, machine gun and grenade launcher to decimate the hated Alien Queen and her precious eggs. (Ripley has lost her daughter and denies the Alien Queen the right to be a mother also, a perfect and clever fusing of character arcs by Cameron.) Strange that by Avatar in 2009, Cameron’s heroes are a blue Smurf-like race worshipping a glowing tree like hippies on another planet. (There are FOUR sequels to Avatar coming in the next decade, folks. So prepare to make more love and not war, man!)

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As with the team of mercenaries in Rambo: First Blood Part II (co-written by Cameron), the team of colonial marines in Aliens are a bunch of arrogant jerks that get taught a lesson later in the film. The late, great Bill Paxton, back with Cameron again after a brief Terminator appearance, adds so much humour and energy to the film, even ad-libbing the line “Game over, man, Game OVER!” (his voice cracking with emotion on that last line brings the house down.) Most actors would try to steal scenes by being macho; Paxton does it by being a hysterical (and hysterically funny) coward. It’s a brilliant performance from a fine actor. RIP, Bill.

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Another Cameron regular, Michael Biehn, is a commanding presence and potential love interest for Ripley. He replaced James Remar not long into shooting and is a welcome addition to the film.

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In 1992, a director’s cut of Aliens appeared adding 17 additional minutes to the running time.

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That was the same year we got the shoddy Alien 3 and those extra 17 minutes were a soothing balm to seething fans of the franchise. All the characters we loved from Aliens were callously and stupidly killed off in the opening minutes of the third film. It immediately threw away any chance of being a worthy follow-up right then.

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Concept art for a possible fifth Alien movie

(Neill Blomkamp has proposed a fifth Alien film which ignored the disappointing third and fourth entries and continues where Aliens left off. James Cameron has approved the concept while Ridley Scott has shot it down saying it will probably never happen. Meanwhile, Ridley continues with his perplexing and unnecessary prequels. Not many people want them, they want the sequel that should have been but it seems as if it will never happen now. Fox need to give the audience what they want instead of forcing them to accept the opposite. Scott is doing what George Lucas did with Star Wars essentially; he directed the original but the sequel is better as with The Empire Strikes Back. Now, decades later, he is unwisely returning to direct a series of unwelcome prequels that only serve to remind us how great the first trilogy was and make us long for it again.)

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I’ll go see Alien: Covenant, but I’m not holding out much hope for it or the franchise. The prequels seem to be explaining too much about the Alien, robbing it of its mystique. We don’t need to know the xenomorph’s backstory, it’s a slimy monster that’s going to get you. That’s all we need to know. Fear of the unknown is the key to great horror films, but movie studios are determined to squeeze every drop of cash out of a franchise. Let’s hope they see sense and give us the one we really want – Neill Blomkamp’s Alien 5.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Further Reading

Nightfall by Stewart Stafford

The Vorbing by Stewart Stafford

Stewart Stafford’s Quotes

Press Self-Destruct: Newspaper Dinosaurs in the Digital Age

If I ever have grandchildren, I’m sure I’ll tell them about the time a newspaper did an article about me. “What’s a newspaper, granddad?” they’ll ask with genuine wonder.

Traditional or “legacy” media (a term which already appears to have consigned television, radio and newspapers to history’s dustbin) forms are struggling to survive in the 21st century. Newspapers, in particular, are seeing sales drop at an alarming rate which, in turn, reduces advertising revenue and only older, die-hard brand loyalists are happy to pay to access content on newspaper websites. It tries to roll with the times to stay afloat by hiring bloggers and sourcing stories from hackers and activists (or “hacktivists”, if you will).

The problem is that the newspaper business model is dying and the purveyors of the new business model are not only deciding what crumbs to feed the press, they’re naming their price too.

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There is now a timescale for the demise of newspapers in most countries. It is comparable to how self-publishing challenged the dominance of printed books. Reports of the end of hardback and paperback books have been prematurely announced many times in the last decade. Then sales of ebooks dropped and the electronic takeover didn’t happen. It turns out that people like the feel and smell of a real book. Technology has an annoying habit of losing power or breaking down. Recharging is not always possible but printed books never need that just a light source to read from.

ebookvsbookThe internet had a similar affect on music too. The mp3 file appeared to have trumped vinyl records which were in a similar decline. Now vinyl sections of record stores are growing as are sales. There’s life in the old analogue dog yet.

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Could print media stage a similar comeback? It’s probably wishful thinking as news or rather the information itself is freely available from endless sources. If newspapers charge for content, people can get it somewhere else for free. Citizen journalists don’t have the resources of a major newspaper or that Pulitzer cachet, but they do have that most precious modern commodity in abundance – time. Printed newspapers report yesterday’s news, by which stage a newer story has broken online. Yes, the papers can update their websites but the loyalty is to the information and whoever breaks it first now and not the brand. Even if a newspaper gets a scoop, it can be repackaged by news aggregrator sites and the reader may not even know who originally broke it. In the frenzy to get likes and shares and the kudos of being first with news, the basic courtesy of a hat tip to the originator of a story also appears to be endangered.

So it appears the newspaper is terminal decline. It was a remarkable phenomenon while it lasted but, sadly, it seems to be going or have already gone the way of the Dodo.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

 

Imagination Vs Technology – The Writer’s 21st-Century Faustian Pact?

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Imaginary things take time to write. Fantasy and horror and, to a lesser extent, science fiction can be among the toughest genres to write as they are works of pure imagination. Science fiction can be slightly researched and current trends can be followed to their logical conclusion. Educated guesses can be made as to what direction science will go in. Fantasy and horror mostly comprise world-building from scratch and, depending on the writer, the concepts can take time to generate.

Added to that, readers want new product yesterday. They’ve become ultra-impatient in the internet age. Some of them even refuse to read the first book in a series as they are unable to wait for the other books to be written and published. “Am I going to have to wait years for you to finish your Vorbing trilogy? I’m an impatient bitch,” one of my readers helpfully explained to me.

In their book, The Neuroscience of Clinical Psychiatry: The Pathophysiology of Behavior and Mental Illness, Edmund S. Higgins and Mark S. George note: “People who can delay gratification and control their impulses appear to achieve more in the long run. Attention and impulsivity are opposite sides of the same coin.” This is especially true of all those internet babies who have grown up in the technological age. So the internet is a bit like Brexit; we don’t know what the full implications of its arrival are yet.

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The web has its advantages. It’s a phenomenal communication tool. Twitter has definitely made me think faster and streamline messages better, that is certain. As a way of quickly disseminating a message or a product worldwide immediately, the web takes some beating. The net is like a giant synthetic brain our thought patterns are connected to (a strength and a weakness that can be exploited). There are concerns over privacy and who is doing what with our data and those worries will only increase as time goes on.

Back to the writing. This awareness of the disintegration of attention spans has unquestionably changed both the method and style I employ when writing books. I started writing my first book when the internet was in its infancy. I was able to remain in the world I had created all day interacting with my characters. I was totally immersed in it and wouldn’t notice hours passing. Now social media, that great thief of time, eats up chunks of my day without me noticing hours passing. I mostly interact online with people I don’t know instead of my characters. I’m totally immersed in the internet. Writing is done now in feverish bursts to meet my daily word count so I can get back online. Experience has enabled me to do much more in less time though. I no longer need to spend all day going down blind alleys trying to find myself creatively. So perhaps there is no damage done there.

There are writers who have given up social media for a month to get books out there. I’d be concerned about losing half my hard-earned followers. You can’t expect people to continue following you if you’re offline for weeks. Especially if you’re a self-published writer dependent on social media to market your books. It appears to be a 21st-century Faustian pact with the web.

Then there is the pace of the novel itself. I am only too aware that if you fail to hold the attention of your readers, social media is tickling their ears non-stop to woo them away. So they’re dealing with getting their electronic fix too (especially if they’re consuming your book on an e-reader or smartphone app that’s connected to the internet and the ejector seat button for your novel is half an inch away). The pacing of a novel has to match the online frenzy going on out there or you’re toast. Then again, if the flour is going rotten to begin with, maybe the quality of the toast isn’t so important these days. We shall see.

So the internet has rewired our brains, changed our expectations and how books are written, edited, sold and read (or not as the case may be). What form will books take in 2026? 2036? 2066? Will we be taking downloads directly into our brains as in a William Gibson cyberpunk novel? I have a saying: “The possible is just the impossible that we’ve come to accept.” It will happen.

My novel “The Vorbing” is available here

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Indie Authors: The New Punks

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We’ve all heard about the self-publishing revolution in books in the last few years with Amazon Kindle and all the other e-readers and websites. I was watching a BBC documentary called ArtsNight last week and the presenter made an interesting point: punk rock bands were the first indie authors. They learned their three chords, set up their own bands and, in some cases, record labels and self-published their own music. They took control of their own destinies in the same way novelists did recently. Even the punk fanzines were do-it-yourself wonders; stapled together, photocopied and distributed through record stores, mailing lists, by hand and by word-of-mouth in those pre-pre-internet days.

It’s a very cogent analogy. As with the self-published books, some of the DIY punk music that was put out was awful, but some of it has reached classic status in hindsight. Self-publishing until recently was called “vanity publishing,” but writers were no longer prepared to sit on their hands waiting months for a form rejection letter. They too seized their own destinies through the technology that was around them and turned the publishing industry on its head.

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Movies are even being made from self-published books for the first time like Ridley Scott’s The Martian starring Matt Damon and a future fantasy film that 20th Century Fox has purchased the rights to called Fall of Gods (even after that movie deal was signed, the book was taken down from Amazon due to formatting issues, the bane of indie authors everywhere. Luckily, it didn’t impact on the movie deal and Fox could see the merit of what was there despite the flaws.)

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Punks and indie authors are strange bedfellows indeed, but both groups were and are pioneers in their fields. While the punk movement didn’t manage to overthrow the mainstream in the same way hippies in the previous generation hadn’t, they democratised their art form and showed others what was possible with self-belief and a little effort. Just as indie authors did. The shockwaves of the indie author revolution are still spreading out from the epicentre and nobody really knows where it will stop or what comes next. The most important thing is that books that would have gathered dust in drawers and on hard drives and memory sticks are now finding a worldwide audience. That can only be a good thing.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

The Paper Tablet – Setting Your Writing In Stone

Writers in the 21st Century think they’re so sophisticated in the way they can store, transport and transmit stories. We worship at the altar of electronic technology. However, hard drives can fail. Memory sticks can get damaged, lost or stolen.

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Take my case, for example. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my cat Ginger was going blind. He thought he was in his litter box but was actually squatting over my memory sticks which had fallen onto the ground. He peed on them and wiped 8 gigabytes of data on me, a huge amount for those who don’t know what that means. The acid in his urine corroded and rusted the metal tips of the memory sticks, making them unreadable. Although I had saved the contents of my prime memory stick to a back-up, the cat had managed to pee on both of them. Through that freak accident, I lost things I can never get back.

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Similarly, I went away on holiday once. While I was gone, my sister decided to surprise me and clean up my place. She threw out a load of writing I had saved on disk, including about half a book’s worth of material. When I got back, I was shocked and not a little pissed off (we’re back to urine again, see a theme emerging here?). Luckily, she hadn’t thrown out a stack of hard copy printouts I’d done. I went through the pile, silently praying that my discarded work was there. It was and I breathed a massive sigh of relief. Now, I had to retype it all from scratch but the material wasn’t lost forever. I was able to retrieve it. You might think you can retype something verbatim from memory but every time you sit down to write, you make different choices. It’s never the same way twice. Retyping it all was actually a good way of revising what I’d done. I spotted some errors, fixed them and took the story in a different direction as result.

The point being, print out early drafts of your material as well as storing back-up copies separately from the primary source. If you’re blocked, reading what you’ve done so far gets you thinking. Even if the solution doesn’t present itself immediately, your mind is working on it. You may not find a way to progress the story ahead but, very often, you’ll see a way to link earlier sections of your book with new sequences. That all adds to the wordcount and gets you closer to completing your novel.

Yes, paper can be shredded or torn up but it’s far more difficult to do than wiping something electronically which can happen in an instant before you know it.

So there’s the writer’s life for you; sometimes we sabotage ourselves and sometimes it’s technology, those around us or even nature itself preventing us getting our work out there. (I wonder how many great books have been lost over the centuries in that way?) For all our perceived sophistication, you really can’t beat having that tangible paper copy in your hand. Some things never change.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

The Story Behind David Bowie’s “Heroes”

“The lowest point in my life was in 1975, when I was 28, living in Los Angeles. I really did think that my thoughts about not making 30 would come true. Drugs had taken my life away from me. I felt as though I would probably die and it was going to be all over. My assistant, Coco, got me out of it. Thanks to her, I got myself out of America to Berlin”

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So he did and that is where the genesis of his classic song “Heroes” begins. Germany has an oddly influential place in popular music history. Elvis was stationed there in the army in the 50s. The Beatles went to Hamburg and learned their craft and lived it up in the early 60s. Bowie recorded his Low, Heroes and Lodger albums there and Queen recorded several albums in Munich, including their best-selling album The Game. U2 would record Achtung Baby there in the early 90s. David Bowie played a concert in West Berlin in 1987 that could be heard over the Berlin Wall in East Berlin. Earlier this week, when news of Bowie’s death broke, the German Foreign Office tweeted: “Good-bye, David Bowie. You are now among #Heroes. Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall.” Praise, indeed.

The album “Heroes”, the second of Bowie’s “Berlin trilogy”, was recorded at Hansa Studio by the Wall in what was then West Berlin. It was produced by Bowie and Tony Visconti with Brian Eno playing a key role in it also. (Bowie credits Eno with shifting the emphasis of his career away from the creation of characters like Ziggy Stardust to the music itself.)

The song “Heroes” was recorded using a noise gate technique. According to Wikipedia, a noise gate is “an electronic device or software that is used to control the volume of an audio signal.”

It goes on: “The invention of a technique, called multi-latch gating by Jay Hodgson, common in classical music recordings for years, is often credited to producer Tony Visconti, whose use on David Bowie’s “Heroes” may have been the first in rock. Visconti recorded Bowie’s vocals in a large space using three microphones placed 9 inches (23 cm), 20 feet (6.1 m), and 50 feet (15.2 m) away, respectively. A different gate was applied to each microphone so that the farther microphone was triggered only when Bowie reached the appropriate volume, and each microphone was muted as the next one was triggered.

Bowie’s performance thus grows in intensity precisely as ever more ambience infuses his delivery until, by the final verse, he has to shout just to be heard….The more Bowie shouts to be heard, in fact, the further back in the mix Visconti’s multi-latch system pushes his vocal tracks [dry audio being perceived as front and ambience pushing audio back in the mix], creating a stark metaphor for the situation of Bowie’s doomed lovers shouting their love for one another over the Berlin wall”

(Tony Visconti recently admitted that the he and his mistress were the couple seen kissing by the wall.)

Bowie played the sax solo at the end of “Heroes” and even recorded a version in German called “Helden.”

When released on October 15th 1977, the song only got to number 24 in the UK charts a far cry from smash-hit Ziggy Stardust mania just a few years earlier. Even his appearance on Top of the Pops in a plain shirt with a less-harsh remix of the song seems muted compared to his culture-changing turn on the same show with Starman.

The noise gate technique the shouting Bowie had to resort to did result in a harsh-sounding vocal that wasn’t exactly radio friendly at the time which perhaps accounts for its low chart-placing. (Queen’s “We Are The Champions” was released the same month and became an instant classic anthem when it reached number 2 in the charts.) While “Heroes” remained a favourite with his fans, in the general public’s consciousness the song quickly faded from the charts and into obscurity. It remained there until eight years later, when Bowie had the inspired idea to include it in his set for Live Aid.

Bob Geldof had christened his Live Aid charity extravaganza “The Global Jukebox” and told the artists on the bill to give him hits, hits and more hits to keep viewers watching and donating. While “Heroes” wasn’t one of Bowie’s biggest hits on first release, it is one of his best songs and the idea of being heroes for a day was the perfect tagline for Live Aid. So it proved, the song went down a storm. Everyone in Wembley Stadium got swept up in the idea of their generation changing the world in that place at that time. Bowie told the Wembley crowd: “You’re the heroes of this concert.”

Queen had ended their legendary Live Aid set earlier with “We Are The Champions.” That day, “Heroes” joined “We Are The Champions” in the pantheon of inspirational anthems that are often played at sporting events. When a documentary was made about the Live Aid concerts by the Band Aid trust later in 1985, a montage of the artists that performed was cut to the sounds of David Bowie’s “Heroes.”

The rehabilitation of “Heroes” reached its apotheosis at the London Olympic games of 2012 when “Heroes” was playing on loop in the background at each medal presentation. It even featured in the closing ceremony.

Who knows, perhaps “Heroes” may even become a posthumous number one for David Bowie, such is the popularity and poignancy of the song now. That would be a fitting close to the remarkable journey the song has taken in the unforgettable life of its creator and in the lives of us all.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

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To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

In Pursuit of the Mighty Whoosh: The 21st Century Writer

Being a writer in the 21st century is like being the driver of a very jerkily-driven vehicle. You’ve dreamt up ideas, written them, shaped them, rewritten and edited them and published them. Then you have to switch hats and sell your work. Now you find yourself measuring your book’s merit and your own self-worth by reviews, ratings, rankings, likes, shares, follows, analytics and sales. If they rise, your confidence rockets with them. If they mysteriously drop, you become frozen with doubt. You can control your writing up to a point. After that, it’s up to readers, reviewers and bloggers to spread the word. You can’t make people buy something they don’t want no matter what social marketing gurus say (who are biased witnesses involved in the hard sell).

It is healthy to get away from that draining stuff for a while. Major writers have people to handle sales of their work. They have agents, managers and the might of publishing houses behind them with their huge advertising budgets and key media contacts. Self-published writers only have themselves and their savings to rely on. That only goes so far unless they have great connections or access to bigger sums of money. If not, they may have to accept defeat on their beloved project when the cash runs out.

Some people say make your own luck but if everyone could do that, we’d all be successful. Life is never that simple or easy. Luck is mostly being in the right place at the right time. The wind catches your sails and whoosh, you’re off. Nobody can plan for that. It just happens. Word of mouth is another way. A neglected work slowly begins to pick up. Sales rise, reviews become more plentiful and positive and you’ve caught the Mighty Whoosh again.

Being an author now is a marathon, not a sprint. The idea that you could hit the send button, publish your book and it would become an instant bestseller really is a fantasy. It will take many months, if not years, to build up a loyal readership and a solid body of work. There is even the possibility of posthumous recognition Van Gogh-style. To become rich and famous when you’re no longer around to enjoy it would be cruel but better late than never. At least your heirs may benefit from your delayed Mighty Whoosh.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.