PCW Plus "Langford" Columns, 1993

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Column 69, PCW Plus 76, January 1993


I suppose -- I hope -- it must have been a brainstorm brought on by my recent, masochistic task of reading, on disk, the whole 1,200,000 words of the coming new edition of the Science Fiction Encyclopaedia. (Out in 1993 if all goes well.) But perhaps one of those strange SF warp thingies did indeed open up in the fabric of time and space ... and instead of its traditional functions of causing crop circles, UFO sightings and missing address marks, it gave me a fabulous vision of the future.

In this utopian vision, gentle reader, I saw an issue of PCW Plus from several years or decades hence. It was all-electronic, of course, presented on the A3-format high-resolution screen of a PCW 1048576+. The hardware apparently used a real-time optical tracking system, since the cursor automatically moved to wherever your eyes focused on the screen, and you could select menu options by blinking. In fact one of the advertisers took unscrupulous advantage of this with a colour picture of a deeply sexy lady -- whenever you blinked at her (and there was good reason), the screen immediately lit up with `Order accepted and transmitted to Ansible Information: the cost has now been deducted from your credit account, including postage and VAT at 27.5%'. But I digress.

The lead article in this PCW Plus was (will be? will have been?) all about the release of LocoScript 48.1, beginning with a familiar-sounding explanation of how ordinary people just don't need a 100-terabyte computer running holographic virtual reality systems in order to do word processing, and explaining how the PCW's simple gigabyte hard disk, 16,384 screen colours and twin CD-ROM drives were still an ideal budget solution at only four and a half thousand New Pounds, or barely two-thirds the price of a brand-new scrotty ... I never did find out what a scrotty was. LocoScript 48.1 came packaged free with the current PCWs (except the bottom-of-the-range model, which still has only LocoScript 1) and offered some remarkably powerful new features.

For example, expert users can apparently set up the word processor to generate entire novels with only seven to ten keystrokes. The built-in style checker will mutter a discreet `Tut-tut' through the PCW's hi-fi quadraphonic speaker system whenever you write an unclear sentence or use a sexist pronoun, and can also offer advice on your personal and financial problems. Other useful features are the Limerick Formatter and the Plagiarism Checker. It certainly sounds like a wonderful program, although for technical reasons it has still proved impossible to include a word counter that runs without loading all 320 megabytes of LocoSpell.

Turning to the adverts, I found plenty of new products. The independent release of the month was of course the ten-volume Easy Guide To Loco 48.1 (`Why struggle through all twenty-one volumes of the complete manual? We tell you what you need to know'), hotly rivalled by the four-volume Compact Guide to the Easy Guide, the two-volume....

The Flipper program seemed to have kept pace with the development of the PCW, too, and according to an aside in this future magazine Flipper is now able to make the computer multi-task as a simultaneous word processor, spreadsheet, database, VCR, coffee maker, scrotty simulator and small electric automobile (add-on battery pack or very long power cable recommended). And could it be true that as claimed in News Plus in the same issue, The Sun 3-D Holo-Supplement was now produced entirely on a single PCW running the new release of Mini Office Professional?

Some `pages' looked more familiar than others. The Postscript feature was comfortingly full of people complaining about incomprehensible manuals, overpriced software, and defective hardware (`The PCW power supply is ludicrously inadequate to run a standard add-on 48-user network system'). A special guest article brought tears of nostalgia to my eyes with its list of amusing and unexpected substitute words suggested by LocoSpell 36.2 (now incorporating the complete Oxford English Dictionary). Tipoffs provided much wise advice on CP/M 7.0 filenames (`only 64 characters are allowed before the dot, and 16 after'), how to learn the use of PIP in mere days and how not to spill steaming, heavily sugared coffee into the keyboard. But I couldn't understand the Competition at all: it seemed to be all topical jokes about Alien XI Meets Batman, Prime Minister Sutch and scrotties.

Listings had become a lot bigger owing to increased storage space and fractal compression techniques ... this issue's offerings included the Los Angeles Yellow Pages, the complete out-of-copyright works of Rudyard Kipling and -- presented for its military-historical interest -- all the millions of lines of programming written `long ago' for the US Strategic Defence Initiative. There was also a grandmaster chess program that ran in ten tightly-coded lines of BASIC ... I guessed that BASIC must have been upgraded a bit too.

As I scanned these wonders of an uncertainly distant future (I just couldn't seem to find the cover screen with the issue date), I stumbled on an electronic page of peculiar interest to myself. It was headed LANGFORD, but there was only one small paragraph there, edged in black. As far as I can remember, it read: `David Langford is unwell. As readers will know, our long-time columnist had an unfortunate accident when an infodisk he was cortex-uploading turned out to be contaminated with the WOMBLE virus, which erased his entire brain. These things will happen! Dave's Disk Doctor Service has been using its neuroassembler toolkit and quantum probes in an attempt to retrieve the shattered remnants of the Langford intellect. We now hope to have him up and running in PCW simulation in time for Christmas....'

Suddenly it became very important to me to know the date of this issue of PCW Plus. I flipped faster and faster back through the electronic pages and had spotted the words OPENING MENU when the PCW hypertext display blurred ... dissolved ... was replaced by the full-colour image of a grim-jawed man looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger but not so soft and cuddly. `This is a recorded message from the Federation Against Software Theft,' he boomed. `Automatic laser scanning of your retinal patterns shows that you are not an authorized PCW Plus subscriber or purchaser. The lethal copy-protection system now going into operation is authorized by the Computers (Misuse) Act of 1997 and is in no way a violation of your EC human rights under the Treaty of....'

Then everything went black.

Column 69, PCW Plus 78, March 1993


One of my secret addictions is buying and skimming tatty old books on the secrets of professional writing ... especially when they're so out of date that the chapters on tax and libel are mostly about how to avoid Morton's Fork and the Star Chamber. In fact my latest scheme for getting rich is to transcribe some of these out-of-copyright wonders into vast LocoScript documents that are bound to do something for your writing, possibly something terminal.

For example, my 1909 How To Write Letters That Win is full of useful examples that every PCW user will surely want to have handy on a disc for the next time they do business by mail -- in particular when selling wooden buggies, bespoke suits, St Andreasberg Roller Canaries or (and I quote) "patent-lined, double-rimmed, rust-proof, excelsior gas burners".

A particularly timeless moment in this anonymously written masterpiece comes when you get to the sample letter that begins "You wouldn't think of throwing away your fountain pen simply because the ink is exhausted" ... and goes into enthusiastic detail about re-inking old typewriter ribbons via a "special process". I must look up the small ads for PCW re-inking services to see if any of them say "Est. 1909".

I also like the model letter to a customer who has dared to complain: "Dear Sir: Your eyesight must be going back on you. The paper you ordered is certainly identically the same stock as the sample you named. Take it to the window and look again." Alas, this turns out to be a Bad Example, and the book goes on to suggest a Correct Response which grovels so nauseatingly that I can't bring myself to quote it.

The book in my collection that truly cries out to be put on disc is Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases by Grenville Kleiser (1917), which is rather beautifully divided into Useful Phrases ("comatose state"), Significant Phrases ("unseemly and insufferable"), Felicitous Phrases ("faded, dusty and unread"), Impressive Phrases ("giddy, fickle, flighty and thoughtless"), Prepositional Phrases ("zone of delusion"), and so on. Whenever I open the thing I find myself caught and hypnotized by the magnificent sections called Literary Expressions and Striking Similes. With this book, stories practically write themselves! You are about to be very unjust to me. Although I haven't tampered with a single golden word of it, you will shortly believe I am making all this up....

All right, our story needs characters. Here is the description of a chap: "A broad, complacent, admiring imbecility breathed from his nose and lips." Nor is his conversation up to much: "A dire monotony of bookish idiom. He clatters like a windmill. He spoke with a uniformity of emphasis that made his words stand out like raised type for the blind." He dresses well but doesn't wash enough: "Wrapt in his odorous and many-coloured robe...." Overall he is rather "Like some suppressed and hideous thought which flits athwart our musings, but can find no rest within a pure and gentle mind." But at least he does have "A large, rich, copious human endowment."

Mr Kleiser's inexhaustible sourcebook quickly suggests a female character to counterpart the hero. "She exuded a faint and intoxicating perfume of womanliness, like a crushed herb." She comes from "A puissant and brilliant family" and has "An avidity that bespoke at once the restlessness and the genius of her mind." But alas, "Every curve of her features seemed to express a fine arrogant acrimony and harsh truculence," and moreover "She flounders like a huge conger-eel in an ocean of dingy morality."

Of course they meet, and the plot develops: "A quick flame leaped in his eyes. A queer, uncomfortable perplexity began to invade her. A river of shame swept over him. A shiver of apprehension crisped her skin. A new trouble was dawning on his thickening mental horizon. The music of her presence was singing a swift melody in his blood. All around them like a forest swept the deep and empurpled masses of her tangled hair." She is duly "Flushed with a suffusion that crimsoned her whole countenance." Soon they both "Clutch at the very heart of the usurping mediocrity," and so would you.

The scene shifts from place to place: one moment they are "Covered with vegetation in wild luxuriance," the next "The landscape ran, laughing, downhill to the sea" where "The murmur of the surf boomed in melancholy mockery." Next paragraph "The hills were clad with rose and amethyst," and soon both characters are "Grazing through a circulating library as contentedly as cattle in a fresh meadow."

I suppose the sexy bits have to come here (suitably "Clothed with the witchery of fiction"). "A quiver of resistance ran through her," and he is "Beside himself in an ecstasy of pleasure." So naturally "He treads the primrose path of dalliance. He smote her quickening sensibilities." Next comes a "Delicious throng of sensations" and the pair are "Fatally and indissolubly united. It was sheer, exuberant, instinctive, unreasoning, careless joy. Volcanic upheavings of imprisoned passions." In short, there is "A lapse from the well-ordered decencies of civilization."

Subsequently finding that "Love had like the canker-worm consumed her early prime" and feeling "A glacial pang of pain like the stab of a dagger of ice frozen from a poisoned well," our lady soon changes her mind about the relationship. "Her scarlet lip curled cruelly" and she sneers: "I yielded to the ingratiating mood of the day. I capitulated by inadvertence. Banish such thoughts." He complains: "You gave me such chill embraces as the snow-covered heights receive from clouds. So my spirit beat itself like a caged bird against its prison bars in vain." He says this because "He could detect the hollow ring of fundamental nothingness. He was giving his youth away by handfuls. His reputation had withered. He was quaking on the precipice of a bad bilious attack."

Thus, "Slowly, unnoted, like the creeping rust that spreads insidious, had estrangement come. They became increasingly turbid and phantasmagorical. A remarkable fusion of morality and art." Let's just leave them there, shall we? -- "Sunk in a phraseological quagmire."

Perhaps our favourite software firm could reissue this wondrous book as "LocoPhrase", guaranteed to brighten up anyone's writing....

Column 70 for PCW Plus issue 80, May 1993


It's an old question: where do writers get their ideas? The word processor sits before you with its forbiddingly blank screen, demanding words to process ... and they have to come from somewhere. Rather than get all metaphysical about the ultimate origins of words and ideas ("minutes after the Big Bang, the superheated semantic flux began to condense into the universe's first pronouns and indefinite articles"), let's survey the practicalities. What makes ideas come, and what stops the flow? Where can you reliably find one? In no particular order....

Schenectady. This is a standard answer given by American SF writers tired of being asked, "Gee, where do you get those crazy ideas of yours?" Saying with weary patience, "a mail order service in Schenectady," is supposed to shut up enquirers. In fact they usually come back with, "Hey, can you give me the address?".

Dreams. Some writers swear by dreams as a source of images, a lucky dip into the murky waters of the mind. First you need to be a vivid dreamer; then you train yourself to write down all interesting dreams the moment you wake. This applies especially to dreams so striking that you can't possibly forget them. (You will.) I have managed to dream entire story plots in my time, but they never seem quite convincing in the cold light of morning. Single nightmare images are often more durable, and I've used a few in horror stories. Bob Shaw's best-ever nightmare involved falling into a vat of tiny ball bearings and feeling them clicking inexorably against his back teeth on the way to his stomach. You'll find this incident in his SF novel One Million Tomorrows.

Noise level. Some writers function better to loud background music. Rather them than me.

Diet. Being too well-fed can have a deadening effect. Jerome K.Jerome of Three Men in a Boat fame noted that a sufficiency of hot muffins would always leave him "dull and soulless, like a beast of the field -- a brainless animal with listless eye". The moderately obscure SF writer John T. Phillifent (alias John Rackham) claimed that he could give himself creatively useful nightmares and hallucinations by avoiding vitamin B1. Cut out B1 sources like cereals, liver, bacon, eggs or yeast in any form, he suggested, and develop a useful deficiency disease! Please note: this is not recommended to anyone.

Self-delusion. The yawning computer screen, the aching sense of having to write something and write it right, can paralyse thought. Tell yourself you're only joking, playing at writing, and type a bit of free-association prose -- anything to break up that awful emptiness. Patrick Campbell, when desperate to get a comic essay started, said he used to sneak up on the keyboard and type: "'Well, what about Harold Wilson now?' he said." Once he'd doodled a few more lines and got some kind of conversation going, he could go back and substitute an opening to match the emerging punchline.

Drugs. Caffeine fuels most writers: quart after quart of coffee, pot after pot of tea. Alcohol is a mistake, despite those tales of Nordics who held drunken meetings so ideas could flow freely (followed by a sober and hungover meeting with power of veto, for caution's sake). The trouble is if you let yourself believe that a single small drink will relax you and release the creative flow, this slides rapidly into the twin delusions that (a) you always need that drink even when starting first thing in the morning, and (b) if one dose doesn't do the trick, a second will. I don't need to say anything about serious drugs, do I? You're not daft. Lord Dunsany wrote a fantasy about a "Hashish Man" who found the secret of the universe in a dope dream ... and he got a fan letter from famous loony occultist Aleister Crowley ("The Great Beast"), saying it was evident from the story that Dunsany had never tried hashish. He hadn't, but his imaginative version was better than all too much limp fiction written by later hippies who thought they could find ideas that way.

Serendipity. You can't organize luck, but you can give it every chance to turn up. Potter at random among your books, especially ones unrelated to what you're writing. (If you don't have a vast number of weirdly assorted books, are you serious about being a writer?) I was stuck trying to produce a "creepy" story and distracted myself by skimming through miscellaneous non-fiction: suddenly, in a popular maths book, I found a passage about the superstitious horror of Pythagoras when he first stumbled on the irrational numbers. One thought led to another, and the story was soon roaring ahead.

Real Life ... is a dangerous source. That incredibly funny thing so-and-so said at the office may capsize your writing thanks to the sheer weight of background and build-up needed before the point comes properly across. The same goes for the amusing incident at the supermarket checkout. Never let real life into fiction without first creatively overhauling it. This is also true of non-fiction; there are many different ways of telling any given truth (and the most stark and objective-seeming version may have a more slanted effect than some elegant reworking).

Plotto. Over the years, countless mechanical plot generators have been marketed: books, packs of cards, computer programs. None of these systems is going to write a story for you. Could it spark one off? This depends on whether you're receptive to such nudging. Some people write down all their ideas and concepts on bits of paper and shuffle them in hope of inspired juxtapositions. If feeling high-tech, you can do the same in a BASIC program of random choices (see RND and RANDOMIZE in the manual). Or buy Ansible Information's legendary [No plugging yourself this month, Langford -- Ed.]

All these ways of jogging creativity, all these little enemas for the Muse (in critic Nick Lowe's regrettable phrase), are mere preliminaries to the titanic struggle of naked brain against blank PCW screen. Sometimes I think it's the most absorbing game on earth. Other times I just want to scream. Yes, screaming is another popular technique employed by many authors....

Column 71 for PCW Plus 82, July 1993


This magazine has featured many a spine-tingling article about producing newsletters on your PCW ... but nothing as delirious as the one I recently edited. It appeared at the frantic pace of two issues a day, to be read by close on 1,000 people, and no luxuries like photocopiers or offset-litho machines were permitted. Insanity!

The setting was Helicon, the British national science fiction convention, held in St Helier, Jersey, over Easter 1993. (This was combined with the Europe-wide "Eurocon", leading to a rich, multi-national mix -- I don't suppose there had ever been as many as 52 Romanians in Jersey before.) A twice-daily newsletter is traditional at these events, and traditionally, each year, some gullible idiot is persuaded to edit the thing....

Reader, that gullible idiot was I.

Luckily I had a supporting cast of dozens, including the Technical Editor of the brand-new edition of The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction (plug, plug). I also managed to devise a suitable name for the newsletter, Heliograph, and to get some advance material on disc before the convention began -- notable SF birthdays, anniversaries, famous authors' reminiscences of past conventions, topical quiz questions, and so on.

For example, my twisted researches produced a "news" item on a tricentenary of vital interest to us all: "In 1693 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz of calculus fame invented the first mechanical calculator that could multiply and divide, thus heralding an exciting new era of arguments over the restaurant bill. ('Fie on you and your Engine, fir, I had only a fmall falad and a Pepfi.')" Keeping it entertaining, even with such arrant padding, was important: the funny bits were the sugar coating which persuaded convention members to gulp down all the worthy announcements and urgent notices of programme changes.

There was nothing particularly unusual about the medley of computers we used, but as each page rolled out of the printer the technology slipped several decades backwards in time. The low-budget printing system was a marvel of industrial archaeology.

First came the electronic stencil cutter. You wrap your master print-out around this long rotating drum, and next to it is wrapped a vinyl "electrostencil". There is great fiddling with knobs, adjustment of light-bulb brightness and nervous checking of meters. Then the BIG BUTTON is pressed and the whole contraption thrums into life, with a photocell tracking along the spinning print-out as though it were an old-time phonograph cylinder. A stylus needle moves in step along the electrostencil, reproducing the printed pattern of black and white by literally burning through the stencil with an electric spark. Clouds of ozone and carcinogenic fumes billow out....

I don't think the "newsroom" where I more or less lived for a week was a very healthy place. Whenever the electrostenciller was going, layers of black dust rapidly collected on the computer screens, stuck in place by static. And it took a quarter of an hour to cut each stencil.

Then, assuming that everything had worked, the stencil was mounted on the drum of an ancient Gestetner duplicator, and thick, gooey ink began to spurt in all directions. Older readers will know that the principle of the duplicator is incredibly simple: wherever there are holes in the stencil, ink seeps through to mark the paper which is being cranked through the machine at desperate speed. A certain wastage is caused when the ink comes through too fast, or not fast enough, or runs out, or glues the current sheet of paper mercilessly in place, or....

I think I might demand a boring old photocopier if I ever volunteer for this again. There also exists a wonderful (though huge and expensive) machine made by A.B.Dick which has an electrostencil cutter and duplicator bundled together in one big case: you shove in your master sheet and clean copies automatically spew forth by the thousand. But the secret advantage of Heliograph's Industrial Revolution set-up was one which every PCW owner will appreciate: it was dirt cheap.

And then, when the dud sheets had been shovelled aside and the ink had dried almost enough not to smudge, the new edition was triumphantly distributed to waiting SF fans, while the editor heaved a sigh and started trying to think of jokes for the edition after that.

If you ever produce a newsletter on the run like this, here are some bits of hard-won advice:

One person (the editor) must take responsibility for final "house style" editing and printing the master copy. With a motley crew of volunteers, there is no time to tell everyone how you want things done.

Rule 42, as we know from The Hunting of the Snark, is "No one shall speak to the Man at the Helm." No matter what chaos is raging all around, the editor must be left in peace to edit as the deadline creeps near.

Everyone finds it madly irritating to have people look over their shoulders commenting on typos. Try to arrange the desks or tables so it's difficult or impossible to "overlook" the monitors.

You need at least two computers, so that people who burst in with shock announcements can be told, "Don't ask us to memorize it: type it in." Bits of scrap paper for scribbling down odd notes will be spontaneously generated by the printing process.

Exiting the word processor and running a communications program on two computers is far too much hassle. Passing discs across the table is the sane way to move text to the master version.

All the following will be desperately needed if you didn't bring them: paper tissues, Blu-Tack, Tipp-Ex (this was the one I forgot, whereupon our borrowed laser developed a flaw on the drum and left ugly black marks in every margin), craft knife, aspirin, patience, more patience.

Be nice to your volunteers.

(Oh: for details of the 1994 British Easter SF convention, write to "Sou'Wester", 3 West Shrubbery, Redland, Bristol, BS6 6SZ.)

Finally ... one favourite news item from Heliograph was the information that SF authors Brian Aldiss, Harry Harrison and Anne McCaffrey had all joined the KGB. With capitalistic flair, some visiting Russians were making a very nice thing out of selling obsolete KGB credentials to Western SF fans. Think of that.

At this point the column was dropped: reduction in the amount of editorial (i.e. non-advertising) matter PCW Plus indicated the magazine's shakiness. But my column was reinstated in 1994....

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