30 Dec 2015

Greetings from the Black Forest

Guten tag alles volk!

If my previous post did not inform you, allow me to do so now: I am in Germany—in the Schwarzwald, aka the Black Forest—on what I suppose may be termed a holiday. Though in truth things have been chaotic.

But first: the good news. I have taken a number of photographs; some are indeed quite beautiful, although I do say so myself. I’ve uploaded a few here; if you wish to see more, click here.

Now: the second piece of good news, I suppose, is that I have written more on the Ark. Not too much, alas; for I have been busy. Nevertheless, books do not write themselves. (The writer’s old adage, that is.) Completing the Ark will doubtless take more time and effort, but, hey; the effort is worth it. I am quite excited, I daresay, with the numerous important plot points coming up.

As for my progress? I have written over 40K words, and I believe I am close to halfway through. That said, I suspect some revision will be in order—certain scenes are too verbose, or unnecessarily detailed, or unnecessary. Period.

As for the bad news? I’ve been involved in a car crash. Somehow, we managed to hit another car coming from the opposite direction. The front-left side of the car is mangled, with the tyre unusable. The repairs are costly.

I can’t say too much about this, unfortunately; the German law actually prohibits me from doing so (until the case is resolved legally). Nor am I particularly keen on discussing it. Although I escaped with a bruise, the incident brought to height my natural caution of cars. It’s dangerous business, is driving. Numerous people are killed every year; in fact, the single-largest cause of death for males aged 17–24 is drink-driving, here in the UK and much of the developed world.

I harbour a strong dislike of lax driving because of this. Drivers vastly underestimate the danger the car poses to them and others around them—a collision at 40mph with a tree, for example, is usually lethal. Drive at eighty miles an hour (the legal speed for most of the autobahns here) and things get four times worse.

What makes the situation unpleasant is that the insurance company, curse them, claims we only have basic cover in Europe (as opposed to comprehensive, in the UK). This means that if the ruling does not find us innocent, we will pay a €130 fee and the insurance won’t pay for repairs. We’re fortunate that my grandparents are willing to give us their car—they hardly ever use it, old as they are—and so we can avoid dishing out thousands for repairs.

But getting their car here could take a week or more; best enjoy the sunshine and hope for snow, eh?

Lighter Matters

Anyway: onto some light-hearted observations. Having spent more time with my new phone, I’ve noticed a few more imperfections. I dislike the positioning of the audio buttons next to the power key—it’s too hard to hit the right one, especially in the dark.

I’m also mildly annoyed that Sony doesn’t sell any models with more than 16GB of storage. With the number of uninstallable applications Sony has preloaded, along with big GPS maps weighing in the gigabytes, much of my internal memory is unavailable for storing music and video. I have managed to buy a micro SD card with a 32GB capacity; this is great, but I shouldn’t have to do this. I hate micro-SD cards. They’re too tiny. Too easy to lose; and fragile.

To top it all off, the phone sucks up about 7% of its battery over the ten hours or so that I’m in and out of bed. This is despite Sony claiming over a month of standby time. I suspect the phone’s active mobile connection, along with WiFi, are sucking up battery.

Still: these are minor flaws. For £250, you get an impressive phone. It also has some nicely thought out features, like a torch mode—useful if you’re without a flashlight.

Finishing Off

Much as been going on, as you can see. As always, I hope to make the best of it. Do take a look at my photos; and keep following for more on the Ark.

Until then...

23 Dec 2015

Musings on Alex’s Phone

Hail readers!

My poetry and latest Corbyn polemic aside, it is true that I’ve not written all that much here on the Magical Realm. In part, this is because of my continued efforts on the Ark—I have now completed chapter fifteen. But it is also because of a few other things I’ve been occupied with.

In particular, I’ve purchased and set up a new smartphone. This is fortunate, since my old smartphone was five years old; it could barely chug along with 384MB of RAM and a 533MHz single-core processor. My new phone—the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact—has a quad core processor clocked at 2500MHz, along with 2GB of RAM, a 20MP camera (it can shoot 4k!) and, most importantly: it has a fast GPS.

(Here are some additional photos of the new phone.)

This is important, because of another reason: I am once more leaving for Germany this winter. I was hoping to go skiing; but with the spring-like temperatures, I will have little choice but to enjoy the view (and take photos!) Since we’re going by car, a fast GPS—unlike my old smartphone’s painfully slow and somewhat unreliable version—is invaluable.

Anyway: I’ve decided to share a few of my thoughts on the smartphone market in 2015, along with a few photos I’ve dug up. Consider it a light-hearted break from my usual politics, philosophy and literature essays.

A Few Words About the Xperia Z3C

Before I go on about the ideal smartphone, and other philosophical musings, allow me to share a few thoughts on my new phone.

First off: the specsheet is impressive. The phone boasts dust and waterproofing (!); an excellent GPS; 4G, compatible with all major standards; a fast (for ARM) quad core processor; healthy RAM; an impressive camera; and a razor sharp display. With 319 pixels per square inch, the screen is literally as good as printed paper—for fonts, more so, since RGBA anti-aliasing means the horizontal font resolution is more or less tripled.

Tiny icons are rendered picture-perfect. The screen’s brightness is good; the colours are vivid. What more is there to say?

To top it all off: the Z3C only cost me £250 off Carphone Warehouse. It’s not bad for a smartphone of this calibre—not bad at all.

There are, however, some caveats. The first is to do with software. Sony has pre-installed a large number of applications; many are of questionable value. There’s AVG antivirus—surely an insult to Linux kernel security, to Google’s OS, and to user intelligence.

Then there’s Garmin’s Map Pilot. Don’t get me wrong—satnav apps are only too useful, and I’m sure Garmin’s app is decent. Trouble is, Google has already added GMaps to Android. And GMaps is a perfectly capable satnav app—it has voice-operation (I can attest that it works), voiced directions (ditto), and of course, it only takes about five seconds or so for it to find you.

(A note: the phone has its sat-nav antenna to the left. In right-handed operation, my fingers end up obscuring it; although this has no noticeable effect on reception.)

All of this, however, merely makes for some uninstalling when setting up. That is, except for the fact that some apps cannot be removed.

Sony has shipped a number of uninstallable apps with the Xperia, and most of them only fufill functions already extant in the OS; email, for example, but also music-players and a specialised video app are included. Some of these apps are genuinely useful—Sony’s email app should work with multiple accounts, including my Outlook account.

But some are useless for me. I don’t have a PlayStation; what use could I have for Sony’s app?

I could understand it if Sony merely included the apps as part of its UX experience, although—frankly—I would still rather an OS just fulfill its function of providing an interface, interacting with the hardware at the kernel level, and giving me a package manager. (Or ‘appstore,’ in the smartphone parlance.)

But for Sony to waste my internal memory space on apps I have no use for? Bad form, Sony. Bad form.

Other than that, Sony has also shipped a (non-default) UI for Android. Having experienced both it and Android’s offering, I prefer the latter. I find the default Android UI simpler and more intuitive—less getting in the way, more working. That said, Sony’s offering ain’t bad. I’ve found my way round it without having to type ‘man Android’ into a terminal. (Yes, I know Android doesn’t have a command-line interface by default. Yes, I know it doesn’t have a manual either. Shoot me, why don’t you?)

It did take me a while to figure out the overall workings (multitasking, home screens, etc.) but it was no great effort. Although, I do get a sense that Sony designed the interface for social media addicts: there are quite a few widgets that take most of the screen displaying Facebook/Twitter/etc.

Anyway; stay with me for more updates on my experiences with the Z3C. So far, it has proven fast (the CPU is overkill anyway), sharp, and good-looking—even if it is hindered by Sony’s dubious software ethos.

Oh, and one more thing: I know I can root the phone. That would allow me to uninstall Sony’s bloatware. However—I’m not dumb enough to risk bricking my phone and voiding my warranty. Sony’s bloatware will have to remain ignored.

Thoughts on Smartphones

With my mini-review out of the way, allow me to share a few thoughts on smartphones more generally.

Firstly, since it’s already mentioned—let’s address bloatware and user rights. Bloatware might save a few handsome pennies for the manufacturer, but it’s hard to see anyone willingly choosing to accept it in return for a few quid. Like the market for Windows PCs, manufacturers are desperate to increase profit margins; Google or Microsoft would find it difficult to prevent them doing so (since having the software available on a wide variety of hardware is dependent, in part, on giving the OEMs freedom); and consumers, for lack of choice, must go along.

‘Alex!’ you cry; ‘If you dislike bloatware so much, why buy the phone?’

As I’ve said: choice. First off, most Android phones are not actually stock Android—only the Nexus phones are officially vanilla Android, along with a few other phones orbitting the sidelines. Samsung, Sony and HTC are the big players; and they’re all shipping Touchwiz, bloatware, and modifications galore.

I could’ve have bought the Nexus 5—I almost did. The extra £55 wouldn’t have deterred me. What did deter me was the screen size; at 5.2", it was too large to operate one-handed. (The Xperia is small enough to allow this, but anything larger would be uncomfortable.)

The problem with bloatware from Google’s side is that there’s not a whole lot they can do about it. Android is open-source code; anyone can modify it, and sell phones with it, provided that they follow the GPL. Google could close-off parts of Android like the UI, various utilities, and the package-management. While Samsung et al. can code their own interfaces and utilities, package management would likely prove insourmountable. If they went it alone, they would have to find a way of making the many thousands of Android apps work on their implementation.

The problems with Google closing the Android project to open-source development are rather substantial, however. Firstly, any departure from the current .apk packaging would involve repackaging every Android app around—a huge effort for the developers. It could even lead to developers abandoning Android for other competing platforms.

The second problem is that open-source development benefits the Android project considerably. Closing the source would shut the door on that.

The third problem is that if Google changes the OS too much, it would cause even bigger problems for the apps. Conversely, if it changes too little, competing Samsung and Sony OS would still function with Android apps.

The only other possibility for Google would be to re-license the Android code under a more restrictive licence—I’m not an expert on this, but I suspect there would be some difficulties. Still, it would be easier than the above.

There is one more option: the EU could legislate to require that all phones sold within the EU be rooted, i.e. the consumer must have full access to the software. It might pose some difficulties with the EU’s plans to regulate radio devices to prevent them running at illegal frequences or power ratings; since, theoretically, the user could break the law (unlike in a locked-down phone). Then again: should users not be themselves responsible for breaking the law?

But until someone can give us a legislative or technical solution to this, we as consumers will have to put up with it. Maybe the development of Ubuntu for phones, or KDE’s Plasma Mobile will give us more choice in the future; alas, that is not the here and now.

Screen Size

Another issue that’s caught my attention is that of screen size. There’s been a trend recently towards larger and larger phones—up to 6". On one hand, I welcome any initiative to bring choice; and there are people who like, or have use for, large phones. Some people have large hands, and struggle to operate smaller phones. Other people use their phone heavily and want the extra display.

That said, I dislike this trend because a) it seems to be leading to a shortage of smaller phones (most phones are now around 5") and b) some of the features found on larger phones aren’t being included in their little brothers (my Z3C being the exception). I suspect this is one area where we’ll have to just vote with our wallets.

The question of ‘what is the ideal size for most people’ does have an answer though. I suspect any phone that’s too large for a normal-sized hand to operate is, indeed, too large—phones are, after all, meant to be portable. As Steve Jobs said: big phones are like Hummers. Pointless and garish.

Anyway: back to the Z3C. The 4.6" screen seems close to the limit of one-handed operability. Indeed, it takes some effort to reach something on the bottom of the screen if your thumb is at the top; any larger, and I’d be struggling. This is not helped by the fact that the off-button is to the side—I have to perform feats of dexterity to hold the phone and turn off the screen.

So: we can perhaps place a maximum realistic limit of 5" for the ideal screen.

On the other end of the spectrum, my old phone’s 3.2" screen is easy to use—but small, especially when it comes to browsing or gaming. For the sake of simplicity, we can probably say anything between 4" and 4.9" is ideal.

The Role of the Smartphone

Lastly, I’ll deal with a different question entirely: what are smartphones for?

They seem able to do almost anything. They can call; they can email; text; update Twitter and Facebook; they have capable web-browsers; they have GPS, and can play music.

All of these functions pretty much render dedicated music players obsolete (although if you buy Google’s 5.7" monster, you might want a small music player you can take on a jog). A similar story is to be found for satnavs.

And is this a good thing? Overall, yes. One of the boons of general purpose computing is that it can replace a large number of specialised devices otherwise requiring more money, space and hassle to operate.

Still: as the example above shows, there are compromises to be made. Large phones can do web-browsing better but fall foul to simpler tasks; small phones are less capable as an on-the-road replacement for a PC. Personally, I think one should leave serious computing to the desktop, or else (if portability is required) a laptop. Even without the technical advantages that computers have in software availability, processing power, and memory—it’s just a whole lot more practical.

No phone—even a large one—and no keyboard, no matter how finely tuned, can replace a physical keyboard for speed and accuracy. For a writer, that’s a deal-breaker. And if you need to create diagrams, presentations or edit photos; forget it.

One More Aside: Resolution

Before I conclude, allow me to mention resolution; or, more correctly, pixel density. My phone has a pixel density of 319ppi; it’s sharp as a surgical knife. There are phones with higher pixel density and bigger screens—some 5+" phones come with 2560x1440p screens, with pixel densities of over 400ppi.

Let me be honest: while any improvements in the screen’s appearance are debated and to an extent subjective, what’s not debated is the effect on battery life. Phones with enormous resolutions will likely just suck your battery (and your wallet) dry.

To Conclude

If I’ve rambled a bit, apologies. My new phone is proving quite a mouthful. Perchance I ought go back to writing on the Ark—my latest beta-reader (a reviewer of the Necromancer) might even have gotten back to me…

Until next time, have fun. And do choose your phone wisely.

22 Dec 2015

Corbyn, Corbyn, Corbyn

Hello readers!

Previously, I promised you more of my polemics in the realm of politics—especially those concerning Jeremy Corbyn, the most contentious political figure in recent British politics. Well, I can now say: here it is.

But before we get onto some juicy analysis (Little Red Book, anyone?) allow me to draw your attention to a few changes here in the Magical Realm. You will, no doubt, have noticed that there are now two sidebars; this is because of two reasons, aptly enough. The first is that the Featured Post gadget (left), while useful—I think—does nevertheless take up a fair bit of space. Because of this, I’ve widened the blog (you’ll now need at least a 1280x720 resolution) and cleaned things up a little.

The second reason? I’m testing Google’s AdSense programme. I do place emphasis on the testing element—I’ve not decided whether the potential generated revenue (i.e. cash) is worth the ads. If you feel strongly about it, send me an email (see the Contact Me page).

With that out of the way, let’s look at Jeremy Corbyn’s performance thus far as Leader of the Opposition…

The Little Red Book

Technically, since it was Corbyn’s Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, who was responsible for this little incident—I may be unfair in judging Corbyn. On the other hand: he did select him to be his right-hand man (much to the protest of most of the PLP) and thus may be attributed a degree of responsibility.

Anyhow—McDonnell withdrew a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book, and quoted a passage:

We must learn to do economic work from all who know how, no matter who they are, we must esteem them as teachers, learning from them respectfully and conscientiously, but we must not pretend to know what we do not know.

If you’re wondering why the passage is significant (and it is) it’s because McDonnell is making a point: Osbourne’s plans to have the Chinese build the Hinkley nuclear power station is not only an act of remarkable hypocrisy (since the Chinese regime is still quite fond of Mao; Osbourne’s ideological nemesis) but also shows that Osbourne thinks like Mao. Who cares if the Chinese have a record of gross human rights abuses? Who cares if they, for example, force women to have abortions? They can teach us something; we must esteem them as teachers.

Unfortunately, McDonnell’s little episode provoked laughter among the Tory benches, along with the ire of the media. Numerous journalists called him a Communist, or a supporter of Mao’s brutal regime; others called him merely incompetent.

Thankfully, according to my (admiteddly anecdotal) experience, this incident has not progressed beyond the media bubble.

Now: was Corbyn or McDonnell wrong to engage in this theatrical exercise? I should think so. Both of them ought have known how the media were likely to react; further, there were numerous more important policy points on which to excoriate Osbourne (like his U-turn on tax credits). Ultimately, I think this shows a certain degree of political miscalculation at the least.

But does this McDonnell a communist? Nah.

(Video below.)

To Bow or not to Bow

Another error the media (particularly the Telegraph et al.) were keen to pick up on was, unsurprisingly, whether or not Corbyn had bowed at the Remembrance Cenotaph along with the Queen. This is of course pertinent to our dear Comrade for two reasons: firstly, he doesn’t much like the Queen; secondly, he doesn’t much like war or—by extension—people who support and fight in wars.

When it turned out that Corbyn did bow (albeit with less flourish than the commentariat would have liked) after a number of pieces claimed he didn’t, well—I’m just glad Corbyn knew to leave this particular battle alone.

‘Corbyn Snubs Queen’

Another popular meme for the rightwing press was whether or not Corbyn would kiss the Queen’s hand, or bow, or do any of the other associated Royal pleasantries.

This issue is somewhat problematic for Corbyn—or indeed anyone who would like to see the monarchy abolished. On the one hand, actually kissing the Queen’s hand might be seen as an act of hypocrisy; on the other, it may be viewed as impolite. (Stuck between a media rock and a principled hard place, in other words.)

Ultimately, I think the best any anti-Monarchist should do here is indeed to kiss her hand, and bow, but also to be frank—in a polite way—about one’s thoughts on the monarch.

(Whether or not Britain should keep its monarch is a different debate. I’m for—we need the tourist money—but let’s not derail the train here.)

Seumas Milne et al.

Corbyn has also recently hired an (ex) Guardian journalist—and apologist for Islamic terrorism—as his chief of media communications. Is this a very good idea? On the one hand: Milne does know the media. And he’s very good at apologising. On the other... Milne may tar Corbyn’s image on the subject even more than it already is tarred.

If Corbyn picks sensible arguments for his views on the Middle East—like the possibility of civilian casulaties, the cost of military intervention, the successes of intervention—he might be able to convince people, or at least skeptics would not be overly antagonised.

If, however, he claims that ISIS and other similar dirtbags were innocent Islamic lambs turned into psycopaths by the evils of Western imperialism, he will find the electorate very unforgiving. No one, after all, wants a man who hates his own country being the Prime Minister!

But is he Sexist?

Another furore that occurred in the media was on Corbyn’s appointments to the Shadow Cabinet. In particular, it was said that dear Jeremy did not appoint very many women—even though his is the first Shadow Cabinet in Labour history with an equal ratio of men to women.

The media then decided to seize on something else—the so-called High Offices of State. The Chancellor, Home Secretary and First Secretary are considered roles of crucial importance; McDonnell and Burnham have been appointed to the former two. Oddly, it seems that for Corbyn to appease the feministas, he must actually appoint more women than men!

But frankly, the whole thing is ridiculous. Most of the PLP is composed of men. Likewise, 60% of the membership is made up of men (very close to the PLP). The feminists, it seems, would rather Corbyn wilfully discriminate against men in order to fulfill pointless symbolism—never mind consider things like, oh I don’t know, competence.

Speaking of competence: McDonnell’s appointment was under particular fire, as he became S. Chancellor instead of our dear Angela Eagle. The feministas were quite displeased about this. Never mind that Eagle does not—as any sensible economist can see—possess a particularly strong appreciation of the economy. Just read this:

The Liberal Democrat motion has been much commented on, possibly because it reads like the storyboard for “Apocalypse Now”, or perhaps even “Bleak House”. According to the motion, we are facing an “extreme bubble in the housing market” and the “risk of recession”, and we must “act to prevent mass home repossessions.”

This, mind you, was in 2008—literally months before the financial crisis!

This is not necessarily to say that McDonnell is himself especially competent. But if the feministas do want us to appoint a woman to the S. Chancellorship, could they at least direct to us to a) someone who is competent and b) someone who wants to serve in Corbyn’s Cabinet?

The Media Dealings in a Nutshell

Let’s boil down all this media furore to a few things. Corbyn threatens the establishment; the establisment does its best to discredit him. Inevitably, the likes of the Torygraph Telegraph and the Mail will excoriate him, sling mud—or attack him under covert pretences, like the above.

Corbyn, for his part, can’t really do much. He certainly can’t appease the media—it’ll be as successful as appeasing the terrorists. What he can do? He can avoid giving them ammunition. If this means being polite to the Queen, or not appointing dubious characters to his staff (Milne anyone?) or committees (cough Livingstone cough)—so be it.

Still: if there’s one thing that’s clear from all this, it’s that our press is pretty corrupt.

What About... Policy?

Strangely, I’ve heard little from Team Corbyn on policy. The only noteworthy issue that’s sprung up is, of course, Syria. Corbyn’s views on that have been pretty clear. Just as clear was Hilary Benn’s speech—more on that in a second.

I’ve decided not to go into the Syrian issue too much right now; the matter is so complicated that no succinct prose can really be made for it.

I’ll say a few words though. Hilary’s speech silenced the Tories and gave him praise in the media (even in the Telegraph!); this is in part because of the message, but also for different causes entirely. On the issue of Syria, there are plenty of dissenting voices right of the political spectrum—Peter Oborne being one such.

This means that there’s no reason why a speech against the bombings should not be well viewed upon by the media as a whole. So why did Benn’s speech garner applause, while Corbyn received no kind words?

Well, it boils down to a few things:

  1. Delivery. Sorry Corbyn, but as I’ve said previously—you’ve got some good ideas, but you’re not the right man to sell them. Benn’s speech was was eloquent, convincing and aesthetic; you sound clumsy by comparison.
  2. Rhetoric and emotion. Benn’s speech is emotive; it strikes at the heart of why we want to bomb IS. And that’s because IS are wholly and utterly despicable. Hard logic and argument is admirable and necessary in government, but then—so too is rhetoric.
  3. Image. Benn is viewed as moderate, pragmatic and agreeable; Corbyn is seen as away with the fairies by many, and a terrorist sympathiser by quite a few.

(Video below.)

Wrapping Up

At the end of the day, being Leader of the Opposition is tough work. Being a Leader that has most of the press against him (purely because they feel threatened), much of the party in revolt (because some of them never should’ve become Labour MPs—Danczuk?), and no easy task in winning is... well—tougher.

Corbyn has made some blunders. Livingstone should never have been appointed; and there are more pleasant folks than Milne to act as your media man. And some things were miscalculated—like McDonnell’s Little Red Book.

Still: all is not bad. Corbyn has proven calm and well spoken on the Andrew Marr show, for example; his PMQs go well, even if he doesn’t always beat Cameron at the rhetoric game. Things could be worse.

Well—that’s all for now, folks. Stay with me for more. The stars do burn bright, here in the Magical Realm

18 Dec 2015

Seeking Love—a Poem

Previously, I wrote on all of my goings on thus far—including my progress on the Ark, and more thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn. I was planning on writing, today, about that contentious political figure; however, I have decided to postpone this momentarily for something else: a poem.

I wrote Seeking Love (as it is now named) as part of my efforts in the Ark. I thought it quite fitting, you see—’tis only too close to my protagonists’ hearts. Nevertheless, its length compels me to at least consider shortening it, or including only an extract in the actual novel.

As for the poem itself: firstly, please do read it.

Now, I’ll not beat around the bush here. This poem is a little unusual, like some of my works are. For one, it is both a romantic poem and a poem set in Norse mythology; it’s a rare combination. Even so, reading it one may discern why I ended up doing it the way I did:

And so they set sail.
Many lands, they sought;
Great storms, wrought of bright thunder and fury
Did not keep them from Nordrland.

There, they sought women.
Tall, and strong, and blonde; beautiful, perhaps
To some; but not to them.
And so they called good cheer, and left.

Throughout the poem we see this; I am talking about… a peculiar phantasmagoria—the ‘great storms, wrought of bright thunder and fury’, for example, are evocative of the atmosphere that characterises the Norse tales.

There’s also a certain aptness when you combine such writing with:

‘But,’ says Jörg, ‘at least we’ve found—
‘A kinship; a warm strength to draw on
‘A desire met and quenched;
‘A soft word spoken in the night.’

Besides these literary technicalities, there’s the obvious: Seeking Love is not only a poem about love, but about two men. In the likely event that you have noticed the fact that they seek women, but end up together, allow me to allay any speculation: no, the poem is not making any assertions about sexuality. That’s not the point.

The point is rather more simple: it’s about looking long, and hard, for that which can never be sought. When, really, you should be looking rather closer to home...

16 Dec 2015


Hail readers!

A number of changes have occurred in the blog since I last wrote on matters of philosophy. For one, there’s a new gadget on the side—it’s called ‘Featured Posts’ and it contains my most popular and/or well-regarded pieces written recently. The second addition is one of a new page: it’s called ‘Services’ and indeed, it concerns the paid services I have begun to offer.

I shan’t speak too much on this, except to say that—for a reasonable price—I will format and typeset any Word or LibreOffice document to either an eBook (available formats include EPUB, AZW3 and MOBI), a print-ready PDF, or both. If you’re interested, take a look.

You may be wondering why I’m doing this. Won’t it take up my time, you wonder? Well, fear not: I shan’t be taking too many projects on at once. And, to be frank, I do wish to make my own money.

Anyway: let’s leave such matters aside. Instead, we’ll focus on a few of my musings.

The Ark

Alas, I have not written a great deal more on the Ark since I last updated you. Currently, I am on Chapter Fourteen; I have a number of important plot elements coming up, and I feel a little… gridlocked. Such is the nature of writing.

Fortunately, I have just entered the winter holidays! This will, as you can imagine, give me a significant amount of time with which to play with—and first on the agenda is more work on the Ark. I shall be writing more of my experiences in creating it; and—there may be a sneak peek of some of the chapters.

On top of this, I am looking for some more beta-readers. Although one beta-reader—the mysterious Peter—has been quite helpful, there is nevertheless strength in numbers. There’s also good sense in having multiple opinions. So: if you do want to beta-read, email me at alexstargazerwriterextraordinaire AT outlook DOT com.

On a more tangential note, here’s a link to one of the songs I’ve found evocative of the Ark: Sunrise.


Recently, I have upgraded my hardware through the installation of an SSD. On top of this, I have installed Ubuntu—the OS I recommend for all things writer-related. This has not been without difficulty, however. I struggled with a third-party driver for my USB wifi dongle; eventually, I figured to connect an ethernet cable from my wireless extender to my PC.

This solved most of my problems. The nVidia driver for my graphics card is the proprietary blob, and works well. I’ve even taken a liking to a particular game: SuperTuxKart. It is essentially a Linux-flavoured Mariokart. It’s rather good fun; but it’s also surprisingly taxing on my graphics card. Perhaps another upgrade is in order.

Besides that, I am trying to figure out which desktop environment works best for me. Unity, the default, is actually quite alright; it is aesthetically pleasing, reasonably customisable, and has some nice features like the Heads-Up Display. Nonetheless, I am not content. I don’t like its implementation of virtual workspaces, which are meant to aid multitasking when one has a large number of applications running.

I find Unity’s version problematic because it does not actually remove applications from the launcher (left), which therefore defeats the primary function of virtual workspaces.

I have tried Cinnamon, a more traditional interface, but it experiences a strange graphical bug that results in blurriness outside the mouse. Thus, I am now going to try Gnome.

Anyway: enough about this.


Since my usual politics piece was ditched in favour of a philosophy piece (on the basis of reader feedback), I’ve decided to write a little bit more on—you guessed it—Jeremy Corbyn. This will likely be my next post. I will address a few issues, chief among them: his ‘electability’ and analysis on various miss-steps and successes; his relationship with the media; and his chances of winning 2020.

Well, that about sums things up. I’ll be back soon—I do have a holiday...

9 Dec 2015

An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Hail readers!

Previously, I posed a questionnaire regarding the topic of my next essay. My readers’ feedback (your feedback, I should say) has led me to write on the matter above. It will be the first time I address formal philosophical questions—unlike the more literary-concerned essays of past.

In any case: philosophy is a complex and contended field. To truly do justice to even the subfield of meta-ethics (the topic of this essay) would, in truth, require writing a substantial book; and so I shall instead write more succinctly, and without undue preamble and logorrhoea.

Now: let’s get started.

What is Meta-Ethics?

Meta-ethics is a branch of moral philosophy that can be thought of as ‘the underlying assumptions behind moral action and theory’. Meta-ethics is not concerned with how to apply morality (like, say, Utilitarianism) but on what morality actually is.

In Meta-Ethics, there exists a divide. On one side, there are the Realists; these claim that morality is objective, and relates in some way to what may be termed the real world. For the Realist schools of thought, morality is non-relative and can, in some way, be obtained through reason.

On the other side, there are the Non-Realists. For them, morality is inherently subjective; or, in the case of Mackie, morality is a statement about the world that is false.

All Realists are known as ‘cognitivists’—they believe moral language concerns objective reality. (Additionally, Cognitivism states that cognitivist statements are subject to the bivaliance principle, i.e. they are either true or false.) Most Non-Realists are known as non-cognitivists; to them, moral propositions don’t even concern reality.

Mackie—a moral philosopher that is usually better known for his work on atheist philosophy—is unusual in that he believes moral statements are statements regarding reality, but that the truth value of all such statements is zero (false).

Anyway: with the terminology out of the way, let’s get onto the main meta-ethical theories.


This theory dates all the way back to Aristotle and Plato. Naturalism of all forms can be summed up in one sentence: ‘That which brings happiness, is that which is good.’

Naturalism, like the name suggests, is a theory that tries to bring the concept of morality to one observable and testable in the natural world. Naturalism doesn’t concern itself with metaphysical ideas of morality—like most branches of Intuitionism and theist morality. To a Naturalist, morality is just like anything else in the world; it doesn’t have a special status.

A lot of people like Naturalism for this reason. It makes morality seem… scientific. It’s clear. It’s intuitive. And—it’s objective. Stoning people to death is just as wrong in x country as it is in y country.

Now: there are in fact a few different variations of Naturalism. The Aristotelian version is very concerned with the idea of ‘flourishing,’ or eudemonia. That which is moral, they claim, is that which makes humans smarter, or stronger, or wiser.

Aristotelian Naturalism isn’t terribly different from later forms meta-ethically; but more tangentially, it does employ a different form of applying morality. This theory uses virtue ethics—rather than just being happy, it also states that a good man must not be slothful, or lazy; that he may drink, or be proud, or angry—in moderation.

However, this theory is a little fixated on the whole idea of purpose. ‘Rain is good,’ they say, ‘for it is the rain’s purpose to water plants.’

To which later thinkers reply: ‘Is it the purpose of rain to water plants, or do plants grow where there is rain?’

For this and other reasons, there’s also the Benthamian and Millsean Naturalist theories. They place the onus purely on happiness, without any mention to purpose or virtues.


If Naturalism is the most intuitive or easily understood Realist theory, then Emotivism is its counterpart on the opposite spectrum. As the name suggests, Emotivism is all about emotion. To sum it up in a sentence: ‘That which is moral, is that which people feel is moral.’ (The theory was coined the ‘boo-hurrah’ theory by its opponents for this claim.)

Emotivism is non-cognitivist, non-realist, and relative. It’s worth knowing that one of the original formulations by Ayer is actually no longer taken seriously: Ayer believed that statements like ‘Abortion is wrong,’ just means ‘I don’t like abortion.’ RM Hare points out that the statement should really translate to: ‘I don’t like abortion, and neither should you.’


Prescriptivism is similar to Emotivism. It posits moral statements as non-cognitivist, but with one useful difference: Prescriptivists understand that moral statements also involve action, i.e. 'I don’t like abortion, and you shouldn’t do it.

Because of this, Prescriptivism allows for a prescribed morality as set out through law and democracy. It’s still relative, though—the theory does insist that individual laws should be non-hypocritical and clear, but different nations can have different laws.

There is also a variation of Prescriptivism that states that moral codes should attempt to reach a state of general agreement and confluence.

Most non-cognitivists are Prescriptivists for reasons I’ll expand on soon.


Our final Realist theory is perhaps less intuitive than Naturalism (ironically) but has a great deal of interesting things to say.

The Intuitionist Maxim is that morality is a fundamental, irreducible intuition that cannot be extrapolated on any further. It’s like yellow. How do you describe yellow? You can’t; it’s just yellow. The same goes for moral intuitions. Why is murder wrong? Why shouldn’t we cause suffering? These questions are just intuitively grasped.

Intuitionists fall into two branches when asked what and how exactly these intuitions exist. One school of thought posits an Intuition to be something inalienable and basic; all we know is that we have it. Typically, these thinkers also go on to say: ‘We obtain them through a sixth sense—our moral intuition.’ (Some even go as far as to say that this sixth sense is God-given, but it is not necessary to accept this.)

A second school of thought believes moral intuitions to be more like math. Why does 2 + 2 = 4? It just follows logically. Same for ‘I should not harm others,’ or ‘I should not lie’.

What’s important to understand here is that these intuitions are not feelings, even less than yellow is not just a feeling (it’s caused by light waves of a certain wavelength.) Intuitions are something we grasp in reality; it’s just that we can’t explain them linguistically.

Error Theory

Finally, there’s Mackie’s Error Theory. Essentially, Mackie believes that moral propositions implicitly concern the real world; they’re normative statements (‘You must not murder’) that are only made because they relate to some feature of reality.

However, to Mackie, all moral statements are false. Mackie also believes that moral ideas are simply the result of cultural, anthropological and biological imperatives—e.g. the reason we think murder wrong is because we need to avoid it in order to stay alive; we think polygamy or cheating wrong because it brings us some advantage in our society to avoid doing it.

So, Alex: What Should We Believe?

This is a difficult question; nevertheless, I will endeavour to provide you with some answers.

I will discount Emotivism and Naturalism quite readily. In the case of the former, even without debating the ‘emotive’ nature of morality at all, there’s the obvious problem—if x wants an abortion and y doesn’t think it right, a conflict ensues. Thus, we must at least be Prescriptivists if we are to be Non-Realists.

Naturalism suffers from a subtle but important issue: the distinction between hummingbirds like sugar to it is moral to give hummingbirds sugar. The former, as Mackie points out, is a descriptive proposition; it just says ‘x is y’ (or the cat is black). It is empirically verifiable and observable.

But the second is something else entirely; it is a normative proposition: hummingbirds should eat sugar, or you should not murder. It involves… a concept of right and wrong that is distinct from any simple empirical observation. It’s just… something else. (This criticism is known as the is-ought criticism; it was originally formulated by Hume, though Mackie’s formulation is, I think, clearer.)

The other theories are more difficult to argue.

The main problem with Prescriptivism, I think, is that it promises to avoid hypocrisy when by itself it seems hypocritical. If we accept that all these moral codes are just arbitrary human constructs, bearing no relation to reality, how can we ‘prescribe’ morality? We know full well it has nothing to do with reality; that it has no objective properties. For this reason, Prescriptivism just seems… deeply intellectually disatissfying.

There’s also a certain conflict that Prescriptivism has with out intuitions. When we say ‘murder is wrong,’ do we really mean to say ‘I think we shouldn’t murder’? Or do we actually mean ‘Murder is wrong; that’s why we shouldn’t do it’?

For this, I believe that moral theories need to be cognitivist. This now gives us two choices: Error Theory, or Intuitionism?

I firstly take issue with Error Theory on a purely empirical basis. Mackie believes morality just stems from biological or anthropological imperatives; but if so, we would expect to see certain behaviours performed by humans. Babies with birth defects should be euthanised, or if possible, aborted. Invalids should be done away with.

And yet, societies by and large don’t do this! Why do we keep babies with birth defects alive—surely they are not a burden on society, likely incapable of becoming productive citizens? Likewise, invalids.

A common-sense response to this might be: ‘Well, we don’t want to murder our babies or our disabled people; we like them. We pity them. We would feel terrible if we had to do away with them.’

Now, a non-cognitivist would happily accept this—we don’t do it, because it feels wrong. But a question, I feel, remains unanswered. Why do we feel like this? Maybe, you might think, we’re sentient beings who feel emotively attached to other humans. But then… why do parents take care of babies that make their life a living hell? Why do we take care of old people, even if we resent them?

In any case: Mackie’s Error Theory is clearly problematic when it claims our moral intuitions just originate from biology.

The Hard Question of Morality

The above, you may notice, largely concerns itself with how humans generally behave. But we haven’t dealt so much with the concept of morality as somethign extant in reality—like planets or plants.

Mackie has some interesting arguments for why moral statements are false.

  1. The apparent relativism of human morality. In Africa, polygamy is permitted; but not in the UK. In Saudi Arabia, adulterers can be stoned. And there are numerous examples of societies that did kill deformed babies—like Sparta.
  2. Moral concepts are problematic epistemologically and ontologically.
    1. Epistemologically: how do we know these moral concepts? Where do they come from? They are not empirically verifiable.
    2. Ontologically: morality involves normative propositions. No other form of knowledge does; the cat is black; grass is green—all descriptive. This renders moral propositions distinctly… queer.

The former argument is interesting. I have some counter-arguments.

Mackie believes that if societies have different moral codes, it then follows that morality cannot be universal. However: we do in fact observe that there is a lot of agreement among cultures. Gratuitous murder is wrong everywhere, for example. Nearly all societies take care of their old; nearly all find rape despicable.

In instances where there is discord, it is not so much that the moral intuitions that are contended, but that certain false suppositions are made or very unique circumstances change the playing field. The Nazis could murder Jews because they a) believed Jews had done terrible things to Germany, and thus were justified in self-defence; and b) because Jews were supposedly not human. Both assertions are false.

Sparta murdered deformed babies, as indeed did other cultures, because they inhabited an incredibly harsh world. If you live in the Plains or deep in the Arctic, a deformity is not only a sure death sentence but also a burden to your family. The intuition to not murder, we may say, is in fact derived from the fundamental intuition: to minimise suffering and bring happiness.

The second question is… difficult.

At the end of the day, it boils down to: what may exist? I’m fine to accept that intuitions are not empirically verifiable—that it is a knowledge brought from an inner sense—as well as to say that, yes, they are queer. Mackie assumes that everything in the universe is physical and empirically observable; but this is a belief, not an argument. The universe is mainly made up of matter, and physical laws, and falls into the purlieu of scientific method. But is this to say that everything must be so?

An interesting argument that some Intuitionists make is that moral intuitions are in fact logical, like math. However, this is not particularly convincing. For as Hume points out: there’s nothing illogical about preferring to let a country be destroyed in order to avoid pricking my little finger. There’s no contradiction. Kantian-type metaethics, like Naturalism, attempts to put a veneer over morality. It aims to quantify morality like a Rationalist would, or—in the case of Naturalism—like an Empiricist would.

But morality isn’t like that. It’s not something that can be observed like blue skies, or thought of like 2 + 2 = 4. To dress it with the clothes of physicality is to be intellectually dishonest.


I hope my essay has been enlightening; do tell if you found it dense or ambiguous. I also hope that I have convinced you to be an Intuitionist; or, barring that, I hope to have made you ask questions.

Next up, I’ll be writing on the Ark and on poetry. Until then: may the stars be with you. And please—don’t be a nihilistic bastard.


If some of the terms confused you, read this.

Rationalism: a theory that states knowledge to originate from a series of logical axioms obtainable through the faculties of reasoning.

Empiricism: a theory that states all knowledge to originate empirically, i.e. through the senses.

Epistemology: The study of knowledge.

Ontology: The study of being/reality.

5 Dec 2015

To Philosophise, or not to Philosophise; and Other Difficult Matters

Hail readers!

Previously, I spoke on matters of writing—on plot, detail, and other such questions as pertain to a writer. I did, however, mention one thing: I have upgraded my PC. Thus, today I will briefly explain this—what it will mean and so on—along with more general updates on my goings-on. This will be relatively brief, but informative. Without further ado...

Alex! What Have You Been Doing?

I have recently purchased what is known as a ‘Solid State Drive,’ or SSD as the acronym goes. For the non-technical among you, think of it like this: your computer stores data permanently on what is called a ‘drive’. It keeps your computer’s software, along with your photos, documents, etc. stored there.

When the computer boots, it has to load the software from drive and onto the RAM (random-access memory). It does this for a very simple reason: drives are slow. Copying, or indeed writing, data to a drive is much slower than doing so to RAM. Many software functions—like those you might find in a graphics editor like GIMP or Photoshop—do a lot of processing to this data; they would be unusable otherwise.

Loading from drive to RAM is why your computer might take half a minute to boot, or three seconds to load a web-browser.

And why does the computer not just keep all the data on RAM, you ask? The reasons are twofold. Firstly, RAM is ‘volatile’—you need to keep it powered on, or else all the data that’s on it will get wiped. This is obviously a bit of a concern if your computer stores e.g. a priceless manuscript.

RAM is also much more expensive on a per-GB basis. 8GB of RAM might cost around £30–£40; for that, you can buy a 500GB hard drive.

Anyway: what all this means is that the drive is the slowest part in your computer. Most common functions are bottlenecked by your drive. An SSD, then, is useful because it is much faster than a standard hard-disk drive (HDD).

This means that the computer boots in 10s instead of thirty, that a browser can be opened in one second instead of four, and so on. SSDs also have a number of additional advantages over HDDs which I won’t go into here.

The bottom line is: with this upgrade, I can spend more time writing and less time waiting on the computer.


Alas, my upgrade did not go quite smoothly. I spent two hours getting the SSD into a finnicky drive bay inside my computer case; I spent a number of hours, afterwards, installing Ubuntu to it. Installing Ubuntu took about fifteen minutes; however, a problem with my wifi driver for the USB dongle I use ended up requiring lots of troubleshooting...

Above: this little dongle didn’t play nice with Ubuntu. It had to go.

I ended up connecting the PC to my wifi extender, via ethernet. The extender acts like a router, and the PC gains access to the Internet through the (well-supported) ethernet cable. It’s not the most elegant method, perhaps, but it does the trick.

To cut a long story short: I am now up and running.

The Ark

As for the Ark, I have written chapter thirteen and have begun chapter fourteen. My technical difficulties prevented me from writing as much as I’d like to have done; but with such technical conundrums a-sorted, computer-time should now be better spent.

I have also received a substantial amount of feedback on everything so far from multiple sources. Chief among these is a beta-reader, whom I shall name simply as Peter, who has taken pains to read (almost) everything written thus far. He has been both praising—‘you have talent,’ ‘the characters are well-painted,’ ‘the descriptions of the architecture imaginative’—and damning (my overuse of certain words being a particular issue).

As you may also have been able to guess from this and other posts before it, I have also written a sex scene as part of the Ark. There I obtained feedback both from a romance writer (and friend) as well as a colleague. Suffice to say they were pleased, though I have decided on one or two changes.

Other than this, my work continues.


I have said relatively little on this, though it occupies a large share of my time. Previously, I was occupied by physics coursework. This week, I have the December tests. They are not too difficult, nor terribly important, but they are a good time to draw up some useful revision notes. My philosophy notes so far total over twenty pages, all in all.

Future Essays

You are probably wishing for fewer words on writing, and more words on—for example—my perenially favourite political economy writings.

Alas, I have not found any more issues I feel both keen and qualified to write on; instead, I shall write on a topic hitherto only alluded to: philosophy.

There are two specific topics I’m considering to cover. The first is moral philosophy. This will involve, firstly, some discussion on meta-ethics—questions such as ‘What is good?’ and ‘Are moral propositions subject to the principle of bivaliance?’ will be addressed. Thereafter, I will address normative, ethics—i.e. how to apply these principles to the real world, in general.

Alternately, I can address questions of logic. I could write a primer on the principles of logic, the fallacies, and ask you to consider some interesting examples.

To answer the above, take a look at this questionnaire


The life of a writer is a busy thing; the life of both a student and a writer can be hectic. Even so, there is plenty to come. Stick around. You might learn something.

2 Dec 2015

On Plot

Hail readers!

To continue from my previous post on the length of a story, I shall now write—relatively briefly, alas—on another troublesome matter: plot.

And why is plot so troublesome, you wonder? Well; the answer to that lies in its complexity. Some tales have relatively straightforward narratives—romance novels being one such. Other tales are more complex; thrillers, for example, depend on complex fast-moving plotlines to be effective. Being primarily concerned with fantasy and Sci-Fi writing, one might think plot would not be quite so significant as, say, worldbuilding. One would be wrong.

Plot in Fantasy & Sci-Fi

Any tale relies on plot of some form. Whether it’d be a boy and a girl and how they come to be in love; whether it be about an apprentice mage, and how she came to war with a necromancer (…); or whether, indeed, it is a mix of how two boys came to be love, and how the world around them begins to crumble. (In case you’re wondering: the Ark is what you want to be looking at for that.)

In the case of the latter two, plot has proven both crucial and difficult. Crucial, because plot imparts to a tale its strength; it gives it tension, and drives a reader’s curiosity. In the Necromancer, plot was what kept the readers on the edge of their seats:

I was constantly on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen next and who it would happen to.

—Margaux Danielle, a kind reviewer.

But plot is also difficult. Here’s why.

Why is Plot Hard?

As I’ve already alluded, plot is highly complex. It is best understood with a metaphor. Consider the act of putting a puzzle together; one effectively starts with several separate pieces of puzzle, whose purpose is perhaps clear individually but less so in the aggregate. Now consider trying to put the puzzle together when certain pieces are liable to change, or indeed—when you don’t yet have certain pieces.

Now you may understand the nature of the problem. When one plots, one effectively brings together ideas and scenes: one may, for example, have the piece of Linaera (chief protagonist) meeting with the necromancer. But how, one wonders, did she get there? One can have the pieces of cities wrapped in cold winter, or of strange magics worked under the canopy of a distant forest; and yet numerous details remain unresolved.

What makes plot more difficult still is the aspect of pacing, and fluidity. Haphazardly moving from scene to scene does no good. It must be that the tale progresses naturally to its intent.

Furthermore, some plot elements work best when correctly timed. If one’s protagonists are to be attacked by mutant creatures, perhaps the moment when they do so can be subtly foreshadowed. And maybe if Linaera is to fight monsters wrought of dark magic, then may the reader also be in doubt, initially, as to whether she has perished.

But Alex! How do you Write Plot?

As of present, I am of the belief that plot is a process both planned and spontaneous. I begin by outlining the key events that are to occur in a tale; these will be the directions by which the tale is built on, but even so they are flexible.

Secondly, I plan individual chapters and scenes. But this is not a mere synopsis of everything that is to occur; rather, it more of an outline, and a tool by which to organise a great many thoughts.

Even with planning, my chapters never quite turn out the way I expect them to. That’s part of the charm. If I do not quite know what direction the tale is to take, how can the reader? Indeed, not knowing is what gives my tales that sense of pent-up excitement, of ‘wondering what would happen next and who it would happen to.’

But nor is this to say that one can just waltz up to writing a book. I initially took such an approach in the Necromancer, and it was a mistake I never quite got over. Planning is necessary to clarify and to give light to.

To Conclude

Thus far I have written a great deal on the matter of writing. I hope my musings have been both fascinating and entertaining; regardless, I shall next be writing on very different matters. I may write on Syria and the situation there. Or, perhaps I shall be bold and address an entirely novel topic: moral philosophy.

But until then, may the stars be with you. Also, do await my updates with regards to the Ark’s progress—including notes on chapter thirteen, and news of an upgrade I am making to my computer. That will allow me to spend less time waiting on the computer and more time writing.

Anyway: enough of that. Begone!