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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (magica ars)

In Which Alan Geeks

"It's black," I said to Robin, "and it's very shiny."

"Yes," she said, "but just what are you going to use it for?"

"It's shiny!" I explained.

She gave me a long suffering sigh which I put carefully away in the pool room with the rest of my treasures for later gloating over. "I suppose you'd better buy it then," she said.

And so a new computer entered my life. For the technically inclined among you, it's an Asus Eee 1000HE Netbook. In practical terms, that means that it's black and shiny, and about half the size of a laptop, but with just as much oomph. Perhaps it should be called a kneetop, or possibly a toetop. Small is beautiful.

There was a time when machines like these came pre-installed with Linux. Unfortunately that doesn't seem to happen any more. The ones I found for sale only came with Windows XP. I suspect it's a marketing thing. Linux is scary; and so it's easier to sell Windows to the punters because it's more familiar to them. Everybody hates change.

Since Windows was already installed, and since it was equipped with special drivers to make sure that all the oddball hardware packed inside the tiny case worked properly, I decided to keep it. You never know, I might need the built-in webcam one day and my experience suggests that Linux is seldom very good with webcams. However I was not going to be utterly deprived of my Linux experience (to use a particularly vomitous marketing term) just because Windows was already firmly ensconced in situ . This machine, I decided, was going to dual boot both Windows and Linux. And, just because I knew how to do it, I would make Linux the default. Yah, boo, sucks!

But first, since I had decided to keep Windows, I had to tell Windows all about myself. It's a notoriously nosy operating system, and the first time you boot it up, it asks a lot of obnoxious questions.

"What's your name?" asked Windows.

Aha! The difficult questions first!

I told Windows that my name was Pascal Python, middle name Monty, spelled 'Perl' but pronounced Monty; English names are like that, don't blame me. My parents' careful choice of names obviously meant that they had my future computer career planned out for me from the minute I was born, despite the fact that when I was born, that career didn't actually exist in the world, and neither did the programming languages I was named after. Prescient people, my mum and dad. However an unfortunate side effect of being called Pascal Python was that at school I got nicknamed Ada. Johnny Cash sang about the trials and tribulations of a boy named Sue. Trust me, they pale into insignificance compared to those lavished upon a boy called Ada. Still, it could have been worse. Ada's American cousin Linda didn't start making her famous dirty movies until long after I left school...


I lied, and said I was 42.

"Height in kilograms?"

Yet more proof, if proof were needed, that Americans don't understand the metric system.

And so it continued. As soon as I answered one question, another popped up in its place. They formed a seemingly interminable list requiring ever more embarrassing information from me as the interrogation continued with extreme prejudice.

I dutifully typed in my fictitious autobiography in excruciating detail. Presumably the racier bits all got sent to Redmond and filed away in Microsoft's customer database where they would doubtless form the basis of the company's next marketing campaign. I wondered if Microsoft would notice that my answers to some of their questions were, shall we say, inventive. Then I decided they probably wouldn't, since Microsoft marketing people are notoriously lacking in a sense of humour.

Once, in conversation with a Microsoftie, I said: "It's a well known fact that when you go to work for Microsoft, the first thing that happens is they make an appointment for you at the hospital where you undergo the operation to implant the chip in your brain that turns you into a robot slave. However the Microsoft surgeons who perform the operation are very cost conscious, and in order to prevent you having to come back for another operation later on in your career, they always take the opportunity to remove your sense of humour gland at the same time."

The Microsoftie gave me a withering look which I put straight in the pool room. It was the best withering I'd ever experienced, and believe me, I've been withered by experts. "That's nonsense," he said firmly. "They don't send us for an operation! Who told you that?"

"See!" I said.

Meanwhile, back at the Netbook, Windows asked me a question that I couldn't answer.

"What is the name of this computer?" it demanded, smugly.

My mind went utterly blank and I appealed to Robin for help.

"Oh that's easy," said Robin. She's good at this kind of thing. "You've got to call it Gimli, because, being a Netbook, it is small, stocky and powerful."

"Perfect!" I said. "Gimli it is." I stored the name deep in the pool room, in the place reserved for extra special things; this name was so right, so proper, that it was a definite treasure.

Kage Baker is right up at the top of my "buy immediately in hardback as soon as the book appears" list, so of course I had to buy The Empress Of Mars. It's another of her Company novels – though you could easily be forgiven for not recognising this; it's only very peripherally a Company novel; the connection is tenuous.

If any of you have read the novella of the same name, you'll find the novel very familiar, since it is simply a more full-bodied version of the original. I must admit, I found the novella somewhat thin in the sense that many of the incidents were sketched in far too lightly for my taste – it always struck me as being rather more the synopsis of a novel than a finished work in its own right. Well, now we actually have the finished novel, and I think I was correct!

The Martian Colony was founded by the British Arean Company (BAC). Originally it welcomed any settlers who were willing to make the journey and work hard at terraforming the planet. And so a mixed bag of outcasts, drifters and dreamers emigrated to the new frontier. But the British Arean Company found that it was unable to profit from the undertaking and it abandoned the colonists, leaving only a skeleton staff to supervise the investment. Essentially, the colonists were now on their own.

Mary Griffith, a determined woman with three daughters to support, opens a pub; the only place to buy beer on the Tharsis Bulge. When a friend offers to sell her his 20 acre spread (which includes a thriving crop of barley), she thinks her future is finally secured.

But it isn't long before even more good luck comes her way. While working on her land, she uncovers a rock which is soon identified as a diamond. Invoking a cunning plan, she smuggles it off planet under the noses of the BAC. For the first time in a long time, the future of the red planet seems rosy...

As with any community, the local pub quickly becomes a the place to go for barter, news, and networking. And here lies much of the joy of the novel. Mary, her daughters, Manco Inca, Ottorino Vespucci, and the Dutch agent, Mr De Wit are an entertaining and complex set of characters whose interactions and dialogue are invariably amusing and ripe with possibilities..

And as always, the prose is packed to the brim with Kage Baker's wit and cultural reference and more than a little anglophilia – you have to love her for that.

It's a great book, and I urge you to read it.

Other Spaces, Other Times is a collection of autobiographical essays by Robert Silverberg. None of the essays are new; I've read them all before in other publications (though it has to be admitted that some of those other publications were very obscure). There are no great personal insights to be had here. Silverberg makes it plain from the start that he intends to remain the private individual he has always been, and so this is a cold book, distant and stark. Its only virtue is that it does give a lot of insight into Silverberg's writing habits and it explains, to a certain extent, just how he managed to be so prolific for so many decades.

Janet Evanovich has been writing Stephanie Plum novels for almost twenty years. There was a time, in the middle of the series, when she seemed to get tired of it and the quality dipped alarmingly. But then she got her second wind and the series took off again. However with Finger Lickin' Fifteen the rot has returned. It's a fairly tedious story; Stephanie Plum by numbers (pun intended).

A celebrity chef comes to Trenton to participate in a barbecue cook-off. He is decapitated right in front of Stephanie's friend Lula. There's a million dollar reward for finding those responsible for the gruesome crime and soon Lula and Stephanie are hot on the trail. As always, Stephanie has several cars and houses wrecked around her and Joe Morelli and Ranger have to come to her rescue again, and again and again until the page count is large enough for the story to stop.

I was actually a lot more impressed with Plum Spooky, a so-called "between the numbers" novel about Stephanie. It's almost science fiction, if you squint a little, and the humour is refreshingly original.

Wolf Grimoire is bent on world domination and to this end he has recruited Martin Munch who has a degree in quantum physics and a special machine. Munch is the archetypal nerd, twenty four years old and never been laid. He'd be so happy if only he could get a woman naked and tied to a tree.

Diesel is a bounty hunter with special skills. Stephanie is more than half convinced that his talents are really alien powers. Diesel asks Stephanie to help him stop Wolf Grimoire's evil plans. Reluctantly she goes along with this. How can you refuse an alien?

Carl is a monkey. He's living temporarily with Stephanie. He likes to play Super Mario on his game console. He's perturbed about the tribe of hat-wearing monkeys that Stephanie finds in the Pine Barrens.

And the Jersey Devil flies overhead. Whoooo, whoooo, whoooo!

I laughed a lot at Plum Spooky. Maybe the between the numbers novels are better than the real thing.

The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie is Alan Bradley's first novel, and it's a superbly clever and funny story. It is set in England in 1950 and it is narrated by Flavia de Luce, an eleven year old girl who is obsessed with chemistry and who has a passion for poisons.

Her father has a dark secret in his past and when the body of a snipe is found at the back door with a postage stamp impaled upon its bill, it seems clear that his past is catching up with him. Then Flavia finds a man dying in the cucumber patch. She watches him take his final breath – it's utterly fascinating. She determines to solve the mystery.

However much of the fascination of the game vanishes when her father is arrested for murder. The tragedy seems much more personal. Flavia learns that the dead man in the cucumber patch is not the first death in her father's life (so to speak). The more she finds out about the unfortunate events of thirty years ago, the more she comes to realise that a dark tragedy surrounds her family.

This is a wonderful book, by turns funny and sad. It is packed with lore, rife with chemistry, full of philately. Felicia herself is a wonderful character, springing alive from the very first page. I loved every utterly eccentric word of this novel.

Now that Windows was satisfied with me, it was time to put Linux on the machine. The most popular Linux distribution is Ubuntu, the brainchild of South African millionaire Mark Shuttleworth. Ubuntu is a Swahili word which means "this is the Linux distribution for people who find Red Hat Linux too hard to understand". Swahili is a very compact language with a small, but extremely powerful, vocabulary.

I installed Ubuntu and it had a look around.

"Hello there!" said Ubuntu, in a strong Seth Efrican eccent. "I see you have a wireless network card."

"That's right," I said. "Why don't you use it to connect to the internet?"

"OK," said Ubuntu. "I'll give it a go."

There was a brief silence and then Ubuntu said, "Hey! I've found this really, really powerful access point in the next room. Wow! Just look at that signal strength. Never seen one as powerful as that before, squire."

"That's right," I told Ubuntu. "That's the one I want you to use."

"OK," said Ubuntu. "What's the password?"

I told Ubuntu the password and there was a long silence.

"Well," said Ubuntu at last, "actually it doesn't seem to be quite OK. I gave the password to the access point, but nothing happened. It's completely ignoring me. So I can't connect to the internet. Sorry."

"Never mind," I said. "How about you play some music for me while I think about it."

"Oh yes!" said Ubuntu, anxious to redeem itself, "I can do that. Where's the music?"

"Over there," I said.

"Got it," said Ubuntu and a media player appeared on the screen. Coloured histograms bounced up and down in time to the music. Utter silence emerged from the speakers. I turned the volume up to its maximum value. The speakers hissed a bit, but not a note of music emerged.

"Have you noticed how quiet the music is?" I asked Ubuntu.

"Sorry about that, squire," Ubuntu replied, "I've never seen a sound card like yours before. I don't know how to get it to make a noise. But you must admit the histograms are pretty."

"Very pretty," I said, "but they don't compensate for the lack of sound."

Since Ubuntu was utterly unable to make the two most important bits of Gimli work properly, I uninstalled it, trying hard to ignore the agonising screams as its files got slowly deleted, one by one.

What to do? What to do? I decided that I wouldn't be able to solve this problem alone. I needed advice from an expert. I went to consult with Porgy, the cat who knows everything.

"I have a problem," I said to Porgy.

"Miaow?" asked Porgy impatiently. He'd just woken up from a preprandial nap and was on his way to dinner, after which he was planning an elaborate postprandial nap, perhaps the most important nap of the day because when he woke up from it, it would be breakfast time. He hates having his plans interrupted.

"Linux doesn't seem happy with the hardware on my new computer," I explained.

"Miaow," said Porgy, deeply sympathetic and momentarily intrigued by the problem.

"So I need some advice about how to proceed."

"Woof!" said Porgy. He thought the answer was obvious and he couldn't understand why I hadn't thought of it.

"Of course!" I said. "Puppy Linux will do it. Thank you Porgy. I knew you wouldn't let me down."

"Miaow," said Porgy, deeply satisfied, and he gave his bottom a thorough licking as a reward to himself. Then he resumed his stroll in the direction of dinner.

Puppy Linux is a distribution put together by an Australian called Barry Kauler. It is named in honour of his Chihuahua, a fearless animal who didn't appear to know that he was small and vulnerable. In his own mind he was a giant among dogs. He used to chase kangaroos. And sometimes he caught them…

Puppy Linux does lots of extraordinarily clever technical things that I won't bore you with, but one of its many strengths is that it reaches hardware places that other Linuxes cannot reach. Its default administration password is woofwoof and the login name of the default user is spot. Those jokes (for small values of humour, anyway) definitely belong in the pool room.

"G'day," said Puppy, after I booted it up. It pushed its Akubra to the back of its head and wiped the sweat from its forehead. "Got a password for the wireless access point? I've done everything else, but I can't do that without a password."

I provided the password.

"What kind of password is that?" sneered Puppy, doing the Australian Wave to keep the bugs at bay. "Do you want me to save it so that I can automatically connect to the internet next time? After all, you don't want to have to type that rubbish in every day, do you?"

"OK," I said. "Now, how about playing some music for me?"

"You want me to choose something from those files over there, cobber?" asked Puppy.

"Yes please."

"No problems, mate."

Music poured out of the speakers. I smelled the faint odour of steak sizzling on the barbecue and I heard the distant sound of a can of Fosters having its tab torn off.

"Can you turn the volume down a bit, please?"

"Sure, mate."

It's ever so nice when things just work.


I found John Harvey's new novel Far Cry very difficult to read. Not because it is a bad book – it is a magnificent book – but because the subject of child abduction and murder is not an easy one for me to read about. Normally I can divorce myself from a story. It's only a story, it isn't real. And so I can read about the most gruesome things and I can watch the most revoltingly blood-curdling movies without turning a hair. In real life I'm as sensitive as anybody else, but I can tell the difference between reality and fantasy. A story is only words on a page, a film is only moving pictures. None of them are real.

But child abduction and murder is hard for me to read about. I was a child when Ian Brady and Myra Hindley abducted their victims, tortured them, killed them and buried the bodies on Saddleworth Moor, just a few miles from where I lived. One of the bodies has never been found. That boy and I were almost the same age when Brady and Hindley took him away.

Far Cry is a masterful and very disturbing novel. I'll never read it again, but I'm very glad to have read it once.

Kage Baker The Empress Of Mars Tor
Robert Silverberg Other Spaces, Other Times Nonstop Press
Janet Evanovich Finger Lickin' Fifteen Headline
Janet Evanovich Plum Spooky Headline
Alan Bradley The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie Delacorte
John Harvey Far Cry  Heinemann
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