Updating my stories

The Mage and the Boffin
The Mage and the Boffin

I’ve been reviewing and updating my earlier stories, and I’ve removed a few spelling and grammar errors, and tidied up the language a bit here and there. I’ve not radically changed them, but I thought that I’d package them as a PDF and make the new package available on my website. So, if you want to have all my early stories in a convenient package, please download it from here.

If you want my stories in a different format, a MOBI file for a Kindle, for example, let me know via my feedback page, and I will see what I can do.

Some of my stories have been published on Amazon (as eBooks and paperbacks) and Kobobooks and Smashwords (as eBooks). Here are the links to my Author Pages on those sites.

LibreOffice – Style Considerations

hieroglyphs
Photo by Krzysztof (Kriss) Szkurlatowski from FreeImages

Every modern word processing program comes with a feature, usually called ‘styles’, which allows you to control the look of your final document. Microsoft Word does. LibreOffice and OpenOffice do. I’d be surprised if there was a major program word processing program that doesn’t.

A style is a collection attributes, such as font, font size, indentation, alignment, colour, and many other attributes that describe an element in a document. The element can be a page, a character or set of characters, a paragraph, an image, and many other things. A style can be applied either by default, or by selecting an element and clicking on a list of available styles.

Sounds complex? It isn’t really. When you want to create a heading for example, you can type some text, select it, change the font type to make it bold, change the font to make it stand out, and increase the size. Or you could simply type the text and then apply one of the builtin Heading styles with a single click and everything is done for you.

I’m mostly concerned here with paragraph styles. That is, styles which apply to whole paragraphs, and not just single characters or words. In MS Word, LO Writer and other word processing programs, if you start typing a paragraph it will be formatted according to a default style. In MS Word I believe it is called “Normal”. In LibreOffice it is “Default Paragraph Style”. The current paragraph style is usually shown somewhere in the editing screen.

(In my text below I will refer to things in LO Writer terms, because that is what I use. But the concepts should apply to MS Word and probably other word processing programs too, even if the details are different.)

It is my strong belief that everything that affects the look and feel of a document should be achieved with styles, because it makes it so much easier to change things.

For instance, suppose you decided to make one of your paragraphs stand out. You could select the paragraph text and make it bold using the style toolbar at the top of your editor screen. That would work.

But several hours later and many pages later, you decide to also indent it. You have to search back through the document for it. Again you could use the on-screen tools to indent the paragraph. Again, that would work.

You return to end of your document, and create another paragraph, which you bold and indent. So far, so easy. But then, you decide that the bold paragraphs would look better in a different font size. Now you have two places to go to change the font and each time you create a bold paragraph, you need to bold it, indent it, and change the font to be consistent.

By the time that you have six or more bold paragraphs, and you want to change something else about them, you will find yourself flicking about in your document. And what if you miss one of the bold paragraphs? Your formatting is no longer consistent!

It would be a lot easier if you had created a “Bold Paragraph Style” (based on the “Default Paragraph Style” for example) the first time that you decided that you needed a bold paragraph. Then you could change all the occurrences of the bold paragraphs without needing to visit all of the occurrences individually. Just change the style!

Creating a new style is not hard. You don’t have to supply all the attributes. You base your new style on an existing one, and just change the things that you want to be different.

I would avoid changing the builtin styles. This is because every style except the “Default Paragraph Style” is based on another style, and all builtin styles are descendants of the “Default Paragraph Style”. In other words the style system is hierarchical, and if you change the “Default Paragraph Style”, any styles which inherits from it, directly or indirectly, may change.

I would not use “Default Paragraph Style” for ordinary text paragraphs, as it is the ancestor of all builtin style. Instead I would choose “Text Body” or one of the styles that inherit from it, and then the consequences are limited.

Since styles are arranged hierarchically, a style such as “Heading 1” for example inherits from the style “Heading”, which in turn inherits from the “Default Paragraph Style”. So some of the settings of “Header 1” come from “Heading” and some from way back in “Default Paragraph Style”.

This is all pretty straightforward and logical, but difficult to explain. The main lesson is that if you use styles, be really cautious about changing the builtin styles, as changing one style may affect any styles which inherit from it.

This is not a good reason to avoid styles as they can make life so much easier for you!

But what if you want all your documents to have the same formatting. The chapters of a book should ideally all look the same, so that when you combine them, it all looks neat and tidy.

You don’t have to modify the styles in each document that you create! That would be tedious and error prone. Instead you can take a document that is in the format that you require, and save it as a template. I’m not going to detail the process here, because there are a couple of ways of doing it in LibreOffice Writer, and that is almost certainly true in MS Word and other word processing programs too.

You can edit the template to remove all the text, if you wish, but the template will have all the necessary styles in it, and writing a new chapter will be easy, with just a click now and then to apply the styles!

One final point is that once you have created a template and are using it to create documents, then everything is not set in concrete. You can change the styles in the template and revisit and save your documents to update the styles in them. This may be tedious, but it is simple! You can even apply a template retrospectively to your old documents, but that is beyond the scope of this article.

In conclusion, I strongly believe that anyone who uses a word processing program that provides a style-like feature and a template-like feature should use the features in almost situations. OK, you write a letter and may think that you would not need to style that, but then you come to write another similar letter. If you had spent a few minutes styling your first letter, you could use it as a template for any subsequent letters. “Dear Mum…”

Don’t be scared of styles. They aren’t really that complex. Styles will not cause you to lose any work or break your word processing program. If things get too messy you can always cut and paste your text into a brand new empty document. I ended up with a mess because I like to experiment with things and only read the documentation after I’ve tried something (and usually screwed it up). But my documents are going to look perfect by the time that I’ve finished.

Styles in Word Processors

A Dark and Stormy Night

I use LibreOffice Writer for writing my stories and for other similar writing tasks. It’s free and it runs on Linux, and it does everything that Microsoft Word™ does and probably more.

I haven’t got anything against the current version of MS Word. It’s a very good program, but it isn’t free, it doesn’t run on Linux, and I’m not keen on the interface, as it is, in my opinion, needlessly complex. But then again, I’ve not used it much.

I have used MS Word extensively in the past, and my memories of using it are not pleasant ones. I’ve lost work that I have done in it on many, many occasions. although that was many, many years ago!

However, in spite of my preference for LO Writer over MS Word, I’m always on the lookout for something else. After all, these fine products are general purpose word processors, and I wondered if there were programs designed to specifically write short stories and longer works.

And of course there are. Many of the writing programs only run on Windows, and I prefer Linux, but I decided to give the Windows-based software options a chance. Who knows? But sadly, I’ve found that the offerings are disappointing when compared with LO Writer and MS Word.

Many of the programs that I’ve looked at are not pretty, but if they work, does that matter? They don’t have as many features as MS Word or LO Writer, but again, if they do the job, so what? No, the real reason for my disappointment is related to the way that I work. It’s all about ‘styles’.

A ‘style’ is a collection of rules which describe how the document should appear. There are subsets of these rules, which apply only to parts of the document. For instance there will be rules for paragraphs, other rules for whole pages, and rules for the whole document. Once set up to the writer’s satisfaction, they should be applied automatically as the author writes, and the author then doesn’t have to worry about making the story or whatever look good, as it happens as if by magic!

Say you are writing, something, anything! You starting typing and the words appear on the screen, and your thoughts appear in concrete form. They are a certain size, a certain colour, and they are in a particular font. A font is the collection characters that, in this case, is shown on the screen in the editor.

They are also in a particular position on the screen. In the WordPress editor that I am using at the moment each paragraph that I type will appear as a paragraph on the page that the user will eventually read. In this case the lines of type will all start at the same distance from the left of the screen. Technically, all the lines in a paragraph are ‘left aligned’.

I’ll just mention here that all modern word-processing editors try to show the text as it would appear in the final result, whether it is in print or on a screen. This doesn’t matter so much for an email, but it is crucial for a story or novel which will be printed or read on a small device. What the screen shows should close to the required result.

Left alignment of all the paragraphs is fine for web pages, but I prefer a different arrangement for paragraphs in my stories, whether my story is read on a device or on paper. I prefer that the first paragraph in the story, chapter, or scene is left aligned, but that subsequent paragraphs are indented a little. You can see the effect in any of my stories, which you can find in this part of my website, and also in the image below.

To achieve this, I use ‘styles’ in my word processor. Without getting too technical, a paragraph style describes how the paragraph should look. For example it describes what font should be used, what size the characters should be, their colour, and how the lines are laid out, and many other things.

To save myself work I start with the ‘default’ style, which will be laid out more or less like the paragraphs in this post. I copy it and give it a name like ‘paragraph no indent’, and save it. It inherits all the settings from the ‘default’ style, even the fact that it is based on the ‘default’ style.

Then I copy the ‘paragraph no indent’ style and call it ‘paragraph ident’, tell it to indent the first line, and save it. Now that I’ve got my styles I link them together. I change the built-in ‘Heading’ style so that, by default the next style is ‘paragraph no indent’. I change the ‘paragraph no indent’ style so that by default the next style is ‘paragraph indent’ and finally I change the ‘paragraph indent’ style so that the next style is still ‘paragraph indent’.

Indentation Example

That all takes a minute or two and is harder to describe than to do. I then save the whole thing as a template. So I can open a new document and type a heading, assigning it the ‘Heading’ style. When I hit enter a new paragraph will automatically be created with a style of ‘paragraph no indent’. After I’ve typed the first paragraph and hit enter, another new paragraph is created with a style of ‘paragraph indent’. All subsequent paragraphs will have a style of ‘paragraph indent’.

Sounds complex? It isn’t really, and I only have to do it once. If I start a new document from the template all the styles are already there, so I can just start typing. And suppose for some reason I wanted all the indented paragraphs to be in a different font in a particular document. If I didn’t use styles I would need to go through my document and change the fonts by hand. But I can just change the font in the ‘document indent’ style, and all the indented paragraphs would be changed, in a second.

This is the big deficiency that I have found in most story writing software. The programs either do not allow the use of custom styles at all, or the custom styles are not easy to use.

Where the story writing software programs do excel is in organisation of the writing process. Most story software allows you to make notes, define characters, storyboard the story, and it breaks down the writing process into chapters, scenes, and so on. It also links all these things together in a logical way.

I’m impressed, but I don’t work that way. I often don’t have a clue what the story is going to be about until I’m actually writing it. I don’t know if a character who turns up is going to be pivotal to the story or whether he or she is just a spear carrier. I don’t have chapters or scenes in my mind. They just happen. This style of writing is known as ‘seat of the pants’ writing, and I’m firmly in that camp.

Many other writers prefer to plan out their writing projects to varied levels of detail, and may take longer to plan a story than to actually write it. I suspect that the whole process takes about the same amount of time, whichever camp you fall into – ‘planner’ or ‘pantser’.

One of the most popular of the story writing packages is called ‘Scrivener‘. It runs on Windows and Mac only, so it wasn’t really on my radar, and if you are a planner (who works on Windows or Mac), then it may suit you very well. From a quick look over, it seems to me that Scrivener can take your minimally formatted document when it is complete and can then ‘compile’ it into a format that suits you, with all the styles that you might desire.

Once again, I don’t work that way. I like to see roughly what I am getting as I write. And surely, if you want to make a change after the document has been compiled you will need to make the change and then re-compile?

To be fair, Scrivener advertises itself as “everything you need to craft your first draft”, and it is suggested that you use another program for the final formatting, but from what I have seen of it, Scrivener actually seems to be much more than that. You can compile your story so that it can be used to create a paperback. And you can compile the same story to be suitable for an e-reader, and you could also generate a PDF of your story. That feature is pretty cool!

But, Scrivener aside, the story writing packages don’t impress me much, because of the style issues, and the other facilities that they provide I wouldn’t find much use for. So, I’m sticking with LibreOffice Writer for now.

Photo by Janusz Hylinski from FreeImages

Some of my stories have been published on Amazon (as eBooks and paperbacks) and Kobobooks and Smashwords (as eBooks). Here are the links to my Author Pages on those sites.

A Cloud of Ideas

Photo by Jeremy Menking from FreeImages

I’ve written before about my somewhat chaotic writing process. I like to consider myself to be logical, and fairly rational, but it is rare that I proceed from idea to story in a logical way.

Often my stories seem to possess a life of their own, and while I might start with an idea and intend to take it this way, it instead heads off in that direction. That’s not a bad thing – after all a story is being told, even if it wasn’t the one that I thought that I was going to write.

But that is when I get started. Where do the ideas come from in the first place? Well, the answer is that I have them all the time. If I am thinking about starting a new story, and I haven’t yet decided on the topic, then search for ideas is at the back of my mind, and ideas fizz up all the time.

I could write about the adventures of an insect on a plant, just because I glimpsed an insect damaged plant. Or I might see children waiting to cross the road. What if the crossing guard was a robot, programmed to protect the kids, to the point it would lay down its ‘life’ for the kids. Or the thoughts of a tree.

Getting ideas is not hard. There are literally countless ideas out there, and the difficulty is deciding which ideas can be extended into a story. Well, they all can of course, but some are easier than others. I could probably write a story about intelligent dice, maybe ones whose ambition is to escape randomness and become predictable, but it would probably be a bit hard.

So, if ideas are swarming around you, how can you decide which ideas are worth pursuing, and which are not. There have been occasions when I have started to write and the words have petered out. I’m convinced that there is a story in the idea, but it won’t come out on the screen.

One technique for overcoming this is to put the idea and the not-yet-a-story to one side for a while. I’ve certainly done this, but I’ve not really done it consciously. Something else grabbed my attention, and when I came back to the idea I was able to progress the story.

I would not categorise the failure to progress a story as a ‘writer’s block’, by the way. If you have an idea, but can’t progress it at that time, you still have the idea, and know that you can come back to it and progress it later. A writer’s block would mean that you can’t progress anything at all, I would say. But I’ve never written something to a deadline!

If there really are ideas galore, why do we sometimes find ourselves unable to pick one? One reason is that most writers want to write something fresh and new. Even if they are writing a sequel or one a series, it has to be different in some way, to maintain the interest of the writer and his/her potential readers, so recycling old ideas is not a good idea.

For instance, if in the first book, the heroine slays the dragon and saves the Prince, and she is still doing it in book three or four, it would make the series pretty boring (and what would she do with all those Princes?)

Some people like to organise their ideas. As an idea comes to them, they write it down in a notebook or keep a file of random ideas. I’ve done that at times, but it only works moderately well for me.

Others might find help in a websites that provides ideas for stories. There are many of them, and while I’ve looked at them now and then, I’ve not been inspired by them. The ideas seem to me to be too middle of the road and not particularly interesting, but it is more than possible that the ideas these websites provide could resonate with something in one’s brain and result in a usable idea. So I don’t totally write them off.

Another technique for coming up with ideas is to take a standard story and twist it. For instance, there’s the standard ‘Prince saves Princess from Dragon’ story. What if the Dragon saves the Princess from a boring marriage with an arrogant self-obsessed Prince? Or the Prince and Princess get married and later find out that they are incompatible and it’s not ‘happy ever after’?

I use the twisted standard story idea quite a lot in my writing. My story ‘The Boy the Girl and the Dragon‘ is loosely related to the ‘Prince saves Princess from Dragon’ theme, and my story ‘Golden Hair and the Bears‘ is distantly related to the story of Goldilocks.

[I just realised that the film ‘Shrek‘ is a twisted variation of the Prince/Princess/Dragon theme, if you replace ‘Dragon’ with ‘Ogre’. The Ogre saves the Princess from a marriage with the arrogant self-obsessed Lord Farquar.]

One obvious source of ideas is one’s own stories. One could write a sequel or a spin-off. I’m not a fan of sequels, but I’ve written them. I prefer spin-offs, which allow me to use the existing story ‘universe’ but with new characters and new situations.

So, at the moment I’m between stories. I’m hunting around for the right idea. It’s proving a little elusive, but I’m sure, 100% sure, that it is out there somewhere in the cloud of ideas, just waiting for me to find it!

Some of my stories have been published on Amazon (as eBooks and paperbacks) and Kobobooks and Smashwords (as eBooks). Here are the links to my Author Pages on those sites.

How Will the Pandemic End?

Photo by Andrzej Pobiedziński from FreeImages

According to this article from the LA Times, coronaviruses aspire to be like the common cold. In other words, more infectious than Covid-19, but less deadly. The article says that at least four coronaviruses have mutated to follow this pattern.

According to Daniel Defoe, in “The History of the Plague in London” the early form of that disease was both infectious and lethal. Later it made people ill, but it didn’t kill quite so readily. (I’m interpreting what Defoe said, and interpolated his conclusions). It may be that this is the way that the Covid-19 epidemic ends. In the case of the plague, this happened within a year (if I’m correct), and it is likely that Covid-19 may mutate and produce a much less lethal strain on a timescale of months.

Coronaviruses are noted for their ability to mutate. Mutating fast means that any immunity that someone gets from being infected quickly erodes. So, if the flu is a good guide, the flu’s rapid mutation means that we have to get vaccinated every year to protect ourselves. Sometimes the flu virus is a more serious disease than at other times, but it doesn’t seem to become a lot more lethal over time.

There is a possibility that that is mostly due to better medical treatments and facilities for sufferers. But there is always a chance that the flu could become more lethal in spite of this. If Covid-19 doesn’t mutate to become less lethal or harmful, then life as we knew it is over. Border controls, social distancing, and so on are here to stay. Outbreaks are here to stay. Fast cheap air travel is at an end. Global tourism is at an end.

The Covid-19 pandemic may not actually end, but governments may have to act as if it has. They will be forced to open the borders some time, and this will, inevitably, let the virus in again. More people will die. It seems that vaccines will at the most be only partially effective. People still get the flu even if they have been vaccinated, because the virus continually mutates and the same may prove true of Covid-19.

In Defoe’s time people eventually suffered from “plague fatigue”. They took the attitude that if the plague was going to get them, it didn’t matter what they did, and they stopped avoiding plague victims, and just carried on with business as usual. (They wrapped it up in religious language, but that is the essence).

This, interestingly, appears to be happening in NZ and in the rest of the world. In Defoe’s time, in London, this happened at the peak of the epidemic, and things, coincidentally I believe, got better from then on. In Trump’s America, (and some other countries) we can see the consequences of giving up too soon.

Consequently, I believe we in NZ should continue the fight against the virus, for so long as it remains so lethal. We should hope that, within a year, the virus mutates to become less lethal. We should hope that a vaccine becomes available, but we shouldn’t pin all our hopes on that. Viruses have ways of getting around vaccines.

Some of my stories have been published on Amazon (as eBooks and paperbacks) and Kobobooks and Smashwords (as eBooks). Here are the links to my Author Pages on those sites.

Three More Stories

I’ve been doing other things, mainly fiddling with this web site, but I’ve also been writing some more stories in the Mage and the Boffin series. Here they are!

Flickering

When Alan is threatened “everything flickers” and he finds himself in a strange new place. He will have to start again from next to nothing. No home, no friends, no money. He needs to find someone who can help him make sense of it all.

The Dichotomy

The Mage and the Boffin go to Hell. They have an interesting talk with the Devil, and they talk about the Great Dichotomy. The Devil is friendly enough until he reveals his true nature.

I am the Apocalypse

A pandemic sweeps the world, and Mack holes up in his apartment. But has he isolated himself in time?

Some of my stories have been published on Amazon (as eBooks and paperbacks) and Kobobooks and Smashwords (as eBooks). Here are the links to my Author Pages on those sites.

Please note, I’ve decided to share my stories here as PDFs. If you would prefer a different format, for example, an ePub file, just let me know through my feedback form.

Pet – A Journey

The Road
The Road (Photo by Tyler Kellen from FreeImages)

Imagine a world where men are much less intelligent than women. What would it be like? Would the men become little more than pets, or would they still be able to hold their own in a relationship? What would such a relationship look like?

I’ve written a story about a couple, Jess and Pet, who live in such a world. The story is available here. It’s in a number of parts, and each part is less than 3,000 words long.

Please note, I’ve decided to share my stories here as PDFs. If you would prefer a different format, for example, an ePub file, just let me know through my feedback form.

Some of my stories have been published on Amazon (as eBooks and paperbacks) and Kobobooks and Smashwords (as eBooks). Here are the links to my Author Pages on those sites.

Black Swans and Cherry Picking

A family of black swans. [Photo by luis rock from FreeImages]

There’s nothing quite like arguing with Climate Change disbelievers or those who believe that 5G is harmful. Or similar ‘fringe’ believers. Oh, some of the fringe beliefs may turn out to be true, it is true, but most of them, and almost certainly the ones I mention above, will turn out to be false.

One particular line of argument caused my jaw to drop. I want to share its ridiculousness with you. It goes this way. Firstly those who cite mainstream articles, ones which espouse Climate Climate or the harmlessness of 5G are accused of cherry picking the results that support the mainstream point of view. There are after all, hundreds of papers, the critics point out, that espouse the opposite view.

Well, yes. In a very narrow sense they are right, of course, but why would anyone cite papers that oppose their point of view? There are good theoretical grounds for believing that Climate Change exists, and that 5G will not harm us, therefore the fact that most experiments support this view is not surprising. Experiments that do show that Climate Change doesn’t exist, or that 5G will harm us should therefore be considered with suspicion, especially if, as is usually a case, there is no theoretical basis for the claims, and the claims are unverified.

It is worth noting that some papers that support Climate Change do cite papers which deny Climate Change and the same is true of some papers that investigate the effects of radiation on the human body. They cite them in the sense that “we looked for the effect described in this paper, but didn’t find it”.

But mainstream believers can turn around and accuse the deniers of Cherry Picking their references too! Can’t they? Surely they also have been choosing only those results that align with their view?

“Not so!” the deniers cry. “The references that we pick are Black Swans!”

What?

A little background. The philosopher Karl Popper stated that a theory can never be proved, but can only be disproved. One example that is often quoted is the theory that “All swans are white”. This can never be proved because, no matter how many white swans that you find, the next one you find might be black. Or red or green or blue, maybe. All the white swans that you find support the theory, but one Black Swan demolishes it completely.

Of course, it is rarely as black and white as that (sorry). Scientists figuratively find an off-white swan.

“See, we said that the theory is false. That is not a white swan,” say the deniers. The other camp say “Yes, of course it is white! A bit of a dirty white, but still white.” “No, it isn’t!” “Yes, it is!”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a finance professor and former Wall Street trader, extended this idea. He defined a Black Swan event as one which  is impossible to predict due to its extreme rarity but which could have catastrophic consequences, and which is explained in hindsight as if it were actually predictable. Just as a verifiable counter example could be catastrophic for a widely accepted theory.

The deniers, it appears, have in turn extended this definition to “a Black Swan is any experiment whose results run contrary to mainstream thought”. This completely demolishes the counter argument, supposedly, whether the experiment is verified or not. And they are never verified.

A true Black Swan experiment could be defined as one which is a) verified and accepted as producing true results, and b) contradicts a currently widely held theory. The ‘Black Swans’ pointed to the anti-5G supporters fail to fulfil ‘a)’ above.

Leaving aside the fact that scientists have their biases just as do normal folk, one can’t tell simply from a list of papers whether they have been verified by others or not. Very often, the list is said to contain ‘peer reviewed’ papers, as if that adds any veracity to any of the papers in the list. A peer reviewer merely reports that a paper is OK to publish or not.

For example, there were plenty of peer reviewed papers that supposedly showed that smoking cigarettes was harmless. There were others that supposedly showed that smoking would kill you.

Why did those that argued that smoking was dangerous win? Certainly not because of any ‘cherry picking’ or ‘black swans’.

Picked cherries [Photo by fgdfgd dfgdfg from FreeImages]

Firstly, there was a consensus among scientists that smoking endangered health. This was driven by the sheer corpus of evidence that built up in favour of that theory, and the fact that the experiments that favoured the opposite could be criticised on many levels. It couldn’t be said that the opposition was ignored. In fact many scientists spent many hours examining supposedly contrary evidence and decided that it was wrong.

Secondly, there was evidence that the chemicals in tobacco smoke were shown, outside of the context of smoking, to be dangerous. So, if you inhaled them because you were smoking, then you exposed yourself to those dangers.

Thirdly, there was ample evidence that stopping smoking resulted in better health outcomes, even if the smoker had been a smoker for years. Even the proverbial man in the street could see it.

As regards Climate Change and 5G opposition, the evidence continues to build for the former, and attempts to demonstrate a harmful effect for the latter continue to be less than impressive.

Climate Change is all but confirmed, but people do continue dissent. That is their right, but it is pointless.

The 5G opposition is strident and irrational. They continue to ignore the evidence, and instead present a body of so-called evidence that is not convincing. They ignore a body of evidence that claims that EMF of the 5G frequencies does not affect the human body, and justifies this by a ludicrous appeal to ‘Black Swans’ which is misapplication of the ideas of Karl Popper.

I’m sure that Popper would be spinning in his grave, if he knew the ways that the 5G opposition were misusing his wise words.

5G [Image by ADMC from Pixabay]

Unprecedented

The situation is unprecedented. There will be mistakes, over-reactions, back downs, changes of directions. There will be shortages of this, that, and the other and panic buying and hoarding, people not getting the help that they should. There will be accidental and intentional breeches of self-isolation. There will be people saying stupid things (I’m looking at you Hoskins) and others doing them. There will be others selflessly putting themselves in harm’s way for the sake of you, me and the rest of us.

The authorities are moving faster than they have ever before to try to contain the situation. Many, many times faster. Obviously not everything is going to go right. That is not their fault, though they will probably blame themselves. It is the fault of the situation.

The Government is probably unable to help those stuck overseas. They are probably unable to help those from overseas stuck here. There’s no use in assigning blame.

They are probably going to change their minds on things twenty times a day. This doesn’t show indecision. This is merely day to day reaction to what is happening.

Let’s not forget that they are doing their best. The Government, the police, the medical profession, shop keepers, food growers, all the supply chain workers, from the farmers to the supermarket workers. Plumbers, who fix that pipe which burst at the worst possible time. Teachers who are struggling to keep the education system going. They are all doing their best.

In my opinion, temporarily making supermarkets the sole source of food and other supplies is a good move. Shutting butchers’ shop might not have been a good idea, but I understand why it was done. Letting booze outlets sell their wares online is probably a good idea, for morale, if nothing else. I reluctantly agree that keeping the cigarette factories open is a good idea, though I hate smoking.

Sadly, when this is all over, there will be recriminations. People will accuse the Government, the police, the medical profession, and all of those who struggled to maintain some sense of normality in these abnormal times, of making wrong decisions. Wrong decisions will have been made, but those decisions will have been made with the best of intentions. People should remember that.

(My apologies. I will not be including any images in this post. I just want to get it out there.)

What to do When You Have Nothing to Do

Comfy Chimp
Photo by Chad Littlejohn from FreeImages

The previous post, which I posted on February 20th, was about the possible extinction of the human race as a result of global warming. Since then, the Covid-19 virus has become a huge threat, and we all have to self-isolate and stay home. It’s not an extinction threat, but it is a threat.

For those of us in paid employment, self-isolation means working from home, which of course brings problems, especially with regards to any children who are in the home. Even though in most cases there will be partners at home who can give the home worker a hand looking after the children, it may well be that both partners are working from home, and it then becomes a question of how child care is arranged between the partners.

That could be a problem of course. But for those of us whose children have left home, there is a different issue. Typically, a married couple or long term partners have different interests. That’s fine in a “normal” (scare quotes) situation, but in these unusual times, couples are forced more closely together.

That can be a mixed blessing. You may be able to recapture some of the attraction that brought you together in the first place, which, while not lost, has mutated into a more mature relationship. But you have matured, and you will have, usually, developed interests which you partner may not share.

Photo by carl dwyer from FreeImages

They may not share your interests, but they will support you in them. They will tolerate your culinary experimentation, while you will indulge them in their taste for art house cinema.

So, I am a writer and a geek. My wife tolerates these interests, just as I indulge her in her liking for quiz shows on the TV. I actually enjoy them too.

I’m a deep geek. I have written low level routines for several Operating Systems, and I’ve even written programs which run at a hardware level on some. Don’t worry about the terms I use. It just means that I have delved as low as it is possible to do so without actually designing computer chips and the circuits that they operate in.

So, what has this to do with my title? Well, in the absence of doing things like shopping, at the supermarket and other places, which I’m happy to do with my wife in normal times, of course, how do I fill the hours?

Photo by Renxx Gmdr from FreeImages

Well, I’m spending a little more time on my writing, but on the geek side of things, I’ve been looking at moving my web site from WordPress to Drupal. Not seriously. I’ve long been a fan of Drupal, but I’ve settled on WordPress as my platform of choice, and that is unlikely to change.

Drupal is much more flexible than WordPress. That means of course that it is more complex. WordPress has ‘posts’ and ‘pages’. Pages are static, intended to have a long lifetime. Posts are intended to be ephemeral, at least in terms of relevance. You might want to look at a post from three years ago, but you are more likely to want to read a recent one. Pages are the things that tell people about you (“about” pages) or allow people to contact you (“feedback” pages), and so on.

Drupal has ‘Article’ and ‘Basic page’ ‘content types’ which, roughly correspond to WordPress posts and pages, but you can easily add extra content types in Drupal. Drupal has a highly complex system which allows you to do this, often using one or more of an extensive list of modules which enhance the system.

WordPress also has a system, the plugin system, which allows you to extend the base system. In fact there are thousands of plugins, but if you can’t find one that you want, you may be able to cobble something together from existing plugins.

The Drupal icon
The Drupal Icon

So these are the things that I have come across so far in my geeky delving. I downloaded the Drupal 8 package onto my ‘server’ (otherwise known as the computer in the back room) and installed it.

Drupal works out of the box, after a fashion, but you would probably not use it like that. Some things can be fixed, like the site logo, but others need one or more modules.

I set about downloading and installing the modules necessary to make the site look better. One example of Drupal’s quirkiness out of the box is that Articles and Basic Pages have addresses like https://<site-name>/node/293. A module is necessary to change it to something user friendly like https://<site-name>/feedback for the feedback form.

Somewhere along the line I discovered that the correct way to install Drupal and its modules these days is to use a program called ‘composer’. This is basically a package management system. Yes, yet another package management system to learn. Oh well. So I blew everything away and started again from scratch.

Photo by Dimitris Kritsotakis from FreeImages

Next I downloaded the modules necessary to allow me to import my WordPress website into Drupal (using ‘composer’). I always knew that it wouldn’t be an exact fit, but at least I would be able to see what it looked like, and what I had to do to make it look reasonable. I wasn’t trying for an exact copy of my WordPress site.

I managed to import my Posts and Page from WordPress into Drupal as Articles and Basic Pages, and they looked, um, OK. So I went looking for ‘themes’. Both WordPress and Drupal have themes, which are essentially great bunches of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and JavaScript. They can change the look and feel of a site in an instant. I downloaded it and installed it via the ‘composer’.

That was a lot better, but I wanted to tweak the styles a little, so I sub-themed it and created a small file with just my changes in it. This small file overrode the parts of the main theme, while the main theme supplied the rest. Or so the theory goes. In fact I had to add some parts of the theme configuration (the ‘regions’) to my sub-theme to make it work properly. I don’t know why sub-themes don’t inherit everything from the main theme automatically. It seems sort of broken.

I discovered that the images in my Drupal site still pointed to my WordPress site, which was a nuisance. One way to prevent that would be to edit the Import file and manually change the addresses. Definitely do-able, but I shelved that problem for now.

Photo by Luiz Fernando Pilz from FreeImages

Another thing that I spotted about images was that the images that I uploaded appeared under the ‘Images’ tab of ‘Content’ part of the Admin pages. But there was another tab, labelled ‘Media’ which was empty. After a bit of reading I discovered that there is move away from images towards Media Image objects, which are more like WordPress Media images.

Which sounded great until I found that there Media Image objects could not (currently) be embedded into content via the WYSIWYG editor. No button. But this is, fortunately, scheduled to appear in the next release of Drupal.

And that’s about when I gave up. Drupal is a great CMS, but it is not easy to learn, like WordPress. I could use it, but it would take a lot of work, and maybe I’ll delve into it again at some time, but for now I’m happy with WordPress.

Drupal is flexible, but the price of that flexibility is complexity. I was trying think of an analogy to contrast the two CMSes, but the only ones that I could think of denigrated one or the other in some way. There’s more than enough room for both.

Image from https://kinsta.com/blog/wordpress-vs-drupal/