Thursday, 29 April 2010

So How Do You Go About Writing a Novel?

When I was about fifteen I went on a particularly long holiday with my family, and decided that this was an opportune moment to get stuck in and begin writing a book. Having indulged in Sci-fi fantasy most of my life, from what I remember my story was of a generic nature with a protagonist from a shattered background looking for his place in life during a war. I wrote about fifty pages and then got decidely bored of all my characters and gave up. I've since started two others (neither getting past twenty pages of the first chapter), and have run into the same problem.

The deciding factor I always become hung up on is the story. I like to be original, but I keep finding myself lending elements from what I've seen and read, and the thought constantly playing in the back of my head is that the story will end up just being that second story that borrowed so heavily from another author. So my question is, how do you go about writing something completely original? Wells invisioned massive tripods higher than the tallest buildings of the time, piloted by the inhabitants of our closest neighbour planet, which he described in the most incredible detail; even the dimensions, the workings of their weapons was described on a believable and scientific level. Crichton explored the ethics of genetic engineering while taking us on a edge-of-your-seat ride through Jurassic Park. I remember an author, Michael Marshall Smith, and his novel "One of Us" amusing me with his protagonist's sentient wristwatch.
It's actually gotten to the point to which I thought I might be bugged as ideas I had ended up appearing elsewhere (see: Maria Carey Skeleton Car).

Perhaps I need to lock myself in a room for a day and write down the most obsurd things I can think of. Perhaps I need to take a notepad and pen to coffee time and jot down some of the insane ideas that are conjoured by my fellow Physicists. Maybe my inspiration is already in my mind, and it just needs to be found...

On that note, a friend of mine (who will actually be joining my group as of October this year) has written and published a Sci-Fi fantasy story. If it sounds like your cup of tea, please do buy a copy: it's certainly inspired me to have another crack. Fourth time lucky perhaps?

Osirus Ransandyne - The Final Paradise.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Sonic Four's "Sonic Wars"

While I have bouts of extreme misfortune (like driving into dustbins as I reverse off my drive - d'oh), I realise that when it comes to some things, I'm extremely lucky. One of my loves in life, something that I've had a huge passion for since I was about seven years of age, is Sonic the Hedgehog. I fell in love with the games almost instantaneously - the game play, the art style...the music! Something really struck me with these games and this has resonated with me since.

In that time I've seen four generations of consoles come and go, and I've seen the on-off success Sonic has had. The Genesis / Megadrive era, I think we all agree was his golden age, with his second renaissance arguably coming with the Dreamcast era and Sonic Adventure. However he seems to have petered out since then. Granted the gameplay has varied massively from addictive to atrocious, but I've stuck with the genre because nine times out of ten the soundtrack has been delightful; from stunning orchestral pieces to rocking power anthems. The artwork always seems so novel and sheik, and like the merchandise magnet I am, I've hoovered up anything I can get my hands on as the mementos of these titles.

The one drastic change in my opinion of Sonic the Hedgehog has been my introduction into the community of Sonic the Hedgehog fans about four years ago. Now there was a time I thought I may be the last Sonic fan on Earth, so I was delighted to all of a sudden become immersed among kindred spirits. However the one real consensus in the community is that the games aren't what they used to be. In some senses this is purely others unfortunately because titles have been really, really poor (not to mention Sonic the Hedgehog '06). Naturally, this has caused cries from the older fans for a return to the old, and this is where my debate today stems.

SEGA rather hurriedly announced "Project Needlemouse" last summer, which had the community extremely excited with the promise of the return to the old 2D platforming style. This was then unveiled to be the next installment, Sonic the Hedgehog 4, in the old canon of the SEGA Genesis / MD days. This announcement, in my mind, was the dream come true for any oldschool fan of Sonic who wanted to see a return to the glory days. As usual, the announcement polarized the fan base into two camps: those fans who are widely optimistic and excited at the prospect of a new Sonic title (regardless of past experience) and those who instantly slate the for one reason or another - be it leaked information, screenshots etc... upon which they base their early conclusion. SEGA are a rare example of a company who listens to its fans (whether or not this is a good idea is debatable), and this makes their job becomes extremely hard...the problem lies within this extreme cross-section of the fan base.

The Sonic community is unique in many senses in that it has one of the biggest fan bases for a particular game -I don't think Mario has his own summer convention!. Just by looking around at events of these types, it is clear that fans transcend gender, age, background, socail stereotype, sexual orientation etc...and while this is in some cases great for diversity, it means a huge clash in opinion. As some would argue, Sonic is generally aimed at younger audiences - it makes sense as that is how he was originally marketed. However as Sonic now has a rather large adult fan base, of which many are my age and still love the games (old and/or new), this adds another layer of complexity. Throw all of this into the mix, and it's only a matter of time before there is trouble. In this case trouble comes in the form of what a Sonic title should be. When I was a kid, I never analysed the games I played to an extent I do today - I guess a more critical mind is developed with age. While this I believe is definitely a good thing, some of the most enjoyable games I play these days are the most simplistic - Portal for example. So my view is that a good Sonic title need not have massive depth of storyline and plot development - as long as it is fun to play, that has filled my criterion. Again, others like a multitude of characters, development, relationships etc...and that's cool...but now how do you make one game for both fans?

The answer is, you can't. And this is what I believe we're seeing with Sonic the Hedgehog 4. SEGA make a game aimed at younger, newer audiences, and the older fans are not satisfied. SEGA make a game based on the older style - and fans are not happy it is original enough; they want something new (even though a "nod" to an older game always goes down well). Now in my mind, we're then land back at square one - we want something old, yet something new (maybe not borrowed, definitely blue). So what exactly is it that these fans desire? In some instances, I think particular fans have already realised they will never satisfied. What confuses me more is that some of these fans won't have had any gratification since the last Sonic Advance title (the closest of the newer titles to the old style) back in 2004 - that's six years ago. Now, there are many video game series in which I have since stopped paying attention to as more sequels appeared, the games became worse in my opinion. In these instances, I've stopped buying those titles.

My question is then why are there so many people who don't like recent Sonic titles still visiting fan sites, buying the games, and actively seeking conversation about these games? I certainly don't linger on Tomb Raider forums demanding a return to square tits before I will enjoy another session of watching Lara's arse as I piss around in a jungle shooting chimps.

To end this blog I pose a question to anyone who reads this and feels they fall into that category of the dissatisfied fan who wants to return to the glory days. Please don't get me wrong; I'm not setting out to tell you your opinion is wrong, or to aggravate you or offend you in any way - there is enough of that already going on throughout too many sites. I just want to understand why I'm at this moment in time still unfortunate enough to have to read dozens of comments from people who lost their passion for Sonic the Hedgehog many years ago...

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

My Time In Japan: Physics is my business...and business is good

Ok, so I've been meaning for a long time to set up some sort of blog to keep track of what I've been up to, so here it is! For those of you who don't know, my name is Adam. I'm a Nuclear Physicist by day, a rock and heavy metal fanatic by night, and a big Sonic the Hedgehog fan...well, most of the time.

Over the past few years my passport has rapidly accumulated the stamps of many countries, and I have been fortunate enough to have the time, money and occupation to fully appreciate these journies across the globe. Although the work is pretty time-consuming (there are never enough hours in the day for a Physicist), I still manage to get the opportunity to do some exploring while I'm about. I've also had the fortune of having some fellow loonies to enjoy these experiences with - namely Oli, my work colleague, who has been on several experiments with me and enjoys a good walk, as well as Svend, Lewis and Jo, fellow "Sonicites" who were company during my first trip to Japan...which brings me to the subject of most of this, my first blog entry.

They say lightning doesn't strike twice, but I was given another opportunity to visit Japan not nine months after my first excursion, and like anyone with half a brain I grabbed it. The trip was in conjunction with a programme run at Tokyo Institute of Technology, who also have quite a large Nuclear Physics group. The United Kingdom as a whole have few connections to our colleagues in Japan, so I saw this as not only a chance to benefit myself, but to start building some bridges as well. Few of you will know of the STFC cuts this year to the Nuclear Physics budget in the UK - it's huge, and somewhere on the order of about fifty percent of what it was. This concerns me on a personal level, as I feel this may have the effect of closing a few doors on job opportunities in my future particularly in the field at home, but it also concerns me that researchers will become yet another import, and the rapidly decaying shell of what used to be a great country will rely on outside support with consultation. UK researchers are not stupid, and they will go abroad, and I would not be surprised to see the dimise of Nuclear Physics research altogether in the UK within my lifetime. If we could reinforce our bonds abroad however, we might just keep some elements alive. Japan invests something around fifty times the amount of funding into this research than the UK does, and the effects are obvious - particularly with facilities like RIKEN, a research campus just north of the center of Tokyo. This will become one of the best places to conduct the research we would like to do in the coming years as each of the new beamlines comes online.

So, what a great double-barrelled opportunity this was. I've been to Tokyo before, so I quickly navigated my way to O-Okayama where Tokyo Tech's main campus lies, and I was greated by my host student, Kawada-san. Kawada-san is far from the typical Japanese stereotype - he's about as tall as me, and very softly spoken. We soon realised that neither my Japanese or his English were up to scratch for a full deep conversation, so I guess we've developed some bizarre Anglo-Nippon language in which to communicate. In turn I think I came as a huge shock to all of the other students I share a lab with; to be fair I am a 6" 2' bearded, pony-tailed, tattooed Viking decendant, and I've been told I come off as quite threatening on first appearances. Anyway, it took about a week for people to begin to talk to me, and this was, also down to the fact, people had guessed my age at being around 30-something, and had thus assumed I would have been a fully-fledged Doctor. Some still refuse to talk to me unless I engage them directly, however a handful do greet me in the hallways, and some have been kind enough to show me their research on a one-to-one basis.

I also find the inter-personal communication different, in that some days group members will go the duration without speaking once. Now for me, someone who likes to talk, this was very awkward initially. Fair enough, the conversation in my office at York usually centers around today's XKCD strip, or rapidly descends into "that episode of Family Guy", but a lot of the time we discuss Physics; not neccisarily specific to the work we are doing, but just in general. Sometimes there is a problem someone has with debugging code, or marking undergraduate scripts - we even have postgraduate courses and journal clubs that look at the full spectrum of past work, theory, experiment, equipment etc... I feel this experience keeps my mind in check, along with teaching UG's and gives me a broad feel across many subjects - Nuclear Astrophysics, Exotic Nuclei, Shape co-existance...even refreshers in basic maths. I feel this helps me become a more "rounded" physicist (spherical, not prolate). This seems to happen little here, or if it does, it must happen in the corridors, or outside of the ten-hour days I seem to average here, and I feel this is a little sad. Physicists are generally a shy breed (again, not the case for many I know, but making a sweeping generalisation), and I think this is further amplified in the Japanese culture. I have tried to inject some of the Western way while I've been here - asking students questions after seminars, light conversation at lunch, but the success of this has been limited. I don't think this is a language barrier problem either, as a lot of them have a firm grasp on English.

Another from the group in York (where I work) is that everyone seems to be doing quite similar research. The group specialises in research, looking at Halo nuclei,an exotic form of nuclear existance where some constituents of what would be the core - neutrons in this case - exhibit properties as if they were in slightly detached orbits or halos, hence the name (...sorry, poor layman's description!). Now while their expertise in this niché really does excel, it seems that the education in the broader field becomes extremely specialised extremely quickly. Whether or not this is to an advantage or disadvantage is still unclear to me.

On the other end of the scale we have the conferences and symposiums I have attended, which have involved lots of International participants. Again I enjoy such experiences, as I get a change of scenery from my own work, as well as practice my own presentation skills. Again, I have utmost admiration for a lot of the students here who all presented in English, and as much as I hate to say it I'm a little ashamed I do not know a foreign language to the level others have. The research is interesting, and my understanding of neutron detection methods as well as missing mass methods has increased substantially. I've also had one or two opportunities to visit RIKEN itself, and am greatful for an opportunity to see assembly of detectors, as well as to have received tour of the facility from Dr. Steppenbeck (who actually grew up not so far from me...small world).

I'd like to finish where I started, on the note of company. The big difference this time around has been the fact this endevour was my own, and I came here alone. In one way it has felt a little solitary in some senses, which has been a little odd considering I'm not a person who desires company constantly. Don't get me wrong here, it hasn't depressed me (because I'm not someone who gets depressed), it's just been a little sad seeing things and thinking "Damn, Oli would have loved this" or "Haha, I bet Kelly would find this shop name amusing too", and I guess that's hit home a little. If anything I have new-found appreciation for my friends. I hope that the members of this group will stay in contact (I have a feeling Kawada-san will do, as well as my host Nakamura-san) and hopefully our working relationships can develop into one of friendship also.

Two people I will definitely been staying in contact with; Adrien, my French colleague in the lab. A fellow "Gai-jin" (foreigner), I think we've found a lot of things in common with our perception of Japan, and it has been great to talk about other things such as animé, which he also has an interest in. The other is Sunny, a Nigerian bartender in Odaiba. We met randomly (well, being the only man in the restaurant wearing a Stetson makes me stand out a lot), and hit it off. Again, I think it was another moment of "happy to speak English for a bit", and I think he was more impressed I came back to visit him again before I left, and that my promise of return wasn't a hollow one.

So yeah, this was the business end of the stick...I will tell you of my further exploration another day!