PhD Log 30/09/2016

Not a lot done today. Just added some new options in the game relating to opening up new lines of conversation through object discovery. When a new article or object is discovered and examined, part of the popup text will indicate if the object has unlocked new dialogue. The challenge then is to be able to skip directly to new dialogue when re-engaging in conversation with a character (rather than going through all the old stuff) – I have a bit of that done, but it may need a more flexible solution.

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Otherwise just added some thumbnails to a character and an object within the achievement/notes popup.

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PhD Log 29/09/2016

I’m going to keep an online public log of my PhD activities from now on. I’ll document major game design decisions, research done, etc.

Today I had a quick look at the game Elegy for a Dead World, which I picked up cheaply as part of a Humble Bundle. There’s something in it that intrigues me – in my serious game, I expect my main protagonist (a freelance investigative journalist) will “write” weekly articles for a magazine. In the Elegy game, the player does literally write some of the words. Can I incorporate that kind of mechanic into the game? Or will the words in my game be predetermined and more like jigsaw pieces. Just more food for thought.

In practical terms, I’ve started to think about some proper text for the objects and articles in my game. I added the following to a cola can based on information from the WADA website:

Cola contains caffeine, which is a stimulant. According to the 2016 WADA Monitoring Program, it is not a banned substance, but one which is being monitored by WADA to determine if it being misused overall.

This means that athletes can use it, but WADA may add it to the list of banned in-competition substances if it is being abused.

The World Anti-Doping Code (Article 4.5) states: “WADA, in consultation with Signatories and governments, shall establish a monitoring program regarding substances which are not on the Prohibited List, but which WADA wishes to monitor in order to detect patterns of misuse in sport.”

I suppose it is educational, fulfilling one goal of the game, which is to transfer knowledge about the rules and regulations of doping… but it’s a bit expository or “tell not show”. Would it sink in with the player? Some pre- and post-testing of the players’ knowledge would of course determine that.

I also added a newspaper article (player “examines” newspapers and magazines left lying around in the game):

Eddie Gorman joins the Pantheon of great runners, timing his late kick to perfection as he captures a rare World Championship gold medal for Ireland.

Written off by many as over the hill and by others as a nearly man, Gorman confounded his critics with a run of such assured tactical brilliance that it would make Sun Tzu look positively unprepared.

“I always knew I had it in me. I just needed to prove it on the big stage. And I did!” said a jubilant Gorman, in the full knowledge that a party awaits on his arrival home in Tullamore next Tuesday.

These articles are a backstory device showing, in this case, the rise and fall of an athlete. Reading some of the articles will trigger questions to ask the NPCs (non-player characters) in the game.

Garmin Forerunner 225 with optical HR monitor

Just a short post on the accuracy of the new Garmin Forerunner 225 running watch with in-built optical HR monitor and accelerometer. For the past 7 years I used a (much loved and used) Garmin FR 405 with a chest strap – close to the heart for the best accuracy. It’s seen me reliably through 5 marathons. Could the FR 225 match its accuracy? The answer is: as good as. After a 25 minute run with both the FR 225 and 405 with me (and the chest strap for the 405), the average reported by both was 147 bpm. The following shows the heart rate for the run from the two watches.

HRM_225vs405

HR bpm 225 vs 405 (click to expand)

 

The 25 is blue and the 405 is orange. The difference is negligible. There was a lag of perhaps 2 or 3 seconds with the 225 – i.e. it took maybe 2 or 3 seconds longer for the correct heart rate to display. For maybe 99%of runners that matters not a jot.

What about cadence? The 225 has a built-in accelerometer to record the cadence for a run. With the 405 I had a footpod attached to my shoe. This gives exact cadence, but the 405 records strides as opposed to steps. Garmin Connect web app now reports cadence as steps rather than strides, so it simply multiplies the strides by 2, resulting in always even numbers for the cadence – a slight 0.5 step inaccuracy on average (every other run will be 1 step out on average). Would the 225’s accelerometer match up given it is probably making more assumptions than with a footpod?

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Cadence with the 405 (click to expand)

Cadence225

Cadence with the 225 (click to expand)

As you can see, there is a lot of variance with the 225. The 405, by contrast looks quite smooth. The 225 reported average cadence of 157 with the 405 reporting 160 (I’m not in great shape at the moment!). One run isn’t scientific enough to make a judgment. The 405 might have been rounded up from 159 and the 225 could have been 157.4 rounded down – or the gap might actually have been even wider. But I think if I want to do proper cadence analysis, I’ll be pairing the footpod with the 225, which is also supported.

Overall, I am very pleased with the switch to the new FR 225. GPS accuracy and lock speed were improved (no more waiting 5 minutes in the cold at the start of a run) and the watch works very well as a day-to-day watch. No more fiddling with the chest strap and spitting on the contact points, and no more early spikes in bpm. I’m not sure how much use I’ll make of the activity / step tracker, but I might keep an eye on the daily step counts to see how active I am from week to week, month to month, etc.

Focusing on the positives

I had been torn between just self-publishing my first novel (working title THE MURK BENEATH) and trying to get an agent / publisher. I was impatient to begin with – sod all the inevitable rejection and just go it alone. Then I hesitated. I’d give it a bash, see if I could get myself a reputable agent. And so I got my first 3 chapters into shape, wrote a fairly eloquent, if overly long, query letter, and sent it out to about a dozen agents – some targeted, some just to the generic submissions email. I’d get flat out rejections, I thought, justify my initial instinct to just stop wasting time and go it alone.

Then an agent replied: “I’ve very much enjoyed your opening chapters and wonder if you’d be kind enough to email me the full manuscript?”

Great, I thought, the rest of the book is actually stronger than the beginning… surely this is it!

A second agent responded, asking for the full manuscript: “[Y]ou can write. Your dialogue is spot on.”

And a third agent: “The beginning is tremendously promising.”

For just a brief moment I thought it was a virtual certainty. I was going to get an agent. I was going to get published. I was … well, I started to get carried away.

Then I heard nothing for a few days. I guessed that not hearing anything within a couple of days was bad news. Sure enough, the first agent responded with the bad news. “[T]hough I think there’s a huge amount to admire here I’m afraid I don’t feel I can take it forward.” I expect the rejection, so it didn’t actually hit me too hard. I’ve focused on the positives. The other 2 agents haven’t responded yet – I will follow up with them at some point to get feedback if they’ll indulge me.

So I can write, there is tremendous promise, etc. And I got further than the great majority of writers who don’t even get an acknowledgement, let alone have 3 agents request the full manuscript. I just haven’t pieced the entire story / plot together yet.

My plan is to shelve the book for a bit, substantially rewrite it later when I come back to it with a fresh perspective. In the meantime I am doing with my second novel what I didn’t do with the first – I am meticulously planning it, sketching in all the character outlines and plot points. I’ve had verification that I can string some words together, write good dialogue, and now I just need to piece it all together.

As for self-publishing? That’s on hold for the foreseeable future. If I can just get that first book published, then it will substantially increase my chances of getting previous books I’ve written published.

Transcribing for the 1916 Letters Project

As part of the module PG6011 / DH6014 – Digital Skills for Research Postgraduates in the Humanities and Social Sciences, students (of which I was one) were required to transcribe two multi-page letters for the 1916 letters project. The project has uploaded many letters under various categories ranging from the Easter Rising, to art, crime, business, and more. A significant proportion of the letters were already in progress by the time I searched for my first “virgin” letter, a two-page letter from J. de Longchamps to Sir Neville Chamberlain. The transcription process is one form of crowdsourcing, a term mostly attributed to Jeff Howe:

[C]rowdsourcing represents the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call. This can take the form of peer-production (when the job is performed collaboratively), but is also often undertaken by sole individuals. The crucial prerequisite is the use of the open call format and the large network of potential laborers.  (http://crowdsourcing.typepad.com/cs/2006/06/crowdsourcing_a.html)

While my motivation for the transcription is clear (it is part of a mandatory assessment for the PG6011 module), I have to wonder about the motivation behind others who are prepared to give of their time to transcribe letters, some of which are almost indecipherable. One theoretic framework I have explored is the Serious Leisure Perspective (SLP) (Elkington and Stebbins 2014). At a basic level SLP has three forms: serious pursuits; casual leisure; and project-based leisure. If someone was dedicated to the transcription of historic documents as an amateur, hobbyist, or volunteer, then they might be said to be involved in serious leisure (a “serious pursuit”). If someone is funded in some way to do the project (a grant, as part of their job, etc.), then they might be said to be engaged in devotee work (also a “serious pursuit”) – work that seems more like play. If someone does the activity for purely hedonistic reasons, then it might be categorized as casual leisure. Those involved in serious leisure are more likely to be skilled than those engaged in the more short-term and gratifying casual leisure. Project-based leisure doesn’t seem to be as applicable to transcription projects like 1916 letters or Transcribe Bentham.

While a keen eye can help decipher seemingly cryptic handwriting, context is vital too. For example, one of the letters I transcribed (4 pages long) related to the First World War. Had I not known this context, then the address at the top of the letter would have been difficult – B. E. F., for example; I had a small doubt about the E … surely an A would make more sense for British Armed Forces. It turns out BEF is an initialization for British Expeditionary Forces, which you don’t hear in much use now.

I also needed to do some investigative work when trying to decipher illegible handwriting. For example, I had what looked like “Hd. Qrs. 10y Rode.” Obviously the first two bits are short for Head Quarters, but the rest? I dug deeper and did a search for “Major Terence Duffin Regiment”, suspecting this was the head quarters of a particular regiment that he was assigned to. I discovered the “Guide to the manuscript sources for the study of the First World War in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland” and there he was, a staff officer with 107 Brigade. So “10y Rode.” was “107 Bde.”

As my transcription continued, I came to realize that what was a mandatory exercise was morphing into “casual leisure”; I was getting instant payback – encountering a Sir Neville Chamberlain and for a moment being baffled as to how the future prime minister of the UK could have been an inspector general in Ireland – only to delve deeper and discover he was someone else; reading about the life of an officer in the trenches of WWI, his concern for those back home including one home broken up by transcription. My inner historian, amateurish as he is, was awakened and I found myself going beyond the letters and into the archives to build further context and to research archaic references. I now feel part of a wider community of transcribers and part of the larger 1916 project that will be so prominent in the media next year. Will I progress from casual leisure to serious leisure, with respect to crowdsourced transcriptions? Probably not. It can be a frustrating experience and I was slightly guilty of cherry picking letters I knew I could transcribe – I went for a middle ground where there was handwriting, but 90%+ was immediately readable. However, I can understand the attraction for those that would get more serious, given the wonder of discovery that follows.

Additional References

Elkington, S. and Stebbins, R.A. (2014.) The Serious Leisure Perspective: An Introduction, Oxon, UK: Routledge.

 

The Murk Beneath – A Synopsis

More difficult than writing a substantial work of 89,000 words is actually synopising it. Getting 350+ pages into 1. I have been rubbish at it to date, and it is a necessity when trying to sell your work to an agent or publisher (well, 2 agents and 1 publisher so far in my case, and I’ve yet to hear back from anyone). Here is my latest attempt, which is undoubtedly my best effort so far, but I’m not sure whether I am happy with it…

It’s 2010 in post-Celtic Tiger Cork. Mickey Bosco is a disgraced Guard, thrown out of the Gardaí two years prior when he choked a child killer into a coma. Now it seems like trouble is a blood relative, inviting itself around like the uncle nobody respects; the one who turns up at your child’s christening uninvited, reeking of alcohol; the same uncle whose funeral you go to anyway, because the sick bastard shared some part of you.

Mickey isn’t in the best of health. Trouble has been taking its toll and working the graveyard shift isn’t helping. It’s while working that graveyard shift, minding a distribution centre on Cork’s north-side, that a precision robbery kicks off a chain of events that leads to Mickey entering into the employ of a supposedly-retired ex-crime-lord by the name of Jim The Gentleman Jordan. The chain of events includes brushes with corrupt Guards, an attempted hit, buying a gun from a fixer called The Eel, kidnapping a mercenary and his girlfriend, being kidnapped himself by mercenaries, being fitted up for a serious of vigilante-like stranglings, and other events.

Mickey Bosco starts the novel in a bad place. He is depressed and lacking in confidence. He hasn’t been intimate with a woman for years. When he meets the daughter of The Gentleman, however, a side to him he thought was lost reawakens. A slow-burner of a romance blossoms, but not with the blessing of The Gentleman.

Mickey has to contend emotionally with the mysterious death of his father, Michael Senior, a crusading newspaperman who shifted along the razor’s edge of official society and the murk beneath and was cut down. He also has a difficult relationship with a devout Catholic mother who, despite being seventy-six, five-feet tall and obese, is mobile enough to drive to the farmers’ market twice a week and mass every morning at eight. He doesn’t see eye to eye with his mother when it comes to The Man Upstairs. There’s no doubt Mickey has sins to confess, but he’s damned if he’s going to confess them to a priest.

As the novel unfolds, we learn about Mickey’s penchant for Clonakilty black pudding, his love of artisan food (purchased in the English Market, of course), his preference for chillout music and his love of Melville, Vonnegut and Bradbury.

The novel ends with unfinished business for Mickey. But that’s for the next Mickey Bosco novel.

I suppose the trick is to give an idea of the novel without giving the plot away. Even agents and publishers probably want to read the novel and be surprised by it as they read. So I suppose I outline the framework / context of the novel and then bulletpoint some of the main events.

My Novel

Yes … a novel. My novel. The Murk Beneath. 89,000 words of gritty (literary) crime noir, set in my native Cork. First in the Mickey Bosco series. It’s strange to write that. Me, an author … a novelist. But it’s true. And one way or another, The Murk Beneath will see the light of day, at the very least finding its way onto Amazon.com, and ideally in a few bookshops around Cork and beyond.

I find myself impatient. This project began in late 2009 when I started a masters in creative writing at University of Edinburgh. I wrote a few bits and pieces, almost throwaway pages of ramblings. Then, somewhere amongst so much detritus, Mickey Bosco was born. Funny that a character that is so ingrained in Cork culture has his beginnings in Edinburgh, itself famous for some of the greatest characters in crime writing, Rebus and Sherlock, for instance.

I was preparing some sample writing for review by one of the creative writing lecturers, Robert Alan Jamieson. There was a range of fiction excerpts in that portfolio. Mickey Bosco was in there, though I don’t think I had named him at that point. There was some American police procedural stuff and an “out there” short horror story in there too. The Mickey Bosco excerpt is what Jamieson zoned in on and the rest is history. I wrote 10,000 words containing the start of what would become The Murk Beneath and submitted it as my assessable Christmas portfolio. I followed this up in the second semester with the next 10,000 words. For my creative dissertation over the summer, I decided initially to write something else, but soon returned to Mickey, though in a different novel, one that may never see the light of day, though I scavenged some of the better sections from that 20,000 words and they found themselves in The Murk Beneath. Over the following months, the word count reached 40,000. Then I gave up. I did almost nothing on the novel for more than 3 years. My confidence in my ability to finish a novel had taken a knock.

Then last summer, I had a revelation. One way or another I didn’t want to leave this Earth without having completed a novel. In the space of a very short few weeks, I wrote another 50,000 words and wrote the final, cathartic line of the novel on 22nd August 2014. I actually wrote the last 40,000 words in just 3 1/2 weeks.

Back to my impatience … I want to see my book in print. I sent a sample to an agent in July 2014 (I know … I had not actually finished by then, but it may have spurred me on) and was supposed to hear back in 90 days. I heard nothing. I sat on the novel for another few months, barely tinkering with it. Again, confidence a little low wondering if the novel was fit for publication.

Impatience pushed me to get the damed thing out in the world. Just over a week ago, I resolved to self-publish if I heard nothing back from two final queries – one to an agent, the other direct to a publisher. So, in two months if I hear nothing or get rejections, I will proceed with self-publication under my own imprint, Whitegate Press. If I have to, I will spend the time over the summer promoting the hell out of it, getting myself on radio, convincing local bookshops that it is worthy of their precious shelf space. I have the tools – InDesign, Photoshop, etc., and I have spent a lot of time researching print-on-demand. I have a professional-looking inside of the novel in 5.5″ x 8.5″ trade paperback novel format. All I need to do is order a batch of ISBN numbers and design the cover and I’ll be ready to roll. Unless I hear back from my queries …

I’m happy now with the book. I like it. I actually enjoy reading it. I think others will like reading it too, though who knows if it will be to everyone’s taste. At this stage, it is the novel I have had the most repeated reads of. I’m sure at some point I’ll get sick of reading it, but I’m not there yet. I still find the occasional sentence to rephrase, or whatever, but once the time comes, I’ll have to let go, finally.

Scrivener + Zotero for Thesis Writing

I really like the writing tool, Scrivener. I finished my first novel, The Murk Beneath (not published… yet!), using it and it was just fantastic. I only used a fraction of its features, but one of the big ones is being able to organise chapters and the scenes within chapters. Others include the performance as the overall word count ticks over 50,000 – Word just creaks and finding your way around from chapter to chapter is a pain; not an issue with Scrivener, which treats a book / thesis like it’s a filesystem.

My thoughts are turning to the larger thesis writing part of my PhD. It’s very early days, but I can at times be a prolific writer, so why not get some drafts down on virtual paper even at this stage? My main worry was citations and the bibliography. There is no native integration between Scrivener and my preferred bibliography management tool, Zotero. Help was at hand from this blog post. Zotero’s RTF (and ODT) scan tool works, plain and simple. The only minor drawback is not being able to click on a little icon and start typing a name or a title, like you can with the LibreOffice and Word plugins. Otherwise, though, the “Scannable Cite” works very well; it’s very straightforward to add a minus in front of the author to suppress it, and also to add some custom text (e.g. adding the word “see” before the citation within the brackets).

I think over the course of my PhD, the combination of Scrivener and Zotero will save me weeks of effort.