punctuation geekery

someone linked to this apostrophe test on twitter last night. I took issue with one of the questions

You have to select *one* option as the correct answer. Go for it.

Question 10:
a) The Roman’s bridges and roads were vital for moving the troops’ supplies.
b) The Romans’ bridges and roads were vital for moving the troops’ supplies.
c) The Romans’ bridges and roads were vital for moving the troop’s supplies.
d) The Romans bridge’s and road’s were vital for moving the troops supplies.

Which did you go for? Here’s my reasoning:

a) works, if you’re talking about one specific Roman, and if he built (or was responsible for building) the bridges and roads being used by the many troops.
b) works, if you have lots of Romans and lots of troops. This is the ‘correct’ answer.
c) also works (imho), if you’re talking about one *specific* troop.
d) is an offence against punctuation, and should never be spoken of in polite company.

thoughts, comments, rants welcomed.

Bucket

The sign read: “Empty buckets are to be left with Sundry Officer. Failure to comply will result in swift retribution. Doors closed at 10 PM.”

Cliff sighed and looked sadly at his half-full bucket. The contents squirmed in a way that seemed to sigh back at him…

This wasn’t why he’d joined up. He wanted to travel through space, exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilisations, boldly going where no man had gone before.

He looked in the bucket again. It glooped at him mournfully, depositing a slimy tendril of mucus on his freshly laundered red shirt. His watch read 21:56.

He considered his options. He could, he supposed, attempt to hand in a not-quite empty bucket. He didn’t like the sound of the word ‘retribution’ though. He could tip the bucket out in the nearest garbage disposal, but as a vegetarian and animal lover, it would go against pretty much all of his beliefs. He squinted at the contents of the bucket. He was pretty sure that it was alive. It was certainly moving.

He looked at his watch again, then opened his backpack and tipped the gelatinous mass inside, before opening the door to the Office.

He’d always wanted a pet.

Monty: I’m not drunk…

“I’m NOT FRUNK! Not at *all*! dunk… drunk…”

Monty slurred, waving a finger for emphasis. He decided that being upright was entirely too much trouble, so half-sat, half-fell to the ground, whereupon he started giggling gently to himself.

Molly glared at him.

“Get your sorry backside *up* off the floor, or I will personally see to it that your life won’t be worth living.”

She reached down to grab hold of him under one arm, then stood again quickly as he made a retching noise and doubled over.

“I’m so sorry sir, ” she apologised, running one hand through her hair. “He’s been out celebrating. He doesn’t normally get like this.”

“Don’t worry miss, I understand. But he can’t stay here.” The security guard looked up and down the street, one hand on his torch.

“I’m going to have to insist that you get him out of here, or I’ll have to call the police.” He looked apologetic.

Molly smiled at him. “Don’t worry. I’ll take him home and sort him out. Seriously, he is going to regret getting this drunk.”

She prodded Monty with the toe of her high heeled shoes.

“Especially if he throws up on this dress. It’s brand new.”

Molly was wearing a little black number which clearly cost more than the guard made in a year. She gave a little wiggle, and cocked an eyebrow at him. “Do you like it?”

He blushed furiously before nodding.

“I don’t suppose you could be a dear and give me a lift with him? My car is just over there.” She nodded towards a black BMW parked under a street lamp on the other side of the road. She batted her eyelashes at him. “Please?”

The guard reached down and put his arms under Monty’s, hauling him to his feet. Monty belched, and giggled again. He reeked of whisky, making the guard’s eyes water.

“I love you,” said Monty. “You’re my mate, aren’t you?” He nestled his head against the guard’s shoulder, and promptly fell asleep.

Molly lead the way over to her car, opened the passenger door and helped Monty’s new best friend to get his unconscious load into the seat. She thanked the guard again, blew him a kiss, then got into the car herself.

She watched as the young man made his way back across the road to the office building. He swiped at the security sensor, looked back over his shoulder, then went inside.

Monty cracked one eye open. “Is he gone? Did you get it?”

Molly grinned, turned the key in the ignition and the BMW roared into life.

“Of course I got it. Lifted his security pass while you were cuddling him and cloned it on this.” She fished a PDA out of her purse and waved it at him. “It’s all in here.”

“You’re a marvel, you know that?”

“Learned from the master. You made a lovely couple, by the way. ”

Monty grinned. “Well, he was kinda cute…”

Monty: cars

An old snippet of writing that I stumbled across in a long-forgotten folder on my PC. Made me smile. Must write some more Monty soon.

~~~

The wind whistled over the damp cobbles, adding to the icy chill in the air. Molly picked her way between the frost-rimmed puddles which reflected the dingy sodium light of the street lamps. She shivered and pulled her long black coat tighter around herself. What was a nice girl like her doing out on a night like this, she mused to herself, checking her watch. Wrong side of midnight too. Closer to dawn really. A girl really needed her beauty sleep rather than being out in the cold.

Her cellphone buzzed in her coat pocket, breaking her reverie. She pulled out a bluetooth earbud, popped it in place and answered the call she’d been expecting.

“Ah, boss. I’ve got a little problem.” She turned at the street corner, scanning left and right. “It’s about the car.”

“It got towed.”

She pulled the earbud out as Monty unleashed a tirade of invective, gave her employer a moment to finish then replaced the tiny transmitter. “I know, I know. Looking for a replacement now.” She’d spotted a car a hundred yards down the street, parked in a dark spot between two lamp posts. She hurried towards it. Not ideal, and she could imagine what Monty would think of it, but needs must.

“Wait, got one. What’s your ETA?” A staccato burst of gunfire from above answered her question. She killed the connection and delved into her handbag, fishing out the lockpick set that Monty had made for her. He’d been giving her lessons on how to deal with the basics. She hoped that she remembered what he’d taught her. The freezing night air didn’t help and she had to stop to blow on her hands to warm them up as she fumbled with the slim metal tools. That one went in *there* and this one like *that*. She twiddled them experimentally.

The cellphone buzzed again. Monty announced that he’d need a car by the front entrance in, oh, about twenty seconds or so, preferably moving, preferably very fast. Ideally something in the bulletproof line, but he realised that beggars couldn’t be choosers but could she please hurry up, thankyouverymuch. Molly hung up and returned her attention to the lock. Another fumble and she’d dropped the tension pick. In the manner of all things dropped near parked cars, it helpfully bounced underneath the vehicle, just out of reach.

Molly swore loudly, kicked the car and examined her options. Monty needed a car, now. She’d lost her means of getting into this car. Any car, for that matter. Another burst of gunfire focussed her mind and a solution popped up.

The brick made a satisfying crunch as it went through the passenger window, spraying the interior with tiny shards of glass. Brilliant. One car. Hotwiring, she was good at, taught at a very early age by her elder brother, Charlie. Three seconds later and the car was laying down streaks of rubber. It hurtled towards the junction and she threw it into a handbrake turn, tyres protesting loudly. She grinned. This was fun.

Monty exited the building via the large glass front doors. She was not surprised to notice that he hadn’t bothered to open them first. Stylish. He was being pursued by two security guards bearing semi-automatics, firing wildly at their quarry. He bounded down the steps five at a time and dived through the newly removed passenger window. Molly, at his request, floored it.

It took him a second or two to recover his composure and dust himself off before he took in his method of escape.

“What on…”

Molly cut him off. “I know, I know. I was kind of stuck for choice.”

“It’s a…”

She gave him one of her trademark Looks. “Would you rather walk?”

He returned the Look. “Quite frankly, yes. I mean, there are cars and there are cars, and then there’s… this?”

She screeched the custom-built, neon-paint jobbed, darkened windowed, rear-spoilered boy racer to a halt. Two large fluffy dice bumped on the windshield.

“Out you get then.”

A bullet took out the rear window, destroying the elaborate flaming skull decoration. He sighed and waved her on. Molly smiled sweetly and put her foot down again.

“You’re actually sulking, aren’t you?” she said, glancing over at him, sat there with his arms folded and the beginnings of a pout on his lips.

“I don’t like these cars. Remember what happened to the last one? It was rubbish. It very nearly blew us up.”

Molly thought for a second. “No, the rocket-propelled grenade nearly blew us up. It was hardly the car’s fault. And it was either this or one of those tiny French cars. This one at least looked like it might get us out of here in a hurry.” She looked in the rear-view mirror. “Hold on…”

The car slid around the corner sideways, engine screaming in protest. Unfortunately for her, the guards seemed to have a very nice, very fast looking black SUV which took the corner almost as well as she did.

She looked down at the speedometer as it crept up past sixty, seventy, seventy five. There was no way they’d get away from these goons, not in this, not now they’d reached the main road. “Running out of ideas, boss.”

Monty delved into his backpack for a moment, and came out with a small package. “Lucky for us I didn’t need this to get into the safe. Those old Dortmunder & Fforde 900 models are too much fun to crack…”

He flicked a switch, grinned then leaned out of the window before lobbing the explosive charge in a carefully timed arc.

The resulting explosion was small, but enough. Especially as he’d thrown it at the lorry they’d been passing. A lorry containing a load of scaffolding poles, which rather helpfully strew themselves in the path of the SUV.

Monty leaned back in his seat. “Brilliant. Despite your appalling taste in cars, a job well done.” He delved into his backpack again. “Want to see it?”

Molly nodded, and whistled softly as he unwrapped the black velvet from his newly acquired prize. “That’s possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

Monty grinned. “Isn’t it just? Zenn is going to be *so* mad. I wish I could see his face when he finds out it’s gone” He scratched his ear, thoughtfully. “Do you have…”

“In my bag.”

He retrieved the small laptop and powered it up. “Where..?”

“Third one down. It’s the one which says ‘monitor'”

Monty clicked the icon and a window opened onscreen. It was dark. “Come on, Zenn. You must be there by now. Don’t you want to even check… ahhh. There we go.”

A man’s face appeared in the window, a slim face framed by silver hair and a neat goatee beard. It looked annoyed. Very annoyed. Monty grinned and waved as his nemesis picked up the tiny remote camera he’d left in the safe.

“Gotcha…”

books, authors and writing

Currently reading (and enjoying) Iain M. Banks’ latest novel, Surface Detail. It’s a monster of a book, and if initial impressions hold true, Mr Banks is back on form. He has that enviable skill of turning out phrases so delicious that you have to pause and savour them, rolling them round in your mind to appreciate them fully.

A case in point is the opening line of The Crow Road, which is this:

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

Seriously, that’s got to be one of the best opening lines in a novel, ever. Who could not want to read on after that?

China Mieville and Jon Courtenay Grimwood are others who can do that to me. Though latterly Mr Grimwood has felt a little off his earlier form – his Arabesk Sequence is utterly superb and has a whole host of bits which I find myself re-reading and re-reading trying to work out exactly how he’s managed to distill a particular point down in such a way. There’s a bit in Pashazade (iirc) where the protagonist gets mugged (well, someone *tries* to mug him, at least), and it’s just beautifully written.

Then of course, there’s Michael Marshall Smith. One of my favourite authors – his Only Forward ranks way up on my Top Ten Books You Really Ought To Read list, followed closely by (or preceded by) the equally impressive Spares. Not quite so keen on his Michael Marshall books – they’re more ‘mainstream’ thrillers (for a given value of mainstream – still dark, gritty and well written, but not as groundbreaking or brilliant as his earlier, more sci-fi(ish) output).

His short stories are quite another thing, and utterly fabulous. ‘More Tomorrow…’ (of the short story collection of the same name) is utterly terrifying and has one of the most unpleasantly perfect last lines of a story, ever. Makes me shudder just thinking about it. The Man Who Drew Cats is superb, as is When God Lived in Kentish Town. Actually, they’re all great. If you can lay your hands on a copy of the rarer (only a thousand copies, signed and numbered), more complete collection of his short stories, ‘More Tomorrow and Other Stories’, I’d highly recommend it.

inner strength

Ah, dear reader, welcome back. I know that I’ve been remiss in updating the blog recently, but I promise to write more often in future.

Honest.

Let me take you on a journey through time and space, back some twenty-odd years (and trust me, some of those years were very odd), and about 80 miles north from my current location…

Are we sitting comfortably? I’d get a coffee or something, as this is pretty long.

Ready?

Then I’ll begin…

Hereby hangs a tale of shameless self-aggrandisement. We journey to 1986. Durham university. Young dakegra has been chosen, though he knows not why, to take part in an inter-schools technology conference, called Input ’86. Schools from around the North East send promising young things to the conference, to learn Stuff and do Exciting Things.

We’re split into teams of four, and given Tasks. First task is to build a machine which will transport a can of Coke (or generic soft drink of choice) down a ramp, into a swimming pool, across said pool and up a ramp on the other side. Without sinking, falling apart or tipping over. Much in the style of The Great Egg Race. The great Heinz Wolff himself is in attendance, of course, though there is no sign of the lovely Lesley Judd.

Our team spends several hours constructing their device, only for it to fall apart, tip over and sink, approximately halfway across the pool. Kind of embarrassing, really.

Our heads hung in shame, we retreat to lick our wounds. The next task is given.

We are to construct a tower, from assorted pieces of metal. This tower must not exceed one metre in height, and must be capable of supporting a weight of 50kg. We cackle with glee, and start drawing plans of a *really* short tower, say about an inch high, made of solid metal. Our hopes are crushed however, when we are told that the rules had been hastily amended, as everyone had the same idea.

New rule: The tower must not be less than 75cm in height.

Darn.

So, we begin our plan. We devise a tower *exactly* 75cm tall. With legs just slightly off vertical, for balance. Comprising of lots of triangles, as triangles are Strong. We reinforce the top of our tower with lots of metal, as this is where the weight will go. We strengthen the base, as this is where a lot of the outward force will go.

At the very last minute, we add a band around the centre of the tower, to try and hold it together, as the legs would otherwise buckle.

Our tower is a flimsy little thing. Four legs, where they should be. Rivets cover every joint. Surely not up to the task in hand.

Time’s up. Testing begins. There are about ten teams, and the winner will be the one whose tower holds the most weight. Our team is last in the list, adding to the tension.

Each tower is tested at various loads up to 50kg. The first tower passes. Their team heaves a sigh of relief. More weight is added, and it quickly buckles under the stress. Pretty good.

Towers come and go. Each passes the 50kg mark easily. Some crack early, some last slightly longer. Towers of various shapes and sizes are put under the test rig and, eventually, destroyed.

Time for the penultimate tower. The record at this point is around the 200kg mark. Pretty impressive.

Tower 9 is loaded up.
150kg. Pass.
175kg. Pass.
200kg. Pass.
250kg, 275kg, 300kg. Pass. Pass. Pass.

325kg. Pass. The uni guys are nervous, the test rig can only exert a load of 350kg. Students mill around, looking for the weaknesses.
330kg…
340kg…
350kg…

ping

One joint finally collapses under the strain. Legs skew and buckle, and Tower 9 is crushed.

Time for Tower 10. Our tower. Our little bit of metal, against The Rig.

50kg. Pass. A sigh of relief. Imagine the embarrassment if this had failed as spectacularly as the coke-carrying machine.

We make it to 200kg, and it’s looking good. 250kg. 300kg. Our team looks nervous, apprehensive. Beads of sweat appear on furrowed brows. Could we match the 350kg? We’re in comfortable 2nd place already.

325kg.

350kg.

Solid. Absolutely rock solid. We’ve won! We’ve beaten the rest.

Cheers and pats on the back, grins all round. We’re presented with a souvenir pen of some description, to mark the achievement.

A couple of weeks later, I’m back at school. The teacher comes into the lesson, and hands me an envelope. It’s from Durham uni. They decided to set up a stronger test rig, to see what our tower could take.

It finally *started* to go at 682kg, nearly doubling Tower 9’s record. Our tower weighed in at less than a kilo, the lightest of the ten.

My point? I don’t really have one. This is a story that has made me smile with a fierce kind of pride since that day back nearly 20 years ago. I just wanted to share it with you.

on writing

If you aren’t reading Michael Marshall Smith’s blog*, then you really ought to. It’s really rather good.

He’s on Twitter too, if that doesn’t cause you to immediately run for the hills, screaming.

Another Archetype Bites The Dust(bin)

* and his books for that matter. Start with Only Forward, or Spares. Thank me later