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May 27, 2008

The H-Bomb Girl

Marianne and I both read Stephen Baxter's The H-Bomb Girl, the Clarke-nominated Young Adult novel set in Liverpool at the peak of the Cuban missile crisis. For Marianne, who is now 11, I think it was well pitched. It taught her a good bit of history and a good bit of science; she loved the story and thought the book as a whole was 'brilliant'. She spent the entire trip home from our wet bank holiday weekend regaling us with questions about time travel paradoxes, to which nearly all of our answers were 'you need to read more SF, girl.'

In the book, our hero, Laura, finds herself in a new school in Liverpool following her parents' separation. Her father has given her the key to a Vulcan bomber in the belief that she can use this to get special treatment in the event of a nuclear war. She makes some new friends, who discover the key and quickly dub her the H-Bomb girl of the title. But the key has attracted the interest of visitors from the future, who have a variety of reasons for wanting to get their hands on it. This all plays out against the backdrop of beat-mad 1962 Liverpool; the Beatles make a slightly over the top appearance.

This book is clearly perfect for older kids, both those who have read a good bit of SF and those who have only a little. Like Marianne, they'll absorb all the historical background; the SF is interesting and thought-provoking, the plot cracks along at a good pace, and the ending is agreeably satisfying. I don't know whether interesting YA SF with female protagonists is at all common these days; when I was growing up it obviously wasn't at all.

For adults? My own views were much closer to Abigail Nussbaum's than Farah Mendlesohn's. I found the tokenism of the supporting characters (poor mouthy girl who gets pregnant, only black boy in school, only gay in the village) insanely irritating. The scene-setting is clumsy; Laura has moved from High Wycombe, but the description of Liverpool domestic life is consistently written as if she had moved from the future that the young readers live in. And the base story is a very simple piece of SF; it works for young readers, but adult SF readers are going to be way ahead of the plot.

Posted by Alison Scott at 07:48 PM | Comments (0)

May 10, 2008

Comic Life Magiq first impressions

Mayday bank holiday 2008 I got an email from the lovely people at Plasq offering me a cheap family pack of the new version of Comic Life. The new edition is Leopard only because it uses all the lovely Leopard core functionality. As a test for this review, I made this collage of some of the photos Steven took of the morrismen on Bank Holiday Monday. I really liked the extract feature, which isn't perfect but is good enough, and amazingly quick. I liked the flexibility around lettering, panel shape options, the great array of comic fonts that come bundled in and the starter templates. And I liked the overall ease of creating comic pages. You can see above that for a local club, you can create something really fun very quickly.

What's not to like? Well, a fair bit actually. Do you remember 'Kai's Power Goo'? It was a great little image editing program with a really silly interface. Looks like Plasq remember it too. If you decide to do complex editing on an image, it throws up a large palette in the middle of your screen, with a tiny editing window inside that; perhaps 640x480 (see screenshot below; either that editing window is very small or very far away). There are no context-sensitive right-click menus, and almost none of the elements are smart. Layout programs with layers need easy ways to see what layers are under your mouse at any given time and bring the right one out to work on. If there's a way to do this in Comic Life, I haven't found it yet. I want it to be perfectly obvious how to, for example, flip an image or object 180 degrees horizontally; I never found a way to do that at all.

The program keeps guessing about what it is you're trying to do, like Clippy. Several times, it decided for me that I wanted to insert an object into the frame of a different object. Er, no, ta; why would this ever be the default for anything other than an empty frame? And on one occasion Comic Life created a smart object out of two different elements, for no reason I can see, and I couldn't retrieve them except with Undo. either that editing window is very small, or very far away There's a weird circular editing tool that brings up a wheel of seemingly random options; its purpose is completely opaque to me. I guess my problem is that I'm not looking for 'intuitive' or 'whimsical' user interfaces; I'm looking for a neat array of tools with clear menus for their use, and a program that takes full advantage of my screen real estate.

Having said all that, I do think this is a great program. Comic Life has been used not just for comics and for family greetings and snapshots, but for a whole range of instructables and manuals. This version extends its functionality and provides enough editing tools for most non-power-users' needs. And the core of the program -- making comics to share with your friends and family -- is as much fun as ever.

Posted by Alison Scott at 05:37 PM | Comments (0)

May 06, 2008

Smultron and LilyPond

Regular readers will know that I'm a great fan of Barfly, a great .abc reader for the Mac. And, in fact, a great fan of abc, the simple music file format that's very popular with folk tune collectors. Barfly's now been upgraded to work fully with Leopard. It's splendid for dealing with long abc files with many tunes in; it plays them really well, and it generates sheet music instantly.

However, nobody could claim that Barfly's printed output is beautiful. For that we turn to LilyPond, a Free Software music engraving program. The output from LilyPond is exceptionally lovely; the program has been designed from the ground up to make elegant sheet music. LilyPond itself is not exceptionally lovely; it's a command line program. It once had a nice Mac gui front end, but this has broken in Leopard. Instead, it's now supported on the Mac with a tiny bit of Applescript. So you do have to roll up your sleeves to use LilyPond at present. And although LilyPond includes an abc2ly converter, I can't make it work. Hand-coding from scratch is taking me about ten minutes a tune at present (this for 'ordinary' 32 bar English tunes). So I will not be producing a 2000 tune tunebook any time soon. But for tunes I'm actually learning, it's fine. In fact, it's causing me to think about the ways in which the abc that I'm working from is different from the tunes as played by the better melodeon players around me.

LilyPond has a reputation for fearsome syntax; I had little trouble with straightforward tunes, but as soon as I tried tunes with chords or books of tunes, I started to struggle. It's worth persevering though, because when it does come right the results are spectacular. I'm not exactly stretching it, with easy monophonic tunes. The most complicated thing I've coded so far is a You can use LilyPond to produce multi-part orchestral and choral scores. But you might die in the attempt.

At heart this is a markup language, and for that you need a text editor. Plokta famously uses SubEthaEdit for collaborative working, so I hadn't tried other text editors. The text editor of choice for LilyPond is Smultron, which is a lovely Maclike editor that supports LilyPond syntax colouring. I'm not exactly a power user of text editors, but this appears to me to be both easy for beginners to use, and has some key features (like keeping track of nesting). For some reason the Mac isn't overly provided with good, free text editors, so it's nice to find one that's actively supported.

Posted by Alison Scott at 06:30 PM | Comments (0)