Wednesday, 26 February 2014

I Seem to Have a Reputation for Liking Tentacles...

Honestly, you write one sex scene involving multiple tentacles and suddenly you're branded as a weird fetishist for the rest of your life...

Still, in the 'continuing to not help my cause' vein, allow me to introduce you to Insatiable Glor:

With Bonus Cameo from Previously-Featured Cushions!
(The name is a long story, involving accidental typos and the willingness of a small group of writers to transform almost anything into a deity they can pretend to worship.)

Yes, Insatiable Glor-as-pictured is an eight-foot-long cuddly squid.  What of it?  I got both the idea and the instructions for making him from Build-a-DIY.  The link was sent to me by Husband, who assures me that he did realise I would be immediately seized by a need to make one, and much encouragement in the endeavour was supplied by Giant-Plushie-Loving-Friend, who mostly just wanted me to be the guinea pig before she makes one of her own.

Step one was of course to make up the pattern.  Discussion with Giant-Plushie-Loving-Friend (henceforth GPLF) of ways to transfer the image on the site to a large-enough piece of paper took in everything from projectors to pinhole cameras to pantographs (apparently, it needed to be something beginning with P), but in the end I settled for a good old-fashioned pen-and-ruler approach.  The living room floor was covered with greaseproof paper and I spent a happy evening measuring, marking, and freehanding curves until I was satisfied with the end result:

Next step, acquiring the materials!  GPLF was snared into agreeing to drive me to the craft and fabric shops (my car is currently out of action until the clutch gets seen to) and giving me a second opinion on things.  Polyester stuffing and beanbag beans for filling Glor were easily acquired, but the fabric was a slightly tougher proposition.  The fabric shop came up trumps with a lovely mottled green that was a perfect squid colour, but was entirely lacking in suitable spotted-prints for the sucker side of the tentacles.  I was on the verge of settling for something that would *just about* work when GPLF spotted, in the clearance bin, a perfectly-sized offcut of a far better sucker fabric than I would ever have imagined existed.  Clearly intended for upholstery or curtains, it has textured circles that make perfect squid suckers.

While all of this was going on, Husband and Small Girl were away for a few days visiting family over half term.  By the time they got home, the living room was full of tentacles:

See what I mean about the fabric?
The pattern is mostly easy to assemble, which is always nice.  Turning the tentacles was a little tricky, but turning a narrow tube of fabric always is.  Otherwise, the only difficult thing was manhandling something of that size, with that much padding, under the sewing machine.  There were tentacles everywhere!

The tentacles and fins were stuffed with polyester stuffing, but getting enough stuffing for the body would have cost an absolute fortune, so instead I went for beanbag beans.  I also went a little off-piste as far as the instructions were concerned, and sewed the final piece on before stuffing the body (leaving a hole both to turn the squid the right way out and to insert beans).  Then I got busy with a jug and a funnel:

This was remarkably soothing to watch...
It didn't take me long to dispense with the funnel, since it kept getting clogged and the hole in the squid was large enough to pour the beans in directly.  I also wound up drafting in Husband as an extra pair of hands, to hold the squid at a suitable height so the body could fill up properly.  A bit of leftover stuffing went on the top, to help prevent the beans falling out while I sewed it close.  All stitched up, it was on with the eyes and Insatiable Glor was complete.

No, I don't have any idea where I'm going to put him.  No, I don't care.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Why I Didn't Become a Programmer Until Now

Prepare yourself for a tragic tale of wasted potential...

As a child, I loved computers. We were a ZX Spectrum family, and my parents both took the time to learn BASIC and write programs for it. They even had listings published in magazines (and my mother these days is referenced on World of Spectrum, thanks to one of her programs being in an issue of 16/48's tape-based magazine). So the groundwork, the opportunity, was there. I dabbled in learning BASIC myself, thanks to an Usborne book or two, though at that age I was mostly content to just type in listings or play commercial games. By the time I was old enough to really consider coding, the Spectrum was already obsolete (sob).

That's not to say I didn't still dabble. I recall, in my first year of secondary school, writing some code on an ancient BBC Micro for a technology project. Something about helping new students to find their way around, if I remember correctly. Coding was an option, so while other people were cutting up wood to make signs I was joining forces with another kid to write a program that would give you directions based on the room number you entered. Fairly simple stuff, though it would have been truly unwieldy if we'd ever tried to write it to handle more than about four rooms.

And then we got to GCSE, and the ill-fated Information Systems course. We were told in advance that this was a hard course; that we needn't think it would just be two years of 'messing about on computers'. It wasn't a course for lazy students looking to muck around. That's what they told us and so, being a diligent, bright student who liked computers, of course I signed up for it.

What I got, sadly, was two years of messing about on computers. The school didn't have any dedicated IT teachers, so the course was taught by Maths and Chemistry teachers in their spare time. That didn't help, but I'm not sure having a proper IT teacher would have made much difference. There wasn't a single piece of coding in the course. We learned instead about how to use ClipArt and snazzy fonts to jazz up a poster for a school fĂȘte. We learned about how a computer system could help a supermarket with sales and stock control, but might not be so helpful for a small corner shop because of the costs involved. We possibly learned about the SUM formula in Excel, but no macros or pivot tables or even any of the more interesting formulae.

Looking back, I can see that this wasn't the sort of course I was expecting or even a very useful one to have been taught. At the age of fifteen, though, I lacked that sort of awareness. All I really knew back then was that I'd signed up for a computer course and spent two years utterly bored stiff. I blamed computers for that boredom, rather than the course, and turned my attention to other things at A-Level and at university. Computing was not for me, I decided.

By the time I realised my mistake, while hanging out with CompSci students at university, it was too late. I was already deep into a Philosophy degree, with a minor in Creative Writing, and there was simply no way of altering things. I took a unit in Formal Logic as part of Philosophy, the one unit I received a First for, but that was as close as I got. The door was closed and there was no reopening it.

It didn't entirely stop me trying. I applied for a couple of 'trainee programmer' roles after university, but without success. I dabbled in the odd bit of programming at home, but the trouble with trying to learn code by yourself is that you need an idea of what you want to achieve. I picked up HTML because I could use it to make silly websites with Lego minifigs doing ridiculous things, but I never had the same options available in other languages. There are only so many business reporting exercises you can do out of a textbook before getting bored and going to do something else, if you don't have a teacher standing over you waiting for your results.

And then this opportunity at the COBOL factory came up. And somehow this time I was successful in my application (twelve years of real work experience and a better interview technique may have had something to do with that). So now I've finally been taught to code, in the way I never was before, and I love it. It comes easily to me, somehow, and as happy as that makes me it also makes me sad for what might have been. What might have happened if I'd been given a proper course at GCSE, or if I'd recognised the weaknesses in the course I did do and looked at doing something coding-related at A-Level or with my degree? Have those twelve years of working, frequently in retail jobs for various reasons, been a complete waste of my potential?

Somewhere, there's a parallel universe where I went a different way. And maybe in that universe I minored in CompSci at university and got put off by the mouthbreathing geeks who didn't know how to react to an actual female person in their midst (unlikely, given that I dated a few in my time as it was). Maybe I still failed to get a job in programming and ended up on the same career path anyway. Maybe by now I'd be earning a comparative fortune writing ground-breaking software (something that will never happen while I'm working in COBOL, I know). Sadly, it's the nature of the world that I'll never know what might have happened. But I can be happy to be here at last, and I can certainly learn from my mistakes. I'll be watching Small Girl's interests and potential closely, whatever they may be, to make sure she doesn't get put off from something for the wrong reasons.

And in the mean time, I've got code to write.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Everything is Awesome!!!

Everything is cool when you're part of a team!  And if you don't agree, I can only assume that you haven't seen the Lego Movie yet.  You really should, by the way.

I'm not going to spoil it here.  Instead, I'm going to take advantage of the uncharacteristically upbeat mood I've been left in, and talk about some other things that are awesome.

1).  COBOL is Awesome!

I have four weeks left of my probation period at the COBOL factory, and the current expectation is that I'll pass with flying colours.  In the past five months I've picked up COBOL and JCL with reasonable facility, and I'm finding coding to be remarkably fun.  I haven't enjoyed a job this much in a long time.

2).  Editing is Awesome!

In the past week I've put together over 5,000 words of the second draft of the novel.  That's nowhere near the sort of pace at which I crank out words during November, of course, but it's pretty good for keeping regular life ticking over at the same time.  There will doubtless be further blogging about the process at some point.

3).  Making Stuff is Awesome!

I've already blogged about the cushions I made recently.  No doubt there'll be more in future, since I have crochet on the go and plans for several cool jackets (I'm weirdly obsessed with the idea of making jackets.  Not sure why, but jackets are awesome).  The fireplace in my living room is decorated with crocheted amigurumi and a tiny robot panda made of felt, and I recently rediscovered the pencil tidy I made from clothes pegs in my youth and redeployed it so I won't have to spend quite so much time looking for a pen to do the crossword at the weekend.

4).  This Thing is Awesome!

Look at it.  It's beautiful.

I came across this in a shop window in Kyoto a few years ago, and it's one of the most awesomely steampunk things I've ever seen in real life.  It's an automated machine for making tiny cakes of some description.  Metal rings come down a chute at the back and are positioned on the inner ring of the hot plate.  Batter is squirted in, then they make a full rotation to cook one side before being flipped over onto the outer ring to cook the other side.  After that second rotation they're taken off the hot plate and are ready to go.  The photo doesn't entirely do it justice, because it was absolutely mesmerising to watch.

5).  Lego is Awesome! (Obviously)

Do I really need to say anything here?  I think I'll let this be my final word on the subject:

Monday, 10 February 2014

Cushiony Goodness

For many years there has been, in our house, a cushion with a picture of an elephant hand-embroidered on it whose exact provenance is unknown to me.  Recently, not least as a result of living in the bedroom of a small girl, this is what it looked like:

Yes, that's green felt tip you can see on the cushion itself

Small Girl was, needless to say, somewhat upset by its current state, so I agreed to see what I could do to rescue it.  Electing to focus on salvaging the elephant itself and not worry about the border, I first attacked the cushion cover with scissors.  There were a few small holes in the fabric within the boundaries of the elephant, so I strengthened them with mending tape before putting a layer of interfacing across the whole of the back:

There's felt tip on here too, but it's not so easy to see
The tail, sadly, got a little caught by the fray monster but the rest was rescued reasonably intact.  The next step was to see about transferring it to a new cushion cover.  I gave Small Girl the choice between having something in a matching colour or going for a contrast; she elected for the contrast and requested her favourite colour (blue).  Blue fabric was duly procured and cut to size, and I applied a further layer of interfacing to the reverse of the piece earmarked for the elephant (better safe than sorry).  The elephant was pinned in place, then sewn on using a very short zigzag stitch to cover the edges.  It'll never be the strongest of pieces, but fingers crossed it'll last a while longer now.

Once the elephant was attached, it was a simple enough matter to run round the sides and put in a zip.  Hey presto!  One finished cushion:

I thought I was going to catch the edges of the elephant more than I did

That's not the only cushion I've made recently, either.  For Christmas I got a cross-stitch kit for embroidering a cushion cover in a rather striking design.  Hand-stitching that took the best part of a month, then while I was out buying blue fabric for the elephant I also picked up some different fabric to make the cross-stitich cushion cover, plus a second one so the sofa won't overbalance:

Avast, ye LuBBers!

The skull-and-crossbones cushion is the same yellow on the other side, so when civilised guests come around we can have a smart matching pair on display.  With less civilised company, or if we see a fat Spanish sofa weighted down with gold doubloons, we can hoist our true colours and attack.  These were, again, simple enough to make although stitching through all that canvas and wool took some effort.

Now, if someone could just explain to me: what are they for?!

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Measuring my Life in Lampposts

Today I did the final run in the Zombies, Run! training program.  No more drills, no more mandated stretching breaks, just 45 minutes in which to run at least 5k.

Spoiler alert: I did it.  I reckon I covered 5k in just under 38 minutes, which is hardly world-beating but then I did have to walk for some of it.  And much of it was into a massive headwind as well.  Endeavouring to run while the wind is pushing you the other way at 20mph is not exactly easy.  Sheer bloody-mindedness kept me running continuously for very nearly the whole of the first 2k, but it also wore me out to the point where much of the rest was erratic, to say the least.  There's plenty of room to improve on my time if I keep at it.

At times like that, when running is a struggle, and especially since this last run didn't include the handy time checks I've been used to getting every couple of minutes, I make a lot of use of lampposts.  I tell myself that if I can just keep running as far as the next one, then I can slow down and walk to get my breath back.  And when I walk, I tell myself that it's only as far as the next lamppost, and then I'm going to start running again.  And then I'll run again, and I'll run until I'm worn out and think I can't go any further, and I'll make myself go as far as the next lamppost before I slow down.

It's a similar approach to the one I use when writing.  I found a long time ago that if I really want to write without getting distracted then I have to set myself targets.  I write in fifteen minute bursts.  Enough time to get going, not enough time to get bored.  And short enough that I can wait until it's done before I check Twitter or look at funny cat pictures.  I just have to make it to the next lamppost.