A blog by an historian, Pagan and fanfiction writer, with left-wing leaning politics. In short, I could be waffling on about anything.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

SOPA and PIPA Strike: On the Other Side of the Darkness

On January 18th 2012, the internet went on strike. It was to protest two American bills, which could seriously threaten the basic architecture of the world wide web.

I took a grand total of nine websites, blogs, clubs and forum profiles into the protest. Some were off-line completely, while the others were redirected or otherwise censored. I wasn't alone. An estimated 7000 websites joined in the action, including Google, Wikipedia, Tumblr, Craigslist and the instigators of it all, Reddit.

Here is a photostream of just some of the sites that I saw censored during the day.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

THTAGCJB Will Be Off-line Tomorrow to Protest SOPA/PIPA

Tomorrow (January 18th 2012), this blog will not be available. I am participating in American Censorship Day, a protest in which the internet effectively goes on strike.

For further information, please read this: Blackout! The Internet Goes on Strike Protesting SOPA and PIPA.

Monday, 16 January 2012

SOPA Defeated! Obama Threatened to Issue a White House Veto!

Update: It seems that this was very premature. See edits at the end.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry. It's hard work sometimes being a blogger with a conscience in cyberspace.

I've just spent an intense half an hour scrolling through code, as I prepared to join in the protest on January 18th 2012. On that day, huge giants of the internet would have entered blackout. Reddit, ICanHasCheezburger, Nerd Reactor and an increasing number of other websites were all pulling their pages for one day only. My friends and I have been watching that list growing daily - mega-sites pledging their support. The big question on everyone's lips was would Facebook and Google have the guts to join in?

Of course, I'm not anywhere near that league, but I do have an internet presence. I did have a few things to remove on SOPA Day. My websites are easy. I have full access to them, so it would be nothing to insert a file which took them off-line. But everywhere else was a little more tricky.

I'd already sussed that I could place all of my Wizzley articles into draft mode, which would delist them all. But I would have to persuade the site owners to remove my section of Suite101, MangaBullet and Sal's Realm of Runescape. Technically, I could pull the draft mode trick for Sal's too, but I've been writing blog entries there since early 2007. We're talking well over a thousand pages.

Then there are my two Blogger sites. I have some access to the code there and this was where I'd spent the past thirty minutes. It took a great deal of trial and error, but I eventually cracked it. I have four templates saved - two originals from this blog and Jo's Library; then two doctored with redirects.

On January 18th 2012, anyone trying to access either blog would have found themselves here. There would be no way to read my content until I returned the templates back to their original form.

All ready and set to go! Phew! I went to see which other sites had signed up in the interim and that led me to the news. An hour ago, President Obama signed a formal veto which effectively shelves both SOPA and PIPA.


It's early minutes yet. I'm going to keep my prepared coding safe on my hard-drive and we'll see how this pans out. Not that I'm a cynic, but I've seen the other foot falling one too many times. For now, I'll just cheer with the rest of the free world. It looks like it was another round for freedom of speech.

Edit: News I'm getting now is that Wikipedia is going ahead with the blackout. SOPA is shelved, not dead; and/or PIPA is shelved, not dead. Still monitoring Twitter and occasionally the less up-to-date press too.

5.06pm: AnonNews has just confirmed that the blackout is still on. PIPA going to the Senate on January 24th.

5.09pm: Reddit have confirmed that their blackout is also still on. I think it goes without saying that mine was back on the books the second the doubt crept in.

5.16pm: Jimmy Wales is Tweeting that he thinks it's just a tactic to ward off the blackout. Full steam ahead!

8pm: I'm still not getting a consistent story. It seems that this is the source. Though Eric Cantor may or may not have shelved it. Either way, every site that signed up is now saying that the protest is going ahead. I'm with them too.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Wizzley Gold Star for Outstanding Articles

I've just been honoured with a Wizzley Gold Star for Outstanding Articles. I'm only the 7th person ever to receive it; and I managed it in just 26 days. Everyone else on the list has been there for months and they have far more articles than I have.

Let's just say that this has touched me more than I can possibly communicate right now. Words have finally failed me.

The accolade is purely cosmetic. There's a ribbon on my profile picture, which says 'excellent author' if you run your cursor over it. From what I can tell, it also places me (permanently?) on the front page of the best authors section.

Thank you ChefKeem and all of the team at Wizzley.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

I've Been Nominated for a Shorty Award!

I had no idea that the Shorty Awards even existed, until I checked my e-mail. I had yet to open Twitter, but the alerts were all there. Twelve of them, all nominating me in the Blogger category.

They hadn't come from just one group or set of friends. People from different forums, who couldn't have been prompted by each other, were lined up in that queue. They each gave reasons for nominating me. I'm not ashamed to admit that I became overwhelmed and just cried.

The official list hasn't registered every person who voted for me. My Twitter alerts now say that there are fifteen, but only seven have made it onto the Shorty Awards list. If ever I needed encouragement to keep on writing, then this is it.

Thank you to everyone who has nominated me so far. Love you all.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Freelance Writers: Are We Dumbing Down the Internet?

The pressure is immense. Forget about the human rights, the history and the literature, concentrate on Justin Bieber. It's what the people want.

Naturally it's not what the feedback is in comments. Ask the readership of any site what they think they want and a variety of topics end up on the list. The scope of curiosity is as expansive as the human mind itself. I can go whole weeks without any one of my friends mentioning Kate Middleton, Beyonce or Lady Gaga. (Ok, maybe not weeks with the latter. She is pretty ubiquitous.) But if I want hits, then they are the subjects to focus upon.

I didn't believe those experienced veterans of internet prose at first. When I joined sites like Suite101, I was prepared to fill volumes of binary text with descriptions of historical events. It was my passion and my raison d'ĂȘtre. I knew that I could make the past live again, if I was only given the chance. I was going to save lives with reporting human rights abuses, waving my Amnesty International membership in the air. All of that education would never go to waste.

Instead I'm writing about Beyonce and Jay-Z having a baby.

Giving the Public What They Want

In my early days at Suite101, I had a wise soul tell me that it's all about the hits. It doesn't matter where you're writing on the internet, you'll never get rich without those likes, retweets, favourites and links. People come; people read; people alert all of their friends. That's the bread and butter of on-line freelance writing.

My first article to approach any measure of success was about Justin Bieber. His fans picked it up and, for a glorious few days, the link was being reposted all over the internet. It's still being read. Months after the news became old, I get a dozen or so Beliebers a week looking in on the article.

You cannot believe how tempting it is to do nothing but write about Justin Bieber all day. The only thing stopping me is, well, I'd have to write about Justin Bieber all day.

The pattern was continued with other articles. Prince William and Kate Middleton visited Birmingham. I wrote about it basically because I had photographs of the riot damage that they'd come to inspect. The hits on that story dwarfed even those for Mr Bieber. They have continued to do so, whenever I've written about royalty.

But only the right royalty. I didn't get very far pointing out, for example, that Britain's prime minister, David Cameron, is related to Queen Elizabeth II. Perhaps Britons have always secretly regretted that whole unpleasantness with Charles I and would love to return to a proper governmental monarchy.

As I gaze down my statistics on every site, the same story presents itself. Write about celebrity and the hits pour in. Write about anything vaguely cerebral and they dry up again. Though I have managed to get away with it with a Wizzley article.

When it was called Studying History as a Timeline, the article was my only real failure on the site. As everything else that I've written slowly rose though the ranks, this one bucked the trend by falling. (On Wizzley, each article is graded according to hits, comments and likes etc.) I changed nothing but the title. Suddenly it's up at 86% and rising. Then again, Anne Boleyn's breasts have always had huge implications for the rest of the world.

Are We Dumbing Down the Internet?

I don't believe that my writing becomes worse or the whole page loses something, when I'm talking about the things I love. Do I really describe television programmes better than I can a pivotal historical battle? I received an Editor's Choice for my article about Torchwood. I barely got any hits on my series about what happened at the Battle of Shrewsbury.

The thing is that it's not just me. Every freelance on-line writer out there is facing the same dilemma. I know because I'm privy to them talking about it on writing forums, where the general public can't see. Experts in so many fields are just giving up, so they can concentrate on the stories that bring the hits.

I worry that we're dumbing down the internet. I worry that our readers are going to let us.

So just to give this blog entry some kind of meaning, let me add an important fact: Jay-Z has already got a track out about his daughter, Blue Ivy Carter. Glory even features her cry. You can hear it right here! Awww!

Thursday, 5 January 2012

British Weather: Driving Through Gales in North East Wales

This was originally published on Suite101, but I'd forgotten about the 'no memoir' rule there. As the article reads more like a personal diary than a well-referenced, impassive research story, it doesn't fit Suite's guidelines. My editor pulled it with much regret.

Apologies to those who read it there first and are now seeing it repeated.


There are times in life when you discover that you are a good driver. Successfully navigating the infamous Horseshoe Pass in a gale was one of mine.

I can't say that I wasn't warned. After spending New Year in Cheshire, I was preparing to leave the next day when the weather report came onto the television. High winds extending to gale force in places was the dire warning for Tuesday 3rd January 2011. My friends looked at my partially packed bag, then back at me. We all watched the television.

"Just so it's out there," commented the house owner with a wry smile, "you're perfectly welcome to stay here as long as you like. Come and live here, if you want to." But it didn't seem so bad. I wasn't planning to depart until the afternoon, when it was supposed to die down.

A Beautiful Day for a Drive in North East Wales

There are few places in the world more stunning than the mountains of North Wales. From the Clwydian Range in the east to the mighty Snowdonia in the West, these pinnacles rise in ever-changing colours, as the seasons progress. The views from the top of them are breath-taking, overlooking places with mystic or ancient sounding names like Moel Llys-y-Coed (Hilltop of the Court in the Wood) or Gorsedd Bran (The Throne of Bran). From the top of the right peak, the wide-eyed traveller can look down and see the contours of Britain laid out as they are in an atlas. From another, I've glimpsed distant Ireland, on a clear day in the summer.

With all of that on the doorstep, it is highly likely that my journey home will involve a detour. I cannot drive past North Wales without venturing into it. However, this occasion felt like one of those rare occasions when I should do just that. Except that it didn't seem so windy, as I left that house in Cheshire. It wasn't even raining and the sun was attempting to shine through the clouds.

It was shaping up now to be a beautiful day for a drive in North East Wales.

How to Drive a Car in High Winds

Later on, the news reports were to talk about 100mph winds lashing at Britain's coastline. I could smell the salt air and see the gulls, but until I drove beyond Connah's Quay, none of this was noticeable. Sheltered by the Wirral Peninsula and the Clwydian mountains, it barely felt like there was a breeze.

But Connah's Quay represents the gateway to the Dee Estuary and beyond that the Irish Sea. Suddenly the weather was pulling at my car, but not too badly.

Once, in the distant past, a policeman friend had taught me some techniques for controlling your steering in adverse conditions. You resist the temptation to grip the steering wheel tightly, because that merely adds in more movement from straining muscles. Instead, thumbs are hooked around the central bar, while the rest of your hands hold lightly. The steering wheel cannot shift then, no matter what force of nature attempts to do so.

I did that and cruised along quite merrily, until the coastline veered away from the mountains and that deadly westerly wind had a clear passage onto the road.

Gale Force Wind Causing Dangerous Driving in Flintshire

Soon I had passed Flint and I could see the sea in misty glimpses out towards Bagillt. But I was mostly watching the car in front of me swerve dangerously towards the curb. It must have struck it, before the driver regained control and continued slowly on. Even holding my wheel as I'd been taught, I could still feel the wind buffeting from the right-hand side.

It was worrying, but not enough to frighten me. Yet the next few minutes saw the pressure build until I had to acknowledge that I was now in a gale. Every driver around me was struggling. We were all crawling along, afraid to do anything close to the speed limit. I signalled to leave the main highway at the next junction.

Before I could turn, even the professionally taught grip failed me and my Zafira lurched towards the side of the road. I pulled back quickly, but it was like wrestling with a beast. I was never so glad as when I entered the sheltered heart of the Clwydian Range again.

Nearly Flying in the Wind in Denbigh

Closeted by soaring slopes, it was easy to dismiss the weather as being a problem only on the coastal roads. The tourist signs said that was an area of outstanding natural beauty. As I followed the route, I was inclined to agree. Then I reached Denbigh.

Whistling down the high street, the gale threatened to lift me off my feet, as soon as I stepped out of my car. I survived about half an hour there, just looking in the nearest shops, before admitting defeat. I intended to follow the Vale of Clwyd back home. What I hadn't anticipated was where that road would eventually take me.

Llangollen's Horseshoe Pass in a Gale

Snaking around the side of a mountain, the exposed, 1,368ft high Horseshoe Pass is frequently closed in winter. It was open today and there was no protection at all from the high winds rushing in from the east.

I was too busy fighting the wheel to be scared. I inched along as slowly as I could without stalling, then paused halfway for a rest. The road can be viewed for miles, as it undulates around the valley. It was deserted. The Welsh had more sense than to be on it.

I was shaking as I reached the bottom, though more from exertion than actual fright. It felt like I had accomplished something in the vast scheme of extreme driving. It was probably stupidity.

Still closer to Cheshire than my own home, I finally gave into common sense and stayed an extra night there.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

2012: The Start of a Brand New Year

We've all done it - gone off on a rant to which there is no real response. I chose to indulge in mine on January 1st, after the fireworks were long since over and the wine bottles had been emptied.

It was a proper whinge. I told my friend all about Panda, Suite101, the patronising gits at the job centre, deafness, lack of time and stress, all of the burn out things that had been plaguing my life. I moved onto the fact that I used to be so good, so in control, back when I knew myself too well and the world was great.

He let me get it out of my system, then finally gave me his take on the matter. He played That was the River, This is the Sea by the Waterboys and grinned at me.

Perfect answer, Eric. Now let's get on with this 2012 malarkey.

As we kick off into the new year, I'd like to thank everyone who has been reading and commenting so far. It would be a lonely place here, if I didn't know that you were along for the ride.

So far, it's been me blogging about whatever occurs to me at the time. This is bucking the trend of all those experts who say that you should find a niche and stick to it. People don't come anywhere for a mish-mash of subjects, as they like them gift-wrapped in expectation. Is that true? Is anyone annoyed by the fact I leap from computer software to ancient history to modern politics without blinking?

I'd also like to ask what individual blog entries and series you have enjoyed most last year. Naturally this feedback will help me decide what to write about this year. You have influence!

I look forward to hearing your replies.