Category Archives: great ideas of our time

How I predicted the iPhone (not really)

So my novel is set in a different world from this one, but only very slightly, like the width of one quantum universe away. If quantum universes work the way I think they do, which they probably don’t since my ideas on the subject come exclusively from science fiction. Anyway, one of the minor differences in my world is that there are items called iTems, which act as phones, GPS services, people finding devices etc.

If you’re thinking “Well, that’s not much of a stretch, is it? Bet it took her all of five minutes to come up with that,” then you have hit on the exact reason why I’m annoyed about this, because I came up with the idea in 2002. When it was genuinely science-fictiony, or at least more so. I didn’t called it the iTem then, just the Item, and I called it that mainly because my mother has a habit of calling all objects she’s looking for “the item” (as in “Have you seen the item?” “Yes Mum, the remote control/cup of tea/cat food bowl is on the sofa/ in your hand/ on the floor in front of you.”) In the book it functions as a minor plot device, nothing more. Nevertheless, I felt it helped to signal that my book was a little bit set-in-the-future, a little bit speculative.

And then it took nine years to get the book published, and in the intervening period Steve bloody Jobs invented the iPhone plus everything else beginning with ‘i’ (the launch of i-Cecream and the rebranding of i-Celand, i-Reland and i-Srael can only be a month away at most). So when I came to write the final draft of All Lies and Jest, I realised that I had lost the only tiny shred of science-fictionality my book possessed.

On the other hand, in order to bring my invention up to date all I had to do was move the capital latter across one. So it became the iTem and it does all the things the Item did except much less impressively because everyone already knows about the idea (or iDea) of multifunctional phones beginning with i.

Thanks, Apple. I could have been a visionary.


I was going to take a photo of my iPhone for this post. Then I realised it was the one thing I couldn't photograph.

Toygers, invisible art, and face emoticons

Links! Which are, as always, connected by nothing more than the fact that I like them.

– What should I read next? you may ask yourself, on the occasion of finishing a book. This website answers your question based on existing reader data. I tried it with a couple of favourites and it recognised them and offered reasonable-looking suggestions.

If you see Einstein, you don’t need glasses. If you see Marilyn Monroe, you do. That’s really all you need to know.

Cats bred to look like tiny tigers. Can we have tiny lions next? Then I want budgies that resemble cute little mini vultures. I have my reasons.

Handy pocket size, and they probably won't eat your face.

– Once people read books. Welcome to the new world, where they function as technology accessories. (OK, I kind of want this.)

– Like baths? Like boats? You’re going to want to see this.

– Notebook full of photos of New York walls for you to draw on, so you can pretend to be a street artist. Nice.

– I know this is incredibly easy to mock, but I quite like living in a world where someone will pay money for works of art that only exist in the artist’s head.

– Emotion-enhancing glasses, on the the other hand, are just silly. But kind of appealing. Maybe.

– And if your appetite for Things off the Internet remains unsated, try these Simple Ideas That Are Borderline Genius.

Unposting: a brief and statistically unreliable guide to posting letters without letterboxes.

Post used to mean what you receive in the mail. It still does, of course, but you wouldn’t know it from the internet. Search for post or posts or posted, you get forums and blogs. Much like this one. Search for mail, you get email.

Which partly explains why I can’t find any internet-based references for the anecdote on which this post (bah) is based. But I know I’ve heard it somewhere.

Anyway, the anecdote, such as it is, is that the writer GK Chesterton never posted his letters in a letterbox. He wrote them, put them in an envelope, stamped the envelope, and threw the envelope out of the window, on the assumption that any half-decent passer-by would pick it up and pop it in a letterbox for him. Apparently he never had a letter go astray.

(Update: it turns out the reason why I couldn’t find anything is because it was PG Wodehouse who did this. D’oh, as I would say if I was the kind of person who says that. Thanks ElizabethW!)

I have long wondered if this method would still work, and suddenly it seemed a good time to find out. (Before the act of writing or receiving a physical letter becomes merely a folk tale we tell our children during those long winter nights when the googlechip in our heads has malfunctioned.) So I wrote and ‘unposted’ five letters, to see what happened.

In the process of doing this various considerations arose that
probably never bothered Chesterton. I started to worry about my potential passer-by. Would I be causing someone inconvenience? They’d see the letter, think ‘Aha, I am a good citizen, I shall post this stray letter,’ but then they’d forget and find it in a bag two weeks later and be racked with guilt. Maybe it would be the last straw and they’d abandon their lives and go to work with orphans in the Third World. Although that might be a good thing, of course Complicated.

And also, weather. I could hardly leave a letter out in the rain: it wouldn’t last long enough to be rescued. And I couldn’t literally throw my letters out of my front window, as Chesterton allegedly did. They’d end up in my driveway and get run over by our car.

So I decided to leave them on my high street. One went in a flower bed and another on a windowsill of a local bank. But then I began to worry that if I left a third one on the same street, people would start wondering what was going on. Maybe I’d see an article in one of our local blogs headed ‘Mysterious Envelope Littering – Who Would Do Such a Thing?’ and the police would get involved and I’d be arrested for wilfully failing to put letters in a letter box. Ok, possibly not, but nevertheless I decided to widen my field. I left my third letter in the next suburb along from mine, and the fourth near my local hospital. The fifth, experimentally, I left in Central London, on the window sill of some posh office near the Ritz in Piccadilly.

So, the results. Of the four letters I ‘unposted’ in my local area of South-West London, all four arrived at their destination the next day. (I’d previously enlisted some London-based friends to be recipients of letters and to report back.) Of the one I posted in Piccadilly, there has been no sign.

Conclusion, and I use the word in a very loose sense as this has been the world’s tiniest experiment: unposting works, provided you live in a reasonably friendly suburb and pick a dry day. On the whole, I’d probably just use a letterbox, but it’s good to know there are options out there should you have a phobia of letterboxes. Although if you do have a phobia of letterboxes, I’d probably just stick to sending emails if I were you.


Prejudice and Pride: Singing Jane Austen’s Song

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a husband.

There is a Borges story called Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, in which a Pierre Menard attempts to write Don Quixote, many years after it was written by Cervantes, based on having read the original some time ago and on reading around the history of the times. His version, Borges says, is startlingly different to Cervantes’, yet the same.

This is a very pretentious and presumptuous start to the project I’m about to describe, but in my defence, I read this story when I was about 15 and the idea of it hit me then like a ton of literary bricks: the idea that the same text can be entirely different in different contexts. (The story is about much more than that. But I was 15 and that’s what it meant to me.) You can change one thing – in that, fictional, instance, the writer of the book – and everything changes.

This concept was in my head, I think, when it occurred to me a few weeks ago that what I really wanted to do with my free time (ha) was to create a cover version of Pride and Prejudice with all the genders swapped round. So I did. It’s the same text. I’ve changed the minimum necessary – pronouns, titles, names, a handful of details to keep it broadly believable. I’ve called it Prejudice and Pride, of course. And it’s different. For (an obvious) example, the world of the book is now a matriarchal society. The women ride around on horseback, go where they like, own houses, lead households. The men – or, as they’re more often described, the boys – stay at home, play the piano, and know that marriage is the only realistic aim of their adult lives.

One thing I kept noticing was that, although it’s still a heterosexual book, of course, it feels much queerer, because the men in the book – some of them – are almost stereotypically gay men in some ways: talking about emotions, crying, flirting, exclaiming. And the women – some of them – are taciturn, butch, strong, in charge. The switch from ‘girls’ to ‘boys’ makes so much difference to the feel of it, too.

No scheme could have been more agreeable to Edward, and his acceptance of the invitation was most ready and grateful. “Oh, my dear, dear uncle,” he rapturously cried, “what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are young women to rocks and mountains?”

Some characters are easier to visualise in their new personas than others. Elizabeth Bennet is now Edward and I found that easy to imagine, perhaps because she was already active and outspoken. His brother John (previously her sister Jane) is gentler and far more passive, and I found it hard to see her as male. Which was interesting in itself.

The elopement of what is now Lyndon Bennet and Miss Wickham feels disturbing to me, where the original didn’t: an adult woman in the military seducing a sixteen-year-old boy? Lyndon in general has become quite a different person in my head to Lydia.

In Lyndon’s imagination, a visit to Brighton comprised every possibility of earthly happiness. He saw, with the creative eye of fancy, the streets of that gay bathing-place covered with officers. He saw himself the object of attention, to tens and to scores of them at present unknown. He saw all the glories of the camp – its tents stretched forth in beauteous uniformity of lines, crowded with the young and the gay, and dazzling with scarlet; and, to complete the view, he saw himself seated beneath a tent, tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.

The rector Miss Collins (previously Mr Collins) works surprisingly well; her pomposity and heaviness are as convincing as his were. But look at Charles (previously Charlotte’s) reasons for marrying her:

Without thinking highly either of women or matrimony, marriage had always been his object; it was the only provision for well-educated young men of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative he had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, he felt all the good luck of it.

I said above that this was a cover version and that’s the description that makes most sense to me (though for Kindle publishing purposes I’m having to describe it as a translation). Cover versions of songs are often the same song with the genders changed. So I’m singing a song that was written and first sung by Jane Austen; it’s been remixed or sampled already by others (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure) and there are fan versions too, but mine isn’t either of those: it’s almost a straight cover with virtually no creative input from me. And yet, it’s also a fresh experience in some ways, familiar though it is. Certainly it’s given me a new look at a book that I must have read a dozen times during my life, including writing college essays on it. I think it’s worth reading.

Which brings me to the fact that you can buy the Kindle version of Prejudice and Pride: A Cover Version for 70p from Amazon here, or for $0.99 from Amazon US here, and you can buy a paper or PDF copy from Lulu for £7.50 and 75p respectively. I also plan to publish it on this site, chapter by chapter, but there are 61 chapters so it may take some time. The first one is up already, though.

Finally, I found this project so enjoyable that I plan to do it again soon with something else, maybe create an entire library of genderswitched works. Watch this space.

Trawling the net for fatherly fish

Father’s Day is a week on Sunday and I’m going to use that fact as a vague way to tie together the fun things I’ve found on the net recently. Such as this tiny yet functional firearm, for the elf-sized gangster in your family. Or for particularly realistic games of toy soldiers.

schroedingers cat

Or teeshirts! Everyone likes teeshirts. I especially like ‘end-head-start body‘, ‘Polar Bears are Soluble in Water‘, and ‘Look Out Schroedinger’s Cat, It’s a Trap!’

Or if you know a father with an exuberant Hercule Poirot-style moustache, why not make him a meal consisting entirely of moustache-shaped food using this mould?

Alternatively, these Dr Who papercraft kits will please any dextrous Whovians in your life. In the further realm of things I didn’t previously know you could buy are these miniature football stadiums (stadia?) for, er, about £80 each, and these amazing escaping light bulbs. Or who wouldn’t want a bouquet of flowers in the shape of a puppy?

If you’re extremely rich and/or eccentric, you could knit this dwarf helmet and beard (ok, maybe not before next Sunday), commission a Pirates of the Caribbean-themed movie theatre for $2.5 million (seriously, wow – or the Batman one?) or create some reverse graffiti if you know of any nearby very dirty walls. Or draw scenes from his favourite movie on your eyelids. Or buy his child this mech warrior. Fine, I’ve strayed a little from my stated theme but I’m just trying to get in all the cool things I found. And now I have.

Also useful as a handy disguise

Umbilical phone chargers and plush roadkill

You know what I really like? Things that look like other things, but are actually different things. Such as this van which is actually a tent and this cup of hot chocolate which is actually a cupcake. But the best thing is this: a wardrobe which conceals a secret playroom. Compared to the father who created this, the rest of us are merely cardboard cut-outs of parents whose children should regard them with justified contempt and scorn.

This Wicked Witch of the West bookmark is definitely a thing I would like to own, as is this flying superhero kite thing. And maybe some angel wings for my iPhone. But cool as this squirming umbilical cord phone charger is, I think I just want to admire it from afar. Far afar.

You know what else I like? Soft toy versions of everything. Such as the Plush Zombie, and My First Bacon, and Plush Sushi, and a plush Beating Heart that actually beats. And oh God you can buy plush roadkill. The internet has reached a new… something. Low? High? I can’t tell any more.

Tasty virtual flies from the Web

  • Seriously, John Cusack has never been nominated for an Oscar? Not just never won one, never been nominated? Jim Carrey? Steve Buscemi? Mia Farrow? Gary Oldman? This is frankly bizarre. I vote we start our own Oscars, because the official lot are clearly getting it wrong.
  • It’s fairly clear that Charlie Sheen is having a nervous breakdown of some kind and therefore possibly shouldn’t be mocked quite as much as he has been. My only excuse for this link, therefore, is that it features the cutest baby sloths you will ever see. (The site also has ‘things Charlie Sheen has said presented by bunnies’ and ‘things Mel Gibson has said presented by kittens’ but the latter is genuinely horrible, though the kittens are gorgeous. But you can find gorgeous kittens on roughly half of all webpages, so don’t feel obliged to suffer.)
  • 12 Pieces of Geek Jewellery. You would not believe how many people I know who would walk over diamond-encrusted coals for that necklace with the digits of pi on it. Also, I would just like to say that the word ‘nerdalicious’ is adorable.

Things to make your life more fun, an ongoing series


Wow, would you look at that?

– Car eyelashes. When I showed these to my daughter, she said “No Mummy, you’re not allowed to get these,” and did an improvised interpretative dance called “Eyelashes on Cars are Really Silly”. This is a girl who has approved of my crocodile-shaped hat, my salt and pepper pots that hug each other, and my clock with a tiny elephant that trumpets on the hour, so if she thinks it’s too silly, I should probably listen.

– Face pots. This has to be the perfect present for somebody, I just haven’t worked out who yet. Who doesn’t want plants on their heads?

Mushroom cloud playhouse. I like looking at novelty treehouses and playhouses and there are some interestingly unique examples around, but I think this might win. Particularly if you want your child to be really, really aware of the possibility of large-scale nuclear war.

Pirate ship bedroom. Fulfills every boy’s fantasy, it says, but my daughter and all her female friends would almost certainly kill or at least mutilate any of their parents to have this. It has a secret spiral slide. Every room should have one of those.

– Cupcake. Fondue. Cupcake fondue. Oh yes. How did I never think of this?

Cat’s eyes for your ears. For when you’re going to a costume party themed around Eyes in Weird Places (note to self: hold that costume party sometime).