In defence of E-readers

I've always identified strongly as A Person Who Reads A Lot, so I feel like I'm supposed to hate e-readers (Kindles, Nooks and the like) and decry the possibility of the demise of the print book. Now, I will admit to having a great fondness for paper books, especially the smell. I spent many hours at our local library when I was younger - first making my way through their entire stock of The Babysitter's Club as a child, then shelving books as a teenager (which I am terrible at, incidentally - ooh! I should read this one and this one and this one...) and the smell of books always brings me right back. A paper book is also incapable of running out of batteries.

However, I do have a huge emotional attachment to my Kindle - looking at it is like looking at all of my favourite books at once. I've re-read Discworld books, Little Women, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, Sherlock Holmes, Slaughterhouse 5, Dirk Gently, His Dark Materials and countless more on that little machine, as well as reading lots of new books and short stories that have become new favourites. I even persuaded Philip Pullman to sign it!

A photo posted by Beth McMillan (@teraspawn) on

E-readers vs. tablets

My e-reader was a very welcome birthday present from my dad in 2012. It's a 4th generation Kindle - it's got an e-ink rather than back-lit display, plus wifi for getting new books, but no keyboard or touchscreen, so trying to use the installed browser is futile.

I think this is the perfect combination - it's about as amenable to internet browsing as a real book, but I can still get books delivered to it wirelessly, and it feels like reading paper, not a screen. The battery life is also very, very long.

I've read a lot of books on a laptop screen and even on my phone, but my e-reader makes it far easier to escape the real world.

I think you can buy Kindles from around the £25 mark secondhand on eBay, and Nooks for about £30. Of course I wouldn't recommend buying a Kindle first-hand from Amazon, because they treat their staff terribly and don't pay taxes.

Size

I currently have 230 books on my e-reader. Can you imagine trying to fit those into your hand luggage?

Reading one-handed

What do the following things have in common: indents from the carpet in your elbows, a crook in your neck, and a book falling on your face while you're lying on your back? Answer: they are all dangers inherent in the constant struggle of trying to find a comfortable reading position. You have to shift position at least once an hour to avoid permanently breaking yourself, and eventually you run out of positions.

Once you remove the constraint of having to hold the pages open, however, you open up a whole world of possibilities. My two favourite new positions are lying on my front with a pillow under my chin, and lying on my back with the reader propped up by its case on my stomach.

Font size

I realised a while ago that most of the books I've bought as an adult have had tiny, tiny fonts. In fact, this seems to be a feature of grown-up books in general. Until I had the choice to read with as large a font as I'd like, I never realised how annoying this was. Once you've got a big font, you can sit with your book very far away, which opens up even further comfortable reading positions.

Bookmarks

Things I have previously used instead of bookmarks in real books: receipts, bits of tissue, yarn, sweet wrappers, pens, train tickets and, in dire circumstances, a sock. It is nice not to have to use such ingenuity.

Free books

The utterly brilliant Project Gutenberg offers free ebook downloads of a huge library of out-of-copyright books. Stuck for ideas? How about Jane Austen, Victor Hugo, or Charles Dickens?

The best program for cataloguing your ebooks, converting formats and transferring them to your e-reader is Calibre, which is free and cross-platform.

Magazines

Did you know you can subscribe to magazines on your e-reader?? I discovered Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine a while ago and it's been a source of great entertainment ever since. It comes out every 2 months and costs £1.98 per issue, and it usually contains a mixture of novellas, novelettes and short stories. Once upon a time, it used to publish Isaac Asimov, and now it showcases great contemporary authors. You can also buy it made from paper, but it costs a lot more.

Downsides

There are a lot of obvious downsides: the battery can and does run out occasionally, there are situations where you can't switch them on, you can't read picture books or big coffee table books, and footnotes are a total nightmare. However, as a book lover, my e-reader has had a huge positive effect on my life.

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Gift guide for the steampunk in your life

Gift Guide for Steampunks

I feel a bit weird posting a gift guide, as though I've finally succumbed to the siren call of capitalism, but I love steampunk and I've tried to stick to either independent artists and shops who totally deserve your support, or educational resources.

I'll start with a couple of free things: Steampunk Magazine is a fascinating publication that you can read for free online. There are nine issues to date, but excitingly it's just changed hands and Issue 10 is in the works, including a short story written by me!

I think I'm right in saying that Jules Verne's books are considered to be the first steampunk novels, and because they're out of copyright, they're all available for free on Project Gutenberg.

I should note that I haven't actually checked the postage dates for Christmas delivery for any of these, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who gives a lot of their Christmas presents after the holidays when I get around to visiting people.

Cogs computer game from Lazy 8 Studios
£6.99 on Steam for Windows and Mac OSX (not sure about Linux?) or £1.86 for Android or £1.49 for iPhone

This game is available for phones and PCs, and it's a really whimsical, addictive, slick little puzzle game. It's given me many hours of absorbing entertainment and the levels are very imaginative, with tasks like fixing a music box and building a space rocket. You play by sliding around tiles with pipes, cogs and bells on them to make a connected network. Highly recommend.

music-box

Cogs and other bits and pieces from inside watches from Red Rooster
£4.80 on Etsy

For a crafty friend, a bunch of teeny delicate pieces from disassembled watches is a great gift. These are perfect for jewellery, mixed media artwork and papercrafts. This is a goodly amount of pieces to get started with. Watch out for rogue springs that can pop up and surprise you!

Watch parts

The Difference Engine by  William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
£7.84 at Wordery (plus I think if you use the code WELCOME10 you get a 10% discount)

This book is an absolute steampunk classic and well worth a read. It's got a story-within-a-story structure - I found the central story, which forms the main part of the book, absolutely gripping and a really good read. The other story that flanks it is less interesting, but if you persevere through the first chapter you get to the really good part.

difference_engine_book

Tiny Steampunk Octopuses/Octopodes/Octopi (choose your favourite plural) fabric by Jade Gordon
From £10.01 + £0.95 postage for a fat quarter

How cute is this fabric?? It's available from Spoonflower, which is a brill website that lets you design and print any fabric, wallpaper or gift wrap you can think of dream of. This design is available on anything from high-tech moisture-wicking sports fabric to 100% silk. It's printed in Germany, so postage isn't super expensive.

octopodes

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua
£11.87 at Wordery (plus I think if you use the code WELCOME10 you get a 10% discount)

The wonderful and talented Sydney Padua (who came to give a talk at the Ada Lovelace Hackathon last year) has written this excellent graphic novel, which started life as a webcomic and grew into a huge research project. It's meticulously researched but also completely made-up (you'll see what I mean when you read it). The footnotes alone are an eye-opening look into the history of early computing, and the plot itself is consistently hilarious.

lovelace

Make Your Own Clock kit

For the small steampunk in your life (ages 6+) or the grown-up who likes this kind of thing, this kit lets you make your own mechanical clock from scratch!
£9.99 plus £3.50 postage from Hawkin's Bazaar

Make Your Own Clock

Key To Paradise bronze pocket watch from Garrie Makes Jewellery
£15 plus £2 postage on Etsy

No steampunk outfit is complete without a pocket watch, and this affordable quartz creation comes with an ornate casing and its own key.

Key to Paradise bronze pocket watch

Steampunk Nerf Gun by Ignis Fatuus Books
£24.99 plus £9 postage from Etsy

Upgrade your nerf gun battles and your cosplay with this working nerf hand cannon in distressed, tarnished silver and bronze. There's something about this weapon that I find really pleasing, it's got a great air of post-apocalyptic retro-futurism about it.

Steampunk Nerf Gun

Alice in Wonderland steampunk pocket watch from Old Junk Yard Boutique
£32.63 + £13.05 postage on Etsy

If you're thinking of splashing out on a more pricey pocket watch, how about this spectacular piece, with an exposed mechanism and roman numeral engraving?

Pocket watch

A gorgeous handmade bespoke corset from Biscuit Couture
£30-£200 plus ~£5 postage on Etsy

I've saved the absolute best to last: Biscuit Couture is run by a dedicated, passionate young woman of my acquaintance, who makes the most amazing, detailed corsets and lingerie by hand to order. I love this tartan bespoke corset, but she also does a bunch of other fabrics (including one with liquorice allsorts, which I am in love with).

For the gentleman steampunk, she also sells her handmade ties and bow ties.

Biscuit Couture Handmade Corset

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Get some vim and vigour

Little helper.

A photo posted by Beth McMillan (@teraspawn) on

I have a peculiar fondness for programs that you can use at the terminal without having to pop out into something graphical, because I spend a lot of time logged into machines that I'm not physically sitting at, and which don't always have a great deal of memory. I used to use Nano for making small changes to files, Gedit for web design and Python, and Eclipse for C++. Since learning to use Vim, I now use it for everything.

There is a steep learning curve at the beginning. It took me a long time to get used to having two different modes for editing and reviewing, and I still have trouble navigating around the text - if you use the arrow key to get to the end of a line, you don't automatically end up on the next line, which I find very jarring. However, the useful features of Vim far outweigh the minor inconveniences.

The basics

To go into "insert" mode, which lets you edit the document, press i. To get back into "normal" mode, where you can enter commands, press Esc.

To save, go into normal mode and type :w, then press enter. To quit, use :q, or to quit without saving, type :q!. You can also string the two commands together and type :wq to save and quit.

All of the following commands are to be typed in normal mode. If a command begins with a colon, you have to press enter before the command will execute.

Undo and redo

Press u to undo, and Ctrl-R to redo.

Copy and paste

To copy a line, press Y, and then to paste either press p to paste below the current line, or P to paste above. To cut a line, type dd.

To highlight a block of text, either type v to highlight by the character, or type V to highlight by the line. You can then copy the text by pressing y, or cut the text by pressing d. This text can then be pasted as above.

Find and replace

You can use regular expressions in Vim to find and replace text. The simplest one, which I use the most often, is :%s/foo/bar/g to replace each instance of "foo" with "bar".

Smart indent

To indent your whole file at once, type gg=G, or type == to indent the current line.

Finding words

Type /word to find each instance of "word" in your file. Press n to move to the next instance, or N to move to the previous instance. Once you're finished, you can turn off the highlight by typing :noh.

Autocomplete

Autocomplete words, commands or variable names using Ctrl-N.

Opening multiple files in tabs

If you're editing a few files at a time, you can open them all up at the same time and switch between them using tabs. Use :tabe filename to open a file in a new tab, then to switch between tabs use :tabn for the next tab and :tabp for the previous tab. You can see the tabs at the top of the screen. If you want to close a tab, use :q as normal.

Vim is really the Dwarf Fortress of text editors: there are layers and layers to it that I haven't yet discovered. I have the Vim graphical cheat sheet printed out and pinned up next to my desk, and I find if I google something like "Vim record macro" there will usually be several helpful tutorials available.

Happy coding!

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