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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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 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!


Making a poster in Inkscape

I went to Physiology 2016 at the end of July, and I presented what I think was definitively my Best Poster Ever.


Poster selfie!

A photo posted by Beth McMillan (@teraspawn) on

I usually make my posters in LibreOffice Impress, but this time I had some trouble with Impress crashing and so finally decided to make the switch to Inkscape, a free vector graphics program which works on Linux, Mac and Windows. I'd used it previously for making some vector graphics, but I still learned a lot of new tricks in making this.

One word of warning - I used the Linux version of Inkscape, and I'm not sure if everything's in the same menus for all versions.

Change page size

First things first: set the page size to your poster size. Mine was A0, which is an option in the list, but you can also enter custom values. Go to File > Document Properties > Page, or Ctrl-Shift-D > Page.


I seem to constantly hide the scrollbars by accident. The shortcut to show/hide the scrollbars is Ctrl-B (you can see why I might have this issue...)

There are also some useful shortcuts for different zoom levels - 5 zooms out to show you the whole page and 1 gives you a 1:1 zoom.

Snap to Grid

First, show the grid by going to View > Grid, or #.

Then, tailor the grid to the size you want by going to File > Document Properties > Grids, or Ctrl-Shift-D > Grids. It's a good idea to change Spacing X and Spacing Y to integer divisions of the page size - e.g. I wanted 100 squares across on an A0 page, which is 841 mm, so I set the grid to 8.41 mm squares.

You want your boxes to line up, so select the "snap to grid" button from the top of the toolbar on the far right of the screen. To snap to grid when you're resizing boxes, select the "snap bounding boxes" button, which is the second button on the far right toolbar.

Align & Distribute

This toolbox was very useful for centring the titles of my boxes. Bring it up with Option > Align & Distribute, or Ctrl-Shift-A. Select a box and an element inside it, and then use the buttons to align the element with respect to the box.

Cropping images

To crop an image, create a rectangle the right size and position it over the original picture. Select both objects and go to Object > Clip > Set.

Group and Ungroup

When it comes time to reorganise sections on your poster, it's useful to select a whole area and group all of the objects together, so you can move them as one. If you want to edit an individual component of the group, you can then ungroup the items. Go to Object > Group or Object > Ungroup, or Ctrl-G/Ctrl-Shift-G.

Text boxes

Wrapping text in Inkscape has to be done in a somewhat roundabout way. First, make a box that is the size you want your paragraph to be. Then, select the text and the box and go to Text > Flow into Frame (or Alt-W).

It's a bad idea to resize a text box after you've created it, because you'll end up changing the font size while you do it. I'm not sure how to fix that problem! You can re-flow the text into the box if you need to change its shape.


I like to use fonts other than the usual Calibri, Arial, or Times New Roman, just for a bit of variety. We're not talking Comic Sans or anything particularly wacky, but there's enough difference between even fairly conservative fonts to look a little different. Google Fonts is a useful resource for nice, downloadable fonts.

For the A0 poster I made for my latest conference, I was recommended to use a 96 point font for the title, 48 point for the section headings, and at least 26 point for axis labels. I used 32 point font for the body text, and I think it looked right.

Matlab figures

If you use Matlab for your figures, you can export them directly as vector images. I made a Matlab script for printing out an eps and a png of the active figure, given X and Y dimensions in cm and a filename: tidyprint.m

Logos and colours

I would hugely, massively, incredibly strongly recommend that you use vector versions of any logos or pictures that you include in your poster. Pixellation is incredibly noticeable, especially at the large sizes that you're likely to be using. For example, the EPSRC and Oxford both offer vector versions of their logos.

If you want to take some of your colour scheme colours from a logo or picture that you're using, the eyedropper tool (F7) lets you pick up and use a colour from anything in your document.

To make the built-in Inkscape palette a little easier to access, click the triangle to the right of it and select "wrap" so you can see them all at once.

It's important to make your poster colourblind-friendly. I was recommended the ColorBrewer website, which can create you a palette to use. In general, steer clear of rainbow palettes, and replace green-red pictures with magenta-cyan pictures.

I'm really happy with how my poster turned out in the end and I'm sticking with Inkscape for all future posters. I hope that these tips were useful - if you have any more, share them in the comments!