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How my Macbook Pro with retina display has ruined my (online) life

I must admit I’m a bit of a tech junkie. I like computers and TVs. My second ever job was working on the help desk of a major ISP. I was staff writer on New Zealand MacGuide Magazine for its first year of publication. My first computer was an Amstrad CPC464 (colour display, tape drive) in 1985, and I have never looked back.

Which means getting a new computer is a major event. Not just because of the cost involved, but because it’s a new piece of kit and – because that’s the whole idea – a significant upgrade from what I already have.

On New Year’s Eve, I took delivery of a 13″ MacBook Pro with retina display, replacing my 11″ MacBook Air. The Air wasn’t that old, but after about two years of continual use I found it just a fraction to small to work on comfortably.

I’ve also lusted after the retina displays since they were announced by Apple, at a suitably ferocious price point, but it wasn’t until the latest update to the MacBook Pro range that the 13″ model came within my budget.

So, after a week or more or use, what’s it been like?


Actually, pretty darned great. In fact, more than that – this is the best piece of computer kit I’ve ever used. Apple’s laptop line have immaculate build quality, being carved out of a single lump of aluminium (well, two lumps – lid and base). The design is minimal, elegant and beautiful. There is nothing in the design that is out of place – I recall with horror a high-end, creaky plastic Lenovo laptop I once had for a week on a work trip, and I can still remember the row of 24 different coloured lights that ran under the screen, notifying me of various uninteresting functions (Wow, the hard drive is being accessed? I should hope so! Say, I’m plugged into the mains power? I was wondering what that big cable was!) that actually woke me up in the middle of the night in my pitch-black hotel room.

But forget all that (and I’m sure some PC laptops are pretty nice too). The killer feature of this Macbook Pro is the retina display. It is wonderful. So good, in fact, it has basically spoiled me for anything else.


According to the tech specs, the retina display is a 13.3-inch LED-backlit display with IPS technology, with a native resolution of 2560 x 1600, running at 227 pixels per inch. It uses supersampled pixel doubling to produce a 1280 x 800 display, making everything pin sharp. Individual pixels cannot be seen, even with your nose against the display, giving a computer experience that is really pretty amazing. Mac OS X has ultra smooth rendering anyway, thanks to the Quartz graphics layer of the operating system (one bugbear I have with Windows – which I actually really like [there’s a big PC gaming rig sitting behind me as I type this] is that its rendering is spectacularly awful). On the retina display, the results are incredible. It’s the same tech used on the iPad and iPhone – the Macbook Pro’s screen is as clear and sharp as those devices.

This gives rise to two problems.

Firstly, after using a retina display constantly for more than a week, every other computer display looks terrible. Even my 27″ Thunderbolt display, which runs at 2560 x 1440, looks fuzzy.

Secondly, a lot of the internet is low res – text and 2D design is fine, as these are rendered by the OS. But images are a problem. Because the retina display uses pixel doubling, any image is really displayed at twice the size. Take any image on a computer and blow it up to 200%, and it looks bad.

It is easy to fix – websites just need to use images at twice the regular resolution, then scale them down. I spent a couple of hours working my way through my own site to address this, swapping out all my book covers for double-sized versions, hacking the fixed-size slider on the front page to accept larger images which WordPress then scales to fit. Now my site looks sharp whether viewed on a retina display or a regular one. There are other way of doing it – there are plugins and code that can be used to detect the display and render either the regular images or the high-res, retina-ready ones.

High-density displays like Apple’s retina ones are still in the minority, but they’re only going to increase in use over time. It makes sense, then, to future-proof your own site to ensure that all visitors get the best experience. And it doesn’t take too long.


If anyone has been looking at the retina Macbook Pros, I can heartily recommend them – even if the internet still has a little catching up to do.

2014 writing spaces

Happy New Year!

So, my action plan for 2014 starts today. And here’s where I do most of my work, along with the tools I use to do it.

My main working space is the upstairs office. My wife has half the space, and I occupy the opposite side. We both use the same simple Ikea desk.

The set-up here is my primary computer – a Mac mini (2.3 GHz Intel Core i7, 16GB RAM, 1TB internal hard drive with two external 2TB backup drives hidden on Twelve South backpack behind the display) running Mac OS X Mavericks. This is paired with an Apple bluetooth keyboard, and I use a Razer Deathadder 2013 mouse.

IMG_2206I’m a big fan of quality mice – like socks, you will never regret the expense, and my accidental discovery of “pro” mice about ten years ago (while I was browsing for something in Apple store, I played around with a Logitech MX510 that was plugged into an iMac and couldn’t believe the difference it made) pretty much changed everything!

The display is an Apple Thunderbolt display – 27″, which runs at 2560 x 1440 resolution. Perfect for side-by-side display of three full-size A4 pages, when the need arises.

On the wall is a pair of Sennheiser HD210 headphones (the bottom end of Sennheiser’s offerings, but a giant step up from the crappy Sony pair I used to have).

The chair is a copy of an Eames office chair – the real thing costs thousands, so I’m just fine with a knock-off.

Downstairs is my secondary working space, the library.

IMG_2208The library is actually a dining room, better served with six large bookcases and a repro Eames lounge chair.

The computer is a 13″ Macbook Pro (2.4 GHz Intel i5, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD) with retina display, which actually showed up just yesterday, replacing my old 11″ Macbook Air.

IMG_2212The Macbook Pro is something of a revelation – the retina display has a native resolution of 2560 x 1600, and then uses pixel doubling to produce a 1280 x 800 image of, quite frankly, jaw-dropping quality. It’s also pretty light, while giving me some useful screen real estate, making it an obvious upgrade from the Macbook Air.

I’ve mentioned software a few times on Twitter, as it’s a conversation that comes up with reasonable frequency. I use Scrivener for all first drafts, as I find its project statistic tools a wonder when it comes to managing deadlines and word counts. From the first draft, I export the file as a Word doc and use Microsoft Office 2011 (Mac edition) for the subsequent edits and rewrites.

When it comes to editorial notes from my agent and editors, I switch to the Windows version of Word 2010, running in Windows 7 inside Parallels, which lets you run Windows apps inside Mac OS X almost invisibly. I resorted to this as the Mac version of Word is still very buggy, especially when using track changes. To ensure maximum compatibility – and to ensure I never lose any more work to random crashes – Word 2010 was the answer.

And in Parallels, the Windows version of Word is much more responsive than the Mac native app anyway, which is slightly depressing! However, my primary complaint with Windows is its appalling font rendering, and using Windows 7 in Parallels is no different.

So that’s me all set for 2014. I suppose I should actually do some writing then.

See you tomorrow!



24th January, 2011

Behold, the magic corkboard!

Well, it’s not magic, but it is made of cork. I’ve been keeping a big spreadsheet of book ideas, but one thing that has been bugging me is that unless I want to print it out, it’s not constantly visible. What I really wanted was a physical chart of books that I’m planning to write, and what better way than a corkboard. Each planned book gets an index card with the title and a one-line summary on the front, and some more detailed notes on the back. I’ve obscured the summaries in this picture (aside from Hang Wire and Godless, which are currently in progress), which might seem pretentious given that I’m not a published novelist yet, but, what the hell, why give anything away!

The beauty of a corkboard and index cards is that I can shuffle the cards around to indicate some kind of schedule, once I’ve worked out what it is, anyway. There are 16 cards up there, and at a rate of three books a year that’s over five years of work ahead of me.

Well, at least you can’t say that I don’t take this seriously. There’s a word for writers who don’t give up: published.

So close to wrapping up The Wasp in the Lotus now. The question at the moment is how far over the 20k word limit I’ll go. Hopefully I can get it wrapped up today (Tuesday), and then… the editing begins. As much as the thought of editing pains me, the story has changed a fair bit over the course of this draft 0, so I am looking forward to tidying things up.

Project: The Wasp in the Lotus (steampunk/clockpunk novella)
Words today: 2,015
Words total: 19,827/20,000 (99%)
Total words for 2011: 44,308

Death’s Disciples does not muck around. I like it. If you read the back cover (or, indeed, even just looked at the front cover) you’ll know there is an explosion on a plane. This happens on page 2. Page 2. Talk about being dropped into the action!

Books: some pages of Death’s Disciples by J. Robert King.
Comics: On hold until February.

Laissez les bon temps rouler

I try to keep this blog writing-related, but here’s a brief interlude.

Last Thursday I went to see one of my favourite bands, Quasi, play Manchester’s Deaf Institute. It was nothing short of amazing – tiny venue with perfect sound, small crowd, good support band (I know, I’m still in shock). One of the benefits of being a fan of small indie bands who play small venues is the opportunity to actually meet them. All three members of Quasi were either chatting in the audience beforehand, or manning their t-shirt stand, and when they came off stage I grabbed a moment to chat to Janet, the drummer, who also plays with Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, and was one third of Sleater-Kinney.

Anyway, there were a lot of photographers there, and by chance someone captured a pic of me and guitarist/singer Sam Coomes, which I’m pretty chuffed with. Hint, I’m not playing guitar:

The entire set by kezontour can be seen on Flickr.

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any video of the show, although there are some good recordings on You Tube from earlier in the same tour. Here’s one from Chicago:

In other news, slightly more writing-related, I’ve got my iPad. It’s absolutely beautiful. I may only have had it since Thursday (it was delivered a day before the official UK launch too), but every day it still surprises me. It is slightly smaller than I thought it would be, but is very comfortable to use. I’ve already been reading comics and eBooks on it, and I have to say, I’m now a total convert to digital reading. iBooks is a terrific e-reader.

It’s not all about passive consumption of content though. I’ve done some beta-reading and critiquing (with notes) in Pages, and I’ve started Corkulous planning boards for Ludmila, My Love and The Gospel of the Godless Stars. When I can figure out how to take screenshots, I’ll post some up.

NaNoWriMo 2009: Day 1

NaNoWriMo is here – 50,000 words in thirty days (that’s 1,667 words per day), which for me is only half a novel, but it’s a great excuse for a little pedal to the metal. This is the first time I’ve actually officially signed up for it, so I’m going to attempt a day-by-day blog on progress.

Day 1 started with a serious bout of procrastination. Now, 1,667 words a day is less than my 2,000 words a day requirement normally, and as I’ve said earlier, on a good day I can get up to 3000 words. But having not written for a month or so, actually sitting down and getting started was going to be tough. And it was. But, as always happens, once I got the first chunk down (about 1000 words) and had a break, I felt marvellous. Later this afternoon I did my second chunk. It felt good.

I actually wrote all of chapter one of Rad Bradbury: Empire State, and I managed to wrap it up almost exactly on my arbitrary 2,500-word target – 2,510, to be precise! How, exactly, I’m not sure, but I’m not going to think about it too much!

An important motivator for NaNoWriMo is remembering that you are allowed to suck. The first draft will be rubbish. I don’t know how many times I’ve said it, but here it is again – this is the vomit draft, a regurgitation of the plot before you forget it. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be aiming for perfection – you should! But if the work sucks, that’s okay. You can fix it later. The important thing is to get the words down to meet you daily goal of 1,667 words.
Continue Reading →


It’s Thursday, that time of the week that (like Arthur Dent) I could never get the hang of, so I’ll keep it brief. I’ll even itemise things.

The Devil in Chains
Somebody added my 2008 novella to Good Reads (although apparently it doesn’t recognise the cover), and even reviewed it! I’m rather flattered, and quite frankly to have someone tell me that in one scene,

An ordinary exploration of an empty room suddenly becomes an exercise in exquisite grotesquerie.

… makes me all sorts of happy inside.

What also makes my head spin is a review in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet. This goes beyond flattery and into the surreal realms of honour. I think a w00t is called for. Thanks to Kate for her devotion to the cause!

Speaking of The Devil in Chains, I need to get cracking on reformatting the PDF properly for the Sony eBook reader. This website will also undergo a bit of a redesign when Seven Wonders is done, which will make it easier to keep track of projects and also easier for people to find stuff to read. For the moment, you can grab The Devil in Chains here as a PDF, or here as an eBook for the iPhone/iPod touch.

Seven Wonders
The book that never ends! Actually that sounds a bit harsh. The draft of this superhero novel is at about 95,000 words, and I’m slowly in-filling the middle bit. I’m giving myself to the end of August for this, and I think I’m on track. It’s actually a lot of fun writing about Tony and Jeannie and Sam and Joe and SMART, as not only do I know what happens to them at the end, I’ve already written it. Going back in time a few weeks and seeing what they were up to before everything went wrong is really interesting as a writer.

Master project list
Something else for the website is a proper tracker of projects, but I’ve yet to find the right funky progress bar widget. However, having discovered the wonder of VoodooPad (basically your own personal off-line wiki), I’ve started transferring dozens of separate documents of notes and ideas into one repository, which means I’ve also created a master index of novels, plotting out a sort of schedule well into 2010 and beyond. VoodooPad is a work of genius, and now joins Scrivener on my list of essential writing tools.

Which means nothing until I actually show you guys something, but it did surprise me (pleasantly, I should add), that I’ve got no fewer than 11 novels planned so far. Which is good, because to make it as a writer you need, firstly, to keep writing and writing and writing, and then when hopefully something is picked up, if you want to make a living out of it you have to be working on the next book, and then the next, and then the next.

So a list of 11 books is easy. It’s just a list and a few notes for each. Ideas are cheap and the imagination is limitless. Sitting down and writing is hard, but at least I know where I am aiming.

Tools of the trade

One of the things about writing a longer piece of fiction – say a novel – is that the actual organisation of stuff on your computer can be a little complex. Notes, drafts, synopses and outlines. Reference material, more notes, some doodles. Personally, I’m far too fond of lists to be strictly healthy, there so when it comes to filing and folder hierarchy on my computer, it’s serious business. All of which takes time, cheap nba jerseys which is fine when it is fun, but when that time could be better used, y’know, writing the actual story, then it’s a real drag. Especially when you’re dealing with several different apps – maybe a simple text editor for notes, a word proc for the actual text, etc. And then you divide it all up by cheap jerseys chapter or section. You see my point.

Then quite by chance, while browsing a few regular sites one morning, I discovered SF writer wholesale mlb jerseys and fellow blogger Tobias Buckell talking about Scrivener. Scrivener is, quite simply, the perfect writing application. Check out Tobias’s site for screenshots and more detail (then download Scrivener and try it for yourself), but essentially Scrivener takes all your writing files and orders them into E a single coherent project. Notes and outlines and references are all instantly available wholesale nfl jerseys as you work on family. a piece of text, and subdivision into chapters and scenes is, honestly, a joy to behold. Gone is my soon! confusing mass of nested folders. Now I just have one single Scrivener project. Genius!

It’s amazing it’s taken so long Soul for such an app to be developed, but hell am I glad it has!