Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Graveyard Special

There are writers and there are better writers. And "better" is a multi-dimensional attribute. Some people write wicked-cool plots. Others write multi-textured characters. And others use words to evoke emotions and a sense of place to transport the reader someplace magical.

"Better" thus becomes "better at what?"

Jim Lileks is the best writer I know in that last dimension. If you have an extra few minutes check out one of his wordier bleats. Nobody catches the essential character of the onset of autumn as well as Lileks.

The novel Graveyard Special is a comedy murder mystery of sorts. It is no "puzzle story" such as you'd get from Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers. Nor is it a "hard boiled" tale of a detective solving a crime with two hard fists and a hot gat. The murders are sort of incidental to the atmospherics.

The Protagonist is a pot-smoking art student who seems to have paid too much attention to the reports of the swells in New York being all ironic and such. Thus he becomes a lad from the provinces thrust into the swirling intrigues of a university in the provinces. This story is quite American provincial.

It takes place in the second half of 1980. The Cold War and threat of nuclear Armageddon haunts the protagonist's thoughts of the larger world. Though Lileks leans to the right, he catches the weltschmerz of a college punk liberal. Surely, the commies can be reasoned with and no doubt that dangerous cowboy Reagan will start a nuclear war.

This college punk kid is in the process of finding himself and you might call this novel a coming of age story. The protagonist is working the overnight shift at a Diner. The cook has a nightly habit of huffing Reddi-Whip at 3:00 AM. This makes him dizzy and he lies down to savor his cheap high. One night the cook never gets up, because he's been murdered.

This begins the mystery of whodunnit. We discover his brother is campus radical with connections to bomb makers and ROTC bombers. (The sort of people who went on run the Obama wing of the Democrat party.) This has the cops interested.

The second body dies when someone gets the bomb-making wrong. Intrigue and conspiracy ensue while the protagonist tries to get the girl he loves from her boyfriend. Oh, and there's a sexy Russian Teaching Assistant to make things complicated for the protagonist and to provide the obligatory T&A pun.

The story is strong on atmospherics and character. This story transported me back to my own grad school experience and it reminded me of when I was a callow youth.

The story builds to a satisfying climax with the protagonist saving the day. But the denouement is afflicted with an Irving the explainer and an unsatisfactory solution to the remaining plot threads.

Despite the weak finish, I give Graveyard Special 5 of 5 stars.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

It's All Story-Material

There is one thing you need to know about writers. Nothing bad can ever happen to a writer. Repeat that to yourself: Nothing bad can ever happen to a writer.

I recently heard of a fellow whose mother died at an advanced age. This is tragic. On her death bed she disclosed several facts that dug up skeletons long thought buried which in turn tainted the reputations of several family members. Also tragic.

But hey, these disclosures are also interesting: Aunt Agatha had a child with Uncle Zeke back during the Great War but she married Uncle Elmo while Zeke was deployed in Europe. And then there's the reason why he had to leave town in a hurry when the General Store burnt down. Very tragic.

Tell me more. Or better yet, write it up.

Let's suppose you had the worst day at work and you absolutely despise your boss. Maybe you could write up a scene where he tries to kill you, and you pump him full of lead, but he's a werewolf so the bullets don't kill him. And then you push him out a 10 story window and drop a desk on top of him.

I imagine Larry Correia had something like that in mind when he started writing Monster Hunter International.

Your frustrations are not unique. Many others feel the same way about their jobs or bosses or whatever. Thus they'll relate if you write of injustice suffered at their hands or if you write of messily dispatching an unpleasant acquaintance.

Nothing bad can ever happen to you. Be of good cheer. If life hands you lemons, you've got something to stuff into your potato cannon and shoot at something where they'll make a satisfying splat. It's all story material.

Sartre said, "Hell is Other People," and he probably said so after a family reunion. And if you can't say anything nice about anybody, SIT NEXT TO ME.

There's nothing the writer can dream up that's as engaging as what you'll hear when your buddy is maligning the Russian mail-order bride who broke his heart, took his house, and cheated him out of his VA benefits. Take good notes and write about it.
Those bad things happening to you are just story-material.

Friday, October 26, 2012

On Laying Out the Architecture of a Story

31    A character acts toward a goal because s/he is motivated, but faces a conflict.

This is one of the most strategic of Writer's Mantras. Tom Clancy says that fiction differs from reality in that fiction must make sense.

And the sensible thing for a protagonist in most stories is to walk away, and avoid the heartbreak of being torn between Miss Right and Miss Baxter, and avoid getting shot at by villains, and avoid crying when Ole Yeller dies.

So, what keeps your protagonist in the game? Don't tell me, tell yourself and remind yourself as you're writing your story.

For example, let's suppose you're protagonist is Dagney Taggart and she wants to make her family's railroad business a success. That's easy enough. Just make the trains run on time. And if you write a story of trains running on time delivering goods safely and efficiently where they're needed and keeping customers satisfied, nobody will be interested.

To make things interesting, you add conflict. In the case of Taggart Transportation, two problems arise. On the one hand, Dagney can't get high quality metal for rails and bridges. On the other hand, gubmint regs are making it impossible for her to do business (but if you grease the right palms, you can make these problems go away). To add insult to injury all your best people are disappearing.

The motivation to keep her family business intact and profitable pulls Dagney along through the twists and turns of the plot. Along the way she discovers a mystery and starts putting together clues of a general strike being waged by the makers against the takers. Happily, she doesn't have to sit through any long sermons by John Galt, so she remains engaged in pursuing her goal.

(If you don't know what I'm alluding to, find out who's John Galt.)

Most people aren't interested in reading long political diatribes. If you don't believe me, have you read the Unabomber's Manifesto? Or Earth in the Balance?

Many more people will read a story. We all face trouble in our lives. Some have more trouble. Others have less trouble. But everyone has some trouble. We can identify with someone else having trouble and trying to work through it. So, we keep reading. Will Dagney Taggart find out why all the greatest minds of America have gone missing? Will she escape the parasites who infest her life? Will she make the trains run on time? We want to know, and to find out we'll keep on reading despite the polemics along the way.

The novel I'm alluding to is fairly heavy-handed propaganda. It is more pornography than truth. But this mantra is not about telling the truth, but of laying out the architecture of a story. So, look at your current writing project and answer:
  • Who is my protagonist?
  • What is her story-goal?
  • What stands in her way?
With these answers in mind, you need to weigh them:

Does it make sense for someone, and in particular a person like your protagonist, to pursue such a goal?

How about the obstacle? Does it seem daunting? It should be.

In motivation theory a person will be unmotivated by a trivial task. As the task becomes more difficult the motivation rises. For me more difficult problems are more interesting. But if the task becomes ridiculously impossible, people naturally give up and become unmotivated again. In your life, you'll be most engaged in the problems that are near the upper-limits of your capabilities. Try to live there if you can.

When you're writing, you want to show your protagonist going against an obstacle that is seemingly impossible. The more impossible the better. You want the reader thinking, "Gosh, if that ever happened to me, I'd just curl up and die." And then you've got to use your cleverness as a writer to devise a way for your protagonist to NOT curl up and die, but overcome!

Avoid the dreaded deus ex machina when you do.

Finding Time

Finding Time Cover
Now is the time to buy Finding Time, an anthology of time travel stories:

In 2280 EarthGov is desperate when aliens destroy their first colony. They’ll even comb through the wreckage of the aliens’ UFO that crashed in 1947—where one man claims he’s found a time machine. Now the race is on to scour history for the treasures and talents EarthGov needs.

Sid Feynman just wants a government grant. His hopes for a quiet academic life are dashed when EarthGov thrusts the beautiful historian Nell Playfair upon him and expects Sid to actually use the time machine.

Soon Sid and Nell are rocketing across light-years of interstellar space and millennia of history—seeking that which is lost and finding time.

(Who did that gorgeous art work? Joanne Renaud, that's who.)

Here's the trailer for Finding Time:


If you like what you've seen so far, check out the preview.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Time Better Spent Elsewhere

I try to be positive. And if you are an independent writer, we need each other's support. So, when I see what's clearly an indie title, I'll buy it. The cost is nominal, so the only risk is my time. Such is the case with Tear In Time. It's only $2.99 and if you can afford a kindle, you can afford that without thinking much about it.

But what's your time worth?

The novel starts out by getting bogged down in a lot of description of things you'll never see again. It follows some characters caught up in the opening salvos of a Civil War battle--and a drive-by shooting--without bothering to make any further use of them in the rest of the novel.

The reader is also subjected to a step-by-step description of how one amputates a limb. Not exactly fun for the squeamish nor does it add anything except gratuitous gore. It's almost as if the author flunked out of medical school and then consoled himself by reciting his anatomy lessons. That's not fair, I've no idea whether the author flunked anything medical.

But he could use some grammar tips. I'm a terrible one to complain of others' bad grammar, but I will note that one can "peek" around a corner, whereas one can look down from a mountain "peak." And whereas a chicken may be "laying" in a bed, a wounded soldier can not. These errors of spelling, like "there" and "their" cannot be caught by software, but they can be caught by editors, proof readers, and beta-readers.

The indie writer who forgoes the expense of editors and proof-readers not only makes himself look like an ignoramus, but he also tarnishes the reputation of every other indie writer. I'm not saying that I never confuse "lay" with "lie," or "who" with "whom," but I do spend good money hiring people to vet my prose for such.

Then there is POV. It stands for "Point Of View" and if you don't know what that means, you don't have any business writing in this century. A well-disciplined writer picks one POV character and he projects the entire story onto the perceptions of that individual. This isn't always easy in a story where you have multiple story threads. Or when you kill off the POV character. (Though William Holden did a fairly good job of sustaining the narrative after his demise in Sunset Boulevard.)

Our time traveler changes time thereby shortening the length of the Civil War by a few years. But he does so by the most obvious of actions. Anyone who's thought seriously about the butterfly-effect knows that teeny changes will have huge, unforeseeable consequences. In my stories I cite some chaos theoretic hocus pocus (strange attractors) to get around this, so I expect some subtlety.

Finally, there is the dreaded Mary Sue, or in this story Marty Sue. Our time traveler gets all the other doctors nearby to adopt his strange 21st century surgical techniques. He is made an instant Lieutenant, and then an instant Captain, and then an instant General without any of those pesky details of enlistment papers, sworn oaths, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

This book ends with our intrepid hero not only returning to the 21st century, but also becoming famous for being a time traveler. He even gets a new General's uniform and has a nice chat with Barack Hussein Obama. The preezi casually asks how time travel works and he casually declines. Uh, presidents don't work that way.

And if the gubmint found out some random surgeon was bopping back and forth in time, he'd end his days in that warehouse at the end of Raiders' of the Lost Ark.

All told, I cannot in good conscience give more than 3 stars to Tear In Time. It deserves less for the bad editing, but the story does manage to hold one's interest.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Raspberry Pi As Torture

The Raspberry Pi is a $35 computer. It's great. Just hook it up to your TV and some junk laying around the house and boom, you've got a computer.

If you want a cheap media computer, uh, well... what's your time worth?

I've got several years' worth of junk in my junk box. So, I rifled through it to find junk to plug into it.
  • I've got a TV with an open HDMI port.
  • And do I have a USB mouse? Yeah, but it's an optical mouse...
  • And do I have a keyboard? Several. Any of them USB? Uh, no.
  • But I've got two USB hubs, a big white one and little black one. 
There's one critical point that you might overlook like I did. Just because your junk box has a bit of kit in that list doesn't mean it has the right bit of kit. 
The Raspberry Pi has a thing about power. If you plug something really power-hungry into its USB, the board won't work. You fix that by plugging a USB hub into the Raspberry Pi then plugging your stuff into the hub.

Mindful of this, I used the big white USB hub. Mistake. You'd think that a USB hub is as vanilla device as imaginable. It is not as far as the Raspberry Pi is concerned. ERGO, when you decide to set up your Raspberry Pi, verify each of the items above to make sure they are verified to work with it.

I discovered this when I couldn't get the Wifi dongle to work and went googling for device drivers. Didn't find them, but I did find a list of approved USB hubs. What? Turns out the little black USB hub is confirmed to work with the Raspberry Pi and the big white USB is confirmed to cause trouble. I swapped in the little black hub and it seemed to work a little better, but I suppose by this time my expectations had been downgraded significantly.

Ergo, when you start hooking up things to your Raspberry Pi, check to see they have been confirmed to work with it. Here's a link where you can check. Check first. It will save time & pain.

One Thing To Remember About Polling

You may have some interest in the upcoming election. If so, I'm sorry. You should seek treatment. But until you do, here is one helpful tip that may help you survive the next fortnight.

My name is Poling. I'm going to talk about polling. And I've been hearing a lot about polling lately. You don't need an advanced degree in Mathematics to realize that Republicans will vote for their guy, Democrats will vote for their guy.

And Whigs (like me) will vote for the right guy.

The people who put compile polls realize this and they can adjust how many Rs and Ds they put into their sample to get whatever number they want. You might think that those evil lefty liberal newsies will put in a bunch of Ds to make their guy look good, or you might think that those corporate drones will put in a bunch of Rs to suck up to their bosses (who go around in striped pants like the Monopoly guy). (Nobody bothers with Whigs, so my opinion doesn't count.)

All these news outlets who do opinion polls have one thing in common: they like money. And there's more money in telling the story of a close game that's tied with two out in the ninth inning than the story of a game that's a lopsided 10-to-0 blowout. If there's going to be a landslide victory that has Donkeys or Elephants dancing in the streets, we'll never hear about it until the last minute.

(Incidentally, I think this upcoming election has been a foregone conclusion for the last year. If the final result is close, then I'm wrong and you should not pay any further heed to my prognostications.)

The way we get political news is what's wrong with American politics. Contrast it with Plato's dialogs. You have Socrates chatting up guys who forcefully disagree with him, yet Socrates gives those he disagrees with all the time in the world to explain their positions. When Socrates interrupts, it is not to contradict the fellow, but to get him to clarify some point he might not clearly articulate. Socratic questioning often brings to light things out unintended consequences of the position as well. By this means, the reader comes to understand all the different points of view and has the facts in hand to make tradeoffs between them.

This makes for boring TV.

If a politician says, "I favor buggy whip tariffs and my opponent is a poopy-head." The substantive buggy-whip advocacy will be edited out because the ad hominem attack sells more papers. Is the public diminished by this? Yes. Is there a better way? Yes. Is it to take the profit motive out of news coverage? NO WAY.

The better way starts with you, dear reader. You have the power to sift through the good, the bad and the ugly. Ignore the advocacy-speech of both parties and the news media and google for primary sources. Read the text of the propositions on the ballot. Choose that which corresponds to what you believe is best.

The ancient Greeks distinguished between politicians who were like confectioners and physicians. The confectioners dispense sweets that rot your teeth, but taste good, while the physicians dispense bitter tasting medicines that are good for health.

When a country is going through economically painful times, the electorate will appreciate a candidate who feels their pain and promises analgesics. But pain-killers are not cures, and thus we see places mired in economic doldrums for generations.

I think we saw this in Argentina when Juan Peron took power and set a fairly advanced 2nd-world country onto the path that has brought it to its current status. Meanwhile, countries that the US had bombed into rubble or that started out with nothing have far surpassed the economic performance and standard of living of Argentina.

It is too easy to say this is a left versus right thing. I want to suggest this is a confection versus medicine thing.

A populace that's been devastated or that has never had anything, may tolerate some short-term pain because they've become inured to pain. They can go off their economic analgesics and take the bitter pill. After the economic poisons are flushed out of the system, the society is positioned to enjoy strong growth. Conversely, a nation that's comfy where they are will choose the drug to help them get through another term of economic decline.

Does this fit into a 10-second sound-bite? No. Does it give you any coded message about who to vote for in the next election? I already told you: Vote Whig. Neither the Rs nor the Ds are promising to stop handing out confections and start handing out bitter pills.

Friday, October 19, 2012

An Excerpt From Finding Time

For your reading pleasure, here is an excerpt from my science fiction anthology Finding Time.

“The only difficulty, Solomon,” Makeda said, “is you think the speaker is truthful. I’ve read in your history of a general who received ambassadors pretending to be from a distant land. They wore run-down clothes and carried moldy provisions. I might believe tales of outlandish customs in far-off Ann Arbor from emissaries who are more road-weary than my caravan. Not less.”
Solomon nodded. “My love, my heart rejoices when your lips speak right things. Yet there are facts that argue against your intimations. This girl has been tested this afternoon. That she is in this room and that she is at my right hand means she has demonstrated good character and industry. These traits are rare among thieves.”
Nell started at this. She had thought something was afoot, but now she regarded the tasks she’d been given and saw the subtle signals exchanged between Miriam and Dinah in a different light.
“You’ll note the girl’s reaction. It shows both her ignorance of these tests and yet her perceptiveness of the intrigues about her. The former serves to confirm her master’s assessment, whereas the latter undermines her story only tangentially.”
Nell openly looked at Makeda now and saw her attitude, at least toward Solomon, soften. “You play this game better than you let on,” Makeda said.
Solomon bowed his head. “Your praise means a great deal to me, Queen Makeda, but our contest is not yet at an end. Is it your contention that these strangers,” Solomon gestured at Nestor, Sid, and Nell, “are lying?”
“Yes, King Solomon.”
He nodded, “I was initially inclined to think them thieves. I am unsure about many things, but seldom liars and thieves.” Solomon reached into his tunic, pulled out Jack’s notebook, and held it before him. “I could imagine them here to steal this, because they arrived within a day of your presenting it to me.” Nell heard the sound of Makeda’s guard unsheathing his sword. Solomon continued. “The girl is as fit as Benaiah’s daughter, Dinah, and like Dinah she carries herself like a warrior.” Nell eased her weight onto the tips of her feet. “She, even now, crouches to spring like a leopard. Perhaps to snatch the Eye of Ophir from my grasp.”
Maketa’s Nubian guard moved toward Nell as Benaiah drew his own sword. Makeda sprang forward as Nell leapt to her feet. She wheeled on the Nubian, drew her stunner, and cut him down. He convulsed and fell in a heap, his sword clattering to the floor.
Nell spun around and aimed at Benaiah, sword out, rushing forward and trying to pull Solomon behind him. All she would need do is stun them both, and grab the notebook to end this charade.
She heard a scuffle on her right. Nestor lay pinned beneath Dinah who straddled him in an unladylike fashion. To their right, Makeda had grabbed Sid by the collar and held a thin, jeweled dagger to his jugular. 
That complicated things.

If you like this, you can get more here.

Or if you're still on the fence, read the synopsis and view the trailer here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Camille Paglia Needs To Get Out More

When you live on an island, it is easy to think that the world ends at the shoreline--particularly when that island is named Manhattan.

A week and a half ago, Camille Paglia wrote an opinion piece in one of that island's local newspapers.

With a title like "How Capitalism Can Save Art" Ms. Paglia piques the interest

Ms. Paglia cites a decline in the visual arts, particularly painting since the 1970s. She goes on to state that the avant-garde is dead while citing execrable installations masquerading as art. If that is what art is, then art is dead. She further laments the fact that in recent years young people have become disconnected from the manual trades, and thus lack the technique to pull off artistic expressions.

This is contradicted by the "Maker Movement" something you can see on display if you pick up an issue of Make magazine or haunt any of the "hacker spaces" popping up across the country. I think her observation is correct--as far as it goes.

True, today's kids are not going to get summer jobs in shoe factories or learn about steel making from besooted parents--unless those parents are artisans making hand-made shoes or smelting metal in backyard forges.

As technology creates new forms of expression old forms don't necessarily die so much as become art forms--like the blacksmith I watched on Nova last night forging a Viking sword in his shop in Door county Wisconsin.

Blacksmithing is art? It's more art than taking snaps of a crucifix in a jar of urine.

There is a limited amount of creativity in the world and there are many more modes of creative expression than smearing paint (or feces) on canvas. Perhaps this generation's Pollock or Mondrian are happily building fire-breathing dragons to drive around Burning Man.

I've said elsewhere that rich people can be stupid, filling museums with overrated junk and in so doing they are disclosing a naked-emperor groupthink unmatched by anything except perhaps the Obama presidency.

I don't think my hometown's billionaire is stupid, because he started ArtPrize a few years ago. Art experts squealed like pigs that the prize would be awarded on the basis of popular vote instead of expert judgement. Indeed. By crowd-sourcing art evaluation as was done with ArtPrize entries, art experts can be disintermediated.

Dangling a quarter-million dollar prize in front of the public caused a lot of talented people to think about what sort of art they could produce. And--for better or worse--they manifested a diverse spectrum of creativity as I've describe elsewhere. But don't take my word for any of this, look at this year's winners for yourself. The 2nd and 3rd prize winners are illustrative of this diversity of creativity: in the former case, hundreds of little robotic birds danced and flew about the room in a dazzling show of technology, while in the latter case, the artist put paint on canvas in a way that would please the Dutch masters of old.

The two trends both falsify and confirm Ms. Paglia's thesis.

First, the maker movement gets creative people back in touch with the hands-on matter of making thing. And they're spreading their creativity across a broad spectrum of artistic expression as they design circuits and software to create new forms of beauty while mastering techniques unimaginable a generation ago. I believe Ms. Paglia is no farther than a subway ride from some of the preeminent hacker spaces in the country. Are these folks capitalists? Maybe in an sort of way.

Second, by bringing hundreds of visitors to the Grand Rapids downtown area, the ArtPrize organizers have brought a lot of business to restaurants, coffee shops, and bars. ArtPrize is capitalist. It is as capitalistic a happening as an Amway presentation. Art may be dead in Manhattan, but it's alive each autumn in Grand Rapids, MI.

So, Ms. Paglia, if you want to see art that is not dead, look in Brooklyn for a hacker space. And if that doesn't satisfy, drop by Grand Rapids next fall.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Thinking Inside the Box

You know how some computers that have a warranty that you'll void if you open the box. The Raspberry Pi gets around that by not having a box. When you buy the Raspberry Pi, you'll get a bare board.

Before I say anything more about Raspberry Pi enclosures, please humor a bit of nostalgia. When I was a kid wearing bell bottoms in the 1970s, almost everyone had several of these things on the right.

That plastic thing on the top is called an audio cassette tape. You'd stick a pencil into one or the other of those holes if you had to manually rewind the tape. We also used stone knives and bearskins. That thing on the bottom was the protective plastic case.

Ask your grandparents if you can have one of their old Peter Frampton audio cassettes, toss it out and keep the plastic case like the one you can see peeking out from underneath. If you're lucky, there will be no annoying plastic stickers to peel off, just paper inserts you can discard.

This is how I made my own Raspberry Pi enclosure from an audio cassette tape case in which I cut holes with my Dremel.

Note the notch cut into the case closest to the camera. It is to accommodate the fact that the RCA connector is too tall to fit into the case. This lets the Raspberry Pi board slide into the niche of what's now the bottom of the case. You'll note that I've also added heat sinks to the Raspberry Pi board and have cut holes in the top of the case to accommodate them as well as the USB connector on the left.

I turned the case 90 degrees counter-clockwise to take this picture:

Here we can see the hole cut into the side and top of the case to accommodate the USB connector, as well as a hole to accommodate an Ethernet cable. If you use a USB wireless Ethernet, or don't want Ethernet, you can skip this hole in the side.

I turned the case another 90 degrees counter-clockwise to take this picture:

Here we see the hole cut in this side of the case to accommodate the HDMI cable to the TV set. You'll note that it is important to make some of these holes a little bit oversized to accommodate your cable. This is less an issue than the Ethernet cable that's a little more deeply recessed as well as the USB cables that also tend to have fat plastic shields on their connectors.

I turned the case another 90 degrees again:

This side gets two two holes: a slot for the SD card to stick out of, and a hole for the power cord.

This is another deeply recessed hole, so you'll have to make that a little bit over-sized.


Tipping the case up, we can see the top more clearly here:
There are a few things to take note of in this view. The holes for the heat sinks have to be a little bit oversized because they can stick out of the case, and you'll need clearance when you open the case and close it.

Also note that because the case is transparent, you can see all the status lights on the Raspberry Pi.

Another thing. I almost forgot to mention this, because it was the first thing I did. Audio cassette tape cases can have two little tabs to engage the holes you saw in the audio cassette. These prevent the tape from sliding out.

The FIRST thing to do is to Dremel these off. You can't see where the tab on the left used to be, because I've cut a hole for the leftmost heat sink. However, you can see a cloudy haze on the right. That's the ghost of the tab on the right. I just removed enough material to make the plastic level.

A true aesthete would have polished the plastic to get rid of the ghostly fogging. I'll leave it there as an homage to Halloween. Tell your friends about the ghost picture you saw on my blog.

For completeness sake, let's take a look at the underside of the Raspberry Pi enclosure:

Some might claim that I need to remove material from the bottom of this case to accommodate the SD card socket that's protrudes slightly from the underside of the circuit board.

I think it unnecessary, but you may not.

The whole thing requires a Peter Frampton cassette tape case, a Dremel tool, and an hour or so of cutting.  Oh, and I'm sorry. You really shouldn't toss out your grandparents' Peter Frampton cassette.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Word Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

#30    Remove things that “go without saying.”

Consider these sentences:
John removed his hat from his head.
Joan had never done something like this before in her life.
The reader can reasonably be expected to know that hats are worn on the head, as opposed to the knee, wrist, ankle, or elsewhere. Moreover, unless your story is about reincarnation, a person has no other lives in which to do something like that.

John removed his hat from his head.

Joan had never done something like this before in her life.

These sorts of accretions on your prose generally come about when you're dashing off prose. When you turn the words in your head into the words on paper, you can easily hold a couple things in mind where only one should be written down.

This is an easy thing to find and fix. The easiest and best editing is often done with just the delete key.

I think that well written prose is something like a Japanese painting where each stroke of the brush contributes to the picture with nothing extraneous added. Remove everything that is not needed and no more. You know what should be conveyed to the your target reading audience. That knowledge should reflect what you put on to the page.

Some readers need a few more clues than others. When I was in high school, I didn't appreciate the one Hemingway story I had been assigned because I hadn't lived enough to put it in its proper context. Sure I grasped the atmospherics of a gray Michigan weekend in late autumn, but not the alienation of breaking up with a fiance. (This is why you don't want to assign Hemingway to high schoolers.)

What went without saying to a serious adult was lost on a callow youth such as myself. Some cultural referents may be missing from your audience. What is obvious to an American reader may fly over the head of a British reader. or vice versa.

You may cut too much, but this is the exception, not the rule. If there are two things in your prose that support the same point, look for the one which best makes your point and cut the rest. If there's something your reader can reasonably infer from the rest, delete it. Every word must contribute enough to the story to justify the reader's time spent reading it.
Though you might cut too much, but you should cut nevertheless.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

It's Called Sugru

I have a MacBook Air. I love this device, but it's a couple years old and anything that gets a few years old is liable to have issues.

I also have a Kindle I bought more years back. After I had it for a couple years, it had issues, too. The power and data cable was made of this really odd kind of plastic. It felt silky instead of shiny/slippery like plastic, and also it wasn't rubbery. I loved it until it started to crack. There's something about that plastic that gets to be a couple years old and then it deteriorates. Eventually, I got a new cable from the guys at Amazon. Good thing b/c the cable insulation was badly degraded by that point.

Fast forward to about a fortnight ago. I'm checking out MAKE magazine and see something about this stuff called Sugru-a sort of Play-Doh for grownups. So, I bought a sample pack thinking I might find some use for it.

Last night I did. My MacBook Air cable insulation started cracking in the same place and after the same fashion as my Kindle cable.

I remembered the Sugru that I bought. I read the instructions, got the stuff out and started using it. I spread the stuff out in my fingers into an elongated blob, then squeezed the blob around the cable. With the end of the cable that had started to crack fully wrapped in Sugru, I rolled the cable/Sugru between my hands to make it thinner and more even. I suppose I could have been a bit more exact, but it was a first experiment.

This morning the stuff cured and now it has this silky/rubbery appearance and the cable has a more robust strain relief that looks as you see on the right. The stuff is flexible and it sticks quite well to the cable. I'm rather pleased with how it turned out.

A fresh pack of this stuff belongs in any bodger's toolkit alongside the duck tape.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Will Raspberry Pi Destroy Civilization?

My Raspberry Pi arrived in the mail today. I anxiously waited until work was done and then started hooking it up.

To make it go, you download a Linux distribution, then burn it onto a SD chip. I followed instructions, installed the Raspberry variant of Debian and it worked. I typed startx at the command line and it was just like 1989 again running X windows.

After I remembered how little I got done in 1989, I looked at installing the XBMC package on it.

Well, the way you install XBMC onto a Raspberry Pi is just download another Linux distribution, then overwrite the SD chip you just got done working on. Well, OK. Did that.

Now, please don't get the false impression that I didn't overlook something obvious and do something stupid that is at the root of the badness I'm about to recount.

You run the Rasbmc and the first thing it does is download the latest-greatest version of itself. I don't think it's completely stable. Or maybe something is flaky in the hardware. It had to restart about three times. After it got installed, the video started cutting out, then starting again, then cutting out over and over again.

Maybe it's got a thermal problem. So, I propped the thing up and set a fan blowing on it. No joy.

Maybe it's got a power problem. So, I unhooked the radio-keyboard-mouse dongle scrounged up a USB hub and plugged the dongle into it.

After another cycle of reboots and redownloads, I got XBMC running stable enough to set things up. This took a while--a long while. Most of the problem was the sluggishness of XBMC running on the Raspberry Pi. And this might be explained by the fact that a lot of network traffic was going on as it was adding my terabyte library of videos in the basement to its database.

But the result was a lot slower than anything I'd experience with any other computer.

At $35, the Raspberry Pi is a lot cheaper than the reasonably priced Apple TV $99. And the Raspberry Pi is a wide open system whereas the Apple TV 3 is locked down and there's no jailbreak available at present. It was just like 2002 configuring Red Hat.

The bottom line is that I've managed to waste the entire evening messing with a computer the size of a cassette tape. If that is not what you want to do, buy an Apple TV, but get an older version you can Jail break.

Those more worthy than I: