Thursday, November 29, 2012

You Really Are Wrong, Sometimes

35 If two different groups say the same thing, you really are wrong

The last writers' mantra said not to argue with those in the writers' group who say your prose sucks. The presumption defending the rightness of your prose is a waste of time. You are right and the group is wrong. This makes sense for the reasons enumerated there.


In the town where I live there are multiple writers' groups. I've been known to haunt more than one of them.  For the most part, the folks who go to the group at Barnes & Noble don't go to the group at the Public Library. This is an important distinction.

So, let's suppose you are writing "Lesbian Nazi Cannibals on the Moon." And someone at one group makes a specific complaint that maybe Nazism is not a viable alternative lunar lifestyle. The last mantra provides guidance: thank that person and shut up.

If you really believe your Nazi story works, take it to the other group and read the same passage. If you hear the same specific complaint, from someone who was not at the other group, this is a clue. Ignore it at your peril: You are wrong.

This is a chance for you to learn. People learn by being wrong, owning up to that reality, and figuring out something different to do.


I have a friend at one of the writers' groups I attend who tends to be blown about by every wind of criticism in the group. As a result, he doesn't quite finish anything, but churns. This is the opposite error to make.

When you have people tell you what's wrong with your prose you'll hear signal and you'll hear noise. The wise listener can filter out signal and noise. But that can be hard, even for the wise.

The thing about noise is that it is random. Half the time it'll say you're too hot, and half the time it'll say you're too cold. They cancel out. Consensus-seeking behavior can lead to a groupthink that can make the noise seem very strong. But a different group will have its own different groupthink. So, if you take the same prose to two places, you're likely to have the noise cancel out, and you're likely to have the true signal you need to hear reinforced.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Aladdin vs Harry Potter

I'm a Christian, and if you've got a problem with that you may want to stick around because I'm going to complain about some Christians.

Think back to when the Harry Potter stories came out. He was a witch and he went to a school for witchcraft.

You may know that Christians take a dim view on witchcraft. And for good reason. How can you go about building a technological society when you're fussing with toads and newts? Witchcraft is not real and it does not work. Take your most fervent wiccan and she'll take her kids to soccer practice in a car, not a broom. It is the denial of reality that's at the root of Christianity's conflict with the elder religions termed pagan. There is no spirit in the tree that keeps it evergreen and no reason to bring it into your house so that this spirit might protect you.

Christians also take a dim view of the Devil. You may have heard that he was once an angel and he led a revolt of other angels, and these other angels are now what we call demons. Christians take a VERY dim view of consorting with demons.

Though Christians take a dim view of witchcraft, we have no problem with technology. Isaac Newton figured out the law of gravity and tied calculus to it, and gave us a better explanation for planetary motion than angels pushing them about. Christianity and Science will butt heads from time to time, but never about whether something works or not. Do all those funky things with relativity or quantum mechanics bother Christians? No.

With this in mind let's consider Harry Potter. He goes to school and he learns the rules of how magic works. He's a magic technologist. Brooms fly in Harry Potter's world because there's some force he can control that overcomes gravity. Not much different from science fiction, except it's a "science" that doesn't exist. There's not a lot for a Christian to object to in that sort of magic-technology.

Contrast that with the Aladdin story. I didn't hear any Christians whining when Disney made the Aladdin movies. Or decades ago before Larry Hagman became J. R. Ewing and he Dreamed of Jeannie.

What is a genie anyway? If he's a djinn, he's a demon. And if she's a djinni, she's a lady demon. So, Aladdin and Larry Hagman are consorting with demons. They get magic things done by making a deal with the demon and demonic forces are employed by the demon as he wants.

As you may recall I am a Whig, and the greatest Whig was Daniel Webster who had his own dealings with the devil. Mr. Webster argued in court for the soul of the unfortunate Jabez Stone who'd sold his soul to the devil.

The only difference between Jabez Stone and Aladdin or Larry Hagman are the terms of the deal they make with the demonic.

Happily, these are all fictions and we can sleep easy knowing that the devil's not going to come down to Georgia lookin' for some soul to steal. Nor is there any imp in the bottle.

But there are Christians who gets their knickers in a knot. If they're all mad about Harry Potter, point them to the much bigger problem they should have with Aladdin and Barbara Eden.

Monday, November 26, 2012

"Glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument

'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

I went to a play a couple years ago, and grew quite annoyed. About midway through the play it became apparent that the play's villain was a preacher with a southern accent. Not like I haven't seen the Christian made into the villain before. Likewise it's not like I haven't seen the white guy, the business man, or the corporate lawyer similarly demonized.

This was so trite and predictable that I decided to rewrite the play in my mind. The preacher from Alabama was really a union organizer from Chicago posing as an Evangelist. Tho he said he intended to spread the gospel, the fella really wanted to spread International Marxism.

I decided to engage in a malicious interpretation of the text. And so can you. So can any reader with any text. Ask any Atheist to explain the Bible to you.

When the post-modernists speak of reader-response it is not immediately apparent that the response is disgust at heavy-handed axe-grinding by the author. That's the thing about reader-response, it varies with the reader and whatever s/he has in mind at the moment.

Returning to post-modernism, I think much of what passes for scholarship is mere vandalism. As our culture has died, they are the agents of putrefaction rendering our cultural heritage into bones and rich fertile earth.

Deconstruction generally takes the work of dead authors who cannot defend their work, and then attaches ridiculous meanings to their words. Disagree? Well, that's not how I read the post-moderns. But, but, that's not what they meant. This doesn't work when it's played against itself.

Perhaps a different model for reading is called for. One that uses communications theory as a metaphor. One big difference between mathy technical studies like communications theory and literary kultursmog is that the mathy stuff has to work. Bridges fall down and levees fail without any respect to the political influence of their builders.

When parties A and B communicate, the process begins with a message held by A that gets encoded for a channel, then the encoded message gets sent over that channel, then the message is decoded by B. In life A says something and B hears it. Thoughts are encoded as words in sentences, these words are pronounced by speaker A. Listener B hears the sounds, maps them to words, parses the words and thinks a corresponding thought.

Communication fails when the idea cannot be put into words, or the words cannot be heard, or the words map to different ideas.

Suppose A happens to be Pliny the Elder thinking Roman thoughts expressed in Latin on parchments that are copied by hand by Christian monks that are eventually printed and read by B, who happens to be Joe Random Latin student.

This communications problem is subject to the same considerations as a telephone conversation or a chat room. Since Pliny did not address his remarks to Joe, we should understand the historical-cultural context of Pliny and his interlocutors--in particular, how they used words and idioms. We should understand that some words like "damn" might be bowdlerized into "darn" by the copyists. And we should understand that Joe was napping during one of his Latin lessons.

It's hard enough to get communication right without axe-grinding vandals going on about dead white European males, colonialism, and sexual personae. They're just as bogus as me turning a southern evangelist into a union organizer.

This may seem a bit abstract, but it is as practical as reading a newspaper. In the novel 1984, Winston Smith's job is historical revisionism. He does his job by cutting away any aspect of the cultural legacy that does not support the state's current ends.

A less extreme example is Jerry Pournelle's Co-Dominium stories where a US-Soviet alliance manages to freeze technological and scientific advance by subtly revising math tables and reference works to obscure the anomalies that point to scientific revolutions like quantum mechanics and relativity.

We need to grasp the world as it is. Not the way we would prefer it to be. Because truth is complicated, this means parts of it will support International Socialism, and other parts National Socialism. We've got to sort through what is while being prepared to modify our partisan positions in light of reality.

And we've got to stand up to bullies who'd sell our birthright for a pot of message.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Please Baby, Go All The Way

The title of this post comes from this tune by The Raspberries. I've written a few blog posts about the Raspberry Pi of late and here is a summary thereof. And an observation of the entire course of experiments. You will want to read the summary statement even if you skip the rest.

Can Raspberry Pi Save Civilization?
In this post I introduced the Raspberry Pi, a single-board computer designed in the UK to provide a way for kids to learn computers without spending a lot of money. The board costs $35 and the software is free. You'll have to dig out a USB keyboard and mouse, provide a power supply from a cell phone, a 4GB memory chip, and enclosure. So, you'll feel like you are being nickle-and-dimed to death.

Will Raspberry Pi Destroy Civilization?
My experience with the Raspberry Pi wasn't all beer and skittles. It will serve a useful purpose as a media computer/television set-top-box if you can get it to run XBMC. But I failed to get it to run despite several attempts. Part of this was climbing the learning curve of XBMC. And when you compare the performance of the Apple TV that Just Works, the rationale for the Raspberry Pi as a media computer is diminished.

Thinking Inside the Box
Since the Raspberry Pi does not come with an enclosure, I figured I needed one. I did some googling and stole a design for repurposing an audio cassette tape case and make it into a Raspberry Pi enclosure. It works surprisingly well.

Raspberry Pi as Torture

My experiments with the Raspberry Pi disclosed that you need to be careful to check compatibility. Don't just assume you can plug random components into your Raspberry Pi and expect them to work. Instead, you should check whether they have been verified to work with your Raspberry Pi when you encounter difficulties.

Tasty Raspberry Pi
Happily, I bought a second Raspberry Pi that has twice the on-board memory in hopes it would work better. Then I repeated the earlier, failed experiments with much better results. I devised more powerful troubleshooting techniques and better approaches. This made my Raspberry Pi start acting as a useful media computer.

Raspberry Pi Safe
With the second Raspberry Pi working well, I sought a second enclosure. Yes, I could make another enclosure from the audio cassette case, but my wife gave me a raspberry-colored wooden box of the appropriate size to serve as an enclosure that I named a Pi Safe.

Hot Raspberry Pi
In the Raspberry Pi Safe enclosure, I worried that the Raspberry Pi might run hot. I cut slots in it to accommodate cables, and dissipate heat. And I discovered the Raspberry Pi temperatures go UP when I ask it to tell me its temperature.

The Magic Raspberry
While using the Raspberry Pi as a media computer, I discovered something magical called HDMI-CEC. And that discovery has enabled me to simplify the hardware requirements of the Raspberry Pi when it is used as a media computer.

In summary
The Raspberry Pi is a great educational tool. If you think, "Oh, I want an open source replacement for my Apple TV," stop. Repeat after me: the Raspberry Pi is a great educational tool.

When you unbox something and expect it to Just Work, there's little educational value.

There's a lot of fuss and bother putting things together just right. There's frustration when things ought to work don't work. There's annoyance when expectations are not met and behavior is a little different. BUT every time you encounter a problem, diagnose it, and tweak a fix you are Learning Something.

Learning Something is often frustrating and time consuming. I had forgotten something important when I was in the throes of making the Raspberry Pi work.

Just because I'm not a kid any more doesn't mean I'm past education.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thank You Carrie Slager

In case you missed it, the delightful Carrie Slager has reviewed my time travel anthology, Finding Time.

If you've been under a rock for a few months, you may not have heard me raving about Finding Time. Though the best way to find out about it is to read it, I understand that you might begrudge the time spent reading something that is not quite your cup of tea.

It's always annoying when you pick up a book expecting robot lesbians and find devout Calvinists. Or vice versa.

To assuage such concerns, you can get a general idea of what Finding Time is about checking out a synopsis and trailer of Finding Time and an excerpt of it if you'd like. Only trouble with doing this is I'm biased. I think my deathless prose doesn't suck--in fact it's rocking good.

That's why getting a second opinion is a good idea. And that's where Carrie's review of Finding Time comes in.

She also asked me to do an interview and we're having a little contest to give away copies of Finding Time. I'll be much obliged if you'd check it out.

Steampunk Within The Boundaries Of Reason Alone

The title of this post derives from a 1793 book by Immanual Kant, Religion within the Boundaries of Reason Alone. Kant was one of the framers of the Age of Reason.

I recently saw a Kickstarter project called Steam Patriots that looks really cool. This project is seeking $100k to develop a series of steampunk novellas wherein George Washington and Benjamin Franklin fight the American Revolutionary War with airships and lightning-bolt rifles. The pictures create stunning visual impressions. I love it.

BUT since I am working on a steampunk project myself, it got me thinking about the constraints I've put upon my own writing.

My work-in-progress, Steamship to Kashmir, is set in the Victorian era. Mycroft Holmes is pursuing a murderer around the world in a nuclear-powered-steam airship. A fission reactor can be used for heat to flash water into steam and one can build a lighter-than-air craft that uses steam instead of hot-air, helium or hydrogen as a lifting gas.

Though Holmes' era had Jules Vern's SF, with a presumably nuclear submarine 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, small details like Madam Curie's discovery of radium had not yet occurred. Nor had X-rays, neutrons, alpha-, beta-, and gamma-radiation been discovered. How can I plausibly depict the girl shown on the right controlling a critical fission reaction? I suppose by the same rationale we use to suppose Captain Nemo powering the Nautilus with nuclear power.

Another problem for me is that the German fellow named Zeppelin who did so much work in rigid-framed airships. He is not yet accomplished or famous by the time my story takes place. Hard to tell the reader that the steamship to Kashmir is a Zeppelin when the term hasn't been invented in Mycroft Holmes's time.

And I have a problem with computers. Mycroft Holmes as a mathematician would have intimate knowledge of Charles Babbage's proposed Difference Engine and Analytical Engine. He can reasonably be expected to exploit such machines to the fullest. Yet the capabilities of these machines are dramatically constrained when compared with our own computers or even those of Alan Turing's time in WW2. Babbage machines could do things like ballistic trajectories, or compute math tables. These are not particularly glamorous applications to put into a story.

So, I'm carrying around all these constraints on what technology that I can deploy in Steamship to Kashmir and then I see the Steam Patriots project.

Really? Can you call 18th century American Revolution steampunk? Isn't that 100 years early? Can you get away with that?

Push 50 years after the Victorian era and you're in World War 2. Stories wherein advanced technology deployed in the 1940s is termed Dieselpunk to distinguish its look and feel from the earlier era of Queen Victoria.

Shouldn't the pre-steam American Revolution be termed something besides Steampunk? Something evocative of Kant or Voltaire? The age of steam was decades away. They were barely 100 years after Isaac Newton got hit by an apple and reinvented Calculus. The zeitgeist of 1776 was pre-steam, but I can't think of a suitable replacement term for steampunk.

Or maybe not. James Watt's patent on the steam engine was 1769 so it might work. Barely.

In the meantime, I'm totally jazzed by the George Washington and Benjamin Franklin images I've embedded in this post. The Steam Patriots project looks to be a lot of fun. I wish I had an extra $500 jingling around to spend on getting a fancy print of that Benjamin Franklin lightning bolt picture. (I'm a sucker for that style of pictures.)

You should check out Steam Patriots for yourself.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

I Prefer Green Slave Girls

As a tender lad I read exactly one dystopian novel, 1984. Being properly inoculated against the genre, I went back to reading Heinlein, Asimov and pretty much any book with a spaceship on the cover.

The future of my past was nifty. NASA was sending men to the moon and Star Trek was in its first run. I was expecting a future of rocket ships, flying cars, jet belts, and green Orion slave girls. Sure there were some nuclear war nightmare scenarios like On The Beach, or Dr. Strangelove, but they were the exception, not the rule.

Contrast that with now. Contemporary writing trends are dystopian up the yin-yang. Want to read an American rip-off of Battle Royale? There's a dystopian novel for that. Want to read racist claptrap about saving pearls? There's a dystopian novel for that, too. Does YA stand for Yet Another dystopian novel?

Is there market pull for bleak or is this just producer push of bleak? I'm not going to put on my tinfoil hat. But I will note the power of group think. If you have an island wherein folks don't "know anyone who voted for Nixon," then you should expect some insular attitudes and a disconnect from the market. Certain things will go without saying about what's right and wrong, good and evil, beautiful and ugly. Surprisingly, humanism is in decline among the Anointed.

I think the decline of humanism is at the root of the rise of dystopianism. I recently had someone tell me that Snow Crash had a dystopian setting to better illustrate the humanity of the protagonists. I wasn't all that sure Snow Crash was dystopian.

This raises a question in my mind. Maybe the lines are fuzzier about what is and isn't dystopian. Was A Clockwork Orange dystopian? I'd say that it is more U-topian than DYS-topian for the following reasons:
  • The dole kept Droogs in spiffy hats
  • Nobody was homeless except for a drunk
  • There was free medical care
  • No polluted air or water
Nevertheless, the society of Clockwork Orange was not all beer and skittles. (When I saw the movie I thought, "what a compelling argument for the 2nd amendment." A small handgun discretely brandished by a putative rape victim would do marvels to concentrate a Droog's mind, but I digress.) The evil depicted in Clockwork Orange stems from the in-humanity of the Droogs. How is a society that solves all the social problems listed above capable of producing the likes of this?

Perhaps a more idyllic setting should be considered: perhaps a Village in rural Pennsylvania seemingly at the end of the 19th century. Though The Village is civilized in ways that are light-years beyond Clockwork's England, the Village lives in constant terror of what lies beyond the pale. And this society proves equally capable of producing a murderer as Clockwork.

Is The Village a dystopian tale? Probably not, though it demonstrates the same lesson as Clockwork Orange: the fault is is not in our stars, but in ourselves. As Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man. Put fallen man in an ideal setting, be it socialist utopia or Elysian fields, and he'll bring in some measure of depravity.

So, do we give up? Does the world suck, it's falling apart, and in the long run we're all dead? Ah, now that's probably a better question than dystopian or not.

Though there is the demonic in each of us, there is also the angelic. Though we've fouled our nest on planet Earth, we've also cleaned things up. Though many children go to sleep hungry each night, many more are fed or overfed. The world has gotten better at solving world-hunger problems in my lifetime. Though we are fallen, we aspire to be better.

Graph life expectancy over the last century. Look at standards of living over that time. Can we make these improvements long-term sustainable--and build upon them? Or will we fall back into a dark age of "bad luck?"

I think that's up to us to make happen. Each of us can contribute in our own way (or give up in our own way). And if you're a writer, I think that means writing stories that will inspire the reader to get up and invent a jetpack or a flying car. I've written about that here.

And I hope you'll decide that I've written that sort of science fiction here.

Here is Robert Heinlein's "bad luck" quote is in full:
“Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded- here and there, now and then- are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.This is known as "bad luck.".”

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Squeaky Wheel Gets The Shaft

 #34 If you are right and the group is wrong, nod, smile and slowly back away.

This is a Writers Mantra about writers' group etiquette.

If you are writing in this part of the 21st century, you've probably gotten the news that you should belong to a writers' group and you should run your prose past the other members before trying to publish your deathless prose.

I've been a member of a few writers' groups over the last decade or so and I wish I'd started sooner. You will find  prose that you think is perfectly acceptable can raise objections by one or more members of your writers' group.

Maxwell Perkins has been dead since 1947. In the intervening years no top-drawer editor has stepped in to take his place guiding literary talent through the shoals of a writing career. You need someone to tell you, "that doesn't work." And sometimes you really, really need someone to tell you that you just don't thank Hitler.

This is where a writing group is a very handy thing. Most mothers, siblings, or friends will read your stuff and pat you on the head saying, "Very nice dear." You might as well tape your manuscript to the refrigerator. Instead, you need someone who has an idea of what works or doesn't-work prose-wise. A person who writes is more likely to be that someone.

But there's a potential problem: Suppose you write stories wherein the protagonist solves crimes with two hard fists, and a hot gat. He likes his liquor straight, and his women pliable.

You'll do well if your writers group has a few manly men or right-thinking women (very, very far right-wing women). But you'll fail if the writers' group is chock full of pacifist, anti-gun, tea-totaling, radical feminists.

Writing is not a monolithic enterprise and what's catnip for some markets is dognip for others. And vice versa. A lot of what is called "bad writing" is just writing for a different market: Don't expect to sell your lesbian coming-out memoir to Zondervan.

In the ideal case, your writers' group will be a perfect reflection of your target market.

Often it is not, and that's the point of this mantra.

Holmesian readers expect Sherlock Holmes to draw some remarkable conclusion from something nobody else perceives. A non-Holmesian probably won't notice if this omission. Likewise, Science Fiction readers do not need to have certain SF tropes spelled out. I once had someone complain in writers group that he didn't know what an AI was.

Push this to the extreme. Suppose you are targeting a very narrow niche where everybody in that niche knows certain things and brings to the reading certain expectations. Further suppose that nobody in your writers' group is a member of that niche. You will get an earful.

Resist the temptation to argue. Resist the urge to vindicate yourself. You've asked the group for their opinion, they've given it, and you have to hear it.

Thank everyone for the feedback. You do not have to say aloud that you intend to ignore it. On another day they might be right.

Writers groups can be subject to groupthink. If you bring some prose to the group that's far enough outside their expectations, you'll catch flack because your prose doesn't match the groupthink. Since it's a groupthink, nobody will hear your reasons defending your prose. Thank everyone for the feedback, etc.

This works on the other side, too. When I feel the need to tear into someone who's written prose so wooden it is an insult to furniture I need to pause to ask myself why I think so:
  • Am I outside the target market?
  • Am I insisting the other write like I would?
If so, I should qualify my remarks accordingly.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Magic Raspberry

I got my Raspberry Pi put into an enclosure and doing great things running XBMC with my TV. I wasn't thinking and I picked up the TV Remote Control instead of the micro wireless keyboard. Instead of pushing the arrow buttons on the keyboard, I pushed the arrow buttons on the remote control.

It did what I wanted.

Then I stopped. Oh my gosh. How did that do that? That shouldn't have worked.

I'm an engineer. I understand things. If you push a button on a remote control, infrared light waves go speeding to an eye built into the TV. The Raspberry Pi has no eyes. It is blind to infrared light and everything else. It CAN'T respond to the remote!

Your eye does not work in the infrared. So, when you push the button on the remote control, you don't see anything.  Your smartphone's camera uses a sensor that is sensitive to infrared. So, when you aim a remote at it, you can tell whether it's emitting or not.
(If you're a terrorist worried about infrared targeting lasers from the US military, you already know this. I said I understand things.)

My wife held the remote up to the camera with the button off and the button pushed on so that we could illustrate this.

How in the world did my Raspberry Pi figure out that I'd pushed the button on the TV remote?

After a bit of Googling, I found the HDMI standard and read about a CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) connection. If you have the right kind of HDTV, it can send commands back down the HDMI cable from the TV. And if the thang, Blu-Ray player, cable box, satellite box, whatever, is smart enough, it'll respond to those commands. It's like freaking magic.

This has profound ramifications for use of a Raspberry Pi as a set top computer. You don't need to hook ANY MOUSE or KEYBOARD to it: Just power, HDMI, and Ethernet. No USB hub or even those cute little wireless dongles.

So, I got to thinking, let's try this on my other TV set. I did. No joy. HDMI CEC is not on every TV set, just a select few. Since Black Friday is coming up, you might want to know what to look for if you're going to be buying a TV.

According to Wikipedia, the Trade names for CEC are
  • Anynet+ (Samsung); 
  • Aquos Link (Sharp); 
  • BRAVIA Link and BRAVIA Sync (Sony); 
  • HDMI-CEC (Hitachi); 
  • E-link (AOC); 
  • Kuro Link (Pioneer); 
  • CE-Link and Regza Link (Toshiba); 
  • RIHD (Remote Interactive over HDMI) (Onkyo); 
  • RuncoLink (Runco International); 
  • SimpLink (LG); 
  • HDAVI Control, EZ-Sync, VIERA Link (Panasonic); 
  • EasyLink (Philips); and 
  • NetCommand for HDMI (Mitsubishi).
Before you buy a TV from these vendors, look in the specs for these buzz-words. If you see them on the set you want to buy, you'll know its TV remote can control your Raspberry Pi XBMC application.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Question of Time

This is a review of A Question of Time (AQOT), a novel by Joanne Renaud.

AQOT is a time-travel romance that takes the protagonist, a successful SF writer, back in time to the 1980s. I don't read a lot of romances, but I know a fair bit about time travel stories as you can read about here. So, if it seems I'm more in touch with H. G. Wells, than Barbara Cartland, don't be surprised.

I should start with another disclaimer. I know Joanne because she illustrates for my story The Aristotelian and my anthology Finding Time. So I'm biased, but I won't lie. I happen to know a little bit about the '80s since I was a callow youth at the time fresh out of graduate school with a nifty gubmint job as a Cryptologic mathematician living in Laurel, Maryland.

This is an interesting coincidence because AQOT really starts when the protagonist goes spinning out of control on a rain-slicked highway and finds herself in outside a library in 1980s Maryland. Since I used to haunt the Laurel Public Library in the '80s, I felt right at home.

The protagonist, is a 30-something girl named Ceci, who still carries a torch for Alan, her high school writing teacher. Not that they ever were romantically entangled when she was a kid, but that she admired the guy, sought his approval and felt horrid when she showed up for class on Monday morning to learn he'd tragically died in a car wreck.

As you may expect, the library in Maryland where Ceci time-travels to just happens to be where the not-yet-dead teacher is borrowing a book. She doesn't quite believe she's traveled in time and so she is quite forward with the fellow, because she thinks him to be a fig-newton of her imagination.

This works out well and a whirlwind romance ensues. Nevertheless, the fact that the fellow died in a car accident haunts the narrative like a dark cloud.

Since both Ceci and Alan share an interest in writing and science fiction, their pillow talk entails plots they have in mind for stories they intend to write, and as well as Dan Simmons's Hyperion series that she's read, but he hasn't because it hasn't been finished yet.

One complaint I had was that for Science Fiction writers, they were bit a slow to consider time travel as a possible explanation for their experiences. Granted, the circumstances of the time-travel were more like those of Somewhere In Time than Back To The Future. It's a pet peeve of mine when being in denial of time-travel occupies a protagonist for more than a few pages. If you warp ME back to 1989, I'm going to spend about 30 seconds in denial. Then a millisecond later, I'm going to be buying Apple and Microsoft stock. I think Alan could have figured out the mysterious woman he took home was from the future based on the various slips she makes.

I thought Ceci and Alan were believable and likeable characters I enjoyed spending an evening with. The story brought back memories of the '80s. And that's where Joanne Renaud really shined, she caught the atmosphere/spirit of the '80s spot-on. I felt I was transported back to those days. (That computer on the left isn't the H-89 I owned back in 1989, but it's close.)

I'm pleased to give A Question of Time a 5 star review.

Your Writing Sucks

33    Everyone’s writing stinks until they write a million words.

One thing to remember about Writing Mantras is that I steal them whenever I can. This came from Ray Bradbury who had more writing talent in his left pinky than most writers I know (as well as that fellow I see when I'm shaving in the morning).

It is not unusual to create sucky prose. Everyone does it. Does your prose suck? Don't feel bad if it does. You've got a lot of company. CERTAINLY don't stop writing if your prose sucks.

Suppose you wrote a novel and submitted it to someone in New York. And they said, "Go away, this sucks." I'm told that Nora Roberts or someone of her caliber wrote a novel and then after that didn't sell, kept it circulating while she wrote a second novel, and she kept that circulating with the first while she wrote a third novel. She kept this up until she'd written 10 novels. And after she put 10 novels in the pipeline, one of them sold. If we assume each novel was 100,000 words that's a million words.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about how the Beatles played a LOT of music in Germany before they became famous. He figures that if you work at anything for 10,000 hours, you'll become world-class at it. Supposing you write 100 words an hour. And what fool can't write that much in an hour? You can write a million words.

If your writing sucks, you should work at improving it. And you should commit to improving it over the course of thousands of hours of practice. One of the downsides of the ease of self-publishing is that you can publish your worst prose because you think you're ready when you're not.

I thought my first novel was really hot stuff. Now I shudder to think someone might see it. Was it the best novel I could write? Yes. Can I write a better one today? Certainly.

I remember when I was a younger in college. There was this book on the New York Times bestseller list called Raise the Titanic by Clive Cussler. I loved that novel. So, a few months later I looked and saw another novel by Clive Cussler. And another. And a few more over the course of a year or so. I snapped them up and read them voraciously. But I noticed something about a couple of them. The quality wasn't there. One seemed quite amateurish, and the other less so. Yet all the rest of his novels were great.

I didn't surmise this until later, but I figured that the two below-par novels were written before Cussler got his first book deal. And they languished unsold in his desk drawer for who knows how long. When lightning struck and Cussler was a famous, bestselling author, he could pull out those manuscripts for a quick buck. He'd obviously written, and been rejected, and written some more, and some more. One one fine morning he'd hit the magic 10,000 hour mark, or the 1,000,000 word mark and walla. He was producing bestselling prose.

I'd like to know whether the Beatles or Clive Cussler recognized that moment when they'd performed 10,000 hours or written a million words. I suspect they did not.

I don't know if your writing sucks now. I know for sure that it sucked when you started. And I hope that as you've been writing you've been working to improve your craft. It'd be a shame to waste 10,000 hours and not have any improvement to show for it.

It'd be a worse shame if you gave up before you hit that breakthrough when your writing became good.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Hot Raspberry Pi

If you've been following my fevered ravings about the Raspberry Pi, you know that I'm trying to use a raspberry-colored wooden box purchased at Goodwill as an enclosure for the Raspberry Pi. I call it a Pi Safe, because my mom referred to an enclosure for desserts similarly.

(This is improves upon my first Raspberry Pi enclosure I've described elsewhere.)

I glued the lid together and mended the broken hinge. That white stuff next to the clamp is wet Elmer's glue.

The holes shown above were completely useless. If you hold the Raspberry Pi board in front of you, you can orient it such that the Power, HDMI, and Ethernet connectors are at 3-o'clock, 12-o'clock, and 9-o'clock, respectively. To route cables to these points through a hole in the back, two of the cables must go around corners.

These cables aren't flexible and they have bulky connectors. This makes it such that 90-degree turns require a wide radius like a highway on-ramp. Hence I expanded the hole in the back into a slot, and cut additional slots on the sides.

It's just as well, I was worried about heat dissipation and airflow. Though the Dremel tool is marvelous for cutting holes in something, when you are cutting slots the Right Tool for the job is a Dremel multi-max.

I absolutely love that gizmo.

With slotted holes in the sides and back, I can plug in the cables as desired, and I now have plenty of airflow.

Thermal dissipation is interesting. If you go to the XBMC settings page, you can find a status indicator that will show you the temperature of the CPU and the graphics chip.

I used it to take these measurements:
  • 111° - Raspberry Pi out in the open
  • 135° - Raspberry Pi in the "pi safe"
  • 120° - Raspberry Pi in the "pi safe" just after running a movie for an hour.
(There's something reminiscent of quantum mechanics that bringing up the measurement screen should raise the temperature being measured. )
I figure 120° - 135° is good enough for now. Clearly, the slots permit sufficient airflow. As stated earlier, I have heatsinks on order that should cut down these temperatures a little more.

Here's what the Raspberry Pi looks like in its enclosure sitting beside my television.

I'll have to dress the cables to make things pretty, but you get the general idea.

The big surprise that I discovered a few nights ago was that my Sharp Aquos TV is having side-conversations with my Raspberry Pi. I inadvertently used my TV remote's menu buttons and was shocked to see XBMC menus on the Raspberry Pi responding in turn. This means that I didn't need teeny little keyboard/touchpad. Now that I think of it, I think I could have used ssh to telnet into the Raspberry Pi when I was configuring it. There was no need for keyboard or mouse even then.

Technically, the combination of a Raspberry Pi, OpenELEC/XBMC, and the "Pi Safe" is cheaper than an AppleTV. But it nickel and dimes you, and it doesn't "just work" like my AppleTV did. You have to make it work. This is a Linux box for the second decade of the 21st century. It's small, cheap, powerful (in a narrowly constrained domain), and it is fussy to set up and get right. If you count how much your time is worth, buy an AppleTV. But if you want to learn something get a Raspberry Pi.

P. S.
You may be wondering, "OK, if I hook up a Raspberry Pi to my television set, what could I use it for?" This is a good question, not because the answer is hard, but because MY answer is so self-serving: You can use it to look at this book trailer. If you think that's a lame reason, I'll be grateful if you turn off the TV and read a book.

Those more worthy than I: