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November 30, 2006: Lulu Status Report

I finally got a book configured and available for sale on Lulu this morning. As a publisher, I was surprised at how easy it was. However, if I were not a publisher, it would have taken a great deal more close attention and experimentation. The truth is that publishing isn't trivial, and Lulu has done a superfine job presenting publishing's complexity to the inexperienced in the form of good wizards, sane organization, and decent doc.

The book is one that I originally scanned, OCRed, and laid out a few years ago, and could never quite decide how to release. It's The New Reformation, a contemporary history of the origins of the European Old Catholic movement, by James Bass Mullinger, a Cambridge historian best known for his massive three-volume history of Cambridge University that spanned most of his productive life. The book was written and published in 1875, and reads more like a journalistic account than a history. Most accounts of the Old Catholics and their struggles with Rome have been written by their antagonists, primarily the Roman Catholics, but in later years by conservative Anglicans as well, who considered the Old Catholics another body of competitors for non-Papal Catholic adherence. Mullinger (writing under the pseudonym Theodorus) was plainly sympathetic, and there is a level of detail supporting the Old Catholic case that the Old Catholics' detractors obviously don't care to mention.

Now, this is pretty narrow material, and I suspect that few if any of ContraPositive's regular readers are within its primary audience. But that's the magic of a system like Lulu: I can make the book available for sale, and if only 50 people buy it, I won't lose my investment in the rest of a 1000-book press run. If bookstores won't shelve it (and trust me, they won't) I don't have to worry about warehousing, inventory logistics, and the inevitable returns accounting. In fact, Lulu does all the legwork of order taking, payment processing, and order fulfillment. They take their cut, but my spreadsheeting tells me that I'll make more (though not radically more) per copy selling through Lulu than I would as a publishing house using conventional retail channels. Of course, the book is not one that would likely ever justify a conventional print run, so Lulu (and similar systems like IUniverse) have basically made its publication possible.

Some notable points about Lulu:

  • Lulu has a nice collection of stock cover art, and you can generate a cover automatically by entering the cover text (for the front cover, at least) and choosing an art design from the stock catalog. I chose a stock design for some test copies of a new layout I'm creating for a new book series and had them shipped back to me, and was quite impressed by the quality of the color cover. (The New Reformation uses a b/w cover.)
  • Creating a custom cover with your own art and layout is a little trickier, but Lulu does help. After you upload the body of the book as a PDF file, Lulu will calculate the dimensions of a wraparound cover for you. This is very useful, because the dimensions of the cover are extremely touchy if you want your spine text to be centered on the book's spine.
  • Lulu does some validations on the PDF files that you upload, to ensure that the files conform to its requirements and to one another. The last page must be blank, for example, and the number of pages must be evenly disivible by four. Also, if you design a cover yourself and upload it as a separate PDF file, Lulu will calculate whether the size of the cover is correct for the size of the body of the book as present in the other PDF. I came to appreciate this when I uploaded an old cover PDF by mistake that wasn't of a size to match the final book body PDF. Lulu called me on it. All in all, quite impressive.

I haven't bought the distribution package that includes an ISBN and distribution through other retailers, in part because the book won't benefit from such distribution, at least immediately. I'm hoping that they will allow me to use the book of ISBNs that I already own, but if that falls through, the option is available.

Lulu also distributes downloadable ebooks, and my next Lulu project will be a longish short story. I'm interested in seeing if anybody will actually buy "a story for a dollar" as pundits in the SF/fantasy arena have been predicting for years. ($1 is the minimum price for downloadable files.) The trick there has nothing to do with Lulu: I have to learn how to create a decent-looking ebook for Microsoft Reader. The little Word plug-in that Microsoft distributes for free doesn't even respect line centering, and I'd like to do a little better than that. (CSS is the high road, but I am so rusty at CSS...)

After that, I have a whole list of projects already underway, including another Old Catholic reprint from the 19th Century. Right now, I have to slide over to the Old Catholic gang and let them know that the book is ready. I've been talking about it since 2002, and I'm sure most of them by now think that I've given up. Better late than never, heh.

November 29, 2006: The Fattest Computer Book in History?

Carol and I were down at the ARC thrift shop earlier today, looking for a couple of pieces of Corelle Ware. Not a whole set; just a couple of plates and/or bowls in which to microwave leftovers. Nothing there but a couple of Corelle saucers, and saucers (by which I mean little plates with cup-sized dents in them) are about as useless as tableware gets.

No matter. We were in the neighborhood. And they had a book rack. I scanned it quickly, and spotted a copy of what may well be the fattest computer book ever published: Windows 2000 Professional Resource Kit, written in-house at Microsoft and published in 2000, for $70. The book is the same width and height as most computer books, but it's 1,770 pages long, and is 3 1/8" thick. Even the titanic Michael Abrash's Graphics Programming Black Book, which Coriolis published in 1997, only went 1, 342 pages and was a mere 2 5/8" thick. The only other thing in my library that staggers into the same ballpark is the 15th anniversary edition of Upgrading and Repairing PCs, which hit 1,575 pages but is still a quarter inch thinner than Microsoft's Great White Whale.

It's not a bad book, though the publisher in me feels that its page count was mostly a stunt, and it would have worked better as two smaller volumes. Books with spines the size of eastern rural counties fall apart under even moderate use, as we found to our dismay with the Abrash tome. The copy of the Windows monster that I found looked almost unused—and I got it for $2.99. Is that a deal or what? (It certainly is if, like me, Windows 2000 is the platform on which you do all of your paying work.) If you have a fatter computer book, do send me measurements and a citation, but I think this one gets the prize. I can see Steve Ballmer storming into the Microsoft Press offices one day in 1999, on the eve of the release of Windows 2000, and yelling "I WANT US TO HAVE THE FATTEST COMPUTER BOOK EVER PUBLISHED! DO IT RIGHT NOW OR I'LL START THROWING CHAIRS!"

Hey, have you got a better explanation?

November 28, 2006: Massive Spam Parallelism

One reason we will not be rid of spam anytime soon is that spam is very well suited to massively parallel mechanisms. The recent uptick in my spam (and everybody else's, I suspect) is due to the fact that more bots are being knit into botnets, and they're better bots. Even Port 25 blocking, which I thought was foolproof, will not deter them long-term. Here's why:

  • Bots can easily find saved logins and passwords for the local ISP's SMTP server. Who doesn't let the client remember passwords? Even if port 25 is blocked and the ISP's outgoing mail server is the only one easily accessible, the bots can use it.
  • Even where ISPs put explicit limits on the number of outbound email messages from any single customer system, given enough bots, huge numbers of messages can still be sent. You just need to divide the work out so that no single bot delivers more than thirty to fifty messages per day. If there are 10,000 bots in your botnet, you can still make a lot of money.
  • Until spam threatens the revenue stream of a Big Entity, nothing much will be done about it. P2P is a shadow of what it once was because Big Media mounted what at times looks like a terror campaign. Even though much of what spam pushes is fraudulent or even illegal, the spammers seem to be steering clear of most IP crimes. My best hope is that the SEC will get serious about spam-based penny stock fraud, but as the SEC has never had much interest in penny stocks, the fraud will likely go on.
  • Botnets now work command-and-control through IRC channels, but if the IRC ports are blocked at the ISP level, it's almost trivial to use HTTP tunnelling or some other protocol that uses essential ports. As long as there's money in spam, the spammers will figure out ways to keep their botnets alive.

In the meantime, I get over 100 penny stock pump-and-dump pitches per day now, five times what I got a couple of months ago. Mortgage refi spam is almost gone; amazing what changing interest rates did for my inbox. Porn spam, too, has almost vanished, though I got a spate of almost incoherent messages last week offering me pictures of a woman working under the name "Texas Elegance" who appears to be a 50-year-old porn star.

Eliminating botnets may be the computational problem of the first half of the 21st century. I'm not kidding. Figure that out, and you will rule the world.

November 27, 2006: More Cute Dog Pictures

Earlier today, a reader who will remain anonymous demanded, "Less religion and more cute dog pictures!" I guess not everybody has the same priorities. So here's a nice picture of QBit and Deano taken oh, half an hour ago. God's patient; He can wait until next week.

November 26, 2006: Dogs Watching TV

Last night Carol and I reviewed the Mini-DV camcorder tape I had just filled, and we saw something we had never seen before: Dogs raptly watching TV. Much of the tape was footage of the local bichon breeder's two latest litters of puppies, which Carol and I spent some time with earlier this year to help get them used to people and being handled. When footage of the puppies was on the big-screen TV, QBit watched intently from his perch on the back of the couch. Deano, our bichon guest for the past week, wasn't content to watch from a distance. He went right up to the TV and watched while standing on his back feet. (That's Deano in the photo above.)

Although both QBit and Deano watched when footage of QBit (or some of Jimi's other adult bichons) was on screen, their attention sharpened considerably when the focus was the five week old or eight week old puppies. This was interesting, because QBit doesn't much like puppies, and always tried to hide from them whenever we had him over there for a haircut this spring. Deano was the same way: He kept his distance from the puppies, and even occasionally growled at them when they approached him, wanting to play. Yet when the puppies were on TV, neither could stop watching.

I'm not sure what this means, but it was a fascinating thing to observe. I always thought that dogs ignored the TV because they didn't know what it was, and the light patterns didn't mean anything to them, but in that I was dead wrong. Dogs will watch TV when the subject is something of compelling interest to them. Why QBit and Deano were intent on watching puppies when neither of them enjoyed being with puppies is even more interesting. Male dogs may have evolved to watch over their young without particularly enjoying their company. It would be interesting to park a female bichon in front of the TV to see what her reaction would be. We may borrow one of Jimi's females at some point to perform the experiment. I'll report here when we do.

November 25, 2006: Another Year, Another Dollar

The US mint has designed yet another damned $1 coin, to be turned loose next February. It's going to be the same size and color of the current Sacajawea dollar, and have a rotating obverse to honor all of our deceased Presidents, with one President featured every two years. The design is not stellar, in my view, and I don't expect anybody to use them heavily, though I will probably frame the Millard Fillmore dollar when it appears in 2010. Although he got onto a pointless 13c stamp during the Depression, poor President Fillmore has never gotten anywhere near a coin, which is unfair, even for a man whom Mark Twain said "proved that no one can grow up to be President." He brought books in quantity to the White House for basically the first time, and I honor him for that. (He is said to have installed the first bathtub as well, but that's a legend circulated by H. L. Mencken.) He was the last President to be neither a Democrat nor a Republican, and late in life turned down an honorary degree from Cambridge University because he felt he lacked the education to warrant it. Basically, a contrarian, and a fairly humble one too.

Anyway. I have yet to hear any sense spoken about why our last two dollar coins have not clicked with the public: They look too much like quarters, and there are both practical and mythic problems with that. The public perception of the "incredible shrinking dollar" is not helped by a coin that looks no larger than a quarter, and I think it's discourteous to blind folk (who like coins because they can be differentiated by feel with a little practice) to add that kind of confusion to their pockets.

Government arguments that a larger dollar coin would cost too much in metal are specious; unless a coin cost more than a dollar to make there's really no problem, and a coin can last in circulation for fifty or sixty years. I got a 1940 Jefferson nickel in change last week, and while it had been around the block a few times and looked the part, it still helped pay for my chicken sandwich. A dollar coin that will last for sixty years doesn't have to cost a nickel to mint. Just consider how many dollar bills must be printed and shredded in that same time period.

My suggestion: Officially retire the half dollar coin (no great loss; I've not seen one in change in 25 years) and make a dollar coin that is 15% larger than the traditional half-dollar, and a little thicker. Keep the golden metal mix, or use something like the UK pound coin, which is a handsome pale copper-nickel color much like the US mint used on certain coins (like the wonderful Flying Eagle penny) in the 19th Century. On a recessed place on the coin's reverse, put the denomination in Braille.

That done, leave the design unchanged...forever. The same image of Abraham Lincoln has been on our penny for just under 100 years. That's how I like my coins: Reliable and eternal—rather like a dollar should be, but isn't.

November 23, 2006: The Purpose of Purgatory

Just a quick postscript to yesterday's entry, after which I will let the whole God thing rest for awhile.

A reader wrote last night to ask me if I believed in Purgatory. Well, yeah—just not the Medieval concept of temporary divine punishment that you could buy your way out of with prayers or money. Simply because the concept was abused—and abused horribly—doesn't mean that it has no merit.

If I have a personal theology of Purgatory, it cooks down to this: Purgatory isn't about punishment, and especially pointless, Dante-esque torture-style punishment. It's about Learning Better. It's about making mistakes and paying for them in their natural consequences so that we don't make those mistakes again. We enter Purgatory at birth, and we do not leave it until we attain the ineffable state of the Beatific Vision, having worked on our flaws across unknown realms where time, space, thought, and feeling may not be precisely what they are here on Earth. In the process, what we will ultimately learn is what it means to have been created in the Image and Likeness of God; that is, to be truly and completely human.

November 22, 2006: Mysteries, Absurdities, and Fideism

I got a disturbing email the other day, from a guy who had stumbled on my site while looking for information on space-charge tubes, and then "read the whole thing." (Whew! That's persistence!) After complimenting me on the techie/philosophical stuff, he then wrote: "Put as simply as possible, the Christian message is this: God hates me because of something I didn't do, and if I don't say the magic words, 'Jesus Christ is my Lord and Saviour,' God will torture me in Hell forever. How can you possibly believe in crap like that?"

The short answer is that I don't. (I made this clear in my reply, some of which I'm adapting for this entry.) The understanding of Christianity that he cited isn't the only one; it's just the one that gets the most airplay these days. It's also the one that brought me within a quarter of an inch of throwing Christianity over the side completely. (At some point I'll work up the courage to describe a night I spent watching something called "Christian wrestling," which was as surreal as it was appalling, and almost made an atheist of me.) Nonetheless, great huge swaths of the Christian world do believe this, even though it's a pretty concise statement of the Great Heresy, Manichaeism, which Augustine of Hippo injected into Christian Tradition.

The Catholic interpretation of the Christian message is different, but it still gnaws at me. In place of Calvinism's cruel God, Catholicism and several other Christian traditions see a defeated God, who settles for half a loaf and accepts that a certain number of persons will just get lost in the darkness and never find their way home.

Belief as a mechanism seems inborn in some of us, and I'm certainly in that camp. However, if I professed belief in either the Calvinist (cruel) God or the Arminian (defeated) God, I would be guilty of a philosophical position called fideismbelieving in something even though you know that it's absurd.

I need to point out here that there are mysteries, and there are absurdities. Drawing an analogy to mathematics, it's the difference between fast Fourier transforms and dividing by zero. Fast Fourier transforms are extremely difficult to understand, and when I'm being honest with myself I admit that I'll go to my grave without understanding them. Dividing by zero, on the other hand, is simply absurd. There's nothing there to understand.

So things like the doctrine of the Trinity don't bother me at all. Humility requires me to admit that I can't understand it, at least in this life and at this state of my intellectual development. That doesn't mean the concept is absurd. In fact, it rings with a kind of truth that keeps me going, even in the face of toxic religion. The Trinity is a mystery, as is the dual nature of Christ as true God and true man. Neither is easily understood, but neither is a contradiction in terms.

Now, when you come to the notions of a cruel God or a defeated God, the contradictions emerge. An all-good God cannot be cruel, and an all-powerful God cannot lose. To say I believed in either would be self-deception, and this is why I profess belief in an all-good and all-powerful God who will do whatever it takes to gather everybody and everything back into Divine wholeness. Real God, no compromises, no contradictions, no absurdities.

This doesn't mean that we won't be slogging through a certain amount of Hell in the meantime. Anyone who has watched a loved one die horribly (as I watched my parents die) will understand this. Suffering itself is a kind of mystery, and one way to understand the Incarnation is to realize that God has told us that He is suffering right down here with us, and that suffering has meaning, if not meaning that we can necessarily understand in the here and now. The notion of a suffering God bothers a lot of people, but it makes perfect sense to me: God is everything we are and infinitely more, and if so much of human life is suffering, God Himself cannot escape. The life of Christ is God telling us to hang in there, that we are not alone, and that (deny it as some of us try) in the end all things will be brought back to wholeness.

The real Christian message is implicit in the life of Christ. Hell shows up in a couple of places in the Gospels, but from a height they fade into the noise. What stands out are the miracles of Jesus, which could have been advanced parlor magic like turning sticks into snakes but are not: They are all movements from suffering and brokenness back to wholeness. Feeding the hungry, healing the sick and the maimed, bringing people back from the dead, yikes! That's where it's all going. So in response to the Augustinian understanding of the Christian message I'll posit this: God created us radically free, and the cost of freedom is suffering, but the upside—participation in the Divine Nature—is huge, if not easy to understand at this point in our journey. God doesn't lose, and ultimately we'll all get there, and in the meantime, the message of Christ stands out in bright lights: Heal one another, as I have healed you.

November 21, 2006: My New Custom Table

I don't think I ever posted a photo of my new work table, on which my main system, printer, and new scanner live. (Yes, the scanner stand is a scrap lumber lashup, and I'm designing a better one.) When we moved into this house, I bought an oak table that was about the right width and depth, but which was at least 4" too high. The height of the table coupled with the size of my 21.4" Samsung LCD monitor (operating in portrait mode, to boot) gave me serious neck problems that I'm still dealing with. So I hunted around, and in remarkably little time ran across a near-perfect table in knotty alder at a local unfinished furniture place.

It was still too high, but they have a full wood shop in the back room, and for another $100 I had them cut the trestle base portion down so that the table surface is precisely 26 1/2" above the floor. I had them stain it to harmonize with the rest of the wood in my office (of which there is much) and then finish it with a matte urethane that filled the cracks in the knots right up to the surface. It's strong, precisely the right size, and gorgeous. I paid a little more for it than your average computer desk (about $750 total) but given how much time I spend sitting in front of this damned box (and how much of my living I make doing that sitting) I think it was worth every nickel.

November 20, 2006: Reincarnating Mr. Byte

As if we didn't have enough to do around here, Carol and I are temporarily taking care of a friend's bichon. Deano is a show dog, and still has all of his um, equipment. This makes him get a little nuts when Jimi's females go into heat, which they all do at the same time. So we're taking Deano until the heat's off back home. Deano knows Carol, since she was doing a bit of appenticing on bichon grooming under Jimi earlier this year. So although he's still a little skittish, he's getting used to being away from home. Deano's arrival has caused an interesting incidental phenomenon: Carol and I have spontaneously begun calling QBit "Mr. Byte." It's not deliberate, and happens most often when the two of them are doing something we'd rather they not do.

Long-time readers of mine will remember that we had a bichon frise named Mr. Byte from 1980 to 1995. I wrote about him a lot, and people were asking me how he was doing long after he died of old age. QBit looks superficially like Mr. Byte, but I don't think that's the issue. Deano is younger and considerably smaller than QBit, who at 16 pounds is on the high side of the envelope for the breed. Mr. Byte was a good size too—and in 1982, we bought a second puppy, the less famous Chewy. Chewy was always a little smaller than Mr. Byte. So now we have a familiar pattern: Two bichons in the house, one significantly larger than the other. Something in the backs of our heads preverbally remembers the pattern, and when it comes time to yell at QBit to get his nose out of the potted plants, "Mr. Byte, stop that!" comes out of its own accord.

Interestingly, we haven't yet called Deano "Chewy." Maybe that's the next step in this odd sliver of madness that comes of having multiple bichons underfoot.

November 16, 2006: Here Comes Kathleen Elizabeth Roper!

Much desired and very long awaited, but, well...beautiful! Nine pounds, 14 ounces. Twenty-one inches long. I have it on good authority that she has her father's hair and eye color.

Better still, all involved with the project are healthy, though Gretchen looks like she could use a few good solid nights' sleep.

I had to reflect earlier today: What did I ever want that I wanted as badly as my good sister wanted to be a mother? Probably nothing. I wanted to be an SF novelist (and it took about as long to get there) but that's not in the same league. Wanting to marry Carol, perhaps—though that only took seven years, not twenty-five. Gretchen and Bill's persistence inspires awe, and when we got the news this morning at ten to seven, it drew some tears as well.

It's pointless to say that the real work starts now. Most of that falls to Gretchen and Bill, of course, but I'll have a chance to pitch in. I have to learn Lego, and I still have to chase down a few books that all kids need read to them, not once but many times. I need to chase down a Polish nursery rhyme that my grandmother used to recite while she rocked me in a little rocking chair. (It begins, Ah, ah, kotka dwa...or something like that. I don't know how to spell the words!) Beyond that, yikes! I don't know.

But there will be plenty of time to ponder the future. For the moment, we're glad that the family is safe and healthy. It was only briefly that I caught myself thinking, if only her grandparents could be here to see her...

But how could I ever doubt that they are?

November 16, 2006: Prayers for our Imminent Brin

I just heard that my sister Gretchen and her husband Bill had rocketed off to Madison, Wisconsin to await the birth of their first child. It was an unconventional pregnancy, in that for medical reasons, they had to have someone else carry the child to term, though the embryo was fertilized in vitro and is completely theirs.

So. 25 shelf-feet of theology books in my library, and I finally get to be a godfather! Figuring that the three of them (and the carrier mother too) will need all the help they can get in the next few days, I got up on the ladder and dug around on my high shelf (missals and prayerbooks) looking for a prayer for safe delivery of a child. Nada. I have prayers in books for some odd things ("Prayer for a person one dislikes," and "Prayer for the solution of a financial problem," among numerous others) but nothing for safe delivery and good health for a new baby.

I guess I'll have to write my own.

All-powerful God, Creator of All Things and Ground of All Being, grant a safe and healthy birth to this new life, and give strength to the parents who conceived it and the woman who bore it. Send your Spirit to give the child the breath of life, so that she (or he) may be strong and joyous and rooted in the Earth where we all dwell. Give us all the wisdom to know when to advise and when to be silent, when to help and when to simply stand back and let the child be human as we are human, so that his (or her) humanity may be a beacon that we send into the future, as we were sent by those who came before us. This we ask, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


November 15, 2006: Good Pope Benny and Clerical Celibacy

The story was everywhere on Monday that today (Thursday) Pope Benedict XVI will be holding a meeting with the Curia to discuss the future of the thousand-year-old Roman Catholic tradition of mandatory celibacy for priests and bishops. The immediate trigger was another outburst from one of Rome's most embarrassing nutcases, the defrocked Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, who (after a several years' dalliance with the Moonies) has taken the celibacy issue on as his Really Big Thing. (Just because I agree with him on this issue doesn't mean he isn't a nutcase. You should read about his exorcism masses, among other things.)

I will hand it to Archbishop Milingo: He hit Rome where it hurts. Earlier this year, he consecrated four married men as bishops. At least two of them have a long history with the Old Catholic Church, and one of them (Peter Paul Brennan) I've spoken with. (Some information on Bp. Brennan is here. Scroll down a little; he's #3 on the page.)

The Vatican is in a bit of a spot here, because of the longstanding Roman Catholic theology regarding apostolic succession: The mental and spiritual state of the consecrator does not affect the validity of the consecration. In other words, even if Milingo is a few drills short of an index, if he follows the accepted form for the ceremony of consecration, and if the bishops he consecrates have the desire to become bishops, well, then they're bishops. They may not be licit—legal in the eyes of the Vatican—but they are nonetheless valid. And because a bishop is the highest ordained office recognized in Catholic tradition, one representing "the fullness of the priesthood," a bishop can consecrate other bishops, and preside over an independent Catholic jurisdiction. If this sort of thing happens too many times, you end up with splinter churches all over the place.

Just as the late Pope John Paul II was an idealist, Good Pope Benny is a pragmatist, and I've grown to like him. (Popes should not be idealists. They have a Church to run.) He understands the weakness of the celibacy tradition (it was enacted to keep children of priests and bishops from claiming inheritance of Church property under the emerging secular law of the Middle Ages) and its unpopularity with the laity. He also knows that he's running out of priests. So while it may not happen this year or next year, I think that the celibacy requirement is going to go away fairly soon. (We will see the end of the ban on women priests eventually, but it won't be within my lifetime.) The Eastern Orthodox have never entirely banned married priests, and Rome has quietly accepted a number of Anglican priests with wives and families into its fold.

His big problem, of course, is how to pay for the upkeep of tens of thousands of wives and kids, and the big question that Roman Catholics have to ask themselves is this: Am I willing to cough up a lot more to the Church to support clerical families? Protestants and Anglicans do it as a matter of course. We'll see what the laity says when their parishes ask for donations of thousands of dollars each year—not merely the odd 20 that most people toss in the basket on Sundays.

November 13, 2006: Odd Lots

  • Sun is releasing Java under the same GPL V2 license that governs use and distribution of the Linux kernel. Tim Bray, director of Web technologies at Sun, fills in some of the details here. It's interesting how the three big players in this particular game (Sun, Adobe, and Microsoft) all seem to be realizing how holding tight to a technology isn't the way to get the world to embrace it.
  • In response to my half-serious Odd Lot about my Neanderthalic occipital bun, I was pointed to a couple of Web documents on craniometry, or the study of brain size and shape, and their implications. On average (and taking general body size into account) Asian brain cases are the largest, followed by European brain cases, followed by African brain cases. Much nastiness has been tossed around during discussion of such data, but what no one seems to mention is that the Neanderthals had way bigger brains (and somewhat bigger bodies) than any of us, and no one is quite sure why. (Here's a short, accessible introduction to this issue.) Craniometry was not new to me, but what I hadn't heard is that in general, the higher you go in latitude, the larger brain cases become. Maybe it's a square-cube law thing: Bigger brains generate more heat and would cook in equatorial climates, but not in Sweden. I'm personally much more interested in how small a brain case could be and yet still support intelligence like that of modern humanity. Are Piper's Little Fuzzies (14-inch-high humanoids) a physiological possibility? I don't think we know enough about brain function yet to be sure.
  • Jim Strickland sent me a link to the European home of the Hubble Space Telescope, with a nicely organized archive of spectacular photos. Dig in.
  • I'm sympathetic to robots made out of all kinds of things, but if I had to pick a system I'd want to fool with myself, I'd pick Vex five throws out of three. The Mythbusters guys did a nice review on Robot Magazine, and I would characterize it as a true Meccano/Erector Set descendent slanted toward robots. Vex builders have a forum, and I've seen a Vex robot beat all comers in a "critter crunch" robot battle held at a Chicago SF con. I have too much invested in vintage Meccano and Exacto to throw money into Vex, but it seems to be that the Vex remote control systems and power trains might be adapted to Meccano girder hole spacings.

November 12, 2006: Lee Anne and Middle Earth

I began walking to The Lord of the Rings DVD again this evening for the first time in awhile, as I probably will a couple of times a year for the rest of my life. And when the first view of Bilbo Baggins' stately hobbit hole Bag End appeared, I snorted with abrupt recognition: I now have a house dug into the side of a hill as well. Its interior even shares some stylistic touches with Bag End, and lord knows there are lots of books scattered around on oak shelves, beams against a vaulted ceiling, and always some aged cheese, good wine, and rough bread within easy reach. I envision myself curled up in a comfy chair with a good book, and I wonder if I'm becoming a bit of a hobbit myself.

There's some fair irony in that, especially considering my initial reaction to Tolkien's expansive fantasy, which I began under some protest at age 14. I read it at the behest of the little girl three houses down the street, for whom I began to have strong feelings at that time. (The photo at left of her at 13 is, alas, the only one I have of her.) She'd been there since my earliest memory, and we'd always played together, co-inventing imaginal worlds without any conception of how good we both were at it. By the time we were 11 we both had typewriters (didn't everybody?) and we wrote one another outlandish stories. Hers leaned toward elves and dragons; mine toward starships and aliens. No matter; we had a fine time together.

I remember how she handed me The Fellowship of the Ring when I was mostly through my freshman year in high school. It was an elf thing, sigh, but she would brook no argument, and I was becoming aware of a desire to please her that wasn't quite like the one I'd felt in years past. So I sat down that night and the book just drew me in, as it usually does to anyone with any imagination at all. I remember grumbling about "all this magic stuff" but damn, it was catching. My two best friends at school caught it from me, and we read it and argued about it for the rest of our time at Lane Tech.

Lee Anne was damned good at her storytelling, and she embarrassed me a little by working my aliens-and-starships turf with a great deal more aplomb than I could move in elves-and-dragons land. She created aliens that looked a lot like elves but had starships, and we played with an SF collaboration called The Timenor, which was about her elfin telepathic aliens, their wicked cool starships, and a battle with Cosmic Evil. Magic and telepathy were a natural for her. On the other hand, in spite of all her encouragements, I had a bitch of a time with the idea of magic or anything else smacking of the supernatural. Reading about it was one thing, but eek! I was the son of an engineer, and had a beer box full of radio tubes in the basement. I always ruined my fictional magic by having to explain it. (Engineers assume that everything cooks down to resistors at some point and feel obliged to draw the schematics.) She made hers work by understanding that Magic Just Is.

That wasn't the only gulf we couldn't cross. By my fifteenth birthday I fancied myself in love with her, but there was something odd about the feeling that I think she understood a little better than I did. Once in the thick of a giddy August evening on her back porch I tried to kiss her—and she ducked. Things got awkward quickly after that. She told me she liked me better as the friend I'd always been than she would like me as a boyfriend, and after some inner grumbling I accepted that. It would be decades before I saw the research suggesting that the incest taboo is a product of upbringing, in that unrelated children raised in close proximity from infancy have an intuitive caution about physical attraction, just as true siblings do. I think that if I had kissed her that August night, I would have understood the oddness too. Go back far enough into childhood, and "childhood sweethearts" just doesn't work. Evolution knows what it's doing.

Lee Anne died of a brain tumor in 1996. Somewhere in a box I have what we wrote together of The Timenor, paper-clipped to some of my notes and a couple of abortive attempts in later years to keep it going. If I stay on my current trajectory, one of these years I may yet get a grip on evil cosmic forces or even magic itself, and then it may be time to pull out The Timenor and see what happens. Can an engineer just accept magic as it is and not try to explain it? I keep thinking that if I read (or watch) The Lord of the Rings just one more time, it'll come to me.

I'm at it again. We'll see. Hang in there, Lee.

November 9, 2006: Odd Lots

  • Slashdot aggregated an article about brain size and Neanderthal genes, with all the silly jokes and breathless recriminations that any such business now generates...but it also gave a name to the bump that I have on the back of my head: It's an occipital bun. It's present in some northern European groups, but almost nonexistent elsewhere. People say we inherited it from the Neanderthals, which implies that I'm part caveman. Maybe I should make a Geico commercial.
  • My observation of the transit of Mercury yesterday went very well, and I showed the event to a fair number of people from our church, as well as a couple of curious passers-by. The small size of the planet's image caused one woman to remark that she thought it was dirt on the foamcore sheet. Spectacular, well, it wasn't—but I was very glad to have seen it, as there won't be another for ten years. See Pete Albrecht's blog for a nice photo. Mine were not so good, because the foamcore on which I projected the Sun's image was a little too shiny. We learn, we learn.
  • One major objection to Flash as a development platform is that it's proprietary, and while there's some significance in that (and .NET isn't?) Adobe seems to be doing right right thing to promote the platform, by contributing source code for the ActionScript virtual machine to the Mozilla Foundation. Mozilla will be incorporating the new source code into the Tamarin open-source ECMAScript virtual machine, which will eventually make its way into Firefox. It's not the whole solution, but it's a significant step in the right direction for Flash.
  • Michael Covington pointed me to a link indicating that demand for $2 bills is increasing, and nobody can explain the trend. I thought they were extinct, and haven't gotten one in change in 25 years. One fascinating note in the article describes a wine shop operator who gives the bills out in change, which makes people remember his shop. That's certainly a marketing strategy I wouldn't have come up with myself!
  • According to 1960s music expert Kent Kotal, the very first Beatles single in America was published by Chicago record company Vee Jay, and was played for the first time in America on Chicago station WLS by DJ Dick Biondi in early 1963. The single was "Please Please Me," and it was also significant as the first rock single I ever bought with my own money. (I was 11 at the time, and disposable income was a new thing for me.)

November 8, 2006: Transit of Mercury

In just a few hours, today's transit of the planet Mercury across the face of the sun will begin. It's an event that happens about 13 times per 100 years, though they're by no means evenly spaced: The last one ocurred in May 2003, but the next one will not happen until 2016. I'll be out in St. Raphael's parking lot after lunch, with my vent-pipe junkbox 8" scope projecting the image of the Sun on a sheet of white foamcore ($4 at Hobby Lobby) for safe viewing. (I'm going to the church to view the transit because where I live I have this honking mountain just west of me, and the Sun will go behind the mountain when the transit is only about half complete.)

Viewing the transit isn't as simple as viewing a partial solar eclipse. You can project an image of the Sun through a pinhole and get the "crescent moon" effect of the Sun with the Moon partially obscuring it. I've actually projected the partially eclipsed Sun through the holes in a saltine cracker, and even through a gap in my hands held together to produce a shadow puppet. (If you're skilful at shadow puppets you can project the Sun's partially eclipsed image as the shadow puppet's eye.)

Unfortunately, Mercury is tiny compared to the Sun. It's not much of a planet to begin with (Mercury's been looking over its shoulder ever since Pluto got demoted to...not quite a planet) and it's a long way out there. So while the angular diameter of the Sun is about thirty arc-minutes, Mercury's angular diameter is only 10 arc seconds, which is only 1/200 as wide. Mercury will thus appear as a very tiny black dot, and you won't get a sharp enough image through a pinhole to display it.

If you have a telescope, you can project an image of the sun on any blank white surface. If you can get a focused image at least three or four inches in diameter, you shouldn't have any trouble seeing the planet. If you get a good projected image, do what I do and just snap a digital camera photo of the projected image. I did that while observing a group of sunspots back in 2003 and it worked beautifully even though a stiff wind was blowing the white cardboard around.

Obviously, you need to be aware that you should not look through a telescope pointed at or near the Sun! Close to the eyepiece, the beam can melt solder; imagine what it would do to your eye. One additional tip that Pete Albrecht reminded me of: If your telescope has a finder scope, take it off the main scope before you aim it at the Sun. The reticles (or crosshairs) in finder scopes can be damaged if the concentrated light of the Sun falls on them for any period of time. Also, there will be a beam of light coming out of the finder that can scorch hands and permanently damage eyes. (The beam will also be coming out of the main eyepiece, but you'll at least be aware of that one.) Make sure if kids are around that they aren't left alone with the instrument, lest they attempt to look through it!

The transit begins at 19:12 Universal Time, which cooks down to 3:12 PM AT, 2:12 PM ET, 1:12 PM CT, 12:12 PM MT, and 11:12 AM PT. The transit lasts just under five hours, and I will not see the end of it here before sunset. Only people on the west coast will see the whole thing.

I'll post some of my photos tomorrow, as will Pete Albrecht. He has a bigger scope and much better gear, so don't forget to check out his blog this evening. He has a lot of other extremely nice astrophotos posted there. I don't know if Michael Covington will be posting any photos, but it's worth checking his blog as well, since he does some truly spectacular work with his 8" compound scope.

November 7, 2006: Communities of Anger

Election Day. God, let it be over soon. I am so sick of being called by the teachers' unions telling me that our schools are out of money (they're not) and by the thumpers telling me that gay marriage will be the end of the world. (It won't.)

If we're really in trouble it may be due to a disturbing trend mentioned a few days ago in the Wall Street Journal: That American are retreating into "communities of anger" that consider any disagreement whatsoever a moral insult, and that our political discourse (if you could still call it that) is more hate-filled and poisonous than at any time in our history. It's enough to break your heart.

As best I can tell, there are two forces at work here, one ancient and one modern. The ancient one is the two party system, which has been (mostly) with Americans forever. I have never much liked the reductiveness of two-party systems, and the enthusiasm with which many people put a slave collar around their necks and hand their chains to a political party baffles me. Political parties exist for one reason and one reason only: To make the world safer for their largest financial donors. Political parties do not care a whit for me, and they do not care a whit for you, except to the extent that our needs align with (and fail to conflict with) the large organizations that hand them money. Worse, they force their candidates to the extremes, which is where the big money comes from. Look at what the Dems did to Joe Lieberman, a centrist whom I think would have made a pretty decent president, and who could well have knocked Bush out of the game at halftime, had the dimbulbs on the lefty fringes given him a chance to run.

As long as there remains some ability in the body politic to see other perspectives and compromise, a two-party system can work. But now we confront the modern force: A shrinking ability to conceive even the possibility that one is wrong, or that a strongly held belief might not be in everyone's—or anyone's—best interests. This is what I was leading up to with yesterday's entry. We have increasingly blind faith in our own unquestionable rightness—and by implication, the rightness of the political party to which we (inexplicably) sell ourselves as slaves. When someone dares disagree with us, our first response is fury, followed by condemnation and the closure of all discussion.

Where this second force comes from remains a little obscure, but Jim Strickland suggested sagely that the manic emphasis on "self-esteem" in our schools may well be one cause—or perhaps the main one. We are teaching our children not to doubt themselves. There is tremendous danger in that. The heart and soul of democracy is compromise, and fundamental to the notion of compromise is acceptance of the reality that none of us is "right." Every idea has flaws, no solution to any problem is perfect, and there is no black and white anywhere except painting and mathematics. Political problems are not solvable. At best, they are manageable, but in a democracy management only happens by consensus.

If we cannot doubt the positions that we have taken, then we are no longer small-d democrats—we are totalitarians. What saves us here in the U.S. may well be our razor-sharp division into halves by political party, preventing either party from granting all authority to its moneyed owners. When the dust settles late tonight, that division may be even closer. There is some wisdom in crowds. Gridlock isn't ideal, but it's better than dictatorship.

I keep three principles in mind when contemplating my own position in the political world, and I offer them to you if you want them:

  • I am always wrong.
  • The other guy always has a point.
  • The answer (if one exists) is always somewhere in the middle.

Beyond that, it's useful to ask yourself, Who owns me? Unquestioned loyalty to anything—especially political parties—is unhealthy. And finally, a truth that everybody seems to have forgotten: Your apparent IQ is inversely proportional to your level of anger. In other words, the angrier you are, the stupider you look.

It took me a great many years to figure that out, but it's never far from my mind anymore, and it has kept me from retreating into a community of anger, from which nothing emerges but hatred and division.

November 6, 2006: Faith without Doubt

Numerous people have sent me notes since this past Saturday asking if I'd heard about Ted Haggard, a local pastor at New Life Church, the largest of several rock-band megachurches that have long been giving Colorado Springs a bad name among secular folk. Well, uh, yeah. It's about the only thing there was in Saturday's paper, and has dominated local news ever since then. Quick summary: One of our noisiest and most self-righteous local Bible-thumpers was caught having sex with a male prostitute out of Denver, and admitted that he'd been paying this guy for sex for three years. Oh, and then it came out that the same guy sold Haggard some meth, which Haggard insisted he never used. Boy, where have we heard that before?

It's true that Haggard is human, but he's also a religious leader, and I don't think it's unreasonable for us to have much higher standards for religious leaders than for ordinary people. I've been saying for years (basically since the Roman Catholic clergy abuse crisis blossomed) that religious leaders (clergy or lay) who cannot control their appetites must resign now, and work on their own inner demons before trying to help others with theirs. Crying "fallenness" is no excuse at all. Most of us who haven't spent years in divinity school are perfectly happy being faithful to our spouses.

One has to ask why these periodic meltdowns of prominent religious leaders happen at all. One obvious reason is that born leaders (especially male leaders) tend to have ravenous sexual appetites. But it isn't always about sex; it can be about drugs, power, or (especially) money. I think there's another issue here: Faith without doubt.

People who work relentlessly at removing any least shred of doubt from their faith in God don't always notice that the same effort removes doubt from their faith in themselves, and can cause them to subconsciously make excuses for their own nasty behavior, often without realizing what's going on. In my lifelong struggle with religion, I've learned a number of things, and tops on the list is that "blind" faith (that is, faith without doubt or examination) is absolutely deadly.

Faith is not effortless, and it is not automatically any source of comfort. Quite the contrary: Faith is almost by definition life's supreme challenge, and that challenge is the engine by which we grow spiritually. Inherent in that growth is doubt. If you don't doubt that you have flaws that need work, you will deny them, hurt others, and continue being a selfish, hurtful shit. A mindset that cannot doubt anything about one's religious framework or culture tends not to doubt one's personal integrity, either.

There's nothing wrong with doubting the existence of God, nor certainly doubting the details of any given religious tradition. God will get you sooner or later; C. S. Lewis called Him "the Hound of Heaven," and I don't think He requires adherence to a particular religious tradition so much as being pointed in the right direction. (That direction being one of mercy, kindness, and generosity.) Being pointed in the right direction requires self-examination and self-doubt. If you never question the validity of your picture of God nor the religious framework within which you live, you will not grow, and you will end up stale, aching, and empty. Certain personality types have a tendency to turn that inner emptiness into rage directed at others, and there's where a great deal of toxic religion comes from. I've run into a few reactionary types in the far corners of the independent Catholic wing of Christianity, and they were for the most bitter, angry men who had no ability whatsoever to doubt themselves. Alpha males, Right Men, whatever you want to call them, they are dangerous people, not only to themselves and their loved ones but to their religious traditions and the very idea of religion itself.

I doubt every last detail of my own religious tradition, and yet I keep returning to it. Am I nuts? No. Am I a heretic? Hardly. I think that's just how faith works. The more you doubt it, the more you understand it, and the more you understand the vastness of the challenge that faith represents. If you continue to feel that it's worthwhile (a separate discussion) the effort can transform you, and that's ultimately what faith is about.

November 5, 2006: Who Needs a New Computer?

Carol and I were down at Otho's yesterday and Christmas muzak was playing instead of their usual saxaphone jazz. Oh, well. Halloween is over and for whatever reason, Thanksgiving doesn't have much traction with the American imagination anymore.

But right on schedule, Slashdot aggregated a (weak) article this morning, saying what we hear almost every Christmas season: PC sales will be weak, for a list of ridiculous reasons: exploding batteries, waiting for Vista, yadda yadda yadda.

Nobody seems willing to admit the obvious: For the overwhelming majority of consumers, PCs purchased two or three or even five or six years ago are still perfectly usable, especially if they don't have multiple malware infections and have undergone a little degunking to reduce Windows entropy.

One of my ministries at our parish (though I still grin a little thinking of it as a ministry) is helping parishioners out with their PCs. I have helped a few make the jump to new machines, often from doddering wrecks that they have owned for ten or twelve years. But mostly I just help them get back on track after being derailed by malware or accumulated gunk. I see a lot of 1999-2002 era machines running Office 97 and little else. I install Firefox and sometimes Thunderbird for them (as well as a firewall if they don't have one) and they're off with a roar, happy as can be.

Even I get three or four years out of a machine, and in fact I still have in almost daily service my primary boxes purchased in 1998 and 2002. A lot of my software dates back to 1999 and 2000. It does what I need, and on a 3 GHz machine with 4 GB of RAM, that old stuff really rips. I bought an XP system because a guy in my line of work needs to know XP, but my daily operations are still conducted under Win2K because I will not allow a computer to hold my work hostage.

We're on a plateau. The "user experience" is generally pretty good. Even non-enthusiasts have had time to get used to Windows and the general concepts behind Windows computing. Their machines do what they need to do. PC lifetimes are stretching out, and I think we hit a sort of sweet spot in or about 1999. There will be Win2K and XP boxes running unmodified for another fifteen years, or even more.

Geek tho I may be, I still have a 1995 minivan in my garage. Still works. Coupla rust spots, but hey—it's paid for. Why do computer companies assume they can push a new box down everybody's chimney every two years?

November 3, 2006: Odd Lots

  • Much going on here, and I may not be publishing Contra quite as often as in previous months. A lot centers on preparing materials for Lulu, which I'm going to be testing in a number of ways. I'm also testing a new scanner designed specifically for scanning books and magazines, and will report here once I've gotten a good feel for it.
  • I got a Skype spam the other day, and (worse) it was a 419 scam from South Africa. The instant the message arrived, the sender was offline, clearly to avoid being traced. Although Skype can block senders, it's pretty obvious that that message would not arrive from that same sender again. Conventional spam is also up, and nearly all of the additional spam is pump-and-dump stock scams, which may well be the perfect crime.
  • I'm increasingly convinced that Flash is hugely superior to AJAX as a Web 2.0 platform. Check out calendar/organizer app Scrybe, a Flash app that (admittedly) is not yet generally available—but play the video. Egad. I don't know about you, but I find that extremely impressive, especially since Scrybe works when you're offline, and will seamlessly sync with your server-side data as soon as you connect.
  • There is a transit of Mercury this coming Wednesday. While not as vanishingly rare as a transit of Venus, it's still uncommon, and worth watching if you have the usual solar eclipse paraphernalia. The transit will be seen in its entirety only from the westernmost quarter of the US; east of there, the sun will set before the Mercury completes its run across the solar disk. Here in Colorado, we'll get most of it, though the transit will end shortly after sunset, and the presence of mountains on our western horizon makes things a little complex. I'm heading about five miles east to our church's parking lot to get away from Cheyenne Mountain, and will have my 8" scope projecting an image on foamcore for anyone who wants a look.

November 1, 2006: Designing Novels, Part 3: Plot

We are storytelling creatures, and I have an intuition that language evolved in parallel with storytelling as a survival skill: Relating where the game can be found, impressing women (and rivals) with your badass exploits, and so on. Kids are really good at creating stories, for entertainment, bluster, or to shift blame. ("The dog ate my homework!") So fashioning plots may be at once the easiest and the most difficult part of designing novels: Easiest because it's in our genes; and hardest, because it's so deep in our genes that it's difficult to control.

The way I plotted The Cunning Blood (and most of my earlier fiction longer than a few thousand words) was simple, effective, and occasionally infuriating: I created a broad concept, vividly envisioned an opening scene, then cast wide the gates and let 'er rip. The details of the plot (almost) always emerged in a form that would both gibe with my broad concept and move the story in a useful direction.

The broad concept often begins very simply, and for The Cunning Blood went something like this: Peter Novilio and his nanocomputer partner the Sangruse Device are sentenced to transportation to Hell, and Peter is offered a pardon if he can go down there and come back with useful information on what Hell is up to. While there he uncovers a plot to topple Earth's world government. End of plot outline. Going in, that's literally all I had.

It grew quickly, of course, but what I found amazing is how much of the plot detail showed up in a "just-in-time" fashion. Every so often I had to think hard about what would come next, but in most cases the ideas that would become the plot for Chapter X+1 came flooding in just as I was wrapping up Chapter X. Late in the book, when the action was no longer linear in a single thread, I had to take a couple of time-outs to sketch out sequences of scenes. (One such timeout was a very memorable autumn walk in Seattle with my close friend Michael Abrash.) But while I was writing a single thread, the details came to me as I needed them.

Every once in awhile the chipper/shredder in the back of my head spat out a dead end. This happened twice in The Cunning Blood, and I had to backtrack and scrap about 10,000 words. One chapter scrapped was just plain bad, although it had coalesced around an interesting idea. (I may use the idea in the sequel, if I write the sequel.) The other was a door to perhaps another 100,000 words of story complication, and I was already well past my first 100,000 and looking for an ending. I'm always annoyed when I have to delete text, but it was encouraging how easily my subconscious picked up the scent again with a little conscious prodding.

I'm a sample of one, and it's hard to generalize strictly from my own experience, but I have noticed that it helps to visualize early scenes as cinematically observed, and not just textual descriptions in a note file. That means just what it sounds like: Create a movie in your head and watch it. The first scene in The Cunning Blood as I originally wrote it had a heavily-armed assassin stalking Peter Novilio in an ancient graveyard. (The first scene as published was written later and added as a kind of prequel to give the reader some bearings.) I envisioned the graveyard right down to the crumbling walls and the glints of light on polished headstones, and I spent some significant time leaning back in my chair and following an imaginary video of Peter playing cat-and-mouse with his assailant. There is a strong visual component to our storytelling faculty. You have to see the sabre toothed tiger before you can spin the yarn of how you outsmarted it.

Those stories for which I didn't create a cinematic vision of the first scene tended to be static and talky, and most failed or weren't even finished. There's something absolutely critical about literally seeing the first part of the story in your imagination. If you can do that, the genetic story machine we all carry with us will do most of the rest. It may even be true that people who can't write fiction fail because they have insufficient ability to visualize a scene in full action. In other words, they could write it if they could see it, but they can't see it.

To summarize my method (if you can call it that) for plotting:

  1. Create a broad concept for the plot. Think of it as a bounding box for the action that frames the story. Don't be too specific; again, you need to give your subconscious plenty of room to move.
  2. Whatever it takes, imagine the first scene in full cinematic action, and run it through your head a few times, adding details as you go. This doesn't require that you be writing an action/adventure; you can envision two people walking home from the grocery store. But envision them richly. My story "Bathtub Mary" opens on a summer evening, as a blind woman walks home with an intelligent computer pinned to her lapel. Very little action, but I had the woman, the street, the pavement, the houses, and even the weeds along the roadside in utterly crisp vision. The story worked, and worked well, even though there's almost no physical action in any of it.
  3. Start the story by describing that initial scene, and pay attention to new visual clues that begin to emerge from your subconscious. If the clues falter, stop where you are and rev up the theater of the mind once more, with feeling.
  4. If you get really stuck, do some research, take a walk (I find that moderate physical exercise revs the idea machine) and play some music that strikes a deep emotional chord in you. The music needn't have any connection to any aspect of the story, though there are sometimes resonances. A cut called "The Plagues" from the soundtrack of Prince of Egypt helped me envision the scene in which Sahan Grusa levels the pirate colony Columbia by creating frightening (but harmless) fantasy creatures as nanotech macrobots, much like God raining frogs and such on Egypt. It sounds silly, but it worked.
  5. Don't give up if things fall apart in any given session. You may be distracted by the things of this world, so set aside your imaginal world for a night and come back to it fresh the next day, ready to see it in motion in your mind.

Plotting is really the core of the storytelling art. You need gimmicks and characters, but without plot, well, they're just ideas. Strive to be a visual person, and don't just sit at home all the time. Go out and see what animals and mountains and machinery actually look like. Travel. Experience. Like the commercial says, live richly. Imagination builds on the real.

It's November 1. I've told you what I know. Now get out there and write us a novel!