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May, 2011:

Skype and EasyBits: Mistake or Attack?

After a strange reluctance to jump on the issue, the major news outlets have begun covering the excitement of this past Saturday morning, when untold numbers of Skype users suddenly found new software installed on their Windows PCs, without so much as a notification or request for permission from Skype. Skype has been almost silent on the issue, as has the firm that originated the software in question, EasyBits GO. EasyBits is not obviously malware, but there were some weird EasyBits/Skype connections with malware last year, and Saturday’s install certainly acted like malware. So was it a mistake? Or was it an attack? The greatest weirdness of all is that we still don’t know.

My take? It looks like a mistake. It smells like an attack.

I set up an old XP machine with Skype on it Saturday afternoon, and left Skype running in a window. It’s still running as I write, and there’s no trace of the EasyBits installer. I thought the fact that it was still at SP2 might have made a difference, but I’ve heard from people who got the install on SP2 machines. This suggests that Skype immediately stopped pushing installs once the crap started to fly online, which further suggests that Skype was in control and that it was a mistake rather than an attack.

There’s a tendency to love a great story, and we have to be careful not to read more into things than reality warrants. I’m an SF writer, and the futures I’ve tried to predict (as have many other, far more notable SF writers than I) have turned out to be a lot more dramatic and colorful than the future that actually worked itself out over the years. We underestimated small things (computers) and way overestimated big things, like space travel and (yes indeedy!) flying cars.

Here’s an example of wearing your SF hat too much: Some years back, I was predicting that malware authors would create trojans that very quietly installed file-sharing nodes behind the screen of rootkit techniques, which would then search for sharable content on the machine and then open LimeWire-style P2P connections to the Net at large. Because it was a trojan, it would provide plausible deniability in copyright infringement lawsuits–and because it provided plausible deniability for file-sharing, people would deliberately infect their machines with it. The trojan would soon be on over a billion machines, and Big Media could do nothing at all about it.

That would have made a great cyberpunkish story; maybe I should still write it. But it didn’t happen, and I think it won’t happen. Malware authors are well past this sort of Merry Pranksters stage. Malware happens for one reason only: Money. If there’s no way to monetize a malware scheme, it won’t be written. So with anything like the Skype Affair, you have to look for the money. Crapware still seems to be the likeliest explanation: EasyBits could have paid Skype by the install to push down a new version of its games platform, and make it look like a normal Skype update. Stupidity intervened, which happens all the time. (Google “Sony Rootkit” to see only one example, and certainly the stupidest. Bruce Schneier has what I consider the last word.)

That said, there’s still the possibility that a server-side infection was behind the push, and that what we got was a compromised version of EasyBits that may at some later time (patience, patience!) download the Real Deal, whatever that Real Deal might be. And whatever it is, it’ll be about money.

The end of the story hasn’t been written yet. Keep your virus checkers handy. Consider Skype alternatives. (Look into Jitsi.) And stay tuned.

EasyBits GO, Skype, and The Crapware Problem

EasyBitsGoDialog.jpgThis morning at 9:59 AM local time, a dialog from an unknown app popped up and asked me if it could install Adobe’s Flash player. My reaction is the one everyone should have in response to things like this: Don’t click. Stop and think. I’ve been around for awhile and I’m not stupid. I’d never heard of EasyBits Go and certainly hadn’t installed it on my system. I brought up Windows Task Manager, and sure as hell, there was a process running called easybitsgo.exe. Worse, there was an icon on my desktop that hadn’t been there a few minutes before. And the dialog had a blatant misspelling on it. “Do you wan to install it now?”

Talk about red flags!

EasyBitsRegistryKeys.jpgI immediately did a search for EasyBitsGo.exe on my system, and found the executable at Documents and Settings/All Users/Application Data/Easybits GO/ There are several subfolders as well. There was an app listed in the Add or Remove Programs applet. There was a folder (dated a few minutes later) called “go” in my user tree under Application Data. It contains some kind of a log. Last and worst of all, there were Registry keys in the HKEY_CURRENT_USER subtree under Software/EasyBits.

Only after gathering that data (and taking a quick look on Google, which showed almost nothing) did I begin removing it. Online postings just a few minutes old verified my suspicion: It had ridden in on Skype. I was using Skype at 10 AM when the dialog popped up. I did not have a browser open, and in fact was not doing anything unusual. (I was editing an Odd Lots entry for Contra.)

EasyBits is a real company, and they created and have been running Skype Game Channel for some years now. I’m not a gamer and hadn’t run across them before, but they have some history, and don’t appear to be malware vendors. (This does not mean that malware could not impersonate them.) Nonetheless, however they had pulled it off, what they’d done was utterly unacceptable: They’d installed a whole app with no obvious connection to Skype without any warning, much less any request for permission.

Too, too much. I may be done with Skype. Still thinking about that. In the meantime, if this happened to you as well, here’s how to fix it, at least under XP:

  1. In Skype, select menu option Tools | Options | Advanced, and un-check Automatically Start Extras. Click Save.
  2. Shut down Skype.
  3. Bring up Task Manager. If the EasyBits GO dialog is still visible, EasyBitsGO.exe is probably running. Kill it. The box will vanish. (Kill the process even if you’ve already closed the dialog.)
  4. Make sure the SkypePM.exe process is not running. If it is, kill it.
  5. Go to the Add or Remove Programs applet and uninstall EasyBits GO. It uninstalls almost instantly, which suggests that nothing is actually being uninstalled. This was the case as best I could tell.
  6. Find the folder tree at Documents and Settings/All Users/Application Data/Easybits GO/ and delete it.
  7. Go to the Application Data folder tree under the user that was active when the damned thing installed, and find the go folder. (It contains some kind of log file.) Delete it.
  8. Go to the Windows/Prefetch directory and look for the file EASYBITSGO.EXE-364DAFD6.pf and delete it.
  9. Search for and delete all instances of ezPMUtils.dll. They may be in different locations depending on your version of Windows.
  10. If you’re comfortable editing the Registry, get rid of the keys at Software/EasyBits as shown in the screenshot above.
  11. Reboot. Theoretically that should do it, but if Skype could push this thing down to countless users without their knowledge once, it could do so again.
  12. After rebooting, I think it might make sense to update your virus scanner signature database and do a full scan on your system.

So whatthehell is going on here? There’s still not a great deal online, but I’m seeing more and more angry people posting every hour. I have a guess: EasyBits paid Skype for the install. This is the crapware business model, in which a company pays a hardware or (less often) software vendor to install stuff that the customer did not ask for, and pays by the install. This is typically trial version software, and the crapware vendor benefits when customers cluelessly upgrade to paid versions.

The crapware business model is why I no longer buy retail PCs, which come so clogged with crapware that they can barely move. I buy either custom-built machines or used corporate machines like the SX280 USFF, which were never retail machines to begin with and came with no crapware at all.

Cheap or free stuff is often less cheap or less free than its vendors imply. Crapware is one reason retail PCs are as cheap as they are. Dell, HP, and the others take a certain profit on each retail PC selling crapware slots. Absent the crapware, the machine would cost more. I buy new custom locally or used on eBay, and the machines are as cheap as new retail PCs and work a lot better. (Why does a four-year-old P4 2.6 GHz corporate box go so much faster than a current Core 2 Quad 3 GHz retail PC? Crapware.)

This is a guess, but it makes sense. Why else but money would Skype do something so absolutely certain to get them crucified in the blogosphere? With my tinfoil hat on I could imagine that certain parties at Skype aren’t happy with being assimilated by the Borg and are getting some parting shots in. It’s too late to foul the deal, but anything that makes Ballmer itch in bad places might be worth it to them.

Finally, if this happened to you, let me know in the comments or by email. It seems like a lot of people got hit with this, at least those running current versions of Skype. What if the entire installed base of current Skype instances pushed EasyBits Go down the pipe and onto user desktops? That would be a freaky thing indeed, and will make them a Mordor horde of enemies. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: I cranked up an old XP SP2 machine with Skype 5 installed this afternoon and so far, the EasyBits install hasn’t happened. Will leave it on tonight and check it in the morning. It may be that the install requires SP3, Vista, or Win7.

Odd Lots

  • Heads up here; this is important: Something called EasyBitsGo.exe appeared in a directory under Documents and Settings/Application Data/All Users this morning about half an hour ago. The executable was already installed and running and wanted permission to install Flash Player. (I do not allow Flash Player on Windows machines, as it’s exploit fertilizer.) The timestamp on the executable’s directory tree indicated that it had been installed no more than a minute before it popped up. There appears to be a Skype connection, and I was using Skype at the time. Be careful. If you see it, close Skype, kill the easybitsgo.exe process in Task Manager to close it, and then nuke that directory. Then go to Add/Remove Programs and uninstall it. Reboot. If Skype did in fact install this thing without asking, it may be the beginning of the end of my own use of Skype.
  • Per the above: Launch Skype. Select Tools | Options | Advanced, and un-check Automatically Start Extras. Then reboot again and make sure it’s not still running.
  • All RAMmed up and nowhere to go: KingMax has announced a 64GB MicroSDXC card…and there’s almost nothing on the market that will use that much storage in one chunk. If we’ve learned nothing else in the last thirty years, it’s that “barriers” are a mark of either hardware vendor cheapouts, or software vendor incompetence. Are address lines so dear that we can’t raise the barriers to a level at least five years out? (I suggest 256 TB. Ok, six or seven years out.)
  • What if Babbage had outsourced tech support to the Pacific Rim? (Thanks to Ernie Marek for the link.)
  • Yet another longstanding dietary fetish is now in jeopardy. The case against salt always looked weak to me, in that it was clearly hazardous to people who already had certain kinds of heart disease, but that the case that it caused heart disease was mighty thin and mostly anecdotal. All roads continue to lead back to carbs, and especially sugar. More in coming days as time allows. (Thanks to Carol for the link.)
  • If just rooting your Nook Color isn’t quite enough, here’s a description of how to turn it into a complete Android tablet. If it sounds scary to you, well, you may not have the computing experience to do it; but when I read the article I thought, Sheesh, that’s easy. You can even boot from the SD slot to get a sense for the mod before making changes to device memory. The process appears to be reversible, and the mod allows you to use Bluetooth-capable GPS receivers and other Bluetooth devices. Given how cheap the NC is, I’m tempted to try it while I wait for the high-end slates like Xoom to mature.
  • We could maybe use a few more of these.

A Steampunk Aethernet Concentrator

Concentrator500Wide.jpg

Those who tuned in to my March 18, 2011 entry will recall that I spotted a Star-Rite copper parabolic resistance heater at a consignment store, and brought it home thinking it would make a good Wi-Fi antenna. I put a proof-of-concept lashup together last week and found that it worked very well, even though its diameter is on the low side for 13 cm microwaves. I spent half an hour or so digging through my several bins of odd plastic looking for just the right center insert, and stumbled on a pill bottle that ProbeExposed200Wide.jpgactually pressure-fit into the center hole without any modifation of the bottle or the center hole. (This may seem remarkable if you’ve never seen the quanity of pill bottles and other odd plastic (s)crap I keep out in the garage.)

The Wi-Fi element is a Cisco AE1000 USB 2.0 Wi-Fi adapter, connected to the PC through a 3′ USB extension cable. The female end of the extension cable is glued into a rectangular hole I made in the pill bottle’s white lid with a nibbling tool, and the AE1000 plugs into the adapter cable.

Even with the number of pill bottles I have, finding this particular bottle was a huge break. I still have to figure a way to get the probe fastened into the hole by something better than friction, but that’s just engineering. The bottle works extremely well for another simple but fortuitous reason: It puts the long axis of the AE1000 right where the focus of the copper parabola falls.

I tested for this out in the driveway in an interesting way: I pointed the parabola at the Sun as closely as I could, and then stuck a paper towel tube into the center hole to see where the sunlight would be most intense. The strongest part of the focus is about 3″ from the bottom of the bowl. (I didn’t leave the paper towel tube at the focus for very long, trust me.) This is just about where the AE1000′s antennas sit, if its interior construction is anything like the USB Wi-Fi dongle I sacrified some years back to see how it was done.

FocusTest350Wide.jpgFor as lucky as I got, the position of the adapter isn’t especially critical. We’re not trying to create an image or even intense heat. We’re just trying to concentrate a distant microwave signal on the AE1000, and focus the signal that it emits into a narrower steerable beam. Nor am I going for moonbounce–the real mission of the device is to make sure I can get into the resort Wi-Fi access points when I’m at the Taos Toolbox writers’ workshop this summer. That always depends on where your room is relative to the access points, and in the past, I’ve pulled rooms in dead spots about two throws out of five.

Well, not this time.

Jim Strickland suggested calling it an Aethernet Concentrator, and so it is. (The name of the Wi-Fi adapter is peculiarly appropriate.) I’m not entirely finished yet. I need to paint the pill bottle so that it looks less like a pill bottle, and the copper bowl needs cleaning and polishing generally. But I’ve already tested it, and it increases the strength of my access point downstairs radically. Aiming it up and down the street from here at my desk, it detected nine APs that the naked AE1000 didn’t see plugged into the back of my GX620. (I call this “warsitting.”)

I’m going to do a larger article on the project once I tie the ribbons on it, and I’ll let you know where to find it when I do.

Odd Lots

  • I’ve just added a book catalog page to my primary WordPress instance of Contra. There’s a link on the title bar at the top. If you’re using LiveJournal, here’s the direct catalog link. From my WordPress instance you can also go direct to an individual title within the catalog by clicking on one of the cover thumbnails in the right sidebar. It’s a little barebones for now, but it’ll do until I finish getting the Copperwood Press site rehabbed.
  • This sounds worse than it probably is: B&N has restricted sideloaded content to only 1 GB of the Nook Color’s internal memory. The NC has become very popular as a somewhat broader device than an ebook reader, and I’m sure B&N is worried that people will fill the little slab up with so much of their own stuff that there’s no room to buy more from B&N. The key is the MicroSD slot, which (for the time being) can hold up to 32GB. If sideloaded content stored on the MicroSD card is completely accessible to the Nook’s machinery, it’s really not a terrible problem. (I don’t have an NC so I don’t know for sure.)
  • B&N’s certainly been busy: There’s a new, inexpensive, smaller, lighter e-ink Nook in the pipe called Nook Simple Touch. 6-inch display and two months on a charge (sheesh!) will appeal hugely to commuters who just want to read books and not do seventeen things at once. $139; mid-June arrival.
  • Then again, if you want a cheap Nook ($99) and don’t mind the orginal model, go to eBay.
  • Here’s an expert’s braindump on ebook creation/formatting, which clearly highlights the appalling nature of ebook formats and ebook creation tools. Mobipocket in particular comes in for some (well-deserved) hard whacks with the baton. None of this crap should be necessary. An epub file is basically a collection of HTML documents with an external TOC, all wrapped up in a ZIP archive. Why is this so hard to do? (My thought: Immature rendering engines, like Web browsers in 1994. We are compensating for bad software.)
  • This is the high road toward SSTO, and I hope to hell they can pull it off. The trick isn’t so much getting to orbit as getting back intact. We’ll see.
  • From the Words-I-Didn’t-Know-Until-March-But-Forgot-Until-Yesterday Department: oneiric; meaning of or pertaining to dreams. Also the adjective in the next Ubuntu animal version code: Oneiric Ocelot, due this November. Not new news, but I forgot to mention it in March. Dreams, sure. But having read some of the fights that the discussion of Ubuntu Natty’s Unity desktop has triggered since then, I also picture an ocelot that lost one ear in a bar brawl.
  • Bichons are notoriously hard to housebreak. Carbreak too, evidently.
  • From the Painfully Obvious Research Department: A study (PDF) suggesting that when we see people breaking the rules, we assume that they’re powerful. Duh. (One wonders if a lifetime of watching powerful people be abject shitheads could have anything to do with it.)
  • And a much more interesting study on the role that some airborne bacteria play in acting as seeds for precipitation. Get a look at that hailstone! (Duck!)
  • Amen, brother. (Thanks to John Ridley for the link.)

All Thumbs

Now that I have books to sell in more than one format, I need to erect some machinery to drive sales to more than one retailer. Time was, when all my books were conventionally published print books, a simple link to each book’s Amazon page was enough. Now I have a conventional print book, several POD print books, and ebooks in two formats.

The Copperwood Press catalog page needs a total rewrite, and I’ve been working on that. (It’s one reason I’ve been a little bit scarce here.) One thing I did do today is mount a generic WordPress HTML window in the wide sidebar, and then fill it with thumbnails of all my books. The thumbnails will eventually be clickable links into the catalog, from which you will be able to choose your format and jump to a retailer. (I will not be mounting a cart myself; it’s far too much kafeuther if Amazon and B&N will both give me 70% margins on my $2.99 ebooks.) If you’re reading Contra on my WordPress site, look to your right to see the thumbnails. If you’re reading Contra on LiveJournal, go here.

When you do, you’ll understand the conclusion I came to earlier today: My covers are not very thumbnailable. Some work better than others, and you can only do much with an image that’s 115 pixels high. I’m not an artist but I do know layout. The problem is that I learned it under the assumption that the purchaser would make his or her decision based on a much larger view of the cover, including true face time at bookstores.

With ebooks the cover game changes radically, and it’s all about thumbnails. Here’s an intriguing article on the issues associated with cover design for ebooks. When all you get is 90 pixels, it’s tough to do flourish. The best you can hope for is legibility for the title. (Interestingly, Amazon seems to have bumped search results thumbnails up to 115 pixels in the six months since Joel posted his essay. Cold comfort.)

ColdHandsCover115High.pngAs I explained in my May 19 post, I’ve done well so far because I’ve published the sorts of books that people search for by name, as with Carl & Jerry. But if Cold Hands and Other Stories (now available on Kindle) is being browsed in the very big bin labeled “Hard SF,” the thumbnail cover image has a crucial selling job: getting above the noise represented by everybody else’s 115-pixel search results thumbnails.

Clearly, I have some work to do. What you see to the right are 165-pixel thumbnails, which are one and a half times the size of what the readers see in search results listings. The little Cold Hands cover above is 115 pixels high, and the more pixels you have on your screen, the smaller it looks. I’ve already done some surgery on the cover for Jim’s On Gossamer Wings, and I think I may well just start over with “Whale Meat.”

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that covers are becoming icons. Alas, the job of an icon is precisely the opposite of the job of a cover thumbnail: An icon stands in for something that we’re already familiar with and see constantly. A cover thumbnail stands in for something that we’ve never seen before. Worse, covers are becoming icons that must contain readable words. Of all the examples shown by Joel Friedlander in his article linked above, only Christopher Smith’s Fifth Avenue really works at 90 pixels. It works because there’s almost no image involved. You get a little color, and a tiny black stick that could be just about anything. (If I didn’t know where “Fifth Avenue” was, I might not have guessed a skyscraper.)

I’m not entirely sure what to think about the problem. If cover images get too small, they carry too little information to be useful. We can read the title in text beside the thumbnail; do we need to be able to read it in the thumbnail too? Will people get so used to minuscule cover thumbnails over time that they’ll basically stop noticing them?

Subtlety and beauty have not always been the domain of book covers. Maybe this is yet another indication that we’re returning to the pulps: Our covers may need to become very small collections of iconic symbols (bug-eyed monsters, V-2 spaceships, traffic-cone breasts, ray guns) to be recognizable as anything at all.

I’m not sure that worked for the pulps. I’m even less sure it will work for us. The real bummer is that I’m not sure what else to suggest.

Cold Hands and CreateSpace

For the last several days I’ve been tinkering with my collection Cold Hands and Other Stories to get it ready for sale as an ebook. The book is now available in epub format on the B&N Nook store ($2.99; no DRM) and should appear in mobi format on Kindle in the next day or so. All of my shorter Drumlins stories are in that book, so if you liked Drumlin Circus and On Gossamer Wings, do please consider it.

Print is a more interesting issue. Cold Hands has been available as a printed paperback on Lulu for some time now, but I haven’t been satisfied with the book’s visibility, especially on Amazon. Lulu is certainly the easiest of all the POD services to learn and use, but to sell books you have to drive customers to the Lulu site, and they have to buy through the Lulu shopping cart. That’s a huge drawback, especially for fiction, where the per-sale earnings are low and you’re not targeting the books at an easily reachable audience; i.e., if you’re not a big name in SF. Also, many people won’t buy a book unless it can be had through Amazon, because online account proliferation is an issue for them. (I understand that hesitation completely.)

I’ve done well with my Carl & Jerry reprint books on Lulu for several years now because people go looking for Carl & Jerry. The audience knows the stories, many having read them in the 1960s. I have a substantial index page, and the page is the top search hit whenever anybody searches for “Carl and Jerry.” My two books on Old Catholic history are almost cult favorites by now, and I sell a couple of copies per month on Lulu without even a detailed summary page. (I do have descriptions on the Lulu storefront.) They sell when people talk about them in the many Old Catholic email groups, which is far oftener than I would have thought. I mention them in a post now and then, and the books keep selling. Word of mouth works well within close-knit enthusiast groups like that who understand what the books are about.

Breaking in to SF is harder. To sell paperback books of my SF I simply have to be on Amazon. That’s Lulu’s #1 issue. My Lulu books are sometimes listed and sometimes not, for reasons I don’t really understand. A search just now for Cold Hands and Other Stories does not show the book, and that’s unacceptable.

So I’ve been giving CreateSpace a look. It’s Amazon’s in-house POD service, and was originally called BookSurge before Amazon broadened it to embrace other kinds of content, like music CDs. I can use my own ISBNs there, and if you publish on CreateSpace, you will be listed on Amazon.

CreateSpace is more complex to use than Lulu, though it has nothing on Lightning Source. If you’re serious about publishing your material and expect to sell more than four or five copies it’s worth studying. The economics are better, and I’ll close out this entry with a quick summary.

First, Lulu: Cold Hands and Other Stories has a cover price of $11.99. Lulu’s per-copy manufacturing cost for the book (232 pages) is $9.14. Lulu’s commission is 57c, leaving my per-sale take as $2.28. That’s as complex as it gets over there.

CreateSpace has a more complex pricing system, and the easiest thing for me to do is just copy out a screenshot of the royalty calculator for Cold Hands:

CreateSpaceRoyaltyTable500Wide.png

They don’t state a fixed unit manufacturing cost, but they tell you how much you’ll make in the various retail channels. The “Pro” option here is a $39, one-time-per-title cost that has to be earned out before you see any profit. (I think of it as a processing fee for the title, while allowing CreateSpace to compete with Lulu on the “free to post” issue. There’s no charge to mount a book, if you’ll take less per copy.) For Cold Hands that would be about twelve copies, depending on the channel mix. The eStore figures are for sales through CreateSpace’s online system. The Expanded Distribution option is for sales made through other online retailers and independent print booksellers. Obviously, if you’re going to drive sales, it pays to drive them to the CreateSpace eStore rather than simply referring them to Amazon.

I had originally intended to mount Cold Hands on Lightning Source, but I wanted to get some real-world experience with CreateSpace. It’s not up there yet (their review process takes a couple of days) but should be there by early next week.

The missing link, of course, is a Web page to drive sales to CreateSpace, and I’m working on that. More as it happens.

Odd Lots

  • It’s been a rough week here (hence the current post paucity) and I just got Carol on a plane to Chicago to look after some unexpected family issues. As we left the driveway it was snowing like hell again, this on the morning of May 15. Even today, halfway to lunchtime, it’s still gray-grim and 39 degrees. I guess it’s going to be another indoors week. Much planned for coming days, including the ebook release of Cold Hands and Other Stories. Stay tuned.
  • I stopped in Denver on the way home from the airport to pick up some Elfa parts to expand the shelf system in the back of our garage. It’s an Erector set for storage, and if you don’t know about Elfa I think it would be worth taking a look. I have a hodgepodge closet in my workshop downstairs that desperately needs to be Elfa-whacked, and it’s on the project list for this summer.
  • I used to spend a lot of time poking around in Google Earth, mostly looking for abandoned railroad right-of-ways near where I’ve lived in the past. Since then The Daily Google Earth has appeared, full of interesting things visible from space. Today’s desert triangles post intrigues me, since my parents bought land in that general area in the 1960s and I still own it.
  • Carol and I have moved incrementally to CFLs as our incandscents have died, but the can fixtures we have in our ceilings are too narrow to pass the necks of CFL floods. Alas, this promising new technology won’t fix that (the necks are, if anything, wider) but it’s a promising alternative to incandescents and doesn’t contain mercury. As the author suggests, it won’t be long before the Maker community figures out how to focus the output into a beam and perhaps even scan it across the bulb’s face.
  • I’m not generally one for weird case mods and exotic custom cases, but this Priarie School item engenders a certain amount of lust. I also realize that I could easily make a case of Stickley-style dark-stained quarter-sawn oak–not that I need another thing to do. Would be killer cool, though.
  • As a programmer guy with old roots in embedded systems, I feel a very deep itch to try the Android Open Accessory Kit. Alas, as an SF writer with only so many hours in the day, I may not get to it soon. But I greatly rejoice that it’s even possible.
  • The data caps issue has gotten to the WSJ, which probably means that it’s off geek turf and Really Quite Sincerely Real. What few people are talking about with respect to ISP data caps these days is the perverse incentive they present for video piracy: Why pay an additional “bandwidth tax” on your favoite films each time they’re streamed when you can download them once and watch them any time you want without further payment? This has always been the case, but moving to a metered Internet only makes it worse.
  • From the ‘Bout-Damned-Time Department: Samsung’s Galaxy line of phones and tablets will be getting its Gingerbread update any day now. We hope. Any day now. Guys, really?
  • Bruce Baker sent me a link to sculpture made of books, sculpture as I suspect termites understand it. The last picture made me cringe a little: It’s a carved-up copy of all three volumes of the 1936 New Century Dictionary, which has been my go-to word source now for almost thirty years. What other dictionary (none here!) can show you drawings of a wanderoo and a wanigan on the same page?
  • Not all engineering problems are nice and clean and up on top of a well-lit bench. Especially this one.
  • If ebook readers ever push print books over the edge of the world, it’ll be due to much higher resolution displays. This one, at 458 DPI, is very close to what you see on mass-market four-color interior printing. At 600 DPI (and we’ll be there in a few years) the war will be over.
  • Boy. Here’s a kind-of-a-sort-of-a-thing-a-ma-jigger. A display that hinges in the middle? As a friend of mine once said: “Laugh or lust? Flip a coin.”
  • Inevitable: I Can Has Zeppelin.

Now Available: Copperwood Double #1

Copperwood Double #1: Drumlin Circus and On Gossamer Wings

I am pleased (and you wouldn’t believe how relieved!) to announce the availability of the first Copperwood Double, Drumlin Circus / On Gossamer Wings, in both print and ebook editions. The ebook edition is available from Amazon’s Kindle store in mobi format, and from B&N in epub format, both at $2.99. No DRM in either case. And because there’s no DRM, you can download the free app Calibre and use its excellent conversion utilities to convert mobi or epub to any of several additional ebook formats. The print edition is distributed through Ingram/Lightning Source and is thus available from online retailers who work with Ingram, which would be basically all of them. $11.99. (Note: The print book is not available from Lulu.com. This was a major decision that I’ll talk about in a future entry.)

If the cover image above seems bizarre to you, well, you’re younger than you look. The grayhairs among us know precisely what I was reaching for: The Ace Doubles of the period 1952-1973. Each volume consisted of two short novels from 25,000-50,000 words in length, bound back-to-back and inverted, each with its own cover image. Ace did not invent the physical print/bind arrangement, which is called tete-beche (head-to-tail) and has existed for almost 200 years. They did make it a mainstay of recreational reading for two decades, and most of us back then had a pile of them.

A lot of people thought it was a weird idea (and many made fun of it) but we forget that the short novel as a form essentially vanished from SFF after Ace stopped publishing doubles. The magazines won’t publish something 40,000 words long, and 40,000 words is too short for a conventional print book unless you’re way out there in small and very small press. So there was this huge hole between 20,000-word novellas and 80,000 word novels. I fell into that trap in 1981, when my Firejammer clocked in at just under 30,000 words. I shopped it, but unless you’re Larry Niven no one’s going to seriously look at something that length.

I like the short novel as a distinct literary form. It’s long enough to develop some ideas and a few interesting characters, but short enough to require a certain focus, and a fairly linear plot line. It deserves to have a place in the SFF world, and two recent developments have conspired to give it one: ebooks and print-on-demand publishing. Ebooks have no strong length requirements, and from what I’ve read, the length of original ebook novels is drifting downward. More to the point, a story can be given the length it needs, and authors aren’t under pressure to pad an idea out to print novel length, or compress it to magazine novella length or less.

Print-on-demand publishing allows publishers to try interesting things without betting the house on the outcome. I will always love print books and still buy them in respectable quantities, but in these troubled times print publishers must be conservative to avoid going broke. (Do I know a little bit about that or what?) The beancounters require that a book recoup its capital costs, which means that books hover within certain boundaries set by retailer expectations. (Remember that if retailers won’t stock a book, customers never get the chance to vote on it. Retailers therefore have what amounts to a veto on print publisher publishing programs.) Slightly whacky things like tete-beche double novels fall outside ordinary bricks’n'mortar retail channel expectations, but POD manufacturing and online ordering make a lot of things possible.

So I offer you a book with two covers, and two authors telling two stories in one world, the Drumlins world that I introduced in Asimov’s back in 2002 with “Drumlin Boiler”. There’s much more to say, and I’ll continue the discussion (with specifics on both stories) in days to come.

Victoria Duntemann and Lady Julian

VictoriaDrumMajoretteCropped1940.pngToday is Mother’s Day, and I celebrate it in eternal memory of Victoria Albina Pryes Duntemann 1924-2000. But today is also something else: May 8, the feast day of Lady Julian of Norwich, denied sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church for daring to suggest that God would triumph over Hell. Lady Julian is my personal patron saint, and I have declared her the Patron Saint of Gonzo Optimism: All manner of thing will be well. All. No exceptions. It don’t get much more gonzo than that.

Lady Julian was very careful of what she said, and had to be, lest she be burnt at the stake by her mass-murdering psychopath of a bishop, Henry Despenser, who ordered the Lollard Pits to be dug near Norwich and then gleefully filled them. The message of Lady Julian’s visions, which she hid well and could barely believe herself, was as simple as it was audacious: God will not settle for anything less than the salvation of everyone and everything.

It’s one of those painful ironies that I heard of Lady Julian only a couple of years before my mother’s death. Victoria Duntemann’s religion was an insane Polish peasant amplification of the fringes of Triumphal Catholicism, and basically consisted of Hell plus debris. That said, she took it only a little farther than the grim priests of my childhood parish, who gripped Hell to their hearts like an infernal teddy bear. Whether they understood it that way or not (and I think some did) they defined Catholicism as what you had to do to stay out of Hell, which ultimately cooked down to obeying them without question and having as little to do with sex as possible. My mother and countless other goodhearted and sensitive people swallowed this blasphemy whole, and in far too many cases (my mother’s included) it crushed all hope from them.

Hell haunted my mother her entire life. I was at her bedside when she died, and I am convinced that she died of despair, fearing that sins either wholly imagined or minor and long forgiven would land her in unending torment. (Right: She who was a nurse all her life, comforting countless people and tending to both of her parents and later her husband in their final years, and giving ceaselessly of her time and money to the church that had taken such pains to terrify her–Hell-fodder, of course.) Managing my consequent anger has become one of the great challenges of my life.

Hell has got to go. It no longer frightens the evil, and causes only suffering among the good. It is an emblem of either a sadistic or a defeated God. Do we have the guts to imagine a better God, one who will out-stubborn the worst of us and bring the whole shebang back into divine wholeness before the curtain falls?

LadyJulianCat.pngAlready done: “And so our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts which I could raise, saying most comfortingly: I may make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well; and you will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well.” Julian of Norwich, Showings, Chapter XXXI.

I may. I can. I shall. I will. What does He have to do, hit us over the head with a #7 frying pan?

I’m convinced. Given a few more years, I might have persuaded my mother. She understood me poorly, but she listened to me, and she took me seriously, as all good mothers must of the children they bring into the world. I built telescopes on her front lawn, and she was always willing to give me a dollar for one more damned pipe fitting to twist into the declination axis. She read and approved of “Our Lady of the Endless Sky,” which was my first published story, written in some respects for her. She didn’t read the pile of my computer books that she kept in a corner of the livingroom, but I think they got the message across that her only son was neither crazy nor stupid. Perhaps more significant than any of that, I think she saw something of herself in me, and recognized the ache for God that she herself felt and had tried to instill in her children. She was ready to hear me out long before I knew enough to begin speaking, but I didn’t begin speaking until she could no longer listen.

I managed to avoid the trap she fell into, and maybe that’s triumph enough. Mothers want the best for their children, and what I got was what she should have had: a religion that celebrates the fundamental goodness of all creation, and the inescapable love of God. She knows the truth now. Could Lady Julian have told her? (Better late than never!)

If not, then what are patron saints for?