Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

books

Daywander

This entry will be a hodgepodge, or as they say in some circles, a “hotch potch.” (I think it’s a Britishism; Colin Wilson used that spelling many times.) Stuff has been piling up in the Contra file. Carol and I have been slighting housework for these past six months, she laid up after surgery on both feet, and me writing what has doubtless been the most difficult half-a-book I’ve ever written. We’ve been cleaning up, putting away, and generally getting back to real life. Real life never tasted so delicious.

One reason is rum horchata. I’m not one for hard liquor, mostly, and generally drink wine. (Beer tastes far too bitter to me.) But Rumchata got me in a second. It’s a dessert cordial no stronger than wine, with the result that you can actually taste the other ingredients, like vanilla, cream, and cinnamon. Highly recommended.

People ask me periodically what I’ve been reading. After soaking my behind in computer science for the past six or eight months, I’ve been studiously avoiding technology books. That said, I do endorse Degunking Windows 7 by my former co-author Joli Ballew. I actually used it to learn some of the Win7 details that weren’t obvious from beating my head on the OS. I wish it were a Coriolis book, but alas, it’s not. That doesn’t mean it’s not terrific.

True to my random inborn curiosity about everything except sports and opera, I’ve developed an interest in the chalk figures of southern England. The next time we get over there (soon, I hope, though probably not until summer 2015) we’re going to catch the Long Man of Wilmington, the White Horse of Uffington, and that very well hung (40 feet!) Cerne Giant. Other chalk figures exist, many of them horses. Some can be seen from Google Earth. A reasonable and cheap intro is Lost Gods of Albion by Paul Newman. The book’s been remaindered, and you can get a new hardcover for $3. I wouldn’t pay full price for it, but it was worth the hour and change it took to read. My primary complaint? It needs more pictures of chalk figures, duhh.

Quick aside: While researching kite aerial photography with my found-in-the-bushes GoPro Hero2 sports camera, I came upon an impressive video of the White Horse of Westbury taken from a double bow kite (rokkaku). I have the cam, and loads of kites. All I need now is a chalk figure. (I suspect I could coerce my nieces into drawing one for me.)

Far more interesting than Lost Gods of Albion was Gogmagog by Thomas Lethbridge. I lucked into a copy of the 1957 hardcover fairly cheap, but availability is spotty and you may have to do some sniffing around. If you’re willing to believe him, Lethbridge did an interesting thing back in the 1950s: He took a 19th century report that a chalk giant existed on a hillside in Wandlebury (near Cambridge) and went looking for it. His technique was dogged but straightforward: For months on end, he wandered around the hillside with a half-inch metal bar ground to a point, shoving it into the ground and recording how far it went in before it struck hard chalk. His reasoning was that the outlines of a chalk figure would be dug into the chalk, and thus farther down than undisturbed chalk. In time he had literally tens of thousands of data points, and used them to assemble a startling image of two gods, a goddess, a chariot, and a peculiar horse of the same sort as the Uffington White Horse.

Not everybody was convinced. Even though Lethbridge was a trained archaeologist, his critics claimed that he was a victim of pareidolia, and simply seeing the patterns he wanted to see in his thousands of hillside holes. The real problem was that Lethbridge was a pendulum dowser, and a vocal one: He published several books on the subject, which make a lot of claims that aren’t easily corroborated. Lethbridge claims that most people can dowse, and hey, it’s an experiment that I could make, if I decided it was worth the time. (It probably isn’t.)

The third book in my recent readings is The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism by Herbert Thurston, a Jesuit priest who spent a good part of his life collecting reports of peculiarly Catholic weirdnesses (stigmata, levitation, inedia, odor of sanctity, etc.) and presenting them in a manner similar to that of Charles Fort, if better written. Most of the articles were originally published in obscure theology journals, but were collected in 1952 in a volume that I’ve never seen for less than $100. Last year it was finally reprinted by White Crow Books and can be had for $18. I’m not sure what one can say about reports of people who have not eaten for forty years. Mysticism is a weird business, but physics is physics. The book is entertaining, and it’s given me some ideas for stories, particularly since I have a spiritually butt-kicking psychic little old Polish lady as a major chartacter in Old Catholics. (Vampires are just so 2007.)

If three books doesn’t seem like much, consider my habit of going back to books I’ve read and liked, and flipping through them to see what notations I’ve made in the margins. We all make them; when was the last time you deliberately went back to read and reconsider them? I’ve been dipping into Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, Colin Wilson’s A Criminal History of Mankind, and Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, and arguing with my own marginal notes. One can learn things arguing with oneself, and I’ve been known to change my mind based on things I scribbled in other people’s book’s ten or twelve years ago. (Before that I was too young to have anything like informed opinions.)

For example, I’ve gone back to calling it “global warming.” Climate is always changing, and the assumption that we know all the forces propelling those changes is just wrong–and in tribalist hands, willfully dishonest. Carbon dioxide has exactly one climate trick in its bag: It warms the atmosphere. That’s it. If the discussion is about carbon dioxide, it’s about global warming. Why climate changes is still so poorly understood (and so polluted by political hatred) that we may be decades before we even know what the major forcings are. In the meantime, I want predictions. If your model gives you climate data out fifty years, it will give you data out five. Publish those predictions. And if they prove wrong, be one of those people who really do #*%^*ing love science and admit it. Being wrong is how science works. Being political is how science dies.

I have a long-delayed electronics project back on the bench: Lee Hart’s CDP1802 Membership Card. I started it last summer, and set it aside when the Raspberry Pi gig turned up. It’s basically a COSMAC Elf in an Altoids tin. I had an Elf almost forty years ago. I programmed it in binary because that’s all there was in 1976. And y’know? I can still do it: F8 FF A2. F8 47 A5…

Some things really are eternal.

Odd Lots

An Ebook Piracy Mystery

For the most part, the ebook pirates have forgotten about me. Five or six years ago, I was all over the pirate sites. Now I’m not even on the Pirate Bay, and haven’t been for some time. Binsearch shows that the last time I was uploaded to Usenet was almost a year ago. It’s enough to give a guy a complex. (It’s certainly enough to make me feel like I need to write more books.)

So last week the backchannel sent me a link to an article about how several major textbook publishers have subpoenaed a couple of Usenet service providers demanding the identities of two prolific Usenet uploaders operating under the pseudonyms Rockhound57 and HockWards. Both upload technical books to a certain newsgroup devoted to technical nonfiction.

Boy, do they.

I fired up my newsreader and took a look. I’d been there before, and have gladly downloaded crufty scans of old Heathkit and classic tube gear manuals and the occasional supreme oddity, like the German-language service manual for the Nazi V-1 flying bomb. There are scans of military field manuals and much other odd junk, plus all the spam, trollery and asshattery we’ve been accustomed to seeing in newsgroups since, well, there were newsgroups. (I first got on Usenet in 1981.) Rockhound57′s posts are, for the most part, academic science books of almost vanishing narrowness. If you’re ever curious about Dipetidyl Aminopeptidases in Health and Disease, well, Rockhound57′s got it. Ditto Automorphisms and Derivations of Associative Rings. I actually thought that “cobordism” in Algebraic Corbordism was a typo. Then I looked it up. Man, if you can make head or tail of that one, you’re a better geek than I.

If you think about what those books (and they are indeed books, and not articles) have in common, you may understand some panic on the part of the big presses: Those books have very, very small audiences and very, very high cover prices. Algebraic Cobordism has a cover price of $99. Small potatoes. Hold on to your manifolds: Automorphisms and Derivations of Associative Rings will cost you $269. I’m not exaggerating when I suggest that there are maybe 500 people on Earth who might conceivably buy such books, most of them starving graduate students. (I suspect that the publishers make what money they make selling to university libraries.) Having perfect PDFs flitting around on Usenet is an academic publisher’s worst nightmare.

But that leads us to a very important and completely unanswered question: Where did all those perfect PDFs come from? Not a single one of the titles I spot-checked is available as an ebook on Amazon. These copies are not slap-it-on-the-glass pirate scans. They are as perfect as the print images we used to generate for our books at Coriolis and Paraglyph. If they’re not being sold, how did the pirates get them to begin with?

I can think of a couple of possibilities:

  1. They’re DRM-stripped versions of e-texts that aren’t sold on Amazon but rather through heavily protected textbook sales channels like Adobe’s.
  2. They’re the print book equivalent of “screeners,” sent out for review, proofing, indexing, etc.
  3. They’re downsampled print images lifted somewhere along the pipe leading from the publisher to the printing presses.

My gut is going with #2, though #3 is certainly possible. Publishing services have been thoroughly commoditized. Most publishers use freelancers for proofing and editing, and many outsource layout itself. Any time a print image goes outside a publisher’s doors, there’s the chance it will “get legs.”

That said, I boggle at how many perfect PDFs were uploaded by those two chaps. We’re talking literally tens of thousands. Are there that many leaks at the major presses? Or is something else going on here? I still can’t quite figure it. I do know that a number of backchannel sources have told me that ever more file sharing is being done locally and off-Net, often by passing around now-cheap 1TB SATA hard drives. There’s no stopping that. Publishers need to start taking a very close look at their own internal processes. Pulling production back in-house might help, but it wouldn’t be a total solution, at least as long as desktops have USB ports. Problems don’t always have solutions, and piracy is probably one of those increasingly common nuisances.

There were times when I miss being in publishing. Alas, there are other times when I’m glad I’m not.

Odd Lots

Novel Compression Schemes

I’ve been selling my writing professionally since I was an undergrad, now literally forty years ago. I’ve had to do remarkably little selling. My first story and first article both sold to the first places I sent them. I’ve never had a publisher turn down a computer book proposal. (Granted that selling books to a publisher you co-own is rarely a challenge.) My fiction has been a mixed bag, but in general a story either sells quickly or not at all.

All changed. This is the toughest market for novel-length SFF since, well, forever. I’ve just spent two years writing Ten Gentle Opportunities, and now the selling begins. This is a new thing for me. I’ve historically considered tireless self-promoters to be tiresome self-promoters, and now I are one. I hate to go that way, and if there were another way I’d already be taking it.

It begins this weekend, when I have a chance to pitch to a major SF publisher at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. The pitch happens in a time slot literally eight minutes long. I have eight minutes to make a bleary editor hungry to read my book. No pressure.

The primary challenge is to summarize the novel in synopses of various sizes, from 5,000 words down to…140 characters. Various markets and agents prefer synopses of various sizes, so they’d all better be right there on the shelf, ready to go at a moment’s notice.

This is harder than it looks; nay, it’s diabolical. The story itself is insanely complicated to begin with: One of my beta testers described it as “a Marx Brothers movie with twice as many Marx Brothers.” That’s just how I write, as anyone who’s read The Cunning Blood will understand. I have a mortal fear of not giving my readers their money’s worth, and a venial fear of being boring.

The way to write synopses of five different lengths is to start with the longest one, and write each one from scratch. In other words, don’t write the longest one and then try to cut it down to the next smaller size. This is like trying to turn hexacontane into propane by pulling carbon atoms randomly out of the middle; sooner or later the molecule has too many holes and falls apart.

It’s work, but it works. I finished the 300-word synopsis earlier this morning, and then set my hand to the gnarliest task of all: the “elevator pitch,” AKA logline. I get to summarize a manic 94,200 word story into 140 characters. I’ve actually been trying and failing to nail this for literally six months, since I finished the first draft. I first thought it would be easy, as I used to write cover copy for early Coriolis books. Heh.

The solution, as I said, is to start from the beginning. Each time I wrote a synopsis from scratch, I was forced to take two more steps up the ladder, and look down at the story from a little more height. You literally tell it again, each time with half the words you had last time. In the process, you get a clearer sense for what the story is about, and what the major themes are. Finally you end up with something you can say in an elevator between two adjacent floors:

A spellbender flees to our world with ten stolen nuggets of magic, and a crew of AIs helps him battle a repo spirit sent to retrieve him.

Will this work? Dunno. I guess I’ll find out this weekend.

Why I Like Old Software

I still use Office 2000. I still use Visio 2000. I still use InDesign 2.0. I still use VMWare Workstation 5. Hell, I still use Windows XP. Am I lazy? Am I cheap? Am I nuts? No, no, and hell no. Every piece of software I use is the result of a calculated decision and a certain amount of research. I am by no means averse to paying for software, and I do so regularly. But I don’t always upgrade, especially if the upgrades cost money and/or deliver 80% of their value to the vendor. By that I mean software designed to win what I call “pip wars” (feature-comparison charts on review sites) or place new restrictions on installation and use ostensibly to limit piracy. (Mostly what anti-piracy features do is massage titanic corporate egos.) There are loads of people who will stand there drooling in wait of the next major release, money in hand, never suspecting that the largest single reason for the upgrade is to keep the revenue stream flowing.

The longer I use my Old, Old, Software, the better I like it. Here are a few reasons why:

  • It’s already paid for. The longer I use it, the more hours of use I get for my buck.
  • By and large, old software (at least pre-2002 or so) doesn’t activate. The benefits of activation flow entirely to the vendor, at least in circumstances where the benefits are not entirely imaginary. Most of the time, they are. Activation delivers nothing but annoyance and occasionally downtime to the end user–and in doing so, trains many otherwise honest users to be pirates.
  • Old software is smaller and faster on new machines. Bloat is real, even if it’s not the result of fighting pip wars somewhere. Office 2000 seems almost supersonic on my quadcore, doubly so on my quadcore from my new SSD.
  • Old software respects the skills I’ve developed over the years. Most of the changes I’ve seen across major upgrades are gratuitous, and don’t add any value over the old versions. UI changes in particular had better deliver spectacular new value, because while I learn them they slow me way down.
  • Tutorial books on old software can be had for almost nothing. I routinely buy books on early-mid 2000′s software for $5 or so…books that had original cover prices in the $40-$50 range. Many of these books are unused remainder copies that are essentially new.
  • The argument I hear when I make this point mostly cook down to, Isn’t it eventually obsolete? That depends on what “obsolete” means. Backward compatibility is usually retained, because people rebel when it isn’t. (Windows 8? Are those peasants carrying registered torches and pitchforks?) The only significant thing that Word 2000 doesn’t do is handle docx files. I bought Atlantis to convert any docx files I might need to keep on hand. (Atlantis also creates extremely clean epubs.) Word 2000 is weak on PDF skills, so I bought PDF Xchange Pro to handle that, and as a bonus eliminate any need for the exploit farm we know as Adobe Reader.

I do upgrade software when I see a need. Windows XP eventually replaced Win2K here, even though it activates, because it had certain things I eventually judged useful. I’ve purchased InDesign three times, because I make money laying out books and the new features were useful, but I stopped when Adobe added their uniquely paranoid activation. (Interestingly, I haven’t felt any compelling need to upgrade since V2.0, and I’m interviewing Scribus.) I dumped Dreamweaver when I wanted to move my Web pages to CSS, because Komposer did CSS as well as I needed it to, for free and without activation. It pains me to say it, but with Delphi pricing now up in four figures (and encumbered by activation) I’ve moved all my Pascal programming to Lazarus 1.0.6.

This last issue is important. Open source has changed a great many things. I used to pay for email clients, including Eudora and Poco Mail. Since I discovered Thunderbird, I’ve stayed with Thunderbird. Why? Email is a mature technology. I’m not sure there’s much innovation left to be wrung from it. This is less true of Web browsers, and I now use Chrome most of the time. But man, what’s new in word processing? What? Lemme think for a second… Hang on, it’ll come to me…

This is a key point: The basic mechanisms of computing are mature. There has been time for the slower dev cycles of open source to catch up with commercial software. The action is out on the edges, in speech recognition, automated translation, vertical markets of many kinds, and niche-y mobile apps. We’re still seeing some useful evolution in Web browsers, but there’s damned little in releases of Office past 2000 that I find compelling. Most of the new features are UI tweaks and useless gimmicks.

Old software still has fizz: The best we could want already is!

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

One Big Band-Aid

Where have I been? Healing. No, I didn’t break anything. (I did floss one of my crowns right out of my mouth last Saturday night. Note to self: Popcorn hulls don’t hide very hard. Back off on the shear force a little.) What I did is watch a number of people I’ve known for some time, including a few that I nontrivially care about, soil themselves hurling hatred at entire groups of people they’ve never met and pretty clearly know nothing about. It almost made me quit Facebook for awhile, though it’s a little unclear how one actually goes about quitting Facebook. (The account of a woman I knew in college is still there even though she died two years ago.)

Reading that stuff hurts. Am I nuts? Maybe. I value friendship, for one thing, and for another, tribal hatred is the first step toward genocide. Giggle if you want. Years of research into tribalism, psychology, history, and our killer ape origins suggests that it’s true. I would write more about it except that knowingly hurling yourself into depression is pretty much as dumb as it gets.

Furthermore, it stopped Ten Gentle Opportunities dead in its tracks, at least for the time being. Am I annoyed? You have no idea.

So I’ve been spending a lot of time in my big chair, reading things that have nothing to do with elections as a way of putting a sort of giant band-aid on my soul. It’s been a mixed bag. Some quick notes:

  • Train Wrecks by Robert C. Reed. (Superior Publishing Company, 1968.) If you need steampunk mayhem in a big way, find this on the used book sites. Virtually every way that locomotives and rolling stock can die are well-represented, including a few that you’ve probably never heard about. This might even be depressing if I didn’t like trains (and steam power) as much as I do. (It also made me damned glad I live in 2012 and travel in a Toyota.)
  • Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild by Lee Sandlin. (Pantheon Books, 2010.) Still working on it, but what we have here is a collection of colorful anecdotes about the Mississippi from 1800-1863, when it was dredged for reliable river commerce. Pirates, floods, storms, and the New Madrid earthquake. I paid a buck online. Worth ten times that. (Maybe not twenty.)
  • Marry Him! by Lori Gottlieb. (Dutton, 2010.) Meh. Short, breezy read extending (a little) what I read in an article in The Atlantic some years back. Got it cheap in the B&N bargain bin, which suggests that it bombed. No surprise, given that the author is basically shouting “Attention princesses! We are currently experiencing a severe prince shortage. Please select an archduke or viscount while they are still available. Thank you.”
  • Electric Radio Magazine. Jack Smith K8ZOA sent me twelve years of this stunning little monthly, from 2000-2012, and I’ve been savoring them in my loose moments for several weeks. The focus is vintage ham radio gear, especially AM phone, which I would be doing more of if there were people close by to do it with. I still have a working Sixer, Twoer, 99er, and a G28, plus a couple of other things on the shelf that need work.

Carol and I spent some time in Chicago. Our niece Katie turns six next week and we bought her what my sister described as “an RC helicopter in a hamster ball.” It’s an Air Hog Heli-Cage, which has a pair of thin plastic hoops around it, like an equator and a prime meridian, which keep crashes from becoming too serious. Needless to say, in the hands of a not-quite-six pilot, the bands earned their keep. It was amazing how quickly both girls learned to fly it, including Julie, who’s only four. My brother-in-law Bill is even better, and landed the gadget on one of the blades of his livingroom ceiling fan. Wow.

Now, RC helicopters are fairly easy to describe. Not everything is. One evening, my older nephew Brian and his fiance Alexis twisted my arm into watching a YouTube video called “Gangnam Style.” Words fail me. Most of the song is in Korean, except for a peculiar Greek-American interjection, “Opa Gangnam Style!” plus “Hey Sexy Lady!” here and there to prove that computer audio is working correctly. I was impressed by the young Korean chap at about 1:50 who was dancing energetically in an actinic yellow leisure suit. I didn’t know you could lase polyester. Most boggling of all was the fact that the video has been downloaded 693,000,000 times, plus or minus a significant fraction of humanity. I caught myself wondering what it would be like if seven hundred million people had read Drumlin Circus. I would probably have a new minivan–and little or no trouble selling Ten Gentle Opportunities.

Anyway. I’m better now. I’ll have nothing more to say about the election except for one very peculiar thing, which I will take up as soon as I understand it a little better myself. Hint: There may be a stoner stampede into Colorado next year.

In the meantime, I have a pop song to eject from the inside of my head. Listen at your own risk. About all I can say is that it’s better than listening to politics on Facebook.

Odd Lots