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April, 2013:

Odd Lots

Goof-Proof Meets Green Giant

Goof-Proof Flying-350 Wide.jpg

Well, the punk felt lucky today, so after Carol and I got back from some shopping midafternoon, we threw Dash and QBit in the back of the 4Runner and went down the hill to the park to fly a couple of kites.

But not just any kites. In the past few months I managed to score a Hi-Flier Goof-Proof Kite and a classic RB Toys Green Giant kite. Both are collectible, but like I said, it was a beautiful day and I was feeling lucky. I was lucky, actually, since I got both of them back to the house without damage or drama.

The Goof-Proof Kite is rare but not legendary, and most people have never even heard of it. It’s listed in the 1977 Hi-Flier trade catalog but not in the 1987 catalog. It’s a 36″ plastic bow kite with a twist: There’s no bow. The cross stick is in two pieces, and the pieces attach to the vertical stick with an injection-molded plastic connector that provides about 15% dihedral and a single mount point for the string. The dihedral makes a bow unnecessary, and the single mount point makes a bridle unnecessary. You tie your string to the plastic loop at the center of the connector (which pokes through the plastic sail at the kite’s center of balance) and that’s it. Done. Goof-Proof.

Goof Proof Connector 500Wide.jpg

I don’t have a lot of experience with single-point kites, and what I’ve had has been marginal. The problem is that the bridle and the bow are the only real adjustments you have on a two-stick kite. You’re at the mercy of the wind and the kite’s designers. In this case, the kite did fairly well in the very light and intermittent wind we had in our late afternoon. It was unstable without a tail, but 4′ of tail did the trick and didn’t weigh it down very much. (Kite tails are about wind resistance, not weight.)

I paid $25 for it, and I’ve told people for years not to fly classic kites. But having done that, I went back to the car and did something even nuttier: I flew an original 1972 RB Toys Green Giant promo kite. I don’t have to describe the kite in detail. If you want to know more, read the larger article on them, linked above. It was the first time I’d flown a kite like that since 1987. I hadn’t imagined it: They fly better than almost anything else I’ve ever had. But having paid $50 for it (and considered it a steal at that price) actually tossing it into the air was crazy. 41 years is a long time, and I don’t know how well the plastic center connector keeps on a decadal scale. (RB Toys didn’t expect they’d be flying forty years after manufacture!)

1972 Kite With Jeff-500 Wide.jpg

I had another insight while the Green Giant was in the air: That little camera we found in the bushes a few months back might be just the thing for kite aerial photography. I’d have to make a mount for it, and I would need a bigger and ruggeder kite than I have right now. But remote control really isn’t necessary if all you want to do is take video. Start the camera, launch the kite, and let it run as long as the kite’s in the air. I’ll read up on it, and when time allows I think I’ll try it.

When time allows. Aye, there’s the rub.

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.


Does anybody have any experience with Glom? It’s an open-source GUI database builder created in the spirit of FileMaker. Someone suggested it in the comments of my entry for April 9, 2013. I’ve just downloaded it and have not yet installed it, but the (slightly sparse) product wiki makes it look pretty compelling, at least for the sorts of smallish databases that don’t have to support tens of thousands of records. It’s specific to the PostgreSQL database back end, about which I know less than I should. Working on that.

While I’m asking for user experiences, how about LyX? It’s been around forever but I don’t see much in the line of books on it. A 2007-era tutorial PDF for version 1.4.1 is available here without charge. I was using TeX by hand (and later LaTeX) in the late 80s and early 90s, and it was impressive on the 386/486 machines in broad use at the time. LyX is supposedly a WYSIWYG word processor based on LaTeX. The TeX universe generally is a science/math geek paradise. LaTeX will typeset equations like nothing else in the galaxy. My primary wonder here is whether LyX is now good enough to use for nonscientific word processing, or if the increasingly silly WYSIWYG vs WYSIWYM argument gets in the way. Our CPUs are more than gutsy enough these days to render TeX content in realtime, and my view is that WYS should always reflect WYM. (I understand the conflict, which is really about markup vs rendering; please don’t lecture me about it.)

The crescent moon and Jupiter are in conjunction tonight, and they will make a good pair in the west just after sunset.

That is, if winter ever decides to end in Colorado Springs. We’re apparently due for snow and perhaps even a blizzard midweek, with temps down to 12 above. Poor Carol is itching to get out and work in her garden, which is still cowering an inch below the surface and keeps yelling about ice giants. The water is welcome, obviously, but I don’t need it on (or as) ice.

We did get a little rain last night, which kept me from seeing if Colorado was getting any aurora activity in the literal wake of a CME that hit Earth yesterday at 2300 zulu. The forecasts focused on the East Coast as far south as DC, which doesn’t get a lot of aurora activity. The sunspot number is also approaching 150, a number I haven’t seen in quite a while. We may get a solar maximum after all…but don’t lay money on it.

Finally, I had an interesting (in the Chinese curse sense) education yesterday in printing your own business cards. I’ve had a card design in the tinkering stages for literally years. The intent was always to get it printed professionally, and heck, the owner of one of the biggest print shops in Pueblo lives next door. Next weekend I’ll be at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference and will need some. So I bought a pack of Avery 5871 laser-perf cards and tried to print the design on them. Whoops–the right third of the card is a green bleed. If you’re doing business cards from a laser printer onto laser-perf stock, do not use bleeds. Arranging the art so that the left edge of the cards in the right column didn’t show a green streak took a great deal of kafeutherin’, as Aunt Kathleen would have said. Even after much wasted stock and torn virtual hair, I still had to trim a little bit of green edge off half the cards with a scissors. Lesson: White all the way around…or let the pros do it.

Open-Source Database App Builders

Some folks I know are asking me something I can’t answer: What are people using these days to build small-scale client-server GUI front ends? They have an app created with FileMaker Pro years back that they want to re-create. The catch is this: They want it to be built with something cheap (ideally open-source) and widely used, so that one person isn’t stuck supporting it forever.

The number of records in typical use is not high; from what I can tell, fewer than three hundred in the largest table. There are eight or ten tables, depending on how you slice up the database. There is a need for a certain amount of scripting in addition to table indexes and relationships. The app doesn’t have to scale. Again, 300-500 records is probably as many as the main table will ever need to hold. The database itself must reside on a server, accessible over the Internet from the front end, which will be on laptops and/or desktops.

I used to do things like that in Delphi, and have done simple apps for local tables in MS Access. Access is not cheap, nor is Delphi, and few people are learning Delphi anymore. Lazarus could work, but again, the real question is what’s out there that a lot of people use so that expertise is easy to find.

I wasn’t even aware that FileMaker was still being sold. I haven’t seen it since I had a review copy at VDM circa 2000. Did anyone ever create an open-source equivalent? A quick look around failed to spot one. Any insights?

Odd Lots

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!