Friday, May 06, 2016

Where are the Electric Cars for Travelers?

Today on my news feed, I read some article about how the new Tesla was going to charge extra for an  additional 19 miles range over their standard of 250-ish miles on a charge.  Considering how much hype there is over the newest Tesla, it just makes me sad.  It doesn't look like I'll ever buy an electric car.

I've always been in love with the idea of an electric drive train.  Even forty years ago, I wrote science fiction that talked about electric cars, although mine were a bit different from what you see today.  My best-selling novel Star Time has an electric vehicle as part of the battle against the aliens.  It's not that I don't like EV's.  I just could never use one.

There's certainly a market for commuter cars.  Plug it in overnight and you have enough range for the day's activities.  Many people fit that category.  Not me.  I'm a traveler.

I'm a science fiction author.  My job consists of two parts; stay at home writing and doing my social media outreach, and traveling to events where I spread my books out on a table and talk to people.  If I bought an EV, I'd need a second car to do my traveling because EV's are a joke when it comes to range.

As I do every year, I'll need to pack my books and go to St. Louis.  On the range a Tesla gives, I'd never even get across the state line before it ran dry.  How many times will I have to recharge it, to travel the 825 miles to get there?  How far out of my way will I have to go to search for a charging station, and how long does it take to charge a Tesla (I've never seen that number).

This is just one example.  Most of my events are in Texas, but half of them are also out of range.  One trip I made to Chicago was extended with an exploration of the western states and I logged several days straight with over 900 miles traveled per day.  This is just impossible in an EV.  A few years back, one trip logged just under 14,000 miles, including many Canadian provinces.  I worried about getting gas in some of those places (like Labrador), and expecting to find EV charging stations is out of the question.

I suppose I could tow a trailer, carrying a generator that was always running—but that's just a hybrid in different clothes.

As I said, I'll never get to use an EV.  They don't make them for travelers.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

My Fictional Net, and Encryption

Book Covers
When I began the multi-book storyline, The Project Saga, I had the opportunity to re-invent the Internet from scratch.  Or rather my self-aware AI character Hodgepodge did.  In the first book, Star Time, the existing internet was fried by EMP caused by the Betelgeuse supernova.  After Hodgepodge was put back together from the components wrapped in metal and shielded from the flare, one of the tasks the robot took on was to rebuild long distance communication, and he did it with several changes.

Starting with a variation of Ham Radio and packet-radio, he sent out instructions allowing remote survivors to cobble together salvaged computers and crude modems to build a store-and-forward system.  This crude early version had a few wrinkles that allowed for a new type of Net.

For one, there was a micropayment system, using Net Credits, that was handled invisibly by Hodgepodge.  It allowed elementary commerce to be built, even with this limited infrastructure.  There was an information economy from the beginning, where survival information and news from far away could be had, cheaply.

Another difference was encryption down to the bottom layers of the communication system.  No one could intercept messages other than the person addressed.  In today's Internet, your messages might be encrypted, but at lower levels, anyone could tell that you were on-line, and that you sent something.  In the version Hodgepodge created, every trace was encrypted—the transport-level information, the micropayment information, and the content itself.

The final piece of the puzzle was rapid and automatic updates.  Some survivor's original Net connection that had been possibly entered by hand was in a constant state of flux, and getting better and better.  While it was possible for humans to decode the original software, by the time it had evolved and become much more valuable, the users of this new Net were at a disadvantage compared to the machine intelligence running the system.  When the world reached the point where Hodgepodge-designed hardware took over the job, it was impossible for any human to understand.

The new Net had several goals, most notably to bring humanity out of the blackout caused by the Star.  But Hodgepodge had his own goals as well.  Being well-read from before the supernova, Hodgepodge was aware that his own survival depended on his invisibility.  By taking charge of the communication infrastructure of the planet, and keeping it deeply encrypted, he was able to work on the larger stage.  By providing constantly increasing speed and bandwidth to recovering humanity, he provided a service that made it's continued operation necessary.  It was a win-win situation for everyone.

But just as in today's headlines, encryption allows bad actors to bring their plans to fruition, and this is spelled out in the novels In the Time of Green Blimps and Humanicide. Unfortunately, in a world where the economy moves at Net or Internet speeds and where interception by third parties is disastrous, encryption is a necessity we have to learn to live with.  Nobody has solved that dilemma yet.

One other point made in the novels is that humanity is gradually losing the ability to program.  Yes, the languages are widespread, and many people use them, but other than some specialists with the necessary training, nobody today really cares about what happens on the chip.  As programming languages get more sophisticated, fewer people need to know about what happens to bits when OR'ed together.  Even people who have programmed computers for decades (like me) would be struggling when faced with a few kilobytes of executable code. If somewhere there were a Hodgepodge analog out there in the real world, how many compiler optimizers and code verifiers would he have to subvert before every user program contained his additional functionality.

The books were fun to write, and the Earth Branch of the Project Saga has been completed.  Take a look, if you have the time.

Star Time
Kingdom of the Hill Country
In the Time of Green Blimps
Captain's Memories

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

My Pocket Backup for Mac

I have many backups.  I'm a little obsessive about it.  I have Time Machine running on my laptop to an external drive.  I have Carbon Copy Cloner running to make a bootable backup of the whole machine every night to a different external drive.  I have Backblaze running for an off-site copy of all my files.  And that's just for the laptop.

But lately, I've been feeling the need for something a little different.  They make USB
'thumb' drives so small these days that I picked up a fast USB 3 128GB drive SanDisk Ultra Fit 128GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive (SDCZ43-128G-G46) [Older Version]for about $30 on Amazon.  Since I already had Carbon Copy Cloner running multiple backups, it wasn't hard to add another.

The idea for this backup was to have nearly all my personal files on me at all times. If I'm on the road, lose my laptop, and don't even have internet, I could borrow someone else's mac, and get access to whatever I needed in case of emergency.

Now 128GB isn't enough for my music, photos, or videos, so that'll have to wait for another generation of pocket drives, but with some careful exclusions (no cache files, downloads, etc.), I was able to select my whole user account on my Mac. To insure that my Pages and Numbers files are also included, since some are on iCloud, I made two little sparsebundle backups of them as well that would in turn be backed up to PocketBackup drive.  I used sparse bundle drive format since it's most efficient in doing incremental backups, since only the changed bands would be copied.

The other restriction I had in mind was to make the whole copy encrypted.  This way, I can carry the thing in my jeans pocket every day with no worries about losing it.  I'd just have to buy another drive and look at this blog post to remember how I did it the first time.

Here's the setup:  I formatted the drive and created an encrypted sparsebundle disk image on it.  In addition, I have an unencrypted README file with my contact information in case it's lost and a nice person finds it.

Carbon Copy Cloner waits for it to be inserted.  Then it mounts the encrypted disk image, makes the daily changes, and then dismounts everything.  The initial backup took a little while, but typically, it all takes one minute, or maybe two or three if I've loaded some large files.  I've got a daily reminder at 4 pm to plug it in.  The menubar icon for CCC turns black while the backup runs and when it turns white, I can unplug it and stick it back in my pocket.  All the mounting and dismounting is handled by the program. It's so easy, I haven't missed a day since I started it.

Here's the CCC settings for the main backup:

And here is the setup for the Pages backup.  Numbers is similar.

For the tiny space and minimal cost, it's a nice peace of mind to have all my important files hiding down there in my pocket.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Apple's Photos App is Disappointing

I had high hopes for the new Photos app on OS X that was intended to replace both iPhoto and Aperture.  I spent quite a few weeks processing my large Aperture libraries, with the intent to convert them all to Photos.  I have about 100,000 photos split over two large libraries, plus a couple of smaller ones.

With libraries this large, I have always had speed issues.  To get around it, I have kept an 'Active' library that only contained my most frequently used images plus the current year.  When Photos was released just in the past week or so, I converted 'Active' to Photos and allowed it to migrate to the iCloud library.  It seems quick enough, with only a thousand photos.

It finally came time to see if I could process my 'Recent' library, which was about 40,000 pictures, spread over several years.  Starting Photos up, pointing to the Aperture library, it spend overnight converting the library, and then crashing.  I tried it again, on the converted library, and with a long, long startup, it also crashed before being usable for anything.

At least I could still use the original Aperture library, after some of the program's automated cleanup. It seems like I'll be keeping Aperture around for a while, if my libraries are unusable under Photos.  I may export photos and import them into Photos that way, but that will be huge, time-consuming process, but given that Aperture is not being updated and will die before too long, I'll need to do some kind of migration.

But if the problem is Photos' inability to handle large libraries, I'll have to find some other technique for handling my historical archives.  I'll keep an eye out for other people with large libraries and see how they handle it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Internet Frustrations

I have several websites, some of them blogs like this one. Yes, I know, I should have only one and concentrate on that.  But things change.  I've been blogging since before the name was invented, and much of it is still on this site, even though I've been pouring more of my writing-focused content into and my Facebook fan page lately.  Still, I'm not going to abandon Idle Thoughts anytime soon, since it's my primary repository for non-writing content.

And so, when google alerts flagged me that for a couple of days running, I had a spike in readership here, I rushed to see what had happened.  After all, the most recent posting was a couple of months old.  If I had a new flux of readers, I wanted to know where they came from and why.  At best, I could then find some way to reward them by providing more of what they came to see.  At the least, I could become more aware of the site that referred them, visit there and see if we had common ground.

But it was a frustration.  As you probably know, websites get a little snip of information that tells where a new arrival came from.  I looked, and what I found was this:
From this, I can see that the number one source of referrals lately was from social-buttons.  This is frustrating. It tells me nothing about where the site was, or the topic of conversation. It's just the site that manages the link button.  It's like asking "where did the click come from?" and getting the answer "From the mouse button."  No useful information at all.

You see, they might not even have wanted to come here.  Maybe the link was in error, or they were looking for the football player with my same name.  I can't tell.  

If YOU came here looking for something, I would be overjoyed if you left me a comment or an email. Seriously, sometimes even the spam is entertaining.  And if you were looking for something that you didn't find, let me know and maybe I can help.

See you next time.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

My Favorite Book

As a writer sitting at my table, showing off all the books I’ve written, I frequently get asked, “What’s your favorite book?”  That’s a very hard question to answer, because I have very strong feelings about all my books.  I wouldn’t have written them otherwise.  None of these are commissioned works designed to meet somebody else’s order.
So, instead of answering the question, I usually try to read the person talking to me and try to figure out what they would like best.  That usually works.
However, I’ve decided to write a little introduction to each book, telling you what I feel about it.  In essence, I’ll describe why every book is my favorite.
I’ll be posting these little descriptions every few days on my site, and then collect them all on the  wordpress archive for future reference. 

If you read them all, you’ll probably be able to make your own judgement about which book is my favorite -- at least from your perspective.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

It's Getting Crowded in the Batcave

I'm not going to talk about Batman, it was just too good a title.  But how about the Flash?  I've been watching the numerous superhero TV shows that have come out lately.  Arrow and Flash are on my mind in particular.  My how things have changed.

When I was introduced to the Flash, I bought comic books off the spinner rack in Brooks Drug in Amarillo.  The price was ten cents, for a while, until it went up to twelve.  The Flash was probably my favorite super hero.  His name was Barry Allen (there have been numerous people with that title) and he was a police scientist in real life, before he was struck by lightning and got his super-speed.

Does that sound familiar?  Unfortunately, that's about the only thing that's the same.  Now, I've come to a peaceful co-existence with the idea that superheroes get their life story re-written every few years.  I may not like it, but I can live with it.

But I've noticed a massive shift in storytelling with all of these video versions.  Ten Cent Flash was a lone scientist that worked out his powers alone, keeping his secret identity for a long time.  He solved all his problems alone. His thoughts were shared with the reader as he whizzed along at super-speed, logically discovering who and what and how to stop the disaster.

All the superheroes were the same.  Occasionally there were side-kicks to talk to, and there was often dialog with the villain, but in the heat of battle, it was the man with his own thoughts.

Switch the media to video.  Now, super-heroes are just the athletes in a complex team of actors.  There's the hacker and the scientist and the strategist -- all communicating with the guy in the suit via those invisible in the ear radios that easily have the best range of any radio I've ever seen for the size.

I can't say the super-teams are all that inspiring, where the lone individual was, to me.  And the secret identity is the first casualty.  Everyone knows.  Why do they even bother?  Do they think they can keep it a secret, when dozens of people know, including half the villains?

Every storyline is horribly complex, keeping all the personal lives of all the team in turmoil.  I can say I miss getting to know the title character.  They all seem a little flat.

Now all of this may be necessary.  Perhaps video demands a cast of characters to be a sounding board.  But contrast this with the new show Forever.  The immortal character has a lot of personal thoughts and flashbacks taking up time in the show, and I think it has made him a more interesting hero.  I wonder what it would have been if Flash had taken that path?  I suppose it's not my call.  I'm just the viewer, and a graybearded one at that.

The real people making the choice are the video production team.  Could the fact that their media is collaborative have influenced their storytelling?  Is it hard for a video crew to imagine a lone action hero?  I wonder.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Time to Mow

My schedule is... complex.  Yard work does not have as high a priority as watching my grandson, or getting the next book ready to publish.  As a result of heavy book promotion and other priorities, mowing the yard has taken a back seat -- until today.  The next book has had the beta-reader versions printed and mailed out to the select few.  Now, for the first time in quite a few weeks, it's time to mow.  Unfortunately, that means that some of the vegetation (it's not all grass by any stretch) is taller than my head, even when I'm seated in on the tractor.

By this time of the year, most of the wildflowers have gone to seed, so I don't feel all that bad about mowing down the stalks.  One thing that does bring the sighs is the wildlife.  If you've seen the movie "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh", there's the dramatic scene where the farmer fires up the tractor and it's 'Moving Day'.  In real life, it's exactly like that.  Rabbits and rodents who have made their homes in that tall stand of wildflowers huddle in fear until the tractor gets too close and they make their frantic dash to the nearest line of trees.  I didn't see any cute furry babies this time, but I have in the past.

I'm lucky that I can choose not to mow until I'm ready, but unfortunately, I can't put it off forever.  I really don't want tall stands of dried vegetation next to the house when it wild fire season comes around.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Testing a Chromebook

Stopping off at Office Depot to pick up some ink cartridges, I notice a Samsung chromebook on display for two hundred and some dollars.  While I'm firmly an Apple user for decades, I am aware that there are several of my most used applications, like Pages and Numbers, with a web portal.  I had a few minutes, so I thought I'd give it a try.  I mean, if this little laptop substitute, available for nearly throwaway prices could handle my most common applications, I could use it on trips.

So, I fumbled around and keyed in the address and brought up the Pages application.  Right off the bat, there was a warning that the chrome browser wasn't fully supported, and that was a bad sign.  However, I was allowed to continue.  I created a new document and typed a few lines.

I was barely thirty seconds into my test when I knew that this laptop gadget was much too sluggish to get anything done.  It took a couple of tries before it would even capture my keystrokes.  I suppose this was due to delays loading the application software from the web, but there was no cue as to what was happening -- other than I was tapping the keys and staring at the blank page.  Eventually, it started to capture my text, and after that, I could type a line okay.  Accessing the menus, such as changing the text style, was still slow.  I couldn't use it for productive work.

I suppose the chrome book is probably tuned to use Google's document apps, not any random substitute, but for me, it wasn't working.

At least I was able to find the settings page to clear all my cookies and passwords and usage history.  That is, if Google is telling the truth about what's running under the hood.

In summary, the idea of a web-only laptop is intriguing but that test machine didn't do the job well.  I'll be sticking with an iPad for minimal travel use.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Switching Websites

For longer than I can remember, I've had a website.  Before websites, I had a Gopher site, if you have any idea what that was.  But as technologies changed, and the tools for updating a site changed, I have had to reengineer my little home on the Internet.  For some years now, I've used iWeb to update and maintain my site.  Before that, it was hand-crafted pages, sometimes using Dreamweaver to handle the link-checking and automated tasks.

Now, it's come to pass that iWeb has been abandoned so long that I can no longer safely use it to update my pages without risking horrible formatting errors.  So, I did what so many other people have done, I took a look at WordPress.  My hosting service has many software tools already installed, so it was effortless to set up a new branch on my site. was my iWeb site. became the WordPress version.  The learning curve wasn't too bad.  I replaced the functionality of my landing page easily enough and set up the links needed to make everything available.

From long experience, I know that changing any links is hazardous.  People find interesting pages and share them to their friends.  Those links are out of my control, and often, totally unknown to me.  As a result, I intend to keep the zero branch active and unchanged for as long as I can -- years certainly.  But everything new will now be done on the WP branch.

I invite you to go visit.  If you want, you can compare the old with the new.  In any case, if you have bookmarked, that's fine, it will be redirected to the new site.  But if you have a link that says "" then know that you might be wise to search out the new alternative and change it.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

How Walgreens Lost my Business

This is uncomfortable.  I'm not a person who gripes a lot.  But I've tried to accommodate Walgreens customer card, and it's not working for me.

In the past, perhaps two years ago, I was a happy Walgreens customer.  I liked some of their products, like the cans of nuts, and the stores were very close and handy.  There are three close enough to me to be considered convenient stopping places.  One is very handy.  I particularly liked the fact that they would often have instant discounts -- buy two cans of nuts and the second would be cheaper.

And then they instituted their Balance Rewards card system.  I first ran up against it when the discount on the counter top was rejected at the checkout.  The fine print supposedly said I only got the discount when I had their card.  So...  no discount for me any more.  I didn't like it.  And I didn't feel like signing up for Yet Another Card.

So, I continued to shop at Walgreens, but each and every special I saw under the products left a sour taste in my mouth.  Specials for other people, not for me.  And then at checkout.  "Do you have the card?"  "No."  "Would you like to sign up?"  "No".  Over and over and over again.  Some clerks were particularly insistent and kept giving me the hard sell, even after I said "No."

That lasted a year.  I stopped buying several of the products that I had previously enjoyed.  It was just too distasteful.  And then I discovered that my wife had signed up.  It was a let-down.  My principled resistance meant nothing.  Walgreens still had their hooks into our customer data.

So, I signed up, and added Walgreens to my iPhones passbook so I wouldn't have to deal with a physical card or recite my phone number like everyone else does.

It's not working out.  Checking out is smoother.  I just set my phone down on the counter next to the products and they scan it as well as the goods.  But last week, they printed out a ten dollar discount strip -- I guess the results of my bonus points.  However a closer look showed that there was a time limit -- one week from issue.  This wasn't money back to me, it was just another enticement to spend some money at their store.

So, today, on the last day of the ten dollar discount, I decided I needed a couple of items.  I could go to HEB or a convenience store, but since I had a ten dollar discount, why not Walgreens?

I picked up my three items and went to the checkout.  I set them down with my coupon and my cell phone.  They were scanned, and then the clerk said I wouldn't be able to use the discount, because it required a $30 dollar minimum.   My purchases only came up to $17.

After a moment's hesitation, I said "It's not worth it," and walked off, leaving my products and my absolutely worthless bonus coupon for the clerk to deal with.  I heard her calling for a manager to handle the cancellation as I walked out, but I couldn't deal with it.  Once again, Walgreens had used the 'fine print' to turn a potential pleasurable shopping experience into a resolve to stop doing business with them.

I know that I can't fight it.  The fine print was there, and I have to face up to the decision that I must closely check every potential bonus or sale that Walgreens offers me, or just not deal with them anymore.  In spite of nice people at the store, the company isn't friendly anymore.  I suppose I'll still go there for some drugs and emergency bandages and the like, but it's not on my list as a convenient place to pick up cokes or paper towels.  I guess I need to see what the CVS stores are like.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Genre Writer

Occasionally, when I meet people outside of conventions, AKA, in real life, and they find out I'm a writer, they ask what kind of stuff I write.  I always say, "I write science fiction."  That either interests them or I get a wave off, since they don't read that kind of stuff.  That's normally okay by me.  I'm not generally talking to them in order to sell books.  I'll ask about what they do -- what interests them.  That's the best way to meet people in my opinion.

However, my latest book -- the one I'm currently writing, is just barely science fiction.  Am I still a science fiction author if I write a mystery/detective story?  Let me tell you a secret.  I've got a whole stash of stories that I write that will never see print.  It's not because they are bad, but because I write more than I'll ever have the chance to publish and market.  I have to pick and choose which of the stories will be able to find readers.  And a lot of these hidden stories are not science fiction.  They are mysteries and adventures and romances.  They are all lengths.  There are a few that are novel length, but most are novella and short story length.  The story dictates the length.

Now, while I could slap some of these into a kindle book and sell them as 99-cent shorts, it's not something I've chosen to do.  For one thing, I'm trying to provide a known quality for people that have taken the gamble and read one of my books.  I want them to know what to expect from a Henry Melton book, at least in a general way.  That's the whole purpose of my book categories.

If someone reads one of my Small Town, Big Ideas stories, then if they see another with that marketing label, then they'll know what they're getting.  It's the same with The Project Saga.  Different styles for different people.  Now, I like both.  Many people do, but setting expectations is part of the process of making people happy.

So, about this new book...  Amarillo Texas is a small city, not a small Main-street town like some I've written about, but it's a adventure tale with a high school aged main character who has been dropped into extraordinary circumstances.  It's a Small Town, Big Ideas natural.  It doesn't hurt that I've pushed the boundaries of certain medical theories, so I can easily claim it as science fiction.  That's what comes naturally to me.  I see what's real now, and then keep on writing even if reality hasn't quite caught up to what I have in the story.

But, if you look at the action and the plot, this story lives in the Mystery genre.  I wrote it that way deliberately, even if I'm not "Henry Melton, Mystery Writer".  I'm sure this kind of cross-genre business would get me in trouble if I were writing for a New York publisher.  Luckily, I'm writing for me.

I have a great fondness for this one, and a lot of it comes from my memories.  I grew up in Amarillo.  The main character lives on my old street, in my old house.  I've had to change a few things, because the world has changed.  My old high school burned down, for one.  A new one was built with the same name, but the school districts changed.  You see the problems.

It will be 2014 before it comes out.  I still have to fix all those persistent typos and grammar glitches and get my helpers to look over my shoulder to find the plot gaffes.  But you'll like it.  I'm sure.

Now, if I could just find a good title.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Things That Work: My Jeep Wrangler at 300,000 Miles

I was at work, so my boy Thomas and my wife Mary Ann picked out my new car, a 97 dark green Jeep Wrangler.  All I had to do was drive it off the lot. For some reason this, more than any other vehicle, felt like my car -- not a hand-me-down, nor a family vehicle.
Today, after 300,000 miles and many years, I pulled off the side of the road and took a picture of it.  That's the original paint job as you can guess, and the forth rag top, but it's still going strong and it's my dependable day to day vehicle.

Now that 300K miles doesn't include more than 50K+ miles being towed behind our RV touring the country.  The Jeep was our expedition vehicle while the RV stayed at the campground.  We went everywhere, from San Diego to Bar Harbor, including places in Canada.

This Jeep is my main utility vehicle.  I removed the rear bench seat and use the space to load up my books when I go to a book signing or convention.  There's plenty of space for all my books, signage,  luggage, and even the trolly to carry it all.

From time to time, the question of a new car has come up, but I've always said I didn't want to give up on my Jeep until it reached 300,000 miles, but considering how well it's holding up, I may move that goalpost.

I want to acknowledge the help of Pit Pros of Round Rock for my regular 3000 mile oil changes and their help keeping me on track with all the other regular maintenance a good car needs.   For all the mechanic help, Round Rock Muffler and Automotive has been the place where I've gotten tires and belts and the occasional transmission tweaks, water pumps, door locks and whatever else goes wrong.  They always do the job and put my Jeep back into service quickly.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Revisiting TV

For a number of years now, I've been collecting videos.  This is hardly unusual, most people do.  Over time, however, I had collected nearly three terabytes of movies, tv shows, and home movies, nicely converted and organized as an iTunes library.  As the library grew, my media database grew out of a single hard drive, on to a raid, and then to a Drobo array.  In the back of my mind, I worried about backing this all up.  That's part of the reason it was hosted on the Drobo, so that a single hard drive failure wouldn't wipe it all out.  It was much too large for a duplicate drive, and although some of it was backed up to DVDs, my iTunes library was continually growing and changing, and enough DVD's had failed on me that I didn't have confidence in them anymore.  Certainly I wasn't about to go back to tape.

Now, I have extensive backups on everything else.  My photos are duplicated on different drives, my writing files are duplicated so many different ways it'd make your head spin.  I have a large TimeMachine backup of my laptop, and some things (like the writing files) are being daily copied off to the cloud backup services.  But I never quite took the extra step to backup the video library.  Too expensive, too time consuming, too lazy.

So, of course, (you saw it coming), an obscure glitch trashed the data on my Drobo.  The directory structure was damaged some how, probably by the common power failures that happen out here in the country.  I didn't notice it immediately, but I was running out of space on the Drobo, so I swapped in a bigger drive and waited the week or so for it to reorganize the data.  Superficially, it looked good, so I swapped in a second bigger drive.

Then it was time to head off for a six week vacation/book-tour.  I would occasionally log back in to my home system to see how things were going.  Half-way through the trip, something looked very wrong, but I had to just shut it down until I returned home.  A week or so of debugging, once I had hands-on time to work with it gave me the bad news.  Drobo wasn't going to recover itself.  Even bringing it up in raw mode so that Disk Utility and Diskwarror could work on it wouldn't work.  Within a minute of booting it up, the unit was caught in a loop and slowed to nothing.

I had a choice, turn it over to one of those pricy disk recovery firms and cross my fingers, or format the drives and start all over with an empty library.  It was a painful decision.  My video library was mostly items purchased from iTunes, so with the new rules, I could re-download all of that for free.  The rest consisted of Beta and VHS tapes digitized, a number of things pulled from DVDs, and a few TV shows captured from my Directv via Eyetv.  I still have the home movie tapes, and I can recapture those, but there would be quite a few things I would have to do without.

I formatted the drives.  There was never any hardware problem with the Drobo, so it came back up.  I wrote a custom Perl program to scan through my TimeMachine archive and pull all the videos.  I loaded those and started the process of running iTunes re-downloads.  I figure it will take about a year to get everything back -- I have slow DSL.  What with my backups and a month or so of downloading, I have 1.1TB recovered.  I also have a 3TB drive connected with nightly CCC backups running.  Backup drives have gotten cheap.  Or at least it feels like it now.

One interesting benefit of this process is that I'm re-visiting a lot of shows I saw once and then forgot.  Of course there was Firefly, Angel and Buffy, but I'm also enjoying some of the one-season wonders that came and vanished, like Haven, Cupid, Fallen, Raines, MiddleMan, etc.  I'm sure I'll need to purchase some of the things that I had captured before, but with today's better quality, and with the built-in cloud backup, it's a nice upgrade.

But... I'm going to keep that backup drive spinning!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Apple Map Updates

I was amused by the recent Australian map problem, where a city was marked in the wrong location.  A one or two day flash of bad PR and the issue was fixed.  I'm jealous.

You see, I've been trying to get a nearly identical issue fixed for the last couple of months.  One of my towns, the locale of The Copper Room, is Canton Missouri.  When you search for that town, up pops a red pin at a rural location, while the real town, which I've marked with a blue pin in this image is way over there on the river.

Now, I'm a big fan of the new Apple Maps, and I still like it better than anything else out there, but I just wish it was easier to correct errors that I encounter. There are a number of buttons built into the app that where one can "Report a problem".  I systematically tried them all.  There's the one under the turned up corner, where one can report general problems.  There's the one where you highlight the pin and report the error there.  I even went to and tried to report it there.  Still, the days tick by and the false Canton pin hasn't moved.

I was willing to give Apple some slack because they get their data from third parties and I suspected that maybe the delay had to do with the long lead time of feeding the error data back to TomTom or whoever and waiting for it to ripple through the system.  Obviously, there's a quicker way, as evidenced by the Australian issue.

It's the PR, obviously.  Now I know my little blog is minor.  Goggle won't even let me put adverts on it because it's so inconsequential.  But I've had some visibility on other issues in the past.  Maybe someone will notice.  I can alway hope.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Enchantment of Sail

This week my sailing novel is out, Breaking Anchor.  Yes, it is science fiction.  That's how my brain is wired, but sailing has found a place in my imagination. I grew up with an outboard powered fishing boat my father saved up to buy.  I like the water, but by the time I did a little sailing on Town Lake, the lure of sail had crept into my soul.  Unfortunately, I've never bought a sailboat, nor been able to indulge my fantasy of renting and sailing the Caribbean islands.

Some years ago, my wife and I took a cruise from Barbados and visited a number of islands on a large sailing vessel.  It was a 100 passenger cruise ship, and I have many fond memories of that trip, but this was really too large for my ideal vessel.  I wanted something large enough to live in, for months at a time, but something I could handle.  I wanted to handle the sails, and to set the course, and feel the wind and adjust the wheel in response.

When I was writing the novel, or shorting before then, I was listening to all of the Furled Sails podcasts.  There were many inspiring tales of sailors, from the weekend sailors to the ones who had sold everything and lived their lives on the seas.

On one of my California trips, my wife, daughter and I took a little sail around the Santa Barbara area in a 40-foot sailboat.  It was perfect.  If anyone wants to know what I want for Christmas, look no farther.  Properly outfitted, one person can sail a boat this sized, and yet there's no limit on where you could go.  *Sigh*

Maybe someday.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The New Apple Maps

I loved the old Maps program, based on the Google database, but I love the new one so much more.  At the time I'm writing this, I'm on the road, visiting book stores and doing book signings half-way across the country from home.  I downloaded the IOS 6 update with motel wifi and updated my phone and iPad when it came out.  Almost before the update completed, there were a flood of articles bad-mouthing the new Maps.  I even made the bookmark to the Google maps web-app, like people suggested.

However, once I started using the Apple Maps, I never was even tempted to use the Google link, or the Navigon full featured app that I spent good money for a long time ago.  The Apple Maps is just too easy to use.

I've used Navigon once -- just to try it out.  It works fine, but choosing a destination was difficult.  I never bothered.  On the Maps app, I can say "Route me to Chamberlain, South Dakota" and I can have spoken turn by turn directions with no other input.  Or I can scroll through the maps and type "Books" in the search field to have pins pop up for all the bookstores.  I select one of the pins and tap the crooked arrow icon to get my directions.  This is how I hop-scotched up the coast from California to Seattle, stopping at any bookstores I could find.

Most of the gripes about the app are with the database of locations driving it.  Yes, I saw a couple of errors.  Usually one location and a duplicate from the Yelp database for the same store.  If I'd have been on top of things I should have tapped the "Report a Problem" button to flag the bad ones to improve the database, but I didn't notice that option.

But the thing is, ALL maps have errors.  Even the glorified Google Maps.  Up until a few weeks ago, Google insisted that My House was a retail bookstore.  I received any number of phone calls by people calling me, looking for books.  I had to go report the issue and get the bad listing scrubbed.  That has to happen with all databases.

So, aware there might be errors, I happily continue my trip, using Apple Maps, because no other app works as well.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Backing up Beartooth

I almost wrote "Backing up Bluetooth" which would have been an entirely different article.

In preparation for this cross country trip, iOS 6 compatibility and the opportunity to give my son-in-law my workhorse original iPad, I upgraded to the new iPad. The question at the moment of purchase was whether to go with AT&T or Verizon.

I wanted the Personal Hotspot feature that wasn't available on my unlimited AT&T data plans, and I finally chose Verizon. This gave me an iPhone 4S on AT&T and the new device on Verizon. I'd be traveling in areas with limited coverage, so if one service failed, hopefully the other one would be available.

Today, I'm one week into the trip and I have been disappointed in the Verizon coverage. Traveling up to Yellowstone, and spending the night in Santa Clara NM and Pinedale WY, not to mention various gas stations on the way, the iPad showed no coverage. Certainly AT&T is light as well, but if there is any signal to be had it'll be on my 4S.

Here in Yellowstone, cell coverage is limited to about four towers in the whole park. As I type this in Canyon Village, I have 4 bars of 4G on the iPhone and one bar intermittently of Verizon 3G on the iPad. It was fairly solid at Mammoth Hot Springs, but in general AT&T wins here.

This morning, realizing we needed to make a phone call in Silver Gate Montana, we drove up the Beartooth Highway, searching for a remembered signal from previous years. Outside of Cook City, there was a flicker of signal and as I watched a deer grazing beside the road, Mary Ann had me turn around, and then back up on the Beartooth Highway, hoping to pick up something usable, but it wasn't to be had on any device. This is the area none of the cell companies bother with.

I expressed my disappointment on twitter and quite soon got this response from Verizon: @HenryMelton We want to make sure that you have reliable service. Where did you travel? Are you still there? I can check on coverage. ^LA

I replied giving details. I was in Yellowstone.

They replied: @HenryMelton Ahh I see! There are certain areas that do not have coverage. Go to to view coverage. ^LA

Thanks Verizon. Yes, I know there is limited coverage here, my post was comparing the two services, where AT&T was a clear winner.

I have often thought that the tech journalist coverage of AT&T vs Verizon was based purely on the San Francisco cell service area where those reporters all live and gave AT&T a bad rep that it can't seem to shake.

Who knows? The trip has just begun and the situation may well reverse when I'm on the west coast. We'll see.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Dreams, Lucid and Otherwise

One of my most useful writing tools is the lucid dream. It's a halfway state between wakefulness and random dreaming, where I can set the stage, place the characters in motion, and even stop and rewind the action. It's great for working through scenes and seeing how the characters will act, all before touching the keyboard.

This happens for me before finally drifting off into snore mode at night, in the dawn light of the morning, and occasionally in those in between times between deep sleep and wakefulness.

I'm having trouble using lucid dreaming at all this week. We're in Yellowstone National Park for a week of touring the great loop and watching animals. Mary Ann is a nature photographer, and so our typical day is up at five to be at the wolf observation sites before dawn, then tour the park, stopping for buffalo, elk, coyotes, and bear. Come sunset, we will be in a photogenic location for her sunset shots. Of course, at that time, we are halfway across the huge park from out room in Cook City on the far eastern edge of the park. So, I drive (I do all the driving) back that direction, until we stop for another photo shoot of star trails or the milky way.

Eventually, we drag in near midnight and collapse, with the clock set for five again just a few short hours away.
Now, I do dream under these conditions, but it's hardly the leisurely set up and monitoring useful for my writing. It's the random mis-mash of people and events I can barely remember when waking, and forget soon after. It's the processing type of dream scientists think is necessary maintenance to memory development.

I can't gripe too much about the lack of dream-writing time, not when it's just part of being in Yellowstone. But the same dynamic probably happens with other dawn to midnight days when I'm trying to get a lot of activity done in too few hours. Lucid dreaming, for me, takes time. Time to drift off to sleep, not just crash. (Oops. I had to go run take a picture of a wolf watching us. Now where was I?) Time to wake up gently, rather than jumping up to silence the alarm.

It all takes time, doesn't it? Time to plot, time to compose, time to edit, and lots not even speak of the time it takes to market. It's all a trade off. And sometimes we just have to take some extra time to live.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Memories Come First

Writing fiction, like I do, is process of revelation. We’ve all heard it asked, either as writers ourselves, or listening to the fans approach the Famous Author, “Where do you get your ideas?”

There’s rarely a good answer to that, because ideas are everywhere, there for writers and non-writers to pluck out of the air and play with. What I want to talk about here is instead the evolution of story. At this instant, I’m taking a short break in a story that I’ve been working on for a few days. From the beginning, I knew a few ideas. I knew who the main two characters were, and what had to be resolved. That was about it. I could write it out in one sentence, if you allow a few commas.

But that isn’t a story.

There are times I write an outline, often it approaches first draft status by its own word-count. A really good outline, with the characters developed and the side plots spelled out, can make the writing very straightforward: Take sub-point 2.a.5 and flesh it out in a sensory-engaging set of paragraphs. Repeat with next sub-point.

Today’s story isn’t like that either. I don’t have an outline for this one. I began with an introductory scene, to get a taste for the main character. Not for the reader to get that taste, but for me, the writer, to turn a name into a person.

In stories like this, the real plotting happens in bed, lights out, before I go to sleep, or when I’m swimming laps, with my goggles and snorkel, staring at the featureless white of the pool bottom, oblivious to the outside world. A scene has just been written, what needs to come next?

The character and her recent actions are fresh in my mind. Vague ideas about where the story should go begin to appear like memories. Sometimes it’s the very next thing that must happen, often not. Events appear in whatever order they please, just as if I’m remembering the scenes from times past. I am simultaneously experiencing the story, and judging it. Minor characters appear, with their backstories. They’ll spill their life stories, sometimes, and I shake my authorial head and simplify the scene, saving all that detail for later, or maybe just leaving remnants in the look in a character’s eyes or the hesitation in her voice.

I’m up in the morning or dried off from the pool and sit down at the keyboard. The next chronological scene, visualized maybe a dozen times before, gets set down in words and paragraphs, and then when it’s time, I’m off to swim or go to bed the next day.

Again, memories from future events appear, changed and colored by what has been marked down in black and white. Events get re-arranged. More important memories come to the fore. I experience the next events again, and judge what to keep -- what is real -- and what is not. Like closing a zipper, all those potential visions are stabilized into one.

The cycle repeats over and over. The memories of what will happen come first, and then fingers fix them into firm reality.

As an experience, it’s wonderful -- much more fulfilling than watching a scene on the TV. In the end, I have a first draft. Editing is rewarding too, seeing sloppy prose become crisp, but that’s a different process entirely.

I’ve been told that my writing is visual, that “they ought to make it into a movie” and I suspect that comes from experiencing, visually, these memories of the future projected on my eyelids, or on the bottom of the pool, before the words ever line up on the page.

Take this for what it is, one writer’s experience in helping a story come to life. It’s not true for all, and it’s not even true for all my writing, but when it works, it’s wonderful.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why I Wrote “Emperor Dad”

My life changed. Taking a risk, I had accepted an early retirement offer from the company where I had worked for twenty-some years. The company had changed, and my children were grown. The numbers seemed reasonable. I could quit writing database code that seemed increasingly irrelevant to me, and I feared, to the company.

So one day I brought home a cardboard box of awards plaques and file folders of my training, personnel records, etc. and set it in the corner of my home office. My intent was to spend more time writing.

But what to write? I had written and had published a number of science fiction short stories. I had also written some novels, but none of them had attracted the attention of publishers or agents.

With the newfound freedom of working at my own pace, rather than fitting it in between testing SQL statements and writing Perl modules, I let my mind drift a little. How about pick a topic and write -- short fiction or longer, let the story set the length?

With no idea more than teleportation as overlapping three-dimensional spheres, I started writing, vaguely autobiographically. The setting was my house. The character was a younger, smarter version of myself. I developed the idea of the teleportation. I worked out some details about how it might be discovered.

But the narrative dragged. It was far too easy to lecture. I set the story aside for awhile.

I had been attending a number of science fiction conventions and writing conferences. A lot of the advice didn’t seem to fit me, but one panel about Young Adult fiction had a question for the authors that resonated with me. What is your internal age? How old are you inside?

A lot of my writing had been with characters a lot younger than my calendar age. Some of them had been about right for the YA label. I’d even been told that before by people who had read my work, but it hadn’t stuck.

Maybe I was a YA author, and didn’t know it.

I went back to my stalled out manuscript and took a good hard look at a secondary character, the teenage son of the inventor. What if I took his viewpoint?

I trashed most of what I’d written and tried again, only with the son James (my middle name) as the main character. Part of it had to be written from the father’s perspective, but most of it flowed well as the story of James, who hacked into his dad’s computer to run computer games and discovered the controls to his father’s teleportation system. James had to figure out how everything worked, and just why his father had taken such elaborate measures to hide everything -- not just from him, but from his mother as well, and the world.

I plucked a number of episodes from the life of my son Thomas, as he grew up in Hutto, Texas. James wasn’t Thomas, but there were a number of places where they overlapped.

Writing was easy and experimental. I chose to write very short numbered chapters, over a hundred of them, and it was only in the final stages that I divided the story into nine named sections.

By the time I was done, I had a novel that was slightly shorter than the novels I had written before. But this was what I had decided -- let the story pick the length, and this was what came out.

From 2003 through 2005, I circulated the novel to agents and publishers, but it was gradually seeping into my skull that the nature of publishing had changed. This story didn’t match the checklist demanded by New York publishers.

Rather than shelve the story, as I had several other novels, I put my toe into the self-publishing arena by making a PDF and selling it directly from my website. A few people bought it -- friends and relatives, but it never took off. Still, the idea had caught root. By 2007, I had done some homework and published a trade paperback copy through Lulu. It was a learning experience. Lulu’s costs plus the discount necessary to sell to a bookstore meant it was priced much too high. I had also gotten some painful assessments of its layout and formatting. As it was, the book would never sell.

But that was just the bad news. People liked the story. Someone had gotten a copy of the book and submitted it to the Mid-South-Con’s Darrell Award contest. While I wasn’t sure it was eligible, it won, and Emperor Dad was now an award-winning novel. It was just the right push at the right moment.

I established a publisher’s account through Lightningsource to make books at a lower price-point and promptly produced the second edition, with some typo corrections, a better layout, and a starburst on the cover proclaiming its award.

While there’s still a stash of first-edition copies in a corner of my office for people who request them, the second-edition is out on my table, selling well (for me) and continually gaining new fans.

This is still my experimental novel. It’s the only one with a 99¢ price tag on the ebook stores (for now) and the first novel I serialized for my Henry’s Stories online magazine. I don’t think I’ll ever let it go out of print.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Making Sell Sheets for My Books

I was updating my sell sheets, in preparation for some more face time with book store people, when it occurred to me that maybe I hadn't mentioned sell sheets in this blog.  A quick search came up empty, so Sell Sheets are today's topic.

What's a sell sheet?  As a book consumer, it probably doesn't make much difference to you, but for a bookstore person, it's a useful, one-stop info sheet for a book.  Here's a quick look at one of mine. Click to expand.

Now, this format is one of a thousand possible ways to do it, but the basics are there, one sheet per book.  The cover, the book blurb, something about the author, and that right hand column should have contact info, the ISBN number of the book and enough information so that the bookstore can order more.  Print out several.  I've had salesmen eager to get them so that they can have something to promote the books.  If you make it easy enough, so all they have to do is thumbtack the sheet to the shelf, you can sometimes get prime attention for your book.

I also fold them in half and insert them into any books I send out for review to magazines and bloggers.  It saves them having to make notes, and since the back is blank, they can use it as a place for their own notes and ideas.

The whole idea is to make it easy for people to sell your book, and it's easy enough to do.  I've got an accordion folder with a pocket for each book, with enough space left over for a printed bio sheet and a one-sheet catalog of all my books.  I use it frequently.  It's about time I bought another.  That one is wearing out.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Star Time Book Trailer

Seeing Bill Crider's latest book trailer inspired me to go tackle making one myself.  This is for Star Time.  It's really in HD, but Blogger likes these narrow columns.  Feel free to try the Youtube link.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Movie Comments: Paul

I had gotten a couple of comments from people wondering if my novel Roswell or Bust was like the movie Paul.  Since I had not seen the movie, I was curious to see, especially since ROB was published in 2008 and the movie was out in 2011, if someone had seen my book and made a movie of it without telling me.

Well, now that I've seen it, I don't think it's likely.  There are common features, especially personable gray aliens riding around the southwest in an RV chased by the MIB, but that's about it.  If they read my book first, they would have had to throw out all the plot and all the characters and pour in a ton of crude humor.  While the movie has its own charm, I really don't care to be associated with it.  Not my style at all.

However, reality being what it is, I'll probably get those comments forever.  There's enough similarity for a good lawyer to make some money, but that's not my style either.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

International Prices for My E-books

I had considered dropping support for some of the ebook marketplaces as I released my latest book. Amazon Kindle and B&N Pubit are easy to use and don't take much effort, once I have the ebook masters generated.  It's all over and done with in less than an hour.  The ebooks are available for sale in a day or so.  Easy, smooth, and satisfying.

But Apple's iBookstore has gotten even more difficult lately.  The restrictions are tighter and sometimes it requires a customized master file, just to make sure I don't accidentally mention the Kindle edition.  There is also the problem of setting prices internationally.  As Apple expands its marketplaces, there is more opportunity to find English readers across the world, but it also means I have to set the price for each and every one of those countries.

So, for each title, I have to fill out this screen for each of the (currently) 32 different countries.  And, since these markets have been added over time, I have to go back to each of my previous books, and add the markets that have come on-line since I released that book.

It's a chore, but it's an opportunity as well.  I've got writer buddies who are more popular in other countries than the US.  It could happen.  So I decided to work through the stack of books and add all those markets.  I learned a few things as well. I found a website where I could find the exchange rates for all the countries I needed.  I made a spreadsheet where my paper-edition price and likely ebook prices were calculated, so I could have an idea just how much Euros, and Swiss francs, and the various kronas were worth.  Then it was just a matter of watching a TV show (old Lois and Clark episodes) while filling in the forms.

I was a little worried the first time I submitted the updated package for an older book, fearing the multi-day delay that is common before a book actually comes on-line in the Apple system.  I was very pleased to see that a simple meta-data change like this only takes about an hour before everything was live.  At the same time, my newest book hasn't been approved in nearly a week now. 

The same sort of task was waiting for me at Google Editions.  This time, there are nine countries to deal with, and Google lets you download a spreadsheet, where you can change all the prices in one operation.

In another couple of days, I'll have all my books available for sale in far flung places, as long as the reader is looking for English language books.  Maybe it'll be worth it, maybe not.  Time will tell.

UPDATE:  7/26/12 : I just received an email from Apple stating that 'based on your feedback', they had made changes in the software to allow quick population of all the international markets based on exchange rates.  The next time I add a book, I'll try that out.  Hmm.  I wonder if they read my blog or if that 'based on  your feedback' thing is boilerplate for all users.  I suspect they got quite a few official feedback messages.

Friday, June 08, 2012

My Venus Transit Event

My older brother Roger had a telescope, a six-inch Newtonian he built himself.  I have fond memories of hauling it out and projecting the sun onto a screen on eclipse days.  So, when the Transit of Venus approached, I decided to do the same thing.
 I carried my telescope, a little 4-incher over to Hutto Lake Park and set up the projection screen where it would be shaded by stone pillar.  Then it was just a matter of aiming the eyepiece in the right direction and keeping the telescope tracking the sun.

I had many people come and look at the rare event.  Quite a few people had heard about it on the news but weren't aware that it was going on right then.  I waved at all the people who came by telling them to come see Venus and it was their last chance in 105 years.

 I also invited all everyone by Twitter and Facebook to come by.  Graham Perks came with his kids and his binoculars to set up a similar projection system.  It was a successful few hours until the sun moved behind a cloud bank in the west and it was time to pack it all up.

Once I got home, I took one of the photos I took of the screen and dropped it into photoshop to enhance the contrast and make the Venus more visible, there beside the sunspots.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Aperture 3.2.4 and swap space overflow

This is a just a technical note about the photo processing program Aperture, version 3.2.4, which at the time of this posting is the latest update.

I have been importing two large collections of photos into Aperture over the past few days.  The first one took a while, but eventually, everything was imported and all the background processing took place.

Then the update to version 3.2.4 happened, and my nature is to always keep software up to date, so I installed it.  Then I imported the second library.  The imports happened smoothly and all 102,000 masters imported.  Then the background tasks began, which were making preview files.  I had the faces recognition turned off.

After a few thousand images were processed, my Mac filled up.  The swap files were growing out of control and consuming all available space (over 60GB).  I had to reboot the computer.  It happened several times before I tracked the problem down to Aperture and its background processing.  Doing my research, I saw that the same thing had happened before back when Aperture 3.0 came out.  A later update fixed the problem, but now it's back.  Using advice from 2010, I turned on the "Open in 32-bit mode" option and ran it that way.  Now, all the background processing is happening smoothly, with hardly any swap space used.  It runs a little slower, but it runs.

Surely there will be another update which will fix the problem, but for now, there's this work-around.

UPDATE 20,000 photos later.
A different type of error occurred after processing about 20,000 photos in 32-bit mode.  This time Aperture crashed, with a crashlog that indicated various malloc errors.  Starting it up again caused another crash, the instant it started processing again.  The fix?  Switch back to 64-bit mode.  Now it's working fine, chugging away through the process queue.

I suspect there are two bugs, triggered by two different kinds of source files.  I'll just switch back and forth until the all the preview files are generated.

UPDATE 2: 10,000 photos later, a photoshop file crashed Aperture in 32-bit mode AND caused the swap-space inflation in 64-bit mode.  Restarting in 64-bit mode after a forced quit, I was able to watch the progress and learn the name of the file when the swap-space started growing rapidly.  Quitting Aperture and investigation with finder, I found that this particular file (200+ MB) didn't have a thumbnail and quicklook wouldn't show its content either.  Since the RAW file, another version of the photoshop file and a couple of JPG's were all there and appeared perfect, I moved the bad file and restarted Aperture.  Everything is working fine now.  I trashed the Aperture version.  It's pretty obvious some damaged or just odd image files can crash Aperture.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Topology of the Project Saga

I had always supposed that when I wrote a series of books, that they would be a series, that is, one book after the other in chronological order.  It hasn’t worked out that way for me.  In fact, it never has.

My most populated series, Small Towns, Big Ideas, is more a collection than a series.  Each book is independent and stand-alone.  STBI is more a marketing label than the name of a broader story.  The stories, all starting in the ‘current day’ are hardly in chronological order either.  Maybe some of them, someday, will have sequels, but only when a strong demand arises.
The Project Saga is chronological. It starts in the ‘current day’ and ends up some thousands of years in the future.  While a few of the characters appear in more than one book, you’re much more likely to see recurring family names. Time moves on and immortality isn’t very common.
However, the narrative splits.  Many of the books have a diverse cast.  The first of the books Star Time, tells the story of the collapse of the Techno civilization under the light of a supernova from the viewpoints of people in Texas and Australia, and in an alien space ship near the moon.  By the end of that story, the cast has split into two very isolated groups -- the humans on Earth, and the U’tanse on the Cerik home world.  This schism is highlighted with two add-on short stories in the pages after the official close of the Star Time novel.  
Thus we have this situation:
The Project Saga
Star Time
| --------------------------------------------- |
Tales of the U’tanse                 Post Techno-Age Earth

Now from a story-telling viewpoint, I happy with this.  Each branch has its own stories and themes, and they don’t interact for a long, long time.  From a marketing standpoint, it’s a nightmare.
Everything from Bowkers, where the ISBN numbers are logged, to Amazon, B&N, Google, and all the other book-selling marketplaces have software with a place for the book title, the series title, and the number of the book in the series.  Star Time is book 1 of The Project Saga.  I’m putting Kingdom of the Hill Country as book 2 of The Project Saga.
But where do I put the first collection of the Tales of the U’tanse?  Is that book 3?  Or do I split it off as a companion series and number them independently? While I might be happy to have book 2A and 3B, the software in all those systems I mentioned last paragraph would not be happy about it.
I could arbitrarily stick a Tales of the U’tanse book in the stream of books building a new history of humanity on Earth, but these are very different books, with different kinds of characters.  If someone picked up a book off the shelf, they would get very confused.
If I set up two different series names, The Project Saga for close to home and Tales of the U’tanse for across the stars, then I run the risk of a reader only discovering one of the two branches.  I’ll need to make sure there are advertising sheets before and after the text to make sure people know where to find the whole story.  A separate problem for the U’tanse stories is the status of Star Time and any Project stories after the U’tanse rejoin the human race.  Will Star Time be book zero of the series, even though I can’t make it part of that series in the databases?
Ah, the trials of not following the rules!  I’ll just have to make do.  Having written this little exercise, I’m confident that two different series names is the way to go -- with lot’s of pointers back and forth.  Thanks for letting me work this out.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Ebook Marketplaces from an Indie Publisher’s View

With the DOJ’s efforts to remake the ebook marketplace, I thought it would be a good idea for me to take a good look at the marketplaces I do business with and document how it’s going right now.  In a year or two, maybe I’ll take another look and see what, if anything, has changed.  These reviews are subjective, my opinions after having dealt with them for years now.
I’m Wire Rim Books, my own publisher, publishing my own books.  I do everything myself, from writing, to book design, to marketing -- with a couple of exceptions.  I often buy artwork for interior or cover purposes, and I have a wonderful set of friends who provide invaluable editing advice.  I produce trade paperbacks and ebooks in ePub and Kindle formats.
My workflow is designed around producing a good quality trade paperback, and then taking the same source files and generating customized ebook versions.  While that workflow may be interesting, it’s not the focus of this review.  Just consider that on publication day, I have paper books being shipped and master copies in Kindle and ePub formats.
Kindle - Amazon
Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing site is a high quality web site where I can upload my kindle-formatted ebook, a copy of the cover jpeg, and fill out all the metadata blanks, like ISBN number, the description, age range, BISAC categories (like fiction/adventure, etc.) and pricing. It is relatively easy to use.  You can easily request books free of DRM with a simple checkmark.
Disadvantages are Amazon’s constant advertisements of its extra features, like KDP Select, all of which are designed to lock you into an exclusive arrangement, forbidding you from dealing with any of the other marketplaces.  If you see anything in bold print with fancy graphics, be careful or you may find yourself locked into Amazon alone.  In fact, the very first checkmark, before you even think about uploading your book or title, is KDP select.  Watch out.
Amazon also claims price matching.  If it detects any other marketplace selling ebooks with the same title and author, but at a lower price, it will lower your price on the Kindle store.  There is a well-known example where Amazon’s automated price checkers made a mistake and reduced one author’s books to free.  You should also know that the contract you make with Amazon absolves them from any mistakes.  They won’t make it good if they mess up.
In my history with Amazon, it’s been simple and straightforward and I have had no problems with books I have entered on the KDP site.
There was a recurring problem when I was also selling mobi formatted books through Ebookbase.  Kindle was making their own Kindle versions from my mobi books contrary to my direction on the Ebookbase site.  I had to email them to get the bogus versions, which did have DRM, removed.  This is documented here.  However, Amazon has absorbed and shut down Ebookbase, so that is no longer an issue.
There doesn’t appear to be any direct customer service contacts.  It’s all web, with an occasional email when they had to double check that I had the rights to sell my own books.
Pubit - Barnes & Noble
Pubit is a very similar website to Amazon.  You upload your ePub version ebook and the cover art and all the meta data.  After a couple of days, the books appear on the B&N Pubit site.
For a number of months, there was a glitch in their website that rejected some of my books for no obvious reason -- it failed with a 'technical difficulties' message when I clicked the button.  With no customer service contacts, I had no way to make contact with them to request a resolution.  However, they did respond to my twitter complaint, but they didn’t fix the issue then.  Over time, the site has improved and all of my books are accepted fine.
I have no issues with Pubit at the current time.
Kobo is a different animal.  Once the account is set up, you have an FTP site to upload the ebook, optional cover art, and an Excel spreadsheet template which you fill in all the meta-data.  When a new book is uploaded, you can’t even see it ( a write-only FTP site) and only recently have they added an email notification that the files have been received.  While I do have real people at real email addresses to query about problems, I may be too small a publisher to get much attention.  There is a chronic problem with DRM that I can’t seem to get resolved.  In spite of always requesting DRM-free in the spreadsheet, and emails confirming that I want all my ebooks to be DRM-free, some of them consistently show up with DRM added.  I have also had problems in the past with the cover art not showing up on the marketplace site.
Apple iBookstore
Apple does not use a website either.  You download a Mac application called  iTunes Producer which collects the same data -- ebook, cover art, metadata and pricing.  The application does a number of pre-flight checks to insure that the ePub file matches both the technical specs of the ePub format and makes sure your pricing fits Apple’s tier levels.  It also handles the uploading of the data and saves the ‘package’ so that you can revisit it to change pricing or other data.
While some complain about having to have a Mac to run the application, I had the same problem with eBookbase, which only ran on Windows.
Apple is very strict about adherence to their guidelines and the specs.  They are also not very forthcoming when a rejection happens.  I currently have one book that I cannot get uploaded, and I still don’t know what is causing the rejection.  Although Pubit, Kobo, Google, and Apple all take ePub, I frequently have to create a customized ePub just for the Apple site to get it through their rules.  One problem I have recently run up against was the rejection because there were URL’s to places to buy other titles.
There does not appear to be any customer service contacts.  I will get a reject email, but those appear automated.
There are two layers to the Google book site, the books sampling part, and the ebook part.  At the beginning, I was uploading the PDF of my trade paperback books so that Google would serve as a way for people to sample my books before they made a purchase.  The Google website allows the author/publisher to set limits what percentage of the book will be made available.  While I wasn’t really looking for more work to do, keeping this site updated, I found that if I didn’t supply a PDF of the book, Google would just go scan a copy anyway, and I might not like either the quality or the available percentage of the book made public.
After a while, Google got into the ePub book selling business as well, and was going to blithely sell copies of ePubs that they auto-generated from my PDFs, regardless of the quality.  When I signed up to supply the ePubs myself, and make sure that I got paid, some money showed up in my account -- I guess from sales they had made without prior permission.
That’s the story with Google.  You have to stay on top of everything, or they’ll just go ahead without you.  If I’m late getting official copies of my books on their site, they’ll have poor ones there already.  If they add a new ‘feature’, the default choice may not be what you want.  I always have to double-check all the options on my books, and have to go back and clear some of the permission grabs that have occurred.
When adding a new book, I have to add the PDF first, and then once they process it, I have to go back and add the ePub some random number of days later.  When mistakes happen, there is no customer service to handle the issue.  For some time now, Google has displayed the back cover of one of my novels as the front, and even with re-uploads, nothing has changed, and I’ve given up on it.  The Google Books site is also morphing into the Android Marketplace for books, trying to become something like Apple's iBookstore.  They were also offering to be an ebook marketplace for indie bookstores, but I have recently heard that they are dropping that service.
This is obsolete, but I ought to mention it.  They were bought out by Amazon when Amazon acquired the mobi ebook format and made it into the Kindle format.  I had problems with Amazon grabbing mobi format copies of my books and making their own Kindle versions, but that’s all shut down now.
In summary, I am feeding my ebooks out through a number of marketplaces, this means that I’m left out of the Kindle Select program, but I’d rather serve more of the customer base.  None of the sites is perfect, but none of them has quite reached the point where I’ve given up in disgust either.  Because of Amazon’s and Apple’s price policies, I list the prices identically to all the marketplaces (some discount, some don't), although I wonder of that will change in the future.
On the worst of days, I wonder if I should have gone with Smashwords which feed most or all of these marketplaces from a single input, but I’m too picky with my formatting to put up with their automated process.  I could hope for some cheap assistant to enter all that metadata over and over again, but I can live with that as well.  On the best of days, I see all those direct deposits showing up in my bank account.  I hope that keeps happening!
That’s it for now, my 2012 review of ebook marketplaces.  I hope it’s helpful to someone out there.