Friday, July 28, 2006

Accessibility


I've been struggling all day to start the next chapter of my current novel -- which means that my fairly detailed outline of what's supposed to happen next is wrong. So, I'll blog for awhile until my subconscious figures it out.
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I've been trying to find a good description of the last few novels I've written, and I've been toying with the description "Accessible Science Fiction". If feels right, but I'll probably have to define my terms before anyone understands what I'm talking about.

A lot of people don't read science fiction. A lot of my relatives are in that category. I printed up several of my unpublished novels and gave them to my mother. She read them all and of course liked them. She's my mother, she has to. However, in a converstation a year or so after the fact, she mentioned that she liked "Pixie Dust" especially well because it was a mystery. Now, seriously, this was science fiction with antigravity, zero-point energy and all that stuff, but it was indeed a mystery.

Mysteries are accessible. An ordinary person with an ordinary life can identify with the people in mysteries. Usually, you could substitute your friends, or relatives, or yourself, into the characters of the story with no big problem. The people, the environment and the emotions are familiar. People drive cars, live in houses or apartments, and work in familiar jobs. It's not always the case, but that's the default. The exceptions are the spice, the colorful characters and the flavorful locales. It takes no great leap of the imagination to dive right into the story.

When I tell people I write science fiction, they expect spaceships. But, to be honest, not many of us have friends or relatives that live in spaceships. It's a problem. When I talked to a local school librarian, she said that frequently a kid will come in asking for a book about 'people like me'. I was happy to be able to inform her that my novels would be in that category. I'd have given her a sample if I'd had one published.

Most of my current novels start out in the current day, with real places. Of course, by the time the story wraps up, all bets are off. Here are some examples:

Emperor Dad begins in Hutto, Texas (where I'm typing this) and its main character starts out as a highschool football player.
Pixie Dust begins in Austin, Texas with a university undergrad.
Follow that Mouse takes place in a tiny rural Utah community with highschool kids.
Lighter than Air is in Munising, Michigan with highschool kids.
Extreme Makeover starts in Crescent City, California with highschool kids.
Roswell or Bust! starts in Las Vegas, New Mexico with a highschool kid that works in a family run motel.

You get the idea? I've been to all these places. I could show you pictures. They are accessible. The runway starts in familiar territory. By the time the story ends we may have spaceships or teleport gates or alternate realities, but you don't have to swallow that to get started.

I'm not saying this is the best way to write science fiction, and I've certainly written my share of spaceships, but for a great number of people who don't normally think of themselves as science fiction readers, this is an easy start.

Now all I have to do is convince a few book publishers.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Illusionist


I bought this little paperweight at a science fiction convention maybe ten or fifteen years ago. As you can see, it has a little wear. In case you're not familiar with its origins, 'illusionist' was one of the game roles in Dungeons and Dragons. While I'm not a real game player, I thought that my role as a writer certainly qualified me to use the term.

Over the years, this little chunk of rock would surface from time to time, and I tasted the idea again. Each time, I liked it. When the day came to pack up my desk at Motorola and leave for the last time, this was in the box. Today, that box is resting in the corner of my office, really untouched from the day I brought it home. The paperweight, however, is here in my desk drawer, where I see it every day.

Idle Hands


Last night, I seemed to be frustrated on a number of fronts. For one thing, for all my internet options, I was shut out. The RV has gone to the shop to get its gray water tank repaired after our June adventures. Then, the ISDN went down. This is the third time it had gone down in the past month. I suspect it's either heat related or construction related. But since it comes back up on its own after a few hours, I haven't followed up on it. Heat ruled out using my cell phone internet option. Sprint signal isn't strong enough inside the air conditioning to use. So ... that left the dial up modem. Somehow I didn't have the stomach to even plug in the cable.

Besides I was working on my latest novel and was in an exciting sequence ... when Microsoft Word announced it had too many files open and was unable to save anything. This happens regularly in my copy of Mac Word v.x whenever I leave the application open for a few days running. I've gotten used to it. I saved several days work in the clipboard and then quit without saving. When I re-opened the old version of the novel I pasted the new work back in. I waiting for the day when OpenOffice is good enough to use.

So, traumatized from the potential loss of words, I quit for the night and played with my new camera, a Canon Powershot A620. I grabbed a bunch of coins from my desk and tried out the macro setting.

I always have a lot of coins around. These are just a random selection. They appear to be mainly leftovers from my last European trip, along with a few Canadian coins, commemorative medalians and ice machine tokens. I love coins -- and about anything qualifies. I've got a wooden nickel from an old co-worker, aluminum Dairy Queen tokens good for a treat, squashed pennies from various tourist attractions, as well as some personally squashed coins from the RV campground outside of Durango Colorado which was handily next to the train tracks. I've got special silver coins from the US mint, and lots of statehood quarters. I have coins and paper money from all the different countries we've visited.

There's one special set of coins I don't have, yet. It's because they don't exist. In my unpublished novel Follow That Mouse there are psychic resonance enhancers that are specially made quarter-sized coins. When the novel sells and becomes popular, I'm going to contract with trinket makers to produce matched sets of resonance enhancers, and I'll get myself a set to rest in my desk along side the coins from all the countries I haven't visited yet.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

New DVR

Being home for a few weeks means it's time to repair and refurbish the RV. I checked one item off the list yesterday. On the first day out on our last trip, the Directv decoder box died. I did have my home-brew Mac Mini DVR with a few hundred GB of saved TV and movies, so we weren't totally without flickering entertainment, but I just took this as a sign that I'd need to get a Directv/Tivo box just like we had in the living room. So yesterday I went to Circuit City and bought the standard offering.


It was disturbing. First, it was no longer a Tivo. Directv had shifted gears and decided to brew up their own DVR solution. This was a R15 Directv+Plus. At first glance it looked the same. But once glance at the remote and I knew I had signed up for another learning curve.



I ripped out the old Sony Directv box that had failed with some kind of power supply issue and put the new box in the cubby-hole over the driver's seat. It's going to take some juggling to mount it permanently where the IR remote sensor is visible. I have it propped up on the ledge in the photo. I'll also need to watch how hot it gets. There is no air circulation up there -- which may be why the Sony died after two years.


When I got everything plugged in and fired up. the box seemed to work just fine. I called Directv for activation and after a couple of false starts, I made contact with a live person who made the necessary database changes and real programming began to play. It was a mixed feeling. She gave me a little more information that the Circuit City sales person had neglected to mention.

I didn't buy the box. I leased it. Theoretically, I might need to ship it back to them in the future. Not only that, but I seemed to have signed up for a 24 month contract. While I might have agreed to these terms up front, it was disconcerting to discover them after I'd brought the box home and installed it. Water under the bridge.

Now comes the learning curve. I've been spoiled by Tivo. Having walked through all the screens and having actually recorded a few things, the R15 looks very bare. If I didn't have Tivo to compare with, I might be overjoyed. I can record movies from the schedule, and set up TV shows to record on a repeating basis. I can even auto record by actors names. But that's about it. Still it'll be easier than what I was doing with my home-brew lash-up, setting the EyeTV to blind record by time slot and then getting the TV to make sure an actual show was playing at the same time. Getting one gadget to do the work is better than two that don't talk to each other. After a few months, I'll tell you how this new R15 works out.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Image of Teleportation


Publishing your own stories is a broad effort, covering much more than what I'm used to when I just sell the manuscript to an editor. For one thing, I really miss having artwork. While I've made contact with an artist to do the cover for Emperor Dad, I decided I needed at least a temporary image on my web store.

So, I dug into my iPhoto library and fired up Photoshop and made one.

The science fiction novel deals with the discovery and effects of teleportation. This isn't the twinkly lights, Star Trek beaming technology, it's the gateway type. But what I've always disliked about the traditional gateways is that they're always flat portals, like in Stargate. It seemed to me that if you connect two three-dimensional spaces, the contact point would be three-dimensional -- a sphere. A sphere with one inside, but two outsides. As illustrated, light from both exteriors would pass through the sphere, giving a double-image appearance.

Since I had events where Our Hero, James made portals from his home in Hutto, Texas to visit Paris to ... well, for various reasons, I found a Paris photo and layered it over a photo from my office.

It was very tempting to add surface effects to make it look like a sphere, rather than a circle, but really, it wouldn't look like that. Of course, there's a glaring error in this image that is covered in the text, but I won't get into that.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

My Home Network


Our house, out in the country, has never been eligible for cable modems or DSL, and for the longest time, our telephone dialup line could only get about 28k on a good day, so when we learned that we could get ISDN installed, we went for it. ISDN, at the very best, is 128k, which hardly qualifies as 'broadband', but it was so much faster than our typical 14-28k connection that we were very happy with it for a long time.

Now, in comparison with our RV satellite system, it seems a bit anemic. However, satellite has high latency and that generates a lot of missed connections all on its own, so each has its advantages. Today, after having several hours of ISDN outage, I finished expanding my RV network so that it could be picked up by the computers in the house. Using WDS, it is possible to add remote base stations, which pick up a wireless signal and relay it to new territory. During our last satellite outage, I had set up WDS from the house network, and this was just finishing out the process.

As of today, I can choose either network at will. The MeltonRV gets me much faster download times for video and software. MeltonHomeX has more hardware connected to it -- the laser printer and the Retrospect Backup Server in particular. I'll probably leave my laptop on the home network overnight to get backed up, but I have lots of downloads that'll need the speed.

What I really need to do is to bridge the networks -- run both to a Mac Mini and set up the router to share the bandwidth of both networks, and then feed the wireless cloud from the Mini. But that's a project for another day.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Nature Loves Me


At least the lizards do.

Our house has nice wide porches, which make for perfect habitat for wasps. When we got back in town, there were about ten nests in the rear and three in the front. These were nice big wasp nests, with a dozen or more wasps in place at any one time. All in all, it was a sting waiting to happen. With the recent ant troubles, I was just a little intolerant of insect takeovers, so I went to the store and stocked up on spray.

While I was in the process of winding my way between the windows and the rose bushes on the front porch as I visited and dispatched the wasps colonies, something jumped on me. It was a little startling, but amazingly, once the lizard latched onto my arm, it was quite content to stay there. I went into the house and notified Mary Ann, giving her time to dash out to the RV and put her Macro lens on her camera and take a few pictures as I posed. The lizard didn't leave until I edged right up against the stone wall and let it step across. But once it was gone, it was GONE. Zip, and out of sight.

My guess is that it liked the style of my shirt.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Home Again, Home Again?

The RV is parked in the back yard, over the dirt spot where the grass has died from its previous times there. We arrived back in Hutto last night and began the process of settling back in. But it's not really a homecoming, at least for me. When we left, the place was ... disorganized. We'd just finished the wedding and it was a rush to get off on the trip.

Somehow, in our absence, the house didn't organize itself. There's a lot to be done, from cleaning and laundry, to yard work, to scrubbing out the black algae in the pool, to all the business things I'd intended to jump into. In fact, we spent the night in the RV -- something about no clean sheets for the bed in the house.

About the only thing I accomplished last night (I plead tiredness from the drive) was to move the Mac Mini back into the house and begin the process of unloading the TiVo of all the shows it had built up over the trip. Since I have no way of moving the video other than playing it real time into the EyeTV converter, that's going to take some time, but at least I don't have to watch the screen while it's happening.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Visibility


My RV has big wide windows, which gives me great visibility on the road, at least for everything straight ahead and out the side windows. Today, I felt the need for an even better view.

You see, the new satellite dish and it's controller have an option called, "Motion Stow". The idea is that if you drive off, forgetting to stow the dish, the controller will notice that you've lost your signal and stow the dish itself. The thing is that my previous installation also had that option and it never worked. So, parked in Gilbert Rey campground, where there are no overhanging tree limbs or power lines, I decided that it would be a perfect time to test out the D3 controller's Motion Stow.

Mary Ann was nervous about it, since one time she had driven off the old system and had gone several miles with the dish raised until she remembered and pulled off the highway and stowed it manually. The old system was heavily dependent on a program running under Windows to handle the dish steering. Every time we changed power systems, Windows would crash, so it rarily was running when it needed to auto-stow.

But this time, I simulated another 'forgotten stow', doing everything wrong -- unplugging the park power, starting the generator, and then driving off with the dish raised. Almost immediately, I heard the whine of the dish beginning to stow. However, I didn't stop. I kept on, leaving the park and trusting that the stow operation, once begun, would finish properly.

On the road, with engine noise and generator noise competing, I couldn't hear the dish finish the stow operation. By the time I was several miles down the road, second thoughts intruded, but even with my lovely wide windows, I couldn't look straight up to see if it was properly stowed.

That is, until a Border Patrol car pulled up beside me at a stop light. The white Suburban had nice clean side windows, making a perfect mirror to allow me a good view of the top of my RV, with the dish completely stowed. Worry dissipated.

I've been making use of other vehicles' windows quite a but lately. We are driving through the desert in the summer, and I've been trying to watch the clouds, but again, looking up is hard. For this, oncoming windshields and the rear windows of sedans passing me do a good job as mirrors. Pickup's don't cut it.

So, nice visibility, even in my blind spots, as long as I can see reality reflected in others.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Don't Look At Me


Heading east on I-8, I noticed one of those "I'm a cell phone tower and I'm embarrassed to admit it" towers. This time it's disguised as a palm tree. I'm just supposed to ignore the equipment building? Usually I see these kind of towers in expensive communities where the residents can't live without their cell phones, but can't tolerate the sight of bare metal. The last ones I saw were in a town just north of Colorado Springs, but those two towers were pretending to be pine trees. Particularly ugly pine trees, but that was the intent.

I don't really understand this one -- out in the desert, far from any community, and the next cell phone tower was plainly visible a few miles down the road. Maybe a test tower? Who knows.

Leaving San Diego

Sheila Finch, John DeChancie, Vernor Vinge, and Henry Melton at the Technology of Writing panelSheila Finch, John DeChancie, Vernor Vinge, and Henry Melton at the Technology of Writing panel.

Westercon is done. I've finished all my panels and met a few editors. Mary Ann has taken her last photos of the Pacific, for this trip. Now the time has come to switch gears and look forward to the next couple of days as we head east back to Texas. I've got a lot of work to do, both the mundane and the writing. It's hard not to get a little depressed now that this part of the trip is over. San Diego is a nice place.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Looking Under the Hood

Westercon seems to have a higher percentage of movie industry people, which is not really surprising, since it's just a short drive from Hollywood. I dropped into a couple of presentations today dealing with changing movie technology and looks behind the scene from insiders' perspectives. I suppose everyone has had the impulse to get into the movie business, but the more I learn, the more I know it's not for me. It's a fascinating industry, but the complexity and high stakes would give me a heart attack.

More than one writer of my acquaintance has had stories optioned for movies, and some have gone on to write the screenplay as well. Not for me. I would certainly love the option money, but writing the script sounds like the first step on a greased slope into stressville.

I'll just watch from afar and appreciate all the efforts of other people.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Star Trek New Voyages

The most interesting panel I attended today at Westercon was one on Star Trek New Voyages. This is fan film on a grand scale. These people have complete sets, high quality special effects, and a lot of dedicated volunteers. It's pulling in even more interesting people, like ... well just take a look at this set of faces. Episode 3 will have Walter Koenig as Chekov.

All run on a shoestring, for the love of it. Paramount has given them a non-profit loophole, just like Lucas did with all the Star Wars fan films. I'm downloading the episodes as I type. The preview I saw in the panel made it look very worthwhile.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Cover Art for Emperor Dad

Okay, I've thought about this for weeks now. I need cover art for my downloadable novel Emperor Dad. I don't have the talent to do it myself and I don't know any artists who would like to try.

So, do you know anyone? I'm sure there are thousands of people out there who have the ability to take on a task like that, and the desire to have their work seen. How about your co-worker's nephew or some distant relative? I'll be looking here at the con, and when I get back to Texas, I'll start hunting though my contacts there. But I'm open for suggestions.

Ants

After the con events of the day, we swung by La Jolla so Mary Ann could get a few more pictures of the seals, and then the commute 25 miles back into the hot country where the RV is parked. The first thing I did when getting home was to check for ants, and there they were.

We had been warned that there was an ant infestation in this camp. All the RV's have their tires surrounded by Comet cleaner, in the hopes that it will slow them down. I had done the same last night, even dusting the power cord where it was connected to the sites power pole. But it wasn't enough. The Comet is a temporary thing, I guess, because although it stopped them at first, they had made a path both through the powder on the ground and on the power cord.

I had bought a can of Raid at the gas station, expecting this. I changed clothes, crawled under the RV and spread more Comet, and then traced the ant trails, dosing their path with Raid.

I know it won't stop them, but it'll reduce their numbers for a while. I have a feeling I'll be doing this every day until we check out. I have a great deal of respect for the power of large numbers, persistence, and millions of years of instinct.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Con Events

- Saturday
- The drive into town wasn't bad, but I fear what it will be like on a workday. At least now we know which exit to take.
- Parking was a bit ambiguous. The parking lot had two signs -- Event Parking, and No parking (you will be towed). We'll see.
- Registration was complicated by the fact that they'd messed up my name -- Somehow I was Harry Menton. But, they had Mary Ann's name correct, and all the other places where my name was listed, like the program book and the panel descriptions had it correctly.
- And, of course, once I admitted in my blog that I liked the little 'participant' ribbons that are always on the name badges, this con follows different rules and there's nothing to distinguish between different classes of membership. It'll take a little more attention this time to find out who is an artist, or a dealer, or a member of the programming staff.
- Update: The ribbons arrived! The story: They were flying in from Boston and the plane was late. Hooray! RIBBONS! Of course that doesn't stop me from buying a roll of scotch tape and taping my business card to my badge. The card has my big blue button on it. Just like on my web pages.
- The Technology of Writing panel went very well. Everyone had something to say -- interesting stories, and a good time was had by all.
- I've made my first pass through the art room, looking for someone who could do cover art for Emperor Dad. It doesn't look too favorable. This is a fantasy oriented con, to some extent, and the artwork tends to reflect that. Lots of fairies and cat pictures. In fact the best images, for my purposes, were actually drawings done of TV show actors. Still, there are several more days to go, and not everyone is here yet.