Saturday, September 30, 2006

Pool Care

Having a swimming pool right at your back door is a wonderful thing, and it made a lot of sense back when we had the money to buy it. It's about 40 feet long, so I can swim laps easily. It has a deep end and a diving board. And Mary Ann had to have that fountain.

But it takes regular care, and a lot of money to keep it up. There's the electricity for the pump, and repair calls when it fails. The chlorine tablets to keep it clean and clear come in $80 buckets. And when we hit the road, without fail, it's green and filled with leaves when we return. I'm getting quite good at bringing it back from pea soup to blue.

This year's drought added complications. The ground shifts. During the past three or four years, I've noticed hairline cracks in the plaster, but didn't worry about it too much. A pool like this is not very strong. It's not like a brick wall, or a concrete driveway. The installers dug the pit the right shape and then layered plaster over the clay. It's not very thick, the water itself holds the pool in shape.

June or July, it seemed like the pool was losing water faster than normal. One of those hairline cracks had gotten longer, twenty feet longer. It still seemed unlikely that the water was leaking that way, so I did nothing.

The leak got worse. By September, I was adding water every other day, just to keep it up to the level where the skimmer could collect the floating leaves. As our trip to St. Louis approached, I realized I had to do something. From the pool supply place I got two kinds of underwater setting plaster or putty and attempted to repair the cracks.

It was an effort. I had to hang onto a cinder block with one hand while I worked, head down in six feet of water to squeeze the putty into the crack. Six inches, and then bob to the surface to catch my breath before going down again. It was an ugly job, but I filled the crack.

The leak didn't stop.

Okay, if it wasn't the cracks, and there was no visible leak anymore around the pump (at least after the last repair job), then it had to be either in the supply pipes or the drain pipes. Horrible thought. Fixing that would take massive excavation and expensive repair crews. But I couldn't let it leak forever either.

So step by step, I had to locate the leak. First step was to turn off the fountain for one day. The water still dropped. Next, I turned off the jets, four water jets around the perimeter of the pool, just under the surface. But they could still leak, by draining water from the pool, so I bought some plugs.

After several days now, I can say with confidence, I found the leak. Somewhere in those four pipes, there's a leak.

The good news is that I stopped the leak with $12 worth of rubber plugs. The bad news is that a permanent repair will be expensive, tearing up the decking around the pool. I don't have money for that. The plugs will have to do for now.

And Mary Ann's fancy fountain proves its worth. I don't really need those jets for now. The water circulates just fine from the fountain. Some day, maybe, we'll get it all fixed, but I just happy the leak is gone for now.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Geckos That Live Here


There are a minimum of three species of lizards that live at my house. One is a bright green tree lizard. One is more stocky, and would look right at home in the desert.

But by far the most common are geckos. Every night, I see many of them. They love the windows. The light from inside attracts insects, and all the lizards have to do is wait there, clinging to the glass, until something juicy and appetizing flutters close by. (The second one from the left is eating a white moth.) During they day, they're harder to see. I suspect they find comfortable places in the stonework to hang out, but that's just a guess.

There have been a number of fatalities. Some hide in the door sill and when it closes... We humans never notice, until long after the fact, when dried out lizard skins peel off.

I really like the critters. If they would just turn their appetite to fire ants and wasps, I'd have no use for insecticide.

And, not a one of them has tried to sell me insurance. How's that for being a good neighbor!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

MySpace Friends?

I have a MySpace account. I have lots of accounts out there on the web. In many cases it's just a matter of handing out your virtual business cards, knowing that most of them will be trashed, just hoping that eventually you'll make a contact that matters.
What I find fascinating is the whole 'friend' concept. Is the idea that you collect 'friends' like baseball cards? Who wins? The person with the biggest collection, or are some more valuable than others? Do you get bragging rights if you have Pope Benedict in your list?
I can understand if this is a real social setting. If these were real friends who you interfaced with on a regular basis, then maybe it works. It's just that the whole structure of the site is designed to collect casual and superficial friends.

And some automated ones as well.

I have been rather selective about approving the friend links that have been offered. I'm up front on my page that I'm there for the contacts. If you want a blog come to this one, not myspace. If you want to talk, use regular email. I hate logging into a specialized website for email, when I have a perfectly good email client already open and waiting.

So when a friend request appears, I check it out. If it's someone in publishing, a writer or a publisher, I'll gladly approve the request. If it's a good time girl, I'll just let it pass.

But sometimes there are ambiguous cases. An enthusiastic science fiction fan appeared in the request list. Possible legitimate contact, so I approved.

Oops. Instantly, within one minute, I had eight more requests, ALL from particularly good looking women. Curious, I sampled the profiles of a couple of them. Other than the photo and the name, the profiles were identical. The same background photo, the same font, the same chatty, partly-girl description of themselves.

I can imagine some software in the background, generating templates on the fly, watching for an unwary friend acceptance to trigger a flood of new friend requests. It's a different kind of business card I guess, or maybe more like the fliers stuffed under the windshield wipers at a parking lot.

I haven't given up on MySpace, but I have the feeling it's not quite my demographic.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Endless Downloads from iTunes


This morning, for the third time, I started downloading the same free TV show. It's irritating.

Item 1. I have poor bandwidth. The house is connected with ISDN service. That's a little over 15KB/sec. In the RV I have Direcway which gives me a bandwidth-throttled service. I can get 130KB/sec on a good morning, but that doesn't last. After about 100MB of download, it drops back to a trickle, about 4 to 8 KB/sec for several hours before it decides to go back up again. The idea is that people doing ordinary web browsing would never hit the limits and feel like they have high bandwidth all the time.

Item 2. iTunes video. Prior to the latest upgrade in service, iTunes was offering TV shows at 320x240 video, with filesizes about 250 MB. I had downloaded a couple of dozen shows that way, and it worked fairly well. I had some glitches, but in general the iTunes download manager did a good job of picking up an interrupted download where it left off.

Things have changed. iTunes doubled their filesizes. TV shows are now 640x480 and weigh in at about 500MB. Movies are about 1000MB. It's put more stress on the system.

So comes ABC, which offered some free shows to get people interested in their products. Free! Ah, the magic word. I clicked away and added three 900+MB files to my download queue. What a mistake!

With this much longer download time, I am finding that those little glitches I was seeing before become much more significant. About one time in 10, the download manager can't recover cleanly, and all it can do is zero out the file and start over again. A 250 MB TV show that glitched maybe once per 100MB and recovered most of the time, wasn't really a problem. But with the same error rate, there is a better than even chance that a Gigabyte download won't make it before having to start all over.

And that's what I'm seeing. I had three of the monsters. All of them have gotten part way downloaded before zeroing out. Finally, two of them have eventually completed, but I've still got this last one, and its last fatal glitch occurred this morning when it only lacked 10 minutes until completion. Now, it's back to zero. If I had a way to tell iTunes, "Sorry, my mistake, don't send this one to me anymore." I would have done so long ago. But as it is, it is in my queue, and the only way to make it go away is to finish the download.

I've left feedback at the Apple site, and hopefully they will make their download manager more robust, but for now, I have to just burn the bandwidth and hope.

I certainly won't be buying any movies anytime soon.

Friday, September 22, 2006

From Lake Michigan to the Frigid Sea


My most recently written novel, with most of the action taking place on Lake Michigan, has been sent off to the reviewers, so it's time to fold up those brain cells and put them over there and turn to another project until the marked up review copies come back to me.

A novel I haven't touched since in five years needs some work. My craft has improved since then, and when I took another look at this one, which takes place on a terraformed Luna, I knew immediately that it needed a significant rewrite, more than just a touch-up and polish.

This one is in the far future, after an atmosphere and oceans have been put on our Moon, and after the collapse of the civilization that made that happen. The opening scene takes place in a wagon train. I've pulled out my old notes and reviewed the events. It's going to be fun. I haven't visited Luna in a long time, and it's one of my favorite vacation spots.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Making Reviewer Copies

Once I've written and polished and checked out the novel as much as I can, it's time to call in other eyes. Over the years, I've found volunteers who will read my story and mark it up with the errors and problems they find.
Originally, I gave them a copy of the manuscript in the form that I wrote it -- the 'standard manuscript format' that all editors prefer. This is single sided, double spaced, one inch margins. Anything that's supposed to be in italics is actually underlined and bold is actually underlined with a wavy line. In the past it was even more restrictive, including good bond paper, courier 10 font and other limitations. However, some of those restrictions have loosened. The main problem with manuscript format is although I've very comfortable with it, and editors demand it, ordinary readers had problems with reading a whole book one sheet at a time, unbound, out of a box.
A few years ago, I developed this new format, times font, two column, like a magazine. Real italics, real bold, and single spaced. It's a lot easier to read, and takes a whole lot less paper. This 500 page manuscript is printed on 97 sheets of paper. We bought a binding machine and I developed a macro that automatically converts standard format to this reader format in one step.
So, now comes the next step, I have to mail out all of these, including a return mailer, and hope that they all come back in a reasonable time frame.
It's been a little harder this time, with the toner running out, and having to reprint a number of pages. The easiest time was in Breckenridge when I just turned it all over to Kinkos. Of course that costs a bit more.

Some reviewers have come and gone. But the number appears to be growing over time. And each reviewer brings different strengths to the mix. One is a great proofreader. Another always seems to bring a fresh insight to the mix. And sometimes there are errors that everyone finds. It's an expense, but worth every penny.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Preparing to Listen


Now, after an inital edit, followed by spelling and grammar checks, it is time for me to listen to the novel. I've done this on all my works and it's helped out quite a bit. Other writers read the text aloud, and I've tried that. But talking constantly for hours on end is something I never do. I'm quiet. As a result, I don't have the voice for extended reading. (Does this sound like rationalization to you? Me too.)

What I have found that works for me is to run my manuscript through a program called books2burn, which splits the text into chapters and then uses the Mac's speak text function to create an audio file for each. I then listen to each, while following along in the manuscript, changing the text whenever I hear something horrible. It's surprising how often that happens, even in edited and re-checked text.

Here is a sample, a little less than three minutes from the end of chapter 1.

Fighting Word's Grammar Checker

I have quite a love-hate relationship with Word's built-in spelling and grammar checker. More hate than love, I think.

Today, I'm in one long marathon checking session, running through the whole 500 page manuscript. It's enough to turn a brain to jelly. Look at what it found, make a decision, click. Repeat. It the program was a little more capable, it would be one thing, but I find myself hitting that Ignore button more often than not. But I dare not make it a habit, because right in the middle of a run of ridiculous suggestions only software could make, up pops a legitimate typo, or an awkward sentence that must be dealt with.

It's especially bad with this novel. I have more non-standard dialect that is normal for me, and lots of chatty sentence fragments. If there's anything that Word hates, it's fragments, even when they aren't.

Oh, well. I'll survive. I just hope nothing too embarrassing survives the process.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

iTunes 7


I confess to looking forward to Apple Special Event days like a kid anticipating Christmas. I fire up my web browser and keep several new feeds running in different tabs, and when the streaming video becomes available, I watch it as well.

But this time, I'll have to wait on that replay. Forget the ipods and the iTV, I immediately downloaded iTunes 7 for the new features.

My problem, that this new version solves, was how to let my family access the hundreds of tv shows and movies I had collected on the Mac Mini. Of course, I know how to access everything, multiple ways, but then I've gone through all the startup pain of capturing and encoding them. But should I recommend firing up Front Row? iTunes? EyeTV? or just navigate using the Finder and play them in Quicktime Player?

Now, it's a no-brainer. Everyone knows iTunes, and the new browsing mode for movies is very nice. Plus, they've included a floating control bar when playing video full screen, much like the Quicktime Player. Forget Front Row, this is the way to go.

Of course, now that I think about it. I do like that new 80GB iPod. I just have to figure out how to hint to Mary Ann that I'd like one for Christmas. (the black one).

Monday, September 11, 2006

Resident Thief

The RV is parked right next to one of the four pecan trees on our property. It's one of the smaller ones, but every year, it produces quite a number of pecans, even this year, when the drought caused half of them to drop early.

I wasn't too upset when that happened, because for several years now, we haven't collected a single ripe pecan. The squirrels get them all. I've been watching it happen today. About every three or four minutes, a squirrel will make a dash from the line of trees near the pond, across the lawn, to the pecan tree. It'll harvest one of the green nuts and dash back to the treeline. I was more upset about it in previous years, but I'm reconciled to it now. What can I do, other than take pot-shots at them with a pellet gun? I'm not willing to go that far.

What gets me is that they don't wait until the nuts are ripe. It that a squirrel thing? I can't even grab one before they come calling, because it's still in it's green husk and unusable. It's sad. Pecans are my favorite nut, and I have to make do with grocery store produce.

Maybe I'll find new baby pecan trees down by the pond some year and it'll all be worth it.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

A Refreshing Read

Some time back I commented on the importance of letting editors be editors and avoiding rejecting your own work for them. It's one of those cases where I know what to do, but find myself doing the opposite.

I am taking a distance break from my current novel, having completed the first draft. My brain needs to get away from it for a couple of weeks before diving back in on the rewrites. So, to take advantage of this time, I'm making sure that all the unsold works are back in the pipeline. That includes reviewing some old works that I'd lost confidence in, that needed more work.

Which brought me to a novel I completed in 2001. It's an epic a thousand years or so in the future, not at all like the YA's I've been writing recently. It's been sitting in the rewrite pile (figuratively) since 2004. Why did I put it there? It's just a matter of confidence. Two publishers looked at it, but it took so long for them to process that I was off doing YA's by the time it came back, and I just didn't believe in it anymore.

Yesterday, I picked it up and began reading it again, making minor edits as I went, reflecting improvements in my craft that have happened in the past five years. But these were little things, like removing 'that' from a sentence where it was not needed. I read it all day long, and into the night. I kept at it up until 1:30 in the morning because the story grabbed me, and I couldn't wait to see how it came out! Yes, I'd written it. And I'd lost confidence in it and pre-rejected it myself. But it is a great story.

So, come Monday morning, a ream-sized cardboard box stuffed with paper is heading off to DAW. There's no reason in the world I should have sidelined it. And no reason a publisher couldn't make a bit of cash publishing it.

Let's hope I learn my own lessons.

Freezing Wave


Per request, here is a video clip of a Diet Coke, fresh out of the freezer. It is liquid, having been cooled for two hours, but the instant I release pressure, it begins freezing, starting at the top and going to the bottom. As a warning, it will still foam and try to bubble out the neck as it begins to thaw, so be prepared to wipe up the mess if you don't drink it carefully.

Friday, September 08, 2006

All Writers Drink

My preference is Diet Coke, although I'm learning to like Green Tea. Diet Coke is more fun, though.

The refrigerator in the RV is really quite capable. A Diet Coke in the freezer for a couple of hours will give me a drink that while still fluid in the capped bottle, will turn to brown slush when the pressure is released. I suspect that the carbonation bubbles that form then provide a nucleus for ice crystals. It's fun to watch, as the wave of freezing travels from top to bottom in the course of about four seconds. I'd show you, but I haven't experimented with YouTube yet.

If I leave the bottle in overnight, it freezes solid. However, remove the cap and Pop! the carbonation released inside the chunk of ice fractures it and, within the limits of the bottle, it seperates into two chunks. See the photo above. This works best if you open the unfrozen coke, drink off a couple of ounces, recap it and freeze it. That gives more space when the fracture happens.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Model Character

Fluffy, our dog, was reluctant to have his photo taken this morning, once the camera beeped. Unfortunately the hidden fence that has kept him alive so long in territory hostile to free roaming dog packs, appears to have conditioned him to avoid beeps. The reason I wanted his photo was to show you one of the characters of the novel I have just finished in first draft.

Of course, Bert, the character is much younger than Fluffy, but I find that's something I always have to deal with. Many of the main characters of my novels have little portraits in my Notes folder. I find some image on the web or in my files of a person to use as a model for that character. It helps me when I need to describe hair, or eyes, or the shape of a face. It also makes the character more real in my mind, especially in the early scenes. But, the advertising images easily available are nearly always older than the character I'm modeling. You can find cute little kids, and lots of professional models in their twenties, but the teen range seems underrepresented to me. No matter. I can make do. I'm not going to be showing these images to anyone else.

Bert was a good character, and as this novel wrapped up, I was well aware that I could have a sequel, and Bert would be one of the major characters. In all of my novels, there are threads that could lead to new stories. I don't think I've written a one of them where everyone dies. However, in about a third of them, I've been sufficiently wrapped up in the characters that I've gone on to immediately write the outline for the sequel. Outline only, however. I resist the idea of writing a sequel to a novel that hasn't sold yet.

But sequel or not, Bert is a standout character, and I hope to work with him again.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Climax

Today, I wrote two chapters of my current novel, covering the climax. Whoo. There is just no greater entertainment. Oh, sure, you'll be able to read it someday when it's published, but writing it -- that's different.

In every media, there's attenuation. A scene in one person's head is transferred to another. But this isn't immersive telepathy, it's words on paper, or images on a screen. Writing a novel, things imagined are left out. Richness of imagery is sacrificed to pacing, to clarity. And to be honest, the human race has yet to produce a perfect writer.

Reading a text, hints on the page are mixed with the experiences and imagination of the reader. Sometimes, it's possible the reader's image is even richer, more real than that in the writer. But even then, it's not the same.

Movies are even worse. Screenplay, script, actor's interpretation, director's interpretation, et. al. It's a wonder anything coherent comes out the pipe. See a good movie? Treasure it.

But what happened to me today is a different thing. I imagined the scenes as a crude plot. I developed the characters over months of writing. I researched the environment until I knew what was real, and what was just wishful thinking. And then I wrote it, honing and tuning the words until the emotions in my characters felt right. And I wrote it a heart-pounding pace. When I finished for the day, I was limp, and my heart was still pounding. It was more real than any books I read. It was more vivid than any movie I see. The emotions burned.

It has been said that if a writer can be discouraged from pursuing this career, then it's a kindness to do so. But for many of us, it's an addiction that cannot be shaken. It's a life choice than cannot be abandoned.

I know I'm hooked.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Writing Under Fire


It's dove hunting season, and I live out in the country. Add to that the fact that Mary Ann had been feeding the wild birds on the property for years now, and it's not surprising that shotgun fire is coming from across the pond, and has been for some time now.

Mary Ann is well aware of it. She pouts and says, "They're shooting my doves." I tell her that no, every last one of them is very agile in flight and all of the hunters are missing. Maybe it'll mean even more doves in the front yard, a shotgun-free zone.

I don't think she buys it

Ah, life in the country.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Naming the Planets

Okay, this is positively the last planet post, for a while.

I want to talk about a slightly different classification topic, naming the planets. Currently, this is owned by the IAU. It's a long drawn-out process, and because of their philosophy, that makes sense.

The IAU works under the premise that everything belongs to the world at large. Therefore the world must name the things. Thus committees and long waits. This is why Xena will never become the official name of 2003 UB313. It's just too pop culture and violates the guidelines.

And you should read the guidelines! It's fascinating stuff. Planets are supposed to be Greek/Roman gods, but all the good names are taken because they never thought they'd need any more of them, so they used the other names for asteroids.

It's not just planets either. Take a look at the names of the newly discovered moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus. Apparently all of Jupiter's moons have to be ... lovers, or children of Jupiter/Zeus. And Saturns moons are named after giants.

Names of asteroids are much more wide open, but it's still a committee process. The discoverer is 'invited to suggest a name', but there are guidelines. No product endorsements, no family pets, and if you're a hot discovery team -- please don't overload the committe by suggesting any more than one name a month.

Ah, it makes one long for hopping off to P3X-797.

In contrast, science fiction writers use any name that fits the story. In that sense, we're like discoverers that can name our creations instantly. Like explorers in unknown territory, we are drawing the map and scribbing anything that comes to mind on the sheet.

Do I propose we do that in real life? Not exactly. Any public action made in haste has a disconcertingly high chance of causing a bit of remorse later. But in basic, how about a quick public announcement, with a one year opportunity to change it before it gets written in the Big Book. Yes, that might give us planet Fluffy, but the colonists would be free to change it later. Essentially, I propose we use the same model used on Earth. Discovery gives the unconditional right-to-name, but later owners can change it however they want.

This, of course, is a different philosophy that the IAU supports. In this model, people own what they discover, or what they hold. The owner sets the name.

And for anyone who think's we should be out there, holding a bit of alien ground, ownership is the only way to go.