Monday, April 30, 2007

Route 66 Repair

Everyone knows mockingbirds can mimic the calls of other birds, but grackles do it too. I was down at Bret and Jim's Auto Service in downtown Amarillo. It was time to fix the AC/Heater blower in the Jeep. With 260,000 miles on it, it was finally breaking down. I had been having problems with it for some time now. On nice days, when you really don't need an cooling or heating, it works fine. But when I was driving around Death Valley in the summer, the AC would quit erratically. It 'healed' itself after that, so I did nothing about it. There were occasional fifteen minute times of failure but it worked mostly reliably until this past trip to California. Then, on the coldest mornings, seeking dawn photo shots, the blower wouldn't work, leaving us with no heater. After that it was reliably unreliable. So, heading off on a new trip that will hopefully include Rocky Mountain National Park and Yellowstone, it was time to get the heater fixed.

We're in Amarillo for a few days, staying with my parents, so we could risk doing without the Jeep long enough to get it repaired. With a long history in the area, I headed first for our favorite small garage, Bret & Jim's. They are on Sixth street AKA Historical Route 66, and I pulled into the parking lot and waited for the person in front of me to be taken care of. After a glimpse around the raised hood, I moved closer -- it was my Aunt Joy! After a hug and a chat she had her car's fluids checked and the tires inflated and she was off. It was my turn.

He checked out my Jeep and the computer reference manuals. Yes, he could do it, but parts would have to be ordered, etc. I called Mary Ann to pick me up and while I waited, I walked a few blocks back and forth on the road. High in the tree in front of the next door antique shop, grackles were calling, but at first I didn't recognize them. They had mimic'ed the sounds of their surroundings. One bird's call was like a squealing fan belt. Another sounded like a transmission ready to self-destruct. I've heard others variations in other places. Sirens, car-alarms. Grackles can mimic a lot of obnoxious noises.

I walked on down five or six blocks, taking in the flavor of the road. There were bars and antique shops, drive in's and BBQ places, churches and the YMCA. I reached the Shell station and picked up a Diet Coke and headed on back to wait for my rescue. Now I wait, typing my blog and looking at all the signs and trinkets in the waiting room. Seated across from me is a skeletion in a tuxedo.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

A Look Back in Time

Travel in an RV has certain trade-offs. For one thing, TV watching is hardly a matter of schedules anymore. Many shows happen when the RV is on the road, or when you're parked in places where you can't get the signal. When we bought this RV, it had a VCR tape player for those times, but to be honest, we've hardly used the player, and in the last cleanup while we were home, I just removed it.

Instead, I have a Directv DVR which can capture shows when we're parked at convenient places, and my Mac Mini-based system for watching my collected library. The DVR has several disadvantages, not the least of which is that none of the local channels are available. No NBC, ABC, CBS, etc. We can capture SCIFI network shows, and such, but many of the shows Mary Ann and I watch aren't available. Smallville has to wait on the home DVR until the trip is over.

My library has the advantage that iTunes supplies several of the shows, like Veronica Mars, which I can't get otherwise. There are also a few old classic shows that I pick up when I have the bandwidth. Tonight, prompted by my current time-travel novel in progress, I chose to download the first season of The Time Tunnel.

There are a couple of interesting facts I notice from this look into the past. Current TV shows from the year 2007, with commercials removed, weigh in at about 43 minutes apiece. The Wonder Womanepisodes from 1976 were about 50 minutes long. And the Time Tunnel shows from 1966 were about 51 minutes long. In addition, a full season of shows from 1966 had 30 episodes, in contrast to the current 22.

I suspect it all has to do with the legal limit of commercial time per hour these days, but it's interesting to see what the shows have done with that extra 8 minutes. Or to say it another way, what had to be cut out to make the episode play nicely with advertisements?

The first episode of The Time Tunnelhad long establishing shots of the huge underground base, copied almost directly from the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet. It was clearly an Irwin Allen extravaganza. The Wonder Womanshows are always spending long seconds with her twirling around while changing clothes. The pacing of the shows are clearly different, and feel dated because of it. But my question: Is our current sense of video pacing due to the commercial pressures, or to other factors like our fast-paced lives?

Friday, April 27, 2007

Forget It! - ROM - August 1977


I was 27, living in a mobile home in south Austin, when I received a phone call out of the blue. Erik Sandberg-Diment was starting a new computer magazine and had read my article on personal computers in the April issue of Byte magazine and wondered if I would write a science fiction story for him. The theme of the issue was going to be Memory. I was so thrilled to get the call that I went into overdrive and wrote this story Forget It!in under a day. I mailed it off before the adrenaline rush wore off. The concept was simple, a PDA like device, a wristwatch, that had unlimited memory capacity. I had a lot of fun in a very short time, and for a thirty year old short story, I'm quite happy with the way it's held up. I designed a PDA long before they were invented. I postulated a universal network with unlimited information (I was all wrong, but hey, it's sci-fi) and the whole plot of the story turned on unauthorized copying of networked information.

I also inserted my wife Mary Ann's birthday into the story line so I'd always be able to remember it. Here are the first few lines:


Carlos Walker had the most thoughtful wife. He told her so while he shook the fancy wrapping paper free from the tiny package she had gotten him for his birthday.

It was a beautiful computer--a gold case on a gold watchband, with an elegant soft black display screen. Deb had been subjected to his wishing aloud for this model since they had hit the market, but he hadn't expected her actually to get him one. It must have done horrible things to her budget.

She may have been reading his mind, for she shushed him before he could ask, and handed him the instruction booklet. Then she rose to fix the cake.
Instructions. Oh, boy. Now I've gotta figure out how to work the thing.

Read the rest at my website.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Standoff

I had one shoe on and one shoe off this morning when Mary Ann called frantically. The county work crew was mowing the roadside. She was panicked. This year, after several years of effort, our front yard had a beautiful solid patch of bluebonnets, unfortunately on the county's side of the front fence. The bluebonnets had passed their peak and the flowers were in the process of making seed pods. Probably a third of the blooms were gone. The lifecycle goes blooms to seedpods, and then when they mature and dry, the pods themselves act like a catapult and scatter the seeds.

Unfortunately, our bluebonnets weren't mature yet. Mow them down and they won't reseed. The mowing crew were likely to set our flower patch back a few years. We used to have a nice solid red patch of Indian Paintbrush, but a friendly neighbor who just wanted to help out, mowed it down a couple of years ago and they haven't recovered.

I slipped on the shoe and ran up the hill, yelling as the mowers reached our driveway. I don't know if he heard me or now, but instead of mowing down the whole patch, he trimmed a two foot swath next to the asphalt. The two mowers went on down to the end of the road and started coming back.

Mary Ann drove up in her car and we waited together, ready to defend the flowers. "They're mowing down the yellow flowers!" And they were. I headed toward the mower, waving him off, but not quickly enough to save the yellow patch. He pulled to a stop, a little irritated at me for not recognizing that he'd avoided the bluebonnets. I was a little single minded. No, you can't mow here.

We watched until they moved on to the next street. Our bluebonnets will probably live to reseed again. I just wish it didn't have to be a yearly struggle to preserve them.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

A Torrent of Trouble

I use computers. I've been tinkering with them for decades. Practically all of the new software and utilities interest me. I'm always looking out for new and better ways to do things on computers. Among these tools were a couple of BitTorrent clients. The hype is fantastic -- an easy, distributed, efficient way to download large files. Unfortunately, it's all been hype for me.

The P2P philosophy is easy to understand. Rather than a million people trying to download one file and overloading the server, you have a few downloading pieces of the file and then, in a distributed way, sharing them with each other until the whole file is assembled, and at the same time, sharing their pieces with latecomers wanting the same file.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work. At least not with me. I have two major problems.

One, I'm rarely on a high speed network. The overhead of co-ordinating this massive connection list is much less efficient than a simple one-on-one download. Plus, it appears that the bookkeeping aspects of the bittorrent protocol are prejudiced against slow connections and high-latency satellite links. Even if the file is out there, the software puts me always on the bottom of the priority list.

Two, bittorrent is horrible with long-tail files. It only works well if there are thousands of other people trying to download the same file at the same time. It's popular with people trying to get this week's TV show or the hottest music file. But the files I'm interested in are very low volume. A file might be out there on a server somewhere, but I may be the only person trying to download it. A simple FTP or HTTP download might give it to me in a few minutes, but bittorrent is just a fruitless exercise in frustration.

So, I'm not too upset when I read an article about the police cracking down on pirate bittorrent sites. I haven't gotten a single file via a torrent in over a year. It was too much frustration. I'll stick to simple reliable servers for now.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Google as Entertainment

While I'm still putting most of my effort into selling my novels the traditional way by sending manuscripts to agents and editors, I'm also seeing what can be accomplished in the web publishing area with my downloadable novel Emperor Dad. Believe me, this is a lot more complicated than packing up the query letter and samples and putting them in the mailbox. But it's also quite a diversion.

I have two main web presences: This blog, and HenryMelton.com which has been around quite a few years. Google has managed to become enter-twined with everything.

The blog, of course, is hosted on Blogger, which is one of Google's purchases. My original site is hosted on Prismnet.com, which bought out Illuminati Online, carrying my account along for the ride. But even there, I use Google Sitemaps to make sure that my website is properly indexed, and Google Analytics for reporting purposes. At least once a day, I click on the Google Analytics link to see how many hits are occurring on each place, and which are the most popular topics and pages. I know Mary Ann just loves to do the same on her sites as well. Be aware that we both click on that little map and marvel that someone in Bangalore or Stuttgart has come to take a look.

Google Analytics also shows me where my visitors link from. In this chart, I see that I've had a number of visits from the Twilight Folk. Gamers often come to my site, usually drawn by the short story Catacomb, which is available to read there. In fact, that one short story from 1985 has brought more traffic to my web sites than all other sources combined.

I also use Google Alerts to send me regular emails when new links to me or my stories show up on the Internet. I used to be the number one 'Henry Melton' out there, but depending on how the football season is going, another Austin resident sometimes takes the top spot.

My latest source of amusement is Google AdWords. Yes, I admit it. I've bought Google advertising to see if I can bring more traffic to my eBook. But whether it works or not, it's a fascinating game to construct alternate advertisements (in 70 characters or less) and match them with a list of keywords, and then tinker with the mix to see if I can capture more Impressions and Clicks. Since you can watch the statistics in near real time, it gets addicting to check the results, and add or delete a keyword. I've only been at it 24 hours now, so no sales yet, but I'll let you know if it works.

Unless Google comes out with another amusement to distract me.

Monday, April 09, 2007

A Sense of Place

I travel, and some places inspire me. I don't know what does it, but I'll visit hundreds of towns, and a few will jump right out and say, "Love me". Then I write a book that takes place on those streets. For this blog entry, I'll make a little list of where my novels start out.

-- YA SF Stories --

Emperor Dad -- Hutto, Texas
This is my home town, and many events from this book came from living here and being a part of my kid's growing up years. This is the town of the Hutto Hippos, and friday nights watching the football games from the sideline fence. The book is my first experiment in self-publishing. Buy it here.

Pixie Dust -- Austin, Texas
I attended UT, and so does the cute and brainy protagonist of this science fiction tale. And when she's on the run, she visits the small towns of West Texas I travel through on many of my trips. The book is currently in a publisher's slush pile.

Follow that Mouse -- Ranch Exit, Utah
All along the Interstate highways of Utah are 'Ranch Exits', places where no real town exists. I combined them into a real small town, with a girl who loved her home, and a villain with much grander plans for the place. Book is currently in a publisher's slush pile.

Falling Bakward -- Chamberlain, South Dakota
Where the Missiouri River and I-90 cross is flat farmland, with a age-old secret buried under the six-generation Ingram farm. Book is currently in a publisher's slush pile.

Lighter Than Air -- Munising, Michigan
On the shore of Lake Superior, add one part lighter than air foam and two parts inventive students, add a family mystery and the CIA. Mix well. Book will be sent out to a new slush pile shortly.

Roswell or Bust -- Las Vegas, New Mexico
When the MIB fall out and catch a highschool aged motel worker up in their internal struggle, Joe and Judith begin a marathon road trip through the west rescuing scattered Guests, imprisoned since 1947. Book will be sent out to a new slush pile shortly.

Breaking Anchor -- Chicago, Illinois
When Tommy's father 'liberated' world-changing scientific discoveries from the corporation, it was up to him to get his father's people to safety by sailing the Great Lakes, and to make sense of all the secret changes made to the ship. Book will be sent to agents shortly.

Extreme Makeover -- Crescent City, California
Tree sap from giant redwoods infected Deena with alien nanobots, intent on making her over into their agent, but the communication channel went both ways. Book is currently at agents.

--- Project Universe Stories ---

Starstrike -- Austin, Texas
Betelgeuse exploded, a long time ago, and a flare is aimed at earth, due to hit and set civilization back hundreds of years. Only a few psychics and the scavenger aliens waiting in the shadow of the moon know it's coming. Only a timid witch and an electronic wizard can stop the aliens from turning the earth into their private hunting preserve. Currently in a slush pile.

Humanicide -- Denver, Colorado
An artificial human in the age of the space cities decides to kill 99 % of the human race for its own good. He succeeds. Currently in a slush pile.

Alpine Duty -- Port Gartner, Hercules, Luna
The lone survivor of the race of librarians makes his own place in the Iron Age civilization on terraformed Luna, hundreds of years after the Plague.

---- Stories being written ----
Golden Girl -- Oquawka, Illinois

Lifeboat -- San Simeon, California

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Republishing Glitches

Republishing the PDF ebooks of Emperor Dad has been an interesting exercise. For one thing, it's taken a lot longer than I thought it would. Even after the delays in getting the artwork, I had to put the title on the image. Mary Ann didn't like my first attempt and I didn't like hers. But at least she put me on the right track in navigating the Photoshop options. Then after the cover was finalized, I had to reformat the two versions of the PDF. I made a screen version so all you have to do is click the next page button, and I made a two-column print version for easy reading from paper. Inserting the photos meant changing the formats and inserting the images. The end results were, of course, larger files than the originals, so I made them Compressed PDF's to keep the download times small.

Unfortunately, I discovered that the compressed versions didn't show up when downloaded into a Palm Pilot and viewed with the PDF reader. So exchanging a number of emails with a friend I used to work with, we narrowed down the problem and I created a set of uncompressed versions for Palm users.

And then there was that problem with the samples. Before you buy, I have sample chapters you can read, so I decided to make the sample chapters a bit larger than I had originally -- let people read farther into the story, get 'em hooked. I started reading the screen version to find a good place to stop, and unfortunately I was hooked myself, clicking pages into the small hours of the morning to finish the story. Is that common? Getting trapped in your own story? I've had it happen to me a number of times.