Friday, August 31, 2007

Red Sand in My Shoe

This morning, before dawn we drove out to see the big dunes at the Namib-Naukluft National Park and traveled an hour or so before we reached them. I was the only non-photographer of the four guests in our group.
Most of the route down the river valley was flanked by large red dunes -- not that you could see a river. Most watercourses in this area only have flowing water for two or three days after a big rain. The name of the area was Sossusvlei, which means the valley where water collects. Sand dunes have blocked the natural river valley and some times of the year there's a natural reservour. But it was dry now.
We raced other tour groups for the chance to be the first group to Deadvlei, a location where, 600 years ago, sand dunes blocked a smaller watercourse and killed all the trees there, leaving scenic dead trunks on a flat, dry plain. But then one of the landrover-type vehicles got stuck in the dry sand and we stopped, with others, to help dig them out. Of course, I fell flat on my face when the car finally moved while we were pushing it. They got out and I was grateful for just how soft the sand was.
We hiked a kilometer across the sand to reach the place, and then back when Mary Ann finally finished taking pictures, and had a nice picnic breakfast under a tree. I could tell that my shoes were full of sand, but I delayed emptying them until we returned.
Ah! My feet feel so good.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

What's For Supper?

An early morning flight brought us from Capetown to Sossusvli Dune Camp in Namibia.
Boeing 737-200/Air Namibia/Capetown to Windhoek -- very cramped, and the guy in front of me reclined practically into my lap.
Cessina 210/Scenic Air/Windhoek to Sossusvli -- just Mary Ann, the pilot, and me.

The camp was so welcoming and friendly that I didn't know quite what to do. Everyone from the butler and the cook, to the driver and the resident astronomer introduced themselves. We have a separate lodge just to ourselves, with scenery so isolated and quiet that the shower and bathroom are wide open to the desert because there's no one to see anything.

We relaxed for a couple of hours, watching springbok and oryx visit the watering hole in front of the camp before having lunch under an awning. Sometime later we were driven out into the desert where there were more springbok and oryx, and zebra, and many birds that we, of course, have never seen before. As evening approached, we saw a bat-eared fox and an aardwolf. Listening the chorus of gekkos, we stopped for refreshments before heading back to camp. Mary Ann took a lot of pictures.

As the stars came out, and I struggled to make sense of the southern sky, I went over to the observatory and had the astronomers point out the constellations. I was about to leave when Mary Ann tracked me down and came to marvel at the brilliant milky way and have the southern cross and other constellations pointed out for her as well.

Afterwards we sat down for dinner, and were served royally. We had the springbok.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Don't Feed the Babboons

We had a day trip all over the Cape peninsula. Mick the tour guide did a good job. Although he was from England originally, he'd been here for a long time and knew the area extensively. With his accent and his hat and his sense of humor, I kept getting echoes of Crocodile Dunee. And he'd done his research. He'd visited Mary Ann's website and knew what kinds of photography she was interested in and chose points of interest to match. It was just one day, but we saw scenic vistas, lighthouses, vineyards, ostriches in the wild, whales and penguins. I saw several road signs that warned people to not feed the baboons. I should have expected them, but Mick showed us a statue at the lighthouse which indicated that their numbers were dropping because they were becoming dependent on humans for food.

We stopped for a picnic lunch at the visitor center at the Cape of Good Hope nature preserve. The first hint I had was a lady yelling, as if to a dog. When I looked around, there was a baboon heading for us. It hopped up on the table and began grabbing at our plates. We had finished eating, and we grabbed for our stuff, but he was quick and grabbed an empty yogurt container and dashed away into the vegetation. The park people came out shouting at him and brandishing slingshots. The lady said they didn't actually shoot at the baboons, but they were well aware of what slingshots were, and just showing them and snapping the rubber scared them off.

Mick and Mary Ann went to dispose of the rest of our wrappers and I was alone at the picnic table when the baboon returned. Fearless, he approached the table and rummaged through the gravel under the table, looking for any scraps that might have blown off. Soon he left, only to be replaced by a mother and her baby, who went back to that very same spot of gravel to search again. Fearless and persistent. I hope they survive.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Down Here

The full moon is upside down. I expected that, being on the other side of the world and all, standing on my head with respect to normal Texans. And it's been a long trip, three plane flights, and one of them was over 15 hours. At least I'm getting to experience some new airplanes I haven't used before.

Embraer 170/Shuttle America-United/Austin to Washington DC
Airbus 340-600/South African Airways/Washington DC to Johannesburg
Boeing 737-800/South African Airways/Johannesburg to Capetown

Dulles airport in Washington was fun. They use elevator shuttles. The first time it was just a bus driving from one terminal to the next, but when it came time to get on the Airbus, they loaded us on the shuttle and drove out to where the plane was parked and the whole shuttle lifted up about two stories tall to dock with the entrance hatch. That flight was only about half full, luckily, so I had room to stretch out for the long flight. We took off at sunset and arrived in Johannesburg mid-afternoon the next day. A lot of fuel must have gone through those four large Rolls Royce engines.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Big Picture for September

Here's an overview of where I'll be the next month, assuming the stress of getting packed and getting to the plane on time doesn't do me in.  I'll be blogging when I can, and locally on my laptop at first, so updates will likely come when there's internet.  At first, we'll be going to desert camps and game parks so it'll be erratic.  Towards the end of the trip when we're at the Namwianga Mission in Kalomo, Zambia there should be better connection.    I know the Gregersens blog regularly from there.

I will be monitoring my email when the packet pixies cooperate, but I have hopes I'll be distracted by scenic vistas and dangerous animals.  Just be patient, okay?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Packing by the Numbers

We fly out in less than two days, and we're packing.  The problem is that the numbers don't work out.  Ignore the vacuum cleaner.  We're not taking that.  But see that big black lens case?  It's about four inches too long for United Airlines and two kilograms too heavy for South African Airlines.  

That's if it goes as carry-on.  The problem with checking it is that we're flying through Johannesburg, and stories say checked baggage there has a problem with pilferage.  Airline guidelines say all valuables such as cameras and laptops should be carry-on.  That black bag is my computer case.  Flying economy on SAA means one carry-on item.

Mary Ann's luggage is being worked on at the moment.  There doesn't seem to be any combination of bags that can carry her camera gear and her laptop in one bag and get under the SAA weight limit.  

But the night is young.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Dealing With Critiques

For a number of years now, I've taken advantage of friends, co-workers, and relatives in an effort to get more eyeballs looking at my novels before I do the final polish and call it done.  

Some of these people have been helping me for over a dozen novels.  I also have new people who are just starting this process.  Part of me likes having more critiques -- the more people checking, the fewer errors are left behind -- but some days I'm overwhelmed.

Africa is rushing at me, and I had this false hope that I could get the latest round of review copies back in and processed before I caught the plane.  I can tell now it's never going to happen.  The inputs on Golden Girl are all over the map.  I'm getting directly contradictory advice from people -- and the advice all makes sense!  

My workflow goes like this:  I reformat the manuscript into a dual-column layout like a magazine and make comb-bound copies to send out.  (My reviewers didn't like manuscript formatted pages.) I have a carefully cultivated list of people who have proved that they can read, and mark-up, the pages and get them back to me in a reasonable time frame.

After a couple of reminder emails, I generally get them all back and lay them out side by side.  Turning the pages in sync, I compare all the markups and make changes as appropriate to the manuscript on my laptop.

In general, I get several different types of corrections.

Typos are quick and easy, and disgustingly common.  Do you know how many times I type 'by' when I meant 'my'?  Novel after novel, I make the same mistake, and miss seeing it in my own self-reviews.  Amazingly, it takes the whole crew to find these.  One person will find some, but miss others.

One reviewer is a born copyeditor.  She's always taking me to task for using abbreviations without defining the terms, or questioning my use of a phrase.

Another reviewer is always correcting facts, or suggesting alternates.  He's been around and seen much.

And then, there are the plot points.  These are the hardest to deal with.

The best are the "Oh, wow!  Why didn't I see that?"  suggestions.  They might be sub-plots that can be fixed with a word or two, or a chapter or two -- but they make the novel so much better.

Harder are the "No. No. No.  You just don't get it." suggestions.  I wrote that scene that way on purpose.  But, I need these for two reasons.  One:  If the reviewer didn't understand, then many readers won't either.  I'll need to rework it, even if I don't change the plotting.  Or Two:  This is really a delayed 'Oh, wow.' and I need time for my subconscious to churn on it for a while.

There's also a voting issue.  I one person has trouble with a plot point, but every one else is happy, it's likely not as important.  But if multiple people have the same issue, then it has to be fixed, regardless of my opinion.

And finally, there's the final issue.  Do I offend a loyal helper by not taking the offered advice?  It's a hard one, because it is my story.  I have something I want to say, and characters who have come to life.

I have to be true to the tale.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Preparing For Africa -- In My Pocket

A week from now, I'll be in the plane, somewhere over the Atlantic.  It's finally getting real.  My laptop is whirring away, as I juggle some hard disk space to make a safety full image backup.  Of course, I'll be taking a couple of portable hard drives with me, but it's best to have lots of backups.

I went over to REI to get a travel wallet.  I wanted one that had a little more space in it.  Not all countries have paper money the same size as dollar bills, and I ran into that problem on my Europe trips.  I may not be a book collector, but I have an interesting collection of foreign coins and bills.  The coins are the best.  I've got everything from wooden nickels to bus tokens, to those cute one pound coins from Great Britain.  I like the obsolete ones from France that have been replaced with the euros, and the windmills on the ones from Barbados.

When I emptied out my old wallet, I took out a silver dollar I had kept there since 2001, when I bought one for every member of the family.  I teared up a bit, remembering all that has happened over the years, but it slipped into the new wallet and there it will stay.  

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Poetic Mystery

I've been cleaning up  my office for the past few days and I ran across an old, unsolved mystery.

In the early 80's, when my father-in-law died, he left a large quantity of stuff, much of it junk, at his Lubbock, Texas property.  There was a house, but there were also many tiny apartments he'd rented out to students and others.  I had the feeling that some of the unsorted junk was leftovers from people that had abandoned their beds in lieu of paying that overdue rent.  (In closing up and selling the property, we ran into the same situation.)

But among all the stuff to be trashed or garage-saled, I found an old ring binder.  In it were poems, neatly hand lettered by their author, Emilie Peck.  From the content, some of it written in the "war years" of the 40's, I suspect she was an older lady.  There were other clues.  She had a Dr. Hendon.  There was a eulogy for Mrs. Nancy Martin of Ropesville with children named Elsie, Flora and Alfred.    And the back cover was used as  a notepad and contains numerous phone numbers.

Several times over the past few years, I've sat down with Google and attempted to follow some of the threads.  I've had some leads, but nothing that was decisive.  If I had a spare week to kick around Lubbock some day, to talk to people in person, maybe I'd find more clues.  I'd love to find some grandchild of hers who'd be thrilled to have it.

But in any case, it has survived many attempts to throw away all the trash in my office, and I suspect it always will.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Web Back Up

I really don't know what caused my iWeb data loss when I upgraded to this month's version, but in any case, I'm back up and running from my backups.  I actually had no downtime on my site because when the crash happened, and I lost the ability to publish, the existing site was still untouched.
The symptoms were a loss of images from each of the pages, followed by a warning that I couldn't publish because of improper file types.  I attempted a repair of my Domain file (the database iWeb uses to hold all the pages) by pasting in the images still showing in my web browser.  While that repair was fast, it didn't work, and I suspect there was some kind of database corruption that simple user-level work couldn't repair.
At the time, I was attending Armadillocon in Austin and didn't have the time to work on it, but Sunday night, I reviewed my options and pulled one of my backups.
I have a lot of backups.  I'm a bit paranoid about data loss, so I have several different backup systems running.  I copy my data to .Mac, an external hard drive, my iPod, and DVD's.  I use Apple's Backup, Deja Vu, Retrospect, and Carbon Copy Cloner.  Maybe I have other backup systems running as well that I've forgotten about.  It's possible.
So when I decided to restore from backups, the question wasn't whether everything was backed up, it was which backup copy to use.  Since I hadn't restored much from Apple's Backup lately, I used it, and the backups hiding off on a corner of my TV and Movie hard drive.  I located the last, fat, Domain file and told it to restore.  Relatively quickly, it was back, intact, and just as it had been right before I started playing with the new iWeb.
This time, the site converted and I noticed no missing images.  I settled down to do a page by page inspection, and did find a new problem caused by the conversion to the new version.
On several pages, I had run a perl program to paste in other content.  iWeb published to a local folder.  I ran my patchiWeb program to add in the dynamic content, and then published the results to the real web server location.
But on a couple of pages, the new content appeared in the wrong place.
Close inspection of the html before and after my patch showed what had changed.  This new version of iWeb takes the content of a certain text block and inserts it into the TITLE block of the page. My added code was being plugged into the title, and not where in the body of the page where it should have gone.
A few quick edits fixed that and all was back to where it was supposed to be.
Soon, as iWeb develops, I may not have to patch the pages at all.  I'm looking forward to that time.  

Friday, August 10, 2007


Twice this week, I've been bitten by software I count on.  It's painful, especially for someone like me who relies on his computer.

One is really my fault.  I mean I shouldn't have gotten so dependent on Alpha-level software.  I signed up for the OmniFocus test program and I've been downloading the daily updates to this GTD software -- a very fancy to-do list.  All was going smoothly when something hiccuped and it crashed, permanently.  I lost my action lists and I can't seem to recover, or even wipe it clean and do it all over again.  Oh, I trust the Omni people.  I've used almost all of their software and OmniOutliner is a critical part of my writing process, but at the moment, I'm stuck.

The other problem software was the just-released update to iWeb from Apple.  I bought it at the store yesterday and tried out a few of the updated features.  All was going well, and then suddenly, something glitched and all my photos vanished out of the file.  I've been working to repair it, pulling the photos off of the published website, but something is still glitchy, and I have this creeping fear I might have to rebuild the site from scratch.  

If I weren't heading off to Armadillocon in just a couple of hours, I'd be at this recovery process all night long.  I guess I'm lucky it's more important to go meet friends than grumble over the keyboard.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


After a nice morning wandering around Delabar State Park just outside of Oquawka, we stowed the satellite dish and headed across Iowa, intending to connect with I-35 and head south.  It was pleasant at first, taking the scenic roads and traveling through small towns.

I kept seeing the tall TV antennas on rural farmhouses, and commented to Mary Ann about how those were all due to be obsolete in just a few months as television as we knew it was due to be shut down.  I wonder just how many of those farmers will bother to put up a new antenna to catch their local stations?  Many of them already have Directv dishes.  Just how important is the local news?

We paused at a stop sign to check the map and decide whether to turn right or left.  That was a mistake.  The generator overheated and shut down.

Our RV has three air-conditioners.  One, the typical auto AC doesn't work.  Somewhere we sprung a freon leak and we haven't used it for over a year now.  We also have two roof-top RV style units that run off 110VAC, either by plugging the RV into a campground outlet, or by running the generator.  This trip, the generator has logged quite a few hours.'s an air-cooled gas engine that produces the electricity and every time we stop it on a hot day, like when refueling, it has problems coming back up.

Today, all the bad stars were aligned.  It was very hot and humid outside.  I saw one bank sign saying it was 103-degrees, but even if that was wrong, it was definitely in the high 90's.  We were also traveling on small rural roads with many slow-downs to pass through the towns.  

Once we lost our cool (in the thermal sense), it was impossible to get it back.  The generator couldn't get back to it's best operating temperature, so we couldn't either.  Even when we reached the Interstate and could cruise fast enough to keep the generator perking, the sunshine and the heat of the day was just too powerful for those struggling roof-top units.

And then, we reached Kansas City.  The outside temperature soared and I attempted to restart the generator a dozen times while in rush-hour traffic.  The generator didn't stay running until we returned to the green.  

But cool never completely returned until we stopped for the night, plugged in, and the sun went down.

Tomorrow, we're heading south.  I fear it'll be even hotter.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Touring Oquawka

The only thing that makes sense on these trips is to do as many different chores as possible.  Once the convention was over yesterday, I took my camera and did some final research on the locations in East St. Louis that are used in my current working novel.

Today, we drove up north to Oquawka, where the story begins.  I took about 130 photos and found several instances where the novel, which has already reached first draft, would have to have some corrections.  At one point, I panicked when I thought the old Methodist church was missing it's bell.    But after talking to a few locals, I came to realize it was still there.  I just hadn't seen it correctly.   That bell plays an important part of several scenes in the story, and if it had vanished, I would have some serious re-plotting to do.

Yes, the story is fiction, but at least in this series I'm calling "Small Towns, Big Ideas", I do everything I can to keep the location and settings accurate.  

I found a few jewels, like the vintage photos that were used as decorations in the sandwich shop where we stopped for supper.  Since this is a time-travel novel, they were just what I needed, and totally unexpected.  Plus, the local girl who made the sandwiches was nearly a dead ringer for the protagonist.  

For a hurried tour through town, trying to nail down details, it was surprisingly productive.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Signing Off

The last event of the last day of Archon 31/NASFiC 9/Tuckercon was my signing.  I was pleased to find people waiting there looking for me and I got to sign a few ancient things.  

But then, the customers went away and left the authors sitting around the table and chatting.  I am learning so much this trip about what I'm supposed to be doing.  Haley Elizabeth Garwood (I kept running into her all throughout the con) was there and gave me a number of pointers about how to make contacts and told me a number of things she'd done while promoting her Warrior Queen series.  I especially liked the tale of the reverse shop-lifting, but I'm not that brave.

Now, I'm back to the RV, with a little East St. Louis research to complete.  One chapter of my latest book happens here, and I'd like to add a little more color in the text.  Tomorrow, we'll go north to Oquawka for more research.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Walking and Talking

Attending a science fiction convention while promoting something is a bit different from just hanging around for fun.  For one thing I was lugging around my carrying case, just in case I needed to whip out a copies of my books.  And I was constantly checking the Freebie tables to replenish the advertising cards I'd made for Emperor Dad.  

But this was a good-sized convention, and Saturday it was getting a little crowded.  I wore the button I had made in the dealer room.  (Buttons by Bouchard scanned in my advertising card and made a couple of buttons for me.  Today, I ordered four more.)  

While I have been ill-prepared in some ways, not being ready to make deals and expand my infant commercial enterprise into Illinois, I have done a lot of talking to other authors and micropublishers that were farther up the learning tree than I am.  I'm getting a lot of ideas about what works, and what doesn't -- and what I've already done wrong.  

I'm really looking forward to next weekend in Armadillocon where I can buttonhole the book experts (you know who you are) and ask all the difficult questions.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Roller Coaster, Take Two

Back in October, I posted about the joys of getting lost in the St. Louis highway system.  Well, today I was thinking about how much better this trip was.  We took the correct turnoff and arrived at the RV park without a single wrong turn.

At least, the first time.

We drove over to Collinsville for supper and on the way back -- oops.  I took the wrong exit (2B instead of 2A) and went for another loop around and around and around.  Over to Missouri, and back to Illinois.  

Maybe I'll get it right in a few years.