Sunday, January 29, 2012

Things I Never Would of Thought: Septic Tank Lids

Out of sight, out of mind.  We bought this house when it was about two years old, nearly twenty-five years ago.  For the most part, the septic system works, so I don't pay any attention to it.  But in December, there was an occasional whiff in the air.  Indoors.  So being promptly on the spot, a month later I called in the specialist, thinking it might need to be pumped, like we had done many years before.

He walked around, poking a metal probe into the ground, locating the dimensions of the tank that had long been completely buried.  His face showed increasing unease as he puzzled it out.  In one place, the probe had gone through deeper than it should have.  He pulled out the shovel and exposed the two access ports on the top.  One side was 'rotting' away.  The concrete was easily a third thinner on the outflow side of the tank than the intake side.  The concrete crumbled in his hand.

What had been a simple pumping job now became ten times more expensive.  First off, I was warned most strenuously not to drive my tractor over the area.  He had seen these situations before and even riding mowers were too heavy in many cases, and you do not want to have to fish your tractor out of the septic tank.

It was clear to me that the lid had to be replaced, although he was struggling to come up with cheaper solutions.  Unfortunately all of those just were just delays, not fixes.  As he dug more and exposed the surface of the lid, it was clear that the formerly flat slab was bowing down in the middle.  The concrete's strength was fading away and it was only held in shape by the internal rebar steel rods.

Decades old septic tank lids aren't an off the shelf item.  He took dimensions and some company somewhere poured and cast a new one.  Wait two weeks.  Don't walk on the septic tank.

Then came the day.  It had to be Monday because rain was in the forecast Tuesday and the heavy trucks couldn't get across the yard without bogging down if the ground was wet.  Carefully tensioning the chains, the crane operator lifted the old lid off and transferred it to the trailer.  Everybody was holding their breath, hoping it wouldn't crumble and fall into the tank.  Nobody wanted that clean-up job.  Up in the air, the distorted, sagging of the concrete was plain to see.

Then, they put a gasket down around the edge and lowered the new, flat, and thicker septic tank lid in place.  Now, a couple of days later, there's just a slight mound that needs reseeding and some ruts in the grass where the trucks passed.  But its fixed, at least for a few more decades.

I asked why the concrete decayed like that.  The guy with the experience wasn't sure.  Perhaps water softening.  Perhaps the chemicals given off in the air gap.  All he knew was that the corrosion always happened on the outflow side of the tank. I'm just happy to forget about it.  Out of sight, out of mind.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Beta Reader Copies

Not too long ago, I wrote about the process of creating comb-bound copies of an early draft of a novel to allow beta-test readers the chance to find errors and mark it up.  Well, this book, I'm trying something a little different.  It's a gamble and I don't know how it will play out.

Instead of buying a few reams of paper and a new toner cartridge, and then queuing up multiple copies of the full book to print, I uploaded the book to Lulu and printed out private-access copies.  Now, these aren't what the final copy will look like.  For one thing, I just slapped a handy snapshot there as a fake cover image.  For another, this is 8.5 x 11 inches.  Inside, the pages are regular 6 x 9 inch pages with great big margins around them so people can make notes.  These will never be sold.  Once this beta-reader review is complete, I'll go back to Lulu and delete the project.

Why Lulu?  Well, for one thing, this process has been a whole lot easier than filling my office with the smell of ozone for hours or days as I print out all the copies.  No aching back from bending over the comb binder as I assemble them.  And finally, no fretting over the binding coming loose and people scrambling the pages as they are shipped back and forth through the mail.

This may have cost me slightly more.  I'm not sure.  I've never done a detailed print cost analysis for when I print them myself.  But given that I always have to buy a new toner cartridge in the middle of the process, the costs are probably equivalent.  Besides, the printing cost isn't the most expensive part of the process.  The mailing cost is.  Given that I'm sending these to people all across the country, I send them in flat rate priority mail envelopes with a self-addressed stamped flat rate envelope included, it costs more than $10 each just for the mailing.  Even with the shipping costs from Lulu added in, that's less than it cost to print them.

Now, I hate to spend the money, but I really need these people looking over my shoulder and pointing out typos and misspellings and really horrible sentences.  A writer can't see his own dumb mistakes.

My biggest fear is that since this is a perfect-bound book, it may inhibit these book-loving people from being as ruthless as they need to be in marking it up.  Like I said, it's a gamble. I'll find out when they come back.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Disappointing iBooks Author App

I think from the beginning, I wasn't expecting much.  I didn't watch the streaming video of the launch.  Without Steve Jobs, it wasn't as entertaining, so I bailed out before they got into the product announcement, and I didn't download the free app the instant it appeared.  That gave me exposure to the bad press before I had my own hands-on experience.

There are two pieces of the problem.  The tool is too limited, and the terms-of-use is impossible.  Let's deal with the legal stuff first.

iBooks Author is a tool designed to create output for an iPad.  That's it.  Nothing more.  I can't even get it to work with my iPhone.  While potentially it could create and edit industry standard ePub files, it doesn't.  The output is specifically targeted to the iPad and the iBooks app.  While the file might work on some similar platform, like some other vendor's iPad look-alike, you violate the contract if you try to sell it anywhere else.  iBooks Author is part of the iBookstore just like iTunes Connect -- it's all part of the store.  While it has export to text and export to PDF, those are crippled so badly (stripping out formatting for text and pasting a big ugly Apple logo on the PDF pages) that they can't really be used.  From my personal experience, iBookstore is a horrible marketplace. It's a bookstore that you can only buy the books they put in the store-front windows, not a place to browse.  For a small producer like me, that's deadly.  My sales at the iBookstore have made be consider dropping them, and spending my efforts on Kindle, and Pubit, and Kobo, and Google Editions and my own site.  For me, it is not worth it creating a separate version with a separate tool, just for Apple.

I am not the target user for this app.  I write novels -- flowing words that can exist just as happily on paper as on the screen of an off-brand cell phone.  iBooks Author is for dazzle-heavy multi-media 'books' with a heavy layout component.  The target author for this tool is someone with a book like this that never thinks about selling it anywhere but to iPad users.  For them, it could work.

Looking at the app strictly as a tool to get the job done, I can't use it.  Just like Pages and iWeb, everything is built on templates.  Unfortunately, they didn't seem to include a bare-bones empty template that I could drop one of my novels into.  I tried. I took their Basic template and took out the pictures and dropped in a novel from a Pages document.  What I have left, after a long bout of tinkering, is an ugly looking book with one chapter that contains the whole novel.  It seems there's a menu item for importing a chapter at a time, but that would require that I go back to my Pages document and split it into 40 sections and import them one at a time.  I can't seem to find a way to select a chapter heading and 'elevate' it to something that the App can recognize as a new chapter.

Thinking about the App's features, it looks like Pages, but with a lot of iPad specific formatting strapped on.  The working page is iPad sized.  The formatting styles are loaded with a couple of dozen presets. Pages has an Import Styles that lets me copy my custom styles from document to document.  I don't see anything like that in this App.  I guess you would have to create new styles and save them, for every style you use, for every document.

The result is a Pages with some multi-media widgets thrown in, with limited formatting capabilities, and with reduced output possibilities.  It's a no-brainer for me.  Pages wins.

My current workflow is this:  Creation in Pages. Formatting for the paper edition in Adobe InDesign.  Export to ePub from InDesign.  Cleanup the ePub in Sigil.  Convert to Kindle with Calibre.  Four programs to produce my e-books that I can put in all the major marketplaces that can reach almost all available e-readers including the iPad.

I will not be spending the time to learn this App to the fullest so that I can create a special flashy version for the iPad but that doesn't go anywhere else. Doesn't fit my needs.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Writing Tools, Today's Version

I've been writing for decades, and much of my life, I've been hunting for the right tools and the right workflow to let me write effortlessly.  I've progressed from school brad binders and lined paper, to typewriters and home-built dedicated word-processors.  I've built computers from scratch and written software in assembly code.  For a big double-handful of years, I used Microsoft Word.  When I shifted to InDesign for book layout, I began the process of abandoning Word.

Here's what I'm using today.  This is Apple's Pages software on my Mac, in full screen mode.  Note that I'm not writing in standard manuscript format any longer.  I've chosen a more comfortable standard for the writing phase, all controlled by about a half-dozen styles, bound to the function keys.  Most of the writing is styled as shown above in simple Times.  The section breaks (###) are marked with a centered style.  There is another style for block quotes, another for chapter titles, and when I need computer text, like tweets and texting, there's still another style.

Everything is styled text and I don't make any exceptions.

With the autosave and versioning supplied by the operating system, I really don't have to worry about that stuff.  Occasionally, I'll do a Command-S to save, but that's mainly habit. I leave a project up on a screen by itself for days and weeks.  Even if the machine reboots, I don't lose anything.  Writing is simple.  The uncluttered page is there with a couple of swipes to the side.  Reference pages from the web browser, or another document, or a map are also up as full pages.

The reason I've moved away from writing in manuscript format is that the standard double-spaced format is ideal for editors, but not for the composing.  For the writing phase, there's a trade-off between more words on the page and big, legible text.  I don't need to force double-spacing on myself as well.

If I need manuscript format, it's easy to convert.  Everything is styled text.  A handful of search and replace commands will convert my writing format to manuscript format.  It's so easy I have never gotten around to automating it.

If I need to move the text into InDesign for a book layout, I save the document as a .doc formatted file, place it into my layout, and do the same search and replace on styles to shape the text into nicely positioned and book-styled text.

If I need to edit the document on my iPhone or iPad, I drag the file over to Dropbox and import it into Pages on the i-devices.  The styles are preserved.  I can move it back to the Mac with no loss of changes.  For simpler purposes, I can even just cut and paste the text from Pages on the Mac to Notes in Mac Mail and the text will be synced automatically to Notes on my phone.

Old documents that I wrote in Word can be easily imported into Pages.  I could even go the other way, but my most recent version of Word no longer runs on the Mac.  I haven't missed it.

And there you have it.  My current writing workflow, using standard tools by big companies.