November, 2013 browsing by month


A Real Tear-Jerker, but More

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

First, go here, and read the article.

Its a touching story, about an honor provided for a man who never expected it, and was left with a wonderful experience to relive during the remaining few days of his life.

Having never served in the military, stories like these resonate with me in a couple of different ways. There’s the part of me that realizes I’m indebted to those who did serve. I can never repay that debt, but I can show interest in and respect for the exploits of the men and women who, essentially, make my life possible. And I can donate to soldier-friendly causes, for those currently in the service as well as those who once were, both the living and dead.

But something else that made this story interesting for me was the camaraderie that Bud shared with the sailors on board the Dewey, The article doesn’t mention Bud’s age, but some quick calculation puts him in his early nineties. Yet there he was, hobnobbing with soldiers one-third his age, like they were old friends. And it got me thinking that there is no past experience in my own life that would afford me such an opportunity. High school reunion? Bah. I asked a friend who attended one  of mine a few years ago about who showed up. He reeled off a list of twenty names. Nineteen I didn’t recognize and the twentieth I remembered as someone who had made my life a living hell back then. So no, I don’t think I would have gotten a reception like EM2 Bud Cloud got on board the Dewey.

Should I consider this a shortcoming? There’s a saying that you should live your life so that the undertaker doesn’t have to lie at your funeral. I’ll call that baseline; I’d like to try for something more. Perhaps a good metric would be to have a decent turnout at my funeral. I think I’m on track for that one, though I’ll admit that for best results, the venue would have to be chosen with care.

When I think about it, given the choice, I would not be willing to endure Pearl Harbor in exchange for what Mr. Cloud experienced. But within my own limitations, devoting a little more energy to broadening my social horizons might not be a terrible thing. Perhaps the writing will be a conduit in that direction.


Cranking up the presses… slowly

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

Yes, I know, I could upload a copy of Saimon’s Gift to Amazon tonight and become a self-published author almost immediately. But I want to do this with at least a little bit of class and style. That means copy-editing, finding a cover artist, and tweaking the manuscript to make the story as good as… well, maybe not as good as possible, but certainly as good as I can make it. That will take time, and more beta reading. There are also the small matters of writing a blurb for my author’s page, a dedication page for the story, buying ISBN numbers, and on and on. It can be a bit intimidating. But no piece by itself is particularly challenging, and I’m confident that once I establish a road map, the second, and third, and (so) forth will come relatively easy.

The first cover artist I found had a promising portfolio, but the combination of a seven time zone gap and a language barrier made it difficult to get anything accomplished. Probably I could have made it work, with enough effort, but I’d rather spend that effort elsewhere. I’ve identified one closer to home who is more expensive, but has other powers and abilities that I think will make it worthwhile.

ISBNs are another issue – I can’t quite bring myself to pay the absurd small quantity price, but I can’t quite bring myself to spring for the total cost of a large block of numbers either. Hopefully I can find others interested in sharing the burden,. so we can form an impromptu publishing company, and share a block.


Yes, lots of trivia. In a way, it’s kind of like manufacturing a high-tech product. The design is one thing. But then there’s manufacturing, distribution, packaging, materials, inspection, and on and on. I’m slowly getting to understand what Mr. Howey meant when he said that those who treat self-publishing as a business are succeeding at it.

Silly me. I thought the hard part was going to be the actual writing.


The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good

Sunday, November 17th, 2013

When Voltaire said that, more than two hundred years ago, he surely wasn’t talking about self-publishing. Or maybe he was. After all, the guy wrote more than 2000 books and pamphlets. They couldn’t all have been perfect.

For me, what it means is that after collecting a double handful of rejection letters, I’ve decided its time to try self-publishing. The reasons are many. Part of it is I’ve got a belief that in most creative endeavors, there is a lot more talent out there than there is bandwidth in the traditional distribution network. Take music for example. There are probably hundreds of great songs being written every week, but only twenty slots in the top twenty. That means lots of losers. One of the great things about the Net is that all those other songs can be heard. I think the same thing may be true for the written word.

Another factor is that for the average writer, a first-time book contract may not be such a good deal. The advance will only be a few thousand dollars, and the publisher will do little if any promotion of the book. Six months on the shelves of the major chains and, if it doesn’t turn into a best-seller by then, onto the $1 discount rack. Meanwhile, the author has already spent his $4000 advance and in all probability the book hasn’t earned out; that is, its royalties have never reached $4000. Now the book is in a weird state of purgatory; It’s still ‘in print’; owned by the publisher, who has no interest in doing any thing with it, and the author is pretty powerless.

As for me, I’m not in it for the money. At least, not for now. Would I like a $4000 advance? Well, sure! But after taxes it would be considerably less, and from what I’ve read of the state of the industry, the whole experience would be too much like selling my soul.

Short stories? Again, it seems like there are an awful lot of stories chasing a very small number of slots in Analog, et. al. So the chances of a successful sale are not high. And a successful sale might net a per-word value of about $0.07 per word, so a 6000 words story would fetch $420. Sold on Amazon for $0.99, that same story would need to sell slightly more than 600 copies to reach the same profitability. Is that reasonable thing to strive for, over the lifetime of a story?

I don’t know. Ask me in a year; by then this experiment will be more completely underway.

So what does it take? Well, getting the printed word onto Amazon doesn’t seem to be that big a deal. But, like anything else, its the details that get to you. Details like:

  • Cover Art
  • Copy editing
  • ISBN numbers
  • Typesetting
  • Etcera

So there’s more to this than just dragging a file over to and clicking ‘publish’. At least if you want to do it right. But like any other overwhelming problem, it can be broken into smaller pieces. Take cover art, for example. A quick (and free) post on yielded a dozen graphic artists, in everywhere from New York to Bulgaria, ready to create my cover, at price ranging from $60 to more than $500. With plenty of examples of their work. There are lots of copy editors out there, too, including the one recommended by a member of my writing group. (And even as I was writing this, an email popped into my inbox, from a friend about to start a copy-editing business.) The proper application of money will easily solve the ISBN problem. And so forth.

So, graphic artists at the ready. Copy editors on hot standby. ISBNs entering the pipeline.

Let the Adventure begin.


The Free Tablet

Sunday, November 10th, 2013


Well, not quite free. But 59 bucks is close enough that I’m going to call it free. Here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 59 dollars is less than one day’s wages… even if you’re working at minimum wage. And for that sum, you get a 1.2 ghz processor, 4 gig of memory, 800×480 color display, WiFi, two cameras (admittedly neither with great resolution), a microSD slot, and a “4-dimensional gravity sensor” (great for time travel?).

But it it a good idea? Well, maybe not. The Amazon reviews were pretty negative. But still, if you’re of limited means, want to get online, don’t want to do it at the library, and for some reason don’t want to find a nice used tablet on ebay, this would certainly do the trick. Free WiFi might not be quite ubiquitous, but its surely common enough that a gadget like this means that anyone who wants to own and use a tablet can get one.

There are also some other implications. For one thing, it kind of makes you wonder a bit about the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program, which provides toy-like monochrome-screened laptops for third world children, with the units costing more than $200. If Kocaso can quietly produce their $59 laptop, why all the fanfare about OLPC, and all its political intrigue?

There’s also the perspective of this crotchety old geezer thinking back to his first computer. I won’t say exactly when that was, but I’ll drop the hint that the president in office was a former peanut farmer. That computer took up most of a desk, and was equipped with a 0.002 GHz processor and 0.000064 GB of RAM. And the screen resolution was, I think, 480×200. In monochrome. Green.

Progress is nice. The downside, of course, is that we expect so much more of our devices. Sure, I can check my bank balance while riding the train, but why can’t I look at images of my checks? Sure I can place a free video call from my cellphone to someone in Madrid, but why does the image have to be so jumpy? Etc.

The usual platitudes apply. I’m sure glad to be living now, I can’t wait to see what’s new in five years, and so forth. But I’m also wondering about the next great opportunity. You know, the one that will be completely obvious in a few years, but that I’m hopelessly missing right now.
Any ideas?

Town On The Edge of Forever

Monday, November 4th, 2013

Business in Huntsville, followed by vacation in Memphis. No reason to travel all the way back to Boston, with the two destinations less than 200 miles apart.

Road Trip!!!!!

A quick browse of the web reveals that Avis will make this possible for only slightly over one hundred bucks, so the die is cast. A few days later, with the business part of my mission complete, I swing past the rental counter at HSV, sign my name a few times, and get handed the keys to a fairly new Ford Edge. Not quite what I expected (a compact sedan), but the trade of fuel economy for comfort seems like a reasonable one if I’m going to spend four hours on the road. I climb into the thing, turn the key, and get greeted by three separate LCD screens lighting up. That’s two more than in the panel of the Trinidad. Eventually I figure out enough of the touch panel to coax the climate control to a decent setting and tune the radio to an acceptable station. Having been to this area four times in the last few years, I’ve developed a taste for WDRM Huntsville/Decatur; I won’t be able to hold it all the way to Memphis, but its a good start.

With a four hour trip anticipated, but no need to meet my bride’s flight into MEM for eight hours, the previous evening had been spend studying the map to see if anything worthwhile was visible along the route. Corinth, Mississippi was the only town of any size, and it was close enough to the middle of the route to be stopworthy. Being a town of only 15,000 or so, I wasn’t expecting much, but Tripadvisor mentioned a Civil War museum that looked like it might be worthwhile. Route 72 turned out to be a county road, not an interstate, making it a bit slower but far more interesting. Some small towns (be sure to observe the speed limit), fewer farms than I’d have expected, and lots of undeveloped woods. Plenty of rain.

The miles click off on the GPS, and eventually I roll into the teeming megalopolis of Corinth. Its already 1:00 PM, so I opt for lunch first. Tripadvisor mentioned a Mexican place, but I accidentally blow past the address. While I’m turning around, I notice a bar-b-que shack that doesn’t exactly look Yankee-friendly, but what the hell, I’m hungry and what’s a road trip without a little adventure?

The place is one large room, with the obligatory license plates on the wall, soda machine off to one side, and a counter up front where you place your order. There’s a list of specials on the wall encoded with the local crypto key: 4 BN BBQ FF SLW $7.49. It takes me a few seconds but I manage to decode it, and it seems like a reasonable deal when I find out that it includes ‘pop’. The locals look like…well, locals. Lots of jeans, overalls, beards, beer. One guy has his daughter in tow, a blond positioned somewhere between the farmer’s daughter and Lolita. I’m out of place in my business casuals, but the proprietress is still willing to serve me, and even cracks a smile when, between ribs, I give her a thumbs-up about the food. Which was a bit charitable, but what the hell?

Now sated, I program the coordinates of the museum into the navicomputer and head over. The parking lot contains only a single car, and at first I think the place may be closed. But I decide to hike up the hill to the building anyway, and find that it is in fact open for business. I chat a bit with the park ranger/docent and begin my trek. My knowledge of the civil war is limited. Probably the last time I learned anything about it was in high school, and that was years ago. Quick version: Painful, bloody, brother against brother, some question as to whether it was about slavery, or keeping the union unified, or perhaps something else. Possibly it wasn’t necessary. But I suspect most wars look that way in retrospect.

Today’s lesson begins: At the crossroads of two critical rail lines, Corinth was of tactical significance to both the Union and Confederacy. One of the first battles of the war was fought in Shiloh, just a few miles to the Northeast. The losers regrouped in Corinth, which pretty much turned into a hospital. Not that it did much good; a combination of primitive medical technology and typhoid wiped out nearly as many soldiers as were lost on the battlefield. The town was also home to the first of the ‘Contraband Camps’; compounds where newly-freed slaves were fed and educated, and directed onto to the long road to citizenship.

The war lasted four years and took over 600,000 lives. Nearly one in fifty of the 90-year-old country’s population. How might it have played out if the Union had instead offered to ‘condemn’ the slaves, compensate their owners under eminent domain, and turn them free? Sure, it would have been expensive, but so was losing the lives of more than half a million citizens. The idea is not original, nor is it mine. One of John Roth’s characters speculates about it in Unintended Consequences (a definitely worthwhile read, if you can find a copy), But it’s always easy to Monday morning quarterback. And the teachings of the museum suggested that when the war began, people on both sides thought it was going to be a short one. Maybe that’s the case with all wars.

The rain makes it difficult for me to spend quality time contemplating the fountain behind the museum: a long rectangular pool flowing downhill, with each step representing a year of the war, and marble blocks commemorating each battle strewn across the pool, each in its appropriate place on the time line.



Despite the wind and downpour, I spend a few moments out there, and then head back in for a movie that does a pretty good job of reenacting the battles surrounding Corinth, what led up to them, and their aftermath. A short while later, I’m back in the car cruising downtown Corinth, trying with limited success to trace the route described on the ‘historic drive’ map I picked up at the museum. The sites of critical skirmishes now look like nothing more than grassy hills; it’s tough to imagine the amount of blood that was shed there. A visit to the Corinth Contraband Camp park is more rewarding. The site of the original camp is now a park, with bronze statues commemorating the activities of the past.


Tranquil and thought-provoking, at least until the winds knock down a tree that takes the nearby power lines with it. Yikes! By now time is starting to run out, and a short while later Corinth is receding in the rear-view mirror as I continue my trek west toward Memphis. I’ve learned a bit about Mississippi, and my country’s history, which is surely a Good Thing. And I’ve put Corinth on my personal map; if it ever makes the national news for good reason or bad, there will be a personal connection that there otherwise would not have been. But most of all, I’ve yet again underscored my incredible gratitude for the fact that I was born into this particular time and place.

And that’s a Good Thing, too.