December, 2013 browsing by month


You’re Fired!

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

Well, actually, it seems that I was. By my graphic artist.

One of my inspirations has definitely been Hugh Howey, a self-published author who has been quite successful. And one of Mr. Howey’s core tenets is that those who succeed at this are those who treat it like a business. So I’ve tried to do that, at least to the extent that someone who must engage in other activities in order to eat regularly can.

Like any other business, it’s inevitable that there will be setbacks. And I ran into one last week.

I’ve decided that the short stories I offer for sale individually should have covers. In reality that’s not quite a necessity, but despite the proverb, people do judge books by their cover. So I went out looking for a graphic artist.

Elance is really pretty amazing. In less than 48 hours, I received close to twenty replies from artists on every continent except Antarctica. I picked one in Serbia initially, but the language barrier made it difficult for me to express abstract concepts. Possibly this was my own limitation, but it was a limitation nonetheless. So we moved onto one from the states.

Communication went well initially. The artist had the required credentials, seemed to understand what I was looking for, and offered a reasonable price. This being the first time I’d ever tried this, I was surely a bit clumsy in communication, but there still seemed to be some rapport. I was surprised at the amount of guidance I needed to provide, but seeing as this was the first time around, I assumed that both I and the artist would be better at it for future covers. An acceptable final product was delivered, money changed hands, and I was ready to move onto the next one.

But apparently the artist wasn’t. I was told that the work took nearly ten times the anticipated effort, and that she had no interest in repeating the experience.

Given that I specified the task, and the artist specified the process and the price, I’m really not sure how I might have managed this differently. Could I have been clearer on what I wanted? Could I have managed the process more closely, and identified that we were off track earlier on? Or is this just the nature of working with ‘Creatives’, as they call them on Mad Men?

One thing I was definitely disappointed in was that I was left hanging for a week before the kiss-off. It’s the artist’s right to not take a project she doesn’t want. Good business practice dictates that the bad news should be delivered in a timely fashion. So does good manners. And in addition to the week lost, I’ve lost whatever time it will take to identify a replacement and bring them up to speed.

So I’m back to Elance. The effort I made bringing this artist up to speed on my likes, dislikes, and means of communication is lost. What I learned about the process, though, is something I get to keep. Hopefully it will be helpful the next time around.

And I’ll also admit that I’m curious to see how the next experience compares to the first. Maybe the third time will be a charm.

(In case you’re wondering what all the fuss was about, here’s the cover for Saimon’s Gift, planned to be released as a Kindle Short by the end of January (It was going to be mid-January, but, well… see above).

Saimon's Gift_small

Holiday Message

Sunday, December 22nd, 2013

Its easy to get cynical about the holiday season. And if you’re not of the dominant religion, its also easy to start wondering about whether it even has any relevance. But there are universal truths to be had, and one of them is the value of generosity.

Robert Heinlein‘s round-the-world travelogue Tramp Royale was originally written in 1953 and 1954, but not published until 1992, several years after his death. And it wasn’t until last week that I began reading it. Given that it’s sixty years old, it’s held up reasonably well. The Old Master’s voice rings clear, and the inevitable anachronisms read (at least to me) as quaint, rather than irrelevant.

There is a passage where he and Virginia befriend a few young children in Lima, Peru; street urchins, really. The kids were staring forlornly into the window of a toy store, a place they’d never be of the means to enjoy. The Heinleins took them into the store and bought them each a toy, pleasantly surprised that the kids made only modest requests. In describing the event, Mr. Heinlein penned this gem:

One of the real magics in life is the fact that wealth can always be
multiplied by dividing by the age of the donor.

That’s something important to be reminded of from time to time. As a child, my family was not of the means that there was much opportunity to teach the lesson of charity, and I had to start figuring it out for my own later in life. And it still doesn’t come as naturally as it perhaps does to others.

But one of the upsides of getting on in years is that acts of generosity become easier. There’s a huge gray area between destitute and financially independent, and I’m fortunate enough at this point in my life to be living there. Sure, I’d prefer to be on the right side of the bell curve, but the fact that I’m somewhere in the middle doesn’t preclude me from helping some other folks move from the left toward the middle, however infinitesimally.

So as I age, I find myself making donations more frequently, giving gifts where none are called for, and tipping from a baseline of twenty percent rather than fifteen. That extra buck or two at the restaurant is a far bigger fraction of the waitress’s take-home pay than it was mine, and the interesting thing about it is that it makes us both feel good. If there’s a downside, I can’t see it.

There are those who say “Christmas Spirit” is merely the behavior that we should all be exhibiting every day of the year, but don’t. I’d argue that no matter what our average behavior, an annual reminder isn’t such a bad thing.

So Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, or whatever else applies. And remember that no matter what your circumstances, there are those worse off than you, and this might be a good time for an act of generosity.

The Human Side

Monday, December 16th, 2013

The idea that technology dehumanizes is a theme that seems to rear its ugly head from time to time. So it’s refreshing to see a case where the reverse is so obviously true. The video below has been making the rounds for the last several months, and with good reason – it’s a real tear-jerker. Yeah, it’s just an advertisement. And I’m sure that some people who look at it will see it as yet of another case of Microsoft (Skype’s parent company) exploiting two young people for their own gain. But judging by the two million plus views on YouTube, that’s not the majority opinion.

Judge for yourself:

One of the many things we take for granted today is ubiquitous, essentially free, communication. Fifty years ago, Paige and Sarah most likely would have never known about each other. Twenty years ago, they surely would never have cultivated the friendship they now share. Perhaps they would have become pen pals. Or maybe not. But even a techno-cynic like me can’t deny the intimacy that even a short video chat brings. And when I reflect on that, I’m pleased that beyond the semiconductors, protocol stacks, IP packets, and megahertz, something is created that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

And if I’m so moved by all this, I can’t even begin to imagine how the techies at Skype must feel.


Technology v. Art

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

I’m not particularly sure I need one of these, but there’s now a company manufacturing a set of gloves equipped with a Bluetooth headset. Just make the traditional thumb-and-pinky handset gesture and you’re on the phone.


I don’t use the phone out in the cold very often so I’ll probably walk away from this particular gem, but the fact that it’s out there got me thinking about technology as a means of artistic expression. From that angle, LCDs, transducers, processors, switches, and so forth are really no different than the paint, brushes, and canvas that a more traditional artist would use. There’s a fairly widespread belief that engineering, or worse yet programing, is not a creative pursuit. While the bluetooth glove is hardly High Art, I don’t think it can be denied that its the product of a creative and fun-loving mind. And if that not at least one good definition of an artist, I’m not sure what is.

What’s interesting about engineering as an act of creativity is that very often the elegance of a creation is visible only to the creator or his peers. There’s a parallel in the traditional art world, with some claiming that certain art forms can be appreciated only by someone educated to comprehend their nuances. This may be true. Or it may be an excuse to conceal mediocrity. That’s a debate for another time. But in technology, an appreciation of its underlying elegance does require familiarity with what it took to achieve it.

This though isn’t new. Consider this:

I have often felt that programming is an art form,
whose real value can only be appreciated
by another versed in the same arcane art;
there are lovely gems and brilliant coups
hidden from human view and admiration, sometimes forever,
by the very nature of the process.

These words were originally penned (keyboarded?) over thirty years ago, but they’re every bit as true now as they were back then. It’s not clear to me whether there are today fewer or more people equipped to appreciate technological elegance, but I’ll take solace in the fact that the technological elegance is out there, and from time to time I have the privilege of looking at another’s work and saying “”Wow!”

I’m glad to be living in a world where technology is so accessible that people are using it to create things like Bluetooth gloves. And the way, if you need a pair, you can get them here.

A Career-Limiting Move

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

A beautiful, clear day. An experienced, competent crew. A modern, state-of-the-art perfectly functioning airplane. It would be pretty tough to not feel serene, confident and competent under the circumstances. So how could the crew of Atlas Air 4241, a Boeing 747, manage to land at Jabara Airport instead of McConnell Air Force Base, eight miles to the south?

Well, its really not that tough to do, actually. Even in this age of GPS receivers so accurate that even an inexpensive one can place itself on the proper side of the line down the middle of the runway.

I think a contributing factor was the clear weather. In on a crappy, hazy day, a crew will most likely use their instruments to find the airport. On a day with actual instrument weather, a crew will necessarily use their instruments to find the airport. But on a beautiful, clear day, a crew might well look out the window, see the airport, and land.

Here’s McConnell:


And here’s Jabara:


Yes, they look different. But do the really look that different?

I think I could have made that mistake. I’d like to believe that I wouldn’t have made it, at least with an equally experienced pilot in the other seat.

There’s a program sponsored by NASA that attempts to capture data from incidents where pilots <ahem> fouled up, but didn’t do any damage or cause any danger. Reports are voluntary, and if there was no criminal intent, the report can work as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Probably this works better when your incident doesn’t become national news.

The point of the NASA program is that, with it, all pilots can learn from the mistakes of the few. That’s a good thing.

Lesson learned for me: Check the GPS even when I’m sure I see the airport in front of me. After all, who am I going to believe; the GPS or my own lyin’ eyes.