Going Live

Written by larry on February 2nd, 2014

This week marks my first appearance on Amazon, as a presumably bona-fide author. Having reached this point, I’m surprised about how much effort was involved that actually had nothing to do with writing. Or at least with that portion of writing that involves locking yourself into a secluded room and letting the creative juices pour out. Cover art, copy editing, tweaks, revisions, trying to comprehend megabyte-long end-user license agreements, website enhancements…. Until now, it’s all been about sharing with friends and family. But now, it’s like letting a bunch of strangers into my home. I feel a need to neaten up the place, and no longer think its reasonable to make excuses. The old “I’ll fix it in the next revision” doesn’t work anymore.

One thing about self-publishing that really feels nice is that it permits me to completely ignore ‘industry sensibilities’. If I get a writer’s forum critique saying that a particular piece isn’t the length that most markets are looking for, I can file it under ‘true, but not relevant.’

In The Long Tail, Chris Anderson talks about how The Net makes it possible for merchants with a narrow appeal to connect with customers who want to buy what they want to sell. In a world of more than seven billion, there are bound to be some folks who are interested in what I have to offer. After all, even dinosaur erotica seems to a hit these days.

But however broad or narrow the appeal of my art may be, I now feel a pressure to create more. As in “That’s nice, but what have you done for me lately?”

So back to the secluded room. I’m got a self-commitment to get Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor out of the editing room and onto Amazon by the end of this month, so I’d better get to it!


Dealing with ‘Creatives’, Part II

Written by larry on January 26th, 2014

If you don’t remember part one of this, follow this link. Having been fired by my cover designer after only one cover, I was forced to hunt down a fresh one at elance.com. And after receiving fifteen proposals in less than a day, I was actually pretty encouraged. Sure, I wasted a month with the first artist, but at least there were more out there to choose from.

A bunch were easily eliminated (too expensive, irrelevant portfolio, etc.) My initial contact was a new artist in New York City, working to expand her portfolio. At first she seemed like a good match, but after some discussion she withdrew from the project, saying it was too complex for her to deliver at a reasonable price. That was pretty much the complaint of my first artist – not exactly an encouraging trend.

So I moved onto the next one, located in (of all places) Columbo, Sri Lanka. Former home of Arthur C. Clarke. An omen?

Well, maybe. I spent a bunch of time Skyping and swapping emails with someone who used just the nickname ‘Black’, describing in great detail exactly what I wanted. I also provided a good amount of information on the story and the characters.

Black took about a week to get back to me. And when he finally did, he came back with something that eventually evolved into this:


Which was, in my humble opinion, a beautiful piece of cover art that really captured the key elements of my story. Far more eye appeal than the first one. Utterly different from what I’d asked for. And almost certainly easier to execute, from a graphic arts perspective, than my original request.

Back in my real life as an engineering consultant, very often I joke about giving clients what they need, in contrast to what they ask for. And here I was, having that exact thing done to me!

What’s ironic about it is that if either of the first two artists had made that leap, I’d be working with them instead of reaching halfway around the world (10.5 time zones) to get an e-book cover made. Now, in both cases, I began my interaction with “…I’m new at this, so I need you to educate me on what’s reasonable to ask for and what’s not.” But neither of them took the initiative to do exactly that.

So it would seem my disdainful attitude about learning how to ‘deal with Creatives’ needs a reassessment. The solution was actually for me to be educated by a Creative.

So pass the humble pie. And, given the end result, actually I don’t mind the taste at all.


What, Again?

Written by larry on January 19th, 2014

It looks like this is getting to be a habit. For the second time in as many months, the crew of a jetliner has managed to land at the wrong airport. And this time, to make it more interesting, it was a jetliner full of passengers. On January 12, Southwest Flight 4013 from Chicago Midway airport to Branson (MO) airport (BBG), managed to instead land at Clark Downtown (PLK).

Fortunately, no one was hurt, despite the runway at Clark being about half as long as the one in Branson. And the airmanship involved in getting a 737-700 into 3700 feet is quite laudable. Less so the pilot’s navigation acumen.

So, as this is starting to become a regular feature here, let’s take a look at the two airports, as they might be seen from an approaching airplane on a particular heading:





I’ve tweaked the relative altitude of the photos to make the airports look roughly the same size, but I left the runway heading the same on both images. The runway headings  at Branson and Clarke are different by twenty degrees.

If anything, the area around Clark looks more ‘built up’, which might mislead a pilot unfamiliar with the area. In fact the pilot involved, despite having flown for 12,000 hours, had never flown into Branson before.

But this is why we have GPS, and other navigation aids.

Rather than speculate on what went wrong, I’m going to instead take this opportunity to wax a bit philosophical on the whole thing.

I fly little airplanes, and if you survive doing that for a while, you gain a healthy respect for the limitations of your airplane, as well as your own personal limitations. When you’re a complete newbie, you tend to view anyone around you with a pilot’s license as superhuman. And you tend to deify your flight instructor, as well. Which sort of makes sense – after all, you are trusting him with your life.

But somewhere along the line you start viewing other plots, and even instructors, as your peers. At present, I’ve been flying for about 1500 hours, so if I go up with an instructor, it’s entirely possibly I’ll have twice as many hours as (s)he does. Which is fine, if (s)he’s experienced enough to be an instructor, I can almost certainly learn something.

But I still tend to view the commercial pilots, with their 100-ton, 600 mph airplanes and thousands of hours of experience, as… well, if not gods, certainly closer to divinity than I am.

But after a few mistaken airports, and crashes on beautiful clear days, I’m starting to wonder. Perhaps they’re only human after all. And maybe I’m kind of silly for ever believing otherwise. But the whole thing is like finding out that Santa Claus isn’t real. An epiphany. But a melancholy one.


This is going to be good

Written by larry on January 12th, 2014

If you know me (and hopefully more of you will moving forward), you know that one of the recurring themes in both the fiction I read and the fiction I write is ordinary people doing extraordinary things. So how could I not take note of Laura Dekker’s odyssey.

In case you don’t remember, Dekker was the 16-year-old Dutch girl who sailed solo around the world in 2012, setting a new record. Here in the United States, we pretty much only got the news about this when she successfully completed the trip. But apparently the events leading up to her trip were nearly as challenging, with Dutch authorities attempting to seize custody of her from her father (her parents are divorced) when he publicly announced that he supported her plan to make the journey. She was 14 at the time.

The whole thing also precipitated a very polarizing public debate at the time. There were those, including the authorities, who called her plan ‘delusional’. And there were others who thought fulfilling her dream was feasible, worthwhile, and worth the non-trivial risk.

Not being a sailor (or at least not willing to sail anything much bigger than a Hobie-cat), I’m not sure I’m in a position to have a strong opinion on whether her plans were reasonable. Certainly they were unusual. But Ms. Dekker was born at sea, and spent the first five years of her life on a boat. Various articles suggest that she felt more at home at sea than on terra firma.

Perhaps the question to ask is what’s reasonable to expect from a 14-year-old. Well, 250 years ago they were raising families. Today, many of them can’t seem to focus long enough to get through a semester of junior high school. On the other hand, there are 14-year olds today working toward scholarships, and I’m sure that the class of 1764 had some losers in it as well. So what’s reasonable to expect from a 14-year-old? Well, perhaps that depends upon the 14-year old. And as far as the Danish equivalent of Child Protective Services is concerned, if the kid’s not being beaten or starved, I’d say how she’s being parented is none of your d*mn business. All things considered, I’d rather live in a world where an occasional young life is lost than one in which the dreams of amazing young people like Laura Dekker are systematically crushed.

But what did I mean by ‘This is going to be good’? Well, one part of the story I wasn’t aware of was that journalist Jillian Schlesinger shadowed Dekker from port to port during the course of her journey, and has created a documentary telling her tale. The work is titled Maidentrip, and the trailer can be viewed below.

No indication as to when the full film will be available; Amazon doesn’t have it,  but it can currently be saved on Netflix. It might be a good idea to do that now, to avoid the rush.



By Rote

Written by larry on January 5th, 2014

There’s a book called The E-Myth Revisited, by Michael Gerber, that talks about the dilemma small businessmen run into when trying to grow their business. The book runs 268 pages, so it may be a bit challenging to summarize it in a paragraph, but I’ll have a go at it anyway.

People who start a business generally do so because they love creating something that they think others will want. This applies to any business, but as the author talks about a baker, I’ll use that example here. So the baker opens her new bakery, everyone loves her pies, and she’s happier than a pig in you-know-what. And she’s making money. Long lines wrap around her bakery every morning, and Life is Good. So she decides she’ll open a second bakery on the other side of town. Pretty soon she’s spending her time running back and forth between the two places, quality of her product is suffering because she can’t supervise both operations, bills aren’t getting paid because she has no time for it, the board of health is sending threatening letters, and her best baker just quit because the place is so chaotic. She’s working sixteen hours a day, but seems to be slipping further behind each week. That’s the point at which she hires Mr. Gerber to help her out of the mess she created.

There, I just saved you reading the first few chapters. And now I’ll save you reading the rest of the book.

Mr. Gerber’s solution to the ‘Baker’s Dilemma’ is process. Put in place a documented process for everything involved with running the bakery, from how to purchase the flour to how to measure the ingredients, to how to arrange the currency in the register to how to which edge of the cake boxes to fold first. With all this in place, the bakery can run with any staff that can be trained to follow the process, and the proprietress will no longer have to always be present.

In the audio book version, the proprietress experiences an epiphany, when she realized she can now grow her business indefinitely and be freed from the mundane parts of the operation so she can focus on finding new recipes and so forth.

Or at least Mr. Gerber meant it to sound like an epiphany. To me, it sounded more like a psychotic episode, as she chants “… a process for this, and a process for this, and a process for this…”

You see, I’m not a big fan of process. I think it stifles creativity and doesn’t deal well with exceptions. From my perspective, process is great if you’re manufacturing nuts and bolts, or opening a McDonalds. But it’s useless if you’re a sculptor or an artist. My real-life profession, engineering, falls somewhere in the middle.

So I never had much use for Gerber.

But lately, I’ve been thinking more about how to get the germ of a story into a form that worthy of publication. It’s tough to get traction, especially in the beginning. Whether you call it lack of motivation, writer’s block, or something else, it’s still tough.

Recently, I learned something from someone in my writer’s group who I’ll call Sue (because that’s her name), about a way to get some traction. She provided me with a three-page questionnaire to be filled in for each major character. The questions range from simple ones like the character’s name and age, through more complicated ones like ‘What sexual experience most haunts your character?’, or ‘If you met your character in a bar, what would he/she think of you?’.

Filling it in can be pretty challenging, but once it’s complete I have a pretty good idea of the character I’m dealing with. And if I do it with two or three more characters, how they would interact becomes pretty obvious. Once there, the first draft almost starts writing itself.

But it’s still only a draft. So off it goes to my writer’s group, for commentary, critique and refinement. And after that, to an online writer’s group that I recently joined, for more of the same. At that point, it’s been seen by somewhere between ten and twenty sets of eyes, and while it may not be as good as it can get, it’s almost certainly as good as I can get it. So off to the copy editor, a final local edit, and it’s ready.

(pause, step back, and catch my breath)

You know, this is starting to look an awful lot like a process. Interesting. I never thought process was even remotely useful for creative activities.

Perhaps I owe Mr. Gerber an apology.



You’re Fired!

Written by larry on 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

Written by larry on 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

Written by larry on 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

Written by larry on 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

Written by larry on 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.