Archive for February, 2013

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Few posts over the next few weeks

February 28, 2013

Sorry, campers, I know you hang onto my every word. Family medical issues will keep me away most of the time until about May 1. I know you can hang on that long without my observations!

I really recommend that you check out Jerry Pournelle, at www.jerrypournelle.com. I think he’s the original blogger, and his commentary and that of his readers covers science, science fiction, politics, music, health care, education…a very wide range of topics. He is a very wise man and a kickass hard science fiction writer. In fact, he and Larry Niven owned most of the hard science fiction real estate for about 20 years, and both are still writing, together and separately!

See you around the intertubes. Keep your heads down.

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Sayin’ something nice…about the Jawbone ICON + Nerd

February 19, 2013

jawbone

 

This little tiny thing is the Jawbone ICON HD + The NERD.

I’ve not had good luck with hands-free audio for driving. I have a Plantronics Voyager Pro that works passably with my iPhone 4S until I put the phone in my pocket and start walking. Then it cuts in and out, every time. It doesn’t fit in my ear very comfortably and the sound is so-so.

I have a set of Motorola S305 stereo headphones that provide reasonable sound for headphones of their size, but I can’t wear them in the car. (They also have pretty good range away from the phone.)

I’m doing a lot of long-distance driving, five hours or so at a clip, and I needed something better. I broke down and spent over a hundred bucks at Amazon on the Jawbone. And dammit, it was money well spent!

The thing has “HD” sound – I don’t know what that means for a monophonic, one-ear headphone, but it so far is way better than any other phone headset I’ve ever used. My wife says call quality on the other end is good, too, although I haven’t tested it on the road in my noisy Chevy Equinox.I wouldn’t want to listen to music with it all day, but I could listen to audiobooks with it for a couple of hours at a time, I think.

The NERD is the little USB dongle, obviously. While it is a Bluetooth dongle, it is a dedicated one – once you pair the Jawbone to it you can use it on any computer and it will still know to stay linked. And it can stream audio from the computer while you are waiting for a call on the iPhone, then it will switch to the iPhone when needed. That is way cool! The dongle does use up a USB port, but that’s OK with me because I don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time I want to connect it to the laptop.

So far, I recommend it. We’ll see after I have it a while. I don’t know about battery life. The button layout seems smart and I can switch it from one ear to the other without too much trouble and without changing anything. I think it will make those long drives a bit easier.

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So how’s that space program coming along?

February 17, 2013

asteroids

I found it on Jerry Pournelle’s site. I don’t know where he got it. Can’t read the type on the bottom. If anyone knows who created it, I would love to know…

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Hey, I’m on Google Earth!

February 17, 2013
No, really, it's us!

No, really, it’s us!

Last spring after my granddaughter’s preschool graduation we spent some time with one of her friends in a local park. The Google car drove by and we remarked that it would be something if we were included on Google Earth. And apparently – we were! Not tellin’ where, though!

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A few comments about why novels don’t get finished

February 16, 2013

I remember a couple of the rules for writers Robert A. Heinlein had, and two of them were:

You must finish what you write, and

You must keep it out there until it is sold.

(I hope I recall those correctly. I confess I’m too lazy to go look ’em up right now. If it wasn’t RAH, it was either Jerry Pournelle or Larry Niven. The second one sounds like Niven.)

Still, my point: none of that rearranging of electrons or scribbling on paper means anything unless you finish it. Okay, sure, you might learn some things from abandoning a project or two – if the idea wasn’t good enough, dump it and find another.

But I’ve been writing the marching band arranging book for a year now, and it’s out for first reading by some band director friends of mine, so I can start looking at something else. I have commitments to write two marching band shows for clients but I can’t write music all day every day. I have to assemble some ideas in the back of my head and then get them committed to notation.

The first novel I wrote takes place in S.M. Stirling’s Drakaverse. It is titled The Righteous Stuff, and as I was writing it bits and pieces appeared on this blog, a few years ago. I finished it three years ago,  I think, submitted it to Baen (who published Stirling’s Draka novels back in the 1990s) and waited for it to be rejected.

Which it was. I wasn’t surprised. I started writing it around 2000 or so, when the Draka novels were still fairly well known. Stirling hadn’t written the Nantucket series yet, or Dies The Fire and the rest of that series, and the concepts in the Draka novels were so unsettling that it was still bouncing around the internet a bit. I got about 50K words done and then didn’t touch it for years. Once I pulled it out I had it finished in about a year, writing off and on. I have two more books in the back of my head in that series.

Besides, I knew that the Draka novels always made Jim Baen uncomfortable, because SPOILER ALERT! the bad guys, essentially, won in the end. I didn’t submit it until after Jim Baen had passed, but even if the story was good enough, and I don’t know if it was, it would have required Stirling’s approval. His books are now published by Tor, I think, so maybe that would have been an issue as well.

Once it was officially rejected, I submitted it to the main Stirling fanfiction site. It’s run by a friend of Stirling’s, one of his first readers, and she handed it off to two other folks who were more familiar with the Draka. They provided me with a couple of pages of great notes on how I could make the book more consistent with the Drakaverse.

And…I’ve not touched it since. I should, since the changes aren’t that big, and it would only take me a month or so to get it finished so at least the book would see the electronic light of day. I toyed with the idea of “Fifty Shades of Gray”-ing it; no, not sexing it up, you dirty-minded readers – but taking out the Draka references and converting it into a stand-alone alternate history novel.

But the Draka are just such damned fine villains! I couldn’t figure out how to take them out and still make the book work. All the alternate universe US people and events are influenced by the presence of the Draka, past and present.

So maybe I will make the changes and submit it to the fanfic site. At least that way people could read the thing. I learned a lot writing it, but I don’t know that it would be worth my while right now to write the sequels. And the bad guys do win in the end, dammit.

My second novel, not related in any way to the Draka book, is about half done and I got stalled. Not for lack of a plot line, or because I was unhappy with the characters, or any of the usual reasons writers stall out on a book. It’s because the physics keeps changing.

See, there’s a major plot point that involves the creation of, and control of, a micro-sized black hole. I was going to have it created in the Large Hadron Collider, and confined and carried off. Now I’m not even sure the LHC can make micro black holes, or if it can, if they exist long enough to capture them. This long-term search for the Higgs boson has caused several reevaluations of quantum physics, apparently. I’m no particle physicist, that’s for sure, but I’ve tried to read all the relevant polarizations of the concepts of a reality with at least eleven dimensions, how some could be “rolled up” and therefore not perceived, how string theory works, and a lot of associated stuff.

And my major plot idea is dissolving because of the physics. I could do some hand-waving and ignore the last couple of years of research that’s gone on since I started the book. I could do the science-fictiony thing and postulate some new force or discovery that would make my story work. I could ignore logic and go ahead anyway. I’d still like to make it sound at least a little bit plausible.

See, the story is really about a crisis and how a group of people handle a potentially dangerous situation that no one understands. There will be no cable-company employee who quickly writes a virus that will drop the defensive shields on an alien ship, and do it in twenty minutes on an old Macbook. There’s no one super-smart person who is the only one who sees the answer while everyone else acts like fools and gets in the way. There are super-smart people, because those are the ones you need when you are dealing with the real unknown, but in this case they have to work together, use each other’s strengths, and behave like adults should.

In other words, a completely implausibly situation, right?

I’m happy with the character mix, and their backstories. I liked where the plot was going, and how quickly it was getting there. I wasn’t having to pad anything to stretch out the dramatic tension.

But I don’t believe my own physics. Part of it involves “force fields.”

Force fields have been used in skiffy for nearly a hundred years. Call them what you will, but tractor beams, repulsor fields, defensive shields, containment shields, all of these things have one thing in common: so far as I know, we don’t know how to project any of them.

Electromagnetic fields, sure. But to do so, we usually need some kind of conductors, and those are physical structures. A magnetic field requires something to shape and contain it. Nobody can project a directed magnetic field over a long distance, in a confined beam, except Magneto.

If I’m wrong about this, for God’s sake tell me! I admit my physics training is severely lacking, but I just couldn’t bring myself to write space opera, where nobody worries about such things.

I need a confinement field for gravity. Nobody really understand gravity, except maybe Roger Penrose or Misner, Thorne and Wheeler. If Penrose understands it, then the rest of us don’t; he has a completely different view of how the universe is put together. But the little I understand of twistor theory doesn’t help with what I need.

Not to reveal too much, I need to be able to control a “beam” of gravity, from a micro black hole, and have the ability to point it in one direction, so it attracts to a specific point, but not omnidirectionally. I’m faking it by confining it in a sort of makeshift Faraday cage right now, but that won’t work as the story develops.

Maybe I should do the hand-waving, finish the book, and then figure out the physics. But I could miss a completely good plot device or seven if I don’t understand the physics first.

So – you see why novels don’t get finished. It’s not laziness, or lack of inspiration. The universe gets in the way!

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Really, Apple? What’s up with Pages and pdfs?

February 14, 2013

So…I needed to produce a short, 4-page newsletter in a hurry, and I decided to use an existing template I found in iWork Pages instead of creating my own in InDesign. I know InDesign, actually have been spending a lot of time with it, but I thought this would be just as fast or hopefully faster since I could start with an existing template that I liked. It had about a half-dozen page choices, fonts that looked pretty good with the design and even a color scheme I figured I would not have to tweak. (I eventually did, but that’s another story.)

It went together pretty well. Pages does some quirky things with flow from one column to another, but I got past it. I have to say, the column flow in InDesign is pretty darned smooth nowadays, far better than back when it was still PageMaker. Things stay where you want them.

I got the newsletter done in a couple of days, on and off, and sent a draft out to the board members of the organization for which it was being created. Nobody seemed to have any problems. I did one more proofreading pass, caught a couple of things, and then exported the PDF.

I checked the PDF in Preview.  It looked fine. Then I decided I was going to add metadata that couldn’t be easily added in Preview (at least, as far as I know it can’t) so I fired up Adobe Acrobat X.

It looked, pardon my French, like shit.

The text wasn’t kerned properly and the letters were not aligned along a baseline. It looked like one of those “kiddie” fonts that tries to duplicate a child’s printing. I zoomed. Still ugly. I zoomed some more. Still not good, but better. Finally I zoomed out to where I only could see one column on a three-column page at once. Finally it was rendering the type correctly.

I tried printing to a PDF instead of exporting. I tried printing to PostScript, then opening that in Acrobat. I checked it with Acrobat 8 and 11 – same issues. I tried the “Print to Adobe PDF” – how is that different from “Print to PDF” – yes, there are a couple of things you can tweak, but that’s it. It looked just the same.

I figured every Windows user in the organization was going to be laughing their heads off if this thing got out. I did some quick Google searches, and found that THIS WAS A KNOWN PROBLEM. WHAT THE FRAK? THIS WAS NOT A QUIRK, IT WAS A FRAKKING CONSISTENT ISSUE!

What good is Pages if you can’t export a PDF? Print is dead, to quote Egon Spengler, and I’ll bet 90 per cent of documents created in Pages are never intended for print.

It has an “export to ePub” function, for cryin’ out loud! But it can’t render a PDF properly? Even Word can do that!

Near as I can tell, Pages doesn’t embed the fonts. If the reader’s computer doesn’t have the font it will only render it properly at the resolution at which the page was created, or something. It couldn’t scale the type nor kern it correctly. There doesn’t seem to be a way to get Pages to embed the fonts.

Finally, I switched all the text that was originally in Baskerville to Minion Pro. I figured that font should be on most of the Windows machines out there. It was on every list of standard system fonts in Win7 I could find. I didn’t like the look of the page as much; I had to actually decrease the font size and increase the spacing between the lines to get it to come out right without rebuilding the whole newsletter.

The newsletter should come out quarterly; I will switch to InDesign for the next one. So much for Pages. It’s just never seemed to be quite ready for prime time. It’s sad, because it could be a pretty nice app – pretty interface, tools that mostly work the way you expect, low learning curve. But as far as I’m concerned, the PDF export issue is a deal-breaker.

I expect better from Apple. I really do. I don’t think of the Apple folks as superhuman; just as a company that cares about the experience the user has with its products. This is NOT a minor point, to allow it to render PDFs incorrectly. I don’t care how much bad blood there is between Apple and Adobe. The Quartz engine should make PDF conversion pretty simple, and it usually is. (Remember, the granddaddy of Quartz was a little thing called Display PostScript…for the NEXT computer.) This is a really sad oversight. I hope Apple fixes it, but it seems to me that updates to Pages and the other iWork apps don’t appear very often.

Sorry for the caps. This really bugs me, not only because I just found it out of luck, and then spent two hours fixing it. I just have higher expectations of software developers. PDFs are such a standard I don’t know how that could have slipped past in beta testing.

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Avengers – Ensemble!

February 1, 2013

Avengers ENsembleToo good to not post…Thanks to Ren for passing it on. Are those cats or something in the cello section? And…HULK PLAY BASS!