30, 2006: Lulu Status Report
finally got a book configured and available for sale on Lulu
this morning. As a publisher, I was surprised at how easy it was.
However, if I were not a publisher, it would have taken a great
deal more close attention and experimentation. The truth is that
publishing isn't trivial, and Lulu has done a superfine job presenting
publishing's complexity to the inexperienced in the form of good
wizards, sane organization, and decent doc.
The book is one that I originally scanned, OCRed, and laid out
a few years ago, and could never quite decide how to release. It's
The New Reformation,
a contemporary history of the origins of the European Old Catholic
movement, by James Bass Mullinger, a Cambridge historian best known
for his massive three-volume history of Cambridge University that
spanned most of his productive life. The book was written and published
in 1875, and reads more like a journalistic account than a history.
Most accounts of the Old Catholics and their struggles with Rome
have been written by their antagonists, primarily the Roman Catholics,
but in later years by conservative Anglicans as well, who considered
the Old Catholics another body of competitors for non-Papal Catholic
adherence. Mullinger (writing under the pseudonym Theodorus) was
plainly sympathetic, and there is a level of detail supporting the
Old Catholic case that the Old Catholics' detractors obviously don't
care to mention.
Now, this is pretty narrow material, and I suspect that few if
any of ContraPositive's regular readers are within its primary audience.
But that's the magic of a system like Lulu: I can make the book
available for sale, and if only 50 people buy it, I won't lose my
investment in the rest of a 1000-book press run. If bookstores won't
shelve it (and trust me, they won't) I don't have to worry about
warehousing, inventory logistics, and the inevitable returns accounting.
In fact, Lulu does all the legwork of order taking, payment processing,
and order fulfillment. They take their cut, but my spreadsheeting
tells me that I'll make more (though not radically more) per copy
selling through Lulu than I would as a publishing house using conventional
retail channels. Of course, the book is not one that would likely
ever justify a conventional print run, so Lulu (and similar systems
like IUniverse) have basically
made its publication possible.
Some notable points about Lulu:
- Lulu has a nice collection of stock cover art, and you can generate
a cover automatically by entering the cover text (for the front
cover, at least) and choosing an art design from the stock catalog.
I chose a stock design for some test copies of a new layout I'm
creating for a new book series and had them shipped back to me,
and was quite impressed by the quality of the color cover. (The
New Reformation uses a b/w cover.)
- Creating a custom cover with your own art and layout is a little
trickier, but Lulu does help. After you upload the body of the
book as a PDF file, Lulu will calculate the dimensions of a wraparound
cover for you. This is very useful, because the dimensions of
the cover are extremely touchy if you want your spine text
to be centered on the book's spine.
- Lulu does some validations on the PDF files that you upload,
to ensure that the files conform to its requirements and to one
another. The last page must be blank, for example, and the number
of pages must be evenly disivible by four. Also, if you design
a cover yourself and upload it as a separate PDF file, Lulu will
calculate whether the size of the cover is correct for the size
of the body of the book as present in the other PDF. I came to
appreciate this when I uploaded an old cover PDF by mistake that
wasn't of a size to match the final book body PDF. Lulu called
me on it. All in all, quite impressive.
I haven't bought the distribution package that includes an ISBN
and distribution through other retailers, in part because the book
won't benefit from such distribution, at least immediately. I'm
hoping that they will allow me to use the book of ISBNs that I already
own, but if that falls through, the option is available.
Lulu also distributes downloadable ebooks, and my next Lulu project
will be a longish short story. I'm interested in seeing if anybody
will actually buy "a story for a dollar" as pundits in
the SF/fantasy arena have been predicting for years. ($1 is the
minimum price for downloadable files.) The trick there has nothing
to do with Lulu: I have to learn how to create a decent-looking
ebook for Microsoft Reader. The little Word plug-in that Microsoft
distributes for free doesn't even respect line centering, and I'd
like to do a little better than that. (CSS is the high road, but
I am so rusty at CSS...)
After that, I have a whole list of projects already underway, including
another Old Catholic reprint from the 19th Century. Right now, I have
to slide over to the Old Catholic gang and let them know that the
book is ready. I've been talking about it since 2002, and I'm sure
most of them by now think that I've given up. Better late than never,
29, 2006: The Fattest Computer Book in History?
Carol and I were down at the
ARC thrift shop earlier today, looking for a couple of pieces
of Corelle Ware. Not a whole set; just a couple of plates and/or
bowls in which to microwave leftovers. Nothing there but a couple
of Corelle saucers, and saucers (by which I mean little plates with
cup-sized dents in them) are about as useless as tableware gets.
No matter. We were in the neighborhood. And they had a book rack.
I scanned it quickly, and spotted a copy of what may well be the
fattest computer book ever published: Windows
2000 Professional Resource Kit, written in-house at Microsoft
and published in 2000, for $70. The book is the same width and height
as most computer books, but it's 1,770 pages long, and is 3 1/8"
thick. Even the titanic Michael Abrash's Graphics Programming
Black Book, which Coriolis published in 1997, only went 1, 342
pages and was a mere 2 5/8" thick. The only other thing in
my library that staggers into the same ballpark is the 15th anniversary
edition of Upgrading and Repairing PCs, which hit 1,575 pages
but is still a quarter inch thinner than Microsoft's Great White
It's not a bad book, though the publisher in me feels that its
page count was mostly a stunt, and it would have worked better as
two smaller volumes. Books with spines the size of eastern rural
counties fall apart under even moderate use, as we found to our
dismay with the Abrash tome. The copy of the Windows monster that
I found looked almost unusedand I got it for $2.99. Is that
a deal or what? (It certainly is if, like me, Windows 2000 is the
platform on which you do all of your paying work.) If you have a
fatter computer book, do send me measurements and a citation, but
I think this one gets the prize. I can see Steve Ballmer storming
into the Microsoft Press offices one day in 1999, on the eve of
the release of Windows 2000, and yelling "I WANT US TO HAVE
THE FATTEST COMPUTER BOOK EVER PUBLISHED! DO IT RIGHT NOW OR I'LL
START THROWING CHAIRS!"
Hey, have you got a better explanation?
28, 2006: Massive Spam Parallelism
One reason we will not be rid of spam anytime soon is that spam
is very well suited to massively parallel mechanisms. The recent
uptick in my spam (and everybody else's, I suspect) is due to the
fact that more bots are being knit into botnets, and they're better
bots. Even Port 25 blocking, which I thought was foolproof, will
not deter them long-term. Here's why:
- Bots can easily find saved logins and passwords for the local
ISP's SMTP server. Who doesn't let the client remember passwords?
Even if port 25 is blocked and the ISP's outgoing mail server
is the only one easily accessible, the bots can use it.
- Even where ISPs put explicit limits on the number of outbound
email messages from any single customer system, given enough bots,
huge numbers of messages can still be sent. You just need to divide
the work out so that no single bot delivers more than thirty to
fifty messages per day. If there are 10,000 bots in your botnet,
you can still make a lot of money.
- Until spam threatens the revenue stream of a Big Entity, nothing
much will be done about it. P2P is a shadow of what it once was
because Big Media mounted what at times looks like a terror campaign.
Even though much of what spam pushes is fraudulent or even illegal,
the spammers seem to be steering clear of most IP crimes. My best
hope is that the SEC will get serious about spam-based penny stock
fraud, but as the SEC has never had much interest in penny stocks,
the fraud will likely go on.
- Botnets now work command-and-control through IRC channels, but
if the IRC ports are blocked at the ISP level, it's almost trivial
to use HTTP tunnelling or some other protocol that uses essential
ports. As long as there's money in spam, the spammers will figure
out ways to keep their botnets alive.
In the meantime, I get over 100 penny stock pump-and-dump pitches
per day now, five times what I got a couple of months ago. Mortgage
refi spam is almost gone; amazing what changing interest rates did
for my inbox. Porn spam, too, has almost vanished, though I got
a spate of almost incoherent messages last week offering me pictures
of a woman working under the name "Texas Elegance" who
appears to be a 50-year-old porn star.
Eliminating botnets may be the computational problem of the
first half of the 21st century. I'm not kidding. Figure that out,
and you will rule the world.
27, 2006: More Cute Dog Pictures
Earlier today, a reader who will remain anonymous demanded, "Less
religion and more cute dog pictures!" I guess not everybody
has the same priorities. So here's a nice picture of QBit and Deano
taken oh, half an hour ago. God's patient; He can wait until next
26, 2006: Dogs Watching TV
Last night Carol and I reviewed the Mini-DV camcorder tape I had
just filled, and we saw something we had never seen before: Dogs
raptly watching TV. Much of the tape was footage of the local bichon
breeder's two latest litters of puppies, which Carol and I spent
some time with earlier this year to help get them used to people
and being handled. When footage of the puppies was on the big-screen
TV, QBit watched intently from his perch on the back of the couch.
Deano, our bichon guest for the past week, wasn't content to watch
from a distance. He went right up to the TV and watched while standing
on his back feet. (That's Deano in the photo above.)
Although both QBit and Deano watched when footage of QBit (or some
of Jimi's other adult bichons) was on screen, their attention sharpened
considerably when the focus was the five week old or eight week
old puppies. This was interesting, because QBit doesn't much like
puppies, and always tried to hide from them whenever we had him
over there for a haircut this spring. Deano was the same way: He
kept his distance from the puppies, and even occasionally growled
at them when they approached him, wanting to play. Yet when the
puppies were on TV, neither could stop watching.
I'm not sure what this means, but it was a fascinating thing to observe.
I always thought that dogs ignored the TV because they didn't know
what it was, and the light patterns didn't mean anything to them,
but in that I was dead wrong. Dogs will watch TV when the subject
is something of compelling interest to them. Why QBit and Deano were
intent on watching puppies when neither of them enjoyed being with
puppies is even more interesting. Male dogs may have evolved to watch
over their young without particularly enjoying their company. It would
be interesting to park a female bichon in front of the TV to see what
her reaction would be. We may borrow one of Jimi's females at some
point to perform the experiment. I'll report here when we do.
25, 2006: Another Year, Another Dollar
US mint has designed yet
another damned $1 coin, to be turned loose next February. It's
going to be the same size and color of the current Sacajawea dollar,
and have a rotating obverse to honor all of our deceased Presidents,
with one President featured every two years. The design is not stellar,
in my view, and I don't expect anybody to use them heavily, though
I will probably frame the Millard Fillmore dollar when it appears
in 2010. Although he got onto a pointless 13c stamp during the Depression,
poor President Fillmore has never gotten anywhere near a coin, which
is unfair, even for a man whom Mark Twain said "proved that
no one can grow up to be President." He brought books in quantity
to the White House for basically the first time, and I honor him
for that. (He is said to have installed the first bathtub as well,
but that's a legend circulated by H. L. Mencken.) He was the last
President to be neither a Democrat nor a Republican, and late in
life turned down an honorary degree from Cambridge University because
he felt he lacked the education to warrant it. Basically, a contrarian,
and a fairly humble one too.
Anyway. I have yet to hear any sense spoken about why our last
two dollar coins have not clicked with the public: They look too
much like quarters, and there are both practical and mythic problems
with that. The public perception of the "incredible shrinking
dollar" is not helped by a coin that looks no larger than a
quarter, and I think it's discourteous to blind folk (who like coins
because they can be differentiated by feel with a little practice)
to add that kind of confusion to their pockets.
Government arguments that a larger dollar coin would cost too much
in metal are specious; unless a coin cost more than a dollar to
make there's really no problem, and a coin can last in circulation
for fifty or sixty years. I got a 1940 Jefferson nickel in change
last week, and while it had been around the block a few times and
looked the part, it still helped pay for my chicken sandwich. A
dollar coin that will last for sixty years doesn't have to cost
a nickel to mint. Just consider how many dollar bills must be printed
and shredded in that same time period.
My suggestion: Officially retire the half dollar coin (no great
loss; I've not seen one in change in 25 years) and make a dollar
coin that is 15% larger than the traditional half-dollar, and a
little thicker. Keep the golden metal mix, or use something like
the UK pound coin, which is a handsome pale copper-nickel color
much like the US mint used on certain coins (like the wonderful
Eagle penny) in the 19th Century. On a recessed place on the
coin's reverse, put the denomination in Braille.
That done, leave the design unchanged...forever. The same image of
Abraham Lincoln has been on our penny for just under 100 years. That's
how I like my coins: Reliable and eternalrather like a dollar
should be, but isn't.
23, 2006: The Purpose of Purgatory
Just a quick postscript to yesterday's entry, after which I will
let the whole God thing rest for awhile.
A reader wrote last night to ask me if I believed in Purgatory.
Well, yeahjust not the Medieval concept of temporary divine
punishment that you could buy your way out of with prayers or money.
Simply because the concept was abusedand abused horriblydoesn't
mean that it has no merit.
If I have a personal theology of Purgatory, it cooks down to this:
Purgatory isn't about punishment, and especially pointless, Dante-esque
torture-style punishment. It's about Learning Better. It's about making
mistakes and paying for them in their natural consequences so that
we don't make those mistakes again. We enter Purgatory at birth, and
we do not leave it until we attain the ineffable state of the Beatific
Vision, having worked on our flaws across unknown realms where time,
space, thought, and feeling may not be precisely what they are here
on Earth. In the process, what we will ultimately learn is what it
means to have been created in the Image and Likeness of God; that
is, to be truly and completely human.
22, 2006: Mysteries, Absurdities, and Fideism
I got a disturbing email the other day, from a guy who had stumbled
on my site while looking for information on space-charge
tubes, and then "read the whole thing." (Whew! That's
persistence!) After complimenting me on the techie/philosophical
stuff, he then wrote: "Put as simply as possible, the Christian
message is this: God hates me because of something I didn't do,
and if I don't say the magic words, 'Jesus Christ is my Lord and
Saviour,' God will torture me in Hell forever. How can you possibly
believe in crap like that?"
The short answer is that I don't. (I made this clear in my reply,
some of which I'm adapting for this entry.) The understanding of
Christianity that he cited isn't the only one; it's just the one
that gets the most airplay these days. It's also the one that brought
me within a quarter of an inch of throwing Christianity over the
side completely. (At some point I'll work up the courage to describe
a night I spent watching something called "Christian wrestling,"
which was as surreal as it was appalling, and almost made an atheist
of me.) Nonetheless, great huge swaths of the Christian world do
believe this, even though it's a pretty concise statement of the
Great Heresy, Manichaeism, which Augustine of Hippo injected into
The Catholic interpretation of the Christian message is different,
but it still gnaws at me. In place of Calvinism's cruel God, Catholicism
and several other Christian traditions see a defeated God, who settles
for half a loaf and accepts that a certain number of persons will
just get lost in the darkness and never find their way home.
Belief as a mechanism seems inborn in some of us, and I'm certainly
in that camp. However, if I professed belief in either the Calvinist
(cruel) God or the Arminian
(defeated) God, I would be guilty of a philosophical position called
in something even though you know that it's absurd.
I need to point out here that there are mysteries, and there are
absurdities. Drawing an analogy to mathematics, it's the difference
Fourier transforms and dividing by zero. Fast Fourier transforms
are extremely difficult to understand, and when I'm being honest
with myself I admit that I'll go to my grave without understanding
them. Dividing by zero, on the other hand, is simply absurd. There's
nothing there to understand.
So things like the doctrine of the Trinity don't bother me at all.
Humility requires me to admit that I can't understand it, at least
in this life and at this state of my intellectual development. That
doesn't mean the concept is absurd. In fact, it rings with a kind
of truth that keeps me going, even in the face of toxic religion.
The Trinity is a mystery, as is the dual nature of Christ as true
God and true man. Neither is easily understood, but neither is a
contradiction in terms.
Now, when you come to the notions of a cruel God or a defeated
God, the contradictions emerge. An all-good God cannot be cruel,
and an all-powerful God cannot lose. To say I believed in either
would be self-deception, and this is why I profess belief in an
all-good and all-powerful God who will do whatever it takes
to gather everybody and everything back into Divine wholeness. Real
God, no compromises, no contradictions, no absurdities.
This doesn't mean that we won't be slogging through a certain amount
of Hell in the meantime. Anyone who has watched a loved one die
horribly (as I watched my parents die) will understand this. Suffering
itself is a kind of mystery, and one way to understand the Incarnation
is to realize that God has told us that He is suffering right down
here with us, and that suffering has meaning, if not meaning that
we can necessarily understand in the here and now. The notion of
a suffering God bothers a lot of people, but it makes perfect sense
to me: God is everything we are and infinitely more, and if so much
of human life is suffering, God Himself cannot escape. The life
of Christ is God telling us to hang in there, that we are not alone,
and that (deny it as some of us try) in the end all things will
be brought back to wholeness.
The real Christian message is implicit in the life of Christ. Hell
shows up in a couple of places in the Gospels, but from a height they
fade into the noise. What stands out are the miracles of Jesus, which
could have been advanced parlor magic like turning sticks into snakes
but are not: They are all movements from suffering and brokenness
back to wholeness. Feeding the hungry, healing the sick and the maimed,
bringing people back from the dead, yikes! That's where it's all going.
So in response to the Augustinian understanding of the Christian message
I'll posit this: God created us radically free, and the cost of freedom
is suffering, but the upsideparticipation in the Divine Natureis
huge, if not easy to understand at this point in our journey. God
doesn't lose, and ultimately we'll all get there, and in the meantime,
the message of Christ stands out in bright lights: Heal one another,
as I have healed you.
21, 2006: My New Custom Table
I don't think I ever posted a photo of my new work table, on which
my main system, printer, and new scanner live. (Yes, the scanner
stand is a scrap lumber lashup, and I'm designing a better one.)
When we moved into this house, I bought an oak table that was about
the right width and depth, but which was at least 4" too high.
The height of the table coupled with the size of my 21.4" Samsung
LCD monitor (operating in portrait mode, to boot) gave me serious
neck problems that I'm still dealing with. So I hunted around, and
in remarkably little time ran across a near-perfect table in knotty
alder at a local unfinished furniture place.
It was still too high, but they have a full wood shop in the back
room, and for another $100 I had them cut the trestle base portion
down so that the table surface is precisely 26 1/2" above the
floor. I had them stain it to harmonize with the rest of the wood
in my office (of which there is much) and then finish it with a matte
urethane that filled the cracks in the knots right up to the surface.
It's strong, precisely the right size, and gorgeous. I paid a little
more for it than your average computer desk (about $750 total) but
given how much time I spend sitting in front of this damned box (and
how much of my living I make doing that sitting) I think it was worth
20, 2006: Reincarnating Mr. Byte
As if we didn't have enough to do around here, Carol and I are
temporarily taking care of a friend's bichon. Deano is a show dog,
and still has all of his um, equipment. This makes him get a little
nuts when Jimi's females go into heat, which they all do at the
same time. So we're taking Deano until the heat's off back home.
Deano knows Carol, since she was doing a bit of appenticing on bichon
grooming under Jimi earlier this year. So although he's still a
little skittish, he's getting used to being away from home. Deano's
arrival has caused an interesting incidental phenomenon: Carol and
I have spontaneously begun calling QBit "Mr. Byte." It's
not deliberate, and happens most often when the two of them are
doing something we'd rather they not do.
Long-time readers of mine will remember that we had a bichon frise
named Mr. Byte from 1980 to 1995. I wrote about him a lot, and people
were asking me how he was doing long after he died of old age. QBit
looks superficially like Mr. Byte, but I don't think that's the
issue. Deano is younger and considerably smaller than QBit, who
at 16 pounds is on the high side of the envelope for the breed.
Mr. Byte was a good size tooand in 1982, we bought a second
puppy, the less famous Chewy. Chewy was always a little smaller
than Mr. Byte. So now we have a familiar pattern: Two bichons in
the house, one significantly larger than the other. Something in
the backs of our heads preverbally remembers the pattern, and when
it comes time to yell at QBit to get his nose out of the potted
plants, "Mr. Byte, stop that!" comes out of its own accord.
Interestingly, we haven't yet called Deano "Chewy." Maybe
that's the next step in this odd sliver of madness that comes of having
multiple bichons underfoot.
16, 2006: Here Comes Kathleen Elizabeth Roper!
desired and very long awaited, but, well...beautiful! Nine
pounds, 14 ounces. Twenty-one inches long. I have it on good authority
that she has her father's hair and eye color.
Better still, all involved with the project are healthy, though
Gretchen looks like she could use a few good solid nights' sleep.
I had to reflect earlier today: What did I ever want that I wanted
as badly as my good sister wanted to be a mother? Probably nothing.
I wanted to be an SF novelist (and it took about as long to get
there) but that's not in the same league. Wanting to marry Carol,
perhapsthough that only took seven years, not twenty-five.
Gretchen and Bill's persistence inspires awe, and when we got the
news this morning at ten to seven, it drew some tears as well.
It's pointless to say that the real work starts now. Most of that
falls to Gretchen and Bill, of course, but I'll have a chance to
pitch in. I have to learn Lego, and I still have to chase down a
few books that all kids need read to them, not once but many times.
I need to chase down a Polish nursery rhyme that my grandmother
used to recite while she rocked me in a little rocking chair. (It
begins, Ah, ah, kotka dwa...or something like that. I don't
know how to spell the words!) Beyond that, yikes! I don't know.
But there will be plenty of time to ponder the future. For the
moment, we're glad that the family is safe and healthy. It was only
briefly that I caught myself thinking, if only her grandparents
could be here to see her...
But how could I ever doubt that they are?
16, 2006: Prayers for our Imminent Brin
I just heard that my sister Gretchen and her husband Bill had rocketed
off to Madison, Wisconsin to await the birth of their first child.
an unconventional pregnancy, in that for medical reasons, they
had to have someone else carry the child to term, though the embryo
was fertilized in vitro and is completely theirs.
So. 25 shelf-feet of theology books in my library, and I finally
get to be a godfather! Figuring that the three of them (and the
carrier mother too) will need all the help they can get in the next
few days, I got up on the ladder and dug around on my high shelf
(missals and prayerbooks) looking for a prayer for safe delivery
of a child. Nada. I have prayers in books for some odd things ("Prayer
for a person one dislikes," and "Prayer for the solution
of a financial problem," among numerous others) but nothing
for safe delivery and good health for a new baby.
I guess I'll have to write my own.
All-powerful God, Creator of All Things and Ground of All
Being, grant a safe and healthy birth to this new life, and
give strength to the parents who conceived it and the woman
who bore it. Send your Spirit to give the child the breath of
life, so that she (or he) may be strong and joyous and rooted
in the Earth where we all dwell. Give us all the wisdom to know
when to advise and when to be silent, when to help and when
to simply stand back and let the child be human as we are human,
so that his (or her) humanity may be a beacon that we send into
the future, as we were sent by those who came before us. This
we ask, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the
15, 2006: Good Pope Benny and Clerical Celibacy
The story was everywhere on Monday that today (Thursday) Pope
Benedict XVI will be holding a meeting with the Curia to discuss
the future of the thousand-year-old Roman Catholic tradition of
mandatory celibacy for priests and bishops. The immediate trigger
was another outburst from one of Rome's most embarrassing nutcases,
the defrocked Archbishop
Emmanuel Milingo, who (after a several years' dalliance with
the Moonies) has taken the celibacy issue on as his
Really Big Thing. (Just because I agree with him on this issue
doesn't mean he isn't a nutcase. You should read about his
exorcism masses, among other things.)
I will hand it to Archbishop Milingo: He hit Rome where it hurts.
Earlier this year, he consecrated four married men as bishops. At
least two of them have a long history with the Old Catholic Church,
and one of them (Peter Paul Brennan) I've spoken with. (Some information
on Bp. Brennan is here.
Scroll down a little; he's #3 on the page.)
The Vatican is in a bit of a spot here, because of the longstanding
Roman Catholic theology regarding apostolic
succession: The mental and spiritual state of the consecrator
does not affect the validity of the consecration. In other words,
even if Milingo is a few drills short of an index, if he follows
the accepted form for the ceremony of consecration, and if the bishops
he consecrates have the desire to become bishops, well, then they're
bishops. They may not be licitlegal in the eyes of the Vaticanbut
they are nonetheless valid. And because a bishop is the highest
ordained office recognized in Catholic tradition, one representing
"the fullness of the priesthood," a bishop can consecrate
other bishops, and preside over an independent Catholic jurisdiction.
If this sort of thing happens too many times, you end up with splinter
churches all over the place.
Just as the late Pope John Paul II was an idealist, Good Pope Benny
is a pragmatist, and I've grown to like him. (Popes should not be
idealists. They have a Church to run.) He understands the weakness
of the celibacy tradition (it was enacted to keep children of priests
and bishops from claiming inheritance of Church property under the
emerging secular law of the Middle Ages) and its unpopularity with
the laity. He also knows that he's running out of priests. So while
it may not happen this year or next year, I think that the celibacy
requirement is going to go away fairly soon. (We will see the end
of the ban on women priests eventually, but it won't be within my
lifetime.) The Eastern Orthodox have never entirely banned married
priests, and Rome has quietly accepted a number of Anglican priests
with wives and families into its fold.
His big problem, of course, is how to pay for the upkeep of tens of
thousands of wives and kids, and the big question that Roman Catholics
have to ask themselves is this: Am I willing to cough up a lot
more to the Church to support clerical families? Protestants and Anglicans
do it as a matter of course. We'll see what the laity says when their
parishes ask for donations of thousands of dollars each yearnot
merely the odd 20 that most people toss in the basket on Sundays.
13, 2006: Odd Lots
- Sun is releasing
Java under the same GPL V2 license that governs use and distribution
of the Linux kernel. Tim Bray, director of Web technologies at
in some of the details here. It's interesting how the three
big players in this particular game (Sun, Adobe, and Microsoft)
all seem to be realizing how holding tight to a technology isn't
the way to get the world to embrace it.
- In response to my
half-serious Odd Lot about my Neanderthalic occipital bun,
I was pointed to a couple of Web documents on craniometry,
or the study of brain size and shape, and their implications.
On average (and taking general body size into account) Asian brain
cases are the largest, followed by European brain cases, followed
by African brain cases. Much nastiness has been tossed around
during discussion of such data, but what no one seems to mention
is that the Neanderthals had way bigger brains (and somewhat bigger
bodies) than any of us, and no one is quite sure why. (Here's
short, accessible introduction to this issue.) Craniometry
was not new to me, but what I hadn't heard is that in general,
the higher you go in latitude, the larger brain cases become.
Maybe it's a square-cube law thing: Bigger brains generate more
heat and would cook in equatorial climates, but not in Sweden.
I'm personally much more interested in how small a brain
case could be and yet still support intelligence like that of
modern humanity. Are Piper's Little
Fuzzies (14-inch-high humanoids) a physiological possibility?
I don't think we know enough about brain function yet to be sure.
- Jim Strickland sent me a
link to the European home of the Hubble Space Telescope, with
a nicely organized archive of spectacular photos. Dig in.
- I'm sympathetic to robots made out of all kinds of things, but
if I had to pick a system I'd want to fool with myself, I'd pick
Vex five throws out of three.
The Mythbusters guys did a
nice review on Robot Magazine, and I would characterize it
as a true Meccano/Erector Set descendent slanted toward robots.
Vex builders have a forum,
and I've seen a Vex robot beat all comers in a "critter crunch"
robot battle held at a Chicago SF con. I have too much invested
in vintage Meccano
and Exacto to throw
money into Vex, but it seems to be that the Vex remote control
systems and power trains might be adapted to Meccano girder hole
12, 2006: Lee Anne and Middle Earth
I began walking to The Lord of the Rings DVD again this
evening for the first time in awhile, as I probably will a couple
of times a year for the rest of my life. And when the first view
of Bilbo Baggins' stately hobbit hole Bag End appeared, I snorted
with abrupt recognition: I now have a house dug into the side of
a hill as well. Its interior even shares some stylistic touches
with Bag End, and lord knows there are lots of books scattered around
on oak shelves, beams against a vaulted ceiling, and always some
aged cheese, good wine, and rough bread within easy reach. I envision
myself curled up in a comfy chair with a good book, and I wonder
if I'm becoming a bit of a hobbit myself.
some fair irony in that, especially considering my initial reaction
to Tolkien's expansive fantasy, which I began under some protest
at age 14. I read it at the behest of the little girl three houses
down the street, for whom I began to have strong feelings at that
time. (The photo at left of her at 13 is, alas, the only one I have
of her.) She'd been there since my earliest memory, and we'd always
played together, co-inventing imaginal worlds without any conception
of how good we both were at it. By the time we were 11 we both had
typewriters (didn't everybody?) and we wrote one another outlandish
stories. Hers leaned toward elves and dragons; mine toward starships
and aliens. No matter; we had a fine time together.
I remember how she handed me The Fellowship of the Ring
when I was mostly through my freshman year in high school. It was
an elf thing, sigh, but she would brook no argument, and I was becoming
aware of a desire to please her that wasn't quite like the one I'd
felt in years past. So I sat down that night and the book just drew
me in, as it usually does to anyone with any imagination at all.
I remember grumbling about "all this magic stuff" but
damn, it was catching. My two best friends at school caught
it from me, and we read it and argued about it for the rest of our
time at Lane Tech.
Lee Anne was damned good at her storytelling, and she embarrassed
me a little by working my aliens-and-starships turf with a great
deal more aplomb than I could move in elves-and-dragons land. She
created aliens that looked a lot like elves but had starships, and
we played with an SF collaboration called The Timenor, which
was about her elfin telepathic aliens, their wicked cool starships,
and a battle with Cosmic Evil. Magic and telepathy were a natural
for her. On the other hand, in spite of all her encouragements,
I had a bitch of a time with the idea of magic or anything else
smacking of the supernatural. Reading about it was one thing, but
eek! I was the son of an engineer, and had a beer box full of radio
tubes in the basement. I always ruined my fictional magic by having
to explain it. (Engineers assume that everything cooks down to resistors
at some point and feel obliged to draw the schematics.) She made
hers work by understanding that Magic Just Is.
That wasn't the only gulf we couldn't cross. By my fifteenth birthday
I fancied myself in love with her, but there was something odd about
the feeling that I think she understood a little better than I did.
Once in the thick of a giddy August evening on her back porch I
tried to kiss herand she ducked. Things got awkward quickly
after that. She told me she liked me better as the friend I'd always
been than she would like me as a boyfriend, and after some inner
grumbling I accepted that. It would be decades before I saw the
research suggesting that the incest taboo is a product of upbringing,
in that unrelated children raised in close proximity from infancy
have an intuitive caution about physical attraction, just as true
siblings do. I think that if I had kissed her that August night,
I would have understood the oddness too. Go back far enough into
childhood, and "childhood sweethearts" just doesn't work.
Evolution knows what it's doing.
Lee Anne died of a brain tumor in 1996. Somewhere in a box I have
what we wrote together of The Timenor, paper-clipped to some
of my notes and a couple of abortive attempts in later years to
keep it going. If I stay on my current trajectory, one of these
years I may yet get a grip on evil cosmic forces or even magic itself,
and then it may be time to pull out The Timenor and see what
happens. Can an engineer just accept magic as it is and not try
to explain it? I keep thinking that if I read (or watch) The
Lord of the Rings just one more time, it'll come to me.
I'm at it again. We'll see. Hang in there, Lee.
9, 2006: Odd Lots
aggregated an article about brain size and Neanderthal genes,
with all the silly jokes and breathless recriminations that any
such business now generates...but it also gave a name to the bump
that I have on the back of my head: It's an occipital
bun. It's present in some northern European groups, but almost
nonexistent elsewhere. People say we inherited it from the Neanderthals,
which implies that I'm part caveman. Maybe I should make a
- My observation of the transit of Mercury yesterday went very
well, and I showed the event to a fair number of people from our
church, as well as a couple of curious passers-by. The small size
of the planet's image caused one woman to remark that she thought
it was dirt on the foamcore sheet. Spectacular, well, it wasn'tbut
I was very glad to have seen it, as there won't be another for
ten years. See Pete Albrecht's blog for a
nice photo. Mine were not so good, because the foamcore on
which I projected the Sun's image was a little too shiny. We learn,
- One major objection to Flash as a development platform is that
it's proprietary, and while there's some significance in that
(and .NET isn't?) Adobe seems to be doing right right thing to
promote the platform, by
contributing source code for the ActionScript virtual machine
to the Mozilla Foundation. Mozilla will be incorporating the
new source code into the Tamarin open-source ECMAScript virtual
machine, which will eventually make its way into Firefox. It's
not the whole solution, but it's a significant step in the right
direction for Flash.
- Michael Covington pointed me to a link indicating that demand
for $2 bills is increasing, and nobody can explain the trend.
I thought they were extinct, and haven't gotten one in change
in 25 years. One fascinating note in the article describes a wine
shop operator who gives the bills out in change, which makes people
remember his shop. That's certainly a marketing strategy I wouldn't
have come up with myself!
- According to 1960s music expert Kent Kotal, the very first Beatles
single in America was published by Chicago record company Vee
Jay, and was played for the first time in America on Chicago station
WLS by DJ Dick Biondi in early 1963. The single was "Please
Please Me," and it was also significant as the first rock
single I ever bought with my own money. (I was 11 at the time,
and disposable income was a new thing for me.)
8, 2006: Transit of Mercury
In just a few hours, today's transit of the planet Mercury across
the face of the sun will begin. It's an event that happens about
13 times per 100 years, though they're by no means evenly spaced:
The last one ocurred in May 2003, but the next one will not happen
until 2016. I'll be out in St. Raphael's parking lot after lunch,
with my vent-pipe junkbox 8" scope projecting the image of
the Sun on a sheet of white foamcore ($4 at Hobby Lobby) for safe
viewing. (I'm going to the church to view the transit because where
I live I have this honking mountain just west of me, and the Sun
will go behind the mountain when the transit is only about half
Viewing the transit isn't as simple as viewing a partial solar
eclipse. You can project an image of the Sun through a pinhole and
get the "crescent moon" effect of the Sun with the Moon
partially obscuring it. I've actually projected the partially eclipsed
Sun through the holes in a saltine cracker, and even through a gap
in my hands held together to produce a shadow puppet. (If you're
skilful at shadow puppets you can project the Sun's partially eclipsed
image as the shadow puppet's eye.)
Unfortunately, Mercury is tiny compared to the Sun. It's not much
of a planet to begin with (Mercury's been looking over its shoulder
ever since Pluto got demoted to...not quite a planet) and it's a
long way out there. So while the angular diameter of the Sun is
about thirty arc-minutes, Mercury's angular diameter is only 10
arc seconds, which is only 1/200 as wide. Mercury will thus
appear as a very tiny black dot, and you won't get a sharp enough
image through a pinhole to display it.
If you have a telescope, you can project an image of the sun on
any blank white surface. If you can get a focused image at least
three or four inches in diameter, you shouldn't have any trouble
seeing the planet. If you get a good projected image, do what I
do and just snap a digital camera photo of the projected image.
I did that while observing a group of sunspots back in 2003 and
beautifully even though a stiff wind was blowing the white cardboard
Obviously, you need to be aware that you should not look through
a telescope pointed at or near the Sun! Close to the eyepiece,
the beam can melt solder; imagine what it would do to your eye.
One additional tip that Pete Albrecht reminded me of: If your telescope
has a finder scope, take it off the main scope before you aim it
at the Sun. The reticles (or crosshairs) in finder scopes can be
damaged if the concentrated light of the Sun falls on them for any
period of time. Also, there will be a beam of light coming out of
the finder that can scorch hands and permanently damage eyes. (The
beam will also be coming out of the main eyepiece, but you'll at
least be aware of that one.) Make sure if kids are around that they
aren't left alone with the instrument, lest they attempt to look
The transit begins at 19:12 Universal Time, which cooks down to
3:12 PM AT, 2:12 PM ET, 1:12 PM CT, 12:12 PM MT, and 11:12 AM PT.
The transit lasts just under five hours, and I will not see the
end of it here before sunset. Only people on the west coast will
see the whole thing.
I'll post some of my photos tomorrow, as will Pete Albrecht. He has
a bigger scope and much better gear, so don't forget to check out
his blog this
evening. He has a lot of other extremely nice astrophotos posted there.
I don't know if Michael Covington will be posting any photos, but
it's worth checking his
blog as well, since he does some truly spectacular work with his
8" compound scope.
7, 2006: Communities of Anger
Election Day. God, let it be over soon. I am so sick of
being called by the teachers' unions telling me that our schools
are out of money (they're not) and by the thumpers telling me that
gay marriage will be the end of the world. (It won't.)
If we're really in trouble it may be due to a disturbing trend
mentioned a few days ago in the Wall Street Journal: That
American are retreating into "communities of anger" that
consider any disagreement whatsoever a moral insult, and that our
political discourse (if you could still call it that) is more hate-filled
and poisonous than at any time in our history. It's enough to break
As best I can tell, there are two forces at work here, one ancient
and one modern. The ancient one is the two party system, which has
been (mostly) with Americans forever. I have never much liked the
reductiveness of two-party systems, and the enthusiasm with which
many people put a slave collar around their necks and hand their
chains to a political party baffles me. Political parties exist
for one reason and one reason only: To make the world safer for
their largest financial donors. Political parties do not care a
whit for me, and they do not care a whit for you, except to the
extent that our needs align with (and fail to conflict with) the
large organizations that hand them money. Worse, they force their
candidates to the extremes, which is where the big money comes from.
Look at what the Dems did to Joe Lieberman, a centrist whom I think
would have made a pretty decent president, and who could well have
knocked Bush out of the game at halftime, had the dimbulbs on the
lefty fringes given him a chance to run.
As long as there remains some ability in the body politic to see
other perspectives and compromise, a two-party system can work.
But now we confront the modern force: A shrinking ability to conceive
even the possibility that one is wrong, or that a strongly
held belief might not be in everyone'sor anyone'sbest
interests. This is what I was leading up to with yesterday's entry.
We have increasingly blind faith in our own unquestionable rightnessand
by implication, the rightness of the political party to which we
(inexplicably) sell ourselves as slaves. When someone dares disagree
with us, our first response is fury, followed by condemnation and
the closure of all discussion.
Where this second force comes from remains a little obscure, but
Jim Strickland suggested sagely that the manic emphasis on "self-esteem"
in our schools may well be one causeor perhaps the main one.
We are teaching our children not to doubt themselves. There
is tremendous danger in that. The heart and soul of democracy is
compromise, and fundamental to the notion of compromise is acceptance
of the reality that none of us is "right." Every idea
has flaws, no solution to any problem is perfect, and there is no
black and white anywhere except painting and mathematics. Political
problems are not solvable. At best, they are manageable, but in
a democracy management only happens by consensus.
If we cannot doubt the positions that we have taken, then we are
no longer small-d democratswe are totalitarians. What saves
us here in the U.S. may well be our razor-sharp division into halves
by political party, preventing either party from granting all authority
to its moneyed owners. When the dust settles late tonight, that
division may be even closer. There is some wisdom in crowds. Gridlock
isn't ideal, but it's better than dictatorship.
I keep three principles in mind when contemplating my own position
in the political world, and I offer them to you if you want them:
- I am always wrong.
- The other guy always has a point.
- The answer (if one exists) is always somewhere in the
Beyond that, it's useful to ask yourself, Who owns me? Unquestioned
loyalty to anythingespecially political partiesis unhealthy.
And finally, a truth that everybody seems to have forgotten: Your
apparent IQ is inversely proportional to your level of anger. In
other words, the angrier you are, the stupider you look.
It took me a great many years to figure that out, but it's never far
from my mind anymore, and it has kept me from retreating into a community
of anger, from which nothing emerges but hatred and division.
6, 2006: Faith without Doubt
Numerous people have sent me notes since this past Saturday asking
if I'd heard about Ted Haggard, a local pastor at New Life Church,
the largest of several rock-band megachurches that have long been
giving Colorado Springs a bad name among secular folk. Well, uh,
yeah. It's about the only thing there was in Saturday's paper, and
has dominated local news ever since then. Quick summary: One of
our noisiest and most self-righteous local Bible-thumpers was caught
having sex with a male prostitute out of Denver, and admitted that
he'd been paying this guy for sex for three years. Oh, and
then it came out that the same guy sold Haggard some meth, which
Haggard insisted he never used. Boy, where have we heard that
It's true that Haggard is human, but he's also a religious leader,
and I don't think it's unreasonable for us to have much higher
standards for religious leaders than for ordinary people. I've been
saying for years (basically since the Roman Catholic clergy abuse
crisis blossomed) that religious leaders (clergy or lay) who cannot
control their appetites must resign now, and work on their
own inner demons before trying to help others with theirs. Crying
"fallenness" is no excuse at all. Most of us who haven't
spent years in divinity school are perfectly happy being faithful
to our spouses.
One has to ask why these periodic meltdowns of prominent religious
leaders happen at all. One obvious reason is that born leaders (especially
male leaders) tend to have ravenous sexual appetites. But it isn't
always about sex; it can be about drugs, power, or (especially)
money. I think there's another issue here: Faith without doubt.
People who work relentlessly at removing any least shred of doubt
from their faith in God don't always notice that the same effort
removes doubt from their faith in themselves, and can cause them
to subconsciously make excuses for their own nasty behavior, often
without realizing what's going on. In my lifelong struggle with
religion, I've learned a number of things, and tops on the list
is that "blind" faith (that is, faith without doubt or
examination) is absolutely deadly.
Faith is not effortless, and it is not automatically any source
of comfort. Quite the contrary: Faith is almost by definition life's
supreme challenge, and that challenge is the engine by which we
grow spiritually. Inherent in that growth is doubt. If you don't
doubt that you have flaws that need work, you will deny them, hurt
others, and continue being a selfish, hurtful shit. A mindset that
cannot doubt anything about one's religious framework or culture
tends not to doubt one's personal integrity, either.
There's nothing wrong with doubting the existence of God, nor certainly
doubting the details of any given religious tradition. God will
get you sooner or later; C. S. Lewis called Him "the Hound
of Heaven," and I don't think He requires adherence to a particular
religious tradition so much as being pointed in the right direction.
(That direction being one of mercy, kindness, and generosity.) Being
pointed in the right direction requires self-examination and self-doubt.
If you never question the validity of your picture of God nor the
religious framework within which you live, you will not grow, and
you will end up stale, aching, and empty. Certain personality types
have a tendency to turn that inner emptiness into rage directed
at others, and there's where a great deal of toxic religion comes
from. I've run into a few reactionary types in the far corners of
the independent Catholic wing of Christianity, and they were for
the most bitter, angry men who had no ability whatsoever to doubt
themselves. Alpha males, Right Men, whatever you want to call them,
they are dangerous people, not only to themselves and their loved
ones but to their religious traditions and the very idea of religion
I doubt every last detail of my own religious tradition, and yet I
keep returning to it. Am I nuts? No. Am I a heretic? Hardly. I think
that's just how faith works. The more you doubt it, the more you understand
it, and the more you understand the vastness of the challenge that
faith represents. If you continue to feel that it's worthwhile (a
separate discussion) the effort can transform you, and that's ultimately
what faith is about.
5, 2006: Who Needs a New Computer?
Carol and I were down at Otho's yesterday and Christmas muzak was
playing instead of their usual saxaphone jazz. Oh, well. Halloween
is over and for whatever reason, Thanksgiving doesn't have much
traction with the American imagination anymore.
But right on schedule, Slashdot aggregated a
(weak) article this morning, saying what we hear almost every
Christmas season: PC sales will be weak, for a list of ridiculous
reasons: exploding batteries, waiting for Vista, yadda yadda yadda.
Nobody seems willing to admit the obvious: For the overwhelming
majority of consumers, PCs purchased two or three or even five or
six years ago are still perfectly usable, especially if they don't
have multiple malware infections and have undergone a little degunking
to reduce Windows entropy.
One of my ministries at our parish (though I still grin a little
thinking of it as a ministry) is helping parishioners out with their
PCs. I have helped a few make the jump to new machines, often from
doddering wrecks that they have owned for ten or twelve years.
But mostly I just help them get back on track after being derailed
by malware or accumulated gunk. I see a lot of 1999-2002 era machines
running Office 97 and little else. I install Firefox and sometimes
Thunderbird for them (as well as a firewall if they don't have one)
and they're off with a roar, happy as can be.
Even I get three or four years out of a machine, and in fact I
still have in almost daily service my primary boxes purchased in
1998 and 2002. A lot of my software dates back to 1999 and 2000.
It does what I need, and on a 3 GHz machine with 4 GB of RAM, that
old stuff really rips. I bought an XP system because a guy in my
line of work needs to know XP, but my daily operations are still
conducted under Win2K because I will not allow a computer to hold
my work hostage.
We're on a plateau. The "user experience" is generally
pretty good. Even non-enthusiasts have had time to get used to Windows
and the general concepts behind Windows computing. Their machines
do what they need to do. PC lifetimes are stretching out, and I
think we hit a sort of sweet spot in or about 1999. There will be
Win2K and XP boxes running unmodified for another fifteen years,
or even more.
Geek tho I may be, I still have a 1995 minivan in my garage. Still
works. Coupla rust spots, but heyit's paid for. Why do computer
companies assume they can push a new box down everybody's chimney
every two years?
3, 2006: Odd Lots
- Much going on here, and I may not be publishing Contra quite
as often as in previous months. A lot centers on preparing materials
for Lulu, which I'm going to be testing in a number of ways. I'm
also testing a new scanner designed specifically for scanning
books and magazines, and will report here once I've gotten a good
feel for it.
- I got a Skype spam the other day, and (worse) it was a 419 scam
from South Africa. The instant the message arrived, the sender
was offline, clearly to avoid being traced. Although Skype can
block senders, it's pretty obvious that that message would not
arrive from that same sender again. Conventional spam is also
up, and nearly all of the additional spam is pump-and-dump stock
scams, which may well be the perfect crime.
- I'm increasingly convinced that Flash is hugely superior to
AJAX as a Web 2.0 platform. Check out calendar/organizer
app Scrybe, a Flash app that (admittedly) is not yet generally
availablebut play the video. Egad. I don't know about
you, but I find that extremely impressive, especially since
Scrybe works when you're offline, and will seamlessly sync with
your server-side data as soon as you connect.
- There is a
transit of Mercury this coming Wednesday. While not as vanishingly
rare as a transit of Venus, it's still uncommon, and worth watching
if you have the usual solar eclipse paraphernalia. The transit
will be seen in its entirety only from the westernmost quarter
of the US; east of there, the sun will set before the Mercury
completes its run across the solar disk. Here in Colorado, we'll
get most of it, though the transit will end shortly after sunset,
and the presence of mountains on our western horizon makes things
a little complex. I'm heading about five miles east to our church's
parking lot to get away from Cheyenne Mountain, and will have
my 8" scope projecting an image on foamcore for anyone who
wants a look.
1, 2006: Designing Novels, Part 3: Plot
We are storytelling creatures, and I have an intuition that language
evolved in parallel with storytelling as a survival skill: Relating
where the game can be found, impressing women (and rivals) with
your badass exploits, and so on. Kids are really good at creating
stories, for entertainment, bluster, or to shift blame. ("The
dog ate my homework!") So fashioning plots may be at once the
easiest and the most difficult part of designing novels: Easiest
because it's in our genes; and hardest, because it's so deep in
our genes that it's difficult to control.
The way I plotted The Cunning Blood (and most of my earlier
fiction longer than a few thousand words) was simple, effective,
and occasionally infuriating: I created a broad concept, vividly
envisioned an opening scene, then cast wide the gates and let 'er
rip. The details of the plot (almost) always emerged in a form that
would both gibe with my broad concept and move the story in a useful
The broad concept often begins very simply, and for The Cunning
Blood went something like this: Peter Novilio and his nanocomputer
partner the Sangruse Device are sentenced to transportation to Hell,
and Peter is offered a pardon if he can go down there and come back
with useful information on what Hell is up to. While there he uncovers
a plot to topple Earth's world government. End of plot outline.
Going in, that's literally all I had.
It grew quickly, of course, but what I found amazing is how much
of the plot detail showed up in a "just-in-time" fashion.
Every so often I had to think hard about what would come next, but
in most cases the ideas that would become the plot for Chapter X+1
came flooding in just as I was wrapping up Chapter X. Late in the
book, when the action was no longer linear in a single thread, I
had to take a couple of time-outs to sketch out sequences of scenes.
(One such timeout was a very memorable autumn walk in Seattle with
my close friend Michael Abrash.) But while I was writing a single
thread, the details came to me as I needed them.
Every once in awhile the chipper/shredder in the back of my head
spat out a dead end. This happened twice in The Cunning Blood,
and I had to backtrack and scrap about 10,000 words. One chapter
scrapped was just plain bad, although it had coalesced around an
interesting idea. (I may use the idea in the sequel, if I write
the sequel.) The other was a door to perhaps another 100,000 words
of story complication, and I was already well past my first 100,000
and looking for an ending. I'm always annoyed when I have to delete
text, but it was encouraging how easily my subconscious picked up
the scent again with a little conscious prodding.
I'm a sample of one, and it's hard to generalize strictly from
my own experience, but I have noticed that it helps to visualize
early scenes as cinematically observed, and not just textual descriptions
in a note file. That means just what it sounds like: Create a
movie in your head and watch it. The first scene in The Cunning
Blood as I originally wrote it had a heavily-armed assassin
stalking Peter Novilio in an ancient graveyard. (The first scene
as published was written later and added as a kind of prequel to
give the reader some bearings.) I envisioned the graveyard right
down to the crumbling walls and the glints of light on polished
headstones, and I spent some significant time leaning back in my
chair and following an imaginary video of Peter playing cat-and-mouse
with his assailant. There is a strong visual component to our storytelling
faculty. You have to see the sabre toothed tiger before you
can spin the yarn of how you outsmarted it.
Those stories for which I didn't create a cinematic vision of the
first scene tended to be static and talky, and most failed or weren't
even finished. There's something absolutely critical about literally
seeing the first part of the story in your imagination. If you can
do that, the genetic story machine we all carry with us will do
most of the rest. It may even be true that people who can't write
fiction fail because they have insufficient ability to visualize
a scene in full action. In other words, they could write it if they
could see it, but they can't see it.
To summarize my method (if you can call it that) for plotting:
- Create a broad concept for the plot. Think of it as a bounding
box for the action that frames the story. Don't be too specific;
again, you need to give your subconscious plenty of room to move.
- Whatever it takes, imagine the first scene in full cinematic
action, and run it through your head a few times, adding details
as you go. This doesn't require that you be writing an action/adventure;
you can envision two people walking home from the grocery store.
But envision them richly. My story "Bathtub Mary" opens
on a summer evening, as a blind woman walks home with an intelligent
computer pinned to her lapel. Very little action, but I had the
woman, the street, the pavement, the houses, and even the weeds
along the roadside in utterly crisp vision. The story worked,
and worked well, even though there's almost no physical action
in any of it.
- Start the story by describing that initial scene, and pay attention
to new visual clues that begin to emerge from your subconscious.
If the clues falter, stop where you are and rev up the theater
of the mind once more, with feeling.
- If you get really stuck, do some research, take a walk (I find
that moderate physical exercise revs the idea machine) and play
some music that strikes a deep emotional chord in you. The music
needn't have any connection to any aspect of the story, though
there are sometimes resonances. A cut called "The Plagues"
from the soundtrack of Prince of Egypt helped me envision
the scene in which Sahan Grusa levels the pirate colony Columbia
by creating frightening (but harmless) fantasy creatures as nanotech
macrobots, much like God raining frogs and such on Egypt. It sounds
silly, but it worked.
- Don't give up if things fall apart in any given session. You
may be distracted by the things of this world, so set aside your
imaginal world for a night and come back to it fresh the next
day, ready to see it in motion in your mind.
Plotting is really the core of the storytelling art. You need gimmicks
and characters, but without plot, well, they're just ideas. Strive
to be a visual person, and don't just sit at home all the time.
Go out and see what animals and mountains and machinery actually
look like. Travel. Experience. Like the commercial says, live richly.
Imagination builds on the real.
It's November 1. I've told you what I know. Now
get out there and write us a novel!