September 30, 2004

The Perils of PDF: Our Story So Far

To recap: I've written and published a novel on-line. CafePress has a print-on-demand system set up so that you can self-publish your books with no upfront costs--instead, they take a cut of each book. Consequently, I've resolved to try publishing my book through CafePress while spending as little of my own money as possible.

To publish a book through CafePress, you need to provide them with two things: a PDF file containing the text of your book, suitable for printing on the appropriate size paper, and image files for the front cover, back cover, and spine. I've chosen to work on the PDF file first, and in the last installment I settled on LaTeX as my tool of choice for producing it. (If you'd like to start from the beginning, you can go here.)

So far, I've managed to convert the HTML text of the novel into LaTeX format and print out the resulting PDF file on letter-sized paper. I had the resulting manuscript (now there's a misnomer) comb-bound at Kinko's, and gave it to my brother in hopes that he might read it and feel moved to put together some cover art for me. At the very least it would be a refreshing change from wine labels.

Here's what I have left to do:

Persuade LaTeX to typeset my book attractively on 8"x5" paper (standard trade paperback size).

  • Design the page headers.
  • Lay out the front matter (title page, et cetera, et al).
  • Possibly get an ISBN number; I don't know what's involved there, but apparently it's doable. That would make it theoretically possible to list the book at various on-line bookstores.
  • Design the cover.

To aid me in the first three of those items, I've bought a couple of books: LaTeX: A Document Preparation System, and The LaTeX Companion.

My approximate expenses to date:

  • The LaTeX books: $100
  • The bound manuscript: $5 for the comb binding at Kinko's, plus half-a-ream of inkjet paper.

I know I've let myself in for accusations of inconsistency by spending $100 on books when I could have gotten Adobe Acrobat for that price; but frankly the books have a longer shelf life, and as Jane says I'd have spent the money on some kind of books anyway.

In the next installment, I hope to share some nicely formatted front matter. Stay tuned!

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:55 PM | Comments(1)

September 29, 2004

Thirty Years That Changed The World, by Michael Green

Michael Green is an Anglican priest; he was also one of the speakers at the Plano West conference, which is where I bought this book, a detailed study of the Acts of the Apostles.

Acts is the fifth book of the New Testament; written by St. Luke the Evangelist, it picks up where Luke's gospel leaves off, with the events in Jerusalem in the days and weeks after Christ's resurrection. Early on the focus is on St. Peter, but before too long the focus shifts to St. Paul and remains with him to until the end of the book. All told, the narrated events span thirty years, thirty years in which the Christian faith spread from Jerusalem to the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire.

Should you ever visit the north of England, go to the city of York and tour Yorkminster Cathedral. Don't miss the undercroft. Renovations there uncovered the remains of two previous churches and a Roman camp dating back to the New Testament era--and in the Roman camp they found Christian graffiti. It's been conjectured that St. Paul converted some of his Roman guards during one or another of his spells in prison, and that the poor fellows were shipped off to England as a result.

Now, consider the distance between Jerusalem and York. Consider that Christianity spread purely by personal contact and individual persuasion. Christians were the least of the least in the Roman world; they had no political power, and no way to coerce belief. I might add, Christianity continued to spread in this peaceful way, occasionally suffering great persecution, for over two-and-half-centuries, until finally a Christian sat on the Roman throne.

One might contrast this peaceful process with the history of Islam, which was allied with political authority and spread by military force from its inception. Constantine's conversion was hailed as a great deliverance by Eusebius and others, and in the short term they were certainly correct; with him the intermitten waves of persecution finally came to an end. But in him the Church found itself to be the partner of the State, and that's generally been a bad thing. I support the separation of Church and State with my whole heart, not because of the corrosive effect of a state religion on the state but because of the corrosive effect of political power on my religion.

Anyway, the whole process began in those first thirty years, the thirty years discussed by Acts. Taking the remarkably quick spread of Christianity as his starting point, Green asks, "How did it happen? What were these early Christians like? How did they live? What did they do, to spread the Good News?" Rather than taking the book of Acts verse by verse, chapter by chapter, Green takes in the whole book, scrutinizing these early believers from many different angles, and drawing parallels with our current practice--and largely, and fairly, to our detriment.

I found it a fascinating book, both as Church history and as a call to action in the present day. It's a rich source of ministry ideas and an inspiration both. It is, however, aimed directly at a Christian audience; if you're looking for a general history of the early Christian era or an introduction to the book of Acts, you'll need to look elsewhere.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:48 PM | Comments(0)

September 27, 2004

Comments Re-enabled

I disabled comments yesterday for the usual reason; I've re-enabled them again.

Remember, if you try to post a comment and are unable, you can always mail your comment directly to me.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:51 PM | Comments(0)

The Perils of PDF: The Joy of TeX

In our last installment, I looked at OpenOffice and found it wanting (for my purposes, at least). Today, I'll talk about a solution I like better...but first, some history.

Don Knuth is one of the grand old men of the field of computer science. In the late 1970s, when he was one of the grand young men of the field of computer science, he began writing a multi-volume tome entitled The Art of Computer Programming. And when the first volumes came back from the publisher, young Don was purely disgusted at what he found.

Computer science, at its base, is heavily mathematical, and The Art of Computer Programming includes vast quantities of mathematical notation, some of it rather novel. And young Don considered that the publisher had done a lousy job of typesetting it. Reflecting further, he decided that the problem was that he didn't have the right tools. And so, in classic nerd style, he took a break from working on his book and developed a typesetting program he called "TeX" (which, by the way, is pronounced "tech", not "tecks"). TeX is really, really good at putting neatly set type on a page; its algorithm for breaking and justifying lines is the accepted standard. And it's really, really good at mathematical typesetting. And on top that, it's programmable. But it's kind of low-level, and it's tricky to use.

So in 1985 a fellow named Leslie Lamport came along and wrote a package on top of TeX that he called LaTeX. LaTeX makes TeX easy to use. You write your document as a plain text file, and indicate the logical structure (chapter headings, section headings, etc.) with a special mark-up notation. The result is somewhat similar to the HTML used to create the page you're reading (or, rather, HTML is somewhat like LaTex, since Tim Berners-Lee didn't invent the World Wide Web until 1989); but when you process it, what you get is nicely typeset output. And using TeX is rather like using HTML--you're constantly needing to check your work in a browser of some kind.

I used LaTeX quite a bit for about a year back in the late 1980's, and really liked it, using it for memos and software documentation both. Eventually I switched to a different project using different hardware, and didn't have TeX readily available to me; after that I languished along with word processors until I started using HTML in the mid-1990's. I took to HTML like a duck to water. HTML's one defect, as I saw it, was that it didn't have a macro language; it was memories of LaTeX that later led me to remedy that lack with a tool I call Expand. And somehow I never went back to using LaTeX.

So a couple of weeks ago I started looking into free ways to produce high-quality PDF output--and ran into an interesting name: "pdflatex". LaTeX and PDF together? Interesting! Perhaps, just perhaps.... So I went looking for a LaTeX system for my PowerBook--and Googled my way into a maze of twisty little passages, all more or less the same. There are dozens of slightly different TeX distributions out there, all of them mostly interoperable, and each with its own documentation on-line--and mostly that documentation is in PDF. It took me quite a while to figure out where I was and what I was doing and which version of LaTeX I should use.

I ended up with two packages, the first of which is Gerben Weirda's packaging of TeX-Live. TeX-Live is a TeX/LaTeX distribution augmented with a vast array of add-on packages; it's maintained by the TeX User's Group. Gerben Weirda adds a few additional packages and a very nice installer. Now, LaTeX is a command-line tool, which is sometimes convenient and sometimes a nuisance. So the other package I downloaded is LaTeX "front-end" called TeXShop. TeXShop provides a tightly coupled editor and viewer so that you can edit your document, press a button, and see the freshly typeset output immediately. It's pretty spiffy.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so they say. Once I got TeX-Live and TeXShop installed, was I able to make it do what I need? The answer is a resounding yes. I spent a couple of evenings reading some on-line LaTeX tutorials and refreshing my memory. After that, it took me about an hour to convert the text of Through Darkest Zymurgia from its original form (HTML with Expand macros) to LaTeX format, and there was very little hand-editing involved. I just wrote a couple of short scripts and let the computer do its thing. And then all I needed to do to create the PDF file was push a button.

By way of contrast, it took roughly three hours to print the resulting PDF file on my inkjet printer, so that I could give my brother a copy of the novel to read. Not too shabby.

There's still quite a lot to do, of course, before the manuscript is ready to be uploaded to CafePress. I'll talk about that in the next thrilling installment of The Perils of PDF!

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:48 PM | Comments(1)

September 25, 2004

The Price of the Stars
Star Pilot's Grave
By Honor Betray'd
,
by Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald

So when you're feeling glum and you need a lift, what do you do? You look through your library looking for something that's familiar and fun, and re-read it. Or, in this case, them.

These are the first three books in the author's Mageworlds series, which I've reviewed twice before (clicking on the author's names, above, will take you to a page that has links to those reviews). They are great fun, if you like space opera.

Here's the setup. Beka Rosselin-Metadi is a star-pilot; that's all she's ever wanted to be. She's also the daughter of Jos Metadi, privateer and war hero, and of Perada Rosselin, the Domina of Lost Entibor--Entibor being a planet whose entire surface was turned to slag during said war. As the Domina-in-waiting, Beka's life was dominated by politics and court manners until she ran away from home at age 15 to follow her dream.

Now the Domina has been assassinated, and her father makes her an offer she can't refuse: he'll give her her own ship--and not just any ship, but his own ship, the armed freighter Warhammer, the ship in which he did his privateering, the ship in which he led the resistance against the invasion from the Mageworlds, and (not coincidentally) the ship in which Beka learned to be a pilot. In return, she has to use her new mobility to determine who was behind Perada Rosselin's assassination. Over the course of the these three books, which form the heart of the series, Beka does just that, with the help of a large and varied cast of thoroughly delightful characters. Of course, it's not as easy as all that; along the way, she has to cope with a new invasion by the Mageworlders, who have been languishing in resentment and trade sanctions since the last war.

The sixth book in the series came out six months or so ago, and has been sitting on my shelf ever since; I expect that I'll be getting to it soon.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:56 AM | Comments(0)

September 23, 2004

The Perils of PDF: OpenOffice

In our last installment, I promised to relate whether or not the open source office suite OpenOffice would solve my PDF-production woes. Before I answer that, though, I'd like to thank everyone who offered to help in one way or another. I appreciate your offers, and may yet take one or more of you up on them--it's too early to tell, yet. In the meantime, I've printed out a copy of Through Darkest Zymurgia for my brother Charles, so that he'll no longer have an excuse not to have read it.

Now, OpenOffice. Not prolong the suspense, the answer is "Yes and No, and (finally) No."

OpenOffice has a long and venerable history. I first encountered it when it was a Sun Microsystems product called StarOffice, and I didn't like it much. One of the things I disliked was that it wasn't just an office suite; it wanted to be full-screen with its own desktop. I didn't really need it at that point (almost everybody has standardized on MS Word where I work, and it just wasn't worth being incompatible), so I was just looking at it as a curiousity.

Later on, control was transferred to an open source consortium and the product was renamed OpenOffice. A couple of years ago I looked at an early version running on Unix under X11; it was better than StarOffice had been, but it had some unpleasant effects on my color maps, and I dumped it. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, be happy; if you do, you'll understand.)

But CafePress said it was a reasonable solution, so I went looking. It turns out that there is a freely downloadable distribution of OpenOffice for Mac OS X; the only quirk is that it's not yet a native Aqua app (Aqua is OS X's window manager). Instead, it runs under X11. This, by itself, doesn't bother me; I'm a Unix programmer, I've done a fair amount of GUI programming under X11, and I run X11 programs on my PowerBook all the time. It's not as pretty, but if it gets the job done I'm not one to quibble.

My initial experiences were encouraging. OpenOffice installed easily and without any trouble, and started right up. It's even pretty zippy for a Java application; I'm (very mildly) curious how they managed that. The "Writer" application (the equivalent of MS Word) has a straightforward, easy to understand interface, and inside of an hour I'd produced a short PDF file that printed very nicely indeed.

Still, there were some hurdles. Like Word, using Writer successfully is all about defining styles. And Writer has a confusing array of pre-defined styles, and there are half-a-dozen different kinds: character styles, paragraph styles, page styles, chapter styles, and several others that I don't remember at the moment. The key to success was clearly going to involve understand the different flavors and the predefined styles in each flavor, and redefining the predefined styles to suit my needs. In the software world, this is called "Research", and it was clearly going to be a lengthy task.

Still, so far, so good. If Writer's formatting model is complex, the on-line help in the current version is surprisingly good. I don't know how many times I've clicked on the help button in a dialog box, only to get a help page that simply restates the contents of the dialog box. You know--there's a check box that says "Enable Engine Coolant", and you go to the help page and it says "Enables the Engine Coolant". There's never any word on why the software has an Engine, what the Engine does, or why it might possibly need Cooling. But the OpenOffice on-line help actually is fairly helpful, and between that and the information at the OpenOffice web site I'm sure I could have figured things out.

So I started trying to use OpenOffice to write up some tutorial material I'd written about Snit, my Tcl object framework--and ran face first into The Font Problem.

What's The Font Problem? X11. X11 was one of the first widely available windowing systems, and one of the first to do high-quality screen fonts. But that's a long time gone, and the X11 font model is seriously showing its age.

We Windows and Mac users have become accustomed to high-quality fonts that look the same on the screen as they do when printed. It's not even an issue for most of us; we take it for granted. Oh, how gladly I have forgotten the halcyon days of my youth, when TrueType was but a dream and all the cool kids installed Adobe Type Manager! But OpenOffice has the font problem in spades. It tries to solve it by converting the Mac's fonts to a form it can use, but it doesn't do it very well, and this makes font selection a truly difficult task.

OpenOffice makes available to you all of the fonts that it knows about. Some of them are purely screen fonts; the printed output will look different. What You See Is Not What You Get. Some of them are purely printer fonts; the screen will look different. Same problem. Some few work the same on both the printer and the screen--but for many of these, OpenOffice picks up the different styles--bold, italic, and so forth--as being different fonts.

If I picked Palatino, for example, and tried to use bold or italic type, it all looked like normal type on my screen. The PDF output was fine; but it was impossible to tell, while looking at the screen, whether a given piece of text was italicized or not. Not good.

I found, if I recall correctly, two fonts that worked for both screen and printer, and had all their styles, and they weren't fonts I wanted to use.

In other words, I was going to have spend a fair amount of time learning how to use OpenOffice's formatting system to get the book to look right just so that I could print it in a font I don't like. No thank you. Add to that the file format issue, and the answer was clearly no, not unless I couldn't find a better alternative.

The file format issue? I'm a programmer. I like plain text files. I have text in plain text files that I wrote when I was in college twenty years ago. I can still read those files. About fifteen years ago, my wife and I put together a "family cookbook" in MS Word; I'm not sure now that it was even Word for Windows. Later, I converted those files to WordPerfect 5.1. Later, well...I've still got those WordPerfect 5.1 files, but I don't have a machine that runs WordPerfect 5.1. What I've got is a text editor called Emacs with which I can open those files, delete all of the special characters, and recover the actual text. It's a pain, but I can do it.

I've seen file formats come, and file formats go, and text files go on and on and on. I've no particular desire to marry a project like this to yet another ephemeral file format, unless there's a compelling reason to do so.

So I turned away from OpenOffice, to try a different approach. An older approach. An approach that suits my skills and prejudices.

Don't miss the next installment of The Perils of PDF!

Posted by Will Duquette at 09:22 AM | Comments(1)

September 20, 2004

The Perils of PDF: Creation

In Publication On $0 A Day I talked about the print-on-demand publication service offered by CafePress, and my interest in using it to publish some of the stuff I've got in my head, including my novel Through Darkest Zymurgia. In this post I'm going to talk about getting here from there.

The first requisite, naturally, is something to publish, but as I've already got a candidate I shall pass lightly over the topic and go on to the next, which is creating the PDF file for upload to CafePress. This is a two-part problem. First you need to acquire a tool that can save a document in PDF format, and second you need to put your book into a form the tool can use.

In my case, Zymurgia exists as a set of plain text files (I'm a programmer, I like plain text files) and as a set of HTML files. Either of these can be turned directly into PDF by a number of means, none of which will result in a nice-looking book. So I'm going to have to massage the text into some other format.

If I wanted to take the high road, I'd buy a copy of Microsoft Office and use Word; or, better yet, a dedicated package for doing page layouts like Adobe's InDesign or FrameMaker. But that costs money, and my stated goal is to produce this book as cheaply as I possibly can. But let's suppose someone else were to buy me a copy of Office--would my joy would still not be complete. I'd have a tool that can produce high-quality output, but I still wouldn't have PDF, because Word doesn't know how to produce PDF. For that, I'd need a copy of Adobe's Acrobat Distiller, which also costs money.

(An aside--I'm writing this on an Apple Powerbook running Mac OS X. Any program that can print on OS X can produce PDF files automatically; this capability is supplied by the operating system. Very cool. Unfortunately, the resulting PDF files are optimized for display, not for printing.)

So the question is, what freeware tools exist that will produce publication-quality PDF output? On a hunch, I went to the CafePress website for an answer to this one. And CafePress pointed me at OpenOffice, an open-source office suite that produces good quality PDF output.

Will OpenOffice save the day? Find out in the next episode of The Perils of PDF.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:56 PM | Comments(10)

September 19, 2004

The Beekeeper's Apprentice, by Laurie R. King

Since I began homeschooling my daughter, I've begun reading aloud to her daily again. When she was in public school, homework took so much of the evening that it impossible to read aloud on a regular basis. Now, however, the only school work we do in the evening is a run thru of the flash cards I've made up to drill her in Latin phonograms. So, I had to come up with a book that would be entertaining and yet still be a stretch for her vocabulary. The educational goal here is to increase her vocabulary and teach listening skills. That's the rationale I gave my husband for reading aloud to a 14-year-old who can read to herself. The real hidden agenda I have is to spend some time cuddling on the couch with my teenage daughter while sharing a good story. Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes fit the bill perfectly.

Since this book has been reviewed by both Will and me in the past I will skip the normal plot summation. I did find reading it aloud to be a bit of a tongue twister at times. Polysyllabic words I can silently read automatically don't trip off my tongue quite so easily and my daughter had gotten to listen to Mommy sounding out a few herself. That's a good thing. She's also been told to stop me whenever a word is used that she's unfamiliar with so we read with the dictionary next to us on the couch. That also is a good thing. But the best part is that the book is almost funnier read aloud. Abby identified with the fifteen year old Mary and guffawed thru several passages when Mary let fly with her highly mature, highly intelligent and very sarcastic comments. And I'm hearing the "Can we read now, Mom?" question again when she's wanting a little cuddle time with Mom. She also commented that it's all she can do NOT to pick up the book and read ahead when I'm not around. What could be better?

Posted by Deb English at 06:54 PM | Comments(0)

September 18, 2004

Publication on $0 a Day

Chris Johnson of Midwest Conservative Journal recently announced that he'd written a book entitled Frank and I: The Final Disillusion of a Life-Long Episcopalian. Chris has been covering the long, slow meltdown of the Episcopal Church on a daily basis over the last couple of years, and the book collects a number of his posts. But given that I've already read most of them, what interests me more is how he got the book published.

When I first wrote Through Darkest Zymurgia, I had every intention of shopping it around, and I even went so far as to send to Tor Books. The rejection came back by return mail; clearly, they hadn't even read past the cover letter. I did a little nosing around, and some reading, and came to the conclusion that to get my book published the traditional way I'd have to work really hard and spend a lot of my spare time on it, and that even if I succeeded, which was unlikely, the chances of making serious money (by which I mean enough money to quit my day job) were slim and none. I wrote Zymurgia for fun; it simply wasn't worth my time to make the effort to get it published in the traditional way.

Now, there's an alternative of long standing for those who want to publish a book in the worst way, and that's the vanity press. And you really do end up publishing your book in the worst way--you pay them a lot of money you never get back, and you get boxes of books you have no room for. Now, some folks have actually made money this way--but they spend all of their time marketing their books. Let's say it together: "This is a hobby!"

More recently, the vanity press has branched into the world of publication-on-demand. There are (or, at least, were) several on-line firms where you upload your manuscript in electronic form, and they give it an ISBN and undertake to get it listed at Amazon.com and such-like places. Usually this costs you a "nominal" fee; plus they are happy to take more of your money by selling you "manuscript consulting" services. I looked into a couple of these places, and then I Googled them, and the impression I got was Not Good. I discovered a number of folks who felt ill-used, and that these outfits were not giving value for money--indeed, once books sold were not passing the money back to the author as they ought.

But Chris, now, Chris has published his book through CafePress. If you're not familiar with CafePress, they got started selling custom T-shirts and coffee mugs on-line. It's easy, and it's free. Here's how it works: first, you design the graphic you want to have on your T-shirts. Then you go to CafePress.com and "create a store". This is the website on which you'll sell your T-shirt. Then you use their website to upload your graphic position it on your T-shirt, jersey, handbag, coffee mug, frisbee, or a host of other things, and put them up on your store. And then you get to set the price for each item. CafePress sets a minimum price for each one; you can stick with that price, and sell your items at cost (I've done this), or you can set the price as high as you like.

The bottom-line is this--it costs you nothing to sell merchandise through CafePress. If no one buys your merchandise, no one buys it. You make no money, but also you spend no money. You've got no inventory, and no fixed costs. CafePress is willing to spot you the storage space on their servers in the hopes that maybe they'll make a few bucks off each item you sell.

Well, it so happens that CafePress is now in the publication-on-demand business, and works just the same as the rest of their services. You write your book, format it as a PDF file, create graphics for the book cover, and upload the whole shebang. And you set your price, and if anyone buys your book you get the difference between your price and theirs delivered to your bank account.

This is very cool, and it's the way it should be. And given that I've got a book or two in me that I'd like to see in print, I think I'm going to take advantage of it. And given that I've got a blog, I'm naturally going to document every step of the process.

Tomorrow: The Perils of PDF.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:25 PM | Comments(1)

Snit V0.97

I've just uploaded the latest version of Snit, my Tcl/Tk object framework, to the Snit Home Page. Any Tcl programmers in my audience are encouraged to take a look at the README file.
Posted by Will Duquette at 11:12 AM | Comments(0)

September 17, 2004

The Princess Diaries, by Meg Cabot

Last spring I went to an author signing/talk given by Tamora Pierce. She's been my daughter's favorite author for a couple years now and since I forced the kid to go on the class trip rather than allowing her to stay home and attend the talk, I felt compelled by maternal guilt to at least get the newest hardback autographed for her.

I was first struck by Ms Pierce's uncanny resemblance to my daughter's math teacher, a woman with infinite patience and fortitude, an ample bosom and a face like a bull dog. Pierce treated the, mostly, girls in the audience to an hour of honest talk about what writing is about, what publishing is like and where she gets her ideas from and her own incredibly sly sense of humor. She also discussed her respect for other author's YA books, particularly mentioning Meg Cabot as one whose book The Princess Diaries was gutted of all merit when made into a movie.

Now I kind of liked that movie. The image of Julie Andrews clumping across the doorway in imitation of her granddaughter was hilarious. My son, disdainful of anything resembling a chick flick, laughed out loud thru most of it though he wouldn’t admit it later. So if the movie is a gutted representation of a much better original and I like the movie, then perhaps I should find out what this book is about. Not to mention that it’s been selling like hotcakes and has been followed up by several sequels that are selling like hotcakes. So I read it.

It was, well, ok. The premise of the book is that Mia Thermopolis finds out that her father, conveniently dead in the movie, is actually King of a small city-state sort of like Monaco rather than the wealthy man involved in politics that she has always been led to believe by her mother. Not only is he King, but he has been rendered unable to produce more off spring by a form of testicular cancer, now making Mia, his love child from his college days, the heir to the throne. And Grand-mere, the dragon who takes care of her summers at the little chateau in France, will be responsible for training her for the throne. Mia is traumatized. And to top it off, her mother is dating her Algebra teacher, the only subject in school she's failing.

The book was cutesie. Aside from some very unnecessary but not overt jokes about her father's, um, testicular issues, most of the humor struck me as the type an adolescent kid would enjoy. There's a lot of emphasis on bad hair, clothes, what shoes to wear and that sort of thing. The writing is a masterpiece in girl speak. Cabot's got the, like, you know, bad, um, like, conversational style, the, like, girls seem to use these days. It's not something I'm sure I want my daughter to imitate but it was the only really objectionable thing in the book. It's kind of nice little dessert book, something light and not too heavy.

Posted by Deb English at 07:57 PM | Comments(0)

September 15, 2004

We Regret The Inconvenience....

Posting has been light recently, for which I apologize; I just haven't felt much like writing, and I haven't even been reading all that much, so I haven't had much to write about. When I get home, about all I've had energy for (other than family things) has been a little work on Snit and video games.

This isn't my usual state, and I put it down to a variety of things going on at work these days...not to mention all of the ECUSA foolishness I've posted about occasionally. I'm in no danger of losing my job--far from it--but Reorganization has reared its ugly head. The organizational changes take effect at the beginning of October--although, it's not clear that I'll know, even then, who my new managers are going to be. And then, the Lambeth Commission reports to the Anglican Primates in mid-October, just a couple of days after our parish priest might or might not be elected the next Bishop of the Diocese of Rio Grande. Oh, and the project I've been working on for the last six years is winding down early next year.

Can you wonder that things are a little unsettled around here? It's as though all of the fixed points of my life, with the exception of God and my family (thank God for Jane), have gotten up to dance over the next month.

I'll get over it, of course--long before all of this is finally settled, by preference--but until then posting might remain light.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:40 PM | Comments(2)

OK, Now This Is Scary

Hurricane Ivan is big. Here's a picture from the International Space Station. May the Good Lord have mercy on New Orleans.
Posted by Will Duquette at 08:22 AM | Comments(2)

September 12, 2004

Mr. Mysterious & Company, by Sid Fleischman

This is an outstanding book by the same author as By The Great Horn Spoon!, which I reviewed a couple of years ago. That book involved the California Gold Rush. I'd read it many times as a kid, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it to my eldest boy, Dave.

The only other book of Fleischman's that I'd read as a kid was this one, Mr. Mysterious & Company. It takes place in the 1880's and concerns the Hackett family, who are migrating from somewhere in the Mid-West to San Diego, where Mr. Hackett's brother has a cattle ranch. In addition to knowing cattle Mr. Hackett is also a consummate magician, and as book begins the Hackett family is traveling westward through Texas, paying their way by giving magic shows in each town they visit. Mr. Hackett performs as Mr. Mysterious, his wife plays the piano, and each of their three children has a part. And on the way to California the Hacketts buy a dog, meet an outlaw, drive off a band of Indians, and save a town from ruffians.

It's a fun adventure, and the highest praise I can give it is this: the night after we finished it, David wanted me to read it to him over again. I declined, though honestly I don't think I would minded all that much.

I don't know why I never looked up Fleischman's other books when I was a kid; I rather expect I'll be doing so over the next few years.

Posted by Will Duquette at 05:05 PM | Comments(0)

September 11, 2004

Rest In Peace

Today is the third anniversary of the attack on the Twin Towers; it's also the second anniversary of this blog. And I have to ask myself, what was I thinking? One day earlier, or one day later and I could go into raptures about my blogiversary every year.

Instead, I remember coming downstairs, dressed and ready to go to work, and hearing my wife call me to the TV, where she was nursing our little girl, "Will, come here, something happened in New York." "What?" "I think a plane hit the World Trade Center." I remember watching the first tower collapse, and that I knew it was collapsing before the man doing the voiceover on TV did. I remember the billowing smoke and ash and dust. At least I couldn't see the people plunging to their deaths.

September 11th is not a day for celebrating--but one day, if we can keep our resolve, it will be. I hope that for my grandchildren 9/11 will be just another three-day weekend commemorating a victory they are too young to remember. In the meantime, may God bless our troops, and grant wisdom to their commanders.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:51 AM | Comments(0)

September 09, 2004

So How Should I Feel About This?

Coming up in October in New Orleans is the 11th Annual Tcl/Tk Conference. Each year the conference begins with a couple of days of tutorial sessions--half day classes on different Tcl/Tk programming topics. Since June I've been scheduled to teach one of these tutorials, on the subject of programming with Snit, my Tcl-based object-framework.

And so for the last week I've been industriously preparing for my tutorial. I've been making a list of specific technical points I need to discuss, writing example programs that illustrate these technical points, and outlining a lecture that works through the examples in a logical progression. It's been interesting work, but since it's a free-time activity I've been a little concerned about getting it all done in time.

So today I hear from someone on the conference committee that to date exactly one (1) person has signed up for my tutorial; the fee from one person won't even pay for the room the tutorial would be held in. So the committee wants to cancel my tutorial and replace it with a couple-three panel discussions on a variety of topics, and would I like to sit on a panel about OO methods in Tcl?

I said yes, of course, and I admit to a sense of relief--this means I don't need to finish the tutorial, and can get on with other things. Nor is my ego bruised; the committee expected Snit to draw more interest than that, just as I did. After all, it's becoming reasonably popular in the Tcl community.

Really, I think, it just goes to show. If you want to make money teaching people to use your software, don't write software that's simple and easy to use, and most especially don't document it well. On the other hand, if you write software that's simple and easy to use, and document it well, don't expect to make money teaching people to use it.

Posted by Will Duquette at 09:27 PM | Comments(2)

September 08, 2004

A Blast from the Past

As I mentioned the other day, it's at interesting time to an orthodox Christian in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

Some weeks ago, three L.A. area parishes chose to leave the Episcopal Church and place themselves under the authority of the Archbishop from the Anglican Church of Uganda, with whom all three parishes already had warm ties. The Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles has responded by claiming that all of the property of the three parishes (including every candle and prayerbook) is the property of the diocese and must be handed over. The three parishes have responded that in fact the parish land, buildings, and accoutrements (I love that word "accoutrements" a whole lot) were purchased solely with money contributed by parishioners, with no money coming from the diocese or national church, and that moreover they hold legal title. Lawsuits have been filed, and eventually the courts will decide who is correct.

There's been a lot of talk around the relevant portions of the blogosphere about this--about whether we should, as Christians, have recourse to the courts at a time like this; most of the comments I've seen have thought that this reflects badly on Bishop Bruno. Now, I support the three parishes in this particular debate, especially as the property was purchased entirely with local funds. But I feel moved to note an incident I discovered in Eusebius' History of the Church.

In the middle of the third century, the Bishop of Antioch was a fellow named Paul of Samosata. After he'd been made bishop, it was discovered that he held unorthodox views; in particular, he denied the divinity of Christ, a constant of Christian doctrine since the apostles. On top of that, he appears to have viewed his position primarily as a way to make money for himself, and as a way to gain social status. Eventually he seems to have required his followers to pay him divine honors, and to have taken "spiritual brides", whatever that means (though one can certainly guess).

The Church as a whole responded by calling a synod at which gathered bishops from as far away as Alexandria; they were unanimous in declaring that Paul of Samosata's teaching was heresy, and excommunicated him, choosing another man, one Domnus, to be Bishop of Antioch.

Paul, for his part, refused to relinquish control of the church's property in Antioch; and so his successor and the synod called upon Emperor Aurelian to intervene. In effect, they filed suit. Aurelian (not a Christian himself) solved the problem simply and magisterially--he asked the bishops of Italy who rightfully represented the Christian Church in Antioch. They told him that Domnus did, and Paul was ignominously thrown out by the secular authorities.

There are two aspects of this tale that interest me. The first is that the leaders of the Church did not hesitate to appeal to the Emperor--and note that this was well before Constantine's day, at a time when Christianity was tolerated at best by the Roman authorities. Being excommunicate, the teachings against taking fellow Christians to court would no longer apply to Paul of Samosata. But on top of that, Aurelian based his decision not on what the local leaders said, but on what the larger church said (as represented by the Italian bishops).

Given that the majority of the world's Anglicans have declared themselves in a state of impaired or broken communion with the Episcopal Church, perhaps Bishop Bruno should be worrying about the Los Angeles Cathedral Center....

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:05 PM | Comments(10)

September 07, 2004

Woo-Hoo!

Forager 23 has a new post up; this time he's talking about movie remakes, which he breaks down into three categories: the Remake of Tribute, the Remake of Correction, and the Remake of Convenience. Then he starts pigeonholing specific films, and the fun begins. Go thou, verily, et cetera, et cetera.
Posted by Will Duquette at 09:46 PM | Comments(0)

September 06, 2004

Comments Are Disabled--Again!

Ugh. I really don't need to wake up to comments spam advertising "r-pe stories with screams". (That "-" used to be an "a", if that wasn't clear; I just don't want to discover that the Foothills are the number one Google hit for that particular topic.)

Comments are disabled, again, at least until tomorrow. (Sigh!) If you have comments, you can send them to me, and I'll post 'em for you. (Within reason.)

Update: I've re-enabled them; hope springs eternal.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:14 AM | Comments(1)

September 05, 2004

How To Write A Best-Selling Fantasy Novel

Jaquandor comments (with reference to his manuscript in progress) on this post about how to (or how not to) write formula fantasy fiction. Jaq compared his work-in-progress with the guidelines and discovered he'd hit 7 out of 10 of them--but with extenuating circumstances in each case.

As it happens, I've written two fantasy novels; Through Darkest Zymurgia, which you can read on-line for free because not only isn't it a best-seller it isn't any kind of seller, and The King of Elfland's Nephew, of which I have a pretty good draft but which I'm not really through with yet. As it's a slow weekend (Jane and are both afflicted with colds, and our youngest is teething) and Jaq's example seems like goodly post fodder, I'll do the same. You'll need to read the original guidelines, linked above, to make complete sense of the answers.

1. Create a main character

And according to the guidelines he should be a loser, so that young, under-confident males will identify with him. Alas, I blew this one; Leon Thintwhistle is a successful academic and a leading name in his field, and Jonas Morgan's a successful investment banker.

2. Create a Quest

Because the fate of the whole world has to rest on the main character's shoulders. Hmmm. I blew this one, too. Zymurgia has an expedition, certainly, but it's of no importance to anyone but the principles. And while considerable weight rests on Jonas Morgan's shoulders, there's no quest as such, nor is the whole world (or anything like it).

3. Create a Motley Bunch of Companions

Each with particular skills that will be necessary at some point in the story. The author of the guidelines might have added, "And then play them against each other for laughs." Here, I confess, Zymurgia hews to the party line. But then, the members of a scientific expedition are supposed to have particular skills that will be necessary at some point. Elfland seems to be free of this sort of thing, though. Jonas Morgan doesn't (for the most part) have companions; he's a banker. He has a staff. Of employees, not of oak, hickory, or (spare me) lorken.

4. Create a wise but useless guide

He must be wise and powerful and never say anything or do anything terribly helpful. If the book were a computer game, I suppose he'd be the on-line hints. Zymurgia simply has no such character; Elfland has something of the sort, but Mr. Godwin is about as different from Gandalf as one can reasonably imagine.

5. Create the Land

It must have all of the landforms you can imagine, in bewildering and unlikely juxtaposition, through which the motley crew can be dragged, and it must fit on two pages of a paperback book. Hmmm, I seem to have blown this one, too. Zymurgia is all about geography in one sense, but I seem to have restrained myself with the variability; and anyway it takes place in a modified Europe/Mediterranean world. Sort of. And in Elfland I never go into the geography, it not being particularly relevant. Though I can find most of the parts that take place in Los Angeles on the map.

6. Create the Enemy

After all, you have to have a Dark Lord. Except that you don't; Zymurgia has no such thing. In Elfland, on the contrary, there's definitely a bad guy, the King of the Unseelie Host, but frankly he's not much of a Dark Lord. Evil, yes, but human-scale. Or Elven-scale, perhaps. Not that my elves are particularly like anybody else's.

7. Make it Long

Blew it here, too. IIRC, both novels are around 90K-100K words.

8. Skip the Hard Parts

Such as the battle scenes, for they are messy and hard to write. As the original guidelines put it,

The sound of the battle was suddenly a long way away but just as he closed his eyes and the black cloud engulfed him he thought he heard someone crying from the grassy knoll, "The Toasters are coming. The Toasters are coming."

I don't think I did this. There's precisely one (short) battle-scene between the two books, and I describe it in detail. Oh, and there's a bar fight that takes place off-stage, but that's only because it was funnier that way. In fact, come to think of it, both books have a bar fight that takes place off-stage because it was funnier that way. Hmmm.

9. Lead up to a Cataclysmic Battle

OK, a good bit of the plot in Elfland leads up to a battle. It's a fair cop--except that the battle doesn't really settle anything. There are no battles to speak of in Zymurgia

10. Kill Almost Everybody

To quote the guidelines,

Most of the Motley Bunch must die in terrible pain and degradation before the Loser/Hero gets his act together. This is to keep us mad at the Enemy, thought it is basically the Loser/Hero's fault for being so slow and incompetent.

Precisely one person dies in Zymurgia, mostly because he's nasty and stupid, and it's his own fault. A few more people die in Elfland (there's a battle, after all) but only two of them are really important to the plot. The book begins with the funeral of the first of them, and the second dies well before the halfway point.

After giving these ten guidelines, the author goes on to list a few other keypoints. Jaq skipped these, but I think I'll give 'em a go.

Bad Expendables: E.g., orcs, goblins, trolls, cannon fodder. I don't have any of these in either book. That is to say, Elfland certainly has ogres and trolls and goblins, but none of them are expendable.

Tough Old Warriors: Nope, none of these either. Unless an experienced CPA/comptroller counts.

Pure Maiden Warriors: Nor these.

Body Types: All of the people in my books (the corporeal ones, anyone) do indeed have body types. But I don't think that's what he meant.

Character Names: Some of my names are a bit silly, it's true, but all of them are pronounceable.

Technology: E.g., gaps therein. The technology in Zymurgia is at a level roughly equivalent to the Victorian era I'm evoking. The technology level in Elfland is consistent with the Elves' interest in such things. (Snicker, snicker, guffaw.)

Magic: I quote, "the Good Wizard's fire is always blue, and Bad Wizard's is always green or red." There are no wizards in either book. Unless an experienced CPA/comptroller counts.

Dwellings: "There are three sorts of dwellings in fantasy novels -- caves, huts, and castles." I've got caves and castles, certainly, though none of the caves are of the "passageway under the impassable mountains" variety. But I've got a number of other kinds of dwelling as well, including a picture of a really nice Craftsman-style living room.

The Enemy's Stronghold: There's no enemy as such in Zymurgia, and hence no stronghold. The enemy has a stronghold in Elfland, but the good guys never get near it.

The Enemy's fatal flaw will always be that he is over-confident.

But in Elfland, the Enemy certainly is over-confident. But that's not what proves his undoing.

So. I believe I've established that my stuff doesn't follow the formula particularly well. The question is, does that make it bold, original, innovative, and fresh, or simply uncommercial?

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:13 PM | Comments(5)

Where Are They Now?

If you're familiar with the VeggieTales series of videos, you'll probably find this amusing.
Posted by Will Duquette at 04:08 PM | Comments(0)

September 04, 2004

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, by Robert E. Howard

Back when I was in my mid-teens, my older brother started buying and then loaning to me a series of books about a big bruiser named Conan the Barbarian. The original tales were by Robert E. Howard, of course, but L. Sprague de Camp, the editor of the paperback series, had gone to great lengths to put them all in some kind of consistent order based on their internal chronology, and if I recall correctly he added some Conan tales of his own to fill in the gaps and round out the series. I read every one of them, and then I gave them back to my brother, and I haven't seen them since. Most of Howard's other output was also available in those days, and just as with Conan my brother bought them and I got to read them. Just hearing the names brings back those days: Kull of Atlantis, Bran Mak Morn the Pict, Cormac Mac Art...it was great stuff.

I read it all once, and never again, because I don't have the books on my shelves, and they haven't been in print in years.

Then Forager 23 reprinted a post of his in which he contrasted Howard with Tolkien to the latter's detriment (a dispute upon which I will not venture an opinion at this time except to say that Howard is pretty darned good and Forager is still bananas), and that got me thinking about ol' Conan and his ilk. And so the next time I was at the bookstore I looked for Howard and discovered that Chaosium (the outfit that publishes the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game) is republishing Howard's fantastic fiction. They had exactly one volume; and somewhat ironically, perhaps, it's the one major character of Howard's that my brother never got to (not that I recall, anyway): Solomon Kane, a stern Puritan of the 16th century.

Kane is a tall stern man; he wears black, naturally, with a broad slouch hat, and his face has a dark pallor. I'm not sure how you have a dark pallor, but the words were used in a number of the stories, and who am I to argue? Kane's the sort who will verbally rebuke those who offend his morals with loose talk or blasphemies but he reserves his anger for those whose crimes are considerably more active--at which point he begins to regard himself more-or-less as God's executioner. And once on the trail he will pursue his quarry quite literally to the ends of the earth.

The tales were precisely the sort of thing I remember--swordplay, bold speeches, inhuman fiends, and the like--with the striking difference that the hero never gets the girl (well, he's a Puritan after all). I enjoyed them, certainly, though they didn't seem quite as good as I remember Howard's other stuff being. But it's so hard to tell, from this remove; I was less discerning in those days, and that's a sword that cuts both ways. I really need to re-read some stuff I remember from before.

There were a couple of things I noticed that I know I would have either missed or ignored had I read these tales way back then. The first is a logical error: Howard describes Kane as always acting on impulse; a true fanatic, he never considers the true reasons for his actions but just goes straight ahead. And yet, isn't it the hallmark of the true fanatic that he always knows exactly why he does why he does, and can explain it to you in great and appalling detail? In any event, Solomon Kane was first envisioned by Howard while the author was still in his teens, and I think it's fair to say that the darkly pallid fellow owes more to Howard's imagination and youthful misconceptions than he does to any Puritan who actually walked the earth.

The other issue is a shocking degree of racism. About half the stories in the book take place in central Africa, and Kane several times runs into lost cities once inhabited by proud races of a higher type than the savage black negroes of Africa who have since replaced them. It's only fair to say that the proud races in question are not presented as being less cruel than their successors; just more civilized and racially more advanced.

The racial foolishness didn't spoil my enjoyment, not the way it would have if the stories were of a more recent vintage; I don't regard these stories as being about the real world anyway, and anyway they were written in the 1930's, a time when such sentiments were frequently held about present-day Africans, let alone those in the forgotten jungles of the 1500's. Howard was, after all, a man of his day. But if you're the sort who is excessively bothered by this kind of thing you'll want to give the book a miss.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:44 PM | Comments(0)

September 02, 2004

A Suitable Vengeance
A Great Deliverance
Payment in Blood
For The Sake of Elena
Playing for the Ashes
In the Presence of the Enemy,
by Elizabeth George

Every winter when I was in college, majoring in English and minoring in History, I spent vast amounts of time reading books. A typical week would be 3-4 novels with a couple hundred pages of history besides. There was one notable semester that I rashly took Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare all at the same time plus an intensive course in Roman history and I emerged from that period of time barely able to speak modern English. What I did to regain my sanity over the summer was to read Harlequin romances.

For those of you who have never read a Harlequin, don't despair. There is only one plot. Single young woman meets glorious, available youngish man. He generally has a cool name like Brent. They fall in love and marry without ever touching each other beforehand. Not a kiss, a handshake, nothing. No throbbing thighs or heaving bosoms. No wide eyed exclamations of intense delight mingled with surprise. Not a ripped bodice in sight. Just plain old romance stories with a hint of tingle to them.

Since then, whenever I am overwhelmed mentally, I reach for something like a Harlequin. No thoughts necessary. No huge plots to follow. No meaning to be delved into and shredded to bits. Just a story to occupy my mind while I try to relax. That's what these books have been for me this last month. Since deciding to homeschool my daughter, I've been in a flurry of putting together a coherent course outline for her that will address what I want her to learn and not bore the poor child to death in the process. So I've been reading, googling, looking at forums and generally brushing up. It's exhausting.

Plus, when my unemployment ran out in June, I dashed out and got a little full-time job at a convenience store. And my boss can't seem to get it thru her brain that I want to go to part-time because she keeps scheduling me for full-time hours. This all means I have no brain bandwidth left at the end of the day to analyze what I'm reading.

So I'm sorry, you guys! I read these books over the last month or so but if you asked me to delineate the plot of any particular one of them or present a coherent thought on them, no can do. I do know they hold my attention enough that I finished them when I can't even follow the plot of a movie on the TV. Maybe someday I'll reread them and actually pay attention.

Posted by Deb English at 07:56 PM | Comments(0)