Eclipse 2017

We decided not to make the trek to the swath of totality north of us today. I’ve never experienced a total eclipse but I remember another time when we experienced a near-total eclipse here in Huntsville back in the early eighties. I don’t think it was nearly as complete as the 97% totality that we saw today.

Back then, we made a pin hole camera and watched the eclipse on the back of a cardboard box. My oldest daughter was about five and we gave her a pot and a wooden spoon and we made noise and told the dragon to give the sun back. It was fun in a hippy, neopagan sort of way.

Today, on the other hand, was a bit different. First the only children involved were our two Maltipoos. They are our fur children after all. They were more interested in smelling the grass than the eclipse. It got way darker than I’ve seen before. I had never used the ISO darkened glasses before. I must have over done it a little bit. My eyes are sunburned. I’ve done that before without looking directly at the sun.

We took the colander out and looked at all the tiny crescents projected on the piece of white packing foam that we put on the ground for an ad-hoc screen. We came back in shortly after the peak eclipse. We were hot and and ready for a cool drink of water.

I spent the rest of the afternoon scanning in business cards that I had collected at the Southern Writers Expo last Saturday. I also took the opportunity to learn how to use the photo editing tools in iPhoto. My plans for the scans is to use them as part of a Writer Contact database that I am creating with an application called Airtable (

Airtable is the easiest database to set up and use that I know of. It makes something that used to take an experienced database developer to set up easy enough that someone that knows nothing about databases can do it. They have a number of examples, templates for popular uses, and tutorials as well. If you have ever used a database, you probably won’t need to do much more than glance at the examples and read the getting started document.

A particularly nice feature is that you can drag and drop documents, like pdfs or pictures, into an attachment field in your table. I am using it to make an inventory of valuables. If you thought you needed a database and a programmer, have a look at Airtable and see if it won’t do the job for you.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

The Writer as Athlete

Writing is a form of mental calisthenics. You are exercising different parts of your brain depending on the kind of writing your are doing. Writing a journal is like running around the block for fun. You’re not really pushing yourself. You’re mostly just getting your blood flowing.

Writing for someone else to read, on a limited range of topics, with a target length in mind, and with a deadline is more like a carefully planned free weight routine. You have particular goals in mind and you have thought about the parameters that will help you achieve them.

Winning National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo to its friends) is a step up. The criteria is to write 50,000 words between November 1st and November 30th. What you typically have on November 30th is most of a 1st draft of a novel. Unless you are a genius of a writer, it isn’t anywhere near ready to publish, but with some work, some help, and several more drafts it may turn in to something.

Winning NaNoWriMo is like running a half marathon. It has the decided helpful attribute of giving you a specific timeframe and a goal, in short a deadline. Deadlines are important for writers. They’re important for programmers too but that’s an entirely different blog post.

And then there is the next step. Learning to set your own deadlines, to schedule your own time, to make those writing dates with yourself and keep them. This is where I am right now. I’ve started taking part of my lunch hour to write. I’ve start scheduling one night a week to go out somewhere to write for a couple of hours. I try to get some extra work in on the weekends. I am in training for NaNoWriMo which is going to tax my schedule to the max. But this year, I don’t intend to stop when December gets here. I’m going to keep up the pace. I have a full dance card and I intend to keep the words flowing.

Between now and November first I have a short story to polish up for the Huntsville Madison County Public Library short story anthology that is due to be published sometime in November. I also have a story planned for the library’s horror story contest that is due March first.

I don’t know if I’ll make much money as a writer but I do intend to give it a serious try. I think most writers are compelled to write. They would love to make money doing it. In fact, it is often the only way they know to make a living. I am lucky that it is not my only means of supporting myself, just my preferred way.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

2017 Southern Writers Expo

The Southern Writers Expo was held at the Downtown Branch of the Huntsville / Madison County Public Library today. I was under the impression that we had a meeting of the Downtown Writers Group today as well. That turned out to be no problem though. The Expo was well worth my time.

I didn’t attend any of the presentations. I did go around the expo and talk to almost all of the writers about their books and themselves. It was amazingly encouraging to find that they were all only a little further than me in their careers.

I learned something about participating in a show like this. It goes without saying that you need a copy of your book on display. You need a bookmark or something else with the cover of your book and your contact information. You need a web site. And you need something else. You need an excerpt, maybe the first chapter of your novel, to entice the potential reader to buy your novel.

I learned something about the economics of book sales at the same time. A book is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. It doesn’t matter how nice a product you are selling, if it costs more than the reader wants to pay for it, it isn’t going to sell. That is motivation to write the best book you possibly can and present it in the most attention grabbing way possible.

There is much to learn about writing books for sale. The activity is at once ancient and modern. Modern writers have many challenges facing them dealing with digital publication, promotion via social media, and having to produce their work in multiple formats and media. I feel like I have a little bit of a jump on most authors having been in the computer business while all of these technological developments unfolded. It doesn’t make it any less work to package your product though.

I would suggest that they expand the Expo next year and see if they could interest some local publishers to participate. They might find writers to add to their catalog in addition to selling some books from it.

I enjoyed attending the Expo. I am actually writing this blog post from a quite place in the library. It seems an appropriate way to finish up a day spent meeting writers, talking about books, and basking in a warm community of local southern writers.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Mind Exponentially Boggled

Exponential growth is a mind boggling concept. It is most easily explained by an old story. Once there was a king who loved games. But alas, he had grown tired of all the games he knew how to play. So he put forth a call to everyone in his kingdom. Anyone that could invent a new game that could keep his interest for more than a week could name their own reward. If they were unsuccessful however, the king vowed to cut off their head.

Soon a gentleman arrived at the gate of the castle with a bag. He told the guard that he had a game that would entertain the king for years on end. The guards laughed at him and said he’d be better off going on his way and keeping his head on his shoulders. The gentleman insisted and so they led him in to see the king.

The king could barely contain his excitement. He told the gentleman that this was his last chance to leave with his head intact unless he really did have a game that could entertain the king for more than a week.

The gentleman assured him that this game would keep him entertained for the rest of his life. At which point he pulled a chess board and pieces out of his bag and proceeded to teach the king to play.

The king was enthralled. He played chess before breakfast. He played chess in the bath. He played chess all day long and into the night until he could no longer keep his eyes open. He played chess for days and then weeks, and after three months it occurred to him that he had made a bargain with the gentleman who had taught him this wonderful game.

The king sent for the gentleman and when he arrived he asked him what he wanted in return for teaching him this wonderful game. At first the gentleman declined saying that the kings happiness was plenty reward for him. But the king insisted. So the gentleman said, “Okay. I want you to place one grain of rice on the first square of the board. Then double that amount and place two grains of rice on the second square of the board. And continue on, doubling the number of grains of rice on each successive square until you have done that for ever square on the board.”

The king thought the man was daft. What was a little bit of rice compared to this wonderful new game he had learned? He immediately agreed to the man’s request. Of course, this was his big mistake because by the time you get to the sixty-fourth square of the chess board, the last square has 2 to the 64th power grains of rice on it which far exceeds all the rice in the world.

That is the power of exponential growth. Now a fun fact based on that principle. In 1969 Intel invented the first microprocessor. That was the first computer on a single chip. It ushered in the era of the personal computer. Several years later, Gordon Moore wrote an article for a technical magazine in which he described the rate of growth that he had observed regarding the number of transistors that they were able to fit on a chip of a given size. The number of transistors in a computer is a rough measure of how powerful it is.  Moore observed that they were able to double the number of transistors on a chip approximately every eighteen months.

This was coined Moore’s Law and has held from then until now. Consequently, we now have computers that we carry around in our pocket and hold in our hands that are much much more powerful than the computers that used to fill entire buildings before the invention of the microprocessor. We call them cell phones but the phone function is one of the least amazing of their capabilities.

And now for the truly mind boggling fact. Moore’s Law has been projected to continue at it’s current rate for at least another six or twelve years. What are we going to be using for computers by then? Are we going to implant them in our brain? Will they float around like dust? The imagination runs rampant.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

High School Daze

I remember sitting in my room in Murphysboro, when I was seventeen years old, I was attempting to do the impossible, or so it seemed to me. I was changing high schools between the sophomore and junior year. And not just changing to the school across town. I moved ninety miles north to a different town and state,

I had met some of my classmates the previous spring. My spring break had come a week or two earlier than theirs. My father was teaching there while attending classes to get his PhD. at the university eight miles down the road. Having nothing better to do, I decided to go to school with dad one of the days of my spring break.

He was in the middle of rehearsals for the spring play, a play that I was intimately familiar with. It was a play called J.B. by Archibald MacLeish. It was a retelling of the Biblical story of Job. My dad was obsessed by it. He had done a production of it at Paducah Tilghman high school several years before when I was eight. I had played one of Job’s children in the Tilghman production. I had been in the third grade at the time but I had been an extra in a summer stock play the summer before and I had this acting thing down.

I enjoyed seeing the differences and similarities between this production and the one I had been in. When you are in a play, you learn everyone’s lines. You can’t help it. You hear them over and over again in rehearsal. Besides, that’s the first thing an actor has to learn how to do, memorize the lines of the part that he is playing.

I met a lot of people that day but I hung out with a group of girls most of the day. I had learned that it was much more fun hanging out with girls than guys. I sat in on dad’s classes and ate lunch in the cafeteria with the aforementioned group of girls. I remember hanging out with them on a break from rehearsal that afternoon. Several of the girls were smoking outside the auditorium where the rehearsal was being held. The rest of the group were hanging out there to keep them company.

One girl was bragging that she had gone to Woodstock the summer before. I doubted she had but I didn’t challenge her. I had a friend that had gone hitch hiking that same summer and he was only a year older than me. That would have made him sixteen the previous summer. The bragging girl put out her cigarette and kissed me hard, out of the blue. Then she turned and went back into the auditorium for rehearsal.

I didn’t really know how to process such an impromptu show of affection. Especially not from such a “liberated” alpha female. She had big boobs and, as was the fashion at the time, didn’t wear a bra. The girl who had appointed herself as my guide for the day was totally embarrassed by the whole situation. She was also the stage manager of the play and was smitten by dad. Dad was kind but brooked no nonsense from students like that.

It certainly gave me something to think about on the drive home that night, Later that summer we moved to Murphysboro. I ended up running around with that same group of girls for the next two years, plus a couple of other people. We were the hippy crowd. The theater crowd. We thought we were dangerous and bad. We were actually pussy cats. I miss those people. I wonder how their lives turned out.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Another Day in Our Surreality

Today I planned to attend the North Alabama Web Developer group meetup. The program was An Introduction to Elm. I particularly wanted to participate in the discussion about it that I expect went on before, during, and after the presentation. I rushed through my morning routine to get to work an hour early so that I could take time to attend the meeting and get in a full day’s work without having to work too late this evening.

I went out to my car to go to the meeting. I turned the key and was disappointed to hear the click, click, click that indicated that my battery had gone bad. By the time I could have gotten a new battery installed, the meeting would have been over. So I went back to work and arranged for a friend to give me a jump at quitting time.

I got a new battery on the way home. It wasn’t the way I planned for the day to go. But I adapted to the situation as it unfolded. I grabbed some lunch from the Food Truck Corral across the street from my office building. I got more work done than I usually manage to do in a typical day.

I am trying to age gracefully. I am trying not to be that old man that says “You kids get off of my lawn.” For the record, I don’t have a lawn. But I honestly think we have crossed the line into the realm of the distinctly surreal lately. I don’t know what bizarre thing is going to be on television when I get up tomorrow.

Last week the US president and the leader of North Korea were threatening each other with nuclear war. Then I got up on Saturday morning and there were Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia.

I vowed not to use this blog as a political soap box but in this case we have gone beyond politics. This is not about Republican versus Democrat. It is about what do we do about our clinically crazy president. Even his own party doesn’t know. I am scared of what he might do in a knee jerk reaction to a petty attack that will have ramifications for all of us for the foreseeable future.

I don’t believe that any significant number of the members of the United States House of Representatives or the United States Senate are racists or bigots. I may not agree with their politics but I believe them to be decent American citizens. I can’t say that about our president with the same degree of confidence. We need to take action to preserve the reputation of our country and the integrity of our government. I trust our legislative branch will do the right thing in this regard. I hope to not be disappointed by them.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

The Sins of the Fathers

I remember where I was on November 22, 1963. I was at school. I was in the third grade at Clark school in Paducah, Kentucky. The teachers did not tell us what had happened. They left it to our parents to decide when and how to tell us that our president had been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas earlier in the day.

Consequently, I was unprepared to deal with the fact that my father, a teacher at Paducah Tilghman High School, would be so distracted by trying to change all the arrangements for the high school Fall play that was opening that evening.

My father was very strict about some things. He didn’t hit me and rarely spanked me but he did yell at me. He had told me in no uncertain terms where I was to wait for him. As soon as school let out I took my post where he had told me to wait for him. That was around three o’clock or maybe three fifteen.

As four o’clock rolled around and dad hadn’t shown up, I realized that I needed to pee. But I was afraid that if I went back inside the school, something that by itself was against the rules, I would not be where I was supposed to be when my dad finally showed up.

As it got close to five o’clock, I couldn’t hold my pee any longer. I peed down my leg like a baby. I was so ashamed. When dad finally showed up, I was crying. It took him a minute to figure out what I was so upset about. He was, of course, very sorry that he had forgotten that he was supposed to pick me up. It was one of only a few times in my life that he let me down.

In later years I was always the one who made arrangements for us to meet at a certain place and time any time I went somewhere with a group. It took me a number of years to realize that this was due to my anxiety of being abandoned by the group. It’s strange how little things like that reverberate through our lives.

It makes me wonder what other quirks that I have that can be traced to events that happened in my childhood. Common sense would suggest that many of our adult foibles are consequences of experiences from earlier in out lives. We just need to examine our memories and reflect upon them to start to understand ourselves better. This is the starting point for learning to deal with these foibles.

I’ll see you here, same time tomorrow.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Changing Horses

I have been studying at the feet of masters. They are not the masters of my father’s generation, although I have great respect for many of them as well. They are the masters of my literary passion. People like John Lennon and Paul McCartney. People like Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen. People like Neal Young and Bob Dylan. Those are the poets that speak to my heart.

When it comes to prose, Neil Gaiman, Charles DeLint, Neal Stephenson, and William Gibson light the fire in my soul. There are others, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, J K Rowling, Sharon McCrumb, and Nora Roberts to name a few more. They have stories to tell that resonate with something in my soul. They give me something to aspire to with my writing.

I find myself once again becoming a student of literature. I find that it is not enough just to read for enjoyment anymore. I want to observe how the master turns a phrase and plucks on heart strings to form that exquisite, joyful chord of emotions. I want to understand how one sentence leads to another, one page flows into the next, until half the night is gone reading the magical story in my hands.

This is what I want now. To learn how to play the harp of people’s souls and sculpt my words to move their intellect and emotions. I understand what English class was supposed to be about. It has been attributed to George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and many others but I just remember that my mother used to say, “Youth is wasted on the young.” I have a Herculean task before me, honing my literary skills through reading, writing about what I’ve read, and ultimately writing from my soul.

It may be selfish of me to pursue this goal. The world is full of more noble pursuits than becoming a writer. It is something that has teased me all my life. I have tried to ignore it and do other things. I have done fairly well at some of them. But I find myself left cold by these other pursuits now. They are simply means to an end, a way to make a living and lord knows, we need the insurance.

I’ve never been good at business and this is one of the most competitive businesses in the world. Everyone writes, very few sell their writing, and fewer still sell enough to make a living. I joke with my writer friends that I have started a new hobby. I am collecting rejection slips. Then, when I submit a piece to a publisher, I win whatever the outcome.

I have gotten two conflicting pieces of advice about writing. One camp says to write what you know. The other suggest you write whatever strikes your fancy. They contend it’s more fun that way. I imagine that I shall do both, that way I have twice the chance of succeeding. But seriously, I think my best chance of success as a writer stems from my stubbornness. I will keep trying until I do succeed.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

It Ain’t Easy Being Smart

There are a couple of down sides to being a child prodigy. The first is experienced immediately. The child in question is almost universally despised by their peers. They are patronized by the adults around them. They are often exhibited as some kind of intellectual performer. This is enjoyable to some but not all savants, some being incredibly shy.

As time passes, the child does not necessarily progress so fast as to stay as far ahead of their peers as they once were. IQ is after all the quotient of mental age over physical age. One side effect of such normalization is the gifted child misses an opportunity to develop certain mundane skills that there peers are forced by circumstance to develop. The most prominent skill of this sort is learning how to strive to master something. When everything comes easily, you don’t learn how to try, fail, replan, try again, and so forth until you ultimately succeed.

One consequence of that developmental deficiency is that accomplishments don’t mean as much to someone if they didn’t have to struggle to achieve them. Later in life when something presents itself as a legitimate challenge, the former prodigy is often frustrated because they don’t know how to go about overcoming the challenges that they face.

And, unlike their less gifted peers, they haven’t had much experience with asking others for help. They are either stubborn, embarrassed, or else they just don’t think of it in the first place. Not having cultivated many friends, as often happens with savants, they often become anxious, neurotic adults.

This is not inevitable though. If we recognize the development patterns of the over achiever and help them with their special developmental needs, this need never happen. Unfortunately, the overachiever is often stigmatized and being quick to adapt to situations they learn to hide their talent from their peers and their teachers. These crypto prodigies present a real danger to themselves and society. They often grow up to become resentful and frustrated. They secretly view their less capable peers with secret disdain.

How ever their story works out we could prevent many of these unfortunate side effects of truly exceptional intellect by more carefully screening for talent and knowing how to help them overcome their developmental challenges.

Nobody seems to ever think that the intellectually gifted need special consideration. Many schools don’t have the budget or the staff to deal with them. This needs to be dealt with as surely as we deal with the other end of the developmental spectrum.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

The Once and Future Library

I was recently asked to imagine what libraries might look like in two hundred years. Being a dedicated amateur futurist, I could hardly overlook such a tantalizing challenge. I started my analysis with a quick summary of what I understood the charter of public libraries to be right now.

They are first and foremost repositories of books. They typically take a broad view of their charter and try to provide a significant sample of all genres of books, both fiction and non-fiction. They also have collections of newspapers and periodicals although those are beginning to get scarce.

In recent years they have been adding other types of media. Everything from microfilm to DVDs, audiobooks to streaming media. They have also ramped up sponsorship of various activities and interest groups, taking on a role of social hub.

Being a public service organization they have taken on some unexpected roles of late. Homeless people have learned that they can take shelter from adverse weather whether it is torrential rains, scorching heat, or freezing cold, they can come in and read a book or talk quietly with friends. I understand that a number of them are happy to volunteer to do small chores around the library such as helping to set up tables and chairs for events or even suggest to disruptive people that they might want to move along.

Now let’s project into the future. Much of humanity’s knowledge is now kept in digital form. It is accessible through brain machine interfaces that connect people to digital stores of knowledge and to each other. People are concerned with archiving their experience for future generations. For that matter, they want to archive it so that they can remind themselves of it periodically as their live stretch out decade by decade and century by century. Death by natural causes is practically unheard of any more. The only way people die is by infrequent accidents, or more frequently by their own hand.

People are concerned about storing their creations, be they literary, musical, or artistic. Engineering, architectural, or dramatic. Libraries have realized the challenge of keeping up with hardware capable of running the archaic software as well as keeping archival copies of various applications capable of rendering the content that is stored in the archive. In just the span of my career, from 1976 through present (2017) we have seen such media as paper tape, punched cards, magnetic tape, magnetic drums, magnetic disks that have grown in capacity and density in an exponential fashion over time, floppy disks in ever shrinking size and ever growing capacity, solid state media consisting of USB thumb drives, embedded hard disk drive replacements, and extremely small storage cards such as are used in phones and other devices for highly dense magnetic story.

In short, I think that many libraries will start archiving the digital lives of their patrons. There will be terms of service that ultimately benefit the entire community after a period in which the descendants and other designees will have sole say over the access to the digital assets of the deceased.

The library will also provide holodeck like VR facilities for consuming VR literature. This will allow people of modest means the means to enjoy media originally created for people with enough space to have their own holodeck facility.

Their will be other services but these are just some of the low hanging fruit. Of course you’ll still be able to check out a book. Books will never go out of style. It may be printed and bound for you on demand at the checkout desk. And when you return it, it will be kept on a shelf for a while and then recycled if no one else wants to read it right away.

See you at the library.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.