Sunday, October 17, 2010

My Health and Those Damned Buzzards...

The buzzards are circling:

By buzzards I mean people looking high and low for free copies of the Spinward Fringe books. Every couple of days Google sends me email with a list of searches and appearances of specific titles and words.

Over the last few months it's become plain that hundreds of people have been searching file sharing and shady hosting sites for pirated versions of my work. The most amusing thing I've found on forums are listings of pirated versions of Spinward Fringe Broadcast 0: Origins as well as the First Light Chronicles Omnibus. I find this amusing because they're both available for free on Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, Diesel, the iBookstore and on other, less well frequented sites.

Since no one has complained about the pricing of the rest of the Spinward Fringe series for about two years, and they cost far less than eBooks from other publishers, I see no need to change a thing.

Update on the store:

A lot of people have been contacting me with ideas for the upcoming Spacerwares store and they've actually been very helpful. After some thought and investigation, I've decided that PayPal will be the payment processor, and the store will revolve around signed copies of the final edits of the books. I'm going to try to launch the store before this holiday season with the final version of Spinward Fringe Broadcast 0: Origins and the T-Shirts. I'm also talking to an Asian clothing producer who may provide replicas of the white scarf featured in the novels. Starting simple with the store will keep things working smoothly and hold prices down.

Spinward Fringe Broadcast 0: Origins

Thanks to your support, I've been able to hire a professionally trained, experienced and somewhat well known editor to work on the first book in the Spinward Fringe books. The reason why I've paid so much to employ this person is because he offers a quality of work that isn't offered for free. When he's finished I'll be submitting it to a professional eBook formatting house where it'll be set up for all readers one last time. Signed hardcover and softcover versions will be in the store within a few weeks.

Every Spinward Fringe book will get the same treatment if everything goes well, the process is expensive, but worthwhile. Anyone who already has eBook copies of the books should be able to update to the latest version. If your retailer doesn't allow you to re-download updated copies, send them an email requesting that they do, since it should be a common service. I've already communicated the need for updates to every retailer that doesn't currently offer them and plan to again when the final versions of the Spinward Fringe novels are ready.

Spinward Fringe Broadcast 7:

Everyone wants to know how work on this book is going, and that's expected. The middle novel in any trilogy should leave readers wanting more, and I'm fortunate to have done my job well. The good news is that Broadcast 7 is better than I expected, the bad news is that it's bigger. It's also more complicated, addresses and ties together most of the plot lines from the previous books, and is at the same time epic and personal in scale.

Above all else, Broadcast 7 has required as much thought as it has actual writing. Plot lines are coming to a head and characters are being tested. It's more important than ever to get everything just right and thankfully most of the research was finished last spring, so that's not slowing me down. I can say with fair certainty that this won't be ready before this January, especially since there's an understandable outcry for more editing / proofreading and I need a couple extra months to accomplish that. I'll be talking about Broadcast 7 in greater detail later.

Personal business:

Right now I'm preparing to move to a better apartment where I can have an office and a proper living room. Until now my bedroom has served as my living room and office, and, while I have a large bedroom, I can't wait to have some breathing space. House sitting over the summer this year has reminded me what a proper home is like, and I'm fortunate that the cost of rent has decreased about 20% since September 1 in my area. Moving is still a huge pain, but I'm sure it'll be worth it since I'll be able to get a lot more work done in a better space.

My Health, or "Pulling A Robert Jordan"

A surprising amount of concern has been shown for my well being in the last couple weeks, culminating in an email that reads;

"I hope you remember to concentrate on getting well while you're writing your next book. Your health is much more important than fiction."

I don't know where this poor reader got the impression that I was ill, but I reassured her at length that I was fine, maybe carrying a few extra pounds, but I recently dropped a belt size, so even that's not as bad as it could be. I'm much younger than most authors typically are when they expire as well, only thirty six. I also don't live near any really tall buildings, so the chances of being crushed by a safe or piano are minimal.

So, there's no cause for concern. Stop jinxing me by obituary watching and hand wringing already!

For extra reassurance, I've provided a list of things I will avoid below:

I promise to avoid the following until Broadcast 7 is complete and possibly longer - construction sites, high places, rickety railings, swimming pools, I won't be eating any kind of puffer fish, going near older electrical outlets, tunnels, rail road tracks, firearms, angry looking redheads, confusing exercise equipment, mediaeval weaponry displays, tall stacks of books or paper, large crowds of people (in case they turn into an angry mob), mosh pits, Spinal Tap drummers, likely cannibals, airports, bus terminals, Alice Cooper, shaving, wet floors, Addams Family fans, dogs, high traffic areas, ferrets, bowling alleys, garbage trucks, gingerbread houses, Sith, all night convenience stores, car washes, foods that require extensive chewing, performance art, open graves, quarries, zoos, ex-girlfriends, Red Green, showering standing up, mints, running, plastic bags, speed dating (not so much for the lethality, just as a general rule), stairs, ninjas, piles of rope, rigging, wet concrete, skydiving, bungee jumping, ladders, water parks, slip and slides, coconut trees, FOX Executives, liquids I can't identify with absolute certainty, paintball, parking lots, Betty White, soccer riots, anything that can double as a noose,  Guinness, dry cleaner's wrapping plastic, Hotel / Motels, wearing high heels, revolving doors, elevators, Costco, grocery store sample counters, T-shirt presses, long scarves, sharp looking bits of paper, manhole covers, eating alone, Rob Zombie, airplanes, automobiles, trains, and golf carts.

I'll also stop holding in sneezes, spinning in my desk chair when I don't think anyone is looking, sneaking up on my room mate (yes, Marc, it's on purpose, I don't pop out from around corners by mistake), running up stairs, or opening beer bottles without a proper opener. 


[On second thought, I won't avoid Guinness or Betty White, sorry.]

Sunday, October 3, 2010

My Macbook Pro and The Hesitant Future

The keyboard on my HP Mini started falling apart after about 400,000 words in a really big way. Half the spacebar didn't work, a ctrl key would no longer stay on, and most of the commonly used keys were well, wonky.

While the laptop I'd used to write two Spinward Fringe novels, most of The Sons Of Brightwill and other things was dying a slow death, Windows continued to grate on me. Updates were shutting the OS down while I wrote, pop up bubbles erupted from the lower right and other idiotic tics kept trashing my workflow.

Fixes were installed to stop the bubbles (provided by Microsoft), and only a couple types of notification bubbles were removed. Other fixes were put in place, but no matter how much work was done on XP (on its third revision with Service Pack 3), it was still an antique operating system that seemed more interested in getting in its own way than being a fully functional platform. Not only does Windows XP remind me of Windows 95, it provides little more in the way of effective computing and many of the so called improvements become problems. Evolution is slow in nature, and if Microsoft were the only people developing Operating Systems, they would prove, beyond a doubt, that it's no faster in software.

While I have absolutely no respect for Windows XP, I understand that hundreds if not thousands of people worked on it. I tip my hat to their hard work and hope that they all have a chance to work on something that provides a better user experience in the future.

Having said that, it's also important to mention that this blog post isn't a love letter to Apple.

After six months of saving, I was able to purchase a Macbook Pro 13" to replace my ailing HP Mini. Every reader who has purchased one of my books is a little responsible for me having this machine. A few people have asked me why I didn't go with a less expensive machine, especially since it took so long to save up for it.

I have tried several Operating Systems over the years, including Red Hat, Ubuntu, Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7 and others. All of them require a greater amount of maintenance and compromise than OS-X if you are using it for my purposes. This isn't an arguable point, it is fact. People who try to argue that another OS is adequate are wrong in my case, the debate is moot and I'm not interested in hearing people discuss which operating system is superior on this blog, I'll tell you why later.

I use my Macbook Pro for writing (primarily), browsing, email, photo editing, a little 3D rendering and video editing. Never have I seen a machine that can do all of those things more efficiently. The interface is clean, the operating system doesn't interrupt my work flow - ever - and I find myself less distracted. The laptop itself is durable, easy to keep clean, the keyboard is set up so I can type at a blazing 86 wpm - my personal record average - and it is simple. Windows and the machines it dominates feel like dysfunctional toys in comparison. This Mac OS equipped aluminum laptop is like a real professional tool. The Macbook Pro hasn't crashed once since I turned it on in July. Other people have had different experiences, but my Macbook has performed exceptionally well.

Having said that, what makes OS X special is the absence of complications and distractions. It has what an operating system should, and doesn't get in its own way. This shouldn't be difficult to accomplish. Every operating system should be able to provide this kind of experience as a baseline. While I'm pleased with the cleaner, more efficient experience I'm having with Mac OS X, I'm not actually impressed. More than anything, what the operating system doesn't do is helping me get my work done every day. It doesn't crash, it doesn't reset my system whether I like it or not, it doesn't require a virus checker that flashes update alerts randomly, and it doesn't stand out like a sore thumb.

I know the Macbook Pro and OS X are capable of much more than I'm using it for, but my Macbook is a tool, not a toy.

Moving on to the point in general:

I believe that Apple has provided a better computer all around than anyone else for the price range. That's an overall opinion. For the money I could have gotten a more generic computer with more power, more software, more storage space, and with more customizability. What I think Apple has done better than anyone else is provide a better user experience in general by following a specific vision of what that experience should be. One of the reasons why this computer cost more than similar machines from other companies is because more time is spent on research and development.

So, why am I absolutely opposed to hearing yet another debate about what operating system is best? The answer is simple: They're all providing the bare minimum experience we should expect or less. The argument is pointless, there isn't an operating system out there worth fighting for.

Computer and console operating systems are over ten years behind where they should be in terms of evolution, and that's not even using the time scale operating system development is based on. At this pace, we won't see a truly impressive operating system for another twenty years.

I'm not talking about including a holographic interface, or a real artificial intelligence. There are people working on those things, but they're not core to the user experience.

An operating system should either be small, simple and agile like Mac OS X, some implementations of Linux Ubuntu and other customized experiences or it should be modular and robust. That complex software is the second part of what will make the operating system of the future impressive to most users.

I hope a future OS would communicate with the user until they have finished selecting the applications and activities they want to engage in. If the user wants to continue interacting with the computer, they can, that communication could even continue as a part of their desired activity, but the computer should never interrupt the user while they're doing what they chose to do. An assumptive component is also important so a user doesn't have to jump through the same hoops over and over again. The system would pay attention to how many times the user makes the same decisions and tailor the experience according to their behaviour. Audio communication with your computer could be part of the experience, and it should be refined so a user can choose how active the computer is in asking questions and making requests for more information, but more importantly, the computer should have to be a good listener. It wouldn't be like talking to an automated operator that asks questions and waits for you to press a button or clearly enunciate yes or no answers, it would be more interested in hearing your requests and responding appropriately.


"I want to edit that picture of my uncle from last week," he said as he walked into the room.
"This one?" Asked the computer as a picture of his uncle appeared on screen. "I assume you'll be using Photoshop?" It verified as the software finished loading.
"No, the other picture, the one with the party hat."
The computer closed the initial picture and opened the one with his uncle in a party hat that he'd spent the most time editing during the previous week.
"Fantastic," he muttered as he began selecting the outline of his uncle's face by tracing it with his fingertip. "Now bring up that documentary about great apes I was watching last night. I'm going to be grabbing a still shot from the scene where they start throwing things at tourists."

There are a lot of other ideas that can be applied universally, but the ones above are of great significance because they would improve accessibility and efficiency in a significant way for everyone, even the disabled. The idea that our computers should be practically invisible is coming as well, but that's something for another blog post as the implications are as much psychological as they are practical. The point behind all this advancement is to get computers and communication to work for us, instead of extending our working day, adding extra stress and getting in our way. All of this can be accomplished in the operating system.

It doesn't take an artificial intelligence to take a user's habits into account. Voice recognition, camera cue interactivity and people who design systems that focus on efficiency have existed for many years. The systems required to run software designed for home use has existed for over a decade. The desire to design said systems has existed as well, and while they've done wonders for security and other highly financed applications, software companies like Microsoft, Apple, Sun Microsystems and many more should have already offered these innovations to the general public.

The current attitude of some of the largest software producers in the world don't support making that a priority, however, since Microsoft can sell tens of millions of copies of Windows 7 before it has even arrived on shelves. It doesn't offer anything that I couldn't do five to ten years ago using software that was programmed in basements and in the offices of smaller companies with more ambition, but it's prettier, and it almost performs as well as Windows XP under ideal conditions.

Where do I think OS-X stands in comparison? It works well in concert with specially designed hardware that is made to provide a simple experience with a couple frills. It's a basic tool, and I'm enjoying it because it is dependable and doesn't interrupt my work flow. If I had the funds, I'd replace everything I own with Windows installed with Apple equipment, because they have managed to provide a better user experience by accomplishing the minimum requirements for a computer system, as far as I'm concerned.

I suppose the saying holds true: You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you can get what you need.


[As an added note, I'd like to thank all the readers who buy my books. Every single one of you have had a part in putting a roof over my head, food in my bowl and in giving me the tools I need to keep working. I can honestly say that, thanks to this little Macbook Pro, work on Broadcast 7 is going faster than expected.]