Monday, August 31, 2015

Project Update III

Ugh. August was a tough month.

Lost twelve days of serious work on my self-publishing project: our annual vacation down to visit my in-laws in Hilton Head, a planes-trains-automobiles all-day affair to see the Yanks beat the Twins one day, and fourteen hours spent painting and rearranging my daughter’s bedroom (something I’ve been promising her I’d do all summer). All told, major momentum killers.

I also faced – and overcame – two setbacks of a personal nature that I won’t go into on the blog. Each effectively wasted one or two days in the time and effort I had to pay to deal with them. And micromanaging the girls fourteen hours a day without camp giving me a few hours of peace to work every day bit into my productivity.

All in all I devoted a paltry 33 hours this month to building my business (as compared to 43.75 in May, 41.75 hour in June and 54 hours in July). Should’ve been 20 more hours, at least. Thank God I was able to bang out 19 hours during a brief mini-vacation at my parent’s house in PA (where the little ones swam, played basketball, and roasted marshmallows).

So what did I accomplish this month?

I’m about 95% settled on a title for my novel: Oncewhere Walked the Whale. Problem is, half the time I absolutely hate it, the other half, I absolutely love it. Guess as long as I don’t feel lukewarm about it, that’s a plus. Hate it or love it, if you feel strongly about it, it will work. After all, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

I’m also 95% done with the following:

– The layout of my author website
– My official “biography”
– The lengthy “gift” I’m going to send you for signing up on my email list
– How my business cards will be designed

But it’s always that last 5% that’s the hardest …

The first format the book will be released in will be Kindle. Did some research on it and it seems to be something I can get done in two days of solid work. After that I want to set it up for Nook. iBooks and Print-on-Demand will have to be something I research in October, while beginning the final edit of my next book.

Also bought my domain name, which was kinda neat and surreal.

The cover for Whale is important and right now my biggest problem. I have a vague sense of what I’d like the cover to look like (it ain’t complicated, like an Attack of the Clones space battle), and Little One broke out her pencils and sketched it for me. Problem now is to redo it with photo software, downloading fonts and getting that sketch converted into a professional image. Need to research this from scratch and am guesstimating it will take a solid week of work for this highly critical aspect of bookselling.

Also, the whole purchasing ISBNs has me worried. That’s my project for tomorrow.

August held a little bit of backsliding for me on the physical plane. After working out nearly every day for May, June, and July, and working my body to the point of exhaustion, I took eight days off during my Hilton Head vacation. Problem is, I didn’t get back on the horse. My new routine would be three longer workouts a week instead of six shorter ones, giving me recuperation time. But I only had the discipline to stick with it for five workouts, instead of the nine or ten I scheduled.

I did walk 14.5 miles, as compared to 28 miles in May, 20.5 in June, and 20.2 in July.

Finished two physics books I had since my college days as a physics major, never completed way back then. Satisfaction. Only fiction I had time for was another blast from the past, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. Currently I’m about a hundred pages in to Greg Bear’s Eon, a book that’s sat on my shelf for seven or eight years. Two books of wildly different spirituality I finished, read usually in the quiet of the deep night, after the ladies had all gone to sleep.

Drove a little over 2,000 miles this past month on our family trips to South Carolina and Pennsylvania and various trips around New Jersey. That’s a lot of thinking.

Applied, unsuccessfully, to nine companies looking for regular work. Lots of opinion about this, but that’s a subject for a future post, once I am working again.

So while August was not as successful as I had wanted it to be, it doesn’t look like such a wash now that I’ve put it all down on e-paper. Did overcome obstacles, which is worth double or triple the time had it been spent furiously typing at the laptop. And stayed focused, for the large part, despite minor bouts of depression and fatigue.

Goal for September: Get that book self-published!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Book Review: Rendezvous with Rama

© 1973 by Arthur C. Clarke

[minor spoilers …]

It’s said that Arthur C. Clarke is the “Big Idea” man of SF. I dunno if that’s entirely true (all good SF is “Big Idea”), but it’s certainly easy to come to that conclusion. I mean, consider 2001: A Space Odyssey, a bit before my time but possibly the first non-Asimov SF I read as a kid. Mankind unearths the monoliths left behind by some alien superintelligence. Are they to guide us? If so, to what? Consider Childhood’s End, reviewed here. Who exactly are these horned and winged Overlords? And what exactly is the next evolutionary leap human consciousness is leaping and bounding into at novel’s end?

Then, Rendezvous with Rama. A massive … probe, I guess … from an alien civilization enters the Solar System. Its origin is unknown. Its destination is unknown. Its intent is unknown. In fact, all three are unknowable until and unless contact can be made. A team of astronauts is dispatched to dock with it, find some way in, and see what’s inside. They do, and what they find is, and this seems to be the best pair of words I can come up with, what they find is blandly outstanding.

That’s not to say it’s a bad novel. Far from it. It’s one of the best one’s I’ve (re)read in a long time. It’s better than Childhood’s End. The “bland” remark is more a comment on Clarke the storyteller, from my experience. When it’s said that Clarke is a Big Idea man, I agree wholeheartedly. He just doesn’t do little things like characterization, or dialogue, or plot, or suspense. But you’re not reading Rendezvous with Rama for the characters or the manufactured suspense. You’re reading it for the Big Idea. And the Big Idea is a biggie all right: Rama itself.

In the year 2130, a strange comet-like object is discovered streaking into the Solar System. Initial readings indicate it’s not a comet, but what is it? Neat theories are thrown around (such as a renegade neutron star), but eventually it’s determined that Rama (so named because we’re up to the Hindu pantheon in naming astronomical bodies at this time) is a massive, artificial object. A cylinder some 18 miles long and 6 miles in diameter, slowly rotating with no visible engines or markings on the outside.

A deep space survey team is sent to meet it and find a way in. Rama’s air locks prove easily defeated and our team of intrepid explorers enter. Here is where the novel shines, and man do I mean it shines. Imagine what that massive interior must look like. If my rusty calculations are correct, that’s something like 340 square miles to explore. And they only have two weeks before solar heat makes life on Rama, er, inefficacious. Imagine the physics of it. Rama rotates with enough speed to generate a half-gee on the “plains” – the interior surface of the world – but the entry hatches are at the center of the hub, zero gee. Three long staircases descend three miles to the “plains.” And there’s more.

A sea of frozen liquid bisects the cavernous interior. Picture a band of water before you, going up the sides of curving walls, and eventually six miles over your head. As Rama approaches the Sun, it’s heated up, which leads to all sorts of crazy happenings. Artificial lights turn it from a frozen ancient Egyptian tomb into a hurricane-plague tropic. Various “cities” – groups of what appear to be buildings with no obvious points of entrance – dot the plains and are named “New York,” “Paris”, and “London.” The team methodically begins its exploration of these strange places, methodically encountering and overcoming obstacles mainly through the application of practical physics in an impractical setting.

Soon Rama comes to life. “Biots,” biological entities built from the stew of the heated Cylindrical Sea, dot the landscape. Several species are noted, some fearsome (crablike things the size of a car, three-legged “spiders” with three eyes each) but to the relief of the exploration party seem to have little interest in humanity. They perform various maintenance – ? – duties in Rama.  A young engineer comes up with a bright idea to traverse the Sea, nearly getting himself killed exploring the southern hemisphere, and is rewarded by finding a single blue flower poking up in some Raman field of unknown purpose.

Clarke intersperses this mission of discovery with meetings of various planetary councils. I found these chapters unenlightening, adding little to the novel except for that bit of manufactured drama. Mercury, apparently fearing Rama will park itself in close orbit around the Sun, launches a nuclear missile at the alien probe, a crisis which our team blandly overcomes.

Perhaps I’m being a bit too harsh on the master. I did grow fond of the crew of intrepid spacemen, especially the captain, Norton. Clarke humanizes him a bit by telling us of Norton’s fascination with explorer Captain James Cook, a quirk that resurfaces once or twice in the course of the novel. I really dug the final chapters, where Rama zips around the sun, draws some energy from the photosphere, warps space (an effect interestingly felt by the retreating Earthmen), altering course for the Large Magellanic Clouds. And I was okay with Clarke’s main theme, the insignificance of Man in the Universe, as all this transpired without a single note of acknowledgement from the Ramans that we exist.

Best of all, the novel has one of the best final lines in the history of science fiction.

I first read Rendezvous with Rama about twenty years ago after a loooooong spell of not reading anything. It was an excellent choice to get back into SF. Clarke wrote a sequel or two after, and I remember reading the second one and liking it even more than the original. May have to keep an eye out for that one. All things considered, a worthy read about one really Big Idea.

Grade: A-minus


Friday, August 21, 2015

Classic Physics

God does not play dice!”

– Albert Einstein, winner of the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.”

Stop telling God what to do!”

– Niels Bohr, winner of the 1922 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his services in the investigation of the structure of atoms and of the radiation emanating from them.”

Ah, repartee like this never grows old. Just ran across it, again, in Einstein’s Universe, by Nigel Calder, an old pop sci physics book I’ve had for ages.  

A unique dynamism played out with aging Einstein. No longer the theoretical ax-wielding revolutionary, proudly venturing into curmudgeon country, he cage-match sparred with the Young Turks of Quantum Mechanics over the inherent, quintessential feature of the physics of the subatomic – its uncertainty, where matter is manifested ultimately in waves of probability.

More to come as the Muse is urging me to read up on Relativity and there’s a bio of the grand old man on the shelf behind me calling, long in need of a good read.

N.B. – I made a pilgrimage to Einstein’s house at Princeton fifteen years or so ago. Nothing particularly special about it, unless you knew of the eclectic, eccentric man who inhabited it once upon a time.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Vacation 2015 Pics

Some of the more amusing pictures from last week's trip down to Hilton Head, SC:

Patch snuggling with a hen at one of the island's animal preserves. This prompted a vivid retelling of the scene in Rocky where Stallone had go catch that chicken in the alley.

Little One with a baby alligator. Note the blue band keeping its heavily-toothed maw shut. There would be more gators later in the week. Without blue bands.

Great. Countdown to "Can we get a turtle as a pet?" in 3 ... 2 ... 1 ...

Little One wearing the latest fashion accessory, a wrap-around boa.

Boogie Boards on the beach. I was the victim of numerous drive-by hit-and-run boogie board accidents care of both children that afternoon.

Photobombed!, or The Girl with Two Heads!

Little One and her coach after a particularly grueling hour-long workout in the heavy heat and humidity. She slept well that night.

The girls getting their t-shirts autographed by local singing celebrity Greg Russell at his show near the Lighthouse at Sea Pines.

Roasting marshmallows during the "Haunted Campfire Night." After the sun went down, the teenage guides told the group of little ones many spooky stories.

This guy stalked us while the girls were fishing off a dock using hot dogs as bait. He was only two or three feet. Then his older brother swam up for a piece of the action, too ...

A perfect ending to a perfect evening ... of not getting eaten by gators.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Vacation 2015

Spent the past eight days visiting the in-laws down in Hilton Head, SC. Six days actually; the first and last Saturdays were spent in the Pilot driving from and to the home base in New Jersey. The way down took us fifteen hours, which included two meal and bathroom breaks. Back up only took a little over twelve. The difference is the omnipresent traffic mysteriously centered around Quantico, Virginia. Going down we did this twenty-five mile stretch in an hour and fifteen minutes. We smartened up and the return trip – the wife used her Waze app to reroute us to 295 north, completely cutting out this nonsense.

The trip was mainly for the two little ones. This was by far the most action-packed Hilton Head vacation for them, as this was the first time in five years I’ve gone down, since having me around helps the wife greatly in the whole crazy logistics of it all. The girls swam at the plantation pool four days and at the beach twice. They visited two zoos, seeing an exhibit on butterflies and holding bunnies, chickens, turtles, snakes (!), and alligators (!!). They learned how to fish for shrimp and crabs (I guess the verb should be “shrimp” or “crab” instead of “fish”). Each had two hour-long tennis lessons with professional instructors they loved. We went to a “haunted” campfire marshmallow roast and were stalked by two baby gators (and a snapping turtle). The girls made pizzas with their grandpa, an annual tradition. Oh, and we went to see local attraction Greg Russell at Sea Pines and the girls were picked to sing in front of 350 people. So very proud.

As for me, well, I went to three of those four pool sessions and hit the beach twice. I’m not a beachgoer. In fact, this might be the first time I’ve been on the beach in at least fifteen years. The first day monstrously threatening storm clouds blew in a half-hour after we set up while the girls splashed and boogie-boarded. Rain chased us away. Next day I got in the ocean with them, keeping a wary eye out for sharks and jellyfish. We all had a good time.

My in-laws’ wifi worked the first half of the week we were there, so I was able to do some work on my project and surf the web in the evenings. Then, a falling branch took it out for the remainder of the week. I brainstormed improved titles for my novel at the local library one afternoon and skimmed through its back issues of Scientific American. As far as current reads, I finished two books. One on an alternate religion, the other on the history of physics. 

Picked up a quartet of books at the thrift shop where my mother-in-law volunteers:

Voyage to the City of the Dead, by Alan Dean Foster

The Winds of War, by Herman Wouk

The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds and the Laws of Physics, by Roger Penrose

The Universe, Time-Life Books circa early 70s

All for $5.50. For charity.

Tried to read Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, as promised in a prior post, and put away forty pages poolside. However, I found it dull, plodding, flat, unidimensional, and the big ideas – what ones that were revealed and what ones I guessed were coming – did not excite. Still, it is a classic, so possibly I was just not in the correct frame of mind. It goes back on the bookshelf, perhaps to be plucked five or ten years down the road. I made an unsuccessful stab at Gurdjieff’s Meetings with Remarkable Men, but found that the other book I was concurrently reading (the one on an alternate religion) provided better similar themes.

My father-in-law is a huge Cubs fan, so with both the Cubs and Mets surging, and factoring a late-season collapse by my team, we might have a friendly bet over a Wild Card series in two months. And since he’s a gourmet chef by night (architect by day), we all ate like royalty five of those six nights. The other dinner we had at their club after tennis lessons.

My mother-in-law gave Little One her old Dell laptop provided we could move a hundred or so photos off it and on to her iPad. An impossible challenge! But we tried our best. Friday morning, in the pouring rain, multitasking at a Starbucks, downloading this, searching that, we finally threw all the photos on a flash drive. Best we could do, as Apple and Microsoft are mortal enemies and we didn’t want to upgrade Nana’s OS to get iTunes on her Dell.

Other highlights:

Touched an SUV-sized piece of an Atlas rocket from a 2010 launch that had washed up on the beach sometime earlier and now was cordoned off near an animal preserve.

Meditated twice and walked four miles, one of those with my youngest, Patch.

Learned more than I ever wanted to know – and seen more than I’ve ever wanted to see – of Banana Spiders.

Sunbathed for the first time since that awful Sunburn of ’94. Didn’t get scorched, but didn’t get tan, either.

Came up with 27 alternate titles for my first novel while skimming both it and a “philosophical biography” of Friedrich Nietzsche.

And since all four of us had to share the spare bedroom, Little One would smack my feet several times a night to get me to stop snoring. We can laugh about that now …

All in all, a great summer vacation, my first in five years, not counting this unemployment-induced holiday I’m currently experiencing.

Pictures tomorrow.