Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Separate Worlds

Atlantis and Earth have encountered one another before, so long ago that neither retains more than faded legends from the event. Now the rift between them has opened again. A collision is inevitable.

For the crew of the Olive Branch, the mission is a venture into never-before-charted territory. Theirs is a voyage to finally connect with intelligent life in space.

For the Atlanteans, the rift brings the actualization of something thought inconceivable - an alien invasion.

The possibilities for bridging the two worlds are virtually endless, but fate has a way of choosing its own outcome. Will harmony result, or will Earth and Atlantis be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past?

Separate Worlds is an 11,000-word novella.

It's finished, folks!  After long last, and more time and painstaking work than I'd like to admit, it's done, and the House of Dalar is ready for a release party.  Champagne is in order tonight.  But before that, my sincere gratitude goes out to several people, without whom this story would not be nearly what it is.

First, I'd like to mention my graphic design artist, Todd Bréda.  He took my random thoughts and ideas and crafted them into a beautiful cover, which very aptly conveys the concepts and feel of the story.  He was also a pleasure to work with, and things went rather quickly once he got the idea of what I wanted for my cover art.  I've heard nothing but praise for the cover art.  Thank you, Todd!

The second person that deserves many thanks is my editor, Karin Cox.  She not only took on the extra workload during an especially hectic time, she not only provided excellent editorial advice and corrections, but did so more quickly than expected.  She also commented on some structural areas in the story, pointing out that the story would be better if I'd flesh them out a bit more.  And she was right - I'm far happier with the result now than I would have been without those edits.  Thank you, Karin!

I'd like to thank David Gaughran, whose blog (and advice) I found extremely helpful.  He's really been a pioneer in the self-publishing world, cutting through some of the stigma and misconceptions, and setting the record straight on a number of different areas.  He's also made it very easy to understand the process, and learn what's really necessary to produce a quality e-book that separates itself from the deluge of others out there.  Thank you, Dave!

I'd also like to mention Guido Henkel, whose incredibly helpful blog series on ebook formatting helped me get through the coding process and turn Separate Worlds from a word document into an actual ebook.  After pouring through his step-by-step advice, I was able to produce a book of far better quality than I otherwise would have been able to.  Thank you, Guido!

I also had a lot of help from family and friends to acquaintances to Navy colleagues, to some wonderfully intelligent folks over at Seahawks.NET.  Without your help and support, this book wouldn't be nearly what it is.  Thank you!

Producing a book of any size requires not only a lot of time, effort, and attention to detail, but it requires more than just the author alone.  After going through this process, that is more glaringly obvious to me than it had been before.  I realize this post has started to sound suspiciously like an Oscar acceptance speech, but I felt it had to be said.

And now I'm throwing the book out there to the wolves, out there for anyone to read.  I've tried to ensure it's as good as I can possibly get it, and that's all I can do.  Look for it from a variety of digital booksellers available soon for 99¢.

Update: Available now at Barnes & Noble for the NOOK eBook reader or on a PC, Mac, iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, or Android smartphone enabled with their free NOOK eReading software.

Available now at Smashwords for Apple iPad/iBooks, Kindle devices and apps, Nook, Sony Reader, Kobo, Palm, most e-reading apps including Stanza, Aldiko, Adobe Digital Editions, PCs, and others.  ISBN: 978-1-4658-4084-4.

Available now on Amazon for Kindle readers and apps.  ASIN: B0074U3LTQ.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why do I even have a blog?

As you can see from snooping around this blog even a little, I'm not yet published.  I mean, I'm an author, but only because I say so.  You can't yet buy my stories, and I haven't yet made any money from them.  So why does a guy like me have an author's blog?

Well, to be fair, the foremost reason is because that's what the industry experts suggest.  They say to get your voice out there even before you're published, and that's what I'm doing.  So why would they advise this?  Why would an author with nothing to sell be advised to have an online presence?

First, establishing myself, however obscure, as a presence on the Internet before I'm published means I'm already ahead of the game when I do eventually publish.  I'm already ahead of the author who starts to blog, tweet, and otherwise connect at the same time his or her book is published.

Second, it shows that I'm already willing to work on publicity myself, to do what I need to do to get my stories visible, away from the dark claws of obscurity.  If I'm willing to work on things on my own, they know I'll work with them however they need in order to promote my books.  It's the sign of a good investment, and with the risks agents and publishers take with new authors, that's a good thing.

And third, it gives everyone - readers, agents, editors, publishers - a taste of my writing.  Sure, it's not the same as fiction, but it gives them a snapshot of the quality, style, and attention to detail that I likely (assuredly, actually) give my stories.  They can see my typos, or hopefully lack thereof, my grammar, my style and my voice.  Anything that allows a preview into what someone is getting makes it more enticing.

Aside from that, it allows anyone at a glance to see what type of stories I write.  It's right up there at the top: science fiction, horror, and fantasy.  You know instantly if you like the genres I write, and you know what to expect when you pick up one of my stories.

If you've been following my blog for any amount of time, you probably realize I intend to self-publish two novellas.  And you realize I'm behind my targeted schedule.  There are a couple reasons for this.  The first, and probably biggest reason is that a fractured ankle in the household has left me playing caregiver rather than maniacal wordslinger for much of the last couple of months.  I haven't been able to work nearly as much as I'd expected, but priorities being what they are, I'm fine with that.

Also, in talking with my amazingly cool editor, Karin Cox, I came to the conclusion my first story had a thread or two that needed more fleshing out to make it a much better story.  Every piece of quality advice I've found out there for self-publishers tells me the two things I had better get right are the cover and the editing process. Both are absolutely vital in producing a quality product, worthy of your hard-earned money.  And an author can't do that alone and be completely successful.  If my editor says my book would be better a certain way, then I'd damn well better listen.

Both these things, coupled with the normal family-centric holiday season, have left me woefully behind schedule.  It grates on me, knowing that schedules and deadlines are absolutely necessary in this business.  I'm still learning the ropes, but I should be able to function within the parameters I do know.

Whether I call these excuses or reasons, it all amounts to the same thing.  I'm working on it, I promise.  In fact, I've wrapped up the editing process and have begun the formatting.  Correctly formatting an e-book is a bit complicated, and involves a bit of HTML and other types of magical computer tomfoolery.  Sure, any idiot can zap a word document into the right format and have it uploaded and ready in an hour.  The problem with that is not every type of e-reader works well with formatting it the easy way, making it a very unprofessional looking product.

So bear with me just a while longer, while I wrangle through the correct way to format the book for all the major e-readers.  After all, if I'm taking your hard-earned money in good conscience, I want to make sure I have as professional a product as I can.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Blackout Day

This site is not blacking out in protest.  It could have looked like this today:

It's not that I condone or support piracy, it's that I condone and support the United States Constitution and the freedom of speech.  This is not about theft; it's about censorship.  And until they figure out the right way to do it, I cannot in good conscience support it.

There would be little point of me going dark, other than a meaningless gesture of defiance, so I'm sharing my own take on the subject as well as links to a few other blog posts I've found that discuss the dangers of SOPA and PIPA.  I've written about this before, but it's an important subject, one everyone should understand.

I'm not the only one who has an opinion on this.  Author Chuck Wendig shares his awesome take on it over on his blog, Terrible Minds.  John Scalzi weighs in on it.  Chris Heald has another solid write-up on it.  Just Google it if you want to find more.  They're not completely blacked out, but they do not support the bill.  I'd tell you to use Wikipedia, but they're blacked out, which is what they'd be like if SOPA and PIPA pass.  Experts have weighed in on this subject.  And if you'd like to contribute your two cents on the subject, here is a good place to start.

And my thoughts on it?  I talked about the following points elsewhere, and thought I'd share here.  I've taken these points from the various experts speaking out against the bill and put them into my own words.  Feel free to use this information when writing to your government representative(s) or passing along information about the subject.

SOPA will cause serious additional problems, including the following:

1. It would negatively impact U.S. and global cybersecurity. This means it would cause more security breaches and less effective security, possibly at the expense of national defense and U.S. business and commercial interests. Military and corporate espionage is already a problem that negatively impacts the U.S. and our way of life. This would exacerbate that problem.

2. It would negatively impact Internet functionality by eroding DNS structure, which is the opposite of the way technology is supposed to work. This is counter-intuitive to basic progress.

3. It would delay the full adoption of DNSSEC and its security improvements over DNS, which is what Internet folks have been trying to do to improve virtual security. This would create a less secure Internet environment in the future, less secure than the one we now have security issues with.

4. It would assign liability to site owners for everything users post, without consideration for whether or not the user posted without permission. Site owners could face jail time or heavy fines, and DNS blacklisting. This would probably shut down a site like Seahawks.NET, or at the very least, make it very inhospitable and undesirable to visit, killing any real amount of traffic to the site.

5. It would require web services like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter to monitor and aggressively filter everything all users upload, equating to a ton of extra manpower and energy, and tremendously reduced/filtered/censored content. This completely violates the constitutional right of the freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is not limited to any particular topics, agendas, or subjects, and is guaranteed. Copyright protection, which is supposedly the issue here is an entirely different subject than piracy, and abiding by copyright laws do not violate one's freedom of speech.

6. It would deny site owners due process of law, by initiating a DNS blacklisting based solely on a good faith assertion by an individual copyright or intellectual property owner. This completely violates due process of an individual as guaranteed by our judicial process.

7. It would give the U.S. government the power to selectively censor the web using techniques similar to those used in China, Malaysia and Iran. This is an Orwellian concept we as a nation have long stood against, and have spoken out against these practices with extreme vigor. Doing this would also cripple the U.S. as a viable destination for new online business, as it would make the establishment of one very undesirable, similar to how the online environments of China, Malaysia and Iran are currently.

A few of the options that would work to combat piracy:

1. Release products such as movies simultaneously worldwide. It costs nothing more to do this, and completely undermines the reasons people put pirated copies up in the first place. This would greatly cut back on the onslaught of pirated cam/DVD rips that make the products available where they are not yet legally released. This cuts back on piracy caused by people's inability to wait for a product's release, such as a highly anticipated movie debut.

2. Do away with DRM restrictions. They don't work at all, and only frustrate legitimate paid customers, encouraging them to pirate themselves. This would allow customers the ability to back up their purchased items. They should also not have to buy back their entire library/collection if a device becomes inoperable or they switch to a different platform. This cuts back on hoarding pirated copies of items a consumer wishes not to lose, even if they bought the product legally.

3. Release quality beta/test issues for products such as video games, allowing full previews of the product and enticing people to buy the item instead of illegally procuring it to see whether it's worth spending $60 bucks for. This cuts back tremendously on the "exploratory" type of piracy.

4. Provide quality updates and additional material and support for legally purchased products. This already has a proven track record for sales as products like AVG anti-virus software packages have shown. This does away with the need to pirate in the first place, as most of the product typically needed for the casual user is available at zero cost anyway.

5. Stop crippling content so that it only works on one device, or only works if the reader is given permission by a retailer or publisher to open the file. This again cuts back on piracy for ease of use or the sake of convenience.

6. Release quality digital works for those products that don't have them, such as movies and books. This would prevent piracy of those products to create a product where a vacuum or sub-standard product exists.

None of those options require legislation. Money (2.5+ million so far) spent lobbying for this draconian legislation would be better spent implementing these options. We live in a digital world. It's time business practices adapted to reflect that. The argument has been made that the onus for this should not be on the owners of the copyrighted material to protect it, as the pirates are the ones in the wrong, but this isn't the case. Physical store owners/proprietors assume the costs for any protection of their store from vandalism and theft, such as locks, surveillance equipment, physical security, and electronic anti-theft measures. Virtual proprietors can and are already held to the same standards and have the same laws governing property and copyright protection as physical ones.

And this is on top of the fact that this draconian legislation won't even work. At least not as it's advertised.  Its effectiveness already has work-arounds. There is already a "DeSopa" download that circumvents what they're trying to do to catch those sites and make them inaccessible. There will always be a workaround.  This means that those sites will still be available, while legitimate sites like this one will be under constant threat, subject to censor, and/or shut down.

This should be obvious to anyone at least somewhat educated on the subject, and especially to lawmakers.  Which means either they're dumb as posts and truly believe it will work, or they are doing this only for increased Internet censorship ability and the silver coin lining their pockets from the Judas-like betrayal of the media conglomerates against the constitution.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Movie Review: Carrie

In light of recent news that a remake of Stephen King's epic horror story Carrie is in the works, I thought this a perfect opportunity to do a review on this story.  It was originally a novel - King's first of many masterpieces - but I'm primarily reviewing the movie here.  The movie differs from the book a good deal, which this gives me a chance not only to address those differences, but to speak my mind on the prospect of a remake, which I'll get into a little later.  And truthfully, this is as much a book review as a movie review.  I'm calling it a movie review because I address the movie more so than the novel, even though the novel is the far stronger work.

Photo © Jonathan Dalar

The story opens with the scene in the shower, where Carrie has her first menstrual period.  It's a total shock to her, and understandable as we learn later from a glimpse into her upbringing.  The scene is gratuitous, graphic, but necessarily so.  It provides stark contrast between Carrie and the other girls in the school, and lets us know immediately as viewers just what that relationship is.  It's a wonderful example of an author showing, not telling, in a story.

It's a solidly character-driven story.  As it progresses, it's really more about the characters and their relationships than it is about plot.  It's about Carrie's fight for normalcy, and her fight against her mother's abuse and restrictive parenting.  The reasons for this are explained much more clearly in the original novel - Carrie's mother is overcome by fundamentalist religious mania, exacerbated by signs of mental illness.  Her mother abuses Carrie and further complicates problems at school because of her eccentric, authoritarian behavior.

We begin to see that the writing's already on the wall for Carrie as the other students begin to make vicious plans behind her back.  She's naturally skeptical of her new-found fortune when she is invited to the prom by one of the cool guys in school, but eventually believes his sincerity.  And he is sincere; those plans are being made without his knowledge as well.

It's definitely a horror story; without those elements, there is no story, simply a teenage girl learning about coming of age.  A large part of that horror is the interaction between the characters.  The horror of human treachery, deceit, and cruelty is often far worse than any amount of blood and gore.  It's a more cerebral horror, one that creeps up on you in the night, when you're not expecting it, instead of slapping you in the face.  And this is where Carrie shines.  The pacing is slow enough to allow the viewer to think about the base evilness at play before much of the action actually happens, and the foreshadowing, as we learn more about Carrie's terrible secret ability, allows suspense to build to the climax.

To me, the key moments in the story are the first moments of the prom, before things turn ugly.  Carrie is there, beautiful in her new dress, the school's star quarterback on her arm, and basking in the sudden but welcome changes in her life.  She has defied her mother's wishes by attending, and she is surprisingly thrust into the roll of prom queen, no longer an outcast.

That moment is key, because it is a life-changing moment, no matter what happens after.  At that precise time, we as viewers recognize that if she were to continue along this path, allowed to escape the devious plans set up for her, her life would change forever for the better.  No longer would she have the crippling self doubt, fearing ostracism and torment from the other students.  And if those plans continue unopposed, the point of no return in the opposite direction will have been reached.

Several things in the movie differ from the novel, and the ending is one such critical difference.  In the movie, the story's ending is weaker, even as it is more prolonged and expanded upon.  Sometimes telling less of the story is a good thing.  Much like lingerie, forcing one to guess what's underneath often does wonders for the experience.  We know what happened without being explicitly told, which allows our minds to fill in the lurid details.

Throughout the novel, we are given excerpts from newspapers, legal documents, and personal accounts of the incident.  We're told the story from the perspective of a town trying to regain composure and put all the pieces back together, both the pieces of the shattered community, and the details of exactly what happened.  In the movie there is none of this, and we lose that perspective, which is a vital one.  That perspective allows us to take a closer look at some of the reasons behind the actions.  Gaining the insight of intent and motive allows us a more intimate experience.

There's nothing new under the sun, and that's especially true in Hollywood, where it's easier to stick to the tried and true formulas and endless sequels and remakes.  After all, they've already established a pattern of success, making it easier to build future success from.  But if they're going to do a remake, Carrie is an excellent candidate.  After all, it's been 36 years since the original hit theaters, and it's one of the best classic horror films of all time.  The original movie is quite obviously set in the 1970's, so a remake now would have a completely different feel.  To put it in perspective, it featured John Travolta in his debut movie roll.

My take?  This new remake could be awesome, and it could be disastrous.  If it sticks close to the novel as it's rumored to, it'll likely be great, because the novel's key themes of ostracism, child abuse, peer pressure, and the limits of human psychological endurance are what drives the horror home.  It could also provide a fresh look at the story, updating it with a more modern take, which could be a boon for the younger generation of horror fans.

It could also flop badly, at least in terms of the retelling, if not the box office.  Having Lindsay Lohan play the leading roll of Carrie would be, in my humble opinion, a bad decision.  It's not that she couldn't pull it off in terms of personality and looks, it's that she's over a decade too old for the part.  She wouldn't make a very convincing Carrie at all, especially not considering the opening credits when Carrie has her very first period.  Hailee Steinfeld, reportedly also in consideration, would be a much better option, as she did a solid job in the remake of True Grit.

So, yea, I have high hopes for the new movie, even as I have reservations.  There are so many more great tools available to movie makers today, with advances in CGI and other special effects.  And even with some of the recent disappointments in mind, this could be the epic rebirth of a classic horror tale, the opportunity to bring the story from the old, yellowed pages of the original novel to the silver screen the way it should be done.

Both the book and movie versions are available.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Ten Coolest Advances in Robotics

We've seen the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence come a long way from the early days of computing.  I thought I'd make a list of the top coolest things we've seen in those areas.  So, without further ado:

10. Applications to scenarios inhospitable to humans.

This is a twin of the Mars rover "Curiosity", designed to traverse the as yet inaccessible terrain of Mars.  This type of robotic development allows us to expand our reach further out into the universe in scientific exploration and the search for sentient life.  This isn't just for outer space though, as robotics are being designed for earth-based applications, such as fighting fires or defusing bombs.

9. Advanced bionics.

This is but one example of what bionics have contributed to the world of medicine.  The artificial limb here is very life-like in its abilities and motions, allowing the user almost the complete abilities of a real limb.  In another few years, we could see this taken to such a level, it might be impossible to distinguish between a bionic limb and a real one.

8. Mobility assistance to humans.

This technology is called a hybrid assistive limb (HAL) suit, and is designed to help people who are injured or weak get around easier.  The suit also increases the strength of the user, allowing a person to carry heavier objects than they normally could.  It also has sensors linked via the skin to the user's brain, allowing it to help users move in the way they are thinking.  Anyone want Superman capabilities?

7. Advanced robotic mobility

This is BigDog, created to assist the U.S. Army with field operations.  The mobility and agility on this thing is incredible.  It recovers well after being kicked or slipping on ice, it can slug through or over many types of uneven terrain, and likely will be able to carry large weights at a reasonably fast speed.  As of this video, it was able to run at 5 mph.  And it looks pretty badass as well.  Similar hominoid robots are being developed as well.  Sorry for the nightmares, folks.

6. Extrinsic stimuli-based abilities.

Similar to the BigDog example above, this robot is able to respond and adjust its balance based on extrinsic stimuli.  It's not hard to imagine a scenario where this technology is used in all manner of gyroscopic technology in the future.

5. Neurologically-based control systems.

This robot demonstrates the ability to not only learn from sensory input and provide that information to its other moving parts, but is also tremendously faster than an external computer-controlled counterpart.  Much like a living being can respond to terrain and not step in a known hazard the second time, this robot can too.

4. Response to touch.

Here we have a robot that not only responds to touch, but responds in a very human-like way.  Yes, we're not quite out of the creepy realm of the "Uncanny Valley", but we're close.

3. Deductive reasoning and learning.

This robot demonstrates actual reasoning abilities, along with simple rote memorization.  It's relatively easy to program a robot to learn factual information, but quite another to insert reasoning into the equation.  Reason is one of the first steps toward becoming a being of higher intelligence.

2. Mimicking humanity.

Whether this prospect terrorizes you or fascinates you, we're well on our way to creating a robot virtually indistinguishable from a human being.  A comparison of cutting edge robotics now with that of ten years ago allows the speculation of this happening within the next decade or so.

1. Human-like interaction.

Robotic speech is slowly being replaced by more human-like speech, and interaction that more closely resembles that of real people.  Genuine spontaneous human-like reaction is probably the last barrier to cross, but we're getting there.

Some of these creations are godsends.  Some could probably induce nightmares, or evoke all manner of twisted ideas.  Regardless, they're all just the tip of the iceberg with robotic engineering, and point to incredible possibilities in the future.  I say within ten to twenty years, you won't be able to tell man from machine.