The Coming World of Magic

I was not too surprised to see an article titled U.S. millennials post ‘abysmal’ scores in tech skills test, lag behind foreign peers in today’s Washington Post. The article says that in a test of literacy, math and technological problem-solving skills, US millennials (defined as age 16-34) ranked very low against their peers in other countries no matter how the data was cut by race, gender, and education.

This ties to a recent revelation of mine. I have been coaching an FTC robotics team this year. The team has done well and has designed a very innovative robot. The boys on it are all bright, eager, and have learned a great deal. In many ways, they are much like me at that age: geeks fascinated by technology, computers, military history and so on. But there was one surprising difference: not one of them knew any programming.

There are kids out there at this age (15-16) who do know how to program. But in a sample of 5 hard-core geeks, not one knows how to code? I was rather shocked, to be honest.

But it comes back to a trend that the test cited in the article above gets at: users of technology do not necessarily understand it. Today’s technology with its ready games, images, social media, suck up a lot of the time. This has already had a noticeable effect on the reading of books. Less recognized is the effect it is having on the sorts of skills mentioned in the article.

If a teenager is spending an hour on social media and another few hours on gaming or surfing, that’s the same time in their busy lives they might have spent in the past reading, learning to program, learning how a radio works or fixing a lawnmower. It can lead to a generation of people who are savvy about navigating the web, have an innate sense of how a GUI should work, but have little idea of the technology behind it.

In the case of this particular study, the results are relative: the US scores low, other countries score high. Some of the distractions for US youth must be present for youth in other countries. This may mean that the scores have little to do with technological distractions but, then again, the US may be worse because it was an earlier adopter of the new marvels.

We’ll see how this plays out but for the science fiction author in me, it’s not hard to imagine a future where most of the world population has a superficial understanding of technology: they know how to order a pizza online or track down an old friend, but they have little idea of what happens behind the scenes. It’s not like 20 or 40 years ago, the average person understood the underpinnings of technology but if the geek portion of a generation isn’t learning how the technology works, then there may be very few technologists and very little innovation down the road.

From a story point of view where conflict is necessary to drive the story arc, one can imagine a future where the rich countries are complacent and comfortable in their technological cocoon but have lost the ability to create new technology. Or perhaps this is what happens to very mature civilizations: maybe Earthlings encounter a space-faring race where very few of the aliens really understand how their technology works, leaving them unable to react quickly enough to an aggressive, more flexible race (us).

It would be an interesting turn-around from the uber-dominant, militaristic alien races to have one that, while more advanced, is more like a clumsy giant, out maneuvered by a still agile humanity.

As to the article itself, I can’t say it is all doom and gloom for the US. These things always have a way of coming and going. What I wouldn’t advocate as a response, however, is more homework. I think homework has been over done. Free time to explore is what kids really need. And maybe incentives to understand their world better: maybe more tangible rewards for the ones who start writing or programming, ‘doing’, instead of soaking up all that lovely media out there.

To circle back to the title: if we do create generations of descendants who have no understanding of the technology in their bright and shiny world, they will essentially look to technology as magic.

Arthur C. Clark’s 3rd law is:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

I think most of us, when seeing it, imagine it applies to a less advanced race experiencing the technology of a more advanced race. But what if, instead, the technology of the advanced race appears to themselves as magic?

Prince of Leaf and Stone is now live

Current Draft of Book Cover - Copyright 2015 M. Q. Allen
Copyright 2015 M. Q. Allen

The book has now gone live on Amazon. Like most authors, I imagine, I’m nervous about reviews, although, like most indie authors, I should really be more nervous about no reviews at all: it’s a big world out there and any attention at all, good or bad, is a challenge.

For those who do read it, I’d like to hear your thoughts and areas for improvement. This is a project from a few years ago and it is far from perfect but hopefully you’ll find some positive points.

Thanks to all for the comments and support along the way. Even if I did not follow-up on a suggestion, I did give it consideration.

While creating the eBook was a little more trouble than I expected, it was fairly painless once the eBook file (.mobi) was ready to go. Amazon is pretty clear on what steps you’re book is in. They are also reasonable about setting expectations on how long it will take to process, post, setup your Author’s page, etc. Their estimates tend to be conservative and if you don’t run into problems it’s much quicker– for instance, they said it would take up to 12 hours for the book to go live but it was posted within 2 hours.

You can find the book on Amazon here.

The eBook nears after a few detours

Current Draft of Book Cover - Copyright 2015 M. Q. Allen
Book Cover – Copyright 2015 M. Q. Allen

It’s been a longer road than I expected (silly me, I believed Amazon’s FAQs on publishing) but I think I have the eBook recipe ready. A final proofread is still in progress but Prince of Leaf and Stone should be live by end of the month.

The main problems I encountered had to do with getting a TOC (table of contents) in my doc, getting a TOC that comes up from the Kindle menu, getting that TOC to look right, and getting the book to open in the right spot. None of those are showstoppers but getting those right can make a book look more professional.

My experience has been with Scrivener for Windows, which is much less featured than the Mac version, in particular missing a feature that lets you set the start of doc.

Things You’ll Want

You definitely want the Kindle Previewer, which despite it’s name, not only let’s you preview your book, it will convert html and epub files to Amazon’s .mobi format.

You’ll also want Send to Kindle which is both a stand-alone app and something that you can get to from your file browser on a right click, which let’s you upload files to your Kindle (or a friend’s Kindle). Thing to remember: it will only appear on a right click for those file types it can upload (.mobi, .doc, .pdf) and not for others, like .epub.

You may also want KindleGen which is not needed for one-off mobi conversion (Kindle Reader does that) but can be used for bulk conversions. More importantly, if you want to write out .mobi directly from Scrivener, you’ll need KindleGen.

What Doesn’t Work: Scrivener -> MS Word -> HTML

Amazon suggests editing your book in MS Word (Scrivener writes out .doc and many other formats), adding an MS Word TOC, adding bookmarks for where your TOC and start page are, then writing it out as Web page, Filtered (html). You then use Kindle Previewer to convert the html to mobi. This does get you a mobi file and there is a TOC embedded in the document but you don’t see the TOC in the Kindle reader menu nor does the start page get set.

I found lots of kind posts on the web saying this does work or ways to directly edit the html to add the start and toc tag but none of that worked for me. Start and TOC remained stubbornly absent. From the posts I found on this, I’m not the only one who can’t get that to work.

What Also Doesn’t Work: Scrivener -> Mobi

Scrivener can write directly to mobi so I tried that. The table of contents does appear in the doc and from the Kindle menu but the starting position is second page of my TOC. This is apparently an issue of at least 2 years standing, not just an odd quirk of my doc.

The Kindle TOC also puts some but not all of my front matter (copyright, dedication, etc.) under a collapsible header.  No matter how I organize my front matter in Scrivener, it doesn’t seem to group all of the front matter under the header.

Still more failure: Scrivener -> epub -> Kindle Previewer

Scrivener can also write out epub files. Tried that, converted them in Kindle Previewer. Same as the direct mobi path.

What does work: Scrivner -> epub -> edit epub file -> Kindle Previewer

After more research, I discovered that an epub file is easily editable because it is just a .zip file. Rename it to .zip, extract the files– which are all plain text– and rezip it when you are done. It’s surprisingly easy.

What you want to do, according to a forum post here is find the guide part of the file content.opf. This file can be edited with any text editor such as Windows NotePad. You will probably find something like the following at the bottom:

<reference type=”cover” title=”Cover” href=”cover.xhtml” />
<reference type=”toc” title=”Contents” href=”contents.xhtml”></reference>

Before the </guide> (in html <xxx> is like an open parentheses for a particular object type and </xxx> is like the close parentheses), add the following lines (in bold), replacing body3.xhtml with the chapter you want to start with (you can open the .xhtml files in NotePad or Word or your browser to figure out which one is your chapter one):

<reference type=”cover” title=”Cover” href=”cover.xhtml” />
<reference type=”toc” title=”Contents” href=”contents.xhtml” />
<reference type=”text” title=”Text” href=”body3.xhtml” />
<reference type=”text” title=”Start” href=”body3.xhtml”></reference>

Actually, I didn’t find a source that said to add both of the bold lines (the various pages I found recommended one or the other) but the first one of the two only seems to fix the front matter grouping problem for me, the second one actually seemed to move the start page.

Full disclosure: this didn’t actually move the start to where I told it to go but it did move it to my title page which is much better than the second page of my TOC. So I’m declaring victory.

The steps that worked for me are:

  1. Write out a .epub file from Scrivener
  2. Change the .epub file to a .zip file and extract it to a temporary directory
  3. Find the content.opf file (which is usually in a sub-directory) and edit it
  4. Add the two extra lines (above) to the guide section and save the file
  5. Make a new zip file
  6. Rename the zip as .epub
  7. Use Kindle Previewer to convert the .epub to a .mobi
  8. Check it out in the previewer (where the start page for me is actually where I want it)
  9. Upload it with Send to Kindle and check it on a real Kindle (where the start page is not where I want it but is in an acceptable place)

This all seems like it is a lot harder than it should be because how hard can it be to specify a TOC and a start page? But there you have it; it is still pretty clunky. And probably buggy: pretty sure the start page should not be different between the Previewer and the Kindle: Amazon has something broken.

You can probably have Kindle Previewer convert the html files directly without making a .epub (i.e., skip steps 5 and 6) but I didn’t try that.

Also, if editing the html is daunting, there is a free program called Sigil that lets you edit .epub files. I didn’t try it because after many hours of messing around, I wanted to write the html exactly as I wanted it.

There are folks who will do all this for you for a fee. I didn’t price it but it shouldn’t be all that much since this process isn’t that hard once you know your way around it.

Writing Unshackled

Current Draft of Book Cover
Current Draft of Book Cover – Copyright 2015 M. Q. Allen

Unplanned though it was, I ended up mostly dropping my blog and my fiction writing in 2014.

The immediate cause was a pile of submissions to contests and various short story markets. While I’m pretty good these days about shrugging off an individual rejection, getting so much out there at the end of 2013 left me on edge and not interested in writing while I waited to see how things went. Plus, while writing has been a major focus for me for the last four years, I don’t have too much to show for it, so the break proved a good time to take a breather and assess where I’m going with my writing career.

The main outcome of said break? It became clear I love to write and don’t want to stop. Next realization? I hate the chore of researching, submitting and tracking agents and markets, and that’s without doing anywhere near as much of it as I should have. Waiting for a response? Not so good at that, either. Final bit: I do want my stuff to be read.

Color map (there will be a black and white version in the eBook)
Color map (there will be a black and white version in the eBook) – Copyright 2015 M. Q. Allen

Know Thyself was good advice 2500 years ago and it’s still good advice now. Realizing the above and finding out that Amazon’s Kindle Direct is free and a cover is less than I thought, I’ve decided not to submit any more stories for now and just self-publish. To that end, I’ve got the cover you see here, a blurb in progress (feel free to comment on it here) and a professional copy-edit. I even dusted off Campaign Cartographer to update my map. It’s going to be eBook only so I’m not going to get an ISBN number and I’ll file for copyright after it goes live.

So the plan now is to publish Prince of Leaf and Stone by March at the latest, ready Shadow of the Archons for publication later this year followed by a collection of my short stories.

This plan focuses on keeping me writing (which I enjoy) and not worrying about financial success, which seems like a long shot no matter which path I pursue. So, put another way, why worry about the money too much? Meanwhile, I’ll quietly build up a portfolio.

Let me know what you think of the cover.

Log-jam broken. Writing full speed ahead!

SpaceEngine: Go Anywhere in the Universe

Sunset on a Brown Dwarf
Comets around a Brown Dwarf

Along with the Universe Sandbox, here’s another great tool for the science fiction author: SpaceEngine. This fascinating program is still in beta, and a bit buggy, but to get an idea of what it can do, take a look at these pictures, all of which are unmodified screenshots. Most are from my son’s exploration over a few hours. The first two are my own effort after about 30 minutes of playing around.

Aurora on a Distant Planet
Aurora on a Distant Planet

Whereas Universe Sandbox is an orbital dynamics simulator, great for playing around with solar systems and disrupting them by blowing up a planet or shooting black holes through them, SpaceEngine takes a different route. It models a huge number of known astronomical objects, from every moonlet in our solar system, to nearby stars, globular clusters, nebula, galaxies, etc.

Gas Giant
Gas Giant and Galaxy

Where it really gets interesting is the vast number of astronomical objects for which there is no known data because where current observational data runs out, it creates the rest procedurally.

Ringed Waterworld
Ringed Waterworld

Pick a galaxy and fly into it. Find a star in that galaxy and zoom to it, visit its planets and moons, search for life, exotic planet rises, there’s really no limit. I’d consider some of these for cover art for certain classes of novels.

Over a Desert World
Over a Desert World

When poking around the universe can keep you busy for days, who knows what story ideas you might find?

Ice Moon orbiting gas giant in a binary star system
Ice Moon orbiting gas giant in a binary star system

SpaceEngine not only creates lovely visuals, it backs it up with  physical data: object mass, gravity, atmosphere, orbital period, mean temperature, even modeling presence of life. It’s fun if you just want to poke around alien worlds and its a dream come true for Science Fiction worldbuilders. Plus it has more lens-flares than the last Star Trek reboot!

An Alien Shore
An Alien Shore

Has anyone else given it a try yet? What do you think of the pictures from it?

Semi-colons; No Place for Them in Fiction?

Kurt Vonnegut speaking at Case Western Reserve...
Kurt Vonnegut speaking at Case Western Reserve University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week, as part of a critters critique, I passed on some comments I’ve received from many critters and from a few professionals as well: don’t use semi-colons in fiction. Per critters guidelines, I didn’t present it as a rule, more as a “here’s what response I get when use them.”

You see, I love semi-colons. They are a natural form of expression for me.

Here’s what Kurt Vonnegut had to say about them in A Man without a Country, according to The Quotations Page. I’ve seen it referenced many times so it’s probably an accurate quote.

Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

Kurt was entitled to his opinions and he was no doubt on firmer ground than I am but that seems overly dismissive to me. Semi-colons have a recognized role in non-fiction. While they may not be the convention in fiction, they clearly mean “soft end of sentence, following sentence related to previous one.” Or sometimes, they are used in place of a comma between clauses if the clauses contain a lot commas for other reasons (and-lists, multiple adjectives, etc.)

After passing on my wisdom, such as it is, in my critique, I thought I’d double-check my current novel manuscript for them. Again, I’m kind of fond of them, but why buck convention? It’s a style thing that seems to rub editors the wrong way. It’s not like they are absolutely necessary (the semi-colons, not the editors).

So I fire up Scrivener and find that ‘fond’ doesn’t really begin to describe my preference for them. They were everywhere, not every scene but probably two-thirds of them, and in many scenes, multiple places. And this is after I had already made a decision to avoid them before I started my last revision. Ugh. Imagine if I hadn’t decide to purge them already 🙂

For the record, Scrivener’s global search is kind of lame: you get a folder of the scenes containing the search phrase. Within a scene, you can search for next occurrence but to go to the next scene, you need to click on it in the search results folder. Worse, if you do a ‘next’ in the search pop-up and there are no more instances in the current scene, you have to clear an annoying pop-up warning before you can do anything else.

That makes an irritating task all the more tedious because removing semi-colons is not trivial. Sometimes it is no more than replacing with a period and capitalizing the next letter, which doesn’t exactly roll off my fingers on the keyboard. But often, more substantial re-work is required to avoid the construct: turning the sentence pair into a compound sentence or even re-writing the pair entirely.

I’m about two-thirds finished after several hours. A funny thing has happened as I purge semi-colons, though. While I don’t agree with Kurt that they have no meaning, I am starting to truly appreciate why they aren’t typically used in fiction because I think my semi-colon-less prose is better than it’s predecessor. I’ve removed a few unnecessary sentences in some places. In more, I’ve reworked the sentence into something that seems more interesting to me.

Now, if I can only avoid putting them in my drafts in the first place, I’ll be all set. It’s tough: I don’t notice them any more than a comma or period these days. It’s probably a manifestation of my engineer-think.

How about you? What’s your opinion on semi-colons?