Thursday, November 29, 2012
Monday, November 26, 2012
Monday, June 4, 2012
What am I looking for?
Here is what I'm looking for in a SmartPhone:
Display: 4" or better. 1024x720, with a GPU. I want to do gaming, and I want to be able to watch videos. I also want a large screen so I can see what I'm browsing on the Internet.
CPU: 1.2GHz or better, dual-core or better. If you consider yourself any kind of a power user, you won't regret this. If you check stats you'll be surprised at how many phones are less than 1 Gigahertz (iPhone 4S).
Memory: 1 GB RAM, 16 GB Storage. I consider this a minimum. I'd gladly take 32 GB or 64 GB if I can get it.
Camera: 8 Megapixel, able to record full HD at 30 frames per second or better.
AMOLED displays better contrast (blacker blacks and more vivid colors). Some displays use Gorilla Glass, a new type of super-strong glass. I can't tell how many phones I've seen with cracked displays. It's worth it.
HTC likes to play up Beats Audio, which ships on several of their devices. You get a good pair of headphones, and a slightly better speaker system.
What are the best Android phones?
At the top of my list is the Samsung Galaxy S III. Unfortunately, you can't get it in the US until June 21st. It's expected to be rolled out in Canada on June 20. The European version packs an impressive quad-core CPU, but is only 3G. The US/Canadian version will be 4G LTE, but it will only be dual-core.
The next phone on my list is the HTC One X. Everything about this phone is stellar. Its only weakness is AT&T, which has yet to roll out its LTE network in more than a handful of cities. Go to AT&T's website and check their map. If you get LTE in your area, then this phone is a superb buy.
The next best phone to get, going purely on stats is the HTC Rezound. You can get this through Verizon. It's two flaws are its less impressive battery life, and it is still running Android 2.3.
After that, I would rate the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. This was the first Android 4.0 device (Ice Cream Sandwich). All the reviews I've read say this is a really good phone. Also available through Verizon. Customer reviews complain about the battery life and the camera which is only 5MP.
Now for the honorable mentions. These are the phones to get if you don't care about 1280x720 screen resolutions, but you still want that dual-core CPU and 1GB RAM. At the top of my list is the Droid RAZR Maxx. This is an awesome phone with 15 hour battery life. Variants worth mentioning are the Droid RAZR and the Droid 4. Next honorable mention is the HTC One S, which gets rave customer reviews everywhere I look. After that would be the Samsung Galaxy S II and all its variants (Skyrocket, etc.).
What about Apple?
I've got a friend who tells me that the iPhone 4S is hands-down the best point-and-shoot digital camera, period. Every review that I've read says that this is where Apple shines. Apple also has the best app-store, and the best hardware support network. Android has been out for several years now, and I still don't see people making stuff to work with Android devices. I do, however, see all kinds of accessories for your iPhone or iPod. The real down-side to Apple is that you're locked into their ecosystem. Apple really doesn't believe in playing with others, at all.
I still don't want an iPhone 4S.
Don't get me wrong. I'd love to have one, but when you stack it up to any Android device, the hardware is starting to look a little dated.
What I really want (and will patiently wait for) is its much-awaited successor. Right now anyone would be a fool to buy one, since Apple is due to release (the device currently referred to as) the iPhone 5 sometime this fall. I'm already disappointed to learn that its display will only be 3.999 inches. I hope at least its resolution will be 1280x720. Whatever Apple does, I'm sure we'll all snatch them up as quick as we can.
And now, a word about Windows Phone 7
I'm watching Microsoft very closely. For me, Microsoft is literally my bread and butter. I work as a software developer by trade, and my skill-set is heavily invested in Windows/.NET and the whole Microsoft ecoverse. (Is that a word?)
Microsoft has taken a very savvy approach, and gone after the economy market. They're hoping to gain penetration with rank-and-file users who want to do browsing, texting, and checking their email. Microsoft also has the added perk of being to edit Word/Excel documents, and full integration with X-Box live. Two very cool features.
Unfortunately, none of the Windows phones fall into my hardware requirements. They all have a 800x480 screen, they all have single-core CPUs, they all have 512MB of RAM. Like I said, these are all impressive stats for mid-market phones. But this isn't the hardware that I want.
If you want a Windows phone, then there are three worth mentioning. They are the Nokia Lumina 900, the HTC Titan II, and the Samsung Focus S (which apparently is a Samsung Galaxy S running Windows instead). A friend of mine is a salesman for AT&T, and he says that the Nokia is a hot seller. It's a solid product, and has virtually no customer returns. The Titan II is a good phone, but it's far too expensive for the features that it has.
I've only ran into one person who owned a Windows 7 phone who didn't like it. Everyone else was pleased. No one was super excited, though.
I'm really, really waiting for Windows Phone 8. This will be do or die for Microsoft, and it has been two years too long in coming. Microsoft has a lot of ground to make up, here.
What is the best carrier? The two leaders in this game are Verizon and AT&T. Every review I read says that AT&T's 4G is faster but not as reliable. You can count on Verizon to have LTE in more places.
You also need to consider each carrier's 3G network. When you can't get a 4G signal, this is what your device falls back to. Verizon's 3G network is EVDO, which is much slower than AT&T's HSPA+. This means that when you're out in Podunkville, AT&T is much more likely to give you a better signal than Verizon.
T-Mobile and Sprint are both way behind. T-Mobile uses HSPA+ technology. It is fast as far as 3G goes, but it's still not LTE. Sprint has plans to roll out an LTE network of its own, but that's still a good while down the road.
So, which is better? Check the map for your area. If you can get 4G with either Verizon or AT&T, then go with the carrier who offers the device and data plan that best meets your needs. Right now you'll get better overall performance with Verizon. If you can only get 3G then any of the four carriers will work for you.
Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Tuesday, May 1, 2012
I can't describe why I went for my camera, or why I went out my garage instead of trying to get a picture from my back yard, but I'm so glad I did. It was just one of those moments of rare serendipity where an impulse paid off in a way I'll never forget.
Across the street, a honey locust tree towers over a neighbor's yard. The ravens were swooping around, croaking and diving. I didn't realize they were after something until I got close. Then I realized it was an enormous bird. It was a monster.
It was a golden eagle.
This guy was just sitting there, cool and alert. Every now and then one of the ravens would land and try to get close. The raven would squawk and peck the bark of the tree. At one point, one of the ravens ripped off a small branch, gave it a good thrashing and then threw it down. Very dramatic!
All this time, the eagle just sat there.
This guy was enormous. To give you a size comparison, consider that an adult raven is about two feet long from beak to tail. Here's another side-by-side photo. The raven is trying to look tough.
I could almost hear the eagle saying, "Come one step closer. Just, one, step..."
That was quite a sight.
Ravens are feisty and very cunning. You usually don't see them hanging around cities, or places where Man lives. They like the wild country. You're more likely to see one picking a carcass by the side of a remote stretch of highway then you are to see one circling our neighborhood.
Even more rare is to get a visit from a golden eagle. My kids were awed.
Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd, and before long all the neighbors had their cameras out, and were clicking away. People were slowing down as they drove past and gazing into the treetops. The eagle was very well camouflaged.
I would never have seen it had there not been a pair of angry ravens making all that noise.
Sunday, March 25, 2012
- 2 large eggs
- 3/4 cup of sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 cups whipping cream
- 1 cup of milk
- 1/2 overripe banana
- 5 strawberries
- 2 tablespoons of semi-sweet mini chocolate chips
- 1 tsp lemon juice
Start with the eggs, whipping them till they are a creamy yellow. Throw in the sugar and vanilla. Whip some more. Then add the cream and milk. Whip some more. This is your sweet cream base.
Using a fork, mash the strawberries and bananas together. Add in the lemon juice. Lemon juice brings out the flavor of any fruit. I used a food processor when I did this, and I wouldn't recommend it. The blades can break open the strawberry seeds and give your ice cream a slightly bitter aftertaste. :-P
When you've got it all mashed together, mix it into your sweet cream base. Throw in the chocolate chips. Don't use full-sized chocolate chips. They get hard as a rock when they freeze, and you'll crack a tooth.
Pour it into the freezer and freeze.
Serve with almond slivers and marachino cherries.
MMMMMMM. Ice cream.
No back to writing. Hope you feel inspired!
Tuesday, March 13, 2012
- As a self-published author, if you can meet or exceed the same kinds of sales figures that a traditional publisher would require, then they WILL notice you and be interested.
- Even if you land a contract with a traditional publisher, you have the same amount of work to find your readers and market your work.
- Other writers will stick their noses up at me.
- Being traditionally published lends a certain amount of credibility that my work has met a minimum bar of quality.
- A publisher will set me up with lots of great marketing opportunities.
- Step 1. You write a book. Make it enjoyable. Do the very best you can with story, character, and style.
- Step 2. Get input from some friends—your beta readers. If they don’t like it then do some revision, or go back to step #1 and write a different book.
- Step 3. Keep doing 1 and 2 until you have something they really like.
- Step 4. At the same time, learn to blog. Learn the ins and outs of social networking. Learn to connect with other readers and other writers. Help promote their work and become part of the community.
- Step 5. When you have a finished book, have someone edit it. Get someone to do cover art. Get someone to do layout. Or, you can do this stuff yourself; many people do. It’s up to you.
- Step 6. Publish on Amazon. Publish on Smashwords.
- Step 7. Go back to step #1 and repeat. Learn to balance step 1 and step 4. Set goals and pace yourself.
- Step 8. Continue networking with the traditional side of the industry. If a traditional publisher offers you a contract, make darn sure you aren’t signing away your ePublishing rights. And never, ever trust an agent unless they treat you with respect and they’re willing to actually read your work.
- You. You will never be successful unless you sit down and do it. You will never be successful unless you believe in yourself, and that you can produce quality work. That has never changed, and never will.
- Your readers. Readers are your life-blood. If you are producing quality material, then your success is limited only by your ability to connect with people, and convert them into readers. That’s the one thing that will remain constant no matter what route you take.
“I've read a few articles predicting the end of the traditional publishing industry and don't really agree with it. What I suspect will happen is that the industry will pick up on the type of methods people like myself use and adapt them into their own business models. I guess the key thing is how quickly they can do that.”
Here’s a really insightful blog post by Jon F. Merz. Jon has published several books traditionally, and has recently switched to ePublishing. His story is very compelling: http://jonfmerz.net/2012/01/30/ebooks-are-a-game-changer/
Friday, March 9, 2012
There once was a wise scholar of an ancient land who commited a grave offense against the king, and was sentenced to death. The king, in an attempt to put the scholar's wisdom to the ultimate test, devised an ingenious riddle.
He gave the scholar 12 tiny pills. He was told that 11 of these pills were the deadliest poison, so mortal that upon taking one a man would die in seconds. The 12th pill was a mere placebo, and was completely harmless.
The scholar was also given a simple balance scale, where he might weigh the pills against each other. He was told that all the poison pills were of the exact same weight, but that the placebo weighed differently from them all. He had only THREE tries to find the placebo and live.
Things that you can assume:
1. The difference in weight of each pill is too small to descern by touch.
2. There is absolutely no way to tell by looking at the pills which one is the placebo
There are a number of solutions to this problem. The easiest way to explain the approach is to imagine that each pill has a letter, so you can keep track of them.
The objective on your first try is to rule out as many pills as you can. Weigh A+B+C+D against E+F+G+H. If they do NOT balance then go to step 2. If they DO balance, then that means A through H are all poison, and your placebo is one of I, J, K, or L.
For your second try weigh I+J against A+B, which you know are both poison.
1. If they balance then you know the placebo is K or L. Weigh K against A. If K versus A balances, then L is the placebo. If they don’t balance then the placebo is K.
2. Otherwise, the placebo is I or J. Weigh I versus A. If they balance then the placebo is J, otherwise it’s I.
Okay, let’s take a close look at what we know. If the pill was heavy then it will be on the side that dropped. If the pill was light then it will be on the side that rose. Your next step must accomplish two objectives. You must find out if the placebo is heavier or lighter, and you must eliminate as many pills as you can. You’re going to have to get creative.
Take note of which side was heavier in step 1. Split the heavy side into two groups of two each. Next, pick any two pills from the lighter side and add one to each of the groups you made from the heavier side.
When you’re done you’ll have three groups of pills. For example, assume the left side was heavier. Your first group will have A+B+E. Your second group will have C+D+F. Your last group will be G+H.
Weigh A+B+E against C+D+F. If they do NOT balance then go to step 3. If they DO balance then your placebo is either G or H.
For your final try, weigh G against A. If G and A balance then the placebo is H, otherwise it’s G.
Time to dust off your skills of logical deduction. Look at which side was heavier in step 2. If A+B+E was heavier then it means that either A+B was a heavy placebo, or that F (in the right-side pan) was a light placebo. Weigh A against B. If they balance then F is the placebo. Otherwise the heavier one of either A or B is the placebo.
Otherwise, if C+D+F is heavier then it means that either C+D was a heavy placebo or that E was a light placebo. Weigh C+D. If they balance then E is the placebo. Otherwise the heavier one of either C or D is the placebo.
The key is to always pick the two from the heavier side in step 1
Let’s suppose F is a heavy placebo.
1. We weigh A-D against E-H. The right side is heavy.
2. We take E+F+A and weigh it against G+H+B. E+F+A sinks.
3. We weigh E against F (remember always to pick the heavy ones from step 1). We see that F is heavier, and that’s the one.
Let’s suppose B is a light placebo.
1. We weigh A-D against E-H. The right side is heavy, again.
2. Weigh E+F+A against G+H+B. E+F+A sinks.
3. Weigh E against F. They balance, so we know that it was the pill from the light side in step 2. That’s B
Suppose A is a light placebo:
1. We weigh A-D against E-H. The right side is heavy, again.
2. Weigh E+F+A against G+H+B. G+H+B is heavier.
3. Weigh G against H. They balance, so we go to the odd pill in the light pan from step 2. That’s A.
Monday, March 5, 2012
Pick your culture, time period, and social class.
Your story will have more presence if you try and base the cultural setting upon a specific time period and a specific nationality. For example, Tolkien relied heavily on Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian history. His writing is rife with Old English words and phrases, early Germanic customs, poetry, architecture, etc.
For the purposes of this article I’ll focus on what I know about the Germanic peoples. This includes the Scandinavians, the Germans, the Franks, and the Anglo-Saxons. All of these peoples were related at one time. They originated from what is modern-day Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and the Netherlands.
I wish I knew more about the Celtic peoples (Gauls, Britons, Picts, etc.), but they had the unfortunate habit of never writing anything down. Everything we know about them we get either through the archaeological record or from second-hand accounts written by Romans, who tended to look down on everyone around them.
There is no firm dividing line in European history as a whole. The early middle ages (the Dark Ages, as some people call it) began around 500AD, and lasted till 1100AD. The high middle ages began sometime around then, and lasted until the Renaissance. The Renaissance began in Italy in the 1300s but didn’t reach England until the 1600s.
Houses and Buildings
You must remember that life in the early middle ages (what some people call the Dark Ages) revolved around the farm. Everyone farmed, from the rich to the poor. The central building on a farm was the hall. This was more or less a really large hut. It was usually long and rectangular. In earlier times it housed animals at one end and people at the other. In slightly later times people had out-buildings where they smoked meat, stored food, kept animals, and even lived. However, the principal building was always the Hall. This is where the lord and his family slept, as well as the lord’s fighting men, his slaves, and anyone else who had sworn to serve him.
Halls could get quite crowded.
Every lord named his hall. The hall of King Hrothgar in Beowulf was called Heorot. Heorot is the Old English word for a hart, which is a male red deer (the female being called a roe). In Lord of the Rings, Théoden, king of Rohan named his hall Meduseld. In Old English, Meduseld literally means “mead-hall”.
The best authors never invent. They’re just really clever about what they copy. When authors invent, we end up with things like sparkly vampires.
Another feature of the hall was the sacred oak. Before they became Christianized, Germanic lords commonly built their hall near a great oak tree. This was a central feature in the yard in front of the hall. This was discontinued in the late 700s as Charlemagne pushed into modern-day Germany and literally forced everyone to become Christian.
You’ll hear a lot of people saying that early Anglo Saxon houses were basically a square pit with a roof over it. Here’s an example of one.
We know this couldn’t have worked because the thatch would quickly rot away, and the house itself would have been very damp. We do know that the Saxons built structures like this, but it is more likely that they were cellars, or perhaps workshops.
Cruck-built houses were very common. A cruck is a curved frame that is carved from the trunk and a single large branch from an oak tree. It has an arched shape. Here is a picture of a cruck-framed house.
In earlier times the posts were buried in the ground. However any structure that they wanted to last would have been set on a stone foundation of some sort. If you’ve ever put up a fence in your back yard you know that your posts rot away quickly unless they’re set in concrete.
Roofing varied from region to region. In England it was nearly always thatch. They did have wooden roofs made of flat planks, but those were more expensive. In Scandinavia they used shingles. It really depends on what building materials are easiest to come by and easiest to work with.
Chimneys and fireplaces were not in use until the high middle ages--around 1200 at the earliest. And even then they were only found in stone castles. It’s hard to know exactly when they came into general use in peoples' houses. I’m guessing that they were common by the 1500s.
So what did people from earlier times do? One theory is that they built a large hole in their roof directly above the hearth. The obvious problem with that idea is that it would have let in the rain. I have to wonder if they didn’t have a way of covering the hole with a louver or a flap that they could adjust and keep propped open with a long pole.
A much better theory is that they put the smoke-hole at each end of the roof. Here is a picture of a Scandinavian hall from Wikipedia. You can see the smoke holes.
Romans built out of stone, but the Germanic people seldom did. Monasteries and abbeys were built of stone. Churches were sometimes built out of stone. However, no one else did anything with stone until the 1200s. The reason? Trees were in abundant supply, and wood is so much easier to work with than rocks.
Walls were made of wattle and daub. Wattle is made primarily made from split hazel rods. You take a hazel tree, cut off all the big branches so that it looks like a tall stump. After a year it will grow long whip-like rods that can be split and woven into a lath. See “pollarding” in Wikipedia. People planted hazel trees close together and pruned them like this so that they grew into a dense hedge. Fences and animal pens were also commonly woven from wattle.
Daub is an aggregate material made from wet soil, clay, sand, animal dung (eeeew), and straw. To make a wall of wattle and daub, you make a wattle panel that fits into the space you want to fill, then smear (or daub) this special mud over it. It lasts for quite a while and it insulates well.
Another building material was turf. They used this in Iceland and in places where trees were scarce. Turf walls are thicker. It insulates well against heat in the summer and cold in the winter.
Inside the building, the wall could be paneled or lined with wainscoting. They also hung tapestries, furs, shields, and all manner of weapons.
Again, stone was rare before the 1200s. Stone or tile floors were not seen in the early middle ages. Until that time, floors were of two types.
The first type was packed earth. It would not be uncommon to cover the floor with straw mixed with sweet-smelling herbs. I imagine it got swept out and replaced often, otherwise the trash and accumulated filth would attract all manner of vermin. This type of flooring was common especially among the poorer class throughout the early middle ages.
A second type of floor was in use during the later Anglo Saxon period. It was mad of wooden planks set on joists. Below this floor would be a pit that could be used as cold storage.
Germanic halls quite often had a raised wooden platform that ran the length of the hall. They could set up tables so that the platform was used as a bench. At night they took down the tables and slept on the platform.
Windows were unheard of in early medieval times, even among the rich. When windows did come into use, they had no glass and were closed off with shutters. The Anglo Saxons had windows with glass before 1066. Their windows were long and vertical, with a triangular arch at the top. The rest of Europe had glass windows by 1200.
Other common window materials were vellum or horn. These could keep the weather out and let a little light in.
The hearth was all important in nearly every culture. Fire is very hard to start by hand, so the hearth was kept burning year-round. This is where you cooked. This is where you ate. This is what kept your house lit at night. This is how you stayed warm in the winter.
The hearth was always placed in the middle of the main room. There were no fireplaces until the high middle ages. If your floor was made of packed earth, then the hearth was a fire-pit lined with stones. If your floor was wood then the hearth was set in a hole in the floor, or it was built of a stone box that was set on the floor.
Here is a picture of Beorn's Hall from The Hobbit, drawn by J.R.R. Tolkien. I've taken the liberty of pointing out the various features that I've talked about so far in this blog.
Furniture was sparse. Chairs were rare, people mostly sat on stools or benches. If you sat in a chair, you were a lord or you were in a position of considerable authority. This is how the word “chairman” came to be.
Trestle tables were very common, and were used throughout the middle ages. A trestle is a stand, like a saw-horse. You take two of these and lay a long board across it, and there you have a table. To make it look nice you could throw an embroidered table cloth over it. When you need more space you can take it apart and store it somewhere else. Very practical.
As an interesting side-note, the word board originally meant a table. A “board room” is a conference room with a long table. A “board of directors” is a group of elected representatives in charge of a company. The person in charge is called the “chairman of the board”.
Another common furniture item was the chest. These came in all styles and sizes. You could store things in them, and you could use them as a bench or a stool.
There were undoubtedly shelves, but cupboards were probably not seen until later periods. People hung things from hooks that dangled from the rafters.
There is a lot of debate as to whether or not people in early medieval times owned beds. Early Germanic peoples slept together in a large hall, and for the most part they slept on blankets, furs and fleeces. The floors of most houses were strewn with rushes, which were swept out and replaced regularly. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to sleep on that.
Ultimately what you pick to put in your story is up to you. However, the less you invent, the more authentic your setting will feel.
Here are some of the references I used for this blog. One of my favorite sites is Regia Anglorum. They have a ton of stuff about the Anglo Saxon period. Also, never underestimate Wikipedia, but make sure you get a second opinion any time you decide to use something found there.
Monday, February 27, 2012
Today I got an instant message from my wife while I was at work. She said “Geese make better guard dogs than…well, guard dogs.”
I landed a few well-aimed retorts for that; but then she told me a most curious tale. Apparently, it’s true!
She was citing a paper published by the Department of Archaeology, at the University of Sheffield:
The reputation that geese had for keeping a watch undoubtedly stems from a famous episode dating back to 390 BC. Apparently Rome had been taken by the Gauls, and the cackling of the geese on the Capitol awakened the Romans just in time to save the Temple of Juno from the enemies’ attack.
As a writer I appreciate any window into history I can get, especially anecdotes like geese saving the Temple of Juno. I shall certainly use that in a story, sometime.
The paper was a trove of early medieval factoids about the use of geese and ducks in Britain, starting from the time of the Romans until the Conquest in 1066. As a writer of medieval fantasy, I’m always wondering what my characters are going to have for dinner. So here you have it, the truth about Geese and Ducks in Anglo-Saxon England.
Geese were valued for many reasons. You can pluck a goose twice a year without having to slaughter it (that’s gotta hurt). The down from the breast feathers made excellent bedding, and was mixed with wool to stuff cushions and pillows.
The larger feathers were used to make quills. Anyone who has written with a quill-pen knows that they don’t last long, so monasteries undoubtedly kept a flock of geese. Aside from all this, goose is a good source of food, both for the meat and for the eggs.
Anyone who’s ever owned a goose knows what kind of noise they can make, so the idea of using them to raise the alarm when you have an intruder is very clever. There are no documented accounts of the Saxons using geese for this purpose, but the Romans were known for it. Don’t expect geese to keep robbers out, however. All you need to send them running is a heavy stick. I know that from my own experience.
As for ducks, they were looked down upon as a poor-man’s food. Apparently they’ll eat anything, and as any hunter will tell you, an animal tastes like what it eats. I’ve been told that wild duck can have a fishy flavor, which doesn’t surprise me.
The Romans had a taste for duck, but the Anglo-Saxons couldn’t stand it. In fact, ducks were often considered a public nuisance, as they flocked around public water supplies and left the ponds and river banks polluted.
I’ve never had goose, but a quick search on the internet reveals that it is all fatty dark meat and has a flavor all its own, but its taste is most similar to duck.
I’ve had duck before. The meat is very dark, and its flavor is a bit like chicken but with a very strong dark-meat taste. You can cook it rare or well done, just like beef. You can get Peking Duck at Chinese restaurants, but beware that they slice the carcass crossways—bones and all—and you’ll be picking splinters out of your teeth all night. You can get duck at any French restaurant. Make sure you get it medium or well done, as rare duck has a disturbing, gummy (albeit flavorful) texture.
Thursday, February 23, 2012
Five men are doomed to be executed by firing squad. On the night before their execution they are given a chance to spare their lives. They must follow these instructions, and if any prisoner violates the rules then all the prisoners will be shot:
- The prisoners will be brought to the wall, where they are to form a line, each one standing about four feet apart from the other.
- The prisoners will then turn to the right, so that they are standing back to front. The wall will be on their right, and the firing squad will be on their left.
- No prisoner may turn around to look at the prisoner behind them. If anyone turns around, everyone will be immediately shot.
- They are free lean sideways and see the prisoners in front of them if they like, but they must not turn around to see the prisoners behind them.
- No prisoner may touch the other prisoners, or all five will be immediately shot.
- Starting from the back of the line, the warden will place one hat upon each prisoner's head. The hat will be either white or black, based on the flip of a coin. None of the prisoners will be able to see the color of the hat that is placed on their own head. They can see the hats of the prisoners in front of them, but they must not turn around or look behind them, or all five prisoners will be shot.
- After all the hats have been placed, each prisoner must guess the color of their hat. The prisoners will be asked one by one, starting with prisoner 5 at the back of the line, moving forward until prisoner 1 at the front of the line has answered.
- When asked, each prisoner must say either "white" or "black". If the prisoner says anything else, all prisoners will be immediately shot. Each prisoner must answer right away. There will be no time to think about the answer or mull it over.
- They must answer in English. Prisoners may not vary the speed, pitch, emotion, accent, tone, etc. of their voice so as to convey more information than the mere color of their hat.
- If the warden thinks the prisoners are trying to bend the rules or quibble in any way, all the prisoners will be shot.
The prisoners have all night to think about their quandary. They stay awake figuring out a way so that they can pass the ordeal together and spare the most lives possible. They are allowed to talk freely among themselves, prepare their plan, and practice it until the morning.
What will they do?
- The prisoners all share the same cell, and are free to say whatever they want, and rehearse whatever plan they come up with.
- They are altruistic, and each would give his life for the other if it meant that more lives could be saved than lost.
- There are no mirrors at the place of execution. Just a large empty brick room with the firing squad at one end.
- None of the prisoners knows anything about the toss of the coin or the hat on their own head.
- Only the prisoners behind you know the color of your hat. Neither you nor anyone in front of you can see the color of your hat.
- The coin-toss is truly random. There is no pattern to who gets a white hat or who gets a black hat.
The person in the back of the line has no information to work with. His odds are at best 50/50. So whatever he says, he might as well use his chance to save the lives the rest.
One solution would be for prisoner 5 to shout the color of prisoner 4’s hat. Prisoner 4 can then be spared. This can be repeated with prisoner 3 and 2. Prisoner 1 can say whatever he wants. This solution will guarantee that at least two prisoners are spared.
There is a much better solution, which is guaranteed to save 4 lives. Pretend you are one of the prisoners. Before everyone begins, all prisoners must count the number of white hats that they see in front of them and remember that number. As each prisoner behind you calls out the color of their hat, you must add one to your total every time you hear the color “white”. When it gets to your turn, if the number in your head is even then you shout out “white”. If the number in your head is odd then you shout out “black”.
Let’s work through an example. Suppose that everyone’s hat is black. All prisoners will have a count of 0.
- Prisoner 5 sees 0 white hats. Since 0 is even, he shouts “white”.
- Prisoner 4 hears “white”, and his count becomes 1. Since 1 is odd he shouts out “black”.
- Prisoner 3’s count is also 1, so he shouts out “black”
- Prisoner 2’s count is 1, so he shouts out “black”
- Prisoner 1’s count always starts at zero, so he has to pay attention to what the prisoners behind him say. Since he only heard one prisoner shout “white”, his count is 1, and he shouts “black”.
Prisoner 5’s answer was wrong in this case. He dies by firing squad, but his four other mates get to walk out alive.
That seemed way too easy. Let’s do it again. Suppose that everyone’s hat is white.
- Prisoner 5 sees 4 white hats. That’s an even number so he shouts “white”.
- Prisoner 4 sees 3 white hats. He heard prisoner 5 shout white, so he adds 1, which brings his total to 4. Since 4 is even number, he also says “white”.
- Prisoner 3 sees 2 white hats. Both prisoner 4 and 5 said “white”, so he adds two to his number, which brings his total to four. Again, he says “white”.
- Prisoner 2’s total starts at 1. He adds 3, which gives him 4, so he says “white”.
- Prisoner 1 has been keeping careful count. He is at 4, so he says “white”.
This time prisoner 5 was correct, so they all get to live.
Still don’t believe me? Let’s alternate so that prisoner 1 is white, 2 is black, 3 is white, 4 is black, and 5 is white.
- Prisoner 5 counts 2 white hats. That’s even so he shouts “white”.
- Prisoner 4 sees 2 white hats. Since prisoner 5 said “white”, he adds one and his total is now 3. He shouts “black”.
- Prisoner 3 sees 1 white hat. Prisoner 5 said “white”, so his number is 2. That number is odd, so he shouts “white”.
- Prisoner 2 sees 1 white hat. His count is now 3, which is even so he shouts “black”.
- Prisoner 1 sees 0 white hats, but he’s been listening and his mental total is 2. He shouts “white”.
This system works for any combination of white and black hats, and is guaranteed to spare the lives of the first four prisoners. Prisoner 5 will never have more than a 50/50 chance.
Try some combinations for yourself.
Computers use a system of error-checking called parity whenever they have to transmit data across a wire, or store it in a memory chip. Depending on the algorithm, the receiving computer can tell if there was an error and ask for a transmission. Some algorithms will allow the receiver to figure out which bit got garbled and correct the problem. Look up “error detection and correction” on Wikipedia for more information.
For more discussion you can check out this article on Wikipedia
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
I recently discovered Robert Louis Stevenson, and fell in love with Treasure Island. You might say that Stevenson was the Stephanie Meyer of the late 1800s. His work spawned a host of pirate novels, and fueled a genre that lived on for sixty years.
The story is told in first person by a young boy named Jim Hawkins, the son of a couple who owns an inn in Bristol, which is named the Admiral Benbow. As the story unfolds, the reader encounters a brilliant multi-dimensional portrayal of character that anyone could take a lesson from.
An old sea-man comes to stay at the Hawkins’s inn. He calls himself Captain Jack—not to be confused with Captain Jack Sparrow of Disney fame (we learn later that the sea-man’s name is Bill Flint). Stevenson gives this gritty description:
I remember him as if it were yesterday…a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his tarry pig-tail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat; his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the saber cut across one cheek, a dirty livid white. I remember him looking round the cove and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:
Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest,
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
In the high, old tottering voice that seemed to have been tuned and broken at the capstan bars.
[he] called roughly for a glass of rum. This, when it was brought to him, he drank slowly, like a connoisseur, lingering on the taste, and still looking about him at the cliffs and up at our signboard.
“This is a handy cove,” says he, at length; “and a pleasant sittyated grog-shop.”
Every detail serves a double purpose
When introducing a character you want to pick details that reveal that character’s personality.
You often hear people say “show, don’t tell.” I believe a more powerful technique is to evoke. For instance, when you read “nut-brown man,” you get an image of someone who has spent a lot of time in the sun. “hands ragged and scarred, etc.” evokes a life of hard labor. I especially love “the saber cut across one cheek, a dirty livid white.” Beautifully vivid.
The introduction of this character is a critical element in the story. Treasure Island follows Joseph Campbell’s monomyth pattern (see Hero With a Thousand Faces). Captain Jack serves as the herald, whose role is to deliver the call to adventure that sweeps the hero into the story. Captain Jack’s vivid portrayal serves to paint a picture of the types of characters that Jim Hawkins is certain to encounter as the story progresses.
Have your character make an entrance
This technique doesn’t always have to be used, but it can serve to further cement a character’s disposition in the reader’s mind. The pattern usually has two steps:
- Have the character do something idiosyncratic, something unique to their personality.
- Then have them say something.
After giving a description of Captain Jack, Stevenson has him sing a little ditty, then calls for a glass of rum. He drinks it while standing in the street, then utters his highly stylized line of dialog. By the end of this introduction you’re popping with curiosity, and dying to know who this person is.
Show interactions with other characters
To add further depth, show how the other characters react. Some reactions will be positive, and others will be negative. When you show one character reacting to another, you at once shed light upon the personalities of both characters.
Young Jim Hawkins doesn’t know what to make of this sea-man. To add to the mystery, Captain Jack takes Jim aside and offers to pay him a silver four-penny each month if he will keep a “weather eye open for a seafaring man with one leg.” If Jim sees such a man, he is to let the captain know as soon as possible.
The captain behaves in an excessively paranoid fashion. The Admiral Benbow is a popular place for seafaring men to seek room and board. The captain is wary of every guest, spying upon them before allowing himself to be seen. Once he is at ease, he will be extra quiet until they check out.
After Captain Jack settles in, he begins terrorizing the guests.
There were nights when he took a deal more rum and water than his head would carry; and then he would sometimes sit and sing his wicked, old, wild sea-songs, minding nobody; but sometimes he would call for glasses round, and force all the trembling company to listen to his stories or bear a chorus to his singing. Often I have heard the house shaking with “Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum,” all the neighbors joining in for dear life, with the fear of death upon them, and each singing louder than the other to avoid remark. … he would slap his hand on the table for silence all around; he would fly up in a passion of anger at a question, or sometimes because none was put, and so he judged the company was not following his story. Nor would he allow anyone to leave the inn till he had drunk himself sleepy and reeled off to bed.
…people were frightened at the time, but on looking back they rather liked it; it was a fine excitement in a quiet country life; and there was even a party of the younger men who pretended to admire him, calling him a “true sea-dog,” and a “real old salt,” and such like names, and saying there was the sort of man that made England terrible at sea.
…I remember observing the contrast the neat, bright doctor, with his power [wig] as white as snow…and pleasant manners made with the coltish country folk, and above all, with that filthy, heavy, bleared scarecrow of a pirate of ours, sitting far gone in rum, with his arms on the table. Suddenly he—the captain, that is—began to pipe up his eternal song…
- Make every description do double-duty. Pick details that that reveal a character’s personality.
- Have your character make an entrance. Have them do something peculiar to their nature, then have them say something that reveals their mood.
- Portray interactions with other characters.
Thursday, February 16, 2012
Go to goodreads.com or amazon.com, and find five books that are similar to the kind of book you’re writing. Read through as many of the reviews as you can. Here is what you’re looking for:
These reviews were from people that were not the target audience. Jeff recommended that you print them out and tape them to your wall. Then when you’re feeling down you can read them and tell yourself “That book was a best-seller, and someone still hated it.” Everyone looks for something different in a book. If you haven’t disgusted a few readers then your work probably isn’t very original.
This happens when a book didn’t quite live up to the expectations of the reader. Take a hard look and ask yourself if anything in this review applies to your own work. Ask yourself if there isn’t something you can do better, some new twist you can try.
These reviews tend to be the most useful, because they come squarely from the target audience (especially true if the book is the first in a series). Pay attention to what these readers liked. Pay attention to what they didn’t like. Look for trends, and make sure you don’t follow the same mistakes that the author made. Emphasize in your work the things that these readers praised.
For most people this means that they liked the book a lot. You’ll get good info here, too.
Mom, is that you?
The series effect
Here is another exercise you can do to understand what your readers are looking for. To illustrate, go to Amazon and take a look at the Recluse series, by author L. E. Modesitt Jr. Here is an analysis of the first five books in the series (there are currently 16).
- The Magic of Recluse: 131 reviews, 3.5 stars. Very few people are in the middle. Most reviewers either liked it or hated it.
- The Towers of the Sunset: 49 reviews, 3.5 stars. The trend is sort of flat, with an even distribution of likes and dislikes.
- The Magic Engineer: 40 reviews, 3.5 stars. By this time the positive reviews are definitely more numerous than the negative reviews.
- The Order War: 18 reviews, 3.5 stars. Trend is similar to book 3. People are beginning to comment how the writing has improved.
- The Death of Chaos: 20 reviews, 4 stars. The trend is definitely positive. Very few negative reviews.
Did you notice that each successive book gets fewer and fewer reviews?
The first book in a series is always going to have lower reviews because it’s the one that everyone reads. The author is going to get a mix of people who liked it and people who detested it. Those who didn’t like book 1 will not buy book 2, so when book 2 comes out there will be fewer reviews but more of them will be positive. This trend will continue as the series progresses until book 5 when you see only a handful of reviewers, and they are overwhelmingly positive.
In short, only fans review the later books in a series. By this time the author has established themselves with their target audience. Pay close attention to what the reviewers praise. There will still be bad reviews. These are from fans who got let down. What didn’t they like?
As you write your own stories, keep in mind that book 1 is your most important work. This is the vehicle for introducing your writing to new readers. It will always sell the most copies. Some people will love it and some will despise it. Don't try to please everyone. Know your target audience, and write specifically for them. Your later books will always get better reviews.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
I got a huge, huge pick-up from this year’s Life, the Universe, and Everything symposium. There’s always a class or two that I find worth it to go and see. This year was like a second Christmas. I focused mostly on the classes about ePublishing, and self-promotion.
This was by far the most sanguine panel I went to. At the start of this panel I was about 60% sold on the idea of ePublishing. By the end of this panel I was 90% sold. The important thing to remember is that there isn’t just one thing that brings in sales. It’s a combination of many things. One of the panelists used this analogy of using a hammer to pound invisible nails. You don’t know where to hit, and the best thing to do is start swinging.
Here is a short list of things that you should try. Each one of these is a discussion in and of itself, so if you want more information, copy and paste the item into Google:
- Amazon KDP Select.
- Blog Reviews
- Book Bombs
- Try to get at least three reviews on Amazon
- Book Trailers
Above all, make sure you keep writing. You have to learn to split your time evenly between writing and promoting. What is a good percentage? There isn’t one. Set goals. Make a resolution to produce one new novel as often as you feel comfortable, and to keep an active presence in the Internet. The important thing is consistency.
Some things to beware of:
- Don’t ePublish until you have at least three books to put up. Why? Because having more stuff gives the impression of credibility. Content is king, and it gives people a reason to come back to your website again and again.
- Space your releases about three to four months apart. If you have more books, put a “coming soon” notice so that your readers will be reminded to check back.
- Don’t let people hijack your schedule. It’s easy to get stuck waiting for artists, beta-readers, and others hold you back. If you know your work is ready to go, then go. The nice thing about ePublishing is that you can change things if you need to.
I’ve been skeptical about ePublishing, but now I’m completely sold for three very important reasons:
- Amazon and Smashwords are the new slush pile. Publishers are not the least bit picky about picking up a self-published author who has a proven track record for success. The only people who look down on ePublishing are other authors.
- The skills required for promoting your work are identical whether you are self-published or commercially published. It’s a huge win with publishers if you have an established following.
- It’s just so easy. The tools are all there, and there is no risk to you. If you stick with it until you’ve obtained a measure of success, it will eventually lead to a publishing contract.
P.S. You can follow me on Twitter. My username is @TWAbbottJr. If you have a blog and something you want to say, this is a great way to get out the word. Follow me and I'll follow you.