Monday, August 22, 2011

CSI: Russian Horse Unit

Last night, the "Global E-Book Award" winners were announced. Alas, my book was not among them. On the other hand, it did manage to finish in the top three "finalists." Hooray! I didn't quite get the gold, but apparently I did no worse than bronze, and maybe silver.

But... before I go tooting my horn about this, I'm reminded of the old joke about the Russian horse. If you haven't heard that one, it goes something like this: The US and USSR decided to settle, once and for all, whose system was best. And for some reason they decided to resolve the question through a horse race--the winner of the Leningrad Stakes vs. the winner of the Kentucky Derby, on a track in neutral Switzerland. After the American horse won by a handy margin, the following headline appeared in Pravda:

American Horse Finishes Next To Last

So, before bragging about taking maybe second or third, only to discover I was in a three-horse race, I decided to count the entrants. This turned out to be a little tricky, as the GEBA's categories sort of evolved on the fly. At the level of "nominee" (that is, you've sent them the proper paperwork and the check, if any, has cleared), my book fell into the general category of SF/Fantasy/Paranormal, which turned out to have 34 entries. By the time of the final judging, this category had been split into three sub-categories of "Speculative Fiction": SF, Fantasy and Paranormal. But the contest's web site didn't say which books had been assigned to which sub-category. Given the popularity of fantasy and paranormal stuff of late, there still might be only three competitors in SF.

So I had a look at the synopses of the entries. All 34 of them. And I came up with this count:
  • SF: 14 entries
  • Fantasy: 16 entries
  • Paranormal: 4 entries
I admit I'm not all that certain about the breakdown between "Fantasy" and "Paranormal"; I think it has something to do with settings--if you have supernatural beings like vampires and angels, and a more-or-less real-world setting, it's "Paranormal"; if you have these things in a kingdom "once upon a time far, far away," it's "Fantasy." Or something like that. Anyway, I didn't need to be precise on that, as my main concern was how many books were in the SF category. And now I know.

Yeah, it was an hour that could have been more productively spent working on the new book, cleaning the gutters (winter's coming!) or catching up on those pipe tunes I still haven't learned. Then again, it's nice to know for sure that my book is not the Russian Horse!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Help a Struggling Author!

Good news: The Last Protector is an official nominee in the "Global E-Book Awards" competition. (Yay!!)

Bad news: being "nominated" for a competition just means I did the paperwork correctly. It doesn't mean that any of their judges have yet read the book, or for that matter that Global E-Book Awards World Domination Headquarters has even received a copy. All that stuff comes later. (Aww...)

My past experience with book competitions (which all authors are encouraged to enter, as they are supposed to be marketing tools) is that competition follows these steps:
  1. The author fills out a form and sends it to the contest promoter. Along with some money, of course.
  2. Once the form has been found to be complete and correct (i.e., accompanied by the appropriate amount of money), the author or publisher sends the promoter a copy of the book.
  3. The author then waits to see what happens next.
And step 4... well, much of the time, for many authors, there is no step 4 beyond perhaps going to the contest website a few months later and discovering that some other book won the contest. And, of course, filing the receipt for the entry fee amongst the business expenses.

To its credit, the "Global E-Book Award" contest seems to be at least a bit different. For one thing, during "National Read an E-Book Week," they waived the entry fee. Second, they gave me this cool little badge to put on my website, saying that my book is officially a "nominee." And third, they gave my book a page on their site, which people who are perusing the site looking for interesting books might stumble across.

This third thing is where you come in, dear reader, should you wish to help out a struggling author (or, if you don't particularly want to help me, you may still want to help my publisher make a profit): go to the Last Protector page on the Global E-Book Award site, and register a vote by clicking on one of the ratings in that line of blue letter eeeee's just above the book blurb (it would be nice if you clicked on one of the more favorable ratings, of course). While the contest officials say the number of favorable votes won't determine who wins, they also say that the judges will be able to see the results of the voting. So... click away... and thanks much.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Passion of the Snowman

Today is the peculiarly named "Good Friday," the day in which we remember the story of one who came into this world in a way that was magical or perhaps miraculous, attracted a band of followers, led a procession into the city to the cheers of little children, met his demise saving others, was miraculously raised from the dead and ascended into the sky promising to return.

I'm talking, of course, about:

Well, who did you think I had in mind?

Seriously, it's almost creepy how this classic "secular" cartoon parallels the Easter story. The correspondence is so close that I've used this cartoon in a Sunday school class. I often wonder if the writer consciously set out to create a "Passion of the Snowman" tale, or if he just happened into it while figuring out how to stretch a three-minute pop song into a half-hour TV show.

There's no apparent religious content to the song "Frosty," and the 1954 black-and-white cartoon from UPA (once on YouTube but, alas, since removed for copyright reasons) depicts him as more a force of nature, a sort of winter free spirit who's out to have fun and not at all bothered by the knowledge that he'll soon melt:

But the Rankin/Bass half-hour show follows the life-of-Christ story almost incident-by-incident:

...from the magical "Happy Birthday!" (and let's not even start delving into what the magic hat might symbolize)

...through the Palm Sunday procession... his sacrificial melting at the hands of Professor Hinkel... his subsequent re-freezing (with Santa Claus doing a guest appearance as God)... the final ascension, with the promise to return

Strange and heavy stuff for a secular cartoon about a talking snowman...

So, was this an intentional re-use of the Easter story? A coincidence? Perhaps the "bones" of the Passion story are so universal (maybe we all want to believe there's somebody in the world who'd sacrifice everything for us) that it just happened to work out this way. After all, it's been said that just about every novel, play or movie has some character who's identifiable as the "Christ figure." So it could be that any resemblance between Frosty and Jesus is just accident and should be taken as having no significance whatever. It's one of those things that we all must decide for ourselves.

That said, let me observe one other "secret message" in "Frosty." It's a well-known fact that cartoon characters, from Mickey Mouse to Homer Simpson, have three fingers and one thumb on their hands. True, there are a few exceptions, but it's a pretty established rule. And, as this frame from "The Simpsons" demonstrates, one exception occurs when the character is divine:

So, if three fingers means "human" and four means "divine," what do we make of this frame from "Frosty"?

Count the fingers: three (human) on the left hand (plus one thumb), but four (divine) on the right hand. Frosty is apparently both human and divine at the same time, which is of course one of the fundamental (if confusing at times) items of Christian doctrine. Hmm...

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Return of Read An E-Book Week

Yep, it's National Read an E-book Week, March 6 through 12. In honor of the event, OmniLit is offering The Last Protector for a whopping 50 percent off, now through March 15! So if you're one of the people who wanders by this site for advice on motorcycle repair, and have been toying with the idea of maybe perhaps reading my novel, now's the chance to pick it up for half price. CLICK HERE to find out more about this deal!

My publisher, Twilight Times Books, has a bunch of other Read and E-book Week promotions going on as well--many books are marked down, and some are available for free--a few are available for free all week long, and there are daily free downloads as well. CLICK HERE to find out more about the free books.

One of the free-this-week books is How I Wrote My First Book: the Story Behind the Story, in which twenty authors (including yours truly) spin the epic tales of how we came to write our first books. CLICK HERE to find out more and read a sample chapter (not, alas, mine...).

Read an E-book Week only runs until March 13, and OmniLit's half-price offer on The Last Protector only runs through March 15, so get clickin' while there's still time!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Watson Wins Jeopardy

On the occasion of IBM's "Watson" computer beating two human "Jeopardy" champions (though it could not properly identify Chicago in the "Final Jeopardy" round), I note the following chronology:

  • 1940s: computer power is measured in hundreds of operations per second, and we use computers to do things like crack the Enigma cipher and win World War II.
  • 1960s: computer power just makes it into the millions of operations per second, and we use computers to put men on the moon and control the national telephone network.
  • 1980s: computer power is comfortably in the tens of millions of operations per second, microchip technology crams these onto tiny chips, and we use them to put a phone in every pocket, so people can annoy each other while driving 60mph in a school zone.
  • late 1990s: we break into the billions of operations per second, and use this power to render really realistic blood in first-person shooter video games.
  • 2000s: computer power is now in the tens of billions of operations per second, and we use this power to win a TV trivia game show.

Conclusion: over time, the power of the computer multiplied by the usefulness of the application remains constant.

The logical extension is that when we finally do build a computer that matches the power of the human brain, all it will do is sit around, watch TV and play video games. Which might be a useful thing, if it frees us from those tasks.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Making Things Harder, Digitally

For the last week, I've been subbing a high school physics class and teaching about projectile motion (that's determining how far something will fly after you launch it into the air--think Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when the French catapult a dead cow out of the castle at the knights). There's a lot of math in this (as there is in all physics), and I found I had a fair number of students who were having trouble not with the physics but with their calculators.

When I took physics, way back in the Dark Ages (that is, when determining how far you could catapult a dead cow was still relevant), we used pencil, paper and this amazing device called a slide rule, which could multiply, divide, take square roots, do sines, cosines, tangents, and so forth, all without pressing buttons or discovering the batteries had died on the second question of the final exam. But the slide rule (and the first generation of electronic calculators) could only do one thing at a time, so you had to do the operations in order and sometimes write down partial results that you'd use later.

Now we have hand-held calculators with big screens and more computing power than was in the high-end scientific computer I used in college. So you can enter a whole long expression, as a mathematical expression, and just hit the "=" button to get your result.

This should be easier, but it turns out not to be. The reason is that the calculator, like the computer I used in college, has a keyboard. And a keyboard is, by nature, a one-dimensional thing: one letter (or digit, or symbol) follows another. Mathematical notation, on the blackboard or on the sheet of paper, is two dimensional. Look at this example, finding the time it takes an object to fall 14.4 meters:

You need but one set of parentheses to note that the 14.4 is negative (heading downward). The fact that the numerator has multiple terms is implied by its being above the line, and the extended line atop the square root symbol conveys that you first do all the multiplication and division, and then take the root. And the value of the second dimension only becomes more apparent when you start using superscripts (for squares, cubes, etc.) and subscripts... and when you start nesting more complex expressions within each other.

If you do this computation with a slide rule or primitive calculator, you start by noticing that the minus signs in numerator and denominator cancel out, which means you can forget them. Next you multiply 14.4 times 2, then divide by 9.8, and finally take the square root.

But if you're going to do this the "easy" way, letting the calculator do all the work, you've got to translate this two-dimensional expression into a line of characters on the display. You might do what several of the students did, and enter it like this:

Notice you've already had to add one more set of parentheses, to tell the calculator that the denominator is negative and you're not subtracting. But even so, this won't give you the right answer, as the calculator sees the square root symbol and assumes you just want to take the square root of two and multiply it by the stuff that follows (because square root is a higher priority operation than multiplying, and anyway, it's at the beginning of the line). So you have to add some more parentheses to make sure you get the right answer:

So now, an expression that required only one set of parentheses in two-dimensional math notation requires three sets to properly convey your intent to the calculator. And, if you left out the extra parentheses the first time, you've just distracted yourself from learning physics (which is the whole intent of taking the course; that's why it's called "Physics") and are now for all practical purposes debugging a FORTRAN program. Welcome to 1973.

In short, the calculator, billed as a device to make your work easier, has in fact made it harder--because each time you enter one of these expressions (which, I repeat, was the thing you were actually trying to learn in your physics class) you must translate it into a form the calculator understands. You must now be both a physicist and a programmer. And an unpaid one, at that.

We have touch screens and tablet interfaces. We have lots and lots of computing power available. We have the ability to play Tetris on the calculator if the lecture seems boring. Why don't we have the ability to just scribble the expression, in traditional mathematical notation, on the calculator's screen? Why must we still translate it to a fifties-vintage programming language?