Below: the cover begins

Recently I made a bold decision for my next book, Below: I decided to commission a professional cover. I don’t take this lightly, but the book really demands professional artwork, and I’m hoping that between that and some aggressive marketing (not like spam aggressive, because screw that) this book will really go places.

Searching for an artist is a daunting process. I asked for help online, and checked out a few recommended artists’ sites, only to discover that 1) most recommendations are for artists who do stock compositing for YA-type covers (e.g., a person against a backdrop, highly saturated colors) and 2) many of the recommended artists who did have the chops for it were either beyond my price range or way too busy. And I had to go check out each one individually, and there weren’t that many to look at.

Enter DeviantArt. I’ve been familiar with the site for a long time, and someone suggested I should post a job ad there. So the other night, I did just that. I wrote up a post going into great detail what I wanted, what sort of things I wanted to know about the price and process, and what my goals were for a time frame and cost.

The response was really quite amazing. Within eight hours I was inundated with replies, and within a day I had quite a lot to look through. Of course I still had to look at everyone’s portfolios and make judgement calls as to what their area of expertise was and how well they could fit my target style, but that wasn’t so bad—and I kept notes so I can contact some of them for future projects. I saw quite a few artists I thought would be awesome to keep in mind for later.

Armed with all that information, I’ve finally selected my first artist. What put it over the top was that the artist gave me a breakdown of the process, what she expects in payment and when, and that she wants to be very collaborative. Also, she mentioned having a great affinity for material very similar to the book, so I feel she’ll understand a good bit of where I want to go with it. And of course I think she has what it takes to produce something amazing.

I’m doing the typography myself. I made it optional in my job listing, because I feel I can handle it on my own.

When the cover is ready, you’ll see it here. I’ve started the process going, first payment made, and now comes the part where the artist and I work out concept sketches. It’s super exciting.

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Programmers who will pay in the new order

I have some grievances against some of my kind and I’m going to air them now.

If you’re a Web developer, test your site without cookies from time to time, especially if you’re a news site or some such that most people are never going to login on. I recently discovered that E! Online has joined the ignoble ranks of sites that refresh themselves every few seconds if you don’t have cookies enabled. Why a site should refresh if it can’t find any cookies is a complete mystery to me, and by complete mystery I mean I don’t want to know the answer because the question is so bafflingly stupid that anyone who knowingly makes their site do this should be hanged. Unless they’re doing it on orders from a clueless boss, and then the boss should be hanged. All after due process, of course.

Then we have the Weather Channel. I’ve mentioned them recently, how their site has been broken nine ways from Sunday. They made a lot of fixes, but the one thing they never fixed was that you need cookies to view the site. Not even just session cookies, which satisfy most picky sites, but full cookies, because they make use of localStorage and don’t bother to check if it’s unavailable. This is what we professionals call top-shelf stupid, almost unforgivably so, although it’s still marginally less bad than the refresh thing.

But by far the thing that irks me the most is a software habit. Some pieces of software are in the habit these days of updating themselves, often on their own schedule that can interfere with whatever you’re doing. That’s often bad enough, but it gets worse. Most of the programs that do this are constantly re-inserting themselves into the Start menu. Why is this bad? Because some of us like to keep our start menu organized so it’s not just one giant list of programs where you can’t find anything. Every time one of these programs updates, my start menu is re-cluttered with an entry in the main section when it already has one somewhere else. At the very very least, these guys could keep track of where you told them to put their shortcuts the first time so they don’t do it again. How hard is that? (Hint: It’s not.)

And I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this one, but a number of sites like to use custom fonts. Unfortunately those fonts, or the subsets they present to their users, don’t tend to include a non-breaking space character, so when it turns up it becomes a zero-width space. This turns out to be a problem because these sites also seem to be using a content platform that inserts non-breaking spaces all over the place between words instead of true spaces, which is a special kind of stupid when it comes to text content anyway. On sites like that, I’ll be reading an article and suddenly two words are abutted together with no explanation. When I finally found the explanation I was dumbfounded by how preventable it was, because all you need to do is either include the right character in the font, or better still replace the non-breaking spaces that shouldn’t be there anyway with regular ones.

I’ve perpetrated many a gaffe myself; I don’t hold myself blameless. But good gads, these particular issues are so ridiculously widespread there ought to be roaming squads of floggers who go after these bozos and give them a good lash once in a while until they straighten up and fly right. Issues like this should be so blindingly obvious that programmers everywhere should have an almost religious aversion to them. We have a generation of programmers taught to believe goto is evil (it’s not, just dangerous if mishandled), but nobody bothered to tell them not to refresh the page if the user is a cookiephobe? Madness. Give me spaghetti code instead of rank stupidity any day.

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Hot dog bun upcycling

I got some hot dogs the other night (actually, they’re Johnsonville Beddar with Cheddar sausages, but basically cheese hot dogs) because with fall coming on there’s only so much time left to use the grill, and I hadn’t had those in a while. But they come in a pack of 6, and the hot dog buns I bought came in an 8-pack. The age-old problem. It’s worsened by the fact that my wife had one of the hot dogs also, and didn’t have a bun with it.

Today I had a great idea for using those up. But first, I’d like to share a similar idea I tried a couple months ago: Grilled cheese sticks.

When I buy hot dog buns, I always go for the New England style that split on the top. Why? Because they can ostensibly sit flat. But it turns out the flat sides they have make them a perfect candidate for toasting. So the last time I was in this pickle, I decided to make grilled cheese sticks.

To make grilled cheese sticks, you take your New England style hot dog buns and butter each side. Take two pieces of American cheese per bun and break them each (by folding) into thirds, breaking the last third of each in half. Pry open the buns and layer in the strips of cheese. Then, cook them just like a grilled cheese sandwich; you may prefer tongs to a spatula, because these suckers are hard to flip.

When I made those, I made the mistake of using only one piece of cheese each, and I made four of them which was too filling. I think three is closer, proportionally, to two sandwiches made with regular white bread.

Now for breakfast sticks. I took two buns from the package and started by lightly toasting them, dry, in a frying pan. When they were ready I used a 3-cup Pyrex prep bowl, my go-to for scrambled eggs, and cracked in just one egg—one egg for two breakfast sticks—and put in a little splash of milk. After beating the egg I threw the bowl into the microwave for a short time, gave it a stir, threw it in a little longer and stirred again, and so on until they were done. The eggs came out super fluffy. Then finally, I took out one piece of cheese for each breakfast stick and broke them up into strips. Prying open the buns, I put cheese on either side, and spooned half of the egg mixture into between the cheese.

The only thing that would have made the breakfast sticks better would have been if I had some breakfast sausage links I could nuke up to throw in with them. But no matter; they were super tasty even with just egg and cheese, and they helped me use up some extra hot dog buns.

I’m guessing I could totally throw in some butter, mozzarella, garlic, and oregano and/or basil to make awesome garlic pizza sticks in the broiler. Maybe that’s a quick snack idea for a game day.

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The reluctant scene

I hate, hate it when I’m trying to write a scene and for whatever reason, it refuses to be written. The middle is okay. The end is probably okay. But they haven’t been written yet because the beginning keeps failing.

Right now I’m stuck in just such a place. I know where the scene has to go, and it has to go in at this spot because this is where it makes the most sense. Since I’m adapting it from another medium, it’s basically on course to happen now, and unlike some other scenes I was able to put off, cut, or merge elsewhere (I call it Peter Jacksoning), this one has no such flexibility. But the previous scene sets it up almost so directly that there’s no moment of surprise, no feeling of changing winds when I switch character POVs here, and that’s something I’d rather avoid. I don’t have some other scene I can insert to delay it properly, but in the end I may have to decide to move some things around to do just that.

This happens all the time in other situations. Some scenes just refuse to be written—whether it’s because of what came before, or because the pacing feels off, or simply that there’s no good way to jump into a character’s head (even if it’s first person and it’s the same narrator throughout) in a way that will make the scene flow.

So now I’m stuck in a holding pattern. I write a little something. It feels wrong, so I erase it, and then brood. Then I brood some more. Nothing comes to me, so I try again with a blind stab in the dark. Nope, same problem. And so on and so on; the cycle repeats until somehow, by some miracle, the deadlock is broken.

On the book I’m working on now, this is happening a lot. I suspect the problem is that in the original comic scripts I’m adapting, the plot flowed very differently. This portion is resisting the conversion; and to some extent I think the original material (which is also mine of course, so there’s no one to blame here but me) is a little… loose around this time frame. The comic format hid some of that, but it’s coming out in a big way in a novel.

I know where it’s all going; it just needs that right push to move on. That’s the tricky part, and it’s where I’m stuck now. And on top of that, the best ways I can think of to fix it involve characters from the last scene who need a break offstage for a little bit. They’ve been through a big transition over the last few chapters, and it’s time to let the other characters shine some more whenever they can.

Ugh. I’ll get there eventually. I know it. But it’d be nice to figure out some tricks for getting out of the rut.

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Ramen experiments

One of my favorite comfort foods is ramen noodles with butter. This goes way back. My mother always liked to have some ramen packages on hand, and would make them with butter for me now and then when I was younger. They’re nice on the stomach that way, and she always likes to save the flavor packets to use in other recipes like when she cooks chicken and potatoes and carrots in a crock pot. (Also a comfort food. It’s not quite chicken soup but it’s in the neighborhood.)

In the last few years I’ve branched out a little more and done some experimenting with ramen. I’ve tried it with cheese, which I like but it’s a bigger production than I want it to be. All you do there is reserve a little of the broth but drain off the rest, and “crumble” in a couple of slices of American cheese. This ends up kind of sticky and is hard to mix in, but it does work and it tastes good if you have the patience for it. I’ve also tried cheddar powder or some of that Mac Yourself powder with milk and butter, although again mixing is really problematic. I think to achieve ultimate perfection, I’ll have to pre-mix the cheese sauce in another container.

But lately I’ve also been thinking in more of a soup direction. To this end I decided to add some things to the arsenal. First, eggs; I like egg drop soup, and you really can’t go wrong throwing in an egg. I also went onto Amazon and picked up some dehydrated celery and mushrooms (separate containers, obviously); I went with the Mother Earth brand mainly because of availability and good reviews. The reason I wanted to do celery this way was that I almost never buy it fresh; I don’t really snack on it, although I’ll eat it if it’s around with wings or something, and my wife finds celery toxic in nearly the same way that I can’t handle onions and peppers.

My first test with these ingredients was to take a regular package of chicken ramen, with the flavor packet (not really my favorite, but I wanted a strong broth to start with), a little bit of the celery and mushrooms that I added with the noodles, a bit of dry minced garlic, and then near the end of cooking I poured in a beaten egg and stirred very fast like you would with egg drop soup. This had mixed results; I think the celery needed longer to rehydrate, and the egg sort of broke up into crumblets instead of the nice chunks you get in a good egg drop soup. It was however satisfying, and the mushrooms were very welcome in there. The garlic was unnoticeable.

The next experiment involved adding some beef jerky into the equation. I’ve read that when you rehydrate beef jerky in soup it’ll give a lot of its flavor up to the liquid, so I left out the flavor packet this time. I chopped up two nuggets of Jack Links tender bites, teriyaki flavor, and put them in the water with the celery right from the outset, along with about a quarter to half a teaspoon of garlic powder. Most of the rest I did the same way, except I did not pre-beat the egg; I cracked it right into the pot and let it sit for a minute before stirring it in.

The post-mortem from the second try was interesting. First, the beef jerky obviously needed way longer to flavor the broth, because it didn’t do anything; and while the texture was decent and slightly softer than eating it straight, every time I got a piece it was completely unsubtle, screaming BEEF JERKY against all of the other flavors in disharmony. So if you’re looking to meat up your ramen, I don’t recommend this approach. The broth needed quite a bit of salt, and again the garlic didn’t stand out. I added a couple tablespoons of butter after cooking to give the broth more flavor, and that helped a ton. The celery came out slightly better. The egg again ended up as crumblets, which tells me I should have let it go in earlier and sit longer, and stirred only when it was nearly cooked through.

Armed with those results, I have a plan of action for next time. If there’s to be any meat, it has to be something leftover that I can dice up quick and throw in near the end just to warm it up—ham being an excellent choice. Celery will go in before the boil again, and I’m gonna bomb it with a larger amount of the minced garlic (not garlic powder), maybe also some dry herbs, and maybe half a teaspoon of salt to start. Although I like a little black pepper, I don’t see it adding anything to this dish. Again I’ll use about 2 tbsp. butter, but that will go in at the very end of cooking; it melts fast. After the noodles go in, then there’s the mushrooms. About halfway through cooking when the noodles have softened a little, in goes the egg, and I’ll leave it alone till the end. Then I’ll stir, add the butter, and taste for seasoning to see if more salt is called for.

And that, I think, is going to be my go-to ramen soup for chilly fall days.

I may decide to try throwing in some high-quality chicken bouillon at some point. I’m not a big fan of the flavor packet, because I find it a little too spicy for my liking. I don’t mind that it’s mostly MSG, but if I want to add MSG I can do that myself, and with all the other ingredients (especially mushrooms) I don’t think it’s needed. I do however think starting with chicken broth, or a faked-up version from bouillon, will still give the whole thing a nice touch of extra  flavor.

Quick review of the celery and mushrooms: The dehydrated celery is okay by me, although I think that freshly sliced would be superior in texture and flavor; if nothing else it would be bigger chunks, since the stuff I have is pretty small even after a good soak. But I do like the crunch and bit of flavor it adds, so it serves its purpose. The mushrooms are fantastic; I’m thrilled with their flavor and they rehydrate fast. Some Amazon reviewers have said they’re a little pricey by the pound, but basically what you’re paying for is to always have some mushrooms readily on hand to throw into a soup or whatnot on a moment’s notice, and that container’s going to last me a good while.

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College weather

I’m looking out my window at the beautiful day today, and it’s killing me. I’ve been out there already at lunchtime, but still I’m drawn outside. The sky is blue with fluffy clouds, it’s only about 80° out, and the light is just so that it pushes all the right buttons in my soul to make me want to get out there.

As a creature of patterns, familiar weather always puts me in nostalgic moods, but some more than others. This day specifically reminds me of the day I went to college orientation, 22 years ago. I was 17 years old at the time, and I’m pretty sure it was the Tuesday right before the Fair. (Although I could be wrong; it could have been that Thursday, which would have been opening day for the Fair. Either way I know classes always started the following Monday, a week before Labor Day.) It’s hard not to look back on that time without nostalgia, especially those first few days of classes that I remember were so sunny, just like this.

The feeling inside me now is a lot like the spring madness, except it’s sort of an end-of-summer madness. There’s a fall madness too, but this is different. Every cell in my body wants to run outside and drive somewhere to enjoy the day. And today I have the freedom to do it; I’m my own boss and could take the time off if I wanted to. The problem is, I don’t know where I would go, or what I would do when I got there. I have no outdoor agenda right now, and wouldn’t mind playing a part in someone else’s.

I’m not in any particular mood to go on a shopping spree. I can’t think of any “destination” types of places that I would want to go, particularly since anything that comes close is a fall thing. Right now my body is primed to want to go out to the Fair, but we’re two days early here.

The sad thing is, by sticking with my normal routine I feel like I’m squandering this beautiful day. I have nothing particular that I would do with it, but it feels wasted anyway. Would that I could swap this out for a day in February; I could live with a little snow right now, in exchange for a day of warmth and sunlight and beautiful leafy green when the world is bleak.

But still, pity the poor kids in those evil places where school—not college, mind you, but public school—has already started. When I become a supervillain, I will criminalize starting the school year before Labor Day, and ending it after May. At least I have the choice to go out if I wanted to; I’m stymied for more complex reasons. A kid should have the chance to play on a day like today, and around here at least they still can. For now. The time is running short, the sun is setting earlier, and to quote House Stark, winter is coming.

Oh, well. At least pretty soon McDonald’s will expand their all-day breakfast menu.

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Of man and machine

As a sci-fi reader, and writer, I’m fascinated by some technologies that appear to be on the horizon—maybe distantly, but then it’s surprising how fast science fiction tends to become reality in the least expected ways. I didn’t think self-driving cars could be a thing, even at a primitive stage, for another couple of decades at least. The sheer number of problems that needed to be solved—and to be fair, many still do—was astronomical, and they were incredibly hard ones. But self-driving cars are here, now, and it’s like stumbling into a dream.

A few years back I read a story about an experiment with sensory enhancement. The author of the piece mentioned how he tried out a belt with a number of vibration motors spaced evenly all around, and it would vibrate on the side facing magnetic north. As he acclimatized to the device, this one simple additional sense gave him not only an impeccable sense of direction, but an excellent internal map and a constant sense of where home was. And when the device was removed for good, a corresponding feeling of disorientation crashed down.

I couldn’t help but be impressed by how cool that was. A brand new sensory organ, invented and added to the body, was quickly accepted and relied upon by the brain and produced results well beyond the device’s simple function.

Today I read that brain implants are becoming a bigger deal. Right now they’re being used to improve signaling and function in dementia sufferers. It’s an amazing leap forward, but when I read it I was surprised by how little that resembles where I think cybernetics are ultimately headed.

For a long time now I’ve had a thought rumbling around my head, an idea of what an early incarnation of true cybernetics will look like. Picture a tiny chip designed to accept neural inputs and produce outputs. It’s built to last for the lifespan of its host, and not corrode or evoke an immune response. It runs on body heat or an internal fuel like ATP. Its inputs and outputs are electrically or chemically set to encourage natural neurons to bond to it, and they have long filaments so that many neurons can connect.

The chip within is a simple device capable of only basic mathematical functions—maybe even just addition and subtraction.

Building on the lesson of the directional belt, imagine what this device would do when implanted into a human brain. Humans process math on a learned level that has to build up a lot of connections, but this chip could do it with lightning speed. Neurons would connect math processing to and from the chip, greatly accelerating the process. Humans augmented this way might even begin to see math itself differently, taking on far greater abstract challenges than they typically could without it.

But here’s the even weirder part: There’s no reason to believe that this chip’s operation would be strictly limited to math. The brain would simply have this tool available to use however it wanted to. For all we know, the very same device could be instrumental to increased visual or audio acuity. It might end up being used to link associative memories in new and unexpected ways. Simply having a chip that has neuronal connections but does not act like a neuron would be like opening an entirely new dimension of thought.

I’d like to envision a future where far more advanced versions of this tech exist, where the chip is actually a complex device that can do a lot of things, but what’s amazing to me is the potential that even a simple little device would have—or a plethora of such devices, scattered through the brain like chocolate chips. A simple adder might be the brain function equivalent of mitochondria to a cell.

How would those augmented humans perceive the world? How would their intelligence be impacted? We tend to think of advanced intelligence as hampering social skills or empathy, resulting in either a robot or a sociopath—but what if it didn’t? What if such things vastly improved their ability to form bonds with more and more people, and to catch signals they might otherwise ignore so that they became better communicators?

Maybe it’s a lot of wasted speculation; it could be decades, if at all, before we move in that direction. But then, there are self-driving cars.

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