Friday, June 26, 2015

The falacy of the religious liberty argument

Back in 2013 I took on the argument that marriage was for procreation purposes in a blog post about why my late wife and I should not have been allowed to marry. So now that the gay marriage issue is behind us thanks to five Supreme Court justices who recognize, as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice," it's probably time to take on the next fight - the religious liberty argument. To start with, the scare tactic that clergy will be forced to perform gay marriages is complete nonsense. Clergy are not required to perform any wedding that is not in keeping with the tenants of their faith. Rabbies don't have to marry Catholics, priests don't have to marry couples who are not in good standing. The law does not oblige them to do any ceremony that is against their conscience.

So the argument boils down to whether civil servants can be obliged to perform ceremonies for gay couples and businesses obliged to provide goods and services. Both are fairly straight-forward arguments. Lets take the first: If I was an engineer working for a defense contractor and converted to the Quaker religion, could I expect my employer to keep paying me if I refused on the grounds of my pacifist faith to do any defense work? Would my employer be legally bound to keep me or could they fire me? I think the answer is obvious, I could be fired. The same is true of a civil servant whose job it is to perform weddings or issue marriage licenses. If they refuse on faith grounds to perform the job they were hired to do, they can be fired. If the task they were hired to do is so odious, they should find new employment and not expect the public to pay them for non-performance of their job.

As for businesses, if faith can be an excuse for not providing goods and services, where does it end? If my religion does not believe in mixed marriages (as is true of many), can I refuse to provide a wedding cake for the wedding of a Catholic and a Protestant? If your church bans interracial marriage, can I refuse? Can I refuse anyone not of my same religious faith? What can I refuse to sell on the grounds of faith, food, medicine? Can I refuse medical treatment? The implications of a faith based opt-out go well beyond a wedding cake for a gay marriage. If we don't want to go back to the days of Jim Crow, businesses must provide good and services to all regardless of race, ethnicity, creed or gender identity. Again, if that is personally odious, then sell your business or prepare to be run over by the steamroller of history just as the segregationists were in the 1960s.

Civil rights took a great leap forward this morning. About darn time.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Windows 10 or why I hate "Modern" apps

I've been testing out Windows 10 (never mind asking where 9 went) for a few months now. The good news is that it's fast and works with any computer that will run Windows 7 (and probably most that run XP). But with Microsoft there's always bad news. In the case of Win10, the bad news is they're trying to bring us kicking and screaming into the era of "modern" apps whether we like it or not. They're not so subtle strategy is to give the operating system away. Already most owners of computers running Win7/8 have found an icon in their system tray urging you to reserve your copy of Win10. You can expect the pressure from MS to increase as rollout time approaches.

Anyone who's seen Win8 will recognize Win10. It starts with the same stupid, useless lock screen. Unlike 8, it drops into the familiar desktop after login, and there in it's expected place is a Start button, but it doesn't bring up the classic Start menu we've been used to since Win95. Instead, the menu is a hybrid of the Win8 start screen and a dumbed down version of classic start. The program list is rudimentary and can't be user modified. To the right of that list is an area where you can place tiles. The resultant Start menu is neither fish nor fowl and unsatisfactory to either a confirmed desktop user or a tablet/phone user. I installed "Classic Shell" which returns a Win7 style menu; however, it can't load a list of "modern" apps in Win10 like it does in Win8.

MS introduced "modern" apps with Win8 (initially called "Metro" apps). Pretty much the first thing that everyone who got Win8 did (after installing a program like Classic Shell to restore the Start menu) was to get rid of as many "modern" apps as they could. Why? For one thing, in Win8, "modern" apps had to run full screen, not windowed as we've been used to since at least Win3. Win10, thankfully, corrects this. What it doesn't correct is the inherent slowness of "modern" apps. Understanding why they're slow requires a little lesson in computer history.

In the beginning, programmers had to code everything their computer did. This included handling bit-by-bit how the computer talked to the world. This was hugely inefficient, so the industry coded a set of low-level programs that handled things like booting the computer up, finding what was attached to it and handling how the computer talked to peripherals in a standard way. This was BIOS or basic input/output system. And basic it was. So on top of the BIOS the manufacturers built the OS or operating system which handled yet more of the operations of the computer. DOS was an example of this type of operating system. It would let a programmer talk to disks, printers, monitors, etc. in a standard way that minimized the work, but they didn't handle graphics well. Programmers still had to do all the work of creating graphics themselves. Individuals and companies created sets of standard routines that handled graphics, but each of these solutions was proprietary. Xerox created a solution to this problem by loading a set of standard graphics routines on top of the operating system so any programmer could access them. This was the GUI or graphical operating system. Because it is larger and more complex than earlier operating systems, it is slower, but the loss of speed is made up for by the ease of writing programs for it. Jobs stole the idea from Xerox for the Mac and Gates stole it from Apple for Windows.

The problem with the GUI operating system is it only runs on one family of computer chips. So when Apple moved from the Motorola 68000 processors to the Power PC processors, they had to rewrite the operating system and software that worked on one type of machine didn't work on the other. They did it again when they moved to Intel processors making orphans of yet another generation or their computers. When Apple made the IPad which uses a different processor, they wrote an entirely new operating system for that. MS is trying to get around this problem with their "modern" apps. They will run on any machine with the Win8 or Win10 operating system even though they use a variety of processors. To do this, they set up an idealized processor and build an emulator for each different processor that there operating system runs on. An emulator is software that takes the commands given to the idealized processor and translates them into commands to the actual processor. In short, it's yet another layer of software that has to be loaded and worked through, which is why the "modern" apps load slowly (the emulator has to load before the app can) and runs slowly. A native Windows program will always run faster than a "modern" app. In spite of this, MS wants to migrate everything to "modern" apps.

So when you get Win10, it will come with a passel of "modern" apps. With each iteration of the operating system that has loaded on my test machine, the number of apps that you can uninstall has decreased and each time the OS updates, it reinstalls all the apps whether or not you've deleted them and it makes them the default programs. It also deletes your antivirus program and installs its own.

And if this wasn't enough, it tries to force you to create a Microsoft account so that it can store tons of information about you. It also makes their cloud storage as the default place to store new files, so you might not be able to access them if you're not online. If you manage to figure out how to create a local account, it won't let you access the Windows Store. On the other hand, since I really didn't want to load any "modern" apps, not being able to access the Windows Store is not a problem for me.

If you haven't guessed, I'm happy with Win7 and have no intention of updating to Win10. At some point, updates for Win7 will cease as they have for XP. Then it may be time to consider Linux, but not yet. Linux is still too geeky and too likely to fail. I keep hoping it will finally stabilize into a unified, reliable operating system, but it hasn't yet.

If you feel you must update to Win10, I recommend two programs: Classic Shell gives you back a useful Start menu, and Unlocker gives you a tool that makes it possible to delete "modern" apps in spite of MS's attempts to make it impossible to do so.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

On sexual politics, religion and Sci-Fi

There has been an open dispute in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy community about openness. The Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies contend that the community is too politically correct, causing it to overlook some authors whose work is otherwise meritorious. If this was their only point, their arguments might have some merit. What bothers me specifically is, in this supposedly Christian group, their prejudice against gays. I realize Brad Torgersen is Mormon which some people do not consider Christian, but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints says it follows Jesus teachings, so I include him as Christian also. And what did Jesus say about homosexuality? Nothing. That's right, nothing. Paul mentions it three times in Epistles, but Jesus, never.

Christians like to selectively pick and choose the sections of the Bible they want to believe in. They will point to the verses in Leviticus that say gay sex is punishable by death but overlook where Exodus allows you to sell your daughter into slavery, or Leviticus injunction to put fortune tellers to death, or Exodus statement that any man who strikes his mother or father should be put to death, or Leviticus where simply cursing mother or father is worthy of death, or Deuteronomy where conversion is grounds for death, or in Exodus death for not keeping the Sabbath. As that goes, most Christians keep Sunday as the day of rest although the Bible explicitly states it's Saturday (Sunday was chosen to co-opt the worshipers of Mithras, an early rival to Christianity). Most Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter although both of these are, again, held on pagan feast days as a means of co-opting their worshipers; but they don't celebrate Passover, Tabernacles, Day of Atonement or any of the other of the seven feast days expressly called for in the Bible. So if you're being selective, why not select to ignore what Jesus ignored? Jesus, as stated before, said nothing about homosexuality, but Jesus did say that "prostitutes and tax collectors will enter the kingdom of God before you" (referring to the Chief Priests) (Matt. 21:31) and Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners (Matt 9:10-11, Mark 2:13-17). So I doubt if Jesus would have ostracized gays. Rather, I think if he were around today, he'd be more likely to have dinner with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (who do wonderful charitable work, in drag) than the Christian right. Amen.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Lessons of life

Recent events have me thinking about the important lessons we only take to heart after the bad breaks in life. My wife, Joy, has cancer. The oncologist says it's chronic. How precious time is only lifts to consciousness when it is limited. Currently, the cancer is under control, but it could, as it has several time in the last few years, pop up in new places requiring yet more debilitating treatments. For now, we have a quiet summer to watch the bees fly, harvest honey and fruit and enjoy the delights of coastal northern California.

A friend and fellow Writers of the Future winner, Tina Gower, had a tragedy in her family. Her parents house burned down. No one was injured. All that was lost were material possessions. Her response to the tragedy, Memories don't burn is a reminder of how unimportant the "things" we obsess about truly are. She is turning the experience positive with #100DaysofGoodKarma.

Time is short — write, read, love.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Visiting my target audience

I'm working on a young adult novel and have been for about a year and a half. I started two Novembers ago during NaNoWriMo (see my post from Dec. 21, 2012) creating a base story of 45,000 words which I built on. Last November (Dec. 4, 2013 post) I added another 57,000 words to it. The story has gone through two alpha readers who are middle school teachers (thanks Deborah and Lisa) and two critique groups. All have helped me refine the story.

Recently I got an exceptional opportunity — one of my middle school teacher friends offered to let her class read the first two parts of my book and comment on it. Here was my target audience. I jumped at the chance. With more than a little trepidation, I finally got to meet a dozen sixth through eighth graders who had read my book. The experience could not have been more pleasant. The young readers proved intelligent, insightful and as nice a group of people as I could have ever wanted to meet. I left the two meetings I had with them energized and impressed with the young people in my region. Perhaps Humboldt county grows a better, nicer, more involved youth. If so, it's all the more reason to be truly glad I live here. It was a wonderful experience and I thank them for their help and cooperation.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Follow-up on Self-publishing

Once you have your book in epub form, publishing it on all of the major outlets is pretty much a snap, so my novel with an alternate view of the Rapture and Tribulation, The Remnant is now available on Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Kobo, and in print at Amazon. We shall see how it does.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Venturing into Self-publishing

Well, I did it. I entered the wonderful world of self-publishing. My second novel (let's not even get started about the first one which does still exist in two hand-written notebooks) has been sitting on my hard drive for a couple of years, untouched. After eight years of work, I just couldn't chuck it, so I decided to put it on the market and see what happens. This, of course, required converting it into a format that the dear folks at Amazon would accept.

There are entire books written on this subject and I picked up a few of them. I won't try here to go into all of the detail, but will give you a taste of what the process was like. I started with an MS Word file with the entire manuscript in it. As is probably true of most manuscript files like this, it was messy. A few of the pubs that talk about formatting for ebooks suggest that you copy and paste the entire text into a new file omitting all formatting (in Word, do a Paste Special, paste as plain text). This might work if you haven't used italics or bold text much, but otherwise, you're going to have a heck of a time putting all that formatting back. I didn't do this. What I did do was go to the Format menu and select Styles & Formatting to open the style sidebar and then use a special function in Word (I'm still using Office XP, so the commands may be different in 2007 and 2013) that allows you to "Select text with similar formatting". Once selected, the text could be quickly changed to the style I wanted.

This is crucial. All the converters work from the Style of a paragraph. So all of your text paragraphs should have the "normal" style and all of your chapter headings should be in one of the "Heading" styles. Getting the text paragraphs into "normal" style required doing the "Select text with similar formatting" and scrolling through the entire document looking for paragraphs that were not selected. Then I would do the "Select..." on that paragraph and change all paragraphs like it to "normal". Occasionally, I would come across a paragraph that was "normal" with something else added. Just clicking "normal" in the styles didn't change these. To get them to be just "normal" I had to change them to an entirely different style and then change them back to "normal".

Chapter and section headings had to be done manually. I scrolled through the document, put the cursor in the heading and chose one of the "Heading" styles. I had four different levels of headings: Parts 1-3, Chapters, Years, and locations. Each of these used a different level of heading. The three parts of the book were done in "Heading1". The Chapters were in "Heading2" etc. It is important to use "Heading1" not "H1" because some of the conversion programs don't handle them interchangeably.

Once you've standardized the formatting of your document, you need to save it in ".docx" format. If you're not using the latest version of Word, there is a converter you can add to Word 2000/XP/2003 that will do the conversion. Search for "Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack" to get it. It's free.

The last thing you need before conversion is a cover for your book. I used a graphic of a painting by 16th century artist Hieronymus Bosch. Make sure any art you use is in the public domain or purchase it. There are several sites on the web where you can buy the rights to a wide variety of photographs and drawings for prices in the range of $50. With my ancient copy of Paint Shop Pro, I added the title and my name to the picture. That completed the cover for the ebook.

From this point, you need to get some conversion software. If you want to do the conversion process the cheapest possible way, you will need to download "Calibre". Calibre is free. It will catalog all the ebooks on your drive, has a reader, and performs conversions from various formats. The conversion process is fairly straight-forward. My problem with this software was that it didn't incorporate the cover into the format for Amazon (.mobi). It did incorporate it into the format that is the standard for everyone else (.epub). Later, I found I could have used the .epub file and Amazon would have converted it for me. As such, I recommend Calibre.

I did try another piece of software, Jutoh. Jutoh costs $39 and has a few bells and whistles that Calibre doesn't. It also has one drawback, it has a far less intuitive interface for creating the internal Table of Contents for the book than Calibre does. Calibre allows you to designate three levels of heading for your Table of Contents while Jutoh only lets you designate one. Jutoh will let you create a perfectly formatted Table of Contents that is placed inside the text, but the one the reader gets when they press the Table of Contents icon on their reader is lame. What Jutoh did do correctly was incorporate the book cover into the .mobi file, so I went with a lame Table of Contents that points to the internal Table of Contents. I hope Jutoh clears this up some day. Their product is otherwise excellent and they respond quickly to email questions.

Once the files are finished, you need to create an account on Kindle Direct Publishing and fill in all of the forms. It costs nothing. You can also get the book into print through their Createspace service. This is also free, including the ISBN which would, otherwise, cost you $125. Do the ebook first and you'll get an invitation for Creatspace.

I won't try to tell you the process was without frustration. I spent over a week on it part time. I could probably do another one in a couple of days now that I've got the hang of it. It is simple enough for someone with only a good working knowledge of MS Word to do, so don't spend your money having a service do it when you may never get that cost back. Remember, for every book that makes it in the virtual world, there are hundreds that never see a sale.

And in case you're wondering, my novel, The Remnant, is now available.