23 November 2014

Saving the dog

Sometimes you come across a book that is so transformative to the way you approach your craft, that you wonder how you got so far without having read it. For my day job, that book was Thinking in Java, by Bruce Eckel. It completely changed the way I looked at software development, and to some extent, defined my career for the next decade. For my other career as a writer, that book was Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder. I ran across a mention of this book on a writing blog a week or so ago, and decided to give it a try. I was hooked within the first dozen pages. Although geared towards screenwriting, the concepts Snyder outlines are, for the most part, directly transferable to the the world of genre fiction, in which I play. From the eponymous Save the Cat technique, where the writer gives the reader (or viewer) a reason to bond with the protagonist to the deep-dive on story beats to the criticality of being able to describe what your idea is, in only a few words, he de-mystifies all the techniques I knew from my experience writing (plus a bunch I had never thought of), but had never been able to fully articulate. Now I can.

In software development, when you know something is wrong but can’t figure out what it is, you often say the code smells bad. Sometimes you can fix it, but often all you can do is spray some perfume on the project and hope no one notices the festering odor of decay until you get a patch release out the door. As an engineer, I despise doing this, but as a pragmatist, I understand the necessity of shipping something you can fix later rather than toiling forever. As an author, I don’t have this luxury. My work has to be perfect - or as near to perfect as I can make it - every single time. You’d be shocked at the number of fifteen to twenty-thousand words stories littering my hard drive - novels that went nowhere, short stories that meandered into novella-land before choking to death on their own overwrought narrative before I finally pulled the plug. As I read Save the Cat, I couldn’t help but reflect on these stillborn efforts, and for almost every single one, I was able to identify critical points where I had deviated from the guidance in Snyder’s book. Face meet palm.

So what do I do with this newfound knowledge? Good question. I’m seriously tempted to try my hand at a screen play - just for the hell of it. But I probably won’t. Not yet, at least. First, I want to try to resurrect one of my zombie stories (sorry - not really a zombie story), and with a little help from the techniques I learned in Save the Cat, I think I may actually be able to finally answer the elusive question that killed the project the first time around - what is it? Stay tuned to see if it works.

Oh yeah - about the title of this post. If you want to see a textbook application of Saving the Cat, go see The Drop with Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini. This film hits on every one of Snyder’s principles, from the glaringly obvious (Rocco, anyone?) to the more subtle points. I’m not a big fan of mob-movies, but this one really worked for me, and now I know why.



28 October 2014

Bicycle Commuting: Getting Ready

Last month, for a variety of reasons, I decided to make a serious effort to start bicycle commuting to my day job. I’ve always been a cyclist, and I have the good fortune of living at the end of a relatively flat nine mile bike path that connects my home to my place of employment. The only problem was, I didn’t have a good bike for the job. So, much to my wife’s chagrin, I started searching for another bike to add to my growing collection. Keep in mind that when I started looking, I already had three bikes in my house - my 2011 Cannonade SuperSix (LOVE, LOVE this bike), a Unicycle (a story for another day), and a Dawes SST three-speed I purchased a couple of years ago. My criteria for this new commuter rig were simple:

  • Plenty of gears (18+)
  • Room for wide tires (700x28 at a minimum)
  • Eyelets for racks
  • Neutral steering (the opposite of the SuperSix, which is the epitome of twitchy)
  • Bomb-proof

After extensive research (well, not really - I sort of already knew the answer), I decided a cyclocross bike would be the best fit for my needs. Keep in mind, I have no intention of racing cyclocross. I raced offered in college and HATED it. But cross bikes are built to take a fair amount of abuse and the cockpit and controls are similar that of my SuperSix, plus they nail all my other requirements.
I began my search with the intention of finding something used - maybe a nice Surly Cross Check, or even a Kona Jake, but I kept on running into problems with budget. Since this was my fourth bike and my second attempt at becoming a bike commuter (another long story), I was reluctant to pour too much money into the effort up front. With budget in mind, I decided to take a look at bikesdirect.com to see if they had anything that would work for me. And lo and behold, they did. After throwing out discs brakes as being overkill for Tucson, I settled on the Motobecane Fantom CX. Now, anyone who is remotely familiar with bikesdirect.com knows the Motobecane they sell are not the Motobecane of old. These are cheap, Chinese bikes with a modest mix of components and relatively heavy frames. But the price was right - only $469.

Here’s what I ended up with:


I had to make a few small modifications to the bike to adapt it for my riding style, including:

Here’s a shot of the Tektro brake triangle, which replaced the crappy unadjustable stock piece:


And here’s a front view - I LOVE the stock inline brakes for dealing with traffic! BTW - the light is a NiteRider Lumia 700. It has a cool blinky mode to make me more visible to oncoming traffic.



So far, I love the Fantom CX. The ride quality is pretty much what I expected - neutral handling, but a little stiff because of the aluminum frame. This may be remedied with a carbon fork in the future. After my small upgrades on the braking system, the bike stops a million times better than what came out of the box. Would I buy it again? Hell yeah! For $469 for a brand new bike + another $200 in new rubber, a rack, and saddlebags, I can’t imagine finding a better deal.


27 September 2014

Missile Silos Galore!

If you've read any of my books, you already know that nuclear annihilation is a recurring theme. From Kurt Vetter trying to stop Moscow from going up in flames in The Patriot Paradox to bat-shit crazy Betty Hollister raining destruction on the zombie hordes in Fire, I return to the subject on a regular basis. I find the idea of nukes to be one of the most terrifying things I can contemplate - maybe even more so than zombies.

When my wife and I moved to Tucson several years ago, I was thrilled to learn there was a nearby Titan missile silo that had been preserved as a museum. For years now, I've been planning to visit, but life always got in the way. That all changed last weekend though, when my wife mentioned she wanted to get out of the city for the day and do something different. This was my chance. And here are the results:

We started our day with Google Earth. A friend had recently mentioned, over dinner, that the museum was actually part of a network of former missile silos located around the city, and that if you did a little digging, you could find the other decommissioned sites. It didn't take me long to find this KMZ:



There are eighteen sites in total. Holy crap! Since I live on the east side of Tucson, I decided to start with the closest one, which is #5. We jumped into my wife's Jeep and took off. Twenty minutes later, we were there. We were kind of far away, so you can't really tell what you're looking at, but the metal dome is supposedly the roof of the command capsule - the shock isolated underground structure where the people who waited for launch orders sat and waited. I think the round structures may be old stairwells. There's a big rectangular low spot, off to the right, where I believe is the former silo was. Everything is supposedly filled with concrete now, part of the destruction process carried out when the missiles were decommissioned.


As you can see, there's graffiti all over the place. I guess I'm not the only one who shares this fascination.

Next stop was the Titan Missile Museum, in Green Valley...

Here's the control room. 


The tunnel (on springs, like a giant slinky) connecting the control room with the actual missile.


The Titan II Missile from inside the silo


And last, but not least, the Titan II from above

If you're ever in the area - run, do not walk, to this museum. It's that good. I left at the end of the day with a whole new appreciation for the insanity of the cold war. The engineering required to stuff a rocket of this size in a hole in the desert floor is just ridiculous. Not to mention that it carried a nine megaton warhead, which is enough firepower (with an airburst at optimal height) to knock down buildings NINE MILES AWAY. Absolutely insane.

17 August 2014

Getting the words out: One man's path to his first novel

From George R. R. Martin and his love of WordStar to Stephen King's first draft of Dreamcatcher written with a fountain pen, we all have our own ways of getting the words out of our heads and onto the page. My friend Kevin Schwartz is in the process of fulfilling his lifelong dream of writing a novel, and after speaking with him about it, I asked him if he'd be interested in writing a few words about his process. As a busy guy with two young children and a demanding full-time job, he's come up with a system that works really well for his lifestyle.



Kevin Schwartz, 2014

  A year or so ago, after decades of being a fairly avid reader, I ventured into the world of writing. What, at the age of fifty, possessed me to jump into the  deep end of life? I wish I had a compelling story, like a flash of lightning delivering an inspirational message from a superior being. The boring truth is, I thought it would be cool to write a book, to be an author.  This notion gained steam as I found myself thinking, while trudging through some mediocre books, I can write a better story than this
    Choosing a medium for development became a priority. I have a laptop at home, but it's a family computer, monopolized by my kids' game playing. I wanted something portable and lightweight. I didn't want to be schlepping around a laptop. I'm someone who, when flying cross country for a week- long trip, will stuff all my clothes into a duffle bag I can carry onboard. Simplicity is a key factor in most decisions I make. I went with an iPad Mini. Depending upon the pants - jeans, most shorts: No;  cargo pants, dress pants: Yes - it fits in my pocket. since my iPad is always with me, i'm always ready to write. Short bursts of writing time add up. Waiting for an oil change, a doctor to see you, even a red light to turn green while driving, are opportunities to get some words in. When at home, I do my writing in my recliner in my bedroom, often with music piping through headphones.
    A friend of mine, accomplished author William Esmont, turned me on to some writing apps. WriteRoom is my world for content development. There are other iOS writing apps, like Pages and My Writing Desk, but for pure blank-slate, full screen, chapter organized, development, WriteRoom is great. It has an I-can't-live-without feature, something the other iOS apps don't have, which is DropBox integration. My only couple of wish list items I'd like to see incorporated are Emphasis support (italics, bolding, ...) and a searching capability. Another useful app is SimpleMind+, which is a visual mind mapping tool. 
    My productivity increased greatly after purchasing a bluetooth keyboard for my iPad Mini. The out-of-the-box internal keyboard has two major deficiencies. The first is that the keys are too close together, making it impossible to place your fingers onto the home row.  You're forced into the old hunt and peck, one or two finger, style of typing. I progressed to the point where I was typing fairly quickly, but not nearly as quickly (or eloquently) as on a more traditional keyboard. The second shortcoming associated with intensive typing on the iPad Mini keyboard is comfort. With the keyboard physically part of the monitor, there are two basic options: prop up the device on one of the several iPad mini cases which double as a stand. This could lead to carpal tunnel syndrome, as your wrists aren't properly supported. Option number two, lying the device flat on its back, results in an inferior viewing experience - looking downward is more taxing on your neck than looking straight ahead, as you're afforded with upright monitors. 
    I imagine experienced and published writers are authoring away in productive and comfortable writing environments, using sophisticated tools like Scrivener and Microsoft Word, working on desktops, laptops, or large-screened tablets such as the Microsoft Surface Pro 3. This is likely the domain of veterans, and admittedly a preferable platform for serious writing. If my first book takes off, enabling me to quit my day job as a Software Engineer, I would setup an office in my home, for a more advanced experience. For now, though, I'm doing just fine with my iPad Mini.


02 August 2014

Save $3! - the Elements of the Undead #zombie omnibus is on #sale for the next several days!




This omnibus combines the first three Elements of the Undead books in a single volume.

Book One - Fire

When Megan Pritchard clocks in for her late night shift in a Nevada brothel, she has no way of knowing it will be her last. Around the world, the dead are rising, and mankind is on the express train to extinction. As her coworkers turn into cannibalistic zombies, Megan is forced to flee into the desert with nothing but the clothes on her back and a vague plan to reach her sister in southern Arizona.

Book Two - Air

When the dead rise in Houston, Dave and Chris Thompson find themselves stranded on the top floor of the Liberty Medical Center, with nowhere to run and no help in sight. With Dave's broken leg making movement impossible and the disintegration of civilization accelerating around them, they have to act fast, or be consumed by the seething horde below.

Book Three - Earth

It’s been three years since the undead dragged mankind kicking and screaming from the top of the food chain and sent him scurrying into the dark corners of a dead world.

For a beleaguered band of survivors in southern Arizona, life is about to go from bad to worse. The rains have failed and, they have no choice but to leave the safety of their home in search of water. But before they can make their move, they must face a new threat from the undead, a threat beyond anything in their worst nightmares.


** If you enjoy the series, be sure to check out Coop, the latest addition to the world of the Elements of the Undead!

21 June 2014

My Garmin vivofit just became a whole lot more useful :)

A couple of months ago, I wrote this review of my new Garmin vivofit. My only complaint at the time was the lack of integration with sites like MyFitnessPal. No more. I'm happy to report that as of some time this week, vivofit data now syncs through Garmin Connect to MyFitnessPal.

Here's a shot of the Garmin Connect app from the App Marketplace in MyFitnessPal.

I've compared the numbers to those I was calculating manually, and they seem to be close enough that I'm going to trust them. This means that for me, the vivofit has just become the perfect fitness tracker!