Sunday, June 19, 2011

Curse of the Computer Gods

You know, the hardware gods hate me.

I currently have 7 corrupted hard drives with valuable data on them, two dead laptops and one I’m trying to reinstall to, and any number of other bits and pieces I’m too afraid to throw away.  I’m sort of getting tired of recreating files at this point.

I’ve started saving my data on Dropbox to help alleviate this.  These days, everyone wants you to store your data “in the cloud”; I’m a little leery of that overall, but the nice thing about Dropbox is that it stores your data in the cloud and on your local machines.  All of them, even.  So even if the Dropbox folks disappear tomorrow (which is always a problem with these ventures), I’ll still have multiple copies of it.  That beats my old solution, which was bidirectional sync’ing with Unison.  Which worked okay, but it was a pain in the ass if you made changes to the same file in two different places, and it doesn’t work at all if you can’t get Unison installed on a machine.  Another nice thing about Dropbox is, worse comes to worst, you can always use a browser to get at your stuff.  Of course the downside is that you have to have enough local storage space on every machine to hold all your stuff, but hard disks are cheap.  About the only thing I can’t reasonably put on Dropbox right now is my music.  I’d have to pay for the premium service to fit my 25Gb of MP3’s there, and I’d have to have 25Gb of space lying around on all my machines.  Which is problematic.  On the upside, I can get to my files from my phone, even.  So that’s nice.

Still not sure what to do about the music.  Amazon has a music vault service, but it has limited space, and you have to use their proprietary programs to upload and to download.  Not a very good option.  Google supposedly has a similar option, but too similar to be any better.  There are also streaming options like Subsonic, but the way they work is to stream your music off one server (which must always be available) which you can then access from other servers.  Moderately convenient, but it doesn’t solve the problem of what happens if the hard drive on that server bites the dust.

I also have several external hard drives, including two Passports.  They’re convenient, but I don’t want to have to lug drives around with me everywhere I go, and it still doesn’t solve the problem of what happens when the drive goes belly up.  Or when technology outpaces it: I have another pretty hefty USB hard drive that none of the newer computers I try it on will read.  Sort of like all those Jaz disks I have that I’ll never see the data on again.

And don’t even get me started on the tape drives.

I’m a technology guy.  I’ve been programming professionally for more than half my life; casually for nearly 75% of it.  I’ve built my own machines, installed hardware in everything from laptops to servers, even worked as a hardware technician for a while in my youth.  And I still hate dealing with hardware.  As a programmer, if there’s some piece of software I’m missing, I can always write it.  Now, granted, I may not be willing to write it; there are many classes of programs—hardware drivers, GUI applications, music players, spreadsheets, etc—that I wouldn’t bother wasting my time trying to create.  But I could write them if I wanted to, if I had the will and the gumption and the time.  But if there’s a piece of hardware that I’m missing, I have little choice but to go out and buy it.  And, even if I had a degree in Electrical Engineering and the brains (and will and gumption and time) to put together my own circuit boards, I’d still have to go out and buy the components.  You can create software from nothing.  Hardware requires stuff.  That’s why it frustrates me.

And the stuff is always changing.  I long ago gave up trying to keep track of all the latest technologies.  Many technogeeks (including many of my friends) do so, of course.  It’s like being a car guy and knowing what all the latest engine technologies and all that are coming out.  You can know all that cool stuff if you really want to, but it requires a significant investment of time and effort, and I just don’t have the patience for it.  Besides, I can just ask my friends and cheese off the time and effort they’ve already put into it.

The Internet (and, more recently, the “cloud”) have promised us a new technology life, a life free from the concerns of operating system or CPU.  We’re getting to that point, but we’re not there yet.  I’m looking forward to it, myself; we’re a multi-OS family around here, and, at any given time, there are several Linux machines, Windows machines, and Macs floating around the house.  I mostly like to work on Linux, but I’ll admit that its desktop apps have always lagged behind the Redmond giant.  I despise Windows, but there are some Microsoft products I like: Excel, for instance, pounded the nails in the coffin of Lotus 1-2-3 with both authority and flair.  Word’s always been a bit of a bloated whore, but Excel has always been a slick app, and, while Google Spreadsheets has managed to recreate some of its flash—and even surpassed it in a few small ways—honestly, it still lacks a lot of Excel’s magic.  And, of course, there are still programs that just only work on Windows, although those are growing fewer and fewer with the passing of the years.  Mostly it’s specialty programs, such as the excellent mapping program for one of my favorite hobbies.  So I like to have some Windows machines around.  And, while I’ve never been able to make myself love the Mac the way many have (primarily because it’s not keyboard-friendly enough for me—which is really an understatement: Macs are downright keyboard-hostile), I’ll admit to occasionally envying its ease of hardware use and a few of its programs (I’d love to be able to produce presentations in Keynote, for instance).  So why shouldn’t I be able to have all three operating systems running?  And be able to access the majority of my useful files from any of them?

I think we’ll get there eventually.  For now, I still feel like I spend just as much time configuring computers as I do using them, which pisses me off.  But that’s my curse.  I have offended the gods of hardware, and they do exact their price.  Perhaps I’ll go sacrifice a chicken.  Or a lolcat.  Something.

(In case it wasn’t obvious, I’ve spent most of the day reinstalling my laptop and didn’t really have time for a proper post.  So you got this crap instead.  See title of blog.)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Family Ties

Got some family stuff going on today, so no blog post for you. So sad, I know.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Diamond Flame

In my very first post I explained why you should not read this blog, but, in case you don’t want to go back and read that, I’ll recap it for you: blogs are full of other people’s crappy opinions, and mine is certainly no different.  But every once in a while I take a break from regaling you with my crappy opinions and write some fiction instead.  If there were a reason to read this blog (and I’m not saying there is), it would have to be for the fiction, assuming that sort of thing appeals to you.

I’ve been blithely rambling on for about 13 “chapters” now (although admittedly they’re mostly arbitrary divisions) without ever once explaining what the thing was supposed to be, so I thought I’d take a moment to do that.  The explanation is a bit late at this point, but perhaps I’ll go back and put a link to this post on each of the chapter parts so people won’t have to wonder what the hell is going on if they stumble into the middle of it.

Spoiler-free short version:  The fiction is basically a novel, called The Diamond Flame, and it’s meant to be the first in a series of books about a boy named Johnny Hellebore.  I won’t go into any details about who he is or what happens to him (that’s the joy of reading, I think), but let me offer a few similar titles so that you can judge if the thing is your cup of tea or not.  In rereading the content (which I do quite often), I would say the book is most similar to novels such as The Talisman or Shadowland, or possibly the (still ongoing) series Abarat, although I’ve heard Barker intended Abarat to be his Eyes of the Dragon, so to speak, which would make that a poorer comparison.  (Note that these three titles are penned by three of what I refer to as the pentagram of my literary idols.)  Specifically, it is designed as adult fiction, and definitely not children’s fare like Harry Potter or Perseus Jackson, although it has some similarities to those series as well.

The longer version would be this.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer.  Since I was very young, I can remember writing stories.  I was actually never very good at telling stories, but I always tried to write them.  Longhand in notebooks, or on my grandmother’s manual typewriter—it didn’t much matter, I just wanted to write.  Once I got a computer, I started using that, and that’s how I write exclusively these days.  I wrote a lot of short stories, some of which are decent, although none of them are really good, and I started at least two novels that I can recall.  But I never published any of my fiction, and I still haven’t.  Now I’m over 40, and I suppose there’s at least an even chance that I never will.  But I also firmly believe in never giving up your dreams, so perhaps someday ...

Then again, maybe this is just my personal mid-life crisis.

There are two primary reasons that I never pursued my dream of becoming a writer.  The first is that I became a programmer.  Now, Stephen King once said (as apparently Somerset Maugham did before him) that you don’t become a writer because you want to; you become a writer because you have to ... because, if you didn’t write down all the stuff trying to burst out of your brain, your head would just explode.  I think that’s true, but perhaps too specific.  A creative outlet is required for a creative person, but it does not necessarily have to be the first thing that you fixate on.  We see this all the time, with singers who take up acting, actors who take up singing, directors who take up painting, ad infinitum.  I’m just a writer who took up programming.  And don’t let anyone ever tell you that programming is all logical and not creative.  That’s bullshit.  Writing a software program is like writing a story in many ways: you start with nothing, and then you create, trying different approaches, experimenting with different techniques, and, in the end, there is something.  Sometimes it’s beautiful.  More often it’s just adequate.  But, either way, it’s yours, and you made it, and you’ll always feel a bit proud of it, even if you know you could have done better.

So my creative urges found an outlet, in an unlikely place.  I actually only took up programming because I was decent at it, and I figured it was a great way to make money while I became a famous writer.  And then I ended up running my own software company for 12 years.  Funny how those things work out.

But probably the more important reason why I never became a writer is that I never had a great idea.  Oh, I had several good ones; just never a great one.  I was always a good writer, if I do say so myself, but pretty writing without decent ideas behind them isn’t very publishable.  In fact, you’re better off if you have good ideas and can’t write worth a damn.  My own idol King was recently criticized for noting that this was true of Stephanie Meyer; I’ll agree with him and go even further and call out another very popular author, Charlaine Harris.  In my opinion, neither Meyer nor Harris writes particularly well, but I’ll freely admit to being jealous of their brilliant ideas.  I only wish I had come up with something as innovative as either of these ladies.  But, alas, I never have.

Until, perhaps, recently.

One day about a year or so ago, I woke up from an unlikely afternoon nap with my younger son to find a picture in my mind: a picture of a teenage boy, dark-haired, slightly ragged-looking, and I knew his name was Johnny Hellebore.  And I became fascinated with this character.  The name alone was classic, in some sense ... a name worthy of a comic book hero, reminiscent of both Johnny Blaze and Daimon Hellstrom.  I had no idea who this boy was, or why he had invaded my light dozing, or—assuming he was a comic book hero—what sort of powers he might have.  But he kept running around my brain, and he soon acquired a companion: Larissa, a little girl who had first appeared in a D&D campaign I ran in the early 90’s.  Then followed a few more half-dreams about Johnny (and occasionally Larissa), and then a few more dreams which weren’t really about those characters at all, but somehow seemed that they might be shoehorned in nonetheless, and then I was writing little scenes and vignettes, completely disconnected, and then ...

And then I started a blog, for some insane reason, and suddenly there was a place to actually put all this stuff I was writing.  Of course, that required making some sort of coherent whole out of it.  So that’s what I set about doing.  Most of the content of this “novel” is really just me writing my way from one scene to another, trying to make them all fit together.  I think I’ve achieved some amount of success with this.  In fact, I suspect—although of course I may be wrong—that this may be the best thing I’ve ever written.

So, if you think this is something you might be interested in, I encourage you to start at the beginning.  Feel free to backtrack occasionally; you may find that I’ve gone back and revised things slightly (mostly for grammar and phrasing, not so much for content).  Each post has a link at the top to the previous entry, and one at the bottom for the next entry, so it should be moderately easy to navigate through it.  And, every now and again, I post a new half a chapter or so.  You can also find other posts like this one—me writing about the process of writing—by searching for the “metafiction” tag.  If you find any of this entertaining, feel free to post a comment.  I know, I know: I keep telling you not to read this blog.  But this novel just may constitute an exception to that.

Happy reading.