Monday, 9 October 2017

08:44 – It was 68.0F (20C) when I got up this morning at at 0620, pouring down rain. It was 0730 before the rain slacked off enough to take Colin out. We’ve had 4.6 inches (11.7 cm) so far, and it’s still drizzling, with heavier rains forecast for later today and tomorrow.

Barbara made a skillet dinner last night with Costco sausage, macaroni, and a jar of Classico spaghetti sauce. I washed out that jar, of course, and will use it for repackaging LTS food.

Not for canning food, though. The Classico jars look like canning jars. They even have “Atlas Mason” and a graduated scale molded into the glass. But they are most definitely not actual canning jars, and everyone from Classico themselves to the Center for Home Food Preservation says not to use them for canning, particularly pressure-canning. Here’s an article that summarizes everything you need to know about re-using commercial glass food jars as canning jars.

In short, don’t do it. You may get away with it, and if the lid seals the food will be safely preserved. The big issue is that both failed seals and broken jars are likely, particularly if you pressure-can rather than use a boiling water bath. It’s simply not worth taking the chance of spoiled food, broken glass, and so on to save the relatively small cost of a real canning jar.


Since 2014, I’ve bought (at a guess) three or four dozen boxes of Krusteaz Cinnamon Crumb Cake. We’re now down to whatever’s left in the kitchen pantry–maybe three boxes–and I don’t intend to buy any more. We like the stuff well enough, but when Barbara made one yesterday I commented that I liked the chocolate pan cake we make up from scratch just as well or better. She feels the same, so no more Krusteaz cake mix. That, and the fact that the price has increased from $2.14/box to $3.58/box. We can make it ourselves exclusively from stuff in our LTS pantry, and make it a lot cheaper.

The same thing is true of the Krusteaz pancake mix, which I’d bought in 10-pound bags. (The price on that has jumped from about $8/bag to about $10/bag.) We have everything we need in LTS to make pancakes from scratch, so why bother paying more for the pre-mixed stuff?

As we’ve been cooking more and more from scratch, one of the things we’ve discovered is that (usually) it doesn’t take any longer starting with discrete components than it does to start with a mix. And having those discrete components gives us much more flexibility. The only thing we can make with a box of Krusteaz cinnamon crumb cake mix is a cinnamon crumb cake. But we can use the discrete components to make up literally dozens of different things. It costs less, it takes little or no more time, and the shelf life of our stored raw materials is essentially unlimited, which can’t be said for mixes stored in cardboard boxes.

I’m thinking about doing the same thing to replace our stored stock of soups as we use them. Although a can of soup doesn’t cost much, and Sam’s (and presumably Costco) still sells Campbell Cream of Mushroom or Chicken for about $9/10-pack, Walmart, Amazon, and other vendors are typically up around $1.50/can or higher. That’s maybe five times what it costs to make them up on-the-fly. I have a recipe for Cream of (fill-in-the-blank) soup, and it’s pretty simple. Just make up a rue with butter (or butter powder and oil or shortening) and flour and stir in the name ingredient. It takes five minutes, and we can do that while we’re standing in the kitchen working on other parts of the meal. And, once again, that gives us a lot more flexibility.


I’m still working on my post-apocalyptic novel, but it’s a matter of an hour here and 15 minutes there, as I can find the time. I just fixed something in it yesterday. Amateur radio plays a small part in the novel, and I’d been trying to come up with decent fake call signs.

I was going to use my old call sign that I had back in the 60’s, because the FCC has completely forgotten that I ever had a licence back then. The problem is that that call sign is now showing up in the database as unassigned, which means the FCC could end up assigning it to a real person. For obvious reasons, I didn’t want to do that.

What I really needed was a ham radio equivalent of the hokey 555 telephone exchange that’s always used in TV shows and movies to provide non-working fictional telephone numbers. Unfortunately, there’s no such range for amateur radio call signs.

I’d never seen the TV series Last Man Standing, but an Internet search turned up the fact that Tim Allen’s character is a ham radio operator, and the show’s producers ran into the same problem I did. They wanted a real-sounding call sign, but found only one way to do that. They made his call sign KA0XTT, which looks kind of like a real ham call sign, except that the X in that position indicates an experimental station and would never be assigned to a real ham operator.

I briefly considered using strings that could never be assigned to a real ham, like K33RTK. The problem with that is that any reader who had any knowledge of ham radio would be jarred by such a fake call sign, probably enough to knock himself out of the story. I don’t want any clangers like that, so I ended up using the X the same way that Tim Allen’s producers used it.

The next issue I had to fix was when news reports of the Las Vegas Massacre revealed that the shooter had used a bump-fire stock. Shit. I’d already written a section that had one of the main characters mentioning the three Slide Fire stocks he’d bought recently for his family’s AR-15’s, and how they were completely legal. So I rewrote that to have him buying them years before and paying literal cash so there was no record of the transaction.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

08:06 – It was 57.1F (14C) when I took Colin out at 0635, partly cloudy.

Bad news about the little Malamute, whom I’ve decided to call Bella for short. One of my vendors sent me samples of a couple of learning aids designed for young children. I had no use for them, so I gave them to Barbara and suggested she donate them to the Friends bookstore or something. She decided to give them to Vickie, our next-door neighbor, to give to her grandchildren.

While she was standing out by the road at Vickie’s, a guy pulled up in a pickup and stopped to talk to her. He was a farmer from down the road, and he’d just lost a dozen of his chickens to the little dog. He was very upset, naturally, and told Barbara he’d already reported it to the sheriff and animal control. I suspect if he sees the dog, he’ll shoot her. If animal control or the sheriff’s deputies catch her, it’ll probably be a one-way trip to the dump.

While they were standing there talking, another woman pulled up. She’d seen the little dog around and said she thought it belonged to a Mexican family that lived in a house behind the trailer park down the road from us. She told them that she thought Mr. Mabe’s wife had been giving her food because she felt sorry for her.

It’s not the dog’s fault, obviously. She’s hungry and she’s just doing what comes naturally. But that won’t matter. Just like any rural area, a destructive dog has a dim future. I told Barbara that I’m going to keep my eye out for her. I’ll catch her if I can, and take her over to the veterinarian that runs an animal shelter/rescue operation. I don’t want to see her killed just because she was hungry.

So, about 1700 yesterday, I managed to lure her into the garage and get the door closed. There she stayed for the next several hours, with us checking on her periodically. When Barbara went out to check on her, she called me from the garage. Bella had climbed up the steel-wire shelving unit against the back garage window, knocking over a case of 18/400 caps on her way up. She was standing on the top shelf, three feet off the floor, looking out the back window. We got her down safely and cleaned up the 8 million or so caps from the garage floor.

Barbara decided to assemble our steel-wire dog crate. We did that and got Bella into it. She showed absolutely no aggression at any point, just extreme skittishness. She doesn’t want to be captured. She lay unprotestingly in the crate for the next couple of hours. She knocked over the bowls of food and water we’d put in the crate, but otherwise there was no problem.

It was pretty warm in the garage. We’d left a fan pointed at the crate, but after we’d gone back to bed, she started yipping and barking. Barbara decided we needed to move the crate out onto the front porch to get her some cool air. That was a mistake. We got the crate with her in it moved onto the corner of the front porch near the garage, but the door latch came loose and Bella made a break for it. We spent the next 45 minutes trying to recapture her. No joy. We finally gave up and went back to bed.

This morning, she wasn’t around when I took Colin out, but she showed up at the front door shortly thereafter. We spent half an hour or so luring her into the house with lunch meat, with Colin penned up in the bedroom. Barbara finally got her into the garage, where she allowed Barbara to get a slip leash on her and get her loaded into the car.

Barbara just took off a few minutes ago, headed to the vet’s office, which has a private animal shelter next door. I’ll call them later on today to see what they can tell me. I want to make absolutely sure they don’t put her down. If they can’t find someone to adopt her, I want to take her back. We’ll find someone, up here or maybe down in Winston, who’ll take her. As a last resort, I’m going to tell Barbara we should take her ourselves.


When we were moving stuff from the upstairs vertical freezer to the downstairs refrigerator yesterday, we were bitten by a task that’s been on our to-do list for a long time that we just haven’t gotten around to doing. That’s reorganizing the LTS food room.

Barbara keeps a “downstairs shopping list” on the refrigerator upstairs, so that when we go down we’ll be able to get what we need to bring up. She did fried rice for dinner Monday night, ran out of sesame oil, and put it on the downstairs shopping list. While we were downstairs I walked into the LTS pantry, intending to pick up a bottle of it to take upstairs. Standing there surrounded by stacks of cans, bottles, and boxes, I realized that I had no clue where exactly the sesame oil was. There should be two 12.5-ounce bottles of it, which I ordered May 2nd from Walmart and which arrived two days later. I remember them arriving. I remember seeing the bottles. I just don’t remember where I put them.

It all started when I was stacking #10 cans of Augason powdered eggs in the downstairs freezer. I remembered that I’d ordered four more cans of these from Walmart.com back on March 2nd. They’d foolishly priced them at $12.99/can. Amazon, of course, had matched that price, but at the time everyone else was selling them for $27 to $30/can. I ordered only four, first because we didn’t need any more than that with what we already had, and second because I didn’t want to make a pig of myself. (Amazon and Walmart are both selling them now at $35+/can.)

So, I was actually in the LTS pantry looking for those four cans of eggs so I could stick them in the freezer. Embarrassingly, among all the other stuff stacked in there, I couldn’t find them. A box of four #10 cans, buried somewhere. Oh, well. I’ll find them.

But that just reinforces that we really, really need to spend a day or two getting the food room reorganized and inventoried. I’m doing that with my new downstairs refrigerator/freezer as I load it. I’ll post a dated inventory list on the door (using Scotch tape because magnets won’t stick to stainless steel…). Just looking at the available space, I’m guessing I can fit maybe 150 cans and jars in there: 28-ounce cans of Keystone canned meats and pint jars of Alfredo sauce.


The other night, a series we’re watching had a character who was a writer suffering from “writer’s block”. I think that’s one of those mythical things that everyone has heard about but no one has actually ever seen. Kind of like a unicorn or a compassionate prog.

Writers write. It’s what we do. Someone who suffers from writer’s block wasn’t actually a writer in the first place. When I sit down at a keyboard, words just flow. If I can’t think of anything to write about, that just means I can’t think, period. In other words, I must be dead.

And I do write. Every day. What you see on this site is just a small fraction of what I write. For example, I’ve mentioned that I’m working on a post-apocalyptic novel, but I haven’t said anything about it lately. I’m currently in first-draft mode, and I’m up to 100,000+ words on it. It’s still a complete mess structurally, but the prose flows. How good it is, I don’t know. I can’t evaluate my own writing any more than any other author can evaluate his.

The problem is, I have so much other stuff going on. I’d like to get the novel finished and up on Amazon, but I can spend only an hour here and a couple hours there on it, usually while Barbara is out volunteering or down in Winston. If I were treating fiction writing as a full-time job, I’ve estimated that I could knock out three or four 125,000- to 150,000-word novels per year. Maybe more.

The novel I’m working on now is what some people call “prepper porn”. In other words, it’s very heavy on non-fictional details. Kind of a non-fiction novel, with lists. I will (eventually) post it out for anyone who wants to read it, but I should warn you that so far there are at least a dozen microagressions and three or four triggers.

The main problem I’m having, particularly working on it so sporadically, is not one I foresaw. I have trouble keeping my story straight. What happened when, who’s already there and who hasn’t arrived yet, when events have occurred that impact future events, and so on. Is the neighbor’s first name Tom or Bart? Is the last name of the chairman of the county commissioners Smith or Jones? What day does the electric power and Internet service go down permanently? If it fails on Day 12, it can’t very well still be there for scenes I’ve written that take place after Day 12.

And that’s how I’ve gone about writing what I’ve done so far on this book: writing scenes, which vary in length from a paragraph or even a sentence that I can expand upon later to some scenes that are full chapter length.

For the next novel in the series, if there is one, I’ll know better. I’ll start by sitting down and writing up a detailed timeline, day by day, with a short summary of significant events for that day. That’ll avoid the need for a lot of re-write. I’m embarrassed to admit that I actually had a minor character who was killed one day re-appear several days later, alive and well. Ugh.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

09:19 – We’re to have one nice day today–sunny, little wind, and a high around 64F (18C)–but with a cold front moving in over the next 24 hours. For several days after that, we’re to have highs around freezing, lows in the teens to 20’s (-5C to -8C), and at least some snow and ice.

Barbara got a phone call from Al around 7:30 p.m. yesterday to tell her that their family friend, Gilbert Sloan, had died at 7:04 p.m. He’d been in Hospice, so it wasn’t unexpected. Even so, it was a great loss for Barbara and her sister. They lived next door to the Sloans. When they were young, their mom had significant medical problems and spent a lot of time in the hospital. The Sloans became their surrogate parents, and Barbara and Frances spent a lot of time at the Sloan’s home while their dad was at the hospital with their mom. Cam Sloan is my age, and became like an older brother to the two girls. Barbara is headed down to Winston later this week to attend the service.

* * * * *

About three dozen readers have now requested copies of my book sample, and I’ve gotten feedback from a significant percentage of those. A couple of them said that they’d be interested to see what others thought, so I’m posting anonymous excerpts from several of the feedback emails. There are some common threads running through those.

Good start.

Notes:
1. The chapter after chapter four is labeled three, should be five
2. lots of numbers
3. the conversation seems to “stilted” and that is not the right word
4. lots of details about “stuff”
5. in chapter two, I cannot figure out if the power is up or down when it talks about the well pump, may need something like “the power was up for now but could fail at any minute”. And now I see that you covered that in the 2nd paragraph.
6. It took me a couple of minutes to note that you were switching people at the beginning of each chapter. I need a fairly brutal knock upside the head to realize that the perspective is changing.

* * * * *

Yes Robert, you can certainly write fiction.

Your dialog is off to a good start. It’s a little hard to ‘hear’ the different voices but i have no doubt that will improve.

Reading your first pass was reminiscent of reading Unintended Consequences. I personally enjoyed the deep detail in UC, however it admittedly detracted from the flow of his story. It’s interesting to read about the specific guns (or whatever) and the deeper detail, but that level of detail doesn’t generally move the story forward.

I wouldn’t worry about that much – your preselected audience generally appreciates the detail. If you want to appeal to a broader audience, you might want to lift the degree of detail.

I hope you’ll continue with your fiction efforts. This little taste is better than a lot of the schlock out there already and I am absolutely certain your final efforts will be excellent.

Congratulations on this new endeavor.

* * * * *

I see only one issue with your fiction writing attempt.

You left out the disclaimer:

“Any resemblance between any characters in this novel and any person living or dead is purely coincidental.”

In other words, you need to make up your own characters instead of using people you know.

Reading the snippet of the story, I knew the names of the people who inspired the main characters.

I’m saying you can use a character who is part Nick or a character that is part Dave Hardy, but not just insert them into the novel renamed.

For example a retired Desert Storm veteran/ex-cop might work as a character. His being an alcoholic or recovering alcoholic also might work. But leaving him as a Vietnam veteran or IT worker wouldn’t work.

You could make up a character based on me and I wouldn’t be offended. I’m just too boring to serve as the basis for a character.

[…]

If you write a book, I’ll buy it. But if you can’t master making up characters I wouldn’t write it if I were you.

If I were you, and writing this book, I’d set it in one of the towns you scoped out but didn’t move to, and use a house you looked at there. The main couple should be a little less prepared than you are.

I hope I was just blunt enough to communicate my point without being too blunt.

* * * * *

Yes, you can write fiction. I think it’s a bit heavy on technical detail, it’s fiction, not a prepper manual. I’ll read it again later and come up with more comments.

* * * * *

Great start!
A few comments:
– Ed Burns – USMC and not a prepper? of any kind? food for thought…- Lotsa PHDs…good or bad?- Page 5, Prologue: Maybe a bit too much detail in the second paragraph; one sentence to summarize the type (mac, oats, flakes, etc.) and a total poundage. Maybe turn it into a short discussion with Karen? Can tell you’re a hard-core prepper!- Page 6: continue with fake news and/or media corruption? Closing out the intro?- Page 7, last para: had to look up “dendrochronology”… Maybe drop dates/uber-details and put years/centuries ago-type descriptor? Lotsa details!- Page 9: close out with discussion of local impacts? LDS support? Food/med drives? etc.- Page 13: stray dog? from travelers escaping disaster areas? comments on how to handle stray animals in the future? Possible love interest for Colin? ;-)- Page 17, ???: para continuation – meet & greet; settle down, and brief on situation with potential new housemates.- Page 18, ???: para continuation – Matt & Karen invite Bartletts and discuss logistics to house. Vehicles, seating, gas check, etc.- Page 19, radio gear para: too detailed. Summarize until there is a need later to describe which MHz is needed for what specific situation…- Page 21, gun gear: as an amateur gun guy, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but too many details. Like radio gear, summarize until later…- Page 28, ???: standardize (-ish) everyone’s training to the Gunny’s level is a good idea; gives everyone a common level of knowledge and terminology which helps with imprinting quicker for the new shooters- Page 31, radio call from Ed: maybe reduce to keep simple; “Front watch, four inbound unknown contacts. Repeat, this is front watch with four inbound unknown contacts.” maybe sounds a little military-ish, but…The follow-up transmission is perfect. And it referenced a truck stopping earlier for food; good few paragraphs there for expansion.- Page 32, attack: high number of people in back attack. Good comment about runners being back later; glad you went there.
Can you tell I peer review technical reports and documents for IT? I’m in Federal civil service as a software program manager and retired Air Force E-7/logistics.
Overall, good start. I think you have a lot of details in this rough draft that can be diluted early, and added as needed later. I’ve read several books with waaaay too many details up front from 5.11 pants and the type of Danner boots being worn, but after 3-4 pages of gear talk the person is still standing in the middle of the road surrounded by zombies. If my brain pauses to digest that info, I lose the emotion of the moment of the zombie attack…if that makes any sense.
I really hope you are able to flesh this out into a novel. Your vision of this small piece of the story is excellent and enjoyable to read. I guarantee I’ll drop whatever I’m reading at the time to buy this the day it’s released! And I appreciate you sharing this with us!

* * * * *

I know you only wanted quick feedback so apologies in advance…

The good:

Well written, as I knew it would be, having read several of your non-fiction works and the blog posts for many years. Yes, but can he write fiction?
Absolutely! The dialog is mostly very good (with a couple of easily remedied exceptions below). Plot and character development are such that I want to keep reading even at this rough draft stage. There are issues but definitely keep going – I want more of the story!

The bad:

Some of the dialog is very clumsy. For example, Dr. Smith’s dialog is tedious to read and would have been cut after the 2nd “CE” on any of the
networks. Also Matt’s description of the Bao/Feng radios – this is common to bad PA where catalog descriptions of equipment get detailed in conversations.

Facts/figures: (Disclaimer – I have a geology and several mechanical engineering degrees and have driven over the road trucks). A New Madrid quake would not bother the upper Mississippi river valley. They worry about the New Madrid because it can cause very wide spread, significant damage to much of the Mid West. This is because much of the area is a giant sediment bowl which will shake like jello. This sediment does not extend much into Wisconsin. I live in La Crosse, WI on the east bank of the Mississippi and we sit solidly on bed rock – we would not even be aware of a New Madrid
quake. Interesting fact is that they just built a new bridge here and added traffic control gates at the on ramps. So, even if the upper river bridges were OK, the gov’t would likely be in control of access?
You can’t get 40 tons on an 18 wheeler. Well, you could but you would likely either go to jail or the morgue if you drove it very far. 18
wheelers gross at 80K lbm but the tractor trailer weights ~35K so the max payload is around 45K (call it 22 tons). Not that big a deal, but it sticks out to anyone who has been around trucks as badly as talking about forgetting to move the safety on a Glock to gun people.

It is a bad idea to have both 20 and 12 gage for defense – particularly if you have any break action guns around. And as an avid trap / sporting clays shooter, I can tell you that 90% of the active clays people (at least up here) shoot break action – not 870s. If the women can’t shoot 12 gage, give them 5.56 or something.

Teaming up with cult members: I get it that they are preppers and generally nice people, but they believe some truly wacky chit. It may be an
interesting plot twist to have them start refusing to share/work with the infidels at some point unless the non-believers start wearing magic underwear and reading the teachings of the prophets (just a suggestion). Before you reject this out of hand, consider how strange their world view is during normal times and how it may get much stranger/stronger during what many will consider “end times”.

The Ugly: the battle scene is really bad. Sorry, but I can’t mince words here. This is the type of thing that makes me drop a story toot sweet.
When the good guys all react like battle hardened Marine snipers and the bad guys like brain dead meth addicts, I call BS. No matter how much training and planning goes on, a significant number of good guys will be curled up on the ground screaming for mommy once the real deal starts. All the kills will not be clean – there will likely be people trying to hold their guts in and begging for death, there will likely be IED’s like pipe bombs, Molotov Cocktails, etc. Not only the good guys know how to mix  Styrofoam and gasoline for example.

Well – the good news is I liked it enough to write up this feedback…

* * * * *

I just finished your sample! I graded you an “A” or 95%. My evaluation as a reader rested on three criteria:

1. Does this work tell a story?
2. Is the work believable/plausible?
3. Do i care about the characters and what happens to them?

Hope this confirms what you’ve already decided to do.

Thanks for letting me read it and be a part of something new.

* * * * *

Thanks. A bit stiff early, but by halfway it was already smoothing out. Two thumbs up.

I did make a couple of notes:

Page 7: “Just then, the feed switched…” flows better as “The feed switched” (A few pages later, I just decided you were using “just” way too often.)

Page 10: When you get to the point of mentioning the solar backup for the well pump,
you immediately give all the detail. It’s unnecessary at that point. Save some for later.

Page 11: “Load all of your hand tools” I had to laugh. Got semi?
If you do a printed version, put me down for one autographed copy of the first printing.

* * * * *

OK, I’ve finished what I hope is an excerpt (in plain English, keep typing, I’d like to read it). I have a few thoughts.

The mechanics are fine, and the structure is good. However, I do find everything so far has worked out too well for the characters. We haven’t really seen any rough edges. I realize it’s early days yet, but I would not expect everyone to be coping this well, especially after the assault on the house, with multiple charlies down. Even the casualty is quite calm about the whole affair. I’d expect some panic to seep in by this point, as everyone works through the realization that it’s real and the cavalry will be delayed if they arrive at all. My opinion, but I’ve seen (and sometimes been) the one that becomes useless when reality dawns.

Again, I’d like to read this when completed; I’d be happy to offer comments between now and then if you like.

* * * * *

These are roughly half of the responses I’ve gotten, which I selected more or less at random to give everyone an idea of what other people were saying. I appreciate the time and effort that people have taken to advise me, and I’ll incorporate many of the suggestions.

At this point, I’m just getting ideas down. This sample wasn’t in any way intended to be an organized part of the eventual book structure, and was completely unedited. I may end up expanding one paragraph or even one sentence to become and entire chapter, or the converse. My word-count target for a full book is roughly 125,000, of which this sample is maybe 10%.

Yes, things are too easy so far. That will change. In fact, things may get so bad that I end up painting myself into corners, as writers often do. But ultimately, this book (and I hope eventually series) will be optimistic. Good, competent people can deal with pretty much anything.


Tuesday, 24 January 2017

10:02 – It’s been chilly, windy, and wet over the last couple days. We’ve had about 3 inches (7.5 cm) of rain in the last couple of days, which takes us up to about 4.5 inches (11.5 cm) for the month to date. When I took Colin out around 0715, it was 39.3F (4C), with sustained winds of probably 40 MPH (64 KPH) and gusts to 60+ MPH. I almost literally got blown off the driveway as I attempted to retrieve our newspaper from the mailbox. I had to grab hold of the mailbox to avoid being blown off my feet.

About two dozen readers have requested copies of my book sample, which should be enough. You’re still welcome to a copy if you want one, but I’m getting enough feedback now to tell me what I needed to know.

I asked for brutal honesty, and that’s exactly what I’m getting. I haven’t gotten any replies yet that began, “Dear Zsa-Zsa”, but the responders so far are criticizing freely. No one has given me a letter grade or a number grade so far, but the general consensus is that I’m not terrible at this. Responders have compared my writing to Unintended Consequences, A. American’s Home series, and David Crawford’s Lights Out, which I take as a complement. OTOH, various responders have criticized my narrative, dialog, plotting, characterization, and even the setting. No one has told me that I actually suck at this and several people have commented that I’m as good or better at it than PA writers that they like, so on balance I’m going to keep at it, a couple hours here and a couple hours there, mixed in with everything else I have to do. I just sent copies to a couple of pro fiction writers I know, to see what they think.


Monday, 23 January 2017

09:29 – Yesterday was one of those days with a continuing series of problems. It started with the USPS Click-and-Ship website misbehaving while I was trying to print a label for a shipment to Canada. Ordinarily, I fill out the first page, which has me enter the total weight of the package. I filled in the correct weight, 5 pounds 8 ounces, and then clicked Continue. On the second page, I have to give details about the details of the shipment, including for some reason the net weight, which was 4 pounds, thirteen ounces. At the point, it told me that the net weight was more than the gross weight and refused to continue. After numerous retries, starting from scratch each time, I finally got it to accept that 4-13 was in fact less than 5-8. I then paid for the postage label and it displayed the label as a PDF, as usual.

So I put a sheet of half-page labels in the manual feed slot of my Brother HL-5250DN laser printer and told it to print. The label jammed, which made a real mess. So I cleared the jam, inserted a new label, and told it to print again. It jammed again. I cleared the jam and told it to print again, this time with plain paper from the paper tray. That time, the sheet of paper made it half-way out the printer and then jammed again. At least I had a usable label, after I forcibly pulled it out of the printer.

This obviously wasn’t working, so I disconnected the HL-5250DN and moved it out of the way. When we moved up to Sparta in December, 2015, I’d originally tried to install the newer Brother HL-3070CW laser printer, but it refused to connect with USB so I’d stuck it in storage, intending to troubleshoot it later. I never got around to that until now, so I set it up and used a new USB cable to connect it. Once again, Linux didn’t see the printer. Okay, it looked like the USB interface on the printer was dead. That printer also has an Ethernet interface, so I went downstairs, grabbed an Ethernet cable, and brought it back upstairs to try getting the printer working with a direct Ethernet connection.

The Ethernet cable wouldn’t fit into the jack on the printer. Huh? I was working in a very tight space, but we finally got the printer turned so that I could actually see the USB and Ethernet jacks on the back. Duh. I’d plugged the USB cable into the Ethernet jack. No wonder it hadn’t worked, this time or a year ago, when I must have made the same mistake. So I pulled the USB cable out of the Ethernet jack and plugged it into the correct jack. Linux recognized the printer instantly, and I was back in business.

So I proceeded to connect to the USPS site again to generate postage labels for US shipments. The postage didn’t look right for the first one I processed. Well, that’s because postage rates just went up as of yesterday. Duh, again.

I knew postage rates were going to increase, but after the huge increase a year ago, I was expecting a pretty minor jump. Not so, unfortunately. Since January a year ago, I’d been paying $17.09 to send a Regional Rate B box to the west coast. That had jumped from $17.09 to $20.41, a 19.4% increase. Fortunately, the rate for a Large Flat Rate box had increased from $18.75 to only $18.85, so I just put the RRB box inside a LFR box and paid the $18.85. Even so, that amounts to a $1.76 (10.3%) increase. Geez.

* * * * *

As I mentioned last week, doing a copy-edit pass on Franklin Horton’s latest book in his Borrowed World series got me to wondering, not for the first time, if I could write fiction myself. So I decided to sit down and give it a try.

Writing fiction turns out to be very different from writing non-fiction. The main difference is that I can just sit down and write fiction. It just flows. With non-fiction, I spend literally 50% to 95% of my “writing” time checking facts and researching stuff on the fly. I suppose that’s why Jerry Pournelle writes fiction in his Monk’s Cell, with no Internet access.

The most obvious difference is in word count. With non-fiction, I average maybe 1,000 to 1,200 words per day. My all-time record was probably 5,000 or 6,000 words, and that was working heads-down for 14 hours or so. And the days when I could write heads-down for 14 hours straight are long gone. Nowadays, I’m lucky if I can get in six solid hours of writing per day. Writing fiction, I can crank out a first-draft at about 1,000 words PER HOUR.

But no writer can judge his own writing, so I decided to let people look at my first fiction efforts. As I promised last week, I’ve converted what I’ve done so far to a PDF that I’ll send to anyone who wants to take a look at it and give me his opinion. Can I write fiction? Tell me what you think of my work on a 1 to 10 or A to F scale.

I’ll emphasize that this is very much a first, rough draft. I haven’t even read it, let alone done a first editing pass on it. It’s just a collection of chapters, and partial scenes. I’m sure there are lots of clangers in there. I probably even have characters changing names in mid-narrative. This document is at the level that I wouldn’t ordinarily let even Barbara see, let alone friends or editors.

I’m not looking for any kind of corrections, suggestions, or edits from anyone. All I want to know from anyone who takes the time to read it is whether or not I can write fiction.

If you’d like to take a look at it, send me email at thompson at ttgnet dot com with the subject line “your fiction book”. I’ll send you a PDF of the document. Please be completely honest in your feedback. You’re not going to hurt my feelings. I’m looking for brutal honesty here, not an attaboy. If the general consensus is that my fiction writing has potential, I’ll continue working on the book until it’s finished and then self-publish it on Amazon. If the general consensus is that I am to PA fiction writing what Zsa Zsa Gabor was to acting, I’ll give up on it.


Thursday, 19 January 2017

11:01 – It was 34.4F (1.3C) when I took Colin out this morning. He decided to go off on a mole-hunting expedition. We have lots of moles in our yard. Maybe we should get an outdoor cat. I assume they eat moles.

Yesterday, MTD kit revenue exceeded 100% of January 2016 revenue. Of course, 1/16 revenue was only about 65% of 1/15 revenue, so we still have ways to go to match 1/15. But with 12 days left to do it, I suspect we’ll make it.

Yesterday, I asked Lori, our USPS carrier, if she was still prepping or if Trump’s win had allayed her concerns. She said she’d not done much prepping recently, but not because she thought Trump as president meant happy days were here again. She’s just been very busy with life. She works full-time for USPS, and has a second full-time job running her cattle ranch.

Months ago, we were talking about possible serious emergencies. Lori said she felt pretty well prepared for most things, but that what worried her was that she and her daughter, 18, were on their own in a house with no nearby neighbors. I told Lori that if things ever got untenable at her place, she and Casey were welcome over here. She said that she hoped they never needed to take us up on that offer, but it was comforting to know they could stay with us if it became necessary. And, of course, she said that if the situation were reversed Barbara and I were welcome to stay at her place for however long it was necessary.

Yesterday, I told Lori I was working on a draft of a PA novel and gave her a 30-second summary of the plot. I told her that I planned to use her and her daughter as significant characters, and that I’d need her knowledge of farming and a lot of other things that she knew and I didn’t. She said to call or email her any time, and that she didn’t mind being pestered.

I’ll strive for realism in the novel, assuming it turns out I can actually write fiction. Last night, I was reading Peter Lovesey’s latest Peter Diamond police procedural when I came across the kind of minor error that I want to avoid. The detectives believed there was critical evidence on a digital camera’s memory card, but it turned out that the card was unreadable because of water damage. I knew that was crap, because years ago I accidentally ran a USB memory stick through a full washer cycle and then dried it on high. When was putting away the clean clothes, I found the memory stick in my jeans’ pocket. I figured it was probably deader than King Tut, but it turned out to have survived the experience without losing even a byte of data. So, Lovesey’s assumption was a reasonable one, but still ans assumption, and one that turned out to be bogus. An avoidable error.

Similarly, Franklin Horton’s most recent book has an alcoholic character who’s reduced to drinking Lysol. Franklin describes in painful detail what happens when the character chugs a shot of the diluted Lysol, which got me to thinking. We didn’t have any lemon-flavored Lysol, so I couldn’t reproduce the scene exactly, but we do keep a spray bottle of the diluted original-flavored Lysol on the kitchen counter, so I poured a shot of it, swished it around my mouth, spit it out, and rinsed with several changes of water.

I emailed Franklin to tell him the results of my test. In short, the Lysol just had a distinct chemical taste. Not disgusting, but not something one would drink by choice. I’ve tasted OTC medications that were worse. I told Franklin that the immediate effects of drinking diluted Lysol would probably be less dramatic than chugging 80-proof liquor.

Franklin’s reply started, “Boy, you ARE a scientist.” He said he almost sprayed his coffee out through his nose. But that’s the level of accuracy I strive for, whether I’m writing non-fiction or fiction. Obviously, I won’t always get it right, but there’s no excuse for making avoidable errors.


Wednesday, 18 January 2017

09:55 – Barbara is off to the gym. It was 48.4F (9C) when I took Colin out this morning, but we’re back to having a stiff breeze with high wind gusts, so it felt a lot colder than yesterday morning.

I saw an article yesterday that listed the ten windiest big cities during 2016. Winston-Salem was #8 on that list. But that list only included major cities. Here in Sparta, our winds make Winston-Salem’s look calm. In the mountain passes around here–we call them “gaps”–cars, pickups, and even tractor-trailers are often literally blown off the roads by wind gusts that are often 60 MPH (100 KPH) or more, sometimes even 90 MPH. This would be a good location to install a small wind turbine system, because calm days are few and far between. I don’t plan to do that because it’s very expensive and requires too much maintenance. Solar is a better bet for us.

With a couple weeks left in the month, we’re at about 94% of revenue for January 2015. Science kits have been flying off the shelves, but that could stop at any time. Sales usually drop dead in late January or early February, after people have ordered kits for the Winter semester. We’re in good shape for now on kits, with what we need to build more of them on the fly, if needed.

I finished the copy-edit pass on the draft manuscript of Franklin Horton’s latest Borrowed World series book and got it off to him yesterday. He emailed me last night to say he’d gone through my suggestions, and intended to have a final manuscript finished by the end of the week. It won’t be long after that before he has it up on Amazon. I’ll announce that here for anyone who wants to buy a copy.

And I started drafting a PA novel of my own, just to see if I could do it. It’s just chapter fragments right now, but I’m up to about 11,000 words. I think it reads well, but I’m going to send Franklin a copy to see what he thinks. If he thinks I can write fiction, I’ll probably finish it up and self-publish it. I’m cranking out about 1,000 words per hour, which means if I work heads-down on it I could finish a first draft of a 100,000 word novel in about three weeks.

WordPress is giving me fits. When I started using it in mid-2011, I checked the box to tell it to accept comments only from readers who had a previously-approved comment. That worked fine until two or three weeks ago, when WordPress for some reason took a sudden dislike to three of my frequent commenters, Ray Thompson, Cowboy Slim, and ech. Since then, WP has held every one of their comments for moderation and I’ve had to approve them one by one. So this morning, I unchecked the box that tells WP to hold unapproved commenters’ comments for moderation. We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, if you spot a spam comment that slipped through, please let me know.


Friday, 13 January 2017

09:53 – Friday the 13th falls on a Friday this month.

We awoke this morning to a gray, dreary, spring-like day. When I took Colin out, it was 56F (13C) and drizzling. Colin is delighted that Barbara is home again. She called me yesterday just as she was leaving Winston. I drove the Trooper over to B&T Tire to drop it off with Lynn, who’s going to check the radiator and hoses to figure out why it’s leaking. A few minutes after I handed Lynn the key, Barbara pulled into the parking lot to pick me up.

On the way home, we stopped at Lowes to pick up some groceries, and then at the Dr. Grabow factory. It had been 20 years or more since I’d bought a new pipe. Other than a couple I got when I first started smoking a pipe–long since retired–most of my pipes are mid-range to high-end. None of them were cheap. For example, even 20+ years ago, I paid $300+ each for my Dunhill ODA pipes, and nearly as much for the other big-name brands. At that time, even the most expensive Dr. Grabow pipes were $8 or $10 each. Pipe connoisseurs sneered at them as “drugstore pipes”.

But what I discovered over the years was that there wasn’t any discernible difference in smoking quality between a $400 pipe and a a $75 pipe. They were all pipes. The only difference was that the expensive pipes used top-quality brier, while the cheaper ones used brier that needed fill to patch the gaps in the surface. A chunk of brier large enough for a pipe that’s perfect might cost $150, while a chunk with minor flaws/fills might sell for $20. I didn’t care about the appearance, so I stopped paying premium prices for perfect pipes. So I picked up a new pipe at the Dr. Grabow factory yesterday. It was in the most expensive group they had, retail-priced at $58, but available from the factory store for $40. I smoked it yesterday and this morning. It smokes as well as my expensive pipes. I’ll probably pick up another one or two of these cheap pipes and retire some of my oldest ones.

We got a bulk order for chemistry kits yesterday afternoon from a state university. Those are stacked awaiting pickup out in the foyer. That order wiped out our entire chemistry kit inventory, so we’ll be building another batch over the weekend. We also have another bulk custom order from a state distance-learning program for 30 each of some custom chemicals that we package for them, so that goes on the schedule for this weekend as well.

I finished the copy-edit pass on Franklin Horton’s latest Borrowed World PA novel. That got me to wondering again if I could write PA fiction, so I spent a couple hours yesterday working on a sample chapter. Writing fiction is very different from what I’m used to. Writing non-fiction, I spend probably 90% of my “writing” time looking things up, experimentally verifying things, and so on. Writing fiction, I can just sit down and write. It flows. What I don’t know is whether I can plot, write narrative, write dialog, and so on. I asked Franklin if he’d mind looking over a sample chapter once I finished it and give my his honest opinion about whether I could write fiction. He said he’d be happy to do so.


Saturday, 9 April 2016

11:02 – We got a lot done yesterday, and are now back at comfortable stocking levels on all of our science kits. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be making up and bottling chemicals and making up small-parts bags, chemical bags, and other subassemblies that we need to build more kits.

I got email the other day from someone who said I seemed to be extremely critical of the new breed of PA fiction novelists and asked if there were any I’d recommend. Fair enough.

The problem isn’t with the classic PA novels published in the 80’s or earlier. Stuff like Earth Abides, Malevil, Lucifer’s Hammer, and so on. Those were written back when traditional publishers actually employed editors who saw to it that the books they published at least used proper English. The problem is with more recent novels, and not just the self-published ones. Traditionally-published books like One Second After are desperately in need of an editor, but publishers no longer edit manuscripts comprehensively. Most books are lucky if they get a computerized spell check.

Self-published titles are as bad or worse. Even the best of them aren’t what I’d call well-edited. But the best of them are at least readable. Among those I’d nominate for that class are:

David Crawford’s Lights Out, a massive tome that follows a group of people living in a semi-rural subdivision after an EMP takes down the power grid. Unfortunately, Crawford’s follow-up book, Collision Course, is mediocre at best.

Franklin Horton’s Borrowed World series, another post-EMP series. This one has the major characters stranded in Richmond, VA after the event, and walking back to their homes in rural southwest Virginia. Horton is a competent storyteller and writer. The first book in the series is a bit rough, but he gets better as he goes along. The third book in the series, which I’m reading now, was just released yesterday. All three are available under the Kindle Unlimited program.

Boyd Craven III’s books. (Note that there is also a Boyd Craven II, presumably his father, whose books I haven’t tried.) I started by reading The World Burns, Episodes 1-3: A Post-Apocalyptic Story, yet another post-EMP story that was originally published as three separate “books” of about 70 pages each. I almost gave up on Craven after reading only the first 10% or so of this title. It’s horribly edited, with frequent grammatical barbarisms, misused words, and so on. But, unlike many of the recent PA writers, Craven is actually a story-teller, so I kept reading. After reading that one, I decided to give one from another of Craven’s series a try, so I grabbed Good Fences: A Scorched Earth Novel, the first in that series. Craven had an editor for this one, and it shows. The editing isn’t perfect, but what minor errors remain aren’t intrusive. I’ll look forward to reading more of Craven’s titles, all of which are available under Kindle Unlimited.

Theresa Shaver’s Stranded series, four full-length YA PA novels that have a bunch of teenagers walking home to Alberta, Canada after (of course) an EMP. Shaver is another competent storyteller and writer, and the series is decently edited. All are available under Kindle Unlimited. Shaver has another series that I haven’t read yet.

Angery American’s *ing Home series, which is now up to seven books, none of which are available from Kindle Unlimited. These are the weakest of the group I’m describing here, but they’re very popular and they are better than the average recent PA novel. I probably don’t need to mention it, but they’re set in a post-EMP world.

If I ever do get time to write a PA novel/series, you can bet it won’t be post-EMP. That’s been done to death. So have pandemics, for that matter, although much less than EMP. If I do one, it’d probably be set after a 9.2 quake on the New Madrid seismic fault, cutting off the eastern US from the states west of the Mississippi.


Thursday, 18 February 2016

14:09 – Barbara’s friend Bonnie is driving up from Winston tomorrow morning. They’re going to spend the day doing girl stuff and then Bonnie will head back in the late afternoon. I suggested to Barbara that she invite Bonnie to bring her telescope and spend the night, but she said Bonnie just wanted to make a day trip. Bonnie actually lives north of Winston-Salem, near Pilot Mountain, and has pretty decent skies for observing, but it’s still much darker here than it is there. On a moonless or overcast night, we can’t even tell where the tree line several hundred yards from our back deck ends and the night sky begins.

I spent an hour or so this morning writing fiction. Going in, it seemed to me that writing fiction shouldn’t be all that different from my usual non-fiction writing. It turns out that the two are only superficially similar. There’s as much difference between writing fiction and non-fiction as there is between playing singles and doubles at tennis, which is to say a lot. Both endeavors are completely different games. One uses similar tools and rules, but the details differ enough that I can understand how it’s possible in either case to be very good at one and very bad at the other.

I assumed going in that writing dialog would be my main problem. When I asked Jerry Pournelle about that years ago, his advice was simply to write dialog as I ordinarily spoke. The problem with that is that I generally speak pedantically, so the dialog I wrote this morning sounds just as pedantic, not to say clumsy. Hell, it hasn’t been that long since I finally decided to stop torturing my sentence structures to avoid splitting infinitives or ending a sentence with a preposition. Which reminds me of my favorite-ever newspaper headline, referring to Richard Loeb of the famous Leopold and Loeb murder trial. Loeb was both pedantic and homosexual, and he was eventually knifed to death in a prison shower. The headline? “Richard Loeb, noted authority on the English language, ends sentence with a proposition”.

I thought I was going to be able just to sit down and write, as I do for non-fiction or for this journal page for that matter. But this morning’s experience tells me that I have some grunt work to do to master the basics of writing fiction.