Look What I Found In My Brain!Random!

Spellbent

Chimeric Machines

Sparks and Shadows

Installing Linux on a Dead Badger

Coffin County

Mr Hands

Home Before Dark

In Silent Graves

Fear in a Handful of Dust

Current Reader Favorites:

Tools for Wandering Writers – how to stay productive on the road
Is the publisher just a middleman? – things to consider before you try self-publishing
Finding or creating a writer's workshop group – the title says it all
Using Profanity in Fiction – when cursing works, and when it doesn't
How To Make A Living Writing Short Fiction – can it be done? Yes.
Book Review: Lord of the Flies – all about Ralph and Piggy and Roger
Who Moved My Cheese? – a short review of this short book
How to comfort someone whose mother or father has died – advice for handling this difficult situation
Coping with unemployment – more practical advice for a difficult situation


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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Reading in the 21st Century

If you've been following my column at Horror World -- heck, if you've taken a look at any of my fiction and nonfiction -- you know that I have a deep and abiding gadget lust. I love playing with new computers and peripherals. Other women may get excited over shoe bargains, but my heart goes pitter-pat when MicroCenter has a sale.

Likewise, any casual observer should realize that I love books: big books, little books, hardbound and softcover. I love the look of them, the feel of them. Having a house full of books makes me feel rich in a way that having a full bank account never did. Consequently, my husband and I buy a lot of books, and it's an ongoing challenge to find new shelf space in our house for our treasures.

So, my owning an ebook reader would seem like a no-brainer, wouldn't it? I've bought a lot of titles from Amazon ever since their site launched, so surely I'd have been all over the Kindle like syrup on pancakes, right? My husband and I love our Macintosh computers and iPods, so surely we'd have gotten iPhones or at least upgraded to iPod Touches and would be happily reading digital books on those at night and on trips, right?

But you'd be wrong. My love for books and gadgets failed to mesh. Aside from my laptop, the closest thing I have to an ebook reader is my PSP, which can be grudgingly made to read books in HTML format and frankly I haven't used it for that much because of the effort involved. It's a lot easier to stick a book in my purse or backpack and go.

Part of it may be psychological. Way back in 2001, my very first collection came out as an ebook, and although it got good reviews, to say that sales were miserable would be a vast understatement. It was a combination of the publisher not having a good distribution system, me being naïve about promotion, and the technology not being in place to provide a satisfying reading experience to encourage many readers to want to spend money on a PDF. My gut reaction to the whole thing was essentially "ebooks suck!"

I like to think that my head rules my emotional innards, though, particularly when it comes to business. Nine years have passed, and now we do have the shiny Kindles and iPods and Nooks and everything else to tempt readers who previously went cross-eyed trying to read books off a regular computer screen. And I've had other books that have been released in both hardcopy and digital copy ... and the ebook sales have not sucked.

Some people are breathlessly claiming that digital sales are outpacing hardcopy sales. It certainly appears that this is the case with my new novel Spellbent, if the sales rankings on the B&N and Amazon sites are to be believed. But I don't have any hard data to support that assertion. I do have hard data on the sales for my collection Installing Linux on a Dead Badger: although the Kindle version is priced considerably lower than the paperback version, digital sales are only about 33% of the total number of books sold. Admittedly, digital sales would probably be greater if the book were available in other digital formats, but Kindle seems to have the biggest piece of the ebook pie right now. And either way you slice it, although 33% is not a majority, it's still a considerable number of sales. The publisher feels that the Kindle version has nicely supported sales of the hardcopy version.

So, the take-home message here, based on my experiences? You need both hard copies and digital copies to meet your book's market. Despite the claims made by epublishers, I just don't think digital alone will cut it right now if your goal is to get your book into as many paying readers' hands as possible. But not having a digital version will cost you a considerable number of sales.

Abstract sales numbers aside, the real people I've polled seem to be split on how they prefer to read in the 21st Century.

Some just aren't ready to give up the joy of reading and owning physical books.

"I love the feel and look of books," says avid reader Christine Jaegli Ehrler. "I don't own an ebook device, have never actually held or looked at one, so maybe it's unfair to dislike something I have no experience with, but I just cannot imagine liking ebooks."

But other avid readers faced with the limited space to store hardbacks and paperbacks have embraced ebook technology.

"I've put a moratorium on getting new physical books," says Eric Haddock, who now uses Kindle on his iPhone as his main method of reading. "I'm enjoying it quite a bit. If it's not available on Kindle -- or PDF -- I don't read it."

"I've had a Sony PRS-500 since the month it was released," says author Mehitobel Wilson. "I love it. I won't discard books, which means that my poor house is piled with the kind of paperbacks that you read once, and that's the kind of thing I now read on the Reader. I still buy normal paper books, and if I fall in love with an e-edition I'll buy the tangible sort too."

So, the technology is entirely embraceable, and I've gotten over my bitterness over my first foray as an ebook author (I think). Why haven't I bought an ebook reader?

Lately, it's been more a financial concern rather than a psychological one. My husband and I have laptops and iPods and shelves filled with paperbacks we haven't got around to reading yet. Could we really justify the expense of a new gadget that would only provide us with digital books when we're surrounded by the real thing? I admit the iPod Touch and iPhones were tempting, but the extra cost and duplication of gadget function made me hold off.

And my gut told me that Something Better was just down the road. Others have shared my wait-and-see attitude.

"I was about to buy the new Kindle when the Apple iTablet rumors started," says novelist/screenwriter Diana Botsford. "Now I'm holding off. Part of what I've learned from my research (on ebook readers) is that you need to see which device best supports your preferred genre. For me, it seems that Kindle has better offerings for (genre fiction) -- particularly recent releases."

And lo and behold, last Wednesday, Apple unveiled their brand new gadget, named the iPad instead of the iTablet. As is typical for new releases from that company, the new product's lack of Flash support, size, even its name has been met with derision around the Internet ("iPad sounds like a feminine hygiene product" chortles a librarian friend.) And many hardcore Apple users are upset that the iPad runs iPhone-style apps (140,000 of them and counting) instead of the full-blown version of MacOSX.

But you know what? For me, the iPad is exactly what I was waiting for. I've been eyeing netbooks but didn't want to have to deal with the constant whack-a-virus that comes with owning a Windows computer or with the extra time involved in integrating a Linux version into my work style. And of course I was tempted by the functionality of the iPhone, but I hated the expense of the cell plan that inevitably came along with it.

The iPad would integrate right into our Mac-based household. The screen is big enough for decent movie viewing and novel writing. I could actually see myself replacing my 7-year-old iBook with it (the fact that my laptop has remained useable for so long is testament to why I like Apple hardware). There are already apps available to enable me to do the things I typically do with my laptop -- I don't need the full version of OSX to get work done. And there's a nifty full-keyboard dock for the thing, so I could carry the light, portable pad around with me during the day for quick notes and then dock it at night for more serious writing.

But this column isn't about laptops or netbooks, is it? We're talking about ebook readers. And although thus far Apple hasn't yet been pitching the iPad hard at bibliophiles -- the first promo video does spend a few seconds on the new iBooks bookstore app, but the video mainly features movies, games, email, business productivity apps and easy navigation of the New York Times site -- the iPad could be a Kindle killer.

Provided you view the Kindle as a piece of hardware, of course. The iPad is roughly the same size as a Kindle and can perform all the accessory functions of a Kindle -- MP3s, web surfing, and note-taking -- far better than Amazon's product. The iPad makes the Kindle look positively dowdy. The Kindle does offer limited free worldwide wireless (it allows you to get books and look things up on Wikipedia), but in a world of free wifi at the library, hotel, and neighborhood coffee shop, the main advantage of a Kindle is the E Ink technology.

"E Ink is hot shit," says Mehitobel Wilson. "It's neither backlit nor reflective, and is great in full sunlight. It so very closely emulates the printed page that people seeing my Reader have thought it had a display overlay on it. No eyestrain."

Some have speculated that the iPad's backlit screen can't possibly compete with the eye comfort of the Kindle. However, I've heard some believable rumors that in the near future there will be an app for emulating the E Ink reading experience in the iPad. We'll see. There's already an app for reading Kindle books on your iPod or iPhone, and an E Ink emulator might come bundled in with future releases for the iPad.

Which brings me to this: if Apple mainly views itself as a tech manufacturer and not as an upstart book distributor, and if you view the Kindle not as a piece of hardware but as Amazon's whole digital book delivery system, the iPad is not a destroyer but a right-hand ally pulling in more market share for Amazon from people like me who don't mind backlit screens.

It will be interesting to see how (and if) the Kindle evolves in response to the iPad. It's hard to imagine book-centric Amazon trying to have a hardware showdown with a company that's been making excellent hardware for years. It's also hard to imagine the Kindle disappearing overnight. It's possible Apple will use iBooks to try to stage an iTunes-style coup over the digital text market and shut the Kindle app down as unwanted competition, which to me would be a stupid move. But strange things have happened in the tech world.

But the upshot is that ebook technology has clearly matured, and interested readers have their choice of good devices. Add that in with other book-related technologies -- Project Gutenberg, printing on demand, and a cornucopia of Internet bookstores -- the 21st Century is a great time to be a reader.

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

Manuscript Tracking Tools
Beginning writers who send out their very first stories to magazines or anthologies don't usually have much trouble keeping track of where they sent them. Why? They can't stop thinking about them!

A new writer often spends her free time anxiously second-guessing herself and her submission decisions: "Ack! A typo! I should have done more proofreading! I should have cut that second fight scene! I should have sent it to Alternate Magazine instead!"

And when the mail carrier comes, she pounces on the pile of mail, hoping for a response, day after day, month after month, but when the ominously thin SASE finally arrives, she can hardly bring herself to open it.

Once a writer has been through the wringer of the painfully long submission-rejection-resubmission cycle a few times, she forces herself to stop thinking about the darned submissions, and focuses on the work at hand: writing new stories.

And that's when the submissions can get muddled in a writer's mind. It's easy to lose track of a rejected submission, thinking that it's still being considered someplace, while it languishes on the writer's desk or hard drive. A worse case happens when a writer inadvertently starts sending the same story to multiple markets at the same time, only to end up with two different acceptances for the same story. And while this might seem an embarrassment of riches to an unpublished writer, at best it's an embarrassment. At worst, the writer is faced with the painful decision of which bridge to burn, since most editors are cranky and overworked and don't look kindly on authors pulling accepted stories out from under them.

So, writers need to have some kind of a method to keep track of their submissions. What kind should you use?

Some writers prefer the simplicity of keeping track of their submissions on paper.

"I used to be a teacher," says writer Kevin Killiany. "I have several old grade books with lots of columns and rows. Each manuscript has its own page. The titles of the stories tracked are written on the cover of the book, with stars next to the ones that sell."

Despite my abiding gadget lust, when it comes to submission tracking I'm also pretty low-tech. I use note cards in a little plastic index card box. Each story/poem/article gets its own card, and each submission is recorded on a line. When I've filled one side of the card with rejections, I know it's time to reconsider my tactics.

The editor at Albedo One approves of my card box tracker: "I would suggest your library card approach is as good as it gets. You do not need to wait for your computer to boot up. You are not snookered when there is a power cut. You have the whole story (if you forgive the pun) in one simple piece of card. In addition, you can be flexible in what you note on the card.

"The only problem with the card system is that you would find it a bit difficult to produce listings of the work you have out in the market," he says. "But then again, how often do you really need to do that?"

Others have used the box tracking method, but became disenchanted with it.

"I used to use notecards in a little plastic box, but a few years ago I switched to a very simple one-page spreadsheet, which I put in a folder with the manuscript itself," says writer/editor Lori Selke. "Same data, slightly different format, no more annoying little plastic box kicking around and getting in the way."

Horror author Yvonne Navarro combines paper tracking with computer software. "Every short story that I finish has its own manila folder," she says. "On the inside left side I write the date and name of the magazine/anthology and the date on which I should receive some kind of a reply based on their guidelines (or my estimate). If the manuscript is rejected, I write that and the date, then start all over.

"To keep track I have a little 'sticky note' program on my computer that pops up a note with the story name when the response should be here. Before that I used a big, full-year write-on/wipe-off calendar, but I never wrote on it -- I used Post-It Notes with the name of the story that I moved from date to date."

As far as computer-based tracking methods go, many writers use spreadsheets.

Writer Daniel R. Robichaud turned to spreadsheets after finding paper records unmanageable. "Once upon a time, I assembled lists on loose sheets of copy paper with the story name and market, written in the order of submission. After a while that became a complete nightmare to manage, particularly after moving a couple of times when loose sheets of paper could and did get lost."

He now keeps separate worksheets in a single Microsoft Excel file for his fiction and nonfiction. "It's easy for me to set up a reminder in the Office Mail program to send queries for submissions sitting in slush piles long after the market's posted response time expires."

Brenta Blevins prefers to use the freeware spreadsheet program found in found in the OpenOffice.org suite. "I like the nice linear quick view of the spreadsheet and being able to sort within my spreadsheet."

Other writers prefer to use online trackers offered by sites such as WritersMarket.com, Duotrope and Writers' Planner.

"The Duotrope submissions tracker is excellent because it also ties into their market listings and reports on response times," says writer E.C. Meyers. "It's online and free, but Duotrope does accept donations towards their operating costs."

"Another advantage of Duotrope is its web accessibility," says Brenta Blevins. "I don't have to have the computer with my spreadsheet -- I can update the submission record anywhere (even on vacation)."

There's a freeware program that many writers such as Bev Vincent use: Sonar 2, which was created by author Simon Haynes.

"I wrote it because I was going nuts keeping track of short story submissions," Haynes writes on his site. "This program tells me which market has each story, whether a story has been sold or rejected and which stories are gathering dust instead of earning their keep."

Of Sonar 2, writer Adam Nakama says, "It's not as powerful as high-end database software, and has a couple of quirks to it, but I don't need the full power of database tracking. (Sonar 2) has a few things built in that are nice for writerly types who don't know how or don't want to program it into their friendly database record.

"It also makes it easy for you to data mine your submissions," says Nakama. "You can see, for example, that you've been sending stories like clockwork to Magazine X for years, but that damn editor just won't accept your stuff, despite you getting frequent acceptances from other magazines on par with it. You may want to consider that your work just doesn't mesh with that editor and move on."

So, as you can see, there are lots of ways to track your manuscript submissions.

Someday, we writers may have access to neural interfaces that can update your entries just by thinking about them. In the meantime, your notebook, spreadsheet, or software is only as good as your own updates. So take the most basic step in good tracking: make sure you write down your submissions when you send them out.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Keep Your Stories Safe: Introduction
Every so often, I see a frantic message on Shocklines posted by someone whose computer has crashed -- with the only existing copy of a newly-minted short story or novella dead along with their hard drive.

If your hard drive dies carrying important files that can't be resurrected with the aid of programs like Norton or TechTool, that's a painful way to learn that you must do regular system maintenance like defragging your hard drive and backing up your files to keep them safe. But these days, keeping backups of files is only part of what you need to do to keep your work safe.

It'd be simpler if computers simply worked and didn't crash, wouldn't it? But crash they do, and some of the worst crashes I've seen in my job as a tech support agent have happened because of spyware and virus infections. The Internet has become a truly treacherous place for Windows users (Mac and Linux users are largely immune to such problems at this point) and malware infections can be difficult to remove; the best thing to do is to protect yourself.

The first thing you need to do is to make sure you have a firewall installed and have a decent antivirus program like McAfee VirusScan (my personal favorite) or Norton Antivirus, and have the program set to regularly update your virus profiles. The best antivirus program in the world won't do you any good if you're exposed to a brand-new virus that the program can't recognize because it hasn't been updated (and on that note, make sure that you check for and install system and security updates for your computer's operating system on a regular basis).

The best thing to do is to try to avoid exposing yourself to viruses in the first place. Many people get infections through spam emails that contain viruses masquerading as other types of attachments. So, don't open those attachments promising pictures of Britney Spears cavorting naked with the Queen of England, folks. Don't even touch them.

Also, don't respond to alarming emails that purport to come from your bank or credit card company. Don't click on the links they provide, don't call the phone numbers they provide, and in the name of all that is holy, don't click or call and then provide any personal information or account numbers. These emails are almost always scams intended to steal your information so that some creep can clean out your bank account or go on a credit spree on your dime. These assholes are ruthlessly efficient, and they will start doing this within minutes of getting your information. If you're worried about your account, look up the company's name in your telephone book and call them.

And finally, never, ever email anyone your entire social security number, credit card number, password, etc.

An email is about as private as a postcard, or a conversation on a crowded bus. You would be amazed at the sheer number of people who potentially have access to your emails as they make their way from Computer A to Computer B. This a good reason to never put your social security number on a manuscript that you send through email or in an emailed contract.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Getting rid of old computers
There comes a time when your computer hardware just gets too slow -- or worse, it suffers some catastrophic hardware failure -- and you need to replace it with a new machine. Maybe you give your old workhorse computer to your kids, or sell it on Ebay, or donate it to a charity like Free Geek. Maybe you're thinking of dumping that dead external hard drive in the trash. Either way, out of sight is out of mind, right?

Not so fast. Before you dispose of any device containing some form of static memory -- be it an old computer, an external hard drive, a backup CD, a floppy disk, or a USB thumb drive -- you need to make sure that you've destroyed any data you wouldn't want falling into the wrong hands.

So, before you dump an old drive or disk, take a look at what's on it. Old financial records? Your latest novel? Or, dear God, your first novel? And what about that, um, "special" video you shot when you and your honey went to Aruba? Yeah. If you don't want a stranger finding that stuff and passing it around to their friends, best to get rid of it.

The trouble is, simply deleting files doesn't really get rid of them electronically. And, unfortunately, simply reformatting your hard drive won't necessarily render old data inaccessible, either. True, after you've reformatted a hard drive, getting to the old data takes a bit of work, but a quick tour of random Web sites should be enough to show you that the world is full of People With Way Too Much Time on Their Hands.

Next: "Dead" hard drives, Before you sell your computer on Ebay or give it away, Safely disposing of flash devices

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"Dead" hard drives

"Dead" hard drives can be resurrected long enough to extract their data. For instance, techs at my Day Job have been able to pull an amazing amount of data off "dead" but spinnable hard drives with GetDataBack from Runtime Software (www.runtime.org) -- these were from drives that Windows initially couldn't read at all.

And you might have seen advertisements for expensive data recovery services -- for $1000 or so they'll retrieve crucial data from cooked drives. What these data recovery services sometimes do is open up the dead drive in a clean room, take out the drive platter and install it in a new hard drive housing. Determined data thieves can manage the same thing.

So, if you have a "dead" hard drive, or a floppy, Zip disk, CD, etc. that you plan to chuck* and the device contains sensitive data you couldn't properly delete first, your best course of action is to mechanically destroy the device before you get rid of it. If it's a drive, hit the sucker with a hammer. Alternately, drilling a couple of holes straight through the drive works, too (but don't try this if you don't have the proper drill or safety gear). If it's a CD or DVD, find a CD shredder, or break it up with a hammer. I've been able to recover data from CDs that were broken cleanly in half, and I've seen other techs recover data from floppies that have been folded in half. So, chop 'em up. I don't recommend incineration because the plastics and metals used in the devices can give off poisonous smoke and leave behind toxic ash.


* When getting rid of a bad hard drive, it's best to call your recycling company to find out where to properly dispose of it, since hard drives may contain toxic materials.

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Before you sell your computer on Ebay or give it away

If you're selling or giving away your computer, hard drive or other storage device, make sure that any sensitive or personal data has been securely erased. A single reformatting pass is far better than nothing, and if you are in a hurry, a single-pass reformat that zeroes out your data is even better.

But for a secure reformat, you'll want to go with a 7-pass reformat that writes data over your disk 7 times; this of course may take quite a while. For the best security, you'll want to go with a 35-pass reformat, which can take many, many hours to complete depending on the speed of your processor and the size of your drive. The 35-pass method is used by institutions that handle large quantities of sensitive financial and identity data. If you've been keeping your tax records on your computer and you're about to sell it on Ebay, I'd certainly go with a 7-pass reformat.

People who are using Macs with OS 10.4 (or later) installed -- or who have access to 10.4 installer DVDs -- will find this process to be a breeze, since secure erasure methods are built into the Disk Utility. The MacOS Disk Utility can format or reformat UNIX, Macintosh, and Windows operating systems, so if you have a friend with a modern Mac and a firewire or USB external drive, you might ask to borrow their Mac for a little while. The Mac Disk Utility also lets you securely erase free disk space in instances where you want to pass along a used Zip disk, external hard drive, etc. with audio or video files intact but everything else inaccessible. It's also handy when you've prepped an old computer for someone else with a fresh copy of the operating system and select programs, only to remember that, oops, you forgot to do a secure reformat before you spent 3 hours on reinstallations.

Windows and Linux users who don't want to deal with a Mac have other programs they can use for secure data erasure. One piece of free software that many techs prefer is Darik's Boot and Nuke ("DBAN"), which can be downloaded at http://dban.sourceforge.net/. It will work on fairly old hardware, and the only desktop operating systems it doesn't support are Amiga and MacOS.

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Safely disposing of flash devices
Exercise caution when you're passing along disks or devices that use flash storage like SD cards or memory sticks.

Flash memory doesn't work like hard drive memory; it can be written to a byte at a time, but if it's erased, a whole "block" of data must be erased, and flash memory can only be written to and erased a certain number of times before the memory starts to fail (most modern flash products are guaranteed to last through 1 million read-write cycles). So, to improve the life of the devices, when you "erase" a file on a flash drive, the operating system has probably left the data mostly sitting there intact. You'll have to reformat and zero out the flash device to have any level of data security.

As a consequence, cell phones and PDAs have given up an embarrassing amount of past users' personal data. So, if you keep your life on your Nokia, Palm, or BlackBerry, make sure you've followed the manufacturer's instructions for zeroing out your flash data before you pass your old phone or PDA along to somebody else.

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Keep Your Stories Safe: Viruses, Trojans and Spyware

The best way to avoid exposure to emailed viruses is to keep those messages out of your inbox entirely by getting yourself a spam filter like MailWasher, IHateSpam, SpamPal, or POPFile if your email provider has been having a hard time keeping down the daily deluge. If your computer is exposed to viruses and other malware, you could become an unwitting helper in the spam flood. How? Spammers and virusmakers have joined forces in their quest to steal money by creating trojan horse programs that give hackers a back door into your computer. Once inside, the hacker turns your computer into what's known as a "zombie", and it takes its place as a node in a potentially-enormous botnet: a network of hijacked computers that spew out endless streams of spam.

The nasty part is that your computer could be hijacked and you wouldn't even know it. Except for the fact that programs seem to be running much slower than usual, and your Websurfing has slowed to a feeble dogpaddle. You might get a terse message from your admin or ISP telling you that they've cut your computer off from the network until you've dealt with the problem. You might suddenly find that emails you try to send to your friends are bouncing back with arcane-looking error messages because networks have tagged your computer as a spam machine. To find out if you're part of a botnet, you should plug your IP address into DNSstuff's Spam Database Lookup. If lots of places have your IP address banned, chances are good that your computer has been hijacked.

The worst part is that unless you're extremely computer-savvy (in which case this article is all old hat to you), you'll have to wipe your computer clean and reformat your hard drive to dezombify your computer.

The same thing might sadly be necessary if you get infected by certain types of spyware adware spread through websites. Since adware is written by jerks who only want to steal your information or bombard you with advertisements, none of it is written with any concern towards what it might do to your computer. So, adware tends to hog system resources, mess up the function of your web browser, screw up your mouse, etc. Severe infestations can render your computer completely non-functional.

The worst of the worst come from dodgy porn and filesharing sites; avoid those if possible, or visit them on a computer you don't use for anything else. I once bought a computer from an acquaintance with indiscriminate surfing habits, and when I was giving it the once-over I discovered loads of malware, including a keylogger program that was ready to transmit all the usernames and passwords I typed into my online accounts to a computer in Romania. Did I reformat the hard drive before I used it for anything? You betcha.

If you don't want to switch to Linux or a Mac, the simplest thing you can do to avoid 80% of all the spyware and adware out there is to use some other web browser besides Internet Explorer. Malware writers, like most thieves, are fundamentally lazy; they tend to churn out programs to plague the browser that most people use -- Internet Explorer -- and ignore the rest. I like Firefox myself.

If you think you've got spyware on your computer (having weird web browser malfunctions and strange random ad pop-ups is a definite sign of infection), you'll need to look for it remove it. The problem is, there are a fair number of programs out there that purport to find and remove spyware when in fact they simply install more on your computer. The programs I've used that do a decent job are SpyBot and Ad-Aware but even they sometimes can't cope with the trickiest adware trojans -- you may have to resort to a complicated program called HijackThis.

If that fails, you'll have to wipe your hard drive and start over from scratch.

And that's when having up-to-date backups are absolutely crucial.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Keep Your Stories Safe: Backups

The basic idea of a backup is to have an extra copy of something so that you can replace it if the original file is dumped or damaged.

What should you back up? Anything that won't be replaced by re-installing your system and programs: your word processing files, pictures, emails, music, etc. If you're on a Windows machine, this is pretty much everything in the folder "My Documents", plus whatever folder you keep your stories in if it's not in there (you are keeping your stories all in one place, right? Good. If not, it's time to do a bit of housecleaning -- keeping everything in one place makes files easier to find, back up, and restore).

How often should you back up your computer? As often as necessary. In other words, you should back up a file whenever you make changes to it that you wouldn't want to lose.

Printing out hard copies of a finished short story or novel is a fine idea -- but then you're forced to type or scan the whole thing in again if the only electronic version is lost. Making a backup of a file on the same hard drive -- which some programs do by default -- can help you out if an individual file is badly damaged in a computer crash, but will be no help at all if your hard drive dies.

So, for optimal file safety, you need to back it up onto something other than your hard drive. Floppy disks are better than nothing, but can be damaged by magnetic fields from speakers and TVs and are too small to hold some files. Keychain flash drives are okay, but can be a little flaky and are easy to lose. Burning your files to CDs every so often is better -- CDs are more durable than magnetic media, and once written can be destroyed but not tampered with.

If you've got a file that's particularly important to you, it's best to keep a copy in a secure place that's not your residence. Several authors have lost precious manuscripts and computer files to floods and fires. There are many services (such as Apple's .Mac) which offer online storage for files, but remember my earlier warning about keeping social security numbers etc. away from prying online eyes -- some files you might be better off storing as burned CDs and printouts in a small fireproof safe.

Manual backups can be aggravating, but there are plenty of programs like Retrospect, LaCie Backup, etc. to make things fairly painless.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Getting to Know Mr. P. Espee

Imagine that you meet someone new. You've seen him hanging out at parties and concerts, and your at-a-distance impression is that he's a shallow, flashy trendsetter. But when you actually talk with him, you're not only struck by how pleasant he is but by his talent and brains. You two start playing games and going to concerts and horror movies together. You go on a couple of road trips and have a great time -- you couldn't ask for a cooler travel companion.

You'd really like this new guy to become a real friend, a real part of your life, but there's a problem. Games and movies and music are awesome, but you're a horror writer ... and he won't read. You can (with difficulty) get him to thumb through a comic book, but anything else, even your own stuff -- forget about it.

You've had casual "fun friends" before, but you see such tremendous potential in this guy that his steadfast illiteracy baffles you. Furthermore, his witty, insightful commentary on movies and music has convinced you that he would be an excellent co-writer ... if he would only try. But so far, he just shrugs off your suggestions. As a consequence, your friends and family think you're completely wasting your time when they see you with him.

How frustrated would you be with a guy like this? At least a little, I bet.

And that's how I feel about my PlayStation Portable.

Okay, stop rolling your eyes. You knew I was a geek when you came in here.

My husband got me a PSP last Christmas, knowing I'd never get it for myself no matter how much I kept eyeing it in the store. It was just for gamers, and I don't game, I insisted. It's for kids, not adults: the goofy TV ads ("It's cheese you can listen to outside! Hells Yeah!" says the cartoon rat) aren't directed at thirtysomething me, surely.

Well, the kids certainly do love it (my 9-year-old niece covets mine terribly), and it's great for games, even though the title availability is still limited compared to regular PlayStations. However, now that I've gotten over my Lumines addiction, I actually use it for games only occasionally.

So what's a PSP good for if you don't play games on it? Plenty. So what good is it to a writer? I'll get to that in a minute.

When I first took my new PSP out of the box, I was impressed with how small, light, and intelligently-designed it is. It fits very nicely in your hands (unless you're built like Andre the Giant, at least) and the buttons have a good feel to them.

As nice and small as the body of the PSP is, it's the screen that attracted my attention in the first place. I may be a lukewarm gamer, but I'm a movie fanatic. The PSP's screen is wide, clear, bright, and sharp. When I'm holding it in my hands, I get the same kind of view of the movie that I do when I'm watching our widescreen TV from the couch.

So, the heck with watching video on an iPod or cell phone -- the PSP's viewing experience has them beat, hands-down, and unlike a portable DVD player the PSP will fit neatly in my purse.

You can buy movies on UMD format or rip them to your computer and store them on Pro Duo memory sticks, which are roughly the size of postage stamps. You can get the entire Evil Dead trilogy onto a 1GB memory stick with room left over for an episode of the Twilight Zone, although the quality won't be as good as you'd get on a UMD. 2GB sticks recently entered the market -- that's enough room for Shaun of the Dead, Dead Alive, and Bubba Ho-Tep on top of the trilogy.

That's not as much video as you can get onto an iPod, but it's still respectable. 4GB and 6GB sticks are supposed to come available in the near future. Add in the availability of VCR-style recorders that save directly to Pro Duo cards and the ever-increasing availability of UMD movies, and you've got a gadget guaranteed to entertain any horror movie fan, even if he or she has zero interest in games.

The UMD format may prove to be a serious challenger to the DVD format. The UMD looks like a tiny DVD in a rounded teardrop plastic housing -- if you ever saw the old magneto-optical disks, it's the same general idea. The downside is that if the outer housing gets damaged, the disk may be unable to spin and the UMD becomes useless. The upside is the size: you can keep 5 UMDs in a round Altoids Sours tin (minus the candies, of course).

I've geeked enough about movies. What else does a PSP do? Well, it plays MP3s and other audio files; the sound quality isn't quite as nice as that of an iPod, but it's very decent. It lets you store and view photos. And every PSP comes with built-in WiFi, so in addition to playing games against others you can surf the web down at your local Starbucks (the current incarnation of the web browser isn't great, but it's functional).

And now we get to what the PSP -- frustratingly and unreasonably -- doesn't do out of the box.

It doesn't have a single built-in PDA function. No calendar, no calculator, nothing.

With its gorgeous screen, it would make the world's nicest small ebook reader ... but it has no native functionality for reading even text files, much less PDFs and other ebook formats. Even the first-generation iPods with their little black-and-white screens let you read a calendar and basic text files. There is no good reason Sony couldn't have integrated a basic text reader and calendar into the PSP.

You can work around this fairly easily by using a free program called PDF 2 PSP, which will convert PDFs to image files and upload them to your PSP's memory card. I tried converting and uploading my copy of Stephen King's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. A crisp, clear, easy-to-read 600KB ebook became a series
of fuzzy, memory-hogging images, over 100MB total. And that's just painful, even with a spacious memory card and nice screen.

And that easy-on-the-eyes screen of the PSP makes me yearn for even more. I want to be able to write on the thing. When people see my PSP and say, "Oh, you're taking a break to play a game?" I want to be able to toss my hair back and say, "I'm working on a story. Wanna read it?"

The PSP comes with a built-in software keyboard for inputting text for web pages and such -- unfortunately, it's desperately bad. Take the text input on your cell phone and make it suck so hard you want to give it cab fare -- that's how godawful the built-in text entry function is.

However, there's a tantalizing USB port right on the top of the PSP, just waiting for someone to develop an external portable keyboard that will work with it.

Logic 3 tried and failed to develop an external keyboard for the PSP because Sony wouldn't provide the company with the necessary command protocols. This seemed like stupid stonewalling on Sony's part until rumor sites revealed that Sony has filed a patent for a keyboard add-on for the PSP.

So, PSP owners should be able to get functional text input Real Soon, but for now businesslike functionality is just a dream for writers, right?

Not so fast. If you're willing to venture into the shadowy world of hackerdom, you can run a variety of "homebrew" applications to serve your readerly needs.

I should warn you: hacking your PSP is a tricky business (you'll need to get a copy of Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, and then you can take the red pill). Any recently-purchased PSP will come with version 2.X of its operating system, which was largely released to foil hackers who'd managed to figure out how to modify OS1.52. Admittedly, a portion of the homebrew community is focused on illegal game cracks, but there are plenty of PSP hackers who just want a fully-featured device.

So what will running homebrew applications on your PSP get you? Aside from DOOM and expanded audio and video players, you can get your coveted text and PDF readers along with calculators and calendars. There's even a basic painting program for creating graphics. Not bad for a bunch of unpaid PSP hobbyists.

In short, the PSP has all the potential to be a horror writer's favorite portable electronic device. We've just got to wait for Sony to get with the program and admit their device isn't just kids' stuff.


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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Tools For Wandering Writers
We writers are particular. We're careful to find space for our books and our desk, and jealously guard our writing time. We crave quiet so that we can concentrate on our work. We're happy to type away in the dead of night or at the crack of dawn.

Ah. Quiet, so very quiet ... except for the sound of the sound of the cat licking herself. Phew, did the dog just fart again? And what's that creaking noise? The room seems ... smaller somehow. Are the walls closing in on you?

Ack! It's too quiet! You've got cabin fever! You've got to get out of here, escape to the beach, a writers' convention, or even just the neighborhood coffeehouse.

Thing is, you'll be leaving your desk behind, and you've got stories to finish. What do you do?

Pens and paper work just fine for many writers. "That way, it looks like you're taking notes at the office meeting instead of writing a short story in which a woman escapes an office meeting," says Haddayr Copley-Woods.

"I carry a Hipster PDA with me at all times," says writer Wade Rockett. "The index cards fit nicely in most size pockets and are flexible enough that if I have to carry them in my jeans they don't bulge or make it uncomfortable to sit. I use the Fisher Bullet Space Pen to write with. It's small and writes well.

"When I have to take extensive notes, like at cons, I bring my Moleskine notebook," says Rockett.

Moleskines have been around for over 200 years. They come in several varieties, but the classic design is a small notebook with a sewn binding (which in addition to being stronger than glue lets you open the notebook flat), a reinforced pocket, and elastic band to secure the pages. Many authors have used and loved Moleskines, including Neil Gaiman and Ernest Hemingway.

Other writers prefer other styles of notebook, like the Rhodia pad or basic reporters' spiral pads. As attractive as rich leather-bound notebooks are, few working writers actually use them. Their expense is a hard justification for many, and others find that attempting to write on fancy pages is mainly a recipe for writers' block.

Danny Adams carries a notebook with him everywhere, but agrees that it isn't a perfect writing solution. "The disadvantage, as with all hand-writing for me, is that I usually can't scribble fast enough or long enough to keep up with my thoughts."

Author Richard Parks carries a laptop with him out of necessity. "On the few occasions I've been forced to take notes with pen and paper, half of it is unreadable by the next day," he says.

The best on-the-go writing device is one that is light, durable, easy to use, and affordable, just in case it gets dropped in the lake while you're walking in the woods.

Laptop computers are certainly much more affordable than they used to be: new Macintosh and PC portables can both be obtained for less than $1000, and older used models can go for just a few hundred. Plus, laptop computers let you carry those crucial-for-creativity tunes and movies with you wherever you go.

"I tend to write exclusively on my Mac (desktop computer)," says writer Dave Klecha. "Since I don't have a Mac laptop, and I want to keep all my writing in one place, I have something running on my Mac called VNC Server. Properly configured with my high-speed internet access, it lets me access my Mac (and my writing program) from anywhere I am that has a high-speed Internet."

Karen Swanberg says, "I usually write on my 12" Powerbook. I got the smallest one for portability reasons. When I don't want to carry that, I write on my Zaurus PDA with an infrared keyboard. The problem with that is I have to have a flat surface, so I can't do it on my lap unless I have a clipboard. And well, if I have a clipboard, I might as well have my Powerbook."

As nice as it is to have all your notes, music, and movies available in a single device, full-sized laptops can be too delicate, expensive, and bulky if you find yourself running to catch a plane. Like Swanberg, many writers have found that modern PDAs work as fine pocket-sized substitutes for laptop computers. Those who don't want to juggle a cell phone, PDA, and external keyboard have found devices like the "smartphone" Treo very useful.

But built-in thumb keyboards are difficult for those with large fingers or joint issues, and even a $400 device is too expensive for many working writers. Author Nalo Hopkinson is the happy owner of an AlphaSmart Dana, a light, durable PalmOS device built into a full-sized keyboard. The AlpaSmarts start at $139 new for the 3000 model and are compatible with both Mac and PC desktops.

Hopkinson reports that she gets 30 hours of use out of her Dana before she needs to recharge it; more recent models claim to operate over 700 hours on 3 AA batteries.

Because the device can run on AAs instead of just the built-in rechargeable battery, she can take it to any country and not worry about adapters for the charger.

"(My AlphaSmart) weighs just over a pound," says Hopkinson. "I can pick up my email on it if I'm at a hotspot. Plus, I don't have to transcribe my notes afterwards. I love the thing.

"It's meant to survive a four-foot drop, and I can attest that it does," she says. She further thinks the device would probably survive a dive off a rooftop with at least its memory card intact. "AlphaSmart products are made to be used in schools, so they can take a beating."

Hopkinson once read of a horrified mother who discovered that her son had squashed a fresh peach into his AlphaSmart's keyboard. "She took the keyboard keys off and washed them, carefully wiped down the machine and put the keys back on. It worked fine."

The AlphaSmart gets my personal vote as the portable computer wandering writers should investigate for themselves. It seems likely to survive coffee spills, backpack bumps, and may perilous trips through airport security.

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I'm Lucy Snyder. I'm a Worthington, Ohio author and former magazine editor; on this site you'll find my writing as well as features from my husband, novelist Gary A. Braunbeck.

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