While doing a web search for steampunk art, I came upon a site which displayed a number of pre-made covers for sale to independent authors. I can’t criticize their quality, as they featured high-res photos of attractive models in top hats, goggles, and bustiers. As good-looking as these designs were, they were too modern. They didn’t seem appropriate for a genre that celebrates the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. That kind of cover says 21st Century, not the Victorian era. That’s why I favor custom covers, in an attempt to simulate the look of an old-fashioned leather-bound volume. I contracted out the designs for the covers of my first two books, but for Ione D, I tackled the job myself. Though I’m no artist, I’m good at the Gimp (the Linux equivalent of Photoshop), so thank Cthullu for my collection of antique books whose copyrights have passed into the public domain. For Miss Ione D and the Mayan Marvel, I adapted a 1918 German-language Artsongbook which I inherited from my grandfather. The attached image is we’d call a “young adult” novel, published in 1903, which I plan to use as the model for the cover of Professor Ione D. and the Epicurean Incident. Watch this site for updates and previews of future Ione D and Fidelio releases.
My co-author Arlys once again proved her creativity and fashion sense in a steampunk photo shoot held at our house this weekend. In the above photo, Brittney Reed portrays Ione D’s best friend, Emma Farrington, from the upcoming second book in the series. Titled Professor Ione D and the Epicurean Incident, the story revolves around Ione’s visit to the First Royal Epicurean Exhibition in post-Victorian London. A number of mysterious mishaps arouse the suspicions of our intrepid heroines. Are nefarious parties conspiring to disrupt King Edward’s culinary initiative, or is it just bad luck?
Arlys’ character-based photography sessions have been a fun and imaginative way to create graphics for our book covers and publicity releases, as well as provide guidelines for our artists’ illustrations. Professor Ione D and the Epicurean Incident is tentatively scheduled for publication next Victoria Day, May 24, 2017. Watch this site for updates and previews.
While we prepare the Mayan Marvel paperback for production, my multi-talented co-author Arlys has been preparing for the second book in the series, Professor Ione D and the Epicurean Incident. Its publication is tentatively scheduled for Queen Victoria’s 198th birthday, May 24, 2017. Here we see our model Arlys Endres playing the globe-trotting young Professor, Ione Dyfrdwy. This time, we’re getting a jump on getting the illustrations for the novel ready ahead of time. We’ll be keeping you informed of our progress.
For many years, we libertarians studied, wrote and theorized in the shadows. We believed with a religious zeal in the benefits of liberty and a laissez-faire economy. The Libertarian Party’s motto says it best: “Working for freedom because freedom works.” Though we continued to be marginalized as a movement, our efforts began to pay off. Starting in the Reagan era, many of those in power began to take our ideas seriously, or so it seemed. Four libertarian principles – deregulation, privatization, free trade, and open borders – have become economic and political orthodoxy.
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” In other words, we should have been suspicious of our rulers’ good intentions. Politicians and bureaucrats are not inclined to surrender money and authority without a personal benefit. In this case, it was the monetary support of billionaires and multi-national corporations. As their elite-centric policies have borne their rotten fruit, we find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of defending our ideas on multiple fronts, from progressives, populists and even the Alt-Right.
Though we still believe in freedom, the issues are more complicated than they once appeared. The recent relaxations and abolitions of laws and regulations happened to apply mainly to the rich and powerful. Yes, freedom is an end in itself, but it is not always beneficial when enacted unevenly or unfairly.
Take for example deregulation. The Enron scandal occurred partly as a result of the government’s deregulation of energy distributors but not energy producers, allowing the company to reap massive profits. Even more disastrous was the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Banking Act during the Clinton administration. This allowed banks to move into risky derivative markets, while still insured by the taxpayer, creating a moral hazard that caused the financial crash of 2008.
Privatization, too, has had its share of disasters. Privately owned prisons are another source of perverse incentives. Rather than simply providing a cost-effective alternative for the incarceration of dangerous criminals, these corporations made contracts with governments specifying minimum “occupancy” levels, which indirectly led to a vast expansion in the US prison population. The “Affordable” Care Act, too, was conceived as a “free market” alternative to a single-payer health care system like the one in Canada. Markets do not work well with compulsion, and the Obamacare “mandate” allowed insurers to raise rates and deductibles dramatically for their captive consumers.
Perhaps the worst example of privatization gone awry occurred after the fall of the Soviet Union. Led astray by Western “experts,” Russian officials privatized their nation’s industries, granting shares to every citizen. This happened simultaneously with massive unemployment and the gutting of Russia’s social safety net. In order to avoid starvation, citizens were forced to sell their shares to foreign investors who proceeded to strip-mine Russian industries. This is why the Russian people love Putin because his government put a stop to this madness.
As for “free trade,” when the elitists use the term, it means more than eliminating tariff barriers. Trace organizations like the European Union create a huge unelected supranational bureaucracy, which is accountable only to large corporations and the wealthy. Newer trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would create special courts in which corporations could sue to have national laws and regulations changed for their benefit. If this wasn’t insidious, why were the terms of the TPP kept secret even from Congress?
Despite its benefits of efficiency and closer international relations, free trade has the downside of promoting the outsourcing of jobs and industries from high-wage to low-wage countries. Instead of using tax policy to mitigate these problems, the US government actually incentivized the practice, ravaging the American middle class and bankrupting the heartland. It was this problem, not the rise of minorities, that made the so-called “deplorables” so furious.
At the moment, the biggest issue in both America and Europe is immigration, with illegals and refugees causing anger in the native population. Though libertarians have traditionally favored immigration as a component of individual freedom, we find the double standard infuriating. Why does one group get to flout Federal law, when a citizen doing something comparably illegal would end up in a private prison? Even worse is the uncontrolled Islamic invasion of Europe. These so-called refugees receive taxpayer support and special legal privileges. Rather than expecting the newcomers to assimilate, European governments demand that their citizens accommodate the newcomers’ primitive, misogynist culture. This insanity is what turned me away from my life-long “open borders” advocacy.
Can the philosophy of freedom survive? Some of us libertarians have turned to populism and the Alt Right and supported President Trump as a lesser evil, even though many of his policies are authoritarian in nature. Yet the fact that the entire Establishment opposes him is a mark in his favor. As for the Libertarian Party, if it is to continue, it needs to pick a standard-bearer who isn’t a single-issue (legal weed) know-nothing like Gary Johnson. Speaking of weed, could there be something behind the marijuana movement besides the desire for increased tax revenues? Perhaps the Elite once again have something sinister up their sleeves.
Lately, everybody’s been talking about a movie called Lala Land. It’s directed by Damon Chazelle and stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as Mia and Sebastian, star-crossed lovers in modern-day Los Angeles. The movie has been nominated for 14 Academy awards, which ties the all-time record set by All About Even and Titanic. I hate to be an echo when the film has already gotten so much praise, but it deserves it.
Lala Land is not the best movie I’ve ever seen, so perhaps so many Oscar nominations is a bit of overkill. I think, however, that it’s warranted given the current dearth of good solid films with general appeal. Furthermore, it’s fun to revisit the time-honored musical format. Unlike many of the old-time movies, in which another person’s voice was dubbed in for the musical numbers, both Gosling and Stone sing, and they do a good job. As for the choreography, I’m by no means an expert but it looked good to me.
Like all romantic stories, there’s a bit of a formula. The protagonists, an aspiring actress and a struggling musician, meet by accident and it’s hate at first site. Their paths keep crossing, however, and as in any formula romance, the initial repulsion turns to passionate attraction. On the other hand, La La Land mixes it up with an ending that’s not quite the standard “happily ever after.” I liked that, not because I’m anti-tradition but because it’s nice to defy expectations for a change. Are the protagonists’ personal dreams more important than a cherished relationship? The way the characters approach that dilemma is what makes the story.
It’s been so long since we’ve seen a musical set in contemporary America, it seems jarring to have one with cellphones and electric cars. In a way, it’s less of a musical than its spiritual predecessors. Though it begins with a surprising and impressive song-and-dance number on an LA freeway on-ramp, the songs don’t appear throughout. Since Sebastian is a musician, much of the music is organic to the story.
My favorable opinion of Lala Land has been solidified by the disgruntled reaction from Social Justice types in the media. One of these ridiculous reviews was by Geoff Nelson on Paste. He argues that the nostalgia the movie expresses is racist because things were bad for black people in the good old days. Furthermore, Nelson finds it insulting that Gosling’s character, a white man, strives to save jazz, while the black character Keith (played by John Legend) is a sell-out to pop music. Excuse me, but jazz has never been a purely African-American art form. The Jewish contribution to early jazz has been well documented. We never see Sebastian in a yarmulke, but who knows? (Gosling himself was raised Mormon.)
This identity politics reaction is all the more ironic since Emma Stone was one of those Hollywood lefty girls in the “I Will Survive” anti-Trump video. I care not one whit about Stone’s political opinions; she’s a great actress and adorable to boot.
If you haven’t seen La La Land, see it; it’s a lot of fun. Those of you guys who are worried about the “musicals are gay” stereotype, see it when it comes out on video. Your secret will be safe with me.
For a dose of nostalgia and alternate history, see my book Miss Ione D and the Mayan Marvel, currently in e-book and coming soon in paperback form.
Former Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, was on Capitol Hill yesterday for confirmation hearings before Congress. Given the general hysteria over Tillerson’s business ties with Russia, I thought at first he’d be a good pick. Nothing is more important than repairing America’s damaged relations with Russia. It’s a powerful country, rich in resources, with an educated population and a shared opposition to Islamic terrorism. Most importantly, it has nuclear weapons, so to attack it would be suicidal.
Unfortunately, the US government is lousy with “exceptionalists” who deny that Russia has the right to defend its own interests. They’re apoplectic that Moscow has opposed the illegal installation of hostile regimes in two of its former allies, Ukraine and Syria. The neo-conservative anti-Russian crusade is not about “human rights.” If we cared about that, we wouldn’t support countries like Saudi Arabia that murder gays and enslave women.
As for Tillerson, he’s more of a war-hawk than his detractors thought. He supports our pointless sanctions on Russia as if either Crimea or Aleppo was any of our business. Furthermore, the accusations of Putin “hacking” the Presidential election are just that, accusations, unsupported by credible evidence. Even if the Kremlin DID hack the Democratic Party’s server, the released information was true and relevant to the voters’ decision, so the leak was a public service.
Perhaps Rex is repeating this neo-conservative rubbish so the clowns in Congress will confirm him. I hope that’s the case, but I have my doubts after hearing his belligerent remarks about China. What gives us the right to tell a sovereign nation what it can and cannot do in its own coastal waters? Open navigation in the South China Sea is critical for Beijing’s survival. Despite that fact, Rex insists that China must stop building artificial island bases and threatens to send our Navy to kick them off.
Is this man insane? It’s acceptable to make war for our own national defense, but not to attack the vital interests of another country. China has every right to defend itself and having come late to the party, there are no leftover islands for it to occupy as bases. To Beijing’s credit, these built-up shoals were not inhabited. They’re not conquering and coercing native peoples as we did with Guam, Samoa, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Even Diego Garcia, which the US rents from the UK, was stolen from its native population.
Why do so many powerful Americans continue to frame other nations’ defensive moves as aggression? It must be psychological projection because the US is second to none at portraying imperialism as defense. We needn’t accept this nonsense. Congress should reject Tillerson’s nomination, not because he’s (allegedly) soft on Russia, but because he’s unhinged, unfair, and unbalanced on China. We don’t need another conflict, especially one that could escalate into a nuclear war.
If you like political intrigue, you’ll enjoy my novel Centrifugal Force.
Sometimes problems that seem easy are actually difficult. One of these problems in the generation of random numbers. I won’t get into a discussion of what randomness means in a statistical sense, except to say that it means something that’s unpredictable, with no discernible pattern. In the physical world, it’s easy – we can roll dice, draw a piece of paper from a hat, or spin a wheel. Electronics, however, play by different rules. We have spent decades developing integrated circuits that behave consistently, and computer programs that execute the same way every time. This makes randomness a big deal.
Why do we need randomness? One of the major applications is in gaming. For example, if you want to simulate a turn-based board game, your computer, phone or console needs to be able to roll those dice. Another more critical use is in encryption, the technology that allows us to keep our conversations and financial transactions private. Random numbers are used in the creation of numeric keys, which are then used to convert readable data to gibberish and back to data on the receiving end.
The simplest approach is by the use of a PRNG, or pseudo-random number generator. We add the prefix “pseudo” because mathematically, it’s not really random; the function is just complex enough to seem that way. A commonly used method is the linear congruential generator, which is the basis of the Unix library function “rand.” It’s fast, efficient, and requires minimal memory. This is fine for games, but for encryption, the stakes are higher. An attacker who sought to compromise a secure system might discover how the numbers are generated and use them to guess at keys. The problem is actually more difficult than that, but if the attacker is sufficiently motivated, it could be a serious weakness.
Why not use a hardware-based solution to achieve real-world randomness in number generation? People have tried a number of different approaches, including monitoring the decay of a radioactive source, which is the basis behind Fermilab’s Hotbits service. Another option is to convert atmospheric noise to numeric values, which is used by the website random.org. The drawbacks of the hardware method include the initial cost of acquiring the hardware and the relative slowness of true random number production. At Fermilab it’s only 100 bytes per second, which is why they ask you to email them a request for a particular number of bytes; they send back data which they have pre-generated.
I’ve long wondered if someone could create a portable device to create random numbers for your PC. After doing a bit of USB development, I thought about creating a USB key to do this. Well,m somebody has beat me to it. Simtec electronics has a product which they call the “Entropy Key” which uses “two high-quality noise generators” to create the requisite random data. They’re a bit pricey, 36 pounds (currently about $44) each in single unit quantities, not including shipping. Their website says they currently have none in stock and there is a long wait. Another company, called Idquantique, provides random number modules incorporated in PC add-on boards, but these cost hundreds of dollars apiece.
Randomness, like air and water, is something we take for granted in everyday life, and often get for free. In certain applications, however, randomness can be very expensive indeed.
If you enjoy stories where the unexpected happens, download my short e-book Found Pet, in which a man who adopts a cute furry animal gets more than he bargained for.
The movie Her, directed by Spike Jonze and starring Joaquin Phoenix as a man who falls in love with a computer program, was released in 2013. The film won numerous awards, including an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Somehow I missed seeing it until this week. Though it’s not a new release, as a life-long software engineer, I felt compelled to comment.
I’m conflicted about the idea of a sentient computer program. Knowing how complicated and error prone software can be, it seems unlikely at best. Possible, yes, since the brain is a biological computer. Yet I don’t believe this will happen in the near future, as the movie portrays it.
The biggest problem for me was not the concept, but its implementation. I really don’t understand why people liked Her so much. My theory is that, like that other 2013 release, Twelve Years a Slave, it was a movie people felt obliged to like. Except that Slave was dramatic and compelling, Her was slow, ponderous, and mawkishly emotional.
The first problem was the protagonist, Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombley. He’s the ultimate gamma male, a pathetic loser who apologizes to everyone. Appropriately enough, his job is writing heartfelt letters for other people a la Cyrano de Bergerac. To help provide order to his foundering life, Theodore purchases an “operating system” (actually an artificial intelligence) called OS-1, for which he chooses a female voice and personality. It begins as an advanced analog of Siri or Alexa but, sensing its owner’s loneliness, it names itself Samantha and adopts a flirtatious persona. It’s not surprising that the pathetic Theodore falls for Samantha, but “she” soon falls for him as well, like a modern Galatea to his Pygmalion. With no Aphprodite to bring her to life, Samatha communicates with Theodore and experiences the world through his cell phone.
As the “relationship” progresses, Theodore tells friends and coworkers about “her.” Everyone accepts this bizarre situation without question – except, to her credit, Theodore’s ex-wife. The movie seems to prophesy the current transgender mania, with its inherent contempt for social convention and the limitations of the physical body.
Voice actor Scarlett Johannson does a competent job as Samantha, who is fun-loving, curious, and affectionate. In one scene, she and Theodore have verbal sex, whereupon the screen goes blank for a moment. I thought my disc player had broken, but then realized that Jonze probably meant for the audience to imagine the event. The obvious solution, virtual reality, is mentioned as a way to play video games but nothing more. Samantha could have at least had an appearance for Theodore to fixate on. VR sex would have been more realistic than the ludicrous scene in which they enlist a surrogate (Portia Doubleday) to play Samantha’s role in their assignation. No doubt because of the movie’s relentless political correctness, the surrogate is not paid (which would imply prostitution) but a volunteer. Rather than enjoying the experience, the hapless Theodore feels awkward and guilty about cheating on his “girlfriend,” and the surrogate leaves in tears.
The final insult to our intelligence is how the movie ends. In a nod to the sci-fi concept of “the Singularity,” Samantha hooks up with other OS-based personalities who then collectively “evolve” to a point where they no longer want to deal with humans. Thus they bid farewell to their reality-bound companions and disappear. Nobody worries about what these super-intelligent beings are plotting – will they control the world or destroy humanity? No, we only see the emotional consequences for poor Theodore. In a more realistic scenario, he and his fellow jilted OS owners would have sued the software company that produced such defective products into bankruptcy.
In summary, Her might be enjoyable for those with a taste for unconventional romance, but I found it dull and disappointing. If you want a serious look at the potential of artificial intelligence in the near future, look elsewhere.
If you enjoy stories about computers, you’ll like my novel Centrifugal Force, available on Amazon.
Why make predictions, one nobody can see the future? I say, why not? At the very least, it’s an interesting exercise to see how much we can guess correctly.
First I’ll review my arcane and esoteric predictions from a year ago, at the start of 2016:
1. My 2016 prediction about Trump not winning the Presidency was wrong, and I’m in good company because even most of the Donald’s most devoted advocates expected him to lose. It’s not that I believed the media’s slanted coverage of him; I just didn’t think the Powers That Be would allow him to prevail.
2. Economic stagnation continues – I was mostly correct. Despite the Obama administration’s propaganda about a recovery, there are still millions unemployed and thirty-year-olds living with their parents. The post-election stock market euphoria doesn’t count; to most Americans, it has yet to deliver any material benefit.
3. Unrest expands beyond the inner cities – also correct. With the Dakota Access Pipeline, Black Lives Matter, and anti-Trump protests, we’ve seen plenty of that. Thankfully, there hasn’t been as much violence as I expected. 2016 was indeed a year of surprises.
Now for my prognostications for 2017: having gone 2 for 3 in 2016 I’ll double the number.
1. Happy days aren’t here again. The economy will worsen and perhaps even return to 2008 levels. Trump will be the cause, but not directly. Because he’s an independent actor, the usual suspects at the Federal Reserve have no reason to support him and will finally raise interest rates. On the good side, it will be a long-overdue detox from the fiscal meth high of the “zero interest rate” policy.
2. Russia, Russia, Russia! Russia will continue to increase its influence, especially if Trump can put an end to those foolish economic sanctions. The Russian economy will grow through 2017 and the Kremlin will win battles and gain allies in the Middle East.
3. Oil prices are headed upward. This is a contrary view, but the world’s biggest oil producer, Saudi Arabia, has gotten itself in financial trouble with its overly generous welfare state. Furthermore the royal family’s covert support for ISIS and their meddling in Bahrain and Yemen will come back to bite them. The resulting political turmoil may cause a significant increase in prices by the second half of the year.
4. Havana will be the new boomtown. With Fidel gone, Cuba will go the way of China and attempt to meld communism and capitalism. It will be the “in” place for investors, though the Raul Castro regime will give a lot of them the shaft.
5. Humpty Dumpty sits on a wall in Brussels. If Le Pen wins in France or Wilders wins in the Netherlands (I’d say the odds are at least 50-50 for at least one of these,) the EU will effectively collapse by year’s end. If not, this autocratic alliance will continue its slow march into oblivion.
6. The corporate media grabs at straws. The “fake news” nonsense shows that media corporations are desperate. When their propaganda fails, they’ll attempt to absorb and co-opt the alt media. A few might have some limited success, but in the long run, the dinosaur networks and newspapers are doomed.
One year from now we’ll see how they stack up. Despite my pessimism, I’d like to wish you all a prosperous (or at least interesting) 2017.
If you wonder about the future (and who doesn’t?) check out the story collection Valiant, He Endured edited by George Donnelly and containing the short story “Ghost Writer” by yours truly.
Installing Joomla is easy. Many website companies (I’m currently with Go-daddy) provide it as a built-in option that to install from their control panel. If not, download the package from joomla.org and transfer it to your server. I won’t get into specifics, as there are plenty of videos on-line with step-by-step instructions.
Since the framework is free, designers make money by selling templates, which provide professional formatting and graphics. Last time I checked, the prices were mostly around $75. See templatemonster.com for examples. There are also many free templates available, including a handful of standard templates that come with Joomla itself.
Commercial templates are usually optimized for a specific business, such as a travel agency, employment recruiter, etc. For personal use, a free template is usually fine, though I’d recommend using a standard one. The others are not always well supported. Even when building your own, I’d recommend browsing the template sites to get ideas.
Choosing a standard template doesn’t mean you’re stuck with one look. There are many factors you can customize, including colors, fonts, and effects. One of my favorite effects is the slideshow which provides variety in the images your site provides to the world. If the template doesn’t include this capability, you can use a plugin as described below.
Although Joomla is powerful, it can be maddening, because although it provides a common set of controls, the specific template determines which characteristics can be modified and how. For my main site (this blog uses WordPress, another framework which I’ll address in a later post), I recreated the look of a free template called Mystique-FJT in the standard Atomic template.
Another feature of Joomla is its ability to use plugin modules to provide specific functions such as file backup, event calendars, or managing customer input. If your site is for business, a paid, well-supported plugin is worth the investment. Make sure it works with your current Joomla version, and that it’s kept current, as you may need a new plugin version for the next Joomla update.
Working with Joomla requires patience and the ability to take detailed notes. For example, it took me several hours to figure out how to set my main page to the current article. When I wrote a new main-page article again after a few months’ hiatus I realized I hadn’t mode notes for the procedure and had to figure it out again. The Joomla user forum is a helpful resource, but you need to do your homework first. Learn the technical terms for Joomla’s features and gather information on your own setup before posting. Many forum exports are volunteers who understandably lose patience with “lazy” questioners.
Joomla is a powerful tool for creating a general purpose websites. It takes a bit of tech savvy, so you may need help if you’re a web design newbie.
If you like technology you’ll enjoy my novel Centrifugal Force, in which computer hackers plot to overthrow the government.