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Shattered Gods: A Novel by Michael Diamond

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Categories: Writing, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

It is with great pleasure I share news of Shattered Gods, the second novel in the “Mythos Division” series by my good friend, Michael Diamond. Principal writing finished several months ago, and the book has progressed through the editing and rewriting process in the intervening time. Mike has signed off on the book, and is eagerly awaiting paperbacks from the printer, as am I. Shattered Gods represents the second writing/editing collaboration between Mike and me, and – without giving away any spoilers – I’d like to share my thoughts on the novel.

Shattered Gods picks up again with Julius Godom, protagonist of Origins of the Black Idol, several years after the terrible events in India portrayed in the first novel. Julius is now a member of the Mythos Division, partnered with the cantankerous Dr. Pierce. The Division dispatches the investigators to pre-WWII Germany on a mission to retrieve another mysterious artifact. Julius, however, wants another chance to right his past mistakes.

Sometimes we get exactly what we want, with disastrous consequences…

Shattered Gods is the continued evolution of Mike’s writing. As editor, I appreciate Mike’s dedication to growth as writer and author. Technically and artistically, Shattered Gods is a good book. Sentences are tight; descriptions are detailed without being too expository.

One of the things I like most about this second novel is that the environment, especially Munich, becomes as big a character as Julius or Pierce. Where and when the story happens matters, and Mike has taken the time to get the details right, without turning the book into an essay of post-WWI German life. He did his homework (a fact I can personally attest to, having seen the stack of non-fiction on his desk) and painted the pages with all the greys of that time in German history.

If you’ve a taste for tales of mystery, adventure, and intrigue with a dollop of Lovecraftian horror, I must recommend you pick up a copy of Shattered Gods. Print copies are available for pre-order from Mr. Diamond’s website; paperback and electronic editions will be available on the book’s official release day: 28 November. Mike will also be hosting a “Books & Beer” release party that day at 8:00 PM in Rockford, Illinois at the Olympic Tavern. If you’re in the area, please stop by to tip a pint in celebration with my good friend, author Michael Diamond.

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Automatic BIOS Firmware and Settings Updates

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Categories: Geek Stuff, Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

One of my big projects this summer at work has been to automatically update the BIOS firmware and settings on our roughly 250 (mostly Dell) workstations. I was finally able to develop a working solution using all free tools, and I’m sharing the results with the Internet in hope they are useful to someone else as well.

This document is designed to explain the process of setting up a Windows PE environment to be used for BIOS update purposes, creating custom automatic BIOS settings files, updating the bios.bat file for new computer types, and deploying BIOS updates based on your customizations.

Setting Up Working Tools

Before you can create your custom BIOS settings files and deploy them to workstations using Windows PE, you’ll need specialized tools available on your technician workstation.

Windows Automated Installation Kit

The WAIK contains components used for deploying Windows 7 systems, including Windows PE, which will be used to create a bootable environment for flashing BIOS updates and automatic BIOS settings files.

  1. Download the WAIK from Microsoft.
  2. Burn the downloaded ISO to disk using your preferred burning utility, or extract the contents to a folder.
  3. Insert the burned disc or launch StartCD.exe from the extracted folder.
  4. Click “Windows AIK Setup” in left navigation pane.
  5. When the setup wizard starts, click Next.
  6. Select the “I Agree” radio button to accept the license agreement, then click Next.
  7. Choose where you’d like to install the software to and who should be able to run it, then click Next, Next again, then Close.
  8. Exit the launcher program by clicking Exit in left navigation pane.

Dell Client Configuration Utility

To create automatic BIOS settings files to deploy to Dell target workstations, you’ll need the Dell Client Configuration Utility.

  1. Download the DCCU from Dell.
  2. Launch the installer by right-clicking and choosing “Run as administrator”
  3. Click Next.
  4. Accept the license agreement by selecting the radio button next to “I accept the license agreement” then click Next.
  5. Enter customization information, choose who may run the program, then click Next.
  6. Click Next, then Finish.
  7. The ASP.net AJAX 2.0 Extensions may install automatically once DCCU installation is finished, if they are not already present on your technician workstation.

BIOS.BAT

The workhorse of the automatic update process is a Windows batch file called bios.bat.

  1. Navigate to http://community.spiceworks.com/scripts/show_download/2669
  2. Click the Download button.
  3. Save the file as bios.bat.

(Optional) WinSCP or FileZilla

If you use FOG as your imaging solution, and you wish to add your BIOS update disc to the PXE boot menu, you’ll need an FTP program like WinSCP or FileZilla.

Gathering Data, Customizing Options, and Generating the BIOS Settings Update Executable

Gathering the data you need to create custom BIOS setting files is a two-part process. Note: for this section, you will need a sample machine of each type you wish to develop a custom setting file for. It’s recommended the sample machine have any installed antivirus software disabled.

Collecting the BIOS Inventory

In order to collect a BIOS inventory from a sample computer, follow the steps above for installing the Dell Client Configuration Utility. Once the DCCU is installed on the sample machine, the following process explains how to capture the BIOS inventory:

  1. Boot the sample computer into BIOS.
  2. Configure the BIOS according to your needs. This will become the baseline for your setting update file.
  3. Restart the sample computer.
  4. Log in with an administrator account.
  5. Launch the DCCU. (I have had the best luck with running the DCCU web interface in Internet Explorer 8 with Compatibility Mode on. Chrome and Firefox fail to render the page correctly for me. YMMV)
  6. Click the “Create BIOS Inventory Package” link.
  7. When the File Download – Security Warning pop-up box appears, choose “Run.”
  8. Once the BIOS inventory program has completed, a file called TaskResult.xml will be created on the desktop. You may wish to save this file in case you need to make adjustments to the settings update configuration later.

Customizing BIOS Settings and Generating the Update File

After gathering an inventory of the sample machine’s BIOS, you can now make any needed changes to the automatic BIOS settings update file. Follow these steps to complete the configuration:

  1. On the sample machine or your technician workstation, click the Browse button in the Dell Client Configuration Utility web page under the BIOS Settings heading.
  2. In the “Choose File to Upload” box, navigate to your previously-generated TaskResult.xml file, select it, then click Open.
  3. Once you’ve selected the TaskResult.xml file you need, click the “Import Selected BIOS Inventory” link in the DCCU.
  4. Now you can customize the available BIOS settings. Items in the list with check marks are available for configuration in the chosen BIOS. To leave a setting as it’s already configured on the target machine – such as a previously-entered asset tag – simply clear the check mark for that item. It will be omitted from the custom settings file. To reset a text field, leave the box checked, but remove all text (leave it blank).
  5. Once the BIOS settings are configured according to your specifications, scroll to the bottom of the Dell Client Configuration Utility page and select the “Create BIOS Settings Package” link.
  6. A File Download – Security Warning box will pop-up. Choose “Save,” then select a name and location to save the resulting executable to. To make updating the bios.bat file easier, I typically name the file machinemodelset.exe, as in 745set.exe.
  7. You can now use your custom BIOS settings executable to update target PCs.

Creating the BIOS Update Folder

In order for the automatic updating features of the disc to work, a specific directory structure must be observed:

  1. Create a directory called “BIOS” in the C: drive of your technician workstation.
  2. Place all BIOS setting customization executables created with the Dell Client Configuration Utility or files created by another manufacturer’s similar program in the BIOS directory just created.
  3. Place your customized bios.bat file in this directory.
  4. Create a subdirectory for each model computer to be updated and place the firmware update executable in this folder. (The FW update executable must be named with the BIOS version and nothing else.)

Building the BIOS Update Disc

The following sections detail creating the Windows PE build environment, customizing the environment, adding the necessary BIOS files, and committing the updated environment to a custom ISO file.

Creating the Windows PE Build Environment

Use the following steps to create your Windows PE environment:

  1. Click Start, then navigate to All Programs – Microsoft Windows AIK.
  2. Right-click on “Deployment Tools Command Prompt” and select “Run as administrator”
  3. Type copype.cmd x86 C:\winpe_x86 into the command prompt and hit Enter.
  4. Type copy C:\winpe_x86\winpe.wim C:\winpe_x86\ISO\sources\boot.wim into the command prompt and hit Enter.

Mounting and Customizing the Windows PE Environment

Follow the steps below to mount and customize the Windows PE environment:

  1. In the Deployment Tools Command Prompt, type dism /Mount-WIM /WimFile:C:\winpe_x86\ISO\sources\boot.wim /index:1 /MountDir:c:\winpe_x86\mount and press Enter.
  2. Add the Windows Management Instrumentation to the environment by typing dism /image:C:\winpe_x86\mount /Add-Package /PackagePath:”C:\Program Files\Windows AIK\Tools\PETools\x86\WinPE_FPs\winpe-wmi.cab” and pressing Enter, then running dism /image:C:\winpe_x86\mount /Add-Package /PackagePath:”C:\Program Files\Windows AIK\Tools\PETools\x86\WinPE_FPs\en-us\winpe-wmi_en-us.cab”
  3. Add HTA to the image by entering dism /image:C:\winpe_x86\mount /Add-Package /PackagePath:”C:\Program Files\Windows AIK\Tools\PETools\x86\WinPE_FPs\winpe-hta.cab” and dism /image:C:\winpe_x86\mount /Add-Package /PackagePath:”C:\Program Files\Windows AIK\Tools\PETools\x86\WinPE_FPs\en-us\winpe-hta_en-us.cab” in the Deployment Tools Command Prompt.
  4. Scripting support needs to be added to the Windows PE environment by typing dism /image:C:\winpe_x86\mount /Add-Package /PackagePath:”C:\Program Files\Windows AIK\Tools\PETools\x86\WinPE_FPs\winpe-scripting.cab” into the command prompt, then pressing Enter. You’ll also need to type dism /image:C:\winpe_x86\mount /Add-Package /PackagePath:”C:\Program Files\Windows AIK\Tools\PETools\x86\WinPE_FPs\en-us\winpe-scripting_en-us.cab” into the prompt.
  5. Add MDAC support to the environment by entering dism /image:C:\winpe_x86\mount /Add-Package /PackagePath:”C:\Program Files\Windows AIK\Tools\PETools\x86\WinPE_FPs\winpe-mdac.cab” and dism /image:C:\winpe_x86\mount /Add-Package /PackagePath:”C:\Program Files\Windows AIK\Tools\PETools\x86\WinPE_FPs\en-us\winpe-mdac_en-us.cab”
  6. Copy the contents of your BIOS update folder to the Windows PE environment by typing xcopy /e C:\BIOS C:\winpe_x86\mount\Windows\System32 into the command prompt and pressing Enter.
  7. Type notepad C:\winpe_x86\mount\Windows\System32\startnet.cmd into the command prompt and press Enter.
  8. Add “bios” to the second line of the file and save it.
  9. Exit Notepad.

Committing Changes to the Environment and Creating the Bootable ISO

In order to use the customized Windows PE environment, changes must be committed to the system and a bootable ISO created:

  1. In the Deployment Tools Command Prompt, type dism /unmount-wim /Mountdir:c:\winpe_x86\mount /commit and press Enter.
  2. Type oscdimg -n -bC:\winpe_x86\Etfsboot.com C:\winpe_x86\ISO C:\winpe_x86\BIOS.iso next, followed by Enter.
  3. Exit the Deployment Tools Command Prompt.
  4. Burn the resulting CD image file with your preferred disc burning software.

Updating the Environment and Rebuilding the BIOS Update Disc

It may be necessary to update the environment in order to add new machine types or include updated firmware files. The simplest way to update the disc is to make any needed modifications to your C:\BIOS folder (new bios.bat, new machine folders, etc. – Remember, only one firmware update executable can be in a given folder at a time.) then rebuild the environment using the steps above.

(Optional) Creating a BIOS Update USB Flash Drive

In lieu of a CD, which can take longer to load, you may wish to follow these steps after you’ve completed “Committing Changes to the Environment and Creating the Bootable ISO” above:

  1. Insert the target USB flash drive in your technician workstation.
  2. Open a Command Prompt as an administrator (or use the Deployment Tools Command Prompt).
  3. Type diskpart and hit Enter.
  4. Type list disk and hit Enter.
  5. Type select disk 1 and hit Enter. (This assumes your flash drive is disk 1. If not, substitute the correct value.)
  6. Type clean and hit Enter.
  7. Type create partition primary and hit Enter.
  8. Type select partition 1 and hit Enter.
  9. Type active and hit Enter.
  10. Type format quick fs=fat32 and hit Enter.
  11. Type assign and hit Enter.
  12. Type exit and hit Enter to exit diskpart.
  13. Type xcopy C:\winpe_x86\iso\*.* /e F:\ (assuming F: is the drive letter assigned to your flash drive) and hit Enter.
  14. Exit the Command Prompt.

(Optional) Adding the Update Disc Image to the FOG PXE Boot Menu

If you use FOG as your imaging solution, you may wish to make your BIOS update disc available in the PXE boot menu so you can load BIOS updates over the network. The steps below detail this process:

  1. Launch WinSCP (or your preferred FTP client) and connect to your FOG server.
  2. Once connected, navigate to /tftpboot/
  3. Copy memdisk to a temporary folder on your technician workstation.
  4. Navigate to /tftpboot/fog/
  5. Create a new directory called “bios” (without quotes).
  6. Upload the BIOS.iso file you created for your update disc and the copy of memdisk into this new folder.
  7. Navigate to /tftpboot/pxelinux.cfg/
  8. Copy the default file to a temporary folder on your technician workstation.
  9. Rename the default file on your FOG server to default.bak
  10. Open the copy of default on your workstation in your favorite text editor.
  11. Insert the following code where you would like the option to appear in the PXE boot menu (I prefer to place it at the end, just before the line PROMPT 0):

LABEL bios

kernel fog/bios/memdisk

append iso initrd=fog/bios/BIOS.iso raw

MENU LABEL BIOS Update

TEXT HELP

Utility to automatically update BIOS firmware

and settings.

ENDTEXT

  1. Save the default file, then upload the new version to /tftpboot/pxelinux.cfg/ on your FOG server.
  2. To update the utility, simply copy over the BIOS.iso file in /tftpboot/fog/bios/ with a newer version.

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Radio Silence

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Categories: Geek Stuff, Health, Writing

It’s been over a year since I wrote anything in this blog space, and it occurs to me that I should make an effort to write more. After all, how am I going to keep challenging my author friend, Michael Diamond, if I’m not challenging myself? (Mike’s first book, Origins of the Black Idol, is available at major online retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble; I was his editor.)

So, along with writing more, I’m going to focus this year on improving my health, my bass playing skills, and mastering VMware vSphere 5 to get VMware Certified Professional (Datacenter Virtualization) certified – more on that later. (I know it’s a bit late to make New Year’s resolutions, but I am a bit of a slacker, so you ought not be surprised this post comes at the end of February).

Stick with me throughout the year and you might learn something about yourself, your fellow humans, and the universe, or at least be mildly entertained at my folly along the way.

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New Poem: “In Winter”

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Categories: Poetry, Tags: , , , ,

In winter, our lives rearrange.

The light shifts

and we scratch away our mange.

In winter, our days shrink.

The light shifts

and we have nary a moment to think.

In winter, our pain expands.

The light shifts

and we struggle to meet demands.

In winter, our hope grows.

The light shifts

and we hear echoes of barbeques in the snows.

In winter, our hearts melt.

The light shifts

and we learn to love the hands we’re dealt.

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New Poem: “Veils”

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Categories: Poetry, Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Veils

Veils make the beautiful even more so

and the ugly beautiful

Obscuring flaws and highlighting perfection

 
The gentle slope of a nose

a mountain.

The rounded globe of a cheek

a hill.

The long, smooth line of a throat

a river.
 

The fog covers a field

in a thin, silken veil.

The budding plants peek out

like sultry, smoky eyes.

When the veil is drawn

the crop reveals its nurturing bounty.

 
Clouds cover the eyes of the sky

The sun and moon staring, unblinking

down on the Earth

Wispy, white lace obscuring, but not concealing,

the face of the heavens

 
The beautiful curve of the hills

matched by the smooth, blue face

of the sky

makes a Hellenic beauty

unmarred, unblemished by make-up

caked and piled high

 
So many plastic babes in our modern world

the face of the Earth is refreshing

to look upon, yet only through the veil

of mist and vapor

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Surrounded by Jackasses in America

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Categories: Essays, Family, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The prairie dog’s bark echoed across the plain – a plaintive cry for me to break the rules and hand over some of my popcorn. I resisted, glancing over at the sign: “DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS!” Though my mother, stepfather, sister, and I were the only humans in sight, I could feel the park ranger’s phantom eyes upon me. I pictured Tonto on horseback, riding up to scold me – “Maize no good for prairie dog, Kemosabe.” – and snatching the errant kernel from my hand (or, perhaps, an unnamed Indian shedding a single tear over my proposed misdeed).

I crumpled the end of the bag closed and returned the popcorn to the back seat of the family car. A worn-out Pontiac, it had nevertheless ferried us from the gentle, green hills of northern Illinois, to the vast, scrabbly tableau of South Dakota, to this nameless drive-thru nature preserve in particular. Along the way, that car carried us over the Mississippi (which seemed less mighty with a giant concrete and steel bridge shrinking it to a five minute drive) and sailed sickening seas of soybeans in Iowa.

There we made a stop in Mitchell to see the Corn Palace, which is indeed made entirely of corn. (Curiously, there was no maze of maize in Mitchell, however.) There was heat, though; oh my goodness, the heat. I was amazed the Palace didn’t spontaneously pop. It smelled of cooked kernels. Not the left-too-long-in-the-microwave smell: this was the almost sweet scent of corn and oil in a pan on the stove from my childhood.

Outside there were hawkers of all kinds, with Corn Palace bumper stickers and Corn Palace T-shirts and Corn Palace corn cob stuffed animals and Corn Palace books and Corn Palace videocassettes (no Corn Palace DVDs, even though it was the mid-Nineties). I was glad to be rid of Mitchell and its thrice-damned Corn Palace. Nothing like rampant capitalism to shatter a perfectly good reminiscence.

The Crazy Horse monument in South Dakota was little better. Only the outline of the noble native was visible, with completion a decade or more away, yet still rocks blasted away from the face of the mountain were for sale. I shook my head and wondered what Crazy Horse would have thought about selling broken parts of the earth – never mind carving his image into his Mother’s body. Of course, we bought one.

The Crazy Horse rock sat in the back seat of our Pontiac, and I used it to hold down my half-empty popcorn bag. An arid breeze blew across the amber waves that day, and I was not about to explain how the animals came to be fed through my negligence and a gust. Tonto would not be scolding this Kemosabe today.

I started when what I assumed was the chief of the prairie dogs let out three sharp barks. “Son of a…” I said as I cracked my skull on the roof, but my mother’s peregrine ears caught me before I could complete my curse. “Language, son,” she said.

The prairie dog’s language became more insistent, as if he had understood and ignored my mom’s rebuke. His barks came faster, louder, commanding his tribe back to their holes not more than twenty feet from the road winding through the preserve. I pulled my now-aching head from the car to see what his bother was. Scanning the horizon, I saw no wolf or fox emerging from the wood for a snack, no buffalo stampede threatening the dog’s den or our dying Pontiac – in fact, I had not seen a buffalo at all in South Dakota, though I had eaten one the day before.

My mom (originally from Canton, S.D.) was advised by her cousin in Sioux Falls to try a local burger joint specializing in buffalo. Signs proclaimed buffalo an “All-American Meat.” Presumably, this was because the buffalo were, as another sign shouted, “Free Range,” not that I had any idea what that meant.

I understood after the first bite, however. That burger was the most exquisite mesquite-fire-cooked hunk of flesh I had ever experienced. No grease dripped down my chin, yet the patty was moist and tender; no preservatives taxed my liver, yet the meat tasted as fresh as new-fallen snow; no vegetables garnished my plate, yet every bite came with a whiff of grass and scrub.

The McDonald’s down the street had a sign indicating there had been “Millions and Millions Served” there. If this little burger joint had a similar sign, it likely would have proclaimed “Dozens and Dozens Served.” Still, I had no doubt even Crazy Horse would have called this burger a work of art.

Returning to my search of the source of the prairie dog’s stress, I turned my eyes to the painted sky. I scanned the expanse, so much bigger here than in Rockford, Illinois. The stratus and cumulonimbus seemed miles long, and their height threatened to scrape the Hubble. Still, even in the clouds of South Dakota, I saw no buffalo.

I saw the predator, though: the slow-circling falcon – or perhaps it was a hawk or an eagle (though not a bald eagle: those I had seen along the banks of the Mississippi as a child on my grandfather’s fishing boat). I pointed it out to my mother, who decided we should move on to a different part of the preserve. I was sure she wanted to give the raptor a sporting chance. I was also sure she wanted to avoid having to explain the “circle of life” to my younger sister if the bird’s hunt was successful.

We piled back into the Pontiac and continued our languid tour of the prairie. Wildflowers and brush surrounded us and concealed the vicious dance of the smaller animals of the plain. My mother and stepfather decided our time in the preserve, and in South Dakota, had come to an end. As we made our way toward the park exit, one last obstacle kept us in Sioux territory a bit longer.

A pack of burros wandered along the narrow road winding through the prairie. Content and confident, they were little concerned about the car casually cruising toward them. My stepfather blared the horn at them; their ears moved, but not their hooves. Soon they surrounded the car, poking their noses in, sniffing for a treat (which they’d no doubt received from other tourists, despite the signs admonishing such activities). My sister cried when one of the donkeys licked her face, and so desperate measures were called for.

I took up the popcorn bag from under Crazy Horse’s stone, pushed a donkey aside with the car door, and climbed out, despite my mother’s warning. I opened the bag and offered a few kernels in my outstretched palm to the donkey I’d shoved out of my way. It seemed the best way to make amends for treating him so rudely. Ears up, the donkey devoured the popcorn in an instant.

Soon, I was making amends for crimes I hadn’t committed. The rest of the pack caught the scent of maize, and moved in to get their share. Shortly, the burros pressed against me, their short hair bristling my legs and arms like brushes. I was surrounded by jackasses there on the plain, just as I had been amidst the soybeans in Iowa.

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Creating a Renaissance for Authors in the Digital Age

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Categories: Essays, Writing, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Authors are in crisis. The Digital Age, with the rise of eBooks, has expanded potential readership by a degree not seen since the mid-1800s (Collins). However, as readers shift from print to electronic books, piracy looms as an economic threat to authors as it has for musicians. This danger, combined with falling print book sales, exposes the precarious financial position of writers in the 21st century. Each eBook downloaded from the Pirate Bay illegally, each chain bookstore that liquidates its inventory for pennies on the dollar, damages the economic incentives for authors to keep writing (Petit). Some writers may choose to pursue careers other than “author” if they’re unlikely to achieve even modest financial success. The idea of “author” as an occupation, with writers having ownership of their work and entitled to compensation therefore, is a new one, but has become deep-rooted in our culture (Childers and Hentzi 23). Authors expect to be paid for their work just as carpenters do. As Booker Prize winner Graham Smith intimates in his interview with The Guardian newspaper’s Nick Collins, without a change in the business model of authorship, the future of literature is in serious jeopardy.
 
Some may question whether the pocketbooks of authors need saving. After all, they will argue, print is a dying medium and television, movies, and Internet media are the modern replacements. Instead of novels, writers should write screenplays; instead of short stories, YouTube shows; instead of poems, song lyrics. Why read American Psycho when Christian Bale was so good in the movie?1 What’s the point of reading anything Stephen King writes if it’ll end up a watered-down miniseries on NBC? Why bother flipping through a “Clifford” book with your kid when there’s an app for that?
 
First, without the work of Ellis, King, Bridwell, and scores of other authors, many of our contemporary movies, television shows, and Internet media would not exist. Hundreds of movies alone have been adapted from works of fiction, according to the Oxford County Library of Ontario, Canada. Entertainment without books to adapt looks like a 24/7 “Jersey Shore” channel: horrifying.
 
Second, authors play a special role in society, a role worthy of protection. As producers of fiction, authors have a responsibility to tell “the lie that tells the truth” (Childers and Hentzi 110). That is to say a book (print or electronic) is like a looking glass. Fiction, from tawdry romances to high-minded literature, is a commentary on society and culture. Without authors to hold up the mirror, we may forget what we look like, however ugly and beautiful we may be.
 
As the work of authors is important to society, and continued production of fiction depends on some degree of economic benefit to authors, what is to be done to keep authors writing? Maintaining the status quo is unlikely to succeed. The naysayers are right: print is dying. Readers are shifting to eBooks en masse, if Amazon’s sales figures can be believed (Collins). With more electronic books available, Digital Age piracy becomes a threat, and authors are already beginning to feel the same effects of piracy that have strangled the incomes of musicians2. Further, major publishers are all too willing to use the shift to eBooks as an excuse to pay lower royalties to authors (Collins). It’s obvious that an answer to the question of how to maintain financial support for writers must be found. While some have advocated for tougher penalties for copyright infringement and more robust digital rights management software to safeguard writer royalties, the best solution to the economic struggles of authors in the Digital Age is a return to the patronage system.
 
Patronage is “[t]he action of a patron in using money or influence to advance the interests of a person, cause, art, etc.” by the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition (“Patronage”). A patronage system, then, requires people (patrons) to advance the (financial) interests of persons (specifically, writers). During the Renaissance, wealthy individuals and families would patronize artists through commission of poetry, painting, and plays. One of the best-known examples of patronage in Renaissance Italy is that of the Medici family. The Medicis became a prominent and prosperous banking family, with strong ties to the Catholic church and politicians in Florence (Horth). They routinely bought and commissioned paintings and sculpture from the artistic luminaries of their time, including Filippo Brunelleschi, discoverer of perspective – the ability to give the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface3 (Horth). In fact, Medici patronage even brought a young Michelangelo into their home to live and work, and Leonardo Da Vinci counted the family among his patrons (Horth). With their sponsorship of artists such as Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Brunelleschi, the Medicis and their wealth could be seen as the driving force behind the Renaissance itself.
 
The benefits of patronage to the artist are obvious – financial support allowing them to pursue their art without the fetters of an unrelated day job. Shakespeare didn’t have to punch a clock at Ye Olde Walle-Marte; his full-time job was poet, playwright. In a letter to his patron, the Earl of Southampton, the Bard acknowledges his privilege (and accompanying responsibility): “…if your honour seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honoured you with some graver labour” (Brown 28). Edgar Allen Poe also wrote to his benefactor, John P. Kennedy of Baltimore, to “express by letter what I have always found it impossible to express orally — my deep sense of gratitude for your frequent and effectual assistance and kindness. Through your influence Mr White has been induced to employ me in assisting him with the Editorial duties of his Magazine [the Southern Literary Messenger ]” (Poe). Poe and Shakespeare wrote correspondence to their backers in appreciation of the support that allowed them to create.
 
But why did the Earl of Southampton and John Kennedy of Baltimore – and other wealthy patrons, like the Medicis – sponsor writers, painters, and sculptors? A common misconception is that the Renaissance patron bought an artist wholesale and dictated themes, colors, imagery, etc. to the hired creator. Writing for Renaissance Quarterly, Gilbert Creighton confirms this type of dictatorial control was sought by some sponsors; more frequently, however, general themes were suggested by a work’s title, and patron influence on tone and content typically came at the artist’s request and was collaborative. Instead of buying an artist to pull on like a marionette, the majority of Renaissance patrons were looking for “enhancement of their honor and splendor,” leaving details of composition to the painter, sculptor, or writer (Gilbert 446). It was enough for the Medicis to say they sponsored Michelangelo’s creativity – they didn’t need to tell him what to create.
 
Patronage thrived in Renaissance Italy, and it lives on in Digital Age America. Numerous grants and endowments are available to authors. These bequests serve much the same function as the direct commissions in the Renaissance era: support of art for art’s sake. There is a significant obstacle to authors looking to earn a comfortable living from grants and endowments, however. In the current depressed economic climate, funds are drying up. The effects of the Great Recession are presented in stark bullet points in a report by the State of Connecticut’s Commission on Culture and Tourism:

  • Corporate contributors are eliminating gifts entirely
  • Foundations are cutting 50% – 100% from previous levels…
  • Sponsorships have been delayed or decreased
  • Secured funders are delaying payments…
  • Value of endowments reduced 30% or more (Connecticut)

While the facts presented by Connecticut’s Commission are obviously specific only to that state, there is little doubt similar effects are being felt across the country. So, at a time when patronage is of vital importance to struggling American authors, less money is available to support them. Writers cannot hope to earn enough money from grants and endowments alone to continue creating in the current economic climate.
 
Literary prizes present another form of contemporary patronage to authors. Like grants and endowments, prize money presents a difficulty to authors looking to earn a living from their work. Most literary prizes require a reading fee for an author’s work to be considered, presenting a catch-224 to struggling writers; they need the prize money to keep creating, but they need money to apply for the prize. Even the prestigious Pulitzer Prize requires a fee from applicants, according to the Prize’s official website. Obviously, literary prizes cannot be the primary source of income for new writers without a pool of funds to draw upon first.
 
If the patronage of grants, endowments, and prizes are failing to adequately support authors, how is the patronage system the best solution to the economic woes authors face? Just as the Digital Age has exacerbated the financial struggles of authors, it has also presented a novel method of patronage: crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing is “a new form of commerce and patronage” as written by the popular website Kickstarter, one of the main crowdsourcing portals. Under the crowdsourcing model, the public-at-large is asked to support a project directly. A project might be anything from a new iPod dock to a feature-length film – or a book. Projects are presented through portals like Kickstarter, and typically feature videos and other “teasers” to educate potential backers and entice the pubic to support the proposed project. Project creators can set rewards for certain contribution levels which act as incentives to patronize the project5, though these are not required. Additionally, use of crowdsourcing tools like Kickstarter provides free publicity for a project (Kurutz). The success of a given project is decided democratically; good ideas (as defined by funding contributors – patrons) are funded, while bad ones are not.
 
The democratic nature of crowdsourcing overcomes one of the traditional arguments against patronage systems: that they favor the well-connected over the talented. Because which projects are ultimately provided funding is decided by the global online community, the success of a project is based on the strength of the idea behind it and how well it is presented, not on whom the project creator knows and how well they manipulate the bureaucracy of the endowing institution. Connections and influence may help an author gain exposure for their project, but exposure is not the same as money. If one is not interested in the premise of a novel, they’re not likely to give someone money to write it.
 
Of course, there is a legitimate complaint regarding patronage in that many talented writers may yet go undiscovered, unpublished. With a high degree of competition in a global online marketplace, there is no doubt some gifted and innovative authors will still see their manuscripts languishing in the bottom of a desk drawer (or, more likely, in their Google Docs account). Many authors find themselves in a similar position today. With a large volume of manuscripts incoming every day, many editors and literary agents6 cannot give each a thorough reading, and even when they can, publishing houses may be unwilling to risk financial losses on a book without significant market potential (Petit). A book that is well-written and interesting may not be published because the potential return on investment is too low for the publisher to make a healthy profit. Money, not talent, drives the book publishing world today. The possibility of undiscovered talent is no different than the status quo, and is no reason not to pursue a course likely to find more great fiction produced for readers around the world.
 
That the continuation of the status quo is not an acceptable response to the economic dilemma before writers has already been demonstrated, but some have called for continuation of the current publishing model with additional copy-protection and anti-piracy measures as a bulwark against the emerging digital threat to authors. Unfortunately, the promise of uncrackable eBooks is a lie. Cory Doctorow, a prominent technology blogger and science fiction author, points out this fundamental premise of computer science in a 2007 article for the U.K.’s The Guardian newspaper titled “DRM [Digital Rights Management] Vendors Are Pushing The Impossible.” In his article, Doctorow explains how emails and text messages can be securely transmitted with common encryption programs, but media are more difficult to protect because the consumer is the person the encryption is supposed to defeat. We, as consumers, must be entrusted with the decryption keys embedded in our DVD players and eReaders. Doctorow cites the example of “Muslix64,” a hacker who broke the Blu-Ray encryption system – without even being in the same room as a Blu-Ray player. Further, copy protection only has to be cracked once; as soon as the material is available on the Internet, anyone can get the unprotected version without having to do any cracking of their own. Doctorow concludes his article by asking “how long will paying customers stay when the companies they’re buying from treat them like attackers?”
 
Instead of treating readers like potential pirates as publishing houses have, Digital Age authors could instead turn to them as crowdsourcing patrons. Contributors to an author’s book project could, perhaps, be rewarded with special thanks in the front matter of the book at lower contribution levels, and with print copies of the book (signed, even) at higher levels. Piracy of the electronic version of a completed novel could be avoided by making the book free to download. Through another Digital Age marvel – self-publishing – authors maintain complete creative and financial control over their projects, so rewards for contribution, price points for finished products, and marketing budgets are entirely theirs to decide.
 
Decisions about how to combat the ills of the Digital Age are ultimately up to authors. These decisions are of grave import for society, as authors hold a special role as commentators on culture. Authors can decide to continue working within the existing publishing system, hoping for crackdowns on eBook pirates and the largess of major publishing houses. By choosing the status quo, authors are setting themselves up for failure. Publishers are using the eBook revolution as an excuse to pay smaller royalties. There will be no uncrackable encryption system to stop illegal copying of eBooks.
 
Authors can instead choose to pursue patronage. In a patronage system, authors ask their fans to support their work directly. Writers maintain creative control of their projects in such a system, and can work collaboratively – instead of confrontationally – with readers. No patronage will be forthcoming for authors lacking in sound ideas and writing ability, however, so talent and ability will still trump connections and influence in a crowdsourced patronage system.
 
Crowdsourced patronage has been adopted by other creative professionals, such as filmmakers, musicians, and designers. The lessons learned by these vanguards of crowdsourcing should be noted by authors looking to fund their book projects. While crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter allow an author to raise money to cover production costs of their books and provide instant exposure for the project, they do not provide technical or legal advice (Kurutz). Authors must carefully consider all the costs of their projects, from their time spent writing to shipping fees on incentive rewards. Also, authors will still need to educate themselves on copyright issues, production sourcing, taxes, etc. They must act more as entrepreneurs than entertainers, doing what they can themselves and hiring others to handle work they cannot.
 
Other professions could benefit from author crowdsourcing and self-publishing. By acting as creative entrepreneurs, authors will likely employ others throughout the process of bringing a book to market. No matter how talented the writer, for example, a book’s manuscript ought to be proofread by a professional copyeditor7. The fees for copyediting should be part of an author’s project funding total. Likewise, most authors will need the services of a competent graphic designer to create the book’s cover image. Children’s books may need an artist to illustrate the author’s vision. Additionally, prudent authors will find the services of a competent lawyer and tax advisor indispensable. Should an author find him- or herself unable or unwilling to navigate the crowdsourcing and social media jungles, marketing and public relations professionals could be employed to craft a campaign to increase a book’s or author’s exposure. All of the outsiders an author may need to employ will be paid by the crowd. The positive financial effects of patronage will radiate like mirrored sunbeams from the patron, to the author, then to other professionals – and on to society as a whole.
 
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y=mx+b or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Maths

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Categories: Essays, Geek Stuff, Randomness, Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Like many, I’ve long held the belief I’m “bad at math,” but as the spring semester at Rock Valley College winds down, I’ve learned this isn’t true.

In 5th grade, I tested into the gifted program in the Rockford Public School District. I jumped from standard 4th grade classes to advanced 5th grade classes. Given the shoddy state of Rockford’s standard curriculum in the late Eighties/ early Nineties, it’s no surprise I struggled, especially in mathematics. My gifted program teachers taught as though I had been in the program from kindergarten (as most of the students had been). My troubles at home, which manifested as poor behavior at school, didn’t motivate my teachers to give me extra help, I’m sure. After a rough 5th grade, I returned to standard classes in 6th grade. The result of this ping-ponging between curricula was a severe deficiency in basic arithmetic skills.

Fast-forward three years, when I was enrolled in the Academy, RPS’s gifted program for high schoolers. Still behind in math, I failed my college algebra course the first time around and barely passed geometry. My senior year, I dropped out of my advanced math class (trigonometry, if I recall) rather than face another two semesters of brutality. I hated math.

In 1999, when I took the entrance exams at Rock Valley, I scored less than 50% on the math portion (shocked, I’m sure you are), earning me the privilege of several remedial courses, including geometry. This semester, I’m completing a “super course,” which tackles all of those remedial classes in one semester, save geometry. I have a 91% in the class right now, and finals are in two weeks. On a lark, I retook the geometry portion of the placement test, and scored an 80%: enough to skip the required remedial class. I have one college-level math class to take – scheduled for next semester – before I graduate with my A.A.

What I have learned in this semester at RVC is that I’m not bad at math; I’m bad at arithmetic. I have little difficulty understanding algebraic concepts. Where I struggle is with simple multiplication and division, managing fractions, and the like. My difficulties stem almost entirely from the learning I missed back in 5th and 6th grades. From these deficiencies flow frustration with myself and feelings of stupidity. But I can’t help also feeling proud I’ve been able to overcome some of my limitations (thanks to help from Texas Instruments) and score an A in a class I was convinced I would barely pass, if at all.

It’s perhaps a bit strong to say I “love the maths,” but I do have a new-found appreciation for them, especially algebra. There are theories in math to be sure: ideas unproven because we can’t test every possible case, but for the most part, algebra is fundamental, truthful. Race, religion, political affiliation: these don’t matter to algebra.  y does, in fact, equal mx+b.

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Frappacheapo

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Categories: Randomness, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I’m a fan of iced coffees and cappuccinos, despite Denis Leary’s admonitions against such beverages. However, as a recent addition to the ranks of the unemployed, I can’t justify spending $5.00 or more for a trip to Starbucks. On a recent shopping trip, I stumbled upon a breakthrough in brokeassology that allows me to enjoy a frosty cup of joe that doesn’t break the bank. Further, my discovery minimizes the lactose issues I sometimes have with iced coffee, and clocks in at under 200 calories per serving. Win!

Aldi has an instant cappuccino mix that retails for $2.29 in my area. It’s available in French Vanilla and Mocha flavors (I used la française variety, but I imagine the chocolate flavor works the same). I also came across a box of shelf-stable soy milk at Dollar Tree. Of course, your local dollar store may not have soy milk available, but Aldi routinely does. You can, of course, use regular or skim milk: whatever suits you. You’ll also need a pot of regular coffee that’s cooled to room temperature.

To make some delicious iced goodness, follow the hot cappuccino directions on the instant mix package, substituting coffee and soy milk for the boiling water. I made a pitcher full of cheapaccino, so I alternated between soy milk and coffee when mixing the ingredients. That is, one cup of soy milk, then three tablespoons of mix, then one cup of coffee, then three more tablespoons of mix, etc. I whisked the drink after each addition of powdered mix to ensure a consistent blend of ingredients (large amounts of the powder can clump together). Once you’ve filled the pitcher, let your iced coffee drink cool in the fridge for at least thirty minutes before serving.

After a half hour, check for any clumping or settling that may have occurred. Whisk away any clumps you find. If your coffee comes out nice and smooth, you’re ready for a glass of iced cappuccino with few dairy ingredients, less than 200 calories, and a price tag under $0.50. Enjoy!

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Sir Hax-A-Lot

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Categories: Geek Stuff, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Step into my apartment, and you’ll come across a plethora of hacked-up devices. Part of this is because I’m a broke-ass nerd, so I want nifty techno goodies but can’t afford the latest and greatest. The other part is that I love making devices do things they were never intended to do. My Nook Color is no exception. After a lot of research online and a bit of trial and error, I now have a fully-functional, inexpensive Android tablet computer. If you follow my guide below, you can too. The best part is the original Nook software remains intact, so you keep all the intended functionality (like Read To Me books) and you can easily switch back and forth between your stock Nook software and the Android-based MIUI interface. Get ready to take your Nook Color to the next level!
 

Step 1: Gather Tools

The first step in unlocking the Nook Color’s full potential is to gather these physical and digital items:

  • A Nook Color (duh!)
  • A class 4 or better microSDHC card (I prefer Sandisk cards, as they seem to be the most reliable. If you follow the steps below correctly and find your Android experience isn’t up to snuff, check your SD card. If it’s not Sandisk, that’s the likely culprit. Also, get a SD card with as much storage as you can afford. Trust me. The Nook Color is designed to accept up to a 32 GB card.)
  • PC with an SD card reader or a USB SD card reader attachment running Windows.
  • Image Writer for Windows (a/k/a Win32 Disk Imager. Be sure you download the binary file, not the source, unless you want to compile the program yourself.) https://launchpad.net/win32-image-writer
  • Most recent MIUI.us ROM (I enjoy this ROM more than any other I’ve tried. It’s updated frequently, has great battery life, and few bugs. Of course, you’re fee to try others if you like, but I won’t tell you how to get them running in this guide. Make sure you select the Nook Color download, as this ROM is available for many devices, like my Nexus One.) http://roms.miui.us/
  • SD Card Image http://crimea.edu/~green/nook/generic-sdcard-v.1.3.img.gz
  • 7zip (To extract the .gz file above.) http://www.7-zip.org/
  • Dual Boot u-boot (Technically optional, but so easy and useful I’m including it in the standard steps.) http://forum.xda-developers.com/attachment.php?attachmentid=510096&d=1296952217
  • MiniTool Partition Wizard Home Edition http://www.partitionwizard.com/free-partition-manager.html

 

Step 2: Prep Work

  1. Charge your Nook Color fully. It’s just easier. Again, trust me.
  2. (If you have a new Nook.) Power the Nook up (without inserting your SD card), connect to your wireless network, and register the device with Barnes & Noble. Leave the Nook Color running while you complete the rest of the process, so it can download any software updates available.
  3. Install 7zip.
  4. Create a working folder on your Windows desktop. This will help keep you organized. Name the folder something like “Nook” or “Temp.”
  5. Copy the MIUI ROM you downloaded earlier to your temp folder. DO NOT UNZIP IT!
  6. Rename the file update-cm-miui.zip
  7. Copy the Dual Boot u-boot file you downloaded to the temp folder.
  8. Use 7zip to extract the SD card image you downloaded to the temp folder. You should end up with a file named generic-sdcard.img

 

Step 3: Getting Your Hands Dirty

  1. Insert your microSDHC card into your card reader.
  2. Launch Image Writer for Windows.
  3. Be sure your SD card, and not some other removable device, is selected to write to in Image Writer, then click the folder icon to select the generic-sdcard.img file from your temp folder.
  4. Click Write, then Yes.
  5. Exit Image Writer once the file has been written to the SD card and remove the card from your reader.
  6. Reinsert the SD card.
  7. Launch MiniTool Partition Wizard Home Edition, and resize the boot partition on your SD card. This is the only space your stock Nook Color software will recognize on the SD card. Make sure you have at least 300 MB free to allow space for the installer to extract the contents of the various zip files involved in this installation process. These files will be removed from the SD card automatically once the setup process is finished.
  8. Copy the update-cm-miui.zip file to the SD card. DO NOT EXTRACT THE ZIP FILE’S CONTENTS! Copy the complete file to the card.
  9. Eject the SD card from your computer.
  10. Power down your Nook Color.
  11. Carefully insert the microSDHC card in your Nook Color’s SD card slot.
  12. Power up your Nook Color.
  13. You will see the Linux penguin in the corner of your screen and lots of text flying past. Be patient as the magic is worked.
  14. Once the install is complete, your Nook Color will power down automatically.
  15. Remove the SD card from the Nook and reinsert it into your computer.
  16. On the SD card, rename the uboot.bin file to uboot.bak. (This preserves your original SD card boot file in case you run in to trouble and need to restore it.)
  17. Copy the uboot.bin file from your temp folder to the SD card and copy the uboot.bak file from your SD card to a safe location on your computer.
  18. Eject the SD card from your computer and reinstall it in the Nook Color’s SD card slot.
  19. Power up your Nook Color.
  20. Be patient. The first boot always takes a while.
  21. Follow the on-screen instructions for creating (or connecting to your existing) Google account.
  22. Enjoy the full-featured, inexpensive Android tablet goodness.

 
And there you have it: an inexpensive Android tablet with root access and GApps in less than 30 minutes. Of course, this is just a basic set up. The preconfigured SD cards I sell on eBay have premium software enhancements, built-in overclocking, and more. Get your hands on one here: http://myworld.ebay.com/vaygh If you’re looking for an SD install with custom features or running a ROM other than MIUI, drop me a line at vaygh (at) vaygh (dot) com. I’ll be happy to work with you on a Nook Color SD install that meets your individual needs.

Many thanks to the Nook Color community, XDA, and MIUI devs – specifically andmer, dalingrin, and rookie1 – for making all of this possible. Support them financially if you are able, or with mad props if you’re not. Oh, and Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Joyous Yule, etc. etc.

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