A Quick Question

I’ve noted more than once that people will stop by my site, look around, and download some of the .pdf’s I’ve got here.

So, the question is:

If I were to make a work, say the complete novel “A Dream Before Dying”, available for downloading, who might be interested in having it, possibly in return for a nominal donation?

(“Nominal”, in this case, might be a dollar)

So, if you’re interested, let me know by commenting on this post.

Thanks for any feedback in advance.

In praise of K.I.S.S.

If you’re not familiar with engineering, the above phrase might make you think I’m about to sing the praises of an aging metal band. But in engineering circles, “K.I.S.S.” is short for “Keep It Simple, Stupid”. It means that the simplest solution to a problem is usually the best.

Unfortunately, like every other field of endeavor, engineering has fallen under the siren spell of automation.

Take aviation.

The first aircraft flew by direct control. The pilot pressed on the rudder pedal, and a cable connected to it moved the rudder. There might be a few connecting links in between, but there was a direct connection between the pilot and their plane. As aircraft grew in size, the ability of pilots to move the ever-larger control surfaces meant that it became necessary to add ‘boost’ to the controls. Think of power steering in a car: you turn the steering wheel, and a linkage tells the wheels which way to turn and how much to turn. At the same time, a hydraulic cylinder senses the direction the wheel is being turned and applies force in the same direction, taking some of the load off the driver. But beyond the added pressure to make the action easier to undertake, there’s still a direct connection between the pilot’s (or driver’s) actions and what happens.

Now, however, most modern airliners have migrated to a system called “fly by wire”. Originally pioneered by the military for high-performance fighters, fly by wire has no direct connection between the pilot and the aircraft’s control surfaces. The actions of the pilot are registered as electrical impulses that are interpreted a computer, then transmitted to the control surfaces. For an aircraft like an F-16, which is designed to be unstable so it is more maneuverable, having this interface means that the computer know how much to move the control surfaces without causing the aircraft to go out of control. And because it must know how much a control surface can be moved without causing the aircraft to go out of control, it also means that the computer gets a ‘vote’ in how the aircraft is flown. In other words, if the computer thinks the input from the pilot is too extreme, it will over-ride the pilot and undertake a maneuver as close to what the pilot desires as it deems safe.

Translate that to an airliner, and you get computers that think a pilot pulling back on their control yoke to avoid a terrain feature is too extreme, resulting in the airliner full of passengers slamming into the ground. Worse, if the software is improperly coded, it can even result in a normal control surface input being deemed ‘unsafe’, resulting in a crash. The latter is what happened with the Boeing 737 MAX, and Boeing is still struggling to both fix the problem and regain the trust of airlines.

Unfortunately, the concept of fly by wire is making it’s way into the auto industry. Many modern autos no longer have a direct connection between any of the controls the driver uses and the auto itself. When you push in the accelerator, you don’t move a linkage that feed more fuel into the engine. Instead, your input is read by the auto’s onboard computer, which in turn sends a command to increase the fuel flow to the engine. Even the steering wheel is often no longer connected to the wheels is is supposed to control.

Right now, someone is reading this and saying to themselves “So what? As long as it works, why do I care?”

I’m glad they asked. My sister owns a modern piece of American auto engineering, an SUV I call her personal tank. It has all the modern bells-and-whistles: variable fuel feed to the engine cylinders to increase gas mileage, active traction control, automatic brakes, the works. All of this is controlled by an onboard computer, which also monitors the health of the vehicle and all it’s systems. And in that latter function lies the rub.

The onboard computer recently informed my sister that one of her wheel bearings had worn beyond the design specifications and needed to be replaced. And because the wheel bearings interact with the vehicle’s brakes, this caused her to experience locked brakes if she applied too much pressure too fast. All this happened on her way home from work, but she managed to nurse the vehicle home and drop it off at her favorite mechanic’s shop. A couple of days (and several hundred dollars) later, the mechanic gave her tank back to her, having replaced the wheel bearing assembly.

As I’d been giving her rides to and from work, I was quite happy to drop her off at the shop. What I wasn’t happy about was to learn, later, that her SUV had begun experiencing the same problem before she got home. She took it back to the shop, complained, and the mechanic put it back on the rack and started testing. He could find nothing wrong, the bearing in question reacted like it was in proper order, so he reset the vehicle’s computer and told my sister that a bad sensor might be sending a false signal to the computer.

Back home she goes, only to have the fault reappear.

So, I go on double duty. First, I drive her to work, then, after I return, I take her car out to the mechanic to be tested. It was decent walk back, the air cool and not a lot of wind…but getting the vehicle to the shop was not easy. Because it was convinced that there was a serious fault in the vehicle, the onboard computer was not happy with it being driven. So, no matter how much pressure was on the accelerator, the SUV staggered along at only five to ten miles per hour. As I couldn’t find the emergency flashers, this resulted in many people ‘flipping me off’ due to my slow speed.

But it’s there, and I’m home and happy to have my ‘primitive’ car to drive: manual transmission, direct link between accelerator and engine, and minimal interference from any computing devices. If I could have found my vehicle with ‘crank-up’ windows, rather then the power windows it has, I’d have been even happier, but beggars can’t be choosers, as the saying goes. It is a car that keeps to the idea that the simple solution is often the best, and I think auto makers would be well served to remember that dependability is often valued more by drivers than style or ‘modernity’.

The Apology

Cheri Paulsen knew she was lucky. Landing the job of Public Relations Specialist at the Consulate-General of Japan hadn’t been her reason for taking a major in Japanese history at Northwestern. But the necessary fluency in Japanese such a degree required had given her an ‘in’ for this job when she’d found jobs in her chosen field few and far between.

So now she took the Metra every weekday from Glenview to downtown, an experience that left her wondering if that was how Japanese office workers felt getting into downtown Tokyo. Probably not. She’d mentioned the idea once to Goto-sama, the actual Consulate-General, and he’d laughed at it. He told her commuter trains in Japan were standing-room-on on weekdays, the people packed in so tight movement was virtually impossible. And seeing as how Goto Eiji had grown up in Tokyo, he would be an expert on such matters.

Even though she was fluent in Japanese, Goto-sama preferred to speak to her in English. When she’d asked why, his answer reflected the blunt pragmatism that seemed to be at his core. “If I only speak English when I am talking to some visitor, how can I possibly stay fluent enough not to embarrass myself?”

Cheri was at the office coffee maker when she saw Goto-sama walk out of the elevator. His office was on the same floor as hers, so that wasn’t amazing. What caught her attention was the stunned, empty look on his face. Something about it worried her, so she approached her boss to find out what was bothering him.

“Goto-sama. Goto-sama. Is something the matter, Goto-sama?”

His face stayed blank for a moment, like her words hadn’t registered with him. Then his head turned towards her and his eyes focused on her face. “Excuse me, Paulsen-san, but I’ve just had a disturbing encounter with one of your countrymen.”

Someone as important as the Consul-General didn’t usually deal with anyone less than an important corporate types. They weren’t the type of people she imagined insulting or even delivering disturbing news to an important official like Goto-sama. She opened her mouth to ask what had happened, when her boss continued.

“The front desk called me, informing me that an American was there asking for the opportunity to apologize. I couldn’t imagine why they’d called me, but Hiru-san insisted I come down to see the individual.” Goto-sama held out a small package neatly wrapped in cloth. It must have been tied together at the top at one time, for the folds still held the rough shape of the knot they’d been tied in. Now they overlapped, covering whatever was inside. “There was a large, elderly gentleman waiting for me, and he actually managed to introduce himself in quite good Japanese. Then he started a short speech that he had evidently tried to memorize, but he lost his way after the first few sentences. What he wanted to do was apologize for something his father had done.” Pointing towards the package, he continued. “His father had been in the Philippines, one of the soldiers guarding Clark Field after the Americans retook it. His father had helped stop a wave of suicide attacks the Japanese defenders staged one night, and the next morning, he and the rest of the soldiers went out to collect trophies. He brought this back.”

Goto-sama slowly uncovered the package, which consisted of a pair of faded photos, some Japanese money, what looked like an old Japanese medal….and peeking from under all that, a tightly-folded, deeply stained white silk cloth covered in kanji characters. “Is that a yosegaki hinomaru?”

Hai.

The fact that Goto-sama had fallen back into Japanese, even for a moment, told Cheri there was something profoundly disturbing about this relic of Japan’s dark past. Laying the photos and other material reverently aside, he carefully unfolded the cloth. More writing came into view, then, the last fold opened revealing a larger, bolder hand’s writing. It was a name that took Cheri’s breath away.

Goto.

Cheri looked at her boss and saw something she’d never seen before: tears. Goto-sama’s attention was focused on the flag. “My grandfather told me about his older brother, a gunsō, a sergeant, in the Imperial Army. How he’d been part of the Manilla garrison, and how the family never knew what had happened to him.” Goto-sama pointed at a shaky line of characters, so inexpertly drawn Cheri couldn’t make them out. “This is my grandfather’s final wish to his older brother. ‘May your military fame be eternal.’ That’s his name, Goto Eiji, just like mine.”

Cheri knew Japanese families put great emphasis on venerating their ancestors. “I’m glad your family has recovered this, Goto-sama, and that they know now what happened to your grandfather’s brother. I know this means a lot to you and your family.”

Hai. Sheri-san, arigatōgozaimashita.” Goto-sama wiped his eyes before looking at her. “I just wonder how many more families in Japan wait like mine for word of a lost ancestor, and how many American families carry the burden like that man for something their ancestor did.”

Adventures in electronics

Well, that was fun.

I recently had a tablet ‘donated’ to me. It’s an older model, and recently it had been giving it’s former owner fits. Repeatedly dropping WiFi connections, ‘freezing’ in mid-operation, you name it, it was doing it.

I was mainly interested in getting a tablet as an entertainment device: something I could watch movies and anime on, listen to music, and maybe read a book. So I didn’t figure I’d have as many problems as it’s owner had been having, and besides, it came at the perfect price: free.

First thing I found out about it was that outside of the built-in memory, it had no memory. It had a slot for a micro-SDHC card, but one hadn’t been installed. Quick trip to the local Walmart revealed that I could buy a card that would max out the possible memory for under $7, so it came home with me. Then the fun started. I did some research to find out how best to transfer files between an Android device and a Linux platform. Strangely enough, even though Android is based on Linux, doing a file transfer via a USB cable would require me to install an special file transfer app on the tablet, and even then the information I could gather indicated that the transfer would be both slow and prone to errors. But the card came with an adapter that would allow me to plug it directly into my Linux machine, so I decided to just load the files I wanted onto the card before installing it in the tablet.

It took some time to do this, even with the higher speeds available via the card adapter interface. Dumping 5+GB of music files alone took over five minutes. And the file folders holding my different anime series were roughly that size too. Throw in figuring out what I wanted to have on the tablet ( I had a lot more available than the card could accommodate), and I spent most of Wednesday morning getting the job done.

Wednesday afternoon is one of the times I volunteer to be at the local Democratic Party headquarters, so with all the files transferred, I plugged the card into the tablet and took it with me to see how well my experiment worked.

The results were mixed.

It took a bit of poking around just to find the anime and movies. Turns out, they were all available in the “Gallery” app. Individual series folders holding the episodes were represented by a single image from one of the episodes, so not hard to figure out what was where. For some reason, even though they were loaded as individual files, all the movies ended up lumped together behind a single ‘tile’. Tapping it opened the tile up, revealing a sub-tile for each movie. Decided to try watching an anime episode, so picked one at random, tapped it, and selected an episode for the sub-tiles. The episode opens, and I watch it through before trying another anime series. This one had most of the sub-tiles showing a scene from the episode, but not all. Those that didn’t had a ‘generic’ scene, so I tried one of them. Up pops a message “Can’t play video.”. Okay, why three episodes in the middle of the series aren’t opening, I don’t know, but that’s something to figure out later. Back out, I try a movie, one of my favorite, “Your Name”. The tile opens, and the message “Can’t play video” pops ups even though I can see the video playing behind it. Stop, try again, and this time no message, but also no audio. Another problem to sort out. Time to see about the other content.

Now things get interesting. I can’t find an app that will even see the books I have loaded on. They’re all “Project Gutenberg” downloads, and I’d moved them all into a folder to cut the clutter on the card, so I reasoned that either might be causing the problem. Then I try the music file, and get the same result: nothing can find the music files. Basic trouble-shooting done, and a few ideas for solution in hand. I settled back to enjoy the remaining time at the headquarters watching anime.

Today, I decided I’d pop the card out of the tablet and try a few ideas I’d come up with. First off, I thought I’d see if what was keeping me from seeing the books I had loaded up was them being inside a file folder. So I put it in, shifted the ebook files out of the folder and ditched the folder before ‘unmounting’ the card and putting it back into the tablet. Still nothing. Fine, I reasoned, I’ll just ditch the files, free up a few hundred meg of space, and see what I can do about the music files. So I power down the tablet, open the access panel to get at the card and go to remove it.

For those of you who have never handled an micro SDHC card, they are tiny things, less then half the size of a postage stamp. They slide into a slot on the side of your device and ‘click’ into place when properly seated. To get one out of it’s slot, you press in with a finger nail and release. The card should pop slightly out so you can grasp it for removal….but it is spring-loaded. So, if you’re not careful it can do more than just move into position for removal….it can literally pop out of the device and go sailing out of sight, which is what my card did.

In my case, not only did the card go sailing, it flew over my shoulder and dropped into an area by the chair I was sitting in that holds a trash can and a few other items (it’s nick-name is ‘the junk corner’, to give you an idea of what it’s like). I didn’t see where it went, all the information I had was what I heard. What I heard was the card striking a hard surface, then bouncing off to go…..somewhere.

And it’s still there. I pulled the garbage can, looked under it, around it, and found nothing. Cleaned out most of the junk in the corner, and again found nothing. Then it was time to sort through the contents of the garbage can, by hand, to see if it had gone in there. Nope, checked everything, found nothing.

So the moral of the story? Be damned careful where you work, and remember what you’re working on too. Tomorrow morning I might go out and buy another card, but for now I’m going to spend some time kicking myself for my own stupidity.

‘The Occasional Okatu’ asks you to help

It’s like a sick remake of “Ground Hog Day”: a crazy person walks into a business and decides to vent their anger at the world by killing as many people as they can.

It seems to happen all over the world, with no rhyme or reason, the only common thing is the suffering left in the wake of these attacks.

This time, though, the crazy person decided they had a beef with some creative people: Kyoto Animation Studios. If you’re not familiar with their works, then I’ll bring you up to speed. The outstanding anime movie “A Silent Voice”. Netflix’s acclaimed “Violet Evergarden”. The currently-airing “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya”. All of these, and more, plus a string of Japanese-language ‘light novels’ came from the minds at Kyoto Animation.

But not now.

In this particular instance, the crazy person walked into their three-story office complex, sprayed what is reported to have been gasoline around, and then shouted some complaint before tossing a lighter into the gas. The attacker was injured, and the police captured him nearby, but he’d accomplished what he set out to do: at this time, with the building still a smoking wreck, there are at least 23 confirmed dead, with fears that more remain to be found.

What makes this even sadder is the fact that like most writers, anime artists are notoriously underpaid. And Kyoto Animation, being a fairly new studio, doesn’t have a lot of money on hand. Fortunately, their US distributor has set up a GoFundMe page to help the victims and the company recover. So if you’ve got a few spare coins, and you’d like to help out some fellow struggling artists in a time of true need, I hope you’ll give some thought to following the link below. When last I looked, they were closing in on the $500,000 figure they were hoping to reach, but I don’t think they’d object to going over that amount.

https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-kyoani-heal

 

Container gardening update.

A few weeks back, I wrote about my decision to experiment with container gardening, and I thought a quick update was in order.

Not being around any bee hives, I didn’t expect my plants to get pollinated. Initially, I tried using a bit of a weed to spread the pollen. Unfortunately, all that happened was that the flowers withered and died. So suspecting that something about the weed was interfering with what I was doing, I invested a buck to buy some ultra-cheap ‘craft brushes’ (think plastic-handled miniature paint brushes). Now I go out every day to ‘pollinate’ any open flowers by hand.

Results? Well, the pepper plant hasn’t flowered since that first, failed attempt, but the tomato plant has been almost covered in flowers, As you can see from the photo below, I’ve got one tomato that’s about an inch across, plus a couple of bb-sized tomatoes that have just formed.

There are a couple of flower buds on the pepper plant, and I’m hoping that they will open in the next week or so, but until they do, I don’t have any clue whether or not I’ll be able to duplicate my success with the tomato plant.

tomato

The nature (and portrayal) of evil.

Is evil relative?

I ask that question after engaging in a debate of the subject with a couple of fellow writers. They insisted that, yes, evil is relative, and writings that portray certain subjects in a positive light should not be censored.

One writer insisted that, at least at first, the Nazi’s weren’t evil. Another insisted that, because many surviving Nazi’s still view what they did in a positive light, then the actions of that regime were not evil.

Personally, I thought both of them were insane.

The first, who styled themselves as a historian, insisted that the German government didn’t really ‘go bad’ until after the war started. They also said that, because the other European powers failed to intervene, they were either complicit in what happened, of at least initially, agreed with what happened.

I remembered history differently.

I remember the violence the Nazi’s used to gain power, and the swift expansion and increasing brutality of that violence once they had achieved power. I know that they moved swiftly to crush any and all opposition parties. I remember how they rounded up those who opposed them. I also remember that they imprisoned people in existing prisons long before the first purpose-built concentration camps opened in 1933. In short, I remember that the Nazi’s were born evil, and were never anything but evil.

The other person, who insisted that because surviving Nazi’s remember their actions in a positive light, they could not have been evil I found to be laughably naive. Mass murderers, from the ‘Son of Sam’ to John Wayne Gacy, rarely if ever speak of what they did as evil. They also pulled out the “Star Wars” card, quoting Obi-Wan Kenobi’s famous ‘from a certain point of view’ line as proof that evil is all in the eyes of the beholder. This person, btw, was a woman, and I was strongly tempted to ask her how she react to a story that portrayed a woman being raped in a positive light.

Perhaps I am old, but I think there are some things that are simply evil, and that they should never, ever be portrayed as anything else. What subject I feel should be regarded that way is a long list. Mass executions. Genocide. The rounding up of large numbers of people for no other reason than to silence opposition/please a fanatical leader’s ego. Torture for any reason. Sexual violence against anyone. There are a few others, but I write this to ask all of you, the readers, what you think?

How do you feel?

Are there subjects that should not be portrayed in a positive light, or is it ‘anything goes’ and be damned to what happens after?