So why fractals?

I’m going to be honest with you about something. I honestly had no idea I’d be sitting here, having already written two fractal books and with ideas for more, across from a shelf packed with reference material. I have more books on fractals than textbooks I saved from my actual degree. In fact, I have three books that basically have the same title:

  • Chaos, Fractals, and Dynamics
  • Chaotic Dynamics and Fractals
  • Chaos, Dynamics, and Fractals

I have a fractal wish list with more than 40 books in it. If you were to list three things you know about me, “likes fractals” is one of those three.

DiamondGem2a_lq

So why do I like fractals, and more importantly, why do I still like them?

As a programmer – Creating fractals has taught me a lot about graphics formats, string management, and handling large amounts of data. I’ve learned new programming languages by trying to write fractal programs. I’ve used some of my color ramp algorithms professionally, and used fractal information as data sets. Simply put, writing fractal programs is challenging, engaging, and a great avenue for learning new things.

As a writer – Fractals can seem like an intimidating area of math. It doesn’t have quite the reputation of say calculus, but a lot of people look at fractals and go “that’s way beyond me.” As someone who owns a shelf full of fractal books, I can say that some of the problem is with how these things are presented. A formal mathematical text isn’t going to draw people in unless they’re already a professional mathematician. Writing about fractals has always presented the challenge for me (as a very technical person) to write about something complicated in an easy-to-understand way. I’m as prone to techno-babble as the next engineer, but if I actually want to get the people around me interested in what I have to say, I need to find better ways to explain it. This is a great challenge for any writer.

As an artist – I’m not a painter like my Mom, but I do like creating cool designs. Creating fractal images can be a very playful and exploratory experience. And unlike a canvas, if I screw up, I can just generate a new image. And I do have my own aesthetic. Fractal calendars have a tendency to make everything over busy, or to shy away from what I would recognize as a fractal. I like clean lines that highlight the natural beauty of the math, without imposing a lot of my own will onto it.

As a publisher – Writing fractal books has taught me more about eBook formatting, finding niche markets, evaluating royalty options and just finishing projects than anything else I’ve done. Fiction can live in a nebulous world of constant revision, whereas non-fiction can have a finite goal and a known finish point.

As a math geek – Fundamentally I just think fractals are cool. They’ve shown me different ways to look at dimension, complex numbers, even how to define a circle. And some of things you can do with the “Chaos Game” and Iterated Function Systems are just so cool. Order rising from randomness. Even more predictable things like L-Systems can always surprise you. You think a design is going to turn out one way, and it ends up looking completely different. And it’s a young area of math, there is still much to be learned and discovered. There’s real territory out there for people to make their mark.

What are you surprised to find has become a focus in your life?

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Recharging The Batteries

As you may have guessed, life’s a little hectic right now. I’m in the middle of some significant writing projects at home, and a new software development project at work. Last night after a full day of banging up against a new platform, I worked until 10:30pm at night finishing rewrites (with maybe an hour break for dinner). It was a very productive day, and that can be energizing, but it can also be exhausting.

So how do we writers live to fight another day?

Comfortable Environment: At work I have a cube, and kind of a crappy chair, but I’ve personalized the space as best as possible with various tchotchkes and pictures. I also tend to post the covers of my current projects as a reminder of where my true passions lie. At home it’s a little better. Last night I was curled up in a favorite recliner with a blanket over my legs, the record player on, and my laptop balanced on a nice lap desk my wife bought for me. Add hot chocolate and I’ve got it made. Sure it’s still work, but at least it’s in the most relaxing way possible. The danger of course is that I might fall asleep.

Go to bed: Eight hours is kind of a pipe dream, but I can get a solid seven if I go to bed on time. Too many days cut down to six hours will harm my productivity and general mood, even if it feels right in the moment. I’m a natural night owl, so I have to do things to help this goal. The 50 Peanuts strips before bed has actually been really good for this. It’s not tablet reading, so it’s easier on the eyes. It’s amusing without being too engaging. and it puts me in a good mood. Don’t check e-mail late (a rule I often break). If it’s something you can’t deal with immediately

Do something else: Distractions can be a good thing. They get your mind thinking in a different way, or just let your mind rest. I’m not one of these people who thinks any particular distraction is bad. I like TV and comic books, as well as video games and playing with my dogs. I think too much of any activity can be a bad thing, including work. And, if you’re writing about life experiences, sometimes you have to go out and have some experiences.

Talk to people: Hey, I know. I’m an introvert too. But talking to people can get you out of your bubble, and maintain important relationships. I never want the people in my life to think I’m ignoring them when I work long hours. This may mean not always following the impulse to talk about your work, or act on every idea you have. A surreptitious notebook or tablet file is a good way to stow away ideas for later.

Remember that people like to talk about your writing up to a point: If all you talk about is one topic, whatever it is, then eventually people will start to find you annoying, and it will narrow your perspective. Right now it can seem like there are really only a couple of things happening that I have to talk about, and maybe that’s true. In that case, ask questions, and find out what is going on with other people.

I better at some of these on some days than others. But they’re good goals to shoot for.

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Chasing Technology: Worse Than Chasing Aliens

What do we tell young authors? Avoid publishing trends. By the time you write a book on the latest hot topic, the trend has long since passed you by. This happens on a smaller scale in blogging, a news topic may be relevant to write about today, but be yesterday’s news tomorrow.

Writing technology into your story can fall into the same set of problems. The X-Files got its much anticipated return to television last night (I haven’t seen it yet, and probably won’t till next weekend, so no spoilers). I, like many others, took the opportunity of its return to start re-watching some of the old episodes.

Woo boy.

There’s two levels on which the X-Files engaged with tech, as a means of moving the story forward (i.e. a tool), and as the main subject of the story (usually the antagonist). In the tool category you just write what’s around today, which in the era of the X-Files was huge cell-phones, dial-up modems, floppy disks, and data cassettes (remember those?). Remember 90’s websites?

I’m not a fan of Jimmy Kimmel, but he did a pretty funny sketch about X-Files tech (see below):

When technology is the subject of the story, you run some risk of being dated. I actually think the upload story (Season 5’s: Kill Switch), holds up, since talk of the singularity is just starting to enter the public consciousness, whereas older AI episodes (Season 1’s: Ghost In The Machine) feel corny (even though malevolent AI plots are still a staple of sci-fi).

So how do we make technology stories feel less dated, while still having something to say about where we are with our relationship with technology today? Below are some brief thoughts, things I learned along the way while writing Surreality:

Technology doesn’t catch up everywhere: There are still people who use VCR’s. Police department funding is probably not at the level of what you see on NCIS and CSI (itself a now dated reference). You’ll get some grace for a little while, since not everyone is going to have an Occulus Rift, or even the latest tablet or smartphone, today.

Story matters first: Probably one of the reasons “Kill Switch” holds up (aside from being written by William Gibson), is the story. You could replace the orbiting laser platform with a drone strike, and the rest of the story would still hold up. The characters are interesting, the dialog is funny, and the style choices (the expert use of “Twilight Time”) make it unique and memorable. Sure we had virus programs written on CDs and lots of wires and huge cameras, but the core still works.

You can always revise: Surreality was written and rewritten over an interesting period. Social media went from something casual between a few college students, to pervasive throughout our lives, and provided on more platforms than you can imagine. You don’t have to know every variety of platform, but Twitter and Facebook have been around a while. Same rules apply here as they do when you’re building your author network, write what you know, don’t throw in something you think might be good if it serves no other purpose than name dropping.

Jump a little ahead: It’s probably not that hard to imagine some things that might be possible in a few years time. AI has been a staple of sci-fi since the 40s and 50s, and we’re still a long way from having a true strong AI, in the Data from Star Trek sense of the word. Attitudes about AI may seem dated, but the concept itself so far is evergreen.

Or a little behind: There are numerous indie games produced that capture the look and feel of classic games from the 90’s, down to the pixel art and MIDI music. A lot of tablets and phone games also go for this pixel idea. If a fictional game you’re writing about seems behind the times, it might be deliberate, a style and nostalgic choice. We may not ever be nostalgic for floppies, but we certainly are for records and old games.

The big take away here should always be, story comes first. Write a good story, and people will forgive that you talked about big desktops like they’re still a thing. They might even find it kind of campy, which is not a bad place to be. Certainly hasn’t been for the X-Files.

If you liked this, you may like my latest technological mystery: Surreality.

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The Allure Of Non-Fiction

I get the sense that most writers start out wanting to tell stories. I also think it’s what people assume we mean when we say “I am a writer.”

It’s certainly where I got my start. For many years I’ve defined myself as a science fiction and mystery writer. I’ve been writing stories since before I can remember, and still am. Most of the ideas I get for books are fiction.

The weird thing is, most of the projects I have actually finished, and the ones that have been more financially successful, are non-fiction.

One of my favorite authors, Isaac Asimov, wrote 500+ books. But for all that he’s known as a science fiction writer, there are seven Foundation Books, four Robot Novels, three Empire Books, and maybe several dozen short story collections. Most of what the man wrote was non-fiction, essays on science, treatises on the Bible and Shakespeare, even books on Calculus.

So why should you think about writing non-fiction?

  1. It’s easier to define your target audience and market: A Google search for Fractal eBooks and a more targeted search on Amazon suggested this was an under-served market. Sure, it’s never been a big market. But for people who are looking for books on this topic, I’m easy to find. There are thousands upon thousands of mystery books out there, from all sorts of authors. I think mine’s pretty good, but to get it noticed I need more than just good SEO. When you’re looking for a good mystery to read, you rarely type “mystery” into the search field, and go with the first thing you find. You ask your friends, you read reviews, and you try to find authors you like. With non-fiction if someone searches for “fractal programming”, they find my book. They know what they’re looking for, and all they have to do is determine if my book covers the topic they’re interested in.
  2. Organizing a book around a topic is easier: Okay, maybe not for narrative non-fiction. And a good non-fiction book chooses a focus rather than an information dump. But it’s still pretty easy to define what are the main topics I’m going to talk about, and break it down from there. For fiction there are all sorts of considerations of plot and characterization and tone. Non-fiction requires organized thinking, and a progression of ideas that build on each other, but this process often mirrors the learning/research process.
  3. Writing isn’t the only thing you’re doing: Good fiction often involves research as well, but with a non-fiction book, much more of your time is spent researching, compiling, organizing and exploring a topic. Writing can come almost naturally once you’ve put in the leg work. And more importantly, there are ways to be productive even when you don’t feel like writing. It’s easier to keep the project humming along in some capacity. Fiction writing can often stall if you don’t feel like putting in your 500 words.
  4. You get to teach people something: I honestly love fractals (if you hadn’t noticed by now), and I think it’s a topic that should be taught in more school math classes. I think fractals can get people excited about math, prepare them for some programming ideas, and show them a different way to think about the world. I write about fractals because I want to share that love with others. The same is true for any of the other non-fiction projects I’ve considered.
  5. People will notice your other work: Writing more books means more people notice the books you’ve already written. If they decide they like you as an author, they might try other things you’ve written, including your fiction. True, I don’t always look the the guys who write computer science textbooks for good science fiction, but if I’ve connected with them in other ways that give me a sense of their style, I might take the leap. And non-fiction is an area of self-publishing that seems less served in general than fiction. You’ll already be differentiating yourself from the pack.

Have you made any forays into non-fiction writing? What has been your experience?

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I’m Still Here

Sorry for the lack of communication these first few weeks of the year. 2016 has already turned out to be more hectic than most of 2015. I’ve got several new writing projects which I should hopefully be able to share with you shortly as well as a lot of life and work stuff going on.

One weird thing from the beginning of the year was the passing of a fellow member of the OSU Men’s Glee on New Year’s Day. This was a guy who was my age, actually even a little younger. He sang at my wedding. The Men’s Glee does this tradition during tailgating that I appropriated for my proposal and reception. The guys will take a girl and have her sit in the middle of a group of us while we sing “My Evaline” to her (a little livelier than Weezer). The pinnacle of that moment is the lyric “I love you, say you love me…”. After an affirmative response, all cheer and wave our arms above the lucky girl for “meet me in the shade of the old willow tree”.

For the proposal it was “I love you, say you love Trube…”, asking my wife to marry me, then cheers.

This is the first peer I’ve lost, and for so random a reason, and it’s bound to get anyone thinking about their own mortality. But honestly for me, a lot of my time has been spent trying to remember this guy I spent some of the best years of my life around.

The Men’s Glee is like a fraternity, and it’s a shared experience that still leaves so many fond memories for me. Concerts in small towns, riding on the bus, watching Tommy Boy, going to San Francisco, and singing in the horseshoe. These were supposed to be lifelong friends, “brothers in song”.

For some of us, that’s been true. Facebook and social media can give you the illusion of contact without needing to actually see or talk to anyone. You know what’s going on in their lives, you can like a photo, maybe leave an occasional comment, and that’s enough to sate your curiosity. My circle of real friends today is pretty small, the guys from church, my writing friends, and a few people from college.

I went to the funeral, which was a Catholic mass (a new experience for me), in part to connect with some of my Glee friends from the past, and to get some sense of connection with this person I’d lost touch with. Only a few of the guys came, though it was amazing how easy it was to fall back into old relationships. A lot of these guys are still around where I live. I could see them more often. But I know that in all likelihood I will let the business of my life and the “craziness” of my schedule keep  me confined to the patterns I’m comfortable with.

I learned more about this young man’s love of the outdoors and our shared love of dogs. I sat and knelt and prayed and sang. And I mourned the loss, to his family, his young wife, to all of us. I hugged my old friends, and said goodbye to another as bagpipes played “Amazing Grace”.

I’m honestly not sure I’ve processed this. My way of dealing with most experiences is to keep going from one moment to the next. There’s so much I want to do with whatever time is left to me. And a moment like this certainly teaches you that tomorrow is never promised. And there are uncomfortable revelations about my use of time, the relationships I’ve let slide, and just how things can get away from us all.

This is probably a moment I need to do more with than just write about it. But that may be all I do.

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It’s A New Year, Charlie Brown!

My oldest fandom, and the only thing I would even consider getting tattooed on my body (when I’m y’know, like, 80) is Peanuts. You might have guessed this from my occasional references to my wife as “the little red-haired girl” or the fact that I have at times used Snoopy on his doghouse at the typewriter as my avatar.

I still remember the thrill of finding new Peanuts collections at Half Price Books (a one-time haul of 15 paperback books being a true highlight). I still have all my old collections (in storage for a future gift to our hypothetical children) and a number of digital, hardback and Peanuts miscellany throughout the house. Our tiny 3 foot Christmas tree has plastic Snoopy ornaments from years of Whitman’s chocolate boxes, and even my desk at work has Snoopy the doctor, Snoopy making valentine’s hearts, and Joe Cool Snoopy playing the guitar.

But my most prized Peanuts possession are the collections of complete strips put out by Fantagraphics every year for over a decade. Each Christmas my parents have bought for me another box containing two books with four years worth of strips stretching from 1950 to the last collection released (1995-1998). This year will be the last year for these collections, a body of work of more than 50 years.

I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, but I got to thinking that it was time to read through all of Peanuts from the beginning. To do this I need to read a little over 50 strips a day, or about two weeks per book (there are 24 on my shelf).

Peanuts has meant a lot of different things to me over the years. It’s always been good for a laugh, and for having someone to relate to in Charlie Brown. Watching some of the specials and reading early strips I’m beginning to wonder if children in the 50’s had a better grasp of the classics than we do now (Charlie Brown has to read War & Peace at 8 years old, something I haven’t managed to do by 30). In the last decade my favorite strips have often involved Snoopy at his typewriter as we both strive to become published authors, but there are always strips that strike me in new ways at different ages.

So far in three days of reading I’ve discovered a few things about early Peanuts:

  • Snoopy doesn’t get his name until about 100 strips in.
  • Shermy, Patty and Violet are the main characters along with Charlie Brown.
  • Charlie Brown is younger or at least smaller than most of the other kids. He doesn’t get the stripe for over 100 strips.
  • Snoopy doesn’t have a clear owner, though Shermy seems to be the one taking care of him. Also, Snoopy still looks very dog-like in appearance and manner.

There’s a lot of what I love about the strip that’s still yet to come, and yet there are still simple moments that I can relate to as someone who owns a beagle:

pe501010

Image Source: GoComics

This strip could be redrawn with Murphy easily.

I imagine this next year will get me writing and thinking about Peanuts, something I may share with you from time to time.

What have you loved since before you can remember? Do you still go back to it?

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What I Learned In 2015

Year end summaries are kind of a mixed bag.

We can read lists that convince us that we are living in magical wonderful times, truly the best times to be alive. Or we can read something that makes us believe that we’re all going to “hell in a handbasket” which if you think about it, is a rather cheerful conveyance. Better than going to hell in a washing machine or a Ford Focus.

I think at the end of the day, our perception of the year is subjective, and very personal. “Did I have a good year?”

Generally speaking, yes. I turned 30, as did a lot of my friends. My wife and I celebrated our 7th anniversary and nine years of being together overall. I said goodbye to one car, and hello to another. I published a book. I got a new dog, moved my office to the basement, and spent a lot of time with friends. And I found a new place to get a good Reuben.

I’m not one of those people who analyzes their growth over the past year, but there are a couple of things I’ve picked up on that might be of use to you:

  • Change can be good – I loved my upstairs office, and was a little reluctant to move into the basement. I think I have a pretty good idea of what things will be like without seeing them. Some people need to move things around before they can be sure if they like something, whereas I like to do that moving in my head. The thing is… on this one I was totally wrong. My basement office\man cave is awesome. I should have moved down there years ago. And so far, I’ve stayed home working rather than trying to find coffee shops to get work done in (which was often just an excuse for some HPB shopping later, shhh).
  • If the pizza says “Epic Meats” it probably will be a mistake – I’m getting a little better about some food decisions. I’m discovering that bad food makes me feel bad. Also sleep is good. And coffee is wonderful, but too much caffeine is not. I still have my weaknesses, but I’m learning to say no to things I used to say “oh, what the hell?” to. Baby steps people, baby steps.
  • Finishing projects feels good – Sure it’s exhausting, but seeing the first physical copy of Surreality was deeply satisfying. I highly recommend it. Oh… and finish your books too.
  • There’s more room than you think – I wanted one dog. I thought our house could only support one dog. I thought my whole life would be deeply disrupted by the addition of another dog. And now I can’t imagine not having Murphy, even though the boy needs to learn that occasionally daddy needs both his hands to type. Or he can spring for the speech-to-text software.
  • Make a conscious effort on friendships – Some friendships can run on autopilot for a while and be okay, but deep friendships, be it with your spouse or your best friends need work, give and take, and time. I’m an introvert by nature, and have the tendency to not notice when long stretches of time have gone by since I’ve last talked to someone. Thanks to everyone who pulled me out of my shell a little more.

How was your 2015?

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