Category Archives: science

The School Internal Homes Of Magic And Sorcery

The phone/tablet Google Translate app has this very useful feature that allows you to point your device’s camera at a page of text, and the app translates the text to the language of your choice upon the screen.

If you work with a lot of computers configured to use foreign languages, as I do, this is extremely useful.

However, sometimes the translation is a bit inaccurate, as the following translation of the book description of Harry Potter from Spanish to English shows:


Though, to be honest, if the government did operate a School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, it would probably name that school the “School Internal Homes Of Magic And Sorcery”.



I hate printers, but…

…you know, come to think of it, there is no caveat here. I simply do not like printers.

The reason for this is that I have spent twelve years working in various forms of IT, and therefore have seen every sort of printer malfunction the human mind can conceive. The rollers wear out. The firmware melts down. The Ethernet connection burns out. Sometimes a little bit of the fuser roller melts, so every page comes out with a black stripe. Paper jams beyond numbering. Or someone prints out a website and it comes out as 600 pages of gibberish. The vast, bloated software packages HP installs just so you can print. Related to that, an endless, endless vista of driver problems and incompatibilities. Someone prints a malformed print job, and so kills the spooler on the print server and nobody can print (admittedly, this does save on toner costs). The motor dies in an inkjet printer, so the print head can’t move. Or someone neglects to use their inkjet printer for a few months and the ink congeals into a substance harder than diamond.

Color printers. Oh, I hate color printers. Listen to me, people: you don’t need to print in color. No one is going to read your handout, brochure, slide notes, thesis, or political manifesto. Don’t bother with color. And when color printers break, they break hard.

Multi-function printers (MFPs) are really bad. These are the units that combine a printer, a scanner, and a copier all in one. Invariably they come with enormous bloated software packages that inevitably configure themselves to start automatically, so you can had 45 seconds to your computer’s boot time as ScanThingy or InkThingamabob or whatever starts up.

And PowerPoint! Invariably someone will print a 200 slide PowerPoint presentation, and they’ll do it in Slides mode, which prints one slide per page. Why!? The Handout mode, which prints 6 slides per page, is right there in the Print dialog box! Right there! And then, because it takes the printer a bit to render a 200 slide PowerPoint filled with graphics, they’ll wonder why it isn’t printing and then hit print five or six more times.

Sometimes you open up the printer and the toner gets everywhere (the Brother 350n series was really bad at this).

And sometimes the print driver is buggy, and random documents come out formatted correctly, but look as if they were typed in a random combination of Spanglish and Engrish (the HP 2015/2035 series was really bad at this).

So because printers are the devil and I hate them, I haven’t personally owned a printer since 2002. It is amusing that as a writer, 2011 and 2012 have been my most successful years, and I’ve only needed to print out two – exactly two – sheets of paper. (The contracts for SWORD & SORCERESS XXVI and SWORD & SORCERESS XXVII.)

But circumstances, at last, have forced me to get a printer. Some kindly and well-intentioned people, meaning nothing but the best, were planning on buying a new printer, and wanted to give me their old printer, since I was a poor benighted soul without a printer. It was an inkjet printer, which are even more evil than laser printers, because inkjet printers work on the same business model as crack dealers – the first hit’s free, but you gotta pay for the rest. Similarly, inkjet printers are cheap – but the cartridges are expensive and quickly emptied.

And if these kindly people gave me their old inkjet printer, I would be stuck with it forever.

I had no choice but to take action.

So I bought a laser printer, specifically an HP LaserJet P1102w printer (HP LaserJet Pro P1102w Printer (CE657A#BGJ)). It is a bare-bones printer that prints black and white, and does nothing else. Additionally, it also comes with built-in wireless networking, so there’s no need to have it connected permanently to a computer.

Actually, it’s rather clever – the printer has some built-in flash storage, so when you plug it in via USB, the flash storage mounts as a CD drive, and all the drivers are there. By HP standards, the driver isn’t too terribly bloated. It installs the driver, a monitoring utility, and nothing else. The installation utility also allows you to set up the printer as a network printer right away.

For an entry-level networked laser printer, the web interface is actually pretty good. (A web interface lets you control the printer via a web browser, which for the P1102W is a necessity, since the printer doesn’t have an LED display.) The web interface also lets you download the driver and install it from the web browser, which is really quite handy and a nice touch. Additionally, the install automatically sets up the printer as a network printer on your PC, which is a bit easier than manually adding the TCP/IP port.

Further, the imaging drum is built into the toner cartridges, so every time you change the cartridge, you get a new imaging drum. This adds to the expense of the cartridges, but since imaging drums commonly break down in laser printers, it’s a nice bit of preventative maintenance.

So, I do not like printers, and it is best to have no printer at all. But if you are absolutely forced to get a printer, you could do worse than the HP P1102W.


extreme weight loss is like writing

This is an extended metaphor, so bear with me.

I lost about 135 pounds (from 320 to 185) via diet and exercise over the course of a year from 2009 to 2010, and so far have kept it off for just over two years. So someone sent me this article from the New York Times, and I saw myself in it. Specifically, this part:

But their eating and exercise habits appear to reflect what researchers find in the lab: to lose weight and keep it off, a person must eat fewer calories and exercise far more than a person who maintains the same weight naturally. Registry members exercise about an hour or more each day — the average weight-loser puts in the equivalent of a four-mile daily walk, seven days a week. They get on a scale every day in order to keep their weight within a narrow range. They eat breakfast regularly. Most watch less than half as much television as the overall population. They eat the same foods and in the same patterns consistently each day and don’t “cheat” on weekends or holidays. They also appear to eat less than most people, with estimates ranging from 50 to 300 fewer daily calories.

Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, says that while the 10,000 people tracked in the registry are a useful resource, they also represent a tiny percentage of the tens of millions of people who have tried unsuccessfully to lose weight. “All it means is that there are rare individuals who do manage to keep it off,” Brownell says. “You find these people are incredibly vigilant about maintaining their weight. Years later they are paying attention to every calorie, spending an hour a day on exercise. They never don’t think about their weight.”

Yes. I have recorded every single thing I have eaten since July of 2009, and ideally I try to have no more than 1800 to 2000 calories. I weigh myself every day, and I record it. (I used to keep a notebook, but I switched to Evernote a while back and find it much more convenient.) I go the the gym at least five times a week (running outside isn’t rigorous enough, plus there are too many blasted dogs without leashes) and run four miles. Every day I do four sets of 35 pushups, and my goal  is eventually to be able to do 100 in a single set.

The point of this recitation isn’t to brag, or to say “look at me, calorie sinners, and feel bad about yourselves!” Besides, the idea that physical fitness equates to virtue is both insipid and facile, despite what every magazine at the supermarket checkout will tell you. No, the point is that if I stop doing all that, I’ll gain the weight back very quickly. I think it would only take about two months or so.

All this is hard, but it does get easier. Or a more accustomed part of one’s mental landscape. I remember in March of 2010, a Little Caesar’s opened in my town, and I wanted to buy a pepperoni pizza and eat the entire thing, as was often my favored meal of choice when I was younger. I circled the block nine times before I managed to make myself go home. It was this bizarre intense physical craving, almost like drug withdrawal. It happened a few other times in 2010 and 2011, but almost never now. In fact, my new apartment is a block from that Little Caesar’s, and I drive past it on my way to work with nary a thought. So it stays hard, but you can get used to hard.

So how does this relate to writing?

People used to ask me if losing all that weight was hard, and I’d say yes, but it was still easier than trying to get published. They’d laugh because it was funny, but I was telling the truth.

See why I like electronic self-publishing so much? It’s easier than both traditional publishing and extreme weight loss! Win-win.

In practical terms, I suspect it also explains why I took to the rigorously disciplined methods of weight loss describing in the NYT article. I had been writing unsuccessfully for a number of years, and it turns out applying that discipline to another area of my life was effective.

This also carries over to self-publishing. I’m working on the rough draft of SOUL OF SORCERY now, and in one month I wrote 86,000 words. I could have done more, but short of neglecting important areas of my life, I don’t think I could have pulled it off. For some writers, that would be a daunting amount in a month. I’m not going to say it was easy – it wasn’t – but it wasn’t particularly difficult. I’ve been attempting to write seriously since I was fifteen, and in that time I’ve built up the skills and discipline that let me write 86,000 words in a month. The practice to get to that point – that was the difficult part.

I suppose the point of all this is that to do anything successfully – lose weight or write a book or whatever – takes work, work, work. A commitment of time and energy, every day. A “am I willing to do this every day for the rest of my life” level of commitment.

I’ve come to find that I like the level of self-discipline involved. At the very least, I don’t feel like I’m going to die after the first flight of stairs any more, and we’ll have a new DEMONSOULED book before the end of October.


Tyrant Lizard

During my travels last week, I went to the Field Museum in Chicago, where I met Sue.

This is Sue:

Sue is famous for two reasons.

1.) She is the largest, most intact tyrannosaur skeleton ever found.

2.) She was reanimated by the heroic wizard Harry Dresden few years back, who then rode her into battle against a coven of six necromancers attempting to become a god, as shown in the following scientific illustration:

This means that in 2010, I saw both the largest intact tyrannosaur skeleton AND the largest intact triceratops skeleton, which is located at the Minnesota Science Museum in St. Paul:

But the tyrannosaur and the triceratops are natural enemies; hopefully the pictures I took will not start dueling across my hard drive. Hard drives are expensive.

The Field Museum in Chicago is one of my favorites because it has two of my favorite topics: dinosaurs, and Ancient Egypt:

This carving comes from the reconstructed tomb of Unis-Ankh, a Fifth Dynasty princeling of little historical significance. But while he might have been of no significance, consider that the carvings from his tomb have lasted for forty-three hundred years. In other words, those carvings are about eighteen times older than the United States, four times older than the British crown, three times older than Islam, twice as old as Christianity, and several centuries older than Judaism (since Abraham probably did not live until several centuries after the Egyptian Old Kingdom ended).

And I can’t even find a laptop computer that will last for more than five years. Clearly, the ancient Egyptians could teach us a thing or two about extended warranties.


of dinosaur turds

I have a trilobite on my desk.

And for those of you asking “what is a trilobite”, no, it’s not 0.0029% of a kilobyte (rim shot).

A trilobyte is the fossilized remains of a now extinct marine arthropod from the class Trilobita. However, not many people know what a trilobite is. So when people see the trilobite on my desk, they invariably ask the same question:

“Is that, like, a dinosaur turd or something?”

No, it is not.

However, a fun fact: dinosaur turds, and the turds of other animals, can indeed become fossils, specifically a type of fossil called a coprolite. Coprolites are in fact quite common, and when I went to the Science Museum of Minnesota this weekend, I saw that they had several for sale.

Naturally, I had to get one.

So, in the future, when people ask if the trilobite is a dinosaur turd, I can hand them the coprolite, and say “no, but that is”, and watch their reaction.

Obscure jokes are a great deal of fun.


the Triceratops and the Cathedral

Guess who saw the most complete Triceratops skeleton in the United States this morning?

This guy, that’s who.

There’s a special exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Minnesota Science Museum, so I made the long trek to St. Paul to see them (more on that later). Now, I’ve been to Minneapolis several times for conferences, but never to St. Paul itself, and I noticed that no matter where you go in downtown St. Paul, you see this…this dome hovering over the city, like the dome of Hagia Sophia over Constantinople. It draws the eye, and I couldn’t help but admire the artistic and architectural power of the thing:

After I finished with the Science Museum, I decided that I wanted to see that dome, whatever it was. So I set out on foot to see it. Turned out to be a mile and a half walk, uphill, in 85 degree heat, but as I got closer, it was worth it:

The dome was attached to the Catholic Cathedral of St. Paul, and the Cathedral isn’t named after the city – the city is named after the Cathedral. (Apparently the original name of St. Paul was the somewhat less-dignified sounding “Pig’s Eye”.) I went inside, and it was one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen:

Seriously, I don’t care if you’re Catholic or atheist or whatever. If you’re in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area, you need to stop by and see this place. Modern churches tend to look like suburban conference centers or abominations of modernistic art. Not so the Cathedral of St. Paul – the artistry, the statues, the stained glass, the paintings, the metal reliefs, the woodwork, all of it is superb. It is, in all candor, a magnificent building.

I felt a little bad wandering about snapping pictures – a bunch of people were praying at the various shrines (complete with amazing statues of the Four Evangelists and the patron saints of the various immigrant groups that wound up in St. Paul), and a couple of guys were earnestly doing the Stations of the Cross.

But if the Catholics didn’t want tourists, then frankly they should not have built such an impressive building!