The price of free (or why I won’t be upgrading to Mavericks any time soon)

So Apple’s new OS is out and it is free. Users should be delighted, right? Um… maybe not so much. The problem is that, very quietly, Apple has gotten rid of a tiny little feature: the ability to sync locally. In fact you are now forced to use iCloud… whether you want to, or not.

Well, I hear you say, the cloud is the way of the future. Who syncs at the local level anyway? What decade do you think this is? The answer is that I know what decade it is, but I also know Apple cannot be trusted with my private data, what did you do? Sleep through the revelations that came out this past summer? Does the name Snowden ring a bell? And before you tell me that I shouldn’t worry if I don’t have anything to hide, let me tell you that the fact that I don’t have anything to hide doesn’t mean that I’m going to be volunteering to be strip searched any time soon either.

Oh, and before you decided that I’m a tinfoil hat nut, let me reassure you that I do use cloud storage on a daily basis, and I find it extremely convenient… I just refuse to use Apple’s version of the blasted thing. They can choose to collaborate with the NSA, but if they do I want to retain the right to store my information elsewhere.

Maria and the Golden Dawn

In these past few days we have seen the innocent, and terrified, face of a cute, blonde, little girl plastered over the news as Greek authorities try to figure out who she is. That all efforts should be made to find her family is undeniable, but I can’t help but to find the emphasis on her blondness and the assumptions surrounding her being discovered in a Roma camp in Greece to be deeply disturbing.

That she was found with a family that was not her own, and in the company of adults who haven’t exactly provided a consistent account as to how it was that she came to be with them in the first place, is undeniable. This means that it is possible that she is a victim of child trafficking, but in light of the racist attitudes that have historically tainted the perception of all things Roma (aka gypsy), and the way in which not too long ago children were routinely told that, if they didn’t behave, the gypsies would take them, I am deeply disturbed by the way in which the story is being presented.

The charity currently caring for her said that when she arrived the girl was filthy (something that tends to happen when poverty forces your family to live in squalor), and traumatized (to be expected when a child is torn from everything that is familiar to her, and tossed into a completely alien environment, with no explanation whatsoever). This doesn’t mean she was loved or properly cared for, but at the same time it doesn’t necessarily follow that she wasn’t… and then we have the fact that the story originates in Greece, a country with a resurgent neo-nazi movement embodied by the Golden Dawn.

Considering the fact that in quite a few countries Hitler and his followers killed a higher percentage of the Roma than of the Jewish population (though coming up with an exact figure is much harder), the role of such an ideology should probably be taken into account. Add to that the fact that the gypsies have long been one of Europe’s favorite escape goats (while Greece is a country in the throes of a devastating crisis, where escape goats are desperately needed), and what we have is a rather disturbing picture of the biases that may be fueling this story.

Yes, all efforts should be made to locate this little girl’s family (though the fact that brown-skinned girls attract no such attention is in itself telling), and if she was kidnapped, or if she is a victim of human trafficking, she should be allowed to go home, but at the same time there is something to that old ‘innocent until proven guilty’ thing that seems to have been lost somewhere along the way. This is not unique to this case, a rush to judge is part and parcel of what the media usually does, but even though the evidence seems to be compelling, this is one case in which I wish they would exercise more restraint.

After centuries of discrimination the Roma have no reason to trust the authorities, and they tend to live on the the edges of society, where the proper paperwork is not exactly the norm. This means that the possibility that the adults that were with that little girl when she was found, adults who insist that what we have here is an unofficial adoption, has to be considered (though, unless the girl’s birth mother comes forward to confirm their account, chances are that they will never be able to prove that they are telling the truth either, that’s precisely why it is so important for the legal standard to be ‘innocent until proven guilty’)… and, sensational as the story may be, I wish the media would reserve judgement before fueling the fires of a hatred that has been with us for hundreds of years.

UPDATE: So Maria’s mother has been identified. She is a Roma woman from Bulgaria who has corroborated the story  the adoptive parents have been telling all along, namely that she gave her away because she could not afford to care for her. She insists that no money changed hands, though efforts seem to be under way to charge someone with something… whether anyone is guilty or not. As to the question of what’s in store for Maria, that is unclear. Will the authorities that now hold her fate in their hands acknowledge their mistake, and return her to her own community, or will they place her in what they deem to be a ‘good family’…  with ‘a good family’ being defined as ‘one that is not Roma’?

Oreos are as addictive as cocaine

Yesterday I went grocery shopping, and as I was walking down the cookie aisle -salivating like a good Pavlovian dog- I heard someone mention a recent study that found that ‘oreos are as addictive as cocaine’. I had seen the headlines, of course, and I had found them amusing and bordering on the absurd, but at the same time I was worried about what those headlines seemed to suggest: ‘oreos are as bad as cocaine’, and that’s where the difference kicks in… not that the similarities along the addiction line can be stretched as far as that headline would seem to suggest.

Yes, sugar tickles the same pleasure centers of the brain as drugs do, that has been known for a while (hence the ‘salivating like a good Pavlovian dog’ bit), but while we can be said to crave both substances to a certain extent, there is a difference both in term to how we are likely to respond to being unable to get a ‘fix’ are, and in terms of the damage the substance in question does to our bodies.

Simply put, most people I know can skip their daily cookie fix without displaying any obvious withdrawal symptoms, and -diabetics not withstanding- the likelihood that you will eat enough oreos in one sitting to kill yourself are… well, they are pretty much nil.

And if you are wondering if my passionate defense of the blasted things means I’m secretly in the employ of the food industry, let me reassure you that that is not the case. My defense of the cookie industry has to do with something more fundamental than that: even though I am not particularly keen on oreos, I do have a massive sweet tooth, and I am not to happy about the growing criminalization of sugar I see all around me. Yes, I realize that we should try to exercise some self-control in that regard (or maybe that we should try to exercise, period), but while I am aware that sugar is not the healthiest of foods, putting it on the same level as cocaine -or even nicotine- is downright absurd, and I am not particularly fond of the fact that sweets have somehow been turned into a guilty pleasure… so excuse me while I go grab a cookie.

Keeping busy

Yikes, a week after wrapping one project up I am all but done with the first draft of book three of Citlalli. No, that doesn’t mean it’s done (in fact I think that, between revisions and rest periods, it still has something like a year to go), but even though a part of me knows that the fact that I could cross all three of those things off my list in a matter of days is mostly a coincidence, it is still a rather nice feeling… especially because when it came to Citlaill I had to deal with quite a bit of writer’s block.

Of course, I also know myself well enough to realize that, as soon as I start revising it, I will probably also start cringing at the sorry state of that first draft, but then again that’s why it is called a first draft (actually, it’s not even called that, as I usually refer to my ‘first draft’ as a ‘rough draft’… the ‘first draft’ is actually the second one, which is the first one I expect to be sort of  legible).

Well, that’s how a writer’s life goes, but for today I guess I’ll just revel in the fact that that draft is done… tomorrow I’ll go back to cringing.

E-publishing and the race to the bottom

As I prepare to release another book I find myself grappling once more with the question of what to do about e-books, a question that becomes more relevant with each and every passing day, as more and more readers eschew the printed world altogether to switch to electronic versions instead. The thing is that while a part of me would love to join this trend, there is another one that can’t help but to hesitate.

To begin with there is the fact of just how fragmented this market happens to be. You can choose a publisher, have your book printed and distributed by signing a single contract in such a way that you know what you are getting, but when it comes to e-books each bookstore requires what amounts to a different agreement, with most outlets claiming for themselves the right to modify the terms of the agreement. This creates a maze of shifting legalese few self-published authors can realistically hope to untangle, or even keep track of, where the possibility that the evolving contracts would at some point collide with each other cannot be entirely ruled out… and the more distribution options you seek, the higher that risk becomes. Continue reading E-publishing and the race to the bottom

Waiting for the proofs to arrive

And we are done! That project that was almost there the last time has officially crossed the finish line, including cover design and interior layout. That means that all that’s left to do is to wait for the proofs to get here, and then, if no major issues pop up, it will probably go live on November 2.

As for what that one is about: it’s a ghost story (hence the decision to release it on the Day of the Dead if at all possible). Will it sell?

Who knows? The truth is that I’m not particularly optimistic in that regard (not considering that I have a marketing budget of exactly $0.00, and would much rather be writing anyway), but I’m not particularly concerned about it either. Yes, being able to make ends meet would be great, but my needs are simple, and no matter what happens I had a blast writing it, so I’m just tossing another message in a bottle, waiting to see if someone -anyone- will pick it up…

Two down three (at least for the time being) to go

Well, one/two of the five projects I have been trying to juggle are all but done (they are two versions of a single title, that’s the reason behind the iffy numbering. The English version is done, and the Spanish one has less than a week to go, though there are also some design issues that I’ll also have to take care of… still, the end is near). A second/third project (the one that was being a bit of a brat), has effectively been shoved to the back burner. It’s not happy about it, and at times I hear it grumble so I have to go in there and stir it a little to keep it from turning into a charred mess, but on the back burner it sits. Whether or not it will agree to stay there remains to be seen.

As for book three of Citlalli (that would be the third/fourth project depending on how one counts the one that is almost done), the first draft of that one  is coming along nicely, and with a little luck it will be done before October is out… not that I don’t have half a dozen rounds of corrections to go, but I should have the rough draft by then.

Once that is done I’ll finally  be able to turn my attention back to the sort-of-history book I have been neglecting for the past few months (that would be project four/five… the problem with that one is that it was supposed to be something like 25,000 words, but last time I checked it was 90,000+ and counting). It should also make it possible to go back to my preferred kind of insanity (that would be one where I have two active projects, where I revise one while writing the other one)… okay, so that’s supposed to be the theory.

Of course, that only works if no other projects come knocking (okay, so for the most part they don’t knock, they just barge in and make themselves at home, knowing that they are welcome and that the door is always open), or if the one that is currently on that back burner doesn’t get too bratty in the meantime. Still, having some semblance of order, even if it is only for a little while, makes for a nice change of pace!

Crowdsourcing your book

I’ve been going over the Pubslush site for the past couple of days, and I have to say that this is a trend that could actually be interesting not just as a means to secure some financial backing, but also as one that can help authors fine-tune their sales pitch. No, I’m not too sure about their publishing arm (they mention the fact that they have one, but there is little to no information about it), but the basic concept seems to be solid.

The basic premise is the one you would expect from a crowdsourcing site: you create as project, set some goals and rewards, as well as an allotted time frame, upload some content, and wait. There is a minimum $500.00 threshold, and if you reach it, you get the funds (minus 4%, plus processing fees), even if you fall short of your stated goal.

Of course, the question of whether crowdsourcing a book using what is, at least for now, a relatively obscure site can hope to reach all target audiences is a valid one, but seeing how the service is free it may well be worth a shot.

Like a broken record

Isn’t it funny how language can serve to keep discarded tech going? That’s one of the things I caught myself thinking when I heard someone say ‘you sound like a broken record’. It’s like kids clicking on an image of a floppy disk to save their work without having a clue as to what that icon is supposed to represent (of course, this is one that is beginning to look like it will solve itself, as saving too is a process that seems to be about to go the way of the dodo, which is itself a creature too many of us are only barely aware of, one we would be hard pressed to identify even as a taxidermy exhibit).

Roller coaster writing

One of the hardest things you have to do when writing a story is learning to recognize when and where should you hit the delete key. Sometimes, when you are stuck, you have to go back and make some radical changes to a section you thought was long done. Doing that can be not just frustrating, but also downright terrifying, especially when the scene involved was one that was one of the pillars of the whole plot. These little ‘surgeries’ can be enough to cause the whole structure to collapse on top of your head, a fact that can leave you bruised and battered… and if you are in the middle of a series, where a couple of volumes have already been published, well, let’s just say that that makes it even worse. Simply put, if the work in question is part of a series then there are parts you just can no longer change, and you certainly can’t walk away or start anew. That was what happened to me a couple of months ago with Citlalli.

The good news is that, even though it took me a while to figure out how, I eventually managed to fix that one, and I’m pretty happy with how that turned out. The bad news is that I’m no longer sure I know where the story is going… not quite. Oh, I have a general idea as to what the general destination is supposed to be, and I think I know how to get there in general terms, but the detailed map I thought I had has been shredded. That means that the path I’m going to have to follow is going to be different from the one I had originally envisioned.

Of course I have to admit that dealing with these little surprises can also be a lot of fun.. .terrifying fun, mind you, but still fun. This is the roller coaster aspect of writing, the one most people don’t even realize is there. Yes, you can set out with a destination clearly in mind, but there are always surprises, and pitfalls, along the way, and watching a story grow, develop and change is one of the most fascinating aspects of the whole process. In fact at times when people ask me why I write, seeing how I’m not exactly making a living out of it, my answer is that I write precisely because I have a story buzzing between my ears and I just have to know how it turns out.

I have written a number of books by now, and the one lesson I have learned is that the story I wind up with at the end of the process hardly ever turns out to be like the one I had originally envisioned… but of course, if I knew how the story was going to end, chances are that I wouldn’t even bother writing it down.

Keeping school out of the kids’ hair

Is it just me, or are schools getting completely out of hand, becoming more and more intrusive with each and every passing day?

There are a couple of stories floating around that have caused me to start wondering about that.

In the most disturbing one of those a California district has apparently hired a firm to monitor their students’ use of social media, nominally in an attempt to keep an eye for a series of problems and behavioral issues (after all, they have to make it sound like they are acting on their students’ best interest), but in practice intruding on their students lives beyond the classroom. The thing is that while keeping kids safe is a worthy goal (bullying and suicide are pressing issues), I don’t like the way schools are intruding on the kids’ lives outside of school. Call me old-fashioned, but as far as I’m concerned that’s what parents are supposed to be for, though at the same time I do realize that too many parents are too busy to care, and more than happy to have the schools step in. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a way for parents (or students) to opt out of that kind of monitoring (not that I would trust a school to respect such a decision to opt out).

The second story is more circumscribed. It is about a little girl who was told by her school that her dreads were unacceptable, and whose father decided to yank her out of that particular school instead (good for him). Setting aside the racism such a policy entails (afros were also explicitly forbidden), there is the fact that some of these policies focusing on the kids hairstyles that are written into many schools’ dress codes fail to take into account that, unlike clothes, hairstyles cannot necessarily be done and undone on a whim. Children may be able to change their clothes as soon as they get home, but they can neither uncut nor redye their hair in a similar fashion, and dreads are not exactly a hairstyle that can be changed in a matter of minutes. That means that by regulating hairstyles in the classroom schools are intruding in their students’ lives long after they’ve left the premises, and it is there that I feel that they have crossed the line.

Yes, a dress code can be a good idea, at least up to a point, but there is a problem when it comes to their definition of dress. Regulate clothes? Sure, kids can change those as soon as they get home. Require some standards of hygiene? Fair enough (as long as you make some accommodations for those students whose situation does not allow them to comply, and do it in a way that does not stigmatize those students), but leave the kids’ hairstyles out of it.

After all, as important as school may be in a child’s life, it is the parents job to parent that child, and schools should really learn when to get out of their students’ hair.

The endless lives of the dead

I have an aunt who is in her late eighties, and often when I talk to her she will tell me about some of her old acquaintances, or she keeps reminiscing of people who were famous in her youth, people she used to admire and respect. These comments usually include something along the lines of ‘if s/he hadn’t died when s/he did, then s/he would have…’ and with these comments she keeps bringing those idealized dead to life in her mind, putting them in a context that is not their own. The one thing that never seems to occur to her is that if those people hadn’t died when they did… chances are that by now they would have died of something else. I mean, most of those people would be over a hundred years old by now, some would have been something like a hundred and fifty. And yet she keeps saying of every new development ‘If s/he hadn’t died, s/he would have…’

The healthiest meal is… no meal at all

And here we go again, with another pointless warning about why you should abstain from eating/drinking something you had always been told was good for you if you want to live a long, healthy life… come to think of it, if you were to listen to all those warnings you would probably have to give up food altogether. Anyway, the latest bit of nonsense that had me slamming my head against the nearest wall was an article on Yahoo about how unhealthy fruit smoothies happen to be (if you want to read it, you can find it here). Yes, smoothies have sugar in them, and sugar is not the healthiest of ingredients, but  that doesn’t mean that smoothies are poisonous or that they are ‘as bad as soda’, which is what the so-called-experts behind the study on which that article is based seem to claim.

The thing is that the presence of one or more unhealthy ingredients doesn’t cancel the benefits of the other ones. In fact even heath nuts acknowledge that chocolate has a number of health benefits (not the least of which is that is delicious and one of those things that make life worth living).

In other words, it’s not black and white, you can eat some sugar and that’s not likely to kill you (not unless you are diabetic). The key word here, in case you were wondering, is ‘some’. Besides, for all the dangers that experts keep reminding us are lurking in every mouthful, it is worth noting that there are few things you can eat as part of your regular diet that will kill as surely as not eating at all, so give yourself permission to enjoy your life, and if you want to have a smoothie or a piece of chocolate, go for it!

Upcoming projects…yes, AGAIN

It’s beginning to look like I’ll be able to get one or two more books out this year (or, to be accurate that I might get one more book out in two versions. The book in question is a sort of ghost story that’s going to be released simultaneously in both English and Spanish). That’s the good news. The bad news is that book three of Citlalli is running a little behind schedule (I am hoping to have that one ready a year from now). I have two other titles lined up after that, but I have so much work left to do there that I can’t even begin to guess when they might be ready (one of those may still be done before 2014 is out, but it’s going to be close). Still, I’m working hard, and having fun with what I’m doing, so at least on that particular front things are good.

Redefining endurance

What picture comes to your mind when you think of the world’s most extreme endurance athlete? Today that image is looking an awful lot like what most of us have always thought of as its antithesis. In fact, thanks to Diana Nyad swimming from Havana to Florida, that mental image should probably be replaced by that of a sixty-four year old woman.

Congratulations… and thanks for the lesson, it was a much needed one!