Monday, July 23, 2012

Penguin takes on supported self-publishing by acquiring Author Solutions (iUniverse); more on old v. new books; a family Biblical relic

First, the biggest “news” item. Author Solutions, the parent of iUniverse (publisher of my two DADT books, discussed below) is now part of the Penguin Group.  iUniverse has the July 19, 2012 press release on its website, “Pearson to Acquire Author Solutions, for $116M” here

That means Penguin, a well-established trade publisher with a focus on republication in paperback in fiction and non-fiction areas, would be in a position to influence the culture of supported self-publishing, including expectations from and service to authors.  

One issue of obvious potential concern can be sales volume, over a long period of time as well as initially.  That can be an issue because the listed (and slightly discounted Amazon and BN) prices for new copies tends to be high.  One technique is to offer authors discounts to buy large volumes of their own books, but then authors would have to take the responsibility for handling books, selling them and handling customer credit issues, defeating some of the purpose of outsourcing self-publishing to a “cooperative publisher.”  Many authors want to focus on just “writing” and editing.

I have sometimes discussed here my own published books (three on Amazon), two of which start with the “Do Ask Do Tell” phrase and are currently available as print-on-demand from iUniverse.

I am not necessarily in an aggressive “sales” campaign, because these are older non-fiction books.  They do give a lot of valuable history, particularly of the early years of the fight over “don’t ask don’t tell” and the unusual relation of that issue to my own life, of the issues surrounding self-publication (particularly without third-party supervision on the Internet, as with the COPA trial), and of the panoply of social issues stirred up after 9/11 (balancing “duty” and “freedom”).   My most recent discussion about these publications occurs Oct. 1, 2011.

On June 11, 2012 I discussed my own plans for future media.  These plans include publication of a novel (“Angels’ Brothers”) and of a third DADT non-fiction book, a draft of which is available now online in PDF format at my “” site.  Completion of these items would require some more “fact gathering” by me, which should be completed by late August, followed by at least ten weeks of editing and perhaps two weeks of website restructuring, with as little distraction as possible, taking me up through the Thanksgiving period of 2012. 
I will admit that some “old books” do remain best-sellers forever.  Take Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”, which reviewers hated in 1957 but which the public has always devoured.  That’s true despite the book’s length, dogmatism, and a story centered on now outmoded technologies.

Or take some of Stephen King. Back in the mid 1990s, women where I worked would sit in the breakroom and scream as they read some passages from Stephen King’s “Misery”.  (Oh yes, “She chopped off his feet.”)  When I was in the Army, in the late 60s, I did read Ayn Rand, but I also read some Irving Wallace novels (“The Prize”, “The Seven Minutes”, and particularly “The Plot”), partly because Wallace seemed to have a keen eye for the possible course of the Cold War, and partly because Wallace followed the unusual but logical practice of developing his plot lines by opening his novels with long chapters each developing one major character at a time.  Now these novels seem a bit outmoded.  (Like “The Prize”, “The Plot” was supposed to become a high-profile film, but never did.)

I looked at some of the old books at the “estate” today and found a little Sunday School text, “From Solomon to Malachi”, 126 pages, by Kyle M. Yates, originally published in Nashville in 1934, with no ISBN’s then. It was reprinted in 1959, and my late father had probably acquired it at church when I was starting my junior year in high school. That was a good time; I was “different”, but things were stable, and I could not yet grasp the course my life would soon take. My father scribbled a reference to one Bible passage, Jeremiah 32:36-40, which promises the eventual return of “the chosen people” from captivity. The book has detailed charts and time-lines about the dual kingdoms and multiple captivities and returns, and the personalities associated with each. Jeremiah, as I noted in a Feb. 26, 2012 review of a movie about him, was “different”, unable to marry (supposedly by divine intention, but maybe by “immutability”) and tended to draw attention to himself and enjoy doing so, like one of today’s self-publishers.  And he did attract the usual tribal animosity, even when he proved himself right.  But I guess he was a little bit like Joseph, Daniel, and maybe even David.  Jeremiah may be the first individualist, and he was the sort you do want to meet on the dance floor today.


Friday, July 20, 2012

"One Second After": grim novel by William Forstchen depicts life after EMP attack

Author: William R. Forstchen (Foreword by Newt Gingrich, Afterword by Capt Bill Sanders, USN)

Title: “One Second After” (a novel)

Publication: 2009, Tom Doherty Associates, ISBN 978-0-7653-2725-3, 350 pages, paper, Twelve chapters, with afterword

This book is a novel presenting the experience of a community in the Smokey Mountains in North Carolina after a sudden electromagnetic pulse attack (EMP) on the entire country and on other parts of the developed world.

The story is told largely through the view of John Matheson, who has a diabetic daughter Jennifer.  He has a brother in the Pentagon who regards Jennifer as a goddaughter.  One spring day he calls suddenly and wants to check on how she is. Just after John gets back on the phone, the phone goes dead, all the power goes out.  In a few agonizing hours that follow the family finds out that all the car traffic died.  Within a day the community has figured out that an EMP attack has occurred.  Curiously, John’s old Edsel without modern ignition still runs.

The chapters of the novel first track each day following “The Event”, and then skip to two months, four months, and then one year.

The novel quickly explains how modern solid state electronics are totally fried by the EMP, whereas older vacuum tube stuff of a few decades ago might sometimes work.  It also explains that civilian infrastructure has not been hardened, and even military gear is not as well protected as it had been during the Reagan years.

Martial law gets set up – and the randomness of the way society falls apart, leading to looting and vigilantism, as well as attempts at rationing in a world that no longer has money, becomes very striking.  It’s hard to say whether the martial law, vigilantism and militia activity follow a right wing or left wing model – they amount to the same thing. The disease and fatality volume come to resemble that of a holocaust.  Starvation occurs, and one wonders why people couldn’t grow more of their own food in the mild North Carolina climate. Some electric and conventional operator-assisted phone service starts getting rewired inland from military coastal ships, but it will be too little, too late.

The author proposes that the “enemy” launched three missiles.  The largest was from a containership (with Liberian registry) off the Gulf Coast, splitting into three missiles with three warheads exploding over different parts of the country, to cover the entire nation.  Others were from north of Russia, and around southeast Asia.  The author is not very specific as to the identity of the enemy or its political motives, other to bring the entire developed world “low”.  And the terrorists, in the end, “win” with such asymmetric attacks.
The Afterword, “Electromagnetic Pulse: A Bolt from the Gray”, mentions the "Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack”, which has two parts, published in 2004 and 2008. The link is here.

EMP has long been known and would have occurred with thermonuclear war.  But during the Cold War with Communism -- the Soviet Union (and to an extent China)—the major preoccupation was blast and radioactivity, and as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis proved, mutually assured destruction was an effective prevention strategy.  Today, the enemies are small states or non-state actors who feel they have nothing to lose and want to bring others low – a psychopathy sometimes found associated with extremist religion, tribalism, and warlord-like states.  MAD cannot work.  It is true, however, that “Star Wars” and missile defense capabilities (as with NORAD and much of it well established even by the late 1960s) might be expected to intercept the fictitious missiles in this novel.

There is debate on what can be done to harden infrastructures, but most of it remains obscure with politicians, power companies, and the public.

In practice, real threats might come from smaller weapons.  US and NATO forces do have non-nuclear microwave-based EMP weapons that are effective in small areas in ground combat, as in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Presumably these are heavily secured from misuse.  Right before 9/11, in early September 2001, Popular Science published an article which claimed that such weapons could be constructed for a few hundred dollars.  That article is no longer available, it seems; it was strangely forgotten right after 9/11. 

What really can be done defensively?  There is talk of Faraday cages.  Should people have these at home?  Should people have some backup computers that don’t depend on vulnerable solid state?  Could automobiles and personal electronics somehow be otherwise hardened?  Supposedly, there are technologies that power companies could use to better ground their transformers and generating stations.

There is also a substantial risk to the electric power grid from large solar storms, emitting coronal mass ejections.  The last really big such event was in 1859, the “Carrington Event”, but Quebec suffered a major outage in 1989 after a solar storm. Solar storms are much less likely to affect cars and consumer electronics. 

What worries me is that the politicians and power company officials talk so little about it.  That makes me wonder if really effective prevention technologies are possible.  Is it about cost, or feasibility?  Newt Gingrich is to be commended for writing about this issue recently.  But why wasn’t this issue tossed around in the GOP Primary debates a few months ago?

A world like that described in this novel – unraveling in a second, literally – is not one that I could offer anything to.  There would be no point to my own existence, as a world that is relevant to my own abilities no longer exists.  Moral layering, long since forgotten, would re-emerge; the fact that my world had been destroyed because of an enemy's "fault" would not help my moral status.  At age 69, I could not survive.  In fact, the author details the triage and loss of respect for human rights as we know them, in a society where only some people can survive to start over with a pre-industrial society.  I can only cop-out and say, "Don't blow the infrastructure.  Take care of it.  Take it seriously."

Here’s an interview with the author on YouTube (no embed offered), by BookTV, link

Will there be a movie?  There is mention on YouTube but not on imdb, that I can find. Adaptation would be pretty straightforward; it might recall the 1983 film "Testament".

Update: Nov. 12, 2015

Forstchen has a sequel "One Year Later", published Sept. 15, 2015.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Chess openings: 4 recent books

A few weeks ago, while standing in a Metro stop, I overheard some chess players talking about a particular opening.  They had come from the Arlington Chess Club, and I have thought about getting back and playing USCF rated chess again myself since.  I have not been “competitive” ever since I dug myself so far into self-publishing.

I ordered four books from Amazon to see what had happened in all of my pet openings.  And, no, 47 years after I played my first rated game, chess is not played out, even with all the computers and Big Blue.

The most important of these “livres” is “The Kaufman Reprtoire for Black and White”, by Larry Kaufman, published by New in Chess (in the Netherlands), 2012. The book is split into halves upsidedown from one another (a physical presentation technique that I find distracting). Each cover shows the opp\osing King knocked over in resignation.  Losing with White is like lo\sing at home in sports, when you should have home-field advantage.  
The book is very well illustrated, spelling out complete moves in full algebraic notation.

I remember Larry, and lost to him once in the 1970s. His whole repertoire strategy is based on the idea of “solid chess”.   He wants you to get to the middle game with few exchanges and a good position, and offers few easy wins or quick traps.  He refers to computer evaluations and gives some detailed pointers on counting material, with the “two bishops” a very big thing for him.  In many openings, he admits a slight persistent plus for White as normal.  For Black, against “1 e4” he recommends a double king pawn library with the Breyer Defense to the closed Ruy Lopez.  That keeps all the pieces on the board into the middle game with a balanced position that gives a better player real winning chances (once White stumbles). 
 Surprisingly, he says that White may be able to maintain a tiny plus with the Italian Game, and says that computers don’t like the Two Knights Defense for Black too much (even though in practice stronger players crush weaker opponents with it – the opening was used in the musical “Chess”).  For Queenside openings, Kaufman likes to aim for the Grunfeld, and even recommends “1 g6” as a response to “1 c4” to minimize move order problems (rather like word order in German!).   It used to be the case that some players felt obliged to learn the Kings Indian to deal with tricky move order issues.

For White, Kaufman explains his recently cultivated preference for the Queen Pawn (1 d4), as giving White the best chance to control the game and steer it into channels where he/she retains an advantage.  He gives and antidote to the Benko Gambit (trade white bishops and block the b5 square), although I’ve seen other games where White keeps the bishop fianchettoed and uses it to support a central pawn push.  He also discusses some transpositional advantages to starting with 1 Nf3.   Against the Grunfeld, he prefers the Russian system with “Qb3” early (so did Ruben Fine) as keeping a stable pawn center. Against the Nimzo Indian, he likes the dogmatic “Qc2” to keep the bishop pair without doubled pawns (but “4e3” can do that also).  He also recommends alternatives inviting a Queens or Bogo Indian. In the Kings Indian Classical, he points out that a quick Q-side by White (involving a riskly Be3-fw maneuver and “c5” at the right moment) might be almost winning.

GM’s Lev Alburt, Roman Dzindzichashvilli, and Eugene Perelshteyn offer “Chess Openings for Black Explained”,  2009, published by the Chess Information and Research Center.  These masters recommend a Sicilian Accelerated Dragon for Black where possible.  The Maroczy Bind was long thought to give White a space advantage, but there is a lot of potential  counterplay against White’s pawn chains, and weaker White players often quickly stumble.   For the QP, they like the Nimzo-Indian.

There could be something to be said for playing the Accelerated Dragon and Grunfeld as part of the same strategy, because both involve fianchetto of the QB.   Also, use of the AD makes “1.. c5” an effective response to “1 Nf3”.

Fundamental Chess Openings”, by Paul van der Sterren  (2011, Gambit) gives a well-illustrated survey of all the openings, good for beginners.  It’s like an expanded Reinfeld from the 50s! The acronym is FCO.
The “fundamental” reference, though, is MCO-15, or "Modern Chess Openings", (2008, Random House) by Nick de Firmian. At 748 pages, it doesn’t seem as comprehensive as it could be. The book has been criticized for typos and for careless or inconsistent use of computer evaluations.   MCO’s columns (leading to footnotes) don’t always represent “best play by both sides” so it is harder to assess the recent progress of variations quickly. I checked a few critical lines from my own past.  It seems as though, in the Sicilian, Black is holding his own in the Dragon Yugoslav (especially with the Soltis line), despite rumors to the contrary, and the same holds for the complicated long lines in the Nadjorf (including the Poisoned Pawn).    In the French Poisoned Pawn, the most critical lines are, regrettably (for me) favoring White’s extra pawn despite his vulnerable King in the center.  In the Ruy Lopez, there’s some reason for Black players to try aggressive, or active piece-oriented defenses like the Archangelsk or the Open.  MCO still considers the Marshall Attack sound and playable, but there are a couple of critical positions that may favor White in the ending, at long last.

They say that chess is very "therapeutic".