My Thoughts Exactly

Remembering Tom West, the Original Geek Rock Star

I was saddened to learn of the passing last week of Tom West, the engineer/hacker who was the main focus of Tracy Kidder’s 1981 book The Soul of a New Machine. Tom was 71. Boston.com published a nice obituary; there were also notices in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and other places.

From the Boston.com article:

 

Thirty years ago, Tom West was thrust into a category of one, a famous computer engineer, with the publication of “The Soul of a New Machine.’’

Tracy Kidder’s book, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and is taught in business classes and journalism schools, chronicled Mr. West’s role leading a team that built a refined version of a 32-bit minicomputer at a key juncture for the computer industry and his employer, Data General of Westborough.

The book’s success turned a quirky, brilliant, private, and largely self-taught man into a somewhat reluctant guru.

 

I call Tom by his first name because I knew him, and that’s what I called him. In fact for a short while early in my career I worked quite closely with him — at the tail end of my four year stint at Data General.

As Soul of a New Machine amply demonstrates, West was a compelling figure. Everybody agrees he was quirky and brilliant; some people have mentioned his  being difficult or “prickly”. I have to say that I don’t remember a prickly side to the man. He could be abrupt, sure. Direct. Economical of speech. But if he had a temper or was harsh or unfair, I either never saw it or have since forgotten about it. I just remember that I really liked him.

Although I can’t claim to have been great friends with the man — I don’t know if he would even have remembered my name — he made a deep impression on me. When I wrote the novella Cheap Complex Devices in 2003 — about twenty years since I had worked with Tom West at Data General — a quirky, brilliant and (I think) extremely funny character named Tom Best showed up all through it. I can’t take much credit for Tom Best’s funny lines, however, since I stole most of them from Tom W. Read More »

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My Thoughts Exactly

You’re Right, Bruce Sterling: I *am* the future of printed fiction. Let’s discuss at SXSW!

A few months ago I blogged about my ten-or-so year long [career|hobby| pipe-dream|unhealthy obsession] as an itinerant peddler of my self-published nanopunky cyberpunky biopunky novel and novellas. That post was called Traveling Self-Publishing Geek Novelist Blues: the Defcon Variations.

A few weeks after I had posted this bit, the cyberpunk celebrity/novelist Bruce Sterling picked up on it, writing in an entry about me in his beyond the beyond blog entitled “The Future of Printed Fiction“. (Actually he didn’t write a blog entry about me — he copy/pasted my Wetmachine post and inserted into it a few oracular comments of his own.)

It’s all about being a make-do gypsy at the fringes of the web conference scene,” Sterling said in his prefatory remarks. “Gothic High-Tech, Favela Chic”.

I’ve been pondering that pronouncement (and others like it that he sprinkled through post by way of annotation) for a few months now (his post is dated October 14, 2010). Below the fold, I make an attempt at parsing them. I do detect a general tone of condescension in Sterling’s comments. Which, y’know, who cares. And furthermore I’m not even sure about that, that his comments are condescending. It seems like he’s making fun of me, but maybe he’s doing straight reporting or maybe he’s free-associating/scat-singing, like a jazz musician or person with Tourettes; I can’t really tell and anyway I’m not well-placed to judge, inasmuch as the subject is my life’s work. Mostly I’m grateful that Sterling blogged about me at all, because he has legions of fans & I got a nice jolt of web traffic and a mini-spike in book sales after he anointed me The Future of Printed Fiction. So thanks, Bruce.

In related news, both Sterling and I are slated to be in Austin, Texas next March for SXSW, the mega indie artist hipster conclave, at which event he will be giving a keynote talk to the multitudes and I’ll be on a panel (presumably before a much smaller and less adoring audience than Sterling’s) entitled “The Self-Publishing Novelist: Report from the Trenches

Since Bruce & I will both be at SXSW, maybe I’ll get a chance to chat with him & ask him what his comments meant. Or, maybe, just maybe, when I get to SXSW & plop myself down in a chair to listen to his opening address I’ll discover that I’m the subject of his keynote talk, which will be about nothing other than, yes THE FUTURE OF PRINTED FICTION & how I, Sundman is it! And I will find myself thereby catapulted into cyberbionanonovelist superstardom, right alongside Bruce Himself and William Gibson and what’s his face, who wrote Cryptonomicon and is now working some newfangled space-age post-fiction with my friend Nicki Galland and that other guy who wrote the book about little nanomachines taking over your mind — no, not Acts of the Apostles , the other one. Probably not, I realize that. But if you’re reading this, Bruce, and would like to join me for a cuppa whatever, please do  have your people call my people.

While I do confess to a bit of bewilderment about what Sterling is actually saying about me in his post, I think the gist is that printed (fiction) books are rapidly becoming “collector” artifacts for niche and rapidly shrinking communities of readers, like classic 35MM film cameras (Pentax, Minolta, Leica, Hasselblad. . .) that once commanded premiums in specialty stores and now go for a few bucks at flea markets.

Who knows, he may be right about that.

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My Thoughts Exactly

Book designer and self-publishing guru Joel Friedlander talks with Wetmachine about the future of publishing

As part of our continuing series of interviews with movers & shakers in the rapidly changing world of publishing, Wetmachine today talks with Joel Friedlander, proprietor of Marin Bookworks and creator & curator of the fantastically helpful and interesting site The Book Designer. Joel’s a long-time self-publisher and consultant to other self-publishers. He knows a lot and he’s funny and helpful. See my questions and his answers below the fold.

Joel joins Jane Friedman, head honcho emeritus of Writer’s Digest, and Mark Coker, creator of epub publishing powerhouse Smashwords.com in Wetmachine’s “Whither Publishing” interview series. Read More »

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My Thoughts Exactly

Traveling Self-Publishing Geek Novelist Blues: the Defcon Variations

John standing in vendor room at Defcon

Me in my Defcon T-shirt glory

I write & publish fiction for hackers and geeks. I’ve written a novel and two novellas and I have another novel in the works. The baseline genre is cyberpunk/biopunk thriller, although I approach the subject matter in a kind of David Foster Wallace/Pynchonian way. So I’m actually kind of a postmodern metafictiony cyberpunky technothriller novelist. All my books concern hacking of both silicon-based and carbon-based systems.

As I discussed in Adventures in Self-Publishing, there’s no reasonable way for me to get my books into bookstores (all the tech bookstores that used to carry me have gone under). Therefor I have to use other ways to get my books in front of readers. So sometimes I go to places where hackers and geeks and congregate & there set up a table whereupon I put out copies of my books & glowing reviews from geekoid websites & start carnival barking like Billy Mays, selling my books for cash.

I’ve done this for more than ten years.

Does it make any sense to sell books this way? Am I a brilliant self-marketing original or just some crackpot who wrote some crackpot books?  I don’t know, but if you read this post I’ll think you’ll have enough info to form your own opinions. (Jane Friedman of Writers’ Digest thinks I’m doing something right, which is some consolation.)

Below, the story of my most recent such gig & biggest one ever, Defcon, Las Vegas, late July/early August 2010. This account includes a rambling disquisition on the whole “hand-selling books on the road” idea in general, with lessons learned from ten years of this idiocy.

(Since Defcon, by the way, I’ve sold the rights to my first novel, Acts of the Apostles. See here for the how and why I sold the rights.)
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My Thoughts Exactly

Jane Friedman, long-time publisher of Writer’s Digest, talks with Wetmachine

I first met Jane Friedman sometime around June, 2001, when she called to tell me that my novel Acts of the Apostles had won the Writer’s Digest National Self-Published Book Award for that year (in the “genre” category:  a juried competition with 324 entrants, ahem; I digress).

That call took place pretty early in Jane’s 12 year career at F+W Media (and pretty early in my self-publishing career, now that you mention it.) Her talent was obvious and she rose quickly. In 2008 she was named the publisher of Writer’s Digest, the No. 1 resource for working writers. In her varied roles at F+W, she was responsible for the management and growth of multiple book lines, annual directories, newsstand and subscriber-driven magazines, online education and services, e-commerce, print and online advertising, as well as national writing events and competitions.

Jane recently left WD to take a position as assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati, and she now teaches full-time in the e-media department of CCM. She’s a frequent speaker at writing and publishing events; her focus is on helping writers understand the transformation underway in the media and publishing industries, and how they can be successful and in control of their careers.

I recently asked Jane if she would like to be interviewed for Wetmachine and SelfPublishing Review. She said yes, and I sent her some questions; her answers appear below the fold (and will appear in SPR tomorrow). If you read my recent interview with Mark Coker of Smashwords, you’ll notice some overlap in my questions. I think it’s interesting to see where Jane agrees with Mark and where she differs. But all of her answers are thoughtful and some of them are quite intriguing.
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My Thoughts Exactly

Self-aware programs? Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread.

According to a status update on the facebook page of a friend of mine (which means it must be true), this quote:

‎”At this point we get into such difficult questions as whether a computer program can have purpose, or consciousness, or free will, or even a soul. I do not propose to address those issues now, because I am still chewing on the same questions concerning myself.”

is attributed to Guy Steele (whom fellow Wetmachanic Howard Stearns once told me he wanted to be when he grew up) in the book Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About by (“The Legend”) Donald Knuth, whose fondness for ligatures in TeX among other things, were oh-so-gently lampooned in the book to be mentioned in the next paragraph.

Of course such “difficult” questions are precisely the (ostensible) subject of the famous & brilliant novella Cheap Complex Devices, which you can read portions of right here on this very website, or better still, buy a copy!  Any of y’all needing a nudge can start with this review, which gets to the heart of the matter quite nicely.

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My Thoughts Exactly

Smashwords, iPad, Doctorow, Zeldman: further bumbling self-publishing adventures

Over on the Self-Publishing Review, my Adventures in Self-Publishing is still front-paged and generating some nice contact, public & private. Go me! But I’m still not rich yet. So anyway(s), as discussed, I’ve signed up with Smashwords to distribute my Acts of the Apostles. It’s been accepted into the iPad store, for which iPad-hater Cory Doctorow would give me a “boo-bad” and iPad hater-hater Jeffrey Zeldman a “way-to-go”, I expect. DOCTOROW-ZELDMAN STEEL CAGE DEATH MATCH! Or not. So long as they both keep saying nice things about my books it’s all good, as the surfers say.

So far, my Smashwords results not all that impressive: 82 downloads and zero sales.

On the other hand, the book is only available on Smashwords so far, not on Amazon or iPad. Maybe best-sellerdom is right around the corner!

Further reflections on Smashwords, iPad, OpenLaszlo, self-publishing, etc, etc, below the fold.


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My Thoughts Exactly

Acts of the Apostles in convenient ebook format

For nearly ten years, my book Acts of the Apostles has been available for free download from this site, and lately, from lots of other sites. I figure that it’s been downloaded at least ten thousand times, and perhaps a lot more. There’s really no way to tell at this point.

Recently I’ve been getting a fair number of requests for other (that is, not PDF) formats, such as mobi for the kindle and epub for other devices. After much, much, much too much ado, I’ve finally made different versions available on Smashwords for $4/copy. I’ll be curious to see what kind of sales I get, especially since the PDF is out there for free, and people can convert them if they feel like going through the hassle.

As I wrote in an earlier wetmachine post, I consider format conversion, for example from PDF to mobi, to be making a “derivative work” and therefore prohibited by the Creative Commons license. Not everybody agrees with me about this, and the matter really rests in an indeterminate state until such time as a court of law makes a pronouncement on it.

In the meantime, I don’t think $4 is much to ask for such a great book!

The hassles I went through were largely caused by my mule-headedness and lack of understanding of Microsoft Word. The Smashwords site itself is a relative breeze to use. I do plan to make Cheap Complex Devices also available on Smashwords, and I think the process of converting that book will be a whole lot smoother than the first one was.

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My Thoughts Exactly

Entering the E-book age, kicking and screaming

So after a nearly a decade of giving away PDFs of my first two books, I’ve decided to sell them as ebooks in different formats.

The technical hassles in so doing are bigger than they should be, although most of the problems are perhaps more in my head than in the format-conversion technology.

Mainly, I’m trying to convert PDF versions of my book to MS Word .doc format.

Any help in making me un-stupid in this process would be much appreciated.

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My Thoughts Exactly

Zappadan for Christmas!

As all compulsive readers of every single thing written on the internet know, Zappadan is that period of time, roughly corresponding to Festivus-advent and Festivus, between the anniversaries of the death and birth of Frank Zappa, and in which we now find ourselves.

So I think it’s worth pointing out to any googlers out there who may have stumbled upon our humble blog for the first time–and to our regular Wetmachine readers also, who might wear a tennis shoe or the occasional python boot– that Acts of the Apostles, that fantabulous novel by none other than moi, your host, is chock full of Zappoid goodness, not least of which being a significant plot point that revolves, as you might say, around the track layout of the double-LP Uncle Meat. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, Acts of the Apostles is the only novel in existence for which an absurdly deep familiarity with Uncle Meat (coupled with some understanding of the principles of VLSI design) will aid the reader in figuring out the central mystery of the book.

Acts of the Apostles is available for free download. Look to the left side of the screen. Have at it, Zappa-tistas! Eat it before Funobulax does.

This same book (along with its companions Cheap Complex Devices and The Pains) is available in printed ink-on-paper codex format for sale righty-chere on this very same blog you’re now a-readin’. Order now, and it’ll probably arrive at your place in time to put it under the Frankmas Tree.

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