James R. Strickland, Author
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Looking Glass and Irreconcilable differences are, at last, on Createspace in dead tree editions. Yay! I'm back in the printed book business. :)


03/16/2016 07:47pm Book Review

The Velvet Monkeywrench Book Cover image

The Velvet Monkeywrench - Two stars.

Another book that wrestled with the civilization's post WWII discomfort. Muir writes well, and is the author of the best example of tech writing I know: How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, a Manual Of Step By Step Instructions for the Compleat Idiot. This book is his attempt to fix civilization. While it has a great breadth of imagination thinking about hacking civilization and making it better, and while some of what he suggests came to pass with the birth of the internet, Muir's vision is awfully mechanistic (as one might expect from a mechanical engineer and a mechanic), and while it gives lots of opportunities for human-ness, the system is at least as inherently inhuman as the one it would replace.

As a read for amusement's sake, it's frankly a flop. As a cultural artifact of the 1960s to early 1970s it's interesting, and for John Muir fans who want to see his only other work (richly illustrated with Peter Aschwanden cartoons, much like the VW book) it's interesting. There are some good ideas, but it gets awfully dry in spots.

03/16/2016 07:37pm Book Review

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values Book Cover image

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values - Five stars.

Honestly, I'm not sure the marketing text of this book actually has anything to do with the book. Here's what I see. In the 1960s, there was a growing sense the the post WWII civilization wasn't right. The experiences were too homogenized, too sterile, too stifling, even if you were white and male (and Heaven help you if you weren't.) The result was the 1960s, but in particular one result was this book. Persig is going after something quite specific, in a slow, carefully told story. What makes a thing "of quality?" The conclusion, as I understand it, is that it is a perception before abstraction, and once the experience is abstracted into memory, it is only the memory of quality, not the quality itself.

The story is about a man who's had psychiatric problems finally getting to know his son while they travel across the country. It's not an easy journey. Both of them have scars, and neither of them really talk about them, but the shared experience, the quality of the moments does what words have not been able to do.

The story is partially autobiographical.

There's an epilogue to the version I read that is, after the quiet healing of the story, crushing. I won't spoil it (if that's the word) because you can find it in the Wikipedia entry for Robert Persig. He does manage to find hope, even then.

It's a book that explores abstractions and experiences and how they fit together. That he developed the philosophical end before modern brain science essentially bore him out, that the first time you experience something it's far more strongly experienced and remembered than repeat experiences. He had no way of knowing that this is how our brains work, but he hit on the essential truth anyway.

Or I got lost along the journey and missed the essential truth he was after.

03/16/2016 06:57pm Book Review

The Martian Book Cover image

The Martian - Five stars.

I admit, I peeked at the end to find out Mark Watney's fate before I bought the book. Happily, knowing what happens did not in any way detract from the story. Well told, well paced, a simple, linear story about a guy trying to stay alive using his brain. Sure, some of the characters can be a little thin. The third person narrative comes from nowhere in spots, and that always grates on me. It's easy to get caught up in the craft (or politics. ugh) of writing and lose sight of the fact that first and foremost, the writer's job is to tell an interesting story. Weir makes some rookie mistakes, but he nailed the last part, and the rest is small potatoes indeed. (Hee!) I really must see the movie soon.

03/16/2016 02:21pm Blog Entry

Getting Minipro 866 working with Raspberry Pi

For some time, I've had a Minipro TL866CS eprom programmer that I got on Ebay. While it works very well, its software is windows only. I'd like to move it downstairs permanently where all the eproms and whatnot live. I'd also like to move my logic shrimp (a logic sump compatible open source logic sniffer) down there, as well as have a terminal and a browser and email and all that good stuff in my workshop.

The obvious answer would have been a PC. If I had a spare that worked. Since I don't, I turned to one of my stack of Raspberry Pis, in this case a model 2b, formerly my desktop Pi before the model 3s came out.

The upshot: my basement Pi now has minicom for terminal/rs232 stuff (I still need to test that with a USB rs232 dongle) OLS, the logic-sump compatible software I'm used to (which I also still need to test with the logic shrimp). I figured it would be a simple matter to download the minipro software from here: https://github.com/vdudouyt/minipro, compile, plug in the minipro and go.

Nothing worked. The minipro flashed its red LED continuously. It wasn't getting enough power. I'd stumbled over the solution to this before. Edit the Pi's /boot/config.txt file and add the lines:

# Increase max USB current

to it. Now the Minipro's LED stayed on, but the minipro open source software still wouldn't talk to it.

lsusb showed the 866's USB ID, 04d8:e11c, properly, but listed it as a Microchip Technology device. Which tells us who made the USB chip. This was different from my x86-64 Linux machine's enumeration, which I suspected was why the software wouldn't see it. I'm not sure this step was necessary, but it didn't hurt anything. I coped /usr/share/misc/usb.ids file from my desktop linux machine to /usr/share/misc/usb.ids on the Pi. Now the 866 enumerated identically to how it did on my desktop PC. The software still didn't work.

My next attempt was installing the latest libusb-1.0.yadda. I'm fairly certain this step is unnecessary, but I downloaded libusb-1.0.20 from http://sourceforge.net/projects/libusb/files/libusb-1.0/libusb-1.0.20/ , built, and installed that. It worked fine, but the minipro software /still/ didn't work properly. So I dug into minipro's source.

The problem I was having turned out to be unrelated to USB (Or I'd solved all the USB problems already. It's hard to tell in retrospect.) the minipro software was built on an x86-64 system, where chars are all signed in C. On arm architectures like the Pi, chars are unsigned. In the parsing function of the minipro software, the author uses one variable, a char, to store the output of getopt() whether it's valid or -1, which getopt returns when it runs out of options. If you store -1 in an unsigned char, you get 255. It's not equal to -1, which the line tested for, so it tried to parse it. Finding no valid commands with that character value, the parser loop promptly decided I'd fed it garbage, gave me the instructions, and terminated the program.

Once I understood that, the fix was pretty simple. Edit main.c and change the char c into int8_t c. (Coding on Arduino has made me paranoid about making sure my data types really are what I think they are.) I've sent a pull request to the original author with these changes, or you can download my fixed source here: https://github.com/jrstrick/minipro  (Update: the Minipro  dev accepted my pull request, so the main trunk should now work properly.)

You might be aware there's a Qt GUI for the minipro software out there. You can get it here: https://github.com/wd5gnr/qtl866 , but I have not yet gotten it to work with the Pi. It gives exactly the same error the command line used to, even with the fixed version, so I'm suspicious of how its option string is being built before it calls minipro, but I don't know Qt at all. I may hack at it more later.


02/10/2016 06:18pm Blog Entry

Looking Glass on KU Updated

Noticed a lack of embedded fonts on the new Looking Glass ebook? Yeah, me too. I fixed it.  Give Amazon a few days to approve the update and push it out to their servers.

02/08/2016 04:15pm Blog Entry

Yay! Updated website!

The big news: Looking Glass and Irreconcilable Differences are BACK IN PRINT on Kindle Unlimited. This means that if you have Kindle Unlimited, you can get my books for FREE with your subscription. If you don't, they're $2.99 each through the regular kindle store.

Both books are at edition (version) 2.1, which means I've cleaned up various typos that made me cringe over the years, and sanded out one or two spots where I meant to edit something when I wrote them and forgot. Both books also come with a brand new forward and new (better) typesetting including embedded fonts.

The cover art is the biggest noticeable change. Looking Glass's cover is built from iStockPhoto images, composited by yours truly. Irreconcilable Differences' cover is also composited by me, but from photos sourced from NASA (free!) and Second Life (Also free, but I had to buy the props.)

What does this mean?

I've finally decided to take control of my fiction. I'm no longer interested in having some publisher take 3/4 of the purchase price to throw it out into the world, leave it to languish there, and then not pay me when I'm owed royalties. They all seem to do it, they all want sickening control over the work, and most importantly, the trad publishing industry is in a state of contraction. This means companies are being bought and going bankrupt. The very last thing I want is one of my books to become an asset of a company being bought or going bankrupt, where it may sit for years while the litigation is sorted out, and then be simply misplaced forever. Likewise, I've been a creditor of a (functionally) bankrupt publisher. I don't do debt collection happily.

Moving forward, yes, there will be new books coming that have never seen the light of day before. Watch this space.

Also, I am in the process of getting Looking Glass and Irreconcilable Differences set up on CreateSpace so you can buy hard copies of my books again.  On this, I should say that if you see the older orange and green covered books, do please buy them. Some bookseller took a chance on me in the Flying Pen Press days, and I'd like to reward them. Most of them are selling at a discount below what my list price will be anyway. As I get into the new work, it too will be coming out in both KU and CreateSpace. I still haven't stopped getting a little giddy when my work appears in dead tree editions, so I'll be doing that for the foreseeable future.

Also, my website update now sports a "Technical Writing" section, and so far its only occupant is "Learning Linux System Administration,' a series of videos I did with Infinite Skills (part of O'Reilly) last summer and talked about at some length. I'll keep you posted right here when the next technical book comes out.


01/26/2016 07:19pm Blog Entry

In my opinion, the usual plumbing analogy for how conductors work does more harm than good. Electrons do not flow. They are stripped from one atom and stuffed onto its nearest neighbor, quite slowly. Since atoms are very, very close together in conductors, this means the net /charge/ flows through the wire, somewhere close to the speed of light.

Even charges are not like water in a pipe. Charges are relative. Water isn't, really. You're either wet or you ain't.

It seems to me that electronics are much, much less confusing when you learn a little of the physics involved, so you can see what the electrons /are/ doing, and what you're really measuring. Doubly so when you can think about the physics to understand more about electronics and not be led up the garden path by a bad analogy.

There are places where electrons do flow like water: inside vacuum tubes. Ironically, this is where the water analogy breaks down the worst, because the electron flow is /backwards/ to the direction the tube conducts current. It took me a long time to get my head around them.


01/18/2016 10:22pm Blog Entry

The Force Slumbers

In terms of story, after nearly forty years, the Star Wars franchise has passed from the hands of its savant creator, who spent the rest of his career not understanding how the original worked, to the hands of chimpanzees. Disappointing. There are good characters in there, but we hardly get to know them because the movie is paced so badly. Slow scenes where there should be fast ones, fast scenes where some character development and world building might have been good, and don't get me started on the fan service. Please JJ, let someone else direct the next one. More importantly, hire a writer who knows how to tell a coherent story.

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