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Podcast #96. “Totem Poles” by Rucker & Sterling

August 10th, 2016

Aug 10, 2016. Rudy Rucker reads “Totem Poles,” a wild tale co-written with Bruce Sterling. Appears online on today. Press the arrow below to play Rudy reading the story.


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Make Ebook for Amazon with Good ToC

July 31st, 2016

My old friend and surfpunk-SF-tale collaborator Marc Laidlaw is putting all of his old novels up on Amazon as Kindle ebooks these days.

My wife Sylvia and I recently visited Haena on the north shore of Kauai, and we saw a lot of Marc and his wife Geraldine. And I have a lot of good pictures from that trip. But today I’m going to clean out my backlog of photos—which have nothing to do with Kauai or with what I’m posting about today. Many are from a recent visit to Pinedale, Wyoming, to see our daughter Isabel. And some are from other spots.

I’m posting about a somewhat dull and technical topic—but I know it’s a topic that will be of great interest to a few self-publishing authors.

How do you convert your book document into a file that you can post on Amazon as an ebook? And how do you make it have a proper Amazon-style Table of Contents?

I’ve posted about this before, in 2014, in a series called “How to Make an Ebook.” And, as kind of a self-referential joke, I combined these posts into an ebook called How to Make an Ebook. But the method I describe there is fairly complicated. I wanted to find a way to put a ToC into your ebook that’s easy and fairly non technical and and reliable and it doesn’t take more than a couple of hours. And none of the Google links I found for “Make TOC for Amazon” seemed to yield something really simple and useful.

As I said, I got into this topic while I was talking to Marc in Kauai. Idiotic of me to work on such a thing in a tropical paradise, but I did piss away a few hours on it, and I thought about it some more when I got home.

Marc had used Abbyy FineReader to convert a PDF of his insanely gnarly and profound and readable book The 37th Mandala into a Word DOC. Sick and ill in all the best kinds of ways. And then he was having trouble getting the DOC into the format of an Amazon-style Kindle ebook with a built-in table of contents, or ToC. The ToC — that’s the part that’s tricky. As the classic poet Virgil wrote in the Aeneid, relative to exploring Hell or Avernus. “Easy is the gradual descent to the underworld, but to retrace your steps and return to the breezes above—ah, there is the bringdown, there is the drag.”

Marc was saving his DOC as a Filtered HTML from Word, and then uploading the HTML to Amazon KDP, and sometimes the Amazon ebook would have a Kindle style ToC, and sometimes it wouldn’t. And I got curious about how to make it work. And I kind of wanted to avoid the HTML step.

I didn’t solve the question in Kauai, but when I got home I wanted to email Marc an ebook version of the rough draft of my Million Mile Road Trip novel, and I got curious as to whether I could make it into an EPUB with Calibre, with a good ToC. I wondered if I could do it without going through InDesign—which is what I normally do these days. But a beginner doesn’t want to deal with InDesign.

And now it seems like I found a way to get from a Word DOC to an Amazon ebook using just the free Calibre program.

* Give all your chapter headings the same style in your DOC. The standard Word style Heading 1 is fine. Or you can create a similar h1 style and that’s fine too. You don’t have to start with Word, you can use any word-processor.

*Save the edited document file for safekeeping. And then save it as an RTF file, that is, in the so-called Rich Text Format. If the document has a built-in table of contents that you generated, like with Word, go ahead and delete that from the RTF. It’ll just get in the way. Now open Calibre and do “Add a Book” based in the RTF file. (You can’t add DOC files to Calibre).

* Set the Metadata fields in Calibre if you like. Like put in your name, or comments or tags or even a cover image. Then then go into the Convert Books dialog in Calibre and set output to EPUB In the Convert Books dialog. This dialog has some buttons for subdialogs on the left.

*Go to the Convert Books | Look and Feel | Layout and put a checkmark by “Remove Spacing between paragraphs” The default paragraph first line indent is set to 1.5 em, which is reasonable. It looks better to have indents than to skip lines.

* Go to the Convert Books | Table of Contents put a check mark by “Force use of aut0-generated Table of Contents.” My impression is that the other settings in this dialog don’t reliably matter. Don’t waste a lot time sweating about them. Just accept that the automatic ToC probably isn’t going to work if you’re a beginner starting from an RTF document. But never mind, you’re going to easily fix the ToC in a second. While still in the Table of Contents dialog, go way down at the bottom of the dialog, and put a checkmark by “Manually fine-tune the T0C after conversion is completed.”

* Calibre will open an “Edit the ToC” dialog after building the EPUB. More than likely the autogenerated ToC sucks. Again, don’t sweat it, don’t even waste time worrying why. Just click the “Generate ToC from major headings” button in the “Edit the ToC” dialog and probably you’ll see a full book ToC then, possibly with a couple of bogus entries, and possibly with a couple of chapter headers missing. You can fix these using the the “Remove this Entry” and/or the “New Entry” buttons.

* Now you’re good. Close the “Edit the ToC” dialog, and click on the “Path: Click to Open” line in the lower right corner of the Caliber screen. This directs you to some obscure directory holding your new-built EPUB with the good ToC. Copy this EPUB file to somewhere where you can find it easily again.

* Test your file in, say, the EPUBReader add-on of Firefox, or Google Play on Chrome, or directly in Safari, or in iBooks.

* And test it with the downloadable Kindle Previewer tool if you like. In the Kindle Previewer, the ToC will not seem to work, but this is misleading. The NCX View over at the right side of the Kindle Previewer menu bar does work . And this means that Amazon will in fact be able to build a working ebook with a proper ToC from your EPUB.

Rudy Sr. and Rudy Jr. on Father’s Day 2016.

* The Kindle Previewer saves a MOBI version of your EPUB to your disk, you’ll find it in a subdirectory of the directory where your EPUB lives. You can copy this MOBI to your Kindle device to test it some more. The ToC will work on your Kindle.

* But what if Kindle Previewer finds errors or warnings in your EPUB? What if Amazon KDP won’t convert it? Open the book in Calibre. Select Edit Book. In that dialog there should be a pane for “Check Book.” Click on “Run Check.” If it finds errors, click, “Try to correct all fixable errors automatically.” If that works, resubmit the EPUB.

* If the automatic error fixing doesn’t work, Calibre allows you to “Edit your Book,” that is, edit the EPUB files, which are basically a bunch of HTML files. This is tricky for a beginner, as these edits may break things, but going back to the “Check Book” can often fix things.

* If you don’t like how your EPUB looks, you can poke around in the Calibre settings, The Convert Books | Look and Feel dialog has a number of panes. Try Googling about them or try looking at the Calibre documentation. Note however that the Kindle ignores some of these settings—also many settings can be adjusted by the individual Kindle user. It’s also worth knowing that it may make a nicer output if go to Convert Books | Heuristic Processing and check the box by “Turn On Heuristic Processing.”

* When you’re done, upload the EPUB to Amazon KDP! Alternately you can upload the MOBI to Amazon, as long as you use the MOBI that was created by the Kindle Previewer. (KDP won’t accept a MOBI made by Calibre.)

Peace at last.

Or maybe not. What if the Amazon KDP dialog rejects your EPUB? Without telling you what’s actually wrong with it? Well, then you try opening up your EPUB in the Sigil software, and running the Check procedure in there. This “check” is more rigorous than the one in Calibre. You can click on the error messages and Sigil will show you the broken spots in the *aaack* HTML code that’s zipped up inside that EPUB. Maybe you can fix the probs. This is where Googling can help, like try Googling your error message’s text.

If you need to get even deeper into the guts of your epub, there’s a free industry-standard program called epubcheck that you can download and run on your EPUB…this fella runs from a command-line interface, double *aack.” I won’t get into details here, but you might go back to my three or four old
How to Make an Ebook posts if you need to get this funky.

The one bright spot to keep in mind is that the first time you post an ebook will be by far the hardest time. Eventually you’ll develop a workflow, and (the hardest part) a mental image of what you’re actually doing, and it’ll be pretty smooth. And I guess this is where I put in a plug for all the ebooks I’ve published on Transreal Books!

Making a Lifebox

June 29th, 2016

(Post updated on June 29, 2016, from a December, 2010 post.)

This updated post relates to my Search Rudy’s Lifebox page, which I also updated today.

A lifebox is meant to be interactive software that allows a user to feel like they’re having a conversation with the person whom the lifebox supposedly emulates. I have an idea about how to create lifeboxes. In a nutshell:

• Amass a database containing all of a given person’s recorded words and images.
• Use realtime search algorithms to mine the data for nuggets keyed to questions.
• Use syntactic rules to merge each search’s output into a coherent answer.

In reality, this is how I usually answer questions in conversations. Rather than thinking hard, I just search out vaguely related thought-snippets and stick them together. And of course I modulate my mental searches according to my short-term memory of the conversation thus far.

In recent years, several commercial ventures have taken up the idea of helping people to create virtual software versions of themselves. For whatever reason, these developers never seem to mention my name. Yet they are in fact talking about the “lifeboxes” I’ve been discussing for decades. And I’m in the process of editing a second edition of The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul which will then appear in ebook for the first time. So I feel impelled to refresh this old post.

I go into considerable detail about lifeboxes in my 1999 novel, Saucer Wisdom, in my non-fiction tome of 2005, The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul, and in my 2009 article “Lifebox Immortality” which I co-authored with Leon Marvell. And creating software emulations of specific human minds is a notion I discussed in my 1982 novel Software .

A lifebox is really a kind of chatbot. In December, 2010, I met an interesting couple, Bruce and Sue Wilcox. Their chatbot Suzette just won the 2010 Loebner Prize for doing the best job at the Turing Imitation Game, that is, the game of the chatbot program trying to convince a human judge that the chatbot is human too. They talk via an instant-message interface. If a program could reliably and consistently win at the Imitation Game, we’d be included to say it had achieved human-like intelligence. Looking at the chatbot site describing Suzette, I was surprised to see how widespread and popular this programming exercise has become.

I’ve always thought it telling that in Turing’s 1950 article proposing this test, he begins by talking about a different kind of test—in which someone interrogates subjects via instant-messaging and tries to decide whether they are male or female. I’ve integrated my thoughts about this into my novel in progress, Turing & Burroughs, in which Turing does in fact impersonate a woman.

[These images have essentially no connection to the material being discussed.]

The day after I met the chatbot programmers, the dapper and fanciful writer Mark Dery put a new essay online, “Hate is All Around: The Politics of Enthusiasm (And Its Discontents)”, and near the end (on page 6) he mentions my writings about my concept of the lifebox. He also got off what seemed like very funny lines, as when he characterized a petulant remark by Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol as “a characteristic display of the social grace and subtlety of mind that have made her mother so universally admired on the world stage”.

Given that I’d been talking about the lifebox with the Wilcoxes, reading the Dery article was enough of a push for me to finally make an alpha-release version of a lifebox…and here’s the same link I mentioned above: the Search Rudy’s Lifebox page. I haven’t really done any work on the Search Rudy’s Lifebox tool since December, 2010, but I still think about it.

The reason my alpha version “Rudy’s Lifebox” does function a little bit like a chatbot emulating me, is that I have, over the last ten or twenty years, been placing really large amounts of my writing online.

Note that AI is not in the picture here at all. Rather than tilting at the Quixotic task of writing logic software to imitate human thought, it’s much simpler to beat the chatbot emulator problem to death with big data and fast hardware.

This said, Rudy’s Lifebox is not going to write the next chapter of my novel for me, nor rough out my next painting. So is my lifebox project a waste of time? Well, Rudy’s Lifebox can function as an aid to my fading memory. For instance, remembering just now that there was something about “wasting time” in a book, Be Not Content, that I love, I entered be not content waste time into my Search Rudy’s Lifebox box, and found this from an old blog post of mine:

I’m always worrying about wasting time, right, and I saw a great line in Be Not Content, the author-narrator Abel Egregore expresses this fear to one of his stoner friends, who guffaws, “Time? How can you waste time?” And I get a little enlightenment there. Time and space, the all-pervasive ineluctable modalities. What’s to waste? You use one second per second no matter what you’re doing. A wonderful teaching.

Up here (or down here) in some version of real time—my family and I decorated our Christmas tree today!

And once again, here’s that Search Rudy’s Lifebox link one more time. Do try it and make a comment over there, or on this here “Making a Lifebox” page.

SF in SF, Blumlein, End Draft MILLION MILE ROAD TRIP, Gunnar, John Shirley

June 14th, 2016

I did a reading event with Michael Blumlein  for an SF in SF event in San Francisco on June 12, 2016.  I read my story “Knobby Giraffe,” about a woman rescuing her girlfriend from the dead, and Michael read an essay/memoir called “Unrestrained and Indiscreet,” which turned out to be about the fact that Michael is dying of cancer.  It was deep and profound.   I posted a podcast of my story. And I posted a podcast of Blumlein’s amazing performance as well.

Here’s the audience. The discontinuity is because Richard Kadrey and Pat Murphy were off to the side.  A good crowd. If you were there and want to find yourself, view the larger version. Many thanks to Jacob and Rina of Tachyon Press for keeping the SF in SF readings going, and to Terry Bisson for serving as the leathery emcee.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I’ve been talking about my novel Million Mile Road Trip for nearly two years. I finished the first draft this week. What you see above is a sketch for a scene that’s in the second to last chapter, entitled “Cosmic Beatdown: Part I.” The attack of the giant saucers. A classic, classic theme.

“Saucer Bagpipe” acrylic on canvas, June, 2016, 24” x 24”. Click for a larger version of the painting.

In the very last chapter, “Cosmic Beatdown: Part II,” my characters finish off a certain evil alien bagpipe named Groon. Who’s he? He’s a mountainous bagpipe that spews flying saucers, and who forces the saucers to act as leeches. But you don’t need to know that. As I’ve said before, I like to regard many of my paintings as being illustrations of unknown parables or proverbs. Like medieval illos of tales gone missing in the flow of time. Just from the image, we have no way of knowing of the horn is sucking or blowing. We also have to wonder about the outer, wider horn, what is it for? And why does that top saucer look more alert and disturbed than the others? And who are the three tiny people watching? No answers are really needed. The bagpipe and the flock of little saucers are enough.

I had a nice time working on this painting in my backyard “studio.”

Priliminary sketch of how to eliminate Groon. Click for a larger version of the drawing.

Here’s a quote from Million Mile Road Trip where the characters discuss how to kill Groon. The “Figures” mentioned in the text relate, somewhat, to the frames in the preliminary sketch above.

“A new era’s coming,” says Villy. “Scud’s talking about how we’ll kill Goon. He’s giving us an illustrated lecture.”

Scud is glad to have Zoe here. “For my pictures, I’ll draw two parallel universes that are 2D planes in 3D space,” he says. “But really it’s supposed to be one dimension higher. Two parallel universes that are 3D spaces in 4D hyperspace.”

“Hyperspace,” echoes Villy in the dumbest hick accent imaginable. “Haahpurspayce.”

“Saucerpeople” oil on canvas, Sept, 2015, 24” x 18”. Click for a larger version of the painting.

By the way, Maisie is a saucerperson, that is, she’s half flying saucer, so she has a rim or flap around her waist that Scud can draw on. The rim has a cuttlefish-skin-like ability to change colors.

Scud starts drawing on Maisie’s flap. “So we’ve got two universes that are like 2D planes. And in one universe we’ve got a really and truly flat cow, like a cut-out piece of paper. Also a flat bagpipe with a flat horn. And in the other universe we’ve got, well, let’s put a flat person with a flat eye. These creatures can’t normally travel from one universe into the other. They’re inside their home surfaces—you shouldn’t think of them as sliding around on top of the surfaces. They’re like inkblots in paper. And they just see what’s in their home world.”

“And now you want to show how they do sometimes go from one universe to the other,” says Maisie.

“Exactly, says Scud. “We travel from world to world by using unny tunnels. And I happen to know a lot about unny tunnels from reading popular science books about the fourth dimension.”

“Doesn’t everyone?” goes Villy.

“An unny tunnel is what we call a wormhole or an Einstein-Rosen bridge,” says Scud, drawing his second picture. “The idea is that you bulge down the space of one world, and bulge up the space of the other, and they meet and join together like soap films, and there’s a, like, throat connecting the two worlds. Unny tunnel.”

“The flat bagpipe and the flat cow fall through the hole in the middle of the hole?” says Villy.

“Precisely not,” says Scud. “Remember that these guys slide around inside the surfaces. Moving ink blots! What they’ll do is creep down the side of that wormhole I’ve drawn.”

“Which side?” asks Zoe. “The inside or the outside.”

“Riding the Flat Cow” acrylic and oil on canvas, April, 2016, 24” x 20”. Click for a larger version of the painting.

[As I mentioned before, the novel has a character called the flat cow, or Yulia, although she’s not really flat, she’s just flattish, like partly squashed. Turns out she’s able to fly into the fourth dimension. But back to the quote from the text.]

“Wrong question!” cries Scud. “I’m telling you, they’re not really on one side or the other side of the surfaces. They’re like tattoos. They go all the way through. But! Our flat cow, she’s different. She has real thickness. She can peel free of the surface and fly around.,”

“And if you’re flying around in hyperspace outside the tunnel, what do you see?” asks Zoe.

“You’ll see a sphere that keeps bulging and warping and changing size while you move. Like this.” Scud runs his finger along Maisie’s rim, enjoying himself.

“And what does an unny tunnel look like to regular people in 3D space?” asks Villy.

“To us, the gate to the tunnel looks like a sphere with another world inside it,” says Scud.

“And what about when we’re inside the tunnel?” asks Villy. “Sliding down along the wall. What do we see then?”

“It’s effed up,” says Scud. “In one direction you see the back of your own head. And maybe you see a ball that has your old world inside it. And in the opposite direction you might see a ball holding the world you’re going to. We saw stuff like that when we hopped over here from Los Perros. But I don’t want to draw it. Too hard. Let’s show something easier.” His finger moves caressingly on Maisie’s rim. “Here’s a bagpipe going through the unny tunnel,” continues Scud. “That’s supposed to be Groon, right?”

“Kill Groon,” goes Maisie.

“I want to see the attack of the flat cow,” says Zoe.

“Yulia’s out there in hyperspace. Let’s suppose she has an agile person squeezed inside her flesh like a maggot. A heroic helper to pull the strings tight around the unny tunnel at either end.” Scud looks at Villy.

“Thus trapping the evil bagpipe in Nowheresville,” goes Zoe.

Some of my old friends have been leaving town lately. My neighbor Gunnar Vatvedt, 82, who’s been renting up the street from me for thirty years—his landlord decided to sell the house, and Gunnar’s outta here. I’ll miss him. He was a real character, very enlightened, but not via book-learning. With a great Norwegian accent.

My fellow Dark Lord of Cyberpunk, John Shirley, is moving up to the vicinity of Portland with his wife Micky. Here again, the Bay Area’s current real estate bubble and price inflation played a role. It’s been nice having John and Mickey around. You never know what John is going to say next, which is why it’s fun to talk to him. We had a farewell dinner at a tapas place in the Mission, with the oddly distorted artist Paul Mavrides and fellow cyberpunk Richard Kadrey there as well.

And here’s me, Sylvia and Micky. We were laughing about the Mondo 2000 party where we’d met Tim Leary around 1989. Tim asked Micky if she had some drugs. And then he asked Sylvia…where she had gone to high-school. Ow! Sylvia says that Tim asking her that proved that, just like me, he was, deep-down, kind of a preppie. Preps gone freak.

John and Micky left town via a teleport through this odd slab gate on the shores of Santa Cruz. The flat cow was busy that day.

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