Ben Crowder

Category: BooksPage 2 of 58 (572 posts)

Project Gitenberg

Project Gitenberg is a project to take Project Gutenberg texts and put them on GitHub for better version control and issue tracking. As they say on the site, this allows for cool things like using post-commit hooks to automatically generate EPUB and PDF files whenever a change is committed to the book repository. And pull requests are nice for submitting changes. (Nicer than an email with a changelist? I don’t know. But the coder part of me is excited about this.) Thanks to Tod Robbins for the heads up.

If/when I get back into making ebooks, I’ll most likely do something similar to this and put the source files up on GitHub.

Speaking of making ebooks: For about a year now I’ve been mulling around an idea for an md2epub replacement called Caxton that would make it easier to publish ebooks — particularly, inheritance of styles throughout a series, plugins, and a templating language. I’ll talk more about it when it’s closer to being done.

Chesterton on being broad-minded

A good bit from chapter 20 of G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics:

Whether the human mind can advance or not, is a question too little discussed, for nothing can be more dangerous than to found our social philosophy on any theory which is debatable but has not been debated. But if we assume, for the sake of argument, that there has been in the past, or will be in the future, such a thing as a growth or improvement of the human mind itself, there still remains a very sharp objection to be raised against the modern version of that improvement. The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always something concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there be such a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas. The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty. When we hear of a man too clever to believe, we are hearing of something having almost the character of a contradiction in terms. It is like hearing of a nail that was too good to hold down a carpet; or a bolt that was too strong to keep a door shut. Man can hardly be defined, after the fashion of Carlyle, as an animal who makes tools; ants and beavers and many other animals make tools, in the sense that they make an apparatus. Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.

A writing update

Lately I’ve started getting up early to write (long experience having shown that that’s the only way that works for me), which hopefully will result in some finished stories and eventually novels in the nearish future. I’m also now listing current projects at the top of my writing page, for what it’s worth.

My current project is tentatively called “Queen of the Cruel Sea.” It began life as a brief scene I wrote when I was playing around with Cathode a couple years ago. Since then I’ve tinkered with the story every few months, getting to 11,000 words written on it last year, but plot issues forced me to start over. Between that first brief scene and this current draft, only the title remains the same. The story is, however, much better, I think. I’ve written around 4,300 words so far, with three scenes down and five to go. (Assuming things don’t change too drastically with the outline as I get further along. I’ve already had to revise the outline in some substantial ways based on how the first three scenes went.)

This also marks my first time trying a variation on Rachel Aaron’s technique. First I write a high-level outline (beginning, end, and then middle to connect the two) and revise it a few times till I’m happy enough to move forward. I then go through each scene, writing a very detailed paragraph-by-paragraph outline including dialogue, and then I write the full scene.

So far, it’s working well. Figuring out the detailed outline before I write the actual words has been a huge help, making it far easier for me to see and fix issues (and so more quickly). It’s like figuring out an algorithm in pseudocode before actually writing the code. I recommend it.

Anyway, after I finish and release “Cruel Sea” (by the end of September, a deadline I just made up because I need something solid to work towards), I’m planning to start writing novels instead of shorter works, beginning with a science fiction standalone. And of course plans are subject to revision, same as my plots. And life, though not quite in the same way.

A slightly different kind of ebook

Turns out reading PDFs of old books (from Google Books, Internet Archive, etc.) on my iPhone works out reasonably well. For example:


On the left is the fully zoomed out page. Indoors, I’m able to read it without too much difficulty, though my eyes do thank me when I zoom in (as on the right). The problem with zooming, however, is that navigating to the next page then requires more swiping, and, at least in iBooks, you have to zoom in again every time you turn the page.

After a bit of this, I got to wondering what it would be like to typeset an iPhone-sized PDF, designed specifically to be read on a phone. Here’s how it turned out (and this is a proof of concept, nothing too polished):


The pages are set at 7.573×4.267″, which I arrived at by taking 1136×640 (iPhone screen dimensions in pixels) and dividing by 150. Arbitrary, but it worked out well enough. And the text is at 16 points on the left and 18 on the right. (Also arbitrary, but dependent on the page size, of course.)

The PDFs:

The main advantage to a foolhardy scheme like this is full typographic control — margins, fonts, layout (important for poetry), tracking, etc., all without worrying about limitations of ebook readers. I could try to do something about widows and orphans, for instance, though I didn’t do that with this proof of concept.

The downside is that it’s custom-tailored to the dimensions of the iPhone 5S, and on other devices it wouldn’t fit as perfectly. Not necessarily a dealbreaker, though.

Is it worth pursuing? No idea. One of these days I’ll set a full book this way and try reading it on my phone to see how it compares.

New Harry Potter short story

J. K. Rowling has released a new short story featuring Harry Potter later in life. A sample from the middle:

About to turn 34, there are a couple of threads of silver in the famous Auror’s black hair, but he continues to wear the distinctive round glasses that some might say are better suited to a style-deficient twelve-year-old. The famous lightning scar has company: Potter is sporting a nasty cut over his right cheekbone. Requests for information as to its provenance merely produced the usual response from the Ministry of Magic: ‘We do not comment on the top secret work of the Auror department, as we have told you no less than 514 times, Ms. Skeeter.’ So what are they hiding? Is the Chosen One embroiled in fresh mysteries that will one day explode upon us all, plunging us into a new age of terror and mayhem?

Apparently Rowling has been writing other Harry Potter-related stories on Pottermore for the past few months, but this is the first one to feature Harry himself.

An update

I’ve been more derelict than usual in blogging this month, and I have a sorry excuse to proffer for it: I’ve been working on a complete redesign of the site, including switching to a new custom CMS and recategorizing/tagging all 2,500 posts. The recategorization is taking far longer than I anticipated, and until the redesign is fully deployed I’ve felt less inclined to post. But since it may take a bit longer yet, here we are.

In reviewing all these old posts, by the way, I’m struck by how much I’ve changed over the years, especially in the last year or two. My writing style has noticeably matured, with far fewer smilies and a long, steady gravitation toward less colloquial language, at least in part. Earlier posts often sound like they were written by a teenage girl, and while there’s nothing wrong with teenage girls, I am not one, and for that we are all thankful.

I’m also solidly married now, which means a merciful reprieve from posts about dating and romantic yearnings, and I now have children. Life has changed, massively. The other day I was worrying about not having enough new things to write about on here, but I’ve since realized the falseness of that fear. Not only will there always be plenty of new things (and old things) to talk about, but my perspective has changed so much that in some ways I’m a completely new person. And I’m sure in ten years more I’ll look back and think how young and silly I was in 2014.

One other thing: I’ve been posting more to Facebook lately, but the whole walled garden thing continues to bother me, so I’m going to try to post more here instead.

Anyway, enough metatalk. Some quick updates:

It’s been a while since I posted about our daughter and her cardiomyopathy. She’s stable right now and appears to be in good health, all things considered. We’ll go up to Primary Children’s again in a few weeks for a followup appointment and hopefully see some progress. (As of our last visit two months ago, she hadn’t improved in the three months before that, but she also hadn’t regressed.)

I recently did the interior print design for Dan Wells’ book Next of Kin, a novella that leads into the new John Cleaver trilogy. That was fun.

What I’ve been reading lately: more history (currently Mary Beard’s Pompeii, following John Gillingham’s book about the Wars of the Roses). I’m now on the fourth Wheel of Time book, and I recently started Downbelow Station.

Since it’s Independence Day, a repost of my Facebook status a moment ago:

If Rip Van Winkle woke up in our house right now, he could be forgiven for thinking we were right in the middle of a battle. Goodness.

River’s Tale

I wrote a new poem, called River’s Tale. This time, however, I’m experimenting with SVG/CSS animations as illustrations on the page. A screenshot (click it to see the animations):

Notes: the animations aren’t that great, it’s not responsive, and it’s probably not fully cross-browser. (I only tested it in Chrome and Firefox on Mac.)

CreateSpace test picture book

It turns out that CreateSpace only charges $3.65 to print a 24-page picture book, color, full bleed. That’s…incredible. You do pay shipping ($3.59 in my case), but still — $7 to print a picture book for your kids? Very, very nice. I threw together a dummy book to test print quality, and my copy arrived today, ten days after ordering it.

In general, I’m quite pleased. Print quality is very good. I’ve taken some photos below (with no postprocessing, but my iPhone camera added a bit more contrast than there actually is in the book).


  • The book is perfect-bound, so it won’t open as flat as it would if it were saddle-stitched. I don’t think they have saddle stitch as an option.
  • The paper isn’t glossy.
  • Colors aren’t quite as vibrant as they are on screen — blacks aren’t as dark, etc. But for actual use — reading to kids at bedtime — they’re quite fine.
  • Colors that are similar to each other can be a little harder to distinguish, but anything with sufficient contrast should be okay.


Reading on screens

The other day I came across a Wired article about reading on screens vs. paper, and it touched on something I began noticing in my own reading a few weeks ago:

What I’ve read on screen seems slippery, though. When I later recall it, the text is slightly translucent in my mind’s eye. It’s as if my brain better absorbs what’s presented on paper. Pixels just don’t seem to stick. And often I’ve found myself wondering, why might that be?

That’s exactly what I’ve experienced, albeit only for novels. I can read blog posts and longform articles on my phone just fine, with no retention difficulties. Novels, however, are slippery. It’s harder for me to keep track of what’s happening in the book, and it’s consistently nowhere near as satisfying. And so I never read ebooks anymore. (Yes, this is ironic.)

People who have no problem reading ebooks: I’m so, so jealous of you.

When the aliens finally came

Five very short stories, based off a writing prompt my friend Jonathon Penny posted yesterday. (Things got a little out of control. Apparently I like writing about aliens.)

Story 1

When the aliens finally came, just a week before the rogue planet–the one we didn’t see coming till two weeks before that, when it was too late to do much of anything except arrange the deck chairs and say a few prayers–when they came, we thought maybe they could save us. Just maybe. But we were wrong. They came, not to save us, but to be saved. And the thing slithering through space after them–well, let’s just say we were grateful the planet got us before it did.

Story 2

When the aliens finally came, our xenolinguists were stumped. The aliens didn’t talk, at least on any frequency that we could see. They didn’t chitter. They didn’t make signs with their heads or the appendages we arbitrarily called hands. They didn’t seem to grok the equations the mathematicians showed them. They didn’t reverse the magnetic fields around themselves like the swimmers do down in the outer core. (Most people still think of the swimmers as aliens, by the way, and I suppose they are in one sense, but you could make a strong argument that they’re more native to the planet than we are.) Then we figured it out. It took us longer, you see, because they lived on the outside of their ship, and our suits didn’t pick up smells from the vacuum, and long story short, Milner–the one from New Canada–somehow noticed the constantly shifting scents, and one thing led to another. Heaven knows what the aliens thought we’d been saying to them all that time. Anyway, it wasn’t long before they were hugging the astronauts like long-lost relatives, and next thing we knew they’d taken a chunk of Brooklyn–a big one, too–right up into their ship. Haven’t seen them since.

Story 3

When the aliens finally came, they arrived not in large ships, but in a hail of small cocoons that fell scattershot across the East Coast. At sunrise the next morning they wriggled out, small like a grain of rice, and burrowed down, gnawing at the dirt and rock, growing bigger and bigger. We didn’t notice any of this, mind you, until buildings and subways started collapsing and sinkholes began showing up everywhere. Terrorists, we thought. By the time we realized what had happened, it was too late.

Story 4

When the aliens finally came, sir, no, I wasn’t at my post. I was…hiding. Yes, sir, I understand. No, not at all, sir. They appeared to be shapeshifters, sir. Knots of tentacles, shiny, all over the place. Real tall one second, short and stumpy the next. Sometimes they were in two or three or ten places at the same time. Weirdest thing I ever saw, sir. No, she’s doing fine, sir, thank you for asking. They say what I saw was, uh, fluctuating cross-sections of higher-dimensional beings. No, sir, I don’t think I understand it, and if I may say so, I don’t think I want to. Thank you, sir.

Story 5

When the aliens finally came, ribbons of light all a-dancing in the sky, they put the northern lights to shame. Some fools on the news said something so beautiful couldn’t be evil. Me and my folks, we bundled up quick and got out of the city, went down south into the jungles, to get as far away from other people as we could get. Apparently we weren’t the only ones with that idea. We’ve been holed up here for a month now, listening to the explosions up north. Lost my oldest to a snake bite. Lost my second oldest to a spider bite. My wife’s been down with the trembles for five days. I don’t know what those aliens can do, but it’s looking like it can’t be much worse than this jungle.