Quote of the Moment

"It's never wrong to hope, Byx," said my mother. "Unless the truth says otherwise."
- from Endling #1: The Last, by Katherine Applegate

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Lost Treasures and Other Random Musings

I've been poking around Half Price books this month, both selling and buying.  Being a cheapskate on a very tight budget, I naturally gravitate to the Clearance section.  Here, items already being sold for half (or less) of their original retail value are dumped for one, two, three bucks maximum.  Books, puzzles, DVDs, computer games... There is nothing inherently wrong about any of these items.  Some, as in the games, are not even necessarily used.  It's just that nobody else seems to want them.  If they make it to the Clearance bin, even Half Price Books doesn't want them anymore.

My latest game purchase from this area was a little game called Space Colony for the PC. (Yes, I only play PC games.  The kinds of games I like - RPGs, strategy/sim/city-builders, and such - just don't translate to consoles without significant dumbing down, plus it makes it that much more difficult to find mods to enhance gameplay.) I remember seeing it when it first came out, and I never could justify the price.  For three bucks, though, I figured it was worth a try.  Couldn't possibly be a bigger disappointment than some games I paid full price for.
Upon opening the box, I was greeted with my first pleasant surprise: a game manual.  An honest-to-goodness paper game manual.  Game manuals are a lost art.  A good game manual not only explains how to play the game, but sets the stage for the playing experience.  I remember many drives home from the computer store, sitting in the back seat with a new game, reading the manual.  Every page made me more and more eager to load the game.  My personal favorite manual ever was the Arcanum manual, but then Arcanum is my favorite RPG of all time.  These days, you're lucky if you get a slip of paper telling you how to load the game, or even a PDF file on the disk.  Nobody seems to care anymore about creating an atmosphere, setting the stage, whetting the appetite.  Space Colony's manual might not have been as thick as Arcanum's, but it succeeded in a way that sterile PDF files and random slips of paper cannot.  It made me turn the pages. It made me eager to explore the game.  It made me laugh, and anticipate more laughs once I booted up the game itself.  It also made me remember the simple joy of reading about a game, the glorious anticipation that a good game manual creates which even the most cleverly-designed box advertizing simply can't do.
When I finally booted the game up, I wasn't disappointed.  The humor evident in the manual shone through bright and clear.  I've just begun playing, and I'm still learning, but I'm already enjoying it.  No, it's no rival to Arcanum, but it's not trying to be.  It is, however, just plain fun.  It blends shades of classic city-builders with bits of The Sims; keeping the colonists, each with a clear personality, happy is just as important as defending the base from alien attacks and generating wealth.  Sadly, the critics panned it (as they seem to pan anything that's not Grand Theft Auto or another first-person-shooter), so the odds of a Space Colony II are essentially nonexistent.  But, for me, it made a nice little treasure.

On my most recent visit to the Half Price Books clearance shelves, I snagged a couple older-but-popular titles from the sci-fi/fantasy rack, books I've been meaning to read but haven't had the budget to buy new.  One of these was Terry Brooks' Magic Kingdom For Sale - Sold!, the first of his Landover series.  The premise - a man buying a magic kingdom through a high-end catalog - intrigued me, and I told myself I'd buy it if I ever found it cheap enough.  It was on the shelf for a buck, which even my cheapest cheapskate gene agreed was indeed "cheap enough." When I got it to the car and flipped through it, though, I realized it had a secret.  On the title page in front was a signature.  A personalized signature, to the previous owner, from Terry Brooks.
I've only ever gotten a personalized signature once.  It was early last year, at a local con, when Naomi Novik (author of the wonderful Temeraire series) was in town.  I didn't even mean for it to be personalized, but she saw my name on my con ID badge and personalized them anyway.  She even spelled my name right, which is something of a feat.  I probably should've said something like everyone else did - how much I loved her series, how much I enjoyed the characters, how I'd sell my soul in a heartbeat if doing so would give me her incredible luck and writing skills - but I figured the very fact that I'd purchased a con ticket, bought her books, and stood in line for roughly half an hour for her to deface them with a pen said everything I could think to say, only more eloquently and without my pesky speech impediment.
At some point, in 1994, somebody also purchased a book.  Perhaps they were at a convention, as I was, and bought a ticket as well.  Or perhaps they were at a local bookstore.  They held in their hands a story they loved, written by a person they admired, and they were getting a chance - perhaps their only chance - to meet that person... more, to be acknowledged by that person, if only for half a minute of their time.  They waited in line, I suspect, perhaps at least as long as the one I stood in, the anticipation and illogical nervousness building with every step forward.  And at last, when they walked away, they bore with them much more than ink besmirching a book.  They bore that experience, that moment of joy, of seeing the person who produced a world they so loved to lose themselves in live.  Whenever they opened that book, they would remember that moment, and it would make the story that much more special.
How did it end up in Half Price Books, being offloaded in the clearance section with other books nobody seems to care about anymore?  Was there some great upheaval that made such treasures expendable?  Did the book get lent to a friend and somehow never found its way home?  Did the original owner pass away?  Or did life just carry them in a different direction, the meaning behind that moment fading as new interests beckoned them forward?
I bought that book for a dollar the other day.  Whatever happened to the memory, or the person who bore it, I cannot say, though I can't help but wonder.


In other minor news, I made a pleasant discovery.  Thanks to Mom's electric brick (a.k.a. the dying notebook she was given as a gift), I learned that my flash drive is malware free! (We figured the computer is on its way to Silicon Heaven anyway, so there was no harm in plugging in the flash drive even if it was infected.) So I don't need to reset on my stories, after all!  Of course, now I've lost my excuse to not press forward... unless, of course, I find something else to keep me from writing.  Like coming up with long, pointless blog ramblings on work nights.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Blank Slate

The good news: The Big Black Critter's home from the shop!

More good news: The evil program is gone, gone, gone!

The bad news: So is everything else!

Yep, evidently the problem got so bad that Windows actually crashed out, so they did a format wipe and reinstall.  Luckily, my last-minute salvation DVD burn was uninfected, so I saved the pictures I really wanted to save.  Unfortunately, all my settings and programs and such are history.  I'm in the process of reloading stuff as I type. (My latest issue: trying to get Outlook Express to remember how to reach my e-mail account.)

Oh, well... I needed to clean the hard drive up anyways...

So, today has been spent reinstalling programs and various other bits of hard drive clutter (Word files, pictures, games, etc.) I have a few more things to do - restart my Money budget, a game or two I'd miss if I didn't have them on hand - but for the most part I'm back to where I was, with one exception.

I read a rumor online that my nemesis, the evil malware program, might be capable of writing itself onto flash drives, creating an autorun file.  One thing I use extensively is a flash drive.  It has all the latest versions of my stories on it, so I can go back and forth between the Critters.  I haven't touched it since the BBC went in to the shop, because I don't want to infect the laptop with the big boy's germs. Now, I don't want to reinfect (and rewipe, and reinstall) the desktop tower.

I have two options:

1 - Plug in the flash drive and hope against hope it won't contain anything evil.

2 - Chuck the old flash drive and start over from scratch. (Well, not quite scratch - I have older versions backed up elsewhere - but the work of the past several months would be toast.)

Oh, well... I was thinking about restarting anyway.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Another Quick Computer Update

The computer shop called this afternoon.

The Big Black Critter is ready to come home.

Unfortunately, I was fighting my way home from the zoo in rush hour traffic, and going out of my way to swing by the shop just wasn't going to happen.

So, tomorrow I find out what damage was done. (The shop guy mentioned something in the message, but his enunciation and accent combined to make his words virtually unintelligible.  I think - think - they had to reformat and reinstall Windows, but they may or may not have saved my info.  All I really could pick out was that my computer was ready to be picked up.)

Hopefully this means I can clear two trips' worth of pictures off my camera, not to mention getting back into story writing. (I'm afraid to use the flash drive I'd been using to store my stories, as one report hinted that Personal Guard 2009 liked to sneak exe-files onto flash drives.  Not that the story was going so hot to begin with, but still, that's a lot of work down the tubes if it's on a corrupt drive.  Maybe if it's the first thing I try to reinstall, so I don't have so much to lose...)

Guess I'll head off.  Got some general websurfing to do.  There's also an annoyingly loud fly in my room that I'm trying to lull into landing; the cats seem uninterested in fulfilling their roles as pest control devices, so it's up to me to eject the unwanted insect.

I think it's finally landed....

Monday, September 21, 2009

Quick Computer Update

Well, it's gone  My computer, that is.  To the shop from whence it came, in the hopes that they can remove the foul infiltrator.  They have a sufficient backlog that they don't expect to even look at it for a few days.  The guy who took the info seemed to actually listen to what we were saying, though, and he read my printout. (I'd written out, as near as I could, what was wrong, what I'd tried to do about it, and what I wanted done, so there'd be a written copy in case of communication issues.) They hadn't heard of PG2009, but I have a sneaking suspicion I won't be the only customer they see with this problem before the year's out; looks like the latest fad in spy/malware is mimicking antivirus software and trying to trick you into "activating" it.

All things considered, today went pretty well, aside from the whole wishing-I-had-my-desktop-back thing.  I made a Half Price Books run that netted me over ten bucks (it was 15 before I bought a PC game on clearance - maybe knowing it has a fun little game waiting for it will encourage the Big Black Critter to cooperate with the repair people and get home all the sooner....) We had lunch out, then grabbed dipped cones at DQ, because we hadn't had dipped cones in ages.  Then we went to the lake to walk off lunch in the beautiful weather.

Today was also another good day for dragonflies.  I've seen a large number of them this year; the last time I washed my car, a huge blue-green fellow hovered within a foot of me to watch the process with evident fascination.  I like to think of them as good luck; if nothing else, they're a reminder of the strange and wonderful things in a world far bigger and more interesting than one's own minor little irritations.

Guess I'll head off.  The LBC wants to update, so I suppose I should let it do so in peace.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Curse You, Mercury Retrograde...

I'm typing this on the Little Black Critter whilst I await the results of a bootup virus scan on the Big Black Critter (a.k.a my regular desktop PC.) Spybot found a vaguely worrisome thing, and I've noticed an apparently harmless program that doesn't want to be deleted, so I figured it wasn't worth my while to ignore it.  After Spybot's done, I might give the thing a rest for a bit, then go in with Norton to be extra-sure the problem's resolved.

It started round about the time I last did a Quicktime update; a program called Personal Guard 2009 turned up, and kept turning up.  I haven't noticed any particular "issues" - slow runtimes, corrupted files, etc. - but when I delete a program I prefer it to stay deleted.  Hence today's long and tedious runs through spyware/malware filters and virus scans.

While the BBC was puttering away on that, I booted up the LBC, at which time I remembered that I'd been meaning to get a free antivirus software on this critter for some time. (I refuse to pay for two Norton subscriptions...) Well, no time like the present... Of course, the first thing it wanted to do was a bootup scan.

At least I got some sketching done whilst both computers scanned themselves.

Dang.  The BBC just finished Spybot's bootup scan, which claimed it rooted out the problem, and then Norton squashed something.  And now the BBC seems to think this "Personal Guard 2009" - which I did not download, at least not intentionally - is the default AV program, instead of Norton.  So I'm running a full Norton scan.

I so did not want to get this sucker in to a shop... part of my scanning obsession was that it was about time for me to back up my PC again. (I suppose it's a bad idea to back up files from a potentially infected computer... even if they're just image files, as that's what I'm most worried about losing at this point.)

Oh, well... part of the reason I got the LBC was for just such an emergency...

Here's hoping Norton does the trick.  If not, the LBC just found a site on Google with a removal tool - yes, Personal Guard 2009 is indeed spyware, and potentially malicious spyware at that.

Fingers and mousewires crossed....

UPDATE - Well, it's later the same night.  To cut a long, curse-laden story short, the BBC goes into the shop at the soonest convenience.  It still runs, but I am unable to permanently extract the malicious programs. (It got increasingly annoying the more I tried... and, evidently, it never did reset itself as the default antivirus; that's one of its popup windows, which mimics the Windows screen almost perfectly.) I tried three different spyware tools, and the only one that might have caught it - that "free removal tool" I mentioned - forgot to say that, yes, it may detect problems, but you have to pay a 30 buck subscription fee to get it to actually do anything about what it detected.  Nothing else came near it.  Norton doesn't seem to know it's there, but it seems to block several of its false popup windows.  My sister and I even tried the manual removal instructions, which did exactly nothing.  So unless the bugger went in and activated System Restore, we have no clue where it's hiding on the hard drive.  Just what the budget needed...

Oh, the title: Mercury's gone retrograde, which makes a great excuse for major technological problems.  The computer on the belt at work had trouble last week, and now my computer's been hit.  Keep an eye on your own electronic devices... it may come after you next...

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

It is Done (More or Less)

Nearly two weeks of file transfers.

A full day of wrestling with FTP.

And a cold to cap it all off.

But it's done...

Brightdreamer Books - The Reboot

It's a bit bare-bones at the moment, but the content's all there. Feel free to let me know what you think of the new layout and such.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Rainbow Eternal

Today dawned wet and cool under gray skies. We were promised storms and thunder, and that's what we got: gray skies, rain in buckets, intermittent lightning, and random sunbreaks. In short, a perfect autumn storm to usher out the last official weekend of summer.

During this wild weather, we also saw a rainbow.

It started as a faint line in the sky, barely discernable against the background clouds. It was so dim, in fact, it was easiest to see if you focused your eyes just beyond it, or to the side: if you stared directly at it, it vanished like a mirage. We were at my grandfather's house with Grandpa, my aunt, and my uncle, so we all looked at the rainbow through the windows and admired it, then went on with our gathering. Several minutes later, I looked outside again.

The rainbow was still there, making a full arc across the sky.

In my experience, rainbows are highly transient phenomena. The precise combination of rainfall, sunlight, and viewing angle tend to be golden for very limited times - often just long enough to see the rainbow, run inside the house, and fumble one's camera out of hiding. The way the storms were blowing through today, I expected this rainbow, and its attendant rain and sunbreak, to vanish shortly.

Ten minutes later, the rainbow was still there.  Brighter than ever. And it now had a faint twin.

That's when my uncle and I went outside to snap photos of the thing.  We watched it for a while longer, marveling at its brightness and completeness - I've only rarely seen full-sky-arc rainbows - before going back inside. Some time later, we decided to leave.

The rainbow waited for us.

All on the drive home, we watched the rainbow.  Sometimes it grew brighter, sometimes dimmer.  Sometimes I was aimed directly at one of the arc ends, sometimes it arched neatly over the roadway.  It followed us through storm and sunshine.  It followed us, in fact, all the way home, when it finally vanished with the setting of the sun. All told, that rainbow lasted well over an hour, easily the longest-lasting rainbow I've ever witnessed in my entire life.

We weren't the only ones who noticed it. At a stoplight, I noticed a small flash in the car ahead of us; someone had just tried to take a photo of the rainbow through the car window. (I don't expect it'll come out, but at least they tried.) On the way home we saw a pair of men pulled over by an industrial yard, one standing in front of ugly slag piles while the other held a camera.; As we drove past, we noticed that the rainbow's brilliant end would appear to be just behind the posing man. I found it oddly reassuring to know that we're not the only people who still look up once in a while.

The rest of the day wasn't so spectacular.  My grandfather's slipping slowly but surely into that oblivion from which there is no return, evidence of which grew increasingly abundant as the day wore on.  My aunt and uncle both have friends going through terrible stretches.  Immediate family sometimes grew irritating in that way only immediate family can irritate.  Somehow, though, knowing there are still beautiful and mysterious things in the world helped me make it through.

Thank you for the eternal rainbow, Universe.  It was greatly appreciated.


For the curious, Operation Mountain Relocation Phase 1 (i.e., updating my book review website) continues to progress, if at the pace of frozen molasses. I'm down to two more letters - M and N, representing 73 reviews - to transfer. After a bit more tweaking and some style refinement, I hope to publish the results by next weekend. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Moving the Mountain

I've been talking about site revamps for well over a year now.  I've poked at books.  I've picked at websites.  I hemmed and hawed and fretted and paced, but I kept not doing anything.  Every time I sat down to make a decision, the whole weight of the site transfer came down on my shoulders.  It was like trying to move a mountain with a teaspoon... and I couldn't decide which teaspoon to use.

Last week, I finally had had enough of myself.

"Self," I said,"you're an indecisive, lazy idiot who needs to just sit down and get this thing started."

Well, I can't talk to myself like that without getting a reaction.  So I wandered off and grabbed a cup of cocoa, then played a video game.

"Self," I said again,"knock it off."

I rearranged some books and hung a picture.

"Self," I sighed,"just sit down, shut up, and do it."

I figured I was pretty serious by this point, and I didn't want to lose my cocoa privileges.  So, one fine Wednesday afternoon, I sat down.  I booted up HTML-Kit, the free site editor I'd scrounged online.  And so began the Great Site Transfer of 2009.  I figured I'd start with Brightdreamer Books, because I wanted new graphics before I redid Skyhaven.  Besides, the book reviews were relatively straightforward, and transferring them from FrontPage to the new program would be good practice.

How far am I?

So far, I've transferred 295 reviews (A - E and S - Z; I find attacking the alphabet from either end helps it seem less monotonous.) If it sounds impressive, remember: I've been at it for seven days.  And I have 629 reviews in total to transfer before I can officially update.

I was right.  I am a lazy idiot...

Of course, it's not so simple as swapping pages.  FrontPage generated a lot more junk code than I'd anticipated, so I'm having to selectively cut and paste each entry.  I've also found several minor errors I needed to fix; grammar, spelling and the like.  Compounding this is the fact that I'm changing the layout of reviews significantly, making it easier to update in the future but a pain in the rear to set up initially.  So it's gonna be a few weeks before the finished product's online for the whole world to ignore.

In the meantime, those who are so inclined can see any new reviews I come up with posted at my second blog, Brightdreamer's Book Reviews.  This will act as the "New Reviews" section for future site updates, with reviews eventually being archived on the site proper.  And, yes, I have a new review there right now.

Guess I'd best get back at it.  The mountain ain't gonna move itself...