2017-02-26

Going Silent

Next week, beginning at the stroke of midnight on Sunday morning, the power plant I work at will begin a refueling outage. Every two years, the plant shuts down for extensive maintenance and to replace about one-third of its nuclear fuel. During this time I will be working 12-hour days. I will be getting up at 0200 and sitting at my desk by 0300 every morning except Wednesday when I will have to be there an hour earlier. These strange hours are due to my responsibilities during the outage.

Each day, the schedulers put out a new schedule for the work that is to be done. This schedule is published by 0300 unless there is an issue that needs to be resolved. At 0313 sharp, an automatic computer program reads this schedule and generates a plethora of reports that are then distributed to the workgroups and management. If the schedule is not ready, this automatic program must be manually stopped until the schedule is fixed. Monitoring this massive report generator is part of my job.

I also manually generate my own reports from our scheduling system and these must be created and either printed and delivered or converted to PDF and shared with the rest of the organization. All this takes a few hours each morning. The reason for the shift in time on Wednesday is because the other person who does this has elected to take Wednesdays off. He is the person who is normally responsible for shutting down the report generator if needed but when he's not there, that responsibility falls to me. Instead of having to alter my working schedule by many hours each Wednesday, I've selected my working hours to be such that I can easily come in an hour or two earlier if needed.

After this flurry of activity in the morning, my day slows down. I will be monitoring a group of report generators I've written that help the group of managers in the Outage Control Center keep track of the progress of the outage. When I'm not doing that, I'm usually extracting data from our various databases to answer ad-hoc questions from management. In my spare time, I'll be working on building and enhancing the database applications I'm responsible for.

Because of my odd working hours, I will most likely stop publishing this blog until the outage is over. We are committed to having an outage of 28 days 3 hours. So, this might be my last post for at least a month. If I have time during the outage, I will post, but as of now, I'm not offering any guarantees.

My wife is slowly making her way through Peacekeeper Pathogen and I have high hopes she will be done by the end of the outage. I've been keeping ahead of her with another editing pass through the manuscript making small changes and fixing things that were missed in the other passes. I've already received a couple of preliminary cover ideas from my cover artist and so far I like what I see.

Finally, I'd like to make another plug for my Launch Pad fundraiser. The application window is closing in a few days but the fundraiser will continue to collect donations up until the workshop starts in June. If you think keeping the science in science fiction as realistic as possible, then you should consider helping keep this workshop alive. Large donations are becoming harder to find and small fundraisers like the one I'm running are vitally important. If you want more information on this wonderful workshop, please let me know. I would be happy to discuss it with you.

You can easily donate any amount by going to: https://www.gofundme.com/launch-pad-workshop

2017-02-19

Writing Groups

Up until recently, I've been going to the same writing group for nearly 5 years. Due to an unfortunate series of circumstances (bad weather, health of the group's founder, and a hacked computer) the group has fallen apart. I hadn't been to a meeting for about 3 months and when I finally had a chance to go, nobody showed up. I sent out an email and nobody seemed to know what was going on. This month, I went again and the only other person to appear was the group's founder. Her computer was hacked and she has had no access to her email account for some time. Unable to keep the group members informed, things fell apart. I fear the group is no more.

I've always enjoyed getting feedback from other writers. I've also tried out other writers groups. There is another one that meets at a library and yesterday I decided to go to that one. The location and timing are such that my wife cannot attend which is why I chose the other group over the one I attended yesterday. I've always learned something from the feedback I receive at a meeting and I believe it's important for a writer to get periodic feedback.

Choosing a writer's group is a personal choice. Some groups get together to talk about what's happening in the publishing world or just to discuss things like how to format a book, how to find an agent, or other topics. I prefer a group where a member reads something and the others comment on what was read. It's better if the group asks the writer to bring printed copies to comments can be returned to the writer for later reading. This type of constructive feedback along with the questions concerning the overall feel of the piece can help a writer improve. The key here is the feedback should be constructive. Instead of saying, "this sentence is garbage," the person thinking that should say instead, "I think this sentence could better be written as ...".

I took back 5 different sets of written comments on the short piece I brought. Many commented on the same parts of the text. When that happens, take note! That means there's something to be learned here. Read the comments carefully, think about them, and incorporate them into your writing skills. If only one person comments on a section, take that into consideration as well. Every comment is valid and a chance for even an experienced writer to learn.

The piece I brought was from Peacekeeper Pathogen. It had already been gone over twice. While the general feeling was it was good, the group did have some specific comments. Taking those comments to the bookstore afterward I quickly saw a pattern. I accepted most of the comments and made changes. I learned. Now, when I write and edit, that new knowledge will help me become a better writer. In fact, I will most likely go back and take another look at the entire manuscript knowing that my mind will see things differently.

Another way to learn how to write better is to read. Pick up a book from a well-known author and read it. Read it slowly. Identify the paragraphs and sentences that strike you as well-written. Even if you don't consciously see something, your brain is picking up on the writing style and learning. The trick is to read it slowly. If you find yourself picking up the pace because you are enjoying the book, then slow down. Savor the words. They didn't become well-known because their writing is bad!

2017-02-12

Taxes: Manual or software-assist?

Update
Peacekeeper Pathogen: I’ve finished my second revision pass and the manuscript is now in the hands of my proofreader for grammatical review. In case you don’t know, my proofreader is my wife. While she does her review, I’ll be pursuing a cover for the new book and then possibly working on the next book (which I’ve already started).

Taxes
This year, I decided to do my taxes the old-fashioned way—by hand. Honestly, I don’t think it took any longer. Doing them manually is much cheaper and when you're all done you know what it is you are putting your signature on. Today's tax preparation software is good, but people should be familiar with doing it manually as well. Even with a business (my writing), my taxes are fairly simple.

Filling out Schedule C is not difficult, but it is time-consuming. Since I have to fill out a Schedule C, the tax preparation software is no longer free. It took me about the same amount of time to do my Federal tax last year as it did to do it this year. The only thing that’s different is I filed electronically last year and I paid $40.00 more. This year was free except for the cost of postage. Ohio taxes are always done electronically so there’s no difference there. For me, it makes more sense to save the money and do things manually. But, there’s an even more important reason—accuracy and knowledge.

Being walked through a tax form by a computer program that asks you a series of questions makes things easy, but when it’s all said and done, do you really understand what it is you're signing? Are the final forms correct? What if you’re audited? Saying, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t sure how to answer that question when it popped up on the screen,” isn’t going to fly with the IRS. You are signing that you understand the entire contents of the tax form and that it is as accurate as possible. By actually sitting down, reading the instructions, and doing the forms manually, you understand exactly what it is you are signing for.


Errors on electronically generated forms are very hard to detect. If you do things manually, errors are more easily identified because doing them manually forces you to understand what is contained in the form. Sure, the tax software will do some basic checks, but it has no way of knowing if you completely understood the instructions. These days, people need to take the time to understand what they are signing for. Knowledge is power, read the instructions, read the IRS publications (they aren’t that difficult to understand), and learn about things.

I wrote the above few paragraphs at the bookstore the other day. When we got home, we allowed someone to use our computer to do their taxes. Last year, I walked this person through the process and did most of the work myself. This year, I decided to step back and let her learn on her own. Her taxes are about as simple as you can get: basic income and an HSA. Because the software just presents a series of questions, there were problems with the final forms. She didn't understand a few of the questions and (as I talked about above) made some assumptions. I had to show her how to fix the problems.

The first major problem occurred when the checks flagged her HSA as being taxed. She had entered her HSA contributions on the wrong line. When we went to correct this, the program said she would have to upgrade because of the form 8889. Remember, this started off as "Free". She desperately wanted the money as quickly as possible so she went ahead and did the upgrade. When it came time to submit, we discovered the financial institute that was handling the transaction now charges a fee for the service. None of this was identified in the software's home screen!

In the end, she found herself paying what she would have paid to have her taxes done by one of the tax preparers in the area. And that was just Federal! The program tried to get her to pay an additional fee to file the State taxes electronically. I stepped in and told her that in Ohio, you file your taxes electronically for free.

In my book, it's better to do things manually. It's cleaner, you learn something, and you know what you're signing.

2017-02-05

Solar Eclipse

Update
It's Sunday morning and I'm about 75% done with my editing pass of Peacekeeper Pathogen. I will get back to editing as soon as I finish putting out this post.

My place of business does an annual auction for Harvest for Hunger. This year, I donated two complete signed sets of all my books. While this will most likely not result in any sales, it sure feels good to know that I've contributed to a good cause.

Launch Pad
For those of you who read my blog regularly, you know I'm a huge supporter of the Launch Pad Workshop. If you are involved in the generation of science-related material that can be viewed by the public (such as science-fiction writers, script writers, movie producers, editors, etc.) and you have a desire to expand your knowledge with a group of like-minded individuals, then please apply to Launch Pad. If you are selected to attend you will enjoy an experience that will shape your life and give you pleasant memories for the rest of your days. If you have a few spare dollars in a savings account or you are getting back a little from your income taxes, please consider donating. I've made it easy by setting up a GoFundMe account.

2017 Total Solar Eclipse Preparations
On August 21st, the first total solar eclipse of the sun to be viewed in the United States in 40 years will occur. Where will you be? If you haven't made your travel plans yet, good luck at finding a place to stay. Based on the reports I've been hearing, every hotel, motel, campground, bed & breakfast, and even rooms to rent all across the path of totality are now sold out. I made my hotel reservations 7 months ago at a hotel 400 miles outside the path and two days before the eclipse. At the time I made the reservation, I was told there were two rooms available. I'm sure they're booked up now.

That hotel is not my final destination. It's just a waypoint on my trip from Ohio to South Carolina. I will be comfortably reclining on my dad's porch when the eclipse starts. His house sits just over 1,000 meters from the exact centerline of the path of totality. What luck!

There are some precautions you must take to properly observe an eclipse. Even if the sun is covered in clouds, even during totality, NEVER LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN! You might think you're safe because you're eyes aren't burning, but you're staring into a naked fusion reactor that's emitting huge amounts of dangerous radiation. Don't do it. I've already purchased my eclipse glasses so I and the others with me can safely observe the event. If you don't want to spend the few dollars to buy a pair or eclipse glasses (or forget to do so) you can always resort to the ancient technique of using a pinhole viewer. Instructions for this simple device can be found online.

If you miss the one this year, you will have another change in 2024. This one takes a different track across the nation and just happens to pass over my house. Making plans to see that one will be easy for me.

Planning Ahead
The 2017 solar eclipse is a great example of an event you need to be prepared for. If you have waited until now to make your plans, you will most likely be disappointed in the type of arrangements you end up with. There are many other life events a person needs to be planning for--some of them have to be planned many years in advance. Retirement is the one most people think about, but there are others. Unexpected car repairs and other expenses, sickness, taxes, and bad weather. It's okay to live in the moment, but you must also plan for the future. Even driving provides an example of how important it is to plan ahead, even if only by a few seconds. If you are only watching the tail of the car in front of you, you might not have enough time to avoid the accident that happens two cars in front of you. Read the road ahead - far ahead. Plan your life and look into the future as best you can. If you don't, your life will be a lot bumpier than you like.

Time to get back to editing.