Friday, August 24, 2012

Blog Hop! Gnat's Story, part the 8th. In which Gnat meets and old friend and learns a secret

Blog hop story time! Another collaborative story, continuing the adventures of "Gnat". Time travel and intrigue in this one.

Part 1 – by Carrie Sorensen
Part 2 – by Nicole Piles
Part 3 – by Yolanda
Part 4 – by Tena Carr
Part 5 – by Leonard Suskin
Part 6 - by Yolanda
Part 7 - by Tena Carr
And now, without further ado, the 8th part by your own pixel and ink-stained wretch.


Part 8 - The Secret of Time Travel

There was another figure in the darkness, but Gnat couldn't make him out; years on the street had honed her senses, attuned her to danger, and danger was here. Their voices sounded reasonable, calm, but there was something sharp, angry, tightly coiled within them. Beneath reasonable voices asking how much longer until they found the key was anger, barely held in check. Gnat closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She had to find someplace safe.

To escape.

Something shifted. Gnat opened her eyes to the most empty room she'd ever seen; blank white walls, an off-white carpet and no doors or windows. The lack of means if ingress or egress, the confusion about where she was and how she got here would have been the most deeply shocking elements of the experience were it not for the room's other occupant. An small, iron-haired woman, some indeterminate age between fifty and a hundred sat half-lotus on the off-white carpet. The face was older, yes, but unmistakable.

It was her.

Decades older, yes, but the eyes which met Gnat's were her own. What more had those eyes seen? What did they think of her younger self?

Younger Gnat closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "It's true. I do learn the secret of time travel."

Her older self nodded. "Soon. You'll learn it soon."

The younger woman felt the muscles in her jaw tighten. She realized that ever since Freddy found her in the hotel room she'd been lead by people with agendas, people with secrets, people who knew more than she did. Even herself. She took a deep breath, looking for calm that wasn't there. "Then why the fuck didn't you go back to the fire? Why didn't you save them?"

The older woman shook her head. "That's part of the secret. Accepting what is and what was. Had it not happened that way, I'd not be here today. You'd not be here today."

Gnat was trembling with rage. "Look, I don't know when I learned to talk in riddles, but I don't like it. If you haven't gone back, take me to the damn time machine and send me back so I can fix it. Now."

The older woman - Gnat started to think of her as Naomi - sat silent for a moment. The faintest hint of a smile touched her lip but didn't quite reach her eyes. "That's part of the secret. There is no 'time machine'. Just this." She tapped her temple with two fingers. "Once you understand, you'll understand. And can, sometimes, make the trip."

That was rather a lot for Gnat to process. With so many questions, she keyed on the one most striking word. "Sometimes?"

Naomi nodded. "It's complicated. I was able to get you because, well, you're me. And there are some times and places I can go myself. And some, sometimes... well, it can be dangerous. You'll be using your mind in ways it wasn't meant to. I think that's part of what happened to poor Freddy."

There were still so many questions, but Gnat was afraid to let her older self off the hook. "The fire. I need to."

Naomi's eyes met hers. It might have been Gnat's imagination, but there seemed to be a hint of a tear - remembering? Or guilty about having not gone herself? Without another word, she reached forward and touched Gnat on the brow. The room faded...

...and opened to choking smoke, orange-hot flame, and the screams of dozens of women. "Fire on the eighth floor! Fire" screaming and vague sinister shapes barely seen through the smoke, engines and machines and broken glass and yelling and burning in her lungs and yelling and the shattering of glass and sickening thud of a body on pavement and

Gnat's childhood bedroom and Gnat's own voice - her much younger voice - screaming and still the smell of smoke. Someone yelling for Mr. Blank. And, in the bedroom, from nowhere, flames. The young Gnat sat bolt upright, hair matted with sweat yelling "save them... fire on the eighth floor.. save them" and the flames rose and they spread and young Gnat (still Naomi) got up from the bed and ran and the flames rose and there was nothing but smoke

..and she was back with her older self, in the empty, featureless room. There were certainly tears on Naomi's face now. "So now you know."

"Know what? You were supposed to take e before the damn fire started. You were too late."

Naomi shook her head. "I'd had a lesson at school that week about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a century before.  It gave me nghtmares."

"I hadn't remembered that. I thought the nightmares were from my fire."

Naomi shook her head sadly. "You have it backwards. The fire is from our nightmares. The stress on the word caused by time travel, the power of your mind... That's another part of the secret."

Gnat felt the sane numbness she had right after the fire. It seemed too much to be real, too big for her even to build feelings around. She sat heavilly to the floor. "so.. what now? Freddy will miss me soon, won't he?"

Now Naomi chuckled with real warmth. "This is time travel. Freddy last saw you years ago. Or seconds ago. There's no difference. We have time."

"Time for what?"

Now the older woman's smile was broad, revealing deep laugh-lines around her eyes. "For  me to teach you the secret of time travel, of course. How do you think I learned it?"

"But.. if I learned it from you, and you know becuase you're me.. where did it come from?"

All part of the secret, darling.  And Naomi taught herself, for a long time hidden between ticks of the clock.

All the while, part of Gnat wondered if there was another secret hidden behind this one, one that she was hiding from herself. She was, after all,  good at reading when people were hiding something,

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Book Review: "Dreadful Beginnings", by Marty Shaw

Those watching the publishing industry know that this is an exciting time for those who want to take nontraditional routes; with the ease of e-publishing and increased availability of tablets and smartphones, more writers are taking to the virtual streets themselves, bypassing traditional publishing houses. I've joined with the independent author's support/promotion/marketing group Literary+ for the occaisonal review and perhaps another surprise or too; today I'm reviewing Marty Shaw's novella "Dreadful Beginnings", the first of his "Penny Dreadful" series. Enjoy!

Review: "Dreadful Beginnings", by Marty Shaw 

Marty Shaw's new novella "Dreadful Beginnings" promises to begin his new suburban fantasy series,  "Penny Dreadful". It's a face-paced and fun story, marred by overly broad characters and a bit of a simplistic, straight-forward plot. 

We first meet our heroine, recent high-school graduate Penny Dire, as she's quitting a telemarketing job after only two days.  The initial impression of Penny is of a carefree and immature for her age young teenager who doesn't seem to care that her friends all have jobs and doesn't see to have or want a plan for the future. She also has a gothic style befitting her name, an artistic bent, and an affinity for cemetaries.  In one early scene, Penny visits one of her favorite tombstones: 

One ancient stone looked especially photogenic, but looks could be deceiving. I 
had used up a whole memory card on this ancient rock, trying all kind of different filters and lighting angles. In real life, the tombstone called out to me and made my skin tingle whenever I was close to it. But it was just a dumb slab of granite in the photos. For some reason, I couldn’t capture its essence on film. I knelt down and brushed away some of the grime, feeling the familiar electric tingle on my hand when I made contact with the stone. Maybe a charcoal rubbing or possibly even a foil casting was needed to really capture the spirit of the piece. 

This painted a nice picture of how Penny sees the world, and shows rather than tells us about her budding talents. Sadly, this picture of Penny as a budding artist who sees things more deeply than others doesn't recur through the story, nor does it figure in Penny's eventual training as a demon hunter. Her irresponsibility and shortsightedness don't factor either, leaving her eventual demon-hunting persona feeling somewhat generic. 

The initial buildup to the paranormal events is nicely done, with small magical effects giving the reader - and characters - hints that the world doesn't function quite normally before leading us to the climactic battle with a demon. There's just enough tragedy to make the threat seem real without letting the story sink into real "horror". When the final battle comes, it is exciting and suspenseful, with real stakes and a satisfying conclusion. 

Shaw's biggest weakness is that his reliance on archetypes makes it hard to really care about the characters. Penny's artistic talents and ambitions are forgotten, leaving us with a sassy demon-hunting teenage girl. She meets a mentor - the improbably named Doctor Horror -  who tells her just as much as she needs to know, with cryptic riddling hints before literally vanishing. An overprotective mother. A gruff magic-shop owner with a hidden heart of gold. I couldn't  escape the feeling that, even if I hadn't met all of these people before, I knew someone just like them from another book. It ends on a promisng note, with hints about the identity and nature of her mentor. 

In conclusion, while there isn't as much depth as one might hope for, "Penny Dreadful" is an entertaining, quick read with promises for more as the series continues. It is available from Amazon for your Kindle

Three stars

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The HDBaseT adventure continues

HDBaseT has been around for a few years now and, to the likely disappointment of the initial HDBaseT consortium, appears to have settled into a role as a midpoint; it still isn't a format likely to be seen as the input or output to a device, but is widely used in distribution and switching. I had the chance to ponder and discuss this with some of my colleagues in the commercial AV industry at AMX's showroom during the two-day certification class for their HDBaseT system: Enova. It's striking to see how far this technology has come, and how different manufacturers can take the same underlying chip set to create very different-feeling solutions.
The idea for HDBaseT is a grand one; to have one and only one cable connected to each display.  That cable, a standard network cable with standard RJ45 connectors, would carry uncompressed high-definition video, audio, control, and even power. Yes, they expect to power your display via the same Cat5 jumper that carries everything else. One cable in this case literally means one cable. In real world applications, that isn't what's happened. For one thing, native HDBaseT inputs and outputs. Even if manufacturers want to use this kind of system, even mid-size displays in the 50 to 65 inch range outdraw HDBaseT's upper power limit by an approximate factor of 10. So, like a phone company  running fiber to the curb before converting to old-fashioned copper, we're left with easily-pulled Cat5e cables to a receiver-box giving way to good old HDMI cables for the proverbial last mile. We're not quite where we someday can be, but it's an improvement. Crestron's Digital Media is an HDBaseT solution, as is Extron's XTP and AMX's DXLink, the heart of its Enova solutions.
How do solutions compare? Not only does Enova have a different feel from Crestron, but AMX's DVX (a family of all-in-one presentation switchers) behaves differently from their DGX (more conventional digital matrix switchers). One thing I hadn't known - because I'm not in the habit of removing the case on expensive pieces of electronics unless I have to - is that while it looks like one seemless piece of hardware, the DVX is, in fact, card-based. My notes include a glimpse at its innards, highlighting the HDMI input cart swappable with a DXLink card for another model. It's a clever design philosophy which allows AMX to inexpensively and reliably use one platform to produce a suite of units with slightly different features. 
So how does Enova compare to Digital Media? At a glance they're similar; each has a presentation-switcher with built-in control processor, audio mixing, and an amplifier. Each line boasts a modular matrix switch capable of handling different video formats. Each has a series of Cat5 transmitters and receivers. Each handles HDCP key authentication, effectively eliminating any risk of running out of keys in large systems. Looking a bit closer, one sees differences.
The first distinction - of  which AMX is justifiably proud - is that each output on an Enova system has a built-in "smart-scaler" which reads the  EDID from a display and scales the image to fit. This means that even in a large system with many different displays each device will get an image at its native resolution. Their contention is that other practices, like choosing "best common", not only leave adjusting resolution to a device's onboard scaler, but fails to take advantage of the higher resolution in the largest display in a system. It adds a certain measure of cost, but AMX feels that they give value for it.
The second distinction is that each AMX matrix switch has a control processor built into it. This makes for a neater and more compact installation, but isn't a tremendous improvement over the inclusion of a standalone processor, and burying it in the switch gives you the new problem of having no local control ports. Unless everything in your system has IP control, you'll have to build out the system with varying add-ons. In all fairness, AMX has a nice suite of IP-based control port expansion modules, and seems to have a philosophy of preferentially using IP-based controls.
What about the distinction within the Enova line? At Enova training in AMX's New York showroom we got a demonstration of both the DVX presentation switcher and DGX matrix switcher.  The performance in switching speed is markedly different, with the DVX switching, I would estimate, twice as fast as its cousin. The difference was explained as a result of different engineering teams working on the two devices, and upcoming firmware updates to let the DGX catch up were hinted at. (it was further explained that the slower switch time - one and a half to two seconds - was a result of the switcher dropping sync when it changed sources. It is very interesting how the same hardware can have different performance given different firmware.
What about venerable switching manufacturer Extron? I don't have much to say about their XTP line; certainly until they start shipping the Cat5 input and output cards for their switcher, they can't be said to have a real solution available. Even given that, they're still behind the curve in not having a DMPS300/DVX style presentation switcher available. They have added power injectors to their XTP line, but it is, at the very least, unclear that these would work with other HDBaseT solutions.
Long story short? It's an exciting time in the commercial AV industry as we finally seem to have the hardware, software, and expertise to start making digital video work closer to the way it should; many of these solutions are, if anything, easier to use and more flexible than old analog solutions.

A side note: my adventure at AVI-SPL has come to an end, so I am open to new opportunities in the AV field. Anyone reading this is welcome to comment or drop me a line with any openings in the New York metropolitan area.

Stay tuned for a book review later this week.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Collaborative Blog-hop story - Part the Fifth: Message, Hold the Bottle

In my apparent inability to shy away from cool-sounding projects, I've joined the talented Carrie Sorenson, Nicole Pyles, Yolanda Lane, and Tena Carr for a pass-the-story collaborative effort. Part four ended in quite a cliffhanger, as our heroine discoverd... something. There's a tendency on these kinds of stories for people chapters to end right before an answer to some question, with the next participant having the pleasure/responsibility/option of giving the big reveal. With the story only half-over (we'll each get one more turn) I can't reveal too much, but to be fair to the reader we need to give something.

See earlier parts the firstsecondthird, and fourth (and, despite this being a time-travel story, I suggest you read them in that order):

And now, without further ado:

"Message, Hold the Bottle"

She was in a study or an office, dominated by an ornate desk of some kind of dark wood surrounded by stacks of notebooks and papers hapharzardly strewn about. There it was, carelessly thrown under the desk; a cheap, tiny notebook of the sort grade-school kids buy in Septembers and discard in June if their houses aren't burned down under mysterious circumstances. The pages were yellow with age, the binding crumbling, and the cover marred by an uneven crease - the same crease across the cover of the powder-blue notebook tucked into Gnat's pocket. A torn-off corner revealed a pen-and-ink drawing on the page below.

A wave of heat flowed through Gnat's chest and into her throat, Tyler's voice encouraging her to keep looking came from very far away, past ringing ears and a rush of vertigo as the floor seemed to twist under Gnat's feet. She sat heavily on the floor under the desk, and remembered.  Not the flame, but the time after in faux-homey offices with a fatherly looking bearded man with a notebook and a leather chair and questions and a notebook and not the flame but its memory and a notebook.

Gnat's first set of foster parents had believed in therapy, believed in her needing a sympathetic ear after what happened. At least for the first few weeks, until the trauma faded into the past and the forty-dollar-a-week copays started to add up. Dr. Blintain was a nice man, a gentle man, a bit like young Gnat's idea of what a college professor would look like. Or, for that matter, how a headshrinker should look. He listened a lot, asked a lot of questions about what her foster parents were like and what she thought about them and how she felt when she thought about her family and how she felt now. It was the last session - the last forty-dollars that her foster-mother would pay for Naomi's sanity - when Doctor Blintain finally helped her find the words for what was wrong in her life.

"My parents, my room, our house, my brother, they were all mine. They were me. And now, I'm, like, sharing. It's like I'm snatching bits and pieces of other people's lives and they aren't me."
Dr. Blintain handed her a little pocket composition notebook. He didn't slide it across the table, didn't toss it to her. He really handed it to her. His fingers might have even brushed against hers. "Make some space for yourself. Write poems. Draw pictures. However you want to express yourself, just do it. Consider it your therapy homework."

Gnat shook her head. "But I'm no good at any of those things."

"Not the point. Even if nobody else sees it, this can be your private space. Something yours."

That was her last session, and she was rarely without a notebook since. The little memo pad Dr. Blintain had given her, spiral books, marble composition books.   Even on the streets she'd buy one with rare saved-up pennies or, in desperation, shoplift them. The first thing she drew in that first notebook was the flame-imp; a malevolent little sprite that set fire to houses and killed families. It was short and twisted and hateful, with little lightning bolts in its eyes and crooked limbs. Drawing it made her feel less aweful about the fire, helped her forget the truth that there was no imp, but...

That didn't matter now. Now, in the present, she saw this impossible notebook with the half-torn cover. And underneath, in the visible page, was the imp.

As her head cleared, Gnat heard Freddy speaking to Tyler outside the room. "I knew this wouldn't work. It's desperate and crazy. Look at her."

Gnat carefully, surreptitiously palmed the little notebook as she stood up, tucked it into her pants alongside its twin. "I'm OK guys... just a little lightheaded. This is alot for me."

She slowly made her way room to room, her mind racing. What could she point to them that would satisfy them, at least long enough for her to read through that notebook herself. Because once she saw the imp's leering face, she knew she'd not share it. At least not right away.

She made sure to visit four more rooms, carefully looking under furniture and behind curtains for something she knew wasn't there. Finally, she came to a bedroom. Half-hidden under a bed was a snowglobe. Hrm.. complicated enough to hold a message, delicate enough that they might not crack it open right away... yes, this would give her some time to think.

"I found it", she said weakly. "This is it."

Freddy fixed her with a hard stare. "That? What do you think that is?"

Gnat swallowed. She knew he'd see through him; she just knew it. Still, she thought she knew the right answer. "It just feels right. It feels like it's a ... a message."

Freddy gingerly took the snowglobe from her hands, turned and gave it to Tyler.

His fingers did not brush against hers.