Monday, August 29, 2011

I’ve started my next novel

It’s completely different from the one that is now in the publishing process, The Bones of the Earth. I plan to launch that one in late September.

Completing and getting close to publication of my first novel energized me. In July, I participated in the JulNoWriMo, the novel-writing month for the summer (based on the better-known NaNoMo, the National Novel Writing Month, which is every November). I learned that I really could write a complete, novel-length work of prose in 30 days.

The other thing that I learned was for that to work, I really had to have an outline—a plan for how to get from the premise of the book to the conclusion in a way that made sense and with a plot that didn’t have huge holes, or that wandered into dead ends.

I guess you could say that I was inspired. By the end of July, I had actually completed two novels! So I had no more excuses to put off completing another one. I took out the work that had been making me feel the most guilty about not finishing for so many years: it’s a biography, in novel form, of my late father-in-law. The story focuses on his experience in the Red Army during the Second World War.

I had started to write is as an adventure-war story. The story itself is quite thrilling: a college student gets drafted into the Red Army, gets wounded at Kyiv, returns to the fighting, gets captured by the Germans, manages to escape with the 12 men in his command and get them across occupied Ukraine, enters the resistance against the Nazis and then against the resurgent Communists, gets re-drafted into the Red Army and fights as an enlisted man from Estonia to Berlin. I had written probably 40,000 words in the story before I stopped it when the subject of the book passed away. That was over seven years ago. It’s sat on my shelf since, and while I’ve looked at it and done some work on it since, mostly checking facts, it’s bothered me that I have not been able to finish it.

On my vacation in early August, I worked out the outline. I guess it was a boost in confidence that allowed me to change the focus and the style of the story. I wrote out the outline while staying at the Hotel de la Paix in Lausanne, Switzerland. Now, I can say that I began writing the novel in the same hotel that hosted James Joyce, Scott Fitzgerald and other internationally known writers. 

Me, working out the framework of my next novel on the balcony of my suite at the Hotel de la Paix, Lausanne, Switzerland. In the background, beyond the crane, is Lac LĂ©man (Lake Geneva).

My plan now is to write or re-write at least 2000 words a day and finish a draft by the middle of October. I know that’s realistic. I have a lot of the book already written, but I need to re-write it for a new tone and style I’ve decided on.

I’m going to post more on this blog about my progress or any snags I run into. I’ll also Tweet about my progress @ScottTheWriter. Hope to write to you again soon!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Tolerance is not that hard: resolving the Muslim-Western divide

“Sharia: a law unto itself?” by Jonathan Wynne-Jones ( looks at the conflict that is causing so much anguish in the U.K., the West and around the world. It brings up a question most politicians, at least in the West, want to avoid: are these two worlds irreconcilable?

The article is about how Sharia Law has been allowed by the U.K. legal system for use in marriages and divorces and other “community” or “family” disputes, and how some in the U.K. are concerned that it is creating a parallel legal system that denies women’s rights and other human rights.

The article mentions posters that proclaimed some London neighbourhoods as “Sharia-controlled zones,” where gambling, alcohol and music were banned, and how some Britons complain that in their areas, they can no longer buy non-halal meat, and where swimwear ads are spray-painted.

While the article is even-handed, the response in the online comments is very negative and polarized. Many mention the origins of Sharia law and its links, or lack of them, to the Quran. They bring up the historical fairness and justice of Western/Christian societies, Muslim civilizations, mutual massacres in history and so on. It’s discouraging to read the knee-jerk vituperation on both sides of this argument.

I would like to move the discussion forward, starting with three assumptions:

1: there are profound differences between the Muslim and Western value systems, but there are profound commonalities, as well.

2: I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that peaceful accord is what most of us want.

3: we can’t change the past. If you look, you can find all sorts of evil in history perpetrated in the name of just about every religion. We can, however, choose what to do now and what kind of future we will strive for.

As far as I understand it, the British, and most Western, value systems and legal systems prize equality of all, coupled with accommodation for multicultural traditions and values. This occasionally conflicts with the values seen in the Muslim societies, especially those governed by explicit Sharia law. As Wynne-Jones points out, these conflicts are apparent in divorce and inheritance laws, among others.

Still, migrants from other countries to the U.K. came because, presumably, they thought they would be better off in the U.K. (in this case) than in their home countries. And part of what makes the U.K. more attractive, I would argue, is the social value and legal system, which includes equality of all before the law (and in commercial dealings, employment, etc.) Some of the values that make the West so attractive to so many include equality, tolerance of differences and freedom of expression.

Immigrants will change the society they come to. That’s neither good nor bad (personally, I like all the new restaurants), it’s a fact. An immigrant citizen is as much as citizen as someone born in the country, be it the U.K., Switzerland, Canada or the U.S.

Which means that, while I do not like the face veil, I won’t object if a woman wants to wear one. I have the right to say that it’s harmful to women’s rights, that it’s useless and that it opens a person to some pretty vicious criticism. But if you want to do it, fine. (But not for I.D. , in court or to vote.)

And if you only eat one kind of meat, that’s your choice. And if you do not want to drink alcohol, by all means. But at the same time, no one should be preventing me from walking around without a face mask, or buying pork or alcohol or both together. (Yum!)

This is where, I think, many people in the West feel threatened by the influx of Muslim immigrants and their invoking of tolerance and anti-discrimination laws: they’re afraid of losing some of their choices. But the solution is not name-calling, dredging up ancient conflicts that really don't involve anyone today or repeating extremist ideas. Nor is it insisting that others adhere to our own ways of doing things. As I said, if you don't want to drink alcohol, that's your choice. But you should not stand in front of someone else choosing to do so, as long as he or she is not hurting or endangering anyone. We need to tear down borders, not put up higher ones.

I know, it sounds so trite. But it's really simple. We can get along.

So I am asking all who read those, and those who don’t as well (pass this on!) to move on from the knee-jerk reaction and reminders of past massacres. To both sides: tolerance is not that hard. Now, how can we bring equal rights to all? Do Muslims want equal rights for women? Let me know.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Skype on the iPad2

I needed to make a couple of phone calls in Lausanne, Switzerland, and turned to Skype as the cheapest alternative.

While my Rogers (a big Canadian provider) cell phone could access the wireless system in Austria, it apparently is not compatible with the Swiss phone system. Or so, everyone who sells prepaid phone access told us. I'm not sure it was true, because both Rogers phones that we brought along showed they had a signal. However, I did not want to waste 10 francs to find out. (Have you seen how it's appreciated, lately? Almost 40 percent against the Canadian dollar in four months!)

So, when we needed to make a couple of phone calls, I downloaded Skype to my iPad2. Again, better preparation would have helped. Fortunately, Lausanne, Switzerland has several open WiFi spots in public squares. Unfortunately, the access is slow. It took nearly half an hour to download the Skype app.

Skype works well on the iPad2, except for one thing: the microphone doesn't seem to deliver enough volume. Also, I found that the Kensington case/Bluetooth keyboard covers the microphone. I cannot even see it. I had to take the iPad out of the case to make myself heard on the phone.

Skype's iPad app could be more intuitive. For one thing, the button for dialing a new number disappears just when you need it. I found I had to click on Contacts just to bring the dialing button back to the top of the screen.

As for a phone, the iPad2 is awkward. I guess you could hold it up to your head like an oversized iPhone, with the front camera near your mouth and the speaker well past your ear, but it would be better with ear buds.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The vagaries of free WiFi

Using the basic iPad2 for mobile electronic Internet access leaves you dependent on the willingness of others to offer free, unprotected WiFi access. And you know how vulnerable you are when you travel and depend on others for anything.

In my case, as I travel through Austria and Switzerland, I am surprised both when WiFi is available as well as when it is not. I have come to expect it in hotels, and I do not understand why hotels that provide free WiFi access sometimes put password protection on it. If someone next door hitches a ride on your bandwidth, how does that really hurt you?

It’s annoyingly ironic when a hotel provides free Internet access to all paying guests, but through a wired port. They’re being quite generous when they even have an Ethernet cable ready to plug into your laptop—except that in my case, I don’t have a laptop. The iPad’s complete wireless advantage turns into a disadvantage in this case.

But then there are times when access is bafflingly impossible. For instance, yesterday I sat down in a Starbucks in Geneva (another surprise: a sign on the door celebrated the location’s 10th anniversary!): partly because I needed an air-conditioned break; partly because I still like Starbuck’s American-style coffee, even though I was in the land of European-style coffee; and partly because I wanted to log onto the Internet.

Now, while Geneva’s Starbucks location offers free, open WiFi access like all other Starbucks, my iPad2 could not connect to the network. The Settings screen showed the Starbucks wireless connection, but I never got the Web page where I would agree to Starbucks’ terms and conditions.

I went over to another person who was surfing the net with his Toshiba laptop (the kind with the screen that rotates so that you can see it from any angle) to ask in my best French if there was something special to do to log in here. I was surprised (it was a day of surprises) to find that he spoke perfect, American-accented English. He assured me logging onto the network was the same as I had experienced in Canada. While he admired the iPad2, he could not find out the problem.

Later, I returned to my hotel room in Lausanne. The Hotel la Paix is wonderful, and they upgraded me to a suite. But while they offered free WiFi, I could only connect to it in parts of the lobby, and in one small part of the hotel suite! It did not work in the sitting area or on the bed; I had to move a chair to near the front door to connect.

Lesson learned? I’m not sure, except that connecting to a wireless transmission is still as much about the physical location as the best digital algorithms.

The reality of currency exchange, or just tourist inflation?

I found the answer to my question in Luzerne a couple of days ago.

In my last post, I wondered how much more an Apple connecting adapter, which would connect my digital camera to my iPad2, would cost in Switzerland. It's $35 in Canada from the Apple Store.

I went into an Apple Authorized Reseller in the Luzerne's Altstadt (Old Town) a couple of days ago to check it out: 39 Swiss Francs---at current exchange rates, $48.45!

The clerk told me that Switzerland was historically very inexpensive when it came to Apple products. I told him the cost in Canada. He responded that the difference must be due to changes in the exchange rate. In his words, "The franc has really gone up."

For that to be true, the franc would have had to appreciate by nearly 40 percent between the time that the store received and priced the adapter and the day I walked in their door. And that may be the case: according to, which can graph the relative performance of almost any pair of currencies, the franc has gone from $CDN 1.02 in March to a high of $1.36 at the beginning of August. Not quite 40 percent, but close to it.

Still, perhaps it's time for the Swiss retailers to do some recalculation?

Another factoid for those traveling with the iPad2. Lesson: buy all your accessories before you go.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Look in the obvious places first

Well, I am a little chagrined. I mentioned earlier that I did not know how to move digital photos from my digital camera to my iPad2. I even Tweeted a request.

Now, it turns out that Apple has an adapter to allow you to connect your digital camera to your iPad through USB. Well, whatever they call that wide port on the bottom that goes out to USB. And it's available right on the Apple Store website.

Still, there is the problem that Safari on the iPad does not see the photos in the Camera Roll. And I wonder where the photos will go from the camera—probably to the Photos app.

Next question: should I shop for the connector here in Switzerland? How much more will the shops in Lucerne or Lausanne (my next stops) charge than Apple does in Canada ($29)?

Stay tuned to the same Bat-channel!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Okay, I've figured out posting pics from the iPad2 onto Blogger

Here I am at the top of the Austrian Alps—that is, almost as high as you can get by car on the Grossglockner Hauptalpenstrasse, or Grossglockner High Alpine Road.

I took this picture using the back-facing camera of my iPad2. Then I opened the Camera Roll in thte Camera app and used the setting to send it to my blogger account using the Mail-to-blogger option. Then I edited the resulting post.

If you do this, remember to select the Save s Draft option in the Blogger Settings tab.

Why do I have to do this? Because the Blogger system within Safari cannot see the stored pictures in the iPad2's "Camera Roll." In fact, Safari cannot see it, for some reason. Neither can Mail for the iPad. Major shortcoming there, Apple.

You can email photos taken with your iPad2, but you have to choose the Mail function within the Camera app (just tap the top of the picture when you view it).

I hope Apple fixes this in the next iteration of iOS.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Apps for iPad2 that suck

There's an app for that. But the problem is, apps don't translate seamlessly between computer platforms.

Facebook, Tweetdeck, FlightDeck, even Google Places are just four apps now available for the iPad that do nothing to take advantage of the iPad format. All the developer did was make sure the iPhone App can play on an iPad. Probably, they did not do anything other than add the word "iPad2" to their product description.

As a result, the app on the 10-inch iPad screen looks terrible. All that makes it bigger is scaling up, so you see low-resolution images, icon and text. It's annoying, depressing, discouraging and disgusting. Come on, Facebook, are you trying to save money or something? Maybe you really are running scared!

And there is just no excuse for Google to have such a poor looking iPad app for Google Place.

It seemed for a litle while that the move to mobile was leading to a seamless world of information, where it did not matter which device you used—everything would work together.

Alas, it seems like we're back to the bad old days of "I'm a Mac, and you're an android." Or even earlier, when software developers created applications for one desktop (Windows) and then ported it to Mac and, just maybe, Linux as an afterthought.

Can we not move past this, so that people can buy the IT products they peter, and let maters like OS or Internet protocol go to the techies. Yes, that will mean more investment in R&D than before, but it will really improve the situation for all Internet users.

On hotels and Wi-Fi

Free Wi-Fi access is becoming a staple of most hotels, it seems, especially modern chains. I have noticed this in North America, as WiFi is the standard Internet access and ports to plug in an Ethernet cable are becoming extinct.

This is a big improvement over just a few years ago, when you had to pay by the minute for Internet access. I think in some countries, like Greece, you still have to pay. "Internet access in Greece is very expensive" was a chorus I heard just four years ago, when I was there. Somehow, given the news out of Greece lately, I don't think that situation has changed much.

So, it is gratifying to find free WiFi access in hotels while I am here in Austria. Now, having just the WiFi version of the iPad2, I can't connect constantly like I could with a cellphone. But it is nice to have at least intermittent access. And I found a lot of WiFi spots throughout Vienna for instant, open access.

The big question, though, is why do some hotels still put password protection on their free access? Are they so cheap as to hoard bandwidth, giving it only if you're paying the room rate? For instance, the hotel I was at two nights ago, the Trumer Stube in Salzburg, has two separate WiFi networks for different parts of the tiny hotel, each with a different and difficult password. (Don't stay at the Trumer Stube--I do not recommend it. And don't try to drive in Salzburg, especially during the music festival. Park somewhere else, like in St. Wolfgang.) Yet, the Hotel Schloss Prielau, where I am sitting in the breakfast room now (beautiful, if a little weird) has free and open, unprotected access. Yes, you could walk in, sit down in the lounge and connect! I did last night! But please, don't take advantage of this knowledge. Everyone in Austria is so polite, proper and nice. Yes, nice.

Come on, hoteliers of the world-passwords are so inconvenient and so unnecessary! Open up the networks!

And cities: Let's get going on open Internet WiFi access throughout downtown areas!

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Salzburg Music Festival

We arrived in Salzburg yesterday afternoon, into the middle of the Salburg Music Festival. What a zoo! This is the most crowded city I have ever seen. Traffic was worse than Montreal, Rome, and Venice combined!

It's an odd crowd for a classical music and opera festival, mostly young parrents with toddlers, babies and youung children. The narrow streets of the Altstadt and the narrow platzes are jammed with strollers. Babies scream and complain in the Mozart museums and cathedrals.

We attended a chamber concert in the spectacular, if kitschy Mirabell Palace (Schloss Mirabell). It's a very grand, high baroque palace built by a Prince-Archbishop in the 1700s, and there are pink marble cherubs all over the place.

In fact, cherubs are a favourite motif throughout this part of Austria. Maybe that's why there are so many young families with babies here.

The Electronic Report

I'm getting closer to being able to add pictures from my iPad2 to this blog; I have found, I think, some apps from Google. The trouble is, when I go to the page, the location service Google or Apple or someone so thoughtfully provides, gives me the page in German. I don't see an "English" button on the page. I'll keep hunting, though.

The other option is a USB cable from my digital camera to the iPad2. Have one of those, anyone?

Monday, August 08, 2011

Using the iPad2 on location

A real life-saver for depending on the iPad2 as the prime mobile device is this accessory keyboard I bought at the same time. It's from Kensington, and comes integrated into a leather cover for the iPad2. This way, it not only protect the tablet, it really provides a solution to typing.

The iPad2's on-screen keyboard leaves a lot to be desired. The main shortcoming is that the numbers and the symbols are on completely separate keyboards. The keyboard opens up online, and it's suited mostly to two-finger typing. To get to the numbers, you have to press the "123" key; the whole keyboard changes to numbers and symbols.

However, many of the symbols we use commonly, such as the # for Twitter, are on a third keyboard st. That really slows you down.

As far as using the iPad2, I'm getting used to the camera. It's unwieldy, to be sure, but the pix are quite good. And you can access them for posting within apps - for example, the TripAdvisor app. However, nothing in this Blogger site seems to have the ability to find my pix on the iPad2. I have not found a "Blogger" app, but if anyone out there knows of one, can you send me a link?

That's all for now. Talk at'cha again soon.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Travel writing with the iPad2

This is my first blog post written solely on the iPad2. For the next two weeks, I will be traveling and using this as my sole tool for writing and communicating. Any pictures you see on the blog or elsewhere,posted by me, will also be taken using the iPad2.

I am writing this post while waiting for my bill at the Cafe museum in Vienna. I think I should start a different blog for travel, because Vienna is a terrific place to visit. There are free wifi locations all over the place, like at this cafe and the Schloss Schonbrunn. Why can't Ottawa do that?

I have used the iPad2 to take some pictures, and they look great--it's so nice to use a 10-inch (or whatever it is) screen as a viewfinder. So far, I think the pictures taken outside at least in natural light are quite good.

Unfortunately, this Blogger software does not seem able to find the folder on my iPad2 with the pictures, so I'll have to upload them later when I have more time.

So, there is one disadvantage, at least till I find out the workaround.

The other disadvantage is the built-in keyboard. You have to switch keyboards for numbers and the @ sign, so that slows you down. Also, the on-screen keyboard is made for two- or maybe three-finger typing, not what I like to do. And you also have to switch keyboards (by hitting a special key) twice to get to numbers, then to symbols for the # hashtag for twitter.

More on using the iPad2 as a camera tomorrow!