Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The moon Callisto and Love and Intrigue Under the Seven Moves of Kordea

Helena Puumala's SF Romance series features the planet Kordea, home to a race of beautiful and powerful psychic aliens, known as the Witches of Kordea.  The planet has seven moons, an extraordinary arrangement for a terrestrial sized planet in its star's habitable zone, as is noted in Book 1, which you can get from the link below :).


In fact, the moons of Kordea become a central element in Book 2, soon to come out.  The cover below actually borrows the moon Callisto, one of the moons of Jupiter.  I will by testing out different moons for the cover of the Witches' Stones Book 2, so this gives me the opportunity to do a mini-tour of some of the major moons of our solar system.

Here are a few facts about Callisto, courtesy of Wiki:
  • It's the third largest moon in the solar system and the second in Jupitier's system.
  • It is one of the original moons discovered by Gallileo (thus, referred to a a Gallilean moon).
  • It is the farthest from Jupiter of the four Galilean moons.  It is easy to find in a smaller telescope.  The distance from Jupiter means it has lower radiation levels than the other moons (related to Jupiter's magnetic field), and therefore might make a good base for human exploration.
  • It is mostly rock and ice, and it may have a subsurface ocean (100 km or so deep).  There might be life in that ocean, though more hope is held out for its neighbor Europa in that regard.  The presence of a deep ocean is inferred from its interactions with Jupiter's magnetic field, best explained by a highly conductive fluid at depth.
  • It is heavily cratered, and the surface is old, with no signs of tectonic activity.
  • The shiny bits are probably frost.  The dark parts include organic (carbon) compounds.
  • It is tidally locked with Jupiter, like our moon is with Earth.  That means the same side always faces the planet.
  • Its albedo is about 20% (about 20% of the light falling on it is reflected). 
Here's a recent picture of Callisto.  It isn't the greatest picture ever taken of Callisto, but it was taken by NASA's New Horizons probe, on its way to Pluto (this summer).  That's just too awesome to pass up.



Sunday, 26 April 2015

Last day, Free at Amazon this weekend, The Witches' Stones Book 1

Sunday April 26, is last day of the free Amazon promotion for Helena Puumala's "The Witches' Stones Book One - Rescue from the Planet of the Amartos".

The promotion is going well.  Interestingly, it hit #2 in one of the SF categories on the German site (for books in English).  Well, Germany is a very scientifically literate nation.  Perhaps we should get a translator some day.

Not quite as high in the US and UK stores, though there are a lot of SF and SF Romance books competing for attention.  Anyway, it is always interesting to see these country specific effects.

Amazon.com link

Amazon UK link

Amazon Germany link


Here is a reminder that Helena Puumala's SF Romance series "The Witches' Stones" is kicking off with a free download weekend for Book One, "Rescue from the Planet of the Amartos".  Book Two of the series will be out within a few weeks, so we thought we would give readers a chance to be introduced to the saga with a free promotion on Book One.

Book One concerns a future Milky Way galaxy of intrigue, danger and romance, where a young woman, Sarah Mackenzie, with extraordinary psychic talents becomes the target of contending powers - some good, some bad, and others...well nobody is quite certain.  It becomes the task of a handsome young agent, Coryn Leigh, to ensure that she does not become the unwilling participant in a new super weapon that could be used to control and enslave the galaxy.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Indie Publishing and Open Source Software – Part 2

First, a quick reminder that The Witches' Stones is free on Amazon, Apr 24-26, 2015.
And, now to the content rich blog :).
In an earlier blog, I talked about some of the open source software that I have been using to produce Indie ebooks lately, namely:
  • LibreOffice, the office productivity tools, especially Writer.
  • Linux, the operating system.
  • Gimp, the image software.
  • Calibre, the ebook producer and reader.
With these four, you can write a book, make a cover, test out an ebook and upload to Amazon or other retailers. They don’t cost any money, though it is a good idea to send a donation every now and then.
In my opinion, there is a lot of overlap between Indie publishing and Open Source software, in the philosophical realm and in “on the ground” practice, though I am no expert on Open Source software (or in Indie publishing, as there are no specific criteria for expertise :). Here are a few areas of similarity:
  • Smaller Scale. Think of the size of the organization that produces Microsoft Word versus the organization that produces LibreOffice Writer. I don’t know the numbers, but it seems safe to say that Word probably has 10 programmers for every 1 that Writer has – it might actually be a lot more than that. Does all that extra talent add proportionate value? Perhaps in some areas, but in others it may well subtract value by making the product excessively complex and over-featured.
Compare this to publishing. A large publisher might have a dozen people involved in the production of a book, even an ebook (the writer, agents, acquisition people, editors, cover art people, marketers, legal staff, technical IT people, etc.). A well done Indie novel, on the other hand, can be produced by a few people, sometimes only one, if that person has the set of skills needed (writing, editing, cover design, a bit of technical smarts). Does the extra talent that the big publishing house puts into the product add proportionate value? Let’s just say opinions vary and the evidence is not decisive either way.
  • Independence. Open source projects are, well, open. Almost any talented programmer can contribute to the project, if the contribution meets the expected standards. Obviously, to be involved in a big corporate programming effort, you first have to be hired on, so there is a high level of gatekeeping there.
Again, compare this to publishing. Indie writer/publishers are, well, independent. They decide what they want to write, collaborate as necessary and give their work to the world, with no promise of reward. Traditional publishing, on the other hand, is heavily gatekeepered. You have to have a submission accepted, or the book will never see the light of day.
  • Remuneration. Open source programmers often do it for the love of the project, though money can be involved. If the project really hits big, it might be taken private. Also, a good programmer can hone his or her skills on the project, and use that as leverage to be hired by a big corporation.
Indie publishing is a matter of love and money. Most Indie writers love the activity so much that they are willing to take on a project with no guarantee of reward. But, an Indie book can hit big, and the writer gets to keep a large cut of the profits. And that success can be parlayed into a Trad contract, if the writers so desires.
  • Protection of a Legacy Model. Open source software doesn’t have a lot of stake in protecting a product. It is constantly honed, hopefully improved. There is no legacy to defend. Big corporate software is all about ensuring that the product keeps spinning money for the company. Much of the effort goes into ensuring that users get locked into the product, and stay locked in. From a technological point of view, that can actually delay and inhibit progress.
Indie publishing also has little stake in defending a legacy. Sure, we want to protect our copyright, but few of us have any cultural products to defend for decades, the way a big publisher does. We seldom worry that one of our books will “cannibalize” the market for simalr books that we have written. So, Indie writing and publishing goes to any new niche it thinks it sees developing, rather than trying to shut off interest in that niche.
  • Overhead. Open source software development has low overhead. Most of the people involved contribute directly to the product. Big corporate programming, on the other hand, has many layers of handsomely paid management to take care of, as well as a lot of other peripheral personnel. Plus, there are often shareholders to keep happy. That’s just the nature of the beast.
Corporate publishing is similar. There are many layers of management, real estate, non-creative employees, etc. Indies are lean – most of the money goes to the writer (if there is any ).
I am sure that one could think of many other points of similarity – other people will have other lists. But that will do for now.
And here is an XKCD comic about programming: Open Source or corporate? Your call – maybe both.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Free this weekend on Amazon - The Witches' Stones Book One: Rescue from the Planet of the Amartos

Here is a reminder that Helena Puumala's SF Romance series "The Witches' Stones" is kicking off with a free download weekend for Book One, "Rescue from the Planet of the Amartos".  Book Two of the series will be out within a few weeks, so we thought we would give readers a chance to be introduced to the saga with a free promotion on Book One.

Book One concerns a future Milky Way galaxy of intrigue, danger and romance, where a young woman, Sarah Mackenzie, with extraordinary psychic talents becomes the target of contending powers - some good, some bad, and others...well nobody is quite certain.  It becomes the task of a handsome young agent, Coryn Leigh, to ensure that she does not become the unwilling participant in a new super weapon that could be used to control and enslave the galaxy.

Here is a link, so you can put it on your Kindle or Kindle app right now :)

Amazon.com link

Amazon UK link

And, yes, that's a particularly dangerous type of flaring neutron star featured on the cover, for those of you who like a little astrophysics with your SF.


Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Free this weekend on Amazon - The Witches' Stones Book One: Rescue from the Planet of the Amartos

Helena Puumala's Science Fiction Romance novel "The Witches' Stones Book One: Rescue from the Planet of the Amartos" will be free on Amazon this Friday, Saturday and Sunday (April 24 to 26, 2015). 

Book Two of the series will be out within a few weeks, so we thought we would give readers a chance to be introduced to the saga with a free promotion on Book One.  It was originally released in July 2012, but Helena had focussed mainly on the Kati of Terra series in the intervening time, so this series had a bit of a break.

But now it is time to re-enter the galaxy of political intrigue, action, and romance of The Witches' Stones series, as heroine Sarah Mackenzie and hero Coryn Leigh battle the shadowy force known as The Organization, on behalf of the Terra Confederation and the Witches of Kordea (who are a race of beautiful and powerful psychic aliens).

The book has a beautiful new cover, featuring a backdrop painted by artist Leona Olausen, of a soft gamma repeater (a type of dangerous neutron star), which represents a pivotal scene in the book.

Links to the book and the book summary are below.




Witches’ Stones Book One – Rescue from the Planet of the Amartos

Sarah Mackenzie had trained as a space ship mechanic at the Space Port of her home city on Earth. She left Earth to explore the galaxy, and, some months later, landed a dream assignment, to become the ship mechanic of an Explorer ship, the Beth 117.

The Beth was on its way to a planet at the edge of the galaxy, where its crew members were to search for the Witches’ Stones, or amartos, the mysterious crystals, which the Witches of the world, Kordea, use to channel and augment their psychic energies.  Sarah has no idea that she, herself, happens to be Stone-sensitive, just like the Witches are.

Under perilous circumstances, she comes across the cache of the Stones which the Explorers are looking for, and, unwittingly, “keys” them, igniting a psychic blaze that attracts the attention of The Organization, the implacable foe of the Terra Confederation, the centuries-old star-spanning government of most of the human race, and its non-human allies. To make use of amarto-energy, The Organization needs, not just the Stones, but also amarto-sensitive individuals whom they enslave to the devices which they have developed in their pursuit of galactic domination. Thus, they want not just the cache of Stones; they also want Sarah.

To forestall galactic war, rescuers, from a counter-intelligence group, known as The Agency, are sent to the Planet of the Amartos. A fast scoutship, manned by an Agent and a Pilot, must try to fetch Sarah and the amartos, bringing them to a safe haven among the Kordean Witches.

Sarah, herself, has to deal with serious conflicts. In the psychic realm she must choose between The Organization and the Kordean Witches, while retaining mastery over her own mind. In the physical reality, she has become the centre of an armed battle between the Terran scoutship and a military task force sent by The Organization to capture her and the Stones. Her determination to keep control of her own self sends her into unexplored mental realities, while exciting but dangerous physical events swirl around her and the crew of the scoutship, Camin.

To further complicate things, she senses within herself, the beginnings of an attraction to the handsome Agent sent to rescue her. However, she’s merely a naive young woman from Earth; surely, her hopes are beyond realization....

The novel is about 100,000 words, or 250 pages. It is the first book in the Witches' Stones series, which will explore the struggle for power among the Terra Confederation, the Kordean Witches and The Organization, as well as the personal and romantic entanglements of the characters. Book 2 will follow in May, 2015.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Indie Publishing and Open Source Software

Over the past year or so, I have found myself embracing open source software a lot more for Indy Publishing. That's probably true of a lot of Indies, to reduce costs if nothing else. But there are other good reasons, and I will get to those in a bit. Anyway, here's an inventory of the open source software we are using.

  • Writer - In fact, I am using it right now. I shift back and forth between this product and Word, depending on the computer that I am using, the purpose, and personal whim.
  • My Surface Tablet's Office 365 stopped working at about day 60, claiming that my license wasn't legit (it was) after numerous buggy Windows 8 updates. Rather than struggle with Microsoft's customer support, I installed LibreOffice on the Surface and now I use that for writing on the Surface.
  • My desktop has Word and LibreOffice, but I tend to use Word on it.
  • My laptop has Word on its Windows partition, and Office Libre on the Linux partition. I mostly use the Linux/LibreOffice combo.
  • To publish on Amazon, I have been using the “zipped Word html” route. But I plan to give LibreOffice a try soon, for the Amazon publishing step.
  • So far, I haven't found going back and forth between LibreOffice Writer and Word with the same document to be a problem.  But you never can tell with a Microsoft product, so no guarantees.  :)
  • A writer on Writer - SFF writer Helena Puumala has now shifted to LibreOffice for The Witches' Stones Book 3, as she thought her version of Word was getting “buggy”. So I suggested she try LibreOffice. Some comments from of her follow.
  • It doesn't seem to be all that different from Word. There is the odd thing I like better, though – it seems to give you more screen real estate for writing, for example.”
  • It is definitely less buggy. Word seemed to change things on its own sometimes, like pagination. Plus, LibreOffice Writer just seems faster on my computer than Word was.”
  • There is a bit of a learning curve, but that's to be expected. Word processors have a lot of options that novelists don't need, anyway.
  • I should note that her computer has the horrible early version of Windows Home Vista. OfficeLibre seems to work better with that than Word 2007 does. Go figure.
  • Calc – I still use Excel more than Calc, but have begun using the latter more often. Complex spreadsheets can be problematic, when moving between the two, I have found, especially pivot tables.

  • Impress – This is the LibreOffice replacement for Powerpoint. I have done documents in either format that have transferred between products without any obvious problems.

Linux Mint

I am a long way from a Linux expert, but I do have it installed on a laptop along with a Windows XP partition. I tend to use the Linux partition most of the time. It just seems a lot faster and cleaner than Windows. Facebook, for example zips along. Uploading ebooks to Amazon goes smoothly from Firefox on the Linux partition. I am inclined to think that the Amazon Kindle emulator (for testing your book before publishing) is faster too.

Also, you can be reasonably sure that you won't suddenly have an “improved” version of your operating system thrust upon you, like Windows does every few years. I give you the horrible early version of Home Vista or the confusing Windows 8 as examples of this. Who knows what is in store for us, with Windows 10. I suppose one could say Linux is actually “Windows Nein”.


I imagine this ebook producer is in many Indie publisher/writer toolkits. It is a great way to prototype your ebooks before putting them on Amazon. For Kobo, you can upload an epub that Calibre produces, directly. And it is great for side-loading mobi and epub files to Kindles or Kobo readers. We do that for our beta readers. One beta reader does sideloads her Kobo herself from files we email to her. It's that easy.


This is the Gnu Image Processing program, basically functionally equivalent to Photoshop. There is a bit of a learning curve, but it is well worth a self-publisher's time to learn. Even if you contract out your covers, it is still useful to get good with Gimp, for prototyping and early development.


In my day job as a data analyst, I often use SPSS, which stands for Statistical Program for the Social Sciences. PSPP is the open source version of this. I realize that most Indie publishers don't so a lot of heavy lifting in the data science department, but if you do, you should check this out. It is still a work in progress, though – not all of your favorite SPSS procedures are there yet.

Python and R

Again, most Indie writer/publishers don't do a lot of coding, but if you do, these are the things to learn, apparently. I haven't done a lot of programming with them yet, but I plan to learn these. Ever since Windows got rid of Quickbasic and Turbo Pascal bit the dust, most of my coding has been in database managers and stats packages. It should be interesting to get back into procedural coding. Plus, all the big data science outfits seem to use Python and R, so it is a good career move for those of us who are data analyst types.

Philosophically, there are a lot of similarities between Indy publishing and Open Source software (disruptive technologies, big corporations vs small players, disintermediation, etc). But I am approaching 1000 words, so I will explore those ideas in a later blog. :)

And here is a cautionary tale about Linux.


Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Two views of the moon

"The concentration of the Circle of Twelve broke.  As usual, Marlyss, the Eldest, was the first one to stir and to return to the reality of the tower room.  She slipped her green and gold jewel back under the folds of her robe and arose.  Walking stiffly after the long period sitting on a cushion on the floor, she crossed the room to one of unshuttered southern windows and stared down at the  moonlit countryside.  Four of the seven moons were in the sky and one more was set to rise soon.  Three moons were near full; the fourth was a crescent in the east. 

The night was a bright one, for the three largest of the seven moons were all full tonight.  That included Lina, which rose in the south and set in the north.  She was known as the Protectress of travellers, and was considered by those of Ferhil Stones to be the thirteenth of the Circle of Twelve."

From The Witches' Stones - Rescue from the  Planet of the Amartos. 


The Earth may not have seven moons, like the planet Kordea does, but it can take on quite different appearances.

This view was taken by a member of the Royal Canadian Astronomical Society - he was at an educational display at the Old Strathcona Farmers' Market a while back, showing some of the images that he had taken.

 This is one I took, a few years ago, with a 130 mm Newtonian, if I recall correctly.

She does look kind of different.

Friday, 10 April 2015

How Long is the Time Lag Between Buying a Book and Reviewing it?

It is natural for a writer or publisher (Indy or Trad) to wonder about the lag time between buying books,  reading books, and then reviewing those books.  I don’t mean official book reviews, as in the big newspapers, but rather the reviews that readers leave on Amazon and other sites that allow reviewing.  Having some awareness of this could help in such matters as scheduling the release of a book series – too short a gap and readers might ignore the new release (“I haven’t even read book 1 yet, no sense thinking about book 2”), too long a gap and readers might forget about it (“that series is familiar, but I can’t even remember the plot of book 1”).

So, what is the time lag between buying and reading/reviewing?  Well, obviously only Amazon’s data scientists know for sure, but here are a few small particles of evidence, based on following some books on Amazon over a period of time.

As we know, Amazon shows a book’s sales rank and its number of reviews on their website (among many other things).  Out of curiosity, I followed a couple of books over the last few months, one of which was the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.  The reason that I followed this book was the recent news that Harper Lee is to release a new novel in the summer of 2015 (entitled “Go Set a Watchman”), so I was curious to see how that news affected sales of “To Kill a Mockingbird”.  I followed both the ranking and number of reviews for “Mockingbird” since early February, giving me a useful time series. 

I also followed a recent number one best seller, “The Girl on the Train”.  At this point it is still too early to make much out of that data – the book just hasn’t fallen very far in the rankings, so one can’t really explore a rankings-reviews interaction yet.  Mockingbird, on the other hand, has shown a wide range of sales ranks during that period, so it is feasible to look for a ranking-reviews effect, and therefore estimate the time between purchase and reviewing.

Naturally I acknowledge that following a few books can’t shed light on the full range of books out there.  But, examining “ideal-type cases” can sometimes yield some useful results, especially if one holds the results lightly and provisionally.

1 – Ranks by Date

The first graph shows the sales rank of Mockingbird, from Feb 5, 2015 to April 9, 2015.  Unfortunately, I missed the first few days of its big run, so the sales rank starts at #4.  Google Trends shows a big spike for “Go Set a Watchman” on Feb 3, so I should have caught most of the run.  As you can see, the rank of the book went from #4 to #168 over approximately 2 months, meaning it dropped about 20 ranks per week over that time.  So, fresh publicity for a classic can drive it up to the top of the rankings, but it won’t stay there for very long.

The other noteworthy feature is the tendency for the data to get noisier as time progresses.  At first, the best fit line and the data are very close, but they begin to diverge at about the half way point. This reflects the fact that ranking becomes more sensitive to change in sales as the book becomes less popular.  For books in the top 50, a small day to day change in sales won’t affect the rank very much, but higher up the curve, that same change in sales will have a much more noticeable effect.


2 – Reviews by Date

The next graphs show the total number of reviews by date, as well as the number of reviews on each date.

As you can see, the total reviews climbed steadily, in nearly a straight line.  However, a closer examination reveals a bit jaggedness to the line, with some jumps followed by smooth growth.  The day to day reviews graphs shows this more clearly, with certain days where the number of reviews is substantially higher than the overall trend, which is usually about 10 to 20 reviews per day.  One should bear in mind that these might be “catch-up days”, where Amazon releases a tranche of reviews all at the same time.

3 – Relationship between Ranks and Reviews

The purpose of this part of the analysis is to see whether the number of reviews corresponds to sales rank.  People have to buy books before they can review them, so one would expect that the number of reviews will track the number of sales, assuming that a fairly constant fraction of purchasers are inclined to make the effort to write a review.  So, for example, if one person in one hundred reviews a book, then sales should be equal to reviews multiplied by 100.  Naturally, this won’t be a mathematical law, but a statistical one – we expect it to work over a reasonable time span, not every day.

Furthermore, it takes time to read a book after purchasing, and then it takes more time to post a review.  This is the time lag between purchasing and reviewing.  To explore that time lag, I calculated the correlation between sales rank and the number of reviews.  That number shows how much one number is related to another – e.g. when sales rank goes down, we would expect reviews to go up (since there are more readers out there to become reviewers).  I calculated this correlation coefficient between sales rank and reviews at a number of lags, to try to see where the correlation becomes highest.  This would give an indication of the time lag between purchasing and reviewing, at least the lag that is most common for readers.

As you can see, the graph reaches a low point at about 3 to 4 weeks.  Since our correlation coefficient is negative (when sales rank goes down (closer to 1), reviews go up), the best correlation is when the graph is at its lowest point.

Now, as we know, the relationship between sales rank and sales is a power function.   It’s not linear – number 1 books sell a lot more than number 2 books and so forth.  To account for this, we do a mathematical transformation, via logarithms.  This has the effect of turning a power law (which usually looks something like a hyperbola) into a straight line.  We then plot the correlation coefficient of the transformed data, which is shown below.  This has the effect of making the function more symmetric and moving the minimum point a bit to the right, now at about 30 days or a month.

I cherry picked the 31 day lag, which is the lowest point on the graph, to produce a plot of rank versus 31 day lag.  That is shown below, as is the log transform graph of the same data.  As you can see (hopefully J), there is a relationship, though a fairly weak one.  So, if you squint at the data long enough, you can be persuaded that the lag between purchasing and reviewing is about 30 days, at least for this classic work of literature.

For my final piece of evidence, I have calculated something called the coefficient of determination, which is just the square of the correlation coefficient.  It shows the percentage of the change in one variable that can be accounted for by the change in the other variable.  It also has the nice feature of always being positive.

In this graph, you see a maximum at about 3 weeks, another at about 4-5 weeks and possibly a third at about 7-8 weeks.  It’s hard to say how seriously to take that fine structure, but the one-month effect seems fairly convincing to me.

All that being said, the relationship between purchasing and reviewing is obviously complex.  You need to purchasers to create reviewers, so the causality has to work in that direction, at least partially.  But, reviews also stimulate purchases (they are “social proof”), so the relationship feeds back In the opposite direction.  Then, to confuse matters more, there is a lot of auto-correlation in the data  - that just means if Day 10 has high sales, Day 11 will probably have high sales as well.  Mathematically, that throws some more terms into a complete theoretical description of the relationship.  No doubt, the fully worked out relationship would be a very complicated beast.

It should also be noted that the lag time between purchasing and reviewing is bound to differ for different types of books.  A popular thriller best-seller will probably have a much shorter lag time than a ponderous work of literary fiction (it took me ten years to get around to reading my copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, but only a few days for the latest Grisham legal thriller).  At any rate, those are matters for another day, and another blog.