I have written a bit about my book The Sun Zebra, but today I decided to take a look at what others have written about it. So I copied all the 70 reviews that my book has on amazon into a document and eliminated obvious words like the names of the characters or the stories. Then I downloaded the remaining words into tagcrowd.com to  to produce a tag cloud. In the results below the size of the word and its shade of blue is proportional to the number of times it is mentioned.
But this is a bird’s eye view of the book reviews. When you go into the actual reviews a very complex picture emerges. Although I’ve seen it happen many times, still it never ceases to amaze me how people can look at the same thing and arrive at different conclusions.

Consider the following opinions:

“Over all, this is a mediocre read that could use some polishing and a bit more flair.”


“By the way, this is the first E-book I've read that was properly edited! Sentence structure, spelling, punctuation are all perfect.”

Or consider:

“Nothing spectacular to keep the reader wanting more. I finished it but it was more like a chore.”


“This book was such a dramatic change of pace from everything I've read recently that I was surprised by it. It was absolutely beautiful.”

And there were some unexpected things too. Some of the readers did not state accurately in their reviews how many stories there are in the book. Some wrote that there are four stories in the book while others wrote there are seven (the actual number is five). Also several reviewers seemed to think the events described in the book are real! They are actually a mix of fact and fiction, but it has much more of the latter (I will probably write about this in a future post). Additionally several people were bothered by the parenting approach of Nell’s father who sometimes lies to his daughter to either protect her or to not “burst her bubble.”

Several readers named a favorite story. If we assign one point per favorite (including ties) and 0.5 points per second favorite the tally is:

The meaningless Christmas Tree   8.5

The Sun Zebra                                5.5

Bob The Intrepid Insectnaut!           1

Raven-Lenore                                  1

The Meaningless Christmas Tree is indeed a very powerful story, so it is fitting that it is at the top of the list. The only story that so far no one has named as their favorite is Birdman and the Fairytale.

One reviewer wrote that my stories were reminiscent of the stories written by James Herriot because of the animals in some of the stories. Several reviewers stated that the stories reminded them of moments they spent with their kids, and some even shared them with their children. This was interesting as I had conceived this book as a “children’s book for adults” because all the stories deal in one way or another with death and aging.

Ray Bradbury once wrote that when he read his old books he would think “wow, did I write that?” I guess that it is unavoidable for authors to fall in love with their work. However, it has been said that when your own work moves you to tears or makes you laugh that is not good, as you end up invariably becoming too full of yourself. And I think that is my problem. Every time I reread The Sun Zebra I laugh or shed a tear. But since many readers have stated in their reviews or messages to me that the stories made them laugh and cry, I guess then that I am not alone!

So today I want to thank all the wonderful complex people that read The Sun Zebra, and I hope that when I publish my next book you will like it too.

Take care,


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Animals don't have language in the formal sense with letters, words, grammar, and syntax, but you sort of wonder what these turkeys perceived this guy to be saying!
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A hieroglyphic on a wall of the Temple of Luxor in Egypt reads: Man, know thyself and thou shalt know the Gods. This maxim, often shortened to “know thyself,” is a recurring motif in philosophical thought. The idea behind this teaching refers to knowledge about our inner selves, and gaining that knowledge is often a lifelong process requiring much effort and sacrifice. However, technological advances have made it possible for individuals to effortlessly gain a type of vital knowledge about themselves that was not contemplated by ancient philosophers: the knowledge contained in the genes.

Ancestry is one aspect of the knowledge that can be glimpsed from sequencing the genes of a person. Unlike most molecules in nature, the molecules of DNA contained in our cells are historical documents. They contain information about who our ancestors were, and combined with other information can reveal to us where we came from. Nowadays there are several companies that offer to sequence your genes and provide this kind of information.

But the most important information that the genes can reveal to an individual is about that person’s health. In the years following the completion of the human genome project, scientists have gained a tremendous amount of knowledge about the effects of genes on the risk of acquiring certain diseases. A recent high visibility example of what this knowledge can be used for was when the actress Angelina Jolie decided to undergo a double mastectomy after learning that she has a mutation in a gene called BRCA1 that greatly increases her risk of breast cancer.

As with ancestry, there are several companies that offer their services to sequence genes and provide individuals with information on how their genetic makeup can affect their health. For example, you can learn if you have defective genes that could make treatment with certain drugs fatal or if you have certain genes that can increase your chance of suffering conditions like stroke or diabetes. This genetic information can also be used by doctors to tailor the treatment patients will receive and has the potential to usher in a new era in personalized medicine.

However, genetic knowledge can be a double-edged sword. There are some diseases for which there is no cure. In those cases a positive result for a defective gene will basically tell individuals how and approximately when they will die, which is not the knowledge most people may want to have. Additionally, genetic information has the potential to be used by insurance companies to calculate the risks of insuring a given individual and charge higher premiums or refuse coverage. And what about finding a mate? Do you have the right to know the genetic information of the person you want to marry? What if you found out that the person you love and wish to marry has a genetic makeup that when combined with your own will produce a child with a severe disease? Also, what if governments or institutions with racial or ethnic agendas use this information in troublesome ways? Imagine the likes of a Hitler having access to the genetic information of every single individual in the country. Accessibility to genetic knowledge raises as many questions as it answers.

Currently, sequencing part of a person’s genome to derive ancestry or some health information is affordable, but sequencing the full complement of genes costs several thousand dollars and is outside the reach of the average person. However, technological advancements are reducing sequencing times and making the process cheaper. It is conceivable that within a decade not only will full genetic information be accessible to the average person, but it may even be part of the routine tests that are applied when babies are born. What will we do with that information? Where will it be stored? Who will read it?

Perhaps the Egyptian who carved that maxim in the temple of Luxor had a point. Should we first know ourselves before we know our genes?

Photo credits:
Double Helix: Jun Seita / Foter.com / CC BY-NC
Temple of Luxor: dorena-wm / Foter.com / CC BY-ND

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Astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded a fantastic version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity while circling the Earth in the International Space Station. While I like the music and the views of the Earth from space, this video got me thinking about a very common mistake that people make when they see videos of objects or people floating inside the space station. This is the notion that this happens because there is no gravity. The confusion is further exacerbated because this situation is often referred to as “zero g.” In today’s blog we will see why this is not the case.

To understand what is going on in space let’s do a thought experiment.  Imagine that you are standing on top of a high diving platform holding a pencil. As you jump from the platform you let go of the pencil and for a few seconds before you hit the water the pencil will appear to “float” next to you. Is the pencil in this situation experiencing no gravity? Of course not, the pencil is falling alongside you. Now consider this. Suppose in the instant you jump and let go of the pencil a room magically materializes around you in such a way that you are not in contact with any of its surfaces. This room is falling at the same speed you and the pencil are falling, but the room has a camera in a corner pointed towards you. During those few seconds before the room and you hit the water, the camera will record you and the pencil apparently floating in the middle of the room. An observer who watches the camera footage of those few seconds migt conclude that you and the pencil are floating impervious to gravity, but this is not true: you are falling.

This situation is identical to what you see in the video of Chris’s guitar spinning in space and him floating next to it. Chris and his guitar inside the International Space Station are no more floating or impervious to gravity than you and the pencil would be inside that hypothetical room. The reason astronauts appear to float is that (as in the example of the room) they are falling towards the Earth along with the space station around them.

But if this is true, why doesn’t the space station crash and burn?

The reason is that even though it is falling towards Earth, the space station is moving at the right speed parallel to Earth’s surface. If the surface of the Earth were flat the space station would eventually hit the ground. However, because the Earth is round it curves as the station falls, and the speed of the station is carefully controlled to maintain this balance. As a result of this the space station maintains a roughly constant distance from the Earth’s surface even though it is falling towards it.

“Here am I floating
round my tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there's nothing left to do.”

So you see, in the realm of the space station gravity is alive and well. Contrary to the song’s lyrics, the space station and its singing astronaut are not “floating,” they are falling towards Earth, but their speed and direction is such that they never reach the ground.

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I recently reviewed Steve Ullom’s delightful book: Cigars with Dog: Conversations & Tall Tails. Today we are going to get to know the main character in his book, Dog, a little better.

1) First of all, Dog, do you have a proper name or is your name actually just “Dog,” or is it your pen name? 

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me!  My proper name is Canis Lupus Familiaris.  But author Ullom has a hard time remembering names period, much less something as distinguished as my full name.  He also feels that if certain celebrities are satisfied with only one name, then one short name should be good enough for someone like me who eats out of a dish without utensils.  By the way, if one of your readers wants to invent a utensil that someone without opposable thumbs can use, I would appreciate that.

2) Your breed is Dachshund, but some people call Dachshunds Wiener Dogs, which one do you prefer being called? 

I prefer Dachshund.  I am very proud of my German heritage, Ja? “Ich bin ein Berliner” and all that.  In fact, I had proposed that the cover of the book should be a picture of me in my holiday lederhosen, but you know who nixed THAT idea.  He doesn’t think I have the legs for it.  I suspect that comment of his is another attempt at some humor at the expense of my short legs.  I do, however, look quite fashionable. 

3) In the book you share many afternoons with Steve sitting on the porch smoking cigars and drinking beer. This is a bit unusual for a dog. How did the smoking and the beer drinking get started, and which are your favorite cigars and beers?

Being German, you grow up drinking moderately at meals.  So that’s how it started.  It’s very normal, you know.  The smoking started because I was a fan of Groucho Marx, who is a fan of cigars.  I don’t have his eyebrows.  In fact, I am waggling my eyebrows at you right now but getting no reaction.  Anyhow,  I thought I could smoke a cigar like him and it would help my comic delivery.  By the way, Groucho once said, “Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend.”  So a book about dogs…why there is a two-for-one deal!  My favorite cigars are free ones.  My favorite beer is a Belgian Ale, along with a nice pretzel.

4) Let me put you in the hot seat Dog. In the book you take it as a given that cats act like they own the world, but don’t you feel the same way? Don’t you act like Steve’s life should revolve around you?

Didn’t Steve pay for the opportunity to have his life revolve around me when he put down some hard-earned coin for me as a puppy?  At any rate, with a change in architectural styles and standards, his life wouldn’t HAVE to revolve around me.  If he put the handle on the back porch door down a bit, I could open that door myself and he wouldn’t be so bothered to let me out “always in the last minute of a close sports game” as he puts it.  And when you are my size, you try getting the attention of a clerk at the store.  It doesn’t work.  So he has to sort of help me out with buying things for me, food, cigars, a new pillow.  The things you need to get by in life.

5) Related to the previous question, it has often been pointed out that “Dog” spelled backwards is “God.” Do you have a comment on that?

Anubis.  The Egyptians, they had it right, didn’t they?  Letting us walk around on our back feet with a cool cane and a bottom covering that makes kilts look like budget clothing, all while worshiping us as a god.  Although, try to lift a leg sideways to relieve yourself while wearing one of those, and then not dribble on it.  That’s a talent, I tell you.

6) In Steve’s book you wrote a spirited rebuttal section for the book. Do you have plans to write a full length book of your own? If so what would this book be about?

When I was a teenage pup, I wanted to write the great canine novel.  But my interest lately has moved to screenwriting.  I want to write something where Lassie stays in the house, maybe smoking a pipe and reading the evening newspaper, instead of running in and pretending to understand human speech while only barking about some ridiculous issue that Timmy got himself into again.  Although, to be honest, I would also like to write a tale where a Dachshund and a Hobbit go off together on an adventure.  I think they would have an affinity, based on their, uh, closeness to the ground.

7) Finally what about STEVE? Does he plan to publish any other books soon? If so do you think you will be one of the characters?

He is planning some stories that have a tendency towards the paranormal.  Stories where things don’t quite die in the way that we normally think of as the correct sequence in that endeavor.  There’s a story about “The Collector” that I like…about a visitor.   Another story has a twist on who lives where…and just who is on the other side of the window at night.   That one turns out to be a bit comedic.  I shouldn’t give too much away, however.  There are often dogs in them.  I’m a little nervous about being a character in them, to be honest.  I don’t know if he can correctly capture my heroic nature.  However, one never knows what or who will show up.

Thank you  very much, Dog, for agreeing to this interview. We hope we can see more of you in Steve's future books and maybe even a book of your very own. Also thank you very much Steve for allowing me to have Dog over here. We are looking forward to that book of paranormal stories you are planing to publish.

You can contact Dog by reaching Steve Ullmon at his website or following him on Twitter.

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I just read about a cool experiment that you can do at home. You can follow the link, but in a nutshell the experiment involves cutting a piece of cheese into cubes of different sizes. When you place these cheese cubes in a conventional preheated oven you find that the smaller cheese cubes melt first. However, if you place these cheese cubes in a microwave oven it is the larger cubes that melt first! How can this be?

The explanation has to do with something called the surface to volume ratio. If you calculate the surface area of a cube and divide this by the volume of that cube, you will find that the smaller cubes have a greater surface to volume ratio than the larger cubes. So when you place the cheese cubes in a conventional oven, the heat enters the smaller cubes much faster (because they have more surface area relative to their volumes) than it enters the larger cubes. Most people that have tried to heat food in a conventional oven have experienced this. The center of bulky pieces of food may remain cold while the outside is hot, whereas smaller pieces heat up faster.

But just in the same way that heat gets in faster into a small cheese cube that has a high surface to volume ratio, it is also true that heat can get out equally fast (dissipate) from such cubes. The microwave oven generates heat inside the cubes. In the larger cubes the heat has trouble moving out (because of the lower surface to volume ratio) and accumulates, heating the cube and melting it, whereas in the smaller cubes the heat escapes much faster and the cube doesn’t get as hot.

The interesting thing is that this principle also applies to living things. Mice have a very high surface to volume ratio compared to a human being, and tend to lose heat very fast just like the small cheese cubes. This is why mice have a very high metabolic rate (expressed on a per body mass basis) to compensate for this large heat loss. If a mouse had the metabolic rate of a human it would die from hypothermia (lack of heat). Conversely if a person had the metabolic rate of a mouse, he/she would die from over-heating because the heat generated in the large volume of the human body would have trouble getting out through the limited surface area, just like in the large cheese cubes. If an elephant had the metabolic rate of a mouse it would (in theory) boil!

But even more interesting is that we owe our very existence to the principle of the surface to volume ratio. Compare our planet teeming with life to the barren wasteland that is Mars. The Earth is larger than Mars and therefore has a lower surface to volume ratio and cools slowly (like the large cheese cubes). All the heat that gets trapped inside the Earth as a result of this has melted its core, and the spinning of this core generates a magnetic field. This magnetic field protects the Earth against the solar wind, which would otherwise strip away our atmosphere. Unlike the Earth, Mars is smaller (has a high surface to volume ratio) and, like the small cheese cubes, it has cooled faster. As a result of this, its core solidified and stopped spinning a long time ago. When this happened, Mars lost its magnetic field and its atmosphere was stripped away by the solar wind.

So there you have it. Who needs expensive labs or particle accelerators? Here is a fundamental physical principle responsible for life that holds true from mice to planets and that you can put to the test in your kitchen. Isn’t that cool?

Now next time you get served cheese cubes and crackers at a cocktail party you can impress everyone by talking about the principle of the surface to volume ratio and heat transfer. Please remember to reference this blog!

                                      Mouse & Cheese Photo credit: Darny / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
                                      Mars Photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video / Foter.com / CC BY

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When you use technology to have fun with nature, it can backfire!
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Mary W. Walters published an interesting post on her website (The Militant Writer) entitled: Promoting your Book on Facebook and Twitter is a Total Waste of Time. In a nutshell she states that Twitter and Facebook are not effective insofar as selling books is concerned, and that writers are better off employing their time writing or engaging in other promotional activities. In the comment section to the post and in the comments on other blogs that made a reference to this post, several people agreed with the premise, stating they had found exactly the same thing. However, some stated that they were selling books through Twitter and Facebook just fine, and if a writer is not selling books successfully using social media then they are doing something wrong. To this others replied that every time social media doesn’t work the apologists blame the user instead of accepting the truth that social media is a bust.

I am no stranger to feeling that social media doesn’t work. The sales of my book The Sun Zebra are lousy despite the fact that it is a highly rated book and that my social media reach and performance has been growing. Should I accept this reality and quit Twitter, Facebook and other sites that take substantial time away from my writing, or am I doing something wrong? As it turns out I think the latter is true. I believe that most writers like me are indeed doing something wrong.

What are the majority of my blog posts about? Writing! Who are the majority of my subscribers in Facebook and Twitter? Writers! And the thing is that this is normal. Writers are fascinated by the process of writing and publishing and we are interested in helping our fellow authors and exchanging information and ideas. But here is the issue: the vast majority of readers don’t care for that. Readers are interested in reading and they use social media not to look for new books to read but to be social.

Some argue that writers are also readers, but the flaw in this argument is that you cannot achieve high sales figures based on other writers buying your books. For one, most writers expect you to reciprocate the favor. To sell 10,000 copies of your book you cannot buy and read 10,000 books. Also most writers, beside a day job and family responsibilities, are very busy, well, writing. Joe Konrath has remarked that it is readers not writers, who buy his books. To this some may raise the counterargument of synergism. If you have 30 writer friends who write blogs, having your book featured in their blog is an asset. But this depends. If those 30 blogs are also about writing and thus only read by other writers, then the impact is minimal.

So I think in the future I will make an effort to diversify away from writing about writing and to befriend more readers in my social media accounts. Also when push comes to shove the best promotional tool a writer can have is many books, so maybe we should all heed the Joe Konrath’s advice “stop reading blogs and get back to work,” which of course includes this one.

But just in case you wish to linger a little, just for today, I am going to ask for your opinion.

What do you think?

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A follow up to my Pale Blue Dot post during the past holidays.
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Jennie Nash is an author who decided to self-publish after publishing six books with traditional publishers. She has written a guest post for Rachelle Gardner’s blog where she discusses the surprises she experienced when she self-published. You can follow the link to the original post. I am going to talk here about her first surprise. She writes:

I underestimated the weight of having the legitimacy of a traditional publisher. When I could say, “My third novel is being published by Penguin,” I was not just a wanna-be hopeful novelist. I was legit! I was chosen! Pitching book reviewers was a breeze. Attending high school reunions was a delight. When I ran into more famous writers, we met as colleagues, exchanging e-mails, making dates for lunch. Now that I am self publishing, I am no different than the crazy cat lady down the block who has been working on her memoir for 17 years or the guy at the street fair hawking Xeroxed pamphlets of his poetry about fruit. People smile indulgently when I tell them what I’m doing. Book reviewers politely decline. My doubts about writing, which I’ve spent a lifetime overcoming, have blossomed like a drug-resistant virus.

Jennie’s case is interesting because she already had the “legitimacy” of traditional publishers. She was one of the “chosen.” It stands to reason that an author like her would not all of sudden publish crap just because she was now self-publishing. But as you can see from reading the passage above, all of her traditionally-published prestige vanished when the dreaded S-P word became linked to one of her books.

Often one of the plusses associated with traditional publishing is the legitimacy mentioned above: the “I am traditionally published ergo I am a good writer” argument. The idea behind this argument is that if you are traditionally published then you have been vetted, you have been certified to be good, and what you publish does not belong in the slush pile. Jennie’s experience exposes the absurdity behind this argument. What gives you the legitimacy is not how good you really are, it’s the label, and once you lose it you are back to square one, again regardless of how good you are.

The sad thing is that many self-published authors, even if they don’t say it out loud, crave for this label. There are valid reasons to traditionally publish, but legitimacy is not one of them. If you are willing to pay the price in terms of minuscule advances, dismal royalties, long publishing times, loss of artistic control, loss of your rights to your work, and lack of attention for the promotion of your book if it doesn't hit the big time soon, then I think you ought to have a good reason to traditionally publish other than the label of legitimacy.

What do you think?

                                                                     Photo credit: Sudhamshu / Foter.com / CC BY

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