Lost Luggage Studios News
This category of posts are news announcements from Lost Luggage Studios. This is a good place to keep an eye on for notices about upcoming product releases, teasers, and more!
Last year we put together an anthology ebook of stories set exclusively in our Terran Shift universe. The result is a collection of seven stories from five authors, spanning from the high-tech cyberpunk dystopia of the Bio-Tech Era to the Sol-Bect War Era.
When we originally released this ebook, we decided to make it an Amazon Kindle exclusive, because we wanted to see firsthand what that would do for (or against) the book. Now that that period of exclusivity has expired, we decided to make the ebook available to other stores. I have uploaded the ebook to Smashwords, and it will be sent to all the other stores that Smashwords syndicates to in the next few weeks.
The Berkutchi Trial by Alan Belanger
Things Taken by Cynthia Ravinski
Handbook For A Better Society by Jamie Alan Belanger
The Unders by Timothy Lynch
Moroned by Paul J Belanger
Moon Sweepers by Alan Belanger
The Sol-Bect Setup by Paul J Belanger
I put together a comprehensive sample on our site that includes a short excerpt from each story. Read the sample.
What The Heck’s a Hackathon?
I’ve seen quite a few articles, magazines, and websites talking about hackathons lately… as if they are something new. These articles don’t always explain what hackathons are. So I thought I’d take a moment to talk about them, some of the hackathons I’ve done in the past, and what I’m planning to do in the next few weeks.
Hackathons are, quite simply, hacking marathons. It has nothing to do with the negative media version of the word “hacking.” Hacking in this sense is just a cooler way of saying that someone is doing a lot of programming. I’m hacking together a new product; I’m hacking some awesome code; etc. Typically, the people doing the hackathons will sit in front of their computers for days at a time to build a new product or to experiment with a new technology.
Why do this? Immersion. Hyperfocus. By turning off all distractions and diving in head-first, hackers can get a lot of work done. I typically can maintain this state of hyperfocus for five to seven days. My last hackathon lasted five days. I worked 65 hours.
I first became aware of the word “hackathon” a few years ago, but I’ve been doing hackathons far longer than that. According to Wikipedia, the term first appeared in 1999. By that time, I was in college and had probably already done several dozen hackathons. In fact, I did my first hackathon way back in 1994…
December, 1994. I was a junior in high school and had just recently rediscovered my passion for computer programming and creating games. We were experimenting with basic graphics in class, using the Pascal programming language and CGA graphics… CGA, for those who don’t know, is ugly (see pics to right). 320 pixels wide, 240 pixels tall, 4 colors. Your cell phone display is way better. Even the iPod you had ten years ago had better graphics. But at the time I was learning how to draw on a screen, CGA was pretty damn awesome.
One Thursday, after finishing a simple CGA game, I had the idea of making a role-playing game. I loved (and still love) the Ultima series. One of my dreams was (and still is) to make a series of awesome role-playing games. I sketched some ideas on paper during class, went home to do a little more design, and spent more time on Friday sketching graphics and more design notes. I went home that Friday and fired up my father’s computer.
I wrote the whole game in a single weekend. I remember staying up all night Friday and coding most of Saturday. I did some debugging on Sunday and then brought it to school to show my friends on Monday. If my parents had any idea that I was working so much, they probably would have disapproved. But my report cards were full of A’s so they probably just assumed I was dong homework and sleeping a proper amount.
In the end, I had written more than 2400 lines of code. I crashed the Pascal compiler and had to teach myself how to split code into multiple files. I spent two weeks debugging the game and had all of the major problems fixed. Many bugs and design flaws still exist in the program to this day; but I had a working, playable game like nothing I’d ever done before (in *ahem* glorious 4-color CGA graphics).
The game works, for the most part. Even on today’s machines, I can run it in DOSBox. It has some weird bugs that I never did track down. But you can play, walk around, fight monsters, upgrade equipment, explore the maps, etc. All the graphics were bitmapped pixel-by-pixel by me in the code. I had two separate programs I created to help make the game: a map editor and a monster editor. This was a very ambitious project, and I’m still impressed by what I accomplished in such a short development timespan (even moreso since I did it without beer). Granted, it’s not a terribly huge RPG, but it does take a couple hours of walking and killing to finish it. There’s a city, a valley, and a cave with a few floors.
I never distributed this game, but it was a moderate success in my high school’s computer lab way back in the day. I originally intended the game as a trilogy, and didn’t want to distribute the first part without the second two ready to go. The second part was never finished, but I remember the bulk of the graphics changes involved switching the CGA mode to a different palette (pastels… coupled with a “it is now winter…” storyline, lol).
Hackathons Before Lost Luggage Studios
I did a number of hackathons in college, most of them on school projects that I pushed off until I couldn’t push them off any more. Once I discovered EverQuest it got even more difficult to concentrate on hackathons. But I was still doing at least one per semester.
I spent two 15+ hour days writing a 425-line 3D Tic-Tac-Toe game for my Artificial Intelligence class. The first version was so ruthlessly efficient that it was able to calculate every possible move by both players, all the way to the end of the game, right before it crashed the school’s Solaris server (oops). Further revision made it use far less memory and actually resulted in a much better gameplay experience.
My worst hackathon experience was probably the 50+ hour hackathon for my Operating Systems class. I knew from the syllabus that I had to write a CPU scheduler, a memory paging handler, and an interrupt handler. I decided (for some stupid reason) to do them all in one sitting. The code worked beautifully, and according to the teacher it was actually more efficient than the sample provided by the experimental operating system’s creator. I say it was the worst experience simply because it was a lot of work, I spent a whole weekend on it, and was still a little intoxicated when I walked to class less than two hours after finishing.
Lost Luggage Studios Hackathons
Since starting my own company, I have rediscovered hackathons. There were quite a few years after college where I was too busy with my day job to work on my own projects. My first hackathon was born out of necessity near the end of that job. I needed some software to manage my day-to-day todo list, which was (and still is) growing exponentially. I took a vacation from work in 2006 and spent four days building a browser-based task management system I called TaskMaster.
Once I left that job and moved to Maine, I decided to rewrite my card game Catalyst as Catalyst Deluxe. I created the bulk of the code and the underlying SDL Window Manager project in a few 10-12 hour days. The first playable version of Anirah was created in a single weekend. Late last year, I wrote a TaskMaster replacement in 5 days (61 hours). My most recent hackathon was writing the Linux shell scripts for building EPUBs — 5 days, 65 hours.
Why tell all this? I’m excited. I type a lot when I’m excited. This year, I resolved to do a lot more hackathons, as I know what I can accomplish when hyperfocused. The reason many of my recent hackathons worked so well is that Paul was sent away on trips (charter pilot day job). I was able to guzzle pots of coffee (and gallons of beer) and completely engross myself in the projects, often working around the clock with reckless disregard for time. I turn off email and my RSS reader, put on headphones, and just work like crazy. I sleep when I’m tired, and work when I’m awake. When Paul is here, we end up having meetings, and discussions, and playing games, and watching movies… it’s a lot harder for me to coordinate hackathons. But this month, he’s gone to training so he can fly a bigger jet.
He’s going to be gone for pretty much the entire month of April.
I’ve planned four hackathons while he’s gone, one per week. Will I get to all of them? I sure hope so…
First up: A jQuery Timeline Control
I spent a lot of time searching for a good jQuery control to replace the basic timeline on the Terran Shift website. I found many controls that almost met my needs, and a lot that didn’t even remotely. Most of them required rather steep fees for commercial usage. So, being me, I decided it was better (and cheaper) to write my own. I always end up reinventing wheels like that. But at least the result is exactly what I need, and I understand the code behind it so well that I can get everything working the way I want.
In a single day, less than six hours later, I had built a proof of concept. My first hackathon this month will take that work, add a database, and completely transform the timeline into what I always wanted it to be.
Here’s a preview of what I’ve done so far:
I’ll let you know how my first hackathon works out, and what I’m planning for the next.
The Sol-Bect War Part 3 is starting to show up at all the Smashwords Premium Catalog stores. So far, it’s appeared at Kobo, Diesel, and Barnes & Noble stores. We are still waiting for it to show up at iTunes and Sony Reader Store.
Smashwords And EPUBs
Smashwords made a change recently and now allows publishers to upload hand-formatted EPUB files. Originally, the only EPUB files you could have at Smashwords were the ones automatically generated by their Meat Grinder program. While Meat Grinder does a pretty decent job, I always found the ebooks to be rather plain looking. And those EPUB files are what gets syndicated to premium catalog stores like iTunes, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble. There were also some nice things I do in the Kindle versions of our books that I simply could not do with Smashwords.
My Conversion System, And The Problems With It
I’ve been experimenting with creating MOBI and EPUB files and have come up with my own little system, which is basically done in these steps:
I did run into some odd problems along the way, mostly due to Calibre sticking an extra file in the EPUB (it stores your bookmarks inside your EPUB files). Luckily, that’s easy to solve (just open the EPUB in a compression program like 7-Zip and delete that errant file). But every time you test your ebook, you have to remember to remove that bookmark file. Turning off Calibre’s setting for keeping track of your reading location appears to stop it from putting that bookmark file in there. So far.
The next problem I ran into was with the Smashwords auto-testing program, which kept complaining about my cover. It said the cover had to be at least 1400 pixels wide. The cover in the new EPUB file for my test book (Pariah) is 1600 x 2400 pixels. I’m mildly embarrassed to say it took me almost an hour to figure out they weren’t talking about the cover inside the EPUB file — they were talking about the cover associated with the book in their dashboard (which was only 600 x 900 pixels). They could use a minor interface update to make that error more clear. Once I figured out which cover they had a problem with, it was easy to upload the higher resolution version.
When all the problems with the cover were eventually solved, I started getting error messages about other things. Apparently, Sigil uses a different EPUB validation library (FlightCrew) than Smashwords (Epubcheck). They are not the same. Passing validation inside Sigil does not mean the file will pass when you upload it to Smashwords.
The really odd thing is some of the errors thrown were rather stupid — like the Calibre bookmark text file above, and my favorite error, “length of first filename in archive must be 8, but was 22.” Don’t even get me started on the MS-DOS / Windows 3.1 flashbacks. I eventually tracked down the source of this error, which (ironically) was due to me opening the compressed file manually to delete that stupid Calibre bookmark file. Re-compressing the EPUB file fixed the issue (note: for those running into the same problem, add the mimetype file first).
Unfortunately, dealing with a constant stream of these errors led me to installing my own copy of Epubcheck on my computer. It was easier than I expected — which in Linux terms means “I didn’t have to compile it myself” — and I was hopeful that now I could actually finish converting the other books in my catalog.
At this point, I figured I was finally done and had a perfect EPUB book. Wrong again. After a few days, Smashwords again complained about the cover, telling me:
In their own FAQ, on the same page, it clearly states:
So I followed their directions exactly and made a cover that was 1600 by 2400 pixels, and now suddenly the size is wrong?
I decided to install Adobe Digital Editions to check it out for myself. What a terrible program! The fonts are so blurry I can’t even look at my laptop’s screen for more than ten seconds at a time. I’m having trouble typing this post (which is quickly deteriorating into a rant) because of the nausea inflicted by that program. I know what’s wrong with the program — I’ve seen it many times before. They are doing something screwy with the font rendering. Microsoft calls it “Clear Type” and I am one of the few people who get physically ill when that stuff is put on screen. The kicker is that I’ve configured my laptop (trusty old Windows XP) to completely disable that font “smoothing” tech. And yet, somehow, Adobe has managed to enable it, just for their program. I could never use this program to read books.
After much fruitless searching for a cure to this problem, I gave up and dealt with it, going through the process of previewing my book… in ten to twelve second increments. I’m starting to feel dizzy, but I have to know what is going on. I load my EPUB file and it has quite a few problems. The cover is all messed up and this program also appears to be incapable of rendering centered text. Everything looks fine in Sigil, Calibre, FBReader, and Cool Reader (on my tablet). So what is Adobe’s problem (aside from the crappy font rendering)? I’m really starting to wonder if anybody supports the EPUB standard. This situation reminds me of another so-called standard that was turned into an absolute mess (I’m looking at you, HTML).
The Nuclear Option
After countless hours wasted trying to figure out what was wrong with (a) my cover and (b) Adobe Digital Editions, I decided to take what I call the Nuclear Option. Since I couldn’t seem to get Sigil to do what I needed, and really did not like the prospect of having to format my ebooks three or four times, I decided the best solution was to modify my workflow into this:
The advantages of this new system are many (and I’m not even counting step 7).
First, instead of having to hand-format a Kindle edition in Libre Office, export as HTML, then clean up the HTML code, run it through Kindlegen, run it through Calibre, and then still have to clean it up in Sigil… I now export the Smashwords document without doing any additional work. I have to do the same HTML cleanup, but it will take just a little longer due to requirements of the EPUB container. But I’ve eliminated two entire programs (Calibre and Sigil) as well as the conversion steps they both impose.
The second big advantage is that I am now able to very easily set up another folder with common files — sort of like having a template. My new Catalog pages, all of my About The Author pages, book cover images, author bio images, and more… all shared across all my books without having to do any additional work. If I update my catalog, all future books will automatically use it when I run my shell script.
A minor benefit that few people would probably even notice is the image quality. Putting an image inside LibreOffice, then exporting to HTML reduces the quality of the image somewhat. Then I was running it through KindleGen, which reduced it more. Then Calibre and Sigil both mangled it further. That’s the problem with jpeg images. The more you edit the file, the worse it gets, and every program in my previous workflow was altering the image. So my new system lets me easily plug in all of the original image files, and they look as good as a first edition ebook should.
The last big benefit is time. Yes, it was a big initial investment. Yes, I still have to hand-edit the HTML and split it into one file per chapter. But now I put a few other files into a folder, set up some symbolic links, edit one book metadata file, and then run my shell scripts. The bulk of the work gets done automatically and I get a good looking, well-formatted, and fully compliant EPUB file in about two seconds. About one second later, I get a Kindle MOBI file of similar quality.
I think the best benefit, by far, is that my new system finally fixed that screwed up cover issue in Adobe Digital Editions. What was wrong with all my earlier attempts? I have no idea.
And I only had to write about 340 lines of bash script to accomplish this. Sadly, I still think that was the easy part.
Things I Changed in the New EPUB Files
So, What’s It Look Like?
The only title I have completed conversion on (so far), is my first novel Pariah. Here is a quick comparison of the layout of the first chapter. On the left is the original auto-generated Smashwords EPUB. On the right is the new EPUB I made:
And here is a look at the catalog section in the back. The original layout was just a bunch of links. Very plain, rather ugly actually. For the new catalog section, I went with a more visual look that mimics the catalog section we include in the backs of our paperbacks:
And that concludes my overview of these changes. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do since Smashwords first announced Direct EPUB uploads. I’ve been plugging away at this for several days now, and swearing up a storm on more than one occasion. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that once I decided to take the Nuclear Option and write a shell script, everything got smoother. I’m one of those old-school programmers who likes reinventing the wheel. It may not be a perfect wheel, but it’s efficient and I know exactly how it works!
Pariah is converted, and I don’t anticipate any more conversion or testing issues with Smashwords. Over the next few days I will be updating the other titles in our catalog. So keep an eye on titles you’ve purchased in your favorite stores over the next few weeks.
Part 3 of Paul’s ever-growing Sol-Bect War science fiction war saga is now available at Smashwords!
If you haven’t started reading this epic series yet, you probably want to start with Part 1
The ebook version was previously available as an Amazon Kindle exclusive, but I just uploaded it to Smashwords today. It should start syndicating to other stores over the next few weeks. Click here to see it at Smashwords