Thursday, May 31, 2018

eBooks for Baby Boomers


A friend of mine - a sister Baby Boomer and an author - recently wrote:

I feel like a dinosaur, reading paper books and resisting reading e-books! 
Here's my response:

eBook User Demographics

Hey, don't feel bad. You're not a dinosaur! From what I've seen, the demographic of ebook users is greatly skewed toward the younger generations. I think relatively few of us Baby Boomers are reading ebooks. 

For example, for a couple of years now I've been attending a reading group which focuses on books authored by Nevil Shute, who died in 1960. From what I can tell, everyone in the group is a senior, close to my age or older. I've only seen one or two other people bring in electronic devices with ebook versions of Shute's books on them; everyone else brings in a hard copy, usually hardcover. And those few electronic devices have only shown up recently.

I've worked with computers since college, starting with punch cards and teletype-style interfaces, through floppy disk data entry devices to early personal computers. I now have five homebuilt PC's (which I built myself), two laptops, and a half dozen handheld devices. Computers were my career as a software engineer, and in the mid-1990's, after I got sick and became largely housebound, the early Internet became my connection to the world.

So I'm an exception in my demographic. I'm comfortable with computers because I've been working with them all of my adult life. And I know that not everyone is going to reach that level of comfort. If you like reading hard copy books, that's fine. They've been working great for hundreds of years, and they aren't going away any time soon.

But ebooks do have some significant advantages, and I think it's important for us to be aware of these and the fact that the market is moving slowly but inexorably in that direction.

eBook Advantages

Here are some of the things I like about ebooks:

  • Flipping pages is much easier. Paper pages tend to stick together, and when I'm reading a hard copy book, I often find myself fumbling to separate two of them to get to the next one. Maybe I'm spoiled, but this quickly gets annoying. When I'm reading an ebook, I just tap on the screen (or swipe) and it flips one page. No fumbling.
  • An ebook reader can be much lighter than a book. The various devices I read on range between a few ounces and just under two pounds: Moto X smartphone, 5 oz; Kindle E-reader, 5 oz; Amazon Fire 7, 11 oz;  iPad Air 2, 1 lb; Chromebook (with keyboard), 1 lb 15 oz. By contrast, the Murder Ink paperback weighs one pound, and two hardcover books I have on hand weigh 1 lb 5 oz and 2 lb 1 oz, respectively.
  • An ebook reader can contain dozens or hundreds of ebooks. As long as I have my phone (or any other device) with me, I can read any ebook I own or have borrowed from a library. I can have an entire personal library in my pocket.
  • I can borrow ebooks from the my state library or other sources like openlibrary.orggutenberg.ca, or gutenberg.org, and I can do this instantly. If a book is available, it will download to my device in seconds. No driving to and from the library to pick up and drop off my borrows. If a book isn't available from the state library right now, I can have the library send me an email and automatically borrow it when it does become available.
  • I can buy ebooks from Amazon and download them instantly as well. eBooks are generally cheaper than hard copy, and some are as little as 99 cents. And for $15 a month, Amazon has a monthly subscription service that makes over a million books available instantly. If you're an Amazon Prime subscriber, there are also many ebooks included for free with the Prime subscription. And there are sites such as BookBub, which sends me an email every day containing a list of books in my favorite genres, almost all of which are either free or on sale for a dollar or two.
  • The Kindle software syncs between devices. I can be reading on my Chromebook, put it down, go for a drive, stop at an appointment or a restaurant, and take out my phone and pick up right from where I left off on the Chromebook. When I get home, I can go upstairs and lie down with my iPad and continue from where I left off on my phone.
  • I can save bookmarks, highlight passages, and enter notes on a given passage on any ebook I'm reading. All these markups get synced across all my devices, automatically. I can view a list of them and zip to any one of them instantly, with a couple of taps on my screen.
  • I can copy a passage from an ebook and paste it into an email or a document.
  • I can change the font, the size of the font, the color of the background, the brightness of the backlight, the size of the margins, the spacing between lines, and even whether the text is left-aligned or fully justified. So I can make the book's text look exactly like I want it to, as easy as possible on my eyes. (See next item for an exception.)
  • I can read ebooks outdoors in bright sunlight.  My Kindle E-reader has no backlighting and relies on ambient light, just like a hard copy book. This means the text is readable outdoors in bright sunlight. If you find backlighting tiring, you might like a Kindle Reader. Note: because my Kindle E-reader has no backlight, there's no backlight adjustment. Other Kindle E-reader models do have a backlight and also work in ambient light, giving the best of both worlds.
  • With a few taps, I can post my rating of a book (one to five stars) to both Goodreads and Amazon, along with a review if I feel like writing one.
  • I can stash my ebooks into collections, where I can quickly reference them later. Fiction, Bios, Humor, etc. I also have created a collection for each rating I give, so I can quickly look up my Faves (5 stars), books I've rated Good (4 stars) or Average (3), and avoid the ones I've labeled Rejects (1 or 2 stars).

eBook Disadvantages

I'll admit eBooks aren't perfect, though. Compared to hard copy books, there are drawbacks:

  • In my experience, the biggest drawback is the learning curve involved in using an e-reader or app. You have to learn your way around the app or device, and you also have to learn how to access and download books from your retailer (such as Amazon) and/or libraries or other sources. But this learning curve, while it can be daunting at first, is actually not too difficult to climb. The devices and apps are fairly intuitive, and there are various sources for help, including the Web, and friends (like me).
  • I've had to get into the habit of keeping the batteries in my various devices charged.
  • A device has to be connected to the Internet in order to download ebooks or to sync bookmarks, highlights, comments, last page read, etc.
  • If I accidentally touch the screen of a device while an ebook is open on it, I can inadvertently page forward or backward.
  • I'm dependent on Amazon for access to any books I bought from them which are not currently on my devices, so if Amazon ever goes belly up, my books will be lost. Given the monster success that Amazon is currently experiencing (CEO Jeff Bezos is the richest person on the planet), this seems unlikely to happen any time soon.
  • The Android app differs slightly in its functionality from the iOS apps, and the Kindle devices are each different yet again. So there is a (relatively small) learning curve when getting a new device.
There are probably other disadvantages I can't think of at the moment, but whatever they are, for me they are far outweighed by the advantages.

eBook Formats

Note that I am using eBooks that are distributed in Amazon's Kindle format (.mobi files) and my devices are either sold by Amazon (Fire 7, Kindle E-reader) or run Amazon's Kindle app (all the other devices). It's also possible to read Kindle-format ebooks in a browser on a PC or Mac, and there is an app for Windows, but the browser and Windows versions lack the Collections function included in the apps for Android and iOS devices and the Amazon devices. I haven't used the app for Macs, so I can't rate that.

There is another ebook format (.epub) that is used by other ebook publishers (Barnes & Noble's Nook, for example, and Google Play Books). I have apps on most of my devices that will allow me to read those as well, but I'm very much into Amazon's Kindle ecosystem, and from what I've seen, Amazon has the largest selection of books by far, of all online retailers. Also, my state online library lends books in Kindle format. Oh, and the Kindle app is free and runs on pretty much any device.

Conclusion

Once I got past the learning curve on how to use ebooks, including learning my way around the apps as well as how to find ebooks from various sources online, I have found the experience of reading books in ebook format to be vastly superior to reading books printed on paper. To me, now that I'm familiar with using ebooks, it is totally obvious why the trend is away from hard copy books and toward ebooks. 

At first, the learning curve may seem steep, especially for people who aren't that much into computers. But ebook reading apps and devices are designed to be as intuitive as possible, and the necessary knowledge is readily available online. 

As long as you have a Kindle-capable device (iOS, Android, Windows, Mac) you could download the appropriate Kindle app, grab an ebook from one of the free online libraries, and give reading it try to see how you like it. This wouldn't cost anything but a little time.

I hope you find this post informative. And maybe it will help you better understand my enthusiasm for ebooks - and why the market is moving so inexorably away from hard copy and to ebooks.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Velocity Girls web site is up!

I've finished the second draft of my novel, Velocity Girls. Next I plan to have a professional editor go through it, and then it will be time to start looking for a publisher. My friend Kate George tells me it's time to put up a web site and start telling people about the book.

So here goes. I've spent the last couple of days putting together a rough first cut at a web site for the book. But first I needed some tools.

Spent a few hours digging around for a modern HTML editor that can do both WYSIWIG and code editing, and can do site management, because my beloved old PageMill won't install on 64 bit Windows 7.

Struck out. After reading reviews and promos for hours, I settled on trying three editors that seemed popular and highly rated - and free or reasonably affordable: Coffee Cup, KompoZer, and Amaya. Coffee Cup doesn't even have WYSIWYG any more, and Amaya has nothing resembling site management. KompoZer has both, but so many things in the package are broken that it's quite frustrating to use. And none of them hold a candle to PageMill's clean, slick, and comprehensive suite of features.

So, a decade on and HTML editing software has gone backwards? Boo!

Anyway, I've managed to put together a few pages, and - because we need a picture on the web site - a rough draft of a cover for the book. This isn't the final version, I'm sure, but at least it gets close to what I have in mind.

There's also a brief bio, and some short excerpts from the novel. Feedback on any or all of this is welcome.

So please check out my new Velocity Girls web site!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Hijacked!

Malware Bites - and I Bite Back


A Computer Security Primer

The other day I read that some important updates were coming from Microsoft. It was Patch Tuesday, the day on which Microsoft releases their biweekly updates. I clicked on Start, then Microsoft Update and sat back to let Microsoft do its thing to keep my computer safe.

But it didn’t. Instead of going to Microsoft’s Update web page, Internet Explorer went to Google. I tried again. Same result. I tried typing update.microsoft.com into IE’s address bar. Page not found. Augh!

Don’t panic, I told myself. I started digging. I found that my computer’s DNS server addresses had been changed. Instead of using the OpenDNS servers I’d dictated in my router, the addresses pointed to some mysterious DNS servers in eastern Europe.

Uh oh. These DNS servers were “poisoned.” Most of the time when I entered the address of a web site, these servers correctly translated this to the IP address of the proper server, and I was able to access the web site with no problem. But when I attempted to go to a security-related web site, such as Microsoft Update, or that of my antivirus program, the DNS servers misdirected me to a different server so I couldn't get current security updates.

I’d been attacked by a Trojan, a piece of malware which allowed bad people halfway around the world to take control of my computer and steal information off of it.

And this was my main computer, the one I used for my online banking transactions. Time to panic! I immediately disconnected this computer from the Internet, called my banks, and – using a different computer which I verified had not been infected – changed all my banking passwords.

Since then I have spent many hours downloading various anti-malware programs and scanning that computer and my other computers, getting rid of the vicious DNSChanger Trojan as well as several other nasty bits of malware that had infested that machine, and ensuring the other computers were still clean.

I found several seriously bad actors, including another Trojan which could log my keystrokes (and thus steal passwords) or copy files to and from my computer. Horrors! An open door for criminals to steal my stuff – and my money. And there were some other nasty programs – scary-sounding stuff like rootkits and backdoors as well as more benign items like tracking cookies.

During my travels I came across a number of useful web sites which had information about finding and eliminating malware as well as software to prevent infections. I’ll list the best of these as well as the software tools I used.

Finding and Eliminating Trojan.DNSChanger

Windows Update Goes to Google Instead – This is the first page I found which described my problem, and pointed me to this page:

Bleeping Computer: Infected - no internet connection – This page has detailed instructions for tracking down and neutralizing the DNSChanger Trojan using Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware (MBAM) program.

See also my Online Scanners section below.

Information Sites

Bleeping Computer – This site has extensive information about malware, what it is, how to avoid it, and how to get rid of it. It also has a very active forum with volunteers who can help you fix problems with your own computer.

Caution! Don’t ever download or install an anti-spyware product unless you know it’s for real! The following page will help you stay safe.

Spyware Warrior's List of Trustworthy Anti-spyware – Fake anti-spyware is everywhere, particularly in Google ads. This page has a list of known good anti-spyware as well as a list of known fraudulent products which will actually install spyware on your system instead of protecting you from it. The site has many other pages with tons of useful information.

Note that this site is not being updated any more but it does have an active forum.

How do I handle possible identity theft, internet fraud, and credit card fraud? – This page tells you what you should do if you think your computer – and your personal data – has been compromised.

When should I format, how should I reinstall? – This page explains how to decide whether you need to wipe your hard drive clean and reinstall Windows, and how to go about it.

ZDnet – This site has a number of security-related newsletters you can subscribe to. Click on the tiny little Newsletters link near the top of the page. I am currently getting Tech Update Today, ZDNet Announcements, and ZDNet Must-Read News Alerts.

Software

What’s the best anti-virus program? The best Internet security suite? The best anti-spyware program? What software can get rid of the worst infections? Here are some useful links.

Caution! Do not download any security software unless you are sure you are getting it from a legitimate site. Google’s ads are particularly notorious for pushing fake security software. I never go to any link for software in the “sponsored links” section of Google search results pages.

My Current Favorites

PC World Antivirus and Security – This site conducts regular reviews of security software for Windows and publishes a list of recommended products.

G Data – This company’s Internet Security 2010 got the highest rating in PC World’s May ‘09 review of security suites. It uses both the Avast! And BitDefender antivirus engines, so it should catch more threats than either of them alone.

SUPERAntiSpyware – In the past I’ve used Ad Aware, Spybot Search and Destroy, and Spyware Doctor, but now I’m using the Pro version of SUPERAntiSpyware because it found quite a few threats that Ad Aware and Spybot missed on my infected computer, and it’s also reputed to be able to find and eliminate the DNSChanger Trojan. The Pro version has real-time protection.

Malwarebytes – This company publishes several security products, notably Anti-Malware (aka MBAM), which can track down and neutralize a number of threats that most other products can’t eliminate. The full version ($24.95) also provides real-time protection.

Noscript for Firefox – This combination provides much safer web browsing than either Internet Explorer or Firefox alone. Download and install Firefox first, then install the Noscript add-on.

Thunderbird - Strictly speaking, this isn't security software. But so many people use Microsoft's very insecure email programs (Outlook, Outlook Express, Exchange). These programs provide malware authors with a virtual freeway into your home. Thunderbird is much safer.

Other Good Security Software

I’m far from a security expert but I do have experience with a number of other security products. I’ll give you my impressions here. The following three products are ones that I’d recommend.

Avast! – I was using this company’s highly rated free anti-virus program on all my computers – until one of them got infected by the DNSChanger and Agent Trojans.

AVG – The most popular free antivirus program. The free version does not, however, scan downloads; you need the full version for that.

Ad-Aware – A solid free anti-spyware program which appears to be compatible with SUPERAntiSpyware (you can have both running at the same time). The full version has additional features.

Losers

I’ve used the following products but was less than totally happy with them.

Spybot Search & Destroy – This seems to have significant overhead and when I did a scan with it on my recently infected computer, it found nothing that hadn’t already been cleaned by Ad-Aware.

Spyware Doctor – I found this to be annoying and intrusive, with high overhead and a cumbersome interface.

BitDefender – A highly rated antivirus program. I purchased it and used it for almost two years but switched to Avast! after running into trouble several times with BitDefender, particularly its update mechanism. It also seemed to have fairly high overhead when running on my system.

Kaspersky – I purchased this and used it for a year but switched to BitDefender because Kaspersky really slowed down my system, and BitDefender was supposed to have less overhead.

McAffee – This came free on a laptop. I wasn’t very happy with it; it seemed cumbersome to use and the company had an extremely annoying automatic renewal system which dinged my credit card without warning. I switched to Kaspersky.

Norton – This came free on several laptops. I’ve had endless trouble with it; it seems to sink its fingers far too deeply into the operating system, messing up stuff and generally causing mischief. Upgrades failed; removals didn’t remove everything. The company has a very annoying automatic renewal system similar to McAffee’s; this alone is a good reason to avoid it.

Online Scanners

Some malware will prevent you from downloading and installing security software, or will interfere with it when you try to run a scan. Malwarebytes Anti-Malware can find and neutralize many of these. But to make sure you’ve found and cleaned everything you possibly can, I suggest you also use one or more online scanners. These can take a while, but are worth the trouble if your machine has been infected and you want to have a fairly high level of confidence that you’ve eliminated the threats. (Of course, the safest solution is to reformat and reinstall Windows.)

Here are two I use:

TrendMicro Housecall

BitDefender

There are others. Avast! recommends these:

http://www.avast.com/eng/avast_cleaner.html

http://vil.nai.com/vil/averttools.asp#stinger

http://securityresponse.symantec.com/avcenter/tools.list.html

CLRAV: ftp://ftp.kaspersky.com/utils/clrav/clrav.zip

ESCAN: http://www.mwti.net/antivirus/free_utilities.asp - Set the options as shown in this ->Screenshot<-

Safe Surfing Tips

Recently I visited my sister Juanita. She had purchased a popular antivirus program and installed it on her computer and our dad’s computer. It worked fine on Juanita’s computer but it caused serious problems on Dad’s. I uninstalled it and installed a free antivirus program called Avast! in its place.

Juanita was upset that she’d spent the money for the expensive program and now felt the money had been wasted. I suggested she try to get a refund and switch to the free antivirus program from Avast! on her computer as well. I also made a number of suggestions for safer use of a computer on the Internet. I've realized that other people might find these suggestions useful.

Excerpted from my email to Juanita:

Here are links to two popular antivirus programs:

Avast!
AVG

I mentioned that I have been reading newsletters related to computers and computer security. Go here:

ZDNet

Then click on the Newsletters link near the top of the page, just below the Search box. You will get a page where you can sign up for a number of newsletters. I am currently getting Tech Update Today, ZDNet Announcements, and ZDNet Must-Read News Alerts. These often contain security alerts and other security-related information.

However, don't panic. At first I found some of the postings rather scary, but after a while I realized that not every alert applies to me and my computers - and often the threat is not as dire as the articles make it sound. I've also helped a number of friends with their computers, and through this I've come across some fairly badly infected machines. Almost always, the infected machines have been running without a current antivirus program installed, and I also suspect that the owners are prone to surfing to dangerous sites.

Over time, I've evolved the following rules of thumb:

1. Always keep Windows updated. By default this happens automatically. Every other Tuesday (known as Patch Tuesday) Microsoft prepares a group of updates. Your computer should check for these updates and download them automatically. You can check on the status of these updates by clicking Start -> All Programs -> Windows Update (or Microsoft Update). You can also check to make sure the updates are set up to happen automatically (or at least ask you before it downloads and/or installs them).

2. Always keep your antivirus program updated. Avast does this automatically whenever you connect to the internet. I believe AVG does too. This is important because new viruses are constantly being released, and your antivirus program has to get new signatures and fixes from the web site of the company that wrote the antivirus program. An antivirus program that is out of date is ineffectual.

3. Do an antivirus scan periodically. Unlike antivirus progams you pay for, Avast Free edition doesn't do this automatically; you have to do it manually. It's a good idea to do this every week or two, especially if the computer is spending a lot of time online.

4. Make sure you have XP Service Pack 2 or 3 installed and make sure that Windows Firewall is turned on. This is especially important for machines that connect directly to the internet, without a NAT router, such as your dialup connection.

5. Consider installing antispyware. I use Ad-Aware Free (get it from http://www.lavasoft.com/ or download.cnet.com and nowhere else!) and Spybot (from http://www.safer-networking.org/ or download.cnet.com). These both require manual updates and Ad-Aware requires you to run it manually from time to time. Spybot, if I recall correctly, can be set up to run continuously in the background, but it has considerable overhead so this might not be optimal on older, slower machines. If necessary you can run manual scans instead.

Here are some safe practices tips:

1. Avoid potentially toxic sites. The ones I think are most dangerous are ones you and your kids probably won't be going to: porn sites and warez sites (illegally "cracked" software). Also, file sharing networks, especially Limewire, tend to contain a lot of viruses. Avoid those too (I'm sure you do). Update: I’ve also found sites purporting to list free proxy servers to be dangerous.

2. If you ever get a popup offering to update your Flash Player, don't accept it! Close the popup. Don't play a movie if you get such a message when you open it. Close the movie and, if you've downloaded it, delete it. Then go to Adobe and check to see what the latest version of Flash Player is. If your version of Flash is earlier than that, download and install the new version from the Adobe site.

Note: When I download a new version of the Flash Player installer or other software, I append the version number of the software to the program name and save the installer in a folder where I can find it later. You can also hover the mouse cursor over the installer and it should give you a popup which shows the version number. If in doubt, download and install the new version.

3. Be suspicious of any popups offering updates; right now Flash is the one being spoofed, but there could be others in the future.

4. Avoid Microsoft's internet browser, Internet Explorer, and their mail programs (Exchange, Outlook Express, and Outlook).The open source programs from Mozilla, namely Firefox for web browsing and Thunderbird for email, are much more secure. From what I've seen these two Microsoft programs are malware's biggest routes into Windows systems.

Update: Aggressive malware development has significantly reduced Firefox’s safety advantage. However, if you install the Noscript add-on into Firefox, and use it wisely, this combination becomes by far the most secure browser combination available.

5. Never click on a program or script which arrives in an email that looks in the least suspicious. Scan any files you're not sure of with your antivirus program.

6. Be suspicious of any emails that attempt to get any personal information from you, especially passwords but also name, address, DOB, SSN, etc. Banks and other reputable companies never send emails asking for info like this, but spammers often send emails telling you that you must "update your account" or some other nonsense and give you a link to a bogus site which will steal your password.

Get in the habit of looking at the URL for a web site before you click on it, especially in any email from a supposed bank or whatever. (This is usually displayed in the status bar at the bottom of your browser or email program if you hover the mouse cursor over the link.) Also look at the actual email address of the sender; often it will have a legitimate-sounding name (e.g. Citicorp Bank Information Services) but the actual address will be clearly someone else (something like azy324@netizone9.com). This is a dead giveway. Junk the email immediately.

7. Consider switching to gmail. You can set up gmail to retrieve email from your other addresses so it will all arrive in one place. You can also set up alternate identities so outgoing mail will have the same from address that the incoming mail was originally directed to. I have found that gmail seems to be very good at filtering out spam.

8. Never download anything, especially anti-spyware or antivirus software, from any site you're not sure of. Generally download.cnet.com, pcworld.com, and other major sites run safe servers and you can be fairly confident that things you download from them are free of malware. If in doubt, scan the downloaded file with your antivirus program (just right-click on the downloaded file and select "Scan ...") to be sure.

If you ever get into a situation where you think your computer has been infected with a virus, scan memory and your entire hard drive with your antivirus program or, better yet, with an online scanner. Several major antivirus providers have free scanners. http://antivirus.com (look for Housecall) and http://bitdefender.com are two that I use. You can also set up Avast to do a boot-time scan, which is more thorough and reliable than doing a scan from within Windows.

This takes a while but it's worth it to ensure your machine is clean.

If in doubt, check online forums or call someone you trust.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama 2008!

I am profoundly moved by the results of the election last night. When I was watching Obama's acceptance speech I was in tears.

It is amazing that such radical changes have occurred in our lifetime. One of the announcers on the BBC coverage last night mentioned that Robert Kennedy predicted 40 years ago that a black man could become president within 40 years. It seemed impossible then, but it's happened.

I have been reading Obama's biography on Wikipedia, and also that of his wife and his mother. What an amazing family and an amazing story! Reading about his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, almost had me in tears again. She was a feminist, an activist, earned a PhD, worked to help the impoverished, and died of cancer at the age of 51. An amazing woman. It is very sad that she did not live to see her son's political career. It's very sad that his grandmother died before the election too.

My cousin Terry said she has confidence that "his advisers will be the best caliber." He's a very intelligent man who appears to exhibit remarkably sound judgment; I, too, have confidence he will choose well.

I have great hopes for the coming years, but I also recognize that this country is like a giant ship and it is not possible to make it change course rapidly. And we can't forget the turmoil in other parts of the world, some of which occurred at the hands of our current administration, and which will not be easily quelled.

Obama has a daunting array of challenges ahead, as does the entire country. But last night was a brilliant start.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Amos and his shifter kart

Just posted a video of my nephew Amos racing his shifter kart at Rocky Ridge near Barre, VT. And winning.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The weaker sister

In recent years health problems have devastated my life and forced me to stop doing the things I most passionately love. First flying, then racing were lost to me. My beautiful home is gone, my beloved airplane lies in pieces, my Cobra sits silent in a lonely storage unit, likely never to have my hand on its wheel again.

As my life disintegrated, a new pursuit emerged: writing. Writing is less susceptible to the health problems that have plagued me. As long as I can sit up and move my fingers, as long as I can think clearly, I can still write. Even if I lose my computers again, as long as I have adequate offsite backups I should be able to recover the fruits of my labors.

Still, I've always regarded writing as a pale substitute for the real thing. The weaker sister. I would never have chosen to sit around writing about racing if I could be doing the real thing instead.

So I guess you could say that if it weren't for the illness, I'd never have started writing my novel. Slaving away over a hot computer for hours, only to produce a few flat colorless pages of prose? Give me a drive in a real race car on a real race track any day.

And every hour you spend on the track requires many hours of preparation of your equipment. When I was involved with racing - and before that, flying - there just wasn't time or energy left over for writing.

This feeling has persisted since I had to stop racing and flying. I never stopped longing to be back on the track, seeking the elusive limits of adhesion; back in the air, upside down, pulling G's.

The writing was just a way to experience vicariously what I'd formerly been able to do in real life. Pale and lifeless by contrast, it was the best I could do.

But recently that perspective changed. A few days ago I had something of an epiphany about the writing process.

I've begun to get an inkling of the power of words and the satisfaction which can be had from engaging in the process of forging them together. I've started to believe that performing a writing task well could actually be as exciting and rewarding as hurling a car through Turn 2 at Mosport or Turn 10 at Watkins Glen.

Granted, the experience of crafting a glowing chapter isn't as dynamic as what happens behind the wheel. There isn't the sensory overload, nor is there the elation of cavorting on the edge, peering for a moment into the abyss of physical disaster and then dancing away, eluding the jaws of the demon one more time.

But there is something else. With words you can do things you simply can't do any other way. You can entertain, yes. You can inform. You can appeal, seduce, cajole.

But you can go deeper. You can peel back the facade, the veneer of civilization we all wear, and reveal essential aspects of the human psyche. Fundamental truths which might otherwise remain hidden.

And to do this well, to explore the deepest darkest most hidden corners of the human psyche, you have to plumb your own.

The risks are high; I believe that to write convincingly about the evil men can do, you must explore your own potential. Dig in the muck of your own psyche. Channel the deepest currents of sorrow. Ride tsunamis of howling rage, taste the level of fury that drives the most savage acts.

To reveal the truth through fiction, you must put yourself inside the character, live her every thought and emotion. You must become the hero, become the villain.

And when you do, there is no place to hide. They say if you can dream it, you can do it. Is this true? Murder? Or worse?

To write fiction well is to know yourself. And this may be very dangerous.

This is the power of words.

Writing well is, among other things, a craft. No matter what level of talent you're blessed with, you can improve. With practice, with instruction, with guidance.

With a lot of hard work.

Honing your craft, I've discovered, can be a real thrill.