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Robert G. Brown

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Member Since: Sep, 2007

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  Robert G. Brown           

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Theoretical physicist, poet, writer, father, computer scientist, mathematician -- basically rgb is an ubergeek with too many pens and screwdrivers in his pocket.


Background Information

I have always loved books and reading. I started reading adult novels (if you can call Leslie Charteris's The Saint stories adult novels) at age 7, and read roughly a book a day from then until age 32 when first son was born. At that point out of sleep-deprived necessity I slowed down to "only" 3-4 books a week. I read science fiction (voraciously), fantasy (ditto), mysteries, magical realism (in Spanish), and even a smattering of "literature" (when it actually has a plot and a point) or random stuff on almost anything. I also like history and (rarely) books like Michio Kaku's Hyperspace.

The first things I wrote that weren't required for a class were articles for our class newspaper, stories for the same, and poetry back in third grade. By fifth grade I was quite prolific. I have copies of poems I wrote back when I was eight or nine. Since roughly that age I have written poems at completely random times when the muse has been upon me, since poetry is something that writes itself in my head much more than a deliberate act of creation. In fact, I drive my family slightly bananas by speaking in rhyming couplets throughout extended conversations (until they threaten mayhem if I continue).

One of my most memorable experiences writing poetry in high school was from entering a poem I wrote in the school's poetry contest. It was rejected by the school's faculty -- because they were sure I had plaigerized it. It was too good for a ninth grader, and it reminded one or another of the judges of something they had read -- somewhere. I protested vehemently since (of course) I knew that I had written it completely originally, challenging them to produce the work I had supposedly copied it from. To no avail. It didn't matter. I clearly won the competition by a landslide as all the other high school student submissions apparently sounded like -- high school student submissions.

At some point I started collecting my poetry for real, and with the advent of computers (I owned a 64K motherboard IBM PC and have always been pretty much on the leading edge of computational technology) I started to turn it into a "book". From there (once in ascii text, forever in ascii text) it morphed and was added to until it was one of the very first collections of poetry published on the Internet, back even before there was a web (distributed via gopher and ftp, for people who recall antique protocols).

These (free) online books, in their web form, have been featured by invitation on a poetry webring, poems from them have been added to various other sites by request, they have been illustrated and sold in Australia (by a web-friend there) and are visited and linked even now by dozens of people every day. For people who prefer to read poetry from a portable and warm book instead of from a relatively restraining and cold computer they are available in inexpensive print form on Lulu.com.

I started writing serious stories (ones that are pretty readable) starting in high school at about the same time. Many of these, alas, are lost over the years although one or two early stories survived (at least in fragments). From the early 80's on, however, nearly everything I wrote was on computer, and was transferred from 5.25" floppies to early hard disks, from one hard disk to another, and hence have bee preserved, polished, tweaked, and saved for the day I would publish them. That is this day -- at last the Internet has developed facilities that permit me to publish without the assistance or intervention of an "editor" or "agent" -- my early experiences with "the writing establishment" convincing me not to trust anyone and to write for myself above all others.

At this point I have accumulated three or four complete novels that I finished and simply set aside until it would be possible to publish them without things like a "mandatory" use of an agent (publishing companies having cleverly figured out how to basically force all authors to pay for the bulk of the editing and book selection process out of their share). Lulu was a godsend -- a process I was in control of from the very beginning. All my poetry, novels, textbooks, and informational books are coming out on lulu as fast as I can get them converted and buy them ISBNs.

My primary literary influences come from a mix of books and my relatively rich life experiences. I grew up in India (my father worked for Ford Foundation) and was hence exposed to the incredible diversity and richness of Indian literature and culture from such an early time that I never even found it remarkable. I found the United States remarkable when we returned (me age 12) to a blizzard in upstate New York, to a world where black people were "invisible" and (when seen at all) called something I'd never heard before in my life, to a world dominated by the festering war in Viet Nam. This was odd to me since I was raised surrounded by people with brown skin as one of a very small minority. India (as you will see if you read them) very much comes through in my writing: its philosophy and religion and culture.

The more "direct" literary influences from things that I read, have read, will read in the future would definitely include: Heinlein, Zelazny, Asimov, Farmer, Brin, Forward, Tolkien, Chant, Howard, Burroughs, Doyle, Rand, E.E. Smith, Christopher, Verne, Wells, Baum, Charteris, Christie, Wolfe, Gardner (several of them)... you get the idea. I have several thousand books in my house, including most of the best of most of these writers, all of it for some of them, plus hundreds of books that nobody's likely to have heard of (e.g. James Gunn's "The Joy Makers", which beautifully anticipated "The Matrix" movie series in many ways).

It is my opinion that a writer as much as any other human being should polish their wits constantly. When I'm not writing or teaching or otherwise directly working, I try to exercise my brain. I do NY Times Sunday crosswords (in as little as an hour, more often 3-4 hours and can finish a double-black belt sudoku if I put my mind to it, and have a pile of both at all times to work through while accompanying my wife shopping. Lest that sound too esoteric, I also play World of Warcraft or watch The Simpsons on TV with my sons.

Other influences on my writing are less directly "verbal" or associated with storytelling -- linked, for example, to my education, my profession, my many avocations that join my vocations (plural in both cases). Physics is obvious, philosophy is less obvious. Then there are mathematics, statistics, computing. The latter is fairly important as I write quite a bit about it.

I'm an open source enthusiast, a linux/unix expert, wrote and maintain open source code that e.g. tests random number generators or permits a LAN or cluster of computer systems to be monitored, and am one of the longest term members of the beowulf list for people who know what that is. I have the world's only free online text on cluster computer engineering, and am moving it into print on lulu along with everything else, although it will still be available for free for those who can't afford it any other way.

Teaching is also critical. I was born to teach, and teach compulsively. Sometimes in rhymed couplets (until again, people tell me to shut up!) I teach physics (introductory through graduate level) at Duke, and am also a pre-major advisor there. I'm in the process of publishing two textbook/lecture note sets I use in courses I teach, both through lulu (of course). Again both are online for free and have been used by hundreds of thousands of students all over the world to supplement or even replace their college physics texts. I also teach random students from around the world -- students in India interested in cluster computing, students at Duke interested in statistics, neural networks, programming. If it will hold still and listen, I will teach it.

I write more than just novels. I write constantly and more or less live at a keyboard. For example, I'm a "legend" at Duke for my long emails, and on the beowulf list they accuse me of being a collection of "rgb-bots" who write my replies because I can churn out five pages of reply in twenty minutes of typing. I write for magazines several times a year, notably the now defunct "Cluster World Magazine" and for the alive and well Linux Magazine, where I had an article just a couple of months ago and will probably place another before the end of this year. I also do computer consulting, usually pretty high end stuff, in areas of my particular expertise (which are broad).

In years past I helped found a company that did predictive modelling using a really hyper-advanced genetically optimized feed forward neural network that I wrote, which failed in the aftermath of the dot-com collapse (although it wasn't a dot-com, companies basically all ran out of money and stopped buying our services longer than we could afford to sit idle). I still have the neural network code, of course, and am a pretty serious expert on neural networks, information theory, modelling theory, and stuff like that, although a curiously narrow one as I know and care little about most of the traditional few-variable modelling methods in favor of the ones that can only be solved by methods suitable for truly complex high-multivariate systems. Interesting problems, in other words. But NNs are fun, and certainly the entire experience has been an important experience.

Although I do have the usual BS and Ph.D in (theoretical) physics required to work in my profession, I also completed a philosophy major as an undergrad at Duke (one which at the time was not recognized as you couldn't mix a B.A. and a B.S. as a "double major"). No matter, philosophy and history and religion are major interests of mine, and I'm working on a book that I expect will say the final word, in some very mathematically precise sense, on metaphysical axiomatic philosophy and the theory of knowledge. Yes, it is being done using lulu as a publication base (not yet available for distribution though). Yes, an early version is available online for free at my website and attracts lots of visitors, ten or twenty a year of whom contact me with comments or to initiate discussions.

As an apostatic ex-Christian who has "converted" to the disorganized religion best described as "Zen Deism" -- belief in God, disbelief in all human scripture, observing empirically that certain aspects of Zen practice put one in as close contact as it is possible to be with God, I find this kind of topic fascinating to write about. Zen Deism has strongly influenced both my poetry, and in a lot of ways it "wrote" The Book of Lilith (one of my novels, available from Lulu, Amazon, and many other bookstores paper and online) -- it certainly was the basis for much of Lilith's experience of God.

In addition, I love to fish, hunt, take care of my wife (a physician in Durham) and three sons, and can draw or paint, build a house, fix a car, create a website, figure almost anything out even if I don't know it to begin with, and I do all of the cooking for the family (except for a bit that my sons do, taught by their old man to be self-sufficient).

As Heinlein once said (IIRC) -- specialization is for insects! It definitely isn't for writers...

Birth Place
Raleigh, NC USA
Accomplishments

As noted above, a BS and PhD from Duke ('77 and '82 respectively) are my formal academic credentials, but after that, why bother? Suffice it to say that IF pursuing paper were of any importance, I'd be pretty much a math Ph.D., a computer science Ph.D., a philosophy Ph.D., probably a masters in Statistics (because of those damn holes I don't care about), some sort of degree -- you pick -- in English (creative writing, critical writing, poetry).


I'm also semi-pro in certain narrow aspects of psychology and the theory underlying teaching and learning (my students tend to really like me as a professor because I make them do far more work than they've ever done before -- in an environment such that they like it!) Certifications in things like linux and networking, OTOH -- well, I'm a twenty-year Unix systems engineer, originally taught by the "guru" method by a twenty-FIVE year (at this point) Unix systems engineer who knew people like Kernighan and Ritchie personally and helped build the Internet back when nobody had heard of Al Gore. Basically he whomped me upside the head with the manual whenever I did something boneheaded.


I was doing cluster computing before the beowulf project was formally christened (as were many others) and have written a whole book on cluster and network engineering (as well as twenty or so magazine columns and articles etc). I've used Linux since SLS and slackware, Red Hat and FC and sometimes Debian since the 0.9 kernel series, have made a few (small) contributions to the SMP kernel.


I started using DOS on a $10,000 64K motherboard IBM PC back in 1982 ($5,000 of that was 15 whole MB of hard disk) and followed DOS through to Windows at least through 3.2, and am still "competent" as a Windows geek. Do I have an RHCSE, a Cisco SE, a MCSE? No. Do I care? Does it matter? Obviously not -- I could probably teach the certification courses cold, so why would I bother to take one?


Since my writing thus far has either been professional (but not "judged" outside of the basic judgement that it effectively communicates complex information to students, granting agencies, physicists, computer scientists) or private and unpublished, I have no relevant writing awards. Indeed, since my experiences of 9th grade (and a few others that followed) I have little trust in the processes whereby awards are awarded -- I know my poetry is pretty good because I read and enjoy the work of great poets -- folks like Yeats, Tennyson, Shelley, Eliot. For what it is worth, people who find it on the web often take the time spontaneously to write me and tell me that they really liked it and were even impressed with it. But I don't like modern "poetry" and hence I suspect that my own work is quite unlikely to ever be judged well by people who do. Now that my writing is being published with ISBNs and general public availability, that might change, but the only real "award" that I seek is for people to read my poetry and buy it if it pleases them enough to reward the poet for the effort. That's more than even Homer achieved, so I don't expect it, but it would be lovely.

Additional Information

I have five books published on Lulu (all within the last six months). The most important one is The Book of Lilith, which has a three-week old ISBN listing in book catalogs at this point and which is already starting to sell from word of mouth and browser-driven search hits. Lilith is a piece of very serious fiction -- funny, satirical, serious, deep, socially relevant, and damn fun to read. I may or may not be a good writer -- time will tell about that. But beyond any doubt, I am a damn good reader on the sheer basis of quantity if not quality and have read more than some 99% of all humans on the planet (and reread the works of at least a selected subset of "the masters" repeatedly in the process). As a reader, then, Lilith is a good book, maybe even a great book. If you read it, you will not regret it. At this point this isn't just my own self-serving opinion -- the book has been read by quite a few people at this point, and feedback has ranged from "a really good, funny read", to just plain "amazing".

I've also just finished putting the final "proofreading" ISBN draft of a straight-up "Sword and Science Fiction" novel up on Lulu. The way lulu works, to seriously distribute a book one has to buy it an ISBN. The book then has to be proofread and "approved" (by you, of course -- you have to do everything yourself, or hire it done out of pocket), which requires buying a copy of the proposed final draft of the book yourself and working through that copy looking for errors, iterate to perfection. I've got the first round of this process winging its way to my house as I write this. I probably won't approve this revision -- I almost certainly going to change the stock lulu cover. I may still change the title ("World Walker" still doesn't make me terribly happy). But the text itself is down to typo-only changes, it is finished. Collectors might be interested in picking up this pre-ISBN draft from my lulu store directly, as if the book sells (and I expect it will as it is just plain old sword and sorcery fun where the sorcery is all based on a many-worlds multiverse that is "science" a la Heinlein, Farmer, Zelazny, Asimov even as it still looks a lot like magic) then the pre-release copies will probably be worth even more than the "approved" first edition.

I'm also working on a book called Axioms (which should be the last word, literally, on metaphysical philosophy that ever needs to be written, as it is a solved problem although few people know that yet) and on getting my physics texts online and ISBNified. And I still have two more novels written or nearly completed, as well as a collection of short stories, all of which will go up on lulu and ISBNify as rapidly as I can find time to do so. I'm thinking of posting one of my short stories -- Lulea -- on this site just for the fun of it, so check out the short story section and look for it if you want to check out a sample of my writing.

In a nutshell -- by the end of the year I expect to have six or seven books for sale via a variety of retail channels, many of them in brick and mortar stores. Then we will see...

My one "difficulty" attendant on the decision to use Lulu exclusively as a publisher and distribution channel is getting the word out. Real publishers provide basically a single service that Lulu does not -- they actively market their books FOR the author (however much they request or require that the author participate, they set things up for them and do quite a bit on their own). Lulu, in contrast, has a very few, mostly passive marketing channels they can help you with and then you're on your own.

This leaves one with the problem that even if one has written a Nobel-prize winning novel or book of poetry, it may end up one of the many trees that fell in the forest when nobody was there to hear. Did it make a sound? Does it matter?

So ultimately, the Lulu "grand experiment" is one that tests the possibility of the nucleation and growth of a best seller without any real advertising other than the degree of close social contact created by the Internet. Sales of e.g. Lilith will definitely occur "at random" to provide said nucleation -- indeed they are already occurring and it has sold close to 100 copies without advertising, most of them to people I don't know. Now we'll see. If:

a) They read it and like it;
b) They tell their friends about it (the social contact part) or post about it in online venues to where;
c) At least 1.1 or so new sales are created from the word-of-mouth advertising per original sale, on average; then

d) Sales will exponentially grow without any real "media campaign" or organized sales effort.

Does this ever happen? I don't know. Do you? Will it happen? We'll find out. The process would (of course) be significantly enhanced if I can get e.g Barnes and Noble to pick up The Book of Lilith and put it in their bookstores. The cover is appealing, the subject matter is intriguing, reading just the disclaimer at the beginning is enough to make a would-be buyer laugh. Even if its contents sucked, it would still sell for at least a while as many people DO judge a book by its cover (how else can a browsing would-be reader judge it?) plus a smattering of glances at the blurbs on back and maybe a few lines of text. As is often the case with humans, clothes may not make the man but they make a very important first impression and some people will never look beyond that if the clothes are too off-putting. Lilith at the very least has nice, um, well, she has a nice snake...

To really sell, though, people would have to really like it, not just like the cover. All the readers who have read it so far have really liked it, some of them really really liked it. Truthfully, I think that's all that really matters. If people like it, then sooner or later it will sell and make me a ton of money (which is, make no mistake about it, very important to me as otherwise I cannot afford to keep writing this way). If they don't, well, marketing might still sell it -- there are plenty of books that really suck for sale in the bookstore of your choice right at this very moment -- but it will never do more than limp along, as that "new buyer" proportion instead of growing from the 1.1+ new sales generated per old sale will quench from the fact that each person that buys it for the cover will instead tell all their friends not to buy the book.

Beyond this initial entry, any further real news can be obtained by checking out my writer's blog (linked below and elsewhere). It is pretty difficult to keep multiple web pages up to date, and at this point I very much have a whole pile of day jobs and cannot "just" work on writing. In a year, two years, ten years, if I've found the formula for success and made enough of a fortune to be able to write full time, I probably will. In the meantime, my friend (for if you've read to the very end of this bio, you are indeed my friend) I wish you only the very best...

Contact Information
Robert G. Brown
3209 Annandale Road 
Durham NC 27705   USA
Contact Author: Robert G. Brown


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