Sunday, June 17, 2018

Magic gardens

Well, from my point of view it might as well be magic. People appear, plants appear, drip watering systems happen and suddenly the First Reader likes to spend evenings on the back porch, looking at all the new green stuff. I do have to fight down the occasional twinge of guilt that we're buying this splendor instead of doing it ourselves.

(stomp stomp stomp Look, idiot, there are things you can't do yourself, and some time in the last forty years landscape gardening got into that category. You think you're up to shoveling a small mountain of dirt? No? Now shut up and enjoy the greenery. stomp stomp stomp)

Okay, I think I got that under control now.

He's put wind chimes on the back porch. They go nicely with the chorus of cicadas.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The best dog park ever

It wasn't exactly what he had in mind when he hired the landscapers...

A couple of weeks ago the First Reader decided to celebrate our second grandchild by hiring some men with machines to do something about our back yard. When we moved into this house that yard was a smooth expanse of grass with a paved walk out to a tiny stone-build back patio; a wonderful place for children to run, shout, play, build forts, splash in wading pools, and so forth. Being able to turn the kids out to graze probably saved my sanity in those early years.

Time passed, the children grew up, my early gardening ambitions expired after the discovery that what we actually had out back was a thin layer of topsoil over a solid chunk of the Balcones Escarpment and the First Reader's interest in maintaining a lawn diminished under Austin's watering restrictions. What remained was a kind of wasteland in which live oak seedlings had conquered the grass and the paved walk had been turned into an obstacle course of broken concrete slabs by the roots of those nice volunteer live oaks that shaded the porch.

So... a couple of days ago the men and their machines showed up and spent an active day making a wide variety of noises. Chainsaws, wood chippers, and a thing like a baby bulldozer prowled the land. The dog moved into his favorite closet, the one he uses when thunderstorms roll through town. I moved into the library, streamed some Mzee Yusuf hits for atmosphere, and moved (mentally) into Mombasa's Old Town with Thalia and Lensky.

Come dinner time, the landscapers had departed and the children (the ones who haven't spawned yet) came over for our weekly date: enchiladas for the people, and a play date for their puppy and our dog. I looked out through the sliding glass doors in the dining room and said, "My God, where did they take our back yard?" What was left resembled a bit of Somalia after ten years of drought; nothing but bare earth with ditches and lines carved into it. (I later learned that the dirt had been trucked in.)

The dogs' reaction was purely ecstatic. They spent the better part of an hour racing around the bare dirt, going up and over the mounds and diving into the trench that is, I'm told, a future drainage ditch. "This is the best playscape ever, Mommy! Don't ever change it!"

I wonder what they'll think when the ground cover is planted?

Monday, June 4, 2018

Little rips in the fabric of the universe

Up through A Pocketful of Stars I'd never bothered with naming chapters. The only remotely creative thing I ever did even with chapter numbers happened a long time ago, and that (Mathemagics) is another story. But now that I've started exploring the world of indie publishing, it has been pointed out to me that good chapter titles can be a secondary form of advertising. If somebody downloads the free sample for a Kindle e-book, don't I want to use every tool I've got to interest them in the story? Of course I do. Well, a table of contents with chapter titles can give tantalizing hints as to what's coming after the short text sample. With any luck, the prospective reader will look at something like, "17. Time-traveling space aliens," and think oh, there's going to be lots of interesting stuff coming up, maybe I want the whole book.

My grinchy subconscious insists on pointing out that they may also think, "This is way too weird and crazy for me."

Shut, up, subconscious. Anybody who reacts that badly to the chapter titles probably wouldn't have given me a good review anyway.

So I put chapter titles into An Opening in the Air, and after going three rounds with the formatting service I finally got them into the clickable table of contents in the e-book:

1. More fun than I’d bargained for
2. Little rips in the fabric of the universe
3. A finite set of stars
4. Close enough without sharing body parts
5. By force if necessary
6. Let sleeping case officers lie
7. A topologist in motion tends to walk into the wall
8. I frequently feel like locking them up myself
9. The most embarrassing mother on the face of the earth
10. God’s Own Amusement Park
11. Shot at and missed
12. Black sheets, white sheets or the kitchen table
13. “Sexist, racist, KKK”
14. The next Ice Age
15. The best vintage car festival ever
16. A message to the future
17. Time-traveling space aliens
18. An extremely embarrassing incident
19. The imminent prospect of torture
20. We astonish Ben bigly
21. And yet it walks and breathes
22. Come alone and tell no one
23. Words like broken glass
24. You cannot let him think he has broken you
25. The resident djinn

I hope at least a few of these will intrigue potential readers. I can't think of any way to measure that, so I expect subsequent books will also have chapter titles; it's fun dreaming them up.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

An Opening in the Air

The second of the Applied Topology books, An Opening in the Air, is live as an ebook today. I hope the paperback version will join it in a few days.

Here's how it starts:


More fun than I’d bargained for

The job applicant Dr. Verrick had brought over edged into my office, kicked the trash can, dropped a sheaf of papers and went down on his hands and knees to scoop them up. “I’ll take those,” Dr. Verrick said when he stood again. “Miss Kostis, Mr. Edwards.” He collected the forms Mr. Edwards was clutching and disappeared. He probably considered that a lavish and informative introduction.
“Call me Colton,” the young man said with a tentative smile. “Colton Edwards.” He pulled a chair out of the corner, banged it into his own shins, and sat without, thank goodness, further mayhem.
Asking if he was naturally clumsy or just nervous would probably scare him even more, so I repressed the question. Though I did wonder. Given his appearance, I was voting for natural clumsiness. He didn’t look like a college graduate; more like a farm boy from a West Texas high school, one who had shot up eight inches and two shoe sizes the previous year and hadn’t yet learned to manage his extra height. Shaggy blond hair fell over a wide forehead and framed an open, friendly face. The rest of him seemed to be trying to figure out what to do with his outsize hands and gigantic boots.
Before I could even introduce myself, the interview was interrupted by a crash of furniture and a string of curses in the office next door. “Would you excuse me for just a moment?” I abandoned the job applicant and zipped around the corner to the next office. What had happened to Ben? Unlike this Mr. Edwards, he was not given to falling over the furniture.
His office was built on much the same lines as mine: a tall narrow room partitioned off by flimsy temporary walls that looked shabby against the exquisite woodwork of the oak floor. That’s the kind of d├ęcor that happens when you turn the top story of a Victorian house into office space.
He had knocked over a stack of three chairs in the corner of his office, his hair looked even more like a light brown bird’s nest than usual, and there was a quilt trailing from his desk to the floor. Ohio Star pattern.
I’m used to adding up clues, though in the research division of the Center for Applied Topology the addition was likely to involve numbers like the square root of minus one rather than anything as simple as two plus two. “Ben. Were you walking around with a quilt over your head? And why?”
“I’m trying to use Riemann surfaces to make light. Operating on the molecular level.”
“I still don’t get the function of the quilt in this theorem.”
“I thought maybe I had made light, only it was too dim for me to see it in here.” He gestured at the sunlight pouring in through his office windows. “So I was trying to create a dark working space.”
For a topologist at the Center, this was as close to making sense as it got. “Well, next time just sit in the supply closet, okay?” I was dying to know how he thought a Riemann surface would enable him to make light out of nothing, but the theoretical discussion would have to wait until I didn’t have a nervous job applicant in my office.
When I got back, the young man facing me across the desk looked even more nervous. I couldn’t blame him. Before Ben’s little problem, Mr. Edwards had walked through a wall in a way that twisted space around on itself – and that was only the start of the tour. That, and signing the stack of non-disclosure forms and agreements that Dr. Verrick had carried off. Since the spook from the secretive three-letter agency had come to stay, there were a lot of new rules and procedures aimed at preserving the secrets of the Center for Applied Topology. If this guy had even glanced at the fine print on the forms he’d just signed, he would know that he had acceded to terms of service even worse than Microsoft’s. Whether or not he got hired, discussing what he was about to see here with anybody outside the Center would guarantee that he spent the next twenty years in jail, and not a nice American one, either.
That was the kind of arm-twisting Lensky’s agency did for us. Before they’d taken a hands-on interest in the Center, our secrecy-preserving measures had been more ad hoc: Dr. Verrick warned research fellows not to pursue their research in public, yelled at us when we did so, and hired an exceptionally gifted fabulist to persuade anybody asking inconvenient questions that they hadn’t actually seen what they thought they saw. Annelise was, in my opinion, a much better security system than a bunch of signed forms, but that’s not how Washington does things.
“So, Mr. Edwards, why do you want to work for the Center for Applied Technology?” The question wasn’t a mere formality. Only a certain type of crazy person would want to do academic research for a miserly stipend, out of an office in a creaky Victorian building, with no prospect ever of publishing any results.
“I don’t know that I do,” Colton Edwards answered, and I blinked.
“Well then, what brought you here?”
“Dr. Verrick. I took a topology class from him last year, and he… well… some odd things happened, and he suggested I come and talk to you people. Strongly suggested,” he amplified, and I understood a little better. Dr. Verrick’s strong suggestions could have turned the Titanic around. His force of will had been what created the Center in the first place: our office space here on the University of Texas campus, our funding, our shaky position as a part of the University’s research efforts. A strong suggestion from Dr. Verrick could, in fact, do almost anything except make the Center’s research fellows behave like normal human beings, and he hadn’t yet given up on that.
“But the suggestion wasn’t strong enough for you to act on it immediately?” Spring semester would have ended last May. It was mid-October now.
He twitched slightly. “Summers, I usually go home and straighten out the books on the family farm. They were counting on me to do the same thing this year. Actually, they were counting on me to stay, now that I’ve got my degree.” I took a moment to skim his transcripts, which were heavy on things like Calculus Concepts for Business Majors and Statistical Inference in Management, but remarkably light in terms of actual mathematics. “What inspired you to take first-year honors topology in your final year?” Most students’ final semesters were heavy with the boring required courses they’d put off in the hope that they might die before actually having to take them. Annelise, our receptionist, had spent her last semester as an undergraduate doing little but satisfying the Diversity and Anti-Bigotry requirements.
He offered me a crooked smile that showed where one tooth had been chipped and never repaired. “It looked interesting?”
“But your entire background was in business-oriented math?”
“Which is boring,” he said. “I wanted to have a little fun before going back to be the business manager for the family farm.” He took a deep breath. “Introductory Topology turned out to be… a little more fun than I’d bargained for.”
“What did you move?” We’d all started out with a little unintentional telekinesis on small, light objects; I was willing to bet Colton’s experience had been similar.
“Ah, the chalk?”
“A stick of chalk?”
“Um, no, the chalk on the board.” He wriggled his shoulders unhappily, “See, Mr. Nesmith was putting up a proof, but he’d got one line backwards, and I was thinking really hard about the way the third line should have gone instead of what he’d actually written and trying to get him to look at me so I could, you know, signal him or something, and instead… Well, you probably won’t believe this, but…”
“The writing on the board changed.”
His eyes blazed with hope. “Yes! You get it. You really do get it!”
“Oh yes, Mr. Edwards. All of us got here through similar experiences.” Some more traumatic than others. Colton had gotten off easy.
A colored bubble floated through my open office door. A glowing colored bubble. Bubblegum pink, if you’re interested. It was followed by friends in a rainbow of different colors. Each bubble in turn hovered over my desk, shrank down to a pinpoint and disappeared. I wondered if Ben had planned the color show, or if this was just a temporary stop on the way to full-spectrum lights.
“Ben, keep the closet door closed!” I called out, then gave Mr. Edwards an apologetic smile. “At least we don’t have to give you the what-we-do-here tour. Mr. Sutherland is taking care of that all on his own.”
Colton grinned back. Without the grin he’d just looked like a clumsy farm boy, all big boots and too-long legs and big hands. With it – well, he still looked likely to fall over furniture and small animals, but his face lit up in a very appealing way. I wondered – briefly – whether he was likely to give Ben competition in the unending courtship of our lovely, lying receptionist. Well, not my problem.
“So are you looking for a short post-grad stint before going back to become the family business manager? Or for something more permanent?”
“More permanent would be really good.”
“There’s more money in accounting,” I warned him.
“There’s more boredom in accounting. Also, I spent way too much of this summer trying to explain to my big brother why it would be a really bad idea to keep two sets of books. Now somebody who’s not related to him will have to tackle that issue. I mean – if you – if I can—"
A panicky yell from the supply closet interrupted his incoherent words. I raced around the corner and yanked the closet door open. Colton was right on my heels.
There was a faint smell of something burning, but it didn’t seem strong enough to justify panic. “What did you set on fire? The floorboards?”
Ben gestured towards the floor. “I think it’s under the floorboards. In the middle of a supporting beam. We can’t just let it smolder indefinitely. And if we open up the floor to dump water on it, the fire will blaze up. What are we going to do?”
I was tempted to say, “What do you mean we?” but the fact was that he had created a problem for all of us. Our tenure of the third floor of a Victorian mansion on campus was based on the requirement in Chester Allandale’s will that the university preserve and use his home in return for the rest of his extremely generous bequest. Setting a supporting beam on fire was exactly the sort of thing the trustees would not understand as part of “preserve and use.”
“Can you invert the process and, I don’t know, create water inside the beam?”
Ben shook his head. “I’m afraid to try. I don’t even know how the fire started. I was only trying for light.”
When in emergency… I nipped back to my office and grabbed the three-foot silver snake coiled up like a paperweight on my desk. “Mr. M.! Help!”
The turtle head at the business end of the snake opened one eye part way. “I’m hibernating.”
“It’s only October, and it’s still hot in Austin! And we need your help.”
The coil of silvery scales shook, expanded, became a long metallic snake body behind an organic turtle head. Mr. M. slithered out of my arms to the floor, undulated around the corner towards the closet, lifted his head and sniffed. “Apply the Lights to the problem.”
“Are you sure? Seems to me we need less light, not more.”
“You disturbed my sleep to demand advice. I have given it. Do as you wish.” The turtle beak closed with a snap. So did both the turtle eyes.
He was already opening the glass jar from his desk. A cloud filled with sparkling points of light streamed from the jar into his hand. Behind me, Colton sucked in his breath. This was possibly not the ideal way to introduce him to the infinite set called the Lights of the Medes. Or to Mr. M. himself, for that matter.
Ben knelt and placed his open hand, palm down, on the closet floor, and closed his eyes. I could feel the miniature stars moving from his hand down into the wood. There was also a feeling of… not-enough? There were infinitely many stars. Not enough topologists, then? I stuck a hand in my pocket, then knelt and laid my palm beside Ben’s. Now I could feel the movement of my own stars. They swirled joyously around the grain of the wood and returned to my hand, slightly warmer. The sense of smoldering heat slowly dissipated and Ben looked at me. “I think it’s all right.”
“I think so too.” I would save my blistering recommendation that he repeat the Elementary Physics semester on heat, sound and light until later. It would be nice if Colton could maintain the illusion that we were all one big happy family until he’d been formally read into the program.
I scooped up Mr. M. and returned to my own nice, dry, not-on-fire office, followed by Colton. “Where were we?”
With a visible effort, Colton averted his eyes from the sight of Mr. M. coiling himself back into a tight spiral on top of my papers. “I thought that was a paperweight.”
“No, he’s more of a… colleague.” It would probably be best to save the detailed story, which involved Nebuchadnezzar, a magic-damping ring, a beheading, and the involvement of a robotics engineer, until Colton had had time to assimilate what he’d already seen. Even the White Queen had limited herself to six impossible things before breakfast.
“You’d have your own office, though,” I promised Colton. “The only reason Mr. M. has to share with me is that he’s not very good with doorknobs.”
“Then – am I hired?”
“Oh, yes,” I said. By the time Dr. Verrick brought an applicant over to the closed side, he was as good as hired; this interview was just a chance for the topologists to object. Nothing objectionable about young Edwards, as far as I could see. “You’re definitely crazy enough to fit in here. I don’t have any more questions. What about you?” When he started on about pay and benefits, I’d shunt him back out to Annelise.
“Just one,” he said, surprising me. “What’s a Riemann surface?”
I started to answer him, but the building fire alarms drowned me out. They drowned out just about everything except Meadow Melendez, from the public side, shouting, “Ben, what the [fornicating] [expletive] did you do now?”
The automatic sprinklers went on. Mr. M. uncoiled, slithered to the floor and headed for the stairs in the public section. I scooped up most of the papers on my desk and followed, towing Colton by the hand. Leaving the private section was easier than getting into it, but the kid could be excused for being too rattled to realize that.
By the time we’d crossed to the other side of the wall, Mr. M. was a silver flash on the heels of Meadow and Annelise, and Ben and Ingrid had joined us on the public side. Jimmy DiGrazio grabbed Ingrid’s arm and barked, “Downstairs!” as if he thought she was too dumb to move without orders. That wasn’t going to improve their relationship.
I really, really hoped the stairs weren’t on fire too, because they were the only way out for some people. The trustees had felt that fire escapes would be a blot on the visual integrity of the building.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

In lieu of anything original...'s a copy of my post for today. The current book is zipping along at such speed that I hardly have time to be opinionated about anything in the news, much less write it down.


“I feel my very existence threatened,” the Sila said.

Mr. M. cast a sardonic eye on the space she claimed to occupy. “How is that new? You’re only a shadow of smokeless flame anyway.”

“I can manifest myself to mortals,” she snapped, rapidly flashing into view as a beautiful almost-human woman, a serpent with flames flickering along its scales, and a cloud of blue smoke. “And at least I’m not limited to one form. Don’t you ever get tired of slithering around as a metal snake attached to an ugly turtle head?”

“They swell in sapphire smoke out of the blue cracks of the ground, They gather and they wonder and give worship to Mahound,” Mr. M. quoted, loftily ignoring the insult.

“Your Kipling obsession gets old very quickly,” said the Sila.

“Illiterate djinn! That was Chesterton. And he goes on to describe much what your current master is demanding: ‘And chase the Giaours flying, night and day, not giving rest, For that which is our trouble comes again out of the West.’”

“Well, I won’t be chasing anybody if your progenitor doesn’t stop reading her reviews. The most recent one complained about her introduction of one non-human creature – that would be you. Now she’s wondering how that reader will feel when he meets a Hindu God and an Islamic Djinn.”

“The Master of Ravens was only an imitation of the god Shani,” Mr. M. corrected her.

“Details, details. I tell you, she’s on the verge of deleting me from the book!”

“Oh, don’t get your flames in a flare-up. She isn’t that fragile. If anything, she will end up even more determined to give you a major role.”

“You’re sure?”

“She isn’t that stupid, either. She knows she cannot delete me; I’ve been with her since the first book of the series. And you are safe too.”

“I am?”

“Annoying though you are, you are integral to the plot.”

The Sila’s flames flickered in sinuous, winding patterns. “So I am. I am also the most interesting character in the book, and by far the most beautiful. All the same, I wish she would not get all wobbly over the slightest little criticism.”

“So do I,” Mr. M. sighed, “but trust me, she will get over it. I fear such insecurity is in the nature of writers. In the old days it was easier to persuade them not to read their reviews.”

“It was?”

“Oh, yes. All one needed to do was point out how expensive subscriptions to Publishers’ Weekly and Kirkus Reviews were. Now writers can check their reviews on Amazon daily for free.”

“Perhaps,” the Sila suggested, “we should offer a protective service.”


“We will look at the Amazon reviews daily and send an email summary to the writer whenever there’s something new. That way we can tactfully gloss over anything that might upset her.”

“Good idea, but she’ll never buy it. You wouldn’t believe how paranoid that woman is about forking over her email address!”

“Do you have an email address?”

“Naturally. What about you?”



“Hotmail, obviously.” The flames gusted up and died down; the Sila had departed.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The best thing in life

The main character in the Applied Topology books would say it's the exhilarating experience of teleporting through the in-between. Her sidekick would take Churchill's position: "Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result."
I think I've got them both beat, though sometimes I lose the thread for a little while.
It’s been a somewhat trying couple of weeks. Hence the failure to post; I’m not a nice person when in pain, and something – probably a period of rapid changes from cool to hot to cool, with rain and sun alternating – has given my arthritis new power to overwhelm. It even interfered with writing for a few days, because suddenly it was painful to sit with the laptop in the room I’ve been using and I have had to find a different setup.
So… I’ve been feeling sorry for myself and whining nonstop, until this morning I realized that it was way past time to count my blessings.
During the worst of the pain I couldn’t concentrate enough to write, but it didn’t stop me gazing besottedly at my new, beautiful granddaughter or exchanging funny memes with her mother.
And in the four days since I found a new writing setup, I’ve crashed into A Mask of Djinn full speed and have knocked out four chapters.
That I actually like.
And there is nothing, nothing, like the high of telling a new story. How lucky is that? I’ve got this thing I do that makes me happy and that I can continue to do despite increasing physical limitations. Sometimes other people actually like it too and tell me so. (Two new Amazon reviews for A Pocketful of Stars certainly contribute their share to the present euphoria.)
So, onward and upward. (And pass the aspirin.)

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Joy in the morning

I try not to embarrass the offspring by posting details of their personal lives on this blog, but today I can't contain myself. Yesterday the Organizer presented us with our first granddaughter! (Oh, all right, I suppose her husband had a little to do with it too. But she certainly did the heavy lifting.)

This pregnancy has not been without problems and complications; I feel as if I'd just let out a breath I've been holding for the last four months. I have a healthy daughter and a healthy granddaughter. The baby is currently ticked off about having been expelled from a nice warm place with all the conveniences, but I expect that won't last. And her older brother is thrilled about finally getting to see his little sister - although that may not last once they get home and he discovers that this interloper is keeping him out of Mommy's lap.

Life. On the whole, I approve of it.

And in thirteen years I plan to move into the Organizer's living room, draw up a rocking chair and watch as she discovers the joy of dealing with a teenage daughter.
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