Friday, January 17, 2020

Traveling in Europe half a century ago

Inspired by the discovery that I really need subtitles now to follow German-language movies that I haven’t already memorized (I can still follow The Merry Widow just fine, but Generation War was another story) I’ve been reviewing German via programs and audiobooks for a couple of weeks. It seems to be working in that my comprehension is improving, but now there is a different kind of frustration, one I remember from earlier days: whatever foreign language I’ve most recently used, that’s what comes up when I reach for any foreign language. It’s like my brain has just two boxes, one labeled “English, aka the Real Stuff” and one labeled “Everything Else” which operates on the LIFO principal. I rediscovered this problem when the cleaning crew arrived while the First Reader had the flu. “Bitte gehen Sie nicht in das Schlafzimmer, mein Mann ist krank,” didn’t do a thing for them. I had to look up how to say “sick” in Spanish! I knew that much Spanish three weeks ago!

That kind of thing used to be hugely frustrating on European trips when I needed to switch languages frequently. And it has reminded me of the language techniques I found most useful in those days. So, here’s a compendium of how to survive while traveling around Europe – somewhat dated. Things change. My survival strategy was developed in the sixties and seventies, when World War II was still a vivid memory and the Iron Curtain was still solid. But let’s pretend you’re interested anyway:

1. When in France, speak French just long enough to make people realize that everybody will be much happier if they switch to English, because no matter how bad their English is, it won’t hurt their ears like your French accent.

2. In Germany, German works just fine, although you may have to beg people to slow down because their assumption is that you’re a native speaker who just happens to come from some distant region with a funny-sounding dialect.

3. Outside France and Germany, wave your hands and speak English. Then, having established that you yourself are not German, switch to German. Everybody over 40 understands you just fine.
3a. Do not try this in Crete. Just… don’t. The story is too long to tell here…
4. Don’t bother trying out your Russian in Hungary. Despite the fact that Russian had been mandatory in Hungarian schools for my entire lifetime, Hungarians were really good at not understanding Russian. The German Strategy works much better.
4a. If you do have even a few words of Hungarian, you can drive people crazy by using them. Because they are resigned to the fact that no foreigners ever, ever even attempt their language, and they can tell by looking that you’re not one of them. You must be a space alien!
5. Outside the larger towns in Yugoslavia (Yeah, I know. There is no more Yugoslavia. I told you this list is dated.) don’t bother with your carefully memorized “I don’t speak Serbo-Croatian.” The response is likely to be, “That’s fine, we don’t either,” followed by, “You must come from far away, like the other side of the mountain.” See German Strategy, above.

6. The western third of Romania is populated by ethnic Hungarians. Speaking Hungarian in Transylvania will get you the good will of the locals… and the unfriendly interest of the secret police.

7. In Italy, get your back against a wall before trying any conversation whatsoever. It won’t improve communications, but at least you won’t get your bottom pinched.

8. Do not under any circumstances respond to young men who follow you down the street calling, “Miss… Mademoiselle… Fräulein… Señorita…” and watching to see which language elicits a response.
8a. One exception to this rule: if you have a grenade and are not afraid to use it.
8b. A second exception: if you happen to be fluent in a truly obscure, non-European language, you can discourage pursuers by smiling sweetly at them and burying them in a torrent of Hindi, Japanese, Luo, or whatever comes to mind. In Paris I once drowned some importunate young men in Swahili. As they slouched away one of them commented in French, “She’s awfully tall for a Chinese.”

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Forget the flying cars, the rest is good!

One of the few good things about being an old codger is the sense of perspective. We may not have flying cars or moon colonies yet, but 2020 has a lot of features that I find more immediately useful than being able to zoom over the live oaks to the supermarket. (Grocery delivery, for one.)

90 percent of my favorite books are available as e-books and, for the first time since 1990, I can see pockets of empty space on the bookshelves!

I get to research a historical fantasy from my couch instead of trekking over to the rare books collection where I'm strip-searched and refused any writing implements other than one pencil... to read a modern facsimile edition of an Elizabethan fencing manual.

The kid in Brooklyn can call any time she wants to chat instead of waiting for messages urgent enough to justify three minutes at night time lower calling rates.

Instead of parsing mainstream media stories to figure out what they're carefully not saying, I can check out a wide variety of alternative news sources and form my own opinions about the story behind the spin.

Looking farther afield... charities that distribute used clothing overseas now tell me that they don't want any garments that aren't in excellent condition. Being able to hold out for a new-looking shirt instead of being happy with a ripped and stained undershirt probably doesn't seem like luxury to us in America, but it's a vast improvement for much of Africa. The wealth created by the Industrial Revolution continues to spread.

Those millions of people who were supposed to starve to death during the overpopulation famines to follow 1970... didn't. I'm sorry about the ones who did starve and are starving because of our inability to completely destroy all manifestations of socialism/communism/totalitarianism, but in celebration of the non-famines, we could do worse than erect a statue to Norman Borlaug.

And as for the personal robots... Pass on that one. I'm not letting Alexa or any of her friends into the house, thank you very much! And the First Reader gave me a nifty little phone case that supposedly blocks location tracking, so in the unlikely event I actually go anywhere, the Data Giants won't have an automatic record of my movements. Some "progress" is to be celebrated, but some is to be thwarted.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Here comes another year!

"Hark, it's midnight, children dear.
Duck! Here comes another year!”
-Ogden Nash

Personally and professionally, 2019 was - to say the least - not a good year. I'm not so much making resolutions for 2020 as I am engaging in pre-emptive ducking. I finally picked up the long-dormant Regency fantasy two days ago and will be very happy if this time I can resume regular writing and not get derailed by events. I'll be ecstatic if we go more than a month without a health, family, or professional crisis.

Resolution: to remember this and to be properly grateful if at the end of January I have finished the book I struggled with through nine months of distractions and problems in 2019. If in addition I have a reasonably fleshed-out idea for the next book, I'll make a sacrifice to whatever gods may be. Do you suppose they like chocolate? Everybody likes chocolate, right? O gods of chance, I know where to get the good stuff, the high cocoa content dark chocolate. Just be nice to me - no, scratch that - just don't pay any attention whatsoever to me - and I'll give you a cut from my secret stash, okay?

Monday, December 23, 2019

What am I missing here?

This morning I read this article in the NYT, bemoaning the way in which cell phone location data is used to invade people's privacy. They certainly come up with a number of scary scenarios:

Imagine the following nightmare scenarios: Governments using location data to identify political enemies at major protests. Prosecutors or the police using location information to intimidate criminal defendants into taking plea deals. A rogue employee at an ad-tech location company sharing raw data with a politically motivated group. A megadonor purchasing a location company to help bolster political targeting abilities for his party and using the information to dox protesters. A white supremacist group breaching the insecure servers of a small location startup and learning the home addresses of potential targets.

It did just cross my mind that a popular cop show the First Reader and I watch occasionally depicts the cops using cell phone location information to intimidate their targets, not to mention using a facial recognition system that would be the envy of the Chinese government, trawling through the phone and email and financial records of anyone who interests them, and generally tearing up the Fourth Amendment into tiny pieces and trampling on them. But, you know, it's all right because they're the Good Guys. If their audience buys this world view, I doubt the opinions of a New York Times columnist will bother them. Day by day in every way we are accepting the surveillance state...

But that's not where I was going, which was, actually, to Amazon. It took approximately 30 seconds to find a $10 Faraday cage that is advertised as blocking GPS tracking.

Over time, protest could become the exclusive right of those with the means to safeguard themselves technologically, including having a second, “burner” phone. “It’s technologically possible to be anonymous, but it’s hard,” Mr. Tsui told us. “You can only protect privacy with tech right now, and so only those who have money and knowledge can do it.

Well. If "money" means having an extra $10 to spend to prevent your $500 smartphone from reporting on your movements, and "knowledge" means being able to do a cursory search on Amazon... that's a low bar.

I suspect the higher bar will be understanding that invasion of privacy is not a good thing, and that your privacy is worth more than the convenience of pulling out your smartphone to tell your friends where to meet you at the protest. And that ship may have already sailed.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Free Reign and Other Eggcorns

What’s an eggcorn?

It’s a new word, introduced in the early 2000’s and referring to the replacement of a rare/archaic word in a phrase by a common and similar-sounding word that may have nothing to do with the original meaning of the phrase. It was coined by a guy who claimed that he’d seen acorn written as eggcorn. I’ve never actually seen that (and I kind of doubt it: it’s not like acorn is a rare word unfamiliar to most readers…is it?)
I think our language is impoverished every time someone replaces a meaningful metaphor with meaningless jargon. Besides, it irritates the heck out of me. So today I’m just going to rant about the eggcorns created by writers who apparently had no idea of the context and original meaning of the phrases they butchered. If I went on to list stupid/illiterate word substitutions this post would be way too long. Maybe next week.

Horses and riding

By far the most frequent offender is the substitution of reign for rein, creating phrases like free reign and reign in. I suppose this comes from somebody who has the vague notion that rein in and free rein have something to do with exerting or abdicating control, but who has never actually used reins and can’t figure out what they have to do with it, so… well, reign has something to do with control, doesn’t it? Plug that word in and to hell with the fact that the new phrase doesn’t mean anything. I foam at the mouth when people substitute reign for rein. You might say my annoyance is unbridled.

Moving on:

Curve your appetite. No, no, no. It’s curb, as in, controlling a horse’s movements with a curb bit. Sheesh, my people didn’t even use curb bits but I still know what the word means.

Straddled with. I saw this only once, but it was weird enough to stop me and throw me out of the story. Was it a typo, or was the writer never saddled with the notion of a saddle?

Nautical and military

I probably should have started with this, because it’s the largest category. Look, I are not a naval or military historian, but at least I’ve sailed a boat, read the Hornblower novels and researched the Blitz. That shallow pool of knowledge is enough to annoy me at the following eggcorns:

Pass mustard. Evidently the concept of a muster at which you get experiences like an on-the-spot equipment check (which you may fail) is foreign to the writers who perpetrate this eggcorn. You’d think they would at least pause to consider that a discussion of condiments is out of place in the context of whatever they’re trying to convey.

Tow the line. It’s toe the line, folks, from a way of lining up soldiers or sailors for that muster. Writers may be confused by towline, which means a rope or whatever used to tow a vessel. You don’t tow lines, though; you tow other things with them.

Shot over the bough. Fellow Hornblower fans will wince over this one. A shot over the bows is aimed at the bows of the other ship, just high enough that you don’t actually hit them. It’s a way of signaling to the folks on the other ship that you’re serious… and that you’re in a position to do serious damage with the next shot.

Way anchor. As far as I know, the meaning of weigh as “lift” survives only in weigh anchor and related phrases (Anchors Aweigh!), but that’s no reason for replacing it with way and creating a meaningless phrase.

Change tact/take a different tact/take a similar tact. The word should be tack. As in, a change of direction. Change tack actually means something; change tact doesn’t. Meaning takes another hit.

Taking flack. Flak is literally anti-aircraft fire and metaphorically criticism, as summarized in the aphorism, “If you’re taking flak, you know you’re over the target.” A flack is a PR person, probably just as annoying but less likely to be fatal. I’m going to be nice and not tell you about the German term that got abbreviated to “flak.” Suffice it to say that they started out with seven syllables and ended up with this one, and aren’t we all grateful for that?

Don’t know much about history

Beyond the pail. I suppose the writer thinks that pale is an archaic spelling for pail. Nope. It’s an archaic word for a fence made of palings. You couldn’t make much of a fence with pails! Beyond the pale means outside a boundary. The Irish may dislike the usage, since the English generally called the English-controlled parts of Ireland the Pale and considered the rest of Ireland to be uncivilized – literally, beyond the Pale. But at least it means something, whereas beyond the pail makes no sense whatsoever.

Straight-laced, straightjacket. It’s strait-laced, meaning tightly laced, and straitjacket. The meaning has to do with confinement, narrow spaces, etc, not with straight lines. You know, like the Bering Strait, which I expect to see rendered as Bering Straight any day now. I guess nobody reads the Bible any more, or they'd know: Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life.

The dye is cast. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon and said “Alea iacta est,” he wasn’t saying that he had dyed the Rubicon red – or any other color. Die is the singular of dice. He was saying that he’d made his throw and now he’d find out if he won. I guess nobody shoots craps any more either?

Motte/moat. Possibly forgivable, since they both come from the same Old French word. Trouble is, meaning and spelling changed over time. A motte and bailey castle is built on raised ground (the motte) defended by an enclosing wall (the bailey.) Later the motte came to refer to the dry ring of excavated ground created in building the raised ground, and still later to mean a water-filled ditch surrounding the bailey – but by that time it was spelled moat. To be fair, I’ve seen this only once, but the usage had the unfortunate effect of making me giggle every time I hear the name of a perfectly nice woman who wrote historical romances in the eighties; she put her heroine in a motte-and-bailey castle, which was fine and perfectly in period… until the lady mounted to the top of the keep, overbalanced and fell into the motte.

If you’re going to make your readers giggle, do it on purpose and not out of ignorance, okay?

(Image credit:

Thursday, November 14, 2019

It's live... mob-caps and all!

The ebook of A Child of Magic is available on Kindle now! And one last snippet before I get back to the current book:


I looked over Annelise’s shoulder before returning to my own office. She was comparing pictures of people in authentic eighteenth-century costume with the offerings from the rental company’s site. “I need to call them about the wigs.”

“Wigs?” I looked at the pictures of ladies with their hair piled up in powdered beehives topped with ruffled, lacy hats. Well, if I had to wear something like that, at least I’d look taller…

“Don’t worry,” she said, “that’s the costume of a highly fashionable lady, not an ordinary person. We’re going to put muslin caps on you and Meadow. They were called mob-caps, and they’ll completely cover your hair. Lots of women wore them. The cover story if the caps come off is that you’re recovering from a bad fever that necessitated cutting off your hair. Will tells me Philadelphia had epidemic fevers nearly every summer.”

“Bring out your dead?”

“No, the big yellow fever epidemic wasn’t until 1793. Smallpox was common though, and so was typhus.”

How reassuring. I wondered if we should all get vaccinated. And how to explain to a modern doctor that we needed shots for a disease that had been all but eradicated in this century?

“But Ben’s hair is way too short to pass unnoticed.”

“Can’t he be a fever victim too?”

“Not in a fetching little muslin cap with frills and ribbons, he can’t. I’m still looking for a beaver hat for him, but I think his short hair would still attract too much attention. He’ll have to wear a wig.”

And I’d thought traveling back to 1941 was complicated!

Within minutes there were several separate conversations going on in the Research Division. Annelise had offloaded the shoe problem onto Ingrid and she was trying to find us authentic shoes to go with the costumes, or at least shoes that might pass as authentic – which, she said in a moment of exasperation between phone calls, was going to be tricky since we insisted on going back into a century when left and right shoes were identical.

Ben was talking to his friend Will, the history buff, about where to acquire some eighteenth-century currency just in case we had to buy anything while we were there. “We shouldn’t need to spend it if all goes to plan,” I heard him telling Will. “We’re just going to zip back then, collect Colton, and return.”

I meditated on the history of Center projects. Had there ever been one where everything went as planned? I hoped Ben and Will could come up with a really good source of antique money.

“Don’t worry,” Ben said when he got off the phone, “in emergency we can just take a gold or silver artifact with us and sell it for cash.”

“I hope we won’t have to do that. Explaining where we got the artifact could be tricky.” Now that we were getting into the details of the plan, some of my initial excitement was fading. I slumped down behind my desk and wondered what happened to somebody who was accused of, say, stealing a silver candlestick. In Philadelphia. In 1787. Transportation? No, that was an English thing. In America the penalty was probably just straightforward hanging.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Felony False Reporting

I've shoved the e-version of A Child of Magic through KDP, and it should go live sometime in the next day or so; I'll post a link when that happens. Meanwhile, here's another snippet:

“So you based the report of a kidnapping on a note, a car seat, and a stuffed animal," the cop summarized. "Huh. When your husband called us, he made it sound a bit more solid than that. And he did not mention that you’d seen the kid at the same time he was reporting the kidnapping. Want to explain that bit to me?”

“I… can’t,” I said. We didn’t have time to bring the APD up to speed on the real activities of the Center. It might take hours, maybe days, to convince them that some of us really could teleport; it had taken weeks to convince Prakash Bhatia.

Esposito stood up, his face darkening. “We have sent an officer to search your residence in case the kid just crawled into a corner somewhere. Other officers are canvassing your neighbors for evidence of anything to support your theory that this woman just drove off with your kid. We’ve mobilized a ground search team to check every square foot of the territory around your condo for anything that might be a clue: clothing, diapers, a toy. They’re looking under bushes and inside culverts and checking for recently disturbed earth.”

I didn’t get why the ground search team were doing those last things, but it didn’t matter. “They’re wasting their time.”

“Make a note, Ferris,” Esposito said. “Parent tried to discourage ground search… and we can guess why, can’t we?” He scowled at me. “All this time you’ve known exactly where your child is, haven’t you?”

“No. Not exactly…” How to explain that I’d teleported directly into the same room as Aleksi, but I’d never stepped outside the room and had no clue where it might be?

Esposito looked disgusted. “I’ve heard of women like you, women who faked a crime against their own child to get attention. What did you want? A chance to go on national television with an impassioned plea for the return of your beloved infant? For your information, Mrs. Lensky, falsely reporting a crime can be charged as a felony, and I plan to recommend that charge in this case. I just hope, for your baby’s sake, that the D.A. doesn’t have to charge you with anything worse. The ground team will definitely continue their search, though I’m calling off the other officers as of now.”

He stormed out of the break room, leaving the sketch artist to pack up the laptop and follow him. “I don’t understand.”

“What don’t you get?” Ferris demanded. “You report the kid missing, then you tell us you’ve seen him at the same time the report was made.”

I should have tried to explain Brouwer teleportation. Or, at least, demonstrated it. I might have been able to slow down Esposito’s headlong rush to judgment.

Other things, though, were confusing me now, tangling up my thoughts. “I don’t get… If he thinks I’m lying, why is he having the ground team continue searching?”

“Because in a very high percentage of infant abductions,” Ferris informed me, “the child’s body is found within a mile of the home.” He paused. “The percentage is even higher in cases where one or both parents is faking an abduction for reasons of their own. What really happened, Mrs. Lensky? Did you shake the baby too hard?”

“I’ve never—I wouldn’t—” A cold anger began to take the place of grief and fear.

“We will be interviewing your friends and family members,” said Ferris. “One at a time, so they can’t coordinate their stories. If there’s a pattern of child abuse, Mrs. Lensky, it will come out. Want me to get Detective Esposito back in here? It will go better for you if you confess now, without wasting more of our time.”
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