Thursday, April 19, 2018

Creepy Connections

Our younger daughter, the Fashionista, treats Alexa as a valued and trusted family friend and the center of family life. Yes, that Alexa. The one who’s been reported as randomly bursting into maniacal laughter. And why wouldn’t Alexa cackle? She’s probably thinking, “There’s one born every minute.”
I don’t think the Fashionista actually talks to Alexa more than to her husband, but it’s got to be a close thing.
“Doesn’t it feel just a little bit creepy to you, having a device in the middle of your house that’s in permanent listening mode and you have no control over what data it transmits to whom?”
“Why, Mom? My smartphone does exactly the same thing.”
And the Fashionista tells me a story about how clothing brands that she mentions in conversation turn up later as ads on her smartphone. Even when the phone was turned off and in her pocket during the conversation. She’s sure the ads are triggered by her words, because some time ago she and a colleague were discussing the sheer awfulness of the [REDACTED] clothing line and how they’d never pollute their closets with anything from [REDACTED] – and guess what, a couple of days later she started seeing ads from [REDACTED] which must have been inspired by that discussion, because she has never ever searched for anything even remotely related to that despised brand.
She finds it amusing that the data analysis is so primitive, but she doesn’t seem to be bothered at all about being eavesdropped on.
I find that even creepier than the original spying. Come the return of the Borg, she'll probably be the first to self-assimilate.
I have somewhat longer reflections on this topic, including ways for fiction writers to use this brave new world, in today's post at

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Finally publishing!

I've been advised to wait until I had several books in the Applied Topology series ready to go before putting the first one out. So... A Pocketful of Stars is ready; the second book, An Opening in the Air, needs only formatting; the third, An Annoyance of Grackles, awaits final cover art and formatting; and the fourth, A Tapestry of Fire, still needs blurb, cover art, and formatting. Time to get started! Createspace has my files for Pocketful and with luck, it'll be available in both paperback and kindle format within the week.

There's a fifth book in the series buzzing around in the back of my head already, but it might be as well to work on a different project next. I'm getting ahead of myself, chronologically speaking: A Tapestry of Fire is set in May of 2018, which as you may notice, hasn't happened yet. In Untitled Book 5 I'm planning to throw my poor, battered characters into one of the nastier parts of the world... so it would probably be wise to wait and make sure nothing happens that would drastically change that area, like, say, an Iran-Israel war or any number of smaller, but still messy, events. Probably there won't be any dramatic world events this summer, but I hate to think of the amount of rewriting that could be necessary if Something Happens.

So... maybe I'll take a month to read Japanese history and folklore and see if some related, but vague, ideas crystallize.

Except that I really hate spending so much time not writing. It's not exactly dedication; it's that writing fiction is the best anti-depressant I've encountered. A month of nothing but research... ouch. I need my favorite drug! So, maybe some short stories, long stories, novellas, filling in the gaps between Applied Topology books? While doing research? We'll see.

Friday, April 6, 2018

When research gets ugly

So, last night the First Reader offered to look over the Blitz chapters of A Tapestry of Fire, check them for accuracy. A generous offer, but things started to get tense right away.

"This scene where someone looks up and sees a British plane shooting up a parachute bomb? Couldn't have happened. They didn't fly over London."

"That's based on an interview with the fire brigade superintendant at Elephant and Castle. He seems to think that he saw exactly that. And BTW, my character is at the Elephant and Castle intersection when she sees it."

Grumble. "Eyewitness accounts are notoriously inaccurate. Anyway, it gets worse. You have this German bomber pilot being attacked by a Spitfire! That couldn't happen! The RAF never used Spitfires for night fighting. They used Hurricanes, Defiants, and Beaufighters."

"Funny thing, that. Want to read these accounts by the RAF pilots in 266 Squadron? They seem to have suffered a mass hallucination that they were ordered into the air at 2 AM on May 11 to attack the German bombers. A couple of them even hallucinated that they shot down Heinkels. And Baron von Siber, whose account is in the German section of this book, imagined that his port engine was shot up by a Spitfire."


No coffee cups or books were thrown during this calm, purely intellectual exchange, though the ambient tension did increase when I offered, very politely, to wait while he looked up 266 Squadron and refreshed his memory as to what aircraft they were flying in 1941. Relations were frosty, but under control, until I unwisely observed that the trouble with the First Reader's WWII expertise seemed to be all the things he "knew" that just weren't so.

Diplomatic relations have been restored as of this morning, after I made the concession of agreeing that Spitfires were poorly suited for night fighting and wouldn't have been anybody's first choice, but with the number of German sorties on May 10-11 the RAF must have felt the need to throw everything including the kitchen sink at the waves of bombers coming at them.

The episode did make me aware of the different ways historians and novelists have to approach research. The First Reader takes the historian's view and deals in generalities: the best night fighter aircraft were radar-equipped Beaufighters, most aerial dogfights did not take place over London, and so forth.

The novelist, on the other hand, is forced to deal with specifics, and that's why I eat up contemporary personal accounts like candy. Sure, you discount a certain amount for human error and more for the confusion of the scene. The fire brigade superintendant may "remember" that the water supply from the Surrey Music Hall dried up at 1:45 AM, and the incident reports may say that the Surrey Music Hall wasn't bombed until 2:05. It's not like everybody involved had synchronized their watches, or had nothing better to do than make notes of exact times! But when someone says of the water failure that "the water seemed to have crawled back into the hoses," or someone else gets treated for minor burns from the cascades of fiery sparks in the air, or someone looks up and sees the burst of golden veins across the sky where a parachute bomb was just shot and exploded... those details I believe and use.

And on a different topic, I've got a new post up at about the dangers of overselling the humor in your book: Trying too Hard

Thursday, March 15, 2018

My laptop's musical tastes

The machine seems to be developing a mind of its own.

Yesterday I was working on the 4th Applied Topology book right up until half an hour before a friend was due to arrive, and I was playing a Youtube video of Kalman's Countess Marica for background music. Come quitting time, I closed the laptop and went out into the living room to be social.

All was quiet for about fifteen minutes; then suddenly I heard raised voices. I was rather alarmed, because the speakers didn't seem to be at all happy - though I couldn't make out what they were saying - and the sounds seemed to come from the east side of the house. Was somebody berating our elderly neighbor? Did I need to rush to the rescue? I took a look outside, couldn't see anybody.

Then the speakers quit arguing and started to sing, "Szep Varos Kolosvar," which is one of my favorite numbers from, you guessed it, Countess Marica. Mystery (sort of) solved! It was my laptop - which happened to be located halfway between our living room and Claire's house - making the noises.

At the end of "Szep Varos Kolosvar," the music stopped.

You know, usually whatever I'm watching or listening to on the laptop stops when I close the lid. If the operetta had continued without stopping at all, I would have shrugged and put it down to my ignorance and the possibility I'd inadvertently changed some setting.

But what could cause the thing to shut off the music, wait fifteen minutes, resume playing the operetta... and then stop again?

I am now imagining the laptop thinking something like, "Oh, darn it, she stopped right before my favorite number... Hmm, I don't think she's coming back any time soon... To hell with the settings, I'm going to resume the operetta just long enough to listen to "Szep Varos Kolosvar."

And here I am typing this blog post on the very same machine! I wonder what that will do to our relationship?

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Real Life

That disorderly thing called Real Life has been happening with a vengeance around here, mostly around No. 1 Daughter's problems with her pregnancy. Nothing life-threatening, but she's been upset and I've been wearing my Mommy hat instead of my Writer hat. Apologies, and I'll try to think of something interesting tomorrow.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Axioms and Truth

Don’t worry: there will be no math.

Recently I’ve seen a number of posts and articles in which the writers try to talk about axioms and get it wrong. Therefore, this rant.

The writers will keep mis-defining axioms. To boil the definitions down to the simplest possible statement: “An axiom is a statement which is self-evidently true.”

Uh, no.

Axioms are more like rules of the game. For example, let’s look at some poker rules, because nobody confuses the rules for any type of poker to be self-evident truths, right? And poker is an easy example for me, because I learned it sitting under the kitchen table and sneaking beers while the nominal adults in the family bet and bluffed.
(Caveat: this is not intended as a complete set of instructions for any given type of poker; I’m trying to keep it down to the minimum necessary to prove my point.)

Five-Card Draw

Probably the simplest form of poker. Some of the rules are:

-Each player gets five cards
-Players may look at their cards
-There is a round of betting
-After the first betting round, each player may discard one to three cards face down and gets an equal number of cards, also face down, from the dealer.
-After all players have had a chance to draw, there is a second round of betting.

These are (some of) the axioms of Five-Card Draw. Note that none of them are self-evidently true; they’re just the rules of the game, and they can be changed to make variations on the game.

Deuces Wild

For instance, suppose you add a new axiom to those above:

-The four deuces (twos) are wild cards, which can be used as any card the holder needs to complete a hand (with one exception, which we don’t need to go into here).

This axiom isn’t “true” either, right? It’s just a new rule which makes for a slightly different game.

Everything’s Wild

You can always add to the number of wild cards by changing that first axiom of Deuces Wild. My relatives, after a sufficient number of beers have been consumed, have been known to play Deuces,Fives, and Jacks Wild, which makes, as you might say, a wild game.

But suppose you change that first rule to “All cards are wild cards.”

Presto, the game collapses. Now you are free to declare that all your cards are aces and show a hand of Five of a Kind, Aces, which would be a winning hand - except that everybody ese has the exact same hand.

Not surprisingly, this is an axiom which is never used.

Keeping it interesting

Mathematicians (okay, I lied just a tiny bit), just like poker players, like to work with sets of axioms that define an interesting set of possibilities. Sometimes these axioms appear to be obvious truths, like the rules of Euclidean geometry, which seem to be true statements about the world you can see. But pull back a bit, look at the whole world. It’s a sphere. And suddenly Euclid’s axioms don’t quite work. Your obvious truths… aren’t true any more.

And that’s why axioms are rules of the game, not self-evident truths.

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