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.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

A celebratory snippet

The paperback edition of A Pocketful of Stars is live and linked to the Kindle edition! And I'm celebrating by posting another snippet demonstrating that the rest of the Mathematical Mafia isn't any easier to deal with than Thalia....

**********

“You can do teleportation.” His blue eyes pinned me like a bug in his collection. “Telekinesis.” Ingrid got the treatment. “Invisibility.” Back to Ben. “You people can be very useful to me. You’re just trying to wriggle out of it.”
“Ingrid,” I said wearily, “would you bring something over from the coffee cabinet?”
She closed her eyes and moved her lips soundlessly. There was a furious jiggling in the condiments rack; then a plastic stir stick dropped on the table in front of her.
“Thank you. Now how about a sugar packet?”
This took longer. Eventually a pinch of brown sugar fell onto the table.
“Ingrid can’t move an entire sugar packet,” I explained to Lensky. “It’s too heavy. The best she could do was to move a little sugar out of the packet.”
“Without tearing it!” The man was determined to be impressed. I soldiered on.
“If you’d like, I can go to my office and get the plastic pieces I use for set selections, and you can verify that they too aren’t very heavy.” I wasn’t eager to demonstrate the measly six to twenty-four inches that constituted my current teleportation range, so I tried to focus his attention on the accidental telekinesis that started this whole thing.
“Poker chips,” Lensky said, “and Darth Vader. And other action figurines.”
I was surprised. He flashed a tight smile. “What, you think I’m totally unobservant? Noticing things like that is in my job description. And even granting you have some limitations, you people can make yourselves useful. I want a look inside one of our suspects’ computers. A man called Raven Crowson. I don’t have enough for a warrant. But you should be able to get access by changing bits inside the computer. Little, light things moving very tiny distances. Piece of cake, right?”
What did he think we were, computer nerds? “Wrong! To do that, we’d have to have a detailed image of how a computer works.”
“You’re math majors, don’t you already know all that stuff?”
“We’re pure mathematicians,” I tried to explain. Naturally, that meant nothing to him.
“So that means what? I need to find some slightly sullied math majors? Some who’ve already lost their virginity? Or do I need to sully you… personally?” He gave me a slow once-over, obviously trying to embarrass me. I did not blush. Well, not very much.
“Clean up your act!” Ingrid snapped. “She just meant, you’d have to talk to applied mathematicians for this.”
“Actually, I don’t think that’s going low enough.” Ben joined the argument. “He might need a computer science major.”
“These days, they’ve gone all theoretical. He really needs an… engineer.” Ingrid looked as if she wanted to wash her mouth out with bleach after using the E-word.
“And there’s no way anybody in engineering could visualize abstractions well enough to do applied topology,” I finished. “So you see, it’s not possible to make this work.”
“Sure it is. I’ll get somebody who understands computer architecture and they can explain it to you, then you guys can do the voodoo part. Or are you just giving me the runaround because you actually can’t do anything at all with your so-called magic?”
“We do not,” Ingrid said icily, “call it magic. Boris.”
“And you were just arguing that we could do more than we were admitting! Can’t you even stay on the same side of your own arguments?” I’d begun a slow burn when he tried to embarrass me, and this contradiction turned up the flame. “You ignorant, intellectually challenged imbecile, can’t you even follow a simple logical argument without holding onto the rope with both hands? It’s not our job to educate a dysfunctional kindergartener.”
I had more to say along those lines, but “Boris” had tilted his chair back and was laughing. “Go on,” he urged. “How many more polysyllabic insults can you come up with?”
“For you,” I said, “I’d better stick with insults of one syllable. Try this: If you want a big bang, you don’t need us, you need a gun!”
He pushed his coat lapels back. “That, I’ve got.”

Friday, April 27, 2018

A POCKETFUL OF STARS is live on Kindle!

I think there's some way to make the picture clickable, but can't remember and don't have time to fool with it. Just click the title. It's only $2.99, and if you like reading this blog, you'll like it... and if you don't like reading this blog, what are you doing here, anyway?

OK. That's as close as I can come to a hard sell. Try this snippet, why don't you, and maybe it'll make you want to know what happens next.

************

I was mulling over the Klein bottle problem when he interrupted me.
Coming out of a strong visualization can be tricky. Fortunately, I wasn’t exactly trying for one. I was just thinking about the fourth-dimensional version of a Möbius strip and wondering exactly what would happen if I could hold an image of it in my mind and traverse the dimensions. I wasn’t all that eager to find out, so the image in my head was rather fuzzy.
This meant that I was able to respond to the interruption relatively quickly. Fingers drumming on my desk, check. Do not whack fingers with a book, good for me. (No matter what Ben says, I have never chopped anyone’s fingers off with a cleaver. I don’t even have a cleaver in my desk.)
Fingers… attached to a man who might have been attractive if he hadn’t looked so impatient. Oh hell, scratch that. Even wearing that unfriendly expression, he was hot. Being a little, dark Greek type myself, I’m a sucker for that California beach boy look. This one had the blond hair, a little too long, and a squarish Northern European face with – of course – dark blue eyes. And you could sort of tell that under his loose-fitting jacket he had a body no surfer need be ashamed of, compact and muscular. With impressively broad shoulders.
“Well?”
I blinked. “Well… what?”
“Aren’t you going to offer me a chair?”
“No.” I’d never seen this man before; what was he doing in the Research Division? He shouldn’t even have been able to find it.
He dragged a chair from the corner, ignoring the horrible screeching sound of wooden legs on a wood floor, and plunked it beside my desk. Then he sat down, straddling the chair and resting his arms on the back. “I need to talk to you.”
“How did you get here?”
“Huh? Jet Blue, rental car from the airport.”
“Here. The Research Division. Topologically speaking,” I hinted, although I didn’t for one minute believe he would have been capable of the necessary visualizations. He’d initiated contact; his pretty blue eyes met mine whenever I glanced at his face; he was, right now, invading my personal space. Almost certainly not a mathematician.
“Walked up the stairs and through the door.”
I waited.
“With Dr. Verrick.”
I relaxed slightly. That’s the other way to find the Research Division; get escorted by someone who already qualifies. This guy himself didn’t have the talent; he had already convinced himself that there was a door in the wall that he’d been Möbiused through. But if Dr. Verrick had personally escorted him, he must want me to make the man happy… whatever that took.
Could be interesting.
I was still thinking vaguely about making him happy when he began removing all desire to do so.
“I’m from your sponsoring institution.”
“The Moore Foundation?” He didn’t look like a Foundation person.
“If you like.”
An odd answer. I’m pretty sure that if we had any sponsors besides the Moore Foundation, I’d have noticed, if only because of the time wasted to appease them. Dr. Verrick makes all of us dress like adults and stand around at the Foundation’s occasional formal parties. (If they throw any other kind, I haven’t been invited.)
“We have need of some information that you people may be able to procure for us. We want you to look at the computer user behind a series of messages and find out what he’s planning and who his associates are.” He plopped a folder onto my desk and knocked off Darth Vader, five poker chips, An Overview of Hyperbolic Geometry and my notes on strongly connected graphs.
(Don’t you know that a neat desk is a sign of a sick mind? Countless studies confirm the link between a messy workspace and creativity. And I happen to be very creative.)
“Aren’t you even going to look at the messages?” he asked while I was still giving his folder the evil eye.
“After you pick up my things.” I folded my hands in front of me and stared off into the distance. Well, where the distance would have been if it hadn’t been blocked by a bookcase.
Grumbling audibly, he condescended to abandon his chair and collect the stuff that had fallen off my desk. When he stood up again, he placed the textbook, my notes, and Darth Vader in a neat stack, very precisely. He put the poker chips in a separate stack, perfectly aligned, beside Darth Vader. As body language went, it was an excellent projection of “I’m patiently putting up with this tiresome female.”
“Now let’s get down to work,” he said, straddling the chair again. He wasn’t that tall, but I felt like he was looming over me.
I don’t take well to being loomed at.
“Not so fast! We’re a research institution. We don’t just take on odd jobs from every Tom, Dick or Harry who strolls in here.” Not that Tom or Dick or Harry would have been able to stroll in, unless they were really good at visualizing and mentally traversing a Möbius strip - or were escorted by a staff member. Well, you couldn’t get a higher-ranking escort than Dr. Verrick himself. If this fellow’s story was true, Dr. Verrick presumably wanted me to cooperate with him, and I should comply.
If, on the other hand, he’d been smuggled in by Ben or Ingrid as part of an elaborate practical joke aimed at me - which I was beginning to think must be the case, as surely no one could be this irritating by accident - it was high time I stopped letting him pull my leg.
“What I don’t understand,” I said, tapping the folder, “is what interest the Moore Foundation has in your problem, why they should think we could solve it, and why I shouldn’t be worried about the legal penalties for hacking into someone’s computer.” Not to mention the fact that I hadn’t the faintest idea how to do that, and I didn’t think my colleagues did either.
“If you’d look at the messages you might understand better.”
Oh, all right. I flipped the folder open and looked at… a confusing collection of very innocent-looking emails. There was one cluster about a birthday party, another about travel plans for someone’s niece and her friends, another on a hotel in Austin where they could stay.
“What are you, the Division in Charge of Investigating Birthday Parties? I do not see anything relevant to research in pure mathematics, which is the purpose of the Moore Foundation. Much less the relevance to applied topology.”
“I am not… exactly… from the Moore Foundation.”
Aha! I knew it! I looked around. Ben and Ingrid must be hiding somewhere, ready to leap out and yell, “Surprise! Candid Camera!”
If so, they were very well hidden indeed.
“I’m from the sponsor which actually gives the Moore Foundation the funding which they pass on to you, and I’ve been seconded to your group for the duration of this investigation.”
“And that sponsor would be?”
“I’m sorry, but that’s on a need-to-know basis. All I can tell you is that this is a matter of national security.”
An ugly thought chilled me. “If it’s a matter of national security… Was I cleared to read this folder?”
“You are now. The entire staff is cleared to be read in on this investigation.” He looked very pleased with himself. It wasn’t a good look for him. “I do still have some influence within the… agency.”
“Does Dr. Verrick know?”
“Of course.”
“And this silly business is important to your employers because…?”
“The messages are coded,” he said impatiently. “I thought anybody working here would be bright enough to recognize that without having it spelled out. We believe these emails and transcripts are actually from a shadowy group involved in smuggling Middle Eastern terrorists over the border and transferring them to a safe house here in Austin.”
I glanced at the contents of the folder again. All right, I could see that with a simple substitution code his interpretation would make sense. The “niece” could stand for a terrorist leader, the “friends” for his supporters, the “hotel” for a safe house. And I didn’t even want to think - “What does the ‘birthday party’ stand for?”
“What do you expect?”
I expected it stood for something involving bombs and bloodshed. It would have been nice to be told otherwise. “We need to shut this down before the ‘party,’” he went on. “Or - at a minimum - find out the time and place, so that we can increase security.”
“Why would they be based in Austin, instead of closer to the border?”
“People who actually live near the border,” he said, “do not feel nearly so benign about illegal aliens.”
“In Austin,” I corrected him, “we say ‘undocumented immigrants.’” At least, if we didn’t want to get a lecture from Ingrid Thorn about it.
He waved one hand. “Tomato, tomahto. In… the agency… we still speak English. Well, I do, anyway. Austin’s a sanctuary city; as long as these people pretend they’re just helping poor Central Americans to escape violence and find a better life, they’ll get support from most of the population. And anybody raising questions will find themselves the target of a high-tech lynch mob dedicated to shutting down the opposition.”
I had to think about that, but not for long. I’m as apolitical as you can be while still having a pulse, and I haven’t felt the need to have an opinion on border controls and illegal immigration given that everybody else in Austin had already staked out a position. But the bit about shutting down opposition was different. Those were fighting words for Thalia Kostis, Girl Mathematician. I’ve been loudly and vocally opposed to all manner of things during my life, beginning with the family’s plans for me. He was beginning to get my interest.
“But why us? Despite its name, the Center is a pure research facility. We don’t do applications.”
“You do now. As a first priority, you do whatever the sponsoring agency requests. After that, you may play with your little research papers to your heart’s content.”
And I’d actually contemplated trying to make Mr. Nameless happy!
“If you’re representing a three-letter agency, surely you’ve got computer experts and other resources to throw at this problem.”
Now he looked not so much irritated as like someone who’d just bitten into a green persimmon. “There are… various groups within the agency… with various goals. A lot of my colleagues built their careers during the previous administration, and they don’t approve of ‘persecuting undocumented immigrants.’ Even suggesting that we should focus on potentially dangerous illegals made me persona non grata. Oh, I tried to start an official case. It’s been tied up waiting for approval from several committees. It may never get out of committees. The funding for your group via the Moore Foundation has already been allocated, I don’t have to get special approval, and it’s about time you did something to justify that funding.”
“Riiight. We always jump up and kiss the ring of a nameless man from a secret agency.”
He looked faintly amused. “At the same time?”
“What?”
“Simultaneously jumping up and bowing down to kiss a ring would seem to be contra-indicated. Unless your meaning is that you’re constantly falling over yourselves.”
He stood and extracted a card from his wallet. “I do have a name, actually. Talk to your boss if you need to check my bona fides, then look at the folder and decide on a plan of action. I’ll be in touch.”
He dropped the card on top of the folder and walked away. I hoped Dr. Verrick would escort him out; otherwise he’d probably return to my office, complaining that he couldn’t find the door.
The card was less than informative. There were only two words on it, probably his name. No issuing agency, no email, no phone number.
Bradislav Lensky.
What an all-American name.
Just like Thalia Kostis.

***

"You'd have to hear this jerk to believe him, Ingrid." I lay back on the living room floor and poured some more water on my chest. As long as my T-shirt was soaking wet I could pretend that the air sighing out of our ancient window unit was actually cooling the place down.
Ingrid Thorn, my colleague and roomie, never did anything so uncouth as pouring water over her body. Mind you, it was just as well she didn't make a habit of it. With what she had under her blouse, she'd probably be responsible for a breakdown of civil order if she ever cooled herself off that way in public. I, on the other hand, could have stood under a sprinkler for half an hour and then walked through the math department without eliciting any reaction other than, "Hey, Kostis, did you know your hair is wet?"
Ingrid shrugged. "Maybe I'll get the chance tomorrow. You did say, a staff meeting?"
"Ten o'clock.” Dr. Verrick, being one himself, understands that topologists are not morning people. “In the break room, like always." We didn't exactly need an auditorium for Dr. Verrick to speak with all three of us. On the other hand… "It may be a little crowded if this Bradislav Lensky shows up."
"One guy? We've got eight chairs in there. Not a problem."
"I... don't know. He has this way of taking up space. You should have seen him, Ingrid, he dragged a chair right up to my desk and straddled it and leaned. I felt like he was trying to dominate me.”
"He should be so lucky! I've been trying to dominate you into not taking long showers in the small hours ever since we moved into this place."
Ingrid wasn't all that interested in my personal hygiene; it was just that the pipes in this apartment building clanked and groaned and generally carried on like the ghost of Hamlet’s father whenever one of the tenants asked them to do something like, oh, providing water. "There are eight apartments in this building. Somebody's always going to be using the plumbing. You need to learn to sleep through it, Princess."
Ingrid stopped unplaiting the braids she wore wrapped around her head all day and threw a Kleenex box at me. "Remind me again why I share living space with an unsocialized infant like you."
"Because you can't afford a place this close to campus on your own, and you don't dare share with anybody else."
It was, after all, the same reason why I put up with her and her yards of blonde hair and her D-cups and her exalted status as an actual graduate student who might get a Ph.D. some day. Neither of us could risk having a normal roommate who might freak out over us making buttons dance in mid-air or scooting a couple of feet forward without visible means of propulsion.
"If this Lensky comes to the meeting tomorrow, you'll see..."
"What I don't see," said Ingrid, "is why you can't stop going on about this man you talked to for all of fifteen minutes. Is he incredibly handsome or something?"
"Or something. Not exactly pretty." I knew, because I could still see his arrogant face clearly when I thought about him. "Good body, though."
"Ha! I knew it! He's hot, isn't he? And you're crushing on him."
"Don't be silly. He's annoying, is what he is." I reflected for a moment. I had been very briefly interested in making him happy... before he started laying down the law. "To be fair... I guess he would be kind of hot - if he weren't so obnoxious. You'll see tomorrow."

Monday, April 23, 2018

Okay, this time POCKETFUL OF STARS really is almost published!

After a tense week of interactions with Createspace and KDP, I think both the paperback and the ebook will go live soon. Meanwhile:

Thalia Kostis will be the first to tell you it's not magic, it's theoretical math when she walks a Möbius strip through walls to her office at the Institute for Applied Topology. CIA Case Officer Bradislav Lensky doesn't care what it is, as long as she can help track down a smuggling ring and the terrorists in their safe house in Austin. The other magicians nearby don't agree, and don't care for new rivals either!

Now Thalia and the rest of her misfit crew are in a race against time, terrorists, common sense, grackles, and their graduate advisor to save the day!

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 madgeniusclub.com.

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."

Grumble.

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 madgeniusclub.com 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.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Connie Willis and the art of dialogue

I've got a new post up at madgeniusclub.com about Connie Willis and dialogues with multiple speakers.

Dogsitting

Silly me, I thought when the kids were grown they'd want to drop off their children and take advantage of the free babysitting. Instead, the Organizer considers us incompetent. She has a point; I'm actually too arthritic to keep up with a four-year-old. As for the Fashionista, last night she organized a play date... for their dog and our dog! She had a dinner engagement, their half-grown puppy was antsy after being locked in a crate all day, and our terrier is hysterically happy whenever somebody more interesting than us shows up. Which would be, to him, anything with a pulse. BTW, that's somebody else's PBGV in the picture. Fluffy isn't nearly as well groomed as that. I should take a picture of him when the timing is right... after he has a spa day and before he gets out in the back yard to roll around and renew his dead leaf collection.

Apart from the minor contretemps associated with any babysitting operation, the evening went well. True, Bida spent the first twenty minutes of the play date sitting by the door where she last saw the Fashonista and whining plaintively, but then Fluffy coaxed her into the intoxicating game of "Let me drag you around the floor by the skin of your neck and then we can trade places." Granted, Bida's youthful energy eventually drove Fluffy to seek rest and refuge on the First Reader's lap. (Representations that a thirty-pound terrier with five pounds of hair is not a lap dog have so far failed to convince him.) But the kids had a good time and Fluffy, at least, was too tired to discuss going outside in the middle of the night.

And when the Fashionista came back for Bida, the First Reader made a slightly sick joke about possible injuries, to which she responded, "I'm never letting you babysit my children!

Gloat, chuckle, gloat. She mentioned children.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Promise I'll stop now!

I know I'm spending too much time reading about the Blitz relative to the amount of space it's going to occupy in A Tapestry of Fire, but all the first-person narratives I've found are fascinating, as are the historical overviews that put them in context. How do I know I've been reading too much about the Blitz? Not only do I now have a very black sense of humor, but the other day I was reading a novel set in London in 1940 and as the date of December 29 approached I started talking to the characters, telling them, "For God's sake, stay away from St. Paul's and the financial district tonight!"

Okay, time to pull back and get to work on the sagging middle of the outline again. But first I do want to gloat a bit about the wonderful book I've acquired. It's big, it's heavy, you need a good light and a magnifying glass to make out anything... and it's well worth the trouble. It's a reprint of pre-war large-scale Ordnance Survey maps that were hand-colored to show bomb damage on a scale from Minor Blast Damage (yellow) to Total Destruction (black), and it shows the damage to individual buildings. If I set up at a table with good lighting and a magnifier, I can read an account of the bombing and fires in the Elephant and Castle area on the night of May 10-11 and, as particular landmarks or streets are mentioned, find them on this map with an estimate of the degree of damage.

I like maps.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Business as usual, Mr. Hitler

But first, an announcement: I've been invited to join the bloggers at Mad Genius Club, a blog for writers and especially for indie writers. I'll be posting every other Thursday afternoon. So in future you'll be spared posts about writing techniques; this blog will be reserved for frivolity (and, of course, book announcements) My most recent post is Context and Misdirection, and it's about the song "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry." If you're wondering what the heck that has to do with writing technique, click over and take a look.

Now, about London and Blitz spirit:

Yes, I'm still reading about the Blitz, even though I've really got all the information I need for A Tapestry of Fire. It's a gripping subject. Also, I like first-hand accounts, and there are tons of memoirs available.

I've also come across more distanced views of that period. There are several "debunking" books that claim Londoners weren't as perky as media and contemporary accounts imply. To read some of these books, you'd think that Londoners were about to experience a nervous breakdown en masse during the Blitz.

Poppycock.

In the first place, nobody ever claimed that every single resident of London greeted the bombing with a stiff upper lip and British cheer. Of course there were people who were terrified, miserable, couldn't function due to sleep deprivation, and if you go looking for examples you will find them.

In the second place, the people who lived through the Blitz were somewhat self-selected for iron nerves; those who couldn't take it, and had the option of going somewhere else, skedaddled.

And finally, the most impressive thing about the Blitz is that London still functioned. People sheltered in subway stations or in backyard Anderson shelters or under the stairs, and in the morning they rubbed their eyes and went to work. Plumbers and electricians and carpenters were there for life's little emergencies as well as repairing Blitz damage. Grocers and butchers and dairymen kept people fed. Journalists and secretaries and business owners and shopgirls went to work. Even politicians went to work, which may or may not be a good thing.

And many shopowners whose premises had suffered bomb damage put up cheeky signs and... went to work.

You have to admire the people who adorned their semi-wrecked shops with signs like these:

PLEASE ENTER THROUGH THE DOOR
HITLER CAME THROUGH THE WINDOWS

BUSINESS AS USUAL, MR. HITLER

TRY OUR HIGH EXPLOSIVE HAIRCUTS
THEY’RE A KNOCKOUT

MORE OPEN THAN USUAL

BLACKED OUT EVENINGS? TAKE HOME SOME BOOKS

NO WINDOWS BUT PLENTY OF SPIRIT

SORRY WE’VE GOT NO FRONT DOOR
DON’T KNOCK JUST COME STRAIGHT IN

BOMBED? YES!
BUT YOU SHOULD SEE WHAT THE RAF HAS DONE TO OUR BRANCH IN BERLIN

OUR WINDOW HAS GONE
BUT WE NEVER DID LIKE WINDOW-DRESSING ANYWAY

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

My sense of humor is changing

After immersing myself in narratives of the London Blitz I seem to be developing the kind of black humor common to cops and emergency room doctors. Last night I totally cracked up over this story and read it aloud to the First Reader:

"Air raid wardens had no authority to make people take shelter. One night, we were passing a block of flats [apartments] and this man was standing outside. 'You should get into a shelter!' we said, and he told us what to do in no uncertain terms. So we left him standing there and walked on. When we came back, he was still outside the block of flats. His head was about four steps further along."

The First Reader suggested gently that maybe I should take a break from Blitz research, go back to reading Orkney folk tales and the rules for Regency dances.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

I thought it was fantasy

I've been waiting to edit An Annoyance of Grackles until the end of the month, because I got slightly ahead of the calendar while writing; it's set in January 2018, and as you may have noticed, January isn't over yet. I keep thinking, "What if something actually happens this month which my characters would have to take notice of?"

That was before this week.

In the book, I needed Austin to be shut down by snow and ice for one day. In the book, that was a Tuesday.

So... guess what happened last Tuesday? It wasn't as pretty as my description - we didn't get nice fat snowflakes falling out of the sky, just ice on the streets - but yep, it pretty much shut down the city.

It's rather exhilarating to have paranormal powers. I'm debating what to write next.

"The author of An Annoyance of Grackles made the NYT best-seller list" is... possibly a bit of a stretch for my new powers.

So is "The author of An Annoyance of Grackles lost twenty pounds after she finished the book."

I have a feeling I should start small and use my powers for good. Any suggestions?

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Double stacking

One stack of books includes Portrait of Orkney, Georgette Heyer's Regency World, Orkney Folklore,A Dance with Jane Austen,Orkney Tapestry, and I'm waiting for The Victorian Domestic Servant.

The second stack consists of diaries and memoirs of the London Blitz, and those are going to be relevant in the fourth Stars book when I get around to writing it.

Right now I'm taking a break from the Stars series to work on my Regency fantasy The Finwife's Tail.

There are people who write two or more books at the same time - Cedar Sanderson has three going, as well as a day job and her art work - but I don't think I can. I feel schizophrenic enough already, reading about people being bombed out during the Blitz while writing about the Finfolk of Orkney; if I don't watch it I'll have my finwife observe the bombing of Scapa Flow!

By the way, the Finwives are not exactly like traditional mermaids. They have two legs and all the other equipment of human women; it's just that they also have a long flowing tail sprouting from the lower back. When swimming the tail is unfurled and when on land they wrap it round them like a skirt. I'm going to have fun getting a cover artist to illustrate that!

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