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.”

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The wrong side of the Wall

It’s not really much of a story, but let me set the scene:
It’s the summer of 1966, and I’m a new college graduate turned loose on the world clutching my B.A. in mathematics. I think I’m all grown up and pretty hot stuff. In retrospect, I may have had a college degree, but graduating at eighteen doesn’t prove I’m smart; it just proves I was smart to drop out of high school and head straight to the university. I’m still eighteen, and as one of our past presidents has said, “When I was young and stupid, I was young and stupid.”

My parents have just given me the best graduation present ever: a round-trip ticket to Europe with the promise of a subsistence pittance to be doled out if I present myself at an American Express office at selected intervals during the summer to prove that I’m still alive – enough money to eat regularly if I practice obvious economies like staying at youth hostels. The arrangement also encourages some economies like hitchhiking, which my parents didn’t think of and never found out about. But I wasn’t hitchhiking when I found myself on the wrong side of the Wall in Berlin. I got there quite innocently and conventionally via the direct train to Berlin.

A little more background: the Wall has been up for five years and even the most blithely apolitical Americans have heard horror stories aplenty. You know, tanks facing each other at Checkpoint Charlie, Vopos in towers with machine guns, attack dogs, all that. The stories got an extra zotz of realism for me because in college I had been rooming with a girl who went to high school in West Berlin and actually saw the Wall going up. Oh, and by the way, I had a minor in German and had spent two years improving my German conversation skills by chatting with my roomie, who had, no surprise, a Berlin accent.

So I’m pretty nervous about this train ride, but I want to see Berlin, at least the portion of it that’s still open to the free world. Promise all sorts of people that no, I won’t be so stupid as to set foot off the train during its passage through East Germany, I won’t get off until we’re safely in Berlin.

Then, watching the endless vista of potato fields rolling past the windows, I fall asleep.
I wake up hearing some kind of announcement about “Berlin something-or-other.” Panicky glance out the window: we’re stopped, it looks like a railway station in a city, the sign I can read says “Berlin something-or-other.” I hurl myself out of the carriage and find myself in a semi-deserted station late at night. The few other passengers hurry away; well, it’s night, they want to get home. There’s no big friendly information kiosk where I can ask for directions, but there’s a door in front of me. I go through it and find myself on a dark, semi-deserted street.

I may be young and stupid, but I do know that an eighteen-year-old girl has no business wandering around a strange city at night in search of the youth hostel. I don’t even have a map; I’d assumed I could pick one up at the train station when I arrived. Hadn’t figured on the station being so bleak and empty. With great satisfaction at my own intelligent decision, I hail the one taxi outside the station and give the guy the address of the hostel where I’d planned to stay.

That’s when it all falls apart. He gives me an incredulous look and says, “Lady, are you kidding me? That’s in West Berlin!”

After some argument (I keep telling him this is West Berlin, he keeps shaking his head) I get marched back into the railway station. And there are people to talk to now, oh yes indeed there are. They convince me that I am indeed in East Berlin. I complain that I’ve been misled. Where was the checkpoint? What happened to the big warning signs? Where were the officials? What about the VoPos? Nobody ever told me you could simply hop on a train in Frankfurt and ride straight into East Berlin without anybody so much as checking your passport!

But they want to look at my passport now, oh yes, they do. And they tell me I must be lying about how I got onto that street in front of the station, because the door I claim to have gone through is locked. It is always locked.

It’s locked now, that’s for sure.

Around this point I realize I could be in serious trouble, and that I am possibly not helping myself any by complaining in fluent German… and with a Berlin accent. So I make my only intelligent decision of the evening. I shut up and burst into tears.

After that I speak only English, beg for an interpreter, and (in between hysterical wails) listen with deep interest to the conversations going on around me. They paw through my possessions; the fact that my clothes are obviously not of Eastern manufacture is a point in my favor. And my passport, if it is a forgery, is a very good forgery… More in my favor, though, is that the porter they call in to interrogate about that unlocked door is decidedly shifty in his replies. Eventually the interrogators decide that the porter probably had some smuggling sideline that involved letting a buddy slip out of the railway station without passing the official checkpoint; that I really am a stupid Ami girl who doesn’t know that there are several railway stops in a big city like Berlin and that the train had already passed all the West Berlin stops; and, most important, that it won’t do the porter’s supervisor or his supervisor any good at all to draw attention to this little flaw in the security arrangements.

I get taken back through an official checkpoint with very, very little discussion, refrain from falling down to kiss the pavement of West Berlin, find a taxi and, this time, make it to the youth hostel. Which is still open, so it can’t have been as late as the deserted station and streets made me think. (I am told later that East Berlin after dark is essentially shut down; the glories of Communism at work.)

(Image: Scapler [CC BY-SA 3.0 (])

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Mr. Gorbachev didn't have to do a thing!

The people of Berlin saved him the trouble.

I want to get back to writing stuff about writing, but the anniversaries are coming so thick and fast at this time of year! And this one, at least, a lot of y'all should remember; it was only 30 years ago that the Berlin Wall came down. (Some day I'll bore you with my story of accidentally winding up on the wrong side of the Wall in 1966.)

The Hungarian revolution, Guy Fawkes Day, the Berlin Wall destroyed... what is it about the opening days of November? Are people just all excited about my birthday, and thinking about it makes them want to heave the odd cobblestone about? Or do Europeans just get stroppy with the realization that winter is coming on and pretty soon it'll be too damned cold to get out in the streets and throw things?

Whatever - already this month we've celebrated a bomb plot averted and mourned a revolution crushed under tanks. It's a nice change to celebrate the symbol of a real victory for freedom.

(Image: Bidgee [CC BY-SA 3.0 (])

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Gunpowder treason and plot

Anniversaries coming thick and fast this month...

"Remember, remember the 5th of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot."

For a quick summary of the actual plot that gives the Brits this excuse to run around building bonfires, see Alma Boykin's post today. It's not an event... or maybe we should call it a non-event, since after all the Houses of Parliament didn't get blown up... that I find particularly interesting. But it is interesting - at least to my scatty mind - that this children's rhyme makes me aware of this anniversary every year. I mean, it's not even an American holiday!

Which, in turn, leads me to wonder if similar doggerel would help me remember more dates. Offhand the only other historical rhyme I can think of is, "In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." Anybody know some others?

Monday, November 4, 2019

A Day to Remember

On this day in 1956, Soviet tanks entered Budapest and crushed the nascent Hungarian revolution. A few days later Prime Minister Imre Nagy was tried in secret and executed.

Unlike the Czech revolution in 1968, this one didn't make a big impression on me at the time: I was eight years old and not particularly into reading any part of the newspaper except the comics. Something must have trickled into my head, though, because I do remember reading Uncle Tom's Cabin that October and being very confused by Harriet Beecher Stowe's comparison of the escaping slaves to Hungarian revolutionaries. (Sorry, don't remember if I've posted this reminiscence before; stop me if you've heard this one.)

I remember going back and forth, back and forth, between the copyright date on the book and the front page of the newspaper. I don't think it occurred to me to ask my parents, who might have cleared things up by mentioning the European uprisings of 1848; in my experience at that time, asking my parents to explain something in a book all too frequently resulted in gasps of horror and the confiscation of the book as something I shouldn't have been reading in the first place. I didn't really care what was happening in Hungary, which might as well have been the dark side of the moon for all I knew; whereas I did care about having my project of reading all the books on the top shelf in the hallway interrupted.

Now, as Brussels fulminates about the lack of cooperation shown by the Visegrad group with respect to accepting refugees, they might do well to reflect that these countries honed their non-cooperation skills under a much tougher regime. I wonder how many tanks the EU has?

Friday, November 1, 2019

The Halloween Hearings

Possibly the scariest Halloween of my life, and the ghouls were all wearing Democracy masks. But that’s all they were – just masks. The really frightening thing is what lurked behind the masks.

Secret hearings.

The defense may call witnesses only after submitting a written request to the prosecution, and the prosecution has absolute authority to reject such a request.

The prosecutor may interrupt witnesses and direct them not to answer questions.

Transcripts of depositions may be made public at the sole discretion of the prosecutor. If a witness actually manages to say anything the prosecutor doesn't like, he can still make sure you never hear about it.

There is no requirement that exculpatory material discovered by the prosecution be made available to the defense.

And oh, yes, the prosecution continually leaks partial testimony and summaries of testimony to the press. By a strange coincidence, everything leaked appears damaging to the defense.

Scared yet?

Would you like to be tried under these ground rules? Well, cheer up. You won’t be – not this week, anyway. Our present legal system wouldn’t try someone for littering under these rules. But next week? Who knows? Yesterday’s party-line House vote on the rules for the impeachment inquiry demonstrated that the majority party no longer has any respect for due process of law. Right now they’re railroading the President of the United States. You think you’re going to be immune from the new rules? Not if they can help it. This is not just an attack on the President; it’s an attack on common law and common decency.

The alligator may not eat you first, but he’s got you on the list. Even if you loathe and despise this President, simple self-interest ought to inspire you to protest this travesty of justice before the new House standards become the standards by which we can all be persecuted.

Diogenes Sarcastica summed it up nicely:

“The entire impeachment inquiry is the establishment in Washington D.C. letting the American people know that if they ever vote for someone the establishment doesn’t like, they will just beat you over the head, stop the agenda you voted for, and ultimately, usurp your vote to show you who really runs this country.”

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Snippet: Shapeshifter

Image by Karen Arnold from Pixabay

Just then the room got so warm that I thought the modeling materials might melt.
Nobody except me seemed surprised.
“Ah, is the air conditioning acting up again?” None of us thought the retrofitted air conditioning which the trustees had finally allowed us to install was worth much – except when it failed, when we became aware of how much worse matters could be. When I’d last been working in the office, the air conditioning had failed during August on a regular basis. If it was now so much worse that it couldn’t handle the benign warmth of May, we were going to be in for a very uncomfortable summer.
“Oh, that’s just Ben,” Ingrid said.
I remembered the fish episode. “Oh, God! You’re not letting him work on shapeshifting again, are you?” When Ben shifted into a smaller form, like a fish, the air heated up with the excess energy released; when he shifted back, he sucked energy out of the air and the office got icy cold. I felt that the temperature effect was quite as much as I wanted to experience, but Ben fretted about the fact that physics predicted much more extreme changes than we actually got.
“He’s being sensible about it now,” Colton promised me.
I seriously doubted that.
“He only changes to air-breathing species.”
That was a pretty low bar for “sensible.”
“Mammals,” Ingrid added.
“And there’s –”
A sound like a fire alarm echoed through the office. I jumped and eyed the sprinklers in the ceiling, but nothing happened. “What the hell was that?” The air around me chilled as I spoke, and I went from sweating to shivering in a heartbeat. For this first day back at the office I’d dressed up my jeans with a new cold-shoulder burgundy top; now I wrapped my arms around myself, wishing I’d settled for one of my comfy old vintage rock band T-shirts.
“I was about to tell you,” Colton said, “he sets an alarm to remind him to change back. A very loud one,” he added unnecessarily.
“That was my idea,” Ingrid said, “after he got out into the main office. As a monkey. A grey langur. I think that’s what he called it, afterwards.”
She waved one hand. “Don’t ask me how, I’m sure monkeys aren’t bright enough to visualize a Möbius strip. We think he might have followed Colton. Anyway, he was out here swinging from windows and chattering and throwing, um, feces, until Annelise coaxed him down with a bit of cruller, and he cuddled up to her and suddenly remembered that he was a human being. So now he has to set the alarm before he shifts.”
“And you trust Ben. In his office. With the door closed. To remember to set an alarm?” I cupped my palms over my bare shoulders, which were rapidly becoming a mass of goose pimples.
“He hasn’t forgotten himself since the monkey episode,” Colton said.
“And if you recall, there are certain problems associated with shapeshifting,” Ingrid added.
I deduced that his clothes still didn’t make the transformation with him. If he was stripping down before each experiment, I could see why my colleagues preferred him to work in the privacy of his own office. Still, it seemed to me that Annelise could have been asked to chaperone him. She certainly knew what he looked like without his pants on. Actually, so did the rest of us, since the fish episode, but she was his girl friend and could be said to have volunteered for the experience. Oh, well. Not my circus, not my monkey, right?
“Ben,” Colton called now, “cut it out with the shapeshifting. Thalia doesn’t like the temperature changes.”
A moment later Ben walked through the wall sideways and turned to face us as his imaginary Möbius strip twisted to deposit him on this side. I was glad to see that he was more or less fully dressed, if a bit disheveled. “Thalia, can’t you make some sacrifices for science? I’m noting the weight differential and plotting that against the temperature changes with each shift.”
“Mathematics,” I said, “is not an experimental science. And why can’t you just change to something approximately your size, so you don’t keep messing up the temperature for the whole office?”
Ben gave me a pitying look through his smudged glasses. “Thalia, are you forgetting that I weigh a hundred and sixty pounds?”
“Don’t think I ever knew that, but so what?”
“Do you really want me to turn into a jaguar?”
“Well, no, but…”
“What hundred-and-sixty-pound mammal do you suggest that I shift into?”

Monday, October 21, 2019

Famous last words

I try to respect the privacy of children and grandchildren by not publishing pictures of them online (too bad, folks, the poisonous nature of the Internet is depriving you from seeing some awesome cuteness -- what's that? You don't mind? You've seen enough pictures posted by doting grandparents to last you a lifetime? Oh, all right). Still, this isn't so much a picture of the Marauding Hun as an illustration of her impressive binkie collection.

"She's not using those things after her first birthday." So spake her mother, the Organizer, a couple of months before that event. The Hun is going on eighteen months now and, well, you can see how well that worked out.

Definitely my descendant. Chances are that in another 70 years she too will be grappling with the embarrassing problem of an extremely large bead stash and a roomful of fabric that she can't bear to part with and realistically isn't going to live long enough to use up. Or, who knows? Maybe she'll continue to specialize in pacifiers.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Snippet: The empty crib

The seventh and supposed-to-be-last book in the Applied Topology Series, A Child of Magic, should be released as soon as I can get results back from my cover artist and formatter. Maybe a couple of weeks? In the meantime, while I am engaged in such fascinating amusements as putting in the accent marks on all the French words my characters in Tangled Magic have been using - after which I have to do surgery on the sagging plot - I thought I'd start putting up little snippets from A Child of Magic.


I’d had nearly an hour to myself since walking in the front door, and it was beginning to feel subtly disturbing. I wanted my baby. I wanted to see the three-cornered, almost toothless smile that lit up his whole face whenever he saw me. I wanted to check the two bottom teeth that had recently appeared and give him a frozen bagel to gum while he fussed about the top teeth that would show up, so I was informed, any day now. I wanted to hear him squawk, “Baa-baah!” (Okay, so he hadn’t mastered “Mama” and “Dada” yet. So what? He made up for it in advanced motor skills.)
I hated to tie up the land line in case Lensky called, but I went back into the hall and dialed Mom’s number anyway.
“Mom! Where are you?”
“In the kitchen, silly girl. We’re having xtopodi in garlic sauce tonight.”
Ugh, octopus. Tentacles.
“With an apple-marshmallow Jello salad.”
Mom was definitely a Greek-American cook, even if my father preferred that she emphasize the Greek part.
“Do you and Brad want to come over?” Her voice switched into coaxing mode. “And bring Aleksi, of course. I haven’t seen the little devil since you brought him over Friday night. Did those top teeth come out this weekend?”
A wave of cold went through me, and for a moment I thought it really would stop my heart. “He’s… not… with you? Jenny left me a note. She said you’d taken him to your church thing today…”
“Angels Unawares?” Mom clicked her tongue. “I would never take him with me to that since he started crawling all over the place. I’m much too busy serving lunch to our homeless visitors to keep an eye on him, and anyway, some of those poor unfortunate souls might have infectious diseases. You must have misunderstood Jenny’s note.”
“Um. Yes. Probably.” When had my hands started shaking so hard? I tried to hang up, but kept missing the phone. On the third try I just dropped the receiver on the floor. I needed to get to Aleksi’s room. It had all been a mistake, of course it had been a mistake; he was just napping, and I would kill Jenny for leaving him alone like this, and…
The crib was not – quite – empty.
Sprawled face down in one corner was Blue Beary, the minute stuffed animal that was Aleksi’s current object of affection. Last week he had adjusted remarkably well to my disappearing into the bedroom with a notepad and an armful of books every morning, but that stuffed teddy bear was a different story. Any separation from Blue Beary during his conscious hours resulted in impressive screaming tantrums. Bathing him was only possible if Lensky knelt by the tub and waved Blue Beary at him while I soaped and scrubbed all his little baby creases.
There was no way anybody – Mom, Jenny, Lensky, anybody who cared about him at all – would have casually walked off with Aleksi, leaving his beloved toy in the crib.
And more: the car seat was in the corner where I’d left it in case Jenny needed it.
I should call somebody, I thought, but the thought was coming from a great distance. Lensky, Ben, Ingrid, anybody at the Center… No, I should just teleport to the Center… but how could I leave? What if it was a mistake, and Jenny would hurry in any minute with Aleksi and her apologies for the misleading note? And if I wasn’t here?
I hung onto the edge of the crib while the room spun around me. Oh, I should never have agreed to go back to work. If I knew anything, I knew that now – too late.


Images: Hopf Fibration by Niles Johnson [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], teddy bear by Pavel Ševela [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Friday, October 11, 2019

New art work

I'm baaaack!

First step in recovery from surgery and intermittent illness was to get back to writing - specifically, creating a synopsis for A Child of Magic so that Cedar Sanderson could get started on the cover art.

Next step was getting back into the workroom. My daughter the Organizer was a tremendous help with the initial job of reclaiming the space (any room in this house that goes unused gets turned into a junk room) but that left me with a lot of piddling little sorting-and-classifying jobs that are by no means finished.

Midway through this process, the discovery of some charms and pendants left over from my epoxy resin phase inspired me to pause the organizing job, clear a work space and turn them into wearable pieces. My apologies for the picture quality; I'm not an expert with the iPad.

The top piece is made up of charms that I first painted with alcohol inks, then sealed with resin while attaching tiny flat-bottomed crystals before the resin cured. The pendant on the bottom right is based on a piece of drusy something-or-other that I probably acquired at a rock show, with an unpainted charm that also got the resin/crystals treatment. The pendant on the bottom left consists of a flat, polished piece of rainbow hematite - I think - attached to a big flat filigree pendant and topped with a silver-colored tree charm lavishly decorated with crystals.

None of these pieces required much work beyond digging through my drawers for chains and jump rings, except that I did have to use the flex shaft to clean out the burs that clogged the bail of the leftmost pendant. But it was exhilarating to make something again.


And speaking of making things, don't forget that the first two books in the Dragon Speech series are available now. The Language of the Dragon is still only 99 cents and Dragon Scales is $3.99.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

They both do it

In fairness to both sides of the political divide, I have to admit that some prominent Democrats are as guilty of word salad as is President Trump. This is from a speech given by Kamala Harris in Iowa on September 30:
“We need to have a strategy that is a winning strategy, about saying that we have got to recognize the challenges before us as a nation and the world are big challenges about who we are, our definition, our standing, and our strength as a nation. And to meet those challenges it will not be about going back to the good old days, it will be about looking forward and taking on the challenges that meet us today and — the winning strategy is that the right thing to do is say that we will address the big challenges of our nation, the issues that wake people up in the middle of the night.”
“Challenges” used five times in two "sentences", one of whch isn't even a sentence. Good grief.
But at least nobody had to deliver instantaneous translation into another language.
Although simply translating this into English might be a good idea.

Back in the early Pleistocene, when some schools still made a casual pass at teaching something, I had an English class in which each of us was required to stand up in front of the class and talk for three minutes on a topic of the teacher's choosing. Using complete sentences. (I admit that I was frequently guilty of the evasion used by the kid who was an expert on worms. "My report is on birds. Birds eat worms. Now, worms...")

President Trump and a number of the Democratic candidates are old enough to have gone to school in those bygone days. "What do they teach them at these schools?"

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

The real crime in that transcript

Okay, sometimes I’m a bit of a political junkie – particularly at times like this, when the current book ground to a halt during my two weeks of sniffling and I haven’t mustered the energy to get started again. But in my defense, how many people are there in the Western world who aren’t curious about the actual contents of a phone call that’s being touted as sufficient cause to impeach the current President?
So I read the transcript, and I didn’t see the things that the impeachment crowd told me would be there. No quid pro quo. No repetitive demands for investigation of l’affaire Biden. And nothing about the upcoming election, just concern about dirty tricks in the 2016 election. What, Mueller could “investigate” the 2016 election to his heart’s content for two years, but it’s somehow illegitimate for the President to do so? Gimme a break.
On a careful re-reading, though, I did come across something that is… well, okay, not criminal, but certainly cruelty to a certain class of people – translators. I’ve never been a fan of President Trump’s word-salad style of speaking, and it was fully evident here.

“I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike ... I guess you have one of your wealthy people … The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you’re surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it. As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.”
Never mind whether you see impropriety in this jumble of words, I’m not arguing about that. Just consider this: unless Zelensky is fluent in English – or even if he is - somebody had to translate this into Ukrainian. Which means they had to decide, on the fly, what it meant.
Do you suppose the translator made a flying leap and converted this stream-of-consciousness word salad into complete sentences that actually made sense? Or did he throw up his hands and go for a word-for-word translation that would have been inferior to what you can get from Google Translate? I’d love to know. And if the conversion had been to any language that I can actually read, I’d be scouring the Internet to find out. Sadly, a passage in Ukranian would be worse than Greek to me – after all, I can actually sort of read Greek, given plenty of time and a good dictionary. So I guess I’ll never know.
Nor will we ever know how much vodka the poor translator needed to recover from this experience.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Let's not do that again, ok?

Over the years, a simple little thing like a summer cold has morphed from being a nuisance to be ignored while I stagger around taking care of the babies, to a week of sniffling and discomfort, to -- now -- two solid weeks of being more or less totally knocked out.

No fun.

I can think of only two explanations: either (a) I'm getting older, or (b) aliens are polishing their germ warfare chops on us. Since (a) is too depressing to contemplate, I'm going with (b). It's aliens. Or possibly elves. Whichever -- I just hope they don't have any more bright ideas in the near future. This has been an extremely boring two weeks and I'd just as soon never do it again.

In lieu of anything more interesting, here are a couple of teasers from Dragon Scales, now out in paperback as well as ebook format:

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

That Day

I'm not going to tell you where I was or what I was doing when I heard the news. Everybody old enough to remember that day has a story, and there's nothing particularly interesting about mine. It's not important.

What matters is that none of us forget that America was attacked that day, and none of us airbrush the attack into some kind of mistake. I will never forget the people jumping to their deaths, or the firefighters running up the stairs into theirs, or the passengers of Flight 93 who thwarted yet another attack on that day. Those are the things we should be remembering today.

I'm not going to tell you what I was doing on the day JFK was assassinated, either.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

A Modest Proposal

Recently I came across an opinion column in the New York Times whose author, whom I’ll refer to as F.M. because I don’t want to give F.M. extra attention, complained bitterly about the oppression of traditional English-language third-person gendered pronouns. Yes. Referring to someone as “he” or “she” isn’t just a feature of the way our language developed; it would never happen if, in F.M.’s words, “we were not all so irredeemably obsessed by the particulars of the parts dangling between our fellow humans’ legs, nor the ridiculous expectations signified by those parts about how we should act and speak and dress and feel.”


Does F.M. believe that Hungarians, who use “ö” for third person singular without specifying gender, are less obsessed by certain body parts than are Americans? Listen, I’ve known a lot of Hungarians, and most of them took a healthy interest in those body parts and what they could do with them.

What about speakers of Swahili, which typically uses “yeye” for third person singular? I promise you that a culture which encases women in black bags has some seriously ridiculous expectations for gender-appropriate behavior.

Then there’s Hindi (vah), Finnish (hän), Igbo (ya)… Need I continue?

If the grammar of English and related languages is so oppressive, maybe F.M. could learn Hungarian, Swahili, Hindi, Finnish, Igbo, or one of the many other languages that doesn't have the he/she distinction. Sure, there might be a smaller audience in each of these languages for silly opinion pieces, but surely that’s a tiny price to pay for freedom from these horrible gender expectations!

But nooo, F.M. wants us to change standard English usage and make “they” the standard third person singular pronoun. F.M. isn’t going to change a damn thing; rather, the rest of us must all change our language to conform to F.M.’s sensibilities!

Fortunately, English already has a non-gender-specific third person pronoun: “it”. And yes, “it” is used to refer to living beings when we don’t know or care about the gender.

“If your dog keeps barking, would you please take it inside?”

“Watch out for that baby, it’s about to throw itself out of the cradle!”

“Darling, there’s a possum sitting in the trash can and snarling at me; would you please persuade it to go somewhere else?”

I will be happy to refer to F.M. as “it” from now on, and I hope it is properly appreciative of my decision to respect its feelings.

(Image: Whoisjohngalt [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Dragon Scales - live!

The ebook just went live; it's not even on my author page yet, but you can find it here: Dragon Scales. And here's a snippet from the opening chapter to whet your interest:

“Mzzz Brown!” Rozzy Aguire, the ShareASpace manager, who’d been unfindable ever since I forked over the deposit, was suddenly a larger-than-life presence. She filled the hall between us and the door to Sienna Language Services. “I really must insist that you remove that person immediately, before I call the police!”

Oh, hell. Was I late for the first afternoon interview? No, not yet. Had the interviewee shown up early and done something to spook Rozzy? Some of UT’s foreign students did come from extremely strange cultures. Still, calling the cops seemed a bit of an overreaction to culture shock.

“What did he do? Or she,” I tacked on, because I suddenly couldn’t remember whether my next interviewee, Sayana Raj, from Sri Lanka, was male or female.

“It’s not what he did,” Rozzy said ominously, “it’s what he is.”

I blinked. “Isn’t that racist? What do you have against Sri Lankans?”

“Nothing,” she said, “as long as they keep their clothes on! What kind of position are you hiring for, Mzzzz Brown? And that girl with him is obviously the kind of slut you’d expect to find clinging to a naked man. We have a strict policy against allowing ShareASpace offices to be used for that kind of business, Mzzzz Brown, and it won’t take ten minutes to void your contract!”

I wished she wouldn’t keep preceding my name with that “Mzzzz.” The buzzing noise was beginning to vibrate unpleasantly in my head.

“Just a minute there,” Michael spoke up. “Ms. Brown is not liable for your failure to prevent maniacs from invading your offices. But she might very well have a case against ShareASpace for letting this nut case into the space she is renting from you. Does the company have no concern for the safety of its tenants?”

He loomed over Rozzy in an intimidating fashion that was all the more admirable when you considered that he was only the same height as me – three inches shorter than the solidly built, six-foot office manager.

She loomed back.

Words were exchanged.

Menacing growls were exchanged.

“Guys, could you just cool it for long enough to let me find out what happened? Both of you cool it,” I emphasized. Michael seemed to be reverting from his business manager persona to his previous life in Special Forces, and I didn’t think guns and grenades were going to solve this problem. Whatever it was.

I got my first clue after Rozzy grudgingly made room for me to pass down the hall to my own (rented) front door. I opened the door and saw two people: a pretty young girl who was familiar to me from a rather different context, and a very well-built man whose face did not ring any bells. It was, however, possible to fully appreciate how hot he was, because as Rozzy had hinted, he was stark naked.

His eyes gave me a clue: bright as gems, like glowing topazes, they were not quite human. I had seen those eyes before.

The language in which he greeted me was another clue. I’d heard that before, too. It was full of sounds like rocks breaking and tectonic plates grinding against one another. Both the people with me turned white.

In Rozzy’s case I assumed that was because she didn’t know what was making those noises.

In Michael’s case I feared it was because he did know.

I filed for future reference that the being I’d met last fall in Taklanistan could change to a human shape at will. Although why he’d done so, and why that human shape was infesting my new office eight thousand miles from his home, remained to be explained. “Chee khol doried, Adjdaak?” I asked. “How are you?”

I was speaking Taklan, naturally. There was no way I was going to take the risk of brain damage that speaking the dragon’s native language could inflict on a mere human.

Monday, September 2, 2019

No rest for the self-employed - updated

(Labor Day by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 ImageCreator)

Happy Labor Day to those of you who have actual jobs and are enjoying a three-day weekend! I suppose it's wrong of me to complain that being self-employed, I don't get a holiday; after all, I can take the day off any time I like. All the same, there are mornings when I really wouldn't mind having a cast-iron excuse to take off without guilt.

On the bright side, the chap I pay to format my manuscripts is in Australia and doesn't officially have today off. I can prod him today about the fact that the ebook and print versions of Dragon Scales were supposed to have been done on Friday.

He is, of course, in a very different time zone. Without drawing little pictures of a rotating Earth and the sun, I can't figure out whether the note I just sent on this Monday morning arrived at his computer on Sunday night or Monday night. Not that it makes a lot of difference; unless he's a workaholic, I won't get an answer until tonight. Oh, well. Back to the very intense scene in the new Regency fantasy, wherein the wrong person drinks the magic-laced glass of wine... or is he the wrong person? The Witchy Widow is a very twisty person, and I'm not giving the reader access to her thoughts.

Oh, all right, all right. I have no basis for whining about not getting a holiday; what could be more fun than writing?

UPDATE: He just sent the Kindle version. As close as can be to an immediate response! Clearly, another workaholic.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Still only 99 cents

Just a brief reminder that, as I push the second Dragon Speech book, Dragon Scales, through formatting and publication, The Language of the Dragon is still available for just 99 cents - or free, if you've got Kindle Unlimited. I think both books are fun, but you'll have more fun if you read them in sequence. So why not pick up The Language of the Dragon for light reading over the Labor Day weekend, and look forward to reading the sequel next week? Here's one more snippet from the first book to whet your appetite:


This language was definitely not Indo-European.
Nor was it Pashto, Uyghur, Kazakh, or any of the other languages common in Central Asia. I didn’t actually know those languages, but I could recognize them.
And it was barely even pronounceable.
“Q!z – girl,” I muttered. The string of phonetic symbols identified with “!” suggested something like a glottal stop followed by a hacking cough.
“Vlaad – becomes, is becoming.” Okay, at least that sounded like a real word.
“Bakhsh# - contented.” The hash mark meant… huh, he’d written it out, evidently despairing of phonetic symbolism. “Rocks clashing.” How the hell were you supposed to use soft human organs to make a sound like rocks clashing? I
gave it the old college try anyway, and felt idiotically pleased with my results. Heck, there was enough here for a complete sentence! I tried it out: “Q!x vlaad bakhsh#.”
A cloud must have passed over the sun just then; for a moment there seemed to be less light than before, and I felt as though gravity was swooping around wildly and pulling my bones in different directions. But despite that moment of disorientation, my stab at pronouncing the mystery language didn’t sound so bad – and apart from a sudden shooting pain above my right eyebrow, I didn’t feel so bad either. In fact, I felt quite gloriously contented with my lot on this earth, right down to my place on this shady deck overlooking the lake. I looked up into a deep blue cloudless sky, feeling as though I could float right up into it – if the sound of an arriving car hadn’t distracted me. Here, just to make my cup overflow, were the Stevensons at last. I dry-crunched some aspirin and headed down the curving stone steps from the deck to meet them at their car.
I began to feel somewhat less contented as I walked them through the house. Part of the problem was that small but persistent headache, which made it hard to concentrate on exactly where we were. I’m pretty sure we cycled through one suite of rooms and halls and outer decks two and a half times before I caught on and concentrated on going up the spiral staircase to the next level.
A larger problem, though, was that my loyal ex-student was looking less and less happy. Angie squealed (piercingly) with delight at each wacky architectural feature, and exclaimed at intervals that nobody they knew had anything like this house (doubtless true: I don’t think anybody else had given the architect-developer any money to play with after they saw this place). She even, engagingly, found parallels with Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture in the strangest bits of the house.
Trouble was, Bruce was the one with the family money. And the ambition. He’d achieved tenure in record time, and now he wanted a house that would position him as the obvious successor to the current chairman of the mining engineering department. As we made our way from porthole windows to spiral stairs to cantilevered decks I could practically see him thinking that a listed historical building in West Austin would fit his desired image better than this display of modern architecture running amok.
Which it probably would, but I didn’t have a listed historical mansion to show him. What I had was this house, and a growing hunger for the commission on this sale and its effect on my bank account.
I can’t think why I even tried it. I blame the headache, which aspirin had barely blunted, and the extreme effort of concentration required to keep in mind where we were in the sprawling house. I just didn’t have any mental energy left to tamp down my wild fantasies about how to make Bruce happy with the Harris house.
When he pulled Angie out onto a deck with a murmured apology, I didn’t have to eavesdrop to guess at the substance of the conversation. This was the place where Sensible Hubby reads the riot act to Exhilarated Wife, and I could almost hear that nice, fat commission taking wings and fluttering off to land in somebody else’s wallet. I would probably never again have clients who could afford a place like this.
That was when I pulled the notebook out of my tote bag, flipped it open and skimmed down the page I’d been reading.
Bummer – there were no words meaning “disgustingly rich clients” that I could shoehorn into that little sentence.
Oh, well, what difference did it make? I was trying to use magic, and since there’s no such thing as magic, I could make up my own rules. There was a word for “and”.
“Bruce dva Angie vlaad bakhsh#.”
The room darkened as though the lights were failing. I had the momentary illusion of being on a roller coaster or inside a gyroscope, with gravity pulling at me from crazy angles. The little needle of pain over my right eyebrow turned into a huge lance aimed right at the back of my eyeball. I groaned involuntarily and bent over for a moment, cupping a hand over my eye.
“Sienna, are you all right?” They were back inside already.
Eins, zwei, drei…“Never better,” I lied, forcing a smile. The headache had obviously settled in to torture me for the rest of the day, and now I was going to have to act happy with their decision to do something sensible instead of buying Whitney Harris’s white elephant. The girl was definitely no longer contented.
They were smiling too. Both of them.
“Bruce had his doubts, but I’ve convinced him that this is too good an opportunity to miss,” Angie announced buoyantly.
“Yes, well, I certainly understand…” I actually started the little speech I’d been working on, in which I pretended to be a good sport who didn’t want them to buy anything they might be unhappy with, before it dawned on me that Angie wasn’t saying what I’d been braced for. “I’m sorry, what?” Maybe the pain of this sudden migraine attack was making me hallucinate.
“We’d like you to convey our offer to the seller,” Bruce said.
He and Angie looked completely, gloriously contented with their decision.
I wasn’t.
The girl was scared stiff.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Of oysters, pearls, and woke mathematics

(Image from Pixabay)

The humanities departments of most universities appear to be hopelessly dominated by the Wisdom of Woke. Well, at least English and History and the social “sciences” seem to have gone that way. I haven’t yet heard about intersectional German or Russian in a feminist perspective; maybe the objective requirement to understand what your professor says in a foreign language, and to answer him comprehensibly in that language, has somewhat insulated those departments.

I’ve heard about some remarkably creepy stuff coming out of Classics departments, but I think they shot themselves in the foot years ago when, in a desperate effort to get more students, they started piling on more and more courses that didn’t require people to learn or read Latin or Greek; reading the great authors in translation, or worse, reading discussions of those authors, was enough to get course credit. I don’t know if they’ve reached the level of desperation of my high school Latin teacher, who offered extra credit to anybody who went to see Ben Hur, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that you can graduate with a B.A. in Classics even if you’ve never conjugated “Amo, amas, amat” and the works of Aeschylus are, well, Greek to you.

Until recently I thought the STEM subjects were insulated from wokeness and social justice by the expectation that students not only solve difficult problems but also get the answers right. I mean provably right by unchanging, rigorous standards that were stated up front, not “right” because you yammered nonsensical interpretations until the professor went home with a headache. Then I started seeing “silly season” stories coming out of STEM departments. Non-physics courses in Stanford’s physics department, so-called educators developing “mathematics” courses focusing on social justice, other so-called educators complaining that algebra and geometry perpetuate white privilege. (I am not making this up; references linked below.)

Initially I thought this sort of thing was so silly it couldn’t be anything but a passing fad. Then I started to worry that the final downfall of the academic world was upon us; if STEM departments substitute essays on inclusivity and diversity for actual work in the subject, will any department of a university teach anything at all?

Last night, though, for some reason I was thinking about the humble oyster, and a more cheerful interpretation came to mind. We all know what an oyster does when a bit of useless grit gets inside its shell. It wraps the grit in layer after layer of nacreous matter produced from its own body, effectively insulating the oyster from the unwelcome foreign substance.

Well, here are these beleaguered STEM departments, being beaten up daily because their student bodies do not exactly match the ethnic/sexual/racial makeup of the population as a whole, and under intense pressure to Make Diversity Happen regardless of the talents, preparation, and interests of the students they’re supposed to acquire.

I’ve known more than a few department chairs in math and physics departments, and in general they are extremely intelligent and very tough people with a special talent for shielding their departments from whatever nonsense the Dean is promulgating this year. (My father was one of those chairmen, and he told me that he considered his first task was to get the Dean under his thumb; then he could get on with turning an okay math department into a great one.)

Now, what might such a man do when the grit of Diversity and Social Justice infiltrates his department? One possible response might be to start creating layers that would insulate incompetent students and those who aren’t really interested in the subject matter from the real work of the department. Classes like “Diverse Perspectives in Physics” would naturally attract people who want to hang around the department and get course credit without doing any, you know, actual physics.
Please note that I’m not suggesting the departments push students into taking these non-classes based on their ethnic/sexual/racial identity. The last thing they want to do is to discourage any talented and hard-working student of any background. They don’t need to push the Diversity Admission Students into these classes. The good ones won’t be interested; only the stupid and lazy will be attracted. Offer the empty course, and they will come.

I fear the Diversity Police will be with us for a long time, and that in remarkably short order – less than five years, is my guess – it will be possible for students at some previously respected institutions to get degrees in physics or mathematics or electrical engineering without ever having encountered a laboratory or a theorem or an electron. The non-class classes will have insulated them from any real contact with their supposed subject.

Why do I think this is going to happen? Because approximately ten seconds after you give in to one demand from the Diversity Police, they have a new demand. Offer “remedial” and “social” classes until the required number of minority students sign up for classes in your department? The next thing you know, there’ll be loud complaints that the students who try to progress from Social Justice Engineering to actual engineering courses are flunking out in unacceptably large numbers… so you add another imitation engineering class that these folks cannot possibly flunk. And then the scandal will be that you’ve admitted all these minority students but very few of them stick with the subject all the way to graduation, so you must be playing some nasty racist trick to force them out.

And the only way to get the Diversity Police off your back will be to design a complete parallel track within your department, allowing students who are either unable or unwilling to do rigorous work to pass from one non-class to another until they have accumulated enough non-credits to graduate with that coveted STEM degree.

Let’s call those students pearls, shall we?

The promised links:

Physics and Diversity at Stanford
Teaching Social Justice through Secondary Mathematics
The Unbearable Whiteness of Algebra

Sunday, August 25, 2019

If only it were that easy!

DILBERT © Scott Adams. Used By permission of ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION. All rights reserved.

I like to say that I gained my first experience writing science fiction by writing bids and final reports for DOD and DOE, and that's not entirely false.

But you know what? Those papers required substantially less research than I did for Salt Magic and Tangled Magic, my Regency fantasy series. Even the Applied Topology series required research into the CIA, Central Asia, Greek folklore, and where to play poker in Barcelona - to name but a few subjects.

Then again, I like research, not to mention it generates plot ideas, so I guess I shouldn't complain.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Space Opera in Real Life

( Image credit: PHL@UPR Arecibo (, ESA/Hubble, NASA.)

This morning I came across a science news story suggesting that some extrasolar planets could not only support life, but might do so even better than our own lively, teeming Earth.


Not surprised? After all, distant planets that support not only life, but human life, have been a staple of science fiction ever since astronomers ruined Martian canals and Venusian tropical rain forests for science fiction writers. But the notion has now progressed from wishful thinking to, well, possible-if-not-settled science. In my lifetime.

In 1989 astronomers said the the observed changes in velocity of Gamma Cephei were "consistent" with the existence of an orbiting planet. But "consistent with" is a long way from "definitely exists," and other events of 1989 overshadowed this weak evidence for most of us. (For the infants among us: we were busy watching the Soviet Union crumbling and the Berlin Wall coming down.)

Indirect detection methods strongly suggested (some people say, confirmed) the existence of a handful of other planets, but I think it was ten years before anyone saw one (transiting its parent star) and longer still before one was directly imaged. And that was a gas giant -- not a friendly neighborhood for life, or at least for any kind of life that we would recognize.

Many more extrasolar planets have been discovered since then. We've been able to make spectral analyses of some planets' atmospheres, and at least one was believed to contain an organic molecule. That would have been, oh, ten years ago? Around the same time, optical telescopes were able to image a few planets directly. As I recall, none of them were places you'd want to live, but they fueled speculation that such places might exist outside the solar system.

Many more planets have been discovered since then, some believed to fall within the habitable zone of their stars, some believed to have water.

So this paper isn't exactly a scientific breakthrough; at most, it represents the culmination of a lengthy process of deduction and discovery that has taken place over the last 30 years. But I'm excited. Space Opera lives! The Evil Space Princess and the Genocidal Warlord have somewhere to set their feet!

Now all we have to do is conquer that pesky little problem of traveling faster than the speed of light.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

How to get on my personal blacklist

I spend too much time browsing the Internet.
Oh, wait, maybe it's not 'too much time.' How else would I run across videos of historical costume, or D-day imagined as in the Bayeux Tapestry, or the truly wonderful Regency dance site that I plan to feature in an upcoming post? Anyway, what else was I going to do with that time? Another set of knee exercises, whispers Conscience. Another inept swipe at marketing your books. Half an hour agonizing over a blurb for the next book...

Oh, go away, Conscience.

Anyway, as a consequence of all this browsing, naturally I've bookmarked sites. Lots and lots of sites. Lots and lots and lots of... oh, all right, Conscience. I promise to spend half an hour organizing my Regency research bookmarks. Soon.

A lot of these sites are other people's blogs, bookmarked for reasons like:

"Blogger A usually has some amusing snarky comment on the day's news."
"Blogger B has well-thought-out essays on topics that interest me, and what's more, she keeps her commenters civil."
"I like Blogger C's books so much that I'll read every word she writes, even when she chooses to write about her cats again."
"Blogger D's fiber art is so glorious that it makes me drool over the keyboard."

I don't officially "follow" many blogs because I don't like the notifications cluttering up my email, so mostly I check out Bloggers A, B, C and D by running through my bookmarks on a particular topic. And on periodic sweeps through the tangled mess of bookmarks, I delete or remove to Subfolder Purgatory sites that I realize I no longer visit with anticipation - in fact, I don't need the bookmarks any longer, because the only time I visit these blogs is when somebody else I'm reading posts a link to them. And half the time what has turned me off looking at a blog is not a Great Big Problem, just a minor irritant. These are some of the most frequent ones:

It's too hard to read. And I don't mean that the writing style goes beyond sixth grade English, I mean the format hurts my eyes. The blogger has chosen to put white words on a black background, or to use a pale gray font on a white background, and those words would have to be glorious indeed to persuade me to get a headache by squinting at them.

The unchanging header picture is so big that I have to scroll way down just to find out if the latest topic is something I'm interested in. No matter how beautiful your header picture is, try to bear in mind that I get to see it every time I visit your blog and I'm really more interested in what you've written lately.

Only posts every six months, if that. If the content is interesting enough, I don't need daily postings to make me keep taking a look; I don't check out many sites on a daily basis anyway. But there's a limit.

Those three little things cause more bookmark deletions than any content-based issues. Although I will add these things:

The eternal blog war. "Soandso said I said X, but he's a dirty rotten liar because I really said Y, and here's my clever response pointing out what an idiot he is, and look what a stupid thing he said after that..." Sigh. How about you and soandso go over to the infants' corner and work it out without dragging me in? If I've found your posts on other topics sufficiently interesting, I may check back in a few months to see if you've come back up out of that rabbit hole yet. Or I may not.

Anti-Semitism. One instance - just ONE - of cleverly referring to somebody with {{{ }}} around his name, and the bookmark to your blog is forever expunged from my list. Wiped with a cloth, if necessary. Or with BleachBit. Whatever works.

Shooting mosquitos with cannonballs. It's easy to write snarky reviews of beginning writers' books. Sometimes it's the only way to discharge the irritation built up by trying to read something so laced with technical problems that you were tempted to throw that expensive Kindle at the wall. But it's not nice to indulge in long screeds, however witty, at the expense of a newbie whom you call out by name and book title. Either discuss the general problem without pointing at the particular book, or keep your review to a short comment along the lines of "didn't appeal to me because..."

There are, doubtless, other irritants that drive me away from a blog, but that's probably enough kvetching for one day. All I really started out to say was:

Don't make me read white text on black.
Don't make me read tiny little gray letters on white.
Don't make me scroll past a massive unchanging header image.

Three modest requests, folks.

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Regency version, from the skin out

I must have been half asleep or had my brain turned off for the last post, because when I did wake up it took approximately 30 seconds to find a Regency-era equivalent of that last video I posted, the one about getting dressed in the 1830's:

You'll notice there are fewer layers here. This walking dress with a redingote buttoned over it still seems like a lot to wear from my perspective (i.e., gently baking in a Texas August) but if I cast my mind back to chilly spring days in England without central heating, I don't think it would be too much. As for the diaphanous ball gowns like the one pictured at the top of this post, I sometimes wonder why Regency beauties didn't all die of pneumonia! Consider that drawers had yet to be introduced; ladies tended to reduce the petticoats under the ball dress to a minimum; and that some very "fast" ladies were reputed to dampen those petticoats the better to show off their figures... Yeah. Pneumonia. I'd never have made it in that society.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Getting dressed in the 1830's

I just happened across this wonderful video:

Getting Dressed in the 1830's

It's a bit later than the period I'm writing just now -- Regency ladies didn't wear so many underclothes, in fact their lack of petticoats was sometimes quite shocking -- but still interesting, particularly for the demonstration of the part played by the lady's maid.
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