Saturday, December 29, 2012

Year in Review -- Sort of

I've been letting this blog sit idle over the holidays, while I've been enjoying time with my wife and friends, and a few days off of work.  I'm almost reluctant to break that, but I have a tradition of doing a year in review, and I'm reluctant to break that as well.  So, instead of not doing it entirely, I'm just going to do a lazy and sloppy job of it, and that way I can have it both ways.

The most relevant news for this blog is that I've begun blogging regularly again.  At least twice a week, which is not exactly phenomenal, and I've kind of slacked off during the holidays, but it's better than I've been doing.  In honor of the new blogging, I redesigned the blog.  On the other hand, maybe it was the other way around.

Kristin and I went to a lot of conventions this year: Boskone, Readercon, WorldCon, and World Fantasy.  We also went to visit her brother and his family, her parents and sister, and my family.  All this traveling used up most of my vacation time, so I didn't have enough to travel for the holidays, so it's just been some relaxing  in Boston for us this holiday season.

Also a big story is that my short novel, A Phoenix in Darkness, was finally published at Black Gate.  I'm fond of that story, and I'm glad that John O'Neill wanted it for his magazine, as one of the first stories published in the new online format.  It is an older story, though, and I like to think that I'm a better writer now than when I first wrote it, so there are some places where I wish the prose was more polished and the plotting cleaner and the pace smoother.  But I'm sure that five years from now I'll look at the stories I'm writing now and wish I could revise them, and if I waited for stories to be perfect before they were published, I'd never publish anything.

In other news, I now have a book under contract, meaning that it will be published someday.  Unfortunately, I don't know the release date yet, and the publisher hasn't yet announced it, so I'm keeping details under wraps for now.

I've also begun blogging occasionally at Black Gate.  I'll be doing monthly reviews of self-published books, the first of which should be out soon.

So it's been a busy year for me, and I've had a lot of fun.  I'll be back in a couple of days with my New Year's Resolutions, such as they are.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Kristin and I saw the first episode of The Hobbit last night, in "glorious" IMAX 3D. We didn't feel that the 3D added much, and because it was done with polarized glasses, the movie tended to get blurry whenever we tilted our heads, but overall the experience was fun.

My strongest impression of the movie was that it was too long. Peter Jackson, the same director who did The Lord of the Rings, split the book into three parts, and this part, at least, had considerable filler and flashbacks. Thorin Oakenshield's backstory was interesting, and probably worthwhile for the story they're trying to tell, but did we really need ten minutes or so of the older Bilbo working on his book and discussing the Sackville-Bagginses with Frodo? That seems like it was just an excuse to have an Elijah Wood cameo.  And did the fight between the rock giants add anything? Did the running fight with the goblins have to go on for quite so long?  In case you're wondering, I'm thinking the answer to these is no.

Since you can't get eight hours worth of three movies just from the book alone, there was always going to be plenty of additional material. Some of it was rather silly. Radagast, the brown wizard and Gandalf's peer, came across that way. However, while I wish his character had been treated more seriously, I approve of his inclusion and what it means. Radagast was the means of introducing the audience to the necromancer who is responsible for the darkening of Mirkwood. That necromancer barely gets a mention in the books, but the wizards' battle against him is an important chapter in the events preceding The Lord of the Rings. I take his presence and Radagast's introduction to mean that Peter Jackson intends to give this battle a full treatment, of which I approve.

Other silly parts were pretty unavoidable, as they were lifted directly from the book. The dwarves singing as they cleaned Bilbo's dishes while flinging them around, for example. Actually, the treatment in the movie was probably more serious than in the book, and helped to give some insight into dwarves. The dish washing scene showed them working together with preternatural coordination, and in this sense the song becomes a work song, meant to keep rhythm as the dwarves work together in concert. A scene of dwarf smiths working together in the prologue served both to foreshadow and explain this. I would have liked to see more of this coordination, especially in the fight scenes. It came through in the fight with the trolls, but not so much in the fight with the goblins. That was partly because there were hundreds of goblins, and the running battle, where each dwarf has to fight off a dozen or so goblins at a time, made it hard to show this. Plus the scene was so frenetic that I may have missed what there was of it. I hope that Peter Jackson does show more of this dwarven coordination in the future, as it helps to give them more character, and explain how they can be such a powerful influence on Middle Earth without the magical power of the elves.

Speaking of the dwarves, one problem with both the movie and the book is that there are a lot of dwarves, and it's hard to keep them all straight. Peter Jackson did a decent job of making them visually distinctive, but for the most part only a few of them stand out. Thorin himself, the twins Kili and Fili, the old warrior, the deaf dwarf, and the youngest one--see, I'm forgetting their names. But these did and said stuff that made them memorable. The other six, not so much. With three movies, I hope Jackson has a chance to develop them more.

So what did I think, overall? Some parts of it work better than others, and it's not always because of whether it was in the books or not. And I think the movie could have been at least half an hour shorter, if not more. But if you're a Tolkien fan, or you liked The Lord of the Rings movies, it's not a question of if you'll see this movie, but when. And being both of those myself, I think this was worth seeing.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Review of Cold Days by Jim Butcher

The Dresden Files have been around for a while. Cold Days is, I believe, the fourteenth book in the series. Like any long series, there's a lot of backstory and supporting characters, and it's easy to get lost if you haven't read the previous books. But that same history gives the characters and conflicts a lot of richness. We've had over a dozen books to get to know and care for these people, starting with Harry himself.

After having spent the previous book as a ghost, Harry Dresden is back from the dead. This is not a good thing, as it defeats the purpose of his suicide by assassin. Harry's sold his soul to the Winter Queen of Faerie, Mab, to become the Winter Knight. That grants him a great deal of power, but it comes at a price. For one, it means that he has to become Mab's assassin, killing anyone she wants dead. Worse, the Winter Knight Mantle is changing him. Winter is sometimes called the wicked side of Faerie in the books, but that's not entirely accurate. Winter isn't evil, but it is primal, reflecting the part of nature that's about survival of the fittest and procreation of the species and the ultimate end of all nature: death. The changes the Mantle causes, and Harry's fear of them, are the reason for the aforementioned suicide by assassin. Too bad Mab and Demonreach, the genius loci of Harry's island, won't let him escape that easy.

The story starts with Harry going through rehab in Mab's palace. Weight training, motor control, assassination attempts--that sort of thing. Once he graduates from that, he's off on his first assignment, to kill an immortal. Along the way, he discovers that someone's attacking his island, intent on freeing what's imprisoned there, with possibly disastrous consequences for the Midwest. Fortunately, both plots come together in a spectacular finish.

The greatest strength of this book is its place in the series. We get to see old friends, and learn how things have changed since Harry's been away. This is also the greatest weakness of the novel. Old problems get brief mentions and remain unresolved (the Swords of the Cross, for example), new problems get created but remain unresolved (Molly's new role, Mac). And when old mysteries do finally get answered, it's often unsatisfying--I didn't find Demonreach's true purpose as interesting as its promise. Ditto for the Gatekeeper's role in things. On the other hand, sometimes the payoff is surprisingly good, such as the purpose of Winter. (The fact that it was one and the same as the Gatekeeper's role is what diminished the latter's reveal.)

However, I think that the biggest disappointment with this book is that it didn't feel like Harry did a whole lot. Sure, Dresden always spends much of the book floundering around, trying to figure out what's going on. But he usually manages to get his act together and beat the big bad at the end. This time it felt like he kept on floundering until someone else had to do the job for him. Oh sure, he was still there, hitting stuff, but at each step he'd been manipulated to where he was supposed to be, and at the end, he doesn't even throw the deciding punch himself.

Ultimately, this didn't feel like a book so much as an episode. That's not entirely a bad thing, and a series this long isn't ruined. by a book or two where the hero never really gets his act together. Failure is part of the drama. But I hope that Butcher doesn't make a habit of it.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

First books to review

If you're a regular reader of this blog, then you probably know that I'm reviewing self-published books for Black Gate. To that end, I've set up a submission system via which authors can ask me to review their books. This weekend, I selected the first two books to review, and asked their authors to send me review copies.

This does not mean that I've rejected all the other submissions. It's not even a sure thing that I'll review the books I've requested, though I most likely will. I expect that I'll be doing one review a month, and it's quite possible that I'll dip into the submissions I've already received when it's time to find a new book to review. In the meantime, I'm still accepting more books to review in the coming months.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Where's my Android? (or Why can't they make a normal sized phone?)

I've been looking at Android smartphones recently. I still have a year left on my contract for my iPhone 4S, but once that's done, I'd like to get an Android.  However, I'm having trouble finding one that meets my stringent specifications. So, I'm putting you on notice, Android phone manufacturers. If you want my business, you're going to need to make the phone I want, with at least the following specifications:
  • A 4"+ AMOLED display
  • A top of the line processor
  • Plenty of memory, and an SDcard slot
  • 4G LTE
  • Decent front and back facing cameras
  • Preferably, an HDMI port
  • Small enough to fit comfortably in my hand
The last point is the trickiest. Android manufacturers have concluded that bigger is better, and all of the top-of-the-line phones have a 4.7" screen, if not bigger. And they're talking 5" screens for next year.

I've had a chance to play with the HTC Trophy and Titan (Windows phones, I know). While the Trophy fits in my hand well enough, the Titan is too big. Now let's compare sizes:
  • HTC Trophy (3.8" screen)-  118.5 x 61.5 x 12 mm (4.67 x 2.42 x 0.47 in)
  • HTC Titan (4.7" screen) - 131.5 x 70.9 x 9.9 mm (5.17 x 2.79 x 0.39 in) 
And here are all the top-of-the-line Android phones:
  • RAZR MAXX HD (4.7" screen) - 131.9 x 67.9 x 9.3 mm (5.19 x 2.67 x 0.37 in)
  • LG Optimus G (4.7" screen) - 131.9 x 68.9 x 8.5 mm (5.19 x 2.71 x 0.33 in
  • HTC One X+ (4.7" screen) - 134.4 x 69.9 x 8.9 mm (5.29 x 2.75 x 0.35 in
  • Samsung Galaxy S III (4.7" screen) - 136.6 x 70.6 x 8.6 mm (5.38 x 2.78 x 0.34 in)
Notice a trend? They're all about the same size as the Titan--a little bit taller, and, at best, an eight of an inch narrower. The width is what matters the most for comfortably holding the phone upright in one hand.  Apple, meanwhile, offers the iPhone 5:
  •  iPhone 5 (4" screen) - 123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6 mm (4.87 x 2.31 x 0.30 in)
It's the exact same width as the iPhone 4 and even narrower than the HTC Trophy. In order to get an Android phone I can comfortably hold, I'd have to get a midlist phone, such as the DROID RAZR M:

  •  RAZR M (4.3" screen) - 122.5 x 60.9 x 8.3 mm (4.82 x 2.40 x 0.33 in)

To be honest, it looks like a pretty nice phone, though I hear the camera leaves something to be desired, and I'd really like an HDMI port. But it's the best I can find right now.

The problem is, I want a top-of-the-line Android phone. I'm willing to pay a premium for one. But if Android manufacturers can't figure out how to make a top flight phone that I can comfortably hold, my next phone may be an iPhone 5S, or whatever Apple calls next year's model.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Really old books

It seems like mostly I've been talking about the things I've been doing with Black Gate recently, and haven't talked about much else.  I figure it's time to change that.

Kristin has been reading Don Quixote recently, and has a nice, long post up about the book:
I mentioned that I had been reading Don Quixote, and at one point there are these women who’ve supposedly been cursed to grow beards (actually, they’re men pretending to be women as a joke on Don Quixote, but that’s beside the point).  Don Quixote’s squire Sancho Panza says, “I’ll wager they don’t have enough money to pay for somebody to shave them.”  And I realized, which I never had before, that if your fantasy world doesn’t have safety razors and good mirrors, you can’t have all the men walking around clean-shaven unless there are a lot of inexpensive barbers.
Learning things from old fiction is an especially good way to research writing historical fiction.  You can read all the books on the history and daily life of a certain time period that you can get your hands on, but none of these will give you as good a feel for what was considered the normal daily routine, and what was considered unusual and noteworthy, as reading fiction written by those living in that age.  I've recently been reading Ovid's love poems (the Amores, the Art of Love, Love's Cure, and The Art of Beauty).  Some of the advice is surprisingly modern.  For example, women are advised not to let their armpits smell or their legs bristle.  And some of it is barbaric by our standards.  The Romans, it seemed, had no concept of date rape. (Ovid's advice to men amounts to "Go for it.")  I still haven't quite gotten what I wanted from these books, though, which is a sense of the Roman attitude toward love, rather than their attitudes towards sex. Ovid's book amounts to advice for pick-up artists, though there is a sense that there were a lot of loveless marriages in Ovid's time.  I'll have to give a more full report once I finish the last couple of books.

The bottom line is that if you really want to understand a culture, you can learn a lot from its writings.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Reviewing Self-published Books Continued

Over at the Black Gate blog, I've taken on the task of reviewing self-published fantasy novels. I've received about 20 submissions so far, and I'm still expecting a batch of review copies of books which John O'Neill's received. So I thought I'd talk a bit about how I intend to choose the book I'll ultimately review.

I have two criteria:

First, it has to be a self-published fantasy novel. That means I can answer "yes" to three questions: Is it self-published?  Is it fantasy?  Is it a novel?  The novel question, at least, is easy to answer, as that's a question of hard numbers.  Is it 40,000 words or more?  If so, it's a novel.  The other two can be more complicated.  Is steampunk fantasy?  I suppose it depends on how exactly the technology, and the world, works.  Would a mix of sci-fi and fantasy count as fantasy?  What about alternate history?  In general, I'm trying to apply a broad definition of fantasy, but there are still some that are borderline.  The self-published question is giving me even more headaches.  By definition, a small press is not self-publishing.  Unless the small press is your own imprint.  What if you published with a small press, but it didn't do such a good job with your book, so now you're self-publishing?  What if it's a vanity press?  I'm still considering these questions.

Fortunately, I have a pretty free hand and some options.  While I probably want to stick with something purely self-published for my first review, that doesn't stop me from reviewing other things, either in later months or as a separate review from my self-published books series.  This also allows me to consider books that are borderline non-fantasy.  But before I do any of that, the book has to meet my second criteria.

My second requirement is that the book has to be something I want to read.  This is harder for an author to select for. While strong prose, characters, and world-building will make any book more enjoyable, if I don't like epic fantasies, then it's unlikely I'll want to read your epic fantasy (for the record, I love epic fantasy--I'm just using that as an example).  In order to decide whether I want to read the book, I first read the blurb and see if it sounds interesting.  Then, if it does (and so far, more than half my submissions do--I'm going to have to become more selective), I start to read the sample chapter.  This is where the prose can make or break the book.  If I find the prose style difficult to read--which isn't always bad prose, just difficult--then I'll stop and move on to the next one.  I may also lose interest if I notice numerous grammatical or stylistic errors, or clumsy infodumping, or lifeless description, or clich├ęd characters, or a plodding plot.  If, however, both the story and the characters are engaging enough to keep me reading, and I reach the end of the sample chapter wanting to know what happens next, then I know I have a book I want to review.

I still have to decide on which book I actually will be reviewing, and that means selecting the one I think looks the best. That's as much guesswork as good judgment.  On the bright side, just because I decide not to review a book this time around doesn't mean I can't come back and review it later.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

News

I have a post up at Black Gate asking for submissions of self-published books for me to review.  I discussed this idea here earlier this week, and actually implemented it at Black Gate yesterday.  So far I have a few submissions, and John O'Neill's promising to send me some of the review copies he's received at Black Gate.  The idea is to gather a lot of possible books, sort through them, and select the most promising to review.  Next week, I'll assess whether I'm receiving enough submissions to get a reasonable selection, and if not, announce it in a few different places.

Meanwhile, Kristin has a post up about World Fantasy.  This is much more detailed than my post a few weeks back, with details about each of the panels she went to.  She also has pictures of Niagara Falls and, and reviews of Richmond Hill restaurants, and probably more about crocheting than I was really interested in, but you may have better taste.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Reviewing Self-published Books

A while ago, I talked a little about reviewing people's self-published Kindle novels.  The reason for doing this is pretty obvious.  Self-published novels lack gatekeepers.  There's no editor or agent to say whether it's good or bad.  So when the author puts it out, potential readers have no clue how good it is.  It would be helpful if someone would read some of those novels, and write reviews, to let potential readers know where the good stuff is.

But I only did one review. Part of the problem was that I didn't really know where to begin.  I could just browse through Amazon, but the most usual ways rank either by most popular or best reviewed by Amazon customers.  Frankly, that defeats the purpose.  If I'm looking for undiscovered books, I hardly want to be looking at the books everyone has already discovered.  Granted, the Amazon reviews can be gamed, and there may be some value in seeing whether those well-reviewed books are actually good, or if the author is writing his own reviews (or paying someone else to do it).  But finding false reviews is not my objective.  I'm interested in undiscovered books.

One option is to ask people who have books they want reviewed to contact me.  I'd probably need a bigger stage than this little blog, both to make it possible for people to find me, and to make it worth their while to do so.  I may be able to do that.  But assuming that I could get such attention, how would I decide what to review?  Obviously, I won't be reading and reviewing a new book every day.  More like once  a month.  And if there's even mild interest in my offer, there are going to have to be some filters.  I figure I could ask potential reviewees to send a submission, with a blurb and a link to a free chapter, and then I'll select my favorite one to review.  This is not quite the same thing as going through all the self-published novels and telling people whether they're good or bad, but that's not my objective: my objective is to find good, undiscovered novels.  Of course, I'm not promising a good review.  Just because I like a submission doesn't mean I'll like the whole novel, just that it's showing enough promise to take the time to read it.

Overall, it sounds like a decent idea.  Maybe I'll look into implementing it.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Blog post at Black Gate

I've been promoted to the status of blogger at the Black Gate blog.  My first post, a review of Vox Day's A Magic Broken, is now up at Black Gate.  I'm not sure how much I'll be posting there, but I suspect that John O'Neill will be inviting me to contribute again.  I won't be cross-posting items, but I'll be sure to point you to the Black Gate posts when they happen.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

A Phoenix in Darkness, Part III

The third and final part of my short novel "A Phoenix in Darkness," has now been published at Black Gate.  This is where the Domini have their climactic battle with the Necromancers, and the question of who truly wins is resolved.

Originally, this part of the story was a lot more anti-climactic.  That's because it ended at chapter 5, and didn't include the final showdown in Chapter 6, though it did include something similar to the current epilogue, though much more ambiguous.  Why did I end it that way?  Because that's how I originally saw it ending--the story wasn't about the climactic final battle, so much as the tensions between the Domini. That was what originally inspired this story: a throwaway line in my novel, now called Heirs of Fire, revealing one of the sources of the conflict between Aulus and Kulsin.   It was John O'Neill, the editor at Black Gate, who pointed out that a Black Gate story needed a more action-oriented climax.  I thought about it some, went back over the story, and realized that there was a significant plot hole.  It was not the sort of hole a reader of "A Phoenix in Darkness" would really appreciate, not unless he knew as much about the Necromancers as I did.  In which case it became glaring.  Thinking about that, I told John that I could write a new ending, which would fill in that particular plot hole, and end the story with something exciting.  So that's what I did.

Which is also how my 35,000 word novella grew to a 50,000 word short novel.  But I don't regret it in the least.  So, go ahead and read it, and enjoy the new, more exciting ending of "A Phoenix in Darkness."

World Fantasy Convention 2012

The World Fantasy Convention 2012 has wrapped up.  It took place in Toronto, ON, which is within driving distance from Bostn, but it's a pretty long drive.  The convention was a great chance to meet people, old friends and new, and to catch up on what they're doing these days.  The publishing industry in fantasy and science fiction is smaller than most people realize.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing.  It's quite possible to go to conventions, and meet most of the important people in the industry.  But it also tends to be pretty insular, and sometimes tends to look inward rather than outward.  I like to think that we're less insular than some folks, but there's a definite danger of groupthink, especially when it comes to things like politics and religion.  Most of the folks in the industry tend to live on the east or west coast, and tend to absorb the attitudes there, which are usually secular and politically liberal.  The irony is that they then write fantasy, often set in pre-industrial societies, without fully appreciating the sort of cultural and spiritual attitudes that such societies tend to have.  That was one of the topics we discussed in our "The Real World in Fantastic Fiction" panel, which Kristin and I were panelists for.  The moderator was Ian Drury, and we also had Geoff Hart, Kenneth Schneyer, and Christopher Kovacs on the panel.  In addition to the role of religion in most societies, ancient and modern, we also discussed the importance of reading the literature of a society in order to get an idea of how it viewed itself, and of doing research in technical topics such as medicine and engineering, in order to get things straight.  For example, conking someone on the back of the head with a brick does not, usually, knock them unconscious so they revive a short time later.

Of course, I firmly believe in the importance of research.  But I'll also be quick to point out that you can get away with certain tropes (such as knocking someone out via a blow to the head), because they're well accepted.  I've used that one myself, though advisedly.  (It's tried multiple times in my story, and only works once.)  And frankly, research can be exhausting, and you can end up as far away from a usable answer as when you started.  That's why it's important to have beta readers--folks with expert knowledge whom you can show your stories to, and who will get back to you and point out those sorts of problems.  A writing critique group also helps, though it's often the case that they too lack the expertise you need.

Anyway, that's getting rather far afield, since I wanted to talk about the convention as a whole, rather than just a panel.  The bottom line is that it was fun, and I really enjoyed it.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Surviving Sandy

Here in Boston, Hurricane Sandy didn't do too much damage that we could see.  The public transportation stopped running during the second half of Monday, and there was a lot of wind and rain that evening.  But in the end, things were more or less back to normal the next day.  Just a few fallen branches.  We never even lost power at our home or work--although not everyone in the Boston area was so lucky, and I'm not sure even now whether all the power outages have been resolved.  It continued to rain on Tuesday--we had a pretty heavy thunderstorm in the evening--but overall we were pretty lucky.

New York, though, is another story.  There were floods, power outages, fires.  Sandy was everything New York feared it would be, and more.  Continue to keep them in your thoughts and prayers.

Barring any further storm impacts, Kristin and I, and our friend Max Gladstone (whose book, Three Parts Dead, has just come out--Go! Buy!), will be carpooling to Toronto for World Fantasy on Thursday.  Let us know if you'll be there.

Monday, October 29, 2012

A Phoenix in Darkness, Part 2

Last week, I announced the beginning of the serial publication of my short novel, "A Phoenix in Darkness."  Today, I'm happy to say that the second part of "A Phoenix in Darkness" is now live at Black Gate's website.  The second part contains some of my favorite scenes from the novel, including two very creepy scenes which I read at World Fantasy two years ago.  Since it's the Sunday before Halloween, I think it's the perfect time for this part of my novel to go up.  And to whet your appetite, here's a taste of one of them:
He couldn’t see the front of the room, where the lecturing voice continued to drone on, but he could see the children. They were young girls, perhaps a dozen of them aged somewhere between eight and ten, and dressed in identical gray dresses which only accentuated the differences between them. Aside from the differences in age, which could be quite noticeable for that range, Seth recognized the dark hair and the broad features of the working class in most of them, the honey-colored hair and tall, willowy body only found in certain noble families, and even one girl whose dark brown skin marked her ancestry as from the Daurens region of the Novar Empire. The girls were the only living people he could see — the others were dead. Corpses lay on low tables around the room, each with two or three of the girls gathered around it. They were all young men, maybe all peasants from what he could tell, but it was hard to notice their faces when their chests were peeled open to reveal their organs. What Seth couldn’t understand at first, or perhaps didn’t want to understand, was what the girls were doing with the bodies. Even seeing the organs lying on the table and the blood on the hands and dresses of the children wasn’t enough to hammer into him what was happening until he watched one girl, with dark, curly hair and a look of intense concentration on her face, use a knife to saw at a corpse’s chest. She set the knife down, wiped back a lock of her hair to leave a smear of blood at her temple, then reached into the chest cavity with both hands to pull out a heart nearly the size of her head. She gave the girl next to her a dimpled smile, which the other girl returned while making some quip that caused the first one to giggle. Swallowing hard to overcome his nausea, Seth pulled back from the door and leaned against the wall with a clink of armor which caused both Aulus and Nathan to whip their heads in his direction. The voices in the room gave no indication that they had heard anything, however, so Seth started breathing again with a soft curse for his own clumsiness. He picked up his sword as quietly as possible, almost losing his grip with his sweat-slick hands. He could still hear them chattering, joking, and laughing, but quietly, all the while giving half their attention to the speaker whose words Seth could now clearly hear: “If you examine the heart, you’ll find that it has four parts, or chambers. The heart is a large muscle, whose job it is to circulate the blood throughout the body. This vein collects the blood and brings it to the heart, while this…”
Perfect for Halloween, I'd say.  I hope you enjoy the story, and I look forward to hearing what people think.

And as a reminder, if you'd like to read about one of Aulus's earlier adventures, you might enjoy A Stranger in the Library.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

World Fantasy Convention

Kristin and I will be going to the World Fantasy Convention next weekend, and we will both be on the panel "The Real World  in Fantastic Fiction" at noon on Saturday.  Here's the description:
Just because a story is set in a secondary world doesn’t mean its medical/legal/political/military systems cannot be grounded in some kind of reality. Inaccuracies can abound when authors try to incorporate procedures and systems that exist in the real world into their created worlds without paying proper attention to details. The panel examines why and how reality is all important, even in a fantastic world.
The other panelists are Ian Drury, Geoff Hart, Christopher Kovacs, and Kenneth Schneyer.

There are a number of different ways that this panel could go, and it's not clear yet exactly what we'll be talking about.  Presumably the moderator will ask us questions, and we'll do our best to answer them.  We can talk about they "why" of getting the reality in your fiction right, but I often find the question of "how" to be more interesting.  How do you get the details right?  One of the keys is research, but how do you do the research?  How much do you do?  What can't you learn from research?  If the research isn't helping, do you change the story or just make stuff up?  Those are the sort of questions all writers face to some degree, and I think it'd be fun to talk about.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The work of writing

I've spent the last weekend working on my writing without actually writing. That was frustrating. I had a story coming out in Black Gate on Sunday, so I needed to review the story for typos and formatting errors, and the occasional plot hole. In addition, I needed to promote my story in various ways: emailing my friends, posting announcements in the online forums I frequent, etc. I also has a lot of stories I was prepping for submission (or resubmission), so I spent  time getting those ready. Finally, I ahad to read and critique a fairly long story for my writing group. Overall, it was a long weekend. All of that work was worthwhile, but I missed just having time to write.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Phoenix in Darkness has begun

Black Gate has published the first part of my short novel in their online fiction series today, and will be publishing the rest over the next two weeks. "A Phoenix in Darkness" is the longest story that Black Gate has ever published.

Those (three) of you who have been following my blog for a while will remember Phoenix. I talked about it incessantly as I was writing it, back in 2004. It forms an important chapter in my War of the Elementals canon, revealing a turning point in the history of Aulus and Kulsin. My original blurb to describe the story went like this:
For centuries, the Ordo Dominorum has defended humanity against threats beyond its comprehension, but the Order’s secretive ways and strange powers have earned the Domini only fear and hatred from those they seek to protect. Aulus and Nathan, two young Domini, believe that the Order’s success in hunting down and destroying magical threats has now made it possible to reform the Order and make it a part of the world. Will the murder of a fellow Dominus by a peasant woman be the impetus to begin this change . . . or proof that the Order has not been as successful as they believed?
I'm a different writer now than I was when I wrote the first draft of this story eight years ago. I'd definitely write it differently if I were writing it now--for one, it would be shorter. My style is terser now. I like to think that I'm a better writer, but looking over this story in preparation of the publication, there's a richness to the descriptions that I'm not sure I'd do justice to today. That's the burden of an author's evolution: constantly wondering if what you're gaining is worth what you're losing. I believe it is in my case, but stories like this make me wonder.

A lot of the War of the Elementals is not yet published, but you can find out what Aulus was up to prior to this in "A Stranger in the Library," previously published in Aoife's Kiss, and now available on Kindle. The rest of my published stories can be found here.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Spam? Phishing?

For the past week, I've received dozens, if not hundreds, of emails purporting to confirm my registration at one online forum or other. Each of them says I've signed up with a different username, and most of them give me the password. The emails are mostly identical enough that I've been able to filter most of them, but not the foreign language ones or the occasional one with different wording.

My first instinct was to suspect phishing, but I think that I've decided that it's spam. I've done Google searches on the forums, and sometimes that turns up nothing. I've only had the courage to visit one of those that does turn up (through the Google search, not the link in the email). The website for the Ocean Air Brokerage (I won't link for fear of viruses) looks legitimate enough, but the forums I've supposedly been given membership in make no sense. Why would the forums of a supposed shipping brokerage have no forums on shipping or customs or regions, but categories such as Sports, Software, and Phone Service? And every single post I've seen appears to be spam.

This leads me to the conclusion that these are spam forums. The only question is whether the spam forums themselves are sending out false registration emails, or whether some would be spammer is using my email address in his contact info. Either way, I have no idea what to do about it.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Where's the rest of the blog?


You may have noticed that there are no posts on this blog between July of 2004 and December of 2009.  You may be wondering what's up with that--did I just stop blogging, then suddenly decide to take it up again?  Well, no.  In July of 2004 I switched to another blog host, Powerblogs, putting my blog on their site and their software.  Unfortunately, they went out of business in 2009, and I resurrected my old blog on Blogger.  But all my posts in those five years were never transferred to the old blog, and thus there's a long stretch between the two.  The thing is, I still have all those posts, having downloaded the blog before the servers were taken down.  They're just in a format that isn't easily transferred to Blogger in an automated way.  And since many of those posts were on current events, and so are now hopelessly out of date and irrelevant, I haven't been particularly motivated to copy them over by hand.  That said, I still like a lot of what's in the posts, so from time to time, starting on Wednesday, I'll be re-posting some of my favorites.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Stranger in the Library for sale


I recently put my short story, "A Stranger in the Library," up on Amazon as a Kindle e-book.  "A Stranger in the Library" was my first fiction sale, appearing in the December 2008 issue of Aoife's Kiss. Since it only appeared in print, and is now very difficult to get a hold of, I thought it would be worth making it available for sale online.  For those of you familiar with Fire--right now just a few friends and family, though hopefully more people will have a chance to read it in the not-too-distant future--"A Stranger in the Library" takes place in the same world thirty-five years earlier, and involves the characters of Marjori and Aulus. Aulus also appears in "A Phoenix in Darkness," which will be going up on Black Gate later this month.

For everyone still waiting on their chance to read those stories--all five of you, here's the blurb I included with "A Stranger in the Library":
Marjori is a Philosopher of Books, tasked with maintaining the University's Great Library and helping the scholars seeking knowledge within. When one of the secretive Domini seeks her aid, will she risk helping him undermine his corrupted Order?
More stories by me (okay, one more story by me) can be found at my Amazon Author page.  My wife also has an Amazon Author page, so you could buy some of her stories as well.  We recently compared how many stories she's sold on Amazon vs. the number of stories I've sold, and I was embarrassed to discover that she's outselling me ten to one.  Granted, she's had five stories up while I've only had one until this past week, but still!  Now I'm not going to discourage people from buying Kristin's stories.  By all means, buy one of hers too.  Just buy one of mine first.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Spoiler-full Review of Looper

My wife and I saw Looper the other day.  Unlike Doc Rampage, we were able to suspend our disbelief long enough to enjoy the movie.  It was fun, although a little bit too bloody for my wife's liking.  She also found the main sex scene completely gratuitous.  Since we saw the movie, though, she's been pointing out a steady stream of plot holes to me, and I've been doing my best to patch them up, though not necessarily successfully.

Everything beyond this point is full of spoilers, so beware.

.

.

.

The premise is that in the future, time travel has been invented.  However, it's completely illegal, so only criminals use it, and they use it to dispose of bodies.  A victim is kidnapped and sent back in time by about thirty years, where a looper immediately shoots him, disposes of the body, and is paid.  Since the victim's still alive and well at the time when his future self is shot and killed, no one misses him, his body can be incinerated with no one the wiser at the earlier time, and no incriminating body around in the future.  If the premise sounds a little silly, it is, and it mainly exists for the fact that eventually the looper must "close the loop."  Eventually, the person sent back in time is himself, thirty years in the future, and he's required to shoot and kill him (victims always have their faces covered, so the looper doesn't know that he's killed himself until after the fact).  Then he receives a tremendous payday, retires, and has thirty years until the criminal gang picks him up and sends him back in time to be killed by himself.

So what happens when the looper his future self go go?  It's a death sentence for his future self.  For his present self, it's something worse.  And here is where the whole time travel premise has some logical problems.  In one scene, when the future looper escapes, they catch the present looper.  Then they start cutting off pieces.  Those pieces start vanishing off the future looper until he comes back to be properly executed.  They can't just kill the present looper, since that would create a dangerous paradox.  But damaging him is allowed.

Doc had a lot of trouble with this one, as did my wife.  Does it really make sense for pieces to start disappearing in real time?  It does for the audience, but would the looper notice it in real time, as for him, it happened thirty years ago.  And this is where you either accept the premise of how time travel works in the movie or you don't.  The future looper has only a fuzzy memory of the time between the time he's been sent back to and the time when he was sent back.  That's because what happens between those two points isn't set: it's possibilities. Those memories only become clear when they happen in the present.  Thus, the future looper can realize that his current self is being mutilated, because those memories are becoming clear, and realizing what's going on, he has motivation to go back.  Because his entire life is being rewritten, and the past thirty years are becoming worse and worse as his body becomes less and less whole.

So the difference is, I could accept this premise.  At least as a premise of a movie--I'd have a hard time accepting it in a Physics lecture.  Doc, and to a lesser extent, my wife, couldn't.

In this story, the future looper is sent back and escapes, and he sets out to kill the person who sent him back.  And in the present time, that person is a small child.  The present looper is determined to kill the future looper, because he thinks it's the only way he can get his life back.

The main problem I had, and the contradiction I had the biggest trouble with, was that the future looper remembered killing himself the first time around.  How was he able to change that the second time around?  How could anything be different?

The second problem I had is that it was presented that the small boy who was sending all the loopers back in the future was seeking revenge because of what the future looper did when he was sent back.  But if, in the first timeline, he was sent back and killed without incident, then how could the boy have needed to have revenge for anything, in order to send him back in the first place?

The bottom line, of course, is that time travel always causes paradoxes.  Read Doc's post for even more time travel logic puzzles aka plot holes.

Monday, October 08, 2012

New author page

I've put up an author page on Amazon.  It's pretty empty so far, as I wait until it finishes processing the short stories I'm selling on Amazon as e-books.  I expect them to turn up soon.

Right now, I'm only selling stories which I've already published, whose rights have reverted to me, and which aren't available for free online.  So, that's two stories.  Hopefully, there will be more in the future.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Black Gate is publishing fiction online

Black Gate has announced that it will now be publishing fiction online.  Which is exciting, especially since one of the first stories they'll be publishing is mine.  The very first story, Jason Thummel's "The Duelist," appears here.  It's a novelette length story, which generally means between 7,500 and 17,500 words, which is where the novella category starts.  A quick word count tells me it's about 9,500 words long.

Rather than review the story itself, at the moment I'm interested in the format.  How well does Black Gate's new format work for reading stories?  Are they comfortable to read?  Is it easy to keep track of your place? I find these questions particularly interesting, since I have an upcoming story.

The stories are posted not as blog posts, but as separate web pages, each announced by a blog post, such this one.  However, for the most part, the formatting is the same as for blog posts.

For example, the story uses the same unusual color-scheme, light blue letters on a black background, as for Black Gate's blog. Now, I usually read the blog's RSS feed, which reformats the blog to standard black-on-white, so I was a bit wary of reading such a long story in that format.  Surprisingly--or perhaps not so surprisingly, assuming that their web designer knows what he's doing--I found the blue-on-black color scheme to be comfortable to read, and had no trouble with eye strain.

Another thing that surprised me was that the lettering was large enough to read clearly on a mobile device.  Unlike my own blog, that has a separate formatting for mobile devices, Black Gate looks mostly the same whether you're reading it on a desktop or an iPhone.  But the letters don't shrink down to illegibility, like they do on some sites.  It's still more comfortable to read when holding the phone sideways rather than vertically, but either way is readable.

Black Gate's blog posts have in-line commenting on the article page.  This is how I prefer to see comments on blogs, but it can work to the detriment of long stories, partly by making a long page even longer, and partly because spamming and trolling can distract from the story. The solution Black Gate came up with works well.  The story does not contain in-line comments, but a link to the blog post announcing the story, allowing readers to comment there.  It also keeps all the comments in one place, to prevent a proliferation of pages.

I was curious about how well a long story would work on a single webpage (I had some thoughts on this issue, inspired by my insider knowledge of the upcoming online-fiction on Black Gate, a couple of weeks ago).  If you navigate away from a long webpage, it's hard to find your place again.  The same applies if you're reading it on two computers, such as a laptop and an iPhone, as I was.  The iPhone also has the feature that you can tap at the top bar of the browser and it will automatically scroll to the top of the page.  I can count on doing that by accident at least once while reading a story of "The Duelist's" length.  Fortunately, "The Duelist" wasn't too long to find my place again quickly, but I do wonder whether it would be possible with anything longer, such as my story, which is much longer.

If you'll permit me to talk a little bit about my upcoming story, my understanding is that it will be broken into three parts and posted on consecutive weeks. Even so, each part will be much longer than Thummel's story, which has me wondering if it is broken up enough.  One option might be to further split it, so that each part is on two webpages, without affecting the publishing schedule.  Barring that, in-page navigation would be helpful.  But these are thoughts I should take up with the editor.

Overall, I think the formatting that Black Gate used worked well.  My only real concern is how well it will handle even longer stories, and I suppose we'll see that when it happens.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Spinning


I heard once that there are more flintknappers today than there ever were at any other time in history.  In other words, today's population is so big, and people have so much free time, that there are now more people who know how to knap flint, most of them as a hobby, than there were people who had to shape flint to survive at any time in human history.  That's one of those rumors that's too good to check, but there's a grain of truth in it.  Every historical activity and profession, even those least necessary in today's society, has its scholars and enthusiasts.  Today, you can get a sword blacksmithed by hand, in a historical design and made by historical techniques, and you can order it over the Internet.  Which is useful, if you're one of those people working to recreate the martial arts of the Middle Ages.

I bring this up because my mother has taken up spinning recently.   That includes everything from raising the animals to using an actual, old-fashioned spinning wheel to spin the hair into thread and yarn.  When we were visiting her in Louisiana, she showed us some of what was involved.

My mother's spinning wheel


It starts with the animals.  In this case, angora rabbits:


Angora rabbits in their hutch.

Mr. Bojangles, the patriarch, so to speak, held by my sister Sarah.
She'll spin more than just rabbit fur, but the angoras are the only one she's trying to raise herself.  Unlike sheep, who are sheared, angora fur is removed by brushing the rabbits.  You can use just your fingers when they're really shedding.

Rabbit fur.

The fur needs to be carded, which aligns and cleans the fur, as I understand it.

My mother carding rabbit fur


After that, it can be spun.  I didn't get a picture of my mother using the spinning wheel, although you can see her with a spindle here.

My mother with a spindle.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Conditum paradoxum addendum

Kristin's finally put up her recipe for conditum paradoxum:
As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, one of the things my husband Donald and I share is a fascination with the culture of ancient Rome.  Since I also love to cook, this leads inexorably to our attempts to recreate ancient Roman food and beverages.  I say “our” even though it’s usually me doing the cooking.  Donald is there for encouragement.  Such as, “We haven’t had any Roman food in a while.”  Or, “When are you going to cook some more Roman food?”  He does help with the dishes.

One ancient Roman recipe I’ve made twice now is conditum paradoxum, from Apicius, the most famous ancient Roman cookbook.  Depending on the translation, conditum paradoxum means “marvelous seasoned wine”, “novelty spiced wine”, or “spiced wine surprise”.
I just wanted to point out that I'm also there for the math.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Wedding in Louisiana

Last weekend, Kristin and I went down to Louisiana, where my sister, Rebekah, was getting married.  It was a simple, and relatively inexpensive, wedding at my parents' home in St. Francisville.  Here's a picture, so you can get an idea of what it looked like.

The wedding party.  My sister and Vance with the minister in the center.  My other sister, Sarah, on the right, and her daughter, Hope, in the white dress in front of the groom's party (she was a co-ring-bearer, since there were already three flower girls).


The minister and the bride and groom are standing just in front of the in-ground pool, which you can see in the background.  I was kind of worried about what would happen if the minister took a step back.  The wedding was short, and the food afterward was plentiful.

A zoomed out view, so you can see the tables set up.  On the right side are the porch and garage, and you can just see the Master Bedroom extension of the house poking out on the left--well, more specifically, the gutter attached to that extension.  The tables were lined up in between, and the wedding procession walked down the aisle in between.

The hummingbird feeder, and its attendant hummingbirds.  The birds were quite disappointed when it was removed for the wedding.  You could see them wandering around in confusion, looking for their meal.


The next day, Rebekah and her husband went to honeymoon in New Orleans.  My wife and mother drove them down, and spent the day there.  I stayed in St. Francisville and babysat my two nieces.  They're old enough that if you give them an iPad or Kindle Fire, they'll be nice and quiet for a good while.  I think we all had more fun this way.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What's on the back of the envelope?

The name of this blog is "Back of the Envelope".  One of my earliest blog posts was a long explanation about why I named the blog that.  The short version, from that post, can be summed up quickly:
The expression is common enough, but if you're not familiar with it, a back of the envelope calculation is a quick, simple calculation done as an estimate. It's called "back of the envelope" because it can be written out on a small sheet of paper . . . When I first applied for this address on blogspot, the idea was to name the blog after myself . . . Nothing really felt right, though, so I started thinking of other names, a name appropriate for an engineer writing about things he was distinctly unqualified to discuss. It took surprisingly little time to come up with "Back of the Envelope."
I've always used the image of an envelope with something written on the back as the symbol of this site.  In fact, this is the one I had for a long time:
The old back of the envelope symbol.
With the new template, I wanted to change the design while keeping the concept.  The new design is the background of this page.  Unfortunately, since I used the full size of the background that Blogger recommends (1800x1600 pixels, or close to it), you probably can't see the whole thing unless you have a super-high resolution display, even without the blog contents covering it.  So here's the full image, at a reduced resolution:
The new background.
As you can see, the central equation is the same.  This is the bra-ket notation used in quantum physics, and shows the inner product between two quantum computation values, 0 and + (which is a superposition of 0 and 1), so the overlap of 0 and + (technically it's the inner product, but it's the degree to which the two are the same) is one over the square-root of two.

What about the rest of the calculations?  Are they legitimate, or just random doodlings?  They're all legitimate, and equations I've used before, though it's been years.  Hopefully there aren't any mistakes.

The next equation, in red at the top, is just a circle divided into six parts, with one part divided in half.  The equation calculates the area of that section, but it's mainly an excuse for me to estimate pi as three.  That's a common estimate to use for pi when you're just doing a back of the envelope calculation.  Another useful estimate is 5 dB, or the square-root of 10.

On the left side is a charged particle over a ground plane.  This results in an image in the ground plane.  The charge in the ground plane responds in such a way that it's equivalent to an equal and opposite charge reflecting the placement of the first charge.  This results in the equation below, which is also the equation for the potential for a charge dipole.  Charge dipoles consist of equal and opposite charges close together, so that they minimize each other's effects.  A ground plane effectively converts a charge into a charge dipole, which is why ground planes help reduce noise coming from the circuits they're placed under (they also tend to minimize noise coupling into the circuit).

Below that, at the bottom of the page, is the time-invariant form of Schrodinger's Equation, since I figured I needed that on the back of the envelope.

On the right side is a 3-bit Gray code.  This is a binary sequence where only a single bit changes for each step of the sequence.  This was originally used as a method of binary counting for mechanical switches. Since mechanical switches don't change instantaneously, switching from 011 to 100 (3 to 4 in binary), could result in spurious outputs as each switch changes at a different time.  By making it equal the change from 010 to 110 instead, there are no spurious values between them.  In modern digital computers, this particular reason is not as relevant, but it is still useful for error correction.  A Gray code can be visualized as a cube, shown above, where each step travels along the edge of the cube.  I included the cube, with convenient arrows, mainly to give people a clue that I was doing a Gray code, rather than let them think I was trying to count in binary and getting it wrong.  I'm not sure whether it worked or not.

So that's everything.  I hope you enjoyed this boring math post.  I also hope I didn't mess up any of these equations.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Review of Odd Apocalypse by Dean Koontz


I find Dean Koontz's books either hit or miss. Some of them, like Seize the Night and From the Corner of His Eye, are beautiful, well-told stories, with great characters and intriguing premises. Others, such as Breathless, are rambling and inconclusive. It may have an interesting concept, but it never really develops into a story.

Odd Thomas is one of his better series. Odd is a polite young man and sometime fry-cook who sees dead people. The silent, lingering dead come to him for help, and he does his best to do so. He has a few other talents, such as the occasional vision or prophetic dream, and a psychic magnetism that helps him find people that he's looking for, but he'd always say that his best talent is fry cooking.

After the death of his girlfriend, Odd left his hometown of Pico Mundo, where the authorities knew and relied upon his abilities, to find his way in the wider world. He's faced down enemies from the evil to the misguided, from terrorists to the mystic, and he's killed when necessary. Now he's come to the mansion at Roseland, where there are no roses, in the company of Annamarie, a mysterious, pregnant young woman for whom he's the guardian.

All is not well at Roseland. Time is inconsistent there, and someone, maybe everyone there, is involved in something very evil. And that's just how the book starts.

Like all the Odd novels, the book's strength lies in its titular character, a gentle, humble soul whose strong belief in the power of good, and the necessity to fight evil, drives him to take on incredible dangers. As I read books primarily for the characters, and as Odd is a very strong one, I imagine that I'd enjoy pretty much any Odd Thomas novel. Odd's certainly been around a while, but that's given him more maturity, coupled with a certain moroseness, that's given him more depth. Unlike some long lived characters, he hasn't yet played out.

The actual adventure is a little more science fiction than most of what he does, although not as much as Brother Odd. But it's more old school, H. G. Wells science fiction, which I think works better with Odd. It leant the book a stronger air of mystery than a standard terrorism plot, and I certainly enjoyed it.

Overall, it was a good Odd Thomas novel, and I certainly enjoyed it, but if you're looking for answers to the mystery of Annamaria, you're still going to have to wait.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Roman Dinner

On Saturday, Kristin and I hosted a Ancient Roman dinner for our friends.  We've done Roman dinners before, as Kristin has discussed in detail on her blog.  Once again, Kristin did most of the cooking, and I did most of the dishes.  Which is not to say I did none of the cooking--I prepared the hydromel (honey water) and sorted lovage seeds, for example.

Ah, lovage seeds.  Roman meals use a number of ingredients which are not easy to get in the New World.  Among them are lovage seeds.  You can buy lovage seeds in the grocery store, but these aren't really lovage seeds--they're either celery seeds or ajwan seeds, which are different plants entirely.  You can't buy food-grade real lovage seeds, but you can buy them for planting.  And if you get organic seeds, they're untreated and edible.  So we ordered some lovage seeds.  However, while they're not treated, the seeds are only 99% pure--you also get a good bit of dirt and twigs in the package.  In addition, you can't be sure that they've been stored properly as a spice should.  So Kristin was kind of reluctant to use the seeds, but I went through them and painstakingly separated a teaspoon-full of seeds from the twigs and dirt, and convinced her to use them in one dish.

Lovage is not the only hard to get Roman spice.  Rue and pennyroyal are, unfortunately, slightly poisonous herbs.  Kristin's eager to try them--after all, if the Romans could eat them, can't we?  But I insisted that we not feed poison to our friends (besides, rue is supposed to be used fresh, not as seeds, and while Kristin has gotten some seeds, she still hasn't planted them), so we substituted dandelion leaves for the rue.  And don't get me started on myrtle berries--our myrtle bush didn't bloom this year.

Still, we managed to produce a very nice three course meal.  For the appetizer, we had flatbread, olives, sheep and goat cheese (the Romans considered cows beasts of burden, not milk or meat animals), and an assortment of olives and salami (which Kristin considers to be pretty close to Roman sausages).

The real work went into this appetizing main course:
Kristin enjoying the main course.
From the bottom to the top, there's squash seasoned with real lovage (the only one we had enough real lovage seed for), pan-seared fish, Indian chapati (a reasonable approximation of Roman flatbread, we understand), highly-seasoned pork belly, and even-more-seasoned parsnips.  Kristin wasn't too happy with the parsnips, thinking they were too salty, but they turned out to be a favorite, and the only thing we ran out of.  There are also two bottles, one containing conditum paradoxum, and the other containing the hydromel which I made.

The dessert course consisted of honeyed fritters, grapes, and figs.

Most of the recipes came from Sally Grainger's Cooking Apicius (shown left), which is our favorite of the various Roman recipe books.  For one, it's the most modern, and has the best understanding of what ingredients are available to a modern kitchen.  For another, there's a lot of scholarship involved, a lot of it based on the work that went into her and her husband's new translation of Apicius (the most extensive of the Ancient Roman cookbooks).  It seems to us to be pretty accurate, and Kristin thinks it agrees very well with her research in the area.

We did use a somewhat different recipe for the conditum paradoxum, but I've discussed that in detail before.  The hydromel also came from a different source, namely Mark Grant's Roman Cookery (shown right).  The original recipe comes not from Apicius, but from Bassus's Country Matters.  It mixes one part apple juice, two parts honey, and three parts water.  In Grant's recipe, these are boiled rather than aged the way they were in Ancient Rome.  We used apple cider rather than apple juice, since the cider's closer to what the Romans would have had.  The cookbook recommends chilling and serving as an apertif, but I preferred something that could be drunk with a meal.  It was too sweet to drink straight in quantity, but we mixed the hydromel with three parts water, as we had done with the conditum paradoxum.  Unfortunately, this was still too sweet.  Kristin, who's a much better cook than I am, suggested adding some vinegar.  Adding one-and-a-half teaspoons of apple cider vinegar to a serving was just what was needed.  It tastes more of apples that way, and the acid of the vinegar prevents the sweetness from being overwhelming.  Since the Romans usually let the mixture age long enough to ferment, I figure that the result is probably pretty close to what the Romans drank.  According to my calculations, adding one-and-a-half teaspoons of apple cider vinegar to a serving results in a ratio of 1 part apple cider vinegar, 2 parts apple cider, 4 parts honey, and 6 parts water, but Kristin prefers 50% more vinegar, for a stronger acidity.  If I make it again, I'll use my proportions.  It's easier to add a little vinegar later than to take it out.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Review of The Hollow City by Dan Wells


I loved Dan Wells's I am not a Serial Killer series, so when I saw that he had a new book out in the same genre, I snapped it up.  The Hollow City is not a sequel, and John Cleaver, the heroic sociopath from the I am not a Serial Killer series, does not make an appearance.  It's not even clear that this takes place in the same mythos as his previous books, although it's quite possible, as all these stories take place in our world, though with something sinister lurking beneath the surface.

The hero of this new novel is one Michael Shipman, and like John Cleaver, he has problems.  Rather than the sociopathy of John, Michael suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.  Not only does he have delusions of persecution, he sees people and things that aren't there.  The problem comes when some of the things he sees really are there, and don't go away with the drugs.

The story starts with Michael waking up in the hospital, missing two weeks of memory, with only vague recollections of a hollow city, though he has no idea what that even means.  He's soon committed to a mental hospital, where he's treated for his condition, and starts to realize that much of what he believes about his life simply is not true, but is a product of his schizophrenia.  Meanwhile, the FBI is questioning him about his activities during that missing part of his life, hoping that he can lead them to the Red Line Killer, the serial killer who has been murdering members of the Children of the Earth cult.  The same cult that kidnapped his mother before he was born.  He must learn whether the Children of the Earth are after him, and who are the mysterious Faceless Men, who only he can see, even when his drugs are effective.

It's a powerful premise, and there's a lot to recommend this book, but I kept stumbling over the primary problem with a story told from Michael's POV: that of the unreliable narrator.  Because Michael cannot distinguish what's real and what isn't, the reader is likewise in the dark.  He can guess at whether someone's real, and he'll find himself playing that game constantly (Is the FBI real, how about Michael's girlfriend?  Or the reporter?).  When Michael's suffering from full-blown paranoia it's more obvious than when he's largely in control.  I realize that this is part of the premise, but I found that I just didn't have that much tolerance for an unreliable narrator.

It also takes a little while for the book to get going.  I didn't find the scenes of Michael in the mental hospital, arguing with his doctor and trying to figure out what's real and not, that entertaining.  But once he was moving, and making his way back to the hollow city, then the story picked up, and moved rapidly to a strong conclusion.  I just wish it didn't take as long to get there.

Ultimately, I liked The Hollow City okay, but it is  nowhere near as strong as Dan Wells's John Cleaver novels.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Long webpages

This is an issue I've been thinking about some, especially in the context of stories on the web.  How long of a webpage is too long?  When you see a wall of text, do your eyes glaze over?  Do you hit the back button and find something else to read? What if you want to post a long article or story on the web?  How do you go about doing it?

One issue is that long webpages are intimidating.  You watch the little scrollbar shrink to invisibility, and think that maybe it's not worth it.  Then again, if you decide you do want to read a long story, can you do it in one sitting?  Probably not.  But if you go away and come back, how do you find your place again?

One option is to split it up into a number of pages.  More than one blogpost, or an article that spans multiple pages.  This may work, but a lot depends on the software you're using, and how easily you can do it.  Once you have multiple pages, you need to put some effort into making it easy to get from page to page.  How many pages are there?  If there are three, it should be relatively easy to find your way and come back to where you left off.  If there are 20 or so, you might become lost, and forget where you left off.

If instead you keep it all on one long page, you run into the issue of losing your place, especially if you navigate away and then come back.  You can simplify that with headings, but it's still a pain to scroll down to the correct heading, and you may miss it and scroll right past.  Fortunately, webpages can include anchors, which allow you to hyperlink to certain parts of a webpage, including from in the same page, such as I did in my Brief History page.  Unfortunately, the blogging software doesn't always handle anchors that well.  It took some effort to get that page working right (including modifying the html and not switching to the WYSIWYG view, which allows Blogger to mess it up).

In either case, navigation is key.  If you're using multiple pages, then you need to link to both the previous and the next page at both the top and the bottom of the page (you need to be able to go back from the top and forward from the bottom, but it also helps to be able to go forward or backward a page at a time to find your place without needing to scroll to the top or bottom each time).  You should also have links either to all of the pages, or to a table of contents.  If you're using one long page, you need to have periodic links to the table of contents on the same page.  This could alternatively be done with a separate frame that displays the table of contents at all times, but that requires you to muck around with the html of the page.  Blogging software generally can't handle that for you.

So, you see, there are a lot of issues involved in getting really long posts to work. I'd be happy to take suggestions for any other tricks.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Update to blog

I've been ignoring all the little improvements that Google has been making to Blogger for a while now. But recently I decided that it was time to finally update to a more recent template. It was a pain, because I'd already done a good bit of customization, and converting it to the new version killed a lot of that customization, and I had to redo it. That took several hours. The end result of all that work looks pretty good, I think, with a custom background, and a standard template that I've updated with some blocks of text.

Overall, I'm happy with how it's turned out.

New Kindles

Amazon has announced its new Kindles, including three new Kindle Fires, and two new e-ink Kindles.  I'm not going to review them here, just talk about their announced features.

New Kindle Fires


The two highest end Kindles have an 8.9" screen, and are priced to compete with tablets like the iPad.  They're cheaper, but have a smaller screen and a dual-core, rather than quad-core, processor.  Amazon must be betting that the budget conscious will compare the two options and decide that the Fire better fits their needs.  I suspect folks are more likely to pick an older iPad, but we'll see.

The new Fire at the low end, the Kindle Fire HD, is a less ambitious follow-on to the original Kindle Fire, having approximately the same size and price as the original.  But it still fulfills my wishlist of improvements.  Aside from the standard next generation upgrades, such as improved processor (marginal upgrade from OMAP 4430 to OMAP 4460, both dual-core), memory (doubled to quadrupled), and screen resolution (upgraded from 1024x600 to 1280x800, enough to support 720 HD), it also has almost all the things I've been missing in the original Kindle Fire.

First and foremost, they've fixed the sound.  This was a significant issue in the first Kindle Fire, which only had two tinny speakers located at the top of the tablet.  Which really made no sense, since when you're watching video (which is the only time when I really need the sound), you hold the Kindle sideways. So the stereo speakers Amazon advertises are both on the left side of the Kindle while watching a movie.  Not to mention that even at full volume, I couldn't hear them over the air conditioning in the bedroom.  I usually just wore headphones when watching video, but it'd have been nice to have the option of using the speakers.  This time, Amazon went out of the way to fix the sound, so the new Kindle Fire has dual-driver stereo speakers on both sides of the Fire when you're holding it sideways to watch a movie, and they make a big deal about how loud and clear it is.  If it's as good as advertised, that fixes a major problem of the original Fire.

Second, they've added a micro-HDMI port.  This was one of my gripes about the Fire, as I'd like to display its content on my television but I was unable to.  I'm glad that they've fixed this.

Third, they've improved battery life, now claiming 11 hours of continuous use, as opposed to 8.5 hours.  This is significantly closer to my assertion that the Fire needs a full day of use in order to fit in with Amazon's other e-readers, which is closer to where the Fire's positioned than the tablet market.  I'd never really had a problem with battery life, but that's mainly because I've never spent a whole day reading from my Kindle.

Finally, they've added an inward-facing camera. They advertise that this is for use with Skype, but it should be usable for other situations where you need to take a picture of yourself.  The iPad also has an outward facing camera, but for the most part, you aren't going to be using the camera on a tablet to take pictures or video, so it's not really a necessity.  It is nice when you want to show the other person in a video chat something, but I've discovered that most people don't really know how to use that feature.

Unfortunately, they haven't added a microSD card slot, which would have allowed the user to expand the memory.  I would have liked that option.  I'd also have liked seeing an AMOLED screen, as opposed to an LCD, but that's still a new, high-end technology, and Fire's definitely positioned at the budget end.

Anyway, the new Fire HD has enough improvements that I'd seriously consider getting it if my wife would let me.  But she points out that she got me the Kindle Fire for Christmas last year, and she'd be a little insulted if I replaced it after less than a year.  So I'll at least have to wait until January.

New Kindle e-inks


The new kindle e-inks are very different creatures from the Kindle Fire.  They clearly are not tablets, and are not designed to be.  They're e-readers, with e-ink displays that are low energy (giving battery life in the weeks range), easier to read in sunlight, and slow. Going to the next page on an e-ink display can be slower than turning a page in a book, and they often invert when doing so in order to refresh the electronic ink, which I find annoying.  Newer Kindles allow you to turn the refresh off, so the page only refreshes every six turns or so, which is good.

The new Kindle Paperwhite e-readers offer some significant improvements over the old Kindle e-readers.  First, they're touch screens, which is something Amazon introduced in the last generation, but is now making standard.  Second, the contrast is much greater.  Earlier Kindles had a gray background, with black ink, but the Paperwhites have a white background, which make them more attractive and easier to read.  Additionally, they're lit.  I've seen people call them backlit, but that's not really the case.  They use a waveguide over the screen to direct light down to the screen, where it will reflect back up.  This should cause less eye-strain than backlit screen, while providing nice, even lighting over the whole page.  One of my main reasons for getting a Kindle Fire rather than a regular Kindle was so I could read in the dark, so this is a great feature.

So what is it still missing?  Well, I didn't see any indication that the page refresh has been improved, so it doesn't need to invert as often and leaves fewer artifacts, but such a marginal improvement might not be important enough to be advertised.  I'm also still waiting for someone to come out with a color e-ink reader.  It can be done, but I don't think the technology's ready for a commercial device yet.

Comparison

The difference between the e-ink Kindle and the Kindle Fire is not the price, since they're pretty close on the low end.  They're very different systems.  The Kindle Fire is not just a reader, but a full media player and a capable, if low end, tablet, with a large number of Android apps available.  The e-ink Kindle is an e-reader, and is probably a more comfortable platform for reading--even in the dark, now that it's lit.  You get longer battery life, and free 3G data on the high end models (4G is only available on the most expensive Kindle Fire, and while cheap, is not free).  The e-ink Kindle is just pretty limited on what you can use that 3G for, as it's too slow for much web browsing, and incapable of doing video at all.  But you can download Kindle books to your heart's content.

Overall, though, I think I'd prefer the Kindle Fire HD.

Update (9/9/2012): Here's a hands-on look at the new Kindle Fire HD. (hat tip Instapundit)

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Worldcon

This past weekend, Kristin and I went to Worldcon 70.  Worldcon is one of the bigger non-profit science fiction conventions, and probably the most important.  Kristin and I usually go to the serious cons: World Fantasy, Readercon, and Boskone.  With the partial exception of Boskone (only partial, since much of the "fun" part was spun off into Arisia), these are cons focused on writing and writers, with a significant portion of those in attendance being writers, editors, agents, or publishers--and often writers hoping to meet editors and publishers and agents.  Worldcon has a lot of that too, but it also has a film festival, filking, and a masquerade (specifically, costuming).

Most importantly, though, Worldcon has the Hugos.  This is probably the most important award in fantasy and science fiction, for the best stories, films, editors, etc. of the year.  This year, my friend Ken Liu won a Hugo for his short story "The Paper Menagerie."  Ken's a great writer, and is one of the biggest names in genre fiction right now.

I spent much of my time at Worldcon attending parties, and hanging out at the Black Gate table.  John O'Neill's a great guy to hang out with, and I'm not just saying this because he's agreed to publish one of my stories.  Although that does help.  I also went to a couple of panels, but fewer than I usually do, I think.  Part of the problem is that Worldcon has so many tracks, as many as a dozen panels at the same time.  I can't possibly go to all of the ones that sound interesting, and when I already have to miss most of the ones that sound interesting at any one time, it doesn't seem such a bad thing to miss them all and instead hang out with John O'Neill, Howard Andrew Jones, Peadar O Guilin, and others.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Labels


Everyone knows how important first impressions are. Fair or not, the first impression you make tends to form the filter through which all your actions are judged. If the first impression you give someone is that you are lazy, then he tends to view every instance of your avoiding a task as an example of this laziness, rather than as evidence that they're overworked. This is the logical fallacy of confirmation bias, where we tend to put more weight on examples that confirm what we already think, than on those which contradict or mitigate it.

This is not just a problem with first impressions. You can meet someone and think they're perfectly fine, but if you're later told by a friend that he's sort of sleazy, then every awkward conversation and off-color joke becomes an example of sleaziness, not simple awkwardness.

This is the problem of labels. We tend to think of labeling as a problem of ethnic stereotypes and bigotry, but it's really an example of the fact that the human mind likes to sort and categorize people, and make decisions based on those categorizations. To some extent it's a helpful short-hand that makes up for the fact that for the majority of people we meet, we'll never know them well enough to really understand how they think. But the problem is that it's never that simple, and because of the problem of confirmation bias,  we're actually not very good at telling when that label is wrong. We tend to weight facts and incidents that confirm our label more heavily than those facts which work against it. This can lead to very ugly prejudices in real life, where someone can't escape an unfair label.

For a writer, labels are both useful and dangerous. When you need a minor character, a quick label is a fast way to give a character a recognizable personality without needing a lot of detail. For minor enough characters, this may be enough. But if that's the entirety of your characterization for a recurring, or for that matter, a major character, then they can start to seem flat and static. As your readers get to know your characters, they should begin to see the cracks in the labels: the contradictions and complexities. Which is not all that different from when you start to get to know a real person better.