Wednesday, April 30, 2008

First Date

About a month after I met the woman I would eventually marry, she dropped by my dorm room. I said, "I'm about to go across the river to pick up my paycheck. Want to come?"

She said, "Sure."

Years later, people would tell me, "Of course she agreed! You were picking up a paycheck."

We picked up the check from the little gas station where I worked and found the bank that it was written on. While we were at the drive through window, my car ran out of gas.

Yes, I was making a good impression.

She helped me push the car through the drive through. I walked across the street to a gas station, got some gas in a coke bottle, put some in my car's tank, primed the carburator with some, drove across the street and bought more gas.

On the way home, I said, "I have a coupon for a free pizza. Want to get one?" Oh, yes, I was a prince. A real big spender.

At least I payed for a Coke.

She married me anyway.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Tyrant’s Dead Hand

“Hussain remembered the door code,” Colonel Andor said, “but the power was off for years, so it’s crowbars and hammers.”

Their Humvee drove beyond what people in the Iraqi desert would have called “roads,” if there had been people here. Smith checked the GPS and said, “Quarter mile--somewhere along that ridge.”

They found the cave among the boulders, tangled-hair roots hanging over the mouth. They checked their M16s, and followed their Streamlights in. It was good to be out of the sun. Andor said, “Saddam remembered the GPS--sharp until we hung him.”

Smith ventured, “We’re seeking Weapons of Mass Destruction?”

“We’re too late to turn back, so yeah, that’s what the old tyrant said. Maybe this was his final joke--didn’t want to call Fox News until I saw for myself.”

They crowbarred a door.

Smith had suspected as much, since WMDs were Andor’s all-consuming assignment until last year. But if Saddam had WMDs, why didn’t he use them?

Beyond the door was a brick-walled corridor with another door. “Airlock,” said Andor. They went straight at the four-way intersection and found a door to a white-walled bio-laboratory open. Streamlights illuminated ripped hoses, shattered glass, chemical drums, black trash bags, and two bodies. No, they were mummies, brown skin drawn over eyeless faces, staring into the void.

Smith said, “The Republican Guard killed them?”

Andor shook his head. “Nope. If anybody knew about this place, they’d have claimed a reward.”

Smith took four glasscrunching steps in to shine his light around overturned tables whose legs stiffly pointed back at him.

Smith froze.

The nearest body had been obscured by a trash bag. He said nervously, “Colonel? Why didn’t Saddam use these WMDs?” The body was missing below the ribcage and the ribs were ripped outward, opening up the chest. Smith’s Streamlight wandered to Andor’s doorway; Smith paled at the emaciated human shapes behind Andor.

Andor, oblivious, chuckled. “Saddam was afraid of them. Abandoned this . . ..” Andor yawped as three thin brown men wrapped him, and dragged him to the floor. Andor’s moan was drowned by layers of .45 caliber explosions from his Springfield. A punctured drum in the corner hissed out a stench. Smith fumbled, shifted his light, and tried to grab his M16. By the time he got a fix on Andor, the only sounds from the writhing bodies were smacking slurps. Smith sprinted to the door, hurdling the mass there. Andor weakly groaned, “God.”

Two more dark shamblers staggered this side of the four-way. One grabbed Smith’s arm. It snagged the gun strap and the M16 clattered to the bricks. He screamed as the other blindly reached out. He spun and ran.

He emerged, heart pounding, sickened that he had abandoned Andor, justifying to nobody, “Someone has to warn. Biologicals. So bad Saddam wouldn’t use.” He loped toward the Humvee.

When he opened the dust-coated Humvee, he smelled the chili powder from the MRE’s enchiladas, which were being messily devoured by the ash grey corpse in the driver’s seat.

Smith bellowed, blundering hopelessly into the Iraqi desert.

Monday, April 28, 2008


I got a call for up to three pieces of flash fiction (100-500 words) on zombies. I thought about the call for two months. Then, three days before the deadline I had a couple of original ideas. Here is one of them.

A soldier who was Saddam Hussain's interrogator got close to Saddam and was able to have Saddam confide a few things to him, confidentially. Saddam told him where the real weapons of mass destruction are. Saddam would only say that the reason he did not use them was that he was too afraid of them.

After Saddam's death, the soldier goes to the site and finds an underground laborator complex full of, you guessed it . . . zombies--humans affected by biological weapons. They kill him and eat him, of course, along with the enchilada MREs.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Meeting My Soulmate

My wife and I met at a Dungeons and Dragons game in college. She walked in. I said, "Hi, I'm John."

She said, "I'm Julie. We're going to get married and have lots of children."

I said, "You're crazy. I'm staying away from you."

She said, "I'm serious, we will get married and have lots of children."

Usually forewarned is forearmed, but I fell for her anyway. I still can't figure out how she did it.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

I Love Librivox

Librivox is one of my favorite pasttimes. They take public domain books and make audiobooks from them. First of all, I like audiobooks. When the body is too busy to read, listening to an audiobook is an excellent diversion.

Second, I like Librivox's unusual selection. There are classics that you may not have read, such as Murders in the Rue Morgue and Dracula. There are out of the way works by great authors, like Mark Twain's European travelogue, The Innocents Abroad.

And third is my own odd pleasure. I download books that I want to hear over and over and over until I can quote from them extensively, including The Prince, by Nicolo Machiavelli; The Art of War, by Sun Tzu; and Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville (I downloaded Miyamoto Musashi's The Book of Five Rings from another site).

Lately, I have been listening to Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Economists have written about how the book can be interpreted as an economic and political allegory especially devoted to monetary policy at the turn of the century. Really! I am listening to the book to see if I missed any of the economic aspects of the book.

Dorothy follows a yellow brick road (the gold standard) wearing silver slippers (free silver movement of William Jennings Bryan). They go to visit a brilliant guy in the land of Oz (oz. is the abbreviation for ounce--as in, an ounce of gold). Oz is the emerald city--the color of greenbacks. But everyone is required to wear green glasses, so that the city looks green (that is, the value of paper money is an illusion that everyone participates in).

The wizard of the greenback illusion is an admitted fraud [they say "humbug"]. They demand that he give them a brain, heart, courage, and a trip to Kansas. He tells them he can't. They insist. He says that he can defraud them, so they agree. The gifts in the movie were different than in the book, but in any case, the gifts he gave were phony solutions. He says to himself, "How can I help being a humbug [fraud], . . . when all these people make me do things that everybody knows can't be done?" That is the politician's problem. The people demand that the government solve all their problems. The politician can solve hardly anything. So he gives the people phony solutions.

How does the wizard/politician leave the scene? He is carried away by an excess of hot air in his balloon.

So if you want some excellent free diversion with your iPod or your computer, I highly recommend

Friday, April 25, 2008

Gang of Three

My small writing group met last night. The gnocci was excellent. As usual, my group, the Gang of Three, had great suggestions. They were looking at Furnace Angel.

I have aimed Furnace Angel at three horror magazines that accept simultaneous submissions. I was 500 over the maximum word count for one of the magazines and 500 under the maximum word count for the other two.

One of my GoT said that I needed to more clearly show one of the antagonist's flaws by showing more of him in action--an excellent suggestion, since those flaws motivate much of the story. She suggested that I reduce a particular conversation in order to find room for the new addition. My dialogue was somewhat tightly written, so now that conversation is rather spare, but I think the sacrifice was worth it.

My other GoT partner said that she did not feel that I provided enough threat to motivate the final, terrible choice of the protagonist. She suggested fleshing out the protagonist's loved ones, who were threatened, and providing some portents that keep the level of threat high going into the final passage. Again, I think the story is stronger for it.

All this help, and I get to read their excellent writing, as well. Oh, and the gnocci, too.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Reading Old Sci-Fi

I bought Wastelands, a collection of "after the bomb" stories edited by John Joseph Adams. There are stories from Orson Scott Card, Steven King, Ophelia Butler, George R. R. Martin, and plenty of others.

Some stories are relatively new and some are old. It has been a long time since I read science fiction that was written a few decades ago.

One story that stands out as "old school" has two characters exploring a new, unknown place, casually chatting about their own society's distant history. Sorta' like this. "Hey, don't step on that. You know that the Mayflower Compact was important in U. S. historical development, but the Constitution is, overall, our current governing document."

I pictured a currently set story in which people speak in that manner.

"Jonah, get up, it's time for breakfast. Breakfast is our first meal of the day. I am going to make you a turkey sandwich. Nowadays, we often eat animals. Turkey is a bird--this one was raised for food, in fact. And it was fed on grains grown in large fields. Then it was cooked in a process using heat and packaged and sold to us. The turkey slices look nothing like a real turkey. Oh, and the bread . . . "

I cannot fault authors who wrote stories 30 years ago for writing stories in the way that . . . people wrote stories 30 years ago. Surely, 30 years from now people will look back at our stories with amusement at the way we now write.

Perhaps in 30 years, people will read today's stories and say, "See how almost every word of dialogue is meant to advance the story. People never talk like that! Nowadays we write in the same way that people speak, with sentence fragments and 'uh's,' and non sequitrs all over the place, and endless needless repetitions. Isn't it distracting how in those old stories, the author attempts to manipulate the reader through every twist and turn instead of slowly raising the story up around the reader in a truly natural way, like stories do today?"

I can hardly wait!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Making Mistakes

Once a writer has taken a few months to write a first novel, then he has to sell it. That is the hard part. It is almost as if Dr. Frankenstein has assembled the monster and now has to build a huge tower and try to catch some lightning. And another tower . . . and another tower . . . and maybe if he builds enough towers, lightning will strike one of them. It may not matter how well constructed the monster is, because until lightning strikes, the monster is still dead. Of course, if Dr. Frankenstein forgot to put in a heart and a brain in the monster, lightning will not help.

The usual first step in selling a book is finding an agent. For months I faithfully read 10 agent blogs, getting advice on how to "sell" to agents. Then for a month, every single post became repetitious, so I stopped. I had heard most of the agents' advice. That was two months ago.

I was bored a couple of nights ago and decided to read agent blogs. I found something new. Janet Reid, who has surprised me in the past, had some good advice--"Make More Mistakes, Not Fewer."

If you do not want to follow the link, I will tell you what she said. Authors tend toward trying to achieve perfection and, in the process, do not do enough. She recommends breaking many rules that most agents suggest following, such as only querying agents who regularly represent the author's genre, only querying one agent at a particular agency, and re-sending a query after a few months.

I got a start today on making mistakes by querying 55 agents. Previously I had painstakingly researched agents and weeded them down, querying 15 agents. The 55 agents I queried all said they handled fantasy, so I have not done the "full Janet" yet. But I figure that I should start with the most promising agents before continuing down the list.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Second Story About New Technology

One of the grand old men of economics was a professor at South Carolina. One day we were talking in the break room. Some journals were lying around. The professor said, "At one time, I owned all of the first volumes of the American Economic Review and those others there."

I asked what he did with them. He said he sold them a long time ago. I said, "It is too bad you do not still have them. They would probably be worth a fortune today."

He said, "No. They're not worth much at all anymore."

I was confused. "Why?"

He said, "Xerox copiers."

I had never imagined what the world was like before copiers. If you wanted an article from a journal that you did not own, you had to get it from the library. Or perhaps you could travel to another library if your library did not have it And at the library you would have to read and make notes there, since one cannot usually check out a journal. If you went back to your office and wondered about an aspect of the article that you had not noted . . .

The past was so inconvenient.

At the time that I had this conversation, one could not sit at one's desk and, within seconds, access electronic copies of all these materials. Companies who make furniture such as filing cabinets must be suffering.

Monday, April 21, 2008

First Story About New Technology

I worked in the oilfield for a summer with the man who got the first radar-assisted speeding ticket in my hometown. He was an old guy named Richard, but everyone called him Stid. He was great to work with and a nice guy.

He was going down Main Street, headed toward the Burger Barn. He saw the police car stopped on the side of the road and was surprised when the flashing lights came on. He pulled over and the cop, whom he knew, came over and said, "Stid, do you know how fast you were going?"

Stid said, "35."

The cop said, "You were going 36. I got a new radar gun that tells me how fast people are going."

Stid said, "Well, my spedometer said I was going about 35, how could I know exactly what your radar would say?"

The cop said, "Sorry, Stid, but this is the way it is going to be now that we've got the radar."

Stid was not happy.

Before radar, police must have guessed at speeds, unless they could follow a speeder and measure speed by their own spedometer. I had never thought before about the time before police could take radar measurements until Stid told his story.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


We had arrived at church this morning and I was the last one at the van, looking for one of the books I wanted to take inside. I was thinking about another book I read long ago--Kurt Vonnegut's Wampeters, Foma, and Granfaloons.

As I continued searching, I realized that I had not thought about the Vonnegut book in over two decades. Now and then I discuss Vonnegut with people, but I never think of that book. It is a collection of odds and ends from KV's past. For instance, I remembered KV's journalistic reporting on the War of Biafran Secession in the 1960's. When someone is as successful as Vonnegut, he can publish odds and ends and sell them.

Then I walked inside the church building. The first person who said, "hello," was my friend Rick. The next thing he said was, "I remembered that word that I could not remember last time I came over." I did not remember him having any such problem with a word. I figured that he was remembering another visit with another person. Then he said, "The word is 'granfaloon.'"

I was stunned.

Coincidence? Revelation? What?

I tend to believe that revelation is done with a purpose and I can see no purpose in this unusual occurrence.


Saturday, April 19, 2008

Bryton Wyld

It is probably bad form to post about an unfinished story, but here goes. The pieces of the puzzle all revolved around Bryton: directionless denizen of Tistrin (the corrupt big fantasy city), mom's delivery boy, and dad . . . mom never told him who dad was, which is not unusual in Tistrin.

The pieces of the story that I have tossed in the air are Bry's mentor, Jemmin Well, a notable thief in Tistrin; Tonjan Farberei, an icy priestess of Aatar who just moved into the city; Rangal Tak, a Baron's Man who has it in for Bryton; Olaus Kaldor, the High Priest of Rovish, the God of Luck; and the corrupt Baron Walen Navee.

Bry is torn between Jemmin, whom he owes some loyalty, and Tonjan, whom Jemmin has hurt badly and whom Bry is seriously crushed on. The story is rolling along with 3,000 words, so far. If I did not get distracted by issues such as the operation of acqueduct-fed water systems I would probably be finished by now.

Friday, April 18, 2008


I have a slight obsession. I realize that sounds like an oxymoron, but it is not. For instance, if you were obsessed with paying your taxes exactly one day early every year, the obsession would not cause much disruption in your life. That is what I mean.

My obsession is efficiency in movement. Suppose that you live on the northeast corner of the block and your friend lives on the southwest corner of the block, along the diagonal. You could walk down the street to your friend's house. You would walk two blocks.

What if you could cut across, along that diagonal? Assuming you could walk straight there, the distance you would walk is about 30% less than the two blocks (about 1.4 blocks). I won't go into how to use the Pythagorean theorem to figure that out.

Anyway, I am conscious of such things. When I walk in the door to my building, I take a route the minimizes the number of steps that I take to my class. If I have to go to my office first, the route can change. If I have to go to the departmental offices, too, the route can change again.

The efficiency obsession takes other forms too, but still, it is not an all encompassing thing--really, it's not. Really. A friend once laughed at me because I said that tomato soup is a good breakfast because it can be sipped from a cup while standing--no need to sit down with a spoon, which is less efficient.

I have blogged about The Jetsons before. I hate their futuristic, inefficient technologies. They fly to work instead of walking, but they seem to fly on a two dimensional plane (geometric plane, not airplane), and not use the third diminsion--height/altitude. They live up on perches with nothing underneath. It would be more efficient for them to live on the ground and drive cars, since they do not really make use of the third dimension.

Enough about The Jetsons. When I miss an efficiency trick, it bugs me. Like if I have to make two trips to the grocery store, when I could have only made one with better planning. Or if I take an hour to complete something that I know I could have done using a different method in 30 minutes.

But it's not a really big deal. Really. I'm serious.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Finished! So Far

I finished all four books of the Songs of Ice and Fire series that George R. R. Martin has written so far. Each book is two or three times the size of a typical book. Book four, A Feast For Crows, was not up to GRRM's usual standards.

One plot that I liked moved forward well (King's Landing). There was sparse attention to some plots that I previously liked (such as Arya Stark). There was quite a lot of attention to other plots that I had no interest in (the iron men/Greyjoys and Dorne). And one plot that I previously liked just circled around (Brienne of Tarth) without doing much at all.

A story with so many viewpoints is difficult to keep moving. I have not decided what I think about the tradeoffs that one has to make to write such a novel. On one hand, the novel can be richly textured. On the other hand, each story moves slowly because of the alternation between characters.

Perhaps one day I'll find a story that I know would best be told by alternating so many viewpoints. But for now, I prefer the smooth, fast moving single viewpoint story.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Simple Things

The most powerful ideas are simple. And when people formulate ideas that are contrary to the simple, inescapable ideas, those complex ideas are wrong. Here is a fallacy that runs contrary to a simple concept.

A young man walked into town and found a shopkeeper grumbling on the sidewalk. The young man asked what was wrong and the shopkeeper replied, "Some idiot put a brick through my window. The glassmaker has come and taken measurements and will charge me $500 to replace it."

The young man said, "You are looking at this all wrong. You will pay the glassmaker $500. The glassmaker will pay the carpenter $500 to build a new cabinet. The carpenter will pay the caterer $500 to help with a party for his wife. This process will keep going. The $500 will probably come back to you, perhaps multiple times. So this is a good thing, not a bad thing."

A simple idea contradicts the young man. It is stupid to break things so that you can fix them.

If the young man is correct, then everyone should break their windows every night. Why stop there? Everyone should break their automobiles and burn down their homes. The economy would never slow down again.

But the young man is stupid. It is stupid to tear something down in order to build it back again. The young man is being too clever by half. Here is the logical flaw in the young man's argument.

The shopkeeper replied to the young man. "I was going to spend that $500 on a new suit for myself and a new dress for my wife. And then the tailor would have spent that money on the carpenter, and the carpenter would pay the caterer, and so on. The only difference is that the first $500 spent would have been a gain for me, not just a restoration of what I originally had. The first spending was wasted, because of the brick thrower. So I should have the man who threw the brick arrested. I should not thank him."

How is this story applicable to reality? There are people in positions of power who believe that if they take $50 billion in taxes and spend it to create jobs that they will boost the economy. They count the $50 billion when it is spent, but not when it is taken. Spending has not increased, it has just been rearranged. These people in power break the window by taking from you, then spend to replace the window. They have not added to economic activity at all.

You might also ask if congress or the president know which window of yours needs replacing. You spend your money more wisely on yourself than someone else could.

If we remember the simple, inescapable logic that contradicts the broken window fallacy, we won't get fooled again.

Behind The Curve

A colleague played the Safety Dance video for the students who arrived early to his class. A few nights later I got to the point where I was burnt out on reading for a bit. I was not mentally aware enough to write, but I was not ready for bed. I remembered my colleague watching old videos on YouTube.

I wondered if Tom Waits had videos on YouTube. When I looked, I found plenty, including live video from television shows, interviews, and well produced videos. After imbibing a bunch of interviews and other videos, I happened upon a King Crimson video, so I watched a few of those. I looked up and it was 2:00 AM.

In times past, I was the early adopter of technology, but apparently I am now behind the curve.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Terrible Speculative Fiction

Maybe it is unfair to say that The Jetsons is the worst science fiction ever created. After all, it is an early-60s cartoon. But I persist.

George Jetson lives in a house perched high in the sky upon a slender stalk with nothing underneath but, presumably, the ground. George is no patrician who can afford to throw away money; but is a futuristic working stiff. But every building is inefficiently perched in the sky for no good reason. This would uselessly multiply the cost of the structure.

Good speculative fiction should make sense. The author should formulate some technological changes and show how they would logically affect the world. Bruce Sterling, for instance, examines the effect of technological extension of the human lifespan on the culture in Holy Fire. Sterling posits that people who are super-old with a super-long financial investment time horizon would be the predominant consumers of the wonders of technology--including health care wonders, since only the ancient billionaires could afford these wonders.

Sterling's poor young subpopulation gives birth to a poor young subculture that does not matter. The young are provided for by welfare, but the old would run the world.

Sterling's future is a straightforward, mostly sensible extension of our present world. After all, in our present world, the lion's share of government benefits are given to the age group with the highest wealth--the old. These benefits are disproportionately taken from the age group with the lowest incomes and wealth--the young. This happens because old people vote. If politicians want to buy votes, they turn first to the old. And when a politician makes the elderly population mad, his/her carreer may be at an end.

However, I give The Jetsons credit for one correct guess. George Jetson works at Spacely's Sprockets, where he just pushes a button all day, griping intensely about his sore finger and his difficult job. We are supposed to laugh at the fact that though technology makes work easier, people in the future will still gripe. Anyone who has had "mouse hand" and/or carpal tunnel syndrome from the computer keyboard can see that The Jetsons was momentarily prophetic.

I attribute The Jetsons getting one prediction right to the monkey/typewriter/complete works of Shakespeare effect.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


The vivisectionist frowns
And sighs, thoughtful.
Another completed.

Parts stare up from the table
As before:
Veins, organs, bones, etcetera
(Plenty of etcetera).

She tiptoed about with such grace that I melted.
The flutes of her voice were so fluid I wept.

The knife danced,
The touch perfected,
Blood flowed hot.

It's all

Saturday, April 12, 2008

My Likes and Dislikes

Since I slept so much in class, I understand when someone sleeps in class. Someone made the effort to come to class, but now that they're there, they can't keep awake.

I don't mind if people come into class late. If they miss anything important, that's their problem, but it doesn't bother me.

I don't mind if there is a bit of chatter in class, as long as it doesn't get out of hand.

But if my students have math homework to do or they want to read the newspaper or text message, they need to leave. I let them know this on the first day of class. When someone does something like this, I have a strong reaction. It is something like, "Go. You must go now. I have no problem with you doing that, but you must go now and do it somewhere else."

I only lost my temper once, in class. About 17 years ago I decided to give students some sample problems to work in preparation for a test. Mr. P. did not do as well as he wanted to on the test. And he was upset that I had given the questions, but had not given the answers. I explained that I was not obligated to give any questions, much less the answers. Few, if any, teachers were giving as much assistance as I had given. I should have said, "Thank you for your input. And now we move on." But I kept trying to explain it to Mr. P., who was really just saying anything to avoid saying, "I'm ticked off because I got a bad grade."

I got frustrated. I lost it. Threw chalk against the wall beside me--not in the direction of the students. Chalk particles showered the area. I said, "Let's go home and try this again next time."
I was worried that my end-of-semester teaching evaluations from that section would be low. I got the highest evaluations from that class that I had received up to that point.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Professor Likes and Dislikes

My chemistry professor shut the door at class time and made fun of anyone who came in late. "I got up on time! Why can't you get up on time?!" He did not appreciate anyone yawning. "When you yawn, put your fist in your face!" He did not like hats, either. Somehow, he was irate, funny, but not wholly serious, at the same time.

I sometimes slept in early morning classes and in afternoon classes. I chose my desk so that I could lean back against the wall to facilitate sleeping. In calculus, my regular teacher was not harsh with sleeping. She knew I was making high As anyway. But we had a substitute one day who pontificated upon my sleeping to the effect that, "You can't amount to anything sleeping in math class. Maybe you can be a janitor, but that's about all." After I got my PhD I had to remind him about that. He did not remember it, of course.

I slept a lot in linear algebra. I already knew about dot products, Jacobians, and eigenvalues, so it was not a big loss. Well, there was some loss. I had an 89.25% average. For almost all students that would be close enough for an A (the extra .25% was the difference between getting a 7 instead of an 8 on a subjectively graded homework problem). But, for me, 89.25% was a B, probably because I slept so much. Once in linear algebra I woke up and everybody was leaving the classroom. A cute Chinese girl grinnedat me. I wondered what I had done in my sleep.

In graduate school I was always either very interested or very worried that I would miss something, so I never slept in class.

I dwell on sleeping so much because I never did anything else that would upset my professors. I did not wear a hat. I do not ever remember being very late to class. I did not talk a lot in class--I was either sleeping or paying attention.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


My family was in our car and the kids, 4 years and 6 years old then, were bored. Julia was driving. The oldest, Joey, addressing Julia, said, "Dad, why are we waiting here?"

She replied, "We're at a red light, Mom."

Joey said, "I'm not Mom."

I said, "Yes, you're Mom. She's Dad. I'm Jared. And he's Joey."

I had given the younger son (Jared) the older son's name (Joey). So the younger son pipes up, whining, sounding on the verge of tears, "I'm Joey? Now I'm not funny anymore!"

To hear a 4 year old unleash such a caustic burn cracked us all up. We all laughed until we cried--and beyond.

Then the older son realized that he had been burned, stopped laughing, and got upset.

Then we laughed some more.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Sparing the Gups

In fantasy and science fiction, authors build worlds. If the world an author builds differs in every way from our world, he has a lot of explaining to do. And explaining is almost always boring. So the author should not make things too different from our world.

Everybody knows what a cow is. In a fictional world, maybe there are not any cows. But maybe people do eat meat in this fictional world. And either they catch meat wild or raise it. If they raise a big meat animal, it serves the same purpose as a cow.

So if you create a fantasy world, most of the time you will use cows and not gups and most of the time you will make these animals cowlike and not guplike (gups have a hive mentality with intricate survival activities performed by each gup that allow the gup colony to survive).

In a science fiction world, you are more likely to have gups than in a fantasy world, if you even mention such things--maybe food comes from a Star Trek replicator. In any case, the author must limit the number of gups or else the story gets bogged down in details.

The sci-fi author might call a world's cows its "domesticated herd animals," and save the explanations which might try the reader's patience except for things that are essential to the story and/or interesting to learn.

If the heroes are going to use the ship's hyperdrive to cook galactic pancakes to sate the appetite of MindlessWorldEaterGuy, the author might explain how they convert the hyperdrive field into thermal energy.

Interestingly, Jules Verne, who has been called the first science fiction writer, wrote books that were more like travel guides full of gups (in space, at the center of the earth, at the bottom of the sea, etc.). More precisely, Verne took people on tours that involved science that they most likely did not know.

But readers have grown up since Verne--they got tired of characters praising Hovlafazor and passing the roast gup. Readers don't mind if the characters praise the Lord and pass the pot roast, as long as the characters set their phasors on kill.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Atlas Shrugs Again

I am teaching market competition in class. One of the obvious principles that has great analytical power is as follows. If there are many competitors that have various options, they will pick the most attractive option first. But the more competitors that choose an option, the worse that option becomes.

For instance, the "best" ride at a theme park will have a long line. The long line means that people who want to ride the best ride get less rides per trip to the park and will wait longer.

If no one were in line, then it would be good to get in line--and ride without waiting. But as the line gets longer, you give up more other rides in order to wait in line (which is not fun at all). So you might ride some mediocre rides that have short lines because you will be able to ride more, rather than wait more.

Overall, competitors at the theme park end up with about an equal amount of entertainment per time devoted to each ride, considering its attendant waiting.

By the same token, if you have 10 possible business opportunities, you choose the one that has a highest potential profit, but so does everyone else (assuming that the options are all equally fun). The more people that enter your industry, the less profit there will be for you.

After everyone has chosen an industry, if you saw a lot more profit in another industry, you would jump to that industry, increasing the competition and lowering the profit there. And when you leave your industry, there is less competition and more profit in the industry you left. So eventually the amount of profit in each industry will tend to be equal.

This gives us the following insight. If the government taxes one of those 10 industries, people will likely jump to other industries over time. Less competition in the taxed industry means higher prices for consumers--to the point that the consumer is really paying the tax.

The only way that the government could tax the industry and not harm the consumer is to make it illegal to leave the industry. That is the story in Ayn Rand's novel, Atlas Shrugged. In the novel, government increases the burden on business to the point that the most productive people stop producing (shrug). Then the government makes it illegal to stop.

At this point in the class discussion, I heard the voices of dozens of interventionist politicians in my head (only a momentary hallucination). "We have to stop outsourcing. Let's keep American jobs at home!" and, "We should only trade with countries that have the same labor, safety, and environmental standards as we do!"

As we make it more expensive to do business at home, more companies move (like when you move to another ride at the theme park to avoid the line). Economics is large enough for people either to advocate or to oppose more stringent labor, safety, and environmental laws. But economics points out the costs of more stringent legislation--lower wages and fewer jobs.

I have taught and done research at universities for many years. So most of my flashes of insight are in the past. But apparently there was at least one remaining.

Monday, April 7, 2008


I am reading George R. R. Martin's Songs of Ice and Fire series. GRRM does a great many things right. Here is one of those things.

GRRM understands games quite well. He is able to have one player in the game establish a dominant position that seems secure. Then GRRM is able to convincingly show that the dominant position is balanced on the knife's edge, that perhaps will slice the dominant player in half.

The story of Robb Stark is especially poignant. Stark rallies a large part of the kingdom to himself, building a strong coalition. He uses excellent strategies in winning every battle that he fights. But because he releases a hostage from service, refuses to kill an important prisoner and forsakes his arranged marriage, he ends up losing his ancestral lands, having his forces destroyed, and being killed by treacherous friends.

Along the way, one interesting military game that takes place is as follows. Stark's army is at his relative's stronghold, between his enemy's army and his enemy's lands, all aligned east/west. Stark leaves the stronghold and goes to ravage his enemy's lands to the west. His enemy marches west to find Stark and defeat him. Stark's relative decides that he will not only secure his stronghold, but will stop Stark's enemy from pursuing Stark west . The relative is successful at stopping Stark's enemy.

So Stark's enemy gives up on pursuing Stark and joins the battle in the south, turning the tide and winning the kingdom. If Stark's relative had obeyed orders, Stark's enemy would have pursued Stark and the battle for the kingdom would have come out differently.

However, Stark could have also done a better job. Stark could have told his relative that his plan was to have his enemy pursue him west, so that the relative would not have tried to stop the enemy.

Robert E. Lee made the same kind of mistake before Gettysburg. He gave JEB Stuart, "the eyes of his army," non-specific orders which resulted in Stuart being out of position to contribute to the battle.

In scene after scene, I can almost picture the game theoretic decision matrix that underlies the action. I doubt that GRRM has any formal game theoretic training. He certainly has a clear knowledge of history and an abundance of common sense and logic.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Grandpa George

I was about four when my Great-grandpa George died. I remember when he used to walk down the paved country road to my grandma's house. All the kids loved him. I don't remember much about him, though. I remember him saying that my brother, Jeff, was really named "Jake Adam" (which he wasn't). But most of what I know about Grandpa George comes from others. Here is some Grandpa George trivia.

Grandpa George went out to get some wood for the fire one time. Soon he breathlessly ran back into the house, but without any wood. Someone said, "What's wrong Papa George?" He told them that while he had been carrying the wood back to the house he was attacked by an animal. Someone asked him what kind of animal attacked him.

He replied, "It was either a mink or a goat."

That was the best whole story that I have about George. But there were quite a few things that he said that we laughed about over the years. Here are two.

When Grandpa George would get in a preachy mood he would proclaim, "You have to be reborn and degenerated!" Nobody ever figured out what he meant in saying people need to be "degenerated."

At one time the national problem was seen as juvenile delinquents. Papa George, though, would blame most of society's problems on, " . . . them dadblamed jubilee linktons!"

George was my mother's grandfather, but he got along really well with my dad. One time Grandpa George came to visit dad. He told dad, "I'm about done here on earth. I figure I'm going to die in a few days."

George was as healthy as a man his age could be. He was not ill in any way. Dad did not take him seriously. But Grandpa George died within the week of natural causes.

Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn't.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Out of Genre Readers

My "large" writing group has people with varied interests; many enjoy poetry, for instance. With so many members, we can only contribute a limited amount to be critiqued. I contributed the first 2.5 pages of my fantasy novel.

In these few word Riva Tanner falls out of a tree, dies, and goes to "the spirit world." Her dad, a priest of Jared, pulls her back into their own world--resurrecting her. Riva overhears a conversation in which her dad tells her mom that he should not have pulled her back from his God's realm--that Riva should not be here with them. They now have to "give her back."

I could spot the group members who are not accustomed to reading fantasy. The fact that Riva's dad is a priest who wears a sword said "cult" to the non-fantasy readers. The fact that people in the fantasy world worship a God that the readers never heard of amplified the "cult" interpretation. And the fact that for some reason they must give Riva back says, "evil cult." These readers did not have a problem with the evil cult story--some liked it. But they saw what happened as unjust.

My view of the morality of what happened in those first 2.5 pages is that the story's events are in harmony with Greek, Norse, and most other pantheistic mythologies. Even "good" gods insist that a natural order be followed--like, the dead stay dead. When the natural order is not followed, there is a price to pay. That is justice.

The readers in my group are educated, avid readers. But readers who are not familiar with the genre will view a story differently than readers who are.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Scythe of Silas Excerpt

Chapter 1: The Debt

When Riva opened her eyes she could see that Pa’s hand shivered as he held the iron key that usually hung round his neck. His voice shivered, too, when he said, “She died. I pulled her back.”

Riva shut her eyes tightly again. She could barely breathe, they hugged her so hard. Ma was crying. “Oh, girl. Oh, girl. Are you sure she’s alive, Jon? Are you sure?”

“She died. I pulled her back.”

Riva clutched at them as she started crying, too. Ma's kisses were hot all over her face. Ma murmured something in between kisses.

“Are you all right, girl?” Pa asked, louder this time.

Her voice was squeaky when she answered through the sobs. “I’m all right.” She opened her eyes. The big tree and the sky above them looked the same as before, except maybe brighter.

Pa asked, “What happened, Riva?”

She started to talk, but her breath caught in her throat. She coughed with a sob then managed to say, “I fell out of the tree. I’m sorry. I won’t climb it any more. I won’t.”

“You knew better, Riva!” Ma said, still scared.

“Do you remember anything after you fell?” Pa asked.

Riva said, “I had a dream. There was a man in a white room.”

Ma said, “It was just a bad dream. We’re here now, girl. You’re all right. Oh, I should have been watching you.”

“What did the man look like?” Pa asked.

Riva was shaking. “I’m cold.”

Ma said, “Let’s wrap her up. She’s cold. Take her inside, Jon.”

Pa’s strong arms reassured Riva as he carried her into the house and put her in her own bed. Ma covered her with the bear fur blanket and said, “I’ll get you some water,” gave her a powerful hug, and then hurried outside to the well.

Pa sat by her side and held both her hands in his. “You saw a man?”

“He was big, Pa. Bigger than you. He was a priest like you with a sword and the armor.”

“Did you see anything else?”

“Just the man in the room. The door—it was iron.”

“And that’s all?”

“He knew my name. He said I was his.” She let go of Pa’s hands, grabbed his neck, and hugged him close, starting to cry again. “I’m yours. I’m not his.”

Pa whispered in her ear. “You’re mine, girl. Mine and Ma’s. But we’re all His.”

“All his?”

“Jared’s. We all go to the Spirit World someday, through that iron door.”

“I don’t want to go back. Please.”

They stayed that way until Ma brought the water.

Riva must have gone to sleep after that. When she woke up she lay still, listening to Ma and Pa talking quietly. She snuck a peek and saw they were at the table. She moved her hand slowly up to her neck and felt the soft leather necklace, then trailed her hand along it until she found her doll. She had been lying on it. She slowly brought her doll to her cheek and nuzzled against her, barely whispering, “It’s all right, little sister. It’s all right.”

Pa said, “I don’t know how, Claire. I shouldn’t have been able to.”

“Jared gave her back to you because you’re his priest, Jon. That’s all.”

“No. He didn’t give her. I took her. Riva told me that He said she belonged to Him. I shouldn’t have done it, Claire.”

“Well it’s too late now. She’s back where she should be.”

Nobody said anything for a while. Finally Pa said, “We have to give her back.”


Riva crawled on hands and knees, looking for a little hole in the ground, even too small for her finger. She was near the big tree when she saw Pa leave the tanning shed and go into the house to eat. She crept around the yard until she found a hole near the house. She looked over her thin stalk of hangweed, and then spit on the end. She put the wet end into the dirt and rolled it around until the stalk had a nice mud coating. She slid the muddy end of the stalk into the little hole and rolled the other end in her fingers. When she pulled the stalk out she saw the small white worm clinging to the muddy end. She lowered the worm to the ground. When he began to creep away, she jousted with him with the stalk.

She knew Ma would call her inside to eat soon. She heard Ma and Pa talking inside as he washed up from his morning’s work. Ma said, “I know what we have to do.”

“About the elk skins? I’m sending them to Pargamont. He’s paying well for them now.”

Ma said so quietly Riva could barely hear, “About Riva.”

Riva peeked up into the window at them, careful that they could not see her.

“I dreamed that she was a priest, Jon. She wore the mail and sword. I dreamed it for a week.”

Pa propped his elbow in the table and put his face in his hand. “Every night since she fell?”

“Every night. It won’t stop.”

“What do you think it means, Claire?”

“She should be taught as a priest, same as you. She should be educated.”

Pa smiled, but then Riva saw that it was not a real smile. “Just like you want to be educated?”

Ma took the bread off the fire and then sat opposite Pa. “Just like I want to be. Her husband should not be better than she is.”

Pa didn’t try to argue this time about how learning was not important for tanners and wives. He just stayed quiet.

“Is this a true sign, Jon? You know it is.”

“You want it to be.”

Ma said, “When you said that we’d have to give her back, I didn’t know what that meant. I was afraid . . .” Riva didn’t hear the last part, Ma had said it so weakly.

“The God is not so cruel to ask that. I was almost certain of that. But if she became a priestess—that would be hard.”

“It’s hard to pay debts. She would be one week buried if you hadn’t done saved her.” She reached over for his hand and drew it to her, squeezing it to her lips. “Jared’s priests will take her, won’t they?”

Pa sounded so tired. “They have had priestesses before. Not many, though.”

“It will settle the debt, won’t it?”

Pa said, “Maybe. I’ll think on it.”

But Ma didn’t give him time to think on it. She said, “She’s ten years old, Jon. We may not have her with us for long anyway. She could be married in four years.”

“I want her to marry. She would live in the village. We could play with our grandchildren. If she becomes a priestess, though . . . . life in the Order of Jared is not a good life for a child. She would have friends in the order. She wants friends. But there is no love, like you have for Riva.”

“It’s what’s best for her.”

Pa’s chin had been resting on his palm; now he hid his face in his hand. “Best for her? In the Order she would have a priest’s life—the God’s life—the way of the guardian—she would learn to kill.”

“Jon, you have told me yourself that Riva should not have a life with us now. That she has a debt to pay to Jared.”

Pa groaned, “I know, Claire. I know.”

“And a woman needs to learn to protect herself against men.”

“It won’t be that way for her.”

“You don’t know that. It is that way.”

He sighed heavily. “I won’t argue. I really can’t argue. I’ve had the same dreams that you did. I hoped they weren’t true.”

“You did?” Ma looked like someone had hit her.

Riva slumped down by the window. She looked at the white worm crawling around blindly. She herded him back into his hole with her muddy stalk. She crossed her legs and took hold of her doll with both hands, holding her out in front of her on the necklace. Pa had made her sister and the necklace, too. That way Riva could always keep her close by, even when she was working with Ma or Pa or playing.

Riva was pretty sure Ma and Pa were saying that she would have to go away—that they would make her a priest like Pa was. She thought about how Pa looked with his armor and sword. It was like he was a different person—like a hero from the stories he told her about Jared. Ma and Pa had those dreams about her wearing that armor, but Riva could not picture herself in it.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Scared to Death

My youngest went to get his backpack out of the car yesterday. I lay in wait for him. When he walked into the kitchen, I jumped out and scared him. He yelled. I was going to laugh with him then but Julia went and spoiled it all.

From the back of the house, Julia started consoling the poor boy. He responded by tearing up and running to her. With some indulgement, he was weeping in no time.

I said, "Hon, if you just laugh with him he's fine. If you coddle him he'll respond in the way you ask prompt him to respond."

Julia said, "I don't know why men do things like that. Don't you know you can literally scare someone to death."

Julia's response was good in two ways. First, I got a huge laugh from her saying that I could have literally scared the boy to death. Second, I said, "O. K. I'm going to have to write a scene in which someone literally scares someone else to death."

I can't wait.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Sex and Violence

On my first day of school Ronald walked up and asked me to participate in a kids' "joke." I don't know if kids do that old joke anymore, but it goes like this. One kid says, "Look up, look down, look all around." The other kid follows along with this. Then the first kid says something like, "Your pants are falling down." What a riot.

I had played the game before so I was not interested. Ronald begged and pleaded, promising not to say "Your pants are falling down," or ANYTHING bad. So, since I was five, I believed him.

At Ronald's prompting, I looked up, looked down, looked all around. I am not sure what Ronald said next; his Sylvester-the-cat speech impediment was too heavy for me to understand how he finished the joke. But he laughed loudly at me, so I was sure he did not say anything complimentary.

So I punched him in the throat. His voice got instantly hoarser than before as he bellowed for Mrs. Welch, our first grade teacher (she was an angel). She did not do anything to correct me--except maybe she told me, "Don't do that." Maybe she went light because it was the first day any of us had gone to school.

I remember one other thing from that day. At recess after lunch, I went over to where the second grade girls were playing in the sandbox and kissed quite a few of them. They did not seem to mind.

At nap time, I lay on my deep purple naugahyde mat that my grandma made for me. Mrs. Welch walked up to me and said, "John, did you kiss the second grade girls in the sandbox?"

I said, "Yes ma'am."

She said, "Well you should not do that anymore."

I said, "Yes ma'am."

Back then, that was the most sex and violence that anyone in the school system had heard of.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Bad Authors

I love reading books by good authors. I am glad those authors are out there. I love that these authors are successful and will continue to churn out great books.

Before I started writing, my only view of bad authors was, "What a lousy book. A waste of time and money."

Now that I write, though, I hate bad authors. When I see a book by a bad author on the shelves, red fireworks burst in my brain and my mouth curls into a sneer. The terrible writing I have read by the author comes back to me and I growl and grouse.

I recall a book about a group of people who travel back into the past to explore history first-hand. They run into problems and are stranded in the past. The "characters" are soulless cardboard cutouts. At best, they can be summarized in one sentence. They spend 72 hours or so in the past without sleeping and without eating. and they don't seem to be hungry or falling asleep on their feet--much less on the verge of kidney damage because they have not drunk anything. This was a chronologically continuous account, in which nobody had to use the bathroom. (Don't get me wrong--I'm not that interested in reading/writing bathroom scenes. But if an author is going to follow characters extremely closely for a long time . . .)

I especially hate bad authors who sell lots of books, like the author I mention above. My ill will compounds when people make movies about bad books, like the one above. The reason that I harbor these ill feelings about bad authors, who are not being malicious, but are just incompetent, can be summarized in one word--"jealousy."