Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Tropics. So Warm. So Lurid. So May.

Here's another photo from our splendid little calendar. This was taken in 1998, on the island of Curacao--- which, you will be surprised to know, is a part of Amsterdam, the city in Holland.
Even today Curacao remains a part of the Dutch Empire, and administratively the island is a part of Amsterdam. This relationship isn't unique--- I believe Okinawa is administratively a part of Tokyo.
We were in Curacao for the total eclipse. But a lot more was going on--- that was the same week as Carnival. And on any day when there wasn't Carnival or major astronomical events, I was off diving the reefs. It was a sort of all-in-one trip.
The diving was slightly disappointing. The reefs were in excellent shape, but large fish were absent. The Venezuelans had come across the channel and taken them all. (I'm told there are still big fish on Aruba.) I had a lovely night dive--- I showed up at the edge of the pier, and there in the pier spotlight were dozens of large squid, floating in the water and staring at me with their huge platter eyes. They vanished when I actually got in the water, but there were plenty of octopus and crab to look at, and one teeny-tiny incredibly cute moray eel, smaller than my little finger. (I realize "cute" and "moray eel" are contradictory concepts, so you'll have to trust me on this one.)
We had seats in the grandstand for the Carnival parade. Big floats with astronomical themes, and scantily-clad, incredibly buff dancers dressed as planets and comets. Lots of bands, all playing that year's carnival song out of ten-foot-tall speakers. (The local music form is Tambu, pronounced "Tumba," and is party-hearty music.) Following each unit of the parade came a refreshment cart, dispensing drinks to the dancers out of three-foot-tall bottles of Johnny Walker. You really didn't have a choice but to have a good time.
At one point a nearly naked babe walked up to our post and asked if anyone wanted to dance with her. The lack of general response reminded me that I was with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada--- not just diffident astronomy geeks, but diffident Canadian astronomy geeks. Someone clearly had to stand up for the team, so down I bounded, and the dancer and I engaged for several minutes in the sort of public exhibitionism that would have got us arrested on any day other than Mardi Gras.
Two days later was the eclipse. The local government had done us proud--- graded flat about twenty acres on the north end of the island, and built a huge barrier wall of cargo containers to keep the northeast trades from blasting all our equipment. Elsewhere on the island, the locals were covering their windows with aluminum foil to keep out "eclipse rays."
This was my first eclipse--- a huge silver wheel in the sky, with the corona dragging out into long wings on either side. I was agog, though I managed somehow to keep snapping pictures.
This picture was taken later that day, at sunset. I was looking at the full moon, which was rising, and just happened to have the camera with me, and took the snap at exactly the right second. The real-life colors were just as lurid as the photograph. Over the horizon, you can just see the tiny silver moon.
And the whole time I kept thinking, "You know, for Amsterdam this isn't so bad."

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

This Year's Best Christmas Story

This story from frequent blog commentator InsightStraight.

To advance this tale it must be understood by all that I have
been, off and on and for much of my life, a bookseller. And I am as prone as most others of that breed to fanciful notions and antique behavior.

So you will appreciate that when I dressed up that Christmas Eve, it was not at all unusual and it was in fact my habit and practice to do so for the weeks preceding each Christmas day. Clad in tailcoat, weskit and tophat,
with ascot and stickpin, every bit the Victorian gentleman, I would greet
customers into the store. I was always happy to bring a smile to holiday-stressed faces, and over the years the customers came to expect and appreciate my costuming. For those who inquired as to why I was garbed so I would reply: "Why, to reflect the spirit of the season, of course!" And to those who inquired as to my identity, I would say that I was representing the spirit of Charles Dickens.

So it was that when Patricia and I were headed home on that Christmas Eve, after playing elf and delivering presents, I was still garbed as
Dickens.There is a wonderful tradition in parts of New Mexico: on some important holidays, especially Halloween (Day of the Dead) and Christmas Eve, people decorate the graves of their loved ones. The graves are tidied and fresh flowers are set out, as are offerings of food and drink. On Christmas Eve small gifts, cards, and trees are left as well. And luminaria are set out around the graves, candle glow lending soft light to the cemetery. (On one night, the thought of which still brings tears to my eyes, we saw a mass of luminaria on a distant grave; on closer approach, we found that they spelled out "Love You".)

It is our custom to visit the cemetery late on Christmas Eve, to walk among the graves and witness the care given in honor of departed loved ones. On this particular Christmas Eve, we drove slowly through the parking lot
of the cemetery to get an overall view, then headed up a short service road
(amusingly and appropriately signed as a "Dead End") that heads up a slight rise beside the cemetery, to get another view.

To our surprise, there was a medium-sized Christmas tree lying in the middle of the dirt road. While we have often seen Christmas trees dumped along roads, it is usually after the event! It seemed a shame that this perfectly presentable tree should miss Christmas, so I got out and put it atop the car. Then we drove back down and parked in front of the cemetery gate.

In the Bernalillo cemetery, the area to the south is more recent and better-kept. Thus, on Christmas Eve it is the best lit, as it has the most luminaria about. By contrast, the older area to the northeast is dark and relatively gloomy, and a bit sad since the lack of light means that it has not had visitors.

While Patricia moved slowly through the southern part of the cemetery, reading the cards and messages and paying her respects, I took the
tree down from atop the car and headed for the darker area of the cemetery, intent on finding the grave most in need of a Christmas tree. I wandered about until I found just the one: deep in the unlit portion of the cemetery, not forlorn (someone had mounded the earth on the grave sometime in the last few years) but unmarked and obviously not recently visited.

So I set about giving the unknown resident of the grave a tree. I had nothing with which to dig a hole for the tree to stand in, but close
at hand there was a 2-foot wooden cross, the bottom of which had broken off at an angle -- just the thing for scraping a hole into the mounded earth of the grave. Holding the tree upright with my left hand, I crouched down and started making a hole with the cross.

Just then a minivan pulled in through the gate of the cemetery and began driving along the loop road that runs through the middle of it, very
likely a family coming to see the luminaria. As they reached the end of the road and were about to make the turn to loop back out, their headlight beams were about to fall across me.

Just before the light reached me, I stood up straight and still.

The minivan stopped. I can only imagine what they thought when
they saw me: a very tall bearded man, alone at midnight in the dark
section of the cemetery, clad in Victorian attire and tophat, eyeglasses reflecting blankly in the light from their headlights, a Christmas tree in one hand -- and a broken cross in the other. For a long timeless moment the van sat there; I stood perfectly still. Then the minivan left. Quickly.

So, my friends, if you are ever regaled with the tale of The Tree Specter of Christmas Eve (for, as we all know, tales grow in the telling),
you will now know its source.

Good Holidays to all, and a Marvelous New Year coming!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Sir Isaac Newton's Birthday!

Here in New Mexico, we have many traditions for celebrating Sir Isaac Newton's Birthday on December 25th. We eat tamales, we stew up some posole, we light bonfires, we set little candles inside brown paper bags, and we decorate the graves of our ancestors with lights.

I'm not doing any of that this year, I must admit, but I expect I'll be having a good time anyway.

Whatever your traditions may be, Kathy and I wish you a joyous holiday season.

" Who, by vigor of mind almost divine, the motions and
figures of the planets, the paths of comets, and the tides of the seas first
demonstrated." ---Epitaph

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Three Little Words

So I have been writing along on the novel, and it's going surprisingly well, thank you.

Right up till this week, actually, when I encountered the part of the book described in my outline with three words. The words being: Their relationship deepens.

Three words that imply a great deal, but that--- like the rhetoric of our political candidates--- don't actually say much when you look at them closely.

Oh dear. I've hit the Relationship part of the book.

Some types of writing are easy for me. Action scenes are easier than anything. I once startled the members of a panel at an SF con by extemporizing out loud something like three long, detailed paragraphs of pulp-action fiction. (Biplanes vs. zeppelins, I believe.)

If all else fails, I could survive as a Grade B action writer. Grade B, I think, because my heart really wouldn't be in it. In order to be a Grade A action writer, you really have to care how the Elizabethans fletched their arrows, or whatever, and I just don't.

To be a super action writer, you have to really get off on how the Heckler & Koch MP5A5, with the collapsing stock, is different from the MP5K-PDW with the folding stock, and there's always a moment in the story when this stuff matters. And of course the readers love this kind of thing.

And if you're doing this within the realm of SF, you've got the Colt Blazer Laser Rifle Ch54z, which has the supreme edge over the enemy's Tau Ceti Industries Personal Maser 85-11 (dropship capable with folding stock). Which is to say, this magic tech (which I made up) is superior to this other magic tech (which I made up). I can't get excited by this, generally speaking.

Plus, I grew up playing wargames from Avalon Hill and SPI and many other publishers, many of them forgotten now. And I was darned good at most of them. It's no problem translating that skill into fiction, where there are no inconvenient die rolls to vex your hero--- unless, of course, you want him vexed, in which case you can roll A ELIM all you want.

So while there are quite a few action scenes in my books, they aren't there for their own sake. I use action scenes to illuminate character, and generally I find an action scene in which the character doesn't change to be unnecessary and in some way dull. At the very least they should have a revelation that doesn't have to do with tactics, but with their own nature, or someone else's.

I enjoy writing sex scenes. As I mentioned a few posts back, mine tend not to be very explicit, they tend to be about emotional states, which reflect on character, which is what I'm really interested in.

I'm also good at writing dialogues. Cuz--- guess what?--- dialogues illuminate character. And character is what my fiction is all about.

Which brings us back to Relationship scenes, which I find very challenging. You have to spend your hours sweating over nuance and emotional states and not just how the characters communicate all this to each other--- or don't--- but how to communicate it all to the reader, which real people in relationships don't worry about much.

Their relationship deepens.

Well, what sort of relationship is it? I might have had an idea, months ago when I wrote the outline, but I don't remember now--- and even if I did, I've been living with these characters for months, and they've changed, and any idea I had back then might well be obsolete.

Do they go to bed together? I don't know. I know they need to get close enough to sort of start reading one another's minds. Maybe sex would help, but maybe it would just add another element that isn't actually required by the plot. Sex scenes not required by the plot are gratuitous--- not that a little gratuitous fun isn't enjoyable in its own way--- but. But.

Their relationship deepens.

Now I'm beginning to wonder if the relation actually needs to deepen. I mean, we've got to have something in here between Point A and Point C, because time needs to pass in some meaningful way so that the next Plot Bomb can explode where it needs to. Can't I just throw in a swordfight?

Well no, this isn't the sort of book that has swordfights. It has Relationships. And there's nothing that can happen in this part of the book except a Relationship.

Maybe I'll just have them talk to each other a lot. Because, you know, I do dialogue really well.

Or maybe I'll just start with the talking and see where it goes. Because, hey, that's what happens in real relationship, right?

Their relationship deepens.

I mean, what the hell. What is this "deepening?" Why does deepening need to happen here?

Surely there must be a workaround.

Maybe I'll just have them talk. Yeah, that's it. Start with something simple, like, "You seeing anybody?"

Their relationship deepens.

What do they notice about each other? I mean, that's important. If she starts paying attention to his hands and fingers and the shape of his ears, that means a lot.

Maybe I'll get them drunk. That way they can blurt out character-revealing information they might not otherwise want to talk about.

Their relationship deepens.

Crap. Whose idea was this stupid book, anyway?

Their relationship deepens.

I think I'll watch TV.

From Storm to Storm

So I'm back from the Left Coast. I got to New Mexico just in time to be hammered by the same winter storm that had hammered California three days earlier. I feel doubly blessed.

I seem to have a new, albeit temporary, writing job. A very intense one. One that I still can't actually talk about.

This is in addition to writing the new novel, which will continue at what I trust will be its former pace. The other job will be using a completely different set of writing muscles, so I'm hoping they won't interfere with one another.

This means, alas, that I won't be chatting here quite so much. This may be the Winter of Silence.

We shall see.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

So--- Who Are You Guys?

I'm going to be out of town for several days, having an intense series of meetings about the Reely Good News item I mentioned last week, and which I still can't tell you about. (Honestly, if I'd known it would have gone on this long, I wouldn't have mentioned it.)

I doubt I'll be able to spend much time amusing myself (or you) online while I'm gone, so why don't you all pull up a chair and introduce yourselves?

I know some of you personally, and some I know only through this forum. Tell us a bit about yourself. If you wish to remain anonymous then do so by all means; but staying within the limits of your own comfort zone, tell us all about you.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Air Force Cyberspace Command--- ooh-rah!

"It's all-out cyberwar toe-to-toe with the Russkies!"

In 2008, the US military will start to fund a new Air Force "Cyberspace" Command (which will essentially attempt to create an ability for the US to wage warfare within civilian information infrastructures). As is typical with most post-conventional military efforts, the new command will sport:
A huge budget (in tens of billions of dollars) and a massive uniformed/private bureaucracy (tens of thousands of "cyberwarriors"). Standard DoD scaling rules apply -- as in a gaggle of personnel drawn from multiple organizations and companies with a patina of training in "cyberwarfare."

The Air Force (apparently strangers to the term "blowback") is spending tens of billions of dollars to turn U.S. servicemen into international cybercriminals!

This new Command's ability to wage cyberwarfare will be judged based on its success in three areas:
Real-world experience and rapid (open source) innovation. Most, if not all, of this experience and innovation in cyberwarfare is gained through criminal activity. Innovation is a product of rapid cycles of competition with software vendors and computer security companies.
Massive self-replication. Think in term of small teams (the smarter, the better) designing software that seizes control of tens of millions of computer systems through various forms of infection.
Deniability. Nearly all of the successful operations conducted in offensive cyberwarfare will require deniability. Post-attack forensics must not point back to a government since these wars/battles will be fought in peacetime . . .

Given these requirements, this new Command will likely fail (and badly). To provide contrast, the Russian Business Network (the RBN is a computer criminal syndicate responsible for an estimated 60% of online criminal activity), gets top marks in all of these areas.

I mean, like, wow.

D'you think this stands a snowball's chance in hell?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Taos Toolbox 2008

Once again, we are offering the Taos Toolbox master class in writing science fiction and fantasy, June 8-21, 2008.

My co-teacher will be the fabulous Kelly Link, and there will be an appearance by special lecturer Stephen R. Donaldson.

This is a "graduate" level course, intended for people who have already been to Clarion or Odyssey, or others who are already at that level.

We will once again be at the gorgeous Snow Bear Lodge in Taos Ski Valley. Most meals will be provided. There will be one-on-one meetings with instructors, daily critiques, and the occasional writing assignment.

More information here.

Here are some photos of last year's workshop to provide inspiration.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Yesterday being a rainy, cold, depressing Monday, I attempted to cheer myself up in a way that usually works. With food.
So I threw some tilapia, bay scallops, giant prawns, oysters, and clams--- about eighty bucks worth of seafood, actually--- into this wonderful tomato and white wine broth, and I made enough cioppino to last all week.
I also baked some French bread, which I served with European, high-butter-fat butter.
Which had me in a good mood until I found out about the computer thing mentioned in the last post, after which, y'know, I just wanted to turn into Tron so that I could rez into Silicon Land and bang heads together.

Rainy Days and Mondays

Okay, so Monday sucked. It rained all day, which is good for our environment and for the ski lodges, but meant I lived all day in the gloom.

Then I got bad news--- not about me, but about a friend. Which put a huge damper on the day.

And then I fired up the computer and started work and discovered that everything I'd written on Sunday--- yeah, we writers work weekends--- it all had just vanished. And because I was pressed for time I hadn't backed it up! I wasted an hour trying to find a .temp file somewhere that might contain some of the writing, but failed. Ran System Mechanic, and discovered that the Windows Directory had 43 errors.

I'd like to believe that Windows is at fault rather than me. I'm having a hard time believing that I wrote for a couple hours without once backing up the file, and then when I closed out for the day, clicked the "do not save changes" button. I'm more professional than that, I'd like to think. (Though some days I'm not.)

It could have been worse. Once I lost a whole novel to a computer glitch, both the original and the two backups. But that was in the days of DOS 1.1.

Catapultam Habeo . . .

The folks at Danger Room are having a contest for the most awesomely bad military patches of all time. Here are some of the candidates.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

O Lucky Man

So I got some really good news the other day.

Really, really, really good news.

Except I can't tell you all what the news is, because things aren't precisely nailed down yet.

But it's good news.

Reely reely good goody good reely good goody reely good news.

If I had time, I'd open a bottle of champagne, but I don't.


Okay, so you gotta admire the sheer commercial brilliance of this idea. You recruit six hot-bodied classically-trained violinists, either fresh from the conservatory or still in the conservatory. These people are really sharp musicians, equally at home with bluegrass, jazz, sambas, klezmer, the Great American Songbook, and the classical repertoire.

You put the boys in tight pants, and the girls in form-fitting spaghetti-strap tops. Then you back them up with a trap set, bass, and guitar, and send them out to do an eclectic, family-friendly, essentially soul-free act complete with choreography. You put them on the road 250 days per year, and when they burn out or go back to school or get a career playing Paganini, you just replace them with some other conservatory students who needs jobs. And you watch the money roll in.

This is Barrage, who we saw the other night in Socorro, the Athens of the Southwest. At first I thought the entertainment a little too Walt Disney World for my tastes, but I have to admit that in the end the kids won me over. Firstly, they really are superb musicians. It was great fun watching them trade licks and leads. The arrangements are imaginative. ("We Three Kings" rescored to 5/4 time and played as a jazz piece counts as imaginative, at least as popular entertainment goes.) The musicians were genuinely enthusiastic, and enthusiasm is catching.

And I wasn't precisely truthful when I described the music as soul-free. In part that's a function of the fact they play really, really fast. Soul can only enter on the slower numbers, and there were precious few of those.

Plus Louis Prima's "Sing, Sing, Sing" is pretty amazing rescored for violins. And they showed good taste by including a violinized version of the Jess Stacy piano solo recorded at Carnegie Hall by the Goodman band. And we got to hear "Bolero," with the lead by the sultry Naseem Khozein. As it's That Time of the Year, we heard a lot of Christmas music, but the scores were imaginatively different, so even I, whose Christmas hero is the Grinch, enjoyed them.

As manufactured bands go, Barrage is top of the class.

But I wish they were my idea, because then, y'know, I could cash all those checks.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


So here's another image from our fine calendar. (the color picture, not the other one) This is the valley of the Neckar River from the Hornberg--- not the Hornburg (Horn Fort), which is in Lord of the Rings, but the Hornberg (Horn Mountain), which despite being identified as a mountain was in fact the castle of one of Germany's folk heroes, Gotz of the Iron Hand.

Gotz von Berlichingen, who should have an umlaut above his o, was a 16th century German knight and mercenary whose adventures were traced in an autobiography and a famous play by Goethe. The Hornberg was his home, though he seems not to have spent a lot of time there--- instead he was off with his mercenary band raiding towns, kidnapping rich nobles and merchants to hold for ransom, engaging in feuds, and (only when absolutely necessary) fighting battles against people who actually shot back.

It was in one of these latter engagements that he lost his hand, which was replaced by a prosthetic that enabled him to hold a pen, sword, or enormous leather jack of beer, depending on the necessities of the moment. It was the first prosthetic ever, apparently. This iron hand still exists, is in a museum, and was the inspiration for the 20th Century British physician who designed the first modern prosthetic.
Kathy and I encountered the Hornberg during a series of motor trips following the 1990 Worldcon in the Hague. We took a lovely drive down the Neckar, which is a highly picturesque river winding through lovely scenery. Many tall hills overlook the river--- I wouldn't call them mountains myself--- and on every single one perched the ruins of a robber baron castle, situated so as to best exact tolls--- or revenge--- on the river traffic below. Along the river there were incredibly neat German towns with red geraniums hanging from window boxes, and a fair amount of river traffic moved in and out of the locks--- especially now as the robber barons weren't interfering.
By and by we came to a hotel that wasn't a ruin, and was in fact a Schlosshotel, a castle converted to a hotel. We inquired, and the prices were reasonable, so we got a room high up in the hotel, under the rafters, with eiderdown quilts and folk art headboards. The castle also had a very good restaurant, wherein I had wild boar for the first and last time. (Despite the meal being well prepared, I found the flavor disappointing.) Also the air in the restaurant thick with cigarette smoke, and we had to ask for a window to be opened.
In the morning we explored the castle--- still largely a ruin--- and encountered Gotz himself, in audioanimatronic form. For the cost of a mark, Gotz would swill beer and tell a drinking buddy about his life. In German, so we didn't understand much of it.
From a part of the schloss overlooking the Neckar I snapped this picture. The morning mist has not yet risen, and softened the light over the river. The result is a picture, to quote myself, "Romantic and Teutonic as all hell."

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Throw Away the Tinfoil!

Annoyed by those pesky alien abductions? Worried that alien mind-control rays may be altering your behavior?
Well, now you can throw away those tinfoil hats! You can make your very own Thought Screen Helmet out of an old leather aviator helmet, some 3m Velostat, some masking tape, and a few simple household tools.
(Everyone has an old leather aviator helmet just lying around somewhere, right?)
Skeptical? You might well laugh at me, but how can you dismiss testimony like this:
"I have been abducted by aliens for years and by a happy coincidence. The Thought Screen Helmet, invented by an expert, has stopped the unwelcome visitations and has raised me and my family`s quality of life. Therefore I highlyrecommend it."
But once you've got your helmet, be sure to keep it safe when you're not wearing it! Evil ninja aliens are always on the alert to steal your only protection.
"Additionally, four other thought screen helmets were taken by aliens when they were not being worn, two in Virginia, one in upper New York state, and one in Brisbane, Australia."

So watch out for those aliens! Especially if you're from Virginia.

Imaginary Dialogues (1)

This last weekend I helped to test and graduate a few dozen new black belts for my karate school. Some very impressive martial arts were performed--- none, it must be admitted, by me.

In addition to the physical aspects of kenpo, our students are required to acquaint themselves with martial arts classics such as Sun Tzu's Art of War and Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi.

Thinking about which generated the following imaginary dialogue.

SUN TZU: What you fail to understand is that it isn't all about the killing.

MUSASHI: It damn well is about the killing!

Sunday, December 02, 2007


Another shot from our splendid little calendar. (D'you think I'd earn more money if I made as much effort to sell my books as I do to sell this calendar, on which I earn nothing?)
Anyway, this gives me a chance to talk about Paris, which is one of my two favorite European cities.
Paris in 2000 was rather un-Parisian, partly because of the millennial celebrations that were going on. I mean, here they stuck this enormous Ferris wheel in front of the Louvre, for heaven's sake. And the Eiffel Tower was hung with millions of computer-guided Christmas-tree lights that went off every evening at ten o'clock. And we were at this businessman's hotel near the Louvre that had a buffet breakfast that featured things like hard-boiled eggs and Nutella, which is a pretty un-French thing to do.
(Another thing about that hotel was that it had rooms so tiny that in order to gain full access to the beds at night, we had to shift one of our suitcases to the balcony. Which, it must be said, was large enough only for a suitcase. I put the hotel, complete with its Nutella, in "The Green Leopard Plague.")
The first time I visited the Louvre, during the early 1970s, only part of it was a museum. The rest was government offices, and there were always these Citroens going in and out, the sardine-can-shaped DS model that was preferred by government bureaucrats.
2000 was the first time I'd seen the newly-removeled Louvre, complete with the Pei Pyramid. Now the entire vast complex of palaces is an art and archaeological museum. Although this means there's a lot more to see, it also means that a lot of what you see isn't really choice. The Louvre is now full of mediocre art that you have to tramp past in order to see the good stuff. For instance, there seemed to be a whole wing devoted to pictures of French royalty dressed as Romans, a fashion that was probably as inexplicable at the time as it is now.
We found some excellent restaurants, including "La Rose de France" on the Ile de la Cite, which also found its way into "Green Leopard." It serves Norman cuisine, which often features Calvados, and I also recommend the house cognac. They are also very accommodating to foreigners who want to eat at what, to the French, are odd times of the day.
People complain about how badly the French treat Americans, and I have to say that for me this has always been the exception rather than the rule. I think we encountered one snooty waiter (at a mediocre cafe) during the entire trip, and everyone else was helpful and pleasant.
And I got an award-winning novella out of the trip, so long live Paris!