Books of Secrets

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I used to believe that the secret is that there are no secrets. There’s no special diet that will evaporate away the pounds overnight, no special pencil that will instantly make you a great artist, no special practice that will solve all your problems at software development. There is, in short, no mystical food or enchanted pen or silver bullet that will take the place of the diligent application of hard work when you’re trying to solve a problem.

I used to believe that about books too – that there was no magic book filled with secrets.

I didn’t come to believe that overnight. I read a lot, and collect books even more; as a child I’d come home from the library tottering with piles of books, and when I got older and got tired of paying for late fees, I began amassing a library. I scour my home cities for volumes, and when I travel I harvest new places for their used bookstores, where obscure volumes are kept.

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In particular, I’ve collected books in my subject areas – artificial intelligence, cognitive science, robotics, physics, writing, alternative culture, science fiction, and urban fantasy. Now, decades later, my library’s grown to ten thousand volumes, over fifty bookshelves spread out over three different locations, filled with almost every conceivable tome on the areas of my interest.

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But there was a point, maybe not even five years ago, when I despaired of finding books that had the information I truly wanted. I’d searched and searched and could not find books that answered the questions I needed – usually technical details about problems in artificial intelligence. Eventually, I decided, there were no books of secrets which would help you quickly solve the problems that really mattered to you – that there were no magic books.

Fortunately, I was wrong.

There are books that are special. There are books which will quickly help you solve your problems, or which will rapidly help you gain insight into the world, or which will deeply enrich the quality of your life. There are, indeed, books that are magic.

I call them grimoires.

Now, the truth is, there still are no secrets. The word grimoire means “a book of magic spells,” but just like the spellbooks of legend, you can’t simply crack open one of the magic books I have in mind and get an instant result. You can’t even crack one of these books open and get an instant bad result: unlike the comically unfortunate Sorcerer’s Apprentice, if you flip open the master’s grimoire and attempt to apply the recipes unfiltered, you won’t get a runaway army of water-carrying broom-Terminators, but instead just some broken sticks and damp straw.

No, grimoires are books that you have to engage. Earlier I said there’s no magic diet, pencil, or practice that will solve all your problems. However, there are diets superior for losing weight, pencils that are great to draw with, and best practices which will prevent software problems. Unfortunately you can’t take advantage of them without willpower, effort and training.

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So too with grimoires. Intuitively I’d known they existed for a while, because even as I was giving up on grimoires, I still populated my shelves with them – Misner, Thorne and Wheeler’s Gravitation , Russel & Norvig’s Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach , Joyce’s Ulysses , and so on – and had even read some cover to cover, like The Feynman Lectures on Physics , Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science , and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged . I’d even started to recognize my mistake as I was reading the “GBC Book”: Goodfellow, Bengio’s, and Courville’s masterful Deep Learning tome.

But it was a book called The Springer Handbook of Robotics that brought the point home.

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I’m a roboticist, and I’d been struggling hard with a recalcitrant robot – not physically, of course, nor mentally, but programmatically: I was trying to get it to drive straight, and it was ramming itself straight into a wall. Once I spent more than a day and a half tearing apart its drive controller until I figured out the mathematics of what it was supposed to be doing well enough for me to figure out what it was actually doing wrong so I could ultimately figure out how to fix it.

Then I cracked open a chapter of The Springer Handbook of Robotics, Second Edition . This big red book came across my radar at my previous robotics project, where half a dozen people had the first edition on their shelves – and my officemate, Torsten Kröger, turned out to be the multimedia editor of the new edition. I had more than enough books to read, so I resolved to wait for the new edition to come out, to buy it to support my buddy Torsten, and to get him to sign it.

Eventually, the Handbook of Robotics landed on my doorstep, all 2,200 pages of it – the book is thicker than most books are wide and some books are tall. After getting Torsten to sign it – just carrying the book around caused the spine to crack a little – I decided to spend a little time reading a few chapters related to the work I had been doing before putting the book away.

I cracked open the chapter on navigation … and found the math for my robot problem.

This wasn’t something I had to dig at: it was right in front of me. The book had a chapter on my problem, and almost right at the start it reviewed all the math needed for a basic approach to the problem. Had I read it before I worked on the robot controller, I would have immediately understood that the code I was reading was implementing those very fundamental equations, and would have solved my problem in a half an hour rather than a day and a half. I realized that this book – which I discovered by going into robotics – is something I needed to have read before going into robotics.

Now, realistically, no-one can read a 2,200 page book prior to solving their problem … but, as Torsten explained to me, there’s something else going on here. Most of this enormous book isn’t relevant to my interests … but what is in the parts that are relevant to my interests are just the foundational results that are needed to understand that area of interest, and those results are annotated with references to the papers in which those results are derived and applied.

A true grimoire isn’t simply a comprehensive collection of all possible information on a topic – we call that a manual, and while grimoires are often comprehensive, and there are manuals that count as grimoires, manuals in general lack a true grimoire’s other attributes: focus, insight, and orientation. A true grimoire doesn’t just comprehensively exhaust its subject; it’s focused on some aspect of the subject, brings insight to bear that you can then use to orient you to the broader field.

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Inspired by my experience with Goodfellow, Bengio and Courville’s Deep Learning book, with The Springer Handbook of Robotics, and to a lesser extent my experiences with fictional grimoires like James Joyce’s Ulysses, I’ve decided to start reviewing them here.

Next up: my criteria for reviewing a Canonical Grimoire … and how they differ from Grimoires by Reputation, Classic Reference Books, Thin Little Volumes, and their fictional counterparts, Tours de Force.

-the Centaur

Applied Plotonium at Clockwork Alchemy

Boosting the signal … I’ll be joining my friend David Colby’s panel APPLIED PLOTONIUM at 10am on Sunday at Clockwork Alchemy:

Applied Plotonium
Monterey – Sunday 10:00 AM

Applied Plotonium is a discussion and series of examples of worlds that are, in general, 100% scientifically accurate save for a SINGLE element of applied plotonium – a single element or feature that is downright fantastical. Eagerly explores extrapolation ending in exposition!
Presenter: David Colby

Moderator: Roger Que
Panelists: Anthony Francis, Michael Tierney

David Colby is the author of the hard science fiction young adult novel DEBRIS DREAMS (think “The Hunger Games meets Gravity“) and proposed the panel to explore his love of making the science in science fiction not suck.

In addition to David and me, we’ve also shanghaied, er, convinced two of our  mutual friends to join in: writer and chemist Michael Tierney from the Treehouse Writers will join as a panelist, and the writer and computer scientist Roger Que from Write to the End will serve as our moderator.

Drop in – you’ll enjoy yourself!

-the Centaur

The Centaur at Clockwork Alchemy

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This Memorial Day Weekend, I’ll be appearing at the Clockwork Alchemy steampunk convention! I’m on a whole passel of panels this year, including the following (all in the Monterey room near the Author’s Alley, as far as I know):

Friday, May 26
4PM: NaNoWriMo – Beat the Clock! [Panelist]

Saturday, May 27
12NOON: Working with Editors [Panelist]
1PM: The Science of Airships [Presenter]
5PM: Versimilitude in Fiction [Panelist]

Sunday, May 28
10AM: Applied Plotonium [Panelist]
12NOON: Organizing an Anthology [Panelist]
1PM: Instill Caring in Readers [Panelist]
2PM: Overcoming Writer’s Block [Presenter]

Monday, May 29
11AM: Past, Present, Future – Other! [Moderator]

Of course, if you don’t want to hear me yap, there are all sorts of other reasons to be there. Many great authors will be in attendance in the Author’s Alley:

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There’s a great dealer’s room and a wonderful art show filled with steampunk maker art:

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For yet another more year, we’ll be co-hosted with Fanime Con, so there will be buses back and forth and fans of both anime and steampunk in attendance:

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As usual, I will have all my latest releases, including Jeremiah Willstone and the Clockwork Time Machine, the steampunk novel I have like been promising you all like for ever!

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In addition to my fine books, there will also be new titles from Thinking Ink Press, including the steampunk anthologies TWELVE HOURS LATER, THIRTY DAYS LATER, and SOME TIME LATER!

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I think I have about as much fun at Clockwork Alchemy as I do at Dragon Con, and that’s saying something. So I hope you come join us, fellow adventurers, in celebrating all things steampunk!

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-the Centaur

Oh Myyy!

 

Wow. I guess a lot of books are going to be waiting for me when I get home tonight … either the shipment of LATER anthologies for Clockwork Alchemy has arrived, or I really messed up my last Amazon Prime order. Be sure to come by Clockwork Alchemy to check them out, or look on Amazon!

 

“The Fall of the Falcon” Audio

Have you read Jeremiah Willstone and the Clockwork Time Machine and wondered why Jeremiah ended up a Ranger when she always wanted to be a Falconer? Or would you like to get started following Jeremiah’s tales on audio? Well, you’re in luck! Our friends at Sage and Savant have read one of the earliest Jeremiah stories, “The Fall of the Falcon”, for your auditory adventuring pleasure!

The Fall of the Falcon

By Anthony Francis

from the anthology Thirty Days Later, Steaming Forward: 30 Adventures in Time

If you’d like to find out what happens next, get a copy of Thirty Days Later and pick up where “The Fall of the Falcon” leaves off with the stirring conclusion, “The Rise of the Dragonfly”!

-The Centaur

The Centaur Interviewed on Sage and Savant!

One more interview with Sage and Savant … me!

Anthony Francis talks about Jeremiah Willstone

Q: In your story “The Fall of the Falcon” the main character is female, but she has a male name, Jeremiah Willstone. Why is that?

AF: It’s more than just gender bending: it’s an outward sign of their society’s aggressive approach to women’s liberation. I wanted to tell a steampunk story about a young Victorian female soldier, but the Victorians didn’t have women soldiers – we’ve only recently started to allow them in our military. So I imagined a world where that wasn’t just a little bit different, but comprehensively different – a world where women’s liberation came a century early, and with twice as many brains working on hard problems, they were more advanced in 1908 than we are today. But I needed a way to communicate that in the story, and decided that the women in Jeremiah’s family took male names to try to achieve gender equality. With her history written into her name, I now had the storytelling power to discuss that issue as much as I wanted to – or let it slide into the background until someone innocently asks the question, “So, Jeremiah is female, but has a male name. Why is that?”

To read more, check out my interview, and also check out the podcast on Sage and Savant!

-the Centaur

 

Viiictory the Seventeenth

Huzzah! I have once again completed Camp Nano, the little sister to National Novel Writing Month! This marks the seventeenth time I’ve written 50,000 words in a month!

This month was pretty rough between the recent book launches of THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE and the reprint of TWELVE HOURS LATER, not to mention the upcoming release of SOME TIME LATER – plus a whole bunch of work at work-work teaching robots to learn when the darn things just want to not learn.

That left blood in the water for most of the month, but I really, really, really wanted to be able to take Sunday off and spend time at church, with my wife and cats, and getting caught up on stuff, so I powered through it, trying to make sure I didn’t just finish the 50,000 by my count, but also finished the extra ~1500 or so words caused by the discrepancy between the Camp Nano word counter and the one on Microsoft Word, which I use every day.

I was really struggling until I remembered working on my first Nano project, FROST MOON, in which I had to take my characters to the “werehouse” … which I had no idea how to write … but just dove in, creating some wonderful ideas that fleshed out the story wonderfully, including Cinnamon Frost. Well, this time I had Dakota and one of her friends heading to a Hopi kiva, and I had no idea how to write that either … so I just dove in:

The road dipped and weaved out of the green plains and into low foothills. We stopped at … shudder … a McDonalds-cum-gas station for fuel for us and the car, and I took over driving, as the roads got windier and the hills got higher and drier.

“Here,” Heinz said, pointing, as he checked the map we picked up at the gas station. We weren’t using our phones—what the DEI could scramble, it could likely unscramble—but he had his laptop out, WiFi off, and was crossreferencing Carrington’s notes. “Seventeen more miles.”

The off-ramp led us to an increasingly narrow series of roads connected at T-junctions, with houses and civilization fewer and fewer at each series of turns. Then we crested a hill and were confronted by a valley … the seat of the lone peak called Crown Mountain.

“Fuuck,” Heinz said. “This is important. This means something.”

“Hat tip, Agent Heinz,” I said, leaning forward. “Damn …”

Crown ‘Mountain’ was, technically, a mesa, set on a flat plain of mixed dirt and scrub like a medieval castle. An imposing shaft of rock, solid and red-gold in the afternoon light, rose nineteen hundred feet above the floor of the valley, surrounded by a cone of tumbled rock like slanted ramparts. Atop the shaft, erosion had cut notches like parapets, leading to the crown appearance that gave the crag its name. But our eyes were drawn to the notches cut in it by humans: the largest collection of cave dwellings this side of Mesa Verde … and the only cave dwellings in North America that had been continually inhabited for the last thousand years.

“Holy fuck,” Heinz said, as we drove closer and closer to that jumble of deep gashes, ancient caves, ruined mounds, decaying huts, old houses and new construction that was the town of … “Tuukviela,” Heinz said, reading. “Variously, Crown Village or Mesa Village.”

“Speak of the devil,” I said: an oversized sign read TUUKVIELA: POP 373.

Forgive the rough-draftiness of the passage, but I have the feeling that Crown Mountain, Tuukivela, the Padilla family kiva and nearby Montañacorona will perhaps recur in a later Dakota Frost book … but who knows? I had enough fun to write 7030 words today.

I’ll go into a bit more about why this was a significant milestone in my writing life tomorrow, because it’s 4:16AM and I need some fricking sleep. Till then …

Best of luck, fellow Camp Nano campers!

-the Centaur

Book Giveaway with TIP and S&S

Holy cow, I almost missed this, and I helped organize it – we’re giving away some anthologies in partnership between Thinking Ink Press and steampunk podcast Sage and Savant!

Book Giveaway with Sage and Savant!

I have stories in three of the four books we’re giving away – Jeremiah Willstone stories in the full-length anthologies TWELVE HOURS LATER and THIRTY DAYS LATER, and flash fiction in the Instant Book “Jagged Fragments”.

Sign up, best of luck, and I hope you enjoy it!

-the Centaur

Dover Whitecliff on Sage and Savant

Yet one more of my friends from Clockwork Alchemy, Dover Whitecliff, is interviewed on Sage and Savant! A visit to her sometimes witty, often wacky, occasionally wryly satirical alternate world always makes a fun read!

Down and Dirty with Dover Whitecliff, author and editor at Thinking Ink Press

Q: How did you come up with the theme for the Later anthologies?

DW: The Treehouse Authors met for tea at Linde Lane Tea Room in Dixon and decided that we wanted to do a project together for literacy; an anthology was the obvious choice. But the theme is all down to Kiefer Sutherland. The news story of the day was the comeback of 24 and we had never seen an anthology with hour long stories before (though that doesn’t mean there might not be one out there that we missed). The paired stories came about to fill up a twenty-four-hour day, plus it offered the perfect tag line “You can find out what happens twelve hours later.”

Penelope DreadfulleQ: Yak? Giant Chicken? Trebuchet? What gives?

DW: It started with a dare in our email planning with the authors for Thirty Days Later. One author found a picture of a clockwork yak and threw down the gauntlet: “Bet you can’t fit a yak in.” Challenge accepted. Rumor has it that there are multiple yak sightings (bonus points if you can find them all). Since that was deemed “Way too easy,” the chieftess of shenanigans, Sparky McTrowell, raised the yak ante for Some Time Later with a trebuchet, and somehow a chicken was thrown in, possibly due to an excess of caffeine and chocolate. And Yes. I fit them all in.

To read more, check out her interview on Sage and Savant!

-the Centaur

LIQUID FIRE on Sale!

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Good news, friends of the Edgeworld! If you’ve caught up on the first two Dakota Frost books and want to try the third, you’re in luck – the Kindle edition of LIQUID FIRE is on sale for $1.99 through the end of the month! Will our lonely tattooed heroine finally find a girlfriend? Will her daughter finally get recognition for her mathematical skill? And will the ancient cadre of wizards out to rule the world let them have a free minute to enjoy a frappe at their favorite bookstore … or will they find themselves fighting fire ninjas to the death in a struggle for control of the spirit of a hatching dragon? Read LIQUID FIRE and you’ll find out!

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-the Centaur