One Day Your Strength Will Fail

July 31st, 2016

Wow, it’s already here – my flash fiction short story “One Day Your Strength Will Fail” is about to appear in the very first issue of the Bay Area’s new literary magazine, Fiction Silicon Valley! Thanks to Steve DeWinter for making this magazine happen!

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Viiictory the Fifteenth

July 31st, 2016


Once again, I’ve completed the challenge of writing 50,000 words in a month as part of the National Novel Writing Month challenges – this time, the July 2016 Camp Nanowrimo, and the next 50,000 words of Dakota Frost #5, PHANTOM SILVER!

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This is the reason that I’ve been so far behind on posting on my blog – I simultaneously was working on four projects: edits on THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE, writing PHANTOM SILVER, doing publishing work for Thinking Ink Press, and doing my part at work-work to help bring about the robot apocalypse (it’s busy work, let me tell you). So busy that I didn’t even blog successfully getting TCTM back to the editor. Add to that a much needed old-friends recharge trip to Tahoe kicking off the month, and I ended up more behind than I’ve ever been … at least, as far as I’ve been behind, and still won:

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What did I learn this time? Well, I can write over 9,000 words a day, though the text often contains more outline than story; I will frequently stop and do GMC (Goal Motivation Conflict) breakdowns of all the characters in the scene and just leave it in the document as paragraphs of italicized notes, because Nano – I can take it out later, its word count now now now! That’s how you get five times a normal word count in a day, or 500+ times the least productive day in which I actually wrote something.

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Also, I get really really really sloppy – normally I wordsmith what I write as I write, even in Nano – but that’s when I have the luxury of writing 1000-2000 words a day. When I have to write 9000, I write things like “I want someoent bo elive this whnen ai Mideone” and just keep going, knowing that I can correct the text later to “I want someone to believe this when I am done,” and, more importantly, can use the idea behind that text to craft a better scene on the next draft (in this case, Dakota’s cameraman Ron is filming a bizarre event in which someone’s life is at stake, and when challenged by a bystander he challenges back, saying that he doesn’t have any useful role to fill, but he can at least document what’s happening so they’ll all be believed later).

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The other thing is, what I am starting to call The Process actually seems to work. I put characters in situations. I think through how they would react, using Goal Motivation Conflict to pull out what they want, why they want it, and why they can’t get it (a method recommended by my editor Debra Dixon in her GMC book). But the critical part of my Process is, when I have to go write something that I don’t know, I look it up – in a lot of detail. Yes, Virginia, even when I was writing 9,000+ words a day, I still went on Wikipedia – and I don’t regret it. Why? Because when I’m spewing around trying to make characters react like they’re in a play, the characters are just emoting, and the beats, no matter how well motivated, could get replaced by something else.


But when it strikes me that the place my characters area about visit looks like a basilica, I can do more than just write “basilica.” I can ask myself why I chose that word. I can look up the word “basilica” on Apple’s Dictionary app. I can drill through to famous basilicas like the Basilica of Saint Peter. I can think about how this place will be different from that, and start pulling out telling details. I can start to craft a space, to create staging, to create an environment that my characters can react to. Because emotions aren’t just inside us, or between us; they’re for something, for navigating this complex world with other humans at our side. If a group of people argues, no matter how charged, it’s just a soap opera. Put them in their own Germanic/Appalachian heritage family kitchen in the Dark Corner of South Carolina, on on the meditation path near an onsen run continuously by the same family for 42 generations, and the same argument can have a completely different ambiance – and completely different reactions.

The text I wrote using my characters reacting to the past plot, or even with GMC, may likely need a lot of tweaking: the point was to get them to a particular emotional, conceptual or plot space. The text I wrote with the characters reacting to things that were real, even if it needs tweaking, often crackles off the page, even in very rough form. It’s material I won’t want to lose – more importantly, material I wouldn’t have produced, if I hadn’t pushed myself to do National Novel Writing Month.

Up next, finishing a few notes and ideas – the book is very close to done – and then diving into contracts for Thinking Ink Press, and reinforcement learning policy gradients for the robot apocalypse, all while waiting for the shoe to drop on TCTM. Keep your fingers crossed that the book is indeed on its way out!

-the Centaur

To think, I could be in epic crowds right now!

July 21st, 2016


And instead, I’m eating veggie quesadillas with salmon, reading about neural networks and reinforcement learning, and waiting to find if my jury number is going to be called. In truth, I miss Comic-Con this year, but I only have myself to blame for not renewing my professional registration, and in truth I need the time to work on PHANTOM SILVER.

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As you can see, I’m way behind, in part because of my Tahoe trip, in part because I’m also trying to finish THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE, and in part because work is cuh-RAY-zee. But I’m making progress; I just cracked 20,000 added words..

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Back to work. Comic-Con, next year.

-the Centaur

Hashtag #stormofghosts

July 6th, 2016

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Once again, starting behind on Camp Nano, but I am starting to get a little traction on the story, thanks to a lot of help from my friends. Of course, the most important thing is taking this week off for vacation, so I’m cutting myself a little slack here – but I plan to take one full day to just get caught up on writing. Hopefully soon. But at least tonight I solved two major problems in the story – how the climax works out, and how and why a couple characters that seemed to get dropped from the story can come back with a vengeance. Onward, fellow adventurers!

-the Centaur

P.S. Upon uploading this, I noticed I made a mistake – I counted writing done yesterday the 5th as being today the 6th (it’s just after midnight). The role of posting about Nanowrimo is to reinforce the purpose of National Novel Writing Month – to provide a public benchmark for your private achievement. Many people are runners, but a marathon provides a specific, external, timed goal at which you have to participate to succeed — and at which you fail if you don’t go the distance that everyone else is at the time everyone else is. My buddy Nathan Vargas worries that this can create a failure mentality, and I agree at that; many people don’t need to be exposed to the possibility of failure, but instead encouraged to success. But as my buddy David Cater knows, a marathon can push you to do things that you never would otherwise – and Nanowrimo can do the same. But that external accountability only works if you externalize it – and that’s why I sign up for Camp Nanowrimo, and why I post my writing goals here. I want to write more than 150,000 words a year – and I rely on all of you to help me do it. Onward!

Happy Birthday America!

July 5th, 2016

Today marks the 240th anniversary of the most important civic event in the history of humankind, the founding of America – the first nation founded on the principle that the purpose of the government is to defend the liberty of all human beings, rather than to protect the privileges of a particular tribe of people who live in a region. We didn’t get it all right at first – it actually took almost a hundred and fifty years – but it’s now an idea shared by peoples and governments all around the globe, notably in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So, to celebrate, I hope you all freely joined with friends and family to celebrate your freedom to do so, and then got to watch things explode. Because that last part may not be part of the universal fabric of human rights, but that’s the American way!

Camp Nano July 2016: PHANTOM SILVER

July 2nd, 2016

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National Novel Writing Month is November, but the Camp version – Camp Nanowrimo – has rolled around yet again, and I am returning to finish the final part of PHANTOM SILVER, which will be Dakota Frost Book 5. For my own entertainment, I put together the above cover, which will NOT be the cover of the final book – but it’s teaching me more about cover design.

Magical tattoo artist Dakota Frost just wants to raise her adopted children in peace, but when a routine film shoot at a haunted house awakens a real ghost and an ancient curse, she finds herself in a race to prevent the devious phantom from hurting her family … if the curse hidden in the family silver doesn’t kill her first.

Sounds exciting! What’s more exciting to me is that after a long conversation with the estimable Gayle Schultz, I’ve found a way to resolve the climax which could only appear in a Dakota Frost book – or maybe in a Jim Butcher book if he got on a lot of drugs. Now I have a destination – time to finish the drive.


-the Centaur

The Two Fear Channels

June 18th, 2016


Hoisted from a recent email thread with the estimable Jim Davies:

“You wrote to me once that the brain has two fear channels, cognitive and reactive. Do you have a citation I can look at for an introduction to that idea?”

So I didn’t have a citation off the top of my head, though I do now – LeDoux’s 1998 book The Emotional Brain – but I did remember what I told Jim: that we have two fear channels, one fast, one slow. The fast one is primarily sensory, reactive, and can learn bad associations which are difficult to unlearn, as in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder); the slow one is more cognitive, deliberative, and has intellectual fear responses.

It turns out that it ain’t that simple, but I was almost right. Spoiling the lead a bit, there are two conditioned fear channels, the fast “low road” and slow “high road” and they do function more or less as I described: the low road has quick reactions to stimuli, a direct hotline from sensory processing in your thalamus to the amygdala which is a clearinghouse for emotional information; the high road involves the sensory cortex and confirms the quick reaction of the low road. The low road’s implicated in PTSD, though PTSD seems to involve broader areas of brain damage brought on by traumatic events.

Where that needs tweaking is that there’s also a third fear channel, the instructed or cognitive fear channel. This allows us to become scared if we’re told that there’s a tiger behind a door, even if we haven’t seen the fearsome beast. This one relies on an interaction between the hippocampus and the amygdala; if your hippocampus is damaged, you will likely not remember what you’re told, whereas if your amygdala is damaged, you may react appropriately to instruction, but you might not feel the appropriate emotional response to your situation (which could lead you to make poor choices).

So, anyway, that’s the gist. But, in the spirit of Check Your Work, let me show my work from my conversation with Jim.

Ok, I have an answer for you (description based on [Gazzaniga et al 2002], though I found similar information in [Lewis et al 2010]).

There are two fear channels: one involving fast sensory processing and one involving slower perceptual information. Based on the work of LeDoux [1996] these are sometimes called the “low road” (quick and dirty connection of the thalamus to the amygdala, a crude signal that a stimulus resembles a conditioned stimulus) and the “high road” (thalamus to sensory cortex to amygdala, a more refined signal which is more reliable); both of these channels help humans learn implicit conditioned fear responses to stimuli.

This “low road” and “high road” concept was what my understanding of PTSD is based on, that individuals acquire a fast low-road response to stimuli that they cannot readily suppress; I don’t have a reference for you, but I’ve heard it many times (and it’s memorably portrayed in Born on the Fourth of July when veterans in a parade react to firecrackers with flinches, and later the protagonist after his experience has the same reaction). A little research seems to indicate that PTSD may actually involve events traumatic enough to damage the amygdala or hippocampus or both, but likely involving other brain areas as well ([Bremner 2006], [Chen et al 2012]).

There’s a couple more wrinkles. Even patients with amygdala damage have unconditioned fear responses; conditioned responses seem to involve the amygdala [Phelps et al 1998]. Instructed fear (warning a subject about a loud noise that will follow a flashing light, for example) seems to involve the hippocampus as well, though patients with amygdala damage don’t show fear responses even though they may behave appropriately when instructed (e.g., not showing a galvanic skin response even though they flinch [Phelps et al 2001]). This amygdala response can influence storage of emotional memories [Ferry et al 2000]. Furthermore, there’s evidence the amygdala is even involved in perceptual processing of emotional expression [Dolan and Morris 2000].

So to sum, the primary reference that I was talking about was the “low road” (fast connection from thalamus to amygdala, implicated in fast conditioned fear responses and PTSD, though PTSD may involve trauma-induced damage to more brain areas) and “high road” (slow reliable connection from thalamus to sensory cortex to amygdala, implicated in conditioned fear responses), but there’s also a “sensory” path (conditioned fear response via the thalamus to the amygdala, with or without the sensory cortex involvement) vs “cognitive” path (instructed fear response via the hippocampus, which functions but shows reduced emotional impact in case of amygdala damage).

Hope this helps!

Bremner, J. D. (2006). Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 8(4), 445.

Chen, Y., Fu, K., Feng, C., Tang, L., Zhang, J., Huan, Y., … & Ma, C. (2012). Different regional gray matter loss in recent onset PTSD and non PTSD after a single prolonged trauma exposure. PLoS One, 7(11), e48298.

Dolan, R. J., & Morris, J. S. (2000). The functional anatomy of innate and acquired fear: Perspectives from neuroimaging. Cognitive neuroscience of emotion, 225-241.

Ferry, B., Roozendaal, B., & McGaugh, J. L. (1999). Basolateral amygdala noradrenergic influences on memory storage are mediated by an interaction between β-and α1-adrenoceptors. The Journal of Neuroscience, 19(12), 5119-5123.

Gazzaniga, M.S., Ivry, R.B., & Mangun, G.R. (2002) Cognitive Neuroscience – The Biology of the Mind (2e) W. W. Norton & Company.

LeDoux, J. (1998). The emotional brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. Simon and Schuster.

Lewis, M., Haviland-Jones, J. M., & Barrett, L. F. (Eds.). (2010). Handbook of emotions. Guilford Press.

Phelps, E. A., LaBar, K. S., Anderson, A. K., O’connor, K. J., Fulbright, R. K., & Spencer, D. D. (1998). Specifying the contributions of the human amygdala to emotional memory: A case study. Neurocase, 4(6), 527-540.

Phelps, E. A., O’Connor, K. J., Gatenby, J. C., Gore, J. C., Grillon, C., & Davis, M. (2001). Activation of the left amygdala to a cognitive representation of fear. Nature neuroscience, 4(4), 437-441.

-the Centaur
Pictured: a few of the books I looked at to answer Jim’s question.

Check Your Work

June 18th, 2016


My brain’s filled with all sorts of tidbits I think I know: time is not fixed, the Earth is not flat, and the Sun doesn’t go around it on a giant chariot.

But people throughout history have believed a lot of crap – for over 2,100 years, people thought Euclidean geometry was a thing, that it was the only thing, to the point that mathematical history books are filled with an enormous amount of bullshit arguments on why parallel lines can never meet, arguments which, in a post-Einstein world in which we’ve measured the deflection of the light from the stars in the sky by the bending of space itself under the weight of the Sun, are obsolete and ridiculous. That isn’t to say tomorrow that scientists won’t find a use for a model of the world which embeds the bendy-wendy Einsteinian cosmos in a fixed Euclidean model of space and time, but it is to say that the idea that only Euclidean geometry is logically possible is dead wrong.

So, knowing that people can be wrong, and dead wrong, about things that they’re dead sure are so true they’ve mistaken them for logical tautologies, it’s worth taking out a little time, when you’re called upon to call up one of those little tidbits you think you know, to check your work.

Which is a way for apologizing for the next article on this blog, which will be a bunch of brain nerdery.

-the Centaur

Pictured: my recent efforts to revisit three things I think I know: how to construct stories, how to construct numbers, and how to construct cognitive architectures.

Skindancer in Sweden

June 15th, 2016


I think I’ve mentioned this on Facebook, but not here: sometimes real life lurks beneath the surface. I read what I write, both to myself and out loud; I have beta readers and editor and publishers; I follow the reviews of my books; I follow their sales; and I pay close attention when people mention they’ve seen or read or liked my books. And then something happens which exceeds your expectations – a friend going to the ICRA conference sent me this pic of a full copy of my Skindancer trilogy in a bookstore in Sweden:


It is an English-Swedish science fiction bookstore with an extremely complete collection … but still, my trade-paperback sized volumes from a midsize publisher are up there with mass-market paperbacks from the big N publishing houses. That means someone on the other side of the world … someone with no contact with me, someone with no contact with my publisher that I know of … decided to compile a list of urban fantasy series … and mine was included.

Wow. I’m honored. And a little bit shocked.

Must write faster.

-the Centaur

“Sibling Rivalry” returning to print

June 13th, 2016


Wow. After nearly 21 years, my first published short story, “Sibling Rivalry”, is returning to print. Originally an experiment to try out an idea I wanted to use for a longer novel, ALGORITHMIC MURDER, I quickly found that I’d caught a live wire with “Sibling Rivalry”, which was my first sale to The Leading Edge magazine back in 1995.

“Sibling Rivalry” was borne of frustrations I had as a graduate student in artificial intelligence (AI) watching shows like Star Trek which Captain Kirk talks a computer to death. No-one talks anyone to death outside of a Hannibal Lecter movie or a bad comic book, much less in real life, and there’s no reason to believe feeding a paradox to an AI will make it explode.

But there are ways to beat one, depending on how they’re constructed – and the more you know about them, the more potential routes there are for attack. That doesn’t mean you’ll win, of course, but … if you want to know, you’ll have to wait for the story to come out.

“Sibling Rivalry” will be the second book in Thinking Ink Press’s Snapbook line, with another awesome cover by my wife Sandi Billingsley, interior design by Betsy Miller and comments by my friends Jim Davies and Kenny Moorman, the latter of whom uses “Sibling Rivalry” to teach AI in his college courses. Wow! I’m honored.

Our preview release will be at the Beyond the Fence launch party next week, with a full release to follow.

Watch this space, fellow adventurers!

-the Centaur