Surfacing

An interpretation of the rocket equation.

Wow. It’s been a long time. Or perhaps not as long as I thought, but I’ve definitely not been able to post as much as I wanted over the last six months or so. But it’s been for good reasons: I’ve been working on a lot of writing projects. The Dakota Frost / Cinnamon Frost “Hexology”, which was a six book series; the moment I finished those rough drafts, it seemed, I rolled into National Novel Writing Month and worked on JEREMIAH WILLSTONE AND THE MACHINERY OF THE APOCALYPSE. Meanwhile, at work, I’ve been snowed under following up on our PRM-RL paper.

Thor's Hammer space station.

But I’ve been having fun! The MACHINERY OF THE APOCALYPSE is (at least possibly) spaaaace steampunk, which has led me to learn all sorts of things about space travel and rockets and angular momentum which I somehow didn’t learn when I was writing pure hard science fiction. I’ve learned so much about creating artificial languages as part of the HEXOLOGY.

The Modanaqa Abugida.

So, hopefully I will have some time to start sharing this information again, assuming that no disasters befall me in the middle of the night.

Gabby in the emergency room.

Oh dag nabbit! (He’s going to be fine).

-the Centaur

Back to Dragon Con!

Hail, fellow adventurers! If you want to experience our world the way Jeremiah Willstone and her friends first experienced it, there’s no better way than to come to Dragon Con in Atlanta! I’ve been going to Dragon Con longer than almost any con – certainly longer than any still-running con – and after enough time here they put me on panels! And here they are:

  • Practical Time Travel for the Storyteller
    Sat 05:30 pm / Athens – Sheraton
    Panelists: Darin M. Bush, Michael J. Martinez, S.M. Stirling, Anthony Francis, Jack Campbell
    This panel discusses the real science behind time travel, as well as how these scientific theories can place both challenging and rewarding demands on the stories we tell. Time dilation, the grandfather paradox, and more will be explained as we discuss the stories that reference these theories.
  • Partners: Collaborating on Your Novel
    Sun 11:30 am / Embassy CD – Hyatt
    Panelists: Nancy Knight, Janny Wurts, Anthony Francis, Clay and Susan Griffith, Gordon Andrews, Ilona Andrews
    When writers collaborate, the results can be great–or horrible. How do you insure that your collaboration turns out well?
  • Plotting or Plodding?
    Sun 02:30 pm / Embassy CD – Hyatt
    Panelists: Janny Wurts, Anthony Francis, Lee Martindale, Richard Kadrey, Laura Anne Gilman, Melissa F Olson
    It’s the story, stupid! Everybody loves a great story. This panel discusses how to create that unforgettable story roiling within you.
  • Magic Practitioners in Urban Fantasy: Witches and Warlocks
    Mon 10:00 am / Chastain 1-2 – Westin
    Panelists: Jeanne P Adams, David B. Coe, Linda Robertson, Kevin O. McLaughlin, Anthony Francis, Melissa F Olson
    Witches and warlocks in the genre range from being an accepted part of their communities to the most feared. Our panel of authors will discuss the characteristics of those in their works.
  • Write a Damn Good Book
    Mon 11:30 am / Embassy CD – Hyatt
    Panelists: Bill Fawcett, Peter David, E.K. Johnston, Diana Peterfreund, Anthony Francis

    Writers worry about all sorts of things, but the first thing to worry about is writing a great book. Here’s how.

Other fun things at the con are the Parade, the Masquerade, performances by the Atlanta Radio Theater Company, and, of course, The Cruxshadows. So come on down and hang out with 80,000 fans of fantasy and science fiction! Some of them may become your new best friends.

-The Centaur

Gettin’ a Move On

Well, the Nano climb is starting off great, for a switch! Fourth of July, and I’m already 800 words ahead of what my goal is for this time of the month.

Not bad, but then, I am on vacation. 🙂 An excerpt:

On our way out, I sighs. “That went … well—”

“It so very did not,” Karoo says, bouncing from rock to rock.

“What?” I says. “We learned a lot—”

“We learned nothing but that this so-called Huntswoman wants the Ere Mother dead—or worse!” Karoo snarls. “You learned nothing from the Huntswoman about the Ere Mother herself that I could not have told you, had you only asked—”

“Was she wrong about the spell that’s killing her?” I asks, and Karoo says nothing. “If you knew that, why didn’t you tell me?”

“You didn’t ask,” Karoo says.

“Well, maybe I should change that,” I says, “startin’ now. But I learned a lot—”

“A faerie queen flattered you by putting you through paces that would not have fazed the most junior adept in medieval times, when training meant something,” Karoo said. “You learned what you should have learned months or years ago in your training—”

“I have not been wand training for years,” I says. “Graffiti magic, three years, wand magic, more like one and a half. Actually, a bit closer to one—”

“So you’re hungry and she fed you,” Karoo says huffily. “One way and one way alone this creature is like the Li’ía Ní’qua I remember. You heard her banish me from her court, me, her consort? I loved her once, with all my heart. Now I hate her with equal fervor—”

“Don’t say that,” I says. “She’ll … she’ll eventually remember you—”

“Li’ía Ní’qua is dead,” Karoo says. “I never want to come back to this place again!”

Ouch, Karoo, that’s harsh! Especially coming from a cute glowing anthropmorphic fox.

-the Centaur

Camp Nano, July 2018 Edition

Well, so insanely busy, I haven’t posted in a while. But not for want of working on things that I want to post about! Most pressingly, my Camp Nano project for the July Camp of 2018, and what I hope is the last major chunk of the third book in the Cinnamon Frost series … SPELLPUNK: ROOT USER!

Cinnamon Frost, once-delinquent weretiger stray, is now a rising star in the secretive werekindred kingdom … until she unwittingly unleashes an ancient faerie monster and is banished to the human world as a result. As the monster wreaks havoc on human and werekin alike, Cinnamon must scramble to save herself, save her city – and save her mother, as the monster turns upon them all in its rage.

And, of course, the obligatory excerpt:

I clenches my fist. The fox shimmers, his magic going through my fingers; of course, it’s a magic projectia, not a holographic projection. Mom told me about this: an entombed court of faerie, and the warriors that went back to finish the job. I folds my hands to my breast.

“I’m sorry,” I says. “I knows the story. I just didn’t know it happened here too.”

“Only three of us were left,” the fox says. “My shattered body. The queen, entombed in layers of crystal too hard to be destroyed—though she freed herself and left us, I have no idea how. And the other, the Ere Mother, entombed half-alive, half-dead on the other side of the cavern; I have not seen her directly for centuries … until now.”

The hair creeps up on my spine: the cracking and scraping is louder now.

“Did you free her?” the fox asks. “Perhaps she will be grateful—”

I whirls. Behind the shattered iceberg, something looms, a glint of red—and a mammoth bony paw slams down to the iceberg’s right. Rock scrapes on rock, and the crystal-encased paw grinds against stone, formin’ and reshapin’, crystal planes flashin’ intermittently within as it rearchitects itself. Then the lumberin’ split head of the sloth-corpse roars into view, wobblin’ on a half-crystal, half-bone neck, its single red eye blazin’ like a laser.

“Maybe yes,” I says, “and looks like no!”

Red eye blazin’, the Ere Mother screams magic at me in a rasping bellow of rage.

Now, none of the Cinnamon Frost books have been published yet; since Cinnamon Frost #1, #2 and #3 are interleaved in time with Dakota Frost #4, #5, and #6, and since both are loose trilogies, I’ve been working on all six together, in a giant manuscript which would be close to 750,000 words if all put together. Oy! But the outcome is I understand the story much better, and when this giant Hexology is finally put out, I think it will be a much stronger story.

Onward!

-the Centaur

Pictured: a mockup cover for SPELLPUNK: ROOT USER, based on a picture of an eremotherium by Eden, Janine and Jim, and a picture of Doll’s Theater in Carlsbad Cavern picture by Daniel Meyer, both licensed for reuse with attribution on variants of the Creative Commons license.

Viiictory the Twentieth!

Hail, fellow adventurers! And now you know why you haven’t heard from me for a while: I was heads down finishing my wordcount for Camp Nanowrimo! And this is a very special one, because it marks the twentieth time I have won a National Novel Writing Month style challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel in a month! Woohoo! When I started, I never thought I’d finish this many!

This was a difficult month for it. Sure, I just finished early, but that final push involved locking me in a downstairs room with my laptop until I finished so I could enjoy the rest of my vacation with my wife. And the push up to this point has been hard: my wife returning from vacation, with me scrambling to finish a spring cleaning gone awry before she got home. A cat being treated for cancer. An organization I’m volunteering with had an emergency that involved multiple meetings over the month. Major shifts and dustups at work. Robots, on the loose, being chased down the corridors. Ok, that last one isn’t real. Well, actually, it was, but it was much, much, much more prosaic than it sounds.

The upshot, seen above, is blood on the water (behind on my wordcount) for most of the month. And with the very last weekend of the month being my long-planned vacation in Monterey with my wife before she flies out on her next business trip, there was a very real danger that I wouldn’t make it. But my wife is awesome, and tolerated me taking out this first evening to do a massive push to get all my words done!

And now, sleep. But first, an excerpt:

“The Ere Mother is … not the most dangerous enemy I’ve ever faced,” I says. “Actually, she doesn’t rate really highly compared to the thing we found in the Vault of Nightmares, which was the real source of the magic that tried to burn down this city, Lady Scara—not me. But the Ere Mother is terribly dangerous, that I admit, Magus Meredith, Elder Jackson-Monarch. She’s terribly dangerous. But I did not ‘unleash’ her on the city. I went where my leadership told me to go and did what they told me to do, and the bottom dropped out under me. Yes, she came to life when I fell into the chambers of her court, but I strongly doubt that she was brought to life by a magic tiger butt. As unstable as that structure was—and it was still subsiding from time to time—the Ere Mother could have been unleashed at anytime, and we’d know even less about her than we do because I was down there investigatin’—as you all asked me to.”

I stands there, quietly.

“OH!” I says. “Um, yeah. That’s … that’s my report.”

“Well,” Mom says. “Thank you, First Mage, for your testimony—”

“Chair Frost?” Meredith says, raising his hand politely. “Are questions allowed?”

Mom blinks. “Always, as long as we maintain order. You have the floor.”

“Shoot,” I says. “Not literally—”

“How do you know the structure was still subsiding?” asked Meredith.

I stares at him. The hair rises on the back of my head. I thinks very, very fast.

“I heard it from the remaining member of the Dire Court,” I says. “A fox changeling, er, proto-fox changeling, at least I assume it was a changeling—er, anyway, we spoke, briefly, before the Ere Mother attacked. He mentioned a subsidence that, um.”

“Yes?” Meredith says, eyes gleaming.

“That, ah, uncovered his eye, so he wasn’t stuck in the dark anymore,” I says quietly. Meredith’s face falls, with true horror. “There was light down there, from runes. But after the Ere Mother’s attack … I don’t think there’s anything left of the fox fae anymore.”

“That’s … horrible,” Meredith says. “Do you remember what else you spoke about?”

“I will try to reconstruct a transcript. Mostly, he said shit like, ‘Oh, God’, and ‘Don’t hurt me.’” Somebody laughs, and I idly turns towards them and says, “Hey, I was pretty scared. You wanna be pretty scared to, I can always Change into what I looked like down there.”

“Cinnamon Stray Foundling Frost,” Mom says sternly, “if you eat anyone at this Council, you’re grounded!”

“Yes, Mom,” I says.

Ah, Cinnamon. You and your wacky hijinks with ancient faerie changelings!

Now … zzzzz…

-the Centaur

Camp Nanowrimo – Spellpunk: ROOT USER

Um, so, hi! I’m Cinnamon! (That’s me, below!)

And I’m supposed to tell you that my biographer, Anthony Francis, is working on my third book, ROOT USER, for Camp Nanowrimo! Camp is the sister challenge to the November challenge to write 50,000 words in a month, and that sounds crazy unless you are my brother and love writing words, and are not dyslexic and ADD and whatever, and what was I saying? SO! Anyway. My biographer’s busy writing, or something. So you get me! Except, um, I gots nothin’, except, hey, I’m a teenage weretiger, and this is my third book! The first two ain’t out yet, but this one has monsters and high school and kids straight out of Harry Potter and yummy yummy wereguys fightin’ over the me. Choice! I am awesome, if I do say so myself about myself. Hee hee!

What? Oh! Ok. My biographer is askin’ me to post an excerpt or somethin’, so, here goes:

I glowers. “Fine,” I says.

We steps up to the blockhouse surroundin’ the base of the mineshaft. Nri nods to the guard, makes a funny hand sign. The guard nods, opens the chain, lets us in—but as he puts the chain back, he flips down a sign that says, MAINTENANCE—OUT OF ORDER.

“This elevator seems to be out of order a lot lately,” I mutters. “Your doin?”

“Yes, but why do you care?” Nri asks, pullin’ out a key. “You have a teleporter—”

“Common knowledge, thanks to you,” I grumbles, and it’s true: Nri has no respect for my secrets, none at all, but he’s cagey as a wolf. “Now everyone wants to pop out in my den, every time you’re doin’ whatever you’re doin’—what are you doin’ down here, anyway?”

“Using the elevator’s special features,” Nri says, slidin’ the gate closed.

He inserts the key, turns it—and the elevator starts to go down.

“Hey!” I says, as the blockhouse recedes above us. “I thought this was ground zero!”

“Ground floor,” Nri corrects. “But no, it is not. The Werehold is a basement. This …”

“Sub-basement?” I asks hopefully, as the shaft recedes above us.

“I said I’d tell you on the surface,” Nri says. “I never said the surface of what.”

And then … the world turns upside down.

“Whooaoaaoaa!” I cries, as my feet lifts off the floor—and the elevator keeps descendin. Nri has moved to the side of the elevator, and grips the cage, turnin’ his body a hundred and eighty degrees, so his feet are pointin’ at the ceiling—and then I falls. Up! “Ow!”

Nri’s feet land on the ceilin’. I lands on my noggin.

Ow! Embarrasin’. Why’d you have to call up that bit, Mister Biographer, huh? Rip your face off, I oughtta. Grr. And stop calling me cute when I growl. A tiger, I am, not to be mocked by those who could be morsels—stop touslin’ my hair!

Grrrrr. Enjoy, or whatevers.

-Cinnamon, on behalf of the Centaur

Just Checking in on the Currents

SO! Hey! GDC and Clockwork Alchemy are over and I’m not dead! (A joke which actually I don’t find that funny given the circumstances, which I’ll dig into in just a moment). Strangely enough, hitting two back-to-back conferences, both of which you participate super heavily in, can take something out of your blog. Who knew?

But I need to get better at blogging, so I thought I’d try something new: a “check-in” in which I try to hit all the same points each time – what am I currently writing, editing, programming, etc? For example, I am currently:

  • Listening To: Tomb Raider soundtrack (the original).
  • Reading: Theoretical Neuroscience (book).
  • Writing: “Death is a Game for the Young”, a novella in the Jeremiah Willstone multiverse.
  • Editing: SPECTRAL IRON, Dakota Frost #4.
  • Reviewing: SHATTERED SKY, Lunar Cycle #2 by David Colby.
  • Researching: Neural Approaches to Universal Subgoaling.
  • Programming: A toy DQN (Deep Q Network) to stretch my knowledge.
  • Drawing: Steampunk girls with goggles.
  • Planning: Camp Nanowrimo for April, ROOT USER, Cinnamon Frost #3.
  • Taking on: Giving up alcohol for Lent.
  • Dragging on: Doing my taxes.
  • Spring Cleaning: The side office.
  • Trying to Ignore: The huge pile of blogposts left over from GDC and CA.
  • Caring For: My cat Lenora, suffering from cancer.
  • Waiting For: My wife Sandi, returning from a business trip.

Whew, that’s a lot, and I don’t even think I got them all. Maybe I won’t try to write all of the same “currents” every time, but it was a useful exercise in “find something to blog about without immediately turning it into a huge project.”

But the biggest “current” in my mind is the person I am currently worried about, my good friend and great Game AI developer Dave Mark. Dave is the founder of the GDC AI Summit … but was struck by a car leaving the last sessions at GDC, and still is in the hospital, seriously injured.

More in a moment.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Butterysmooooth sashimi at Izakaya Ginji in San Mateo from a few days ago, along with my “Currently Reading” book Theoretical Neuroscience open to the Linear Algebra appendix, when I was “Currently Researching” some technical details of the vector notation of quadratic forms by going through stacks and stacks of books, a question which would have been answered more easily if I had started by looking at the entry for quadratic forms in Wolfram’s MathWorld, had I only known at the start of my search that that was the name for math terms like xWx.

Why I’m Solving Puzzles Right Now

When I was a kid (well, a teenager) I’d read puzzle books for pure enjoyment. I’d gotten started with Martin Gardner’s mathematical recreation books, but the ones I really liked were Raymond Smullyan’s books of logic puzzles. I’d go to Wendy’s on my lunch break at Francis Produce, with a little notepad and a book, and chew my way through a few puzzles. I’ll admit I often skipped ahead if they got too hard, but I did my best most of the time.

I read more of these as an adult, moving back to the Martin Gardner books. But sometime, about twenty-five years ago (when I was in the thick of grad school) my reading needs completely overwhelmed my reading ability. I’d always carried huge stacks of books home from the library, never finishing all of them, frequently paying late fees, but there was one book in particular – The Emotions by Nico Frijda – which I finished but never followed up on.

Over the intervening years, I did finish books, but read most of them scattershot, picking up what I needed for my creative writing or scientific research. Eventually I started using the tiny little notetabs you see in some books to mark the stuff that I’d written, a “levels of processing” trick to ensure that I was mindfully reading what I wrote.

A few years ago, I admitted that wasn’t enough, and consciously  began trying to read ahead of what I needed to for work. I chewed through C++ manuals and planning books and was always rewarded a few months later when I’d already read what I needed to to solve my problems. I began focusing on fewer books in depth, finishing more books than I had in years.

Even that wasn’t enough, and I began – at last – the re-reading project I’d hoped to do with The Emotions. Recently I did that with Dedekind’s Essays on the Theory of Numbers, but now I’m doing it with the Deep Learning. But some of that math is frickin’ beyond where I am now, man. Maybe one day I’ll get it, but sometimes I’ve spent weeks tackling a problem I just couldn’t get.

Enter puzzles. As it turns out, it’s really useful for a scientist to also be a science fiction writer who writes stories about a teenaged mathematical genius! I’ve had to simulate Cinnamon Frost’s staggering intellect for the purpose of writing the Dakota Frost stories, but the further I go, the more I want her to be doing real math. How did I get into math? Puzzles!

So I gave her puzzles. And I decided to return to my old puzzle books, some of the ones I got later but never fully finished, and to give them the deep reading treatment. It’s going much slower than I like – I find myself falling victim to the “rule of threes” (you can do a third of what you want to do, often in three times as much time as you expect) – but then I noticed something interesting.

Some of Smullyan’s books in particular are thinly disguised math books. In some parts, they’re even the same math I have to tackle in my own work. But unlike the other books, these problems are designed to be solved, rather than a reflection of some chunk of reality which may be stubborn; and unlike the other books, these have solutions along with each problem.

So, I’ve been solving puzzles … with careful note of how I have been failing to solve puzzles. I’ve hinted at this before, but understanding how you, personally, usually fail is a powerful technique for debugging your own stuck points. I get sloppy, I drop terms from equations, I misunderstand conditions, I overcomplicate solutions, I grind against problems where I should ask for help, I rabbithole on analytical exploration, and I always underestimate the time it will take for me to make the most basic progress.

Know your weaknesses. Then you can work those weak mental muscles, or work around them to build complementary strengths – the way Richard Feynman would always check over an equation when he was done, looking for those places where he had flipped a sign.

Back to work!

-the Centaur

Pictured: my “stack” at a typical lunch. I’ll usually get to one out of three of the things I bring for myself to do. Never can predict which one though.

Don’t Fall Into Rabbit Holes

SO! There I was, trying to solve the mysteries of the universe, learn about deep learning, and teach myself enough puzzle logic to create credible puzzles for the Cinnamon Frost books, and I find myself debugging the fine details of a visualization system I’ve developed in Mathematica to analyze the distribution of problems in an odd middle chapter of Raymond Smullyan’s The Lady or the Tiger.

I meant well! Really I did. I was going to write a post about how finding a solution is just a little bit harder than you normally think, and how insight sometimes comes after letting things sit.

But the tools I was creating didn’t do what I wanted, so I went deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole trying to visualize them.

The short answer seems to be that there’s no “there” there and that further pursuit of this sub-problem will take me further and further away from the real problem: writing great puzzles!

I learned a lot – about numbers, about how things could combinatorially explode, about Ulam Spirals and how to code them algorithmically. I even learned something about how I, particularly, fail in these cases.

But it didn’t provide the insights I wanted. Feynman warned about this: he called it “the computer disease”, worrying about the formatting of the printout so much you forget about the answer you’re trying to produce, and it can strike anyone in my line of work.

Back to that work.

-the Centaur