Facts Are Overrated

I’ve been working on a story that takes place in the Tincaniverse. It can be hard sometimes to get the balance between explaining enough for readers unfamiliar with the previous stories without becoming repetitious for those who’ve been following along. Perhaps I should go back and read I, Robot again to see when Asimov stopped listing the three laws of robotics in each story. Now those three laws are such a part of the landscape that other writers invoke them as well.

While that is an issue I face every time, this particular story had another challenge. The story represents a jump in time and space, and a lot has happened to set up the situation. I found that the story was growing as I tried to work in quite a bit of history. The events have been mentioned in previous stories, but there are a lot of details that need clarification before the new story works. More details than I realized when I started. So there I was, several pages in, and the characters were getting lost among all these facts.

All these facts are part of the larger story, however, things I’d like to tell eventually. The answer, I think, is to write a separate story that takes place before the one I was working on, that presents some of this information without being cumbersome. The catch is that for the first time it will really matter what order people read the different stories in. To understand the context of the second one, you will have to have read the first. I’ll try to minimize the requirement, but in the end I think there’s no getting around the fact that some time in the next few episodes the landscape the stories take place in will just be too complicated. Already I think knowing some of the history makes the stories more enjoyable, but I’m reasonably sure background info is not required yet.

Sparta v. Slavia

So, a while back I mentioned watching a fotbol (rhymes with soccer) match between the two local teams. It was a fairly typical match except for when the bomb went off. Sure you had massive smoke screens in parts of the stands, and the occasional flare, but that’s all to be expected.

Today the two teams played again, and once again there was plenty going on in the stands. At one point they were showing a corner kick, but my eyes were drawn to the stands behind, where fireworks were going off louly enough to reverberate around the stadium, pop-pop-pop with bright flashes of light. On the track that surrounds the field fireman were rushing around with buckets to carry off flaming debris, and the riot police were preparing for a charge. At one point conditions got so bad that play stopped and the referee warned the coaches that (I assume) they could be penalized for the behavior of their fans. Meanwhile the clock kept ticking, meaning the team that was ahead benefitted from the violence.

The game itself was not terribly exciting. Maybe that’s part of the problem.

Now I’m watching Hockey, a civilized sport. This is the seventh and deciding semifinal game between HC Slavia Praha and my favorite Liberec White Tigers (rhymes with Bílí Tig?í). The winnerr goes to the championship, and from what I’ve seen both these teams are stronger than the two remaining in the other bracket. The bad guys scored early and it was not until Les Tigres had to kill a penalty that they started to play. This is not unusual for them; perhaps they should just start the game a man down.

I guess I should get back to writing now.

A Perfectly Ordinary Evening


Little Café Near Home on a Wednesday night

fuego passed his old phone to me when he got a new one. Let me tell you, this puppy is pretty fancy. The other night I was at Little Café Near Home, trying to sort out all the features. One thing I did was take some pictures and email them to myself. Yep, my phone has wireless Internet. The Opera Mini browser works fairly well rendering Web pages on the little screen, and overall I’m pretty darn happy with it.

The phone has not one, but two cameras. As well as the main camera, which is pretty nice but the controls are a bit cumbersome, there is a secondary, lower-quality camera on the same side as the screen, whose only purpose, as far as I can tell, is self-portraits.

So here is a view of LCNH that I rather like, for reasons I can’t put my finger on. I am sitting at the far end of the place, so you can see that the the place really is quite small.

Why We Dream

There are many theories about why people dream and what significance (if any) those dreams have. This morning I had a dream that may shed some insight into the field. (Incidentally, this week’s Piker Press has a story that ponders this question as well.)

This morning I had a dream in which I was in a busy office, waiting my turn to talk to the overworked woman sitting behind a desk. I overheard two Americans in Prague (incidentally, I think they were executives at a company I used to work for, but that’s neither here nor there) having the following conversation:

American in Prague 1: How’s it going?
American in Prague 2: Not bad. Last night I went running. It’s been a long time, but it felt great!

My new favorite theory about dreams is that they are to help you accept all the bizarre things you see in your daily life. Dreams are often really crazy because frequently you have to make sense of the most bizarre events in the waking world. Take the above dream, for instance. It was in no doubt a response to a frightning, downright unsettling thing I saw last night. I saw someone running.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen people run here in the past. Sometimes it can be quite comical — those little old ladies can really move when they need to — but in general if you show you’re making an effort the tram driver will wait for you.

But last night was different. There was no tram nearby, no bus stop. The person was dressed in sweats and was cruising through my neighborhood at a measured pace. I accepted this image as something beyond my comprehension; perhaps somewhere the dream part of my brain was telling the waking part “don’t worry, I’ll come up with something later” so that the waking brain could continue to function. How many times does the dream brain make that promise each day?

So then the dream. The most important part of the explanation: the runner was American. There aren’t many of them in this neighborhood, but it explains the rest. Dream brain came through once again.

Spoke Too Soon…

Not long ago I wrote an episode about making progress toward getting a long-term visa here. Apparently I hadn’t made as much progress as I thought. The documents I signed had to be done again; I signed them incorrectly the first time. Just as in the US, most legal signatures are accompanied by a date. What I didn’t catch onto is that here often just the date is not enough, you also have to write in your location when you signed.

Czech prepositions don’t always match up well with their English counterparts; if you take the translations for the prepositions too literally you can mix yourself up. Thus I was not too concerned that I seemed to be signing something “in the 21st of March”. I’m not sure why the notary didn’t intervene, but there’s always that language barrier, and ultimately she’s just a witness.

On this visit, the notary was much more helpful, watching closely to make sure I got the date format right, spelled Praze correctly (that’s the form of Praha you use when you are saying you are in it). So, the second time’s a charm, I hope, and tomorrow I’ll hand the stuff off to Visa Guy. Once his legwork is done, the formal visa application has to be submitted from outside the country, so Soup Boy and I are planning a field trip to Vienna in April. Some parts of this process aren’t so painful.

Communication Breakdown

Around here, people don’t use their phones for talking very much anymore. Partly this is because text messages are cheaper, but they’re also more polite. If a message is not urgent, there’s no reason to make someone respond right away.

There are times, however, when making the call makes sense. In the following dialog, apparently that didn’t occur to either of us. This is an exchange between myself and the guy who will be braving the czech bureaucracy on my behalf. This dude and I just seem to have a mismatch in the communication dept. I have been wanting to get him some paperwork and to pay him for his trouble. I knew he was meeting with Soup Boy tonight, and unfortunately I couldn’t be there in the flesh. Happily, I was able to arrange that a big pile of paper (including banknotes) would be there in my stead. I sent Visa Dude a message to tell him what was happening. Here is the entire exchange, unedited. Enjoy. (The “no problem” in the first message refers to a failed plan to meet yesterday.)

Jerry: No Problem. I won’t be there but my docs will, along with 5000 Kc.

Visa Guy: You mean 5,500. 4,500 Kc deposit, plus 1000 Kc for the z-list.

Jerry: Dang, I forgot about the 1000. Hopefully if it’s a problem john or jose can cover the 500.

Visa Guy: As long as it’s not a problem for you guys. I can write an invoice for the 1,000 Kc if you want to pay later.

Jerry: That would be fine as long as it works for you.

Visa Guy: It’s fine for now. Will someone be at home? How do I find your apt. on the door buzzer?

Jerry: That is a question for the people who live there. My directions are infamous.

Jerry: For clarity, I am not there, but my papers are.

Visa Guy: I can’t be out all night. Please tell me how to find your apartment.

Jerry: Ask john. I don’t live there, and an the last person to tell you how to find it.

Visa Guy: I’m really short on time & have a lot to do. Let’s meet up later in the week.

Jerry: We are not meeting. I gave stuff to John to pass on to you. Call john.

Visa Guy: OK, that was not communicated to me before. Going to see john now.

Jerry: No worries. Probably lost because the same msg had the 5000 number in it. Talk to you soon.

Noteworthy is that Visa Guy is as anal about using proper English in text messages as I am, perhaps even more so, though neither of us bothered to capitalize “john”. I wanted to point out all the other times besides the second sentence in the conversation that I had told him I would not be there. Still, there was a point in the conversation that things started getting a little surreal. My attempts to keep the tone of the conversation light certainly did not help.

Semantically, he was right to say that my non-presence had not been communicated to him before. I had told him, but communication doesn’t happen until the message is received. Imagine how much time and frustration might have been saved if one of us had thought to phone the other.

Sometimes You Just Have to Laugh

How to put this…

Maybe we should just start with the punch line. “Petra? I thought your name was Iva.” “No, that’s my mom.” It took a couple more times back and forth before I realized: There’s two of them. That explained a thing or two (a rather inconsistent level of happiness to see me, for instance), and it meant I got really lucky earlier complimenting Petra on her haircut.

Hilarity preceded, only now I got the jokes. I sat at my table as Petra’s birthday party went on around me, and laughed to myself, wondering how long it would be before someone else figured out my mistake.

Blood of the Moon

If you had been watching me an hour ago, you would have seen a light bulb flash on over my head. (It’s an incandescent one; I have a compact fluorescent waiting, but I won’t switch until this one burns out.) You see, a while back I wrote a piece I really liked. Some good stuff, if I do say so myself. I bundled it up and sent it to a place that pays money for stories. They rejected it. “Send us your next thing, though,” the rejection said. Writing: good. Story: not so much.

I worked on the piece some more, made it longer, and sent it to another place that pays money for stories. They rejected it. More edits, more length, more movement. Another rejection.

Then, while mulling some feedback I got yesterday, it hit me. The feedback had a rather long list of the ways that the while the writing was good the result fell short of being a good story. “But,” I said to myself, “I really don’t want it to be like that.” That’s when I realized the problem. It’s not a story. I wrote this thing, then sent it to story people, said, “here’s my story,” and was rejected. I’d edit, trying to make my non-story more story-like, and submit again, and be rejected again.

It’s not a story. Criticism based on common story-telling norms really don’t apply. Now I can feel good about the writing again, even as I recognize that its commercial value is negligible. I think my recent attempts to make it more story-like have probably undermined it somewhat, so now it occupies an uncomfortable no man’s land where there’s enough story-like stuff going on to make the reader expect a story, but it still doesn’t deliver. (Reading the piece with this new insight in mind, “Blood” is definitely too story-like now. So it goes.)

I could go back and dig up earlier, more-obviously-non-story versions, but I think I’ll just take the easy way out and publish, right here and now, the current somewhere-in-the-realm-between-an-image-and-a-story version, and move on with my life. Now, however, after I write something purely for the imagery and atmosphere, I know not to bother story editors with it.

So here it is, and remember as you read it, it’s not a story. Don’t expect answers or even clearly-articulated questions. Just relax and enjoy the pictures.

Blood of the Moon

I shouldn’t have looked back. Nothing good could have come of it; behind me lay nothing but a brief life of confusion and terror. I shouldn’t have looked back, but of course I did. I turned and cast a furtive glance over my shoulder and froze, my breath catching in my throat, choking off my hoarse cry. I stumbled, forgetting to move my feet, almost falling before I wrenched my gaze forward again.

Fire followed me, a thread of silvery flame shimmering coldly in the moonlight, careening drunkenly across the waste and disappearing over the horizon.

I took a breath, tried to slow my heart. Forward. The only answer, the only hope. I lifted a foot and watched with distant fascination as a drop of blood detached from my naked toe and fell to the sterile earth. Where it struck, a new flame erupted, curling up and reaching for my foot, but unable to touch me.

It was a long trail of fire behind me. A long trail of blood.

I took a step, and another. The blood, the fire, would continue to flow until there was none left and I was dead. No helping it. I had to be somewhere else before then. I chose a peak, sharp and snowy-white in the light of the full moon hanging directly over it. I thought if I could get to the top of the mountain perhaps I could climb right onto the beacon moon itself, and be safe at last.

I stumbled and saw that the mountain was off to my right. I altered course again, but as I walked the mountain was always to one side or the other, weaving like a prizefighter. Hell of a world where even the mountains won’t stay where they belong. Hell of a world.

A breeze, restless and uncertain, shifted around me, but brought no relief. Like the land around me the bitter air was a stranger to life; all ability for it to nourish, to sustain, had been drawn from it. Nothing stirred except shiftless drifts of dust — aimless, random, revealing nothing, mocking my crazed path.

Far behind, beyond the curve of the Earth, I heard the howl of a wolf, calling out to her pack. I hesitated for a moment, then quickened my pace. They would be coming for me soon, following my burning tail. I looked to the mountains, with their promise of safety. Too far, too far, forever distant, a life away.

My first memory, my awakening, hours ago now. An awakening, but not from the gentle embrace of sleep; I find consciousness slowly, emerging naked and whole out of a haze of pain into a world of fear and need. Alone, with no past and a future written in blood. The scent of wolves all around me, choking me.

It is all I can do to suppress my urge to run, but I am born knowing that my only hope lies in escaping unnoticed. I wait, motionless, breathing silently. Waiting for a sign. The clouds part and far away the mountains shine white in the moonlight, calling to me, and I know what I must do to survive. It is the moon that tells me, in a whisper as cold as death. I do… something — I wrap myself in shadow, cover my scent with the cold forest air, hide the sound of my tread behind the stirrings of the night. I slip away, and once clear of the wolves I slink to the edge of the forest and begin a slow jog out across the blasted plain, ignoring the pain in my abraded feet. Time is important, I know; eventually whatever it was I did to hide myself will fail, and the wolves will catch my scent. Eventually the sun will rise, and the power the moon gives me will be lost.

Behind me the wolf’s call came once more, urgent, excited. It was answered by a half-dozen others and the hunt was on.

I staggered into a shambling run I could not sustain; the air was burning now, rushing over my swollen tongue and searing my lungs as I gasped, its alkaline bite nauseating me. Even the air wanted me dead. No urge to look back now. Ahead the mountain peak is a black silhouette, a tooth biting into the face of the moon. The sun would be rising behind me soon, bringing death as sure as the wolves.

Forward. The stars asserted themselves as the moon was swallowed by the mountain. Without the moon’s support I stumbled again and the world turned in a dizzying arc and I was painfully on all fours, gasping and staring at the ground between my hands. I tried to stand but my legs wouldn’t support me. Forward, crawling; now blood flowed from my hands as well. The mountains stayed put and my path was straighter, but my destination seemed more distant with each passing minute. Impossibly distant. No sound from behind; the wolves were intent on their prey, but I imagined I could hear their steady tread coming ever closer.

I tried to speed up but my arm buckled, driving my face into the abrasive surface, stars dancing in my eyes as the smell of ancient death filling my nostrils. I righted myself and pressed forward at a slower gait, awkward on all fours and limping on my bad arm, but it was the best I could do. Blood oozed from my forehead and fell in fat drops off the tip of my nose, exploding in flame when they struck the earth inches below my face. My trail was getting brighter.

Forward. Finding a rhythm in my crawl even as the ancient mud tears at my hands, moving faster now than I thought possible. The mountains nearer. The pain distant, someone else’s pain, the blood someone else’s blood. The air itself more expressive, filled with hidden messages: the fetor of decay. All around me were the graves of others, even their bones ground to dust, only the scent of death to mark the places they had fallen. As I neared the mountains the graves grew closer together.

My own scent, I knew, would be waiting for the next to attempt the wasteland. I was not going to make it.

The breeze shifted, found a direction. The smell of wolves, close behind me, a coarse, honest smell, pungent with the excitement of the hunt. I sped up, surprising myself with my pace for a few hopeful moments before my shoulder gave out and I was down and the wolves were on me, past me, arrayed in front of me in an arc, blocking my path. I lowered my head and laid my ears flat back; I showed my teeth and growled, and I discovered I was also a wolf.

“Let me pass.”

A female, tail lowered but ears back, deferential but prepared. “No, Shaman.”

Memories. Images from before my awakening, from a different life. Hunting, running. Wolf. I looked to the mountains, heard them whisper to me and fragments of memories scattered. Behind I knew the sun would soon rise and all would be lost.

“I must go to the mountains.”

“It is forbidden.”

“Forbidden by whom?” I allowed a snarl to creep into my voice.

The female hesitated and I could smell her frustration. “By you, Shaman, and all who came before.”

A male, barely more than a pup, couldn’t keep silent any longer. “Ha! Old Dog! That was a hell of a run you gave us! Even on two legs!” He danced with the energy of youth, barely winded from the long run. I felt a twinge of pride, its source a mystery. A cub, newborn. Something is wrong. And I — what? I do something — twisting the light of the moon and making the pup whole; he stands on tottering legs and finds his mother’s teat. The mother’s eyes wide, looking up at me with wonder and gratitude.

The female turned to the youngster. “Show some respect.”

“You would have died a whelp if it weren’t for the shaman’s skill,” another female added.

While their attention was on the youth I edged to the side, hoping to slip out of their arc and
sprint for the mountains. The peaks were close now; I could feel the chill air sliding off their snow-clad flanks, rich with the fertile scent of forest. It smelled of shade, and game, easy hunts with plenty for all, long afternoon naps and no need of a shaman to protect the pack from evil.

The pack reacted to the smell differently; one sneezed, another whimpered softly.

The sun was coming; I could feel its rush toward the horizon, its urgent desire to catch me with its deadly rays. Panic rose sour in my throat. No time left. I lowered my head into a fighting posture and stood carefully so I wouldn’t reveal my weak foreleg. “I will reach the mountains.”

The largest male, the chief of the tribe, matched my posture. “You told us yourself to kill you rather than let you get there.”

Had I said that? It sounded familiar. “Why?”

The pack exchanged glances. A female spoke almost too low to hear, her voice a hiss. “Stalkers.”

Stalkers. With the word, another memory, cold in my stomach. Fear in the night. Circling us is a wolf, or something wolf-shaped, smelling of rotting flesh, gray fur hanging in long strips, eyes filmy white. “The shaman of Long Tooth clan,” someone near me says. Around us lie wolves, bleeding, dead. The pack is shielding me, a pup, but it is I who must fight. It is I the stalker seeks. I carry the blood of the moon.

The pack leader watched me, his yellow eyes narrowed. “Think, Shaman. Remember. The blood is strong in you, so strong it burns the sand of this cursed plain. If the mountain spirits took you, you would destroy us all.”

The peaks glowed pink in the predawn light. I had never been so close before.

Before. As I prepared to make a last desperate dash the sun broke the eastern horizon and the mountains stood before me, barren, dead. In the light of the new day there was no snow on the peaks, no forest climbing the slopes. The sweet smell on the air turned to ash and dust and something bitter I had tasted once before.

The stalker, dead, its blood cold on my tongue. I retch and spit the unclean flesh, step away from the corpse. Where it lies, no plant will ever grow again.

Before. There had been many befores, many moonlit nights on two naked legs, called by the mountains. I looked at the ring of faces, my clan, my friends. I saw their concern and their fatigue, and I saw their unquestioning loyalty to another member of the pack.

The female spoke, still formal, still cautious. “Your power yet grows, shaman. The scent of the decoy you left stayed true for many hours.”

With the memory comes shame. I lowered my tail. “I’m sorry,” I said.

My chieftain, my brother, spoke. “We are fortunate to have the blood of the moon in our pack. If we pay a price when the moon is full, it’s nothing compared to the price you pay.”

The cold mountain air touched me again and my hackles stood. Not from the chill, but from something else, brooding, hateful, thirsty for blood that has been touched by the moon. The Life Eaters, the shamans call them. I could feel them watching me, feel as they reached out through the wind to touch me with an icy claw. Few shamans had felt that touch without surrendering their lives to the dark ones who lived there. I did not count myself fortunate.

“They’re close,” I said. The pack was uneasy; they felt it too. “Let’s go,” our chieftain called out. “This is not a friendly place, and we are a long way from home.”

Two of the younger wolves flanked me, offering support. Gratefully I accepted and we began the journey back to the shelter of the distant forest, safe for another month.

Kansas, They Say, is a Good Place to Write

It’s getting close to official; I have verbally committed to attending a writing workshop (actually two of them) this summer in Lawrence, Kansas. Pending acceptance in the second workshop, I’ll be spending three weeks there — the first two weeks working on short stories and the last two weeks on The Monster Within. For those who have already done the math, yes, that’s a pretty intense middle week.

As I write this, I’m pretty excited. Criticism is something I don’t get enough of; I have a core of friends I tap from time to time and they are great, but it’s time to broaden my circle, to actually venture out and become part of the writing community, to learn to give criticism gently and accept it gracefully. And praise, I suppose — it would be nice if there was some of that as well. Some of these people I meet may well be influencing factors in my pursuit of a Master’s degree as well.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to stand among writers, say, “I, too am a writer,” and not get the feeling that I may be exaggerating a little bit.

So, the goals are many, the opportunities prodigious.

And, heck! Kansas! In the summer! What could possibly be better than that?


My buddy John had spoken more than once of this book, and on a Christmas eve (give or take) when we found ourselves in the same bookstore he bought it for me. (This is the same John I accidentally stole Dead Girls from, compounding his largesse, though without his knowledge.)

Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson, is a big book, filled with history, science, politics, and adventure. The title refers to an informal compilation of knowledge on the subject of making and breaking codes. Much of the story takes place during the second world war, when the same forces that accelerated the development of the atomic bomb also lead to enormous strides in computing machines. Much of that computing power is devoted to the breaking of codes.

I’m not sure how historically accurate some of this stuff is, but he makes a pretty compelling argument that allied code-breaking turned the war, not just in Europe (with the famous enigma crack), but in the pacific as well. To this day, events in the battle of Midway are ascribed to good fortune. Could signal intelligence have been the real hero?

At the center of the story is a karass — a name coined by Kurt Vonnegut to describe a group of people whose lives are inexplicably but undeniably intertwined. The karass is such an intrinsic part of storytelling that I’m surprised it has never been named before. “So, we meet again,” is something a karass-mate would say. (Although, to be honest, most of my stories are not grand enough to encompass a whole karass.) If you cannot accept the idea of a karass then there are parts of this story that are going to be difficult for you. In this case the karass is stretched across generations; it is an inheritable karass, and to my mind this pushes things a little too far. There really is no reason that some of the people involved needed to descend from the previous batch. I might have been more tolerant of the connections if, at the end, many of the characters weren’t so blasé about the enormous coincidence. “You taught my grandfather karate in Shanghai before the war? Holy crap! That’s staggering!” was not said.

Still, for all that this is one seriously powerful karass that all concerned seem to take for granted, the story works very well. One of the cool things about it is that cryptography is not just treated as a technology, not just as a weapon, but as a socially significant phenomenon. Cryptography is a cornerstone of privacy in our world, and privacy is a cornerstone of freedom. Somewhere in there Stephenson makes the leap to “a currency not controlled by a government could have averted the holocaust”, and that was a leap I didn’t manage to make, but overall the message worked.

What was really cool was how human the people making these giant advancements in technology and mathematics were. Paradoxically, the writer made them human by emphasizing their oddities, the ways they didn’t conform to the human norm. In this way the novel was populated with a host of interesting, dynamic, and believable people. Some of them were pretty damn clever as well. The story goes back and forth between people just starting to define what the nature of a programmable machine even is, to people with hacker as a middle name. That worked very well.

And now a brief time-out for the complaining: There were a couple of business ethics points that were contrived, simply incorrect, and since they were critical to the progress of the plot they bothered me. There was a sequence that involved a family of geeks dividing an inheritance that didn’t work on two axes – the solution they arrived at was flawed in a way all the geeks would have recognized, and there was a much simpler solution that would have accomplished the same thing. General Douglas MacArthur, a peripheral member of the karass, makes a jump of faith I just couldn’t handle. I was bothered at the end when a statue of Buddha was melted down in a scheme I don’t think would have worked anyway. Somehow the last two people alive in the submarine belonged to the karass.

OK then! Now that that’s out of the way, I have to say that I’ve never read a better story about the inner lives of geeks even as they go about rewriting all the rules. The geeks, both the documented historical ones like Turing and the add-ins, are all pretty cool. Did geeks win the second world war, or did factories, or did the marines? Does it even matter? In the years of war and the time following, secrecy was a national asset, and secrecy was increasingly dependent on mathematics and computation. Reading about the code-breakers of old, the guessing-games and rooms full of men using abacuses on one side versus a computing machine that may deafen you on the other, makes for some good reading. Add on top heroism, adventure, and prose written with a dry wit, and you’ve got yourself a good book.

And then there’s the open hatch on the submarine. Danm. Complaints I registered above acknowledged, you just know that a member of the karass went though that hatch. Somebody got out. Stephenson didn’t have to write this part; the story can live without it. But he did, and I’m glad. It hangs over a good span of the book. The answer to that mystery is as satisfying as it is tragic.

One last complaint, or perhaps a left-handed compliment. This book needs a bibliography, or at least a recommended reading list. There were dozens of times through the course of this story that I wanted to know more about the surrounding events. I can only assume Stephenson did some serious research, and I’d like to be able to follow in his footsteps. All historical fiction should at the end cite sources, but in a story about the dawn of the information age, that seems even more important. There is a great appendix about one particular code that you and I can use, written by someone who obviously thinks a lot about passing information in a hostile environment, but I really wanted more. It is unconscionable that a book that tickles my interest in so many subjects does not supply a reading list at the end.

I liked Bobby Shaftoe. I liked Goto Dengo. I liked the geeks. Stephenson created a whole zoo of people I liked. Right there, you know you’ve got a good story. Embrace the karass; find your own karass, and enjoy this book.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Duly Notarized

Yesterday Soup Boy, Jose, and I all made a field trip to the U.S. Embassy, where in front of an Official Person I promised that I was not a criminal. I’m not sure why making this promise in front of an American is more convincing to the Czechs that it would be if I promised in front of a Czech, but perhaps this way they can’t be accused by the US of knowingly harboring a criminal. Only that doesn’t add up, because technically this document is part of the process to get a business license.

You see, to get a visa you have to come up with some reason why you should have one. “I like it here and want to hang out” is not a sufficient reason*, but if you are doing business in the Czech Republic, that’s pretty compelling. So, to get a visa I first apply for a business license. The catch is that I can’t actually get the business license until I have a visa. This leads to a bureaucratic juggling act where the visa people create a document that says I’ve applied for the visa, which allows the business license people to proceed, and when they’re done the visa people can do their… whatever it is they do… and then in one big flurry of paper I have both permission to stay here and permission to invoice people for my services. I am told that this “visa in progress” document will also smooth out my international travel worries. Probably.

I added my “promise of non-criminalhood” form to my growing portfolio of documentation (it will have to be translated, and the translation certified – or something like that), along with papers that confirm that I live where I do and that the landlord is OK with someone running a business there.

Today I found the notary’s office – exactly where Soup Boy said it was, carefully disguised as a typical residence. Once I knew what to look for, sure enough there was the sign. A few minutes later I was on the streets again, carrying official documents that will allow someone else to do most of the grunt work of applying for a visa. It feels good to be making progress.


* I think, left to themselves, “I like it here” would probably be a perfectly adequate reason as far as the Czechs were concerned — as long as the individual in question had a nice. plump bank account. Alas, in this case the Czechs must follow Rules imposed by Foreign Powers (the European Union in this case). The fact that the Czech Republic actually placed itself under the jurisdiction of the foreign powers voluntarily this time doesn’t mean they have to like it.


Delayed Results?

Last night I did something I used to do often, but it’s been months. I lit some candles, put on some directionless electronic music, disconnected the Internet, snuggled up to the radiator, and got some writing done. Back in the day this ritual would almost automatically put my head in a good place for connecting abstract symbols into meaningful (and, occasionally, interesting) prose.

It didn’t work so well last night. I’m out of practice, I suppose. I popped from one project to another, considering some fragments for posting here, thought about where next to submit my finished works, and in general got some tidying-up done, but the night wore on, the candles burned lower, and magic wasn’t happening.

Flash forward to this morning, about an hour ago. I woke up eager to finish the story I started late last night. It was a good story, tight and compact, like a steel spring, with three good characters. (Usually I only manage two.) It’s good to wake up with that feeling.

The only problem was, I hadn’t written anything like that last night. I had dreamt the whole story. Even as I lay there for a while, trying to recover details of this story, the memory of it scattered under the assault of the well-ordered thoughts of the waking world. It’s gone now, but it’s kind of comforting to know that for a while at least it was there, and that some residue might remain to inform my next masterpiece.

Stackers know stackers

Tonight I was in the crossfire of a discussion between a new parent and expectant parents. The subject of appropriate toys came up (a subject I was not shy about participating in), and blocks were mentioned. You know what I did with blocks? I stacked them. The yellow pillars were good for altitude, but the red wedges were where the elegance happened. Until tonight, I had forgotten those stacks.

As I sat reminiscing, thousands of miles away another friend was writing me an email. You see, during my wanderings I have enjoyed the hospitality of a Piker family in Central California. More gracious hosts you will never find, but it is Lillian who makes the visit special. Within minutes of our first meeting (seconds, actually) she was attached to my leg, and I never really could figure out why.

Until now.

Now that’s an elegant stack. The kid’s a natural.

Wait Five Minutes

When I sat down to eat lunch, it was snowing hard outside. Big fluffy snowflakes filled the air, swirling in the wind. I was happy to see it; I kind of feel like we got gypped as far as winter is concerned. By the time I was finished with my soup, the sky was blue and empty, the sun shining down with a hard-edged clarity.

That’s been the way of things here lately. Man, I’m glad I’m not trying to shoot a movie outdoors in this weather, like some people I know. Getting consistent light would be nigh-on impossible.

To Tread Where No Man Has Trod Before

I’m working on a story that includes the sentence “One meter from his feet was a place no man had ever tread.” I realized tonight, after I’d read that sentence a few times, that it was incorrect. The past of ‘tread’ is ‘trod’. Worse yet, the past participle is ‘trodden’.

I’m okay with ‘downtrodden’, but while I can barely stomach ‘trod’ I just can’t imagine writing a sentence with ‘trodden’. It’s ugly. Even substituting ‘trod’ in my sentence is painful; I considered changing the verb rather than use that form. The only problem was, ‘to tread’ is easily the most parsimonious word for the job. Parsimonious, yes, but ‘trod’ carries an archaic air with it that I don’t want in the story. People just don’t say ‘trod’ anymore.

But ‘stepped’ is a junky substitute, lacking gravity. ‘set foot’ is probably the closest modern substitute for ‘trod’, but it’s almost a cliché. I could go long-winded and say something like “… was a place that had never felt the foot of man.” In this context, that’s a bit much. So I have ‘trod’. Honestly, though, I can’t use it. It’s like a big archaic raspberry at the end of the second sentence in the story, when I’m going all-out to set the tone. The more pleasant, albeit incorrect, use of the present tense bothers me less.

In the end, I will have to go with some alternative that, while lacking parsimony, does not go plop on the page. Alternatively, we could launch a campaign to make ‘to tread’ less irregular by allowing ‘tread’ to be the past tense.