Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Da Vinci Cock-Up

I don't often post opinions on books or movies, and this post will probably illustrate why, but I feel the need to let off steam.

Last night, I finally got around to watching The Da Vinci Code. I know this movie has been hyped to death, which always I try keep from negatively affecting my views, but even so I found myself mystified and deeply disappointed.

First off, the movie was supposed to be a gripping roller-coaster action movie. Sorry, but no. I'm not a big movie-goer, but I'm sure I could quickly reel off a dozen or two recent movies that blow this out the water. In fact, practically every recent adventure that comes to mind did a better job of keeping me on the edge of my seat than this one. The Da Vinci code was tolerably OK in this department, but nothing more.

Secondly, and more importantly, I felt insulted as a viewer by overt and clumsy author manipulation.

Need to build audience sympathy? Cue one character orphaned in a car crash, and the other trapped down a well as a young boy. Sympathy engaged ... check!

The trouble is that both backstories were such blatant emotional plays and neither was especially relevant to the plot. Yes, you could argue that Sophie needed to be handed to the care of her fake grandfather, but then her real grandmother pitches up near the end, so where the heck was she all these years? There are countless less intrusive ways to achieve the same ends to mentor her.

The killer for me, though, was the countless points where characters behaved in unbelievable ways just to further the plot or introduce random tension. When the air traffic controller refused to co-operate with a senior police office to track dangerous fugitives because he was "on his break", my willingness to suspend disbelief crumbled and the rest was downhill from there. The author's hand manipulating the puppet strings was visible everywhere.

On the plus side, the underlying premise of historical subterfuge and the true nature of the Holy Grail was a gem. What a pity this brilliant concept got weighed down by clumsy author intrusions.

The lessons for writing? Respect your audience's intelligence, and respect the integrity of your characters.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Snowmobiles on water

At one point in Tiamat's Nest, Charles is on the run and his friend takes them across country on a ski-doo, or snowmobile. Along the way, they use it to cross a river a hundred meters wide.

One critiquer wondered if such a thing is possible. Yes it is!

I remember first seeing this trick years ago on a Top Gear program set in Iceland, before Jeremy Clarkson started getting in trouble with the BBC, and the memory returned when I was looking for obstacles to throw in Charles's path.

I thought maybe that this would be rare anomaly, but when I researched the possibilities in earnest I discovered that the feat is very well known and has even been turned into a sport!

So I am confident that what I wrote is a manageable, if rather dangerous, stunt.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Camping in Washington state and Oregon

This is a quick call for help! Does anyone know good campgrounds in the Washington/Oregon area? We're thinking of heading that way some time this summer, but this is unknown territory for us so I'm open to recommendations.

To give you a benchmark, this post from last year gives an idea of how we like to camp. Yes, it's camping for softies :) We like places that are well-equipped, clean, and with plenty of attractions nearby both on and off site.

Sunday, March 1, 2015


After a furious burst of activity in February, Tiamat's Nest has finished its latest round of revisions and is now out to beta-readers.

No time for relaxing, though. I need to start work on ideas and drafts for cover art if I'm to get this puppy out there this summer as planned.

I've also been pottering around with iDraw. There's lots of capability there, and lots of things are very easy to accomplish that I'd have a harder time managing in Visio, but the software still shows some baffling and frustrating behavior even doing the simplest tasks. I clearly still have a lot to learn.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Emergent behavior

Another line of research...

Emergent behavior is at the heart of Tiamat's Nest on two distinct levels. Charles studies collective human behavior, where large groups act in ways that bear no resemblance to how individuals behave. And the complexity of the global network hides a nasty surprise.

So what is emergence?

It's what often happens when lots of things interact, usually following very simple rules. Things start happening on the collective level that were not designed into the individual units or the rules by which they act. Entirely unexpected behaviors and properties emerge, as if by magic.

This is best illustrated with a few examples

Temperature and pressure of a gas are properties of the gas as a whole, not of any one molecule. They are macro properties that emerge from lots of freely-moving molecules bouncing around. The most remarkable thing about the ideal gas law is that the same equation relates temperature and pressure to the amount of gas in a given volume regardless of what the gas is made up of.

The whole inexhaustible science of chemistry emerges from comparatively simple quantum-mechanical laws governing how electrons, protons, and neutrons interact. So do such diverse real-world effects as the conductivity of metals, the blue of the midday sky, the violence of nitroglycerin, and the beauty of snowflakes. None of these could easily be predicted just from looking at how subatomic particles behave.

These are all physical examples, but have you ever been part of a large group of people where you've felt swept along by events that don't seem to be wanted by any individual you speak to, but which take place relentlessly nonetheless? Mob behavior is notoriously and dangerously unpredictable. "The tragedy of the commons" is a self-destructive property of pretty much any group with a scarce resource. Stock market booms and busts are more complex behaviors of the market that are in nobody's interest, but which emerge from lots of simpler financial interactions.

Pretty much anywhere you have sufficiently large collections of units interacting in some way, you can expect some unexpected properties and behaviors to emerge.

Charles studies the emergent behaviors of large groups of people, but where does Tiamat come into the equation?

Have you ever been driving down the highway when you met a line of slow moving traffic? After a mile or two of crawling along, things speed up again with no obvious explanation for the hold-up. You've just been part of a pressure wave, very similar to a sound wave in air.

Waves, whether in molecules in air, atoms in a crystal, or cars in traffic, arise from the molecules, atoms, or cars following a very simple rule: don't get too close to your neighbor.

This illustrates another typical feature of emergence - properties emerge from the interactions, the rules, regardless of what the individual units consist of. One name for this is substrate independence.

This principle is important because some theories of the mind reckon that consciousness and intelligence are emergent properties of certain types of information processing networks. If that's true, then there should be nothing special about neurons themselves. They are simply the substrate enacting the rules. Another substrate, say a complex enough computer network that happens to embody the right kinds of rules, should therefore exhibit the same properties - whether we designed it or not.

Now that's scary!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Quick on the draw

I've been playing with a new toy this week.

In the course of writing, I tend to draw a lot of diagrams. I blogged about this years ago, so no need to repeat the details other than to say that I need to see the space my characters inhabit - in the form of copious maps and plans.

Now that I'm slowly developing my website, I want to share some of this background material online. The trouble is, these are all hand-sketched and largely incomplete. Good enough for writing purposes, where I only need enough to visualize the scene, but not good quality for publication.

I figured the best way to deal with this is to complete selected drawings electronically, using a suitable drawing tool.

The plans for the cruiser Merciless are my first foray into this experiment.
 Here's the original sketch for comparison.
To execute these plans I borrowed a laptop and used Visio. It was easy and satisfying to do and I'm pleased with the results, so I want to do more along the same lines which means investing in drawing software of my own. Because I use a Mac, after some research into Visio alternatives I settled on iDraw.

I use Visio a lot at work and I'm extremely comfortable with it, so switching to iDraw is a bit of a culture shock.

Many of the general concepts are similar to Visio, so it's not completely alien, but there are some basic differences in behavior that keep tripping me up. There's a lot to learn and it's all laid out differently which makes it difficult for someone used to the MS Office look and feel.

Overall, I like Visio, but I suspect iDraw will end up being more suited to my needs. Visio is a great business diagramming tool. iDraw is more of a drawing tool, and offers much greater flexibility to achieve results beyond boxes and lines.

It just takes time...

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Call for beta readers

Would anyone out there care to read Tiamat's Nest to help me steer it through the final editing stages?


In a world where weather forecasting has become a life-or-death profession, hard sciences and technology are the only things keeping people alive and fed. Anthropologists, soft and useless, rank slightly below politicians and telemarketers on the social scale. This sucks for Charles Hawthorne, Professor of Anthropology.

Worse yet, his research into human behavior has got dangerously close to revealing how human history ended up on its current miserable course, and the perpetrator is hell-bent on keeping it hidden.

Worst of all, with everything mechanical under computer control the most innocuous device is a potential murder weapon to a well-connected villain. After a series of deadly near-misses Charles flees to the wilds of Greenland where the global network has yet to reach. But to deal with the threat, to save himself and his family, Charles has to confront technology full on and enter the even more hostile world online.

Saving humanity from a lifetime of slavery comes as an added bonus.


I'm nearing the end of my current round of revisions, and I'm looking for a small handful of beta readers to provide feedback into the next stage. The latest version will be ready for circulation later this month, and I'm looking for people who can commit to a (maximum) two-month turnaround.

I'm aiming for publication this summer, so timing is important. Only respond if you're confident you can read and provide comments before the end of April. At the same time, please let me know what you would like in return, e.g. a read of your own novel.

You can respond in the comments on this blog with instructions on how to contact you. If you are not comfortable showing your email address here (and I can understand that, I choose not to publicize my email address) then drop me a note via my website's contact form.

Thanks in advance...
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