Monday, June 30, 2008

I Think I'll Go Eat Worms

A gastroenterologist from the University of Iowa, Joel Weinstock, has been conducting human studies that involve feeding worms to people . The people have Crohn's disease, a bowel disorder, and the worms are Trichuris suis eggs, a parasite found in pigs. Of 29 Crohn's patients, 23 felt relief, and 21 went into complete remission. A second study showed that eating the parasite eggs also improved ulcerative colitis. Weinstock's reasoning here was that human beings evolved in tandem with parasites (also bacteria and viruses) and when modern hygiene eliminates them, we get sick. He formulated his theory after noticing a sharp upturn in inflammatory bowel disease about ten years after modern hygiene arrives at some new corner of the Third World.

All this was reported in an article in yesterday's New York Times, but it's not the first time I've read something similar. Too much cleanliness has been implicated in upswings in asthma, for instance. Our immune systems apparently need something familiar to work on -- parasites, dust, allergens -- and if you eliminate too many of these, the immune system gets cranky and misbehaves. We need a certain amount of filth.

I'm tempted to make a metaphor here. We also evolved with bloody competition and violence. I would say that the evolutionary advantages of violence would make a good novel, except that I already wrote that book (An Alien Light) twenty years ago. Too bad -- I need a novel topic now and I don't have one.

Maybe beneficial parasites...

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Speed Bumps

I've become interested in auto speeding ever since I got a ticket last month (not only the $150 Town of Brighton fine, but also the "responsible driver fee" of $300 tacked on by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, the grasping wretches). Now this morning's paper reveals a new development.

In Philadelphia the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is testing fake speed bumps. They're optical illusions, pyramids painted on roads to look 3-D, sort of like real speed bumps. The illusionary ones cost from $60-80 each, while real speed bumps cost $1,000-1,500. The illusions do slow down traffic -- for about a month. Then everyone knows where and what they are and just rams over them.

Much better, I think, would be holographic speed bumps, emanating from a device embedded flat in the road. After people get used to them, just pry up the laser-projecting devices and put them on different stretches of street. In fact, why stop there? Holographic concrete barriers, old ladies crossing the street, entire police cruisers...We'll make everybody slow to a crawl! Stand totally still! Stay home and save wear and tear on the roads!

I'm mad at the DMV for that $300. I didn't speed through their building. The Town of Brighton, okay, I deserved the fine, but not the whopping DMV surcharge.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Miscellaneous Updates

Yesterday a stack of Chinese magazines arrived from SCIENCE FICTION WORLD in Chengdu, two copies of each of three issues. Presumably they have stories of mine in them, although I have no idea which stories because even the table of contents and the by-lines are in Chinese. It's interesting to see what does have some English: the ads. At the back of the magazine are dual language ads for, the "Old Kingdom Trilogy," the 4th China International Cartoon and Animation Festival, and the movie WALL-E.

The language I am concentrating on right now is German, in preparation for my fall teaching gig at the University of Leipzig. I bought some CDs and am learning very slowly, since I have a bad ear for languages (and for music; I think they're related). I cannot seem to replicate the vowel sound in funf ("five"). I may be stuck counting only as far as four. Eins, zwei, drei, vier...

Sheila Williams at ASIMOV'S wants minor changes to my novella with the dwarf protagonist, "Act One," so I am making those.

Jeanne Cavalos at Odyssey is supposed to be sending me some student manuscripts to critique before I fly there to teach July 6, but these have not yet shown up in my mailbox. I'm eager to see my future students' past writing before we share a present classroom (all right, clumsy, but I couldn't resist).

Story recommendations: I'm reading my way through Jonathan Strahan's Best of the Year. So far, I've really liked: "The Last and Only, or Mr. Moskowitz Becomes French" (Peter Beagle); "Dead Horse Point" (Daryl Gregory); "Glory" (Greg Egan); "The Prophet of Flores" (Ted Kosmatka); "Kiosk" (Bruce Sterling); "The Witch's Headstone" (Neil Gaiman); and "Last Contact" (Stephen Baxter) -- and I'm only two-thirds of the way through the book. This anthology is a winner.

Finally, various interviews and reviews for DOGS are going up all over the Internet, and I'm happy with (surprisingly) all of them. Now if only the actual book would come out...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

That's what we used to chant when I was a kid, although the connection between perfidy and accidental arson was not exactly clear in our minds. Ever since, people have been trying to create a reliable lie detector. The latest entry, according to an interesting article in a recent The New Yorker, is manufactured by an Israeli company, Nemesysco. It uses "layered voice analysis," which analyzes 130 parameters of speech in order to determine the speaker's psychological state. The device failed two independent tests, but is nonetheless selling to law-enforcement agencies around the world. Also to insurance agencies, to detect fraud. But if the device fails tests...

More reliable is a device developed by Sound Intelligence, and which has been installed in public areas in Rotterdam and Amsterdam in the Netherlands and in Coventry, England. This one detects not lies but aggression. It picks up the sounds of people shouting and -- this is the part that interested me -- can distinguish between actual anger and actors pretending anger. Apparently genuine anger overstresses the vocal chords and produces different kinds of sounds than even, say, Lawrence Olivier or Bruce Willis could manage on stage and screen.

So, on reliability alone, I guess I'd rather be accused of rioting in Amsterdam than of insurance fraud in Tel Aviv.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Last night Rob Sawyer, Nick DiChario, and I did a reading/signing/panel at the local B&N. This was a lot of fun, and well-attended, thanks to the excellent publicity manager. Both before and afterwards, I had dinner/drinks with Rob, Nick, and other people, and the subject of fingerprinting came up.

In August I'm teaching at the Writers & Books "writing camp" for kids. I have only one section of 9-13-year-olds, mornings for a week. Many of the children, however, attend different types of writing classes all day. Many are younger. Some will be going on field trips with the instructors and interns. This year, for the first time, the Writers & Books Board of Directors has decided that all instructors working with children should undergo background checks, including fingerprinting.

At least one instructor has refused and may quit before the summer even begins.

I have already been fingerprinted and background-checked, a necessary requirement of some volunteer work I've done with children (Court Appointed Special Advocate in Maryland, Big Brother/Big Sister program here). I had no objection, since it makes sense to me that if you're going to allow a nine-year-old to get into a car alone with a stranger, you want to know a lot about that person beforehand. I didn't object to the government talking to my neighbors to check up on me, or searching my police records (two speeding tickets in 35 years), or whatever else they want to do. The other instructor does object. Given the current political climate, she does not want information about her life on file anywhere. She's apprehensive about what future uses it may be put.

This is a difficult question, with arguments on both sides. The most interesting thing to come out of last night's discussion, however, was from a man who said he was supposed to be printed, and then was told, "Oh, we don't need to do that -- your fingerprints are already on file with the FBI."

He said, astonished, "They are?"

"Yes," he was told. "You did a fingerprinting merit badge when you were a Boy Scout."

Friday, June 20, 2008

SF Story Markets

Best of the Year anthologies seem to have a six-month gestation period (exactly the same as baboons, and slightly longer than goats). The stories are chosen in January and the volumes appear in June. Jonathan Strahan's BOY turned up in my mailbox today. It contains my story "By Fools Like Me," but of more interest to me (since, after all, I've already read my story) was a fact in Strahan's Introduction. He says that LOCUS estimates, and Strahan concurs, that roughly 3,000 new stories of science fiction and fantasy in English appear every year.

Three thousand! This includes on-line venues, but he doesn't say if that means only paying markets or if it includes every story someone has put up on his own website (and how would you count those, anyway?) Strahan then goes on to say that there are actually more, if you count those that have fantastic elements but are not labeled as such. Many more. Many, many, many more.

But even the 3,000 number boggles my mind. Moreover, Strahan says he reads all of them to make his choices. The result of this statement is to fill me, who am behind on reading even the measly few magazines I subscribe to, with deep literary guilt. How does Jonathan do it? How does Gardner Dozois or Rich Horton or David Hartwell or Karen Haber? Don't they read anything but SF? Or am I just a slacker?

Don't answer that.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


I have not posted for a few days because I have been visiting my elderly mother, whose household does not include broadband. My AOL program does not include dial-up and my Blackberry does not include blogging -- or if it does, I couldn't figure out how to do it. The local Starbucks has wi-fi but my parents live far out in the country and anyway I was playing Scrabble with my mother. And playing. And playing and playing and PLAYING...

We played eleven hotly contested games in three days. I won five, she won six. This is deeply embarrassing for a professional writer who's supposed to have words as her livelihood, but at the same time, it validates all that research that says older people can keep their brains sharp by playing intellectual games. Mama is sharp. In fact, at the Scrabble board, she's a barracuda.

And just for your information... "quieted" spanning two double-word squares is enough to win someone the game. Or lose it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


I have been doing a lot of interviews, both on-line and by phone, as a result of the efforts of Tachyon's terrific publicist, Matt Stagg. Paul Raven, of Futurismic, sent me some unusually interesting questions, one of which I'm stealing (with my answer) to post here. I'm not sure any other answer is possible. The issue is, some of the "people" I refer to will hold considerably more power (political, economic, nuclear) than most of us.

Q: How do you think we would react as a species to a sudden resolution of the Fermi Paradox, in the form of an unambiguous signal or sign of live from another civilisation?

A: The reactions, it seems to me, would be as varied as human beings. There would be no “reaction as a species.” Instead, various people (some of them influential political leaders) might feel: joy, fear, shock & awe, anger (“Get out! It’s our planet!”), expediency (“What have they got that we can trade for?”), caution, curiosity, proof of God, proof of no God, xenophobia, xenophilia, panic, the missionary impulse, inferiority, and the desire to pass more laws.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Dogs and Nanotech

Fair warning: This particular blog entry consists of shameless self-promotion. First, Tachyon Publications is running a contest to publicize my July bio-thriller, Dogs. The contest invites you to submit a picture of your dog. Prizes will be given. I'm not sure what the judging criteria are -- given the nature of the book, the prizes should go to the most vicious-looking, dangerous animal, but I don't think that's what Tachyon has in mind. The entries so far are mostly of very cute dogs (although not as cute as mine). At any rate, here is the URL:

More conventionally, a local Barnes & Noble is holding a triple book launch party on Saturday, June 21. The books being launched are Robert Sawyer's novel Identity Theft, Nick DiChario's novel Valley of Day-Glo, and my short story collection Nano Comes To Clifford Falls and Other Stories. The event is at the Pittsford Plaza B&N, on Monroe Avenue, Pittsford, NY at 7:00 p.m. I'd love to meet some of you posters and lurkers there. But don't bring your dogs.

Friday, June 13, 2008

An Extraordinary Book

I've just finished reading Judith Rich Harris's The Nurture Assumption. This book made a big splash when it first appeared in 1998, but although I read about it then, I didn't read the book itself. This is in keeping with my general lateness to anything trendy. Harris, however, is anything but trendy. She is bucking the mainstream of American psychology, and has garnered both awards and brick-bats for doing so.

Her major contention, buttressed with what even her enemies concede to be rigorous and exhaustive examinations of statistical data, is this: Parents have a lot less effect on how kids turn out than everybody thought. What does determine adult personality and behavior, almost exclusively, is the combination of genetic heredity and peer-group socialization in childhood and adolescence. This is because kids don't strive to be like their parents; they strive to be like the group(s) of other kids -- in school or the neighborhood or the tribal village or wherever -- that they identify with. Studies that show parent-child correlations have overlooked both genetic factors and peer-group influence, and when these are corrected for, parents end up influencing children's in-home behavior, but not the "out-there" behavior that they will carry with them the rest of their lives.

To arrive at this conclusion, Harris looks at twin studies, adopted-child studies, genetic studies, cultures across the world, evolutionary biology, socio-economic studies, and a host of other things. Mike Flynn would love this book; Harris takes apart accepted statistical conclusions with ferocious (and witty) glee, pointing out factors that have not been taken into consideration and factors that should have been. It's beyond the scope of this blog to go into much detail, but let me say that I found her methodology and conclusions very, very persuasive. This is partly because I have two very different kids; partly because I can recognize my own life as child, adolescent, and adult in her theories; partly because my first career was as an elementary school teacher (Grade 4) and her descriptions of how kids behave in groups are dead-on.

This is a thoughtful book for anyone who has, or was, a child. Go read it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Anatomy of an Idea

Two days ago I got a very interesting email, from Technology Review, asking me to submit a story for a forthcoming issue. Since I'm always interested in non-SF venues for SF stories, and since I'd never heard of Technology Review, I started researching. The attractive pay scale also spurred on this research.

The magazine is published by M.I.T. It's not a professional journal, but rather a vehicle for relaying the latest developments in many fields of technology to an interested public. They have also published the occasional piece of fiction, by invitation. I read two of the stories, by Bruce Sterling and Greg Egan. Bruce's ("The Interoperation") dealt with the future of CAD, Greg's ("Steve Fever") with a horrifying and poignant outcome of nanotechnology. The editor who contacted me specified near-future, technology-driven hard SF, although it appears from the magazine that this includes biotech. A good thing for me, since I can no more write about CAD software than I could fly.

So what next? They want a story from 1,000 - 1,500 words, not my favorite length but I have written them before. That short a piece suggests only one or, at the most, two scenes. How does a writer plan such a story?

I began by looking through my "idea folder." This is a paper-and-pen file, not electronic, of high entropy. There are scrawled notes on whatever paper was handy when an idea struck me; some of these are now cryptic and/or indecipherable. There are articles torn from newspapers or magazines on scientific developments. There are opening scenes for stories that got no farther than the opening scene; most of these are hand-printed on yellow-legal-pad paper. It took me a few hours to sift through all this, segregating the ideas that appealed to me now (as opposed to the sometimes hare-brained aha! moment when I conceived them) and also fit the magazine's parameters. Or could be made to fit them.

Step two is research. Usually I start a story with a character (a dwarf, an elderly retired cybercriminal, a child engineered to not need sleep), but not this time. I don't know if reversing my usual process will work. Right now I'm researching African sleeping sickness, counter terrorism, and the BioFlash (a pathogen detection device). The idea is that reading about these things will lead to a character I want to write about. Or not.

I'll report in on this endeavor as it progresses, or doesn't. This is a sloppy and uncertain way to work compared to, say, outlines, but I can't do outlines. So this is it.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Of Dogs and Dwarfs

I was wrong. In yesterday's post about book videos, I said that I doubted that Tachyon Press would have the resources to create a video for my July novel Dogs. But today I learned that Tachyon publicist Matt Staggs, who read my post, said that he is working on a Dogs video. This pleases me a lot. Stay tuned...

Meanwhile, I finished the dwarf story, now called "Act One," and sent it to Sheila Williams at Asimov's. The always-knowledgeable Mike Flynn had suggested that I rent and watch the movie The Station Agent, in which the lead is played by dwarf actor Peter Dinklage. Dinklage is formidably talented, and the movie captures his alienation from a world that cannot look past his size. I enjoyed the film but I had one big caveat (it's always something): I couldn't believe that the other two major characters would have persisted so long in trying to win Dinklage's friendship in the face of his repeated, cold, and occasionally rude rebuffs. But once past that, it's a lovely, quirky film.

Dinklage, incidentally, is currently playing the dwarf Trumpkin in the Narnia movie Prince Caspian. He is unrecognizable. He said in an on-line interview that at first he was reluctant to take the role because it so much feeds into the mythic steotype of dwarfs, whereas a movie like The Station Agent makes them real, contemporary, multifaceted human beings. As, I hope, does my novella. At least, that was my intent.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Book Videos

After my last post, gdtownshende left an "off-topic" comment on book videos, with a link to a video on Fox news about the many authors that are creating them. Authors or publishers create a short video about their upcoming book and upload it to YouTube. According to the news spot, as many as one-fourth of all writers are doing this. Harper Collins has just opened an in-house studio to record author interviews to upload: "We'd like to record 500 interviews as quickly as possible." Some of the clips, like those I watched for vampire-best-seller Stephanie Meyers, are professionally produced.

I didn't know anything about this. Well, no surprise there -- nobody ever accused me of being on the cutting edge of any technology whatsoever. But I'm intrigued. If I wanted to do this for DOGS, due out next month, could I? Certainly Tachyon, a small press, doesn't have the resources to help. What resources are needed? My father, a pretty good amateur photographer, has a camcorder, plus equipment to create montages from various media; he created a DVD for each of my children's lives when they graduated from high school. Would that be sufficient? On the other hand, would an amateur-looking video do more harm than good, suggesting a vanity press or amateur author?

I have no idea. And I've never been good at drumming up publicity for my books. When I first started publishing, I did TV and radio spots and sent out press releases for each new book, but I quickly decided I didn't like that stuff and dropped it. What I do now is the stuff I do like: convention appearances, this blog, and the occasional keynote speech at writing festivals. Maybe that's not enough.

The world used to be simpler.

A promotional video for DOGS. I could use that footage of my sister's collie...and my poodle...and...

Friday, June 6, 2008

Non-Lethal Force

The June 2 issue of The New Yorker has a fascinating profile of Charles Heal, a long-time expert on the development of "non-lethal weapons." The article first discusses various types of weapons designed to stop a person or group of persons without puncturing them: bean-bag guns, dogs, irritants like tear gas, malodorants, obscurants that interfere with sight (such as smoke), Tasers, flashbangs, soporifics, tanglefoam. The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department tried TigerLights, a combination of flashlight and pepper spray. The pros and cons of all these devices (including the Active Denial System made for the military, which was the subject of a 60 Minutes interview just last Sunday) are discussed.

The more interesting part of the article, however, comes when the author accompanies Heal on visits to people who have taken out patents on inventions they hope will be the next big thing in crime fighting, such as the Carpoon. This does exactly what you think: harpoons a car in high-speed chases. Heal points out that it's not feasible because it will cause both collateral accidents and lawsuits. Lots of lawsuits. One criterion for whether law enforcement agencies will invest in a new weapon is whether it will reduce law suits from the old ones. They are not interested in those that will create yet more lawsuits.

What's really needed for vehicular pursuits, Heal said, is "a directed-energy device that uses a signal from our car to interrupt the other car's ability to supply fuel or ignition. It may make the fuel mixture too rich or too thin, and if you can change it even briefly, the car will die. That's the Holy Grail. Whoever invents that will be rich from the day he does,"

Any takers?

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


The ideal for a writer is a big block of uninterrupted time to write every day -- except when you've gone dry and have nothing you want to write about. But the time and the ideas never seem to coincide. Either you have too much of one and not enough of the other, or vice-versa.

Right now I just want to work on my as-yet-untitled dwarf novella, which is nearing the end of the first draft. But today the copyedited ms. for my December novel from Tor, Steal Across the Sky, arrived and needs attention. I have an article due next week for an academic book on writing. And student rewrites of their stories for this term are coming in.

Just wait -- as soon as I finish all this and the novella, I will have empty chunks of time and no ideas whatsoever. That's actually much worse. But that's the way it goes.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Cranky At The Movies

Yesterday I saw INDIANA JONES AND THE CRYSTAL SKULL. I was disappointed.

Harrison Ford looks great and if, as I've read, he really does do his own stunts, then he's in amazing shape. The various vehicle chases were fun and inventive. And nobody expects much plausibility of premise from an Indiana Jones script. We go to the movie for the snap and sparkle -- but that's just what was missing, along with any plot coherence at all.

A plot is supposed to make sense -- a minimum of sense -- if you accept its basic premises. Those premises may be outrageous, as in the previous Indiana Jones capers. They may be strictly mimetic, seeking to replicate reality as we know it or as it might become. They may be magical or comic or a half dozen other things. But once they've been shown, the plot is supposed to grow from them, not go off in seventeen incoherent directions. This movie looks as if Spielberg and Company couldn't decide what it was supposed to be about, so they throw in lost artifacts, Spanish conquistadores, Communists seeking psychic weapons, aliens, other dimensions, nuclear bomb tests, mind bending, and an ending that punishes Cate Blanchett for being thirsty for knowledge. Or maybe for being Russian. Or just for having blue eyes. It's impossible to tell what she's done to offend the aliens that everybody else hasn't done, or what their "gift" is, or why ants can outrun human beings. Or anything else.

And Indiana Jones's dialogue seems weary. It's not age; the strong impression is that Harrison Ford would rather have been someplace else. Like back looking for the Ark of the Covenant.

Me, too.