Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Rational Harry Potter

If you like Harry Potter and if you also like science, then you absolutely must read this: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

It is brilliant. No, really -- incredibly, amazingly, scarily brilliant. It takes some of the history and most of the world of the Harry Potter series (the settings, the politics, the wizarding war) and gives them a twist, resulting in a totally different story. It's Harry Potter as if Ender Wiggins from Ender's Game was the hero.

It is also incredibly funny. I laughed out loud, literally, more than once and a couple times so hard there were tears in my eyes. It's over 500,000 words long so a serious investment of time, but worth every single minute. It's the best thing I've read in...I don't know how long.

A little tiny sample:

"I... see," Professor McGonagall said. "And if, perhaps, you were to discover the entrance to Salazar Slytherin's legendary Chamber of Secrets, an entrance that you and you alone could open..."

"I would close the entrance and report to you at once so that a team of experienced magical archaeologists could be assembled," Harry said promptly. "Then I would open up the entrance again and they would go in very carefully to make sure that there was nothing dangerous. I might go in later to look around, or if they needed me to open up something else, but it would be after the area had been declared clear and they had photographs of how everything looked before people started tromping around their priceless historical site."

Professor McGonagall sat there with her mouth open, staring at him like he'd just turned into a cat.

"It's obvious if you're not a Gryffindor," Harry said kindly."

Yes, it's a Ravenclaw version of Harry. He calculates the odds, he thinks ahead, he uses reason and Bayesian probability and ...  really, you should just go read it right now, because it is that good. No, even better than that. Really.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Implicit memory

Have you ever tried to teach someone else to tie their shoelaces?

Tying shoelaces isn't hard. Until you explain it. And then the whole thing falls apart. I never managed to teach R to tie his shoes. In fact, what happened was pretty much that I lost the ability to tie my own. He finally fumbled his way through figuring it out himself when he was about ten or so, and meanwhile I haven't tried to tie a shoelace in about a decade.

I had the same experience with teaching him to drive, aka failing to teach him to drive. The more I thought about how to shift smoothly from one gear to the next, the more I couldn't remember how to do it myself. I finally made my dad give him a lesson and Chris an explanation of what was happening, and he worked the skill out on his own.

I think the same thing is happening to my writing ability. I read a story last night that I wrote a year ago. I remember writing it. It took me about an hour. I didn't agonize, I didn't think. I just had an idea and I wrote it. I never revised it or even edited it. It's a darn good little story (although if you've never seen Eureka you won't get the context.)

All the reading about writing, learning about writing, thinking about writing, that I've been doing is just making it harder to write. Sure, I understand filter words and point-of-view now, I see repetitions and cliches -- but I used to just be able to tell a damn story and everything I'm learning about writing is getting in the way of *that*.

Writing was an implicit memory skill for me. I need to stop paying attention to how I'm doing it and just get back to doing it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The mom, getting madder and madder

I am now the mom, sitting at home, getting madder and madder. I'm not quite pacing the floor, but I've definitely wandered around a little more than usual, and I'm having to fight the urge to grit my teeth.

R is an hour late getting home from school. He is not answering his phone and he has my car. He does NOT have my permission to be keeping my car.

He called from a friend's house and wanted to discuss dropping economics. Um, no. No. That's not a discussion to have over the phone. That's not a decision to make because you don't feel like working for one afternoon. He's going away for the weekend, and he's behind in economics, so the simplest solution to him is to quit. Yeah, no.

We're busy making all sorts of interesting plans: he's going away this weekend to visit a friend, we're going away together in March, he's making summer plans, and next year if I can get all the stupid paperwork arranged, he's going to have a hugely fun and exciting year, so I think he's suffering from an acute case of senior-itis. Unfortunately for him, he's a junior.

I don't want to be the authoritarian dictator saying 'if you're not getting As, you're not going out,' (for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that I believe the right time to screw up is now, not later) but at the same time, I'm frustrated when I see him making decisions that seem short-sighted. I suppose that every parent goes through this.

Hmm, I just realized that part of my frustration is because I'm getting over-invested due to dealing with all this complicated paperwork. Maybe I should be making him do that. It's his year, after all. But I don't think he even can: it all calls for my signatures.

If we were birds, he'd be the baby bird sitting on the side of the nest and I'd be the momma bird screeching, "flap harder, flap harder, you're not flapping hard enough" while simultaneously trying to decide whether to give him the big kick out or grab on because he's just not flapping hard enough. Metaphorical birds, of course. I'm pretty sure real momma birds just fly away and leave the babies to figure it out on their own when they're ready.

Friday, February 8, 2013

ThinkGeek contest

So, Kathy from Kindle-aholic and Stellar Four, posted links to a ThinkGeek donation contest this morning. (Yes, I know that line was link-insane -- sorry about that!) If you're willing to give ThinkGeek your email address, you can pick a classroom at to possibly get a donation.

I'm pretty sure that ThinkGeek is donating $1000 no matter what, so it's not as if giving them your address has any intrinsic advantage to the outcome -- someone's getting that money -- but I picked a classroom anyway, Mrs. DeVille's ESL elementary in Seattle. If you're willing to let ThinkGeek have an address, her number is 1627207291, if you'd like to vote for her, too.

Why did I pick her? Um, mostly, because I looked for a Seattle ESL teacher thinking I might find a classroom taught by a friend, and then found this one and really liked her name. Well, or had sympathy for her name, anyway. I wonder how many Cruella jokes she's heard in her life? And yet she's listed as a "Mrs." which probably means that she changed her name, so I wonder what it was originally? Was changing it a hard decision or an easy one? Yep, questions like this are the kinds of thing I can ponder for hours. Anyway, it's a minor thing, but it only takes a minute to vote, and she, poor teacher, posted her request in November and is almost out of time, with the entire amount to go. And a printer is really a pretty nice thing to have.

I can't decide whether this is mean of me or not. If you're from the northern US and in the midst of a major blizzard, you probably want to stop reading now. But I rearranged my bedroom and this is now the view from my bed.

It makes me think that possibly I should be working a little harder toward finding a job that would let me stay in Florida. I've mostly been thinking that when R graduates from high school, I'd head off to someplace where I'm more employable. But I should stop taking my palm tree for granted.

On February 7th, Ghosts reached a milestone on Amazon -- 100 reviews. I don't know why 100 is any different than 99, really, but it was somehow a thrilling moment in a pretty rocky week. Onward, upward, back to Time!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013


A year ago today, my best friend died.

I don't actually believe in ghosts. I do believe in an afterlife. Quite firmly. I have solid reasons, reasons that are as convincing for me as the evidence of gravity that we all have any time we drop a glass and wind up with milk spread all over our floor.

My grandmother had Alzheimer's. Long before her actual physical death, she had mentally left her body. She was alive but absent. And yet there were times when I felt her in my life, when I knew that even though she was actually trapped in a nursing home, a prisoner of a body that no longer worked, she was with me. I felt her presence in a room. And I knew it was ridiculous, because she wasn't there. But I felt her love for me, her affection, nonetheless. And then she died, and I stopped feeling her. She moved on.

My grandfather died much sooner. But he left behind one of those plastic circles with a rough surface that you use to open jars. It held the name of his hardware store. It was a promotional thing, just a piece of plastic. Except when I couldn't get a bottle of pickles open, I could say--can still say--"Boomie, give me a hand,"--and the jar would open after having been stuck for minutes. Okay, sure, it's ridiculous. It's psychological. It's just some subliminal thing that lets me think that those words mean something. No one with any sense would believe that he's actually helping me. But I feel him with me in those moments and he is helping me. Sometimes he's laughing at me, not in a mean way, but in a loving way. So, okay, it's just some quirk of psychology. "I feel" proves nothing.

My father-in-law, Malcolm, didn't believe in life after death. He was a wonderful human being. At his memorial service, people talked about what a curmudgeon he was. Yep, he was a curmudgeon. It didn't stop him from being wonderful. He was filled with energy, with life, with persistence, with joy. He wasn't perfect, but no one is. I think, if he could have gone back in time, he would have been a different kind of parent. But he did the best he could with the information he had available to him at the time that he had it. Malcolm was...oh, love is such a strange thing sometimes. Malcolm was technically my ex-father-in-law--I divorced his son. Realistically, he probably had lots of people in his life that he loved more than he loved me. Except I don't think so. Honestly, I don't think so. He had four sons. I think his life would have been different if he'd had daughters instead. He probably should have had daughters instead, but he loved me like a daughter. And I was lucky to have him, to know him.

I'm not actually easy to love. I'm kind of a pain in the ass. I'm rigid, I'm stubborn, I'm opinionated, I tend to be sure I'm right. Malcolm and I had one final conversation, in which I said to him, well, we'll see. He knew that death meant dead, gone forever. I knew that he was wrong.

The day after he died, I woke up to weird light. The sky was strange. I went outside and I didn't see it. I knew that something was odd, but I didn't know what. I went back inside. Then R went outside and called me to join him, his voice hushed. A double rainbow was spread across our house, starting at one side, ending at the other. I absolutely believe, one hundred percent, not a doubt in my mind believe, that Malcolm was responsible for that rainbow. That his spirit broke out of the shell that had been trapping him for so long and danced across the sky. That he found my mom--who had died exactly one month before him, to the day--and said, come on, let's paint her a picture. You don't have to believe that. It's okay if you don't. But I know, absolutely, that Malcolm and my mom painted me a double rainbow.

Michelle died a year ago. I've felt her with me. And she's mostly exasperated with me. I can feel her kicking me. I know she's telling me to get over it.  I hear her voice saying that I should use the time that I have. I know that's what she wants from me.

But I miss her.

I called tonight. I've been thinking of doing it for ages, weeks, months. Chris hasn't changed the voice mail. It's still her voice.