Productivity and Organization

Over time I’ve acquired a reputation for being an organized (and, presumably, productive) person; occasionally, people ask me for tips.

Be as efficient as you can.

In the interest of following my own tips, I’m writing this up as a blog post so I have something I can quickly send to folks when they ask. Automate things where you can; if you’ve got the time to learn it, Workflow is a wonderful tool.1 I’ve got a good chunk of my morning routine compressed into pressing a single button on my phone and, depending on how complex my calendar is for the day, answering a question or two.

Don’t trust your brain to remember things

The human brain is a wonderful machine! Unfortunately, it’s terrible at remembering things, but also convinced that isn’t the case. The good news is, we invented writing, and then computers, both of which make it much easier to remember things. So don’t just put stuff in your head and assume it’ll stay there; it doesn’t matter what you use, but have somewhere permanent that you can put stuff. Depending on what you prefer, you can use a planner or notebook, or go all digital like I have. Personally, I use a combination of the system-default Calendar app, syncing through Google Calendar, with Drafts 42 as my “writing thoughts down in the middle of the night” app, Day One as a journal, and Ulysses for any longer-form writing or note-taking.3

Have a to-do list

Technically speaking, this is an extension of the above, but don’t trust yourself to remember things you have to do in a day. If they’re at a specific time or meeting with someone, they go in your calendar; otherwise, they go on the to-do list. Again, this can be on paper if that’s your style, but if you’re a big ol’ tech nerd, you’ve got a bounty of options. The built-in Reminders app is… there, and it’s not great, but it’s free and meets the bare minimum of functionality. Personally, I’m a big fan of Things 3,4 but Omnifocus is also a big name in the field, if (in my opinion) over-complicated. That said, task management apps like that are a huge market on the iOS and macOS app stores, as well as just online, so you should be able to find something you like.
Once you’ve started using it, I recommend the “vaguely Getting Things Done” style, which consists of “write stuff down as soon as you think of it, and file it away in the proper place when you’ve got time.” The important thing is to not go “oh, I’ll remember that later,” because there’s a really good chance you won’t.

Figure out what you’re spending your time on

You know that feeling like you’ve wasted a whole day? That’s stupid, but it’s also hard to convince your brain you’ve been productive if you don’t actually know what you’ve been spending your time on. Having a to-do list helps with this; you can look at your list for the day and see all the things you’ve checked off.5 Beyond that, you may want to try time tracking; I’m a fan of toggl and use it all the time. I keep the website pinned in a tab on my laptop, and rather than use their app, I’ve got some Workflows built that interact with their web API.6 It works pretty well for me; I know what I’m spending time on, and I can also use it for some very accurate billing, should I need to.

Clean up

Finally, staying organized is not only helpful for quickly finding things, it also just tends to make you feel better about everything. Take time when you can to organize your work and living spaces. If you’re currently in college, you’ve probably got ten thousand pages of various papers drifting around; next time it’s time to buy textbooks, I recommend going digital (it’s slightly cheaper, and then you only have to carry around your laptop/tablet, which you were probably gonna be carrying anyways, and you can search in your books, which is quite helpful). For the zillions of pages of handouts you get, invest in a scanner that can do duplex scanning and a recycle bin; it’s amazing how much space you can save by getting rid of all the papers.7 Once you’ve got things digitized (or, preferably, as you get them digitized), come up with a neat organizational system and stick to it. For school stuff, semester/term lines are a nice dividing line; if you’re doing the whole ‘adult life’ thing, the tax year is a good one.8

I’m going to call it done there. If you skipped to the end, the single most important thing I’d like you to get from this is brains are bad at remembering things; write stuff down. That’s my number one tip, so if you only take one thing from this, that’d be it.
If you’ve got any questions, I’ve recently brought back the ability for people to leave comments, so go ahead and do that.9 And hey, maybe I’ll do more posts like this, I enjoy doing the writing, and it’s fun to be able to support the various apps I use.10

  1. In September 2018, or thereabouts, it’s going to disappear and be replaced by Shortcuts, but from what we’ve seen in public betas, Shortcuts has the same functionality, some new features, and a new coat of paint, so if that link doesn’t work, just search the App Store for ‘Shortcuts.’ 
  2. Drafts 5 has been out and received very good reviews for its automation capabilities, but all I really want from the app is a dark color scheme and the ability to open directly into a new document, so the old version works for me. 
  3. That link is to Ulysses’ iOS app, but thanks to their subscription system, you pay for it on one platform and get it on iPad and Mac as well; mostly I use it on the Mac, but it’s nice to have it available wherever. 
  4. That’s their macOS app; they’ve also got separate iPhone and iPad apps. 
  5. This is why I’ve got Things set up not to sweep things away as soon as I check them off, but to leave them there until the end of the day. If I look at my list and it’s empty, nothing to do and looking like I’ve done nothing, the “oh god I wasted the whole day” feeling gets so much worse
  6. If you’d like to know more about those, leave something in the comments that I’ve just remembered I opened back up. 
  7. You don’t necessarily need to do what I did, which was a roughly five-year-long process of clearing out every paper I own, but then, you’re hopefully less of a pack-rat than I was, too. 
  8. Oh, and don’t leave those files in a single place; the nice thing about being digital is that it’s easy to make copies, and when you’ve got copies, you don’t have to worry that you’ll lose the original. These days, I throw all the current stuff into iCloud Drive, but I used to use Dropbox; older things get moved from whichever cloud to an external hard drive that’s backed up with Backblaze
  9. It’s one of the only ways to get in touch with me. Bonus productivity tip, for those of you reading the footnotes: social media sucks, stop using it. 
  10. Shameless self promotion: as an app developer, I know how danged hard it can be to actually make a living from the App Store. Support the people making the stuff you use. 

“The Control of Nature,” or, “there’s nothing like finding out 100,000 tons of concrete has no foundation left whatsoever”

John McPhee

I’ve actually had this book for quite a while; one of the essays in it was required reading for a class I took, oh, two years ago or so? Something like that. I quite enjoyed the read at the time, but somehow never thought to read the other essays in the book. I found it again in the whole mess of moving out of campus housing after graduation and decided to toss it into the to-read pile, and I finally got around to it.1

And I’m glad I did; while “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” wasn’t quite as fun to reread as it was to read the first time around, the other two essays were both just as enjoyable on first read as I’d hoped. McPhee’s writing style is beautiful; very visually descriptive, deeply informative, and with well-timed flashes of humor throughout.

I’m going to split this review up a bit and include some excerpts from each of the essays, to try to give you a sense of not only McPhee’s voice, but also the content of the essays.


The first essay, “Atchafalaya,” follows the US Army Corps of Engineers and their work on the Mississippi River; it’s far more involved than I’d ever thought, and the project is fascinating.

On the outflow side—where the water fell to the level of the Atchafalaya—a hole had developed that was larger and deeper than a football stadium, and with much the same shape. it was hidden, of course, far beneath the chop of wild water. The Corps had long since been compelled to leave all eleven gates wide open, in order to reduce to the greatest extent possible the force that was shaking the structure, and so there was no alternative to aggravating the effects on the bed of the channel. In addition to the structure’s weight, what was holding it in place was a millipede of stilts—steel H-beams that reached down at various angles, as pilings, ninety feet through sands and silts, through clayey peats and organic mucks. There never was a question of anchoring such a fortress in rock. The shallowest rock was seven thousand feet straight down. In three places below the structure, sheet steel went into the substrate like fins; but the integrity of the structure depended essentially on the H-beams, and vehicular traffic continued to cross it en route to San Luis Rey.

Then, as now, LeRoy Dugas was the person whose hand controlled Old River Control—a thought that makes him smile. “We couldn’t afford to close any of the gates,” he remarked to me one day at Old River. “Too much water was passing through the structure. Water picked up riprap off the bottom in front, and rammed it through to the tail bed.” The riprap included derrick stones, and each stone weighed seven tons. On the level of the road deck, the vibrations increased. The operator of a moving crane let the crane move without him and waited for it at the end of the structure. Dugie continued, “You could get on the structure with your automobile and open the door and it would close the door.” The crisis recalled the magnitude of “the ’27 high water,” when Dugie was a baby. Up the alley somewhere, during the ’27 high water, was a railroad bridge with a train sitting on it loaded with coal. The train had been put there because its weight might help keep the bridge in place, but the bridge, vibrating in the floodwater, produced so much friction that the coal in the gondolas caught fire. Soon the bridge, the train, and the glowing coal fell into the water.

One April evening in 1973—at the height of the flood—a fisherman walked onto the structure. There is, after all, order in the universe, and some things take precedence over impending disasters. On the inflow side, facing the Mississippi, the structure was bracketed by a pair of guide walls that reached out like curving arms to bring in the water. Close by the guide wall at the south end was the swirling eddy, which by now had become a whirlpool. There was other motion as well—or so it seemed. The fisherman went to find Dugas, in his command post at the north end of the structure, and told him the guide wall had moved. Dugie told the fisherman he was seeing things. The fisherman nodded affirmatively.

When Dugie himself went to look at the guide wall, he looked at it for the last time. “It was slipping into the river, into the inflow channel.” Slowly it dipped, sank, broke. Its foundations were gone. There was nothing below it but water. Professor Kazmann likes to say that this was when the Corps became “scared green.” Whatever the engineers may have felt, as soon as the water began to recede they set about learning the dimensions of the damage. The structure was obviously undermined, but how much so, and where? What was solid, what was not? What was directly below the gates and the roadway? With a diamond drill, in a central position, they bored the first of many holes in the structure. When they penetrated to basal levels, they lowered a television camera into the hole. They saw fish. (28-30)

“Cooling the Lava”

The next essay is set in a very different clime: a volcanic eruption in Iceland, with occasional detours to a similar eruption in Hawaii. The way he describes these immense forces is amazing; it feels as if he’s trying to make sure you feel the same sense of awe that he does.

The university installed [the seismometer] on Einar’s farm about a year before the Heimaey eruption, its primary purpose being to sense the threats of Katla, an unusually dangerous volcano only fifteen miles away. Hekla is in the area as well—the stratovolcano that appears in early literature as one of the two mouths of Hell. Groans from dead sinners have been heard in the crater. But Hekla is out in the open, observable under the sky. The baleful Katla is covered with ice It lies under Myrdalsjokull—a glacier field of two hundred and seventy square miles. When Katla erupts, as it has about twice a century, it creates a vast chamber of water under the ice. When the water reaches a critical volume, it lifts the ice cap, and one or two cubic miles bursts out as a violent flood—a blurt of water twenty times the discharge of the Amazon River. The outwash plains these floods have left behind are as desolate as the maria of the moon. A town, villages, and farms lie between Katla and the sea. (113-114)

While I’d probably call “they saw fish” my favorite line of the whole book, probably the best example of his sense of humor comes from this description of a golf course:

In 1801, it came down off Hualalai, a lesser volcano eight thousand feet high, and poured into the sea. There on the leeward side of the island, where rainfall is ten inches a year, the lava has remained essentially unchanged. Resorts have sculpted it like movie sets, landscaped wit imported soils. The bunkers of designer golf courses are not concave and full of sand but—lovely in the green surrounding turf—solid black islands of undisturbed basalt. Use your wedge on that. Your hands sting for a year. If a long approach shot lands on one of those, it bounces to Tahiti. (152)

Finally, from a portion of the book where I could feel myself mentally adding a few things to my bucket list:

The rock, being essentially glass, was very sharp. It was also hot, particularly where a tube lay below and molten lava was running there. We came to a skylight and inched toward it. Steam swirled above it but did not close off the view—of the racing orange currents of an incandescent river. By an order of magnitude, this was the most arresting sight I had ever seen in nature. The time spent gazing into it could not be measured.

Gradually, I began to think. Out of curiosity, I asked Christina if we were looking down into the near side of the tube or were standing over the middle and looking at the far side of the tube.

“The far side,” she said.

If my legs still had knees in them, I was unaware of it. (155)

“Los Angeles Against the Mountains”

The last essay of the book is the first one I read. It was interesting; at the time, I found it fascinating, and since that first reading I’ve come back to it again and again in my mind.

Los Angeles is overmatched on one side by the Pacific Ocean and on the other by very high mountains. With respect to these principal boundaries, Los Angeles is done sprawling. The San Gabriels, in their state of tectonic youth, are rising as rapidly as any range on earth. Their loose inimical slopes flout the tolerance of the angle of repose. Rising straight up out of the megalopolis, they stand ten thousand feet above the nearby sea, and they are not kidding with this city. Shedding, spalling, self-destructing, they are disintegrating at a rate that is also among the fastest in the world. The phalanxed communities of Los Angeles have pushed themselves hard against these mountains, an act of aggression that requires a deep defense budget to contend with the results. (184)

It follows the Los Angeles Flood Control District, or, as the locals call it, Flood. Now, controlling floods seems like it’d be easy in Los Angeles, the city of perpetual doubt, but that’s far from the truth; not only is there the occasional bit of torrential rainfall, but also something much more difficult: rockfall.

Many people regard the debris basins less as defenses than as assaults on nature. They are aesthetic disasters. To impose them on residential neighborhoods has been tantamount to creating a Greenwich full of gravel pits, rock quarries at either end of Sutton Place. The residents below Hook East were bitter when the basin was put in. Months later, the bulldozer tracks were still visible, they said, meaning that nothing had happened—no debris had come, and not even enough rain to obliterate the tracks. So why had the county used taxpayers’ money to build something so obviously unnecessary? A form of answer came when the basin overfilled in one night. Afterward, people criticized the county for not building basins of adequate size. (246)

What was most interesting to me, though, wasn’t just the concept of trying to fight against these rockfalls; it was the interrelationships between everything.

When fire comes, it puts the nutrients back in the ground. It clears the terrain for fresh growth. When chaparral has not been burned for thirty years, about half the thicket will be dry dead stuff—twenty-five thousand tons of it in one square mile. The living plants are no less flammable. The chamise, the manzanita—in fact, most chaparral plants—are full of solvent extractives that burn intensely and ignite easily. Their leaves are glossy with oils and resins that seal in moisture during hot dry periods and serve the dual purpose of responding explosively to flame. (209)

It burns as if it were soaked with gasoline. Chaparral plants typically have multiple stems emerging from a single root crown, and this contributes not only to the density of the thickets but, ultimately, to the surface area of combustible material that stands prepared for flame. Hundreds of acres can be burned clean in minutes. In thick black smoke there is wild orange flame, rising through the canyons like explosion crowns. The canyons serve as chimneys, and in minutes whole mountains are aflame, resembling volcanoes, emitting high columns of fire and smoke. The smoke can rise twenty thousand feet. (210)

If you walk in a rainstorm on a freshly burned chaparral slope, you notice as you step on the wet ground that the tracks you are making are prints of dry dust. In the course of a conflagration, chaparral soil, which is not much for soaking up water in the first place, experiences a chemical change and, a little below its surface, becomes waterproof. In a Forest Service building at the foot of the mountains Wade Wells keeps some petri dishes and soil samples in order to demonstrate this phenomenon to passing unbelievers. In one dish he puts unburned chaparral soil. It is golden brown. He drips water on it from an eyedropper. The water beads up, stands there for a while, then collapses and spreads into the soil. Why the water hesitates is not well understood but is a great deal more credible than what happens next. Wells fills a dish with a dark soil from burned chaparral. He fills the eyedropper and empties it onto the soil. The water stands up in one large dome. Five minutes later, the dome is still there. Ten minutes later, the dome is still there. Sparkling, tumescent, mycophane, the big bead of water just stands there indefinitely, on top of the impermeable soil. Further demonstrating how waterproof this burned soil really is, Wells pours half a pound of it, like loose brown sugar, into a beaker of water. The soil instantly forms a homunculus blob—integral, immiscible—suspended in the water.

In the slow progression of normal decay, chaparral litter seems to give up to the soil what have been vaguely described as “waxlike complexes of long-chain aliphatic hydrocarbons.” These waxy substances are what make unburned chaparral soil somewhat resistant to water, or “slightly nonwettable,” as Wells and his colleagues are won’t to describe it. The the wildfires burn, and temperatures at the surface of the ground are six or seven hundred centigrade degrees, the soil is so effective as an insulator that the temperature one centimetre below the surface may not be hot enough to boil water. The heavy waxlike substances vaporize at the surface and reconvenes in the cooler temperatures below. Acting like oil, they coat soil particles and establish the hydrophobic layer—one to six centimetres down. Above that layer, where the waxlike substances are gone ,the veneer of burned soil is “wettable.” When Wells drips water on a dishful of that, the water soaks in as if the dish were full of Kleenex. When rain falls on burned and denuded ground, it soaks the very thing upper layer but can penetrate no further. Hiking boots strike hard enough to break through into the dust, but the rain is repelled and goes down the slope. Of all the assembling factors that eventually send debris flows rumbling down the canyons, none is more detonative than the waterproof soil.

In the first rains after a fire, water quickly saturates the thin permeable layer, and liquefied soil drips downhill like runs of excess paint. These miniature debris flows stripe the mountainsides with miniature streambeds—countless scarlike rills that are soon the predominant characteristic of the burned terrain. As more rain comes, each rill is going to deliver a little more debris to the accumulating load in the canyon below. But, more to the point, each rill—its naturally levees framing its impermeable bed—will increase the speed of the surface water. As rain sheds off a mountainside like water off a tin roof, the rill network, as it is called, may actually triple the peed, and therefore greatly enhance the power of the runoff. The transport capacity of the watershed—how much bulk it can move—may increase a thousandfold. The rill network is prepared to deliver water with enough force and volume to mobilize the deposits lying in the canyons below. With the appearance of the rills, almost all prerequisites have no sequential occurred. The muzzle-loader is charged. For a full-scale flat-out debris flow to burst forth from the mountains, the final requirement is a special-intensity storm. (212-214)

And, again, there’s always that sense of awe, for nature and all the forces involved. But he tempers it well with human stories:

The Harkness house projected from the hillside and had a carport beneath the master bedroom. The debris tore off the master bedroom with Sara and the baby inside. The bedroom fell on the family station wagon. With the bedroom on top of it, the station wagon went down the driveway and on down the street. In what remained of the house, the twins and their sister Claudine were unhurt. Sara and the baby came to the end of their ride unhurt. The station wagon suffered considerably. When the bedroom was taken off it, the car was twenty-six inches high. (263)

At this point, if you’re still reading, I think it’s safe to say you’re as interested by these clips of the essays as I was by the whole things. I can absolutely recommend that you give it a read.

  1. Technically it was the second item on the pile, behind Baldwin’s “Collected Essays”, but that’s a rather dense book that I’ve been working on for a while, and I needed a bit of a break.

Fluidics 1.1: The Animation Update

The first major update to Fluidics is now available on the App Store!1 In all honesty, it was largely a ‘bug fixes and performance improvements’ update, but I’ve always hated when app updates list that, so I made sure to include a couple user-facing features so there’d be something fun to talk about, at least.
In this case, those features were animations. The most notable is the background – rather than being drawn once, the ‘water’ in the background is now animated, which I think makes the visual effect much nicer overall. Swiping between the three main pages of the app is also much smoother now; instead of a single ‘swipe’ animation being triggered by any swipe, it directly responds to your swipe, so you can change your mind about which direction to swipe halfway through, and it feels more like you’re moving things around, rather than switching pages.2
The big changes, though, are largely invisible; a whole lot of work on the internals to allow for future features I’m planning.3 The gist of it is that a lot of the internals of the app are now a separate library, which means I can share code between the widget and the main app without needing to copy-and-paste all the changes I make in one place to the other.
Past that, there were a couple little tweaks — the algorithm that calculates the water goal is a bit less aggressive with the way it handles workout time, and there’s now a little “this isn’t a doctor” disclaimer in the Settings page that I put there because the lawyer I don’t have advised that I do that.
And, the bit that turned into more of a project than I thought: VoiceOver support. VoiceOver, for those that don’t know, is one of the core accessibility features of iOS; when enabled, it basically reads the contents of the screen to the user, making it possible for visually-impaired people to use iOS. By default, any app built on UIKit has some support for VoiceOver, but the further you go from the default controls, the more broken that’ll get. The way Fluidics works, it was super broken; technically useable, but downright painful to do. After a day or two of vigorous swearing and arguing with the Accessibility framework, I’m proud to say that Fluidics is now VoiceOver-compatible.
If you’ve already got Fluidics on your phone, it’s a free update from the App Store.4 If not, the whole app is a free download from the App Store, and I’m hoping that you’ll enjoy using it. Leave a review or whatever; I’m trying not to be pushy about that.
Oh, and I’m in the process of updating the app’s website; I got such a good URL for it that I want it to look good to match.

  1. There was a bugfix update earlier, version 1.0.1, but that’s not at all exciting, so I didn’t bother writing anything about it. 
  2. If you’re curious, this involved rebuilding the entire interface, from three separate pages that’re transitioned between to a single page that’s embedded in a scroll view. 
  3. And no, I won’t be telling anybody what those are just yet; I don’t want to promise anything before I know for sure it’ll be possible. 
  4. In fact, it may have already been automatically updated — the easiest way to tell is to open the app and see if the water is moving or not. 

Open-sourcing Variations

Now that the whole concert is over, and I’ve finished going through approximately all of the WWDC sessions, I’ve decided that Variations won’t be receiving any further development — it wasn’t going to be enough of a priority for me to do it any justice, and I’d hate to half-ass it.1 The app will remain on the App Store, for now, though if it breaks in future iOS versions, I’ll probably pull it entirely. Instead, I’m releasing the source code, as-is; if you’d like to look through it, it’s right here.
I had fun building it, and I like to think that it does some interesting things with the implementations under the hood, so hopefully somebody can find some use from it.

  1. This is, hopefully, a hint about some of my other projects that are a higher priority; announcements of those will, of course, show up on this here blog. 

“The Big Meow,” or, “a better ending than I even bothered to hope for”

Diane Duane
I don’t think I’ve done a review of one of Diane Duane’s books on here before, but that’s not for lack of reading them — it’s just that I’ve been reading them since significantly before I had a habit of writing book reviews, or even a blog at all. The Young Wizards series is something I’ve read and reread and reread again; I’ll pick up one of the books for a reread almost as often as I reread Tamora Pierce.
A quick bit of context, then: the Young Wizards series is set in a universe1 where wizardry is real, and has a very distinctive purpose: slowing down entropy. Wizardry is based on language; wizards learn a special language, the Speech, that was used by the gods to create the universe. With those abilities, they fight the good fight, acknowledging that, yes, one day entropy will win, the universe will die… but they’re not going to let that happen any earlier than it absolutely has to.
The Big Meow is the third in a spin-off trilogy of sorts, following the team of feline wizards that maintain the worldgates at Grand Central Station.2 As in the second book, though, they don’t spend much time on their home turf; most of the book is set in Los Angeles, and there’s some fun to be had as they try to get used to the West Coast style.
Perhaps my favorite thing about the book, though, is how well it handled a certain issue: representation. The protagonist is a cat, and Duane does an excellent job of guiding the reader through that mindspace, through the different perspective given by an interspecies difference. The part that stood out to me, though, was how this, as a side effect, made for a surprising bit of queer representation. Rhiow, the protagonist, was fixed; as a result, this book, written before the word ‘asexual’ had even begun to enter into the public sphere with ‘gay’ and ‘bisexual’ and everything else under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, has an asexual protagonist. The first two books did too, and it feels entirely natural; Rhiow just has a different perspective on certain things, and cracks a few jokes about it with her coworkers. It’s not treated as a big deal at all.
In this book, it becomes a bit more of a focus, as we get a bit of a love interest subplot. And it’s handled quite well: there’s a bit of angst about the whole “I’m fixed and that makes me broken” thing, but her friends are quick to give her a loving whack upside the head, and help her stop seeing that difference as a negative and instead as just a difference. It is, possibly, the best bit of asexual representation I’ve ever read, and it’s quite touching.
Plot-wise, I think I enjoyed this one more than either of the others in the trilogy; the first goes a bit weird in places, and the second has a very cool setting that gets a bit confusing. This, though, doesn’t get lost at all, and the storyline is fun and beautifully creepy. It’s a bit fitting that this book, the one set in and around Hollywood, feels absolutely the most cinematic of the three. I’d totally recommend giving it a read.3
(And, while you’re at it, go read the rest of the series — the Young Wizards books are amazing. Pick up the New Millenium Edition box set, it’s totally worth it.)

  1. Well, technically, a collection of universes, but I digress. 
  2. Public transit: also useful for wizards. 
  3. Normally this would be an Amazon link, but Diane Duane runs her own ebook store, which I’m quite in favor of as it means the majority of the sale goes to her instead of to Amazon. 

“Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives,” or, “less existentially upsetting than you’d think”

David Eagleman
I believe I added this book to my wish list back when CGP Grey talked about it, either on Hello Internet or Cortex. It’s an interesting concept, explained succinctly in the title: a collection of (very) short stories about what happens after you die. I’d actually read one before, way back when it was published as the one-page science fiction short in the back of Science magazine.
To be honest, the book was an enjoyable read, but a very quick one; for the price, I think I’d recommend checking it out from your local library.1

  1. Also, y’know, I recommend supporting your local library in general. They’re a wonderful resource. 

“Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality,” or, “you could make a drinking game of watching people change the world with these essays”

Edited by Randall Packer & Ken Jordan, with a foreword by William Gibson
As a well-documented computer nerd, I’m honestly kinda amazed I’d never stumbled across this book before. It’s an impressive collection of titans of the field — Alan Kay, Douglas Engelbart, Vannevar Bush, Tim Berners-Lee, and so on.1 Other than the foreword, there’s nothing truly new in this book,2 but the essays are downright formative. Bush’s essay, written in the wake of the Second World War, describes what is recognizably a smartphone; Berners-Lee’s describes the foundation of what would become the internet. Looking back, it’s a fascinating read — hindsight is 20/20, and all that. It’s a cool book, give it a read.

  1. It’s maybe a bit of a stretch to call Bush a titan of the field of computer science, but he did invent the military-industrial complex, which led to a lot of computer tech, so… I’ll let it stand. 
  2. Well, the introductions of each author probably are, but I digress. 

“An American Princess,” or, “how is this woman not a gay icon”

Annejet van der Zijl
I’m not a big history person; if you haven’t noticed from the sort of things I tend to review, I like my books distinctly fiction. This one was a bit of an accident — as a Prime subscriber, I get a free Kindle book a month, and this seemed the most interesting of the available choices. Which, to put it lightly, was pretty accurate.
Since it’s a biography, it’s a bit weird to try to summarize at all, because anything interesting feels like it’d be spoiling a surprise. Rather than doing that, I think I’ll just leave you with the title of this post, the title of the book, and a note that I can happily recommend it, because it was a heck of a read. She had a wild life.

“Automate This,” or, “Wall Street is slightly more terrifying than I thought”

Christopher Steiner
At some point, I’ve probably mentioned that I’m a computer guy. If not, hopefully you’ve been able to figure it out just by reading along; it’s probably a safe bet that only a computer nerd would make an app.1
Fairly often, this means I get to explain things to people in a less incensing way than they’d first heard about it.2 This book… did not do that. It was intended to be calming, but as a person who lives in a capitalist society, it’s a bit unnerving to see how quickly things that used to be jobs are being eaten by computers.3
That said, it was a fascinating read — I’d never heard of some of the things being talked about, not because they failed and disappeared, but because they succeeded but are borderline invisible.4
And, of course, it’s an interesting history of how the finance industry made themselves entirely redundant, all while arguably slowing the pace of human progress. Ah, banks.
Anyways, go read the book.

  1. Yes, I am still in shameless self-promotion mode, thank you for asking 
  2. Looking at you, “Apple is making your iPhone slower” thing 
  3. And yes, I say this as somebody whose entire career path is basically going to be “helping the computers eat more jobs, faster.” 
  4. Call center software that picks which agent to route you to based on your personality type so that you’ll be a happier customer at the end? I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t just read its origin story. 


I made an app! I’m quite excited about it; this is, after all, the sort of thing I want to spend my career doing.

The app is called Fluidics, and it’s for tracking the amount of water you drink. As I mentioned a while back, I like to do a lot of tracking of what I’m eating and how much I’m drinking. That first part wasn’t too hard; there’s a variety of apps on the App Store for logging food, and after a while I was able to find one that wasn’t too bad.1 For water, though, nothing quite worked – Workflow came closest, but using it to do the sort of goal calculations I wanted was on the line between clunky and painful, and it’s such a general-purpose app that it felt visually lacking.
Eventually I remembered that I’m a computer science major, and why am I sitting around complaining about the dearth of options when I’ve basically got a degree in making the dang thing. Months of sketching, programming, swearing, and repeating the whole thing eventually lead to this: what I hope is the easiest water-tracking app on the App Store to use.
It’s been a fascinating process. (Here, by the way, is where I’m going to take advantage of the fact that this is my blog for rambling and start talking about what it was like making it; if you’d like to get more information on the app, I’ve put together a rudimentary website, or you can skip straight to the ‘it’s free on the App Store’ part and give it a whirl.) As it turns out, there’s a whole lot of work involved in making an app; my original sketch was the widget and two screens. Those came together pretty quickly, but I realized that probably nobody would feel comfortable using an app if the first time they opened it it just threw up a message saying “trust me!” and then asked for a bunch of health information, so I wrote up a privacy policy and started building an onboarding flow. Which then ballooned in complexity; looking at the design files, more than half of the app is screens for dealing with something having gone wrong.2
One of the most interesting debates I had with myself during the whole process was deciding what business model to use.3 The App Store has had an unfortunate tendency to be a race to the bottom; while there’s a bit of a market for pro apps, a minimalistic water-tracking app doesn’t fit into that category. There’s also no argument to be made for a subscription, so I’d narrowed it down to ‘free, because I’m turning it in as the capstone project for my computer science major’, ‘free with ads’, or ‘paid up-front’. The first one was the one I was most comfortable with; sure, ‘paid up-front’ would be nice, but I’d also get approximately zero people to download it what with all the free competitors out there. ‘Free with ads’ feels deeply gross, both because I hate online advertising in general, and because I’m doing a lot with health data, and I really don’t want to have any chance of that getting stolen. For a while, I thought it was going to be ‘free forever’, and I’d be justifying it as ‘building a portfolio’.
That wasn’t what I actually settled on, however; instead, I’m going with ‘free with in-app purchase.’ Instead of building in a paywall and locking some features behind it, though, I decided I’d go simpler; the app and all of its features are free. Starting in version 1.1, there’ll be a button in the Settings; a little tip jar.4 I probably won’t make much, but I’ll feel better about it overall, and what’s the harm?
Beyond that debate, most of the challenge of the project as a whole was just building it. I knew going in what I wanted it to look like; what I didn’t know was how to go about doing that. The way the background overlaps the text? That alone took a week of trying different things to get working right.5 A few things I wanted to include in the first version didn’t make it – the widget was originally going to be entirely different, but the way Apple has done the security on health data makes the original design significantly more difficult to do, so I switched it to the current design.6
It was definitely a learning experience, too – I’d done some iOS application design for classes before, but never gone all-in on making something that would be both functional and enjoyable for the end user. If you’re releasing something on the App Store, you can’t just include a note that says “on first run, it’ll ask for a bunch of permissions; just say yes” because nobody will read that. And getting something uploaded to the App Store is itself a whole process – the App Store page doesn’t fill itself out, after all, and copywriting definitely isn’t my strongest suit.7
But it’s done; I’ve made an app and released it to the world. 8 By the time you’re reading this, it should be available on the App Store; as I mentioned, it’s free to download, and I’d love it if you’d give it a try.

  1. That said, I’m also doing some design sketches for my own entry into the field; don’t get your hopes up, I make no promises. 
  2. I’m not talking “my code is full of bugs and something crashed” went wrong, either; it’s all “the user originally gave permission to do something, but then changed their mind and used the Health app to take it away” and other such nonsense. Computers may be finite-state machines, but “eleventy hojillion” is still a finite number. 
  3. I also talked about this a lot with my friend Chase, without whom I would’ve long ago given up on technology and disappeared into the woods to be a Bigfoot impersonator.. 
  4. Yes, I know, I’m just now releasing version 1.0, and I’m already mentioning plans for 1.1. Don’t worry, I’ve got versions 1.2 and 1.3 mapped out, feature-wise, as well, and have some rough ideas for 1.4. 
  5. For a while I thought I was going to have to write code to draw the numbers ‘by hand’; fortunately, I was able to get the drawing to work by taking advantage of layer masks, but good lord are the Interface Builder files a mess as a result. Behind The Scenes, everybody! 
  6. I do still want to get the original design working, probably as an option in the Settings page of the app; a future version is going to add watchOS support, and I believe that a lot of the work I’ll have to do for that will also apply to making the widget work like I intended, so those two will either be the same or subsequent updates. 
  7. Another shoutout to Chase, who wrote the App Store description and turned my pile of 100 disjointed screenshots into the four that’re currently on display. 
  8. Well, “done”; it’s functional and available to the public, but software, as the saying goes, is never finished, only abandoned. I’ve no plans to abandon this project anytime soon; I use it myself several times a day, so I’m pretty invested in keeping it working and making it better. 

“What Dreams Shadows Cast”, or, “the cave isn’t haunted, but it does hate you”

Barbara J. Webb
So, a year and a half ago, I read the first book in what I assume is an ongoing series. At the time, I was quite clear on the fact that I loved the setting of the book. If you want all the explanation, hit up that link; for now I’ll just say it’s a new take on post-apocalyptic, where the apocalypse was being abandoned by the gods who’d previously been quite happy to intervene on people’s behalf.
That gap between reading the first and the second wasn’t the greatest thing for my enjoyment of the second — I spent a bit too long trying to remember where we’d left off, and some of the references back to the first I gave up on trying to remember. Things are in a slightly better place than they were in the first, though in order to avoid spoilers I’m not going to explain how, but you still get the sense that the world is deeply broken. Which, true, it sorta is; they’d based their entire economy and governmental system around an external force, which one day decided to up and leave. Maybe not the best way to have done things.
Honestly, I’m a bit annoyed with the handling of business in Miroc, the city where the first book took place; in the aftermath of that one, it’s set up to begin recovering from the Abandonment. In this book, we’ve skipped forward six months, and aside from a couple references to tentative recovery, nothing much seems to have changed. Sure, it’s only six months, but it’s also a metropolis that just finished making itself entirely self-sufficient, there should be more happening.
Which is rather the crux of my opinion on the book: “there should be more happening.” There’s background details — mentions of an influx of immigrants, as well as an increase in emigration — that aren’t explored very well.1 Instead, there’s a digression, ignoring the leftover villains from the first book to go have an Indiana Jones adventure in the desert.
This book feels like it was supposed to be either the second of two books, or possibly the second of a trilogy, but halfway through someone decided they wanted it to be an ongoing series. And to match the expansion in scale, they tried to expand the setting — the already compelling villains from the first book are almost entirely ignored, despite having been clearly set up to be the main antagonist throughout the series, and what was set up as the background for the whole setting got awkwardly retconned.
It just didn’t work as well as the first book. Which is a shame, because that first one was amazing, and this, while still captivating, left me disappointed at the end. Nonetheless, here’s the link; that said, if you haven’t yet read the first one, go do that instead.

  1. That specific example is actually a huge plot thread that’s just… entirely dropped partway through. Everyone is all secretive about where they’re emigrating to, and then something new comes up and the characters decide to leave that Chekhov’s Gun just sitting on the table, ignored. 

“Not Your Sidekick,” or, “if you dropped hints any harder it’d cause an earthquake”

C.B. Lee
My obsession with superhero books continues, and I’m ranking this one second place out of the superhero books I’ve read for interesting worldbuilding. Set in Andover in what used to be the California-Nevada area, it takes place something like 100 years after a massive solar flare kicked off a low-key apocalypse. Between the Cosmic Radiation and the simultaneous failure of the safety systems in every nuclear power plant around the world, the radiation bath triggered a latent gene in the human population, giving some fraction of a percent of the population superpowers.1 World War III cropped up, apparently in a non-nuclear manner, and the various governments of the world ceased to exist.2 New ones sprung up – there’s a South East Asian something-or-other pulling together after a couple decades of civil war, a Global Federation that sounds like “the UN, but better at covering things up,” and NAFTA merged together into the North American Collective.
It gets interesting pretty quick, though, with a few references3 to old fashioned media being banned – presumably, collecting old TVs, books, DVD players, and so on is about conserving resources in a still fairly resource-starved world.4 But the government has done a great job of removing references to those old things at all. There’s just a whiff of fascism, and once you catch that it’s a hard thread to let go of. As background materials go, it’s utterly fascinating.
The story proper is also pretty hilarious – the protagonist is the daughter of Andover’s superhero power couple, which gives her an inside view into their normal lives. They’ve got cover jobs – real estate, the both of them – that they’re varying degrees of terrible at pretending to take part in. Their primary villains, Mr and Mrs Mischief, are more about pranking the population than causing any actual havoc, so even when they have to go in to work, such as it is, it’s not exactly a life-or-death situation.
Without superpowers of her own, though, their daughter Jess is at a bit of a loss about what to do with herself. After her precocious little brother5 makes one too many references to her underachievement in school and lack of powers, she decides to go do something with herself and applies for an internship at Monroe Industries, the high-tech firm that’s apparently Andover’s staple business. After getting the job, she’s a bit shocked to find out that the ‘experimental research’ division she’s working in is a cover for how the Mischiefs are getting their resources – her bosses are her parents’ arch-nemeses.
Hilarity ensues, and I’m quite happy to recommend the book to you. Give it a read.

  1. The degree to which it’s generic feels more tongue-in-cheek than anything else, so it works. 
  2. Except the European Union; apparently all it’ll take to resolve the Brexit mess is the end of the world? 
  3. These aren’t the heavily-dropped hints I’m referring to in the title; the romantic subplot is possibly the single most obvious thing to have happened in the history of ever. Subtlety, thy name is not Jessica Tran. 
  4. There’s some nice references to the fact that meat is a very rare luxury item, and the majority of the population lives on an economical vegetarian diet. 
  5. Now, we’re not going to say ‘super-genius,’ but we’re going to heavily imply it. 

“The Mystic Marriage,” or, “this book changed genre like four times”

Heather Rose Jones
School has begun in earnest, and I’ve suddenly gone from reading a book a day to taking a couple weeks to finish one. I’d call it depressing, but considering that I’m down to only a couple more books that I haven’t yet read, it’s actually working in my favor, keeping me from running out of new material quite so quickly.
“The Mystic Marriage” is set in the fictional European country of Alpennia, a small country that, were I to guess, is somewhere bordering France and, perhaps, Spain? It’s hard to say, as it’s never explicitly explained, but the recent collapse of the French Empire feels more personal than do the interferences from the Austrian Empire.1
There’s two twists that make the book really interesting.
The first is the presence of magic. It’s a different system than I’ve seen before, though – works of thaumaturgy are referred to as ‘mysteries’ and rely on the intervention of the saints. It’s all very Catholic, with some interesting utilitarian aspects. It’s reminiscent of the ways that science would have to be fit into the Catholic canon – tweak the wording a little bit, make sure to express some wonder about the great things God does, and you’re good as long as you don’t get too scandalous.
The other is more scandalous, and where it gets really fun. The core of the cast is, basically, the Lesbian Noblewomen’s Society. There’s a lot of mention of the fact that, as Noted Eccentrics, they’re allowed more strangeness by the high society of Rotenek, which is how they can get away, for example, a pair of unrelated women living together despite both being wealthy enough for their own households. It’s the scandalous nature of it that makes it feel realistic – there’s no “oh, yes, in this fictional country, unlike the rest of the Continent, everyone is totally fine with this!” It’s a “we’re powerful people, and as long as we’re not blatant we can get away with it.” Sort of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” applied to the upper crust of society.
And really, it’s a very enjoyable book. The genre changes were interesting, and allowed it to explore a lot of ground without being predictable, which I quite liked. So I’m quite happy to give it a recommendation – go give it a read.

  1. I think it’s the Austrian Empire; they’re referred to as ‘Austrians’ throughout, and only in glancing references, so it could just as well be the Holy Roman Empire. 

“Ambassador 1: Seeing Red,” or, “the title turns out to be an extremely satisfying pun”

Patty Jansen
I honestly had no idea what this book was about going in, and I think it worked well that way. As it turns out, it was a political thriller: the protagonist is a negotiator between Nations of Earth and gamra. It’s roughly equivalent to, say, being Turkey’s negotiator to the EU for the membership talks. Only Turkey is a stronger version of the UN with full executive powers over the entire planet, and the EU is a trade coalition that regulates FTL interstellar travel.
Where it gets really interesting is the various non-humans involved. The rough layout of the galaxy features something like 95% of the entire population being various humanoids; there are some references to the fact that one of the member races of gamra is far more ancient than the rest and not only developed the FTL technology but used it to seed the galaxy with the various humanities. But each version of humanity had tens of thousands of years to diverge from one another, and you wind up with some really interesting cultural and even biological variations. The Coldi, the majority group within gamra, have some serious differences in how they treat one another and think about the world in general.
And that’s what makes the book so interesting – you’ve got a Eurosceptic-analog President of Nations of Earth, a novice diplomat without his cultural exchange attaché, and a negotiating culture based on a completely different style of interpersonal relationships and loyalty than anyone from Earth is used to. It’s fascinating looking at all the interactions, and the author has done an incredible job of taking one or two differences and seeing what happens when you let those differences influence things for a few hundred years. It’s an excellent read, and I couldn’t put the book down, so if you at all enjoy good science fiction or the occasional political thriller, give it a read.

“Death by Silver,” or, “the landlady has a point, the plant DID try to bite the help”

Melissa Scott and Amy Griswold
I’ll start off by saying that this is definitely within the Sherlock Holmes archetype of stories,1 but it’s got enough differing it from the rest to be interesting.
The first big difference is in the setting: it’s the same Victorianesque time period as the average Sherlock Holmes book, but this is a world with magic of a sort – or, as the locals refer to it, metaphysics. It’s a bit of a complex system, based upon written language and a fairly complex grammar, utilizing a variety of different written squares. I don’t have a great grasp of how it all works, which is okay, because the way it’s written it has a good mix of detail and lack thereof. It’s a good balance, and the way its integrated into the rest of the world is quite nice.
That leads into the second difference: while there’s a clear Sherlock figure, I got the feeling that he’s the secondary of the two narrative main characters.2 While the Sherlock is still the normal Sherlock, albeit using magic instead of opium, the Watson is a metaphysician for hire, rather than a doctor. The story begins with him, in fact: a customer comes to him to remove a curse from the family silver. Finding a lack of a curse, he does a cleansing… and is rather surprised a few days later when he’s hired again to sort out the murder of his previous client, his skull having been bashed in with some of the recently-cleansed silver. It’s at this point that he brings in the Sherlock, as that’s more his area of expertise.
The relationship between the two of them is the third major difference.3 They went to school together, had a bit of a schoolboy dalliance, broke it off in college, and then resumed it in their adulthood. It’s a weird interaction – one of those rom-com style things, where both parties involved want the same thing, but are both convinced the other doesn’t want it. It makes the switching viewpoints mechanic pretty hilarious, to be honest; I spent a lot of time gleefully muttering “you idiot” at the both of them.
It’s the taboo quality of that relationship that I enjoyed the most, I think: the book doesn’t go in for the gloss-over-it style that some take, wherein the Victorian “don’t ask, don’t tell” style4 is stretched to cover openly gay men. Instead, it’s a matter of only being shown or spoken of behind closed doors. Secretive clubs that one must be vouched for by an existing member to get into. Careful remarks that can be said to have been misheard if the wrong response is given. It makes the whole thing realistic – take away the magical aspect of the book, and I could absolutely believe it was someone’s autobiography, hidden away and recently rediscovered and published by a descendant.
All in all, it made for an interesting read, and I’m quite happy to recommend it to you.

  1. I should have a tag for ‘Holmesian books’ by now, I read enough of them. 
  2. Two protagonists, working together; the viewpoint switches off between the two of them throughout. Nonetheless, the Sherlock has the helm slightly less than the Watson. 
  3. Well, insofar as it’s explicitly stated; there’s a lot of queer theory talk about the canonical Holmes/Watson relationship. 
  4. See “a bared ankle is improper, but I’ll meet you at the brothel for some opium later.” 

“Interim Errantry 2: On Ordeal,” or, “origin stories are actually interesting when they’re new”

Diane Duane
And really, that’s the long and short of it: the origin stories for three characters in Diane Duane’s marvelous Young Wizardsseries. And they were very interesting origins – the third, there were hints about in the rest of the series, but the first two were entirely new. The second was very unexpected, as well – more vicious, and sadder, than I’d thought.
But rather than talk about this book specifically, I think I’d be happier talking up the series as a whole. I haven’t really had a chance to write about it here before, but it’s been one of my favorites for ages. I received the first book in the series as a birthday present years and years ago,1 and promptly fell in love.
It’s been mentioned in both college and graduate school application essays. It drifts through the way I look at the world. I can name chunks of my value system that clearly come from these books, and I can trace my interests – up to and including my major and planned career path – back to the way these books taught me to look at the world.
Before I ever read Peter Parker’s thoughts on responsibility, these books were teaching me that having power meant you should use it to help others.
And they taught me that names, and really all words, are very powerful things.
They’ve been hugely influential to my life, and I happily recommend them to everyone. Start at the beginning: the first book, the delightfully-titled So You Want to Be A Wizard, should be in your local library. If not, I’d recommend picking it up directly from the author: she certainly deserves your patronage. Regardless, go start reading.

  1. I don’t remember exactly how many years it was, but I can tell it was sometime that in elementary school, based on where the birthday party was and who I can recall being there. 

Tidbits from Apple’s Machine Learning Journal

A short while ago, Apple launched a journal on machine learning; the general consensus on why they did it is that AI researchers want their work to be public, although as some have pointed out, the articles don’t have a byline. Still, getting the work out at all, even if unattributed, is an improvement over their normal secrecy.
They’ve recently published a few new articles, and I figured I’d grab some interesting tidbits to share.
In one, they talked about their use of deep neural networks to power the speech recognition used by Siri; in expanding to new languages, they’ve been able to decrease training time by transferring over the trained networks from existing language recognition systems to new languages.1 Probably my favorite part, though, is this throwaway line:

While we wondered about the role of the linguistic relationship between the source language and the target language, we were unable to draw conclusions.

I’d love to see an entire paper exploring that; hopefully that’ll show up eventually. You can read the full article here.
Another discusses the reverse – the use of machine learning technology for audio synthesis, specifically the voices of Siri. Google has done something similar,2 but as Apple mentions, it’s pretty computationally expensive to do it that way, and they can’t exactly roll out a version of Siri that burns through 2% of your iPhone’s battery every time it has to talk. So, rather than generate the entirety of the audio on-device, the Apple team went with a hybrid approach – traditional speech synthesis, based on playing back chunks of audio recordings, but using machine learning techniques to better select which chunks to play based, basically, on how good they’ll sound when they’re stitched together. The end of the article includes a table of audio samples comparing the Siri voices in iOS 9, 10, and 11, it’s a cool little example to play with.
The last of the three new articles discusses the method by which Siri (or the dictation system) knows to change “twenty seventeen” into “2017,” and the various other differences between spoken and written forms of languages. It’s an interesting look under the hood of some of iOS’ technology, but mostly it just made me wonder about the labelling system that powers the ‘tap a date in a text message to create a calendar event’ type stuff – that part, specifically, is fairly easy pattern recognition, but the system also does a remarkable job of tagging artist names3 and other things. The names of musical groups is a bigger problem, but the one that I wonder about the workings of is map lookups – I noticed recently that the names of local restaurants were being linked to their Maps info sheet, and that has to be doing some kind of on-device search, because I doubt Apple has a master list of every restaurant in the world that’s getting loaded onto every iOS device.
As a whole, it’s very cool to see Apple publishing some of their internal research, especially considering that all three of these were about technologies they’re actually using.

  1. The part in question was specific to narrowband audio, what you get via bluetooth rather than from the device’s onboard microphones, but as they mention, it’s harder to get sample data for bluetooth microphones than for iPhone microphones. 
  2. Entertainingly, the Google post is much better designed than the Apple one; Apple’s is good-looking for a scientific journal article, but Google’s includes some nice animated demonstrations of what they’re talking about that makes it more accessible to the general public. 
  3. Which it opens, oh-so-helpfully, in Apple Music, rather than iTunes these days. 

“Blood Ties,” or, “nobody will ever convince me these two aren’t married”

Quincy J. Allen
I’m standing by that title, and it makes a good follow-up to my review of the short story prequel to this that was in one of the anthologies I read recently.
It’s still a wonderful take on post-civil-war America, and I quite enjoyed the read; although, being as I’m without internet as I’m writing this, I’m rather annoyed that I don’t have the sequel, because there’s a whole lot left to happen in the plot. Like, to the degree that I’d argue this shouldn’t have been the end of the book, just the end of Part One of the book.
Still, it’s a fun read – the main characters are a delightful pair of cowboys that are basically married with a child,1 and if I want to utterly misrepresent the book I’d call it the story of their vacation to San Francisco. Although, considering how much they enjoy themselves, it sorta is, if a bit more lethal than the average vacation. Hey, the six destroyed buildings won’t cost that much to fix, right?
Basically it’s a fun romp of a book, and I’m quite happy to recommend it. Give it a read.

  1. Canonically this isn’t true, but all of the places where the book makes it clear it isn’t feel a little bit forced in. A word of advice to the author: when your characters are trying this hard to make something happen, just let it happen. 

“Out of This World,” or, “it’s like Fifty Shades and the Chronicles of Narnia had a child”

Catherine Lundoff
The last of my string of anthologies; I’ve run out of them for the moment, and I’ll be going back to reading and reviewing novels for a while, at least.

“Great Reckonings, Little Rooms”

A Shakespearean tragedy, though not in the normal way.

“Medium Méchanique”

And this, folks, is why we leave the dead alone.

“The Egyptian Cat”

There’s something really fun about a staggeringly normal person getting caught up as a side character in an epic story.

“At the Roots of the World Tree”

I wanted this to be a bit happier than it actually was, but I liked it regardless.

“A Scent of Roses”

A happier ending to the Tam Lane story than I really expected it to have.

“At Mother Laurie’s House of Bliss”

Now I want to watch a police procedural that takes place in a medieval kingdom full of knights and magic.

“Spell, Book and Candle”

If I were a TV witch, this would be the point where my chatty familiar would give me sound advice, which I would then ignore. But then, if I were a TV witch, I wouldn’t be a dyke with the hots for her old college sweetie.


The fact that this whole thing was leading up to a “Beauty and the Beast” joke is just spectacular.

“Red Scare”

An odd twist on the noir detective trope.

“A Day at the Inn, A Night at the Palace”

I kinda hate body-swap stories, it’s just difficult to keep track of who’s who.


The city of sorrows has a Diablo sort of feel to it – ancient curses and all that.

All in all, a good collection of stories to end on. Give it a read.

“The Best of Penny Dread Tales,” or, “why is there never a nuclear boiler in the steampunk airship“

Yet another anthology! I’m on a roll.

“Iron Angel”

Cayleigh Hickey
Oh, we’re off to a good start here. I wasn’t expecting to leap into the land of the fae, but here we are.

“The Dirges of Percival Lewand”

Aaron Michael Ritchey
Okay well, this belonged more in the last anthology I read than here, but oh well.

“The Tunnel Rat’s Journey”

J. M. Franklin
Futuristic steampunk! An interesting twist, and one of the more hopeful bits of post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve ever read. I like it.

“The Cutpurse from Mulberry Bend”

Gerry Huntman
Short and sad.

“The Great Dinosaur Roundup of 1903”

Laura Givens

Traveling through time turns out to be loud and flashy but not as uncomfortable as you might think.

Told as a letter from, basically, a background character in an Atomic Robo flashback sequence.

“American Vampire”

Keith Good
Well that’s a rough life, my guy.

“Lasater’s Lucky Left”

Quincy J. Allen
I’m gonna be honest, I was kinda hoping this would turn into a horrid romance noel halfway through. The sequel’s still got room for that, though, so I’ll hold out hope.

“Sinking to the Level of Demons”

David Boop
Well, that got dark.


J.R. Boyett & Peter J. Wacks
Oh, that was cool. A variant on vampires, and a retired hunter? Very cool.

“The Noonday Sun”

Vivian Caethe
An exoskeleton-wearing monster hunter, clearing out the Wild West.

“Industrial Melanism”

Aaron Spriggs
If you’re claustrophobic, don’t read this one.

“Today, the Sun Sets in the East”

Peter J. Wacks
Another good story that I’d like to read more of. Tiger is an interesting character, as is Hummingbird.

“The Weather God”

David W. Landrum
Well that war went a bit differently than the British expected, I’d say.

“The Spirit of the Grift”

Sam Knight
A portable X-ray, I think? I wish we had more stories of grifters using some sort of advanced technology to pull it off.

“The Heart of Appricotta”

Mike Cervantes

With a salute, punctuated by a word that sounded like a punch to the stomach in Yiddish, the assembled tossed the raft in the river.

It’s a comedy in a style I’d describe as “British Imperial Braggadocio,” which isn’t exactly to my taste, but a couple lines (the one above, for example) got a laugh out of me.1

“Budapest Will Burn”

Jonathan D. Beer
Why do anthologies end on such weird notes? I’d rather have them end on something happy, which this could be if you squint, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory at best.

Nonetheless, this was another good collection of stories that I’m comfortable recommending. Give it a read.

  1. Another good one:

    In my panic I struggled to remember precisely what the five stages of grief were supposed to be, so I experienced denial, anger, gassiness, and that strange confusion you get when you feel you’ve left a door unlocked before finally achieving acceptance.