Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Hobbit 3: the Mighty War Moose -- Canadian

As I watched the third installment of the Hobbit from a dangerously chilly theater in Minnesota, I recall complaining about the lack of physics in the film. Sir Isaac Newton would have been aghast. But when the Wood Elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), came on the screen, someone whispered, "Canadian." [film still from wikipedia] And she is. Just as Galadriel (Cate Blanchet) is Australian. [photo from IMDB]
EvangelineLillyAsTauriel.jpgCate Blanchett Picture
Suddenly, Mr. Jackson's instruction became clear. The entire series was illuminating the allegories buried in Tolkien.

You doubt? It's no coincidence that Tolkien was sending the stories to his son, Christopher, fighting the returning menace of Germany in the Middle East (Sauron in Middle Earth). I knew in middle school when I read the series originally that the dwarves represented the Jewish people -- twelve tribes, the last split into the two half tribes as twins. At the birth of the country of Israel, there were indeed five armies engaged around the Holy Land. In my youthful innocence, I assumed this was the extent of the metaphor, but Mr. Jackson opened my eyes.

When the mighty war moose of Thranduil [from the lotr.wikia] thundered onto the screen, I knew--the northern Wood Elves were indeed Canadian. Their armor was spotless, and I think I even saw them picking up trash from the street of Dale while they delivered their humanitarian supplies. Moreover, elves as a whole represented the immortal United Kingdom. Mighty in their magic but few in numbers, these colonists of the Holy Land are forced to give up their colonies after the second war and sail back across the waters to their original home, the gray and rainy havens. How could I have missed this?

The elvish men were pretty and slightly effeminate, indicating a high incidence of estrogen in their river, like London. Okay, that's taking it too far. I'm not jealous of Orlando Bloom, just repeating what a London resident told me on the train to Paris. Not wishing to offend any other ethnic group, I cannot speculate on who the orcs, goblins, and trolls allies of Hitler might have been. Nor can I speculate on the politician who may have inspired Gollum. My family did, however, take a vote. In this long battle film, the moose was the best and most realistic fighter. We all mourned his passing. He was, we all agreed, Canadian. We were proud to have him as one of our considerate neighbors of the north.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Why Math?

When I was teaching math and computers in college, some freshman would invariably ask: why do I have to learn this? Why math? One of my professors replied: "Why art? Why a baby?"
He was right. In its purist form, math is art. Anyone who has looked at fractals can tell you that. Zoom in on a Mandelbrot set and you'll find another one underneath. I'm sure the movie Frozen wouldn't have been the same without them.
Pythagoras, the discoverer of the formula for a triangle's hypotenuse and prime numbers, was considered a philosopher by the ancient Greeks. This is the realm of number theory, where you get to peek at the secret rules of the universe, but there is rarely any progress. It's still intoxicating to play with, though, because you find patterns. If you take two to a prime number and subtract one, that number will also be prime. There are numbers (like 6) Pythagoras called "Perfect" because when you add up all their factors, it makes the number itself. Some pairs of numbers form each other.
Pure math is concerned with topics like how do I find this animal, or how can I prove this general rule I came up with? Sadly, mathematicians spend so much time locked up with this ideal of beauty that they sometimes refer to short, elegant proofs as "sexy."

The moment math applies to the real world, it's soiled and most purists won't touch it anymore. For example, guys like Diffie and Hellman noticed that certain math problems easy to describe and generate but incredibly difficult to reverse to the solution. Such one-way behavior is ideal for cryptography. Their discovery forms the basis for your secure computer transactions when you type https. Applied math people ask questions related to the real world, like "how can I fly to every city on my route the cheapest way possible, visiting each exactly once?", which is known as the Traveling Salesman Problem. If there are ten cities, there are 10 choices for the first stop, 9 for the second, and so on. Before you know it, the number of combinations explodes into 3,628,800 routes. This unruly behavior is known as a Non-Polynomial equation (NP), and it appears in every aspect of life, from trash collection routes to odds in Poker or the best move in Chess. It's a very dangerous animal.

Polynomial equations (P), by contrast, are simple and tame. Problems such as sorting this list of students by score, or finding the amount of light on every surface in your computer simulation are based on the number of data points squared or cubed at worst. Engineers can find cheats to reduce the complexity to N log N or 6 N squared. Throw enough computing power at P problems and they go away. Most of computer science revolves around the proper understanding of and taming of combinatorics. Knuth wrote the definitive series of textbooks on this topic. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Art_of_Computer_Programming 

Why is NP so dangerous? Some NP problems have a flaw if you look at them the right way. You don't need to solve the perfect abstract problem, only the common case. For example, the costs to fly somewhere in the Traveling Salesman problem are primarily due to fuel costs and hours or crew time, both of which are dominated by the absolute distance between two points. For most cases, if you put a dot on each city on the map, a four-year-old could play connect the dots along the outer rim and get a solution that's close. These heuristics (greedy algorithm) are not a guarantee of the best solution, but are usually within an acceptable percent of perfect in almost no time. The Maps program on my wife's phone helped us find the best route to visit every quilt store in Minnesota.

In my job as an engineer, each time I could get "close enough" to an NP problem like the Knapsack Problem for scheduling computer resources, it was worth a patent. Each time I "knew" it could be simplified, it took me two months locked in solitary for a prototype and a year to build a safe version for the customer. They are deceptively simple, with the promise of big payoffs.

Numb3rs (2005) PosterThe problem comes when you can't find a hack. Mathematicians put these hard problems in a zoo and name them. They fill journals and books. To get into this hall of shame, they need be mapped with a few word changes and order P math steps into another NP complete problem. Thus, if you can solve ONE of these monsters in P time, all of them will fall to the same sword. In the TV series Numbers, the main character nearly has a breakdown when he spends a year trying to crack this problem. I can see how easy this would be, fixating on something that is just beyond your grasp and having faith that it just takes the right point of view and tenets. Math is still part philosophy. Through the use of neural nets we can model an NP problem with circuits and allow the current to settle to its natural solution state. In quantum computing, it should be possible to just "guess" the right answer. The computer will see all solutions simultaneously and collapse the waveform to the one we want. All of this could happen within our lifetime, and it will transform the economy and touch every science. "Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I can move the world." -- Archimedes, another dead Greek geek.

Why do I care? In 2008, I lost six months of spare time and sleep trying to conquer a simple puzzle called Eternity 2--a simple 256 piece puzzle so devious that to exhaust every possibility on existing computers would probably take until the sun burns out. But what if it has a weakness or I could get close enough? The solution was worth a couple million dollars, and would prove P=NP. I solved other puzzles to earn the placement of 4 of the pieces, but this didn't make the puzzle any easier. With the initial set of corner pieces and random guesses, I notices that in 200 attempts, one of the choices for upper-right corner went further than all the others. My working theory was that of fixed-point iteration or seeking the path of least resistance through repetition--like Newton's square-root technique or the Hailstone Seed Problem, the problem wanted to converge on a solution and would lead me to that end. Therefore, I would test each of the options for an added piece a few hundred times and measure successes. I only chose those additions with overwhelming success, or split the search when there were two close options. Most attempts with some wouldn't get past the halfway point. Indeed, some choices might make the problem unsolvable. By following success, I hoped to find increasingly better solutions.  I came closest with 211 sequential pieces and 22 edge mismatches in the overall attempt. I also suspect that the pieces with multiple triangle of the same color were a flaw to exploit. I stopped when I reached 19 edge mismatches and forced myself to quit cold turkey.

IQ is nothing without common sense. Here's the problem, like a lottery, I could EARN a million dollars in the time it took me to solve this one puzzle, with no general purpose solution. I also wanted to spend time with my children and wife. (I have a more normal definition of "sexy".) Though the siren song of NP calls from time to time, I spend my spare cycles writing fiction now, making other art that will hopefully last beyond me or improve the world today. That is how this discussion began after all. Math practiced properly is a life-changing philosophy.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Hidden Cost of Higher Book Prices

One of the hardest decisions to make as a self-published author is what price to put on your completed work. As quickly as possible, you want to pay for the editing, cover, and three months of electricity and health insurance you just incurred. However, you also know that lower prices can mean higher volume. With the advent of KDP Select, this decision got much easier. Earning 30 percent of 99 cents per book outside the program pales in comparison to the 70 percent of 2.99 inside the program. Sales go down by less than a factor of two and you earnings go up by a factor of seven! Given user psychology about the desirability of cheap books, you may actually see a slight increase in demand for a higher price point.

Now Amazon is sharing some of its incredible sales data with the author in a beta program. They offer this service at the touch of a button as step 9 of publishing your e-book.

9. Set Your Pricing and Royalty

KDP Pricing Support (Beta)

See the relationship between price and past sales and author earnings for KDP books like yours.
This sounds amazing. It shows you for books like yours (length, genre, your popularity as an author)  how much increasing the price should affect the demand for the produce. This is know as "elasticity of demand." Then they multiply the sales by volume for each price point to find the best spot on the profit curve. In terms of ECON 101, the example where adding more fertilizer on the field stops being profitable is called the point of diminishing returns. I can't show you the curve for one of my books because Amazon may view this as a breach of sales data, and for books that have a low sales history, the curve recommendation changes every hour. But the upshot is clear: for a strong book, you can take a hit of 30-45 percent on the volume, raise the price to 5 to 8 dollars a book, and make a lot more money. On my highest seller, if I sell 100 books a month today at $3 each, I earn $300. If I bumped the price to $8 and sold only 55, I could make $440. Why wouldn't I?

In my genres and experience, a series tends to attract ten times the readers of a stand-alone.  I like series because 70 percent of the buyers of book one spring for book two, and those loyal readers generally purchase all the books I have out in the series. I refer to this as "follow" or drag. That's a huge incentive for an author. However, the graph results from Amazon comes with an explicit warning that "You indicated this is the first book in a series. This case may be different." Because if you constrict the volume on book one by even a little, you hurt every book in your series.

While ever case is different, here is an illustration where doubling the price and profit of book one restricts volume of sales by x percent. Note that I've never seen a restriction of less than 30 percent on a recommended price increase. You can see by the chart that any decrease in volume costs you more as the length of the series increases. Even for a typical fantasy trilogy, the net effect is money out of your pocket if you follow the recommendation for book one. This drag effect is why some authors with a long series are willing to give away the first novel for 99 cents or free to hook people (the heroin model of marketing). For a short series, you can locate the acceptable audience loss level on their curve and try a partial increase. Be conservative, though. This is still a dark art, not an exact science.

% volume % earnings % follow Books in series
lost book one lost 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
5 190 3.5 186.5 183 179.5 176 172.5 169 165.5
10 180 7 173 166 159 152 145 138 131
15 170 10.5 159.5 149 138.5 128 117.5 107 96.5
20 160 14 146 132 118 104 90 76 62
25 150 17.5 132.5 115 97.5 80 62.5 45 27.5
30 140 21 119 98 77 56 35 14 -7
35 130 24.5 105.5 81 56.5 32 7.5 -17 -41.5
40 120 28 92 64 36 8 -20 -48 -76
45 110 31.5 78.5 47 15.5 -16 -47.5 -79 -110.5
50 100 35 65 30 -5 -40 -75 -110 -145

In conclusion, while an excellent resource for an author with a long, stable sales history and a stand-alone book, Indies who want to attract as many new customers as possible will have to modify Amazon's suggestions to balance our needs.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Release of the Jezebel Series Finale

Senescence is the final stage of life, where cells can no longer regenerate--the fate that awaits us all when we stop growing and changing. The starship Sanctuary has returned home after twenty years to a strange and hostile world. Stewart is sent as an ambassador to see if Earth still has the capacity to change or whether the crew will let the world suffer the consequences of corporate policies. Billionaire geneticist Laura Zeiss holds his fate in her hands ... and thereby the planet's. Will she choose to become one of the rulers of a decaying world or risk everything to save a naive young man? When Stewart finds out her secrets, will he still want her help?

As the final book, this was the hardest to write. It took twice as many revisions as any book I've done before. I did a lot of research on the coming "singularity" in 2045. What impressed me most was not the new technology, which I include, but the projected increase in human suffering. Worse, most of that suffering seemed destined for women and children. Every time I'd listen to a news cast or pundit, or research another topic, I would become more appalled and angry at what women are enduring today. A lot of that anger made its way in to the story. I focused on the world's richest woman and what she tries to do within the system for decades, including a reality TV show called Ballbusters that brainstorms creative solutions to raise awareness. Then I bring in a man, from another world, who sees the injustices and objects. Because he's a man, it makes news. Science fiction, right?

Friday, October 10, 2014

New Space Opera Outline

In September, I began the outline for a new series, a space opera, So far I am up to 32 single-spaced typed pages. I'm almost ready to begin book one. I carry a small school composition notebook with me everywhere. After 6 weeks, it's only half full. Everything--how stars are distributed in this galaxy, size, grouping, habitable planets, and even the gaps between stars--leads to plot points and characterization. Form follows function in my universe. The way FTL travel works affects everything from the banking system to how races expand.

Although I have three or four specific books I want to write, the back ground material would support a dozen. Set 400 years in the the future of the Jezebel universe, I planned out a very detailed timeline of Earth's colonization of the stars, construction of ships, trade, interaction with other species, and eventually war, I could even go back later and write about any period in between like Modesitt did with the imager series. Stewart Llewellyn, the hero from the Jez finale, founds the Anodyne colony and plays a big role leading humanity until the war. Our new hero, Max Culp takes over from there. As a twist from last book, I thought I would make him part !Kung, one of the click speak tribes of Africa, which makes him skilled on low tech world survival and immune to remote sensing by people with mental abilities--both assets to special forces. He is a combination of mankind at its most primitive and advanced. A medic present at two of the most horrific battles in the war, Max struggles to find a new path in the chaotic peacetime Union worlds. First, he hunts the race responsible. When those are gone, he faces a crisis. He has guilt for things he's done, especially failures, grinding his teeth at night. He copes by saving one person. Eventually, with the help of the talented people who collect around him like driftwood, Max becomes a leader at the forefront of Union decisions for the next era.

However, I need to paint a detailed picture for myself of each of the major colonies, Earth itself, the megacorportations/oligarchs, and technologies. Not all of this will appear explicitly in the work, but the structure is necessary for depth and texture. Below is a sample page of notes:


A sketch of the first human colony in space. The very name means healing and freeing from pain. Initial population 77 living astronauts and about 1000 embryos. Smaller than Earth, lower g. The hardest part to learn after landing was working with the ecosystem. Residents tend to pacifists, but not gullible. Leaders have lofty morals. Ivory towers are literally synthetic bone. Citizens get treatments to live 150 years. Stu lived over 200 years. They have eliminated dementia, cancer, and arthritis, almost as much through lifestyles and industrial rules as treatment.
Two hops from Earth along the Ceti route (24LY, end to end about 68.4 days + 91 for each end and turns conserving fuel ballpark = 160 days trip time) They have refueling stations in every direction to protect them. The colony projects influence. Renown for philosophy, design, ethics, hospitals, terraforming, planning, art, and university. Considered by the Sentient Union to be the capital of the Human commonwealth, which is a point of resentment among other humans. Very proud of their enlightened history. Each building and statue is a testament to some achievement. Trade began here, although more volume goes through other places. The seat of the current Llewellyn. Since YR 15, the captain of Sanctuary has always been one of the lineage. Laura froze about 20 embryos and after her death, Stu raises a new child every 16 years to keep him from dying from the pair-bond.
When his mother in-law Mira dies in YR 20, they promise her they will try to save Earth from itself. YR 30, Stu’s third child, Dominic develops theory of why 128 engines are needed to breach subspace. Around YR 65 they build the orbital shipyard and test, but never developed the population and industrial base to build their own starship. By then the original Sanctuary crew is dead. When they threaten to voyage on their own, blind, Mercy shows them the Magi star charts.
YR 70 Stu contacts the Sentient Union directly. Anodyne buys an ansible to communicate faster than light. They trade the basic laws/safety regulations for starships with Mnamnabonians for human entertainment. They trade the secret of Joan to the Magi for principles of Terraforming. She becomes the planet’s memory.
In YR 80, they return to earth to teach the basics of starships. Anodyne population is only about 770. Trying to be sustainable. Link to Sanctuary is still their umbilical. Only one city. Learn that building codes for space port must last over 500 years. Forced to start another—University. This remains the biggest single metropolitan area.
In 105 at the next Union convocation, humans are named the mentor race for the pandas.
With the migration and building/trade boom, by YR 110, the population is up to 9000. About 1000 more every decade, handpicked from best earth scientists.
In 115, they take over the colony Overlook near Oblivion, with a mahdra crystal plantation, a battery that charges with radiation or sunlight and has over 90 percent retention, the foundation of portable Magi technology. Upper limit population of 5k, this is a research station with amazing wealth.

By 120 Anodyne has 3rd city and 50k.
In 321, the last Llewellyn child raised by Stu is killed on a diplomatic mission,
beginning the Gigaparsec War. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Loro Parque: Zoo Extraordinaire

This summer, my family and I went on a 14 night, transatlantic Disney cruise. Gaining an hour's sleep a night as we changed time zones was cool, but the highlight of our cruise was the Loro Parque zoo. Warning: this is more photos than I've ever put in a blog entry, but we took hundreds.
There was no premade excursion for this, so we had to roll our own. The taxi ride to the park costs about 100 euros round trip (you have to bargain), but takes you over volcanic peaks so close to the clouds you can touch them. Over the half hour drive, you get to see a city nestled into the mountainside, black beaches, and banana plantations. Loro Parque has more birds that any zoo in the world, dolphins, jellyfish, orcas, a white tiger, and more penguins than anywhere outside Antarctica. Plan to spend at least three hours.


 The killer whales make a point of splashing the first dozen or so rows. The zoo sells ponchos for 6 euros a piece, but they don't help. When that wave hits, you get soaked, and everybody else laughs.

But the major attraction, the one that awed everyone, was the penguin habitat. My son's first movie was March of the Penguins, and apart from a recent fondness for dragons, it is still his favorite animal.

Picture a horseshoe-shaped moving sidewalk. In the center, is a two-story, glassed in habitat the size of a football field.

They have what seemed like a dozen species of penguin on rocks, surrounded by imitation ice floes and water teeming with fish. The temperature is kept at zero and lights are dimmed to match the cycles of Antarctica.

As we entered to the strains of Vangelis' instrumental Antarctica, we were stunned to see snow coming out of the holes in the ceiling. Pierce's smile couldn't have been any wider. (He took many of these photos.) The penguins napped and played on the rocks, but rocketed through the water like torpedoes, leaping like dolphins. We went through for a second pass and sat in the bleachers, still amazed. As we stared, they came up to stare back at us.

As they say in the credit card commercial: Having your son's childhood idol come up to him nose-to-nose to say hi: priceless.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Twelve Thousand Books

I am reminded of an episode of The Simpsons where Bart is forced to write "I will not celebrate meaningless benchmarks" one hundred times on a blackboard. I reached 250 Goodreads ratings and 150 Amazon reviews. This month, I also hit sale number twelve thousand for e-books, for which I am extremely grateful. This was roughly distributed as:

  • 7300 for the Jezebel's Ladder hard sci-fi series.
  • 4100 for the Doors to Eternity epic fantasy series.
  • 400 for the Ryoku series and spinoff in the contemporary/urban magic world.
  • 200 for the other five books I wrote combined.

Since I just finished the last book if the Jezebel series (Senescence), I'm planning a big event for the release in early October, but I'm treading water while I wait for editing feedback. This is a good time for reflection.What did I learn in the last three years, and how will it change me as a writer going forward?

  1. A good series is your bread and butter. I have no idea what book I will write next, but I should plan for a series. They sell 10 to 14 times what a standalone does. I already have an idea for a Jez spinoff set on the moon. The self-aware computer expanding over the entire lunar surface is likely to be a major backdrop. Over my upcoming vacation, I'll write up some notes and see where it leads.
  2. If I research what I'm passionate about, I'll find something there to write about. Writers make connections in the weirdest places. Learning keeps my brain active and the subject matter alive/realistic. I've written on everything from djinn to space colonies, and it's all fun.
  3. Stick with your target audience. If they don't want something, people get mean, even when it's free. When Jez was number 4 on the free sci-fi list, a lot of people took a chance and downloaded a copy without reading the blurb. Those people weren't my audience or demographic. As a consequence, I got three scathing reviews that week that took months to recover from. On a related note, always watch your tags. Someone with a financial interest added a false BDSM tag to take readers to the top twenty books in that category. One reviewer got a little peeved when my book didn't deliver in that department. Even stranger, after months on the top one hundred sci-fi, Amazon ate Jez's sci-fi category on a routine pitch update. The problem took months for a friend to spot, and the book never achieved its former rank on the chart.
  4. My style changes over time. This is a good thing. It's much easier now for me to strike a note and carry it through a scene. Each time I attempt something more difficult or pick a new editor, I learn more about the craft. A year after I release each book, I go back and polish in order to incorporate what I've learned since. I always like the characters and flow, but I am sometimes embarrassed by word repetition, dialog tags, or some other small mechanics item. Lately, I think that I may be growing more as an editor than as a writer.
  5. Every new book is like betting on a horse race. As a writer, I never know what will sell. My YA books haven't sold squat, despite the fact that my kids loved them. LE Modesitt warned me not to try to be all things to all people, but I wanted to share an adventure with my son, Pierce. I still have a decent hit ratio. My highest rated book ever (4.8/5) and the one that has garnered some of my most loyal and vocal fans is "Foundation for the Lost." However, it just doesn't sell. After devoting time to this issue, I have decided that first, the book belongs in Urban not Epic fantasy. Further, the cover, which brings most people into the parlor to shop, needed help. Renee did exactly what I asked, but I asked for the wrong thing. Since the chess pieces on the cover may have turned people off, I asked her to update the cover. She squeezed me in on her birthday. (thanks!) Here's the before and after for Foundation: