Tuesday, May 15, 2018

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The K2 Virus by Scott Rhine

The K2 Virus

by Scott Rhine

Giveaway ends May 30, 2018.
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Monday, May 14, 2018

Word of the Day -- Gazingstock

I'm in the middle of upgrading my PREEN pre-edit engine to recognize archaic words, specifically common-domain novels from a century ago and the original King James Bible. Many of the words like "spaketh" are out of usage because English dropped the personal form of you, thou (like the Spanish word tu). Some are alternate spelling still used only by the Church of England or obscure agricultural textbooks. A few, however, are worth reviving.

We all know the term "laughingstock," the object of ridicule and derision, but how many of us knew that someone who is stared at by everyone who passes (for whatever reason) is called a "gazingstock." This could be a woman in a bikini or the idiot who wrecks his car while gawking.
This weekend at my house, it was the sign my daughter made my wife for Mother's Day.
No automatic alt text available.
Other fun ones included:
winebibber--a high-end lush like Penny on "Big Bang Theory."
sith--before "Star Wars," it meant since.
whoremonger--much more fun to say than pimp.
firkin--a quarter-barrel, also fun to say after you've had a few drinks.
knop--an ornamental knob, sort of a cross between fop and knob.
hap--chance, fortune, happening. Ever wonder where the word hapless came from? Now you know.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Blessings in Disguise

When bad things happen to you, sometimes it's for a good reason. Before you curse your luck, wait a while for the context.

Last summer, we had a cruise cancelled by a hurricane, and my wife really needed a vacation. Mainly due to the kids' school schedule, the only comparable cruise we could find was a 15 day trip to Hawaii and back on the Princess line. Disney was better on every account, other than the covered pool, but I did it to make my wife happy.

The best parts were Rainbow Falls where the kids got to crawl on the rocks and all the sea life we got to see on the beach: turtles, whales, and sea lions galore. My daughter made a hilarious t-shirt proclaiming "Gerald is My Spirit Animal"(from Finding Dory). Tammy turned out to be good at hula class, but her favorite time is days at sea.

The night we left Hawaii, at two a.m., I was awakened by a rattling sound. My lower rear crown came loose, and I coughed it into my hand. I'd never lost a crown before, but I saved it just in case. From rinsing my mouth out, I learned that the exposed nerve was *very* sensitive. No eating for
me until I got it fixed.

Next morning, skipping breakfast, I went straight to the ship's doctor. Not being a dentist, he couldn't help me. But he did give me pain pills a huge dose of antibiotics. Without a crown to cover the root for the six or seven days that it would take to get home, it was "an open highway for infection." I obtained some pink putty that they use to temporarily fix dentures, but it didn't help much other than keeping the root covered for a few hours at a time. The bite plane was never right, so I couldn't chew anything, even on the other side. It also popped out while I was sleeping on two other occasions, so I slept upright and fitfully.

While everyone else was enjoying the fine dining room with pastries, pecan pie, steak, and lobster, I ate at the buffet. If I was very careful, I could eat scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes, and pudding. Sometimes if the fish was mushy enough, I could swallow that too. At the peak of the cruise, I hit 215 pounds. When I weighed myself at home, I was 202. I lost weight on the cruise. That's not the worst part. The antibiotics we spent $200 on caused nausea, cramping, and diarrhea. I spent half my day in the bathroom or bed. Almost 50 days later, I still take daily pro-biotic pills and yogurt to rebuild my intestinal flora. My first experience was with Skyr Icelandic brand. Inside the lid, it brags "with protein and none of that awful sugar." I still shudder at the experience like eating cold vomit.

Though my dentist reapplied the old crown the first day, I still don't have a permanent replacement crown. What's the silver lining I bragged about in the title?

A little backstory. Almost three years ago, I started itching all over my body. No just a little. My face looked like it had Klingon bumps. Everyplace clothing touched me raised a rash or skin tags. Doctors couldn't explain it. They spent a year looking for the reason. Creams were no help because the problem was coming from the inside. After a year of this, a dermatologist drew on my back with a tongue depressor. The X showed up like a red welt within seconds. "Dermatographia," he said casually. My body's immune system was on high alert, attacking everything. "Have you been checked for cancer? That's usually the cause in men your age." He put me on antihistamines, and I started a series of screenings. Okay, Blue Cross covers colonoscopies, but only if they find NOTHING. If there is anything to find, even something benign, you pay for it all. I think they call that "double or nothing" in Vegas. Several uncomfortable months later, the dermatographia was ruled idiopathic, which means they have no idea what triggered it. My specialist told me after six months of a pill a day, I'd be cured. A nurse told me even one of those pills would knock her out.

After two years of antihistamines, I was at 5 times my starting dosage. By 8 every night, if I hadn't taken my pills, I would claw my face off itching. No one could tell me why or how to end it.
The first night of antibiotics, at nine o'clock, for the first time in three years, I didn't itch! Each week, I reduced my dosage of the antihistamines until a week ago, I was off it altogether. I am medication and itch-free--cured because my crown fell out and ruined my vacation.

What's more? The change in diet has helped me keep the pounds off. I'm pre-diabetic. A few other family members have it full on, and my sister almost went blind before they found it. I couldn't imagine being unable to read or write anymore. My best bet to prevent it is to control my weight. I can't even eat a full portion of spaghetti without skewing my test results for days.

Losing my crown was a blessing. I think that God healed me and gave me a subtle reminder at the same time. I also think he laughed his butt off watching me eat Skyr.

by popular demand, a photo of Emily's T-shirt:

Monday, October 30, 2017

Simply Said

At a meeting of the Minnesota Speculative Fiction Society (MinnSpec) critique group, a veteran said that I had “said bookisms” in my story. In the days when the Hardy Boys and Barsoom books were written, it was common for new authors to avoid the use of the word “said”. They even had a book of alternatives. However, this often results in the author sounding purple--like Frasier Crane at his most presumptuous trying to impress someone. At worst, you end up using a word with other associations and turning your work into a “Tom Swifty.” In Hardy Boys, Biff often “ejaculated” in public. Authors like Stephen King and Elmor Leonard advise that you should avoid all but the most basic invisible words: said, asked, replied, and sometimes whispered. Shouting is effectively conveyed by the use of the exclamation point (!). Of course, there are always times when you want to pick exactly the right tool for the job. In military fiction, one could make a case for words like ordered and reported. A dying man with a punctured lung might rasp or wheeze, but these should be the exception rather than the rule.

I made my own list of synonyms for “said” and taught my editing program to flag them. Below are the first 188 I came up with. Other more physical variants like “spat, giggled, chuckled, laughed, shrugged, or smiled” aren’t considered valid dialog tags at all.

acceded, accused, added, admitted, admonished, advised, agreed, alluded, amended, announced, answered, apologized, argued, asked, asserted, assured, averred,
barked, bellowed, bemoaned, berated, blurted, blustered, bragged,
cajoled, cautioned, chanted, chastened, chastized, cheered, chided, claimed, coaxed, commanded, complained, conceded, concluded, confessed, confided, confirmed, continued, corrected, countered, cried, croaked, crooned,
declared, decided, decreed, deduced, demanded, demurred, directed, drawled,
echoed, ejaculated, elaborated, elucidated, embellished, encouraged, enthused, espoused, evinced, exclaimed, explained, exposited, expounded,
fibbed, finked, fretted, fussed,
gasped, gloated, goaded, griped, groaned, growled, grumbled, grunted, guessed,
hinted, hissed,
implied, inquired, insinuated, insisted, interceded, interjected, interrupted, intoned,
japed, jeered, jested, joked,
lamented, lectured, lied, lobbied,
marveled, motioned, mewled, moaned, mumbled, murmured, mused, muttered,
objected, observed, offered, opined, ordered,
persisted, pleaded, pontificated, posited, prayed, pressed, proclaimed, proffered, promised, prompted, proposed, protested, purred,
queried, quibbled, quipped,
railed, ranted, rasped, reasoned, recited, recommended, reflected, reiterated, related, relayed, remarked, reminded, repeated,  reported, requested, responded, retorted, roared, rumbled,
sang, scoffed, scolded, screamed, screeched, shouted, shrieked, snapped, sobbed, soothed, squealed, stammered, stated, stipulated, stressed, stuttered, suggested, summarized, swore,
taunted, teased, temporized, threatened,
urged, uttered,
ventured, volunteered, vowed,
waffled, wailed, warned, wheedled, wheezed, whimpered, whined, wondered,

yammered, yelled,

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Mewtwo Battle Results

For those who haven't received an invitation, here is what one looks like in your pokebag (left). When you click on it, it tells you the date, place, and time range of the raid. (right) Note that this was a field test version.

Only three of the four of us received the invitation on Tuesday night for Saturday. Everyone caught pokemon like crazy for days to pump up their front lines. I had no pokeballs left. I was reduced to feeding 65 bananas to my people in the gym for stardust. It also freed up space in my bag. Today, we left at intermission during a volleyball tournament to attend the big EX raid event. 28 people arrived for a contest that could only hold 20. With only three minutes, two groups wrestled for control of the gym. By spamming it with berries, Blue held the day to gain an extra ball's bonus. Then came gamer's revenge. We divided up into "equal" teams, with the Blue group getting only 11 players.

In a last minute twist, one of our players was so nervous that she deleted the Pokemon Game from her phone. We had to loan her an iPhone. The next surprise was worse: this Mewtwo wasn't shadowball or focus blast. Instead, he caught us off-guard with hyperbeam. Fortunately, we still took it easily with 175 left on the clock. My Murkrow cannon was a resounding success! I earned extra balls for dealing the most damage in our group. I hit him 4 times with the big crow attacks--lasting a record 30 seconds in the arena. The boss had only a millimeter of red remaining when my third and final Umbreon fainted. I let the computer pick the second wave because we were so close to victory. Mistake. In the last twelve seconds, he burned through three of my biggest bullies (2800 CP). Everyone noted that his tail end was far more vicious than the opening.

My daughter caught her Mewtwo on the first ball. My first ball phased through him like he was a ghost (this happened 3 out of the 14 balls). My son caught his on the last ball, but I went home empty, consoling myself with 9 rare candies.

I worked the concession stands until about four when an alert was posted to the group's Facebook page. The legendary Entei had arrived early. My wife sent Pierce and I with all four phones. We took him with 11 people. Gyrados, Rhydon, and Tyranitar wiped the floor with him. We didn't even burn through our first wave of attackers. My kids caught him, while I got nine more rare candies. My second Blissey will be evolving any day now.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Pokemon Go Mewtwo Raid Battle--or a Poor Man's Tyranitar

My kids and I got invitations to the EX raid battle against Mewtwo this Saturday. We're very excited. They both have two Tyranitars they're pumping up, the dark weapon of choice against the psychic terror. But what if you're not lucky enough to have caught one in a raid battle? My son takes his killing machine Ryan on walks around the neighborhood while I stay at home and cry. [ insert Bohemian Rhapsody line about being a poor boy from a poor family ] I just have one new Blissey and one decent Lugia who's been my goto bully for raids. The damage being dealt is so fast and furious that I'm expecting to go through three complete sets of Pokemon. Who do I use for the remaining 16 sacrificial lambs?

I've been reading the blogs, and opinions vary. Most list Gengar (known as a glass cannon) if you can keep him around long enough to fire his big attack once. Conventional wisdom also favors the popular battle monsters Blissy and Snorlax. Umbreon, Scizor, and Houndoom are mentioned grudgingly as well. I thought I would do my own math because I have a theory about using an army of disposable Murkrows and maxed-out hyperbeam Furrets with sucker-punch (dark move for double damage). To prove my theory, I made a table of everything in my pokebox. The first conclusion I drew was that no one gets out of this arena alive. It boils down to how much damage you can do and how long you last. Since bringing in a new set of pokemon can take 15 seconds, I factored this dead time in when I computed average damage per second. Your mileage may vary, but the experiment revealed a few surprise heroes.

name type seconds survival damage per sec
Umbreon dark 10 34
Gengar ghost 7 30.5
Murkrow dark 7 28
Tyranitar dark 14 27
Steelix* steel 9 27
Lugia psychic 14 26
Wigglytuff fairy 14 26
Granbull faerie 7 26
Houndoom dark 9 25
Furret normal 7 25
Slowking psychic 14 24
Ditto vs shadowball normal 7 23.5
Lapras water 7 22
Magneton steel 7 20
Vaporeon water 14 19
Dragonite dragon 7 19
Snorlax normal 14 18.5
Rhydon ground 13 18
Girados water 12 18
Blissy fairy 21 17
Alakazam future sight psychic 7 13
Chansey fairy 21 8.5
Ursarang normal 6 8
Pinsir bug 5 7
Scizor steel 7 6

* Note: Steelix is just an estimate because I've never hatched more than one Onyx. But it's one of the best defensive pokemon when you factor in steel's resistance to psychic. It can also be trained to have a dark fast attack.

Tactic 1: Disposable Rocket Launchers
The pokemon highlighted in yellow are ideal candidates for the first wave. Youfurrets "wild weasel" like the missile. Place these pokemon in with your Umbreons and Gengars in the initial charge to pump up your damage bonus and earn more capture balls.
You want to do as much damage as you can in the opening round with dark attacks. I've renamed all these first wave candidates with the number 1 at the front so I can replace all the computer-selected fodder. Murkrows might not be good for much, but the thousand-CP ones I find every day (and Furrets) can be used and then traded away WITHOUT BEING REVIVED. This also solves the cleanup problem. I'm thinking of renaming my war

Tactic 2: The Dogs of War
In D&D, we often found loopholes to the rules and exploited them mercilessly. When our characters found out that 25GP war dogs were twice as tough as we were at first level, everyone bought two. In our case, there are several pokemon (in orange) who may only last seven seconds but can dole out disproportionate damage due to immunities or special cases. 
  • Granbull has a ton of hit points, coupled with a 12 point dark attack which doubles to 24 due
    to Mewtwo's weakness. He might not always get in his 100-point close combat move, but by then, you've done almost as much as the Tyranitar standing next to you.
  • Ditto would half damage fom psychic like his opponent. He also gets the same attacks. If your Mewtwo has shadowball as its main attack, he just provided the way for you to hit him with his biggest weakness! 
  • Lapras was unexpected. I mean, who expects something the size of a house landing on you. Fortunately, he is just over the hit point threshold to survive until he can use his charged attack, and as a dragon, he has some huge attacks.
  • Magneton is one of the rare steel types which I believe take half damage from psychic. If your MewTwo uses focus blast, this one is your first line of defense. His electrical attacks pack a punch, and he has enough hit points to deliver one big blast.
Tactic 3: The Anchor
The final person in a relay race is more important than the first because their endurance will win or lose the race. So on the final wave when the raid boss is almost through, the computer starts picking STUPID things for you that won't last two seconds. Take five seconds or ten seconds to change a couple to some of our surprise finishers (in pink). 
  • Wigglytuff might not have a big CP value, but he can have 200 hit points. Combined with his dark fast attack (feint) that does 20 every second before his opponent can react, he is a can of whoop-ass waiting to be opened. With a some creative dodging, he can take you into your final stretch when no one else has the heart.

  • Slowking gets a bad rap because he acts like a drunken Homer Simpson.
    However, as part psychic, he only takes half damage from the devastating confusion and focus blasts. His confusion does the SAME damage as the boss, but his fire attack does MORE. MewTwo only does 60 to the bro, while he dishes out 140. Who cares if he can't find the door? We want him there for the coup de grace.

  • Wobuffet is a late entry. When spinning on Victory Memorial Parkway in Minneapolis, we caught ten of them. What good are they if they don't evolve and are only 800 CP? It's psychic with almost 300 HP, which means it can last as long as Blissey or Lugia! It only does an average of 13 points a second, but that could be enough to finish the boss, 
As mentioned before, none of these theories have been tested in battle yet, but lacking a pet dinosaur, a boy has to get creative. Game on!

Saturday, September 9, 2017

How Amazon Star Ratings Work.... and Don't

Every time you rate a book, 1-5, it goes into a cumulative rating for that product. Amazon considers a 3 rating as unfavorable. I've had a number of 3-star reviews with titles like "great read," but this balances out over the span of dozens of reviews. The number-one value the customer judges your product by (apart from your cover) is the cumulative rating, How does Amazon compute this all important number?

If you hover over the cumulative rating of a book, it explains that the value isn't an average of all the reviews but a sophisticated proprietary result of machine learning based on review age and verified purchase status. Finding a bug in their algorithm, I explored.

In 21 out of my 23 books over a span of 5 years, it was exactly the average. The two exceptions are the interesting part.

1) My book "The Redemption of Mata Hari" has a straight average of 4 for 6 reviews, yet they rated the book a 3.7. The verified reviews averaged 3 and the unverified were all 5s. The primary reason was a 2-star rating that complained the book talked about sex too much...when the main female character was a succubus. Therefore, there is a clear discrepancy between the two rating groups. To compensate, the formula for the overall star value is weighted,
0.65 * verified + 0.35 * unverified.
On the face, this is fair. It does seem to be a way to avoid those who are "cheating" the system. Unfortunately, Amazon doesn't automatically mark a review as verified if you bought it. Even after the fact, Amazon provides no way to change that flag. Customer service doesn't have that capability. When asked how one can get the designator, they said the only certain way is to go in through your recent orders page on My Account to do the review. If Amazon sends you a "rate this" email, it also connects the dots. Why not when you're logged in normally? At the moment of submittal from your account, the code could easily check the purchase history, or do a periodic system-wide update of this status. The "we can't get there from here" statement doesn't hold water for a company that employs so many experts on data mining. The page for the book itself tells you in a blue banner across the top when you purchased it. That means it's already in an active variable for the java script, no trouble to access when you hit the review button.

2) My book "Foundation for the Lost" had a correct average of 4.5 after 14 reviews, the same as every other book. Then, on 9/1/17, I earned another 5-star review from a verified purchase. Excited, I computed that this would bump my rating by either metric to 4.7. After a week, nothing changed. The computation wasn't updating from the database. So I called support. They agreed that this wasn't reasonable behavior, but there's a special group dedicated to just this issue. He sent in a ticket and told me I would have an explanation by email. A couple days later, I got an email that was literally someone mousing the info text you see when you hover over the star rating, stressing that it was machine learning--nothing more or less. I completed everything but my dissertation for a PhD in computer science with a minor in math. I have 12 software patents and 30 years of commercial programming experience. While learning might phase out the emphasis of the oldest data, it would never throw out the latest and more reliable category. This response is stonewalling for a bug. Amazon needs to be accountable like any company taking 30 percent of my sales in exchange for these services.

I should probably just keep trying until they give me an honest answer, right? For my first audiobook bounty, it took me over 10 months before their bureaucracy gave me a response. That was the best case. In the worst case, Amazon support people gave me another phone number to call for help:
1-888-280-4331. This number offers you three too-good-to-be-true deals that require your credit-card number. If you don't fall for any of them after five minutes, the recording demands that you hang up. It shouts the demand three times and then plays a loud, annoying tone. This is also stonewalling. When asked to rate this interaction, I gave them the lowest possible and used words like "unacceptable." In any company, this would have merited an apology. Either they don't read these objections, or one-star customer service is so common that they can't reply to all of them.

I'm not saying this "machine learning" emperor has no clothes, but the fig leaf is pretty small.