Friday, July 31, 2015

Episode 3 of Silence Like Diamonds is up early, and I was up late and had some futuristical thoughts about communication relay drones.


So once again I'm flogging my serialized novelet over in Light Reading, an I-hope-fun bit of light summer adventure fiction, set in the near future. And since there's another episode up -- Episode 3, "Principle One" --  go ahead, scoot on over and read that! -- I thought I'd talk about something that's already been in the story in Episodes 1 and 2, since Mitch has made dire threats about what he will do if I blog spoilers for my own story. (I won't, Mitch. Really, I won't. Could you release Dad, now, please?)
Since drones are a hot topic in the communications field today, and since the original story request mentioned them with considerable passion, here a few drone-thoughts, not necessarily in any order:
•Crewed aircraft nowadays are limited, more and more, by the crew. A human body can only take so much acceleration, insists on having continuous access to heavy and hard-to-handle materials like oxygen and water, and has a dreadfully slow narrowband interface to its environment, coupled to an internal electrochemical processing system that is even more dreadfully slow. As designers are becoming free of the pilot, amazing possibilities are coming up; there was no point in trying to engineer a 20-g turn that would kill everyone aboard, but now that there's no one aboard, that limit is gone. You couldn't do much with an aircraft that fit into a suitcase if it had to have a cockpit big enough for at least a jockey; now there are already drones out there smaller than most birds.
This trend is only going to accelerate as a new generation of designers comes into the workforce never having had to think about pilots or passengers. I played around with that idea with the Griffon, the super-drone that circles communications hotspots at 35,000 meters* and reshapes itself for convenience, usually shaped like an airplane, but ascending like a blimp, and descending like a dart as needed.
•Which brings me to another potential that isn't yet fully realized by either us sci-fi folk or more serious tech people: the revolution in materials science is just getting underway. For one thing, computer time and storage and speed are only beginning to make real computational molecular design possible to contemplate. We don't even really know what to wish for yet.  I'll give you one I thought about describing for the Griffon and then decided was too long to go into: if you had thin, flexible tubes that could handle the internal pressure required, you could use them to hold a thin, light envelope of some other extremely strong material open ... and thus your balloon could be just an inflated shell with a near-vacuum inside.  Not only does that make for a less explosion-prone, better-lifting balloon filler, but with enough energy and the right gear, you can always make more vacuum -- it might be a long time before you needed to refill the tanks.
•What's so great about a stratospheric drone?  Well, at the height the Griffon is flying, the horizon is about 670 km away -- the one over Arcata could talk directly to San Luis Obispo, Portland, and Reno, almost to Boise. And if it's communicating with another Griffon at the same altitude, that doubles the distance -- from Tijuana to Vancouver BC, all the way out to Calgary and Grand Junction. With a drone over every population concentration, and a few over the oceans, that puts the travel distance for a signal from any point on Earth to anywhere else at about 20,150 km, maximum, which is about 67 microseconds at light speed. Compare that with 204,000 km and 680 microseconds for geosynchronous, and you're looking at an unbeatable advantage.
•The other drone I made up was the Roverino, which Markus describes as "common as crows around a tech town." The idea I had here was that you've got a communications drone the size of a middling model airplane but it's smart; it records billable milliseconds for every internet packet it passes on, relaying that information to its owner, and it wanders around seeking out high-value transmitters. Besides doing obvious things like following always-on-the-internet people around, circling office buildings to add wireless capacity, and swarming to emergency sites or news stories to provide extra bandwidth, Roverinos would be getting much of their traffic from other Roverinos; they really would flock and swarm like birds. Probably, like birds, they'd also learn and adopt different strategies; you'd get some "loners"  and "pioneers" who  would be looking for isolated hotspots they could have all to themselves, lazy "freeloaders" who would simply follow the biggest flock, perhaps even "alphas" that many other Roverinos would follow.
•And of course that's just two possibilities. I think the drone-relay world is going to look more like an ecology than an economy.
•But before we start feeling all Brautigan about being watched over by machines of loving grace: consider too that in a true Internet of Things, anything can be weaponized.  The 9-11 terrorists turned four airliners into cruise missiles (three successfully), but it cost them 20 of their own to do it.  The future is going to look more like the Stuxnet attacks on Iran: one day the centrifuges went berserk and tore themselves apart, effectively shutting down the nuclear program. 
But it's also going to be a future of big data, and that's why I think the principle of stochastic terror will play a bigger role than people are realizing. If you haven't run across the concept before,  "stochastic terror" is the technique of broadcasting or publishing in a way intended to set off sympathetic-to-your-side "lone wolves" or "lunatics" who then carry out violent attacks on your enemies.  Conservatives tend to see it in cases like Mohammed Youssef Abdulazeez and Dzhokar Tsarnaev; liberals see it just as clearly in Dylann Roof and Jared Loughner.
But a converted and riled-up lunatic is a poor weapon compared to a virused drone. First of all, other people notice when another human being begins to consider ultra-violent crimes; their behavior changes and there's a good chance someone will notice and catch them. But a virus can lie dormant until the moment comes.
Moreover, a virus doesn't start to have second thoughts, or get a good lover, job, or medication and start to think it has something to lose.
And finally, a virus is eternally vigilant. So imagine, if you will, that a malign and patient virusmaker sets something loose among the drone population that lies in wait until a national political convention; and then one day, with hundreds or thousands of officeholders, party officials, and activists of one party all in the air as they arrive or leave, all the drones in a city swarm toward the arriving or departing flights, heading straight into cockpit windshields or jet engine intakes (but only of the planes actually carrying "targets", since the system could also know who was on board each one.
Pleasant dreams, everyone!
Meanwhile, nothing that dark is happening in "Silence Like Diamonds." Better go cheer yourselves up over there.
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*35,000 meters is about 114,000 feet, or 21 miles, for the incurably US-system reader. That's up in the range that the media inaccurately describe as "the edge of space" when crazed engineers parachute from it  or fifth-grade girls send instrument packages up to it on  balloons

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

How nine heuristic rules, a handful of points, links, and curves, and some historical parallels all come together in a serial


Some of you have started reading the serial novelet by me over at Light Reading, "Silence Like Diamonds." Episode 1 came out last Friday; as I write this, Episode 2 is a few hours from being officially live, and that link should already be working for anyone who likes that "advanced peek" feeling.

While the serial lasts, I'm going to try to say something around the time each episode comes out.

The whole trick with this "credible near future" stuff is arithmetic and minimum times. Yip and her sister Yazzy are somewhere in their mid thirties at the time of the story, since each of them have established careers in a difficult field, but they're not grizzled old veterans, and what they actually do for a living (more about that in a future blog) is an occupation that doesn't fully exist in 2015.

The story is set around 2030, plus or minus maybe two years. So right now, Yip and Yazzy are going to some university and will graduate within a couple of years. They're at the young end of Millennials or the old end of Generation To Be Named.

So that's who they are: your kids (if you're my age), the summer intern where you work now, perhaps your students, maybe you on your first real job (assuming you just grabbed your first foothold on the tech ladder).

Now what about the world they're in?

The idea of near-term hard sf is to try to move things out of the lab into the real world, not to pull wish-fulfillments and sheer magic utterly out of fantasy. So this version of 2030 has no city on Mars, no hoverboards, no indistinguishable-from-people androids, no immortality injection and no franchise called "Just Fingers" that specializes in regenerating appendages for accident victims.

The time it takes from research results being announced to full commercial deployment varies a lot more than the time from early 20-something to experienced mid-30s, but there are some predictable aspects to that as well.

Here are nine of my favorite tricks for guessing how far  into the future the deployments of new technologies are:

• Everyone lies about how close lab-only things are to going into application, prototype, and production. It's essential for getting funding, after all. So things that are just being shown off in lab tours now, and are supposed to be shrink-wrapped and delivered next year, will probably happen in three.
 •home products come in at very high cost and fall rapidly in price, deploying swiftly as they do (some of you will remember when a smart phone was called a Blackberry and was a symbol of trendy wealth). It was a long, long trip from the Altair 8800 to the Apple IIe, TRS-80, and Commodore 64, about ten years to get to 5% market penetration -- but ten years after that, the home computer was ubiquitous and a majority of students going off to college were taking a computer with them.
•software and mathematical breakthroughs deploy all but instantly, because it's really just a matter of a proficient coder understanding what the math/logic says and writing it in valid code, and the transition from "one smart coder" to "a hundred thousand script kiddies" is nearly as quick as cut and paste.(This is particularly obvious in data science, where, for example, the time between a mathematician developing a new technique and a package to perform it becoming available in R, SAS, MySQL, etc. is measured in weeks rather than years).
•new business models flare up, go dormant, begin to grow quietly, and then suddenly have already taken over. "Oh, them, they're certainly trendy ... hey, they're still around but it's not exciting like it was ... gee, every year they have more market share, I wonder if ... I, for one, welcome the new masters of our humble economy..." For many years entrepreneur-coaches have used the example that anyone can make a better hamburger than McDonalds but making a better business model is something else again; I'd go farther and say that often even long after there has been a spectacular success, it's very difficult for most companies even to plagiarize a great business model. So no matter how advanced the tech, it will still have to be distributed via a large number of companies that don't know what they're doing, don't do it very well, and really aren't sure what they should be doing.
•"the street finds it own uses for technology," as William Gibson taught us all. Just the other day I saw an ad for a singing teacher who offers rates for "in person or Skype." I very much doubt that the developers of Skype intended that, any more than the developers at Google, Amazon, YouTube or Craigslist had any idea what else they'd be doing in the world. Whether it's as humble as WD-40 and duct tape, or as high end as DNA sequencing and nuclear magnetic resonance, somewhere out there someone will make it do something its creators never thought of.
•exponential growth without limit is exciting for sci-fi writers, but it is vanishingly rare; far more commonly, what looks like an "explosion" is merely the middle part of a logistic curve,
Wil McCarthy wrote a pretty funny alternate history a few years ago by treating the 19th century explosive growth and  connectivity of railroads as if the curve had been exponential rather than logistic. John Hersey's famous My Petition for More Space is another exponential that should have been logistic, about population growth (where do people in that world find time and space to do all that reproducing, and what exactly are they eating?). Infamously, the city of New York forecast in 1894 that within a few decades, all its resources would be needed just to haul horse manure out of the city (as we all know, this didn't happen to New York. It happened to Washington and Hollywood). The exponential curve may be fun and dramatic and sexy, but the logistic one is the one to bet on. What's growing rapidly today may saturate tomorrow and become as common as phones.
•almost as fun and entertaining as exponential growth is the often-forgotten possibility of reversal.  Nuclear arsenals grew at apparently exponential rates for more than a decade, but today there are only about as many as there were in 1960.

Certain high-fashion products show similar patterns: plumes for ladies' hats, plus-fours, and white plastic go-go boots.  And in the larger scale of history, there are the concluding lines  from Andrei Amalrik's Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? (written in 1969, another attempt at a 15 year forecast):
Meanwhile, we are told, Western prognosticators are indeed worried by the growth of the cities and the difficulties brought on by the rapid pace of scientific and technological progress. Evidently, if "futurology" had existed in Imperial Rome, where, as we are told, people were already erecting six-story buildings and children's merry-go-rounds were driven by steam, the fifth-century "futurologists" would have predicted for the following century r the construction of twenty-story buildings and the industrial utilization of steam power. 

As we now know, however, in the sixth century goats were grazing in the Forum just as they are doing now, beneath my window in this village. 
What appears to be growing exponentially today may tomorrow reverse and become as dead as cassette tapes.
•"Information wants to be free" was not about politics, as is clearly shown by the very next sentence Stewart Brand spoke: "Information wants to be expensive." The root of this contradiction is that the value of information depends on who else has it and what they do with it, changes whenever it moves, and is catalytic for an enormous number of other processes. Information behaves rather like money with an unreadable expiration date or a randomly tested transaction limit; every time you gain value from it you risk making it worthless, and inevitably, sooner or later, something does.
•forecasts about coming ages and changes in human culture are generally rooted in observed truth, but nothing ever comes out as predicted. Robert Heinlein made up a nice little parable about the lab where they created four escape paths of exactly the same difficulty from a cage and put an ape in to see which one he'd use; the ape escaped the fifth way. Collectively, humans are that fifth-way ape; we often have some idea of where we're going but we rarely go there by the way that seems obvious, and when we get there, it doesn't look like much like what we thought it would.

I used all those tricks at one point or another in devising a world for "Silence Like Diamonds," but for the moment let me just talk about one way I used the last one.

You may have run across the currently-trendy notion of the Internet of Things, the idea of having almost everything in your physical environment wired to talk to almost everything else in the house. Eventually, presumably, your car (which is driving you home while you finish some paperwork) phones your house. It alerts the air conditioning that you are hung up in traffic and to delay coming on till you clear that bottleneck on the interstate. The refrigerator and blender start making up something soothing (and the fridge issues a call so that the drone from the local ice cream store schedules a restocking delivery). The music player queues up the "calm and happy" mix, the shower starts warming water in the reserve tank, and so forth. 

But even away from home, your phone records (by checking RFIDs or their successors) all the things you look at in the store, and reports it to the store chain's intelligence system (with the phone company collecting a small fee).  Face recognition software in half a dozen businesses around your workplace pick you up from security cameras and know what way you take from the parking lot to work. Knowing who walks by and what they like, stores on your route put more clothing you like in their windows. 

All the gadgets in your life gang up to make you happier.

It always strikes me that in most such scenarios, we assume that the human being is a petty tyrant having a bad day. The machines either sound as if they are living in fear of our rage, or acting as very large comforting invisible nannies who will have our milk and cookies and a big hug ready for us no matter how bad the world has been, or like a neurotic parent desperately trying to please a tantrum-prone jaded brat.  It all seems very infantilizing.

Compounding that infantilization, to give you everything you really want, before or at latest when you want it, an Internet of Things has to know everything you want or might want, including the wants you can't admit to and the wants you haven't felt yet and the wants that are only just emerging from the creative software of the marketing people. The liberal-feared surveillance state and conservative-feared nanny state are both much less intrusive than the probably-purely-commercial instant-gratification state. But of course, it's all much less scary because it's not about preventing you from doing what you want (like the cop on every corner), or making you do what someone else wants (like the nanny in every bedroom). No, not at all.  It's about always giving you what you want as soon as you want it, and knowing enough to do that.

Like Santa. Remember, he sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake ...  (As Allan Sherman remarked, who did he think he was, J. Edgar Hoover?)

So you've got a world that runs on the ability for everyone to quickly know anything that is public -- and the value of keeping information private is astronomical. The relationship between cybersecurity and security breaches becomes something like the relationship between health care and death: you can buy huge amounts of the former, and make the latter very unlikely, but the reaper (or the hacker) always wins in the long run. In such a world, the number and variety of communications security services and systems is going to go through a "Cambrian explosion" -- the evolutionary phenomenon that when there is a drastic increase in the variety of niches, all sorts of strange things grow, making more niches in which more things grow --

Until the reversal, or until the first derivative of that logistic curve starts to bend downward.  There, that ought to be a cliffhanger to hold you for a while ...

Friday I'll probably talk a bit about the drones that have been a big part of the plot so far, since I've gotten a few emails about them in the last couple days. After that ... well, information wants to be expensive.  And time is money.  So after a bit more time, more information.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Tomorrow morning: Fresh serial!


First of all, this is all about promoting my serialized novelet, "Silence Like Diamonds," which begins appearing on Friday, July 24, in Light Reading, which is a moderately serious online journal covering the tech-management interface in the advanced communications industry (when it was founded, optical was the hottest area; they've broadened a bit since). So if you'd rather just read some fiction, get on over there;  the web link is live now, so you can get a sneak peek, the equivalent of crawling under the tent into the sideshow while the geek is still saying his bye-byes to the chickens.
And with that promotional bit taken care of, I shall now digress all over the landscape of the ruins of my once-active mind, as is my wont.
A long time ago I wrote a long-forgotten blog post about the difference between novellas and novelets.   I think it still holds up.
The gist of it is this: the magazine length standard originated back when reading was the main off-work entertainment for a very large (compared to the present) fraction of the population. Fewer people were able to read in the 1910-50 era (though perhaps not as few as some people imagine), but the readers of the time were at least proficient decoders, they didn't have a lot of alternatives, and they read a lot.
So magazines, knowing that they had to produce reliable entertainment to fit into people's lives properly, very sensibly started labeling stories with their length.  "Short story"= read at one sitting, i.e. an hour or so.  "Short-short," read on your fifteen minute break. "Novelet" or "novelette"* meant "after dinner before earlyish bed or a good radio program," or perhaps "read over a few trolley rides." Novella meant "long Sunday afternoon" or "about a week of commutes."
But the words themselves came from the literary sphere.  I guess I'll just quote myself from the earlier post; I don't think I'm going to say it better this time:
Novelet: Novelettes, in the 19th century popular press where the word was popularized, were originally "good parts versions" of adventure stories – all the action scenes (action broadly defined – not just explosions and fights, but also kisses, quarrels, revelations, oaths, all that other stuff that is memorable in a book) with just enough narrative summary between so that the reader could follow the story – lots of do and minimal be.  You could call them self-abridgements of never-finished novels, and because they were a way to present blood and thunder in a small package, oriented as much toward pure entertainment as any form ever has been, a stain of disreputability used to cling to the term.
Novella: Novellas, on the other hand, were conceived as a kind of fusion between short stories and novels; their origin is much farther up the brow.  A flock of artsy-serious types in the 1880-1920 era thought short-story single powerful effects were great but wanted to do them with novel-like complexity.  It turned out you could do that, but it was pretty hard to sustain at the kind of length that you find in Dickens, Thackeray, or Trollope (even Dickens couldn't – A Christmas Carol  is a novella).
Novellas became a somewhat awkward form commercially (which only enhanced their prestige) because they made for a too-slim volume for book buyers (who wanted to make sure they were getting enough literature per expenditure) and too long a piece for most magazines (whose readers wanted variety, something harder to give them if you let one novella take up room that could be occupied by five to seven short stories.)  It's a heavy-on-the-be form in which a dense structure of meaning is laid onto a few interesting incidentes (sometimes only one).  Think of how much The Secret Sharer, Beyond Bedlam, or The Last of the Winnebagos revolve around what it's like to be standing there in the moment when a conventionally honest man makes a self-admitted killer his best friend and confidant, when several people who are by our definitions mad come to realize how much they prefer what we call madness to what we call sanity, or just to be the owner/keeper of one of the world's last dogs and to have to cope with its death. 
As longtime readers have probably noticed, I tend to think that the real distinction should not be length at all.
Novelets are about a high speed ride thrill ride in which we skip most of that "makes it real" state of being stuff and just get to the stuff blowing up. Novellas are about a state of being a particular person at a particular time. You can mix them, for sure, but you tend to gain words as you do, and end up at the novel, which is not what I'm talking about today.**
Well, a few weeks ago, Mitch Wagner, who is a general purpose cool guy and one of my favorite editors to work with, called me up with an idea; we hadn't worked together in a while, and he'd come up with an idea for livening up things at Light Reading by adding some near-future hard sf, maybe playing around with some of the ideas that are in the labs now and will be busting out to disrupt all our lives***  The unusual venue and form dictated a few things:
•it would be published in a tech magazine with strict space limits,
•they wanted a serial to keep the regular readers looking in during the slow summer months
•they wanted science fiction to lure more of the techish audience to see what they're doing at Light Reading****
I was apparently a good guy to talk to because I've written a certain amount of science fiction, some of it hard and some of it adventurish, and moreover I'd recently done some tech journalism covering communications issues (example).
So we cooked up the basic rules: Exactly ten episodes, as close to 1000 words each as possible (to be broken someplace very close to the middle), some kind of cliffhanger at the end of each episode, and a fair bit of tech speculation over the whole thing.  
And to my surprise, I found that was fun to work within.  It's like haiku, sonnet, rondel, sonata, twelve-bar blues, or the well-made play; the form is strict but it somehow pushes you into  creating rather than strangles your drive.
Quintessentially, those rules pushed me into a real old-fashioned, literary-not-word-count sense novelet. At least  I think so. There's actually enough story rammed into there for a short novel, and I spend as much time in the action scenes as I can make myself do, but the whole thing can be read by a quick reader in around an hour.
At the end of that post a few years ago, I found myself wistfully saying that I wasn't reading enough of the old-fashioned kind of novelets, i.e. the ones where the definition wasn't about how many words, it was about the excitement and the lighting-fast display of exciting scenes.***** And there's an old saying in the writing/publishing business that a writer does pretty well if they write the sort of book they themselves want and can't find. (I suspect this is true if you're always looking for great big romps full of sex and violence. On the other hand if you're looking for the story of a romance between two shy, grumpy, older bus drivers who are running against each other for a position on the board of their church ... well, write it, then. Prove me wrong).
Meanwhile, though, while you're planning Love on the Rush-Hour Crosstown, you might want to go over and check out "Silence Like Diamonds." More about that soon -- along with stray thoughts, math, the usual sort of Approachably Reclusive stuff.
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*wonder if anyone spelled them differently according to the gender of the reader, or the protagonist, or the writer?
**kind of like you can mix the energy of garage-band rock and the vocal and production technique of the "American songbook" performers, and where you end up is called pop and it's a whole other subject.
***possibly for the better. I myself am quite fond of horseless carriages, antibiotics, and movies in color.
****quite a lot of good things, by the way; after you finish each episode, take a look at the sidebar -- there's a lot more cool stuff in the future than I had room to put into one story!)
***** in my first draft I typed "the length didn't matter, it was the rapid, intense, continuous motion." Probably should have left it in, but I thought you might be distracted. But isn't distraction the point of  entertainment? Is it time for lunch?

Sunday, June 7, 2015

A post with nothing to do with math but something to do with smart kids with problems


I have a story, "The Soul Remembers Uncouth Noises," in Steve Stirling's The Change: Tales of Downfall and Rebirth anthology.  For those of you who don't know the genre publishing racket, successful franchises (and Steve's Emberverse is a very successful one) eventually lead to people other than the original author writing in that world.  There are lots of reasons why other writers will do that, but the only one that matters for you-the-reader is that writing in someone else's world is fun.


See? Knight in armor, Plains Nation warrior, wrecked helicopter. How much more fun could you want?





Of course, all the fan fic folk out there could tell you that writing in someone else's world is fun. Some of the fanfictioneers write in other, established worlds as a bridge to creating their own, but most of them are well aware that they'd probably be doing themselves more good by creating their own right from the beginning.  The truth is, at the bottom, writing in a world someone else has created is fun.  That's the one reliably good reason to do it. 



For a longtime professional fiction writer, it's almost exactly as challenging as the writer wants it to be. The challenge I set myself was to take Steve up on one of his observations, that he'd figured that if there were a truly strange apocalypse, the survivors would also be the truly strange, and the postapocalyptic culture or cultures would be formed out of the weird fringes of our preapocalyptic world. 

For the past decade or so I've been dipping a toe in the increasingly-popular Young Adult waters, so I liked the idea of teenage characters surviving in a world where adults didn't.



Furthermore, one way and another, I've become interested in twice-exceptional kids -- the category that could probably be more honestly called "weird geniuses," children and adolescents who are unquestionably gifted in one area with major difficulties in another: math or music prodigies with severe dyslexia, fourth graders who have twelfth-grade reading skills but tantrum like two year olds, and so forth.  To me, anyway, one of the most interesting things about the twice exceptionals is not their difficulties, which tend to be obvious, but their ways of coping with them, which are wildly diverse and creative. 



Also, school-age twice exceptionals tend to form close friendships with each other. Part of this may be that there are increasing numbers of programs for them, so they meet there. A bigger part, I think, is that two kids who feel like aliens, though their gifts and problems are very different, are more likely to establish emotional rapport with each other than they are with more typical people with whom they share a gift or problem.  Somehow or other being regarded as weird, and having trouble explaining yourself to the world, is a more foundational experience than merely being extremely good at some things and extremely poor at others.



So I set my story, "The Soul Remembers Uncouth Noises," in the part of Denver where I live, on the day of the Change.  (For those of you who haven't read Dies the Fire or any of the other Change/Emberverse books: the world of the books diverges from ours because at 6:15 pm Pacific Time, on March 17, 1998, all over the world, electricity, explosives, internal combustion engines, various other such high-energy-density systems stopped working abruptly).  I put together three twice-exceptional ninth graders, gave them just enough luck to get started, and thought about what might happen to them and who they might turn out to be.



Now, that's a very contemporary YA kind of story, the Understanding Difference story. And the frame story is actually pretty much a stock "cavalry western" (that is, back when westerns were a big part of pop literature, there were several subgenres named after who the main character would be: lawman westerns, cowboy westerns, gunslinger westerns, etc.).  For various reasons I don't think Steve will be doing any contemporary Understanding Difference YA soon, but sure enough, there was plenty of room in the Emberverse for one, along with a cavalry western.  And as some of you may know from my notes about the Daybreak books and the Jak Jinnaka books, I deeply love the idea of a fictional world big enough to tell any kind of story you like.



And it was fun.  Lots of it.  That's what matters.



You should go buy that book, and Dies the Fire if you haven't already yet, and lots more.  Read it so that one of these days, when it's a miniseries, you can smugly tell all your friends how much better the book was.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Why I'm a math tutor (which has a few things to do with Singapore Math and a lot to do with my life)

I realized when I started to edit the chunk of math teaching history about inquiry-based and discovery methods, that I had changed my mind yet again (not unusual with such a slippery, important,  and diverse subject) so it might be another few days before Part IV appears.  But I've also been working on a different project for many months; as I've been writing the Singapore Math book, I've been tutoring kids in math, using the Singapore methods (since there's a heavy overlap with Common Core, there's quite a demand just now).
Originally I had thought I was simply doing research and getting experience, in addition to generating a little bit of income flow, while I worked on the big project.
But now I find myself thinking that long after I finish writing Singapore Math Figured Out For Parents, I still want to keep tutoring math. It's simply one of the most rewarding activities I've ever found, I'm good at it, and I want to keep doing it. (I also want to keep writing and doing various other things, fans and friends; I promise not to become a mad tutoring-addicted hermit anytime soon).
So I began to figure out how to market myself as a math tutor, and a marketing campaign is like any other art form (and if your marketing people don't think marketing is an art form, fire them now. You really can't wait.)  Something I learned to do in creativity classes which has served me in good stead for writing books and short stories, planning courses, designing for the stage, and yes, marketing campaigns, is to work up a longish personal statement about how I see the thing to be done, why I feel I am the one to do it, where the connections and the don't forgets and the traps and the opportunities are. Usually these stay in my desk, but as I looked at the now-almost-finished campaign plan, I thought that starting Personal Statement of Purpose was something I wouldn't mind having other people see.  In fact, I thought it did a great job of explaining who I am and what I'm about, for this math tutoring gig.
So here it is, formatted for the blog, modified here and there. Sometimes it talks to parents of kids with math problems, sometimes to myself, sometimes to the sort of general social audience the blog has, and every now and then I guess just to the universe.  It's a bit raw here and there, but crunchy, and some of you may find it tasty.
And if not, well, more math history soon. A couple think pieces about non math subjects, too.

All right, enough warnings, here we go:

The pitch as truthful as I can make it

  Have you ever said anything like this?
I know he's not lazy,
I know she's not dumb,
but my kid is having such a bad time with math...


If you say that a lot, and you live somewhere in the Denver metro area, I think I might be able to help.

About my approach to tutoring


  • For kids with math problems that are neither lack of effort nor lack of intelligence, I identify the fundamental blocks to the kid's progress in math and teach them how to turn a wall into a bridge.
  • In my experience, most math barriers are not cognitive and most kids struggling with math homework are not lazy; the problem is most often conceptual, a set of wrong, absent, or misleading ideas about math that a child acquired earlier. I offer a diagnosis that finds the conceptual problem, and exercises, experiences, and practice based on Singapore Math to correct the student's understanding, apply that better understanding to catching up with peers, and incorporate that correct view of mathematics into their approach permanently.
  • My approach is family-centered; you will know the purpose of every exercise and assignment, how to help your kid master it, and how to extend what I teach to regular school homework and often to learning other subjects.  Part of delivering the improvement in math skills is guiding the whole family to talking about math and homework more effectively (more smarts for less tears!)
  •  I think mathematics is one of the most powerful, profound, beautiful, and worthwhile achievements of our species and it is every kid's right to participate in it fully; I teach them how to claim their right.

For some of you, that might be enough to pique your interest; if so, there's an email link over to the right. Drop me a note, tell me about your kid, and let's see if I might be the person you're looking for.

If you're still around but not sure yet, here's more about what I believe, how I came into this, and other things that might help you decide:

I want your kid for the Math Path, and the Math Path for your kid

The Math Path is one of three relationships to mathematics, or pathways through mathematics, that plays out in ordinary Americans' lives. It's the good one of the three, and my aim is to put as many kids on it as I can.

The kids who find the Math Path naturally and on their own typically begin in the lower grades with math being a "fun, easy subject." At some point after that they progress through math as a "challenging, interesting" subject, and later on to "this is hard, but I'll get it because I can and I want to," ending up at "wow, that's actually kind of cool," (to quote one of my tutoring students -- a third grader talking about commutativity and symmetry, though he didn't know those words yet).  The Math Path is usually hard for part of the journey, and it is always long, but though they may stumble and need to get up again, or get a little ragged from fighting over the rough spots, eventually most of the Math Path kids can travel as far as they want or need to. The difficulty is just part of the trip; it doesn't throw them off forever, or destroy the pleasure they used to take in the subject, or keep them from doing what they want to do.

For many people, the main reasons for wanting their kid to be on the Math Path are security and money. Obviously, kids who take the Math Path through their academic careers, and on into life, can realistically consider claiming the STEM careers that the present and foreseeable economy is so eager to offer to them.

But there are much more important reasons to take the Math Path. If they do, their lives are more convenient, better informed, and more comprehensible than those of their peers. The Math Path is more convenient  than the other two pathways because they know and can use the correct math in everyday situations, rather than guess at the answer and hope it works out. This is a power to solve, quickly, easily, and accurately, rather than guess, and hope. Having consulted for many small businesses and helped many friends with home projects, I know how sadly common "guess and hope" is even though all the information needed for the right  answer is right there.  The kids on the Math Path will have the proficiency and comfort for daily math, figuring out the best strategy for buying gas; scaling recipes, drug dosages, and home repair projects up or down; finding the length of a buried pipe without having to dig it up; estimating the effect of a bad snowstorm, a supply price rise, or a raised insurance premium on the business  they own or manage; deciding the balance between points, down, and minimum payment on a mortgage or car loan.
The Math Path makes better-informed citizens, who reliably recognize bogus numbers (or know how to find out if they are bogus), whether it's crime statistics, pricing packages, health claims, or thousands of other subjects we express in numbers. Math Path people confidently grasp what differences in survival and complication rates for alternate surgeries mean, whether the published statistics about a new government project mean wise investment or screaming boondoggle, and how much of what kind of benefits are likely to flow from a Social Security policy change. They're harder to fool, which means harder to frighten or exploit.
Most of all, the ones who walk the Math Path simply understand the world better. The patterns that organize the real world are in mathematics; that so many people can't see them does not mean they aren't there or relevant, only that they are unseen. The annual Darwin Awards are full of people who could have saved themselves with five minutes of arithmetic; people see supernatural mysteries and even the Hand of God in situations explained by a simple equation that they can neither look up nor interpret if they do find it; people repeat generations-old wrong explanations that have more in common with associational or folk magic  than with the science they could access in five minutes if they knew a bit of algebra.

Also, the world needs your kid to be on the Math Path

There's a grim parallel that fascinates me, and maybe someday I'll get a book out of that as well: innumeracy is what illiteracy would be like if it were ten times more common.

It's been thoroughly established that the rate of functional illiteracy is much higher than anyone likes to think about (and very hard to determinate because people are embarrassed). Considerably more than 10% of adults can't fill out a simple form to apply for a job, order a meal in an unfamiliar restaurant, follow written directions, vote, take notes in a meeting, read an arresting officer's account and agree that it does or doesn't represent what they saw accurately, and so forth.

But although there is far too much functional illiteracy, functionally illiterate people are a smallish minority in the adult population. Most adult functional illiterates have developed a set of work-arounds and tricks for dealing with a literate world—copy and pasting from the application a relative filled out for them, going only to restaurants with pictures on the menu, finding a friend to ride with them and read signs for them, and so on.

Now consider functional innumerates. A functional innumerate is someone who can't correctly figure out how much change he or she will get, reliably translate any complicated numeric comparisons into what they're interested in (e.g. they don't know offhand whether five for $6 or 3 for $4.50 is the better deal), figure a tip or estimate sales tax, estimate how long it will take to drive a distance they haven't  driven before, double a recipe, figure out how much a bond issue will raise his/her property tax, or buy the right amount of bathroom tile or paint the first time.  I would guess that the functional innumerate population is several times the functional illiterate population; probably they are distributed much further up the social scale (if the number of people who proudly display "another day without needing algebra" on their facebook walls is any indicator).  
            My thought is that we're living in a world where con men and crooked politicians expect to be able to use numbers to fool most of the people almost all of the time; where people lose time, money, and every other precious resource because they can't do the numbers; and where most of the scientific and technical news for adults is dumbed down as if it were being reported to third graders. A world that has a massive innumeracy problem that we cannot easily recognize because innumeracy is so common.
            In the next generation, if we can put more kids on the Math Path, it will be a brighter world for them, but it will be a far better world for all of us. That's what's at stake.

The other two paths, from which I hope to rescue them

I call the other two pathways Road Closed and Refugee Trail from Eden:

Road Closed is what happens to those unlucky souls who just never get math at all. For them, mathematics begins as an obscure ritual of no apparent point in kindergarten or first grade, becomes more obscure every year, and eventually becomes something to be faked if necessary and avoided if possible. If they are aware at all that math could have opened doors to them, the Road Closed people experience it as something like a magic spell they were never given. Some of them, of course, have severe cognitive problems and genuinely can't do it; but I believe, based on what I've seen as a tutor, and on the research coming out of East Asia, that many more of the Road Closed population encountered a bad mis-match between teaching style and learning style, or just weren't ready at the time the most basic ideas were presented, or accidentally acquired bad copies of foundational ideas. These are the severe cases; they can't do much of anything and they've given up.

The Refugee Trail from Eden is the busiest pathway of the three, and though it's a less severe problem, it is in some ways sadder. These are the students for whom, when they are very young, math is fun and interesting, and a source of confidence and success. But then one day it's not, and it never becomes easy again. Rather, the kids go blithely through the Garden of Easy Subject until they plow face-first into the Wall of I Don't Get It, which their often seems not even to faze their peers on the Math Path. wander haplessly in the wilderness for year or months, and finally end up squatting down and muttering "But I used to be good at math," stuck by the side of the road.

What I can do

Partly from a knack, partly from dedicated study of Singapore Math (which I think is the best math instruction method yet devised), partly because I've had my own struggles with math, I have learned how to rescue kids from The Refugee Trail from Eden pretty reliably; it takes months, but if kids will do some work, and the parents will support them in it, there's a good chance of catching up with the peer group, with a secure basis for continuing on at the peer group's pace,  within a year or two.  For the kids who are up against a genuine Road Closed, there's a much longer diagnostic process, but I've had a number of breakthroughs and seen some kids move from stuck to "just behind." Based on that experience, I'm inclined strongly to think that true dyscalculia (neurological/brain defects that make it impossible to do math) is probably rare; much more often I see kids with basic conceptual problems, which can be found (eventually) and addressed (with a certain amount of hard work).

My experience with Adult Disadvantaged Learners (or ADLs, as we call them in the business) bears this out. Using Singapore Math concepts, I can usually probe until I identify where and when they hit the wall (even if the wall was in first grade), and gradually build or rebuild their pathway around/through the place where they ran into trouble, and about as soon as the fundamental wrong concept is fixed, they start to make reasonably rapid progress. The big lesson is that although I can't do much for people with severe cognitive problems, or unmodifiable laziness, the great majority of people with math problems are neither.

Furthermore, with both child tutees and ADLs, the experience of discovering that a conceptual error was at the root of their problem seems to lead to not only a new confidence, but to a much better approach to learning math; they stop focusing on remember what to write in the format, and begin to seek genuine understanding. This puts them in much better shape when the inevitable next rough spot hits.  Conceptual correction, using the Singapore Math methods, seems to make for much more resilient math students at any age. Fixing the concepts and pointing the student in the right direction generally seems to equip students to travel the Math Path on their own.

And fundamentally, I just hate the idea of people walking around half dead and never hearing the music of the spheres. Somehow my deep faith that math is beautiful and rightfully theirs seems to be contagious over time.
 It seems to me like we have a thousand times saner view of music, art, sports, and so many other subjects than we do of mathematics: sure, not everyone can play in MLB, dig Mahler, or live for the next gallery opening, but we don't usually use that as a reason to deplore church softball league players, One Direction fans, or Sunday afternoon museum-walkers. Even if you're not going to go very far in math, as a human being, you ought to have a chance to understand some of it mathematically and to see what it's about. There is beauty and harmony even in the humble addition table; even the student who can go no farther deserves to see that.

Who I hope to serve with this new venture

The people who will need, want, and buy my services are worried about their kids' being shut off from math, and not just about his/her math grades. Especially, they are also worried about the kid's emotional reaction to it; they are afraid their son or daughter may give up, losing all the good things on the Math Path before s/he can understand what that means for the rest of his/her life. They feel (accurately) that their kid could be doing so much better, that the Math Path is one they should have the chance to walk because it would reward them, not just financially but in terms of life chances, yet somehow the kid seems to be slipping off the path before even getting a fair start.

Working with ADLs I've seen how deep and longlasting the traps can be.  I'm fascinated by how much and how well society is able to get along without math that would make people's lives easier; astonishing numbers of people would rather fail, or be cheated, or make a mess of their jobs, or miss uncountable (by them) opportunities, rather than face the terror of mathematics.

What I can bring to the aid of a math student is a really clear model of the mathematical mind, how it works ,and how it grows; a knack for questioning and observation that uncovers what the kid is thinking instead of the math we want him to be able to think about; and the knowledge and ability to use the rich and powerful Singapore Math toolbox to help the wandering kid find the real path.

I've been along the Refugee Trail From Eden myself

I had to learn how to learn mathematics very late.  Oddly, I mostly learned it from economists and political scientists.  I flamed out of engineering school because I couldn't do the math quickly and accurately. There were many other reasons, some of them worthy ones, but the thing that tipped the balance was that math had stopped making sense about a year and a half before.
So I changed my major to economics, because a student with math abilities that are barely adequate in physics, chemistry, or engineering will send economics professors into rapturous awe. I'm not exaggerating; those guys gave out extra credit just for using calculus to solve a problem marginal rates, which, in math terms, are plain old differentials . 
Looking back, I had ability -- my SAT math score was 770 and a few years later my GRE math aptitude put me in the 95th percentile.  It wasn't that I couldn't do math. I just didn't learn how to learn math soon enough or know the math well enough before I needed it, and that shut me out of the science I had loved since childhood.
So, in my early twenties, having discovered I still had ability but wasn't at all good at using it, I started graduate school in political science in a very mathematically oriented department, and resolved to just buckle down and learn the math I needed, no matter how grim that might be in practice. Several surprisingly kind and patient teachers (I was not what you'd call an ideal, or even a pleasant, student) pushed me fairly hard in the right directions, and this time I was ready for it.
The main thing they did for me was to push me back to fundamentals -- in some cases fundamentals going back to junior high school (middle school, for younger generations).  Over and over, the rules and memorized algorithms that had always been how I "learned" "math" turned out to be idea-proof skins stretched over the real depths of what the math actually meant. I had been going through my mathematical life cooking numbers by recipes, like a robot; it was not till I was 23 or 24 that I began to really hear the music, start to grasp the reality, or have any kind of intuition or feel.
Life took me elsewhere than where I thought I was going, but after I returned firmly to the Math Path, I kept finding my way back to math-intensive fields, in the software industry, in academic research, and half a dozen other ways.
There's still damage. I can still feel the lacks and gaps induced by a background that was a mixture of too-narrow-and-algorithmic applications and too broad-and-handwavy theory with some huge outright holes, but still, math has been an enrichment and ultimately a joy in my life, and my main regret is that I didn't learn more of it. (On the other hand, I have a couple of decades left, and I still learn a few new things every year).
So, my relationship to math is a bit like that of St. Augustine or C.S. Lewis to Christianity: I started off apparently well into it, lost it, and fought my way back in with far more effort than I'd really have preferred.  And like those two preachers, I'd like to smooth the road for as many people after me as I can. It can be a very rough road, but the rewards at the end of it are immense: those better jobs are the very least and smallest part, compared to the better understanding of the world around us, and that too fades compared to the sheer beauty of the order that underlies everything. I wouldn't say that math is my religion (I have one that I'm quite happy with) but if I ever need a spare one, math would do just fine as a connection to the beauty, awe, order, and reason that underlies reality. 

Who I want to help, and what I want to help them to

I'm trying to find kids whose lives would be enriched and opened up by mathematics, who are unable to access the math that can take them up into the perception, understanding, and beauty. And after a rather surprising amount of experience, considering I didn't start out to get it, I've been forced to realize I have a knack for guiding the lost people out of the dark traps of confusion and up into the light of comprehension.
It's a worthwhile job, and I like it.  Every kid I can break out of the disappointing, frustrating trap that claimed a large part of my life is another claim that I have done something worthwhile with my life.
Unfortunately, kids don't have much money and would be curiously reluctant to spend it on math if they did. Luckily, many of them have parents who do have money, want them to have full access to the power of math, and notice when that isn't happening.
A mixed blessing in the whole stew is that I'm fairly good at explaining the benefits and goals of developing real math ability (as opposed to purely coaching math-test-passing skills). This means not getting quite as many clients as I would like, since there are commercial tutoring services out there that offer moneyback guarantees of percentage increases or absolute scores. To be able to guarantee it, they sometimes meet those goals by teaching math, but if necessary they'll concentrate on test-taking skills, drilling short answers, and various other substitutes for math. What I offer to do, and I'm blunt about this with parents, is to get their kids through the present block, equip them to knock down future blocks themselves, and most of all learn math, because math is a profoundly important human activity in which every child has a right to participate. If you just want twenty more points on a test score so you can brag about who's taking your tuition checks, we probably won't work out. If you want your kid to know math, and maybe have a chance to love it, get in touch.

Some of the situations that have brought my successful tutees and students to me

This isn't so much a checklist of symptoms or warning signs; it is a list of what parents (whose children went on to succeed) experienced in the weeks or months before they brought a kid in for me.  If any of these seem to be true for you, you might want to think  about it.
  1. Kid identified as twice exceptional
  2. Teachers saying they don't know what to try next and nothing's working
  3. Kid has stopped doing math homework and won't try, or makes an attempt for show and then shuts down in tears of frustration
  4. Kid has been drilled heavily but can't remember math facts in a usable way; on homework or in class, if the kid is presented with exactly the same problem a few minutes apart, s/he does not recognize it and has to solve it all over again. 
  5. Kid seems to start all problems at very basic level (counting on fingers, reciting rules out loud, etc.) and does not seem to be moving away from this.
  6. Kid applies rules arbitrarily (cross multiplies fractions regardless of the problem, chooses numbers apparently at random out of a story problem and does some simple operation on them). 
  7. Executive function problems -- kid can do one step but can't break a problem into pieces and do the pieces in the correct order.
  8. Kid has and follows some inexplicable wrong rules all his/her own (for example, I dealt with one boy who had separate rules for adding and multiplying digits that formed closed loops -- that is, he had one set of rules for 1, 2,3, 5, 7 and another set for  6, 8, 9; and which way he tried to add or multiply 4 depended on whether it was written with an open or closed top).
  9. Kid appears to think that you or his teacher could just decide that his/her answers were correct, but you won't because you're mean.
If any of that sounds like you and your kid, maybe I can help.  I'm confident that if it's a matter of finding a way over, around, or through the conceptual barriers, there's almost always a tool in the Singapore Math toolbox, and after my months of working with it, I know where those tools are and how to use them.  Those might be all the benefits you need, and certainly they are the ones I'm most comfortable claiming.
Other benefits might also flow from this, though they can't be guaranteed for all cases. I generally give parents at least a quick oral summary at the end of every session, and make sure you're well-equipped to help your kid with homework (at the elementary school level; if your kid is having trouble in calculus I won't make you learn it yourself!) Parents have reported that this has made math coaching into much more pleasant family time, and much less of a battle. Moreover, once your kid really knows what s/he does understand,  and what s/he doesn't, anxiety tends to decrease because the kid stops feeling like s/he has to fake it, and because in their self-image, "I don't know it yet" replaces "I'm so dumb."  It has happened, now and then, that math goes from terror and anxiety to a favorite subject, but of course that's very individual and I can't promise it to everyone.
Finally, its about helping your kids claim their human birthright to experience math as a bridge, not a barrier.  Just like reading and writing, becoming good at math gives your kid a pathway, that Math Path again, to real independence, whether it's academically (being able to pursue a subject for love rather than because it's easy), perceptively (having the tools to see how a snowflake, a sine wave, or a star  are the way they are), or economically.
Oh, yes, of course. No matter how much I downplay it, a parent can hardly be unaware that math is the gateway to science, and science is one gateway to medicine, engineering, and great jobs.
 

Almost a close:

So, if you've got a problem like what I'm talking about, and you want your kid to walk the Math Path, drop me a note at the email that appears in the menu to the right. Give me a way to contact you and I'll be back to you ASAP.