Knives Episode 22 is Out!

And it’s a big’n! For those who started reading when this story was still known as The Fantasy Novel I’ll Likely Never Publish, this passage into the unknown carries extra symbolism.

While rain falls only to be turned to steam, Martin is the first witness to the slaughter at Brewer’s Ford. Nothing remains above ground; any answers that may still exist lie below. Down he goes. When he reaches the bottom, Martin makes a promise. The sort of promise that Martin generally scoffs at.

I delayed publishing this episode a little extra to make sure that commitments I make now will work going forward. Episode 24 is kind of a tipping point, plot-wise, and I need to be careful running up to that. Or maybe I’m just thinking too hard.

Anyway, please enjoy Episode 22: Into the Darkness. In order to suck up to Facebook scanners, I’m including a brief passage, rendered as an image. Because words that aren’t images are, apparently, boring. If this doesn’t work, maybe I’ll superimpose the text over Captain Picard.



On Tuesday I left work early. “I’m too happy to work,” I told my boss.

From a strict cash-for-what-you-do basis, Apple has a reputation for being rather cheap. The unofficial, cultural response is, “if money is your driver, then Google’s right down the highway; you’ll get along nicely there. And there’s always Facebook *snerk*.” There will always be somewhere else I can work that would pay more than I will ever make at Apple. But when other companies ask, I just give an over-the-phone shrug and tell them I’m not interested.

Compensation is about more than cash, and all the other monetary incentives. I work with exceptional people. I have a life outside work. I am challenged every day. I just plain love my job.

But until Tuesday I was underpaid even by Apple standards. My boss for the last year and a half has been steadily pushing that line, however, and Tuesday was a big day. Thanks, boss, I’ll he heading out early!

A little perspective: from a strict cash-for-how-hard-your-job-is standpoint, I’m already at Maximum Plaid. You could offer me twice what I’m making now to dig ditches and I’d scoff at your offer. Scoff! Ditch-digging is hard work! And of course I’d instantly be pushed out of the market by more competent ditch-diggers anyway. But miraculously (for me) what comes easily for me is also highly compensated. Sure I live in a trailer park, but it’s a very nice trailer park. A teacher wouldn’t be able to do nearly as well. Or a cop, or a nurse. Or the EMT who one day will save my life.

When I catch myself thinking about what I “deserve”, I do my best to remember that I already get way more than I deserve, unless I compare myself only to other geeks. But I have to say it’s nice to finally be measuring up on that scale.


Cue George…

Among the things the Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas brought home from the store today were:

  • Bourbon
  • Scotch
  • Beer

There’s really only one thing to do.


Lens Lust: The Phases

One thing about owning a camera whose nature changes when you change lenses — you start looking at a lot of lenses and imagining what you could do with them. Lens lust is perfectly human and even healthy. A few years ago I really started to appreciate what you might call extreme lenses, the lenses that push the boundaries of what is possible.

I even bought one kinda-extreme lens, and I still covet that lens’s even more extreme little brother, a lens made by Canon that cannot be matched on other SLRs because of physics. (The hole on the front of modern Canon cameras is larger, and the size of the hole is one of the things that limits what a lens attached to it can do.) I will own that lens one day.

But after a while, you’ve seen all the great lenses. You’ve appreciated the Noctilux and the latest Zeiss offerings, and you’ve seen that less-than-ten-made gigantic-yet-fast telephoto selling for the price of a modest home. (The perfect portrait lens, if you can get half a mile from your subject.)

Window shopping is about surprise, about finding something new and delightful, and people simply aren’t designing new crazy-extreme lenses fast enough. So now when I go hunting for over-the-top, cost-no-object glass, my response is “oh yeah, that one.” That doesn’t mean I might not linger over the specs, but it’s like I’m re-reading a favorite novel.

Then there is the magical day when you discover a whole new category of lenses to lust after. And this time around, a lot of them are pretty cheap. Welcome to the world of vintage glass. If you don’t mind undertaking the chore of focussing the camera yourself, a whole new world unfolds.

Although I assume technology has changed the way lens makers go about their craft, Zeiss lenses have been very good for a very long time. Others have been trying to knock Zeiss off their pedestal for a long time as well. Pentax made a serious run at Zeiss and produced some optically excellent lenses with superb build quality, and these days you can find those lenses cheap. And while shopping you can appreciate that the radioactive 8-element 50mm (it has thorium in one lens element) is not as good as the 7-element design that followed, with its expensive-to-manufacture curved interface between two glued elements, but that the Super-Multi-Coated Takumar is maybe a little better than the SMC Tacumar that followed. I expect that I’ll have a Pentax in the barn before too much longer.

And then there’s Zeiss itself. It was in the wrong half of Germany and at the end of World War Two and the whole damn factory, engineers and all, was carted off to Mother Russia. Some say quality degraded over time, but you can find some very cheap Russian lenses that are actually improvements on the Zeiss designs — improvements made by the Zeiss people themselves.

Which is all to say when you open yourself to vintage glass, not only do you find some pretty spectacular deals, you find some pretty cool stories as well. Learning the histories of some of the seminal lenses in photography is a special lens-lust bonus.

But while they’re not making enough crazy-extreme new lenses, they are by definition not making any more historically-iconic or secret old-school super-bargain lenses. Lately, when I’ve popped over to eBay to type in sexy lens phrases, I see the same list I always do. My fantasy wish list is becoming more stable; there are no new surprises as some oddball piece of glass hits me from out of the blue. I think there are still some discoveries in the vintage realm; some of the “vintage” lenses I drool over have performance comparable to modern lenses, but farther back in time (and cheaper yet) there are lenses that give a different feel to the photos. I picked up one Russian 50mm for pretty much free that falls into that category, and I will be doing a series of self-portraits with it in the near future.

But finding those lenses doesn’t provide the same visceral rush. You’re not really looking for the gems, the designs that were ahead of their time, you’re just choosing out of a bucket because what you want is the “bucket” look.

s-l500Are there new horizons? New categories of lenses I haven’t discovered yet, that I can drool over and study to learn their nuances? I hope so. There is the category “new lenses that act like old lenses”, discussed under the banner “lomography”, and while some of them are funky, I haven’t found any compelling reason not to just use an old lens instead. In fact, most of lomography is about using crappy old Holgas, pinholes, and plastic lenses, but if you really insist on spending money you can find a funky brass-bodied lens with apertures you slip in through a slot on the side. So… actually, it looks like I’ve already worked that vein dry.

I suppose it’s a sign of maturity, when you’ve taken a passion to where there are no more surprises, but it’s also an indication of why maturity sucks. I guess now I should spend more of my time looking at photographs, rather than lenses. After all, that’s how you become a better photographer. But I’m also an engineer, and I’m unapologetic for my fascination with this interface between art and engineering.

And I’m thinking that lens designers need to get off their lazy asses and make more wacky stuff.


Hillary Clinton’s Emails

There’s a lot of talk about Clinton’s handing of email while she was boss of the State Department, and for all the yakkin’ by both parties, there hasn’t been a lot of movement. A big problem with the whole discussion is this: it’s not a single issue. There are two accusations, (almost) completely unrelated, but the whole “Hillary Email” debate treats it like a single thing.

Clinton is accused of behaving irresponsibly by keeping her emails on a server that was not secured by the US government, and she is also accused of sending email with secret information to people who should not have seen those secrets. Important to remember through this whole thing: she could just as easily have forwarded those emails from an official State Department server.

So we can separate the two accusations and not get all mixed up when people refute arguments about one accusation with evidence concerning the other. Two separate debates, focussed on the two separate questions.

Here’s my take on each.

The Server
Using her own server was clearly against the rules. No one is disputing this. Clinton’s defense is entirely about the circumstances, which she claims justifies the choice. Looking at the circumstances, she has some pretty strong points. Basically, the State Department’s own email servers sucked so bad that Colin Powell advised her to use her own server. We know this because Clinton released her personal emails, including her conversation with Powell on the subject.

And don’t forget, the State Department servers were hacked. If Clinton hired me, I guarantee I can secure emails better than the United States Department of State does. And I’m by no means a security expert.

Conclusion: “Everyone’s doing it” is not really a defense, but I’d listen to her accusers more if they also put the heat on “everyone”.

The Secrets
The question here is “did Clinton knowingly share information that was secret?” Knowingly is of course a trap word, but we can change the question to “did Clinton share information that was marked as secret with the wrong people?” While investigators have made fairly broad accusations in public, when grilled under oath they have not come up with much. Things that are secret now were shared, that’s pretty certain. Much less clear: were they secret when they were shared, and were they marked as secret when Clinton got that information?

By the way, does it seem faintly absurd to classify information after the fact?

This issue is made more complex by the whole network of security classifications and clearances. People who can juggle plutonium can’t read ships’ manifests.

At this point, with only a small sample of emails reviewed, and millions of taxpayer dollars to go to review the rest, no smoking gun has been found. The whole “(c) is for Classified” argument is apparently false, or at best misleading. The people who talk big clam up when under oath.

Still, I’m sure if we dig hard enough we’ll find a Leaked Secret or ten. None as bad as Dick Cheney blowing the cover of a CIA agent for petty political reasons, but Cheney’s not the criminal under investigation here. I’d go so far as to say that it’s not possible for the Secretary of State to do her job, moving information all around the world, without tripping over information restrictions occasionally.

Still, “honest mistake” isn’t the best defense. People in a position like that aren’t supposed to make mistakes, as unrealistic as that expectation is. I’d listen to her accusers more if they also investigated other, more flagrantly dishonest officials as well.

In summary, my take on these two issues can be expressed thus: Clinton did some things wrong, and I look forward to the day when everyone in Washington is held to the same standards she is. That will be a very good day.

Knives Episode 21 is Real

Martin at last gets a little time alone, although cooking to death might be the cost. His first look at what once was the fortress at Brewer’s Ford is sobering. But maybe he has friends he didn’t know about before. And Elena says something that you should pay attention to.

What is moving Martin now?

It’s an odd double life, writing Episode 23 while trying to move Episode 21 to “ready”. Knowing that as soon as I send this installment into the world I’ll find a fatal flaw. But I’ve gone over Episode 21 enough times to know it’s pretty damn tight. As tight as I’m going to make it anyway.

Meanwhile, for the patrons, the rest of Bags’ backstory is coming real soon, I promise. We just have to cross a certain spoiler line in the main narrative first.

Episode 21: Ruin

The Whodunnit Contract

A few years ago I was at my first ever writing workshop, and one of the stories I was asked to critique was a mystery in a Science Fiction setting. It was a pretty good story, but as I was forming my opinions about the story I realized the Mystery genre of fiction has a very special relationship with its readers. It’s a pretty formal contract, and if you violate it, you will irk your readers mightily.

The contract comes down to this: The reader must be given access to all the relevant facts before the big reveal. Those facts can be obfuscated, passed off as trivia, or otherwise hidden, but in retrospect, the facts must have been presented. The reader must be given a fair chance to solve the mystery before the famed detective.

We can see that contract develop over time. Doyle allowed Sherlock Holmes to bring up some shit like the mud on a suspect’s shoes out of the blue in the big reveal. You have to cut the writer some slack; he thought he was writing adventure stories. Doyle wrote a rough draft of the contract, and it was in part his readers’ reactions that formalized the compact. By the time we get to Agatha Christie, the rules are in place.

Mystery novels are literature, absolutely, but they are also puzzle games. This dual identity makes them very hard to write well. Character, setting, tiny details, and plenty of red herrings that in the end have to fit into their places in the jigsaw.

I think perhaps Doyle’s greatest invention was not Holmes, but Watson. The mystery writer must present all the facts, but must closely guard the analysis. You simply cannot write from the detective’s point of view. There must be a Watson or a Japp to record the discoveries and to provide their own by-definition-unreliable analysis. We can never be inside Poirot’s head, or the drama will break.

I got back onto this train of thought recently while working on my serial novel. There are some mystery elements developing in Knives, with people doing things for reasons unclear, but it will never be a mystery story. It can’t be. We are in the head of the problem solver, and tempting as it is to be coy and hold things back, that would not serve anyone. So we will know what Martin figures out, as he figures it out. This is not a whodunnit.

But there may be times Martin is wrong. Just sayin’. That’s what I get in return.