My Best Teaching Is One-on-One


Of course, I team teach and do special lessons, etc.


But my best work in the classroom is after the lesson is over --
going one-on-one,
helping individual students with their assignments.


It's kind of like with computer programs, walking the client through hands-on.
The job isn't really done until the customer is using the program.


Friday, June 1, 2018

Book Review: Spinning Silk by Taya Cook

I'm on the train recently, and I have the remarkable fortune of sitting across from a youngish woman who could make the cover of a leading fashion magazine.

Courtesy forbids that I describe her makeup and the style of her costume in too much detail for the same reasons I shouldn't just take a photo and post it without her permission. Perhaps I can say it reminds me of some of the older traditional Japanese styles. Or it makes my think of a mythical Jorogumo spider-woman. I wonder whether she is on her way to some cosplay event.

There are such writing prompts on the train every day, really. But I don't dare use them, at least not directly in my writing. Too much possibility of causing someone harm.

Common courtesy.

But this woman who was sitting across from me that day makes me think of characters from another novel I have recently had the privilege of reading at beta through the LDS Beta Readers group: Spinning Silk.

In Spinning Silk, Taya Cook creates a mashup of the oriental Tanabata/Qixi Festival myths of the cattle-herder and the weaver with the attractive and powerful shape-shifting Tsuchigumo and Jorogumo, whose creature forms are arachnid. What she produces should be considered a love story similar in substance to, and borrowing from the Tanabata myth.

As a child, Furi, the protagonist, is a member of the lower castes of a kingdom that looks like feudal Japan. Think parallel worlds or alternative realities.

Her life is cruel in the way we understand life in those lower castes was; she exists essentially as non-family chattel, spinning and weaving silk for her masters.  And what passes for her daily happiness is constantly subject to the whims of jealous members of the households in which she lives, until a deadly epidemic completely alters the patterns of her life.

Her work is beyond exceptional, and provides her with opportunities for impossible upward social mobility, ultimately into deadly contact with levels of society she never dared dream of.

Her mobility also brings her into contact with a mysterious young man of obscure and dubious origin, and this young man informs her of the truth of her own unbelievable heritage.

Gradually she develops deep feelings for the mysterious young man as she is brought into an intrigue to reform the shogunate from within, bring the military and imperial seats of power together, and bring a new era of peace unknown in the history of our world. And those feelings bring her into conflict with her role in the intrigue.

Equally gradually, she discovers a dark and deadly secret about herself, a secret which both enables her part in the intrigue and threatens the relationship she desires with the mysterious young man, repeating patterns of her own heritage.

Similarly to most fairy tales in their more primitive forms, Spinning Silk contains elements which may not really be appropriate for general audiences.

In her tale, Taya demonstrates typical consequences of a society in which power is accepted as the underlying principle of relationships between sentient beings. Her conclusion defies that acceptance, but the cost of that defiance turns out rather violent.

There is also a sexual element integral to the plot. Taya does not indulge in direct depictions of the sexual element, but she doesn't hide it. And her use of that element could be considered an implicit argument that sex has never been, and should not be considered, a safe form of recreation.

I don't believe in the moral-age-appropriateness rating system, so I won't say you should consider this a PG-13 work, but I do think you should not give it to younger teenagers without reading it first. And it may provide a springboard into discussion of important and meaningful matters, even for adults. Real literature can be difficult to read at points, and many readers will find parts of this story at least somewhat uncomfortable -- and, equally, thought-provoking.

Did I enjoy the book? Mostly.

For me, it hits a little close to home. But the pain I feel reading certain parts of it is evidence, rather, that she has captured something deep, real, and hard-to-capture about the culture.

Well worth reading.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Trademark "Spark", "Sparky", or "Sparky Clan" for SF Series Name

I am not a fan of intellectual property, either as a concept or an instance thereof.

I do recognize the need to protect yourself when you provide a service or product and someone else tries to use your good name to sell a poor imitation of the same.

That does not extend to titles of books. The existence of that kind of intellectual property would have the effect of forcing authors in our day to use nonsense words as short titles, because all the meaningful short titles would be used up -- and many reasonable longer ones would be used up, as well.

Just think. If I had an author ancestor who wrote a novel called Wind a hundred years ago and trademarked the name, and I inherited the trademark, I could keep you from writing a modern novel called Wind, and my ancestor might well have been able to prevent a certain well-known novel from being named Gone with the Wind.

Series of novels are a somewhat different matter, but I'm not sure they should be. At any rate, the courts currently accept that titling a series is more of a business practice with need for protection. Fortunately, the preexistence of the use of a word or phrase limits the reach of a trademark here, as well.

Now if I wrote a series of books about a family of inventors named "Sparky", perhaps I'd want to prevent other authors from pretending to write books in my series by trademarking the name for use with a series of books.

I would almost call that reasonable.

But here's the question:

Trademark "Spark", "Sparky", or "Sparky Clan"?

"Spark" and "Sparky" have prior use, and will have a lot of reasonable exceptions (prior use, literary, etc.) to my control. It will also tempt me to waste money and time in trying to enforce the trademark on things that I should leave alone.

"Sparky Clan", trademarked for use with a series of science fiction novels, would be pretty strong -- specifically because it is narrow. Judges and juries are much less likely to doubt my intent, in no small part because I'm going to be much less tempted to bring claims in bad faith.

Advice, if you're going to trademark the name of a series of novels or such:

Keep your trademark claims reasonably narrow.

Friday, May 4, 2018


This is yet another "What I would do if I won the lottery without playing it" post.

I don't play the lottery, but sometimes I daydream about what I would do if I were able to suddenly have a large amount of discetionary spending money -- millions of dollars worth.

Most of those daydreams have been about rebooting the computer/information industry with better information encoding schemes, better programming languages, better processors, better operating systems, better network protocols, etc.

Lately, my dreams have been a little less extravagant and a little more concrete.

Facebook has evolved, but it's still unstable. It works for a lot of social purposes, and a lot of marketing purposes, but lacks support for the sort of interactions authors helping each other need.

There are several authoring platforms available, but most tend toward rich text, meaning formatting.

When you're in working in the deep internals of a fiction, you don't want to be distracted by formatting. All you want to focus on is constructed of undecorated text -- typing text in, saving it in units of chapters and sections, reading what you've written, comparing what you have with what you had.

Raw text and version control.

Linux and BSD OSses provide raw text tools of various usability. Gedit is what I usually use, but friends tell me Geany is better. In a pinch, there is always vi (vim), and some prefer emacs. Lots of choices.

They also provide version control systems that work quite well with raw text. Git is popular now, and it's my current tool of choice.

Decorated text, by the way, gets in the way of version control. Someday I'll write a post in one of my programming blogs to explain why.

Someday I'll write the tools needed to wrap raw text with proper style definitions. CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and HTML are not those tools, they just add more fragile layers of fragile decoration. I only hope I'll have the time to write those tools in this life.

In the meantime, text decorated with TEX or markdown gets close to the level of integration with version control that I would like.

So, if I had ten million or so dollars, I'd set up
  • a public repository like or or, 
  • mashed up with social interaction functions like Facebook's -- or, more likely,, 
  • with a publishing platform like Wordpress or Blogger (but better).

And git being as it is, authors could keep local copies of all their versions on their own computer systems.

I'd integrate version control with the publishing platform so that authors and their critique groups would be able to select specific points in the rewrite process to read in context.

And, open source being what it is, authors would be able to replicate the publishing on their own computer systems.

Of course I'd set up domain name services so authors could have novels published as subdomains of their authoring domain name without too much fuss.

For instance, instead of
and such, they could be grouped as
  • and
or something similar.

I'd set up an interface to the access control mechanisms to make it easy to give read/write and read-only access for specific works to the author's choice of critique groups, writers' communities, and ad-hoc groups.

And I'd include tools to help bundle up specific versions of a work in formats acceptable by the copyright offices of the various countries.


Back to work. I need to finish six novels -- or is it seven, now? -- while teaching English and working other jobs to put food on the table. C'est la vie.

Beta Reading and Unpolished Gems

I've spent much of this past Golden Week vacation, more time than I could afford, really, beta reading for friends from the LDS Beta Readers writers' group.

One manuscript was a billionaire romance in early beta condition. It was very entertaining, and the story itself was rather well laid out. My primary suggestion was that I wished the pace had been slower. But slowing it down would require altering the premise significantly, potentially making it less interesting. Anyway, this author is experienced, and I am confident she will get this one on the market in good shape and good order.

Another was a tale of leprechauns, witches, dragons, and some other more exotic creatures, from a less established author. The tale was engaging and even somewhat instructive. It was significantly better than most of the fantasy that gets turned into published anime. I am procrastinating the feedback because I like the story and the execution, but I know I have to tell the author it's not very marketable as it is. I want the author to be able to bring this book to publication.

A third was a Regency period romance, a tale of innocent deception in the face of sibling rivalries that go too far. It is in a close-to-period vernacular, but the reader's modern vernacular shows through at distracting points. I like the story and the layout, but the execution gets in the way a little. And I am procrastinating this one, as well, although I think I know what to focus on, to encourage the author to finish.

I hope, eventually, to be able to post reviews of the published versions of these (and many others that I have beta-read since joining this group). They have great potential.

These are beta level, so execution issues (grammar, word choice, phrasing, some minor structure issues, etc.) are to be expected. This is always something of a quandary, because we have the instinct to offer editing services and opinions that the author has not requested, and that we cannot afford to give. And if we start offering unsolicited editing, it's easy to start trying to re-write.

But rewriting somebody else's work without permission is rather a breach of ettiquette and even a discourtesy. (Publishing such rewrites could even constitute a crime against copyright law, is how discourteous.)

Beta reading is a privilege with accompanying responsibility.

Now, if you understand the Japanese principle of wabi-sabi, you might understand my following comments on the privilege:

These are all unpolished gems. Very rarely do I get to do a beta read of a manuscript that does not need editing. Often, the various errors of execution make it difficult to get started into a story.

But once you get into the flow of the author's story, the rhythm of the author's voice, the story itself comes into focus, and finishing the manuscript is usually a pleasure.

Preparing a manuscript for market almost always requires "cleaning out" the rougher aspects of the author's modes of expression. Sometimes it requires cleaning out substantial parts of the author's vision for the story, and worse.

Editing a manuscript to make it marketable requires denaturing the story.

Think how it would be if all restaurant food were subjected to the same marketing processes as the McDonalds' menu.

Do I need to map this allegory? No? You do see it, right?

Sometimes, it almost breaks my heart to beta-read. Not because the writing is bad. I haven't yet seen a manuscript that is that bad, though I have seen some that need a lot of work.

Now editing can be done with light hand. Not all edited works are comparable to McDonalds' food. But market forces tend to motivate the heavier hand more often than not.

That means that, even if you do get a chance to read the novels I have beta read this week, you will not see the rough beauty I see. It will probably be polished and palatable -- easy to read. And it may have lost significant portions of the meaning that I enjoyed reading in them.

Sometimes, the difference I expect almost breaks my heart.

Do I recommend joining a beta readers group? It depends. They do require time -- and learning to read through rough writing.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Two Book Reviews: The Witch's Reward and Beyond the Sands by Liz McCraine

Liz McCraine is another author I met in the LDS Beta Readers group on Face Book. She let me help beta read her novels The Witch's Reward and Beyond the Sands, from her Kingdom of Aggadorn series.

These are both medium light fantasy romances with some medium heavy and dark parts, no sex. Fun reads. As a sort of spoiler, the girl does get her guy in the end. But you knew that.

The Witch's Reward begins in a small kingdom patterned after medieval European kingdoms, in which magic is an operational principle, but it's practice is strictly forbidden to humans.

Lara, a farm girl whose mother was visited by a fairy before meeting a terrible fate has been raised by her grandmoher. When the men of the village go hunting, she takes her neighbor's young daughter Kiera out to gather berries.

Not unpredictably, they are attacked by a fearsome beast. But at the brink of death, Lara's unknown and innate gift from the fairies awakens and saves them, restoring both to life and health.

The villagers, duty bound, report Lara's magic to the authorities, and Lara, also duty bound, goes docile but captive to meet her fate. Her fate comes in the form of the Crown Prince and a small band of soldiers sent to escort her to the capitol for trial, and the novel tells how the Prince wins her trust and love and how she wins her freedom and her Prince.

In the process, hints of a terrible intrigue are uncovered, and an evil wizard is defeated.

The characters are likeable and fairly real, and it is with some regret that the reader leaves Kiera behind when Lara is taken away.

In Beyond the Sands, we get to mostly ignore Lara and her Prince, and follow a young adult Kiera in her own adventure.

Her adventure starts with tragedy when her father and her brother's best friend are killed by a pack of depraved formerly human kind of creatures. And we learn of Kiera's skill with the bow and her fearlessness as she dispatches these creatures in time to save her brother, if not her brother's leg.

Of course, she determines on her own to use her skill with the bow in finding where these creatures come from and put an end to the evil.

But the brother's best friend was also the best friend of a high-ranking warrior of an allied Kingdom, and this warrior, feeling guilt that he had let his friends go without him, perceives Kiera's intent at the funeral. Quite unilaterally, he determines that he must join forces with her in spite of their inauspicious first meeting.

The novel then tells of their forced partnership and their trek. Together, they gather information and make friends among the mountain villagers and help the mountain people defend themselves from the creatures while they learn to work together and defend each other.

Crossing the desert sands, they face severe tests in which they forge strong bonds and the ability to trust each other in battle. Their friendship and partnership is tested further in the enemy kingdom beyond the desert sands, as they resolve a significant part of the intrigue uncovered in The Witch's Reward.

And then, their first quest solved, as they return to their heros' welcome, they face the ultimate test of their friendship -- with a little help from Lara and her Prince.

Both novels stand on their own, but are even better together. I quite enjoyed them, and look forward to reading more in the series. (The Pirate and the Princess is already out.) I think many readers will enjoy them as well.

Monday, April 9, 2018

No Time Left to Finish My First Novel

Why is it that I am trying to write my magnum opus in my first novel?

Why am I doing this again?

If I didn't insist on moving the story to a planet far, far away, where they use hexadecimal instead of decimal numbers, including hexadecimal time, I'd probably have been finished by now. But I'm trying to use the novel as a vehicle for exploring all the problems of modern society.

And I thought I was progessing, but I'm now out of time.

Why is it that I tried, in my senior projects in computer science, to reinvent the entire computer industry from the bottom up, and then threw away the assembler and Forth interpreter that I did finish?

Why is it that, for my first information systems term homework assignments, I wrote real-world applications, and then threw them away?

Why is it that my father-in-law thought he had to teach me how to fill a small bag of rice from a larger one without spilling any? And why is it I found it so hard to bear his unnecessary demonstrations and hand-holding? He was wrong, but it was his house and his cockroaches he was trying not to feed, not mine. And it was his daughter I married against his wishes, so it isn't really all that unsurprising that he would want an excuse to slap my hands.

People are always telling me I'm doing things wrong, and I am always trying to prove that different is not wrong just because it's different. It's been that way all my life. And I end up proving nothing, in particular, except that, while their methods might work for them, mine tend to work for me, if they'll just let me do things my way, and we'd all get a lot more done if we didn't waste so much time arguing about who is wrong and who is right.

But, of course, if you can't figure out what I'm doing, what I'm doing has no value for you. Or, at best, the value is limited.

Apparently, argument is not a very good vehicle for bringing value back from the wilderness, not the best way to communicate.

And I'm really out of time. Got to go work for people who will pay me money.


The secifics about this novel:

When I go out to find work teacching English, I only have a bachelors in computer science -- no advanced degree, and the major is not clearly related to English or teaching. And I don't have any teaching certifications.

I'm too late to pick up a Japanese certification. They have age limits in Japan. And I have not had the extra time or money to go back to school or pick up one of the international Teaching English as a Foreign Language certifications. And I have to compete with too many younger kids. So it's getting harder to find work.

I thought, if I get a novel published, that would be pretty good proof that I can read and write English well enough to teach it.

How's that for a pile of non-sequitur?

So I thought, what would be an easy idea for a story that my high school students could read, that I could write quickly, and that would be easy to sell?

Man and woman stranded by themselves somewhere.

Space ship? I want to sometime write about why that presents serious engineering issues far beyond simply getting people up there and keeping them safe, but that would take a lot of research and a bit of computer modeling. Putting them on a planet of their own would add additional religious philosophical problems. I would have to lay proper groundwork for Adam and Eve, essentially, which is another thing I want to do when I have better skills and more time.

Ultimately, I settled on a desert island. That would sell. (Look at the market two and a half years ago. If I could have gotten it out on the market then, it might well have sold.)

How to get them on the desert island alone, long term? Storm? Accident?


Now I am nominally a (good?) Mormon, so I don't want my main characters to have sex without getting married. So they would have to have a back story that would support them refraining from that kind of behavior. On the other hand, romance is what sells, so I want them to have romance.

I thought about having the man be Mormon, and having the woman spend the whole novel trying to wear him down. That might sell, but I really didn't want to write that story -- or the gender converse. It's a bit misogynistic. And man-hating, as well.

So I settled on two graduate students from a Church school doing fieldwork in an island country.

While I was working through this, I was also thinking how desert island stories are the sort of simplifications relative to sociology and economics that the cannonball and feather in a vacuum represent in physics.

And that is how I got to Economics 101.

That's how the novel developed conflicting goals -- one, to keep them apart, and two, to get them together -- Three, to entertain at a level to get people to buy, and four to instruct in some ideas that people current (falsey) consider to be pretty arcane.

Various aspects of the story took me away from the general folk Mormonism, and I don't want to argue with people about that, so I initially intended to resort to alternate reality.

But that wasn't enough separation, and the back story and the island story started to diverge, so I decided to move the story to another planet, far, far away. I thought that would give me some wiggle room in bringing the back story and the island story together. I've tried twice, even, and the result just makes the pieces that much harder to fit together.

If I had just been willing to stick with a simple story, where they are found in a few months, and religion is not a big part, but they do respect each other's freedom of association, I could have been finished.

Too many additional requirements. It's the story of my life.

But you know, I don't feel like I have sinned. I've lived long enough to realize that, even if I get stuck, refusing to add necessary additional requirements is what gets us things like the Intel 80x86 processors that make the Internet ten times the energy waste that it should be, MSWindows OSses that are magnets to malware, and so on.

A truly secure OS would be a different kind of evil, as well.

The one thing I have not yet succeeded in doing is figuring out how to get people to support what I'm doing. Even the friends who read my stories want me to take them different directions.

Hmm. Now that I know something about the terrain, maybe I could do a couple of the simpler stories in a way that would not be just adding to the body of bad literature. That would be good, too, and maybe I could finish it while I work some other job to try to pay for food. And it might help get the problems in the first one worked out.


Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Progress on my first novel, Economics 101, a Novel, Rough Draft

The first half of my desert island romance is a college romance. I think It's finally ready to be read -- chapters 01 to 09 in my blog.

The blurb (for now):

Bobbie and Karel are single, early-thirties returned missionaries with a lot of emotional baggage, returning to school to pursue advanced degrees in anthropology. Can their mid-twenties friends Kristie and Dan help them to get safely together in time for their fieldwork in an island country?

Rating: clean romance, but contains some discussion of sexual matters.

Something less than 90,000 words, not including the second half (chapters 10 and beyond).

I'll be extracting it from my blog to libreoffice docx and pdf, so anyone who prefers that over blog, let me know.

Warning: The second half (the desert island part) is not yet ready for prime time, and will take some time to finish the move to the planet Xhilr.

(Here's a little about how this novel got started.)