Q and A

Generic university facade

Answers Please!

It’s September and time for a story from academia.What do you think of when you hear, “It’s all academic”?

That it doesn’t matter? That it’s not practical? No use arguing?

Here’s an incident that might enhance your definition.

Q: What’s the difference between a physicist and a historian?

No, it’s not a joke, it’s actually a true story of an interaction between me and a friend who is a history professor at a university in the east. By which I mean Pennsylvania, not Mongolia.

~*

He’s a PhD history professor, a good friend, and found himself on the review panel for a doctoral thesis on a problem in the history of quantum mechanics.

He called me in a panic. He was the only nonscientist on the committee. He needed to look as smart as the rest of the members. Would I help him?

Of course.

He emailed me and attached the student’s ten-page summary and asked if I could come up with two or three intelligent questions for him to pose to the student who was defending his thesis.

“I can do that,” I said, always thrilled when someone wants to learn science, for whatever reason. I read the summary, wrote out three questions, and called him the next morning

“I can’t thank you enough,” he said. “These are great.”

“I’m glad. I’m ready to discuss them with you.”

He laughed. “Oh, no, I don’t need to discuss anything,” he said. “All I need are these questions. The answers aren’t important.” 

It took a while for his message to sink in: as long as he posed an intelligent question, he’d sound smart. He could then sit back and let the others, especially the student, come up with the discussion and possible answers. 

For me, it was a different take on “It’s all academic.”

How about you?

Updates and Icons

I have a new word to hate, and it’s UPDATE.

What ever happened to Leave well enough alone? Or the elegant, If it ain’t broke don’t fix it?

I work with 2 different academic websites, one worse than the other for updates and (*&^ icons (oops, slip of the links).

There are six ways to do everything on these sites—like post an email, and ten places to put it after you’ve written it. I’ve forgotten how to do the math that calculates how many combinations and permutations that amounts to.

In a strange twist of web designer/user interface, in one class where the opening website to click on your course is new, and the course navigation scheme is new, someone had the decency (guilt feelings?) to include a sentence in tiny font, almost grayed out: Click to see original layout.

Then there are ICONS chosen by ? Please introduce me; I’d like to tell ’em what I think.

What do you think this is?

Here’s an example.

In one class, after I’ve written the text of a post, I get to choose from broad range of things. bold, italic, or Heading, for example. Or bold italic, or bold italic heading, and so on. Today I wanted to choose a color for a line of text so it would stand out. Red, I thought, that should be easy.

But nowhere could I find the icon that said, in any words I could understand, “red” or “color” or color red.

I’ve learned to hack around, however, and so I began clicking on every single icon. Fascinating choices popped up. I had the feeling I could have switched to the language of Croatia more easily than I could find RED. Finally, because I ran out of logical ones, I clicked on the stack of waffles in the image above.

Voila! It opened up a rainbow of further choices including colors, plus many other tools.

OK, raise your hand, you who thought this was the way to indicate “colors”? Or anything other than waffles or dominoes?

I’m leaving before I accidentally hit the COLLAPSE button on the sidebar

and either I or the computer ends in a heap.

In the mail

Actually in the ether. But the point is that I wrote THE END and sent off another manuscript to my publisher. This is Book 3 of the Alaska Diner series.

Granted it’s not really the end because it has to go through the entire structure of the publishing house—editor, editor’s boss, copy editor, galley editor, production editor. And who knows what other “team” members. But at least there’s a core 84,000 words that make up the story, and most of that will survive the blue pencils, or these days “track changes.”

My first 4 mystery series were inspired by me; that is, careers or hobbies I’ve had—physicist, miniaturist, math teacher, postal worker. Even most of my standalones and short stories have been connected in some way to my past—a nun, a concession worker on a boardwalk, inspecting commercial nuclear plants.

But for this new series, my 26th  through 28th  novel, I broke from that pattern, and actually wrote fiction! Yes, it was my publisher’s idea. Oh, and so was a new name: Elizabeth Logan.

“How about a cat in a diner in Alaska?” my editor said. (As most of you may know, editors don’t ask, even when there’s a question mark at the end of their sentences. They tell.)

Book 2 of the series, available for PreOrder.

“Sure,” I said.

I’ve never owned a cat, but apparently every one of my friends has and they were only too eager to help me out with stories. Thus, an orange tabby, Eggs Benedict, Benny for short, was born. (He has his own Pinterest page, by the way. You can check out “Benny” there.)

It’s funny to have my critique partners argue over whether Benny can or can not do a certain thing, eat a certain thing, sound a certain way. So it’s not much different from other research, such as when you ask a question of experts in police procedure, for example, and you get “yes” from three or four, and “no” from three or four others. The good news is you’re then free to do what you want!

A funny example: one friend insists her cat eats corn on the cob, while it’s still on the cob. She demonstrates with her own hands and mouth, teeth running along a “row.” Another friend insists no cat would or can do that. I went with “can” because it was more fun, but my editor scratched it!

Moral here, in case you missed it: you never know whom to credit or blame for settings, pets, character names, pen names, cover design, story decisions. It takes a village!

Girl

I’m in the mode of repurposing these days. So if I “have to” read an essay for my MFA class, I might as well post it here for you to read, right?

The essay is “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid. I heard her lecture in SF many years ago. This is not what she read, but I found Girl on YouTube. There it is for your listening pleasure.

PS, this is not cheating because I’ve already submitted my homework, so I won’t be getting credit for any comments you make.

BILLIONS AND HEDGES

It had been a while since there was a tv drama I liked. Then I found “Billions” and now I’ve lost “Billions.” There’s no sign of when it might return.

Friends are surprised I liked the show about billionaires and the world of high finance. I can barely understand low finance. Not that I’m poor, I just don’t get money things.

My family lived on the dollar bills my father brought home on Fridays, in a little brown envelope, after shoveling cement all week. We never had a checking account, and credit cards hadn’t been born.

Then, I left home and took a vow of poverty, the kind where you’re not allowed to have money in your possession.

So, what about the plot in “Billions?” Frankly, I have no idea.

This is an example of a HEDGE FUND, as featured in the tv show “Billions.” Except that this is a friend fixing our hedge and we didn’t pay her, so now I’m confused.

All I know is

            1) Damian Lewis (the billionaire) and Paul Giamatti (the DA) head up an incredible cast of characters, and

            2) The writing oozes equally incredible dialogue.

What I know of the plot is that in every episode either the billionaire or the DA would win. Also, the DA was always trying to catch the billionaire doing something illegal, and in doing so, he was borderline legal himself.

Why does any of this matter? Because it’s the same with books—novels, stories. They’re about characters, writing, and plot. For me, if the first two are done well, I can live with failures of plot.  

You?

THE BAROMETER

A miniature physics lesson set up in my office. Pen for scale.

Even though it’s a virtual year, the start of school for many of us inspires me to drag out the famous (to some of us) story of the barometer.

Question on a quiz:

Show how it’s possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer.

One student answered this way:

“Take the barometer to the top of the building and attach a long piece of rope to it. Lower the barometer until it hits the sidewalk, then pull it up and measure the length of the rope, which will give you the height of the building.”

What? The teacher expected a different answer, using the standard equation involving the difference in pressure at the top and bottom of the building.

p(h)=p0exp(−mghkBT)

When challenged to come up with “the right answer,” the student gave several. Among them:

1. Take the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the height of the barometer, the length of its shadow, and the length of the shadow of the building. Using simple proportion, determine the height of the building.

2. Take the barometer and begin to walk up the stairs. As you climb the stairs, you mark off the length of the barometer along the wall. You then count the number of marks, and this will give you the height of the building in barometer units.

And so on.

My favorite remains this one:

“Take the barometer to the basement and knock on the superintendent’s door. When the superintendent answers, say: ‘Ms. Superintendent, if you will tell me the height of this building, I will give you this barometer.'”

How would you grade this student?

** Legend has it that the student was Niels Bohr (1885-1962, Nobel Prize in physics, 1922), but then a legend can say anything and get away with it.

What’s your alibi?

Here’s a photo of me taken in NYC’s Grand Central Terminal, in a rare moment when I actually posed for whoever was the persuasive photographer.

Oh no, you’re saying, is this another of those “I Miss New York” stories? (Where’s the “Miss” emoticon, by the way?)

Well, I do love GCT, even though it has been decades since I’ve been there to ride a train, as opposed to buy postcards and eat a lobster roll at the Oyster Bar.

This time I’m admitting that I often study backgrounds, wondering, e.g., who the guy in the pink shirt is, and what those kids on the right are doing now. Were they tourists at the time with their father (?) standing next to them in the plaid shirt? Or maybe they rode the subway from the Bronx for a day in Manhattan. And what’s Daddy looking at? “Information” is all the way to the left, under the famous set of clocks.

It’s hard to identify too many other people in this shot, unless we could send it “to the lab,” that magic place in televisionland where they’d be able to zoom in on that guy in the khaki shorts and black shirt, all the way in the back, past Denim Skirt, and match him with someone in their “system.”

This activity is on my mind at the moment since I’m writing a scene where a candid taken at a Fair shows a guy in the background who . . . never mind, I’m not sure yet how I’ll use it.

BUT, if you ever need an alibi, let me know. I might have your photo in one of my backgrounds.

DINER LINGO

DINER LINGO

BOOK 2 of the series will be released in November. It’s ready for preorder. BOOK 1, Mousse and Murder was released in May 2020.

I’m in the middle of my 3-book series set in an Alaskan diner, currently reviewing the galleys for Book 2, FISHING FOR TROUBLE.

How did diners get started? The best I can do is go back to 1872 and credit Walter Scott, a horse-drawn wagon in Providence, Rhode Island, and a menu designed to feed night owls, whether workers finishing the late shift, or revelers looking for an off-hours meal.

The wagon evolved into “rolling restaurants,” with a few seats added inside, and then dining cars and finally, around 1924, permanently located “diners,” most maintaining the train-car look.

With a new style of restaurant came a new set of phrases, or “diner lingo,” the way a short order cook might communicate with her staff. Some call it shorthand, but diner lingo is often longer than the regular term for the menu item.

“A side of bad breath,” for example is not as succinct as “with onions.”  And “a stack of Vermont” is longer than “pancakes.”

My guess: it’s more for adding fun to a job. Who doesn’t want to do that?

Probably among the best known call-outs are “Adam and Eve on a raft” (two eggs on toast), and “Battle Creek in a bowl” (corn flakes).

Other favorites of mine are:

“Burn the British” (toast an English muffin).

 “Cowboy” (western omelet).

“Cops and robbers” (coffee and donuts).

“In the alley” (on the side).

“Butcher’s revenge” (meatloaf).

A few phrases have been assimilated into our language, no longer recognized as diner-related, like sunny side up, BLT, OJ, and 86 it.

Post your favorites. But whatever you do, don’t be a camper*!

*One who stays at the table or counter for a long time, depriving the server of new tips.

NYC–Looking Back

The sun setting on 42nd Street

It’s a crazy time to be a writer. At least, for this writer.

I “should” be in New York right now, at a conference that I’ve attended every year. Not this year, of course. The conference was cancelled, like all the conferences and events of 2020. Cancelled. Like me, lucky to be NOT sick, not jobless. Just cancelled.

Here’s a blog from the past. New York City as I remember it, written after a trip earlier this century.

I’m just back from a trip to Manhattan with three friends. It was very relaxing – for five days we were out the door of our Times Square hotel by eight in morning, and home by two the next morning, 18 hours later.

In between: the Metropolitan Museum, the Neue Gallery, the Guggenheim, cheesecake at the Roxy deli, the NY Philharmonic (Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff);  Angela Lansbury (!) in Blythe Spirit; afternoon tea at the Ritz on Central Park South; the magnificent NYPL; Little Italy; Bloomies; the Iridium jazz club; and, oh yes, Borders at Columbus Circle where (while I lurked behind a bookcase) my friends suggested that they reorder all my books. We ended the week with a late night show in the Lincoln Center theater: Woody Allen’s new “Whatever Works.” Not brilliant, we decided, but so much fun to see it in Manhattan, where the audience claps when his name appears!

At one point as we waited to cross a busy street, one of my friends cupped her ears. It turned out she’d been bothered all week by the noise.  

“What noise?” I asked.

She meant the soothing sounds of taxis; buses; industrial motors, generators, and fans; crowds of people; alarms. All music to my ears. As opposed to the quiet suburbs where silence is broken only by the occasional ear-splitting pickup truck stereo system.

What’s noise and what’s soothing background?

It goes back to childhood, I believe. My bedroom window growing up was about 3 feet from a bar/pizza parlor. I fell asleep to the sounds of the jukebox. Later, I had a nearly 2-hour commute to college in Boston. For 4 years, I did my calculus homework on the famous MTA, often with one arm slung around a pole.

For me, noise provides stimulus to write and a reassuring background to sleep. If it’s too quiet, I can’t relax, neither to write nor to rest. Where is everyone? I wonder. Maybe I should get up and look around.

New York City is the perfect place to relax.

July 4 past and present

Here’s a link to Boston Pops past.

This year, enjoy the Pops or your favorite July 4 music from the safety of your home and keep well!

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And one more bit of news: Volume 2 of Low Down Dirty Vote will be out July 4, 2020. More on that on the day!