Physics of Christmas

Yes, it’s time to pull out the old story. You may already have seen it in my newsletter, but here it is again with maybe slightly different numbers. They are, after all, just estimates. In a given year, who knows how many naughties vs. nices there might be?


I wonder if Santa will be masked this year? He’s using gloves. And doesn’t that drink look good?

There are about 2 billion children in the world and even at one toy each, we have something like 400,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second to get around world in one night.

 A simple calculation shows that Santa has 1/1000th  of a second to pull up on a roof, park his sleigh, hop out, climb down the chimney, figure out who’s naughty and nice, distribute the presents, eat a snack, and say Ho, Ho, Ho, all without waking the household. Then he goes back up the chimney, gets back into the sleigh, dusts off his suit, and moves on to the next house.

Not just exhausting, but physically impossible?

Even though there’s not a lot of sleigh traffic up there, it does not seem a feasible trip.

But the naysayers are way behind the times. Have they never heard of worm holes? Wormholes are features of space-time that allow a shortcut through the universe.

Imagine you’re standing in a long line at the post office. You’re at one end of the room and the clerk is at the other. Now imagine a piece of paper with a stick figure representing you at one corner, and a figure at the diagonally opposite corner to represent the clerk. Fold the paper so that your stick figure is on top of the clerk’s.

See? You’ve just taken a shortcut to the head of the line.

In another version of worm hole demonstration, dots are placed at opposite corners of a piece of paper, the paper is folded, having the dots touch, and the same effect is seen.

That’s what Santa does. With a little math and a dash of relativity theory we can show that, in fact, with every stop, Santa can come out of the chimney before he gets in!

No problem making all those stops.

So, yes, Virginia, relatively speaking, Santa can do it!



The World’s First Programmer

COUNTESS ADA LOVELACE — Birthdate December 10, 1815

Some of you may have seen this tribute in my Newsletter, but it bears repeating. Here’s another excellent biography.

I have usually come down on the NURTURE side of the Nature vs Nurture argument. But Ada’s life gives me pause.

Not to pare it down too much, but the simple story goes: Ada’s mother was married briefly to the poet Lord Byron. In hindsight, Byron is thought to have been bipolar; he was “unstable” and died, in debt, at 36. Ada’s mother tried to protect her daughter from such a life and steered her away from a literary life and toward mathematics. The plan worked when we think of Ada’s great contribution to the early days of “computing” — but she was addicted to drugs, an inveterate gamble, and died, in debt, at 36.

There is so much more to her life and especially to her brilliance at developing the equations that made Babbage’s “analytic engine” workable. She deserves a Day of her own, Ada Lovelace Day, the second Tuesday of October, every year.


Joe Minichino (December 3, 1908-July 4, 1981)

There’s some evidence that Joe is holding his daughter, Camille.

Joe’s birthday is today. Joe was my safe place in my home, and I miss him still. He died amid fireworks on the Fourth of July. How fitting. I wrote this piece at the time and I take it out now and then.

You remember Joe

“the honorable JM,” Helen called him playfully.

He was the quiet one, who loved having people around him,

the short one, who did tall things.

“I want to thank you for everything,” he would say, for the smallest gift.

Well, he died on the Fourth of July.

On Independence Day, he left his daughters without cribbage,

his blue Maverick without a determined, grinning, Boston driver,

and his friends without countless favors.

We’ve had the last of his grin and his stuffed peppers,

the last of his salads, with chunks of salami arranged symmetrically.

We are without the Son of Italy,

beating the drum on the Revere Beach bandstand,

or resting his eyes in front of the old Philco,

(the shadow knows)

or laughing at Abbott and Costello (who’s on first).

He’s not available at the Holiday Inn;

there’s no answer on Hutchinson Street.

We could try to get him back.

Maybe if we play an old Vaughn Monroe 78,

or settle the baseball strike,

or send Whimsey with a note.

He knows we’d do anything for him.

Where could he get a better deal?

He’d only leave us for a better deal.

This Independence Day, he abandoned his boy’s size feet

and funny-looking half-thumb, and pockets full enough

to wake every airport metal detector.

On the Fourth of July, during cook-outs and fireworks,

family gatherings and parades,

Joe moved on to a better deal.

“Here’s your Hubby,” he probably said.

Joe, we want to thank you for everything.


FOR THE RECORD: These turkeys will not be allowed to pardon themselves.

I hope you have planned a great, safe weekend everyone.

Read any good books lately?

I don’t think I’m alone in this—I can’t get to sleep without reading at least a few chapters of a book. Preferably a longer session. Neither can I board a plane or train without a book or a host of them on an e-reader.

In one of those unexpected moments of enlightenment recently, I realized—huh?—none of my characters is a reader. At least not the way I am.

At the time, I had 4 series and a pile of short stories, but a stack of books was nowhere to be found in any of them. In fact, I couldn’t recall seeing, that is writing about, a single book.

Now and then, Gloria Lamerino, my first protagonist would pick up a copy of the magazine Physics Today or a Scientific American, but for the most part she was busy thinking, waiting for that AHA moment when she solved the case.

I have to excuse the women for not settling down with a good book: they were very busy solving murders. In almost every one of my books, the murder is solved in a week, maybe two at the most. Compare that rate with the years it takes for the real cops to solve a real murder.

No wonder my characters don’t have time to read.

But in my 5th series, the Alaska Diner Mysteries by Elizabeth Logan, I finally produced a reader. It’s not a spoiler to let you know that my latest protagonist, Charlie Cooke, has been lured into reading mysteries by her mother, an avid fan of cozies. Go figure.

Forgive the segue, but the second book of the series will be out on Tuesday, November 24, in time for a leisurely Thanksgiving read. If you’d like to tune into my blog tour, click here.

As much as I love reading, I’d prefer that we all be traveling or cooking for 20 that day, but a hopefully good book will have to do. Then next year, we’ll all be traveling and/or cooking on Thanksgiving again, saving the book for falling asleep.

I wish you all a safe Thanksgiving weekend.

Remember these?

November 12, 1904: the invention and patent for the first vacuum tube.

Isn’t it lovely?

The brainchild of British electrical engineer John Fleming, the vacuum tube marks the beginning of modern electronics.

Because I know you want more: try this link for a fuller history and fascinating early images.

We voted!

Part of my political button collection

Sadly, I didn’t have the occasion to wear my buttons this year. Usually, they’d be part of my costume, lining the lapels and front of a white jacket at an election night party.

You’ll notice that (unlike me) the collection is nonpartisan. We have Democrats like Hillary and Mondale/Ferraro, GOP John Anderson, Reform Party Ross Perot, and nonpartisan Clint Eastwood.

Also, partly buried near the center is a button for “Taylor,” the oldest of the set. I never took the time to look him up (I was fairly sure it was a him). Until this year and this blog. I found Zachary Taylor who was the 12th president (1849) between Polk and Fillmore (which for San Franciscans sounds a lot a city block).

Old as I am, I was not around to vote in that election, and I have no idea where I picked up the button, except that a flea market seems a likely source.

FYI, I’ve packed the buttons away, with a hope that I might wear them next election.

October Recap

Thanks to all who showed up in support of MWA NorCal Mystery Week events.
I owe a huge apology to anyone I missed or gave a non-working Zoom link to — it happened, and I have no excuse other than residual Luddite-ness.

First: if you will identify yourself, you will receive a prize!

Second: here’s a screenshot of my panel on Tuesday evening, 10/27, on writing characters, with Claire Johnson, Eileen Rendahl, Ann Parker, David Corbett. I chose a Zoom background of a wedding. (I’m middle left.)
But whose wedding?
Name the bride and groom (or one of the guests!) for another prize!

(If you need a better image, let me know, but really that woman in orange?)

Next time we meet, we’ll have been through a critical moment in our country. VOTE NOW if you don’t already have your sticker.

SEE YOU on the other side.

Reading dark

Icelandic sunset

Pardon me if I lapse into Gothic, but I just came across my notes from a class in Gothic Literature.

If you haven’t visited my bookshelves, you might be surprised that I like dark, noir, heavy reading, like the Nordic authors—all those unpronounceable names like Indridason and Lagercrantz, or it turns out, like Gothic Literature. (Then why have you written almost 30 cozy, light novels? you might ask. That’s for another blog.)

These selections in italics are from The Italian, by Matthew Lewis (1775-1818).

• I loved seeing words used as different parts of speech from what we’re used to: . . . a gentle slope that margined the water.

• And what about a word with a different meaning: From this moment I make you independent and promise . . . to give you a thousand sequins.

In the past I’ve had a sequin or two on a jacket. But these thousand sequins are Venetian gold coins.

• One of my favorites: Young man! You are an enthusiast, and I pardon you.

The explanatory note: Enthusiasm was a dismissive 18th century term for the belief in private revelation or personal communion with the divine.

I hope you are an enthusiast in the 21st century meaning, for my next (cozy) novel “Fishing for Trouble,” which will be released on November 24!

Better Than Fiction

Sometimes stories land in your lap.

One weekend morning, pre-pandemic, I showed up to teach a writing class that was to be held on the property of a county park. The class was scheduled for ten o’clock. I showed up about 15 minutes early and found a couple of students waiting outside a tall chain link fence held closed with a serious padlock, and a No Trespassing sign.

No problem; we were early. We chatted on; more students came. We hardly noticed that a half hour had passed. No one had showed up to let us in. A couple of delivery people came by in trucks and left when they realized there was no entry. We made a few calls with our cells—first to my contact at the school, who suggested I call the park police, who suggested I call the city police, and so on.

The boring part of the story is that eventually someone came to let us in.

The interesting part happened while we were waiting.

A young woman pulled up in a low red sports car. She got out and addressed us.

“I have to get in there,” she said. “I was at a wedding in the park last night and left my purse.”

We shrugged and explained that there was nothing we could do until someone came with a key to the padlock, and we hoped someone was on the way.

She grunted. The next thing we knew, she was scaling the fence. She plopped down on the other side and walked into the park. About ten minutes later, she approached the fence again, from the inside, and climbed out.

In her hands were a purse, a pair of shoes, and a bra.

She gave us a wink, got in her car and drove off.

My writing students and I got a lot of mileage of the incident, creating many colorful back stories.

One thing that impressed me was the young woman’s willingness to disregard the No Trespassing sign and its warning of a heavy fine.

I thought about how I am such a rule-keeper (well, most of the time). For me, the physical difficulty of scaling a fence pales in comparison to the mental and psychological difficulty of breaking the law.

Maybe that’s why I write fiction—to break laws vicariously!

Would you have climbed that fence?