Monthly Archives: October 2013

Writing prompt: “A ghost in the building”

Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“A ghost in the building” (For Halloween!)

Anitra loved her apartment building. It sat between campus and the downtown, and was still elegant. One day a year, however, she didn’t love her apartment—Halloween. Something must have happened, once, over its ninety years standing, that imprinted into the bones of the building. And every Halloween it happened again. She didn’t know if she could bear it again.

This year she’d thought ahead. She was going to stay with the Johnstons in the suburbs. She would help hand out candy. Twilight fell, and she pulled into the Johnstons’ driveway. “Damn, how did I forget my backpack?” She reversed the car and drove back. It would be fine. The elevator man’s demise didn’t play out until later in the evening.

She retrieved the bag from her apartment. She took the stairs. Even on good days, the manual elevator doors spooked her. Some day, they might not slide open when they ought to. She went back to the Johnstons.

“Anitra, I can’t believe you’re afraid to stay in your apartment alone on Halloween,” Marci Johnston said, ladling out spiced cider. “I thought you were an independent woman.” She smiled wryly.

Anitra laughed. “I am, I am. It’s not the apartment I’m afraid of—it’s the fact that every year…” she lowered her voice and set her mug on the table. “You won’t believe me, but every year, the ghost corpse of the murdered elevator man roams the hallways.”

“No way!” Marci smiled broadly. “That’s so cool!”

Anitra shuddered. “I’d just rather avoid it this year.”

“You say he was murdered?”

“That’s the legend,” Anitra said, not liking where this was going. “Apparently it was never solved.”

“Then we have to solve it!” Marci cried, spilling her cider a little.


Great Places to Read Free Science Fiction

You can read some great science fiction and fantasy for free online. This is nice for aspiring writers, looking to see how good stories are constructed, and it’s nice for readers who simply enjoy a good story. These aren’t just b-rate venues, either, markets both elite and humble have online content.
Clarkesworld– one of the best venues in science fiction.
Daily science fiction– they have a great subscription list. Sign up and they’ll send you one story every business day, mostly flash fiction .
Escape pod– a science fiction pod cast. They also have sister horror and fantasy podcasts (pseudopod and pod castle).
The colored lens– they have new stories weekly. If you’re interested in submitting works, this is a great venue as they respond quickly and personally. And there’s no better way to see what a venue wants than what they’ve bought before.

Happy Monday! (This late, possibly oddly formatted post brought to you by my busted computer screen and my phone.) :)

Writing prompt: “She watched the autumn leaves fall”

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“She watched the autumn leaves fall”

She watched the autumn leaves fall. The floor of the forest must be covered in several inches after the last week.

It’s under there, she thought. She gazed at the sea of golden and brown leaves. It was tempting to notice how pretty the scene was, golden late afternoon light spilling through the nearly bare branches. But it was more like looking at a new ocean that had just formed, a great useless barrier in between her and her prize. How long would it them to find the city under this mess? If she couldn’t, would it be too late by spring?

Five years ago, when she had started the research, the danger of it had never occurred to her. Ants were nifty, clever little critters. Somehow, she still didn’t know how, but somehow she had changed them. They were smarter. They plotted. They got to things normal ants shouldn’t get to, like the morning she arrived to find the sugar-water solution in the next room down a quarter in volume. It hadn’t been her imagination, she realized, when the birth rate went up the appropriate time later.

Somehow, a week ago, a few had stowed away on her person. She wouldn’t even have noticed, except that somehow she’d killed one. What a shock it had been to see one of her hot pink ants in her pocket, the worst kind of smoking bullet. She’d traced her steps back to her cut-through home. Even her ants were remarkably camouflaged this time of year. Had they planned it?

People probably imagined that viruses or bacteria engineering would eventually wreak havoc on the world. But no, she shook her head; it was going to be her Technicolor ants. Maybe they wouldn’t survive the winter.

Autumn is here!

And apparently, so was Monday… yesterday… Writing your dissertation can do terrible things to your perception of time. I worked all weekend. When I emerged yesterday, it was so beautiful, I forgot all about posting. Because fall is here, and other than the waning days, I love this time of year. Can’t you see why?

(Check out tons of other autumn pics on flickr!)


Near the University of Virginia rotunda.

Near the University of Virginia rotunda.

Dell pond on the University of Virginia campus.

Dell pond on the University of Virginia grounds.


Virginia countryside.

Virginia countryside.


Writing prompt: “Mistaken identity”

Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Mistaken identity” (this guy must look like a real jerk!)


“I know what you did,” the man approached Ian.

“Pardon, have we met?”

The man lunged at Ian and shoved him. Then the world went black.


We he woke, there were rainbows across the sky. Ian slapped himself, and pinched himself, and all those little tricks you do to waken from dreaming. They didn’t work. Well, if he were dreaming, he might as well explore.

The ground was covered in a gray pulsing net. Waves undulated through it, like drops in a lake but fast, this way and that, coarsing across the hilly, bald land.

He saw a man on the far hill. He started toward him, but then he recognized him as the man who pushed him. He went the other way.

After some time, the gray mesh grew taller and crenelated. In the distance he saw a town. He walked to it, and the town was formed from the mesh. People, no, more like automatons, moved through the city, dancing a strange, architected dance that never stopped and never slowed.

Ian weaved through the automatons, who never even noticed him. He kept walking, and eventually the mesh grew sparse and there were flowers and grass.

A woman ran up to him. He extended his hand to shake. She punched him across the jaw. The world went dark.


When he opened his eyes again, there was only blackness. His face hurt, and he suspected this was not a dream. He felt around, sensing cold rocks. Was he blind? He stumbled along, sensing he should go somewhere, anywhere but here. Someone kicked him.


He woke up, floating in the clouds of a world with six moons in the sky. He swam through the ether, at one with life.

He saw the woman who had punched him.

“Wait, please talk to me at least before you hit me!”

She frowned, but she did not hit him.

Science and Cooking

I love to cook. As one might gather from this blog, I like to keep my hands busy, and cooking saves money and provides deliciousness. (Many other hobbies have more of a knack for consuming money.) I also happen to be very lactose-intolerant, so cooking for myself also greatly benefits my digestive health.

When I was younger, I was absolutely apathetic to cooking, as I suspect many kids are, feeling that it’s house-wifely and unimportant. Then I got out on my own, and, astonishingly, good food was expensive and I had little currency.  I wanted to improve my cooking, but I really didn’t know the rules. But I knew the next best thing: science. Many recently published books explore the relationship between science and cooking. For those of us that can’t remember the baking soda without knowing its chemical purpose, this is a great thing.

Some recommended books:

  • What Einstein Told his Cook by Robert Wolke. The content is good, especially for those less versed in chemistry. The author wrote a newspaper column about cooking, and this book is mostly the compilation of answers to various questions such as “What is the difference between cane sugar and beet sugar?” It contains several recipes illustrating various points of the book. A major emphasis of the book is clarifying common misunderstandings of food science. As someone who knows a lot of science, I sometimes find the answers too basic, but I definitely learned things reading this book.
  • Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor by Herve This. Of the three books I discuss, this is the one I have had the least time to scrutinize. However, I really like what I have read. Wolke’s book covers more conceptual topics, like the differences between various kinds of salts. This’s book covers more specific topics, like why we marinade roasts in red wine rather than white, or how different kinds of truffles are related. This one is probably most strictly for those interested in cooking, with fewer “gee whiz” moments and more “that would be useful” moments.
  • Cooking for Geeks: Real science, great hacks, and good food by Jeff Potter. This one is definitely the most fun of the three! This book is from the publisher O’Reilly, which does a lot of technical textbooks. This book shares its layout with those kinds of book, but its soul is lighter. Its layout is more varied, as textbooks are. Plus, this book has a fun section about hardware like evaporators and sous vide water baths. Sous vide is involves cooking foods in circulating water baths. It is similar to slow-cooking, but the food is kept in a plastic bag and thus not diluted. Foods can safely and extra-deliciously be cooked at much lower temperatures by this method. Low temperatures denature specific proteins, prevent drying, and, when held for a bit, kill bacteria. This book does a great job explaining why and how sous vide works. I just got a sous vide system myself, and this book has given me some confidence about something I knew very little about. Plus it’s very fun to read, and covers tons of other topics in geek-friendly ways.

Writing prompt: “The rider approached from the distance”

Time: 5 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“The rider approached from the distance”

The rider approached from the distance. At first, Ganya assumed he rode a horse. As the figure grew nearer, he realized the steed was mechanical. Its haunches glistened in the last afternoon light, but in the way of polished aluminum. The creature was utterly detailed in its creation, but stylized. The jointed were open, showing the workings of the gears. The mane and tail were composed of some strange fiber that floated voluminously. He guessed the fibers held static charge, creating this illusion of weightlessness and wonder from, for a human, a truly horrendous bad hair day.

Ganya had seen a few mechanical dogs, toys of the extremely idle rich, but never a horse. There was a certain implication of perfection in the fact that the beast was ridden. A person of such means would never ride something less that transcendently safe. Somehow, that more than the size of the creature, struck Ganya in awe. The mech dogs sometimes failed. This thing must be a marvel of engineering beyond his dreams. What he wouldn’t give to take it apart and look inside.

The rider dismounted and drew back his cloak. No, her cloak. The rider was a small, severe, but remarkable looking woman. In Ganya’s part of the world, women didn’t ride, nor did they possess wealth. Seeing the rider was female filled him with resentment. Surely he deserved this marvelous steed more than she. And perhaps with a little cunning, the shining beast would be his.



A little bookbinding

I really enjoy bookbinding from time to time, especially now that technical writing occupies the bulk of my time. It’s refreshing to complete something and see its completeness. It can be hard to feel holistic satisfaction from writing; there’s always one more thing to fix. Below are some photos of my recent projects.

The first two are books I donated to my local writing club, WriterHouse, for a charity raffle. The purple and grey book is a perfect-bound notebook with a bone clasp; it contains linen textured paper. The dusky red book has exposed linen tape to allow for a more flexible spine. It contains a slightly warmer-colored linen textured paper. I made a similar book for myself a few months ago–having something beautiful to take notes in is a great incentive for me.

The third book is a copy of my novel draft to send to a friend who until now has been reading from a pdf. I used a red poppy patterned paper for the endpapers–I love the pattern but it’s a slick paper that can be hard to keep flat. I was pleased with how it turned out. The book’s cover is black imitation leather.


Writing prompt: “The secret to space poppies is harvesting the right part”

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“The secret to space poppies is harvesting the right part”

The secret to space poppies is harvesting the right part. I should know. When teaching on Seti Beta goes to recess in the early summer, I switch to my more lucrative career, harvesting. The seeds contain powerful opiates, conveying all their medicinal and jovial attributes. The petals and the stem each have their own pitfalls. The petals have some quantity of opiates, but also contain some oxidized compounds which, in my opinion, lead to the having of a bad time. Unscrupulous vendors will include the petals in their product, knowing that the vast majority of customers don’t know the difference. I like to think that a more pleasant high leads to customer loyalty. The stem contains potent poisons. Homicidal vendors include them.

They aren’t really related to poppies, nor do they look like them. They’re actually enormous lizard plants. But they yield an opiate, and they have plant parts. Part of the trade is keeping the lizards happy. When they’re unhappy, they bite, and they can accumulate more oxidized compounds. I have three flesh fingers on my left hand, although at least I had plenty of painkiller on hand. Some say that the industry is in danger, with the rise of bioengineering and targeted therapies. This is why I support the rise of pleasure purchases. They are the future.

(This prompt is a bit scattered. I barely had the time to finish it during a lull in teaching in a crowded noisy room. But I really think it’s worthwhile to sit down and write on command. We must learn to accept that not all words we write are golden, but if we do write, there will be more golden words than if we don’t. As Wayne Gretzky said, we miss 100% of the shots we don’t take. And perhaps, one evening when we think we’re brain-dead, we will write something that we love in the morning.)