Do Not Stand at my grave and weep

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glint on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you wake in the morning hush,
I am the swift, uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.

Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
(Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there, I did not die!)

— Mary Frye

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Remember

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad

–Rossetti.

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Out our Bourne of Time and Place

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have cross’d the bar

— Tennyson

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Bereavement is part of life, I realize

I don’t particularly like sharing sad news publicly. But my dad passed away yesterday.

I’m fine. My mother is fine. It was a very peaceful death, at home. He just said he would lie down for a few minutes and then … just … fell asleep and passed away a few minutes later.

I had scheduled a good many posts ahead of Christmas Break. Some of those are still set to go live in the next few days. But I’m also going to schedule poems every day for a while, starting with this one, which is very appropriate.

REQUIEM

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

— RLS

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The Astounding Secret Behind Da Vinci’s Genius

So, here’s an intriguing title for a post: The Astounding Secret Behind Leonardo da Vinci’s Creative Genius

I mean, a secret? Other than: da Vinci was a creative genius because some people are, for mysterious reasons?

Well, let’s see where this post goes ….

In the book Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding da Vinci’s Creative Genius, Shlain makes an excellent case that Leonardo da Vinci was biologically different from practically all other humans. According to Shlain, da Vinci’s brain was the perfect balance of right and left hemispheres. It was because of a one-of-a-kind abnormality in Leonardo da Vinci’s corpus callosum—the part of the brain responsible for controlling analytical left-brain observation and right-brain creativity.

Ah! Well, that is indeed interesting. Personally, I immediately want someone like Scott Alexander to do a book review. I would trust him to know plenty about (a) brain anatomy, and (b) theories about brain function, and (c) evidence, and what it is, and how to think about it. These are all topics Scott knows a whole lot about. I don’t know if I can trust this guy, Leonard Shlain, to know what he’s talking about. I wonder who he is?

Here is Shlain’s Wikipedia page. He was a surgeon, inventor, and writer, it says. So I still don’t know, but that’s at least a somewhat relevant background.

Shlain postulates that da Vinci saw universal interconnectedness in everything… everywhere. Biologically advantaged by some quirk of nature, da Vinci elevated his mind to a higher state of consciousness than achieved by other people. Leonardo da Vinci—according to author Leonard Shlain—evolved into a superhuman

I hope Shlain didn’t use that phrase. Individuals do not evolve. Populations evolve. Here we see why that is so. Let’s stipulate for the moment that da Vinci did in fact have peculiar brain anatomy and was for that reason super-intelligent and super-perceptive. This intelligence and creativity is not attributed to genetics, did not occur in the midst of a “great family,” and was not passed on to descendants or collateral kin. This kind of one-off exceptionalism is so not what evolution is about.

If you are interested — I suddenly found myself interested — here is an article about da Vinci’s living relatives. They are not, of course, especially close relatives.

In 2016, the researchers identified 35 living relatives of Leonardo’s, including the film director and opera designer Franco Zeffirelli.

Of the 14 descendants referenced in the study, just one had previously known about their links to the Renaissance icon. Some still live in the towns neighboring Vinci and “have ordinary jobs like a clerk, a surveyor, an artisan,” Vezzosi tells ANSA.

Back to the original post:

Leonardo da Vinci’s brain was so evolved—author Shlain writes—that his mind easily accessed information not readily there for normal people. Da Vinci’s brain/mind power was so special that he “thought” his way to fantastic ideas. It also let da Vinci observe what was going on in the universe and record it. That might have been simplistic beauty as in the Lady With an Ermine, an anatomical analogy like Vitruvian Man or a geometric complexity seen in the Rhombicuboctahedron.

Shlain WAS using the word “evolved,” apparently. I do wish he had not. I suddenly find it difficult to take him seriously.

Well, despite that, this is an interesting post.

A lot of writers have found Leonardo da Vinci an intriguing character — I mean, in a fictional sense as well as a historical sense.

Manly Wade Wellman (Silver John, you’ve all read those stories, right?) apparently wrote a time-travel novel featuring da Vinci. Amazingly, this is available on Kindle for a reasonable price.

DWJ, in A Tale of Time City, offers an possible nod to da Vinci, when a villain named Leon is exiled to 15th century Italy. I did not actually notice that when I read this book, but someone pointed that out to me and it’s stuck in my head.

It turns out — this is something I didn’t realize until I just googled “da vinci in science fiction” — that there are so many stories that include da Vinci references that these are called “vinciads.” Here is an encyclopedia entry about this. I had no idea.

Popular in literary fiction too, I see: here’s a list of five novels that feature Leonardo da Vinci as a protagonist, such as this one:

Leonardo’s Swans, by Karen Essex
What makes Essex’s portrayal of da Vinci interesting is that she views him through the lens of other characters in this complex and subtle fictional biography of the competitive Estes sisters in 15th century Italy. Placed into politically motivated marriages, the sisters see their happiness and fortunes wax and wane, but are ultimately drawn to the brilliant artist and thinker for different reasons: one wants him to pursue the projects that will improve the lives of the people, while the other wishes only to be made immortal as the subject of one of the master’s portraits. In Essex’s skilled hands da Vinci is much more than a figure from history, and seeing him at a remove clarifies the personality hinted at in historical accounts and, ironically, makes for a stronger sense of the person than in some more intimate portrayals.

It turns out that once you start looking for nonfiction and fiction related to da Vinci, there’s no end to the rabbit hole. I guess that’s only right. Regardless of his brain anatomy, da Vinci was certainly one of a kind.

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Why all long sentences must come to an end

A post at Visible Thread: Why all long sentences must come to an end

In a meta sense, I enjoy the title of this post. Why, yes! All sentences, no matter how long, must eventually come to an end. Either this will happen at the end of the paragraph or at the heat death of the universe, whichever comes first.

Of course, I also think the sentiment expressed is … how shall I put this? … largely wrongheaded.

Here is that sentiment:

Long sentences breed complexity and confusion. Short sentences will resonate more. … A longer sentence is harder to understand than a short one. 

You can click through and read the whole post if you like. I’m pretty sure readers of this blog are not particularly likely to agree that all sentences should be short. However, this turns out to be largely a post about communicating with customers, so that’s not particularly relevant to fiction. This idea is, however, still mostly wrongheaded. In particular, short sentences only have punch in contrast to the longer sentences that surround them. Given a setting of longer sentences, yes, a short sentence may resonate with power. Otherwise, not particularly. Here’s a good post about that: The power of short sentences:

Time and again the shortest sentence in a professional paragraph is brought up against the longest, or at least lodges among some much longer. This smallest sentence is often a basic sentence both grammatically and semantically, stating in simplest terms the central idea of the paragraph. … Narrative prose may be fashioned on a somewhat different principle, a more dramatic one. It is still disposed into paragraphs most of the time, but short sentences when they do appear are less often a condensation of the topic than some narrowed, relaxed point of departure or a slamming start, a later point of rest, an abrupt turn or climax, or a simple close. 

That’s a nice paragraph right there. It’s by Virginia Tufte, in her 1971 book Grammar as Style. I wonder if that is still available. Ah, I see it is, sort of. Outrageous price. Here is a possibly updated version: Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, that is actually available. This does sound like an excellent and fun book if you like to look at great sentences. Which of course we all do, right?

I mean, sentences such as this one:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

And, as it happens, the above sentence is also a fantastic illustration of how to write a really long sentence that is also easily understood by the reader, including the so-called modern reader with the presumptive short attention span: It’s a set of dichotomies until you get to the dash. That means the sense of the whole first part of the sentence comes through effortlessly. Only that last bit requires thought.

While on this topic, that one sentence from A Tale of Two Cities also constitutes the entire first paragraph. In this case, that makes for a paragraph of about average length, but of course generally speaking a one-sentence paragraph will be short. Or at least short-ish. Still, starting a book with a single sentence set off as a paragraph by itself can be quite effective, no matter how long that sentence may be.

I start my books with one-sentence paragraphs pretty often. Let me see. Looks like I’ve done this six times, which means about 25% of my books. Here they are:

Tuyo: Beside the coals of the dying fire, within the trampled borders of our abandoned camp, surrounded by the great forest of the winter country, I waited for a terrible death.

Nikoles: Nikoles Ianan’s appetite for vengeance wavered and dimmed and finally wore itself out long before the execution was meant to end.

Tarashana: The first arrow missed only because the gods were kind.

The Mountain of Kept Memory: They were talking about her.

Door Into Light: Three weeks before the spring solstice, one week after the door to Kaches had first appeared in this whimsical, unpredictable, willful house where he had lived for the past month and more, Taudde stood before that door, his hand on the knob, recruiting his nerve to open it.

The White Road of the Moon: There were more than twenty-four hundred people in the town of Tikiy-by-the-water, but only one of them was alive.

Wow, a lot more variation in sentence length than I really expected.

I do think “They were talking about her,” standing all by itself, constitutes a pretty effective first paragraph. But it’s hard to beat the first sentence of Tuyo (in my opinion, which may not be entirely objective). I’ve always liked the first sentence of White Road too, and worked very hard to keep that sentence through every possible revision. That’s why the story starts with this line and then almost immediately provides a flashback: I was willing to put in some background to orient the reader, but only if I could do it in a way that would preserve the first sentence.

Regardless of sentence length, if you’re polishing up a novel, I do recommend trying the first sentence of your book as a paragraph all by itself and seeing how that looks and feels.

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Word of the Day

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this word used in a sentence, and I’m almost sure I’ve never personally used it in my life, but that’s too bad because it’s a cool word:

Velleity

vel·le·i·ty / vəˈlēədē, veˈlēədē / Learn to pronounce noun

  • A wish or inclination not strong enough to lead to action.
  • “The notion intrigued me, but remained a velleity”

How about that? Have any of you ever used this word or heard it used? I need to start watching for chances to drop velleity into an ordinary conversation.

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Solving aging? Piece of Cake!

This is actually a book review of a book called Lifespan by a biologist named David Sinclair. The review is by Scott Alexander, which is why I saw it.

Scott starts his review this way:

David Sinclair – Harvard professor, celebrity biologist, and author of Lifespan – thinks solving aging will be easy. “Aging is going to be remarkably easy to tackle. Easier than cancer” are his exact words, which is maybe less encouraging than he thinks.

Which made me chuckle. I’d certainly like to believe that aging will turn out to be an easy problem to solve; ideally I’d like that to turn out to be true in, say, the next five years. Or, if aging turns out to be easy to roll back so that we can provide renewed youth to the old, then any time in the next thirty to forty years would probably do. Nevertheless, I’m having enough trouble right now that I’m all for solving the problem of aging right now, this minute, rather than waiting to see how decrepit I can possibly get in the next forty years.

However, I don’t mean to be cynical, but “celebrity biologist” is not the credential that makes me feel optimistic about this person’s judgment on this topic.

Okay, so, Sinclair is reaching for epigenetics to explain his cool ideas about how to beat aging. There’s a remarkable field! We know almost nothing about how epigenetics actually works, which again, isn’t to say that we haven’t learned a lot about it in the past 20 years. It’s just there’s so much more we don’t know. I do suspect that all sorts of people invoke epigenetics as a magic black box, which does make it handy as a potential solution for all kinds of things. Here’s how Sinclair invokes this black box:

So Sinclair thinks aging is epigenetic damage. As time goes on, cells lose or garble the epigenetic markers telling them what cells to be. Kidney cells go from definitely-kidney-cells to mostly kidney cells but also a little lung cell and maybe some heart cell in there too. It’s hard to run a kidney off of cells that aren’t entirely sure whether they’re supposed to be kidney cells or something else, and so your kidneys (and all your other organs) break down as you age. He doesn’t come out and say this is literally 100% of aging. But everyone else thinks aging is probably a combination of many complicated processes, and I think Sinclair thinks it’s mostly epigenetic damage and then a few other odds and ends that matter much less.

I will add here the observation that aging honestly does have to be something that can be basically turned off for some animals, because quite a lot of animals do not age in the way we do. Carp and turtles are perhaps not ideal models because they aren’t mammals, so I’ll just comment instead that bowhead whales definitely live a lot longer than we do, with reasonable estimates that they may live at least 200 years, probably substantially longer. So … I’m not saying it seems too unlikely that we might find a way to flip off aging. Maybe.

Ah, this is funny. Sinclair thinks deprivation is a fine idea for convincing your body that times are tough and it needs to hunker down and not age. He’s thinking of starvation, but other forms of deprivation as well. The idea that deprivation may improve things via epigenetics has been around for awhile, as I’ve seen arguments that obesity is substantially more likely for people whose grandparents never experienced a period of starvation. So there’s that. Scott quite reasonably poses this question:

Suppose you’re not a mouse, can’t get genetically engineered, and you have a normal aversion to diet and exercise. Is there a pill you can take? 

And look, yes, there is! But it looks like Rapamycin has substantial side-effects. But there’s also this:

The other pill is nicotinamide riboside aka NR (and its close cousin nicotanimide mononucleotide aka NMN). The reactions catalyzed by sirtuins involve nicotinamides, and the more nicotinamides you have, the more effective sirtuins are. NR and NMN are cheap, simple chemicals you can buy at any supplement store for $20, and Sinclair is pretty convinced they’re a fountain of youth. He says that when his own father started becoming decrepit, he convinced him to take NMN, and over the space of a few months he started becoming energetic and spry again, and is now traveling the world despite being well into his 70s.

Hmm. Amazon suggests to me that $20 is a wild understatement of the cost. Though of course Scott doesn’t say $20 per what number of pills. But it looks like the cheapest Amazon offers is NR at $40 for a thirty day supply of pills. (And yes, that’s definitely the cheap version.)

This is Scott Alexander, so this is a very long book review. I’m going to now jump much closer to the end, which is where Sinclair says some stuff that … actually does seem pretty persuasive:

Sinclair thinks curing aging is easier than curing cancer. For one thing, aging might be just one thing, whereas cancer has lots of different types that need different strategies. For another, total cancer research spending approaches the hundreds of billions of dollars, whereas total anti-aging spending is maybe 0.1% of that. There’s a lot more low-hanging fruit!

But also, even if we succeed at curing cancer, it will barely matter on a population level. If we came up with a 100% perfect cure for cancer, average US life expectancy would increase two years – from 80 to 82. Add in a 100% perfect cure for heart disease, and you get 83. People mostly get these diseases when they are old, and old people are always going to die of something. Cure aging, and the whole concept of life expectancy goes out the window.

And then Scott comes out with many cogent arguments why curing aging would be a dandy thing to do if we could.

I feel that, given this is primarily a blog about SFF and writing, I would be remiss not to pull the subject in that direction. Fortunately, this is easy!

The Serrano Legacy books by Elizabeth Moon are space operas set at a time when longevity treatments are just beginning to have a big effect on society. Now, in my opinion, the first three books — Hunting Party, Sporting Chance, and Winning Colors — are the best books in the series, and the topic is just being developed in those. Nevertheless, this series is fundamentally concerned with the topic of longevity and the social consequences that sudden increases in longevity may cause.

Kim Stanley Robinson also does a lot with increasing longevity in the Mars trilogy. Remember the big deal with memory and longevity? And then people start living basically forever, so that only accidental death is a real thing. Huge effects on personal psychology and on society.

Heinlein did longevity a different way, via selective breeding, which almost certainly would fail, by the way. Humans do (far) too much breeding outside of marriage and, even worse, longevity is most likely really complicated genetically. That is, if you have someone whose family tends to be long-lived because they have genes that say “don’t get cancer,” and someone else whose family tends to be long-lived because they have genes that say “extended vigor,” those genes aren’t the same and you would most likely not reliably produce extended lifespans in offspring of those families. Unless you practiced extensive inbreeding with your tightly controlled slave population and then sure, but that is quite a different backstory.

I’m sure there are lots of others. If a particular title occurs to you, by all means drop it in the comments. Individual immortals are not what I’m thinking of here; only population- or society-wide changes.

Here’s a post that declares that as a rule, SF that handles this topic tends toward the dystopian end of the spectrum and that in general people tend to think that dramatic increases in longevity would be bad. I totally disagree, and that’s not just because I’m getting older. Scott Alexander frames my opinion perfectly, so I’ll end with another tidbit pulled out of his post:

And finally, what’s the worst that could happen? An overly literal friend has a habit of always answering that question with “everyone in the world dies horribly”. But in this case, that’s what happens if we don’t do it. Seems like we have nowhere to go but up!

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Vorkosigan Fanfic you may Enjoy

Captain Vorpatril’s Plotbunnies

Miles flew down, quite suddenly one day, and practically kidnapped the poor woman out of her semi-retirement. (Ch. 10)

Yevgeniya D’Aubade considered the conjunction of deep brown oxide and invasive cowbane dispassionately. It was serendipity that her garden abutted an area of sulphides and oxides whose dull but determined colours she found pleasing, and chance that a cowbane spore could blow so far west and take root just where its lustrous ochre should so compliment the oxide. But it was also beautiful, a conjunction only South Continent could produce, and both the speckled texture of the oxide and the wartiness of cowbane would lend themselves well—very well, in fact—to micromosaic figuration. She used her wristcom to record the image, but in doing so was obliged to notice the blinking message light. Resignedly she keyed the accept.

“What is it, Mila?”

“Inbound aircar, Yeva. Big and shiny, with stingships.”

Till Death Do Us Part

Gregor said, “All right, now you can look,” and Laisa opened her eyes and instantly began to laugh.

Treatment for Shock

Mark couldn’t take his eyes off Miles’s blank face–colorless, expressionless. He remembered another blank face just like it, and couldn’t stop remembering; it was bad enough in those first minutes to call up his old early thought-redirecting instructions from his very first therapist. Pay attention to your present surroundings. Identify the trigger.

Not so much a trigger as a bomb-blast. His father was dead. Fifteen years later, time had done what Galen could not.

And one more, much (much) longer:

Forward Momentum

I won’t quote this one. I’ll just give you the teaser, which you may consider very promising, as I did:

LMB famously has a rule-of-thumb in writing, especially where poor old Miles is concerned — when in doubt, have the worst possible thing happen. But suppose that were turned around, and instead the best thing happened? or best things, unstoppably, in Milesian droves, and for pretty much everyone?

Honestly, could anything be better to start off 2022 than a story where best things happen in Milesian droves to pretty much everyone?

I will add that the writing is okay, but not as excellent as in the By and Rish fanfiction.

If you haven’t got that one, by the way, it is here: A Bit Too Much Good Work.

If you hit “entire work” and “download,” you can download a mobi file and send it to your Kindle (or a different format and send it to any device you like). You may have already known that, but I didn’t, and thanks to Craig, who pointed me to these stories and also told me to look for the download button.

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The reader may be puzzled, but Should not Be confused

Here’s a post at Nathan Bransford’s blog: Build mysteries around whether characters will succeed or fail

This is a fine post, but it’s not really about building mysteries; it’s about avoiding confusion.

Here’s a bit of the post:

You’ll often see novels start off with something that nominally feels high stakes, like a character running through a dark forest as fast as they can… only the author doesn’t tell us why they’re running. The author wants us to wonder: why is this character running as fast as they can through the forest? Mysterious, right? But it’s downright confusing to not be given more information that that

Yes, I think that’s true. This sort of beginning often has the effect of opening in a “white room” — a setting that lacks all description. This is true even if the author spends many sentences describing the dark forest, because without context provided by the protagonist, the dark forest might almost as well not exist.

I will grant, a skilled enough author can make a dark forest so evocative that it might draw in the reader even without context for the protagonist’s flight. But it’s a challenge to make that work and most writers would probably be better off not trying. Establish the character along with the setting; that’ll work better, generally speaking.

Nathan isn’t saying that a flight through a dark forest can’t work; his point is that vagueness is a flaw.

Vague mysteries are missed opportunities to build suspense and anticipation. What’s the better mystery: Why is this character running through the forest? or, Is this character going to avoid getting ripped to pieces by a nasty moon demon? … When we only find out what was really happening after the fact, it invariably feels like a letdown. The reader’s reaction is more like: “Yeah… had I known the situation was life or death, I might have been worried. Instead I was just confused.”

That’s a good point to make!

I suppose the broader point here is that it’s hard to tell what “in media res” means and how to start your novel when a lot of advice basically goes “Start by setting something on fire.” A good rule of thumb, it seems to me, is that no matter what you set on fire, you’d better establish your protagonist too. And, I think, Nathan Bransford would add, also the basic idea about what’s going on.

That’s certainly a lot to do in the first paragraphs of a novel! But, yes, just setting something on fire, or sending someone racing through a dark forest, probably isn’t enough.

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