What is the best price for an Ebook — Part 2

In the preceding post,What is the best price for an Ebook –Part 1, I talked about the underlying economics that affect book pricing. It all boiled down to the fact that if you know the number of your books sold as a function of price, you could determine the price that maximized your book sale income.

In this post, I briefly summarize some of the conventional qualitative wisdom that I found from surfing the internet.

1. Make your first book free

There is so much competition out there that the potential readers have little chance of learning that yours even exist. By making the first book free, these readers can take a chance on you without any risk.

Free books build awareness and a readership following. Then, if what you have written is well liked, readers are primed to snap up your second book when it comes out. You will more than recoup the lost revenue by stronger sales of future volumes.

2. Don’t make your book free.

The people who buy free books don’t pay money for any books that cost anything. Why should they? There are always more free ones to choose from.

Most people who download eBooks never get around to reading them anyway. They are too busy downloading more free books. This audience is unaddressable. Don’t waste time on them.

3. Discount your book

Consider your first book a permanent loss leader. Or, from time to time run promotions in conjunction with sites that publicize limited time sales. People like bargains. It doesn’t matter much what they are. They just like bargains.

4. Don’t discount your book

Low price denotes poor quality. Readers know this and they will shy away from books that are too inexpensive.

5. If you have a series of books, price them the same, all at the same price

You are building a brand with your series of books. Establish brand consistency. The reader can count on each volume having the same bang per buck, the same quality. Otherwise the reader will wonder why one volume costs more (or less) than others. It eats away at the trust that you want to have with him.

6. If you have a series of books, price them differently.

There is no definitive way to know what the optimum price is for any individual author. Give the marketplace choices, see what happens with different volumes having different prices and then select the best choice to use with them all.

So, the answer is …???

My surfing did not help in my quest as much as I had hoped. All of the qualitative arguments I summarized each carry some measure of truth with them, but for each suggestion a counter argument can be found.

One thing I did learn, however, is that considering pricing in a vacuum for each book might be a mistake. The best price of one can influence the best prices of others.

So, I have modified my original question. Now it is the following.

What is the best price for a book if it is not the very first one.

In my searching I did find two sites that had some quantitative data.
I will report on them in Part 3 of this series.

What is the best price for an Ebook? — Part 1

For a consumer, the best price for an EBook is zero. Such a value is part of the checklist for a perfect product:
* Perfect
* Now
* Free

But what about the authors? We, too, want our works to be as perfect as they can. No flaws. No typos, no bad grammar, no prose too dense to wade through.

With the advent of the EBook and sites like Amazon and others, “now” is also pretty much realized as well.

But the price? Ah, that is more complicated.

Sure, we all want what we write to reach the greatest possible audience and to bask in the attention that we get as a result – the satisfaction of our stories being read. But there also is the little matter of putting food on the table. To be frank, most of us want to earn as much as we possibly can from our efforts at writing.

But at what price? There is little disagreement that, if we offer an EBook at no cost, the number of readers we reach is as large as it possibly can be. An idealized graph of the number ‘sold’ as a function of price looks somewhat like the following. It is the highest for zero cost and continually decreases for each increment in price thereafter.

On the other hand, the more we charge per sale, the more revenue is earned with each book sold. The curve of revenue as a function of price is a no brainer. It looks like this — a straight line rising to the right. It can be calculated with certainty. For a vendor such as Amazon or Smashwords, the royalty rate is around 70% for a single book. One selling at $5.00 generates around $3.50 of income.

The graph for the total money earned is simply the product of these two curves – the number of books sold times the revenue earned per sale.

Even without knowing the exact details of the total revenue verses price curve, we can estimate what it has to look like. For low prices, the total revenue is relatively low. It has to be. The low price for each book sold drags down the total money earned. Likewise, for high prices, the number of sales is also low. The high price suppresses the number of books sold.

Okay, we have a curve that is low at both extremes. What else can we intuit? Well, the two curves that form the basis for the third do not have a lot of bumps and wiggles. This means that neither can their product. So, the revenue earned curve rises from a relatively low value on the left, reaches a peak, and then declines to the right. A single bump in the middle is the most it could have. The price that generates the most revenue lies somewhere between the two extremes at either end.

See, there is an optimal price. A sweet spot. One at which there are readers willing to pay and the author gets as much compensation as he can. (The graph shown here is merely an example – from a completely made up, imaginary number of sales verses price curve. Your actual mileage will differ.)

In real life there are many factors involved that determine the sales verses price curve. This means that the revenue verses price curve is not a single one that applies to all genres and authors – or to even all books by a single writer. But if we had an honest to goodness, real numbers for the sales verses price curve, we could then compute what the total revenue per price curve looks like, just like we did for the example.

The problem is: what does a real number of sales verses price curve look like?

Over the last year or so, I have scoured the internet looking for quantitative data that might help pin down more precisely the numbers that make up that curve. Is there an abundance of quantitative data our there for that? Ha, I wish!

My starting point was to look at qualitative advice offered on Goodreads and go on to other internet sources from there. Part 2 of this series of blog summarize what I found. Please stay tuned.

Field trip report – My first meet and greet

You can spot me in the first row near the left-hand size — the guy who was so underdressed.

On Saturday, September 23, I attend my first “Meet and Greet” at the Mysterious Galaxy book store in San Diego. I had heard about it at the LA Times Festival of Books in April. There, my wife, Joan, had introduced me to one of the bookstore owners.

The store itself is in a shopping mall and of medium size – larger than a mom-and-pop but smaller than a Barnes and Noble. It specialized in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Mystery. If you are a fan of one of these genres, Mysterious Galaxy is a place to go.

Twenty-one authors attended. I think that any author who asked was accepted. About half of us brought along family and friends. In addition there were approximately ten or so customers. In retrospect, it definitely was a “coals to Newcastle” selling opportunity.

One floor to ceiling bookcase was stocked with books from all of the participating authors and a there was a swag table near the entrance on which one could put bookmarks and book displays. It felt great to strut around wearing a badge indicating that I indeed was an author and to see evidence of what I had accomplished displayed.

The agenda had two alternating formats. One was for, well, meeting and greeting. Like at a cocktail party, everyone milled around and engaged in conversations. There was no real alternative to doing this. There were no, (well perhaps one or two) chairs available for sitting. Later I complained to female author about having to stand on my feet for three hours straight. She had no sympathy. All she said was “Try it sometime in four inch heels.”

Chatting with other authors was fun and easy. It was natural to spot one another and open with “So, what is you are writing?” or some such. The first half hour of meeting and greeting passed quickly.

Then after a half hour of this the mingling stopped. Half of the authors took turns going to the dais and giving a three minute talk hawing their book. The event manager had warned us that we were not to overrun. Everyone who did would be cut off in mid-sentence if necessary to keep everything on track.

Everyone but the speaker stood in an informal circle, listened to the talks, and then applauded each author when they finished. When the last one was done, we reverted to more meeting and greeting.

Later there was another break, and the remaining authors gave their spiels. Then we reverted back to yet more meeting and greeting. My wife came up to me and pointed out that perhaps my time might be better spent talking to potential customers rather than other authors, as fun as that might be.

So, I decided to give it a try, focusing on people without badges rather than those who had them. This turned out to be, for me at least, a much harder thing to do. A poor trapped onlooker could see someone approaching who was wearing a badge and depending on where they were standing might not have an avenue for escape. Like a deer with eyes caught in a searchlight, they awaited the onslaught.

And I did not really have a zinger opening remark to start the conversation. I decided to try “So, what kind of books do you like to read?” Unfortunately, there were very few targets. And of the ones I managed to talk to, not a single one said that they read fantasy.

In the end, I did end up selling two copies of Master of the Five Magics –based on what I said in my talk, I guess.

Certainly in terms of time, books bought to sell that eventually will be returned and 250 miles of gas coming and going to San Diego, this was not a profit making exercise.

But number of sales perhaps is not the way to look at things. It was an interesting and learning experience. I learned firsthand what a “meet and greet” such as this was actually like. I developed a minute and a half sales pitch that may come in handy at some later time. I enjoyed meeting and talking to other authors, especially Rusty Trimble who bombarded facebook with daily “breaking news” posts about each attending author He also hand crafted a memento for each of us – a domino adorned with the cover of our book. And it gave Joan and me, over a dinner afterwards, to catch up with family friends we had not seen in quite some time.

Eclipse 2017

There has been a lot of publicity about the recent eclipse. This post records my personal experiences. The preamble is quite long, but for me, very much part of the adventure.

My wife, Joan, has a cousin who participates in a multi-site timeshare program. A dozen or so of the extended family decided that we would gather at the venue in Bend, Oregon and travel by car from there the forty or so miles north on US 97 to the little town of Madras to view the eclipse. It was almost dead center on the line of maximum totality.

In February, Joan, and I made our airplane and car rental reservations for the big event.

Unfortunately, an estimated 100,000 people also had the same idea.

As the date approached, postings on the internet became more and more bothersome. It would take 10 hours to travel from Bend to Madras. To ensure that one got to the little town in time, depart by 10 PM the night before. A total stoppage due to breakdowns was a distinct possibility. One may not even get to Madras in time.

The National Guard would be maintaining order. Signs on the restroom facilities in Bend city parks proclaimed “Closed Because Of Eclipse”, and tens of portapotties stationed in their place. Citizens were to stock up a two weeks supply of food. On the Wednesday before the big event, the entire city ran out of gas.

Prices began to soar. Renting one of the remaining cars rose to one hundred dollars a day. It was rumored that Motel Six was aptly named – six hundred dollars for a single night’s stay.

So, it started to sound like the idea of simply bopping up to Madras might not be the best idea. Where else in the area could we go? Even though the band of totality was tens of miles across, the duration becomes less and less the farther you are from the centerline. In Madras, it is a little more than two minutes. A few miles south of Redmond – where the regional airport is – it is only a few seconds.

Joan’s cousins purchased USGS maps and scoured them for alternatives. They weren’t many. Central Oregon is not densely populated. Few roads are there. They ended up selecting a place in the middle of what is called the National Grasslands – west of the route to Madras. By traveling on two lane country roads, some unpaved, we could get far enough north to have more than a minute of totality.

A dry run was in order, and so a few days before we set out in a caravan. The early going was easy – uncrowded, no signs of a swelling influx of people. We came to our first unpaved road and it looked quite decent – smooth gravel and oiled. There was no civilization in sight – no houses, ranches, cattle, nothing, just the flora of high desert.

As we traveled northward, the conditions of the road deteriorated. First, the oiled surface gave out. Then the gravel transitioned to larger rocks. We reached a sign that said the road was not maintained further north. We pressed on and the rocks became boulders. Navigating between them became tricky.

Finally, (duh!), we realized that we were in ATV terrain. Only a hint of a ‘road’ lay ahead. We consulted our maps. After retracing our steps to paved roads, we could go several miles west on State 126 to link up with another unpaved road heading even farther north. Rationalizing that we would be going in the opposite direction on 126 than the influx of watchers from the coast, we pressed onward.

The second unpaved road was also oiled and we traveled along it until it ended at a gate to private property. Farmland on all sides. Except for a haze from uncontrolled forest fires in the area hugging the ground, the sky straight up shown blue and uncluttered. Maybe we had found a place that no one else would think of.

However, one of the owners of the farms surrounding the road then appeared. He was not happy at all about our presence. Even though both sides of the road were fenced off and showing No Trespassing signs, we pointed out that the road itself was not marked private and therefore open to the public.

There were bad vibes all around and we left, wondering what we would see when we returned on eclipse day. Would our route be congested by late comers? At the site, would we see farmers with pitchforks and dogs? Police cars blocking the road? We were not sure.

Of course, the fleeting nature of the event made us all anxious. Only one shot at this. No return the next day to do things better. All it would take was a single wrong turn, slightly more cars than the roads could handle, and the chance would be over.

Not satisfied, we decided to return to Bend. Not along the route we came — that would be an hour and a half even with no traffic. Instead, we drove east to 97 and then south from there. When we came close to 97, we discovered a large park near a gorge spanned by the highway – one with the “Closed Because Of Eclipse” signs. We used the portapotties and as we were returning to our cars, one of Joan’s cousins called out to a couple, husband and wife, passing by, “Say, do you know somewhere around here good for watching the eclipse?”

They were quite friendly. Pointed out that they lived north of where we were standing, in an area near the Crooked River. Gave us their address and said we were welcome to come to their house to watch the eclipse. And, by the way, at the end of the street where they lived – as far north as you could go by car — was Panorama Park – a small public park with parking for about ten cars, restroom facilities, and even playground equipment for kiddies.

We raced back to our cars and followed the directions given to us up to the park. It was perfect – just as described. This became Plan A. If the parking lot for the park were full when we got there then we would use Plan B – the address of the local. The National Grasslands relegated to Plan C.

So, on the day of the eclipse, a couple of the cousins left the Bend area at 3 AM. They traveled up US 97 and there was no traffic. The rush starting at 10 PM had not materialized or was already over. (In the aftermath, the conclusion was that there were only 60,000 in Madras, not over 100,000.) In an hour or so, our advanced party staked out three parking spaces with tables and chairs set out for the rest of us.

Eight others left at 5:30 AM. We traveled the back roads as we had before. No traffic. When we arrived at the park, there were only three cars there. As the time passed, it gradually filled up, but never became over crowded.

At shortly after 9 AM, we whipped out our eclipse glasses, settled back into our lawn chairs, and watched the progress. Totality was about an hour away, so it became a pleasant outing for all concerned. Check on the latest progress. Yes, by golly, the bite out of the sun was getting bigger. Then walk around a bit and chat with the others who had come. A bonding that we as humans do when we are having a shared experience.

A few people used index cards to make pinhole cameras with index cards to view what was happening without using the glasses. Even neater was to examine the trees scattered in the park. As the sunlight filtered through the leaves, many pin hole cameras were formed. Place a large piece of cardboard near the ground and you could see scads of partial eclipses shining through.

As the transit of the moon continued, we could feel it gradually getting colder – not much maybe twenty degrees at the most but nevertheless one of the subtle clues about what was happening.

Finally, the big event itself. Though our glasses we could see that only a thin crescent remained of the sun – even though the sky around us was not significantly diminished from what it was before the eclipse started. The power of the sun was so great that having most of its rays blocked made no difference.

The last sliver began to grow shorter at both ends finally just a single dot at the edge of the moon. As the last dot vanished, I whipped off my glasses and saw the diamond ring, a brilliant burst of sunlight on the edge of the black disk caused by the last of the sun’s rays coming through a valley between two lunar craters.

And then totality.

For me, seeing a total eclipse was quite different from watching a partial one. A partial eclipse is an intellectual experience; a total one is emotional. I felt as if I were a primitive homonid, looking up startled at the sudden loss of sunlight to see a sight never witnessed before. The sun was gone. In its place was a black disk surrounded by the wispy corona.

What an impact that was! After years of getting up each and every morning of my life, no longer reflecting at all the usual events of the day – dawn, midday, and dusk. All taken for granted. Samo, samo. Now this! It hammered home a truth long forgotten. How insignificant is humankind in the glory of the cosmos.

I think Joan summed it up the best when she said, “This is the most spectacular thing I have ever seen in my entire life.”

The Archimage’s Fourth Daughter – Chapter 5

A Typical Street

Briana waited until dawn started to break rather than explore any further in the dark. She was near a gently sloping path paved with large flat and smooth stones. Next to it and a bit lower was a wider surface, dark, and laced with black repairs that looked like giant wandering worms.

Lined up on both sides of the dark surface were rows of what must be carriages for the wealthy. Through glass windows, one could see plush interiors, elegant enough even for a queen. The surrounding shells were smooth steel and painted in bright colors, although some appeared much fresher than did others. For all of them, there was neither purchase for a driver on top nor any means of connecting horses or oxen in the front. And so many! It could not be possible there were so much affluence in one place.

Briana looked downslope, southward if this orb rotated the same way on its axis as did Murdina, in the direction of strange whishing noises that sounded as if a hundred scullery maids were sweeping in unison. In the distance, one of the coaches sped by from left to right, faster than any team of horses could possibly pull. Shortly thereafter came another from the other direction, and then two more from the left.

On top of posts near where they raced were circular lamps gleaming an angry dragon-breath red. After a few moments, they blinked out, and green ones below them began to shine. A screech filled the air, and two more carriages came to a stop on the cross path below. A short time later, a third light beamed yellow and then the red one shown again. When they did, the wagons roared away.

Magic coaches, not one but several. And controlled by imp lamps. Magic and wizardry in blatant display. The exiles had escaped their prison! Not here more than moments, and already she was done. This first adventure was going to be easy!

For confirmation, Briana reached out and touched one of the carriages directly in front of her, but no tingle of magic caressed her fingertips. She shook her head. No, they were not magic after all, and besides, there were too many of them. Better not to conclude in haste. She needed to find out more before she returned home, and she had a day before she could anyway.

Briana started walking southward next to the broader path that she concluded should more properly be called a street or road—for carriages rather than travelers on foot. She touched each vehicle along the way to be sure, but none held any trace of magic.

When she reached the intersection, she noticed there were lamps above the larger avenue cycling on and off also. Although no coaches traveled north or south, the lamps shining there synchronized with those for the east and west. Looking at the signage on shorter poles near the glowing orbs, she mouthed out what must be the name of the larger street.

“Hollywood,” she said, and then the much harder to pronounce, “Blvd.”

The yellow lamp came on and then the red. One of the carriages pulled to the side near where she stood. A door into the interior swung open. A gaunt man who had not shaved in what must have been several days and wearing shabby clothes like those of a beggar leaned across from where he sat and pushed the opening wider.

“I will give you twenty bucks for a quicky,” he said. “How about it?”

A man, Briana thought. Not shrouded like the visitor to the council chamber. Dressed properly, he could pass without notice back on Murdina. And he was speaking in the native tongue. A man. Not an exile.

She felt a moment’s hesitation, even though she had told herself when preparing for the adventure that at some point she would have to speak to the natives. This barter probably was a good a test as any for a first try.

“I. . . do not have a quicky,” she said as she struggled for the meaning of the words. “But I am wondering—”

“Bitch!” The man slammed the door. A loud growl escaped from the front of the carriage as the lamps changed, and it bolted away.

The possibilities expanded. The growl could be that of a demon hiding in the front compartment of the carriage. Maybe the native had been enchanted by the exiles’ sorcery. Maybe the thought about imps in the lamps was still valid.

###

As the sun began its climb into the sky, the road traffic increased in both directions. Briana remained at the street corner, trying to understand what she was seeing. Although still early morning, the number of carriages was far greater than what would be seen in Ambrosia, the capital of Procolon, at midday. She looked both ways down the street. There was no royal palace in either direction that would explain why there was so much rushing about with no apparent purpose.

Her stomach began to growl. The initial excitement of adventure waned, and her energy began to sag. After all, she had been up the entire night.

It was all so kinetic, the scene so. . . so enormous, she thought. Yes, that was the word for it, enormous. She began to feel small, insignificant as a gnat on the back of a djinn. Like a small pebble in a boot that could not be moved out of the way, the thought began to ferment and trouble.

To shake off the feeling, she decided to walk east, hoping a different venue might be more understandable, more representative of the native culture, something she would be able to comprehend.

###

After Briana had travelled for some while along Hollywood Blvd., she began encountering natives coming from side streets and passing her by—more and more, the farther east she went. She felt some apprehension as the first had drawn near, but he did not pay her any heed, nor did any other as they approached.

None of the men were threatening; they displayed neither sword nor dagger. Their clothing was much more colorful and varied than back at home, and thinner rather than practical, the sort of thing young lordlings would strut in order to show off their wealth in the safety of a noble’s court.

The women were the amazing ones. She studied them more intently as they passed. They walked in twos and threes and sometimes alone, all unescorted. And some showed the swell of their breasts for anyone to see. Ladies of the court also did this, Briana knew, but only after the blush of youth had faded as it had for the queen. The younger women on Murdina had no such need.

And their legs! They were bare, some brazenly to above their knees. More astonishing was that they were clean-shaven, as smooth as the face of a man! Those lords who maintained such appearances paid skilled barbers to keep their skins fresh, but certainly, no woman would permit such intimacy by a stranger. That was impossible to understand.

As Briana continued, the structures on either side of the street became taller, some of three stories or more. Not all were simple boxes, but instead looked as if built by drunken masons with tilted and uneven walls. Subdued browns were replaced by a rainbow of colors, sunburst yellows, scarlet-reds, and deep-ocean blues. Large panels of imp lamps danced in intricate repeating patterns, drawing attention to themselves almost as if they were the result of a sorcerer’s charm. Signs were bounded by what looked like alchemists’ glowsticks, but longer and brighter, able to shine fiercely in the daylight. The lamps pulsed on and off in deliriums conveying a mania even more manic than that of the rushing carriages.

Storefronts? Briana puzzled. But far grander than any she had ever seen before. And for none could she recognize what wares were sold. There were signs enough but most with words she did not recognize from her dictionary. And those that she did made little sense. ‘Hard rock’? Of course, they were hard. Why would anyone have to pay for one?

The path on which she walked became grander—wider, darker, and containing an embedded series of white stars blazing the path even though such an aid was not needed. Like a line of marching warriors, tall trees with long naked trunks and plumed with branches at the top sprung out of the smooth stone.

She continued to marvel why no one spoke to her. With her thick tunic, leggings, and pack, she was the one who stood out from the others. But still no one gave her any notice, edging around her, or even jostling her, without a word.

After traversing two more cross streets up ahead, she glimpsed the reason why. There were others dressed the same as she! Some even wore cloaks or capes. Some had masks. Other women in wore sequenced costumes, so short as not to be believed.

They rapidly twirled metal cylinders with white bulbs on the both ends and occasionally tossed them high into the air. Around them clustered others, garbed like the ones who had already hurried past her.

One structure was impressively higher than the two to either side—an entryway built like a helmet worn by a general in a victory parade. It stood at the rear of a large courtyard bare of greenery and underfoot completely covered with a random array of indentations looking like the prints of hands or boots.

Larger carriages came into view, some with seats on the top as well as inside. They pulled to the edge of the street and disgorged their content into the courtyard. The natives that had been discharged ran from one set of indentations to another, obviously delighted, and yelling to others what they had found. It reminded Briana of the rituals of magicians, but here it was too disorganized to have any such a meaning.

As Briana pondered, two young women suddenly surrounded her on both sides. “Selfie!” yelled one and extended a small mirror-like object on the end of a stick.

“What movie?” asked the other. “I don’t recognize your costume. Is it not out yet? Are you one of the stars or only an extra?”

“You are supposed to smile,” the first thrust the mirror in Briana’s face. “Like us. See. Instead, you look like a blank faced idiot.”

“She’s in character, Hester,” the other said. “Don’t you get it? She is playing the role of an idiot.”

The second woman thrust a small book into Briana’s hand along with what looked like some sort of writing quill.

“Well, autograph it,” she said. “Your name, your real name. Who knows? Some day you may be famous, and this will be worth a fortune.”

Briana thought for a moment how her name would be composed in the native’s lettering system and slowly began to make the marks across the page.

“Look at that,” Hester said. “Look what she scribbled. Worse than a kindergartener”.

“That precisely is my point. Like I said. She is in character. Go ahead and give her the tip.”

“This is not worth even a buck,” Hester said. She thought for a moment. “Okay, if you are playing the idiot, you would probably like a nice silver coin, right?”

She reached into a purse, extracted one, thrust it in Briana’s palm.

Briana bristled. Idiot indeed! This was not the way to treat a daughter of Alodar the Archimage. She should. . .

The coin was silver! Maybe. . .

She examined the disk more closely. Her anger had subsided for a moment, but then it returned. Counterfeit! Counterfeit and a bad example at that. It was silver all right, silver overlaid over a copper core. She could see that the baser metal had worn through around the entire circumference.

Briana turned to confront the two women, but they were already moving on through the crowd, looking for additional targets to accost.

It took a while for the heat to dissolve away, but Briana found she could not return to a complete calm. The noise and flashing lights on the storefronts were becoming too much to process all at once.

She needed something to focus on, but the visual bombardment continued its relentless onslaught. Closing her eyes did not help. If she did, the unfamiliar sounds intruded even more. She decided to continue in the direction of a tall tower farther to the east. There, in the distance, the furor of activity seemed to be much less.

But as she did, her discomfort grew. She needed to relieve herself, but no convenient bush or tree was in sight. Her shoulders slumped under the now heavy weight of her pack.

When she reached the tower, Briana looked at the sign across the street. ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not’, it said. What could that possibly mean? Believe it? Believe what? And if not, then what happened? Her thoughts reeled. Even here, where relatively it was quieter, everything was still too kinetic, too vast, too frenzied, and complex.

The experience was so unlike those recorded in the sagas. When heroes went to an unchronicled land, they coped almost immediately. That would not be possible here. Her original plan of taking a few days to sample the culture was not going to work. It could take a lifetime to figure it all out.

This adventure could be a big mistake. When the portal reappeared tomorrow morning, perhaps she should go home. For a moment, the thought surprised her, but then it rooted, and she had to consider what to do.

Go home? But what would happen then? Be carted off to a grubby fortress in the west? No, she could not do that. She would not do that. Not yet. Not even if many days had to pass. Whatever it took. No return until she had something of value to report.

Her stomach rumbled again. Her tongue was thick in her mouth. She had brought enough sustenance for a few days, but not for how long this was going to take. In addition to puzzling about the existence of the crafts, she would have to take care of the basics too—food, water and a place to sleep. How was that to come about? Could she even eat the food, drink the water? There was nothing familiar here, nothing she understood—nothing she could understand in any reasonable time.

With a sudden jab of fear, Briana realized the predicament in which she had placed herself. The last of her energy ebbed away. She did not want to return, but neither could she stay. She leaned against the wall of the tall building. No one noticed or offered to help as she sagged to the ground. In all of her life, no situation ever had been this bad. There was nothing worse than this.

And as she did, she felt a twinge that rapidly grew into a cramp. She was wrong. It could be even worse. Her time of the month was starting—starting a week early. She had brought nothing for it. And something had to be done now, sooner rather than later. Otherwise, her leggings would have a stain for everyone to see, one that would set and could not be removed.

But by now, she could do nothing. Briana folded her arms over her knees, lowered her head onto them, and quietly began to weep. If the exiles could see her now, she thought, they certainly would be laughing.

Punctuation puzzles

A relatively obscure puzzle category is that of punctuation puzzles. An example is to add capitalization and punctuation to the following list of words to make them grammatically correct – and explain what the result means.

time flies you can’t they move to fast.

The answer is:

“Time flies!”

“You can’t. They move too fast.”

Someone asked a friend to time how fast houseflies move. The friend replied that they darted about too quickly for him to do so.

Corny? Sure. But here’s one that is a little more challenging.

becky while tom had had had had had had had had had had had the teachers approval

I will share the solution in my next post.

© 2016 Lyndon Hardy

An untold tale about Richard Fyneman

When I was at Caltech, Richard Fyneman, the renowned physicist, gave a one-hour seminar each week entitled Physics X. It was not in the catalogue. There was no college credit. You just showed up in the lecture hall and Fyneman would ask, “OK, what shall we discuss today?”

He was a great lecturer. With no preparation ahead of time, he would explain some hard to understand aspect of physics that was wonderfully clear. You took notes furiously, because a half-hour or so after leaving the hall, the brilliant insight that you thought you now grasped would begin to fade.

I remember to this day that one time on of us sitting in the audience said something like the following:

“Professor Fyneman, suppose you are in a spaceship going very nearly the speed of light. You are flying parallel to a long mirror extending far into space alongside you. You look out and see your reflection in the mirror.

“Now it take some time, not much, but some time for the light from your spaceship to travel to the mirror and then bounce back to you. This means that the reflection will not be exactly aligned but lag behind slightly. Since you, yourself, are going so swiftly, the angle would be noticable. You would have to crane your neck to see your reflection.

“So by measuring the angle of the lag, you could then figure out how fast you are going, and that would violate Special Relativity.”

“An interesting problem,” Fyneman said and retreated to the long blackboard behind him. He drew a chalk line from left to right and turned to smile at us, “That is the mirror,” he said. Then somewhere in the middle of the board, he drew a little crude spaceship, a beam of light exiting from it and the reflection coming back.

Then he calculated for a few minutes and presented the results of his calculation, an equation for what the angle would be as a function of how fast the spaceship was moving.

“Very good, young man, you are right. You can tell how fast you are going. Special Relativity is wrong.”

There was a stunned silence. How could this possibly be? Special Relativity was a fundamental cornerstone of physics. It had been around for almost sixty years. Validated by scores if not hundreds of independent experiments by the greatest minds in the world. How could an undergrad, a freshman no less, come up with a thought experiment that crashed everything down?

For a few moments, no one dared speak. Then Fyneman cocked his head to the side and returned to the board. He corrected one of his intermediate equations, fixed up the results and turned back to address us. I made a simple error. The angle is independent of the spacecraft’s speed. Special Relativity is saved.”

Everyone laughed at what had just transpired. Of course, no freshman was going to bring all of physics crashing down. If I or anyone else in the room had come up with the formula for what the lag angle would be, we would have checked our work probably a dozen times before making any pronouncements to a room filled with other (aspiring) physicists.

On further thought, what had happened was pure Richard Fyneman. The utter unlikelihood of a freshman coming up with something that would completely upset all of physics must have never entered his mind. Instinctively, he just followed where the equations were leading him. And to me, that was an example of what it took to make true breakthroughs, to be a Nobel Prize winner – ignore the shackles that constrain our thinking onto paths that have been traveled many times before. Who knows what wondrous thoughts might then result.

© 2016 Lyndon M. Hardy