Thursday, October 31, 2019

It shouldn't be like this

Yesterday afternoon I went down to Leeds to give a talk at the joint Mathematics/Philosophy Logic seminar.

It was, in almost all respects, a really lovely day. I know the Leeds campus quite well, having been going to the International Medieval Congress there quite regularly for the last 10+ years, and I realised on the train down that I think I've probably been to Leeds more often than any other university in the UK other than Durham. I got in a few hours early, and hung out in the Old Bar to finish up my slides. (It was very strange, being on the Old Bar and not having it overrun with medievalists. I didn't overhear any conversations about transcribing codices, or rants about sexuality in Arthurian lit.) While sitting there, a friend surprised me by finding me there, and we got to chat for half an hour or so before I headed over to the mathematics dept., where another friend was waiting to join the audience of the talk. There were also a number of other people that I'd met at the British Logic Colloquium in September, which when sprinkled throughout the rather large audience made me feel at ease. I then got to give one of my favorite talks to mathematical logicians -- in it, I try to convince them that they should care about medieval logic, and show them amusing and sometimes rude pictures from manuscripts (my slides are here. There was a lot of enthusiastic nodding during the talk, and some excellent questions at the end. Afterwards, a third friend of mine turned up, and joined us for beers, and then the dept. took me out for dinner -- so, basically a really, really wonderful day out.

Except.

I was the only woman in the room.

We all know that philosophy has a gender problem, that math has a gender problem, and that logic, sitting in the uncomfortable intersection between math and philosophy, has inherited the worst of both worlds. There have been many contexts in which I've been one of only two or three women in a group of logicians, and when I was an undergrad and early grad student, this was so normalised, to be honest I hardly even noticed. (To also be honest, I rather liked the skewed ratio, because it gave YoungNerd!Sara members of the opposite gender she could actually talk to and who actually wanted to talk to her. Dear reader, I married one of them.) But this was the first time where I was the only one.

During dinner I pointed this out, and to their credit, the people I was having dinner with fully acknowledged that this was a problem, and also that it is not an accident that they have invited as many women to come speak as they have. The first step towards fixing a problem is recognising it.

But even so, I wonder when the last time one of them gave a talk to an audience that was only women. It's 2019. It shouldn't be like this.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Stats and graphs and publishing fiction

I've now been writing and submitting short (and long!) stories moderately seriously for just over 5 years -- after a decade or more hiatus from writing fiction, I decided one day, August 26, 2014, to start writing again, and I did. Since then, I've written hundreds of thousands of words (literally -- since I started tracking my words via WordKeeperAlpha in September 2017, I have written more than 200,000 words of fiction!), and I've had a satisfying amount of my fiction published. I was thinking the other day that publications don't ever really tell the whole story -- of the time between when a piece was first submitted and when it was finally published, or how many rejections there were between first submission and first publication. So I thought I'd do a post about this, doing some graphs and stats on the last five years. (Well, rather, the last two and a half, which is when I started using the Submissions Grinder; this won't affect the stats very much, as prior to that I had only one story that I had ever submitted, and it was accepted on the first go.)

Between 2017-05-04 and 2019-09-16, I've submitted 23 stories. 11 (=48%) of them have been accepted. (Some of those which have not (yet) been accepted were one-off things written for a specific venue and when they weren't successful there there wasn't any great pressure to try resubmitting them, so if I didn't count those "dead" stories that acceptance percentage would be even higher! I hadn't realised how high it was, this is quite rewarding.) The first two graphs focus just on the accepted stories, and the third graph will focus on ones not yet accepted. (If you click on a graph you'll get a larger, easier to read version.)

The first graph plots how many days there were between when a story was first submitted, and when it was finally accepted:

The second graph plots how many rejections each accepted story got before it was finally accepted:

And then final graph plots how many rejections stories that have not yet been accepted yet have accrued already:

One thing that comes out of these numbers is that persistence pays off. This makes me feel a lot better about the stories that I keep submitting and submitting and submitting. They will eventually get there. Eventually.

Edited to add another graph: Plotting the number of rejections vs. the length of time between initial submission and first acceptance:

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Story birthday! "On the Other Side of the Dark Entry Gate"

Yesterday my drabble "On the Other Side of the Dark Entry Gate" was published in Black Hare Press's anthology Beyond.


(Book selfies are hard, when they're of ebooks!)

The original idea for this story dates back to spring 2017, when one of the Marvel films was being filmed at Durham Cathedral. My daughter's school is right behind the cathedral, and during filming there was limited access. To inform us of this, we got an email from school, which contained this delightful line:

The Dark Entry gate is locked; access will be via The Bailey.

That was when I knew I needed to write the story of the Dark Entry Gate -- especially when in proximity to a cathedral, doesn't that sound like a euphemism for the entrance to the pit of hell?

The story itself had a number of false starts over the last two years, but when I saw the theme for this anthology, the perfect drabble came out in one go.

Here's a picture of the Dark Entry gate when it is open:

Monday, September 16, 2019

How to write academic papers for fun and profit

Back in spring, I chatted briefly with a group of master's students about what I was looking for in their final papers, and how they could go about structuring them (this was in the context of encouraging them to think beyond the length of paper they'd been used to writing -- instead of 3k, 5-6k). It took about 15 minutes and some scribbling on the board, but afterwards one of them thanked me and said no one had ever taught them this before.

Following up on that tweet, I wrote up what I could remember of the advice I'd given.

Then, last week, someone in an FB group for fiction writing that I'm in was struggling with writing a paper for one of her classes, unsure how to get started. This group has 17+k members, and I often end up putting on my "professional academic" hat and giving people advice on picking classes, applying to uni, talking to their profs, etc., and this post was no different. The topic was an argumentative paper on quality management in insurance companies with special regard for business customers -- a topic I know nothing about, but you know what? I know what sort of paper I'd want to read on this subject...and the structure it has turned out to be rather similar to what I'd given the philosophy students for their logic papers!

So I thought I'd compile this advice into a blog post. Note that this isn't the only way to write such papers, but it's a way, and it's a good one, and it's one that not only do I encourage my students and other students to use, but I use myself quite often, too.

Advice from twitter:

  • Your intro should include what your problem/puzzle/issue is; what motivated your choice; and what tools you'll use to solve it.
  • You should say what other people have done that's relevant, and why it's inadequate (if it isn't inadequate, then you don't have a puzzle/problem to solve).
  • You should define all your technical apparatus. This can be done in two ways:
    1. Either you introduce the technical apparatus and the motivating examples/material concurrently, in an interleaved fashion.
    2. Or you present all the technical apparatus, and then apply it to your motivating examples/material.
    It's REALLY HARD to know which route is best. I often end up starting with one method, finding it wholly inadequate, switching to the other, hating it, and then switching back.
  • After you've applied your technical appartus, say something about the consequences. What have you gained from doing this? What have you learned? What are the problems? What still needs to be done?
  • And all of that will segue into your conclusion/recap/future work section. I think that's about it.

Advice from FB:

The first thing you need is what question you're trying to answer, and what your answer is: Everything else gets built around that. I often recommend to my students to work backwards: What do you want your reader to come away with at the end? Set up your entire paper to drive that point home:

  • Motivate the question -- which is this a question worth answering? Why this question rather than another question?
  • Contextualise the question -- what has already been said to answer this question? Why are these previous answers inadequate? How will your answer differ?
  • Motivate the answer -- what will count as a good answer? How will you discriminate good answers from bad answers? (This will, of course, be connected to the previous, in that you want answers that do things that previous answers haven't done).
  • Answer the question.
  • Explain how your answer answers the question and why it is a good answer.
  • Remind your reader what the question and answer were, and conclude.

Aim for 1000 words for the first two, maybe 1500 for the third, 2000 for the fourth, and another ~2.5k for the fifth and sixth -- that's 7000 words and should be about 20 pages.

There you go! Have fun. Oh, wait, you want to know how to make money from all of this? Ahahahahahahah....

Monday, September 9, 2019

Story birthday! "The Simurgh's Daughter"

About two weeks ago, my short story "The Simurgh's Daughter" was published in the anthology Pioneers and Pathfinders (Amazon link); my print copy arrived today!

This story was written over Christmas break 2017-2018. I'd seen a call for stories for an anthology on Asian bird themed SFF, and was interested in exploring this theme in an atypical way. G had recently come home with a children's version of the Shahnameh from the library, and while reading it, especially stories of the simurgh, I wanted to write a story that fit within that mythos while not being a retelling of it, and I wanted to write a story for her.

She was my first beta reader and my biggest champion for the story throughout. I read it to her, and she drew pictures of parts of the story -- those pictures were taped to my kitchen cupboard for a good year, reminding me that no matter what happens, she loves my stories and believes in them.


"A fragrant pliant golden green haoma tree which blooms in summer"

"Vourukasha the world sea"

"The simurgh is a wondrous bird with copper feathers and the tail of a peacock and the face of a beautiful woman"

"She landed upon Harā Berezaitī the peak of the tallest mountain when a cry caught her ears"

"You were born upon the mountain Harā Berezaitī around which the stars and the moon resolve"

"The city of Amui upon the shores of a great sea"

I have a pretty good track record of writing stories for specific themed anthologies and failing to place them in those anthologies, but placing the stories elsewhere. I'd shopped this one around for quite awhile before I decided to ask Jessica, who edited Pioneers and Pathfinders if she'd like to read it, even if the story wasn't an exact fit for the antho brief. She loved it as much as G did. :)

I loved reading up on Persian mythology and history while writing the story, reading about Ahura Mazda, about haoma trees, about the world-sea, looking at geography to choose where exactly I would set Harā Berezaitī and which city (modern-day Amol) I would set Simbar's adventures in. I also loved research Persian food, making myself hungry along the way! (One book I stumbled across was Jan Gonda, Rice and Barley Offerings in the Veda). And finally, to the best of my knowledge, Simbar and Thriti are both plausible historical Persian feminine names; Saena is a name used for the simurgh in the Yashts, a collection of Avestan hymns.

I'm super glad to see this story in print, and look forward to reading it to G for many years to come.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Doctor Logic Goes to WorldCon!

Edit August 1: The final schedule is now up, and I can confirm that the below is all correct.

I am super excited to be going to my first WorldCon, in Dublin next month. It'll be an interesting adventure -- it's my not only my first WorldCon, but it's also my first SFF con of any type, and while there I'll be participating in events that feature many different facets of my life. I've got lodgings arranged with philosophy and NaNoWriMo friends; I'm giving a paper on onomastics in the academic track; I'm speaking in two panels on AI; and I'll be participating in the demos and display stalls for the Society for Creative Anachronism; and I've got a drink-beer-with-an-author session. All my academic, hobby, and authorial pursuits all coming together into one!

So, what, exactly am I do, and where can you find me? Here's the scoop!

Thursday, August 15

11:30-12:50: Worlds (Academic Session)

Names: Form & Function in Worldbuilding & Conlangs

Significant interest has been generated in recent years in the robust development of conlangs (constructed languages) for fantasy and sci-fi purposes, with detailed handbooks now available for the amateur conlanger, providing instructions on how to develop grammar, phonology, etc. One area of linguistic development that many conlangers often overlook is personal and place name patterns and practices.

The influence of medieval European naming practices can be seen throughout contemporary fantasy naming practices. This influence can be traced back to the Father of Fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien, as many of his names – such as Gandalf, Thorin, Frodo, Theodred, and Peregrine – are in fact genuine medieval names; and Tolkien himself was significantly influenced by the medieval-style romances of William Morris. However, unlike Tolkien and Morris, many modern authors developing ‘generic medieval European’ style fantasy worlds do not have a background in medieval history or linguistics, with the result that even dedicated conlangers approach names in an unsystematic or ungrounded way.

In this talk we argue for the importance of including personal names and place names in the development of fantasy worlds and languages, and highlight the distinctive aspects of the formation and function of personal and place names that conlangers and authors should be aware of when developing a world or a language. We also show how resources available to the amateur historian and linguist, such as the Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources, can be used to develop consistent, grounded, systematic name pools and patterns of construction.

Date, Time, Location

15 Aug 2019, Thursday 11:30 - 12:20, Odeon 6 (Academic) (Point Square Dublin)

Speakers

  1. Dr. Sara L. Uckelman – ‘Names: Form & Function in Worldbuilding & Conlangs’
  2. Andrew Richardson – ‘Civilisation and Science Fiction’
  3. Dr Kevin Koidl – ‘Trust and the Future of Social Media’

Friday, August 16

16:30-17:20: Is Hari Seldon’s project becoming achievable? (Panel)

People have long tried to predict future outcomes of nations or personal behaviour. Prediction is now enhanced by big data and machine learning. Panellists consider which events we already can predict with high probability. With stochasticity, which events will we never ‘get’? What mechanisms would prevent misuse (e.g. for advertising or influencing voting)? What would trigger a ‘Seldon Crisis’?

Date, Time, Location

16 Aug 2019, Friday 16:30 - 17:20, Alhambra (Point Square Dublin)

Panelists

  1. Shmulik Shelach
  2. Dr. Sara L. Uckelman (Durham University)
  3. Tomasz Kozlowski (Atelier of Improvisation) (Moderator)
  4. Marina Berlin

Saturday, August 17

15:30-16:20: Crafting your fandom (Panel)

From building a spaceship wardrobe to knitting the Doctor’s scarf, baking the Death Star, or putting their travel cards into wands, fans have ever more inventive ways to express their love, enthusiasm, and fandom through arts and crafts. Our panellists will share their love of fandom crafting from what they do to how they do, and discuss why we all do it.

Date, Time, Location

17 Aug 2019, Saturday 15:30 - 16:20, Alhambra (Point Square Dublin)

Panelists

  1. Dr. Sara L. Uckelman (Durham University) (Moderator)
  2. Todd Allis
  3. Arwen Grune
  4. Michelle Coleman (University of Nottingham)
  5. Alicia Zaloga

Sunday, August 18

17:00-17:50: Society for Creative Anachronism (demo)

Date, Time, Location

18 Aug 2019, Sunday 17:00 - 17:50, 4th floor foyer (CCD)

21:00-21:50: Literary Beer with Dr Sara L. Uckelman

Come and keep me company and have a beer (or not) and talk about writing (or not) or academia (or not)!

Date, Time Location

18 Aug 2019, Sunday 21:00 - 21:50, Liffey-A (Fan Bar) (CCD)

Monday, August 19

10:30-11:30: AIs and the female image (Panel)

Whether in smart homes or wearing mechanical bodies, until recently many ‘female’ AIs emphasised beauty and sexuality. Now some portrayals emphasise strength and intelligence. Can we do both? How does the representation of ‘male’ AIs differ? Must we anthropomorphise AIs and assign them genders? Can we have non-binary AIs?

Date, Time, Location

19 Aug 2019, Monday 10:30 - 11:30, Odeon 1 (Point Square Dublin)

Panelists

  1. Madeline Ashby
  2. Charles Stross
  3. Pat Cadigan
  4. Dr V Anne Smith (University of St Andrews)
  5. Dr. Sara L. Uckelman (Durham University)

It may come as a surprise to some people that I am actually an introvert and sometimes can suffer from incapacity shyness and anxiety. I've spent a large part of my life thinking "Surely everyone has someone they would like to talk to more than talk to me". But if people come up and talk to me, I am positively delighted and often can pretend very well to be an extrovert. So look out for these shoes and introduce yourself to me if you see me! (And if there is someone else at WorldCon with these shoes...I want to meet you.)

Sunday, July 21, 2019

New publication announcement!

On Friday, my paper "Contradictions, Impossibility, and Triviality: A Response to Jc Beall" was published in Journal of Analytic Theology, as part of a symposium on Jc Beall's paper, also published in the same issue, "Christ – A Contradiction: A Defense of Contradictory Christology". It was a pleasure to be invited by the editors of the journal to participate in this symposium, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading Beall's paper and responding to it. I look forward to reading all the other responses with the attention and care they are due.