Smashwords Interviews

The indie ebook publisher, Smashwords, is offering a new feature to its authors — an interview template.  An author writes answers to questions about their life and their writing, and can publish these to their Smashwords profile page.  A nifty free marketing tool, indeed.  Check out my interview related to my novel, Blind Tasting, if you’re curious.

Smashwords has also announced a new distribution channel for their ebooks — FlipMart in India. A big market apparently, as FlipMart is described as the Amazon of India. Okay, writers, everyone get to work on your next project!    🙂

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Seman-tech Changes?

 We know that languages change over time. Some of these changes are shifts in word usage and word senses. The world of technology changes rapidly, and it’s no surprise that word senses might reflect that. Three English nouns have caught my eye recently with respect to this topic: space, culture and brand. Go to any English dictionary and you will observe a multitude of senses for each of these words. They have what linguists call high polysemy, or many meanings. In the current tech world there are meanings for these words which I haven’t found in dictionaries, maybe because they are so newly emergent, maybe even within just the past four or five years.

For example, it’s common in tech circles now to hear or read about current funding levels in social space, or vendors who are leaders in a certain technology space. Space in these contexts is a sphere of activity, but, something more fluidly defined than an industry and less specific than a product or product line. An area of innovation might be a good paraphrase.

New word senses are often metaphoric extensions of earlier senses. So, which prior meaning of space is this new sense related to? I don’t think its connection is to a physical expanse (he liked the wide open space of the desert) nor to the freedom of opportunity (the company gave its employees space to explore new ideas). More likely it’s related to the mathematical, algorithmic sense used in, e.g., search space, which refers to a set of possible points, or solutions, answers, from which one or some will be selected. A space in the new sense implies problem solving, building and/or discovering solutions to a problem in the context of other solutions that may exist or are being invented/discovered by competitors. For now, this sense of space seems to exist within the tech community, but, will it expand to other domains of enterprise, e.g., government, entertainment, law?

Consider culture. We speak of ancient cultures, of youth culture, pop culture and corporate culture. The latter three senses specify traits for group membership, being young, artful, or business savvy. In the world of techies, culture has taken on a narrower sense, referring to the attitudes and behaviors specific to individual organizations — not the business world at large. (Okay, there is startup culture, which is broader than one company but not inclusive of all business.)

Job postings seek candidates who will be a good fit with the firm’s culture. It’s a good choice for what’s being described; the boundaries between work life and personal life are blurred in most startups (and also in fast-paced larger tech firms),

Some big companies used to refer to themselves as a family, employees would be joining a family. The term family suggests a roster of specific individuals with respective roles. It implies long term, stable commitments and relationships. The current use of culture doesn’t imply the long term or specific people, but it implies a set of attitudes and behaviors that are to be embraced by the participants.

Brand is no longer just a marker or id for a manufactured product, it has become a shorthand reference to the skills, actions, services, personality and other publicly perceived traits of individuals. The rise of social media and the ability to self-publish and self-advertise undoubtedly led to the emergence of this new sense of brand. This new sense of brand can also refer to whole groups or companies, but it’s not referring to specific products, but rather characterizing the reputation, the public face, of the group.

Interestingly, culture’s new sense — unlike brand’s new sense — cannot be singularized. There is no culture of one, there must be a group, probably more than two individuals? But, you can speak of his or her brand, as well as their brand. When you refer to his or her culture, you are jumping back to the broader reference to a whole country or society. It’s a different sense of the word.

As new situations and new activities arise, people will find a way to think about them, talk about them, name them. This is a big driver of how word senses change. Car referred to railway carriages in the early nineteenth century in the United States, but later came to refer to automobiles. Today, the railway sense is more restricted and usually occurs with additional modifiers (box car, dining car, sleeping car, quiet car). The dominant sense of car today is automobile, not surprising given the number of autos in the world and the huge role they play in everyday life.

Finally, the noun phrases full stack and full stacker offer interesting examples of word sense evolution. I read a job posting for a tech startup that was looking for a full stacker. Another posting had a job for a full stack programmer. (Note: tech startup job boards are a treasure trove of molten semantics – language change in motion!) When I first read these phrases, I wondered whether they referred to the call stack of a computer program (a data structure that manages the subroutines of an executing program). The details of the call stack are usually automatically handled in high-level programming languages, so application developers don’t manually work with them. So, I assumed a full stacker was a programmer with the chops to tweak the call stack, someone comfortable and experienced writing internal operating system code as well as user-oriented code modules. Screw up your operating system code and you will have a really bad day.

The phrases turn out to be richer and more malleable than my initial guess. The stack metaphor has been extended to mean whole product solutions or implementations. Instead of being composed of runtime subroutines, the new stack is composed of software modules which could include different libraries, classes, databases, APIs, operating system, etc., which taken together deliver a software solution. A lot of this is web-centric obviously; for example, the term stack is used contrastively with glue in comparing programming frameworks for the scripting language PHP. A stack framework is one-stop shopping, with all packages included, a glue framework requires/enables a programmer to mix and match their libraries to build an application.

On Quora someone asked for the meaning of full stack programmer and got two answers; the first defined it as a techie generalist who could switch hit among technical tasks, and the second defined it more specifically (and more accurately) as a programmer who can code both server side and web side components.

Yet another sense of full stack refers to electric guitar amplification – an amplifier with two speaker cabinets is called a full stack; in contrast, an amplifier with just one speaker cabinet is called a half stack. It seems doubtful this usage is the origin for the newly-emergent programming sense, and I bet no one wants to be called a half-stack programmer!

My favorite definition for full stack web developer — someone able to turn a loose pile of electrons into a fully operating and styled website.  It goes with a nerd merit badge. And what’s the graphic on the badge? A stack of pancakes. ; )

Will these new senses spread to new contexts? For example, might skilled, multi-tasking assistants to government officials or executive managers start being called full stackers? It probably depends on the metaphoric alignments, which features of a given sense become more salient, or less so. The world keeps changing and language responds to this, words need breathing room. Newly emerging senses may not be wholly consistent at their outset, people may read or hear them (or use them) without being certain of their meaning, making guesses. But, we have to agree on basic senses in order to communicate. Really pretty amazing how it all works.

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Vamp 24: Tricky Conversations

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Vamp 23: Rendezvous

vamp_smallDean has the taxi drop him at the turnoff to the private road. It’s dark now and a lone man walking will be less noticeable than a lit cab pulling up to the house. Despite his fatigue from days of chronic vigilance on the run, he notes the significant affluence of his surroundings. Some of it must be true old North Shore money, and some of it probably belongs to the cohort of Boston entrepreneurs who built the early tech firms along Route 128. The homes are grand Victorians and Colonials, some with widows walks and towers.

Dean reaches the end of the road — the great stone mansion by-the-sea, dead ahead, bears the address Sam gave him. He now concludes that Sam is from a seriously monied background. Why would such a girl of privilege take a job as an office admin with a tiny startup? When he first hired her, she’d seemed like a sweet, efficient kid. Then, fleeing for his life, his instincts had pointed to her as the one to trust. His instincts had not steered him wrong. She has become his lifeline.

He walks around to the right of the majestic house, his eyes continuously searching for anyone who might be watching. The pounding surf beyond the sea wall is even louder here. Harder to hear soft footsteps approaching he warns himself. He is reassured to see the stone carriage house Sam mentioned and, sure enough, there is a gardening shed visible beyond it. He goes past the carriage house and continues to the shed, enters, and finds the key in a gardening glove. Thank you, Sam! He follows a brick path past gnarled old oaks and a rambling wall of woody shrubs, bare and dormant for the winter. The brick path leads him to the door at the back of the main house. As he fits the key into the lock of this unfamiliar residence, he feels suddenly uneasy, like some low-life home intruder. The key clicks and the massive door opens.

With only a flashlight to guide him — anyone watching will see a lighted window — he makes his way through an old-fashioned service entryway and into the immense butler’s pantry where Zaira had revived her cousin Joska with shot glasses filled with human blood.


Lieutenant Barton had missed Dean’s taxi. Barton had gone directly to the stone mansion after his conversation with Stephanie Nichols; he’d rung the front doorbell and, when no one answered, he’d walked around the side, noted the carriage house and briefly looked for a way to open its door. Then he’d left. He returned after dark and parked his Crown Victoria on the shoulder of the main road where he could watch traffic coming and going on the private way.

The local Salem cab is easy to spot. It appears to have four passengers; one, a male youth, is riding shotgun with the cabbie. Barton loses sight of the cab as it turns onto the private way, but he notes its departure a couple of minutes later as it comes back onto the main road. Only the cabbie is in it. Lieutenant Barton decides to wait a little longer.


“Sam! It’s incredible!” Rina surveys the elegant marble foyer in deep admiration as Sam quickly closes the front door behind her and locks it.

“So this is your uncle’s house?” Gil asks, making an effort to mask his own awe.

Sandor glances disapprovingly at Sam. She ignores her cousin and leads them to the kitchen; they are carrying bags of takeout — spicy-fragrant Asian dishes. Sam switches on the light as they enter the room. Through the archway that connects to the butler’s pantry they see a tired man with brown hair and a beard. Despite everything that’s happened, he manages a smile and gets up from the table. “It’s me, guys. Sorry for the melodrama. It’s been a pretty strange week. Sam, I’m really indebted to you for this.”

“Hey.” Gil nods a greeting to Dean.

Dean approaches him and places a hand on Gil’s shoulder. “I owe you an apology. I made some serious miscalculations.”

There are many things that cross Gil’s mind to say in response to this; he looks down and replies, “Maybe if I’d interviewed Evan, from the start, I — we, might have seen a red flag. He’s truly creepy.”

“Serious miscalculations.” Dean repeats the phrase.

Rina and Sandor, who barely met Dean before his disappearance in New York, look on, wondering what they should do.

“Did anyone see you come in?” Sam asks Dean as she begins to unpack the bags of food and lay them out on the table.

“I don’t think so. I had the cab drop me off up the road. This is quite the location, Sam. I hope it’s secure — for all of your safety, not just mine.” He sighs. “Things have really changed.” Dean looks keenly at Sam. “You’re certain that your uncle is okay with this arrangement? Won’t he be coming here soon?

“He’s out of the country. This will be fine.” She turns to her cousin. “Sandor come help me check the windows, make sure all the drapes are closed.”

When they are out of earshot of the others, Sam tells him, “Sandor, I apologize about the uncle business, but after all, I’m in guise, so that’s already a much bigger deception.”

“Yes, lies beget lies.”

“They cannot ever know the truth about us! You must understand this.”

Sandor glowers silently as they return to the kitchen. Sam holds Sandor’s arm a moment as she pulls two slender coffee thermoses from a cupboard. She then pulls an unmarked carton from a shelf, opens the top and pours a dark red liquid into one thermos, then the other. She speaks sharply to Sandor under her breath. “You must drink this and please eat sparingly of the food. Avoid the pickled ginger, it can give you terrible nightmares.”

Sandor moves away from the small thermoses. “I’m not hungry.”

“Sandor! You must drink this. We are facing unknown difficulties and will need to talk into the night. You won’t be any use without strength. Understand?”

Rina appears in the archway. “Is everything okay? Come eat something.”

Sandor picks up his thermos, screws the lid on discreetly, and follows Rina into the butler’s pantry.

“I’ll be right there,” Sam says. She lingers in the kitchen and pulls the cellphone from her pocket to review the twenty messages from Anatol. The news is bad.

They’ve gathered in the living room after devouring the Thai and Japanese takeout. The large picture windows are now covered by heavy velvet curtains, but the sound of the pounding Atlantic surf is still audible. Stunned, they listen to Dean describe his strange hostile meeting with Joel Anderson, his harrowing flight through Manhattan streets, hiding out incognito in flop motels, and finally, the terrible conclusion that his trusted friend is in league with Joel Anderson.

“You’re absolutely certain who that guy is, the one with your friend?” Gil asks.

“He’s the top spook at the agency, Gil. He reports to people at the highest level of government.”

Sandor, who has been web surfing on his laptop, shows the screen to Dean. “Patrick Slaughter. Is that he?”

Dean scans the digital image and bio. “Yes, unfortunately. That’s not a recent picture, but it’s him.” Dean covers his face with his hands. “What have I entangled us, BubbleTrendz, in?”

“But how come he would do cyber-extortion?” Rina asks. “Seems kind of small potatoes for such a politically powerful guy.”

Dean looks at Rina gravely. “The extortion stuff is only part of it.”

“The DOW lost over two thousand points today,” Sam tells them. “SEHK, I mean the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, is down nine percent.”

“I can’t prove it yet, but I’m sure Joel’s gang is behind that,” Dean tells them vehemently. “It’s like they are detonating well-placed bombs in the global financial markets. They don’t have to blow up real buildings or people to create fear and chaos.” Dean looks squarely at his employees. “Joel Anderson didn’t care a rat’s ass about our pioneering social data marketing apps. He just wanted access to a big financial driver like Star.”  He adds, with a measure of self-reproach, “We worked really hard to win Star as a client. They were our breakthrough.” Dean looks Gil in the eyes.Your code made that happen. Star trusted us and I let them down, let all of you down. I got sucker-punched by Joel. It’s scary how smooth he was.” Dean adds quietly, “Perry Hinds got worse than sucker-punched is my guess.”

They are startled by the bell chime. Someone is at the front door. Dean looks sharply at Sam, “I need to disappear.”

She thinks quickly. “Upstairs — second room on the right. There’s a walk-in closet with long coats that will conceal you.”

As Dean races up the staircase, Sam adds, “There is also a balcony in that room through French doors. It would be tricky to climb down, but might be possible — if it comes to that.” She turns to the others, “Deep breaths, everyone. Hang out here and look natural, talk about something — computers, music, sports. I’ll deal with whoever is at the door.”

“What is there here to use as a weapon?” Sam sees the focused, determined look on Gil’s face.

“The candelabra!” Rina points to a large brass candle holder on the mantle. Gil rushes to the mantle and grabs it, hefting it, holding it firmly in his hands. It’s the most physically brazen act Sam has ever witnessed Gil perform.

She tries to reassure them. “Guys, it’s probably just a neighbor. I’ll be right back,”

Sam notes that Sandor is unconsciously twitching his fingers and his nails are beginning to sharpen up. She walks past him and whispers, “Your hands! Not yet.”  But, Sam begins to curl and uncurl her own fingers as she heads to the front door.

–  To be continued

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Word Jumbles #11


Solutions can be found on the Answers page.

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The Hidden Past of Words: English final -y

Consider the following list of everyday English words:  memory, happy, baby, crazy, victory, city, silly, puppy, army

For starters, they all end in -y and they can be grouped further as nouns (memory, baby, victory, city, puppy, army) or adjectives (happy, crazy, silly).  For the nouns, English speakers know that we form the plural by replacing the final -y with -ies. Is it the same -y that gets replaced in memories and babies? Probably yes according to the intuitions of most modern English speakers. However, memory’s -y and baby’s y have different origins.

The final -y of memory, victory, city and army is a nominal suffix whose origins come from Latin forms which Middle English acquired through Old French forms:  memory, victory (English) <- memorie, victorie (Anglo/Old-French) <- memoria, victoria (Latin),  city, army (English) <- cite, armée (Old French) <- civitas, armata (Latin).  Modern -y here corresponds to the -e suffix of Old French and to the -atus/-atum suffix of past participle forms of certain Latin verbs and to final -ia for certain Latin nouns.

The final -y of puppy and baby is a diminutive ‘pet name’ suffix which applies to not only these common nouns, but to personal names, e.g., Billy, Benny, Johnny.  The Online Etymological Dictionary mentions that the popularity of Robert (Bobby) Burns’ poetry led to widespread usage of this diminutive suffix with the common noun lad -> laddie, but this dictionary also points out the much earlier (14th century) occurrences of baby as a diminutive of babe, and puppy for pup.  Modern speakers may still discern the diminutive sense in modern dolly (a child’s toy doll) or mommy (mom/mother), but baby and puppy are now the unmarked cases, at least in American English.

The final -y of adjectives is a suffix which originally meant ‘characterized as’.  But, modern English speakers don’t analyze happy as ‘characterized by hap’ — happy is now a single unit of meaning. The history of this word is interesting. Hap, in fact, is the original root of happy and in Middle English it meant ‘chance, fate, fortune’.  Hap has become archaic in Modern English, still related to happenstance and haphazard. The formation of happy (hap + -y) took on the sense of luck, good fortune, but later replaced other terms (including gesaelig -> silly) to mean pleased, joyful. The original Old English word meaning happy survives as modern blithe. Note, though, how blithe’s usage has largely shifted from joy to a somewhat pejorative sense of nonchalance (his driving shows a blithe indifference to posted speed limits).

Silly has come a long way semantically from its origins.  Its core meaning apparently changed from ‘blessed’ to ‘pious’ to ‘innocent’ to ‘harmless’ to ‘pitiable’ to ‘weak’ to ‘feeble-minded’ in the course of a few hundred years.  What a semantic downgrade for the hapless lexeme! 🙂 Today it seems less harsh, mostly conveying the sense of non-seriousness, sometimes in a fun and whimsical way.  (Note: Old English gesaelig referenced above meant happy in the same sense of German selig, which translates as ‘blessed’, ‘blissful’.)

Where is modern-day final -y going? Some English dictionaries maintain a meaning distinction between the spellings hippy and hippie; hippy is an adjective that means ‘having wide hips’, hippie is a person with a certain (hip) outlook or lifestyle.  But other dictionaries now treat hippy and hippie as mere spelling alternates for a single noun. Ditto for yuppy and yuppie. (No one will confuse hippie/hippy with hipster, however!)

I’ll end this post with a few more examples of final adjectival -y.  The adjectives breezy, mighty, hasty,  tasty, angry, toasty convey a straightforward sense of ‘characterized by’ or ‘full of’.  They mean, respectively,  ‘characterized by’  a breeze, might, haste, taste, anger or toast (the verbal sense of ‘warming something’).

What about these y-ending adjectives:  haughty, sorry, feisty, merry, naughty, steady, busy?

For most English speakers the interpretation  ‘full of, characterized by’ is less clear here than for the preceding adjectives. Yet, haughty, feisty, naughty, steady also arose in the language by combining nouns with -y:  haught (‘high self-esteem’) + y, feist (‘small dog’) + y,  naught (‘nothing’) + y, stead (‘unwavering’) + y.  The earlier meanings of the nouns have changed and the ‘characterized by’ relationship is now more obscure. Haughtfeist and stead don’t appear in modern English in these original senses. Naught still means ‘nothing’, but the form combined with -y in Middle English to mean ‘needy’ and only later took on the sense of ‘wicked or morally bad’.  Feist’s originally meaning was ‘bad odor, fart’ and became associated later with lap dogs in the phrase feisting cur (‘stinking dog’) then shortened to feist to refer to a small dog — which has little to do with the modern meaning of  ‘aggressive, tough, plucky’.  Okay, maybe you know a tough little lapdog, or two.

For sorry, merry and busy, the etymologies are sarig (Old English ‘distressed’), myrge (Old English ‘agreeable, pleasing’), bisig (Old English ‘anxious, careful’). These adjectives are not the result of a base noun combining with a -y suffix, so perhaps it’s not surprising that these have indivisible meaning similar to modern happy. (Note: sorry is etymologically related to sore and not sorrow, although modern English speakers might feel a natural connection between sorry and sorrow.)

As babies entering the world, we don’t get to choose our parents or our first language. But we do learn the histories of our families, our parents and grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles, through the stories they tell to us, through our interactions with them. Words aren’t able to tell us their stories directly, we just use them in the context we learn them in, taking their current meanings for granted. It’s how communication is possible. Yet traces of their often long and complex histories can be discerned in their present-day form and meaning if we, like beachcombers, pause to pick them up, turn them over, and study the clues.  Enjoy words!

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Trailers for Blind Tasting (audiobook edition) now on YouTube

Check out trailers for the audiobook version of Blind Tasting:

Trailer 1:  Immerse yourself in the tale of three geeks and a dog as they explore what is definitely not your ordinary wine trail. Set in Silicon Valley, Napa and Sonoma.

Trailer 2: Will sexual rivalries and romantic fallout derail the deviously clever wine antics of Cory and his friends?

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