Archive - 2015

On This Day In History X Years Ago
Using Statistics to Choose What People Think Is Best: Not As Straightforward As You Might Think
Demonstrative Pronouns in Japanese: Or, How My Spanish is Helping
ROOT OF UNITY is out today!
Mmmm … Delightful Nova Scotian Foreskins
Zero Sum Game is on sale! Also, some math for you about socks.
Oreo Cows in New Scotland
FIGHTING DEMONS is out today!
Betty Makes Damn Good Pies
The 20-Week Scan

On This Day In History X Years Ago

Closed sign Hawkins

By Ken Hawkins from SC, USA (Closed sign) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Some number of years ago, while I was still at university, I was very pumped up the day before Thanksgiving.  Not because of the holiday, but because I was in one of those moods in which I was getting a ton of shit done, being super productive . . . I finished my classes and bounced off to do errands, which included some research for a class at one of the libraries, running to a few stores, etc..  (I never went home for Thanksgiving in college, and that year was very excited to use the opportunity for some extra productivity.)

I started off on my errands and was shocked to find that everywhere I needed to go had closed early.


I ended up standing outside one of the MIT libraries, staring at the printed sign taped to the door which announced it had closed at 3pm, and yelling, “WAY TO DISCRIMINATE AGAINST PEOPLE WHO HAVE NO LIVES!”

And that is what I remember about Thanksgiving that year.

Using Statistics to Choose What People Think Is Best: Not As Straightforward As You Might Think

The Goodreads Choice Awards are in their first round of voting, which prompted some discussion on Twitter concerning the fact that their shortlist for Best Science Fiction has only one woman on it (out of 15 books).

Goodreads states that they “analyze statistics from the millions of books added, rated, and reviewed on Goodreads” to choose the shortlists.

Well, this seems pretty straightforward, right?  Their awards are about what books their users think are best.  So they pick the top 15 books according to their user database, and bang!  Shortlist!  If there aren’t that many women on it, it just means more people have to read and give high ratings to books written by women.  There’s nothing Goodreads can do without sullying the math of their awards process — right?

Except . . .

What does “best” mean?  When they’re doing their statistics, how are they choosing what are the top-rated books?

Believe it or not, this is a nontrivial mathematical problem.

For a good series of articles on the mathematics of ranking algorithms, try these three posts.  But here’s a simple example to show why it’s not always so simple.  Say we were trying to compare two books in a ranking system, and one had 500 reviews with a 4.6 rating, and the other had 1000 reviews with a 4.4 rating.

Which book is “better?”

More importantly — which book do we want to be better?  Because really, we could make a case for ranking either one higher.  What ranking math like in the links above does is find some reasonably consistent way of making the rankings come out in the way we think they should.

But people are going to have different opinions on which bits of data they think should be privileged.  They’re going to have different opinions on what “how it should be” looks like.

I want to make clear: privileging one stripe of data or another is not necessarily wrong math.  But we can judge it against systems that privilege the data in other ways, and argue that one or the other system is giving us the most intuitive, useful, or reflective ranking.  It’s not a matter of math anymore at that point; it’s a matter of what we want the ranking system to do.

For instance, let’s say (this is made up; I have no insider knowledge) that GR is looking at star rating and number of reviews as its two most important criteria.  If it has to privilege one of those, which should it be?  Number of reviews would probably favor more established authors; star rating would probably favor less established authors.  What if GR wants to include other criteria, or at least needs some tiebreaking data?  Should they privilege the author with a higher overall author ranking or engagement?  That might make some sense intuitively, but it will again favor more established pros.  And if we’re looking for the best books, there’s a good argument that given two books with roughly equivalent buzz, the less established author’s book should be privileged, as it had a larger hump to get over to get the buzz it did.  So should GR privilege the book with the lower rated author overall?

Here’s another way Goodreads might hypothetically analyze their data (and again, all of this is MADE UP; I have no idea how Goodreads chooses their nominees or whether anything like the ranking trends I’m about to pull out of the air actually exist).  Goodreads examines books released in the past year from November to November.  But it’s logical to think that maybe the rankings and reviews curve will look different over time.  For instance, hypothetically, maybe books tend to drop half a star rating from the time they come out (when diehard fans read them) to the time they level out a few months later.  During the same time, the number of reviews will increase as the time the book’s been out increases — a book that’s just come out will, all else being equal, have fewer reviews than one that’s been out for a few months.

So most people would say it would make some sense for GR to adjust their best-of ranking algorithms to take this into account.  Adjust the number of reviews up for books that have been out for less time, adjust it down for books that have been out for more time, adjust the star rating down for books that have just come out and up for books that have been out for a while, and then get their top picks off that data.  That seems fair, right?

But you could make the exact same argument for, say, books by men versus books that aren’t by men.  Now, I’m not saying I advocate GR doing this, and I don’t think they even collect author gender data — and there are good reasons we wouldn’t necessarily want them to start.  But there’s an argument to be made that books by, say, women — as a whole — at least get less exposure, so their number of reviews should maybe be adjusted up, curving the data until the average female author is getting the same number of reviews as the average male author.

In my opinion, adjusting according to gender is logically equivalent to adjusting according to date.  Just like we could say a man might deserve the buzz he got above a woman, in our example we could likewise make the argument that a book that just came out might be awesome enough to maintain its star rating even if other books tend to drop.  But you’d find a lot more people who’d be okay with adjusting by date than people who’d be okay with adjusting by gender.

Incidentally, I’d be one of them!  (If for no other reason than the data-gathering issues I mentioned.)  But I think we have to be very careful when we use numbers and statistics to justify saying something is “best” according to an audience.  Because the math really does have different legitimate sides to it, and two people working from the exact same numerical data set could reasonably come up with two different best-of lists.

I’m still suffering comment-response-guilt over my last two “math in genre” posts, so I’m closing comments for my own sanity.  Please feel free to link this elsewhere and to approach me on Twitter (@sl_huang) to discuss it.

Demonstrative Pronouns in Japanese: Or, How My Spanish is Helping

Yikes, I’m behind on blog entries I’ve been meaning to write!  I WILL GET TO THEM.

I’m going to start a blog series on learning Japanese — selfishly, just to clarify things for myself.  But perhaps it will also be helpful to other Japanese learners!  Disclaimer: I am a raw beginner at Japanese.  What I say may make no linguistic sense at all.  It may even be completely wrong.  I’m just sorting through thoughts.

A few weeks ago we learned demonstrative pronouns and demonstrative adjectives in Japanese class.  Now, my book is entirely in hiragana (one of the Japanese phonetic scripts) and my teachers don’t speak a large amount of English; the class is taught entirely in Japanese.  So it really helps that I knew the difference between demonstrative pronouns and demonstrative adjectives.


  • I’m reading this: “this” is a demonstrative pronoun, replacing “book”
  • I’m reading this book: “this” is a demonstrative adjective, describing “book”

In English, these two things are the same word.  In Japanese, they’re not, and since the whole book is in Japanese, this is something we had to notice by context.  Some of my fellow English-L1-speakers had difficulty with it, and I was pretty chuffed being able to draw the connection and explain it to them.

But even though I have a pretty strong grasp of English parts of speech, it was my Spanish that made the revelation natural, because in Spanish they differ as well!  And this was especially helpful because, like Japanese, Spanish has three levels of demonstrative pronouns/adjectives — not just “this” and “that,” but “this,” “that by you,” and “that over there.”

(Of course, English and Spanish differentiate by singular versus plural — “this” versus “these” and “that” versus “those” — which Japanese does not, but that’s where my Chinese came in handy in my intuition.)

Thus, having studied multiple languages has made Japanese far more intuitive than it otherwise would be for this English L1-er.  Here are some charts!

Demonstrative Adjectives

LanguageThing(s) Near MeThing(s) Near YouThing(s) Over There
Englishthis, thesethat, thosethat, those
Spanisheste / esta, estos / estasese / esa, esos / esasaquel / aquella, aquellos / aquellas

Demonstrative Pronouns

LanguageThing(s) Near MeThing(s) Near YouThing(s) Over There
Englishthis, thesethat, thosethat, those
Spanishéste / ésta / esto, éstos / éstasése / ésa / eso, ésos / ésasaquél / aquélla / aquello, aquéllos / aquéllas

And like Spanish, Japanese has different words for “here,” “there by you,” and “over there” — Spanish is aquí, allí, and allá, and Japanese is ここ、そこ、and あそこ (koko, soko, asoko).

Of course, then Japanese has to get more complicated by declining according to politeness, and thus there’s also こちら、そちら、and あちら… and probably more nuance I don’t know yet.  But that’s a subject for another post!

ROOT OF UNITY is out today!


“It’s a gloriously unapologetic action novel, full of explosions, and I enjoyed it tremendously.” — Liz Bourke,

“Huang has really stepped up her game in this book.” — James Davis Nicoll

Read it now: Amazon | Amazon UK | Apple | Kobo | Barnes & Noble

Back for book three . . .

Cas Russell has always used her superpowered mathematical skills to dodge snipers or take down enemies. Oh, yeah, and make as much money as possible on whatever unsavory gigs people will hire her for. But then one of her few friends asks a favor: help him track down a stolen math proof. One that, in the wrong hands, could crumble encryption protocols worldwide and utterly collapse global commerce.

Cas is immediately ducking car bombs and men with AKs — this is the type of math people are willing to kill for, and the U.S. government wants it as much as the bad guys do. But all that pales compared to what Cas learns from delving into the proof. Because the more she works on the case, the more she realizes something is very, very wrong . . . with her.

For the first time, Cas questions her own bizarre mathematical abilities. How far they reach. How they tie into the pieces of herself that are broken — or missing.

How the new proof might knit her brain back together . . . while making her more powerful than she’s ever imagined.

Desperate to fix her fractured self, Cas dives into the tangled layers of higher mathematics, frantic for numerical power that might not even be possible — and willing to do anything, betray anyone, to get it.


Mmmm … Delightful Nova Scotian Foreskins

While we were in Nova Scotia, we visited Jost Vineyards, the province’s biggest and oldest winery. The main building had walls of bottled wine surrounded by a steampunk décor that reminded me of Restoration Hardware. Ugh, more quaintness. How can the locals take so much quaintness? I would just die.

A staff woman approached and greeted me. A few words of mundane pleasantry ensued. My eyes hopped over to a sign that advertised the wine tasting. Her eyes followed mine. “Would you like to try our foreskins?” she asked.

“Huh?” I stilled. My face flushed, although I had forgotten to slap on sunscreen that day so I might’ve been somewhat burnt anyway. I scanned around to make sure I was still in a winery.

“Foreskins.” She smiled. In a completely innocent way.

I stared at her, still wondering if I heard wrong.

“Foreskins,” she said again, louder and her smile wider. 

I tried my best to muffle giggles from the juvenile boy within me. “Uh, I was actually hoping to try—”

“Our foreskins are really good.”

“I’m sure yours are,” I lied. To be honest, there was no way I’d know whether her foreskins were any good, but I had to be polite. After all, I was a foreigner in her country, her province, her store. “However, I already have—”

Her eyes narrowed. “You have some too?”

I nodded.

“Really?” she asked as if I lied.

“I think so.” 

She frowned a little. “I bet ours are better than what you have.”

That was quite presumptuous. I should’ve been offended, but I really wasn’t. Not a big deal. What makes foreskins better or worse, anyway? Some like them one way, others another. Many, regrettably, don’t like them at all. It’s all subjective. Still, I had to defend my honor, or whatever. I wondered if there was a way to prove myself without violating local laws. “Well,” I said, shrugging, “mine is probably not that bad.”

She waved a hand as if to say, whatever. “I insist. You must try ours before you go. You won’t regret it.” This woman sounded like someone who really knew her foreskins.

“I dunno.”

“Our foreskins are even more exquisite when paired with the local artisanal cheese.”

I wasn’t sure if “cheese” was code for something, but I was afraid to ask.

“The result is a long, smooth buildup to a deeply satisfying finish bursting with fruity flavors amidst a woody subtlety,” she moaned. “It’s sooo good.” Her eyes closed as if to savor a celestial moment.

“Wow. Fruity flavors, eh? I’ve never heard that before.”

“See,” she said smugly. “I told you ours are better than yours.”

“Oh, okay,” I said meekly.

In the end, I did sample some local foreskins. Who knew Nova Scotia would have such fine foreskins?

(The above exchange was very loosely based on what actually happened.)

foreskins - IMG_6925


Zero Sum Game is on sale! Also, some math for you about socks.

In celebration of the release of Root of Unity (less than a week away, w00t!), today marks the first day of a 99-cent sale of the ebook for Zero Sum Game!

Amazon * Amazon UK * Barnes & Noble * Kobo * Apple

In honor of this sale and so I’m just not Promoty McPromotion, I’m going to tell you about the title of the series.

Russell’s Attic may not be the best title for a book series about violent superpowered mathematicians — it doesn’t quite speak to the superhero aspect, or suggest adrenaline-pumping thrillers, or . . . anything else a title is supposed to do.  But it was too good to pass up.

You see, Russell’s attic is an actual thing. I don’t mean a physical thing, but an actual mathematical metaphor.

Bertrand Russell is a famous mathematician and set theorist (yes, I named my main character after him, trufax!). He proposed the following thought experiment:

Say you have an attic filled with countably infinite pairs of shoes and countably infinite pairs of socks.  (“Countably infinite” essentially means there’s a way to write them all down in a list — the list can be infinite; we just have to be sure it contains all the elements.  For example, we are confident the list 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… contains all the natural numbers, even though it’s infinite. Similarly, we are confident the list 2, 4, 6, 8… contains all the even natural numbers, even though it’s infinite. So these are both countably infinite sets. The real numbers — think all possible decimals — are uncountably infinite, because there’s no way to list them all, even in an infinite list.)

So in Russell’s attic, we have countably infinite pairs of shoes and countably infinite pairs of socks. The shoes in a pair can be differentiated from each other, left versus right. The socks in a pair are identical.

We know there are countably infinite pairs of both, and that each pair has two elements. The question: can we prove there are countably many shoes (not pairs of shoes) and countably many socks (not pairs of socks)?

The shoes are easy! We know there are countably many pairs, so there must exist a list like this:

{ Shoe Pair 1, Shoe Pair 2, Shoe Pair 3, Shoe Pair 4, Shoe Pair 5 … }

To make our list of all the shoes, we just do this:

{ Left shoe from Pair 1, right shoe from Pair 1, left shoe from Pair 2, right shoe from Pair 2, left shoe from Pair 3 … }

Since we’ve already said the first list exists, the second must as well, and we have countably many shoes. Presto.

Now let’s try to prove there are countably many socks.  If we know there’s a way to list the pairs of socks, is there a way to list the individual socks like we did for the shoes?


It turns out it is impossible to prove there are countably many socks unless you use the Axiom of Choice. Even though we can easily prove countably many pairs of shoes means countably many shoes in the attic, and we can do it without the choice axiom, we can’t do the same when we start with countably many pairs of socks.


That punchline may be a little anticlimactic if you don’t know what the Axiom of Choice is.  So what is it?  Basically, the Axiom of Choice says that if you have a collection of sets of things, it is possible to grab one thing out of each of the sets.

Sounds obvious, right?  It did to mathematicians, too, who for a long time simply assumed this was true for any collection of sets because of course you can do that. Then a guy named Zermelo came along and showed that assuming this super obvious thing led to a result that blew mathematicians’ minds.

The mind-blowing result he proved is called the well-ordering theorem, and from what I’m told it caused a minor apocalypse in the mathematical world, because it was so obviously wrong how could it possibly be true. So Zermelo went back through his proof and showed that the only assumption he’d made was that you could pick one thing out of each set of things, which of course everyone accepted as obviously true. But he’d used this Super Obviously True thing to prove something everyone knew was Obviously Impossible.

Thanks to Zermelo, we now know the obvious thing and the impossible thing are actually the same thing.

“The Axiom of Choice is obviously true, the well-ordering theorem is obviously false, and who can tell about Zorn’s Lemma?” — Jerry Bona

(the three are equivalent)


So the formerly-super-obviously-true thing became a formal axiom instead, called the Axiom of Choice. And without it, you can’t prove there are countably infinite socks in Russell’s attic.

As for my book series title, since “attic” can also imply someone’s mind or give a metaphor for their general state of being, I thought Russell’s Attic was perfect!

Interestingly, I just did a search for “russell’s attic” (without the quotes), and the first result is the definition of the mathematical thing… and every other first-page result is now this series.

Oops. Sorry, math world!

Oreo Cows in New Scotland

‘Tis hard to believe, but it’s been over two (long) months on the road.

We just left Nova Scotia, a Canadian province whose name means New Scotland. Before we left Los Angeles, we didn’t plan on going to Canada, much less Nova Scotia, which is so far away from LA it might as well be the old Scotland. In fact, Nova Scotia is farther away from LA than any contiguous USA location. It’s more northeast than Maine, which is already super far.

The most common comment we’ve been getting from strangers is: “You’re a long way from home.” Yes, we are. And they’re even more shocked that we drove. I had no idea people looked at car license plates so much.

How did we end up so far? When we got to Lake Superior, we wanted to continue east. The two choices were to go via the north shore (Canada) or the south shore (USA). Montreal and Quebec City seemed like nice places to see so we went with the Canadian route. After those cities, Nova Scotia appeared merely a bit further east, so we rolled on. Newfoundland tempted us, but we shut down that idea before it wandered too far. Plus it would’ve required a long ferry ride. It’s easy to keep going forever if you keep on thinking, Oh, it’s just a little further.

Nevertheless, I’m glad we visited Nova Scotia. It is the most beautiful region we’ve seen thus far. Here’s a photo of a pasture we passed by.

bulls charge

Yup. Nova Scotian humor. Hahaha.

You can’t see the cows that well in the photo, but they have broad swathes of white in the middle of their bodies. At first I thought they was shaved or painted, but later I found out they’re actually Galloway cows, a breed originally from Scotland. Sometimes they’re called Oreo cows, as in the cookie. Cute. Friggin’ Nova Scotia, even their cows are quaint.

Upcoming post … slurpin’ on delightful Nova Scotian foreskins.

FIGHTING DEMONS is out today!

Read “Fighting Demons,” the sequel to “Hunting Monsters,” today at The Book Smugglers!


What is this story about?  It’s about parents and children, culture and identity, individuality and family.  It’s about the daughter of Beauty and Red Riding Hood meeting the son of Bai Suzhen and Xu Xian from the famous Chinese tale “Legend of the White Snake.”

If you want to read about how awful and hard it was to write about my own cultural heritage for this story, by the way, I wrote about it here:

Doubts plagued me:

How do I write for primarily non-Chinese readers without flattening all of Chinese culture into a shallow, singular narrative?

What if I write something that only reinforces stereotypes, despite my best efforts?

Because I’m mixed, because I’m diaspora, do I even have the right?

Looking back, however… part of what made it so hard is also what makes me most proud of it.

But I’ll let that essay stand on its own.  Instead I’ll talk for a minute here about a bit of other background — setting!

“Fighting Demons” takes place primarily near a fairy tale version of Hangzhou, China.  Fun fact: I lived in Hangzhou briefly one summer, teaching a computer science class to electrical engineering graduate students at Zhejiang University.  The Thunder Peak Pagoda referenced in the story is a real place, and one I have been to!  I drew on all my sense memory writing this story: the humidity that fills you up and wraps you close and heavy like a blanket; the vast and scenic West Lake, its shallows forested with lotus; the pagoda spiking up above us as we walked on the lake’s shores.

The real Hangzhou is very different from Fairy Tale Hangzhou, of course.  There are no sea serpents, nor magic defenses in the pagoda, nor snake demons fighting battles across the lake.  The West Lake retains its beauty while the present-day city is as modern and vibrant as any other.  Zhejiang University itself is ranked sixth in all of China.  My students were all bilingual and spoke excellent English (well, some of the main characters in “Fighting Demons” do, too), and were sharp, smart, and politically astute about the modern world, most far more than I was.  (“Don’t bring up Tiananmen Square, Falun Gong, or Tibet,” they warned us before we went to China.  They didn’t tell us what to do if our students asked us our opinions on exactly those topics, seriously and pointedly.)

But even though my fairy tale Hangzhou differs from the real, modern one, I hope I’ve given it the same depth and reality I gave to fairy tale Europe in “Hunting Monsters.”  After all, if I’ve only learned one thing from all the places I’ve been, it’s that people are people no matter where they live, and families are families.  Even — especially! — families made up of immortal snake demons who fight obsessive monks to rescue each other with magic.

Enjoy the story!

Betty Makes Damn Good Pies


I recently watched David Lynch’s TV show Twin Peaks, season one. Disappointed. To be fair, I had high expectations of the cult favorite. It’s rare for a show to live up to high expectations.

Still, my reaction was surprising, given that I love love David Lynch’s movie Mulholland Drive. It’s a spooky mystery wrapped in a surreal atmosphere, a rare art movie with an engaging story.

Back to Twin Peaks. My first reaction was: this is slow. Well, actually it was: wow, does Kyle MacLachlan look young as Agent Cooper. The central mystery is the murder of a young woman, but neither the case nor the characters are all that interesting. And the show isn’t even that weird, as I assumed it’d be. Mostly, it annoyed me that the murder wasn’t solved by the end of the first season. Arrgh. There should be a law that bans season-ending cliffhangers for murder mysteries.

The best part of Twin Peaks is its music, which is probably more recognizable than any image from the show. It’s easy to understand why. The instrumental really sets the mood, a haunting melancholy. And if you know me, you know that melancholy has the same effect on me as flame on moths. However, the music began to sound repetitive after, like, two episodes. I was tired of it. Still, I give much credit to the music for the success of Twin Peaks. The signature melody is the soul of the show, which probably would not have been as memorable without the moody sound.

If you saw the show, you probably know why the title of the post is about pies and yet I’ve gone on to ramble about Twin Peaks.

You see, I’ve been on a cross-country road trip for about six weeks (the genesis of which is detailed here), and one of my hopes is to sample delicious local food everywhere. I got my wish along the North Shore Scenic Drive in Minnesota. The Drive is one of the most beautiful I’ve been on, and I heard it’s even more breathtaking when the fall colors arrive. What was initially intended to be a one-day drive turned into a multi-day affair. And that affair included meeting Grand Marais, definitely the quaintest town on the trip so far and certainly one of the most romantic I’ve ever seen.

One of the highlights of the Drive was my lunch at Betty’s Pies. I had two slices: the Great Lakes baked pie (apple, blueberry, rhubarb, strawberry and raspberry) and the five-layer chocolate cream pie (dark chocolate, cinnamon meringue, whipped cream and chocolate whipped cream). Both pies were excellent, but I preferred the chocolate one. Each layer was delightful; together the whole was even better. It’s no wonder that the five-layer chocolate is the bakery’s most popular pie. I’m not a big sweets person, so I was glad that the pies were not too sugary as many pies tend to be.


As all pie-lovers know, good pies are not just about the filling. The crust is also important—not as important as the filling but still crucial for support. The pie crust is kinda like the groom in a wedding—he is vital to the event, but everyone knows the bride is where it’s at. Here, the crust was properly flaky and light. Oh yeah, under-baked and doughy tasting crusts should be illegal too.

So there I was. Having a slice of pie heaven while visiting a small town. The whole time I kept thinking about Agent Cooper eating his beloved cherry pie.

Ready for some tasty Betty’s pies? If you can’t make it to Minnesota, you can order it online and have the pies shipped!


The 20-Week Scan

Getting a scan done is always an exciting thing. It’s awesome getting to see how the bebe has grown. Are her legs still little nubs that resemble green beans? Will we finally be able to see her wee face?


The 20-week scan is probably the most exciting one, because it’s also known as the anomaly scan, where the doctor will check for, well, anomalies. Is your baby’s heart developing well? Her brains? Her liver? Her spine? It’s also the first scan where you might catch a glimpse of her actual face.


False expectations? Never. All I expect is the cutest little baby in the whole entire universe who comes out clutching a TI-84 calculator (because obviously she’s been doing calculus in my uterus like a good little Asian baby).


Like Christmas morning.



As it turns out, the picture we got wasn’t quite what I’d expected.


Doctor, I think there’s a mistake. You’ve given me a poster of the latest Hellraiser movie.

At least Mr. Cow didn’t seem that bothered by it.

s_HelloWaterColor(12)Oh well. Onwards and upwards until the next scan!

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