Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Mystery of Santa's Data Centers

In The Truth About Santa, my 2009 book on the scientific side of Christmas, I explained that one of the reasons St. Nick bases his operations up at the North Pole may relate to his reliance on a massive data center. To sum up: Santa uses flying robots to spy on kids; the volume of video data captured by these flying cameras is massive; only an enormous data storage and supercomputing facility would be capable of holding and processing all of that video and flagging naughty behavior. 

Facebook's data center in Prineville, OregonAs I understood it at the time, the problem with giant computing facilities is that they tend to overheat, so companies need to crank up the air conditioning to keep them cool and running properly. This, in turn, implied that Santa chose the North Pole in part to reduce his energy costs. Instead of operating expensive air conditioners he could simply open the windows and let the cool Arctic air flow in.

I was wrong. While reporting one of my recent stories, an in-depth look at energy efficient data centers, I learned that the best companies don't rely on AC at all. Instead, they allow their data centers - like the Facebook facility pictured here - to run as hot as 80 degrees. Even with the hot temperatures, the computer hardware inside performs just fine.

Since Santa only uses the best technology, it is safe to assume that his facilities don't require air conditioning either. Which makes me wonder if his data centers are based at the North Pole at all. If he doesn't need to cool them so drastically, they could be anywhere. Perhaps they are secretly staggered around the world, even in our own urban backyards.

And over the next few weeks, of course, they will be humming....

Monday, December 3, 2012

Swimming on a Jovian Moon

A long in the works article of mine on Jupiter's moon Europa has just been published in Discover Magazine, and it's available online here. The main subject of the piece, planetary scientist Britney Schmidt, was one of the more fascinating people I've ever met. She listens to heavy metal, feels incomplete if she misses SportsCenter, and absolutely will not stop until she finds the answers to scientific questions that are bothering her. I couldn't find room for this in the piece, but she's also a synthesete. I think Feynman saw numbers, or at least equations, in different colors, and maybe Nabokov as well. Schmidt says her brain mixes sound and smell. She says that certain people's voices have a taste. So, to her, the voice of one scientist - she wouldn't name him, for obvious reasons - tastes like vanilla butter cream.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Why Writers Don't Make Their Own Pictures

I'm spending most of my time finishing the soda bottle book, and writing journalism,
but when I'm in need of some creative output, Norman calls.  Here's an early woodcut rendition:

Sadly, I discovered too late that the "j" was backwards, so I tried again:

I have great respect for artists after these feeble attempts. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Faster Than a Speeding Chicken

Sadly I did not get to witness the video masterpiece below in person, but learning about this test was certainly fun. As part of an article in this month's Popular Science, I researched some of the leading destructive-testing labs in the country. The engineers at these places basically devise really wild ways to break stuff in order to test the limits of materials, structures, vehicles, etc. 

Element Inc., the guys who put together the video below, was easily one of my favorites, and their bird strike cannon is the work of true mad geniuses. They stuff frozen chickens into a massive air cannon and then fire them at windshields at several hundred miles an hour. Seriously. More details here


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Robotic Ping Pong, a Kid Genius, and a Flying Dragon

A few of my recent articles in Popular Science:

1. Designers out in California build a robotic ping pong table...

2. A teen genius designs and constructs his own portable X-ray machine. This kid isn't just a brilliant geek. He's a great writer. We started communicating via email, and after a few exchanges I wondered if the notes were coming from an adult masquerading as a high school kid. Here's a snippet from his take-down of the education system:

"I was always told that colleges look for people who think outside of the box rather than the ones whose main accomplishment is solely ‘getting good grades’. To me this has always made logical sense; high scores on tests never seemed to be good measure of true smarts, but only the ability to remember certain facts for a short quantity of time. Some of my friends would always get straight As, but the minute you asked them how electricity or combustion engines worked they were dumbfounded.

"Rather than studying I focused my efforts on learning things that I could actually use, or things that I found interesting. Instead of  writing that English paper I researched gravitational time dilation and a black hole’s Schwarzschild radius, then cranked out a rather poor paper at 12 am. Over the following weeks I spent time learning all I could about string theory and quantum mechanics while others played video games. This continued throughout most of middle school."

Eventually we connected a few times on the phone, and I spoke with one of his teachers as well, to verify it all. He's really an incredible story. My little piece hardly does him justice. But check it out anyway...

3. An RC enthusiast crafts his own flying, fire-breathing dragon after watching How to Train Your Dragon with his grandkids.

There are more stories out there somewhere in print and Web land - alien life forms and laser guns and data centers - but that's it for now.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Limits of Green Living

Now that I am working on this bottle book, and have learned so much about what happens to plastic when we don't dispose of it properly, I'm incapable of walking past a discarded bottle without picking it up. Normally this activity has a neutral outcome. The satisfaction of doing a little bit of good for the planet cancels out the inherently nasty action of collecting someone else's refuse.

Last week, however, I was forced to take a brief break from my green duties. We were enjoying a slow family walk after dinner. As often happens, I spotted a crushed bottle atop a sewer grate. If left untouched, that little bottle could have easily been swept down into the sewer, out to the local Neponset River, into Massachusetts Bay, and onward to the middle of the great Atlantic. This might sound like an improbable journey - if it were children's fiction I imagine a sensitive, intelligent mouse would be involved - but it happens all the time. That's why we have collections of plastic trash as broad as states floating out in the middle of our oceans.

So, anyway, I stopped and picked up the bottle. It felt strangely top-heavy. Something brown and solid was attached to the neck. I broke it off, took a step, and noted with great displeasure that olfactory alarms began ringing inside my head. Too shattered to inspect the item myself, I quickly dropped the bottle. My eldest daughter came over to ask what had happened. I relayed my suspicions about the mystery item attached to the neck. "I think it was poop."

My daughter's highly attuned sense of smell meant she did not have to lean in for a closer look. "Yes, Dad," she said, "Yes, it is."

I left the bottle, walked home, and washed my hands. Now, after a two-week hiatus, I'm back to collecting again, but only after a quick inspection of each discarded item. The one pictured here was perfectly clean, and probably too large to sneak down the storm drain, but I grabbed it anyway. My two-year-old promptly declared himself thirsty and asked for a drink. When I poured out the contents he was quite displeased.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Experimenting with Voice

Last week, while getting ready to teach a class, I was trying to think of a way to explore that elusive quality of voice in great writing. Not voice as in Cee Lo, but as in Louis Menand's notes on the topic in this review. A powerful narrative voice should be recognizable regardless of who is reading the text aloud. Right? My eldest, a first grader, has been improving as a reader, so I asked her to recite a passage from one of my current favorites. Then I played it in class. One of the participants guessed it immediately. Anyone else?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Writing on Menus

This is not a restaurant review, although the now defunct VietGrill here in Canton was a lovely spot for soup. Every order came with fresh cilantro and Vietnamese basil and lime and...wait, sorry, I forgot. Writing! I meant to write about writing. Specifically, first sentences.

When I talk to kids about their own writing, I emphasize that they shouldn't concern themselves with crafting a stunning first sentence right at the start. I'm sure some writers work this way, but I prefer to begin somewhere in the middle of a piece, or at least a few sentences on from the eventual opening line. I don't even start on the first page of a new journal or notebook. Instead I flip forward a few pages, and scribble on the early blanks much later. There's too much pressure in writing a perfect first line. And even when you do think you've got one, you'll probably end up changing it later.

Once the story I'm working on has started to take shape, I'll go back and work on or at least think about those first few sentences. Sometimes, though, those opening lines will just pop into my head at random. Normally I have a pen and paper handy for such occasions, but when I don't have my supplies, I grab whatever I can find. Scrap paper, newspapers, the back of a friend's hand...but not napkins. I don't understand the whole napkin sketch phenomenon. Every time I've tried to sketch something out on a napkin - like my invention for the greasy burger glove or the stand-up bathtub - the paper rips before I can scratch out a line. Maybe inventors have a special way of writing or something.

Anyway, back to that menu above. I was waiting to pick up some food, and at the time I was nearing the end of the first draft of my book The Truth About Santa. The first sentence - or "a" first sentence, anyway - popped into my head. Writing on the back of the owner's hand was out of the question, since I didn't know him too well, so I grabbed a spare menu and started writing. The scribbled version on the menu doesn't exactly replicate the final version, but the spirit of the idea is there. And you have to capture that spirit, whether you end up transcribing it onto the pages of a beautiful leather notebook, some cheap scrap paper, or one of your friends.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Captain Chicken at 826 Boston

826 Boston, the after-school writing program, has been in the news lately, and rightfully so. It's not surprising that the kids turn out such great work. The program is amazing and the instructors are inspired, enthusiastic, and smart. And what better front for a writing room than the Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute? I was lucky enough to be a guest instructor there last year, and it was incredible to see how they work, how they have the teaching of creative writing down to a science. I had a great time in my pirate story workshop helping the students develop their own stories, particularly the villains. One of my favorites was Captain Chicken, a humanoid, seaworthy fowl who has pens for hands – you know, since the pen is mightier than the sword. There were also a number of radioactive sea monsters. The influence of Captain Jack Sparrow and his adventures was hard to filter out, but overall the kids were very creative and surprisingly willing to work, given that they’d come in during a school vacation.

To learn more about 826 Boston, or lend your support, click here.  Also, the director, poet Daniel Johnston, has great taste in pens. The Pilot P-500 is unmatched. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Talking Sirloins and Scatological Fantasy

I have far too much faith in my memory. A few weeks ago, the Massachusetts Audubon Visual Arts Center invited me in for a guest talk at their summer creative writing camp, and one of the kids was telling me about a book he loves. I asked him what he liked about it and he said, “Because it’s sad and sometimes intense.” I scribbled down this wonderful quote, assuming I’d never forget the book. Naturally I have. Forgotten, that is. And it’s frustrating to know that the title is lingering somewhere in my skull. 

The kids also had a few great comments about books-turned-movies. Each preferred the written word. Hannah, a very talented young writer, summed it up perfectly: “The movies don’t let you use your imagination.” She was particularly bothered by the movie version of Greg Heffley

The students’ work was inspiring. A budding poet named Marley read a few nice lines, along with a funny piece about an intelligent steak. (I’m partial to talking food stories.) A young humorist named Henry wrote a surprisingly touching little story about a dragon with bowel control difficulties. I haven't read the Inheritance Cycle, but I wonder if gastrointestinal issues ever pop up in those novels. One would think that fire-breathing might lead to some internal difficulties now and then. 

Thank you so, so much to the Visual Arts Center. I encourage anyone in the Boston area to head down there some weekend and enjoy the trees and birdsong. The dragons and talking sirloins are purely imaginary. I think.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Library in the Park

PalsmobileLast month I was out in Flagstaff, Arizona to meet with an astronomer for a story. After spending a day with him, trying to understand the particulars of charge-coupled devices, vacuum chambers, and lenses so large they can bend and twist, I needed to give my brain a rest, so I stopped by an outdoor concert in one of the small city parks. The music was great, the trees were green, the air was cool, and kids were running everywhere. Off to the side, the Flagstaff Library had stationed its colorful mobile book bus. I went over to take a look and met Marcia Hansen, a charming New England expat and youth services librarian. She explained that the library used the bus to extend its reach to remote Native American reservations. Out there, kids often have little or no access to books. With the van they can easily check out a few at a time.

What amazed me most about the van was its effect that night, on the local kids. I couldn’t believe how many of them were hustling in and out. People were dancing all around, there was no AC inside, and there was ice cream to be had out on the lawn, but these kids wanted to be in a library. One girl started crying when her dad tried to coax her out. Granted, she looked to be about the age at which a tantrum can come at any time, for any reason, but I’d prefer to believe a nascent love of literature prompted that particular protest.  

That’s it about the van. My librarian friend also lamented the glut of science-fiction books filling the shelves these days. I apologized for the fact that I’m working on one myself. Sometimes you can’t help what grabs you. If a story is waking you up at 4 in the morning and asking to be written, you have to get it out.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Little Wooden Fish in Novels

On Tuesday I had a fun Skype visit with a boys book club down in Oklahoma. Fish is up for that state's prestigious Sequoyah Book Award, and a bunch of kids in Duncan, Oklahoma took a break from the sweltering summer heat to talk about the novel. I love the idea behind this book club: It's just for boys, with no girls allowed. That strikes me as a pretty clever way to convince a bunch of young ruffians to get together and talk about a book when they'd probably rather be out playing baseball or basketball or tackling each other into the local pool. I was as bookish as anyone when I was that age, but I'm not sure I would've let my parents talk me into heading to the library on a nice day. Now, if they'd told me my friends were going? Well then I probably would've given it a try.

We talked about their favorite characters and scenes, and what it takes to write a novel. Near the end, one of the boys asked a question I'd never heard before. In fact, I'd forgotten about this moment in the story entirely. Before he leaves the family farm, Fish's sister Roisin gives him a small, wooden carving of a fish. This  young Oklahoman wanted to know where I'd gotten that idea.

My great uncle loved carving, and taught my siblings and I how to whittle when we were young. I became hooked. For years I would bring my chisels and Dremel and spare driftwood with me everywhere. (This half-finished carving of Dr. Zaius, the legendary Planet of the Apes villain, is one of my favorites; I call it the Zaius stick and envisioned it as a tool to be used in debates on evolution.) My driftwood art became something of a joke among my friends, in part because I enjoyed turning so many weathered branches into characters from Planet of the Apes. I was also carrying a harmonica at that point in my life. Did I know how to play? Of course not. Yet I thought I had some sort of hidden talent for the instrument that might appear at any moment. I wanted to be ready.

Anyway, the point is that - yes, there's a point!! - the wooden fish is one of the little personal details that can make a fictional world or a story seem more complete and believable. My books are all set in different time periods and places, but they're filled with tiny details often borrowed from my own life. I'll stick my friend's nose on one character, turn Roisin into a wood-carver, or make one person walk like my father and I. (Feet turned out, proudly.) In my first book, the main character dons a pair of yellow rubber gloves to wash the dishes in his office. Why? Because my mother always used gloves like that when I was growing up and those gloves are a strong sense memory. The gloves were real to me. Visceral, and a little weird. And those kinds of powerful feelings attached to random objects often come through in your writing. They make certain details pop within the story, and resonate with readers, like that wooden fish did with this crewcut-topped young man. A novel isn't all details, obviously. But these powerful little notes can help bring it to life.

Before our Skype visit was finished, I also extended my condolences regarding the Thunder's devastating loss to the evil Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. No one seemed too broken up about that. I'm still upset, though. I might name one of my next villains after LeBron. Or I could always shake my Zaius Stick at the TV screen when he's shooting free throws.

To all the other librarians and teachers covering Fish or Dangerous Waters in the coming year, let me know, I'm always happy to pop in for a free virtual visit.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Where do you write?

Where do you write? I've been visiting a bunch of schools for the past few months to talk about reading, writing, and my new book, Dangerous Waters, and this question has turned up some wonderful answers. I try to encourage kids to find a spot in their home where they can work uninterrupted. Writing requires total focus, and it's hard to concentrate if your brothers and sisters (or, in my case, the kids) are running all around you. You need to find a spot to unplug, disconnect, and completely dedicate yourself to the assignment, whether it's a few pages for school or a novel-in-the-works.

My own spot is this horribly mundane, disorganized collection of tables and books and devices in the photo. I'd prefer dark wood and old leather, perhaps a collection of cloth-bound volumes with uncut pages in the background and a large window overlooking a tranquil body of water, but that's not happening. And it's not really necessary. I'd probably just stare at the water until I fell asleep. And the books would make me sneeze, I'm sure.

Back to the kids. And their answers. A few of my favorites:

-One girl said she works on her stairs. This sounds like a poor choice at first, but if you think about it, no one stops on the stairs. They pass by, heading up or down, and leave you alone. Brilliant.

-Several kids cited their bedroom closets as the ideal locales. Sure, this might be a fire hazard with the wrong lamp, and you'd need a decent-sized space to stretch out, but it could be a delightful place to focus. Bunch a few fallen sweaters or coats against one wall, lean back, relax, and write.

-Two kids like to sneak under their beds. I thought this was brilliant, and when I told another class about it a few weeks later, one of those kids wrote me to tell me he has now begun doing his homework under his bed as well. I tried it myself, in fact, but I soon began sneezing and promptly extricated myself.

If anyone else has any unique writing spots of their own, let me know!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Androids, Elephants, and the Magic of the Alphabet

The Andover Bookstore hosted a wonderful event a few weekends ago. I was lucky enough to join Jennifer Jacobson, author of Small as an Elephant, and Ben Winters of The Mystery of the Missing Everything and the Tolstoy remix Android Karenina. Thankfully Ben also dragged a few of his children in with him; normally I’m the only one trailing kids.

Each of us read from one of our novels, then took questions from the very engaged, interested audience of young readers and parents. The young Tom Brady’s points about my title, Dangerous Waters, were especially astute, and thanks to Serene for the lovely drawing of Emily!

Chris Rose, an elementary school teacher who also runs the children’s section of the store, delivered a wonderful introduction about the magic of writing; the strange power of the 26 letters of our alphabet, and how, in certain combinations, they can generate such vivid characters and scenes, such real emotions in the minds and hearts of readers. After his introduction, I sure was glad that Jennifer Jacobson went first. Talk about pressure!

If you’re ever passing through north of Boston, stop by the Andover Bookstore. It is truly a singular place, a testament to the importance of independents, and I hope to return soon.

Exercises in Style

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A great book for any writer. Queneau proves that there are so many ways to tell the same story. The characters and events and setting don't have to change at all. By tweaking the form or style or perspective or the weight of the different elements, you can create so many versions of the exact same story.

For me this book is also a prime example of the importance of independent bookshops. I found it at Symposium Books in Providence, up at the counter, I believe, while I was killing some time before a meeting with a very cool group of roboticists. And I doubt I ever would have stumbled across it otherwise.

The story on the robots is here, if you're interested.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Why I Write About Water

During a recent visit to a wonderful school in New Hampshire, a thoroughly vexed young student raised her hand and stared up at me. “Why,” she asked when called upon, “are you always writing about water?”

In fact, my first novel, The Wages of Genius, was set in an office. The problem with writing a story that takes place in a bland and boring business office is that if you really commit yourself to the world, really build and imagine it and make it real, then you end up feeling like you’re sitting in that space all day. I left my job because I couldn’t stand working in a cubicle farm. Then I hung out in independent, funky cafes listening to jazz and scribbling away, imagining the whole time that I was actually in a cubicle farm.

So maybe I’ve learned something. I love the water, but my family is landlocked for the foreseeable future, so I visit the deep ocean in my imagination. Fish, Dangerous Waters, and the new novel I’m polishing are all set out on the sea, and while working on each one, I felt like I was there, staring out at the ocean through my characters eyes, feeling the waves beneath me.

Thanks for the question, and all the others from the devoted readers and budding writers up at Woodbury and Fisk. And Kevin, don’t forget: Fifteen revisions. No less.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Dangerous Waters: An Adventure on Titanic

The new novel, Dangerous Waters: An Adventure on Titanic, is out today! Since I'm not very good at plot summaries - when you write a book it ends up being about ten thousand different things, and narrowing all that down to a paragraph is just about impossible - I'm going to have to cheat a little and reprint the official one here:

A stowaway, a stolen book, a murderous villain: an adventure on the most famous shipwreck in history.

The great ocean liner Titanic is preparing to cross the Atlantic. On board is a sinister thief bent on stealing a rare book that may be the key to unlocking infinite treasure, a wealthy academic traveling home to America with several rare books, and Patrick Waters, a twelve-year-old Irish boy who is certain that his job as a steward will be the adventure of a lifetime. Disguises, capers, and danger abound as the ship makes its way toward that fateful iceberg where Patrick will have to summon all his wits in order to survive.

This review also captures the story:

"...Mone quickly entices readers with criminal intrigue, characters who range from eccentric to entirely ordinary, and, of course, the singular setting that is the Titanic...the bond between Patrick and Widener gives the story heart. Mone displays solid knowledge of the facts: there are numerous real-life cameos on the ship, and his descriptions of shipboard life, the Titanic’s sinking, and the survivors’ rescue are impressively vivid."

Check back here for more details and background in the coming weeks....

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Jack's not a Yachtsman!

A few nights ago, down in Florida with the family, my wife and I were eating at a little restaurant by the water. The restaurant's patio overlooks a small marina packed with expensive yachts, and at the table next to us, a famously reticent football coach was regaling a small party of diners with tales of life in the NFL.

After the group finished, they made their way down to a gorgeous, perfectly maintained, antique wooden motorboat; the kind you'd expect to see in photos of St. Tropez or some other exotic locale for the rich and famous. The owner of the boat, and host of the dinner, turned out to be legendary CEO Jack Welch.

Mr. Welch was not the primary character in this scene, however. Upon realizing that he was in the vicinity of business royalty, an older gentleman at the table next to us shot to his feet. He had been talking about Bernie Madoff, theorizing about hidden stores of cash. He was tan, thin, in his seventies. His hair was brown, with a subtle hint of purple, and his sweater a delightful green.

He stood with his hands in his pockets and called to Jack. He tried several times to gain Jack's attention, without success. Then he said, with some confusion, and at a significant volume, "That's Jack's boat? Jack's not a yachtsman!"

The boat cruised off successfully, and as far as I know it did not sink, yet I still think this story might be a good transition into some book-related news: The impending release of my next novel, Dangerous Waters: An Adventure on Titanic.

The book is out on March 13. It has absolutely nothing to do with that dinner, nor the puzzled, purple-haired man, but a boat does figure prominently. So does extreme wealth: The story centers in part on Titanic passenger Harry Widener, a collector of fabulously expensive rare books. Publishers Weekly just gave Dangerous Waters a nice review, and the Children's Book of the Month Club selected it as one of their new titles for the season.

Soon I'll be visiting schools in the area to discuss the book, and writing in general, and we're also putting together a few events. I'll be joining in the Kids' Authors Extravaganza at the Andover Bookstore on March 24th, then reading at Bunch of Grapes, on Martha's Vineyard, on Saturday April 7th.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Villains at Milton Academy

Earlier this week I had a great visit with the fourth-graders at Milton Academy. Half of them had read Fish, and they had several great questions about the writing process. At one point in the presentation I was talking about the evolution of a particular line in the book, and how it changed after a few debates with my editor, and a few of the kids actually remembered the sentence when it flashed up on the smart screen. Maybe it was the appearance of four ladies in large yellow dresses in the middle of an action scene that made the fragment memorable, but still, I was impressed. Quite a group of readers.

They were also especially interested in the villains in my books. Several of them volunteered their names for future evil characters. I promise I will keep them in mind.

We had some extra time at the end, so I read them the first chapter of my next book, Dangerous Waters, which comes out in March. Normally I edit while I read, cutting a sentence here, shortening a paragraph there, but in this case I read every word. They all felt necessary. That's a good sign, I think. And the kids seemed to love it...not a yawn or wandering stare in the place.

My favorite comment from one of the students: "You make me want to read a hundred books!"

That's exactly what an author wants to hear.

Eating Stars in Austin

Last week I was in Austin reporting a really exciting story for Discover magazine. The main subjects of the piece keep vampire hours, so I had some free time in the morning, and listened in on some fabulous Austin dialogue while prepping in coffee shops. A few lines from one spot:

"Hip hop will never be the same."

"There's just a lot going on and none of it is interesting to me."

There was context to both, but I don't think it's necessary. Another exchange:

"How do you feel about Beck? I feel like there are a lot of Beck haters here."

"I don't feel one way or the other."

"I totally agree."

At another spot, I discovered that the highly skilled barista making the espresso was also a musician. His band is called Auroravore. For some reason my brain associated aurorae with stars, and asked him if his band were star eaters. "No," he said. "Aurora represents the music that exists outside of us and vore is kind of the synthesis."

Or I think that's what he said. And it's a very cool idea, but I still kind of wish they were the star eaters. Although that would make them black holes, which would probably not be a very good name for a band. If you went to a show by the black holes, would you ever leave? Would you disappear? Or become a part of the band, perhaps, as it swallows you whole?

There were quite a few more characters, but none of them matched the scientists. I've never had so much fun while being completely overloaded with intensely complex science - geophysics and astronomy and astrobiology. The story won't be out for a while, but I'll post it here when it's published.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Skyping with Singapore

People have always told me that I have a rather large head, but the students of the Singapore American School must think it's gargantuan. A few weeks ago I skyped with Captain Coole's crew, a very inquisitive bunch of kids in Singapore. (OK, so they're not really a pirate crew, and their teacher isn't actually a pirate, but that's how they introduced themselves, and I like it.) They asked great questions about reading, writing, pirates, and my book Fish. I was especially excited to talk about Scab, the nasty, stinking villain; he's one of my favorite characters.

Toward the end of the visit, though, someone turned around the laptop in their far-off classroom so I could have a view of the space. This virtual tour also afforded me a look at the smartboard, where my massive head filled up the entire screen. It was terrifying. For me, at least. They seemed perfectly fine.

Anyway, thanks again to Captain Coole, the Roots, and the rest of the class. We'll have to talk again sometime, as long as we can figure out that time zone stuff...