Blinded by Bias

Modern battlefield communications are often coded through a process called “Frequency-Hopping Spread Spectrum” (FHSS.) In short, a transmission is spread over a wide number of frequencies at extremely short intervals, so if you are listening to any one frequency, all you’ll hear is a series of unintelligibly short bursts some time apart.

During World War II, inventors Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler and George Antheil approached the Department of the Navy with a special adaptation of FHSS technology for guiding torpedoes. At the time, Navy torpedoes used a single-band radio frequency to find and guide themselves toward targets (ships) but the target was often able to detect and jam the signal. However, using FHSS the signal is extremely difficult to detect, and almost impossible to jam. The idea would have made American guided torpedoes nearly unbeatable. The patented invention used a simple roll similar to that used on a player piano to operate the system. Unfortunately, the Navy rejected it. Some said that the Navy procurement officers could not understand how you would fit a piano on a torpedo (in reality, the device could have fit in a matchbox.)

A more likely explanation stems from the fact that the inventors were already well-known, but not as inventors. George Antheil was a successful composer (which perhaps explains the officers’ inability to rid their minds of the image of a whole piano as part of the invention.) The other inventor was even more famous. Hedwig Kiesler was the well-known actress “Hedy Lamarr.”She was the first actress to appear nude in a major feature film (the Czech film, “Ecstasy,” in which she was also depicted as having an orgasm – scandalous in that day.) In spite of this bit of infamy, she became a Hollywood staple, often referred to as “the most beautiful woman in pictures.”

If the Navy had adapted the invention, U-boats would have been far more vulnerable and less effective. As a result, many Allied ships would have been spared attacks from the German “wolf-packs.” The war would likely have ended much earlier, saving lives on both sides. Certainly, desperately needed civilian aid to Allies, particularly Britain, would have made it safely across the Atlantic, alleviating unnecessary suffering.

Some (if not most) modern historical analysts believe that Hedy’s sex-kitten image (and the simple fact she was a woman) prevented the Navy from taking the invention seriously.

Bias can be a very costly thing indeed. It cost us, it cost the British citizenry, and it cost Hedy Lamarr: though she had many other very successful inventions, the brilliant beauty never saw a dime from FHSS, because the US Navy only adopted it in 1962 — after her patent ran out.


Using your ereader as a writing tool

Since getting my Kindle Touch* this last Christmas, I’ve been having fun exploring some of the more esoteric features of the device.  I already knew it was an excellent reading tool.  What I’ve discovered is that is a useful tool for writing as well.

Going Paperless with Critiques

I love my writing group, but as their specialization is novels, some months I wound up printing over a hundred pages in order to do my critiques. I just can’t read long documents on a regular computer screen.

Having a Kindle changed all that.  It’s fairly easy to send personal documents to your ereader.  You can convert them yourself using a program like Calibre.  Or, in the case of Kindles, you can send documents to your ereader by using your mailing address.  Amazon then converts your personal documents and sends them to your Kindle.

I found that I loved using highlights and notes to mark up a document on my Kindle.  During meetings of my critique group, I could then view all those notes at once on my Kindle, and discuss them.  Or if I wanted to port them into a word document that I could email to others, I could use the Clippings Converter.

Doing Research

The novel that I am working on is set in 1836.  When I started on it, I had a thick paper file of photocopied material and research notes that I had to lug with me when I was working on my story.

Since most of my source material is public domain, I have enjoyed downloading them from Google Books, or finding them on websites and converting them into files for my Kindle.  Using collections, I can organize the material into groupings, and with notes and highlights access in a flash everything relevant within a longer work.  I’ve also transferred to Kindle my personal documents with research notes, time lines, and character biographies.


Using the text-to-speech option on your ereader can be pretty annoying, but it’s great if you want to catch errors in your manuscripts before submitting them.  The mechanical voice will not fill in missing words, and it will force you to find all those extra adverbs littering your manuscript.

Okay, so that’s how I use my ereader as a writing tool.  How are you using it?  Have you found fun and unusual uses for it?  Got any favorite apps to share?

Tell us!  We’d love to hear them.



* I mention the Kindle Touch because that is the ereader that I own. Many of the features that I mention are available on other devices, though you may need other techniques to access them.  If you have a Nook or some other device that you use as a writing tool, tell us about it in the comments!

Slushy Slush

I’ve been reading slush recently for Stupefying Stories, and I’ve noticed a theme to those entries that I’ve had to recommend against.

‘Stupefying’ processes submissions in an unusual way; our High Editor, Bruce Bethke, does the initial culling, scanning the first few paragraphs and tossing out anything egregiously bad. This seems a little backwards to me, but he’s the boss. Anyway, I don’t get to see the very worst. What I get are the things that start out in such a way that they are at least plausibly publishable. If you know how to spell and put together a sentence, if your paragraphs scan, if you don’t use dozen adjectives in the first page (or “scintillatingly” even once), then I’m likely to see your stuff. So far I’ve recommended about 10% for further consideration, which seems to be average among Bruce’s slushies.

By far the most common cause for me to give a thumbs-down is that the supposed protagonist doesn’t have anything to do with how the story turns out. Either they’re just witnessing events, or it’s just happening to them, without anything they can do about it. The disparity of power is so great that the reader has no reason to believe that they have a chance to win — and then they lose, big surprise.

If the New York Yankees play the baseball team from the local Ernst & Young office, I expect the Yankees to win. If E&Y should somehow win, it would be an interesting story to see how they managed it. But if the Yankees beat them 98-0, I would turn to the person who tied me up and dragged me there (the only way I attend sporting events) and say, “Why did you think I needed to see this?”

Just so, suppose the entire plot of a story is that a dire invulnerable creature breaks into a house and eats the protagonist. (This is a made up example, not an actual plot of anything I’ve reviewed.) It could be vivid; it could be horrifying. But there’s not enough back and forth there to make an interesting story; no suggestion that the snack had any shot at escaping. It’s okay if he loses, so long as it’s not a foregone conclusion.

Even if he wins, the story doesn’t satisfy if the winning is too straightforward. Man gets caught in an avalanche and manages to dig himself out. Not an interesting story; there need to be reversals. He has to try more than one thing (three is a magic number).

And then, there are those where something interesting might be happening, but we don’t get to experience it happening.* The supposed protagonist has no skin in the game. She comes in after the fact and is just seeing the results. Or, the story abruptly ends right where it starts to get interesting. To use an example mentioned here recently, suppose someone developed a drug that made people doubt everything they thought they knew. Interesting premise. Now for whatever reason he decides to dump tons of it into the water supply. The journey to that point might make an interesting story in itself (assuming it wasn’t his plan all along), but this is only the beginning of a bigger story. What happens after that? Some of the stories we get are really only an idea, not the whole story. They set up a situation and then leave it to our imaginations what happens. If I wanted to make up the ending myself, I would be writing a story. When I read a story, I expect the author to do that work!**

As with all supposed rules of writing, there are doubtless brilliant counterexamples that break them. But there has a be a damned good reason; the author has to have done it consciously, not because they didn’t know any better.

* This is not to say that a first-person narrator has to be the same as the protagonist; for instance, in “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” Mark Twain has a narrator two steps removed from the action, and some people regard that story as okay. But we get to hear about what was done and said by the people who had an actual hand in making the story happen. The narrator is just a colorful frame for the story.

** Which is not to say that the ending can’t be ambiguous. But it can’t be totally wide open. Maybe it’s narrowed down to two possible outcomes, either one with interesting implications.

The Human Capacity to Ignore Evidence and Inconvenient Facts

I am continually amazed at the human capacity to resist evidence that it does not want to see.

Most recently, I’ve been reading about the split in Thomas Jefferson’s descendents over the issue of whether he fathered Sally Heming’s four children. The overwhelming evidence (DNA, timing, opportunity and his behavior towards the children — the only slaves he freed upon majority) indicates that he was.

A great overview of the evidence can be found on the official Monticello site: Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account.

And yet many of the white descendents of Thomas Jefferson continue to fight this, to the point of commissioning their own study to disprove what they consider the “out of character” behavior of him having an affair with a slave.

What is it in us that fights facts when strongly held facts are at
stake? Why is this part of our makeup?


On Libraries, Publishers and E-Books

In recent news, Penguin Group made the decision to terminate its contract with OverDrive, the primary supplier of ebooks to libraries.

What does this mean? This means that yet another of the big six publishing houses has decided to not allow library lending of its ebook titles. (Others that have done this have included: Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Hachette.)

Why? Is it because of fiscal irresponsibility or technical issues with the OverDrive site? How about a more competitive contract with 3M, the only other major provider of e-book library lending software? No and no.

The real problem appears to be that OverDrive works too smoothly. They make it too easy for people to check out ebooks from the library without ever leaving home. Many in the publishing world have long viewed library loans as lost sales. Publishers have mixed feelings about libraries.

On the one hand, libraries are major customers. Seventy percent of children’s books are sold to libraries. ALA is the most important convention a children’s book author can attend. On the other hand… libraries are the dark competition to the publishing world. They provide free copies of publisher’s books to any library user that comes through our doors.

So given that publishers are already suspicious of libraries eating into their profits, I can see them becoming worried about technology that does not even require people to travel to the library to pick it up first.

Let’s look at what OverDrive posted about Penguin’s decision:

Starting tomorrow (February 10, 2012), Penguin will no longer offer additional copies of eBooks and download [of] audiobooks for library purchase.

Additionally, Penguin eBooks loaned for reading on Kindle devices will need to be downloaded to a computer, then transferred to the device over USB. For library patrons, this means Penguin eBooks will no longer be available for over-the-air delivery to Kindle devices or to Kindle apps.

Penguin’s choice to make it more difficult for library patrons to download copies that libraries have already purchased for lending is very telling. In effect it is saying, “Okay, we can’t take back the books you already bought from us, but we can make it far less convenient to use them.”

I am both fascinated and appalled by this obstructionism. I borrow books before I purchase them, to make sure that I really want them. Does making a title freely available hamper book sales? Not according to Cory Doctorow, Neil Gaiman, or Phil Foglio. But perhaps the most fascinating recent counter example is provided by the web comic, Order of the Stick. Even though the comic is freely available on the web, his fans have contributed over $600,000.00 to his KickStarter drive to make reprints of his books available.

I think that publishers that withdraw from library ebook lending are making a tremendous mistake. They are letting their fear block them from reaching new audiences.

I am curious what all of you out there think. Are library loans lost revenue for publishers, or a promotional opportunity? What is your opinion of all this?


What Not To Write

I generally don’t like reading about what not to write. It’s far too easy to pile on with lists of what writers should “never” do, especially when the next bestselling novel you read will be packed full of these supposed errors. Very often, authors use style-busters (can’t think of what else to call it) to excellent effect, at least when they are confident and in control.

Still, I find it useful to force myself into reading posts, blogs, and threads about writing issues, especially when grammar and punctuation are being highlighed. It’s good to be reminded about the basics while keeping in mind that the rules can be broken, as long as you have a reason other than ignorance.

Today I came across a thread started by Cat Rambo, an author from Washington, asking for pet editing peeves. The responders stuck to the basic aggravations such as too many commas, too few commas, too many adjectives and adverbs. It makes me wonder though, how to apply these basic concepts to actual writing so a novice writer can comprehend them? One of the comments contained a link to a blog by Randy Henderson containing a story titled “The Most Epicly Awesomest Story Ever!”

The title alone contains enough errors to inform readers that Henderson’s tongue was planted in his cheek when he wrote it. But follow the link and read the story, then read the comments. It is interesting to see how many readers took him to task for his writing, even feeling the need to critique the story. It’s hard to know if he triggered a defensive reaction among people who are writing their own fantasy saga about a farmer’s son who is The One, or possible backlash from readers who just don’t like to be messed with and resent  being taken in briefly. (Yes, I know long convoluted sentences are against the rules.)

I don’t believe that any trope is done to death, including the Hero’s Quest. Vampires, zombies, and shape-shifters appear to be done into the ground, and yet the best book I read this past year is “The Passage” by Justin Cronin. Describing this novel sounds like a mishmash of all the current fiction trends: vampires breeding like flies, genetic engineering,dystopian future, population in peril, elements of mysticism. But Cronin spins a fresh take on vampires and dystopia so that his story is engaging and suspenseful.

If you have a story that you want to write, it doesn’t matter if it falls into a category that feels overdone. The important thing is to write it with your own vision and create characters that feel fresh. Then make sure your prose is free of cliches and common writing tics, which will mire any story, no matter how original, into reading like an epicly awesome adventure story. In other words, read the rules and discard what ones you must — but have a reason for ignoring them.


Battle by the Numbers – a Little Math for Writers

Are you writing a battle scene with armies colliding in an epic battle but don’t know how many troops you should place on each side?

There are lots of reasons why numbers of troops in conflict changed over the centuries, but the three most important are: 1) population densities 2) Agricultural efficiencies that allowed nations to produce excess that can sustain troops and 3) weapons and tactics. OK, technically, number three is two things, but they are so closely linked that I put them together.

For a concise introduction to this topic, read on. If you want more detail, go to: 

One quick note up front: I’m talking about historical norms. Female warriors (Joan of Arc, for example) existed, but are statistically insignificant (of course, if you’re writing fantasy or alternate history, you can do what you like.) So, it is in the interest of historical accuracy rather than spurious sexism that I refer to armies in terms of the numbers of men.

Back to the numbers:

The invading “armies” of early bronze-age barbarian clans usually numbered less than a hundred men. Raiding parties may have been less than a dozen. The major nations of the day fielded “armies” in the range of 500-1000 soldiers. In 2300 BC, the Army of Sargon of Akkad may have been as large as 5,400. A thousand years later, 100,000 men made up Ramses’ Egyptian army, which he divided into 5,000 man “divisions” in garrisons all over Egypt.

In the middle of the “early iron age period,” around 800 BC, the Assyrian army fielded some 150,000-200,000. This was an astoundingnumber, since the Greek army of Alexander placed around 30,000 in the field, with a rare surge to 60,000.

Fast forward another 300 years, and Xerxes brings 300,000 infantrymen against the Greeks – plus 60,000 horsemen. This is during a time when the average battle involving Greek city-states involved less than 20,000 on both sides. 500 years later, the Romans boasted over 350,000 men in their standing army, fielding 30-40 thousand in major engagements.

Armies continued to grow with the advent of gunpowder. Populations had grown tremendously, agricultural techniques were vastly improved, and huge troop formations were needed to mass fires into the enemy’s lines. Napoleon’s Grand Armee boasted well over half a million troops. The Battle of Leipzig (1813) alone involved over 600,000 soldiers.

But mankind had only just begun to prove is capacity for mass violence. The first world war mobilized some 70 million military personnel, and WWII mobilized over 100 million. That war claimed 60 million military and civilian casualties. over 2.5 % of the Earth’s population.

So, back to our original question – how big should the field army in your story be?

If it is a relatively early state, determine the population of the represented group (nation, city-state, duchy, etc.) and multiply by 5%. In a desperate situation, you could go as high as 10% of the population, but only briefly, because an early agrarian economy couldn’t withstand that reduction in laborers for very long.

Even for an industrialized state a sustained mobilization of more than 15% is unrealistic. Brief surges might utilize as much as 30% of the population, but a percentage that high would be catastrophic to the economy if sustained for any significant length of time, and would almost certainly require mobilizing women in very large numbers, as the Soviets did in WWII (the biggest exception to my earlier statement.)

One last number – a glimpse at a modern military:

At the beginning of 2012, the United States Military (all branches) had about 1.46 million members on active duty, and another 1.46 million on reserve status. A little over a third of this is the Army with about 1.1 million total – Active, Guard and Reserve. Since women are fully eligible to serve in our military (though not in all positions, at least not yet) the eligible numbers are double what they would be in a male-only military. The current population of the US is over 311 million, with about 145 million service-eligibles (again, this now includes males and females.) That means that our Army (including all reserve elements) is only about .3% of our population, our combined military only 1%. And remember – this is the most powerful military in the world.

My, how times have changed.


Stretching It Out

My wife and I enjoy TV detective series, preferably with a little wit to them; Monk, Bones, Psych, Numb3rs (not so witty), The Mentalist, The Closer. And I’ve been thinking about how a series like that is put together. Not the crime and detection part, but the tricks writers use to try to keep viewers interested in the series. What I have to say isn’t specific to detective shows; those are just the examples I have to hand.

In the old days, I think there was strong resistance to having a story arc that lasted for more than an episode (except the end of season cliffhanger). They needed episodes to be viewable out of order without spoilers, so it wouldn’t matter much if someone missed two or three or four and caught them in reruns. People had no way to record episodes for later viewing, so they needed to be able to see things in any order.

The shows just had to be be good enough, the characters engaging enough, to hold viewers’ interest even if there were no unresolved story points and even though viewers were pretty sure there would be no significant change in characters’ situations. This very much limited the types of stories one could tell.

Now, though, shows routinely have plotlines that run over multiple episodes and multiple seasons. Writers leverage this to try to maintain viewer interest. You can’t quit watching because you have to see the resolution to the longer story arc. With producers and writers not wanting to have to search for a new series to work on, the resolution is often indefinitely and annoyingly delayed.

Among these techniques is the unconsummated romantic relationship. Sometimes the writers will come up with excuses to stretch it out plausibly – their timing is always wrong, there are misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Sometimes they barely seem to bother to explain the apparent blindness of their characters, just letting it sizzle along without anyone ever addressing it. In Bones, it’s fairly unbelievable. Yes, Dr. Brennan is pretty aspergery, but it’s just not enough excuse. It makes me impatient, and shows a lack of creativity. Have a reasonable length courtship and get on with it. I just want to smack them – both the characters and the writers.

Then there’s the obsessive pursuit, gradual revelation strategy. The Mentalist, chasing Red John, who slew his family; Monk, who’d like to know who blew up his wife; the protagonist in Life, trying to find out who framed him (I’m assuming from a few episodes). I want to smack these writers too. To make this work, they have to give dribs and drabs of information. If they ever resolve the central question, their protagonist has lost their main motivation and then what? They don’t want to lose their cash cow, so they stretch it out beyond all logic and patience.

These approaches are transparent. I think viewers can tell they’re being manipulated. To make it less obvious, you need multiple things going on at once, so that you can reach a conclusion on one thread, while still leaving other storylines open. Don’t be a tease. This works best with an ensemble cast. In Bones, for instance, we have the long-standing question of whether Bones and Booth will ever get into the sack (or having done so, ever will again), but we also have other on-and-off romances, people getting pregnant, a nemesis or three, the usual story extenders jumbled together.

Of course I prefer to see a novel story extender. There are only so many plots, but even so, TV is not a hotbed of inventiveness in this regard. The Closer is fairly creative; it’s one of our favorites. There we have the dilemma of whether Brenda’s parents will ever get to know about her engagement, ongoing political maneuvering within the department, the passive-aggressive maneuvering Brenda engages in as regards whether they will ever get a new house, the issue of the cat, occasional conflicts with IA… relationships develop, people change. The questions get resolved without being unduly stretched out. And it’s funny, in the way real people are funny. I would not smack these writers.

Then there’s the long arc strategy, where the show is intended from the start to have a definite ending. I have the most respect for this approach, pioneered splendidly by Babylon 5. It’s a long novel in series form, with a complicated plot leading to an actual conclusion, then the writers move on to their next interesting project. This is nice, though it might be hard to sell to TV executives. The TV approach is more generally to produce a lot of shows, see what sticks, and hang on to those as long as possible. The failure rate for new shows is high, and on average you get better returns from season 6 of something already somewhat popular (even if it’s dropped off a lot), than season 1 of a bold new idea which might be big but will much more likely flop. If only there were a better way to tell! Or if only the execs had more confidence that a quality series will eventually find an audience and make them money over time even if it’s not a huge hit initially.

What are some other techniques you’ve observed, or some other shows that are particularly good or bad examples of how to keep a story going?