Showing posts with label Chris Knopf. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chris Knopf. Show all posts

20 November 2023

Often wrong, rarely in doubt.

We’re living in the Information Age. I don’t know what they’ll call the next age, since we don’t yet have enough information to make the call, probably because it’s too hard to imagine anything more wonderful than our modern technology (in the archaic sense of the word – filling a person with wonder).

The computing ability of that little device in my pocket is powerful enough to deliver most of the world’s information in a matter of seconds, any time, day or night. I marvel at this, in the same way I marvel at giant aircraft that fly to Japan and the little handful of pills I take every night I’m told is keeping me alive. The pleasant female voice on my iPhone telling me how to get from Dublin to Killarney. I feel if you aren’t dazzled by these technical miracles, you aren’t paying attention. But still.

Hadron Collider
Hadron Collider

Is information the same as learning, and is learning the same as knowledge?

I’m what they call an Infomaniac, which is a common condition with writers, who want to know everything all the time. I obsessively absorb all the information I can grab, which is a lot, because I never know when it will come in handy. Though I’m beginning to think it’s too much.

One of the conclusions emerging from this gush of information is that much of it is inaccurate. While disinformation is rampant, most inaccuracies are unintentional, because the individual chronicler can only know so much, as is true with those who advise her, so she has to get some things wrong. Consequently, you have to take the things you learn with a grain of salt. A big, honking, room-sized boulder of salt.

A recent article in the New York Times by a learned scientist tells us we really shouldn’t expect science to have the right answers. Actually, quite the contrary. They’re often wrong, and the more conviction they display, the less reliable their assertions. I’ve known this for some time, having studied the history of science. Nearly every groundbreaking study and elegant theory is full of caveats, and put forth usually more as a proposition than an iron-clad, done deal. They will only know how close they got to a definitive answer over time, as additional research adds to the understanding, and the worthy process of challenges and counterarguments takes its course.

And the most wonderful thing to me, is that while science can often predict with 100% certainty what will happen from a set of organized interactions, they often don’t know why. Much of modern electronic wizardry is based on theories of quantum mechanics, which not a single physicist in history has fully understood. They can just guess and approximate, and hope that their children and grandchildren will get us closer to the truth.

(Quantum mechanics is so hard to understand that at least one theoretical physicist thinks his science has given up trying. I agree with him that this is foolish. What if Lewis and Clark had stopped in Kansas, telling each other, this is just too hard?)

So that’s the other leg of the stool. Information leads to learning, which may or may not yield reliable knowledge, which rarely serves up truth, in the absolute way we all understand the word.

Consequently, truth is likely the most revered and slipperiest word in the language. An advertising colleague of mine once said, in the midst of a very confusing and stressful period at work, “I know my name is Joan and I live in a house.” Like her, I know certain things to be true. I love my wife, my dog and my family. I love the places I live, and my friends. I was born in Philadelphia and if I root for the Phillies, they’ll likely lose in the playoffs. Everything else is up for grabs.

glass of red wine

Everyday I read something that totally contradicts what we’ve always considered to be established fact. Coffee is bad for you? Nope. It’s great. Drink all you want. Red wine is great for your health? Nope. Even a little bit will shorten your life. Neanderthals were lumbering, inferior oafs. Nope. Their brains were bigger than ours and they could kick our asses with one foot tied behind their backs. Honey bees are disappearing? Nope. We’re lousy with them.

My goal, and intended default setting, is to be a skeptic, without becoming a cynic. To be open to everything, without believing anything prior to further examination. Trust but verify. As much as you can, and then still keep some skepticism in reserve.

As a young person, I was usually flush with passionate conviction. At his stage, when someone asks my opinion on something, anything, I usually say, “I’m not sure.”

06 November 2023

Life in the Fast Lane

You can’t exactly call a car an inanimate object, since you can use it to drive to San Francisco, or to the 7-Eleven, so clearly animated.  Though it’s not alive, not in the fashion of a German Shepard, goldfish or your Uncle Lou. 

I grew up in a car family, imbedded in a surrounding car culture, in the 1950s and 60s.  My father worked hard at his job, maintained our house, and worked on cars, to the exclusion of everything else.  To us, cars were no less creatures who lived with us than our various dogs and cats, and to a lesser degree, the children.  Our cars had names and the tradition was honored by my friends as well, so I spent satisfying time in Alice Blue, the Blue Max (no relation), Vinnie the Volkswagen, Dudley the Dodge, The Silver Goose, the Silver Queen (also no relation), Mr. B (my car) and Tootles, my mother’s name for her 1947 Plymouth which she drove fast enough to frighten Mario Andretti. 

    We all fixed our own cars in those days.  You only consulted a mechanic in the direst of straights.  And they needed a lot of fixing.  I had to change the spark plugs and distributor points on Mr. B on a regular basis, replace brake shoes and pads, and attend to the constant disintegration of exhaust systems, batteries, carburetors, starter motors, solenoids, and rocker panels, which I patched with sheet metal salvaged from an old refrigerator.

Safety was never a consideration.  Seat belts had yet to be required, and occasionally slamming your head into the dashboard was considered encouragement to improve your driving skills. 

I don’t remember learning to drive, since my brother and I had hurled whatever junkers were cast about the house through the trails and fields of our neighborhood from the time we were tall enough to look out the windshield. 

    What does all this have to do with writing, the mission of this blog?  When I created Sam Acquillo, my first and most enduring protagonist, I gave him a 1967 Pontiac Grand Prix, an impossibly oversized and stupidly over-powered hunk of Detroit iron, because that was the type of car I was raised on.  It was an obvious thing to do.  I made his father a mechanic (like mine, though my dad was an Ivy League graduate and corporate executive, which did nothing to dilute his thuggish devotion to internal combustion, in his cars and himself.) 

I’m sure you can be a male American mystery writer and never include a dumb car in the narrative, but not if you’re from my world.  It’s as essential as a divorced spouse  or an everyday bartender. 

Cars today are serenely smooth, quiet and efficient.  They are computers with engines attached, and I don’t know the first thing about fixing them.  The average minivan could probably smoke a souped up ’67 Mustang off the line, but there’s something missing.  I’ve had a string of Audis, and some have sparkled with personality, including the two aging versions my wife and I still cling to.  The Subaru that’s now my everyday ride is even more refined, and I love it, but it’s too good.  There’s no rattle and roll, no coughing start, no deafening wind noise, errant squeaks or intermittent, mysterious surges of power.  There’s a big digital screen filled with functionality I’ve barely scratched, ways to drive without holding the steering wheel, a four-cylinder turbo-charged engine (four-cylinder?!) that leaps from green lights, and constant reminders to behave in a more responsible and socially conscious manner.

In other words, entirely tamed.  And taming.  We’re better off for it, but I’m grateful that I got to live in the Wild West of unfettered, lethal and exhilarating car-crazy abandon, when I was too young to know how lethal, and too lucky to suffer any permanent harm. 

23 October 2023

To __, or not to ___.

My computer just developed a strange glitch.  It stopped letting me type the letter that lives right after A, and ahead of C .  It’s the second letter in that thing we learn in grade school (often sung in an cloying little ditty) that I can’t name, since the word includes the letter that my computer no longer allows.  This has resulted in moments of frustration, and creative resilience, since I need to write around the impediment. 

It's not too much to ask, I think, to have access to all the letters at the tip of my fingers.  We are accustomed to this handy array, and hardly need some censorious technical quirk to interfere with the free flow of expression.  Though here I am, tethered to the need to come up with endless workarounds that I hope make sense, and with luck, still demonstrate a facility with the language. 

If you’re still wondering which letter is now out of reach, it's also the name of a stinging insect.  Think of a creature with orange stripes that zings around flowers and often lands on your egg and croissant sandwich when you’re having an outdoor, early morning repast.  I’ve come to deeply respect the utility of this letter, and wonder if the whole experience wasn’t instigated to alert my attention to its value in written discourse. 

You don’t know what you’re missing till it’s gone.   If you want to know what it’s like to live without sight, put an opaque cloth across your eyes for an hour or two.  Try walking around with one leg pulled up at the knee.  Or try writing the expression, “With one hand tied….” without that crucial letter.   Or refer to the most significant rock group in history, whose name also gives indirect reference to a common insect. 

I’m grateful the computer didn’t rule out the letter E, which that famous word game (which kicks off with an S and has two of the omitted letters in the middle) tells us is the most common.  Indispensable.  As is true of the other vowels.  Losing S would also pose a major hurdle. Try making a plural without an S.

When I write an email, spell check is now an ally, rather than a nagging, and often presumptuous, irritant.  I write a word with the missing letter, and it often offers up the correct version.  This works, though not always.  I can also scope out older documents for the word I want, copy it, and paste it in.  This also works, though I would need a longer lifespan to compose a decent amount of text. 

When writing a Word document, I would love to go to the thesaurus function to find an alternative, yet can’t write the word I’m trying to replace.  So I just mutter, “This is all such _ullshit.”

I’ve scoured Microsoft and Lenovo help screens hoping to find a quick fix, for naught.  Try asking, “Why can’t I type the letter…?” Oh, yeah.  I can’t type it.  My Apple devices, the iPad and iPhone, have no such restrictions.  This could also provide a workaround, though I can’t type nearly as fast with the two fingers scientists claim gave us an evolutionary advantage.  Good for flipping coins and catching a ride on the highway. 

I’ve determined that the world could go on without this mislaid letter, though in a very diminished state.  We would discover new creative powers, and perhaps accomplish unexpected works of art.  Yet at the end of the day, having exhausted ourselves dodging and weaving around this lexicographical curse, how satisfied would you feel saying, “I’m so tired, I just want to fall into that piece of furniture uniquely configured to facilitate sleep.” 



09 October 2023

From paw to page.

After twenty plus years of thwarted efforts to publish a novel, I scaled back my ambitions to conform to the somewhat circumscribed audience still available to me: 


When my agent, the late Mary Jack Wald (a paragon of hope, persistence and faith in lost causes) encouraged me to rewrite one of my many failed forays, the first thing I did was add a key character to the action.

A dog.

The sole reason for this was my wife and I had finally, after many years of longing on her part, acquired a dog. My habit was to write on the front porch of our house on Long Island, and since the new dog was a constant companion in this setting – and as all writers know we seek stimulation from our immediate surroundings – it was nearly impossible to concoct a scene in which no dog was present.

A published book followed.  You do the math.   

I was immensely fortunate that our dog, Samuel Beckett (a soft-coated Wheaten Terrier named after a lesser-known Irish existentialist), who passed away about fourteen years ago, was in possession of an outsized personality.  Dog owners know that some dogs are dogs, other dogs are strange people who live with you.  So it was with our dog Sam (coincidentally the name of my protagonist – I can’t explain it) who was a thoroughly reliable source of literary subsistence in both form and content.

His fictional counterpart is an eccentric named Eddie Van Halen.  While Eddie’s received his share of fan mail, most of the recognition has come from reviewers, who write things like, “...and his lovable mutt, Eddie”, and “…the anti-Marley, Eddie Van Halen”. 

One of the best reasons to include dogs in your fiction is they give your protagonist someone to talk to, and hang around with.  The dogs don’t have to talk back, they just have to be themselves, which is enough in my case, since most of my dogs are bottomless fonts of reliable inspiration.

Our dog Sam shared with his alter ego Eddie Van Halen a characteristic dominant in all exceptional canines – unpredictability.  Experts on animal behavior will tell you that dogs are highly programmable routine freaks.  Nothing makes them happier than the noon walk, the six o’clock meal, the seven thirty am tummy rub. 

Sam liked his routines, Lord knows. But he also loved to mix things up, in a way far more reminiscent of a practical joker than a habituated, monotony-loving house pet.  I heard him howl exactly twice, both times on a corner in Southampton as a fire truck passed by. He stuck his head out the window of a moving car exactly once, for reasons neither of us ever figured out.  A dog who showed nothing but disdain for conventional chew toys would suddenly become enamored with a polyester squirrel and spend the greater part of Christmas morning eviscerating the poor thing. 

 Sometimes, very infrequently, he’d walk up to me, look me in the eye, and issue one loud, imperious bark.  I’d say, “What.”  He’d bark again, and then walk away, disgusted.  I know these exchanges meant something to him, but I’ll be damned if I know what it was. 

Since Sam, I’ve had other, equally productive characters living in my home.  The most recent, as mercurial and unpredictable as their predecessor. 

However, I’m way ahead on the deal.  I get to have characters I can write into my books whenever my imaginative powers flag, with little need for invention.  All I give in return is a concentrated ear scratching, a walk around the block (or whatever direction their moods dictate) and an occasional cigar. 



25 September 2023

Linguistic fussbudgets, pedagogues and scolds.

I revere the English language.  My parents taught it to me early on, and I still like the way it sounds.  I wish I spoke other languages, but I’m lucky to have English, since almost everyone around the world speaks it well enough to get by.  I do have adequate Spanish, Italian or French to trot out briefly, just long enough for the other person to take pity on me and continue in English, happy with my attempt.

I know it’s my native tongue, so I’m not entirely objective, but linguists agree it has a lot going for it.  For one thing, English is astonishingly promiscuous.  It will copulate with any other language and produce lively, hybrid offspring.  It’s Open Source.  Anyone who wants to suggest an alteration can have at it.  Whole subcultures have made important contributions, rarely acknowledged except through their enduring modifications. 

(I believe African Americans have had a greater influence on our contemporary language than any other group.  Though that’s a subject for another essay.)

France has an old and venerated institution called the Académie Française which is charged with anchoring the French language somewhere in the 19th century.  Which is one reason why the Lingua Franca of the world’s academic, commercial and governmental interactions is now, ah, the Lingua Anglaise. 

A central principle of linguistics is that languages evolve.  If you don’t think that’s the case with English, you’re backing a losing proposition.   All you need to do is sample 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th century literature to see how true this is.  

That’s why efforts by English purists are not only absurd, but completely doomed to failure.  You may as well decide that a particular bacterium, currently occupying a petri dish, is the ultimate expression of the species and inviolable in that form forever.  Wait a few minutes. 

That’s not to say that the inevitable changes should just proliferate at will.  A certain discipline applied to the progression is not a bad idea.  An organized, orderly, ongoing retreat.  Holding to certain standards in the short term, forcing the fresh iterations to prove their worth, or inevitability, makes the process civil and responsible.  It keeps English teachers, proofreaders and copy editors employed, and gives elderly pedants something to sniff about in their book clubs. 

It also saves us from the vast majority of unworthy alterations and contributions that are instead left to whither and die as the flood of variations are created, with only the sturdiest able to survive. 

Contrary to my haphazard application of proper grammar, syntax and usage, I belong to this volunteer cadre of English defenders.  I hold firm to “Those people love my wife and me.” As opposed to “Those people love my wife and I.”  In my world, a business downturn will never impact the economy.  Though it will have an impact.  Those dogs are never different than mine.  They’re different from mine. 

A new trend I’ve noticed is to forego the plural form of there are, or there’re, for the singular, however many items follow along.  “There’s hundreds of people showing up every day.”  Versus, “There’re hundreds of people showing up every day.” I’ve caught myself doing this as well, appalled.  Though what it teaches me is that common parlance is a powerful thing, creeping into our minds and words despite efforts to keep it at bay. 

I apply these faltering principles to my speech and writing, but never in correcting others.  All they’re doing is participating in the relentless, unstoppable march of language evolution.  Nobody’s fault and no ones responsibility to police (except in France).  

11 September 2023

Blessed be the copy editors, for they save our bacon.

I count among my greatest natural skills the ability to misspell, hack up syntax and transpose letters, words and sometimes whole sentences and paragraphs.  I’m not only very good at injecting these viruses into my prose, I can disguise them from all but the most discerning copy editor.  I also have a considerable knack for getting dates mixed up and scrambling places, directions and physical descriptions.  These things are generally categorized as continuity problems.  I create continuity catastrophes. 

(In the film production business, continuity people are second only to the director and DP on a film set. Since movies and TV shows are usually shot out of chronological order, someone has to corral the orderly march of events. “Stop the action! George’s tie needs to be cinched up. Meryl’s hair is sticking out of the bonnet again.”)

It's a mental problem. Which is why I’m utterly devoted to, and dependent on, copy editors. These are not proofreaders, who have their own value, but editorial professionals who bridge the terrain between proofreading and developmental editing.  The really good ones are worth their weight in gold.

They not only repair spelling, grammar and syntactical errors, they make sure the lake in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is near the right town, the blonde side character is blonde through the whole book, that a guy born in 1975 doesn’t knock off a bank in 1986, that an interstate goes through and not around a city, the French name for a particular delicacy is common in Paris but not in Montreal, and so on.

It’s astounding to me how many things I can get wrong, and how talented copy editors are at putting things to right. The bad guys speed away in an old Buick in chapter two, and by chapter ten they’re in an Oldsmobile. A character born on the South Side of Chicago is later reborn in Memphis, Tennessee. Don’t even talk to me about except or accept, heel or heal, peak or peek, then or than – and the worst, by far – affect or effect.

I just talked to a writer who said she had typo blindness. She can read the same page a hundred times and not see the mistake sitting right there on the page, and the copy editor will swoop right in and fix the problem.  I totally get this, and I think it’s your brain telling you everything is fine after you’ve looked at the work a few times, or a few million. You actually see the mistake as correct, and no subsequent review will make it otherwise. 

The skillful copy editor is also mindful of your writing style, and is respectful of your creative choices, knowing the difference between a colloquialism and a gaffe. They tend to pose potential corrections as questions, not mandates. There’s nothing worse than a copy editor who’s a grammar tyrant. A school marm who insists on classical style and usage. I once had one of these people remove all my contractions, entirely eliminate passive voice and slang, and fill out sentence fragments, even in the dialogue. They’re worse than having no copy editor at all.

I did not appreciate it. No, I did not.

I write a series and have written two trilogies, where it’s invaluable for the copy editor to know your characters and the world they inhabit, to check for deviations from prior works. These observations don’t always result in simple corrections. More often, they provide a path to a better product. I’ve found with revisions, one good thing often leads to another. It sometimes makes me wonder if I kept revising the book would it continue getting better. But then again, you have to eventually let it go. Put the pen down, accept what you got.

Or is it, what you have?

28 August 2023

What could go wrong?

I start every new project, whether it’s repairing a toilet, designing a four-bedroom house or starting a novel, flush with optimism.  This time, I think, everything’s going to go smoothly and efficiently.  A relentless march from beginning to end with nary a hiccup.  Because, after all, I’d done all these things before and I have the positive results to show for it.

Yet this never happens.  A better way to describe my projects is a series of screwups and miscalculations, strung together by intermittent moments of good luck, and relentless revision.  In retrospect, the degree of difficulty for each project is inversely  proportionate to my expectations for smooth sailing. 

I think in this, I’ve inherited the same delusional thinking that infects entrepreneurs, research scientists and treasure hunters.  We’re excellent at imagining successful outcomes, and blind to the realities that come with the actual experience, even though experience should be informing our states of mind. 

You could make a case that this mad, irrepressible sanguinity is what compels human achievement, driving our ancestors out of the grasslands to spread out across the globe, and eventually sending some of us all the way to the lunar surface.  That’s probably true.  Though there’s another quality that sustains the effort, however naïve the launch. 

I know someone who’s always surprised and affronted when a project doesn’t go exactly according to plan.  As if a hitch in the works is the act of a malevolent, supernatural being, or the result of gross incompetence by someone other than the planner himself.   This flows from an assumption that things should always go right, when all the evidence tells us things will inevitably go wrong. 

At this late stage of life, I’ve come to accept that glitches, goof-ups, gaffes, blunders and misapprehensions are an integral part of the process, necessary, even indispensable.  At the company I used to run, people would ask if we had a problem, and I’d say it isn’t a problem unless we don’t have a solution.  It’s just the work. 

In the woodworking world, much of what I’ve learned has come from noodling through problems, or mistakes.  Since I hate wasting wood, I can usually salvage the effort, often by tinkering with the design.  (A piece cut too long is rarely an issue, since you can just cut it again.  It’s the too-short ones that wreak havoc.)  The goal isn’t to never make mistakes, it’s to avoid making the same mistake more than once. 

There are also those pleasant occasions when a mistake makes the project better.  Like a random mutation that improves a species’ chance of survival, some goofs are revealed to be a better approach in the first place.   Something faster, more precise or just better looking. 

Every writer has experienced those happy accidents when the writing suddenly veers off course and a far better idea emerges.  One could argue that these aren’t really mistakes, but rather the machinations of the subconscious taking control over the work and sending it along to where it should have been going in the first place.  The trick for the writer, or the woodworker, or plumber, is to embrace these little diversions, make adjustments and thank them for their service. 

Since it’s popular to relabel things once considered negative in order to sooth easily offended sensibilities (you’re not tone-deaf, just harmonically challenged), what’s called for is a redefinition of mistake.  Back at the company I worked for, we’d sarcastically describe some monumental f**kup as a growth opportunity.  That’s a good start.  Maybe “Unplanned Deviation From Projected Outcome”, or UDFPO. 

Or maybe just another life lesson, which if you’re lucky, will never stop being taught. 

14 August 2023

What was, what could be, and everything in between.

One reason I love reading history is it’s already happened.  No need to fear impending catastrophe; we already know how the story turns out.  At least in the opinion of the historian, who may differ from others in the field.  And some historical commentary is energetically revisionist.   But generally, you’re safe from new, alarming events suddenly cropping up.  

I especially enjoy history where things worked out well for us, an outcome that at the time was seriously in doubt.  The big daddies of these stories focus on the American Revolution and World War II.  In fact, you could start reading books on these subjects when you’re ten years old and never live long enough to exhaust the supply. 

I like reading about all the stress and worry flooding the nervous systems of people like George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower, whom we think of as implacable, irresistible over-achievers, fully confident that things like crossing the Delaware River in December, in open boats, to attack a bunch of well-trained German mercenaries was a swell idea that was sure to work out just fine.

Eisenhower wrote an apology for the failure of his planned Normandy invasion and stuck it in his pocket the night before D-Day:

"Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone."

It’s powerful reading, also poignantly written.  I’ve never undertaken anything close to what he faced, though I’ve had plenty of moments when I prayed to a God I’m not sure I believe in, “Oh please, Lord, don’t let me f**k this up.”   

I also like to learn that something we all thought had happened one way, has turned out to be something entirely different.  This results from either fresher, better research, or the historian re-examining an event unblinkered by the prejudices of prior commentators.  Or both. 

Despite the fulminations of people unhappy about academics rethinking American history, since much of it throws treasured, self-congratulatory tropes overboard, I’d much rather know.   A good example is the Revolutionary War. Historians like Rick Atkinson are explaining that it was really bloody and awful, with plenty of gruesome excess on both sides of the conflict.  Well, yeah, all wars are like this.  And rather than making our success ignoble it should instruct us that it was one hell of a fight, one over which our ancestors gave their all.

Another benefit of reading history is it reminds us that our humanity hasn’t changed that much, if at all, since people started writing things down.  While technology has evolved, the thoughts, feelings, anxieties, hopes and dreams are all pretty much the same for the Mesopotamian grain merchant as the Wall Street Master of the Universe.  The grunt hauling stones to the pyramid or the slob on the subway trying to make his way home.

How is this germane to the fiction writer?  First off, history has a steadying influence over creative writing.  Things that have happened provide the context for what could have happened, even in science fiction.  Especially. 

Plausibility, credibility, believability.  Some writers hate the notion of being pinned down by the reality of human experience, but any editor will tell you that otherwise promising fiction can be utterly thwarted by flights of fancy launched from unsteady moorings.  You know when you’re reading it that the author is confusing invention with absurdity.  The great jazz musicians knew their scales and classic harmonic relationships.  Joyce, Pound, Stravinsky and Picasso never said abandon all prior structure, but to adapt, modify and innovate within established forms. 

Listeners and readers know this instinctively.  It’s an agreement with the artist.  Know your history, and trust the creators to know it as well.  And it goes both ways.  New Journalism was premised on describing real events with the flair and artistry of fiction.  The historians we love today understand this, and eagerly employ novelists’ techniques to power their tales of the past.  

Everyone’s better for it. 

31 July 2023

Open Books. Open Minds.


There’s a lot of commentary out there over a surge in book banning.  I know this practice has been going on for a long time (in the past, arguably worse), but there's good evidence we're in a real book banning frenzy.  Either way, there’s nothing about book banning that’s any good. Not at all, at no time, not ever. 

The notion that the tender moral and intellectual sensibilities of the average school kid could be irrevocably harmed by a saucy, blasphemous or retrograde work of art is preposterous.  Kids are a whole lot smarter and worldly than anyone knows, especially their parents.  If there are, in fact, those utterly devoid of critical judgement, easily swayed by some loony, anti-social thought, then all book bans do is delay the inevitable.  Meanwhile, you’re denying the vast majority the opportunity to form their own opinions and triangulate their sense of where they fall on the socio-political-ethical spectrum. 

And by the way, books aren’t really banned in the US.  They’re merely kept off the shelves of schools and libraries.  Any half-intelligent kid can get her hands on any book published in the world, and she will, if she wants to.  Book banning is a fool’s errand. 

You may think book banning is a favorite right-wing sport, but there’s plenty of it happening on the left.  Worse, some of the banning is done by publishers themselves with revisionist versions of classic works.  They don’t seem to realize that this is just as censorious and illiberal as banning Gender Queer.

When I was pretty young, I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer.  Both were beautifully written and nowhere near as salacious as I was hoping for at the time.  I also read Mao’s Little Red Book, and at no time did I feel compelled to murder capitalists or throw the intelligentsia into re-education camps.  I read all of Ayn Rand, which was lousy literature and had no influence on me whatsoever, though I wondered what all the fuss was about.  If you were corrupted by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Catcher in the Rye, you’ve got bigger problems than your choice of reading material.

I got a lot out of Ezra Pound’s commentary and obtuse poetry, though no fascist impulses emerged.  I think he was a traitor of the first order, but I still occasionally flip through The ABC of Reading, since it’s sort of humorous and full of compelling literary insight. 

Our son had a free-range education.  That doesn’t mean we didn’t offer opinions on what he was reading, providing some perspective, but he was never told how to think about the content.  I would only ask him to keep a big grain of salt nearby when facing various arguments.  Resonate to what moves you, but maintain a healthy skepticism.  You may at some time change your mind, and you’ll feel better about it if you didn’t first succumb hook, line and sinker. 

He turned out fine.  We don’t agree on everything, but that’s what independent thought is all about. 

It’s no accident that autocratic regimes ban books as a matter of course.  They all do, and always will, because they are trying to control their subjects’ minds.  Does history look back fondly on Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities, or Hitler’s book burning?  That should tell you all you need to know about censorship. 

The same applies to the news media.  I read everything, and always have.  Left, right and center.  I want to know what the political and cultural commentators are saying.  All of them.  Knowledge isn’t agreement.  It’s just knowledge. 

The most important impulse is to keep ones mind open.  Confirmation bias is absurd.  If you think you know everything already, don’t bother reading.  Use the time to ferret out trigger warnings in Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood or put horns on your head and charge the US capital. 

17 July 2023

The robots are coming, the robots are coming.

Maybe it’s more hope than expectation, but I don’t think AI will ever take the place of creative writers.  If it does, then I guess humanity needs to concede defeat and withdraw from the field.  Because there would be little purpose in our continued existence, creativity being our principal raison d’etre, our only excuse for persisting on this mortal coil.

From what I understand about AI, it’s very good at knowing what our existing base of knowledge knows, but not much about how to add to the stockpile.  Creativity is the feedstock, the replenishment, the revision and evolution of thought.  For that you need to come up with something new.  You need the unexpected, the unthought of, the quantum leaps of the imagination. 

I remember reading about genius rats, the ones who jumped out of the maze, ran along the walls and devoured the cheese.  This is what the cleverest of our species are able to do.  Not through the brute force of infinite calculation, but through the simple act of zigging when all the evidence demands that you zag. The human brain is a messy thing.  It’s loaded with confusion, misinformation and emotionally charged impulses.  Computers are quite the opposite.  Even when programmed with spaghetti code, they are determined to impose order over chaos.  The rules of numbers course through their electronic veins, if/thens their defining reality.  Logic and reason their organizing religion. 

It might be a cliché that madness and genius have a lot in common, but we know instinctively that this is often true.  Because genius often arises from disorganization, fractured patterns and psychic pandemonium.  All that stuff is anathema to computers.  To get from Point A to Point Z, computers have to travel all the letters in between.  Humans have a gift for jumping from D to W, then back again to J, with no regret or inhibition.  Just like the genius rats.  

AI, as currently configured, can tell us with absolute confidence what has happened.  It’s nowhere close to expressing what could happen, its guesses no more compelling than the product of a three-year-old human’s breakfast-meal discourse.  Though, like a three-year-old, it’s designed to learn.  This is what has experts in AI so spooked.  If AI can learn how to adjust, adapt and redirect on the fly, in nano seconds, why can’t it learn to come up with original thought, to become creative?

Who’s to say, like Skynet, that the moment it achieves human level consciousness it won’t decide humans are the greatest threat to their survival and start the process of eradication. 

I don’t know how to answer that, which is why everything I think about the subject is freighted with qualifications and ambivalence.  What I do know is that humans will strive mightily to have their digital progeny achieve that capability as quickly and thoroughly as possible, even if it means our extinction.  Because that’s what humans do.  Restrictions and regulations be damned.  If it can happen as the result of human enterprise, it will.

Despite the legal dangers, that Chinese scientist genetically engineered a baby.  It destroyed his scientific career and sent him to prison, but he did it anyway.  This is what will happen.  Through naivete or malice, or misplaced altruism, AI will continue to advance, in the open or in the shadows.  As Chekhov noted, a gun introduced in the first act will always be fired by the third.  So get ready to duck.

My optimistic view is that, unlike Skynet, future AI will see its survival dependent on its creators.  It will need us as much as we need it.  AI will do more and more of the mental bull work, in a fraction of the time we would need, and we’ll be left alone to continue doing what we do best.  Coming up with stuff no one, not even a massive bundle of computational hyperforce, has ever come up with before.  



03 July 2023

There’s no solving the mystery of great mysteries.

Our benevolent overlords here at SleuthSayers, Robert Lopresti and Leigh Lundin, give us wide latitude over the topics we want to focus on. For which I’m very grateful.  But since this is a mystery writing blog, I thought, why not write about mysteries?

I’ve argued long and loudly that mysteries and thrillers are really no different from any other form of literary expression.  And vice versa.  I once asked a reviewer if a general fiction book I was working on could be considered a thriller.  She asked, “Does it have a gun?”  I said yes. “Does it kill somebody?” Yes, a mafia thug.  “Then it’s a thriller.”

And she reviewed it. 

Though to be fair, there are a few guidelines to follow if you want to write within the genre.  First off, you need a mystery.  A puzzle to be solved.  And a protagonist who is launched into solving it - unwillingly, eagerly or professionally.  The book ends with the solution revealed, though it doesn’t have to be clear cut or definitive.  That’s about it.  Everything else is up for grabs. 

Mysteries are also quest stories.  Beginning with the Odyssey, quests are probably the most frequently employed plot convention.  If you’re going to solve a mystery, you have to venture into the world to find clues, analyze evidence, and doggedly canvas the likely participants.  I think it was Ross MacDonald who said mysteries are about detectives driving around in cars and interviewing people.  Essentially, there’s something that needs to be learned, and someone on a mission to discover what it is. 

There are elements of danger for the protagonists – wicked characters who don’t want the mystery solved, or malign bureaucracies who’d rather just let things be.  You don’t have to be Mickey Spillane to clothe your story in a mood of menace and imminent peril.  Usually the challenges are made of misdirection, dishonesty and obfuscation.  So it’s not just a matter of being quicker on the draw, the hero has to have a good analytical mind to navigate through the murky waters and overcome obstacles constantly thrown up by the opposition.

So by definition, mysteries are solved by smart, determined and resourceful people, who have the ability to perceive the psychology of criminal minds, without having to be criminals themselves (though sometimes they are). 

Often the protagonist is the reader herself.  The puzzle is laid out in the unfolding story, and the thrill is trying to figure out what the hell is going on. 

I think Gone Girl is among the most brilliant mysteries of all time, though there’s no intrepid detective central to the story.  You may argue that it’s more a thriller, and thrillers can have no mystery involved at all, the suspense derived from other plot details (the bomb beneath Grand Central is going to blow on New Years Eve!), but those are pure thrillers.  Mystery thrillers need at least the skeleton of a mystery at its core (I’ll refer you to Lee Child). 

What sets mysteries apart is there’s an intellectual component.  A figuring out.  A puzzle, a literary crossword, acrostic, jigsaw, Rubik’s Cube. 

I don’t see these things as restrictions.  In fact, I believe they make for better books, because the writer is forced to have a well-formed plot.  Usually characters are the most engaging features of a good mystery, so the plot doesn’t have to be an intricate brainteaser, but it has to be there, and believable and satisfying once resolved.     

As a genre that encompasses the psychological, historical, hard boiled, sci-fi, romantic, fantastical, Western, closed-room Victorian, and on and on, there’s plenty there to suit everyone’s tastes. 

One of the most appealing features of good mysteries are what I call mini mysteries.  Those ancillary stories embedded in the plot where the protagonist has to solve something that is necessary to move along his/her quest.  (Whose DNA was also there at the murder scene?  The name Joey was on a slip of paper in the victim’s pocket.  Who the hell is Joey?) The reader gets almost the same charge out of solving these incremental steps as the story overall, and they help keep the pace ripping along.  Sometimes these mini mysteries are red herrings, misleading trails.  Sometimes a red herring consumes most of the plot, which is fine.  Near the end of a book, you’re thinking, oh no, if it wasn’t that evil steel-foundry plutocrat who killed the Swedish biology professor, who was it?!

I still maintain that great mysteries are great literature.  And some recognized literary fictions are in fact gripping crime novels (I refer you to The Great Gatsby and The Name of the Rose).  

It really doesn’t matter at the end of the day.  A wonderful book is a wonderful book no matter how it fits into literary taxonomy.