I’ve seen exhortations to think like Leonardo da Vinci or Albert Einstein, but these leave me cold. I can’t imagine thinking like either of these men. But here are a few famous people I could imagine emulating when trying to solve a problem
What would Donald Knuth do? Do a depth-first search on all technologies that might be relevant, and write a series of large, beautiful, well-written books about it all.
What would Alexander Grothendieck do? Develop a new field of mathematics that solves the problem as a trivial special case.
What would Richard Stallman do? Create a text editor so powerful that, although it doesn’t solve your problem, it does allow you to solve your problem by writing a macro and a few lines of Lisp.
What would Larry Wall do? Bang randomly on the keyboard and save the results to a file. Then write a language in which the file is a program that solves your problem.
What would you add to the list?
How would you create a table of trig functions without calculators or calculus?
It’s not too hard to create a table of sines at multiples of 3°. You can use the sum-angle formula for sines
sin(α+β) = sin α cos β + sin β cos α.
to bootstrap your way from known values to other values. Elementary geometry gives you the sines of 45° and 30°, and the sum-angle formula will then give you the sine of 75°. From Euclid’s construction of a 5-pointed star you can find the sine of 72°. Then you can use the sum-angle formula to find the sine of 3° from the sines of 75° and 72°. Ptolemy figured this out in the 2nd century AD.
But if you want a table of trig values at every degree, you need to find the sine of 1°. If you had that, you could bootstrap your way to every other integer number of degrees. Ptolemy had an approximate solution to this problem, but it wasn’t very accurate or elegant.
The Persian astronomer Jamshīd al-Kāshī had a remarkably clever solution to the problem of finding the sine of 1°. Using the sum-angle formula you can find that
sin 3θ = 3 sin θ – 4 sin3 θ.
Setting θ = 1° gives you a cubic equation for the unknown value of sin 1° involving the known value of sin 3°. However, the cubic formula wasn’t discovered until over a century after al-Kāshī. Instead, he used a numerical algorithm more widely useful than the cubic formula: finding a fixed point of an iteration!
Define f(x) = (sin 3° + 4x3)/3. Then sin 1° is a fixed point of f. Start with an approximate value for sin 1° — a natural choice would be (sin 3°)/3 — and iterate. Al-Kāshī used this procedure to compute sin 1° to 16 decimal places.
Here’s a little Python code to play with this algorithm.
from numpy import sin, deg2rad sin3deg = sin(deg2rad(3)) def f(x): return (sin3deg + 4*x**3)/3 x = sin3deg/3 for i in range(4): x = f(x) print(x)
This shows that after only three iterations the method has converged to floating point precision, which coincidentally is about 16 decimal places, the same as al-Kāshī’s calculation.
Back in 2005, the Directorate of Land Strategic Concepts of National Defense Canada (that is to say, the army) hired me to write a short novel, which they named Crisis in Zefra, about future peacekeeping and the evolution of the military in the 21st century. Zefra did very well; you can learn more about it elsewhere on my site. In 2010, they commissioned a second project.
Crisis in Urlia is now published. You can read it online for free or download the PDF. Where Zefra concentrated on military evolution on the squad level, Urlia is about command-and-control, and includes a vision of a crowdsourced military that some might find downright shocking, as well as side forays into online nations and religions, post-agricultural food supplies, and 3d printed buildings.
These works view the future through a particular lens (that of the military) but include as broad (practically epic, in fact) synopsis as I could craft of all the changes facing humanity and our environment over the next thirty years or so. In terms of the rigour that went into them, they're probably my best science fiction.
|A-DU • *307+*307 (women?) •
VIR (people) • DA-RI-DA
|KI (=KI-RO?) • KI-RA-JA •
NASA is looking for creative yet practical ideas to find a dual purpose for Balance mass (“dead weight”) that is jettisoned from Mars landers like the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) to balance the spacecraft during entry and landing. Payloads replacing Balance mass should perform some type of scientific or technological function adding to our knowledge base while closely matching the volume and weight characteristics of the original Balance mass. Ideas are welcomed from all disciplines.
This Challenge requires only a written proposal.
Challenge Reward: $20,000 USD Deadline: Nov 21, 2014
The ballast on NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory entry-descent-landing (MEDLI) system is very important for science in that, without it, the spacecraft wouldn’t be able to put robots and other heavy objects safely on the surface of another planet. However, it’s not actually very useful to science in that it’s a bunch of extra weight on a spacecraft that could be better used for scientific equipment. That’s where you and your brilliant idea come in.
The MEDLI ejects about 330 pounds of mass before entering Mars’ atmosphere and another 330 pounds during its in-atmosphere descent to shift the craft’s center of balance and make a safe landing as it did with the Curiosity rover. In the future, NASA wants to make sure that mass is pulling its own weight in the science department, so they’re offering $20,000 to the person who comes up with the best idea for science experiments that could be carried out with the ejected mass.
The best part is you don’t even have to be able to carry out your plan. All they’re asking for is a written proposal of your idea with diagrams where applicable, and tons of people have already answered the call. Here’s what they’re looking for as written on the contest page on InnoCentive:
NASA is looking for creative yet practical ideas to find a dual purpose for Balance mass (“dead weight”) that is jettisoned from Mars landers like the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) to balance the spacecraft during entry and landing. Payloads replacing Balance mass should perform some type of scientific or technological function adding to our knowledge base while closely matching the volume and weight characteristics of the original Balance mass. Ideas are welcomed from all disciplines.
You’ve got until November 21 to submit your plan, so go ahead and check out the details on NASA’s new “Solve” website for crowdsourcing solutions to problems in space travel, and then get cracking.
Previously in life on Mars
A while back, I was talking to an Earnest Young Writer, who informed me with great intensity that the story she was writing had a Theme, and that she couldn’t do anything about certain objections she was getting from her beta readers because that would destroy what she was trying to say. More specifically, she had several plot twists planned out that didn’t take things in the direction her beta readers thought the story was going…and when she told the beta readers this, they universally informed her that what she had planned would not work and that she had to send things in the direction they were expecting. One went so far as to tell her to “toss out your theme and let the characters do what they want,” which was, of course, what the beta-reader was sure they wanted. The writer was quite rightly indignant at being told she had to write her story their way, and wanted my opinion.
What I really wanted to do was tell her that both sides were right. Or wrong, depending on which angle you were looking from.
The writer was, as I said, perfectly right in her basic objection to being told what to write (the plot twists the beta readers expected) and how to write it (“set your characters free!”). She wasn’t starting with characters or an action plot and letting the theme develop out of whatever actions they took, which is how a lot of writers do it. That’s not how she works (at least, it’s not how she worked on this particular story). She started with a specific goal for the story – a theme, something she wanted the story to say. She was also correct to say that the plot twist the beta readers expected/wanted would have ruined the story she wanted to tell
Where she was wrong was in her assertion that she could not do anything about the objections of her beta readers, and should therefore ignore those objections completely.
The beta readers were wrong to say that the writer’s proposed plot twists could not work and would have to be changed. They were monumentally wrong in trying to force the writer to write the story they were expecting, instead of the one that she wanted to write.
But the beta readers were absolutely correct to say that there was a problem, and that as things stood, the writer’s proposed plot twists would not work. They were probably even right about the characters as presented not wanting to do the things the writer insisted they were going to do.
The real problem was that the writer was so focused on her Theme that she wasn’t paying enough attention to the believability of the story she was telling. It was as if she had decided to tell a story about the terrible effects bullying has on its victims, and cast The Terminator as the hapless victim. Of course her beta-readers were expecting a story about the bullies choosing the wrong guy (so very wrong) to pick on! And of course they were disappointed and disbelieving when she said that no, she was telling a story about how bullying can destroy even the strongest personality! She’d set her victim up as so strong that none of them believed she could pull off the changes in his personality that her theme demanded.
This doesn’t mean she couldn’t pull it off, though; it merely means that her readers didn’t believe it based on what they’d seen so far, which meant she needed to put a lot of work into making the story convincing – work she was determined not to even think about, partly because her betas had been so adamant in telling her she couldn’t do what she intended.
But starting with a theme, a specific agenda, or a moral point to make, means that the writer has to spend more time, energy, and attention on the characters and plot, because in order for the theme to work, the characters and plot have to be believable and convincing. Everything has to work together at least as smoothly as it does in stories where the theme grows naturally out of the actions and reactions of the characters and plot. If the writer does it effectively, there is no way the readers will be able to tell that the theme didn’t grow organically.
The other thing this particular write forgot to pay attention to is the power of tropes. There are a whole lot of story conventions and tropes that we are used to seeing over and over in stories. They work a bit like a subliminal sound track – when the music gets ominous, we know someone is sneaking up on the hero; when the bullies decide to pick on The Terminator, we anticipate their complete humiliation. A story-teller who wants to subvert these reader expectations has to work harder than a writer who is playing along with them, because the subversive writer needs to do more than convince the readers that these characters would do X. They have to convince readers that the characters really would do X instead of the Y that everyone is expecting them to do.
If the characters are selected and developed carefully, the readers’ expectations can work in the writer’s favor. If the reader is expecting the characters to do Y because Y is a familiar trope under these circumstances, but the characters just don’t seem like the sort of folks who would do Y, it sets up a certain tension, and then when they actually get to the point and do X instead, the reader gets a double tension release. There will always be a few who don’t like anything that doesn’t fit their preconceived notions of what must happen, and all one can do about them is ignore them. When all one’s beta-readers are complaining about the same thing, however, it behooves the writer to pay attention – not necessarily to their specific suggestions (“Do Y! We expect you to do Y!”), but to setting up the plot and characters so that when X happens, those same readers will believe and accept it even though they were expecting Y.
Jennifer Lawrence isn’t the only game in town when it comes to genetic mutants who can change their shape to copy whomever they want (I mean X-Men JLaw, not IRL JLaw, probably). A new South American plant has been discovered with all of Mystique’s shape-changey powers, and it’s pretty rad.
A woody vine called Boquila trifoliolata, native to Chile and Argentina, has demonstrated a skill called “mimetic polymorphism,” which definitely makes it sound like an X-Man. An ability previously only observed in butterflies, it essentially means that B. trifoliolata can imitate several different host plants after getting all vine-y up in their business.
B. trifoliolata actually transforms its leaves to match those of its host plant – their leaves change shape, color, size, orientation, and vein patters to match the foliage around it. As soon as the vine hits another plant, boom, those leaves get different – up to ten times the size as other leaves on the vine. Like if Mystique were to suddenly become the Hulk.
The polymorphism is meant to serve as a defence against bugs that think plants are delicious, like weevils and leaf beetles – with anywhere from a 33% to 100% success rate. Researchers have pretty much no idea how the plant does what it does, but I hope they harness it soon. I personally would like to look just a little bit more like JLaw.
Meanwhile in related links
The portrayal of female characters in video games has a checkered past—and present. Too often women are depicted as sex objects, without depth or agency. Even characters supposedly designed to avoid this problem tend to fall victim to it. For these and other reasons, the industry’s reputation for misogyny is well deserved. The spacefaring bounty hunter Samus Aran, from Nintendo’s Metroid series, is a unique case. Aside from her controversial appearance in 2010’s Metroid: Other M, she regularly is cited as a strong, engaging character who subverts the sexist norm. But is this true?
To determine whether Samus is a feminist landmark, it is necessary to examine her history, the culture that birthed her and the storylines in which she has appeared. In the mid-1980s, an idea came to the developers of the original Metroid, an action platformer for the NES. The game’s protagonist was a sexless space marine, totally obscured beneath a powered exoskeleton. “Hey, wouldn’t that be kind of cool,” one team member said, “if it turned out that this person inside the suit was a woman?” Particularly in the ’80s, video games rarely featured female characters in leading roles. The Metroid team played on the assumption that the protagonist would be male; and the result was Samus.
What began as an interesting subversion quickly developed into something more. Metroid II: Return of Samus (1991) and Super Metroid (1994) turned Samus into a real character. In Metroid II, she sets out to destroy the remnants of the lethal Metroid species—only to save the final hatchling, in a touchingly warped maternal moment. Her relationship with this hatchling grew, in tragic ways, with Super Metroid. Samus went through these events mostly in silence; but, when her speaking role was expanded in Metroid Fusion (2002), she was revealed to be an introspective and intelligent character. Yet, in each of these games, the player may unlock a win screen on which Samus appears without her armor, in skimpy clothing. An awkward disparity opens up in Samus’s portrayal.
Inexplicably, this hardened killer has a bikini body: scarless, thin, toned but not intimidatingly muscular. And the player views this body, sans the armor that makes it deadly, as a “reward”. Thus the player switches from sharing agency with Samus to viewing her as a passive object—from being her to watching her, as with Lara Croft in 2013’s Tomb Raider. Samus’s value as a person fades: instead there arises an adolescent male fixation on her sexual difference. Some might claim that Samus’s “reward” outfits are themselves expressions of confident agency. But these screens contradict her reserved personality; and their status as rewards gives them a gratuitous, voyeuristic hue.
Twelve years have passed since Fusion, and the first-person Metroid Prime trilogy (2002-2007) changed Samus in dramatic ways. In Prime, Samus largely became a Gordon Freeman character, a silent cipher for the player. The character-driven storytelling that Metroid had been building toward was replaced by environmental storytelling. Even the voyeuristic win screens were toned down. Other M's version of Samus, though, was talkative and emotional. To those unfamiliar with the trajectory of Metroid before Prime, this seemed like a betrayal of Samus’s character; but really it was a return to tradition.
This misunderstanding helped to create the popular belief that Other M was sexist. The stoic hero of Prime was transformed into a thoughtful character with a strong attachment to her superior officer, Adam. When Japanese games are localized in English, their male characters—like Squall from Final Fantasy VIII or Emil from Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World—are sometimes characterized as “weak”, “sissy” or “emo” by American critics. These characters, like Samus, have vulnerabilities and emotional lives: commonly gender-neutral traits for Japanese characters, which are stigmatized as “effeminate” in America.
To Americans, Samus in Other M appeared to be a cringing sycophant, who could not act without Adam’s—a man’s—approval. She kept her suit’s powers locked until Adam permissed otherwise, no matter how dire the circumstances. But the intricacies of Japanese class culture are often missed by Americans. Superiors, particularly in military scenarios, can receive an almost romantic devotion from their underlings—even and especially when both are men. In Japanese video games, one may find this relationship between characters like Brenner and Will from Advance Wars: Days of Ruin or Snake and The Boss from Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. The interactions between Samus and Adam originate not in misogyny but in a custom of respect.
Well-made characters are specific; not general. They have particular stories and particular personalities. Even when they fill archetypical roles, they are never interchangeable. One is forced to encounter them as people, rather than as stereotypes or as ideological tools. In the fourth episode of Bravest Warriors, the protagonists are listed jokingly (and only somewhat accurately) by type: “the cool one”, “the funny one” and “the girl”. A definitive archetype like “the funny one” can be the foundation for an interesting character, but a role as amorphous as “the girl”—or “the guy”, “the Asian” or similar—is problematic at best.
Creating a general character who “represents” a particular demographic, even with the intention of empowering that demographic, is a dangerous business. It hinges on the colonialist idea that one person can stand in for an entire group. Preferable are specific characters who, in their own particular way, happen to embody traits or to have experiences that are relatable to real individuals. Samus certainly is not the ideal “strong female character” that many feminists demand. But, better than that, she is a great character—one with her own complex, fascinating and particular story.
Indeed, Samus has never been a good poster child for feminist empowerment. For most of her history, she has had problems with objectification. And her story—with the Metroid hatchling, Adam and the rest—has long been too specific to give her ideological clout. However, to a feminism truly concerned with the representation of women, one interesting and particular character is more valuable than a million general (“the girl”) characters. Aside from her voyeuristic hiccups, Samus is revolutionary because she is a good character who happens to be a woman. If more video game writers had the nerve to follow this example, the industry’s misogyny would be a thing of the past.
Still Eating Oranges
You’ve probably heard about the crisis of replication in psychology. The problem is that replication is an unglamorous business; researchers would much rather do the sexier work of pushing forward knowledge with new results.
So we need to make replications more glamorous.
I propose a reality TV show, Replication Lab!, where every week they try to replicate one of the most famous experiments from the past few years.
It starts with the host explaining the experiment, maybe an interview with a very distinguished elderly professor who talks about how confident he is that his results will hold up. The techs chat with each other as they construct the experimental setup about how they’re doing and how their date last night went and how they’re going to avoid the problems that confounded the original study.
Suspense builds as we see the participants come in. Some human interest stories. He agreed to participate because they offered $30, which he’s going to use to buy a present that will win back his estranged daughter’s love. She joined because she’s right on the border of failing her psych class and needs the extra credit to save her dream of becoming the first person in her family to graduate college.
The experiment itself. The suspense is unbearable. We get a running commentary as everything proceeds. Oh man, look how harsh that guy is being on his Milgram Obedience Experiment, can you believe he would do that? That girl in the control condition seems to be running through her Stroop task at lightning speed – how do you think that’s going to affect our results, kindly-looking bearded scientist attached to the show?
After a tension-building commercial break, we get the results. Everyone is huddled around a computer as the statistician makes the final mouse click, and…oh no, p = .30! Total failure to replicate!
The scene cuts to the distinguished elderly professor’s face as he sees his great discovery going down the toilet. “How do you feel right now?” asks the host, and the professor sputters “I…I’m sure time will vindicate me! I know it!” and then he runs off the set, crying. Our host turns to the kindly-looking bearded scientist attached to the show. “Tell me the truth,” she says “Do you think Dr. Zuckerman’s career is ruined?” “I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be,” says the bearded scientist, shaking his head sadly.
I feel like Mythbusters has probably pretty much exhausted our cultural stock of urban legends by now and could be profitably recruited for this project. I would also accept “Welcome to Replication Lab! With your host, John Ioannidis!”
"And sitting on a bed that had no blankets, because they’re taken away during the day, in this cold cell sat a very young boy, and that boy was chained to the floor and handcuffed. And in all the many years that I’ve gone to Guantanamo Bay, as I’ve sat facing that young boy and watched him grow up into manhood, I never, ever saw him walk, other than going into the so-called trial. He was always, always shackled to the floor."
Omar Khadr's lawyer Dennis Edney spoke at a Lawyers Rights Watch event in Vancouver in December (The Omar Khadr Case: A Reality Check), and excerpts were recently aired on Canadian Redeye Coop radio. Podcast here, and transcript below the fold.
(P.S. Happy Presidents Day - aka "the asshole in charge of shredding our Constitution," h/t Marcy Wheeler.)
Something interesting happens when you run more than 1,000 servers, as we do at WP Engine.
Suppose I told you that on average our servers experience one fatal failure every three years. The kernel panics (the Linux equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death), or both the main and redundant power supply fails, or some other rare event that causes outage. Does that sound like a bad batting average?
Think about the laptops and desktops you’ve owned. Some last longer than others, but it’s probably something like 2-4 years before the OS locks up or a battery can’t hold a charge anymore. Now consider your laptop is idle the vast majority of the time, whereas our servers are getting pounded multiple times per second, 24/7. Even in the wee hours of American timezones when our pan-company traffic dips to its nadir, we’re running malware scanners, off-site backups, and other maintenance.
So, even if our servers are more hardy than your MacBook Pro, they’re taking 100x the beating, so one failure every three years seems pretty reasonable.
Windows NT crashed.
I am the Blue Screen of Death.
No one hears your screams.
–Haiku from FSF
But remember, we have 1,000 servers. Three years is about 1,000 days. So that means, on average, every single day we have a fatal server error.
Not to mention 10 minor incidents with degraded performance, or a DDoS attack somewhere in the data center affecting our network traffic, or some other thing that sets pagers a-buzzing in our Tech Ops team and mobilizes our Customer Support team to notify and help customers.
“Well sure,” you say, “that’s normal as you grow. If you had just 10 servers and 100 customers, you’d have much fewer problems and many fewer employees. Today you have more customers, more servers, and more employees. What’s so hard about that?”
The insight is that that scale causes rare events to become common. Things happen with 2000 servers that you literally never once saw with 50 servers, and things which used to happen once in a blue moon, where a shrug and a manual reboot every six months was in fact an appropriate “process,” now happen every week, or even every day.
Things as rare as, well, you know…
Also, it’s not just problems that morph with scale, but your ability to handle problems morphs too.
For example, a dozen minor and major events every day means 20-50 customers affected every day. Now consider what happens as we try to inform 50 customers. For some we won’t have current email addresses, so they don’t get notified. Some of those will notice the problem and create extra customer support load at minimum, but at worst they’ll post on Twitter about how their website was slow today and WP Engine didn’t even know it. Then our social media team has to piece all this together, attempt to respond, maybe put together a special phone call with that customer, etc..
Or, consider the scale-ramifications of on-boarding 1,000 new customers a month. In that case, it’s likely that any given server issue can affect a customer who has only been with us for 30-60 days. Thus the issue causes a “bad first impression,” which is harder to address than a customer who has been with us for three years and therefore has built up a “bank account of patience.”
All of these aspects of the “solution” side of the process is affected by the same rule of rare events happening regularly, and causing much more work to solve than when the company was small.
The usual response to this is “automate everything.”
As with most knee-jerk responses, there’s truth in it, but it’s not the whole story.
Sure, without automated monitoring we’d be blind, and without automated problem-solving we’d be overwhelmed. So yes, “automate everything.”
But some things you can’t automate. You can’t “automate” a knowledgable, friendly customer support team. You can’t “automate” responding to a complaint on social media, which as our Twitter meister Austin Gunter says is usually a customer’s last resort and thus should always be treated as the very legitimate issue that it is. You can’t “automate” the recruiting, training, rapport, culture, and downright caring of teams of human beings who are awake 24/7/365, with skills ranging from multi-tasking on support chat to communicating clearly and professionally over the phone to logging into servers and identifying and fixing issues as fast as (humanly?) possible.
And you can’t “automate” away the rare things, even the technical ones. By their nature they’re difficult to define, hence difficult to monitor, and difficult to repair without the forensic skills of a human engineer.
Does this mean all our customers have a worse experience? No, just the opposite. Any one customer of ours has fewer problems per month today than a year ago, because we’re constantly improving our processes, automation, hardware, human service, etc.. It’s when you look across the entire company, and the non-linear additional effort it takes to not just improve the average experience, but to manage the worst-case experience, that you appreciate the difficulties.
Does that give high-scale companies like WP Engine an excuse to have problems? No way! In fact, if we’re not constantly improving on all fronts, the scale itself will catch up and overtake us, so we have to adhere to the laws of automation and diligence even more than smaller, slow-growing ones.
But for those of you in the earlier stages of your companies, when you project 5x growth coupled to just 5x the costs (or only 3x the costs because you’ll get cost-savings at scale), you’re guessing low. When you show 5x growth in projections but don’t budget for new hires in areas like security, technical automation, specialized customer service areas, and managers and executives who have trod this path before and come battle-hardened with play-books on how to tackle all this, you’re heading for an ugly surprise.
And with high growth, the surprise appears quickly, and recovery means acting twice as fast again to claw back ahead of the effect.
I was writing some time ago about a Japanese phone booth located inside the Sumiyoshi Taisha from Osaka, with a roof design perfectly harmonized with the shrine’s architecture.
Recently, I discovered another such phone booth, which reproduces the design of the nearby Marugame Castle, one of the 12 still original Japanese castles…
Click on photo for higher resolution:
Yesterday’s Japan Photo:
It is one of the great tragedies of my life that I cannot include this TOTALLY LEGIT steam-powered wheelchair from 1811 in my novels, because it will look steampunk. Even though it is a real thing — or at least was proposed as a real thing and published in Ackerman’s, it is so out of keeping with what people imagine the Regency era to be like, that there’s no way to include it without it appearing to be an invention of mine.
Sure, I could expend energy and wordcount to making people believe that it fits into the story, but they will never, ever, believe that I didn’t make it up. Since I’m not writing steampunk with the Glamourist Histories, it will make the books feel like something that they aren’t. If the plot in Of Noble Family turned upon it, that might be worth it. Since it doesn’t, I just have to sigh over the chair.
Also… the fact that this was invented by a guy named Merlin?
No. Way. No way could I ever get anyone to buy into it as a real historical thing. The reason people say, “You can’t make this stuff up” is that you can, but no one will believe you.
But oooooh…. Isn’t it cool?
The post A totally legit self-propelled wheelchair from 1811, and I can’t use it in my novel. appeared first on Mary Robinette Kowal.
As the centenary year of The Great War opens, I see outrage on Twitter and Facebook at the choice of Lord Kitchener’s in/famous recruiting poster for the UK £2 coins to be minted in this year. Don’t people know what atrocities he was responsible for, the objectors cry, throughout his long military career?
Well, since it’s quite likely that a good few folk don’t know Kitchener’s full story, I’m all in favour of them being better informed, if that can be achieved without descending into pointless arguments. The thing is though, as I look at this image, I wonder how my sons will see it, not least since they’re now both of an age which would have seen them shipped off to the trenches a hundred years ago, to do and die and never question why their elders and betters had ordered it.
But that was then and this is now. My sons have grown up reading Johnny and the Dead by Terry Pratchett, and seeing the stage production of Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo, and War Horse at the cinema. They’ve laughed through the DVDs of Blackadder Goes Forth and shivered at the intensity of that final scene. They watched Daniel Radcliffe going well beyond Harry Potter in the TV drama My Boy Jack. They’ve been on school trips to the Flanders cemeteries where they were all individually given the personal history behind a stark white tombstone and stood at the Menin Gate at sunset. Causes and Consequences of The First World War has been a staple of their school History curriculum. They’ve studied the War Poets in English Literature. Since we live in Oxfordshire, they see local traffic halted and diverted as hearses bringing dead soldiers home from Afghanistan go by.
What does Kitchener on a coin mean to them? A symbol of a bygone age when the deference ingrained in a class-ridden society saw men slaughtered by the thousand for the sake of a war they’d had no say in? A warning of the dangers of unthinking acceptance of ‘patriotic’ propaganda, most especially spouted by politicians wrapping themselves in the flag, while staying safely distant from bullets and shells? A reminder to look carefully for the self-interest or outdated thinking behind the words and motives of those who will be soliciting their votes in 2015’s general election?
You know, I don’t think I have a problem with them carrying that in a pocketful of change.
Surprisingly for the Western visitor, Japan has actually two winter illuminations: some of them are used just for Christmas, being lit only until December 25, while others are designed especially for the New Year…
Until now, I spent two New Year’s celebrations in Japan, but this is my first Christmas here so I was anxiously waiting to see some of the renowned Christmas illuminations…
My first choice was the Midtown Christmas Starlight Garden, in Tokyo: over 28 million LED lights representing the birth of the universe, a dizzying show that left me breathless!
Travel tip: The Midtown Christmas Starlight Garden lights are on until December 25, 2013, between 5PM and 11PM.
Click on photo for higher resolution:
Yesterday’s Japan Photo:
During recent conversations, I’ve become aware of three things.
So… here we have a giant expository post about audio and fiction.
One of the things that being an audiobook narrator has done for me is make me really remember that writing developed to convey the spoken word. I talk about this when I’m teaching how to read aloud, but also when I’m teaching writing. Punctuation, for instance, often represents breath and delineates the natural pauses in speech. You become painfully aware of this when you hit a sentence that you just cannot parse because it’s missing a comma.
You remember this joke, right?
- Let’s eat Grandma!
- Let’s eat, Grandma!
Punctuation saves lives.
When you say those aloud, you read them differently and the punctuation records that difference. There’s that old saw that action scenes should have short choppy sentences. I think that’s because the periods represent breaths coming faster, the way it actually would in an action scene. Conversely, stripping the punctuation will lead to something that sounds breathless. So, now I use punctuation and sentence structure deliberately, even in narration, to give a subtle clue about the tone of a scene.
Most of the the audio tricks are not structural, but are in the small details that will make it easier for the narrator, and more importantly, easier for my listening audience to follow. Some of these tricks are things that might be useful for other writers, or — to be more accurate — these are things I wish other writers would think about before I have to narrate their lovely book.
So… here’s what I’m thinking about when I’m writing a story that I know is destined for audio. And to be honest? Most fiction these days stands a good chance of having an audio production so I think about it most of the time. And just the standard caveat — these are guidelines. I’ll break any of them if that’s what serves the story, but I also weigh the cost of doing so.
I tend to signpost the start of a new scene a little more. In print, we can use design elements to indicate that a new scene is beginning. You know the standard # as a scene break, or the double linebreak? Those are all visual ways of distinguishing that there’s been a break and we’re in a new scene. In audiobooks, you have to do that entirely with the words and your interpretation of them. Why not use music as my design element? Because that slows the momentum of the story. The biggest benefit of thinking about this is that, even in print, it makes it easier for a reader to orient themselves when we start a new scene.
I try to keep my cast of characters in a given scene small and of disparate type. It’s hard on a listener to distinguish between a lot of different voices, even if the narrator is Mel Blanc. Just listen to Writing Excuses, even with four different people, the guys sometimes bled together. When I’m teaching people how to give an effective reading, I tell them to look at their selection and make sure it’s something suitable for being read aloud. Not all fiction works well in audio. The side effect of this for print is that I’m more likely to write a diverse cast, instead of having ten white men of the same age in a room — and seriously, I had to narrate that once. It gives me more distinct characters.
I lean towards first person. When I write for Audible, where my primary audience is going to be listening, I step away from third person, which is my usual go-to POV. This is mostly a personal preference, but I feel like if you have someone talking to you, that person will be who you relate to. I might as well take advantage of that and go first person to create the illusion of a more personal connection. There’s nothing wrong with audiobooks in third person, but I suspect the rise of audiobooks are one of the reasons that the first person narratives is coming so strongly back into fashion.
I try to be very, very conscious of the presentation of information. The listener can’t back up to re-read. They also can’t skim in audio. So I need to be really sure that the information is coming in the order necessary to understand the story. Again, in print, this gives me a cleaner narrative.
I avoid parentheticals. Seriously… those look good on the page, but when you are trying (this is really just a problem with audio, although even on the page it can create confusion sometimes) to connect the end of a sentence to a beginning that the reader has forgotten (they always forget) it can get complicated to make understandable and (go ahead and try to read this aloud (also ask me in a bar about the two-page nested parenthetical I had to read)) you’ll see what I mean.
I skip any dialog tag I can. Truly, I do this for things intended for print too, and that’s just a stylistic choice. I only include if I feel like there might be some ambiguity about who is speaking. On the page, I can rely on paragraph breaks to help delineate who is speaking. You don’t get that visual cue in audio, but most narrators do at least some vocal distinctions between characters, which serves the same function. Where it differs is that in print you skim the “he said” “she said” but in audio you hear every single redundant one of them.
I avoid homophones. Take the word “moue” for example. It’s a lovely word on the page and describes a flirtatious pout. But there is no way to read, “She gave a small moue in reply” as anything other than, “She gave a small moo in reply.” Believe me. I’ve tried.
My favorite example of homophone fail is a friends’s story about Lewis and Clark’s expedition, in which they brought along their dog Seaman. He read it aloud for the first time in front of a live audience. The story had the line, “Then, Seaman erupted from the bush.” I leave you to imagine the consequences of that…
But besides keeping in mind things that audio fiction does well and things that it does poorly, it works pretty much the same as print fiction.
Radio plays on the other hand are completely, totally, wildly different creatures. I’ve written a couple when I was working with Willamette Radio Workshop and besides the formatting, the way language is used is totally different. Since you are probably mostly interested in writing fiction, I’m going to demonstrate the difference — Show, don’t tell — rather than attempting to teach you to write for radio.
Way back before Shades of Milk and Honey was a novel, it was a radio play. I was working on a serial before realizing that a radio play about a visually based magic was not the best plan. When we sold the novel Shades of Milk and Honey, while included the audiobook rights but I asked my agent to make certain that we held onto all the dramatic rights because I had the idea that someday I’d still like to do the radio version. However… visual magic.
Still, it’s useful in this context because you can do a direct comparison between the two forms. This is the first scene, which you can compare to the first chapter. Much of the dialog is the same, but you can see where I am using language to represent action, even though it’s fairly clunky. If I had gotten out of draft form, I would have been able to replace some of that with sound effects.
The biggest difference is that the novel uses language as the primary method of telling the story and setting the scene. A radio play, even though language is a key element, shares the burden of storytelling with music and sound effects.
SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY
A serial radio drama.
Mary Robinette Kowal
(scene 1 – the Wentworth parlor)
Here, I’m still dealing with the same broad structure as a novel, but the way in which I use language to carry the story is entirely different. I wind up having to make the characters say things to describe what they are seeing, whereas with straight up fiction, whether spoken or audio, I can just create a word picture for the audience. Yay for narration!
So, whew. That’s my giant post about audio and fiction. Any questions?
Between 750 BC and 400 BC, the Ancient Greeks composed songs meant to be accompanied by the lyre, reed-pipes, and various percussion instruments. More than 2,000 years later, modern scholars have finally figured out how to reconstruct and perform these songs with (it’s claimed) 100% accuracy.
Writing on the BBC web site, Armand D’Angour, a musician and tutor in classics at Oxford University, notes:
[Ancient Greek] instruments are known from descriptions, paintings and archaeological remains, which allow us to establish the timbres and range of pitches they produced.
And now, new revelations about ancient Greek music have emerged from a few dozen ancient documents inscribed with a vocal notation devised around 450 BC, consisting of alphabetic letters and signs placed above the vowels of the Greek words.
The Greeks had worked out the mathematical ratios of musical intervals – an octave is 2:1, a fifth 3:2, a fourth 4:3, and so on.
The notation gives an accurate indication of relative pitch.
So what did Greek music sound like? Below you can listen to David Creese, a classicist from the University of Newcastle, playing “an ancient Greek song taken from stone inscriptions constructed on an eight-string ‘canon’ (a zither-like instrument) with movable bridges. “The tune is credited to Seikilos,” says Archaeology Magazine.
For more information on all of this, read D’Angour’s article over at the BBC.
“I am a really, really undisciplined person:” This confession, coming from the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics in a much-discussed, lengthy, and gripping interview last week, was not especially surprising to those who have followed the young papacy of Francis closely. From the moment of his election, stories have bubbled up about the unscripted papacy—about phone calls out of the blue to ordinary Catholics, about a mass being moved at the last minute to a juvenile detention center, about a member of the Swiss Guard being ordered to have a seat while protecting the new pontiff. In early statements, he rather mockingly disparaged both Catholic traditionalists (“restorationist”) and Catholic radicals (“pantheist”) and made a remark about salvation and atheists that Vatican spokesmen, like characters in a palace comedy, later had to clarify with a “what the Czar meant to say” sort of statement. “It’s just Francis being Francis,” I found myself starting to think, with a mixture of delight and suspense for what his papacy might entail.
From the beginning, the contrast with his predecessor could not have been more stark: Benedict was meticulous in his public statements, austere in demeanor, and took a rococo approach to vestments. Francis is improvisational, intimate, and dons more basic wear. He has famously eschewed the papal apartment for a room in the Vatican guest house. He drives an old Peugeot.
It’s true that these early departures were—as many progressives who were reluctant to place their faith in the new pontiff pointed out—mostly matters of style. But with the papacy as with few other offices, style truly is substance. The pope plays a uniquely visible function: representing Christ (and the church) to the world. And it was clear early on that the Christ represented by the Archbishop of Buenos Aires would cut a different figure than the Christ represented by the man formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger.
It was less obvious where the new pope stood on doctrinal issues. Until this week it was still possible to imagine Francis wrapping conventional theological views in a charmingly chaotic pastoral style. But the 12,000-word interview, conducted over three sessions and approved in its Italian text by the Vatican, closes that possibility definitively. It is a document that may fairly be called unprecedented. In discussing topics that range from doctrine and spirituality to art and music, Francis gives clear and fulsome voice to the long-muted tradition of theologically progressive Catholicism. On homosexuality, the role of women, and the collegial relationship between the pope and other bishops, Francis spoke carefully but encouragingly for the possibility of development. Doubt and the openness of faith are celebrated; the pope, himself a Jesuit, says that a Jesuit “must be a person whose thought is incomplete.” That there are turns ahead in Catholic faith and life, turns ardently hoped and worked for by some and resisted by others, is a possibility Francis leaves pointedly open.
But more striking than anything he has said about hot-button issues was the way in which he depicted the development of teaching and thought within the church. In facing the world, the church can’t let itself retreat into a “small chapel” for “a small group of selected people”—a clear rebuke to the many advocates for a “smaller, purer church.” “We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.” In an interview full of startling moments, this one stands out for what will likely become a rhetorical trademark of the Francis papacy: he identifies the impulse to separate from and reject the secularized society not with an admirable if misguided holiness, but with mediocrity. This mediocrity seeks only to discipline and correct a “barbarian” world, and to put the church into a posture of defense. But this, Francis insists, is exactly wrong. “There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning.” There is a difference between the genius of Thomas Aquinas and the “bankrupt” commentators who imitated him. “Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform,” Francis says, citing the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Caravaggio, Chagall, and Dali, “and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning.” “In thinking of the human being, therefore, the church should strive for genius and not for decadence.”
The interview met with a thunderous cheer from many quarters, believing, unbelieving, differently-believing, and estranged, and took a variety of forms. The New Yorker’s Alex Ross singled out a comment about Wagner’s Parsifal. A friend of mine who hasn’t been to mass in years confessed a desire to go “old-school Irish Catholic and hang a picture of the Pope in my living room.” It is easy to exaggerate the radicalism of his statements; the very next day he condemned abortion as an extension of the “indifference and solitude” to which we condemn the world’s poor. The ideas expressed in the interview are not new or unorthodox. They are thrilling to theological progressives and discouraging to church traditionalists less on their own account than because of the person giving them voice.
Francis inspires admiration or anger because he is supposed to inspire awe. The pope who began his papacy threatening to become a cassocked version of Warren Beatty’s Senator Bulworth has emerged quickly as a more classical, solid figure of reversal. A pope is not expected to wash the feet of female Muslim prisoners, to drive a beater, to live in a guest house, or to compare the church’s doctrine of humanity to the movement from classical sculpture to Dali. The irony of Francis’ young tenure in the chair of Peter is that he has become a hero (or a villain) by subverting the expectations of the very role that makes his utterances significant.
This subversion is unrepeatable. “I feel sorry for whoever has to be pope after Francis,” a theologian friend remarked to me. Having shown that a pope can perfectly well break down the hallowed distance between himself and the people, speak candidly and publicly about his own failings, and fearlessly push his church toward embracing “the freshness and fragrance of the gospel” over a “disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently,” Francis will leave his successor accountable either to continue doing so or to revert to a fustian papal model that will appear not so much grand and ancient as nostalgic and, to borrow Francis’ word, mediocre. If the next pope drives an old Peugeot, no one will care; and if he brings back all the medieval trappings he’ll look foolish.
In that sense, Francis has already made himself a pivotal figure. In answering his predecessor’s departing challenge to lead the church into a complex modern world, Francis has changed his office and his church. What remains to be seen is whether this modestly-styled, thrilling, frustrating papacy will retain enough awe to effect the renovation it promises.
It seems that every time researchers estimate how often a medical mistake contributes to a hospital patient’s death, the numbers come out worse.
In 1999, the Institute of Medicine published the famous “To Err Is Human” report, which dropped a bombshell on the medical community by reporting that up to 98,000 people a year die because of mistakes in hospitals. The number was initially disputed, but is now widely accepted by doctors and hospital officials—and quoted ubiquitously in the media.
In 2010, the Office of Inspector General for Health and Human Services said that bad hospital care contributed to the deaths of 180,000 patients in Medicare alone in a given year.
Now comes a study in the current issue of the Journal of Patient Safety that says the numbers may be much higher—between 210,000 and 440,000 patients each year who go to the hospital for care suffer some type of preventable harm that contributes to their death, the study says.
That would make medical errors the third-leading cause of death in America, behind heart disease, which is the first, and cancer, which is second.
The new estimates were developed by John T. James, a toxicologist at NASA‘s space center in Houston who runs an advocacy organization called Patient Safety America. James has also written a book about the death of his 19-year-old son after what James maintains was negligent hospital care.
Asked about the higher estimates, a spokesman for the American Hospital Association said the group has more confidence in the IOM’s estimate of 98,000 deaths. ProPublica asked three prominent patient safety researchers to review James’ study, however, and all said his methods and findings were credible.
What’s the right number? Nobody knows for sure. There’s never been an actual count of how many patients experience preventable harm. So we’re left with approximations, which are imperfect in part because of inaccuracies in medical records and the reluctance of some providers to report mistakes.
Patient safety experts say measuring the problem is nonetheless important because estimates bring awareness and research dollars to a major public health problem that persists despite decades of improvement efforts.
“We need to get a sense of the magnitude of this,” James said in an interview.
James based his estimates on the findings of four recent studies that identified preventable harm suffered by patients—known as “adverse events” in the medical vernacular—using a screening method called the Global Trigger Tool, which guides reviewers through medical records, searching for signs of infection, injury, or error. Medical records flagged during the initial screening are reviewed by a doctor, who determines the extent of the harm.
In the four studies, which examined records of more than 4,200 patients hospitalized between 2002 and 2008, researchers found serious adverse events in as many as 21 percent of cases reviewed and rates of lethal adverse events as high as 1.4 percent of cases.
By combining the findings and extrapolating across 34 million hospitalizations in 2007, James concluded that preventable errors contribute to the deaths of 210,000 hospital patients annually.
That is the baseline. The actual number more than doubles, James reasoned, because the trigger tool doesn’t catch errors in which treatment should have been provided but wasn’t, because it’s known that medical records are missing some evidence of harm, and because diagnostic errors aren’t captured.
An estimate of 440,000 deaths from care in hospitals “is roughly one-sixth of all deaths that occur in the United States each year,” James wrote in his study. He also cited other research that’s shown hospital reporting systems and peer-review capture only a fraction of patient harm or negligent care.
“Perhaps it is time for a national patient bill of rights for hospitalized patients,” James wrote. “All evidence points to the need for much more patient involvement in identifying harmful events and participating in rigorous follow-up investigations to identify root causes.”
Dr. Lucian Leape, a Harvard pediatrician who is referred to as the “father of patient safety,” was on the committee that wrote the “To Err Is Human” report. He told ProPublica that he has confidence in the four studies and the estimate by James.
Members of the Institute of Medicine committee knew at the time that their estimate of medical errors was low, he said. “It was based on a rather crude method compared to what we do now,” Leape said. Plus, medicine has become much more complex in recent decades, which leads to more mistakes, he said.
Dr. David Classen, one of the leading developers of the Global Trigger Tool, said the James study is a sound use of the tool and a “great contribution.” He said it’s important to update the numbers from the “To Err Is Human” report because in addition to the obvious suffering, preventable harm leads to enormous financial costs.
Dr. Marty Makary, a surgeon at The Johns Hopkins Hospital whose book Unaccountable calls for greater transparency in health care, said the James estimate shows that eliminating medical errors must become a national priority. He said it’s also important to increase the awareness of the potential of unintended consequences when doctors perform procedure and tests. The risk of harm needs to be factored into conversations with patients, he said.
Leape, Classen, and Makary all said it’s time to stop citing the 98,000 number.
Still, hospital association spokesman Akin Demehin said the group is sticking with the Institute of Medicine’s estimate. Demehin said the IOM figure is based on a larger sampling of medical charts and that there’s no consensus the Global Trigger Tool can be used to make a nationwide estimate. He said the tool is better suited for use in individual hospitals.
The AHA is not attempting to come up with its own estimate, Demehin said.
Dr. David Mayer, the vice president of quality and safety at Maryland-based MedStar Health, said people can make arguments about how many patient deaths are hastened by poor hospital care, but that’s not really the point. All the estimates, even on the low end, expose a crisis, he said.
“Way too many people are being harmed by unintentional medical error,” Mayer said, “and it needs to be corrected.”