Geting it wrong…the sequel

In a previous post, I kvetched about news reporters getting the facts wrong (or incomplete) and thus undermining the story. Here are a few more things you see, or hear, far too much.

1. Pronunciation: Many TV reporters are not from the area in which they are employed, but is it asking too much to expect them to learn to pronounce local places names correctly?  One local reporter pronounced Talbot County as Talebut instead of the correct Tallbut. Another called the Magothy River, correctly pronounced MAgothy, as the MaGOTHY River.

Then there are those who get the word wrong altogether, referring to the Seventh Cavalry as the Seventh Calvary. Cavalry refers to mounted troops, while Calvary was the place of the Crucifixion; not the same thing at all.

And what is so difficult about words containing the letter “e”? Why pronounce it like an “i”? Chemistry becomes Kimestry; century becomes cintury; entitlement becomes intitlemint; feel becomes fill; lending becomes linding; and center field becomes sinner fild.

Speaking of which, when did Florida become Flooorida.?

2. Basic background facts: With the internet and a little curiosity, you can learn the basics about nearly anything very easily. Yet quotes are constantly mangled or misattributed, rumors are reported as fact, and basic terms are ignored or misused. Nowhere is this as apparent as in the gun debate. Now I don’t want to stir up the warring parties here, because politics in a blog leads to long hours of pointless feuding with strangers of varying degrees of stability. I am taking no position; there are more than enough people doing that already.  I’m just saying that whatever your opinions might be on gun control, is it too much to ask that we get the basic technical facts straight? For instance, commentators argue about an “assault rifle” ban. A little research would tell them that assault rifles are already banned. In fact, they have never been legal to own in the US, except by a special, hard-to-obtain permit.

An assault rifle is a rifle that shoots a relatively small caliber bullet and has selective fire capability. That means it can be fired automatically or semi-automatically. They even come with a little selector switch for that purpose. If a rifle is not capable of automatic fire, it is NOT an assault rifle, no matter what it looks like. Semi-automatic fire means you fire one bullet each time you pull the trigger. Even if you hold the trigger down for an hour, the gun will fire only once and then stop. Automatic fire, on the other hand, means that the thing will fire repeatedly as long as you hold the trigger down and still have ammunition feeding into it; in other words, it’s a machine gun. Machine guns have been pretty much illegal since the 1930s. Licensing is extremely expensive and tightly restricted. Laws banning “assault weapons” actually ban semi-automatics that have certain cosmetic characteristics, not actual assault rifles, since actual assault rifles are, in effect, already banned. In fact, since machine guns were banned in the 1930s and assault rifles first appeared in the 1940s, they were pretty much banned in the US before they were even invented!

If you read the above paragraph, you now know more about “assault rifles” than most of the news anchors, and quite a few of the legislators who are writing laws about them. These facts are not complicated and not hard to find out, but commentators constantly talk about “military weapons” or “assault weapons” sold legally with no questions asked. Wrong.

And while we’re on the subject, what, exactly is a “high-powered” rifle? No one has ever defined it, but every news commentator uses it as if it meant something. You would almost think it was a made- up term invented just to make a run of the mill gun sound more lethal. Has any crime ever been committed with a “low-powered” rifle?

And don’t get me started on the difference between a clip and a magazine.

So here’s a hint to any commentator who wants to enlighten us with his opinion: if you want people to take you seriously, have some idea what you are talking about.

3. Insipid questions: For Pete’s sake; if someone just found a cure for cancer, can’t you think of anything better to ask him than “How do you feel?” Here’s a hint: if something good has happened, they’ll feel great. If something bad has happened, they’ll feel terrible. Who would have guessed? Now give me my honorary Journalism degree.

4. Questions that miss the point; When Wendy Davis filibustered in the Texas Legislature in opposition to a bill concerning late term abortion, among other things, the press and TV news people treated her like a rock star. They seemed to be measuring her for a place on a stained glass window. But when it came time to ask her a few hard-hitting questions, no one seemed interested in the issues. Most of the breathless questions were about her pink tennis shoes.

5. Asking to quantify the unquantifiable: This idiotic practice is so widespread, they must teach it in Journalism school. “How important is this event?” “How concerned are you?” or “How confident are you?” “How dangerous is this?” These are things that are not subject to measurement or quantification, so why ask? You’ll get the same worthless response every time. Standard question: “How concerned are you?” Standard answer: “I’m very concerned.” Well, that explains everything.

All right. That’s enough of this. My apologies to any media people who don’t do these things. Resist.

Delmarva Today

I just did an interview on the radio interview show Delmarva Today, with Hal Wilson on Delmarva Public Radio in Salisbury, Maryland. (Delmarva stands for Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia) Hal actually read the books, and had some pretty thoughtful questions. We covered the finer points of my book Master Detective and the Lindbergh kidnapping, and discussed the Max Hurlock Roaring 20s Mysteries.

So if you want to know the answers to these vital questions give it a listen…..

-Why do so many fictional detectives have assistants such as Dr Watson?

-What is the “Pizza Rule” for historic research?

-Why did Flappers in the 1920s NEVER say Boop-boop a doop?

-What is a McGuffin?

-Who was the American Sherlock Holmes?

Listen for yourself in this podcast. (My portion is the second half hour and starts at 31.30.) Of course, if you want to learn about native plants around the Chesapeake Bay, you can listen from the beginning.


I’m on the left, trying to keep from hitting my head on the microphone.

Getting it wrong

You seldom hear anyone refer to a person as being “as smart as a TV news reporter”.

There is a reason for this.

Reporters, especially the TV news variety, have a spectacular ability to get the story wrong, then to send it off in a different direction through inaccuracies and pure sensationalism. Now being a reporter is  admittedly difficult. You can’t possibly know everything about any given story, and many times, people will deliberately try to mislead you for their own purposes, but how about a little common sense coupled with some basic knowledge of the world?

Here is a case in point. According to this article, a middle school teacher in Cambridge, Maryland was suspended. The school was searched,for guns and explosives, as was his home. (None were found.) The man is not under arrest, but is at some undisclosed location and not allowed to return to school until further notice. His crime? According to the article, and to some breathless on screen commentary by a local TV reporter, the teacher’s offense was writing a novel about a fictional school shooting, set in the far future. In addition to this, he wrote under an “alias”.

First off, any reporter should be aware that writers often use a pen name. Ray Bradbury, Charles Dickens, Ben Franklin, George Orwell, and even Dr. Seuss did. In fact, Mark Twain was the pen name of Samuel Clemens. There is nothing sinister in it. But the term “alias” sounds so much more dangerous, so that’s what the reporter used.

As for violent content, every mystery or thriller writer writes violent content. We’ll need to build more jails.

In addition, later stories now claim that the books were secondary. The real problem was a four page letter the teacher wrote to the school board, the contents of which have not been disclosed. The teacher’s attorney says the man is getting treatment of some sort. How much of this is true and how much is butt covering is not clear at this point, but there is apparently far more to the story.

And that’s the point. No one thought to dig deeper and maybe ask a followup question. They went on the air and dished up an incomplete and sensationalized version of the story. So what really happened? I don’t know, but I know enough not to trust early news reports.

What’s in a name…again

I’ve written before about the necessity of making up good names for fictional characters. Names should be distinguishable from each other, memorable, and somewhat reflective of the character’s personality of position. You wouldn’t name a French pastry chef Cletis Von Schlussenklugle for instance, or give a Viking the nickname Fluffy. Of course, Dickens was the undisputed champ at this, but we lesser mortals should at least try.

So I thought I had done pretty well in naming one of the recurring characters in the Max Hurlock Roaring 20s mysteries. This character is the town librarian and resident know-it-all. She’s the go-to person whenever a bit of esoteric knowledge is required. (Remember, this was before the Internet.) So I named her Isis Dalrymple. The Dalrymple is just a little bit fussy and Isis was an Egyptian goddess sometimes associated with wisdom, learning, and magic, among other things. (The more specialized goddess of wisdom was Seshat, but I didn’t like he sound of it, so Isis was close enough). Anyway, this gave her a first name that was both descriptive and just a little on the pretentious side.  The whole effect, I thought, was a good-humored poke at Ms Dalrymple’s Cliff Claven-like tendencies.

And so Isis Dalrymple was born and appeared in all five of the Max Hurlock mysteries, beginning with Death of a Flapper. All was well until another ISIS showed up in Syria and Iraq determined to make Genghis Khan look like a moderate. The pretentiousness is certainly there, but not a lot of wisdom, and even less good-humor.

So now I have a recurring character associated with people and actions that are, to say the least, incompatible. Even worse, the name is a constant reference to events that would not occur for almost a century, sort of like a flapper talking on a cell phone. After five books I can’t go back and change her name now, so what to do? Maybe in a future story, Isis will discover her birth certificate and find her name isn’t Isis after all. Hey; how about Page Dalrymple?

Any suggestions will be gratefully acknowledged and possibly stolen.

Going for the gold

Back in April, I submitted two of my eBooks, Flanagan and the Crown of Mexico, and Death and the Blind Tiger for consideration for a Global eBook Award. Sponsored by Para Publishing, the Global eBook Awards have a panel of judges that read and rate the entries on a point system. In each category, they award a gold, silver, or bronze medal, as well as an honorable mention to the entries that score the highest. Like such high powered extravaganzas as the Academy Awards, book awards are basically marketing devices. The bragging rights for any awards you might win can be used to boost your sales. The theory is that people will think “I never heard of this book, but, hey, it won an award, so I’ll take a chance.” Fame and fortune then follow.

I’m not sure just how well that theory works, but I might soon find out, because I just received word that both books won gold medals!

Flanagan and the Crown of Mexico won first place in the Historical Literature Fiction (1500-1940) category, and Death and the Blind Tiger won first place in the Mystery category. Woo hoo!

Blindtiger award crowncoverawardgold

Witch hunts, past and present

Senator Joseph McCarthy
A few nights ago, I went to a trivia contest at the local Elks. One of the questions was to name the senator involved in the “anti-communist witch hunts” of the 1950s. (It was Joseph McCarthy) A bonus point was awarded if you knew his nickname. (Tail-gunner Joe). Now, a Trivia contest, particularly one for charity, is not the place for a political argument, so I didn’t object, but I found the characterization both inaccurate and annoying.
Nowadays, of course, pretty much any inquiry into something you disagree with is often termed a witch hunt to dismiss it as a fantasy at best and a persecution at worst. The allusion, of course, is the Salem witch trials of 1682-3. People were ruined and even executed based on hysterical unsupported testimony and superstition.
Senator McCarthy’s anti-communist investigations and hearings of the 1950s are often compared to the Salem trials by commentators and politicians, but that is a poor comparison. The anti-communist investigations and hearings associated with Senator McCarthy were conducted in ways that were much more in keeping with the rule of law and the rights of the accused, but did result in a lot of loose talk and accusations about who might be a communist and who might not be. And some people did suffer unwarranted damage to their reputations as a result. The hearings were marked by wild and unsubstantiated accusations based on limited evidence.
But here is the real problem with referring to the McCarthy hearings as a witch hunt; WITCHES DIDN’T EXIST. They never did. All the evils attributed to them were in the imagination of the witnesses. The trials were pure hysteria and superstition.

Communists, on the other hand, did exist, and did have agents working in the United States, as corroborated by the Verona transcripts years later. At the time McCarthy launched his anti-communist crusade, communism had just triumphed in China, Soviet spy Claus Fuchs had confessed to supplying the Russians with atomic secrets, and the Rosenbergs were on trial for passing atomic secrets to the Soviets as well. So the “witches” were very real, very active, and very dangerous. For the US Congress to be concerned and to investigate was a natural thing to do. The problem was that McCarthy took a legitimate concern and attacked it in a destructive and irresponsible way that undermined any public support the effort might have had. And so his name is now associated with witch hunts. But even though he chased them in an irresponsible and counter-productive, way, the “witches” he hunted were real.
Even a trivia contest can’t get it right.

So what’s with all the water?

Last week, a series of heavy rainstorms resulted in newscasts that showed cars driving up to their axles on flooded streets and some motorists stranded. For the most part, these weren’t New Orleans or Mississippi category floods, just maybe a foot or less of water on paved streets. News announcers solemnly informed us that the storm drain systems had only been designed for 5 or 10 year storms, and so could not handle anything greater. A few commentators seemed to be implying that since a 100 year storm was experienced, that’s what the design standard should have been. So what’s the story? Were the designers negligent and were people flooded unnecessarily? Why weren’t the systems designed for a 100 year storm?
First off, let’s look at what a 100 year storm actually means. It’s simply a storm of a magnitude that has about a one percent chance of occurring in any given year. That works out to about once in 100 years, but that’s an average based on records and probabilities. You could get two 100 year storms in the same week. OK; so back to the original question. Why not just design for the 100 year storm and avoid all that messy flooding?
Since there is never an unlimited supply of money available for any project, pretty much everything in engineering design involves a trade-off between perfection and affordability. Structures have a certain safety factor incorporated, based on the job the structure has to do, and the consequences of failure. If a bridge fails, for instance, it can be catastrophic, but an overwhelmed street drain is more of a nuisance for most people. So a bridge will be designed to a higher standard than a storm drain, but even the bridge will not be designed to be, say a hundred times as strong as it needs to be. It isn’t affordable, and it isn’t necessary.
Since the cost of designing for bigger storms goes up rapidly, but the consequence of a failure is limited and temporary, the smaller parts of a storm drain system, such as curb inlets, will usually be designed for a five or ten year storm. Even if they are overwhelmed every few years during a major storm, the resultant flooding is seldom dangerous and will recede quickly once the storm has passed. Nothing will collapse; the water will just back up a little deeper, spread a little farther, and a remain a little longer. The bigger parts of the system, such as culverts beneath roads, will be built to a higher standard, since a failure would be far more damaging.
So that’s why even the most well-designed streets flood occasionally.