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.

Flappers between the covers

The first Max Hurlock Roaring 20s Mystery was Death of a Flapper. Well, to be more precise, it was the first chronologically and was supposed to be the first published as well, but the publisher, a small mystery house, encountered some problems that kept delaying the publication date. Meanwhile, another publisher, Glyphworks Publishing, published Death on a Golden Isle, the second book in the series. This wasn’t a tremendous problem, since each book is based on a different real-life crime and stands on its own, but anyone who reads all the books (Bless your hearts!) might notice it.
Death of a Flapper is based on the famous 1929 Wilson-Roberts case in Moorestown, New Jersey, in which a formerly engaged society couple were found shot multiple times in her bedroom with the door locked from the inside. The big question was if the case was a murder/suicide (Which seemed unlikely because of the multiple wounds), or a double murder (Which seemed equally unlikely because of the locked door.)
At the invitation of several gracious people in Moorestown, I visited the scene of the crime and inspected  the bedroom,  and used the information in the book. Death of a Flapper has the basic details, including a seemingly related murder that happened nearby (also in a locked room!). My detective, Max Hurlock from Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay country gets involved in the case via an old Navy buddy and soon runs afoul of the local police, even so far as being arrested for the second murder!
The details of the real-life case are contained in notes at the back of Death of a Flapper. .
Now, here’s the big news…
Between Wednesday, August 20, and Wednesday, August 27, the Kindle version of Death of a Flapper, normally $2.99, will be available at a special promotional price of only 99 cents. Here is the link. And for more information about Death of a Flapper, including a link to the book trailer, go here.



Everybody knows that!

This is sort of a followup to the last post about the unreliability of eyewitnesses.

Closely related to the unreliable eyewitness account is the long held,unexamined belief. Now, don’t get excited;  I don’t mean religious beliefs.  I mean a factoid that becomes something everyone knows, but really doesn’t make much sense. As part of the book I’m working on The Secrets behind the Structures, I was writing about the Hindu temple at Brihadeeswarar. This temple has a tapering tower over 200 feet high topped by a large stone structure. Supposedly the structure was designed in such a way that the shadow from this tower never touches the ground and falls only on itself. This story has been widely accepted in the area and is taken as a fact by people who write about the temple. One quick check at the satellite view of Google maps however, easily disproves this claim. Even without this proof however it is hard to picture just how a structure could be built in such a way as to cast no shadow except on itself. If you could envision a very short and very wide pyramid with a short tower in the center only a few feet high, such a structure might possibly fill the bill, since the short shadow cast by the tower would fall only on the rest of the structure. The tower at Brihadeeswarer, however, is over 200 feet high and mounted on a base which is proportional, so clearly it does not fill the bill.

One variation of this belief is the claim that the stone at the top of the tower only casts a shadow outside the limits of the enclosure. While this might be possible under some configurations, the limits of the enclosure are about 200 feet or more in every direction so this would seem unlikely as well.


Whatever the reason, the Big Temple would seem to have enough remarkable features without inventing any more. For one thing, it is made entirely of granite, a notoriously hard and difficult to work stone, including the intricate sculptures. In addition, no one is quite sure just how the 80 ton capstone was placed on top of the tower. There are more fascinating facts in The Secrets behind the Structures, but for now, let’s just say that the Big Temple, with its World Heritage Site status casts a very big shadow….wherever it falls.