Judging books by their covers

Someone said you can’t judge a book by its cover but you can usually judge it by its back cover. The idea, of course, is that the facade of a book, at least the front part, can be deceiving about what’s inside. The back cover is usually much more revealing.

I saw a human example of this principle today in an unlikely place: a toy store. There was a distinguished looking man, maybe 60-70, approaching the front counter. He was well dressed had neat, silver hair, and a no-nonsense look to him. He could have been a TV doctor, maybe head of cardiac surgery or something similar. This was not unusual, since the toy store had a good stock of  high level educational toys suitable for the man’s grandchildren. What would this gentleman want; maybe a detailed anatomy model, or a chemistry set, or an electronic kit? He reached the counter and addressed the clerk with the confident air of a man who knew exactly what he wanted. He stated his requirements in a clear, steady voice.

“Excuse me, do you carry Whoopee Cushions?”


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If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we…. The fallacy of comparing things that aren’t equivalent.


After the first moon landing, we heard a lot of people say that if we can put a man on the moon, we should be able to solve all our social problems. This was a gross misunderstanding of what was involved in the two problems. Placing a man on the moon was a straightforward technical problem. Each part that was solved led to the next step in a logical manner. Social problems, on the other hand, are complex and involve a staggering number of  variables, any one of which can cause a reaction that affects the rest. The moon shot involved manipulating things; social problems involve manipulating people. Big difference. Things don’t fight you and react in unpredictable ways…people do.

I was reminded of this on a cruise last week, when the ships company put on  a “Festival of Nations Show”. This show, a staple of most cruise lines nowadays, features members of the ship’s crew parading with the flags of the nations they came from. Cruise ship crews are amazingly multinational. The cruise director/master of ceremonies ended up by saying that they have people from 50 nations among the ship’s crew and they all get along, so why can’t the world get along that way? The passengers all nodded sagely, although nobody actually sang Kumbaya.

Image result for cruise ship parade of nations


This is the same false equivalency the If-we-can-land-a-man-on-the-moon…  people indulge in and it’s just as pointless. The reason the world doesn’t get along as well as the ship’s crew (and I don’t believe for a minute that all is sweetness and light below decks, but let’s assume that it is.) is very simple. Are you ready?

The cruise line gets to select who it hires, and gets to fire anyone who doesn’t work out.  The world doesn’t get to do that. Nobody had the opportunity to refuse to include Iran in the world, and you can’t fire North Korea. All the countries and all the pain-in-the-butt jerkwads in the world are not subject to hiring or firing for the common good. If the cruise ship people had to hire everyone who applies and could not discipline or fire anyone after that, cruise ships would be just as dysfunctional as the rest of the world.

…and with the possibility of drowning.

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Turning Points-Paths taken and not taken

How many people do you know who talk incessantly about getting their big break, and how different life will be once they get it? Maybe you think the same thing. One day you’ll get that life changing bit of good fortune.

But what if you’ve already had it and didn’t realize it? What if you have already come to a crossroads and gone the wrong way? This is probably more common than we realize, and sometimes, a split second decision can determine our path for the rest of our lives.

Here’s a case in point: Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis became friends in the 1940s when they were both struggling entertainers; Martin as a crooner and Lewis as a slapstick comedian. They played clubs here and there, but neither was really going anywhere. One night, at a late and sparsely attended show, Lewis decided to play a trick on Martin. Martin was doing his usual singing act to an indifferent crowd when Lewis, in a borrowed waiter’s uniform appeared with a huge slab of meat on a skewer yelling “Hey; who ordered the steak?”

Martin knew nothing about this and was startled. He turned and saw Lewis.

That’s where the turning point occurred. Most people would have snarled at Lewis to get off the stage or tried to freeze him with a dirty look. If Martin had done that, the rest of both of their careers probably would have languished.

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis | Early memories | PinterestMartin and Lewis-Annex4Pardners Jerry Lewis Dean Martin movie poster print | eBay

But he didn’t. Martin recovered instantly and began exchanging wise cracks and the audience loved it. Over time, they began appearing together, honing their act into a two partner pandemonium. Martin was a gifted comedian and great adlibber himself and the combination clicked to become the biggest act in America. Soon Martin and Lewis were in the movies and a TV series. They had a falling out in later years, and the act broke up, but each became wealthy and famous.

And it all hinged on a single moment.

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How Poland saved Western Civilization….Twice!

When most Americans think of Poland, if they think of it at all, they think of it as a faraway place where they make kielbasa and have a serious shortage of vowels in their names. Some, who know a little more about the place know that it has had a very bad time of it in the twentieth century by being located between Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany. Talk about a bad neighborhood. One author called the area “the bloodlands”.  Between being invaded by Germany and “liberated” by the Red Army, it would be hard to tell which was worse, since each event resulted in a soul-crushing foreign rule and mass murder as a tool of government administration. So has Poland always been a victim? And what have the Poles ever done for us? Well, how about helping to win WWII? The Polish 303rd  fighter squadron helped defeat the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain, and Polish scientists helped crack the German secret codes.

Not enough? How about this; the Poles saved Western Civilization….twice!

The first time was in 1683. The Ottoman Empire was at its height and was pushing deep into Europe. The Ottomans had been waging constant war on any part of Europe they could reach and had made much of the European areas bordering the Mediterranean uninhabitable through conquest or slave raids. Now the sultan had laid siege to Vienna, one of the intellectual and cultural centers of Europe, and the gateway to the rest of the continent. The Ottomans were on the verge of victory as they attacked again and again, wearing down the defenders. Of course, the Turks, themselves, were weakening from  the fighting, but they would soon outlast the defenders of Vienna. Once Vienna was taken, the Ottomans would use it as a base to attack the rest of Europe, and to replace European civilization with a repressive Islamic dictatorship. For the Europeans, things looked bleak.

Then the Poles showed up.

The Battle of Vienna, 12 September 1683 | Justice4Poland

Jan Sobieski and the Poles at Vienna 1683


The Polish king, Jan Sobieski had brought a relief force all the way from Warsaw to help break the siege. He swooped down on the Ottomans with 23,000 Polish troops, including the famous heavy cavalry, the “winged hussars”. The Poles charged downhill with 15,000 mounted men, possibly the biggest cavalry charge in history. The Ottomans were overwhelmed, losing thousands of men. They abandoned the siege and retreated back to Istanbul, and leaving their camp and artillery behind. Over the ensuing years, the Ottomans were driven from Hungary and other European areas they had formerly occupied. The Turks never again threatened Vienna and went no deeper into Europe. Europe and Western Civilization had been saved.

The Poles had saved western civilization, but they weren’t through yet.

After the first First World War, the Communists took over Russia and, once they had consolidated their power, decided to spread their revolution to their neighbors. Europe was devastated and mostly bankrupt after the war, and many people were sympathetic to the Communist promises of a better life with less effort. Not everyone realized the hollowness of these promises and the fact that Communist rule meant state terror, shortages, complete loss of freedom, the stifling of all innovation and improvement in everyday life, and the good possibility of state-imposed mass murder. Lenin ordered he Red Army, fresh from defeating the Czarist forces to began a push into Europe to bring the entire continent under the Soviet heel. Once Warsaw fell, the plan was for the Red Army to join revolutionaries in Germany in imposing a Communist regime there and spreading to the rest of Europe. The Poles grimly awaited the invaders, determined to stop them.

army as depicted in 2011 Jerzy Hoffman 3D film "1920 Battle of Warsaw ...

At first, the Polish army fell back in disorder, and as the Russians approached Warsaw, their victory seemed certain, and Europe seemed doomed to become Communist dominated. But the Poles had broken the Russian codes and  Polish Chief of State Józef Piłsudski came up with a plan to exploit this knowledge.

Jozef PiIsudski

In a complex battle., the Poles lured the Russians into a trap and defeated them. The Russians lost over 15,000 killed and had to abandon their plan to foment and assist Communist revolution in Europe and turned inward. This was bad luck for the hapless Russian people, but a lifesaver for Europe. Although Poland would fall to Hitler a few years later, Europe had avoided the fate of Russia, and along with it, 50 years of repression, terror, purges, economic stagnation, and cultural sterility.

So raise a glass to the Poles, and maybe have a kielbasa. We owe them a lot.




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How Amazon makes it unnecessary to eat a rotten egg

Fashions change in writing as do readers’ tastes. Some of this is just popular culture preferences and some is the result of technology. One technology driven change is the increasing importance of a book’s beginning.

Of course, savvy writers already know how important a book’s beginning can be. If you submit to a publisher, many will only want the first 50 pages or so. This means that if a book is slow to get started, it might never do so. The editor will toss the submission if it doesn’t grab the reader from the beginning. It wasn’t always so. Even well regarded novels of the Victorian Age were, shall we say, a bit leisurely in how they began. Pages of description and musings before anything resembling a charactwer or plot were not unusual. Some books even larded up the beginning with a preface, such as this one from a tome entitled Abbeychurch, or Self concern and self conceit (Many older novels featured alternate titles for some reason.) Anyway, here’s what confronts the unsuspecting reader on the first page;


Exhausted Student Sleeping Over Books Stock Images - Image: 25222634

Huh? What?….Sorry, I must have dozed off there for a minute. Now, where was I? Oh, yes; beginnings. Well, you can see that Victorian readers apparently had extraordinary patience, and were willing to wade through a swamp of prelude to reach the high ground of an actual story, but they were almost a captive audience. What were they going to do if the beginning was boring? Maybe watch TV instead? Maybe pop in a DVD? Maybe surf the web for something better? Nope. It was either read a novel or try to scare up some people for a game of Whist or lawn darts. Technology, or lack of it, helped to pepetuate the dull beginning.

Things are different now. The written word has a lot of very flashy competition out there. Few people will sit still for a plodding beginning when other diversions beckon. You have to grab the reader by the neck and yell “Keep reading, damn you!” Now, technology has done even more to  made a dull beginning an endangered species. As  you probably know, Amazon sells a lot of books, and almost every book listing features a picture of the book cover with the caption Look Inside! If you click on the cover picture, the screen will show the first 20 pages or so of the book. You can even download them into your Kindle. This is the electronic equivalent of browsing through a book in a book store (Except that you can do it in your underwear if you like, something bookstores often frown upon.) This is absolutely critical. This is your big chance to snare the reader and hog tie him. You have to make him want to read more; to make him need to read more. If the beginning doesn’t turn him on, he will never buy the book on the off chance that it will improve. A famous critic once panned a book after reading only the first few pages. When the author objected that he hadn’t read the entire book before condemning it, the critic famously replied “I don’t have to eat an entire egg to know that it’s rotten.”


The beginning is your best and possibly only chance to make the sale. Write a grabber beginning. I have to confess that my own record is a bit spotty in this regard. I start most Max Hurlock Roaring 20s mystery with the murder itself, described in a way to arouse the reader’s interest and curiosity. Once the reader is turning the pages to clear up the crime, I can afford to start filling in background, characters, and plot points. Sometimes, I just start with something to make them read on to clarify things. Here are some beginnings from the series

Death of a Flapper- First line: “That’s odd. There’s a light on in Miriam’s room.”


Death and the Blind Tiger- First line: The sudden silence when the engine stopped would have been restful and pleasant if the biplane had not been 2,000 feet in the air at the time.

Death in Unlikely Places–  First line: Everyone was surprised at how much blood a thick wool sweater could absorb.

Death across the Chesapeake- First line: Like mourners at a funeral, the small group of people stood in the hallway in front of the closed office door, talking in hushed tones and shaking their heads.

So that’s why it’s important to start off with a grabber. For the record, my own favorite grabber first line is from Charlotte’s Web.

“Where is Papa going with that ax?”

the white men with their ax

I dare anyone to stop reading at that point!

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Last Watch on the Alexander Henry

Here is an article I wrote for Thousand Islands Life Magazine about a mothballed Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker that seems  to be heading for the shipbreaking yard.

Alexander Henry


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The Undiscovered Country

When fiction is set in a specific time and place, getting the details right can be enriching; getting them wrong can be distracting, like a constant reminder that it’s just make-believe. (See my post about the Pizza Theory of Historical Exposition.) This goes for books, movies, and TV productions.

Despite occasional goofs, TV generally does a pretty good job of giving shows an authentic feel and look. Costumes and uniforms are usually authentic for the period depicted, and even vehicles, weapons, etc. are usually proper. They also do a good job with regional accents, especially New England and Minnesota. So when an exception such as Chesapeake Shores comes along, it is like fingernails on a chalkboard.

Chesapeake Shores" - a Hallmark Channel TV Series starring Meghan Ory ...

Some very un-Chesapeake-like rocky shoreline on Chesapeake Shores


Chesapeake Bay Photo Gallery

Actual Chesapeake Bay shoreline


Chesapeake Shores supposedly takes place in the Chesapeake Bay region, but has none of the feel or flavor of the actual place. This is not surprising, since it is filmed in the Pacific Northwest on Vancouver Island in British Columbia and looks it. Aside from the lush vegetation, many scenes clearly show mountains in the background, something you never see anywhere near the Chesapeake Bay. On the show, the low and marshy Chesapeake shoreline appears with rocky cliffs, like the 100 foot rocky waterfall Disney showed in Tidewater Virginia in Pocahontas.

And the water is clear of the jellyfish that make swimming risky in the real Chesapeake Bay. Speaking of water, there are no white work boats in evidence anywhere. What happened to the watermen?

Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Virginia Tech; Courtesy of Eastern Shore ...

Chesapeake Bay watermen with crab traps

No one has any trace of any regional accent and seem to have no acquaintance with the actual Chesapeake Bay. For instance, at one point someone says they are having “fresh crabs” for dinner. No one on the Chesapeake ever uses that term, since it is meaningless. If you are having steamed crabs, you are having “crabs”. Otherwise, you are having “crab cakes” , “soft crabs” or possibly “crab imperial” “crab dip”, or “crab soup”.


Other than a few eroded areas such as Calvert Cliffs, there are no steep banks such as this one on the Chesapeake.

For that matter, where are they even getting all the crabs when there are apparently no watermen out catching them? Well, maybe they are rare “hill crabs” gathered from the surrounding mountains.


In the background you can see mountains.

Well, you get the idea. Maybe they should just call it Pacific Northwest and be done with it.


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