Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required

Monday, September 30, 2013

My Airplane Repo Episode

At one time in my life I did a lot of flying. Not commercially. Just winging it for kicks.

So naturally I get a special satisfaction out of Discovery Channel's Airplane Repo show.

I suppose it comes as a welcome surprise to many of that show's viewers to know that Learjet owners sometimes fall behind on their payments. But yeah, it happens. And the big toys get repo'd all the time, just like the little toys.
The Piper Seminole.

Watching Airplane Repo, I can't help but think back on the one time I played a small role in an airplane repo escapade myself (for real; not for TV). This was years ago, when I was a member of a flying club in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The club had a dozen or so planes, mostly Pipers. I was partial to one of the club's planes in particular, a Piper PA-44-180 Seminole, a small twin-engine four-seater that rented to club members for $100 an hour dry (meaning, fuel is extra). I suppose in today's dollars that'd be more like $250 an hour. I loved that little Seminole and took every opportunity to fly it. Flew it solo to Los Angeles on a lark once, in fact, stopping every 600 miles for gas, overnighting in Albuquerque, blasting into the smog-filled L.A. basin around lunchtime of Day Two. But I digress.

One Sunday afternoon, I was hanging out in the club lounge at Bridgeport when a short, stout, fortyish fellow wandered in wearing one of those Ahmadinejad-style Members Only jackets. He started chatting with Tony, the president of the club.

Before I knew it, Tony was motioning me over with elaborate hand gestures.

"So," Tony said. "You doing anything this afternoon?"

"No. What's up?"

"How would you like to get in a little Seminole time for free?"

My feculent grin told the story.

"This gentleman needs a ride to Groton."

The man in the Members Only jacket smiled and extended his hand. "Rich O'Malley."

I grasped his hand and introduced myself. (I don't remember what country Tony was from, but it was one where social ineptitude is highly prized, to the extent that you don't formally introduce people to each other unless it is absolutely necessary, such as after an exchange of goats.)

"I only need to be in Groton a few minutes," O'Malley explained. "Then we'll turn around and come right back. I'll pay the plane rental."

"Are you ready now?" I asked.


"Then let's go."

I grabbed the plane's keys and clipboard off the wall and we burst out onto the flight line, walking swiftly in the gusty October wind. There were some low cumulus clouds hugging the coast but it was obvious weather wouldn't be a factor for our short (60 nautical miles) flight.

"So," I said. "What's in Groton?"

"A Gulfstream Two. Hopefully. It might be there or it might not. Need to find out for sure."

A G-II is a 15-passenger bizjet, definitely what you call heavy iron, crew of two mandatory; a long-range jet but a huge fuel-guzzler; worth several million dollars in poor condition, $10 million or more in good condition (used).

As I did a preflight inspection of the Seminole, O'Malley fed me a few more details. He told me he was working for G.E. Credit and that he was type-rated in various jets, flew all kinds of equipment all the time; his specialty was bizjet repo. The plane we were after was some corporate board's playtoy. The note was in default and there was reason to believe the G-II was being moved around, airport to airport, to avoid falling into the hands of you-know-who.

Our goal this particular Sunday was not to take possession of the aircraft but merely to document its whereabouts so its proper confiscation could be planned out in detail, imminently.

Within a few minutes, we were wheels-up, banking east-northeast over Long Island Sound, the Seminole's 360-cubic-inch Lycomings roaring. I brought the power knobs back and we levelled off at 500 feet. Sailboats disappeared under our wings as we paralleled the Connecticut coast. On our right,  we could see all of Long Island, clear to Montauk.

After twenty minutes we had the Groton Airport at our eleven o'clock. I called the tower and got permssion for a straight-in approach to runway five.

O'Malley knew just where to park, and told me to stay with the plane for a few minutes while he went off to make some discreet inquiries.

He returned about ten minutes later, holding his camera up, saying: "Got it."

By this time, O'Malley and I had become quite chummy. Just as we were about to board the Seminole, he surprised me by asking if he could fly PIC (pilot-in-command) on the return trip. I quickly processed everything I knew about the guy—and said "Sure." (There were dual controls. Worst case, I could fly the plane from the right side.)

O'Malley seemed to know where everything was; he looked comfortable at the controls (always a good sign); asked the right questions; knew how to use a checklist; knew how to talk to the tower. Soon we were tracking the stripe, knobs cobbed.

"Mind if we fly low?" O'Malley asked.

In uncontrolled airspace (which we would be in, once we were over Long Island Sound), Federal Aviation Regulations require only that you maintain 500 feet of separation from any persons or property on the surface. It just meant we'd have to give pleasure boats a wide berth. Otherwise, we could fly as low as we dared.

And this guy wanted low. As in, 50 feet. Right on the deck.

Soon we were screaming over the water at 160 knots, the Manhattan skyline barely visible on the hazy horizon. It reminded me of the 1944 film 30 Seconds over Tokyo, about the Doolittle raid. Every whitecap was visible. They zoomed by in a blur. It was hypnotizing, exhilarating.

We slalomed around the occasional pleasure craft, staying just far enough away that no boat owner could read our tail number and report us to FAA.

And it was a delightful 15-minute trip back (with a ten-knot tailwind the whole way), until I saw a grey-white object—a bird—dart up and down, then up again, and KBANNGGG! I flinched instinctively, ducking down and to the left. Fortunately, the bird hadn't broken through the Plexiglas (which could've ruined my whole day). But there were entrails all over my side of the windshield. O'Malley and I looked at each other. Then burst out laughing.

"That's one gull that will never play the cello again," O'Malley said.

We were on the ground at BDR a couple minutes later, coasting into our parking space. A lineman came out with a fuel truck. We were exiting the plane when the young lineman, seeing the awful accumulation of blood and guts on the windshield of the Seminole, asked: "What the heck happened?"

Deadpan, I shrugged and said: "We hit a really big bug."

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Dark Side of Antioxidants

Note: This story, which I wrote back in April 2013, originally appeared in a slightly shorter form at I'm reproducing it here because I strongly feel the story needs to get out to as many people as possible.

The story of the dark side of antioxidant research isn't well known outside of medical circles. It's an unseemly story, profoundly unsettling; a story that refuses to be made pretty or happy or uplifting no matter how hard you try to duct-tape a silver lining around it. It doesn't fit the "antioxidants are good for you" mantra that sells billions of dollars per year of blueberry- and pomegranate-fortified granola bars and tocopherol-enrichened cereals, acai-berry Jell-O mixes, juices and yogurts with added vitamins, organic baby foods, and so forth, not to mention the billions of dollars of nutritional supplements sold each year (to say nothing of the sub-industry of books and magazines devoted to nutrition).

Still, it's a story that needs to be told. And some of us know where the bodies are buried.

For decades, mainstream medicine pooh-poohed the possibility that vitamins or supplements could "move the needle" on major diseases. Two-time Nobel laureate Linus Pauling was harshly criticized in the 1970s and 80s for suggesting a role for Vitamin C in prevention and treatment of cancer. Even so, laboratory workers had known for years that changes to diet could influence the rate of tumor appearance in lab animals. By the early 1980s, case-control studies and epidemiological evidence from a variety of sources had begun to accumulate, showing that persons who routinely ate large quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables consistently did better with regard to cardiovascular disease (and other diseases) than most people.

In 1981, Sir Richard Peto and colleagues published a paper in Nature that dared asked the simple question: "Can dietary beta-carotene materially reduce human cancer rates?" (Nature, 290:201-208) Shortly thereafter, the National Cancer Institute (whose Chemoprevention branch was headed by Dr. Michael B. Sporn, one of the coauthors of the Nature article) decided to green-light two large intervention-based studies of the cancer-preventing effects of nutritional supplements: a study in Finland involving beta-carotene and alpha-tocopherol (Vitamin E), and a U.S.-based study involving retinol (a form of Vitamin A) and beta-carotene.

The Finnish study (conducted by Finland's National Institute for Health and Welfare) was initially designed to encompass 18,000 male smokers between the ages of 50 and 69. Why just smokers? And why male, and 50+ years old? Lung cancer is ten times more likely to affect smokers; hence a cancer study limited to smokers would need only a tenth as many participants as a study involving the general population. Based on what was known about the age-specific rates of lung cancer among Finnish men, study designers calculated that the desired effect size (a hoped-for 25% decrease in cancer incidence over a period of 6 years) would be measurable with the required level of statistical relevance if 18,000 older male smokers made up the study group. As it turned out, the age distribution of actual volunteers didn't match the demographics of the eligibility group (volunteers tended to be toward the young end of the eligibility range), and as a result the study's enrollment target had to be reset to 27,000 in order to get good statistical relevance.

Full-scale recruitment of subjects into the ATBC (Alpha-Tocopherol Beta-Carotene) Lung Cancer Prevention Study began in April 1985 and continued until a final enrollment of 29,246 men occurred in June 1988. Enrollees were randomized into one of four equal-sized groups, receiving either 50 mg/day (about 6 times the RDA) of alpha-tocopherol, or 20 mg/day of beta-carotene (equivalent to around 3 times the RDA of Vitamin A), or AT and BT together, or placebo only.

At the same time, which is to say starting in 1985 (after some very small, very brief pilot studies to validate recruitment mechanics), the Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial (CARET) started enrolling volunteers in the U.S. Unlike Finland's ATBC study, volunteers for CARET were both male and female and were heavy smokers or came from asbestos-exposed workplace environments. They ranged in age from 45 to 69 and were divided initially into four groups (30 mg/day beta carotene only, 25,000 IU retinol-only, carotene plus retinol, or placebo), but in 1988 the treatment groups were consolidated into one group taking both beta-carotene and retinol. The study design called for continuing the vitamin regimen through 1997, with reporting of results to occur in 1998.

Alas, things went horribly awry, and CARET never got that far.

When the Finns reported results from the ATBC study in April 1994, it sent shock waves through the medical world. Not only had alpha-tocopherol and beta-carotene not provided the expected protective effect against lung cancer; the supplement-treated groups actually experienced more cancer than the placebo group—18% more, in fact. 

This was an astonishing result, utterly bewildering, as it contradicted numerous prior animal studies that had shown Vitamin E and beta-carotene to be promising cancer preventatives. Surely an error had occurred. Something had to have gone wrong. One thing it couldn't be was chance variation: with almost 30,000 participants (three quarters of them in treatment groups), this was not a small study. The results couldn't be a statistical fluke.

As it turns out, the Finnish investigators had actually done a meticulous job from start to finish. In analyzing their data, they had looked for possible confounding factors. The only confounder they found was that heavy drinkers in the treatment group got cancer more often than light drinkers.

Two weeks before the Finnish study hit, the National Cancer Institute was awash in conference calls. Accounts vary as to who knew what, when, but CARET's lead investigator, who had seen the Finnish group's data prior to publication, knew that NCI now had a serious problem on its hands. CARET was doing essentially the same experiment the Finns had done, except it was giving even bigger doses of supplements to its U.S. participants, and the study was due to run for another three and a half years. What if CARET's treatment group was also experiencing elevated cancer rates? Participants might be dying needlessly.

And indeed they were.

When statisticians presented interim results to CARET's Safety Endpoint Monitoring Committee in August 1994, four months after the Finnish study appeared in print, it became clear that CARET participants were, if anything, faring considerably worse than their counterparts in the ATBC study. Even so, the safety committee found itself deadlocked on whether to call a premature halt to CARET. The study's formal stopping criteria (as given by something called the O’Brien–Fleming early-stopping boundary) had not been met. Ultimately a decision was made to continue to accumulate more data. There were those on the safety committee who simply didn't believe the results. The data were aberrant; they had to be. When additional numbers could be gathered they would surely show the early numbers to have been wrong.

A second interim statistical analysis was presented to CARET's safety committee in September 1995, one year after the first analysis. According to the committee:
At that time it was clear that the excess of lung cancer had continued to accumulate in the intervention regimen at about the same rate during the time since the first interim analysis. Further, the cardiovascular disease excess persisted. The conditional power calculations showed that it was extremely unlikely that the trial could show a beneficial effect of the intervention, even if the adverse effect ceased to occur and a delayed protective effect began to appear. Therefore the SEMC voted unanimously to recommend to NCI that the trial regimen should be stopped but the follow-up should continue.
The study was halted—but not until January 1996, nearly two years after final publication of the Finnish results. (Even then, CARET participants were contacted by snail mail to let them know of the study's early termination and the reasons for it.)

CARET's results were published in The New England Journal of Medicine in May 1996. Once again, shock waves reverberated throughout the medical world. Participants who had taken beta-carotene and Vitamin A supplements had shown a 28% higher rate of lung cancer. They also fared 26% worse for cardiovascular-related mortality, and 17% worse for all-cause mortality.

There was great reluctance in the medical community to believe the results. Perhaps the even-worse results of the CARET study (relative to the Finnish experiment) had to do with the decision to include 2,044 asbestos-exposed individuals in the treatment group of 9,241 persons? Not so, it turns out. Intensive segment analysis of the asbestos group's data relative to the heavy-smoker group showed that "There was no statistical evidence of heterogeneity of the relative risk among these subgroups."

What the CARET study had, in fact, done was not just replicate the ATBC results but provide the beginnings of a dose-response curve. The Finns had used 20 mg/day of beta-carotene; CARET employed a 50% higher dose. The result had been 50% more cancer.

It was hard to understand the results of the ATBC and CARET studies in light of the fact that another large trial involving beta-carotene, the Physicians' Health Study, had reported neither harm nor benefit from 50 mg of beta carotene taken every other day for 12 years. However, the Physicians' Health Study population was younger and healthier than ATBC or CARET study groups and was predominantly (89%) made up of non-smokers. This turned out to be quite important. (Read on.)

It's been almost 20 years since the ATBC and CARET results were reported. (And to this day, most clinicians are not aware of the results of either study, at least in the U.S.) What have we learned in that time?

In 2007, Bjelakovic et al. undertook a systematic review of existing literature on antioxidant studies covering the time frame 1977 to 2006. The systematic review procedure was conducted using the well-regarded methodology of the Cochrane Collaboration, a group that specializes in (and is known for) high-quality meta-analyses. In analyzing the 47 most rigorously designed studies of supplement effectiveness, Bjelakovic et al. found that 15,366 study subjects (out of a total treatment population of 99,095 persons) died while taking antioxidants, whereas 9,131 placebo-takers, in control groups totalling 81,843 persons, died in those same studies. (This is not including ATBC or CARET results.) The studies in question used beta-carotene, Vitamin E, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and/or selenium.

In a separate meta-analysis, Miller et al. found a dose-dependent relationship of Vitamin E with all-cause mortality for 135,967 participants in 19 clinical trials. At daily doses below about 150 International Units, Vitamin E appears to be helpful; above that, harmful. Miller et al. concluded:
In view of the increased mortality associated with high dosages of beta -carotene and now vitamin E, use of any high-dosage vitamin supplements should be discouraged until evidence of efficacy is documented from appropriately designed clinical trials.
How are we to make sense of these results? Why have so many studies shown a harmful effect for antioxidants when so many other studies (particularly those carried out in animals, but also those carried out in predominantly healthy human populations) have shown a clear benefit?

The answer may have to do with something called apoptosis, otherwise known as programmed cell death. The body has ways of determining when cells have become dysfunctional to the point of needing to be told to shut down. When cells reach this point, their mitochondria kick off a cascade of reactions (involving caspases and other enzymes) designed to terminate the cells. Most cancer therapies exert their effect by inducing apoptosis, and it's fairly well accepted that in normal, healthy individuals, precancerous cells are constantly being formed, then destroyed through apoptosis. (In a normal healthy adult, as many as 50 billion cells a day, most of them non-cancerous, are destroyed this way.) Antioxidants are known to interfere with apoptosis. In essence, they promote the survival of normal cells as well as cells that shouldn't be allowed to live.

If you're a young non-smoker in good health, the level of cell turnover (from apoptosis) in your body is nowhere near as high as the level of turnover in an older person, or someone at high risk of cancer. Therefore, antioxidants are apt to do more good than harm in a young, healthy person. But if your body is harboring cancer cells, you don't want anitoxidants to encourage the growth of neoplastic cells by interfering with their apoptosis. This is the real lesson of antioxidant research.

The food industry and the people who make nutritional supplements have no interest in telling you any of the things you've read here. But now that you know the story of the dark side of antioxidants (a story made possible by thousands of ordinary people who died in the name of science), you owe it to yourself to take the story to heart. If you're a smoker or at high risk for heart disease or cancer, consider scaling back your use of lipid-soluble antioxidant supplements (particularly vitamins A and E); it could save your life. (There is no need to scale back vitamin D, however, which has potent anti-cancer effects.) And please, if you found any of this information helpful, share it with family, friends, Facebook and Twitter followers, and others. The story needs to get out. The cancer industry isn't going to tell it to you. They haven't so far. There's too much money to be made selling you $70,000-a-year chemotherapies. No one's going to look out for your health but you.

You Might Also Like
Aspirin for cancer prevention (at An enormous body of evidence points to vast reductions in cancer rates, for a wide variety of cancers, for those who take NSAIDs like iburofen and aspirin daily.

When Vitamins Turn Deadly: More on the CARET disaster and why it took so long to terminate the study when investigators knew full well that people were dying unnecessarily.

Who Needs Antioxidants? Why the free-radical theory of aging is just plain wrong.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The World's Longest (and Best) Paragraph

In May 1951, Jack Kerouac wrote his friend Neal Cassady to tell him about the road-trip novel he'd just finished. In the letter, Kerouac talked of how he had typed the entire manuscript between April 2 and April 22, on a single 120-foot roll of teletype paper, single-spaced, "just rolled it through typewriter and in fact no paragraphs . . . rolled it out on floor and it looks like a road."
Kerouac's famous scroll manuscript for On the Road.

Six years later, an edited, vastly shortened version of the manuscript (with the characters' real names changed to fictional ones) was published by Viking Penguin ("in mutilated form," Allen Ginsburg once said). In 2007, to mark the book's 50th anniversary, Viking Penguin published the original single-paragraph "scroll version" of On the Road, complete with creative spellings (and containing the sex scenes that had earlier been deemed too controversial), with original character names intact and no attempt to "correct" anything other than the most obvious typos. (The original scroll is today owned by sports magnate Jim Irsay, who paid $2.43 million for it in 2001.)

The 2007 scroll version is the edition I just finished reading, and it's the only edition of On the Road anyone should ever read, because the single-long-paragraph nature of the book and the use of real names for real people are crucial elements of the work, in my opinion.

Like Jack himself (both in the story and in the writing of the manuscript), I got off to a bad start with the book, reading the first 40 pages in one sitting, then making the mistake of letting it go cold for several days. In a book with no plot that's told completely experientially, that's printed as a single 300-page paragraph with no breaks, you have no structural reference points to hold onto, whether typographically or in the story line, which means that if you walk away from it, you forget where you were almost instantly. In my case, I found myself starting again at page one after the first false attempt. And I made damn sure to keep moving from that point on, stopping only to eat, bathe, attend to bodily needs, etc. before resuming the trip.

I got through the book with difficulty. Kerouac's language is suitably mellifluous and inventive, his reportage sincere and seemingly accurate. But the nonstop parade of nonsensical events, leavened by the tragicomic personal-life misadventures of the womanizing Neal Cassady, is ultimately tiresome. Happily, after 135 pages or so, the travelers arrive at the Burroughs ranch in Algiers, Louisiana, and the writing style pivots ever so slightly as Kerouac launches into a loving, carefully crafted portrait of the enigmatic Bill Burroughs. From there, it's back to a meandering series of road trips to New York and San Francisco (always by way of Denver), with various side trips thrown in.

The Great Depression had long since ended, of course (this was 1949), but you couldn't tell it from the indigence of the characters. Jack's monthly $18 checks from the Veterans' Administration seldom went far, what with Neal Cassady's constant need for booze, cigarettes, gasoline, weed, and bail money. What they couldn't afford to buy, they often stole. (In Cassady's case, that sometimes included cars.)

At one point in the story, Kerouac inexplicably comes into a sizable (for those days) sum of cash: $1,000. It's never explained that this was, in fact, the advance for Kerouac's first novel, The Town and The City. He uses it to move his mother from Long Island to Denver. The woman finds Denver not to her liking and moves back to New York. Money gone, Jack hits the road again.

The story accelerates and acquires an almost Hunter Thompson-like feel in Book Three (the "book" breakpoints are unceremoniously noted inline in the text, without indents or spacing) when Cassady and Kerouac agree to deliver a two-year-old Cadillac limousine from Denver to Chicago. They put over 1,000 miles on the car in 23 hours, breaking the speedometer cable after exceeding 110 mph. Along the way, they suffer various mishaps and end up turning the car over to the owner in ramshackle condition. Miraculously, the owner never sends the police after them.

Arguably the best storytelling comes in Book Four, when Cassady and Kerouac, having exhausted America's highway system, head to Mexico. The writing is vivid, piquant, engaging, endearing—unforgettable.

Of course, there is never any hint of a plot, dramatic structure, etc., and that's exactly the point of the book (and of life); the journey is itself the point. It's also why On the Road couldn't possibly find a major publisher (as it did in 1957) if it were written today. It doesn't check the checkboxes of agents' and publishers' "minimum requirements" for a novel. In fact, it quite deliberately gives the finger to all such requirements. Which is why On the Road stands virtually alone among bestselling novels of the past 70 years as being truly experimental yet also truly a quintessential piece of Americana and American literature. It would be fun to submit the book, in manuscript form (as a single paragraph) under a pseudonym, to agents and publishers, just to collect the rejection slips generated by the legions of interns and editorial assistants and self-appointed arbiters of the literary status quo who would never dare take a chance on anything as proto-gonzo as a plotless, one-paragraph, 125,000-word road diary centered around an itinerant womanizer/con-man and his urbane college-dropout buddy. Noo noo nooo, we shan't have any of this.

Today, Kerouac (if he were starting anew) would have to put out his own print-on-demand and e-book editions of his work and then go about the grim business of gaming the Amazon rating system, maintaining a blog (and Facebook page and Twitter account), and doing all the other must-do activities of writers who want to rise above the background noise of what today passes for literature, all without a hope of ever getting a review in The New York Times (much less the kind of review On the Road got from Gilbert Millstein in 1957).

We should all be glad that Kerouac and On the Road came along when they did, at a time when a quiet, humdrum, thoroughly racist, excruciatingly conformist America needed the kind of wake-up call Kerouac provided, and the kind a New York City publishing establishment was still able to give. Those days are over, of course. We're on a different kind of road now.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Fiction is Spinach

I've mentioned before, I read fiction grudgingly, much the way a young child eats cooked spinach grudgingly. 

The novel I've most recently
read and liked.
I've tried to figure out why this is—why, as a writer (mostly of nonfiction, but sometimes fiction), I find it so punishing to read novels. It wasn't always this way. When I was young, I was a page-flipping fool.

It comes down, I think, to just a couple of things.

First off, I'm impatient. I want immediate payback from anything in which I invest time these days, partly because I'm older now (and value my time differently than I did when I was 20), but also partly because of the Internet and how it has inexorably altered the value proposition of information interchange. In a single day, I find more answers to things via Google than I used to find in a month of spare-time noodling around. The Web gives the appearance (maybe not the reality) of instant gratification in all things knowledge-related, and this, I think, causes a subtle tectonic shift in one's Weltanschauung. My sense of normal information throughput has been recalibrated. It's hard to describe. Maybe I'll blog more about it later. When there's time.

The impatience problem isn't helped by the fact that, like many writers, I'm a slow reader. I read slowly because there's no other way to hear the words. I enjoy the sound of language, the syncopating rhythms, the chance alliterations, the assonance and dissonance. And I need time to gauge subtext. Nothing ruins a good read like speed-reading. I purposely read slowly, probably no more than 120 words a minute (although in short bursts I can go as slow as 25 wpm).

It also doesn't help that I'm an inveterate movie-watcher. Films these days are very tightly scripted. Usually something dramatic happens in the first five minutes, and sometime between the ten-minute mark and the twenty-minute mark, you have a solid understanding of who the main characters are, what their quests (their missions) are, and which direction(s) the plot will take them. Twenty minutes into a novel, I've read at most 10 pages. Most novels don't give you much to hold onto in 10 pages. Some do, of course. But not many. Not nearly enough.

Some novels (I'm thinking here of Dan Brown's work) make a conscious effort to move the story along in the first few pages, but often at the expense of good writing. So merely propelling me into the story isn't enough. I need to feel that what I'm reading has literary merit, a level of craft, a level of care with language, that's worth my time and thought.

It also has to be a compelling and unusual story. This gets to the crux of the matter, I think. Today's world is much richer, more dynamic, faster moving, and infinitely more perverse than the staid 1950s and early-1960s of my youth. Nonfiction books have become extraordinarily compelling over the years, while novels have receded into the bland landscape of cultural background noise. After you've been gripped by the profoundly perverse and terrifying goings-on in Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine or Robert Whitaker's Mad in America (two of the most remarkable nonfiction works I've ever encountered), you can't help but be convinced that truth is inherently stranger than fiction. Which of course puts fiction at a disadvantage.

Thus I wasn't at all impressed with Little Bee, one of the most acclaimed novels of recent memory, in which you're required to read 150 pages or so (I'm too lazy to check right now) to find out why the unhappily married white lady is missing a finger. Once I got to the big "finger reveal," I stopped reading; I found I wasn't really all that interested in the main characters and their various dysfunctions and affections and affectations. In fact, I felt cheated that the entire book pivoted on such a lame "dramatic turn" (the chopping off of the finger) and that it had been kept hidden for so long. Suddenly the intertwining plights of the poor black girl and the rich fingerless white lady seemed intolerably banal. I threw the book across the room.

So, what do I like? Which novels could I stand to read anew?

I like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, certainly. And Moby Dick. As for twentieth-century English novels, I'm partial to Catch-22 (a book I enjoyed from the very first page), as well as Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. I found Naked Lunch disappointing but was greatly impressed by Burroughs's Junky (the novel I've most recently read and liked). Junky is billed as fiction but is clearly more memoir than novel. As I look at the various novels I've enjoyed, they tend to be written in first-person and have a memoir-like aspect. They also tend to be tales written in such a way that you know from the very first page that you're in the hands of a masterful storyteller. Twain, Poe, Melville, Vonnegut, all tend to be that way. Joseph Heller hits the target with Catch-22 yet misses the mark in nearly everything else he wrote. (Burroughs is likewise infuriatingly uneven.)

I'm currently forcing myself to read On the Road, and once I finish (if I finish), I'll do a full review here. I'm halfway into the 2007 "Original Scroll" version (Penguin Classics), which is a direct transcription of Kerouac's famous 120-foot-long manuscript (typed single-spaced on a single roll of teletype paper). I came close to abandoning the book after 120 pages. But then the group arrives at Bill Burroughs's place in Louisiana and the quality of the writing takes a subtle shift.

It seems the proper answer to my dilemma (the way to get myself to enjoy fiction once again) is probably to unplug from the Internet, slow down the pace of life, relax, be more willing to lavish spare time on Other People's Ink, pry my brain loose from the trappings of cinema and cable news and cell phones and Twitter and the nonstop parade of cacophonous bullshit that constitutes life in the twenty-first century.

We all know that's not going to happen. The fact that it should happen, but can't, is the great tragedy of modern technological life. We're stuck in the miasma. Immobilized in digital riches too rich to measure. It's a miracle we can think at all.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Year of No Alcohol

Today marks a full year since I gave up alcohol. And I'm glad I gave it up, because the risk/reward ratio had long since deteriorated far past the point of being able to justify the continued, never-ending expense, not only in terms of pocket money but in terms of mental and physical health. It's like when you continue to own that clapped-out school-graduation car beyond the point where it needs brakes and belts, beyond the point of needing shocks and a muffler and new rear speakers and a little body work, and—wait a minute, why is the heat not coming on now?

I was getting so little benefit from alcohol compared to the down side. No amount of beer gave me that elusive hey-howya-doin' social effusiveness, that tickly-giddy reach-up-and-touch-the-moon buzz I once got, way back—when, exactly? High school? College? Heck, I hadn't gotten a decent high from beer (or any other alcoholic beverage) in decades. Intoxication? Sure. Numbness? Lots. Clumsiness? Puffy nose? Eye-baggage? A beer belly? I got a lot of things from beer. But a buzz worth talking about? I can't remember when that last happened.

Let me tell you what I do remember.

I remember the many mornings waking up sideways on the bed two hours late, fully dressed in yesterday's clothes, not recollecting having gone to bed.

I remember the beer cans, everywhere: In the recycling bin. On the floor. Atop the fridge. In (and next to) the kitchen garbage. On the water closet. The back porch. The kitchen sink. My desk.

I remember the panicky midnight trips to the local mini-mart to replenish my stock of Bud Ice (which I had been sure, just two hours before, I had a plenty-big supply of, on hand). Always hoping I wouldn't get pulled over. (Yet always sure I could walk a better line, drunk, than the average person could, sober.)

I remember the time I staggered into the back bedroom at one in the morning looking for a paper clip, I think it was
and somehow I ended up on my back, on the carpet, with an office chair on my face, the plastic arm of the chair having neatly scraped away a half-inch-wide swath of epidermis from my forehead. It was just a surface wound, but there was a ridiculous amount of blood from it. I laughed at the preposterousness of the whole scene. Then I explained it away as a "freak accident."

I could go on and on. But I won't. Mind you, I had originaly planned a much longer post today on this subject, and I got about halfway through the writing of it before I found myself bored to tears. I have a firm rule, which is I never write anything that bores me. So I may (or may not) return to that piece later, when and if I think of something suitably upbeat to say about the whole thirty-years-of-beer-guzzling thing. Except, there's nothing fun or glamorous or upbeat or profound about it. I drank anywhere from two to twelve beers a day (less in the beginning; more as the years wore on) for almost forty years. The first ten years or so were sweet. The second ten were tolerable. The last twenty were stupid, and embarrassing, and (overall) hellishly unsatisfying.

I can honestly say I don't miss alcohol. I'm one of the lucky ones: I never had withdrawal symptoms. I didn't have, and still don't have, cravings. I can go out to eat and enjoy a non-alcoholic Beck's with dinner and not wish it were the real thing. I can be at a party and see other people happily trading sips of  this or that merlot or shiraz and not give a rat's rectum. Alcohol is for other people now. It no longer interests me.

When I see people making jokes involving alcohol on Twitter, I smile wistfully and nod, thinking "Yeah, I remember when it was like that." It was fun for a while. Especially in the beginning. First high best high.

It's fun until it isn't. And then it's time to just move on.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Bacterium Behind Colon Cancer

Today I wrote a post for BigThink that I've been meaning to write for weeks. In August, several papers were published showing that a particular bacterium, Fusobacterium nucleatum, is strongly implicated in development of colorectal cancer (CRC).

Fusobacterium living in intestinal mucosa.
The latest research in no way invalidates the huge existing body of work showing strong (almost certainly causal) connections between CRC and consumption of alcohol, sugar, meat, and/or tobacco. There are other risk factors as well, such as lack of physical activity (by itself), obesity,  and genetics. (See this paper and this one for more discussion, and by all means do further investigation on your own using Google Scholar.) Genetic susceptibility, however, plays a role in no more than about 5% of CRC cases. (And even in those cases, it's by no means certain that bad alleles constitute a death sentence.)

The picture that's emerging is a complex one in which intestinal dysbiosis triggered by (for example) poor eating habits leads to the differential accumulation of various species of gut bacteria (Bacteroides fragilis, Fusobacterium nucleatum, and others) that are implicated in colorectal cancer. At some point (over a period of years, apparently), Fusobacterium gains entry to intestinal muscosal cells. (F. nucleatum has aspects of an intracellular-parasitic lifestyle.) Once it has established residency, F. nucleatum overproduces FadA adhesin, a small protein containing 129 amino acids, the exact sequence for which (in FASTA format) is:

>tr|Q5I6B0|Q5I6B0_FUSNU Adhesion A OS=Fusobacterium nucleatum GN=fadA PE=1 SV=1

The letters here correspond to amino acids, using the standard one-letter code system (as presented here). In three dimensions, the FadA protein looks something like this:

Your new worst enemy: FadA adhesin produced by Fusobacterium nucleatum, the "kickoff protein" for colon cancer.

When this relatively small protein binds with normal E-adhesin (in a specific 11-amino-acid region), it activates β-catenin signaling, which in turn unleashes a cascade of cytokines (cytokines IL-6, IL-10, IL-12, IL-17, plus TNF-α) and an inflammatory cycle that leads straight to adenoma of the colon.

For the non-paywalled research paper on this, go to Read that paper (and this one, if you can) and decide for yourself how strong the case is for F. nucleatum FadA as a causative agent in colorectal cancer. I think it's pretty clear. We're looking at a smoking gun.

Now the really interesting thing about F nucleatum is that it's most commonly found not in the large intestine but in your mouth. Which brings up some interesting questions, right? For example: How does poor oral hygiene correlate with colorectal cancer? Little work has been done on that specific connection, but a huge amount of work has been (and continues to be) done on the substantial and increasingly obvious link between periodontal disease and cancer in general (which I'll probably blog about at some future time).

If the link between F. nucleatum's FadA protein and CRC proves to be as solid as it's starting to look, it opens countless doors to new therapeutic approaches to CRC treatment and prevention. We need to know, for example, if specific probiotic treatments can greatly reduce the risk of precancerous adenomas by staving off dysbiosis. We also urgently need to know if the outlook for early-stage CRC patients can be improved with aggressive use of antibiotics, including antibiotic-induced near-sterilization of the large intestine followed by fecal transplantation to restore the normal flora.

It hardly needs mentioning, but if it turns out to be true that CRC is mainly a result of a single bacterium, perhaps a vaccine can be developed, either against Fusobacterium or against the FadA protein, or both.

I'm extremely encouraged by the recent research pinpointing FadA as the likely culprit in CRC. Obviously, much work remains to be done. But we have an exciting new insight into this particular type of carcinogenesis. The treatment options that come out of it may well lead to other cures.

Some of us (here I'm speaking with my microbiologist's hat on; I have an advanced degree in the subject) have long suspected that microbes play a role in fostering—and preventing—various cancers. When I was in graduate school, you could count the number of microbially caused neoplasms on your thumbs. Now you have to use most fingers of both hands. Who knows what the full truth may yet turn out to be?

Exciting times.

If you enjoyed this post, or the corresponding one at BigThink, do me a favor. Tweet it or share it in some fashion. This is knowledge that deserves to get out. Who knows? It may save a life.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

A Syria Recap

Somebody, probably Syrian army regulars, maybe with a go-ahead from the highest levels of government (maybe not), killed 1400 people in Damascus using sarin gas.

International community: "Terrible. Just awful. A shame." (Then back to business as usual.)

United States: "How dare you! How dare you kill 1400 people with chemicals, when you could have killed them with bullets, the acceptable way! We are of course happy to stand by and watch you slaughter each other by the tens of thousands with bullets and mortars and cutlery. But bug spray? This is an outrage. You must now be punished, severely, with beautiful American-crafted $1.4 million cruise missiles by Raytheon, which will reduce your artillery, your planes, and your chemical slingshots to rubble. Of course, we will not actually destroy your chemical weapons, because that would only unleash obnoxious fumes and kill more people the Unacceptable Way. American Exceptionalism demands that we show you the proper, Acceptable Way of killing people. And we will do it soon, with our very large and suitably phallus-like missiles. We don't care how many women and children you place in our missiles' paths or the fact that even if they land in the desert and kill no one, you'll still show the world photographs of dead civilians 'killed by U.S. missiles,' thereby destroying whatever subatomic particle of credibility we continue to have on the world stage. This may be a lose-lose situation for us, but it is a lose-lose-LOSE-lose-lose-LOSE situation for those who dare to kill people with chemical fumes, even if many tons of ingredients used in the making of your chemical weapons came from our good friends in the UK."

CIA: "And by the way, here are a few truckloads of guns and stuff you were asking for. Don't let them fall into the wrong hands. You know, people who might be hostile to the U.S.? You don't know anybody like that, do you?"

Bashar al-Assad: "I shall not dignify any of this with a response. Instead I shall affix my signature to a piece of your treaty-paper, and take my case directly to Charlie Rose."

Kerry: "Damn, the UK just caved in to the will of the people! What the actual fuck was that about? And it looks like we have some haters in the House who are going to obstruct us on this."

Lavrov: "Perhaps you have heard of a TV show, it was once popular in your country? Let's Make a Deel."

Obama (crouching in a corner, tentatively touching a finger to the floor, then to each wall, then the floor again): "Man, I thought this stuff would never dry. And the fumes are killing me."

Putin: "Stay thirsty, my friends."

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Why Most Novels Don't Sell

Not long ago (April 2013), Mike Cooper tried to calculate the average amount of royalties earned per year by self-publishers of novels, and he came up with the appallingly low (but probably accurate) figure of $297.

Why so low? Well, there's a tremendous oversupply of titles, for one thing. With around 2 million titles available (growing by 5% or more a year), you can't expect that the average book will be terribly lucrative. But there's also the fact that most novels are not particularly well written (to put it kindly). Let's be blunt. Most self-published novels (and a large percentage of traditionally published ones) are irredeemable junk. And thanks to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, most authors of said novels don't have any idea how bad their work is.
Does the world need another
self-published novel?

Inexperienced novelists greatly underestimate the difficulty of achieving what I would call structural soundness in a story, which is why I recommended in a previous post that novelists try writing the screenplay version of their work first. Screenplays are highly structured (read this great series of posts), make extensive use of dialog, and require "visual thinking"—all of which can help any novelist.

Most would-be novelists fall far short of understanding what it takes to make a story compelling. Screenwriter Matt Bird provides a thoughtful and comprehensive checklist of the most important story elements in this magnificent post. He suggests around 120 things that can make a story better, all of them worth considering. Most novelists seem painfully oblivious to the majority of these considerations.

But a lot of novels fail on a more basic level, the level of ordinary diction. The failures take many forms. I looked at a novel the other day in which the first paragraph of Chapter One contained 16 instances of "it" or "its." The writing was nowhere near skilled enough to sustain that many instances of "it."

In another book I saw 45 instances of he/his/him on a single page of around 200 words (e-book). It was like the main character didn't have a name. His name was "he."

Triteness is rampant. I've lost count of how many times I've seen the phrase "untimely death," for example. All deaths are untimely by default, are they not? "Untimely" is arch, trite, and unnecessary.

Speaking of arch, many British writers seem unaware of (or perhaps indifferent to) the fact that Americans haven't used "whilst" in conversation for nearly 200 years.

Probably the two most reliable tipoffs that you're reading the work of an unskilled amateur are overuse of adverbs, and use of a verb other than "said" to carry dialog (in violation of Leonard's Third Law). A truly unskilled amateur manages to combine both abuses: "I'd like to see more of you," he murmured suggestively.

Are adverbs always bad? No, of course not. But they're usually a "tell" (an opportunity to go back and show). They qualify as overdescription. In case you didn't know, narrative description (once an honored WMD in the novelist's arsenal) is now passé. (Don't take my word for it. Read some recent books by literary agent Donald Maass, among others.) Adverbs are cheap bolt-ons. They have no cash value.

Let me show you what a heartless fussbuster (or more colloquially: an asshole) I am when it comes to evaluating fiction. Two days ago, I came across the following sentence in a novel:
As a large stone building loomed over him, a strange high-pitched noise, rather musical and not very far carrying, stopped him dead in his tracks.
"Loomed" sounds hackneyed to me, but that's the least of our problems here. I have no idea what makes the noise in this passage "strange." I can imagine a high-pitched noise, but in what way is it strange? It's strange because you tell me it is? Suppose I want to figure that out on my own. "Rather musical and not very far carrying" is abysmal. What does "rather musical" mean? You just told me it's strange. Now it's musical? Why "rather"? "Not very far carrying" is amateur-sounding. (The word "very" is usually weak, by the way.) Is it critical to the story that this strange-yet-rather-musical sound is not "far carrying"? Why bring it up, then? "Stopped him dead in his tracks": Only an amateur uses trite expressions like "dead in his tracks."

Here's more from the same novel:

He listened intently, his eyes straining to see through the fog; all was silent for a second and then he jumped suddenly as a sound of huge wings thrashed toward him. He stepped back and stumbled slightly and then there was silence again. Hastily, he made for the front door, lifted the latch and stepped quickly into a small vestibule. He wiped his feet on the worn mat and glanced down the corridor.
Lots of problems here, starting with four "he" sentences in a row. He did this. He did that. He did this. Eight occurrences of he/his/him in four sentences.

The semicolon isn't needed. (They never are.) Use a period.

He listened intently. As opposed to what? Listening carelessly? Get rid of adverbs.

His eyes straining to see through the fog has nothing to do with listening, does it? So why are they in the same sentence? He jumped suddenly. Is there another way to jump? Again: Get rid of adverbs.

Personally, I don't like the idea of a sound thrashing toward someone. Read what it says: It says a sound (of huge wings) thrashed. Does a sound thrash? I'm confused. Did a bird accost our hero? A bat? There's no mention of an animal.

Hastily, he made for the door. Maybe in England people still "make for" doors. I don't know. "Hastily," I can do without. Get rid of adverbs.

There's no fixing this type of writing by swapping out a word here or there. As the foundry people say, time to melt and repour.

Unfortunately, most novels are like this. I'm surprised anyone can stand to read such dreck. But then, as Mike Cooper found (see link at the beginning), most people aren't reading it. Frankly, it's a wonder the average novel even makes $297. I think Cooper's calculations are generous.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Bizarro Fiction Prompts

Your job is to incorporate one or more of the following into the first, second, or third paragraph of a short story or novel. (And if you do, send me the draft for a free critique: kasthomas at hushmail dot com.)

The old shopkeeper shuffled away, then paused to look back at me one last time, doing one of those painful old-person torso-turns in which the neck doesn't participate.

After only the second day of pink snow, people were already less concerned (much less, in fact) about why the snow was pink than when it would end.

From where I was lying, I could see the dirt along the baseboards, the dead fly in the corner, a decade's accumulation of fuzz and cruft under the refrigerator, Satan's trail mix.

It was a thoroughly vile idea, a painfully wretched and repulsive plan, which is exactly why we knew it would work.

One tiny smudge of lipstick on the rim of a wine glass. That, and something sticky on a napkin. That's all it took.

Inside his lunchbox, the shards of a broken mind.

When Dad shut the car door, there it was, that awful feeling again, the sudden realization that there was no longer oxygen enough for two.

You wouldn't think a moldy grapefruit could set your life on fire, but it can.

From my vantage point, I watched her bury the notebook, not all at once, but one crumpled up page at a time. It was like planting a garden. Every few inches, a broken dream, packed carefully in topsoil, with a raised mound around it, to let the tears drain off.

He reeked of day-old cigarette butts. And old-vine zinfandel. The vines, mostly.

"Can I go now? Or is there a law against wearing a gun holster with a banana in it?"

Until that moment, my life had been something I just watched indifferently—an animated test pattern, a Rorschach test of the damned, played on a continuous tape-loop on the Absurdo Channel.

"Like I said, I wasn't trying to start any trouble, okay? All I said to the guy was 'Nice belt. You make that in prison?'"

There was only one thing left to tell Richard, the thing that had sent two prior fiancés into therapy (and their therapists to rehab).

It was Aimee's idea to burn the wig, the wallet, and the weird thing with the fake flower. I wouldn't let her burn the shoes.

That afternoon, I stood in the longest line at the bank, the line with people depositing false dreams.

Justine called around midnight with the "good news." We'd just elected another turbodick from Planet Mutando to the U.S. Senate. Little did she know her man's political cojones (and maybe soon his real ones) were in a safe-deposit box in the Cayman Islands, registered in my name.

When Richard opened the suitcase, flies came out. Flies and fumes. There were pineapple skins, milk cartons, coffee grounds, cigar butts. An old sock wrapped around something that blinked. "What's the matter?" I asked. "You said you wanted a dirty bomb."

A tiny old Haitian woman came to the door wearing a rooster's foot on a necklace. She held it up to my face carefully, as if to say "speak into the foot."

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Enter the Scene Late, Leave Early

It shouldn't come as a surprise, but you can't be mentally ill and work for the CIA, any more than a Marine Corps sergeant can work for Islamic terrorists. Yet those are, in fact, the unlikely backstories of the two main characters on Showtime's über-popular TV drama, Homeland, loosely based on the Israeli drama Hatufim ("Abductees," packaged for English audiences as Prisoners of War).

A full review of Homeland will have to wait for some other time. Right now, I just want to point to Homeland's handling of scene cuts, as a reminder to fiction writers (and storytellers generally) of the effectiveness of the time-honored trick of entering a scene late and leaving early.

Generally, in TV-land, the trick is more like enter early, leave early, but the point is: We don't need to see the whole scene to get the gist. Telling the whole story is overkill. Viewers of TV shows don't like overkill, and neither do readers of novels.

It's a strange homecoming for Marine Sergeant Nick Brody, in more ways than one.

There's a critical scene where newly liberated POW Nicholas Brody (played by Damian Lewis), coming back from Iraq after eight years in captivity, gets to inform his wife that he's on his way home. No one has yet told her about the rescue operation that freed him. Brody insisted that he be the first to tell his wife. I quote now from the pilot episode's script:


Wearing a yellow ribbon, JESSICA BRODY, perpetually but charmingly harried, arrives at her boss's office. She knocks and enters without waiting for permission. Colonel MICHAEL FABER looks up from his desk.

Sorry I'm late on that report, 
but Stan promised he'd send 
over his budget yesterday -

Jessica -

Oblivious to Faber's real purpose, she plows ahead:

He's always got some excuse -


She stops, hearing the gravity in his voice . . .

That's not why I asked you in 
here. You have a phone call.

Tell me what's wrong, Mike, because you're 
scaring me. Something's happened to my kids?

Nothing's wrong.

Faber's reassuring smile shows some strain as he stands.

I should give you some privacy. Line two.

He closes the door behind him, leaving 
Jessica alone with the blinking phone. 
As she slowly lifts the receiver:

(into phone)



Brody is wearing a white T-shirt and khakis.

(into phone)
Jessica . . . ?

She blinks, disbelieving what she's hearing.

It's me . . . Brody.

-- Brody?


Faber watches her through the glass, 
with an oddly pained expression.

(end of scene)

So note two things. First, most writers would have begun the scene with an underling leaning into Jessica's office to say "The boss man wants you. I don't know what it's about, but it seems urgent." Or perhaps the phone rings and it's Faber saying "Can you come to my office for a minute?"

None of that here.

Secondly, most writers would have considered this scene so important (after all, it's a woman hearing the voice of her officially-presumed-dead POW husband on the phone for the first time in eight years) that they would surely have included more dialog than just the characters saying each other's names. Not so, here. As soon as the moment of astonishment is recorded, we briefly cut to the face of Faber, outside the office; then the scene is over. (Faber, it turns out, had been involved romantically with Jessica, in Brody's absence. He knows it's over now.) Word, word, expression, done.

The next scene is one in which the stunned wife (played by Morena Baccarin) comes home to tell her children (a son, 12, and a daughter, 17 going on 20) that their dad is not only alive after eight years of captivity but on his way home. This is a pretty important scene, right? It deserves a bit of drama. It's interesting to see how the show's writers (in this case, Alex Gansa, Howard Gordon, and Gideon Raff) handle it. They handle it by showing us 12-year-old Chris Brody playing Call of Duty on Xbox as Mom arrives home early from work. Finding Chris in front of the TV, she asks him "Where's your sister?" The boy acts confused/nervous and asks Mom why she's home early. Jessica says "I need to tell you both something very important."

The daughter, Dana, is upstairs. Jessica charges upstairs with Chris is tow. It turns out Dana is in her bedroom engaged in heavy petting with her boyfriend, Kyle. When Mom bursts in, the teens are buttoning their clothes.

How come you're not at work?

Jessica tries to keep her voice even.

How come I'm not at work? 
I hardly think that's the 
question here. Who's he?


Well, Kyle, it's nice to 
meet you. Now get out.

Dana nods to Kyle, dismissing him.

I'll call you later.

Kyle grabs his shoes, Jessica calling 
after him as he slinks out the door:

And you can tell your parents 
I'll be calling them too.

Why are you making such a 
big deal out of this?

Gee, Dana, I don't know. 
It's either the underage sex --

We didn't do anything, we 
were just fooling around --

Or the lying.

Mom . . .

(ignoring him)
All I'm asking for is a little 
respect, dammit. Not a lot. A little.



You said you had something 
important to tell us.

Jessica puts a hand to her mouth, shakes her head . . .

(suddenly concerned)
What is it, Mom? What's the matter?

ON Jessica, about to tell them . . .

Then we dissolve to the next scene (where Faber picks up the family to take them to Andrews Air Force Base to get Dad).

This is (of course) a classic example of leaving a scene early—way, wayyyy early. We don't even get to see Mom tell the kids Dad's coming home!

Nine out of ten writers would have had the mom sit on the bed with the kids and begin an ultra-dramatic dialog around Dad Coming Home. Tears would start to flow. Faces frozen in disbelief. "Mom, are you sure?" All that sort of thing.

None of that here. 

What was the scene about, then? It's about Sergeant Brody. It's about what the poor bastard missed while he was in a cave for eight years in Afghanistan. The little boy that was hardly out of diapers the last time he saw him is now playing photorealistic combat games on Xbox. The little girl who was 9 when he left is now a young woman with raging hormones. Brody has been robbed of the one thing no man ever wants to be robbed of: watching his kids grow up. The fact that his wife had a fling with another man suddenly pales in comparison. (Doesn't it?) You can rebuild a marriage. You can't roll back time.

It was a brilliant move by the writers.

Naturally, I have to ask you: What brilliant and daring choices are you making in your own writing? Are you giving in to the urge to show oh-so-moving scenes in luxurious detail, thinking you're doing the reader a favor? Are you laying a lot of predictable dialog on us when it's not really needed? Or are you letting the characters' actions and situations tell us things that 1,000 words of dialog couldn't possibly tell any better?

It's not just a matter of show versus tell. It's a matter showing just enough, just in time. It's the old less-is-more routine. Except, less may be much more than you think.

Food for thought. Munch on it.

The script for the pilot of Homeland is here. Season Three begins September 29 on Showtime. Old episodes are shown Friday nights all this month in the U.S. To view the premier episode of Season 2 online (free), try going here.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Write the Screenplay Version First

I'm a finicky reader. I can't read most fiction because it's either too boring (I'm constantly asking "So what?" after every sentence and looking at the page number to see where I am) or just plain poorly written at the most basic level. I try, periodically, to get through the first few pages of some new author's "breakthrough" novel—and invariably find the experience upsetting. Even if most fiction writers were masters of diction (which they aren't), I'd be disgusted by the sheer lack of storytelling craft evident in so many supposedly gripping novels. You wouldn't think it'd be that hard. A compelling character plus a decent plot line should result in a decent book, yes? No, actually. There's more to it than that. Way more.

Screenwriters, much more so than novelists, take story construction seriously. They know that a story is more than a few good characters with a plot that has a beginning, middle, and end. They know that a character can understand what he wants (or thinks he wants) without at all understanding what he needs, for example. Screenwriters tend to know (better than novelists) that character is best shown, through action, and not told through narrative or inner dialog. They understand the need for frequent plot reversals, people and events that aren't what they seem they are, crises that can't get any worse but do, the need for multiple plot lines that fold back on each other, etc. And they certainly understand, better than most novelists, the need for high-impact visuals.

All of which is by way of saying, if you're writing a novel, it might pay you to try writing the screenplay first.

A screenplay is an extended outline for a story, told visually and through dialog, containing a bare minimum of directorial advice. It runs 110 to 120 pages, properly formatted; never much more (nor much less) than that. It follows certain fairly rigid conventions as to style, yet obviously there's enough freedom within the constraints to allow art to happen.

Professional screenwriter Matt Bird gives a comprehensive checklist of things every story should try to accomplish in one of his best-ever blog posts. Matt's list runs to about 120 items. I agree with all of the items on the list; every single one of them can make a story better. If you can accomplish all 120 requirements in the scope of a 120-page screenplay, chances are you've got a halfway decent story, although you could still be a sucky screenwriter, of course.

I think if the average novelist were to distill his or her story into a screenplay first, before writing the novel, the novel could only be better, even if the screenplay version blows chunks. Sadly, novelists (especially first-timers) seem to think the rules of screenwriting don't apply to them. I think they're badly mistaken.

Do you need a film-school degree to write a decent novel? No, of course not. Can you learn something by writing your story as a screenplay? Yes. I think it may very well help you turn out a much-improved novel. It can't hurt to find out.

Scriptshadow's Advice Page has a roundup of well-worthwhile advice articles, centering on storytelling.

Matt Bird's Cockeyed Caravan is (for my money) the best screenwriting blog anywhere. Again, the emphasis is on basic storytelling, not the nuts and bolts of polishing a screenplay.

Screenwriting Tips, You Hack is Xander Bennett's compilation of pithy, on-the-money tips, mostly about storytelling. Not updated as frequently as I'd like, but the tips are timeless, and over 1,220 of them (so far) await you.

The Bitter Script Reader is the blog of an professional script reader, "that guy you need to get past at the agencies and production companies." Some of the better posts are buried in the archives, so be sure to allow plenty of time for browsing around.

Where to Download Scripts is Alex Epstein's curated list of online script sources.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

What You Can Learn from Programming

The other day I was shocked to encounter a blatantly false headline at The Independent, supposedly a mainstream news site. The headline was:

Obama turns decision on military action over to Congress

Obama has not turned over any decision-making to Congress on the Syria issue. If you read the transcript of what he said, it's pretty clear that the decision has already been made. Obama is merely seeking Congressional agreement with the decision that's been made, agreement he doesn't technically need (there is ample legal precedent for a president ordering military strikes unilaterally; Obama orders drone strikes all the time) and that is not binding, one way or the other, in any case.

I see this kind of sloppy reporting all the time and it makes me sad for the current state (and future) of journalism, but it also makes me wonder how many "sloppy thinkers" there are in the world who don't even know they're sloppy thinkers. In the end, it makes me wish more people would take the time to learn a little programming.

Programming skills have practical value on their own, of course. But the real value of programming goes beyond bits and bytes. The real value is in how it changes your thinking. It's a subtle shift. Subtle, yet profound.

One of many things programming teaches is precision of thought. Digital devices are, at root, incredibly stupid. As Picasso famously said, computers are useless; they can only give you answers. They can only do what they're told. When you take command of the machine (by writing code), you find out how true this is. If you declare a variable as a string and try to use it as a number, the world comes to a halt. It's necessary to define what you're doing, explicitly. The machine is obedient but mindless. It can only do what you tell it.

Programming gives you a new vocabulary, which inevitably brings new ways of thinking. (Read Korzybski to grok the depth of this.) You gain not just a vocabulary of words (which, in itself, would be rather trivial) but a conceptual vocabulary. As a side effect, you begin to think more crisply.

It's not simply a matter of thinking more logically. It's far deeper than that. Programming languages have extremely well-defined semantics. Attention to semantics is what good writing (not just good programming) is about. Consequently, anyone who learns a programming language (any programming language) will find himself or herself in better control of the written word generally.

Learning a programming language inevitably also brings a need to learn a bit about computer science: algorithms, machine design, language design, the nature and limits of computability. Again, conceptual vocabulary. Ways of framing problems. Ways of framing discussions about problems.

Eventually, after you immerse yourself in programming, you begin to see there's an aesthetic to code—code itself, not just the things code can create (such as user interfaces). There's correct code; there's good code. There's crufty code, there's spaghetti code, there's clever code. You quickly begin to develop an appreciation for best practices. (Again, an important part of your new conceptual vocabulary.)

Another thing programming teaches is humility. There will be days when you're absolutely certain your code is correct, and yet it's demonstrably not. You will learn that sometimes the things you think are absolutely certain, aren't. That by itself is valuable.

You'll create bugs. Out of necessity, you will teach yourself ingenious ways to force the machine to tell you what you did wrong. And you will do many things wrong. But always, you will find you did them for a reason; and yet there's a reason they're wrong. Remember, the machine can't go wrong on its own. It's unable to do anything except what you tell it to do.

I can go on listing reasons why programming is not a narrow, arcane skill. The truth is: It's a path to understanding. It broadens (not narrows) you as a human being. That's how it is with learning any new language—even a programming language. It's been shown that learning a new language brings about structural changes in the hippocampus and superior temporal gyrus, and may delay Alzheimer's. I think it's likely your brain also changes when you learn a programming language.

Programming teaches attention to detail, clarity of expression, crispness of meaning. Certainly, anyone planning to be a journalist or a writer of any kind should consider learning a programming language. It might prevent you from writing sloppy headlines in your first real journalism job.