Book vs Movie: Total Recall – What’s the Difference?

In this month’s What’s the Difference, CineFix look at Total Recall* and Phillip K Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.

Can you believe it has been 30 years since the release of Total Recall? At least nobody invented Johnny Cabs in that time.

Many years ago I wrote a post discussing my thoughts about the differences between the first Total Recall movie, the remake with Kate Beckinsale (and some guy called Co-lin Faarill), and the book/short story. In it, I talked about how quickly the movies diverge from the book, essentially before the end of the first act (around the inciting incident). And then I went on to spend several thousand words complaining about the lack of massive biceps and extra boobs in the remake.

For me, this comparison of book to movie and remake shows just how far you can diverge from the source material whilst still retaining a lot of similarities. It also shows the strength of the original premise from Phillip K Dick, because even the remake of Total Recall didn’t completely suck, despite having Len Wiseman involved.**

I’m sure by the time the fortieth anniversary for the original movie rolls around, Hollywood will have released at least two remakes, a TV show, a Mars Lander tie-in short movie with a digitally recreated young Arnie, and a triple breast augmentation procedure.

* The first one, not the bland remake with the genocide of robots.

** The remake mainly suffers from being just that bit soulless. It doesn’t feel like anyone involved cared that much about the film, just that it was a good solid paycheque. As a result, they churned out a good solid action movie that is largely forgettable. Another one in the long line of perfectly adequate movies that make you feel like you’ve been robbed of the opportunity for something better. Not bad enough to justify your hate, but not good enough that you’ll forgive its flaws.

Some News:

I apologise for the lack of updates lately. I have several book reviews I haven’t gotten to, a couple of posts I’ve contemplated and then given up on, and a few of my regular posts (like this Book vs Movie series) that I haven’t published. This is partly sheer laziness and partly due to having taken on a freelance writing job for a magazine due out later this month. I’ll attempt to get back to weekly posts soon.

The Constructed Languages of JRR Tolkien

Let’s have a look at making up languages for stories.

I don’t know how I feel about constructed languages in fiction. On the one hand, it can be a great part of worldbuilding, something that adds another layer of realism or interest to the story. On the other hand, it’s a fake language that I’m going to skip reading because I can’t understand it BECAUSE IT’S MADE UP AND NO ONE BUT THE AUTHOR UNDERSTANDS IT.

Obviously, a lot of thought goes into worldbuilding, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy. Part of that will be trying to come up with interesting places that naturally derive the conflicts of the story. Where would it be realistic for a clan of ninja pirates to run a soup kitchen for homeless astronauts? What sort of world would allow a conflict between the soup kitchen and a basketweaving franchise run by outcast chartered accountants?* These are not easy things to construct in a satisfying and consistent/rational way.

Language is a natural extension of this worldbuilding. The ninja pirates are clearly not going to have the same slang or language as the chartered accountants. But they still have to be understood by the homeless astronauts. Does this require a language though? Does it even require rational slang? Is it going to feel natural to Ar and Eye through dialogue or is it going to feel annoying and distracting?

When all said and done, is this just backstory that doesn’t need to appear on the page? Often what happens is that because someone has put so much time and effort into creating a language (or other worldbuilding antics) they feel the desperate need to make sure every excruciating detail is given to the reader. Some readers may enjoy tolerate this, but others may sign the offending author up to be the chief target holder at the World Beginners’ Archery Contest.

As with everything in writing, good execution is key. Especially if you want to avoid just the execution.

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Funny meme is inaccurate**

Tolkien is widely regarded as the most influential author on the fantasy genre… period. But one of the less-discussed aspects of his work is the way Tolkien used constructed language in his writing.

Nowadays authors are constantly making up words and languages for the worlds they build, but Tolkien was unique in that he constructed languages first, and then created worlds so his fictional languages would have somewhere to live.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

This channel has an interesting series on writing craft and worldbuilding. The most recent video covered social structures that has some nice parallels with language.

* The answer to both of these questions is, of course, Florida. I don’t want this to sound mean to Floridians, but the latest “Florida man/woman” arrests news articles suggest if there is a place anything could happen, it is Florida.

** Had to share the meme, but a friend of a friend pointed out it is inaccurate, and that Amon Amarth are awesome:

Russell K
Yeah, hate to be that guy, but Treebeard had a name that “was growing all the time” – Treebeard was shorthand for hobbitish convenience. Tolkien had multiple names for most things, and it’s disingenuous for the OP to pick on just one. Mount Doom, for example, was Orodruin and Amon Amarth, a name so evocative it was co-opted by a melodic death metal band.

Book vs Movie: The Kingsmen – What’s the Difference?

This month’s What’s the Difference? from Cinefix looks at The Kingsmen and it’s comic origins in Mark Millar’s comic.

While I can remember reading Mark Millar’s Secret Service, I can’t remember having enjoyed it. I’m not actually sure if I read the whole first run. I do remember thinking that it was an interesting if average take on the suave spy genre. 

Needless to say, I was somewhat surprised when The Kingsmen arrived in cinemas. Secret Service didn’t exactly strike me as worth adapting. Bond had been reinvigorated, Vin Diesel’s XXX had come and gone*, and Austin Powers had mined a couple of jokes to death over three movies. Did we need this movie?

Yes.

And it was a surprisingly good movie. Not to mention, it also manages to be an adaptation that, I think, improves upon the source material. I think the “Kingsmen” aspect, as mentioned in the video, was certainly part of what elevated the movie above the source material.

I think if there is anything to learn from Secret Service being adapted, it is that a good adaptation will fully realise the potential of the source material. That doesn’t require faithfulness, but rather an understanding of the themes and ideas.

* And then came back again. Why, I’m not entirely sure.

How much do we spend on reading?

A few years ago I published a table from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Wow, you sure know how to party!

Thanks.

Anyway, that table highlighted how much Americans spent on reading per year. Because I’m a Nerdus scientificus, for fun I decided to collate the stats in a spreadsheet and create some graphs.

You are just one big party animal, aren’t you!

I certainly am.

So the first chart is a summary of inflation-adjusted US income, expenditure, entertainment spend, and reading spend by the average “consumer unit”. A consumer unit is obviously the economists’ way of referring to a living, breathing, thinking, cog in the economic machine. Apply the appropriate conversion factors for your country.*

Untitled-1

As you can see, US income and spending haven’t really changed in two decades in real terms. That’s right, despite more wealth having been created in the economy since 2000, the average cog in the machine hasn’t seen a change to their take-home pay. Sidenote: I noticed union membership is rather low in the US as well. Might be related.

Over that same time period, the spending on reading has declined. The line for entertainment wasn’t particularly clear in the above chart, so I made this second one.

Untitled-2

It could be argued that entertainment spend is roughly static over time, while reading spend is clearly declining in real terms. But the question is, what does this mean?

The obvious conclusion that Guardian columnists and other industry wonks will make is that (choose one or all to write your opinion column today!):

  • Kids these days are playing Facepage and Tweeters rather than reading books.
  • People have short attention spans and can’t handle reading decent books.
  • Too many people are Netflixing and Chilling.
  • Something derisive about gaming.
  • Blame falling education standards or immigrants or something.

Yes, the media landscape is more diverse now. This is a true fact, not an alternative one. But that doesn’t really explain the decline. Because reading also became cheaper over that time period. Amazon entered the market, heavily discounting paper books and shipped directly from the warehouse. E-books became a thing, which again changed the cost of buying books.

So you have to question how good a metric spending is to reading. Unless you are writing an industry opinion piece.

I also mentioned the lack of change in household income in real terms. It would be interesting to dig up some figures on financial stress for the average household over this same time period. And I’d posit that entertainment is more likely to involve passive forms, like television, than active forms like reading when stress is higher.

Another metric I’ve discussed before is the reported reading figures. Some of those figures suggest people are actually reading more now, while other figures of how much that is are less encouraging.

Ideally, the industry figures would be more transparent. That way someone could actually crunch the data and to track average individual book consumption and reading totals over time. Then we could put some opinion columnists out of work.

* By this I mean look at the currency conversions and think about whether you reckon your country-people would spend more or less of their household earnings on reading than an average American. More. The answer is going to be more. We’ve seen their leaders.

The Case for Fan Fiction

It’s Lit! is back and they have picked an easy subject to discuss: how Fan-Fic is actually awesome.

I wouldn’t really say I got my start writing fan fiction. Sure, I wrote some stories loosely based upon MacGyver and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But I’d say they were more homages to… Okay, they were fan-fic. Who am I kidding?

That paragraph essentially sums up what I used to think of fan-fic. I appreciated it, recognised it as a legitimate creative outlet, that it could be great fun to write, and that authors should be proud to have people passionate enough about the work that they are being inspired to write their own stuff. But at the same time, I saw it as what beginners did. It was really just for the writers, not readers. That it wasn’t “legit” writing.

It wasn’t worthy!

When Anne Rice was issuing cease and desist letters to her biggest fans, I thought she was a fool. What sort of idiot honestly thinks these fans are somehow ruining her characters and books?

But underlying this argument was the idea that none of those fan-fic stories was any good. Rice’s characters were safe from harm because no hack would be taken seriously compared to the internationally bestselling author. Those stories weren’t even available in real books.*

Then I had somewhat of an epiphany. An author friend made the argument against fan-fic from the premise of copyright and how fan-fic was low quality. They made a sizeable amount of their income from tie-in novels, the books that are licensed to a movie or TV show IP, and written to satiate fans who can’t get enough of the adventures. So you could see their points as defending their meal ticket. But after they made that argument, a professor of writing, who was a published author and also wrote tie-ins, pointed out how they also wrote fan-fic and how this wasn’t about copyright. This was about fans expressing themselves.

It is easy to say that copyright is being breached, despite the clear acknowledgement by everyone involved that fan-fic isn’t canon and isn’t even “sold” to people. No one picks up a Chewie and Yoda slashfic and thinks, “Can’t wait to see this will be in the prequel trilogy movies.” It is also easy to say that the people writing it are all hacks. Except we not only know that isn’t true (e.g. the above writing professor and award-winning authors mentioned in the video). And if these fans are working hard at writing lots of fan-fic, they are bound to become good at it.

So now I stand back and say: Fan-fic is legit.

I mean, where else will I read a steamy sex scene with cries of linguistically impaired pleasure and Wookie growls?

Welcome to It’s Lit on Storied – stay awhile, and subscribe! http://bit.ly/storied_sub

For years writers of fan fiction were shamed, the butt of jokes, and even subject to copyright litigation. However, in the past few years, with the fan fiction writers of today becoming the published mainstream authors of today the past time is a celebrated benchmark of one’s climb to publication.

In the season two premiere of It’s Lit, we explore what happened and how fan fiction writers were able to come out of the proverbial closet of shame.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

* It was the 90s. If it wasn’t in print at your local bookstore, it didn’t exist. It certainly wasn’t going to overturn the canon.

Book vs Movie: Locke and Key – What’s the Difference?

This month’s What’s the Difference? looks at the comic book Locke and Key and its new Netflix series adaptation.

Okay, so not a movie as such. Get off my back!

I’ve had Locke and Key sitting in my digital TBR pile for ages. When they released the first omnibus, I got a copy and then proceeded to not read it. This was a problem with earlier digital formats of comics, as they had a habit of not working with the reader programs (I’ve discussed this before with Matt Hawkins’ comic series).

So it was only recently that I got motivated to read the first volume. And it was fine.

There is a lot going on with the story, with the world-building, and establishing the characters. It moves pretty quickly as well. And the art-work is on point to support the story (there’s a bit where an antagonist sees one of the supernatural characters in a photo that could only be in a visual medium). But I kinda wanted to read it as a novel rather than as a comic.

Development of a TV series has been in the works since the end of the second run (around late 2009). Fox had a pilot (2010), Hulu had a pilot (2017), and now Netflix has thrown money at something for Stranger Things fans. I mean, how could they not when it is written by Stephen King’s son?

I’m yet to see the series*, but I have an inkling that Locke and Key will work terrifically as a TV series. There is plenty of material to work with, there is depth (part of why I wanted a novel version, to spell it out), and the supernatural elements will be fun to see brought to life.

* This must be a first. I’ve read the book first and not had a chance to see the adaptation. Probably because we cancelled Netflix…

Book vs Movie: Eyes Wide Shut – What’s the Difference?

If you like Christmas movies, then CineFix have a book and movie for you in this month’s What’s the Difference?

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At the risk of offending Kubrick fans, I must confess that I do not care for his movies.

Now, before you launch into a flurry of keyboard mashing, I’m not saying that Kubrick is a bad filmmaker. It is clear that he was an amazing visual storyteller. But as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve always found Kubrick films to be somewhat bland.

That said, I can appreciate what he is trying to do with his films… Usually, this appreciation comes after some wonks with a film degree walk me through it (see video below). But that doesn’t really increase my enjoyment of his films.

As to the book, I’ve not read this one. It doesn’t sound like the sort of novel I would normally read, but would probably offer a more clear understanding of the themes of the story.

The top 10 books people claim to read but haven’t

There’s a famous quote from one of my favourite thinkers, Bertrand Russell, on reading. He posits that the two reasons for reading are for enjoyment and that you can boast about having read something.

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Let’s face it, he was correct.

I’ve previously discussed the reading statistics that show we primarily read for enjoyment but also seem to feel obliged to read other books (particularly literary titles). Actually, I’ve discussed this issue a lot. The anecdata back this up, with early e-reader adopters being the romance and erotica fans who could now read on the bus to work. We just don’t like to be seen enjoying the books we enjoy.

So it should come as no surprise that people like to pretend they’ve read certain books. The Guardian posted this survey of readers (although I can’t find the source) listing off everyone’s favourite reading cred books, you know, the ones you claim to have read but fell asleep at page 2.

A recent survey of 2,000 people suggests that the majority of people pretend to have read classic books in order to appear more intelligent, with more than half of those polled displaying unread books on their shelves and 3% slipping a highbrow cover on books they’d rather not be seen reading in public.

The books most likely to be lied about are, naturally, the books most often filmed, talked about and studied in school (some of the respondents must have been lying since GCSE onwards). Are any of them in your pretend-I’ve-read/never-finished pile, or do you save your literary fibbing for Finnegans Wake and Infinite Jest? Share your guilty secrets below.

1) 1984 by George Orwell (26%)

I have actually read 1984. Some people like to announce that 1984 is our current reality, which shows they haven’t read it or are fond of hyperbole. I enjoyed it, but I can see how people would battle to read this one. Worth a read if only to see how people seem to mash 1984 and Brave New World together.

2) War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (19%)

I got to about page 8 of War and Peace. I have no intention of revisiting it. People always talk about battling through it in small chunks because it is such an important and blah blah blah book. If it was really important it wouldn’t have been so boring as to necessitate reading it in small chunks.

3) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (18%)

I watched the old black and white film, does that count? No? Oh well, I don’t care.

4) The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (15%)

I’ve read this novel many times and hated it every single time.

Why reread a novel you hate?

Well, reader surrogate, The Catcher in the Rye is one of those “classics”. You’re meant to love it, or feel moved, or something. Smart people like it, so I must, ipso facto, be a dummy for not enjoying the brilliance of this book. So every 5 or so years I feel the urge to see if I missed something the other times I read it.

I don’t think I missed anything.

Although, John Green did manage to convince me of its literary merits via Crash Course Literature, not that I’ll bother revisiting this novel.

5) A Passage to India by EM Forster (12%)

I can honestly say I’ve never heard of this book.

6) Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien (11%)

Okay, okay, I’ll come clean. I only read this book after seeing the first movie in the theatre. In my defence, I tried reading the Hobbit when I was younger and then realised I had so much more to live for and stopped reading.

I really enjoyed the book, but it was long and waffly and I can see why others wouldn’t actually finish it. The narrative structure in parts is also poorly done. In a modern book, those separate threads would be told concurrently rather than one thread at a time with big jumps backward for the next thread. Unlike some 1,000 page novels, this one is worth a look.

7) To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee (10%)

I don’t claim to have read this one, but I haven’t actually gotten around to reading it yet either. I’ve even got two copies, a DTB and an ebook.

8) Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (8%)

[Insert joke about book title being equivalent to reading said book]

9) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (8%)

I’m going to read the zombie version. I know, I know. Sacrilege.

10) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (5%)

I’m not really interested in reading this. My wife isn’t a fan, but my sister is. No offence to my sister, but I’m taking my wife’s recommendation not to bother.

Bonus: Infinite Jest.

I recently started reading Infinite Jest and gave up. I mean, a book weighing in at one thousand pages had better have a gripping/engaging first chapter to encourage me. Wallace was lauded for this novel, but I think it needed to get to the damned point.*

tldr

The point I’d like to make is that there is no reason to read any of these books. Sure, some of them are great. You might enjoy some or all of them. You might hate some or all of them. But you don’t need to pretend to have read them.

And it is worth noting that many literary influences transcend their medium. You don’t necessarily have to read a book to have a working knowledge of the plot or themes. I’m reminded of a scene from Star Trek where one character criticises Picard for chasing his white whale. Picard acknowledges the point by quoting a relevant line from the book, a book that character hadn’t read. In that moment, despite Picard’s encyclopedic knowledge of the book, he needed someone else to point out the moral of the story.

Enjoy reading. Don’t feel as though you have to read.

* I’m not the only one who thought this:

David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was a definitely finite jest: I think there might have been a good novel encased somewhere in all that dross of self-indulgence, like a Michaelangelo statue trapped in a slab of marble, but Wallace’s editor evidently couldn’t be bothered to chisel the thing out.

Serif and sans-serif fonts

Lately, I’ve been playing the submission game.

Let me rephrase that. I’m not talking BDSM, I’ll save that for another day. I’ve been submitting stories to various magazines. As part of this game – and it is a numbers game – there is the time-honoured tradition of every magazine having a slightly different requirement for one of the three standard manuscript formats. Which got me thinking about really sexy things, like kerning, justification, line spacing, indents, and whether my big capital I wears a hat or not. Reread that sentence with an erotic voice, and don’t you dare say bananas yet!

Now, I’m not an expert in formatting, layout, and graphic design. But since I have a blog on the internet, I’m apparently required to have an opinion on everything. Fortunately, I do actually have some experience with writing, editing, formatting, and laying out newsletters, ebooks, and webpages. Some of them even looked okay and used the correct their they’re there. I’ve even found myself in arguments defending the use of both serif and sans-serif fonts, which is like arguing over what colour black you want to wear to a metal concert (that’s a no-brainer: the darker one).

Anyway, there are plenty of anal-retentive science nerds like me who have gone and done research into what fonts work best for which applications. There are actually a surprising number of research studies on fonts and readability.

First, let’s define what is meant by serif and sans-serif fonts. (From Scribe Consulting) Consider the following characters. The first is set in Georgia, a lovely serif font. The second is set in Verdana, an easy-to-read sans-serif font.

serif sans-serif
    serif     sans serif

Notice the small decorative flourishes at the ends of the strokes in the left character. These are called serif. The right character does not have these strokes and is said to be a sans-serif font. Sans is the French word for without. So I could be currently sans-pants. Or I might be serif-pants.

The most common examples of these two font types are Times New Roman (serif) and Arial (sans-serif). Bleeding Cowboys would be an example of an overused serif font that is for try-hards, whilst Comic Sans is an overused sans-serif that shows a lack of taste.

Now there are some simple rules of thumb when it comes to using serif and sans-serif fonts, which are backed up by science. The first rule is that thumbs only hit the space bar once. The second rule is:

Use serif for printed work

Serif fonts are usually easier to read in printed works than sans-serif fonts.

This is because the serif makes the individual letters more distinctive and easier for our brains to recognise quickly. Without the serif, the brain has to spend longer identifying the letter because the shape is less distinctive.

The commonly used convention for printed work is to use a serif font for the body of the work. A sans-serif font is often used for headings, table text, captions, and ransom notes.

The third rule is:

Use sans-serif for online work

An important exception must be made for the web. Printed works generally have a resolution of at least 1,000 dots per inch; whereas, computer monitors are typically around 100 dots per inch. Even Apple’s much-vaunted retina display is only around 300 dots per inch — much lower than print.

This lower-resolution can make small serif characters harder to read than the equivalent sans-serif characters because of their more complex shapes. Yes, this does give you an excuse to buy a 4K monitor for your computer. Go nuts.

It follows that small on-screen text is better in a sans-serif font like Verdana or Arial.

Further reading: http://alexpoole.info/blog/which-are-more-legible-serif-or-sans-serif-typefaces/

Cool infographic:

serif-vs-sans-serif

Infographic from here.

7 Tips on How to Research Your Novel

I’m just going to say it: I’m comfortable with the label of nerd.

More specifically, I’m a Nerdius scientifica.

Being a nerd is more accepted nowadays, what with our bulging brains and chiselled knowledge. And the reality is that us nerds have a lot to offer, like research skills.

Writing requires a lot of research and writers generally fall into two categories in this regard: those who need to learn how to research, and those who took up writing to justify those dodgy topics they’ve researched. This post will hopefully help the former. But if anyone does want to know how much slack rope you need to hang someone correctly from your homemade gallows, I have a spreadsheet calculator for you.

I stole am reblogging a post from Writer’s Digest with a few of my own comments.

Ernest Hemingway said writers should develop a built-in bullshit detector. I imagine one reason he said that is because readers have their own BS indicators. They can tell when we writers are winging it. We have to know well the worlds in which our characters act. Readers don’t have to believe the story really happened, but they need to believe it could have happened. So with that in mind, I offer a few thoughts on research for fiction.

I’d argue everyone should have a BS detector. [Insert topical political joke here] But the important point to note is that a writer can’t be an expert in all topics, yet readers are likely to come from a wide background. So if you haven’t done your research thoroughly, readers who are well versed in a field will notice, which can ruin the book for them.

1) You can’t do too much research.  In the military, we often say time spent gathering intelligence is seldom wasted. The same concept applies in writing a novel. You never know what little detail will give a scene the ring of authenticity. In a college creative writing class, I wrote about how a scuba diver got cut underwater, and in the filtered light at depth, the blood appeared green. Though the professor didn’t think much of that particular story, he did concede he liked that detail. In fact, he said, “The author must have seen that.” And indeed, I had.

This point is both true and false.

Gee, thanks Tyson.

You’re welcome!

Okay, what I mean is that while you need to have done enough research to be able to include those little details that sell the story, at some point, you have to stop researching and write the damn thing. Maybe you want to be able to accurately describe what arterial spray looks like for your serial killer novel, but you can only research that for so long before you need to put down the knife and pick up your pen.

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2) You can write what you know. We’ve all heard it before. Experience may be a cruel teacher, but it is a thorough one, and experience is the purest form of research. Things you’ve done in life can inform your writing in surprising ways, even if your characters aren’t doing those same things. When I watch the old Star Trek shows, I can tell the creator of those stories knew something about how a military flight crew works together. He understood the dynamics of a chain of command, how a commander learns the strengths and weaknesses of his team, how those team members communicate and work together. Turns out that Gene Roddenberry flew B-17 bombers in World War II. Roddenberry, of course, never flew a starship. But he knew from experience how the crew of a starship might interact.

Soooo, about that serial killer novel… Pure research. No experience. I promise.

Writing what you know is one of those bits of advice authors receive that you can honestly shrug your shoulders at. It’s not untrue. If you’ve been involved in something as a professional you will know it better than anyone trying to research it. But it can also be severely limiting.

Take the example used. If Star Trek understands how military flight crews operated, why did it insist on sending the most important crew members on the dangerous away missions? Aside from the chance to shag the aliens, obviously.

I think the more helpful advice is seeking help from people who know. Go to forums, discussion groups, ask friends, put out the call on social media, cultivate contacts. The internet makes us closer than ever to experts, why limit yourself to what you’ve done?

3) You can do research on the cheap. If you can’t visit an exotic location, you can pick up the phone and ask questions. The worst that can happen is somebody thinks you’re crazy and they hang up. Then you just call somebody else. (Believe me; I used to be a reporter, and I’ve learned a lot by asking questions.) You can visit a museum, or a museum’s website. Develop an eye for small details.

While you CAN do research on the cheap you COULD still use your writing as an excuse for that holiday to an exotic location.* For your art. And tax write-offs.

The internet is the cheapest and best research tool ever invented. Things like Google Street View, location webpages, travel blogs, and that person you went to high school with who fancies themselves as an Influencer’s Instagram feed, all offer information from your desk. No travel required. The same applies to any other aspect of research.

But be careful. Your Influencer friend might be distorting the truth for clicks. That travel blog may have been paid content from a tourism company. And Google Street View may be tracking your data to target you with ads.** Lateral reading and critical research are key.

4) You can find anything on YouTube. Seriously. But you have to know your topic well enough to know how to search for it. In The Renegades, I have a character whose lungs collapse from a bullet wound. I wanted to find out how a medic would treat that condition. Sure enough, someone had posted on YouTube a video with detailed instructions on how to perform a needle decompression.

You can find anything on YouTube. If you want to know about how the Earth is actually hollow and filled with shape-shifting lizards who have roles in every government and are most celebrities, then YouTube has you covered. If you want to know how vaccines are a secret government conspiracy by the lizard people to depopulate the planet and make the survivors docile sheep ready for the coming invasion, then YouTube has you covered. If you want to know how white people are being replaced as part of a globalist agenda and the only way to stop it is by becoming a Nazi, then YouTube has you covered.***

Again, lateral reading and critical research are key.

5) You can find things anywhere. You’re a writer, so keep pen and paper within reach during all waking hours. You might get an idea from a news story on television, a song on the radio, or a Tweet from a friend. About a year ago, I was driving along on a warm day, listening to the radio with the windows down. An oldies station played “Wind of Change,” the Scorpions’ 1990 ballad hailing the end of the Cold War. I hadn’t heard that song in a long time, and I cranked it up loud. The power chords brought back memories of flying relief missions to Bosnia while based at a disused Cold War alert facility in Germany. Not really a pleasant memory–for Bosnia, the end of the Cold War brought something worse. But that flashback from early in my military career inspired a scene in the novel I’m working on now.

While I agree with this point, I think people get carried away with always having a pen and paper handy. A lot of the ideas you end up writing down are rubbish. The flight of fancy comes and goes. The things you write down should be the sticky things. That thing you wanted to look up, you’ll remember it if it was actually important.

6) You can use all of your senses. Find out what things taste like, smell like, feel like. Say, for example, you set your novel in Warsaw. Maybe you can’t afford to go to Warsaw, but you can go to a Polish restaurant. (See item number three above, about doing research on the cheap.) As you write one of your scenes, include a line about the texture and flavor of something your character eats. You’ve just made your writing more alive and authentic.

This is good advice, particularly with internet research. It is easy to look up photos of a location. Harder to look up what it smells like, or if the road is uneven underfoot, or if arterial blood feels warm on your skin. We’ve got roughly 20 senses, so your research (and writing descriptions) should reflect that.

7) You can leave some things out. If you do thorough research, you’ll find more material than you need, and no reader likes a data dump. In my own writing, I could bore you to death with the details of aircraft and weapons. But a very good creative writing professor once advised me to let the reader “overhear” the tech talk. Say, if my character punches off a HARM missile, that might sound authentic and pretty scary. But scary would turn to dull if I stopped the action to tell you that HARM stands for High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile, which homes in on anti-aircraft missile radars. Who cares? The damn thing goes boom.

This is the most important point about research, even in science. Most of it doesn’t end up on the page. Nobody cares about the lab experiments that failed, they want to know about the results from the one that worked. Nobody wants to read your detailed and accurate Linux commands the hacker types in, sudo leave that stuff out.

I think the point of research is to better understand the universe we live in. For a writer, research will help to create more believable universes for their stories. It isn’t easy to tell the difference between good and bad information. It isn’t easy to know when to stop. And it is hardest of all to not brag about how big your research is.

* Ever notice that novels by successful authors are never set in boring locations? The characters are never having the exciting chase scene through the streets of Canberra, Adelaide, or Perth Australia, they are in Paris, or New York, or London. Funny how those places are regarded as top destinations for travel.

** Maybe? Try definitely. I said may because you can run tracking and ad blockers and deny cookies. Good advice to stop some… interesting ads coming your way.

*** I’m not even covering the worst and most obviously wrong conspiracies with these examples. Not even close. Two of those three examples are getting people killed.

What inspires me to write?

I’ve never understood this question.

Do people not get inspired to write? Are there people out there who wander around all day with no ideas, daydreams, random thoughts, or little voices whispering in their ears? Do they have those little ideas and then shrug their shoulders, deciding they aren’t worth writing down? Does the little voice whisper and people don’t think to document it for a potential future criminal defence case?

Maybe I’m just not understanding the question.

It was only last year that I was disabused of my hatred for the question “Where do you get your ideas?” Obviously, I buy them in bulk from Ideas ‘R’ Us in the Creative Mall in the Artist District. They aren’t cheap, but it’s where Dan Brown shops for his, so have to be good quality.

My friend and author Kaaron Warren did a seminar on where her ideas came from. It was a lightbulb moment for me. People weren’t asking where the ideas come from, they were asking what was inspiring the ideas in the book. How were those ideas being linked together and turned into a story? Essentially, walking the (potential) audience through being creative.

So maybe this question is more about the process of noticing something in your day to day life and how you reckon it could be improved with the addition of dragons – let’s be honest, everything could be improved with dragons… and ninjas. Now you’re thinking about how much fun it would be for your protagonist to ride a dragon over a city and genocidally burn it to the ground because you’re annoyed at… hang on, that’s terrible. What sort of hack would come up with that scene? Scrap that rubbish. I’ll wait for the next idea.

Maybe ninjas. Monkey ninjas. With wings. Who whispers in your ear, telling you to blow up the houses of parliament. Honest, your honour, it was the ninja monkeys who told me to do it. Right before they flew away.

NB: This post was originally written as part of a short story submission. Instead of a cover letter, they wanted a blog post answering one of the common author questions.

The Write Noise

Recently on Twitter I was discussing writing in noisy environments with fellow writers. Jennifer mentioned she had managed to finish a draft whilst sitting in a particularly noisy cafe. You would think this would be the most distracting place to try and be creative in.

I’ve noticed that there is a certain amount of noise needed or not needed. Too much noise and it’s annoying, too little noise and it is distracting, and urgent noise like a truck reversing siren gets your heart pumping too much. That’s why I’ve been successfully able to work in cafes, airports, and buses, but have found libraries and open-plan offices too distracting.

It appears that there is some science to this sweet spot.

optimal-noise-level

The research suggests that most people reach peak creative performance at approximately 70dB. This is about the noise of a person talking on their phone on the train, or how loud your neighbours are during sex after you’ve just broken up with your partner. The reasoning as to why this level of noise isn’t distracting isn’t fully understood. But the authors reckon that:

We theorize that a moderate (vs. low) level of ambient noise is likely to induce processing disfluency or processing difficulty, which activates abstract cognition and consequently enhances creative performance. A high level of noise, however, reduces the extent of information processing, thus impairing creativity.

In other words, if you need to have a high level of focus for something requiring accuracy, detail, and/or linear reasoning, then silence can help make that happen. But it can be a distraction if you need to let your mind wander in that creative zone. Maybe you want to make several careful and precise cuts to a piece of leather as you make a woman suit, that requires quiet and not the distracting sounds of a small dog, so you lock the dog in your basement. However, if you wanted to write a compelling serial killer novel, you probably need a bit of noise to help you think.

Okay, put on some tunes and creative masterpiece here I come?

Not quite.

Why would a cafe level noise be conducive to concentrating but the co-workers in the next cubicle who are discussing how busy they are just makes you want to throw a stapler? Because it is about the sort of noise. It needs to be a constant background noise such that any one sound is mashed up with any other sound into a meaningless wall of sound. This means that music doesn’t really fit the bill and can be a distraction for creativity.* If you’re hearing lyrics or a cool riff, you’re trying to pick out the words or instrument and losing focus on what you’re meant to be… SQUIRREL! Better to have quiet library noise conditions.

But before you rush out and buy yourself a white noise generator or invite your child’s classmates over for a playdate, it is worth noting that this is pretty preliminary research. The study itself only used 65 participants. I’d want a lot of repeat experiments finding the same results before drawing any strong conclusions. It’s also worth noting that while there appears to be notable research on creativity (e.g. another paper from the same researcher), this aspect hasn’t been investigated further.

So while this research appears to confirm the anecdata of myself and other writers on Twitter, it’s hardly settled science.**

Hat tip: Jane Friedman.

* Although, many would argue that music can help creativity. I personally find it distracting. If I like the music, I’ll be listening to it and not focused. [Insert EDM or Pop joke here that doesn’t make me sound too old]. I’ve previously discussed a study showing music hurts your ability to be creative.

** Which is all too common in these studies on artistic endeavours. I’ve previously discussed how many wild claims are made from either marginal data, misrepresentations, or feelpinions.

Book vs Movie: The Wizard of Oz – What’s the Difference?

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A cinematic classic versus its literary classic in this month’s What’s the Difference from CineFix.

The Wizard of Oz movie is definitely a film that I think is deserving of being called okay. With the list of highly memorable song and the amazing use of colour, you can see why this film is so perfectly adequate entertainment for a rainy Sunday.

Return to Oz came out when I was young. Unlike its predecessor, it was more faithful to the books and kept their much darker and nastier tone. This, of course, meant that reviewers and other opinion havers* thought it was terrible and not suitable for children… Despite being more faithful to the kids’ books it was based upon.

I never really got into the Oz books as a kid. They were no Magic Faraway Tree, so they lost my interest almost immediately. I feel as though I should revisit them now as a sleep-deprived parent to give them a more fair assessment. Or maybe I’ll just see what land has arrived at the top of the tree this month.

We’re not in Kansas anymore, and neither was the film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. The 1939 classic turns 80 this year, so it’s time to look back at Dorothy and Toto’s journey from the pages of L. Frank Baum’s book, to the glorious technicolor screens of the movie. So gather your courage, you Cowardly Lions, open up those Tin Man hearts and pick your Scarecrow brains because it’s time to ask, What’s the Difference?!

* Ha-ha, I did an irony.

The limits of imagination

Many would think of authors as having limitless imaginations. We can imagine amazing futures, fantastical worlds, utopias, dystopias, magics, stuff that we call science that is actually just more magic, but we can’t imagine a rich person as wealthy as actual rich people.

That’s right when it came to thinking of massive piles of money that a fictional character would go swimming through, it didn’t amount to as much money as our actual wealthiest people.

Fictional 15 richest

  1. Scrooge McDuck – $65.4 billion
  2. Smaug – $54.1 billion
  3. Carlisle Cullen – $46.0 billion
  4. Tony Stark – $12.4 billion
  5. Charles Foster Kane – $11.2 billion
  6. Bruce Wayne – $9.2 billion
  7. Richie Rich – $5.8 billion
  8. Christian Grey – $2.2 billion
  9. Tywin Lannister – $1.8 billion
  10. C. Montgomery Burns – $1.5 billion
  11. Walden Schmidt – $1.3 billion
  12. Lara Croft – $1.3 billion
  13. Mr Monopoly – $1.2 billion
  14. Lady Mary Crawley – $1.1 billion
  15. Jay Gatsby – $1.0 billion (Source: Fictional 15, 2013) Total = $215.5 billion

Let’s compare that to the real-life Richie McRiches.

Real 15 richest

  1. Jeff Bezos – $131 billion
  2. Bill Gates – $96.5 billion
  3. Warren Buffett – $82.5 billion
  4. Bernard Arnault (and family) – $76 billion
  5. Carlos Slim Helu (and family) – $64 billion
  6. Amancio Ortega – $62.7 billion
  7. Larry Ellison – $62.5 billion
  8. Mark Zuckerberg – $62.3 billion
  9. Michael Bloomberg – $55.5 billion
  10. Larry Page – $50.8 billion
  11. Charles ‘f@#k the environment’ Koch – $50.5 billion
  12. David ‘f@#k poor people’ Koch – $50.5 billion
  13. Mukesh Ambani – $50 billion
  14. Sergey Brin – $49.8 billion
  15. Francoise Bettencourt Meyers (and family) – $49.3 billion (Source) Total = $993.9 billion

On the fictional list, we have a literal 350-year-old blood-sucking parasite who had several lifetimes to accumulate his wealth. Another is the image we conjure up when we think of rich people. One character even has rich in his name twice. Yet for all of their billions, they aren’t matching it with the real-life billionaires.

It says something that the richest fictional character has half as much money as the richest man in the real world. And the total worth of the Top 15s couldn’t be more different. All of the world’s authors couldn’t come up with a list of the wealthiest characters with as much money as their real-life counterparts ($215 vs $994 billion!!).

But the worst part is the real-life billionaires. Do we see Jeff Bezos swimming in a giant vault of money? Does he even own a giant vault? What type of pathetic billionaire is he? Too busy stopping his workers unionising to enjoy a swim in his money is what he is. Bill Gates has not once tried to scare dwarves away from his mountain of gold, on the plus side, he isn’t a gold hoarding dragon. And will we ever see the Warren Buffet spanking a college newspaper reporter sex tape, and will that be hotter than the 50 Shades of Grey movies?

What about superheroes? Zuckerberg isn’t donning a cowl and fighting crime, he’s too busy selling elections. Tony Stark was fighting to save the planet, the Koch brothers only seem to have time to see the planet burn. Would it kill them both – or at least one more – to try to build an arc reactor?

Authors may not be able to imagine ridiculous levels of wealth for their characters, but billionaires seem equally unable to imagine doing something worthwhile with their billions.

Killer Car Fallacy

If you read the news daily you may have noticed that humans really like hurting each other. While this popular pastime is generally on the decline, it is still at concerning levels. Whether it be the latest school shooting in the only country that happens in, or the suppression of the people by regimes in all countries, violence happens. And violence is big business.

Many people would obviously like to reduce the amount of violence occurring on our planet. They will often point out the war profiteers, the gun manufacturers, and the lack of regulation on the sale of weapons to oppressors. And without fail, there will be someone who will bravely stand up and defend these practices that facilitate (and perpetuate*) violence. These brave defenders will always use the individualist argument that places the onus on the user and not the tool. One common example used is “Do you blame the driver or the car?”

On the surface, this seems like a sound argument. A bad worker blames their tools, and all that. You see, it isn’t a killer car, it is a drunk driver or a driver who is trying to kill someone.

Of course, this is a false equivalence, a fallacy, a load of nonsense. It’s The Killer Car Fallacy.

Below is a common example of this fallacy in action during an exchange I had on Twitter. The original point being discussed was about US companies being complicit in the suppression of the democracy protests in Hong Kong via their manufacturing of the weapons of suppression. You may remember the USA from their tireless promotion of democracy in the Middle East, Vietnam, and South America.

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Source.
killer cars
Source.

As you can see in my last tweet**, the comparison people try to make between a car and a weapon are nonsense.

A car is designed to transport people and their stuff in comfort, style, and with as much complaining about other drivers as possible. If a drunk driver kills someone with their car, they have misused their car and are at fault. The car can and does kill people, but that is not exactly the advertised selling point. I’m currently unaware of any car manufacturer advertising a toddler per kilometre death rate as a feature.

Compare that to a gun***, which was designed for violence. It is never being misused if it kills someone. Even if the gun was designed for hunting or target shooting, using it to hunt a human or use a human as a target isn’t a misuse in any equivalent way to the car. Unless driver training involves trying to aim the car at pedestrians since I sat my driver’s test.

target-human_silhouette
Target Shooting…

This is without getting into the larger discussion about how cars require licensing, insurance, and safety assessments. Drivers have to prove they are passingly competent – when paying attention during a test, the rest of the time, let’s just hope for the best – and be licensed. There are rules about car operation. One of the rules is about not being too drunk to safely operate the car because we recognise that’s probably not a good idea.

Car manufacturers also have some rules they have to follow. They can’t just sell a car to people without a license. They have to provide certain features to improve safety for drivers (e.g. seatbelts) and non-drivers (e.g. lead-free fuel****). These are all acknowledgements by the car manufacturers, governments, and society at large that there is a larger moral responsibility in the making and selling of cars. It’s pretty clear that there is no equivalence here.

But the Killer Car Fallacy persists. Because apparently selling weapons designed to harm people has no moral responsibilities attached.

The logical fallacy of false equivalency. (self.GunsAreCool)
by GabourKilled by a gun nut

Why am I here? You are a person who used an NRA talking point in the form of a false equivalency.

So? What is a false equivalency? It is a logical fallacy.

You are a libtard/pinko/homo, why should I listen to you? Logic rules remain the same wherever you fall on the political spectrum. Even after showing gun owners the Wikipedia entry, they will continue to use it immediately afterwards and cling to it desperately. That is why this was created.

What is the definition of false equivalency? “False equivalence is a logical fallacy which describes a situation where there is a logical and apparent equivalence, but when in fact there is none.” Wikipedia

I still don’t believe you. What is the structure of the argument? If A is the set of c and d, and B is the set of d and e, then since they both contain d, A and B are equal. Id.

That doesn’t make sense to me. Why does my argument look nonsensical to people who aren’t supporters of my position? I will put it in terms that would offend a gun owner so that you have a better understanding of why you look bad. Nuclear weapons explode (c) but are still just tools (d). Guns are merely tools (d) that shoot people (e). Since they are both tools they are both equivalent. Because they are merely tools, nuclear weapons should be treated the same as guns under the Second Amendment, and citizens should be allowed to conceal carry them into schools, courthouses, or government buildings.

Well that’s a stupid argument, what are other kinds of false equivalencies that gun owners use?
The variations are endless, but here are some common ones:
-Guns and alcohol are equivalent, because they both ______
-Guns and cars are equivalent, because they both ______
-Guns and knives are equivalent, because they both ______
-Guns and bleach are equivalent, because they both ______
-Guns and fists are equivalent, because they both ______
-Gun and stamp collecting are equivalent, because they are both _____
-Guns and _______ are equivalent, because they both _____

And those are all false equivalencies? Yes.
Are you sure? Yes.
Really? Because I would really like that to be not true. Everyone in /r/guns uses them constantly, and they get tons and tons of upvotes for it! Doesn’t that mean they are even a little right? No. Justin Bieber is pretty popular within his bubble, doesn’t mean it makes sense to people viewing it from the outside.

Can you do it for me? Imagine cars are just as legal as they are now, resulting in 33,000 traffic fatalities each year. Now, imagine guns are completely banned and there are zero deaths from their use each year. No government body would pass a law that instantly implemented the current United States gun proliferation laws while simultaneously handing out 270,000,000 guns to the civilian population. Especially considering the fact that 30,000 people would then be killed each year and 100,000 wounded. And they would certainly not do so under the pretense that guns and cars should be treated equivalently. This example applies to each of the false equivalencies given above.

Why has this been downvoted a million times? Because there are few good arguments for guns in our society so taking away a popular one, however incorrect it may be, further weakens the talking points. We also only send pro-gun types here to view this and they are not particularly happy to learn that their father was wrong when they taught them this false equivalency or that they have been using a really stupid argument around their loved ones unchecked for most of their lives.

What do you think about gun control? The ability to use logic and to correctly reason should be a basic skill for everyone, but is essential for those who carry lethal weapons. Gun owners should have to complete the following sentence before purchasing a gun to show that they can perform basic reasoning: Comparing guns to ________ is a false equivalence because __________.

* Because what industry making weapons of violence wants to see the amount of violence decline?

** This conversation did continue, but I bowed out after they tried to use my own arguments as though it applied to their points.

*** I’m using guns here despite the original example being the use of non-lethal devices like teargas. Direct deaths from a tool are easier to show the fallacy than the use of non-lethal force to suppress others. But it is still the same bad thinking. Some will try to use knives as an example because it is a greyer tool. Knives can be used to kill and are often designed to do so. But for knives, the context of their use switches from tool to weapon based on use and still fits this paradigm, albeit in a more complicated way.

**** Regulations they fought long and hard against despite the harm they knew it was doing.

Scamming writers

scam-artist-_kar_-_fotolia

Welcome to the internet. Sucker.

Scams are nothing new and at this stage neither is the internet. Whether it be someone offering to enlarge your penis – in the porn sense, the dating sense, the dysfunction sense, or the extra inch sense – or someone encouraging you to hate an out-group, the internet appears to be filled with scammers.

It was only this morning I received a very convincing looking invoice for a large order of books from a publisher I have been known to buy books from. Fortunately, I know some people in high places, like my friend the Nigerian prince, and they were able to warn me that I hadn’t actually ordered any books this week and should probably not click on the link to pay for them. Targeting readers and writers with scams are where I have to draw the metaphorical line in the metaphorical sand.

Most writers are hobbyists, writing because they love it. The handful that do get paid enough to be full-time writers are few and far between. So targeting writers with scams means that somewhere a monkey at a keyboard is not being fed today.

Let’s dissect a writing scam to see if we can spot the tricks used to part you from your potentially hard-earned money. This article was for a New, Amazing, Adjective, program that promises to give you the tools to write a 400-word article in 7 minutes. My comments are in blue.

Dear Fellow Article Writer

TA: This is a strong start. It creates kinship from a cold open. It wouldn’t read as well if they just called you a mark or sucker. Unless your name happens to be Mark. Or Sucker. But why would anyone call their child that? I mean, no offense to any Marks, but it’s a terrible name.

Did you watch the video above? It’s hard to believe so many people would send me such raving, unsolicited testimonials about my product, “How to Write an Article in 7 Minutes or Less“.

TA: I haven’t included the video but it is amazing how many unsolicited video testimonials appear to be shot with professional lighting and cameras.

If you did watch the video, you saw with your own eyes how I was able to take people who spent more than an hour writing an article down to as fast as 5 minutes per article!

TA: 5 minutes? I thought you said 7 minutes. Does this mean I get a 2 minute abs program as a bonus?

Would you like to experience the same results, without risking a penny? If so, then let me extend to you this unusual guarantee:

If you don’t cut your current article writing time down by at least 65% in less than a week after trying my methods, then not only will I refund every single cent of your purchase…

I’ll Give You DOUBLE Your Money Back!

TA: Cool, cool, cool, cool. But what if my average article writing time is 30 minutes and you only manage to bring it down by 65% to 10 minutes? Do I get 65% of my money back?

All you have to do is show me three articles you’ve written using my simple “7 minute formula” and tell me honestly that it didn’t at least increase your article writing speed by 65% while still maintaining the same quality and…

I will give you double your money back.

TA: This, folks, is called a caveat. 

Also, if for any reason at all you are unsatisfied, you can always ask me for a refund — no matter what — and I’ll promptly and quietly return every penny you paid in full.

TA: Is anyone else’s cynicsense tingling?

Either way you can’t lose.
How I Stumbled Upon the
Secret for Writing Articles Quickly!

Not too long ago I earned my keep ghostwriting for internet marketers.

If you read articles, forum posts or follow the “gurus” in anyway, chances are you’ve read something ghostwritten by me.

I have written thousands of articles for my clients, and along the way discovered a simple process for generating content quickly for almost any topic.

TA: Notice that this pitch pretty much precludes any allusions to quality writing.

Here’s how it works.

  1. Open my 3 special research sites. TA: Wikipedia? 
  2. Use my “skim and grab” research technique to find your
    3 main points (Takes about a minute).  TA: Yes, because reading comprehension is for suckers. 
  3. Outline each main point with two “sub points.” (another minute here). TA: What if there is only one point?
  4. Use the “opening paragraph” template to quickly create the first paragraph (About 30 seconds). TA: Insert generic filler paragraph, got it.
  5. Use the “main point” template to write paragraphs for each of your three main points. (2-4 minutes total time) TA: So, standard writing….
  6. Use the “conclusion paragraph” template to quickly create the conclusion. (another 30 seconds). TA: Insert generic filler paragraph at the end.
  7. Proof read your article, and then submit it to the appropriate directory. (1-2 minutes) TA: Click spellcheck and hope it doesn’t miss anything.

The cool thing about using these templates is you never have to pause to think…but… you also enough leeway so each article remains 100% unique, and of the highest quality.

TA: Yes, why would you want to actually put any thought into your writing. Highly overrated for quality content. This approach screams quality writing.

Don’t worry: My method has nothing to do with plagiarism!

TA: Of course not, copy and pasting clearly takes too long.

Anyway, you can learn all about my 7 minute article technique by reading my special report, “How to Write an Article In 7 Minutes”, and by watching the videos I made showing step by step how I do it.

But that’s not all… TA: Steak knives? Please be steak knives.

My first thought upon seeing the claim that you could learn to write an article in 7 minutes was that it was bullshit. The fact that people would find this plausible left me a little stunned, a little thirsty, and thinking about having a nap. Clearly, some people are going to be taken in by these kinds of scams. So I want to just illustrate my critical thinking process and how I avoided being scammed for $37 (I know, huge amounts of money).

Drawing from personal experience, I know that I’d spend more than 7 minutes just copying in the links to the research I’d be citing, let alone reading the 3 magic research sites. So the first check is to understand just how long certain tasks actually take you. This scam works on the idea that you don’t really measure the time it takes for common activities. You may know how long you spend on a full article or day’s writing, but not on the little parts, like one paragraph or one sentence. So when someone presents you with some figures, you are bound to think, “Well, I do spend a lot of time staring at the screen and checking my Twitter feed.” Suddenly you are partly receptive to the con.

Let’s have a look how long writing actually takes the average person. Being a science nerd, I like to have a few figures around on writing, reading, average number of Facebook posts per hour; you know, important stats. The average person has a typing speed of 60-100 words per minute, which gives you 400-700 words written in 7 minutes. The page claims a 400-word article with 5 minutes of actual writing time. So the claim is physically possible. Just. But that is typing speed, not writing speed. Typing is just mashing a bunch of keys in the correct order, writing requires a little more thought as to what those mashed keys actually communicate.

What about editing? Nothing is perfect on a first draft, nothing! So even if this is a 400-word article written in 5 minutes, you still need to edit. Reading speed is not the same as proofreading speed, with average speeds of 180-200 words per minute. That’s another 2-3 minutes.

Aaannnddd, we’re out of time. Sorry, folks.

Just the physical act of writing and reading your new article chews up the time allocation. Unless this program comes with a Deloren or Time Turner it is unlikely to have you churning out 8 articles an hour.

But what if the program can reduce my writing time by 65%, I hear a brave new bridge owner chewing on brain pills ask.

Well then, send me $40 and I’ll send you some templates that I guarantee will improve your writing by 69%, add inches to your IQ, and make Nigerian royalty give you money. Trust me, no-one lies on the internet.

Book vs Movie: The Iron Giant – What’s the Difference?

irongiant2

This month’s What’s the Difference? from Cinefix is all about giant killer robots learning to love.

Twenty years on and who’d have thought that two of Vin Diesel’s most memorable and acclaimed roles would have been voicing laconic characters.

This was an interesting instalment of What’s the Difference as I wasn’t aware that The Iron Giant was based upon a book. Apparently, The Iron Man was a story Ted Hughes developed to help his children deal with the death of their mother, Sylvia Plath. And obviously, grieving kids back in the 60s needed to also deal with impending nuclear war. I wonder if there will be any people left to look back in wonder at our generation’s stories and themes?

Obviously, the movie is pretty flawless*. It oozes charm and classic animated movie appeal. The existential concept of you are who you choose to be is a fantastic narrative element. Or as the director, Brad Bird, put it in his pitch, “What if a gun had a soul, and didn’t want to be a gun?”

I think another part of the appeal of this film was that it only became successful after failing at the box office and being mismanaged in all of its marketing. There were no toy and fast-food tie-ins. No big ad campaigns. This is a movie that found success because it was a good movie. As such, it managed to retain its charm because it didn’t need to support a toy-line and limited edition drink containers at Burger-Donalds.

So when Warner Bros inevitably remakes The Iron Giant, I look forward to the mountains of crass action figures that will be available, with flashing lasers and launchable rockets.*

* He says having not watched it in the best part of two decades.

** All parts made of plastic and sold separately.

When kangaroos jump high, how do they secure their baby?

Much like any other commuter in Australia, Kangaroos have to obey certain laws and regulations. One of those laws is that all young must be restrained so that in event of an accident, say a mother Kangaroo misjudging the distance between her and a tree and slamming into it, the Joey isn’t flung about in the pouch.

See these guidelines for more.

The most common restraint for younger Joeys is a capsule, then a three-point restraint seat. See the table below.

carseat_grid

Of course, just as not every adult human wears a seatbelt, not every parent Kangaroo is as concerned with safety as others. Those terrible parent Kangaroos tend to rely on the Joey being small and the strength of the pouch muscles to hold the Joey still. They are also likely to lay off too much bouncing once the Joey gets bigger.

Usually, the final straw is when the Joey defecates too much in the pouch. Then it is time for the Joey to do its own bouncing and let mum have a rest.

Hope that helps.

This helpful answer originally appeared on Quora.

Are Aussies ashamed that they lost a war against Emus?

In answer to “Are Aussies ashamed that they lost a war against Emus” there needs to be some context to how us brave Aussies were able to valiantly defend ourselves to the last against the evil horde of emus.

First of all, as I’ve outlined in a blog post, yes, this Emu War actually happened. Roughly 20,000 emus invaded the Eastern Wheatbelt area, discovering newly cleared farmland filled with crops and watering points for sheep. They liked this supply of food and water and were ambivalent toward the soldier settler (and other) farmers’ tough run of grain prices and droughts.

They turned up their tails at the mere thought that farmers might be doing it tough. They stuck their beaks into food that wasn’t theirs – and don’t give me any of that “they were there first” and “it was their land” and “do you want to see them starve” nonsense. Take your bleeding heart elsewhere, hippy!

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Pure Evil

Since these were ex-soldiers facing ruin (from drought, grain prices, broken subsidy promises, and emus – blame the killer emus!), they liked the idea of using machine-guns (2 Lewis Guns) against the birds in the same way they’d used them against opposing infantry in WW1. They wanted to reminisce about mass slaughter, even if it wasn’t against the most deadly of game.

This didn’t go anywhere near as well as expected. Emus are faster, harder to kill outright, and generally not running straight at a machine-gun embankment like some sort of pea-brained… Anyway, their casualties were low.

Two attempts were made at an emu cull, but ultimately the government decided to offer a bounty on emus instead. Later they went with the tried and trusted move of building a fence to keep the emus out of agricultural areas (along with dingoes, wild dogs, rabbits, kangaroos – although the latter laugh at attempts to build a fence they can’t jump over).

These efforts combined with increased land clearing, increased pest species (wild dogs, rabbits, etc), and increased fossil fuel burning slowly baking the entire planet, have led to a decline in all native Aussie wildlifeincluding emus.

That context should show you that the emus may have won the battle but they lost the war.

So, no, Aussies don’t feel bad about losing a battle.

This answer first appeared on Quora.

Exercise articles

Confession: I’m an exercise junkie.

If I don’t get my fix I start doing pushups and handstands in inappropriate places.

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Seriously, WTF?

I’ve lifted weights for a couple of decades now. How the time flies. Back in my day gyms weren’t like they are now with their… actually, they haven’t changed that much. The challenge of lifting heavy stuff is cool and the added side effects of being (subjectively) stronger, fitter, healthier and sexier are awesome.

Fitness is sexy
Fitness is sexy. Steroids are sexier.

After being around gyms and fellow fitness junkies this long you start to realise that articles on how to get in shape are as numerous as new programs claiming to be the best program ever. Every person and their pet has their five cents on the subject (cough, cough). There is nothing wrong with different programs with different ideals. Not everyone loves running, not everyone loves bench pressing on Mondays, not everyone needs to look super lean for their next Instagram shoot. Variety can be good. And some variety can be quite funny:

functional-stupid

But something happened to me between when I wrote about an F45 promotional ad news article and now. I’ve stopped reading exercise articles, blogs, and scientific papers.* Essentially, there are only so many times you can read “Exercise in a progressive way and eat healthily in amounts that match your energy needs/expenditure.” Doesn’t stop people writing them though.

Okay, big deal, you’re tired of reading the same 3 articles (Eat less/more, Do exercises that address a weakness, Train to progress), what’s your point?

Good question, imaginary audience surrogate.

Not a problem. Are you going to answer the question?

Not unless you can find a way to incorporate the answer into a segue to my list of things to look out for in any fitness article.

1) Fake experts.

So many articles are written by some unqualified hack who just happens to be in good shape in spite of any fitness program and diet they followed. These hacks quite often have some impressive modelling photos, or celebrity cache, or online course credentials, or all of the above. Sometimes the fake expert will be the opposite of this, with lots of legitimate qualifications and knowledge but zero idea of how to apply it.** Often it is very hard to tell the difference between an actual expert and someone who woke up with abs one morning and decided to advise others on how to do the same.

What to look for:
Fake experts will try to reveal some magic secret or brand new piece of knowledge but will likely have little evidence or be running counter to the majority of evidence. They’ll be citing one study, or what worked for them, or some other similarly small amount of evidence.

2) Quack medicine

The fitness industry is filled with alternative/complementary medicine nonsense. Health-conscious people will go looking for medical help. And there are lots of quacks looking to lighten their wallets.*** If any of this stuff worked it wouldn’t be called alternative medicine, it would just be medicine. Many of these fitness articles lend credence to quack medicine or use quack medicine to support their claims. The advantage of using quack claims is that it doesn’t require real evidence, which makes it easy to sell people on the new fitness fad.

What to look for:
If it comes under the banner of (S)CAMS or alternative medicine, there’s a good chance the article is rubbish.

3) BRAND NEW!!!

I remember when F45 was called circuit class. I remember when HIIT was called interval training. When Crossfit was just a cult… nothing new there. A few tweaks here, a brand name there, and you have the new fitness craze. This is more marketing than anything because no one wants last season’s wheel, have to reinvent it.

What to look for:
Advertorial disguised as news or an article.

4) Buzzwords, appeals, and contradictions

Have you tried holistic functional fitness? Get a six-pack for summer! How to focus on this extensive list of things.

This sort of meaningless nonsense is rife in an industry represented by people who failed high school. You know: athletes. You either focus on one thing, or you aren’t focussing at all. What exactly makes swinging a kettlebell functional versus doing a weightlifting snatch? How exactly does balancing on a ball while I wave dumbells around get me a six-pack and not a date with my shoulder surgeon? All these questions and more will be glossed over as someone tries to sell you on their new program or fill space between adverts for supplements you don’t need.

What to look for:
Marketing and spin.

5) Random numbers

Articles will often have a set of numbers that will be regarded as heavy or a long distance or a fast time by the author. Most often, these numbers are made up or arbitrary. This is most obvious when the numbers aren’t given any context. E.g. One-hundred kilograms is ridiculously heavy for a bicep curl, but light for a deadlift by an experienced lifter who weighs at least 80% of that.

Sometimes these numbers are just naïve. That sounds big enough to me. Sometimes they are humble brags. Yeah, those are my bench numbers. Impressed? Sometimes they are the inflated internet numbers. What do you mean only three people in history have run a faster time than that?

What to look for:
The context for the numbers or a reference to accepted standards.

Hope this helps you become disillusioned too.

 

* What? Didn’t I mention I’m a nerd and like going to the source for information?

** This is surprisingly common across a range of science fields. We may have the answer down to an amazing level of detail but it has little application to the average situation. E.g. a highly knowledgable nutritionist might be able to give you a full biochemical breakdown of how what you’re eating is killing you, but that does very little to address the underlying habits and reasons for those habits that would lead to actual diet changes.

*** To be fair, many of the alternative medicine people are genuine in wanting to help. The problem is that they have been sold on nonsense and become unwitting purveyors of it themselves. In many instances, reputable institutions who should know better hand out degrees in this stuff. Odd that the chiropractors aren’t in the physio or medicine faculties.

Oh, and before anyone says “My chiropractor is great” it is worth noting that most chiropractors make major misleading claims. “Physiotherapists didn’t make any major misleading claims, whereas 70% of misleading claims on chiropractor websites were major.”