Random thoughts on Time Travel

My current work in progress, Timekeepers, is about time travel. Like most time travel fiction, it’s got time travelers jumping into various historical epochs and doing stuff. But there are some interesting corollaries to this kind of fictional technology.

Think about it. My protagonists jump about in time, from 2018, to 1066, to a million years ago in the Pleistocene. But, while their “timepieces” displace them in time, they always wind up on earth. Nothing remarkable, right? That happens all the time in this kind of fiction, from H.G. Wells to the ones on TV just last season.

Here’s the thing, though. Everything moves.

The solar system is moving in an orbit about the galactic core. In fact, it’s moving pretty fast: about 515,000 miles per hour. This means that from 1066 to 2018, the solar system has moved 0.73 light years. Thus, when our time travelers “jump” from 2018 to 1066, they not only “instantly” travel in time, in order to stay “on earth,” they must also “instantly” travel that same distance in space, 0.73 light years. Of course, what “instantly” means in a universe of time travel is a question in and of itself. On the other hand, relativity pretty much erases the notion of simultaneity, so time travel or not, we know time doesn’t follow intuitive rules.

It gets worse. My characters “jump” 1.4 mega-years back to the Pleistocene but stay on earth. When they do this, they have also traveled over a thousand light years.

The inevitable conclusion is that a time machine is also a faster-than-light drive. Of course, we all know it’s impossible to travel faster than light, so the logical conclusion is that time travel is also impossible.

On the other hand, we all enjoy stories that include faster-than-light drives, so impossibility isn’t really a problem with fiction. Except fiction, unlike the real world, has to at least make sense.

So there’s an issue for a author writing about time travel. It seems incumbent to find an “explanation” for staying on earth’s “world-line” when “jumping” in time. The explanation needs to be plausible, although it can’t be “scientifically accurate” since time travel itself is surely impossible. My idea for this novel is that they are traveling in a gravity well that’s carving out a path in space-time. It’s not implausible that the least-energy path back to 1066 is along this path. So, when my time travelers “jump,” they are following the path to the past carved out by Earth.

Do I believe in that explanation? Well, no. But I don’t believe in time travel either. This at least passes the sniff test, if you don’t think about it too much.

The other paradox with time travel involves “changing the past” and erasing the future. That’s a common plot element in time travel fiction, and it’s in my novel, too. But a plot turning point in my novel is what I think is a new idea about what “really” happens if someone “changes” the outcome of one of history’s turning points. The idea is tied to some real ideas in physics that arise in quantum mechanics.

Since it’s part of the climax to the novel, you’ll have to read the my book to learn about that.

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Star Trek Discovery Reviewed


September 25, 2017

Star Trek Discovery

Episodes One and Two

CBS All Access

The latest incarnation of Star Trek comes to us from the streaming service, CBS All Access.  I may blog separately about this product.  For now, that’s the only place people in the US will see episodes 2-15 of this new series.

There are many things to love about this series.  First, the cast is amazing.  The plot appears to revolve around First Officer Michael Burnham, ably played by Sonequa Martin-Green. The ineffable Michelle Yeoh plays Captain Georgiou, her commanding officer.  Doug Jones plays Science Officer Saru and brings a charming insouciance to his character, despite what must be lock-jaw inducing makeup.  James Frain delivers a solid performance as Sarek, creating a believable younger version of the Mark Lenard character in the original series.  It’s harder to assess the cast playing the Klingons due to their costumes and the fact their dialogue is all in Klingon with subtitles, but they all appeared to be competent.  The bottom line is that the casting seems excellent.

I note in passing that the series blurbs list Jason Isaacs as Captain Gabriel Lorca, but he fails to appear in the first two episodes.  Nonetheless, he’s a superb actor, known for roles in not only Harry Potter but also in the lamentably cancelled series Awake. The teasers for episode three suggest that he becomes Burnham’s Captain in episode three.  One can hope that the writers find interesting ways for the Yeoh and Martin-Green to interact, as their relationship is one of the more interesting to come out of the first two episodes.  I sincerely hope Yeoh isn’t relegated to flashbacks–more on this below.

The production quality for this series is also top-notch.  I understand that it’s costing six million dollars per episode–substantial for forty minutes of television–and the investment shows.  Not only are the special effects excellent, the lighting, costumes, cinematography, score, and other production aspects are all cinema-quality and far exceed prior versions of Star Trek’s televised series.

The series is set about ten years prior to the original series.  There are some possibly disconcerting discontinuities with the original.  For example, there are many more aliens in ST Discover, and they are more exotic.  We’ve also got a fully human adoptive step-sister for Spock, something never mentioned in the original.  But these are things clever writers can and probably will account for in later episodes.

The Klingons, despite the actor-debilitating costuming, seem to have a more nuanced backstory than in the past.  Rather than comic-book fusions of Satan and Nazis, they have their own unique cultural and biological/genetic motivations. I’m thinking it’s more like the portrayal of Germans in The Enemy Below, the 1957 film on which the Star Trek original series episode “Balance of Terror” was based. There are hints that Saru’s species has a similar intriguing back story.  I see this kind of thing as adding to the established Star Trek canon and thus as a positive, although I’m guessing that many dedicated Trek fans will disagree.

War with the Klingons dominates the first two episodes.  Indeed, the peaceful and collaborative vision of Starfleet is exposed as a failure.  We learn the ultra-logical Vulcans historically have dealt with the Klingons by attacking first and asking questions later–what we will recognize as a “shock and awe” strategy. This is fundamentally counter to the Starfleet of Gene Roddenberry and all later incarnations of the Star Trek universe.  Even where there is conflict and war, the series doesn’t waver from values of community, collaboration, and peace.  We’ll have to have faith in the writers that we’ll retain the Star Trek values despite the ethical problem posed by the Klingons.

For what it’s worth, the dilemma posed by the Klingons is a form of the iterated prisoner’s dilemma.  There are hints that it’s a multi-player version of the game, which can lead to “tit-for-tat with occasional forgiveness” as a winning strategy as opposed to an escalating cycle of “tit-for-tat.”  Indeed, cooperation among multiple players using this strategy leads to cooperation as a stable equilibrium, much like the universe we see in STNG.  In my perfect world, the writers would find a way to work game theory into the plot.  Yeah, right. In my dreams.

I understand that the plan is to have a fifteen-episode story arc for season one.  While I like this idea–many successful series now use this approach–it could and probably will run against expectations of the fan base. Still, some of the best series on television today (Better Call Saul, True Detective, and Fargo, to name a few) use this strategy to great success. Mixing it with non-stop action adventure might be a trek too far, but time will tell.

As I said, there is much to love here.  Overall, I think the launch is successful, even amazing.  But…well, there are some pretty astonishing failures, too.

Hitchcock said that the audience cares about the characters.  The plot, he continued, is there to give the characters something to care about.  This is a lesson for all writers of fiction, whether short stories, novels, or screenplays.  It’s in this place–the characters, their motivations, and their relationships–where I think the opening episodes fail.

First, the episodes keep whip-sawing the audience between past and future timelines.  Flashbacks can be the author’s friend, but the audience needs to first be comfortable in the fictional universe and with the characters.  We start in the fictional present with subtitled Klingons talking about their mythology–and managing to sound both like Klingon is a second language and like they are gargling oatmeal laced with razor blades.  This jumps to an unrelated snippet with Burnham and Georgiou on a desert.  Then finally the main plot starts, but it keeps getting interrupted with flashbacks that lurch the reader from the here-and-now of the starship to the not-here-and-now of Burnham’s backstory.  This pattern of snippets jerking us around makes it incredibly hard to engage with what’s happening on the screen.  We’re not “in” any fictional present long enough to settle in and start to understand the relationships between the characters.  Imagine trying to read  The Old Man and the Sea on Twitter. It’s like that, but worse.

We also need a reason to cheer for Burnham.  The actor is marvelous, but she needs help from the script.  We eventually get there, but we need reasons to cheer for her before she’s tossed in the brig and her life is in danger.  There’s a trope known to screen writers as “saving the cat,” in which your main character does a good deed like saving a cat just because it’s the right thing to do. We really need a “saving the cat” moment for Burnham, and we need it early in the first episode.   We almost get there in a scene when an injured Ensign–at least that’s who I think he is–from the bridge crew visits her in the brig.  But at this point, it’s too late.  The scene should have some emotional power to it, but we know nothing about the relationship between the two and have no real reason to care what happens to either one. The action is already too far along, too distracting, and the scene ends too abruptly with no reaction shot of Burnham.  It’s a wasted opportunity.

Another point involves starting in media res.  As noted above, episode one has three short, stuttering starts in three different, jam-packed action sequences.  The middle one, on the desert planet, stands out for doing nothing to advance either plot or character.  Moreover, the action in these scenes is at such a break-neck pace that we never get to know the characters. In the third start, Burnham dashes off to risk her life on an almost trivial quest to satisfy her curiosity before we have a clue who she is.  We need to see her interacting with other characters in the here-and-now–not as a child on Vulcan–to establish a connection to her as a character we understand and care about.

While I’m at it, there’s the whole idea of non-linear story telling. In at least a couple of instances in the first two episodes, the transitions from the fictional present to the fictional past were so jarring that at first I couldn’t even tell we were in a new time frame.  As noted above, these jumps are often so short that I felt I was jerked from one disconnected scene to another.  As with voice-overs, which are thankfully absent, this technique disrupts the viewer’s connection with the here-and-now on the screen and should be used sparingly.  Instead, elements of Burnham’s backstory get stuck in, like an annoying voice-over, at the most inopportune moments.

All of the above will make it more difficult for this series to acquire viewers.  The risk is that the flash of the special effects is ultimately just sound and fury, and bored viewers will leave.  What will keep them coming back is the characters.  The dramatic leads have the acting chops to make this an excellent series if the scripts give them half a chance.  Doug Jones’ Saru may have the most promise, as the geeky outsider trying to fit into a human world.  He’s the Spock, the Data, the Odo, or the Doctor on Voyager. Jones isn’t given a lot to work with in the first two episodes, but he really shines.  One can hope that he will join the outstanding actors who have played square pegs in other incarnation of Star Trek.

I’m sure that the writers are competent and fully aware of the issues I’ve mentioned.  But at six million dollars per episode, the writers don’t control what finally goes in the script or on the screen.  I don’t know how much artistic license CBS gave the creators, but given their investment, corporate had to be at least nudging things about.  Indeed, I see corporate fingerprints all over my reservations, although I have no evidence other than suspicion that this is the case.

The CBS “All Access” marketing scheme will make it even harder to build an audience, although I understand that the deal with Netflix for non-USA markets has paid the production costs.  I could write a separate blog on CBS All Access (hint: it’s not “all access” even for included series), but that’s another topic.

While I have some reservations about the pace and depth of character development and about the balance between action and character, I think these episodes are successful television.  Indeed, the production values alone make them spectacularly successful.  But the trick for an expensive series like this is building a core audience.  Series like Breaking Bad, with lower production costs, could afford to spend a couple of years building an audience.  This one can’t.  I hope that their gamble pays off and this runs for years.  From the first two episodes, I think the characters deserve it.  Surely cast deserves it.  The fans deserve it most of all. I hope it succeeds.


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The Eclipse

We went to see the eclipse and found a community.

We traveled 350 miles from our home in Tulsa to Fairmont, Nebraska to witness the solar eclipse.  Despite 70% cloud cover, at the time of totality the sun was in patch of blue sky, giving a clear view of the event.  It was indeed an awesome sight.

This short diary isn’t about that, though.  It’s about our experience in the village of Fairmont.

First, the community had spent months planning for the event.  They anticipated a rush of outsiders arriving and, with planning and foresight, welcomed us to their small town.  There were viewing areas in two local parks, a fly-in to the local airstrip, and many community volunteers serving sandwiches, water, and other sundries to the visitors.  The community had rented porta-potties for their guests.  The library even had a supply of viewing glasses. along with eclipse information.

Fairmont welcomed us with open arms.

We found a place to park on a street near downtown where a family from Texas had set up a telescope for viewing.  As I got out our car, I heard them asking if anyone had an extra set of viewing glasses.  As it happened, the place I’d purchased ours sold them in packets of five, so I had three spares.  I gave one of them to the telescope guys, which they used to jury-rig a filter for one of their cell phones.  They were sharing their telescope with anyone who wanted to look—this was about noon, when the moon already occluded about 25% of the solar disk.

The local AmVets was nearby, so I strolled down there to get some bottled water.  I overheard a distressed man who was looking for viewing glasses for himself and his daughter.  It seems the library, despite their preparations, had run out.  I offered our remaining two spares to them.  They seemed thunderstruck and kept insisting on paying me for them.  I asked, “Why would I want that?”  After all, they were (a) inexpensive; (b) I didn’t need them;  and  (c) they’d be worthless in about an hour in any case.  He eventually just agreed that a handshake was enough payment.

When totality came, the telescope guys took the filter off their scope and placed their cell phone next to the eyepiece to take stunning pictures.  They even did the same for bystanders—they took the picture on this diary using my cell phone.  Bear in mind, they took time to share in this way with strangers during the all-too-brief 150 seconds of totality.

When it was over, we thanked the telescope guys again for their generosity.  They, too, shook our hands and wished us a safe trip home.  We did the same for them—they had travelled from Texas.

In this small, doubtless conservative, Nebraska village, we found community and common purpose.  The eclipse brought us together.

If something inanimate can bring us together, I was left to ponder why it is so hard to come together on the many challenges facing our nation.  But that’s not for this diary.  Instead, I’m grateful to have, for one day, found so much good will in a community of strangers.

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Enclave Audio Cinehome 5.1 Wireless Stereo

Technology seems to accumulate around me. Like lint.

My latest addition is a new sound system for the home theater in our bedroom, the Cinehome HD system by Enclave Audio.  Is it lint or gold?  Read on to find out.

Our previously stable system (Sony STR-DN860 amplifier, Sony sub-woofer, Polk Speakers) suddenly started exhibiting faults in the speaker wires.  I’m sure our new kittens had nothing to do it.  Haha.  Anyway, after endlessly having my receiver shut down in “protect mode,” and then having to track down the problem, I decided I was ready to try the latest in home theater technology: WiSA, or Wireless Speaker and Audio.  After all, speaker wire is old technology.  I mean, Edison must have used a version of it.

There are several different systems out there. Vendors include Bang and Olofson, Klipsch, and Axiim.  These all start at around $2,000, and for a 5.1 system can go all the way up to $7,000.  Needless to say, I passed these right by.  I spent about $500 on my existing system, and can’t afford a small fortune on a home theater.

Then there’s Enclave Audio and their Cinehome 5.1 system, available on Amazon for $1199. I could afford that, although for me it’s still pricey.  I checked out some reviews.  They were mostly favorable, although the consensus even for the more expensive systems was that the sound “wasn’t as good” as wired speakers.  Still, no speaker wires.  (Cat, stop pawing at my keyboard!)  I took a deep breath and ordered the Enclave system.

It came two days later in a ginormous box on my patio.  A box of boxes, I should say, as each of the six components was in its own box. The boxes were all clearly labeled: “Right Front,” “Center,” etc.  You un-box the speakers, locate them in your room where the box says, and plug them in.  If you can read and know left from right, you can install this system.

Of course, it’s not totally wireless.  For one thing, you have to plug the speakers into a wall outlet for electrical power.  (Enclave plans a battery pack, but I can’t imagine why.)  Plugging something into the wall is way easier that stringing 20 feet of speaker cable over doors and up and down walls.  Plus, there’s no wires to crimp, thread, or otherwise deal with.  Just a plug.  Set up is totally trivial.

The center speaker is the controller.  You have to run two more wires.  One from your cable box or other input to the controller, and one from the controller to your TV.  (More on this later, as this didn’t quite work for me.)  So you’ve got six things to plug into wall outlets (the speakers), and two cables to run.  Not 100% wireless, but as close as you can get.  Plus, it’s totally trivial to hook up.

Once everything is plugged in, it takes the system about 30 seconds to configure itself, where the center unit links with the satellite speakers.  This is a one-time thing, unless you unplug the speakers or have a power failure.  Once that was done, I was ready to listen to my new speakers.

The result was far better than my old wired speakers. Astonishingly better. I’d paid about twice as much for this system, and I’d say the sound was at least twice as good.  There was solid bass from even the rear speakers, great balance and response.  As a test, we listened to Jurassic Park and Inception.  Both were awesome–far better than with the old system.  The first scene with the Tyrannosaurus was so good, it was breathtaking.

After the reviews I’d read, I’d expected to sacrifice sound for the convenience of no wires.  Wrong.  I got the convenience of no speaker wires AND great sound.

So what gives with those reviews?  I remember when CDs first came out. (No, I don’t remember when dinosaurs roamed the earth, although it felt like I should after watching Jurassic Park with my new system.)  Anyway, the first reviews I read of CDs sneered that they “weren’t nearly as good as vinyl.”  Reading more carefully, I discovered these reviewers had $10,000 turntables for their vinyl records.  Well, duh.  Back then, a new car cost less than that.  For ordinary human beings, CDs were much better than vinyl.

I suspect that the same thing is going on with the reviews that said WiSA speakers weren’t as good as wired speakers.   Maybe not, if you have invested the price of a small car in your home theater system and have Mozart-like ears.  For the rest of us, it looks to me like WiSA (or something similar) will be the way to go.  (No, Bluetooth has too much latency.  It won’t work.  There are similar latency issues with 802.11 unless you have the know-how to tune your router to give priority to your audio traffic.  For simplicity, the Enclave implementation can’t be beat.)

Now, WiSA isn’t intrinsically better than wired technology.  It’s just more convenient.  But most people won’t be able to tell the difference between wired and wireless speakers when the speakers are of comparable quality.  Enclave sells you high quality speakers, tuned to work seamlessly together.  For the casual user who wants to enjoy movies with surround sound, the result is impeccable.  Better than impeccable.

So, we’ve got great sound and super convenience.  It’s pricey, I admit, but is there a downside.  Well, kind of.

There’s this industry standard called HDCP.  It does exactly nothing for the consumer. It’s an anti-copying protocol that benefits the studios exclusively.  The problem is that it’s (a) quirky; and (b) a moving target.  The latest standard, 2.2 is not backward compatible and is designed to prevent the copying of ultra-high-definition video.  The studios won’t license their products unless they are shown on HDCP compliant technology, so the manufacturers, whether it’s Klipsch or Enclave, have to implement the technology on their systems.  Moreover, the manufacturers have to pay the industry association for whatever standard they implement.  Of course, that means that consumers–that’s you and me–are paying for the handcuffs that HDCP puts on us, including the vast majority of us who have no intention of making illegal copies.  [Rant mode off.]

Doubtless as way of keeping the price down, Enclave has chosen to implement HDCP 1.4, not HDCP 2.2.  I don’t have a 4K TV and I doubt I could tell the difference in the sound anyway, so I’m just as glad to have the older standard and lower cost.  BUT, while my TV isn’t 4K, it uses HDCP 2.2 and so does my cable box.  So, when I route my video from my cable box through my Enclave via HDMI cable and then, via a second HDMI cable, to my TV, it fails.  HDCP 2.2 decides that my HDCP 1.4 Enclave must be trying to steal the video, and my TV turns into a strobe, flashing on and off every second.  Oh, and there’s a warning message about buying new equipment that’s not up there long enough to read.

The same thing happens with my Roku, and both my DVD juke boxes.

Yay.  Just, yay.

Note that everything initially worked fine, but 24 hours later HDCP turned my system into an annoying strobe light.  The Enclave folks explained in a nice, chatty phone call that sometimes the “sleep” mode on devices doesn’t release the initial HDCP handshake, resulting in the problems I was having on the second use.

So, what to do?  The Enclave website suggests putting an HDCP-2.2-to-HDCP-1.4 converter into the system.   Amazon has them for about $25.  But I thought of another solution that was cost free.

What I did was hook all of my devices directly to my TV, by-passing the new Enclave (I actually ran them through an HDCP 2.2 Kinivo switch).  Then I ran an optical audio cable from my TV to my Enclave center speaker and set the TV to route the sound to the Enclave. That works like a charm. I now have a working system with digital audio, just like I would have had with the “normal” HDMI throughput.  True, I won’t get PCM audio, but I doubt I could tell the difference anyway.

Another small downside on the Enclave system is the user interface.  It relies entirely on displaying a menu on the TV screen. Oops.  In the setup I just described, I’m not running signals to the TV from the Enclave, so no menu.  To access the menu for the Enclave, I have yet another HDMI cable running from the Enclave to an unused HDMI port on my TV.  Now I can use the menu.  Yay, again.

Even better, though, since the initial release of their product, the Enclave engineers have worked with Logitech so that Harmony remotes will work with the Enclave system.  I’ve programmed all of the menu functions into my Harmony remote, so when I need them they are there.  My remote also pre-configures the TV, the Kinivo switch, the Enclave, and whatever input I have, so a single button push starts everything up with the signals properly aligned.  That’s another yay!

By the way, the Harmony database can be frustrating to search.   It finds the Enclave system as “Enclave Audio Cinehome HD,” but the Kinivo switch under “BTN50.”

So, despite my bubble with HDCP problems, I’m quite pleased with this system.  The sound is extraordinary, the setup is trivial, and there are no speaker wires.  In addition, the product support appears to be quite good. The firmware update to work with Harmony remotes also came about because of a customer suggestion.  The company called me back promptly on a weekend call about my HDCP issues, and chatted for quite a while about the product and my setup.   So, I’m impressed with the suppot, the company, the sound and the convenience.

While most of my technology seems like lint, this one is gold.

I can recommend this system without reservation.



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The Jark on the Spiv’s Deed

I love getting reviews that make me think.

I got a review of a book chapter this morning that did that.  This reviewer told me I used obscure words that would be unfamiliar to readers.  Well, I can’t argue with the merits of that advice in general.  I love Hemingway in no small part because of his spare style.   When an author uses a word that I have to look up, it almost always annoys me.  It’s not that I don’t like learning new words–to the contrary.  The problem is that looking up a word takes me out of the story.  It breaks the fictional dream, which is at the heart of modern fiction.

My first reaction to the review was to run my chapter through the two tests of readability that come with most word processors: the Flesch grade level and the Flesch-Kincaid reading ease score.  My chapter had a Flesch grade level of 4.1 and a reading ease score of 82.5.  According to Wikipedia, that grade level score means that a US fourth-grader should be able to read and understand it.  The same Wikipedia article says a reading ease score of 90 is easily understood by an eleven-year-old, while one of 70 is easily understood by a thirteen-year-old.

It’s interesting to see how various authors stack up on the readability scales.  This blog actually gives some comparative scores.  The Old Man and the Sea, for example, has a grade level of 4 and a readability score of over 90.  This means that Hemingway’s masterwork is exceptionally readable:  lower grade levels and higher readability scores are good things when it comes to lucidity.  Authors like Stephen King, Dan Brown, and John Grisham have grade levels of 6 to 8 and reading scores from 75 to 80.  These are all readable authors by any measure.  Depending on the passage you choose, other famous authors don’t fare so well.  One passage from Proust in particular has a readability score of -515.

This blog isn’t doing so well, either. It has a readability score of 67.3 and a grade level of 7.7.  If this were fiction, I’d be looking for ways to make it more readable.

The point is that if you are writing fiction, you probably don’t want your use of language to obscure your meaning.  You want your fiction to be readable.  You’re not trying to impress your reader with your proclivity for polysyllabic elucidation. Oops.  I meant to say, “your tendency to use big words.”

Okay, then, back to my thought-provoking reviewer.  My scores are roughly the same as King and Grisham, so that must mean my chapter is peachy-keen, right?  By the way, “keen”–as in making a high-pitched sound–was one of the words my reviewer objected to.  If you think the scores absolve me, think again.

Consider this sentence:

                The jark on the spiv’s deed wricked the truth. 

This unintelligible sentence has a readability score of 100 and a grade level of zero, so by the above measures it’s more lucid than, say, the children’s book Goodnight Moon, which has a grade level slightly less than 3.

Say, what?

Suppose I had written instead:

              The forged seal on the criminal’s deed twisted the truth.

It turns out, this says the same thing as the earlier sentence, except it uses plain English rather than obscure words.  This second sentence has a grade level of 3.6 and a readability score of 86.  It’s also a sentence anyone reading this can likely understand.

So what’s going on?  Like Sheldon on Big Bang Theory, I like to do the math.  If you look at the formulae for the Flesch scales, you’ll see that they are based on counting characters per word and words per sentence.  In fact, all the scales that mechanically calculate readability do the same kind of thing. What they don’t do is decide whether or not your words are obscure.  So my first sentence, the one with the jark on the spiv’s deed, is short and uses one-syllable words, hence the high readability and low grade level scores.  Readability in this case is a deliberate artifact–I constructed a sentence to “falsify” the score.

Now, another way to test readability is have real people read the sentence and see how many know what it says. In fact, you could have fifth graders read it and find out if the “average” –whatever that means–fifth grader understood it.  Of course, that kind of real-world test can’t be automated and built into your word processor.  I think we don’t need a test, though, to conclude the first sentence above is unreadable, despite its score to the contrary.

Does this mean that the Flesch scales and all their relatives are useless?  No, of course not.  In fact, if you compare the results of the Flesch scales with the above real-world test using real people, the results generally have a 90% correlation.  That’s really quite good, especially for social science results where there are often multiple unmeasured variables.  One of those unmeasured variables in this case is how common the words are in the passage being tested. As the above example shows, it’s an imperfect measure.  Still, for most documents, readability fails more due to long words and complex sentences rather than obscurantism. Thus, the scales do in fact measure something useful.  They’re just not 100% accurate.

This takes me back to my thought-provoking review.  It’s a matter of taste and style whether or not use a particular word.  Indeed, Dean Koontz has almost made a trademark of using at least one obscure word per novel–kind of like Alfred Hitchcock’s appearance in all of his films.  He does this with a certain insouciance–one of his words–and this is no doubt part of his appeal to his legion fans.

Now, the fact that Dean Koontz does this doesn’t make it “okay” for a beginning author.  If I used the wonderful word “insouciance” in an opening paragraph, I’m sure the acquisitions editor would stop reading and toss my manuscript in the reject pile.  Koontz, on the other hand, could open with the page 178 of the Tulsa phone book and he’d still get a contract and readers would still buy his book.  He’s not only more talented, he’s a best-selling author.  The “rules” don’t apply to him: nothing sells like success. Whether it’s an agent, an editor, or an ordinary Joe picking a paperback out at the supermarket, Koontz’s solid reputation means that he doesn’t have to prove himself with those first paragraphs. I do.

So how about that verb “keened” that I used?  Well, it’s onomatopoetic (there I go again!), so I like it.  I’m also pretty convinced it’s not so obscure that people will have to look it up, although I concede it’s not a word most people would use in conversation.  Bottom line: I think I’ll keep it, but I’m glad I thought about it.


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Craft or Art?


I don’t tell anyone how to write and no one tells me.
–Ray Bradbury

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.
–Pablo Picasso

Life is choices.

When you’re eighteen, the future stretches before you. Your life is a page with no words, a canvas with no paint, a score with no notes. Each choice you make writes the story, colors the portrait, and sings the harmonies.

However, for every door that choice opens, it closes another. At eighteen, I dreamed of many careers, and I was lucky enough to follow several. By the end of my fifth decade, though, I’d still not tried writing fiction. I thought it couldn’t be that hard. I’d written dozens of research papers, a couple of math text books, and I’d read a zillion novels.

So, I set out to write a publishable short story. That was my goal. Six months, tops, and I could cross that off my to-do list. After all, I had lots of stories to tell. I’d just pick one, polish it, and I’d be done. Like Bradbury, I didn’t think I needed anyone to tell me how to write.

Of course, I’m not a natural genius like Ray Bradbury. I’m just a guy who wanted to write fiction.

Hemingway tells us writing is easy: just sit at a keyboard, open a vein, and let the blood flow. How true! Sure, I had lots of stories in my head. But they turned out to be excruciating to write. Characters came alive in my brain. Their anguish became mine, along with their joys and their triumphs. All those strangers stomping around in my skull, clamoring to be heard, scared the crap out of me. I had to get them out, onto the page.

Despite being so real in my head, when they populated my page they turned to ash. Instead of living, breathing people, my pages filled with dust. My mathematics monograph on A Rapidly Convergent Iteration Method and Gateaux Differentiable Operators was a zinger by comparison.

So, I decided to read a book on how to write. In fact, I read a bunch of books, but none of them really helped. Even John Gardner’s marvelous The Art of Fiction didn’t help, although it clearly provided a theoretical basis for effective fiction.

The problem is that good fiction is more than characterization, or plotting, or pacing. It’s more than dramatic structure, or theme, or metaphor and simile. It’s even more than the solid foundation that Gardner teaches. Good fiction is also craft: countless details that work together to produce art.

When I first joined Writing.Com, I was incredibly lucky to have a small group of talented writers take me under their collective wing. I learned simple techniques to make prose more effective. At first, these looked like stylistic idiosyncrasies, like tricks. But then I remembered from my mathematical training the difference between a trick and a technique. A trick is something you do once; a technique is something you can do many times.

If you master the techniques of effective writing, then and only then can you develop your own style. Indeed, it is in mastering those techniques that your style evolves.

Just because you own paints and a brush doesn’t mean you can produce art. Just because you can construct grammatical sentences doesn’t make you an author.

Sometimes, I’ll have a beginning author reject my suggestions about technique, telling me that’s “not their style.” Fine. Everyone has their own style. But pay attention to the Picasso quote at the start of this essay. Contrast it with the Bradbury quote. Unless you’re one of those rare geniuses like Bradbury, it pays to learn the techniques other authors have worked out over the ages. Even Picasso said we are all beginners, learning from each other.

Picasso mastered the techniques of realism as a young man. If you don’t think so, just Google “Picasso realism” and look at the images that come up. In fact, he never totally abandoned realism. Consider his lovingly detailed 1924 painting of his spouse at the top of this blog. While his 1954 portrait   of Jacqueline Rocque is a recognizable Picasso, he also penned this delightful and realistic sketch   of her in the same year.
Picasso never abandoned realism even as he developed his world-shattering style.

Picasso once said that when he was young, he could have become anything: a doctor, a lawyer, an author. Instead, he said, he became Picasso. But he became Picasso because he first learned the rules like a pro, and then broke them like an artist.

If you are an author, really an author, you have stories in you clamoring to get out. You have no choice. You must write them. But if you want their telling to be effective, you need to master the craft of writing, just as Picasso mastered the craft of drawing.

Effective stories are works of art. Successful authors make their own rules. The artist knows the purpose the rule serves and breaks it with deliberate intent, to achieve an artistic goal.

So is writing art or is it craft? The answer is that it’s both. Craft precedes art, and art transcends craft.

I’ll end this essay with another quote from Ray Bradbury: “You fail only if you stop writing.”

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Describing Characters

Descriptions are an important tool in a writer’s bag of tricks.  Done correctly, they incite the readers’ imaginations, deepen point of view, and advance the plot and character. But descriptions are hard to do well. Elmore Leonard said his most important advice to writers was to “try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”  Keep your descriptions lively and focused on advancing plot, character, and establishing point of view and readers will devour them rather than skip them.

It’s worth noting that there’s one school of thought that deprecates descriptions of your point-of-view character.  The whole idea of third person limited is that your reader will experience your fictional world through the sensations, emotions, and thoughts of your POV character.  Unless we’re pretty narcissistic, most of us don’t go around thinking about how we look, how tall we are, the color of our eyes, or other personal details.  To be sure, readers need to know some minimal things about the POV character, lest she be a stick figure, but her emotional state and the sensations she’s experiencing are more intimate and subjective, and thus more effective at establishing POV.  Knowing that she’s seven feet tall and weighs 90 pounds is important only if it’s essential to the story.  If it’s not, leave it out.  Indeed, peculiarities in appearance can work against putting the reader inside the POV character’s head.  Thus, how much you describe your POV character depends on the story and on your own style.  Fiction is art, not mathematics.  There aren’t any axioms or theorems, just guidelines.

Since I believe that descriptions should be integral to the story, before I give my example I need to have some idea of characters and plot.  Suppose, for example, I’m starting a new story and I have the following two character profiles:

Joe is twenty-something, an accountant who is struggling to make ends meet. He’s had a hard-scrabble existence with a community college degree in bookkeeping.  He’s got low self-esteem, and he over-compensates by working out obsessively and studying pre-law in night school. 

 Kirsten is an heiress and, like Joe, is twenty-something.  Despite her Ivy League degree, no one takes her seriously, so she over-compensates by wearing expensive business suits, keeping a severe, short hairdo, and wearing wire-framed glasses instead of contacts.  Her beloved father is dead and her mother has re-married. 

The plot involves Kirsten hiring Joe as the fall-guy in a complex and ruthless plan to swindle her over-bearing step-father.  Hmmm…I may actually wind up writing a story or novella based on these ideas.

I find that it’s helpful to locate a photo that captures the image I have in my mind.  When    Joe-Smallyour novel goes into production, the artist assigned to your cover will almost certainly ask you for descriptions or even a stock photo of your main characters.  Thus, I will often search for this photo early in the writing process.  Having a physical image helps keep me grounded and consistent throughout the creative process. There are many sites you can peruse for stock images, and you can purchase royalty-free images for a modest price.  For example, for Joe I found the image at right on dreamstime.com.

JoeLogoWhile it’s inexpensive to purchase a royalty-free image–the one above cost about $1–you can download a copy for free that’s overprinted with the site name and logo.  The original, uncropped photo of Joe with the Dreamstime logo, is at right.  You can’t use that for public distribution since you’ve not paid for the rights, but it would suffice for your personal use while writing your novel.

KirstenJust for completeness, let me include a photo that matches my mental image of Kirsten, at left.

All right.  So I now have photos of what Joe and Kirsten look like and what the plot will be.  Next, I need to describe them.  But wait–there’s another challenge.  Joe and Kirsten will likely both be point-of-view characters.  The first chapter will thus almost certainly use one or the other for the point of view.  Thus, I’ll need to describe the point of view character while in his or her point of view.  That’s tricky.

Before we being writing, it’s useful to choose the point of view and to decide what information the scene needs to convey.  Suppose we’re going to be in Joe’s point of view.  Let’s start by listing what we’d like the reader to know about Joe’s appearance the first time they meet him.  First would be his age and gender.  Second might be that he’s muscular and obsessive about fitness.  Third might be his stubble beard, dark hair, and maybe a mussed appearance to go with being a working stiff.

The challenge, of course, is to achieve this without using a trite contrivance like having him look in a mirror.

As with most things, it’s much easier to say what not to do than it is to say what to do when describing characters.  An important point, I think, is don’t info-dump your descriptions.  This info-dump consists of the narrator, standing outside the story, describing Joe.

Joe wore a rumbled Walmart suit and scuffed suede shoes.  His broad shoulders and trim waist spoke of the hours he spent in the gym.  He kept his hair short, with razor cut sides.  His only concession to fashion was the carefully trimmed stubble on his chiseled cheeks. 

That gives a detailed idea of what he looks like, but it violates the basic principal of third person limited: the reader is supposed to experience your fictional world through the senses of the POV character.  If that’s Joe, he’s pretty shallow to be thinking these things about himself, yet I want Joe to be a more or less ordinary working stiff.

Consider instead the following paragraphs.  You’ll find all of the above information except the “broad shoulders” and “chiseled cheeks,” both of which are a little over the top.  Instead of an info dump, though, the information arises in a natural way, through the words and deeds of the characters.

Joe was lost in the depths old lady Marchan’s tax return.  With his right hand he scrolled through her deductions, while with his left he flexed an exercise handgrip.  He grimaced as a satisfying burn flamed in his forearm, but then the chime built into the doormat told him a customer had entered the office. He hid the grip under a stack of tax forms and turned to face the door.  The new arrival was a willowy brunette who looked to be about his age or maybe a bit younger, say 22 or 23, with no makeup, icy, blue eyes and creamy skin that made him think of Michelangelo’s Pieta. 

He rose to his feet, went around the desk, and extended his hand.  “Good evening, ma’am.  I’m Joe Hatcher.”  Now that he was standing, she seemed taller than he’d first thought, nearly equal to his six feet.  It was almost like she’d used her clothes and posture to make him underestimate her.  He decided to flash his dimples.  “What can I do for you?” 

She barely touched his calloused hand.  When she spoke, her frosty contralto prickled the hairs on the back of his neck.  “I’m here to engage your services, Mister…Hatcher, did you say your name was?”

Jesus, what was this woman doing in a place like Acme Accounting Services? Like his suit, Joe was Walmart, and her outfit screamed Saks Fifth Avenue.  He ran his fingers over his stubbled chin and nodded to the guest chair.  “Have a seat and we’ll see what we can do.”  He could use some cash, and it looked like she had plenty.

She perched on the edge of the plastic seat and chewed her lip.  Her straight bangs fell across her brow and obscured her trendy silver eyeglasses, but her hair was buzzed short on the sides, nearly as short as Joe’s razor cut. It was like she couldn’t make up her mind between channeling Annie Lennox or Princess Di. 

Her lips parted as if she were going to speak, but just then a car drove through the strip mall’s parking lot, its radio blaring hip-hop and its bass thumping.  Her gaze dropped to Joe’s scuffed suede shoes, and her expression soured, as if she’d bit into an apple and found him inside.

He retreated back to his chair behind the desk and waited. Was she going to speak, or what?  The overhead fluorescent light flickered and buzzed, casting a harsh glow over the cramped office.  Silence stretched.

This is all first draft, and the rough edges of craft still stick out, but let’s take a look at what’s here.  First, notice that it includes all the information about Joe’s appearance in the original list without stopping the story with an info-dump.  Instead, we learn this in the natural flow of events.  We even learn that he’s maybe a little more sophisticated than he lets on, since Kirsten’s skin reminds him of the marble in a famous Renaissance sculpture.

These paragraphs also include a description of Kirsten, including that her appearance is deceptive and contradictory.  We get Kirsten’s appearance piecemeal, as we would when we meet a new person in real life:  we pick up on bits as we interact with her.  We’ve also got a hint of the class difference between Joe and Kirsten.  Finally, we know from her icy expression and frosty tone that she’s cold.

It’s also worth noting that the opening sentences are designed to draw the reader into Joe’s head.  He’s doing something—lost in the tax return—and exercising his grip.  The latter leads to a burn in his arm, a subjective feeling that puts the readers squarely inside his head. The doormat chimes, he reacts, and the willowy brunette walks in.  We get some final scene setting with the flickering light in the “cramped” office and the hip-hop music blasting from the parking lot of the strip mall.

There’s some tension building as she chews her lip and doesn’t speak.  Hopefully, at this point the reader is hooked.  What does the woman want? Clearly, Joe hopes to make some money, but the situation screams that there is risk—that the woman isn’t going to be honest with him.  Joe’s manipulative, too, since he “flashes his dimples,” so we’ve already got conflict.

Kurt Vonnegut said that every sentence should advance plot or character, and preferably both. I’m not as skilled as Vonnegut by any stretch, but I think almost every sentence in the above accomplishes one or both of those goals while at the same time conveying information about setting and the appearance of the characters.  This isn’t easy to do, but with some thought and attention to craft, it’s not impossibly difficult, either.

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Info-dumps and the Evolution of Opening Paragraphs

Opening paragraphs are tough to write. Everyone knows that. You’ve got to introduce your character, draw the readers into the story, foreshadow the plot, and establish the point of view. You also have to orient your readers, so it helps to answer as many of the who, what, when, and where questions as you can. Even more challenging, this is your first and best chance to capture your readers. The best openings grab them by the throat and make them continue reading.

I thought it might be helpful to show the evolution of the opening paragraphs to a short story I’ve been working on the last couple of weeks.

Here’s my first attempt.

Hank shivered in the chilly air of the The Last Chance. His dress shirt, sweat-soaked from the searing heat of July in Oklahoma, clung to his clammy torso. He squirmed on his stool at the diner’s counter and inhaled ancient scents of greasy hamburgers, cigarettes, and unwashed roustabouts. He checked his mobile phone. No signal. Awesome.

My usual technique, in evidence here, is to first and foremost draw the readers into the head of the point-of-view character. I almost always start by naming the character, and then go on to have some visceral reaction to the physical surroundings. In this case, he shivers and his shirt clings to his clammy torso. With any luck, the reader is now in his head, so whatever follows is also in his head. I also locate him in space (in a diner in Oklahoma) and time (it’s July). In fact, the diner is old, since it has “ancient” scents. We also learn he’s in a remote location, since there’s no cell signal. Finally, the name of the diner–The Last Chance–adds a bit of foreboding and foreshadowing.

All in all, this doesn’t look like a terrible opening to me. It didn’t quite work for the story, though, since I didn’t think it had enough information. Basically, this is your typical “guy gets lost in the middle of nowhere and weird things happen” story–the kind you would see on an old Twilight Zone episode, for example. So, I decided I needed to add a bit of that to the opening, along with an explanation of why he was there. So, here’s my second attempt at an opening paragraph.

Hank shivered in the chilly air of the The Last Chance. His dress shirt, sweat-soaked from the searing heat of July in Oklahoma, clung to his clammy torso. He squirmed on his stool at the diner’s counter and inhaled ancient scents of greasy hamburgers, cigarettes, and unwashed roustabouts. When he pulled out his mobile phone to call the office, it showed “no signal.” Awesome. After his last sales stop, he’d gotten lost in the scrub oak forest and twisty gravel roads, and he was overdue. He supposed he’d been lucky to find this place, such as it was. The town consisted of a church, a dozen boarded-up houses, and this diner. 

Now if the waitress would take his order, he could eat and be on his way.

Notice this adds that he’s lost and paints a picture of a ghost town buried in the forest. There’s also a bit of tension since the waitress seems to be ignoring him. While that was better, the first paragraph now drags a bit with too much explanation, so I decided to insert another paragraph with even more explanation, some of it to set up things later in the story.

Hank shivered in the chilly air of the The Last Chance. His dress shirt, sweat-soaked from the searing heat of July in Oklahoma, clung to his clammy torso. He squirmed on his stool at the diner’s counter and inhaled ancient scents of greasy hamburgers, cigarettes, and unwashed roustabouts. When he pulled out his mobile phone to call the office, it showed “no signal.” Awesome. After his last sales stop, he’d gotten lost in the scrub oak forest and twisty gravel roads, and his report was overdue.

This trip had been a total waste. After all the quakes last year, you’d think wireless seismic monitors would sell like iPhones in Silicon Valley in these parts, but no one here had any money, and most of the time there was no network for the monitors to connect to. It was like he’d dropped into another century. He supposed he’d been lucky to find this place, such as it was. The town consisted of a church, a dozen boarded-up houses, and this diner.

Now if the waitress would only take his order, he could eat and be on his way.

Well. Harumph. That needs work. Look at the last sentence in the first paragraph. It’s all telling: an info-dump. Same for the second paragraph. How embarrassing. So, let’s work on that.

Hank shivered in the dark and dank air of the The Last Chance. His dress shirt, sweat-soaked from the searing heat of July in Oklahoma, clung to his clammy torso. He squirmed on his stool at the diner’s counter and inhaled ancient scents of greasy hamburgers, cigarettes, and unwashed roustabouts. When he checked his mobile phone, it showed “no signal.” Awesome. Here he was, lost in Hicksville, or Carl’s Corner, or whatever they called this nowhere town, buried inside a nowhere scrub forest, with twisty gravel roads that led to nowhere, and now he couldn’t even make a friggin’ phone call. 

On top of all that, this sales trip had been a total waste. With all the quakes last year, you’d think wireless seismic monitors would sell around here like prayer books at a revival, but no one had any money, and these backwoods bumpkins didn’t even have cell phone coverage. It was like he’d dropped into another century. He supposed he’d been lucky to find this diner, such as it was. At least the GPS in his car told him it was only a few miles back to the turnpike.

If the waitress would only take his order, he could eat and be on his way back to civilization.

All right, then. This is better. Now the information at the end of the first paragraph is clearly in Hank’s head, and we’re getting a sense of his frustration and isolation from what he’s thinking. I like the first paragraph at this point.

The second paragraph? Well, it’s still got too much information. It sounds like earthquakes and seismic monitors are important to the story, and they’re not. What is important is the feeling he’s “dropped into another century” and he wants to get “back to civilization,” added in the final paragraph.

So, here’s where the opening stands now.

Hank shivered in the dark and dank air of the The Last Chance. His dress shirt, sweat-soaked from the searing heat of July in Oklahoma, clung to his clammy torso. He squirmed on his stool at the diner’s counter and inhaled ancient scents of greasy hamburgers, cigarettes, and unwashed roustabouts. When he checked his mobile phone, it showed “no signal.” Awesome. Here he was, lost in Hicksville, or Carl’s Corner, or whatever they called this nowhere town, buried inside nowhere scrub forest, with twisty gravel roads that led to nowhere, and now he couldn’t even make a friggin’ phone call. 

On top of all that, this sales trip had been a total waste. The few bumpkins who’d listened to his pitch didn’t have the brains to pound dirt, and no money besides. It was like he’d dropped into another century. He supposed he’d been lucky to find a place to eat. At least the GPS in his car told him it was only a few miles back to the turnpike.

If the waitress would only take his order, he could eat and be on his way back to civilization.

At 190 words, that’s still a little long. The precipitating incident, the arrival a mysterious stranger at diner, starts in the next paragraph. It’d be better if I could push that earlier, so this probably still needs some work.

The point is that openings are hard. The story stands at 2800 words right now, and I’m happy with everything except the first 200 of them.

I’ll keep you posted!

Next day thoughts:

I’ve decided to delete the entire second paragraph.  The only essential information is that he can use his GPS to guide him to the nearby turnpike, and I moved that tidbit to later in the story.  Now I can have the precipitating incident right there at the beginning.

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Fun With Easter Eggs

While they are fun, this blog is not about the coloring hard-boiled ova from hens.  Instead, this is about clever hidden references that directors and authors sometimes plant inside creative works.  For example, in my most recent novel The Hounds of Hollenbeck, the protagonist’s address is the same as Franz Kafka’s when he wrote Metamorphosis.  There’s also a little mini-scene with earthworms that’s an homage to David Lynch and Blue Velvet.

It can be lots of fun finding Easter eggs in movies.  A famous example is Alfred Hitchcock, who made a cameo appearance in nearly every film he directed.  Other directors have imitated this. For example, in Jurassic Park, Stephen Spielberg’s reflection appears in the hub cab of the jeep after it falls out of the tree. M. Night Shyamalan makes a cameo appearance in his movies.

I thought about this topic the other night while watching an old Columbo episode with Suzanne Pleshette in a guest-starring role.  Remember, she played Bob Newhart’s wife in the 1970s sitcom, but before that she was in Hitchcock’s The Birds, playing a school teacher who gets pecked to death.  In the Columbo episode, Falk asks her what she does, and she says she “used to work with children and animals.” I immediately thought of her earlier Hitchcock roll, and wondered if this was an Easter egg homage to Hitchcock.  Only the writers know.

Anyway, here are a few fun Easter eggs for your enjoyment.

Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Apparently while shooting, the cast had a real Easter egg hunt on the set.  They neglected to clean up thoroughly, though, and sharp-eyed fans spotted Easter eggs scattered here and there throughout the film.  Folklore says this is the origin of the term “Easter egg.”

Newhart.  In the final episode, Bob wakes up in the apartment he and Emily shared in his prior sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show, where Suzanne Pleshette played his wife.  Suzanne is there, and he tells her he just had a horrible dream about running an inn in Vermont.  In another episode of Newhart, Bob and Mary Frann, who plays his spouse in Newhart, go to a psychiatrist’s office where Mr. Carlin, one of Dr. Hartley’s patients from the 1970s sitcom, appears.  The psychiatrist comments it’s taking him years to correct the damage done “by that quack in Chicago.”  This blog points out that in a retrospective of the The Bob Newhart Show, there are more Easter eggs, this time back to Newhart.

Silence of the Lambs.  The Easter egg here is in the poster.  It’s memorable: it shows Jody Foster’s face with the death’s head moth splayed over her lips.  Of course, the moth has a skull on its carapace, hence its name. But on the poster, the artist was able to be more detailed and more creative.  It’s actually shows seven nude women arranged to look like a skull, taken from a famous Phillipe Halsman photo of Salvador Dali.

Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Hidden in the hieroglyphs on the wall of the well of souls are images of R2-D2 and C3PO.  They do get around, don’t they?

Return of the Jedi. Three of Jabba the Hut’s workers on his barge are named Klaatu, Barada, and Nikto, a reference to the classic SciFi film The Day the Earth Stood Still.

The Phantom Menace. E.T. appears in the senate cheering as Palpatine announces the formation of the Empire.  Of course, Yoda appears in E.T., at least as a costumed child.  In fact, there’s a whole web page that speculates E.T., Indiana Jones, and Star Wars are from the same universe, all based on Easter eggs.

Back to the Future.  Marty crashes into a farmhouse where the son is named Sherman and the name on the mailbox is Peabody, a reference to the famous time-travelling cartoon duo.

3rd Rock from the Sun.  When Dick Solomon, played by John Lithgow, greets his boss the Big Giant Head, played by William Shatner, the latter complains about a crazy person on his flight to earth who claimed gremlins were sabotaging the space ship.  Solomon says, “The same thing happened to me!”  Of course, in Twilight Zone the Movie, Lithgow reprised Shatner’s roll in the TV series where exactly the same incident happened.

Hannibal.  In Florence, Hannibal’s first victim peals and eats an orange, in tribute to Coppola’s Godfather, where an orange appears in the scene where any character about to meet their death.

Toy Story. The carpet in Sid’s house is the same as the carpet in the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.  Of course, those two movies are exactly the same (eye roll).

20th Anniversary of The Simpsons. Fox put Easter eggs in many of their shows during the week of the anniversary.  For example, in Bones, there’s a scan of Homer Simpson’s brain (Season 5 – Episode 7, 5:19 to 5:21).  In House, the eponymous physician refers to Cuddy’s breasts as “Patty and Selma.”

Roseanne. In 1993, the actress who played Becky left the show and the producers replaced her with a new actress, Sarah Chalke.  In the final scene of her first appearance, the family is watching re-runs of Bewitched and discuss the fact that two different actors played Darrin. Rosanne makes a sarcastic comment about the producers thinking the audience must be idiots to not notice.  Then the new Becky,  Sarah Chalke, remarks that she thinks the second Darrin is “much better.”

As with everything else, Google is our friend.  There are web pages of Easter eggs for movies and for TV shows.  Even these enormous lists, which have thousands of eggs, are not comprehensive.  They miss the Roseanne and 3rd Rock eggs I mentioned above, for example.

Do you have a favorite Easter egg?  Let me know.



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Notes from the Catbox


Meow. My name is Dinger, and I’m taking control of my pet human Max’s blog this morning.

My pet Max is kinda dumb, even for a human. Sometimes he can’t even remember my name and calls me Nonobadcat. I mean, how silly is that? I’m too genteel to repeat what he called me this morning as he dashed out to the farmer’s market. All I did was trip him because he gave me the wrong kind of cat food. I know, I know: for the last 286 days I’ve refused to eat anything but the gravy-ladled salmon and whitefish cat food, but this morning I wanted the beef morsels. With gravy, of course. How hard is that?

Anyway, Max was in such a rush to get away that he left the door to his office open. Since I’m an especially catty cat, I decided to show him. So here I am, to tell you the truth about one Max Griffin, human.

Ordinarily, I’d never read another cat’s email, but Max isn’t a feline so who cares? The first thing I saw was a note from his publisher that his short story collection, What in Dreams Abides, is releasing today. What a great opportunity for my revenge, thought I. I’ll write a review. I purred and narrowed my eyes at the thought, just like I do when he scratches my tummy. He is good for something. Sometimes.

I just pawed my way through this volume. I’m relieved to report that there are almost no dogs in this book. The last two books by Max have had those mangy creatures. The dog in The Hounds of Hollenbeck was even supposed to be super smart, which I guess doesn’t take much for a dog. Anyway, this new book has only one dog which is a big plus.

This one is all short stories. I guess as Max ages, his attention span is fading and he can’t get it together to write novels any more. I mean, he can’t even pet me for than two or three hours at a time before he has to use the bathroom or something. Bless his heart.

Some of the short stories are pretty scary, I admit. There’s one based on the old fable “The Tinder Box” that’s set here in Tulsa, or maybe in Kandahar. It’s kind of hard to tell, since the character seems to hop back and forth between the two, and then into a Disney animated movie at the end. Really, Max is getting so scatterbrained. This story has the only dog in the collection, guarding a dried-up river of sticks. Max is so subtle. Not. Dog, sticks, Cerberus, Styx. Anywhose, this dog doesn’t have much to do besides be a metaphor and gnaw on a bone.  And slobber.  After all, he’s a dog.

At least three of the stories are updates on classic Edgar Allen Poe tales. “The Eye” was really creepy, except for the crickets in the wall. They sounded tasty. The narrator needed a cat to eat them, along with that thing he left in the closet.

Other stories read like they belong on the old Alfred Hitchcock TV shows. There’s one, “Fred Cleans House,” that Max said he wrote to prove that a story about housework could have tension. I don’t get that. There was plenty of tension last night when Max and his partner Gene discussed whose turn it was to clean my litter box. I threw up on the DVD player to calm them down. It didn’t have the desired effect, though. Humans are so stupid.

Oh wait! I hear Max’s car driving down the street. I need to run downstairs and help him unload things in the kitchen. He likes it when I do that, especially when I follow him in front of him.

So, I guess Max’s new book isn’t bad, if you like short stories. It’s kind of scary and icky in places, and it re-works some old tales and folk legends in new ways. Most important, it’s only got one dog, and he’s in a minor role.

I’m outta here.


PS  Here’s a link to the other book, the one with the smarty-pants dog in it.



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