Building a Computer, Part Four

Okay.  So far, we’ve got the motherboard, the processor, the memory, and the power supply.  Along the way, I mentioned an after-market fan for the CPU.  In this post, I’ll go over the other elements I put inside the case.

Of course, one of the things you need is a hard disk.  In my case, I decided to get two identical hard disks.  Alas, this is one of the places for a hard-learned lesson.  Hard disks can use different kinds of technology to interface with the motherboard and the computer.  You choose which one in the system BIOS setting.  In my case, the choices were RAID, IDE, or ACHI.  These are pretty standard.  I already knew I needed to use RAID for the hard disks, since it’s required for the Intel RapidStorage Technology (RST for short) I mentioned back in part two of this series.

Now, there are several flavors of RAID.  For the purposes here, I originally thought I wanted RAID1, which causes the two disks to “mirror” each other: everything is written to both disks.  The idea is that you then have an automatic backup.  If one disk fails, just pull it out, order a new one, and your system continues running just fine while you wait for the replacement to arrive.  It turns out there are reasons why this isn’t an optimal backup strategy and you need to do ordinary backups anyway, but that was my original plan.

The actual cabling that you use for your drives–whether they are hard drives, solid state drives, optical drives–is something called a SATA cable. I can plug up to six SATA devices into my motherboard.  I’d planned to use two for hard disks, one for a solid state drive, and one for my optical drive, leaving two left over for expansion.

So, I needed to have the two hard drives configured as RAID.  The RapidStorage technology requires a solid state drive, also configured as part of the RAID array.  No problem, thought I.    But, of the six SATA ports, the Intel H77 chip controlled four and a third-party chip controlled two.  In order to use RST, I’d have to put the hard disks and the solid state drive on the ports controlled by the Intel H77 chip.  However, these ports operated at different speeds: two at 6GBs and two at 3GBs.  No matter which device I plugged into which port, I couldn’t get a system that would (a) boot; (b) put the two hard drives on a RAID1 array; and (c) enable the RST technology.  I concluded that the the three drives would not only have to use the same controller chip, but also all be at the same speed. This bit of experimentation cost me about half a day.

What I finally did was use a single RAID array for one of the two hard disks and the solid state drive, both attached to ports controlled by the H77 chip.  Then I attached the second hard drive to a 6GBs SATA port controlled by the third-party chip, and not configured as part of my RAID array.  Now everything booted, I had RST running, and the system was stable.

The final configuration of my drives is then one 2TB drive that has all my files on it, one 64GB solid state drive that’s the “swap drive” used by the RST, and a second 2TB drive that has only my weekly backups.  I can still recover my system should the main drive fail since I’ve got backups, and all the data drives are connected to high-speed SATA ports.

For the solid state drive, I selected a 64GB version based mostly on price.  To use RST, you need a minimum of 16GB, but the larger drive you’ve got the better.  On later builds, I chose a more expensive and faster SSD, but truthfully I don’t see any difference in speed.

I wanted to be able to play the occasional BlueRay disk on my machine, so I knew that I wanted an optical drive with that capacity.  With a little bit of research, it turned out to be not terribly more expensive to purchase one that would also write BlueRay disks.  Another great feature of new disk drives is something called LightScribe technology.  With a suitable disk, you can flip it over in the disk tray and the laser will write a label for you on the disk.  There’s no more need to have sloppy and–in my case–illegible labels on your backup disks.  How great is that?

I don’t know about you, but I work from multiple computers.  I’ve got one in the living room so I can work while watching TV.  It’s useful other ways, too, like discovering that really is Ellen Barkin in “The New Normal.”  Then there’s the netbook on my nightstand that annoys my partner at 3AM when I get this fantastic idea I just have to write down.  Of course, sometimes I need to work at home on work-related things.  That could be on either one of the laptops mentioned above, or on my desktop system.  I used to rely on VPN tunneling for the work-related files and file sharing at home, but neither of those work when I’m traveling, say, for the Higher Learning Commission or visiting family.  Of course, there are the ubiquitous thumb drives, but they pose security problems if you lose them.  Nowadays, I mostly use Dropbox for non-work-related file sharing.  It’s secure, easy, and means I can work on documents anywhere I want.

Even with the above technologies, there are still instances where I sometimes want to be able to read or write to SD cards.  For example, I’ve got one of those electronic photo albums on my desk that’s loaded up with a gajillion pictures of my grandkids.  It takes an SD card and the only way to load it up with pictures is by plugging it into my computer.  Thus, I wanted a card reader.  There are lots inexpensive choices out there.  I selected one that plugged into a fast USB 3.0 port on the motherboard and gave me an additional USB port on the front of my system.


I used an existing monitor for my system.  It had VGA, DVI, and HDMI inputs.  It also has speakers, which are more than sufficient for my limited purposes.  By using the HDMI input, I minimize the cables that run from my system to my monitor.





I’ll finish this series with a discussion of cases.




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Building a Computer, Part Three

I’ve been a bit delayed with this series.  Life has this way of intervening.  On the plus side, there have been galley proofs to read for Seeking Hyde.  On the not-so-plus side has been a root canal treatment.  That turned out to be painless while it lasted, but the two weeks waiting for treatment weren’t quite so pleasant.  In any case, I’m back to talk about processors.

My motherboard selection meant that I had to choose an Intel processor.  The reason isn’t so much that I bought an Intel motherboard as the socket on the board that the holds the processor.  The motherboards I considered all had LGA-1155 sockets, which designed specifically for a line of Intel processors.  The “1155” means that there are 1,155 pins that plug into the processor.  AMD processors have a different socket design, as do some Intel processors such as the Itanium.

In any case, I still needed to decide which Intel processor to go with.  I don’t play games, and I don’t do heavy lifting with databases.  I’ll usually have no more than three or four windows open at once. My computing needs are really fairly modest. I could have probably gotten by with a Pentium or some older technology, but where’s the fun in that?  Besides, I wanted to take advantage of on-board high-definition graphics and on-board support for USB 3.0, so that meant stepping up to one of the new processors.

Intel has taken to giving cute names to the latest releases of microprocessor architecture.  First there was “Sandy Bridge,” and now it’s “Ivy Bridge.”  Blech.  Anyway, at the time I built, Ivy Bridge was the latest.  But even here, you’ve got over two dozen different processors in the I-3, I-5 and I-7 product lines.  I opted for a mid-range I-5 processor.   It has four cores, which means it can run four processes at once.  This greatly speeds things up, especially if you have more than one window open. It has on-board graphics with support for up to three monitors.  It can be “over-clocked,” which means that you can increase the voltage and thus the speed.  However, I don’t plan to do that as there are downsides relative to stability and heat.

In fact, one of the reported downsides to the Ivy Bridge processors is that they seem to run a bit hotter, by as much as ten degrees, than the older Sandy Bridge.  For that reason, I invested another $28 and got the third-party CPU cooler at right.  It’s more efficient and it’s also shorter.  Since I was planning to purchase a smaller case, size was an important consideration.

Just as your CPU has to fit into the available socket, your memory also has to be compatible with both your motherboard and your processor.  Most memory vendors have tools on their websites that let you specify motherboard and processor and will then display compatible memory.  Memory chips tend to be come from a small number of manufacturers, no matter what the label says.  They also tend to not overheat, so there is little reason to buy a memory chip with cooling fins. All those fins do is take up space, which can be at a premium in smaller cases.

My board had room for four memory chips.  Here’s one of the places where building your own machine has it all over buying a big box machine.  Typically, the commercial stores will populate all four of your memory slots with 1GB chips, giving you a total of 4GB of memory.  That’s not very much with the current bloated operating systems and office automation packages.  The more memory you have, the more efficiently your computer will run.  I wanted a minimum of 16GB of memory.  If I’d bought a big box machine, I would have had to throw away the 4GB they forced on me and replace them with my own chips.  Worse, if you do this yourself, you void your warranty, which means you have to pay a premium to have a technician at the store do a five minute job that doesn’t even require a screwdriver.  That’s good for me, since I can’t use a screwdriver without cutting myself.

One final component that’s often obscure is the power supply.  The first question you’ll encounter is how big should it be–how many volts?  Most vendors have a web tool to help you calculate this. For example, there’s one here:

But the big advice I have on power supplies is, first, get a modular power supply and, second, get one with flat cables.  Absolutely the hardest part of cabling your new system will be connecting the power supply to the components.  An inexpensive, non-modular power supply will have permanently attached all the cables any system could possible need.  That means you’ve got a whole bunch of thick, ungainly cables stuffed in your system that do exactly nothing.  With a modular system, you chose which cables to plug into the power supply and hence into your system.  You use only the ones you need.

The other thing about inexpensive power supplies is that they have these thick, inflexible cables.  They are hard to handle, won’t go where you want them, and in general make me swear like a sailor. Flat, modular cables solve both problems.  They are flexible, they fit through the channels built in your case, you can tie them off in a corner, and you use only the ones you need.  I figure I spent an extra $40 or so on my power supply. It was the best investment of all the parts.

Next:  The peripherals and the case

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Building A Computer, Part Two

The Motherboard

In many ways, the motherboard is the most important choice you will make. All of your other hardware plugs into your motherboard, one way or another, and so it determines almost everything you’ll eventually be able to do with your system. Choosing the right motherboard is critical.

So, what did I want in a motherboard? To answer this, I needed to know what I wanted to plug into my system and, in turn, how I planned to use my computer.

I’ll start with the last question first: how I use my computer. This was for a home office. I sometimes bring work home. I do household finances here. I watch and record TV on my computer. I write fiction here. I do online research here. That includes research for work, for fiction and for fun. I occasionally do graphics and web development. I even sometimes work on small databases on my home system. I use my computer to archive family photos, documents and financial records. In short, it’s the information nexus for both home and work.

The first thing to observe is that I do lots of things where I’ll have multiple windows open. I watch TV while I pay bills. I’ll have a thesaurus and dictionary open while I’m writing. I’ll have multiple spreadsheets open. Big monitors are great for this, but you still run out of screen space. As a consequence, I have multiple monitors on my system. Now, I could accomplish that by purchasing a graphics card that supports multiple monitors, but that adds expense. I already know that I can purchase a CPU that supports more than one monitor and will do all things I want, including playing DVDs, BluRay disks, and watching TV. But if I want to avoid the expense of a graphics card, I need to be sure that my motherboard has at least two graphic outputs.

This complicates things, since there are now several flavors of graphic adaptors. There’s the old reliable VGA standard, and then a whole bunch of other digital standards. But I’ve already got a nice high-resolution monitor with built-in speakers that’s perfect for my purposes. It uses a single HDMI cable for both sound and video, just like my living room home entertainment system, so I’ll want an HDMI output on my motherboard. My other monitor is an old Sony with only a VGA input left over from ten years ago. It’s fine for my second monitor, for watching TV or having that thesaurus open. So I want to be able to plug it into my system, too. However, later on I might want to upgrade this to a newer monitor that uses a different connection, so I don’t want to limit myself to VGA for my second video out on my motherboard.

Yet another video interface comes to the rescue: the Display Port. Display Ports will connect to other Display Ports or, with inexpensive adaptors, to HDMI, DVI or VGA devices. That’s perfect. So I’ll want my motherboard to have at least an HDMI and a Display Port video out.

Some other things I knew I needed were lots of USB ports, including some of the faster USB 3.0 ports. I can add USB ports later, if needed, with a hub, and I’ve done so. But at a minimum, I’ll need USB ports for my mouse, my keyboard, and a USB external hub. I’ll also want to be sure I’ve got a USB 3.0 port or two for external USB hard drives used for backups.

Some things I won’t need, at least for this system, are jacks for an external sound system or a Firewire port. I’ll be happy with the speakers on my monitor, powered by my HDMI connection, and I don’t have any Firewire devices.

What else? Well, I’m a fanatic for backups. They’ve saved me more times than I can count. I store so much on my system that I can’t afford to take chances. Here’s what I do. I have a 2TB USB drive. I use that to make backups once a month or so. When it’s not at home for backups, it’s in my office. That way if something happens at home, I’ve got a backup. For convenience, I also wanted to have an internal drive for backups. That meant I needed a minimum of two SATA connections for internal drives.

However, I also wanted to take advantage of a relatively new technology from Intel, something called “Rapid Storage Technology,” which meant I needed to pay a bit more attention to the kind of hard drives I could connect.

It’s well known that solid state drives are faster than hard drives. The latter have moving parts–internal disks that spin–and that slows them down. However, solid state drives are still really expensive compared to hard drives. I want to record and store TV shows on my computer, so I wanted to get a hard drive with at least 2TB of capacity. Solid state drives that large are not available–at least not to consumers.

What Intel’s Rapid Storage Technology lets you do is use a solid state drive for your swap disk. It basically learns what parts of the operating system you use most often and copies those to the solid state drive. You get a speed boost, since you’re using a solid state drive for frequent operating system tasks, but you get the economy of large hard drives. So, I wanted to be sure I could access this technology. In fact, economical access to this technology was exactly why I decided to build a home system in the first place.

The requirement for Rapid Storage Technology then limited me to Intel chipsets on the motherboard. The “chipset” is the hardware that controls the input and output operations of the board–things like USB connections, video and audio, hard drives, DVD/CD players, add-on cards like graphics controllers, and so on. In some ways, the chipset is the most important part of the computer.

At the time I built my machine, the Rapid Storage Technology was still fairly new. I could get the original Z68 chipset or the newer H77 or Z77 chipsets. The latter had slightly improved graphic and audio support. The big difference between the H77 and the Z77 was that you could tweak the Z77 and “overclock” your system–make it run faster than specs by adjusting voltages to the CPU and memory, among other things. If you’re a gamer, that might be important, but I don’t play games. Thus, the less expensive H77 chipset was perfect for me.

The next problem is finding a mother with the desired chipset, except that’s not a problem at all. There are dozens of vendors out there that sell motherboards. Some of the biggest are MSI, Gigabyte, ASUS, EVga, ASRock, Zotac, and, of course, Intel. I had bad luck with one of these, but they are all reliable vendors who produce quality boards. You should realize, though, that defective motherboards do happen, even with the best of vendors. Defects almost always show up in the first thirty days and usually much sooner. I purchased from Amazon because of their thirty-day-no-questions-asked return policy.

I mentioned that I built four computers and that this blog is just about my home office system, right? I used boards from four of the above vendors on my systems, and I have to say that I was happiest with the Intel board. I had three defective boards from one of the vendors. (I won’t tell you which one since this could happen with any of the vendors). I eventually gave up and used an Intel board, so two of my systems have are all-Intel. The other systems use ASRock and Zotac boards, and these are also working perfectly.

Anyway, I settled on the Intel board listed at the right. For the price, it doesn’t have the bells and whistles the other vendors supply, but it’s reliable. After three returns of defective boards, I wanted one that worked. This is in the Intel “media series.” Even though I don’t plan to use it as a home theater PC–I used a great little Zotac board for that purpose–I needed a media series to get the video outputs I needed.

I’m quite happy with this motherboard. It’s expandable, so I can add cards should I need to. It boots quickly, and has a nice, graphic interface to the board’s settings. It has ample outputs on the back, and it has ample jacks on the inside for additional USB devices like a card reader. It supports up to six drives, including hard drives, CD/DVD/BluRay drives, and solid state drives.

It’s also small. Motherboards come in several different form factors, and this one uses the second-smallest size. I didn’t want a Brobdingnagian case squatting in my office, hence the smaller form factor on the board.

Next: the processor

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Building a Computer, Part One

Why do this anyway?

I admit it. I’m a geek. I’m so geeky, I build my own computers. I even built one for my ex-wife.

It turns out that this isn’t as hard as it used to be. Now-a-days, the parts more or less only snap together one way. Long gone are the days when you could plug the power supply backwards into your motherboard and set your house on fire. Not that I’ve ever done that.

The trick today with building computers is figuring out what kinds of parts to snap together. That’s not always obvious. The typical computer hardware catalog is about as opaque as a briefing from the Federal Reserve and as clear that reminder I scribbled on a Post-it note yesterday. They seem to be in a code known only to the cognoscenti.

I guess start with the question, why would anyone want to build a computer in the first place?

We all know technology companies keep innovating. They come up with better software and hardware for things doing what we do with our computers. They also come up with new things for us to do. If you want that shiny new technology, you’ve got two choices. You can pay a premium and have someone build it for you, or you can build it yourself. Note, you almost never can go to a big box store and buy it off the shelf. You probably can’t even find a brand name computer with the latest technology. It takes these companies quite a while to ramp up the manufacturing process to incorporate new technologies. Besides, many of the big brands don’t really make their own computers: they mostly buy them from overseas. But, in any case, someone has to create the assembly line to mass-produce the new technology, which can take a while.

Now, there are plenty of small, boutique companies which specialize in custom-built PCs. It’s easy to find them online, and any medium-sized city will have local versions listed in the yellow pages. The problem is that these tend to be hand-built, and you’ll pay a high premium. Since it’s pretty easy to just snap the parts together yourself, why pay that premium? It took me about four hours to put my machine together, and I saved at least $1,000 doing so. I basically got a machine with the latest, fastest technology for the same price I would have paid for eighteen-month-old technology at a big box store.

The other reason for doing this is that it’s kind of fun. There’s a certain satisfaction with building something with your hands. For example, I have a lawyer friend who builds furniture in his spare time. I can’t do that, since I’d most likely saw my hands off with a band-saw. At least there’s no danger of self-mutilation when I build a computer.

In any event, I needed a new computer for my home office, and I decided to buy the parts and put it together myself. I wound up also building a computer for my ex-wife, for my office at work, and for my home theater setup in the living room, for four computers in all. In fact, I’m kind of bored with building computers at the moment. But I thought it might be worthwhile to record what I’ve learned. So, I’m planning a short sequence of blog posts about building my home desktop computer.

Starting tomorrow, I’ll post about my process, step-by-step, and what I learned along the way. This won’t be advice about what components to buy, or what vendor to use. Instead, I’ll tell you about my experience: what I bought, why I made that choice, and how it worked out. I used my Amazon Prime account to make my purchases–gotta love that free shipping!–so I’ll also include links to the equipment I purchased.

Tomorrow: the motherboard.

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The Turing Test

Will computers ever become more human?  How smart are computers, anyway?

I don’t know about yours, but mine computer’s pretty dumb.  I mean, if I want to count something, like the balance in my checkbook or the scores in my grade book, my computer’s great.  Better than me, that’s for sure.  I remember what one of my abstract algebra professors used to tell me: there are three kinds of people in this world: those who can count and those who can’t.  I know which type I am, and it’s a darned good thing I’ve got a computer.

But a computer isn’t smart.  I’d never mistake my computer for, say, my partner.  My computer never forgets anything, for example.  Thank God Gene forgets, else he’d never be able to stand living with me.  But Gene is different from my computer in other more lovable ways too numerous to mention.  I’d never mistake him for my netbook.

Still, some futurists think that one day computers will assume human-like qualities.  Apple’s Suri tries to simulate a human being.  I’ll admit, she seems to be as hearing impaired and stubborn as I’ve gotten as I age.  Still, no one would mistake Suri for a human.

So, how will we know when computers have passed the boundary into consciousness and joined humanity?

Alan Turing thought deeply about questions like this, in between solving hard mathematics problems like Hilbert’s Entscheidungsproblem and deciphering the Nazi Enigma code during World War II.  He wondered if machines would ever be able to think. I wonder sometimes if people can think, but that’s another question.

Turing decided to rephrase the question to one of imitation: is it possible for computers to imitate a conversation so well that a judge could not distinguish machine from human? This is the Turing Test.  The original idea was for a text-based conversation, so the judges base their assessments only on the words on the page (this was 1950, before CRTs).

This has nothing to do with the correctness of the answers the computer might give.  Winning chess has nothing to do with the Turing Test.  The issue is whether or not the machine’s end of the conversation seems human to an impartial judge who doesn’t know if the conversation is with a machine or a person.  If the judge can’t tell the difference, then the machine passes the Turing Test.

The test has well-documented limitations, and it’s not entirely clear what it’s really measuring.  However, it’s generated much discussion about what it might mean to be conscious or human and whether or when machines might be able to “pass” the test.  Two famous technologists even have a bet on whether or not a machine will pass the test by 2029.

So this morning I stumbled across this article.  It seems that researchers have programmed a computer to simulate a person playing a computer game. I suppose a curmudgeon might argue about whether that constitutes human behavior, but for the sake of argument let’s suppose it does.  These researchers report that impartial judges find that the machines exhibit human gaming behavior 52% of the time.  That’s apparently better than real human gamers, who exhibit such behavior only 40% of the time.

Apparently these judges have met some of the people my daughter dated in high school.  Come to think of it, those boys were more or less like me in high school, so strike that.  They were consummate humans.

So does that mean that the above bet is settled and we’ve got a computer that passes the Turing Test?  Well, no.  These judges were looking at behaviors of avatars in computer games, not at the give-and-take of a conversation. It’s hard to imagine the conversational brilliance of, say, Dorothy Parker popping up in a computer game.

Thinking computers, complete with personalities, are fun to imagine.  They have become common in science fiction, from Asimov in I Robot, to Hal in 2001, to the android David in Prometheus.  We like to anthropomorphize our machines, like Stephen King in Christine.  We imbue them with human qualities to make our world more bearable.

A machine that is truly human opens huge potential, both for the machine and for us.  Keith Laumer’s Bolo series gave us a glimpse of this as early as the 1960s, and today visionaries are pushing the technology boundary beyond our imagining.

Do I think machines will become human?  I think the answwer is yes, but it’s impossible to say when.

Right now, I’d just settle people being more human to each other.



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The Master

This weekend, we saw the movie The Master.

It’s a painful movie to experience.  The characters are uniformly unlikable.  In fact, I found it impossible to identify with a single one of them.  They do unbelievable deeds, have faith in unbelievable creeds, utter unbelievable words.  Except that I know that people do all these things, believe all these things, and say all these things.   That’s one reason the movie is painful:  it’s so real. Its reality pierces your soul like the fangs of a venomous, psychic serpent.

This is a movie worth seeing.  No, let me amend that.  If you only plan to see this movie once, it’s probably not worth seeing.  It’s too agonizing to see just once.  What I suspect is that if one watches it more than once, you’ll be able to unpeel layers of meaning from the misery that twists from the screen and screws into your head.  I’ve only seen it once, so I can’t say that for certain, but I’m pretty sure.

This isn’t really going to be much of a review–more skilled people than I will do that.  The performances are uniformly dazzling, the cinematography is stunning, and the score seeps into your mind, warm and mushy before it grows barbs and slashes your soul.  This is surely magnificent film making.  It’s literature on celluloid.

As to storytelling…well, I’m not so sure.  More on that below.

The plot centers on Freddie Quell, played with oppressive brilliance by Joaquin Phoenix.  He’s a twisted soul right down his face and his posture, a curious everyman who’s more of a nowhere man.  The movie is set–mostly–in 1950, and Freddie is a veteran who’s troubled by alcoholism, suppressed sexual appetites, and a violent temper, to name just a few maladies.  He has no family. His mother is in a mental institution and he doesn’t know where his father is.  He claims a girlfriend, but she’s only sixteen and he abandons her. Indeed, since the plot appears out of order, it’s not clear exactly how young she was when their relationship started nor what it involved, but it is clear that she’s much younger than Freddie.    He drifts through a number of jobs, including photographer.   I’m guessing that profession is a metaphor for his life: he stands outside the world, looking at it through the lens of his damaged psyche, unable to participate.  He can only observe, and the suffering from that disconnection deforms him.

So, we’ve got Freddie, his normal humanity quelled (see his last name; clever, huh?) by his tragic life.  He’s adrift, on a journey to oblivion.  In fact, the three major acts of the movie each launch with a beautiful view of the ocean, roiled by the wake of an unseen ship.

So he’s on a journey.  By random chance, he stumbles onto a yacht and meets the Master, a self-help guru, or huckster, or true believer, Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Dodd is leader of a cult-like group called The Cause.  It’s similar to Scientology with its mixture of faux-Freudian mumbo-jumbo, SciFi mythology, and obsessive obedience to the uber-charismatic leader, Dodd. The Cause provides the intimacy of a pseudo-family for anchorless souls like Freddie.  In so doing, it traps them inside its constructed, magical version of reality. It also insists on strict adherence to the wisdom of the Leader, Dodd, even as that wisdom tends to meander in a drunkard’s walk.

Like everything else in this film, ambiguity fills Dodd, and Hoffman is masterful (oops, sorry for the pun) at portraying this.  At the end, it seems pretty certain that Dodd’s making everything up as he goes, as his son says in the movie.  But there’s also a sense that Dodd might actually believe his own schtick.  The relationships we see unfold between Dodd and others, especially Freddie, are at once unbelievable and ring true, an amazing achievement by Hoffman and the rest of ensemble.

It’s as if the screenwriter and actors schooled themselves in Robert Altemyer’s research on authoritarian organizations.

Amy Adams completes the cast as Dodd’s wife.  Mostly, she hovers in the background, either pregnant or holding a babe in her arms.  But when she speaks in private to Dodd or Freddie, she shreds her target with surgical precision, her razor-like words slashing out from her sweetly smiling face.  A truly awesome performance from the ever-capable Adams.

I see I’ve kind of rambled into a semi-review, so I’ll mention Laura Dern’s performance, too.  She’s equally chilling as the always-smiling, wholesome true believer.  But then Dodd’s teachings change a smidgen, and a doubt flickers in her countenance.  She asks Dodd a question, and he rages at her.  She’s got the tiniest of roles, but she sheds sparks.

I have to point out in passing a sexual subtext of the film I’ve not seen in other reviews.  Early on, we see Freddie on a WWII beachhead humping a sand-castle golem of a woman that he’s sculpted.   Shirtless sailors cluster surround him and watch, including at least two who stand together, arms about one another, in an embrace whose meaning is obvious to any gay person.  The foundation for the strange intimacy that later develops between Dodd and Freddie is left as a mystery, but one wonders if the director didn’t mean to hint at a suppressed sexual longing, quelled (there I go again) by social conformity.

That’s the basic framework.  This is about Freddie’s journey.  I originally wrote “quest,” but that’s not the right word.  His journey passes through the aimless physicality of drunken debauchery to the false intimacy of Dodd’s family, to doubt and then to…nowhere.  He’s not on a quest. He’s leading a pointless life in which living is constantly quelled (I promise I’ll quit) by circumstance and chance.

The presentation reminds me of quantum mechanics, where electrons don’t have definite position or momentum until we interact with them.  Even then, we can measure only one aspect. If we know position, we lose the ability to measure momentum and vice versa.   This story of Freddie’s life is rather like that.  The camera focuses its eye on bits of Freddie’s existence. Sometimes we see him looking for sex, or angry, or drunk. Other times he’s looking for intimacy and rejecting the sensual.  Sometimes he flares from one extreme to another in a terrifying burst of violence.  Sometimes we see outward events, sometimes inner, but never both at once.

I’d also like to reference another interpretation to this story, pointed out in this insightful and recommended review.  Freddie is a metaphor for the bestial Freudian id, Dodd for the scheming ego, and Dodd’s wife for the demanding and judgmental super-ego.  Understood in this way, the story has yet more layers of meaning.

So, it’s brilliant.  It’s literature.  The technical aspects of film are flawless.  Why, then, did I express some doubt about the storytelling?

Nowadays, when I read a novel or see a movie, I try to learn from it.  What techniques can I pick up that I can use in my own work?  Watching actors–especially actors as skilled as these–helps me write better physical descriptions of how my characters behave.  Seeing the multiple layers and threads stitched together in this movie helps me learn how to do the same.

What’s missing here for me is the hook.

Maybe this movie doesn’t need a hook.  I don’t know. As I think about other layered movies that I’ve enjoyed over and over, movies like Mulholland Drive, movies where the allegory is more important than the surface story, there is a hook.  In fact, David Lynch gives us multiple hooks in his masterpiece, even though they slip through our fingers before we can grasp them.  The story might be told out of order, as in Mulholland Drive, but we understand that the characters want something.  Lynch’s characters are on a quest, even if it’s elusive and in the end leads nowhere.  They are after something.  There are obstacles.  There are stakes.  These things anchor the audience and the reader, draw them into the story, and enhance the fictive dream.

I understand that this is about a man adrift.  He’s buffeted by random encounters and events. His world is much like the in the quantum world of that electron.  In one scene, we hear MacArthur’s speech accepting the Japanese surrender while Freddie climbs through the bowels of a ship to his illicit still, hidden in a bomb.  He lives in the substrate, underneath the world, barely able to break the surface for an occasional gasp of air.  The pollution of desperation, lust, control, and obsession corrupts what he occasionally manages to  inhale.  He really has no stakes. It’s like he doesn’t know what stakes are.

Except…how about Kafka’s The Trial or Camus’ The Plague?  These, too, are stories about obsession, destiny, and the human condition.  They are about alienation and despair, with characters who are without a spiritual anchor.  Even movies like Vertigo consider these themes.  But these examples seem far superior as stories.  To be sure, The Master is true to life.  Its world is more real than those of Camus, Kafka or Hitchcock.  Its gruesome vision of life as disordered chaos holds an unrelenting mirror to the world in which we all live.

Tom Clancy reminds us that the difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.  Clancy is surely no maven of literature, but he spins a compelling story.

The world of The Master exposes the most loathsome aspects of modernity.  On a metaphorical level, the movie makes sense. It’s compelling, in much the same way any portrayal of human tragedy, however horrifying, is compelling.  Certainly the power of fiction is metaphor and allegory.  This film has those elements in spades.

I just wish that the movie had a story as compelling as its themes.  Hitchcock said that the audience cares about the characters and that the plot is there to give the characters something to care about.  Most novels–and movies, too–strive to connect the reader to the characters and hence to the plot.  That’s the hook I mentioned above: an emotional connection with the characters on the page or on the screen.  We expect that.  We yearn for it.  You won’t find that in this movie, despite the brilliant performances and direction.  I’m sure that’s on purpose, since these people are far more talented than I ever will be.  We’re distanced from the characters, from feeling their emotions.  What’s on the screen is an artifact, even though it’s also a grim reality.

So, yes.  This is a masterful film (there I go again).  I’m sure I’ll watch it many more times, and tease more meaning from it.  But I don’t think I’ll learn much from it that I’ll be able or want to bring to my own fiction.

That’s probably my loss.



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Revising and Mid-Book Doldrums

I just finished a day of making revisions to Seeking Hyde, due for release on October 22.

This novel is a high-tech thriller that uses some cutting-edge ideas from genetics and epigenetics to drive the plot.  The plot frame includes murder mayhem and, of course, a touch of romance.  The latter is what led to the revisions.

The editors raised some good questions about a suggested relationship between two of the characters.  Well, it was more than suggested.  The whole plot frame is loosely built around a Greek myth, and you know those Greeks: anything goes.

Anyway, the editors wondered if I could change it a bit.  I thought about it some, and offered up an idea. We all agreed, and off I went.  Lucky for me, this involved no structural changes to the novel, just tweaking it here and there to reframe the relationship.  However, that meant I had to re-read the entire manuscript yet again, line-by-line, to be sure that I caught every last thing that needed changed.

The editors were right.  I think the revised novel is stronger, with better tension and more credible resolution.  But…

I don’t know about most authors, but I kind of dislike revisions.  Dislike as in, it’s like lapping up yesterday’s stale vomit.  I mean, I spent a year writing about these characters.  I know them inside and out, villains and heroes alike.  By the time I sent this off to agents and publishers, I was sick of them and their problems.  I was sure this latest revision would be torture.

But you know what? It’s been six months since I’ve touched any of this novel, and I actually enjoyed reading it this time through.  Revising after a break of six months turned out to be less odious that it is in the middle of writing a novel.  In fact, revisions and re-writing midstream can deflect and destroy a project.

When I’m working on a novel, I almost always get sick of if part-way through.  Short stories are more fun.  I don’t have time to really come to dislike my characters.  They blessedly go away in 10,000 words or less.  But in novels they stick around for 80,000 words or more.

In fact, about two thirds of the way through a novel I often hit a brick wall.  I get tired of the plot and characters.  Everything I’ve written so far looks dull and, well, crappy.  I want to start on that new and shiny idea I had last night.

From talking to other authors, I know this is a common problem.  It’s even got a name: the mid-book doldrums.  If you let it, it can lead to an endless string of unfinished projects.  In fact, I’m almost at that point in my current work-in-progress, Entangled.  I’ve got it all plotted, I’ve got the first 20,000 words written, and now it doesn’t look nearly as cool as it did when I first thought of it.

Since this is a common problem, authors have a variety of ways to solve the mid-book doldrums.  The one I’ve been using is to ditch my project and start a new one.   Of course, that’s kind of inefficient.

There are lots of standard ways to keep tension going for readers.  Keep cranking up the stakes, introduce deadlines, introduce subplots, and so on.  They all involve keeping the readers surprised and a little off-balance.  I know how to do that, more or less.  The problem here is to keep the tension going for the author.

In my case, the most effective thing I’ve found is to introduce a new twist, a new challenge, that’s not in the outline.  Sometimes that comes from a character coming to life in unexpected ways–you should always listen to your characters.  But more often it means putting in a conflict, obstacle or antagonist in I hadn’t thought of in the first place.  That changes the tired old outline I wrote six months ago into something new and interesting.  Or at least not deadly dull.  The idea is to surprise yourself as well as your readers.

I don’t think you’ll find evidence of this in Seeking Hyde.  I did come up with several deviations from the original plot outline.  But this novel has has such an intricate, twisty plot that each one required I go back and stick in foreshadowing and other threads into the tapestry to make everything fit together.  Those revisions were way more fun than taking out too many “quirked eyebrows” or “mouths turning down,” the usual dull job of revising.

Anyway, next time you’re reading a novel and the author throws an unexpected twist at you in chapter twenty, be aware it’s not only good writing but it might also be a remedy for author doldrums.

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Sociopaths and Morality

Psychologists do interesting things.  Pair them with neuroscientists, and we begin to get an inkling of how we think and how our brains work.

Here’s an experiment.  Describe the following scenario to a group of subjects.  You are standing on a bridge overlooking train tracks.  Five people are trapped on the tracks below you, and a train is barreling down the tracks toward them and will surely kill these people if it strikes them.  Next to you is a switch that can divert the train to an alternate route and save the five people. However, one person is trapped on the alternate route, and is equally certain to be killed if you switch the train to the alternate route.  What do you do?

Most people will consider for a moment or two, and then say they will flip the switch, saving five people at the expense of one.  Sociopaths and non-sociopaths come to this conclusion at about the same rate and with about the same speed.

Now change the scenario slightly.  Suppose instead there is just one track, but five people are still facing certain death from a train heading toward them.  Now, however, there is another person standing next to you on the bridge, a large person.  In fact, the person is so large that if you throw them off the bridge, they will stop train.  They will die, of course, but you’ll save five people at the expense of one.

Most people take a bit longer with the second scenario and then say they would not throw the person standing next them off the bridge.  That was certainly my reaction when I first read this scenario.  Sociopaths, however, take about as long with the second scenario as the first, and  then decide to throw their neighbor off the bridge.

So, what’s going on here?  Superficially, these two scenarios are the same, right?  In both cases, sociopaths calculate it’s better for one person to die than for five, and they act accordingly.  But most people would see these two situations as different and act accordingly.

These two scenarios appear in the most recent issue of Scientific American. The author of the article cites research that suggests a couple of things are going on.  The first scenario creates distance between us and the potential victims of our decision: we’re on a bridge, they’re on the tracks.  They are “different” from us.  This causes a more intellectual kind of decision-making, involving the cerebral cortex, and a deliberate calculation.

The second scenario keeps the five potential victims at a distance, but the other potential victim is standing right beside us, in our emotional space.  That triggers a different brain area, the amygdala, and causes a different, more emotional, calculation to take place.  In most people, this leads to a different decision.

Neuroscience confirms this hypothesis.  Brain scans show that in almost everyone, sociopath or not, the cerebral cortex lights up for scenario one.  In scenario two, for most people the fireworks happen in the amygdala.  But for sociopaths, the amygdala stays dark in scenario two and the cerbral cortex lights up just like in scenario one.

The amygdala, sometimes denigrated as our “lizard brain,” is the center of emotion, including empathy.  For sociopaths, there seems to be a difference in the amygdala, whether in function,  magnitude or something else no one knows,  that suppresses the empathic response.  In extreme cases, you get Hannibal Lector, who can’t connect at all. In less extreme cases, you might get the hedge fund manager mentioned in the full article who says “insensitivity” is one of the three traits, along with focus and intellect, that most contributes to his success.  Really?  Insensitivity?  And you’re proud of that and mention it in an interview?

Even worse, there’s another article in the same issue about how people choose leaders.  Researchers showed subjects photographs of candidates for governor in the 2010 cycle and asked them to choose the candidate who looked most capable.  Subjects had nothing else on which to base their choice than appearance: no policy statements, no “character” stories.” Nothing. In over two thirds of the actual elections, the one who looked most capable won.

That’s terrifying.

That means that for most people, the actual policies and positions of the candidates don’t seem to matter.  I’m old enough to just barely remember the 1960 debates between JFK and Nixon.  People who watched the debates on TV thought Kennedy won, while those who listened on the radio thought Nixon won.  Now, more than physical appearance counts in this case.  The differences in voice and accent are more pronounced on radio, while differences in physical appearance are more pronounced on TV, so it’s not correct to conclude that Nixon “won” on the issues.  But it does suggest that appearances matter, whether visual or auditory.  They matter a lot, if this research is to be believed.

That same lizard brain, the amygdala, is probably at work when people make decisions on a candidate’s appearance rather than policies. Emotions rather than intellect seem to govern us more than we’d probably like to admit.

What are the implications for political discourse?  Well, reconsider the two scenarios.  Let’s look at them in a slightly different way.  The sociopath sacrifices his neighbor instead of himself.  It would never occur to the sociopath to throw himself off the bridge, or to throw both himself and his neighbor off the bridge.  The sociopath makes an essentially selfish choice, and most of us would agree that’s wrong.  If he jumped off the bridge to stop the train with his own body, he’d be a hero, but that’s not what he did.

The two scenarios set up two populations: “us,” standing on the bridge, and “them,” on the tracks.  Most of us will treat the population we belong to fairly, but are more ruthless and uncaring about exogenous populations.  That’s one reason we’re reluctant to throw our neighbor off the bridge: he’s one of us.  That’s also exactly why divisive politics are so destructive of the body politic: they shred the sense of belonging, of community, which is the necessary basis for  successful human organizations.  Successful coalitions are broad, where people see not only a shared interest but a shared sense of membership.  Whether it’s possible to build such a coalition in the US today remains to be seen.

I’d have to say I think it would be impossible to build successful, cohesive communities under a system that assigns the highest moral value to selfishness.  But then I don’t claim to be a fountainhead of wisdom. I’m just a math guy.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma from game theory also could illuminate this discussion.  Moreover, simulations of the role of cooperation versus competition in evolution suggest that cooperation might actually be more important than competition in the long-term.  But that’s for another blog.

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I’m sitting here in the living room, and that apple crisp that Gene made this afternoon is in the kitchen.  It’s calling to me, tempting me.  I can hear it.  I know I should resist temptation, but today it’s so alluring.

Speaking of today, it’s been, well, stressful.  Nothing major, really, just piddly little things that kept me out of balance. I had more than the usual situations where I wanted to chew people out, but had to be positive and helpful instead to people who had basically screwed the pooch.

The idiots.  There, that felt better.  None of them will read this.  Besides, they aren’t idiots at all. I just needed to vent and couldn’t resist.

Anyway, that apple crisp is calling, and I just know I won’t be able to resist it, either.

Of course, there’s research on temptation.  It seems that our brains have resistance synapses or something, and they get fatigued by resisting temptation the same way that bench presses fatigue our pecs.  The researchers even discovered a way to measure how tired out our poor resister neurons are: something called “Heart Rate Variability” or HRV.

So these researchers got a bunch of people to participate in a study that supposedly was about food preferences.  Participants got to choose between wonderful, healthy foods like chocolate and nasty, unhealthy foods like carrots.  Or maybe I’ve got the healthy/unhealthy thing wrong.  I forget.  After doing this for a couple of hours, they gave the participants some unworkable anagrams and measured how long the subjects persisted in trying to solve them.   People who wore out those temptation resisters tended to give up earlier on the anagrams–they couldn’t resist the temptation to quit.

The researchers hope that these results will help special populations with impaired self-regulatory behaviors improve their ability to resist through biofeedback exercises.

Sounds interesting, but right now I’m going to go have that crisp.  I just can’t resist.

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Release date

Woo-Hoo!  I have  a release date for my most recent novel, “Seeking Hyde.”  It will be available on October 22 from Dreamspinner Press.

From the book’s cover:

When Brent Hyde arrives home from college to find his parents missing from their dairy farm, he feels a creeping sense of dread, but the inept local police won’t take him seriously. Determined to find them, Brent drags his boyfriend, Gary, into the search.

When Jason Killeen, a senior journalism student from Brent’s college, shows up to investigate a twenty-year-old research project involving Brent’s mother—and Brent’s current employer—the situation gets sticky. Jason insists they’re all in danger, and a sudden body count proves him right.

While Brent, Jason, and Gary gather clues, a hit man, an FBI agent, and a corporate scientist turn up the heat by embroiling themselves in the investigation. Under that pressure, Brent and Gary’s relationship falters, and Brent finds himself turning to Jason, whose understated heroism attracts him. Then an unexpected discovery puts all three of them in mortal danger, and Brent makes a choice that will change them all forever.


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