Friday, July 30, 2010


Here's a website that shows you how to get rid of that blue bar at the top of your blog, in case you want to make your blog look more like a personal website:

Remove Navigation Bar

I haven't done it because I like that search function, but others might!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Ooh, Sparkly!

Here's what lightning looks like filmed at 9,000 frames per second. This is less than a second's worth of real time stretched out to over a minute and a half in the video.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, July 26, 2010


The geek in me gets a hold of my brain sometimes, and when it does, that can be as fun as writing.

Here's what I've been thinking about recently: Publishing is a stochastic process.

Okay, I'll back up.

In physics, when you've got a large system comprised of small bodies, and you can predict what the system as a whole will do but not what one individual body will do, that's a stochastic process.

An example of this is a gas comprised of molecules. Imagine you compress the gas into a smaller volume. What will one individual molecule do? You can't say. It might collide with another molecule. It might move up or down or to the left or it might stay still. It might rotate, for heaven's sake.

But the gas--you can say things about the gas as a whole. You can say that its temperature and pressure will increase.

Publishing is a stochastic process. You can't say with any accuracy what one random person wandering through a bookstore will or won't buy. You might, however, be able to predict roughly how many copies of one particular book will sell to the whole population of random people wandering through bookstores.

What makes publishing such a dangerous occupation is they have to make these kinds of predictions all the time, and if they screw up--even on just one book a year--they stand to lose a lot of money. Too large a print run can devastate the company's bottom line; too small a run can let a potential bestseller slip into oblivion.

Now here's the thing: Physicists get hired by financial companies to mathematically model the stock market. These physicists occasionally can come up with better predictions for what's going to happen than the guesswork of savvy and experienced professionals is able to provide. And even a tiny edge can turn into massive profits when it comes to something as variable as the stock market.

So this makes me wonder if anyone's ever tried to mathematically model book sales, i.e. tried to predict the rate at which something will sell initially and how word-of-mouth will affect its sales. Anything that keeps those few, disastrous screw-ups from happening could make a huge difference to the publishing industry.

I've thought about the problem a bit. It could be done, but you'd need some input parameters that you could only get by quizzing readers (about 30 to get a statistically valid sample) who are the sort of person who'd potentially buy that kind of book.

You'd need to ask them how well the cover, blurb, and sample page draws them in (i.e. convinces them to buy the book), then quiz them again after they've read the book regarding whether they liked/hated it enough to mention that fact to a friend or two.

And that's the tricky part, because while publishers would be the most benefited by having access to the modelled data, an internet-based book seller (particularly one with a mighty database like Amazon has) would be better equipped to do the initial study. They could offer incentives to readers in order to get feedback on a new book.

Me and my rusty memory of statistical physics are still working on the model, but just think how freeing it would be to the publishing industry if they could get a system in place that helped them avoid those few, but appallingly costly, mis-steps that plague their profit margin.

Also consider how it might help quirky authors find their market; if the publisher could predict how many copies of a particularly oddball novel it can sell (via booksellers), then they could adjust their print runs to make a profit on even on less commercial books.


What do you think? Have you heard of this being done already? (If there's money at stake, surely someone's taken a stab at it...) Do you think it's possible to pin down something as variable and unpredictable as individual taste and the zeitgeist of the public?

What input parameters do you think such a model would need? I've thought about author brand, enticement of title, pretty covers, prominence of bookstore placement, word-of-mouth, etc. etc...

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What You Don't See Can Hurt Others

This post by Daniel Jose Older is an eye-opener. In eight years working in Emergency Medical Services in greater New York, he's only once treated a white person who was a victim of violence by a person of colour--but within the same time period, he's treated so many black men beaten up by police he couldn't remember the one particular man he was asked to testify about in court.

That's certainly not the picture the media gives us, is it? Those aren't the statistics implied by the biased news coverage we receive.

Malicious racism is still working its evil in our world; there's the evidence. But systemic racism arguably does even more harm. Systematic racism is the kind that you, in your position of privilege, don't realize you're taking part in. You think the world's just set up that way--that this is the logical way of doing things.

Systematic racism is the reason why, if you're white, it maybe took you an embarrassingly long time to notice that virtually every protagonist in every genre book you read is white. Or that the percentage of fashion models you see on the catwalk who are black or Asian is reeeeally small. (I think I read somewhere it's about 7%.)

This is what privilege does to you; it makes the racism you're helping perpetuate invisible to you. By not recognizing certain situations as unfair when they are, you are--without any maliciousness, usually--doing great harm to the people who the system is not set up to benefit.

The publishing industry is a good example of how systematic racism can manifest itself. The industry is heavily populated by educated and usually liberal people; I don't think there's much malicious racism hiding there (although I'm not the person to ask, am I?) However, you get occurrences like like this and this and this.

The people who make the decisions to white-wash covers or to not take a chance on buying an "ethnic" book don't think they're doing so out of racism but rather out of fiscal anxiety. Their book needs to make as much money as possible, and they're terrified of not snaring sales from the hypothetically racist and subtly-racist book buyers out there.

They might even claim they have numbers that indicate a cover with a person of colour on it won't sell as well as one that features a white person--but how much of that statistic was a self-fulfilling prophecy? How much of it was due to a whole system of people feeling anxious over the fact that, oh noes, this hasn't been done successfully before and gee, gosh, do we want to the first ones to try? When there's money at stake and our budget is tight? Maybe let's not take the chance, and oops, that does skew the statistics a bit, doesn't it?

It has to be done; this is the thing. It has to be. Do you think other people should suffer so you can be more comfortable? That's really the issue: Are you willing to do harm in order to benefit yourself? If the answer's no, then you need to start combating racism both visible and invisible.

The best way for an essentially kind person, living in privilege, to combat systematic racism is to listen to those who don't live in privilege, and then to commit to the idea of helping create a fair society. And yes, that means the world won't be set up to suit you anymore--you do have to be willing to sacrifice for this ideal.

I love Mr. Older's blog; he writes very raw and hair-raising accounts of front-of-the-line medicine, and, as you see in the post I mentioned, he also has smart and thought-provoking things to say about the world he sees.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, July 19, 2010

Canadian, Please

Real content? Did I say I'd be back with real content? P'ftt. *flaps hand dismissively*

This is mostly for the entertainment of my family and friends:

Link with thanks via Sue Nelson Buckley.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Meaty Monday Goes On a Diet

But on the up-side, I got lots of writing done this weekend!

See you later this week with some actual blog content... :-)

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Study Like a Scholar, Scholar

Just watch this. You'll be amused. It's a parody of this.

Thanks to Sylvia Spruck Wrigley for providing the link on Twitter!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, July 12, 2010

As Dr. Einstein said, "Creativity is intelligence having fun."

The Creativity Crisis
Linked above is a FANTASTIC article. Please, go read it! It's about creativity, but it also explains what science can tell us about creativity and how to foster it--and why we should. I'll quote some of the bits I found most galvanizing:
What's shocking is how incredibly well Torrance's creativity index predicted those kids' creative accomplishments as adults. Those who came up with more good ideas on Torrance's tasks [as children] grew up to be entrepreneurs, inventors, college presidents, authors, doctors, diplomats, and software developers. Jonathan Plucker of Indiana University recently reanalyzed Torrance’s data. The correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment was more than three times stronger for childhood creativity than childhood IQ.
Emphasis mine. I was surprised when I learned that optimism is a better indicator than IQ or talent for which people will go on to be successful, but this statement blows my mind! Creativity, rather than pure intelligence, is what drives humanity's great leaps forward--and in a huge range of fields, too.

Yet there is one crucial difference between IQ and CQ scores. With intelligence, there is a phenomenon called the Flynn effect--each generation, scores go up about 10 points. Enriched environments are making kids smarter. With creativity, a reverse trend has just been identified and is being reported for the first time here: American creativity scores are falling.
Okay, setting aside the whole THE SKY IS FALLING insinuations here, this "Flynn effect" fascinates me.

We know that reading to a child early in life increases their success in school when they're older, and studies have found children given books at the end of the school year do better the next academic year than children who weren't given books, but this goes further--this says the more you stimulate a brain, the more capable that brain becomes. You concretely increase the person's mental capacity.

This is stunning to me. I know humans are learning machines, but I always thought stuff like talent, intelligence, and creativity were things you were born with--that you could improve upon them (enormously, even), but they were at least nascent in you from the beginning. The Flynn effect implies that some of your intelligence doesn't exist until you create it through use.

Overwhelmed by curriculum standards, American teachers warn there's no room in the day for a creativity class. Kids are fortunate if they get an art class once or twice a week. But to scientists, this is a non sequitur, borne out of what University of Georgia's Mark Runco calls "art bias." The age-old belief that the arts have a special claim to creativity is unfounded. When scholars gave creativity tasks to both engineering majors and music majors, their scores laid down on an identical spectrum, with the same high averages and standard deviations. Inside their brains, the same thing was happening--ideas were being generated and evaluated on the fly.
This doesn't surprise me; I've said before that art is just as hard as science and science is just as creative as art. Still, it's gratifying to learn this has been tested and there's convincing evidence to support my flakey opinions on the matter.


This next bit is particularly interesting in light of what I've said regarding the Show, Don't Tell principle and what you're trying to accomplish with it--chiefly, to make both hemispheres of the reader's brain become engaged in the process of understanding the story.

Given that idea, isn't the following explanation of the process of creativity fascinating? It mirrors engaged reading.

When you try to solve a problem, you begin by concentrating on obvious facts and familiar solutions, to see if the answer lies there. This is a mostly left-brain stage of attack. If the answer doesn’t come, the right and left hemispheres of the brain activate together. Neural networks on the right side scan remote memories that could be vaguely relevant. A wide range of distant information that is normally tuned out becomes available to the left hemisphere, which searches for unseen patterns, alternative meanings, and high-level abstractions.

Having glimpsed such a connection, the left brain must quickly lock in on it before it escapes. The attention system must radically reverse gears, going from defocused attention to extremely focused attention. In a flash, the brain pulls together these disparate shreds of thought and binds them into a new single idea that enters consciousness. This is the "aha!" moment of insight, often followed by a spark of pleasure as the brain recognizes the novelty of what it's come up with.

Now the brain must evaluate the idea it just generated. Is it worth pursuing? Creativity requires constant shifting, blender pulses of both divergent thinking and convergent thinking, to combine new information with old and forgotten ideas. Highly creative people are very good at marshaling their brains into bilateral mode, and the more creative they are, the more they dual-activate.

This next bit tells you why you should write every day:
In the same way, there are certain innate features of the brain that make some people naturally prone to divergent thinking. But convergent thinking and focused attention are necessary, too, and those require different neural gifts. Crucially, rapidly shifting between these modes is a top-down function under your mental control. University of New Mexico neuroscientist Rex Jung has concluded that those who diligently practice creative activities learn to recruit their brains’ creative networks quicker and better. A lifetime of consistent habits gradually changes the neurological pattern.
Emphasis mine. We think of creativity as being a "struck by lightning" affair, but practising creativity on a daily basis makes you more lightning-prone.


This next bit is cool because I'm an instructor, and the sort of applied, integrated learning they're talking about here is something everyone involved in education is alert to right now and trying to work into how they teach. Thus, reading this was a great bit of synchronicity for me.

Active teaching methods interest students, engage them, inspire them to work harder, and they learn so much more. Demanding creativity from students is a fantastic way to unlock their passion for learning, but it's also hard work and quite terrifying--for both the instructor and the students, particularly if they're used to the passive teaching of lectures (which most of us are.)
Consider the National Inventors Hall of Fame School, a new public middle school in Akron, Ohio. Mindful of Ohio's curriculum requirements, the school’s teachers came up with a project for the fifth graders: figure out how to reduce the noise in the library. (...) Along the way, kids demonstrated the very definition of creativity: alternating between divergent and convergent thinking, they arrived at original and useful ideas. And they'd unwittingly mastered Ohio's required fifth-grade curriculum--from understanding sound waves to per-unit cost calculations to the art of persuasive writing. (...) Two weeks ago, when the school received its results on the state's achievement test, principal Traci Buckner was moved to tears. The raw scores indicate that, in its first year, the school has already become one of the top three schools in Akron, despite having open enrollment by lottery and 42 percent of its students living in poverty.

And here's the most mundane of reasons to be creative: It's a basic tool for keeping yourself from feeling overwhelmed by life.
The new view is that creativity is part of normal brain function. Some scholars go further, arguing that lack of creativity--not having loads of it--is the real risk factor. (...) A subset of respondents, like the proverbial Murphy, quickly list every imaginable way things can go wrong. But they demonstrate a complete lack of flexibility in finding creative solutions. It's this inability to conceive of alternative approaches that leads to despair.

Amazing stuff in that article. I'd love to hear what you all think of it!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Ganked from Sarah Laurenson who got it from Natalie Whipple.

Eek, this is funny! (And a welcome antidote, although an uncomfortable parallel to this, which I read earlier today.)

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Thursday Silliness

I twittered about this yesterday, but I'll repost it here because, if you've seen the original video by Lady Gaga, this version of the song darned funny:

And this! I love this just because the shots look so Liliputian:

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, July 05, 2010

Drowning Doesn't Look Like Drowning

It being summer, and the season of kiddies in the pool, I wanted to pass on this important article:
Drowning Doesn't Look Like Drowning

A drowning person doesn't wave their arms; they're using them to keep their head out of the water.

A drowning person doesn't yell; they haven't got enough breath.

Drowning looks nothing like what you've seen on television.

Roughly half of all children who drown do it within 25 metres of a parent or other adult, and in 10% of the cases, the adult watches it happen because they don't recognize what they're seeing.

Please read the linked article to learn what drowning really looks like, and please heed its advice--if your kids are in the water and they go quiet, get to them quickly and find out why. Someone who is drowning can only keep themselves at the surface for 20 - 60 seconds.

Article by Mario Vittone, found via Janet Reid's Twitter.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

What Works: HOGFATHER by Terry Pratchett

Excerpt of Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

There was no doubt that whoever had shut it wanted it to stay shut. Dozens of nails secured it to the door frame. Planks had been nailed right across. And finally it had, up until this morning, been hidden by a bookcase that had been put in front of it.

"And there's the sign, Ridcully," said the Dean. "You have read it, I assume. You know? The sign which says 'Do not, under any circumstances, open this door'?"

"Of course I've read it, " said Ridcully. "Why d'yer think I want it opened?"

"Er...why?" said the Lecturer in Recent Runes.

"To see why they wanted it shut, of course."†

This exchange contains almost all you need to know about human civilization. At least, those bits of it that are now under the sea, fenced off or still smoking.
The problem with trying to analyze humour is as soon as you try to determine what makes something funny, it stops seeming funny.

This is because surprise is an important part of humour. Humour consists of saying something that is recognizably true, but completely unexpected.

A joke's setup creates a scenario in the listener's mind.
An inebriated guest walks up to his host. "Mr. Hilcrombe, these lemons you've provided to flavour our drinks with are terrible!"

"What? I haven't provided any lemons."
The punchline twists the listener's assumptions in order to deliver an unexpected truth--an interpretation of that scenario that is valid, but a surprise.
"Oh, good heavens! Then I must apologize, sir; I've just squeezed your canary into my martini."
A simple knock-knock joke delivers a surprise interpretation of the answer to "Who's there?"
Knock, knock.
Who's there?
Esther who?
The Esther bunny.
The final answer is unexpected, but it's a valid interpretation of the setup.

Satire--which is what Mr. Pratchett specializes in--consists of saying deeply critical things about our world and ourselves. What makes satire funny is most people won't say these things--either out of politeness or because they haven't thought about the matter that deeply. Thus, to hear the sentiments expressed aloud is unexpected.

When someone laughs at a crude and nasty joke, it's often because they didn't expect the other person to say something so socially discouraged. When they laugh at fine satire, it's because they didn't expect to hear such a deep truth expressed so incisively and, perhaps, so mercilessly. Cruelty isn't what ties these two different kinds of humour together, however; surprise is.

In the above excerpt, the punchline is in the footnote, the setup is in the text. Mr. Pratchett shows the reader a depressingly familiar scenario, and after reading it, the reader likely feels--in a vague sort of way--exactly the sentiment Mr. Pratchett is about to express coldly and incisively: Forget the cat; curiosity kills humans with regularity.

When Mr. Pratchett actually expresses this criticism of humanity, it's funny because we instantly recognize the truth in his words, but they're still a surprise. People don't usually say things so bluntly.

Most humour consists of this duality of recognition and surprise, although visual jokes don't always fit neatly into the definition. For example, in a skit from Monty Python's Flying Circus, John Cleese and Eric Idle are standing on some grass beside a body of water. Eric Idle slaps John Cleese across the face with a fish. The audience giggles because this is a surprising thing to see. But what truth is being recognized?

There isn't one, but the humour also isn't enormously funny--yet. As the skit progresses, Mr. Idle continues to slap Mr. Cleese in the face with the fish, and his body language gradually shifts from frightened to confident to arrogant as he does so.

Mr. Cleese simply stands there, staring in outrage at Mr. Idle. Then, just as the skit is becoming tiresome and Mr. Idle is mincing up to yet again slap Mr. Cleese, Mr. Cleese whips out a HUGE fish he had hidden behind his leg and wallops Mr. Idle across the side of the head, knocking him into the water. And the skit ends.

Now, the joke's setup and punchline are obvious. The setup was a series of minor outrages perpetrated against a blameless person. The punchline was straight-up vengeance. Who can't relate to wanting to give someone a taste of their own medicine, with accrued interest?

We recognize instantly why Mr. Cleese whacked Mr. Idle with the massive halibut, and our surprise comes from the fact we didn't expect him to do it; the skit hadn't primed us for anything except passivity from him.

What works in the above excerpt of Hogfather is the humour. The reader is shown a scenario under which lurks a deep truth about human nature. The punchline is provided when the author surprises the reader with that truth.


I'd like to do something different this week. Your thoughts (and dissent) in the comments section are always welcome, but for today's post, I'm assigning you homework:

1. Choose a piece of humour from any source (a book, a comedian's routine, a movie scene) and analyse why it's funny. What was the unexpected truth? Where did the surprise come from? Bonus points if you can do it for a piece of physical comedy; visual humour is often the hardest to decipher. Please post your analysis in the comments.

2. Using the concepts of truth-recognition and surprise, make up a brand new joke. Please post it in the comments section. (And if you require a straight man to pull off your joke, I'd be happy to act as your patsy!)

I look forward to seeing what you come up with!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

And speaking of funny...

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Everybody Squee for Josh!

Please join me in flailing the pom-poms of victory and congratulations for Josh Vogt on the occasion of his getting an agent!

Good work, Josh! May we all be pouncing on your novels in our local stores soon!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Pageloads since 01/01/2009: