I Really Kinda Hate Populism, but…

…right about now I understand the hatred, or at least the general disdain for the so-called experts.

Once upon a time, I wrote a book I titled THE OBSIDIAN PYRAMIDS, which featured a villain named Ben Tobagho. In the first few drafts, though, his name was Don Tobagho.

When I started working on this project, I knew that creating interesting villains was one of my weaknesses. My previous antagonists were generally the old-timey, black-and-white, Lord of the Rings I’M EVIL BECAUSE I’M EVIL villains. So I decided to model the antagonist for this book after something I think is really shitty and terrible, and yet is something many people are attracted to for *somewhat* understandable reasons.

And so Don Tobagho was born. A populist leader who had genuine reasons to hate his own enemy, the “enemy of the people” in his own mind.

Now, the thing is, I chose his name only because it sounded dramatic in my mind. Months later, I realized I had heard a similar name, somewhere, sometime (while drunk, imagine that!). Doctor Mantis Toboggan was a pseudonym Danny Devito’s character, Frank Reynolds, played in one or two episodes of Always Sunny. I didn’t mean to steal any such name, it just happened.

Only trouble is, Don Tabagho’s initials are DT. I honestly didn’t even think about this until the third draft, when I considered how other people might view him as a stand in for POTUS. I try to make my books as apolitical as possible, even though I’m still going to take aspects from society that I find interesting. So Tobagho the villain stayed as he was, but Don became Ben.

I’ve written another book since then, with a different villain. I still hate populism, but just right now I’m probably more sympathetic to it than ever. I’ve been following the COVID-19 crisis to an obsessive level. Of course you have, too, but how many spreadsheets and python scripts do you have and update daily? I HAVE MANY MULTIPLE OF THEM.

A few weeks ago I started to record my current thoughts and projections, along with reasons for why I changed my mind on each day. I don’t think anything I’ve recorded looks embarrassingly bad, but here’s the thing: based on yesterday’s new info, I’m more uncertain than ever.

A large group of top-level researchers published a serological test study estimating that Santa Clara county had a COVID-19 prevalence of around 2.5%-4.5%. One of the most confusing elements of this whole thing for me is that this area’s official data show very low prevalence. Given the characteristics of the county, I thought it should be one of the hottest spots in the US, if not the hottest spot. And yet… almost nothing. Officially.

The authors of the paper claim the official data misses a massively large amount of cases. This may be true, but collecting this type of data is really difficult, and who the fuck knows if it’s correct or even means anything. Here’s good check on the issues with the study for anyone who’s interested.

So here’s my takeaway on all of this: not a goddamn one of us knows anything about this, other than that we don’t know much about it. Studying this thing is really hard. Different regions and populations will differ greatly. About the strongest conclusion I can draw from this is that the infection fatality rate (IFR) needs to be put in context. Given the age/health dependency of COVID-19 deaths, each country/state/region/city will be different.

Anywho, bringing this back to my main point about how populism sucks because experts are experts for a reason and science is awesome but some of us suck sometimes, and by that I mean all of us suck most of the time…

Nate Silver is maybe the best known “data scientist” in America. He clearly puts a lot of effort into what he does, but I’ve at times had issues with his methods and thoughts. I’m pulling this chart from his (not his alone, other smart cool people are working on this, too) well-known website:

It’s now been long enough that, even as uncertain as things still remain, we have strong reason to believe these guesses are far too low. Given the death count (undercounted by some unknown amount) 21 days after the date given here (and assuming the average time from infection to death is about 3 weeks, again uncertain, but that’s my best guess as of now), the actual infection rate at this time would be over 2 million (Update 10/6/2020: one of the most highly regarded COVID models estimates that as of March 23rd, 5.3 million Americans had been infected).

Now, it would be silly to criticize the “experts” for getting this wrong. I’m from the future here, and I still think the uncertainty on the actual infection prevalence here is really large. But here’s what these amazingly smart (ass) “experts” deserve criticism for, and why maybe, just maybe, we should possibly stop listening to (some of, not all!) these chuckle-fucks: look at the bottom half of that graph. A majority of these experts put their confidence intervals so tight that the best guess we have of the true number now – from the future, with much better information – is so far off that any person would have been willing to bet their life, and the life of everyone they care about, that it could never happen. And yet it appears that it has.

Less than a year before I defended my dissertation and received my PhD, I told my advisor I felt like I knew absolutely nothing. I was an arrogant ass going into college, even more so after I got my MS. And then after a few years working on my own little narrow corner of the research world, and seeing everyone else working on their own, I realized how little I actually knew. And the thing my truly wise advisor said to me when I told him that: that’s it, now you’re ready to become a doctor(ate).

It was a wonderful life lesson that required most of my twenties to learn. This jackass virus has made me feel it even more now than ever. But from goddamn near everything I’ve seen on social media and other sources such as FiveThirtyEight, a whole hella lotta people need to learn that lesson.

I don’t know if we can beat this virus until we do.

Round 2

So my first round of querying for Daughters of Darkness was a bust. I cried for a little while, then drank a big bottle of whiskey, and now I guess it’s time to move on to…

Round 2. Fight!

Given that I apparently don’t know what the hell I’m doing with this whole querying thing, I figured I’d seek out some help. I picked a service for critiquing queries, and got some comments on my first effort.

Unfortunately that only left me more confused.

Well, that’s not totally accurate. But some of the advice I received directly contradicts much of what I’ve heard regarding query letters. So I figure I just need to ignore the comments that don’t seem right to me and use the rest (the critiquer actually made that point in the intro).

One of the biggest criticisms was that I didn’t provide enough context. I thought I was ignoring the unnecessary details to get to the meat of the story, but apparently I just made the damn query too vague.

So, I transformed my original opening paragraph from

As she stands outside the door to her wedding chapel, High Lady Iris LaRose watches helplessly as her groom is torn to pieces by magical blades. Horrified, she stares in disbelief at the murderer. Her mother.


High Lady Iris LaRose always knew she would become one of the most influential women of the Dianic Empire – until her sister brought shame upon the entire family through a treasonous act. Now, with the LaRose name tainted, Iris finds herself pushed by her mother into a marriage she doesn’t want. But as she stands outside the wedding chapel, she watches in shock as her groom is torn to pieces by magical blades. Horrified, she stares in disbelief at the murderer. Her mother.

Hopefully this gives a bit more color regarding the MC and her rather unpleasant situation. (And yes, if you read my previous post, I changed her name to something less risky)

I made a number of other edits, trying to be a lot more specific than I was originally. I think the new query is in much better shape, though I worry just a wee bit that it’s too long now. The pitch section went from 198 words to 268, which I think might be pushing it.

Anyway, I can only hope I’ve fixed the worst of the problems with my original submission. I considered trying to revise the opening pages as well, but I decided to wait. If I don’t get any requests this time I’ll have to look at making changes there.

Even Tough Dudes Cry

During battle scenes, I mean.

Ok, no, there doesn’t need to be crying. But fight scenes need emotion of some type. For me to enjoy a fight/battle scene, I need to connect with the characters.

During my current editing phase of my book, I recently went through a fight scene where my warrior dude takes on a number of lesser talented guys and wins. I had imagined this scene long ago, and in my head it was totally awesome. But as I read it, it was…not so much.

First problem, it was very much lacking in clarity. I think I fixed that problem, but it’s still not great. It turns out to be too easy for the guy (he’s pretty good at this), and it’s nothing but a sequence of swordplay, kicks, broken bones, acrobats, stuff like that. I know, I know, sounds pretty awesome, right? But it gets boring quickly.

Seriously, I think it’s important that we see real character emotions during these kinds of scenes. Dear reader needs to feel something, some danger, some risk. Some connection. Otherwise why does she care?

Without character emotion, it’s just a long sequence of words on a page. I like action as much as anyone else, but I’ve read some battle scenes by authors that I think are really great, and I’ve found myself zoning out. Painting a picture of awesomeness is cool, but I still need some connection.

This doesn’t need to slow the pace or hamper the action in any way. It just needs to make the scene more immersive, more impactful.

So those are my thoughts for the day. I clearly have a lot more work ahead of me on this book. And I think I need some more cold medicine, or possibly whiskey. (Probably both)

Brief Star Wars Review – No Spoilers

So I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens last night. It was fun fun. I figured I would post my initial thoughts, leaving out any spoilers.

Overall, I thought it was an excellent addition to the Star Wars library. It was far more in line with the original movies than the prequels, which, of course, everyone appreciates. I do have a couple criticisms about the writing, but since those are spoilery, or at least spoiler-adjacent, I will have to save them for now. (I may do another post in a week or two with more details)

First, I’ll say that unlike the prequels, the acting was superb all around. The new stars in particular, John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, did a great job. I was a little surprised about the tone of the film – it was a little darker than I was expecting – but there were plenty of comedic moments, and the cast, especially Boyega and Harrison Ford, were great with their timing and delivery here.

The visuals were also great. Here again, much more like the originals than the prequels. While the creators used CGI throughout, I didn’t find much of it annoying, distracting, or unrealistic. And they did make fairly extensive use of puppets, giving the movie the same kind of gritty, realistic feel of the originals. I found the battle scenes to be pretty stunning, and the landscapes visually pleasing.

One of the most important aspects of this installation was the return to focus on the main characters as the drivers of the story, rather than politics and trade regulations and that sort of shit that ruined the prequels, especially episode I. Okay sure, the bad acting, shitty writing, annoying characters and visual effects contributed too. But still.

So, a fun, compelling movie, done well (with some flaws I may talk about in the future). But it’s hard to say that this was a life-changing movie. Hoping to recapture the magic of the originals that we all saw as kids is a bit of a tough task. Much of that is probably nostalgia, anyway. But I’m glad this happened, and I look forward to more.

Milwaukee Arena Deal

The controversial Milwaukee arena deal finally cleared its final hurdle today, as the common council voted to approve the needed funding from the city. While I remained optimistic throughout the process that a deal would eventually get done, there were times that I worried the city might actually lose the Bucks.

During the debate over funding, many people from around the country weighed in with their thoughts, mostly to criticize the local politicians (and implicitly the voters and supporters of the proposed bills) that pushed to get this deal done. Here’s one example from Slate, which states that Scott Walker is blowing $250 million on the arena.

Before I talk about what’s wrong with this article (and the similar arguments given by many other critics), I’ll say that I partially agree with the sentiment of many of the opponents to this deal and others like it. It is unfortunate that taxpayers are often asked to foot the bill for new stadiums/arenas, which will serve as homes to (usually) profitable multi-billion dollar teams. Ideally, the new Bucks owners would have put up all the money to fund the arena. But that was never an option on the table. With no taxpayer contribution, the Bucks and the NBA would have left Milwaukee. Forever. Anyone who says differently or ignores that fact is an idiot or an asshole.

Sure, it’s less than great that professional sports owners are able to play cities and states off of one another to get the best deal for themselves. But I have no solution to this problem, and I’ve yet to hear a single critic of these deals offer any ideas that would stop this sort of thing from happening. The decision to pass/block the funding bill here in Milwaukee/WI came down to this choice: kick in some taxpayer money, or lose the team to Seattle or Vegas. As a supporter of Milwaukee sports, and the city in general, I supported using tax money to (partially) fund the arena.

Now back to the Slate article. There are a number of dumb things in there, such as connecting the cut in university funding (which I don’t really like) to the arena funding, which doesn’t really make sense. But the primary argument the writer makes is that the deal is bullshit because economic activity and tax revenue will not be increased by building the arena because of a substitution effect: money that fans spend in or around the arena would have been spent on other local activities anyway, so it makes no real difference. This is backed up by a body of academic studies. I think these studies are likely to miss some re-distributive effects that benefit smaller market teams (to the detriment of larger market teams) because of league revenue sharing and asymmetric fan travel (Milwaukee will get more visiting fans that wouldn’t have come otherwise than places like LA & New York), but I can’t say with certainty how much impact that will have. It might be small, or it might be enough to pay the entire bill.

My main point here is that the author of this article (and others like him) is framing the argument in a way that suits his view, while missing the whole point of this deal. Apparently, we’re “blowing” $250 million on this arena because the state won’t get extra tax revenue or the downtown area won’t see extra economic activity (which may or may not be true; see my re-distributive comments above). Anyone who says that is sidestepping the central focus here: WE GET TO KEEP OUR NBA FRANCHISE. Yes, we have to pay for it. Kinda like you have to pay for your iPhone, your TV, your internet, the books you like to read, air conditioning, you know, the stuff that you can live without but you really ENJOY HAVING.

To be fair, some of the blame for this misplaced criticism belongs to the proponents of these kinds of bills, who have first made the argument that using taxpayer money will benefit all residents. This may or may not be true, but it’s mostly done to deflect complaints from taxpayers who aren’t interested in the Bucks (or any other teams involved). To those particular critics who don’t want their tax dollars going to fund a team they don’t care about, I say this: As a taxpayer who is sometimes in the upper income brackets, believe me, I know your pain. And I offer a few words of condolence. For every dollar of your tax money that goes to this arena, I “donate” hundreds of dollars for shit that I’ll never see a single fucking benefit from. Some of these things are still worthy expenditures, some are not. Just remember many of you are still getting back A LOT more from my tax dollars than I (as a wealthy-ish Bucks/Marquette basketball fan) will ever see from yours.

Or hey, maybe I’m wrong and the Slate author is right. Anyone who spends money on shit they really want but can survive without is nothing but a wasteful fucking idiot. (I wonder how many $8 lattes that guy had the day he wrote that piece)

FOMC Meeting

We’re almost to the FOMC meeting that many have been looking toward as the possible instance of the first rate hike in years. At least, that’s what many thought before the big market selloff in August. Now it looks like the consensus is for no hike until at least December.

Some observers, like Cullen Roche, think that the idea the Fed would even consider raising rates right now is indefensible. But you can also find a twitter campaign exhorting the Fed to #JustGoForIt.

Over the past few years I’ve come around to the view that many of the Fed’s actions have much less effect on the real economy than most think. Sure, if they raised rates to 10% this week that might lead to some rather nasty consequences, but I think that much like the later rounds of QE, a small rate hike isn’t going to do much – to the economy, I mean. Markets are a different story.

Anyway, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that we do see a (tiny) rate hike this week, along with guidance telling us to expect the Fed to be patient with further raises. I figure I’ll be wrong.

Training Sequences in Fiction

I’ve recently read/watched some books/films that have contained extended training sequences during Act I, and in each case, I found it difficult to stick with the story. I think these sequences should be avoided in most situations, unless the writer takes one of the approaches I talk about below. To be clear, I’m only referring to long(ish) sequences near the beginning, not a Rocky-style training montage in the middle or near the end.

It’s all about stakes.

If your story is a spy thriller, and your main character begins the movie without much in the way of skills, you might figure she needs to go through some kind of training before she can go out and do all kinds of cool spy stuff in the real world. But here’s the problem with spending the first 25% or so of the story this way: the stakes remain too low for too long.

If the real conflict in your story is about averting a nuclear disaster, but I have to read about your character learning to use spy gadgets in safe, controlled field exercises for the first quarter of the book, I’m bored, and I’m not going to make it to the part of your book that’s actually good. Sure, you can make the training sequence a real challenge, throw in a nice try/fail circle or two, but if your book has epic stakes, make them epic from the start.

Now, there are definitely ways you can have an interesting training sequence in Act I, or even throughout the whole book. You just need to up the stakes enough.

One good example of this is Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades. Valyn, one of the Emperor’s sons, is nearing the end of his training to become a Kettral, the most elite soldiers in the world. He’s approaching Hull’s Trial, the final test for graduation, one that many cadets fail. But even before he gets to the trial, he gets word from a dying guardsman that someone might be looking to assassinate him. Then he learns that his father has been murdered. Further attempts on his life make things even more difficult as he tries to discovering who’s after him while he prepares for the trial.

This works because the training sequence is really a complication to the real conflict, which is the threat of assassination. Of course, it’s possible to make the training the main obstacle, as long as the stakes are high enough. Maybe your main character is a criminal who volunteered to join an elite fighting force to stay out of prison. If failure to pass the training results in a life sentence, this is enough to make the reader care if MC succeeds.

I’d say this principle applies to any bridging conflict (a conflict that takes you from your opening to the introduction of the main conflict of the plot). The stakes of the bridging conflict have to be lower than the main conflict, but if they’re too low, you’ll never get the reader to the end of that bridge.