Killer Nashville, Part 2: Insights for Crime Writers

KNLogoStarted in 2006 by Clay Stafford as a charitable project of his media company American Blackguard, Killer Nashville is a terrific meeting place for authors, agents, and fans. Its website calls it an “International Thriller, Mystery, Crime Literature Writers Conference held annually in downtown Nashville, TN.” The actual location is Franklin, 15 miles south of Nashville, in the frigidly air-conditioned Embassy Suites Hotel. We occupied most of the hotel’s 9 floors.

I’m not good at estimating crowd size, and I never discovered any official stats, but I’d guess we numbered about 300. That meant you could strike up a conversation with anybody wearing a nametag, and easily find them again (or not) later.

Clay Stafford interviews Robert J. Randisi

Clay Stafford interviews Robert J. Randisi, who’s published at least 1 book every month since 1982.

Clay Stafford’s opening speech reminded us that we were all there for the same reasons, starting with making contacts. So this was a notably friendly conference. I enjoyed chatting with my fellow Point of View panelists Kathleen Cosgrove, Charley Pearson, and the staggeringly prolific guest of honor Robert J. Randisi, as well as dozens of agents, authors, and fans who’d come from New York, San Diego, and points in between.

Evanovich-panelRandisi, who wrote a book set in Nashville called The Honky Tonk Big Hoss Boogie, received a Fender acoustic guitar as a farewell gift. So did guests of honor Janet Evanovich (left) and Kevin O’Brien (who was heard to mutter, “What am I supposed to do with this?”) Some 30 or 40 presentations were made at the gala closing buffet dinner, culminating in the Claymore Award for Best 50 Pages of a New Book. The spirit of fun and generosity that infused this conference also included a comic video, fabulous homemade cookies, spectacular chocolate cake, wonderfully dizzying glass elevators, and a mind-boggling array of panels, agent-author roundtables and evaluations, breakout sessions, and a daily breakfast and booze-&-schmooze so we could bookend each day by exchanging information and maybe even relaxing.

Among the useful tidbits I picked up:

  • Literally millions of new books are published each year. In bookstack2016, Amazon alone has been launching 5,000 books a day.
  • “Cozy” is out; identify your genre as “mystery” or “amateur sleuth” instead.
  • Agents currently tend to rank voice ahead of plot. Your query letter as well as your manuscript should display your voice. A fresh unique story also is key.
  • Along with an introduction, synopsis, and bio, your query packet should include comps (other books in the same market niche as yours), identify your genre, and confirm that your ms. length matches what’s expected in that genre (i.e., what publishers’ marketing & manufacturing departments have determined is their ideal price point).
  • All crime novels should fall between 65,000-120,000 words, preferably around 80,000. Amateur sleuth mysteries in particular should be under 100,000 words.detective-flashlight
  • Suspense should escalate from the first sentence, with a dead body or crime or highly alarming threat within the first chapter.
  • Prologues are frowned upon. Italicized sections are out. Flashbacks are frowned upon, especially in the first few chapters. Short chapters are preferred.
  • Agents try to respond to queries they want to follow up within a month or two. Those they don’t want to follow up, they may just ignore. Once they’ve received a requested full or partial ms., they’ll usually get back to you within 1-6 weeks.
  • An agent may offer a ms. to a dozen or more publishers, all at once or in rounds. An editor should respond in about 6 weeks.
  • It’s very hard for an agent to sell Book 2 in a series if Book 1 was indie published. If you want representation, you’re better off starting over with a new series.
  • Your agent wants to see a ms. that’s as perfect as you can make it. Then she’s likely to edit it (often heavily) before sending it out to editors. If an editor accepts it, she’ll edit it again. That’s one reason the commercial publishing book-editor-officeprocess takes so much longer than indie publishing.
  • The other main reason is marketing. Your publisher expects to push your book for about 3 months. Preparation — e.g., sending out ARCs (advance review copies) — starts 4-8 months before your pub date. You may want to hire your own publicist to work with your publisher, to take full advantage of those 3 months in the spotlight.

Armed with all this, it’s back to the grindstone, AKA keyboard, and onward into the arena. Best wishes to everyone who took part!

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Lessons from My Dad, and Trump’s Secret Weapon

dad-girl2A loving, encouraging father is one of the biggest breaks any girl can get. First, he’s a source of food, shelter, and moral support. Second, he’s a role model and guide. Third and not least, he’s a tutor in how men and women interact. I remember my college psychology professor telling us that the biggest factor in whether an adult woman has a satisfying sex life is the warmth of her relationship with her father.

My dad was a generous, outgoing, physically attractive and affectionate man. Hugs were common in our house. With no brothers, and mostly boys living on our street, I was encouraged in sports: badminton, volleyball, softball, and basketball, as well as fishing, sledding, ice skating, and horseback riding, and games like tag and hide-and-seek. Dad also was my supportive partner in designing gadgets, cars, even houses.

vintagefamily-noFDayIn our cultural tranche, traditional sex roles ruled: Men supported the family by going out to work, women by staying home to look after the house and kids. The up side was that nobody had to think much about identity, at least on the macro level. You knew from birth how you’d be spending your life.

On the micro level, individuality meant there were plenty of fine points to negotiate. The kitchen was Mom’s domain, but if Dad was a better cook, he might take over for Sunday brunches, or grill a lot of burgers on the patio. Money was Dad’s responsibility, but if Mom had a better head for figures, she might be the one to balance the checkbook.

Being the official head of household, the husband held more power than the wife. The range of a woman’s pursuit of happiness, and her children’s, too, was shaped by whether he treated her as a servant, a mistress, a fragile treasure in need of his protection, a trophy to be envied by other men, and/or a respected partner.

hillary-flag.politico.comNow that the Democratic Party has nominated America’s first female candidate for president, our country is starting a long-overdue conversation about gender biases — particularly the ones we don’t recognize. Daniel Bush gives a good overview of the problem in The Hidden Sexism that Could Sway the Election on PBS’s website. He observes: “Social science evidence, primary exit polls and my interviews with researchers and dozens of voters indicate that white men’s attitudes toward Clinton are driven by a complex mix of conscious and subconscious sexism.”

Retro-Golf-Lady-Clip-Art-GraphicsFairyThat’s my dad. He subscribed to what researchers Susan Fiske and Peter Glick have dubbed ambivalent sexism: “I like women a lot, as long as they don’t trespass on male turf.” An early shock for me was the day Dad came home from a golf game fuming against his country club for making his foursome (all male, as golfers should be) wait for a group of women players. A few years later, when he was looking for a new secretary, Dad rejected Betty, who came highly recommended by his close friend John Doe, because she called her ex-boss John instead of Mr. Doe.

Bush’s PBS piece quotes diverse experts:

“Bias in general, whether it’s directed at gender, race, or anything else, is more automatic than people think,” said Susan Fiske, a leading researcher on prejudice and stereotypes who teaches at Princeton University. “And it’s also more ambivalent than we realize. So that makes it harder to detect in ourselves.”

11-19-09-9“The more female politicians are seen as striving for power, the less they’re trusted and the more moral outrage gets directed at them,” said Terri Vescio, a psychology professor at Penn State who studies gender bias. “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. . . . If you’re perceived as competent, you’re not perceived as warm. But if you’re liked and trusted, you’re not seen as competent.”

I suspect my dad would have been one of the millions of white men now refusing to vote for Hillary Clinton. I hope he would have been one of millions who’ll be persuaded between now and election day by their wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers to poke into the dark corners of prejudice they’d rather keep hidden. I vividly remember the jolt when Anita Hill’s accusations against Clarence Thomas opened discussions in offices all over the country which revealed to thousands of shocked men that every woman they work with — yes, every single one — had experienced sexual harassment.

Most of all, I hope that over the next three months, American men like my dad will open their hearts and their minds and vote for the most qualified presidential candidate: Hillary Rodham Clinton.


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2 Mystery Reviews: Beason’s The Only Witness & Horowitz’s The House of Silk

The Only Witness (Neema Mystery, #1)The Only Witness by Pamela Beason
An ingenious & charming mystery, starring improbably sympathetic characters: Brittany, a feckless teenage mother who leaves her baby in the car to dash into a store. Finn, a grumpy detective who’s saddled with his ex-wife’s menagerie & out of the loop in this grapevine-infested small town. And Neema, the only witness to the baby’s abduction: a gorilla who’s learned sign language, in a program that’s just been de-funded. Pamela Beason deftly weaves local prejudices, personal quirks, & challenging circumstances into a believable net that traps each protagonist. Each plot strand is compelling, & they converge in a satisfying resolution.

The House of Silk (Sherlock Holmes #1)The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz
As the creator & writer of Foyle’s War, Anthony Horowitz is up there in my firmament with Jane Austen, Aaron Sorkin, Hilary Mantel, & Tom Stoppard. I really wanted to read & love The House of Silk, even though most pastiches of storytellers from another era hurt my ears & sink my spirits. OK, Horowitz’s stab at James Bond (the cleverly titled Trigger Mortis) lost me in the first 2 pages; but his excellent TV recreation of World War II boded well for stepping back another half-century into the role of Dr. Watson narrating a Sherlock Holmes adventure.

House of Silk starts out familiar & promising — Baker Street ambience, unnerved client, deductive legerdemain, bristly camaraderie (Holmes-Watson) & sibling rivalry (Sherlock-Mycroft) — & expands fluidly into a web of business, art, society, & politics. There were a few jarring anachronisms, but the voice wasn’t cringe-worthy, & the plot kept me on board for 128 pages.

Then this:
“…Holmes had no idea of the type of people with whom he was dealing nor the lengths to which they would go to protect themselves. He had entered a veritable miasma of evil, and harm, in the worst possible way, was to come to us all too soon.”

Translation: “As a 21st-century reader you’re probably bored with this 19th-century pace, or about to be, so here’s a violent jab to keep you hooked.”

At that point I closed the book, & I haven’t reopened it until now.

View all my reviews

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San Francisco Then & Now: Vigilantes & Smartphones: Hoist with Our Own Petard

lamppostWiFi1-M “Hoist with their own petard”: in Shakespeare’s day that didn’t mean hanged, but blown up with their own explosives. Here on the fringes of Silicon Valley, we’re unwittingly paying the price for our addiction to staying connected 24/7. Above, my view now; below, my view as ExteNet/Verizon/City of San Francisco proposes to amend it by installing a Personal Wireless Service Facility outside my window. lamppost+WiFi1-M

All parties concede this neighborhood already is saturated with wifi/cell service. However, in 1997 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made 3 key rules: cities can’t limit communications corporations from expanding coverage and capacity; every provider has the right to install as much as every other provider; and–crucially–since we (=FCC) have no irrefutable evidence that radio-frequency emissions are dangerous to humans except in huge quantities, no one’s allowed to object to any new installation because of health concerns. In these photos, just out of sight to the left are a large rooftop transmitter array owned by AT&T and another owned by T-Mobile. Verizon plans at least one lamppost transmitter for every block in North Beach; and two more companies have proposals in the pipeline. Meanwhile, a new study by the US National Toxicology Program has found that cellphone emissions do in fact cause cancer. But responding to that will take the FCC years.

Back in 1856, the petard of choice was literally explosive. As today’s tech geeks carry their smartphones everywhere, the entrepreneurs of 160 years ago carried guns. In November 1855, a drunk and threatening U.S. Marshal, William Richardson, was fatally shot after he stalked and then attacked gambler Charles Cora.

JKWposterJames King of William, editor of the Evening Bulletin, jumped on the incident to expand his crusade against the City’s gamblers and politicians. King urged his readers to take the law in their own hands and drive out the likes of “assassin” Charles Cora and his common-law wife, Belle, the beautiful madam of San Francisco’s finest parlour house.

Belle Cora hired an eminent lawyer, Col. Edward Baker, for her lover’s January trial. Its outcome sent James King of William into fresh hysterics:

“Hung be the heavens with black! The money of the gamblers and prostitutes has succeeded . . . The jury cannot agree and are discharged!”

King’s inflammatory views spread as fast as the fires that used to gut the city. Many San Franciscans were exasperated by their government’s failure to do its job. Bulletin sales spiked as King attacked anyone urging calm and patience. He bragged of carrying a pistol and invited his critics to shoot him. One editor who opposed vigilante justice had his office smashed and his newspapers burned in the street.

Supervisor James Casey struck back. His May 11 Sunday Herald noted that while King’s Evening Bulletin urged hanging Richardson’s killer, its editor was pulling strings for his brother Tom to get Richardson’s job. That provoked James King to note in the May 14 Bulletin that Casey had served time in New York’s Sing Sing Prison before stuffing himself through the ballot box in California.

CaseyShootsKingThis was not news, but it was an insult. Casey demanded a retraction; King scoffed. An hour later, as King crossed Montgomery Street, Casey confronted him. “Are you armed? Draw!” King ignored him. Casey shot him in the shoulder.

James King of William staggered into the Pacific Express office; later he was moved to the Montgomery Block. James Casey was arrested and stowed by Sheriff David Scannell in the jail on Broadway, where Charles Cora awaited a retrial. Already a mob was forming. Sam Brannan and others began reviving the Vigilance Committee. By morning they’d enlisted 1,500 men.

As the news spread, doctors swarmed to the victim’s side. King’s own physician expected him to recover. But in that crowd of medical help, well-wishers, and cigar smoke, a sponge was pressed into the wound to stop the bleeding, and stayed there until James King of William died of infection on May 20.

JailTakeoverPosterThe Vigilantes didn’t wait death to try Casey (and, incidentally, Cora) for murder. On Sunday, May 18, 2,600 of them removed both prisoners from the jail to their Sacramento Street headquarters, Fort Vigilance (AKA Fort Gunnybags). Each defendant would have a kangaroo-court-appointed lawyer and jury; a Guilty verdict would require a 2/3 majority. Casey was condemned easily. Cora wasn’t; but since hanging was the Vigilance Committee’s mandate, they ignored that technicality.

On May 22, a mile-long funeral procession escorted James King of William’s body to Lone Mountain Cemetery. Back at Fort Vigilance, Belle and Charles Cora’s priest married them, then gave the groom last rites. Cora and Casey were hanged at 1 PM.Lynching-of-casey-and-cora-M

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The Roots of Vigilante Justice, San Francisco, May 1856

Sam Brannan

Sam Brannan

Any time a group of citizens snatches the political reins out of their government’s hands, they’re bound to offer a reason. As the United States of America’s founders put it in their Declaration of Independence, “A decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”  When Sam Brannan and his comrades pulled a coup d’etat 160 years ago, in a small but burgeoning city in the nation’s newest state, their recruits signed this declaration:

Seal of the San Francisco Vigilance Committee, 1851 (engraving)Whereas, it has become apparent to the citizens of San Francisco that there is no security for life and property, under the laws as now administered, since by the association together of bad characters, our ballot boxes have been stolen, our elections nullified, our dearest rights violated, and no other method left to manifest the will of the people,

Therefore, the citizens whose names are herewith attached do unite themselves into an association for maintenance of the peace and good order of society.

The name and style of this association shall be the Committee of Vigilance, fobrannan-store-widerr the protection of the ballot box, the lives, liberty, and property of the citizens and residents of the city of San Francisco.

Samuel Brannan was a master of both spin and revolution. Seven years earlier he’d launched the Gold Rush by running down Montgomery Street shouting “Gold! Gold at the American River!” Brannan wasn’t a miner; he was an entrepreneur who’d bought up every pick and shovel in town. He’d already lost his race with Brigham Young to establish the new Mormon headquarters in San Francisco, as well as his race with the U.S. Navy to take California from Mexico. But he succeeded in goosing the sleepy little port of Yerba Buena into a Wild West free-for-all. In the process, along with creating San Francisco’s first monopoly, Sam Brannan printed the city’s first newspaper, milled its first flour, preached its first sermon, opened its first school, and became its first millionaire.


Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma still turns the grapes from Col. Agostin Haraszthy’s vineyard into a variety of fine wines, including the Zinfandel he’s said to have originated.

Men (and a few women) flocked in from everywhere seeking gold, adventure, and/or a fresh start. In California you could be whoever you said you were. If Sheriff David Scannell previously ran the Osceola Gambling Saloon, if Judge Edward McGowan’s first job was spinning a roulette wheel, who cared? Hungarian Count Agostin Haraszthy morphed into an American colonel, the head of the first U.S. Mint on the West Coast, and the father of modern California winemaking. Charles Cora, from Genoa by way of New Orleans, openly made his living as a gambler. His beautiful mistress–Clara Belle Ryan, a Baltimore runaway–became Arabella “Belle” Cora, madam of the city’s finest parlour house.

By 1851, Sam Brannan had carved himself a solid foothold as a merchant. Ironically, the anarchy that had enabled his rise to prosperity now threatened it. So he rallied his friends and formed San Francisco’s first Committee of Vigilance. Clamping down on lawlessness by hanging a few miscreants and scaring off many more not only protected their wealth but buffed their public image. Instead of looking like greedy entrepreneurs, Brannan and his fellows could look like civic heroes.

JKWposterOne of the city’s bankers was James King, who’d tacked “of William” onto his name back in Georgetown. He’d left behind his black-sheep younger brother Tom to join his admired older brother Henry, who was off charting the California wilderness with the bold but feckless explorer John Charles Fremont. To James King’s chagrin, Henry failed to meet his arriving ship, or to return to San Francisco at all. (Diaries would later disclose that he’d starved to death and been eaten by his lost comrades.) However, Tom soon followed his brothers West.

James King supported his wife and six children as part of the Montgomery Street financial crowd until the crash of February 1855. Broke and betrayed, he railed against the “too big to fail” corporations that had ruined him. In October he expanded his vendetta by launching the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, tackling vice and corruption citywide.

A month later, Charles and Belle Cora took their usual dress-circle seats at the American Theatre on Sansome Street. In front of them sat new U.S. Marshal William Richardson and his bride. Mrs. Richardson complained that a rude fellow in the pit was staring at her. When the marshal rebuked the offender, he answered that his eyes were on Belle Cora. AmericanTheatre-MusOfPerformanceAndDesign-oac.cdlib.org-ark-13030etcRichardson ordered the theatre manager to evict the soiled dove and her partner. The manager just laughed.

For the next two days Marshal Richardson stalked Charles Cora from bar to bar: drinking, threatening, and reconciling. Business in the city was a high-stakes gamble; many deals were sealed after hours, and many men carried weapons. Tension between the Tammany (Northern) and Chivalry (Southern) factions sometimes led to a duel. Richardson ambushed Cora, who narrowly escaped. The following night, when Richardson reached for his pistol, Cora shot him dead.

That was the break James King of William had been waiting for.

“One of the most cold-blooded assassinations . . . committed in our midst, and the same old song is being sung by the San Francisco press. ‘The prisoner must have a fair and impartial trial’ . . . I can see but one course for this community to pursue, and that is to take the administration of justice in their own hands.” So declared the Evening Bulletin.

That was the break Sam Brannan had been waiting for.

For what happened next, stay tuned for another episode in the remarkable yet true story told in my play and soon-to-be book After the Gold Rush.

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Vigilantes Take Over San Francisco – May 1856

From the Daily Alta California of May 23, 1856:

Our streets have assumed a more quiet aspect this morning than we have witnessed for several days past. The proceedings of yesterday have very naturally produced such a result.


Execution of James P. Casey and Charles Cora, By The Vigilance Committee, of San Francisco, on Thursday, May 22d, 1856, from the Windows of their Rooms, in Sacramento Street, between Front and Davis Streets. Made by Huestis; sold by M. Ullman, New York. From the Bancroft Library: BANC PIC 1963.002:02–B

The Alta didn’t need to spell out the details. Everyone in the little city of San Francisco (which filled an area roughly from today’s South Beach to Mission to North Beach) knew what “proceedings” had occurred on Thursday, May 22.

While 3000+ armed San Franciscans hanged two human symbols of violence, corruption, and vice, the rest of the city marched toward Lone Mountain Cemetery to bury James King of William, crusading editor of the Evening Bulletin.

CaseyShootsKingSupervisor Casey’s crime was shooting King in the street on May 14 for refusing to retract an insult he printed in the Bulletin. Although King did not appear to be mortally wounded, a surfeit of medical attention soon finished him off. When the Vigilantes took over the County Jail on Broadway and removed Casey to their own “Fort Vigilance” for a kangaroo trial, they also removed gambler Charles Cora, who was awaiting retrial for fatally shooting a U.S. Marshal, arguably in self-defense.

Here is the Bulletin’s account of San Francisco’s transformation in May 1856:

There never was a more perfect or complete revolution in the government, or the affairs of a community, than in this city the past week.Among our citizens confidence is restored, and the virtue, intelligence, and ability of our people to govern themselves. Those who lived in fear of some outrage upon their lives or property feel a security greater than they have experienced in a long time.

We had witnessed the bold attempt at assassination in our streets; we had seen the infuriated mass rush wildly after the prisoner, with exclamations of “Hang him!” filling the air.

VC1856-photoWe had witnessed the organization of the Vigilance Committee in our very midst, with a list of 3,000 names; we had witnessed their formidable array in the streets of our city; and we had witnessed their successful campaign of rescuing the prisoners, Casey and Cora, from the jail on Sunday; all attended with the most intense and enthusiastic excitement.

But never until the death of Mr. King was announced yesterday [May 20], at half past one o’clock, have we seen such a powerful and universal demonstration of real, true, heartfelt sorrow and mourning as was exhibited by our people.


James King of William, before and after. Honeyman Collection, U.C. Berkeley.

On Thursday morning, many of our business and private dwelling houses, that had not previously robed in black, put on the garb of mourning, and the flags of the city, with but one exceptionEngine Company Number Ten—hung at half mast. At an early hour, the meetings and organizations of our different societies took place; and by twelve o’clock, all were ready to join in the procession.

The body of the deceased had been conveyed to his late residence at the corner of Pacific and Mason Streets. A few minutes before noon, the hearse was borne to the Unitarian Church on Stockton Street. The church was well filled long before the hour appointed. Mrs. King and children and Mr. Thomas S. King [the deceased’s younger brother] were seated in front of the pulpit, and the immediate friends of the deceased in the adjoining pews.

The cortege moved in the following order:

The Masonic Order in full regalia with the Royal Arch Chapter. A carriage containing the Reverend Misters Cutler, Lacy, and Taylor. A carriage containing the physicians to the late deceased. The hearse, drawn by four gray horses richly caparisoned, attended on each side by the pallbearers. Carriage containing Mrs. King and children and Mr Thomas S. King. Carriages containing mourning friends of the deceased.

Attaches of the Evening Bulletin on foot. California Pioneers with badges and mourning emblems. Members of the press in the city and towns in the interior. Sacramento Guard in full uniform. The San Francisco Fire Department in citizens’ dress, headed by the chief engineer. Every company was largely represented except Number Ten.

The San Francisco Minstrels, members of the theatrical profession, and the musical bands of the city with muffled instruments. The boys from St. Mary’s Library Association. The draymen of the city on horseback, to the number of 350 men. The steveodores, with banners, numbering 142 men. The Turnverein Society in full costume. A deputation of 10 colored persons with badges representing the San Francisco Athenaeum, a library association composed of colored persons. These were followed by a large number of carriages and private vehicles. It is estimated that the procession extended a mile and a half in length.


The tragic martyrdom of a hero was just the story San Franciscans needed to excuse themselves for taking the law into their own hands and lynching two scapegoats. It also got them off the hook for not utilizing the legal system already in place. If any Vigilantes felt guilty for leaving the job of cleaning up their city to James King of William while he lived, they could pat themselves on the back for doing a zealous job of avenging his death.

But in reality there was more to the story than that. When we come back, a 160th-anniversary look at some startling twists behind the purification of San Francisco.

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Crowdsourcing Science Research, from Astronomy to Zoology

by CJ Verburg


Kevin Schawinski prepares to moderate tonight’s panel discussion, while Carole Roberts, CJ Verburg, Linda Ackerman, and a ponytailed fan of Swissnex’s physics feasts wait to watch and listen. Photo (c) ETH Zurich-Barak Shrama-016 by Rahel Byland.

Last week, two friends & I met at the intersection of Switzerland and San Francisco for a mind-boggling look into the future.

Swissnex is Switzerland’s HQ for high-tech liaisons with the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, and it’s just up Montgomery Street from the Transamerica Pyramid. On Friday night, April 8, we’re here to learn about investigative projects in which scientists based at ETH Zurich (“Where Einstein launched his career”) are directing research teams of hundreds, thousands, or millions of ordinary citizens around the world.

That unassuming man in geeky glasses and rolled-up shirtsleeves is Kevin Schawinski, Professor of Galaxy & Black Hole Astrophysics at ETH Zurich. A winner of the Royal Astronomical Society’s thesis prize at Oxford and a NASA Einstein Fellowship at Yale, he also cofounded the Galaxy Zoo. As his colleague Lucy Fortson will explain shortly, galaxies fall into two basic groups: blue spiral, which are relatively young and still forming stars, and red elliptical, AKA “red and dead.”

In this age of Big Data, projects such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey can provide scientists with more information than any one person, university, or even nation can process. After classifying 50,000 galaxies himself, Schawinski turned over the other 950,000 in the pipeline to sharp-eyed online observers. “Within 24 hours of launch we were stunned to be receiving almost 70,000 classifications an hour.” That’s the Galaxy Zoo. If it sounds like fun, you can click here and start classifying galaxies yourself right now.


The panel, left to right: Professors Adrien Treuille, Lucy Fortson, Ulrich Genick, and Dirk Helbing. Photo (c) ETH Zurich-Barak Shrama-036 by Rahel Byland.

First speaker on the panel is Professor of Computational Social Sciences Dirk Helbing, whose specialties include crowds and traffic. He gives us a whirlwind tour of Big Data issues and responses, starting with the paradox that as information proliferates, the percentage we can process drops: What we CAN know may actually decrease what we DO know. We do know that governments and corporations are voraciously collecting data on individuals. In China, “citizen scores” on a multitude of measures are already becoming the basis for what each citizen is allowed to do. Helbing coordinates the FuturICT Initiative, which uses smart data to understand techno-socio-economic systems. His project Nervousnet is “a decentralized Internet of Things platform for privacy-preserving social sensing services.” Provided as a public good, it’s a two-way open-source mobile app. Nervousnet is holding its first Hackathon this weekend — check it out.

Dr. Ulrich Genick moved from biochemistry in Berlin to structural biology and biophysics at Scripps, the Salk Institute, and Brandeis, to leading a large-scale study on the interplay of human genetics, metabolism, and taste perception at the NRC in Lausanne. Now he’s at ETH Zurich’s Institute of Molecular Systems Biology, where last year he cofounded the MIDATA health data cooperative. Its intent is to restore control of personal data (health data in particular) to the sources of that data. Instead of signing over your privacy rights to any service that demands them as a condition of access, you’d be able to retain secure ownership of your own data and license its use.smell-coffee-300x240 Genick explains why his current research focuses on taste and smell: the genetic specificity and wide individual variation of those senses (single nucleotide polymorphism) makes them ideal for investigating the relationship between genotype (your specific genetic sequence) and phenotype (how you experience, say, a cup of coffee). The more participants who supply their DNA analysis and their sensory perceptions, the more accurate a portrait can be created of which nucleotides play what role in the genetics of taste and smell.

Widening our view from nucleotides to galaxies is Professor Lucy Fortson, a founding member of the Zooniverse project and current board chair for the Citizen Science Alliance. In her vision of the emerging future of scientific research, human beings operate as a single multicellular investigator, eerily parallel to the multistellar galaxies they’re classifying. galaxy-bluespiralFortson’s own sleuthing took her from high-energy physics at the CERN particle accelerator in Geneva to cosmic ray and gamma ray astrophysics with the Chicago Air Shower Array at the University of Chicago; currently she’s at the University of Minnesota. She recalls her and Kevin Schawinski’s happy surprise at the Galaxy Zoo’s success, which encouraged its proponents to add a few more projects, then many more. Now it’s morphed into the Zooniverse, a worldwide online platform which invites volunteers everywhere to collaborate on research projects from astronomy to zoology.

Dr. Adrien Treuille, V.P. of Simulation at Zoox, came to this driverless-car startup from Google X; before that, he taught computer science and robotics at Carnegie Mellon. He zooms us back down to micro level as the creator of the online games Foldit and Eterna. folditIn challenging players to compete at folding proteins and designing RNA, these games (like the Zooniverse and other projects discussed here tonight) also establish a collaboration among far-flung strangers. On a personal level, they awaken creativity and skills that participants never knew they had. On a scientific level, they focus a myriad of sharp eyes and minds on problems that are too vast and/or complicated for any ordinary pod of humans (or computers) to solve.

Along with the parallels among citizen-science projects, Lucy Fortson notes a contrast. For her research, she seeks as many participants as possible — the more people, the better the data. For his, Adrien Treuille seeks the most skillful participants. His games encourage self-selection: if you don’t win more points than the other players figuring out how to fold a protein from its amino-acid sequence, you’ll soon quit. Ulrich Genick takes a more traditional approach in his sensory research by recruiting a specific number of volunteers to study in a specific place. Similarly, for Dirk Helbing, a crowd of participants are his subject as well as his collaborators.

Emerging from this heady gathering, I find myself mulling over two common themes. One is the shift in scientific research from direct observation of physical subjects to designing experiments with and for computers. Do astronomy or botany students still choose the field from an attraction to planets or plants, or is the aptest motivation nowadays a desire to count and track? The other thread is the remarkable way the Internet age is bringing out the collective tendencies of human beings. We’re gravitating toward our ant-colony or school-of-fish side: diverse minds finding not just a common purpose but a common direction and rhythm. This is not new, but it’s a 180-degree-turn from my generation’s passionate commitment to individual self-discovery and self-expression.

I’ve been wondering for decades how the Net — freeing human connections from geography and even time — would change the concept of community. Maybe one answer is Citizen Science.


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War, WMD, Wall Street, Washington, & the New Reality

cover-Blasim“Plenty of people got Iraq wrong, but plenty of people – experts and ordinary citizens – got it right. The problem was that it made no difference.”

So states St. Louis-based writer Sarah Kendzior in “Iraq and the Reinvention of Reality” in today’s Al Jazeera.

I’ve been teaching a course on non-Western literature this winter at San Francisco’s Mechanics’ Institute Library, and our April class focuses on Iraq. So lately I’ve been reading a lot of fiction and nonfiction by Iraqis. It’s not an exploration to undertake lightly. Writers in all war-torn countries radiate a deadly consciousness that what they say matters. Some stake their lives on speaking out; some resort to allegory or magical realism or another veiled approach to spread their message before the censors or military police can snuff it. Whatever the tactics, one discerns an unquenchable flicker of hope.

cover-McCarthyYet in contemporary Iraqi literature the dominant tone is bleakness. These are writers – human beings – to whom normal life, as we in the West define it (a morning chat over coffee, checking e-mail, grocery shopping, a sunset stroll) is foreign. If they’ve ever encountered normality, it was long ago or far away.

Rory McCarthy’s disturbing book Nobody Told Us We Are Defeated: Stories from the New Iraq depicts a normality in which shopping or a stroll could very well end in random arrest, imprisonment, torture, even death, for no other reason than that the government’s most powerful and popular tool is intimidation.

Sarah Kendzior pushes that bleakness a quantum leap further.

“The Iraq war is notable not only for journalistic weakness, but for journalistic futility: the futility of fact itself. Fact could not match the fabrications of power. Eventually, our reality shifted to become what they conceived. ‘I could have set myself on fire in protest on the White House lawn and the war would have proceeded without me,’ wrote Bush speechwriter David Frum.

cover-Kachachi“That was the message of the Iraq war: There is no point in speaking truth to power when power is the only truth.”

I heard years ago that an aide to President George W. Bush had scoffed at a journalist during the Iraq war for being part of the “reality-based community.” Kendzior sets that remark in context. Here’s an extract from her article, e-mailed by a friend (thank you, Tom Englezos). I strongly urge you to read the whole piece.

 “In 2002, Ron Suskind, a reporter for the New York Timesmet with an unnamed aide to George W Bush who accused Suskind of being part of the ‘reality-based community’. The aide meant it as an insult: this was not the way the world worked anymore.

“‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,’ said the aide, later alleged to be Bush adviser Karl Rove. ‘And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’

cover-antoon“In one sense, this quote seems of a piece with its era – with the entry of truthiness into the dictionary, with the rise of whole industries, like reality TV, built on choreographed sincerity. But while we may associate the ‘creation of reality’ with a wildly hubristic administration, it remains the flavour of our time, a manipulation that moves from crisis to crisis. . . .

“We see remnants of this created reality in the financial crisis – the ongoing ‘great recession’ that, like preemptive war, has transformed what Americans will accept. It is normal for criminal financiers to receive record bonuses in an age marked by austerity, it is normal for professionals to work  years unpaid in the hope of someday landing a job, it is normal for one year of college to cost more than the average median income. This is normal, they say – but if Iraq should have taught us anything, it is how easily and brazenly ‘normal’ can be redefined.”

What Iraqi literature teaches us is that literary technique is no mere artistic device. The late Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, asked about his use of magical realism, answered that he simply described life as he observed it. Any writer living the nightmare described by one of Rory McCarthy’s sources – “Even in my dreams I saw them . . . Every single minute I felt they would take me away for execution” – has crossed the border that for most Westerners protects the reality-based community.

When the United States invaded Iraq, we changed it forever. Iraq, in turn, forever changed reality in the United States and the world.

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The Edwardian Ball & the Eponymous Edward Gorey

from Boom-Books.com:

If Edward Gorey could see the diverse and unpredictable directions his legacy has taken, he’d be most amazed by the Edwardian Ball.

photo by Marco Sanchez

Every January, a month before Gorey’s birthday, fans and steampunk fashionistas in San Francisco and Los Angeles gather to celebrate this New England artist’s tongue-in-cheek depiction of the dark side of Agatha Christie’s Britain. Ironic? Edward Gorey visited California just once, on leave from his U.S. Army posting in Utah, to meet up in San Francisco with his Chicago friend Consuelo Joerns, a student at Mills College. He never set foot in Britain except for a single foray to the Hebrides. He did write a fan letter to Agatha Christie, and framed her reply. But once he moved into his sprawling antique home on Cape Cod, it was a challenge to lure him even to Providence or Boston.

Yet here we are again, poising not just to embrace Gorey’s England but to don our bowlers and bustiers and dive in. This from Facebook:

EdBall2016_poster_300wAfter Friday night’s global adventure, we return to The Grand Ballroom for the most decadent night of our season! This is the night that started it all, The Edwardian Ball, presented by co-hosts Rosin Coven and Vau de Vire Society.

Ballroom dancing leads way to stunning performances both on and offstage in a collage of fashion, theatre, music, circus performance, and dance. Each year, The Edwardian Ball presents a featured Edward Gorey tale in an original stage performance. This year’s event takes a unique turn, with Edwardian founders Rosin Coven teaming up with longtime collaborators Dark Garden Corsetry in a presentation of Gorey’s ridiculous tale, “The Stupid Joke.” Expect anything but stupidity as these masters of their craft collaborate in an unforgettable tale of a poorly planned joke gone incredibly wrong…

And in the spirit of celebrating all things Edward Gorey, Ball co-hosts The Vau de Vire Society present a series of vignettes throughout the evening paying homage to the most controversial works of the (in)famous illustrator…guaranteed to pop corsets and ruffle coat-tails!

If you prefer (as Edward Gorey did) to enjoy your frissons from the comfort of your own sofa,

  • check out his drawings and books for sale at Pomegranate and the Edward Gorey House;
  • read about his theatrical adventures, illustrated with little-known drawings, photos, film clips, and music, in CJ Verburg’s multimedia memoir Edward Gorey On Stage (print or e-book);
  • solve a murder with anagrammatic sleuth Edgar Rowdey in CJ Verburg’s 5-star Cape Cod mystery Croaked.EGDetectiveEnters
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Forgotten Inventor of Nature: the Amazing Alexander von Humboldt

southern-hemi-mapIn a new mini-review in Public Books, author and scholar Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles alerts us to a scientific genius, overlooked in 21st-century America, who 200 years ago was exploring the world and 150 years ago was honored all around it. Alexander von Humboldt influenced Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Muir, among others. A new biography by Andrea Wulf recommends we un-forget him. Here’s a preview of Kevles’s review:

In 1869 the centennial of Alexander von Humboldt’s birth was celebrated around the world, including in New York City, where bands and speakers gathered in Central Park to honor his legacy. He was hailed as the most brilliant explorer since Alexander the Great, a scientist equal in stature to Charles Darwin, and a genius who alerted the world to how humanity was destroying the environment. In the century and a half since, Humboldt’s star has dimmed, especially in the English-speaking world. In our era of climate change, when international science and the institutions of global governance present the only hope for addressing the crisis, Humboldt’s scientific and prophetic legacy deserves revival and reevaluation.

Wulf-HumboldtAndrea Wulf’s masterful The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World represents the best of the handful of English language books that have appeared in the last decade focused on Humboldt and his science. Gerard Helferich’s Humboldt’s Cosmos and Aaron Sachs’s The Humboldt Current brought the explorer back into the light, but Wulf’s superb biography reaches beyond Humboldt’s remarkable life to encompass his adventures as the first ecological internationalist.

Read more at http://www.publicbooks.org/briefs/the-inventor-of-nature

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