The Dean Died Over Winter Break

Today I’m pleased to announce that my first mystery novel, The Dean Died Over Winter Breakis now available from Silver Empire publishing.


If you like Lord Peter Wimsey, Father Brown, or Brother Cadfael—and especially if you like all three—then you’ll probably enjoy the first Chronicle of Brother Thomas: The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

Back cover blurb:

Winter Break is normally a peaceful time at a university so it was quite a shock when Dean Floden was discovered Monday morning murdered at his desk, the window wide open behind him. A blizzard sent everyone home on Friday afternoon so there’s no time of death and no witnesses to see who came or went anyway. The police have little to go on and are making slow progress. Worried about an ongoing investigation when the students return for the spring semester, the president of the university calls in the Franciscan Brothers of Investigation.

Brother Thomas, still with the intensity of youth despite long experience uncovering the sins of the world, is sent along with his apprentice, Brother Francis, whose jovial smile and mild manner belie his ever-growing knowledge of fallen humanity. Awaiting them on their first day are a jealous mistress, a clever drug dealer, a disappointed researcher, and a mortally insulted professor. Did one of them do the other three a big favor? Or was it someone else entirely? With everyone at the university looking out for their own interests, can Brother Thomas’s sharp eyes and Brother Francis’ insight find the truth behind the academic façade?

Some of the most favorable reviews so far:

“It was very difficult to put down the book and not read, read it until the last page!” -Keti

“If you’re a fan of Brother Cadfael, you’ll like this novel.” -Borderbumble

“It’s well worth a read for any mystery fan just for the unique detectives. I’d love to see a sequel.” -Nigel

“It is a quick and enjoyable read with interesting characters with whom I’d like to spend more time in the sequels.” -Alfred

If you’re interested, it’s available for $2.99 on Kindle.

Who Works For Bad Scientists?

One of the latest scandals in science is the shoddy research of Brian Wansink, with new scrutiny on his papers resulting in many of them being revised or withdrawn. Apparently this started in the aftermath of a post on his blog titled The Grad Student Who Never Said No. I bring this up because it ties into a previous post of mine, The Fundamental Principle of Science. But the entire blog post is very interesting so let’s look at it.

A PhD student from a Turkish university called to interview to be a visiting scholar for 6 months.  Her dissertation was on a topic that was only indirectly related to our Lab’s mission, but she really wanted to come and we had the room, so I said “Yes.”

So far, no problems.

When she arrived, I gave her a data set of a self-funded, failed study which had null results (it was a one month study in an all-you-can-eat Italian restaurant buffet where we had charged some people ½ as much as others).

Right away you have a problem with whatever they’re trying to find out because there’s no realistic way to charge people half as much as others. Most people find out what a buffet costs before ordering it, with this influencing their choice to eat there or not. Further, many people will be regular customers and thus already know what the buffet costs.

 I said, “This cost us a lot of time and our own money to collect.  There’s got to be something here we can salvage because it’s a cool (rich & unique) data set.”

This is a really bad sign. If your experiment fails, you’re not supposed to torture the data until it tells you what you want to hear. This is called p-hacking, an it results in an awful lot of garbage. Virtually all data sets have some correlations in them by sheer chance; finding them is simply misleading.

I had three ideas for potential Plan B, C, & D directions (since Plan A had failed).  I told her what the analyses should be and what the tables should look like.  I then asked her if she wanted to do them.

Granted, this isn’t quite as bad as the approach where one uses a computer to generate hundreds or thousands of “hypotheses” and test them against the dataset to find one that will stick to the wall, but it’s a bad sign. This is such a bad practice, in fact, that some scientific journals are requiring hypotheses to be pre-registered to prevent people from doing this.

Every day she came back with puzzling new results,

This is a very bad sign. It’s a huge red flashing neon sign that your data set has a lot of randomness in it.

and every day we would scratch our heads, ask “Why,” and come up with another way to reanalyze the data with yet another set of plausible hypotheses.

Now this is just p-hacking, except without a computer. You could call it artisinal, hand-crafted p-hacking.

Eventually we started discovering solutions that help up regardless of how we pressure-tested them.

I’m actually kind of curious what he means here by “pressure-testing”. Actual pressure-testing is putting fluid into pipes at significantly higher pressures than the working system will be under to ensure that all of the joints are strong and have no leaks. Given that the data set has already been collected, I can’t think of an analog to that. Perhaps he meant throwing out the best data points to see if the rest still correlated?

I outlined the first paper, and she wrote it up, and every day for a month I told her how to rewrite it and she did.

What was going on that 30 rewrites were necessary? Perhaps this grad student just sucked at writing, but at some point one really should pick an idea and stick with it. I really doubt that thirtieth rewrite was much better than the 23rd or the 17th.

This happened with a second paper, and then a third paper

So we’re up to about 90 rewrites in 3 months? That’s is a lot of rewrites for papers about something as weak as tracking the behavior of people eating at a randomly discounted Italian buffet.

(which was one that was based on her own discovery while digging through the data).

This is pure snark, but I can’t resist: she learned to p-hack from the master.

At about this same time, I had a second data set that I thought was really cool that I had offered up to one of my paid post-docs (again, the woman from Turkey was an unpaid visitor).  In the same way this same post-doc had originally declined to analyze the buffet data because they weren’t sure where it would be published, they also declined this second data set.  They said it would have been a “side project” for them they didn’t have the personal time to do it.

It’s really interesting that we have no idea what the post-doc actually said. It’s possible that the post-doc was just being polite and came up with an excuse to avoid p-hacking. It’s also possible that the post-doc said that this seemed like p-hacking and Wansink interpreted that as trying to cover for not thinking that it was prestigious enough work.

But it’s also possible that someone who wanted to work with an apparent p-hacker like Wansink actually was concerned only with how prestigious a journal the p-hacked results could be published in.

Boundaries.  I get it.

I strongly suspect that he doesn’t get boundaries. Most people who have to talk about them this way—saying that they respect other people’s boundaries—don’t. At least in the cases I’ve seen. People who respect boundaries do so as a matter of course. It’s a bit like how people who don’t stab others in the face with spoons don’t talk about it, they just do it.

Six months after arriving, the Turkish woman had one paper accepted, two papers with revision requests, and two others that were submitted (and were eventually accepted — see below).

P-hacking is far more productive than having to find real results. That’s why it’s so tempting.

In comparison, the post-doc left after a year (and also left academia) with 1/4 as much published (per month) as the Turkish woman.

Right, but how good was it?

 I think the person was also resentful of the Turkish woman.

This could mean several things, depending on what he person actually said and meant when they declined to p-hack the buffet data set. If it was purely self-aggrandizement, then this becomes a valid criticism. If they were actually demuring from p-hacking, then the resentment makes a lot of sense since the Turkish woman made them look bad for standing on principle while others transgressed and didn’t get caught.

Balance and time management has its place, but sometimes it’s best to “Make hay while the sun shines.”

This part is certainly true. It’s rarely a good idea to disdain low hanging fruit. Unless it’s wax fruit, not real fruit.

About the third time a mentor hears a person say “No” to a research opportunity, a productive mentor will almost instantly give it to a second researcher — along with the next opportunity.

I really wonder what he thinks that the word “mentor” means. Whatever it is, it clearly doesn’t involve actually mentoring anyone. But don’t just pass over this, look at how glaring it is. The first half of the sentence, “About the third time a mentor hears a person say ‘No’ to a research opportunity”, is the setup for explaining how the mentor will then help the person to learn. Instead, the next three words are almost a contradiction in terms: “a productive mentor.” To mentor someone is to put time and energy into helping them learn. It’s the opposite of being productive. Craftsmen are productive. Mentors are supposed to be instructive. And then the rest of the sentence can be translated as, “…will just give up on the person.”

I think the word he was looking for was “foreman,” not “mentor”.

This second researcher might be less experienced, less well trained, from a lessor school, or from a lessor background, but at least they don’t waste time by saying “No” or “I’ll think about it.”  They unhesitatingly say “Yes” — even if they are not exactly sure how they’ll do it.

Yeah, the word he was looking for was “foreman”.

Facebook, Twitter, Game of Thrones, Starbucks, spinning class . . . time management is tough when there’s so many other shiny alternatives that are more inviting than writing the background section or doing the analyses for a paper.

I’ve got to say: if the reason that the post-doc wouldn’t p-hack the buffet data set was because they were too busy checking Facebook and Twitter, watching Game of Thrones, sitting chai lattes at Starbucks, and going to spinning class… that was actually a better use of time.

Yet most of us will never remember what we read or posted on Twitter or Facebook yesterday.  In the meantime, this Turkish woman’s resume will always have the five papers below.

Ironically, Wansink is likely to remember this blog post for a long time, since it drew attention to his p-hacking. And at this point, there’s a lot of it.

How To Get Your Posts Shared By Big Names

This is a post for people with small blog readerships who want to get links from people who have big followings. It will probably apply to other long-form media like YouTube videos and possibly even Facebook posts, but won’t apply to short-form media like Twitter. Also, I should mention that I’m talking about people who are big because of what they make. I have no idea how to get Kim Kardashian to notice blog posts.

If you’re wondering what my credentials are for making this post, I’ll start with the recent ones:


In case you don’t know him, Ed Latimore has (as of the time of this writing) about 40,000 Twitter followers. Recently he linked to How To End Conversations and Acting Confident vs. Being a Jerk.

In the bigger picture, I’ve been blogging on and off for twenty years. In that time I’ve had novels of mine mentioned by Mark Shea, I’ve had blogs linked to by The Volokh Conspiracy (several hosts ago), Steven Den Beste (back when he was a big-name political blogger, before he switched to anime blogging, may he rest in peace), and others. Probably the biggest link I got was from Slashdot. (That one generated around  35,000 page views, 16 years ago.)

Having (hopefully) established my credentials, much of what I’m going to talk about is actually basic human psychology. The most effective way to get anybody to do what you want is to align your interests with theirs. So the best way to get someone with a big following to link to your blog post is to write a blog post where linking to it benefits them. This makes the most important thing to consider:

What People With Followings Want

The only way to get a large following is to give a lot of people a meaningful amount of value. (Whether it is given for free or for a fee is irrelevant.) Loyalty is, however, a rare thing among fallen humanity and so one has to keep giving new value. This may be clearer if it’s considered from the reader’s perspective: if someone spends too much time writing what you don’t want to read, you’ll stop reading them. This creates, for the person will the big following, two complementary incentives:

  1. A constant need for value to give to their readers
  2. A strong disincentive to publish anything which is not valuable to their readers

The techniques for getting blog posts shared by big names all follow from these two elementary forces. (It doesn’t hurt to know how readers behave, too.)

The Basics

The single best way to get your blog post shared by someone is to write a blog post which provides real value to the person’s readers. This can work if it’s a large subset of his readers but it’s better if it’s all of his readers. And the best way to do that is for the post to be the sort of post which that person would write. Now, I don’t mean that you should ape his style. In fact, that’s probably a bad idea. But your post should be on a subject which he might write about and from a viewpoint which is at least compatible with his. Also, critically, it’s got to be a post he hasn’t already written.

That’s not to say that it can’t be on the same subject that he’s written about before, but if it is, it’s got to be different: a different take, a different angle, some additional background information which augments or clarifies his point—in short, your post has to add something to his. If it doesn’t, what’s the point in him sharing it?

A follow-up post to the big name’s post can be a good approach to getting shared. Saving the big name the trouble of writing the followup can provide a lot of value. (This is especially true if he’d have had to do research to write it.)

A funny take on a serious post, or a serious take on a funny post can also both work as follow-ups. If you’re going the route of being funny, make sure that your sense of humor will make the writer laugh out loud. If you’re going serious, a good bet is to be an answer to all the nit-pickers on the writer’s humorous post, saving him the tedium of replying and/or explaining.

Subjects that the writer with the big following haven’t written about also work, depending on why he hasn’t written about them. Good reasons are: he hasn’t gotten around to it and writing it would require research he didn’t feel like doing. Bad reasons include: he isn’t interested, he thinks it will turn off readers, it’s off-brand.

Merely tangential relation to the writer’s main subject probably won’t cut it. For example, it’s probably a waste of everyone’s time to tell a Paleo blogger about your post on “how to hook up with hot paleo chicks”.  Even if your technique is to carry around a clear acrylic cooler packed with ice and raw steaks, your primary topic is picking up women, not eating paleo. By contrast, “how to eat paleo on a date without being a nuissance” would be primarily about eating paleo. Specifically, it would be about navigating the difficulties of the modern food environment without sacrificing paleo goals. And if you’re pitching a paleo blogger, posts about changing the oil in your car are right out.

Don’t Waste People’s Time

If your post is not likely to be of interest to a big name’s readers/viewers/followers/etc, don’t waste their time asking them to share it. That’s just asking for free advertising. It wouldn’t even do you any good if they did share it—their followers won’t click on it. If you follow someone because you love their bass fishing blog, if they publish a link to someone’s post on how to sell afghans on ebay it will just be noise to you. And people who’ve spent more than a few months on the internet are very good at filtering out noise. At the very least, if you insist on doing this, make the subject line, “I want free advertising for no reason”.

Joking aside, for most people the reason they do this is because their hope has clouded their judgment. Try not to do this. Hope is important, but other people’s time being finite means that hope should always be tempered by realism. There will be other opportunities.

Present Your Material Politely

This isn’t hard, but the big thing is to avoid looking like what you’re not. Everyone gets spam asking them for things; when you are offering value to someone you want to be careful to avoid looking like spam. The best way to do this is to avoid asking for things. I don’t mean to be passive aggressive, just to trust the person you’re talking to to run their own blog/channel/twitter/whatever. They can figure out on their own that if something is valuable to their readers, they should share it. So trust them that they know that.

Just be simple and direct. If you think they would like it, then say so. “I’ve got a blog post on [subject] which I think you might like: [link] [excerpt]”. If you think that it’s primarily their readers who would be interested, then say that. “I’ve got a blog post on [subject] which I think your readers might find interesting: [link] [excerpt]”.

A brief excerpt is valuable because it will give the person a sense of the post’s quality in a few seconds. This lets them judge whether reading the post will be a good use of their time. Unfortunately on the internet, a lot of people are wrong about how valuable their posts are and while I trust that the reader’s post is one of the valuable ones, the big name can’t. That means that they have to spend time to find out that it is valuable. An excerpt lets them do that in a few seconds, rather than having to judge whether to invest a minute or two. That may not sound like a lot if your inbox is empty, but when you’ve got thirty unread messages, it can feel like quite a lot.

More Advanced

You’ll note from the basics section that familiarity with the big name you’re hoping to get linked by is important. The best way to achieve this, of course, is to be a regular reader. There is a world of difference between how well a regular reader knows a writer’s interests and how well someone who’s read an article or two does. (Though even the article or two is a world again of difference with someone who’s read nothing by a writer.)

There’s another big advantage to being a regular reader: you’re probably going to end up being a regular commenter. Whatever the medium, almost all writers have some sort of avenue of feedback available. If you read someone regularly you will naturally use it on occasion. As long as you are doing so from a consistent persona (ideally one that has a real picture of your face, since human beings key recognition off of faces), you will start to build up an acquaintanceship.  In addition to having a bit of a human connection—which is valuable in its own right—this will automatically elevate your request that the big name check out your blog post in their attention. Obviously this can backfire if you get annoying, so be careful to only send them your best stuff, but this is a huge leg up on getting their attention.

You’ll probably also benefit from all the exposure to the writing (etc.) of people with large followings, including becoming a better writer yourself.

Trying to Get Noticed by Really Really Popular People

First, it’s important to be realistic. This is extremely hard. There are actually several reasons for this, but the numbers are enough on their own: if someone has a million readers, if 0.1% of the readers contact the writer per month, that’s 33 people per day. Thirty three strangers is a lot of people to talk to in a day, on top of trying to eat, get to the gym, do one’s job, and possibly interact with friends and family.

But things are much worse than that. When someone is that popular, your competition for their attention will not be entirely made up of incompetent people. Other people will be offering value too. That means that there’s a lot to pick through, and that doesn’t just take time. It takes emotional energy. Some of the work required in meeting strangers is involved in reading the words of a stranger; it takes some amount of adaptation to their style, their turns of phrase, their way of thinking, etc. This is one reason why newspapers traditionally had standardized voices, diction, etc.—by making the writers interchangeable, reading a newspaper requires significantly less effort on the part of the reader. The great variety of voices offered by blogging (etc) allow us to find people we enjoy far more, but it requires a great deal more energy to sift through. Just consider how many new bloggers you read a day—it’s not many, at least on a typical day. There’s no reason to expect it to be easier for more popular people.

None of which is to say that it is impossible, just that maintaining realism is especially important. You will of course want a title which is obviously interesting (but not click-bait), and a great pull-quote from the article to go with the title. But more than this, you also need some way of getting your post noticed. And the best way to do that is to get it noticed by smaller venues so that the really really popular person sees it all over the place. This was the technique I used to get my article linked by Slashdot. It was a different take on a hot topic of the day, and I submitted it to many smaller blogs and news sites before I submitted it to Slashdot. When the article went up on Slashdot, they weren’t even that enthusiastic about my post but noted that they were getting told about it by everyone. There was unquestionably an aspect of it being the right-place/right-time since my post hooked into a news story which was exploding at the moment. I wouldn’t have been able to get an article linked which wasn’t satisfying such a large, though short-lived, demand. But I also wouldn’t have been able to get it linked if it weren’t for all the smaller sites linking to it and making it something people were talking about. And this plays into the numbers I mentioned above. If all thirty-three people in a day are telling the big writer the same thing, he’ll probably notice.

Be Realistic About the Results

And finally, if you do manage to get your post shared by someone with a big following, be realistic about the results. It’s great for your blog post that it got a lot of traffic, but this probably won’t have much of an effect on your blog itself. The number of people who will check out more of your blog varies with a lot of factors, but unless something is very well aligned, expect the number of readers you’ve gained to be below 1% of the number who visited. Again, just think about your own reading habits: how many blogs do you follow links to, versus how many do you become a long-term reader of?

This is, by the way, another reason to focus on making the blog post high quality. If you get linked by someone with a large following, this blog post is probably going to be the only thing of yours most people who read the post will ever read. So this is your one chance to give them something of value to carry with them for the rest of their life. Make your shot count.

Acting Confident vs. Being a Jerk

For some, the difference between acting confident and being a jerk is extremely obvious. For others, it’s mysterious to the point of thinking that the one is just code for the other. Unfortunately, the former are rarely able to explain how to tell the difference between the two to the latter. It’s actually not that hard, though.

Confident people speak like what they are saying is true and is important. Jerks speak like they are an authority and that they personally are important.

You can also see this distinction in each person’s attitude toward agreement. Confident people speak like they don’t need people to agree with them. Jerks speak like the world will end if people don’t agree with them.

From the above, it should be obvious that if you want to learn how to be confident, the first step is developing your knowledge and skills to the point where what you say is both important and true. If you know that they are, then there’s nothing special to do. In that case, all you have to do to act confidently is to refrain from certain mannerisms. In particular, don’t weaken what you say with “I think”, “it seems”, “in my opinion”, etc. They’re completely redundant anyway. If you’re saying it, people know that you think it.  If you said it, people know that it was your opinion. To speak confidently, just say what’s true, stop talking, and trust your listener.

And if you’re knowledge and skills are not to the point where you’re certain that what you’re saying is both important and true, then don’t act confidently. Consider not speaking at all, but if you do, this is the time for qualifying what you say with “it might be” and “I’m not sure”. But as soon as you’ve gotten that over with, go develop your knowledge and skills until you have something to be confident about.

When Small is Big

On Twitter I recently posted this:

When it comes to seeming important, a small movement’s best friends are usually its enemies.

And got promptly asked what I meant by several people. So I might as well explain it here. There are three primary ways in which this is true:

1. Bogey Men Are Well Known

People often justify their own importance by the danger their enemies pose. Therefore they are prone to taking small groups and exaggerating the danger they pose to look important themselves. Doing this makes the bogey man they’ve chosen seem far more important too, though.

The classic example of this sort of enemy is somebody who is fighting a fight that’s already been won. They want to relive the glory days of old, but they just don’t matter any more. So they look far and wide to find some sign that the apocalypse is actually nigh and they are needed to fend it off. The result is that they seize on small groups and make them out to be a world-wide threat. It’s great publicity for the small group that they’ve seized upon. Unfortunately if the small group is actually bad, this is a net negative for the world, but people concerned with their own importance aren’t worried about that.

2. Rallying Points Rally

The thing about large groups is that they all have enemies. So when a large group attacks a small group, that small group becomes the most active place to fight the big group. This means that people who want to fight the big group will be drawn to the small group not out of any sympathy for the small group but only because that’s the place to be to fight the big group.

If the small group is extreme enough this can actually look like a tactical advantage to the big group. By causing their enemies to rally around the small group of wackos, some of the stink of the small group will rub off. This can backfire yugely, however, if the small group is not as generally unacceptable as the big group thinks that it is. The more extreme the big group, the greater the danger of this happening since somewhat mainstream groups look extreme to them.

3. Martyrdom Is Convincing

Having enemies gives you the opportunity to prove that you’re serious. It is only by having enemies than one can prove one’s courage and conviction. There is an almost Chestertonian paradox in this, but one cannot prove one’s valor on one’s own schedule. Real adversity can only come from the outside; it’s only adversity if there is an adversary. Or in other words, you can only show that you believe in a truth so much that you are willing to die for it if someone is willing to kill you for it.

It’s Normal to be Normal

Over at Amatopia, Alex writes about The Pinnacle of Flatness. To give a bit of the flavor of the post:

Extrapolate this line of thinking to cities and towns the world over. I’m sure you’ve noticed that Toronto looks like London looks like Los Angeles looks like Berlin, and so on. Not identical, but close enough. Modern architecture is but one way in which ideas of design seem to be converting on something universal…and kind of beige.

And then there’s urban sprawl and the explosion of squat, concrete strip malls, fast-food joints and gas stations, and big box stores everywhere. It seems like that’s all some towns are.

And this, of course, goes for the arts as well. Movies all feel the same, screenwriting formulae aside. Musicbooks, television shows, educationpop culture…the list goes on.

Then he asks the crucial question:

Is this just where things always lead? Is there an “ultimate design” that we as human beings have finally reached? Or is it the natural consequence of a society that embraces Adam Smith’s “capitalism” while rejecting the “guided by moral principles” part of the equation? In other words, is function driving this sameness, or is commerce? Or is something else?

Though Alex does have an important point which I’ll get to, I think even more important is to point out that his question is in some senses a very odd one. For most people throughout history, the big things tended to be very utilitarian. Dwelling places, transport, and to some degree clothing tended to be first utilitarian and second aesthetic. You have to be fairly rich before you can afford to spend money on non-functional design.

A manor house might well have heavily aesthetic influences in its design, but the average peasant’s hut would not have had a wide variety of designs whose purpose was to express the individuality of the owner. In the era before heavy machinery, those things take a lot of labor which a peasant could not have easily paid for. I don’t mean that people wouldn’t have decorated their houses to their tastes, but they wouldn’t have done much design to their tastes, since that mostly means varying the design from the most affordable one. There would have been variation in terms of adapting to the exact lay of the land, of course, but again that’s a result of not having the heavy machinery to turn anyplace into a decent building site.

Clothing is probably the biggest exception, but for the average peasant one’s clothing was made from fabric spun and woven by the women of the family, tending to limit one’s pallet to the colors wool and flax (etc) came in. And the designs tended toward those which required (and wasted) the least fabric to make, since so much work went into the making of that fabric. Modern clothing is unbelievably inexpensive since the spinning and weaving is all done by fast machines. There would have been variation because everyone made their own clothing and so it was all made differently, but that is a reflection of variations in workmanship, not in the expression of individuality.

But even more than the practical elements, aside from some people aspiring to fame and glory, human beings throughout most of history were not primarily concerned with distinguishing themselves from everyone else. They needed other people too much. Their primarily concern was solidarity with their fellow man. Your brothers and sisters and cousins and neighbors were all people you depended on for survival. Showing how special and unusual you are is a preoccupation of the rich, not of the common man. Novelty is also a luxury of the rich, who can afford to pay for it. But it doesn’t at all follow that novelty is all that good for human beings. Historically there were such things as diseases of the rich—chief among them obesity and various types of malnutrition caused by being able to afford things like white flour and white rice and foods prepared in expensive ways that also happen to leach the nutrients out into the less tasty part that the rich don’t need to bother to eat. I actually strongly suspect that novelty really isn’t all that good for human beings above a relatively small dose. People of above average intelligence—like Alex—can probably take higher doses—but on average novelty may actually be more destructive of happiness than conducive to it. Consider how important ritual—doing the same thing over and over—is to sanity.

Now, all that having been said, there is a very legitimate form of variation which is not available to the modern secular world. That is variation of virtue. A world which doesn’t understand virtue can’t tell stories of the interplay of different virtues, or how different men balance virtues in different yet good ways. As I’ve said, there’s That Story That Modern Screenwriters Can Tell.

Reader Expectations: A Conversation With Russell Newquist

I spoke with publisher, author, 4th Degree blackbelt (Shin Nagare Karate), Dojo owner, programmer, husband, and father of four Russell Newquist about reader expectations and how they influence how the reader perceives a work of fiction. (This is related to my post Predictability vs. Recognizability.) As with previous conversations we’ve had, we also talked about a lot of other things too. You can also watch the video on YouTube, if you prefer:

How To End Conversations

Recently the topic of ending conversations came up and so I thought I’d write down a brief guide to good ways to do that in case it’s helpful to someone who hasn’t seen good examples of it.

And just as a preface, if you want to exit from a conversation, don’t give the other person hints that you want to be out of it. You have very little control over how aggressively hints are interpreted, and in the best case people will wonder why you didn’t trust them enough to say what you meant. In general, passive-aggressive leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. And further, if you want a job done, don’t delegate it to someone who may not want it done.

Before I get into specifics, we should first talk about the generalities of the situation, so that the specifics make sense. All conversations have between one and two purposes. Conversations which might be said to have no purpose will generally have the purpose of fulfilling social obligations to interact with people in some circumstances. Common purposes include:

  • Wanting human connection (to stave off loneliness)
  • Enjoyment of a subject with someone who also enjoys it
  • Passing the time
  • Communicating information
  • Being polite

For the most part, people are in a conversation for one of these reasons. Exiting a conversation in a way that does not offend the other person is primarily a matter of acting consonant with two propositions:

  1. The other person’s concerns matter
  2. the reason you are ending the conversation is that something of greater importance than the current state of the conversation has come up

The specifics of this depend on the reason the other person has for being in the conversation. Though one generality is to make sure to smile as you’re ending the conversation. Smiling makes everyone less likely to be offended, as long as your smile is commensurate with the words you’re saying. (For more, I’ve got a whole video about the use of smiling as communication.) Taking them in increasing order of difficult:

Being Polite

If the other person is in the conversation merely to be polite, which typically means something like the two of you are together and it would be rude to act as if the other person isn’t there, exiting the conversation politely is generally as simple as saying that you should do something else and saying it was pleasant to talk with them. (Note: there is no way to politely exit a conversation if you will still be in the situation where it would be impolite to not talk. “I’m going to stand here and ignore you while you stare at my forehead” will always be impolite no matter how you say it.)

Here’s my stop. It was nice talking you, and good luck with [thing person said].

Passing the Time

Related to being polite, passing the time is where conversation isn’t necessary but someone finds it preferable to the alternatives. When only one person is passing the time, this can be unpleasant for the other person but may be done as an act of generosity. If you’re the one passing the time and the other person has things they’d rather be doing, generally the best way out is to apologize, since it implicitly recognizes their generosity.

Well, look at me going on and on. I didn’t mean to take up so much of your time but thanks and I’ll let you get back to [whatever they were doing or should be doing].

If the other person was passing the time, then the key is to not make them feel like they were a burden. (Even if they were; odds are very good they’ll realize it on some level even if you say nothing and anything you say will probably over-communicate that message. If a person is constantly doing this to you, greater firmness will be required, but if at all possible escalate slowly.)

Hey, it was good talking to you but unfortunately I’ve got to get to [whatever you should be doing]. See you around!

Communicating Information

On the plus side, people generally don’t have emotional investments in communicating information. On the downside, these sorts of conversations can easily get lost in the woods and wander endlessly. The key to ending them is making sure that the other person has all the information that they need and that the conversation doesn’t accidentally become mutual politeness, like the time I and a group of college friends walked to the ATM before getting food together only to stand there and look at each other to see who needed to get cash before eating when none of us did. How to get out of this conversation will depend on whether you are the one who needs information or the one who is giving it. If you’re the one giving it (at a suitable time when you’re not interrupting a thought):

OK. Well, does that answer your question / give you what you need?

If they say no, then go back to trying to answer the question. If they say yes:

OK, great! I’m glad I could help, and if there’s anything else you need, just let me know.

If you’re the one who was asking the questions, how you exit the conversation will depend on whether you got the information you were after. If you did, this is easy:

Hey, well, that answered all the questions I have. Thanks you very much for all the information.

(At this point the other person may take a moment to point you to additional sources of information, such as books, websites, etc. Actually write this stuff down if you can because in the worst case a little effort here will make the other person feel better, and in the more common case you won’t have to ask for the recommendation all over again.)

If you didn’t get the information and it’s clear that you’re not going to, then it’s best to be a little vague, but of course within the bounds of honesty:

Hey, well, thanks. That gives me a sense of where to get started. I need to do some more research to come up with more focused, better-formed questions. But this gives me a good start for doing that.

On the real extreme end of having gotten nothing at all out of it, just thank them for their time. They’ll probably be more glad than you are to get out of the conversation. If they ask if that answered your question, I suggest discovering your inner skeptic. What can you really be certain of, anyway?

I’m not really sure, actually. I’ve got to think about it and figure out what it is I’m even trying to ask.


Possibly. I need some time to think it over and turn things over in my head and see if it makes sense or if there’s stuff I still need to ask about.

If it was such a cluster-fudge that you got information that was contradictory or you know to be wrong, stick to what’s true:

Well, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

Enjoyment of a Subject With Someone Who Also Enjoys It

This is the classic conversation between friends, at least when it’s going well. If this is actually going on with a friend, then it will probably be hard to go wrong, unless you have to leave early. With friends, openness is generally the best approach, so if something came up that means you have to run, say what it is.

Oh shoot. I promised my [blood relation] I’d [do something] now, so I’ve got to run. I need a few more hours in a day. Will you be available [time/date]?

This both gives them an entirely believable reason why you had to leave so quickly, and by making reference to when you next talk to them, communicates unambiguously that you want to continue the subject, or at least keep talking with them.

If the conversation has come to a natural close, then mostly all that’s needed is an acknowledgement that you enjoyed the conversation. Everyone has things to do in order to stay healthy and under shelter, so no real excuse is needed, though there’s no harm in providing one, either.

Well, it’s been great talking with you but I have to get going.

Or with an excuse:

Well, it’s been great talking with you, but unfortunately I need to [practical activity, such as eating or going to sleep].

If the conversation was not really symmetric, where the other person was far more into than you were, the excuse is more important. And to limit such conversations without giving offense, try to pick an early but not abrupt point to consistently end them; the other person’s sense of you being as into it as them will depend heavily on how participatory you are, so limiting your participation will naturally encourage them to look elsewhere while still thinking of you as meaning well toward them. (I’m assuming that you do; if you dislike someone and wish them ill, you don’t need advice on how to communicate that. Everyone knows how to shriek obscenities and throw things.)

Wanting Human Connection

This may be the hardest one since ending a conversation is inherently—if temporarily—severing the human connection which the other person is seeking. Accordingly, there isn’t a great way of doing this. There are actually two bad outcomes you need to try to avoid:

  1. Making the person feel unwanted or like they’re a burden
  2. Making the person think that you have more time to give them than you do, so that they are set up for disappointment when you don’t talk to them again as soon or for as long as they were expecting.

As is probably obvious, navigating this isn’t easy, since the easiest way to avoid one is to run straight into the other. The best bet is to express happiness that you conversed and to be very realistic about the next time you’ll talk. It is far, far better to over-estimate how long it will be than to under-estimate it. People are always delighted to hear from someone earlier than expected but feel quite bad about not hearing from someone when they expect to. This is of course difficult because the further off an estimate one gives, the less happy the other person will be to hear it. This is what tends to push us into giving under-estimates and disappointing them.

If this is a relative or other close person, it’s ideal to establish some sort of regularity. Calling every Saturday afternoon or Tuesday evening or whatever. The regularity both gives the person something to look forward to and eases the ending of the conversation because less will feel like it’s at stake. If they feel like they can rely on hearing from you again, it will be painful—but not nearly as painful—to say goodbye.

That said, the key is to strike a balance between being cheerful and acknowledging that the ending of the conversation is not a happy thing for the other person. Much of this is in the tone of voice, of course; something gentle with a note of sadness among a generally positive sound is the goal. If you can stick to a schedule, something like this:

Well, it’s time for me to get going. It was great talking with you, and I hope you have a good rest of the [realistic time period until you talk again]. I look forward to talking with you [tomorrow/next week/etc].  [If appropriate, this is where you stick professions of love and affection.]

If you can’t stick to a schedule, then something like this:

Well, it’s time for me to get going. It was great talking with you, and I hope you have a good rest of your day. I look forward to talking with you again. [If appropriate, this is where you stick professions of love and affection.]


It is ironic that the English language does not have any literally-true colloquialisms for “what I am about to say would be too complex to say in a manner that complies with normal etiquette so I’m going to say it without normal etiquette but do not take it to mean that I think you are unworthy of etiquette and still less take it to mean what it would if you were to apply the normal etiquette-reversal filter we all use to know what the other person means”. The standard ways to say things I know of are:

  • “Honestly,”
  • “With respect,”
  • “With all due respect,” (this one really loses its effect since one isn’t bothering to figure out how much respect is actually due—which is not very respectful)
  • “I love him, but,”
  • “I consider him a friend, but,”
  • “To be blunt,”

None of these directly mean what is intended, though usually the speaker understands it from context. There’s not wrong with this. It’s how a lot of language works. It is, however, ironic, that the way one says that one will not use circumlocutions is with a circumlocution. (If you’re not familiar with the word, it means to talk around the subject rather than directly to it, circum=circle, locution=talking.)

The question might arise why we need to do this at all. Why not dispense with etiquette all the time and just speak directly? That would work in cases where everyone knows everyone else extremely well. In small, isolated groups of hunter-gatherers, for example. Outside of that, we mostly only have a basic sense of what someone means and have an instinctive tendency to take what other people mean in its most negative light. It’s safer that way. Etiquette exists in order to deal with this instinctive tendency. It softens what we say in a manner that doesn’t trigger our instinctive tendency to take everything strangers say as badly as possible, while its standardization means that we also know how to invert it to get at the original meaning at a higher cognitive level where our comprehension won’t trigger our fight-or-flight instincts. It’s cumbersome and time consuming but all safety is cumbersome and time consuming. This is also why there are protocols for temporarily setting it aside without losing all benefit from it.

Get Smart: The Next Generation

In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2008 a movie was released which was based on the TV show Get Smart. It was called—unsurprisingly but in a sense daringly—Get Smart. It starred Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway. It had some callbacks to the original, but other than that it had basically none of the spirit, tone, or style of the original. And I enjoyed the movie immensely. Before I proceed, let me note that I’m a big fan of the original. Here are my DVDs of seasons 1 and 2:


The TV show with Don Adams and Barbra Feldon was immensely fun. I watched it as a kid and still love it (as, I hope, my owning of two seasons of it demonstrates). So how could I enjoy a Get Smart movie which basically had nothing to do with the original?

Actually, that’s how I could enjoy it. Having nothing to do with the original, I could simply enjoy it on its own terms. It wasn’t pretending to trash something I loved, so I had nothing against it. And on its own terms, it was quite fun.

I should note that the movie did have a slight connection to the original, in that the Control which this Maxwell Smart worked for was hinted at as being the same that the original Maxwell Smart worked for; there’s a moment where Max passes a tour which include the original’s suit and shoe-phone and sunbeam tiger, and the tour guide is telling the people that Control was disbanded at the end of the cold war. That’s really the only connection; everyone in the original has retired, having done their duty and succeeded in protecting their country. And that’s entirely respectful of the original. It’s also approximately the amount the movie has to do with the original, so it fits.

Further, the writers of the new Get Smart actually developed their own ideas, rather than trying to milk the original ideas. And they broke with modern movie trends by not winking at the audience. I’m not sure why writers are so enamored of winking at the audience—my guess is it used to be cheap laughs and they’re desperate—but it is a profoundly annoying habit. Its complete absence in the new Get Smart allows one to enjoy the film as a film rather than as a nostalgic celebration of how you’re too cool to indulge in nostalgia.

Ultimately, I think that if next-generations/sequels/continuations must be made this is one of the better ways to do it. Pay some tribute to what you’re following and do something good that isn’t trying to be the original. The odds of recreating the original are approximately zero, anyway.—An Opportunity

Silver Empire Publishing—the company who will be publishing my novel The Dean Died Over Winter Break—has just (as of February 2nd, 2018) announced an interesting opportunity for devoted fans of urban fantasy. (For those who don’t know what Urban Fantasy is but are reading this anyway, here’s the Wikipedia article on it. tl;dr fantasy in a modern-day setting.)

We’re looking for a few good contributors to our new blog! Applicants must be able and willing to provide regular blog posts on the following topics, all related to Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Fiction, or Supernatural Thrillers:

  • Book reviews
  • Movie reviews
  • TV reviews
  • Theory, critique and discussion
  • Analysis

They’re looking for people who will do this primarily for love of the genre because the perks (in addition to exposure) are related to free access to lots and lots of Urban Fantasy. If you’re interested, check out the link to the full announcement for details and how to apply.