Sunday, January 22, 2017

A Money-Making Enterprise

This is another rant, inspired by a fellow novelist’s observation that good editors in traditional publishing—the sort who can help you take your book apart and put it back together again, let alone catch typos and correct the grammar—seem to be in short supply these days. And that got me thinking about the current state of the arts in popular culture.1

I recently saw the 2016 sequel to the 1996 movie Independence Day, this one subtitled Resurgence. I really liked the first movie, have watched it many times, and still enjoy the visuals, the characterizations, and the snappy dialogue. But, after sitting through the sequel, I was stunned when the credits showed three people involved in the “story” and “screenplay.” The movie had almost no story—or at least no new story. It was, in sum, an uninspired gloss of the first film, with cameos and throw-away lines by the earlier actors in their characters, as well as dull portrayals by new young actors playing their supposedly grown-up children. The new alien ships were so much bigger and badder, and their actions so haphazard, ludicrous, and almost unexplained, that it was clear the director, Roland Emmerich, told the CGI department to go have fun and not bother adhering to any script. The entire movie was just a blitz of imagery and walk-on acting without any focus on telling a succinct and involving story.

Why is this relevant to books that don’t get the editorial love they deserve? Because I know that the people responsible for the Independence Day sequel knew they had a bankable property and they didn’t have to care much about engaging the audience’s full attention or respect. They weren’t out to tell an interesting story. They weren’t intending to make any kind of art. They were intent on making ninety minutes of passable scenery and recognizable characters that would draw boobs who had liked the first movie into theaters and then not actively disgust and disappoint them—as they might have been with, say, an hour and a half of a blank screen or a play performed with finger puppets. The filmmakers had nothing new to say, show, or share, but that didn’t matter, because the fame of the first movie was going to sell it for them.

The J. J. Abrams treatment of the recent Star Trek movies works on the same principle. And I think a lot of editors handling the manuscript of a famous and bankable author are working from the same mindset. “It doesn’t have to be good. There’s a built-in audience for this stuff. They’re fools anyway. So this book or movie just has to not be terrible.” In other words, this enterprise isn’t about art or imagination of any kind, it’s about packaging a two-hour film clip or a wad of paper filled with black marks that will be “good enough” for commercial purposes. It’s a money machine, not an artistic endeavor. Get the butts into the theater seats. Get the boobs to pick up the book or DVD and take it to the register.

It may not always look that way, but in my own writing I will often spend a good ten minutes—sometimes much longer—working on and worrying over one verbal image, sentence, or paragraph. I am trying to get the meaning, the tone, and the flow just right. Sometimes these things simply come out of my fingertips and onto the screen as I type. Sometimes I have to sweat for them. But I’m not satisfied with a book and won’t let it go out to my readers until every scene fits—at least according to my sense of the story—and every image and line of dialogue strikes the right gong note—at least to my particular ear.

When I worked at Howell-North Books, which was self-consciously a money-making operation, we still spent time and effort trying to create good books that would satisfy our readership, who were variously interested in railroad histories, steam technology, California history, and Western Americana. We were choosy about selecting our manuscripts. And I was given all the time I needed to edit and polish them, sometimes taking apart the work of non-professional writers and putting it together again to make an easily readable and intelligible story. Mrs. North—the company’s president, who was also our expert at page layout—would spend days over layout sheets with her pica rule and sizing wheel, creating the finished pages with an eye to flow and fit between text and photos. We all read galley proofs twice, went over page proofs line by line, and inspected every cut and mark on the blueline proofs2 to make the books as flawless as possible. We respected the readers who would buy our books and wanted to make each volume meet their expectations, even when we were publishing the second or third or later book by a successful author. We knew that if we produced anything half-hearted, or started cynically playing on a big author’s following, we would lose customers.

In these days, I think, the empires of publishers and moviemakers have become much more dollar driven, and more cynical about the taste and expectations of their buyers. We still have the occasional gem. But most of what gets produced is a slick wrapper around a neglected product. Their motto isn’t “Let them eat cake,” but “Let them eat stale Ding-Dongs.”

But then, crass commercialism has been the order of things among lesser lights in New York and Hollywood over the past century. For every Edgar Rice Burroughs and Louis L’Amour who came up with something new and exciting in popular fiction, there have been thousands of volumes, millions of pages, of “dime novels” and “pulp fiction” that were published with no other purpose than to coach those dimes and dollars out of readers’ pockets. Wads of paper filled with black marks.

For every big-budget movie—or “tent pole” in the current marketspeak—with name stars which might become a classic, there have been thousands of “B movies” set in noir New York or Los Angeles, or in the Old West, or in outer space on Planet Mongo, where actors who would never be stars spoke forgettable—or laughably embarrassing—lines while dressed in cheap costumes in front of papier-mâché sets as the cameras rolled. Millions of feet of celluloid dedicated only to getting butts into theater seats.

Whenever I start to think this way, however, I remember and invoke Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety percent of science fiction is crap. But then, ninety percent of everything is crap.” And I add Thomas’s corollary: “By the crap shall you know the good.”

1. For further thoughts on the writing process, see the email exchange between myself and a former colleague who also writes novels in Between the Sheets: An Intimate Exchange about Writing, Editing, and Publishing.

2. The blueline is a photo proof of the stripping process, which puts together the bits of negative film representing text, screened images, hairline rules, page numbers, and everything else that will appear on the finished plate for printing. These days, the blueline has been replaced by a PDF of the final layout from a software package like Adobe’s In Design.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

True Leadership

For a while when I worked in employee communications at the public utility, I edited—which really meant researching and writing—a newsletter for managers and supervisors. The basic theme of the publication, at least in my mind, was the art of leadership. I believed then and still believe now that leadership is one of the highest of human callings. Its basic function is to perform work through the good will and participation of other people to achieve goals that could not otherwise be attained.

This definition immediately rules out the person in a position of authority who views his or her subordinates as merely helpers, hangers-on, or dependents. Such a person usually believes he or she has all the skills and knowledge necessary to achieve the goals, just not the time or energy to do so. During critical phases of the effort or at crunch times, such a person swats aside the subordinates’ hands and initiative and takes on the task him- or herself. This is not leadership; this is solo mastery.

Teamwork is a major part of leadership. But in its common usage these days, the word “teamwork” focuses on the responsibilities and attitudes of the team members. Teamwork is considered to be a communal quality, arising from the actions of participants who subordinate their own interests, ideas, and energies for the good of the group. Teamwork is usually characterized as a kind of sacrifice, where highly competent people stop working for themselves so that others may prosper equally. Thus conceived, teamwork is supposed to be an antidote to competition among members of the group. For example, in a sales department, competition would have each sales rep trying to contact the most customers and ring up the most orders, so that he or she could win the most commissions. In this environment, stealing customers and failing to transfer calls would be a winning strategy. The commonest form of teamwork, on the other hand, would have the sales reps sharing their leads, passing off calls to each other, and going out of their way to satisfy each customer, even if someone else on the team got the credit and the commission.

Teamwork may or may not be a better approach to good effort compared to competition, depending on how the teams are structured, how incentives are distributed, and how the group’s values are stated and enforced. Still, the usual notions of teamwork are that it somehow arises on its own, out of the good will and creativity of the group members. But that structure and those incentives and values do not simply float around in the air, waiting to be applied. Someone must take a hand in creating, proposing, and enacting them. That person is usually the unidentified and unrecognized member of any team’s story, its de facto leader.

The leader may be someone in a position of authority over the team. Or it may be an individual on the team who senses the existing group dynamic; sees opportunities for improvement; voices a new structure, relationships, and values; and then advocates for them with the rest of the group. In this non-authoritarian position, the leader can do the necessary structuring and value creation, but he or she still cannot revise the incentive program—at least not in a business setting—without recourse to and buy-in from upper management.

The leader who is also in a position of authority might simply order the new structure and announce the new values—but he or she would be a fool to do so. Perhaps forty or fifty years ago, the industrial and commercial culture of this country favored top-down, command-and-control leadership. This was probably a hangover from the previous forty years in the 20th century, which endured two world wars separated by, first, a decade of wild economic success and, then, a decade of economic collapse, precipitating a more robust and authoritarian form of leadership.

This top-down leadership style could work in an organization which, like the U.S. military, had a mostly captive workforce.1 The expectation in business and industry through the late 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s was that an employee joined the company or the union for life, looked to the organization to provide not only work and pay but also health benefits, scheduled vacations, regular advancement, moving allowances, and a pension upon retirement. In return, the employee performed whatever job he or she was told to do, did not moonlight or freelance, relocated to another part of the country or overseas when asked to, and offered the organization his or her unfailing emotional support and allegiance.2

But along about the 1970s—and certainly in full swing by the ’80s—a new style of employee was created, mostly from the pages of bestsellers by strategy gurus and management consultants. The new employee was not supposed to simply take orders but to anticipate them, foresee opportunities and directions that would benefit the company, and pursue them with the blessings of management. The new word was “entrepreneurial,” and in that guise the average employee in the average position within the company was expected to exercise the eagerness and foresight of an Andrew Carnegie, a Hewlett or a Packard, a Wozniak or a Jobs. But, where the true entrepreneurs of industry were usually following a hunch or a dream, operating on a shoestring of finance, and working without guidance on a venture that would all too likely fail, the corporate entrepreneur was still working within a defined product or service area, on an annual budget, and with plentiful if not mandatory guidance on a venture that had better not fail.

This situation was, of course, unstable. So along about the ’90s—and growing through the aughts and teens3—a newer style of employment was created, characterized by the paradigm “Me, Inc.” This employee was usually not actually hired by the company but worked as a contractor or temporary staff supplied by an agency. This employee had no expectations of the company which actually needed the work to be done—not continuing employment, not advancement, benefits, or retirement. And those people who were still formally employed by the company were understood to be working “at will”—which meant they could be laid off or fired immediately and without cause. These formal hires also received from their employer a “defined contribution” to each employee’s personally managed retirement account, rather than the “defined benefit” of guaranteed retirement at a certain age with a certain residual income.

Leadership in the era of Me, Inc. is a different proposition from that in the top-down era. In this new work environment, the leader becomes less of an authority figure and more like the individual team member who sees opportunities, proposes solutions, and enlists the participation of others in trying them out and making them work. This kind of leader does not give orders except in unusual situations or from dire necessity.4 Instead, he or she points out necessities and opportunities in the organization’s current situation or the economic environment. And rather than propose solutions directly—as if he or she possessed all the answers—the leader invites others on the team to come up with the ideas. The delicate step, then, is for the leader to guide the discussion of options and force the group into realistic appraisals, so that appealing but harebrained notions don’t capture the group’s imagination and let people run away into foolish or reckless actions. The leader stays fixed on the hard and indisputable realities of the situation, rather than making appeals to authority—which always, in the end, come down to “because I said so.”5

Letting others devise and implement solutions is a form of delegation. The good leader delegates where appropriate—meaning once the subordinate has been prepared with the organization’s and the leader’s values (“What’s important around here”) and standards (“How we do things” and “What’s acceptable around here”). Setting values and standards are probably the biggest part of the leader’s job. A “natural” leader, if there is such a thing, has both a feeling for group sentiment and group dynamics as well as the capability to appeal to—and direct the group toward—a higher vision. That vision might be one involving morality, fairness, efficiency, personal honor, or some other good. The vision is almost always positive (“Things work better if we do it this way”) rather than negative (“You’ll get in trouble if you do it that way”).

With a positive vision, the leader aligns him- or herself with the belief that most reasonable people want to do the right thing, and most employees want to create a satisfactory product or service experience. Every job and every market sector or political function has its own canon, whether written or unwritten, of acceptable practices and work product. People who have chosen a career or a position on their own—rather than being dragooned into or enslaved by the organization—already have notions about what is the right and proper way to act and to do the job. The leader works within those canons and notions, rather than against them, and builds on or shapes them to fit the particular task at hand.

Leadership, like much else in this life, is an art form. It is a blending of personal force with perceptive deference to the ideas and opinions of others. It enlists the motives, creative potential, and dreams of the team members. And it works best when the leader is positive, relaxed, and confident—even when he or she might not actually feel that way. True leadership is the highest expression of personal strength and capability.

1. But at the highest levels of military command, the good leader is not always a top-down order giver with his or her immediate staff. Soldiers on the battle line are expected to follow orders implicitly and without question, but the headquarters personnel who originate those orders and the colonels and majors—or, at sea, the captains and commanders—who must execute them should always be given the freedom to offer suggestions and then to exercise initiative in acting upon them. A good general or admiral invites comment and criticism, within bounds, to elicit trust and participation.

2. Many employees also met their romantic interests, significant others, and future spouses in this environment. They would even, at the company’s prompting but without irony, consider themselves to be part of “the XYZ Corporation family.” Work represented a cultural as well as an economic proposition.

3. And the trend was further exacerbated by the employment conditions spelled out in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, which put economic pressure on employers either to provide more comprehensive medical benefits or to limit the scale of their employment.

4. To quote from Frank Herbert’s Dune: “Give as few orders as possible. Once you’ve given orders on a subject, you must always give orders on that subject.”

5. No one liked hearing that line of reasoning when Mother or Father used it with them as a child. No adult really likes to hear it now.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Between Perception and Reaction

We have a small dog, a terrier-mix rescue named Sally, who has separation anxieties. If we leave the apartment for even a few minutes, she will be up on her hind legs, waggling her whole body, and smiling1—not to mention pawing and licking—when we return. If we leave for a couple of hours, the greeting process is longer and more energetic.

Since this is California and it never gets really cold—not by East Coast standards—and because my feet often get hot, I usually wear sandals2 without socks when we go out. After years of wear, my sandals are a bit loose and tend to slap against my heels as I walk down the hallway to our apartment door. But even before I’m halfway there, I can hear Sally dancing and whining on the other side of the door.

All this got me thinking. She hears the sound of the sandals slapping. She knows from experience that this sound heralds the joyous experience of her “big guy” returning home and ending her loneliness. So … familiar aural stimulus equals predictable emotional response. At some level, a human being might have a similar reaction. You hear the jingle of keys in the hallway, you know your wife is home.

But a human being—at least during the first or second time of receiving this stimulus—would interpose words between perception and reaction. The human brain would automatically ask, “What’s that sound?” The mind would then sort through comparisons in memory and come up with not only a mental image of jingling keys but also a word, “Keys.” And from that follows the thought, in words or perhaps just in images and sense memory, “My wife.” We humans are such verbal creatures—made so by an environment that showers us with spoken and written words; with captioned images in our books, magazines, and even our advertising;3 with vital information spelled out on warning signs and labels;4 and with demands that we respond aloud or in writing to specific questions—that supplementing our thoughts with words is second nature to anyone over the age of six.5

I know Sally understands some spoken words. At the appropriate time in the evening I might say casually to my wife, “Do you want me to take the dog?”—meaning but not bothering to add, “out for a walk?” Sally will immediately lift her head and begin dancing. She knows “take” and “dog” are associated with the worship-words “out” and “walk.” Our previous dogs could even understand what we meant when we spelled, “T-A-K-E,” and I’m sure Sally will graduate to interpreting spelled-out words one day soon.

But spoken words and spellings are still just learned stimuli in the dog’s brain, like the sound of flopping sandals and jingling keys. Or rather, I’m almost sure of that. The dog may associate them with memories of the humans coming home or taking them outside, and these memories may be connected with visual imagery and, probably, scent cues for the imminent and enjoyable experience of sniffing the bushes. But I don’t think that the dog, when it wants to go and relieve itself, supplies the word “out” or “walk” from its own recalled memory, as a human would. When a human feels a full bladder, he or she will often think and even say, “Gotta find a bathroom”—even if no one is nearby to receive this timely information.

Supplying words as an intermediary step between stimulus and reaction enriches and modifies the human experience. For a dog, it may be enough to hear [jingle] and think [returning-human-happy-happy]. For a human, the mental insertion of the word “keys” can lead to other thoughts. A husband may remember that his wife had left her keys on the counter that morning, and so someone jingling keys in the hallway must be the occupant of the apartment across the way returning home, not the wife—or it could be a stranger trying the lock on the door. When confronted with visual, aural, or tactile cues for which the brain has no learned referent, the dog will either ignore the stimulus or become confused. The human will sample and compare past cues and fit names as well as images to them. The process will insert knowledge acquired from past training, through reading as well as from direct experience, to identify the cue and decide whether it is a cause for reassurance or a threat.

This verbal dimension of human thought allows us to categorize and compress information. The word “key” encompasses may meanings: the toothed metal probe used for aligning the tumblers in a lock; the coded list of references on a map; the text used as a starting point for solving a cipher; the charm or plaque used to identify a fraternity or sorority; as well as visual images of my household keys, my car key, my wife’s keys, the huge iron keys used in medieval locks, and the diamond-studded charms sold at Tiffany & Company. Having all these meanings associated with one word, the human brain is a field of rich connections. We are not limited to simple, singular mental connections like [familiar-jingle] equals [return-happy].

These word associations give power to particularly human activities like storytelling and poetry. A word captures a number of visual—or aural, tactile, and other sense—images that cascade through the mind of the listener. The storyteller uses these images to put listeners or readers inside the scene and make them part of the action. And the wonder of it—from my point of view as a novelist—is that the associations I make with a particular word can be trusted—most of the time, for most of the population—to arise in the minds of those who read my stories. Of course, there are differences. The word “clown” for most people has happy, funny, or outlandish associations, calling to mind red bulb noses, orange string wigs, squirting boutonnieres, and long, floppy red shoes. But for people with a morbid fear of clowns, the word gives rise to images of creepy things with leers and teeth.

I try to imagine a human being, a true Homo sapiens in mind and body, but who lived in a time—which would be the majority of our line’s history on Earth, sixty or seventy thousand years or more—before the invention of writing and our hyper-literate civilization. Words, their meanings, and the grammar and syntax of language would then have been a private thing within the tribe or even isolated within the extended family: rock, path, pot, stick, and a dozen inflections for words describing weather, game, edible roots and berries, and the ways to hunt and gather them. The tenses to describe action in the past or future would have been simple, with little need for the pluperfect or the subjunctive. I try to imagine a hunter-gatherer expressing “By this time tomorrow, if it doesn’t happen to rain, I will have tracked and shot the deer I saw yesterday.” The Greek and Sanskrit aorist indicative mood, denoting simple action without reference to completeness, incompleteness, duration, repetition, or any particular position in time past or present—“I hunt. I fish. I pick berries.”—would reign supreme.

And yet, within a few hundred years after learning to cut cuneiform wedges into wet clay, or scratch angular letters on potsherds, the Sumerians were inventing and reciting the epic struggles of Gilgamesh, and the Greeks were telling a convoluted story of old wounds and grudges as the gods and mortals vied for supremacy at Troy. And today we read translations of these stories into modern English and marvel at the power and beauty of each word’s imagery and its associations.

In the human mind, the word itself has become the stimulus to a reaction. We do not need visual, aural, or other sense cues and perceptions from the outside world to spark an intellectual or emotional reaction. We draw the images, ideas, and emotions from inside our own heads, reacting to nothing more than black squiggles arranged on a white page or screen. We all live inside our heads. Our brains and their pathways have no direct contact with the outside world except through chemical nutrients, drugs, and poisons. So we each make up the world inside our minds from sensations fed from our eyes and ears, the taste and smell receptors in our mouths and noses, and sensors all over our skin. For the human of ten or twenty thousand years ago, that world entered the directly mind from all these senses. For a modern, literate human, the world can also enter from a single source: the eye and its trick of interpreting those squiggles inside the visual cortex.

And for me, that trick is a continuing source of wonder and mystery.

1. I never noticed this with our other dogs, but Sally smiles by lifting her upper lip over her front teeth. I always thought this was a dog’s warning, prelude to growling and snapping. But from the way her eyes squint and her body gyrates, she is clearly happy. I think this is something she learned from watching humans smile.

2. The Keen sandals have good toe protection, unlike Birkenstocks or flip-flops. Because of the way the sides wrap up and connect over the instep, a wargaming friend who is deep into Roman history calls them “calyxes,” or boots, the Latin name for the legionary’s hobnailed sandals. And like the calyx, Keens even have sturdy, gripping soles with deep lugs.

3. I learned in the book-publishing business that, while a picture may be worth a thousand words, modern readers often have trouble understanding or giving full value to a picture without a caption to read alongside it. In a book about mountain climbing, for example, if you reproduce a photo of a beautiful, snow-covered peak, the reader will look around for a caption that tells the name of the mountain, elevation at the summit, and whether or when the author has scaled it. Even a picture of a beautiful woman holding a perfume bottle with the maker’s name clearly shown on the label will give that name again in bold type under the image.

4. In California, we have warning signs in English and Spanish. And just in case the viewer speaks only Cantonese or Vietnamese, they will include a stick-figure demonstrating the danger. (The polyglot Europeans long ago did away with words on their traffic and warning signs in favor of imagery and figures, but in California as in the rest of America we persist with words.) My favorite stick figure, in a warning about overhead high-voltage lines, shows a person sticking a length of irrigation pipe up into the wires and dancing like crazy.

5. This poses special problems for people who are either deaf or dyslexic. But although they may not be fully capable of either hearing spoken commands or reading complex information with easy comprehension, they are not relieved of the human association between thoughts and words. By now, in the modern form of H. sapiens, it’s hardwired into our brains.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Many Hands

We have an excellent view of the San Francisco skyline from our windows in the East Bay. The city is again on a building binge, especially with the disruptions of constructing the new Transbay Terminal in the downtown area. Over the past couple of months we’ve seen a new spire shooting up, the Salesforce Tower, which is part of the terminal complex. Even though it’s not yet completed, either the central concrete elevator core or the surrounding steelwork which lags it by a couple of floors, the tower already exceeds every other building in the city, and the construction cranes attached to its upper levels—beautiful at night with their white lights—push even higher. This 61-story office tower, at 1070 feet, is projected to be the tallest building in the Western U.S. and the seventh tallest in the country.

Having worked for a number of years as a technical writer in an engineering and construction company, I have some appreciation for the scheduling and logistics problems involved with such a project. Think about it. The site is in the middle of a busy city, without acres of empty land nearby for a laydown area where the construction crew can receive, sort, and stockpile incoming materials. The city has no working freight railroad anywhere nearby to deliver those materials, so everything must come in by truck, in relatively small loads. And the only access to the site is by two bridges and two freeway systems, both of them regularly jammed for hours at a time with commute traffic.

The receipt of all that concrete, steel, glass, and drywall—not to mention thousands of redundant fixtures like various grades of pipe, lighting ballasts, toilets, sinks, and doors—must represent a just-in-time scheduling ballet of mammoth proportions. And once all those fixtures are dumped at the curbside, another ballet involving the limited number of construction cranes—and later, elevator cars—must go on twenty-four hours a day to deliver everything to the right floor at the right time.

We imagine that Egypt’s pyramids were built by thousands of slaves chipping granite, hauling sledges, and greasing the rollers as in those old Cinemascope biblical epics. But thousands of workers are not building the Salesforce Tower—or not all at once or at the same time. On any one day, perhaps a few hundred are involved, and those are parceled out among the skilled trades: excavators, rebar stringers, and concrete masons; high-steel workers and crane riggers; glaziers; pipefitters and plumbers; electricians; heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) technicians; communications and cable installers; and on and on. That work must be coordinated, too, so that plumbers are not putting water and drain pipes in spaces reserved for electrical and communications—now in fiber optics—conduits. And the glass outer shell must be made weather tight before anyone starts putting up interior walls and laying carpeting. Thousands of people do crawl all over the building in the course of its construction, but their activities are as carefully coordinated as the materials and systems they will install.

Think, also, about everything that must go right about planning, designing, and erecting such a building and its systems. In San Francisco we have an example, right down the street from the Salesforce Tower, of just one thing going disastrously wrong.

This part of San Francisco, between Telegraph Hill on the north and Rincon Hill—now the jumping-off place of the Bay Bridge—to the south, is the former cove around which the city originally sprung up during the Gold Rush. First Street is called such because it was the first street along the water. Everything east of there was a shallow harbor cut out of the Bay. The story is that sailors on vessels arriving in the 1850s were so eager to reach the goldfields that they would abandon ship. The earliest businesses were conducted aboard hulks sitting at the quayside and eventually collapsing into the mud. All of the buildings in this area—including the Federal Reserve Bank, which I watched from next door as it was being built—stand on a sea of bay mud above layers of sand and clay. Bedrock, a saddle of the same stone that lifts Telegraph and Rincon hills, lies fifty to a hundred feet down. For the Federal Reserve, I watched the crews auger out black muck in holes two feet wide on centers about five feet apart, then drive in reinforced concrete piles more than fifty feet long, until the site was a sea of square stumps. Imagine, if you will, trying to stabilize a cube of Jell-O by driving into it dozens of toothpicks until they touch the plate underneath.

Most of the piles under these buildings go down to bedrock, or we hope they do. For the Millennium Tower, a high-rise condominium for the super-rich, however, the builders used a more modern system. Or so the story goes—there are competing legal claims. But it seems that instead of driving the supporting piles to bedrock, they took them down to the layers of sand under the mud. The idea was that the pressure of the pilings would compact the sand, and the sand would grip the pilings, and the whole thing would stand on friction without having to touch rock. Apparently, it works elsewhere in the world. But no one planned for massive excavation right next door, part of construction for the Transbay Terminal. Dewatering that later site changed the soil composition under the Millennium Tower. The tower has already sunk 16 inches below the sidewalk level, continues to sink, and is also tilting a couple of degrees off vertical. Fixing this problem—if it even can be fixed, in a building that is already completed, with all its units either sold or rented out—will be not only an engineering but also a legal problem.

I know from my own experience, working alongside construction engineers, that every project has its underlying assumptions, like using friction piles in the foundation. Every project has its compromises with the planning commission and the building inspectors. And every project has its share of errors and oversights. The condominium complex where we live had three notable issues early in our occupation. Concrete roof layers were poured without a slope, so that water would not drain from the fiberglass roofing materials installed above them. Foam bearing strips were improperly shortened in constructing the garage, so that the floor pads came into direct contact with the underlying concrete and could not dissipate the shock of moving cars; the floor pads then began to crack and spall. And six-inch-wide vertical drain pipes were connected at the bottom to four-inch-wide horizontal pipes, on the theory that hydrostatic pressure—or something like it—would overcome the volume difference; the result was sewer backups into apartments on the lower floors. All of these issues had to be taken to court, remedies sought, and fixes installed. Litigation like this happens all the time.

New ideas, like using friction piles, are continuously developed, tested, and used in the construction business. In most cases they work well, save time and cost, increase efficiency, or add some other benefit. In almost all cases, the owners and occupants of the building never notice a difference. This is the way construction practices and standards are improved. It’s the way technology advances—until someone digs a three-story deep pit next door to a building supported by friction piles and begins drawing off groundwater.

It’s a wonder that, with all these risks, we don’t have more sinking buildings, more technical blowouts, more errors that cannot be fixed with any amount of money. But we don’t. Most of the construction taking place in the 20th and now the 21st century has been flawless. Elevators work. Interiors are heated and cooled behind curtain walls of glass. Water runs hot and cold on the 60th floor. Drains don’t back up when you flush. The lights come on when you flip the switch. This is the effect of engineers, soil experts, planning departments, contractors among all the different trades, and building inspectors—all of them doing their jobs. And lawyers and judges get to adjudicate the few cases where things actually go wrong.

Human imagination and ingenuity are powerful forces. Human planning, scheduling, logistics, and the cooperation to push an office tower a thousand feet into the air in a matter of months—those are even more powerful forces. The next time someone tells you that ancient structures like the pyramids must have been built by space aliens because poor old human beings simply don’t have the knowledge, the skill, or the organization to accomplish these marvels, well … just look around you.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Love and Freedom

It is a plain fact that human personal relationships are almost never completely reciprocal nor symmetrical. In any communion between two people one partner will almost always feel more, give more, or demand more.

This doesn’t much matter when the relationship is based on negative feelings like loathing and hatred. Those relationships are practically unilateral. One can hate a person without knowing or caring whether the antipathy and disdain are returned. We hate one on one, but we must love—if there is to be any relationship at all—two by two.

It is a curious fact that, while hatred is unipolar, love is always bipolar. That is, what you feel and want for the loved one is certainly different from what you feel and want for yourself. To love a person—to really love and form a lasting relationship with them, and not just engage personal feelings of admiration, desire, or lust—you must be willing to give up a portion of your freedom for their sake. And to make the relationship work, you must be willing to give the other person their freedom in return.

But you cannot give up everything for love. That makes you weak and powerless—not to mention resentful. Some things in our traditional culture you are supposed to give up, like the opportunity to have romantic attachments with other partners, or the sense of personal ownership and entitlement that lets you criticize and abuse the beloved person for not meeting your own high standards. Some things you are advised to give up, like the freedom to plan your life for your own protection and benefit, or to spend your non-working hours however and with whomever you wish. And some things you would be a fool to give up, like your strongly held beliefs and the positive elements of personal taste and choices—hairstyle, wardrobe decisions, food preferences, innate body language, and other noninvasive qualities—which define your sense of self, your character, and your public image.

At the same time, you grant the person you love the freedom to make all these choices for him- or herself. But you do not—and really cannot—grant another person total freedom to be entirely selfish. You may want that person to be free to make choices, but if there is to be any relationship at all, you want at least some of those choices to include you and involve your perspective, advice, understanding, and commitment. Without this involvement, you are engaged in a one-sided affair—a romantic crush, unrequited love, or some form of hero worship—and not in a relationship at all.

What every couple must learn to do is compromise. This means knowing where the warm hearth stones are laid, what and where the boundaries lie, and where extend the distant lands full of brambles into which you do not want to venture. Entering into a romantic or personal relationship is a back-and-forth testing between two people—like two male stickleback fish pushing out from their safe nesting grounds into foreign and other-dominated territory—until they establish zones of comfort, lines of approach, and areas of avoidance.

And still those zones and areas will be asymmetrical in any relationship. For the partner who feels more and gives more, the home ground will be narrower, the freedoms feel shallower, and the danger zones extend farther. For that partner, the developing relationship will reach a point of sad resignation. The beloved person has become a known and tested quantity. More caring and more giving from that person are simply not forthcoming. The choice is then to live with—and under—the unspoken rules of the relationship or to throw them over, seek a new partner, and start fresh.

For the partner who feels less and—either consciously or by default—demands more, the relationship might seem perfect. This partner has broad freedom mixed with rich levels of attention. The home ground is broad, and the danger zones are diminished, if not entirely gone from mind. And yet this partner, unless they are a total emotional and moral zombie, will have a sense of unease. The ground beneath their feet will feel slippery and unstable. They will know, even if unconsciously, that the emotional universe has a rent, a dark spot, with the cold vacuum of space waiting beyond it.

At one extreme—just a step shy of the relationships built on hero worship and unrequited love—exist the marriages so lopsided that the husband can beat his wife and still demand her respect, or the wife can humiliate and demean her husband publicly and still expect to receive flowers. These relationships are doomed, waiting only for the submissive partner to rise up, make a life-changing decision, and leave.

At the other extreme—in relationships built upon mutual frankness and understanding—exist marriages where the partners know and respect the other’s choices and wishes, laugh at the same jokes, mourn the same losses, and despise the same iniquities. These are two people who will finish each other’s sentences. They will decide at the same moment to walk out of a bad movie. And they dance through life in a flurry of small, thoughtful gestures, favors, compliments, agreements, amnesties, and absolutions. These relationships endure, not because they are perfect, but because the sharp edges are all worn off, and life is more rewarding and stimulating in that other person’s company than it could be with anyone else.

These are the dynamics of human love and freedom, as I understand them—at least for the world that goes around two by two. They are the creeks and forks of the rivers that lead to great and endearing love stories, tense dramas, and bitter tragedies. They are the tools of a novelist who hopes to understand the human condition.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

My Story of Oil

When I worked at Howell-North Books in Berkeley, editing volumes of railroad history and Western American, I learned many interesting facts. One was that the word “ore,” from the viewpoint of a miner, has no exact definition. Sure, the general meaning is material that can be mined and refined at a profit. But that doesn’t tell you what percentage of a shovelful of dirt constitutes ore and the rest waste in any particular sense, because the values keep changing based on the methods used and the current state of the market. An independent mercury miner hand-working a seam at the now-defunct New Almaden mine in California might discard any load with less than ten percent cinnabar as waste not worth hauling back up to the surface. The operator of an open-pit, steam-shovel copper mine in Arizona might take two pounds of metal out of a ton of ore—or one percent—and call it a rich mine.1

The same thinking applies to a barrel of oil. There is no standard definition or composition of the commodity we call “oil.” Sure, there are benchmarks for pricing, like “West Texas Intermediate” (WTI) and “Saudi sweet light crude.” But every field produces oil with a different proportion and weight of underlying hydrocarbons. And each refinery is optimized to take oil of a particular quality from a particular region.

I remember when the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was approved, all the oil produced on the North Slope was legislatively earmarked for North American refiners on the basis of “energy independence.” Then the obvious place to ship Alaskan oil was the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California. But that refinery was optimized to take raw product from the fields of Indonesia. This oil from the Far East is more like coke than crude. If you spill it on the water, it doesn’t spread out to form a bright, rainbow sheen; instead, it contracts into floating clumps like bits of cork. So, at the time, a deal was made that allowed North Slope oil to be sent to Japanese refiners, and Japan traded it barrel-for-barrel with the Chevron refinery for their take of Indonesian oil.

When I was at the end of my last freelance, novel-writing gig in the mid-1990s and the money was running out, I needed to get back into the corporate world. The fastest way to build my resumé after such a hiatus was to hire out as a contractor rather than hope to be employed directly. So for a number of years I became a Kelly Temp. I worked for a season as administrative assistant in the Control Systems Engineering Department at Royal Dutch Shell’s refinery in Martinez, California. And as is my practice, I used the opportunity to ask intelligent questions and learn everything I could about the business.2

I can remember as a child, when the family drove from Philadelphia to New York, seeing the oil refineries of New Jersey five or six miles away from the highway across the tidal flats. I can remember smelling them at that distance, too—a rich, funky, sulfurous odor, like a mixture of hot tar, rotten eggs, and farts. So as an adult, when I went to work at Shell, I mentioned to my supervisor that the site didn’t smell like a refinery. He replied that if I ever did smell anything, I should report it, because the company would then pay me $25. “If you can smell something, that means we’re losing product somewhere.”

In the earliest days of refining—oh, late 1800s to early 1900s—the process was pretty simple, based solely on thermal cracking. These people were what modern refiners call “oil boilers.” They would heat the raw crude and feed it into a tower that drew off the fractions—based on the number of carbon atoms in the hydrocarbon chains—that settled out by weight. Lightest, and coming off the top of the tower, were the gases with one, two, three, or four linked carbons surrounded by hydrogen atoms: methane, ethane, propane, and butane. Since most refineries had no large customers for these byproducts and couldn’t be bothered to compress and store them until they collected enough to sell, they just lit a flare at the top of the tower and burned them off. In the middle of the tower came the liquids with between five and sixteen carbons: from pentane to hexadecane, represented by gasoline (octane, eight carbons), kerosene (decane, ten carbons), typical diesel fuel (dodecane, twelve carbons, and heavier fractions), and bunker C fuel oil (pentacontane, about fifty carbon atoms).3 And at the bottom of the tower would be the residues: tars, waxes, and the stuff that is used to make asphalt. Mixed in with the straight-line hydrocarbons chains would be those with odd branches and cross-connections. Along with the oil would come impurities that are not exactly hydrocarbons, like the carbon-ring molecules benzene, toluene, and xylene. You can also find other compounds, like sulfur, which makes the oil categorically “sour.”

Each type of crude oil yields varying fractions of these products. You can guess that “sweet light crude” has only small amounts of sulfur and large fractions of the liquids useful in blending gasoline, kerosene—once a lantern fuel but now burned in jet engines—and diesel fuel. You can also guess that heavy, sludgy oils, like that from the Indonesian fields, contain a lot of tar and wax.

In the old days, the refiners took what they could get from the oil by fractionation. The 42 gallons in a standard barrel might, in a really good grade of crude, yield only twenty or thirty gallons of highly prized gasoline, and the rest would go to less valuable byproducts. And of course, the gaseous fractions were still flared off as waste. This explains why oil prices are pegged to benchmarks with known qualities. The quoted price per barrel is always adjusted locally for the grade of oil and its fractions.

But that was the old days. In a modern refinery, like the one I worked at in Martinez, the operation uses all the fractions. The operation is more than just a cracking tower; it’s a complete chemical plant. After the cracking step, the gases, the lightest liquid fractions, the branched hydrocarbons, and the carbon rings are all broken into simpler, straight-line molecules and then knit back together into gasoline, jet fuel, or whatever the plant wants to make. The heaviest fractions are broken into lighter molecules and then knit together into more valuable products. As the American meatpackers used to say, “We use every part of the pig but the squeal.” And then the modern refiners blend for the designated octane level4 and put in additives for engine cleaning, anti-knock performance, and environmental protection—these days including a percentage of corn-based ethanol—in keeping with federal and state regulations.5

If you drive by a modern refinery, you may still see clouds of white stuff coming out of pipes and boiling off some of the buildings. These days, that’s just steam venting from a heating process or condensing out of a cooling tower. Most refineries still maintain a flare, but it is not part of regular operations and is used only in emergencies. No matter how safe and well run a modern refinery may be, the various processes are still handling volatile, flammable products at high temperatures. Sometimes a batch deviates from its nominal operating parameters and might explode or burn, injuring personnel and damaging the plant. In that case, the control system automatically dumps the batch down a pipe that leads to a nozzle far off in the middle of a gravel field. There the product can be mixed with air and burn away without endangering anyone.6

So that’s my trip down memory lane. Oil is a fascinating and complicated business. And, like almost every other industry, the state of the art is constantly evolving toward greater efficiency, lower costs, lower environmental impacts, and greater dependability. This is a good time to be alive.

1. And when I worked at Kaiser Engineers in Oakland, we produced a massive, twelve-volume engineering report on an iron-ore mine in Ivory Coast. This was to be a vast complex on new ground, with an open-pit hematite mine, mill and slurry plant, pipeline to take the slurry to the coast, pelletizing plant to turn the ore into shippable form, stockpile and ship-loading facilities, and a new harbor, plus housing and amenities for all the workers. The proposed ore was rich, 42 percent pure iron. But because the mine was 400 miles from the coast, most of that through treacherous mangrove swamp, and the cost of money was high at the time, while the world market for iron was weak, the partners simply could not justify building the plant. All that glitters is not gold, especially when it’s on the backside of the Moon.

2. Part of my weekly duties was to back up Control Systems Engineering’s computer records. Although the hardware and software that ran the plant were modern and up-to-date, the backup system was a relic from the old IBM 360 days. So I learned to mount, feed, and start reels of nine-track magnetic tape—those big cabinets with spinning reels and loops of tape that spelled “computer” on the television shows I grew up with in the 1960s.

3. Generally, the fewer carbons there are in the chain, the more thoroughly the fuel burns—that is, breaking more of the available carbon-to-carbon bonds at once—leaving fewer unburned hydrocarbons to flush out as soot and particulate. This is why methane burns more cleanly and with higher energy than gasoline, and much more cleanly than lump or even powdered coal.

4. When I worked at Shell, the Control Systems engineers told me a dirty little secret: that they sometimes had difficulty making fine adjustments in blending the octane level; so their medium and premium grades of gasoline always carried a few percent more octane than was strictly required by law. So if you care about your engine’s performance, go to the big yellow seashell sign. (But, then, maybe they grinningly tell that to all the newbies.)

5. California has its own mix of additives, required by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). That’s why the world can be awash in oil and gasoline, but if there’s been a fire or other shutdown at a California refinery, supplies will be tight and the price will go up.

6. The flare went off once when I was on the Shell property. It wasn’t an accident; one of the engineers was testing a new way to ignite the errant product stream more efficiently. The blast and roar shook the surrounding buildings.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Web of Character and Depth of Detail

There are traps in a major artistic endeavor like writing a novel. Similar traps exist, I imagine, in painting a large picture or mural, or composing a major symphony, but writing stories is what I do and what I know best.

The novelist has many threads to coordinate, especially in multiple-character or “ensemble” stories, such as I like to write. The author must weave together the personal relations among the various characters; the temporal relations among their actions, including initiating choices, reactions, and consequences; and the congruence of the characters’ actions with their established personalities and motivations. All of these, like the highlights and shadows in a painting or the contributions of each instrumental section to a score, must maintain the overall balance, tone, and proportion of the work.

To make a good story, the main characters must not be too passive, just letting things happen to them and then reacting according to their natures. This may be the way many people in real life function, but it makes for a poor figure in a story. But neither can the characters be too dynamic and all-encompassing. It’s fine for fantasies, comic books, and pagan religions to treat with gods and superheroes as superlative beings who can be daunted but never defeated, but you wouldn’t want to meet such a person in real life, and you couldn’t identify with such a character in a serious, modern story.

The draft first-half of my sequel to The Children of Possibility, which is tentatively titled The House at the Crossroads, has two main groups of characters working against each other. One group, the Troupe des Jongleurs from the original novel, has been fairly easy to portray and align, because they are dedicated in their mission, are naturally aggressive, and come to the page fully weaponized. But the second group, a young people whom “the Builders” send back into history to establish and operate the original Crossroads House, have been harder for me. They are scheduled to embark on a mission that suddenly changes because of the Jongleurs’ actions, and the terms of their commitment suddenly become much harder. As originally conceived, these young people were restless and bored, Europeans making life choices in a stale and static job market, and going back in time to become innkeepers at a temporal waystation simply looked like more fun than joining the reserve army. But my outline and my draft had suddenly placed them in a situation where they were forced to abandon their normal lives and undertake what was essentially a suicide mission.

When I sent this first half of the book to a good friend and fellow novelist, who is one of my regular beta readers, he rejected their situation immediately. He doesn’t believe in casually accepting suicide missions or in characters so passive that they will agree to a change in the original deal without convincing rewards or dire compulsions. He pointed out that walking into a buzz saw just because this couple gave their word and signed a binding contract is not a credible motive. And if the Builders pushed them forcibly through the time portal to complete a hopeless mission in a primitive ancient time, most people would disregard their instructions and, instead of lying low to avoid temporal paradoxes, would go full Connecticut Yankee and try to change history to their own liking and for the sake of their own survival.

My bad. This is also perhaps the greatest failing in my storytelling. Personally, I believe that most people are honorable, accepting of their fate, and stick to their commitments. I believe they must be yanked out of their comfortable chairs in order to send them on an adventure, like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. I’m not emotionally in tune with the sort of people who wake up every day searching for action and spoiling for a fight, like Louis Wu in Larry Niven’s Ringworld stories or Kimball Kinnison in E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series. So my characters often have small dreams amid placid lives until something or someone collides with them sideways, and then they are forced to cope, to demonstrate their resourcefulness, and perhaps to fight for their lives. It’s not a bad approach to storytelling, but it can lead to traps like the one I fell into with House.

My novelist friend thought the fix would be a simple change in attitude, leading off with a few scenes of derring-do for the young couple, and then producing some kind of golden promise by the Builders sending them back on the doomed mission, so that the couple is emboldened, empowered, or coerced into going willingly. My friend was confident that my subconscious1 would easily figure out the necessary incentives. What I faced, however, was one of those “can God conceive of a stone too heavy for Him to lift?” puzzles.2 What incentive can you give daring and aggressive people to go back in time and then patiently wait for an outcome beyond their natural lifespans, meanwhile enduring hardships and eventual ignominious death, without them wanting to—even resolving to—change things?

Sometimes books just go wrong like this. Every novelist has a drawer or a hard disk full of half-baked stories and partial outlines that have struck a motivational or character-improvisational rock and foundered. Sure, the subconscious will figure it out … one day. In the meantime, why not turn to something else with a clearer path and story line? My novelist friend didn’t intend for me to stop telling the House story, because he found it interesting and compelling. And I think he tried to make the disjunction and its possible fix seem a lot smaller and less of a problem than it was.

The other difficulty with this conundrum—especially when the novel has already gone beyond the outline stage into an actual, 50,000-word, partial draft—is that to build up a credible story in the author’s mind, he or she must first give it enough complexity, memorable imagery, and substantiating details to make it come alive in the imagination. As a novel comes together, the telling acquires a depth of detail—layers of moss (for forest imagery) or barnacles (sea imagery)—and the characters acquire their own tastes, quirks, mannerisms, and speech patterns that make it difficult to change or even deflect their sense of self and the story’s direction. All of these details, swirling in the author’s brain and playing peekaboo with the subconscious, are a prerequisite to finally sitting down at the keyboard and telling the story in the reader’s real-time version.3

To change my characters’ intentions and reactions and to discover a reward or compulsion that would make them act against their motivations would mean ripping all this up and starting over. So, momentarily—actually, for about a day and a half—I noodled this unsolvable problem. Then I remembered the novelist’s salvation: the infinite malleability of character, space, time, and story line. If you can’t fix the problem, cheat.4

So that’s what I did. I found the one detail in all of my planning and thinking that had created the hang-up and turned the workable proposition into a suicide mission. And then the clouds parted and beams of sunlight shone down. I had a way forward. I will still have to scrap, envision, outline, and rewrite maybe three or four chapters out of the first fourteen; make some substantive changes to another two or three chapters; and then comb through and make minor deflections throughout the text, including that one hung-up detail. But this work is all doable. Moreover, it will make for a better story with more challenges for the characters to resolve with a hopeful spirit.

Still, this work of changing the story arc, adjusting character expectations and reactions, and revising a cascading series of incidents—all of this is no small matter in a fully developed draft. It is like trying to straighten the Bent Pyramid without taking it apart stone by stone. The author is moving heavy blocks of text in his mind, hearing them grating across the uneven surfaces of underlying stones, and perhaps seeing them grind away details of the story. It may be necessary work, but it takes time, and the experience is … fretful.

This is part of a writer’s working life: solving one problem after another until you can put in place the last dab of paint or the closing bars of the melody.

1. See Working With the Subconscious from September 30, 2012.

2. I had already faced that challenge with the first draft of my first published novel, The Doomsday Effect. It involved a planetary catastrophe with a micro black hole that was devouring the Earth from the inside, and no one could capture and contain it, so humanity was forces to build interstellar ships and flee. Fortunately, a good agent and a good editor made me see that I really had to find a way to solve the overarching problem—but that’s another story.

3. “Reader’s real time” is my shorthand for the ground-level walkthrough of the story. This is the reality that the reader will experience upon meeting the words on the printed or electronic page.

4. “Change the conditions of the test,” in the words of Captain James T. Kirk—said with a wry smile.