Look It Up!

Colleagues who heard University College of London professor Dennis Duncan was writing a book about indexes regarded him skeptically, saying, “Isn’t that a bit . . . niche?” He described the experience in a recent American Ancestors Webinar.

His cleverly titled Index, a History of the, turns out to be livelier than those people may have anticipated. Its significance was underscored when it appeared on the front cover of the New York Times Review of Books last February. What’s more, the history of the index is still developing. When we do a Google search, for example, we are not searching the entire Web, we are searching Google’s index of the Web. The possibility that such an index could be manipulated to provide or obscure certain results has thrust indexing into the political arena.

Having an index was such a good idea, Duncan says, that monks invented it simultaneously in two different places, around the start of the 13th century. One of them (Hugh of St. Cher, pictured; the glasses are an anachronism) was based in Paris, and the other (Robert Grosseteste—“big head”) was in Oxford.

St. Cher wanted to index the Bible by recording the occurrences of every word in it. Starting with “a  a  a  a,” which appears four times, the list was alphabetical and was created to facilitate preaching. As long as monks used their Bibles to read and meditate, an index wasn’t necessary, but once they started preaching they needed to navigate the Bible more efficiently. This type of index was like using Control-F, Duncan says.

Grosseteste, by contrast, created an index much more like the ones we’re familiar with. It was a subject index. But he went far afield with the concept, including in his index all the books he’d read. It was a parchment Google.

For the next approximately 150 years, every copy of every book was still hand-lettered (manu-script, manus being Latin for hand). And the copy was not necessarily the same size as the original. As a result, the page numbers and index were copy-specific; what’s on page 50 in the original may be on page 70 in the copy, if the pages are smaller. Once printing was invented, copies were duplicates, page numbers were consistent, and scholars referring to specific content could be sure they were “all on the same page.”

From the beginning, naysayers criticized people for being “index-readers,” rather than working their way through an entire text. This questioning of colleagues’ scholarly rigor reminds me of today’s critics of Wikipedia users and headline-scanners (guilty).

Several well-known battles between intellectuals broke out in indexes. “Brown, Jeremiah, his dullness, 24, 40-45, 213” and the like. A more recent tweak in an index resulted after Norman Mailer refused to let William F. Buckley quote from his letters in Buckley’s book, The Unmaking of the Mayor. When the book came out, Buckley sent Mailer a copy and in the index, next to Mailer’s name, he wrote “Hi!,” knowing that would be the first thing Mailer would look for and calling him out on it.

How a Book Is Made

Readers and writers alike may enjoy this interactive New York Times feature from a few months back, ICYMI, which shows step-by-step how a book is made. Elizabeth Harris and photographer Thomas Prior followed the progress of Marlon James’s book Moon Witch, Spider King, from its beginning as a Word document somewhere in the cloud to a finished hardcover book you can hold in your hand.

The first step (after Marlon finishes his cloud magic) is producing the brilliantly colored jacket, which is run on a six-color press, 8,000 sheets of paper in a batch. Next, the aptly-named press that prints the actual book pages. It weighs 200,000 pounds, and the rolls of specialty paper books require weigh 800 pounds each—no supply chain paper shortages here!

It’s probably a good idea that authors are nowhere near these presses. Watching the flying ribbon of paper is almost scary, as is wondering whether the pages will arrive at the bindery in the right order. (Eeek! The gathering machine! Trimming! Gluing!) It’s amazing how rarely these pieces of the process do mess up. As many books as I’ve read, handled, skimmed, etc., I’ve seen out-of-order pages or bad trimming once in a very blue moon.

The cardboard covers (call one a “case,” and you’ll pass for a printing insider) then go on. The striking jacket wrappers are folded onto the books. Boxes of finished books are wrapped, sealed, labeled, and ready to ship. Fini! This is a lot more than I knew about producing a book when I was 10, and my mom found me pecking on my sturdy Underwood. “Writing is so hard!” I complained. “It’s almost impossible to make the right side of the lines come out even!”

Who Are You, Really?

Being bitten by the genealogy bug gives you a ticket to the vast carnival midway of life, with all its delights, haunted houses, and proofs of strength. You can wander into any number of enticing alleyways, all in the name of “research.” Recently, I participated in a Zoom lecture by author Paul Joseph Fronczak who’s written books about his strange history, which was made into the CNN documentary, The Lost Sons.

Ten-year-old Paul Fronczak found some newspaper clippings from the mid-1960s hidden in the family attic. They described how a woman disguised as a nurse had kidnapped a day-old baby boy from the maternity ward of a Midwestern hospital.

Fifteen months later, a toddler boy was found abandoned in northern New Jersey, identified as the missing child, and returned to his parents. The stories he’d found were about him, Paul Fronczak. Although raised in a loving home, Paul always felt like an outsider. In later years, he convinced his parents to get a DNA test, to make sure he was really their missing child. Short answer: he was not. But who was he?

He embarked on a quest to find his biological parents and, if possible, the kidnapped Paul. Again, DNA provided answers as well as new questions. The author Paul’s birth name was Jack Rosenthal, and he was born in New Jersey. (Ironically, he’s grateful to have grown up in the Fronczak home, because the Rosenthal family “was a nightmare.”) Jack Rosenthal’s birth certificate revealed a new mystery. He had a twin sister, as yet unidentified. After six years of effort, Paul did find the Fronczak’s biological son, called Kevin, living in Michigan.

If the Fronczak case weren’t convoluted enough, The Washington Post (paywall) recently covered the story of the Bryntwick family of Montreal. Anne Bryntwick was a single mom in the 1950s, who for a decade had an occasional liaison with a man named Mike Mitchell. Apparently she saw him frequently enough, because, as her son Bob says, she gave birth like clockwork “every year, year and a half.”

Anne raised five children herself, but six of her babies disappeared. As DNA-testing became more popular, information on what happened to these babies began to appear when two of the adopted-out siblings found each other. And they found their brother Bob. All but one of the adopted-out siblings were raised as only children, and, even though they are now in their 70s, they enthusiastically embrace their new-found brothers and sisters.

It seems Mitchell, their father, was selling some of Anne’s babies for $10,000 apiece to U.S. and Canadian couples desperate for adoption. Laws at the time didn’t ban such sales, and poor, uneducated women like Anne were ripe for exploitation. Meanwhile, Mitchell was married to another woman, with whom he had eight more children.

“DNA doesn’t like, people lie,” says one of the adopted-out sisters. And lying was easier when people didn’t discuss certain things. Some families still don’t. The other Rosenthal children are not interested in meeting their brother Paul, nor are most of the Bryntwick half-siblings, children of the married couple. Both of these sagas are eye-popping reads!

True Identity by Paul Fronczak

Power in the Blood

Highly recommended is debut fiction author Hiawatha Bray’s entertaining new techno-thriller, set mostly in Boston. Like Bray himself, his protagonist, Weldon Drake, is a technology reporter for a leading newspaper, and both are deacons in an African-American Baptist Church.

Late one night, MIT graduate student Astrid Nelson is stabbed in the basement of Drake’s church. The motive for the attack is unclear, but the victim’s phone and laptop are missing. Days later, when she can finally talk, she tells Drake she’s been working with an international team of hackers on a secret botnet protection project. The day she was attacked, another member of her team was murdered in Germany.

She explains to Drake they are trying to thwart a botnet created for a worldwide attack on the banking industry. Bray’s descriptions of the botnet and other elements of the cyber attack are not overly technical but convincingly convey their dangers, and there’s plenty of danger to come in the physical world as well.

As he pursues leads from Astrid, Drake concludes her team members are not trying to protect the banking system. Rather, they seem more interested in increasing the attack’s destructiveness. Finally, Astrid confesses that, as launch time neared, she and the German hacker got cold feet and tried to call it off. In a flash, they went from insider to expendable. Now Drake is a target too.

The character of Drake has a number of interesting attributes. He says he has antisocial personality disorder, but what he’s really missing seems to be empathy. At least he says he doesn’t care about other people’s problems and that his church activities are a way to compensate.But I don’t quite buy it. For example, Drake has good relations with his friend, Boston PD detective and fellow deacon, Damon Carter, and they candidly discuss the tricky issue of how a black man must behave in encounters with white police officers. You may wonder whether a lifetime of such experiences has contributed to Drake’s tamped-down emotional responses.

The author has written for The Boston Globe, Wired, and Fast Company, so you’d expect him to write well, and he does. You keep cheering Drake on in part because he’s quite funny and shows excellent psychological insight. And I haven’t even mentioned his intriguing descriptions of how he uses a flight simulator to overcome his fear of flying.

The dangers of cybercrime are front and center in this book, along with the risks involved in an increasingly connected world. If you worry that the Powers That Be don’t take these risks seriously enough, this story won’t reassure you. Not only has the author crafted a timely adventure, he’s peopled it with believable, complex characters. You’ll be rooting for Weldon Drake all the way. A great read!

Can Hardware Help You Write?

Discussion boards for fiction writers frequently discuss book-writing software, and writers weigh in on their favorites—Scrivener, Final Draft, and others, including LivingWriter, which was named “Best Book Writing Software of 2021” by Ameridian. These programs are designed to overcome the shortcomings of “the No. 2 pencil of the digital age”—that is, Word. Word, some authors say, is simply not designed for them, with its distracting toolbars, its ease of making changes that invites endless revisions, the hyperlinks that encourage disappearing down research rabbit-holes. Could “distraction-free” writing apps help?

Is it time for a rethink of the whole word processing thing? In a recent New Yorker article, Julian Lucas seems to say “yes,” and he’s not the only one. The industry has heard the complaints—even shares them—and has responded with focused writing tools and devices. For example, some have developed tools that make it harder to make constant revisions, in some cases going so far as to eliminate the backspace key. (Yet, I’m reminded of why the ability to make changes is so valuable. In her letters, Flannery O’Connor, miserable with lupus, repeatedly complained about needing to retype whole novels in order to accommodate her changes.)

In general, these new writing devices are stripped-down. Distractions discarded. Lucas’s first such device was the Swiss-developed iA Writer. It was designed to do one thing right—write. Or, as its developer hoped, “eliminating the agony of choice.”

The Freewrite Smart Typewriter (pictured above) is a stand-alone word processor that shows only ten lines of text at a time. Rewriting as you go is difficult. The machine encourages you to just keep going. Text is saved to the cloud and synced with your “real” computer for later editing.

If you like to mark up your text with scribbles, arrows, and underlines, word processing is a clunky way to do it. The reMarkable is “digital paper” that responds to a special stylus, “a computer disguised as a non-computer,” Lucas says. Call it an antidote to distraction, as described in this promotional video. Apparently academics especially are attracted to the improved mental focus and are taking up the remarkable. Competitors are appearing.

Lucas’s article contains more examples of dedicated work-processing hardware, as companies try to adapt writing devices “to our selves and to our circumstances.” For myself, I’ve never thought of distraction as a problem. When I’m in the middle of writing and need to look something up, I switch over to the Internet to answer my question and learn more. Not doing so is a little niggling loose end that’s more distracting than the menus and toolbars. Everyone has to find their own best toolkit.

Amazon: All About Customer Experience?

Millions of people have benefited from Amazon’s single-minded quest to create frictionless commerce. Pretty much everything it might occur to us to want—from a book to laundry detergent to a snow blower—arrives, if not overnight, well before we’ve forgotten ordering it. Customer reviews, price comparisons, and Q&As guide our choices and let us weigh in with praise or complaints.

Behind that wall of customer-facing information is a lot of other information. About us. Information we have trusted the company with. Yet it seems Amazon has done a remarkably poor job minding that particular store. In the current issue of Wired, Will Evans writes about “Amazon’s Dark Secret”—one that’s been obscured by Amazon’s disingenuous assertions that privacy is “sewn into” everything the company does. (Read the full eye-popping article from Reveal and Wired here.)

Too many of the company’s 575,000 employees worldwide have access to customer data. This has allowed low-level employees to snoop on purchases made by celebs, to use customer data to help third-party sellers sabotage their competitors, to mess with Amazon’s product review system, and to enable sale of low-quality knock-off products.

Our data were so readily available that, for years, Amazon didn’t even know where the relevant databases—including credit card numbers—were. Funny, hackers could find them. If a design team wanted a database, it was readily available to them. If they made a copy, no one in the company security apparatus knew. In short, “Amazon had thieves in its house and sensitive data streaming out beyond its walls.”

Management for years turned a blind eye to these problems. Raising a red flag was a good way for an employee, including members of the too-small security staff, to get shut down or shut out. The whole edifice became shakier when the EU established its General Data Protection Regulation, and Amazon, like every other company dealing with EU members’ citizens, had to comply by the May 2018 deadline.

Amazon spokespeople deny the general tenor of the article and emphasize progress that’s been made, but you might want to read the whole electrifying saga. Bits and pieces of this story have been coming out for several years, but like Gerald Posner’s excellent God’s Bankers, pulling all these stories together in a coherent narrative, as here, makes for a compelling indictment.

The 21st Century P.I.

Writers who focus on stories about crime are doubtless aware that the job description of today’s private detective has expanded dramatically. Tyler Maroney in his book: How Corporate Intelligence is Reshaping the World, looks far beyond the old-fashioned gumshoe, sitting in his beater, chain-smoking and sipping from a flask outside a no-tell motel. In fact, several of the books I’ve enjoyed most this year take advantage of investigators’ diverse roles–like New Jersey Noir: Cape May, and The Measure of Time.

Says Maroney, who has his own firm, Quest Research & Investigations, America’s 35,000 private investigators “are everywhere,” working for a long list of clients–large companies, government agencies, A-list movie stars, professional athletes, non-profits, sovereign nations, media organizations, and business tycoons. They work for lawyers preparing cases and politicians running for office. Why are they hired? To uncover wrongdoing, right wrongs (real or perceived), satisfy curiosity, and find someone or something, for revenge or competitive advantage. Sometimes the hiring is in a worthy cause, and sometimes it’s merely to feed paranoia.

The book describe a series of interesting cases, among them, helping a civil rights law firm free a wrongly incarcerated client, using computer forensics to ferret out employee fraud, conducting background checks on company executives before a client invests, recovering assets from American debtors hiding abroad, and negotiating with foreign strongmen. In the chapter on a surveillance assignment, he says (and this will be contrary to every television show you’ve ever seen), investigators cannot lie to a subject, they cannot impersonate or deceive. In many states, they cannot fabricate their identities. Despite the many prohibitions, Maroney says, “about once a month in my job, someone asks me to break the law.”

There are good stories here and no doubt equally good ones buried in some of those illegal requests. Enough story ideas to last the decade!

The sheer variety of the work is fascinating, especially for those who write about crime and what it takes to ensure an investigator’s clients “get the hidden information they need. We are lubricant, bandage, and weapon.”

Find it on Amazon or at your local indie bookstore.

Progress or Peril for Workers?

Warning: This is a post that may well fall into the category of free-association or, less kindly, half-baked. Three magazine articles I’ve caught up on this past week had something to say about the world of work, which seems headed for a collision with the future.

First up was a rather breathless article in the January/February issue of Metropolis (link to article here), about the rapid advances in 3D printing that extrudes cement to create entire buildings. “Companies worldwide are automating the construction of homes, offices, and other structures through techniques like 3D printing, robotic finishing, and automated bricklaying,” which lays down brick three times faster than a human.

“The possibility of automation soon becoming the norm in construction is not so far-fetched.”

Benefits the author cites are: improving construction efficiency, sustainability, and worker safety, while increasing the housing supply and even remedying labor shortages. Still, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, 7.2 million Americans had construction jobs in July 2018—“the highest employment level for the construction industry in a decade, with 7.5 million jobs projected by 2026. (The prognosticators must not read Metropolis.)

According to one builder, its automated processes can produce housing units in two or three weeks at about 40 percent lower cost than conventional construction and with “almost zero construction waste” (a good thing).

Sounds great, right? But who’ll look out for the people who want relatively good-paying construction jobs, enjoy building things where they can see the results, and don’t want to sit at a desk day in and day out writing software code? “Saving labor costs,” which is an argument implicit in the article but tactfully unstated, means lost jobs.

Impact on Workers

In Wired, a story reported on a 25-year-old bet on the future of technology that pitted one man’s rosy view against another’s dire outlook (both were half-right). A concern of the anti-tech guy (Kirkpatrick Sale, who had just written a book extolling the Luddites) was that technology “stole decent labor from people.” I hope Sale doesn’t read the Metropolis article; he’ll have a stroke.

Finally, historian Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article, “What’s Wrong with the Way We Work,” unearths some even earlier predictions. No less a personage than economist John Maynard Keynes said that, a hundred years in the future (starting date unstated), people would work no more than 15 hours a week, and everyone would suffer from boredom.

“It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person,” Keynes said, “with no special talents, to occupy himself.” Being confined to home during the pandemic has shown that even people with special talents can enter the realms of ennui and discontent.

Meanwhile, we know whose playthings those idle hands are. It’s worth remembering that the majority of people arrested after the January 6 insurrection have a record of serious financial troubles. It’s probably not too much of a stretch to wonder how many of those arise, at least in part, from a lack of good-paying jobs. In construction, for example.

I don’t know whether there’s anything worth thinking about here, or if these are just disconnected ramblings. If you have thoughts, I’d love to read them.

Goalposts Moved for Spy Writers

Desmond Llewelyn, Q, James Bond, Spycraft

The Cipher Brief presentation this week from John Sawers, former Chief of the British Intelligence Service (MI6) covered a lot of ground, including how the world of espionage is changing in the networked age. John le Carré taught us how to understand the motives and tradecraft of Cold War spies, but those days are over. Writers about espionage, like those in the trade itself, must learn new skills.

Tradecraft Trends

Sawers emphasized the shifting importance of the data analyst versus the case officer. In the old days, case officers recruited, trained, and ran their agents. They were, in a way, laws unto themselves. Not any more. James Bond’s “Q” (pictured, as played by Desmond Llewelyn) is no more; agents don’t ask the technologists for help solving a problem, the data analysts and technologists help design the intervention from the outset.

This evolution takes place at a time when the domestic security services of target countries have upped their games considerably. They too may have sophisticated analytic capability, which changes how foreign agents must operate. An example Sawers gave is the availability of facial recognition software and biometric identification. The old methods of disguise—so integral to the spectacular television series, The Americans, set in the 1980s—are next to useless. “The technology is neutral,” he said, and security services have to make it an ally. Our fictional spies can’t put on a wig and run rampant in foreign nations any more.

Strategic Trends

Like many analysts, Sawers keeps a wary eye on China. The country’s behavior around the pandemic has led to “the scales falling from the eyes of EU countries” who’d been less prone to criticize it. While, as writers, we recognize that the Xi Jinping China of today is not the same China that Deng Xiaoping led just over thirty years ago, I admit to being a fan of Tang Dynasty China (700 AD), so I’m really 1300 years behind the times.

Sawers says Western nations are good at identifying security challenges originating from China, but it’s harder to counter Chinese economic strategies, like the Belts and Roads Initiative. Yes, that is an effort to improve the infrastructure of various low-income countries, but it’s also a way to tie the economies of these countries to China and attempt to influence their politics.

Despite recent bumps, the relationship between the US and the UK runs very deep, Sawers maintained, and the two countries’ intelligence agencies’ relationship is solid. The longer-term unease will be between the US and other countries with which it is not as close. Can they trust us not to whipsaw them every four years? That lingering tinge of suspicion should inspire some juicy plot points.

Sawers says the political upheavals and divisions that have occurred in both our nations are at least partly an aftershock of 2008’s economic collapse. This is especially interesting in light of a 2/10 Washington Post report that nearly 60 percent of people facing charges from the January 6 insurrection have a higher-than-average history of serious money troubles: bankruptcies, evictions and foreclosures, bad debts, lawsuits over money owed, or unpaid taxes. Something to keep in mind if these disaffected folk are characters in your new story!

Out of the Frying Pan

Just when we might indulge in a huge sigh of relief about the narrow escape our democracy has just experienced, on the horizon looms a more-than-plausible thriller about the disastrous consequences of deteriorating U.S.-China relations.

If you like political or military thrillers, get yourself a copy of the current issue of Wired (29.02), which is entirely devoted to a four-chapter excerpt of 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, the new book by Elliot Ackerman (novelist, Marine with five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan) and Admiral James Stavridis, supreme allied commander of NATO from 2009 to 2013 and recent Dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

The Wired editors made this unusual choice by explaining that, while their content is often wildly optimistic about the future, sometimes they must take pains “to envision futures that we really, really want to avoid.” Cold War-era fiction laid out the grim path the great powers were on. As Stavridis explained, they made “the unthinkable as vivid as possible.” The cautionary tale 2034 tries to do the same.

I’ve read the first chapter, which starts, not surprisingly, in the flashpoint of the South China Sea, where a trio of U.S. destroyers is on a “freedom-of-navigation” patrol.

You may recall that IRL, China has been creating and weaponizing artificial islands in the sea, has seized our drones there, and is gradually asserting an expanded zone of influence. Why do we care? About a third of world commerce passes through those waters, which are the primary link between the Pacific and Indian oceans; it has oil and gas reserves; and is a gateway to many of our allies.

The fictional U.S. ships, their communications disabled, become surrounded by PRC warships, and must resort to signal flags to communicate with each other. (This reminds me of P.W. Singer and August Cole’s 2015 speculative thriller Ghost Fleet, in which U.S. military communications is compromised by malware embedded in cheap Chinese computer chips–a pound-foolish penalty of low-bidder procurement. To operate at all, the Navy must deploy ships, planes, and submarines that predate modern computers and wireless communications.)

The lesson from both books is what we become most reliant on makes us vulnerable. As if the military has become like people who cannot get from home to office and back without GPS. In a sort of epigram, Wired offers this: “They fired blindly in the profound darkness of what they can no longer see, reliant as they had become on technologies that failed to serve them.”

Anyway, it’s a cracking good read, and it appears you can download the whole book as a pdf (or other format) here.

170427-N-ES536-0005 NORFOLK (April 27, 2017) Quartermaster 1st Class Jose Triana, assigned to the Pre-Commissioning Unit aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), attaches signal flags to a line. Ford’s “over the top” lines are being weight tested by the ship’s navigation department. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Elizabeth A. Thompson/Released)