Political correctness

Let’s talk about “Political Correctness,” since it’s been thrown in my face recently. It came up at my writers’ group Saturday, when a fellow group member whom I normally respect brought a story that was riddled with ugly, offensive racial stereotypes directed toward a particular minority group. During the critique session I called him on this (I wasn’t the only one), and his defense was that he didn’t want to have his story “limited” by political correctness.

This quote cuts both ways in the “political correctness” debate.

I asked him what he meant by “political correctness” in this context, and he said he didn’t want to limit his range of expression. As if “artificial” rules of “correctness” constituted an intellectually narrow approach that fettered his freedom of expression. A story-critique session wasn’t the forum for a full-blown debate. The group’s leader very firmly changed the subject.

I probably wouldn’t ever convince that particular fellow through direct confrontation, in any case. In my experience, when someone who already feels his privilege is under attack and whose area of greatest pride is his intellectual ability, is accused of intellectual malfeasance, his invariable reaction is to dig in his heels and prepare to die rather than yield to a different point of view.

I do, however, continue to challenge the validity of any “expressive freedom” that depends on not restraining oneself from employing demeaning stereotypes. My associate seemed to think that what he called “political correctness” was a kind of intellectual laziness, an unwillingness to “push the envelope” in certain directions, or to challenge social norms. Perhaps ironically, I see it as just the opposite. In my opinion, folks who decry too much “political correctness” generally don’t seem willing to exert themselves intellectually to stretch beyond their own comfort zones or seriously engage a different experience.

Which of those two approaches should one more accurately call an “intellectually lazy” attitude?

It’s a hallmark of privilege when a person sees the need to adapt to others’ viewpoints as an unwarranted inhibition. That’s a “take” on life and social discourse that  ignores or dismisses the fact that anyone from a non-dominant cultural group has to accommodate and adapt near-continually, just to survive and get along in the world. Yet the most blindly privileged folk are the ones who seem to complain the most aggrievedly about political correctness.

This is not to say that all members of minorities or persons of color are perfect. It isn’t even to say that sometimes the “sensitivity line” can’t be too narrowly drawn—although I’d say the most vulnerable among us probably have a better gauge of where to draw that line, and what’s offensive, than the most privileged among us. But it is to say that our art shouldn’t rely on the cruel crutch of cheap shocks at the expense of innocent bystanders. 

It is to say that vicious racial stereotyping is both a morally and intellectually bankrupt way to approach storytelling . . . or to anything else. For God’s sake, can’t we writers dig deeper? If we can’t be merciful, then at least let’s be original.

There’s a truism that if a phrase or expression comes too easily to mind, it’s almost certainly a cliché. Using clichés is an obvious hallmark of weak writing, precisely because it betrays the author’s unwillingness to push past the easy or obvious, and explore new ideas.

What the apologists for ignoring so-called “political correctness” seem to overlook is that every offensive stereotype ever created is both mean-spirited and a cliché of the worst order. The only valid and original thing to do with any cliché is turn it on its head or expose its vacuity it in a fresh new way. That’s not easy, but then—isn’t that a given, if you’re trying to produce real, lasting, meaningful art?

IMAGES: Many (ironic) thanks to The Federalist Papers, for the Voltaire quote, and to Sizzle for the “Freedom to offend” meme. I am indebted to A-Z Quotes for both the Ian Banks quote, and the one from Toni Morrison. Many thanks to all!

Authors, reading

I attended DemiCon 28 last weekend. It’s a science fiction convention in the DesMoines, IA area (technically, Urbandale), where they had an art show, masquerade, panel discussions, parties–the full gamut of things I have learned to anticipate at sf conventions in my decades-long career of attending them.

Mark Van Name does a reading from his novel No Going Back at Balticon in 2012.

And they had author readings.

In my experience, author readings at large conventions by “big name” authors can be standing-room-only events. Author readings by mid-list or relatively unknown authors tend to be the orphan stepchildren of convention programming. If anyone shows up for one, that counts as “wildly successful.”

Some promoting, arm-twisting, and recruitment of friends and family to fill the audience may be required, for newbie writers. We may have loved listening to people read us stories in grade school, or be passionately attached to our audio books and podcasts as adults, but somehow getting people to attend readings at sf conventions continues to be kind of a heavy lift.

As some of my more persistent blog-readers may have noticed, I’m a writer who’s poised on the brink of having a novel to release into the wild. It’s gone through multiple drafts, been professionally edited, and I’ve done all I can to make it the best novel it can be. The time has come to start making people aware it’s coming.

I asked for a reading at DemiCon. Better yet, I got one–although I wasn’t scheduled for many other programming events where I could promote it. I made fliers (with advice from my son about copy writing), and invited everyone I could.

P. C. Haring read several interesting excerpts from his novel Slipspace: Harbinger.

I also was able to connect with a couple of other authors, who also had readings. One of them was P.C. Haring, who’d been scheduled for a reading that morning at 9:00 a.m.

Now, in the normal world, 9:00 a.m., even on a Saturday, is a fairly reasonable hour. At a science fiction convention–especially one with as many lively room parties as DemiCon 28 has, a 9:00 a.m. panel on Saturday might count as cruel and unusual punishment.

I’d noticed this scheduling earlier, and commiserated with him. Then, on an impulse, I offered him the second half of my scheduled hour from 4-5:00 p.m. This was not entirely altruistic on my part: my voice tends to give out after half an hour or so of reading. In any case, he accepted the opportunity. We had a nice attendance–the room was about half-full. I read my first chapter, then he read excerpts from his book. Before we knew it, the hour was over and we’d all had a pleasant listen.

Then we gathered up as many of the audience up as possible, and trooped across the hall to listen to Lettie Prell read from two of her short works. The first, “Emergency Protocol,” is a flash fiction (very short) piece that will be published by Analog Science Fiction and Fact at a future date. It is wonderful: watch for it.

Prell then read excerpts from The Three Lives of Sonata James, a thought-provoking story that’s been reprinted in Some of the Best from Tor.com: 2016, and The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume Two, edited by Neil Clarke. Good stuff.

Did I gain anything by encouraging my audience to also listen to P.C. and Lettie?

Could/should I have filled my entire hour, all by myself? Well, certainly I had enough material to read (assuming my voice held up). And from comments I got later, the audience would have been game for listening to me. So maybe I made the wrong call. If you look at it from the point of view that all authors are in competition with each other, then I definitely did. Nice guys finish last, and all that.

But I don’t see the world as a zero-sum game, and I especially don’t look at writing that way.  I cannot possibly write fast enough to be the only author someone reads (unless they read ver-r-r-r-r-ry slo-o-o-o-o-o-owly, indeed!). Even much more prolific authors ultimately can’t. Everyone’s readers are also going to read other authors’ work.

Therefore, I’d rather be a resource, a connector, a person who introduces people to others they may also like, in any given network. I fundamentally do not believe that any given group of writers (or artists) are competing, so much as conducting parallel enterprises. If we conduct our careers in friendly, cooperative ways, as far as I’m concerned, we all gain, and actually might expand our own networks a bit in the process.

IMAGES: Many thanks to the Balticon Podcast, for the photo of author Mark Van Name giving a reading from his novel No Going Back. There aren’t very many photos of that particular activity (author readings at sf cons), so I was relieved to find a good one! The promo card for my novel, Going to the XK9s, is a combination of my copywriting and design, much improved by comments from my son Tyrell Gephardt, and an illustration I commissioned for promotional purposes, by Jeff Porter. The cover art for P. C. Haring’s novel Slipspace: Harbinger is from his website. The illustration for The Three Lives of Sonata James is by Kevin Hong. It is posted here courtesy of Goodreads. Many thanks to all!

To automate, or not to automate? Writers, attorneys, and financial advisors on the line

A Glimpse of the Future?

My recent mid-week posts have focused on the phenomenon of automation in the contemporary workplace–that is, “machines taking over our jobs,” and looking at trends for the future.

Last week, I tackled robotics and automation in the health care industry. Today I’m focused on the symbolic logic crowd, that is, people who mostly traffic in numbers and letters. Thus, I’m looking at writers, attorneys, and financial advisors.

They’re all white-collar jobs, and aspects of each require judgement, creativity, and empathy–but other aspects “turn out to be routine and process-based.” That’s just the kind of thing computers do best.

But writing? Law? Higher-level financial analysis? Well, yeah. With caveats.

Writing 

This one kinda hurts, but certain types of data-heavy information can pretty readily be transformed into prose using a process Klint Finley of Wired describes as “a more complex version of Mad Libs meets mail merge.” Two companies, Automated Insights and Narrative Science are the main contenders in the field at the moment.

The primary uses for this software so far have been in the areas of financial news, sportswriting, and industrial communications. Organizations such as the Associated Press and Fox News have discovered it is (big surprise, here) “considerably less expensive for us to go this route than for us to try to have our own beat reporters at each one of these games,” (That’s Michael Calderon, Big Ten’s director of new media, speaking with Bloomberg Businessweek).

But of course it’s expanding. As a science fiction novelist, I’m under no illusions. Some genres are more friendly toward “formulaic” plots than others (I’ll leave you to judge which ones those might be), but I’m sure the day is coming soon when you’ll be able to plug in certain character and plot elements and the software will crank out a complete “novel” or “short story.”

On the other hand, we’re still very far from a computer that can go into a war zone and make sense of the chaos, write a meaningful human-interest article, or build an exposé, piece by exacting piece. And so far we’re still unable to distill that special “something” that transforms a novel into a mega-bestseller that strikes a chord in millions (if we could, they all would be). We still need human hearts and minds (and a lot of luck!) for that.

Legal Practice

Turns out there’s a lot of mundane drudgery in the practice of law, and untold numbers of documents to review. Firms used to have no choice but to hire a fleet of lawyers and paralegals to review them, but now there’s software to cover that angle. As attorney Bill Herr pointed out to the New York Times, “People get bored, people get headaches. Computers don’t.”

As in the case of doctors, however, you needn’t look for robots to start donning barristers’ wigs or delivering closing arguments in court for a while to come, though I fear the pioneering efforts on that front may come in the form of legal-aid robots for the defense of low-income criminal defendants. Would that be found to be constitutional? (And what would the originalists think of it?)

But behind the scenes, computers are already hard at work. For now, they’re probably cutting down the entry level jobs for lawyers, but their best potential is to save the efforts of the humans for the things that matter most.

Financial Industry Professionals 

Stock trading has forever been transformed by computer-based algorithmic trading, in which high volumes of stocks are traded “using automated pre-programmed trading instructions accounting for variables such as time, price, and volume.” 

However, as you’ve probably extrapolated from the section above that discussed financial writing and business communications, automation has gone much farther since the first automated trading systems went online in the 1970s and ’80s. With all the things they can plug into algorithms these days, have humans become superfluous?

Well, maybe not yet.

Assuming one is fortunate enough to need guidance for investment strategies, we’re still short of a technological singularity, which would place a computer in possession of all the critical thinking, synthesis, and empathy needed to serve human laypersons who have other things to do with their time besides manage their stock portfolios.

Till then, I’d still advise checking with a well-trained, credentialed human.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Before It’s News for the “future vision” graphic, to ResearchPedia.Info, for the “difference between stock market and stock exchange” photo montage, and to Sports Management Degrees for the graphic of the football with data behind it. I am grateful to the Criminal Lawyers and Attorneys organization for the courtroom photo, and to The Balance for the photo of the financial advisor with her clients.

To automate, or not to automate? The uncanny valley

A Glimpse of the Future

My mid-week post for the past two weeks has addressed a disruptive technology of major importance in the current global job situation: automation for greater productivity.

Robots and automated processes have already moved well beyond doing only what robotics expert Ryan Calo called “the three D’s: dangerous, dirty, and dull.” 

Last Wednesday I examined some of the ways robots and automation are replacing some types of traditionally minimum-wage or low-wage jobs, sometimes in appropriate ways, but other times in what some (including me) might consider needless, or less reasonable, ways.

Today I’d like to move up the social ladder a bit, because it’s not only blue-collar jobs that proponents of automation or robotics are proposing to pre-empt.

According to the research I’ve done for this series, doctors, nurseslawyers, financial advisorswriters, teachers, and child-care workers are also in the cross-hairs. At this rate, nobody can afford to get too smug. If professions requiring higher-level thinking and analysis are in danger from automation, NO job is safe.

Is that actually a real threat, though? Won’t there be at some point an “uncanny valley” effect? The uncanny valley is a problem in both animation and robotics. If you make something look or act extremely realistic–but just short of indistinguishable from the real thing–people react with revulsion. It strikes them as creepy.

The Uncanny Valley can be a scary place!

Could the uncanny valley save white-collar jobs? Well, maybe. The verdict is still out. There’s evidence that once people become accustomed to the almost-real look, they find it less repulsive. In other words, don’t count on it.

The end result SHOULD lie in whether the automation actually does a more satisfactory job than a competent human could. Meanwhile, this is a great source of thought experiments for science fiction writers, futurists, technological ethicists, and many others.

I’ve gotta say though, I find it interesting I haven’t yet seen any proposals that AIs should take over research chairs in the field of robotics research.

But think about it. Once we’ve reached the singularity, is there any career they’d find more interesting?

I’d bet not.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Before it’s News for the “looking to the future” graphic, and to G Financial Services Marketing for the “ranks of white-collar robots” illustration. I’m grateful to PandaStrike for the illustrated Uncanny Valley graph, and to HR Zone for the robot photo.

Blogging a panel

Writing About Forensics

A would-have-been panel for Capricon 37

Capricon 37 was a science fiction convention held February 16-19, 2017 in Wheeling, IL, just north of Chicago. Authors Jen Haeger and Jan S. Gephardt were scheduled to present a panel at the convention called Writing About Forensics.  Unfortunately, circumstances prevented both of us from attending, so all of a sudden the panel had no panelists!

To make up to Capricon for our inability to present the panel at the convention, Jen and Jan have created a co-written blog post, to offer a glimpse of what we would like to have been able to say at the convention. We agreed to post it on our blogs, and send the finished “virtual panel discussion” to Capricon, too, for their use. We hope you enjoy it.

The Panelists:

Jen Haeger

Jen Haeger (Moderator) is a writer geek with a DVM in Veterinary Medicine and a Masters in Forensic Science, though she presently writes part time and works part time at Barnes and Noble. Her published works include a veterinarian meets werewolf paranormal romance trilogy with some forensics in the first book, Moonlight Medicine: Onset. She currently resides in Ann Arbor, MI with her husband.

Jan S. Gephardt

Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and longtime science fiction fan. Her new science fiction novel, Going to the XK9s, is scheduled to be released this year by Durendal Productions. It is the first in a series about a pack of super-smart bio-engineered police dogs who struggle to establish themselves as full citizens, while solving crimes and sniffing out bad guys. To prepare for this novel series, she has devoted much of the last four years to researching, among other book-related topics, police investigational procedures and forensics.

The Questions, and our answers:

1. What is your definition of “forensics”? How does the definition expand or change, when you apply it to science fiction?


JH: My explanation of forensics is the opposite of the scientific method. When you use the scientific method, you start with a hypothesis, then design experiments or make observations to test that hypothesis, and end up with a result. With forensics you already have a result: a murder victim, a contaminated stream, a collapsed building. You then come up with a hypothesis of how that result came to be and do experiments or look at the evidence to try to determine how likely your hypothesis is.

I don’t feel like the definition should change when applied to science fiction. If in your story there are people who can just use a device to say, replay what happened at a crime scene without needing evidence, I wouldn’t call that forensics.

JSG: In the post-CSI era, I think most laypersons would define “forensics” as established techniques for evaluating the physical evidence of crimes. This would include analysis of images, fingerprints, chemical substances, DNA, blood spatter, ballistic evidence, etc., retrieved from a crime scene and documented according to the protocols of the agency doing the investigation. In each category of physical evidence, standards have evolved, based on systematic observations and more general scientific knowledge.

Unfortunately, in recent years we’ve occasionally discovered that standards of analysis have not been developed with enough scientific rigor to withstand the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard. The reliance upon hair-sample analysis before the availability of DNA testing is an example of a formerly-trusted forensic technique that more recently was found to fall well short of that standard.

I think the only way the definition might be changed in science fiction would be a matter of specific techniques for the “list of types of analysis.” An author might extrapolate a new way of analyzing evidence, or speculate that a current technique might be abandoned in the future for some reason.

2. What are some of the problems you see with writing about crime and forensic evidence-analysis “in the future tense”? That is, what are some of the pitfalls science fiction mystery writers might need to consider and try to avoid?


JH: I think that science fiction writers must do research on what is currently available as far as forensic techniques are concerned and build/extrapolate from there if they want to stick to “hard” science fiction. Soft science fiction writers have a lot more leeway. They can just make stuff up and not worry about any pitfalls, but they may lose readers who know what is impossible, like determining the age of a latent fingerprint or time of death down to the minute.

JSG: I agree that any writer should do thorough homework, and I’d include the “soft sf” folks in that caveat. Due diligence helps avoid silly mistakes that can ruin the story for readers who know better. The main pitfalls beyond that are in the area of prognostication: what will be the “DNA-type” revolutionary discovery in the mid-21st Century? We can’t know, any more than people writing sf in the 1970s could have easily predicted using a cell-phone to photograph evidence or analyzing touch-DNA. But it’s fun to guess!

3. How big a role should forensics play in a science fictional crime story, as opposed to other aspects? What other investigation techniques or practices do you think might evolve, and how might they compliment or augment what we now think of as investigational best practices?

JH: Wow, okay, so any other investigation technique could evolve, but if your story is science fiction, I feel that the author should stick to science, i.e. forensic science. That is what the reader will be expecting from a science fiction novel. If the author wants to do character-centered speculative fiction, then they can concentrate on other investigational practices like mind reading during interviews or using super emotionally sensitive people to assess a suspect. There are so many different types of forensics that I’m not sure too many other techniques really come into play in a crime story except maybe interviewing people and profiling, though that may fall under forensic psychology. There is also deduction, but that can’t really be used in court.

JSG: I feel I ought to point out that while analysis of the physical evidence has an increasingly important role to play in helping to alleviate that “reasonable doubt,” there will always be a place for “good old-fashioned police work” in an investigation—that is, canvassing for witnesses, getting statements, building timelines, getting eyewitness identifications, etc.

Although eyewitness IDs have been found to be far less reliable in some cases (especially identifications of strangers in crowds or with distractions) than originally thought, it’s pretty hard to beat the certainty of a statement such as, “I’ve known that guy for 20 years, and I saw him shoot so-and-so in the head that night!” A science fiction crime story that ignores the human element (or the “non-terrestrial person element,” if applicable) ignores a huge part of the normal investigational process, and needlessly limits the story-possibilities.

A Belleville, IL officer talks to a member of the neighborhood after a call regarding a gun. Few investigations turn on forensic evidence alone.

4. Forty years ago, DNA wasn’t a consideration in evidence-gathering. Now it has become important in an amazing range of ways, applicable to a variety of crimes. Gaze into your crystal ball and speculate about ONE other potential kind of evidence that might become radically more important, given just the right breakthrough.

JH: Forensic science is constantly making radical breakthroughs. Imaging has made enormous strides recently in areas like crime scene reconstruction (being able to take a 3-D image of a crime scene for later analysis), spectroscopy (developing a sensor to detect date rape drugs), and adding audio to video (by analyzing vibration images).

But I’m going to go with precise time of death which has so far proved elusive.

Artist Jeff Porter visualized Jan’s Going to the XK9s protagonist Rex, a “forensic olfaction specialist,” and his human partner Charlie.

JSG: Probably the biggest breakthrough I’ve extrapolated in my novels is the ability to tap into the sensory capabilities of dogs in much more detail. We know that dogs can be trained to detect everything from bedbugs to cancer to hidden cocaine, but our ability to communicate with them is severely limited. What could they tell us if they could communicate in more detail? How would things change if we could swear one in on the witness stand?

5. In your own work, what have you found to be the most challenging or intriguing aspect, when extrapolating future crime-solving techniques?


JH: I haven’t yet done this in my writing. All my fictional forensics is doable at present.

Moonlight Medicine: Onset includes some forensics that are currently possible. It is the first in Jen’s fantasy romance trilogy about a werewolf and a veterinarian.

JSG: As I just explained, I’ve been having wonderful fun looking at the recent research on dog cognition and sensory capabilities, then extrapolating ways that we might expand our ability to communicate in more detail with them to learn in more detail what they are sensing. But there are many other areas where we can look at current practice and say, “Wow! If only we could find a way to say for sure if . . . !” My main fear is looking back ten or twenty years from now and groaning, “How could I possibly have missed that we’d be able to do THAT?”

6. Something that a writer might want to consider is whether or not to include any forensics in a crime novel/story. What are some reasons that there might not be any forensic evidence?


JSG: There are lots of reasons why no forensic evidence might exist—even apart from the careful machinations of a criminal mastermind. The investigator might not have access to a crime scene (either can’t locate it, or it has been moved or destroyed) or other crucial evidence (it’s extremely hard to prove there’s been a murder if you can’t find the body, for example). Or perhaps you have the crime scene but it’s been wiped clean (by whatever standards your sfnal setting requires). I bet the other panelists can come up with more.


JH: When writing about forensics it’s important to consider why there may or may not be evidence and if that evidence is something that will hold up in court. One of my favorite episodes of CSI is called Jackpot and has Grissom alone in the tiny, isolated Nevada town of Jackpot several hours away from Las Vegas.

In the CSI episode titled JackpotDr. Robbins receives a severed head that sends Gil Grissom on a fateful trip to to Jackpot ,NV.

When he first arrives, all the evidence he has is a head and the townsfolk are all tight-lipped and unhelpful. Then he has his evidence kit stolen and has to buy supplies from the local hardware store to remake some of his evidence collection tools. It is a great example of how, in a small town or isolated place, the characters may not have the equipment or skills to process a scene, even if they find one. Also, I’m not sure if Grissom’s makeshift evidence collection techniques would allow that evidence to be admissible in court.

The CSI cast examines the wedding murder
scene in Rashomama.

Another great (and hilarious) CSI episode, Rashomama, has all the evidence the CSI had collected in Nick Stokes SUV and the SUV is stolen before the evidence makes it back to the lab, rendering all of the evidence inside contaminated and inadmissible in court. This is a good example of the necessity of proper chain of custody of evidence and how it may be broken, rendering the evidence lost or useless.

I’d also just like to quickly mention that in today’s age of people having at least a CSI level of understanding of forensics, you must have a very good reason for a criminal to leave behind any obvious evidence. Unplanned or heat of the moment crimes are fine, but if someone has planned a murder, you must consider the steps they would have taken to minimize the evidence left behind unless your crime doesn’t take place in the present. If it takes place in the past, be very careful not to have police acting like the CSI of today and collecting evidence that there are no techniques yet established for analyzing.

7. Where does forensic science fit into non-crime stories?

JSG: Investigational-style observations could fit into lots of stories. You don’t have to be a trained detective to walk into your boyfriend’s apartment, find two wineglasses, and realize the lipstick on one of them isn’t a shade you wear, to infer he’s been entertaining another woman. Perhaps one of your characters is an amateur graphologist who never does business with someone whose handwriting shows certain characteristics. Anytime a character wants to learn something, there’s an opportunity to use an investigative approach.

JH: This is a good place to talk about all of the different disciplines of forensics. There are so many different aspects of forensics that apply to the environment, to engineering, to computers, to fields like anthropology/archeology, and so many others, that a crime is not necessary to employ forensic disciplines. The following is an almost exhaustive list:

Physiological Sciences

–       Forensic anthropology

–       Forensic dentistry

–       Forensic entomology

–       Forensic pathology

–       Forensic botany

–       Forensic biology

–       DNA profiling

–       DNA phenotyping

–       Bloodstain pattern analysis

–       Forensic chemistry

–       Veterinary forensics

Social Sciences

–       Forensic psychology (human behavior)

–       Forensic psychiatry (evaluations)

Forensic Criminalistics

–       Ballistics

–       Ballistic fingerprinting

–       Body identification

–       Fingerprint analysis

–       Forensic accounting

–       Forensic arts

–       Forensic footwear evidence

–       Forensic toxicology

–       Gloveprint analysis

–       Palmprint analysis

–       Questioned document examination

–       Vein matching

Digital Forensics

–       Computer forensics

–       Forensic data analysis

–       Database forensics

–       Mobile device forensics

–       Network forensics

–       Forensic video

–       Forensic audio

Related Disciplines

–       Fire investigation

–       Fire accelerant detection

–       Forensic engineering

–       Forensic linguistics

–       Forensic materials engineering

–       Forensic polymer engineering

–       Forensic statistics

–       Vehicular accident reconstruction

Many recent, popular police, mystery or thriller dramas on television use forensics as an important part of their stories. For some it is the primary focus, while it plays a smaller role in others.

8. Is the public done with forensics and shows like CSI? Is it still interesting to readers?

JSG: I think in the post-CSI era it’s hard to completely get away from forensics in at least some plot lines of crime stories. Consider that most of the N.C.I.S. franchise include quirky forensic analysts as regular members of the team, for example—and they’re some of the most popular shows on the air right now.

Similarly, Elementary, Hawaii Five-O, and Bones (although the latter is in its final season) all prominently utilize forensics. Moreover, the enduring popularity of crime series such a Patricia Cornwell’s “Scarpetta” novels, built around a character who is an evidence-collecting medical examiner, all would argue that forensics are far from “dead” in crime fiction.

JH: Sadly, I have just recently come to fully realize how obsessed the public is with crime and particularly murder and particularly the murdering of women. I came to this conclusion (that I should have reached long ago) after reading The Girl on the Train (excellent novel and movie by the by) back to back with The Woman in Cabin 10.

For more of my soap-boxing on this subject, please see my previous blog post. But stepping off the soapbox, I think the continued interest of the public in forensics is also evidenced by true forensic shows like Forensic Files and The New Detectives (yes, I’m a real forensics Netflix junkie).

Several long-running reality television shows also focus on forensics.

9. If forensics are so good, why are there any unsolved crimes? What problems with or drawbacks of forensics can make a story more interesting?

JSG: An earlier question that touched on “what if there isn’t any forensic evidence” partially answered this question, in my opinion. Forensics can only address the physical evidence. Such evidence can provide powerful corroboration, but in a satisfying crime story, often the most important element in the investigator’s “holy trinity” of means, motive, and opportunity is the middle one: MOTIVE. That’s usually what lies at the heart of a crime story. Forensics might be able to tell us who, what, when, where, and how, but rarely can do more than point vaguely in the general direction of the WHY.

JH: Though it is true that there are unsolved crimes due to lack of evidence, lost evidence, and contaminated evidence, there are also other hot issues dealing with forensics that can make your story more interesting. How about a forensic scientist skewing or just downright faking the results of a test to get a conviction? How about trying to validate a forensic technique in time for it to be admissible in court? How about taking a fresh look at old evidence with new forensic techniques (consider The Innocence Project)? How about planted evidence? Plenty of great story in the drawbacks of forensics.

10. What is your best piece of advice for authors wanting to write about forensics? Or conversely, what makes you crazy when you read stories where the forensics is poorly executed?

JSG: Ha! My answer is the same for both questions: Do your homework, authors! Especially in our field, it’s essential to check your facts. Anything else just doesn’t stand up to critical scrutiny by people who actually know. Who do you think your audience is, anyway? If you’re writing sf and your answer doesn’t include a fair number of scientists and scientifically-literate people, you haven’t framed your demographics accurately. Moreover, when it’s crime fiction, you might be surprised how many law enforcement folks are in the audience. This also means, of course, that experts may be more open to helping you get it right than you might expect.

JH: I agree with Jan here. If you are going to write about forensics, make sure to do your homework at least to the CSI-watcher level. That being said, I have several huge pet peeves with CSI:

1) the time it takes to do forensic testing,

2) the fact that they run every test on every piece of evidence collected,

3) the fact that they often work without masks and other PPE when analyzing DNA,

4) they have been shown working on multiple pieces of evidence at the same time,

5) CSI analyzing the evidence also interrogate the suspects, and

6) they often get DNA “matches”.

First, it should be noted that some forensic testing takes days or even weeks to do, so make sure that you don’t have an inappropriate turn around time. Second, many forensic tests are possible, but very expensive, so typically only the quickest and easiest are done unless it is a high profile case.

Also, not every forensic lab has the latest shiny, new forensic testing machine. Third, my masters thesis required me to analyze DNA and even with the strictest controls and appropriate PPE (hat, gloves, gown, booties, safety goggles, mask), there was still the possibility of contamination. Additionally, as an aside, don’t have people talking to each other directly over DNA evidence or while analyzing DNA evidence. Your spit has DNA and you should not speak when analyzing DNA. Fourth, cross contamination.

A crime lab scientist tests evidence from a sexual assault kit. As Jen described in her answer, the woman wears a mask to avoid cross contamination.

Fifth, forensic lab technicians must be as impartial as possible when analyzing evidence. In a perfect world they wouldn’t know anything about the crime or the suspects involved so that they could not introduce bias when analyzing and presenting results.

Sixth, okay, so in today’s world you can actually genotype an entire human genome from a sample and match it to another entire human genome from another sample. However, this is NOT how DNA testing is typically done, particularly since DNA samples at a crime scene have often undergone some type of DNA degradation (time, heat, chemicals, sunlight, dryness, etc.).

Typical DNA testing compares a small sampling of loci on just a few genes and comes up with a probability that the sample in question (i.e. found at the crime scene) came from the suspect as opposed to another random individual. This gets really complicated really fast, so best just to say “consistent with” instead of “match” (only the pilot episode of CSI gets this right).

Also, again, if you are writing in the past, make sure that you are using forensic techniques appropriate for your story’s time frame.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Capricon 37‘s website for their logo. So sorry I couldn’t be there in person, after all! Jen Haeger’s photo is from her Google+ Profile page. My photo is used by permission of my daughter Signy, the photographer. 

Many thanks to Hawaii Reporter’s article, “Allow the justice system to render the verdicts in violent crimes for the photo with the evidence bag in the foreground, and to Criminal Justice Degree Link’s article “10 Great Criminal Justice Jobs” for the fingerprint-scan photo. 

Many thanks to Reference-dot-com’s article “Why is forensic science so important?” for the photo of forensic scientists in a lab, to the Belleville News-Democrat for the photo of the officer talking with the neighbor about a gun report in 2015. 

There is no cover art for Going to the XK9s yet, but Jeff Porter has created a character sketch of Rex and Charlie. The cover for Jen’s Moonlight Medicine: Onset is courtesy of Amazon. 

Many thanks to Fandom’s CSI Wiki, for the photo from Jackpot, and to CSI Geekromance for the photo from Rashomama. I am indebted to Prisma Dental’s article “Your Teeth as a Tool for Investigation,” for the forensic odontology image, and to the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s article “New Ballistics Control Chart for Forensic Imaging,” for the photo comparing cartridge casings.

Many thanks to the CBS TV shows’ official websites for the title cards for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Elementary, and Hawaii Five-O, and to Wikipedia for the title card for Bones

The cover images for The Girl on the Train and The Woman in Cabin 10 are from their respective Amazon pages. I am indebted to Wikipedia for the title cards for Forensic Files and The New Detectives, from their respective Wikipedia pages. 

Grins and many thanks to Marche Marie Regan’s Pinterest board on Forensics/Criminal Justice for the “criminologist baby meme”(via quickmeme). I am grateful to the National Institute of Justice’s “Sexual Assault Kits” page for the photo of the scientist testing evidence.

A glimpse of possible futures

I have been trying to gather information and develop a post about “offices of the future,” this month. It’s been a more daunting task than I expected. There are lots of visions of the future out there, and many are fascinating–although some of them are mutually exclusive.

In the course of this research I also have run into a variety of interesting videos on the subject, which I’d like to share. Therefore, in addition to the post (or, more likely posts), which I still intend to develop, here is the first in a series of video “Visions of the Future.”

I liked this commentator’s approach, with at least one foot grounded in reality. I hope you enjoy it!

IMAGE/VIDEO: The “vision of the future” image is from “Before it’s News” (a word of warning, however: this site will hit you with so many ads and confusing messages it’s hard to get to any actual content). The URL for the image itself is way less complicated. And many thanks to FW:Thinking, for today’s video.

Could this be how Santa does it?

Special Christmas Eve Artdog Image of Interest 

Does Santa have a special helper, Who makes sure he gets to all the children? You decide!

IMAGE: Many thanks to Fansided, for this image. It accompanies an article about this year’s Dr. Who Christmas show.