Machine editing assistance: AutoCrit – a review.

As my readers should know, I self-publish novels, and one of the major problems all indie writers experience is the problem of polishing the manuscript, alternatively known as editing. Editing is a pain, but it has to be done, either by a professional, or by yourself. Doing it yourself has a bad reputation, but suppose you could get help? I found a computerized “help” called AutoCrit, I tried it out, I sent my comments to Jocelyn Pruemer, who apparently created this, or at least manages it. I was then given a short trial of the full suite, and in return I am offering a review. This will be in at least two parts. This part mainly describes what you get; the second part my experiences on using it.

However, before getting into detail, my overall conclusion can be summarized as: AutoCrit is a very useful tool, but like any tool, it will make a poor master. It has two main functions. The first is to tell you what comprises weak writing, and that is what this post will focus on. It then shows you where in your writing you have included some possible examples. Most usefully of all, there is a pdf “handbook” that goes with it, in which Jocelyn not only explains what should be avoided, but also explains when you should disregard the “rules”. In my opinion, you should never woodenly follow the suggestions, because you will be writing like a machine, and big surprise, your writing will become mechanical. The great advantage of the program is that it analyses your writing and shows you where you should pay attention. A last comment about “rules”: there is nothing wrong with breaking these as long as you know you are doing it, and knowing why you are doing it. An example from music. One of the greatest sins in classical harmony is to put in parallel fifths. Notwithstanding that, I have played a Haydn sonata full of them, and they sound great. Haydn, the master, knew what he was doing. The problem arises with the person who does not know what he is doing, and back to writing, AutoCrit will show you what you have done, and more importantly, it highlights where you did it. In short, it highlights the areas that might need attention, and specific highlights can be turned on and off so you can focus specific attention.

The menu has six main topics, and several sub-topics, and these are:

1. Pacing and momentum. This shows sentence length in sequence, and it highlights slow-pacing writing. A machine can easily count words and graphically represent the count, but the pacing is more interesting. I am unsure how it does this, but it highlights the sections that it thinks are slower paced, and you can quickly scroll through to see whether there is a long allegedly boring bit.

2. Dialogue. This lists the different tags used, and counts the adverbs in dialogue.

3. Strong writing. This counts the number of adverbs, the number of passive voice indicators (although, as I shall argue in the next post, these are debatable), indicators of showing/telling, it identifies clichés, redundancies, and unnecessary filler words. Again, that is debatable, and includes words such as “that” and “then”. However, remember, all it does is identify. You are the master and make the decision as to whether to keep them.

4. Word choice. This includes initial names and pronouns, various weak sentence starters, generic descriptors, homonyms and personal words and phrases. Of these, the generic descriptors, in my opinion, are the hardest to find unless prodded with something like this program.

5. Repetition, such as repeated words, phrases, uncommon words, word frequency and phrase frequency. The latter two are of interest because you may have some words that are quite reasonable to use, but not too frequently.

6. Compare with fiction. This is where you can compare your writing using the above criteria with successfully published fiction. Thus you may find, for example, you are an above average user of adverbs. If you wish, you can then go back, find your adverbs, and decide whether to delete, rewrite or leave.

To summarize, this could be a valuable aide to authors as it gives you the chance to focus on what needs attention. If interested in trying it, go to http://www.AutoCrit.com. Next week I shall post some of my experiences with it.

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The Auckland Housing Crisis – politics and economics in conflict.

I end my latest futuristic novel (editing in progress) with the protagonists searching for a better economic system. Now, some may say, we have an excellent one now, so what is wrong with it. The Auckland housing market illustrates one symptom that something might be wrong. Yes, by itself, apart from those living there, who cares about the Auckland housing market? The fact that other cities also have ridiculous house prices may indicate the problem is more general, even though the causes will probably be different in detail, but that in turn is not the problem, in my mind anyway.

The problem in Auckland appears to be simple. House prices are so high that many people are paying up to half their income in servicing mortgages, in short, they are working their butts off for the benefit of banks. A secondary problem is that right now we have record (ridiculously?) low interest rates, so what happens when these revert to more usual levels? Now the banks have a problem, but so does every other saver, because if the banks go bankrupt, the elderly lose everything and the economic system collapses. And it is not the poor who are in this position; the poor tend to be packed in like sardines into whatever accommodation they can find for they cannot afford a family home. The reason: there are not enough houses.

As to why not, the problem goes back to politicians. Some long time ago, local politicians decided that Auckland occupies too much area, and it needs to stop sprawling and go up. The advantages are obvious, if it happened. The denser the living area, the more successful is public transport. Currently, the sprawl makes it difficult to pay, or provide, so the automobile is king; well, up to a point, as one could argue at times the road system is more a slow moving parking lot. So what happened is that in a fit of enthusiasm, politicians passed regulations to stop the sprawl by not giving building permits outside certain limits. They also did not help by putting in a whole lot of building regulations, and started raking in money through fees for obtaining permits.

What they forgot was just because they insisted in going up, not everyone wanted to go up, but worse, nobody was particularly interested in providing the apartment blocks. That was partly because nobody was sure they would work, and some that were tried probably did not work. The reason why not was that developer greed took over, and they built to maximize return, and not to maximize desirability. Postage stamp sized apartments with few facilities are not big sellers! So, with no agreed design that was acceptable to the regulators, and probably serious legal/regulatory difficulties in trying to bring in something like terrace housing, what happened is, well, nothing. With immigration increasing, all we got was price being the allocation tool. Even then, when rules on obtaining new land were relaxed, it appears much of the potential land is “banked”; recently a small number of sections were released, and a huge number of people queued up to purchase them at over the average price for house and section elsewhere in the country. These were at the very edge of the city, and with rural land nearby, and the interesting thing was, the land was going for at least an order of magnitude more than its value as a productive asset. A final problem may well be that ever-increasing prices make a speculator’s heaven.

This is not “market failure”; the market is doing exactly what is expected. The politicians have imposed strategy, but they have done so without any idea whatsoever as to how it should be implemented, and this is plain incompetence. Strategy is incomplete unless there is a clear method for how it could be implemented, and that method must be practical. And that, to my mind, is the basic problem with modern politicians: they are never happier than when devising rules but they never consider the unintended consequences, and they are always happy to plan, based on what they think ought to happen based on inadequate analysis, but they seldom work out how to implement it to give the outcomes they expect. The exceptions are taxation and spending money.

So, what to do about it? In my “First Contact” trilogy, I had it that candidates putting their names forward for election to an office had to demonstrate that they had the necessary skills to carry out the functions of the office properly. Of course, the trilogy also had the underlying subplot or subtheme of why this would not work either. Fortunately, in my next book, it ends with the protagonists “forming a new Constitution”, but nothing that is in it is mentioned. Whether I shall ever do a follow-up depends on whether I can think of what it should be. If you have any thoughts, please comment.

Excessive pharmaceutical costs.

A recent item in a local newspaper on the price of pharmaceuticals caught my attention. The question is, are the drug companies price gouging? Thus in the 1960s, Thalidomide was sold as an “over the counter” drug as a sedative, and to help with morning sickness, so that was relatively cheap. It got into trouble, however, because there were birth deformities associated with its use. Notwithstanding that, it has had a resurgence and is of value for certain form of blood cancer, and prolongs life by a few months to a year. In New Zealand, however, and using $NZ, in 2002, a month’s course cost $360 (or so the news item quoted). Now we expect a higher price when a drug has only a specialist use, and there has to be allowance for inflation, but this seems grossly excessive.

However, there is worse. Lenalidomide is a very similar drug (for those with any chemical knowledge the phthalic anhydride part that is converted to a substituted imide is replaced by phthalide, with the equivalent substitution, except the substitution is to the amide rather than the imide). Now phthalic anhydride is extremely cheap, phthalide not seriously more expensive, and the more difficult part, the substitution, is the same. Lenalidomide apparently costs $8350 per month, while Wikipedia quotes it as $US163,000 per annum per patient. What justifies this price? More to the point, what justifies and annual difference of over $US 80,000 between two countries? Now, all prices here are list prices, and apparently negotiation can often lower this, but the point remains. Further, studies have shown no significant benefit in survival rates between these two. There is another drug that does the same job: bortezomib, which costs a little under $10,000 per month, and while its starting materials are arguably a little more expensive, they are not that much more.

According to the World Health Organization, over half the expenditure on health is on medicines. Here is another example. There is a drug called Sovaldi, which treats Hepatitis C with about a 90% success rate. Note that patients can survive with the disease for decades, but eventually they have a high probability of liver failure of one sort or another. The prices for a twelve-week course are of interest. In New Zealand, the cost was quoted in this article as $NZ 239,000 (~ $US 180,000). According to Wikipedia, the cost in the US is $84,000, in the UK about 2/3 of that, in Germany, about $US 46,000, and in India, $US 300. Now, these are listed prices, there are probably discounts around, but persuade me this is not price gouging. The company is getting what it thinks it can get from each country. One can argue for charity for India, but the other countries have prices depending on who knows what, other than greed?

The issue for me is the effect of this corporate greed on families of those affected. Thus if we look at this Solvadi, in New Zealand it would cost 1 billion dollars more than the total annual health spending to treat all those with the virus. It is simply not practical to send that sort of money on one subset of patients, yet by not treating them, do they die of liver cancer at some later date? In fairness, there are alternative treatments, and I have no idea what the real situation is. However, I understand the problems. My wife recently died of metastatic cancer, and as it happened, she died before the oncologists could sort out what, if anything, to do. But what would I have felt had I been left with an option that would require all my money to buy a few months more life for my wife? That is a terrible situation for both to be in. The patient will probably not want to beggar the survivors, while the spouse does not want to not take every chance for more life for the patient.

You will hear various justifications for such expense, such as the need to develop new drugs. This is true, up to a point, but if the drug companies can just charge what they like later, there is not much incentive to be efficient, is there? There is also the issue of the cost of getting approvals. Yes, this is expensive, but persuade me it is not in the interests of the drug companies to make this as expensive as possible. The point is, they can price what they like, and the higher the costs, the easier it is to keep upstart competition at bay.

The issue for me is simple. The provision of best medicine is a public good. There is an element of pure luck whether someone suffers cancer, and whether it is aggressive or not. Certainly you can help yourself by not smoking, and by taking care in the sun, but there is no guarantee, and the same goes for many other diseases. So the question then is, should your future, if you are unlucky, depend on the loading of your wallet? Would it not be better for the state to at least keep some check on the approvals process, and remove waste? What do you think?

Where goeth Russia?

One of the themes of my futuristic ebooks is how economies might work, and one of the conclusions is that it may not matter all that much, because whatever economic system a country adopts, the outcome depends largely on the competence or incompetence of those in key positions. If we now look at Russia, we can see why, despite it having a very wide range of resources, it is in the economic doldrums.

Russia’s problems start with various Tsars, who basically wanted to control everything themselves, but did not want to do the required work. Probably the most successful economy led by a single person would have been Rome under Augustus. Augustus had several things going for him, namely the people of Rome wanted an end to civil wars, with Roman killing Roman, he had an economy that was working reasonably well considering the times, Rome had recently conquered a considerable amount of territory so it had a good income through taxing the conquered, the Roman system was essentially free enterprise, or at least much freer than anything else of the time, and also he had one of the most exceptional people who could get things done in Marcus Agrippa. Even so, Augustus was a workaholic, and even then, Roman civilization started its decline in terms of creativity. The Tsars were bone lazy, and spent most of their time terrifying the population.

The Soviet Union might well have worked, but for top management. Stalin actually had some ideas as to what had to be done, but his basic insecurity (kill anyone who looks like a political threat) and his total lack of care for the population (much better to kill a hundred innocent than let one guilty person escape, and, guilt merely involved disagreeing with Stalin, or even being disliked by Stalin) meant that not a lot really got done properly. Stalin was in too big a hurry to bring the Soviet Union into the modern age and he spent no time bringing the people with him. The reason: he feared an invasion from Hitler. He was correct.

Let us look at what happened at the end of WW2. Stalin offered the west a buffer zone. Stalin would withdraw to the Soviet boundaries IF the West left Germany to be neutral. What Stalin wanted was to have a good neutral barrier between him and the West because he believed the Americans hated Communism. He was not that wrong. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the economy was heavily distorted towards military manufacturing, with very little effective consumer goods being made. The agricultural sector was a mess because first collectivization led to few incentives, and second the transport and storage infrastructure was poor. Then when the Soviet Union fell, Yeltsin permitted a number of fly-by oligarchs to take over the industries, many of which they let collapse and after asset stripping, too much of the money ended up being shipped offshore. The net result was that Russia’s manufacturing base fell backwards, the agricultural sector still had a hopeless infrastructure, and as oil production grew, too much of that income simply went to oligarch’s offshore accounts.

Now, with sanctions and a falling rouble, the Russian economy can either collapse in a heap and western financiers can pick over the residues, but only if the military let them, or they can reorganize themselves and start up their own manufacturing base and make products. They may not be brilliant ones, BUT they will be competitive because in Russia there will be little else affordable. So Russia may finally construct a balanced economy. No guarantees, but their choices are do or not do, and not do leaves them in a real mess.

So, this is a triumph for the West? Anyone who thinks that is a clod. Russia is in trouble because oil prices have fallen, thanks to US fracking. What that does is to depress the price of oil to the extent that it is no longer economically sensible to proceed with many of the biofuel options, so oil replacements will stay not implemented. What that means is the sea level rises are inevitable, and the biggest losers from this may well be the Western economies. This is an example of the unintended consequences of something that is immediately good. Fracking has been great for the US economy, but not so good for global warming. Oddly enough, Russia, and Canada, will probably benefit from global warming, as most of it is not beside a coastline, and the north is horribly cold. Useful land will move north.

For the time being, though, Russia is in for a very hard time, no matter what happens, or what they do now. Even if they pulled out of Crimea and Ukraine and bent over and took their whipping from the West, that would not make a jot of difference. They must now pay the price for their history. The only question is, how do they do it? Their only real option is to use their resources and regenerate their economy themselves. Western investment is useless to them, because again, all the wealth from the resources will disappear offshore, leaving the average Russian as little better than an impoverished peasant. At present, Putin may not be what everyone wants to see, he is not exactly a genius leader, but he is all that Russia seems to have at present to avoid the worst of the collapse. Remember that while the West dislikes him, they do not care at all for the benefit of Russians; they only care about themselves, for that is the reality of the invisible hand of the market.