The Standards Blog

The Doodlebug War: It’s the Beta Readers Turn Now

Adventures in Self Publishing

Fieseler Fi-103 im Deutschen Museum, courtesy of Softies/Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation LicenseI'm pleased to report that I've finished my last draft of the third book in the Frank Adversego thriller series. It's now in the capable hands of a half dozen Friends of Frank who have kindly agreed to be beta readers. Pre-launch ("beta") readers are a huge asset for to authors, helping them catch not just typos, but all the other sorts of gremlins that can be hard for an author to ferret out and banish because the author has become to immersed in the text to spot them.

Examples of flaws that beta readers have helped be catch in the past include minor characters that suddenly decide to change their name or gender partway through the book, timeline dependencies or inconsistencies (this had to happen before that, and not the other way around), inaccurate historical facts, slow spots in the pace, more detail than is really necessary in one spot or another, and insufficiently explained technical details in others.

Are beta readers a substitute for a professional editor? Strictly speaking, no, because it’s not fair to ask a beta reader to put the kind of time and effort into doing thorough “line editing,” which includes not just correcting grammar, but also fixing awkward sentences and generally improving the quality of the prose. That said, there’s an old phrase in the open source software field that applies appropriately here as well. It goes like this: “Many eyes make all bugs shallow.”  As a result, if an author is a very close reader of their own work and is lucky enough to find a half-dozen beta readers who are themselves very good at teasing the snags out of the warp and woof of a book, the result can be very good indeed. As a result, the professional editor I hired to do the final review of my second book found a total of only 43 very minor items for me to attend to (and not all of which I agreed with) in a 330 page book, which is pretty astonishing.

If you’d like to be a beta reader for The Doodle Bug War, A Tale of Fanatics and Romantics, I’d be delighted to have your help and to thank you in the acknowledgements section of the final text. If you’ve got time to read a new thriller and take some notes over the next couple of weeks, Just email me at andrew.updegrove@gesmer. com, and I’ll send you a copy. This book, by the way, is shorter than the first two: 82,000 words, as compared to 105,000 and 125,000, respectively.

Here’s the Prologue and first chapter, which will give you a hint about what Frank is up against this time:

* * *

Prologue

 

It was, at last, time. His forces were ready, his plans well-made.

It was proper that America’s obsession with money and technology would provide the means for its own destruction. Its vulnerability was so obvious a child could see it.

But the billionaire capitalists of the west would not see. Or perhaps they did and did not care. It made no difference – they worshiped profits above all else. The politicians they held captive with their campaign contributions knew better than to pass laws their masters would not like.

He rose and walked to the entrance of the cave. The village in the valley far below lay peaceful and star-lit, embraced by the snow-topped mountains. Not a single light or sign of life could be seen. Just as America and Europe would soon appear to the doomed fools circling the earth in their absurd space station.

* * *

1

Frank Eats Dirt

 

The phone was not ringing. Neither was the faint ching! of an incoming email interrupting the silence of his day. Even his much-despised Facebook page was devoid of likes and visits. After three weeks of waiting, there was no way to get around it: his new venture, Frank Adversego, Cyber Eye, was an abject failure.

He stared with regret at the home page of the website he had built. It really did look pretty cool – retro, with just the right Raymond Chandler vibe. And if forced to admit it, he thought he looked pretty sharp in a fedora and trench coat, even if he had pixellated his face into a pink, mosaic fog.

But a pretty web page did not a business make. He’d yet to land a single paying client. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he hadn’t a clue about how to advertise, and would rather subject himself to whole-body acupuncture than engage in face to face networking.

But that was where things stood. There seemed to be no alternative to doing what appealed to him least of all: to calling his old boss, George Marchand, to ask for work. He scowled as he punched the buttons on his phone.

“Hey Frank, good to hear from you. How’s the new business coming along?”

“Great! Having the time of my life! I can’t believe I waited so long to go into business for myself.”

“Nice to hear, Frank. Couldn’t be happier for you. Of course, we’re sorry we can’t count on you anymore over here at the CIA. The challenges keep getting tougher -”

“Oh, well, there’s no need to look at it that way! I’m sure I can take on a little more work from time to time if it would help you out. You know, fill in the gaps between the really big, interesting projects. Sometimes they go cold for a little while.”

“Really? Well, that’s good to know.”

Frank waited. There was only silence at the other end of the phone.

“Uh, George, you got anything right now?”

“Hmm. Maybe. But I don’t know if we have anything small enough to fit in between your really big, interesting projects.”

Silence again.

“Okay, George. Have it your way. Do you want me to beg?”

Marchand laughed. “Of course not. I just couldn’t resist jerking your chain a little. Actually, I’ve been keeping my eye out for something to send your way. You want to hear what I have in mind?”

Frank uttered silent thanks to the patron saint of small businessmen. “Yes, George. I’d like that very much.”

“Great. Got time to get together tomorrow?”

“Today, tomorrow, you name it. The truth is I’m not exactly over-booked.”

“How about 10:00 tomorrow morning then. You know that donut shop in DuPont Circle?”

“Sure, but what’s wrong with our usual coffee place?”

“That’s enough for over the phone. See you there tomorrow.”

*  *  *

Frank was finishing his second donut when he spied Marchand approaching. He had the same authoritative, quick step as ever, but he looked a little stiff. And why not? It must be at least twenty-five years since they first met. Frank wondered whether he was secretly working for the CIA even then.

Marchand spotted Frank and waved him outside.

“Good to see you, George. Donut?”

“No thanks. You better go easy, too, if you want to keep that weight off.”

“Yeah, well, you picked the meeting place. What gives?”

“Let’s talk while we walk. We’re going to a new facility we just opened up the street.”

“Here? Pretty high-priced real estate for a government agency.”

“No kidding. But data analysis is a hot skill now. We’re competing with shops like Google that coddle the kids fresh out of school like they were royalty. You need to offer frills like food courts and massage chairs to get the top talent these days. And if you don’t have a trendy location, forget it.”

“What kind of work is the CIA doing there?”

“This is our new ‘big data’ center. Every type of information we gather from all over the world will funnel through here now, so we can organize and then analyze it for trends and emerging threats.”

“You mean you’ve got tens of thousands of servers in the middle of Washington?”

“No – they’re in a new data center outside the Beltway. But it’s all managed from downtown. Here – clip this on your shirt pocket.”

Frank glanced at the security badge as he followed Marchand into the sumptuous lobby of a new office building. It read “Cloud Analytics, Inc.” Marchand flashed his own badge at the security guard on the way to an elevator separated from the others.

“Private elevator?”

“Yeah. We may be downtown, but this has to be as secure as headquarters. Hopefully the bad guys don’t know it’s ours yet.”

They walked out of the elevator onto an open floor. Frank mouthed a silent whistle – this was quite a switch from the anonymous cube farms he’d labored in for most of his career. There were no cubicles here – the entire space was populated by random islands of work stations, couches, game tables and exercise equipment – no – those were treadmill desks. Frank figured the wall furnishings alone would give a traditional spook apoplexy.

He fell in step behind George, zigzagging his way through the expensive furniture draped with twenty-somethings wearing T-shirts, jeans and laptops. Ahead was a glassed-in conference room tucked into a corner of the floor. Inside, Frank saw two people seated at opposite ends of a conference table; one was yet another anonymous youngster power-typing away on an ultra-thin notebook computer. The other was poking away at a large, thick laptop with his index fingers, his rimless glasses perched precariously on the end of his nose. A slack tie hung around the unbuttoned collar of his rumpled shirt, and a tonsure of white, disheveled hair crept from one ear to the other around the back of his head like a wispy caterpillar.

Marchand tapped on the door and let himself in.

“Morning, Hermann. I don’t think you’ve met Frank before, have you? Frank, this is Hermann Koontz. He runs the show here.”

Frank shook hands as Marchand jerked a thumb at the scene outside the conference room. “Getting used to the new digs?”

Koontz pushed his spectacles up on top of his head and scowled. “What do you expect? I feel like I’m running a frigging college rec center.”

Frank walked to the other end of the table while the Marchand and Koontz chatted. “Hi. My name’s Frank Adversego.”

“Hi. Tim Slattery.” The young man had sized up Frank up with interest when he entered the room: unassuming, middle aged, thinning hair. Obviously paid no attention to the way he dressed, but looked like he kept himself in shape. Kind of a quizzical expression on a lively face that darted glances around the room as he came in. Not exactly what Slattery expected the guy to look like who had saved the world from nuclear annihilation.

“I’m Mr. Koontz’s assistant Ethics Officer,” Slattery continued. He was so visibly nervous that Frank assumed he must be a brand new hire.

Marchand joined them. “Ah, yes, I heard we were adding one of those to every team.” He turned back to Koontz. “So – shall we get started?”

Koontz picked up a remote controller as they settled in around the table. Immediately the lights of the room dimmed, the glass walls turned opaque and a hidden projector transformed one of the walls into a screen displaying multiple charts and tables.

“Alright. So the information I’m going to walk you through is culled from data we’ve been gathering from every kind of source over the last three years – telephone intercepts, email, social media, satellite photos, the works. Petaflops of new data every day, and Exabytes in all.”

He turned to Frank, “How much do you know about big data?”

“I’m pretty current at a conceptual level. But no hands-on experience, so no harm in dumbing it down a bit.”

“Fair enough. Okay. So it wasn’t that long ago that we could pick up pretty useful raw information from the field on the terrorists. We can almost never get that anymore, because the big fish know better now than to communicate using anything electronic. Now what we get is mostly just low-level chatter, and when we do pick up something that sounds like it could be big, it’s tough to know how seriously to take it. For all we know, the stuff that seems most interesting was sent down the line just to throw us off. So we try to wring every bit of meaning we can out of the chatter, integrated with every other type of data we’re collecting. For that purpose, the more chatter, the better.

“So let’s talk about what we’re abstracting from what we’re picking up, and how we’re getting to those conclusions.” Koontz picked up a laser pointer and pointed at a row of a dozen small charts at the base of a pyramid of similar presentations. Each time he paused on one, it jumped up to full screen size before shrinking back again when he moved on.

“This set of charts shows the types of data we evaluate to build up a threat risk analysis. Down here at the bottom are the various original sources, each graded for credibility based on a variety of factors: historical reliability, how far up or down the chain the source individual is, and so on. We’ve already kicked out the ones we think aren’t credible. We associate the grade we’ve given that source to the data we derived from him or her, and move the results up to the next level. Let’s jump up a couple tiers now.

“Up here, we start trying to extract a picture of the actual attack – where, how, when and so on. To do that, we pull in all sorts of additional data: what types of bombs have most recently been in use, and what types of situations they’ve been used in. That gives us another way to test the likelihood that each piece of data is accurate, as well as to fill in blanks with good guesses where we don’t have any data at all, based on context and the information we do have.

“For example, if we think we know which country an attack will be in but not what the specific target will be, we can contrast a profile of that place with those of others where attacks have already occurred in the same area, nation or region – does it have a military base? A big open market? A police training academy? Let’s skip up a few more levels.

“Up here at the very top is the description of the expected attack, and the credibility of each individual datum associated with that attack. We might be pretty sure of the target, for example, but not the date.  Are you with me so far?”

“Yes – it’s very impressive.”

“Good. So now here’s a dashboard of all the potential attacks we’re tracking right now on a global basis. These charts display a high level picture of what we think all the terrorist groups around the world are up to.” He was wielding and clicking his laser pointer now as if he was fencing with an opponent displayed on the screen. “And by changing the color – like this – we can show how close each attack is to execution – and now which terrorist groups are involved in which attacks – and now which ones involve more than one terrorist group – and now the severity of the anticipated attacks. Pretty useful stuff when you want to brief the politicos on where we stand, or put out a warning bulletin to the field.”

“I’ll bet,” Frank said. “How about that column over on the right – the one that’s so much higher than the rest? What threat is that one tracking?”

“Right. That’s the one we’ll talk about today. George, have you been briefed on this one yet?”

“Barely. Assume I don’t know more than Frank and you won’t be too far off.”

Koontz’s head bobbed in a silent Humph!

“Well, this won’t take long, because we don’t either. Let’s do a pyramid view of this one.”

The screen cleared to reveal what looked at best like the beginnings of the foundation of a pyramid of charts. There were only a few in the second layer, and none at all in the half-dozen tiers that should have been above that.

“As I said, we don’t have a whole lot to work with yet. We haven’t even been able to populate the first level with all the types of sources we need to do much in the second tier.

“So when you ask what’s being threatened, Frank, we really have no idea. For example, what’s the target? Maybe the power grid? Communications? Finance? All of the above? So far, we don’t have a clue. Except for one point that has been locked down, all we know – or think we know, anyway – is that it’s something big, and some or all of it’s going to occur on U.S. soil. Unless we can get more and better data, we need to cover every possibility. That’s why George suggested we ask you to help us out. He says you’ve got a knack for thinking outside the box, and might spot something our in-house guys miss.”

“Well, I don’t know about that, but thanks. How exactly do I fit in?”

“You’ll be on one of several inter-disciplinary groups – we refer to them as ‘Tiger Teams’ – that we’re assembling to address every possibility. Besides you, it will have agency, military, and technical members, each of whom will bring a unique perspective and capability to the effort. The first meeting of your team will be in a week or so. We’ll get the time and place to you in a few days.”

“Thanks. One more question before we continue?”

“Sure.”

“You said you do have one aspect of the attack locked down. What’s that?”

“That’s where we’re headed next.” Koontz clicked his remote, and suddenly every wall lit up with a satellite view of a fractal maze of impenetrable mountains.

“This is a section of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. We believe that somewhere down there is Mullah Muhammad Foobar. That’s the guy pulling the strings on this attack.” A large red ring appeared on the center of the image covering one wall.

Ah – so that was it. They wanted his help in finally capturing the Big Guy – the terrorist leader with the most territory, the most followers, and the most atrocities to his credit. Terrorist acts that even the media hesitated to describe in much detail. Even seated in a secret CIA conference room thousands of miles away from the terrorist, Frank felt uneasy at the thought of directly opposing him.

“More specifically, we think he’s somewhere within this area – about forty miles across. How much do you know about Foobar?”

“Well, I guess you’d say I’ve got a basic newspaper level of knowledge. He’s the latest guy to claim leadership in the fight of radical Islam against the West. He came out of nowhere a couple of years back and seems to have come out on top among the various factions competing to take over.”

“That’s accurate, as far as it goes. But he’s not just the ‘latest guy’ to and reconquer the Middle East and restore Sharia law. He’s also trying to take the world back 1,000 years. A lot of his appeal comes from his success in tying his cause to the glories of the original Arab Conquest. He reinforces that story line in every way possible. He makes each of his generals assume the name of one of the great Arab or Ottoman warriors that fought their way across most of the known world – westward across North Africa and up into Spain and destroying the last of the Byzantine empire to the North. He says he won’t rest until he’s reestablished Arab dominion over the whole shebang.”

“That’s a pretty big ambition.”

“You think? So check this out.” The images on the screen gave way to a video showing a gesticulating, bearded man in a robe standing on a balcony above a dusty square thronged with an enormous crowd. “This is Foobar’s spokesman. No one from the west has ever seen Foobar himself. But we think we know where he is, so let’s take a closer look at the sand box we think he’s playing in.”

The video stopped, and they were once again encircled by mountains. With a wrenching change of perspective, the view zoomed into the area inside the red circle as if they were falling out of the sky. Frank instinctively clutched the arms of his chair as he plunged downwards toward the snow topped mountains at ever-increasing speed.

Koontz chuckled. “I guess I should have warned you. Kinda feels like you’re being sucked into a black hole when I do that, doesn’t it?

“Anyway, as you can see, there are no roads at all down there. It’s so rugged nothing gets in or out except on foot or on the back of a donkey. This particular village is at such a high altitude that the passes into it are above the operational range of a helicopter. If Foobar really is down there, it would take days for a team to reach his hangout – plenty of time for the locals to tip him off that someone unexpected is on the way so he can clear out, just like Bin Laden and Omar did back in 2002. Needless to say, that’s why he’s hiding where he is.”

“Wouldn’t it be as hard for him to get out as for us to get in, though?” Frank asked.

“Speed wise, yes. But he’d have plenty of ways to get out, and it would be hard for us to cover all of them. Let’s check that out from this location, as an example.” Koontz flashed his controller and a simple web of blue lines sprang up on the screen. “These are footpaths running out from this village through valley bottoms and over mountains.”

The view zoomed out again. As it did, the web of lines expanded and multiplied, with each blue tendril branching and rebranching. Whenever the image stabilized, it looked like a map of the neural networks of a brain composed of mountains.

“Every one of these trails is not only an escape route for Foobar, but also a conduit the terrorists can use to get information in to him and back out again.”

“So I guess if you were pretty sure that a proclamation came from Foobar, and you tracked it back from multiple end points around the periphery, you could use the length of time it took to get to each of those points to get a rough idea where he is. Sort of like GPS, with the endpoints being the satellites. Is that why you think this is where he is?”

“You’re a quick study – yes, that’s one of the ways.”

“Got it. What’s your confidence level with the data you’re picking up now?”

“Not great when it comes to specifics, because we don’t have enough data to work with, and all kinds of attacks get mentioned from time to time. It’s like starting with a dozen different jig saw puzzles poured on the floor, and then trying to reassemble the picture you care about without knowing what that puzzle is supposed to look like when it’s completed. So far, we’ve only got about 20% of the picture we want to talk to you about. But we can already see enough to know we don’t like what we see.”

Frank noticed that Koontz’s Assistant Ethics Officer was listening with rapt attention. He wondered whether this was the first big briefing the kid had ever been in on.

“So what’s the picture, Hermann?” George asked.

“We’ve only got the edges; nothing in the center at all. All we know, like I said earlier, is that it’s going to be in the U.S. And also that it’s going to be really big.”

“How big is really big?”

Koontz clicked his remote one last time, and the glass walls of the conference room gradually became transparent again. Frank blinked a few times to readjust as the mountain wilderness they were sitting in faded back into something that looked like an open study area at a student union.

Hermann took off his spectacles and rubbed his face. “In what for once we believe are the exact words of the Mullah himself, ‘it will make the scene at ground zero on 9/11 look like a child’s birthday party.’”

*  *  *