where the writers are
RomCon 2

There are still lots of opportunities to enter my contest for a free book or short story download. Remember, there's no charge to download the free sample of Coping Mechanisms at Smashwords to find the answer to that part of the question. Details on the contest tab.

And I brought back LOTS of swag from RomCon. More than one person should have, so I'm going to start giving it away.

What do I have? Books. Lots of books. Bookmarks, cover flats, recipes, and who knows what else. So, when my Smashwords contest is over on Friday, I'll start a Swag contest. Stay tuned.

On Monday, I promised to go into the details of the CSI presentation. Forensic specialist Tom Adair spent much of his time debunking myths about what a CSI really does. As I mentioned, he's highly qualified, and even did some consulting work for the CSI Las Vegas show at one time.

Adair reminded us that, despite what we see on television, CSI folks are human just like the rest of us. He said we tend to think that the higher the level, the 'better and brighter' the personnel, so we naturally tend to think someone working for the FBI is inherently more competent than someone working for a small local agency. Wrong. There are all levels of competence in every agency.

One point Adair stressed was that all those fancy databases we see on television don't exist. And that they're nothing more than search engines. There are no 'intelligent' computers. Real, live humans take the data they spit out (which is going to be a list of the most likely matches—none of those pictures and life histories we see on TV) and determine which is the best match. From there, it's up to investigators to put enough evidence together to decide if they can connect the suspect to the crime. All the data can do is link an individual to a location or an item—not necessarily the crime.

Surveillance videos are never as good as TV forensics folks would have us believe. And forget about tapping into the traffic cameras and following suspects, or finding out where they've been.

Another point he made about databases is that there really aren't any 'universal' databases, and that local agencies are often reluctant to share. They're only as accurate as the data someone inputs, and they're expensive given the man-hours to keep them up to date.

One of Adair's specialties was footwear—he said that even if there was a master database, shoe manufacturers change the designs of their shoes about every six months, so they're almost impossible to keep current. And what's the return on investment to the shoe manufacturer? They'd be paying employees big bucks to input data that might never be needed.

The technology we have available to day can make the investigator's job harder—with things like touch DNA, and the ability to identify DNA from very small samples, investigators are faced with an overload of evidence which then has to be filtered.

Another point—the goal of forensic scientists is to apply science to solving a legal or medical question. Their data has to stand up in court, and that opens up an entirely set of challenges. Juries expect complex forensics. Juries are human (Adair spoke of a juror who said she refused to find a defendant guilty of murder because he looked just like her grandson, and she knew her grandson would never commit a crime.) And according to Adair, the CSI effect, where juries expect real life to be like television has turned a lot of forensic scientists into what he calls 'garbage collectors and dancing chickens.'

His example: if there's a murder discovered at the front of the auditorium where he was speaking, there's not much of a point in collecting evidence from the back of the room. He fears that with technology and expectations, there's less use of brainpower and more of simply providing fancy test results for juries.

Bottom line. The CSI television shows take liberties for the sake of a story. Just as we do when we write. Although we try (at least I do) to be accurate, there are times we have to stretch things for the sake of the story. Or, more correctly, we tend to compress things—the television show has 42 minutes (maybe less now) to resolve a story. As writers, we're dealing with word and page counts. If we told all our stories in real time, they'd be multi-volume tomes.