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Matt Richtel: Five Things I Learned Writing The Doomsday Equation

Computer genius Jeremy Stillwater has designed a machine that can predict global conflicts and ultimately head them off. But he’s a stubborn guy, very sure of his own genius, and has wound up making enemies, and even seen his brilliant invention discredited.

There’s nowhere for him to turn when the most remarkable thing happens: his computer beeps with warning that the outbreak of World War III is imminent, three days and counting.

Alone, armed with nothing but his own ingenuity, he embarks on quest to find the mysterious and powerful nemesis determined to destroy mankind. But enemies lurk in the shadows waiting to strike. Could they have figured out how to use Jeremy, and his invention, for their own evil ends?

Before he can save billions of lives, Jeremy has to figure out how to save his own. . . .

ONE: The things that ultimately can save us are the same ones that got us in this mess to begin with.

At the heart of The Doomsday Equation are a man and the computer program he created. The man is named Jeremy Stillwater. The program he created can predict war, the onset of armed conflict, and its duration. Trouble is, Jeremy is the worst person ever to predict and prevent conflict; that’s because he’s a conflict addict. He’s hostile, self-righteous, a first-class jerk. He’s alienated all the people who once believed in his genius, including his girlfriend, investors, military liaisons who once thought his program could help predict the next big terrorist attack. And, so there’s nowhere left for Jeremy to turns when his computer tells him the dire news: global nuclear war, three days and counting. In the end, Jeremy must confront his own demons – his penchant for hostility and interpersonal conflict – if he is to save the world. In this way, the books forced me to ask (and learn the answer to) a question: do our modern tools help make the world safer by protecting us from ourselves or do they make the world danger by becoming powerful extenders of our darkest leanings?

Two: Writing naughty bits is scary.

One of the antagonists in The Doomsday Equation, a near-term sci-fi thriller, is named Janine. She’s smart, well-read, philosophical, spiritual, murderous and, sometimes, horny. Sometimes, between feats of violence, she likes to relax with a little carnal action. So I decided to show one such act. My fingers blushed as I typed. I’ve written many, many hundreds of thousands of words (and five books), but never this kind of scene. I thought: will my mom read this and know I’ve done it (I figure she knows; I am in my 40s and have two children so, y’know…something happened somewhere along the line). I didn’t precisely go for it when I wrote the sex scene but I didn’t pull my punches either. I made it clear who was doing what to whom. No, I won’t tell you what page. You’ll have to read it and let me know if, at least that part of the book, strikes a proverbial nerve.

Three: What can computers already predict?

I always try to base my books in some semblance of reality. After all, what is scarier than that? So I spent time looking at how computers make predictions. They’re doing it all the time, more so by the day. So named: Predictive Analytics. It’s not so complex a concept actually, though it is a bit of an overstated one. The simple part is this: the computers look for patterns that precede an event – say a weather event or change in stock market – and then predict future events as similar or related patterns emerge. Simple, right. But a bit overstated. It’s not the same as predicting the future. It’s not the same as saying: this is what will happen. Rather, it’s the same as saying: this is what has happened when such-and-such events have occurred before. A small but powerful distinction. At the same time, predictive analytics appear all over the place, helping businesses predict demand, meteorologists weather, doctors disease patterns.  The Centers for Disease Control, the world’s premier medical institution, uses our Internet habits — what we search for, what we say online — to predict the intensity and timing of a flu epidemic. Who and where are people searching for medicines, vaccines? Google calls it Google Flu.

Four: Computers can actually predict – yep, you guessed it – war. Sort of.

A real paper in the journal Nature says: yes. The paper called it “the mathematics of war.” It looked at 54,000 attacks from 11 wars and, by doing so, established patterns. What kinds of groups attack (how big, what is the nature of their relationship? What sort of social ecosystem presages attack? How many will be killed? What kind of military or strategic response can forestall such an attack). The journal proposed an equation. They called it “The Power Law.”

The real-world person behind this equation is named Sean Gourley. He’s a Silicon Valley wunderkind. His ideas helped spark The Doomsday Equation.  He’s much nicer than the protagonist in the book, far more gracious, no less genius.

Five: It never hurts to ask.

Over the years (and books), I’ve gotten lots of terrific blurbs from world-class writers. On this one, I thought I’d try to get a copy to Lee Child, a guy I’ve chatted with from time to time but never reached out to for a blurb. Through an intermediary, I asked. Our mutual friend said: he’s too busy. But you could always ask him yourself. I did. Boy, am I glad. He wrote of the Doomsday Equation: “It’s a mile-a-minute, lone guy against the world masterpiece.” Thank you, Lee. This exquisite blurb I could never have predicted.

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Matt Richtel is a Pulitzer Prize-winning technology reporter for the New York Times. He is the author of A Deadly Wandering and the novels The Cloud and Devil’s Plaything.

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