Back and Forward

Criticism is a difficult arena.

It can be hard to give a critique; the intent should always be to identify an issue you have with a story1. There’s all the usual difficulties of communication and potential misunderstandings2, and it’s all to easy to drift into unhelpful negativity (“this book sucks!”), or ad hominem (“this author sucks!”). You (as the critic) have to recognise that not everyone will feel the same way, and that maybe you’re not part of the target audience.

But it is also very hard to receive a critique, and especially to not take it personally. Ideally, there needs to be a level of trust between author and critic that both share the goal of improving the story.

This makes the internet both boon and bane. An author can submit their work to a site3, allowing others to read it and make comments. Anyone can give feedback. Unfortunately, anyone can give feedback. I don’t have any figures to back it up, but it seems a truth universally acknowledged that a writer who allows anonymous reviews must be in want of abuse.

I was reading a story the other day, and the author’s response (to comments they4 had gotten) caught my eye. As context, one of the main characters was attacked, and had to spend time in hospital recovering, and the authorities didn’t take the investigation seriously until her friends kicked up a fuss. The author later explained why they had this happen: to give that character a reason to not be around, giving focus to the relationship between the other two protagonists; to demonstrate that the other characters cared (i.e. when she was hurt they looked after her); to provide conflict between the protagonists and the authorities; and to have an incident be punished, thus showing that the local hooligans weren’t going to have free rein any more.

A repeated piece of writing advice is to ensure that there is a reason why every part of the story is there (whether it’s a scene, a subplot, or an entire character), and if there isn’t a good reason, remove it. Like a lot of advice, though, in being distilled to a bullet point, it loses some nuance and explanation. How good a reason do you need? What sort of reason do you need?

Now, all the reasons given above are perfectly valid to justify the inclusion of this incident. But what I realised when I thought about it some more, is that the reasons are all looking forward. Basically, the attack creates a situation that allows later things to happen; as another piece of writing advice puts it, events should be linked by “therefore” or “but” (not just “and then”). Here, the real issue is not that the incident does not link to later plot/character developments, but that it doesn’t have clear enough links backward to previous things that have happened in the story, so it seemed to come out of nowhere. In animation, this is called Anticipation—preparing the audience for what is about to happen5.

For my third, and final, piece of writing advice: “earn it”. You can include whatever dramatic plot twist, sudden reveal, or clichéd trope you like, but you have to make it work. Put in the foreshadowing, so that the reader reacts with “I should have seen it coming!” rather than “Wait, what?!?”. Establish how dangerous an enemy is so it doesn’t throw people out of the story when the enemies savagely attack. The bigger/more clichéd the trope, the more work you need to do to ensure that it meshes well with the rest of your story.


1 I’m going to be focusing on the context of writing a story, but the challenge is similar for any type of work, whether focusing on the subjective elements (the art—e.g. “this sculpture fills me with optimism”), or the objective ones (the craft—e.g. “the left sleeve came unstitched when the model turned at the end of the runway”).

2 “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” (Attributed to various people, original unknown.)

3 Of which there are more than I can keep track of, whether you’re writing fanfiction or original works.

4 I think they’d given their name as “Paul”, which implies male, but this is the internet, where no-one knows whether you’re a sentient allium.

5 Interestingly, if you do the anticipation and the follow through/reaction well, you can omit the actual action and the audience will still perceive it as happening. Think of a kids show where they don’t want to explicitly show a character punching another—you get the dramatic wind-up (pulling back a fist), and then the other character flies out the window.

Advertisements

Know Your Medium, Part 1

The concept behind Linguistic Relativity1 has been around for quite a long time (predictably, Greek philosophers had musings on the topic). Summarised, it is the idea that the language we speak shapes the way we think.

Now that sounds fairly reasonable. But it has caused controversy when it has been presented as linguistic determinism; that your language restricts what you are able to think. In this form, it is argued that if a language has no word for something, then people who speak that language cannot conceive of that thing. English itself is a fantastic counter to this—for example, we had no word for Schadenfreude, so we nabbed3 it from German.

The evidence does support, however, that particular concepts become easier/harder to consider/discuss in different languages. And again, this is fairly intuitive—it’s harder to express yourself to others if you lack the vocabulary4. Where I find it particularly interesting, though, is the ways the concept applies to other forms of communication. For example, the same tune could be expressed differently for different instruments (guitar chord diagrams for example).

One of my jobs has been (essentially) training problem-solving, and an important tool in solving any problem is notation. If you’re faced with a problem like:

My grandson is about as many days as my son in weeks, and my grandson is as many months as I am in years. My grandson, my son and I together are 120 years. Can you tell me my age in years?

You may find it much easier to work with (and ultimately solve) once you translate it (where g, s, and i are the grandson, son, and “I”‘s ages respectively)5:

g x 365 = s x 52
g x 12 = i
g + s + i = 120

Where am I going with this? The point is that any form of communication involves a vocabulary (in the more general sense), which will be more accommodating to some ideas than others. I plan to delve into some more specific examples (comparing books and movies, as I am wont to do), but this has gotten long enough (and I’m getting muddled with my footnote numbering), so that will have to wait for next time. Ciao6.


1 You may have heard of it as the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis”, an honourific title at best as the two (Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf2) never directly collaborated.

2 Whorf also helped popularise the famous not-really-a-fact about Inuit having many different words for snow.

3 I’ve always liked James Nicoll’s quote: “We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

4 Case in point, 2-year-olds. Eternally frustrated that Mum and Dad just don’t seem to get them. Some would argue this phase lasts about 18 years. Others would say it never ends.

5 If you’re interested, their ages (in years, rounding to the nearest year) are 6 (grandson), 42 (son), and 72 (“I”).

6 In English it means “goodbye”, but it was purloined from (Venetian) Italian where it could be used as either greeting or farewell. A more literal translation might be “at your service”. Just thought you might like to know that.

Twin Medics

I’m generally a fan of thought experiments (see the blog title, for example), whether about the nature of reality, ethics1, language and meaning, technology, or anything else. They may be called by various names: experiments, paradoxes2, dilemmas, problems…

The advantage of a thought experiment is that it allows one (or many) to consider the nuances and implications of a situation before getting into it. This is especially handy if the situation is one that requires quick decisions, or has a high cost. Plus, it’s just interesting to consider what might be, and what are the implications and ramifications of a decision.

I find scenarios a little frustrating, however. There may be a good point behind them, but the way they are presented means the immediate solution is a matter of grammar or semantics. For example, the “Omnipotence Paradox”, usually expressed as (something like) “if God can do anything, can he create a stone too heavy for him to lift?”. Whether the answer is yes or no, it establishes something that God cannot do, thus God cannot be omnipotent. It’s really about the logical inconsistencies of our concept of omnipotence, and the limitations of our language in expressing certain concepts. Which is fine, those are worthy topics of discussion, but we shouldn’t claim it tells us anything useful about the nature/existence of God.

Another famous one that doesn’t really hold up is the “Epimenidesโ€™ Paradox”, named after a Cretan philosopher who claimed that all Cretans were liars. But he was a Cretan, so he must have been lying. So Cretans are not liars, so he was telling the truth, so … ๐Ÿ˜•

But that's a false dichotomy. The statement “All Cretans are liars” is not the same as the (more specific) statement “All Cretans always lie”. In the real world no-one lies all the time (despite recent evidence). Of more relevance is the (somewhat blander and more formal) “Liar Paradox”, encapsulated in “This sentence is false”. This has been the basis of much discussion of the problems of self-referential language.


Speaking of lying, though, I saw an article purporting to list the 5 lies you are allowed to tell in a relationship. The morality of lying has been a hobbyhorse of mine, so I was intrigued. But ultimately disappointed. Their list of acceptable topics to lie about was:

  1. Whether you liked the meal they cooked
  2. Whether the hotel room is okay
  3. Whether it’s fine for their family to visit
  4. Whether those clothes look good on them
  5. Whether they’re right (in an argument)

In general, this seems to be mistaking lying for diplomacy. In all these situations, lying about your feelings to spare theirs is a bad idea. Again, it’s presenting a false dichotomy: you have more options than lying through your teeth, or giving it to them with both barrels. Telling the truth can (and should) be done gently, and with respect for the person you’re talking to. It’s a lack of that respect that makes the truth blunt and rude.

A specific note on outfits: they advise praising an outfit that works and saying nothing about an outfit that doesn’t (i.e. lying by omission). Again, the truth would be better, but this is a scenario where you have to show you deserve the right to tell the truth. The stereotypical girlfriend’s “test” (“Does this make my bum look big?”) isn’t about the clothes. It’s not a yes/no question. You pass by showing that you want her to look good, and can say something’s wrong without hurting her feelings.

Ultimately, don’t you want those close to you to respect and value your feelings and opinions? How can they do that if you’re not being honest?


1 A topical example is the Trolley Problemโ€”first popularised in the late 1960’sโ€”which directly relates to the decision-making of automated vehicles in potential crash situations (do you drive into the other car, or the pedestrian?).

2 Yes, the heading is a dreadful pun. No, I’m not sorry. ๐Ÿ˜›

Expectations Colour Reality

I tend to be a bit cynical about the self-help industry; it often seems geared around getting your clients to open their wallets and say “Help yourself”. Yet I cannot deny the positive impacts of motivational media. When you feel like your day has been nothing but wading through chest-high blancmange1, a cheery reminder that “You only fail when you stop trying!” can be just the tonic to help you reach dinner-time with your sanity, if not intact, at least not missing any pieces.


There’s a lot of it about.

And yet, at other times, the same statement can seem like the most tedious inanity that ever cloyed its way out of the primordial syrup. So what gives?

There’s a learning metaphor I like that suggests concepts are like Lego blocks, and we better assimilate new ones if there are sufficient others to connect it to2; a block on its lonesome is easily misplaced, but a firmly connected one is likely to stay where you put it. If we don’t have the appropriate framework, we won’t be able to connect with a new concept, so it will seem either impenetrable or silly3.

A similar metaphor can be applied to moods. If we’re in a particular mood (e.g. grouchy), our available connectors may be incompatible with the thing we’ve just encountered (e.g. a cutesy “it gets better!” quote), and so it will be easily brushed aside.

This pattern shows up all over the place. In our biases (any new information about someone or something has to connect to—and thus reinforce—our existing framework). In priming/anchoring (once we start thinking in a particular direction, it can be hard to change). Placebos work because we’re told they will heal us. Over-hyped experiences inevitably disappoint.

Changing our perspective will change the way we react to something, separate from the actual value of what we’re reacting to. Imagine you go to a restaurant and see a particular dish on the menu—the one you fondly remember your mother making when you were a child.

You eagerly order, only to find that they do it … differently. Not badly, just not like mother used to make. You leave the restaurant feeling unsatisfied with your meal (and maybe with the evening out in general). Whereas if you’d acknowledged beforehand that the dish was likely to be different, you would probably have been quite happy with it.

And this, I think, is what’s really behind the common motivational concept (which I’ve seen many variations of, attributed to all kinds of people): “If you can’t change your circumstances, change your reaction”. I found this idea irritating for a long time, because we can’t control (all of) our reactions; if we get a shock, for example, our body dumps adrenaline into our system before we’re even consciously aware of it. But we can control our expectations going into a situation, and that will impact how we react.

If we don’t expect a movie based on a favourite childhood book to be that great, we’ll still be disappointed when it’s turned into largely empty spectacle with an overdose of Legolas4, but we won’t be shocked and tempted to write angry letters to the director. Our expectations colour our reality. Which hopefully is more meaningful with the rest of the post to undergird it.


1 Please note, I’ve never actually tried this, it just seems like it would be difficult (it may actually be tremendous fun). And “blancmange” is a funny word. ๐Ÿ˜‰

2 I might not connect my block in the same place as you—my pre-existing structures may be quite different. We may both be able to lock in the new idea, but because we connect it differently, we’ll have different associations with that idea. Hence one of the values of brainstorming, in that the same concept can send different people off in different directions.

3 When you’re trying to convey a concept to someone else (especially if it’s new to them), it’s easy to be so focused on the concept itself that you take for granted the framework around it. If you’re thoroughly familiar with a concept, a short statement can be deep and meaningful. If you’re not, the same statement can seem vague and airy-fairy.

4 I’m not angry, just disappointed given what might have been. And it makes for an amusing example.

Procrastination

I saw an amusing TED talk the other day explaining what goes on in the mind of a procrastinator. The only complaint I have with it is that it oversimplifies a little in assuming all procrastination is the “messing about unproductively leaving important task to the last minute followed by mad deadline panic” type.

I’m generally pretty good at not doing that, but I frequently suffer from the “finding other productive things to do to avoid dealing with particularly daunting/unpleasant task” type. And how does one overcome procrastination? Just read this handy-dandy self-help guide:

  1. Don’t waste energy trying to be someone else—be yourself!
  2. Only, be a more organised and productive yourself. Because winners get up at 5am to make to-do lists using quinoa and mason jars.

What brought this topic to mind? I’m procrastinating, natch1. I’ve been wanting to get some feedback on a project I’ve been tinkering with (especially as it could use a jump-start), but I’ve been reluctant to show it to anyone. It required a little introspection to realise that I was putting this off.

It’s kind of weird that despite being well aware that it’s at a first draft/prototype stage, knowing about several deficiencies, and wanting suggestions on what direction to proceed, the thought of revealing it has me curled in a corner, clutching it and wailing that “it’s not ready!”2, and making vague mutterings including frequent use of the word “precious”.

So, yeah. I’ll get over it. It just amused me once I realised what I was doing, and so I thought I’d share.


1 No, I have no idea how long it’s been since “natch” (short for “naturally”) was in the common vernacular, either. ๐Ÿ˜‰

2 Or should that be “I’m not ready”?

Potential retitle

One of the things I’ve been considering is renaming this blog to make it a bit clearer what it’s about. I’m not intending to change the overall purpose, that is, sharing thoughts on various topics.

I’ve noticed that I tend to (over)think about things differently to most people, and I make connections between seemingly disparate topics, so I’d like to inject some of that flavour (i.e. an unusual perspective/unexpected links) into the title and tagline. But of course, it should be short, memorable, and easy to understand, which I’m not so good at. ๐Ÿ˜‰

I’ve thought of a few ideas, so I’m going to try out this “poll” thingy (hopefully it works). Any and all feedback is most welcome, especially if you have alternative suggestions.

EDIT: Manual poll – please leave your response in the comments

  • The Odd-ball and Chain
  • Ponderlust (as in “wanderlust”)
  • Mulled Lines
  • Exteriordinary Thoughts (portmanteau of exterior and ordinary)
  • Musing Alfresco
  • The Nut’s Case (as in “making a case”)

The Marginal Myth

I’ve been reading quite a bit recently about how the world works and what one must do in order to succeed. It’s become a source of minor frustration that much of this advice (though likely effective) comes from those whom I would not wish to emulate.

Put simply, the modern world rewards effort, but also ruthlessness. As the saying goes, “Nice guys finish last”.

People are catching on to the fact that the world is not a meritocracy—your circumstances make a huge difference both to what opportunities you receive, and your ability to act on them—but what I’m calling the Marginal Myth seems to be either unrecognised, or actively ignored (as with many other uncomfortable truths).

The Marginal Myth comes from the common practise of examining the “margins” of a situation in order to streamline (e.g. being able to produce goods faster and/or more cheaply).

“But wait!” you say, “That’s not a myth; it works!” And you’d be right. It’s more insidious and subtle than that: the myth is that this approach is always worth taking.

To cite another saying: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a thumb nail”. So, when times are tough, people get bogged down in trying to work out where they can “economise”; governments speak of “belt-tightening”; a lot of emphasis is placed on “the bottom line”. We trim and squeeze the margins further and further, our blinkered focus not seeing the other drawbacks that don’t directly affect the magic number.

Using the example of a soda-making factory: profit margins are being squeezed by their competitors, so they have to economise. Various tweaks are made to the bottling process, after which they find to their delight that they can save a few cents a bottle. A seemingly trivial amount, but given the volume they produce it has a significant effect. Hands are shaken, new instructions given to workers on the floor, and the bigwigs head out for a celebratory round of golf. But…

  • Maybe there isn’t time to properly clean the machines between batches, leading to build-up of syrupy residue which attracts insects, leading to contamination of the product.
  • Maybe the cheaper supplier of ingredients is farming them unsustainably, creating environmental problems due to deforestation or use of pesticides.
  • Maybe making the plastic bottles slightly thinner leads to increased leaks, causing wasted and unsold product, and frustrating retailers.
  • Maybe no-one’s properly checking the bottles before they get boxed up anymore. Occasionally, one has the wrong label, or the label upside-down, or just skewed/misprinted. No disaster, but customers start having subconscious thought of declining quality and are more likely to try a different brand if it catches their eye.

And so on. Okay, I’m presenting worst-case scenarios here, but the thing about “belt-tightening” is that it almost invariably happens again. Whether because other economic pressures arise, or because some board-member who doesn’t know the factory’s address, let alone having ever visited, gets excited at the improvement and thinks if they do a bit more he can add a couple of feet to his yacht.

Easy changes are made, and everyone’s okay with that. All seems well. Further changes are made. People on the ground are under more pressure than before, but once they get used to it, everything will settle down again, right? When the next change happens, they suddenly realise things didn’t settle down again. Now they aren’t getting a pay rise for this year. Still, not a problem, right*? Next time, more drastic cuts are required. People may accept reduced hours/pay because the alternative is redundancy. Either way, there are (on average) less staff on the factory floor. Compromises get made. Mistakes creep in.

We’re viewing this as a quantitative adjustment—changes made cause numbers to be different—but at some, not necessarily predictable, point in the process, a qualitative shift can happen. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. And it’s all driven by competition: the incredible, ephemeral “market” that makes companies and governments march to its drum**. It’s a commons dilemma where too many are placing no value on the long-term good.

There’s a story about a village that decided to hold a great celebration. Everyone in town was asked to contribute a bottle of wine into the vast barrel placed in the square, and that night there would be revels aplenty. But the blacksmith thought to himself, “I don’t want to pay for a bottle of wine, but if I add a bottle of water, there’s so much wine, no-one will notice”, so he did. Many others had similar thoughts, so that evening, when the mayor—with great ceremony—poured the first flagon, only water came out. All went home, chastened, the celebration cancelled.

Maybe we need to hold our glasses up to the light.


* People are less likely to complain at missing out on a bonus (pay rise) than suffering a penalty (pay cut), not realising that it’s effectively a pay cut given the likely increase in the cost of living (due to inflation and suchlike).

** There’s a lot of other issues I have with being driven by “the market”, but that will have to wait for later posts.

Babies and Bathwater

I’ve been doing a bit of soul-searching about this blog of late, part of which has involved reading up on some advice about how to grow your audience and that sort of thing. It’s a little hard to be motivated when it feels like I’m talking to myself, and maybe the odd friend or family member*.

The frustrating thing (about searching for advice) is that it all seems to come from bloggers who—despite their claims to be writers—only seem to blog about how to “establish your platform”, and “monetize” your blog, and other marketing-related stuff that causes rather a knee-jerk reaction. It’s like I too could reach thousands of people if I focus my blog on “How to Market your Blog”.

Marketing. Ugh.

What I think annoys me most is that marketing techniques work. Sure, when they spring from a genuine enthusiasm for a topic, that’s fine; so often they come across as pushy and inauthentic. As Rose Red puts it very succinctly, “I can’t sell something I don’t believe in”.

But, part of wisdom is recognising that someone you dislike (or disagree with) can still be right. It can take effort, humility, and discernment to honestly assess what they’re saying and extract the parts of value to you (even if that is just a better understanding of where the other side is coming from).

So, you’re likely to see some changes, as I tweak the look and focus of this blog. My aim is to make its purpose clearer, and hopefully encourage more interaction. With that in mind, do you have any thoughts or suggestions (on potential topics, for example)? Because I know that, no matter how I may come across (I’m good at seeming authoritative), I don’t have all the answers, and I would benefit hugely from your input.

Thanks in advance!


* And I do have some odd friends and family… ๐Ÿ˜‰

One thing can lead to another

Another difficulty I find with posting (see my previous hand-wringing) is again to do with the way my brain works. It’s not a lack of topics—I have a list of things I’d like to write about—but being able to confine a topic to something reasonably defined that doesn’t end up being thousands of words long.

If any of you are familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality types, I’m an “N” (for iNtuition), which means I tend to process information by looking for patterns and generalised concepts. This approach is very good for drawing associations and parallels between disparate ideas. In other words, I may start trying to write a brief post about recognising the efforts of those who work behind the scenes and have to work very hard to avoid going (too far) off on tangents about intrinsic human value, the flaws of 21st-century capitalist economics, ideal class sizes, subconscious assumptions, sexism in sports coverage, and so on*.

Suffice it to say, that my brain is sometimes like this:

The problem with wikipedia (xkcd.com)
From xkcd.com

Of course, another side of the problem is attempting to make sure that you (the reader) are able to follow what I’m writing. It’s okay to segue from one topic to another, as long everyone understands the transition. This is a lot easier to do when conversing face-to-face, as you can immediately see if you’ve lost your audience. Similarly, it’s important to remember that other people are not necessarily as familiar with a particular topic as I am, so I try to provide explanations, or links to more information.

By all means, call out if you feel I’m failing at any of these. If I’ve confused you, chances are I’ve confused everyone else too, and I need to explain something better. I’m willing to make the effort, as one of the main points of this blog is to help get my rambling thoughts into some semblance of order.


* Case in point, I could waffle at length about the Myers-Briggs test, whether it’s “accurate” or not and whether it’s useful regardless, and some of the nuances of the different types. But I won’t**. I’m sure you’re very glad. ๐Ÿ™‚

** This time, anyway.