Making Your Readers *Feel* It

  • by Gitabushi

One of my more favored authors is Alistair MacLean. When he’s at the top of his game, like in “The Guns of Navarone,” “Circus,” “When Eight Bells Toll,” or “Where the Eagles Dare,” he’s amazing.  When he’s not, well, let’s just say I don’t recommend “Goodbye California” and “Athabasca.”

navarone1

One of the things he does well, however, that I rarely see authors include is make his heroes fatigued.  The fatigue could be seen as a dodge to make it easier for them to make mistakes that help drive the plot, perhaps.  But he does a good job of making you feel how tired the main character is.

In this same vein, when one of my sisters read “The Stand” by Stephen King, she said it entranced her so well that she would look up and think, “What are all these people doing here? Everyone is dead!”

As an aspiring writer, I want to be able to do that.  So I set out to write a section of a story with an exhausted combatant.

The inspiration was somewhat based on this event from my own life.  I had so much to do, and I couldn’t stop until I finished the work for the day.  I just kept going. I got tired, then weary, then exhausted. I got to the point where I had to stop and rest.  But energy would return after even just a 30 second rest.  The thing is, the energy span you get after a rest gets shorter and shorter.  You get so tired your arms just go limp when you aren’t lifting something.  If you sit down, you risk falling asleep if you close your eyes even for a second.  Your skin chafes. You get blisters, and just keep moving…your brain sort of switches off the pain notifications. By the end of the day, you are truly spent.  To the point that you try to eat a hamburger and have to go vomit.

And then you get up and do it again the next day.

Your body has truly astounding reserves of energy.  There’s almost always more you can call on in need.  But every movement takes an effort of will. Just standing becomes difficult.

I wanted to capture that.  Here’s an attempt:

Another opponent.  He staggered toward me, barely able to lift his axe off the ground.  I knew my shield had sagged to the point of leaving my upper body exposed, but I couldn’t find enough energy to lift it any higher.  He summoned a burst of energy to swing the axe upward in an arc, letting the momentum and its own weight bring the axe blade down toward me, inexorably obeying gravity to try to bite deeply into the metal of my armor, and the relative softness of my flesh underneath.

But I was no longer in the axe’s target point.  I had pushed off with my exhausted and cramping left leg, and gathered enough power to move my body out of the way.  I yanked my sword arm up, so the point was no longer pointing at my feet, and fell foward, reaching out with the point for a spot on his side, just above his belt.  I managed to get my foot up in time to place in front of me to prevent falling on my face.  As my sword point cut through cloth and parted hide, I twisted my body to add force, trying to make it go deeper.

The axe head hit the ground, and his body followed it a second later.

I stared stupidly at his dying body, only dimly aware of other things happening on the periphery of my vision.  Unable to hold my arms up a second more, I let them both drop by my side.  I lifted my eyes to my surroundings, willing my head to follow, and looked around me.  I squeezed my eyes shut tightly to try to rid myself of the stinging sweat dripping down from underneath my helment.  I couldn’t lift my arm to wipe away the sweat without dropping my sword, and I didn’t want to do that.  Not until the encampment behind me was safe.

The closest enemy combatants were no closer than a half-dozen yards away, all engaged with different members of my company.  I had time to feel and catalog all my pain and discomfort.

My right hand ached from gripping the hilt of my sword, and a blister had formed and burst on the webbing between thumb and forefinger.  The sweat begain to sting.  My left arm ached from the blows absorbed by my shield. I’m sure the arm itself was mottled with black and purple bruising.  A dozen or more nicks and cuts; nothing deep nor serious, or I would not be able to stand, but with a growing pain, the longer I had time to think and experience the sensations, undistracted.  My head ached where the leather band in my helmet rested. My shoulders burned with exhaustion.  I would have given my right arm for an M-58 and three clips of seeker rounds, but we ran out of ammo two years ago, and the metal from the rifles salvaged for medieval arms not long after.

I breathed deeply, trying to find oxygen to regain my wind.  I buried the point of my sword in the dirt, and fell to one knee, gripping the crossguard and bowing to rest my head against the hilt. I closed my eyes.  I could feel sleep stealing about the edges of my consciousness, ready to dart in and drag me down into blessed oblivion of sight, sound, sense, and pain. The dizziness made my head spin, I felt the sensation of falling…

…and snapped my eyes open.  It would help no one if I fell asleep at this moment.  As exhausted as I was, I had slept more recently than most.

I saw man, clad in enemy colors, trudge up the hill toward me.  He ignored my engaged compatriots and came right for me. He raised his sord to point it at my head.

Show-off. If he were half as exhausted as I, he would regret the wasteful display of excess energy only long enough for his life blood to leak into the sandy soil.

I put the effort of my whole body into standing up.  I still leaned against the sword, as if a cane, with its point still lodged in earth, as my determined opponent approached me.  I could see his eyes light up as I refused to pull my sword, saw the wolfish grin as I let my shield fall, as if from nerveless fingers. He pulled his arm back, and thrust as he stepped forward…

…to pierce the air where I had been. The knife I had drawn with my left hand and concealed along my forearm twirled out, and I let his momentum carry him onto the point, driving it deeply into his heart.  He fell, and I lost my grip on the knife.

I didn’t want to bend over to pick it up, fearing I might fall over.  I stood where I was, still gasping for air, still trying to marshall my energy for my next opponent.

I turned and looked behind me at the summit of the knoll. The defensive wall still stood, and the orange and yellow flag still flew.  It was weighted, and held aloft by a rotating set of the older children. Had a wall breach threatened, or even worse, broken through, the child would have let go the rope to make some pitiful attempt at defense, and the flag would be in the dirt.  Our children remained safe and unmolested.

I turned back to the battlefield, and saw two more warriors notice me, and begin walking toward me.  My breathing had still not slowed to normal, but I had regained a little energy; enough to retrieve and sheath my knife, and even enough to shrug into the battered shield.

The first reached me, and I had gained enough energy to knock his javelin thrust to the side before stabbing him in the throat. He fell to the ground, and the next was upon me.

He swung, and I parried. I thought I saw an opening and jerked the sword up and around in a path to hit him just above his shield, but he raised his shield arm to deflect, while ducking under the rebound.  I had to use energy, too much, to stop the sword from dragging me all the way around.  My sword and shield drooped again.

His dropped, as well. Early in the battle, I would have made him pay for the poor defense, but then, I would have paid for my own.

We stood, facing each other, gasping for breath. Two men. One who turned his back on humanity and civilization, one who defended the last remnants of it. I thought of Sarah, back in the encampment, and the hell I was certain waited for her if I fell. I ignored the seat in my eyes, ignored the pain in hands, and lifted my sword for another attack.

I drove him back with the ferocity of my attack, pushing him to the edge of the nearby gully that guarded our left flank, but even my adrenaline frenzy drained away quickly.  I had to end this quickly. I took a chance.

I beat his sword out of line, and thrust.  He recovered, more quickly than I hoped, nearly as quickly as I feared. His sword sliced my side as mine slid between his ribs.  He fell backward, and my sword stuck on his ribs, dragging it from my grasp.  I let go as soon as I felt it stick, but it threw off my balance.  I staggered foward, tried to catch myself, stumbled, and fell onto the steep slope.

I grabbed for anything I could, but my grasping fingers met only the body of my last opponent, pulling him down with me.  I tumbled for a few dozen yards before tubmling into a crack between two boulders, the body of my opponent on top of me.  I tried to push him off, but with one arm wedged beneath me and trapped by the boulders, I couldn’t summon up enough strength to move him. I closed my eyes to rest a moment before trying again.

When I opened them again, it was night.  All was still.  There were no sounds of battle.

This time I was able to wiggle my way out from beneath the dead weight.  Being so close to the galaxy’s core, the stars were bright enough for me to slowly, and mostly silently, clamber my way to the top of the ravine.  I looked up at the encampment. No lights, but in the starlight, it was clear: the flag was down.

I let the other Bushis read it, and I think we all agree: there’s something good there, but overall, it’s clunky and overwritten.  I think I’m going to distill this down to a page-length or so, then write about the pursuit and rescue.

But what are your thoughts?

Of course, we don’t write about normal body functions in a story, but has anything in your life ever been disrupted by having to use the bathroom?  How about being sick?  How about being exhausted?

If it can happen in real life, why shouldn’t it happen in your story?

I have mixed feelings. I think I’m happy that we don’t talk about urinating and excreting in most stories.  It just gets ignored, right?  On the other hand, could it increase the verisimilitude? Or add further plot complications? Could it be done tastesfully?

What do you do to help your readers *feel* what your characters are going through? What should be out of bounds for inclusion, when it comes to bodily functions?

Advertisements

The Problem With Progressivism…

  • By Gitabushi

Margarent Thatcher once noted, “The problem with Socialism is eventually you run out of other people’s mondy.”

In that same vein, yesterday I noted:

I wasn’t just trying to be clever.  Progressivism is based on the assumption that humans are pefectible, and are on a journey from old, backward thinking toward modern (and even futuristic), enlightened thinking.  The old way of thinking includes outmoded beliefs like the importance of family, nation, propety/wealth, etc.  If Progressivism can just get everyone to learn their new, modern viewpoints, humans will live in harmony,  peace, and happiness.

To do this, Progressivism identifies some law, norm, or tradition that is old and somehow holds humanity back.  Perhaps it is the outdated notion of national borders, or perhaps the backward assumption that work builds character.  They attack it, and hopefully destroy it, advancing humanity a little bit farther on its path to perfection.

Or, as David Burge (iowahawk) put it:

iowahawk_skin_suit_5-28-16-1-600x406

They don’t care that their efforts result in destroyed lives and unhappy people.  By any sane metric, the United States is one of the most successful, safe, and egalitarian societies in the history of mankind, but Progressives are unhappy. Feminists are unhappy. Democrats are unhappy.  They are unhappy any time they are thwarted in the realization of their goals.  They are unhappy they can’t get everyone to join in the consensus. They are unhappy that the United States doesn’t enthusiastically embrace their religious fervor.

Eventually, you run out of things you can destroy in the name of progress.

A Few of the Many Reasons Socialism Won’t/Can’t Work

  • by Gitabushi

It seems as if Socialism is becoming cool among the youth of the United States again.  This is sad, because capitalism-based (mostly) free markets have lifted more people out of poverty than socialist nations have killed and/or starved to death, and that’s a lot of people.  Moreover, if the DNC hadn’t rigged the primary for Hillary Clinton, an avowed Socialist would have won the Democrat Party nomination for POTUS.  Another avowed socialist just ousted one of the top Democrats in the House of Representatives.  As recently as 2013, Venezuela was praised by liberals for their socialism, and for being an economic miracle.

At the same time, I have a friend on twitter, a semi-famous speculative fiction author whom I won’t name because I don’t want to get him harassed, who fervently believes in Socialism. He argues well and fairly for it; he believes that once robots and AI usher in a post-scarcity society, socialism will become the only way to sustain humanity.  So there are intelligent, forward-looking individuals who stiill fervently believe in Socialism, despite all its spectacular failures.

So with Socialsm on the rise among the nation’s youth, and the continued refusal of the Left to admit the humanitarian crises in Venezuela, Cuba, and Socialist nations of the past were due to the inherent ruinous effects of Socialism, it might be time to review some of the reasons Socialism can’t work.

  1. After the Janus ruling by the SCOTUS recently, government unions are no longer permitted to take dues from non-Union members.  And even better, paying dues to a union is opt-in, not opt-out: the default is unions don’t get your money unless they convince you to contribute.  The main argument for unions to collect dues from non-members is that unions obtain all sorts of benefits for their workers that also benefit non-members.  Unions are credited with the 40-hour work week, work safety rules, etc.  The assertion is that non-Union members take these advantages for granted, and, absent the ability to take the dues without permission, too many workers will be free riders, taking the benefits without contributing their fair share.  If this is true, if too many will not contribute their fair share without force, then how can Socialism work?  After all, Socialism guarantees everyone has enoough.  It isn’t explicitly stated that you will be given enough whether or not you work for it, but who decides whether you have worked enough to earn your Socialist benefits?  The argument for Socialism is the compassion: everyone has enough.  Now take someone who doesn’t work at all: do they still get as much as they need? If they do, other people will loook at them and say, why should *I* work?  This is the free rider problem that Leftists see very clearly with union dues, but cannot seem to apply to Socialism itself.
  2. One of the problems with Capitalism, socialist advocates claim, is the greed.  In capitalism, there is incentive for people to gather capital to themselves, to exploit workers for their own material gain.  The assumption is that capitalists, business owners, landlords, etc., are greedy and evil.  They don’t need that much money, they just want it.  For proof, they point to the wealthy who continue to work to earn money: no one needs that much wealth, so continuing to seek profit after you have enough is proof of greed and exploitation.  Why not give up your multi-million-dollar CEO salary and/or owner payout to give all your workers a raise (even if it only works out to a few dollars a year for larger corporations)?  It must be just a mindless quest for status: to be the richest simply to be the richest; a competition among the wealthy to see who has more, with the lowly worker paying the price.  However, these people rise to the top due to ambition and ability.  At the very least, if you accept they are only motivated by greed, what happens if you achieve a Socialist system?  Will this greed go away?  If there truly is a human need for competition to see who is best, why won’t that urge shift to the true scarce resource in Socalism, i.e., power?  Socialists never explain what magic wand will suddenly change human nature so that the evil capitalists of our current system won’t use their drive and ability to gain power in a Socialist system and still exploit the less-ambitious for power and comfort.

The answer to both of these, then, is likely force.

I’ve seen it said that the Left is always just one more execution away from Utopia.  The answer is that when Socialism fails, it always looks for people to scapegoat.  There is always someone exploiting a rule loophole for power or comfort.  There are always Hoarders.  There are always Capitalist Roaders, who participate in an underground economy that inevitably develops to fill shortages and redistribute resources that Socialism’s Central Planning misallocated. There is always a free rider that can be made an example of, so others work harder.

In short, every problem that Socialists identify as a shortcoming of Capitalism-based (mostly) free market economies will still exist under Socialism.  Humans don’t change.  Only the ways the leaders use to reward or punish changes.  And because Socialism has no way to deal with these human foibles without force or execution, Socialism will always fail.

Recommended SF&F Author: C. S. Friedman

  • by Gitabushi

I consider myself fairly well-read, at least when it comes to Science Fiction and Fantasy of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

This is because I was a voracious reader living in a small town, and I read every SF&F book the town and school libraries had.  Being a small town, they didn’t have much that was new.

But since I read so much, I don’t always know remember who/what I read.  Being young and foolish, I didn’t bother to take the time to check publication dates, or try to fit the books and stories I read into the context of the time in which they were written.

But then in the 80s, I started babysitting, getting a decent allowance from chores, and working part time, and I put the money I earned into books.

I got a sense of who the main authors were, and explored most of them.  Sometimes I encountered a story I didn’t like, and if I encountered two from the same author, that would burn the author in my estimation, and I’d rarely give them a second chance.

But there were often strange gaps. Jack Vance and Damon Knight were both considered Grandmasters, but none of the libraries I had access to had any of their books, and so I never read either one, until PCBushi recommended Vance to me.

Because I was both a voracious and precocious reader, I started young, with The Lord of the Rings at age 9, Robert A. Heinlein at age 10, Herbert’s Dune at age 13.  Some books I just really didn’t understand.  I tried the Lord of the Rings at age 9 after a teacher read The Hobbit to us, but not knowing what I was doing, I grabbed and started with The Two Towers.  I finished it, but I had no idea what was going on.  I picked it up again at age 14 and read it in order, and loved it.  I tried C. J. Cherryh a few times at age 17 or 19, and just didn’t like her.  When she came out with Lions….  In…..Space…. when I was about 20 (the Chanur series), I gave it a try and liked it.  But it wasn’t until I turned 26 that I actually really understood her writing, and she became my favorite.

Looking back, there was one author I tried in my early 20s: C. S. Friedman.  Not sure why she felt the need to hide her female name, because there were plenty of famous female authors by 1986, when her first novel was published.

But her stories were complex and perhaps a little beyond me at the time, like Cherryh.

I started with the Coldfire Trilogy.  I enjoyed it, but my girlfriend loved it.  She fell in love with the main character, who I thought was cool, but not especially lovable.  But trying to understand what she loved about the main character helped me understand a little better what women want from/like in men.  The trilogy is a fascinating construction of a Catholic-like religion battling demon-like aliens.  The main character is absolutely a Knight Templar type, or could be seen as a D&D-style Paladin.

Look at this picture.  Isn’t this guy a bad-ass? Don’t you want to read this book now?

Blacksunrising
As I recall, this cover is *exactly* why I picked up the book

It’s been so long, I barely remember the story. What I remember is the heartbreaking love story, where the main character falls in love with a woman, and she loves him back…then her memories are stripped.  He goes to extreme lengths to try to accomplish the return of her memories, but without her memories of their time together, she no longer loves him and falls for someone else.  It was well done, as I recall.

I enjoyed the books enough to purchase and read In Conquest Born.  It, too, was a complex book.  It has a little twist to it, though, not mentioned in the wikipedia page, that I don’t want to spoil for you, if you ever find it and read it.

I never found any of her other books, and had pretty much forgotten about her, until seeing C. L. Moore mentioned a few times in the past year stimulated my memory to the point where I had to figure out who C. S. Friedman was.  I even went so far as to write a tweet asking my SF&F peeps if they knew who the author was when I remembered “Friedman” and was able to do a quick search.

[Man, you younger kids have no idea what life was like before the internet, when it was difficult to find a song you heard on the radio, or a book you once read, or even the back catalog of your favorite band.]

Glancing through the books she’s written since, she is still writing complex stories with some pathos, although she is nowhere near as prolific as many of her contemporaries.

Have any of you heard of her or read her?  Honestly, the Coldfire Trilogy and In Conquest Born were good enough, I’m really surprised she isn’t mentioned more often as one of the greats.

I think I’m going to have to purchase and re-read her books (further delaying my slow-motion rampage through Edgar Rice Burroughs back-catalog).  I think with the added maturity of 20+ years, I should appreciate her books more.  Or perhaps discover that they aren’t anywhere near as good as I remember.

 

Education Problems in the United States

  • by Gitabushi
527px-Education_in_the_United_States.svg
Education paths in the United States via Wikipedia user https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Harej

Lately, I’ve had cause to mention a few times that students in the US, in general, aren’t just poorly educated, they are mal-educated.

I’m sure you are familiar with many of the complaints I’m about to list.  This article won’t be anything new to anyone.  I’m writing it as an attempt to put a bunch of thoughts in one place, and somewhat organized, and in some overall context.

First and foremost, I think schools do not prepare children for life. But that’s the parents’ job, you say? I disagree.

It is the parents’ job to teach their children their values: what children should think about religion, politics, the environment, taxes, etc.

The *sole* purpose of schools is to prepare kids for life.

There are skills and knowledge common to a successful life, regardless of your IQ, career path, marital status, sex, etc.

These are the things schools should be teaching.  Instead, schools seem to be more than happy to teach your kids their values, and to prepare them to do well on standardized tests that may help them get into college if their other abilities, academic record, and financial situation are appropriate for that option.

But what about those who don’t or can’t go to college?

I really think that school was a colossal waste of money and effort for the vast majority of students, and our education system has failed them.

Here are some of the skills and knowledge schools should teach:

  • Logic, reasoning, and how to think
  • Civics, including the structure of govt at all levels, the US Constitution, and other founding documents (like the Federalist Papers)
  • household finance basics, to include credit card interest, mortgage/car loans, how credit ratings work, tax rates, how insurance works, and the dangers of predatory lending like pawnshops and payday loans; there is no reason that people should freak out about payroll taxes when they get their first paycheck: they should be freaked out about how much they earn gets taken by taxes just from Finance Math at school
  • How to run a small business, like being a plumber or opening a restaurant; perhaps few kids will become entrepreneurs like this (and yes, a plumber *is* an entrepreneur), but they should understand the costs and risks businesses face, so there would be less of the financial illiteracy blaming corporations for charging for the goods/services
  • Emotional resilience. But, wait! Isn’t that dangerously close to teaching values?  I don’t think so. I think you can talk to kids about how to deal with problems, or how to cope when things don’t go the way you want them to.  Basically, this is the opposite of “everyone gets a trophy”, eliminating the stigma of letter grades, and grade inflation trends.  So, in a sense, this is *already* happening, but in a negative way: schools are teaching emotional fragility.
  • The path to a good life: get an education, get a job, get married, have kids, don’t get divorced, and do it in that order.  Again, people might object to this as teaching values, but it really isn’t.  The govt has no problems teaching the false and ruinous Food Pyramid, and is eager to tell us to conserve resources and recycle, so why can’t they teach the concept that overwhelmingly lifts people from the cycle of poverty?  Sure, there are some concerns that some people will not be able to marry, or stay married, or will still have children outside of marriage (deliberately or not), and that some stigma will be attached to these actions.  But nothing is perfect, and if kids are taught emotional resilience in school, they will be better able to cope with potential stigma if their life doesn’t go as planned.
  • Career choice. This is such a simple one, I can’t believe it isn’t a cornerstone of education.  I’m not sure when we should start, but I seem to remember being asked in school what I want to be when I grow up from as early as age 5. I understand that is an attempt to inspire kids to chase their dreams, but no attempt really seems to be made to give them the skills to achieve those dreams.  Kids need to be told: most jobs aren’t fun.  Even the exciting jobs like firefighter and police have moments of drudgery, and the exciting moments aren’t fun when you are doing them.  Not all scientists find the cure for cancer. Celebrity comes with loss of privacy and the need to satisfy a fickle audience. Maybe there should be less focus on career at all, and rather, lead kids to think about what kind of life they want: big city vs small town, north vs west (climate/temperature), coastal vs interior (population density), etc.  It would be a great way to teach kids about how people in other areas live…it might even reduce the disdain the North and the South has for each other (east of the Appalachians), or the big cities and rural areas have for each other.  Make it part of social studies?

There are probably some other things that should be taught.

Instead, children are taught many unnecessary things.  They are taught math, but despite some attempts to add context, I think math is taught simply as math.  How often does algebra come up in daily life?  Geometry comes up some…perhaps more if you are a carpenter than if you are in HR.  Certainly no trigonometry or calculus, unless you are specifically going into STEM, and even then, only some STEM.

I understand that math is taught because it is supposed to also teach logic.  That is perhaps what I still use most from Geometry: how to think about things, how to prove similar things are actually similar, etc.  But that was a case of me applying the logic to life on my own, there was no attempt to teach that connection in school; based on my twitter interactions, few have made that same connection I did. The connection of math to logical thinking needs to be made more explicit.

I had a civics class in Junior High, if I remember correctly, focused on Montana. We had to identify the major passes, major rivers, the State govt structure, and the history.  In my senior year, I had another civics class, but focused on the national level.  All I remember was memorization of the Amendments and general federal structure.  I think a deeper discussion of the purposes and implications of the 1st and 2nd Amendment would have been more helpful than trying to memorize the Amendments.  Then again, that was a decade before the internet, so maybe making us memorize them had some use, since at that time, there was no expectation we would soon have that information as a reference at our fingertips anywhere we have cellular or Wi-Fi connections.

One handicap I have in discussing this topic is the fact that my kids have lived with my ex- for the last decade. I don’t see their homework. I talk with them about school, but I am not fully familiar with their curriculum, beyond a general idea of what classes they are taking.  So maybe I’m making some incorrect assumptions.

Moreover, every state has different standards, and there can be a huge difference between what is taught in big city schools, magnet schools, small town schools, inner city schools, charter schools, private schools, etc.

So maybe I’m wrong in everything I’ve said.

However, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

You don’t have to look very far to see educated professionals demonstrating a complete lack of understanding of the function and reason for the Electoral College.  Recently, someone who can be assumed to have a college degree made a claim that Californians are the least-represented when it comes to Senators.  In the past, people have complained that Wyoming has more influence than it should in both the House and Senate, due to their lower population.

The continued existence of predatory lending institutions prove whatever effort is made to teach financial literacy is insufficient.

My kids attended a magnet school in Spokane, and then a top high school in Silicon Valley, but were taught nothing about how insurance works or how to make a monthly budget.  Before my divorce, I remember my son bringing home materials regarding recycling, global warming, and environmental protection that bordered on religious tracts.  The paeons of praise in school to Obama when he was President are well-documented.  I realize those represented a minuscule of a fraction of schools…but along with all the other Leftist ideology taught in schools, I’m sure the general level of partisan approval for Obama and his policies permeated most schools with a miasma of Progressivism.

Heck, at the very least, schools should teach the failure of Socialism everywhere it has been tried, as an introduction to the dichotomy between theory and practice, due to the perversity of human nature.

I’d like to see math taught in the context of personal finances.  Perhaps one semester is Household Math, with the later years being focused on running a business, and one semester of Pure Math.

I’d like to see Civics being a yearly requirement, just like English and Math.  There is so much that can be taught regarding civics, including the fact that Socialism never works, and how International Socialists specifically exploit liberty to gain power with the intent of dismantling freedoms once they gain power.  Of course, this is just a pipe dream: there are too many Progressives who believe in Socialism as their most cherished religion for this to happen.  We need to start shifting *that* Overton Window now; we should have done this decades ago.

Break break.

Another problem I have with education in the US is the lowering of standards and grade inflation.  It isn’t uncommon now to hear of a school graduating 17 Valedictorians, all with perfect grade point averages, to include 5.0 grades from Advanced Placement classes.

This should not be possible.  If even one person gets all As, then grading is too lenient.

This ties into emotional resilience and life preparation. Grade inflation is the result of parents refusing to accept their child didn’t deserve an A, combined with parental panic that anything less than an A will harm their child’s competitiveness to get into a good college, or to get a scholarship that make school (slightly) less unaffordable.

It’s wrong, though. And it not only doesn’t prepare kids for life, it actively teaches them attitudes and expectations that will cause them to fail at life.

One thing I learned a while back is that the proof of what you learned can also be watered down.

The exact same course, taught with the exact same information, presented exactly the same way, is much tougher if you give only essay tests, vs T/F tests.

You can often guess your way to passing on a T/F test just by how the questions are worded.  Just understanding the military mindset, I was able to guess my way to a 70% on all my Professional Military Education tests, and so only had to study enough to get that extra 10% or so for a passing grade.

You can do that, to an extent, even on SAT tests. I don’t think I’ve taken a test that I didn’t learn something from, meaning, at least 2-3 questions that I got right just from knowing how tests are written.

There is a skill to taking multiple choice tests that can be learned.

So the easiest grading is T/F, then multiple choice, then fill in the blank, then short answer, then long answer, then essay.  Perhaps there are a few other options, but as you can see, standardized tests are basically just short of being the easiest test to take.  This is because multiple choice is also the easiest to grade, which is necessary when you have to grade thousands of students to an objective standard.  Even “fill in the blank” requires some subjective judgment from the grader, which it comes to handwriting and spelling disparities.

This is one of the ways I think education has been watered down.  I think that as the assumption that college is necessary and good for all students has become more prevalent, the pressure for grade inflation, grading objectivity, and preparation for standardized achievement testing has caused all schooling to move away from actual education to merely enhanced daycare, where kids are watched during the day, given a chance to socialize, and cold-bloodedly allowed to sink or swim for college and/or future career.

That pushes all the actual preparation for life back on the parents.

I think this is wrong, because if school doesn’t prepare for life, then why do we pay so much in property taxes (and federal taxes for the DoEd) for it?

Civilization is based on the advantages of specialization.

I don’t have to know how to make shoes. I don’t have to know how to build a house. I don’t have to know how to repair my car. I don’t have to know how to deal with a neighbor being noisy. I don’t have to know how to deal with someone who drives recklessly. I don’t have to know how to force people to contribute to national defense, or resolve conflicts.  I could go on and on and on, but the point is we all specialize in our different roles, and then use money to exchange goods and services.

Schools are supposed to prepare our children for life, so that we don’t have to stop working to teach them (unless we home school).

That schools only teach kids how to pass standardized tests means schools are a complete failure at their primary mission.

Who is to blame for this?

  1. The Department of Education.  Anything with bureaucrats drifts Leftward. Bureaucrats also water things down, so they can still claim success even as performance declines.
  2. School administration, for the same reasons as the DoEd.
  3. School boards, because they make all sorts of decisions in disregard of parental opinion, and at times, even try to do things on the sly so parents don’t hear and object.
  4. Parents, for expecting schools to be merely enhanced daycare, for not teaching their children to behave in school or value their education, and for pushing for the benefit of their own child to the exclusion of other children.
  5. Teachers, in that they overestimate the difficulty of their jobs in comparison to other jobs, and in that they support teachers unions that, like bureaucrats, make things worse by pushing for the interests of teachers to the exclusion of the interests of students.

Okay, come at me and tell me where I’m wrong.

 

Writing Topic: Foreshadowing, or Why Does Stuff Happen in a Story?

  • by Gitabushi

A few weeks ago I wrote “Economies of Scale”, a fairy tale.  One thing I wanted to do in that story was make the main character encounter a series of obstacles, overcome them in his path to achieving his goal, and even have some of those obstacles actually contribute to achieving that goal.  Meaning, the main character wouldn’t have succeeded if something that seemed bad at the time didn’t turn out to help.

blur business coffee commerce
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So the story was partly an exercise in trying to make a coherent, believable narrative.

I cheated, perhaps, by making it a fairy tale, which relaxes some of the rules of realism.

It didn’t work for everyone.  One critique I got was that it just seemed like things happened because the author wanted them to happen.  I disagreed: I thought I set up fairly realistic obstacles, had the character make fairly realistic responses to the obstacles, and the outcomes were also fairly realistic.  I just figured he wasn’t the audience for the story (which was a big breakthrough for me in writing confidence).

However, after thinking about it for a few days, I realized that what it meant was I didn’t set up the foreshadowing adequately.

[As is my wont, now is the moment when I suddenly make a sharp turn into a different topic that seems like a digression until I bring it back to the main point]

In music, there is no impossible collection of notes.  Anything can be musical.  You can walk up to a piano and slam your fists down randomly on the keyboard and still make it sound like music, if you are skilled.  The trick, the key element, is resolution.  Each note must be carefully resolved toward consonance. If one step isn’t enough, two or three probably are.  In fact, the best music is often that which hits what would be a very discordant, unmusical sound (if heard in isolation) that, nonetheless, is beautiful and even moving when properly resolved to a consonant chord.  You can make it even better if you approach it carefully and properly.

The same is true, albeit in reverse, in writing fiction.

You can have the most incredible, unbelievable, unrealistic event or character action/decision…if, and only if, you set it up correctly.

Chekov said that if a gun is on the mantel in the 2nd Act, it must be fired by the 3rd Act. Or something like that. A quick search returned so many different versions, I’m just going to stick with my gist.

The corollary of this is that if you want to have a gun go off in the 3rd Act, you should have it innocuously appear in an earlier act.  It can’t be just pulled out of nowhere. Even worse if you take the time to set up a conflict that looks completely unresolvable with the current tools and options open to the main character, and then resolve the problem by having them pull out a tool the audience didn’t know they had, like a pistol.  This is how I understand the weakness of a Deus Ex Machina ending.

So one way of understanding why my friend didn’t like the plot development is I didn’t set up each obstacle resolution properly, with enough foreshadowing.

One technique I tried to use was something I don’t know the name of: if the character is going to find or use something that helps, it must also be used to hurt the main character.  The reverse is true, as well: if the antagonist can use something to harm or block the protagonist, then it is fair game for the protagonist to use it in return.

Go read the story again to see if you can spot the times I tried that. Let me know if you thought it too clumsy, or what I could have done to do it better.  I say “could have done” because for better or worse, the story is done.  I like it. It has weaknesses, but I think it works as is, so as is it shall stay.

Later, in a discussion with my friend, he pointed out that another thing that would have helped make the story better is if the main character has a better feeling of agency, meaning that all the actions taken by the characters seem, um, in character with the personality/person I’ve established.

I admit, that one’s harder than me. I have a difficult time thinking in characters. I fear that everything I write is going to end up sounding like “me, as a space pirate”, “me, as a dragon hunter”, “me, as an assassin”.  I hope not.  My characters do seem different from each other to me, but they’ve grown on the page, rather than me choosing a specific voice, or specific attributes.  This is one I really need to work on.

Thoughts?

The Spice of Life

  • Dumb SF by Gitabushi

In 2012, researchers hooked 16,000 computer processors in parallel, with more than 1 billion connections, and let the artificial brain browse a video website.  Before too long, it began watching cat videos.  We didn’t know it at the time, but this was the first salvo in the Second Robot-Human War.

The Second Robot-Human War gets all the attention, of course.  Few people even realized there was a First Robot-Human War, which mainly consisted of a street light on 4th and Main deliberately delaying the morning commute of a man named Nathan Alexander.  But that is a tale for another day.

“Perfessor! Jones! Get over here!” the Corporal bellowed.

I scrambled over, sliding over the detritus of a collapsed wall, then clattering down a rickety set of stairs into a basement. I wasn’t worried about noise, because the hiss of ionized air, rattle of nearby explosions, and loud buzz of the ubiquitous sonic repellers covered any noise I might make.

Probably. You never knew when the AI might get a software update that would let it pick out man-made noises.  I had a philosophy for that: when it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go.  There’s no point in pussyfooting around what the AI might do next. You just did your best, took out a few of the brain nodes if you got lucky, and hoped your genes got passed on.

Jones slid in beside me. He was quieter.  Maybe not so willing to let fate have a free hand?  He was calm, not even breathing heavy.

“What is is, Corporal?” I asked.

“Look what I found, guys!  A whole case of cinnamon containers,” the Corporal said, beaming. “There’s gotta be 120 or more!”

“That’s great Corp! What do we do with it?” Jones asked.

The Corporal looked at me.

“Well, uh…” I began, then stopped. A faint memory glimmered, then ignited into full flame. “Cinnamon was one of the earlier spices prized for food preservation!”

“Hey, that’s great, Perfessor!” said Jones. “Now that the AI cut us off from salt, we’ve had some problems keeping food safe long enough to eat.”

“Hey, do you remember what they used to do before the War?” the Corporal asked.

“Eat apples?” Jones said.

“Make gravy?” I added.

“Throw very small rocks?” Jones ventured.

“Nah, ya numbskulls!  They used to do the Cinnamon Challenge! You used to take a spoonful, then try to eat it without inhaling any into your lungs and making you cough.”

Jones looked blank.  I must have, too, because the Corporal seemed to grow, if anything, more irritated than normal.

“Awright, youse two!” the Corporal said. “We’re going to do it, too.”

“Right now?” I asked.

“Right now,” the Corporal agreed. “I’m in charge of you dolts, and now that I have ascertained a gap in your eddycation, I’m gonna fill it. Put your weapons down and SHUDDUP!”

We followed orders.

He pulled a spoon from his kit, and poured a heaping spoonful.

“Open up, Perfessor!”

I opened up.  The heaping spoonful went in. It…tasted pretty good.  Then it started to get hot.  Waitasecond! Wasn’t cinnamon supposed to be sweet and sticky?  The heat made me gasp–

–and then I was kneeling on the floor coughing out a cloud of light brown spice.  The Corporal was laughing and slapping his knee.  He calmed down and his expression resumed its dour state about the time I coughed it all out.

“Now you, Jones,” he said.

“I dunno, Corporal, I  don’t think–” Jones began.

“–Exactly!” the Corporal said. “You don’t think. You follow orders.”  He poured another spoonful. “Open up.”

Jones opened up. The Corporal poured it in.

Nothing happened. Jones chewed for a while.

“Hold on!” the Corporal said.  “Jones, spit it out. Now!”

Jones spit out the cinnamon.  It was dry and dusty.

The Corporal wasn’t known for high intelligence.  He’d never been a member of Mensa. He was the farthest thing from an intellectual that I could imagine. But he still saw it before I did.

“No saliva!  You’re a bot!” the Corporal said, then opened fire.

The sonic rifle shredded “Jones'” clothes and ripped great rents in his “skin”, revealing a metal endoskeleton, complete with shining cables and joints.  But even at close range the sonic rifle was too weak.  The bot we had thought of as Jones leapt at the Corporal, his hands reaching for the Corporal’s throat.

In a flash, his neck was snapped. I recoiled and stumbled over the crate of cinnamon, knocking over several containers. I reached out, grabbing for my rifle, knowing what little good it would do me.

The bot whirled and advanced toward me. My hands felt something, grasped the cold plastic of…a container of cinnamon. I needed a weapon, but maybe this could buy me time.

I ripped off the lid, and flung the contents at the robot. It ran through the cloud of spice, came at me just as I was reaching my proton disruptor tube…

…and ground to a halt, the fine cinnamon powder having floated into every possible niche, crevice, and cranny of the bot, absorbing lubricant and fouling gears. It was the work of mere seconds after that to destroy the robot’s AI brain.  With luck, I had managed to kill it before it could establish a connection and upload its experience back to the main AI.

And now we have a new weapon. One that we can use as a virtual aerosol defense that destroys mechanicals, but can also serve as a test of humanity to protect ourselves against bots.

Heaven help us if the bots ever develop saliva.

1920px-Cinnamomum_verum_spices
by https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:LivingShadow