Success and Happiness in Life: Some Reading Suggestions

  • by Gitabushi

I consider myself a philosopher.  Meaning, somewhere along the line, I realized that I was making my way through life (interacting with others in the world) according to a paradigm, and if I was unhappy with the results, I needed to improve my paradigm.

So I’ve done that many times in my life.  And I’m pretty happy.

This sort of came up in a conversation this morning, and I was reminded of a book I received from my best friend’s Mom for Junior High graduation: The University of Hard Knocks.

University of Hard Knocks

I read the book, and thought the lessons were a little too obvious to write a book about. And yet, I found myself thinking back to it in my early 20s, and remembering its lessons more and more.  I think this is partially where I got the idea of swapping out paradigms. It taught me about the occasional need to change the way I think about things.

But there was another book that helped me to understand and improve how I think: The Depression Book.  I don’t care if your depression is diagnosed as chemical, you still need to read this book to help conquer your depression…because anti-depressants eventually stop working, but if you can use the respite they provide to reprogram how you think, you might be able to improve your brain chemistry by establishing a different internal dialogue.

But now I think it might be worthwhile for everyone to read it. Mostly because everyone gets depressed at times, and this book can help you to minimize both those moments, and the damage of those moments.  The book was really helpful to me in understanding how to change the way I think about things.

So now I’m thinking about other helpful books that are Must Reads for increasing your chance to have a successful and happy life.

I’ve heard great recommendations for Rich Dad, Poor Dad. I’ve never read it, but the things people say about it make me think I discovered many of the same lessons on my own from other sources.  Let’s add it to the Must Read list.

I’m going to put in a conditional recommendation for Charles Givens’ “Wealth Without Risk.”  I own it. I’ve never read entirely through it. I found a few ideas in it that I like…I guess the best thing that I can say about it is it definitely contributed to my understanding of how money works, and how we earn money through smart decisions.

I’m not sure how mandatory it is to having a good life, but I’d like to make a recommendation for James Q. Wilson’s Bureaucracy.  I mean, most people end up working in a bureaucracy, and most certainly end up at the mercy of one at some point.  It seems like it might be helpful to know what you are up against. Or what policies to push your politicians to vote for in light of how bureaucracies work.  Or don’t work. Or barely work.

I can’t really think of any other book that provided me useful knowledge I didn’t already pick up from school, life, job training, etc., but there might be some I’m not remembering.

What books do you recommend for a happy, successful life?

Advertisements

A Few Thoughts on Intelligence and Education

  • by Gitabushi
woman in black long sleeved shirt reading a yellow covered book
Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

Okay, setting aside false modesty for a moment, I’m a smart guy. I qualify for the Triple 9 Society. If there were a Quadruple 9 Society, I might qualify for that as well, but it’s a little more iffy.  I’ve never bothered to join, cuz I can’t think of a worse place to be than hanging out with a bunch of people who place such a high value just on being smart.

What *is* intelligence?  I saw a tweet where someone insisted that some events were occurring according to a person’s plan, and that person must therefore have stratospheric intelligence.  My response, in disregard as to whether things are actually proceeding according to someone’s plan or not, is that a well-laid and well-executed plan doesn’t require stratospheric intelligence, it just takes time and coordination.

Aside #1: One motivation, I think, for claiming that someone else must have stratospheric intelligence to come up with a plan is that the person telling you thins must also be exceedingly smart to be able to recognize the plan and tell you about it. No?

So after many years, I have decided that what intelligence is, is the ability to see connections between different information, and then successfully combine those different elements into valid conclusions…along with the ability to do it quickly.

There is nothing that someone brilliant can think of that someone “stupid” can’t also think of…eventually.

The reason smart people think of things regular people cannot, is that speed element.  Someone smart can notice the connection and draw the valid conclusion within, say, minutes, and then move on to the next problem.  The “stupid” person would need, say, three or four hours of pondering to see those same connections and then another hour or two to reason through to the conclusion.  And who has the kind of time and discipline to think through a problem for half the day?

Well, patent clerks, apparently.

See, I don’t think Albert Einstein was necessarily brilliant.  He clearly wasn’t anything close to stupid, and clearly was more intelligent than average.  But his concepts weren’t that difficult for moderately smart people to understand. The implications are obvious to anyone with scientific training, and many scientists have gone way beyond Einstein in thinking through those implications…to the point of conditionally negating some aspects of Einstein’s theories.

However, if Einstein hadn’t developed his theories, someone else would have.  Einstein was smart, and it is possible he was also truly brilliant.  But he is

famous because he did the *work* of thinking, and considering, and testing his thoughts, until he came up with a theory that answered all the issues he could connect.

Now, that’s just a broad definition of intelligence.

Aside #2: Back in High School, a girl that I liked and respected claimed she wasn’t smart enough to keep up with me.  At that time, I knew I was good in school and testing, but my struggles to understand people, and my subconscious sense that I lacked necessary knowledge for a successful life, led me to insist that I wasn’t too smart for her.  In a flash of insight, I pointed out that there are plenty of types of intelligence, and came up with seven off the top of my head.  Let’s see if I can recreate them:

  1. Deductive Intelligence: the ability to see all the facts, and come to the correct conclusion
  2. Inductive Intelligence: the ability to see the way things are, and be able to deduce the elements that led to it.
  3. Communicative Intelligence: the ability to explain and teach what you understand to others.  Some people are just brilliant orators, and I think you can’t be stupid to do that.
  4. Creative Intelligence: the ability to write music, draw beautiful art, etc.
  5. Physical Intelligence: the ability to do something physically without much thought. Some people can pick up a basketball and dribble and shoot fluidly almost immediately. I had to think my way through it, and took triple or more the time to just gain a modicum of fluidity.
  6. Humor: It’s really difficult for dumb people to be funny.  Aside #3: Humor is the ability to see an unexpected connection, and laughter is the surprise when you see that connection the first time.  That’s why jokes you’ve heard before aren’t funny. That’s why running gags can be funny: putting that old gag into a new situation can be an unexpected connection.
  7. Memory: Being able to recall the answer rapidly, to answer the teacher’s question or provide the correct answer on a test.

Okay, I almost forgot #7.  The point I made to the girl was that all I really had was #7, and it made everyone think I was smart.  I was good at tests, but feared I wasn’t good at anything else.  Except that even at the time, I was proud of my music ability (creative & communicative intelligence), and coming up with the list was an act of Inductive Intelligence. I probably would choose a different way to organize and explain different intelligences today.

But the key point of all these is just: being able to grasp connections and (where applicable) draw valid conclusions more quickly.

One other way to grasp connections and draw valid conclusions more quickly?  Crowdsource a problem with like-minded individuals that have a minimum of differing agendas.

That’s how we got the US Constitution.  It wasn’t brilliance, it was just normal smart people working together on a common problem: how to craft a government structure that works to prevent the assembly/collection of power in one person, or even one institution.  When followed, it works wonderfully.

How this fits with education: I’ve noticed that education in the US has been pushing more and more math and science into the curriculum.  Part of this is simply that I went to small-town schools, whereas my children attended big city schools. They took algebra in Junior High, and had the opportunity to take Calculus II in high school, if they went math heavy.  Both of them were able to take AP Physics, AP Chemistry, and AP Calculus, which culminates in a test that gives college credit.

Nothing like that was available to me. Of course, the small school issue.  30 years ago, my class was one of the first allowed to take pre-Algebra in Junior High.  Before that time, you had to wait until High School.  So if you wanted to reach Calculus, you had to double up on math two years.  Having pre-Algebra in Junior High meant that I could take Algebra my freshman year, Algebra II and Geometry my sophomore year, Trigonometry my junior year, and Calculus as a senior.  Unfortunately, I moved to a small Texas town before my senior year, and the highest class they had was Trigonometry, so I spent the year teaching my fellow students Trig, because the teacher wasn’t very good.

So we’ve pushed more education on our kids.  Are kids smarter than before?

Maybe not.  Some people point to studies showing that IQ is rising over the years (the Flynn effect).  I’m not sure that’s true.  Some possible explanations here. My own view is that IQ was never that scientific to begin with, and once people began valuing it, they began gaming the system.  It’s difficult to judge how quickly someone consistently sees less-obvious connections and draws valid conclusions, and do it consistently, and then compare it to others. IQ testing is inherently cultural in nature, and the test-makers will skew it towards what they think measures the ability to think well. And while they try to minimize the impact of education, the simple fact is that you must be exposed to specific cultural knowledge to score well on IQ tests.  Do not put much faith in people trying to make arguments based on IQ scores.

That we can push more math and science on kids by accelerating the pace is simply because we can make people work harder.  They might be covering more ground in the lesson text, but are they learning more?

“Scores flat” is an evergreen headline. In response to declining SAT scores, they “recentered” the scoring system.

And when I was a military instructor, I heard them discussing revamping a course to make it easier.  Nothing was changed in the course, but the testing changed. Here’s how it works:

The easiest test is T/F.  Yeah, you can make T/F tests incredibly difficult if you use gray-area questions, but that’s not how the military works.  There are rules to avoid ambiguity. Slightly harder is Multiple Choice. Harder still is fill in the blank, then short answer, then long answer. The hardest would be an essay test.

I’m convinced that in school, the testing has been watered down to easier testing processes.  Kids are covering more ground, but learning it to a less-rigorous testing level. A smart kid will still learn beyond what the test can evaluate, but humans being humans, most will study to the test, and not demand greater depth of learning of themselves.

The reason this is an issue is Competence is dying in the US.  But that’s a topic for another day.

And now, the Big Conclusion that Wraps Everything Up Neatly:

I don’t have one.  I just wanted to make some points about intelligence and education to provide some baseline knowledge.  Your kids are probably not smarter than you.  They may end up more credentialed than you, but if they achieve more, it is likely because the threshold for achievement was lowered.

I used to feel confident my kids would eat the typical millennial’s lunch in the employment world, but I’ve come to realize even my kids haven’t been challenged by school to a level of attention to detail or diligence in work that they will need to truly succeed.  And Lectures from Dad can only go so far.  Hopefully, the seeds are planted, so that when watered with adversity, the plants of experience grow rapidly and bear lush fruits of success.

I hope you found something useful in this for raising your own kids, or for helping them understand themselves better if they are already grown.

Good luck.

 

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?

Economies of Scale

  • by Gitabushi

When I’m a famous writer, I won’t have to explain myself to you, bub. I won’t have to answer to anyone!

I am not a famous writer. As such, I think I need to give a brief introduction to this story.

This is intended to be a fairy tale. I don’t know the rules of writing fairy tales. I just thought of the story, mulled on it for a day, and wrote it. It might not follow all the conventions of a fairy tale.

Nonetheless, it is supposed to be more light-hearted. I hope there are moments that get an actual chuckle out of you, but I’ll take just an internal “heh” if that’s all I can get. The focus is supposed to be on the story, rather than the details.  Consider it Soft SF, perhaps.

If it doesn’t work for you, I’m sorry, but that’s also okay.  The feedback I’ve gotten on this story from friends has reminded me that there are many tastes, and many audiences. This might not work for everyone, but I hope it works for you:

We’ve had enough of this ado crap, no?  So without any further ado:

 

“I’m going to kill the dragon,” Timor Redcraft said one morning.

“Hush, Timor, eat your breakfast,” his mother replied.

“You don’t have time to kill the dragon, Timor,” his father said. “We need to get the fences repaired on the south ridge by midday or there’ll be hell to pay!”

“The dragon” was Emporilio, the de facto ruler of the land ever since arriving in flames, smoke, and fury years ago, nearly seven years before Timor was born.  On the balance, it was a fairly lenient ruler.  It only took the occasional sheep from the occasional farmer, not adding too much burden to the relatively heavy taxes of King Stephen. Particularly since Emporilio’s presence did more to keep rival nations from invading the Kingdom of Marista than King Stephen’s standing army did.

There was, however, Emporilio’s requirement for a blonde maiden to be sent to keep his den clean and orderly for a year, at the end of which she was eaten. This was a difficult demand to swallow, not only for the parents who were required to sacrifice a beloved daughter, but to the young men who chafed with the tragic reduction in the number of beautiful and marriageable maidens. Periodically, a young man would decide he was the one who could rid the realm of the foul beast. He would collect armor, a spear, and a horse, and ride to his rapid death.

The only good that came of their sallies was it tended to keep the number of men seeking marriage in somewhat of a balance with the number of marriageable maidens.

In the Redcraft hovel, Timor did, in fact, hush and finish his breakfast. He and his father did repair the fences by midday, and so no debt was owed to hell.

Timor was not very intelligent, but he did like to think things through at his plodding, deliberate pace. So as he worked, he thought.

“I need a weapon,” he said to himself. “I have the family boar spear! So that’s good.”

He pounded more nails into the fence he was building and continued to think.

“A dragon has fire for defense,” he said to himself. “Fire heats things up.  When the hammer sits in the sun for a few minutes, it feels hot if I pick it up by the iron part.  That’s why we pick it up by the wooden handle.  I wonder if I should make armor out of wood?”

That evening, he placed a doll fashioned from an old corncob and covered with a bundle of twigs near the banked coals of dinner cook fire. When he pushed it close to the coals with the hearth poker, the wood caught fire.  He used the poker to pull the doll away from the burning twigs, but the corncob was already scorched.

“Bosh,” he thought. “That’s no good. I must keep thinking.”

Days passed.  Timor continued to think about a hammer heated by the summer sun.

“If I weave a straw pad,” he said to himself, “it also keeps my hand from feeling hot. Perhaps I should make armor from straw!”

Rice_straw
Rice Straw, by Green https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Green

That evening, he placed a doll fashioned from an old corncob and covered with tiny straw mats near the banked coals of dinner cook fire. When he pushed it close to the coals with the hearth poker, the straw caught fire even more quickly than the wood. He again used the poker to pull the doll away from the burning straw, but this time the corncob doll was not scorched at all.

“The straw absorbs the fire,” Timor said to himself. “If I leave it behind, the fire will stay on the straw and not on me!  That’s good.  But if I drop the straw mat, I will not have any more protection. That’s bad. I wonder what I can do?”

Days passed. Timor continued to think about straw set on fire by a cook fire.

“If I used more than one straw mat,” he said to himself, “the straw pad on the outside protects the straw pad on the inside just like it would protect me.”

That evening, he placed a doll fashioned from an old corncob and covered with two tiny straw mats near the banked coals of dinner cook fire. When he pushed it close to the coals with the hearth poker, the straw caught fire again. He again used the poker to pull the doll away from the burning straw of the outside straw mat. Sure enough, the inner straw mat was not burned at all.

Satisfied, Timor began weaving straw mats.  Very soon, he had finished ten layers.  But when he put them all on, he couldn’t do anything more than fall over.

“Bosh,” he thought. “That’s no good.”

The next day, Timor wrapped himself in only nine straw mats, but he still couldn’t do anything more than fall over.

It wasn’t until several days later, when Timor wore only four layers, that he could move at all. He still fell down very often from the weight, and couldn’t walk to the end of the pasture without needing to rest.  He decided that three layers would have to be enough.

He tied the mats to his body with string, and practiced untying the string as quickly as he could.

Each week, Timor would travel to the nearby village to trade some of their fruits, vegetables, or crafts for other items they needed for their farm.  While there, he would take a half hour to talk to Balen Fingerlet, the oldest and wisest man he knew.  He would ask about dragons.

“Dragons is parful!” Balen would say. “Don’t be wasting you self trying to be no big hero, Timor!”

“Dragons is evil!” Balen would say at other times. “Don’t be wasting you self trying to match wits with no dragon, Timor!”

“Dragons is trickee and dasseptuv!” Balen said a few times. “Don’t be wasting you self trying to reskew no maydun, Timor!”

“Dragons is deeveeus!” Balen said once. “Dey allwayz have layers to their defense. Whenever you think it be there, it be someplace else!”

Timor decided Balen was no actual help to his goal.

“I will go to kill the dragon now,” Timor said to his parents. “I have said I will do this, and I will do it, or die trying.”

Timor’s parents were in tears, trying to talk him out of this notion. But Timor was resolute.

“Father, Mother,” Timor said. “You know that Emporilio has been a problem for our kingdom. Others have had the courage to try. Why should I not have the same courage?”

The tears of Timor’s parents did not diminish by even one drop.

“Father, Mother,” Timor said. “You know that Emporilio has been a burden for our kingdom. In helping you take care of our farm, I have learned that problems do not solve themselves if you wait for others to solve them for you.”

The tears of Timor’s parents did not diminish by even one drop.

“Father, Mother,” Timor said. “You know that Emporilio has caused continuous pain for our kingdom. In helping you take care of our farm, I have learned that the longer you wait to solve problems, the worse they became.”

The tears of Timor’s parents did not diminish by even one drop.

Timor sighed, but could think of no other words to comfort them.

Father, Mother,” Timor said. “I will return with the head of the dragon, or on it.”

Timor paused.

“You know what I meant,” he added.

Timor took up his boar spear, stuck the hammer in his belt, donned his straw armor, and left.

The path to Emporilio’s lair took him through the village.  He trudged slowly, due to the thick straw mats making it impossible for him to bend his arms and legs and torso normally.  When the villagers saw him stumbling along, they laughed and pointed.

“Look at Timor,” they laughed. “He looks like a walking haystack!  Timor can’t even walk right anymore!”

Stung, Timor felt he needed to explain why he had dressed in such an outlandish and awkward fashion.  He responded with, “I am going to kill Emporilio!”

This did not help.

“Look at Timor,” they jeered. “He thinks he can kill Emporilio!”

Timor had no answer to that, and so did not respond.  They quickly grew bored with insults and derision. One small child flung a tomato and hit Timor in the arm. From the smell, the tomato had been rotting for a few days. Another followed.  Timor felt multiple impacts, stumbled a moment as his foot came down on a slippery bit of moldy fruit, but continued forward.

One older villager tossed a moist, odiferous, and brown-colored clump of something that was not fruit. Before long, Timor’s nose was filled with the odor of a horse barn that had not been mucked out for far too long. But he continued forward.

“This is a small village,” Timor said to himself, “and there aren’t many animals. They will run out of manure soon.”

The rate of noisome missiles diminished, and then stopped.

Children skipped alongside Timor. Then one dashed in front and got down on all fours directly in Timor’s path.

Unable to halt in time to avoid the unexpected obstacle, Timor tumbled to the ground over the child.  He was moving slowly enough the child was not hurt from the impact, although the straw jabbed and scratched Timor’s skin.  No one asked if Timor was hurt; or if anyone did, the question was drowned out by the laughter of a dozen people.

Timor did nothing but clamber to a standing position, bend to pick up his spear, and continue along the path toward Emporilio’s mountain.  This new game was repeated three or four times.

“Say something, Timor!” shouted one older child.

Timor said nothing, and just kept walking.

“Why haven’t you quit yet?” asked someone a few years old than Timor.

Timor said nothing, and just kept walking.

The crowd of villagers shadowing Timor became smaller, then smaller still, as villagers went back to their daily duties. One small child followed for another five minutes before finally running back to her home.

Timor walked on, alone again.

“My heart is aching,” Timor said to himself. “My parents were inconsolable. The villagers mocked me and even tried to disrupt me upon my quest. Does no one support me in this task? Does no one even want our kingdom to be rid of this foul beast?”

Timor could not help but notice, however, that the sky was the very pleasant shade of a robin’s egg. In the dusty yellow heat of the late summer, the leaves of the trees along the road were green enough to make him feel cooler just by looking at them. The wind sighed through the tree branches, the birds were twittering and chirping high up in the boughs, and the vexation Timor felt began to fade away the way the mist does as the morning moves toward afternoon.

Timor began to whistle a happy tune about maidens and buckets and mushroom picking.

“Maybe it isn’t that people want the foul beast to remain,” Timor said to himself. “Maybe they have just grown accustomed to its presence, and its cost, and simply cannot imagine what life without a dragon might be like. I can certainly understand that, because I have never known what life without the dragon might be like.  The dragon has taken sheep and eaten maidens since before I was born.”

Timor thought more.

“Come to think of it,” he said to himself. “I am very happy my mother was not one of the maidens.”

Emporilio’s lair, halfway up the rocky mass of Widows Peak, was a handful of hours from the village under normal conditions. Hampered by a heavy spear and armor, however, it took Timor five hours to reach the base of the small mountain.

“Why is there no path?” Timor asked himself, as he began to use the wind-twisted and stunted pine trees to pull himself up the boulder-strewn slope.  “I wish I had wings like Emporilio, then I could just fly…oh! I think I understand why there is no path.”

An hour later, Timor was nearing the dark spot below the ridge that had been pointed out to him a few weeks ago as Emporilio’s lair. He began to hear the gurgle and splash of water.

“There must be a small stream,” Timor said to himself. “It makes sense that Emporilio would want fresh water nearby, just like our sheep like to be near the pond.  I know I would like a drink of water, and it would also be nice to wash off some of this stink.”

Within a few minutes, Timor had found the stream.  He took a long slow drink of water, and then tried to splash water to cleanse himself of rotten fruit, animal waste, and Timor sweat.

“This will never work,” Timor said to himself. “I must find a place I can immerse myself.”

He splashed up the stream, looking for a place to lie down. He could not find one for a long time.  The stream sometimes became broad, flat, and too shallow; other times, it became narrow, fast, and too deep; if the depth and speed were just right, then there were too many rocks and broken tree limbs for him to even lie down comfortably.

He neared the cave.  In fact, Timor was in sight of the cave when he finally found the perfect spot: not too deep, not too shallow, but not so many rocks and tree branches that he could not lie down among them.

“I am already here, though,” Timor said to himself.  “There is no need to delay. I would like to take a nap, but as mother always said: work first, rest later.

“Hallo!” Timor called out.

No answer.

“I say, Hallo!” Timor repeated. “Come out and fight me, you sneaky lizard!”

There was no response.

“I guess there is nobody home,” Timor said to himself.  He shrugged, but shrugging did not summon the dragon.  He put his spear on the shallow side of his intended stream bed, splashed down on his back, and closed his eyes.

Timor opened his eyes.

The sky had changed from a crystal clear, blue afternoon sky, to a crystal clear, deep indigo evening sky, replete with a thousand sparkling and glimmering stars.  It was a sight he had not seen often, as his mother would have him in bed each day as the sun went down.  The moon was out, as well, full and round. Its light bathed the little gully formed by the stream bed, enough that he could see the sinuous form of the dragon as it slurped from the stream a few yards away.

It was not so large as Timor had imagined.

“Why, it is not much larger than the miller’s horse!” Timor thought to himself, so as to not make any sound the dragon could hear. “This is certainly a fine opportunity to kill the dragon and keep my vow!”

He stood up and thrust with the spear at Emporilio’s ribs, just behind the shoulder, striking hard and driving the blade deeply, slaying Emporilio almost immediately on the first try!

Or, at least, that is what Timor wanted to do.  In fact, he splashed clumsily to his feet, dropped the spear in the process, bent to pick it up, slipped and fell as he overbalanced forward, got his hands on the spear shaft, and used it to lever himself to his feet.   He then rushed forward, tripped as the water bound his legs, leveraged himself to his feet once more. This time he walked more slowly toward Emporilio.

Emporilio merely watched the spectacle.

If a dragon’s face could have an expression, Timor would have sworn it held an amused smirk.

“Who are you?” Emporilio said.

“I am Timor! I have come to kill you,” Timor declared, in his bravest, loudest voice. “If you don’t mind, that is,” he added.

“I see,” Emporilio purred. “No, I don’t mind you trying.” Then he breathed fire.

The fire was hotter than Timor could have imagined, but it was over more quickly than he could have imagined.  He was engulfed in flames for a moment. The water in the outer layer of his straw matting turned to steam in a flash, and the straw caught fire.

Timor quickly unbound the strings holding the outer layer of matting and it dropped to the ground.  Lighter, Timor took a step forward more quickly.

Emporilio breathed fire again.

Timor was engulfed in flames for another moment.  The water in the middle layer of his straw matting turned to steam in a flash, and the straw caught fire.

Timor quickly unbound the strings holding the middle layer of matting and it dropped to the ground.  Timor strode through the burning straw toward Emporilio, and thrust with the spear, slashing through the muscle below Emporilio’s left wing.

Bright blood splattered. It splashed on nearby rocks, where it hissed, sizzled, and blackened.  A few droplets flew from the impact to hit Timor.  The fiery blood left pinprick burns on Timor’s face.

Emporilio breathed fire a third time.

Timor was engulfed in flames for a third time.  The water in the innermost layer of his straw mating turned to steam in a flash, and the straw caught fire.

Timor quickly unbound the strings holding the innermost layer of matting and it dropped to the ground.  Timor sprang through the burning straw to see Emporilio try to fly, fail, and begin to scramble back towards its lair.  In desperation, Timor thrust with the spear and hit Emporilio in the ribs.  The spear head sunk in deeply.

Emporilio spasmed and thrashed, and the spear was torn from Timor’s grasp.  Emporilio yanked the spear out of his side, and a stream of blood flowed from the wound.  Emporilio snapped the spear in two, and threw it away.  The dragon looked extremely vexed.  It turned toward Timor.

Emporilio fell onto his side.

Timor took the hammer from his belt, and walked forward. He heard a gasp behind him, and turned to see a beautiful maiden, dressed in dirty white rags.

“I’m Timor,” Timor said. “I’m here to save you. Just let me finish the job and I will save you right after that.”  Timor turned and walked around the dragon, being careful to stay out of reach of its dagger-like talons, and needle-sharp teeth.  He walked around Emporilio to be able to approach from behind, but stayed three long paces away.  Emporilio turned heavily to face Timor.

“Wait!” Emporilio said.  “Please don’t kill me.”

“Why not?” Timor asked.

“I…I…am now powerless.  I cannot breathe any more fire, and I cannot even stand up.  I cannot hurt you, I cannot take any sheep, and I certainly cannot take or keep any maiden.  You have vanquished me! I am no threat to you or anyone else now.”

“Don’t liste—” the young maiden began, until a gesture from Emporilio ended any sound from the movements of her mouth.  From what Timor could tell, she was not in any exceptional distress; she could still breathe, and could still move and breathe freely, but Emporilio’s gesture had robbed her speech of any sound.

She mouthed words silently and hurriedly, her arms flailing with excited gestures.

Timor didn’t understand, and shook his head.

She mouthed words slowly, exaggerating the shape of the words, her hand movements slow, deliberate, and evocative.

Timor decided the maiden was no actual help to his goal.

He turned back to Emporilio to see it had moved three steps farther away, and closer to its lair and the maiden.

“You say you are powerless,” Timor said. “But you seem to still have magic. I must kill you to end this power.”

“That was but a small cantrip,” Emporilio responded. “Had I any real power, I would have used it to kill you as you stand there.  Does that not make enough sense to penetrate your dim-witted skull?”

Timor admitted that it did.

“I know this will seem self-serving,” Emporilio continued. “But being this weak and helpless for the first time in years, I have learned what it must be like to be weak and human.  I have had a flash of empathy for your kind.  I swear on my True Name that I will leave and bother your people no more.”

“Well,” thought Timor to himself.  “That certainly seems serious.  His True Name!”  But he scowled in doubt.  He raised the hammer and took a step forward.

“I see you are still considering,” Emporilio said.  “But consider this: I know I have sinned. I have committed grievous sins upon your people.  But I have confessed! I have repented! I have given you my solemn word!  Surely you must give me a chance, to see if I keep my word.  You have bested me once, so you can always come back and kill me later if it turns out I lied, is this not true?”

Timor said nothing.

“Moreover, I am now weak and helpless.  I cannot stand. I cannot run.  I cannot breathe fire, and I cannot even use magic to defend myself.  What kind of monster would you have to be to slaughter me now?  I repeat: I have seen the error of my ways, and will tread a righteous path from now on.  Does your faith not tell you to forgive the repentant? Should you not give the reformed sinner at least one more chance?

“Look, I am not a sheep, or a rabbit, or a cow.  I can think!  I can feel!  I can speak to you!  I am a person, just like you, albeit in a different shape.  If you kill me, is it not the same as killing an innocent child?”

Timor lowered the hammer.

“If you spare my life, I will dedicate my life to keeping the Kingdom safe from all enemies.  I will also serve you, personally.  Anything you want.  Just spare my life.”

“What if he is telling the truth?” Timor thought to himself.  “Could he really have repented?

“Except, I cannot be the smartest person who ever tried to kill Emporilio.  Young men have been trying for twenty-four years.  Others must have figured out ways to protect themselves from its fire.  Others must have been able to surprise Emporilio and have the chance to end this terror.  Emporilio himself said this was the first time he was this weak and helpless in years.  That means he was this weak and helpless before. Maybe more than once.

“And yet, Emporilio is still here.  Sheep and maidens are still being consumed regularly. Every young man who came up here died.”

Timor took two strides forward and brought the hammer down on the bare patch of ground with all his might.

As the hammer connected with Emporilio’s skull, the illusion of the further-away Emporilio disappeared, and the maiden’s voice returned to her.  Even its blood had lost its caustic power.

A few more blows with the hammer, accompanied by repeated and enthusiastic promises of gratitude from the maiden on behalf of her family, and Emporilio’s reign of terror over the kingdom and its maidens was no more.

Timor did not marry the maiden.  Having killed the dragon and claimed its modest treasure, he was able to choose the maiden with the mildest and most dependable character from among the beautiful brunettes of the kingdom, which he found much more attractive than blondes.

Timor felt that was enough excitement for one life.

He was wrong, but that’s a tale for another time.

Breaking: Gitabushi Abandoning Twitter, Moving to Gab.Ai

  • by Gitabushi

With Twitter putting all its effort into making it easier to silence and marginalize conservative users and ideas, I can no longer countenance giving them free content.

I have many, many friends on Twitter, but the time has come for me to leave that platform before I (and those with whom I enjoy interacting) are deplatformed by Twitter policy.

I have my concerns about Gab.Ai.  There are claims that the founders are white supremacists, or racists.  There are certainly plenty of racists there who take advantage of Gab.Ai’s commitment to free speech to spread their idiotic nonsense.  But I’ve also found some pro-Israel accounts, and hope to find more who push back against racism in general.

At the very least, I can be a voice for racial color-blindness there.

Maybe I’ll find my voice drowned out by racists.  Maybe the accusation the site is full of racists is just another attempt to marginalize and silence anyone who dissents from the Left’s socially-indoctrinated consensus.  I don’t know. I’m going to find out, I think.

It is my intent to craft a sub-community that reflects my commitment to liberty and my unique sense of humor.

I have changed my screen name to Gitabushi, and my user name remains brainfertilizer.

See you there!