Another Encouraging Result

Just got this from the Al Blanchard contest:

Hi, Thomas,

On the behalf of the Al Blanchard Award Committee, I’m pleased to let you know that your story, “The Great Auk Caper,” made it to the first round of the contest in that it was among the top ten picks of one judge. Congratulations! Although you didn’t win, this is no mean feat, given that we received around 140 submissions. We hope you’ll try the contest next year.

In the meantime, good luck with your writing!

Sweet. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this contest lets you enter a story twice and I posted about the earlier entry, which also did well, in July 2017.

Joseph Campbell and Popular Fiction

A lot of popular fiction starts out with a boring, pedestrian scene, e.g., we see our hero or heroine coming home and saying, “Thanks for cooking X, honey!” X was Y’s favorite dinner, we’re told. Actually we don’t need to know what they’re having for dinner or the main character’s favorite dinner. Just plunge right into the conflict.

I suspect this sort of thing in modern fiction is due to a misunderstanding of Joseph Campbell. In his Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell noted that many myths from around the world have an ordinary person yanked out of his comfortable pedestrian life and thrown into a world of savage magic, challenges, and adventure. This has led many modern authors who don’t understand the difference between myth and popular fiction to think that their stories should be set up this way. Whoops, no. This is fiction, not myth. Stories should plunge right into the conflict. Don’t show us the character going about his/her normal life before things get interesting. Make them interesting from the first sentence. If we need to know certain features of the main character’s day job or whatever, then tell that as backstory later, dropping in details as we need to know them.

Works of popular fiction that dwell on the normal situation before the conflict really gets going, without boring the reader, are rare. The only two I can think of are Gone With the Wind and The Hobbit. And in Gone With the Wind it works because we’re told on the first page that this is Georgia in April 1861, so we know our characters are on the very brink of a terrible civil war. In The Hobbit it works because the first sentence introduces us to a mystery: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Since no one knew what a hobbit was when the book was first published, we get a mystery that piques our curiosity right from the first sentence. And as we read on we realize the fictional environment we’ve been thrown into is thoroughly new and exotic.

Furthermore, to return to Campbell, the old myths Campbell was discussing actually don’t spend much time detailing the hero’s pedestrian life before things get kinetic. They just say, as it were, “One day Joe, a humble shepherd, encountered a witch and…” etc. Total expenditure on Joe’s initial life situation: three words, “ a humble shepherd.” And the “humble” is optional and the “a” doesn’t really count. In Hero’s Chapter 1, “Departure,” Campbell considers the story of

an Arapaho girl of the North American plains. She spied a porcupine near cottonwood tree. She tried to hit the animal, but it ran behind the tree and began to climb. The girl started after it…

And of course an adventure ensues. Notice there’s no breath wasted on detailing the girl’s normal life before she chases the porcupine into the sky. She’s just a girl walking in the woods, and… We’re off!

So any writers who dwell at length on the main character’s normal life at first, really aren’t modeling their story after myth very closely anyway.

I am not blaming Campbell for this mistake that some writers make; I’m blaming a misunderstanding of Campbell. Myths and popular fiction are very different things!

Review of Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach

Never mind the Escher and Bach stuff; that’s just window dressing. This book is about Godel’s Theorem. And wow, what a book.

Imagine a glorious future in which, by means of magic and genetic engineering, the human species is transformed into a better, smarter, faster, more beautiful, more creative, more moral, stronger, happier species, a more alive species. We make Elysium, then we live in the Elysium we’ve created.

In this Arcadia, this Heaven, this Eden, this Platonic Form of the world animated and electrified by benevolent intelligence, you walk across grassy fields and you see the whole thing, The Dream:

Everyone is wearing flowing white robes. (Why? Just because.)

Over there athletic people engage in athletic contests, their good-natured competition embodying grace, fluidity, and the confidence of a well-disciplined, healthy body.

Over here, mathematicians use sticks to draw in the dirt on a river bank, proving astoundingly beautiful and useful new theorems.

In another direction a young man or woman lounges, back against a tree, releasing sweet strains of melody into the air by means of some sort of elegant string instrument.

Are you with me?

Okay.

In that universe, every non-fiction book is this good.

What’s it about?

It’s about, principally, Godel’s Theorem. The other stuff, at least in the first part (Escher, Bach, etc.), is just add-ons. Godel’s Theorem is often mis-characterized as “disproving all of mathematics!” or some similar nonsense. No. It says something about formal mathematical systems, systems of clearly stated axioms with clearly stated rules of inference for deriving implications of the axioms. The theorem essentially says that any formal system sophisticated enough to be used for number theory – reasoning about integers – either has internal inconsistencies or is unable to prove every truth in number theory.

This does not “Undercut all of mathematics” or whatever. It simply means that a consistent formalistic approach to mathematics can never derive all mathematical truths. There are some truths that can only be proven in other ways. Indeed, Godel shows how to prove some of those truths by reasoning outside formal systems!

To prove it, Godel had the profound insight that any formal system can be re-interpreted as a set of numbers and arithmetical operations on them, so formal number theory talks about itself! This is so cool.

E.g., suppose your formal system has the symbol string x#@^&?G-!y. (This might mean, say, “x is the largest number in the prime factorization of y.”) We also have a rule that allows us to derive x<=y (x is not greater than y) from the first string. But we also can interpret x as 5, # as 0, @ as 2, and so on, so the initial symbol string can be interpreted as a number. And so the second string is a number that we can derive from the first. So the rules of inference in this interpretation are arithmetic operations on numbers. Thus we can apply mathematical reasoning to the system and derive conclusions about the symbol strings it will generate and those that it won’t generate.

A simplified analogy: Suppose that we can prove – by reasoning outside the formal system – that the system will never produce a string whose number is prime. What Godel proved, in this analogy, was there is always a symbol string that asserts “N is a prime number” (in the first interpretation) whose number was N (in the second interpretation). Thus, if the statement is true, the formal system will never prove it!

(It is possible to verify that a well-designed system will never “prove” a false statement, so you can avoid that problem.)

In fact, no only do such true-but-formally-unprovable statements exist, in any formal system complex enough to be useful, but an infinity of them exists!

It was the idea of reinterpreting the symbols as numbers that was Godel’s real stroke of freakin’ genius. The theorem is based on that.

Anyway: The next time someone tells you, “Godel’s Theorem proves that all mathematics is invalid,” or whatever, just give them a wedgie and move on. All it proves is that a certain approach to mathematics cannot prove everything. Which, unless you had unrealistic ambitions for it in the first place, is not that surprising.

Avengers: End Game

SPOILER WARNING!

A year ago, almost to the day, I offered a conjecture about how the Infinity War story would be resolved. I didn’t call it. But I must have been in the writers’ heads to an extent, because the call I made was used as a fake-out in End Game.

Last year I wrote,

One possibility is that the entire first movie actually takes place in what is, from our point of view, an alternate timeline.

Dr. Strange, to save half the sentient beings of the universe from being genocided by Thanos, had to go way back into the past and engineer a different universe from the one he was in.

That universe is the one we we think of as the real universe.

As it turns out, this isn’t how End Game is resolved. But just before the last battle of the movie, Thanos says to the good guys (I’m working from memory here),

“Before, when I killed half of all sentient beings, it wasn’t personal. But you’ve angered me so much that I’m going to kill everyone. I’m going to reduce the universe to subatomic ash, then re-build it from scratch with new, better beings.”

“They’ll be born in blood,” someone says, to which Thanos replies, “They’ll never know.”

At those lines of dialogue I was like, “Wow, I was right!”

Well, no. I didn’t call their ending, but I called their fake-out, so yeah!

Great flick, by the way. Go see it, if you’ve seen enough of the other Marvel movies to have good context. And if you haven’t, watch all the Iron Man movies, Captain America movies, and Avengers movies, then watch this one.

In a pinch, you can just watch Captain America: Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Avengers: Infinity War first.

The Mediæval Bæbes’ Christmas carol album, Of Kings and Angels

Just listened to this over Christmas. Overall it’s a good album. The liner notes contain the lyrics, with translations where appropriate, and notes on the carols. My listening notes:

1. I Saw Three Ships. Good.

2. We Three Kings. Good.

3. The Holly and the Ivy. Good. Note this is a different performance from the one on their album Mistletoe and Wine.

4. Ther Is No Rose of Swych Vertu. Meh at best. They should do it more up-tempo.

5. Ding Dong Merrily on High. Good.

6. The Angel Gabriel. Beautiful.

7. In the Bleak Midwinter. Good.

8. Good King Wenceslas. Ugh, unlistenable. They do stupid, pointless things with the melody, including either quarter-tones or a very bad lead singer. I didn’t finish listening to it. Regarding the quarter-tones, if that’s what they’re supposed to be, this carol was written by some English dude in the 1800s, and plainly this album is intended for an Anglospheric audience. This is the western musical tradition; stick with half-tones, puh-leaze!

9. Gaudete. The version on this album is awesome! Some delightful surprises. I could say more, but…I don’t want to ruin the surprises!

10. Once in a Royal David’s City. Good.

11. Veni Veni Emmanuel. Very nice.

12. Away in a Manger. Good.

13. In Dulci Jublio. Good. Note this is a different version from the one on Mistletoe and Wine. By the way, the lyrics are a macaronic combination of English and Latin. “Macaronic” in this context doesn’t refer to pasta; it refers to a combination of languages. A Net search reveals that the earliest known version of the lyrics – which are around 700 years old! – are a macaronic combination of German and Latin. A guy named Pearsall translated them into macaronic English and Latin in the 19th century. If the melody sounds familiar, that’s because it’s also been more loosely translated into the carol “Good Christian Men Rejoice.”

14. The Coventry Carol. This is a horrifying “carol” about King Herod slaughtering all the male infants. Yikes! I didn’t listen to it. Why would you put that on a Christmas album!?

15. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. No! See comments on Good King Wenceslas.

16. Silent Night. Good.

17. Corpus Christi Carol. The lyrics are kind of a downer, and the singing is too physically piercing.

Evening’s Empire

Evening’s Empire by Craig Kosloksky is a non-fiction book about “mankind’s colonization of the night” by various lighting technologies. Via a review, a snippet from the book:

“…the power of midnight, solitary and profound, to strip away the vanity of the day.”

I like that; it captures well why things seem so different at night. The literal noise of the daytime world, not to mention the social cacophony, prevent (or certainly discourage) one from thinking about profound matters. Also, the daytime world has the frenetic pace of a competitive species that is mortal and subject to aging. Things must be done fastfastfast! Night has an entirely different pace, no pace at all, really. In the dark and quiet, profound thoughts set their own pace, and their own pace is slower, much more measured. The darkness removes the distraction entailed in observing things around you. It lets you retreat into yourself, into your own thoughts.

Quotidian things distract us from profound things. If there is a devil, he is a creature of the day, not of the night.

How to find things: Do game theory with your future self

Use! This! One! Simple! Trick!

Say you’re trying to decide where to put your wallet or your car keys, or what directory to save a file in. Ask yourself this: “When I’m looking for this in the future, where will I, logically speaking, look for it?” Put the thing there. For example, I have a spot for my wallet, which I take whenever I leave my house. Since I often also take my cars keys when I leave the house, next to my wallet is a logical place for the keys. (And cell phone, etc.)

This is an obvious example, but it can be used on less obvious things, things you don’t think about as much. I’ve successfully used this to quickly find things I don’t look for often, e.g., in my office at work. Say it’s an old document I only need to look at every couple of years. There are only a few logical places I might have put that, and I usually can find it quickly by second-guessing my past self.

Furthermore, it gets even easier once you get into this habit, because in the future you’ll think, “Where would my past self, thinking game-theoretically about making things easy for me, have put this?”

This is particularly helpful for things you don’t retrieve a lot. For things you use every day, the old standby “A place for everything and everything in its place” is unbeatable. But you won’t necessarily remember what “the place” is for something you only need, say, every three years. So instead of trying to brute-force memorize it, you make it easy for your future self to deduce it.

Keeping a master list of where stuff is, is also necessary. But there’s so much stuff in the modern world, physical and digital, that after a while the lists themselves become unwieldy!

Tim Spalding, the creator of LibaryThing, also uses this advice for classifying books by subject. Here, instead of coordinating with your future self, you coordinate with other readers. The idea is not only what the “right” subject is, which works for some books (e.g., a book on algebra obviously should be classified as Mathematics). It’s also to settle edge cases by asking, “Where is a reader likely to look for this?” So for example, Dracula or Alice in Wonderland might reasonably be categorized as Fantasy, but a modern reader is probably more likely to look for them in Classics. So if you must choose one category – as a physical bookstore or library must do when it chooses what physical shelf to put the book on – then choose Classics. That will make it easier on most readers.

Cooperative game theory for the win!

Solo: The Good, the Bad, and the Utterly Fuck-Witted

Well, it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting, so there’s that. One thing about this movie is that it won the battle to not set expectations too high, LOL. Still, Star Wars fatigue is now noticeably damaging the profitability of the brand.

Anyway, the plot makes little sense, but other people have ripped it to shreds more thoroughly than I can muster the interest to do, so you can find that elsewhere. I’ll just focus on a couple of things that stuck in my mind.

SPOILER WARNING.

(1) Our hero has a love interest, from whom he’s forcibly separated by the Empire near the start of the movie. (Her name’s Kira, so of course they spell it Qi’ra.) Three years later, he just happens to run into her, on another planet. Gah! FUCKING SERIOUSLY!? Given that the human population on all the planets of the galaxy must be in the trillions? This is extremely intelligence-insulting. And it’s bad, lazy writing. If you want them to meet each other again, have at least one of them trying to meet the other. That way the meeting is plausible because it’s the outcome of intention, not a one-in-trillions coincidence. (FUCK!)

You have to see the movie to believe how purely coincidental this is. They don’t even try to present it as anything else.

(2) There’s a giant space octopus (yes) that tries to eat the Millennium Falcon. It lives near a “gravity well” (a black hole-type thingy) which they eventually use to kill it. They lure it into getting too close, so it gets sucked in.

Giant space octopus.

If I were inclined to be generous, I would guess that this is an attempt at some sorta classical allusion – to Scylla and Charybdis – but I’m not really so inclined. Anyway, as someone once said, for your metaphors/allusions/etc. to function well as metaphors/allusions/etc., they first have to just function on a literal level. I can’t appreciate your allusion to Scylla and Charybdis if I’m laughing my ass off at “giant space octopus.” Especially “giant space octopus retarded enough to live near a huge sucking space vacuum that can kill it.”

(3) and (4) Good fan service and bad fan service.

Good fan service: the Han shoots first thing. This is pretty deftly done. What happens is that near the end of the movie, a bad guy is doing some monologing at Han while slyly reaching for a weapon. Han just shoots him down, without warning, while he’s in mid-sentence. LOL. Excellent, great little moment. The reason this works is of course the general irritation over George Lucas going back and retconning the Cantina scene in the original movie to have Greedo shoot first and Han shoot second. The implicit reference to that mini-controversy is nicely done.

Bad fan service: the Darth Maul callback. My God, but this was retarded. Here’s what happens: Our hero’s erstwhile love interest – the one he just happens to run into on another planet years after they’re separated – is a member of a criminal organization. After the original organization leader is killed, she uses his special communications rig to contact his boss (i.e. her late boss’s boss). This turns out to be Darth Maul, for fuck’s sake.

Now if you recall The Phantom Menace, you recall that Darth Maul was dispatched in the thoroughly terminal way of being literally cut in half, before being pushed over the edge of a mile-deep industrial tube. (Which didn’t have any safety railing around it. It’s just there in the middle of the floor. Man, there are a lot of those in the Star Wars universe. They need to work on safety codes.) I don’t see ya comin’ back from that one, poochy. But in the cartoon series that started airing a few years back on Cartoon Network or SyFy or whatever, they brought him back, now with the New! Bonus! of a cyborg lower half. Sigh. The retardation continues. Anyway…

Because the mere fact of his continued existence wasn’t moronic enough, they have him do the following: Han’s former girlfriend calls him up on her new cell phone. He answers, uses the force to summon his lightsaber, ignites it, says a few sentences, then turns it off again and the conversation ends. THERE. IS. NO. FUCKING. REASON. FOR. THIS. If you haven’t seen the movie, you might think, “Oh, so he threatens her into being a compliant subordinate, and emphasizes his threat by firing up his saber. For example, maybe he ignites the saber, says, ‘You know what happens to people who cross me,’ and then de-ignites it.”

Nope. That would actually make sense. You can’t think that way with the last few Star Wars movies. If they think the fanboys want to see Maul blaze up his saber, then they’re going to have him do that. The thought process stops there. It doesn’t even occur to them to add a line of dialogue to make that make sense. Whoever they have writing scripts these days, it’s all about spectacle with them. Cause, effect, purpose, motivation, etc. …these aren’t concepts in the writers’ heads.

By the way, if they can bring Maul back, do you think Han Solo, after Episode 7, is really dead? They left that one conveniently open, didn’t they? But Harrison Ford is almost certainly too shrewd to associate himself with any more of the recent idiocy, so they probably won’t get any love if they ask him to come back for Episode 9. One may hope.

Review of The Departed

I just saw the 2006 movie The Departed. Initial reaction: Wow, that was awesome!

But the more I think about it, the more I notice serious problems with the plot, as follows.

SPOILER WARNING.

The setup: Boston. The cops and criminals are infiltrating each other:

• Frank Costello (played by Jack Nicholson) is the main bad guy, an absolutely cold-blooded killer and all-around psycho. To go undercover in his gang, the cops use…
• William Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio).
• Costigan’s police handlers are Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Dignam (Mark Wahlberg). For operational security, they’re the only two people in the world who know that Costigan’s an undercover cop.
• While the cops are infiltrating Costello’s gang, Costello’s gang is infiltrating the cops. Costello’s mole is Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon).

Summarizing:
Bad guys: Costello, Sullivan.
Good guys: Mainly Costigan, with a side helping of Queenan and Dignam.

Now the plot problems:

1. Costello goes to a lot of trouble to find out if there’s a mole in his gang. This causes tension because he’ll kill Costigan if he learns Costigan’s the mole. But Costello is eventually revealed to be a protected FBI informant (I told you there would be spoilers!). Given that, why the hell does he care if there’s a rat in his gang? He’s untouchable!

2. Furthermore, if he’s a protected FBI informant, then why did he bother to place a mole in the local police? Again, he’s untouchable! Maybe Costello planted the mole in the cops before he became an informant, but if so, that should be mentioned.

3. Costigan assembles a record as a petty criminal as part of his undercover persona. He even spends time in prison. When he gets out, as part of the terms of his probation, has to talk to a psychiatrist on a regular basis. (Remember, no one in the world except Queenan and Dignam knows he’s an undercover cop. The rest of the justice system thinks he’s just another petty criminal.)

This psychiatrist turns out to be… Madolyn Madden, a woman whom Sullivan just happens to be dating. Oh, come on! What are the odds? Especially since she’s a police psychiatrist. Why would they assign a criminal to a police psychiatrist, of all the psychiatrists in Boston? There are all kinds of ethics and operational security issues there! Just imagine the potential for accidental leaks of police matters to criminals and whatnot! She’s exactly the last psychiatrist they’d assign to a criminal on probation.

By the way, a psychiatrist who’s basically named Mad Maddie? Are they trying to say something about her? There is something a little off about her. In particular, she seems to get a thrill from, or at least be excessively dependent on, lying.

4. When Queenan is killed by bad guys, Dignam is the only person in the world who knows that Costigan is an undercover cop. Later Dignam is removed from the situation because he slugs another cop. His punishment is two weeks’ disciplinary leave, and we’re supposed to believe this is a disaster for Costigan because now no active-duty cop knows who he really is. But big deal! All Costigan has to do is wait this out for two weeks.

Later it’s stated that Dignam “handed in his papers” and he may be on indefinite leave. It’s hard to tell. But this doesn’t make sense either. He’d tell some other cop(s) about Costigan; he wouldn’t just leave Costigan hanging.

5. Near the end, Costigan and Sullivan are talking in Sullivan’s office and Sullivan has to step out for a moment. Costigan notices a damning envelope on Sullivan’s desk, revealing that Sullivan is Costello’s mole inside the police. What happens next makes no fucking sense. Costigan sloppily replaces the envelope, so it’s obviously been handled, and leaves! WTF!? That’s basically a flashing red sign telling Sullivan that Costigan knows he’s a mole. Why the fuck would Costigan do that? The only living cop who knows Costigan was undercover is gone for a couple of weeks. And Sullivan, who Costigan now knows is a bad guy, has access to his police file and can erase it, thus rendering Costigan, as far as anyone knows, just another petty criminal. And Costigan knows all this! Why would he let Sullivan know that he knows Sullivan’s a bad guy? Especially since…

All Costigan has to do is wait until Dignam comes back from disciplinary leave. Then Costigan can rat out Sullivan to Dignam, they can arrest him, and there’s someone who knows that Costigan’s actually a cop. What Costigan does just doesn’t make any sense from his point of view. All he has to do is carefully replace the envelope, remain in the room until Sullivan comes back, and then keep acting normal.

And the consequences of tipping his hand turn out to be disastrous for him.

6. There’s no reason for Madolyn to be in the movie. She has no effect on anything. I suspect they wanted to have at least one major female character. But this compromises the tightness of the story.

7. This isn’t an internal inconsistency in the plot, but it’s unsatisfying: The only reason that Our Hero Costigan affects anything is that he accidentally and without realizing it reveals some important info to another character.

Here’s what happens: Costigan meets with Captain Queenan, one of his handlers, in a meeting that both the other cops (who think Costigan’s a criminal, remember) and Costello’s gang find out about. They all rush to the meeting location, and in the ensuing violent chaos Costigan escapes without being made by anyone, but Queenan is killed by Costello’s gang.

As a result of that, there is of course a murder case regarding Queenan, and Sullivan is sifting through the evidence when he finds some of Queenan’s notes about how Costello is an FBI informant. (By the way, why the fuck is Queenan trying to bring down Costello if he knows he’s a protected informant?) Sullivan is enraged and he kills Costello over this.

So the only effect that our hero has on the outcome is the accidental byproduct of a murder investigation accidentally turning up some evidence that makes Costello’s own guy kill him. WTF? That’s not satisfying! The main character should affect something important by intent, not just due to, as it were, accidentally bumping into furniture in the dark.

There’s a lot of tension while the movie is running, and a lot of fireworks and “Oh, shit!” moments, but the more you think about it after it’s over, the more you’re like, “This plot made… no… fucking… sense.” Warn the people! Warn the people!

The critics loved this movie, by the way, which tells you that they had the same reaction that I initially had, but didn’t take the time to think it over more carefully before they wrote their reviews. That’s the problem with writing on a deadline, I guess. BLOGGERS: Thinking the Deep Thoughts the mainstream media can’t!

Theology is Hard

An edited excerpt from Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver (page 330, at least in my copy). London, 1673. Daniel Waterhouse and a woman named Tess are having sex for the first time. Waterhouse is a “conflicted Puritan,” as the back of the book describes him, and so he is is relieved when Tess produces a knotted tube of sheepgut to use as a condom.

“Does this mean it is not actually coitus?” Daniel asked hopefully. “Since I am not really touching you?” Actually he was touching her in a lot of places, and vice-versa. But where it counted he was touching nothing but sheepgut.
“I say that we are not touching, and not having sex, if it makes you feel better,” Tess said. “Though, when all is finished, you shall have to explain to your Maker why you are at this moment buggering a dead sheep.”

LOL, be careful what you wish for.