Friday, November 29, 2013

Happy Black Friday

It's funny. I checked all the flyers in the newspaper.

I even bought the newspaper for the first time all year just to get the flyers. And I couldn't find anything on sale that I really wanted. Sure, they had televisions for cheap that were 2x larger than the television I MIGHT upgrade.

Same goes for items I might want to give as Christmas gifts.

Nothing seemed worth the bother. My only motivation to venture out on Black Friday was to cheese off anti-capitalists whining about stores being open on Thanksgiving. And that's cruddy motivation.

Next year, I should hire actors to stage an incident outside Walmart. We'd stage a fight between two people, maybe a big white guy and a tiny black woman, over some junk advertised for cheap earlier in the week as going on sale. I'd buy the item full-priced, put it in a Walmart bag then hand it to the less-sympathetic looking actor, with instructions to defend him/herself against the more-sympathetic actor who is claiming it by virtue of deserving it more.

The whole idea would be to stage the fight at whatever door has a news crew camped outside.

If that works (and nobody goes to jail), we repeat the performance at Target.

Think of it as performance art. What do you say? Sound like fun?

Friday, November 22, 2013

It Depends How You Look At It

It was the 1970s and I was in college. I worked at the library and one of my jobs was to take films out of the library, set up the projector, and then show the film. One of the brightest lights in Christendom back then was a philosopher named Francis Schaeffer. He came out with a series of films called "How Should We Then Live?" These discussed general trends in western civilization and their relationship to Christianity first as a slave-religion in ancient Rome then the dominant world-view of Europe, and then its decline of influence.

I watched it again a few years ago and realized it had not aged as well as it ought.

The last film of a series like this invariably touches upon the future and what to expect. When you do a historical survey of the last two thousand years, patterns and trends appear that cry out to be extrapolated into the future. Or that's what the audience expects.

And since I'm as much of a sucker as anyone for someone pontificating over a crystal ball, I paid careful attention to that last episode. 

You must recall that this was the 1970s and we'd all read 1984 and 1984 was in the future. Since I was expecting the Rapture and the Tribulation at any minute, wild theories of the Beast and 666 being implemented with computers and bar codes danced through my head at night.

This must have conditioned Francis Schaeffer's thinking as well because he spent the last episode of this film series talking about the government. One part of his argument was the way in which mass media can manipulate public opinion. He showed two made-up news reports of a conflict between some police and protesters.

The pro-government report showed the cops valiantly defending themselves against a bunch of violent protesters. The pro-protester report showed the protesters getting beat up by brutal cops and fighting back. Both reports showed exactly what was happening, and the only difference between them was the way the shots were cropped and the direction from which the scenes were filmed.

The pair of photos on the left is a good example of this. PLEASE ignore the text overlaying the image.

I don't really want to make this about gun or anti-gun. Your opinions for or against human rights, are up to you and I don't want to change your mind on the subject.

In the top picture, you get the idea that a crowd of insurgents are bracing for an assault. But from the other In the bottom picture, you get the idea that some folks are having some fun posing with guns.

I am interested in how the writer can use perspective in his or her storytelling.

It can be a lot of fun to write a scene where the reader sees something like the top half of the picture above. The reader gets the idea that one thing is going on when you, as the writer know for certain that something different is going on. Ambiguity is one of many tools the writer that you can use to keep something interesting and just a little less predictable.

Think of something your hero will do that puts him in a bad light. Or something your villain does that puts him in a good light. Do just enough of this to mix things up. If you overdo it you risk making your readers hate your hero and love your villain.

Keep a light hand and just keep things interesting.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Mind, Body, and Spirit -- Some Speculation

One of my earliest recollections of Physics in High School was the proposition that it would start with certain undefined things. This bothered me. How does one speak of that which is not defined?

Well, Newton did it and Physics seems to work well enough for us to build a lot of Technology on top of it, so shut up about the undefined things and get cracking on your homework's problem sets. So, I solved problems about length, time, mass, charge, temperature, and the amount of substance without knowing what they were.

But I sort of did know. Length is how long my yardstick is. Time is how long I have left to sleep. Temperature is how cold it is outside. And so on.

And, as the title of this post suggests, we sort of do know what mind, body, and spirit mean. Sort of.

Let's break things down in simplest terms. Humans are both material and in some sense immaterial. Our bodies are made of matter and can be quantified in terms of length, time, mass, charge, temperature and amount of substance. 

If you've ever been in the presence of a corpse, you'll know that there's something more. When I looked down at the body of my deceased father my overriding thought was, "He's not here." Some people seem to think that they can weigh the body of a dying person and sense a change of weight when the soul leaves their body. Good luck with that. I'm skeptical.

But I'm not skeptical that there's something more than material going on. We think, and we solve problems, and we derive theorems. Lawyers solve legal problems. Accountants solve accounting problems. Two kids entering school are both kids, but one may emerge a lawyer and another an accountant by virtue of their training. These things we learn sometimes at great effort are contained somewhere. Though the Theorem of Pythagoras is not a thing in the world, my knowledge of what it is and how it works are encoded as neural connections inside my noggin. But they seem to be more than mere neural connections.

And I am conscious of my existence. This, too, is non-material thing that emerges from the pattern of neural activation in my brain.

How do I map these thoughts about thoughts into the words mind, soul, and spirit? I feel pretty confident that the patterns of neurons and their linkages in my brain constitute those immaterial things I described and I think I'm write to identify them collectively as mind or soul.

But what about spirit? Has mankind any sort of transcendent aspect beyond the hardware of body/brain and the software of neural links/weights? If the answer is no, then we may stop right here.

OR if you're not afraid by being cut by Ockham's Razor, perhaps you might consider some conjectures that don't have a lot in the way of physical evidence to support them or anything I'd call deductive proof from experiment.

Ghosts. What are ghosts made of? How do they work? They remember stuff that happened when they were alive and those memories were laid down in neural networks made of matter. And ghosts seem to be linked to places--their haunts. I figure most ghost stories are bunkum. Ghosts make a good literary device to introduce some ambiguity into a story. But let's suppose, Ockham's Razor be damned, that some ghost stories are real.

Something has to go to Heaven or to Hell wherein the injustices of this world are balanced in the next. Let's call that something spirit.

Descartes would say that body and spirit are two parallel planes of existence that somehow touch in the pineal gland of the brain. Conversely, Spinoza would say that body and spirit are made of the same stuff somehow. What if they're both wrong in one sense and both right in another sense? 

(Make sure Ockham isn't watching, ok?) Suppose the matter is made of more-than-four dimensional stuff. The string theory guys talk about 10 or 12 dimensions with the first three being what we're used to, the fourth being time, and the rest being "rolled up" so small we can't detect them. In this case, the operation of our brains and the activation of our neural networks would define a more-than-four dimensional pattern of neural connections. After death, ghosts might be the persistence of the pattern in those higher (rolled up) dimensions. This makes matter and spirit orthogonal subspace projections of a single monist substance.

This formulation makes Descartes and Spinoza happy, though we do keep an eye out for Ockham. And it provides a potentially helpful elaboration of otherwise undefined terms body, mind, and spirit. No, you should not take any of this dogmatically. And if you take this as anything more than pure speculation, Ockham will cut you.

Book Reviews and Market Failures

I read this and it got me thinking. The folks there are all worth your time.

We live in a marvelously decentralized time. There is no pope or emperor telling us what we can and cannot read. Though traditional large press publication is centralized in a hand-full of giant corporate behemoths, only low-information readers confine themselves to their offerings.

Instead, we live in the golden age of indie and small-press publishing. Got a buck? Trust me. There are amazing ebooks being published right now for that price by genius authors. You just have to find them.

But, Steve--you may reply--I don't trust you. Very wise of you. I'll come back to that momentarily.

The trouble is finding these amazing works of genius. If you go to, everything is for sale. If you want some Evangelical Christian ripoff of Fifty Shades of Gray, I'll wager you can find it. (I haven't looked. I hope I lose that bet!) Amazon is also selling mystical t-shirts and groceries. So it is easy to get distracted before you can get to the good stuff.

Amazon has a good system of recommending new books that are like old books you've bought. This is helpful, but it's only a machine and state of the art machine understanding algorithms are liable to make mistakes. There are helpful blogs like Glenn Reynolds' that often provide links to books.

Thus you click on an Amazon page for a book you know nothing about by a fella you've never heard of published by an outfit that's similarly obscure. Do you click on it to buy it? It's only a buck or three. Not much risk there. But I generally get paid more than a few bucks an hour, making my reading time relatively valuable. We live in a busy time with a lot of competing demands on our time.

Once you start reading a book, you hope it doesn't suck, because it's hard to stop mid-way. I would prefer a book be really good or really bad, because if it's really good, i'll enjoy it. And if it's really bad, i want to decide that the book sucks sooner rather than later. Thus the worst books aren't 1-star or 2-star but mediocre 3-star works.

Thus I want to know a lot about the book before I make a decision to buy it or not. If this is a known author, no sweat. I have to work when I see an unknown author. I am unsatisfied with the blurbs for many books, because they're out to tease interest in the story--not give away what it's about. I'm never happy with any of the blurbs I've written for my works, so I understand when another author has the same problem. When I'm unsatisfied with the blurbs, I look at the reviews.

Reviews are a key factor in the buying decision. I asked my beta readers to write reviews, provided they be honest--even if they hated the work. And I exhort those I know best to write reviews. I know I'm imposing, and I know these reviews won't be as brutally honest as the reading public deserves.

However, others have been known to hire folks to write reviews. And there are companies that market reviews to the writer desiring reviews.

Sure, there's a lot of talking and hand-wringing about ethics and morality. Some of it may be sincere, but the problem is a basic conflict of interest. I need you to review my work. The reading public needs you to review my work. You are not a sacrificial animal and nobody can demand you work without compensation.

Sure, I'll send you a free review copy. That's compensation in part. You are spared the expense of buying the work, but you are not spared the time to read it or write the review. That's not enough.

But as long as I'm directly paying you for that time there's a conflict of interest. Honesty demands that you tell the truth in your review. And the reading public deserves to know the weaknesses of my work that you might not want to include if I were paying you.

The result is a market failure. We need someone whose interest is in honesty paying you instead of me whose interest is selling books (and honesty, too, modulo conflict of interest).

I don't have an answer here. Just an observation and some speculation.

  1. Maybe some indie readers' union could pool a few bucks to pay for reviews. This would be best, because readers' interest is in good reads.
  2. Maybe vendor(s) like, or could identify and pay reviewers for their time.
  3. Maybe the government mental health board could identify ideologically pure works and commission favorable reviews on that basis.

OK, that last bit is a bad idea, which means it will most likely happen.

Seriously, we have a market failure here. I don't have a corner on good ideas. Do any of you have any idea(s) can fix it?

Those more worthy than I: