Thursday, June 30, 2016

Doleful Creatures: 25-Chapter Assessment

I have successfully revised the first 25 chapters of Doleful Creatures.

But that is a lie.

I’ve added quite a few new chapters to the beginning of the book. And these chapters, working with the older ones, still need work. I have in fact stopped revising the subsequent chapters and am going over the first twenty-five again. I’ve added so much stuff most of it has only gone through one revision, not the fourteen revisions the rest of the book have seen.

I’m alternating between elation and despair. The story is getting better – but also, nowhere closer to being finished. Maybe I have an inkling of what George Lucas felt. If only I can stop the revisions in time before I George Lucas too much.

The good news is I’m not seeing as many holes in the story as I was the last few times going through it. Bad news is my characters still need to stand out a bit from each other. One of them still talks as if his bum were stuffed with tweed.

I look in awe at the complex simplicity of other tales – I’ve revisited Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and marvel at the complexity he put into this simple novel.

And I’m also reminded of the bloat of John Crowley’s Little, Big, and hope I’m not heading in that direction.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Check Your Privilege

Now you know what it’s like to be told constantly to “check your privilege.”

That's basically what they're waffling about here -- the taming party is checking privilege. Interesting.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016


I’ll probably end up regretting this.

I have two insurance plans through my employer. One is the major health plan, covering everything from wellness visits to the pneumonia our youngest son had a year ago. The other covers dental and vision. But the major health plan also covers vision.

So there’s that overlap. Which you’d think would be nice. But I’m afraid it’s about to get ugly.
I’m now in the process of letting both companies know we have overlapping vision coverage. I’ve had to fax information to one of the companies twice. The other wants information through the mail.
I just know this is going to end in tears.

In the gentlemanly world, you’d assume with overlapping coverage that the companies would say “Huh. How about that. Well, we’ll split it 50/50.”

Anyone who believes that is going to happen, stand on your head.

I mean, I hope it all works out. I want to be honest and show I’m cooperative. But these days, with health insurance in the mix, you know the more likely reaction is going to be a he’ll pay/she’ll pay and then the eye doctor is coming to repossess our eyeballs kind of situation.

I suppose I could have ignored their requests, but they print scary things along the bottom of their requests like “Failure to inform may result in loss of benefits!!!” And they’ve stiffed our eye doctor for more than a month now, waiting for said information.

Mr. Huph, I’m sure, would be pleased. Because I’m no expert. I am NOT penetrating the bureaucracy.

Telling, Not Showing

I can’t decide if this is just a matter of perspective, or if Richard Thompson has mastered the art of telling, rather than showing.

Why not show the clown falling from the ceiling, scaring the children?

Timing might be a part of it.

This year (the Cul de Sac comic strip is in repeats) this strip appeared June 20. For context, you have to go back to February 23:

Thus, the offending clown appears only in the second panel of the first comic, leaving its menacing presence (is it in the ductwork or in the plumbing – which is worse!) unknown.

In only two of the four strips do we get a firsthand account. The final two strips in the sequence are told from different perspectives. And in that June 20 panel, the only clue we get that might get us back to the clown (aside from Panel No. 4) is Miss Bliss’ repeated use of “For heaven’s sake.”

Why am I babbling about this?

It’s just an interesting bit of perspective and narration playing with the notion of “showing, not telling” by putting it on its head in the fourth strip. It’s somehow funnier when we don’t see the clown fall out of the ceiling, but instead only get to see the reaction of the kids to the clown falling out of the ceiling.

Important lesson: Sometimes our characters’ reaction is the most important thing we can show.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

I'm Having an Effect on Them

Though I have basically shuttered the blog where I put my kids' drawings, they do still trickle in from time to time.

I present here two doodles I discovered on a bit of scrap paper stuffed into my scouting binder. Given that it's the Truffle Shuffle, I'm pretty sure these are from the oldest, who suddenly thinks "The Goonies" is the funniest movie he's ever seen.

He doesn't know how happy that makes me. I'll even forgive the booger drawing.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Yoicks! And Away!, or Poo-Tee-Weet?

One of the Internet’s least endearing attributes is the slavering hunger its denizens have for reactions.

Did something bad happen – like the massacre at The Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where 50 died and 53 were wounded at the hands (or bullets) of a madman? You had better react, and react now. And appropriately. In a politically-correct manner. Or you are part of the problem.

Confession time:

I’m tired of reacting.

I feel like Daffy Duck, trying to rob yon rich slob of his money in order to feed the poor, a la Robin Hood. No matter how many times I react, there’s a tree in the way. And just when I think I’ve got it right, smack, there’s that pesky rock.

Not getting my meaning? Let’s look at a few reactions.

Inappropriate, as far as I can tell, per the denizens of the reactionary Internet: Thoughts and prayers.
Appropriate, as far as I can tell, per the denizens of the reactionary internet: Candlelight vigils; the shading of profile pictures in whatever shade is deemed appropriate for the latest atrocity.

There is sincerity and emptiness in both reactions – but those making the reactions see only the sincerity in their reaction and the emptiness in the other, so both, as far as social media goes, are pretty much empty gestures at best or grounds for screaming matches at worst.

If you react, you show solidarity. Empathy. Understanding.

If you don’t react, you show coldness, indifference. Callousness.

In the eyes of the reactionary internet.

Do not tell me how to react. And when I react in a way you or your ilk deem inappropriate or ineffectual, bite your tongue and concentrate on your own reaction without condemning the reactions of others.

And if I do not react at all, do not assume I have no reaction. My reaction may be personal, private, or internal.

And – worse yet, worse yet, oh ye seekers of truth or whatever the hell it is you seek – when I react please parse my reaction and cheerfully identify its weaknesses to the world so all may know my reaction was not appropriately reactionary enough to merit a reaction in the first place.

To insist that everyone react demonstratively and in the same manner reminds me of this (taken from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago):

At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). ... For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the stormy applause, rising to an ovation, continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin.

However, who would dare to be the first to stop? … After all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who would quit first! And in the obscure, small hall, unknown to the leader, the applause went on – six, seven, eight minutes! They were done for! Their goose was cooked! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks! At the rear of the hall, which was crowded, they could of course cheat a bit, clap less frequently, less vigorously, not so eagerly – but up there with the presidium where everyone could see them?

The director of the local paper factory, an independent and strong-minded man, stood with the presidium. Aware of all the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding! Nine minutes! Ten! In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee, but the latter dared not stop. Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers! And even then those who were left would not falter…

Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved!

The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel. That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him:

“Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding.”

Here’s what they’ll find on my Form 206:

Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not.

Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep. (Romans 12:14-15)

And I sincerely apologize if my Christian reaction triggered you and all you want to do is parse its inefficacy rather than take the time to communicate with another human being about the sincerity of that reaction. I know it’s a reaction, not a reaction, but I will not apologize for that.

And if that’s not reaction-y enough for you, I offer the following:

It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”

Friday, June 10, 2016

Maybe AI Wrote It?

If Benjamin’s efforts are representative, then fiction writers have nothing yet to fear from artificial intelligence. Unless those fiction writers are Ingmar Bergman.

Benjamin is a “recurrent neural network called long short-term memory,” per Ars Technica, where writers still marvel at the technobabble of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” He was fed the scripts of several dozen modern science fiction movies and spat out an eight-minute script that makes Billy Pilgrim’s story in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaugherhouse-Five appear pretty coherent.

You can view the results here.

Yet there’s something endearing about this screenplay – it gets back to the core of science fiction, as Ars points out: 

Certain patterns kept coming up again and again. "There's an interesting recurring pattern in Sunspring where characters say, 'No I don’t know what that is. I’m not sure,'" said Goodwin. "They're questioning the environment, questioning what’s in front of them. There's a pattern in sci-fi movies of characters trying to understand the environment." Sharp added that this process has changed his perspective on writing. He keeps catching himself having Benjamin-like moments while working: "I just finished a sci-fi screenplay, and it’s really interesting coming off this experience with Benjamin, thinking I have to have somebody say 'What the hell is going on?' Every time I use his tropes I think, oh of course. This is what sci-fi is about."

For Sharp and Goodwin, making Sunspring also highlighted how much humans have been trained by all the scripts we've consumed. Sharp said this became especially obvious when the actors responded to Sunspring's script as a love triangle. There is nothing inherently love triangle-ish about the script, and yet that felt like the most natural interpretation. "Maybe what we’re learning here is that because of the average movie, the corpus of what we’ve watched, all of us have been following that pattern and tediously so," mused Sharp. "We are trained to see it, and to see it when it has not yet been imposed. It’s profoundly bothersome." At the same time, it's a valuable lesson about how we are primed to expect certain tropes: "Ross [Goodwin] has created an amazing funhouse mirror to hold up to various bodies of cultural content and reflect what they are."

In other words, it learns to write like a human learns to write – and is as bad at writing as humans are on the first attempt. We tend to have to consume a lot of writing – both good and bad – in order to even begin sorting out things in our own stories and in our own heads. And as science fiction is pretty tropey as writing goes, those tropes have to be digested and processed as well in order for them to be reproduced with any quality. I’ll bet, given time and additional stuff to churn through its algorithms – and I’m tempted to think a better story could come by feeding the AI novels rather than screenplays (which require more human-level interpretation ) AI could complete a more coherent story.