Happy new year!

Annual music video:

I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me

2016 was horrid. In many ways it was the final nail in the coffin of the 20th century, much like 1914 finally ended the 19th century. The brief flash of the “information age” has given way to the age of voluntary ignorance; 20th century utopian projects are crumbling (Communism, internationalist capitalism, trans-Europeanism, neoconservatism) as we saw base authoritarianism reassert itself across the world. Oh well.

Interesting time to be alive. Stay frosty.

“Getting News From Facebook”

Every so often, a number becomes part of the journalistic zeitgeist. Sometimes it’s linked to a single factoid, sometimes it’s free-floating. You see it around, and sometimes it’s right, but a lot of the time it’s misleading or just plain made-up.

Brooke Gladstone writes about one of these in her graphic manifesto The Influencing Machine (pp. 49-54). The number in question is 50,000. Specifically, 50,000 human victims. It would pop here and there about a variety of different things. Most recently, it was reported (by Attorney General Gonzalez no less) as the number of child predators online at any time. Before that, it was the number of people sacrificed by satanic cults (remember the 80’s?). Before that it was reported as the number of children abducted by strangers in a year, even though the actual number was maybe 250.

And the more she looked into it, the more she found out that “50,000 people die” every year from… everything! At least, if the media can be believed. Where does this number come from? Gladstone calls it ‘the Goldilocks number’. Not “a really small number… like 200. And [not] a ridiculously large number… like 10 million. It [is] a Goldilocks number. Not too hot, not too cold.”

 

Recently something similar had pinged my radar. Specifically, that 44% of adults get their news from Facebook. Or from Twitter. Or from social media in general. Or, or…

Pretty shocking, right? I mean, those aren’t reputable news sources!

This number seemed fishy to me because it couldn’t possibly be that high. First of all, it doesn’t pass the smell test – are 44% of adults even on social media? (Yes, barely.) Well, I didn’t look into it myself, but fortunately somebody did for me. It seems to be a case of semantic drift that lends itself to sensationalism. Basically, 44% of adults, as measured by a Pew survey, report that they “get news” from Facebook, either often, sometimes, or rarely. Basically everybody who didn’t answer “never”.

What’s the difference between people “getting news” and people “getting their news”? Well, kind of everything. To get news is to receive an unknown but non-zero number of news items; to get one’s news is presumably to get all or most of the news items one consumes. This dovetails nicely with people liking to report on how technology is ruining civilization, so it’s used that way. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see this number popping up increasingly in the latter context of people getting their news on Facebook, which as we know contains a large amount of ‘fake news’ (a term that with alarming speed became completely meaningless). Etc., etc.

So if you see 44% (or its cousin 68%) popping up in this context, well, now you know.

Gladstone concludes her book by saying that ‘we get the media we deserve’. I’d like to think we aren’t this bad, though.

Privacy Changes and a Word Cloud

Now that my big fish story, The World Beyond Eels, is coming together in novel form, I’ve gone ahead and set the zeroth-draft serial version that I was posting here to private. I’ll be instead taking selections from what I have now and putting a few of them up in the coming days, but just a few. I’m also going to start on a new story some time soon about a wizard named Dennis, and I’ll be putting those up, hopefully serially, since I find that it helps motivate me to write more. This will be especially valuable now that I’m largely in revision mode on Eels, since that can be a slog and remembering to create! is always good.

Anyway, I made a word cloud for Eels that I think is fun, so here’s that. (Made with Tagul)

screen-shot-2016-11-25-at-4-33-10-pm

Write What You Know

In one of my writing classes in college the teacher started us off with an essay about that old saw, ‘write what you know’, and how you actually know a lot more than you think. You might not know a lot about being an undocumented Salvadorean immigrant, but maybe you remember your first time in a strange place and how it smelled different–what it was like to encounter a completely new olfactory profile. Maybe it was alienating or freeing. But the specifics aren’t particularly important now that you have a frame for it. You’ve just leveraged your lived life to add some realism to a strange character. 

And you don’t need a lot of this. A technique that Ray Carver used a lot, and to great effect, is something I like to call ‘pointillistic realism’. He often worked in threes. Just listed three things. One was usually highly evocative:

Mel handed me the saucer of limes. I took a section, squeezed it over my drink, and stirred the ice cubes with my finger.

There’s a Tobias Wolff story where he describes a scene outside as containing ‘teenagers selling oregano to tourists in white shoes’ or a very similar phrase. When I read that the first time I knew exactly what street he was talking about. The street could be anywhere, but you know that kind of street too.

So it doesn’t take very much detail to evoke something, and your life is already full of little details you can include to flesh out scenes and characters. So much of what we experience is universal. You just have to pick the right thing. So by all means, write what you know–but you can get a lot further on that than it seems at first blush. 

What brought this to mind today is, I finally got the perfect picture of my morning commute. One of my characters takes the same train into town in the book I’m working on, and I’ve been imagining what it’s like to do for your first time.

Kenji woke Hideki up when the train got closer to San Francisco. The coastal range wrapped around South San Francisco and and joined with the highway on the left side of the train, and piers full of derelict ships and the biggest pile of garbage Hideki had ever seen greeted him on the right side. Kenji probably could have woken him up at a slightly different time. Hideki wondered if it had been intentional.

They went through a tunnel and entered the city proper. The graffiti that he’d seen hints of as they approached now showed up in force. It was like something out of a movie. There were unreadable words taller than he was, illegal but still beautiful murals, and some things that were probably ‘gang tags’, whatever it is those were. The rest was a familiar enough scene, with pallets leaning against shipping containers and garbage strewn here and there.

Maybe ‘here and there’ was the wrong term. Garbage was everywhere. But the people waiting at the 22nd street station didn’t seem to mind, or even really notice. Hideki got the impression that he’d be seeing a lot more trash than he was used to this trip.

Lampshades

I had an episode of House on in the background last night on Netflix while I was messing around on the Internet. After what would have been a commercial break, it shows House and Kal Penn’s character doing a walk-and-talk and Kal Penn summarizes what they’ve learned about the patient over the last ten minutes or so of story. House looks at him irritably (though does he do it in another manner ever?) and says, “what is this, some sort of recap?”

I find these things amusing. I also find them annoying if they’re overdone, but this just happened once, so it’s fine.

The end. 

Your Body Is Horrifying, pt. 1

Warning: rambling. -Ed.

It’s common, in trope-y writing, like horror or sci-fi, to intentionally make the reader feel a certain horror in or about their own body. This can also come up in authors who inhabit the ‘weird’ spectrum, like Borges or Murakami.

The thing about this is that it’s so easy. All I have to do is point out that you have a body.

We don’t like to think of ourselves as inhabiting a body. This comes in many flavors. Dualism is an extremely popular one. Your body is separate from your you. Your soul, your spirit, your whatever-you-want-to-call-it: your mind is not a part of your body, so your mind is not made of meat. Things made of meat are gross. We eat things made of meat. But your mind, which you’ve managed to separate from your body just by thinking about it (thinking is magical!), is still, you know, physically bound to your body. You can’t go anywhere that your meat doesn’t let you. You’re born meat, and you die meat.

Gross, right?

Now, there’s a second aspect to this. Bodies die. So we come up with elaborate mechanisms for which our bodies might die, but not us, not really. Dualism is a very strongly held belief in basically every school of thought, even atheism. So it’s not just that meat is gross–meat is mortal, too. Like I said, a lot of us eat it every day without really giving it a second thought. Any notion that your you-ness is all tied up in this meat nonsense is horrifying.

So how can I make sure you feel this? First, I can just tell you. You are mortal. You are made of meat. Like in this hypothetical children’s book from the inimitable Ryan North:

comic2-531
Or this gem, which Neal Stephenson sort of randomly plops down in the middle of a scene in Cryptonomicon:

The room contains a few dozen living human bodies, each one a big sack of guts and fluids so highly compressed that it will squirt for a few yards when pierced. Each one is built around an armature of 206 bones connected to each other by notoriously fault-prone joints that are given to obnoxious creaking, grinding, and popping noises when they are in other than pristine condition. This structure is draped with throbbing steak, inflated with clenching air sacks, and pierced by a Gordian sewer filled with burbling acid and compressed gas and asquirt with vile enzymes and solvents produced by many dark, gamy nuggets of genetically programmed meat strung along its length. Slugs of dissolving food are forced down this sloppy labyrinth by serialized convulsions, decaying into gas, liquid, and solid matter which must all be regularly vented to the outside world lest the owner go toxic and drop dead. Spherical, gel-packed cameras swivel in mucus greased ball joints. Infinite phalanxes of cilia beat back invading particles, encapsulate them in goo for later disposal. In each body a centrally located muscle flails away at an eternal, circulating torrent of pressurized gravy.

Isn’t that fun? In the first example, North just points out some meat and mortality; in the second, Stephenson makes it super gross. They’re not especially horrifying, I suppose, but they certainly make me nervous and a little squicked out, which is the point.

One thing that is horrifying, in its own special way, is a sci-fi short story (and a wonderful short film version) that does just this (linked above as well), in which the fact that we’re made out of meat is described from the point of view of somebody who is just now discovering that it’s even possible for something sentient to be made out of meat:

“They’re made out of meat.”

“Meat?”

“Meat. They’re made out of meat.”

“Meat?”

“There’s no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They’re completely meat.”

“That’s impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?”

“They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don’t come from them. The signals come from machines.”

“So who made the machines? That’s who we want to contact.”

They made the machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Meat made the machines.”

“That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.”

“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in that sector and they’re made out of meat.”
[…]

This upsets the aliens enough that they decide to declare the sector uninhabited, erase all records of humanity, and move on. Later, they muse about how lonely it must be, thinking you’re alone in the universe, except they’re talking about an intelligent crystal or something or other.

So, in order to make you feel weird about your body (which is of course all you are and ever will be), I can:

  • Remind you that you’re mortal
  • Describe your body in excruciating detail
  • Talk about your body as though I’d never seen a body before

And we haven’t even gotten to the part where I have you imagine anything even happening to your body. All of these examples so far are just descriptive.

In Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, one of the characters has a scar on her face and something wrong with her leg. He tends to mark his characters like this. In 1Q84 one of them has a weird ear. Body marking is also very important in the Germanic epics and sagas. This is the realm of injuries and minor mutilations. It sets people apart as different, or important, or both. That’s all another post though.

For now, man, how weird is it that you have a body?

The Reverse X-Files

In The X-Files,  and many other things as well, the writers have an irksome tendency to have the characters just define things to each other in front of the reader/viewer, who might not know what they’re talking about. It makes me think of The X-Files because in college we had a professor who was really into Darin Morgan, and we studied some of the episodes he’d written in class, as well as a couple he hadn’t.

Naturally this led to watching all the rest of The X-Files during downtime, since we had the DVD’s from the library anyway.

The show made a habit of this. The example I like to use is roughly this.

SCULLY: Do you think this could be an example of telekinesis, Mulder?

MULDER: Telekinesis? You mean the ability to manipulate objects with nothing but the power of one’s mind?

SCULLY: Yes, Mulder.

MULDER: No, Scully, I don’t think this is an example of telekinesis.

I forget if it was actually telekinesis or not in that episode. Anyway, that’s the general formula.

Recently enough somebody reminded me of this scene from Superman, which features a particularly egregious example.

LEX LUTHOR: The San Andreas fault, maybe you’ve heard of it?

SUPERMAN: Yes… it’s the joining together of two land masses. The fault line is unstable and shifting, which is why you get earthquakes in California from time to time.

LEX LUTHOR: Wonderful. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Not only do the authors know that they’re doing it, they’re trying to act cagey by making sure you know they know they’re doing it (“couldn’t have said it better myself!”). Now, there’s nothing wrong with this, necessarily. Tropes are tools, after all. But this particular execution just sucks.

(Going by the TVTropes nomenclature, when done well, this is more appropriately lampshade hanging, and when done especially poorly it’s an as you know, Bob…. My examples above are of the ‘reading the dictionary to the viewer’ variety, which makes me think of The X-Files.)

Anyway, I ran into a sort of reverse X-Files today at work. We’re setting up a new data pipeline using Google Cloud Pub/Sub, which uses a bleedingly obscure word in the documentation, and whoever wrote this is savvy enough to know that you probably don’t know the word, and actually goes out of his way to make sure you know he knows you don’t know the word by linking to the wikipedia article without comment.

For the most part Pub/Sub delivers each message once, and in the order in which it was published. However, once-only and in-order delivery are not guaranteed: it may happen that a message is delivered more than once, and out of order. Therefore, your subscriber should be idempotent when processing messages, and, if necessary, able to handle messages received out of order…

As if he couldn’t be bothered to do any explanation for the handful of idiots who don’t know what ‘idempotent’ means off the top of their heads. Bravo, sir or madame.