MetaCognitions | Fictional Plot Devices

I’ve noticed something worth avoiding in writing anything approaching good speculative fiction: never explain too much, be economic with any explanation you do, and only explain, by showing, not telling, what actually needs explaining.

I notice a failure to do that in some of my earlier fiction of even a few months ago, much less from years back, not consistently, but often enough to cause concern. Mostly it happens with a piece that I spend only a couple of hours on, in total writing, editing, and proofreading time; almost always a hastily written piece or two when a deadline looms. That’s bad form when it occurs.

But what sort of things ought not to be explained?

For example, there are the Heisenberg compensators of Star Trek used by transporter technology, that offer a nod to the quantum mechanical problems of teleportation without being explained as to how they work, which is good use of rubber science technobabble that adds to, not subtracts from, the feel of the story.

It’s good to acknowledge real science even when not strictly conforming to it. It’s one of the hallmarks of any good SF franchise.

Another would be the Holzmann effect of Frank Herbert’s Dune series, using variations of that phenomenon’s name in different books of the series. It’s cleverly never explained in any detail, but serves the background and feel of realism of the setting very well. Again, a nod to science without spoiling the fun with an explanation which would likely backfire as seeming contrived and even less consistent with real-world science. As a plot device permitting rapid space travel and personal force-screens, enabling the plot by fostering willing suspension of disbelief, it works well for that reason.

From my own writing, like my Gods of Terra setting, both old timeline and the current reboot, there’s the Kurtz-Dunar effect, named for scientists Raoul Kurtz of Terra and Ranan Dunar of Sirug, permitting cheap, safe, and efficient surface-to-orbit and interstellar travel, and personal teleportation via short-range warps in space-time, among other things.

It’s annoying when I see something over-explained elsewhere and annoying when I do it myself as well, especially the latter.

After all, if I really knew how the Kurtz-Dunar effect, or ancient relic technology like hypershards, actually worked, I wouldn’t be using them as plot devices in my fiction, but instead building and testing working prototypes under contract from DARPA! and I am quite obviously not doing that . . .

So, the more shone, not told, and the more economic that is, only what furthers the story, the better.

That’ll do for me, one story at a time, no matter what region of space-time, and which space-time continuum, is involved.

MetaCognitions | Farewell, Harlan Ellison

Just this last Thursday, we lost SF writer and critic Harlan Ellison, who died of natural causes at the age of 84. I have a confession to make: 

I have heroes.

But all of my heroes are human, not graven images on a pedestal, and all of them have the proverbial feet of clay. I prefer my heroes that way, human, flawed, with warts and all. That goes for skeptics and writers I’ve read and learned from over the years, from even the late Carl Sagan, to Michael Shermer and his current controversy, and yes, the irascible Harlan Ellison.

So…I’ll waste no time saying that Ellison was a ‘great’ writer, much less a ‘great guy.’

From his own words, I can rightly guess that he would laugh in my face at the very suggestion of him being ‘great.’ And he would be right to do so. So there will be no sycophantic bullshit or lionizing from yours truly. A word of advice: never try to flatter or piss off short people, especially when their name is Harlan Ellison. They will learn you, or burn you, with words, and that made Ellison not only a successful writer, but a fierce critic of publicly promulgated bullshit in a number of areas, from social criticism, to films, and even takedowns of pseudoscience in the public square. He was not known as a very nice guy, but in my view, he was fundamentally a good man, however unkind he may have been when annoyed.

Why?

It was in late 2006, I think at a place I used to do volunteer work as an administrative assistant, and I was reading one of Ellison’s collections outdoors in a quiet spot near the building. I think the collection was Edgeworks: An Edge In My Voice, volume 1, and I came across something I’d not read from other authors (I was just beginning to expand my reading horizons to something less sheltered), or at least not the way Ellison put it in a moment of self-critique: the notion of being scrupulously, ruthlessly honest with himself. His was self-honesty even to the point of accepting short-term self-loathing over longterm self-loathing by not telling himself pretty lies, or deceiving himself over personal motives.

This is, I know now, and I’m sure he knew then, a tall order indeed, and impossible to fully achieve. But that’s the whole point of an ideal: you don’t adopt one to actually reach it with finality, but to get as close as possible to it, asymptotically, not as any kind of ‘destination.’ An ideal is perfectably strived for, never perfectly arrived at. That’s why it’s an ideal, an abstraction, not reality. But it doesn’t have to be reality to be worth striving for.

But that idea burned itself in my brain as I stood there, reading on, and since that day, it has been something that I truly believe is worthwhile. For how can you be truly honest with others if you can’t be honest with yourself? Integrity matters. Even when it’s not coupled with a pleasant demeanor or a kind disposition. It was also that year when I was introduced to the world of podcasts with my aging Classic model iMac, and my first iPod. It was that year I began listening to The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and had two particular books gifted to me that Christmas: Lynne Kelly’s _The Skeptics’ Guide to the Paranormal_, and Michael Shermer’s _Why Darwin Matters_.

A lot’s changed since then, but I’d like to end this post with a sendoff: Peace out, Harlan. Whatever happens to your memory from here on, you wrote a thing that has real meaning to me, and I think that counts for something. For what it’s worth, I’m a skeptic. And I’ll remain one for the foreseeable future. I know that doesn’t make me better or smarter than anyone else.

But with that in mind, I don’t need to be.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

MetaCognitions | Writing Technique

I’ve been thinking about the writing process, such as that can be as this blog’s resident entity from beyond space-time….

Is it some alien elder thing seeping from deep within the vowels of the earth, issuing forth with dire murmurations laden with hideous consonants and a doomed attempt to impose some order on the whole horrid outcome with punctuation?

It’s actually quite ordinary, with nothing from outside the curves and angles of space-time involved at all. Even a shoggoth could manage it — or my cats.

I use a variety of tools, from brainstorming, storyboarding, and at least half a dozen more as I experiment to initially generate ideas. I either put material down as electronic files or write it down old school, with pen and pad, as I often keep that handy in case something interesting pops up, and I have to capture it before it dissipates. Some ideas show up only once.

Once I have a basic draft, I let it sit for a time, simmer a bit, as I slowly add to it. The process is surprisingly controllable, though tends to work best during extended periods of strategically alternating mental focus and unfocus.

Once I have enough to work with, I open the draft, add any final material, and edit the crap out of it. I go through at least three full rounds of edits on the entire piece, and then proofread it twice, once from beginning to end, and then from end to beginning, reading it aloud to myself or under my breath, and rewriting the piece as I go each time.

When I’m doing that, I pretend I’m the narrator of an audiobook and read with as natural a vocal pace as I can manage. I tend to find the majority of errors during the proofreading process, catching mistakes my eyes alone often miss.

Once I’m done, I work on the layout and format of the piece, finish that, and ready it for publishing.

And that’s about it. The whole affair is nothing special, but it works, and works well enough that it makes the job of keeping up the lab in the Sooper Sekret Volcano Lair™ easy for the eldritch servitors, even when having the death rays and world destruction machine upgraded.

Life as a Lovecraftian horror sometimes has its perks. 😉

Tf. Tk. Tts.

MetaCognitions | Staycation’s End: 2018

Ikktighar furiit – Greetings. It’s been a while. For the almost the whole of this month, and ending yesterday, I’ve been on staycation at home with the cats, while family is out of town for a break from Norfolk life. And each time, since there’s none but myself here to do housework and feed the cats, it’s consistently the nearest thing to solitude I’ve ever experienced. Much of that solitude is spent on writing, study, and practice of exercises from workbooks when not doing housework. So that being said, even with my time management skills, there’s precious little time to blog. I’m currently working on my next book, a nonfiction work to be published in e-format when complete and ready, and I’ll keep you up to date as I go. But with family back, maybe a little more of that time can be used to update this blog. I’d like that. I can’t promise regular posting, but I will post when I have something ready, and that’s well within my ability to fulfill.

Thanks to all of you who visit and follow this blog. You’re all brilliant, absolutely brilliant in your ways. And that’s no mere platitude: every one of you, without a doubt, knows something I don’t. And you’ve been so patient with my constant experimentation with different scheduling methods over the years, many ultimately unsustainable with my health needs and study requirements to consider. It’s time for Troythulu to roll up his eldritch tentacled sleeves and get to work, both online and off.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

MetaCognitions | Worst Apocalypse EVER!*

Last Caturday was the appointed time of a common non-event, the End of the World, again, as predicted this time around by an alleged Christian numerologist, one David Meade.

He has since shifted his goalpost by saying that the apocalypse has been moved to October. Whatever. They do this every single time an End Times prediction predictably fails to come. The claims both come and fail to bear out like clockwork.

Even professional theologians, which this fellow is apparently not, have powerful, versatile imaginations that aid them in seeing and recognising patterns in the data they perceive.

Sometimes, as when critically discussing the content of scripture, its origins, its meanings, its history, they are often spot on in the accuracy of their conclusions.

Other times, when expounding on matters of the Unknowable, their speculations are only that: speculation, and only as good as the assumptions they bring to bear. The patterns they see, or rather, impose on the data, have no objective bearing outside of their own faith community, much less the larger world outside their own lives and world-views.

What exactly is a Christian numerologist supposed to be anyway? The term is nonsense, empty of valid professional content, though I’m aware of what it’s supposed to mean.

So, moving on…

It is said that predicting the future is a lost art, and in many human endeavors that is so. There are the failures of long-term economic forecasts, the predictions of futurists, and most notably, the claims of politicians out for your vote or your money, or both.

But science, at least in the more rigorously mathematical fields, has a stunning record of successful past predictions even with the occasional failure. Rarely 100% accurate, as certainty of that level is never easy to come by on contingent matters of fact, science makes no doctrinal claims of absolute metaphysical certitude.

But it’s a stunning record of success nonetheless, with, for example, solar eclipses being accurately calculated years, even decades or centuries in advance of their actually happening, often down to the millisecond. Even in predictions not so accurate, the track record of science is still far better than the predictive claims of almost any other human enterprise.

So, with that in mind, I’ll raise a question: given the profound and consistent failure of predictions of the End by armchair mystics and even professional theologians who should know better, why give any weight at all to them?

Why, if the observed is to be a guide to the unobserved, as with scientific empiricism, or the past is to be a guide to the future, as conservative thinkers of history have argued, why are we to give any credence at all to such a historically consistent pattern of failure to bear out in fact?

If the past or the observed is to be a guide to the future or the unobserved at all, and if both show that there is nothing to these profligate, evidence-free claims, then the next time one of these makes its rounds around the Internet, maybe it’s wiser to give it no heed at all, and to simply get on with life.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

*title courtesy of Leslie Ann Ellis.

MetaCognitions | Thoughts at the Age of 53

 

As I reach the age of 53 this morning, I consider myself lucky indeed, to have lived the experiences I have, to learn the things I’ve learned, and to have met the people I have, both in real life and online. But one thing has always been lurking on the background, and that’s frequent self-doubt as to how good a friend I am to others.

That self-doubt, engendered by my failure to keep in touch with many of those I’ve befriended over the years, was a major cause of the several-month long inactivity on this blog starting in November of last year.

Part of the cause of that is my . . . condition . . . that results in a frequent, totally nonsensical and irrational desire for solitude, even with full knowledge that human interaction of some form is absolutely necessary for my psychological and physical well being.

Every year, I’m required to live alone, tending the house, garden, and cats, as well as my own affairs while family is away, often from a period of time ranging from two weeks to a full month, all on my own. I don’t at all mind the responsibility, so that’s not the issue.

But spending such long spans of time as the only human being at home causes a heightening of that innate, irrational drive for solitude, normalizes it, accustoms me to it, drawing me further from those I know, unless I actively work toward making that needed human contact more frequent.

There’s also my study and work periods spent poring over manuscripts, reading, lectures, work on notes, and the less-often-than-I’d-like practice sessions learning languages. These require solitude in order to focus, as I am a terrible multitasker.

I simply cannot engage in online conversation while at the same time trying to focus on details of a language, or the same while working on manuscripts. I’m 53 now, after all. And one’s ability to multitask declines significantly with age.

That forces me to single-task whenever I can to get anything done. That requires focus, often leading to solitude while working. If I try to do two involved tasks at once, I wind up succeeding at neither. I’m no longer in my twenties, though psychologically, I don’t feel 53.

So there’s that.

What to do about this?

One solution is to schedule my time in an organizer, and to develop more productive habits, like rising earlier while maintaining my sleep hygiene, and spending more time each day interacting online than I’m ordinarily inclined to by my condition. Isolation kills. It’ll also drive me nuts if I let it.

There is also something, more attainable with someone here to help out at home, of simply getting out more often and doing things I enjoy with others. But I’m most definitely not an extrovert, so dealing with others face-to-face can be exhausting, and that can carry over to online engagement as well, even with the seeming anonymity of the Internet.

I have doubts, frequent ones, that I have anything of real consequence or importance to say online, say, in response to tweets sent my way, or in the comment threads of blogs, even this one. It makes me feel as though I’m just not a very good friend to those I’ve come to know through social media.

It came to a head late last year on this blog. And part of the chain that led up to that involved the late Christopher Trommater, formerly known to the blogging and Twitter communities as Skeptic Cat. In February of 2014, he took his own life, and I’d only found out about it from his ex-fiancee the following month.

From then, until late 2016, that has haunted me, along with the nagging, totally irrational thought that maybe I could have kept in more frequent contact with him through email, that maybe I could have talked him out of his decision to end himself.

Maybe, the silent voice within says, I could have been a better friend than I was and he would still be here today. But that’s nonsense. I’ve learned that to give credence to such musings is nonconstructive. I can’t live my life based on what might have been, what I might have done, and yet I can’t shake the mild self-loathing stemming from the feeling that what it says is true.

But suicide doesn’t work like that. I know to a high degree of certainty that there’s nothing I could have done, other than torment myself sooner, and more deeply, than I did in fact. Chris had metaphorical demons to deal with I cannot possibly grasp as a merely online friend, that I’d be no help in enabling him to overcome.

So, happy birthday to me, as there’s a lot of work to do, and things to improve until the day I cease to be and cannot improve anything at all, save the nutrient content of the soil.

When will I reach my ultimate life’s goal, whatever that is? I’ll let you know as soon as I reach it . . . .

Aaand I don’t expect that to be anytime soon!

Tf. Tk. Tts.

MetaCognitions | Editorial, Schmeditorial — Further Thoughts on Policy

MetaCognitions

Recently I’ve updated my editorial policy page to clarify a few things, at least the sorts of posts I avoid on this blog since adopting it. As I type this, the thought goes through my head about why I didn’t adopt it from the beginning.

After all, that’s pretty irresponsible, isn’t it, for a publicly accessible website?

I agree, especially given that with this blog’s general readership, I’m not preaching to the choir and wasn’t even from the inception of the site.

As my writing has evolved, so has the blog, and some of that evolution may be seen in the content of posts dating from shortly after this blog’s founding to the present. Early on, I didn’t adopt the use of graphic headers for posts, organization was looser, and my tone really wasn’t what even I would have been particularly proud of.

Not that I ever received nasty-grams from the tone trolls, but I had doubts about the professionality of some of the material. Some of it seemed less than objective, less than professional, and more polemical than I care for.

Mind you, I’m not opposed to controversy, except when it’s mere click-bait, and I don’t care for inflammatory language, which I’m much better at noticing in myself, along with instances of fallacious reasoning (The false dilemma fallacy was common, and rightly pointed out by reader Aliman Sears in several instances.).

I’ve grown not so much prone to walking on eggshells to avoid offending, but just putting more care into my writing. Adopting an editorial policy, even this late since the blog’s founding, was and is mostly to keep the blog on topic and not simply political correctness (which I despise). I’ve noticed over time major instances of topic-wandering, often for stretches of time in my archives, like a tendency to post too many cat videos in 2010, which in all fairness, was a good year for cat videos, and too many critiques of religion, politics, and faith for a skeptical blog.

The following is the current editorial policy in a nutshell, taken from its page on this site:

…I rarely venture into political issues unless they pertain to critical thinking, science, or skepticism. For the same reason, I rarely touch directly on religion and do not attack religious institutions outright, though the occasional misunderstandings of reality by religious leaders, like similar factual misstatements by political figures, needs calling out and critique.

The focus of this blog’s skeptical side is on claims and process, not beliefs or conclusions. I will never tell anyone what they ought or ought not to believe, or what party or candidate to or to not support for office. That is in fact completely out of my hands in any case.

So that’s it. I’m still moving over my major posting to Blogger this November, but I’m transferring all pages on this site to there before that happens. I’ll continue to read, comment, and otherwise follow and interact with those on WordPress unable to use blogger, on their own sites, it’s just that this site will be closed for updates until such time as I need to use it for that again. The current content, even early material at odds with the current policy, will remain online and publicly accessible unless the content involves broken links to images or blocked, deleted, or otherwise unwatchable embedded videos, in which case the post will be deleted for not contributing to the value of the site.

So I’m not going away entirely. But I’ve been posting here for nearly eight years, and this venue needs a rest. And once I’ve shifted over, the lessons learned here shall be continued there.

Thank you, and…

Tf. Tk. Tts.