Wednesday, December 31, 2014

WWII-Era Heinlein

A couple years ago, I finished the venerable Book a Week by posting about Stranger in a Strange Land. I've finally returned to the work of Robert A. Heinlein by reading a couple of his WWII-era stories - "-And He Built a Crooked House", published in 1941, and "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag", published in 1942. Each is significantly earlier than the aforementioned Stranger in a Strange Land, which was published in 1961. Each provides a good view into that era's pulp sci-fi, which I admittedly know only as a dabbler, yet each is drastically different from the other.

Of what I've read of his so far, i.e. these three works, "-And He Built a Crooked House" is my favourite. It is only 12 pages long, and is available as a free e-book, making it perfect for an e-reader ride on a subway/light rail/commuter train/etc. Its opening, which zooms into the story's Hollywood setting, is a great piece of humour that shows off some of Heinlein's wittier writing. The main story concerns the question, "What if a house were built in the shape of a tesseract?" The story itself is an imaginative construction of the likely possibilities, as well as some twists I wouldn't have included but which make the story more surreal. (No spoilers, and yes, I know I'm refusing to spoil a story published in 1941.) The math-fiction blend of this story, ostensibly of the Flatland variety, is what sets it apart from other sci-fi of the time period. It is something I far prefer to aliens and ray guns, or even to only slightly more realistic Lovecraft-style fiction. The way Heinlein has characters living in an otherwise normal world become legitimately confused upon attempting to navigate the tesseract-shaped house is reminiscent of a work like the 2000 horror book House of Leaves.

My one issue with "-And He Built a Crooked House" is that it often devolves into using the protagonist, architect Quintus Teal (and what a name!), as a vehicle for explaining complex mathematical concepts rather than as a real person. How I would deal with this, I'm not sure, as most readers probably aren't too familiar with four-dimensional objects. I sometimes felt as though he resembled a textbook more than a character, though, and could even be an example of the author speaking through a character in that sense. Then again, this was one of my chief criticisms of the last part of Stranger in a Strange Land, so I wasn't too surprised it surfaced.

"The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" is significantly longer, at about 50 pages, and has more of a coherent storyline. It is also apparently a candidate for a movie rendition, which I think could work great. Of course, In the Country of Last Things has been in movie limbo for almost a decade now, so as with most movie releases, I'll believe it when I see it. Like "-And He Built a Crooked House", "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" is at its best when it sticks to events that make one unrealistic deviation from the real world, rather than making further deviations from the first one. More simply, when either of these stories asks "What if our real world were modified in this way?" rather than "What if our now modified world were further modified?", it is at its best. The titular character's mysterious occupation is thrilling enough without realism having to be completely shunted in order to accommodate the fantastical storyline that comprises the second half of the book.

A few observations: this story is by far the earliest instance of the phrase "Keep your pants on" (18) I have ever seen. I cracked a smile at that one. The completely surprising kick to the groin a character suffers later on is equally slapstick-happy. (51) The '40s noir atmosphere is plainly evident in the private eye calling his also-a-private-eye-wife "kid" throughout the story. Although I liked the first ten pages best of the whole story, as Heinlein does an absolutely brilliant job setting up the story's principal problem (i.e. what does Jonathan Hoag actually do during his days?), the last few paragraphs making up the very end are quite clever.

Each of these stories is a fun read. "-And He Built a Crooked House" contains more of what can be possibly compared to actual science, whereas "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" has more proto-Dark City feel. Lastly, and hopefully also leastly,* the sheer amount of alcohol the characters drink in each story makes me feel better about the average North American holiday season.

*Yup, I invented a new word there. I do that from time to time, kind of like my influences.

This is, incidentally, also my last post of 2014. Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

December's Book: Excellent Sheep

It feels good to have 2014's reading requirement done so early, in contrast to ice-storm-riddled 2013 or even jam-packed 2012. Happy Christmas Eve!


Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & The Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz
Education (2014 - 242 pp.)

In Excellent Sheep, ex-Yale English professor William Deresiewicz attacks the elite university system in the United States. At the heart of the attack are the focus on revenue rather than educational integrity, lack of humanities instruction, and insufficient professor face time for undergraduate students. Although my experience with American education is solely at the graduate level, giving me a different perspective from what Deresiewicz or many of his former students may have, I sympathize with Deresiewicz's arguments overall. I am a huge proponent of humanities education, as should hopefully be evident in my willingness to blog about even the most arcane literary sources. I also spent a significant amount of time during my BA in professors' offices discussing my papers.

Many of Deresiewicz's arguments come up in a few places in similarly stated ways, so I will go light on quoting the book directly. I start by agreeing to the utmost with his clearest one: that education in the liberal arts (broadly speaking, arts and sciences), and the humanities more specifically, is absolutely crucial. Higher education should exist for its own sake, not simply as a vocational school (although those are fine too), and its benefits toward employment should come through transferable skills. The time-honoured tradition of Wall Street investment banks and brokerage houses hiring humanities graduates^ speaks to this. As someone who studied the humanities with a pinch of the social sciences in undergrad, I remember being asked what I would do with my education. Well, there is plenty I can do. I would feel horrible for anyone graduating from an undergraduate or postgraduate degree only able to do one thing, which is one of the reasons why I applaud good professional programs in areas like nursing or engineering setting their students up for any number of careers. (For example, engineering graduates are prized by software consulting firms.) This all comes down to the individual school or program, though, which Deresiewicz stresses in his support of liberal arts colleges. As someone who went to a school that can roughly be called the Canadian equivalent of a liberal arts college, I sympathize with his argument there.

The discussion of admissions processes reminds me of something a professor once told me about law school admissions: that they are, in his words, "like sausage being made". The notion of collecting accolades for the sole purpose of affixing them to a résumé rather than for their inherent worth is unsettling. While I have occasionally used the phrase accomplishment derby to describe my life, I like to think I do the things I do because they matter to me in some way. The accumulation of numbers of advanced placement (AP) courses in high school seems asinine. The book mentions that some students have as many as nine or ten. At the standard five courses per semester, that requires a Grade 12 student to be taking nothing but AP courses, presuming his or her school even offers that many. I believe my high school, which was well regarded, offered about 2-4 total.

Deresiewicz's discussion of grade inflation is very apt. The use of GPA presumes a certain equality in course offerings and school grading systems that simply does not exist. Whether elite universities bother to differentiate between difficulty of schools and courses would be interesting to see. I part company a little with his seeming praise* of the Cleveland State student's abundance of marks taken off for handing a paper in late due to her part-time waitressing job, as I tend more toward the side of allowing extensions if it results in better work, but I certainly understand the contrast between that story and the considerable leeway given to students in the Ivy League.

I do not feel that Deresiewicz gives the study of economics enough credit. When I studied economics, at an elite university no less, I felt like I was learning an exciting discipline that could inform my overall arts and business knowledge. How do people arrive at the decisions they make? How should "rationality" be defined, and to what extent are which people rational in different situations? How can I use incentives to bring about the outcomes I want? Thousands of questions just like these emerge in that field. At its beginning, as in a book like The Wealth of Nations, economics looked more like philosophy than a social science. A book like After the Welfare State shows it still can. The way I always typify economics is to say that, if the humanities are white and the sciences are black, true social sciences like psychology are grey, whereas economics is a black and white chessboard. The unique confluence of what is essentially history/philosophy and algebra makes economics a very interesting subject. Properly taught, economics should ask as many questions as any field. Even the more quantitative areas of economics, such as econometrics, ask their own questions, although I am less familiar with this side of it.

My two issues with Excellent Sheep are so wildly different it almost seems strange discussing them at once. One is Deresiewicz's flat refusal to cite the vast majority of his sources. While I greatly respect his research skills and am sure he has quoted everything accurately, some of the sources look like interesting reads and I may have difficulty finding them. The other is that Excellent Sheep is overly long at the end - the book could have easily been 142 pages - and becomes increasingly preachy as it starts discussing American class issues. Precisely how to counteract economic inequality generally, while related to the book's core subject matter of lack of inventiveness at top-tier American universities, is departed from the main thrust of the book. (Ironically, use of a Gini coefficient may help Deresiewicz's case there, which does not mix well with his bemoaning of the popularity of economics one bit.) I think a book like this is at its best when is at its most focused. After about chapter ten or so, I felt its focus was not as sharp.

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 7

^While I laud the practice of hiring humanities graduates generally, I understand I picked a controversial example, so I remain tongue-in-cheek in doing so.

*If this was simply a statement of fact, i.e. that this does happen, I stand corrected and remain informed by the event.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Character Interviewing

As an author, something I've always been interested in is how other authors write their stories. Beyond the simple existence of the final work (novel, play, etc.), what went into it? Fantasy/sci-fi author K.M. Weiland (no relation to Scott Weiland, I presume) talks about the character interview. It's an old post but she's elaborated on it many times since. As someone who's used a lot more setting in the past, it's interesting to see how someone else approaches another crucial area of any novel, written work, story, yarn, or anything else that requires people to interpret letters on a page.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Few Notes on the Plot Diagram

For Book a Month (née Book a Week), I review all sorts of books. Some are fictional whereas others are not. Some are deep literary ponders and others are pure escapism. Some are handbooks, field guides, or entire theories. I also post from time to time about my writing, which ranges from fiction to journalism. In the books I read and the stories I write, I do my very best to look at something different every time. One reason I do that is because I like variety. Another is plot. I could read a different fictional storytelling-style novel every month, and write one just like all of them every couple years, but where would that get me?

That isn't a rhetorical question. I'm about to answer it by referencing a very special little picture that's been reproduced millions of times.

A defining feature of elementary school language arts classes in North America is the plot diagram. There's a good chance you've seen it. It looks like this:

There's a good reason it's taught so widely and is such a valuable tool for teaching children how stories work. It's because it's how the vast majority of stories actually do work. There is an opening ("Exposition" here, which I find clunky as a term), a trigger event (the obtuse angle separating "Exposition" and "Conflict"), and then the usual. You can even make your own.

If I were an elementary school English teacher, I would teach this diagram. I would just find it too bad I have to in the first place.

Writing a story? If you can explain it using the plot diagram, it's probably already been done before. It calls to mind the Elizabethan tradition of hanging a red curtain for a comedy or a black curtain for a tragedy. Changing the names of characters or settings only goes so far that way.

Here's a list of questions to ask yourself if you want to write something that can't be easily explained by the plot diagram.
Exposition/Opening: What am I explaining? Why do I need to explain it at the start of the story, or perhaps even at all? When should I reveal which details to the reader?
Trigger Event: Why should this event take place at the beginning of the book, as opposed to the middle or end? Why should it be one event rather than a sequence or a gradual shift?
Rising Action: Why is the plot intensifying? What are my characters and settings doing to encourage this, and should they be doing something else? Can the reader predict how the tension will cease?
Climax: What does an event consist of? Why would it qualify, or not qualify, as the climax? Can I make different events matter more to different characters or readers so that there are, in effect, multiple climaxes? On a riskier level, should I avoid having a climax at all?
Falling Action: Why has the ostensibly highest point of this story passed? What needs to happen in order to direct this story toward the Resolution, or in the absence thereof, the end?
Resolution: Why does this story need to be resolved? Whose story am I resolving? Am I starting or developing a new one without degenerating into flagrant sequel bait?

If there appears to be an abundance of the word "why" in that list, it's intentional. Asking why is something that should be done at every possible opportunity.

Shameless plug: the vast majority of my writing over the past 3-4 years either lacks a set beginning or end in the plot sense, lacks a climax, or even lacks a plot altogether. Amazingly, it's still just as readable, just (hopefully) not very predictable.

With that in mind, do something different. The plot diagram can be used to describe some great works. It doesn't need to be able to describe all of them.

Friday, December 19, 2014

November's Book: Straight and Crooked Thinking

November represented a dark time in the history of this blog - the only month since its beginning that I didn't post an entry. Expect this inactivity to be rectified very soon, starting right now with November's book. I had it mostly done by the end of last month but alas, sometimes life gets in the way.


Straight and Crooked Thinking by Robert H. Thouless
Psychology (1930 - 127 pp.)

I will open by saying that my description of this book may not be totally accurate, and there's not much I can do about that. This book is not really psychology by current standards - it is best described as something clunky like "reasoning and argumentation". However, as Robert H. Thouless was a practising psychologist, and applies social science methods at various points throughout the book, I will defer to what it meant to write on psychology back in 1930. Related, the book was originally published in 1930, re-released in 1953, and I have the latter version. I have listed 1930 here in order to capture the spirit that went into composing this book rather than the one that went into issuing a second print run. That said, Thouless's 1953 preface admits to some changes, most notably the updating of discussed issues to meet the Cold War climate. (Frequent discussion of socialism figures prominently in these changes.) Lastly, my copy is a PDF copy meant for tablets or e-readers, so the page count is wildly off. If you want to check my page references, you may do so here.

The book's practical field guide style is a welcome departure from more arcane academic tracts: "If we have a plague of flies in the house we buy fly-papers and not a treatise on the zoological classification of Musca domestica. This implies no sort of disrespect for zoologists, or for the value of their work as a first step in the effective control of flies. The present book bears to the treatises of logicians the relationship of fly-paper to zoological classifications." (109) My study of professional fields makes me sympathize with this position. It is good to be able to read a book and then act on that book in practice. Although I already knew much of what is contained here, it is a good summation of many of the dishonest and/or incompetent tricks that are regularly used in argumentation. It is also very well organized, with each of the first thirteen chapters discussing a different argumentative flaw. Thouless openly admits to discussing crooked thinking (fallacies) far more than straight thinking (truisms), for which he compensates by including ready-made solutions for when an opponent in debate uses crooked thinking. An example is his attack on the use of words in different ways to muddle arguments: "What we must be clear about is that a new use of a word is not a new statement of fact." (43) Simple statements like these help frame his thesis quite effectively.

Many topics are covered very well. Thouless's interdisciplinary application of his thesis that people should be clearer and more honest in their arguments is well done. An early example is in Chapter I (use of emotional words or phrases), which he applies in a criminal trial context, in that "[an] obvious objection to the use of the word 'scoundrel' before the man is convicted, which puts it in the ranks of 'crooked thinking', is that it 'begs the question' or assumes what is to be proved. The man is only a scoundrel if he is guilty, and yet the word has been used in the course of an argument to prove that he is guilty." (12) This is absolutely spot-on. Another is the very well presented position I was taught in an entirely different context by a New York labour lawyer. Put simply, it is that whenever someone enters an unfamiliar environment, that person should look around, learn how it works, and when necessary, question its practices. Just because something was done before does not mean it should be done now or in the future, or even that it was optimal back then. Thouless's comparison of the past and the present underlines this perspective: "we should not be hoodwinked by mere authority, but ask in the first case whether, in this particular matter, our ancestors had sound reasons for their opinion, and in the second case whether the modern man is in this matter better informed than his fathers and therefore more likely to be right." (72) Straight and Crooked Thinking's continual emphasis on breaking positions down into their underlying parts is one with which I sympathize completely. Similarly, Thouless's argument against blind obedience to authority figures is stated very well. In true academic fashion, Thouless criticizes regurgitation-based academic environments: "It is part of the business of a professor to see that his students remain in a condition of critical alertness towards what he tells them instead of falling into this reverence which is the emotion accompanying the acceptance of prestige suggestion." (72) Thouless's "critical alertness" is something I have always tried to achieve, regardless of how much consternation it may have caused my professors over the years.

In true 1930 fashion, and I suppose also in true 1953 fashion, the book is gratingly didactic. The mock conversation at the end of the book is difficult to read as a result. I fully understand Thouless's fury at what he must have perceived to be a society full of poor-quality debaters. It is difficult to believe, though, that the right answers are necessarily his. Sometimes he strays too far down that path, as in the exam-style presentation of the mock conversation, including a recommendation to the reader to not read his commentary until after attempting to find all the crooked thinking. (115) While I understand Thouless wants to make the book as accessible as possible, quizzing the reader comes off as overbearing. All things considered, though, the list of fallacies mentioned throughout the book, along with their cures, is a great way to conclude. (109-114)

My largest problem with Straight and Crooked Thinking in an argumentative sense is in its slavish application of social science methods to fuzzier problems. This is where the distinction between a science and an art is of extreme importance, and Thouless simply refuses to acknowledge it. He writes an entire section on the use of irrelevant or misleading analogies (Chapter XII), yet fallaciously compares the solving of social problems to the curing of medical problems: "Our own individual illnesses can be cured by scientific methods. The diseases of the great society to which we belong cannot be so healed until we accept for national and international affairs the same basic scientific principle that the way to get rid of an evil is to discover its cause by the methods of scientific research and then to destroy that evil by removing its causes." (107) Many would argue that national and international affairs cannot be studied with the same sort of scientific pursuit as the curing of an illness. I will take Thouless's advice here and note that "Imperfect analogies occur commonly in serious discussion and are best dealt with by simply pointing out where the analogy breaks down." (94) Where Thouless's analogy of social problems to medical problems breaks down is as follows: (a) many illnesses may be cured permanently, whereas social problems will persist regardless of what government or private industry does to ameliorate them; (b) expertise in medical matters is far more explainable than in social matters - who is the expert dictating social solutions to us? A politician? A historian? A lawyer? - and (c) unlike with the general consensus that curing illness is good, there are so many perspectives on social problems it is impossible to evaluate them without considering Thouless's named fallacy of each debater having his or her own internal prejudices. (Chapter XIII) Certain issues in this world are not solvable objectively as Thouless may wish, and in doing so, he has violated his own rule against wrong analogies. This, ironically, may reveal his prejudice. The word "destroy" in the passage above may also be an emotionally charged word, which he recommends against doing in Chapter I.

Straight and Crooked Thinking is an interesting historical artifact that should be appreciated for what it is and is not. It is a useful summary of many logical fallacies, argued in an entertaining way covering multiple disciplines. It is not going to solve anyone's world, nor is it going to appear entirely applicable in a 2014 context. The reference to discussing a "Negro" near the start of the book (5) is an especial example of how the book, for all its timeless argumentative points, is also completely locked into its own time period.

NOTE: Coincidentally, while writing this entry I received an email alert directing me to this article. While Warren Buffett tends to make good points, I could not help but think of Thouless's fallacy of following prestige. (64) The article also runs into the issues of dealing with businesses Buffett is not necessarily an expert in (for example, how would one apply Buffett's investment knowledge to running a shop floor of a steel company?), and vagueness in suggestions like "keep your focus". (66) I will finish by introducing an interesting fact that is utterly useless as an argument: Warren Buffett was born in the year Straight and Crooked Thinking was first published.

Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 6